The Legacy Of Watergate And The Semantics Of Scandals
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The newest senator won't run in Jersey's special election. The next newest senator gets elected to Massachusetts week after next. And next week, 41 years since a certain second-rate burglary, it's Wednesday and time for a....
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The Watergate break-in.
CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?
SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)
CONAN: Every Wednesday, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to review the week in politics. This week, the immigration bill hits the Senate floor, and Patrick Leahy again tries to include an LGBT amendment. Some lawmakers declare Edward Snowden a traitor. Others want straight replies about the least untruthful answers. The president heads to Massachusetts to stump for Ed Markey's special election bid. Democrat Mark Pryor fires back at Bloomberg on guns, and Hillary tells the Twitterverse she's a wife, mom, lawyer, secretary of state and pantsuit aficionado with a future TBD.
In a few minutes we reflect on the 40th anniversary of the Senate Watergate hearings with former Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. But first political junkie Ken Rudin joins us as usual here in Studio 42. And we begin, as usual, with a trivia question. Hey Ken.
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi Neal. Do you know, by the way, there's only three more Junkie shows?
RUDIN: I thought I'd just mention that.
CONAN: Including today.
RUDIN: Including today. Well, including today, we also have several months to go before the New Jersey Senate race. But as of today it looks like Newark Mayor Cory Booker has a very good shot of being the next senator from New Jersey. Who was the last sitting mayor to be elected U.S. senator?
CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, that is who the last sitting mayor to be elected to the U.S. Senate was, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. The winner, of course, gets a fabulous political junkie no-prize button and a free political junkie T-shirt.
In the meantime, Ken, let's talk about that Jersey race. It turns out Cory Booker is running.
RUDIN: He is running. He announced his candidacy on Saturday. A lot of people thought he had already been announcing, but of course I think a lot of people wanted to wait until Senator Frank Lautenberg's funeral was over and done, and it is. And the people who want to be the next senator could not be stopped. Monday was the deadline. You needed 1,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Four Democrats filed, and that's including the Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, Congressman Frank Pallone, Congressman Rush Holt and the - Sheila Oliver, who is the speaker of the State Assembly, who's also African-American, by the way.
And anyway, the two Republicans are Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, who ran for governor twice.
CONAN: I'm glad you know how to pronounce that. Some people might say Bogota.
RUDIN: Well, I am from Bergen County.
CONAN: Bogota, yeah.
RUDIN: I also know how to pronounce Fort Lee, which was much easier. And there's another Republican running against Lonegan who is very conservative, ran against Chris Christie for the nomination in 2009. He will most likely be the Republican nominee.
CONAN: And whoever of course gets the Democratic nomination would be...
RUDIN: Tantamount - well no, of course you could say that no, I mean no Republican has been elected senator in New Jersey since 1972. That was Clifford Case. The election is October 16, not November 5, and of course one of the reasons, we've talked about this before, but if you get the Democratic senator elected in October, it allows Chris Christie...
CONAN: The Republican governor.
RUDIN: The Republican governor not only to win a huge re-election but to carry in a lot of Republicans with him.
CONAN: Hopefully, hopefully.
RUDIN: Hopefully, that what he hopes, that's what the hope is, in the process.
CONAN: In the meantime, we will get, as mentioned, the next newest senator, what, in a couple of weeks?
RUDIN: Yes, well, the - well first of all before we go now, before we mention this, Jeff Chiesa is the state attorney general...
CONAN: Easy for you to say.
RUDIN: He's the state attorney general appointed by Chris Christie, and now Chris Christie has appointed Chiesa as the interim U.S. senator until the special election, just like we have an interim senator in Massachusetts, Mo Cowen, was appointed by Governor Duval Patrick. But that will change on June 25 in two weeks, when the election between Ed Markey, the Democratic congressman, and Gabriel Gomez, the Republican nominee, have their election.
CONAN: And they've been having some debates where, well, things have been getting a little testy there in Massachusetts.
RUDIN: Well of course a lot of it all small stuff, but it's interesting, the fact is the Democrats don't want to make the same mistake they made with the Scott Brown-Martha Coakley race. So President Obama was - is campaigning for Ed Markey today. Bill Clinton will be in the state on Saturday. Joe Biden was at a Markey fundraiser last night. Obviously the Democrats do not want to lose this.
There's a WBUR poll that just came out, had Markey with the, let's see, six-point, seven-point lead, 46 to 39 percent. It could be close, but Democrats are confident.
CONAN: In the meantime, two Democratic groups launched television ads in Massachusetts that list their many objections to that Republican Senate candidate, Gabriel Gomez.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Gomez supports cuts to Medicare, eliminating coverage of mammograms and cancer screenings while raising prescription costs. He'd even raise the retirement age. Gabriel Gomez puts himself ahead of us.
