Ep. 88 - Ron Brownstein

Update: 2016-10-17
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Ron Brownstein, columnist at The Atlantic and longtime political journalist, talks to David about working for Ralph Nader in the 1970s, the intersection between Hollywood and Washington, and the demographic realities that will likely determine the presidential election.

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 the the the the consumer waste demographics in politics is destiny and has had a huge impact on our politics and particularly presidential elections there is a greater student of that than Ron Brownstein of The longtime veteran political matters now the director of editorial content for Atlantic Media but one of the really incisive commentators on American politics he came by the UN's to politics the other day to talk about the selection and while he was here we sat down and talked about not just that but his his long career in literature the Ron Brownstein your or you're an interesting character because you are serve half journalists half scholar and you can travel in circles the other journalists don't necessarily travel but you didn't start you come from a family that's not a family of scholars in the butt but a working class family tell me Tell me about Yeah it grows in value and a sigh Queens my dad was electrician Mama's mostly home receptionist for a doctor she got the job when someone in my sixth grade and swung a candle and cut my ear in half and while it's getting mature so not my eye or eye that Doctor thank you for that I went to public schools in Queens and State University of New York and has a high school originally I thought it was Benjamin goes in Queens and I wanted to be as we want to be a writer but I thought I was going to be you know that Scott Fitzgerald than I was you study English Literature teacher and even high school I was writing stories like fiction and submitting them to seventeen are caused or whatever but there was a journalism professor who is a Hey want you write pretty well want you go to work on the paper a school paper and I really like that and then when I got to college I was on the paper were like about you know I like the immediacy it it also felt more it felt more connected I think writing fiction just felt very lonely because of some of you doing totally on your own and journalism is interest a hybrid of you know you're out in the world and then your back trying to process as you know yourself and constantly refreshes you might be out in the world to me by talking to people and I felt like a novelist you know I was too you know I never got far enough to know whether it with less but that was like you are lifting you know yourself and journalism cannot help because if the characters are interesting events they provide like if your nose you have to live within your head yet to live with your head and journalists to go out to be part of it is unlike the difference of like fun going up all three hundred feet or hitting a fastball is coming under EU getting some help from the team gets momentum from the other side so I found that really really compelling and once I got to college and never looked back I know I never for a moment thought I would do anything else say it say it is though I've had this discussion with others hear about the storytelling nature I mean incentives in a sense some people in politics are all in some form or fashion involved in stories young and certainly journalism is storytelling so it's not a big leap from one now and it's also the front row seat history is real and it isn't always that having a seat on Air Force One I think that the one in the one image in my mind above all for some reason this struck me so much it was the nineteen ninety four campaign the Republican landslide I was in Tennessee writing about the twin races Fred Thompson got elected and I think first got elected and I think it was for Frist I went to a clogging Festival in late October and the clogging dancing somewhere outside of Nashville the trees were beautiful that day was beautiful and I was the there is no way in hell I would ever be here if not for this job I would not see this part of America and that was true every day you know in especially in the old days I hate to say it when you got more time to do stuff well I mean this another discussion I've had which is the changing nature of journalism and political reporting I often wonder if we would have picked up on the Trump phenomenon more quickly had reporters been out doing what you know the people I grew up watching yes journalism did which is essentially get in court the David Broder is a yes on cars and drove around and David Broder was knocking on doors after he was David Broder in capital letters I mean literally you know and it was is very different and I think you know we are providing information than ever before been on this only more understanding and and and you know that just the velocity is now required in the economic models for everybody and I think it's really it's really admirable is that the great news papers atleast York Times Washington Post have tried to separate that pressure from allowing people at least on the print side to produce spend time in a community and really incredible story you probably read the Washington Post of the one Trump supporter in small town Pennsylvania all the conspiracy theory she believe how incredible and the good news is that stuff does well on the Internet and once you once you finish also has a dual life