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White House Correspondent Dana Milbank

Milbank, a reporter for The Washington Post, covered the last presidential campaign and aftermath. He wrote the book Smashmouth: Two years in the Gutter with Al Gore and George W. Bush.


Other segments from the episode on February 18, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 18, 2004: Interview with Dana Milbank; Interview with Mark Katz.


DATE February 18, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Dana Milbank of The Washington Post discusses the
experience of covering the White House

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What's it like to cover the White House? More specifically, what's it like to
cover the Bush White House? We invited Dana Milbank to talk with us. He's
covered the White House for The Washington Post since the beginning of the
Bush administration. Before that, he covered the White House for The New
Republic. Four years ago, Milbank reported on the primaries and the election,
spending time with each of the candidates. His book about the election,
"Smashmouth," was published in 2001. I spoke with Dana Milbank this morning.

Has access to the White House, or the way the White House is dealing with the
press, changed since the president's approval ratings have started to drop?

Mr. DANA MILBANK (The Washington Post): Well, to put it in perspective, it
would be hard for it to get a lot worse, because this is obviously the most
restrictive White House there's been in modern times in terms of giving
information to the press and press relations generally. Obviously, as you'd
expect, the president's aides have become a bit more defensive lately because
of--well, it started, really, with David Kay and the weapons of mass
destruction. And it's continued right through this whole flap over the
National Guard, and, not coincidentally, with the president's declining

It actually, in some ways, has a counterintuitive effect, and that is it
forces the White House to be a bit more forthcoming in some ways. For
example, dumping that large amount of documents related to the National Guard.
The president sort of accidentally, I believe, agreed to do this in the Tim
Russert interview 10 days ago, said he would release all the records, thinking
he already had released all the records, and his aides knew that there were,
indeed, a large quantity of other records. Now normally this White House
would say, `Well, that's right. He may have said that but we're not--we're
going to do whatever we believe is the right thing to do, and we're not going
to dump out these documents.'

But here you had the Bush White House putting out the president's dental
records, showing that he had something like nine cavities. He had a few
wisdom teeth missing. Then they put out records showing rather intimate
details from his medical records, including the fact that the future
president, when he entered the National Guard, had a hemorrhoid. So this is
something that you certainly don't expect this White House to be doing. So it
is--in a funny way, this--the pressure that's on them has forced them to be
somewhat more forthcoming and somewhat in the same way that the Clinton
administration scandals with Lewinsky and with Whitewater forced the
administration to dump out a lot of documents to try to get the bad news out
there, to try to move beyond the story.

GROSS: So from your perspective, what are the most important questions that
still need to be asked?

Mr. MILBANK: On the National Guard situation?

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. MILBANK: Well, I mean, you could probably take a step back and say, you
know, `Is this really the most important story we should be following at the
national political level? Does it really have that much consequence?' We're
following it because Democrats such as Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic
national chairman, and Kerry loyalists, like Max Cleland, have been making an
issue of this. And it is also a good story, even if it's not terribly
important for the national debate. Or you could make an argument that it
reflects on his role as commander in chief.

So the questions that remain probably never will be answered. The larger
question is why he--being such an enthusiastic pilot--he said he wanted to
have a career, a life, in aviation when he joined the Guard, why would he give
up his flying? He was banned from flying because he didn't take the physical,
which would have been--it would have been a pretty easy step to take to
continue flying. They did not have his type of aircraft in Alabama, but he
could have flown a different type of aircraft.

So it appears something happened in early 1972 that very much altered his path
with the Guard and his interest in flying. And I suspect we're never going to
find the answer to that because we don't have written records and we don't
really have anything to go on in terms of people who have served with him at
that time.

GROSS: You mention that, you know, for the Kerry campaign, Bush's National
Guard service is a good issue because Kerry, you know, was a war hero, and now
that there's questions about President Bush's service. What about The
Washington Post? How does The Washington Post decide whether it, as a news
organization, considers this an important story and how much play to give it?

Mr. MILBANK: Th obvious standard is relevance to the national debate. And I
think what drives it is the credibility of those making a certain accusation.
So when Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee,
says the president of the United States was AWOL--well, that's a story that
we have to pursue.

