BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Paul Taylor, author of the new book, "See How They Run: Electing the President in an Age of Mediocracy," you write in the middle of your book that you're not optimistic that the press can overcome its tendency to present political news in a simplistic, moralistic, symbolic, conflict-oriented, picture-driven language. Why?
PAUL TAYLOR, AUTHOR, "SEE HOW THEY RUN: ELECTING THE PRESIDENT IN AN AGE OF MEDIOCRACY": Well, it goes to our journalistic tendencies. One of the things any reporter, whether broadcast or print, needs to do is to tell a story. We don't call articles "stories" for nothing, particularly in television. They like to have the components of drama in a story and that often includes conflict. So a lot of our stories are about conflict; a lot of our stories are about things that go wrong. We have an easier time writing about things that go wrong than things that go right. The press, for the last 200 years -- ever since this country began -- has always been populistic. It's anti-establishment, and so I think that leads us to write about politics in a way that kind of encourages people's disbelief in the system. We're in an era right now where people don't feel too good about politics; people are dropping out of the system. In 1988, 91 million Americans voted; 91 million Americans who could have voted, didn't vote. It was the lowest turnout rate in 64 years.
There're lots of reasons for it, but I think the presentation of politics in both the print and broadcast medium is one of the reasons for it. It's not a very nourishing presentation.
LAMB: At the beginning of this book, you say you actually liked writing this book.
TAYLOR: Yes, I did. Well, I had the '88 political presidential campaign. At the Washington Post, we take our politics very seriously so I was out there on trail for about two years and, like anybody else, I was pretty run-down by it. I knew during most of that period that I was going to take another whack at it after it was over and I found it stimulating to go back over this material I reported once as a reporter to try to get behind what I think of as the central mystery of 1988, which is, whatever one's tastes, whatever one's political views, we nominated two fairly decent, fairly civil men who are in public service for the right reasons, I think.
Times were not bad in 1988. Unemployment was in the low fives; the Communist world was beginning to collapse before us; inflation, the great monster of the '80s, had been tamed -- the great monster of the '70s -- had been tamed for a decade. Lots of things were pretty good and yet, we had this conversation that was sort of junk food. It was about flags, it was about furloughs. Beneath this sort of prosperity I've just described, everybody knows we've accumulated a lot of problems, everybody knows the federal budget deficit is out of control. We didn't use the presidential campaign to talk about that. So I went back to look at that and ask why, and my basic premise is that the three main actors in the "Pageant of Democracy," if you will -- the politicians, the journalists, and the voters -- are bringing out the worst in each other. We've got a campaign system that rewards everyone's sort of worst instincts, and it's a vicious cycle.
What's beneath this vicious cycle is this Age of Cynicism, this Age of Disbelief. If the voter's first instinct is not to believe, then all the incentives on the part of the candidates are to attack the other guy, and to do it in a deceptive way, and let the other guy worry about straightening out the record. He's going to get the benefit from having made the attack. The other guy doesn't want to spend his nickels straightening out the record. He's going to do the same thing the first guy does: He'll counterattack; he'll find some other deceptive issue.
So back and forth this goes. It happens this way in presidential campaigns; I think it's happening this way again in 1990 in the midterm elections. And the voters watch all this. You know, I sometimes think they're like aficionados at a bullfight: They've seen this spectacle year in and year out, and it's not surprising to me they reached the conclusion, "This doesn't have a lot to do with my life. What does this have to do with paying the mortgage, with getting my kids into college?" -- whatever else worries them -- and they tune out.
LAMB: Where'd you grow up?
TAYLOR: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up part of my life there, but I moved -- we moved to Washington, DC when I was about 10 -- so I'm a Washington, DC boy -- somewhat unusual. I went to Alice Deal and Woodrow Wilson, two local schools here. I went to Yale University and was the editor of the college newspaper there. First job was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, right out of college, and then a bunch of years in Philadelphia for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I've been at the Post since '81.
LAMB: What impact did working in Winston-Salem have on your career?
TAYLOR: Well, there are two views on how do you start in journalism. One is, after you get yourself a BA, go to journalism school; the other is, no, make a real life for your school and go to a small-town newspaper. You'll get a lot of exposure in a big hurry. I chose that second route, and worked there for about two and a half years.
You know, I covered -- by the end of it, I had covered the court system; I had covered the county government; I had covered the education department. So I'd gotten all that you want and I'd always lived in cities on the East Coast and here was a small to midsized Southern town -- so I got an exposure to how different people lived. It was a very broadening experience.
LAMB: What was your major at Yale?
TAYLOR: American Studies.
LAMB: Would you recommend those that are interested in political journalism, that they take something other than journalism when they go to school?
TAYLOR: I don't think there's any right way to do it. I did it -- there was no course of study called journalism at Yale, but working on the school newspaper gave you plenty of experience. I think you can play that one round or flat. I have no wisdom on that one.
LAMB: Do you remember the first time you ever cared or were interested in a politician?
TAYLOR: I'm 41. I suspect that like a lot of people my age, John Kennedy was the -- I remember that inaugural. I remember that speech he gave -- the "ask not" passage -- I was about 11 at the time -- and I certainly remember the assassination, of course, as everybody does. I have only very dim memories of Eisenhower, so I guess I'd mark it with Kennedy.
LAMB: Was your family political?
TAYLOR: Yeah. My dad worked on Kennedy's campaign. The third or fourth tier -- never on staff, but did a little research. He had been active in New York State politics for awhile, was involved with the Americans for Democratic Action in a paid position for a couple years, but that goes back many years.
LAMB: And do you tie your interest to that experience of living in your father's home?
