DATE December 14, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt gives his views
on power sharing in the split Senate and on George Bush's
chances of passing legislation in Congress
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The location for George W. Bush's first address as president-elect was the
chamber of the Democratically controlled Texas House of Representatives.
Bush said he chose that location because it's the home of bipartisan
cooperation. He said the spirit of what he's seen in that hall is what is
needed in Washington.
Good luck. The US Congress is one of the most divided of the past 100 years.
The Senate is split 50-50. The House has 221 Republicans, 211 Democrats, 2
independents, and 1 seat left vacant by the death of Democrat Julian Dixon.
That seat is likely to be filled by another Democrat. The new faces in
Congress include Hillary Clinton, who will be working with the Republicans
who led the impeachment of her husband.
This morning I spoke with Eric Schmitt, a congressional correspondent for The
New York Times. I asked him to compare the president-elect's legislative
agenda with the agenda of the hard-line Republican leadership of Congress:
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Senate
Majority Leader Trent Lott.
Mr. ERIC SCHMITT (The New York Times): (technical difficulties) ...talking
about compassionate conservatism. He talks about education, and maybe one of
the first things he'll want to do is legislation improving the ability of
children--schoolchildren to read. He's talked about a major tax cut--$1.3
billion tax cut over 10 years, and he's also talked about Social Security and
working across party lines to reform the Social Security system, as well as
the Medicare system.
Where you have differences, however, with some of the more hard-line
Republicans in Congress, are their priorities in looking at privatizing Social
Security, for instance; in implementing a program of school vouchers; of
carrying out legislation banning partial-birth abortion. These are all things
that the governor, in one form or another, has supported but, I think, in a
Congress that is this evenly divided, are not going to be things that he is
going to want to put forward first. The governor's going to be on the spot to
try and get legislation--some legislation through on a bipartisan basis very
quickly. This will be very important for him to try and gain some traction
coming off this very bitter--bitterly contested election. And he's going to
need some accomplishments. He's not coming in with any kind of broad, popular
mandate. And so what he's going to have to do is very quickly take on some,
perhaps, rather more bite-size-type pieces of legislation, things that perhaps
have already passed the Congress but were vetoed by President Clinton, and
then move forward on those.
GROSS: Well, the Republican leadership in Congress is more hard-line than
President-elect Bush may be. What is his relationship to Armey, DeLay and
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, it's interesting. I think he has a fairly good
relationship overall with the Republicans on the Hill, although he did
keep them at somewhat of an arm's length during the campaign. One aspect to
watch is President Bush--President-elect Bush's relationship with Tom DeLay,
who's really the conservative leader of Republicans, certainly in the House
and perhaps in the entire Congress. These two guys have had a strained
relationship in the past. Governor Bush raised some questions about the way
the congressional Republicans were pushing ahead with programs that hurt the
poor. And DeLay kind of snapped back at him when he did that. So I think
it's--and there's been some--I think there was a little bit of mistrust built
up between DeLay and Governor Bush's father during the first Bush presidency.
So I think this is going to be a fascinating dynamic to watch, is to see
which--you know, which Republicanism really comes through. Is it the
compassionate conservatism that George Bush espouses or is it the more
hard-edged, more partisan, ideological, perhaps, programs that Tom DeLay and
some of the more conservatives in Congress would like?
GROSS: Now you can talk about uniting, but the Republican leaders of
Congress are the people who led the impeachment of President Clinton. And
the Bush team blocked the Florida recount every step of the way. Tom DeLay
sent a memo to congressional Republicans, pointing out that Congress can
reject a state's electoral votes if they felt the votes were tainted. This
would have been a way of overturning the election if Gore ended up winning
the Florida recount. Do you think that the Republican leadership really
wants to forge a spirit of bipartisanship and unity and compromise?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, they certainly have been talking the talk. Trent Lott,
for instance, the Senate Majority Leader, yesterday was asked several times
about this after some lunches that they had with Dick Cheney when they came
up. And he stressed the fact that while there have been very bitter partisan
differences in the past and he's disagreed with both the tactics and the
programs of Democrats, he's hoping for a fresh start. He's obviously in an
extraordinarily difficult position, being the majority leader of a Senate
that's evenly divided for the first time since the late 1800s. And he'll be
looking for a lot of help from the Bush administration to take some of that
burden off of him.
Dick Cheney, of course, as vice president, will serve as a tie-breaking vote.
