Ep. 89 - John Heilemann

Update: 2016-10-20


John Heilemann, co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics and best-selling author of Game Change, talks with David about Trump’s electoral end game, his own short but momentous stint as a political aide, and why his personality traits were ultimately better suited to journalism.

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 book Game Change and the subsequent movie made in the kind of media celebrity and he is everywhere on your TV dial as well as writing for the Bloomberg political site which he co edits with Mark Halperin John Heilman is one of those valuable and interesting guys you'll meet in politics and not just in terms of his insights into the process but his insights into people we talked the other day about his career in journalism which included I learned a small side trip into politics and this very very crazy two thousand and sixteen The The The The The John Heilman welcome I've always wanted to ask you this question and now is the time it's really a two part question Have you always been interested in politics and have you always been a smart ass and you can order you can answer in whatever order you'd like seems like an unnecessarily harsh way hostile way to start this interview Why don't think there's anything wrong with being interest in politics I always managed in politics but pretty interested in politics are pretty long time was up in L A right the group Los Angeles were folks from California know the goodies from Calvin Westerners Midwest as my dad was from Milwaukee my mother is from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan how they end up out there you know my dad came out in the same Great migration for a lot of people that went to L A who are engineers who was an electrical engineer and he in the time when a lot of aerospace companies and big engineering firms were populating Southern California Northern California was just a huge post World War Two demand for people at technical schools so he was the only person in his family were left the Midwest almost his entire family's day was caught and so he I was little my father's relatively conservative guy he was kind of a culturally conservative I mean like in the far right crazy women like in the modest kind of Gerald Ford Republican who's voted have voted for Republicans whole life which is what Midwest or Republicanism was totally a progressive Republican from Wisconsin again modest in his in his politics and its aspirations a lot of ways and he had voted for Republicans up until Gore v Bush when he heard some interview with George W Bush were here the treasure Bush boys are preferred to be the commissioner of baseball then be present at states he thought that was disqualified not because he did love baseball because he did but because you thought you know there's some job you'd rather have to be president you should be president well the real question is Why did Major League Baseball pass on George W Bush for commissioner of baseball but the American people elect him president of the United States that is a very profound question to which I admire Bush by the way for being such a baseball fan I do too I do too but I'll just just in the story my father he does it for him and he's out of Republican sense that um so that was his deal and he and his like the least likely person you would've thought that would say fucking it up throw all my stuff in the back of a car drive to California when no one is Stanley never done that and know his family for subs will ever did but he did and just seems like there's a job a move to Santa Monica and was his wish was your mum with a merit that they were not they just started dating he'd met her in Milwaukee from a few years are about a year or so before he moved to California he basically moved to California got there I looked around and thought You know I think I'd like to have Daddy here with me pick up the phone and said You should come out to California will get married if you're in sheet if you're into that and he was just great and so she like that like im the only person from her family were left to that point whoever left the Midwest to choose from a tiny tiny town on the Upper Peninsula tiny like a town with like seventy five people in Colorado it's like not very far from our river Rhine River in Iron Mountain is committing all those places I know you're familiar with given that you have my colleague Tim's goes accuses here and helps on this podcast is not in here because he's from Michigan so right he knows all these places well and I'm from south I have a house in South I was going to say you're in a slightly fancier part of the state with the Chicago part of mission yeah so So able to govern with California and were classic Californian offerings of that generation they moved out in the late fifties like fifty eight I think and lived in Santa Monica for a while moved to San Fernando Valley when it was just like getting built essentially and their incredible pictures of our house on the four West in Santa Ana Valley when the tract houses just been laid out there as you know it's like the valley was likely the town in law and urges all the tract houses like five different basically all the same size with like four different kinds of designs to them but there are like mirror images of each other just lined up the street with no trees no grass just dirt and the stuff just been laid like where they were just laying on the sidewalks planting the saplings and that's were I was born raised and you are born and raised in California is a political kind of eco system all its own sure what what what do you remember about that and the politics of California sort of you probably grew a post Jerry Brown well use areas governor in the seventy said to shed my earliest political consciousness is was all about we are all about the brown dynasty for SE always when I go to California Bowie say I'm sad that the so long that Jerry Brown was governor I started covering politics course he still is but yeah so the brown