CONAN: And of course Gomez fired back with an ad that, well, poked fun at that Democratic ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Gabriel Gomez is a very bad man. He kills old people. He hates women. He even leaves the toilet seat up. Just ridiculous. Congressman Markey must think we're stupid.
CONAN: Well, he went on to say how bad Congressman Markey was. In the mean case, this is an ad that's not going to be decided, I don't think, by outside money, and that's not a Markey ad, that's a Democratic ad.
RUDIN: Yeah, no, there's a lot of money coming in for this race, and again as I say, the Democrats don't want to risk the fact of losing another Senate race. But of course Markey has been in Congress since 1977, and the argument for Gabriel Gomez, who is using humor the way Scott Brown used humor in 2010, although the situation is much different in this state, but he's hoping to do another Scott Brown Massachusetts miracle.
CONAN: In the meantime, there's some election news in South Dakota, as well. It looks like there will be no GOP primary, at least for one race.
RUDIN: Yes, and this is very good news for the Republicans. This is the seat that - Senate seat that Tim Johnson is giving up. Former Governor Mike Rounds has already announced his candidacy. He's a Republican. There were some conservatives who felt that Rounds wasn't conservative enough. They wanted Congresswoman Kristi Noem to run. But of course there's no place like Noem.
CONAN: Noem, yeah.
RUDIN: Yes, thank you very much. And so she announced yesterday that she won't run in the Senate, which means it sounds like it's going to be a united Republican Party behind Mike Rounds.
CONAN: And there is news from Illinois, as well, where a former, well, chief of staff - well not the one you're thinking of - is running for governor.
RUDIN: Right that's Bill Daley, who is the brother and son of former Chicago mayors. He's also former commerce secretary. He's going to take on Pat Quinn, who is a very unpopular Democratic governor in the Democratic primary. Everybody of course is waiting for Lisa Madigan, who is the state attorney general, who is very popular. But anyway, the question is whether the name Daley resonates beyond Chicago. But we do know is that Pat Quinn has a really tough battle hoping to get another term.
CONAN: In the meantime, the NSA scandal, a lot of people say it's not going to have a lot of political repercussions because it divides the parties so interestingly. Republicans, many conservatives, support the president on the NSA snooping. And then of course there's the Libertarians on that win of the Republican Party, who seem to line up with the civil libertarian Democrats.
RUDIN: It is fascinating. First of all, I mean, we've talked about this being a battle between privacy and security and how much security we're willing to give up, or how much privacy we're willing to give up. But it's also talking about Eric(ph) Snowden, the guy who released all this documents and all these documents. He's either a hero or a traitor.
We're hearing Dianne Feinstein saying that he's a traitor, it's treason, exactly. But you have people like Rand Paul who says he did a great service to the country. This - the debate is going on. I don't know if it's going to go on at the congressional level because most members of Congress seem to say: 1, we knew about it; and 2, we support it.
CONAN: Interesting, though, what will be the response when people like General Clapper come to testify the next time after they told, word for word asked point blank is the NSA gathering data on Americans, said no.
RUDIN: He said that in March in a congressional hearing. I think he said it was the least untrue...
CONAN: The least untruthful - he could have been on this show.
RUDIN: Exactly. Well anyway, Clapper does have a lot of answers to give, and this - you know, it just further exemplifies the argument that people just have less and less trust in their government.
CONAN: Let's get some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is the last sitting mayor to be elected to the United States Senate, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com.
RUDIN: He could have been reclining, as well.
CONAN: OK, in any case, Bob's(ph) on the line from Sacramento.
BOB: Yeah, Hickenlooper from Denver?
RUDIN: Hickenlooper is a very good guess except Hickenlooper was elected governor of Colorado, not to the U.S. Senate.
BOB: OK, thanks.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Michael(ph) and Michael with us from Austin.
MICHAEL: Hi, I was going to guess Daley until I heard you just talking about Daley a short time ago.
CONAN: Well then you would be wrong.
RUDIN: Yes because, you know, Richard J. and Richard M. Daley both elected mayor but of course never ran for the Senate let alone elected to the Senate.
CONAN: Thank you, Michael. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Cathy(ph), and Cathy's with us from Minneapolis.
CATHY: Yes, and I just want to say we're going to miss you guys.
CONAN: Oh, thank you, that's nice of you to say. But what's your guess?
RUDIN: By the way, we're having a party at Neal's house tonight, so everybody who's listening is invited.
MICHAEL: Cool, I'll be there. Say, I'm thinking it's Norm Coleman from Minnesota, former mayor of St. Paul.
RUDIN: That's a good guess. Norm Coleman was elected to the Senate in 2002, but I'm looking for somebody more recently.
CATHY: Oh be that way.
CONAN: Thank you, though, Cathy, we'll see you tonight.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Brian(ph), Brian with us from Redwood City in California.
BRIAN: Hi, I want to say it was Dianne Feinstein, but I'm scratching my head. Now I think she was mayor of San Francisco, but she might not have been.
CONAN: She was.