But this whole business, for example, last week, with Matt Drudge putting out
the rumor of John Kerry having an affair with an intern, The Washington Post
did not mention that for many days, and that was because there was--first of
all, there was nobody credibly making that accusation, which makes it
different from the National Guard issue, and there was no basis, in fact, that
we could find to justify writing about that story. And there is sort of the
standard of truth, a standard of relevance and, I think, particularly
important is the standard of who is raising these allegations. We at The Post
have had a lot of criticism earlier in the Bush administration, with, indeed,
the whole news media, in general, for not taking on the president, taking on
the White House and challenging them, like we did during the Lewinsky scandals
with the Clinton administration.

The key difference is the Democratic Party was largely asleep for the first
few years of the Bush administration. They were out of power in the Congress,
they didn't have the ability to investigate and issue subpoenas. They were
intimidated by the president's standing after the September 11th attacks.
They weren't taking on the president and then people were wondering why the
press doesn't. Well, the press largely follows the national debate rather
than setting it, so it really requires an opposition party to make an issue of
something before the press will really jump on board. The press may mention
it, but it's not going to make a campaign out of it without an opposition
party doing that.

GROSS: So when there's an allegation about an affair or, you know, a personal
thing like that, The Washington Post decides to investigate a little and see
if there's anything there before deciding whether it's worthy of coverage or

Mr. MILBANK: Yes, of course. I mean, you know, the typical way these rumors
wind up in the mainstream is they wind up on the Internet, then they wind up
in the British publications, which seem to have a lower standard of accuracy,
then they make it into the American tabloid market, like the New York Post,
and eventually it filters into the mainstream. If there's accuracy to the
rumor, then, of course, we're going to be covering it. If there's no accuracy
to the rumor, most likely we'll do it as we did this week, and that is have
our media writer write about everybody else writing about it.

GROSS: You refer to the Internet and how certain political rumors start
through the Internet. You've written in this presidential campaign, `Keep an
eye out for Internet stories from both sides.' What shall we be looking for?

Mr. MILBANK: Yes, this is less in terms of the rumors that I was writing
about there, but actually in terms of their advertisements. The new
campaign finance law requires that if you put an ad out on television, the
candidate himself has to appear on the end and say, `I approve this message,'
so if you have some nasty attack, well, the candidate himself looks nasty.

Internet ads are exempt from this, so it's no accident that the Bush campaign
just came out with an Internet ad that was really quite nasty, attacking John
Kerry, saying, `He is beholden to special interests.' The president didn't
have to get on there and say, `Yes, I'm the guy who authorized this message.'
John Kerry is responding in kind, also on the Internet. And a lot of people
in the White House have told me that we can expect a lot more of this, that if
they want to inject an issue into the campaign, a negative issue into the
campaign, doing it through the Internet on their own Web sites where,
actually--in the Bush case, what they did is they e-mailed it to six million
people, their supporters and media types. In fact, it's a lot cheaper than
running an actual televised ad because it gets picked up anyway and they
didn't really have to pay anything for it.

But this is the way they can inject something negative about the opposition
into the debate without--they have some fingerprints on it because you know
where it came from, but the candidate himself doesn't have to appear to be the
one spreading it.

GROSS: So you can get around certain regulations of commercials by doing
these ads on the Internet?

Mr. MILBANK: You can and in the old days of long ago in the year 2000, you
could actually run televised ads that would take on the opposition without the
disclaimer with the candidate approving it at the end. But this is an
important way in which the new campaign finance laws have actually changed the
tone of the debate in the current campaign.

GROSS: My guest is Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for The Washington
Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dana Milbank, White House
correspondent for The Washington Post. You've said that there's very little
access to the Bush White House and that's been consistent throughout the Bush
presidency. In what ways do you feel access has been restricted? Explain
what that means.

Mr. MILBANK: Sure, and it's always sort of the role of the press to whine
about not having enough access to the president and to his people, but the
Bush White House has been particularly good at this, from their point of view;
effective at this, from out point of view. They said right from the start,
`We're going to be the no-leak administration, we're not going to announce
something until we want to announce it, and then when we announce it everybody
is going to say exactly--read from the same list of talking points.'

