BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bill Press, author of "Spin This!" when you hear Bill O'Reilly say on his program, `You're entering a no-spin zone,' what's your reaction?
MR. BILL PRESS, AUTHOR, "SPIN THIS!" My reaction is it's baloney or pure spin. I mean, he's spinning the fact that he doesn't spin, which I don't think anybody takes seriously, or should.
LAMB: Why shouldn't they take it seriously? Isn't he being serious about it?
MR. PRESS: No. I think if you--in fact, I've got lots of examples in my book. First of all, my--the premise of the book is that everybody spins, and especially people in the media spin, and for someone to say that I am different than anybody else, that everybody else spins, but I tell the absolute truth is just not credible, it's not believable. It's--it's an act, and it's a successful act, by the way. His show is very successful. But if you listen to the top of his show he will say things like, for example, `Is Al Gore, you know, really--has Al Gore really grown a beard because he knows he doesn't have a chance in 2004 and he's already giving up?' You're entering the spin-free zone, but he's already given the spin, sort of proving the case. It's a shtick, and it's a successful shtick, but...
LAMB: Now during this interview, when can we--when should we--what should be the tip-off that you're spinning us?
MR. PRESS: When my lips are moving. That's kind of what I say about politicians. We always used to say, `How can you tell when a politician is lying?' `When his lips are moving.' I--I think today, we would say, `How can you tell when almost anybody is spinning?' which again, the point I'd like to--I try to make in the book is we hear about--so much about political spin, and that's true, and that's sort of the place where you find the most spin in life is in politics. Politi--politicians can hardly talk without spinning.
But what I found out once I got into looking into spin is that everybody spins. It is universal. Preachers spin and salesmen spin; advertising is all--is pure spin. Doctors spin their patients. Lawyers spin judges, and we spin each other in our daily lives.
LAMB: Who have you ever met in your life, or watched in your life, that doesn't spin?
MR. PRESS: The one that I think comes the closest to it--and I--I talk about him in the book because I admire him a great deal--is Senator John McCain. I traveled with McCain during the--the last presidential camp--not--not a long time, not the whole campaign but I spent a few days with him in--in New Hampshire. And I was just stunned to see how accessible he made himself. For example, the Straight Talk Express, which could be called the no-spin express, right? And McCain would c--walk on the bus, sit down, there'd be a gaggle of reporters around him, chosen each day or s--rotated in and out by his staff, and McCain would just sit down and basically say, `Fire away.' There was no opening statement, there was no opening spin. He would take any questions. He never ducked one question, and he was a prisoner on that bus.
We were going that day to his last town meeting, which was Peterborough in New Hampshire. It was maybe an hour and 15 minutes away, so, you know--you know, he couldn't run to the back of the bus, he couldn't run off the bus. Th—I don't know any other politician in this country who is capable of doing that or who would consider doing that.
LAMB: Why didn't he win, then?
MR. PRESS: Alas, because spin works, an--and I think sometimes that John McCain's straight talk got him into trouble. In fact--and--and Bush--the Bush campaign were very adept at spinning. In fact, they were able to spin the reason that McCain got such good press was because all the reporters, you know, like, liked him personally and didn't like George Bush personally, so they turned it against the media when, in fact, he got such good press because he was so good, and he was so honest and he was so forthright and he—and he--and he gave out a lot of good material.
LAMB: How many years have you now worked for CNN?
MR. PRESS: Five and a half. Came in February, 1996, as co-host of "Crossfire."
LAMB: Go back to when it all started. Who--who called you first--who called you first at CNN and why?
MR. PRESS: Oh, you mean how "Crossfire" started. I thought...
LAMB: Yeah, but you. How did you get there?
MR. PRESS: Well, I was doing radio and television in California, at two stations in Southern California, first KABC-TV and then KCOP-TV, and I always wanted to take a shot at the--at the national level, tried several times, failed. They didn't want anything to do with anybody from California.
LAMB: Who didn't?
MR. PRESS: ABC didn't, CNN at that time didn't. I tried, you know, various things. I was working at the ABC station in LA, for example. I wanted to sit in--I asked if I could sit in on a Brinkley roundtable maybe, you know, once a year, just as a voice from outside the Beltway. Nobody was ever interested.
So then fla--fast forward to 1996, I read in the Los Angeles Times that Michael Kinsley had left "Crossfire," and I thought, `Well, maybe one more stab.' So I--CNN didn't call me. I called CNN. I called Rick Davis, who's executive producer of "Crossfire," and I said, `Look, I do TV. I've done TV for 10, 12 years, I'm good at it. I know as much as all those guys do. Give me a shot. Try somebody outside the Beltway.' And he--I was lucky because he had seen me debating Pat Buchanan once at a convention somewhere, in s--in Los Angeles, actually, and so he remembered that, and he said, `Yeah, I'll give you a shot. So I'll call you.' Never called.
So I was coming back here. A friend of mine was being sworn in as--as--in as ambassador, and I called Davis again and said, `I'm coming to Washington on my own nickel. I'll be in town. How about that shot you promised me?' And he said--what could he say? I thought--you know, I was here, so he said, `OK, we'll do it,' one--two, three days, I think, and so I came in. I got in the rotation up against some pretty heavyweight contenders and got the job.
LAMB: What happened next? How do you know you--I mean, what--at what point did you know you were going to get this job?
MR. PRESS: Well, it was a--it was a funny process. I--when I came in, I did three days with Bob Novak, but at the time, Novak and Sununu were the co-hosts. So I did three days with Bob Novak. I went back to Los Angeles. You're going to think I'm a pest here, but I called Rick Davis again--I'm not a pest, I'm persistent--and I said, `Gee, I had a lot of fun with Bob Novak and I think I held my own. Give me a shot at Sununu.' So he said, `OK,' so I came back again and I s--I did a couple of days.
