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'Vanity Fair' Writer: What Will A Speaker Boehner Do?
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
One of the architects of the Republicans' hell no strategy, the decision not to
compromise with President Obama, is the presumptive new speaker of the House,
John Boehner. The 10-term Ohio representative and current House minority leader
will not only be facing a fight with Democrats, he'll face divisions within his
own party as he's joined by new members of Congress who were elected with
support from the Tea Party.
My guest Todd Purdum says in spite of Boehner's current oppositional tactics,
Tea Partiers despise the kind of pragmatic deal-making that have made him a
major player. Purdum is Vanity Fair's Washington editor. He's a former New York
Times White House correspondent.
Purdum recently profiled John Boehner. He's also profiled Sarah Palin, Bill
Clinton and John McCain. In September, he wrote about a day in the life of
President Obama. We're going to talk about John Boehner, the Tea Party and some
of the key election results.
Todd Purdum, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the presumptive new
speaker of the House, John Boehner. He sent a clear message to the Tea Party.
He said: I'll never let you down. What has his relationship been to the Tea
Party up to this point?
Mr. TODD PURDUM (National Editor, Vanity Fair): His relationship to the Tea
Party has been correct. He has been â he's attended their events, including one
in his own district. He's urged his members to get out and meet with Tea Party
I've heard him say in small settings with reporters that Tea Party activists
are just like any other ordinary Americans, and he's been careful to say how
many of them are getting involved in politics for the first time and sort of
what a positive sign that is.
But he has not embraced every jot and tittle of the Tea Party agenda, and he
certainly has not embraced the kind of white-hot rhetoric of some Tea Party
He's an institutionalist by predisposition, and I think he will show respect to
the Tea Party, but I would be shocked if he somehow becomes a full-throated
embracer of every aspect of that agenda - which, as you know, is in some ways
riven with internal contradictions, and it's hundreds of different kind of
groups that could be said to make up the Tea Party.
GROSS: Well, one of the contradictions is that it's very anti-government. Now
it has representatives in government.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PURDUM: Exactly, exactly. And, you know, it's sort of like pogo. I mean,
they've met the enemy, and it's us. And I think it'll be interesting to see how
people who have won office on campaigning against government actually behave in
government, because John Boehner well knows how hard it is to lead, how hard it
is to sustain a majority.
You know, he was elected the majority leader and, a few months later in 2006,
saw his party lose in the midterms. So he knows what it's like to have power,
and he knows what it's like to lose it.
GROSS: So what are some of the areas in which John Boehner agrees with the Tea
Party agenda and some of the areas in which he doesn't?
Mr. PURDUM: There are a number of areas in which John Boehner agrees with the
Tea Party. I would say on the sort of broad economic agenda of smaller
government - as he often says, less intrusive government - I think he embraces
that viewpoint pretty clearly.
To the degree that some aspects of the Tea Party think that large swathes of
what the government does is unconstitutional or, you know, think that Congress'
actions under the Commerce Clause have, you know, have usurped powers correctly
reserved to the states, I don't think John Boehner subscribes to that at all.
So I think he'll be, you know, he'll be careful not to try to offend them, but
I think he'll â he's made it clear that he wants to focus on the bread-and-
butter issues of the economy: taxes, government spending and that kind of
thing. And if he does that, he'll probably get respect from them on those
GROSS: Let's talk about what the Tea Party thinks of John Boehner. You wrote
something very colorful about this in your profile of Boehner. You describe Tea
Partiers as looking askance at Boehner's long tenure in leadership, his close
ties to lobbyists and his two-pack-a-day baritone and retro Rat Pack persona.
Mr. PURDUM: Well, John Boehner is kind of a rare figure in modern American
politics. He's a colorful person. He's a throwback to an earlier time. He's not
afraid to acknowledge that he smokes and has a drink at the end of the day. He
doesn't pretend to be morally pure or ideologically rigid.
And I think some of the Tea Party elements are, in fact, you know, quite simon-
pure, and John Boehner is not that. John Boehner is also not a fresh face. He's
been around Washington for 20 years. He's been in and out of the Republican
leadership, first in the Gingrich era, then later on after he succeeded Tom
He is close to lobbyists. You know, he once famously passed out checks from the
tobacco industry on the House floor before a vote on tobacco legislation. He's
come to regret that and said that he did.
But he's - you know, he's an interesting figure, because he sort of stands at
the transition between the modern politics that we're experiencing today with
social media and the instantaneity of the Internet and all the rest of that,
and the kind of old-fashioned ward politics that predominated in the middle of
the 20th century. And he's definitely an heir to that kind of politics.
GROSS: So what are his ties to lobbyists? What else can you tell us about that?
