Ep. 101 - Alex Wagner

Update: 2016-12-01


Alex Wagner, the journalist and political commentator, talks with David Axelrod about her early exposure to politics as the daughter of a Democratic field organizer, what lessons the news media and voters should draw from Donald Trump’s election, and her concerns about transparency and press access in a Trump administration..

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the for my most interesting and thoughtful young journalists in this country is Alex Wagner she's done a lot of different things now she's writing for The Atlantic monthly of thoughtful pieces on the politics and culture of our times and she just started as the co anchor of The CBS Morning News on Saturday Alice's you remember was the longtime host of her own program on MSNBC she came to the Institute of Politics the other night to talk about her that great Showtime production covering the campaign and then she dropped by for a conversation with me the uh the the Alex Wagner welcome welcome you're welcome to the Institute of Politics we know each other from from your show late of MSNBC also because your husband is a friend of mine Sam Kass who works well with the Obama for years but you have such an interesting story and I want you to talk about sad about for so I knew your dad yes way back when when I was young reporter and he was a legend as a as the field general for Ted Kennedy back in nineteen eighty you're dad is like honest to god political warrior he's going to clip this audio piece and save it and play every time he walks into a room David that's very generous of you on yeah my dad is has a incredible mind for politics and I why what how did he what drew him to politics you know he grew up in a tiny town in northeast Iowa on and I'm actually writing about that side of the family in my upcoming book which we won a total of two time later the town he grew up in the mail and Irish Catholic family he had five brothers and sisters and it made my dad's dad was a post of mail delivery man in rural Iowa and his mom was a housewife and the sake of work in community there's a really powerful organizing principles of the house and my dad really believes in the democracy but also felt I think he's really ambitious you know the most of the family stayed in the Midwest my dad went to Washington because he wanted to work on hunger and he wanted to help write the federal funds go on and he has got to this was that he went to school this isn't yet he went to Laura's college another tiny college and his graduate work at the University of Iowa and one and that's where I got interested and hunger policy and came to Washington and then got involved and he knows the early seventies who works in the McGovern campaign it was a formative experience for I think a lot of people including the Clintons yet and that's where he met Bill Clinton actually won and so by the time Ted Kennedy was running it there's there is always as you know David there are insurgents and establishment wings of each party has as always belong to the insurgents yeah and so when Kennedy was running to challenge Jimmy Carter my dad was on board and became the field director probably also worked with them on some of these issues if you were interested in any of these issues hunger and Ted Kennedy was the place you'd go he was the lie and the Senate and I had been borne by the time my dad was working in the Kennedy campaign and there's a story that he loves to tell which is that I'm you know this isn't the day before the Internet obviously and you know you do everything by phone my dad would come home every night and pick up the phone and say gimme the numbers which is what you said to get the poll numbers whatever the day to live that life I know right so you notice this when I was too I would stand on the kitchen chair and pick up the receiver there was no and and I just say give me the numbers because that's what my dad dead so I like to think that in politics and I'm glad my mom Why would come home would have me one of the babies and I'd be on the phone pacing as a Jew and the kids would fall asleep to the drone of my voice but my little babies would always be going hollow pretending the headphones in there that's when their hands that's a little better education do need to listen if you if you do the work that your dad did or that I did you know those late night calls I used to Joel Benson who polled for Hillary Clinton was the poster for Barak Obama as well and I used to he was the first person I spoke spoke to in the morning the last person I spoke to at night which really pissed him off because he said look the numbers are going to change from one in the morning to six in the morning I relax but I just I I just needed to probe you know well because a ritual to say what you do but it's also you know I think your dad would appreciate this there's something about the experience of being in a campaign like that that is so all enveloping he in fact you know us a child must of felt I mean he probably was around a long way he was gone I think in in in nineteen eighty use go on sinning like three hundred and twenty days out of the year he was like a shadowy figure more moose an ad but your tax year the touchstone for fatherhood become these moments for its use your dad picking up the phone asking for the numbers are actually have a great deal of guilt about this in