But I think more than just that role--that visible role as the tie-breaker,
Cheney will be on the Hill a lot more than any other vice president, perhaps
helping Republicans on the House and Senate side, working out strategy;
working out tactics, because he realizes, as does Governor Bush, that they
need to have some accomplishments. They need to get something done and get
something done quickly to try and both unify the country, but also establish
a certain amount of legitimacy for a presidency that has a huge cloud hanging
over it right now.
GROSS: What about the Democratic leadership? Do you think the Democrats in
Congress are very angry and bitter, both about the impeachment and the
aftermath of that and how the election aftermath was handled?
Mr. SCHMITT: I think, to some extent, you know, impeachment is there, but
it's under the surface and it's kind of fading even as President Clinton exits
the scene. Obviously, the election is a much more visceral and--visceral
frustration and disappointment that many Democrats are feeling, I think
particularly among black members of Congress. I think you'll see them
and--talking about how black voters in Florida were disenfranchised. This is
going to linger a long time with them. And I think it's going to be
interesting to watch how the Congressional Black Caucus deals with this.
In terms of the leadership, both Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle--I think
Gephardt realizes, as well as Daschle, that if--that they--particularly
Daschle with a 50-50 Senate, they can be--they can be tarred with the same
brush of this question of partisanship. But Daschle emerges as perhaps one
of the most powerful people in Washington now, is head of the Senate
Democrats and the ability to lead the all-powerful filibuster in the Senate,
where you need 60 votes, a supermajority, to break off any debate in the
Senate. So I think both Gephardt and Daschle had supported Vice President
Gore in his efforts up to this point, even though relations between them
haven't always been the best. But I think they've quickly also rallied
around this question of trying to unify and--the Congress and the country
around here. I think, though, they're waiting to see. They're waiting to
see some concrete steps both from Governor Bush, now President-elect Bush, as
well as from the Republicans in Congress who they've come to distrust so much.
There's just so--you can't underestimate the amount of distrust that exists
right now, perhaps, you know, because--in large part because of impeachment,
but certainly over this last very difficult election cycle and with many
people--many Democrats and Republicans already looking to the 2002
GROSS: Now since the Senate is 50-50, is--if there is a tie vote, it's the
vice president who breaks that vote. For 17 days in January, the vice
president is going to be Al Gore because the--the people in Congress get
sworn in--new congressional members get sworn in 17 days before the new
president gets sworn in. Is there any talk in Congress now of Democrats
taking advantage of those 17 days in which Al Gore could be the tie-breaker
in the Senate?
Mr. SCHMITT: Certainly there's been talk along those lines. Senator Daschle
has told me that he does not expect to take advantage of that time when he'll
technically be the Senate Majority Leader. But he does have certain leverage
there in this whole--in his discussions with Senator Lott about organizing the
committees in the Senate. Right now, the Senate Democrats would like to have
parity on the Senate committees, basically, a 50-50 split on membership,
although they're more likely to recognize a Republican chairman. Many
Republicans have rejected this, saying that they're the ones,
technically--well, not just technically, but they are the ones in the majority
with Vice President Cheney's tie-breaking vote. They should be the ones with
one extra seat on committees to be able to have a clear mandate to set the
agenda. There have been some Republican senators, some committee chairmen
such as Jesse Helms, John McCain, who said they wouldn't have a problem with
parity on the committees. But this rubs a lot of Republicans the wrong way,
and so this is something they're still trying to work out.
GROSS: How are these things decided, like who--which party should get the
majority when things are ambiguous, as they are now?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, this is all the Senate. The Senate is--makes its own
rules. And in that way, it's kind of a unique institution in American
government. And so when Lott and Daschle sit down to discuss this, they
really don't have a lot of precedent to look back over to guide them. I
think, obviously, practical politics work into it. The priorities of their
own respective conferences play into it. But this is something that Lott and
Daschle have been talking about; they'll continue to talk about; they'll have
to take back to their members to see what can be acceptable. I think Lott is
under a lot of pressure from his members not to give in to Democrats,
particularly on the key committees such as banking, finance and
appropriations that deal with money appropriations and all.
But I think the Democrats have to be careful in what they ask for here and
what they wish, in that if they do get parity, the Republicans are going to be
in a position to assign not only equal responsibility, but equal blame to
anything that goes wrong, unlike what's been going on for the last few years
with Republican control, where Democrats have been able to, basically, run
against a Republican Congress, labeling them a `do-nothing' Congress.
