February 10, 2015
Guest: David Axelrod
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, David Axelrod, is a veteran political consultant who crafted the media strategy for Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns and spent two years in the White House as a senior adviser to the president. Axelrod's new memoir, called "Believer: My Forty Years In Politics," offers plenty of stories and insights from his years with Obama. He recalls, for example, the moment in the 2008 campaign when he interrupted Obama and running mate, Joe Biden, on a flight to tell them Sarah Palin was the Republican vice presidential nominee, prompting Biden to say, who's Sarah Palin?
But Axelrod's book also recounts his early years as a political reporter and his work with other candidates, including presidential contender, John Edwards - not a good experience - and plenty of rogues and colorful characters from his home base in Chicago, among them, Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and Rod Blagojevich, who eventually became governor and went to jail, in part, for trying to sell Obama's former U.S. Senate seat. Axelrod also describes his daughter, Lauren's, struggle with epilepsy which left her prone to seizures until she was 19.
David Axelrod is now director of The Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, which he says, he founded to inspire young Americans to consider participating in American politics. He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor, Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: David Axelrod, welcome to FRESH AIR. You started your career as a journalist covering politics for the Chicago Tribune, did that for a lot of years and was pretty good at it, I think. You know, journalists approach politics with a certain mentality. You gather all the facts, however unflattering to anybody. You tell the whole story. And then after some years, you went into politics. You went on the other side, starting with Paul Simon's Senate campaign. And there - it's a different world when you're on the other side. You're not telling the whole story. You're spinning. And I wonder, when you made that transition, did it give you butterflies in your stomach?
DAVID AXELROD: Well, it did. Although, I went with Paul Simon when I decided to leave journalism and go into politics for a reason. He was a guy who was exemplary in every way. You know, he had been a small-town newspaper man, and he had, in the 1950s, in the Illinois legislature, waged battles for political reform, for civil rights, which was really courageous 'cause he was from deep southern Illinois, closer to Little Rock than Chicago. I knew that Paul would never embarrass me and that I would feel good being an advocate for him.
The other thing that was true was that I really came to journalism through my interest in politics rather than the other way around. I, as a small boy, was interested in politics. And so, you know, it wasn't entirely unnatural. But the one thing, Dave, I will tell you is, the first time that I was at a rally with Simon after I made the switch and realized that I could applaud...
AXELROD: ...It was kind of a shock to my system because I was so used to maintaining the - at least, the veneer of objectivity. I think every reporter has views, but you try and be as objective as you can.
DAVIES: You worked for candidates that maybe you didn't admire quite as much as Paul Simon. Was it hard there to feel like, am I really comfortable selling this?
AXELROD: You know, I always went through a process of trying to sell myself before I tried to sell anybody else, and you know, I would get emotionally wrapped up in my campaigns and sometimes on behalf of candidates who weren't worthy of that.
DAVIES: Who was your biggest regret among candidates that you represented? I've got a name in mind. I wonder if it's the same as yours.
AXELROD: Well, there was a race that I - look, I've worked for some people. One was named Rod Blagojevich, who was the former - who was a congressman, former - and now a former governor and a convicted governor, and there was somebody who broke the law and went to prison, probably for longer than he should have.
But, you know, I worked for him when he was a congressman, when he was a legislator running for the Congress, and I liked him. He was pugnacious and he seemed to be fighting for people and so on. He came to me in 2001 and said he wanted to run for governor Illinois, and I was kind of appalled because I didn't really think he was cut out for that. And I said, well, why do you want to be governor? And he said, well, you can help me figure that out. And I said, you know, I don't - I'm not in the business of telling you why you should want to run for something. If you can't tell me, then you shouldn't run. And that was the end of our relationship. He did run, hired a very fine political consultant from a state-of-the-art firm. They ran a very good - but I thought - cynical campaign, ran him as a reformer because the governor before him, George Ryan, was also headed to prison. And of course, history, you know, is what it is. Blagojevich ended up going to prison, himself. And so you know, that's a - maybe in retrospect, that was an association that I wouldn't - but although, I must say that I didn't see that side of him when I was working for him.
The other, you know, race that I've wrote about in the book, that I probably wouldn't have done in retrospect, is John Edwards when he ran for president of the United States. He - I got called. He had lost - his media consultant went to work for John Kerry. He was in need of a media consultant. They contacted me, asked me to come in and talk to him. I spent a couple of hours talking to him, and on that basis, I signed up for his re-election campaign despite some warning signs that I should have seen. My wife, when I retold the story of our conversation, had concerns about my working for him. And it turned out to be a very difficult relationship.
