DATE January 10, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Dana Milbank talks about his two years on
the campaign trail, chronicled in his new book, "Smashmouth"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A treatise on political toilet humor is how Dana Milbank describes his new
book "Smashmouth." It's about what he observed during his two years on the
presidential campaign trail. Milbank is a White House correspondent for The
Washington Post. Starting with the primary, he spent time with each of the
candidates from Gore, Bush, McCain and Bradley, to Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes.
Milbank's title, "Smashmouth," is his variation on trash mouth politics, the
expression George W. Bush used to describe negative campaigning. Milbank
celebrates in-the-gutter campaigning, but more about that later. I spoke with
Milbank yesterday, and asked if he thought that Gore, Bush or their campaign
teams behaved differently during the Florida aftermath than they did during
Mr. DANA MILBANK (The Washington Post): It was the situation of they behaved
like they had done during the campaign only more so. The Bush folks, all
along, were very tight with the information, they were very guarded, they were
extremely loyal to their candidate. The Gore folks were more sort of the cool
professionals, they loved to talk, they loved to leak, they loved to, you
know, schmooze with reporters and go out for drinks and dinner and that sort
During the aftermath of the campaign, it became just--it became outrageous.
You couldn't actually get a hold of the Bush people. They just locked
themselves up in this room in Tallahassee. The telephones were on an
answering machine, or if you finally got somebody, you'd leave a message for
somebody else who wouldn't return the call. I actually went over there to the
office and just tried to walk in and there's a big sign `Keep Out,' on the
door. You just couldn't--and then you'd call people in Austin, you couldn't
get anybody there. So it reinforced their earlier instincts.
Then, of course, the Gore people were out there spinning like crazy. I think
they were out for drinks and dinner and lunch every day and night. You know,
they had masterful stories to tell. Unfortunately, it wasn't so much a matter
of keeping up public opinion. They succeeded in doing that, but apparently
the US Supreme Court wasn't buying their spin on that one.
GROSS: What do you prefer, the aides who take you out for dinner and spin for
hours or the aides that lock the door and put up a sign saying `Keep Out'?
Mr. MILBANK: Well, of course, we like to go to dinner and that way we can
bill our editors with large expense accounts. There's something to be said
for the Bush style as well, and they're continuing that in the White House
now. They're trying to create this whole leak-free environment, which would
be a first ever in Washington. I don't think they're actually going to
achieve that, but at the moment they more or less have achieved that so that
no newspaper or network is really getting a scoop now. So on the one hand
it's frustrating that I'm not getting that scoop for The Washington Post. On
the other hand, it's nice to know that I'm not going to get a call from my
editor in the middle of the night saying The New York Times got a scoop. I
don't think that'll last very long, because I think the Washington culture is
going to change the Bush people more than the Bush people are going to change
Washington. I suspect they know that, too, and ultimately they'll have to
acquiesce to the system here.
GROSS: You know, the impulse a lot of people have when they see a campaign or
a new president cutting off communication with the press is, `What are they
trying to hide?' Is that what you're wondering, `What are they trying to
hide?' Or do you think it's about something else?
Mr. MILBANK: I think it's based on a long-term experience. All new
administrations pretty much are hostile to the press. The Clinton
administration did this and got into a great deal of trouble for it. So I
can't really blame them for doing it. It's not that I suspect they're trying
to hide something. I suspect they believe that they can control information
the way they controlled information during the campaign, and probably the way
Bush controlled information when he was governor of Texas. What they don't
realize is that they're creating a great deal of hostility needlessly.
It's not that reporters are sitting there, you know, demanding to know in
advance of everybody else who the secretary of State's going to be, or the
secretary of Defense. But the way it comes out for the Bush folks is almost a
contempt for the press. You can sometimes see it even when he's speaking on
TV, the way he'll glare at a member of the press corps or he'll just have
impatience for the questions being asked. And as journalists we see it with
his staff, too. They generally treat us as the enemy, somebody to be avoided,
you speak to them only when necessary. The problem with this is they're
creating quite a bit of ill will, and when things get rough, they're not going
to have a whole lot of friendship and goodwill in the press corp.
Now you can see the whole McCain situation was the opposite. Journalists just
fell in love with John McCain, and I do not believe it's because journalists
fell in love with his policies. It's because he let us talk to him on his
bus, he fed us doughnuts, he fed us barbecue; all his staff members talked to
us and told us the inside dope. Everything was clear and everything was
transparent, and journalists gave John McCain a hell of a ride because of
that. I think he was given a lot more coverage and quite a big boost in the
free media than he probably should have gotten. And I think Bush took a page
from that book after McCain beat him in New Hampshire, but then he
quickly--after he, you know, triumphed in the primaries, he returned to his
earlier format, and that's what he remains in now.