Republicans, of course, accuse Democrats of obstructionism and of
deliberately not doing much; to use that in election campaign fodder.
But--so Democrats have to be a little bit careful about what they ask for
here. If they get--if they do get true parity on these committees, they
could be held equally responsible if things go bad and, again, the
atmosphere up on Capitol Hill goes quite partisan again.
GROSS: There's been talk that there's a couple of people in Congress who
might end up leaving before their term is up. Strom Thurmond is 98, which is
pretty old by anybody's standard.
Mr. SCHMITT: Yeah.
GROSS: Jesse Helms is 78, but he's had a lot of health problems, including
cancer, heart bypass and a nerve disorder. If either of them left the
Senate, how would their replacement be chosen and how might that affect the
balance of power?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, this is one of the hottest topic of--kind of rumors and
actuarial guessing that's going on in Washington right now. It's just kind
of the death watch, as morbid as it sounds, over Strom Thurmond and Jesse
Helms and perhaps other senators. There are seven senators now in the Senate
who are over the age of 75. Right now, Thurmond and Helms, for instance, come
from states with Democratic governors. And so their successors would be
picked by--at least their interim successors would be picked by Democratic
governors and would, presumably, be Democrats and would then swing the margin
of control to the Democrats.
Last week there were wild rumors that Jesse Helms, for instance, had
pancreatic cancer and other such illnesses and was, you know, on death's bed
in North Carolina. Well, this got to the point where the senator's press
secretary, Mark Teason(ph), put out, actually, a very funny press release
denying all these rumors and, basically, you know, telling the press to,
basically, get used to it; Jesse--Senator Helms was here, whether they liked
it or not and, you know, to--ready to torment them for more years. And
so--and I actually talked to Senator Helms about this, himself, and he looked
to me, at least, to be in the best shape he's been in in several months. I
think he's been getting some extra rest down in North Carolina.
GROSS: My guest is Eric Schmitt, congressional correspondent for The New
York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Eric Schmitt is my guest. He's a congressional correspondent for The
New York Times. He's been covering Congress for five years.
One thing that President-elect Bush could try is to offer a Cabinet post to a
Democratic member of the Senate who is from a state with a Republican
governor, in the hopes that if the Democratic senator moves out into a Cabinet
position, they would be replaced by a Republican senator, thus breaking the
tie. Any talk about that?
Mr. SCHMITT: There has been some talk about that, but, again, given the very
narrow margins in the Senate, 50-50, I think right now it'd be very unlikely
that a Democrat from a state with a Republican governor or a Republican for a
Democratic governor would voluntarily give up his seat at this point and,
effectively, hand control of the Senate to the opposite party. I think that
would be political suicide for that member. What you might see are certain
senators whose names are floated use that speculation to their advantage as
leverage within their own party, and perhaps even with the opposite party, to
get some of the legislative goodies that they're looking for and use that as
kind of a threat, if you--not a threat so much, but just as leverage over
everyone to get more of what they want.
GROSS: You know, we've been talking about some of the divisions in Congress.
There is a centrist coalition in the Senate. How important do you think the
centrist coalition will be and how effectively does it function?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, it's interesting, because they had their first meeting
the other day. And it's a group headed by John Breaux of Louisiana and
Olympia Snowe of Maine, who are a Democrat and a Republican. And they got 26
members of the Senate--you know, more than a quarter of the Senate, to show
up. I think that shows you something right there; that it's kind of chic to
be centrist here and that people are picking up on the idea that if anything's
going to work in the Congress or in the administration, it's going to be
governing from the center. Obviously, that's been Governor Bush's message.
It's been a message that now both Democrats and Republicans are picking up and
echoing on the Hill. And so you have the seeds here of, you know, the
possibility of some bipartisan cooperation, in the sense of this centrist
group being able to be the swing votes that carry legislation on the key
things that we've been talking about; in education, in health care, in taxes.
And you have people like John McCain coming over to join this group; John
Warner, who's not normally associated with the centrists--you know, joining
up--John Warner, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
So it's going to be a fascinating dynamic to kind of watch this unfold. In
the past, the centrists and the moderates, you know, particularly in the
House, have talked a good game, but they really haven't been able to exert the
kind of influence over legislation that I think they had hoped for, with a few
possible exceptions such as the minimum wage fight. But now when it's--when
this--again, with this bitterly contested election and the aftermath of this,
I think there will be at least an opportunity--a window, if you will--for
these centrists to kind of hold sway.