DAVIES: You got to know Barack Obama through Chicago politics, where you were rooted. What were your early impressions of him? What kind of potential did you see?
AXELROD: You know, it's a funny story. I met him because a friend of mine, named Betty Lou Saltzman, who's kind of a doyen of liberal politics in Chicago, called me in 1992, and she said, I just met the most extraordinary young man, and I think you ought to meet him. And I said, well, I'm happy to meet anybody you want me to meet, Betty Lou, but why do you think I should meet this particular person? And she said, honestly, I think he could be the first African-American president of the United States. This was in 1992. I always joke that when I go to the track now, I take Betty Lou with me because she obviously has a gift for spotting the winners early.
But - and I went and I had lunch with Obama, and I was really impressed by him. I didn't walk away humming "Hail To The Chief," but what did strike me was here was a guy who had just been the editor of the Harvard Law Review - first black person to serve as editor of the Harvard Law Review. He could have written his ticket at any corporation, at any law firm in America, and they were all after him. And instead, he returned to Chicago, where he had been a community organizer, to organize a voter registration drive and practice civil rights law at a little firm in Chicago. And I thought, this is a guy who takes service seriously. And it was very clear to me at the time that he had intentions to run for public office and that he wanted to do it for the right reasons. But we didn't actually work together on a professional basis until 2002 when he ran - when he started running for the U.S. Senate.
DAVIES: You've written about how Barack Obama loved to drill deeply into issues...
DAVIES: ...And tended to debate, and that's not always what you need in a campaign. And I want to fast forward here to 2011...
DAVIES: ...As you're beginning to plan his re-election campaign - and you've been through a lot - the collapse of the economy, the fight over the Affordable Care Act and a lot of, you know, of some very tough midterm elections - and at a meeting where you were beginning to plan the re-election strategy, you describe bringing in a video that you'd assembled of the president.
DAVIES: You want to tell us what was in that video?
AXELROD: Well, the video was of the Barack Obama of 2007 and 2008 and 2004 - some of the convention speech - the Barack Obama that captured the imagination of the country - a guy who was energized and passionate and speaking in value-laden terms about where we need to go as a country. And then some video of him in the previous months in his interactions with the media in his speeches in which he sounded very much like a technocrat.
DAVIES: This is previous to 2011, well into his presidency, yeah.
AXELROD: This was well into his presidency. And it was - you know, the contrast was clear that, you know, he had, in some ways, lost his voice and that we needed to recapture that voice, that sense of mission, that sense of advocacy, that sense of values in order to win and honestly, I felt, in order for him to govern effectively. And so it was a jarring presentation. I'm not sure that he loved it, but he certainly absorbed it. And you know, I think he took it to heart. And from the fall of 2011 on, when he announced the American Jobs Act and went out and campaigned for it, it was the old Barack Obama, the Barack Obama I knew so well.
DAVIES: David Axelrod's book is "Believer: My Forty Years In Politics." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is David Axelrod. He was the political strategist for President Obama's two winning campaigns and served two years in the White House. He has a new memoir called "Believer: My 40 Years In Politics."
The toughest moment, as you describe it, that - or the most contentious encounter you describe in the book...
DAVIES: ...Came around the first debate with Mitt Romney in the 2012 re-election campaign. You want to just kind of set that up and tell us what led to this moment?
AXELROD: Well, we we're always worried about the first debate because it, historically, is a killing field for presidents. Presidents aren't used to debating. Their opponents have generally been debating in primaries. Presidents aren't used to being challenged by someone standing 4 feet away from them - being treated as a peer. And so presidents generally do badly in the first debate. And we tried mightily to avoid that, but the prep sessions didn't go very well. There were a lot of testy exchanges with John Kerry, who was playing Mitt Romney. We actually cautioned the president against engaging too much, which may have been a mistake because we were worried about the testiness of those exchanges.
And we had a last prep session before the first debate in Denver, which we all felt was pretty appalling. We didn't think it was good. I had the dubious honor of going in and talking to him for the group after the session. And he said, well, I think that went pretty well. And I said, well, actually I think there are some things we need to work on yet. And he didn't receive that news well and used a word that he has never used before or since and that I won't use here, but made clear how he felt about me at that moment. And he bolted out of the room, and I didn't see him until the next morning.
