'Fight Club Politics'
Former Washington Post Congressional correspondent Juliet Eilperin says warlike tactics, manipulation and strategic takeovers have replaced compromise in the House. She drives home the point in her new book, Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the U.S. House of Representatives.
Other segments from the episode on May 23, 2006
DATE May 23, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Juliet Eilperin discusses her new book "Fight
Club Politics" about partisanship in Congress
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The House of Representatives has been poisoned by partisanship, according to
the new book, "Fight Club Politics." My guest is the author Juliet Eilperin.
Her book examines how Congress has changed since 1994 when Republicans, led by
Newt Gingrich, became the majority party in the House for the first time in 40
years. She writes, "Lawmakers on both sides have become more accountable to
the party apparatus and less accountable to the public. And this, in turn,
has encouraged them to become more ideologically entrenched and less inclined
to reflect voters' broad interests." Eilperin is a national correspondent for
The Washington Post and a former congressional correspondent for the paper.
What's some of the evidence you'd offer that the House is more polarized than
it's been in recent memory?
Ms. JULIET EILPERIN: The first, I would say, is that there's a score called
the DW-Nominate score, which is a political science test which looks at where
members of Congress are ideologically. And what that's shown is that
Republicans are more conservative that they used to be. In fact, they are
roughly 73 percent more conservative than they were in the 1970s. And
Democrats are more liberal, though not to the same extreme. They're roughly
28 percent more liberal than they used to be.
Then you could also look at just what members of Congress tell me about their
lives. And I found this quite disturbing and compelling in terms of giving us
a sense of what's happening in Washington. They simply don't talk to each
other any more. I talked to an off-the-record group of 20 House Democrats
just a week ago, and we discussed how--I was discussing restoring civility to
Washington. And essentially the message I got back is, `Why in the world
would you ask us to spend time even if the cameras aren't on, reporters aren't
taking notes, discussing policy with Republicans because we just don't have
any incentive to work with them, and they don't listen to us.'
Everything from that to the fact that a tennis coach here in Washington told
me that while she coaches some of the top politicos in town, and she explained
to me that years ago she would play doubles matches and no one would mind what
team they're on. And, again, several years ago, people started saying, `Are
you going to make me play with a Democrat on my side or a Republican on my
side? Because that's just not acceptable.' And I think that's really a
testament to how polarized things have gotten in Washington.
GROSS: You traced the hyperdivision in Congress back to 1994 when Newt
Gingrich was elected and the Republicans became the majority party in the
House for the first time in 40 years. You say the Democrats had certainly
taken advantage of their majority for 40 years but that the Republicans kind
of took it to a new level. And you said that Gingrich and Dick Army of Texas
embarked on an unprecedented campaign to convince Americans that they needed
to overthrow the established order. What are some of the changes that they
said they wanted to make?
Ms. EILPERIN: They said that they wanted to make Congress more accountable
to the public, that they were going to have a more open process on the House
floor so that people could express their views. They vowed to bring up a
number of bills that they said reflected what the public wanted, including
potentially term limits on members of Congress so they couldn't serve as long
as they could. And, really, they vowed to end corruption that Congress had
experienced under House Democratic rules.
GROSS: So Republicans campaigned on making, you know, the House more fair,
more balanced. But once they were established as a majority party, did they
change the rules to shut out the minority Democrats?
Ms. EILPERIN: Absolutely. They have effectively shut out the minority
Democrats. I don't think many people would take issue with that. If you look
at what amendments they brought up, I mean, it's really kind of stunning.
They will have, for example, major pieces of legislation where in some cases
they don't allow any Democratic amendments to come up for a vote on the House
floor. In some cases, maybe they'll allow them one amendment to come up on
the House floor. And that, really, in the eyes of many members, violates a
basic test of democracy, which is that the House of Representatives, which is
theoretically supposed to be closest to the ordinary American public, isn't
allowing members of Congress who represents hundreds of thousands of people to
express themselves through legislation. And that's really one of the clearest
examples we see of where Republicans have not lived up to the promise of
GROSS: What is the process or the rule changes that they used to shut out
Democrats from making amendments and having direct input into most
Ms. EILPERIN: There's a committee called the House Rules Committee, and that
is the panel that sets the terms of the debate for any given bill. And this
is extremely powerful because essentially what this panel does is they decide
who gets amendments on the floor that ultimately are put to a test of the full
House. And so if they deny members amendments, then you never really get a
sense of whether the majority of members of Congress support one idea or
And while he didn't change the makeup of the rules committee to my knowledge,
what he did is he, again, installed someone who is very loyal to him--Jerry
Solomon was the first chairman. Now it's someone named David Dreier from
California. And he instructed them to essentially rig the rules of debate to
benefit Republicans. And so, while they had initially campaigned on making it
more open and more fair and giving the minority more input, over time what
you've seen is that they've narrowed the terms of debate so that Democrats
rarely have a chance to offer amendments on meaningful questions.
