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Republican Strategies in the 21st Century

Political reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten talk about their new book, One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century. The authors are reporters for The Los Angeles Times.

39:25

Other segments from the episode on July 24, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 24, 2006: Interview with Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten; Interview with Thomas Ricks.

Transcript

DATE July 24, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, both of Los Angeles
Times, discuss their new book "One Party Country" about how the
the US is becoming a Republican Party country
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Is the US becoming a one-party country, a Republican country? That's the
question asked in the new book "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for
Dominance in the 21st Century," by Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten. They
both cover the White House for the Los Angeles Times. They write that "not
only does the GOP control every part of every element of the federal
government, Karl Rove has introduced a new political doctrine effectively
putting the federal bureaucracy and the bully pulpit of the White House in
service of long and short-term GOP political ends." Hamburger and Wallsten's
book examines how the Republican Party put in place a series of structural and
operational advantages that have given the Republicans the political edge and
set the stage for what could become, at least, for a time, a one-party
country.

One of the things you cover in your book is new campaigning techniques that
Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman and others in the Republican Party helped create.
And you say that one of the strategies here is to master niche marketing and
to take votes that had previously been considered bloc votes, you know, like
the Black vote, the Jewish vote, the labor vote, and to subdivide them, to
take little bites out of them and make those into Republican votes. Can you
talk a little bit more about this like niche-marketing approach?

Mr. PETER WALLSTEN: Sure. Many people make the mistake when they read
stories about the Republicans going after the Black vote or the Jewish vote
that the goal might be to win a majority or a huge percentage of that group.
That's never been the goal in this plan. Let's take the Black vote as an
example. In 2000, George Bush won 9 percent of the Black vote nationally. In
2004, it was 11 percent. Not a very big jump, but in Ohio, that went up, we
believe from the polls that we've seen, from 9 percent to 16 percent, and if
you look at the raw numbers, that was the margin that George Bush needed to
prevent another Florida-style recount in Ohio in 2004. And they do this by
going after--they find sympathetic voters within these blocs.

One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is--mentions, speaking of the Jewish
vote, was a rally on the final weekend of the 2004 campaign in Cleveland
Heights, which has a huge population of Russian Jews. And they organized this
rally in a party center there in Cleveland Heights, and they brought in all of
the--they brought in hundreds of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants who were
all American citizens and voters. And the rally was conducted entirely in
Russian, and by the end of the rally, the entire crowd is standing up
chanting, `Bush, Bush, Bush,' in their Russian accents, and this--they brought
in a White House official and some other Republican Party officials, and that
added on to other efforts where they had gathered together lists of the
Orthodox Jews in the neighborhood. The yeshivas gave girls the day off so
they could baby-sit so mothers could go out and vote. The local rabbis had
instructed their congregants to vote.

This is just one example of where they found a very small sliver of an
electorate, you know, Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but not Orthodox
Jews, and these were Jews who cared a lot about what George Bush had done in
Israel.

GROSS: Why did the Republicans target Orthodox Jews and why did they see
Orthodox Jews as potential Republican votes?

Mr. WALLSTEN: These are religious conservatives, just in a
similar--politically very similar to evangelical Christians. They have
traditional views on life issues, and also in this case, they feel strongly
for Israel and terror and--they identified with the war on terrorism, they
identified with the war in Iraq, because they viewed Iraq as a threat to
Israel, and this is a strategy where not only Orthodox Jews but also
conservative Jews, not politically but religiously conservative Jews, were
also courted heavily. This was one area that in certain battleground states,
you know, Florida has a huge Jewish population, Ohio, Michigan had a
substantial Jewish population, and the Bush campaign did a lot to go after the
Jewish community.

GROSS: And in terms of targeting part of the African-American population, as
you put it, you know, this kind of niche approach...

Mr. TOM HAMBURGER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...to campaigning, what was the connection? Was it also through the
churches that the Republicans targeted part of the African-American vote?

Mr. HAMBURGER: The churches played a huge role, Terry, and all of the niche
outreach strategies that we talk about in the book--African Americans, like
Orthodox Jews, like evangelical Latinos, the Republican strategists believe,
share a lot of the values agenda, as they call it, with the Republicans. So
with that in mind, Republican strategists said, `How can we go after the most
reliable part of the Democratic Party base and win at least some of them over
to the Republican Party? If we just win a fraction of the votes, it's OK. We
don't need to win a majority because this is a closely divided nation. These
elections are so close that the difference between 9 and 16 percentage points,
say, in an African-American turnout can literally decide an election, which
was the case in Ohio.

