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NYT’s Peter Baker On The Release Of Senate Report and On Hillary’s Unfolding Campaign

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The New York Times’ Peter Baker joined me on Tuesday’s show to discuss the release by Senator Dianne Feinstein of the Senate report on interrogation and detention, as well as his and Amy Chozick’s piece from the weekend on Hillary Clinton as she prepares to open her campaign for the presidency:

Audio:

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Transcript:

HH: Joining me to discuss it is Peter Baker of the New York Times, the author of the celebrated Days Of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, which will be under a lot of Christmas trees, I suspect. Peter Baker, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

PB: Oh, thanks for having me as always.

HH: I want to discuss three major things with you, and I’m going to start with actually the smallest one, which is the collapse of the New Republic. I see you’ve tweeted on this a little it. What do you make of the Chris Hughes moves that led to the mass exodus from TNR?

PB: Well, you know, it’s been a real big media story, obviously. It’s kind of funny, because it’s a small publication, but it has a long history. And I think that’s why it’s kind of resonated a little bit. And you saw the sort of multimillionaire young person, who’s a Facebook guy who didn’t have any background in journalism buy it up a couple of years ago. And you know, today, it kind of looks like a vanity project, because he now wants to kind of convert it in a way that the folks that have been there for a long time didn’t appreciate. Now you could say this is a generational thing, you know, change versus resistant staff kind of thing. But I think it goes beyond that. He clearly didn’t sell a group of very talented people there on the idea that what he was suggesting was substantive change.

HH: You know, Peter, there is a great writer by the name of Joel Kotkin.

PB: Yeah.

HH: He’s been writing a lot about the trustafarians, a new American oligarchy just emerging from what he calls the bubble zone around Silicon Valley.

PB: Yeah.

HH: 10 of the 29 billionaires under the world are under 40. Four of those come from Facebook, two from Google, and there are a lot of many hundred millionaires, hundred millions people out there, and they’re buying up stuff. And they really don’t know what they’re doing.

PB: Yeah.

HH: And media is particularly prone to this media property as a toy. Bezos hasn’t done this, but a lot of them seem to be inclined this way.

PB: You know, it’s interesting watching Bezos, because in fact, that’s the worry, right, is that somebody comes in without any background whatsoever and then wants to use it for his own purposes. So far, he hasn’t done that with the Washington Post. In fact, he’s given them a lot of running room to hire more people and get past the sort of rough times that they’ve had. I think the Chris Hughes example is one where you know, he didn’t really seem to have a vision for the place, or seemed to understand what he wanted to do with it. If he wanted to create a new media kind of thing, something that’s popular like a BuzzFeed or you know, some sort of a click-oriented kind of thing, he could have just created one from scratch. You know, I mean, there’s plenty of room in the media environment for that. And I think that’s, you know, some of my friends who do work at the New Republic say they are perfectly willing to be new media. They wanted to be more on the web. They wanted to be more relevant in today’s media environment. But they just didn’t, weren’t convinced that he was very serious about what he was doing.

HH: The underlying theme, and this is what I wanted to get you, and then we’ll move onto the Senate report, is that some of the trustafarians simply lucked into their money, and they’re not very talented.

PB: Yeah.

HH: Do you buy into that analysis?

PB: Well, they might be talented at one thing, but not necessarily another thing, right? I mean, you know, look, the media needs to be entrepreneurial, okay? And let’s face it. You know, at the New York Times, we’re having a rough time, and they’re trying everything they can here to be as relevant in the new media environment. It’s a rough time. But you’re right. I mean, and you know, the fact that you’re successful at Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be successful at journalism or even advocacy journalism. And I think that you know, Chris Hughes has been mocked for having won the Harvard lottery because he happened to be assigned to Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate thing. That’s maybe a little harsh. But that’s certainly, you know, a test for him to show he’s something more serious than a guy who just happened to be there at the right time.

HH: Is the New Republic brand broken beyond repair?