This was, for example, very obvious during the impeachment debate where some
members of Congress wanted a chance to censure President Clinton rather than
impeach him. And the leadership decided that's out of bounds. We're never
going to allow for a censure vote because that's going to give moderates a way
out of impeaching the president. And so they demanded an up or down vote.
And we've seen this on a score of issues, whether it's malpractice reform or
Social Security or things like that, they repeatedly say, `We're, it's--again,
our way or the highway. Either you're voting for the Republican vision or
you're out in the cold.'
GROSS: Can you explain a little bit more the process and the rules changes
that have prevented Democrats largely from adding amendments to legislation?
Ms. EILPERIN: For every bill that comes out for a vote on the House floor,
the Rules Committee passes a rule. And the rule sometimes includes changes in
the underlying text of the bill or it just lays out what are the different
amendments that can be considered. It will say, `On this bill we're going to
have six amendments, or 20 amendments, or 25 amendments.' And so the Rules
Committee--which is overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans, they have a
greater advantage on that committee than any other committee in the House of
Representatives--decides who gets to offer what changes to a bill. So the
rules that they pass have a huge impact on the substance of the legislation
ultimately, because it says how much members are going to have a chance to
tinker with the bill. And so they pass a rule which says, `We're going to
allow debate, first of all, for x period of time.' One thing they might do is
make the debate very short so that members don't have a chance to really speak
about the matter at hand or, again, offer up alternatives to what the majority
has crafted. And so all of those things have a huge impact on what ultimately
the House of Representatives produces in terms of legislation.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Juliet Eilperin, and her new
book is called "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House
Now, you say that Newt Gingrich transformed the relationship between committee
chairs and House leaders. What did he do?
Ms. EILPERIN: What he essentially did is he up-ended the old system which
existed under the Democrats of the seniority system for committee chairman.
Under the Democratic practice, if you stuck around for long enough, you
eventually would get to chair a committee because it was simply done by the
amount of time you had served in the House. Newt Gingrich had a different
vision for how he wanted to rule Congress. He made it more of a loyalty test
and a fund-raising test. He said to Republicans that they could only get to
the top of committees if they proved that, A, they had a better way of ruling
the committee, would be loyal to the leadership and were effective in helping
the Republicans maintain their hold on power. And that made committee chairs
much more beholden to the leadership under the Republicans as opposed to
Democrats, where many committee chairs acted as almost free agents, where they
would have their own fiefdoms and would have extraordinary control over what
happened in those committee rooms.
GROSS: So what does it mean to have the committee chairs have more party
loyalty and to be more beholden to the leaders of the party or to the House
Ms. EILPERIN: It means essentially that committees become the extension of
the Republican leadership and they do what the leaders want. And that can be
very significant. You can look at things like there was a massive telecom
bill that was done several years ago towards the beginning of Republican rule.
And the committee had a strategy and a bill that they were considering. And
at the last moment, Newt Gingrich helped rewrite the bill and that was
ultimately the bill that committees passed. And, again, this takes power away
from rank and file members who traditionally within these committees have been
able to shape the vision of legislation that you're having. And instead it
allows the leadership, often working with lobbyists, to have more of an impact
on what the final bill is that comes out of any given panel.
GROSS: Now, where do the lobbyists come in in this process now in terms of
helping to write the bill?
Ms. EILPERIN: Really, what's happening is that they are more focussed on the
leadership and influencing those men and women than say your ordinary members
on a committee or even the committee chair, because they know that if--at the
end of the day it's going to be the speaker and his deputies who are going to
write the legislation, why waste your time dealing with a committee member
when, really, you can influence the process from the top?
GROSS: And that would probably mean, too, that the lobbyists have
proportionately given more of their money to the leadership, who then doles it
out to who they think would be beholden to the party as opposed to giving the
money to individual congressman. Is that right?
Ms. EILPERIN: Absolutely. And this is one of the things I explore in my
book. One thing we've seen, which, again, has really taken hold of Congress
in the past decade is something called leadership political action committees.
