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'Vanity Fair' Writer: Is Washington Beyond Fixing?
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in this week for Terry Gross.
Washington political culture these days is gripped by bitter partisanship,
which is stoked by a media that thrives on instant analysis and round-the-clock
controversy. Add in the influence of roughly 90,000 lobbyists and their
campaign contributions, and you have an atmosphere that makes it hard for a
president to pursue his agenda.
In the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine, my guest, Todd Purdum, describes
a day at the White House as a way of examining the nature of the modern
presidency and the challenges President Obama faces.
Purdum is the national editor at Vanity Fair, where he writes lengthy
analytical pieces, including a widely read profile of Sarah Palin last year and
a controversial 2008 story about Bill Clinton. Purdum spent 23 years at the New
York Times, where he was a diplomatic and White House correspondent. His new
story is called "Washington, We Have a Problem."
Well, Todd Purdum, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start at the beginning. How does
President Obama start his day?
Mr. TODD PURDUM (National Editor, Vanity Fair): Well, he wakes up in the same
southwest-corner, second-floor bedroom of the White House that has been the
president's bedroom for most of the existence of the White House. It's the room
where Abraham Lincoln slept.
On this particular day, he was alone because Mrs. Obama was on her first solo
foreign trip, a visit to Mexico. He headed upstairs for some weights and cardio
in his personal gym on the third floor of the White House. Then he came back to
the second floor for a little bit of breakfast and saw his daughters off to
And like most presidents, he rides down in this wood-paneled elevator that is
the private first-family elevator, and he goes down to the ground floor of the
White House, where he walks through a corridor and through a funny little room
that's like a greenhouse called the Palm Room and then along the colonnade to
the Oval Office. And that's how he began his day. It's how he begins most days
if he's at home.
DAVIES: All right, so then he begins the task of being the president. And you
have this wonderful phrase. You say every day in the White House feels like a
week. One of the themes here, of course, is that the federal government has
become impossibly large and complex.
And you know that the president meets a little before 9:30 with his chief of
staff, Rahm Emanuel. What goes on in that meeting?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, Rahm explained to me that he has a sort of quick little
briefing of the president: three, four, five minutes, whatever it takes to sum
up what's on the agenda for the day. And of course, the gulf between three,
four, five minutes to sum up the entire world is pretty hilarious, but it's
only the first take of the day.
And then, you know, there's a series of other meetings that go on. And I think
Rahm's mission is to sort of, you know, focus on anything that may be coming up
that may be troublesome or, you know, something that might be worrisome.
I'm sure when Greece was having its financial crisis, there was ample news
about that. You know, if there's some particularly troublesome issue on the
Hill or some member of Congress is upset about something, I'm sure that that
probably comes into play.
And just generally, it's a kind of early warning system in which he talks
about, you know, what's going to be on the radar that day.
DAVIES: Okay, now what - if the chief of staff Rahm Emanuel meets the president
at, what, 9:25 with this, how long has he been up? What has he done before that
meeting to get ready for it?
Mr. PURDUM: Oh, Rahm's been up since shortly after five. He goes swimming
almost every morning. He exercises. Then he comes to the office probably around
seven or so. He has a senior staff meeting of his own. Then he has an expanded
staff meeting. Then he meets with the legislative team.
So he's already had two or three meetings of his own before he sees the
president. And this president gets to the office a little bit later than
President Bush did. His hours are a little bit different.
He works later at home, from the residence, well into the evening. But he gets
to the Oval Office more like the way President Reagan did.
DAVIES: Now, one of the things you write about in this piece is just how
incredibly large and complex the government is, and the chief of staff's job is
to sort of sift through what's important in given day.
You note that when Harry Truman was president, six people held the title of
administrative assistant to the president. That's expanded to how many today?
Mr. PURDUM: Oh, there are well more than 100 people that have some variation of
assistant to the president in their title, either assistant, special assistant,
deputy assistant. And, you know, they couldn't all have a meeting around the
president's desk the way they used to.
DAVIES: Right. So there is some process by which all of these inputs get sifted
up or down through some process, and then Rahm Emanuel decides what the
president needs to know that day.
Mr. PURDUM: Yes, I think, you know, it's fair to say that Rahm is really the
gatekeeper, and the whole chain of command flows through the chief of staff.
The president has many other avenues of information, and I'm sure there are
plenty of people, including Robert Gibbs, who have virtually unfettered access
to the president, who can come into the Oval Office anytime they need to see
him. But Rahm is the official point man for the channeling of information.
DAVIES: What are some of the issues that the president was dealing with on this
Wednesday that you write about?
