DATE September 3, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalists Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten talk
about Sarah Palin's track record in Alaskan politics and how her
selection as John McCain's running mate figures into the
Republican campaign strategy
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The big event at the Republican convention tonight is Sarah Palin's speech.
We're going to talk about Palin with two Los Angeles Times reporters covering
the campaign. Peter Wallsten is reporting from the Republican convention.
Tom Hamburger is in Anchorage reporting on Palin's background. In today's
edition of the LA Times, Hamburger co-wrote a story about Palin and earmarks.
The article says, "Three times in recent years McCain's lists of objectionable
pork spending have included earmarks requested by his new running mate."
We're also going to talk about the Republican's campaign strategy, how Palin
figures into it, and the extent to which the Republicans are using techniques
from the Karl Rove playbook. Hamburger and Wallsten co-wrote the 2006 book
"One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century."
Peter Wallsten, Tom Hamburger, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's compare what
you're each learning about Sarah Palin. Let's just start with a note of
review of how popular does she seem to be now. And, Tom, you're in Anchorage
so let's start with you. How popular has Sarah Palin been as a mayor and
governor, as far as you can tell?
Mr. TOM HAMBURGER: Well, I'm in the place Sarah Palin would like you to ask
about her popularity. She is--her approval ratings, according to state polls
and the state politicians I'm talking to, is running in the 80 percent,
80-plus level. She is an enormously popular figure here for a number of
reasons, one of which is that she has recently pushed through legislation
which is going to provide a $1200 check to every Alaskan in the form of a
rebate from oil revenues.
GROSS: That's to every single person, including children, babies, so like
every single member of a family gets that check.
Mr. HAMBURGER: That's my understanding. It's a $1200-per-person rebate to
help with high fuel costs.
GROSS: So what else accounts for her popularity?
Mr. HAMBURGER: Well, her popularity comes from--was building long before she
authored the rebate request in the legislature. She's a hockey mom. She's
the small town mayor, striking looking, a former mayor who is plain talking
and won over Alaskans in her several races, in her two races for statewide
office, once for lieutenant governor, and successfully for governor in 2006.
And she has spoken out. In Alaska there've been two big news stories that
have been dominating the front pages here and coffee shop discussion. One is
the rise in oil prices and the demand for oil, and that's Alaska's chief
industry and chief product. And the second has been the corruption scandal
which has reached through the Republican Party here. Sarah Palin's response
to both of those have been just what Alaskans are looking for. On the oil,
she's gone after the big oil companies, demanding more revenues for the state
from them. And of the Republican Party she's been demanding reform, calling
out and publicly criticizing the once-dominant political figures here, Senator
Ted Stevens and Representative Don Young, who were previously her mentors.
GROSS: Now, Palin is being touted as a maverick. It's hard to count how many
times I've heard the word maverick the past few days about McCain and Palin.
McCain is opposed to earmarks, and his campaign says she's opposed to
earmarks, too. Tom, you're in Anchorage and you have a piece in today's LA
Times which explains about how the reality of her policy on earmarks is a
little bit different from what we've been hearing. In fact, McCain
specifically objected to earmarks that were requested by Palin when she was
mayor of the town of Wasilla. Can you give us some examples of some of the
things that she specifically requested earmarks for? And for anyone who is a
little confused, explain what an earmark is.
Mr. HAMBURGER: Sure. An earmark is the legislative request that a member of
Congress makes that is very narrowly drawn to pull federal funds, or direct
federal funds in an appropriations bill to a specific project or company.
John McCain has become in Congress probably the best known opponent of this
earmark system, saying that it's secretive and leads to irrational spending.
And yet it is used by almost every member of Congress and thought about by
almost every mayor and certainly every governor who now, under earmark reform
laws, must disclose their earmark requests. Earmark requests are publicly
disclosed when they go to members of Congress making these requests.
Alaska, with its powerful congressional delegation and Senator Stevens on the
chair of the Appropriations Committee, was the state that per capita did far
better than any other state in getting these earmarks. When Sarah Palin was
introduced to the public, standing at John McCain's side in Dayton a week ago,
she announced her displeasure with earmarks and even referred to a project in
Alaska which has become kind of the poster child for bad earmark spending, the
so-called "bridge to nowhere," a bridge in a rural area of Alaska.