They've been extraordinary effective at doing this. In fact, it's only been
very recently that we see that breaking down in any serious way with, for
example, the book with all the damaging quotes and documents from the former
Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill. We've seen the breakdown with David Kay and
his testimony on the weapons of mass destruction. The prediction had always
been that when an administration gets in trouble that's when its message
discipline, this is sort of the no-leak mentality, begins to break down. So
we are seeing some of that, but even now, to an extraordinary extent, this
White House has sort of designated a couple of people to deliver official line
to the press and the others just plain and simply will not speak with the
press. So, for example, people I would have spoken with in the Clinton
administration, the chief of staff, the top advisers and strategists to the
president, are largely off limits. On the rare occasions you do get them on
the telephone or in person for interviews, they very much stick to the script
that you've already received from the twice daily briefings you get from the
press secretary.

GROSS: Has President Bush given any interviews to The Washington Post?

Mr. MILBANK: He has. This was in the year 2001, and he's given several
interviews to my very senior colleague Bob Woodward. But these are for books
that he's done in which are excerpted in The Post, but are not expressly for
The Washington Post. He's granted, obviously, far fewer interviews than
previous presidents have--The Post has not been singled out, he's given very
few to many publications and, in fact, none to a lot of publications. He
prefers what he says to go around the filter of the media and speak directly
to people in terms of speeches, and that's why he wanted to do the "Meet the
Press" interview, where it really is not filtered, the questions asked and the
questions answered. Now we can argue about whether that was effective for
him, but he does not like it when an interview is done and we get to pick and
choose which quotes will be used.

GROSS: So what was it like for you, as a White House correspondent, to watch
that interview between President Bush and Tim Russert?

Mr. MILBANK: I guess it doesn't speak well for the way things have gone in
the newspaper business, that we must sit around on Sunday morning to gather
quotes from these folks who go to the Sunday talk shows. We were pleased that
he did it, because, look, if he's not going to give a lot of press
conferences, and he's only had about 10 of those in his whole presidency,
which is a very small number, historically speaking, we're at least happy to
have him out there answering questions at all. So--and that interview wound
up starting this entire National Guard furor, at least fueling it, to a large
extent, because that's what forced him to dump all these documents out there.
So if we can't have him ourselves, which would be our first preference, or we
can't have him in a regular press conference setting, which would be our
second preference, then, OK, we'll watch and let NBC take care of that.

GROSS: Do you think Tim Russert did a good job?

Mr. MILBANK: Yes, I do. He perhaps was not as firing away with as many
questions as he does when he's in the studio, but you have to consider he's in
the Oval Office with the president of the United States. And he did get him
to go further than he had in saying that he was surprised and believed that he
was, in fact, getting close to an acknowledgement that he was wrong on the
weapons of mass destruction. Again, making that promise on the Guard records,
which was very shrewd. So, you know, the president got in his talking points.
In fact, at one point, Tim Russert tried to interrupt him to cut him off and
the president said, `Let me finish,' and then went on with the long spiel.
And the next thing we know that is being used as an advertisement for the
Bush-Cheney campaign. They took his answer, showing that it was from "Meet
the Press," and put it to soft music about how we're, you know, feeding the
hungry and taking care of the needy, put in the new photo backdrops and you
have an instant ad. In fact, NBC complained to the Bush campaign and they
wound up dropping the ad.

GROSS: What was the compliant, that it was being used out of context?

Mr. MILBANK: Yes, that it was--they were using the words uttered in "Meet the
Press," but it made it look like they were sort of a party to a presidential
ad and, if they're going to use excerpts from the interview, they should use
it in the--without adding their music and images to it.

GROSS: How much analysis do you put into your coverage of the president? And
here's an example: You were writing about the president's budget and you
wrote, `President Bush has often vowed to,' quote, `"Make sure that our first
responders, the brave police and firefighter and emergency management teams
get resources necessary to do the job you expect them to do,"' unquote. `But
he proposed an 18.4 percent cut in funds to first responders, an $805 million
reduction, the administration says is justified because it does not believe
those funds are,' quote, `"Targeted to homeland security capabilities."'

OK, so you mention this cut in money and mention how it seems to kind of
violate a promise, and then you mention what the Bush point of view on that
is. So another way of covering this would just be fact. This is what they
proposed for first responders and, you know, not even mention that it seems to
violate a promise. So how deep do you want to get into analysis when you're
covering a story like the release of the president's budget?

