DATE November 8, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Dana Milbank of The Washington Post talks about last
NEIL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neil Conan, in for Terry Gross.
Today there's a new definition of `close' in American politics. The
presidential election is still unsettled. Republican George W. Bush is
expected to hold on to his tiny lead in the state of Florida, which would
him over the top in the Electoral College. At the same time, it looks as if
Democrat Al Gore will hold on to a rare but meaningless trophy of his own.
will probably lose the White House, but win the popular vote. The
retain control of both houses of Congress, but their already narrow
there will be even narrower.
In a contest where, as it turned out, everything mattered, political
operatives on both sides are agonizing today over squandered opportunities
missed calculations. Joining us now is Dana Milbank, who covered this
campaign for The New Republic and, later, The Washington Post. He's at his
home in Washington. And welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. DANA MILBANK (The Washington Post): Hello, Neil.
CONAN: That had to be the longest and perhaps the strangest night in
Mr. MILBANK: Right, and I feel like the night's not over. It looks like we
could be going on like this for another couple of days. You know, this
campaign sort of began in earnest two years ago, and we're no closer to
knowing the answer now than we were all the way back then.
CONAN: Two candidates running for the political center, and they apparently
Mr. MILBANK: Yes, they both did. Now the difference in the race right now
that the right wing of the Republican Party sort of towed the line, and the
left wing of the Democratic Party didn't. I actually chose last night to
watch the returns over at the Nader celebration here in Washington, not that
he would be celebrating a victory, but that he had the real potential to
the election from Gore to Bush. And the way it's stacking up right now, if
indeed Gore does lose in the electoral vote, it can be put quite squarely on
Nader's shoulders. You know, you can see the numbers in the various states
clearly would have made for a different outcome if he weren't part of the
CONAN: Yet if you're right in identifying the Green Party as the left wing
the Democratic Party, there was almost a double failure. They didn't elect
Gore, and at the same time they didn't get their 5 percent that they need to
get financed for the next election.
Mr. MILBANK: Right. So, yeah, it looks like they've come up with about 3
percent of the vote, so they will not get the federal funding next time
around. So as a party-building exercise, it wasn't terribly successful.
Also, the exit polls indicate that Nader didn't reach many of the goals that
they had had in terms of having more young people vote, bringing more
non-voters into the process. It looks, from the returns, as if there were
more first-time Nader voters than there were first-time voters for everybody
else, and he only sort of had a marginally larger share of the young vote
than he did of the overall vote.
So as a party-building exercise, it failed. The only thing it may have done
is, you know, he can take credit as the spoiler. And I tell you the truth,
you know, he made at least three, you know, quote, unquote, "concession
speeches" last night, you know, each one sort of trumpeting, you know,
`They're going to have to listen to us now.' But it seemed to me that he
sort of reveling in the idea of, you know, the eyes would be on him for
throwing this race.
CONAN: What was the reaction of Nader supporters last night as the results
Mr. MILBANK: Well, you know, it started out with the idea of cheering for
whatever you they could find--you know, Nader wasn't going to get--now
whatever it was--7 percent in Vermont or 5 percent in New Hampshire without
bit of concern for what the overall picture was. You know, the target was
getting his 5 percent to get the federal funding.
You know, I noticed as the night went on, though, that, you know, people
drifting away from whatever campaign official was talking on the stage and
watching CNN on the televisions in the room there. And, you know, when Gore
got California and other states, there was a cheer going up for him. And,
know, I asked people about that, and they said, `Well, you know, all things
being equal, sure, we'd like to have Gore win.' I saw some guy, you know,
sort of making a private aside to another Naderite that, you know, `We're
going to be blamed for all this,' and, you know, he insisted he was just
joking and it's not fair, you know, and, `Of course we shouldn't be blamed
it.' But I think they know darn well that they will be blamed for this.
And, you know, it's simply a matter of the numbers. And they say, `Well,
know, if Gore was a better candidate, then, you know, it wouldn't have
mattered what Nader did.' And, you know, on the other hand, had a Nader or
his type existed in the 1960 election, we never would have a President
Kennedy. So, you know, that, to me, is probably a tough argument for them
So, you know, the public face--and certainly, I think, Nader is delighted at
the idea of being able to sink Gore. I mean, he came out three different
times last night, you know, and these were not concession speeches. And I
think some of his followers are going to feel a bit more ambivalence about
that; you know, that they did not succeed in getting their--you know,
establishing their party for federal funding, but they did apparently
in getting a Republican elected who's going to be a lot more hostile to
CONAN: My guest is Dana Milbank of The Washington Post.
