BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Alan Ehrenhalt, author of “The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power and the Pursuit of Office”, what's the book about?
ALAN EHRENHALT, AUTHOR, "THE UNITED STATES OF AMBITION: POLITICIANS, POWER AND THE PURSUIT OF OFFICE": It's about who runs for office in America and why that makes a difference. We spend a lot time asking ourselves why elections turn out the way they do, and we always ask the same question: What are the voters trying to tell us? One thing that I say that's fairly simple is that sometimes voters aren't trying to tell us much of anything. What really mattered was who wanted the job in the first place. Who wanted to be on the city council or in the legislature or in Congress, and until we look at that, you might call even the supply side of politics we don't understand all of it.
LAMB: Concord, Calif., Sioux Falls, S.D., Utica, N.Y., Greenville, S.C. what do those all have in common?
EHRENHALT: Well, they all have in common that over the last generation they have become the province of politicians that didn't use to exist really in those places. Full-time professional people who make politics their career, people who basically displaced a part-time, semi-professional or amateur government -- businessmen who had a place on Main Street or a law practice and served in local government in their spare time. That's gone in a lot of these places. Concord, the first one that you mentioned, in the 1980s had a full-time government of professionals and, unlike the sentiments of the community, they were basically liberal Democrats.
LAMB: The leaders of the community, the actual managers were liberal Democrats?
EHRENHALT: The people who got elected.
LAMB: Those four communities I mentioned because you spent a lot of time in those four communities. How much time did you spend there and why did you pick those four?
EHRENHALT: I spent a week in each of them. I was looking for a different story, in a way, in each one and yet I found elements of the same story. I found places where if you go back a generation, power was closely held by a few people -- the Main Street business elite, white middle age males, all of that -- and where power has opened up and offices are available to basically whoever wants to work hard enough, ring enough doorbells, raise enough money. It's not that you have to defer to a boss anymore whether it's a state senator, as it was in Greenville or the head of a political party machine, as it was in Utica. The bosses varied a generation ago from place to place, but the system was basically the same and the system was you had to defer. A small group of people made the decisions, decided who the leaders of the community would be.
Then when they were in office, they showed some loyalty to that leadership, so there's a good side and a bad side to all of this. Now you see something different. You see offices available to whoever wants it the most. Its not just true of the communities, it's true of state politics, it's true of Congress -- people who at the age of 12 are politics addicts. They pass out leaflets. When they're in college, they know how to target a precinct as well as anybody in town. They work as interns for the local legislator. They get jobs after graduation as aides. When they're in their late 20s, they run for the legislature. By the time they're in their 30s, you see a lot of these people in Congress. I'm sure you meet up with a lot of them on C-SPAN. That is a whole different generation of people. When you ask the question, what sort of government do they give you, it's a complicated question. There's no reason to suppose that the government you get from those people, from those full-timers, lifetimers, is the same as you got from the amateurs of a generation ago. It's different.
LAMB: Tell the story about the Sioux Falls disc jockey.
EHRENHALT: Well, there's a guy named Rick Knobi, who in 1974 was 27 years old. He'd been in Sioux Falls a couple of years. He really had bummed around, hadn't done much, hadn't succeeded at much. But he turned out to be pretty good at talking on the radio, so somebody hired him at $100 a week and he got an audience. Six months or so somebody calls up and says, "Why don't you run for mayor? I don't like the government we have here. Why don't you run?" So he ran and to the astonishment of everyone in Sioux Falls, including himself, he beat the mayor who was a 63-year-old veteran mayor. Not only that, he was Mr. Sioux Falls. He had run the Community Chest and the Lion's Club and the Rotary and was by everybody's account a good mayor -- competent, decisive, honest.
But he depended for his political support on a very narrow group of people, narrower than he realized it was. It was the boys that sat around Kirk's Restaurant on weekday mornings and kind of were the good-old boys of the upper Midwest in those days, and that all fell like a house of cards on the prodding of a guy who really didn't know much about the community but just decided just to offer himself for the heck of it. He won and found himself as mayor with no ties to anybody, no roots in the community, no experience in government, no real leadership in his background. You can talk about that as a victory for openness and in the Watergate summary, which is one that took place 1974, there were a lot of things to recommend it.
But I find that fairly scary event; that is, when authority declines to the point where people without any real contacts, connections, people who simply run as individuals without any ties to any real broader elements in the community, when those people win, I think something is lost. In fact, Sioux Falls has had for the 15 years since then chaotic politics in which incumbents turn up, win office, lose 4 years later. It's a revolving door. I think the re-election rate incumbents in this local government has been 25 percent over the last 15 years. Well, that's chaos. So we may not want the bossism of generation ago, and yet, have we gone too far toward individualism and openness at all these levels? I would say yes.
People basically nominate themselves for office now in America, whether it's for a city council, for legislature, Congress or for president. Think of 1988, the people running in New Hampshire -- Michael Dukakis, Albert Gore, Richard Gephardt. Were these candidates of factions or alliances or interests in society or were these people who essentially were doing what you do in local government? They were people who were willing to knock on enough doors and try to sell themselves retail to enough voters. I'm not sure that's the system we ought to have, but it's a system of self-nomination.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
EHRENHALT: Chicago. Maybe that's not an accident or a coincidence.
LAMB: What part of Chicago?