By the way, these are not screen tests. I mean, these are not like auditions in a closed room somewhere. I mean, this--these were live on the air auditions. So I mean, you--you make or break yourself right away. So I—I was on two--two days with John Sununu, and thought that went OK, and I went back to California. And this time, for the first time, Rick Davis called me and he said, `We'd like you--you to come back for a third time, third test.' And I said, `Well, what's going on?' And he said, `Well, there's a short list, and you've made the short list and we want to take another look at you.'
So I came back a third time, and then I got a call from him maybe a week later. In fact, it was on a Wednesday, I recall. I was to start on Monday, full time--the following Monday. I was Democratic chair--in addition to doing radio and TV, I was a volunteer--I was a Democratic chairman of California at the time. I had to quit my job, move to Washington, get here and start a full-time job with CNN the following Monday, so...
LAMB: When you go into a job like that, how long were you guaranteed to have a job?
MR. PRESS: At the time I didn't have a contract at all, but I was given the job and then I negotiated a contract. The first--first contract was for two years, and the second was for three years. And if you're doing the math, I'm ready to sign another one.
LAMB: How do they know--specifically, how do they know you're doing a good job?
MR. PRESS: Well, I think you'd have to ask them that.
LAMB: I mean, is there...
MR. PRESS: Now you know, knock on wood, I'm still there...
LAMB: ...is there a mechanism? Is there--do they do the Q ratings and all that kind of stuff?
MR. PRESS: I think that--I would think that there'd be two--two things they're looking at. One is that--how I'm performing on the air. I mean, again, I--I've never had this conversation with them, but they've got to know I do my homework, they have to know I know my facts, and they have to know I can hold my own against Pat Buchanan, Mary Matalin, Bob Novak, John Sununu, Tucker Carlson, not to mention the guests.
And then there are ratings. We get ratings every day, unlike radio where you wait like three months to know how you're doing. Television, every--the next day we know how well we did the night before. So I haven't destroyed the ratings of the show.
LAMB: What time of day the next day do you know what the ratings are?
MR. PRESS: We know about 4:00 in the afternoon what we did the night before.
LAMB: And how close do they break it down within that half hour that you're on, I mean...
MR. PRESS: Fifteen minutes and 15 minutes. So for example, if we follow "Moneyline" or we follow Wolf Blitzer, whatever we follow, we can tell right away what they had at 7:30 and what we hold onto at 7:30 plus what we add. We can also tell at 7:45 how many people we have picked up or lost in that second half of the show. And then we can tell at 8:00 when we go off the air how many people are left and how many people we hand to the next show. It's--it's amazing, and it's all done with Nielsen boxes. And frankly, I don't--I never believed it's that accurate, but everybody uses the same system so everybody believes it.
LAMB: Now can you tell--I mean, you're sitting there every night and hearing people--you say to yourself, `This person is just spinning us to death.' Can you tell from the ratings when somebody is spinning you that people tune out, or the ver--or vice versa, they tune--they like it?
MR. PRESS: Yes and--yes and no. Sometimes I think it's not so much that they're spinning, it's just sometimes you get a guest who's really deadly dull. I mean, no matter how--how well they've been screened. And we talk to them ahead of time, you know, the staff pre-interviews them and they give us a sense, `This guy sounds like a real fireball, you know. He's--he's really saying some really strong stuff. He's going to be a great guest.' But they get on camera and they just freeze, and--and they're--and you just think, `Oh, no.' You know, you can just, like, hear the clickers all over the country going off.
And yet someti--I have to tell you honestly, and it hasn't been that long ago, that a show that Tucker Carlson and I thought was deadly dull and we got one of the highest ratings that we've had in months. So I th--I think--I th—all of us believe that the guests make the show, not the co-hosts, by the way. You get really good guests--that's what people--and particularly well-known guests, because people are clicking through the whole menu of stuff that's available on television these days, and there are so many choices. So they click, click, they see somebody, you know--I mean, they see Tom Daschle, right, they'll stop, or they'll see Dick Armey, you know, they'll stop, or see a Mary Matalin, you know, they'll stop when she's--she's a guest. Se we think the guests make the show, but sometimes even a bad guest can get a good rating.
LAMB: Do Republicans...
MR. PRESS: Go figure on...
LAMB: Do Republicans or the Democrats spin the most?
MR. PRESS: I don't think there's any difference. I think they all spin. They're all good at it, and, I--as I point out in the book, I think Bill--among the presidents, Bill Clinton gets the prize. Master spinner; just wonderful to behold. I mean, just brilliant to watch him. And spin himself out situation after situation after situation. And yet I--I have to admit--and I give him credit--the Bush White House is--is keeping up with the Clinton White House, I believe, so far. They're--they're very, very good. They're very adept. Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, during the campaign and in the White House, I--I think they have been--are masters of the art.
LAMB: When did you get the idea for this book? Do you remember the first moment?
MR. PRESS: Yeah, actually. I, like--like many ideas, it came to me in the shower. Eureka!
MR. PRESS: When--during "The Spin Room." For a while, we started--during the last--during the last presidential campaign, CNN needed to do--they knew they ne--needed to do something different late night, because the--all the coverage was kind of looking like it always had. And so they asked Tucker Carlson and me to do this special little show, late night, called "The Spin Room." And it started out being an hour, and basically we just got people on to spin how the campaigns were going, people from the campaigns, reporters, to talk about the spin they were hearing in the--in the campaigns.