The reality, though, is that Sarah Palin, when she was mayor and as governor,
made use of the earmark system, making contact with that powerful
congressional delegation and asking for specific funding for specific
projects. She even engaged in the old fashioned system which McCain decries
of hiring a Washington lobbyist to help get these earmarks. They paid a
Washington lobbyist, a guy named Steve Silver who used to work for Senator
Stevens, to represent her hometown, the city of Wasilla, where she was mayor,
and helped secure earmarks of, depending on how you count it, between about 11
and $26 million in earmarks during the time she was mayor. And that's an
extraordinary figure for a town of about 9700 people.
GROSS: Now, at the speech that Sarah Palin gave right after John McCain
announced her as his running mate, she talked about her rejection of earmarks
and specifically the project known as the bridge to nowhere, and she said, "I
told Congress thanks, but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere. If our state
wanted a bridge, I said, we'd build it ourselves." What's the reality about
what happened with the money for the bridge to nowhere when Sarah Palin became
governor of Alaska?
Mr. HAMBURGER: Well, when Sarah--the reality is that Sarah Palin, to recall
an expression from campaigns past, was for the bridge to nowhere before she
was against it. The bridge refers to the Gravina Island bridge, which is a
proposed structure to replace a ferry that connects Ketchikan, Alaska, with
Gravina Island, where the town's airport is. And when she was running for
governor in 2006, Sarah Palin spoke positively about the bridge to nowhere,
saying it was something that she thought would be a good idea to build. When
she campaigned around Ketchikan she supported the idea. After her election,
she had--and this is the explanation the campaign provides--she took a look at
budget realities and realized there were other priorities in the state. She
didn't return the money for the bridge to the federal government, but rather
kept it to use for other public works projects in Alaska.
GROSS: So she rejected the idea of using the earmark money for the bridge,
but she didn't exactly send back the earmark money.
Mr. HAMBURGER: She didn't send it back to the Treasury.
Mr. HAMBURGER: It's at work on other Alaska road projects.
GROSS: Peter, you're covering the campaign so you're in the Twin Cities.
There's been nothing but like real positive talk coming out of the campaign
about Sarah Palin. Have you heard any behind-the-scenes doubts expressed
about John McCain's choice?
Mr. PETER WALLSTEN: Oh, yeah. You know, the grass roots is extremely
excited about her, but when you talk privately with--and even some of them not
so privately--Republican strategists, there's definitely a divide. There are
those who are in the business of thinking about politics and winning elections
who are very worried because it wasn't long ago that John McCain and his
campaign were talking about their winning strategy of appealing to the middle,
of winning independent voters, moderate voters, trying to take people away who
maybe have either not voted in the passed or voted Democratic in the past.
And this was going to be McCain's strategy. Now they worry that Palin is
going to turn off those moderate voters. They just don't know. They're
worried about, is there another shoe left to drop. They worry that the McCain
campaign, as we're learning, did not really aggressively vet Sarah Palin.
It turns out that--sources tell us--John McCain really wanted to put Joe
Lieberman on the ticket, and only in the closing hours his advisers convinced
him that that would lead to a revolt here at the Republican convention, would
really anger the base already skeptical of McCain anyway. So at the last
minute he decided to pick Sarah Palin, and it turns out they really didn't do
much vetting. So now folks like Tom are doing the vetting, and we'll see what
they find. But this is not the way these campaign strategists would like it
to have played out. They would have liked to know everything that's out there
to know. So there's some anxiety, certainly.
But on the flip side, I was at a discussion yesterday with some Republicans,
some conservative leaders, fiscal conservatives and social conservatives, kind
of some of the--and business leaders, the main pillars of the Republican
movement, and they're very excited about her, assuming that she can survive
this, because she still does have appeal to the middle. Her husband is a
member of the steel workers' union. The Republicans still believe that labor
union members are winnable. You know, Bush won 40 percent of labor union
members. They tend to be socially conservative in many ways, middle class.
This is Sarah Palin's story. So there's anxiety, there's uncertainty and
there's fear, but also a little bit of hope.
GROSS: My guests are LA Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten.
They co-wrote the 2006 book "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for
Dominance in the 21st Century." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guests are two LA Times reporters covering the campaign. Tom
Hamburger is in Anchorage reporting on Sarah Palin's background. Peter
Wallsten is at the Republican convention.
