BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Thomas Edsall, co-author of the new book “Chain Reaction”, why the title?
THOMAS EDSALL, AUTHOR, "CHAIN REACTION": It's a book about the impact of race, rights and taxes on American politics, and the idea of a chain reaction is how each of these echoes on each other and builds to a larger and larger politically explosive kind of tension. I think we saw that tension reach a real height in the 1988 presidential campaign with the Willy Horton issues, the ACLU, the "no new taxes" -- that was really the quintessential example of a campaign based on race, rights, values and taxes.
LAMB: When did you think you had a book here?
EDSALL: I had committed to write a book way back in 1986, and the premise of it then was that the Republican Party was on an insurmountable advance, not because of these issues but because of their control over technology. I was convinced earlier that the money and the technology advantages that the GOP had were going to be decisive when races are decided, or very close contests. The '86 Senate elections really disproved the whole theory, and my whole argument went down the tubes. Then along came the Chicago elections where you had the fights with Harold Washington, Richard Daley that were bitter. I did a lot of work in Chicago.
And then the 1988 campaign came, and here you had George Bush 17 percentage points down in mid-September, and by using these issues of Willy Horton being a mix of race, crime policy, the ACLU epitomizing the whole rights revolution -- criminal rights; the ACLU has been a leader in that sense -- the "no new taxes" thing is a focus on who is going to pay the tax burden and who is going to get the tax benefits, and the assault on liberalism with Bush referring to Harvard Square liberalism. But he was able to transform an election with those issues. I was very impressed, and during this period spent a lot of time with Lee Atwater, the manager of that campaign. He and I became, if not friends, sort of a politically working reporter-source relationship that was very productive, and I learned a great deal from it.
LAMB: Where did you spend the time with him?
EDSALL: Traveling around the country, at campaign headquarters. He was very active in the South Carolina primary when he was trying to beat Pat Robertson. All the while through he was trying to develop a conceptual way, a structure of winning presidential candidacy using George Bush. Here is a patrician Republican. The guy comes out of, really, upper-class Maine and Connecticut. He has tenuous roots in Texas, but really comes from the establishment wing. He was able to turn this politician into a populist almost -- not necessarily a populist, but to gain the allegiance of the populist voter.
That was always the voter that Atwater saw as the key swing voter. Just watching Lee go through this process, first in the primaries and then in the general of how to actually structure a campaign, how to take this candidate who would seem to have problems because of his elitism, that his Republican Party is seen as the party of the elite. How do you overcome that and, in fact, turn it in the other direction and turn Dukakis into the elitist? It was a very impressive process to watch.
LAMB: Did you get close enough to him that his death impacted you at all? Was it a personal thing?
EDSALL: We were close. I wrote his obituary for the paper. I think he was a significant contributor to American politics, not in all healthy ways, but he certainly was a major factor helping to shape it. The lack of a Lee Atwater as George Bush prepares to go into his 1992 campaign is a glaring lack and a real weakness on the Republican side. The lack of a Lee is going to be a real problem for him.
LAMB: What did you grow to like about Lee Atwater, and let me just ask the reverse at the same time -- what did you grow to not like about him?
EDSALL: To take the second half first, he had really no conscience. He was a political mechanic, and the winning was what counted. In a certain sense it's like a lawyer and that's the responsibility of a lawyer, but when you're dealing with the election of a president, that's a dangerous mission. I think, which I can explain later, it has caused some problems for Bush now as he prepares for the election. What I liked about him was that he was very direct, said very explicitly -- you talk about the Southern redneck, the populist vote. That targeted what he wanted to do -- his roots in sort of a middle, lower middle-class family in Columbia, S.C., that he was unembarrassed about that. He was very calculating, but he was openly calculating, which is a very unusual quality in politicians.
LAMB: Are there that many Lee Atwaters available to politicians?
EDSALL: Very few. The one who is coming up now, and may be, is on the Democratic side -- James Carville. You have yet to see him as a presidential strategist, but he did conduct the successful campaign of Harris Wofford for the Senate in Pennsylvania and understands much of the same kind of -- he comes out of the South, he comes out of the other side, out of the Democratic South. But he understands what drives voters. For the Democrat, the real problem is maintaining a biracial coalition. For the Republican, the idea is to split the Democrat's biracial coalition and build a solid white alliance of really the affluent and the working class. That was two different strategies. Carville at a statewide level has shown some real genius. We'll see if this 1992 election is the one where he will emerge as the new genius. It's way too early to say. Let's wait.
