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Washington Post’s Jonathan Weisman interviews Hugh about why Senators Lott and Graham are anti-talk radio

Tuesday, June 19, 2007
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HH: Now, I’m joined by Jonathan Weisman, Washington Post reporter, covering the immigration debate. Earlier today, I received an e-mail from Jonathan, wanted to talk to me about the Senator Lott, and I assume Senator Graham, comments about talk radio. And I said let’s do it on air. Jonathan’s previously written for USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, Congressional Quarterly, Oakland Tribune. Welcome, Jonathan, good to have you on.

JW: I’m impressed by your intelligence.

HH: Hah.

JW: (laughing) You got me back to the Oakland Tribune. I’m impressed.

HH: Oh, I know. But where did you go to college? Were you a Westy, a West Coaster?

JW: Mostly Northwestern, actually.

HH: Oh, you’re a Medill School.

JW: So right smack in the middle.

HH: A Medill School of Journalism guy?

JW: I am indeed.

HH: Okay, and did you join the Oakland Tribune right out of Medill?

JW: No, no. Actually, right out of Medill, I went to the Peace Corps, and I was in the Philippines, and I had a rather checkered career, actually.

HH: You’re a Peace Corps guy?

JW: I am.

HH: What year was that?

JW: It was ’88-’90.

HH: So you’re a George Bush Peace Corps guy?

JW: I was a George H.W. Bush Peace Corps guy, that’s right.

HH: And was Coverdale the head of the Peace Corps at that time?

JW: Yeah, part of it was, yes, part of it was the late, great Paul Coverdale.

HH: Yeah, yeah. Well, my college roommate ended up being the director of the Peace Corps under Bill Clinton, by the name of Mark Gearan.

JW: Oh, yeah. I didn’t realize…well, I know him, too.

HH: I have many lefty friends, unfortunately. I can’t change his mind. So have you ever voted for a Republican for president?

JW: Have I ever voted for a Republican for president? You know, that…if I had known that I was going to be the guy who was taking the question…actually, I’m not going to tell you who I voted for ever. And you know what? I won’t ask you, either.

HH: Oh, that’s okay. I’ll tell you. I’ve never voted for a Democrat for president, so there. Now…I always ask the Washington Post reporters that. Edsall answered me, Dana Milbank answered me, but…

JW: Oh, I know, because Dana can say when we wrote in…

HH: Chuck Hagel, right.

JW: Chuck Hagel, that’s right.

HH: So Jonathan, go ahead. Fire away.

JW: All right. Well, first of all, what did you make of, you know, suddenly, the Republicans hitting back at talk radio? You obviously saw Senator Lott’s comments, and you’ve made reference to Senator Graham’s comments. What are they after here?

HH: Well, my first thought was, I want to try and talk to them, I’ve put calls into both offices through my producer, and they haven’t responded, because I have this suspicion about mainstream media, Jonathan, that maybe they weren’t fully or accurately reported, and all the nuance might not have gotten through, because the mainstream media might be interested in promoting that kind of a divide. Have you talked to them yet about what they meant?

JW: Well, I was standing right there, and I will tell you, Senator Lott was not, it was not out of context. He went on and on and on about it. As you saw, I took one comment, and the New York Times took another comment, so…

HH: Did he mention any talk radio hosts by name?

JW: No, he did not.

HH: You see, why didn’t you guys ask him that?

JW: Well, you know, let me tell you the context.

HH: Okay.

JW: We were all standing, there were about a half dozen of us standing in a hallway in the Capitol outside this pivotal meeting where they were all trying to whittle down the number of amendments, and it was right before they were about to meet with Harry Reid to bring this bill back up. So we were all just staking it out, as they say, and he came out and just, you know, chatted with us for quite some time.

HH: You see, I think it’s very important at that point for MSM to say now, Senator Lott, talk radio’s a, you know, a big thing. On the one hand, we’ve got people like Hewitt and Bill Bennett who’s your friend, and we’ve got Dennis Prager and Michael Medved, and Medved’s in favor of the bill, and we’ve got Laura Ingraham who’s a Supreme Court clerk, and you know, these people have some very sophisticated analysis and critiques or endorsements. On the other hand, you have some hyperbolic criticisms, not now, not ever, never. What are you referring to? Because if they had gone forward to say, for example, me, after Tony Snow on this program said to me I think you should read the bill, I did. I had a back injury, so I read the whole bill…

JW: You read all 600 odd pages?