EHRENHALT: South Side.
LAMB: Where'd you go to school?
LAMB: Did you go to a South Side High School?
EHRENHALT: Oh, well, I went to the University of Chicago High School.
LAMB: Run by the University of Chicago?
EHRENHALT: Yes. It was a laboratory school. I wasn't a faculty kid, but it was a laboratory school essentially for University of Chicago faculty. The reason I smiled is that having watched Chicago politics close-up, you might argue this guy is being nostalgic for the city he grew up in. Actually, I was as troubled by Mayor [Richard J.] Daley in those days as anybody and by what seemed to me autocratic government, and yet I couldn't help admiring it in a certain way. Nor can I help thinking that something is lost when authority of that sort disappears. Even if you don't want authority in the person of Mayor Daley, you might want more than we're getting in a lot of places across America right now.
LAMB: How did you get to that school? What were your parents doing?
EHRENHALT: Oh, my father was in the real estate business in Chicago. The local public school wasn't very good, so I went to school at the university. Lots of people in the neighborhood did.
LAMB: Where did you do your undergrad work, your college work?
EHRENHALT: Brandeis in Massachusetts.
LAMB: What did you study?
EHRENHALT: Psychology, actually. I didn't study political science.
LAMB: And then what?
EHRENHALT: I went to journalism school at Columbia in New York and worked for the Associated Press briefly in Chicago, and then I started covering Congress for Congressional Quarterly in 1969, so I basically spent my adult life at Congressional Quarterly and now at Governing Magazine which is a relative of Congressional Quarterly.
LAMB: What's your job at Governing?
EHRENHALT: I'm executive editor.
LAMB: Which means you put the publication out every week?
EHRENHALT: Every month.
LAMB: Every month, I mean.
EHRENHALT: Well, in a way I try to figure out what we ought to be covering and work with the reporters and edit a lot of what they do. I don't do a lot of the nuts and bolts of fitting the stories and copyediting. I do some of that but . . .
LAMB: You also wrote a big thick book when you were with Congressional Quarterly, an almanac?
EHRENHALT: “Politics in America”, about members of Congress -- what they do in Washington, what they do at home. It actually was the work that I did over the years on that that lead me to this book, to “The United States of Ambition”, really because one of the things we had to do at Congressional Quarterly, and do the best we could, was predict Congressional elections -- sit down in September or October of an election year and ask, "Who's going to win?" You take these marginal districts and try to make guesses. The more years I did that, the more it seemed to me that it's the candidates that are determining in these elections. It isn't public opinion that gives you your clues as to who was going to win in a particular place. What you want is the r‚sum‚ of the candidate.
One year, for example, the last year I did this, was an election in an open seat in Indiana. It was the 5th District of Indiana -- conservative Republican. [Elwood H.] Bud Hillis was the Republican incumbent. He had always won easily. The district hadn't voted for a Democrat in 15 years for any state office, let alone Congress. One day I get a letter that says, "I'd like to introduce myself to you. I'm thinking of running for Congress in Indiana in the 5th District. I'm a Democrat." Oh, a Democrat -- I'm going to read this. Then he starts to tell me, "The year I got out of college, I thought I'd run for the legislature, so I ran and I defeated the majority leader by two votes. So I've been in the legislature ever since, and I work at it seven days a week. I have no other job. I have no family. All I care about is politics. In 1980, they thought they'd redistrict me out of my House seat, which they did, so I challenged an incumbent in the state Senate and I won that.
And by the way, I'm running for Congress next year, and you might want to follow my campaign. Sincerely, Jim Jontz." Well, I knew something right then that I think I didn't have to be too brilliant to figure out, but I don't think the Republicans learned it until election night a year later which is that guy is going to Congress. When you see those qualities, that sort of ambition, determination, drive, careerism, professionalism, whatever it is, those people tend not to be denied, even in a district like that one that does not want to vote for Democrats. Jontz had a Republican opponent who was a conservative lawyer in Kokomo who said, "Jim Jontz is the pro-jobs candidate and the pro-family candidate, but he's never had a family and he's never had a job." But that guy's back practicing law in Kokomo and Jim Jontz is in Congress and that's, in many ways, the model of what succeeds in politics these days. What I learned doing this book is that it isn't very different in local government, for the Concord City Council. It isn't very different there than it is running for president in New Hampshire. It's the same qualities and the same skill.
LAMB: How did you go about doing this book?
EHRENHALT: Well, I had a year in California. I hung around the Political Science Department with the University of California, basically, in Berkeley.
LAMB: How did you do that?
EHRENHALT: I had worked for Congressional Quarterly for a long time and they were generous enough to offer me a year's sabbatical if I would write a column, which I continued to write a column which I was doing at that time, and then participate in a loose way in organizing the coverage. I could have a year off, so my family and I moved to California and we lived in Berkeley for a year. You might say that only somebody from Washington would decide to learn about the real world and move from Washington to Berkeley, but leaving that aside, that was a great year. I thought about all these things and I started asking questions about cities and communities, looking for places where I could see if some of these ideas worked. I found one in California at the end of the BART line, actually, at the end of the subway line, in Concord. It had all the demographics that I wanted.