And, you know, I was kind of stunned by it 'cause we've known each other for so long, but I also knew that he really wasn't directing it at me so much as his own frustration 'cause he knew that we weren't where we needed to be. I think every single one of us, including the president, knew we weren't headed into Denver in good shape. And that, of course, turned out to be true.
DAVIES: Yeah. Mitt Romney was widely viewed to have won that encounter because the president kind of got wonky, and Romney was - his messages were simple.
DAVIES: You corrected that in subsequent debates.
AXELROD: Yeah, although not without some effort. I mean, we had another bad debate prep about 36 hours before the second debate. And that had everybody in kind of a panic because one bad debate, you can accept. Two would've been a little bit harder. And we had a very - we had kind of a intervention with the president in which he said, look, I know I'm not getting this right 'cause I'm treating it like a lawyer and this is a performance. And I just resist that, but I have to get over that. And he did. And, you know, he went - he took an hour for himself, came back and worked very hard at landing his lines and preparing in the way that you have to prepare for these debates. They're not kind of free-form discussions. They're parallel performances. And, you know, you need to go in there locked and loaded with the points you want to make and the words you want to use.
DAVIES: It was interesting to me - you said that when it really works well, the staff can actually almost mouth the words with the candidate as they're watching the debate.
AXELROD: Absolutely, and we couldn't do that before the first debate. In the second debate, we all kind of took a deep breath when the president answered the first question in exactly the way we had heard him answer it several times before in the day before the debate. And it was clear that he had internalized his lines. He'd internalized his attack and his approach. And the rest of the debate went true to form. One thing, Dave, I would say before the first debate in Denver, David Plouffe and I were in the locker room with the president, and the president said, let's just get this over with, which isn't what you want to hear...
AXELROD: ...Right? - going into the big event. In the second debate, he called us in - Plouffe and me - and he said - he said, I just want you guys to know I'm ready and we're going to have a good night. And we did. And, you know, the whole body language was different so - but it was an anxious interim between those two debates as we dealt with all of everyone's anxieties about how the first one had gone.
DAVIES: After President Obama was elected in 2008, you went to the White House. You had an office right next to the Oval Office.
DAVIES: And in the book you describe the job as monitoring polling, guiding our message, trying to keep us true to the Obama principles and campaign brand. And I got to ask a naive question here. You know, if the mayor of Philadelphia or the governor of Pennsylvania were to hire their, you know, media campaign strategist as a government employee, they would be run out of town on a rail. And it's interesting to me that in Washington, I understand that presidents have to be - have political acuity in dealing with members of Congress, and they have to have advice. But it's interesting that you'd have someone who is a political operative and that that would be a taxpayer-funded job. Is that weird?
AXELROD: Well - well, I was there really as a communications strategist and there's a precedent for that going way back to have political and communications strategists in the White House.
DAVIES: Right, and Karl Rove was there for George Bush. I understand that.
AXELROD: Right, and Mike Deaver for Reagan. And, you know - I mean, there's a long history of that. But, you know, I think - I'd like to believe that I was there also because I shared sensibilities with Obama. I had a lot of experience in not just politics, but in media, press, communications. You know, the speechwriters worked for me. I was someone who understood him, understood at what he wanted to communicate and, therefore, could work with those people whose job it was to help communicate that message. So I think the role is a necessary role for a president and one that is best filled by someone who really is close to them and understands them.
DAVIES: A lot of your job was keeping in touch with the media and, you know, dealing with media strategy. And of course, you know, years ago when you started - when I started covering politics - there would be, you know, a few daily papers and some television stations. Now the content is everywhere. I mean, there's...
DAVIES: ...The cable shows. There's bloggers. There's just...
AXELROD: It's very difficult.
DAVIES: Yeah. How do you keep track of it all?
AXELROD: Well, you know, you have people who are helping you follow all of it. And you're aware that any little event somewhere could hijack a day's news, sometimes a week's news or several weeks' news. Every day - I always say - is Election Day in Washington. And, you know, you're dealing every few weeks with the defining event of your presidency, none of which turn out to be the defining event of your presidency.