TAYLOR: Well, I would think -- we did talk about political stuff around the dinner table. It's interesting. My dad, he's still alive and he lives here in Washington and he's taken a classic passage. He was a liberal Democrat -- sort of an anti-Communist liberal Democrat in the '50s and '60s -- very high on John Kennedy -- and has been a Reagan voter and a Bush voter now for the last decade or decade and a half -- and he's a lapsed liberal. He's much more ideological than I am. One of the -- perhaps in reaction to my father, who has very strong beliefs, I've always been more interested in standing back from the fray and observing how it works. So it led me quite naturally to journalism.
LAMB: Were you surprised that you stayed with politics all these years?
TAYLOR: No, it's a great -- I feel like I have a privileged perch, that the -- here's the great pit of public affairs and here are men and women -- interesting men and women -- who care about public life, and who have ideas, and who jump into that pit, and put themselves on the line, and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail, and it's a great spectacle. Part of the tone of this book is a little despairing because the greatest spectacle ought to be presidential campaigns -- and I grew up reading Teddy White's books about the presidential campaigns of the '60s and early '70s. He wrote about grand men engaged in heroic battle, and it was very romantic, and White, of course, was a terrific chronicler.
I have become a journalist -- I had my first -- I graduated from college in '70, so I've been at it for 20 years, and it's really an anti-heroic era. I suppose you could mark it to Vietnam and Watergate. Something about our society changed, some fundamental sense of trust in institutions has been diminished, and this goes back to a question you asked me at the beginning -- and journalists reflect that, and also in reflecting it, they amplify it. So instead of looking for the heroic deed, we tend to look for the warts and we make the warts stand for the whole. Now, as a journalist, I think that's what we ought to do, we ought to scrutinize any institution of powers; I'm very comfortable with that. But part of what was interesting about the year was standing back from the process and -- and concluding that my own craft is part of this vicious cycle I just talked about.
LAMB: You talk about several people -- specifics in the book. You do chapters on Joseph Biden, and a little bit on Mario Cuomo, and Jesse Jackson, and Gary Hart. Why did you decide to focus on those particular individuals?
TAYLOR: And one other is Dan Quayle. A lot of the book is about the relationship of journalists to candidates and how it plays out in a campaign season. I use the '88 campaign; it's the case study. In each of those, I try to tell a different version of a story about how candidates and journalists intersect. Hart and Biden and Quayle were sort of the victims of the process, if you will. Hart and Biden -- their candidacies exploded early. The year before the voters even get a hook into the process, they are out of the race already because something about them is exposed by the press. It creates this feeding frenzy; and, in Hart's case, in six days -- in Biden's case in, I think, 13 days -- they're gone.
This was an extraordinary -- this was like a game of demolition derby. It was like a game of sudden death before you even had the opening kickoff. So I went back in those two to try to figure out how it happened. Dan Quayle enters the drama much later, is introduced to America as a fresh face, an unknown to 99 percent of America at the Republican convention -- and there is another feeding frenzy, and he gets very, very heavy weather for the first week or 10 days. Initially, about the National Guard, but it broadens into an indictment that, in effect, Dan Quayle's a lightweight. And although the Republican ticket obviously survives that, Quayle himself, it seems to me, has never recovered. One of Quayle's difficulties is he enters a job from which it's difficult to mount a rehabilitation effort -- the vice presidency, which itself has been the butt of jokes for a couple hundred years. So I wrote about that.
In all three of those, one thread that runs through those chapters is the notion of peer review. One of the things that has been said about the presidential nominating process is -- when the Democratic reformers basically in the late '60s in reaction to the '68 presidential nominating convention in Chicago, they change the rules towards a much more primary-oriented system where the voters had complete say and the old bosses of old, the John Baileys and the Richard Daleys who helped elect -- or nominate -- John Kennedy in 1960 were sort of written out of the process. One of the things that people say that's lamentable about that is you lose peer review, you lose a process whereby the men and women who know the candidate best because they have been colleagues, they have been allies, perhaps they have enemies, but they've seen him at close range over a long period of time, they don't have any say.
It's the voters in primaries in state after state that have say, and the way the candidate appeals to those voters is using television, surrounding himself with a cadre of media consultants and loyalists, and fax machine -- and that's it. I mean, that's it to some degree, that describes a Gary Hart and a Joe Biden -- somewhat loners, they did have loyal followings, but their peers had doubts about them. My point in a couple of these chapters -- Hart, Biden, and Quayle -- is that what drove the very aggressive press scrutiny, whether it was Hart and his personal peccadillos or Biden and the alleged plagiarism -- whether it was Quayle and that he simply didn't have the intellectual -- was peer review, was their own colleagues in the Senate in all three cases, or other politicians who have dealt with them, who had doubts about them, and when the press senses that -- and we're pretty good when we've got our antennae out for that sort of thing -- boy, do we go. The national political press corps has observed these men at close range over a long time. Hart had been a presidential candidate, Biden and Quayle had run statewide. So you -- in some ways you're like scouts in a baseball team. You make book on these guys and you have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses.
Now, the way the process works is the public isn't interested, frankly, in the press's opinion of these guys; the public is interested in its own opinion and making its own evaluation. So the press, in effect, if it has doubts about a candidate, it waits for a moment, a gaff, a missed statement, a Gary Hart and Donna Rice -- going off to Bimini with a woman who's not your wife -- and that moment becomes a vehicle for suggesting that "it's not just this we're talking about" -- in Gary Hart's case, it's not just about running round with Donna Rice -- it's about judgment, it's about discretion, it's about how honest you are with your colleagues and your staff. In Hart's case, there had been a lot of talk that he had this reputation, and he needed to be careful, he had given a lot of assurances that he would be, and he clearly wasn't.