Mr. PURDUM: Oh, gosh, you know, it was really â it was a typical day, but it
was a pretty busy day, in a sense. He was dealing with the aftermath of the
coal mine tragedy in West Virginia. There was already a vacancy on the Supreme
Court: Justice John Paul Stevens had retired, and he was ultimately in the
process of selecting Elena Kagan.
The Arizona immigration law was just about ready to pass the Senate in Arizona,
and ultimately, of course, the administration chose to file a lawsuit against
He was facing a shortage of disaster relief funds at the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, and that was just days before the oil rig exploded in the
Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, Attorney General Holder was up on the Hill
testifying to Congress about the plans to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other
The president had other routine business. He nominated a federal appeals court
judge, seven U.S. attorneys around the country, six federal marshals, and he
presented Garth Brooks with a special Grammys on the Hill Award for promoting
the intellectual property rights of artists.
DAVIES: Wow. Now, at 9:30 he gets a daily intelligence briefing. That's every
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah, the time varies, but he gets an intelligence briefing every
day. It's based in part on a binder that is already delivered to him in the
residence and that he's theoretically read by the time he gets to the office.
It's delivered â it's compiled and delivered overnight.
He meets with his national security team, and they run through the latest
overnight reports from our intelligence services all around the world, from
satellite intelligence, from human intelligence, from frankly the digest of the
world press that talks about, you know, what may be going on in various places.
And the people who've heard and seen these briefings say that there's really no
way to describe them. There's no way to describe the kind of numbing, sobering
feeling that you get from hearing just how many bad people are trying to do bad
The president began getting these in Chicago when he was â after he received
the Democratic nomination, and he's really received one virtually every morning
DAVIES: All right, there's a late-morning meeting on this Wednesday, in which
the leaders of Congress, the Republican and Democrat, come to talk about
financial reform. Give us your sense of the tone of the meeting and then what
happens afterwards when these congressional leaders go out to the driveway and
meet the assembled media?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, apparently, you know, it was a somewhat contentious meeting
because, you know, the thing was stalemated at that point, and there was some
discussion about whether the administration was really listening to Republican
That's been a perpetual complaint of Republicans is that President Obama
doesn't really take any of their ideas on board. I think the White House would
quarrel strongly with that.
But it was civil, by all accounts. It was in the Cabinet Room, and the leaders
of both houses and both parties were there. But then they went into the
driveway afterwards, and the Republican leaders, Mitch McConnell in the Senate
from Kentucky and John Boehner in the House, both gave very kind of negative
appraisals of the meeting and said that, you know, this bill was trying to
protect big banks and hurt small banks.
And they said a lot of things that really just were not factually true but were
good talking points, as their pollsters had advised them. And it's a kind of
kabuki ritual in which I don't think people are usually willing to be rude to
the president to his face.
It's hard in the White House and, you know, Aaron Sorkin, the creator of "The
West Wing," called the White House the greatest home-court advantage in the
modern world, and it's pretty hard to go into the president's office or the
president's, you know, house and be snotty with him. People don't seem to find
it so hard to go out in the driveway and be a little bit nasty behind his back,
and that's what happened that morning.
DAVIES: Right, and the president's no babe in the woods, and he and his
advisors, do they simply assume that after this meeting that these guys are
going to go out and deliver, you know, harsh soundbites, which really don't
reflect what was happening inside at all?
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah, I mean, I think that's part of the strange ritual of modern
media life in which, you know, the real work doesn't get done in public,
obviously. And that's also one of the interesting realities to ponder is, you
know, what we see, what the public sees, what the press sees, is really only
the tip of the iceberg. It's not all the whole story about what's really going
on, of course.
DAVIES: Right. On the other hand, it does both reflect and shape political
realities in Congress, and this is something that you write about. And of
course, I mean, harsh partisanship on Capitol Hill is not exactly a new topic.
But I'm â you know, you've been around Washington. You've reported for a long
time. Give us your perspective, some historical context on this. What's really
different about the modern Congress?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, several things...
Mr. PURDUM: That's a fair question, Dave. Several things are really strikingly
different. Fifty years ago or so, Congress met for six to nine months a year,
and when it was in session, it met, you know, mostly five days a week.
Most members brought their families to live in the Washington area, and their
kids went to school here and they knew each other, and they socialized with
each other on the weekends. And quite frequently, members drove home to their
districts together at the end of the session to save money in a carpool.
There were no â remember, pre-airline deregulation, there weren't such good
airfares. There was also no air conditioning. So people were, you know, people
were not holed up in their individual offices in the way they are now.
That really began to change, you know, in the '70s, and it was accelerated
through the '80s and '90s. And when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House
in 1995, he urged members to keep their families back in the district so they
wouldn't â and to go home every weekend if possible. That's a necessity for
campaigning and fundraising in some ways.