Mr. PURDUM: When John Boehner was on the Gingrich team in the 1990s, he had a
famous gathering called the Thursday Group, in which he had favored lobbyists
and other supporters come into his office once a week, and they talked things
I mean, I think â I don't know that he has extraordinarily deeper or more
complex ties to lobbyists than, you know, many veteran members of Congress do.
But he's never made a secret of the fact that he doesn't think, you know,
lobbyist is a dirty word, and he's perfectly willing to meet with people who
have interests before him.
And, you know, he rented an apartment from a lobbyist. He's definitely, you
know, unapologetic about his association with lobbyists.
GROSS: Do you have a sense of what John Boehner's priorities would be as House
Mr. PURDUM: Well, you know, he's been somewhat careful not to get specific
about them, in part because he doesn't want to leave off his own list something
that's very important to either, say, the Tea Partiers or to the young guns on
his own leadership team.
But I think the one thing he has said over and over again is that he wants to
focus on the economy. He wants to focus on jobs. He wants to focus on cutting
government spending. That being said, the proposals he's actually specifically
announced really amount to making the Bush tax cuts permanent at all income
levels and, you know, he's not been very serious, frankly, about specific
proposals for cutting spending to the degree that it would be really necessary
to make any impact on the debt or the deficit.
I think everyone in Congress will be watching what the president's commission
does. It's due to report on December 1st. That's the Commission on the Debt and
Deficit, headed by former Senator Al Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the former
Clinton White House chief of staff.
And I think a lot of members of both parties are probably looking for some
political cover from that commission's recommendations to see what they might
do going forward. And certainly, the president is looking for that commission
to give him some political cover and some political momentum to get a proposal
GROSS: One of the questions now is, you know, the U.S. has to increase its debt
ceiling in 2011 in order to authorize the Treasury to borrow money to pay its
And Republicans have voted against this before, but they knew that they didn't
have enough votes to actually stop the debt ceiling from being raised. So if
the debt ceiling isn't raised, it would mean that America would default on its
debts, and many predict that that would lead to global financial catastrophe.
Rand Paul wants to stop the debt ceiling from being increased. Do you have a
sense of where John Boehner is on that?
Mr. PURDUM: I think this is one of those cases where John Boehner, as he did on
the TARP bailout plan in the fall of 2008, he described it in, you know,
pungent terms as not being a very palatable sandwich, but he urged his members
to pass it all the same.
I can't imagine that one of the first things he would do as speaker of the
House is to allow that to happen, and no one thinks that that would be a
So I think if he's anything, he's practical. He's going to be facing a lot of
pressures, though, from the conservative caucus and from the freshmen who were
elected yesterday, who are going to be putting a lot of heat on him to, you
know, swing for the fences.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Purdum, and he's national
editor of Vanity Fair, and before that was White House correspondent for the
New York Times.
John Boehner was one of the architects of the Pledge to America, that recent
pledge that said Bush tax cuts should be made permanent, "government takeover
of health care," quote-unquote, should be repealed, every bill that moves
through Congress should include a clause citing the specific constitutional
authority in which it is rooted. Do you think that's really going to be his
agenda, that Pledge to America?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, I think some aspects of it will be part of his agenda. But,
you know, the Republicans were careful to call it a Pledge to America, not a
contract with America. And it isn't nearly as specific as the Contract for
America was 15 years ago.
I don't think people really think Congress will â they may pass a bill
requiring every bill moving through the House to have some specific statement
of its constitutional authority, but I don't think people know what form that
would take, and I think people think it â most serious people think it's kind
I think on health care reform, John Boehner will realize that an outright,
flat-out, all-out repeal of the existing law is really unlikely for two
reasons. One, the Senate's virtually unlikely to pass it, and President Obama
would never let it get past his veto.
So I think what they may try to do is some pro forma effort to repeal the bill.
But then they'll nibble around the edges, and they'll try to change it here and
And Haley Barbour was quoted the other day as saying that â that's the, you
know, governor of Mississippi, the former chairman of the Republican Party. He
said he thought that over the next couple years, Republicans would make so many
small changes in it that it would be unrecognizable.
GROSS: Do you think they'll succeed in doing that?
Mr. PURDUM: I think they'll probably try, because it's been a really big
flashpoint for them. And they think that it's very unpopular with the public.
Even though the polls continue to show that the public supports the basic
constituent elements of the bill, they don't like the overall idea of the whole
magilla, and that's been one of the â that's been, frankly, one of the
Republicans' big rhetorical successes of the past 20 months is to make people
say they dislike a bill whose specific provisions they largely embrace.