GROSS: Now I believe you covered Dick Cheney when he was Secretary of Defense
in the previous George Bush administration. And you've been covering him as
the vice presidential nominee and now presidential--vice president-elect.
What are some of your impressions of what kind of leader he is?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, as I mentioned before, Mr. Cheney is very conservative in
his philosophy, but he's not particularly ideological, in the sense that he's
a crusader like a Tom DeLay or even a Dick Armey is. He's a very practical
guy; a very kind of no-nonsense-type guy who looks for ways to get things
done. This guy is kind of a manager first and a--you know, a politician
second, if you will. I think that's what kind of endears him to, certainly,
Republicans. I mean, he has this sense--one Republican senator told me
yesterday, `You know, the grown-ups are in charge now,' and specifically
meaning in reference to Cheney. Mr. Cheney is 59 years old, and yet he's
younger than almost half the Senate, and yet he has this aura of kind of
Washington wise man about him. He has been a White House Chief of Staff.
He's a 10-year congressman from Wyoming. He was Secretary of Defense during
the Persian Gulf War. You know, he's very solid in--kind of the way he comes
across. He's also very conservative, which was masked a little bit, I think,
by his tenure as--at the Defense Department, where you really don't focus on
things like his votes on nutrition programs or whether to free Nelson
Mandela, which he opposed.
And so it's yet to be seen, kind of, how his influence will play out kind of
on domestic legislation. I think he'll play a tremendous role, though,
throughout the entire administration. He's, essentially, almost a de facto
Chief of Staff or--and a shadow Senate Majority Leader, if you will, and an
Uber National Security Adviser; somebody who oversees what's going on both
at the Defense Department and in foreign policy. He clearly gets along very
well with Colin Powell. These two guys worked together very closely during
the Bush--first Bush administration during the Persian Gulf War. So I think
in his quiet, kind of understated, yet very powerful way, he will be a very,
very important presence for this administration throughout Washington.
GROSS: You've explained how Cheney is the, quote, "adult." Who are the kids?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, I think in this case, there was--the reference was more
to the Clinton administration than it was to Governor Bush. But, certainly,
over the last few weeks with Governor Bush kind of taking a much
lower-profile role; hanging out at his ranch and letting Dick Cheney be the
public face of the administration--of the transition team up until just the
last few days, there's been this perception that, perhaps, Cheney is even
eclipsing Bush. This is the go-to guy, you know, who's handling in--a lot of
the personnel matters. He's trying to set up the legislative agenda on the
Hill. He's working away even though he's--you know, he's back at work three
days after suffering his fourth heart attack. And it's--you know, he just
keeps churning along. And people are kind of amazed by all of this. And he
doesn't tend to make mistakes or slip-ups, at least in public, that people
can seize upon. He's also kind of a--rather kind of a bland type of
character, again, on the surface, so he's not necessarily prone to these kind
But I think when people say adult supervision, that's what they think. They
get just--Republicans, in particular, tell me they just get a very reassuring
sense when they're around Cheney. This is a guy who's been there. He's done
that. He knows what he's doing. And they feel like--they feel very
comfortable with him being there.
GROSS: Eric Schmitt is congressional correspondent for The New York Times.
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, the bitter presidential election of 1800, which was tied in
the Electoral College and could have ended in violence and destroyed the
democracy, but it didn't. It ended with Thomas Jefferson emerging as
president. We'll talk with Bernard Weisberger, author of a book about it,
and we continue our talk with New York Times congressional correspondent Eric
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to our conversation with New York Times congressional
correspondent Eric Schmitt. He covered Vice President-elect Cheney when
Cheney served as secretary of defense in the administration of George W.'s
father. Schmitt has been covering Cheney in the election aftermath.
When you were covering Cheney during the election aftermath, what would you do
on the days when Cheney was just, like, behind closed doors?
Mr. SCHMITT: That's the hard part about it is because that's basically what
he's being doing most of is staying behind closed doors. His is not, again,
one, to give--to give a lot of information about what he's doing. I recall
one--one senior Pentagon official I talked to when I was doing a profile on
Dick Cheney--this was, like, the number two or three guy at the
Pentagon--during the Gulf War, Cheney would go into these top-level briefings
with President Bush and Secretary of State Baker and other top people, and
after these big meetings at the White House, all the principals would go back
and brief their deputies, all except for Cheney who just considered this to be
such confidential information he wouldn't even tell his top deputies, who had
to go scurrying off to other parts of the government and get a fill from
friends on what happened at this meeting so they could help run the policy.