But it has the effect of meaning that members don't really know each other.
They don't - they haven't spoken to each other in kind of human ways. So,
again, it's a lot easier to be nasty and say nasty things about someone you
don't know than it is to say nasty things about someone you go to church with
or see in the supermarket or whose wife is friends with your wife or husband.
And that's something that's culturally quite different. A lot of younger
members now live in their offices and take showers in the House gym. They don't
rent even apartments here.
I talked to a friend of mine, who works for a senior member from a â a pretty
senior member from a Sunbelt state. He's been in Congress for eight years. And
my friend said that this member doesn't really know anybody except the fellow
Republicans in his home-state delegation and his neighbors in either side of
his office building. But that in terms of broad acquaintanceship with members
of the House, he doesn't really have any, and he's been there for eight years.
DAVIES: And people literally don't have apartments?
Mr. PURDUM: Some of the younger members, especially bachelors, you know, don't
have apartments. They sleep in their offices, which is, you know, an ancient
tradition dating back a long, long way. But I think it would be a pretty
DAVIES: So there's a loss of kind of mutual understanding and collegiality.
Mr. PURDUM: Yes, that's the human factor. And then at a structural way, there's
been a profound change in this way: It used to be that the Republicans were
divided among themselves between sort of conservative, Midwestern Republicans,
more moderate, liberal, New England Republicans. The Democrats were divided
between conservative Southerners and moderate, liberal Northerners from
So for either party to get anything done, cooperation with the other party was
a virtual necessity. That began to change a lot in the '60s after the civil
rights era when Reagan Republicans increasingly replaced Democrats in the South
and when Northeastern liberal Republicans essentially died out.
So now there's really no incentive for Republicans or Democrats to reach across
the aisle because the key to getting things passed is to hold their own caucus
together. And the real threat to most members is not a general election
challenge. Most of the seats are drawn to be safe for either Republicans or
Democrats, and it's a kind of an incumbent protection plan that state
legislatures are complicit in.
The challenge is, the risk is that you'll be challenged by somebody to the left
or the right, whether you're Democrat or Republican, on the fringes of your own
party. And we saw that happen with Senator Robert Bennett of Utah this year. He
was ousted in a Republican primary because he wasn't seen as pure enough on
some conservative issues. He had proposed, in conjunction with Ron Wydon of
Oregon, a market-based health care reform plan of his own. And he'd voted for
President Bush's Troubled Assets Relief Program, the Wall Street bailout. And
that was seen as heresy by some of his conservative colleagues, and he was
It's the kind of thing that, you know, a generation ago really would not have
DAVIES: Our guest is Todd Purdum. He is the national editor at Vanity Fair.
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Todd Purdum. He's a veteran
journalist and national editor at Vanity Fair. He has a piece about a day at
the White House and what it reveals about the nature of the modern presidency.
You make the point that some people say President Obama, when he was trying to
get health care reform enacted, should have been like Lyndon Johnson, you know,
the one who â the president who really understood the Senate, could bring
people in one at a time, cut deals, pressure them and get the votes he needed.
And you say that just couldn't happen today. Why?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, Rahm Emanuel told me that those kind of tactics wouldn't fly
today because, first of all, a lot of things were private deals, private
understandings that were done, you know, not in public.
And now, there'd be tremendous pressure to scrutinize them. And Rahm told me he
felt that if President Obama had tried tactics like that, not only would it
have caused controversy in the press, it might well have prompted a special
He joked about something that happened in the Clinton years, when he was in
charge of helping pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. He and some
other aides in the White House compiled a kind of joke binder for President
Clinton, showing all the inducements â bridges, battleships, highways, whatever
â that could be given to members if they voted for NAFTA. And they put it all
in a binder and called it 1-800-NAFTA Because You Hafta.
And President Clinton roared with laughter when he saw it, but he ordered it to
be destroyed because he was afraid it would fall into unfriendly hands and
generate negative publicity.
DAVIES: So there can be no secrets, and any secret will be used against you to
Mr. PURDUM: I mean, isn't that the kind of lesson of the modern age? I mean, in
this age of email and the sort of digital age, you know, you shouldn't say or
do anything that you wouldn't be prepared to see on television or hear on the
DAVIES: It's interesting, you know, you talk in this piece about a day in the
life of the president. You also take note of the Federal Register. Explain what
it is and why you talk about it here.
Mr. PURDUM: Well, it's a daily publication that basically lists in a sort of
comprehensive soup-to-nuts way all the, or almost all the, pending government
regulations, agency rulemaking on topics from the importation of Chinese honey
to railroad safety standards and on and on and on.