HH: I did indeed, and it was actually only about 340 on the printer. And I wrote 10,000 words about it, and I analyzed all the sections and all the issues I had, including 601h, which is the hole you drive the truck through. And since that time, whenever I hear these people say they ought to read the bill, I think well, don’t they read the people who’ve read the bill? So that would be very interesting to me, if they really have a cartoon in their mind about what talk radio is, or if they really have a sophisticated critique of what we’re saying? What do you think?

JW: Well, let me ask you that. Now you’ve read the bill. Obviously, Trent Lott accused talk radio of not reading the bill. What they have told everyone repeatedly is that if you read the bill, you will see, you know, chapter after chapter on the measures to tighten the border, border patrols, strengthen the border, border security, and strengthen interior enforcement with all these new provisions on employer enforcement, and new ways to check employment status. Tell me, is it a question of faith? Do you just not believe those things are going to work?

HH: No, I’ve actually made some very specific criticisms on the blog and on the radio with Senator Kyl and Tony Snow and others, one of being, for example, the very first provision says except as provided for in section 601h, no other, and I’m paraphrasing here, benefits of this bill shall go into effect until such time as the following triggers are pulled, all right?

JW: Right.

HH: We agree on that. Well, 601h is the probationary status which is automatic for anyone who files the application, if that application is not kicked back within 24 hours. And my position is that that is an astonishingly bad idea, because not only will it never be effectively implemented…I used to run the, as general counsel and deputy director, the Office of Personnel Management, the office of security investigations. I know how badly staffed the federal government is. I know they can’t do those background checks, no matter how greatly automated. I know that many, many people who are in the country illegally, and for bad purposes, will receive travel and work documents immediately, because they won’t be kicked back, because it will be impossible. And I come up with this example. If you’re an Afghan refugee in the United States who’ve crossed over illegally, and there’s no way to check and kick you back, you’ll get your travel and work permits. And Jonathan, do you think we have some jihadists who are in the country, perhaps under illegal circumstances right now?

JW: Well, I can’t know for certain, but we’ve been told that we probably do.

HH: Yeah, and so I…

JW: Now tell me, so…and there’s this theory out there that the illegal immigrants who get this provisional status would not be satisfied with that, that they would go ahead and do what needs to be done to get their Z visas, and then eventually try to take that next step to get their legal permanent residence. Do you just simply not believe that would happen?

HH: No, again, understand my critique. My critique is not with the idea of having the 90% plus of economic illegal immigrants regularized in the United States. I think that’s a very good idea. I was against 187 when 187 was on the ballot in 1994 in California. I am against the particulars of this bill, because of its fairyland approach to how it will be accomplished. I’m also against the idea of not building the full fence as a trigger. I have been adamant about the fence and the next 12 million from the beginning, and I do not understand why so little has been done in the past six months since that bill was passed. And I had Secretary Chertoff on the program. And how much do you think has been built to the fence, Jonathan?

JW: I know, I think it’s like six miles, or something like that.

HH: It’s actually, if I understand Secretary Chertoff, 75 miles are under construction, but none have been completed. Now…

JW: Now let me ask you a question. Have you ever been to the border area between, south of Tucson around Douglas, Arizona, between Douglas and Nogales?

HH: No, most of my border experience is on the Otay Mesa of San Diego. I have crossed the border a number of times where there’s both fence and impassible terrain.

JW: But I mean, the area around, between Douglas and Nogales is canyon land, where this fence would have to go straight down, go straight back up. It would look like the Great Wall of China. And in huge tracts of it, it was probably just get blown up.

HH: Well of course, of course, there is 2,100 miles of border, and only 700 miles of fence. And so I assume that they’re not going to put the fence into silly places where geography renders it irrelevant. I think they would have gone a long way toward satisfying the security critics of the bill had they had a comprehensive plan for where it would be constructed, and had actually let contracts to begin construction. So I think they’re selling that rug twice.