And the Republican strategy was heavily targeted and built around outreach to
African-American churches, and one of the things that strategists realized was
that the church is--that African-American chur--regular African-American
church-going American parishioners are conservative on social issues,
abortion, marriage and a third which we'll--which we're seeing in the news
just recently is vouchers for schools and the right to attend private schools.
That's something that resonates with church groups and religious groups,
conservative groups almost everywhere.

Mr. WALLSTEN: If I can add to that, another interesting scene in the book
relates to a church in Milwaukee where one of the preachers in Milwaukee, the
bishop of this particular church, endorsed President Bush in 2004 after years
of supporting Democratic candidates for president. He did so for a lot of
reasons he says. One of the reasons, we believe, is that he--the White House
successfully developed a relationship with him, and they did so in part
through a program some of your listeners may know about, the White House
Faith-Based Initiative.

And this is an important point of the book, because one area that they're so
effective at is mixing government and politics, more than any other
administration in history, we believe. And the Faith-Based Initiative
involves taking taxpayer dollars, public money, and sending it to church-based
social service organizations. Now when this program was first introduced, of
course, a lot of it began under the Clinton administration. President Clinton
understood this form of outreach. But when George Bush first introduced this
initiative, Democrats opposed it because they were worried about the
separation of church and state. They thought it was a gift to the religious
right.

What a lot of people didn't realize at the time and what Republicans did
understand, at least the Bush White House did understand, was that this was a
very effective way to reach black churches, and--because if you go to these
faith-based conferences, which the White House sponsors all over the country,
the audiences are almost entirely black. It's full of black ministers, church
activists, people who are really thankful that the government--that they feel
that President Bush and his administration are trying to make federal dollars
more available for their programs. They feel that they've been shut out over
the years.

So this particular bishop in Milwaukee received $1 1/2 million for his church
and he did endorse President Bush. The president visited his church at one
point. He, like other black ministers from around the country, was brought to
Washington and had several meetings in the White House with Karl Rove, also
with the president. And this is an important part where the Bush campaign,
the Bush administration realized that these ministers are, as one of the
president's advisers told us, the number one influencer in a community.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Tom Hamburger and Peter
Wallsten. They're the authors of the new book "One Party Country: The
Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century." Hamburger and Wallsten
both cover the White House for the Los Angeles Times.

Now you say in your book that although the Republican election strategy is
based on winning by narrow margins because they know it's a divided
country--they know it's a divided country so their approach is to have this
kind of niche-style campaigning that you're talking about. But after they win
office in the White House, in particular, you say they act as if they won by a
landslide, and you write that in the Bush White House, "tests of political
purity were applied not just to those serving inside the administration but to
lawyers, lobbyists and scores of others outside the government."

So let's start with what you were saying here about tests of political purity
applied inside the administration. Any more than typically happens in a
presidential administration?

Mr. HAMBURGER: Yes, we found examples across the federal bureaucracy where
the sort bona fides of political appointees were tested very closely. It was
particularly noteworthy in some of the scientific appointments at NIH, the FDA
and elsewhere where candidates who would come in for interviews with the White
House, the penultimate moment before appointment or being named, they'd find
that they were asked to explain campaign contributions they'd made even
several years ago that happened to go to Democrats. We interviewed members of
previous Democratic administrations, and we're told that while there were
political appointments obviously are traditionally the place where you place
your supporters, but this kind of scientific, if you will, data-based testing
of political loyalty is something new, and it's changed and in a matter of
degree.

What also interested us was the way in which this sort of political loyalty
was enforced to a degree we'd never seen before in the private sector as well,
and that--and here we're talking about the vast industry of K Street in
Washington where lobbying firms would find that if they--lobbying firms and
trade associations would find that their appointments their and hiring
practices were subject to review not specifically and not directly from the
White House but from this burgeoning Republican machine, which has--controlled
hiring not just in the executive branch and not just in the legislative branch
but now in the private sector as well.

So, you have a kind of loyalty test for the hiring of lobbyists in the private
sector who will influence the government, and it set up a sort of new
patronage system, if you will, for Republican loyalists. In other words, you
work for a campaign, you make contributions, you even work a few years on
Capitol Hill, and then as Republican activist Grover Norquist told us, there's
a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you can--you have a wonderful career
path that takes you eventually to a six-figure salary in the private sectors.