One of the examples of that was the oil leak in the Gulf. When it happened in 2010, people were calling it Obama's Katrina, the defining event of his presidency. It consumed coverage for weeks. And, you know, he - ultimately the leak was solved, plugged up. The Gulf was restored. It never was an issue in the 2012 campaign. We saw it again on the Ebola story just recently where the media just went nuts. And this was, again, you know, a tremendous test of the president and so on.
I said at the time, I thought this would pass in a matter of months and we'd look back and say, what was that all about? It turned out to be a matter of weeks. And, you know, so it's very hard to drive your message when you're president of the United States because people are constantly trying to hijack it, often for things that are mind-bogglingly trivial in the final analysis.
DAVIES: So was part of your job to tell people calm down? Don't worry about what's on...
AXELROD: Yeah, I did a lot of that. I did a lot of that, and not to chase rabbits down a hole. What I don't I did as well when I was there was keep him out of things he shouldn't have been involved - we shouldn't have had the president in as much as he was - the president should be the big-picture narrator, not the announcer for the government. And I think because of the nature of our crisis that we were facing at the time - a genuine crisis - the economic crisis - the notion was to have him out there a lot. And I think we ground him down as a messenger and we lost some efficacy in our message.
The other - Dave, the other part of my job was polling and, you know, just to keep him and everyone in touch with where the country was on issues. And so, you know, I was the one who went in and told him the country was steadfastly opposed to the auto bailout. And I was the one who told him that, you know, we were taking on huge water on health care. And one of the things I admire about him is he always listened respectfully and then did what he wanted to do. And he did what he thought was right. I tell folks that what I like about him so much is that he listens to me so little.
AXELROD: But I think that, to me, is a definition of leadership, someone who is willing to put the politics aside and risk his own political standing to do something important for the country. And you get marked down for that sometimes in Washington where doing - you know, we heard Senator Schumer say, well, yeah, health care was important but he shouldn't have done it because it was politically fraught. The president's view was he was willing to risk his own presidency to do it because it had to be done, and if he didn't do it in his first two years, it wouldn't get done. And it was only his steadfastness that got it done. I think history will look kindly on that.
GROSS: David Axelrod will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor, Dave Davies, in the second half of the show. Axelrod is kind of famous for his ability to stay on message. You've probably seem him do it on TV. Dave will ask him about that, and they'll look ahead to the next presidential election. Axelrod has written a new memoir called "Believer." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies the these recorded with veteran political consultant David Axelrod, who crafted the media strategy for Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns and spent two years in the White House as a senior advisor to Obama. Axelrod has written a new memoir called "Believer: My Forty Years In Politics."
DAVIES: I'm wondering to what extent you think latent racism explained either political media or popular reactions to the president's initiatives and actions and whether you polled to get at that.
AXELROD: You know, Dave, I wrote in the book that whatever I got the question of race, I deflected it when I was working for the president because I never wanted to create a situation where they're alibi-ing for their opposition - that they're laying off their opposition on race and not their own actions.
But I think it's undeniable that race is an element of the opposition to the president. No other president has had someone stand up in the Congress and shout to you lie, as a representative from South Carolina did during one of the president's speeches. No other president has faced persistent questions about his citizenship that, even to this day, you hear murmurings about.
And I think, you know, this is undeniably part of people's reaction to the notion of an African-American president and their discomfort with it. Does that represent a majority of Americans? Absolutely not. But are there some Americans are uncomfortable with the changing demographics of our country - the more diverse country that he represents? I think the answer to that is absolutely yes.
DAVIES: How much is that talk about that with the president?
AXELROD: We didn't talk about it that much. It was understood. I, you know - he certainly felt it, but he didn't complain about it. He understood that that was part of the deal. And, you know, he was remarkably tolerant of that and kind of powered through it, but it is there. You always knew that in the back of his mind, he knew that this was a reality.
In terms of whether we polled it or not, we never overtly asked questions about that. Sometimes in focus groups, you could pick up intimations of it. But by and large, you know, the people we were talking to in focus groups and the people we were concentrating on were people were open to him and therefore less apt to express those kinds of attitudes. Those attitudes are very much among the people who are fundamentally opposed to him, and so we spent very little time trying to probe their attitudes 'cause their attitudes were set.