And it's a good way to look at just how multifarious the activities of the
government have become and into how many nooks and crannies of daily life the
There's hardly any business in the country that isn't somehow affected by
government rules, laws or regulations. And there's hardly any business in the
country that doesn't want to affect those same rules and regulations. So that's
why we have lobbyists. And last year, lobbyists spent a record $3.5 billion
trying to influence the government.
DAVIES: Right. You said there are 90,000 people lobbying the federal
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah, by the time you count them all, they're something close to
that. There aren't that many registered lobbyists, but that's a kind of trick
question because in order to register as a lobbyist, you have to spend at least
20 percent of your time doing â engaged in lobbying activity. And many people
who do lobbying deliberately keep the threshold just below that so they don't
have to register.
There are all kinds of people who influence the debate who wouldn't show up in
a registry of official lobbyists.
DAVIES: So is Congress simply overmatched by the sheer number of people, the
amount of money, the research that the lobbyists are pouring into Washington?
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah, I mean, it really is a huge mismatch. The entity that spent
the most on lobbying last year, which was the Chamber of Commerce, spent $144
Well, that's more than the entire combined payroll of Congress, and nobody's
very happy with it, including the lobbyists, I think, who don't, you know,
who'd rather not â I mean, I think a lot of these groups who want action would
rather not have to pay so dearly for it, and they would rather not have to go
to two or three or four fundraisers every week for some different member of
And certainly the members of Congress hate having to dial for dollars and go
and, you know, in front of trade groups that they have business with to raise
DAVIES: In the afternoon, you say there's this â what you call one of the most
perverse rituals of the modern presidency. That's the press briefing. Why is it
Mr. PURDUM: Well, if what the congressional leaders do is Kabuki theater, what
the press do is really â it's really comic theater. It's opera buffa, I guess.
But, you know, I used to cover the White House 15 years ago for the New York
Times, and I went to the briefing every day, and I confess that I thought it
was kind of silly then.
But when I go to it now, it just seems so impossible to have a real discussion
about anything because there's just so much posturing going on, on the part of
both â it must be said â on the part of both the Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
and the press.
But it's a terrible vehicle for the real exchange of information. And the
television correspondents all each ask two to three questions each. The
questions don't move beyond the first or second row of the briefing room, which
is why everyone fights so hard to get in those first two rows, why there was
such a fight to get the vacant seat left by the retirement of Helen Thomas,
which ultimately went to FOX News.
And it's a kind of â I think really the only thing I can say it's just a kind
of profoundly silly exercise, but there seems no way to stop it. It's so
ingrained, and it's so traditional that there'd be hell to pay for any
administration who tried to stop it.
DAVIES: Why is this silly? I mean, this â the president has important policy
initiatives that he needs explained. You have a press secretary who understands
them. You have a press that wants answers. I mean, surely it's their chance to
get official, on-the-record comment on some really important stuff. Why has it
gotten so silly?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, I think that you've put it very well. That certainly is a
chance to do that, if that's what people chose to use it for. I think too
often, the questions are about minor points of controversy that loom large for
four, five or six hours and are going to be overtaken by the next day's events.
One of the examples that I cite and that struck me was when the president
unveiled his first budget after taking office in 2009, this is a three-point-
whatever-trillion-dollar budget, a pretty important event, the first question
from the biggest news organization, the Associated Press, was about a line in
the president's speech in which he'd said there are times when people should
repair their foundations and times when they can remodel their house.
And this correspondent wanted to know if that was an appropriate metaphor,
considering that the Obamas were even then redecorating the family quarters of
the White House to accommodate their girls. It turns out, of course, that they
paid for this entirely out of their own pocket. They didn't use the money set
aside by Congress for that purpose.
And I could see asking a question like that well down into a discussion, you
know, maybe the 25th or the 30th question. But that it was the first question
from the biggest news organization struck me as a kind of metaphor for what's
wrong with these exchanges. It was an attempt by the reporter to score a sort
of rhetorical debating point instead of a real exploration of what was going
DAVIES: Todd Purdum is national editor at Vanity Fair. He'll be back in the
second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with Todd Purdum, national editor at Vanity Fair about his story
in the magazine's current issue. It describes a day at the White House and the
challenges of the modern presidency. It's called "Washington, We Have a
Problem." Purdum writes about the sprawling size of the government,
partisanship in Congress, the influence of lobbyists and the demands of a media
that seem obsessed with controversy and instant analysis.
It seems that there is this sense that one is to be judged by their ability to
handle a problem immediately. I mean we take immediate polls on whether the
president, four days after the BP spill is doing a good job.