as well it's brilliant in print it's it's powerful and it certainly would David Ferrer whole has done this year on the investigative reporter emotion shown that there's still a true man and I believe the video was the most concurrently viewed newspaper possibly video of the doubt from video that they post it was the most currently viewed newspaper story ever does first confirming the truism that sex is yes never has and never hurts but you know one thing about the times in the post and they both have a lot of resources to this as you point out that the poses and has the benefit of as sort of oligarchs or cologne owner of ownership so there he is plowing money Bezos plowing money into the Times's you know all accounts struggling in one of the concerns is that Bill will ultimately will be hurt by the challenge is a lack of that kind of funding the challenge is that with the exception of the Big Apple scoop the internet doesn't really reward reporting more it's kind of attitude and taken snark in perspective that the positive and this perspective and take on charitable and it's kind of snark and voice but in any case the true rewards voice more than rewards reporting accepted the extreme and the other big revelation a lot of people will read it on live a kind of the bread and butter of the Internet is not the reported story that mattered to the L A Times when I was starting out they're going to a place for three or four days my favorite little story I ever wrote whew I guess or two one was two story two thousand about the ground more in Michigan between the NRA and the AFL over the legions of blue collar voters and I spent a week I was with Charlton Heston won a hockey rink and then the next day I was with Teamsters on the on the parking lot of a bakery and it was just you know it was pretty for the management did not want them there and would not dare sae hope you know I was just very well here you go out with the drama that right and you know an era of peace and ninety three I guess the fall of ninety three about the mayoral race the rematch between Giuliani and David Dickens in New York I was a New York for like ten days and wrote but I still think is the finest thing I've ever written kind of a city on the edge of a nervous breakdown Kennedys and you know so how is that is that possible now second the economic models of journalism or that somebody send me for ten days right yeah The Atlantic magazine we do that all the time it was only four stories in the magazine relative to all the stuff we produce online and everybody else produces online inbox and was beaten so it's a it's I think it's a challenge know plus and the other thing is there's so much that nothing stands out like could David Broder R W Apple exist in this way they exist in this climate is there anyone that people really look to as a wow that that matter well that's true in erm me I mean you know there's no Walter Cronkite anymore no there are no iconic figures really in American journalism and there are things about that well the idea of Democracy Rising of the discussion and information but the cacophony is real and there really isn't much ability to separate what matters and what's not and there is the circular effect of just things I'm urging somewhere going to social media going on a cable friend and the reality is that for all for all the velocity for all of that activity the underlying stability of something like this election is real disconnect between the conversation on the consequences I will I want to I want to get into that and I want to return to her story is well the one point I would make about this calf and knee is that people seek they seek refuge is an often basic refuges that affirm rather than inform and so you get alternative kind of versions of reality which I think fuels some of the hard edge that we see in our politics right now absolutely I fell for a number of years that is contrary to what it believes the Fox the Fox News Channel is an asset for Democrats for example because Fox basically tells the Republican base everyday you are a majority and powers be stolen from you by some by varying methods either Obama bamboozled the country are Democrats or voter fraud and it bases you don't change anything you know you are the majority it's just being stolen from you when the evidence I think is very different yeah I think I was helped by the way that that you know I I I came across Roger Ailes years ago in use of media consultant and I was a campaign manager and I was doing a race here Paul Simon against Joe Chuck Person for the U S Senate in Illinois he was the camp the meet Santa and you know I have followed him because he was an iconic figures in media yes on before he he does have this network that he created reflected his own personality he came out of Ohio in the sixties yet have a John Birch sort of orientation and he created a network that reflected him and spoke to people like him in those terms and I think what you're It's interesting cut that it helps Democrats because I think what's happened is you've got this radicalized Republican base that feels as being stolen from right that if you tell that they are the majority to center right country all of these kind of true isms and that somehow the only reason you're not in power is because the public is being deceived or Democrats reporting a new electorate or their voter fraud you know in fact there are underlying demographic cultural and economic changes that have provided alas the advantage Democrats of the presidential