HH: Let’s get some pre-debate predictions about what they’re going to say from Columnist to the World, Mark Steyn. Mark, will you be watching with popcorn in hand tonight?
MS: I will be. I’m not…these debates tend to be a bit stilted in format, particularly when you’ve got about ten candidates. So in a sense, I’m looking to see if anybody can rise above the stiltedness.
HH: Yes, it’s going to be ten candidates at about nine minutes per, and that doesn’t count Chris Matthews and the guys from www.politico.com. So I figure we can just give a preview. It’s not hard. They’re going to try to get to their main message. What do you expect John McCain to say, Mark?
MS: Well, I think John McCain has to show that he isn’t just the guy who is eight years older than in 2000. In other words, there’s a danger that he looks the oldest and tiredest and crankiest of the candidates. And I think beyond that, he has to reassure the base that he’s not just the McCain-Feingold guy who wants to shut up the base, because at the moment, he’s lost the media, clearly, running in his 2008 incarnation. And he’s offended so many other factions that I don’t think there is a lot of really deep support for him out there.
HH: Do you think he’ll try a joke or two tonight?
MS: I think he usually does, and I think that’s actually one thing…he’s at ease with himself. I mean, he’s a very strange man in some ways, but he is at ease with himself in a way that people who’ve been in the public spotlight for less time than he has aren’t.
HH: Okay, how about New York former Mayor Rudy Giuliani?
MS: Well, I think he’s got a lot of work to do, too. I am…well, I’m not astonished, because I happen to agree with it, but there is a huge amount I hear from friends and neighbors about the 2nd Amendment attitude being a deal breaker with him. He has to show that he can transition from being the chief executive of what was one of America’s most dysfunctional cities into being the head of a federal republic who trusts his citizenry. Clearly, he doesn’t trust them with guns and all kinds of other stuff in New York City. So he’s really got to kind of upgrade to an entirely different political forum.
HH: How does he do that? Does he bring up guns sua sponte? Or does he just hope someone asks him about it?
MS: I think someone has to ask about it, and he has to have a credible reason. You know, the fact of the matter is that a kind of G-man, a national G-man campaign is not going to fly for him. America, and particularly the Republican base, believe in a self-reliant citizenry, and he doesn’t always communicate the impression that he does.
HH: How about fresh from a wonderful turn on Leno last night, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney?
MS: Well you know, Mitt Romney is a very funny guy. I like him enormously. As you may recall, I shared a stage with him at the National Review conference a couple of months ago. What I found about him is that sometimes he can be excellent, and sometimes he can be just rather plodding and synthetic. And I hope he understands he can’t risk being the sort of plodding, synthetic, business technocrat candidate tonight. That side of him has got to be put in a trunk, locked up, and tossed into the bottom of a deep pool until the end of the debate.
HH: (laughing) Senator Sam Brownback?
MS: Well, you know, I think, to be honest, I find Sam Brownback quite appealing on the domestic front, but I think he is someone who as far as I’m concerned at the moment, his campaign stops at the water’s edge. He hasn’t demonstrated a grasp of the global issues facing this country.
HH: He’s very laconic. Does that go over well in a televised debate, Mark Steyn?
MS: Well you know, TV, I think, is a medium that can be very cruel to people. But it’s also the kind where it’s a question of not being too hot and not being too cold, and of being just right. And I think tonally, you’re right. He’s on the somnolent side at the moment.
HH: Mike Huckabee?
MS: Mike Huckabee, I thought when I saw him one time in action, was a kind of cliché of the down home little guy. He had some canned anecdotes that really, and I mean seriously canned, as if they’d been bought off the shelf at Price Chopper, he’s got to kind of make them a bit more organic to his personality.
HH: And Tom Tancredo?
MS: Well, you know, he’s the single issue guy, and as I always say when you ask me about this, I’m a legal immigrant. So as someone who has gone through the INS and paid all the fees, I take this issue very seriously. But there’s not a lot of sign out in the country, I find, that there are, that there is a big swell of people for whom this is the issue. He’s got to show some signs of life in other issues, too.
HH: After the break, I’m going to talk with White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, and ask him about the fence again. But do you expect Tom will take whatever question they throw at him and turn it into an immigration one?