It wasn't a very rich place or a very poor place or a very unusual place. In many ways it's a middle American suburb, and what had happened to it? The government of the 1950's, the Main Street merchants and part-timers had given way to a whole cadre of professional, lifetime politicians_ just the sort of people that I'm describing. So I went to Concord and I wrote about Concord. I went to Sioux Falls because I knew about Rick Knobi, the disc jockey, and I wanted to know more about how that kind of thing happens. I went to Greenville, S.C., because I wanted to see a place where some of this operated on the right, rather than on the left. In Greenville, you've had in the last decade the influx of people who are just as dedicated and professional as the ones I've been describing, but they're religious fundamentalists and that's what drives them into politics.
LAMB: Let me stop you to ask you, isn't Greenville where both Strom Thurmond and Jesse Jackson are from?
EHRENHALT: Jesse Jackson is. Strom Thurmond is originally from Aiken, which is not too far down the road.
LAMB: And it's also the home of Bob Jones University?
EHRENHALT: It's the home of Bob Jones University. That school, which is mainly known nationally for some of the more intemperate pronouncements of its leaders, has been a great training ground for conservative politicians over the last 15 years. They have gotten their way in many instances in local politics, and one of their people is the Republican leader of the South Carolina House and on and on. What interested me about them was, unlike most conservatives in this country, this was a group of people that believed in politics. I'm convinced that the reason why Democrats win all these elections, why they control Congress, why they control the legislatures, why they control all these local governments is really quite simple, but it's not the reason that people tend to give.
The reason, I think, is that Democrats are the party of government in the United States -- the party that believes in government, isn't embarrassed about it and is the natural vehicle for young people with talent who like politics and who want political careers. The Republicans, by contrast, are the party whose leader of the 1980s said government is not the solution, government is the problem -- Ronald Reagan. Let's take a hypothetical example. Suppose you have two bright, young 25-year-olds -- great speaking ability, charisma, salesmanship, all the things that a political career requires. One of them is a liberal Democrat and thinks government is a good institution with valid work to do in society.
The other is a Republican who agrees with Ronald Reagan that government is the problem. Which one of those is going to make a political career and which one is going to go sell computers and insurance or something that he or she considers legitimate work? So, if you ask that question, I think you realize why Republicans have trouble winning. It isn't necessarily that the views don't match the views of the electorate. They don't generate the talent, and they don't generate the talent, I think, mainly because they don't believe in government in the first place. Why make all those sacrifices of time, of salary, of privacy for a political career to be part of an institution that you really don't believe in anyway? Democrats don't have that problem.
LAMB: Why Utica, N.Y.?
EHRENHALT: I wanted an old machine town. I mean an old traditional party boss. In Utica, I not only found a town that had essentially been run by one boss for the better part of 50 years, but he was still around -- not powerful anymore, but I could go talk to him. He was approaching 90 but lucid and, although reluctant, turned out to be willing to spend quite a bit of time with me.
LAMB: His name?
EHRENHALT: Rufus Elefante. Interesting man. The man's got his supporters and detractors, but a man that had there not been so much prejudice against Italian-Americans in the early years of this century, wouldn't have been a high school drop-out who had to go into politics, because really that was the only place to make a career. Probably anything would have been open to him. But in those years, in a place like Utica, if you were Italian, you pretty much had to be in politics because the banks wouldn't take you, business was not open to you and a college education was probably not available to you. So Rufus Elefante went into politics and never ran for office, never held party office of any sort and yet he was the boss of that town pretty much single-handed for most of the postwar era -- on and off, but most of the time, and he did it from a booth in a restaurant. He and his cronies would have lunch at a place called Marino's every day. It was an old-fashioned Italian restaurant with high-backed wooden booths. You couldn't always tell who was in the next booth. I never saw it. It's been gone 17 years, but I'm going by descriptions of it.
As I've been told the story, depending on what you wanted, you'd go to a different booth. If you needed something to do with sewers, there'd be a guy sitting in a booth at this restaurant and you'd go to him. If you needed something to do with elections, there'd be another place. At the main table would be Rufus Elefante, and he would do his business. After lunch, he would go for a ride with the city clerk and he would tell him what the City Council was to do that day or at its next meeting. Elefante never even showed up in City Hall. The city clerk did it all on instructions from the boss. Now, that's a story that doesn't make most of us very comfortable these days. On the other hand, things got done, decisions got made. When I was in Utica a couple of years ago, I found a City Council of -- was it 15 members? -- on which every member was a faction unto himself. There really was no discipline, no organization -- a mayor who was great at winning votes, but really didn't put any government together, although he remained popular. Honest, decent, but not a leader. Rufus Elefante use to say, "Office-holders are baby kissers. I'm a leader." That's not what they have now. Without wanting all of that back, I can't help but mourn for some of the authority that I see is missing right now in American politics.
LAMB: So you went out to U.C. Berkeley?
EHRENHALT: For a year.
LAMB: For a year. What department?
EHRENHALT: I was a visiting scholar in the Political Science Department. I like say that I took up visiting for a good part of that year and I didn't quite get to scholarship, but I was in the Political Science Department.
LAMB: How did you set up your whole study and did you start off knowing where you were going?
EHRENHALT: Which communities or which states?
LAMB: No, did you have a conclusion? Were you on your way to a conclusion that you already knew?