level if not the congressional level that the party has to adjust to sooner or later party the Republican Party has to just two and Fox and much of the other conservative media Rush Limbaugh are out there telling them the opposite they don't have to change the fact they can double down and he is going to be the same fight that they had after twenty twelve Mitt Romney won a higher share wif others are on a raid in nineteen eighty and lost by five million votes and the initial impulse was hate change and then it became know any facts to tell down with striking to read the autopsy of the Republican Party after the two thousand twelve election and how fundamentally it's been shredded by the Trump candidacy which is basically done everything the exact opposite of what was recommended they recommended reaching out to minorities particularly Hispanics women and young people and those are the reason if he loses he's going to lose or yes the major reason but let me before we get into all of that I just want to finish your story because your interest in politics that begin when you're a kid I yet as I was working at the National Journal magazine nineties which is a weekly magazine in DC nonpartisan really focused intently on governing it was and I say it's a it's logo should be more or you didn't you do is done with Nader that right out of college I wrote a couple books on but that doesn't also very policy oriented how did you come to that how did you end up hooking up with him I like the way life works I was the SUNY Binghamton and there was a person who ran the purring in New York publishers visually state organizations consumer consumer organization he he went down it became effective leaders chief of staff and hired me right out of college to do that and I essentially I was brought in they were all of these projects and kind of the aftermath of the knitters Raiders book projects that started never finished I was basically hired to either finish them myself or hire other people and at the twenty one I was the supervising staff and editing books and read a column at a college and we got a lot of the finished I wrote a couple co authored a couple one was Ray's really classic for a while the top and or people or a demonstration and when I finish that that was killed the project a twenty two on fascinating though to like interview on that see you Richard Perle all of these figures trial of the Americans I feel like I'm watching Maya my youth you know come kind of come back to life Casper Weinberger we interviewed William Casey you know is it was really something and then we talk for National Journal or the kind of a regulatory be before we leave did you work closely with Nader yet what was your impression of him so he was you know he was is very much as he is now kind of person with just intense commitment and blinders me kind of you know if you if you want to know everything that happened two thousand you should go back and find the seventeen paged single spaced typed letter he wrote in condemning his number one lieutenant ever shown Clay Brook which is writing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under Jimmy Carter and you know he just has a very single minded view and has done a lot of good through that but you know can get you get kind of losing sight of the larger he's he's he's always been is one of these figures in their figures in American history that are there to awe and make the deals and there are those who are there to bang on the windows and window bays away to anybody who got alot done maybe the auto industry is that you know a different place terms alligator came on the scene in the sixties yes saw around of our stay to the core of their own safety to speed read the book and then extended that to really create the idea of kind outside check on all the regulatory agencies the idea that it should not only the regulated industries that are trying to influence the all the agencies that created the seventies the EPA and the occupation said Health Administration and the older ones like the FDA to try to create institutional voice and was really effective at that I think kind of struggle more in kind of extending that tactical issue by issue and kind of a broader political vision issues you will always be linked and humid in two thousand to that election got ninety thousand votes in Florida Gore lost by five hundred and thirty seven and made the argument which I thought was you know I look mean you know he correctly said as the third party candidate it's not your responsibility to worry about who's going to win but I think I think where he went wrong in that campaign was arguing that Gore and Bush would be interchangeable as president because that was not intellectually honest and knows well and the subsequent events were pretty profound it's unlikely we would go into Iraq if the one we certain have squandered the deficit is huge it was huge and crowded the surplus I don't I don't blame I don't think you look at you if you believe that you have a message that you want to take the country and the only way to change the parameters of the possible is in fact to run and bring that message to the country I think that's why you can object to that because otherwise the third parties would never otherwise you think about the early sixties when Nader emerged was a moment of maximum overlap of the parties and so you had on the left you had Michael Harrington Rachel Carson Ralph Nader voices like that say this consensus doesn't work in on the right you a Barry