DATE June 2, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Donna Brazile discusses her career in politics and new
book, "Cooking with Grease"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Donna Brazile, was Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000 when he ran
against then-Governor George Bush. Brazile was the first African-American
woman to manage a presidential campaign. She previously worked in the
campaigns of Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and Jesse Jackson. After the
Florida recount, she became the first chair of the Democratic National
Committee's Voting Rights Institute. In her new memoir, "Cooking with Grease:
Stirring the Pots in American Politics," she writes about her life as a
political organizer and how she got to where she is. She was born in the
Charity Hospital in New Orleans. Her father was a janitor; her mother, a
I asked her about what Al Gore has been saying lately. He's described the
Bush-Cheney administration as `incompetent' and has called for the
resignations of several members of the administration, including Donald
Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice. Brazile told me that she thinks Al Gore is
doing the right thing by being so outspoken. But some political observers say
Gore might actually be hurting John Kerry by rallying some Democratic voters
around views too far to the left for Kerry. She disagrees.
Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Former Gore Campaign Manager; Author, "Cooking with Grease:
Stirring the Pots in American Politics"): Gore is doing his best, I believe,
to speak out on important issues of the day and not really try to follow all
of the dictates of the Democratic Party, the Kerry campaign. He is right to
do it. He's helping MoveOn.org. He's helping the PAC to raise money. And
he's helping to change the political flavor this season. And it's a good
thing that Al Gore is out there, you know, rally Democrats, rallying
progressives and trying to keep the party unified. In 2000, we had a problem.
Ralph Nader was able to rally progressives and some liberals and siphon those
from Al Gore. So the fact that Al Gore is out there trying to keep people
inside the party, keep people behind John Kerry, that's a good thing for John
Kerry and the Democratic Party.
GROSS: What do you think is going to happen with Nader? Do you think he's
going to stay in the race, and do you think that it will hurt Kerry if he
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, Ralph Nader is quite a politician. He said he's not goign
to hurt Democrats this time. In fact, he believes he's going to siphon votes
from George Bush, ha-ha. Nader's not as strong as he was in 2000. When we
first started polling, Ralph Nader was, you know, capturing over 15 of the
vote. Today he's capturing less than 5 percent. If we can keep Ralph Nader
to 2 or 3 percent in some of these battleground states, he's not going to be a
factor in 2004.
GROSS: John Kerry hsa been criticized for not being warm enough or not rating
high enough in likability, similar to the criticisms that Al Gore got when he
was running for president. How do you react to that? I mean, is there a part
of you that wants to say, `Grow up. This isn't a popularity contest; we're
talking about the president'?
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, people want to bond with their president. They want to
get to know their president. They want to feel the person. So there's some
truth to some of the rumors that you hear that John Kerry at times seems so
thoughtful, so distant. Kerry is one of those kind of thoughtful, analytical,
reason--well, you know, he's a kind of politician that really thinks before he
speaks. And so it's normal for him to come across as a senator. But you know
what? He's running for president. He's having fun. He's smiling more. He's
warming up to large crowds. And just give John Kerry--I tell people give him
some time to emerge as this national leader. Remember, this is his first run
for president. He hasn't done it before. And I'm sure that over the course
of the next couple of months, people will find that John Kerry's not only a
likable guy, but he's quite amusing when you really get to know him. He
cracks you up. He really makes you laugh. At the same time he's so serious
that you want to say to him, `OK, thank you so much. Let's have some fun
GROSS: In your book you write about how the worst days of your professional
career were during and just after the recount in 2000. There seemed to be
some kind of agreement among Democrats high up in the party to put that behind
them after it was over. I want to quote something that Al Gore recently said
at one of his MoveOn.org speeches. He said, `In December of 2000, even though
I strongly disagreed with the decision by the US Supreme Court to order a halt
to the counting of legally cast ballots, I saw it as my duty to reaffirm my
own strong belief that we are a nation of laws and not only accept the
decision but do what I could to prevent the efforts to delegitimize George
Bush, as he took the oath of office as president. I did not at that moment
image that Bush would, in the presidency that ensued, demonstrate utter
contempt for the rule of law and work at every turn to frustrate
I'm wondering if you're thinking now that the issue of the 2000 recount should
be addressed in the presidential campaign or if you would like to see
Democrats continue to, more or less, put that behind them.
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, as a matter of public policy, it's difficult to put an
election behind you when the officials who were in charge of cleaning up the
problems are still off duty. It's difficult to put the election behind you
when the problems that plagued you in 2000 may come back to haunt you in 2004.