So the press goes off on this and goes into these examinations of character. But in the feeding frenzy of the moment, these are not nuanced examinations of character. The headlines are very large, the pictures are very large, the candidate is thrown on the defensive. Now, there are candidates who have survived it. This is an interesting spectacle and we see it in campaign, after campaign, after campaign. You know, Ronald Reagan had some bad moments. He often misstated facts -- famously misstated facts as a candidate. It didn't matter because he had a core conviction -- he created a relationship with his electorate, and people after awhile figured out, "We don't really care if he knows the fact or not. We know his core set of beliefs and that's what we care about."
Jimmy Carter, to go back, who won over one other gaff. There were a few, but there was, in 1976, his good campaign for president that he won -- you remember? -- "there was lust in my heart," a Playboy interview which he regretted, and there was a phrase I remember about reserving the ethnic purity of neighborhoods. Now, here was a Southerner and the question was suddenly on the table, was this code language? Was he suggesting here that he wanted, he believed, in effect, whites keeping blacks out, or people of one ethnic background keeping another? And it was a flap -- it was a two-day story, but people rallied around. I remember Martin Luther King, Sr., led a kind of closing of the ranks of the civil rights community behind President -- or, then candidate -- Jimmy Carter, and that went away.
I think in the end, as ugly feeding frenzies can be -- I don't think we get the wrong outcome that often. The public is extraordinarily fair-minded. If the press is going overboard, is doing a number on somebody and doing it unfairly, there's plenty of room for that victim to come back and point fingers at the press and appeal to a fair-minded public.
So my problem is not that mistakes happen. My problem is that the spectacle itself ultimately, repeated time and again, seems to be part of what's repelling people from politics. So if we have tthis two-year spectacle where 14 men, in the case of 1988, start out at the beginning to run for president, and we go through all these machinations, and at the end we finally have a campaign to make the choice, and half of the theater is empty -- 91 million Americans don't vote -- I say something about the way that spectacle unfolds is not drawing people in.
LAMB: For just a moment, let's talk about '92 -- take your temperature on '92. If you were -- and I notice you've put a lot of quotes from some of your colleagues in here that were just dead wrong including your own...
TAYLOR: ...including my own, yeah.
LAMB: ... about your colleague Dave Broder. And you know ...
TAYLOR: And I do it to myself, too. I should -- I was talking about one of the flaws of political journalism. There's something about a campaign that turns us all into seers. We have a need to predict what the future will bring. And the more I spent this year sort of standing back and thinking of it, and I asked myself, "You know, the future's going to happen, whether we predict it or not. Why don't we spend more time talking about the recent past and present, you know, where we have some things we can -- that are more concrete?" But, listen, part of the fun of covering a presidential campaign, it's a great spectacle; we do cover it like a horse race. I think there's a journalistic value to that. In ball games as in politics, people do care -- they do want to know what the score is and who's ahead, and if that's metaphor that enables us to draw people in, fine. I suggest in this book, but , let's keep it under check.
LAMB: Let's talk about '92 for a second. Based on what the conventional wisdom is today what will it be in '92?
TAYLOR: Well, I don't know if there's any mystery on the Republican side, although, conceivably, if George Bush becomes more vulnerable than he seems right now, there could be some mystery about whether Quayle stays on, but my guess is that Quayle will be his running mate once again.
On the Democratic side -- four years ago at this point, which is the midway point between the two campaigns, the campaign was in full flight. Today there's nobody out there in the huskings and I don't think it's going to happen until six, eight, 10 months from now. I would say -- I have a chapter in the book about Mario Cuomo deciding not to run in 1988. At the risk of making the same mistake two cycles in a row, I think he is going to run this time. He has sounded to me in the last year, year and a half, he has given three or four major speeches in which he has systematically made an attack on, in effect, the 10 years of the Reagan-Bush Era. It's a populist economic attack. He thinks -- he's reusing the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, our spending priorities are out of whack. I think he wants to make that case. I think he feels he is ready to make that case, and I think he'll have a hard time not running.
LAMB: What did you learn about him in 1988 -- and in your chapter here that -- will it help us better understand '92 if he does run?
TAYLOR: I think he is different from a lot of politicians in that he responds to -- he's a very inner-directed man. He's written two volumes of diaries which make for fascinating reading. He's a very religious man; he is always measuring himself against sort of celestial standards and finding himself wanting, but he believes in the struggle. I concluded in 1988 that he didn't run, not having anything to do with the political landscape was like, whether he thought he could win, what his positioning among the other Democrats would have been -- and on, and on, and on. The kind of conventional criteria that I'm accustomed to politicians bringing at the beginning of a campaign when they decide whether they want to get in.
I just think in his gut, he didn't think he was ready and this goes to this inner self. I think four years later, he's had four more years as chief executive of a big, complex state under his belt -- a state that, at the moment, not incidentally, is in economic trouble and he's got nothing but hard choices to make in this year's budget -- New York State budget -- next year, etc. I tend to sweep all that aside. This is a man -- the bell rings in his gut -- and it didn't last time -- and I think it almost has to this time.
LAMB: Will anybody else run for that spot that you can think about?