LAMB: Go back to Lee Atwater and the strategy. How would you characterize the approach to race? Did they use race knowingly to divide the country to win the election?
EDSALL: I think this is where you get into a very touchy. This is what the idea of what the book is, in a sense, that race alone is not -- you cannot run a campaign in America appealing to race. With the American people, there is a great sense of equity and fairness in America. There are, though, in racial issues questions that really go to the heart of what is America, what is fairness. Should policies try to make the field a level playing field with everyone at the beginning of the race starting equally, or should policies attempt to correct for past discrimination, the history of segregation and slavery? Racial issues have provoked fundamental conflicts over what is the meaning of equality, what is the meaning of fairness. These are unresolved conflicts. What Lee understood was that these are unresolved, and happened to move in with various wedge issues. Willy Horton is a wedge-dividing issue, or the ACLU and the rights -- these are ways to really provoke feelings and sentiments, and the wedge goes into the Democratic coalition in that case. That was his real genius.
LAMB: This is not your first book. What were the others?
EDSALL: This is the first book in which my wife is a co-author and a major participant and a major contributor, Mary Edsall. She played very significant roles in my prior work. One of them is a book called The New Politics of an Equality written in the early Reagan years. It kind of described what had led to an administration and a conservative majority that was able to significantly change what had been Democratic redistributionist policies geared towards helping those at the bottom and the lower part of the income distribution to a conservative strategy helping those who were in the top. And then I did a collection of essays called Power and Money, and I co-edited a book called The Reagan Legacy. Seven of us contributed to that.
LAMB: Did I notice that you and Mary Edsall both grew up in the same town?
EDSALL: We grew up on the same street, but we never knew each other at that stage, although later she came back to that same street, virtually, as a student at Radcliffe. I was a student at Boston University, and that's where we actually met. We'd both been brought up as children on this relatively small little street, unknown to each other.
LAMB: In Cambridge, Massachusetts.
EDSALL: In Cambridge, the center of liberalism in America.
LAMB: Were you raised a liberal?
EDSALL: My family was very liberal, and her family was very, very liberal -- no question.
LAMB: What did your families do?
EDSALL: My father was an advertising executive. My mother was a painter and taught art to children. My wife's father was a professor -- now retired -- from Harvard, and her mother is a professor. He was a professor of political science; she is a professor of German at Wellesley. I would say that their collective ADA ratings were in the top 92, 93 percent range.
LAMB: When did you and your wife meet?
EDSALL: She was at Radcliffe as a junior, I think.
LAMB: What year?
EDSALL: I don't want to date myself too much. I think '64, '65.
LAMB: When did you get married?
LAMB: She is not here today, but does she normally write for a living?
EDSALL: She writes fiction, and she has had a number of short stories published in the Antioch Review and another publication called the North American Review, and I'm hoping that these will be put together into a collection. We'll see how that goes.
LAMB: What did you study at Boston University?
EDSALL: Political science.
LAMB: Did you go right to the Providence Journal?
EDSALL: From there I went directly to the Providence Journal. I almost went to law school. I took a job -- a summer job, really -- at the Providence Journal expecting to go to law school. But I liked the work very much and just didn't stop.
LAMB: What was it about journalism that got you interested?
EDSALL: I always liked it before, and as a college student I was able to reserve every day the old Herald-Tribune, and I used to every day on the subway going to school read the Herald-Tribune. You had Jimmy Breslin back then writing for it and a whole collection of really great writers that now have become very significant people in some respects. I liked that and the idea that journalism was a way of looking at what's going on in society, getting an avenue into it that was very direct. I also liked photography -- the idea that you could go out to an event and sit down, type out a story and the next morning it's in the paper. It's like, in a certain sense, going out, taking a picture, taking it back to the laboratory, developing the film, printing it, and you see this picture come out. As I got more into it, the idea that you could spend time and really work on a story, that whole development process, in a sense, could be expanded, and then ultimately books and magazine pieces in addition to that newspaper work.
LAMB: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's like you almost got on the Amtrak train and you rode from Cambridge to Boston, down to Providence and on to Baltimore at the Baltimore Sun and on to Washington.