And what this is, it allows the senior men and women in Congress to sweep up
the money from K Street, the lobbyists crowd, and then redistribute it to rank
and file members. And what this does is it again both gives lobbyists an
incredible amount of influence because they're donating this money to leaders.
But then it gives leaders the chance to have greater sway over rank and file
members because these members of Congress become very dependent on their
leaders for campaign contributions. And as Tom Davis, senior Republican and
committee chair from Virginia, put it to me, money talks and big money talks
even bigger. And he was referring to the impact that leaders can have once
they dole out campaign contributions from these leadership political action
GROSS: OK. And how have these tests of loyalty and this new system of fund
raising and giving out money, how has that affected what you describe as the
growing partisanship in Congress and the more extreme nature of the parties?
Ms. EILPERIN: What it does is it really cuts down and hampers rank and file
members' ability to cross party lines and work collaboratively with members on
the other side. Because, essentially, they know they'll be punished on a few
different levels. They might be punished in terms of losing key committee
slots. For example, recently there were two committee chairmen who lost their
posts because they had defied the leadership. Joel Hefley, a conservative
Republican from Colorado, had headed up the Ethics Committee when they were
considering the case against Tom DeLay, the former majority leader who was
under scrutiny for a number of ethical violations. They ultimately ended up
chastising him several times right before the 2004 election. And as a result,
he lost his committee chairmanship. And when a couple members of the
committee complained about the treatment of Joel Hefley by the leadership,
they were booted as well.
GROSS: And do you think the Democrats are any different from the Republicans
in how they use like money and committee chairmanships to control the members?
Ms. EILPERIN: It's interesting. They're really doing their best to imitate
the Republicans at this point. For example, Nancy Pelosi, the House minority
leader from California, has been making a big effort to intimidate members of
her party for crossing party lines. And one of the clearest examples we've
seen of this is Ed Towns is a Democrat from New York who voted in favor of a
Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Pelosi and the rest of the
Democratic leadership opposed. As a result, Pelosi threatened to yank away
his very valuable spot on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Now, it's
interesting to note that she ultimately didn't go ahead with the threat in the
same way, for example, that Democratic leaders didn't go ahead and punish
Allen Boyd, a centrist Democrat from Florida, for joining with the Republicans
to sponsor a Social Security privatization plan. Democrats don't seem to be
as effective in following through on their threats as Dec--as Republicans.
However, they have made an effort to send a message to the rank and file
members `If you cross us, you're at least going to have to worry about losing
your plum committee spot.' And that does have an effect on the mentality of
members of Congress when they're deciding how to vote.
GROSS: My guest is Juliet Eilperin, a national corespondent for The
Washington Post. Her new book is called "Fight Club Politics." We'll talk
more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post reporter Juliet
Eilperin. Her new book is called "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is
Poisoning the House of Representatives."
You know, we were talking before about how Newt Gingrich changed the
atmosphere in Congress in 1994 when he became speaker of the House and the
House had a Republican majority for the first time in 40 years. And one of
the changes you say that he made is how he handled orientation for new
congressmen. Now this doesn't seem like it necessarily would be a big deal,
but what was the significance of what he did? What were the changes he made
and what were their significance?
Ms. EILPERIN: What Gingrich did is he decided that rather having a joint
Democratic and Republican orientation, which is what had been the tradition,
these members upon winning their seats in Congress would go to Harvard
University's Kennedy School in order to learn about what it meant to be a
member. He said, `We're actually going to do it separately and we're going to
have Republicans only learn about Congress from the conservative perspective.'
He brought them to learn at the Heritage Institute, a conservative think tank.
And while it doesn't seem like a big deal, it makes an impact. Those early
days are, first of all, the time when you get to know other members of
Congress. And so here immediately you're segregating Republicans and
Democrats into separate camps. In this kind of climate, as Sherrod Brown, a
Democrat from Ohio put it to me, Gingrich was saying, `We're going to do it on
our own.' Which really has been the strategy of Republicans since they've
taken power. And it really begins in those early days of orientation.
GROSS: And Gingrich also discouraged congressmen from moving their families
to Washington. Why?
Ms. EILPERIN: He argued that by moving your family to Washington, you ran
the risk of getting what people call "Beltway fever." Essentially what would
happen is when you moved your family to Washington, you would become the very
kind of Washington insider that Republicans had been attacking for years. And
while on some level there doesn't seem to be that much wrong with this
because, you say, `Well, these members of Congress need to spend time with
their constituents. If they keep their families in their home district,
they'll just have even more of an incentive to travel home and talk to the
people they're representing.'