And I--so I just got--grew fascinated with that whole concept of--of spin and thought--having thought about a lot of d--books, and started one book, I started another book, it suddenly occurred to me there was--I was—it was--right in front of me was the book that I should write. I should write a book about spin, because everybody was talking about spin but nobody was really explaining what it is, who spins and who who doesn't, is it good, is it bad? What's the difference between a spin and a lie? You know, what's the origin of this word `spin'? So I thought it would be really fun and really timely. We were doing a show on spin, and even though by the time I had finished writing, "The Spin Room" was canceled, spin lives, even if "The Spin Room" did not.
So one day during the middle of the--while we were doing the show, I was in the shower thinking about it, it came to me, `Write a book about spin.' And I thought of the title, "Spin This!" and here we are.
LAMB: What'd you do, though? How'd you--is this your first book?
MR. PRESS: It is, indeed.
LAMB: So where did you start?
MR. PRESS: I started by--where'd I start? I called my agent.
LAMB: Now, what's an agent?
MR. PRESS: An agent is a guy who--who represents you in making a contract—a lawyer, usually, who represents you in making a contract, and also can take a product and sell it to--for example, I have a television agent who does that, represents me in my negotiations with CNN, who's also a very good book agent.
LAMB: Where does he live?
MR. PRESS: Here in Washington.
LAMB: What's his name?
MR. PRESS: And he--his name is Bob Barnett, and...
LAMB: Married to?
MR. PRESS: Married to Rita Braver of CBS News. And Bob's the best in the business, no doubt about it.
LAMB: Stood in during the debate practice?
MR. PRESS: He was, for--I think now for the last three presidential campaigns he has filled in, in--in the mock debates, for the Democratic candidate, he's played the opponent. I--I think the first time that Bill Clinton ran he played George Bush. You know, the second time he played Bob Dole, and this time for Al Gore, I believe he played Dubya, so he's very, very good, very sharp.
Having represented Bill Clinton and--and the first lady, the president and the first lady, with their books, and since I'm kind of an equal-opportunity offender in the book, and I point out the president and the first lady spin, as well as other Democrats, as well as the Republicans--I hope I'm not talking out of school here--he thought it was not a product he could properly represent, so he suggested another good friend of mine and his, a fellow by the name of Ron Goldfarb, who is also excellent, very, very good, very well respected in the industry.
And I called Ron and told him I had an idea, and he said `Put together a little proposal.' He suggested kind of what I might put in the proposal. I--I put a proposal together, gave it to him. He liked it, changed it a little bit but finally got a product that he really liked. He took it to New York. There were three publishers that were interested, and they had a little auction. And one of them said, `OK, we'll publish it, and we'd like to get it out by Christmas,' which meant--and I promised them, by the way, in the proposal that I could write it fast and I could write it in three months. So I signed a contract and turned it in a week early.
LAMB: And when was the week you turned it in?
MR. PRESS: I turned it in the last week of August. It was due September 1.
LAMB: And what about the experience of writing the book? I know from talking to you before on the shows and all, you're a big reader.
MR. PRESS: What I found, for one thing is, I haven't read as many books this year as I usually do because I had to take a lot of my time. But one of the reasons I really wanted to start with--with spin was--as my first book because, as I mentioned, it's a topic I'm certainly familiar, it was a topic I was living. But I also wanted to make sure I--because there are a lot of other books inside of me--I wanted to make sure I had the discipline to really write a book. And so I--once I had the contract, I just set myself to it. I mean, I wrote every spare time. Mornings, all morning, except two mornings a week I write a column; I continued to do that. Three mornings a week I wrote. At least one day a weekend, I wrote the entire half a day. And then I'd come home from doing "Crossfire" or "Spin Room" and I'd work and write until maybe 2, 2:30 in the morning, and just banged it out.
LAMB: Easier or harder than you thought?
MR. PRESS: Harder, actually. Harder because when you're working with something--I'd wri--I'd written a lot of magazine articles, written a lot of op-eds, but they're--you can get your hand around those easily. When you're writing--I forget how many words this is, but let's say 200,000 words or something like that, you know, it--I found there has to be a continuity of thought, and I sometimes lost it and would have to go back and see whether I'd made that point or not made that point, you know, to get--you know, to get the--get the--the flow of the book. And--and after you get into it, I mean, it's--it becomes a--you become a prisoner of that word processor.
So sometimes I was really chafing, you know, at the discipline that I had imposed on myself. But it's a great satisfaction to get it done and then to see the first proofs and then to see the galleys and then to see a finished book. I mean, it's pretty exciting.
LAMB: Where does the word spin come from?
MR. PRESS: Spin. A couple of origins of spin. The first is, which I find personally appealing and amusing, is it comes from the old spinning wheel and weaving--I--I say that because my wife is a--is a weaver, so she--she does this. She doesn't spin her own yarn anymore, she buys the wool, but she's a weaver. And you can see if you--if you pull and stretch a piece of yarn, you can pull and stretch a tale, or a story. And--and so the first is like the old old sea captain who would spin a yarn. That's really kind of where it comes from, the--the--the--the--the use of that word.
The second is from sports, baseball. Throw a curve. You put a spin on the ball. In billiards you put a certain backspin maybe on the ball, or even on the--on the golf course, if you're good enough--I'm not. You can put a backspin on your--on the ball hitting the green, so it doesn't roll off the other side of the green. So both--both--both origins of it--and you can see also with--if you can put a spin on a ball, you can put a spin on your words, too, which I think is--is really what--what spin is.
It's just sort of--it's not the truth. It's not a lie. It's somewhere in between. It's just adjusting the truth, if you will, or bending the truth to make a point, to make things look better than they are or to make you look better than you are or to cover your butt and get out of a difficult situation.