dynasty was huge on the Democratic side Reagan was dominant as an idea and a person on the Republican the Republican side of Proposition thirteen which was the proper pretty popular in the valley with a very popular the party led the property tax revolt another safe so affected a lot of the politics of the state in a pretty profound way and those alike that the lamb think about was a kid growing up one of the things that stick in my mind politically you know that there was this family called the Browns that had run a lot of stuff and Democratic politics and there was this kind of insurgent character name Reagan who was governor announces run for president and that the property tax revolt was a big key to understanding why Reagan was popular in California and one and with the bases of his appeal was going to be to the country which was yummy your taxes in a variety of different ways those are things I remember to do stuff in politics that I did not I mean I was super interested in sports and I was super interested in politics I was an active I didn't like you I did not unlike you I did not like around was a leaf litter was involved in political campaigns or do any of that stuff with three kids know me oh just you know their kids to do that and then kids who are more observers I think the people you're interesting because for a lot of reasons but one of them is that the journalistic and observational tendencies that you have to exist in tension with the activists want to be part of it think that's part of what makes you interesting compelling figure for most of us who are in the journalistic business right the observational outsider thing is just so predominant that I'm not a Joiner like a large order of anything right so politics is one big thing you can join but I'm not that person that serve the people watcher and that's a quality that not being a Joiner being an icon of class is to me one of the prerequisites for being the good journalist you know I think that being skeptical of institutions of skeptical by weight but not cynical yeah which is I think the way we see a lot of cynicism but institutions that's kind of frightening yeah but skeptical is so unnecessary I always thought one of the caught one of the one of the paradoxes of the new when I left the newspaper left because this country was becoming too corporate I felt like a lake the bottom line started taking over and you know this Wolf you stay you know you could do really well you could rise if you could be editor of this newspaper someday and I thought I'm not a good corporate soldier and I don't think good reporters really are yeah I think that's true I think one of it's not just institutions Although hundred percent skepticism without cynicism um it's a tough line to walk sounds which institutions are important but I also find that true of true believers you know speaking of mentioning at the book tithe of your Yeah I'm inherently when I meet people who are true believers I am both intrinsically immediately skeptical and kind of like suspicious of people who are true believers and yet not cynical about it really inspired by those people you know it's like I'm falling I'm a lapsed Catholic right or least I was raised Catholic I was never really a Catholic and Francis has brought you back but I wanted but I went to Catholic school nun with a Catholic elementary school I went to Catholic high school and when I'd meet Catholics like capture really entranced by the mysticism of the Mass and are really deeply moved by that I find it kind of inspirational and affecting to me and yet I'm also really skeptical about people who were zealots about religion and I myself find all of it like just a little bit it's not me I'm not and would never be that person even though I can kind of see what's powerful about it to people or that keep that person and obviously they sometimes go too far in various forms of religious extremism but at the right level I find it kind of belief something I cannot participate in all but also something that I don't find holy and admirable journey yeah well look I'm sort of in the same boat I'm in I'm Jewish and I take a lot of solace and feels warmth toward the traditions of of the faith and reminds me of my you know my my family I mean it's my link to my family it's there's a rudeness there but I'm just not you know I'm not a religious person so you want to you went to Northwestern University and you want study journalism yeah so why'd you choose to do that well following up like that I'd only thing I knew from coming out of high school was I was going to write don't like when i i very quick relatively early age like maybe ninth grade experiences writing some things for which that I was both proud of him that I was praised for that kind of both those things were I was into it enjoy I enjoyed doing it and then I got good feedback and that's an office of the cycle that leads people towards things and I when I left I was getting ready to go to college I didn't know what I would be a journalist about I was really interested in music film TV popular culture broadly speaking is really just in sports I participated in sports and played a lot of selling website but you sound like a website is a great website for today yes the saws interest in all this culture stuff I was interested in all the sports stuff and I was also really into politics they had like all these things I was interested in writing about some of it all a bit part of it I know what but I thought I'd be a journalist I was going thing I thought was me I'd never had any other aspiration apart from the professional baseball player for a brief period of time but professionally it was clear to me and what made you decide not to do that well that might might might might might or might order a cheater cuff in my sophomore year high school was one reason um probably of it though I thought I was quite talented probably lack of talent to the injury gave me an excuse like Donald Trump talk about a rigged election like when I didn't become a target point my fucked up so