It's difficult, in my judgment, to even talk about, you know, wrapping your
arms around this election without seeing what we can do to make this democracy
the very best and remove the flaws. But at that moment when Gore threw in the
towel, I was not pleased with the decision to throw in the towel because the
way in which it came about, the Supreme Court decision--they used the Civil
War amendments, the 13th, 14th, the 15th Amendment--the 14th, the equal
protection. And that was like laughing on the graves of people who died for
the right to vote.
And so I'm not going to put this one behind me until I see America--you know,
this country do a better job in funding our election reforms and giving
citizens the tools they need to navigate the political process.
GROSS: You overheard Al Gore's end of the phone conversation when he called
George W. Bush on the night of the election and told him that he had decided
not to concede because the race was so close. What do you remember hearing Al
Ms. BRAZILE: I was so happy with Al Gore. You know, Al Gore's one of these
people--I guess I have this relationship with other politicians. But, you
know, at times Gore was just my champion. I could just close my eyes and say,
`You go get them. Just go get them. I got your back.' But when he looked at
the results and thought it was over with, he went up to the ninth floor and
said, `I've got to go talk to Tip.' And he reached out to Daley to get the
number of George Bush to call the then-governor, Bush. And I said, `Whoa,
never surrender.' I didn't feel it. I didn't feel like we lost. And Gore
came back--we went to the War Memorial. We got up to the second floor. But
Michael Feldman, one of the staffers there, got a call from another staff
person, Michael Hooly, and said, `Wait a minute. Don't call anybody because
there's a recount.' And I was so happy. I was so overjoyed.
Gore called then-Governor Bush, and apparently then Governor Bush said
something to the effect, `Well, my brother told me we won.' And Gore said,
`With all due respect to your brother'--I mean, Gore got a little attitude, a
little groove. And I was like, `You go. You go. You just smack him.'
That's in the book. I had to talk about that becuase I was so proud of him.
Joe Lieberman, who--at the time I was, you know, sort of hanging on to Joe
Lieberman because God knows we felt so bad about what was happening in
Florida. Lieberman just leaped to his feet, and Gore was just really giving
it back to then-Governor Bush. That was one of my finest moments listening to
GROSS: When did you first realize that there were voting problems in Florida?
Ms. BRAZILE: Around 6:30 that morning. It was amazing. We were in Tampa.
We started off--we flew in from Flint, and we had a huge rally in South Beach
with Robert De Niro and Stevie Wonder and Babyface and Jessica Lange. And it
was huge. We went up to Tampa for one last rally, and at 6:30 I started
making phone calls. On Election Day, I normally spend hours on drive-time
radio trying to capture those last-minute voters, like, `Please go and vote
before you go to work.' And I had Gore primed up to do an interview, and I was
talking to the producer--station WTMP in Tampa--and she said, `Do you know
about all of the ballots that are being thrown out?' I said, `Why?' And she
said, `Because apparently their signature was in the wrong place, or they
didn't have authorization or notary signatures.' And I said, `Well, the law
doesn't require that.'
So I called Arthenia Joyner, who's a state representative in Tampa, and I
said, `Hey, you got problems in your back yard.' She said, `Yeah, my dad's
ballot got thrown out.' I'm like, `Oh, OK.' So I didn't pay any mind. Called
down to Bishop Curry in Miami. He had the same problems with precincts in
predominantly Haitian areas not opening; some precincts in the predominantly
black area having problems. Then I heard from Lieberman, and he talked about
some of the problems in West Palm Beach. I still didn't think nothing of it.
When we got to Nashville, all hell broke loose. I just started hearing all of
these, you know, bad stories from all over the country. And I finally got a
call from my sister, Demitri(ph), who lived in Seminole County at the time.
And she said, `How many IDs do I need to vote?' I'll never forget that as long
as I live. I said, `One.' And she said, `No.' I said `Demitri, one.' I said,
`You voted in September.' She said, `Yes, but now they want more IDs.' So she
had a voter registration card, a driver's license. She finally produced a
utility bill, and somehow they allowed her to vote.
Now that day was a tough day. I heard people in Virginia, people in Michigan.
And, finally, about 1:00 I was full. I was, you know, just up to my eyeballs
in all of the stories. And I wrote in the book where I called Eric Holder;
he was number two at the Justice Department. And I appealed to Eric. I said,
`Look, I know I haven't checked in with the lawyers, but something is going
wrong in the country. People are having problems all over with voting.' And
I just gave him all of the details that I had. And I said, `There's so much
you can do as a campaign and a party. I mean, the government must figure out,
you know, what they can do to stop some of this.' And he told me he would get
on it. Well, the rest is history.
GROSS: During the recount progress there were a lot of criticisms that
African-Americans in Florida had had difficult voting. And you thought that
that was a serious problem that day. But at some point Al Gore said, `It's
time to end all talk of the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida.