Mr. MILBANK: Right. Well, the White House would complain that all we do is
analysis. And in fact, that's why they want to get around the filter and just
put the facts out there. Hopefully we're doing that on every story that we do
because, you know, if we're not going to blow the whistle and say, `OK, well
the president is saying this in his budget, but this contradicts what he said
yesterday or last month or two years ago, or if it's just flat wrong,' then
nobody is going to realize that. And often this White House has been very
successful by sort of putting out their version of the facts, and by the time
people sort of get around to figuring out that that wasn't quite right--well,
the original story about the president said, `X' is on A-1, and then the story
saying, `Well, that maybe it wasn't quite right the way he said that,' is
mentioned in paragraph six in a story that's deep inside the paper several
days later.

So I view it as my job, and I think many others in the press corps do as well,
to hold the president accountable, first of all to the facts as can be
accessed, but also to his previous words in terms of being consistent. So
this is perhaps another by-product of the limited access to the White House
that you do a lot of sort of textual research. One of my best sources is
LexisNexis. So the president says this today, I plug it in and go back and
see what he had said previously. And the White House Web site, perhaps I
shouldn't say this or they may go and change it now, has a marvelous search
function where you can plug in any word or phrase and find out any time that
the president uttered it. So it is a by-product of the way this White House
works that a lot of what you need to do is analyze in some Talmudic way the
public utterances of the president and compare it to other utterances and
compare it to other available facts.

GROSS: Has the White House responded to you directly about any of the
articles you've written?

Mr. MILBANK: Oh, sure, and I don't think I'm alone in this, but particularly
early on when Ari Fleischer was the press secretary--he's a screamer and would
sometimes get in my face with the spittle flying and more often call and
holler at my editors and work his way up the chain of command there. His
successor, Scott McClellan, is much better liked by the press corps and is
much more mild. He'll certainly raise his objections as will plenty of others
in the White House, and it's not unheard of for them to have a very reasonable
complaint about something. And if we've gotten something wrong, we'll go
ahead and fix it. But largely after the first couple of years, the sort of
incessant complaints about my coverage or about The Post coverage have stopped
as they've realized that that's just the role we play.

GROSS: What did you get the loudest screams about from Ari Fleischer?

Mr. MILBANK: You know, it's funny that you'll notice--you'll write something
that you think, like, I'm going to, you know, hide under the bed tomorrow
morning because, you know, you just, you know, called the president some
horrible thing and you'll--and you get nothing at all and then you'll write
some innocent story and they'll call up hollering about, you know, in
paragraph 16 you said there was a mirror over the mantel and there's not a
mirror over the mantel, which--it mystified me at first.

What I think it is, though, is the president goes through our newspaper and a
couple of others each morning and I bet he's marking in red pen something that
he doesn't like, which would explain why they're willing to go to the mat over
a seemingly trivial issue about the placement of a mirror and let something
which would seem to be much worse completely go. But the times they react the
worst are when you question the president's credibility. In fact, I did a
story in October of 2002, and the headline was For Bush the Facts are
Malleable, going through a whole bunch of things on the weapons in Iraq and
some economic claims and other things, and doing, as I was saying, you know,
comparing that to the factual record, and the things that he had said before,
and I indicated that a lot of these things he was saying just weren't true.
That was certainly the worst point of relations that I've had with the White

GROSS: Dana Milbank covers the White House for The Washington Post. He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, running President Clinton's comedy war room. We talk with
Mark Katz about his work during the Clinton administration adding humor to the
president's speeches. And we continue our conversation with Dana Milbank
about covering the Bush White House.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dana Milbank. He's
covered the White House for The Washington Post since the beginning of the
Bush administration. He previously covered the White House for The New

You said that you think the president reads the paper and then takes issue
with certain facts in it. But I've heard that the president doesn't read the
newspaper; that he gets his information from his aides. Is that not true?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, of course it's not true, but it's very useful for the
president to say that he doesn't read the papers. But I think what he's
really saying in that is he doesn't care about what's in the papers, and he
says most Americans don't read the papers. This is his sort of appeal to the
common man. But I know from my colleagues that, you know, they'd bump into
him at a Christmas party dinner or something, and he'll mention some obscure
item that was written about him in a gossip column months before. He is very,
very smart and very much interested in sort of the political horse race. And
he reads his coverage closely. Now that's not to say he reads everything, but
he is reading The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street
Journal, USA Today. And he is briefed on all kinds of other coverage by his
aides. And the White House assembles packets of the day's clippings. I'd be
very surprised if that doesn't make it to his desk as well.