DAVIES: You know, when we considered booking you as a guest for the show, I mean, one of the things we remembered was all the times that you were on "Meet The Press" and, you know, "Face Of The Nation" and the talk shows and remembered that you were relentlessly on message in those. And, you know, I don't want to say boring, but you know that there's a sort of bland repetition to hearing talking points again and again.
DAVIES: And I, of course, had spent a lot of time talking to you when you were, you know, on - a consultant for a race that I was covering - a Philadelphia race. And I kind of felt like this was a different David Axelrod. I mean, what's it like to have to be so disciplined?
AXELROD: Did you have Free David Axelrod buttons printed up?
AXELROD: But, you know, it was very, very - it was hard. It was very hard. But, you know, when you are speaking for the president of the United States, you know that one misstatement can send armies marching and markets tumbling, and that is a very sobering realization. And so, yes, I felt constrained when I was on those programs to color within the lines and not to be too venturesome because I knew some off-handed remark could have real consequences and negative consequences. But it was a discipline that was hard for me 'cause I'm a congenital smart aleck, and, you know, I love tossing off good lines. And this was decidedly not the place to do it.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of people who are avid supporters of President Obama have said the White House has done a terrible job of telling its story, of reminding people of the benefits of Affordable Care Act and payroll tax cuts and how we saved the economy. And, you know, you addressed this in the book a bit. There's a stretch where I think you said you got advice from Barbra Streisand and Rupert Murdoch and, you know...
AXELROD: ...Mike Bloomberg....
DAVIES: ...Mike Bloomberg...
AXELROD: ...And Roger Ailes, all within 12 hours. Yeah, I got attacked the left, right and center then on that particular trip to New York.
DAVIES: Well, as the message man, tell us how you rate, you know, your performance and the White House's performance in telling its story.
AXELROD: I think that we didn't do well in some respects in the first couple of years because we were really bailing out the boat. I mean - and it was very hard under those circumstances, especially given the fact that the economy was going - was sort of in such dire straits for a long period of time - very hard to sort of control the message.
The health care debate - very difficult to control. That was my fear in the beginning because 85 percent of Americans had health care. There was a lot in the bill that help them, but it wasn't apparent from the debate. The debate focused on the 15 percent who didn't have health care. I knew that would be problematical, and I never figured out how to pick the lock.
So there were a lot of messaging challenges. There is no doubt that we've seen the benefits of a lot of those early decisions that he made - saving the American auto industry and some of the others. But, you know, it's still true that the reality for most Americans is that, yes, the economy is better, but they're still peddling faster and faster to keep pace. It's the nature of the times in which we live. It's the great challenge that faces us and all advanced economies.
And so you want to claim progress, but you also want to do it in the context of what comes next. And I thought he did it brilliantly in the State of the Union speech. I wish we had done that earlier. And I think if he had been out in 2014, for example, giving the same speech he gave at the State of the Union, I think he could have helped define the race nationally in 2014 better than the race ended up being defined. And obviously, it didn't go very well for Democrats.
DAVIES: You know, our producer John Sheehan, in doing the research, prepared for me a list of some of the things you've been called - Axel-fraud, Street Fighter, Message Maven, Political Protector Marxist Mentor and Lefty Lumberjack. Do you have a favorite moniker or story that goes with one of them?
AXELROD: Well, the Axel-fraud thing sticks in my mind because those guys were shouting it at me when I was on the steps of the capitol in Massachusetts. I hadn't heard Liberal Lumberjack. It seems like a oxymoron.
DAVIES: Lefty Lumberjack.
AXELROD: Oh, Lefty Lumberjack - yeah, seems like an oxymoron to me. But, you know, I'm surprised, though, on your list that there aren't - you know, rumpled almost always comes up. And stained is another one because generally you can find remnants of my last meal somewhere on me. President loves that. He's always inspecting me so that he can ask me what I had that he's looking at.
DAVIES: We're coming up on another presidential campaign. And it's - so many people are in the pre-candidacy. I'm thinking about it. There's an exploratory committee. There's sort of a lot of posturing that goes on here. I'm wondering kind of what your observation is, particularly among all the Republicans. Well, I guess Hillary Clinton still hasn't made up her mind. Is this all - well, is this all a dance, or are these people really thinking this through?
AXELROD: Well, first of all, let's start with the presumption that every senator and every governor wakes up in the morning and sees the president of the United States staring back at them in the mirror when they're getting ready for work. That is endemic to politics. These are ambitious people, and they look around and say, why not me? So they are always eager applicants at the beginning of the process. And, you know, when you're looking at an open race, you have to say why not?