It's time to stop accusing the Republicans of racism.' Did you agree with him
that it was time to stop that?
Ms. BRAZILE: With all due respect, I did not, and let me tell you why. It
is, for me, a fundamental issue of fairness; it's a fundamental issue of our
democracy. Lyndon Johnson, when he signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, he
said that voting was `the lifeblood of our democracy. By denying one person
the right to vote, we have destroyed our own brand of democracy.' And so, in
my judgment, we were right to pursue these allegations of voter harassment,
voter intimidation, voter suppression. We were right to pursue--and I wish we
would have pursued more vigorously--the allegations of off-duty policemen
stopping people for routine traffic violations, you know, right before you get
to a precinct. We were right to do that. It had nothing to do with race. It
had everything to do with our democracy.
The fact that it was a disproportionate number of African-American, in my
judgment, made me a little bit more angry and pissed off because I undertand,
not only as a Southerner but as an African-American, just how long it took.
And the price of voting in this country was paid for in full with the blood of
so many wonderful heroes and sheroes that we could never repay them if we stop
making sure that people can have their votes counted and be able to go to the
ballot box without fear of intimidation.
So, no, I disagreed with Gore. But let me just say this about Al Gore. I
know in his heart that this was a very difficult period for him personally, a
very difficult for him professionally because there were people within the
Democratic Party who were calling on Gore to quick and not go as long as we
went. So Gore really stayed the course much longer--because there were people
basically telling us to shut down.
GROSS: My guest is Donna Brazile. She managed the presidential campaign of
Al Gore in 2000. Her new memoir is called "Cooking with Grease." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Donna Brazile. She was the
campaign manager for Al Gore during his presidential bid in 2000. Now she's
written a memoir called "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American
The 2000 election was very difficult for you. What was the difficulty of
re-entering regular life after this high-powered, incredible drama that you
Ms. BRAZILE: That was very personal. I have spent my entire life on the
campaign trail, so to all of a sudden have it end the way that it ended in
Florida, it was a shock on me. There's nothing you can. I mean, the only
therapy that I could even come to think of--I went to Hawaii. I talk about it
in the book; I just sat there and looked at the ocean and wished that Jonah
and the whale would just come and take me up. I was just out of--my body was
aching. I was tired. I was emotionally drained, spiritually challenged.
And, you know, from time to time Gore would send me an e-mail because he was
like--I mean, he was still the vice president of the United States. I'm like,
`Whoo, chill.' I mean, I couldn't imagine going on. I wanted to just stop.
I wanted to move to another country. I couldn't even go back to Washington,
DC, until after the inaugural. I didn't want to see all of those Texans.
And so I spent months just trying to get my body healed and get my mind in the
right place. And I made a decision that, `You know what? I'm finished. This
is it. I mean, I need to do something else with my life.' And I went up to
Harvard. And all of a sudden these amazing kids every day would come to my
class and my office, sit down and say, `How'd you get started?' And I'm like,
`Huh?' `What did you do?' And I started recalling my childhood and my first
campaign, and all of a sudden that passion just got right back and I got
stirred up again. I'm like, `OK, I guess I've got to keep going.'
GROSS: But I noticed you're not managing a campaign, you're not working on a
campaign. You're working at the Voting Rights Institute. You know, you wrote
a political memoir. You're on TV a lot talking about politics. Is it
intentional that you're not working, say, for Kerry? Do you not want to get
back into actually working on a campaign?
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, let me just tell you I am probably one of the most
competitive, focused, disciplined political operatives that you've ever
produced in this country. I know I am. It's in my bloodstream. I've been
doing it since I was nine years old, and I love it. I love it. The only
thing that could bring me joy right now is to see George Bush out of the White
House in 2004. That actually would bring me some sense of joy becuase, in my
judgment, he should not be there. That's just as simple as it is. Now when
you feel that kind of passion and you can stir up so much--I mean, I can stir
up a thunderstorm just thinking about what I want to do, right?--you just have
to chill out, just to like, `OK, let the other people--it's their turn. Give
them an opportunity to do things their way.' And you know what? It's like
2002. I was sitting on the sidelines. I was in my garden minding my own
business. And my old home state senator called me, Mary Landrieu, and she
said, `They're spending $22 million to take me out.' I said, `I'll be home on
Southwest in a couple of hours.'
If John Kerry needs me, I'm ready. But right now he has a good team on the
field. He's leading him in the polls. I believe that John Kerry's going to
win this thing. But if he needs a couple of hands, I'm there.
GROSS: You say that after the recall was over and the Democrats lost and you
were at a terrible point in your life, one of the people who called you to see
how you were doing was Karl Rove, who is now President Bush's chief political
strategist and has worked very closely with George W. Bush throughout his
poltical career. You say you've come to respect Karl Rove. I find it
interesting that you, who are both on such distant places on the political
scale, should--that you have warm feelings toward each other, or at least
that's how it seems from the book.
