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Former Washington Post senior political reporter, Thomas Edsall, with an extremely candid look at mainstream media

Thursday, September 21, 2006
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HH: Welcome to the program now Thomas Edsall, whose new book, Building Red America, has turned a lot of heads. He’s got an article in the New Republic this week. I’m going to focus on the book. Thomas Edsall, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

TE: Good to be with you, Hugh.

HH: It’s great to have you. Until very recently, you were the senior political reporter at the Washington Post, and I believe had been there since 1981. Is that correct?

TE: That’s all too true. I worked there 25 years.

HH: Now Michael Barone, a friend of this program, I’m sure a friend of yours, refers to you as a gloomy, Irish liberal. True?

TE: He has a point there. He put it in a very friendly context.

HH: Yes. Yes, it was friendly. But is he true? Are you a gloomy Irish liberal?

TE: I am among my liberal friends considered to be a intense pessimist.

HH: Okay. Let me ask you a couple of questions to get you sort of sighted on our ideological map here. Did you go to college?

TE: I did.

HH: Where?

TE: Boston University.

HH: Okay. Grad school?

TE: No. Never.

HH: How about…you worked at the Baltimore Sun before the Washington Post, right?

TE: I did, for fourteen years.

HH: And just those two papers?

TE: No, I worked briefly at the Providence Journal for about a year, way back.

HH: Okay. Why’d you leave the Post and go to the New Republic, and other types of writing?

TE: The Post is basically, like all newspapers, cutting back. They had a buyout for people who were age 55 and older. I was just turning 65. The buyout was very attractive. I heard it was coming, so I put feelers out, and got four positive answers, and took two of them. One from the New Republic, the other one from the National Journal. And since then, a place that I think is one of your favorite institutions, has also offered me a job, the Columbia School of Journalism.

HH: Oh, I love Dean Lehmann. In fact, I’ll be up there in December to benefit his students with a little center-right theory and practice. Now let’s get to the key ideological test, and then get to the book, Building Red America. Have you ever voted for a GOP presidential candidate?

TE: I don’t think so, no.

HH: Okay. Are you pro-choice?

TE: Yes.

HH: Even as to partial birth abortion, late term abortions?

TE: If the life of the mother is threatened, or if the child is going to be severely disabled, I would give it serious consideration.

HH: Do you own a gun?

TE: No, but I’m not against guns, and…well, in any rate, but you can ask gun questions.

HH: Do you favor same sex marriage?

TE: Not particularly.

HH: Do you think that liberal judges who decree that it’s in the Constitution have erred?

TE: Probably.

HH: All right. That’s interesting. Now…that makes you a lefty, but not over the edge lefty, right?

TE: Well, I’ve got to say that on guns, I think that it’s not a bad idea for young boys to get training in guns.

HH: Not young girls?

TE: Well, if they want it. I think young boys can benefit from learning to manage a deadly weapon without committing deadly acts.

HH: Now on this program some time ago, Terry Moran, one of the Beltway correspondents, ABC senior correspondent…

TE: Yeah.

HH: …said that in the media, there is a deep suspicion, even hostility of the military. Do you agree with him that the media is really very suspicious of the military?

TE: A little less than it used to be, but there is a suspicion.

HH: Okay. Now I want to get to your thesis about Building Red America. You don’t much like the Republicans, Thomas Edsall, do you?

TE: I’m not wild about them.

HH: Why not?

TE: I think that…I admire Republicans, their skill and their talents. But I think the contemporary Republican Party, it has done some…I’ll throw the positive out first. I think there are a lot of market solutions that the Democratic Party has failed to address, including in education with vouchers and choice. But to the negative, I think the Republican Party capitalized on white opposition to the civil rights movement. I think it sometimes has cynically used social conservatives, who many Republican conservatives refer to as right wing freaks and others, or religious nuts, and I think the party has really been on the side of the very rich.

HH: Okay. Now let me ask you about George Will writing about your book, Building Red America. He quotes you as saying, “whose interests, the GOP courts whites, whose interests are overwhelmingly focused on tempering, if not altogether rolling back the civil rights movement, and ask please, who favors rolling back guarantees of voting rights and equal access to public accomodations.” Do you have an answer for him?