TAYLOR: Well he takes up a lot of space. I suspect some others will run. One question that intrigues me is if he gets in, what does that do to Jesse Jackson? Cuomo, perhaps more so than the other national Democrats on the scene has the ability to cut into Jackson's base, not so much perhaps his core black base, but Jackson expanded his base out into the white liberal community in 1988 and I think Cuomo would be very competitive with him there. I don't think Jackson -- Jackson got 3.2 million votes in 1988 and he got seven million votes -- I'm sorry -- 3.2 million in 1984 and seven million votes -- he doubled his vote total -- in '88. I don't think he wants to do less well. Running for president's very good for Jesse Jackson. You know, it has done a lot for him. It has solidified his position as a certain moral leader, not just of blacks, but of a sort of a social justice community, and not just in this country, but internationally. It's a good gig for him. So at one level, I think he wants to keep doing it, but he has a sense of being on the upside of the mountain and the downside of the mountain. I don't think he would get into a race where the prospect might be that he would get fewer votes than he got the last time.
As for others you could tick off -- the name Lloyd Bentsen is sometimes mentioned; my guess is he will not be a candidate. Joe Biden may run again. He will not run in 1992. My guess is that Gore will not run in 1992 -- my guess is that Gephardt will not. He made a commitment when he won as Majority Leader, not to run. I think Clinton in Arkansas, who's in a tough re-election race as governor down there, is a possibility. Sam Nunn seems to be making some moves. He's changed his position on abortion, he resigned from a country club -- the Burning Tree Country Club in Washington -- right outside of Washington. It doesn't take women. These seem consistent with getting one's house in order, although he's a very, very prudent man. I'm not sure. I really don't know. I think a lot depends on Cuomo. I could see a scenario in which Cuomo gets and for the first time in many, many years on the Democratic side, there isn't a big fight because -- either because most of the candidates think that Bush is unbeatable. Cuomo will have a lot of money to start with and then a very identifiable core, and he may just get sort of small challenges. On the other hand, the Democratic Party always manages to get into a rowdy fight sooner or later, so I don't mean to suggest that's the likeliest scenario.
LAMB: A technical question on the Iowa-New Hampshire-California situation. Is the California change of date over? They can't change it now?
TAYLOR: Politically, it's over. I mean, they wouldn't start tinkering with it next year. It got to be a very complicated matter that gets into the internal business of California politics and has everything to do with referendum, and it's an almost unsolvable dilemma.
LAMB: So we're going to have the same thing again?
TAYLOR: So we'll have the same thing again. Iowa starts; then New Hampshire; then something equivalent to Super Tuesday, which was, in 1988, 20 states about two weeks after New Hampshire; and California at the very last day of the process.
LAMB: Let's go back to this book, "See How They Run," and I want to talk to you about just the experience of writing a book. How much time did you take off to do it?
TAYLOR: I took a full calendar year. The campaign ended in November of '88, I took off starting January 1 of '89, and returned to the Post the following January 1 of '90. For three months of that year, I taught a course up at Princeton called Politics and the Press, which was very much the subject of the book, so it was a very, very happy kind of dovetailing. Like a lot of journalists, I got -- one of the reasons I became a journalist was I needed the goad of a daily deadline. I was not famous in college for getting my papers in on time, and that sort of thing, and I was worried. My first day of my leave, I brought with me about 14 boxes of stuff I'd collected for the last two years, material that I knew I would want to massage in one way or another. On the first morning of my leave, I was up at 6:45 and ready to go. I was so petrified that I wouldn't be disciplined, having only the deadline at the end of the year. And I was very pleasantly surprised. It was one of the reasons -- I do mention in the acknowledgements it was a nice year. It was nice because I was at home -- I had a little word processor at home I worked at; my kids were around me; I was there when they got home from school. I mean, having just been to -- a lot of the previous two years on the road -- this was just delicious to be around the family that much.
I liked the act of writing, and I was pleasantly surprised at my discipline. What happened was since I was enjoying the project -- once you get invested psychologically in something, you want to go back to it and I found virtually every morning I wanted to get up there and go to the word processor -- and I'm not someone who likes writing. I mean, I write for a living, I do it every day -- as I say in that acknowledgment, I'm sort of a bleeder around deadline time. It doesn't come easily and I often read it in the next morning's Washington Post, and cringe and say to myself, "Oh, why didn't I write it this way, or why did I get off on that tangent?" And that's one of the things that -- haunted is too strong a word, but that's one of the things that I was concerned about. It's bad enough to live through that in a newspaper -- newspapers are the first rough drafts of history and they get forgotten. But if you cringe when you read your own book that's between hard covers and is going to sit on somebody's library shelves for a lot of years, that's not a pleasant thing.
LAMB: One of the things that in your acknowledgements, you do list every one of your students at Princeton. Why'd you do that?
TAYLOR: Well, I had a great time with them. They reminded me a lot of me when I was their age -- and it was an 18-student seminar; there were mostly juniors and seniors. About a third of them were interested in journalism, about a third were interested in politics, a third were sort of civilians, if you will. But I found the seminar extremely lively. I did a lot of individual work with them; I assigned them a lot of fairly short papers, but I wanted to go over writing skills and stuff; and somewhat to my surprise, there seemed to be a demand for me to be a life counselor. Here I was suddenly dealing with, in the first week or two, after having these individual sessions, students who couldn't decide whether to be poets or MBAs and thought that I might be able to help them out of their dilemma, and it was just a very nice relationship.
LAMB: What did you think of the brain power?
TAYLOR: They worked much harder than I had worked when I was in college. I mean, I was the editor of my school paper so I was fairly heavily working pretty hard, but academics -- I was not a star by any means and didn't put as much effort in as I, in retrospect, wished I did. These kids were writing papers that were just extraordinarily well-researched -- and they'll go far in the world.
LAMB: There's another paragraph that was interesting. "Something similar happened at a wine-soaked dinner in Philadelphia with a great bunch of friends." Why did you feel the need to put that in there?