Ms. BRAZILE: I know. Isn't that sad? I know. You know what? And, God, I
have a deskful of letters. Let me tell you what it's like when you get
involved as a young kid in politics, and you spend all your life reading about
every presidential campaign, knowing every precinct, every turnout number.
And all of a sudden you wake up one day and you meet this guy from the other
side of the street, and you say, `Oh, my God, where did he come from?' And I
sat there one day--Claire Shipman actually introduced us. We were having
dinner up in New Hampshire, of all places, in 2000. And I started talking to
Karl, and I'm like, `Frig, he goes back as long as I go back with all these
And so you know what we talk about sometimes? We talk about, you know,
non-voters; we talk about invisible citizens. We have our own little
relationship that has nothing to do with his boss being re-elected or my best
friend being elected. We talk about politics outside of what I call the
partisan nature. We talk about voter participation. And then we talk about
our families. So Karl knows if he goes up against one of my friends, I'm
going to get out there, and I'm going to beat him. And he also understands
that when it comes to voting in this country, that is one issue I'm not going
to allow him to dominate. As long as he doesn't get in my turf wars, I won't
get in his turf wars. And we're OK.
GROSS: One of the big controversies now is whether Catholic politicians who
support a woman's right to have an abortion--and this includes John
Kerry--should be allowed to receive Communion. Some bishops say they should
not. You're a Catholic, and you've had to decide where you stand on the issue
of abortion. You write in your memoir that this first came up for you when
you were working with Jesse Jackson on his...
Ms. BRAZILE: Yes.
GROSS: ...presidential primary campaign. And NOW, the National Organization
for Women, wanted you to convince him to come out pro-choice. You weren't
sure what to do or even where you stood. You say you called your mother to
talk it over with her. Why did you call her, and did that help?
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, it didn't help. I called my mom becuase we had the kind
of relationship where we could talk about just about anything. And I grew up
in a very strict Catholic household. My mom was Baptist, but my father raised
us--he was a strict Catholic. I mean, I'm talkign about down to what the pope
said last week, he would quote it every week. And, of course, we had all of
these statues. I knew all about the saints. I mean, I still talk to St. Jude
most of the time. And my parents sort of taught me to be a free spirit; at
the same time, to respect the church.
You know, in this matter of public policy, once I got into the issue and
consulted with Mary Frances Berry and Eleanor Holmes Norton, I understood that
this was an issue of conscience, an issue of public policy and not an issue of
religion. And so the way in which I saw the issue and the way I continue to
see the issue is that it's an expression of our faith to understand that we
are givers of life, and we can choose life, but we can also choose life in
consultation with God. And I would hope that I'm able to continue to take
Communion and to continue to worship at my church. But I also--as a matter of
conscience, I am not about to change my views on important public policy
issues because my bishops or my archbishops or my priests or whoever say I
should think one way. That is not what the Bible teaches you. And I don't
want to get into Scripture, but that is not what I learned sitting in church.
GROSS: Donna Brazile will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
memoir is called "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American
Politics." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, getting fired from the Dukakis campaign. We continue our
conversation with political strategist Donna Brazile.
Also, poet and playright Sarah Jones in her one-woman show "Bridge & Tunnel."
She plays the parts of immigrants from around the world reading their work at
a poetry slam.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Donna Brazile. She was
the campaign manager for the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000. Brazile is the
first African-American woman to manage a major presidential campaign. After
the Florida recount, she became the first chair of the Democratic National
Committee's Voting Rights Institute. In her new memoir, "Cooking with
Grease," she writes about her experiences in the campaigns of Gore, Michael
Dukakis, Walter Mondale and Jesse Jackson.
Now you worked for the Dukakis campaign against the first President Bush, and
you got fired from the Dukakis campaign after saying something to the press
that was considered inappropriate. Do you want to say what it is that you
Ms. BRAZILE: Oh, yeah. I was in one of my rare moments as a
20-something-year-old, and I talked about it in a chapter called "Melting
Pot." It was rumors circulating all over town, and, of course, all over the
press bus. And the press wanted to come and talk to me about Dukakis and his
relationship with Jackson and blacks and others, and I said, `Why don't you
all go and figure out these rumors?' And they said, `Well, what rumors are you
talking about?' Well, it was all over. The Washington Post was supposed to
break a story; Dan Rather was supposed to discuss it. So I went ahead and
talked about the rumors of President Bush--Bush 41's so-called infidelity,
those rumors. And that got me in a lot of hot water with Susan Estrich, and
she called me at 5:15. And I was fired right here in beautiful New York City
at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
The worst part was calling my mom to tell her what I did. And she said,
`What? Is that all?' My mother, who'd never been fired, worked all her life,
just was shocked that, you know, I got fired for, you know, basically quoting
GROSS: Let me quote what you said; this is how you quote it in the book. You
told the press, `Why don't you ask George Bush if he intends to take Barbara
to the White House? You know, they talk about family values, they talk about
all these families issues. But tonight on CBS News, no one is going to report
that George Bush has a mistress.' Looking back, do you think you said the
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, at the time, yes. I was not on message. The campaign
didn't want, you know--yes, it was bad. It was not appropriate under the
circumstances. I was working for a presidential candidate, and that was not
my role to talk about that.