Goldwater Phyllis Phyllis Schlafly you know say this consensus doesn't work so there's a place for those voices but in two thousand I thought the party got wrong was on was was misguided was going the next step and saying Look it doesn't matter which when these guys are elected are the same you hear some echoes of that here you do in the pen and certainly it's not true we you know Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton represent really different futures so back to your narrative you are at the National Chapter National Gallery The National Journal and a great reporter and a mike wines is that there's a great old school front page editor named Dick Frank with the mustache and a recently passed away and he had designed the device the coverage for the nineteen eighty four primary so that he basically divided the country to regions and gave a different order each region they responsible for everything is going on and Michael Wise was a great reporter was part a national title team including Michael Gordon to have him in Robert Samuelson is really an eighteen by going to hire away their times and you know I was twenty five years old I was covering regulatory agencies they take it you know go to California right about the California primary and I was the count went out to write about the nineteen eighty four California primary to Walter Mondale Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson that I met Mickey Cantor John Emerson Maxine Waters and Gray Davis the hindering John Emerson and Emerson and a hard campaigns respectively from down the hall and at Phelps the law firm of Chapman added one on TV the chairs and you know they like my story and they said you're another by the fall I was the chief political reporter for the general election that a though one of my responsibility in that election back in the CIA in the old days was his weekly magazine I had to write the story that was ready to go into print Mondale won ok so you know talk about talk about the Maytag repairman right even though I yeah I was six thousand words I still remember the lead from now on it'll be Walter Mondale that Harry Truman underdog site as their patron saint yeah I I can empathize with that because I was a political reporter's Chicago Tribune then I get to write you know profiles of people like Rubin ask you when he was running for president in whom former governor of Florida and in the previous election Phil Crane when he was running for president a lot of them not terribly relevant stories I covered John Anderson's running mate Pat Lucy you govern us and for vice president there was a huge market for the Third Party Vice Presidential like to ask young reporters do ask you one of those candidates or the next red banner with an exclamation point to ask you yeah like Jeb and Lamar yet so I did that and I know I did ever few years and then in nineteen eighty six was it was a real kind of turning point for me because I didn't have it over few years I had job offers from the New York Times and The L A Times that point and I'd only been in Washington you know seven years out of school and I felt like I didn't get out I would never get high we just kind of stay and just see that was fine but I want is a liaison with the California and I wrote a book and the first three years I was there mostly writing a book which was a history of the relationship in Hollywood and politics down and go back to the nineteen twenties call the power of the glitter and while I was doing that kind of make ends meet shockingly I did not get a six figure much less a seven figure advance a you know I wrote a love for the L A Times are of the magazine era for the Sunday opinion section and so I finished the book The Great shall Be coffee is now the head of the museum and was the air was hired me as a national political reporter based in L A cover the ninety two campaign from California lot of miles and then move back to Washington where I spent the next twenty one years most of them with the L A Times but switching over the Atlantic in two thousand and seven I want to take a quick break for a message from our sponsor and then I want to talk about Hollywood and Washington rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender is 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 back with Ron Brownstein of UC wrote this book in the eighties that relationship has has become even more intense there's like this romance yes when you go to the White House Correspondents' Dinner and it's a bevy of of of Hollywood and you know you go to and people in Washington are you know in thrall by the celebrities and it seems I always felt like there was a kinship between Hollywood and Washington you know both you know celebrity city's very high and yes elves write down valued the celebrity but tell me about the sort of the the synergy between Washington and Hollywood so I feel like this book is great when I wrote it in the late eighties I was in my early twenties And at that point it was it was early enough that there are still people alive from the blacklist era from the thirties from the Popular Front era I mean I interviewed some of the Hollywood Ten I interviewed people who are writers who were blacklisted I interviewed people who knew Melvin Douglas and were friends with Groucho Marx and it was first on an incredible introduction L A driving around whether it was the people who had retired to success like Philip done a great screenwriter was letting his beautiful house on the beach in Malibu or the