This is kind of how Dick Cheney runs things, and it's the way that people
around him run things as well. They're very professional, but they're very
tight-lipped in terms of giving out a lot of information. So in terms of
trying to cover what's going on, in a story where they've been handicapped by
being in this weird kind of quasi-transition as they waited for the courts to
rule, you know, it's kind of like watching paint dry in seven days.
GROSS: The Congress, of course, is going to have to ratify any Supreme Court
appointments if anybody leaves the Supreme Court, any of the judges leave.
They'll also have to ratify President-elect Bush's Cabinet choices. Looking
into the future a little bit, do you think that President-elect Bush is going
to have a lot of trouble getting his choices ratified?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, I don't think his Cabinet will have that many problems.
He's talked about wanting to include at least one, maybe two Democrats,
probably not in the most prominent Cabinet positions, but still important
ones. I think the judgeships and justices is another matter. These have been
lightening rods over the last several years, certainly going back to the Bork
nomination and the Clarence Thomas nomination. And I think these are the
ones, particularly after this whole bitter fight, with the Supreme Court
intervening and to many Democrats appearing to hand the presidency to George
W. Bush, if there are Supreme Court positions to fill, these are going to be
very tricky for the new president to deal with and for the Congress to deal
with as well. I think that's where you'll see the major fights.
I don't think you'll probably see them on the Cabinet positions as much. And
I'm told that the governor will probably announce--or have announced most of
his Cabinet by Christmas. I think Dick Cheney's been doing a lot of vetting,
a lot of calling of people, and so I think we'll have a pretty good picture of
who these people are, most likely have Senate hearings, confirmation hearings
on most if not all of these people before the Inauguration on January 20, so
there's a real emphasis now on this truncated transition period to get these
people in place as soon as possible after the new administration takes power.
GROSS: President Clinton is serving his final days as president. He was
impeached during his presidency and then continued in his presidency and
continued to work with the Congress. As he leaves, I'm wondering how you
would assess how he handled himself and how much he was able to get done after
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, what was always so striking was the way the American
public were able to separate Bill Clinton, the personality and what they
believed about his, you know, his personal problems and the whole Monica
Lewinsky scandal, and Bill Clinton, the politician, who was universally
almost, even among Republicans, held in awe as a master politician. This was
a guy who was pretty much given up for dead politically after the impeachment.
Nobody gave him any chance of getting much of anything done afterward. And
yet, for instance, he was able to get a major China trade bill through, for
instance, with a Congress that was--particularly in the House and among his
own party were very much opposed to this.
In terms--as a politician, I think he was always respected and even people
like Dick Armey, who just kind of shake their heads if they walk out with this
guy--and particularly in these budget negotiations, just having their hat
handed to them at the end of the day--when it came to getting more money for
some of the priorities he wanted in health care, education--he was very
successful in doing this.
Obviously, he's not been able to get some of his initiatives through this
year, including the minimum wage, but I think over the long haul, his--again,
his political legacy as a politician will be quite good.
GROSS: When you look ahead to the new Congress, which little plots are you
most interesting and following the development of?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, there are several. I mentioned a few of them. The
delicious subplot between George W. Bush and Tom DeLay, for instance--which
wing of the Republican Party is going to prevail here? Or are they actually
the same wing; it's just a matter of which face are you going to put on it. I
think Governor Bush is perhaps more conservative than he lets on with his
rhetoric, and maybe closer to Tom DeLay than he would ever want people to
know, but just which Republicanism kind of prevails on Capitol Hill will be
fascinating. I've talked...
GROSS: With the compassionate conservatism or the more hard-line.
Mr. SCHMITT: That's correct. That's correct.
GROSS: What else?
Mr. SCHMITT: Watching Tom Daschle in his role--this is a guy who was, I
think, greatly underestimated by a lot of his Senate colleagues when he came
to be the minority leader of the Senate. He won in a very close election.
And he's come to become regarded as one of the savviest politicians in
Washington. Well, now he's holding some of the, you know, most powerful chips
in town, and to see how he plays it, both with Democrats and Republicans, will
be very interesting to watch.