GROSS: So are you saying that the Republicans basically have done a more
effective job with the revolving door between government and private company.

Mr. HAMBURGER: Oh, I think so. They have a number of lobbyists during the
Republican era grew dramatically. It more than doubled, according to a
Washington Post study over the past six years, the number of registered
lobbyists in Washington. And this happened in no small part because of the
deliberate plan to make the lobbying world Washington, the lobbying industry,
a part of a new political machine, and we think that machine, which links K
Street, Capitol Hill, the executive branch and federal contracting, has become
enormously powerful and explains in no small part the Republican success which
we document in this book.

Mr. WALLSTEN: And, by the way, if I can also add to that, the downfall of
Tom DeLay and questions about others involved in the K Street Project, while
that has been perhaps a bit of a setback in some--in one sense, in another
sense, our thesis, we maintain that these structural--this particular
structural advantage and others remain in place and are continuing to have the
impact of giving the Republican Party again that added advantage in elections.

GROSS: My guests are Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, authors of the new
book "One-Party Country."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten. They cover the White
House for the LA Times. Their new book is called "One-Party Country: The
Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century."

When we left off, they were saying that candidates for political and
bureaucratic positions virtually have to pass a Republican loyalty test.

OK, so you've described a system in which you think loyalty tests are
basically administered in a way they never were before within the
administration and within business as well. What impact do you think this is
having on policy in America?

Mr. HAMBURGER: We think it's had an extraordinary impact. Every
administration is political, of course, and as we acknowledge, every
administration, every new president appoints his political friends and
ideological soul mates to top positions. But what we found that is different
under the Bush presidency is that the electoral imperatives and political
influences extended deeper into the bureaucracy than we think has ever
occurred before.

A quick example that we cite in the book. The Bush administration, perhaps
more than any other recently, has close friends in the energy industry and oil
and natural gas. And one of the top priorities was to open up the western
United States to oil and gas drilling. There's a vast bureaucracy that
governs the federal lands of the West and most of it based in the Interior
Department, some at the EPA. Putting friendly people in charge of those
agencies allowed this White House to direct the opening up of western lands
for oil and gas exploration in a way we'd never seen before.

One example, if I may, we--the Los Angeles Times discovered now about a year
and a half or two years ago the existence of a previously unknown White House
task force. It was called the White House Task Force for Energy Permit
Expediting. Now I don't imagine your listeners have heard of it. Very few in
Washington had heard of it before. But what this White House-based task force
did was basically run over the top of the Bureau of Land Management, which
grants permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands and say--and begin to
ask or put pressure on the federal bureaucracy to grant these permits.

We talked to one field archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management who was
being asked to quickly approve--who was reviewing a permit for a gas well in a
remote part of a western state where there were some historical Indian
artifacts on the land, and he was reviewing them to see whether those
artifacts would be disturbed if oil and gas was permitted, and he got a call,
he says, in his remote office in the West from someone who said they were from
the White House Office of Energy Permit Expediting, and they asked about this
specific permit that a major energy company was seeking, and he burst out
laughing. He said, `You've got to be kidding me. You're the White House task
force calling about a little old energy permit out here in the West? Don't
you have a war in Iraq to be worrying about?'

It turned out it was no joke, and he went on to say, `If you get a call from
the White House about a specific permit,' which he had never seen before in
his career and he had been with the BLM since the Carter administration, he
said, `you sit up and pay attention.' And the bottom line, of course, was that
we saw more--a more than threefold increase in the number of permits that were
granted for oil and gas drilling in western states just during the first term
of the Bush administration alone.

GROSS: You've investigated how Republicans have used new styles of
campaigning, new approaches to computers and databanks and so on, to get into
office and once in office have found ways of appointing people who are on the
same page and rewarding them for it and kind of changing the whole nature of
Washington in some way by having almost like loyalty tests within lobbies and
so on. Do you think that this has led to something that's basically
undemocratic in the sense that all Republicans have won in Washington by
narrow margins, particularly like in the White House, that Democrats have been
kind of shut out of the dialogue?

