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'Obamanos!': One Year Into Obama's Presidency
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'Obamanos!': One Year Into Obama's Presidency

Politics

'Obamanos!': One Year Into Obama's Presidency

'Obamanos!': One Year Into Obama's Presidency
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120093233/120093230" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Read an excerpt from Mike Huckabee's book, A Simple Christmas, here.

Hendrik Hertzberg, author of Obamanos!, assesses the year since President Obama's election. And former Ark. governor Mike Huckabee and NPR political editor Ken Rudin talk about gains Republicans made in the 2009 elections.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie defeats the Democratic incumbent, Jon Corzine; in Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell beats Democrat Creigh Deeds; and in the 23rd Congressional District in upstate New York, Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate, held off his Conservative Party opponent.

It's a Wednesday and time for an off-year Election Day edition of the Political Junkie.

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 (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Secretary of State HILLARY CLINTON: Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

ROBERTS: Every Wednesday, NPR's political editor Ken Rudin joins us for a roundup of all things political, but not every Wednesday is the day after an election.

In New York City, Mayor Mike Bloomberg rewrote the term-limits law, spent $100 million to win another term. In Boston, Mayor Menino gets another term too, his fifth. In Maine, voters say no to a same-sex marriage law. We'll get updates on all the major races in this off-year election, and believe it or not, the 2008 election was just one year ago. Hendrik Hertzberg - an editor of the New Yorker magazine and the author of new book called "Obamanos!" - will join us; and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will too. We'll ask them to look back on the 2008 campaign and on the last year.

But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: As always, let's start with your trivia question.

RUDIN: Okay. Well, there were two congressional races yesterday. Of course nobody paid as much attention to the one in California as they did in New York, but in California the lieutenant governor, John Garamendi, was elected to Congress. He won a House seat in the 10th District. Before Garamendi, who was the last lieutenant governor elected to Congress?

ROBERTS: The last lieutenant governor elected to Congress before California's John Garamendi. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or send us email, talk@npr.org, and tell us if you know the answer to Ken Rudin's trivia question.

In the meantime, let's talk about some of the results yesterday. Let's start with Virginia. By the time - by the last week or two it was pretty clear that Bob McDonnell was going to win there, at least in polling. What happened?

RUDIN: Well, it probably happened earlier. He had a lead from day one, and of course all the independents and all the young voters and the African-Americans who were very excited about Barack Obama, who sent Barack Obama - Virginia, a victory in Virginia in 2008, the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win it, they basically either stayed home or turned out for Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell was characterized by Democrats as a strong right-wing candidate who was masquerading as a moderate, but the point is, McDonnell ran a very competent, effective campaign based on issues like infrastructure and transportation and taxes. And whereas Creigh Deeds never seemed to get off his - never seemed to get off the mark.

Bob McDonnell, a few months ago, the existence of a 1989 thesis he wrote demeaning women and working women, things like that, was thought to give the Democrats an issue, but Deeds just didn't do anything but harp on that, and I think he turned off a lot of voters in the process.

ROBERTS: In Mark Warner's Senate victory in Virginia, and Tim Kaine's gubernatorial victory in Virginia, even in the general election for president in Virginia, there was a lot of conversation about northern Virginia was blue, southern Virginia was red, they were almost two states, and for one party to make up the difference they had to lose not quite so badly in the part of the state that was not their stronghold. Did that model hold up last night?

RUDIN: Well, that's exactly part of it too. Bob McDonnell did have roots in northern Virginia. As a matter of fact, most of his TV commercials talked about that. He's a native son of the northern Virginia, which is where Republicans are usually wiped out in statewide races, whereas Creigh Deeds came from the less populous, rural part of the state, was never well known, and even though he had a very impressive primary victory back in June, he just never seemed to get off track, whereas Bob McDonnell just smiled his way to a very effective - and I don't say that critically, but I'm saying it was just a very disciplined, smart campaign, and he didn't let the Democrats bully him into talking about right-wing social issues.

ROBERTS: And let's move to New Jersey. This was a much closer race. There were three candidates, and the incumbent has gone down.

RUDIN: Well, ultimately on paper that should not have been a surprise. Jon Corzine has been a very unpopular governor. The state's economy has certainly gone south in the past four years. Jon Corzine, when he was elected four years ago, leaving the Senate to run for governor, he said as a former Goldman Sachs executive he would be able to turn the state around. But one, Goldman Sachs was a dirty word or two dirty words in the wake of all the amount of money that everybody lost in the stock market, and two, he was never a warm, cuddly kind of guy, who was more of a technocrat than anything else, and just didn't do a good job.

He knew that the voters' perception of him was never going to be positive. What he tried to do was to pull his Republican opponent, Chris Christie, down to his level, ridiculing him, talking, questioning his fitness for office, literally and figuratively. And also there was the third-party candidate, Chris Daggett, who was gaining a lot of independent votes and perhaps pulling them away from Chris Christie. But as usually is the case towards the end of an election, voters do not want to so-called waste their votes, and they realized that Daggett had no chance, and those voters who left Christie to go to Daggett went back to Christie. Independents went overwhelmingly for Chris Christie.

ROBERTS: What can you tell us about him?

RUDIN: Well, he's a former U.S. attorney. He's sent many politicians of both parties to jail, but of course as Corzine pointed out, pretty effectively, I thought, during the campaign, that there were a lot of ethics questions about Christie's background as well, and so there were a lot of people wondering whether he would be a suitable replacement for Corzine.

President Obama obviously thought that they had a better shot in New Jersey than they did in Virginia, and Obama spent the weekend in Camden, and Newark, two big Democratic bastions with big crowds, trying to get out the vote for Corzine. And I remember thinking that why are they spending the time in Camden and Newark? If they don't have the base locked down by now, then perhaps Corzine may be in bigger trouble than we thought.