TE: Yeah, in fact, I just finished writing an answer that is going to run on, I hope, the New Republic blog, and maybe elsewhere. My answer to him is as follows. One is he did not quote the whole sentence, even, but I…disregarding that, I’ll accept what he says, I’ll stand by what he quotes me saying there. Yes, he should go to…it would have been very helpful for him to go to the south side of Chicago, to go to a place like Brandon, Mississippi, just outside of Jackson, to go to Louisiana when David Duke was campaigning and winning the Republican governor’s nomination to campaign with Kirk Fordyce. George Wallace ought to get out of his limosine a little bit, and actually talk to people. There are a lot of…

HH: You mean George Will?

TE: Hmm?

HH: You mean George Will ought to get out of his limosine?

TE: George Will. Who did I say?

HH: You said George Wallace. Was that subliminal?

TE: No, no. George Will. You know, I’ve talked to George Wallace. George Wallace was a pretty interesting guy.

HH: But are there any Republican candidates out there, any Republican office holders, who you believe are actually advocating the rollback of civil rights?

TE: Office holders? No. I’m talking about people. No office holder would do that, because they couldn’t win. I think there are office holders who would do it if it was a winning strategy.

HH: Who?

TE: Oh, I don’t want to name some of them, but I would say that there are a lot of Republicans whose allegiance to civil rights is totally marginal, and totally operative. Let’s put it that way.

HH: I mean, when you say that, immediately, I know my listeners will say ask him about Robert Byrd. You know, he was, actually, a Ku Klux Klan member. He’s changed. Do you have anyone who has a shadier past on civil rights than Robert Byrd spring to mind, Mr. Edsall?

TE: No, no. Well, Trent Lott’s early past was not…

HH: He was never a KKK’er.

TE: No, I’m not saying he was. But he was very active with the Council of Conservative Citizens, which is the organization that was created out of the white citizen’s council.

HH: But of course, the Civil Rights Act was actually filibustered because of southern Democrats. That’s why there was the…

TE: No question. I’m not arguing that. But those southern Democrats are today’s Republicans.

HH: Again, I would look for any Republican in office calling for the rollback of civil rights. You can’t find one.

TE: There would not be one. They would get their a$$ kicked.

HH: That’s what I was thinking. I think that’s what George Will’s point was. The other point in which…I mean, he’s just…

TE: But I said they court whites. I didn’t say court…who hold those views. I didn’t say that they would themselves, as public officials, hold those views.

HH: Let me give you a comparable argument, then. Right now, on the left side of the blogosphere, people like Jane Hamsher and a number of others are using extraordinary tactics, Jane Hamsher using Joe Lieberman in blackface, and bloggers at Daily Kos using anti-Semitic cartoons. Are those candidates that they support, Ned Lamont, and Jon Tester up in Montana, et cetera, can they then be said to be courting anti-Semites and racists?

TE: (pause) Not…I mean, you’re talking about a doubleheader there. What I’m talking about is if you look at the speeches of George Wallace, and about the references to courts’ intervention of the federal courts, states rights, those same themes have been used over the years by southern Democrats, and especially by ascendent southern Republicans. They are using the same code language.

HH: Well, I mean Jane Hamsher…

TE: These are the…I’m talking about the elected officials, not the nut cases on the web.

HH: Yeah, but I’m talking about Ned…do you think Jane Hamsher’s one of the nut cases on the web?

TE: I think if…I’m not familiar with her stuff, but if she put a blackface of…

HH: Joe Lieberman.

TE: Joe Lieberman on the web, that’s pretty fruitball.I don’t know what you want to call it.

HH: And what about Ned Lamont who campaigns with her?

TE: Does he actually campaign with her?

HH: She has appeared with him at a number of places. She has traveled with him. She is not on his staff. She’s just a very visible supporter.

TE: Has he been asked to renounce that?

HH: Yes. He did not…to my knowledge, he never renounced it, never answered the question. She dropped out of sight until after the primary. She’s back, you know, blogging for Lamont again.

TE: Well, I would think that he should be asked what his views are towards that. And if he does not, it was totally inappropriate, and that he does not want it associated with his campaign. But that’s a mark against him.

HH: What about…

TE: Let me…you’re jumping, and you’re trying to sort of do something. This book, contrary to what George Will says, is more critical of the liberals that you’re talking about than it is of the Republican Party.