But I think ultimately that McCain lesson is something that other politicians
are going to have to pick up, or at least I hope they do.
GROSS: Well, do you think Bush would have a harder time picking up on that
lesson because of the verbal gaffes that he makes and because he sometimes
seems more insecure in his knowledge.
Mr. MILBANK: He does when you see him in public. He's a great schmoozer.
When he comes back on the airplane, everybody loves him. He wants to talk
baseball, he's got a nickname for everybody. You know, he's like everybody's
uncle. He's this friendly fellow, he knows a little bit about everything, he
loves to talk about fishing. You can't stump him on some sort of sports
trivia. That's where he's at his most comfortable, and often he's doing this
off the record, so even if he makes one of his delightful malapropos you won't
record it anyway.
The time when he's awkward and we get the deer in the headlights is when he's
doing a press conference, and that's when the journalists are doing the sort
of `gotcha' idea of trying to stump him with the name of some world leader or
trying to quiz him on some question that he hadn't been briefed on, which
causes some--he sort of flips through the file cards in his mind looking for
the right one and reading a little bit of each of them, realizing he doesn't
have the answer to this particular question.
GROSS: What do you think Bush's Cabinet selection process is revealing about
the kind of leader that he is?
Mr. MILBANK: Well, it reveals the good and the bad about him as a leader.
The amazing thing is it was done in about 20 days, even with this
time-shortened, post-election period. And he balanced his party in an
extraordinary way to make the conservatives happy, the moderates reasonably
happy. He did this by approaching it as a businessman, as if he were selecting
a board of directors for the Texas Rangers. He'd assign people to think about
this more than a year ago, they'd solicited a great amount of input. But they
held the decision-making very close, no information leaked out. Only a few
people ultimately made the decision, did it very quickly and very efficiently.
Now as we've seen earlier this week, this can also create problems, because you
skip over a lot of the vetting of potential nominees. Bush was assuming that
a lot of these folks, because they'd been in government earlier, they'd been
senators or whatnot, their records had pretty much been pawed through already.
Now we found out in the case of Linda Chavez that that obviously wasn't true,
and this whole thing has sort of blown up on them. So there's a flip side to
that as well. He's very efficient, he's very quick and decisive, but when
you're efficient, quick and decisive and you also have a small number of aides
whom to place your trust in, without casting out to a wider range of people,
it magnifies the possibility for a mistake, and that appears to be what had
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dana Milbank. He's a White
House correspondent for The Washington Post and author of the new book
"Smashmouth," notes from the 2000 campaign trail. Let's take a short break
here, then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Dana Milbank. He's a White House correspondent for the
Washington Post, a former senior editor for The New Republic. He's written a
new book about covering the 2000 presidential campaign. It's called
You spent two years covering the presidential campaign. What would you say
were the best and worst parts for you as a reporter covering the campaign?
Mr. MILBANK: Well, the best parts for me, as a reporter, were the parts that
probably wouldn't make the news columns. There was that brief and glorious
moment when Donald Trump appeared to be running for president, so he took a
whole bunch of reporters on his 727 with the mirrored headboard over the bed
in the cabin, with the impressionist paintings on the wall. He passed out
Trump 2000 little individual bottles of Purell, the hand cleaner, because he
was famous for not wanting to shake hands because of the germs that would be
spread. He was flying all over California, theoretically drumming up interest
in his campaign. In reality, he was selling a book that he'd just put out,
and he was taking us all to motivational conferences that he'd already agreed
to speak at.
But, to me, that was perhaps the most delightful moment in it, the reason
being we all took Donald Trump seriously that he could actually--at that point
he wanted to run against Pat Buchanan for the Reform Party. Donald Trump has
a lot of money, and anybody who has a lot of money in politics today is
automatically taken as a serious candidate, even if he's Donald Trump with the
mirrored headboard in the cabin of his 727.
GROSS: And the low part of covering the campaign?
Mr. MILBANK: Well, there's...
GROSS: Many, huh?