Mr. PURDUM: That's true. I mean there's just a very highly developed lack of
patience in the public now. And I don't know whether this is a corollary of the
instantaneous nature of our age, of the instant gratification society of, you
know, too much screen time for everybody, you know, the BlackBerrization(ph) of
life. But it is quite true that most big things take time to solve and we don't
seem to be willing to give a president or anybody that time. We're constantly
taking the measure of things without waiting for, you know, events.
Events - the world is not actually spinning any faster on its axis than it ever
has but we're spinning faster all the time. And so, you know, we want - we're
always rushing the dawn, you know? We're always so how will this play tomorrow
or next Tuesday? And we just have to wait and see sometimes.
DAVIES: There's this wonderful metaphor you have where, we can't let the
carrots grow. We have to pull them out of the soil every so often just to see
how they're doing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PURDUM: Exactly. And I think, you know, that does sum up sort of the
inherent impatience that seems to be working here. Obama makes fun of this all
the time, as he did at the White House Correspondent's Association dinner this
spring, when he had a PowerPoint presentation with some slides of what Politico
might have made of say President Lincoln in the Civil War. There was a headline
something like: Saves the Union, But Can He Save the House Majority? And, you
know, it's funny but it's also kind of sad because there is a way in which I
think so many of our past presidents, including many of the greatest ones,
could not have done what they did â at least not as easily â if they were
operating in this media environment.
DAVIES: Yeah. You say Obama faces the most hyperkinetic, souped-up, tricked-
out, trivialized and combative media environment any president has ever
experienced. How are they handling it? How do you think Robert Gibbs and
company are managing this?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, at one level the Obama administration is handling it with
complete hostility and even, you know, sort of bordering on contempt for the
press that they I don't think they very good relations with the press. They
don't help the press very much by and large. The press complains about lack of
access, lack of regular news conferences, lack of access for professional news
photographers and the White House often puts out its own very good photographs
by the official White House photographer Pete Souza, which is one of the
reasons news organizations use them because they are good photographs. But I
think they feel quite frustrated.
On the other hand, it's easy to see why the president would want to pick his
shots and talk selectively to the press because, you know, as competent and as
capable as he is, you could argue that the one time he really got in trouble
through his own words, was in that news conference last summer where he talked
about Skip Gates and that led to this controversy over, you know, the whole
handling of that incident in Cambridge and it led to a kind of racially-charged
discussion about the president and was he favoring African-Americans over law
enforcement and so on and so forth. And that was the last formal news
conference he held for a very, very long time. He's had only one other since, I
DAVIES: Right. And so there are good reasons for the president to want to
manage its media relations. The more they are managed, the more resentful the
media become and more determined to get a gotcha story.
Mr. PURDUM: Exactly.
Mr. PURDUM: Exactly. And there's a sense of, you know, a really corrosive lack
of trust I think.
DAVIES: You say here: The sheer growth of the federal government, the paralysis
of Congress, the systematic corruption brought on by lobbying, the
trivialization of the news by the media, the willful disregard for facts and
truth, these forces have made today's Washington a depressing and dysfunctional
This is I guess sort of in some respects a summary of what you're seeing as you
look at the presidency. How is Obama doing in trying to manage that environment
and get something done?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, obviously he has to play in it and he has to deal with the
world as it is, and they're not pie-eyed over at the White House. They don't
think they can change reality. But to a remarkable degree I think the president
has tried to rise above that, to not get into every little tiff, not take the
bait, not engage in every fight just because someone else wants a fight, and
instead to keep his eye on the long game. And, you know, in a way that in some
ways he doesn't get credit for, he's been remarkably consistent in doing what
he said he was going to do when he took office.
He's pursued education reform. He's finally passed Wall Street regulatory
reform. He got the health care bill passed. He passed the stimulus. It wasn't
popular but I think almost everybody, you know, every reasonable economist
agrees that at a minimum, it saved jobs, probably created some jobs and
certainly staved off an even worse economic situation than we might otherwise
have faced. So, you know, I think he is content. I mean he radiates a kind of
satisfaction frankly, with what he's done. And the question is whether he can
sell that to the American public and people will agree that he's accomplished
what he said that he wants to accomplish.
His problem is that he's operating at a time when there's just no trust in
institutions. There's no trust for the press, particularly. There's no trust
for government. And President Obama has, you know, brought the government to
bear on big problems like health insurance and financial regulatory reform and
he's, you know, he's put himself and his administration behind the idea of an
activist, engaged government at a time when people don't particularly trust
government. So that's a hard sell for him.
DAVIES: How does President Obama end his day?