LAMB: Is there more spinning today than there has been in our history?
MR. PRESS: I don't think so. I think we just have given it a name today. You know, I--I--in--in the book I had a lot of fun going back in--in history and--and pointing out some of what I think are the classic spins, starting with the Garden of Eden, where everything else got started, right? And—and Adam and Eve. And--and the serpent spinning Eve that here's this wonderful treat, and you eat this fruit and you'll be like God. You'll know everything. You'll know good from evil, which was--which is really certainly not the truth. And then--and when--and when God said to Adam, `What have you done?' You know, Adam right away said, `She made me do it,' which was a spin that comes down through time, of course. Husbands and boyfriends do the same, blame it on the girlfriend or the wife.
But you can--you can go through politics and through history, and I think there are many examples. I just think today--and Brian, I don't know exactly when it started, but the first time that I heard of it is maybe--maybe six or eight years ago when campaigns first started using the word spin doctor, spin room. After a debate, for example, everybody gathers in this hall and—and the candidates come in and--and all their handlers come in and all their friends come in. Why? To spin the reporters on how well they've done. And they call it the spin room.
LAMB: You mention in your book that you used to be a seminarian.
MR. PRESS: Indeed.
LAMB: Where was that?
MR. PRESS: It was on the East Coast of the United States, first of all. I joined an order called the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, who taught my high school, Selesianum High School in Wilmington, Delaware, and they were located up and down the East Coast, and I did my--I did some practice teaching in Philadelphia, got my college degree at the University of Niagara, all as a seminarian, and then I was sent to Europe to study theology at the University of Frieborg in Switzerland.
LAMB: Why did you get into this?
MR. PRESS: Why?
MR. PRESS: I wanted--everybody's thinking at that time what they're going to do with their life. I was really attracted to public service.
LAMB: What year?
MR. PRESS: It's when I graduated from high school. You want to know that year.
LAMB: What year?
MR. PRESS: I heard you the first time.
LAMB: You can't spin this one.
MR. PRESS: I can't spin this one. 1958. And at--at--at first I thought about studying law because I--I was thinking of the pro bono kind of lawyer, helping people, and I actually applied for law school. And then I was--I was a--attracted to the work that these men did at--at the school, their life of--of service, and with the combination of public service and then God service, if you will. So I thought this would be the right career for me. And I realized--took me nine years, but once I was that far along that I would--would would have come out as a priest whose job was to teach high school. And as much as I like teaching, I wanted to do more with my life than be a high school teacher. I wanted to be more involved in community affairs. I wasn't sure exactly what, but I know I wanted a kind of a bigger arena than that. So I left the seminary in '67.
LAMB: What was the family situation like? Your mother, your father, brothers, sisters?
MR. PRESS: All of the above? Right. My parents were both living then. My mother died later in '67. At that time, I had a brother, a sister--I grew up with a brother and a sister; they're both younger than me. But then after I was in the seminary, my parents had two more children, sort of like a second family. Then my mother died and my father remarried, and he and his wife have still another son. So I have two brothers, two sisters and a half-brother.
LAMB: What'd your father do?
MR. PRESS: He was a self-employed small-business man in Delaware City, Delaware, where I grew up, little town on the Delaware River south of Wilmington. And when he came out of the service, his father had a gas station, Atlantic gas station, and he gave my father a piece of property right down the street, which was pretty brave thing to do knowing what my father was going to do and did. He built--with his own hands, built his own service station. And he ran and operated a gas station, service station, for the rest of his life. I mean, well, he's still alive, but, I mean, until--until he sold it.
LAMB: How about your mom?
MR. PRESS: She was a housewife and raised us kids and helped my father run the business. She took care of all the books. But, you know, she didn't have any job outside of that, and she wasn't paid for that. She just made sure the business succeeded by getting the bills out at the end of the month, you know, so the people would pay their bills, so we could pay our bills.
LAMB: Were they surprised when you became a seminarian?
MR. PRESS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. They had no idea. I--I wasn't that big--much of a hell-raiser, but they didn't expect me to--they were very pleased. They raised a Catholic family, very observant Catholic family, but nobody in--I was the first kid in my family to go to college, and so--let alone go in the seminary or become a priest. They were pleased and I'm sure--I know disappointed when I left.
LAMB: Was there ever a time when you thought the church was spinning you?
MR. PRESS: Many times. I--I talk in the book about religion as an arena of spin. And you have to be careful because, you know, you say things about religion, and people automatically are going to brand you as a heretic or as a--as an atheist. But, I mean--and the spin that I have the hardest--I mean, if you--if you will, all of religion is either based on a fundamental truth or an outrageous spin, which is that this is the--this is the veil of tears and--and, yeah, this is a tough life, but we just kind of get through it because the good times are ahead of us. And so we suffer and we accept suffering now and we accept pain and we accept illness and misfortune, knowing that by doing so we're going earn an eternity of--of--of bliss. Now that's kept a lot of people going for a long time, and it's either--to say it's either true or--or the--the--the worst or best spin ever.
But inside of religion, the thing that I find hardest to deal with is—is pain--pain and suffering and--and--and really bad things happening to good people. And, you know, I always hear at so many services where somebody young and somebody in the middle of their career or--or a child even is--is killed and killed in some accident, and--and the preacher says, `Well, you know, he's better off 'cause he's up in heaven, you know, with all of his friends,' and--and I just--I don't buy it. I don't buy it.