EHRENHALT: I think I was on my way to it. My original thought really was to write about communities and what has happened to them, to take four places or six places and write about power and politics at the community level. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, well, that's also what I've seen in Congress. Let's try to take the whole system. Let's start at the bottom and go all the way up. Let's take four communities. But then I got into the state business, which I hadn't planned to do, but I looked for four states that exemplified the things I was looking for. So I ended up with Wisconsin, Connecticut, Alabama and Colorado.
LAMB: Is it true that 40 percent of the legislators in Colorado are women?
EHRENHALT: It's not quite 40 percent now, but it's pretty close, yes.
EHRENHALT: It's an interesting one, and it's a good test for some of the things that I'm arguing. You can explain that if you want to by saying, well, Colorado has always had a sympathy for women's rights. It had women in the legislature in the 1890s. It passed the Equal Rights Amendment at a fairly early point. It has lots of women in executive positions. So that's why the legislature is 30 or 35, and at times, it has been closer to 40 percent female. There's a more important reason, and it has to do not with demand, but with supply. The reason is Colorado legislators work at a tough job and they do it, in most recent years, as much as six months out of the year, and they get paid $17,000. So it is a non-breadwinners legislature. That is, you have to be somebody who isn't trying to support a family on that money. Now, that can be a man. There are men who serve in the Colorado legislature whose wives are partners in law firms. So it doesn't imply anything about gender. The fact is at this point in American life, the non-breadwinners who take up these political positions are more likely to be women. So in the suburbs of Denver, which is the place that really controls Colorado politics, you've had in the last decade or two an influx of upper-class, highly educated suburban women, well trained for politics by what they've done in community life. They've won these jobs, and they've been willing to work at them almost full time or full time for $17,000. That's really been the driving element in Colorado, I think -- the feminist inclinations of the electorate notwithstanding.
LAMB: What's different about Wisconsin?
EHRENHALT: Wisconsin is what I told you about Concord, Calif. It is a place where a whole generation of political junkies, you might say, has in the past 20 years taken up lifetimes in politics, starting incredibly young. The speaker pro tem of the Wisconsin assembly is a guy named David Clarenbach, who is, if I'm not mistaken, 36 or 37 years old, and he is serving in his 19th as a public official consecutively. He has never done anything else since the age of 18. He came in as a protester, Vietnam, civil rights. You find that that's where most of the people who are leaders in the Wisconsin legislature came out of. They went into politics to solve problems, to pursue issues and causes, and they believe in politics and they believe in government and they've given their lives to it.
Now, a lot of them as they get into their early 40s and start thinking about sending kids to college, go do something else. They become lobbyists or whatever. But for the decisive years of their political careers, they are the troops in Wisconsin politics, and what they have done almost exclusively is get out of college, go to work as aides to other legislators, learn the ropes in Madison, go back home, in some cases sent there by the Democratic leadership, and then take what they've applied as professional staffers and become officeholders. At one point in the last couple of years, the speaker of the House, the speaker pro tem, the majority leader of the Senate and on and on, all the important positions, were people who started out as aides to other politicians. So these are professionals. In that sense, they're like Concord. That is why Wisconsin, which is state that has a Republican governor, has elected Republican governors three out of the last four elections, hasn't had a Republican assembly in 21 years, hasn't had a Republican state senate in 17 years.
Last year, the Republican governor was re-elected overwhelmingly. Democrats gained seats on their majority in the assembly. Why is that? Let me tell you something that the Republican leader of Wisconsin Senate said. He told me, "You walk in here at 9 o'clock in the morning on a weekday and all the Democratic parking spaces are filled. They're here. They got here early in the morning. The Republicans show up right before the session starts." But maybe you don't want to take that too literally, but it's a comment on where Democrats are and where Republicans are in American politics these days. One is the party of government. The other is the party of people who, if they had their druthers, would just as soon be doing something else for a living.
EHRENHALT: Just as I went to Utica, N.Y., to find the old-time urban machine and boss, I went to Connecticut to find a state that was run by a political party boss and, in fact, it was run by a couple. For most of the first half of the century, it was run by a Republican named J. Henry Roraback, Republican state chairman. He decided who would get nominated for the legislature, decided who would serve on all the committees. He didn't even put Democrats on the committees. Most of the key committees were all Republican in Roraback's day because the legislature was Republican. When the legislature was meeting, he operated out of a suite at the Allyn Hotel in Hartford.
At the end of the day would be delivered to his suite a box with all the bills introduced that day, and in the morning that box would go back and it would have in it only the bills that Roraback wanted action on. The others would disappear. He was replaced in the mid-'40s as Democrats became at least competitive and were sometimes the majority party of Connecticut by John M. Bailey, whose methods were very different, who was not nearly as dictatorial as Roraback, but, nevertheless, who had an iron grip on the Democratic Party in the Connecticut legislature. In 1951, in all the votes that took place in that session of the legislature, not one Democrat ever voted against the party position on any bill in Connecticut. Democrats had a narrow majority, and they had to do as they were told.
LAMB: And John Bailey's daughter is Barbara Kennelly?
EHRENHALT: John Bailey's daughter is Barbara Kennelly.
LAMB: The congresswoman from Connecticut?
