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'Family': Fundamentalism, Friends In High Places
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. Senator John Ensign of Nevada and South
Carolina Governor Mark Sanford have something in common, in addition to both
being Republicans who confessed to out-of-wedlock affairs.
Theyâre connected to a Christian group known as the Family, or the Fellowship.
Ensign lives in a house on C Street in Washington, D.C. thatâs registered as a
church and is owned by a foundation affiliated with the group. In Sanfordâs
press conference about his affair, he said heâd worked with C Street, which he
described as a Christian Bible-study group.
Usually between five and eight lawmakers live at the house on C Street. If
youâve never heard of C Street or the Family, itâs perhaps because the Family
prefers it that way. Itâs a pretty secretive group but very powerful.
The long-time leader, Doug Coe, was included in Time magazineâs 2004 list of
the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Coe was described as the
stealth Billy Graham, specializing in the spiritual struggles of the powerful.
My guest, Jeff Sharlet, is the author of the book âThe Family: The Secret
Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.â It just came out in paperback.
Sharlet is a contributing editor for Harperâs and Rolling Stone and an
associate research scholar at NYUâs Center for religion and media.
Jeff Sharlet, welcome to FRESH AIR. What is the Family or the Fellowshipâs idea
of Christianity that itâs trying to spread?
Mr.Â JEFF SHARLET (Author, âThe Family: The Secret Fundamentalism and the Heart
of American Powerâ): Well, itâs a very unusual organization, so much so that
some traditional Christian-right organizations consider it heretical.
It goes back to this vision that the founder, a Norwegian immigrant named
Abraham Vereide, has in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression, and he
believes that God comes to him first in the person of James Farrell, who was
then the head of U.S. Steel, and Vereide was sort of at that time already a
prominent minister, so he was traveling in those circles, and reveals to him
that the Great Depression, that all economic suffering is a punishment for
disobedience of Godâs laws.
So any kind of New Deal is not the way to go, and then God gives him a second
revelation, which is that Christianityâs been getting it wrong for 2,000 years.
At its best it talks about the poor, the weak, the suffering, the down and out,
and he believes that God tells him very literally, using these words: Abraham,
your mission is to serve the up and out, those who are already powerful, and if
you can get their hearts right with God, then they in their positions of power
that God has placed them in will dispense blessings to those underneath them.
One Senate staffer, who had been affiliated with a group for a while, said it â
called it â described it, I think, very aptly as a sort of a trickle-down
GROSS: So the Fellowship or the Family, thatâs why it ministers to powerful
people like congressmen and senators.
Mr.Â SHARLET: Yeah, absolutely, and congressmen and senators, foreign leaders.
What they want is â in one document, he says we are trying to build a family of
world leaders who are bound privately through our networks with this particular
understanding of Christianity, and if we can just do that, weâll be able to,
you know, bring peace to the world, free markets, which they equate with
Christianity, and all these other blessings that they tend to also conflate
with American power.
GROSS: Now, whatâs the connection in the philosophy of the Family between free
markets, capitalism and Christianity?
Mr.Â SHARLET: You go back to this moment in the Great Depression that I
describe, where they see this as a sort of punishment from God for what they
see as sort of a sin of socialism. The attempts to regulate the market are
prideful. In other words, the invisible hand, they take that very literally,
you know, the invisible hand of capitalism.
They say what you have is an invisible hand through which God touches the
hearts of corporate titans, leaders and so on, and they then run their
companies, and the Family began primarily as a union-busting organization. That
was their sort of first mission.
They were terrified of organized labor in the 1930s, but they tapped into this
older American tradition that really goes back to something in the 19th century
called the businessmanâs revival, this idea that if you have Christian men of
business and Christian politicians and so on, you donât need laws to protect
the poor because they will protect the poor.
Itâs this very paternalistic and potentially very dangerous tradition, because
of course it leads you away from accountability. If we say we donât have
regulation, we donât have oversight, we donât have laws, we just have God
operating in the heart of these powerful men, well, weâre left without a lot of
recourse when a powerful man like, say, Governor Sanford or Senator Ensign goes
off the rails.
GROSS: So what about the values agenda that has been so important to the
Republican Party in the past few years? Does the Family emphasize an anti-gay
agenda, anti-abortion, pro-celibacy, pro - you know, pro - abstinence-only
education, I should say - are they supporters of that values agenda, in
addition to, you know, emphasizing the more capitalist approach?
Mr.Â SHARLET: Yes, but not rigidly and only secondarily. To them, the idea of
free markets, working through elites, building these networks of elites, thatâs
the top concern.