I--I find--I find it hard to accept a God who would send a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center buildings and kill 6,000 people, you know, and to just say, `Well, they're all better off.' Well, if I had the answers, I'd be pope maybe, but all I'm saying is it's a spin that works. I'll tell you, it does work. It makes people feel better. People do like that consolation, they like that assurance that this is all part of God's plan. But I think there's got to be something more.
LAMB: What, in your own mind, created this attitude that you didn't believe it anymore?
MR. PRESS: I--I--I guess I would say that it's my idea of--of God i--is not a God who would impose cruelty on people that he loves. So it's a different perception of God. And--and when I hear people say that--that `This--this is part of God's plan,' I--I wonder, `What God do they believe in?'
LAMB: How old were you when this happened? Was it in the years...
MR. PRESS: I think it was an evolving process, probably during my seminary days, you know. I...
LAMB: Who's Seth Warner?
MR. PRESS: Seth Warner is a wonderful, wonderful friend. I--I--I mention him in the book. When I was in the seminary I went to--as I mentioned, I was sent to Fribourg, Switzerland, to study theology. And one day a woman next door knocked on the door and asked me if there was anybody there who could help her translate a letter. Because she had an apartment, and she had a letter from a couple in California who were thinking of coming to Switzerland for a sabbatical. And they were from Malibu, California. I had, growing up in Delaware, barely heard of California. I had never heard of Malibu, which became one of my favorite places in life.
So I said, `I'll do it for you.' And it turned out that it was Seth and Marjorie Warner, who were from Malibu. Seth was a professor at Santa Monica City College of history of philosophy. And they came, and I met them when they arrived--there were several letters that I ended translating, you know, about `How big is the apartment? How many rooms? How many bathrooms? Where's the nearest bus stop?' all this kind of stuff. They had a daughter who was in school, `Where could she go to school?' And they took the apartment and they came and we became fast and--and wonderful friends. And when I was leaving the seminary, they suggested--unusual for anybody from California--`Why don't you come to California?' and gave me a list of schools where I might--where I get a job teaching school. I--I wrote letters and actually got a job through the mail teaching school in--in--in California.
And then they've just been--they were fast, fast friends, wonderful, wonderful people. And Seth--Seth, he was s--he died about five years ago, by the way. He was great fun to be around. He was a great reader. And he always would save things from The Nation or New Republic or the latest book he was reading. the "Uses of the Past" by Herbert Muller--Muller was one of his favorite books, and he would read passages to me. And I learned so much from him and grew so much, I think, because of him.
LAMB: You credit him with giving him your introduction to liberalism.
MR. PRESS: Well, he was a--he was a strong liberal and--I mean...
LAMB: Define that.
MR. PRESS: Well, that's tough. You know, I always--I--I think of a--of a liberal as someone with an open mind, an open heart, an open hand, somebody who welcomes change, as opposed to a conservative, who likes to keep things the way they are, someone who really believes in people, and--and--and that government has a role and government's role is really to be helping those that--that don't yet share in the fullness of the American Dream, helping those who really need a--need a helping hand, maybe not--not for their entire life, but at least to give them a--a lift up. And I was--certainly that was my inclination, but I would say, you know, Seth, convinced me that that was the right way and that was the--that was--that was the path. And so I spent a lot of time with him in California, and he helped me--helped me a great deal. Marjorie's still alive, lives in Carmel, and--and Seth died about five years ago.
LAMB: How did you become chairman of the Democratic Party in California?
MR. PRESS: It was a fluke. I didn't--that's one time when I didn't seek the job, the job came after me. Phil Angelides, who is now the state treasurer of California, called me. This is a job that lasts two years, and it rotates north and south. So the chair has to be from Southern California and then moves up to Northern California. Phil was in Northern California. He wanted to run for re-election, but the--the--the committee said, `No, we refuse to change the rules. It's got to be somebody from the south.' So Phil called me out of the blue and said, `We need'--it's a volunteer job, didn't pay a dime. `We need somebody in the south who would agree to be chair of the Democratic Party. Would you run?' And I thought about it, and it was--and this was '93. Barbara Boxer had just been elected senator, Dianne Feinstein has just been elected senator and Bill Clinton had just been elected president, and I thought it might be a good time to be chairman of the Democratic Party in California for two years. So I ran against a fellow by the name of Steve Barr, I won and served until I quit to come back for "Crossfire."
LAMB: Did you ever spin during the time you were chairman of the Rep—the Democratic Party?
MR. PRESS: Oh--oh--oh, you...
LAMB: And did you ever feel bad about it? Did you ever hear yourself saying things, you said, `Oh, that's just so bogus'?
MR. PRESS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yes to both questions. Sure, I--I would spin and, yes, sometimes I would feel, `I can't believe I got away with that.' I mean, the classic spin is when you lose an election--and you hear this all the time. You lose an election, but you spin why you really--it was as good as winning. You did so well it was as good as winning. And--and--and I can remember when we might have a special election and we go down and we really bust our butt and spent a lot of money and walk all these precincts and yet lose, and then I would come out with something like, `Yeah, well, but the important thing is not who won or lost. The important thing is that we got, you know, 78 percent of the Latino vote and we got 90 percent of the African-American vote, and that proves that we got our message across and that we're the party of the people,' or something like that, which is really spin. I mean, it's bunk. I mean, the fact is the only thing that counts is really winning the election. But it sort of goes with the territory.
LAMB: Why can't you just say, `We lost. The other side won'?
MR. PRESS: Because--yeah, you could and it would be--you could. It's just the tradition is so much to put the best possible--you know, to--to spin it. The--the--the tradition is always, and the temptation is, to--to make it sound as good as possible so you don't disappoint--you know, you kind of maybe want the people who work so hard in the campaign, you don't want to let them down. But I must say, I think it would be much more--most refreshing to hear just somebody say, `The better--I lost. We ran a lousy campaign. I lost.'
