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Mark Steyn’s accounts from the Oval Office and the E-Ring this week.

Friday, October 27, 2006
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HH: We begin this Thursday as we do most Thursdays with Mark Steyn, author of America Alone, still atop the Amazon charts. Mark Steyn, welcome to the program.

MS: Good to be with you, Hugh.

HH: I hate arsonists. They’re not only at work here…that’s because my grandfather was a fireman for 60 years. But in Paris today, two buses are torched with ten people on them last night, barely got out with their lives. It’s starting again in Paris.

MS: Well, you say it’s starting again. In fact, it never goes away. There is this continuous low level intifada, as I called it four and a half years ago, and which the French police union chief has now belatedly caught up with. It’s just permanently there. Sometimes it flares up into something spectacular, like it did last November. But there’s always something going on some night, every night. And in fact, the intimidation of public transportation in France, and in Belgium, and in other countries, is becoming horrible as well. If I lived in some of these cities, I wouldn’t want to ride the bus to work through some of these neighborhoods.

HH: Well, they will miscalculate at some point, and they will end up killing multiple people, even as this arsonist killed four firefighters, and a fifth is in serious condition in California. What will France’s reaction be when that miscalculation becomes murder?

MS: Well, I think that is the interesting question. You know, these are countries that can be very coercive, and very unpleasantly so, when they have to be. And the danger is that you provoke them, you provoke them, you provoke them. You don’t get a reaction. Then when you do get a reaction, it’s a kind of nuclear one. And I think that is the situation that…whether that’s actually any more effective in the long run is of course an open question. But I think that actually is the situation they’re heading towards now in France.

HH: Now Mark Steyn, I also want to talk to you about media culture. On Monday, I’m going to spend three hours with Mark Halperin, from the political Note, and the ABC News political division. We’re going to talk about the media’s conduct in this. But first, I want to play for you an exchange that Mitt Romney had today with a reporter. It’s hard to hear, but the reporter is lecturing him on transportation. Here it is:

Reporter: With so much unknown, economically, when it comes to Commonwealth woes, with the dollar amount on the Big Dig repairs, and anything that’s found in this, stem to stern, that you…unknown, with outside agencies saying that almost every transportation agency in the state is facing a budget deficit, and with your own transportation finance commission recommending keeping the western tolls in place, among a number of different options, why then is the administration foregoing possible revenue, and actually adding to the transportation burden that the Commonwealth, outside of…

MR: Do you have a point of view on this?

Reporter: Well, I represent a number of people, Governor.

MR: No, I represent the people. You’re supposed to be unbiased.

HH: Now Mark Steyn, for those who couldn’t pick it out, this long-winded reporter is giving a lecture on public finance, and then the governor interrupts and says I see you have a point of view on this. And he says, I represent the people. And the governor says, no, you don’t. I represent the people. You represent the media. And I found that an almost perfect pitch response to an obsequiousness, combined with arrogance, which is infecting all of MSM.

MS: Yes, I think so. I mean, I don’t actually understand why they spend so much time with them. And I include me in them in that. I think if I was the chief executive of a busy state with a lot of problems, I wouldn’t necessarily think it productive to sit there and listen to some lecture by some guy who thinks he knows all about transportation issues. You know, I think the media have, generally in this country, the media group think is a huge problem. And the issue, really, I think, for people, for non members of the Democratic Party, is how do you circumvent that media, how do you get past the media group think, because the media, even when they’re sort of covering your issues, they cover them through the media group think angle. And I just don’t think it’s a productive use of people’s time.

HH: Earlier today, Time Magazine put out an astonishing little story on the New Jersey court decision imposing same sex marriage on the Garden State. And it began by saying as October surprises go, the Supreme Court decision in New Jersey is a major one, though not nearly as dramatic or as important as the Foley scandal. And I thought to myself, there’s no evidence for that. That’s conclusory. And yet it’s in almost every story.

MS: Yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous, in a way. That is in a news report. You know, if I made that point in a column, I would expect to have to back up my opinion with some kind of evidence for the fact that the Foley thing is having a bigger impact than this New Jersey court decision. But in a news story, this guy can basically concoct this whim, or maybe it wasn’t concocted. Maybe another journalist actually said it to him. You know, a lot of the big problems with the world of journalism is that journalists just talk to other journalists.

HH: Right.

MS: You know, Alistair Cooke, who used to host Masterpiece Theatre on PBS, he died a couple of years ago. And a few weeks before he died, he found in the bottom of his closet a book he’d written in 1941, at the time of Pearl Harbor, and then basically, when he was already with the BBC’s Man In America. And it’s really just the sort of reporter’s notebook of the United States in the months after Pearl Harbor. But he’s hilariously funny about the pomposity of journalists even then, the way they hang out with other journalists, and other sort of mid-level experts, and they develop a sort of expertise bubble on these issues, that is almost impossible to break through. And Alistair Cooke, like 65 years ago, comes up with this perfect analysis of what’s wrong with the media. And nothing really has changed there. If anything, the bubble, the cocoon, has only gotten more absurd since then.