So Doug Coe, the long-time leader of the group, I sat in one time on a meeting
between Doug Coe, the leader, and Congressman Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, and Todd
Tiahrt was sort of there almost sort of auditioning to get involved in this
thing, and he was trying to show off, you know, his dedication to those kinds
of meat-and-potatoes Christian-right issues, and he was talking about the
threat of Islam and talking about abortion, and Doug Coe, he doesnât
necessarily disagree with this sort of line of thinking. He sort of nods his
head and says, yeah, yeah, thatâs fine, but you know, youâre really thinking
He says, you know, this is just â these are hot-button issues. He says the real
work of the kind of governance that weâre after is what he calls Jesus plus
nothing, and Jesus plus nothing means actually Jesus plus everything.
It means everything gets filtered through Jesus, and the examples he gave, he
says what does Jesus have to say about Social Security? In the Familyâs case,
itâs privatize, which is almost always their answer, is to privatize.
What does Jesus have to say about building roads? What does Jesus have to say
about every single issue, including in your own life? And you organize men like
Sanford and Ensign, and maybe Todd Tiahrt, into prayer cells so that they can
ask, what does Jesus have to say about whatâs in my life? And they actually
give veto power over their own lives to the other men in their prayer cells.
Thatâs their language, by the way. Cell sounds like an inflammatory term, but
itâs actually got this old evangelical pedigree that long predates the current
GROSS: You compare the Family to, say, televangelist groups, and you say that
in some ways theyâre at opposite poles. Like the televangelists, they want to
get on TV. They want to preach to a really large audience. They want a mega-
church, whereas the Family, itâs pretty secretive. They donât want any media
attention. They donât want people to know their name. Why?
Mr.Â SHARLET: This man that I mentioned, the current leader, Doug Coe, this was
really his insight, and it goes back to 1966. Heâs the second person to lead
the Family. The long-time leader was the founder, Abraham Vereide, and he
didnât mind public attention. He really liked it to be known that he was
hobnobbing with, you know, senators and presidents and kings and that kind of
He knew also that you had a media at that time that didnât look too closely
into the religious lives of politicians. It wasnât considered that relevant,
and then you get this moment in the late â60s where two things are happening.
The Family is really expanding its reach into governments around the world,
sort of the developing world, and theyâre dealing with a lot more sort of
unsavory characters, and at the same time you have a media thatâs suddenly
moving into one of these great investigative periods, where the media is sort
of saying, hey, weâre going to ask tough questions, and if youâre going to go
and pray with General Suharto in Indonesia and then make an oil deal, we want
to know about that.
Well, so Doug Coe sends out a memo to the various congressmen and politicians
involved, and he says the time has come to submerge our public image.
They got rid of letterhead. He says from now on when you do something through
the Family, donât say youâre doing it through the family, just say youâre doing
it yourself, and that weâre going to become invisible believing groups. This is
Itâs important because when someone says invisible, it sounds kind of
conspiratorial. This is their language and their documents. They thought that
would make them more effective, and I always try to see it from their
perspective. They do think that, look, we can do more good work for people, we
can help these powerful people if we can give them a shield from the public
You know, and thatâs fine for a pastor and an individual, but when weâre
talking about political deals, itâs a whole different story.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned that - I guess it was Doug Coe - prayed with General
Suharto, who was a strongman in Indonesia and then made an oil deal. What are
you referring to?
Mr.Â SHARLET: Yeah, thatâs one of the stories I really delved into, into these
documents. The way I was able to tell this story, I should say, is for all its
secretiveness, the Family dumps 600 boxes of documents and hundreds of tapes in
the Billy Graham Center archives in Wheaton, Illinois.
So I spent years going through these papers and so on, and you would find this
sort of whole alternative history of the Cold War. So we know about U.S.
support for Suharto, who came to power with the murder â itâs hard to know â
anywhere between 600,000 and one million of his fellow countrymen, whom he
described as communists.
Sometimes, you know, Suhartoâs forces would wipe out entire villages on the
premise that everybody in them was a communist and had to die. I mean heâs was
one of the really great killers of the 20th century, and Doug Coe and Abraham
Vereide took a look at him and said thatâs a man of God. And keep in mindâ¦
GROSS: Wait, wait, did they say thatâs a man of God or thatâs a man weâd like
to make a man of God?
Mr.Â SHARLET: Good correction, actually. They â neither. They said thatâs a man
God has chosen, and this is an issue that they always deal with. They know that
the dictators theyâre dealing with are often, you know, pretty scary guys, but
theyâll say, look, God chooses who he wants to work with. So God wants to fight
Suharto is a man whoâs fighting communism, and heâs killing a million people,
and, well, just look at the Bible, theyâll say. The Bible is filled with, you
know, blood and killing and so on. God works in mysterious ways.