PB: Well, you know, people keep reminding me that they’ve gone through stuff like this before. It’s a place that’s known for sort of big debates and ruptures and arguments among them and so forth. And when Marty Peretz bought it, there was a big, you know, uproar and so forth. So you know, it’s possible that they recover, but they’ve lost a lot of really good people, people who are very talented writers. And I think that with them went a lot of credibility. And he’s going to have to work hard to rebuild that if he can find a different way to sell it to an audience.

HH: Subject number two is the release of the Senate report today. I have spent a lot of the afternoon over at www.ciasaveslives.com.

PB: Yeah.

HH: And I’ve read the minority report. I listened to Senator Feinstein on the floor today, and it seems to me that the critique of this is that it was a hatchet job done in haste by a politically-motivated staff that is losing power, and that they didn’t talk to everyone, they cherry-picked their information and their quotes, and they are hurting us abroad. What’s the pushback from Senator Feinstein’s people on this?

PB: Well, I mean, their argument would be that they’ve spent a lot of time on this, five years, really, and that this is the most comprehensive look at this that we’ve seen publicly, yet. You’re right. They didn’t interview everybody. They were, they say they were constrained, to some extent, because while they were doing a lot of the research, it happened to coincide with the Department of Justice inquiry, and they didn’t want to get in the way of a criminal inquiry. But you know, what it does is it leaves some unanswered questions. I find myself most interested in sort of what it tells about the White House, right? And it’s interesting, because they have a lot of these CIA documents about what CIA did or did not tell the White House. But that’s sort of the edge of the waters for them, because they don’t then take us inside the White House and say okay, if the President wasn’t briefed by the CIA on these interrogation techniques, one of the things they said, what was happening inside the White House? Did Condi Rice brief him? Did Steve Hadley brief him? What did he know about it? What did he not know about it? And because they didn’t interview those people, we don’t really have answer to some of those questions.

HH: I am curious about the debate in the minority report, especially, that it’s impossible to walk away from any serious review of the intelligence and conclude that whatever the method use, it did lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and many other senior terrorists and the prevention of many mass attacks on the United States. Does anyone really dispute that, Peter Baker?

PB: Well, the Senate Committee, the Democratic majority does. They’ve done a case study of these 20 instances that have been most cited as examples of where the program provided intelligence that helped to thwart attacks or otherwise meaningfully improve our understanding of al Qaeda. And they argue that in some of these cases, they already had the information from other sources, or in other cases, the information wasn’t as critical as has been made out to be. And it’s been exaggerated or overstated. Part of the problem, of course, is you’re talking about counterfactuals, right? If they didn’t do this, what would have happened? And it’s sort of like if not this, then that, right? They did get some information. Could they have gotten it a different way? How do we know for sure people were drawing lines and coming to conclusions? But you know, in part, that’s going to be a matter of interpretation.

HH: It seems like an elaborate attempt to avoid the ticking time bomb hypothetical, which everyone has to confront, the Jack Bauer 24 hypothetical…

PB: Right.

HH: …which is do you do things when time is of the essence that you wouldn’t do in other circumstances? And the Senate majority report says we have never run into that before. And the Senate minority report seems to say yes, we have, and we always chose to get the bad guy.

PB: Yeah, yeah, no, exactly. And I think that people understand that. And you know, they can understand that kind of scenario. You know, but what’s interesting is you also have a disagreement even among the CIA people who have participated in this, right? So you have interrogators who say that this is very useful, we got information that we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. This was a moral tradeoff, but the tradeoff, given the opportunity to protect Americans, was worth it. And you have other ones who say no, in fact, you know, the FBI guys, for instance, say that they got a lot of good information through old-fashioned interrogation techniques, didn’t have to go cross a line. You had this one interrogator from the CIA who wrote an email saying he sees a train wreck coming, he’s going to jump off this train before it hits. So you know, it’s, it’s no question it’s been a very polarized and polarizing debate in which you have very strong feelings on this, and it’s hard to reconcile them.

HH: I’m talking with the New York Times’ Peter Baker, author of Days of Fire, the tremendous one volume history of the Bush-Cheney years. Last question in this area, Peter. Many critics have said the timing of today’s release was intended to obscure the testimony of Jonathan Gruber. What do you make of that?