EDSALL: That's correct. On a southern travel.
LAMB: Are you where you wanted to be at this point in your life?
EDSALL: I've wanted to be at the Washington Post, and I've wanted to be a political reporter. I was very lucky because I was really ahead. Journalism when I got into it was much easier to get into. I could walk out of graduating Boston University, walk into the Providence Journal -- I had a friend there, which helped -- take a test, do some interviewing, let's say, and I'm on board. That is impossible for kids coming up in the business now. I was ahead of Watergate that created this huge surge of interest in journalism.
The field has become more credible, and the work that's been done, I think, is increasingly interesting and significant. I was not stuck in this period when it got to be really competitive. One of my daughter's boyfriends expressed interest in journalism. I don't want to discourage him, but I think it is much harder to break in now, to look at that as a field. To reach the level where I'm at, I'm very lucky. Journalism is like a pyramid. If you go into law, there are law firms all over. You become a partner and have a very good, comfortable living with basically tenure for your life. Journalism has no tenure, and you move up an increasingly smaller and smaller pyramid as you move towards the top. The Washington Post is close to that top, and I have been very lucky to be where I am and I get to work with people like David Broder, Haines Johnson at the New York Times. It's a joy.
LAMB: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I remember that on a Sunday recently when your book was reviewed that it appeared on both the front page of the Washington Post book review section and the New York Times the same day?
EDSALL: It was a helluva hit.
LAMB: What does it feel like? Were they both positive?
EDSALL: I don't want to sound unhumble, but my wife and I got very, very positive reviews on the front page of both the New York Times and the Washington Post simultaneously on one Sunday, and it was hard to replicate, after having put in a lot of work on a book, to get that kind of response.
LAMB: Who wrote the reviews?
EDSALL: Both were professors, both were political scientists -- one at Rutgers, the other guy at the University of California-San Diego. I love them both.
LAMB: Is there anybody that's walking around in either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party saying, "I hate this book. These two folks were not fair to us," that you know of?
EDSALL: So far the one significantly hostile treatment of it -- again, not to be unhumble, but it's had generally very favorable reaction; not just in reviews but also people asking me to speak and talk to groups and various things -- the one had been in the Nation magazine. The most recent Nation magazine at the time we're now talking is about the subject of race that's co-edited by Julian Bond, the former state legislator in Georgia and a prominent civil rights leader, and a guy who is a black professor of law at, I believe, Northwestern. They focus on this book as what they consider sort of a new orthodoxy among some factions of liberalism, criticizing elements of the civil rights revolution as it occurred in the late '60s, '70s and '80s.
LAMB: But you don't hear the Republicans complaining about what your thesis is.
EDSALL: Well, the Republicans have not asked me to speak. I get much less response there. The book suggests that the Republican Party has capitalized on issues. Some of the issues are legitimate, but the capitalizing they have done has not been done with clean hands in some cases. I think both parties have dirty hands on issues of race, and the idea of how do you actually try to work out fair and equitable solutions that all participants feel recognize their needs. There are strong claims being made on all sides of these issues. The Republican Party has basically spotted a majority side to grab onto, but hasn't followed through with a serious enough attempt to resolve some of these problems.
I think that may be one of the reasons why Bush in the early stages of his preparation of running for the presidency has run into some problems with the David Duke phenomenon, the Pat Buchanan phenomenon and the way the administration suddenly tried to overrule, really, all affirmative action policy by a fiat accompanying the signing of the Civil Rights Act. I think what's happened is that the Republican Party has addressed what are real problems, but only dealt with them rhetorically or in campaigns and not attempted through substantive legislation, through real serious consideration to follow through. It's worked for 20 years. I'm not sure how long it's going to continue to work for them.
LAMB: Let me ask you who Dan Donahue is.
EDSALL: Dan Donahue is a former Democrat. He is a union carpenter who has in recent years become active in local Republican politics. He's a good mechanic, running things. He's kind of like a foreman. He is a carpenter, but it turns out he also knows how to put together a state senate campaign. In 1988, I think, he was running the Republican campaign of a guy named Robert Raica.
LAMB: How did you find him?
EDSALL: I was in Chicago. If you want to understand racial politics, one way to do it is to look for places where the feelings are most intense and most extreme. Chicago is a gold mine in that respect. I just walked into this campaign headquarters and started talking to him, and he voiced some very strong feelings.