Mr. WALLSTEN: Well, what these Republicans of today have realized is that
when you win an election, you win. That gives you--if you have control of
government, then you--they believe that you should use it to the fullest. Ken
Mehlman has told us that you can campaign in a way to win a landslide victory,
but that requires appealing to too many people, and this is a very closely
divided nation, and technology has changed the way people think about issues
so--people have access to so much information now, through the Internet and
other means, that people are going to--the country will be more closely
divided than it has been in the past, he believes. And that the only way to
actually push an ideological agenda, if you are a conservative and you want to
push a conservative agenda, the only way to do that is to get your--is to find
your voters and get them to the polls, and that if you have a more benign
campaign strategy that might win you 60 percent of the vote, you're going to
have to do that through a very kind of white bread strategy where you're going
to both govern and campaign in a bland way. They don't want to do that. They
want to push a certain agenda. They want to be transformational in the way
they change government because they believe that government is a part of this
machine, and so it's very important to them to find these voters and get them
to the polls, and if that means just winning 51 percent, that's OK with them.

Mr. HAMBURGER: Part of your question implies, it seems to me, that if you
win narrowly, you ought to reach other to the other side, govern from the
middle. This administration, the Bush administration, chose very deliberately
not to do that, didn't govern from the middle. They, in effect, rewarded
their conservative stalwarts who had been laboring in these think tanks and
other organizations literally for decades.

You could interpret that as anti-democratic, I suppose, Terry, but another way
to look at it, which is the way I think the Republicans look at it, is that
this is the nature of electoral politics.

Mr. WALLSTEN: Just to add to that, you asked about whether it's an
undemocratic system. We might argue that it's undemocratic if you capitalize
the word "democratic." The Democratic Party right now isn't as much of a
factor as they could be if they also kind of harnessed the same technology and
had the same resources and kind of built the same machine. So this is an area
that, you know, the Republican Party far surpasses the Democratic Party in the
tactics of politics, and that gives the Republican Party the ability to enact
its vision in government.

GROSS: Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten cover the White House for the LA
Times. Their new book is called "One-Party Country." They'll be back in the
second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten. They both cover the White House
for the LA Times. They've written a new book called "One-Party Country: The
Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century." The book analyzes how
Republicans have come to control every part of the federal government and how
they plan to maintain that control.

Now one of the things that you write about is something called the Wednesday
meeting--or is it the Wednesday morning meeting?

Mr. WALLSTEN: The Wednesday meeting.

Mr. HAMBURGER: The Wednesday meeting.

GROSS: Yeah, the Wednesday meeting. Yes. And this is a now-famous meeting
run by Grover Norquist, who, among the other things, is the founder of
Americans for Tax Reform, a group that basically believes `Taxes are bad,
period.' And I've heard a lot about this meeting. I can't say I've ever
completely understood like how it works or what its impact has been, so why
don't you describe what these meetings are and why they've been so important?

Mr. HAMBURGER: We were able, in the course of writing the book, we did get
access to about a dozen of the Wednesday meetings that Grover Norquist runs.
Every Wednesday morning, from his office on L Street, the office of Americans
for Tax Reform, the leaders of the conservative movement stream into a
conference room. It's not just the leaders of organizations like the American
Conservative Union or Phyllis Schlafly and the--and her organization, the
Heritage Foundation, or other sort of well-known organizations in Washington.
It's also frumpy conser--job seekers just out of college looking for jobs in
Washington. It's activists for causes that run the full range of conservative
interests from those who are campaigning for a stronger defense and even a
bigger defense budget to those who seek the elimination, for example, of
federal funding for schools.

These groups with varied interests come together, and I might add--it's
important to add--that in addition to those conservative ideological groups
who are in attendance, they also have K Street, the corporate community,
represented as well. And these are not just lobbyists--the lobbyists are not
household names but the companies they represent--Verizon, Microsoft, major
defense contractors--are very well-known.

These groups--these folks come together--usually it's 100--between 100 and 200
people, sometimes more than that--to discuss conservative issues, to discuss
the news of the day and a conservative response to them. The meetings start
usually with Grover Norquist, who is this diminutive, kind of rumpled,
round-faced--round, red-faced guy, who comes in and introduces the session.
And, usually, there are--there's often a prominent guest who's there, a
Cabinet member, sometimes a couple of Cabinet members, who will speak to a
current issue. One time--Karl Rove attends a couple of times a year. Every
week someone from Karl Rove's office is in attendance and usually gives a
report from the White House on what's coming up that week, which remarkable,
is the range of interests that are represented in the room.

This is the conservative coalition. And in some ways, being in this room
tells you why conservatives have succeeded so well.

GROSS: What does it tell you?