Mr. PURDUM: He ends it â he leaves the office some time usually around 6 to
6:30 with a brief session with Rahm Emanuel, who sums up the day. Then he goes
and has a kind of sacrosanct time. He has dinner with his family and his kids
if he's in town or if they're in town. And after dinner, about 8 or 8:30, his
aides know that they can count on him to begin emailing them or calling them
with questions. He works in the second floor of the White House in a room
called the Treaty Room, which is kind of the president's informal office. He's
apt to stay up till midnight or after reading reports, documents, going over
speech drafts, which he does in this kind of fine little architect's
letterings, printing that he uses, it's very precise. And he's a bit of a night
owl. So he ends his day some time usually after midnight with a lap full of
work at home.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Todd Purdum. He's the national editor at Vanity
Fair. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Todd Purdum. He's a
veteran journalist and is national editor at Vanity Fair. He has a piece about
a day at the White House and what it reveals about the nature of the modern
Probably your most controversial piece at Vanity Fair was the one you wrote in
2008 about former President Clinton.
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah.
DAVIES: That was called "The Comeback Id." And there was lots of serious stuff
in here about his, you know, not disclosing donors to his presidential library
and some of his conduct on the campaign trial in 2008. But it got a lot of
attention because of its dealing with the concern of some staff members and
some suggestions that he might have been running with a fast crowd or had
improper relationships with women.
Any regrets about that piece?
Mr. PURDUM: I think if I have a regret it's that I didn't understand fully how
the piece would be received. The piece was very carefully edited. It was very
carefully reviewed by legal experts and I was persuaded after a long series of
conversations with my editors that the piece would be regarded as the mildest
possible statement of the obvious and would be seen as a story about sort of
judgment and decorum and discretion. And instead, I suppose in a testament to,
you know, maybe some flaws in the story as well as the world we live in, it was
seen as a story about sex. And that wasn't the intention at all. So I have some
regrets that I was perhaps naive in thinking about how it would be received.
The thing that I am proud of though, is that at the end of the day nothing in
that story was ever challenged in any meaningful way, no fact in it was ever
challenged by the Clinton people. And the other thing that happened is that
when President Obama nominated Hillary Clinton to be secretary of State,
exactly the kinds of vetting processes that I had in some sense predicted would
have to happen if Secretary Clinton had herself been the president did happen.
President Clinton agreed to disclose the donors to his foundation going
forward. He agreed to not do certain overseas activities involving raising
money and things like that that he'd been doing.
So, what I was really trying to raise in that story were a whole series of
issues that might come to the fore if Secretary Clinton had in fact been the
president. And, in fact, the whole story was conceived on the assumption that
she would probably be the Democratic nominee and President Clinton's business
dealings and other things would be of interest to the public. So I guess I
regret very much the way it was perceived. And I regret not having been a
little bit more realistic about myself, about how it would be perceived.
DAVIES: Right. Well, I want to talk just a little bit about that issue and the
sourcing here. You do say in the story that there's no proof of any post-
presidential sexual indiscretions on Clinton's part. But then there's a section
here where you quote four people speculating or expressing concerns about the
crowd he's running with or whether there might be women.
You have one quote from what you describe as a former aide to Clinton who is
still in occasional affectionate touch with him, second quote from another
former aide trusted by Clinton for his good judgment, a third quote from what
you describe as a long-time Clinton-watcher who has ties to the former
president since his first campaign for governor, and then a fourth quote from
what's described as yet another long-serving Clinton aide. I mean that's four
quotes raising questions about someone's judgment and activities, nobody
identified. Is that fair?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, you know, it's certainly a fair question for you to ask. One
of my friends, a former Clinton administration official, told me when the story
came out that this friend had asked a colleague, do you think the story is
unfair? And the answer was, well, it would be if it weren't true and well-
sourced. So I guess what I have to count on and in some ways the publication of
the story showed me that it isn't enough, is I have to count on my own and
reputation and I have to count on the fact that my colleagues in Washington who
know me, my colleagues in journalism who know me, my sources over the years,
you know, in politics, know me to be reliable. So in some sense, I'm putting my
credibility on the line by granting these people anonymity, I'll give you that.
And, you know, I wouldn't have done it if I didn't trust them and if I didn't
think they were telling me the truth and I wouldn't have presumed on the
reader's good faith if I didn't have faith in my own reporting. But I'll grant
you that in this day and age that's probably a slender reed to hang on and
people are welcomed to draw their own conclusions.
But, you know, what I was really trying to get at in this piece among other
things, was the fact that these were not the president's enemies. These were
not Republicans. These were not research opposition people. These were the
president's own former and current aides who were concerned that his behavior
left him open to, you know, left him open to criticism in a way that wasn't
helpful to his cause or to Hillary Clinton's cause.