GROSS: Now, Tea Party members, as well as some other Republicans, including
Senator Mitch McConnell, are calling for no compromise with Democrats. You
describe John Boehner as one of the chief architects of the hell no strategy
He tried to block the president's major initiatives, including the economic
stimulus and health insurance reform. What did Boehner do to contribute to the
hell no strategy? And I should say he's the one who actually yelled out hell
Mr. PURDUM: Yes, on the eve of the passage of health care last spring, he
yelled on the House floor hell no. Well, I think what he did was, among other
things, was hold together, you know, a pretty unruly bunch of people who have a
lot of internal disagreements, and he got them to vote in near lockstep with
him against the president. And Mitch McConnell did the same thing in the Senate
in a, frankly, just â you know, Mitch McConnell has been open in saying that
this was to build a Republican team and to play team ball in the name of making
a bigger team.
But I think John Boehner knows very well, because of his own experience, that
it's one thing to get a majority, and maybe the way you do that is being
obstructionist. I think it's very, very hard to retain a majority if all you do
is say no.
And I think he and the advisers around him know that they have to put something
in front of the House and in front of the American people that they can be for,
as opposed to just be against, and that, you know, otherwise, two years from
now, they'll find themselves right back where the Democrats are today, on the
wrong end of the voters' irritation.
GROSS: Are there strategies that you think John Boehner is likely to use to
block President Obama and to promote a Republican agenda? Do you think he'll
try to change House rules?
Mr. PURDUM: He's actually talked about trying to change some of the House
procedures in a different way, to allow more open debate, to allow Democrats to
work their will, to allow the House to have more open exchanges and...
GROSS: More amendments?
Mr. PURDUM: Yes, more of what's known as open rules, in which legislation comes
to the floor and germane amendments can be proposed from the floor rather than
â you know, the way most bills come to the House now - and this has been true,
it's been increasing over the past couple of decades - is that the Rules
Committee sets very restrictive terms for debate and amendments, often allowing
no amendments from the floor. And I think John Boehner feels that that is
And he's been frank to say that his own party is just as guilty of that as the
Democrats and that, you know, he's been frank to say that he does not like the
way the House was run under Republicans or Democrats.
Now, his ability to change it may be limited. Every new leader of the House in
recent years has come in saying it's going to be more open, they're going to
let the winds of change blow through. Nancy Pelosi promised that.
I think the general consensus is that Nancy Pelosi exerted the most iron-willed
control over the House since Speaker Joe Cannon more than 100 years ago.
GROSS: Are there areas in which John Boehner agrees with President Obama?
Mr. PURDUM: Sure. They certainly agree on broad aspects of foreign policy,
including the president's strategy in Afghanistan. I think they could probably
find agreement on even something like extending the Bush tax cuts temporarily,
because plenty of Democrats think that might be a good thing to do in the midst
of this continuing economic downturn.
I think, you know, there might be some questions on education - which is an
area where John Boehner has worked in the past - that they could agree on. It
doesn't seem too likely there'll be any action on big hot-button issues like
immigration or things like that. I think that's a more pessimistic outlook
Mr. PURDUM: Because the debate on immigration, for example, has moved so far
away from where it was in 2006 and 2007, when President Bush was trying to get
a kind of comprehensive, bipartisan bill through Congress with support from Ted
Kennedy and John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle are so dug in, the
issue has gotten so much more emotional, with things like the passage of
Arizona's harsh immigration law, that members of Congress from both parties
find themselves sort of unable to have a real or rational discussion about it.
And people like Senator McCain have completely backed away from the fray and
show no interest in trying to get something done.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Purdum. He's national editor
of Vanity Fair. Before that, he was a White House correspondent for the New
York Times. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about the
results of the election and what that means for Congress and the White House.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about the results of the election, what it means for
Congress and the White House, and we're talking about the presumptive speaker
of the House, John Boehner. My guest is Todd Purdum, who is national editor for
Vanity Fair, who has profiled John Boehner, John McCain, Sarah Palin. He
recently wrote about a day in the life of Obama in the White House. Before
being national editor of Vanity Fair, he was White House correspondent for the
New York Times.
Now, we've been talking about Congressman John Boehner as being a chief
architect of the no compromise policy, the no - the hell no policy in the
House. But you describe Boehner as having built a reputation as a bipartisan
dealmaker. When did he build that reputation?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, during the Bush administration, the second Bush
administration, early on when President Bush was pushing his No Child Left
Behind education reform act, John Boehner worked closely with George Miller,
his counterpart on the House Labor and Workforce Committee and with Ted Kennedy
in the Senate to pass the bill.
And at one point, when the White House wanted to cut out George Miller, John
Boehner said he would walk away from the negotiations if they tried to do that.