At the same time they are reaching out to Suharto. They are bringing
delegations of congressmen over there. Theyâre bringing delegations of the oil
executives who are financing their work over there. One oilman named Harold
McClure wrote in a memo that was then circulated among core congressional
members that heâd had an hour-long meeting with Suharto and some of the oil
people around Suharto.
Suharto, of course, controlled the eighth-largest oil company in the world at
that time, and they had an hour of prayer, after which theyâd moved on to
business. And he said it had just been one of the most spiritual encounters of
his life and also one of the most lucrative, which sounds deeply cynical, but
when you understand the Familyâs perspective, itâs not.
They see the wealth and influence and power in this kind of dumbed-down
Calvinism way as a sign of their selection, or literally their election by God,
that theyâve been chosen for this wealth, for this influence.
GROSS: So did this Christian-right group, the Family, make money on the
Indonesia oil deal, or was it not about money for them? I mean, the oil deal
wasnât in their name. It was for another party, but you know, what did they get
out of it?
Mr.Â SHARLET: The family, itâs never about money for the Family, and I think
this is important for secular folks and liberal folks to understand about
fundamentalism in general and this organization in particular. They really
believe what they believe. They believe theyâre working for God. This is not a
cynical exercise. What they got out of it was the sense that they were helping
Suharto do his work as Godâs chosen man for this country.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Jeff Sharlet. Heâs the author of
the book âThe Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American
Power.â Itâs just come out in paperback. Letâs take a short break here, and
then weâll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest, Jeff Sharlet, is the author of the book âThe Family,â about a
secretive but powerful Christian group known as the Family. Itâs in the news
now because Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford, who confessed to
affairs, both have connections to the group. Ensign lives in a house on C
Street that is owned by a foundation affiliated with the Family. Sanford turned
to C Street to help him work through his marital problems.
What is the house on C Street?
Mr.Â SHARLET: This house on C Street is one of the ways the Family pursues its
ministry of reaching out to powerful people and serving them. Itâs a former
convent, registered as a church so it doesnât pay taxes, at which the Family
provides housing for anywhere, at any given time, you know, five to eight
congressmen, usually at below-market rates, so thereâs a bit of an ethical
question there, and they also play host to many other congressmen who want to
come by for lunch of just to hang out.
Christian-right leaders can use the house on C Street as a place where they can
sit down in private with politicians and talk to them. Theyâll have prayer
When I spent some time there, they had a calendar prominently displayed on the
wall with instructions for daily spiritual war. So on Tuesday, for instance,
you are to pray against the demonic stronghold of Buddhism. Wednesday, itâs
Hinduism thatâs the problem.
Most of the guys who live there are a little bit more laid back than that, and
the Family doesnât require any doctrinal, you know, statement of loyalty.
You want to live there and be in fellowship with these guys, thatâs find. Itâs
soft-sell evangelism, not that kind of hard Bible-thumping that you see on TV.
GROSS: When you said that the below-market rental rates posed ethical
questions, did you mean that because the house is officially called a church,
and it doesnât have to pay taxes, it can afford to charge cheaper rates, and
itâs questionable whether itâs really a church or not? Is that what you meant?
Mr.Â SHARLET: The whole deal. I mean registering as a church so as to avoid
taxes looks a little sketchy. You have these congressmen who are living in a
church, but this is not a church by any recognizable standard. That seems like
a tax dodge.
GROSS: Iâve read thereâs a chapel inside.
Mr.Â SHARLET: Well, it was a former convent. Itâs kind of an interesting
building, but it doesnât function as a church, and not only doesnât it function
as a church, but you have the leader of the organization, Doug Coe, whoâs going
there, and Doug Coe will speak very openly against church.
Doug Coe doesnât like church. He doesnât like that whole idea of Christianity
as something that you limit to Sunday mornings. He doesnât like the idea of a
church where â churches are - historically they are about sort of a bottom-up
faith where everybody has equal access, right?
But Doug Coe teaches this very different idea. He says when you read the New
Testament, you discover that there are concentric rings of authority and that
thereâs the masses, and Jesus speaks one way to them, and then thereâs
disciples, and Jesus speaks one way to them. He says, well, thatâs true now as
He says Jesus reveals himself more fully to his chosen, and Coe believes when â
heâs not using the word chosen casually. They refer to themselves as the new
chosen because they believe that the Jews broke their covenant with God.
So the Jews are no longer the chosen people. The Family are the new chosen, and
they donât operate through churches. So itâs a little bit of a dodge there, and
then thereâs also â and I think this is a very minor question. I think itâs
easy to get distracted with the Family by ethical quibbles around the edges
when thereâs this big, giant question of transparency and openness and
democracy, but thereâs this ethical question of are these guys getting below-
market housing, and is this â should this be registered as a gift, especially
given that Christian-right leaders are going there to lobby for this cause or
that cause and that there is unofficial lobbying going on in the house.