HH: And I find over and over again, this happened on this program yesterday, in an interview I did with Andrew Sullivan, author of The Conservative Soul, which has generated more e-mail and commentary than I think anything I have done in many years, or have done on this program. And I find in his book astonishing errors, a complete misstatement of Constitutional law, and the level of scrutiny applied to government distinctions, things like that, big errors. And then little ones like Disraeli calling for universal suffrage. And I think the American people…I hope they’re catching on, that experts aren’t experts just because they call themselves experts.

MS: No, well, you know, it’s interesting. Andrew and I both came here as foreigners. And at a sort of certain level, I’m always aware of that, you know, that there are aspects of American life that you may not quite get. And you’ve got to be very wary, I think, in presuming to speak through it. And I find that my…reading Andrew Sullivan over the years, I’m convinced there’s more and more aspects of it. You know, I’m putting on my own false humility here, but I mean it. I think it’s very hard if you just suddenly emerge fully formed into this culture, to get it instantly. And I certainly don’t think Andrew does.

HH: Oh, no, he doesn’t. He really doesn’t. He doesn’t understand why he’s not loved, either, by the culture. Is there an American counterpart to a Sullivan, a Steyn, a Hitchens? Is there anyone that the Brits even bother to read at work who’s an American in London?

MS: Well, no. I think that’s interesting. I think that’s an interesting comment. I mean, somebody did this, I think, at Columbia Journalism School, or somewhere a few years ago, about how it was basically the British Empire was recolonizing America through the media, because when you add up the New York Post’ers are run by Australians, when you add up the Canadians and the British and people who are in positions of influence in the U.S. media, and this lady, I think, wanted a quote from me for this piece. And I just said I think basically it’s because of that transportation question, because too many American journalists regard themselves as really boring sort of policy wonks for the Democratic Party. I mean, it’s terribly tedious to read, apart from anything else. And I mean, even Andrew, at his most sort of overwrought and hysterical, is at least a better read than some of these guys.

HH: Oh, agreed. And we don’t have any funny…except for Lileks and Dave Barry, we just don’t have any funny writers.

MS: Well, no. I think one of the sad things about American journalism school is it drains all the juice out of your writing. It just…I was reading, I was on this terrible flight back from Washington yesterday to Manchester, New Hampshire, and I was reading this, the airline magazine. And there was this piece that was written in that sort of drolly, humorous style, but had been kind of copy edited, so that it was absolutely unreadable. And I find…I feel sorry for anyone who thinks that it’s worth paying a fortune to go to journalism school to have any kind of distinctive voice of yours destroyed.

HH: What were you doing in D.C. yesterday?

MS: (laughing) I think you know the answer to this. I was in Washington for a couple of days, and I happened to see Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush, which is a…

HH: You know, I didn’t know…were you there with Barone?

MS: Yes.

HH: (Duane,) do we have anyone coming up that we can bump? Mark, can you stick around?

MS: Yeah, I can stick around.

HH: Oh, I didn’t know that. I really did not know that until I talked to Barone last night. That had to be a heck of a conversation. I’m coming right back with a report from the Oval Office.

HH: Now Mark Steyn, a less polite columnist, with less breeding or English and Canadian heirs, would have found a way to pose with the President, get a shot of him taking your book from you. I don’t think you probably managed to get that done.

MS: (laughing) Well, I would have felt bad doing that, but as it happens, I found myself in that situation, where the President did ask me to sign his copy of America Alone.

HH: D’oh…did someone have a camera?

MS: And I don’t believe anyone did.

HH: (groans)

MS: And you know, I’m not one of those guys who knows how to photoshop the…he actually is…one of the interesting things, he mentioned on…getting America Alone out of the way for a moment, but he mentioned on I think the George Stephanopoulos show that he was reading Andrew Roberts’ History Of The English Speaking People Since 1900, a sort of sequel to Churchill’s work. And everyone’s very sniffy about the President, and they assume he’s just saying that because he wants to look like he’s read a book, and he’s just a moron. Everybody knows he’s just an idiot. And in fact, he said to me, he asked me if I knew Andrew Roberts. And I said oh yeah, sure. I got an e-mail from him this morning. He was very pleased and flattered that you’d mentioned his book. And…

HH: Is this the Andrew Roberts who wrote Salisbury?

MS: Yes, that’s right.

HH: Oh, that’s a magnificent biography.

