Transcription – Walter Shapiro Interview

Interviewee:  Walter Shapiro

In 2004:  Political Columnist for USA Today and author of One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In

Interviewer:   Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History

December 13, 2013

This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.

Q:              Walter, you wrote a book unlike any other, I think, about a presidential campaign.  And that is, you began at — what?  Two-plus years —

SHAPIRO:   It would have been the summer of 2002.

Q:              So more than two years before the general election —

SHAPIRO:   Two and a half years before the 2004 election.

Q:              Why did you decide to write this book?

SHAPIRO:   Why did I decide?  Because I — three reasons.  Number one, because I realized, the only chance you have of getting access today to a candidate, is being there so early that you’re jumping the story, because there is no chance of getting any time alone.  Or there was no chance, against the backdrop of 2004, unless you start ridiculously early.  Number two, the whole machination of who runs and who doesn’t, and how candidates [00:01:00] organize themselves, is really, really interesting, and it’s often not nearly as well-covered as the much more automated, later parts of the campaign.  And what I kept saying is that any of these candidates in 2002 are the same person who would go into the Oval Office in 2005.  And the idea that somehow an answer to a question in 2004 is more revealing of who they are than what I asked in 2002 is ludicrous.

Number three — and this was the high-wire act of my life.  I wanted to get out a book, in the hands of voters, before the Iowa caucuses.  There was always the problem with campaign books — you know, much like Bible stories.  You know how those end.  [00:02:00] And I wanted to try to do a campaign book, where you didn’t know what the end was.  Also, I really had hoped that it would really help shape the campaign debate.  Now, for the rueful confession — and this is book economics.  It only belatedly occurred to me that if you publish a book in early November, that it will become out of date in early January, with the Iowa caucuses.  Your selling period is not infinite.  And — how do I say this?  I think in the history of publishing, this was not the greatest money-maker.  But the relevance of the book, and One Car Caravan: On the Road with the Amer— with the 2004 Democrats before America tunes in, [00:03:00] is — I did not realize that I was writing an ode to how politics used to be.

That, the fact is, that I got large amounts of access to all the Democratic contenders for president in 2004.  From spending — (sirens) I apologize about the fire truck, but this is a little bit of, shall we say, cinéma vérité (laughter).  I will pause mid-sentence.  In fact, (inaudible) —

CREW:       So you should be OK.

SHAPIRO:   What?

CREW:       You’re mic’ed, so you —

SHAPIRO:   Oh, OK.  OK.  Then I will — I was over — what I started to say is that I — this was an ode to how politics used to be.  Where, if you start early enough, you can [00:04:00] actually get access to the candidates.

The book starts off with me, in a car, with Howard Dean, while he was governor of Vermont, and the entourage consists of Dean, one aide, and the state trooper who’s driving him from Vermont to a spaghetti supper in New Hampshire, and then back again.  I spent two days with John Kerry, as he campaigned for 2004 Democrats in October of 2002, as the only reporter with him for two days.  In similar fashion, I had — I sat with John Edwards, and John Edwards’s wife, as they made up the decision about whether or not he should run.  You know, I met Joe Lieberman’s mother.

The point is — and I spent a lot of time with Dick Gephardt, the fifth major candidate.  But the point is, I thought of doing such a [00:05:00] book in 2008.  But you couldn’t do a book.  The what — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton doled out access with an eyedropper.  No matter how early you went, you would never be the only reporter traveling with someone.  There was — I remember going to an Obama inaugural visit to New Hampshire, sometime — God, maybe in December of 2006 — and there were 150 reporters, at an initial New Hampshire Obama press conference.

Hillary, who I’ve known, who I met, first interviewed in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, would — granted me an interview, but it was only on the telephone.  So the idea of getting this kind of access — and [00:06:00] in 2008, it was a year also filled with control-freak Republicans.  That the idea of Rudy Giuliani, who as Mayor New York, was incredibly hostile to the press, would have let me do this.  Or Mitt Romney.  And in 2012, the idea that Mitt Romney — the most buttoned-down candidate, who let no one close to him, would have allowed me to spend days with him, is just ludicrous.

So, if I had tried to do it in 2008, or 2012, I would have had very nice stories of Chris Dodd, of Joe Biden, of Bill Richardson, in 2008.  And in 2012, an awful lot of Rick Santorum.

Q:              Now, in the book, you used the term, “invisible primary” to describe this pre-election [00:07:00] year campaign.  Some people might say it’s invisible because it’s not important.  But what is it that’s important that happens?

SHAPIRO:   Well, first of all the phrase, “the invisible primary,” isn’t mine.  It was coined by another writer, for a 1976 book on the run-up to the ’76 election.  And the problem with doing it too far in advance, is he forgot to mention, he left out one candidate, Jimmy Carter.  (laughter) But the whole idea of the invisible primary — and this is the world before MSNBC covers everything intensively, before Fox News covers everything intensively, before Politico, and before BuzzFeed, is that there was always a year and a half, where candidates knew they were running for president, they could quietly go to Iowa, under the guise of campaigning for local officials.  They could meet people.  [00:08:00] They could get their stump speech down.  And they can do it — not entirely invisibly, but at least with enough stealth that it was not like you’re opening on Broadway on day one.

I think because our appetite for politics is so intense right now, I don’t think that invisible primary period exists.  It certainly didn’t exist with Obama and Hillary in 2006 and 2007, and it’s certainly not existing right now, with Hillary Clinton.  But it did exist in almost every presidential season through 2004.