GROSS: Although the Family is a very secretive group, the thing thatâs best
known about it, although I didnât know about until reading your book, is that
the Family or the Foundation created the Annual National Prayer Breakfast,
which is attended by the president, members of Congress and important people
from around the world.
Can you give us the short version of how they created it, how and why they
Mr.Â SHARLET: The why first was that they wanted an annual ritual of
consecration of the United States to Jesus, and they thought if they could
install this right at the heart of American civil religion, they would be sort
of slowly moving America to becoming this godly nation they wanted to be.
So in 1953, working with Billy Graham and Senator Frank Carlson, who was
Eisenhowerâs right-hand man, they went to Ike, and they said we want to do
this. They tried with Truman and FDR too, and it didnât get anywhere, and Ike
immediately recognized it for what it was, which was a blatant violation of
separation of church and state, didnât want to do it, but he owed Senator Frank
Carlson, who was then one of the leaders of the Family, he owed him a big
favor. He had helped organizing evangelical vote for Eisenhower, and Eisenhower
agreed to do it.
And the Family knew that once they got it rolling, then it becomes a tradition,
and so now Iâve talked to congressmen. You mention that you didnât know that
the Family runs it. Almost nobody does. Your invitation comes on congressional
letterhead. Iâve talked to congressmen who believe that it goes back to the
beginning days of the republic.
You can imagine, you know, James Madison rolling over in his grave at the
thought of this. Itâs a pretty bland event on the surface of it. You know, itâs
supposed ecumenical, though the planning documents say â one planning document
describes it as anything can happen. Even the Koran can be read, but Jesus is
there. He is infiltrating the world.
Well, this is the ecumenical event, supposedly, that has the sanction of U.S.
government and the U.S. president and also becomes a sort of a week-long
lobbying festival for foreign officials.
One of the things that bothered me is when I looked at who was coming, the
delegations from around the world, almost more often than not it was led by the
defense minister of small nations: Albania, Ecuador and so on. And theyâre
coming there to lobby, and the Familyâs only too happy to help them do that in
exchange for influence in their governments.
GROSS: Is there anything youâd like to tell us about the Mark Sanford story or
the John Ensign story that you feel like you understand because youâve studied
Mr.Â SHARLET: I was especially fascinated when Governor Sanford explained his
decision not to resign by referring to King David and saying, look, hereâs King
David, this guy who fell mightily but he went on. And by fell mightily he means
that King David had an adulterous affair and then had the husband of the woman
murdered. And thatâs actually one of the sort of core parables of the Family
that I encountered and describe this experience with David Coe, the son of Doug
Coe, the leader, came around and gave us this long lesson. He says, What made
King David great? And the men I was with, theyâre all trying to say, well, he
loves God, he - all this. He says no, no, thatâs not it. He says King David was
a terrible man. You know, he was an adulterer and a murderer. So why is he a
hero of the Bible? And the answer is because God chose him. King David is
beyond morality in their limited understanding of Scripture, and thatâs a
central parable in the Familyâs thinking, and I could almost hear Doug Coeâs
voice when Governor Sanford is saying I need to keep governing because Iâm like
GROSS: Well, Jeff Sharlet, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr.Â SHARLET: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet is the author of the book âThe Family,â which was just
published in paperback. He also co-edited the new book âBeliever Beware: First-
Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith,â a collection of articles from the
Web site he co-founded, Killing the Buddha. Iâm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
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Assessing The State Of The (Republican) Nation
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. After the Republican Party's defeat last
November, the party has been struggling to redefine itself. That's become more
difficult in the wake of Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford's
affairs, and a new Vanity Fair article about Sarah Palin that has set off a
public spat within the Republican Party. The article, by Todd Purdum, describes
some former McCain campaign ads as believing Palin was not prepared to be vice
president. What does the Republican Party stand for now? And who are its
leaders? My guest, Dan Balz is national political correspondent for the
Dan Balz, welcome to FRESH AIR. What do you think the John Ensign and Mark
Sanford scandals do to the GOP brand, which for years has been identified with
Mr. DAN BALZ (National political Correspondent, The Washington Post): Well it's
- at a minimum Terry, itâs an embarrassment. But itâs an embarrassment that
comes at a terribly difficult moment for the Republican Party. They're brand is
damaged at this point, and I think anything like this, particularly the one
that goes to kind of the heart of a piece of their message further damages
that. I think it does that in two ways. One is, it discourages, if you will,
the sort of the evangelical or social conservative base of the party. They
wonder whether the people who claim to share their values actually practice
That doesnât mean those people are going to defect to the Democratic Party, but
it makes them somewhat less enthusiastic about getting out there and really
working for Republican candidates. I think the other thing it does is it just
causes the party more problem with people who have already kind of turned away
from the party, those Independents and moderate swing voters that went heavily
for the Democrats in both 2006 and 2008. It gives them even less reason to try
to come back at this point.