It really has had a corrosive effect on the ability of members of Congress to
get to know each other. The statistics are pretty stark. In the--say 20
years ago, you had something like two thirds of members of Congress lived
inside Washington in the Washington, DC, area. Now four fifths of members of
Congress have decided to keep their principal residence and their families
back in the home district. And it really has affected the level of civility
on Capitol Hill.
Members no longer spend time together, and as a result, it's become much
easier for them to demonize members of the opposing party. And it used to be
harder to do that because maybe you'd want to yell at them, but if you knew
you were seeing them for dinner later in the week, it would be harder to get
away with attacking them. And now that they simply are strangers to each
other, it's become much easier for them to attack each other.
GROSS: Looking at the recent history of Congress, how do you think the
impeachment of President Clinton affected divisions within the House?
Ms. EILPERIN: It very much heightened divisions between Democrats and
Republicans. Democrats saw this as a groundless attack on their party, as
well as their president. And it sowed the seeds of distrust that have existed
to this day. And even with Republicans, interestingly, some of them came
under fire for not being partisan enough. For example, Mark Souder, a
conservative Republican from Indiana, voted for impeaching President Clinton
but he didn't vote for every count. And, as a result, he has had a primary
opponent in his district every election since then. His entire fund-raising
committee quit on him after the impeachment vote because they argued they
couldn't raise money from loyal Republicans. And so that again sent a signal
to Republicans, which is, if you decide to break with the party, you are going
to pay the price ultimately in elections. And so I argue that that's had a
huge effect in terms of destroying the kind of comity that is often essential
to forging bipartisan legislative compromises on Capitol Hill.
GROSS: We're talking before about ways you think that Democrats, the minority
party in Congress, have been--in the House--have been shut out of legislation.
And you say now, rather than seeking a bipartisan majority for initiatives,
that Republican leaders in the House are more interested in securing 218 votes
from Republicans. Why does the Republican leadership prefer to have a
Republican majority vote rather than a bipartisan vote?
Ms. EILPERIN: This is a strategy they've had since the beginning of their
control over Congress, although Denny Hastert, the current speaker from
Illinois, articulated it in his speech, which is called--when he talked about
`the majority of the majority.' Essentially his belief, and this extends to
the entire Republican leadership, is that bills that come to the House floor
that are going to pass should have the majority of Republicans on-board. And
then if you get any Democrats, that's icing on the cake, but not essential for
And, really, their argument is, `We keep winning these elections, therefore
we're allowed to pursue our agenda.' And Democrats are really incidental to
that. And while on one level you understand what they're saying, again, it
means that you're having bill that tend to be more conservative than the
American public because Republicans within the House are more conservative
than even the average Republican across the country. And as a result, the
legislation that you'd pursue from such a strategy is going to be more
conservative than the American public as a whole. And, again, they've done
this time and time again. And ultimately while they continue to produce a
string of narrow victories, it again alienates people on the other side who
feel like ultimately they're irrelevant to the legislative process.
GROSS: Juliet Eilperin is a national correspondent for The Washington Post.
Her new book is called "Fight Club Politics." She'll be back in the second
half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Juliet Eilperin, author
of the new book, "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the
House of Representatives." The book traces how the already partisan House
became even more divided after the Republicans took it over in 1994 and how
Speaker Newt Gingrich established a new model for the governing body.
Eilperin is national corespondent for The Washington Post and a former
congressional correspondent for the paper.
Now, another change in the recent past in Congress is that you say that
Republicans have reduced the amount of time that legislators have to actually
review new bills. Is that part of the strategy and what does it accomplish?
Ms. EILPERIN: It gives more power to the majority because they know the
final product that they're putting up for a House bill. But, frankly,
Democrats don't. And they will come up with bills that are hundreds and
hundreds of pages long, where, first of all, very few members really know
what's in the bill. But, you know, Republicans and Democrats will go to the
floor and there are often aides that are giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down
sign on the House floor that, you know, give people a sense on how they're
supposed to vote. And what it does is empowers the leadership, disempowers
rank and file members. And even some Democrats had said, `You know, we should
really take it to the point that we should go out to the steps of the Capitol
with these bills that are hot off the presses and read them in front of the TV
cameras, in front of the print reporters and make a point that we're really
not part of the process.'