Now, Congressman Miller told me recently that, you know, don't confuse that
kind of golden moment of good feeling on an issue that seemed to be important
to everybody with sustained bipartisanship. And he said that on other issues
like the minimum wage and labor policy, that John Boehner was, you know, pretty
But I do think that Congressman Boehner came of age, you know, he came of age
as a salesman. He was a manufacturer's representative in Ohio for a plastics
and packaging company. And he loves to make a deal.
He's not really, by nature, an obstructionist. He's a back-slapper. He's a
friendly guy. He's almost impossible not to kind of like at a human level. He's
So I think he would much rather, if he can, make some deals and show some
achievements and, you know, take to the voters in 2012 a record of
accomplishment on issues that he feels are important, whether that's, you know,
continuing to reduce taxes or making some serious stab at cutting government
And people in both parties - whether that's Steny Hoyer, who presumably will be
the, you know, continue to be in the Democratic leadership of the House - say
they can work well with him.
Harry Reid said just today that he thinks he can work well with John Boehner.
And I certainly think that the Obama administration would rather have someone
like John Boehner than some of the younger lieutenants who are around him who
are much, frankly, harsher and more willing to take a harder line.
GROSS: In some ways, Boehner's going to have to embrace bipartisanship within
his own party.
Mr. PURDUM: Absolutely.
GROSS: Because the party's pretty divided right now. What are some of those
divisions that Boehner's going to have to deal with in the House?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, he's going to have to deal with a crop of incoming freshmen
who got to Washington by railing against it and by promising to sort of change
He knows things can't be changed overnight, and he knows you have to work
within the system if you want to get anything done. He will have to steer clear
of the divisive debates over social issues, whether that's abortion or gay
marriage or whatever. John Boehner's not particularly interested in those
issues. He's never really tried to mix it up on those issues. I think he thinks
getting mired down in debates on topics like that would be a distraction from
the larger Republican agenda he hopes to pursue.
GROSS: Since you've profiled Boehner, before we get any further into his
politics, can I just ask you if you found out anything about his sun-tanning
look, like how he achieves it? What are his secrets?
Mr. PURDUM: It seems an indisputable fact that dark skin runs in his family.
His sister is very dark-skinned. I've seen pictures of him in high school where
he's clearly the darkest-skinned guy in the group.
He says emphatically that he's never used a tanning product, that he's never
been in a tanning bed, sort of the way President Reagan used to insist that his
dark, wavy hair was really all his own color, and he wasn't helping it.
And, you know, I think you have to take him at his word on that. And as I say,
you can look at his family and see that they really do have a lot of dark skin
in the family.
GROSS: Okay, thank you for the insight. Back to politics.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So John Boehner actually started as a Democrat. Why was he a Democrat,
and why did he change, and when did he change to being a Republican?
Mr. PURDUM: He was a Democrat because he born in a big, Catholic family in
suburban Cincinnati. And he was a John F. Kennedy Democrat. His family was
hugely proud of the first Catholic president. He went to an all-boys Catholic
And in the way a lot of working-class Catholic men of his generation did, he
became more and more conservative as time went on because of the kind of social
debates of the '60s, the lack of faith in government and, in his case, because
he began making real money.
He's talked about how in 1978, he paid more in taxes than he had in gross
income just two years earlier, and that got him thinking about whether he
really could call himself a Democrat anymore. Plus, he took a look at Ronald
Reagan and liked what he saw.
But, you know, he grew up in a great, big working-class family. He's one of 12
brothers and sisters. He's the second-oldest. I asked his older brother how
much older he was, he said 362 days older. So they had a lot of diapers all the
time hanging around the house.
His father ran a tavern. He worked every job he could do, from bottle sorter to
busboy and waiter and finally as he, you know, got older, to bartender. And
he's often said that that experience taught him how to deal with every jerk
that walked into the bar, and it's been the secret to his managing life in
politics, where you have to deal with a lot of obstreperous people.
GROSS: My guest, Todd Purdum, will be back in the second half of the show. He's
Vanity Fair's national editor and former White House correspondent for the New
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Todd Purdum, Vanity Fair's
national editor and former New York Times White House correspondent. We're
talking about the election results and the political career of the next
presumptive speaker of the House, John Boehner.
Boehner won his seat in Congress in 1990 after serving three terms in the Ohio
state legislature, and then in '94 he helped draft the Contract with America
along with Newt Gingrich. Just refresh our memories about what the contract was
and also what Boehner's role was in writing that.
Mr. PURDUM: Well, Boehner was part of the leadership team. He ultimately became
the number three person on Gingrich's team. The Contract with America was a
pretty detailed 10 point plan that called for a series of measures, ranging
from a balanced budget amendment to term limits for members of Congress, and
much of it never wound up getting enacted for various reasons, but the House
Republicans did manage to have votes on almost all the elements of the
contract, which is what they promised to do. So it was a governing agenda. It
was a big philosophical statement of purpose. They all lined up on the steps of
the Capitol and unveiled it. And it was credited, rightly or wrongly, with
really helping turn the tide and bring Newt Gingrich to power and bring the
Republicans to the majority in the House for the first time since 1954 - first
time in 40 years.