I knew was going to journalists and truly from that from the time from that moment until today I believe it's like the only thing I've ever been interested in doing and the only thing I could do like I think if I wasn't doing this either talking about what to talk talking on TV or writing and interpreting observing reporting analyzing explaining if I wasn't doing this I'd be asleep in a bus shelter somewhere like a junkie someplace and I don't know that the stark don't have any other professional I've never had there's never been another profession I thought I really want to do that and there's never been a profession where looked at and thought would be good at that so it has been come on a maniacal so to answer your question I wanted to go to so I had this kind of parochial sense that like getting learning how to do journalism I now am very skeptical about the animals as well but at the time when I was seventeen sixteen was like there's this great school called Northwestern that as the Sistine journalism school called the deal and as explained it to me they had a relative internal skepticism about journalism school till so there were very encouraging of the notion that you should have a second major and if you look to all the journalism department around the country was only one that was also attached to a top notch Liberal Arts College University and Northwestern was that right Craig brought University with a great political science department and also the journalism school that gave you some kind of credentials so that was to me and the campus was beautiful and I thought well this is kind a great all do journalism and political science and and and do that and that's what you agree with you on this point about journalism schools I mean I am biased because I never took a journalism course read my livejournal zoom is one of those things that you have to learn but I do have the best thing that journalism schools do is hook their kids up with interesting as well as part of the thing at McGill was the big thing they said was You're going to be here for your entire freshman you're going to one journalism class out of twelve or software you can take one journalism class of twelve year junior year your main thing is really send you to a newspaper for a semester for a quarter so you get to work a newspaper and then come back in your fourth year your senior year you'll do of them like you can use in the magazine journalism class or a broadcaster isn't just that seem like a relatively light touch to me it wasn't like anybody was claiming your class is going to be journalism instructional closure other focus put aside so you said yes so the dumb and Chicago was an interesting play you yeah so we're doing the Herald WASHINGTON U S or eighty three eighty seven oh my goodness yeah those were tumultuous years incredible incredible years to be a great city I mean stars like my favorite cities in the world but it was a great The politics of Chicago in those four years was fantastic yeah would you take away what was your observation as a observer of Harold and that whole era here well you know it's obvious it was just at the graph the biggest I don't think I did not know as much about his first afternoon for those who don't know first African American mayor of Chicago got elected in nineteen eighty three in what was the most tumultuous mayoral race and probably in the history of the city right I think I knew I did not know as much then as I do now about the history of about the history of how braces and got institutionalized geographically and in Stand and economically in the city is I as I began as I know now I knew something about it and I knew something about the ways in which segregation it happened here and how public housing got built and that there was this enormous racial does not abide and I you know there's always the races everywhere but in a way it was very regret like a lot a lot of Mexican Americans on my street even in suburban La La Land right we're melting potty where I grew up with was the other American population in L A was out was was segregated largely from the ballot will lot of white Hispanic Americans all over the valley a lot of other things a lot of other flavors of ethnic diversity so getting Chicago and seeing the store consists of black and white in the city and knowing a little bit about that history the doctor was about to be the first after American mayor in the city seemed obviously monumental and I again you I know we're covering that read I was so like understanding I think one of the things I took away game was a very rudimentary again because I don't want to overstate how much of a savant I was but a rudimentary understanding of the way in which though after American base and up and the progressive whites in the city could make someone mare that that coalition was in some respects novel and was potentially really powerful not just in Chicago but in other places and I know that something that you learn from covering that and became an option for your career we got into the political strategy thus was the coalition that helped to lift for Obama to prominence but the thing about municipal politics city politics is you do see in stark relief a lot of the things that ultimately are applicable in a broader context and coalitions is one you win primary elections in particular by having a base or a coalition of praises and if you don't have one it's very hard to when we saw that in this last primary season due no doubt Trump had a base and the the sixteen other candidates were sharing one and he was the beneficiary of all of that did you go right to graduate school after or after you got at Northwestern but did not want to I'd got admitted to a variety of insulin really know what I want to do a hundred percent that point but I got into a bunch of applied a bunch of different things like some political science and government graduate schools and some journalism graduate schools but not so newspapers or no I knew I won I thought Owen Graduate School coming out of college and then I