PB: Oh, gosh, I think that’s linking A and B in a way that you know, probably didn’t have a lot to with it. I mean, this has been something that’s been in the works for a long time. This is, you know, long before Gruber’s name was even known, there’s been this big fight between the White House and the CIA and the Senate committee as to declassifying it and getting the redactions agreed to. And this is a Senate committee that goes out of business soon. There will soon be a Republican majority, and certainly Senator Feinstein, the Democratic chairman wanted to get it out on her watch, certainly didn’t have faith necessarily it would get out once she was no longer in control. So I think all those factors had more to do with it than Gruber. You know, it may have the effect of overshadowing his, because obviously, this is a big issue. But it’s hard for me to think that this is actually directly related.

HH: Okay, second part of the conversation goes back to a story that you and Amy Chozick wrote on Sunday.

PB: Yeah.

HH: Hillary Clinton’s History As First Lady Powerful, Not Always Deft. Remarkable story, very interesting, and I want to begin with a lot of the source material, which is this oral history project. One of the critiques of that oral history project, it was paid for by Clintonworld. Did that bother you at all in using the sources?

PB: Well, National Review made a point of that, and let’s just clarify. They didn’t pay for the oral history project. They did give some contributions to the Miller Center. That appears to be the case. That was not fully funded by them or something like that. And the Miller Center is an institution that’s affiliated with the University of Virginia, you know, a public institution, and they’ve done oral histories for every presidency going back to Jimmy Carter. So I think you know, it’s a relevant fact that we should know, I supposed, that the Clinton Foundation gave them money. Fair enough. It’s also relevant to know that the director of the Miller Center from 1998-2005, the one who did this oral history project, was Phil Zelikow, who was a well-known historian who worked for both Bush presidents in the White House and the State Department. So you know, I read the interviews. I don’t see anything in there that suggested to me that they were done in any different way than the ones I’ve read from the Reagan and the Bush 41 administrations. And they produced a lot of interesting material. And we looked through them. We were looking for quotes or stories or anecdotes that told us something from people who were inside the room. By definition, those are going to be Clinton people. But what was interesting about it is it wasn’t all, you know, like flattering and you know, puffery. I mean, there was a lot of sort of sharp edges to the portrayal of Hillary Clinton as the first lady.

HH: Oh, absolutely there were. And in fact, I want to talk about that. You referred to the health care debacle of Mrs. Clinton’s time as first lady, and those are the first two years of the Clinton administration. Is she going to be able to avoid in her presidential campaign, Peter Baker, being called Obamacare’s grandmother, because it really is her, not her baby, but her grandchild that we’re living with now.

PB: Yeah, yeah, What’s really interesting is how much she has managed to evolve her political persona from that time as first lady, right? In the 90s, her identity and public perception was a very liberal figure, the liberal voice inside the White House, promoter of health care, government involvement in the economy, you know, a skeptic of welfare reform and so on and so forth. And in the years since then, really, you know, transformed herself into sort of this centrist figure, somebody who’s criticized on the left. Gosh, there’s the liberals who would like to get Elizabeth Warren out there, and she’s seen as a more hawkish figure even than President Obama when it comes to national security. So she’s done a remarkable job of sort of changing that perception over time. But any campaign, especially one that will be as hard fought as this one is going to revisit history. That’s why we thought it was worth going back, looking at that time that people have kind of forgotten about, and reminding us where she came from, how she got from there to here. And I think health care’s going to be a big issue, particularly if the administration can’t get it working right by then. It had some success lately, they would say, but there’s still two years to go. We’ll see what the perception of it is two years.

HH: What’s your understanding of Hillarycare compared to Obamacare? Wasn’t Hillarycare, it’s my understanding, I won’t put it in terms of a question. It was my understanding that it was even bigger and more intrusive than Obamacare.

PB: Yeah, yeah, no, much more government-oriented. In fact, Obama’s is arguably closer to what the Republican alternative was at the time when Senator Dole and Senator Chafee were arguing for a little bit more of a market-oriented approach. That’s closer to what Obama ended up with. It’s still obviously perceived by a lot of people as too much government in their health care choices. But it does, you know, provide subsidies for people to buy private insurance, not government insurance. And Hillary Clinton’s version of it was much more government, much more bureaucracy. It was famously lampooned on the floor of the Congress with a big chart showing all the boxes and everything. And I think that was one of the things that really brought it down, because the perception that it was going to be the big state coming into your health care choices.