LAMB: I think it might be helpful to our discussion if I read what you put in what is the opening chapter here, because it kind of sets the tone. This is an interview that you had with Dan Donahue in 1988. This is quoting, then, Dan Donahue. It takes a little bit, so I apologize for taking the time. "'You could classify me as a working-class Democrat, a card-carrying union member,' says Dan Donahue. 'I am not a card-carrying Republican yet. We have four or five generations of welfare mothers, and they -- Democrats -- say the answer to that is we need more programs. Come on. It's well and good that we should have compassion for these people, but your compassion goes only so far. I don't mind helping, but somebody has got to help themselves. They've got to pull. When you try to pick somebody up, they have to help. Unfortunately, most of the people who need help in this situation are black, and most of the people who are doing the helping are white. We white Cook County voters are tired of paying for the Chicago Housing Authority and for public housing and public transportation that we don't see. They hate it, the school board levy, because they are paying for black schools that aren't even educating kids, and the money is just going into the board of education and the Teamsters' Union,'" and you use that whole quote. Why did you use that?
EDSALL: I think he really reflects a guy who is caught in an ambiguous situation. People are very mixed. At one level, I think people are very decent and they do want to help, and if they can see a way that really works they would like America to improve. They want black America to improve. There is also a deep sense of frustration, and I think this frustration goes to what he is talking about, but especially to the welfare program. You find that from Mississippi to Chicago -- a kind of an anger that this is a program that began in the '30s as an attempt to provide aid to suddenly widowed women with children who in the Depression had no other way to survive and needed some kind of source of money, that now has become almost a structure in many underclass areas -- providing government support to an often non-working community where illegitimacy has become the overwhelming majority of childbirths, where unemployment is endemic, where crime is endemic and welfare dependency is endemic.
People are very disturbed by this because there is no way to reach in there. If you have a good impulse it's hard with this kind of institutional lot to reach in and try to help people pull out of a basic American supportive kind of life, and it's also government -- at a cost to taxpayers -- financing non-productive activity. These are very aggravating policies and ways of living to many voters, especially in cities that are in trouble. Philadelphia has been in severe trouble, for example, and you will find among voters there -- and you will find this true among middle- class blacks holding many very similar views, but it's different because they do not like it when it's being used in what they see is a racist kind of way -- but they hold the same concerns about welfare and the destructiveness of it. Even though welfare is not a major budget item, as a phenomenon, at least, it seems to be endorsing values, work activities, a lack of pursuit of merit and commitment and striving that is disturbing and very, very anger-producing.
As I say, it's important in Chicago. I think a recent Mississippi governorship race where this guy Kirk Fordice, a virtual unknown Republican businessman, came in and beat a very seemingly popular Democratic incumbent who had much more money. Welfare was an issue that this guy Fordice used very effectively to attack Ray Mabus, the Democratic governor, and he won. It unexpectedly threw everybody. There are issues at play here that are very important, and David Duke has raised these issues, but Duke, because of his clear racist background and everything else, may be masking substantial conflicts that are taking place in America that should not be dismissed only as racism. There is racism, there is all kinds of other bad feelings between the racist and ethnic groups, but there are also some fundamental conflicts that neither party is now addressing.
LAMB: Does either party, in your opinion, care about the minorities in this country?
EDSALL: I think Democrats care to the extent that they need the minority vote. It's essential. I think Republicans care in that they get a benefit by capitalizing in a negative way, many times, on the problems of the under class, on welfare dependency, on the emergence of a Jesse Jackson who was, himself, a very divisive candidate. You'll see Republican literature or Republican campaigns now using images of Jesse Jackson as a way to attack. But I don't think there was a productive effort. What you have in America is a very interesting phenomena where overall, if you look from the 1940s to the present, black America has made great strides. Overall, the integration of America has progressed, and it is a success story.
The size of the black middle class has grown by leaps and bounds, way faster than the size of the total black population. At the other end, though, you have an underclass that hasn't particularly grown, but their problems have worsened and they've become geographically concentrated and they are very threatening. The underclass problems sort of reinforce in the worst possible ways racial stereotypes -- the illegitimacy, the crime, the unemployment, the non-work. It is like the Bill Moyers TV show where he interviewed teenage boys who were fathers of one or more children, taking no responsibility. These are the worst stereotypes that people hold of black America, and they are being reinforced constantly by shows that show the perpetrators of crimes.