And, again, many Democrats haven't wanted to take it to that extent, but you
really get the sense that members of Congress are voting on things that only a
few people really know the contents of. And we've seen some kind of
embarrassing incident where they've noticed that staffers have put in
provisions that no on else knew about or there are special interest
Reporters are often in the position of figuring out the contents of bills
after they've gone through the legislative process. And by doing that, that
clearly doesn't give the public a sense of having an input into the
GROSS: Can you think of an example of something that's gotten into a bill
because nobody had time to read it?
Ms. EILPERIN: There was something that happened recently, it was a couple
years ago, on a major--what we call an omnibus bill. It was kind of a final
spending bill that Congress was passing. And there was a Republican staffer
that had put in a provision that was giving, essentially, the IRS more input
into looking into people's private lives. And that was really something that
was stunning. It was actually fixed later. But it really gave the IRS more
access to Americans' documents than anyone had wanted. And ultimately the
boss of the person in question said, `Look, I didn't even approve this. This
was done by a renegade staffer and this does not reflect Republican values.'
GROSS: You know, earlier you were talking about how you think not only has
Congress become more polarized but the parties, particularly the Republicans,
have become more extreme. And you talked a little bit about how loyalty tests
and the whole reward-and-punishment system from the party leadership is kind
of squeezing out moderates. You say that redistricting has also squeezed out
moderates. In what way?
Ms. EILPERIN: Redistricting has a huge impact on how members of Congress
vote. Essentially what you've had happen in recent decades is with frankly
advances in technology, map makers have become much more sophisticated in
terms of figuring out where Democrats and Republicans live. And shaping
districts so that they can have overwhelmingly safe Democratic districts or
overwhelmingly safe Republican districts. And what this does is, again, gives
an edge for the people on the extreme edge of the ideological spectrum. If
you have an overwhelmingly Democratic district, as a member of Congress
running for office, all you care about is pleasing the most liberal members of
your constituency. And vice versa for Republicans. And we've seen this
happen time and time again where they create districts where members of
Congress worry much more about competition in their primary election than on
the general election. And as a result, the men and women who are coming to
Washington tend to be much more extreme because they're really worried about a
thin segment of the population but it's the segment of the population that's
over-represented in their congressional districts.
GROSS: You know, one thing that I really don't comprehend is why is it that
it's people from the parties who actually draw up the maps in redistricting?
Ms. EILPERIN: That's an excellent question.
GROSS: I mean, you would think that it would be impartial observers who would
be, you know, looking at population change and redrawing the map. But it's
not that way.
Ms. EILPERIN: There's a blatant conflict of interest there. And it's
amazing that it doesn't get challenged more often. But, you know, that's the
way it is in many states. There are exceptions to it. For example, one of
the ideas I talk about is expanding on the New Jersey model, which is a
bipartisan commission so you have Republicans and Democrats involved in the
process. But then you have an independent tie-breaker in the case of New
Jersey. They tend to go with an academic who tries to rein in the more
extreme elements, and essentially both parties have to try and please this
independent tie-breaker in order to come with the fair results.
Again, there are a few states that do have either independent commissions or
bipartisan commissions. But for the bulk of states in the United States, the
way it works is that you have legislatures or partisans who are doing it.
And, again, for example, there is someone named David Winston, and he's a
consultant here in town. And he's helped draw House districts for years. And
he said, `When I as a map maker have more influence over an election than a
candidate or a campaign, the system is out of whack.'
GROSS: My guest is Juliet Eilperin, a national correspondent for The
Washington Post. Her new book is called "Fight Club Politics." We'll talk
more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Juliet Eilperin, a national correspondent for The
Washington Post. Her new book, "Fight Club Politics," is about how the House
of Representatives has become more partisan in the past decade.
How did Tom DeLay change the Texas Legislature from a long-term Democratic
majority to a Republican one?
Ms. EILPERIN: Well, he had a long-term strategy which he devised along with
some of his aides. And that strategy was to gain control of the state
Legislature first so that he could do something that was unprecedented,
redrawing the congressional map in an off-year when you were supposed to be
done with redistricting. So what he and his aides did, they raised an
extraordinary amount of money, which ultimately has led to several indictments
in Texas for violating campaign finance law. And by doing that, they helped
their party take control of the state House for the first time in an
incredibly long time. And that allowed them, along with controlling the
governorship, which they already had, to in 2003 say, `You know what? We're
going to revisit the map that we had already had.' And so what they did is
they went down there and came up with a totally different map, which gave
Republicans even more of an advantage than they had, for example, statewide in
polls of, you know, where Republicans and Democrats are in that state.