RUDIN: She was mayor of San Francisco for 10 years, from '78 to '88, but then in '90 she ran for governor and lost to Pete Wilson. She wasn't elected to the Senate until '92, when she was a former mayor.
CONAN: All right, Brian, thanks very much. Here's an email guess from David D.(ph): Mark Begich of Anchorage, he says.
RUDIN: Mark Begich is the correct answer.
CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.
RUDIN: Mark Begich was the mayor of Anchorage, and of course as we know in South Dakota there's no place like Nome. But anyway in 2008...
CONAN: Twice he used it.
RUDIN: That joke, which is the only time I've ever used that joke on this show. In 2008, Mark Begich defeated Ted Stevens, the last incumbent mayor to be elected to the Senate.
CONAN: So we have your email address, David, and we'll send you info on how to collect your free political junkie T-shirt and of course that fabulous no-prize button. In the meantime, Ken, we have some sad news to report, and that's the passing of the former governor of Massachusetts, Paul Cellucci.
RUDIN: He sounded like a really, really neat guy, a fascinating character. He was lieutenant governor under Bill Weld. He became governor when Weld left, when actually he was nominated to become ambassador to Mexico, although Jesse Helms stopped that. But Paul Cellucci was 65 years old, he was - and then of course in '90 he was elected on his own in 1998. He left to become President Bush's ambassador to Canada. But he died Saturday of Lou Gehrig's disease at the age of 65.
CONAN: And we should remember the first woman elected to the House of Representatives from the state of Nevada.
RUDIN: That was Barbara Vucanovich. She served seven terms to retire from Congress in 1996. She also passed away this week.
CONAN: And political journalist of some particular note.
RUDIN: Well, there was - Doug Bailey, you know, before there was Politico, before these cable TV wars that were going on, Doug Bailey founded The Hotline in 1987. Matter of fact, he hired me as his political - as managing editor in 1994. Doug Bailey passed away this week at age 79.
CONAN: Ken Rudin will stay with us. Of course he's the political junkie and joins us every Wednesday here on TALK OF THE NATION. When we come back, Senator Lowell Weicker joins us 40 years after the Watergate hearings. What's the legacy of Watergate? 800-989-8255. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday, so political junkie Ken Rudin is here. And ScuttleButton winner this week, Ken?
RUDIN: There actually was...
CONAN: Hold on a second, there's the answer.
RUDIN: There's the microphone. Absolutely was. It was a five-button set. The first one was re-elect Nixon. The second was I'm a member of the Kennedy for President Club. The third one was Dee Huddleston, Kentucky senator. The fourth button was praise Allah. And the fifth button was a picture button of Mo Howard of the Three Stooges.
CONAN: I'm not going to ask you what Allah ran for, but...
RUDIN: Well, yes, but when you add them all together, you get Remember the Alamo.
CONAN: A-ha, OK.
RUDIN: And Jackie Kennedy, yes, that Jackie Kennedy.
CONAN: That Jackie Kennedy.
RUDIN: Yes, Jackie Kennedy of Paducah, Kentucky, is the winner.
CONAN: And if you'd like to take a look at this week's political ScuttleButton puzzle, you can go to npr.org/junkie, where you will not find this week's column.
RUDIN: Well, you won't.
CONAN: OK. In Washington some are calling for a special prosecutor to examine the IRS imbroglio or for a select committee to look into the NSA leaks, all reminiscent of what was happening here in Washington, D.C. 40 years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)
SENATOR HOWARD BAKER: A central question at this point is, simply put: What did the president know, and when did he know it?
JOHN DEAN: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency. And if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.
SENATOR FRED THOMPSON: Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?
ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD: I was aware of listening devices. Yes sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a rather remarkable letter about the tapes. If you notice, the president says he's heard the tapes, or some of them and (unintelligible) his position. But he says he's not going to let anybody else hear them for fear they might draw a different conclusion.
CONAN: The Watergate hearings left an indelible mark on American history, culturally and politically. What's the legacy of Watergate to you? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Among the members of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, as it was known, Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker, who joins us now from his home in Connecticut. Senator Weicker, good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
LOWELL WEICKER: Good afternoon, good to talk to both of you.
CONAN: And what do you remember most vividly from those hearings?
WEICKER: Boy, that's a tough one. I mean you could pick out any particular incident. But I think the overall impression that I was left with was a government run amok. And by that I mean not just President Nixon but the various agencies of government, whether it was the IRS or the FBI or the CIA. They had their hand in what went on. And also a Congress that did very little oversight.
So when you get through with that kind of a mix, it ended up in the tragedy that was known as Watergate. And now when you see what's going on today, and you recognize what's involved, if you will, agencies and a Congress that's now just waking up, you have to wonder, did we leave any mark on history?
CONAN: You mentioned the IRS imbroglio in those days. There are questions about today, whether the IRS was being used to punish the president's enemies. After it all came out 40 years ago, not too many questions about that.