I think watching how the Gore confederates in Washington, both in Congress and
just around town, handle themselves. Will they follow, you know, their
leader's advice last night to kind of join and try and unify the country? Or
will they spend at least the next two years trying to sabotage and subvert the
Bush administration hoping to, you know, regain power for Democrats in the
House and Senate and ultimately for perhaps Al Gore, another Democrat, in
The role that African-Americans in Congress will play in just--in how they
react to this election, the way the court ruled and how energized
African-Americans become in the electoral process. There was an interesting
story the other day about how 9 out of 10 African-Americans voted against
Governor Bush in this election despite his best efforts to reach out, and
certainly with the addition of General Powell and Condoleezza Rice as a
probable national security adviser, both of whom are black, it'll be
interesting to see if this mollifies the black community at all when it comes
to the policy discussions on Capitol Hill.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, you're welcome.
GROSS: Eric Schmitt is congressional correspondent for The New York Times.
Coming up, the presidential election of 1800 which was tied in the Electoral
College and nearly ended in the destruction of the democracy. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Author Bernard Weisberger discusses his new book,
"America Afire," and past presidential elections
TERRY GROSS, host:
Last night, while discussing the need to find common ground and build
consensus, President-elect Bush referred to another close presidential
election 200 years ago when two presidential candidates were tied in the
Electoral College. That left the vote to the House of Representatives which
was also tied. It took six days and 36 ballots to break the tie with Thomas
Jefferson emerging as America's third president.
My guest Bernard Weisberger is the author of a new book about that election
called "America Afire." The election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John
Adams was a bitter one that could have ended in violence and destroyed the
democracy. Jefferson and Adams had been partners in the Revolution, but
they'd become enemies after they ran against each other for president in 1796.
In that era, the runner-up in the presidential election became the vice
president. So in the 1796 election, Adams won the presidency with runner-up,
Jefferson, becoming vice president. In the next election, in 1800, Jefferson
ran against Adams again. This was the first election with two competing
political parties: Jefferson was a Republican; Adams, a Federalist. I asked
Weisberger to explain the party differences.
Mr. BERNARD WEISBERGER (Author, "America Afire"): Well, in brutally condensed
form, the Federalists were in favor of a government, a very stable government,
run by a wealthy and educated elite with very little input from below.
Their model--many of them were in merchant trade and their model was a ship.
The officers were on the quarterdeck and ran the ship efficiently and for the
benefit for everybody, but the crew didn't get to vote.
Jefferson, on the other hand, was in favor of a more decentralized government,
a weak government, that left people pretty much to themselves, and also in
favor of admitting large numbers of small propertyholders to the electorate.
GROSS: Now Adams had just signed the Sedition Act, which made criticizing the
president a crime, and here he was running for re-election so you couldn't
criticize him while he was running for re-election because that would have
been a crime?
Mr. WEISBERGER: You could, indeed, and you could be put in jail for it. And
one of the things that's important to note is that the First Amendment was
only nine years old. It had just been passed and ratified in 1791. And
nobody paid much attention to it and the--people were actually tried and fined
and, in some cases, given jail terms of up to a year and a half for statements
critical of the president, and that was, of course, considered, quite
properly, an outrage by the Republicans. And two Republican state
Legislatures actually passed resolutions, one set secretly drafted by
Jefferson, that said that a state had a right, when the federal government was
violating its constitutional limits, to nullify the act. It never quite came
to that, but there was a genuine threat there, of states refusing to operate
under federal authority. So that contributed to the crisis atmosphere in
GROSS: So does that mean that Adam's opponents, during this election,
couldn't criticize him?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, they did. I mean, they couldn't prosecute you. The
fact is, the law was widely resisted. Even some of the Federalists had
misgivings about it. There were a couple of dozen cases of arrests and trials
but the answer is, you risked--yes, you could criticize him. And many did and
got away with it, but some did not. And some men went to jail for it,
including a number of rather well-known journalists of the time. And the
journalism at the time, by the way, was an extremely strident and scurrilous
journalism, full of personal accusations and personal charges. I mean,
mudslinging was not invented in the 20th century. So I mean, it created an
atmosphere of enormous tension. And the whole country, remember, is very
young; the Constitution is new, it's hardly tested and there is a real danger
of this flying apart.