EHRENHALT: The congresswoman from Hartford. John Bailey remained chairman until the mid-'70s but by the late '60s, that power had waned. Now you have a situation in which there is nobody of that stature not only in the party situation, but in the legislature. The closest thing to a real leader in the legislature or in Connecticut party politics has been the man who was speaker of the House for four years in the 1980s, Irving Stolberg, a very decisive leader, a little bit arrogant. He didn't exactly tell people how to vote, but he sort of told the committees what to do and he got dumped by his own Democrats. Not for being incompetent -- no one ever called him incompetent -- but he was a little more of a leader than they wanted, so that's a sign of how times have changed in a place like Connecticut.
EHRENHALT: In Alabama, I was interested in teachers mainly. The politics of professionalism doesn't just apply to individuals. It applies to groups. In Alabama, teachers are the group that took what was a vacuum in state politics, an opportunity for somebody to come in. As the job demands were changing, you had to work harder to be in politics to run for the legislature. The lawyers and businessmen who used to be in it didn't really want to do it anymore or the disclosure requirements were too onerous for them. Somebody had to come in and take those jobs, run for those offices. A man named Paul Hubbert, who was executive vice president of the Alabama Education Association -- basically the head of the teachers' lobby in Alabama -- realized somebody can come in here and generate the talent and win these elections.
So Paul Hubbert over the course of the 1970s and 1980s with Joe Reed, who is head of the Alabama Democratic Conference, which is the leading black political organization in Alabama, just found the candidates that won seat after seat after seat in the Alabama legislature. Until a few years ago -- I think the figure is there are 140 members of the Alabama legislature. About 55 of them were either teachers, retired teachers or spouses of teachers. There was a point at which Alabama was 48th in the country in per-pupil spending, but it was 27th in the country in teachers' salaries. Paul Hubbert took advantage of all this and was the Democratic nominee for governor of Alabama last year and nearly won, which, considering he was a teachers' lobbyist who had never run for office before, was, I think, in itself quite an amazing feat, although he didn't make it.
LAMB: When you grew up, you lived in Chicago, went to school near Boston -- Waltham where Brandeis is. You came down here and lived in Washington for, what, now a total of 15 years?
EHRENHALT: More than that. More like 20, close to 20.
LAMB: But when you were doing your traveling, you were in places like Greenville, Utica, Sioux Falls, Concord, which is the suburb of San Francisco, Madison, Wis., Hartford, Montgomery, Ala., and Denver. Did you find any of those place where you were during the time that you'd say, "If I didn't live in Washington, I'd live there?"
EHRENHALT: I really still consider myself a Midwesterner, and I've got a weakness for the upper Midwest. I admit that. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, in many ways are my favorite parts of the country. So I like Madison and Sioux Falls.
LAMB: What do you like about those communities if you were going to choose one over the other? What is it?
EHRENHALT: I think the basic decency and civilized quality of the people in the upper Midwest is a rare thing that I don't find in many other parts of the country. My family and I were on vacation last week, and we drove through lots of these areas, partly because we wanted to show my daughter the Little House on the Prairie sites, where those books took place and where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived with her family. We spent a lot of time driving through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota. I think my wife and I both thought, this wouldn't be a bad place to live. Then we thought, we're here in the summer. I'm not sure we'd feel the same way in January. But leaving the weather aside, those parts of the country have always impressed me.
LAMB: You wrote and have written and still write about federal politicians that live here in Washington. Were you able to get as interested in these local politicians?
EHRENHALT: Yes, I was. The more I look at communities and power in communities and the way cities work and decisions are made, the more fascinated I am by that whole process. Still, I'd like to write some more about life in different communities in America and what makes them different from each other and what makes them tick.
LAMB: What is Governing Magazine? How old is it?
EHRENHALT: Governing Magazine is three years old. It's part of Congressional Quarterly's network of publications. In a sense, it's a way to do for states, cities, localities what Congressional Quarterly has always done for Congress, which is explain how government works, how politics works, what programs are succeeding and failing, and in a sense in the case of Governing, help elected officials and appointed officials to, if possible, do a better job of governing, keep them abreast on what they need to know.
LAMB: How is it doing?
EHRENHALT: Well, it's doing pretty well. We have about 85,000 subscribers. I think we've made our point and may have found a niche in the states and localities. When I went up to Hartford to work on this book, because Hartford was the last chapter I did, I always used to make a point of dragging up a bunch of copies of Governing. I finally got to the last place that I went to, and I couldn't give my copies of Governing away because everyone already had one. So I had the sense that we were being heard.
LAMB: Who owns Congressional Quarterly?
EHRENHALT: It's owned by the St. Petersburg Times Publishing Company, St. Petersburg, Fla. The flagship of its operations is the St. Petersburg Times, which you know and are familiar with.
LAMB: Is it a for-profit organization?
EHRENHALT: That's a complicated question. When Nelson Poynter, who founded it, died in 1978, he willed all of the operations of the Times Publishing Company to what was then the Moderate Media Institute, now the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. So they are held by a nonprofit educational foundation. The newspaper makes a profit, but the chairman of the company does not realize that profit. That all goes to the institute that holds the bulk of the stock.
LAMB: In all the work you've done over the years, who are your favorite politicians? Who are the people that you remember the most and why. I'm not looking for any particular political slant or anything, but just the characters you remember and the ones that you thought were the most interesting to be around and to write about?