MS: Yeah, the biography of the Marquis of Salisbury. And he goes, that is a great book. People need to read that book. And you think you’re just having some sort of social chit-chat. My assistant, Tiffany, got a call this morning from an assistant to the President, who said Mark told the President that he had Andrew Roberts’ e-mail address. Do you think you could ask Andrew Roberts to get in touch with the Oval Office, because we would like him to stop by when next he’s in Washington. The President would like to talk about his book with him. I mean, he is absolutely not the guy, this sort of fratboy idiot that they paint him as. He’s a man who is greatly…he’s not interested in…you know, when Al Gore says that he’s reading Stendhal, The Red And The Black, we think what a pretentious twit.

HH: Yes. But we think that anyway, so…(laughing)

MS: Yeah, yeah. But if he is seriously reading it, he’s incredibly pretentious. And if he’s just pretending to read it, it’s like even more idiotic, because it’s not even a cool thing to pretend to read anymore. But the President had actually read this book. And when I mentioned…and he’d remembered that I’d said I just had an e-mail from him, and immediately, they call up a few hours later and want…I mean, I find him impressive in that way. And I know people…it’s a 50/50 nation. Nobody’s going to change their mind about President Bush now. But this cartoon people have of him is not the man George W. Bush.

HH: Eventually, history and biography will catch up with that. I’m curious as to the dynamic in the room. I know that Krauthammer was there, and Barone and yourself. How did that unfold? That’s a lot of verbal firepower in there.

MS: Well, you know, it was clear…and I sort of…I’m not totally…this comes back to the being a foreigner thing again. I was the only foreigner in the room, and so I’m not at ease with…I’m not on top of all the Mr. President and the style thing, because it’s slightly different from what I’m used to. So I asked a question rather bruskly at one point, about Americans supporting this war when we’re on offense, but not when it just seems like we’re hunkered down in a kind of thankless, semi-colonial policing operation. And it sort of fired him up. And it fired him up, and he said we are on offense, and he insisted we’re on offense. And it was interesting to me that he…that there was a kind of dynamic in the room, in which Larry Kudlow in particular, who has been disillusioned with the last year or two in Iraq, and the President really firing back, and really being very forceful and laying it out. And I think he came out with some good lines. He came out with some things that gave me great pause for thought, and actually do worry me, one of which I was sort of thinking about on the plane, on the way home. But the fact is, he’s thinking 15, 20 years down the line, and John Kerry and Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid aren’t.

HH: Now take us over to the SecDef’s office, and how did the conversation with Rummy go?

MS: Well, that was with the Secretary and General Pace. And again, it was…the interesting thing to me is…which I find interesting, is clearly, Rummy’s moment has passed, in that he was the kind of darling and the pin up three or four years ago. And now, even the right are saying he’s a disaster, he’s got to go, he’s got to resign, he’s been there too long, and all the rest of it. And I think, actually, that is completely not what has happened in Iraq. I think what has happened in Iraq is that the Department of Defense, by and large, has done its job, and that it’s other agencies that have not stepped up to the plate on this. All kinds of agencies are involved in Iraq. You know, reconstructing Iraqi agriculture is nominally under the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture in the United States. And I think that’s the real question. You need something…you can’t…and army cannot do everything when it goes into these countries. But the trouble is when you send in the State Department, or the Commerce Department, or the Treasury, they’re not very good when you stick them on the ground 8,000 miles away, either. So I do think…I came away from that thinking that the Department of Homeland Security was the wrong bureaucratic monstrosity to create, and in fact, we need a sort of more projected expeditionary kind of global department, that there needs to be some kind of institutional reform, I think, in the way America does things on this front.

HH: Boy, do I agree with that. I think they need an Annapolis for spies to begin with. But let me ask you about the idea…have you read Doris Kearns’ A Team Of Rivals?

MS: No, I haven’t read that.

HH: Oh, it’s a fantastic…it’s an amazing book about the dynamic inside of Lincoln’s cabinet. It’s a political history of the Civil War, and Tim Cook was here yesterday, telling me it’s today. It’s just like today.

MS: Right.

HH: Was Rumsfeld worn out? Or is he energized?

MS: No, he’s not. You know, that was the interesting thing. He’s a very playful man in his language. And he has no political ambitions, obviously, and he has been asked by the President not to comment on political matters pertaining to the November election. So in one sense, he’s constrained. And in the other, he’s kind of liberated. I think he’s quite up front about the various problems that are faced in Iraq, but I think he’s also quite a realist. And he understands that what’s going on is not the whole story. You know, the reality of the situation is that in 12 of Iraq’s 17 provinces, life is better there than it has ever been in Iraq’s history. There’s nothing happening, there’s no violence. People are getting on with their lives, and building a new state in freedom. And I think that in itself is an impressive achievement. And if these guys holed up in the Green Zone in Baghdad were in those 12 provinces, you might be getting a different picture in the way life is in Iraq.

HH: I look forward to reading accounts of this, Mark Steyn, when you put them into your column. I’ll be checking at www.steynonline.com for that. Thanks for spending extra time, and giving us a look inside the Oval Office and the E-ring.

End of interview.

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