JW: All right.

HH: And as a result, and that when I hear them upset with talk radio, but non-responsive on that question…and have you read the San Antonio Express News stories by Todd Bensman yet?

JW: No, I haven’t. I’ll take a look.

HH: Todd Bensman ran a series of five stories, three weeks ago, on the literally tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who have crossed over the Southern border from countries of “special concern” or interest to the State Department, meaning countries with ties to jihadist networks of long standing. When I bring this up to Senator Kyl or Secretary Chertoff, they assert, unpersuasively to me, Jonathan, that it will help our war on terror to give everyone work and travel permits, because the jihadists won’t step forward to get them. Does that make sense to you?

JW: No. But now can I take back the interview for a second?

HH: Oh, but you have to wait until after the break.

JW: Let me ask you…obviously, liberal politicians, Democratic politicians, have felt the lash from conservative talk show hosts and their audience for perhaps ever, and but I’m wondering if the pendulum is swinging? How do talk show hosts, or conservative talk show hosts view the Republican Party.

HH: Ah, great question. I’ll answer it when we return from break, because we are a profit-making enterprise, and the reason the conservatives have made it is we know how to hold onto audience through commercial breaks.

– – – –

HH: I’m trying to give the audience a little context here. Jonathan, a couple of quick questions for you. Do you own a gun?

JW: Do I own a gun? Actually, you know what? I live in Washington, D.C., where it is illegal to own a gun.

HH: Have you ever owned a gun?

JW: Have I ever owned a gun? Yes, I owned a gun.

HH: Oh, okay, that’s very good. What kind?

JW: A .22.

HH: Oh, that doesn’t count. That’s hardly a gun.

JW: All right. I owned it in Atlanta, and that was what my parents let me have when…

HH: Are you pro-abortion rights?

JW: Oh, come on, we’re not getting this. Stop, stop, stop.

HH: Just one…my last question…

JW: Wait, you were going to answer my last question.

HH: I am going to.

JW: My last question, which is this. Has the view from talk radio, from talk radio hosts and talk radio audiences of the Republican Party, not conservatives, but of the Republican Party, changed of late? And what role did the immigration debate have in your views of the GOP?

HH: Good question. The answer is talk radio, it’s like saying have newspapers changed, because there are…

JW: Well, conservative talk radio.

HH: Again, it’s like saying have liberal newspapers. It’s the same thing. All newspapers are liberal, and most talk radio is conservative. You’ve got to be much more specific. I’ll answer for myself.

JW: How about you? Have your views of the Republican Party changed?

HH: No. I believe that the Republican Party remains the only serious party in the country. I believe it’s got the best economic policy. I admire President Bush a great deal. I don’t see how I could possibly support any Democrat any Republican. I’ve also not changed concerning John McCain, who I’ve long viewed as a great American, a lousy Senator, and a terrible Republican. I have been, since the Gang of 14, my views have not changed on John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s inability to understand how to deliver to the party what they need. I think Senator McConnell is a vast improvement over Senator Frist when it comes to running the Senate, but on the other hand, some Senators are confusing me right now. Jon Kyl is perhaps the man I admire most in the United States Senate, fine Constitutional lawyer. He believes in this bill, but I’m not persuaded by his arguments on some subjects, and so I drafted some amendments for him, posted them on my blog, and hopefully, they’ll show up in the bill. So I think it’s a very difficult question to answer. But here’s what we don’t respect, and I think this is probably where they have gotten into the most trouble with the most people. I want to play for you Lindsey Graham. Did you see him on George Stephanopoulos’ show yesterday, Jonathan?

JW: I saw the transcript.

HH: Okay, here’s what he says, the third clip please.

LG: …go take a hike, because we don’t want to deal with the 12 million. It is hard. Our culture’s under assault. People feel like if we let the 12 million in and forgive them, that would be bad, and they’re right. We’re not forgiving anybody. We’re saying you stay here on our terms. You learn English. You learn civics. You’re going to stay here on our terms. You pay taxes. We’re not going to give our culture away. But here’s what’s at stake. We’ve been down this road before, no Catholics, no Jews, Irish need not apply. That’s not the America…

HH: Stop the tape. Jonathan Weisman, when he says no Catholics, No Jews, Irish need not apply, isn’t he saying that critics of the bill are racist?