Mr. HAMBURGER: It shows you how groups with seemingly diverse interests are
able to come together and unite in common political cause. Let me give you
one example. Norquist described an effort in the 1990s to fight fuel
efficiency standards. He was inspired to do this, he says, by his own
libertarian instincts. He doesn't like government regulation. Of course, he
had support from some of his benefactors, the automobile industry, who didn't
want new fuel efficiency standards imposed on cars. And he says that he
brought Phyllis Schlafly of the conservative Eagle Forum along with him by
explaining that if the federal government were to succeed in forcing Americans
into tinier, fuel efficient cars, it would, in effect, be a form of de facto
family planning. And he says Phyllis responded, `You're right and I hate
those cars.' Suddenly, Norquist had one of his now rather famous alliances.
Not only was it the automobile industry, conservative libertarians who oppose
regulation, but also the Eagle Forum, the moral majority, backing an effort to
halt fuel efficiency standards.

Mr. WALLSTEN: Can I offer another scene that we witnessed in a Wednesday
meeting that also, I think, said a lot about the power of the conservative
movement. Shortly after President Bush nominated Harriet Miers to be Supreme
Court justice, the conservative movement was outraged. This is a room full of
conservative intellectuals and opinion leaders who really viewed the Supreme
Court as the crown jewel of what they were after in this era of Republican
dominance. And that was the ability to appoint Supreme Court justices who
would be true conservatives. Harriet Miers suddenly was somebody who was not
a part of their movement. She was not necessarily a true conservative. They
really didn't know what she was other than a close friend of President Bush.

And this is where a rebellion happened. And the White House actually sent Ed
Gillespie, who was a former chairman of the Republican Party and who had
been--they had temporarily appointed to help shepherd Harriet Miers'
nomination. And he really took it on the chin in that meeting, and people
really yelled at him. And it was an indication to us that this nomination was
not going to survive because the movement was so powerful, and the White House
really relies on them.

And one of the purposes of this Wednesday meeting is so that the White House
can rely on these people to go out and spread the message. They have access
to conservative talk radio, to the media, to their think tanks, to academic
institutions, to their organizations that have mailing lists and e-mail lists
of thousands and thousands of people. The White House was going to rely on
this movement to help guide Harriet Miers' nomination, and yet they really
objected to it. And that was really an early indication that her nomination
was going to go nowhere. And, of course, she was with--her nomination
was--she withdrew her nomination, and the movement was quite pleased that they
ultimately did win conservatives on the court.

GROSS: So, one of the functions of these Wednesday meetings are to basically
set the agenda, come up with a talking point and get people from diverse
groups on the same page?

Mr. WALLSTEN: Yes. And it's one area, we believe, of stark contrast to the
liberal movement which has begun their own efforts to try to corral the
different interests of the Democratic Party and the liberal movement in a
similar meeting. But, really, are very far from having this kind of success
because, you know, the environmentalists don't always get along with the labor
unions, and there's always--you know, the gay rights movement wants one thing
but other people don't--other liberals don't want their agenda to be the
overarching agenda. You know, whereas, in Grover's Wednesday meeting, it's
a--you get a sense for how people are able to put tactics and the kind of
broader vision of a conservative ruling majority over their kind of perhaps
more parochial interests. And there have been liberals who have gone to that
meeting and who speak admiringly of its impact, including Donna Brazile and
the man whose presidential campaign she managed, Al Gore, who actually went to
one meeting and lingered for quite a while.

GROSS: My guests are LA Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten,
authors of the new book "One Party Country."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Tom Hamburger and Peter
Wallsten. They both cover the White House for the LA Times. And they've
written a new book called "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for
Dominance in the 21st Century."

Just curious. Having written this book about how successful the Republican
Party has been in moving the country, in moving the government to the right,
you hear a lot of conservatives complaining about how liberal the media is.
And, you know, on--like Bill O'Reilly, for example, has often pointed to your
paper, the LA Times, as being a perfect example of the liberal bias of the
media. So, how do you react to that?

Mr. HAMBURGER: Well, we're accustomed to the complaints of liberal bias.
And, in fact, one of the things we'd argue--we don't get into it in great
depth in the book, but it's one of the things that we believe--is that the
targeting of the mainstream, even establishment media, if you will, in which I
think the LA Times is a part and so is The New York Times and so are most mass
circulation daily newspapers, as having a liberal bias, has been one of the
most successful campaigns that's been an organized campaign of the
conservative right. And it's made editors and reporters cautious about what
they say. Not only that, it's led to a transformation in the nature of the
media such that today, at least, I make the argument that it's conservative
commentators that shows like Bill O'Reilly that actually dominate the
airwaves. The relative--I mean, how many prominent Democratic talk-show hosts
can we name. There just aren't that many. It's Republicans who seem to
dominate. And it's Fox News which broadcasts under the moniker "fair and
balanced" that is leading the ratings.