GROSS: So how powerful was he during that era when Newt Gingrich was the House
Mr. PURDUM: Well, he was a comparatively junior member of Congress, so I mean
you have to keep that in mind, but he was a trusted lieutenant to Gingrich. He
came to grief when Gingrich's own regime fell apart over a whole series of
problems, as we recall in 1998. Someone had to pay the price and Gingrich, as
the kind of low man on the totem pole, was the one who took the fall. And a lot
of members of Congress would have maybe retired or certainly given up efforts
to be in leadership, but he made up his mind that he was going to claw his way
back by being a legislator. So he went to work in the House Education Workforce
Committee and bit by bit clawed his way back and got stuff done. And he told
his aides at the time that he was never going to let them see him sweat, he was
never going to let his fellow members know how disappointed he was. I think he
had some pretty dark days privately, but he kept a stiff upper lip and went on.
And you know, it was really a remarkable comeback.
GROSS: What kind of like behind the scenes relationship does Boehner have with
Mr. PURDUM: I don't think they have very much of one. Boehner's aides tell me
that they don't really have much of a high-level relationship with people in
the White House. There are some people in the legislative affairs shop who have
sort of staff to staff level relations with them. Certainly John Boehner and
Barack Obama do not have the kind of personal reality and experience in common
that you could say Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton had. There was a level at
which Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were able to take the measure of each
other as wonky, super-political Southern guys of a comparable generation, and I
think they each felt they had the other's number and could somehow understand
each other. I don't think there's much in Barack Obama's life experience or
worldview that would make him a natural, give him natural affinities with John
Boehner. So it'll be really interesting to see how they are able to work
together. Unless President Obama just wants to completely give up, I think they
will have to work together to some degree because - or unless, you know,
Congressman Boehner wants to lead an effort to impeach him, because they're
going to be together for the next two years whether they like it or not.
GROSS: So when you look ahead to Congress, do you see gridlock or do you see
movement to the right or the left? Probably not the left.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PURDUM: I think you have to see there's going to be some movement to the
right. The Senate, even though it's going to remain in Democratic hands, is
going to be much more conservative. First of all, it's going to be a smaller
majority - significantly smaller majority. The Republicans who've been elected
are more conservative than either the Democrats or even in some cases the
Republicans whom they replaced by and large, and it's going to be a very
narrowly divided proposition. So on questions like nominations, judicial
nominations and so forth, I suspect there'll be even more tough fights for the
Obama administration. And certainly in the House, by the virtue of the
Republicans being chairs of committees and having subpoena power to call the
administration in to testify, already any number of chairmen have made it clear
that they intend to call some Obama cabinet members on the carpet to ask them
questions about various policies, and that could be a very annoying reality for
the Obama White House.
GROSS: Because the Republicans now have the majority in the House, the
committee heads are going to change; they'll be Republicans now. Darrell Issa
from California is going to head the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
What kind of power does he have in terms of subpoena power and what are some of
the ways he might use the subpoena power?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, the majority has subpoena power sort of by definition. And,
you know, Congressman Issa is an interesting case. He's actually one of the
very richest members of Congress. He's shown himself to be kind of very
independent minded and something of a gadfly, and the nature of his committee
is that he could probably find a reason to look into almost any cranny of the
government that he chose to and he's indicated a willingness to do just that.
So I think in some ways he is to the Democrats what Congressman Henry Waxman
use to be to the Republicans, a real thorn in the side and a person who can
cause them to spend a lot of time producing testimony and papers and evidence
and coming up there and defending their worth.
GROSS: My guest is Todd Purdum, Vanity Fair's national editor.
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about the outcome of the elections and how that's likely
to affect Washington. My guest, Todd Purdum, is the national editor of Vanity
Now, you recently wrote a piece about why Washington is broke and it was
basically a profile of 24 hours in the White House, like a day in the White
House. So let's talk a little bit about President Obama.
You say that, you know, his gamble has(ph) been - if you look after doing of
the presidency, the selling of the presidency will look after itself. In other
words, if you do a good job you don't have to worry about selling the job that
you're doing. That doesn't seem to have worked for him during this election.