And in a strange way that I only came to see later, they were conducting
through me a kind of effort to influence him, I think, by saying, you know,
some of them had tried to raise these issues with him and were rebuffed. And it
was a kind of a strange bank shot of an intervention or something in which that
they were doing it indirectly through me. But I'll tell you, it was by far the
most painful thing that ever happened to me professionally, the reaction to
that piece, and I was very greatly pained that people, you know, that people â
some people found the piece unfair because that had not been my intention.
DAVIES: Did it change the way you practice journalism at all?
Mr. PURDUM: I think it certainly has made me much more conscious that good
intentions aren't always enough and that you have to be very well aware of how
what you write, what might be seen by others, and that, you know, in this day
and age trust me is not a strategy. It's not a workable strategy. It might once
have been, but I don't think it's enough these days.
DAVIES: I should note that you're married to Dee Dee Myers who, you know,
worked for President Clinton in his campaign and during his first term. Did
that affect this in any way?
Mr. PURDUM: It didn't affect it in the sense that Dee Dee played no role in the
story. She didn't â she wasn't a source for the story. She didn't help me with
the story. She really didn't read it until it was about ready to be published.
But it played a part in the sense the way some people reacted to it. I think
frankly, some people thought that the fact that I was married to Dee Dee must
somehow give the story added credibility because I must somehow have some
inside knowledge, that wasn't really the case. Other people â some Clinton
people - seem to feel that I should never have written the story at all, given
Dee Dee's past and very cordial relationship ongoing â it's not a deep ongoing
relationship but she sees the president from time to time and he's fond of her
as he's always been and she's fond of him. So I think it was a non-issue in
terms of the substance of the reporting but I'll grant you that it became part
of a perceptual issue in people's eyes.
DAVIES: Did you ever talk to Bill Clinton about the piece?
Mr. PURDUM: No, I have never talked to him about the piece. I have seen him one
time since the piece appeared. I saw him this spring at the Gridiron Dinner and
I had a very pleasant conversation with him afterwards, shook his hand and said
it was nice to see him and it was quite civilized. I've heard through reliable
intermediaries that he felt very bad about his own reaction to the piece, when
you'll remember that blogger caught him on a rope line in South Dakota and he
called me some unpleasant names.
He - I know for a fact that he told someone that he didn't regret very many
things he'd done during the 2008 campaign but that he very seriously regretted
that and felt bad about what he'd said about me. And that he did not like the
story, did not like the anonymous sources, did not think that was particularly
fair but did, you know, regretted that he'd kind of gone over the top
rhetorically in name calling.
DAVIES: Well, Todd Purdum, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. PURDUM: Thanks for having me, Dave.
DAVIES: Todd Purdum is national editor of Vanity Fair. His piece in the current
issue is called "Washington, We Have a Problem."
Coming up, David Bianculli says Max Headroom is back on DVD and he likes it.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'80s Nostalgia? M-M-Max Headroom Is Now On DVD
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Today, Shout! Factory and Warner Brothers Entertainment team up to present the
first home video release in any form of an influential TV series and pop
culture phenomenon from the 1980s, "Max Headroom."
Our TV critic David Bianculli is very happy to see it again.
DAVID BIANCULLI: People who saw "Max Headroom" back in the '80s should have no
problem remembering him instantly â and not necessarily from the ABC TV series,
which shone briefly and brightly in 1987 and 1988. Max, a supposedly computer-
generated TV host played by Matt Frewer, was a media sensation for a while. He
hosted a music-video show, starred in ads for New Coke - okay, so those didn't
go well - and even appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine.
But to those too young to have experienced Max firsthand, how do you describe
him, much less explain him? Well, let's try. Imagine a background of thin,
brightly lit neon tubes, rotating and pulsating in various geometric patterns.
Now, in front of that background, place a talking head - no hands, no body,
just a head, a head that looks manufactured, like a plastic dummy, but also is
eerily human. That's Max Headroom â with a stutter, both aural and visual,
that's like a record needle stuck in a groove.
But before I have to explain what a record is and a needle, let's just listen
to Max. Here he is in the premiere episode of "Max Headroom," being introduced
to the network executives who are about to make him a star. He's introduced by
the network head played by Charles Rocket.
(Soundbite of ABC series, "Max Headroom")
Mr. CHARLES ROCKET (Actor): (as Grossberg) This will in fact, revolutionize
television. This network has the world's first completely programmable
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. ROCKET: (as Grossberg) Bryce, would you please introduce us to Max
Mr. MATTHEW FREWER (Actor): (as Max Headroom) What kind of sh-sh-show is this
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROCKET: (as Grossberg) This is not a show, Max. This is the executive board
of Network 23.