LAMB: With a country that only has half its registered--or half its adult members voting, how much of it i--is caused by spinning, people who are cynical about the politician?
MR. PRESS: I don't--I wo--I don't know whether I could put a number on it, but certainly, I think the number one factor, I believe, is the money in politics. I think the number one thing that turns people off is they don't feel they have access to the--to the de--the decision-making or the decision-makers. Because no matter what lip service is giving to--given to listening to people, that the--that the only ones that really have the candidates' ear or the campaign managers' ear are those who write the big checks. And that's true of both parties. And that's why I've always supported campaign finance reform.
But after that, I'd say it would certainly come with a disgust with the politicians that the--that they see. That's why I think John McCain did so well in the primaries. When I went around to those town meetings and watched people, I think they--they--they walked--they might have walked in a cynic, but they walked away a believer. Because they saw somebody who was real and who wasn't trying to spin. It was obvious he wasn't trying to spin.
So to y--to your question, I think that the spinning does turn people off. I think they feel all politicians lie, all polit--or spin, or all sound the same and you can't believe any of them. So, you know, why follow them? Why listen to them? Ultimately, why vote for them? It's sad.
LAMB: I can't let the hour go by without asking you about gin--ginseng and your little anecdote about your buying ginseng. And I want to know...
MR. PRESS: Well...
LAMB: ...I want to know why you put that in the book.
MR. PRESS: I put it--does the powder cover up the--the bl...
LAMB: You never thought anybody would ask you this, did you?
MR. PRESS: No. Does the powder cover up the blushing? Well...
LAMB: Explain ginseng.
MR. PRESS: I'll put it in context. I--I was talking about advertising as the--the realm of spin; I mean, that's--retail advertising or wholesale advertising. I mean, people spin these products and, gullible as we are, we believe these products, you know. `Buy this vacuum cleaner. It'll make vacuuming fun.' I mean, you know it won't. It's still drudgery, but we somehow believe it. Or about this car, you know, whatever it is, OK?
So I was actually sitting on the set with Pat Buchanan one day, and these--during a commercial break, and I saw this not one time, but maybe the 10th time, it finally started to sink in, and I see this ad on the air for this product called Ginsana. And--and it showed all these young people and they're playing volleyball or whatever, and they're running around and they're--they're so attractive. And--and I said--maybe I was feeling pretty badly battered by Pat Buchanan that day or a little tired or something, and I--so I thought, `Hmm, that might'--and it's supposed to give you so much more pep and so much more energy and make you so much younger.
So I actually went down to the CVS at the corner of 7th and Pennsylvania the next day and I bought myself some Ginsana. And you're supposed to, I think, take two a day or whatever it was. And I was popping it for about a year, and my--my cousin on the Eastern--Eastern Shore, Marie Bendler, I was visiting with her one day and I asked her about this Ginsana and she said, as I say in the book, `It's about as good as taking nothing.' She's very laconic, Marie. She doesn't--do--doesn't speak long sentences or paragraphs. And I said, `What do you mean?' And she said, `What'd you'--I said, `What'd you say again?' And she said, `It's about as good as taking nothing,' you know—and so it was all just hype. It's all just not real at all, from a medical point of view.
LAMB: Well, as a good Democrat--as a good Democrat, a good liberal, wouldn't you--wouldn't you want the government to put a label on that said, `This is a bunch of bunk'?
MR. PRESS: You know, i--it's--yes. With all those vitamin supplements, all those diet supplements and all that stuff, it's--so much of medicine is in the mind anyhow, and I think for some people, it may work. I guess it worked for me for a year. Yeah, I'd rather see a warning on there saying, `This is'—and I think--I think there are warnings on some products, that `This is not approve by the CDC or the FDA and so take at your own risk,' or--or kind of whatever, you know, all--all--all those products.
LAMB: Go back to "Crossfire."
MR. PRESS: Yeah.
LAMB: You're sitting there with Pat Buchanan or--or Bob Novak or Tucker Carlson. And do you ever find yourself at a break saying, `You know, I really don't want to come back and defend my side. I'm on your side this case'? I mean, if you--are you there to take a side whether you believe it or not?
MR. PRESS: No. I would never say anything on television I didn't believe.
MR. PRESS: Never. No, I--I wouldn't. And I think that's important. I think it's important because I think people have to trust us, whether we're coming from the right or from the left. And, I--I mean, I don't--I don't want to become like those politicians I was just talking about that you--you--you--you really never know. So the m--sometimes people come up to me and say, `You know, I--I don't agree with you all the time, but that's OK because I know you've just got to do that for ratings, right? You've got—you can't believe all that stuff you say on there, right?' And I say, `Guess what? I hate to tell you, but I really do.' Same with Pat Buchanan, and it's the same with Bob Novak. The most that we will do is sometimes, if both of us do agree, we'll tell people up front, `You know, this is a topic that both of us agree on, but somebody's got to play the devil's advocate tonight, so I'll play the devil's advocate.' So we--we--you know, I can ask tough questions, but I tell people up front, `This is not where I'm coming from.'
LAMB: Five years now with CNN?
MR. PRESS: Five--five, five and a half, right.
LAMB: During that time, MSNBC, Fox News come along, you're in real competition with two other operations. What's changed inside CNN since you've been there?
MR. PRESS: Well, a couple of things have changed. One is we're looking over our shoulder where we didn't have to before. I mean, when CNN started, it had the cable world to itself, cable news world certainly to itself. Different world today, because of MSNBC and Fox particularly.