Mr. MILBANK: ...many, many of those to choose from. I think--what I really
can't stand is the press hoard. And there's no way around it, because with
all the, you know, 24-hour media coverage, all the Internet stations and the
cable television stations, there are just so many of us. But the one that
really sticks to mind is the one when we all went up--on George Bush's first
campaign swing, we all went up to the family home at Walkers Point in
Kennebunkport, Maine. There were probably 200, 250 of us there, a lot of them
carrying cameras and microphones. We're all standing there like cattle
outside of the gate. This man, our shepherd as it turns out, gets up and
starts--with rather foul language starts telling us exactly how we're going to
walk across the lawn to get this quick photo op with the former president and
the candidate. We literally started mooing as if we were cattle, which we
felt that we were at this point. This would repeat itself throughout the
I mean, picture going to cover a presidential debate--my newspaper, I think,
sent eight, 10 people to these debates, both in the primaries and in the
general election. Everybody who's anybody wants to be covering these
presidential debates. In reality, all we do is sit in some sort of warehouse
a hundred yards away from the debate site and watch it on TV. Essentially
we're doing the same thing everybody's doing at home, only less comfortably,
because we're all stuffed into this warehouse. So that...
GROSS: But then don't you try to collar the campaign aides and get their
Mr. MILBANK: Right. After it becomes the spin room, which is--it's perhaps
even more demeaning, this for all sides. The climax of this is at end when
these junior aides come out with little picket signs and it'll say something
like `Shalala' on one and there's Donna Shalala walking after it like he's
selling a product. In reality, he's selling Donna Shalala to see what she
wants to say.
GROSS: And then what do you do, like take a number and wait for your turn to
talk to her?
Mr. MILBANK: Well, Donna Shalala is not hard to get. You see, what you
really want--I mean, I'm sorry to say that, but what you really want to get
is, you know, you want to get the campaign chairman or you want to get like
Karl Rove, the chief strategist to Bush. You don't really want the Veterans
Affairs secretary or something. So sometimes you'll see the kid holding up
the sign and he'll look sort of forlorn and then, you know, somebody from
Japanese television or something will go over and interview this guy, assuming
he's the secretary of State, and not really having any idea who he is.
GROSS: Now you switched back and forth between candidates during the
campaign. Some reporters stay with one candidate and follow them through from
start to finish. Do you think there are advantages of switching back and
forth between the candidates?
Mr. MILBANK: Well, sure, there are advantages to both ways. The ones who
stick with a particular candidate really get to know this fellow and get to
know his staff extremely well. So, for example, those covering Bush are now
in a very good position to cover his White House, because they know all these
people very well and because all of these people are winding up coming to the
The primary advantage is a selfish one. You know, the boredom just isn't
there. I mean, picture the poor folks covering these guys. Some of them were
covering Bush, I think, for 15 months essentially inside the bubble, as they
say. You're going from bus to plane to another bus to an event site to a
filing center. At each point, you know, food is brought in to you. You don't
actually go out into the outside world, or if you do, you know, you see a
7-Eleven across the street and you quickly go over there to get an orange
juice or something like that.
So it's a terrible sort of form of captivity, and you can't leave because you
might miss something, and if he's going to five cities in a day, you cannot
do it on your own because there's no way to keep up. So it was a great
advantage to me just to be able to hop in for a few days and, you know, then
say, `See you later' when they moved on to the next state.
The other advantage was getting to compare the campaigns and get a sense of
what they were like, other than word of mouth. And there was a huge
difference between the campaign this time. There was sort of the
sanctimonious Bradley campaign, there was the lockstep Bush campaign, there
was the free-wheeling McCain campaign and there was the Gore campaign, with
this rather delightful and comical staff and a candidate who was quite the
opposite. So I enjoyed covering them for that reason.
And, of course, you know, you got to spend a little time with Gary Bauer, you
got to try to get close to Alan Keyes if his bodyguards wouldn't get in the
way. And you got to see all these other also-rans, who never had a chance of
winning, but make it a whole spirited competition, and that's what makes it
GROSS: You used to write for The New Republic and now you're with the
Washington Post. Compare the kind of reception you get from politicians and
from their aides writing for The Washington Post vs. The New Republic.
Mr. MILBANK: Yeah, I've seen that--and earlier I worked for The Wall Street
Journal, which people perceive to be a conservative publication because of its
editorial page. The New Republic people perceive as a liberal publication,
which it is. And The Washington Post is seen as vaguely left of center, but
mostly it's sort of a mainstream thing. I had the additional complication
working at The New Republic in that the owner of the New Republic, Marty
Peretz, is a very close friend of Al Gore's and was one of Gore's college
professors. So the critics, the conservative critics particularly, would call
it the Gore Republic. They called me Marty Peretz's butt boy, just, you know,
doing whatever he said to write about Al Gore. In reality it was never that
way, but reality didn't really matter. It was just the perceptions out there.