So you have this minority segment of the black community driving the politics of race in many respects when, in fact, the majority has been quite successful. There has been considerable integration, work forces have changed. The Washington Post newsroom is a different place than it was 20 years, as is the floor of AT&T, GM. The work force of corporate America has changed and become far more diverse. There is a great deal of success there, but at the bottom there are problems, and those problems tend to drive the whole political system.
LAMB: How long have you been at the Washington Post?
EDSALL: Since 1981 -- 10 years this year.
LAMB: When you go to write a book like this, what's your strategy? How did the two of you work together?
EDSALL: In this case we negotiated a long time. I had had this other idea for the book. My wife pressed me hard -- I had had a contract to write a book -- pushed me hard to keep coming up with ideas. She did a lot of filing and organizing of clips and putting together material, and then at a certain point it begins to gel. What happens is, I cover politics as a reporter, and at a certain point you get a feeling that there is something larger taking place. At another point you get a feeling of maybe what it is and then you say, "There may be a book here." This was the process that went on in the exchange mainly between my wife and me, between work activities -- my wife was doing things. It was just that moment, though, when you see something may really be a book.
LAMB: When did you finish your last word on this book?
EDSALL: It's hard to say. The book was formally published on October 28. It was about 10 or 11 months prior to that.
LAMB: Did that worry you that things can change? I remember reading that you referred to George Bush having a fairly good first two years when it came to race and improving the situation with the blacks, and since you wrote this a lot of other things have happened. And by the way, have they been negative? Is he back to where he started?
EDSALL: I think he is in a flux. In his early stages of his preparation for the '92 campaign, they have not really made a clear decision on how to handle issues of race and that polarization. I think I lucked out in this book because the book came out with the Louisiana nomination of David Duke coming up. I don't think it could have been better timed.
LAMB: What are the ingredients that put a book like this on the best seller list? What happened? There are a lot of statistics and there are a lot of charts in here. It's not exactly a corncrib novel. What gets it there?
EDSALL: I think it was on the news. It hit at the right moment. It got these very good reviews, which is part of the luck of the draw. When you get front page reviews, it just does not hurt your sales. I think the country is really concerned about what's going on in racial matters, and the country wants to explore these. I don't claim to have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it is a provocative attempt to explore in detail some of the problems that are going on. The other thing is that racial issues just have not been talked about. In academia -- ever since the Moynihan report came out in, I think, 1965, there has been a terror of touching on a lot of the very sensitive issues of race, crime, illegitimacy.
The liberal reaction at that time was intense and hostile. It intimidated a lot of the academic community and the political community. Another real problem is that in the Democratic Party, which is the biracial party in America -- the Republican Party essentially is a white party on the whole -- the Democratic Party is a biracial party and depends on a biracial coalition. There are a lot of conflicts in that coalition, but the early use of racial issues by people like George Wallace and Richard Nixon made questions of crime, family disintegration and so forth suddenly be viewed as racist.
We could not raise those issues without being projected as being racist, and the end result was the party excommunicated itself from essential areas of politics that could not be ignored, and the Republican Party, the conservatives and now even David Duke are all entering into these places, largely because they have not been talked about. I'm hoping that this book will help engender a more open discussion of what are very painful issues. I don't think these issues, incidentally, are going to be the deciding factors. The country does go through a lot of very difficult pain -- black and white -- talking to each other, saying things that are going to hurt on both sides and finding out the degree of anger and bitterness and pain that's there.
LAMB: If a Democrat in politics reads this book, is the solution there as to how to turn it around in the presidential race?
EDSALL: The book does not propose solutions. The book is an exposition, really, of the problem. I'm a reporter and I'm not a programmatic kind of person. I think if there is one thing that the book points to, it is that these issues have to be put on the table. The Democratic Party has had a tradition of discussing issues; the Republican Party has had a tendency to capitalize and manipulate issues as opposed to go-at-them-head-on. I think that the 1991 Civil Rights Act could have been used for a substantial debate over what is the nature of civil rights policy; what does the country need to do; can there be a consensus reached, all the way from Ron Dellums on the left to a Bill Lipinski on the right.