Al Gore may have been charismatically challenged as a candidate, but he did
have some options that he didn't really use, and that was, you know, the guy
most people regard as probably the best political campaigner ever, Bill
Mr. MILBANK: Right. He didn't use him, but, you know, you could also argue
that had he used him more, he might have lost very significantly. You know,
Clinton did go stumping in his home state of Arkansas, and he could not
deliver that for Gore. And if he could not deliver his home state, you've
to wonder, you know, how many, you know, Independent voters in the
battleground states he would have offended.
So I don't think--I mean, you know, assuming Gore has lost this election,
which we don't know for sure. You know, this is the time when all the
recriminations begin, and, you know, they'll wonder about should they have
spent money here, should they have spent money there, should Gore have taken
different tone and, inevitably, the question of should they have unshackled
But, you know, the evidence shows that every time they did unshackle
he went out there and started talking about himself and saying, you know,
`Well, vote for Gore. He's the next best thing.'
CONAN: Yeah, it was almost `four more years.'
Mr. MILBANK: You know? And that was not helpful to the vice president.
you know, it was apparent to the Gore people and I think to most of America
that his larger interest was his wife's victory in New York, and, you know,
think Gore rightly believed that his interests were not necessarily the same
as Clinton's. And, you know, probably the other bit of the recriminations
game will be that Gore, while not running using Clinton out there, certainly
could have run much more strongly on the Clinton economy. You know, it was
almost like he didn't want to talk about the past at all, but the past eight
years were not exactly something that he had to hide from.
CONAN: In the final calculation, though, if Gore had managed to win his
state and President Clinton's, Florida would not be the center of the
Mr. MILBANK: Yes, that's conceivable. You know, much has made of the idea,
particularly of, Tennessee that, `My goodness, the guy couldn't carry his
state,' but he--you know, sort of if you--as probably everybody has, you
looked at the red and blue taking up the screens on the television, there's
just such a solid South, with the exception of Florida, which isn't really
part of the South anymore. But this is very solid South for the Republican
Party, and if you look in Tennessee, they've got, you know, a pair of
Republican senators, a Republican governor, and it is just very solidly a
Republican state. And, you know, Gore came to power there in a different
time, and so it's not particularly surprising...
CONAN: And with the benefit of his father's name as well.
Mr. MILBANK: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And the Democrats were still strong
in the '70s and the '80s when he was serving. But, you know, it's not
particularly surprising that a Democrat is not winning in those states. I
suppose it's a little embarrassing for Gore that he couldn't pull off his
state, but I'm sure that's not the biggest worry on his mind today.
CONAN: Are there people, do you suspect, in both camps who are wondering,
know, if they had just made that extra buy at the television station in
Orlando or the extra campaign stop for Hadassah Lieberman in Naples, would
this have made the difference?
Mr. MILBANK: You know, you've got to be second-guessing and all that, but I
can't imagine what else these folks could have done. You know, you mention
Orlando. The television market there was so flooded with ads that they
actually shut them down. They would not accept any more ads. They just
reached such utter saturation point. So I've got to believe that in terms
television marketing, you know, there was such overkill, you know, it was
like some absurd, you know, counting of nuclear arms. It's hard to imagine
anybody's message particularly got through over the muddle.
And them in terms of visiting there, I mean, they've both just been darting
back and forth there, you know. And even on Election Day, I think that Gore
finished, you know, in the wee hours of the morning in Tampa. And, you
Bush certainly spent an awful lot of time, and his brother, in the end, did
good bit of work for him.
So you never know. I mean, I think what--I'm sure if, you know, the 2
of the people who voted for Nader had to do it over again, they would have
decided differently, and there may be a whole lot of folks there who would
have come out to vote had they had any idea this would happen.
CONAN: My guest is Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. We'll be back in a
few moments. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Dana Milbank of The Washington Post is on the line with us from his
home in Washington, DC. You did a piece of economic analysis about the
of television advertising, and the fact was that the people who are experts
this business realized that they had to spend, A, a lot more money and, B,
run I think it was quadruple the number of ads to have the same effect as
had four years ago to get their message across.