TAYLOR: Well, as I explained in the acknowledgements, I sort of felt like I was a Paul giving out patronage in those acknowledgements. I decided just to throw the names of some friends or people who mean something to me. The reason I put the students in was at our final session, they knew I was finishing up the book and one of them said, "Oh, Professor Taylor, why don't you put us in the acknowledgements?" And we were sort of horsing around, and I think I got my arm twisted into saying I would, and as I say, something similar happened at a group of old friends. When I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, we've had New Year's Eves together for about 15 years, and on the New Year's Eve at the end of my year of writing the book, "Are you going to put us in the acknowledgements? Are you going to put us in your acknowledgements?" And you get enough wine down your throat and it's about two in the morning, you'll say anything.
LAMB: And then before all that, you thank a bunch of people at the Washington Post. Would you tell us how the Post political section is structured? How many people spend their life writing politics and gathering information at the Washington Post?
TAYLOR: Well, we've got a political editor. We have David Broder, who is sort of the dean of political journalism and has been for quite some time. He both writes a column and also is a political reporter -- writes news articles as well. Then there are about -- in the current constellation, it's a little different from the group in '88, but I'll describe the group right now. Tom Edsel and myself spend full-time covering politics. E.J. Dionne, who used to be the full-time political correspondent of the New York Times, came over to the Post about six months ago -- writes about -- doesn't write about campaigns so much, but writes about public life, and ideas and sociological trends that affect politics. Gwen Ifill is a reporter who writes a good bit about politics. As the campaign season heats up, others -- our congressional correspondents, Tom Kenworthy and Helen Dewar, spend most of their time up on the Hill, but in a week or two, Congress will break, they'll got back home and campaign, and Tom and Helen will be out on the road; and there'll be others. The staff, in other words, I would say probably Broder, Edsel, and myself, are sort of the core, and the staff grows, once you get into a campaign season.
LAMB: There is -- I want to ask you about a person because you went out of your way to say nice things about this individual. You called Marilee Schwartz "unique and irreplaceable." Who is she?
TAYLOR: And I should have mentioned her when I did my run-down. She writes a column called "Political Notes" -- so she collects political information. She's extremely well plugged in. She's also -- I think her title's also deputy political editor. She's been there, she's been very -- she's just terrific. She's one of these people who keeps the whole staff on its toes, and she's a delight to work with.
LAMB: So how many people would you say are totally devoting their life at the Post, including assistants, and researchers, and all, to politics?
TAYLOR: I would say between a half dozen and 10.
LAMB: Is that enough?
TAYLOR: It's not enough in heavy seasons, but it expands in heavy seasons. And in a presidential, it would be double that number or more. Rich Barne is our pollster and he has an assistant. Bruce Brown is Broder's assistant, but he also helps the staff as well. And then you've got editors. Ed Walsh is the political editor, but there are two or three other editors on the political desk. So, we've got the firepower. The other thing we have is we have bureaus in about six cities around the country: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. We just lost our Denver bureau, but -- Austin, Texas, Miami. And they are all very good at writing politics. So in a year like this where there's no national campaign, most of the action is in the states, a lot of our domestic bureaus are writing these stories.
LAMB: Back to the book. In one word -- "adultery" -- you spend a lot of time around that thing. Why?
TAYLOR: Well, I am the reporter who became famous -- or, more accurately, infamous -- in May of 1987 for asking Gary Hart what came to be called the "Big A Question." And there was a lot of criticism of that. I asked a series of questions, the final one of which was, "Have you ever committed adultery?"
LAMB: Set the scene. Where was it?
TAYLOR: We are on the campus of Dartmouth University in New Hampshire. It's about two or three days after the Miami Herald has broken the story of Hart's liaison with Donna Rice. That previous weekend, Hart has denied everything -- well, he hasn't denied that Donna Rice visited him in his Washington townhouse, but he said it was completely innocent and he went on the attack the day before in a tough speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, criticizing the Miami Herald's reporting techniques, criticized press interest in his private life generally, and said he had always held himself to the highest standards of private morality. It seemed to me that he had done this despite the fact that after the Miami Herald story came out, Donna Rice held a press conference and she acknowledged that not only had she been with Hart that previous weekend in Washington, but they had gone to Bimini about a month before on an overnight cruise.
It seemed to me Hart's comments opened the door to an inquiry about what exactly was his standard of private morality and did he always meet that high standard. So I first asked him whether he considered adultery to be immoral. He said he did. Then I asked him had he -- had he committed adultery. He said he didn't have to answer that question. I thought at the time it was a question compelled by the story I was dealing with. You had the spectacular news story, "Hart Spends Weekend with Miami Model" -- you had the candidate denying it. We were at an impasse in the story. Circumstantial evidence suggested to 99 people out of 100 that there must have been some hanky-panky going on. Hart says no in effect by saying, "I always held myself to this high standard. I'm not the kind of guy who does something like that."
I thought he opened himself to an inquiry, "Well, are you the kind of guy? Have you ever done it before?" Somewhat to my surprise -- it was a very uncomfortable situation, but the only real regret I have was not anticipating quite the furor it would create, but Hart was out of the race two days later. He kind of saw this story snowballing on him and decided to get out and there was a lot of wringing of hands, both in the culture at large and in the journalistic community: "Have we changed the lines now? Have we decided everything is fair game?" The old rule used to be a politician's private life ought to remain private unless it impinges on his public performance. I think that's a pretty good rule. My question seemed to shatter that norm. I would suggest that it really didn't, that this was -- every rule has an exception. There has always been an exception for the politician who takes his private life public, in effect, by behaving without discretion.