These are two congressmen who sort of reflect a range of views. Let them go head-to-head at each other or their representatives or the people that speak and fight over affirmative action. If we're going to have affirmative action policies, they ought to be openly discussed and openly dealt with or maybe we shouldn't have them. The issue of crime, the issue of the interlocking of taxes and race, the degree to which blacks have used government lately far more than whites as a vehicle to enter the middle class -- these are all questions that ought to be out on the table, recognized and known, and not be sitting there aggravating people, encouraging a sort of private development of stereotypes -- so and so getting away with this; I'm getting schooled or whatever -- it has to be more head-on dealing with these things. I think that blacks and whites are capable of doing this, much more so than people realize.
LAMB: You've done a lot of knocking on doors in Tennessee in the '87 or '86 governor's race?
EDSALL: In all kinds of places. It's a thing I really owe to Dave Broder, a political colleague at the Post who believes in just going around to areas. What I tried to do in '87 and '88 -- it worked well for the book -- was to go to areas that were swing-vote areas -- Macomb County in Detroit, Southwest and Northwest Chicago, Parma near Cleveland.
LAMB: Cobb County [Georgia].
EDSALL: Cobb County, Gwinnett County -- places where voters sometimes are voting locally Democratic, nationally Republican, where they had been solid Democrats. These were the transition areas, and to find out what was going on, and race was often a mega-factor.
LAMB: Did you just go up and knock on the door?
EDSALL: Knock on doors or go to community meetings. Another very productive thing is, people are very active in school fights, where you get a crime outbreak and then a community would meet and call the police to talk to them.
LAMB: When do you find people the most honest with you or willing to tell you exactly what they think?
EDSALL: I am amazed at the degree of honesty you find just head on. If you ask people head on and you show interest in what they want to tell you, they will tell you things that you would be very surprised at. I think the press has been very reluctant to do this. People are outspoken. I would say this is also true of blacks. Both sides have very strong views. I think anyone who is prepared to go down to the area around Midway Airport in Chicago, which is southwest Chicago, and actually walk door to door anywhere in that section -- this is Bill Lipinski's district.
LAMB: Which party is he in?
EDSALL: He is a Democrat -- a conservative Democrat, a sort of working-class New Deal traditional Democrat, but conservative on racial issues. I think you will find in talking to people there, you will find cops that will say all kinds of things -- and some will be terrible, using the worst epithets about blacks and Hispanics and even some of the whites -- but at the same time they will talk about a black colleague they work with being a helluva stand-up guy who saved their life. There's a real tension and ambiguity out there that in a way is marvelous to see. I think the country is in a state of flux, and there is a mixture of decency and anger floating about.
LAMB: From your knowledge, is there any other country in the world that has this kind of mixture of people that attempt to either get along or attempt to abide based on politics?
EDSALL: It's going on all through Europe, but it's a different situation there. It's much more involved with immigration. I'm not an expert on that -- I just read about it -- but the rise of third-party, right-wing parties has been intensifying in Europe and a lot of it has to do with the integration of immigrants, especially from Africa, Turkey or other Third World-ish kind of countries, coming in, threatening jobs. In East Germany you have a whole work force that's been very poorly trained under communism for 40 years now facing the West German work force which is much better equipped to deal with the competitive forces of capitalism. So they're threatened from the top, and on the bottom there are people willing to work for almost nothing coming up out of Africa, Turkey and other areas and they are pushing and getting skinhead movements and are actually getting Nazi sympathizers emerging. The thing in Europe is you have a tradition there not of two-party debate, but you have multiple parties in many cases, and that makes it even tougher because a third party can develop much easier.
LAMB: From the politicians you've seen on both sides, including those that would be conservative and take positions on race or take a position on issues that affect the races, who do you find to be the most sincere? Who do you trust as believing, say, for instance, their conservative policies will help both the blacks and the whites, or their liberal policies will help both the blacks and the whites?
EDSALL: I think a group that is -- and they have the hardest time winning the presidency or a nomination -- Southern Democrats are often guys who have very large black constituencies. They have worked through the history of segregation to some extent, and they have gone and they have spent a lot of time campaigning. Some of them are fairly decent guys.
LAMB: Was Lyndon Johnson a believer?
EDSALL: I think he became a real believer. He came out of a segregationist background, but I think his commitment to civil rights was very awesome.
LAMB: You got to know Lee Atwater, as we started off talking, fairly well before he died. Was he a racist?