Mr. MILBANK: You know, I think that the effect is--it's almost like this
the sort of the self-limiting idea of the campaign--you get so many ads
done--you know, people get bludgeoned so much with this stuff, I can't
they don't just tune the whole thing out. You know, I sat down in Lansing,
Michigan, one night a week or two ago just to watch. There is, you know,
something like 200 ads I saw, you know, during the prime-time shows, and
you know, in some newscasts you can get 60 or more in an hour. And, you
how can this possibly be, you know, forming coherent opinions in people's
minds? So I'm not sure this is necessarily a bad thing. It may wind up
removing ads as a weapon in these things simply because people are just
bludgeoned with them too much.
CONAN: It's interesting, though, to get that advertising time, the
for the most part, don't buy time on national television, on the networks.
They buy local time.
Mr. MILBANK: Right. And that's a complete change. Before 1992, it was
basically all network stuff, and then it was sort of Clinton, at the
in '92 and particularly in '96, who sort of figured this out and said, `Hey,
you know, we can spend a lot less money and just put it where it really
matters, you know? If you put it on the network news, you're preaching, you
know, to the converted in the Northeast if you're a Democrat and, you know,
out in the mountain West and the South if you're a Republican. Why not
you know, put it where it counts?'
And that's why they're, you know, just bombarding, you know, local markets
Philadelphia, in, you know, Lansing and Grand Rapids and Detroit, you know,
down in Orlando and other parts of Florida. I mean, even in, you know,
like Montana, you know, you just couldn't buy an ad. It was just all booked
up--and then out in Seattle and Portland, whereas markets like Chicago, Los
Angeles, it was quite easy to get an ad on there because there wasn't much
CONAN: For a couple of elections in a row now, we've read and heard about
new and critical role that the Internet was going to play in American
politics. Was this an election of cybersignificance?
Mr. MILBANK: You know, Neil, I started out covering this two years ago, and
people would come to me and wanted me to, you know, put together a book on
campaign, which I agreed to do. And I started out in saying this is going
be a book about the effect of the Internet, and needless to say that that is
not longer the subject of the book, because you went through a--you know,
over time it became clear that while those techniques were interesting, they
were so much at the margin it just really wasn't making a difference in the
And the first sign of this was Steve Forbes. He went great guns with his
Internet work and all the database and, you know, all sorts of technological
things that would be very hard for most of us to understand, and, you know,
predicted how they could really take apart George Bush, who was running this
traditional, sort of industrial model campaign, and we all know what
to `President Forbes.'
So, basically, what it came down to in the presidential race was sort of the
dueling Web sites, you know, where you could go for information. It doesn't
seem that the Internet was useful as a tool of persuasion, you know, of
bringing voters into the process or of changing their minds on things.
it was useful is just in the communications aspect between, you know,
coordinating your volunteers, you know, keeping your staff coordinated. And
so technology was very useful for sort of the logistics of the campaign.
Both parties, the DNC and the RNC, used technology extensively in their `get
out the vote' efforts in terms of, you know, sort of profiling voters and
figuring out, you know, where the best place to do their hunting for voters
would be. So they, you know, used it a bit for targeting.
But, you know, yeah, they did ask in the exit polls last night how many
people, you know, used the Internet regularly, and I think it was something
like two-thirds of voters, and how many get their get their political news
from there, and that was a reasonable number as well. But there's little
indication that this new medium has come anywhere near the old media as a
in campaigning. But, you know, I'm sure it's just a matter of time till
happen. It's just this is not the year.
CONAN: That incident that happened in Maine--What?--24 years ago, the
`November surprise' as it were, you think it had any effect?
Mr. MILBANK: This public, the polls indicated, obviously just shrugged off
the whole idea of, you know, a quarter-century-old drunk driving arrest.
thing that was dangerous was that the appearance that Bush had tried to
conceal this and, you know, was being generally slippery about it. And
you know, brings up comparisons to the much larger offenses of President
Clinton. And the problem for Bush was the whole idea of his campaign was
about, you know, a fresh start and, `We're going to return honesty and
to the White House.'
And I did an article just sort of stacking up Bush's responses when this
driving thing came out with Clinton's responses to the Lewinsky scandal, and
they were almost word for word the same thing, like `This is the work of my
political opponents,' and, you know, just sort of, you know, turning the
away from themselves, saying they did it--you know, they were quiet about it
to protect their families, that sort of thing.
So that, to me at least, was a potential for damage, you know, but I can't
imagine that that sort of nuance filtered out to a large portion of the
electorate in the last 72 hours. Gore was closing in the final days. Of
people who made up their minds in the last three days, a large, significant
portion of them went with Gore. So, you know, that could be caused by any
number of things, you know, sort of, you know, taking the safer course or
sort of thing.