Th--the second thing is I think we're working--CNN is wor--working harder. And I've been at stations where they got challenged and they ignored it and now they're at the bottom of the pile. And CNN is determined not to let that happen. So they have--they've made some changes in programming. They made some changes in anchors. And I think that's good. I think the competition is--competition is healthy. And the other thing that's happened is the ratings are not what they used to be. The ratings since September 11--September 11 are the highest they've been since the Gulf War. But for that period in between, the ratings were not what they used to be because the audience was--some of the audience was going to two of those other networks. So you know what? You've got to fight harder, you've got to work harder, you've got to do better programming and--and present a better product. And if you don't, you lose.
LAMB: What's it like to be working for a program where you get into four and a half months of Chandra Levy every night?
MR. PRESS: Deadly. Deadly. It is the worst...
LAMB: Well, why do you--why do you do it?
MR. PRESS: Well, I do it because I love debating the issues. I--I love studying the issues. I love debating the issues. I love writing about the issues and I love communicating about issues. That's kind of my whole life. I've always done that. And "Crossfire," I think, is the pinnacle opportunity to do that. And I take that little bit of bad because of the tremendous good. Most of the time, we are debating good, meaty, serious, substantive issues that make a difference in people's lives in this country. But sometimes we get in a rut. Chandra Levy was a rut. Monica Lewinsky rus--was a rut. I wasn't there for O.J., but that was sort of another rut. When you have to do it day in and day out--partly because of the competition you mentioned earlier. They're doing it. That's what people want to hear, believe it or not. You know, people may say th--they'd like to talk about something else. You try it, you'll find out.
So you just--every day we would try to come up with some different angle on it that meant you were not just simply repeating yourself. But it--it's--it's--I'd rather get beat to a pulp on taxes or beat to a pulp on health care, you know, or beat to a pulp on missile defense than have to do Gary Condit every night.
LAMB: In your book you...
MR. PRESS: Quick story? Do we have time?
MR. PRESS: Quick story.
MR. PRESS: During the Monica Lewinsky days, Pat Buchanan and I finally had had enough one day--true story--and we decided we would protest. We would do a--basically a sit-in, boycott. And on the morning conference call where we decide what we're going to talk about, we said--we had talked about this ahead of time, and we announced we refused to do another Monica Lewinsky show that night. We--there were other important issues. We were going to do something else or else they would have to get two other co-hosts that night. A little rebellion from the left and from the right. They said, `What do you want to do?' Are you ready for this? Pat and I said, `NATO expansion.' That was an important issue, but probably we could have chosen a better one. We were both interested in it. We tubed that night. It was--it was so bad.
LAMB: So you did it.
MR. PRESS: We did it. We did NATO expansion, and our ratings went from this right down in the toilet.
LAMB: How much do you think the audience understands how the process works and that the numbers are there every day and you can see what works and what doesn't work?
MR. PRESS: I don't think they do. I don't think they do. I think they tune in because it's been on the air--"Crossfire" has been going for over 19 years. They tune in because they like the format. They like the guests. They like the fact that it's, you know, lively and they hear both sides of an issue. But I--I don't think on any show people understand how ratings work or what goes into a show. People--a lot of people think that "Crossfire" is scripted. Nothing's scripted about it except the opening minute where we set the topic. Some people think it is taped. It's almost always live. So I don't--I don't think...
LAMB: Are there people who won't come on the show, by the way?
MR. PRESS: Oh, sure. Yeah. There are people who--once--once people get to be a certain level, they perceive themselves too important to--to--to debate or to be in a debate situation. I had a member of Congress one time—John Kasich told me one time that he--he ended up doing "Crossfire," by the way, but he--the first time I met him, he said he would never do "Crossfire" because when he was asked a question, he wanted five minutes, uninterrupted, to answer that question, and he knew he would never get it on "Crossfire." Well, I don't know who would give him that much time, but--but, that's the attitude. Dick Gephardt did our show when we were over at George Washington University as a town meeting, but Mr. Gephardt won't come for a regular "Crossfire," hasn't. You know, there are others who--who just simply refuse.
MR. PRESS: We know--we have a li--I mean, we know some people who just will--just won't do "Crossfire."
LAMB: You talk about bias and the liberal press accusation in your book, but you also talk about the situation inside CNN where you had a news executive, one of the new ones come--I was going to ask you whether or not that was Walter Isaacson; you don't mention him by name in the book--who came to you and--is that who it was?
MR. PRESS: You could ask me that, but I'm not saying I'm going to answer it.
LAMB: Are you spinning me at the moment? Came and met and talked about the Tom DeLay thing. Tom DeLay, what's his attitude about coming on CNN?
MR. PRESS: Oh, Tom DeLay hates CNN because he thinks CNN is the `Clinton News Network.' And--and he's constantly complaining about what he sees on CNN, the coverage on CNN and ref--not only re--refuses to come on, I'm sure he tries to talk other people out of going onto CNN. And he even--his office sent out a press release attacking the--the hiring of Tucker Carlson as co-host of "Crossfire" because they didn't think he was conservative enough. I mean, I can tell you, Tucker is conservative enough. I debate him every day.
So we ended up having this--what I thought was a sort of surreal experience of--of--of sitting around as a CNN staff in Washington, DC, and talking about how we could modify or placate or make Tom DeLay feel better about--about CNN, which, I mean, I couldn't believe. I mean, I don't--I don't think it's our job to please Tom DeLay or to please Dick Gephardt, but just to present the news. And I--I must tell you, even with my liberal bias, I think CNN is pretty much right down the middle. I mean, as I've mentioned in the book, I'm never on CNN unless I've got a conservative sitting alongside of me. I think they're--they--they're very, very careful about providing both sides of view, both sides of--of--point of view. And so I thought it was sort of a waste of time and maybe we should have taken it as a badge of honor if Tom Delay...