GROSS: I'm always interested in how it's handled when somebody is fired, but
it's going to be couched in public terms as a resignation. You were basically
told--you said, `If you want to fire me, write the press release.' And they
did. The press release was written for you, in which you were quoted as
saying something like, you know, that, `The campaign is too important.' You
didn't want your story to distract from the real message of the campaign.
What was it like for you to have it handled that way, to have the press
release for your, quote, "resignation" written by somebody else and then
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, under the circumstances, Susan Estrich, who's a friend,
came down on me so hard, and I talked a little bit about that in the book. I
mean, I thought I had basically saved them so many times. She came down on me
so hard, I'm like, `You know, I'm not going to sit here and fight and grapple
to stay on board the campaign.' I figured, you know, `Cut it loose, let it go,
cry later, but just go. Just move on, so that the campaign could go forward.'
And I did that. I stepped aside. But I said one thing: `I am not going to
sit here and pretend that I'm going to write the press release because that is
demeaning. That's like putting salt on my wound.' I was already wounded, but,
Jesus, I'm like, `Let me go. Let me just move forward, and you write the
release.' And I snuck out the back door and went to Ruthie Goldmont's(ph)
house and had a nice cocktail before I called my mother.
GROSS: OK. Something else controversial that you said, and this was to The
Washington Post when you had started work on Al Gore's presidential campaign.
And you said, `I'm in the white boys' world now, and I've got to beat them
just to get a seat at the table. But I'm ready for them. I can deal with
them.' You say by the end of the week you were being called a racist.
Ms. BRAZILE: Yes.
GROSS: Looking back on that, what did you do wrong?
Ms. BRAZILE: Oh, I used a...
GROSS: Did you do something wrong? Go ahead.
Ms. BRAZILE: Absolutely. Stuart Taylor sent me the longest memo, and then,
of course, he published his lengthy column saying--you know, explaining why I
should not use the word `white boy.' Now, of course, white women use the word
`white boy'; that's where I picked it up. But he said, `But would you use
"black boy, and could we use "black boy?"' And as I read that column, I said,
`OK, I get it. I figured it out.' But by the time I figured it out and what
my offense was, before I could get to my, quote-unquote, "apology phase," I
was branded as a racist. They were--you know, because I'm in the South most
of the time, and they had turned around my statement saying, `I got to be the
white boy.' I'm like, `Hello? Al Gore's a white man. Why do you think'--you
know. So it got all turned around, and it became this mantra.
And so it led, I believe, eventually to some of the death threats because all
over these NASCAR-sounding radio stations and mailings, people are like,
`She's going to beat the white boy. She's going to beat the white boy. You
got to beat her first.' And I'm like, `Oh, I'm in the South. Girlfriend do
not want to get beaten. My people have gone through that. I am beyond the
beating phase, I'm beyond that other stuff.' But it really taught me a
valuable lesson about race in American politics and how you have to really
navigate it with some finesse because there are so many trip wires, so many
rails when you talk about race in American politics. And it still exists
today. We have not had a dialogue, a kind of conversation, that Bill Clinton
talked about back when he was president that will allow us to move beyond just
having a talk about race but more a dialogue. We are still behind the curve
on racism in America.
GROSS: Former President Clinton is coming out with his memoir at the end of
this month, so that will mean he will be making the rounds, doing a lot of
speeches and interviews and so on. What role would you like to see Bill
Clinton play in this presidential campaign? During the Al Gore campaign there
was a lot of friction between the two, and President Clinton's role was pretty
low key and that--I think at Al Gore's request.
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, Bill Clinton--you've got to understand, from Al Gore's
vantage point, Al Gore was not seen as a, quote-unquote, "leader." He was
seen as a vice president, which I guess many Americans think you're a
follower; you follow the president. And so we needed to establish Al Gore's
credentials as a strong, decisive leader. He didn't reach that phase in the
campaign actually until after he selected Joe Lieberman. But in battleground
states you essentially poll; you get a pulse, and you say, `OK, where can I
put Bill Clinton, so that he can maximize Gore's advantage?' And we select a
state where Clinton would maximize Gore advantage. Now I think John Kerry
will have to do the same thing.