HH: Well, I don’t know. Let me go to page 102, where you’re blasting away at Limbaugh and me, and a bunch of people. “Limbaugh, with an estimated 20 million listeners a week, has since been joined by a flood of right wing radio hosts, among them Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Reagan, Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Limbaugh notes that…

TE: I didn’t include you?

HH: Oh, no. I’m in there. Thank you.

TE: Okay.

HH: …that being a deejay teaches you the elements of broadcasting that are crucial, no matter what kind of show you are doing. Timing, brevity, quickness, get in and get out. Is there any reason, do you think, why there are so many conservatives out there? You don’t explain why there are so many of them out there. Why do you think they’re there.

TE: Because there’s a huge market for them.

HH: And why is there a market for them?

TE: Because the Democratic Party and liberals have, through a lot of whatever you want to call it, politically correct and other values and programs, made themselves highly vulnerable to criticism that is difficult to voice in the workroom, because it’s kind of verboten. But on talk radio, you can say a lot of things that you think and feel.

HH: For example, you got anything in mind? I think that’s a caricature, Thomas Edsall. I think…

TE: Oh no. I’m saying that favorably.

HH: I know you’re saying that favorably, but I think that’s…that’s not really what goes on on talk radio. Do you listen…

TE: I’m just saying that’s one part of it. And when Limbaugh first became famous…now, he’s become much more of a Republican. When he first went on the radio, one of his strengths was pointing out the foibles of the Democratic Party and liberalism.

HH: A proposition. The reason talk radio exploded, followed by Fox News, followed by the center-right blogosphere, is that because folks like you have been the dominant voice in American media for a long time, and you’re a pretty thoroughgoing, Democratic favoring, agenda journalist for the left, and you’ve been the senior political reporter of the Washington Post for a very long time. And people didn’t trust your news product…not you, personally, but the accumulation of you, throughout the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and they got sick and tired of being spoon fed liberal dross, and they went to the radio when an alternative product came along.

TE: To a certain degree, I agree with that.

HH: And so, why do you think it’s wrong, somehow, for people to want to hear news that they don’t consider as biased? I mean, that’s what it is. It’s just unbiased news is what people wanted. That’s why conservatives like me got platforms, and our blogs get read, and our columns get absorbed.

TE: One, I don’t think it’s unbiased.

HH: It’s transparent at least. Everyone has bias. I agree with that. Everyone’s got bias.

TE: It’s transparent. Okay, that I would agree. And I agree that whatever you want to call it, mainstream media, presents itself as unbiased, when in fact, there are built into it, many biases, and they are overwhelmingly to the left.

HH: Well, that’s very candid.

TE: Well…

HH: Have you ever said that…in the course…when you were working for the Post, would you tell people who you voted for, and how liberal you were?

TE: You mean people people?

HH: Yeah. You ever write a column about…you know, I’m a left wing Democrat, but you can trust me. I won’t mess around with the candidates?

TE: No, because I’ve screwed over as many or more Democrats as I have Republicans.

HH: Again, I’d have to look at your body of work. I’ve been reading you for years. I would have to assess that myself. That might be a little self-delusional, don’t you think?

TE: No, I think partly, I can say that because for all the years that I worked locally at the Baltimore Sun, the only politicians who were there were Democrats.

HH: I know, but national politics. Local politics is different. I think it’s in the selection of stories, stories not pursued. I mean, right now, the canard is oh, I covered the impeachment of Bill Clinton, liberal Democrats who are newsroom types tell me. I say, well, you have to. That’s a story you can’t…it’s like not seeing the iceberg, and taking the Titanic down. But in the agenda setting stuff…let me approach it this way. Is there any big name political reporter, and you know them all, Thomas Edsall. That’s why your book, Building Red America, is getting read left and right. Are there any of them who are conservative?

TE: Big name political reporter?

HH: Right.

TE: Jim Vandehei of the Washington Post.

HH: Think he’s voted for Republicans for president?

TE: Yes, I think he has. I don’t know, because he’s never told me. But I would think he has.

HH: And so, of those sorts…and he’s a very fine reporter.

TE: He is.

HH: He probably is a Republican. But given that number of reporters out there, is it ten to one Democrat to Republican? Twenty to one Democrat to Republican?

TE: It’s probably in the range of 15-25:1 Democrat.