We even find out, and it came up in the last week or so, the president often
watches the daily briefings that his press secretary is giving. And those
things are awful, and you can fall asleep while you're watching them. But
there is the president. Can't you picture him, like, sort of munching on some
pretzels and a non-alcoholic beer and watching his press secretary get
pummeled? But sort of my inclination is, `Well, why doesn't he come out and
give a press conference then rather than watching it?' But he follows his
coverage very closely, and it's politically useful to say, you know, `I don't
watch the news or read the news.' But that doesn't wash.

GROSS: Well, why doesn't he come out and give more press conferences? What
is your opinion about that?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, it's pretty straightforward, and that is he's trying to
redefine--he says that at the press conferences, the network correspondents
get up there and primp and preen and try to show how smart they are, and that
is exactly what they do. So I don't blame him for that. But what he's
realized is after--every few days, he will take two questions. Generally it's
from The Associated Press and Reuters or maybe Bloomberg or something like
that at the end of a meeting with a foreign head of state or something--the
Cabinet. By taking those two questions, he lets the steam out. The pressure
does not build for the full-fledged press conference. He knows what questions
that he's going to get because he knows exactly what the issues of the day
are; he's been briefed on it. He's prepared his response.

Now when he goes and has a full-fledged press conference with 20 different
questioners, you don't really know what you're going to be asked. In fact,
that's when he's made news about the Catholic Church and gay marriage. He's
just not expecting these issues to come up. So he would rather have a very
controlled environment, where he takes a couple of questions, delivers the
comments he wanted to on the news of the day and avoid sort of the essay
response format of the press conference. And from his point of view, it's
very smart. It's just rather frustrating from our point of view.

GROSS: My guest is Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for The Washington

Vice President Dick Cheney used to be the CEO of Halliburton, and Halliburton
has been in the news a lot lately because of overspending problems in its
reconstruction efforts in Iraq. And in that respect, it's possible that
something that was seen as an asset of Dick Cheney, his work as a CEO, can now
be seen as a problem for him in a re-election campaign. Do you think it's a
done deal that Dick Cheney will be President Bush's choice for his vice
presidential running mate in the re-election campaign?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, I do, but I should preface that by saying I thought it was
a done deal that Howard Dean would be the nominee. So my predictions aren't
worth very much at all. But here's why on Cheney, and that is because, number
one, he has already said he will do it, and the president has already said he
will have Cheney on the ticket with him. And this president's main strength
as a manager and as a leader is his loyalty, and to go back on that at this
point would go far beyond what the president could do and maintain that
central strength of his. And it would also be a terrible blow to the
conservative base, which really adores Cheney on most issues at this point,
particularly on foreign policy and on economics. So I really don't expect
that to happen.

But there's no doubt that Halliburton has been an endless source of headaches
for this administration. And the vice president, while he still has financial
links to Halliburton, does not have an interest in the company's fortunes
anymore. So he can reasonably claim that he is not tied to the company. But
it began with the asbestos litigation and legislation before Congress; that,
you know, the White House had a very difficult time touching that because
Halliburton was involved. We have the overcharging in Iraq. And even when
the president came out earlier this year and announced his plans for
eventually a manned mission to Mars, stories came out a couple days later
saying, `Well, guess who's been working on a manned mission to Mars? It's

So these folks are--the problem is that it's a massive conglomerate who's
everywhere, so anytime the administration takes a step on anything
in--overseas, the oil business, defense-related stuff--they wind up crossing
paths with Halliburton. So even if it is done completely innocently, there's
always going to be this shadow over it that the president is doing this to
help his vice president's old buddies. So it's definitely become a real
albatross for the administration.

GROSS: Do you have any more or less access to the vice president than you do
to the president?

Mr. MILBANK: Less, if that's possible, and that's not--I'm speaking, I
think, for the entire press corps on that subject. He has granted very few
interviews, other than his "Meet The Press" format, which he likes. And he's
done a good bit of conservative talk radio but very few interviews with the
mainstream media; with only a couple of exceptions in the last three and a
half years, has not allowed journalists to travel with him on Air Force Two.
And, obviously, we travel on every flight the president takes on Air Force
One. He does not, with, again, a couple of exceptions, give press
conferences. He is--obviously, his retreat to undisclosed locations has
become something of a running national gag. But it is true that you just
don't see the man, except for his occasionally popping up on a hunting trip or
at a Republican fund-raiser. But he has decided that it is not part of his
duties to communicate with the press, by and large, and apparently we don't
have a right to demand that.

