Wall Street Protests: Re-Launch For Liberals?
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from Cincinnati Public Radio. For 20 days now, demonstrators have packed Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan in a protest they call Occupy Wall Street. They want someone, anyone, held accountable for the financial machinations that drove the country to the brink three years ago, the monetized mortgages, the exotic instruments or, as they put it, corporate greed.
What's less clear is what they're for and whether a protest that's already swelled and spread can grow into a movement. Yesterday, some unions joined in. In some ways, that's the traditional left joining a less-well-organized, less-well-funded but much more spontaneous group.
If you have questions about Occupy Wall Street, give us a call. If you participated, why? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Cincinnati's new police chief and the challenges of being an outsider.
But first we begin with NPR correspondent Margot Adler, she joins us from our bureau in New York. Margot, always good to have you with us.
MARGOT ADLER: It's great to be back with you.
CONAN: You were down there yesterday. What'd you see?
ADLER: Well, yesterday was very interesting and very different from when I went there a couple of days ago, because I was at the big march, which was very much dominated by all kinds of people who had not been down in Zuccotti Park. So it was a lot of union members, it was a lot of community groups. There were probably more than 60 groups. I would say there were at least 5,000, maybe even 10,000 people there.
It was huge, absolutely huge - whereas what I saw in Zuccotti Park a couple of days before that is about 1,000 people kind of hanging out, much younger in general. This was a much older crowd, a much more, sort of, diverse crowd in some ways because it was mixed age, mixed ethnicity. Actually, there was mixed ethnicity there, too.
But yesterday's was very much, sort of, your traditional, you know, progressive people kind of marching down there and saying their support. What you saw down there was a much more spontaneous, a kind of gentle anarchy, things that reminded me of some of the - oh, everything from the Rainbow Gathering to Greenham Common to a lot of things that I experienced covering and participating in through the '60s and '70s.
CONAN: Yeah, both of us, I think, Margot, more than a few lifetimes at covering demonstrations. Is this a conscious emulation of Tahrir Square, of the movement that occupied Tahrir Square and grew and grew and grew?
ADLER: I don't really think so. People didn't mention - when I was talking to people, people were not mentioning Tahrir Square. Now what they were mentioning, I did talk to a woman who had come from Spain and had been at the huge demonstrations in Madrid that had taken place about the economy, and she felt it was a very similar movement that she was experiencing here.
I mean, what I did - I mean, what was interesting to me was I thought there was more focus than I thought there would be. If you looked around, the signs that you saw were all very much focused on the economy. There was - they were very much, you know, end corporate greed, end, you know, basically the 99 percent.
They weren't - you know, very often you'll go to a kind of traditional left demonstration, and there'll be 60,000 different causes. And I even saw a very weird thing while I was there. You know, they had this thing called the Human Microphone, where basically because they have no amplification, people repeat what everybody says.
So Peter Yarrow comes down there, from Peter, Paul & Mary, and he gets up on the stage, and he starts singing, and he also starts talking. And he is - in his talk, what I heard was the laundry list of every left cause. So he's talking about blacks in prison, he's talking about militarism, he's talking - and I'm listening to these people sort of parrot it back and, you know, just so everybody hears it.
And I realized it was completely different from what I was actually experiencing, that in a sense I thought he was off the mark.
CONAN: That's interesting. And yesterday, the arrival of union members, too, that, as mentioned, brings numbers, it brings organization, it brings money; but at the same time, might some of those people who had been down there the first three weeks wonder if they're about to be overwhelmed?
ADLER: I don't think they think they're going to be overwhelmed. I mean, a lot of the quotes that I heard in the various stories that I read said we welcome them, but, you know, we're going about our business and doing our thing. And one of the most interesting things that I heard today on a program actually on WNYC was one of the quotes that was given was, you know, Wendell Berry, who's, you know, this environmental writer, very interesting.
And he says ask questions that go beyond the available answers. And I started thinking about that, because all the news media and all the people you - on the street that you - and all the people in my coffee klatch just say, well, what is their goal, what is their goal?