about the sacrifices that my kids made because I was a life in politics and before that even in journalism I was travelling are alive and you know when you're and ambitious you think that this is the most important thing I'm trying to save the world I have to of and then you realize that your first responsibility is to is to your own family and I had a real asset to late I think I sent my son when I was writing my memoirs of a few pages about that because he's just about to have his own child and I so don't don't do the kid what I did to you and his response was We're going to talk about that someday that but I am not ready to talk about it yet so yeah I mean I will say my mom so much of my people here but my dad being involved in politics does he think my appetite for world affairs comes from him necessarily but my mom was hugely if not more influential in terms of helping cobble together my understanding of the worlds and she comes from Burma became an American citizen out she had what was the day so my mom came over from Burma she's basically in exile night my grandfather was involved in the government in Burma before Fallon a military coup and my grandmother had gotten a master's degree in library science and the The Library of Congress needed someone to head their East Asian books department and my grandmother was very well qualified for the job and they basically brought our family over from Burma and my mom came over and she had a full scholarship to go to Swarthmore College and she was very radical seven D's progress as of and she was she went down to DC to work at the Teamsters union which is where my dad was working at the time and he hired her in Amman said she and the first day of work in moments that I have just the worst boss ever hate him and she could've been worse it could have been Jimmy Hoffa that's all I could be Alex off to things would be very good today if that was the gays yeah that's interesting the teachers union the Teamsters union brought them together is a classic KL nineteen seventy labor support you know oh my if my first job was at the Chicago Tribune Esther working there after college I got a job as a sub summer intern which I worked into a job at the paper A but in any case the second day I was there the Teamsters union had just voted Frank Fitzsimmons who was the president who succeeded haha yup he's probably present when your dad was when my mom remembers him well he he they had just voted and stuff like a seven hundred percent pay raise or something and so the city desks guys says this O C Aaron and growl of a kind of all crusty old news Mrs much around find some Teamsters in asking how they feel about this so I'm like twenty one years old and I'm all I want his job and I'll do anything if they tell me to jump off the roof I would go down to the loading dock at twenty six then and think twenty six in Blue Island or something and and see what they have to say so I naively go down there unlike every almost everyone I've talked to said Get the hell off my truck you trying to be killed but then there are few people really pest and really spoke out against the and I got enough I just I was going to leave until I got enough quotes for a story but tenacity but it was but yeah there was a lot of features with the best around Chris Fitzsimmons you know is there's always been speculation about his relationship to my office disappearance share but your dad didn't disappear no my parents are both Elias and there've been no horse had left I know you know the exit of the Teamsters peacefully which is all you can really ask for a hot soak in she doing down there she was working she was a She was made in political science at Swarthmore and she was putting out some kind of newspaper with a friend play for in West Philadelphia for the not for the team goes before the Teamsters and then she went and wanted to work you know in Washington I think a lot of people one of the things that was happening in those days David and I know that you know this is people go to Washington because they wanted to change the world yes you know people would flock to it not as if they had a job in the administration but because there was the sense that that was where change happens and my mom I think people were really engaged that period there was a flourishing of kind of intellectual liberalism and practical liberalism and um she was really attracted to it and got a job teaching because they were looking for yeah I actually miss that I hope I wish we could rekindle that because they're still making decisions in Washington is the way that have momentous importance and you know people and yet people have an aversion to it so it leaves the decision making to people who you may not want to be making the decision absolutely and they're also a lot of good people there who are under absolutely no but that is I mean that's where Che it may not be the change you want to see the big decisions are happening in Washington every day public service has been so denigrated that's one of the real tragedies I think of the last few years yeah well we'll see what happens in this Trump in the true are ago one of two way yeah people could say I've had it and I'm not and I'm not going to contend with this note could be a revival in the land since the election I've heard from alot of friends of mine on the progressive side of saying you know I'm I'm re energized