GROSS: In 2000 you covered the presidential campaign, and you spent time with
all of the candidates. You wrote a book about that. It was published in 2001
called "Smashmouth." How do you think President Bush compares to the
candidate Bush that you knew during the campaign?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, let's see. I mean, there are many ways in which he is
unchanged. I mean, you could certainly see in terms of the managing of
information that we've been talking about today, it was very much the way the
campaign operated back then; the ability to stick to a message and just stick
to a fairly limited number of big-policy proposals and follow through on them.
So there's very few surprises in terms of the president's way of operating or
his personality, very much the same one we saw back then. In fact, as they
prepare for the upcoming presidential race, you can see some of the same
tactics that he was using with Al Gore or with John McCain are beginning to
resurface again. It's not surprising; a lot of them are the same advisers who
advised him the last time around.

So if there's no difference from what I'd seen back then in terms of style, in
terms of personality, there has been something of a surprise in the emphasis
of his administration. And that is that his campaign was largely based on the
`compassionate conservative,' the going beyond the tax cuts and the national
security issues to really getting into domestic policy issues to help the
underprivileged. Now I have no doubt that the president cares genuinely about
that. In fact, I'm certain of it. It has not, however, been a priority of
his administration to the extent it was a priority of his campaign message.
And some of his aides have said as much to me and said, you know, `That's
just--we didn't expect September 11th to happen, and that's a result of that.'
So in terms--we've definitely seen more conservative than compassion in terms
of the policies he's put forth. But he's very much the same man in terms of
the style of leadership.

GROSS: Do you ever have nightmares about your work? You know, the equivalent
of showing up late or, like, you have a test you haven't studied for? Do you
ever have that type of nightmare but applied to covering the White House?

Mr. MILBANK: Terry, my work is a constant nightmare.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. MILBANK: But, no, I still have sort of the high school test anxiety
dreams. But, you know, I actually think you can't really survive if you do
that in this business. At deadline, you just put the story to bed--well, put
one last read-through to make sure you didn't make some grotesque error. And,
you know, if you blew it, you're going to find out in the morning, and that's
what we have the corrections column for.

GROSS: OK. And while you're not having nightmares about your beat, are there
stories that you've written that have kept you awake at night?

Mr. MILBANK: I suppose. I mean, sometimes you dread the reaction that a
particularly tough story will have the next morning. I mean, I do actually
like the president, and I like a lot of these people I'm covering. And you
have to take a step back and say, you know, `Be that as it may, you know, he
said something that's wrong and false, and I've got to call him on it.' And
so you don't look forward to that first conversation with the president's
aides after that story, but, you know, maybe there's a couple of sleepless
nights early on in the beat. But now in the fourth year of it, I can get
through the night pretty well.

GROSS: Dana Milbank, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MILBANK: Thank you.

GROSS: Dana Milbank covers the White House for The Washington Post.

Coming up, writing jokes for President Clinton's speeches. We talk with Mark
Katz about his new memoir, "Clinton & Me." This is FRESH AIR.

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Interview: Mark Katz on his new book "Clinton & Me"

Mark Katz described his work during the Clinton administration as `running the
comedy war room.' His job focused around the annual series of humorous
speeches the president gave to the Washington press corps. Katz worked as an
adjunct member of the White House speechwriting staff, on retainer by the
Democratic National Committee. In his new memoir, "Clinton & Me: A Real Life
Political Comedy," Katz recounts his experiences getting the president to make
his audiences laugh often by having the president laugh at himself.

Well, you know, you talk about how self-deprecating humor can be, you know,
very funny. But it doesn't always come naturally to people. It comes natural
to you, and you think that's, in part, because you're Jewish? (Laughs)

Mr. MARK KATZ (Author, "Clinton & Me"): Yeah. You know...

GROSS: But you're saying, yeah, it didn't come naturally to Clinton.