got into a bunch of places a little confused about what I should do a girlfriend the time who said Jews are confusing you she was she was she actually provide the clarity she said she said You know you know I don't know what you're going to do but I moved to Washington DC and work on Capitol Hill and I said that since a good like solution to this problem kind of befuddled by choice I will just go to DC I had just incredibly some interactions I'd written a profile in the Northwestern in nineteen eighty lakh the late fall of eighty six may be above Joe Biden spent much time when Biden was thing about running for president I met this kind of Joe Carey whose name you'll be familiar with who said you should work for Joe Biden so actually way to cut what I want to wait for the summer of eighty seven I thought I was going to come back after taking a trip to Europe and go work for the Biden campaign and there wasn't a Biden campaign yet so because he ran into rum over over pleasures right so I came back in service of all it's good to see and I moved to Washington and um worked on Capitol Hill for the most corrupt members of Congress in modern history free speech or Maine The former chair of the House Banking Committee Rylan has basically single handedly responsible for the Savings loan crisis Ireland which part of that did you play a role no no no part of the part where the part where as Freddy's crew was falling apart I was the press secretary was like What the fuck did i do i have to work for this guy he's horrible was that kind of name I got those were direct quotes to reporters in retrospect I got there the sky like any job you know them will work for Gephardt on the presidential campaign like just a release I met a gal and Stephanopoulos very like I was twenty one in that context and I got this job a cab home because I need to pay the rent and I was a bartender at Garrett in Georgetown where I met a guy who was connected to this other guy John Rendon another Navy although political consultant later became involved in some very spooky endeavor to divers but that time he was the guy who ran a lot of convention stuff for a Democratic group so for the Association of State Democratic chairs of the SBC and the DJ so in addition to working for praising Jermaine working at a bar going and spending a lot of the summer of eighty eight in Atlanta helping the convention convention I'm kind of trying to like like working on the inside of this convention for this with this group of young were all like kids were basically friends like Calico cow goes to Anna for the summer is live in my p Should Boulevard in like and they end up sitting through that convention and the Democrats are for workers' rights except as it applies to the people work for the right you have a room at the Democratic convention in a room about half the size of this room running the ball was that a novel thing the satellite up link sessions for a bunch of Democrat to carry don't talk to their home district or x ray and the guy was running that operation who later became thought of as a kind of a savant in that area was Jeff Eller yeah eventually went to work for the concurrence of the small room My Guy manual all these brushes with greatness yes I sat there with Heller in this room while he smoked a cigar and windowless room for like about a week it was one of the most I'm sure I still have like fire and ideas with one kid said That's a gun even if I've ever diagnosed with lung cancer I will know who to blame because I was talking Jeff Allen is actionable and possible the sliced in touch with the allergist in case I need to come looking for him later if I ever get straight character um so that was an eye I knew I was going back to graduate school and um and I defer all these places and so that the end of that year my plan had always been I would go to go somewhere and I went in the fall of eighty eight went to the Kennedy School and Harbor at Harvard where is not just good yes we're going take a short break and we'll be right back with John Heilman 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 skip 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 I want to touch about your experience at Harvard but i also wun ask you I didn't realize until just now know that you had had these couple of years of your one year of intensive political experience and that's amazing all ago there was a lot I want to should happen that year and I would even talk about all the stuff that was criminal that happened in that time you already hinted that you were at least explaining a criminal enterprises I would see if Santa was a cruise criminal corrupt he was corrupt in the way that any rustic ask you was corrupt criminal that as someone who like to call me out but he I don't know Freddy was abusing the freaking privilege an ally Krause and Cassie was but all those creatures those roll the committee chairs as their John Dingell not saying anything about about Big John but they were like Gran D's right you're right John Dingell Dale Ross and Kass Keefe racing Jermaine Jim Wright as a speaker the House they will both those old bulls that was like a great generation of into trouble yes many of them are in trouble and some of the ethos it changed us right under their feet right and you know Freddie lost his primary in eighty eight so like I was with him for his last moment in Congress when I get all these ethics charges and various forms of them he was both use both ethically compromised also was more importantly was just in the pocket of a lot of industries so there was like a way that was not criminal in any way or even unethical but was just covered par for the course for the way those guys serve their constituents so here's my question for you do in your future years of writing about this the how of valuable was that one year you spent bumming around Washington and doing all of these different things pretty valuable in the sense that I met a lot of people who ended up being sources later you know some of the people I mentioned people that later like I had