GROSS: So, do you think that--are you saying that you think papers like the
LA Times are intimidated by the charges that the press is liberal and that
they've been changing policy as a result, because you said this has been a
very successful campaign.

Mr. WALLSTEN: Well, it's been successful in terms of the way that they
manage to vilify the media as liberal. But, no, I don't, I wouldn't argue
that the LA Times or The New York Times to the extent that I see it from the
outside intimidated. There has been a lot of investigative--good, solid
investigative work done on this administration, as there have been on other
Democratic administrations. So, in that sense, we don't see it at the LA
Times, anyway, that there has been any intimidation. But it does change, it
affects the way that we talk about stories in the newsroom.

We--you know, we're covering the conservative movement, and we know that we're
open to scrutiny. But, you know, the scrutiny comes from both sides. And I
think I probably speak for both of us when I say that I get hate mail from
both sides. And the liberal bloggers are just as convinced that we're lap
dogs to the Republicans as the Republicans are convinced that we're
representatives of the liberal media. So, perhaps that means we're doing
something right if we're taking it from both sides.

Mr. HAMBURGER: I have a slightly different view, which is that in the period
over the longer term, over the period, particularly post 9/11, I think that
there was a noticeable diminution in the aggressiveness of the press corps
nationally. I think that there has been a realization on the part of editors
in a sensitivity to the complaint of liberal bias and a more aggressive
effort, not to suppress stories but to provide more balance both on editorial
pages and to be sure that all points of view are represented. That's not
necessarily a bad thing. But I do think it's a consequence of this pressure.
I think also that's starting to change and you're seeing the press corps in
the last couple of years finding its footing again and return to a more
activist watchdog role.

GROSS: Peter, I have a question for you. And this is Peter Wallsten here.
It was you who was wearing sunglasses at a press conference with the
president, and you asked a question, and the president said, `Are you going to
ask that question with shades on?' And what did you say?

Mr. WALLSTEN: Well, I offered to take my sunglasses off. And he said, `No,
that's OK, you can leave them on.' Of course, this was in the Rose Garden. It
was outside, and he said, `No, I like the shades look.' So, I left them on and
I asked my question. But, he said, he did point out that it wasn't sunny, at
least to the viewers on TV. And I told him that it depends on your
perspective.

GROSS: And tell us why you were wearing the sunglasses?

Mr. WALLSTEN: I have an eye condition, a retinal condition, that's called
Stargardt's disease. It's a form of macular degeneration which has taken away
most of my central vision, but in that context, I was wearing sunglasses
because, even though it was a cloudy day, I'm very sensitive to glare. And
there was a lot of glare in the Rose Garden. So we were, you know, when
you're sitting outside for a couple of hours that can get to be pretty
painful. So I keep my sunglasses on outside.

GROSS: So, the president calls you on your cell phone to apologize. Has this
changed your relationship in any way? I don't know if you had any kind of
direct contact with the president outside of attending press conferences,
but...

Mr. WALLSTEN: I don't think so. And I really hope it hasn't. You know, it
didn't bother me at the time. It bothered other people. I guess I didn't
realize it was such a big deal until I got back to my office from the press
conference and started reading what was going on on the Internet, the
discussion online. You know, a lot of my friends around town know about my
condition, but I don't advertise it. And I certainly never told the White
House or certainly not the president. It's just not how I want to be known or
identified. So, it just didn't bother me. And I thought it was funny. He,
you know, that same day, he made fun of someone else's name. He made fun of
another reporter for what he was wearing.

I mean, that's just, I think it's a tactic to try to disarm reporters and
knock them off stride and maybe get them to ask an easier question. He
certainly didn't know it. He didn't mean it personally. And I--you know, I
was almost embarrassed when he called me to apologize. I just didn't want it
to get to that level.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank
you.

Mr. WALLSTEN: Thank you very much.

Mr. HAMBURGER: Thank you.