And, again, he was a real strategic thinker. He really thought, `I need to
win on the state level and that way I'm going to have greater control in
Congress.' And I asked him about this in 2003. He was flying back and forth
between Washington and Texas in order to influence the process. And I said,
`Why are you doing this? Why are you spending such an extraordinary amount of
time and effort in this remap?' And he looked at me and said, `Juliet, I'm the
majority leader, and I want more seats.' And that's what he got. He
ultimately got several seats out of that election.
GROSS: Are you saying that a lot of congressional elections are really kind
of done deals because of the way the areas have been remapped?
Ms. EILPERIN: Absolutely. I was considering, in fact, naming my book
"Rigged" initially, but that made my editors nervous, and so we didn't do it.
But I would say that many elections in America today are rigged. And there's
not a fair fight because so many of these districts are predetermined by the
overwhelming number of Democrats or Republicans they have in their seats.
Again, if you look at something like California, Richard Palm is a very
interesting figure. He's a conservative Republican who chairs the House
Resources Committee. He represents the East Bay area and going out from
there. And there are a lot of his constituents who have some concerns about
his record, but his district was made safer after the 2000 census. And when
we talked about it--I was recently out at his district. I did a piece about
his campaign. And I said, you know, `How worried are you about this?' And he
said, `You know, Juliet, I have a 7 percent advantage now in this district. I
didn't have that advantage when I initially won my seat. And so I'm not
really worried. I'll have a tougher race than I've had in the past but, you
know.' Basically, he said, `I'll see you back in Washington after the November
And so I think that that speaks volumes to where we are today. There are 435
seats in Congress, but if you look at the number of races across the country,
by the most generous definition, maybe you would have something like 42 seats
in play this year. And that's pretty stunning when you think that in 90
percent of the House seats, I can tell you right now who is going to be
returning to Washington after November.
GROSS: What are the odds that that will change in the near future? How long
are we kind of stuck with these kind of predetermined elections?
Ms. EILPERIN: We're really at a critical moment right now in our political
system. There are a couple of things that could shake up the status quo. One
is that the Supreme Court is going to be ruling any week now on the Texas
redistricting case where Democrats have argued the Republicans went too far
and have taking gerrymandering to a new level. We could see some signal from
the Supreme Court that things need to change and you need a different process.
Now, again, that's pretty unlikely. I went in March. They had the oral
arguments for that case. And I got the sense that the Supreme Court justices
were very reluctant to interfere with what they see as the congressional
domain as laid out by the Constitution. But it could happen.
The other thing would be the fall elections. I think everyone is looking
right now to get a signal from the American public about how they feel about
the current political system, how they feel about President Bush. And if you
saw significant Democratic gains in Congress, that would clearly send a
message to the majority--the Republican Party that things need to be done
differently, as well as, of course, serve as a signal to Democrats that they
may be in danger if they try to play by these same rules.
And so what I think we're really waiting for is to get a message from voters
about what they think about the current system and whether it's serving them.
Again, the real problem with this is that you have so many districts that are
rigged by gerrymandering. The problem becomes voters may not be able to
really send the signal they want because so many of these members of Congress
are destined for re-election.
GROSS: Who do you think will be in the majority in Congress when November is
Ms. EILPERIN: Oh, that's a really tough question. For a long time, I had
said that the Republicans were still going to control the House, that that was
really pretty much a done deal because of the redistricting that we've talked
about. I'm now hedging my bets more than I used to, giving the sinking
popularity of the president, along with Congress itself. When you look at
some of these numbers, of course, they are very similar to what we saw in
1994. So I think you have to say that, at this point, it's a toss-up. But
I'm still falling short of saying the Democrats will absolutely win the House
back. That, I think, is still a tall order when you consider they need to win
15 seats. And while that might not sound like a lot, given that again there
are roughly 40 seats in play under the most generous definition, that becomes
an extraordinary mission when they also have to defend several Democratic
seats, which I think will remain in Democratic hands but still require
resources, time and effort.
GROSS: It looks like Newt Gingrich is considering a run for his party's
nomination for president. Now, a lot of your book is really about how Newt
Gingrich led Congress to become more partisan when he was the House speaker.
Do you think he's changed at all?