GROSS: And the election system was pretty different them, compared to how it
is now. Describe what some of the major differences were.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Sure. The major difference was that there were no formal
conventions or nominating conventions. The party leaders or the party's
candidates were named by congressional caucuses of the party's leaders. Both
parties, interestingly, denied that they were parties. People at the time
were very worried about factionalism that could split countries apart. And
they were afraid that if people got too wrought up in defense of their special
interests, instead of considering the overall interest of the country, that,
as I say, that the county could be confronted with the civil wars and
commotions. So the Federalists simply said they were the party in power; they
were the people who had been elected with George Washington and they were
simply running the government and in the interest of the nation, and those who
criticized them or dissented from them, were actually enemies of government,
they were seditious. And the Jeffersonians, the republicans, on the other
hand, simply said that the Federalists were creating an aristocracy and were
pushing the country back in the direction of monarchy and they were
republicans with a small R because they believe in a republic, not a monarchy.
GROSS: There's something very surprising and confusing happened in this
election. Adams and Jefferson were running for president, but because of the
way the presidential and vice presidential votes were tallied then, Thomas
Jefferson's vice-presidential running mate--is that a fair word?...
Mr. WEISBERGER: I think so.
GROSS: ...Aaron Burr, was actually tied with Jefferson for the presidential
vote. Now how did that happen, that Burr and Jefferson were tied, when
really, Jefferson was running against Adams?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Once there was a tie, the election was to be decided in the
House of Representatives, each state having one vote. And there were only two
choices, Jefferson or Burr. Now there was another provision of the
Constitution, no longer existing, which said that--the Congress elected in a
given election didn't meet for another year, and the--but the Congress that
was outgoing, the Congress that had been elected two years earlier, would meet
for one final session. So the Congress that was going to decide the fate of
Jefferson and Burr was not the Republican Congress that had just been elected,
it was a Congress dominated by the Federalists, by John Adams' party, and so
their fate was in the hands of their political opposition. And the
Federalists concocted an idea, not formally, of blocking the election of
either man by voting consistently for Burr.
They controlled six states, two were tied--that is, the state delegations were
evenly split, Republican and Federalist--and Jefferson had only eight but he
needed nine to win, nine of 16. So what the Federalists thought of doing was,
continuing to vote for Burr, preventing Jefferson from getting his majority
and doing that right up until Inauguration Day, which was then March 4. And
on that day they would then say--and they were still in control of
Congress--'Look, there is no president. We have a real crisis here. Somebody
has to fill the office and we will pass special legislation and either retain
John Adams or name a Federalist to the presidency. And that would have been a
sort of constitutional coup. And the Republican response to that was that if
you do that, you will probably break up the union. One Republican governor of
Pennsylvania said, 'We will just not recognize a usurpation. We will not obey
any orders that come from Washington, and we will not--and if need be, we will
arrest federal officials and jail them.' Republicans in Virginia spoke of
leaving the union and calling for a new Constitutional Convention.
So there was a real threat of a breakup there, and for one whole week, the
country was in suspense, while the House took ballot after ballot after
ballot, with the Federalists refusing to budge.
GROSS: Now why didn't Aaron Burr step down and say, you know, `I withdraw'?
Why didn't he withdraw from the election? And then it would have had to go to
Jefferson, and this constitutional crisis and the possibility of civil war
would have been ended.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Absolutely. Why didn't he? It's the mystery of Aaron Burr,
who is still, after 200 years, a controversial character: charming, brilliant
and with no known political principles and flirted with both parties. He
could, of course, have simply, unequivocably declared that he would not serve
if elected, but he didn't. He kept his own counsel, kept the game in his own
hands. Well, even the Federalists who think that possibly if they picked up a
couple of Republican votes, they could elect him, and that he would do
business with them. And Jefferson always felt betrayed by Burr, and when Burr
did become vice president in the event, just cut him out of party patronage
altogether, left him a man without a party.
Burr's defense simply was, `I would not withdraw because it was--it would be
an insult; it would assume that I was--did not feel equal to the task of being
president. And what is more, so long as I was available as a constitutional
choice,' which he was, `I was sparing the country a true crisis.'
GROSS: My guest is Bernard Weisberger, author of "America Afire" about the
election of 1800. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Bernard Weisberger, author of
"America Afire" about the presidential election of 1800, which was tied in the
Electoral College and then was tied in the House of Representatives.
So how was the tie between Burr and Jefferson finally broken?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, it was broken in a way that was enormously beneficial
to the country. In effect, the Federalists finally blinked, and what they did
was to caucus and finally allow a couple of Federalist states to cast blank
ballots, and Jefferson won with 10 states, and that was about two weeks before
Inauguration Day. Why? Partly, I think, because when push came to shove, I
think they did not really want to disrupt the union, and it is possible that,
you know, informal understandings were reached. But one way or another, in
one way or another, I think the Federalists felt that they could take a chance
with Jefferson, and it was better to take a chance with Jefferson than to
continue on their course and face who knew what chaos.