Now Bill Clinton is larger than life. As my little sisters and brothers will
say, he is all of that and a pack of gum because he's refreshing. The man is
just juicy in terms of his dialogue, his ability to communicate, his ability
to establish rapport with people. He communicates like Ronald Reagan, at the
heart level, where people really understand what you're talking about. He
don't speak in babble-speak, double-talk. He's good. I mean, I'm going to
say that because I spent eight years supporting Bill Clinton, knowing Bill
Clinton, you know, respecting Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton is fabulous. And I
hope that Kerry uses him strategically, politically but, more importantly, to
help persuade people to get out the vote as well as get them out to the polls
because Bill Clinton really connects with people at a level that I wish more
political leaders could.
Now that's my personal view, of course. I know my party will disagree with
me, but I am a Clinton fan, a major fan of the Clintons, both Bill and
Hillary. They're value-added. They raise money for the party. And every
electoral season that I've been involved in for the last 10 years, I have
called on the Clintons, Hillary or Bill, whoever's available, and said, `Help
me,' and they were there to help. They are good people, and God bless them.
GROSS: One of the things that you've worked on throughout your political
career is getting out the African-American vote. And you say even when you
were in college, you were really frustrated with fellow African-American
students when they didn't vote, even when they didn't vote, like, you know, in
student elections. What are you some of the unique aspects of getting out the
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, it's a vote that is a young vote; it's not young in age
but young in spirit. Remember, African-Americans have only been voting now
for about 38 years. So it's a generation that did not struggle for the right
to vote; they take their vote for granted. They don't understand that it's
important to turn on the power, and the only way you can turn on the power in
American politics is by voting. And so I have worked all my life to perfect,
`How do you communicate, how do you message, how do you persuade
African-Americans--and other Americans, too, but African-Americans--to turn
out as if their lives depended on it?' We're not the potatoes in American
politics; we're the gravy. So, therefore, we have to spread it longer, and we
have to provide the margin of victory in those close races where our vote will
matter. And that's what I try to persuade them: `By voting, you change
America.' You know, I have to say this: More Americans tuned in and voted
for Ruben and Clay and now Fantasia and Diana...
GROSS: Well, but they can vote many times, unlike...
Ms. BRAZILE: That's right. Well, just like buying the book, you can go to a
cash register and buy it as many times as you want. But when it comes to
voting and American politics, what can Ruben, Fantasia, Diana do for your
health care? What can they do to lower your college tuition? I know some
politicians who can do something about that, and that's the connection that we
have to make in this political season.
GROSS: Donna Brazile, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Donna Brazile's new memoir is called "Cooking with Grease."
Coming up, Sarah Jones performs an excerpt of her Obie Award-winning show
"Bridge & Tunnel." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Sarah Jones discusses her show, "Bridge & Tunnel"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Sarah Jones is one of the stars of spoken word performance. Her latest
one-woman show, "Bridge & Tunnel," is set at an open-mic poetry slam. She
portrays immigrants from Pakistan, Jamaica, Mexico, Jordan and other countries
who have come to the Bridge & Tunnel Cafe in South Queens, New York, for the
annual event called "I Am a Poet Too." In The New York Times review of the
show, Margo Jefferson wrote, "Solo performance frees gifted artists to change
sex, race, age, body type and personality in an instant. It takes great craft
and generosity. Sarah Jones has both," unquote.
Jones' fans include Meryl Streep, who is billed as the co-presenter of the
show. Last month "Bridge & Tunnel" won an Obie, an off-Broadway Theater
Award, for outstanding solo performance. We invited Jones for an interview.
I asked her to introduce us to one of the characters from "Bridge & Tunnel,"
so here she is as Gladys, a Jamaican immigrant.
Ms. SARAH JONES: (As Gladys) My name is Gladys, and I'm a
But I currently still have my regular job, and there are basically few career
possibilities for people of Jamaican ancestry in this country. One is to
become secretary of State, so you have secretary of State. Another is to take
care of children. But, you see, either way it's the same thing because you
have to run behind all the privileged babies who can barely form sentences.
And then, you see, I must clean up his messes for him while he takes a nap.
But I don't like to mix art and politics.
GROSS: That's great. And, Sarah, how did you think of Gladys?