CONAN: History tells us that if the country is prosperous and at peace,
people will vote for the status quo. In a way I guess they did. The
Republicans will hold on to very small majorities in both houses of
Obviously if George Bush is the next president of the United States, he will
get in there without a sweeping, landslide-type mandate. It doesn't look
a lot of things are going to be able to be changed easily in Washington.
Mr. MILBANK: Yes, that's true. You know, I guess I disagree with the way
describe it a little bit, and I think that, you know, sort of history and
historic models would have predicted, yes, support for the status quo, but
specifically support for the incumbent administration. And all these models
we've always being hearing about and just say, `It's just a matter of the
pocketbook and the economy, and if the economy is growing by X percent, and
the stock market is going in this direction, well, the incumbent party wins
quite easily.' And these models had Gore winning anything from like, you
know, 3 percent of the vote up to--you know, by 3 percent of the vote all
way up to--I don't know--12 percent or something like that.
And, you know, it's time to start redrawing the models here. I mean, even
Gore somehow, you know, pulls this out, the models were dead wrong. And
suggests that something has changed, I think, in the way, you know,
are viewing economic success. And presumably since the expansion has been
long, many of them are taking it for granted. Because of the impeachment
issue dominating recent years, certain issues of values and honesty and
integrity may have taken a front seat to the traditional economic issues.
But this whole election has been in a really--history's really taken it in
chin this time around. You know, all the models that have been used, you
know, `Is this going to be like 1960? Is it going to be like 1980, like
or, you know, a host of elections going well back into the 19th century?'
know, they're all conflicting, and nothing really worked out as a model for
CONAN: Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. He'll be back in the second
of the show. I'm Neil Conan. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Coming up, more about the night of election firsts. We continue our
conversation with journalist Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. We talk
with satirist Harry Shearer and editor Wendy Warren of the Philadelphia
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neil Conan. Back with Dana Milbank of The
Washington Post, who completed two years of campaign coverage at Ralph
headquarters last night.
We were talking about historical models, and I guess there are a lot of
to the Tilden-Hayes election of 1876. And maybe it was because I was up all
night watching TV, but I don't remember that one quite so clearly. The one
freshest in people's minds, I guess, is 1960, the Kennedy-Nixon race. And
that time, the disputed returns were in the state of Illinois. Richard
famously decided not to challenge them. John Kennedy was sworn into office,
and Nixon always believed that that election was stolen from him.
Mr. MILBANK: Right. And, you know, in that sense--I mean, the--1960 is,
know, not the right comparison for many reasons. You know, the economic
situation is different. You know, the candidates are quite different.
CONAN: There was a Cold War then, too.
Mr. MILBANK: There were so many other things going on in the world. But
know--but the similarity in the sense that, you know, this time when we're
looking at Florida--I mean, there's a real possibility that this thing's
to be decided by a bunch of lawyers and the courts, you know. Are people
going to be, you know, arguing over whether voters accidentally punch the
ballot for Buchanan 'cause the way the thing was set up?
CONAN: Something had to explain those Buchanan votes.
Mr. MILBANK: Well, one would think so, not that he got that many to begin
with. But yes, it certainly wasn't in the counties where--one would have
expected Buchanan votes to come out of. So, you know, it will probably
us with a sort of unsatisfied opinion, and both sides can gripe about it
you know, a long time to come. So--but we don't have to, you know, wonder
about, you know, recounts because they're happening automatically in this
case. And, you know, I think as Americans we can agree that as--the
that we are that the election should be decided by lawyers.
CONAN: One other outcome of that 1960 race, though, was that Richard Nixon
never felt that he'd been rejected by the American people. He hung around
American politics, and later got elected president. Had some other problems
later, but that's outside of what we're talking about right now.
Mr. MILBANK: Right.
CONAN: Al Gore, if he does lose this race, can certainly feel that he was
rejected by the American people. We've had a series of elections where if
lose the presidential election, there's the feeling you've been dismissed by
the American people. Is that going to hold this time, do you think?
Mr. MILBANK: Well, you know, who knows? But I would have to imagine that,
you know, this is--if Gore loses here as it appears likely, that's it for
you know. The whole idea was, you know, given the circumstances, you know,
and the good times in our country now, this election was his to lose. And
he--if this, you know, bears out--winds up losing it, then I don't--you
I think he joins the happy ranks of Dukakis and Mondale and--well, you know,
not be welcomed back into the ranks of candidates again.