HH: Can the mainstream media ever be fair as a result?

TE: Well, you know, you’re asking, I think, a wrong question. I think the problem is that there is a real difficulty on the part of the mainstream media being sympathetic, or empathetic, whatever the word would be, to the kind of thinking that goes into conservative approaches to issues. I think the religious right has been treated as sort of an alien world…

HH: And how do you define the religious right?

TE: People who are active politically, and see the Bible as their…and their religious commitment as the guiding force of their political activity.

HH: But I mean, that doesn’t help us any to identify them in public. I know Falwell and Robertson, but they’re men of the cloth in politics. Who do you see as religious right in an elected official?

TE: Well, when I think of religious right, I think much more of political groups like the Christian Coalition…

HH: Absolutely defunct, though. I mean, on its deathbed.

TE: They’re defunct, but there are certainly many other like James Dobson’s organizations, like Rod Parsley in Ohio.

HH: You ever interviewed Dobson?

TE: Yes, a number of times.

HH: What do you think of him?

TE: I think he’s a very smart guy.

HH: Think he’s a good man?

TE: I disagree with him in some of his views towards punishment and discipline, and I think…

HH: You mean of small children?

TE: Hmmm?

HH: You mean of boys and small children? That sort of thing?

TE: Yes.

HH: Okay. But other than that, do you think he’s good-hearted?

TE: I think he’s good-hearted.

HH: Now given that, when you wrote, and George Will picked up on this as well, and I just was stunned by this. “Liberals by their very nature don’t get as angry as conservatives do.” And I thought to myself, you don’t get out much, do you, Mr. Edsall? Have you been reading the left wing blogosphere?

TE: The left wing blogosphere is very angry, but you’re not talking about very many people there.

HH: What, Daily Kos?

TE: Those three conservatives have been able to build up a huge conservative donor base, and they do it, and it’s in the book.

HH: Yeah, but is it right to, for example, hate Bush? Is that anger in your view?

TE: That is anger. The anger at Bush by left wing types is off the charts.

HH: Well, Jonathan Chait, your colleague at the New Republic, actually coined the term Bush hatred. He wrote that piece.

TE: No question. I read it.

HH: And so, are the people at the New Republic angry?

TE: He is.

HH: Are others angry?

TE: Yeah, there are some, yes.

HH: And so, I actually think you can’t find a lot of angry conservatives. I mean, we’re determined. We’re principled. But I’m kind of upbeat, as is Rush most of the time. Angry at Hugo Chavez, but I don’t get angry at Charles Rangel. I think that anger thing is…

TE: Oh, I think when Bill Clinton was in office, it was very similar tone and tenor to what you now see on the left wing blogosphere.

HH: I…I mean, there were some obvious crazy stuff, like the Clinton Chronicles. I will agree with you on that. But the viciousness and the prolonged sort of almost Tourette’s Syndrome when it comes to vulgarity and just coarseness on the left side of the…it must shock you as a reporter. Does it?

TE: I find it offensive.

HH: Do you read the Daily Kos?

TE: But I would say that the intensity and the scope and the range of the anger at liberalism is larger than the anger at conservatism.

HH: Oh, I just think…we’re going to have to disagree on that. But we’re running low on time, so I want to get a couple more things done. One of the interesting passages, and very candid ones in Building Red America is where you recognize the security gap between Democrats and Republicans. And you write about the fact that the Pelosi Democrats, the Ned Lamont Democrats, the Harry Reid and Howard Dean Democrats have really lost the confidence of America on national security issues. Do you think it’s fair for Americans to judge them less serious about security than Republicans?

TE: Yeah, I think they come out of an anti-war tradition, anti…their voting records of Democrats on the whole is much more anti-defense weapons systems. And there is, as I’ve said at the beginning of this interview, an underlying hostility to people in the military among many on the left.

HH: And is there also an underlying hostility to faith on the left?

TE: Among a segment of the left, and not insubstantial segment.

HH: And given that, isn’t it rational for people who are pro-military and pro-religious liberty to want to see Democrats defeated, not because they don’t like them or they’re angry at them, but because they recognize them as hostile to themselves? Isn’t it defensive, really?

TE: Well, you use people who are pro-religious liberty pretty loosely there.

HH: Well, I’ve never met a conservative who isn’t pro-religious liberty. Have you?

