Transcription – Walter Shapiro Interview

Q:              We haven’t talked very much about George Bush, but do you have any observations about his campaign, or his candidacy, more generally?

SHAPIRO:   Well, I have a general rule, that you learn almost nothing about incumbent presidents, by either hanging around their campaign, or — because we really know who they are from [01:31:00] the way they ran for president the first time, and the way they’ve governed.  So I spent exceedingly little time around the Bush campaign, and in fact, I did something journalistically I’m very proud of.  Forgive me the self-congratulation.  You can hear the trumpets in the background.  And soon the sky rockets will come off.  That, during — I was a columnist for USA Today during the 2004 campaign.  And even though the Republican convention was here in New York, I — after the first — the Monday morning, I flew to Ohio, and spent the next four days interviewing people in diners and cafes, about what they felt about what they had seen on television.  That was my rebellion against the syncopated nature of most political conventions [01:32:00], and the fact that they’re lifeless TV shows.  And I wish I had had the courage to do it more often.  Because in some ways, that was the best reporting.

So I was not — I was very close to the Kerry people.  I did not have the same Bush sources.  And it’s made — it may have contributed to the fact that journalists are all — campaign reporters are always so eager to get into the room.  If they could only — if I only can get beyond spin, and find out what they believed honestly.  In the case of the Kerry campaign, one would have beliefs, found out suddenly, that turned out not to be true.  That John Kerry was going to be the next President of the United States.  You — had you gotten that same access to the Romney campaign.  In the closing days of 2012.  You would have gotten the same message.

So one of the things that I’ve learned from my mistake[01:33:00]  is that, no matter how good your sources are in one campaign, you have to buttress them against all sorts of other information, because people can sincerely believe things that just happen not to be true.  But I really have no blinding insights about the 2004 Bush campaign, except for the simple reason that if Karl Rove was one of the great political geniuses of our time, normally, political geniuses do not win re-election for their candidate by 119,000 votes, the margin in Ohio.

Q:              Well — go ahead, I’m sorry.

SHAPIRO:   Yeah.  And I’ve always thought that a better Kerry campaign would have beaten him.

Q:              Hm.  There is — I want to get to the [01:34:00] subject of your observations about the media and politics, and so on.  But before that, there’s a  that I’ll read to you, and ask you to elaborate on.  “The rhythms of political careers mean that men often seek the presidency at an age when they’re grappling with the death of a parent,” something that has, as far as I know, never been written about otherwise.

SHAPIRO:   Well, I got this idea that, in 1994, Bill Clinton’s mother, Virginia Clinton, died.  And two or three days later, Clinton was off to a NATO summit.  And I remember being told that — and the fact is, the press treated the death of his mother as a two-day story.  And then Clinton [01:35:00] was off to the NATO summit.  And somebody in the Clinton national security firmament — I was on that trip.  It was a NATO summit in Brussels.  The woman Prime Minister of Turkey, whose name escapes me, asked the President of the United States in one of those moments at the NATO summit, “Are you faking it?  I know your mother just died.”  And he said yes.  And that has really stayed with me.  That — first of all, most of political reporters are people in their late twenties and thirties.  And they really cannot imagine the death of a parent, for the most part, because their parents are quite vigorous and 58 years old.  So therefore, it’s only news — “He will cancel campaigning for the next three days [01:36:00] because of…”  So I was sensitized to this.  And I’m sure, if you ask Bill Clinton now, name the three big events in 1994, he will talk about the congressional election, where Newt Gingrich won back the House; and he will also probably talk about his mother — the death of his mother.  But if you look at the Bill Clinton clips from 1994, the death of his mother was about the 738th most important thing that happened.