GROSS: Now what about Ensign and Sanford themselves? Where do they stand on
Mr. BALZ: Well, they were both proponents. I mean there's hardly a Republican,
certainly a Republican who has won statewide and who may have national
ambitions who doesn't in one form or another talk that talk. And you know, I
don't think that either one was so heavily indentified with that. I mean
certainly, Mark Sanford is better known for his economic conservatism than his
social conservatism. But they certainly bought into that. They spoke about it.
They defended it. And in past, they have criticized others who have strayed in
the way they have now strayed - particularly, Mark Sanford did that during the
Bill Clinton scandal in the 1990s.
GROSS: And one of the things Sanford said then was he accused Bill Clinton of
lying about the oath to his own wife.
Mr. BALZ: Yes. And as we are seeing this week, Governor Sanford is continuing
to explain his story in ways that are, you know, that suggests there's more
ways in which he violated that marital oath and, you know, lied to his wife and
put aside the constituents of South Carolina. So you know it's - I say, it's an
embarrassment. Human beings are fallible. We all know that and Democrats are as
well as Republicans, but it seems to come at a somewhat higher price for
Republicans because they have made that a centerpiece of what they stand for as
GROSS: You know, when I think of how the anti-gay marriage Republicans have
based their position, in part, on their insistence that gay marriage will
undermine heterosexual marriage, you know, it seems like some Republican
elected leaders don't need any outside help when it comes to undermining their
own marriages. What are you hearing behind the scenes in Republican circles
about whether the family values agenda is going to work anymore, and whether
it's time for the Republicans to either reconsider their views on gay marriage
or at least reconsider the argument that they use about you know, undermining
Mr. BALZ: I don't think that the Republicans can afford to abandon the family
values agenda. Now, weâve seen people in the past few months - Steve Schmidt,
was a key advisor to Senator John McCain last year in the presidential
campaign, has basically said the party needs to reevaluate its position on gay
marriage. We know that younger voters are much more tolerant, particularly on
gay issues, than older voters are. So that the Republicans, you know, theyâve
got not just a short-term problem, but theyâve got a long-term problem in how
they figure out how to address this.
GROSS: So what are you hearing behind the scenes from Republicans about where
the party is heading and how they want to get out of the trouble that they
appear to be in now?
Well, I think there's several aspects to it. I mean, the first is clearly they
have drawn some lines with President Obama on his agenda. I mean they are
betting A, that the president's economic policies will not work as effectively
as he hopes they will. They are betting that he is trying to push more
government on to the public than the public really is prepared to accept, in
addition to the size of the stimulus and the bailouts of GM - and the bailout
we know is not particularly popular - the size of the potential deficit that is
being run up.
The health care plan that the president's proposing would inject government in
a much more significant way in the health care industry, and the climate change
bill that the House passed narrowly last week is another that has you know,
significant implications for the role of government. And then you put on top of
the financial regulatory reform, which certainly I think a lot of people
believe is necessary, given what happened last year with the financial
industry. But nonetheless, that's a lot of government that the president is
asking for. I think Republicans believe that there is an opportunity for them
if they can make a, kind of, a coherent case that he is doing too much. That he
is putting too much government in place, that there will be an audience for
GROSS: Let's look at the leadership in the party now. I mean, who are the
leaders? Let's start with Michael Steele. He's the head of the Republican
National Committee. Does he have any actual clout within his own party now?
Mr. BALZ: Not a lot of clout and â but although, that's not that unusual for
the chairman of the party. The role of the chairman of either the Democratic
National Committee or the Republican National Committee is in many ways the
primary technician for the party. They are the people who have to make sure
that the party has fundraising capability, that its political operation is up
to speed, that the voter lists and databases are constantly updated, that the
state parties have the support they need. They are rarely the people who can
speak for the party with great credibility.
Now, Michael Steele has certainly had a rocky tenure as chairman of the
Republican National Committee. So to the extent that he might have been a,
spokesman, I think he's hurt himself on that front. So no, Michael Steele is
not the person who the Republicans are looking to, to be their spokesperson.
GROSS: Who really are the leaders now within the Republican Party, either the
public faces or the behind the scenes people?
