Transcription – Walter Shapiro Interview

Q:              Do you have any concluding reflections on the media and presidential politics?

SHAPIRO:   The concluding reflection is 2004 was actually, looking back on it, a high water mark for a couple of things.  It was an election in which there was a sincere debate, not over school uniforms, but over something big, the Iraq War, it was an election where because it was an election conducted under McCain-Feingold, despite a few of those 527s that Kerry used, it was pretty much as clean an election in terms of no [01:57:00] outside money, no Sheldon Adelsons, no super PACs, as we are likely to have.  It was, on the Democratic side, you had five or six candidates, depending on — it was Bob Graham got out, Wesley Clark got in late.  You had five or six candidates, all of whom, in the backdrop of American public life, were all average or above-average in terms of their competence, in terms of their careers.  You know, in terms of all of this, it’s not going to be one of those elections that is going to be taught in the history books, you know, like 1896 is an election that changed America.  But in a large way, it was an election in which the system worked.  And that while one may not like the outcome of Bush getting rewarded for bungling [01:58:00] in the Iraq War with a second term, this was also an election conducted in an America just three years after the most devastating attack since Pearl Harbor.  A very scared America, so that is not a surprising outcome.

It’s also an election; it was pretty much an election of inclusion.  There was — because it’s Bush who represented the liberal wing of the Republican Party on immigration, there were really very few coded — there were no coded racial messages, there was no effort to blame — to say that Latinos should self-deport themselves.  So in a large sense, maybe we get nostalgic for the immediate past because everything gets worse after that.  It was also, of course, an America of prosperity, [01:59:00] which makes politics a happier going.

But it was also the last campaign where it might be possible to go off the record with candidates, that while you can argue the benefits of going off the record, of not going off the record, I was just talking about this, Kerry, and I’m doing this from memory, again, and some of it’s secondhand, John Kerry, after he got the nomination, liked to go to the back of his campaign plane and chat, low-key, with the reporters.  As I recall, it was the Associated — I know it was the Associated Press, and I believe it was the New York Times reporter, Jody [inaudible], who said “If the candidate is coming back here, it has to be on the record.”  Kerry said — the Kerry people said, “He just wants to chat a little. [02:00:00] It’s boring on these flights.”  And they said, “No, it has to be on the record.”  So somewhere in early May, to the end of the election, John Kerry never went to the back of the campaign plane again.  And I’m sorry, I’m not — I’m still puzzled to this day on how that was a victory for the free press, or for the public, because even for people operating in the traditional news structure of the twentieth century, as opposed to the much more freewheeling structure of the twenty-first century, even off the record material can lead you to choose which adjectives to use, which things that have happened on the record strike you as important and revealing, and which things that happened on the record don’t strike you as important and revealing.  I fear, with the culture of Twitter, [02:01:00] with the fact that any photograph could be viral in the next 10 seconds, that what you have are candidates, even at the earliest part of the invisible primary, are more guarded than they ever have been.  And the problem is, reporters see this as an adversarial process, therefore there is no sense that anything is taken out of context, because if it’s on the record and you have the film, it’s there.

I had a moment in 2000.  Now this is a point when the entire world was belittling Bush’s — not the entire world, but the Democratic Party was belittling Bush’s intelligence.  And I remember watching [02:02:00] Al Gore do a nurses event, probably in August of 2004, in Las Vegas.  And it was a morning event, and Gore’s on a panel with a group of nurses behind him, and he gets up there, and he says, “And I want to increase funding for,” and he turns to the nurses, “I have a mental block, what’s that word, when women are tested for breast cancer?”  “Mammograms.”  “Yes, I want to increase funding for mammograms.”  No one wrote about this.  Because the whole narrative of Al Gore was not that he — that he was too robotic, not that he didn’t know words like “mammograms.”  Had Bush had a similar glitch, it would have been the Democratic Party theme [02:03:00] for the next month, that Bush is so unconcerned about women that he doesn’t even know what a mammogram is.  And I guess it stayed with me, because to some extent, you could have done that with Gore, but the press didn’t, because it didn’t fit a larger truth about Gore.  That wasn’t who Gore was.  That he had a mental block for 10 seconds, we all do.  But today, that would have been all over Twitter, that would have been all over Buzzfeed, that would have been all over Politico.  And I’m just not — if the goal of all of this, the only justification for having a campaign that takes as long to fight as World War II, as opposed to these 30-day British campaigns.  The only justification is to develop a more rounded [02:04:00] understanding of who the candidates are.  Because if that isn’t the point, then why are we doing it?  And if we have now created a world in which any possible glitch is magnified beyond human description by the megaphone effect of modern social media, then we’re not learning who they are.  Then we’re really learning what people who are in a fetal crouch the entire campaign get up and say.

And a couple — this has been written about, but when John McCain was giving five and six hour press conferences,  there were a couple of times when he referred to his North Vietnamese captors as gooks.  And the general consensus of the press, I remember being in these conversations, was twofold.  Anyone who’s been a prisoner of war for five and a half years can call his captors anything they want.  [02:05:00] But the second thing is, John McCain has just been on the record for six hours.  Let’s cut him a little slack; we all make mistakes when we’ve been talking this long.

And the counter to this is one of the famous Mitt Romney remarks from the 2012 campaign, is when he called himself a “severely conservative” governor of Massachusetts.  It was at a CPAC convention.  At that point, Romney was facing really tough going in his fight against [Rick] Santorum, and the speech that had been handed out to the press and had been put in the teleprompter called him the conservative governor.  “I was the conservative governor.”  And clearly, seeing that on the teleprompter in real-time, Romney decided that word was not strong enough, and in that split second, he interspersed the word [02:06:00] “severely.”  And it became just this huge motif of the Romney campaign, it was used a lot in ads by Obama in the Fall.  And again, it may not — these, what happens is, if you don’t give the press access, these small little deviations from the status quo take on a huge life of their own, because that’s all you have to go on.

Anyway, I’m ready to go back to 2004, I guess is my message.

Q:              Well Walter, thank you for this enormous gift of time and insight and patience.  It was a great interview.

SHAPIRO:   This has been great fun.

Walter Shapiro Interview, Center for Presidential History, Southern Methodist University, The Election of 2004 Collective Memory Project, 13 December 2013, accessed at

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