And even the other reporters would joke when am I going to get my staff pin
for the Gore campaign, that kind of thing.
The Bush side didn't react very well to me originally at all. I remember the
first time one of Bush's aides tried to introduce me to him, they said, `This
is Dana Milbank.' He said, `Oh, hello. And who are you with?' And I said
The New Republic,' and he immediately says, `Oh, great.' And then the aide
says, `But before that he was with The Wall Street Journal,' but it was of no
use, and he walked away.
I tried many times to get an interview with Bush during the time I was with
The New Republic, and each time they'd sort of tease and promise that I'd
be--you know, OK, I'd be on the next trip and then you'd get a call at the
last minute, `Whoops, the schedule just happened to fill up, wouldn't you know
it?' And I kept pressing on, I was getting hostile about getting interview
time. At one point I threatened to carry a sign that just said, `Governor
Bush, talk to me,' and I'd gotten the TV networks and the newspaper
people interested in actually covering those. So I think in retrospect I'm
glad I decided not to do that. It would have been sort of, you know, trying
to become like the Michael Moore of campaign coverage, which might have made
my current job a little bit more difficult.
And sure enough, you get to The Washington Post and suddenly that schedule
cleared up and we did have a couple of sit-down interviews and they went very
well and there didn't seem to be any hard feelings.
GROSS: Now in your book "Smashmouth" you write that you want to celebrate the
virtues of good, solid, in-the-gutter campaigning. Explain what you mean.
Mr. MILBANK: Well, I'll actually take an example that's going on right now.
As soon as Gore conceded and Bush won the election, everybody started talking
about, `We need to be bipartisan. We've got to work together. We've got to
work, you know, in the American people's interests and blah, blah, blah.' I
would submit that that was the most dishonest moment of the last year, because
nobody meant that for one second, and you're seeing that all unravel right
now, as the Democrats get ready to attack Bush's nominees, as Bush went ahead
and selected a conservative Cabinet without consulting with the Democrats, and
now he's threatening to take his tax cut and his education plan and everything
else to Congress without any concessions to the Democrats.
It was the same notion during the campaign. The most dishonest time is when
the candidates are saying what a decent and good man their opponent is and how
they really think we should be taking the high road in this campaign and
avoiding personal attacks and negative politics. That in itself became a form
of negative politics. You'd say, `Oh, well, I'm taking the high road, but my
opponent is just attack, attack, attack.' And the truth is, I think that
Americans like negative politics the same way Americans would rather watch
football than go to the ballet, if you look at those trickling numbers of
Americans who would pursue one of those activities. We like conflict. And
it's not only that it's a necessary thing in politics, but that it's a good
thing in politics, because the clash of ideas in the marketplace is how we
resolve things. Let's throw everything in there, let's let our different
ideas clash and let's make a compromise or let the best idea win. It's not
all about being nice to each other and minimizing our differences and
pretending that we're all bipartisan and we all think the same thing.
So I think it is healthy for our system to have this kind of smashmouth
politics during the campaigns and while governing.
GROSS: Dana Milbank is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post.
His new book about life on the campaign trail is called "Smashmouth." He'll
be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, John McCain's barbecue, Bill Bradley's lectures and Karen
Hughes' shoes. We continue our talk with journalist Dana Milbank about his
two years covering the presidential campaign. And David Bianculli reviews two
new reality-based TV shows, "The Mole" and "Temptation Island."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dana Milbank, a White
House correspondent for The Washington Post. His new book, "Smashmouth," is
about his two years on the presidential campaign trail.
You were covering John McCain during part of the period of his Straight Talk
Express, the bus that he traveled on in which reporters were invited to travel
with him and talk with him. Now you say in your book that the idea of
Straight Talk Express was really the idea of one of his aides who decided that
media access could compensate for the lack of money in the McCain campaign.
Mr. MILBANK: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Talk a little bit more about what they were hoping the media access
would give to the McCain campaign.
Mr. MILBANK: Sure. Well, in the--in political campaigns they talk of two
types of media. There's paid media, which is advertising. And then there's
earned media. They don't like to say free media because they do think
they're earning it and, in a sense, they're right. They are earning it.