Mr. BALZ: Well you look in two places. One is you look at the congressional
leadership. These are the people who have been at least elected by their peers
within the House and Senate. So you have John Boehner in the House and you have
Mitch McConnell in the Senate. Again, I would say that itâs very difficult for
a congressional leader to really be a national spokesperson for the party. So
while both Senator McConnell and Congressman Boehner have a prominent role in
articulating where Republicans are, itâs very much within the context of a
legislative agenda. And we know that legislative speak does not transfer well
out into the rest of the country.
The second place you look for leadership is in the ranks of governors and the
Republicans have some prominent and attractive governors. Governor Tim Pawlenty
in Minnesota, who certainly has his eye on running for president in 2012, is
one. Charlie Crist, the Florida governor is another. He's going to run for the
Senate in 2010. He's a big state governor. Haley Barbour in Mississippi, though
that's a small state, Haley Barbour was the chairman of the Republican National
Committee when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and helped bring the party
back. Because of what happened to Mark Sanford, Barbour has now ascended to the
chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association.
And I think if not in a - in the role of candidate for 2012, because there's
some speculation about that, but at a minimum, I think Haley Barbour will be
somebody who will be looked to by other Republicans for guidance, for strategy,
for leadership. We know he is a smart strategic thinker. We know he's been
through this before. He has, you know, he has the experience to provide the
party with some balance and some ballast at a time when theyâve got problems.
GROSS: Do you see any other governors as being either hopeful leaders of the
party or hopeful presidential nominees?
Mr. BALZ: Well certainly Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska. We don't know
whether she's going to run again in 2010 for reelection, but she is certainly
somebody who commands a significant position in the Republican Party - not an
uncontroversial one by any means. But I donât think there's anybody among the
ranks of governors who has more charisma and who has a kind of a more
passionate following. We donât know whether she can expand out beyond that, but
certainly Sarah Palin is somebody that a lot of Republicans are hoping will run
for president and some Republicans are hoping will not run for president.
GROSS: You know, I really kind of half thought after the election that she
would kind of officially enter the land of celebrity and give up politics. And
either like do a television show or just some kind of more celebrity oriented
thing. But she's staying in politics.
Mr. BALZ: Her future is very uncertain at this point, I think. But one that so
many people are interested in. I'd say I don't think there's another Republican
in the party who creates the, kind of, you know, electricity that she does.
GROSS: My guest is Dan Balz, national political correspondent for the
Washington Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Dan Balz, national political correspondent for the
Washington Post. Weâre talking about the state of the Republican Party.
Do you see any splits in the Republican Party between the older and the younger
generation of leadership?
Mr. BALZ: Well, I think that itâs not open warfare by any means, but there is
great concern within the party, Terry, that there is an older generation of
leaders who need to move off the stage. I mean, if you look at who weâve seen
over the last six months, pushed forward - either pushed forward by the
Democrats or by themselves or by the media as potential leaders. I mean, first
it was Rush Limbaugh. Now, Rush Limbaugh is who he is. I mean he's a radio talk
show host. He's not going to run for office. But he has been around a long time
and so - but put him to the side. You know youâve got Newt Gingrich. Gingrich,
I say still a hero to many Republicans for bringing them to power in the 1990s,
somebody who may well run in 2012 for the presidency, but also somebody who we
know is a divisive figure, a polarizing figure, and has been around a long
Former Vice President Cheney, who's been out very strong on the issues of
torture and the closing of Guantanamo and a lot of President Obama's policies
on terrorism - you know, some Republicans cheer what he has done, but others
say it is time to have somebody else making those same arguments. So youâve got
this generation who have been in power, or theyâve been on the public stage for
a long time, who for the sake of the party being able to turn the page on all
of that, need to be gently or hard way shoved aside. The problem that weâve
seen over the last few months is that in one way or another the newer
generation of leaders has not stepped up in an effective way.
You know, you can point to Mark Sanford and John Ensign on the one hand because
of problems with their private lives. But you can also point to Bobby Jindal,
the governor of Louisiana, who is a very bright and able person and probably
does have a bright future, but when he was asked to give the Republican
response to President Obama last winter, he did not - I mean he just did a bad
job and everybody knew it and he knew it. So the moment when Bobby Jindal tried
to step on to the national stage he slipped and fell.
Sarah Palin has had her own problems throughout this year in establishing her
political bona fides. And so there's lots of questions even among Republicans
about that. You look at Jon Huntsman, an attractive Republican who might have
been a comer in 2012 or beyond and he's decided to go off to China to be the
U.S. Ambassador for President Obama. So the ranks keep thinning of the people
who should be the next generation. So that has been I think particularly
discouraging to a lot of Republicans that I've been talking to because they
think well weâve got - who are our future leaders and how do we get them out
there? And when we get them out there, are they going to perform?