made at least some cursory contact with and so they became people who I later talked to him as I became a journalist for real but also just think just like you know moving through those things you just you or something just learn right it's like you come to a convention in a different way to see what it's like from the inside are not like in some profound some profound insight just kind of get like what's going on behind the scenes a little bit better this is why are you know I've been to ten of them as reporter and as in various roles including helping run a couple of new and so I looked at these conventions this year with that from that perspective of someone who put these things on and participated in them and the gulf between the two conventions was very apparent right and that the Democratic convention was probably the best I've ever seen and I that hurts me to say because I was involved in a couple of pretty good ones life it's like one of the key things that again this too to support low to the sophisticated to listen to axe files this will not be news isn't that sort of on you just being repetitive redundant copies to cut too obvious to mention to them this will be also too obvious but just understanding that the purpose of this event is a television broadcast that's all it is yes exactly everything goes on to haul these people who are as up to come there and irrelevant right utterly around all the stuff people fixate on is all bullshit and it's really those hour that the networks are caring right and in the extent to which you have again this is not to be like over burden this experience with Ella was that there were two things going on there was the national message that really mattered that was on national television in that primetime slot and then there was what all these people were doing to broadcast in us in us coordinated way whatever the big message talking points of that day were back to their districts because that was also a big thing yeah Becca largely goes on under the radar now yes you know it's not something you theirs than that of the two things robbery but it's all about that and nano structures those all those speeches that go on during the day only valuable to the member who's giving it so that they cast in that footage back to write to their to their districts so you want to harbor here and what you did Kennedy School of Government what would provoke you to do that well there was a you know I thought that again just thinking of ska simplistic about this is possible in the same way that I did actually think that having that year in Washington like I get I knew I did want to do politics you ought to do journalism so I went for the year I thought let's do this is a learning experience and see what it's like I'm inside the halls of Congress and at a convention and I also thought that learning about actual substance here like that would be covering public policy in some way so having sewage to the Kennedy School of Government with a mind to being a jerk yes one hundred percent I just I went there entirely in at a program then there's masses of public policy program that was like very wonky and quantitative in those other program that was weirdly called Masters of Public Administration program which had nothing to do a public administration where you could basically design two years there and not only take classes the Kennedy School but also her law school in the government department at MIT and so I went and spent two years kind of focused on the intersection of race politics and poverty and sort of just did a deep dive into a bunch of history in a bunch of policy issues related to those things into class was really great professors working on this book that Bob Rice wrote um at the time it was called The Work of Nations that became sort of like the template for the whole clean economic platform he ran in ninety two putting People First agenda human capital in trying to talk about how the new economy was going to change everything in to see you like you're research assist I researched it and I edited it and works really close with bought it for two years so I made like I learned I just learned a ton about globalization about the information technology revolution because those are things Bob Joy thinking about in the context that book and then all the stuff that acted in classrooms but the point was do this and go be a journalist not do this and go into government has struggled on the maybe naive theory that would be good as journalist actually know something yet note that I would try to know something that's an interesting past the end of their um you while you're there you had another brush with future greatness yeah you are apparently infected by Eller with the appetite for tobacco yes you are having a smoke that's a fact and who did run into Iran to the guy it really was actually a neighbor of ours though I didn't really know that he looked a couple blocks down from us and Somerville was Barack Obama just you know the story's been told many times and told me many times has the sort of funny but we were introduced by I think Jewish Tchaikovsky later and head of the FCC to get out of the FCC on a random day were you know
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Ep. 181 - Rep. Nancy Pelosi


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Ep. 162 - Rep. John Lewis


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Ep. 154 - Geoffrey Stone


Ep. 153 - Sen. Tom Cotton


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Ep. 150 - Grover Norquist


Ep. 148 - Tony Blinken


Ep. 147 - Gov. Jerry Brown


Ep. 146 - Chelsea Handler


Ep. 145 - Jennifer Granholm


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Ep. 135 - Sen. John McCain


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Ep. 133 - Julián Castro


Ep. 132 - Wendy Sherman


Ep. 131 - Jackie Calmes


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Ep. 129 - Pete Buttigieg


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Ep. 89 - John Heilemann

The Axe Files with David Axelrod