JW: Absolutely. That is what he said.

HH: And isn’t that a stupid thing to say?

JW: (laughing) Well, look, I have to say that it’s certainly inflammatory.

HH: While there are indeed some critics of the bill who are racist, it is… Rightwingnews, a blog run by Jonathan Hawkins, did a poll of 54 bloggers. 96% of them don’t like the bill, and the same number don’t believe the idea that President Bush is pushing a North American Union. By conflating criticism of the bill with nativist, racist commentary, they invite for themselves the true statement that they are anti-intellectual. And I think this is probably where they’ve gotten into the most trouble. They are not giving sophisticated answers to sophisticated, penetrating criticisms, whether it comes from the Heritage Foundation, Michelle Malkin, Laura Ingraham, myself. Instead, they’re attempting to silence the debate, a very sophisticated debate, conducted at length with America involved over talk radio, by casting aspersions upon the character and the commitment to American values of the people conducting the conversation.

JW: Well, tell me, do you believe that there have been any inflammatory comments coming from some talk radio hosts?

HH: Of course there have been, but not on this show. And so again, I’m talking about my…but when they say talk radio, they necessarily mean every talk radio host. If they wish to speak with precision about a particular host or program or statement, and they choose not to do so, it’s called slander by group. It’s, you know, I teach Con law. If you call, if you say something like, famous case, the girls who work at Neiman Marcus are hookers, you’ve just slandered every girl at Neiman Marcus, even if one of them is a hooker. And so when Senator Lott, or Senator McCain comes out and says talk radio’s go tot be stopped, that’s…by the way, that’s NPR to the hard right short wave guy up in the mountains somewhere. And so if they’re going to be anti-intellectual, people are going to get mad at them.

JW: Well, why do you think they seem to be having this visceral reaction? You yourself noted that some Senators seem to be confusing you, and maybe they’re taking you by surprise, and I wonder if, why you think they are, seem to be out of character, perhaps?

HH: Well, I think that for many of them, it is the first exposure they have had to an activist response to bad legislation. They have heard for years from people who have hugely emotional responses to any particular issue. They hear from the 1% of every population on every issue. Whether it’s social security reform, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s the war, they’re used to hear from discreet but very, very activist groups. The immigration bill has swept into the debate, literally hundreds of thousands of people who have never picked up the phone and called 202-225-3121 before. It has swept into the debate the first time that new media has been able to do, as I did, 10,000 words of critique, pointing to particular sections, and saying well, look right here, this doesn’t make any sense. And so I think they’re dealing with the collapse of the old order when…even if they could buffalo the public about one of these bills, and the public’s not for buffaloing right now. And they don’t like it.

JW: No, I’m curious how you’re defining the old order when you say the old order’s collapsing.

HH: The only constituents that Senators used to have to please was the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, and a couple of television networks. And if they won the approval of you folks, inside the Beltway media, or what I call Beltway-Manhattan media, they were home free. And they never even heard, even if people were upset with them, they never even heard it. That has changed dramatically in the last five years with the rise of new media. And when in November, Blog World, and the New Media Expo comes to Las Vegas on November 8th and 9th, there will be there people, collectively far more powerful than the old dinosaur media of which you are a card carrying member. And as a result, they don’t like that. They found out about it on the Democratic Party on the war issue. They’re finding out about it from the center-right of the Republican Party on the immigration issue. And I want to confirm one thing, Jonathan. I don’t believe that 90% of the Republican Party is opposed to regularization. I think the center point for American public opinion, and Republican Party public opinion, is regularize the 12 million to 20 million, if you do so in a coherent fashion, following good security, or at least with good security guaranteed on the border and in background checks. Do you have more questions? We can go on another segment.

JW: Nope. I’ve got to say goodnight to my daughter.

HH: All right, Jonathan, a pleasure. I look forward to talking to you again in the future, Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post.

End of interview.

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