And when I think about some of the cultural changes that have happened in this country, let's say women's rights, let's say gay marriage - who would have ever thought that that would have happened - at the time that women were, let's say, protesting, there was goal. The ERA, it never happened. So it wasn't even relevant to what actually changed.
And so I'm beginning to think that maybe this whole notion that oh, let's have a goal, let's have a focus, maybe that's not the idea. Maybe we're really - you know, they're really trying to say let's change the conversation.
And let me tell you a story that really, sort of, is my symbol of this whole thing, if you have a minute or so to let me do this, it kind of takes a couple minutes.
CONAN: I think we do, yes, go ahead.
ADLER: Okay, so in 1983, I'm covering the Seneca Women's Encampment for Peace and Justice. It's in Upstate New York. It's a group of very, very radical women who have encamped, very much like Greenham Common. They basically are camping out, and they want to protest militarism.
And they're doing all these things that were sort of these cultural '70s civil disobedience things. So there was street theater, and there was chanting, and they were painting themselves green and black, and they were having die-ins. And I spent three days with these women, and it felt very interesting and very transformative, and very unusual, you know, and I felt really actually that a lot of stuff was happening.
And then there was this big march. And the big march was on July 4th, and it was on the military base, and I got into a little skirt and a blouse, and I went and stood with the townspeople and watched this march that I had been living with for three days.
And as they marched to the military base and to the town, I realized that from the point of view of the townspeople that I was among, they looked totally crazy. They looked like total - you know, I mean, they really looked weird, they looked bizarre. There was no understanding. They were painted black and green. They looked really crazy.
Now translate that to Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street, and what's different and what I really think is interesting about Occupy Wall Street, is that it's porous. So what you have in Occupy Wall Street is you have all these people milling around and hanging out, and you have free food, and you have some of the Wall Street guys in their suits and ties coming in and eating the free lunch and talking with the people.
And so you actually have more of an encounter that's actually changing, where those two sides sort of come together and see each other. And I think that's very interesting.
CONAN: Greenham Common, which Margot mentioned, I think I did, too, that was a protest outside of an airbase in Britain called Greenham Common where American cruise missiles were set up. This was back in the 1980s, and women encamped outside the front gate and stayed there for some time.
Anyway, let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you want to know more about the Occupy Wall Street protest, give us a call. If you've participated, how come? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And we'll start with Martin(ph) and Martin on the line with us from Charlotte.
MARTIN: Hey, how are you doing today?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
MARTIN: I was just calling because I got a flyer. I go to UNC Charlotte, and I got a flyer from some students that were handing them out yesterday. And there's an Occupy Charlotte on Trade Street on Saturday, and I'm planning on going there.
And I just want to go because I feel like the younger generation, right now, is just being totally left out of the - of everything. And, you know, there's so many people who are graduating right now. They don't know what to do. They can't get jobs. And, you know, it's horrible, like I heard these snippy Fox News people talking about the younger generation, we have no agenda, but, you know, we'll see how it all works out.
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CONAN: Charlotte, a major banking center, not exactly Wall Street but a major banking center. Margot, I wonder if those attitudes are reflected there on the actual Occupy Wall Street.
ADLER: Which attitudes, the attitudes about the snarkiness of the media or...?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Well, there's that, yes.
ADLER: Which we can talk about, which is very interesting. But I think that the attitudes are very much - you know, we have been left out. We have been left out. I mean, I think one of the most interesting chants, for example, even at this big march yesterday, was, you know, banks got bailed out, we got sold out. And that was over and over and over.
And I think there's just this sense that people feel left out of decision-making. They feel left out of the - they don't really feel that democracy kind of applies to them and that their vote means anything.
CONAN: Martin, would you agree?
MARTIN: Exactly, and I'd like to make just one more point. I'm taking, actually, an American government course right now, and in that textbook, it makes a reference to right now the young voters are at the lowest, you know, all-time lowest, showing up to the polls.