You know, there's been griping about Gore as a candidate throughout this
and lot of that's legitimate. He was a less-than-inspiring candidate and,
know, there was a lot of thinking that a more charismatic candidate could
had a field day with an inexperienced opponent like Bush. So I think that
this is--you know, this--whatever the outcome, this is--you know, this is it
for Gore, you know. If he loses here, he's not going to get another crack.
It's unclear what he would do.
CONAN: Maybe go back into journalism.
Mr. MILBANK: He might go back and become an investigative journalist at The
CONAN: How did you handle it last night? Obviously, things were up in the
air. Did you end up writing three different stories?
Mr. MILBANK: Well, yeah. I mean, all through--we had extended at The Post
our headlines significantly through the night. And even then, obviously,
final final deadlines because we still don't know the results, did not have
the results. What--you know, I was trying to--writing about Nader, I was
trying to tiptoe around the issue. You know, the questions would he get his
percent and would he be a spoiler for Gore? Now it seems--you know, and I
filed the last version of that just before 1 in the morning. And it was
becoming pretty clear that he wasn't going to get his 5 percent, but
know, the spoiler was anybody's guess at that point.
So, you know, the larger issue I focused on there was that they didn't
care if they were the spoilers or not and they were saying how they don't
if they're blamed for it. It's not their fault. It's Gore's fault. But,
know--I mean, it's traditional in journalism all over the place to have your
backup be matter for the story, which is just sort of the--you know, boiler
plate information, and then plug in the numbers as they come along.
know, last night was not a scenario anybody was planning for. I'm due to be
heading off on vacation out of the country tomorrow night and it never
occurred to me that I wouldn't know who won the election before I leave.
CONAN: Dana Milbank, thank you very much.
Mr. MILBANK: Thank you, Neil.
CONAN: Dana Milbank writes for The Washington Post.
Coming up, humorist Harry Shearer's take on Election Night. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actor Harry Shearer discusses last night's presidential
NEIL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neil Conan, in for Terry Gross.
After one of the most unusual days and nights in American political history,
we're joined by actor and satirist Harry Shearer. His program, "Le Show,"
heard on many public radio stations. He's on the phone with us from his
And, Harry, as we speak, it's 7:00 in the morning in Santa Monica. I'm
guessing you didn't get an awful lot of sleep last night.
Mr. HARRY SHEARER (Host, "Le Show"): I'm guessing that anybody who
cares--who follows politics in this country didn't get a lot of sleep last
night. I woke up this morning, and I saw Dan Rather still there saying,
one's tighter than'--and he had some Texasism. And I don't even think it
really from Texas it was that late in the night. So, yeah, we've--it's been
an edifying spectacle.
CONAN: Throughout the night, I kept noticing that Dan was all over this
election like a chicken on a June bug.
Mr. SHEARER: Well, at one point, I know he was madder than a rained-on
CONAN: It was an extraordinary performance by the American television
networks last night and what had to be one of the most embarrassing nights
broadcast journalism ever.
Mr. SHEARER: But a great advertisement for eggs.
CONAN: They had to wipe the egg off the faces with the large helpings of
that they were being served.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. It--I have been, along with my friend and sometime
colleague, Arianna Huffington, inveighing against polls for some time as a
invidious factor in American politics. But I think there's no better ally
our cause than the spectacle of the exit polls being used the way they were
last night. I hope--I know the American public has an incredibly short--a
charitably short memory, shall we say. But I hope that the mere mention of
the word `exit polls' makes everyone hit their remote off switch in the
CONAN: Who were you watching when--the moment arrived when the TV...
Mr. SHEARER: They `took back Florida,' as they say?
CONAN: When they took back--yes.
Mr. SHEARER: I love that phrase. `We're taking back Florida.'
I was sitting with friends and we were hopping, so we were first on MSNBC.
I first heard the historic words, `We're taking back Florida,' spoken by
Williams. But then, of course, we hopped around to see if they were all
it and, you know, who was first and who was last to do the fateful deed.
CONAN: Later in the evening, much later in the evening, Florida was moved
from the undecided category and put into the Bush category. And at that
moment, George W. was announced as the next president of the United States.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. Well, I think--you know, the--maybe in a night of
historic firsts, the phone call from Al Gore taking back his concession will
rank as one of the great historic moments that--one wishes one could have
overheard that one. You know, when Al Gore calls back half an hour after
first concession call and says, `You know, I really can't go through with
this. It's too cl'--and there was one report--I think it was on
somebody was in the room as--on Gore's end and overheard him say in the
of that conversation, `Well, there's no need to get snippy,' which, to me,
the great quote of the election so far.