You mentioned that it turns out that the McCain campaign didn't thoroughly vet
Sarah Palin because the process was so rushed. Are you convinced that the
McCain campaign or that Palin herself knew that her daughter was pregnant?
Mr. WALLSTEN: You know, the McCain campaign--at this point, all we can do is
take them at their word that they knew about it. What they haven't been
specific about is exactly when they found out, how early in the process or
whether it was actually before McCain made his decision. They say it is.
We'll take them at their word. I think the issue with the pregnancy is not so
much that her daughter is pregnant--I think most people are willing to let
that be a family matter--but there are--a private family matter--but there are
a couple of issues with it that people are identifying. One is, again, this
question of what did the McCain vetters know about her, and were they prepared
for this? And secondly, there's a little bit of a disconnect that on the one
hand the campaign is saying, you know, this is a family matter, leave the
family out of it. But on the other hand they're definitely talking--they seem
to be happy to discuss, to accuse the media and Democrats of trying to poke
into the privacy, into a private family matter. And it turns out we've now
learned that the father of her daughter's baby will be coming to the
convention to create the picture of a happy family. And the news broke
because the campaign announced it.
GROSS: I think there's a policy issue here, too, and that's abstinence-only
education, which Sarah Palin is very much in support of. She's against
teaching about birth control. The Republican platform says abstinence from
sexual activity is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against
out of wedlock pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The Republican
platform opposes teaching about contraception. And so when you see Sarah
Palin's 17-year-old daughter, who is pregnant and out of wedlock, you have to
ask yourself is abstinence-only education as effective as its advocates think
and, you know, what does that say about the platform? So I wonder how the
policy end of that question is playing? Is anybody talking about that at the
convention or in Alaska?
Mr. HAMBURGER: If I can answer the Alaska portion of it quickly, Terry, it
is being discussed in Alaska--that is, her daughter's pregnancy is being
talked about. I was at the state fair the other day and talked to people in
Palmer, which is just a few miles from Wasilla, where the Palin family lived.
The people young and old, particularly young people there, Terry, said they
knew that their daughter, Bristol, was pregnant. It was pretty well known in
town and this was not a secret. It seems unlikely it's a secret she could
have kept or would have kept from John McCain, in any case.
And her political supporters here see this pregnancy as potentially something
that gives her an opportunity to again show that she is not your typical vice
presidential candidate. Frequently, people were saying it shows that `she's
like us, she's like the rest of us.' And I can tell you, if and when the topic
turns to teen pregnancy, while her views are very much, as you just described,
in favor of abstinence education, supporting parental notification before a
teenager gets an abortion, and she also has very strong views on limiting
exceptions, for no exceptions for abortion. But having said that, this is a
topic that her friends and people in Wasilla who know her, and political
figures in Alaska say she's comfortable discussing. And if there's going to
be a national discussion on teen pregnancy, they think she'll do very well
Mr. WALLSTEN: Terry, can I add to that? This goes exactly to the point of
why, in many ways, Sarah Palin is Karl Rove's dream candidate. This
issue--think about it. On the one hand, she's able to talk about how proud
she is that her daughter is going to have the baby. Opponents of abortion
love that conversation. They like that as an example. It's the same
conversation they like when Sarah Palin talks about why she brought her own
baby to term even though the baby had Down syndrome. So that's something
that's very popular with the base. On the other hand, Republicans I'm talking
to and campaign advisers feel that Democrats who try to tread into this
territory do so at their peril because this is an inherently middle-class
issue. This is the kind of thing that they feel helps her relate to many,
many people around the country. Parents of teenagers know how difficult it is
to raise children, to control them. And so this is--again, makes her someone
that can related to middle-class America. So in a way this can help her with
the base. It also can help her with those now-famous blue-collar Democrats
who did not support Barack Obama in the primaries and could be looking to
think about John McCain in the general election.
GROSS: Sarah Palin was chosen, in part, to mobilize the base, the Republican
base, to mobilize the evangelical voters, and she seems to be doing that very
successfully. Tom, in Anchorage, have you learned if her religious views have
affected her policies, either as mayor or governor?