Mr. FREWER: (as Max Headroom) Ah, ah, ah, exec, exec, e-e-exec. You mean you're
the people who execute audiences.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: There are only 14 episodes of ABC's "Max Headroom" series and
they're all here. The show is set, as it proclaims at the start of each hour,
20 minutes into the future, but it's a very dark, cynical, "Blade Runner" type
of future. The biggest media giant in the world is Network 23, a global
operation â and one of its biggest stars is Edison Carter, a hard-hitting TV
news reporter in the "60 Minutes" tradition.
Played by Matt Frewer, who also plays Max, Edison is a one-man bureau, carrying
his own camera and reporting live by satellite â one of many visions of our
future this series got right. One detail they got wrong, though, was the size
of his camera: It's huge.
But so are some of the ideas this series floats, very sneakily, into a
broadcast television program. Like Max Headroom the character, who is an
irrepressible talking head, "Max Headroom" the series dares to bite the hand
that feeds it. Plots have to do with Network 23, or other broadcast operations,
trying to increase their audience share and maximize their advertising revenue
through all sorts of nefarious means, like subliminal ads called blipverts, for
example, that run too quickly to fast-forward through.
In this future, TV is everything. Here's a live report that Edison Carter
presents from the hollowed-out wreck of a former movie theater. His news
director back in the Network 23 control room counts down the moments to air and
comments on the piece as it runs live. You might recognize that director's
voice. He's wonderfully played by Jeffrey Tambor before he co-starred on "The
Larry Sanders Show" and "Arrested Development."
(Soundbite of ABC series, "Max Headroom")
Mr. JEFFREY TAMBOR (Actor): (as Murray) Five, four, three, two, one.
Mr. FREWER: (as Edison Carter) Edison Carter, live and direct. I want to show
you something rare. This was a dream palace. Years ago, people came here for
their pictures to share dreams and adventures together. These were the days
when people sat in groups and watched a single movie. Sometimes hundreds of
people at one time. It must have been a weird experience. People watching the
same screen and the same program.
(Soundbite of sighing)
Mr. TAMBOR: (as Murray) I can't use more than 30 seconds. Nostalgia isn't what
it used to be.
Mr. FREWER: (as Edison Carter) How about you? Do you know what a movie was?
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) My mom told me about it once.
Didn't you have to pay for it or something?
Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as character) Mmm-mmm. It was about standing in
Mr. FREWER: (as Edison Carter) And does anybody else know? How about you?
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) We were a shared experience, Mr.
Carter. People gathered together in communal escapism to share adventure,
excitement, laughter, romance. They shared these vicarious emotions together,
and that was before they choked the talents out of this business and gave us
game shows, and chat shows and news.
Mr. TAMBOR: (as Murray) Great. That should stir it upstairs. Stay with it.
Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Before the world became ratings and people
became demographics and everything became the product.
Mr. TAMBOR: (as Murray) Yeah, fighting talk.
BIANCULLI: This is smart stuff and way ahead of its time, as a good sci-fi
series should be. To me, the most brilliant aspect of all is the origin of the
title character. Edison Carter, being chased by bad guys while covering a
story, is trying to escape by motorcycle from an underground parking garage.
Instead, he goes airborne, and nearly dies when he crashes into an exit
barrier. The last thing he sees is the warning on the barrier: Max Headroom, an
abbreviation for Maximum Headroom â 2.5 meters.
When the computer genius back at Network 23 downloads Edison's brain into a
computer file, the result is a slightly jumbled visual talking head, whose
first words â Edison's last thoughts â become his name: Max Headroom. And, as
one of the show's creators explains on a separate disc of special features, it
was a brilliant case of countrywide free advertising. At the time, every
parking garage in England featured the same Max Headroom sign.
But with a whole disc reserved for extras â including a segment in which Tambor
and other co-stars, but not Matt Frewer, reunite and reminisce â too much is
missing. When MTV burst onto cable in 1981, everyone wanted a piece of that
Britain's upstart Channel 4 wanted a music video outlet of its own and went to
producers George Stone, Annabel Jankel and others, who came up with the concept
of a computer-generated wiseguy host who would make fun of the videos while
presenting them. But Channel 4 wanted to explain the character, so a live-
action movie introducing Edison Carter â and the whole "Max Headroom" concept â
preceded the 13-week music-video series. Those all showed up in 1985, and HBO,
which had financed part of it, showed the original movie and the "Max Headroom"
video series on HBO and Cinemax, respectively.
But with a whole disc of extras, why aren't there any of those Max Headroom
music-video shows? Why couldn't we have seen him, once again, interview some of
that era's big pop stars, like an unforgettably amused Sting? And why not show
a New Coke ad or two, for old time's sake?
When TV of the future becomes our collective TV past, we have a duty to
preserve it. What there is on this "Max Headroom" set is delightful â but I
DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches
television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.
You can see clips from the original "Max Headroom" series and download podcasts
of our show at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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.