John McCain knew he was gonna be vastly outspent by Bush, who had, early on,
raised $36 million, then it was up to $70 million. And McCain had, oh, you
know, somewhere between a tenth and a quarter of that. So McCain had the
idea that with his lower budget that he could overcome this by bringing
journalists on to this bus. This was the brainchild of John Weaver, who
was one of--this sort of eccentric fellow who was McCain's top strategist.
And they said, `All right. You know it's gonna be high-wire act. He may--it
may wind up embarrassing John McCain. He may say things that he regrets
that'll cause the whole thing to blow up on him.' In fact, that happened a
couple of times during the campaign. But they figured, on balance, it's just
gonna generate story after story every day. The press is going to fall in
love with this guy because we're all so used to being treated as vermin by
political candidates in both parties. And I think they were very much
correct in that.
Now when Bush got tough in the end in South Carolina, the media didn't--to
some extent, stood up for McCain and, ultimately, abandoned him in the end.
They--one of McCain's advisers, Mike Murphy, said it's--you know, that being
nice to the media is like making love with scorpions. And you just never know
what--when they might sting you. He was right about that. But you've got to
think of the tremendous amount of coverage this guy got. He was at 3 percent
in the polls in New Hampshire and wound up winning that primary. And a lot of
that just had to do with the relentless coverage he was getting and the
relentlessly good coverage he was getting. It was partially because of some
issues--say, campaign finance reform, which a lot of people in the press,
because we see this stuff every day, are very enthusiastic about. But it's
because he spoke candidly and openly and the fact that he just spoke to us at
I was very impressed with McCain on Election Night in New Hampshire. There
was a whole group of reporters--obviously, hundreds there to cover the
official celebration. But he let a few of us come up and--into his hotel
suite where his family was and a few of his close aides and just--we were all
sort of sipping a cocktail or whatever and watching this candidate as the
election returns came in, which is--it's really unheard of. You have photo
ops that sort of capture that for a moment, but here was a guy actually
showing us everything. It generated such unbelievable free media or earned
media that I think McCain was able, until the very end, to keep up with
GROSS: Did you feel used or do you just kind of accept the fact that, of
course, politicians are going to try to use the press? That's the way the
game is played and it's your job to just write what you observe and, you
know, be as honest and...
Mr. MILBANK: This--it may not speak very well for the journalistic
profession, but I don't think that we mind being used. I was just so pleasant
to have somebody actually paying attention to us.
Mr. MILBANK: And that's what I--it strikes me as it's actually so easy for
these candidates to get good coverage. There--you know, the debate goes back
and forth. Is the--was there a--is there a liberal bias in the media
or--during this campaign, it seemed the coverage on Gore was the toughest. So
it was almost the flip side. Was there some sort of conservative bias? There
may--individual reporters may have such biases. I think the thing that
overrides all of this is your personal feelings about the candidate. And that
is something that's just so easy to change and to mold, as McCain showed us;
as Bush showed us when he chose to show us.
I did--a whole chapter in my book is about the quality of the food that is
served to journalists on the campaign trail. We're in this bubble. We're
captive. And the campaigns figured out that if you actually feed the press
regularly and with good food, particularly starchy and sugary food that will
cause you to get sleepy, you're gonna have a more content press corps. And
I--I mean, it was partially tongue in cheek what I wrote there, but I think
there is some truth to that that we're actually fairly simple organisms and
we will write good stories for food.
GROSS: My guest is Washington Post White House correspondent Dana Milbank.
His new book, "Smashmouth," is about his two years on the presidential
campaign trail. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Dana Milbank is my guest. He's White House correspondent for the
Washington Post and the author of a new book about covering the presidential
campaign. And that book is called "Smashmouth."
You were covering Bill Bradley on a day that he gave a speech about meaning in
American politics. And a bunch of people in the audience, you say, fell
asleep, including Father Ted Hesburgh, the president emeritus of the
university where Bradley was speaking. Did you report on that in the
Washington Post that people were sleeping?
Mr. MILBANK: No, that was before I came to the post. That was from one of
my early magazine stories. But--so, yes, I did. I did write about it at the
time. And that's one of those delightful things that just sort of drops into
your lap. I went to see the speech because that was, essentially, all
that Bradley was doing. This was in late '98, so very, very early in the
campaign. I took a seat in the back row and the president emeritus actually
sat down next to me. So I'm watching Bradley speak. And then he just seems
to drone on and on. It was called "Meaning in American Politics." I
suggested it was "Dreaming in American Politics." He was talking about how
capital follows knowledge and how we can reclaim the public sector as a venue
for the source of our fulfillment. It just went on and on for 45 minutes.