HH: Now Peter Baker, you also noted in the December 5th piece in the New York Times that throughout the White House years and since she created her own team, her insiders, her Hillaryland, and that it’s insular. Does she take advice from anyone not in Hillaryland seriously?

PB: Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, she’s suffered over the years sometimes from having advisors who led her in a direction she might not have wanted to have gone. Obviously, her 2008 campaign advisors overestimated their capacity to take down this young newcomer named Barack Obama, and they didn’t compete in a lot of the caucus states. They presented her as this, they were trying to address the issue of being a woman and whether she’s tough enough, when everybody pretty much thinks that Hillary Clinton’s tough enough, and they didn’t address the issues that they really had. She gets caught in, as any politician does, in the network of people you’ve got around you. The question is in 2016, is she going to have some of those same people, or is she branching out and bringing in a fresh crop? And we’ll see. I don’t know whether we really know the answer to that, yet.

HH: There are a couple of other questions about 2016. I’m curious about your answer to having tapped into these oral histories. Does she have any platform? Is she running on any particular set of proposals?

PB: Yeah, that’s a good question. How does she freshen, you know, her agenda for 2016, when she’s going to be literally, you know, 24 years after her husband first ran for president, right? And you know, she wants to capitalize on what today is a decent amount of nostalgia for the 90s when we were a little bit more at peace, and the economy was doing pretty well. But you know, how much she can take credit for that is obviously an open question. How does she present a message to the country that seems relevant to today? Well, you know, she’s more well-known more or less on the national security side, but that’s not where a lot of the debate will be had. And on the domestic side, what will she argue for? She’s talking more and more about income inequality or issues like that that appeal to the left that’s very upset about that. But you haven’t heard, yet, what her sort of overarching theme is going to be. What is she going to really stand for other than not being a Barack Obama, which I think is at least part of her pitch.

HH: You know, you wrote in your piece that she was unsparing in her calculations about her husband’s political prospects, and you just mentioned the need to freshen herself. One of the big critiques is that she’s past her D.C. sell-by date, that she’s old and tired. Has she heard that? Is she aware of that?

PB: Oh, I think she’s aware of it. She’s certainly heard it, yeah. I do think that’s an issue. You know, I went back and looked. With the exception of Ronald Reagan, we haven’t elected a president since James Buchanan who was ten years older than the outgoing president, right? We tend to move on from generations forward, and generations not backwards. And so she’s going to have to address that. She’s going to have to make the case for why she’s not a retread. Having said that, as my wife reminds me, she has the advantage in some ways of seeming fresh because if she were to win, she’d be the first woman, and that is a barrier-breaking kind of thing. And that, to some extent, is different than if she were a 69 year old man running for president at this point. She can argue that she is moving the country forward in a way that a younger person might. She’s got to explain what at 69 she’s offering. And I think that even young women who are excited about the idea of a woman being president are still asking the generational question is she somebody who understand where we’re coming from at this point. And she’s going to find it’s going to be a challenge for her.

HH: You mentioned that national security and foreign affairs don’t much matter in presidential elections. But what exactly is she going to say she accomplished while secretary of State?

PB: Well, it’s a good question, right? She’s a very cautious secretary of State. She didn’t have, you know, a swing for the fences kind of diplomatic breakthrough, you know, a Middle East peace or things like that. I think she’ll argue that she took the right side, in her view, on Afghanistan, on Iraq, on being tough with Putin.

HH: Putin?

PB: That’s what…

HH: Putin, Peter Baker? I mean, she gave him the reset button.

PB: She gave him the reset button, but it was a policy that was really the President’s, and she, within the circles, and you hear Bob Gates talk about this, she always thought it was kind of, you know, not necessarily likely to succeed, and was, had a tougher point of view on him.

HH: She did push Libya. Doesn’t she own that? You know, you bought it, you break it?