So they go out, and they test, and they see what kind of money they can raise and what kind of attention they can garner. They try and discern what their path would be. And what you find is it's a little like pole-vaulting. You know, everybody clears the early heights. And once you clear the early heights, the bar gets raised, and there are different tests, and it gets more and more difficult. And by the time it gets down to the semifinals, when you are one of the last people competing for the nomination, it's an excruciatingly difficult process - and then ultimately, the finals, of course.
And it should be because you're auditioning for the hardest job on the planet. And it's meant to be difficult. Sometimes it's absurd - the challenges and the tests. But, of course, sometimes the tests and challenges that a president faces are absurd, as well. So, you know, I think the process is exasperating, it's ridiculous at times, but it also serves its purpose. You really learn who these people are.
DAVIES: All right. I'll give you a chance to predict who will be the party nominees, who will win the election.
AXELROD: I appreciate that opportunity. Look, I think anyone would suggest that Hillary Clinton will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. I think she's the strongest open-seat contender for a party nomination that I've see it in my lifetime. And, you know, I look at these polls, and Democrats are - despite all the stuff you hear, Democrats are very solidly behind her.
On the Republican side, I think that's a very open question. Jeb Bush is a talented guy, and I think if he got through the process and didn't compromise on his positions on things like immigration reform and education reform, he would be a formidable candidate for president. But the history of the Republican party for the last several cycles is that they've nominated center-right Republicans, but they've forced them to make Faustian bargains with the right wing in order to be the nominee, thus rendering them unelectable. And the question is whether Bush can get through the primary process with his positions and to the general election. If he doesn't, Scott Walker's the flavor of the month now - the governor of Wisconsin.
But again, these other candidates - we'll have to see how they clear the bars when the bars get raised. It's one thing to run for governor of a state. It's another thing to run for the president of the United States. And you can find out how someone will do by watching them navigate the process.
DAVIES: And if the Hillary Clinton campaign comes knocking, saying, Ax, come on, one more time, what are you going to tell them?
AXELROD: I'm - it will be like the movie "Wolfman," where he has to be strapped in a room when the full moon came out so he didn't go out and hurt himself or others. I really - you know, I really am happy to be where I am today. And I think my family's happy that I'm where I am today. I asked them to make so many sacrifices. And I want to spend the rest of my life, you know, trying to inspire these kids, spending time with family. And if people call and ask me for advice, of course I'll give it to them, but I'm not going to get on that carousel again. I had such a singularly great experience with Obama. I had a relationship with him that I'll never have with anyone else. I'd rather go out on top and move on than get back on that carousel again.
DAVIES: David Axelrod, thanks so much for speaking with us.
AXELROD: Oh, I'm so glad to be with you. Thanks, Dave.
GROSS: David Axelrod's memoir is called "Believer: My Forty Years In Politics." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Coming up - TV critic David Bianculli reviews the American premiere of a sitcom starring Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, who worked together on the sketch comedy show "SCTV" and the folk music mockumentary "A Mighty Wind." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Last month, the TV Guide cable network rebranded itself and is now known as the Pop network, pop as in pop culture. On Wednesday, it presents the first series that our TV critic David Bianculli considers worth mentioning. But, on the radio, mentioning the title is somewhat problematic. Here's David's review and his explanation.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The show I'm about to review, which premieres with two back-to-back episodes Wednesday night on the newly launched pop network, is a sitcom. It's an import from Canada, where it premiered earlier this year. And one reason it's worth noting is because it stars two veteran performers from one of my all-time favorite sketch comedy series, "SCTV." Those stars are Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy, who also have teamed together on such wonderful films as "A Mighty Wind." Eugene Levy co-created the series with his son Dan, who's known in Canada as a former host on MTV there, but a virtual unknown here in the States. It's the first time father and son have worked together. And on this new series, they're collaborating on-screen as well as off.
Eugene Levy plays John Rose, the patriarch of a wealthy, pampered family, and O'Hara plays his wife. Dan Levy plays their son, and Annie Murphy portrays their daughter. In the opening scene of the premier, all four of them are thrust suddenly into poverty after an associate absconds with their fortune. As a small army of Treasury agents empties their opulent mansion, their lawyer sits down with the family to explain their new fiscal reality.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHITT'S CREEK")
STEWART ARNOTT: (As lawyer) Eli really did a number, Johnny. He took everything. They're still looking for him. They think he's in the Caymans.