EHRENHALT: That's an interesting one. Certainly in the House of Representatives of the '70s, there were people, characters -- I'm not around the House as much now, but I think of some people now that are departing the scene -- Dick Boling, Mo Udall, Phil Burton. It's easy to think of the politicians of 10 years ago or 20 years ago as giants and the ones of today as somehow lesser, but those are the people in many ways that shaped my view of politics and of Congress and the ones that I still found most fascinating. Tom Foley was a member of that and was really part of that generation of members of Congress. Although colorful and eccentric doesn't describe him, still I probably have more respect for him as a politician than I do almost anybody else that I've watched up close over the last 20 years.
EHRENHALT: Intelligence and rationality, honesty and the ability to look at all sides of a problem and not demagogue them but try to confront them. I think Foley as a leader has the qualities that make him respected on both sides of the aisle, and yet some of the same qualities that frustrate Democrats who wish he were more decisive, perhaps more partisan, more autocratic. It's some of the same things, probably, that frustrate the more partisan people on his own side that led me to like him during those earlier years when I knew him.
LAMB: Page 9: "Over the past 20 years, an average of 56 percent of the eligible voters have been unable to identify any congressional candidate in their district at the height of the fall campaign." Doesn't that shock you?
EHRENHALT: I'm used to it. I suppose if you came to that cold and you knew only that this was a democratic society in which we have lots of educated people and literate people, that would seem very unusual and yet that's a fact of political life in America. People say, "What are we going to do to get people to trust and have faith in their government again and participate?" Perhaps, I'm a pessimist, but I tend to ask a different question and maybe it's just a short term question: How could we get government to function effectively and do its job and be good in the absence of that trust and participation? I don't think that's going to change anytime soon. You see people on C-SPAN get up on the floor in Congress and say, "At a time when confidence in our political institutions is at an all time low, we can't afford, this is not the time to pass this legislation."
My response to that always is, if you wait for the American people to have ultimate confidence in Congress, you're never going to pass any legislation. The task is to try to do what's right whether people are with you in a given moment or not, and in a sense, I'm more troubled by what seems to me the hyper-responsiveness of Congress to the day-to-day whims and desires and poll results of the electorate, than I am to this idea that Congress doesn't respond. It does respond. What it doesn't do, most of the time, is think and do things that are in the long-range interest of the people that Congress is suppose to be legislating.
LAMB: In front of your book, this is who you dedicate this new work to. Harry Barash, 1872-1954. Who was he?
EHRENHALT: He was my grandfather.
LAMB: On your mother's side?
EHRENHALT: On my mother's side. He was a man who had lots of intellectual interests, scholarly interests, never liked anything better than to read a book. If he had his way, he'd have done nothing but read books all his life or become a professor or an academic. Having left Russia in 1907 and forced to leave his country and find work and really wasn't qualified to do anything by language, ended up a factory worker in this country. I always thought that was the spark of interest in ideas and in scholarship and in politics that was always there. He never really had the good fortune to live at a time when he could pursue those interests. This is sort of a little bit of a genetic debt that felt to him even though he's been gone a long time.
LAMB: I don't usually ask everybody about their dedication on the show. At what point did you have to make the decision of who you're going to dedicate to and was it hard or did you all along wanted to do this for your grandfather?
EHRENHALT: No, I had some other possibilities. There was man that I worked with at Congressional Quarterly for many years that taught me a lot, who died in 1984. I dedicated the Politics in America reference book to him. His name was Warden Moxley. It's not a name that many people will recognize. He was sort of a shy, introverted, reclusive genius, who was nice enough to teach me a fraction of the things that he knew in his lifetime. No, the more I thought about my grandfather and the fact that I do owe something to him in some way, it just seemed appropriate. I thank lots of other people in the book, but that was what I settled on.
LAMB: In the back, you have sources and acknowledgements, and it seemed to be a little bit different, too. I'll just start off reading so the audience knows what we're talking about. "The analogy between restaurants and American politics is an idea for which I must take full responsibility." This is the way you start the book. "For the notion that there is a supply side aspect to the restaurant business, however, as for other insights large and small, I'm indebted to Professor Raymond Wolfinger of the University of California, Berkeley." We'll show the audience what we're talking. You have a narrative back here for the different chapters to kind of discuss with us why you did what you did. Where did you get this idea? Why this technique?
EHRENHALT: Well, this is not a work of scholarship. It's a work that, I hope, is written in a way that makes it accessible to anybody. I don't pretend to be a scholar. I really didn't have any desire to footnote the book and to put a lot of footnotes in the back that simply said where this came from. The fact is, most of the information in here comes from interviews that I did with people in person, sitting and talking to them, so there's no great scholarly mystery about where the data comes from to the extent there is data. What I thought would be interesting would be to share a little bit with people what my ideas were, where they came from, where I'm indebted to somebody personally -- to say that. Ray Wolfinger was walking down the street with me in Berkeley one day while I was there, and we were talking about restaurants. He likes restaurants, and I'm interested in restaurants, too.
We were talking about why there are so many French restaurants in the Napa Valley above San Francisco. He said, "It has nothing to do with the customers. It's just that all the restaurateurs want to live there, so they open up restaurants. So it's supply rather than demand," he said. "It's the one aspect of public life or life in which the supply-side theory really works," because he didn't believe it worked in economics. I don't know if it does, either. As I got to thinking about politics and candidates and how it isn't really voter opinion that determines most of these elections, it's the supply of candidates. I thought, Ray is wrong. There isn't just one aspect of this that works; there's at least one other one. It works in politics. So I stole that idea from him and made it the introduction of the book.