I want to get back into this you know people who'd been in the Obama campaign's went off to industry is so in saying mom I'm coming back so we'll we'll see what happens so your mom and married unmarried manage it in short order and then my dad started working in earnest again on campaigns and my was working for a number of nonprofits in DC and you now there are shining like their favorite child Alex lag there was enrolled in the Montessori school and public school in Washington D C That's where I was born and raised and how was that like growing up in in what would you feel like you're part of the OR was you of the sort of government and politics part of the town where your classmates part of that or did you where you apart from that was a different life so I think very much politics in the world where with me when I was growing up in a way that I don't think would have been the case if I'd been in say New York City and then there was I just remember high school we are always on them all marching for something on and maybe that's because there was not much else to do in DC but the sense of civic engagement was really pronounced I mean I remember feeling really political at a young age like my parents actually had enrolled me in one of Washington's best private schools for high school and I said I'm not going there and staying in the public school system and they said well you get some not that is not an option you have to stay you're going to the school paid like the deposit it happened what kind of progress is were they exactly as I said you know I remember feeling really strongly when Bill Clinton hinted that town and didn't look seriously any of the DC Public Schools and immediately rolled his daughter and said Well they wrote a letter to the Clintons because it was just so indignant about the elderly who was thirteen at the time and yeah thirteen on and now was like this period of kind of you know you have to invest in public education in the way you change the system is by you know being part of the PTA being part of the student body trying to change it from within and my parents were like yell but we're not sacrificing education for this and I've sort of weather about and Eloise are to these the programs that I can be part of that this at Wilson High Senior High School these are the teachers that I may and I promise you this is going to work out okay and said that's pretty remarkable for thirteen euros the protests was what I was fifteen because I was going to want to split hairs of a precocious let's just leave it at that what about you Dad relationship with Bill Clinton as you mentioned earlier an of he advised him back in the eighties when he was thinking uh there's kind of a sort of famous story that I mean like they were cool they knew each other from the McGovern era and stayed kind of clothes in Democratic circles and you now on how did I make a living doing this after that working as a strategist and consultant you know kind of it was a Republican years in the eighties for the most part and say I a sort of a part of the tandem with Paul Tully yeah she did some more with how well they really organize human being was working for the Democratic Party in nineteen ninety two and died in the middle of a cannon he became survey martyr of the young of the campaign but anyway so at nine the eighties respect for bringing up all telling women to his name after he was one of the Democratic great guy I mean a great time and actually set up a trust for his daughters to school on solo yet he was was consult you know I think you know there's a sort of watched the ear his work and various projects to be in an out of this and that and you know the Gary Hart Kam hain Petra and point Clinton was going to run and I think it's a talk to my dad about this potential bid and Chelsea was still really young and I remember mom my mom and dad talked him into the Navy he should wait till she's older and I'm sure this is why she got from other people as well but he decided to take it and decided to delay his initial run until nineteen ninety two which proved to be a good decision well family and your dad did did he part is I don't tell he was involved did your dad you know he was a thing tend to sort of in in in invested as less than involved in the ninety two campaign Little Rock that night I remember you know he was like doing his part but he wasn't any kind of big marker in the campaign mainly stuck to the imagination he was really excited to see a doctor a good cultural awareness well you know that's made it I was excited he was thr i just remember he was so thrilled to see a Democrat who had been on so many losing campaigns yeah the eighties were pretty banner oh yeah now you went onto to brown yeah so the public schools did did you weigh did me well great I mean those the point of going a son well I mean Brown was a great pal was a great college to go to him really happy that I got is had attended and graduated I read that you went there planning to study Egypt college for bringing that to a national audience to what why thinking of studying no I mean what its apologists Raider the universe in Chicago and there the dollar due department Brown is the country's best OK we're going to back but why why Egypt Egypt why you told it was only a year that lasted as it turns out I was not cut out for the Study of Higher attic and Coptic our graphics I was