EUGENE LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) He was our business manager. He's supposed to pay taxes.
ARNOTT: (As lawyer) There's is a very small amount set aside for you and one asset the government has allowed you to retain.
O'HARA: (As Moira Rose) The kids.
ARNOTT: (As lawyer) The children are dependents, Moira. You bought a small town in 1991, Johnny.
E. LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) Yes, I bought that as joke for my son.
DAN LEVY: (As David Rose) Wait, you actually purchased that town?
E. LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) Yes, I purchased the town. How else could I get the deed?
ANNIE MURPHY: (As Alexis Rose) You could have PhotoShopped the deed.
D. LEVY: (As David Rose) And saved the money - saved the money.
E. LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) Why would I PhotoShop a deed? The joke was owning the town.
O'HARA: (As Moira Rose) OK, stop.
E. LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) That was the joke.
D. LEVY: (As David Rose) Oh my God.
E. LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) Well, that was the joke.
ARNOTT: (As lawyer) To Johnny's credit, this town might just be your saving grace, at least for a while.
O'HARA: (As Moira Rose) What do you mean?
ARNOTT: (As lawyer) You can live there for next-to-nothing until you get back on your feet.
O'HARA: (As Moira Rose) I'm sure there's a penthouse we can move into. Please, there are other options.
ARNOTT: (As lawyer) Well, homelessness is still on the table.
BIANCULLI: In the very next scene, the Rose family shows up in that small town, arriving by bus and moving into a seedy, little motel. The name of the town also is the name of this TV series, and there's a reason the deed to the town was bought as a joke. It's a joke I can't say on the radio, but the second word is creek. The first is spelled S-C-H-I-T-T-apostrophe-S and rhymes with spits. From now on, I'll just call it "Creek."
"Creek" is a film sitcom without a laugh track, but one that falls in line with a long TV tradition. Basically, it's a reboot of "Green Acres," except in that '60s sitcom, only the wealthy wife didn't want to relocate to a small town. In "Creek," none of them wants to be there. But in both shows, rubbing up against the locals is the main point of the story and the main source of the comedy.
You expect old hands from "SCTV" to be almost effortlessly funny here, and they are. O'Hara wears a different wig and displays a different frantic emotion in almost every scene. And Eugene Levy gets to do plenty of his patented slow burns, especially when he tangles with the town mayor, played by the show's other familiar face, Chris Elliott. But the less familiar faces make a good first impression, too, and keep impressing because I've previewed the first handful of episodes.
One standout is Annie Murphy as the Roses' spoiled daughter, Alexis. Another is Emily Hampshire as the motel clerk, maid and manager. She's so droll and sarcastic, she's delightful, as in this scene from an upcoming episode in which Dan Levy as David Rose asks her advice in seeking employment in town. After he lists his strengths, she looks in the local want ads.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHITT'S CREEK")
EMILY HAMPSHIRE: (As Stevie Budd) What kind of job are you looking for?
D. LEVY: (As David Rose) Something in, like, art curating or trend forecasting.
HAMPSHIRE: (Stevie Budd) Oh, OK, let's see. Not seeing anything in art curating or trend forecasting. That's weird.
D. LEVY: (As David Rose) OK.
HAMPSHIRE: (Stevie Budd) Do you have any other skills or areas of expertise?
D. LEVY: (As David Rose) I've been told I have really good taste.
HAMPSHIRE: (As Stevie Budd) Oh, well, that's good. Let's see. Oh, bag boy at the grocery store.
D. LEVY: (As David Rose) I don't know what that is.
HAMPSHIRE: (As Stevie Budd) You put groceries in bags so that people can carry their groceries out of the grocery store.
D. LEVY: (As David Rose) OK. And how much do you think that would pay?
HAMPSHIRE: (As Stevie Budd) I'm going to say minimum wage.
D. LEVY: (As David Rose) Which is - what? - 40, 45 something an hour?
HAMPSHIRE: (As Stevie Budd) Exactly.