Mr. HAMBURGER: Terry, here's what her--Terry, her religious views are well
known. She is this outspoken opponent of abortion. She has talked publicly
and favorably about teaching creationism in public schools. But in the public
realm, at least in the short time in which she's been governor, she has
avoided, on a couple of occasions, dealing with these issues. And that has
won her some applause. On the creationism in schools topic, she promised
during the campaign, she said that, `while I favor it it's not my priority and
it's not something that I'm going to be pushing as governor.' And indeed, she
has not done that. She also vetoed a bill--or didn't move forward with
legislation in her first term that would have limited the rights of gay
couples; she didn't discuss that. And I believe there was also some abortion
legislation that she didn't look at--in part, she said, because she didn't
want to be deterred from her first priority, which was passing this
legislation which would provide more oil revenue to the people of Alaska. So
she's very focused on that, and that seems to be her holy grail.
Now, as mayor, there were reports of her discussing with the librarians and
saying that some of the folks from her church and people she talked to
objected to some books in the library. The librarians, at least the folks who
know the library that we talked to, said that while she raised that question,
she did not actually proceed to try to ban books or limit them. So she seems
to have these very strong views, and yet on the other hand put her sort of
conservative economic views--almost libertarian views, in some cases--ahead of
those conservative social values.
GROSS: Sarah Palin doesn't think that climate change is connected to human
activity, and I'm wondering how that's affected, if you know how that's
affected, her energy and environmental policies in Alaska, a state that's
being very directly affected by climate change.
Mr. HAMBURGER: Yes.
GROSS: Part of the permafrost is melting. The ecological balance is changing
because of climate change in that state.
Mr. HAMBURGER: Terry, I do. There is quite a bit of talk about that,
particularly from Alaska's small but vocal environmental community. Sarah
Palin, since she was governor, actually took exception to the Bush
administration's decision just a few months ago to declare the polar bear an
endangered species. There were nine separate studies that were led by an
Interior Department scientist based here in Anchorage across the Bering Sea
and across the polar region, looking at the dramatic decline in polar bear
habitat. Some of the reports showed--reported polar bears--citing some polar
bears swimming in areas where there used to be ice fields. And it led
Interior Secretary Kempthorne to declare them an endangered species. Sarah
Palin said the best science that she's seen does not, in fact, indicate the
polar bear is endangered. And she is protesting and appealing that status
that was granted by the Interior Department. She opposes it. She thinks that
she has a kind of--her position on global warming is that warming is
occurring, but it's not related to human activity.
And one of the--that's sort of a perfect position, you know, for an Alaska
governor like her because it allows the economic activity of oil and gas
drilling to go on unmitigated. On the other hand, it allows her to apply for
federal aid to deal with the flooding, the changes in the permafrost and other
environmental factors that might be helped with some federal support and
GROSS: Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten will talk more about Sarah Palin and
John McCain's campaign strategy in the second half of the show. They're
covering the campaign for the LA Times, and they co-wrote the book "One Party
Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with LA Times reporters Peter
Wallsten and Tom Hamburger. Wallsten is covering the Republican convention.
Hamburger is in Anchorage reporting on Sarah Palin's background. They
co-wrote the 2006 book "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance
in the 21st Century." We're talking about Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign
Tom, most of the things you've said about Sarah Palin describe her as being
very popular in Alaska, and I'm wondering if you've heard negative things
about her during your research in Anchorage?
Mr. HAMBURGER: Terry, the answer is yes. And some of the things we've heard
suggest the nature of the high-wire act that is going to occur tonight at the
Republican Party. Remember, she's not terribly experienced on the national
stage. She has a temperament that's described as brittle, and there's a
record of her firing people, really, you know, tossing them out of jobs they'd
held for a long time if they cross her in one way or another, a sort of
loyalty test, a brittleness around personal issues, an ego that is easily
pricked and damaged. And on her economic record, this is a governor,
remember, whose chief accomplishment was, in a sense, to raise taxes on oil
companies. Her record as mayor also is not one of--at least some of her
critics point out--not one of great fiscal care. Taxes were increased while
she was mayor, and there was a big expansion of the city's debt. So those
kind of things are going to haunt her tonight as she speaks. We'll see how
she does for the first time on the national stage.
And then there's going to be a lot of picking away at her limited but very
visible record in the state. One of the things that we've encountered as
reporters here is the arrival of an extensive or a large team of Republican
Party and campaign operatives who are answering questions for the candidate
and even for local officials who we try to interview. So it seems that
there's not only concern among even some of her friends locally about whether
there are embarrassments in that record, but the campaign has moved into
Alaska to try to either paper over or explain inconsistencies or problems in
GROSS: You say she's done well economically in Alaska.