WEICKER: No, and as I said before, I don't think there's been any link established between the IRS and the president except it occurred under his watch. But 40 years ago the IRS was used to go ahead and punish the, quote, enemies, end of quote, of the president. And now out of fairness to President Nixon, apparently this had occurred in previous administrations, although nothing had been said about it.
CONAN: We all remember that remarkable moment when the president's enemies list came out, our old colleague Daniel Schorr reading it live then on CBS, going through the list of names, including his own.
WEICKER: Right, and that came to pass when in a conversation with John Dean, John Dean lived across from me in Old Town, Alexandria. And I asked him if there were any other papers that were pertinent to what we were doing, and he produced this list, which included the various names of journalists and other citizens which were not compatible with the administration.
Also it's got to be noted that - and people forget about it - probably the straw that broke the camel's back in Watergate was when it was made known that Nixon himself had not paid any taxes or I think maybe paid about $500 worth of taxes, claiming that his papers were a tax deductible event, when indeed they weren't. So that's another area where the IRS entered into the scandal.
RUDIN: Senator Weicker, we talked about the effects of Watergate and what Richard Nixon meant at the time. It was one thing for Democrats to go after Richard Nixon because Democrats have been going after Richard Nixon since 1950. But when Lowell Weicker, Howard Baker, Hugh Scott, Barry Goldwater, when those Republicans realized they were completely disenchanted with Richard Nixon, that seemed to be the beginning of the end.
WEICKER: Yeah, I think the real beginning of the end came when Barry Goldwater, who certainly was a good friend of the president and a conservative Republican, came to the conclusion that the president should no longer be in office. That was sort of the breaking point for many Republicans who were of a moderate to conservative stripe to abandon the president.
I think what was of concern to me was the fact that Nixon was going to take down the whole Republican Party. In other words, it was one thing to have the Committee to Re-elect the President, which was his vehicle for all the corruptions that took place. But then when you involve the Republican National Committee and the party itself, that endangered the existence of the Republican Party.
And slowly that became known, and finally toward the end I would say, oh, almost a total majority of the Republican senators knew that Nixon had to go.
RUDIN: And even when he left, you know, and Gerald Ford took over, that still wasn't enough to keep the Democrats from winning huge majorities in Congress that year and electing Jimmy Carter two years later.
WEICKER: Right. You know, well, yeah, that's right. I mean it had its impact on the party, and I might add, unfortunately we lost a man that I thought was the best president that I ever served under, which was Gerald Ford. And that came about because Ford himself went ahead and pardoned Nixon. And probably in hindsight that was a good thing to do; otherwise we might have spent several more years of, you know, going after this fact and that fact of Watergate when the country had plenty of it. Two years of Watergate, I think, was enough, and everything was known.
And when Ford pardoned Nixon, that sort of ended the conversation, and he got punished for that by being defeated. I think Jerry Ford was truly the best - and not only Republican but the best president I served under. He was a moderate, a man of great common sense, and having spent his life in politics knew exactly what needed to be done, a fiscal conservative but very much of a social moderate.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. What's the legacy of Watergate? Our guest, of course, is former Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. Rachel is on the line with us from Huntington, South Dakota, or Hampton, South Dakota.
RACHEL: Actually from Hampton, yeah. Well, first of all I wanted to state that 40 years ago I was 13 years old. And I was what they called back then a mother's helper. So I lived with this family through the summer. And I recall very intently, particularly during lunch and nap time, watching the hearings and fascinated by the build-up, and more and more of that was coming out and how this went about.
And I can say that it is certainly one of the most important things that started me becoming politically active at a very young age. I have since had my children listening to NPR since they were four. But interesting on the comment of Gerald Ford because most people would call me liberal, but I also - again, very young, watched his presidency very closely.
So it's something that - the legacy for me was that I realized that, you know, we need to understand why this is the country it is. And I also believe that we need to look at what things is it that we should investigate. And I absolutely believe...
CONAN: That's an interesting point, Rachel, and I wanted to ask Senator Weicker about that, what we ought to investigate. One of the things that Watergate spawned was a craze that lasted quite some years for special prosecutors.
RACHEL: Exactly, exactly. I'll...
CONAN: Let's hear...
RACHEL: I'll hang up. My last point, though, is that, you know, we investigated somebody who, you know, impeached a president for infidelity. However, there are other things we haven't investigated, as we know, in the last 10 years. How do we decide?
CONAN: All right, Rachel, thank you very much. Senator Weicker?
WEICKER: Well, I think the real investigatory responsibility rests on Congress itself and the oversight that Congress is supposed to exercise over all of government. And yet, as we now see in all the matters that are occurring, it doesn't until it reaches a point where a special prosecutor is called for. Myself, I think that is a very rare instance, and yet, it constantly is referred to in the present time. Congress has the duty of oversight. Congress has the duty of investigating, and they better start to do that rather than what they're doing now, which basically is nothing.