GROSS: Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten cover the White House for the LA
Times. Their new book is called "One Party Country."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Thomas Ricks of The Washington Post talks about
possibility of US involvement in ongoing conflict between Israel
and Hezbollah in Lebanon
TERRY GROSS, host:

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Ricks, The Washington Post senior
Pentagon correspondent, has a new book called "Fiasco: The American Military
Misadventure in Iraq." We'll talk about the book tomorrow on FRESH AIR.
Earlier today, I asked him what he's hearing from his sources about the
American response to the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Tom Ricks, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

I'm wondering if you think that it is any more likely that the US will have a
military strike against Iran? There's like three different reasons why the US
might be considering that, three reasons I'm aware of. One is the nuclear
option that Iran seems to be developing. The other is that Iran backs
Hezbollah. And the third is that General George Casey said that the Iranians
appear to be backing extremist Shia in Iraq by providing weapons, IED
technology and training. And, that in fact, they're doing some of that
training in Iran.

So, does it look like a military--a US military strike against Iran is
becoming more likely?

Mr. THOMAS RICKS: I don't think so. I think for the reasons you lay out
that the Bush administration is growing increasingly unhappy with Iran. The
problem is the more the United States talks about a military option, the more
it scares our allies, what we need in order to have a solid diplomatic front
in dealing with Iran. And so I think the United States has kind of backed off
talking about a military option for Iran. But it's the Middle East, and
anything can happen.

GROSS: Is this controversial within the administration? Are there people
taking sides within the administration or the military?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I think inside the military, there's a lot of unhappiness
with the idea of going after Iran militarily. Iran is a very big, very
powerful and relatively rich country in the Middle East. It would be a much
more difficult operation than even Iraq has been. And people talk about just
doing air strikes, but it's not clear what that would lead to. Air power
alone, generally, has not been an effective use of military force.

GROSS: Now, I read that there was an Israeli memo that was leaked of the
contingency plan for attacking Iran on its own if the US doesn't. What do you
know about that?

Mr. RICKS: There was talk just a few months ago. I actually read a US
military study of that option. It would be enormously difficult to carry out
without some sort of nod and a wink from the United States because in order to
get to Iran, you'd have to fly Israeli aircraft either across Iraq, where the
United States clearly would know they are there, or the hallway across Saudi
Arabia. And Saudi Arabia likely would not welcome that. And so I think it
would be very hard to do that for the Israelis without the Americans giving
them a green light. And so it almost would be like the United States doing
it. People in the Middle East would blame the United States for allowing it
to happen.

GROSS: What have you heard from your sources in the Pentagon about our
strategy, the US strategy, in the Middle East now in the war between Israel
and Hezbollah?

Mr. RICKS: What I'm hearing broadly from defense experts lately in the
military, retired military, strategy experts, is a real broad unhappiness with
the situation. These are guys who have spent 20 or 30 years deep in these
issues. And their general attitude seems to be, `I don't know about you but
I'm heading down to the basement and waiting for the storm to blow over.' But
I think that misses one basic aspect of the Bush administration's approach to
the Middle East. It was captured best by Paul Wolfowitz when he was at the
Pentagon. He said to me one day, `If you like 9/11, then keep up the policy
of containment, keep up the policy of stability.'

And this is where the Bush administration several years ago split with the
so-called "realpolitik" or the realist. It does not have the ambition of
having stability in the Middle East. In many ways, it is cited with
instability. It's `Roll the dice.' It said, `Let's change the dynamic, let's
change the politics in the Middle East.' This is captured in the phrase you
heard a lot a couple of years ago, `Let's drain the swamp.'

So we kind of rolled the dice in Iraq, and we're allowing the Israelis to roll
the dice right now against Hezbollah and Lebanon. And it's a very bumpy ride
for us. It's a much more dynamic situation than it used to be. But we have
allowed ourselves with the forces of radical change in the Middle East, and
it's going to be interesting to see the response from the radicals on the
other side.

GROSS: Well, you know, in your book about Iraq, "Fiasco," you describe the
Bush administration as brinksmen. Do you think they still are brinksmen after
all the problems they've run into in Iraq?

Mr. RICKS: I think they still have the brinkish impulse, if you will, but
are realizing that politically it's a lot harder to carry off now. Partly
because they enjoyed the benefit of the doubt after 9/11 and after a
successful invasion of Afghanistan. And they were saying, `The rules of war
have changed, this is going to be different.' Well, now the rules of war have
re-asserted themselves against the US presence in Iraq. And I think they have
got their nose bloodied a bit. And it's harder to bring along the Republican
Party, let alone the Democrats.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for The
Washington Post.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, The Washington Post senior Pentagon
correspondent. We're discussing what he's hearing from sources about the
American response to the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Now, I read that American officials don't expect the US to participate in an
international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon if there is one. Is that
because we're stretched so thin in Iraq? Or is that because of other reasons?