Mr. HAMBURGER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And Alaska has a very unique economy...
Mr. HAMBURGER: Absolutely.
GROSS: ...in that it's so oil based...
Mr. HAMBURGER: Yes.
GROSS: ...because it has oil there. So it's not a typical state.
Mr. HAMBURGER: Oh, not at all. And she--it's one of the--as the rest of the
nation in a sense suffers from these high oil prices, it's one of the things
Alaskans are conscious of. This is their major industry. There are state
funds that return to the people oil company revenues, profits, taxes, if you
will. And those are working. And they're smiling; there are smiles on the
faces of Alaskans in part because they are benefitting financially from these
high prices and the boom in demand for gas and oil.
GROSS: And Sarah Palin has raised the amount of money that people are getting
in these oil dividends, but isn't there some controversy over whether that
money should actually being going into infrastructure instead of being given
Mr. HAMBURGER: You're absolutely right. There is a number of the good
government activists in Alaska, some Democrats are saying this, just returning
this $1200 dividend check to all Alaskans is not good policy. There are
things that the state needs, and we need to sort of consider that more
rationally. Governor Palin, perhaps exhibiting once again her political
skills, has decided no, Alaskans, even while the economy is benefiting from
this boom in demand are still paying higher fuel costs. We're going to return
this money to the people. And it's been a very popular move.
GROSS: I'm just wondering, though, she's returning oil dividends to
individuals as opposed to investing them in infrastructure, and at the same
time she's gone after earmarks, which means that taxpayers from the rest of
the United States are paying for Alaska's infrastructure?
Mr. HAMBURGER: Well, there's something of a tradition in Alaska, both
from--going back to the period when Alaska first became a state--it has
received inordinate per capita funding for the federal government for
infrastructure. Part of the justification is that so much of the land in
Alaska is federally owned that this is a way of sort of returning some benefit
to the population. But that's a long, well trod path in Alaska politics,
actually, to create or to bring home the bacon from Washington and provide
federal funding for basic infrastructure needs.
GROSS: Sarah Palin has really changed the whole shape and direction of the
McCain campaign. You both co-authored a book about the Republican strategy
for winning in the 21st century. And a lot of that book is about the
strategies created by Karl Rove, who helped elect and re-elect--I mean, he was
the architect of the election and re-election campaign of President George W.
Bush. How does the Sarah Palin pick as McCain's running mate change the
direction that the campaign is heading in, and what's going to be emphasized
within the campaign, who the campaign's appealing to? Peter, you want to take
Mr. WALLSTEN: Sure, Terry. Sarah Palin, because of her popularity with the
base, has transformed this campaign. You know, it wasn't long ago that John
McCain and his campaign advisers were talking pretty openly about how if he
was going to win the White House, it was going to be with a much different
model than the Karl Rove plan. Karl Rove focused on motivating the Republican
conservative base and expanding that base by finding new, unaffiliated voters
who were naturally conservative but maybe not politically involved. So they
would simply change the electorate. They would win by changing and growing
their piece of the electorate.
John McCain, because of his image, his independence, his image as a
quote-unquote "maverick," they felt that he could actually win the middle, go
after those swing voters, independent voters that in the past maybe have been
unaffiliated or voted Democratic, so-called Reagan Democrats that did support
President Reagan. And at the same time they felt that McCain was never going
to mobilize the base.
Well, now it turns out, apparently that strategy wasn't working out. They
were never getting above a certain threshold that they thought they needed to
have a chance of beating Barack Obama in national polls and also in
battleground states. So obviously they made a decision that they did want to
maybe go back a little bit to that strategy. So they chose Sarah Palin, now
very much a hero of the conservative base. And it's completely changed the
feel and look of this campaign. The convention hall here in St. Paul is
totally energized in a way that it just would not have been for John McCain
and say a running mate of--if it were someone who supported abortion rights
such as Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman. So we're going to see a much different
And I think that this is very much the culmination of what we've seen over the
past several months, which is McCain inching back, walking back into that Karl
Rove strategy for winning, the strategy that we wrote about in "One Party
Country." It seems that the McCain campaign has now moved entirely to that
model and this is where they're going to plant their flag.