And, you know, given the fact that it had been--as I said, it had been a very
turbulent and violent four years preceding, with that Sedition Law in the
books and with a war scare with France and with actual--and with some street
fighting and a great deal of billingsgate thrown around in the press, it was
probably a wise decision.
GROSS: Was the public as divided as the Republicans and the Federalists were?
Mr. WEISBERGER: That's interesting because, so it seemed, the electorate was
small at the time, and there weren't many vehicles for expressing public
opinion except a handful of newspapers, which printed letters from people.
Some people did tend to speak out very intensely. I mean, there were
Federalists who said that Jefferson was an atheist and a destroyer of all
sacred institutions because Jefferson had expressed sympathy for the French
Revolution. There were Republicans who swore that the Federalists were going
to restore the monarchy, and even circulated stories that John Adams was
planning to marry a couple of his sons to the daughters of King George and
establish a dynasty.
But on the whole, they seem to have represented extremes, because when
Jefferson took office--and one would hope that this might be a model to
whoever takes office on January 20--he made an absolutely wonderful inaugural
address, in which he said, `Look'--the words are his--`we are all Republicans,
we are all Federalists,' by which he meant that the Republicans didn't really
want to pull apart the union, and the Federalists didn't really want to
reinstall the monarchy. He said, `We are one people. We have a wonderful
future ahead of us, a great continent. We have gotten excited and shouted at
each other, but every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.
We have called brethren by different names.'
And that seemed to ring a bell, this appeal to this sense of American
nationality; that with all the political fighting, there was really one
American people. That sense of the growing American nationality, which had
surfaced from time to time in the Constitutional Convention, was now reinvoked
by Jefferson, and at the end of his first term, he was triumphantly
re-elected. So I think that, on the whole, people got hot under the collar,
but that they were not, basically, at each other's throats; they were not
ready to break up the union that they'd established in the Revolution only 25
GROSS: When the Federalists decided to, basically, allow Jefferson to become
president, was this historically unusual for a group to hand over power, you
know, democratically to their enemy as opposed to keeping on resisting their
enemy from coming into power?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Absolutely. It was the first time in a modern--a large
modern state, that that had happened; so far as I know, maybe the first time
in history that it had happened, but I can't venture that far. In point of
fact, that's exactly what they did do. Once the decision was made on February
the 17th to, as you say, let Jefferson become president, on the morning of
March 4, John Adams quietly left Washington on a public conveyance, by
stagecoach, a private citizen; he didn't stay around for the inaugural
ceremony--and Jefferson, with a handful of civilian friends and associates,
walked from his boardinghouse to the Capitol--Washington was a very new city
then, and everything was within walking distance of everything else--and took
the oath of office quietly and made the unifying inaugural address I
mentioned. And, yes, that was, indeed, the first time this had happened in a
country of any extent.
And considering two things: Considering the enormous extent of the country,
which made people wonder if an experiment in Republicanism could be carried on
in a country so large and so diverse and with such poor communications, and
considering that they were conducting this election against the background of
the French Revolution, in which the heirs of the revolution had been murdering
each other and drenching France in blood for 10 or 15 years, it was all the
more remarkable. That's what makes the election, I think, probably the most
special in our history.
GROSS: Now how did this election change the vice presidency? Was the method
of choosing a vice president the same after this election was over?
Mr. WEISBERGER: No. They promptly changed that. Everybody knew they had
dodged a bullet, and they passed--the Congress sent to the states, which
promptly ratified, the 12th Amendment. And the 12th Amendment provides for a
separate ballot for president and vice president. The problem with it was a
few people objected because they said, `Look, nobody worth his salt really
wants to be a vice president. It's not an office of any particular importance
or glory. And what will happen is vice presidential candidates will be
largely nonentities, who are chosen because they have some sort of special
following, some local or sectional following, that'll vote for them.' That is
exactly what happened.
So it did create sort of the "Alexander Throttlebottom" vice presidency.
That, I think, has changed in the last half of the century we just finished.
I mean, since World War II, vice presidents seem to be brought more and more
into the loop, and a large number of them, as we see, become their party's
next candidate. But it did condemn the vice presidency to more than a century
GROSS: Bernard Weisberger, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WEISBERGER: You're very welcome.
GROSS: Bernard Weisberger is the author of "America Afire."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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