really interested in the ancient world at that I wanted to be an archaeologist and I'm having never gone on a dig and just having spent a lot of time that the Natural History Museum I I thought it would be really great to study it and to be surrounded by you know ancient civilization and or the relics of it and brown happened have like an incredibly great department cell that's what my declared concentration was much to my parents' chagrin I was also studying neuroscience acting in French which is the only argument you need for core curriculum yeah but it's all I mean that's really what liberal arts education sure it is I mean it's a chance to expose yourself to really actually I always argue you know I never took a journalism course in my life me neither and I think being expose expose broadly to things is really valuable if you're going to be because more than anything what you need to be a great journalist I think his intellectual curiosity absolutely and to see the world and talk to people in it I mean I always think you know I don't have respect for people who go to J school but really you learn to be a journalist I reading right people and talking to them and you know I'd always I was the editor of May Elementary School newspaper and my high school newspaper and I added the college weekly and you know I always knew that writing was going to be a part of what I wanted to do the ecology thing he was just a brief psychotic flirtation with you know a parallel universe we're going to take a short break for word from our sponsor and will be back with Alex Wagner rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision to give the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty so when you left college you use the first Euro that music and another of your passions well culture generally music is a really great entry point into talk about all kinds of other issues whether their socio political whether they're you know whether to straight ahead are I mean music is a window into so much about a society so that was really interesting to me and then you add to the Center for American Progress short stint as the cultural correspondent again this is I do know they have cool well epicenter from the one of the ideas was that policymaking too often takes place in a vacuum with not enough engagement from the cult the world of culture and so I was actually headquartered in New York and part of the idea was to think of ways in which to talk about the issues that mattered and bring other people into the dialogue humor usually a part of it with a writers or artists or whatever they did that for fairly short stints went back to MORE Magazine rating and then I started working for not ever watch which was a George Clooney screw yes George Clooney had been doing a lot of work and our four and one to formalize his work they're both in terms of the advocacy but also he's raising money and granting and wanted to grant it out to groups on the ground so he alone was and his pals Matt Damon Brad Pitt Don Cheadle and the late producer Chandra yes our humble brag V alley producer Jerry Weintraub they fertilize it and decided to create a nonprofit called Not on Our Watch and they wanted someone who sort of understood the handshake between again that Entertainment Creative Class and the sort of political policymaking class so I rode a little long brief about what I wanted Dylan had incredibly nerve wracking meeting with George Clooney I have broken high heel I remember that very clearly and die cut the jobs of now and do that for a couple years and did you travel to dar for these yet I went to Chad the Chad Darfur border with George and Lynne to the Zimbabwe border with Matt did some work and the Burma Thai border we had a something to give new moms oh yeah oh yeah I mean Burma has always been for so you know this David the president said a lot of work along with Ben Rhodes on to bring that country back into the world but for so long it was shuttered off to everyone else and that's where my mom is from It's really weird to grow up with them my mom is from Burma she's Burmese there's a Burmese community in DC and it exists it is this kind of a far far away planet in another universe that I could never really wrap my head around and it was so shrouded in sorrow you know I mean the human rights violations the story of Anson CG the Nobel Prize laureate who is locked under house arrest to me it was just so ripe with deep sadness so was super meaningful to be able to go over there and try and change things in support groups on the ground who are doing important work and how impactful where with these refugees are huge I mean we I remember actually one of the groups that we supported was a group of secret video journalists who are basically under the threat of their lives trying to gather news and information and footage relating to the Burmese military systematic abuse of human rights whether that was no child can scripting child soldiers working out mass rapes or just the pillaging of the land they were trying to gather the information so that it could be smuggled out of the country so that the rest of the world could see and that's just you know someone who cared about brand journalism so meaningful to go to their offices hidden away on a side street and just see the bravery you know that smuggled cameras inside bags and they were so fearless and it's getting