Mr. RICKS: I think it's for both. I think it's very easy for the United
States to say, `Great idea, fellas, but we're tapped out at the moment, we
don't have any troops available on the shelf for you.' I think the second
unspoken reason for the US not participating in a peacekeeping force in
Lebanon is because they don't think it's going to work. If it does get put
together, the force will be ineffective and unable to militarily confront
Hezbollah. And it will be attacked by Hezbollah. And it will be seen as an
occupation force no matter what the impulse is in putting it together. So, I
think they're saying, `Let's just take a pass on this. Let them try to put it
together, you know. The Turkish government might lead it or the French
military might lead it, but we'll applaud from the sidelines on this one.'

GROSS: In your book about the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, you write
that the US experience in Iraq may come to resemble Israel's painful
occupation of parts of southern Lebanon. And you were, there, referring to
Israel's 1982 invasion and its subsequent occupation. But I'm wondering if
you think that Israel has, in a way, taken a page out of the Iraq playbook and
its strategy in dealing with Hezbollah through an air campaign?

Mr. RICKS: That's a good question. What I don't understand about what's
going on now with Israel is I don't see how they can achieve militarily the
objective they've stated if they only use air power. They've said they want
to extirpate Hezbollah, to break it as a military power. And, ultimately, the
only way you can do that is by putting your young men and women on the ground
in the mud and having them slug it out. You cannot do this from the air. And
so I think what you're seeing now is a lot of light infantry movement in an
attempt to capture major Hezbollah leaders, to destroy their best fighting
forces, but not putting in a big armored thrust because they don't want to
just drive away Hezbollah, they want to destroy them. And I think you'll see
a couple of weeks of this sort of raid and sniping. And then maybe more
movement on the ground when they feel they've broken the major Hezbollah
units.

GROSS: What else do you see when you look in the near future in the
confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah?

Mr. RICKS: I see a lot of people who I really trust on strategic matters
wondering whether Israel knows what it is doing, what Israel really hopes to
achieve here. Their stated objective for breaking and destroying Hezbollah is
likely not going to happen. Even if they get all these 12,000 Katyushas fire
rockets which are fairly short-range rockets, it's already been proven that
Hezbollah has larger rockets available to it and simply can fire them from
farther back in Lebanon. So what do you do then? Invade northern Lebanon?
So it's not clear to me strategically how Israel could achieve the outcome it
has stated it wants to achieve through this operation.

GROSS: Do you have sources in the Pentagon who are worried about what the war
between Israel and Hezbollah will mean for the future of the United States and
its military?

Mr. RICKS: Well, in broad terms, yes. The real concern for the United
States in Iraq right now is will that war spread across Iraq's borders? And
some people think, effectively, it already has. That what you have with
Hezbollah is an attack by a proxy of Iran on Israel, a proxy of the United
States. So, effectively, they see this as simply another front in this same
confrontation. Other people disagree with that. But regionalization of
either war could be a terrible thing in the Middle East.

You may see--it's possible, I'm not saying it's going to happen--a broader
Middle East war. And once that happens, that has global consequences, most
immediately and selfishly, for us. It likely would send the price of oil
spiraling. And that would have economic repercussions for us and for every
other country in the world. You could see fighting break out in another
front.

One that worries me right now is the Turks are very unhappy with some of the
Kurds in northern Iraq and have basically threatened to invade northern Iraq
to go after some of the Kurdish elements there. So there's a possibility you
could see a couple more fronts open in the current fighting.

GROSS: Well, Tom Ricks, thank you for talking with us. We'll talk more
tomorrow about your new book on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And the
title of that book is "Fiasco," so that will give our listeners some idea of
the conversation we'll have tomorrow.

Tom Ricks, thank you very much.

Mr. RICKS: Thank you.

GROSS: Tom Ricks is The Washington Post senior Pentagon correspondent. And
as I said, tomorrow we'll talk with him about his book "Fiasco: The American
Military Adventure in Iraq."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a track from pianist Billy Taylor. Today is his 85th
birthday. This is his best known composition, "I Wish I Knew How It Would
Feel to Be Free."

(Soundbite of "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" by Billy Taylor)
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.

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