Mr. KATZ: No, he came from a place, Arkansas, where humor is a stick you beat
other people up with. And it's kind of the Washington model to use
self-deprecating humor, and it's something you need to become accustomed to.
You know, being savagely self-effacing is something that's only reflexive to
the most practiced and perfect practitioners of power and your average Jew.
And so I kind of, you know, had this great opportunity and kind of worked my
way into the room. You know, this happened over a long period of time. I
started out doing clips on the Dukakis campaign, and I would look into these
meetings on the other side of the door and try to figure out how to get into
that room. And over time I found that humor was the license I had to get into
that room. That was my ticket.

And when President Clinton was elected and I was asked to kind of put together
some material that he might say at these annual humor dinners he does at the
you know, White House Correspondents dinner and the Gridiron Club. That's how
I found myself being escorted into the Oval Office sitting across from him and
pitching him ideas and sharing ideas for jokes, quite honestly. And he jumped
right in. He enjoyed it. We spent a lot of time--you know, each speech we
would probably spend 45 minutes to an hour trading jokes. I would go in with
my pages of stuff, and he had ideas, and there were other kind of high-ranking
White House aides all around us. And there are a lot of, you know, talented,
smart, funny people in politics. And it was just one of these great, rare,
wonderful occasions when, for an hour on a day, it was all about sharing
jokes, trading jokes and getting this guy ready for the big speech he had to
give live on C-SPAN that Saturday night.

GROSS: It sounds like you really enjoyed working with President Clinton, but
there was at least one joke you wanted him to do that he was very
uncomfortable doing. And this had to do with an egg timer. How did you want
him to use the egg timer?

Mr. KATZ: I wanted him to use an egg timer to kind of solve that week's
weekly crisis, which was a speech he had given that went on far too long, the
State of the Union address in 1995, a speech that went on for an hour and 21
minutes. In that very same week he had a speech at the Alfalfa dinner, an
annual humor dinner. And my idea for him was to walk to the podium without
saying a word, pull an egg timer from his pocket, set it to five minutes...

(Soundbite of egg timer noise)

Mr. KATZ: ...(laughs) and put it on the corner of the podium and let the room
have a big laugh along with him and kind of concede the fact that he had give
a speech that went on far too long. And he just did not want to concede the
point, quite honestly. At that point, you know, you've got to remember it was
a low point in the administration; it was just a few months after the 1994
midterm elections. And he rejected the idea of the egg timer and wound up,
you know, basically rewriting the speech. You know, the speech was kind of
predicated in the egg timer. By the way, when the egg timer was going to go
off, he was going to add more time each and every time.

He rewrote the speech up on the dais, and it didn't work out well. He gave a
speech that was meaner than it should have been and tried settling scores, and
that's not the best use of humor. But before the evening was out, even as the
speech was not going well and he could tell that, he pulled the egg timer from
his pocket and said, `Maybe this'll help,' and got the big laugh of the night.
And he took away the lesson from that that he needed to learn, which is that
humor is best used when directed at yourself.

GROSS: Did you ever misjudge how a joke was going to go over and find that
your guy had to pay the consequences for having said this in a speech?

Mr. KATZ: You know, there was one joke in 1998 where the News Museum came
out with its rankings of the biggest news events of the 20th century. And on
that list, somewhere around number 63, was Bill Clinton's getting impeached.
And based on that, we had a joke in one of his speech--basically, the
president complaining about only being ranked number 63, you know, especially
given all the hoopla.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. KATZ: And the punch line was, `What does a guy have to do to crack the top

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. KATZ: OK. Now to our ears--and this went through the entire West
Wing--that joke was about, you know, `What does a guy have to do, other than
getting impeached, to crack the top 50?' The room, however, heard it very
differently. The room heard--their mind went to the specific, you know,
indiscretions that created the impeachment.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KATZ: And they heard the joke as, you know, `What specific, you know,
personal activities would a man have to do to crack the top 50?' And no one
in the White House ever anticipated that joke and that laugh, you know,
at--the snickers, really, quite honestly, that we did not hear because we just
were so ensconced in our own bubble of, you know, what impeachment was. That
joke was a good example of a joke that kind of got through this, you know,
very difficult vetting process. And even that joke kind of had a consequence
that we never saw coming.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Katz. His new memoir, "Clinton & Me," is about his
work writing jokes for President Clinton's speeches during Clinton's two terms
in the White House. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Katz. And his new book,
"Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy," is about his years writing
humor for President Clinton, for Al Gore and for Michael Dukakis.