But at the same time, we're at an all-time highest of, like, public volunteering and, you know, different charities, things like that. So it just shows that we - you know, we feel left out, and we don't feel like we can do anything about, you know, our vote isn't being heard, really. And so we're trying to help in other ways, which, you know, it shows how good I think our generation is. And, you know, a lot of people just look down their nose at us, so...
CONAN: All right, Martin, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. The snarkiness of the media, Margot?
ADLER: Well, I mean, I was starting to think about this because I had an experience - I think it even applies to NPR. I had an experience where someone, another reporter, said to me, well, you're going down to Occupy Wall Street, you have to make the joke. I said, well, what's the joke? He said, well, the joke is of course is that they're using McDonald's for the bathrooms, you know, that they can't get away from the corporate media.
And I actually did put a line in my piece about that. But what was interesting, when I actually asked that question to the people at Occupy Wall Street, they said look, you know, not only that, we use Verizon for our live stream. But that's the reality of 21st-century America that we live in contradictions.
So I mean, it wasn't a joke. It's something they've actually thought about. It's something that they actually are interested in thinking about as a larger question. And so I think there's a tendency for us because we want to be impartial, right, when we cover this. If we're doing an event, and there isn't another side to talk to, we then become the other side by becoming snarky.
CONAN: NPR's Margot Adler, who's with us from our bureau in New York. As our caller mentioned, the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to other cities and other places and other times: Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; as he mentioned Charlotte. If you're participating, why? And if you'd like to know more about what's going on, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, broadcasting today from Cincinnati Public Radio. And we'd like to welcome the audience here in the studio that we're borrowing from CET, that's Cincinnati Public Television. Appreciate your coming today.
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CONAN: After nearly three weeks, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in Manhattan appear to have caught the attention of the White House. Speaking at a news conference earlier today, President Obama said, quote, "it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street, and yet you're still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place."
Several unions joined in the loosely organized protest yesterday, and while some argue we're seeing the birth of a movement, others question the staying power of a group with few, if any, defined goals. If you have questions about Occupy Wall Street, give us a call. If you participated, why? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
NPR correspondent Margot Adler has been covering these protests the past few weeks and joins us from New York. And with us now from Lower Manhattan is Arun Venugopal, he's a reporter for WNYC, our member station in New York. Arun, thanks very much for being with us.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: And can you tell us what's going on there today?
VENUGOPAL: Well, it's very crowded out here in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. You have hundreds of people filling this square. Some of them are active protesters who have been drawn over the last two or three weeks. You also have a lot of tourists who might have been walking by to see ground zero, which is right next door, and they seem to be coming into the square in greater numbers.
I think that all the media coverage has sort of maybe demystified what's happening here, all this kind of activism, which might have been a little strange to some in the last few days, but you see a lot of people coming in and engaging with the protesters, asking them questions, and seem really interested in what's happening here.
I see all kinds of, you know, I guess signs of life, the camp life, in a sense that's been happening here. You see a compost bucket not too far from here where people are throwing in their food scraps because it's a very, I guess, ecologically-minded bunch of people.
ADLER: Right next to me there is a sign that says private and municipal unions. There are people who are trying to draw in more union members. And then there's food in the center of the square, where people come and get free meals.
CONAN: Free meals. What are they serving?
VENUGOPAL: I'm sorry?
CONAN: What are they serving?
VENUGOPAL: Well, let's see. Last I checked, they were - I think there's couscous, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It's largely vegetarian fare, but they also have cheese pizzas and whatnot. It's a pretty good spread, I must say.
CONAN: We've asked you to get some people, gather some people who we might talk to. Is somebody there with you?
VENUGOPAL: That's right. One gentleman who is standing right next to me, his name is Walter Hildegast(ph), and he lives in Queens, New York. He's a plumber, and he's a member of the local plumber's union. And he's been laid off for the last two years.
And his issue is that basically, you know, there hasn't been enough, I guess, focus on workers' rights. And I'm going to hand it off to him right now.