ex communists screenwriter John Bright who was nearly blind living in a tiny humble apartment in Hollywood with newspapers piled up like kind of pack rat quarter and it was just Evelyn Keyes who was married at one point a John Hughes didn't play solitaire is her sister knows is however more so it was a great introduction and to me like the turning point was what really changed was as TV moved into politics and politics inexorably develop more of entertainment or the ability to communicate at least become more part role Hollywood really changed its view which is that in the first decades of Hollywood's involvement they kind of saw themselves as bit players who are there to provide maybe a flash of glamour the idea of Hollywood star having an opinion that they felt necessary with the world was very late Orson Welles Orson Welles Orson Welles wrote a column he debated Tom Dewey once for Franklin Roosevelt who want to run for Senate but Humphrey Bogart Lauren Bacall never really thought that the world cared what they thought about you know at least even see a way why did they want and receive a new president they were special on the other manly Bradley but they didn't think he was apparently yet let us use was absolutley loved him I talked to her butt in like they were less likely in those days the kind of feel like they had to share their views I think what happened in the sixties the combination of the erosion of faith in all institutions we we forget pre sixties how much deference there was to kind of you know that the experts the people running the country but also the rise of television so in the sixties are people like Paul Newman saying all white wise politician anymore inherently legitimate have a legitimate point of view than I do you know and they would go out a campaign against the war or express their view I think that was the turning point and really since the sixties stars have become much more assertive about kind of putting forward their own views and probably the most politically successful celebrity of all times bah no I think you know in George Clooney similar whatever state I kind of see a third generation first generation where the people loose on stage and waved mostly more entertained most as what they thought they were there to do the second generation work on of the activists within the political system like Paul Newman Warren Beatty and Robert Redford and you know many in the seventies and eighties in the third generation are people who can move to direct action so I think of your feet up on our George Clooney or Matt Damon or Angelina Jolie's are many of the one politically most politically active celebrities today are less likely to be the campaign then setting up their own non profit right do something in the world I thought he was still campaigning is a charge of that but that that was something that probably would not have occurred to the people forty years ago although eventually they got there two of the Newman Redford created importance to sianz as well so if there is definitely an evolution and I certainly here to stay because in any society the ability to attract attention is a form of power just isn't right in any democracy especially if you can get people to look at you they are more likely to hear you know what you're saying and what doesn't take much to attract attention o Today was right you're of the car dash and this does not and one other thing about the celebrities is and I'm using your thought about this is talking to people in the eighties and seventies and eighties they were seen as a way to expand the bandwidth I mean there are only so many people who watch the evening news and who read the New York Times area who consume normal channels of political news if you have a celebrity talking about your candidate or cause suddenly you're in US magazine you're more likely to be in the beauty parlor than you were more likely to be on you know Entertainment Tonight or Access I can tell you that what we discovered when I was doing present Obama campaign's was that the marginal voter was watching the news and the people watching the evening news generally were for they weren't good you are going to sway them particularly because they were highly informed voters and they chose to be watching the news and so one of the things that one of the revelations that came from this or Analytics work that we did was that the marginal voters in in and there weren't that many of them were people who work can evoke but warm paying attention to the news and so we we bought sixty four cable networks and well you know the Romney campaign was mine the news we were buying you know reruns of Andy of Mayberry it's three in the morning which seemed insane except the data suggested that that's where we're going to find a marginal voter friend of mine who works in the Romney campaign said that if they lost Ohio which of course they did he was going to blame it on Judge Judy because of the jester election on the Obama ads on Judge Judy a basically a blue collar right white women especially stay at home moms and yes you have to go and I's liberties kind of give you the little little ability to go outside the normal channels because they covered by different outlets both in print and on TV and you know that you get it I mean Mark Mehlman is democratic also said to be two thousand and four I think he was pulling for Kerry than the
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Ep. 88 - Ron Brownstein

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