EDSALL: No, I would not say he was a racist. I think he was a manipulator of campaigns, I think he was prepared to build coalitions that would include racists. He, himself, I would call a lower-case democrat, to a certain extent, but he was a calculating guy. He was not limited by moral constriction.
LAMB: Did you ever get any evidence that Lee Atwater and other Republicans, including the president, would sit around and say, "We're going to split this race thing right down the middle and we're going to become the party of the whites and leave the blacks in the other camp," and they actively went after it?
EDSALL: Lee wrote a memo in 1983 to the Reagan campaign -- that was preparing for the 1984 campaign -- on the Southern strategy. At that time he was in charge of the South. So basically in the South you have three constituencies. You have the bourbons, really, who are the affluent, country club -- they're not really that rich, but sort of the middle-, upper middle-class voter. They are now becoming close to reliably Republican in presidential politics. At the other end you have blacks, and they are reliably Democratic.
In the middle you have the Southern redneck, the Southern populist, the white -- the guy who works in the textile factory who may have come off the farm, often of Scotch background, Protestant. They are the swing voter, he would phrase it. If we could construct what he would call a social issues campaign, which often meant issues that sort of meshed social issues and racial issues and we could have those be the defining issues of the campaign, you would get a majority of those guys coming with us. That is inherently a white majority and it kisses off the black vote. The Democrats, conversely, if they can start defining the campaign in economic terms, especially the affluent and the well-to-do making out at the expense of the middle and lower middle class, then the Southern populist goes into alliance with the blacks and votes Democratic.
It was sort of real politics. He just saw the real politics of the South is, either you have fundamentally a white Republican coalition or you have a biracial Democratic coalition. This veers, to some extent, on racism. It veers also on the reality of politics in the South. It's complex. Racism is a very complex dangerous word to use sometimes in these situations because it limits you very much.
You've written off a whole class of people. It may have very ambiguous or complex feelings, and also people do not like to be dismissed as racist. If you're involved in actual political strategy and trying to win an election, to use the word racist is self-defeating. People are divided in America. People have a lot of conflicting forces, and what you want to do, you don't want to appeal to their racist side, you want to appeal to their decent side and build it and let grow and honor them and their concerns and their growth. I don't think either side really does that. It's a problem right now -- an unhealthy political system. There are people caught in this middle terrain who are very angry. I think the danger for Bush may be that this anger. They have been toyed with and not had their concerns dealt with.
LAMB: What are you going to do during this '92 campaign?
EDSALL: I hope to spend a lot of time in places. If I can do this -- it's up to my editors; they tell me what to do -- I like to go to places as opposed to being with a candidate. You get a feel for what is taking place over time with the universe. I spent a lot in the last election, which was not the presidential one, in North Carolina with the senatorial race and getting a feel not only for them but also for North Carolinians and what happens in a race like that in a state. As I said, I spent a lot of time in Chicago during the 1988 presidential race, seeing what happens to Chicagoans and where Dukakis started in Chicago -- way ahead -- and then saw that erode with time; to watch how does that actually work with people and the voters.
LAMB: If George Bush were re-elected in '92 and he had no more elections in his way, what do you think he'd do then about race?
EDSALL: I think he would switch back to being a much more moderate person. I think that he comes from a very moderate, a noblesse oblige tradition, where he's always given to the United Negro College Fund. He comes out of a wing of the Republican party that I think he -- I don't know his own personal motivation, but the use of racial issues by him, I think, may make him somewhat uncomfortable in, I think, a second term where he was not trying to win reelection. It might be marked by a far more moderate and accommodating effort to build up or restore Republican credibility within the black community.
LAMB: We've read a lot about the suburbs -- Orange County and around Chicago and all over the country -- being self-contained units almost entirely white. Is there any way a Democrat can be a strong civil rights advocate and ever get elected to the presidency again?
EDSALL: Well, I think it depends on how you define civil rights advocate. I think a Democrat can be a very strong advocate of equal opportunity and a fair playing field. I think those are now accepted principles in American politics. The Republican Party recognizes that and has included those principles in their platform. The real issue comes, does being a civil rights advocate require you to be a proponent of preferences where there is an advantage given one way or another because of race or ethnicity?