WALTER HILDEGAST: Yes, hello.
CONAN: Walter, nice to talk to you. You're live on the radio across the country on TALK OF THE NATION. Nice to have you with us today.
HILDEGAST: Yeah, you have to forgive me. It's unfortunately a little loud where I am. So I'm having a bit of a hard time hearing you.
CONAN: All right, well, briefly, could you tell us why you're there?
HILDEGAST: Why I'm here? Essentially I'm here not just as a union worker. I'm here as a 9/11 first responder. I'm a construction worker who was a volunteer at the World Trade Center site September 12 through September 16, 2001, and because of my actions, I developed an auto-immune disease called sarcoidosis, which basically has attacked my lungs, you know, my muscles and my joints.
The reason why I'm here is because I'm fighting, you know, for my basic rights and health care. I was denied workers' compensation and Social Security Disability, which I'm engaged in a furious legal fight. What I'm seeing here, it's beyond me already. It's about everybody else who also recognizes that there's a serious issue with this country.
People are getting sick and tired of having to pay, you know, the fares. You know, the fares are being raised constantly to come back and forth to work, especially here in Manhattan. They're getting tired of having to pay these high rents. The cost of health care has gone up. It's just, it's enough already. I think enough people have gathered up to say, you know what? I'm tired of making this choice.
Do I either pay my rent to put a roof over my head, or do I put food on the table for myself and my family to eat. Those kind of choices you shouldn't have to make in a big country like this. You know, people have every right to have a roof over their head and have every right to eat in this country. It's not right, and it's got to stop.
CONAN: Walter, thanks very much. Arun Venugopal has somebody else there with him, and I was wondering if he could hand the phone off to whoever that may be.
HILDEGAST: Yes, sir, thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Walter, good luck to you.
CONAN: Arun, is this you?
VENUGOPAL: Yeah, hi.
CONAN: Is there someone else you've got for us?
VENUGOPAL: Well, actually he's wandered off because had to go to the bathroom. It's very difficult to find public facilities here, unfortunately. And so he's yet to come back.
CONAN: Well, there are some issues that are even more urgent than speaking on the radio, I'll grant you that.
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VENUGOPAL: Sorry, no control over his bodily functions.
CONAN: Absolutely not. I wonder, this is an email we got, this is from Bruce in Michigan: Ask the people at the park where the iPhone, iPad, basic cell phone, sleeping bag, food, et cetera, came from. Are they willing to give all this up since they came from corporations? Side question for the next Republican debate is: Are the elected people's campaign paying their salaries when they're out campaigning? They're still on the dole.
That first part, I think it speaks to the question that some people wonder if there's a bit of hypocrisy down there.
VENUGOPAL: Yeah, well, I mean, I would I guess run it to, you know, the individuals who are here. But my sense is many of them are not calling necessarily for an absolute overthrow of the capitalist system. There are people here, you know, who actually say they support capitalism. But they say that they think there has to be a little better - I guess sort of readjustment of the system, in a sense, that it's gone out of whack as too much in favor of corporations.
When they say Occupy Wall Street, it's sort of a shorthand for Wall Street and the financial system but for I guess more broadly speaking what they think is a larger sense that the corporations and the wealthy who have too much control over the political system and that the middle class, what these people call 99 percent, the working class, that they need, I guess, a larger say in what happens and that income inequality has gone I guess to an extreme degree.
ADLER: You know, I'll just jump in here. This is Margot. I think that there - you know, no one there is saying there should never be another corporation in the world. I think the question is if you went back 20, 30 years, you would see that the ratio, let's say, of profits that CEOs make to their workers, was, you know, a much smaller percentage and that there's just this feeling that things have gotten completely out of hand.
VENUGOPAL: Actually, Neal, if I can just insert Steve Panu(ph), he's the gentleman who's rejoined us here. He's come from Google, where he works as an engineering manager. He used to work on Wall Street, he said, some years ago. And he might serve as a good example of the kind of person who doesn't believe in an overthrow of capitalism. He said he supports capitalism. But I'm going to hand it off from him. He's come from San Francisco just last night.