CONAN: The only quote I heard from that was somebody reported that George
then replied, `Well, go ahead and do what you have to do.'
Mr. SHEARER: You know, it should be said that there is a karmic element to
all of this, as well as comic, which is I felt all through the election a
growing frustration at the--what can only be called the complete
Floridification of the campaign. You wondered when either of the candidates
was going to talk about anything other than prescription drug benefit and
Medicare and the lockbox.
And it clearly was because both of them felt that the few likely voters in
few swing states were the only people worth talking to, and that basically
homed them in on Florida. So the fact that they're sitting around all day
knowing who won because of Florida is, I think, a fine payback for us all
sitting around during the campaign going, `What about us?'
CONAN: You say that conversation between George W. Bush and Al Gore, as he
retracted his concession--this is a conversation that we may think we sat in
on by the time we hear your next program.
Mr. SHEARER: Well, I certainly hope so. It seems like the best offer of
material yet. I do want to say I think there's one really remarkable story
that got overwhelmed by the coverage in the night, which was: What the hell
did Pat Buchanan do with $12 million of taxpayer money?
Mr. SHEARER: You could have gotten such great odds at the beginning of this
election year on Buchanan draining more votes from Bush than Nader would
from Gore or Buchanan just getting more votes than Nader, especially since
had that bloody fight in Long Beach at the Reform Party Convention and ended
up with the $12 million in federal matching funds. What did he do with that
CONAN: Apparently, the only votes he got were Democrats voting for him by
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. I mean, he must have just, you know, given the money to
Mexican immigrants to go back across the border, you know? `Here, Jose. Go
home.' I can't imagine--I just think it's the worst waste of taxpayer money
since the $600 toilet seats.
CONAN: There's another moment that I thought might appeal to your strange
sense of humor, and that is Ralph Nader getting up at his headquarters in
Washington, DC, and claiming victory on a night where he failed utterly to
the 5 percent that he was trying to get.
Mr. SHEARER: Well, you know, Ralph Nader lived in a world of moral victory
through the whole campaign, so I think that's utterly appropriate. And
what little use the taxpayer-money matching funds were to Pat Buchanan,
probably at this point Nader can view the failure to hit the 5 percent mark
and his failure, therefore, to get federal matching funds as a victory
he would have only wasted the money, too. And he can do a lot better, given
this campaign's evidence, without it.
CONAN: Early on in the evening, there was a shot of--I guess it was the
hotel room. George W. was there, and both his parents were there.
Mr. SHEARER: Yes.
CONAN: Now throughout this campaign we kept hearing that this was not a
about getting revenge against the Clintonistas for ousting his father eight
years ago. Did you believe that for a second?
Mr. SHEARER: No, but I don't believe most denials in politics. They're
for a reason, and I think it was--you know, the--if you want to parse that,
we've learned to do that in the Clinton era, probably the truth of it was
the originally intended messenger of revenge was Jeb and George W. was the
accidental stand-in for Jeb. So, in that sense, the plan was not to get
revenge with George W. The original plan was to get revenge by having Jeb
run, but he lost in Florida the first time out, and George W. ascended. And
so he became the accidental bearer of the mantle. So I think only in that
sense is that claim true.
CONAN: Now a lot of historical parallels are being offered at this
juncture. Do sou see any relationships to Kennedy-Nixon, 1960, for example?
Mr. SHEARER: No, I don't specialize in historical analogies. I leave that
to the Michael Bechlosses and Doris Kearns Goodwins of the world. I did go
graduate school with Doris Kearns Goodwin, so, you know, maybe some of that
rubbed off on me. But, no, this seems, to me, having been just old enough
live through Kennedy-Nixon and certainly through Nixon and Humphrey in '68,
the two that are analogized this year, this seems substantially different to
The country, I think, was treated this year to two really--and I don't think
this was said on any of the networks I watched last night. As time went on,
they started feeling the need to lavish encomiums on both candidates, but I
think the country was treated to two really bad candidates this year. And
even divide that we've ended up with shows, I think, that neither candidate
was able to, as they say in politics, make the sale.
CONAN: Close the deal.
Mr. SHEARER: Close the deal.