Ms. JONES: I think Gladys comes from my experience with meeting wonderful
poets, you know, writers, very disciplines, other kinds of artists from lots
of different backgrounds, including, you know, people from the Caribbean who
are such a vibrant part of the cultural community either here in New York or
wherever I've traveled. Yet I don't hear their voices, you know, when I turn
on my television or I, you know, go to see a movie. The most you can expect
is, you know, a stereotype of a Rasta who, you know, isn't recognizable as
any human being who we could ever be friends with or want to talk to or
anything. It's always, you know, kind of just a caricature for the sake of
the movie or, you know, backdrop or something.
And I thought, `What a waste of, you know, the voices of people who really
have often, you know, compelling things to say and unique takes on the world.'
And, you know, what are those stories of coming over here wanting to find
opportunity maybe as an artist or as a worker and discovering that, you know,
it's very difficult to get a job. You know, your educational achievements
don't mean the same thing here in this country as they do in your country.
And so you do find yourself having to do work that, you know, maybe doesn't
pay as well or is--you know, kind of restricts you to a certain field. Who
are all of these people with these accents who are doing all this work in this
country, often for very little money, you know, or without the kind of, you
know, respect for their dignity that should come with that work? So I kind of
want to hear them. I want to hear what they have to say.
GROSS: Now along with creating these characters, you've created poems for
many of them to read because, after all, it is a poetry slam. And some of the
poems are pretty funny, unintentionally funny in the sense that I don't think
the characters would necessarily think they're funny.
Ms. JONES: Right.
GROSS: Have you written any poems that you intended to do in your own voice
that you then realized, `Man, this really isn't very good,' and then you used
it in the voice of another character?
Ms. JONES: I absolutely have done that. I think sometimes those characters,
you know, the ones that I've been able to flesh out as fully as I need to to
have them come to life on stage and, you know, be recognizable people for the
audience--those characters are often, you know, the voice I hear in my head as
I sit down to write something. So if I'm not careful, I'll be writing from
the perspective of, say--there's a character in the show, Lorraine, who's one
of the oldest--she's the oldest immigrant in the show. She was really little
when she came to this country. And, well, I'll let her tell it, but...
(As Lorraine) Hi. How are you, Terry, honey. How are you? This is Lorraine.
Listen, let me tell you what happens. You know, when Sarah Jones, a very nice
young black girl--she calls herself black. She's really more like a caramel
color, if you see her. But, anyway, so she writes these poems, you know, and
she writes them sometimes thinking like she's another person. And sometimes,
you know, you really have to write what you know. And I tell her, you know,
`Listen, try to put yourself in that person's head.' But it sounds ridiculous
for her to try to read, you know, about me and my experience coming over here,
you know, came through Ellis--I said, you know, `Let me read that. That's a
poem that comes from Lorraine's experience. So to make it complete for the
audience, it's better for me to read it. You see what I mean, honey?' So
that's the idea.
GROSS: (Laughs) That's really great. Do you want to do a couple of lines of
Ms. JONES: (As Lorraine) Well, you know, my poem has more to do with--you
know, I'm not as young as I used to be. I can't see you, Terry, but don't
give me that look. I'm not that old. OK. Anyway, the point is that as an
older person in this society--and I know we don't talk about it, but people
don't have the respect--once you start to get older, you know, there's what
you call ageism. They think you're too old, and they just want to make fun.
And it's a shame. So I have a parody, a send-up, you see, because the young
kids, they think, you know, that once there's a little snow on the roof, as
they say, even though mine's strawberry blonde--I don't let it go white. But,
anyway, the point is that, you know, they think that you're not sharp; you're
not a vibrant person anymore. And I want them to realize that everybody was
young once, and when you get older, you know, you still carry all that
experience with you.
So here's a little piece of a poem for all of the young kids that I see when I
travel on the bus. `Riding on the bus. No, really, please, don't get up. I
don't make a fuss. No, really, please, don't get up. I have the seniors
blues. No, really, please, don't get up. I will step on your foot with my
orthopaedic shoes.' (Laughs) And so on (laughs). I like to do that one.
It's a hit with the kids. And then they can remember one of these days
they'll be trying on a pair of their own orthopaedic shoes (laughs).
GROSS: (Laughs) My guest is Sarah Jones. She's performing her one-woman show
"Bridge & Tunnel" off-Broadway. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Jones. Her current one-woman show, "Bridge &
Tunnel," is set at an open-mic poetry slam. She portrays immigrants from
around the world who've come to read their work. Jones grew up in New York
and Washington in an interracial family.
You know, you have such an ear for voices. I know that when you were in high
school, you went to the UN International School, which I imagine you met
students from all over the world. Did that help establish the music of
different voices and accents in your mind?