harder because of this are fractured nature of the world and the dissolution of of norms that use to govern combat and conflict it's getting harder to be a journalist and much more dangerous have just un ending admiration for people who do that work to shine a light in places where there so it so desperately needed so you up and then you decided to become a journalist but well i din rain sideways rain for magazines for years the men off of the Clooney stuff yeah I thought you know it was really it was that it was the roof you remember this There was called the saffron Revolution bodies monks took to the streets in two thousand a day and they and I just felt like the way it's the stakes were just getting higher I've been traveling around the wall that these guys and I thought you know just wanna go back to writing about the world so I'd been writing and contribute a couple pieces to various publications and then I was offered a job covering the White House for Politics Daily they never covered the White House before but I thought OK and was an incoming new administration and I was really curious about what was going to happen sell I moved to DC and the Obama yesterday and and I moved to DC and got a seat in the briefing room and that's what it all like I think that's a big radical departure yes I'm a journalist you have to share yeah and and I think you know in part Melinda hamburger who hired me is great while the person likes the fact that I had international experience and cultural experience but not really inside the Beltway experience he thought that would bring I think a fresh perspective and I also think that you have to be tenacious and to jump in with both feet if you're going to be a journalist and she knew that I could do that so how did you find cut I I I've spent the early part my life in journalism oh and obviously have dealt with journalists all my life and I covered buildings like I was the City Hall bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune and Sun um but I find a way has a kind of weird b because so much of it is you're dependent on what you're handed and enterprise reporting is really tough because the place is kind of lockdown so in a sense there's a element of stunt I don't mean to denigrate all fine people who cover the White House but there's an element of stain on her feet Yes to the job that I would find kind of frustrating hate to I mean I look I was in the White House reporter for an extended period time rookie year and change on an acting upon it is kind of stifling I mean you are going as briefings every day it becomes kind of this insane cat and mouse game with over the press secretary Robert Gibbs does matter what and and and ate at having gives as far as press secretary GHz ago was a great press secretary because he would he would say things you know like on you at this and that gives really knew what was going on he wasn't just kind of hour and a mouthpiece he sort of understood what was going on is unusual because usually the press secretary is exactly that just a spokes person yet Robert was really an advisor as well as a spokesperson and he had spent so much time with Barack Obama as a candidate as a senator now as president he really did know and sort of what was thinking was on most of these things and Robert you knew when Robert was pissed off you know he he I mean I'm sure to the chagrin of the administration sometimes robber would make news yes I know that as much as subtle as a screen door on a submarine I fell for the present was great you know on there is he in in what can be a fairly humdrum daily existence Robert Evan Lee made it more interesting you know I mean a lot of stuff that was an incredible time to be covering what was happening in the lighthouse weather was the BP oil spill or the era I remember my friend other side yet is tough you know Yeah I was I was an incredible those first couple years were jam packed both because the incoming and all the ambitious things we try and get done but um you know starting with the economic crisis it was it was really a trial by fire it was it was tell you the incredible time to be there I will wouldn't trade that experience for anything so you got then plucked out of there came a TV star has that um so I got into college with a wonderful man named Chris Hayes yea he and I have been friends forever and he was guest hosting a show on MSNBC and he knew that I was covering the White House he's living in D C The Times addresses from you know I know from Chicago he's working for the nation exactly how everyone has to say yes so Chris big Cubs fan yes yes wrote the first pitch not but a few games ago trust me I know all of me I am sorry them semi always picture yeah we send everybody all the centers sell Chris was like you wanna come on TV in play TV with me and I said sure so I was on and made MSNBC kept calling
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Ep. 143 - Rep. Ro Khanna


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Ep. 135 - Sen. John McCain


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Ep. 129 - Pete Buttigieg


Ep. 128 - Sen. Kamala Harris


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Ep. 125 - Jeffrey Goldberg


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Ep. 101 - Alex Wagner


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Ep. 101 - Alex Wagner

The Axe Files with David Axelrod