In 2002, I’m spending two days with John Kerry, as he’s campaigning for Democrats in Maine.  And part of the trick of the Kerry campaign is everyone who was spending time with him got to see him do a stunt.  My wife, who later profiled him for New York magazine, was offered a motorcycle ride. [01:37:00] I am on my way — I know we’re taking a private plane, from — actually, I’m just remembering.  We are drifting — I’m driving out with Kerry from his house on Louisburg Square, the one that soon was going to be mortgaged to save his campaign, and we’re driving — I’m in a van with him.  He’s being driven to the — whatever the private airport is.  And he points out a Mormon church, and says, “You know, that’s Mitt Romney’s church.”  But I knew — I could just see this — he says, “If we had more time, I would show you the Lexington and Concord trail.”  And next thing we know, we’re at the airport.  I think — I’ve traveled in an awful lot of small planes with candidates.  And I’m always — every reporter who’s done this is always afraid of being listed in the next morning’s newspaper in the paragraph [01:38:00] that begins, “Also aboard, colon…”  (laughter) But that’s about my only concern.

And David Wade, who was then his personal aide, is now the Chief of Staff for the Secretary of State, says something about, “Well, we’ll try not to do any barrel rolls on the way in.”  But I just sort of joked — I just think it’s just a joke.  And then we get on the place, and I realize that unless Massachusetts is a fly-on-the-left state, John Kerry is not sitting in the co-pilot seat; he’s sitting in the pilot’s seat.  So there is John Kerry, flying me to New Hampshire.  And I am really thinking about the “Also aboard” paragraph.  (laughter) And as we’re lining up for a landing [01:39:00] in Concord — I guess we were going to New Hampshire, and then to Maine.  As we were lining up for a landing in Concord, the cell phone in Kerry’s pocket goes off.

Now, I have strong feelings about taxi drivers talking on the cell phone.  So I’m saying to myself, I’m doing this little prayer, “Please, God, don’t let him answer it.”  He answers it, says, “I’m landing the plane, I’ll have to call you back.”  He lands the plane.  This would be a total story of a self-indulgent risk-seeker, who would have the temerity to answer a ringing cell phone, while he’s landing the plane, except, as he explains to me, it was his sister calling.  Their mother was in critical condition.  She had just been calling from the bedside.  She had just met with the doctor. [01:40:00] His mother died during the course of that campaign.  And it was also at a point where Dick Gephardt’s mother, who was in her nineties, was very, very sick.  And Joe Lieberman’s mother, while she died a year or two later, was very vigorous at 91.

But I remember — and it’s — my last conversation, really, personal conversation with Kerry was after the book came out.  My father died that — the May of 2004.  And out of the blue, I’m sitting here at that roll-top across the room, and the phone rings.  I pick it up.  It is John Kerry on the other end, just to offer condolences.  Because there is a certain generational sense of, you get it.  You really get that there are personal things going on that are different than merely trying to cover up an affair with Rielle Hunter [01:41:00], that really are shaping the way people approach the world.  And it is one of those things that I’m still fascinated by, these sorts of losses.

You know, the fact is, right now, against the backdrop of the botched roll-out of healthcare reform, no one mentions that Kathleen Sebelius’s father, John Gilligan, died in the last couple of months.  You know, we are — we sort of separate out — we — it’s a fascinating thing.  Political figures have no privacy for sex scandals.  We have elaborate theories about who they are, as people.  We are — Bill [Clinton]– you know, you can spend weeks — I once suggested that somebody endow a university department called Hillary Studies.  And you could have the psychological theories out the wazoo. [01:42:00] But when something really wrenching in the life of a public figure happens, it is almost treated as a distraction from the main story, rather than the real story.  And I’m sorry I happened to hit it, and obviously since my father was 94 and 95 during the course of my covering the campaign, I may have been more sensitive than most.  But it surprises me that it still is an uncharacteristic awareness that is not widely shared.  And, but again, the — and this is a way to say that I was thinking about, during one of our breaks, a larger point that I really wanted to make, which is that it is the mistake that [01:43:00] candidates make in being totally sheltered from the press, which is the Hillary, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney approach to press management.  It’s everything’s on message, and you give as few — as little access as humanly possible.  And that is, that you totally forget that these candidates are human beings. And it is, I’m not sure I got, had John Kerry been president, I’m not sure I would have had deep insights into his presidency, based on all the time I spent with him.   But I do think even now, as he’s Secretary of State, I have a better understanding of who John Kerry is as a person, for having spent all of that time with him in 2002 and 2003.  The same is for Howard Dean.  The two people from the 2004 roster [01:44:00] who may have another act in American politics ahead of them.