CONAN: And let me ask you, though, the impeachment itself which had very rarely, only once before in American history been used, and that, of course, Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln, suddenly, impeachment was possible.
WEICKER: Oh, there's no question about that. I mean - and I think Nixon knew that he would be impeached. That's why he resigned. I mean the votes weren't there on his behalf, and clearly the bill of particulars as drawn up by the House of Representatives could have been spelled out very easily in addition to a lot of other things had the matter gone before the United States Senate. So there was no question in my mind that had it gone to an impeachment, he would have been impeached, and he knew that.
CONAN: As Rachel obviously mentioned, the Congress later did it. The House later did impeach President Clinton. But in the Reagan administration, when you were still there, there was talk of impeachment of Ronald Reagan for Iran-Contra.
WEICKER: Yup. And quite frankly, again, Iran-Contra was another scenario where there was not oversight by the Congress. So, you know, unfortunately, I think the basic statistic lies in the fact that - what do we have, about 46 percent of America voting on presidential elections, and it goes down from there whether it's a senator, a governor or mayor or whatever have you. Well, 46 percent of the country voting in this democracy is going to ruin democracy. You can't have that, and it shows in the way people behave.
It also shows in the way that one-issue candidates prevail because they have a hardened core that comes out to vote. But I've got to tell you I think the basic fault lies with the American people themselves, and then it translates over to the Congress.
RUDIN: Senator, one of the legacies of Watergate is, one, everything - every other mini scandal or actual scandal always has a gate attached to it...
RUDIN: ...in subsequent years. And also, we keep hearing a lot of things like President Obama is Nixon-esque. Do you buy any of that at all?
WEICKER: No, no. I think that, first of all, I happen to be a fan of the president, and I realize there might be mistakes being made. But I think he's a very decent and honest person. But to go ahead and translate the matters that occur today to what happened I think is just entirely off the mark. Don't forget probably the basic thing about Watergate that was a sort of first, it was the first time that a president was truly questioned as to what he did, his politics and his various governmental policies, et cetera.
You didn't question presidents. Well, that went out the window with Watergate. I think it's also interesting to note that as bad as Nixon was in his politics and in the matters that we refer to as Watergate, he actually was a pretty good president when it came to the everyday issues that confronted the United States.
CONAN: We're talking with former senator, later elected governor of the state of Connecticut, Lowell Weicker. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Of course, it's Wednesday, Political Junkie day, and Ken Rudin is here with us. Let's get another caller in. This is Tom(ph). Tom with us from Orange Park in Florida.
TOM: Hey, good afternoon.
TOM: Hey. I met, interestingly enough, both President Nixon back in '67 before he ran for president the first time. My dad and he went to Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. As a 13-year-old, I met him and actually was impressed with his warmth and intelligence and grew to really admire him through his first term as he dealt with very difficult issues, as Senator Weicker mentioned, dealing with Watergate - I'm sorry - dealing with the Vietnam War and the economy as it was at the time.
What my comment is is I was very amazed at - to see the unraveling of who I thought and felt as a teenager and who informed my politics as a lifelong Republican at least initially, watch this gentleman essentially commit acts of incredible stupidity, if nothing else, from a man who was so otherwise intelligent. Interestingly, Senator Weicker, I actually met you applying for the Air Force Academy, getting your nomination. I'm from Connecticut originally, so I thought I'd mention that.
CONAN: Well, Tom, how did you do at the Air Force Academy?
TOM: Did fine, astronomical engineering. I'm actually an airline pilot on my way to work right now. I flew F-16s in the service. But I won't keep you guys too much longer. I just wanted to mention that. I'm a little more jaded now than I was at the time, and it started then. And I think that also informed the issue of people failing to vote, and it disturbs me greatly that our country is becoming so jaded. And I think it began with Watergate. It began with that episode.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask Senator Weicker about that. Tom, thanks very much for the phone call. And, Senator, do you think that the bitter partisanship that we have here in Washington now has its origins to some degree in Watergate?
WEICKER: No, no, I don't. I think that it's come to pass by virtue of the fact that the men and women that serve somehow feel that the primary allegiances to their party and to winning elections rather than what needs to be done for the United States. It used to be that when you're a member of the House of Representatives - and I was also that - literally the day you took office you start to campaign for the next election. And the difference between that and being a United States senator was that senators had a long term to go and therefore they didn't campaign or politic until the tail end of their terms.
Nowadays, everybody is campaigning from the minute they set foot in their office on Capitol Hill, and it's been absolutely ruinous to the business of governing this country. I would hope that we would start to get moderates on both sides that can go ahead and sit down and talk and make common cause.
I mean, when I was there, not only did you make common cause on the floor on the United States Senate, but quite frankly, after hours, you went out and had a drink together and talked. You went ahead and had dinner. You went ahead and played tennis in the early morning before, you know, before anything got going. And quite frankly, you form these relationships that stood in good stead when the times got tough. Nowadays, nobody talks to anybody at any time, and we all see the result of what's happening.