Then I--you know how in college lectures you see a head start to bob and then
quickly jerk up and it bobs again down on the other side.
Mr. MILBANK: I saw this start happening to one fellow. Then he seemed to be
out cold. And then I hear what sounds alarmingly like a snore coming from
next to me. And there is poor Father Hesburgh with--letting loose this rather
loud snore. Then you'd watch the--then I'd see the kids in their fraternity
jackets; their heads bobbing and Hesburgh snoring and Bradley droning on.
And I was thinking that it was going to be an awfully long campaign.
GROSS: And did you feel that that said something about the kind of president
that Bradley would make?
Mr. MILBANK: Well, it absolutely did. It--and I think that that pattern
actually followed through the whole thing. Bradley could have been a very,
very attractive candidate. He didn't want to lower himself to the level of
actually communicating with Americans, though. He wanted to elevate the
discourse, which I think is admirable, except that he was saying--essentially,
he was saying to people, `I'm better than you. I'm going to speak on this
higher plane. I'm going to elevate politics and if you don't like it then
don't come with me.' And that was what--what it became is a sense that he was
sanctimonious; that he was aloof; that he thought he was better than everybody
else. And people didn't like him as a result of that.
You could see that repeat itself throughout the campaign. The whole idea was
that he was going to tell us things that we did not want to hear, which, of
course, is a unique form of pandering in which you say, you know--in which you
sort of flatter the voter by saying, `You really do want to hear this. I
just--you--I think highly of you because I think you can listen to this--these
hard truths I have to tell you about America.' That may work with some folks.
In fact, I think in that very same article I said it probably works very well
with the National Public Radio crowd, but, unfortunately, Terry, that's not
yet a majority of the American public.
GROSS: Hey, we all thank you for that compliment, huh. Yeah. You tell a
funny story about Karen Hughes. She's somebody we saw a lot of during the
Florida recount when she was a spokesperson for George W. Bush. Now she's
one of his mostly highly placed aides, and we'll be seeing a lot more of her.
Mr. MILBANK: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: This is a story having to do with shoes. Why don't you tell it for
Mr. MILBANK: It is. And you have to understand Karen Hughes first. She's a
very tall, sturdily built woman and she's--she inspires fear in not only
journalists but probably anybody whom she meets. And she is fiercely loyal to
Bush. She is on message to the extent that I'm sure if you woke her up in the
middle of the night, she would read you from paragraph 3 of the press release
on the Bush tax plan.
So I was--we were actually right outside from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia
one day. I had pool duty, which means you represent the press and then
report back to all your colleagues. And some--there were just a few of us
standing there. And we'd remarked that she had such nice purple shoes on.
And she told a story that changed my impression of her forever. She said,
`You know, I have to tell you how I got these.' I--she had, I think she
said, a size 10 or a size 12. I'm not very good with women's shoe sizes, but
it was, anyway, a very large size shoe. And she says she lived in Austin.
She said she had to go to Dallas to get shoes because all she could get are
the, you know, usual white or black shoe there in Austin. Then she found
this one store that was selling shoes of all varieties and colors and in her
size. And she bought a whole bunch and asked the fellow. She said, `You
know, I usually have to go to Dallas. How come you have these?' And so she
said, `Well, we stock these for the transvestites.' And which I thought the
idea of saying that in a self-deprecating way changed my view of her
And, I mean, I--you know, I reported this faithfully back to the press corps.
and said that, you know, you're on your own if you want to report about this.
I didn't report about it in a news story. It wasn't quite newsworthy, but I
think it helps us, now, to understand Karen Hughes and it says that, you know,
behind this press release machine there's actually something of a wry and
funny person. And that bodes well for America.
GROSS: I want to get back to what you were saying; that during this campaign
there seemed, if anything, to be a conservative bias in the press and
anti-Gore bias. I want to know what makes you say that and also why you think
that was? What accounts for it?
Mr. MILBANK: Sure. I--you--right. The tradition is to say that it's the
liberal media that's always going to come around for their guy in the end.
The truth is the press corps covering Bush liked their candidate a great deal
more than the press corps covering Gore. Now some of this is just driven by
you want to back the winner, so that if you think your guy is on top, he'll
get the best coverage. And you could see that when Gore, in the late summer,
swung ahead in the polls, the coverage immediately shifted. And, suddenly,
Bush couldn't catch a break. So some of that was simply poll driven and the
idea that journalists want to back a winner.