Wilbur Mills is a classic -- he was in the late '60s and early '70s one of the most powerful men in Washington as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He clearly had a drinking problem. Everybody knew it -- his colleagues did, the press did. There would occasionally be reports of him having trouble conducting hearings because he was feeling the affects of an all-nighter or whatever. Never really got reported about. Then one night, the park police fished him and a Argentine stripper named Fannie Fox out of the tidal basin here in Washington at 2 AM in the morning. He's run his car into the pond, he's bleeding from a cut in his head, and she's scratching him and whatnot. That gets reported and that was the end of Wilbur Mills' career.
So in effect, if you cross a line -- I can't define that line; our culture defines that line -- if you cross a line at some point, the press can't turn away. The culture has gotten more frank and open about sex in the last 20 years. All you have to do is watch the sitcoms on the network shows every night. So the thing that disturbed me most about the aftermath of the Hart question was those of the press who said, "OK, we've asked this question to one presidential candidate. I guess we're going to have to ask it to everybody else. This is a new threshold question, a new threshold test everyone's going to have to meet." I couldn't disagree more. I don't think we ought to go asking those questions at a threshold level. I think we ought to be very discreet about when we choose to examine that realm of privacy and I think we ought to respect that realm of privacy.
LAMB: Did you go into that Hanover Inn in Dartmouth planning to ask that question?
TAYLOR: Yeah, I did. And it was what Hart had said the day before, opening what I considered a morality defense that, it seemed to me, left me no choice but to go into an exploration of what his morality was.
LAMB: Had you talked this over with your editors?
TAYLOR: I had not specifically. Now, there was another element to this that helped push me in the direction of asking this question. After the Miami Herald broke the Donna Rice story, the Washington Post, being Gary Hart's hometown paper, in effect, for the last thousand years while he lived in Washington while serving in the Senate, we were inundated with calls. I was out on the road following Hart, so I didn't get any of these, but I mentioned Tom Edsel earlier and he was one reporter who got a call in particular about a liaison that Hart had allegedly had a few months before with a Washington woman -- a lobbyist in Washington, and what was unusual about this -- and we got lots of these calls.
That's what happens when a story like this -- a sensational story like this breaks. Everybody comes out of the woodwork, everybody's got a story to tell you. Well, most of it is pure gossip and nothing happens with it. This particular call that Edsel took was a detective report. Somebody had tailed Gary Hart a few months before. Apparently, in connection to a divorce proceeding, thought Hart was sleeping with his wife, had a tail put on him, and the detective follows Hart to the townhouse with a Washington woman, as it turns out, not the wife of the man who put a tail on him, but he records Hart's movements, has pictures of Hart entering the townhouse late on a Saturday night, has pictures of Hart and then the woman leaving the townhouse early the next morning. We received all this information -- my editors, Ben Bradlee, Len Downey, and others -- I was sort of the reporter out there with Hart. They confirmed with this woman through an intermediary that, yes, she had had an affair with Hart and, yes, he had visited her on this particular day. They were trying to figure out what to do with it.
LAMB: Did you know this at the time?
TAYLOR: At the time, I knew this and indeed at that press conference -- I think it was a Tuesday afternoon in Hanover -- when I asked those questions, that was about six hours before I then tried to confront Gary Hart in a more private setting where I could interview him because this was an exclusive story. I didn't want to ask specific questions about this in a press conference because we were thinking of breaking this as an exclusive story. I went to him. I never got to Hart. I went to Hart's press secretary about six hours later, about 11:00 at night, because it was the first time I was going to be able to get to him -- he had done a couple of other public events later that afternoon and evening -- presented his press secretary, Kevin Sweeney, with the information I've just described to you, and said, "We would like to get an interview with Hart."
Well, Sweeney asked, "Well, what are you going to do with this, though?" And I told him, "I don't know what we're going to do with this stuff. I don't think we have reached a decision yet. We are committed to reporting this story out, and that means getting some response from Hart, whether it's a no comment, whether it's a denial, whatever, and we'll make our decisions as we go." I had this conversation with Sweeney in the lobby of a hotel in Littleton, New Hampshire -- way up in the state. So he said, "Give me 15 minutes," and he goes and makes some phone calls, goes back to his room. His 15 minutes stretches to 45.
By this time, we're at midnight or early AM, and basically, he puts me off that night and says, Hart had gone to sleep. He claims it turned out not to have been the case -- and we don't know what we're going to do. And I say to him, "Look, we really want to push this. Can I get an interview with Hart first thing tomorrow morning before" -- he had an 8:00 public event. I say, "Can I get him at 6:30 -- tell me where -- I'll do anything." So I left it that evening with Kevin Sweeney. "I'll call him at 6:30 in the morning." When I call him, I quickly discovered that Hart, in the intervening seven hours, or whatever, has dropped out of the race, and, although I don't think his ...
LAMB: Not publicly yet.
TAYLOR: Well, it became public an hour or two later. Literally, in the middle of the night, he decided it was enough and -- as Sweeney's account goes -- and I have no reason to disbelieve him -- it was the taking of this question to Hart -- "The Washington Post wants to ask you about the following things," and he, in effect, says, "Oh, all right. This is enough. Let's go home." And they make arrangements, and in the middle of the night before daybreak, they get a charter plane back to Denver.
LAMB: Let's go back, make sure we fill in the blanks. You had already asked the adultery question in the afternoon?
TAYLOR: That's right.
LAMB: You had to go back after that question with this new question about this other woman in Washington?
TAYLOR: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: One of the things you write about is a colleague by the name of Bill Peterson who was in an around where you were in the hotel?