BIANCULLI: The title of this new comedy series is an obvious joke and not at all a subtle one. The show itself, though, is lot more textured and worth seeking out. Usually, when a new network wants to lure an audience to visit for the first time, the bait it uses is a flashy, new drama. The Pop network is counting on comedy instead. And with this Canadian sitcom, that trick just might work.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website, TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new comic novel about female beauty called "The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Amanda Filipacchi writes comic novels, but the subject of her latest is one that many women have learned to take very seriously. The novel is called "The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty," and our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Does this obituary make me look fat? I imagine that somewhere in the great heavenly outback, recently deceased "Thorn Birds" author, Colleen McCullough, is cracking jokes like that one with other well-upholstered literary women, such as Gertrude Stein and Agatha Christie. I hope they're all having a good laugh over that obit of McCullough that ran in The Australian newspaper after her death on Jan. 29 and went viral on social media. Thirty million books sold worldwide, an early career as a neurophysiologist at Yale, and yet at the top of that obit, McCullough is remembered first and foremost for being plain of feature and certainly overweight.
What a timely moment for Amanda Filipacchi's new comic novel to appear. It's called "The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty," a subject Filipacchi knows intimately. She grew up enduring comparisons to her mother, a top Ford model, and wrote about that childhood experience in a much-discussed New Yorker essay last year, called "The Looks You're Born With And The Looks You're Given."
"The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty," is a farcical, fictional meditation on female beauty, structured as a mashup of an old episode of friends, a fairytale and a murder mystery Filipacchi's lively story reflects on the unearned power that beauty confers upon its recipients. Rather less convincingly, it also tries to make a case for the psychic damage of being beautiful in a world that's all too eager to rate women primarily on their looks.
The central character of "The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty" is a young costume designer named Barb, graced with aqua eyes, long, silky blonde hair, a slender figure and - well, you get the picture. After a close male friend commits suicide because he feels unworthy of her, Barb takes to wearing a fat suit and a frizzy, gray wig and glasses. She cynically delights in talking to men at New York bars in this getup and watching as they mutate from jerk to gentlemen when she strips off her jiggling Jell-O of a disguise.
Barb's unlucky counterpart is her friend, Lily, a gifted musician with a face, as the saying goes, that only a mother could love. Lily falls for a superficial cad - who, by the way, is rather homely, but of course, looks don't matter nearly as much for men. This rogue, nicknamed Strad, appreciates great music, and he tells Lily that he would fall in love with and marry anyone woman who could create music like that of one of the composers he idolizes. Naturally, Lily sets herself the challenge to make music so beautiful that Strad will forget her looks and love her for her accomplishments. Colleen McCullough could have told Lily not to bother.
The two women and their circle of quirky friends become embroiled in an effort to foil a mysterious murder plot against the feckless Strad. But the suspense plot is mostly just an antic excuse to keep the characters in motion and in conversation about the central topic - the unfair but undeniable advantages of beauty.
Filipacchi's novel is breezy with a bite. Lily succeeds in transforming herself, through the enchantment of her music, into a knockout, but only for as long as the music lasts. Uncomfortable as it may be, it's hard not to root for her, not to revel in the newfound power she wields over Strad and other men. By the end of the novel, even beautiful Barb resigns herself to reality and shrugs off her fat suit disguise. Why bother to deny a gift from the gods that can make life so much easier?
Speaking of gifts from the gods, the other big news concerning a literary woman was the announcement that Harper Lee has just dug up a sequel of sorts to "To Kill A Mockingbird," a novel called "Go Set A Watchman." Set to appear in July, Lee's sequel features an elderly Atticus Finch and an adult Scout. As a tomboy age 6 to 9, Scout was blessedly exempt from the pressures and judgments of femininity and beauty. I sort of wish she could've just stayed that way.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book, "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty" by Amanda Filipacchi.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Tomorrow on our show, photojournalist Lynsey Addario tells us stories like this.
LYNSEY ADDARIO: I remember the moment we were taken in Libya, and we were asked to lie face-down on the ground. And I remember thinking, will I ever get my cameras back - I mean, which is the most ridiculous thought when you're about to die.
GROSS: Addario has taken photos for The New York Times in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. In her new memoir, she writes, I have been kidnapped twice. I have gotten in one serious car accident. Two of my drivers have died while working for me - two tragedies I will always feel responsible for. I've missed the births of my sister's children, the weddings of friends, the funerals of loved ones. I have disappeared on countless boyfriends and had just as many disappear on me. But she considers herself lucky. Join us tomorrow.
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