PB: Yep. She did. She did push Libya. That’s an area where she’ll be criticized. Obviously, Benghazi will still be an issue at least for some people. And I think that you’re right. She doesn’t have like sort of a bumper sticker kind of accomplishment she can point to. I was the secretary of State who did X. I think probably, maybe, the one she would say is I’m the Secretary of State who helped restore America’s position in the world after the Bush years, which will appeal to a lot of Democrats. But I think Republicans will probably argue, well, the Obama years have had their own, you know, problems in terms of international credibility.

HH: Now Peter Baker, you noted in Days of Fire Bush was a pretty robust retail campaigner. He was good at it.

PB: Yeah.

HH: Hillary had a terrible book tour, said some terribly flat speeches or controversies about her speaking fees. Does she have a glass jaw that you know, Obama found, and that the next, whether it will be the Republican or primary challenger will also find when it comes to retail politics?

PB: Yeah, I mean, part of the downside for her of being so dominant on her side of the spectrum right now, in other words, she’s probably better positioned to get her nomination any non-incumbent president has been in decades. But the downside is you don’t get to go through the paces, right? You know, one advantage of having a rough and tumble primary campaign is you come out of it pretty, you know, pretty warmed up for the general election. You’ve been hit, you know how to take a hit, you know how to respond to a hit, you’ve gotten some of the harsher criticisms sort of out of the way, and people absorb them. She’s not going to have that, at least it doesn’t look like it at the moment. And she does have, you know, she’s had some issues, as you point out, with the book tour. It’s probably better for her that she got them out of the way with the book tour than when she starts campaigning for real. But it’s probably a reminder that campaigning is an art, and something that you can, you know, you need, you get rusty on.

HH: Last two questions, the role of Bill in the White House, some people say we’re not running for Obama’s third term. It’s really Bill Clinton’s third term. What do you think?

PB: Well, it’s a good reminder, right? You know, it, the idea of Bill Clinton as first husband is entertaining and mystifying. What would he be like, a former president in that role? And he’s such a character to begin with, and prone to his own issues from time to time. And you can imagine her trying to find ways of keeping him under control politically. But you know, third term, I think they would rather argue the third term of Clinton rather than third term of Obama, because you know, rightly or wrongly, we look back today with Clinton, on Clinton’s time as being better than we do right now for Obama’s time, you know, much like, you know, people today are very positive on Reagan, even Democrats. I think Clinton has kind of turned the corner, historically, a little bit, and that people forget how much they were polarized at the time.

HH: Okay, last question, who’s going to be her vice president, Peter Baker?

PB: That’s a great question. Well, we’re already, it tells you a lot about her position in the party.

HH: Sure, it does.

PB: We’re already talking about that, right?

HH: It does.

PB: You know, a couple of names, obviously the new HUD secretary, Castro, is a possibility. Senator Tim Kaine, I wonder, in Virginia, might be an interesting choice, right? He’s Catholic in a purple state. He’s been critical of Obama on some things. You know, it’s an open, jump ball.

HH: What do you think of Deval Patrick?

PB: Maybe. Maybe. I mean, he comes from Massachusetts, which is a state presumably you’re supposed to get anyway. But you know, he’s an attractive figure, and then they would argue that that would look new generation as opposed to…

HH: Well, he’s my class. He’s class of ’78 at Harvard, so he’s…

PB: Young guy, then.

HH: 58 years old. Yeah, young guy. But I mean, the African-American vote has been so central to President Obama’s electoral majorities.

PB: Yeah.

HH: Do they have to, in essence, either put one of the Castro brothers or Deval on there in order to energize that community?

PB: Well, they would energize that community, and I think they would probably energize, to some extent, the youth vote that she otherwise has to have a way of selling, right? Now her argument would be, you know, look at this, this is not your grandfather’s ticket or your father’s ticket. It’s a new generation ticket. And we’ll see. You know, I mean, I think that the danger, of course, is you don’t want to look anything like the last administration when you’re trying to sell a new administration, but you know, Deval Patrick is a very talented campaigner, and would probably bring something to the ticket.

HH: Peter Baker, always a pleasure, thanks for a long period of time.

End of interview.

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