GROSS: I'm wondering like which came first, McCain deciding, you know, `I
think I want to choose Sarah Palin' or the campaign deciding, `The direction
you need to go to win is to re-energize the base and not work so hard on
winning the middle.'
Mr. WALLSTEN: Well, you began to see that change a couple of months ago.
There was a leadership change in the campaign. The kind of senior adviser
who's now guiding campaign strategy is Steve Schmidt, who was a major player
in the Bush re-election campaign in 2004, went on to work for Governor
Schwarzenegger, actually. But now he seems to be guiding the campaign back
into the Bush-Rove model. And there are some other Bush--there's at least one
other Bush strategist now on McCain's inner circle advising him. So we began
to see that happen. And you could also see it with McCain's policy shifts
over the past couple of years. He now supports the Bush tax cuts that he once
opposed. He now supports expanded oil drilling, which he once opposed. These
are conservative--these are core beliefs that are held by conservative
Republicans, and he was finally convinced that these are the views he would
have to hold in order to mobilize that base.
GROSS: My guests are LA Times reporters Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger.
They co-wrote the 2006 book "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for
Dominance in the 21st Century." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guests are two LA Times reporters covering the campaign. Tom
Hamburger is in Anchorage reporting on Sarah Palin's background. Peter
Wallsten is at the Republican convention.
One of the things that you wrote about in your book about the Karl Rove
strategy to win elections is microtargeting, or niche marketing, basically
taking voters who had been perceived as voting blocs and breaking off little
bites from those blocs--so you're talking about like African-American voters,
Jewish voters, the labor vote--so that you subdivide that vote so it doesn't,
that vote doesn't go completely Democrat. You take a bite out of it, put it
into the Republican side, and in a very divided country, every little bite
helps weight things to your side. So how do you think the microtargeting is
playing out during this campaign where you have Barack Obama, an
African-American, as the Democratic presidential nominee, and now Sarah Palin,
an evangelical and a woman, as the vice presidential Republican choice?
Mr. WALLSTEN: Well, Terry, the microtargeting is still very much alive. But
this is one part of the plan that really hit major stumbling blocks. Of
course, Hurricane Katrina contributed. There had been growing
African-American support, especially among socially conservative evangelical
blacks for, at least at openness to the Republican Party. President Bush
nationally didn't expand the black vote that much in 2004, but in certain
battleground states such as Ohio he did.
Now, obviously, Obama is winning 90 percent or more of the African-American
vote. McCain, I think there's very little hope for the Republicans to dig too
deep into that. It's just the African-American community is extremely excited
about the historic nature of Obama's candidacy. Also, Hispanics was a major
focus of the Karl Rove plan, and that has really been damaged because of the
immigration debate. We're seeing now, the latest polls show Obama winning
about 65, 66 percent of the Latino vote, and John McCain winning less than 30
percent. Karl Rove has said on numerous occasions that Republicans need to
win at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, if not aiming for 50 percent, to
have a chance to return to power. And so there's no indication that this
election that will happen.
John McCain, this is one area where he did, again, change his views over time.
He was really a hero to many Latinos because McCain, from Arizona with a heavy
Hispanic population, was an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform,
including a path to citizenship. Really stood up to his party and took a lot
of heat for it. But during the Republican primary, basically swallowed his
pride and said, `Hey, I learned my lesson. We have to do border security
before anything else.' Now he's kind of moved back to saying that he's for the
path to citizenship. He's been vague about whether or not it would have to
happen at the same time as border security or after it.
But Hispanic-Americans, Latinos have really looked at this and are not
impressed with the Republican Party right now. And frankly, the Democrats
have done a very good job of cutting into that. And the Obama campaign is
spending millions and millions of dollars--I think it's going to wind up being
more than any campaign has ever spent in history--on courting the Latino vote
with Spanish language advertising, radio and television and newspaper
advertising. The McCain campaign is also doing a very aggressive outreach
campaign. So far it hasn't had any effect. And this is going to be one
reason why it's, again, very difficult for McCain to win this time. But he
still has the opportunity to turn that around as well.
GROSS: One of the things that's been very helpful to the Republicans and the
Republican electoral strategy is Grover Nordquist's weekly meetings. And
Nordquist is the head of Americans for Tax Reform. He's very opposed to I
think any and all taxes. And he for the past few years has held weekly
meetings that have brought together a wide array of conservative groups to
find a common agenda and to come up with common talking points. And that's
helped keep conservative groups with different interests on the same page and
united together. Nordquist has not been a fan of John McCain's. Is Nordquist
mobilizing his people for McCain? How much power does Nordquist in those
weekly meetings have now?