CONAN: Well, Senator Weicker, thank you very much for your time today. And if you've been listening the last few minutes, you'll understand, we miss you.
WEICKER: Well, I miss you too. But quite frankly, my legs won't take me as far as Washington, so I'm happy in Connecticut.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much again for your time today.
WEICKER: Thanks very much. Thank you. Bye.
CONAN: When we come back, we'll talk to our favorite speech-writing duo, Paul - Peter Robinson and Paul Glastris, about how leaders, well, talk about scandals when the scandal is all anybody wants to talk about. Stay with us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
Over the past several years, former presidential speechwriters Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson had been kind enough to join us many times. And we've imposed on them again to be part of our series Looking Ahead. In the past, they've dissected major set pieces, like inaugural addresses, convention acceptance speeches and State of the Union messages. Today, given recent developments here in Washington, we'll focus on how to navigate the difficult waters of an ongoing scandal. Paul Glastris is delayed, on his way to the studio. He's editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. And in the meantime, Peter Robinson, who wrote for President Ronald Reagan, is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, joins us from a studio on the campus at Dartmouth University and welcome back.
PETER ROBINSON: Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: And while we're waiting for Paul, I wanted to ask you a question. 26 years ago today, the line for which, I guess, you will be best remembered for was uttered by President Ronald Reagan as he addressed a huge crowd in the then divided city of Berlin.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, how did that line come about?
ROBINSON: How did that line come about? Oh, April of 1987, Berlin was celebrating its 800th anniversary and major world figures were visiting the city. Queen Elizabeth had been, Michael Gorbachev was going and the Kohl government of Germany asked Ronald Reagan to stop by. Robinson was sent over on a research trip, and I went around to the sites the president would visit. I have to say, I have never before and never since been to a place where you could feel the weight of history as it seemed to me you could feel it at the Berlin Wall in 1987, climb up the steps to the observation platform and look over into the east behind you. In West Berlin, traffic, people well-dressed, commerce of all kinds. In the east, soldiers, guard dogs, very little traffic, people moving slowly as if they had nowhere to go.
CONAN: I have to tell you...
ROBINSON: Only if...
CONAN: ...at that time, I was NPR's London bureau chief. And NPR was so cheap that whenever we flew in the Soviet bloc...
CONAN: ...we will fly into Berlin, West Berlin, and then walk through the wall...
ROBINSON: Did you really?
CONAN: ...to pick up the cheap East German flights out of Schonefeld then in East Germany. And I remember humping all this equipment through the Berlin Wall with then NPR producer Deborah Amos. And we're looking - it's snowing, the dogs are barking, the guys are shining the lights from the tower. Why am I walking in this direction? It was one of the most dramatic things we ever did.
ROBINSON: You know, that actually - for people our age, Neal, I think that's a problem. How - I'm at Dartmouth College because my daughter just graduated this past weekend.
ROBINSON: And - thank you. And how do we convey to the rising generation what it felt like, what it was like, how sharp the distinction was between east and west? In any event, I was in Berlin. I made notes. And in the evening, I had dinner with a group of Berliners who were kind enough to put on a dinner party for me purely so that I could meet some Berliners. And I told them what the then American consulate had told me, which was, don't have President Reagan mention the wall. Berliners have gotten used to it by now, and there was a silence.
And these Berliners then went around the room, talking about how much they hated the wall every day. They'd stopped talking about it to each other because it had been more than two decades, but they hated it every day. One man pointed his arm and said, my sister lives just a few kilometers in that direction, but I haven't seen her in more than two decades. How do you think we feel about that wall?
And then our hostess, a lovely woman named Inga Borgel(ph), who just died this past holiday season, made a fist of one hand and slammed it into the palm of the other and said, if this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika, he can prove it by coming here and getting rid of that wall. That went into my notebook. I felt it was one of those light bulb moments. I knew - I just knew that if Ronald Reagan had been there in my place, he would have responded to the power and the decency of that remark.
And back in Washington, I drafted a speech that made that comment, that insight into the central passage: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. The president liked it and said so in his staff meeting, and then it went out to staffing. And for three weeks, the National Security Council, the diplomat in Berlin, the state department all fought it, and they said it would raise false expectations and it sounded naive. Chief of Staff Howard Baker said it just didn't sound right. It didn't sound presidential to him.
And Ronald Reagan simply overruled everyone. In fact, I wasn't in the final meeting, it took place in Italy. The president was attending an economic meeting in Italy before going to Berlin. But Ken Duberstein, the then deputy chief of staff, talked about it with the president and he said - they talked about it for a few moments, and then that twinkle came into Ronald Reagan's eye and he said, now, Ken, I'm the president, aren't I?
ROBINSON: Yes, sir. We're clear on that much. So I get to decide whether that line stays in. Yes, sir. It's your decision. Well, Ken, it stays in. And that is how that happened.