MS: Well, I don’t think he should do that. I mean, in a sense, I think immigration is the critical issue, because if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a nation. And I think what you’re seeing in this country is the fact that the corruption of the databases, state databases that attends immigration, has facilitated all kinds of other decay, including 9/11, where people got driver’s licenses from the illegal immigrant network, and then flew the plan into the Pentagon. So in a sense, he can tie everything to immigration, and logically, that would be correct. But it wouldn’t signal to the broader audience that he is a man who is anything other than a single issue candidate. He’s got to talk about other stuff, too.
HH: And then we’ve got the final four, Tommy Thompson, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, and Jim Gilmore. Anything to say, or do you expect…what would you advise these four really asterisk candidates to come up with?
MS: Well, the thing about the asterisk candidates is you’ve got to kind of catapult yourself into the low single digits. I mean, there’s talk that Tommy Thompson is going to do that. There’s talk, I’ve heard very good things about Duncan Hunter, who’s been spending a lot of time in New Hampshire, and has impressed people he’s met. And I think one good TV appearance can catapult you from the asterisk into the barely detectable registering in polls level, and from there, the whole field opens up to you.
HH: Do you do it via answering the question that’s posed or by wrestling any question into a bit that you want people to hear about you?
MS: I think you do it in a sense, the best way to do it is by positioning yourself in relation to the so-called big shot candidates, and revealing that you’re actually more on top of some of those subjects. The other guys have the name recognition, but when you factor that out, you are more on top of your subject, on top of the subject, than they are. And if some of these sort of asterisk candidates can do that, this is still very early in the game. And I don’t think name recognition counts for a lot when all’s said and done, once you get closer to the thing. But I think that’s really, you’ve got to have some big thought that puts you…if you’re not an A list name, you’ve got to have a kind of A list soundbyte to get yourself up there.
HH: I’m telling you, I’m not shining you on here, Mark Steyn, but if I wanted to make a dent tonight, I would have brought along a copy of The Looming Tower and a copy of America Alone, and found a way to get them into the camera shot as a way to signaling to the base that you’re serious about the war in more than a talking head sort of way.
MS: Well, that’s very nice of you, Hugh, and it would do wonders for my book sales. But I wonder, there will be people on the Republican base who will be wanting something more than a picture of the candidate with America Alone, much as I’d love it.
HH: Well, I think it’s a good prop. Now I want to switch subjects on you. One of the four funniest men already in America live in New Hampshire. I put you in that category. We’ve got Dave Barry in Miami, we’ve got Lileks in Minnesota. But I came to discover the other day a guy named Bill Bryson lives in New Hampshire as well. Have you ever run into him?
MS: Well, Bill Bryson did live near Dartmouth College for a while. I believe he still has a home there, though he eventually went back to London. He was a copy editor at the London Independent at the time I worked there, and was a very unassuming American working in London, who essentially invented a genre of wonderful comic travelogues. And his books on small town American, on small town Britain, and his Australian book isn’t so successful, because he kind of likes the country too much, so that prevents him from being merciless about it. But he essentially invented a whole genre all by himself.
HH: His short history of nearly everything is truly charming for someone like me who lacks the science gene, so I’m glad to hear you appreciate him as well. Very last question of the afternoon, Mark Steyn, when all done and said about milblogging, and the Army milbloggers, has the Pentagon changed their position? Or are they backpedaling so fast that we’re going to be back to where we were two days ago?
MS: Well, you know, I don’t want to be backpedaling to where we were two days ago. When I was in the Pentagon a couple of months ago, I told everyone of consequence that I met there that I thought this was a real alternative to the media doom and gloom, to the Green Zone view of Iraq, and that every time a guy is filing interesting stories on his blog from corners of the country, that the big shot network guys never get to, that is something the Pentagon ought to be…you know, the Pentagon, they spend all their time, I get asked this quite a lot by Pentagon people, about how do we get alternative stories out there, how do we get them out there. Well, the military bloggers are a great source, a great source. And some of them will be anti-this and anti-that, and some will complain about this and complain about that, but over all, they’re a huge counterweight to the media. And that the Pentagon still has difficulty understanding this is very depressing.
HH: Have you read their latest talking points, which appear to contradict in whole the policy they put out yesterday?
MS: Yes, I have, and that also tells you that it’s a great marvel that the United States, which is the country that invented spin and public relations and all the rest of it, that the Pentagon’s so hopeless at it at a critical time.
HH: Mark Steyn, always a pleasure. www.steynonline.com, America.
End of interview.