Mr. HAMBURGER: Terry, the weekly meeting that's held at the Americans Tax
Reform is still the central meeting place for conservatives in Washington,
kind of the nerve center. John McCain, since he's secured the nomination, has
been sending a representative, sometimes his very top campaign people, to the
meeting. There is an exchange of information that Nordquist has, the
Americans for Tax Reform has chapters in--it's got multiple chapters in some
states, but a chapter in I think 46 states. And from what we're told his
network will be activated and working for the campaign. He and McCain have
patched up their once very significant differences. And the conservative
movement, at least as represented by that Wednesday meeting and by Nordquist,
is working with the McCain campaign.
GROSS: Is it fair to say that John McCain has kind of taken a 180 politically
in order to try to win this election?
Mr. WALLSTEN: Well, it depends on the issue. I don't want to be evasive
here, but on a number of issues he has taken a 180. And I think he's taken a
180 strategically. So, yes, I mean, he's doing what he believes is necessary
to win the election. I mean, that was one of the criticisms from some
Republican strategists that I heard, is his entire campaign theme is country
first. But when it came time to choose a running mate, he chose somebody that
some believe isn't well known enough, is not a known quantity, simply because
she helped him politically, that it was a political choice, which is not
necessarily a trademark of John McCain. In that sense, it seems that John
McCain has become a much different kind of candidate, certainly than he was in
2000. Whether that's a full 180 or not I can't say, but we've seen a lot of
changes, and this is a much different, much more conventional Republican
campaign than we once expected from John McCain.
GROSS: Just name a couple of the issues that he has really changed on.
Mr. WALLSTEN: He has really changed on tax cuts. He voted in 2001 and 2003
against the Bush tax cuts, and not only voted against them, but if you read
the transcript of his speeches on the Senate floor, he condemned the fact that
these were tax cuts for the rich at the expense of the middle class, very much
adopting the populist rhetoric from the Democrats and their opposition to the
tax cuts. That is the very kind of rhetoric that Grover Nordquist and the
conservative movement really, really hates. But now McCain says, well, he
opposed it only because there wasn't--the tax cuts didn't come with enough
spending restraint by the government. That's now his stated reason for having
opposed it then. Now he supports keeping those tax cuts permanent because he
says they would be a tax increase and he would never support it, a tax
increase. So that's one of the major examples of a policy shift.
Of course, he also now supports expanded oil drilling. He has not yet changed
his mind on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Of course, Sarah
Palin is a big proponent of that. So now he has some cover on that issue.
And again, on immigration he was a champion for a pathway to citizenship,
which, you know--working with Ted Kennedy, of all people, on that issue. And
now we're hearing a much more nuanced position where he talks about the need
for border security. And, yes, it's true that he's gone to some Latino groups
and been cheered for his views that are certainly more open to a path to
citizenship than many conservatives. He's still also kind of sticking to some
conservative talking points on that issue. So those are some major shifts
that we've seen in John McCain over the last couple of years.
GROSS: Do you see this election in a way as a test of the Rovian strategy
when it's used up against a candidate who's very different in his approach
like Barack Obama?
Mr. WALLSTEN: Well, in some ways it is a test of the Rovian strategy because
we see both campaigns using it. Now, the McCain campaign, as we've discussed,
is using it. But the Obama campaign and the Democrats are using
microtargeting to the hilt. In fact, there are some people who believe the
Democrats may have surpassed the Republicans now because they looked at the
2004 playbook. David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign manager, has said
repeatedly over the last couple of weeks--he gave a briefing in Denver at the
convention last week that I was at where he spoke in glowing terms about what
he learned by watching the Republicans in 2004, and how there--I believe he
said they are to be admired for how they got out the vote, how they found
their voters and got them to the polls. And that is what the Obama campaign
is doing now. And the whole Obama strategy of expanding the electorate is
exactly what Karl Rove did in 2004. So not only is this year a test of the
Rovian strategy, but we're going to see it happening on both sides. And this
is really a test of which side is better at the Rovian strategy right now.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us. Thank
you so much. Good to talk with you again.
Mr. WALLSTEN: You too, Terry.