Ms. EILPERIN: I think he has changed somewhat. I actually just saw him
yesterday and we talked at length for this book. And I joked by the end of
it, when he was talking about how he agrees with me that redistricting has
gotten out of control, you know, this is something that, of course, he
endorsed back in the early '90s because he saw it as instrumental in helping
his party gain control of Congress. And I said to him during one interview,
`I don't know what's happened. Either you've moved to the left or I've moved
to the right, but the fact that we seem to be in agreement on some of these
issues shows something is going on.' I think that he certainly has become
increasingly publicly critical of how Republicans are ruling the House. He's
calling for more openness. He's saying that Democrats have been shut out to
too great an extent. So it's a little hard to say what's behind this, but
certainly in his statements, he is sounding more moderate than he had been
when he first brought his party back in to power.
GROSS: Well, Juliet Eilperin, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. EILPERIN: Thank you.
GROSS: Juliet Eilperin is the author of "Fight Club Politics." She's a
national corespondent for The Washington Post.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Rock critic Ken Tucker's opinion of Neko Case's "Fox
Confessor Brings the Flood"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the new solo album by Neko Case.
She grew up in Tacoma, Washington, attended art school in Vancouver and
performed with the Canadian pop rock band, The New Pornographers. As a solo
artist, her music has often tended to be more influenced by country and folk
music. Her new CD "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" is her fourth studio
album. Ken says it contains some of her most complex and beautiful music to
(Soundbite of "Margaret vs. Pauline")
Ms. NEKO CASE: (Singing) "Everything's so easy for Pauline. Everything's so
easy for Pauline. Ancient strings set feet a light to speed to her such mild
grace. No monument of tacky gold, they smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves.
And they placed on ingot in her breast to burn cool and collected. Fate holds
her firm in its cradle and then rolls her for a tender pause to savor.
Everything's so easy for Pauline."
(End of soundbite)
Mr. KEN TUCKER: I think I could probably spend the rest of my life trying to
understand fully what Neko Case is getting at in "Margaret vs. Pauline," the
song that opens her new album. But on another level, I don't really want to
know what it's all about. The way she sings "Everything's so easy for
Pauline" suggests reservoirs of resentment, pity and despair that's almost too
much to take as an opening cut, even one enhanced by the beauty of the piano
playing by Garth Hudson of the Band. But extremes of emotions held barely in
check by the confines of melody and tempo are what make Case's voice seem so
powerful and subtle.
(Soundbite of "Lion's Jaw")~
Ms. CASE: (Singing) "You're gone, the trees are so quiet. When your hand
was in my pocket, how they swayed from side to side. Now the meddling sky and
my snowy eye sees a different night. Sees a different night. The night I
fell into the lion's jaws."
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: On that song, "Lion's Jaws," Neko Case sings like a '50s torch
singer who wants to burn down the recording studio. A song of lament, her
lover's gone, she still feels his hand in her pocket, and her poetic
adjectives, "a meddling sky," her "snowy eye." It gathers you into the center
of pain and confusion, into the "Lion's Jaws." But her singing releases you
into an ethereal eternal night. She eludes the lion only to get trapped at a
party that stirs up memories of bad behavior she tries to escape with pills
and help from the devil.
(Soundbite of "Hold On, Hold On")
Ms. CASE: (Singing) "Compared to some I've been around, but I really tried
so hard. That echo chorus lied to me with its hold on, hold on, hold on, hold
on. In the end I was the mean girl, or somebody's in-between girl. Now it's
the devil I love, and that's as funny as real love. I leave the party..."
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: Occasionally, this dream album builds up its source as an
inspiration. On "John Saw That Number," Case takes an old country gospel song
and gives it her own fiercely judgmental spin. And on the gorgeous "That
Teenage Feeling," Case reaches back to early rock 'n' roll influences to
express an adult's hope for the sort of electrifying love that may never come
around again. I saw Case perform this song the same day that Jean Pitney's
death was reported. Although she never mentioned him, it turned out to be as
fine a tribute to that great '60s' singer as anyone could want.
(Soundbite of "That Teenage Feeling")
Ms. CASE: (Singing) "Now that we've met, we can only laugh at these regrets.
Common as a winter cold, they're telephone poles. They follow each other one
after another, after another. But now my heart is green as weeds, grown to
outlive their season. And nothing comforts me the same as my brave friend who
says, `I don't care if forever never comes 'cause I'm holding out for that
teenage feeling. I'm holding out for that teenage feeling.'"
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: Ultimately, what Neko Case has created over the course of "Fox
Confessor Brings the Flood" is a mystery novel cast in music, a story about
clues and false starts and dangerous fights and more dangerous romances.