GROSS: Now, you wrote a recent article, in which you said that a lot of
Republicans are wincing about some of the things Dick Cheney recently said
about President Obama and the president's approach to security and dealing
with, you know, alleged terrorists. But you say that Cheney is too powerful for
Republicans to take him on. From what does his power emanate now? I mean, he is
out of office. He's unlikely I think to run for office again.
Mr. BALZ: Well, the people who would most like him to step aside tend to be the
people who work hardest as operatives to win elections. And they have a sense
of the public mood and the publicâs desire. And in their estimation Dick Cheney
is not a helpful messenger for the Republican Party of the future. But they are
not of the stature that they can take him on. Elected officials are very
unlikely to do that. I think that what you need is for elected officials not to
say, Dick Cheney go away. Because itâs very difficult to take on a former
president or a former vice president if you're another Republican elected
official because you just run the risk of alienating at least part of your base
and you canât afford to do that, particularly if you have aspirations to run
GROSS: You know, I always wonder what Republicans - and I know you canât really
generalize here because every Republican is different - but what Republicans
think of right wing talk radio and TV. Take Rush Limbaugh, for instance. He
says some pretty extreme wild things. Heâs not running for office. Heâs not
taking responsibility for running the country. Heâs, I mean, heâs a talk show
host and what he needs is an audience and ratings and saying extreme things is
very good for getting audience and ratings.
Let me give you an example of one of the things that he said lately in relation
to Mark Sanfordâs affair. He said, oh, this is almost like, I donât give a
damn. And heâs talking about what Sanford might be thinking, you know, this is
almost like I donât give a damn. Countryâs going to hell in a hand basket. I
just want out of here. He had just tried to fight the stimulus money coming to
South Carolina. He didnât want any part of it. He lost the battle and said what
the hell, the federal government is taking over. I want to enjoy life.
So, heâs basically blaming the federal government and President Obama for an
affair that started before Obama was even president. I mean, thatâs just a
small example ofâ¦
Mr. BALZ: Well, itâs, I meanâ¦
GROSS: â¦what he said, but knowing that itâs a talk show hostâs job to get
ratings and not win elections, do you think the Republican Party - that a lot
of people in the Republic Party see Rush Limbaugh and other right wing talk
show hosts who say extreme things as being helpful to them or harmful to them?
Mr. BALZ: Well, the role of radio talk show host, whether itâs Rush Limbaugh or
Sean Hannity, any number them, has been an essential part of how the
Republicans have expanded their voice, their message and their appeal and
energized at least a part of the population. I think most Republican office
holders see them as they are, which is that they speak to a part of the base.
They do it sometimes in ways that are outrageous that elected officials canât
get away with. But again, theyâre not prepared to take them on, theyâve got to
work around them.
Most of the people who want to be leaders of the Republican Party donât want to
get into an argument with somebody who has an audience as big as Rush
Limbaughâs and weâve seen numerous examples of that. On the other hand, most
smart Republicans donât think you can get elected president of the United
States by speaking the way Rush Limbaugh does. But Rush, you know, the Rush
Limbaugh, you know, gives demoralized Republicans, you know, some energy.
GROSS: Some Democrats have nicknamed the Republican Party the party of no,
because theyâre saying no to everything that President Obama opposes. But what
do they stand for - for instance on the economy or on health care, two of, you
know, the big programs that President Obama is pushing forward on?
Mr. BALZ: Well, they stand for what they have stood for, for a quite a long
time. They stand for less spending, they stand for lower taxes. And on health
care, they stand for a solution to this problem of the uninsured that would
rely much more heavily on market forces. I think the problem for them at this
point is that those views were well articulated, certainly, in the 2008
campaign by Senator McCain and by many Republicans. And the country voted for
So, now the question for the Republicans is, is it adequate, is it simply
adequate to basically say no to what President Obamaâs doing and in essence
hope that his policies fail and that the public will then turn back in their
direction. But I think - letâs say that were to happen. I think they're still
going to have to have something that they donât yet have, which is a new
version of that set of principles. They've got to adapt that to a different
time and a different country.
Demographically, this is a much different country than it used to be.
Geographically, things are shifting. And so the Republicans are speaking to a
new audience and theyâve got to find a voice for that new audience.
GROSS: Well Dan Balz, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BALZ: Terry, youâre more than welcome. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Dan Balz is national political correspondent for the Washington Post.