Ms. JONES: I definitely think my experience at the United Nations school
solidified what had begun when I was much younger. I think being in a family
and, you know, kind of school environments from a very young age that provided
me with a lot of multicultural fodder, for lack of a better way to put it--I
mean, I did have this mix of voices, you know, at the Thanksgiving table and
at, you know, school picnics or whatever that was--there were lots of
different accents to kind of savor. And then TV and movies and, I mean, it
just all really opened up even more for me. I started hearing the
distinctions. I mean, I think I tried out a British accent for a school play
when, like, the fourth grade I think we did "As You Like It" or something.
And, you know, (using British accent) `I came out with this accent.' And my
teacher sort of looked at me like, `Where did this working-class kid in DC get
this British accent from?'--you know?
But I guess I just was fascinated and really taken with the sounds of these
voices really early. Probably it's the same way other kids get into, you
know, video games or playing outside or whatever it is that kids can really
get passionate about. For me, it was all these voices. And the UN school,
where suddenly I could hear all of these frequencies, you know, all of these
new voices, it just--I was overstimulated every day all day. It was amazing.
GROSS: Now I don't know anything about the UN school, except that I would
assume that the parents of the children in it work for the UN, which your
parents did not.
Ms. JONES: Right.
GROSS: So how do you get in? What is it?
Ms. JONES: Well, there are some kids whose families don't work for the UN.
You just sort of find out about the school, as my parents did. I know my
parents were really committed to making sure I had a continuing multicultural,
you know, educational environment when I got to New York from Washington, DC.
So, I guess, they probably didn't look around and realize that every school in
New York is multicultural and was private in a way that, you know, some kids
can't go. But...
GROSS: Was it so important to them to have a multicultural school environment
for you because you're from a multicultural family, in a sense that your
father's side of the family is African-American; your mother's side is--I'm
not sure where your mother's from.
Ms. JONES: Hodgepodge.
GROSS: Hodgepodge, OK.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. JONES: Hodgepodge. No, she's--my father's side of the family is
African-American, and there's some Caribbean descent way back there. And then
on my mother's side of the family, there is a mix. My grandmother was Irish
and German, and my grandfather is a mix of stuff that include--I mean, the
roots go to the Caribbean, to Dominican Republic. There's a whole mix of
what, you know, kind of creates this funny thing that is me. But, yes, I
think that their coming from, you know, this multiracial and multicultural
sort of melting pot under one roof meant that they had more of a commitment to
making sure when I looked around and talked to the kids around me, it wasn't
such a strange thing to come home and see my family because their families
looked similar. I mean, it was nothing for us to, you know, kind of sit
around in class and, `Hi. My mom's from Egypt, and my father's from Sweden.'
`Oh, well, my dad's Korean, and, you know, my mother's from Sri Lanka.' I
mean, it was just normal.
GROSS: So when you were at the UN school and hearing students from all around
the world with different accents and so on, and you were really excited and
starting to do their voices, like, where would you--what was your stage for
that? You weren't performing your one-man show yet, you know.
Ms. JONES: Not quite.
GROSS: And if you did it to their faces, it would seem like you were making
fun of them. So, like, how would you...
Ms. JONES: That was funny. I'd love to be able to tell you that I would
clear the tables in the cafeteria and hop up there and start performing, but
it certainly wasn't quite like that. I mean, the excitement that I describe
in hearing all of those voices is something that I think I was only partially
aware of at the time. I knew that, you know, I was surrounded by all of these
wonderful languages, accents. But I also knew that I had to get my butt to
math class on time, and I had to, you know, get my homework done. So I think
that what was happening more than anything was there was this kind of, you
know, series of germinating seeds that were planted in my head at the time.
And the only times I really got to start to, you know, experiment with my
ability to, you know, repeat those voices back to people was on a few
occasions I would--I can't believe I didn't get in trouble for this then, and
hopefully I won't get in trouble for it now. But I used to get classmates out
of different courses if they didn't want to have to go, or some of us would
skip the day once in a while, and, you know, I would call up and say, `Hello.
This is Renalto's(ph) mother. Could you please tell her to meet me down in
the car park because she's feeling very ill, and she'll have to come home.
I'm sorry about that. Could you please send her along home?' And I'd do
things like that from the pay phone at school. It was terrible. In those
days we didn't have cell phones.
GROSS: Were you ever discovered?
Ms. JONES: I was not discovered, but hopefully all of my classmates are now
safely not living at home and won't suffer any consequences because I'm outing
GROSS: What would you get in return? Would there be a payoff for doing that?
Ms. JONES: No, no payoff; lots of giggles. Lots of giggles and we'd go, you
know, hang out and terrorize New York City for an afternoon.
GROSS: Well, Sarah Jones, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. JONES: Thank you, Terry. Take care.
GROSS: Sarah Jones will perform her one-woman show "Bridge & Tunnel"
off-Broadway through August 15th. She hopes to bring the show to Broadway
(Soundbite of music)
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.