But I think if you look at the whole thing from beginning to end you'll see
that the coverage from the journalists covering Gore was much tougher and
much more skeptical about the man than the coverage of Bush. It was--it sort
of set the tone by what was the nicknamed "The Spice Girls." There were
three journalists; women from the Associated Press, from The New York Times,
and from the Washington Post on the Gore campaign. And the criticism--I
don't think it was entirely fair, but the criticism was that they just really
didn't like this guy and it was going to be--everything he did was suspect.
It was always about the hidden motives behind what he was doing.
Whereas on the other side you had the Bush coverage. These people genuinely
seemed to like the man. They didn't get into all this question of motive.
They didn't get into all the questions of what was behind it; what he was
really trying to say or the style in which he was saying it. They were
actually taking his words and writing them. And I think if you look in the
overall, this is the pattern throughout the campaign. And I think it's
because, by and large, Bush was much better at winning over journalists
individually. Not as good as John McCain was, but he was a lot better than Al
There--this changed time to time through the campaign. Bush became very close
to the press when he was in trouble right after New Hampshire. Gore went
through brief periods when he'd spend a lot of time on the back of the plane.
But both of them would go through periods when the press was actually
counting. You know, it's been 47 days without a press availability. And that
began to cloud everything else. And you just get this ornery group of
journalists who hasn't seen this man that they have been traveling with for a
month. They haven't, literally, spoken with him in that period of time. And
that has to influence the coverage. And I think all of that influences the
coverage more than some sort of ideological bias that journalists may have.
GROSS: Well, is a personality bias any better than--I mean, like, if a
candidate is nice to the press and if they have a nice sense of humor, is that
a good reason for them to get better coverage and to be treated more
Mr. MILBANK: Is it a good reason? No. I'm not arguing that it's a good
reason. I--as I said, I don't think it's a terribly flattering portrayal of
myself and my colleagues...
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. MILBANK: ...that, you know, if somebody's going to feed us doughnuts and
good barbecue, he's gonna get good stories. And that's--obviously, you know,
I'm exaggerating there to an extent. But that is--I think there is something
to that. I suppose if you were trying to create some sort of elaborate
justification for that you could say that a candidate who is strong
interpersonally, who could win people over is the more effective leader; that
if you look at the more pious and sanctimonious presidents we've had, they
tend to be the weaker ones. And the ones who are quite skilled at getting
along with people and negotiating are the better ones. We don't want to have
another Woodrow Wilson, which I think we would have had with Bill Bradley.
And the fact that everybody who meets President-elect Bush seems to like him
certainly weighs in his favor. Now I realize I'm sort of rationalizing there.
In reality, it's just because we've been given doughnuts. But there's
probably a little bit of a lesson for journalists and for politicians in that.
GROSS: Dana Milbank, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. MILBANK: Thank you.
GROSS: Dana Milbank is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post.
His new book about life on the campaign trail is called "Smashmouth."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Soul Singer James Carr died of cancer in Memphis at age 58
TERRY GROSS, host:
Soul singer James Carr died of cancer on Sunday in Memphis where he lived most
of his life. He was 58. Let's listen to his best-known recording, "Dark End
of the Street," which was written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman. In 1966, this
made it to the top 10 of the rhythm and blues charts.
(Soundbite from "Dark End of the Street")
Mr. JAMES CARR: (Singing) At the dark end of the street that's where we
always meet hiding in shadows where we don't belong; living in darkness to
hide our wrong. You and me at the dark end of the street. You and me.
I know time is gonna take its toll. We have to pay for the love we stole.
It's a sin and we know it's wrong. Oh, but our love keeps comin' on strong.
Steal away to the dark end of the street. Mm.
They're gonna find us. They're gonna find us. They're gonna find us, oh,
someday, you and me, at the dark end of the street. You and me.
And when the daylight hour rolls around and, by chance, we're both downtown.
If we should meet, just walk on by. Oh, darling, please don't cry. Tonight
we'll meet at the dark end of the street. Mm.
GROSS: That was James Carr. He died Sunday of cancer.
Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews "The Mole" and "Temptation
Island." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New reality-based TV shows don't hold much promise
TERRY GROSS, host:
Among the first new TV shows of the year are three series trying to follow on
the heals of last season's smash hit "Survivor." ABC has "The Mole," which
premiered last night. And Fox has "Temptation Island," which first airs
tonight. And the WB Network has "Pop Stars" coming up on Friday. TV critic
David Bianculli says the copycats are inevitable and that their failure
probably is, too.