Mr. PURDUM: No. And in fact, in a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine,
my old colleague Peter Baker got President Obama to reflect on that very topic
and President Obama acknowledged that that had been his view and that this is
the message he was sending from the very top of the administration. He has
since said he thinks, you know, he probably needs to work much harder at the
selling and the communicating of what he's doing. That being said, it's not
clear to me that the Obama White House believes it should make a fundamental
There certainly haven't been signs that, for example, that President Obama is
importing a lot of fresh blood in terms of new staff or outside opinion. He
seems to be, on the contrary, circling down on the adviser's he's already
relied on, including the interim and presumably perhaps permanent Chief of
Staff Pete Rouse. He promoted his Deputy national security adviser, Tom
Donilon, to be the national security adviser and then promoted his trusted
deputy, Dennis McDonald, to be the number two to Tom Donilon. So I'm not sure
that he's in the frame of mind that would involve reaching out for a whole lot
of fresh new ideas. I think he thinks - he wants to keep doing what he's been
doing but explain it better. And it'll be interesting to see whether he has any
GROSS: Now, with his chief of staff - his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel,
gone, do you think there will be any basic changes in President Obama's
Mr. PURDUM: Well, there'll be tonal changes because Pete Rouse is not the hot
personality that Rahm was. But, you know, certainly if - one of the great
puzzles is that Rahm Emanuel was hired as chief of staff because he knew
Congress. And in fact, as we all know, the Obama administration did manage to
get an extraordinary number of things through Congress, or at least a couple of
really big things, including health care overhaul and financial regulatory
reform. And the perverse message of the election from President Obama's
standpoint is that he's being punished for his achievements, not for his
failures. I mean, you know, it's not that people said he didn't do enough; it's
that the Republicans have somehow persuaded the country that he did too much.
So that's an unusual position for a president to be in. Obviously, I don't
think there's so much appetite in the White House now for biting off such big
chunks of legislative agenda. And, as I say, Pete Rouse as a person is a
different kind of style of negotiator. He's a quieter, probably less polarizing
figure. But I do think that the essential Obama posture, and thinking back to,
you know, the troubled days of his campaign and so forth, is steady as she
I was talking to a cabinet member this week and the cabinet member said, look,
this guy is a fourth-quarter player. His eyes are absolutely steely. He's not
giving up the fight.
GROSS: Now, you've written about Sarah Palin. What do you think the results of
yesterday's elections show about her influence?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, you know, she had influence in some places and not in others.
Some of the people that she backed, like Christine O'Donnell, came to grief.
Significantly, two of the most prominent female candidates in the country - Meg
Whitman and Carly Fiorina, running for governor and Senate in California - gave
Sarah Palin a very wide berth. They managed to find other things to do when she
was in California one day for a big rally a few weeks ago. So I think, you
know, Sarah Palin, as Oscar Wilde once said, she's the sort of thing you like
if you like that sort of thing, and she is incredibly polarizing and the people
who like her love her to death, and the people who can't stand her really can't
And I think she has to be used very carefully, probably, as a surrogate and as
an influence in politics. And, as we've seen in the last week or so, there have
been a lot of buzz about how members of what's left of the Republican
establishment are actually quite nervous about Governor Palin because they
think she could run for president. They think it's possible she might win a few
primaries or even win the nomination. And I think most Republicans think that
that would be an absolute disaster for their party. I know for a fact that the
Obama people have long thought that the best thing that could ever happen to
President Obama is to have her as his opponent and that he would wipe the floor
GROSS: Why are Republican leaders afraid of a Sarah Palin nomination?
Mr. PURDUM: I think they're afraid of her because they know that she is a
polarizing figure who turns off - by and large turns off â independents, and
independents at the end of the day are the people you really kind of want to
get to win the general election. I think they also have a lot of fear that she
is undisciplined and not very diligent about doing her homework, and that to
win the presidency you have to put together one good month after another, and
some person who worked with Governor Palin on the McCain campaign said that
they didn't really think she was capable of putting together five good days in
a row. Even someone like Karl Rove was recently pretty critical of Governor
Palin; he's saying he didn't see how her new reality show about Alaska, in
which she said at one point she'd rather be out in the wilderness than in some
stinky political office, he didn't see how that would really help her persuade
people that, you know, she should be president.