You did some writing for Al Gore when he was vice president or for him a
little bit when he was running for president. You talked about the importance
of self-deprecating humor. Was it hard to convince Al Gore to make jokes
about his image as being really stiff?

Mr. KATZ: You couldn't tell Al Gore a joke that would upset him. He had an
amazing ability to see himself from across the room and know the kind of jokes
that Al Gore needed to tell. And I had great experiences working for the vice
president because he was fearless. I remember trying to talk him out of a
joke once that he wound up giving because I thought it kind of crossed over a
line that he liked so much. And...

GROSS: What was the joke?

Mr. KATZ: Well, the joke was--it was in the middle of the Gridiron dinner of
1998, and he had been asked to fill in for the president when the
president--no, it wasn't '98, forgive me. When did the president break his
leg? Probably 1997. And he was on the dais, and someone whispered a joke to
him, and the joke went something like this--Trent Lott had made kind of a
nasty remark about him that week, and someone had whispered a joke to the vice
president saying--the joke went like this: Trent Lott--you know, the
Democrats have gone very far to up their standards on campaign finance reform.
Senator Lott, up yours.

GROSS: (Laughs) Did he say that?

Mr. KATZ: Well, so someone pitched him that joke, and the next thing I know
a Secret Service guy's tapping me on the shoulder because the vice president
wants to go over this joke. And in the room that night was also Al Franken, a
friend of the vice president's and a very funny man, obviously. And we
huddled in the back room of the Capital Hilton, and the vice president wanted
to know what we thought of that joke. And there were some other White
House--vice president's speechwriters there: Dan Schnor and Eric Pink.
And--sorry, Dan Pink and Eric Schnor. And the vice president wanted to know
what we thought of this joke. And Al Franken said, `It's a very funny joke.'
And Schnor said, `It's very funny. You should use it.' Dan Pink, `Very
funny. You should definitely use it.' I had actually heard the joke before
in various incarnations, and that devalued it greatly to me. I think a person
telling a Gridiron speech especially should kind of use jokes that aren't, you
know, well known already.

But then I became nervous, `Well, you know, what if the room gives it an
"ooh?" which is kind of the Washington equivalent of the referee calling it
out of bounds. You know, `Ooh.' And then I thought, `Well, even if the room
doesn't it give an ooh, what if Trent Lott makes noise about it, you know, on
Monday and Al Gore has to apologize for it on Tuesday? Who needs that?' So
in the process of sorting all this stuff out, I said, `I don't think you
should do it. I'm sorry.' And that's when Al Franken pitched a saver to the
joke. He said, `Well, in case the joke doesn't go well, here's a saver you
can use. You could say, "Hey, come on, the venerable master loved that
joke."' That was the joke about a reference, which was very timely at the
time, about the Buddhist monks. And I said to the vice president, `Sir, if
that joke needs a saver, you have already lost.' He said, `Well, we'll see.
You know, I'll decide to do once I'm up there.'

Well, sure enough, Al Gore, you know, takes the stage later that evening,
tells savagely effacing jokes, and you gotta remember he was in the middle of
his own crisis. This was in the middle of controlling legal authority and,
you know, fund-raising phone calls he made from his desk at the White House,
which, you know, was at odds with federal laws. And so he made savage jokes
at his own expense on those very topics. I mean, that night we opened--he did
a little bit of stage craft where the spotlight hit him on the dais. He's on
the phone talking, and the whole room is silent, and then he looks around and
he says into the phone, `Uh, I'm going to have to call you back'...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. KATZ: ...and then stands up and gives this speech, all predicated--and
one of the premises of the joke was, `You got a lot of good jokes off me on
this topic, and I'm going through a hard time. Here are some jokes you
missed.' And he tells the jokes that they missed all on himself, all about
his crisis of the week. And later that night, you know, before the speech was
over, he told the Trent Lott `up yours' joke, got a huge laugh, you know, and
dared to go where I begged him not to go, and it paid off. So, again, it's

GROSS: Do you think it's because he had earned so much good will by being so
funny up to that point?

Mr. KATZ: I think so. I believe, it is my thesis, that once you've been
sufficiently self-deprecating, you have earned the right to be
self-deprecating on behalf of others. And by that point in his speech, he had
done that.

GROSS: Mark Katz, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KATZ: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Mark Katz's new memoir is called "Clinton & Me." Katz is a
speechwriter and humorist whose company is called The Sound Bite Institute.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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