Before I even mention politics, I talk about restaurants in California and how you could ask thousands of customers every day for years why all these restaurants are there and you wouldn't know any more after you were finished than when you were started. The thing you need to do is ask questions about the proprietors. That's a little oversimplified, I recognize, but politics works a little bit in that way. There are customers voters and there are proprietors -- people who run for office and make the decisions, win the elections, govern the country. That analogy worked me. Whether it works for everybody who reads the book, I don't know.
LAMB: You were only about an hour from the Napa Valley when you were at Berkeley. Did you go up and test some of those French restaurants?
EHRENHALT: We went up and drove around, but with a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old at that time, I didn't think we were good French restaurant material. No, I guess I didn't do any independent reporting on the restaurant side of it, but Ray was pretty persuasive.
LAMB: What year did you spend at Berkeley?
LAMB: On your sources, notes in the back, on your Chapters 3 to 6 you say, "Nearly all medium-size American cities have generated a respectable literature, usually including one impressive coffee table book on their origins and early development." Did you find that there was a place to go in every community where something was written about the community and how it got there?
EHRENHALT: Sure. You've probably seen these books. They are available from historical societies or in the local book store, and they are very large glossy books, lots of pictures, lots of colorful stories about the floods in the 1800s and the first generation of pioneers and whatever. They tend to be weak on the post-World War II years because they don't want to be divisive and offend anybody. So I didn't learn much about the period I really wanted to write about from these kinds of books, but I learned something about the history and background of the communities. The newspapers are great source and sometimes a better source than they really realize they are intentionally. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader is a pretty good paper now. During most of the period I was writing about, it wasn't a very good paper, and yet it told you things. I looked through the files. I went over to their morgue, as I did in all these cities, and pulled out big wads of clips about Rick Knobi, the disc jockey mayor, and Mike Schirmer, the mayor before him, who he was. For example, merely the clip that identified Mike Schirmer as having been head of Rotary, Kiwanis, all of these civic organizations -- I learned a lot about him and about that community just by looking at his resume. So the newspapers are a great source.
LAMB: At these newspaper morgues, are the former newspaper editions on microfiche or how do you get to them?
EHRENHALT: Actually, no they weren't. They were just big wads of old wrinkled yellow newspaper clips. And the people are usually quite willing to let you do this. I was very lucky in that way, but the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Utica Observer-Dispatch, the Greenville paper, and I'm leaving one out. The Concord was really not available because Concord hasn't had a daily paper for quite some time. It's a suburb, and it really hasn't generated that kind of newspaper. But the other communities, I went through the morgue and found all sorts of interesting stuff. It was a great source.
LAMB: Did Random House publish this book?
EHRENHALT: The Times Books Division of Random House.
LAMB: How's it doing?
EHRENHALT: Well, it's doing pretty well. They printed 10,000 books. They're about to do a second printing, so it looks pretty good so far.
LAMB: Who's buying it?
EHRENHALT: Gee, I don't know. I suppose more people in Washington, percentagewise than other places, but, again, I don't have any clear reading on that. I hope that anybody that finds politics interesting and likes to think about why the political system has evolved in the way it has and wants to read about some of the people, would want to read this book. I don't really have a lot of academic pretensions for it. Although I would like people to take the idea seriously and I would like academics to take them seriously, I have no illusions about it as a work of scholarship.
LAMB: You say in the back, "For historical background on state politics and power, there is still no work to match John Gunther's, Inside USA, 1947." Why?
EHRENHALT: It's the best thousand pages about America that I have ever encountered. He went state by state, talking to politicians, explaining how the state got to be that way. John Gunther was a great writer, a perceptive man, a great reporter. That's the most fascinating thousand pages. When I read it 15 years ago, I thought, this is wonderful. I'm sorry that I didn't get to it long before now. It's probably not in print, although you can find it in used bookstores. Anybody that really wants to understand not only politics in the postwar years, but why American politics evolved as it did later -- it's wonderful, although he was wrong about a lot of things. He thought Earl Warren was an idiot and would never amount to anything except sort of a do-nothing, genial governor. He was wrong about Earl Warren, and he was wrong about other things. But that's too high a standard to hold anybody to.
LAMB: You write nice things about Nelson Polsby. Who is he?
EHRENHALT: Nelson Polsby is professor of political science at Berkeley. He invited me for that year and was my mentor and talked a lot about these ideas with me and I think one of the great minds of political science in America.
LAMB: Often when you pick up these books and look in the back, you see some of the same names in political science coming through all of these publications. What is it that determines whether somebody's good like Nelson Polsby?
EHRENHALT: I think as a source of original ideas if you look at all the things he has written about in the last 30 to 35 years, 30 anyway -- community power, the presidency, Congress, technology -- you've really got quite a volume of stuff and a lot of original thoughts that I think that other people may take for granted now but that originated with him. I think his book on the presidential nominating process, Consequences of Party Reform, probably is the best guide to the way presidents are nominated now. In the same way that Theodore White Making of the President 1960 is the best guide to the way it used to work.