STEVE PANU: Hi, Neal, good to talk to you.
CONAN: Steve, nice to talk to you. Why'd you come 3,000 miles to Occupy Wall Street?
PANU: Well, from my perspective, you know, I have an economics background and looking at sort of the GDP coefficient over the last 30 or 40 years, I think things have gone in the wrong direction. I also saw a pretty striking graph the other week that shows - in Mother Jones, I believe - that there's a strong link between declining economic progress and increase in the income inequality. So those are the factors that concern me the most.
CONAN: But that's a long way to come for an economic principle.
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PANU: I probably am pretty feeling about this. But I'm really energized by the young folks here. They have some pretty radical ideas, ideas that I hadn't thought about. And from my perspective, that exchange has been pretty healthy, and I've learned a lot from them.
And I think, you know, they are really open to some of the things that I'm bringing up, as well. So I think a great sort of marketplace of ideas is coming about here.
ADLER: Did you say you worked for Google?
PANU: I did say that.
ADLER: And what are the attitudes at Google toward these kinds of things, your co-workers?
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PANU: My phone is completely unusable right now because there's about I don't know how many text messages waiting for me, you know, asking me how it's going, I wish I was there, all those sort of, you know, great kind of support groups.
But, you know, it's a large company, and there's probably a large, you know, group of opinions. But in general I have a lot of support from my teammates.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much. Could you give the phone back to Arun please?
PANU: Great, thank you.
CONAN: And Arun Venugopal, we wanted to thank you very much for your time today, appreciate it.
VENUGOPAL: Great, thanks for having me on, Neal.
CONAN: Okay, Arun Venugopal, a reporter for WNYC, our member station in New York down there at Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street movement goes. Margot, I wanted to read you this email we got from Guy(ph) in Tucson: The goals of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street line up very well together. Both are fed up with corruption in government and elsewhere, both are determined to stop the control of government by special interests, both want politicians to do the right thing for the country instead of doing whatever's necessary to stay in office.
We need jobs created by big business and small business and individuals alike. We need business to compete in the marketplace instead of rigging the marketplace. We need people's earnings tied to creation of wealth instead of just co-opting it like so often happens in government and on Wall Street.
What the Tea Party correctly opposes in big government, Occupy justifiably opposes in big business. The goal of democracy is to divide power amongst the citizens, and that is incompatible with plutocratic control of government by a small group of moneyed people. Is there much comparison with the Tea Party going on?
ADLER: I think that in the spontaneousness that the Tea Party originally was, absolutely. And there actually have been some people down there at Occupy Wall Street who have been, for example, Ron Paul people. I've seen them around, saying, you know, with their own campaigns, stop the Fed and all this kind of thing. So there - I mean, I do think that the original Tea Party came out as a very spontaneous movement. I think later, a lot of very big corporate interests and we might say conservative political groups did, in fact, pour huge amounts of money into the Tea Party. And so you might say that the Tea Party is no longer that kind of spontaneous movement that it was.
And then you have to ask, well, what's going to happen to Occupy Wall Street? Will the same thing happen? Or, in fact, will there be a - because - look - using these tools and they're really kind of trying to figure out another way of being, will they be able to get around that? I don't know. I don't think anybody knows whether this movement is going to have staying power or not.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go to George, George calling from San Francisco.
GEORGE: Hi. George, in San Francisco. You know, Margot, I think maybe taking off of your report, there's a kind of interpenetration of people at this location. And it's their life, and it's the circus. It's life lived in the open. And that - well, maybe we can agree that nobody has a particular corner on hypocrisy. We might draw up a list of objectives or principles. But that notwithstanding, there's a - I think the invitation of this camp - whether it's in New York City or Portland or any other central location - is to joins us, to live your life in the open. What is it that you're doing in there? What are you doing in those backrooms? What are you doing in those trades? And can you support that in terms of your life on this planet? If you came out here in the street, out in the open, where everybody's visible, could you continue business as usual?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ADLER: You know, it's interesting, because a lot of what's going on down at Occupy Wall Street is a bunch of stuff that has actually been created over time through, you know, a lot of different kind of protests and alternative movements. And a lot of the times that the reporters don't even really know, don't even understand what they're covering. For example, all those papers that talk about the fact that they wiggle their fingers when they want to say approval, well, that's known as twinkling. It's been going on since the '70s. I mean, it's been in all the civil disobedience movements.