Heâs the co-author of the book, âThe Battle for America 2008: The Story of an
Extraordinary Election,â which will be published in August. Coming up, David
Edelstein reviews the new movie âPublic Enemies,â starring Johnny Depp as John
Dillinger. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Public Enemies': Michael Mann's Mobster Waxworks
TERRY GROSS, host:
John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Melvin Purvis, G-men names
from Chicago in the 1920s and 30s that have become the stuff of legend,
especially Hollywood legend. Theyâre back in the new action and love story
âPublic Enemies,â directed by Michael Mann. The film stars Johnny Depp, as
Dillinger, and Marion Cotillard, who won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in âLa
Vie en Rose.â Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: The most powerful emotion in âPublic Enemiesâ is Johnny Deppâs
love of being a movie star and getting to wear wide-brim fedoras and long black
coats and spats and firing Tommy guns at G-men. And I ask you, my friends, who
wouldnât love that? Itâs the coolest fantasy ever. And Depp is happily in sync
with his role. His John Dillinger loves being a celebrity, too, and loves that
he can hide among the people who think heâs a folk hero. At the start of the
film, Dillinger and his cohorts break out of prison and soon heâs dressed to
the nines at a nightclub and thunderstruck by the sight of a luscious, soft-
curled Marion Cotillard.
Cotillardâs Billie Frechette joins him at his table, smitten back in a way
thatâs highly credible, even if her American accent sinks somewhere in the mid-
(Soundbite of movie, âPublic Enemiesâ)
Ms. MARION COTILLARD (Actor): (As Billie Frechette) What is it exactly you do
for a living?
Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (As John Dillinger) Iâm John Dillinger. I rob banks.
Thatâs where all people here put their money.
Ms. COTILLARD: (As Billie Frechette) Why did you tell me that? You couldâve
made up a story.
Mr. DEPP: (As John Dillinger) No, I wouldnât lie to you.
Ms. COTILLARD: (As Billie Frechette) Thatâs a serious thing to say to a girl
you've just met.
Mr. DEPP: (As John Dillinger) I know you.
Ms. COTILLARD: (As Billie Frechette) Well, I donât know you. I havenât been any
Mr. DEPP: (As John Dillinger) Well, some of the places I've been, itâs hot.
Where Iâm going, a whole lot better. You want to come along?
Ms. COTILLARD: (As Billie Frechette) Boy, you're in a hurry.
Mr. DEPP: (As John Dillinger) If you were looking at what I'm looking at, youâd
be in a hurry too.
EDELSTEIN: Wow, what a comeback line. Obviously, Deppâs Dillinger is a
romantic, which is what will bring him down. Former gang members tell him the
age of the independent operator is ending, soon to be replaced by coldhearted
syndicates. If âPublic Enemiesâ director Michael Mann has a moral point of view
on Dillingerâs bank robberies â which get a lot of people killed â I couldnât
discern it. His central motif is a retread of the one he peddled in "Heat,"
that Dillinger and Christian Baleâs FBI agent Melvin Purvis, though on opposite
sides, have a code that's distinct from those of their respective cohorts.
Dillinger doesnât shoot anyone in cold blood as opposed to Stephen Grahamâs
Baby Face Nelson, who cackles at his carnage. And Purvis offers a contrast to
fellow cops who torture suspects, and most of all to the power-grabbing, image-
mongering FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, whoâs played by Billy Crudup in an
astounding transformation, fatted and vaguely effeminate. âPublic Enemiesâ
doesnât really have a theme. But it has a tone and a tempo and a look â a
palette thatâs fascinatingly weird. Mann shot it on high-def video, which is
subtly different than film.
Branches in a forest at night are so sharp theyâre like etchings on the screen,
while the air itself seems thick, the perspective shortened. I think this look
was better suited to Mannâs recent "Miami Vice" movie, with its druggy,
tropical haze, but the shootouts here work like gangbusters. The camera offers
only limited vantages, and thereâs an eerie disjunction between the over-bright
muzzle fire and the gunsâ muffled pops, like distant firecrackers. High-def
does have one distracting downside. You can detect the male actorsâ pancake
make-up, which is especially unfortunate in the case of Bale, who now looks, as
well as acts, like a wax dummy.
âPublic Enemiesâ has lots of incidental pleasures, gorgeous costumes, an
electrifying comeuppance for Baby Face Nelson, a second escape from prison
thatâs ingeniously staged. But itâs only Deppâs goofy sense of fun that keeps
it from seeming inert. After Michael Jacksonâs untimely, though perhaps
inevitable, death, I re-watched his music video of the song âSmooth Criminal.â
Itâs a gangster fantasia with rat-tat-tat, staccato hoofing and a touch of
"Guys and Dolls." Itâs everything "Public Enemies" isnât: madly inventive,
genre-bending, at once a study in urban paranoia and a passionate tribute to
the artist as outlaw-loner.
The video reminds you why the gangster became a pop-culture existential hero.
Under threat, Jackson seizes the space. Michael Mannâs vision lacks that inner
spark. Heâs made a period gangster museum piece â it doesnât dance.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download
podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Iâm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.