LAMB: There's a whole chapter here, "Careerists in Action," that had some fascinating statistics in it. It starts off by saying, "Almost every election year, it is true at least one impressive and ambitious young member of Congress startles his colleagues by announcing that he has had enough." We just had one Bill Gray, 49 years old, quit. Then you go on to say that there are tons of articles written that the place has fallen apart, everybody's leaving and all these young people are fed up, but you say that's not accurate.
EHRENHALT: Not many people leave Congress in their productive years. That's the reason these stories are written. When the bright young members leave, people talk about burnout. But if you look at a given year, the retirement rate is very low, and they're almost all old people. There aren't a lot of people in their 40s and 50s who leave, except to run for other offices. Now, I don't call that political burnout. That's further ambition. So the reason you see these things is because they're news. They're news because not many people do it. We don't have burnout in the middle of congressional careers anymore. What we have is the person who says at the moment of decision when the times comes to run for Congress, "I don't have it. I don't have the fire. I can't make the sacrifices. I don't want to do it."
That's when they stop. That's now the dividing line. It isn't that they get their two years, four years and six years and quit. The people who get into Congress are there because they like doing that sort of work and they don't leave until -- I remember the congressman who served for a few terms from Michigan, Bill Schuette, in the '80s. I went up and spent some time with him in his campaign for the House, which was a full-time, highly professional $900,000 campaign, and he won it. I saw him shortly after and he said, "The only way they're getting me out of here is in a box." Well, he left a different way by running unsuccessfully for the Senate, if I'm not mistaken. That's more and more the attitude of people who come to Congress. Once they're past that hurdle of running, having made all the sacrifices, done all the things, raised all the money, they're not going anywhere anytime soon, and they don't.
LAMB: "In 1988, the House of Representatives composed of 435 people, " you write, "there were exactly two voluntary retirements by members under the age of 60." Is that a normal year?
EHRENHALT: That's a little low. I point that out as not an extreme case, but as strong evidence for what I think is true in general -- that they don't leave.
LAMB: Later you write, "In 1986, out of 391 members seeking re-election, 385 achieved it. In 1988, 408 wanted another term, 402 were rewarded. Even at the height of the anti-incumbent fervor of 1990, 391 out of 407 incumbents were re- elected." Does this say really that the people are happy with what they've got?
EHRENHALT: No, I wouldn't say that. At the same time, I think they're not angry at their individual incumbents. Basically they know a lot about their incumbents partly because incumbents are so much in control of the information that is available to people in congressional districts. When you add up all the things, and I'm sure other people have talked about them on C-SPAN -- the town meetings, the newsletters, the constituents' service, all of the tools that are available to members of Congress -- they can control the information available to constituents so well that in most districts, people don't know anything about the challenger. And, of course, there's money. I don't need to say a lot about that.
You need to raise a lot of money to run against an incumbent, and it can be done but not in many places in a given year. So once they're there, it's pretty hard to get them out. The focus of my book is not on how people get re-elected -- I think I understand that; I think a lot of people do -- but how they got there in the first place, who they are and why we have the people that we do. Once they are there, incumbency does pretty much take care of itself. That's not entirely a good thing. I'm on a lot of radio call-in shows these days talking about the book, and term limits inevitably comes up and I'm always asked, "Given all these things you've said about the system and the problems, shouldn't we have term limits?" I usually start out by saying, "Well, I'm sympathetic to that idea, but think of a few things. Suppose you had a whole Congress made up of people who were in their first terms and all got 51 percent of the vote. Would that be a better, more statesmanlike Congress?"
It's hard to imagine that transience and instability and marginality somehow makes for statesmanship and political courage. My experience is that those are the least courageous members. Another thing, suppose you have a limit of 12 years -- I realize this unlike to apply to Congress, but there's been an effort to make it apply to Congress. Would you get a different sort of person running because there was a 12-year limit than you get now with no limit? Twelve years is still a long time. Essentially, you're going to get careerists. The careers are just going to be shorter. Finally, would the 12-year ceiling or eight-year ceiling become a floor? Is somebody really going to run against anybody at the six-year point in his eight years? They did say, "No, wait until the seat's open." What about four years? You might find out that when somebody's elected for an eight-year maximum, there are no campaigns in those districts for those eight years. So I'm only raising those things to say that as attractive as term limits might seem, there are some unintended consequences that need to be taken very seriously.
LAMB: Do you have another book in you?
EHRENHALT: I'd love to write another book. Yes, it's been fun. It's been lots of fun.
LAMB: What would you write it on?
EHRENHALT: I'm not sure. I'm interested these days in the 1950s, the time that I grew up, and what the world was like. Was it a better and simpler place? What was really going on during those times? What was underneath "Leave it to Beaver" and all of the generational symbols of that time? I'd like to find some way to investigate that, but I'm not entirely sure how I would do it.
LAMB: What's your sense? Was it better then or is that just in your head?
EHRENHALT: I'm as much a victim of nostalgia as anybody else so it looks pretty good, but I'm also aware that nostalgia plays some tricks on us. Hardly anybody gets to middle age without thinking that his childhood was somehow a better time for the whole country. I would like to work through that nostalgia and maybe then arrive at some understanding of what it was really like.
LAMB: Alan Ehrenhalt has been our guest. He's the author of this book, “The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power and the Pursuit of Office.” He's also the executive editor of Governing Magazine. Thank you for joining us.
EHRENHALT: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1991. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.