LAMB: Did you...
MR. PRESS: ...did not think we were always spouting the party line.
LAMB: Did you say anything at the time?
MR. PRESS: I actually did not. I--others did. I bit my tongue.
LAMB: What would they say?
MR. PRESS: Well, I mean, i--is it really that important to try to please Tom DeLay? I mean, is that--i--is--is that really something we ought to be—be concerned about?
LAMB: Now in your book, you--and you even admitted in a U.S. News & World Report article some time ago that you might not have any friends left in town after--after--after this book. Wh--who--who did you criticize in here, or who did you spotlight that you were closest to that worried you?
MR. PRESS: It's not so--well, the book--I'm an equal opportunity offender. You cannot talk about spin--I would not be honest if I talked about spin and suggested that only conservatives spin. All politicians spin. Liberals spin and Democrats spin. And in talking about Democrats that spin, I certainly mention President Clinton, whom I'm close to, Al Gore, whom I'm close to. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Clinton, whom I'm close to. There may be--there may be some others, I for--Tom Daschle's on--on th--example of his spin is on the back cover.
And on the Republican side, I talk about Mary Matalin, who's a good friend as well. But I don't mind identifying them as spinners, because a point I make over and over again in the book is that spin is not bad. I mean, unless spin is way over the line and someone is just lying and deceiving and--about some very important issue, then I think spin is just--it's--in our personal life or in our professional life, it's how we survive and how we put ourselves in the best possible light. And--and everybody does it, but some do it better than others.
LAMB: You did some history along with the spinning.
MR. PRESS: I did.
LAMB: A presidential history.
MR. PRESS: Well...
LAMB: You also talked about H.L. Mencken. You said he was a straight--straight shooter.
MR. PRESS: Among the journalists, yeah. I mean, I--Mencken bothers me a lot because of his--he's a very biased person. I mean, the stuff he said about Jews and about women and about minorities is pretty troubling, but at the same time, I think when it c--when it came to--to calling it--calling it like it is, he was a--he was a straight shooter. I--I also talk about Mike Royko, great, great columnist. And as you--you may remember, as I mentioned in the book and--he was told that he had to come to Washington if he really wanted to cast a long shadow. And he said, `I never--I can cast a fly rod, but I don't care about casting a long shadow.'
LAMB: Did Abraham Lincoln spin?
MR. PRESS: Abraham Lincoln certainly--certainly spun.
MR. PRESS: Well, he spun that he wasn't--that he thought the Constitution was perfect and he would not--never do anything to change it. And he ended up offering three amendments to the Constitution. You mentioned Franklin Roosevelt. I mean, Franklin Roosevelt, the whole--the--the fact that he—he spun himself as a vigorous, healthy, robust president leading the country when, in fact, he couldn't walk, he called that his `splendid deception,' which I think is a marvelous phrase for spin.
LAMB: Richard Nixon?
MR. PRESS: Richard Nixon was the worst of all, the wor--I think the worst president and--and I think the worst spinner, that Watergate had--by the way, Richard Reeves' new book "President Nixon" is a phenomenal book. I wish I had--that book had been out before I wrote this book, because I would have put more examples of Nixon spinning in this book. But the whole idea that Watergate was a second-rate burglary thought up by other people that he knew nothing about when, in fact, he cooked up the entire operation in the White House and ran the entire ro--operation out of the White House--he's--he's one who really went over the line and--and lied so much that he finally—finally got caught.
LAMB: George Bush, the president.
MR. PRESS: I think the--I think the biggest spin about President Bush is that he's really running the country. I mean, I think--I think Vice President Cheney is--is doing more to set the direction for the country and to manage the White House and to direct the war effort and to direct the foreign policy. But the White House has--has managed to spin that President Bush is the CEO who just delegates all of this. And I think they've reinforced the spin--they--they had for a long time--certainly by keeping Vice President Cheney in an undisclosed location in a bunker somewhere. I don't know where.
LAMB: Now this will be an easy one for you not to spin. Of all the conservatives who sit across the table from you, which one's the—your favorite?
MR. PRESS: Oh. I have to spin that. I...
LAMB: And we're going to listen very carefully to what you say.
MR. PRESS: The--I will--I enjoy taking them all on. I have to tell you, I think Pat Buchanan is the best debater, bar none, that I've ever been up against. But Bob Novak is close behind. John Sununu, very smart. Mary Matalin, very sharp, and Tucker Carlson, as good as all the rest.
LAMB: Who do you have the best chemistry with, sitting right there on the set--forget the--the content--where just the show flows easier?
MR. PRESS: May--maybe over the years, Mary Matalin. But--but no problem with any of them. I mean, I do really like them. I like working with them. I like them personally and we're good friends.
LAMB: Before we run out of time...
MR. PRESS: Yeah.
LAMB: ...you met your wife where?
MR. PRESS: I met Carol in San Francisco in 1968 working for Eugene McCarthy.
LAMB: You have children?
MR. PRESS: Mark and David, two sons.
MR. PRESS: Mark lives in Hood River, Oregon. He's a--a nurse, a nurse practitioner, works at La Clinica in Hood River, Oregon. And David is in graduate school at the University of Davis and works at the Point Reyes National Seashore in Point Reyes, California.
LAMB: Bill Press, we're out of time. This is what the cover of the book looks like. It's called "Spin This!" Bill Press of "Crossfire," CNN, thank you for joining us.
MR. PRESS: Great to be here, Brian. Thank you.
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