GROSS: Let's look at Rand Paul for a second. He won the Senate race in
Kentucky. And he is a Tea Partier. He wants to repeal the 14th Amendment. I
think it's fair to say he's to the far right of the Republican Party. What is
he bringing to the table? What are his priorities and how do you think the
party is going to react to him?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, he's bringing a vivid small government conservative
libertarian philosophy that is, frankly, as much at odds with the establishment
Republican ideology as it is with the Democrats. I think he's bringing to
Washington a lot of lonely nights in the sense that he's not going to make that
many friends in the Senate right away because he is going to be a passionate
advocate for the things he believes in and, by and large, they will not be the
things that even his fellow Kentuckian, Mitch McConnell, believes in. So he's
something unusual in American politics. People like this come along every once
in a while. He's really kind of a purist. And it'll be interesting to see what
happens to him. You know, once upon a time a freshman senator would've made
hardly any speeches or made them, you know, when no one was on the floor and
sat back and listened, and I don't think Rand Paul is going to be the type of
personality who's going to hang back and wait to see what happens, and he's
certainly not going to let his partisan affiliation trump his own ideological
views. He's not going to be a lockstep Republican on issues that are important
GROSS: Do you see him as one of the people who wants to basically dismantle
government but is now a member of it?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, he certainly - I think he wants to radically reconceive the
mission of government, and he thinks that great swathes of what the government
has come to do over the 20th century it has no business doing. And I really
don't think that's a view that is shared by most people in either party. Most
people in both parties think that you could tinker here and there and you could
pull back or push forward, but I don't think most people want to repeal the
GROSS: Let's talk a moment about John McCain, who you followed on the campaign
trail. You've profiled him. You say you think his lasting political legacy to
his country may be making Sarah Palin into one of the most influential people
in the Republican Party. I think that's not the legacy he was hoping for.
Mr. PURDUM: No, I don't think it's the legacy he's hoping for. But I think he's
clearly not in the place where he wanted to be. It's an interesting thing about
John McCain. You know, I wrote a piece recently trying to grapple with the
question of whether the McCain we saw this year campaigning in Arizona to save
his Senate seat and sort of flip-flopping and taking some very hard-line
positions that were at odds with his past views, whether that was a John McCain
who'd made necessary compromises to win or whether some sense the circumstances
John McCain was facing this year showed the kind of person, the kind of
politician that he had really always been, which is sort of a ruthless survivor
willing to do whatever it took.
I think that John McCain ended his 2000 presidential campaign thinking it was a
wonderful ride and he'd experienced something he's never going to see again and
that he'd be too old ever to run for president again. And then, as it turned
out, you know, he supported President Bush in 2004 and he did run for president
in 2006, '07 and '08, and he did get the nomination. And by that point, I think
he really wanted to be president. And he wakes up every morning and I think -
I'm pretty sure he can't believe that Barack Obama is the president and he's
not. And I think in some ways he'll never be the same again.
GROSS: So what is his place in the Senate now? How much power does he have?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, you know, John McCain is a senior member of the Senate, so
he'll have the power of seniority. I believe he'll continue to be the ranking
member on the Armed Services Committee. He'll be senior member of the Commerce
Committee, I think, as well. But he's not the kind of person who would
presumably be popular with a freshman ideologue like Rand Paul. His colleagues
on both sides of the aisle in the Senate have never particularly liked him.
He also did something that was unusual - would've once been very unusual. He
went around the country this fall campaigning on behalf of Republican
candidates and saying extremely harsh things about his colleagues, very harsh
things about Barbara Boxer of California, very harsh things about Harry Reid.
Now he'll obviously have to come back and face them and do work with them and
it'll be interesting to see how that works itself out.
GROSS: So let me pull back for moment and ask you, what are the large messages
you take from the election?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, I think in some ways the largest one of all is we're in a
period of incredible political volatility. The last time in our country we went
through a period like this you could argue was in the years after World War II,
when between 1946 and 1952 the House changed hands repeatedly. In the 1952
midterms, which after all came just two years after the 1948 election, in which
President Truman had his marvelous upset, railed against the do-nothing
Republican Congress, brought Democrats back into power, just two years later in
the middle of a really unpopular Korean War, Democrats thrown out again.
President Truman's aide, George Elsey, reports that that was the only time in
his long experience of working for the president that he ever saw him the worst
for wine. He'd had so much bourbon on the presidential yacht, Williamsburg,
that he was, had trouble, he had to be helped to bed that night; he couldn't
walk to bed under his own power.
There's no indication that President Obama is a similar tippler, but I think it
just means that the public's impatient, the public is worried, the public is
lurching a little bit from side to side and saying, we'll take a chance on you.
No, we don't like what you did. We're going to take a chance on the other guy.
And I think what it means in the short term is it's a very cautionary tale for
John Boehner and the Republicans - and I think John Boehner's well aware of
this - means they have to be very careful how they handle their majority or
they'll lose it.
GROSS: It seems like some of the results have to do with who stayed home,
people who voted in '08 who stayed home this year. And from the polls I've been
hearing, a lot of African-Americans who voted in '08 stayed home.
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah.
GROSS: And a lot of young people who voted in '08 stayed home.
Mr. PURDUM: There's no doubt that this electorate, as all midterm electorate's
tend to be, was older, whiter, more conservative. But you know, the bad news
for the president - the really troubling news - is places like Wisconsin...
GROSS: Where Russ Feingold lost. Yeah.