CONAN: One of the few moments that either candidate was really thrown off
message was right at the end when George W. finally had to come out and talk
to reporters, not about a matter of policy, but about his arrest for drunk
driving 24 years earlier.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. And I think, you know, one of the indictments of
that one is able to make at this point in time is in the aftermath of that
story, you saw the media, I think it's fair to say, run away from the story
over the weekend based on polling, which told them the voters didn't care
about it; that it wasn't--you know, there was polling of a 700-vote sample
that quoted voters as saying it wouldn't change their vote, except for, I
think, the margin difference in some polls from 8 to 12 percent of the
said it might affect their vote.
And the media used that as an excuse to really run away from the story and
follow up, not ask follow-up questions. And I'm sitting there at the time
thinking, `This is a close election.' Eight or 13 percent of the voters say
it might factor in, that's a factor. This is a story. But I think the
majoritarian reading of the polls led most of the news media away from that
story. I don't think it led the voters away. I think if you look at exit
polls--I'm not a real avid reader of them, but there were a lot of late
deciders in this election. And a lot of the late deciders broke away from
Bush, and you can read into that what you like.
CONAN: You say they `broke away from Bush' rather than toward Gore.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. That's what I said.
CONAN: That's what you said. And it's on tape, and we know it. In the
both these guys seemed to be running so determinedly toward the center that
they seem to have found it.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah, they found the dead center. I do think that because I
didn't stay in graduate school, that American presidential politics, in some
ways, is kind of simple. Americans like to elect two kinds of presidents:
tough liberals and happy conservatives. We're not really that comfortable
with dour conservatives, hence, you know, the short presidential history of
Bob Dole, and weak liberals scare us. So you have, you know, John Kennedy
Bill Clinton as sort of the guys who could play the role of the tough
and Ike and Reagan who could play the role of the happy conservative.
And I thought that George W. Bush actually did a better job of, you know,
fitting one of those roles than Al Gore did. I thought that the problem
Gore had during his campaign was that so many of his decisions and his
tactical decisions seemed to be made out of fear. He was afraid to really
come after Bush in the second debate; he was afraid to let Clinton campaign
for him--that I think it marred his ability to sell himself as a tough
liberal, whereas Bush did, I think, sell himself as a happy, an optimistic,
CONAN: Yet it seemed that both candidates were, at times, campaigning
they were afraid to say something. They just wanted to say exactly what
were supposed to say on that day and absolutely nothing more.
Mr. SHEARER: Well, you know, that's the political consultant's dream, a
candidate who stays on message, you know, even when the neutron bomb strikes
him. That's what they're drilled to do. And I think that what happened in
this campaign is that, to mix two radically different metaphors, the seams
the drilling showed on Al Gore more than they showed on George W. Bush,
possibly because, you know, George W. Bush was perfectly happy to say five
things over and over again.; it didn't tax any capacities of his, whereas
obviously knew more than five things to say and was feeling the strain of
having to limit himself, you know, from the vast encyclopedic storehouse
he wanted to share with us.
CONAN: Ralph Nader is a character that is--he's almost a gray man who
to come to life in this campaign.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. I must say, for a guy who doesn't even own a
I thought he came around to mastering the art of being on television
surprisingly quickly. I was stunned because the Ralph Nader that I
from earlier appearances seemed to have learned a lot about boiling down his
message about not only cogency, but brevity. And as I say, the guy doesn't
even own a TV, so I don't know, you know, what training method he used.
certainly, you have to say those were the cheapest suits we've ever seen in
CONAN: Thanks very much.
Mr. SHEARER: Neil, my pleasure.
CONAN: And get some sleep.
Mr. SHEARER: I will. You, too.
CONAN: Harry Shearer is the star of "Le Show."
Up next, `Get Me Rewrite,' the headline that nearly was. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Wendy Warren on headline problems newspapers
across the country had to contend with since the presidential
election was not decided
NEIL CONAN, host:
Joining us now is Wendy Warren, who's an editor on the city desk of the
Philadelphia Daily News. Last night a lot of newspapers across the country
found themselves in the awkward position of publishing what might turn out
be `Dewey Beats Truman' headlines. Here in Philadelphia, the Daily News
confronted the dilemma of which headline to use late into the night as the
election news kept changing.
Ms. WENDY WARREN (Editor, Philadelphia Daily News): That's a long and
tortured story at many newspapers. As of about 2:30 in the morning, we were
ready to go with a very typically daily news, grabby headline: `Nader
But about 2:30 is when we started to realize that networks were calling a
winner and that it was George Bush, and so we did prepare a headline that
`Bush Wins.' And we actually sent that to our printing plants. But before
the presses started to run, smart editors here called and said, `We can't go
with that. We're just not sure what's going to happen.' And we ended up
a great headline, which says, `Bush Maybe.'