TAYLOR: That's right. When I arrived -- and this session with Sweeney at about 11:00 -- Bill Peterson was also a colleague at the Post, sadly, a colleague who died just a few months ago after a very heroic struggle with cancer and a very good friend -- he was also traveling with Gary Hart that day and it's the end of the day, it's late at night, I get into the hotel later than the others because I have filed a story for the next day's paper, and as luck would have it, there's Peterson and Sweeney, and a couple of other reporters -- I guess they were having some beer in the lounge and I first motioned Bill out and said, "Hey," -- who wasn't aware of the tip we had gotten, and corroboration from Washington, and sort of what my instructions were.
I was not particularly looking forward to having this encounter with Gary Hart. Lee had joined Gary Hart that afternoon. I had these visions of this late-night session where, having to sit down perhaps, with a presidential candidate, perhaps with his wife sitting by his side and say, "We have the following in a detective's report that says on such-and-such a night you were in such-and-such a place," and I thought -- I saw Bill and I thought, "My -- oh, here, this is great," that Bill and I will do it together and sort of bolster each other and help us get through it. I gave Bill a quick run-down, brought him up to date on what we had, and Bill didn't want to touch it, and it was a moment of revelation to me. I had such an adrenaline rush on this story. Here was a presidential candidate, clearly in trouble, his candidacy teetering here, we suddenly have the next -- we're about to drop the next bomb on him. That's what everyone thinks of the ethics and the moral -- you tend to go on adrenaline at that point.
Well, Bill was troubled that we were getting into an area of inquiry here that would lead us into everybody else's bedroom. He didn't like that. He wasn't sure that the detective's report was solid, he thought the hour was very late -- couldn't this wait? And we talked for a of couple minutes and it quickly became clear he just was in a different place. We finally said, "Look, I'll go do this if you're uncomfortable with it. You go to sleep. We'll proceed in the morning." By the morning, we no longer had a presidential candidate on our hands.
LAMB: Then at some point, you go back home or at least you're on the phone -- and you're talking to your executive editor, Ben Bradlee, who you write is very shocked by the fact that you had asked the adultery question?
TAYLOR: That's right. He didn't know it. I got back to Washington later that following day and we were sort of replaying the events of the previous 24 hours, and I mentioned the reasons that I asked the adultery question, and I described them -- the reason I think Hart, in effect, asked for it. I said one of the reasons was I knew I was going to try to confront him later that night and ask about this second liaison here. My guess was he wouldn't see me; he had no reason to do anything but do a no-comment, so let me ask it in a more general way without tipping our hand as to what specifically we had. Let me ask it in a more general way at the press conference -- we'll at least get him on the record. And that was an additional factor. I explained this to Bradlee and I was surprised that he was surprised that he hadn't realized that I was the reporter who had asked the adultery question at the press conference, but ...
LAMB: Was he shocked or did he think you should have asked it?
TAYLOR: Well, it's funny, but I have never had a direct, substantive conversation with him about whether he thinks I should have asked it or not. My guess is he thinks I should have asked it because I suspect I would have heard from him otherwise. But like everybody else, certainly me included, I think he was made uncomfortable by it. The idea of one man asking another man in any circumstance, much less under lights and with the whole world watching, "Have you ever committed adultery?" It kind of takes your breath away.
LAMB: Now, in the book, you ask yourself the same question. and you try to answer the question.
TAYLOR: Yeah, well, I say this is not me asking myself the same question. I must have gotten the question a hundred times, as there was a furor over this question. But ...
LAMB: What's your answer?
TAYLOR: There's no good answer is what I go into in the book. I tried three or four of them, either be cute, to deflect, and this and that, nothing sounds right. And what I conclude is there's a certain perhaps biblical justice if you cast an unanswerable question upon the public waters, it will return upon you a hundredfold. If you wanted me to sound sort of a textbookish, my answer is it's not an appropriate question except under extraordinary circumstances. So if you were to ask me that question, I would tell you that the next time you catch me running for president, and spending a weekend in Bimini with a woman who's half my age and not my wife, and then claiming that I have always held myself to the highest standards of private and public morality, and nothing untoward happened, maybe then I will feel compelled to answer the question, but not before.
LAMB: Quote, "I think it was the most important event of the entire primary campaign" -- Lee Atwater.
TAYLOR: That was the Bush-Rather debate. Well, this was that famous debate in late January of 1988 between George Bush and not a candidate but an anchorman, Dan Rather. The subject matter was Iran-Contra. Rather had Bush on live for I think it was scheduled to be, I think, a five- or six-minute interview. I think it stretched to an extraordinary 11 minutes or something. This was on the regular 30-minute network evening news. And this was sort of a spectacle of two ambushes colliding. Rather's people, at least initially, hadn't been totally up front about what the interview was to be about. Rather wanted to go very hard on Iran-Contra. Atwater, Roger Ailes, and the other handlers around Bush got wind of this and, indeed, by the end, CBS had made it clear that this would be the subject matter. And they were very nervous about it and they warned George Bush not to do it. They said, "You're going to walk into a hatchet job here. He's out to get you." Bush said, "Don't be ridiculous. I know Dan." Rather was a TV man in Houston in the late '60s when Bush was a congressman back there. "It'll be fine."
But they -- Ailes and Atwater -- prepped Bush to use -- six months before there had been an unfortunate incident at CBS where the network evening news went black for, I think, six minutes or seven minutes -- because the start of it was delayed by the ending of a match at the US Open. Rather stalked off the set because he didn't want this to be delayed. Then to everybody's surprise, the match ended sooner than they expected and they couldn't get Rather, so it was very embarrassing. So this walking off the set and six minutes was something Ailes coached Bush to use if things got tough. And he did, and Rather seemed to lose his cool a little bit.