Mr. PURDUM: Russ Feingold lost. Yeah. And that was a state that, you know, it's
really hard for a Democratic president to win without a state like Wisconsin in
his column. Ohio, obviously very disappointing too, although the race for
governor managed to be, you know, somewhat close there. Pennsylvania, where Joe
Sestak lost, despite the president's last-minute help. You know, Pennsylvania
is a state that the president needs. Indiana, which he won, you know, two years
ago, went decisively Republican for former Senator Dan Coats being returned to
office. In Illinois, President Obama's own Democratic Senate seat was lost to
the Republican Mark Kirk, and you know, that's a blow to him. Florida looks a
lot redder this morning than it did two years ago.
So I mean, you know, there's some bright spots here and there for the
president, like California, Colorado, if Senator Bennet manages to pull out a
victory there. It looks like there's still hope in the Mountain West for
Democrats to play. And, of course, the Governor of Colorado, John - was won by
a Democrat, John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver. So it's not an entirely
bleak picture for President Obama.
And as President Clinton's experience in 1994 showed, there are worse things
than having a foil to define yourself against. It's often easier for anyone to
define himself in opposition to another entity than it is to explain, you know,
what he's for, and we saw that with the Republicans these past couple years.
It's very easy to be against Obama and that's a simple identity and people
understand it. It may now be easy for President Obama to be against the
Republican Congress and score points by doing so.
GROSS: So you follow politics pretty closely. What surprised you most about
Mr. PURDUM: I guess I'd have to say what surprised me most about this election
is just how dangerous it is in this political climate to say certain things can
never happen. I mean if you looked at Christina O'Donnell on paper, I think
you'd say, well, she could never beat Mike Castle to win the nomination for the
Republican Senate seat from Delaware. It just wasn't going to happen. And yet
it did happen. So it makes me wonder whether we shouldn't be awfully careful in
the future about saying certain things can never happen, including, oh, well,
Sarah Palin could never be president. You know, two years ago I think I
would've felt quite confident in saying that. I still don't think it's very
likely that she'll be president, but I guess I take away from this election
season a certain caution in ever making pronouncements that are flat-out and
absolutist because things happened this year that one wouldn't have thought
GROSS: Todd Purdum, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PURDUM: Thanks for having me, Terry. A pleasure.
GROSS: Todd Purdum is Vanity Fair's national editor. You can find links to his
profiles of John Boehner, Sarah Palin and other political figures, as well as
links to NPR's election coverage, on our website, freshair.npr.org.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Owen Howard: Drumming Up 'Lore'
TERRY GROSS, host:
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says drummers know they don't get much respect.
They know those vintage signs in New York parks prohibiting the playing of any
musical instrument or drum. And they know they're the punch line to the joke:
What do you call people who hang out with musicians?
Kevin says New York drummer Owen Howard's new may help improve their image.
(Soundbite of music)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Owen Howard and saxophonist Andy Middleton on drummer Denzil
Best's "45 Degree Angel." Howard's record "Drum Lore" was prompted by a
question a workshop student once asked him: Why are you teaching a composition
class when you're a drummer? So Howard devotes his new album to tunes written
by jazz percussionists. He's cherry-picked some very good ones, played by
combos drawn from a pool of seven players, including altoist John O'Gallagher
and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: "Zoot Suite" by Jack DeJohnette for three saxophones, bass and
drums. Owen Howard's salute to drummers as composers spotlights lyrical writing
- not just typical drummer tunes where they cop ethnic rhythms to make you stop
and count the beats or just to set up a drum solo. Well, okay, there's a little
of that in Peter Erskine's "Bulgaria" and Ed Blackwell's classic "Togo."
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Owen Howard echoes West African polyrhythms the way Ed Blackwell did
on "Togo." Howard doesn't do Rich Little impressions of his fellow drummers,
but he may reference Tony Williams' fireworks or Paul Motian's loose cymbal
wash on their respective tunes, if only to note how their drumming serves the
material they write. Howard honors composer Shelly Manne's flyswatter aim with
wire brushes on a cover of 1954's "Flip" for a skeletal trio. Trombonist Alan
Ferber and bass clarinetist Adam Kolker nail the written lines and improvise
counterpoint to the spirit of the original.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Owen Howard doesn't solo on every tune from "Drum Lore" - it's not
that kind of drummer's album. He'd rather hang out with musicians. Drums are
woven into the arrangements he writes, but he's still got room to react to what
the other players are doing, to amplify or challenge a mood or melody, to hold
fast or move along, to shade the action or add contrast. That means that Owen
Howard, like most conscientious jazz drummers, is already thinking like a
composer when he sits down to play.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com and author of the
forthcoming book "Why Jazz: A Concise Guide," by Oxford University Press. He
reviewed "Drum Lore," the new album by Owen Howard. You can download podcasts
of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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.