CONAN: So you didn't actually have to stop the presses.
Ms. WARREN: Well, we did stop the presses from running. What we did is
about 3:00 in the morning--actually, about quarter of 4 in the morning, we
said, `No, we can't go with that headline. We can't declare a winner in
race yet.' And we listed from the presses several plates that changed our
cover. It changed some of our stories and then, finally, ran the presses at
about 4:17 in the morning.
CONAN: `Stop the presses' is one of those phrases that raises images of,
know, vast 19th century machinery grinding out newspapers. Do you do it
days, you know, with a click of the mouse?
Ms. WARREN: Well, we do some parts of it with a mouse, but the actual
printing of a paper is pretty similar. The presses are much better now, but
they still put ink on paper with something like the same technology that has
been used for decades. What we do, since we're here in downtown
and we have a printing plant that's in the suburbs, we send our pages to
electronically, and that's what we were updating as late as quarter of 4 and
4:00 in the morning.
CONAN: So is there an actual newspaper that people have seen that says
Ms. WARREN: We were smart enough to avoid that. What they got was `Bush
CONAN: Obviously, that couldn't have been the only headline that you were
thinking about overnight.
Ms. WARREN: No. The Daily News takes its headlines--I don't want to say
seriously, but we certainly spend a lot of time making them the kind of
that you can't pass on the newsstand. So we actually had a headline
competition here in the newsroom pretty late, when folks were pretty punchy,
and some of the things that were thrown around were `W is for Victory' or
`Gore More Years.'
CONAN: Ooh, that's good. I like that.
Ms. WARREN: Yeah. And we like our headlines here. We're pretty proud of
CONAN: Is there any one individual who's going to be getting a medal for
stopping the `Bush Wins' paper?
Ms. WARREN: Well, there's a lot of smart people. There was--one of the
people who communicates directly with the printing plant here was smart
to say, `You know, I think we're just going to have to wait a little bit
longer.' And, of course, our newsroom editors are telling them, you know,
don't have it yet. We can't go with this.' And seeing what the other
did--I don't know if you saw what happened in Austin. They actually had
different headlines on the Austin American-Statesman, which obviously
is very important to them. And they finally had to settle on `History On
Hold.' And then, of course, there's a great New York Post out on the street
that says `Bush Wins.'
CONAN: And that's the one, if it ever should go to Gore, that he'll
be--there'll be the photograph of him holding that one up.
Ms. WARREN: I think we have trounced `Dewey Beats Truman.' I think we are
way past that. This is the new `Dewey Beats Truman.'
CONAN: You have to distribute newspapers all over the metropolitan area of
Philadelphia. By waiting that late, aren't you jeopardizing, you know,
delivery out to the suburbs?
Ms. WARREN: Well, that's exactly what our editors were weighing, and we had
all of the top editors of the paper here working overnight; I don't mean
at night, I mean overnight last night. And they were deciding, `If we stop
the presses, how many papers can we sell?' The Daily News is a paper that
lives and dies by how many people spend 60 cents in the morning on what we
give you. And if we push our deadlines, there are fewer people walking the
streets at 10 or 9 than there are at 7 and 8. So it's a balance between
wanting to get exactly the right headline, the headline that's going to mean
the most to our readers and be as accurate as possible, and wanting to make
sure we get that market that we're trying to reach every morning. That's
exactly what they were weighing, and that's why you finally do have to go to
press at some point.
CONAN: By saying that, you mean you don't make your money off of people who
subscribe to the paper, but rather people who buy it in a newsstand or out
one of those little machines.
Ms. WARREN: Our primary base is people who do buy single-copy sales, is
we call it. And I think we're going to have a pretty good day. I mean,
thrilled that we were--at least right now we're still right. Of course,
things are still changing, and, you know, we may yet learn who our
president-elect is going to be.
CONAN: But I think in this city and everywhere around the country, there
people looking at headlines and shaking their heads.
Ms. WARREN: Go out to your newsstands, buy these papers. It is a day for
CONAN: Wendy Warren is one of the editors on the city desk of the
Philadelphia Daily News. Thanks very much.
Ms. WARREN: Thank you.
CONAN: For Terry Gross, I'm Neil Conan.
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