Why are we suddenly getting hit with all these reality shows and cutthroat
contests in prime time? Two reasons: "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and the
threatened actors strike later this year. "Millionaire" burst out of the gate
two summers ago and changed all the rules. At a time when network viewership
was going down, Regis Philbin's quiz show proved that broadcast TV still could
attract large audiences and entertain several generations at once like it did
way back in the years BC, `before cable.' Because of "Millionaire," network
executives were ready to try almost anything. One of those tries resulted in
"Survivor," last year's biggest new hit.
The other reason for all this new reality-show development is that all of
Hollywood is fearing and gearing up for a possible actors strike later this
year. For TV, that means scripted shows will have to be stockpiled in
advance or substituted with other programs. And these reality shows, like
news magazines, are the most obvious players to call in from the bench. That
doesn't mean, though, that any of them are worth watching or that any of them
Look, I liked "Millionaire" and "Survivor" from the start and predicted both
would be big hits. The predictions coming true was dumb luck. It always is.
But I reacted to those shows, like many people did, because they were so
different. "Millionaire" was the first prime time quiz show in decades, and
"Survivor" was a true TV original. That's why, I think, they succeeded and
why I think "The Mole," "Temptation Island," and "Pop Stars," like last
season's "Survivor" wanna-be, "Big Brother," will fail. So will most of the
third-generation copies due later this season.
When "Millionaire" hit big on ABC, Fox broke a TV development speed record
churning out its own game show ripoff. That show was called "Greed." And,
really, the title says it all about this entire copycat phenomenon, except, in
this case, Gordon Gekko's advice in the movie "Wall Street" didn't hold
true. "Greed" was not good. The only thing more pathetic about the way TV
tries to clone its own successes is how long it's been trying the same sorry
trick. Half a century ago when the first Western showed up in TV's top 10,
the networks fell all over themselves churning out variations on the same
cowboy themes. By the end of the 1950s, there were 31 Westerns in prime time
every week and many of them were weak. Every time someone on TV scores a big
hit, other people are there ready to try the sincerest form of flattery. In
the '70s, anyone with a pulse could host a variety show. In the '80s, "The
Cosby Show" and "Miami Vice" were followed by several sad, inferior
And now, to start this new century, we have stuff like "Pop Stars," which
tracks the tryouts for a brand-new girl group, and "Temptation Island," which
takes four unmarried couples, separates them and tempts them with good-looking
people in a show that's less steamy and even less interesting than it sounds;
and "The Mole," which gathers 10 people together and eliminates them one by
one with the help of one inside person who's actually working against the
Here's a quick taste of "The Mole" just to prove how insipid it is. The
contestants are gathered around a conference room table, and host Anderson
Cooper is about to show them a videotape catching them in the act of doing
something they shouldn't have done.
(Soundbite from "The Mole")
Unidentified Man #1: Oh, and one more thing, as I left this room I told you
as a group not to discuss anything you had seen on the monitors. Can you all
come around and look at this?
Unidentified Man #2: During the test we had our camera crews step out of the
room. But one camera was left recording to see if the players would discuss
the information on the screens when they thought no one was listening.
Unidentified Woman #1: Have you ever had your heart broken?
Unidentified Man #3: Never have.
Unidentified Woman #2: She said, "Have you never ever had your heart
Unidentified Man #1: And Trulley answered. And because of that we're gonna
have to penalize you $10,000.
Unidentified Contestants: (In unison): Ooh.
Unidentified Woman #3: Who said that?
Unidentified Woman #1: I just don't know.
BIANCULLI: This is a show built entirely around distrust; a show where
cameras are everywhere and the results are intended for national television.
Knowing that, what kinds of idiots would think they have any sort of privacy
at all? These kinds of idiots, that's who. And to tell you the truth, I
can't work up much more sympathy for anyone who wants to watch one of these
tacky come-latelys. "Pop Stars" doesn't interest me, I don't dig "The Mole"
and "Temptation Island" doesn't tempt me a bit. But I still watch
"Millionaire" from time to time, and when "Survivor II" premieres after the
Super Bowl, I'll be there.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with music from jazz pianist Uri Caine's
new CD of his interpretation of the "Goldberg Variations."
(Soundbite of "Goldberg Variations")
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