And one person I talked to said a very interesting thing. He basically said: We're standing on the shoulders of that whole civil disobedience movement, which is standing on the shoulders of the civil rights movement, which started, you know, with nonviolent civil disobedience and stuff. So there's a lot of stuff that they are - that is actually not new, but I think that they are trying to figure out a new way of doing it. Who knows? More power to them. Let's hope it happens.
CONAN: George, thanks very much for the call. NPR's Margot Adler, with us from our bureau in New York. We're talking about Occupy Wall Street. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News. And let's see if we can get - here's an email. By the way, we're getting a lot of emails. This one from Betsy, tweets: I will be taking our kids to Occupy Wall Street in St. Louis tonight because profits have to become - before the needs of the people.
ADLER: This, an email from Kate: I'm 60 and upper-middle class. I'm going to go to the Occupy Denver demonstration on Saturday with my 25-year-old son. And there's somebody here in the audience in Cincinnati who told me there's going to be Occupy Wall Street here in Cincinnati come Saturday. It is spreading, Margot. It takes organization. It's spontaneous. It's interesting. But, well, what can happen? You need an organization, don't you?
I - you know, you certainly eventually need some kind of focus and organization. But I think what's happening here is they're trying to make it as inclusive, to make it as big as possible, at least at first. But what I thought was interesting - I had an experience last night that was very interesting, and that was not about Occupy Wall Street, but made me think that these issues are percolating around in a very interesting way, not always in an organized fashion. I went to see the new Robert Wilson Brooklyn Academy of Music "Threepenny Opera," which was just reviewed in The New York Times. It's got the Berliner Ensemble. And, of course, it's got these incredible words and ideas. It's very dark - very, very dark.
And it, basically, the - way it was stylized, the way the performers were on the stage, very painted in white, very stylized, they looked exactly like the zombie march at Zuccoti Park. They looked - they were - I mean, they really looked exactly like that. And there were lots of young people in the audience, and there are lots of references to economic inequality, to the banks, to everything like that. Whenever those references happen - and it was all done in German with - you could see the subtitles up above. And whenever you would see those words, the audience responded with a lot of chortles, a lot of applause, a lot laughter, as if, you know, even this theater performance, in some way, was having an effect that was somewhat similar to Occupy Wall Street.
CONAN: Interesting. Here's an email from Anne: I'm certain that there's a Ph.D. thesis in comparing the group dynamics of the Occupy Wall Street group with that of Woodstock - which, I guess, is funny in a way, but it also reminds us that there have been other times where there's been a whole lot of energy and, well, some things never did get accomplished. A lot of goals were never met.
ADLER: That is certainly true. And you could argue, I mean, many people argue that, for example, the huge energy that went around the '68 protest in Chicago at the Democratic Convention essentially led to a Republican victory, in fact, you know. So there are many people who would argue that not only do some huge energies dissipate, but sometimes they even go in a direction that the people who are doing them don't want them to go. On the other hand - and I think the real story is people are trying to put this in a little box, and it's too early.
CONAN: ..TEXT: ADLER: Yes, and I think that's actually - I remember a worldwide - an article in The Times that said, this is a worldwide phenomenon, actually, that people are less interested in the vote.
CONAN: Margot, nice to talk to you.
CONAN: NPR's Margot Adler joined us from our bureau in New York. Coming up, Cincinnati recently named James Craig as its new chief of police. What does a new police chief need to know - not just this one, but any top cop? Call us: 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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