Whether the mystery is solved by the end really isn't, as is true of so many
such creations, really the point. It's the suspense, the details and the
music of the language that matters.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" by Neko Case.
(Soundbite of "The Needle Has Landed")
Ms. CASE: (Singing) "Here I am in traffic's slow flow. Where the needle
touched down, carbon planes draw a cage round the air force base. Where the
needle touched down. My foot on the brake, it's OK to fly low over poor
Spanaway. An eagle swooped down from a semi-trailer, took the name of your
town from a sharp-toothed freighter. The needle's the same that recorded and
played when you left me at the Greyhound the year I moved away. And if I knew
then what's so obvious now, you'd still be here, baby."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about art fraud and
murder by Peter Carey.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Maureen Corrigan's opinion of Peter Carey's "Theft"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The award-winning Australian novelist Peter Carey is known for his manic comic
energy. Reaching for comparisons, reviewers have likened him to James Joyce,
Tom Wolfe and other writers obviously in love with words, words, words.
Carey's latest novel is called "Theft," and book critic Maureen Corrigan says
it's sure to steal its readers' attention away from all other activities.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Australian novelist Peter Carey is a loon from Down
Under, a "Mad Max" who drives language and plot straight through The Great
Barrier Reef of the commonplace. Carey's startling way with words accounts
for why he's twice won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. But I'll tell you
something even more remarkable about his wild style: He lets the reader in on
the cosmic joke. Oftentimes writers known for their derring-do with language
are better admired than read. I'll confess, I prefer talking about what a
Gertrude Stein or a Flann O'Brien is aiming at in their experimental writings
than I do actually reading them. Carey, in contrast, wants his readers to
join him in a good laugh right now. And he never strays so far into the
linguistic outback that he forgets to clear a path for his less fleet-footed
"Theft" is Carey's latest novel, and it deals with shenanigans in the
international art world. Artist Michael Boon is nicknamed "Butcher" because
that's what his father did for a living. Butcher dominated the Sydney art
scene as an angry young man. But when the novel begins, he's in trouble. Too
much drink, a nasty divorce, a jail term, and a generally belligerent attitude
toward his wealthy patrons have rendered Butcher a has-been in his late 30s.
Butcher is now working as a handyman on the rural estate of the one patron who
hasn't yet given up on him. And his companion in exile is his slow-witted
One rainy night a woman, who virtually has femme fatale tattooed on her
forehead, drives into their cloistered lives and begins to muck up Butcher's
premature retirement. This vixen's name is Marlene Liebovitz, and she turns
out to be the daughter-in-law of a famous modernist painter, Jacques
Liebovitz, who was one of Butcher's big influences. What ensues is a
screwball noir tale in which the besotted Butcher, with brother Hugh in tow,
allows the ambitious Marlene to resuscitate his career by shmoozing with shady
collectors from Sydney to Tokyo to New York. Art fraud and murder follow in
Carey unravels the story of a great talent gone bad in alternating chapters.
Butcher's chip on his shoulder witticisms duel with Hugh's Shakespearean fool
type commentary. What they both share in addition to revelatory humor is a
working-class appreciation for the well-placed obscenity, which makes "Theft"
a hard book to quote. The most inspired passages often are the ones most
laced with expletives. Here's a slightly edited rambling from Hugh who has
just come off a beach. He and Butcher are driving home and Hugh is commenting
on his artistic brother's self-centeredness.
(Reading) "Butcher was in a rage with the sand, and as always it was personal,
i.e., mountains had been born and broken, bloody rock, bloody tides, fish were
dead, shells hollow, coral snapped like bones. Therefore the grains of sand
now lying on the seat of the car must have travelled through eternity with the
sole intention of irritating his pimply arse.
Our father was much the same and we brothers cowered before his fury when
tracked-in sand was detected on the carpets of the car. As a boy, I could
never understand why nice, clean sand would cause such terror in my dad's
bloodshot eyes. But I had never seen an hourglass and did not know that I
That passage, in microcosm, is how "Theft," the novel, works. Carey gets you
laughing at some minor absurdity which shifts into a major Epiphany about loss
or obsessive love or the impossibility of discerning truth in a world filled
with fraud. Carey's language is so lively, so unaffected that the big ideas
here slip in here under cover of a joke.
In this divine comedy of a novel, Carey gives his readers a rollicking lark of
a story, as well as a sense of eternity in a grain of sand.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Theft" by Peter Carey.
I'm Terry Gross.
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