TE: You know, religious liberty is something that you define. Is it something that should be…people are free outside of the state, and the state should not be involved in any religious activity?

HH: I just think it’s sort of classic American civic approach, which is hey, you want to go to Church? That’s great. You want to go to Synagogue? That’s great. You want a mosque, that’s great. We’ll all just get along here. But in the meantime, don’t tell me my Church can’t expand, don’t tell me I have to take the cross down off the mountain in San Diego, don’t make me not build here, because you want a WalMart or a Costco to come in for tax purposes. And, of course, the snide nature. Your newspaper wrote that Evangelicals were ill-educated, and easily led. Remember that one?

TE: That was one of the dumber things that’s been in the paper.

HH: Yeah, but it was in the paper.

TE: It was.

HH: And it got past editors.

TE: The only reason that the reporter who wrote it didn’t get in bigger trouble is that the editor who let it get by was someone of some prominence.

HH: Oh, what was his name?

TE: I’m not going to get into that, but it was someone of some power at the Washington Post, and there was no way they were going to mess with him.

HH: And so, they didn’t really have an early warning system. My guess is, because in the newsroom, and the newsrooms which I have worked, and that’s primarily PBS…

TE: I agree with you on this score, 100%.

HH: It’s very anti-religion, isn’t it?

TE: Well, it…certainly, they would let a quote by that, without, in many cases, without blinking, not recognizing that it was extraordinarily insulting.

HH: How about you? Are you a churchgoer, Thomas Edsall?

TE: No.

HH: Do you believe in God?

TE: No.

HH: And did you ever believe in God?

TE: No.

HH: Are you rare or the norm in a newsroom?

TE: Well, I would say I am rare in the scope and depth of my non-belief. I think there are a number of people who are sort of moderate believers.

HH: And if you had to, in the Washington Post right now, could you figure out who’d been to Church or Synagogue in the last month with great certainty?

TE: Among my friends.

HH: Okay. Now were there some religious people there, you know, deeply religious people?

TE: Well, I think my buddy, Jim Vandehei…Dana Milbank, who you’re probably familiar with.

HH: Oh, yeah. He’s been on the program.

TE: …is fairly active in his Synagogue.

HH: Okay, so a couple. That’s great, but.

TE: Well, I mean, I’m not talking about…how many people would I know? Most people who go to Synagogue only go a couple times a year, of whatever, left, right or center. And Church attendance among…or Synagogue attendance among Jews at the Post is probably average.

HH: Now let me ask you, because we’re running out of time. I want to have you back. Also in Building Red America, you talk about conservative Catholics.

TE: You’ve got to say to your readers that Building Red America is a must-read, that anyone who has a conservative bent, they’re going to understand American politics. Building Red America is crucial to their knowledge and understanding of the world that they have to deal with.

HH: Well, I think it’s a very important book.

TE: I’m just kidding.

HH: I know, but I was going to say, I’m not going to go that far.

TE: (laughing)

HH: (laughing) I want to go and conclude, and we’ll come back, and I hope you’ll be a regular on this program, Thomas Edsall.

TE: Sure. I’d be delighted.

HH: You quote an acquaintance of mine, Archbishop Charles Chaput in Denver, Colorado, as saying he told Catholics that a vote for Kerry was a sin. I know for a fact he did not say that. He wrote instead, if you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil, he asked rhetorically. And if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes. But the question he was posed was not about John Kerry. It was about a generic class of politicians who really pushed forward on abortion, in which you made the decision to read John Kerry. He didn’t say John Kerry. Was that fair?

TE: It may not be. I, in all honesty, lifted that out of news stories, and if the news stories were inaccurate, then I am inaccurate, and it is unfair.

HH: Okay. I will double-check with that, but yeah, it probably…I just noted that when I was reading, because it struck me he was very careful not to do that, because for nothing else, the IRS is coming down on Churches that are taking stands.

TE: Well, I think you can say that someone is opposing a policy that is a sin.

HH: Yeah, but he didn’t. We’ll come back to that. And in fact, I’ll try and catch up with you next week, if that’s okay.

TE: That’d be fine.

HH: Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition, the Drive For Permanent Power. Thomas Edsall from the Washington Post, now the New Republic, he’s retired, thank you. We’ll talk to you again.

TE: Take it easy.

End of interview.

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