It was from - and years - I spoke to - this actually, oh, about 18 months ago with Mrs. Reagan, actually exchanging - she's quite weak now. She's over 90 now, but we exchanged some emails through a member of her staff. And she said that it did mean a great deal to the then former president that that line had somehow come or originated not with the American state department but with a German because, of course, in the end, it wasn't Mikhail Gorbachev or the Americans who tore down the wall. It was the Germans themselves.
In any event, that's the story. It was Ronald Reagan overruling the foreign policy apparatus for the United States to do what seemed to him the right thing to do.
CONAN: We have heard, by the way, from Paul Glastris. He is on the way to the studio. He should be here shortly. We'll get him on as soon as he gets here. But in the meantime...
ROBINSON: We cut slack for working editors.
CONAN: We do. All right. But, Peter Robinson, I do have to ask you. Eventually, people take credit for a great line like, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall, or we've, of course, learned even a more dubious line, the axis of evil. Did anybody ever take credit for I am not a crook?
ROBINSON: For I am not a crook.
ROBINSON: That had - I've never heard anyone take credit for that one. I have to admit.
CONAN: You know, I wanted to ask, just given current events here in Washington, D.C. There are scandals, of course, in every administration, usually in the second term of every administration but...
ROBINSON: True enough.
CONAN: ...be that as it may, the president, of course, is doing a million other things in addition to paying attention to whatever the scandal was. I guess in your day, it was Iran-Contra.
ROBINSON: Iran-Contra, sure.
CONAN: And so do you acknowledge the ongoing investigation? Do you mention it? Do you make light of it? Well, you can get into trouble that way.
ROBINSON: Well, as in many things, Ronald Reagan remains my model. And what he did - what the Reagan White House did right away was announce that it was going to cooperate with every investigation in full. Ed Meese, who was then attorney general, deserves a great deal of credit for that. As for the president himself, as you will recall, Neal, and as Ken as will certainly recall, Ronald Reagan himself resisted giving in his speech that sounded like an admission of wrongdoing or even of error because he was convinced - and he could be a stubborn man - that he hadn't done anything wrong. And finally, and indeed from - he did not know about the diversion of funds to the Contras in Guatemala. Lawrence Walsh spent millions of dollars in an - as an independent investigator and concluded that there was no credible evidence the president knew. I'm convinced he didn't know.
And as regards to the overture to the Iranians, it was, in his mind and indeed this is - all the records indicate this that it was part of a package - kind of negotiated package, and there was no arms for hostages. There was much more kind of a looser arrangement. It was what you would consider these days, I think, an arm's-length transaction; alas, an arm's-length transaction is still a transaction. And in the end - and Ken Khachigian ended up spending time with the president upstairs in the family quarters. Ken Khachigian had known the Reagans for a long time, so he was the right speechwriter to work on that speech because it was personal for the president.
And you remember the formulation. Somehow I thought the formulation sounded on paper a little bit tortured. My heart tells me - I can't quote it exactly - but my heart tells me that I did nothing wrong. Still, my head acknowledges that we made mistakes. And yet somehow or other for Ronald Reagan, that was an honest explanation of what had taken place. He felt he did nothing wrong. He was now - he now understood that it represented violating his own pledge never to deal with terrorists.
So the administration from the get-go insisted on cooperating or announced and then did cooperate with the investigations. And then in some way, there was a horrible period. It was weeks, not months, but weeks in the White House when the president was - the one time during the administration when the president seemed low. Polls are against him. He felt that the American people no longer trusted him. And there was a horrible time when everyone in the White House felt he has to say something.
In retrospect, that he took so long, that it was so obviously an agonizing decision for him, I believe gave greater weight, greater fundamental credibility when he finally did deliver that address from the Oval Office. But that address from the Oval Office - again, I don't want to suggest we don't know where Barack Obama - if he plays any role at all in the IRS or other scandals, we don't know that yet. But if he does - if there is personal involvement on the part of the president as there undoubtedly was on the part of Ronald Reagan, he has to tell what happened and he has to say, in effect, I'm sorry, as did Ronald Reagan.
CONAN: That is Peter Robinson, the former speechwriter for President Reagan, one of our favorite speechwriters. He's been kind enough to join us here many times over the past several years. Paul Glastris, who used to write speeches for Bill Clinton, is also with us, finally arrived in the studio. And as Peter said, we cut slack for working editors. Peter, Paul works now as the editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly. Thanks very much, as always, for being with us.
PAUL GLASTRIS: And great to be at these beautiful, new NPR digs.
CONAN: Well, thank you for that. We're talking about the difficulties of writing for a president who's in the midst of scandal even when it's not necessarily addressing the scandal itself. But, well, President Obama today making a campaign appearance in Massachusetts. Do you mention the scandal? Do you ignore the scandal? Do you - it's on everybody's mind. It's all they want to hear about.