That becomes very divisive in that it is very hard to sustain as a candidate because the majority is opposed to you. If that can become a central issue to you, you're going to have trouble winning. The principle of preference -- racial preferences, quotas if you want to call it that, or varied goals and timetables in affirmative action -- that's premised on the history of segregation and slavery for 200 years-plus prior to the 1960s. This country is losing its memory of that whole time period in the whole sense that those kind of policies can be justified because of that history. There is a strong case to be made for that, that politically it is tougher and tougher to do.
LAMB: Has this book sold more than the rest that you've written?
EDSALL: Yes. So far I believe it's don't about three or four times better.
LAMB: Why did you pick Norton as your publisher?
EDSALL: They have always been my publisher. There is a guy there who has been my editor from the word go. They let me write what I want to write. They could give me more money, but they don't interfere with what I want to do and try to impose their own notion of what the market is. It's one of the few small publishing houses left that's independently owned. In fact, it's owned by the employees, although some employees own a lot more than other employees. It's got a personal kind of commitment that is very pleasant to work for.
LAMB: Have you learned something in the way you've gone about publicizing this book or the way you wrote it that you will use next time that you didn't use in your other books that was effective in getting attention?
EDSALL: I'm basically a reporter. I'm fairly reticent. I'm not a public speaker, but the more you shoot your mouth off, the more aggressive you are, the better off you are and you want to get on shows like this or whatever -- television. I call up people now. I called up a friend at the Boston Globe -- he runs the "Focus" section there -- and said, "Look, I really want to get some PR." He said, "We've got a hole here. Why not do an interview with you." This is the kind of behavior that is not in character with the kind of reticent reporter that I am, but that's what you've got to do to push a book. I've been on more talk shows, radio talk shows, than I know how to count. You push. You've got to hustle.
LAMB: What have you learned about being on shows? What's the experience like? I know you've done a lot of call-in shows with us here, but are questions good that you get from the audience out there?
EDSALL: They vary a lot. Basically on talk radio shows you have two formats. One is sort of the NPR kind of format, which is often FM stations. You have a more literate audience and a more liberal audience. And then on AM radio -- not always -- you tend to get less literate, more conservative, more angry callers. They're both interesting. I like to know what I'm getting into before I get blind-sided. It can be left or right. It can be tough unless you know where you are going. But that process is very interesting. The real stuff, I think -- I hope -- in time is that the way books really sell is when they start becoming part of the debate; that when columnists refer to them and then there's an echo effect and then someone may dispute it and it becomes an argument, then people reading this say, "I ought to really get the book to find out what is this fuss about or what's at stake here." I think also that people are very curious about these issues. Instead of being, again, a quiet, laid-back reporter, engaging these issues and telling people what I think, and my wife doing the same thing.
LAMB: On the back of the book there is a large block that says, "Chain Reaction is a compelling and brutally frank exposition of contemporary American politics. It may be the best account ever written on why the Democrats no longer dominate American politics and why the Republicans now have the nation's presidential party." It's signed here by Judy Woodruff. Was that your idea or was it the publisher's idea, and whoever made the decision, why Judy Woodruff?
EDSALL: She is on the MacNeil-Lehrer show. Having made that comment, she is clearly a genius. I like her. I sent the book out to a number of people, and I thought her comment was the most incisive and thoughtful. I did that, and then the publishers liked it and they put it on the back of the book, and Judy was very generous in saying it.
LAMB: We only have a few moments left. This may sound like a strange question, but how different would this interview have been had your wife Mary been here? I know she couldn't make it because she had a family situation that she had to attend to, but what kind of person is she and how does she fit into all of this?
EDSALL: I would say that her politics are more liberal than mine. This was one of the tensions in writing the book. I am not a conservative, but my views have been going through a lot of transition and thinking. She is more liberal and more sensitive to a lot of concerns of people that one ought to be sensitive to. I am less so. I am a little more brutal, I would say, and a little harsher. Had we both been here together you would have seen some of this tension, or whatever you want to call it, or divergence of view. But it can be very productive. It can also be very difficult. It can be a strain working with these things.
LAMB: Do you have another book you're ready to write?
EDSALL: Not really ready to write, and I hope in this next campaign to get a better feel. I have some very rough ideas but I'm not really prepared to give an outline. I wish I could.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like. It's called “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics”. The author is Thomas Edsall and his wife Mary B. Edsall. Thank you very much for joining us.
EDSALL: Thank you very much. It's been a real pleasure.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. 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.