Mr. HAMBURGER: You too, Terry.
GROSS: Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten cover politics for the LA Times.
Wallsten is reporting on the Republican convention. Hamburger is in Anchorage
writing about Sarah Palin. They co-wrote the 2006 book "One Party Country:
The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book about Emily Dickinson. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Maureen Corrigan on a book about Emily Dickinson called
"White Heat" by Brenda Wineapple
TERRY GROSS, host:
Any new scraps of information, any new interpretive slants on the life of
reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, intrigue readers because there's so little
that's known about her day-to-day existence. Biographer Brenda Wineapple has
written a new book that focuses on Dickinson's friendship, mostly carried out
through letters, with writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Book critic Maureen
Corrigan says that Wineapple's tight focus yields up a surprisingly in depth
portrait of the poet.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Conventional wisdom has it you can tell a lot about a
person by the company he or she keeps. But what if posterity makes a big
mistake in judging a famous somebody's friends? Wouldn't that blunder then
trigger a huge misreading of the chief person of interest? There you have the
reasoning underlying Brenda Wineapple's fascinating new book "White Heat" that
explores the relationship between Emily Dickinson and one of her closest
confidantes, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
For decades Higginson has been derided by Dickinson scholars and fans as a
kindly oaf, a Victorian man of minor letters damned with a tin ear. It was
Higginson, after all, who helped edit Dickinson's poems for their posthumous
debut publication. To make them palatable to readers of the time, Higginson
fed her five-alarm flammable poems about passion and death and the afterlife
through the Victorian de-flavorizing machine, watering down their offbeat
punctuation and vocabulary. Back to conventional wisdom again. The fact that
Dickinson originally requested the stodgy Higginson's literary guidance in
1862 when he was a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly magazine and she was a
"nobody" surely testifies to her naivete, her "recluse of Amherst"
Balderdash, says Brenda Wineapple. While Higginson may not have been the
defiant editor that Dickinson's poetry deserved, neither was he a wimp. Among
other attributes, Higginson was a fierce advocate for women's rights, a
staunch supporter of John Brown and the commander of the first Union regiment
of African-American soldiers during the Civil War, a unit that pre-dated the
far more famous Massachusetts 54th led by Robert Gould Shaw. Higginson may
not have entirely gotten the enigmatic Dickinson--who does?--but nevertheless
she told him that he was `the friend that saved my life.' In "White Heat"
Wineapple sets out to restore to Dickinson the brave friend and literary
adviser that she had the sense to seek out. In re-injecting the moxie back
into Higginson's veins, Wineapple also gives Dickinson more juice.
Wineapple opens her superb account of this friendship with the famous letter
the 31-year-old poet sent to the 38-year-old Higginson after he had written
what you might call an advice column in The Atlantic Monthly addressed to
hopeful contributors. The letter began, "Are you too deeply occupied to say
if my verse is alive? Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure
to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude." Wineapple takes off from that
fateful moment, tracing the separate and intertwined lives of the
friends--who, by the way, only met twice. Higginson recalled that he had
never met anyone `who drained my nerve power so much.'
The only thing unavoidably lacking in Wineapple's account is the fact that his
letters to Dickinson vanished after her death, another mystery among the
multitudes surrounding this cipher. But Wineapple is a shrewd reader of the
letters that do exist, as well as of the poems. Indeed, as much as it's a
highly engaging critical biography, "White Heat" is a book for anyone who just
wants to revel in acrobatic language. Dickinson's, it goes without saying,
but also Higginson's and Wineapple's own. Here, for instance, is a passage in
which Wineapple turns away from the progression of her biography to mediate on
"As the woman in white--savant and reclusive, shorn of context, place, and
reference--she seems to exist outside of time, untouched by it. And that's
unnerving. No wonder we make up stories about her. And when we turn to her
poems, we find that they, too, like her life, stop the narrative. Lyric
outbursts, they tell us no tales about who did what to whom in the habitable
world. Perhaps they unsettle us so because Dickinson writes of experiences
that we, who live in time, can barely name."
That assessment verges near the circumference of hocus pocus, but treads
gently back. As "White Heat" illuminates, not only was Emily Dickinson lucky
to find a loyal, perceptive friend in Thomas Higginson, but she also continues
to be graced with astute and eloquent biographers.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth
Higginson" by Brenda Wineapple.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.