GLASTRIS: Well, when I was in the White House, it was during the Lewinsky unpleasantness. And our - it actually worked to the president's advantage, in some way. And here's how. So this was all happening the fall of 1998, and the press was planted on the White House lawn, cameras constantly trained on anything the president said, hoping that he would mention something about the scandal.
We knew that he would not, but that the attention of the press was there, so we had him going out two or three times a day, giving substantive speeches on policy and knowing that the media would cover it and covered it often for minutes at a time. So for a speechwriter writing about policy, it was the ideal world.
GLASTRIS: And it served the political interest of the president and that he wanted to show the world that he was going about the job of doing his job as president and not being bothered by scandal. So it can work to your advantage.
CONAN: Yet, he also then had to make some heartfelt admissions himself.
GLASTRIS: Oh, no question. He talked about admitting error. That was the toughest error to admit, something that personal and horrible for your family.
CONAN: And something to which he had lied to the American people.
CONAN: Looked us in the face and lied.
GLASTRIS: Yes. That's right.
CONAN: Yeah. We're talking with former presidential speechwriters Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is still with us. Ken?
RUDIN: Paul, earlier in the show, we were talking about the last days of Richard Nixon and how he would - the tortured speeches he would give; one, when he lost for governor of California in '62; when he was leaving the White House in '74. Peter Robinson was talking about Ronald Reagan during Iran-Contra. When you think of those two remarks that Bill Clinton mentioned - that Neal Conan just mentioned, I did not have sexual relations and, yes, I did. Are those written by speechwriters? Are those vetted by speechwriters or did Bill Clinton say, look, I have no other choice but just to open up my heart?
GLASTRIS: I wish I knew the answer to that. I started after that admission, so I don't who actually wrote that. I would imagine he and his very closest senior aides with the help of a speechwriter. But I don't think you would allow just a speechwriter to do that. I think the president would take that and at the very least, edit it in his own hand.
CONAN: I guess the last person a speechwriter wants to see is the counsel to the president.
GLASTRIS: That's right. That's right. And in the Clinton White House, I had almost nothing to do with any of the impeachment-related activities. This was all handled our of the counsel's office. They really compartmentalized the place. The only time that we were ever involved is during impeach - the impeachment in the House where we wound up writing short statements for members of the House. We were kind of detailed to that. But other than that, we never got involved.
RUDIN: And there were cabinet members, too. Clinton cabinet members would always come out and say that we believe in our president because that's the kind of thing that would be written by speech - by White House speechwriters.
GLASTRIS: Not in our - not in the time that I was there. They really did say that - I mean, this was in the midst of a constitutional crisis in some ways and it was very litigious, at the point. It was not damage control of the kind that you might see in a typical scandal or scandlet(ph) today. This was big time.
CONAN: Peter Robinson, were you similarly compartmentalized during the Iran-Contra?
ROBINSON: Actually, we were not, in that the president really did not address the scandal, except in that one - he addressed it. In fact, it went badly in one news conference in which we had did issue some corrections. He got - so there was a press conference. But then the text, the written text that he used - there was really only one, and that was that addressed to the nation from the Oval Office, in which he worked with his long-time speechwriter and friend, Ken Khachigian.
Ken was not part of the speechwriting staff. He has set it up in the beginning of the administration, but then he'd gone back to California. But Ken kept - dipped in and out, so to speak, of the White House. We all knew him. He was effectively a member of the staff. He was one of us. But it was only that one speech that Ronald Reagan gave addressing the scandal. And, but by the way, may I raise a related point about Reagan and Clinton and scandals?
ROBINSON: And that is this is another way in which, I believe, that both Clinton and Reagan served as examples for this administration. This scandal has happened early - scandals - set of scandals, the cluster scandal, whatever we want to call it in the Obama. It's happened early in President Obama's second term. Ronald Reagan, we mentioned that this is the 26th anniversary of the "Tear down this wall" speech. That happened after, in the same year as the Iran-Contra scandal, '87. And people during the scandal thought he was ruined.
The second term would amount to nothing. He delivered that speech. He went back to - on the offensive, so to speak, the rhetorical and diplomatic offensive with the Cold War. He - at the end of 1987 - he signed the INF treaty, the first nuclear arms reduction agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States, and it was in effect after Iran-Contra that the fruition - we reached the fruition of 40 some years of containment. And President Reagan, together with all those who preceded him in the office, won the Cold War. He went back to work. So did Bill Clinton. And so should Barack Obama.
CONAN: And we shall see what ensues. Gentlemen, as always, thank you much for your time.
ROBINSON: Oh, a pleasure. Thanks so much.
GLASTRIS: Great to be here.
CONAN: Peter Robinson, research fellow at the Hoover Institution; Paul Glastris, now editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly. Of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will be back with us twice more, including next Wednesday. See you then, Ken.
RUDIN: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.