What was interesting about the prepping for that is people like Ailes and Atwater, who really understand the dynamics of presidential politics, know that in any campaign, you maybe get two or three of what they describe as "defining moments," moments that seem to be spontaneous, that occur out there on the trail, that get replayed night after night on the network evening news and on the Sunday talk shows because they tell us something about the candidate. Ronald Reagan in 1980, the "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen" in the early stages of the Republican primaries. It was a confusing moment, and Reagan takes charge, and supposedly captures the hearts of America. Ailes and Atwater felt that these moments were too important to be left to chance. So they ...
LAMB: Do you agree with Lee Atwater that this was the most important event of the primary?
TAYLOR: I think that's a little bit of a hype. I think it was very important. I suspect that there were moments in New Hampshire that were more important.
LAMB: We're running out of time and I want to ask you about your own experience in writing a book, again. You've been traveling around the country doing these shows. What's the experience like?
TAYLOR: Well, it's an eye-opener. It's the first time in my life I have felt what it's like to be a candidate. These are men I've been covering for the last 10 or 15 same speech, sometimes never even varying a phrase. And from a distance, I've wondered how they can keep the discipline up, how they can't fall asleep listening to their own voice. I am now at the beginning of my third day of what'll be about a six- or seven-day book tour and I'm already at that point where -- I must say, we talked about this before. You've done a terrific job in asking unconventional questions and it's been a delight, but I've found one of the days in the third or fourth go-round, I couldn't keep myself awake and I found myself worrying about what the listeners or the viewers were thinking.
LAMB: What's the experience, I mean specifically, like when you write a book and you come in, what do most people want to hear from you right now?
TAYLOR: Two things. One of them, the Hart question and the whole question of a politician's right to privacy. Secondly, I've got a lot of questions -- the last chapter of the book is an effort to come up with a fix and the proposed fix is five minutes a night of free time on every TV and radio station in America -- you'd have to pass a law to do it -- in which the candidates -- you'd do it in a presidential campaign, for the last month of the campaign. The candidate himself has to appear on screen, no surrogates, no journalists, no Willy Horton, no flags. Straight talk into the camera, or a snippet of that day's stump speech, if you want to get a little more theatricality into it. George Bush gets that on Monday, October 1st, for five minutes, everybody sees it. The next day, whoever the next Michael Dukakis is gets it and back and forth they go.
Part of the reason I think people are so turned off by politics is that the campaigns themselves are not nourishing because we have this sort of sound-bite, photo-op, attack-ad way of talking. Let's put the incentives and the rewards towards a more substantive dialogue. Five minutes is short enough, I think, to keep the attention of lots of people and you embed it into the nightly dialogue for the last month of the campaign. The complaint I hear most often from voters at the end of these campaigns is, "Why don't they talk about the issues? Why is it all attacking the other man's personality, character, picking some vote out 20 years ago, some peccadillo? Why don't they talk about the issues?" And the candidates' response to that is, "We try to talk about the issues and you know what it gets reduced to? It gets reduced to nine-second news bites on the network evening news. We'll give a 10-point program, we'll outline our health-care program, our education program -- boom! -- one little nine-second snippet that's usually the cutsie red meat attack line." Let's create a new playing field and let's see if we can't improve everybody's behavior.
LAMB: Do you have a different understanding of what it's like to be a candidate and, if you do, is it hard to do all these shows?
TAYLOR: It is hard. It's hard to have the discipline to do these shows and keep it fresh. The other thing that I feel like -- a little bit like a candidate in -- with a book much more so than articles I write for newspapers I've invested my sort of self into that, I'm putting out into a public marketplace, I have no idea if anybody is going to care, and I feel like what a lot of candidates must feel at the beginning of campaigns. They believe in something, they have an idea, they're selling that idea, and a little piece of them says, "It's going to work. It's going to be great." And a little piece of them says, "Well, maybe not." And it's sort of hard to read the reaction out there.
LAMB: And it's early, I know, you're only on your third day. What's your biggest surprise about the reaction of people who are interviewing you about this book?
TAYLOR: Actually, I've gotten more process questions about the so-called "five minute fix" than I would have guessed and I'm delighted about that. I mean, this is a book that, at some ways, is despairing on the way that the political dialogue is held now, but it does have a specific proposal to reform it, and if I can spend this book tour and this book as a vehicle for fixing things, what could be nicer?
LAMB: All right. Let's say that you're six months from now and you're looking back on it. What will, to you, be a success? You've written the book, you've done all the talk shows, you've made the tour. What's a success?
Mr.1TAYLOR: Well, I'm in a very happy position. I'm going to duck this question like a politician. It's already a success. I mean, as we talked about earlier, I had fun writing the book. I found it intellectually stimulating, I liked the product, I got a big enough advance to support myself for the year I took off from the Post -- so I'm financially whole -- I haven't gotten hurt by it. Listen, I got three kids, the oldest is 15, and if I can make any more money on top of that, I'm looking at college bills not too far down the line, so that's a success, you better believe it. But if it gets a respectful reading from both the interested community, and by that I mean the journalists and the politicians, and God would hope an even broader community, that would be great.
LAMB: Paul Taylor has been our guest. He's the author of the new book, "See How They Run." "See How They Run" is in your bookstores. It's published by Knopf?
TAYLOR: That's right.
LAMB: And I didn't check this out, but it's $22.95.
TAYLOR: Brian, thanks for having me. This was a lot of fun.
LAMB: Thank you, Paul Taylor.
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