ROBERTS: So just across the bridge from New Jersey, let's move to New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has won a third term, closer than people expected it would be.

RUDIN: Oh, absolutely. When you spend $100 million, and you have a pretty decent record, I mean, Michael Bloomberg has not been an unpopular mayor, he has done a lot in his eight years as mayor. But what he's also done is to move a compliant city council into changing the term limits just so he can run for a third term, and people resented that.

So he spent $100 million of his own money. He was on the air trashing his Democratic opponent, City Controller William Thompson, and while everybody thought the polls showed, like, 15, 20 points lead, he only won by 51 to 46 percent, barely - I mean, obviously he must have known something that he had to spent $100 million, because that was much closer than anyone expected.

ROBERTS: So you think that the voter's holding the term-limits change against him, or is there another issue that might have lost him some popularity?

RUDIN: Well, I think part of it was the fact that while he was an effective mayor, he got a lot of things done, the situation in New York, like New Jersey, is not much better. As a matter of fact, it's probably worse than it was four years ago.

Crime is up, the economy is bad, the deficit in New York City is far worse, and like Corzine, Bloomberg was not a huggable kind of guy. He got things done, but he almost did it despite personal faults of his, and he had plenty of them.

ROBERTS: Is huggable a necessary qualification for office?

RUDIN: It is with me.

ROBERTS: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: A bunch of other mayoral races: Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle, not a lot of answers yet there.

RUDIN: No. I mean, in Boston we have Tom Menino, who is the longest-serving mayor in history. He's won a fifth term, as expected, an unprecedented fifth term. In Atlanta, which has elected African-American mayors going back to 1973, and Maynard Jackson, Mary Norwood, who's a city council members, leads - led in yesterday's voting but did not get a majority. She goes into a December runoff, but she would be the first white mayor since the 1970s, if she's elected.

In Houston, there's some history in the making too, Anise Parker(ph), who is a gay city council member, city controller, although her sexual orientation had nothing to do with the election, it wasn't an issue, but for history's sake let's point out that she also goes into a December runoff. She would be the first gay woman to head up a major American city if she wins. She's in a runoff with a guy named Gene Locke, who would be the city's second African-American mayor if he won.

ROBERTS: And Washington, in Seattle, the mayor's race is - they're still counting.

RUDIN: It's like a 900-vote difference between the top two candidates. We also have Dave Bing in Detroit, was re-elected. The former basketball great took over a city that has had such troubles, but obviously they had faith in Dave Bing in winning another term. And of course, there was also that gay marriage referendum in Maine�

ROBERTS: Maine.

RUDIN: �that people - we had live blogging all last night on the NPR Web site, and most questions where about that ballot proposition. It's the first - basically no city in history, no place in history, has ever had the voters approve a gay marriage referendum, and they were hopeful�

ROBERTS: They still haven't.

RUDIN: They still haven't. They were hopeful in Maine, but it didn't happen.

ROBERTS: Because the places that do have gay marriage laws were - it was passed by the legislature.

RUDIN: Or by the judiciary, correct.

ROBERTS: We have some answers to our trivia question, which again was the last lieutenant governor elected to Congress. Let's hear from Bill in Bay Village, Ohio. What's your answer to the trivia question, Bill?

BILL (Caller): Hi. I might have understood your question a little more broadly, but was it Mike DeWine from Ohio?

RUDIN: Mike DeWine was lieutenant governor and elected to Congress, and then he was elected to the House, and then he was elected to the Senate. Good answer, but he was not the last one.

BILL: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Bill. Let's try Josh in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Josh, what's your answer to the trivia question?

JOSH (Caller): My answer is - is it Mary Fallin from Oklahoma?

RUDIN: Mary Fallin was elected - was a lieutenant governor of Oklahoma who was elected to Congress in 2006 for the first time. She is not the last one.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Josh. We've got some good guesses here. Let's try Brandon in Boise, Idaho.

BRANDON (Caller): Yeah, the answer is in 2008, Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch was elected to the United States Senate.

RUDIN: When I heard Boise, Idaho, I knew that was a right answer. Jim Risch is the last lieutenant governor, he was lieutenant governor of Idaho, elected to the Senate in 2008. Mary Fallin, the previous caller said Mary Fallin, she was the next to the last. Jim Risch is the correct answer.

ROBERTS: And what does Brandon win?

RUDIN: He unfortunately wins a Political Junkie T-shirt that - if we get his particulars and his name and address and all that stuff, we will send it to him.

BRANDON: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Brandon, I'm going to put you on hold to get all of that information because we wouldn't want you to miss out on the chance to have a fabulous T-shirt for you.

Coming up, we are going to talk to Hendrik Hertzberg from the New Yorker. He's got a new book out that is a collection of his essays from the 2008 election. It's called "Obamanos!" We'll talk to him about the year since President Obama's election. And then a little later on the program, we will talk to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee about the year since the election and where he sees the future of the Republican Party going.

Ken Rudin is going to stay with us, NPR's political editor, for a super-sized Political Junkie here in Studio 3A. You can read Ken's blog and download his Podcast at npr.org/junkie, and of course we'll continue to take your calls, 800-989-8255. Or send us email, the address is talk@npr.org. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. All this week, NPR News has been looking back at where the nation stands one year after the Obama victory and one year ahead of the elections that may serve as a referendum on his administration.

The series is called Pulse of the Nation, and you can follow our coverage at npr.org. and today we're looking back with Hendrik Hertzberg. He's the senior editor of the New Yorker magazine and author of a new book called "Obamanos!" -a collection of his essays leading up to, during and after the 2008 presidential campaign. And Hendrik Hertzberg joins us now from our bureau in New York. Hendrik Hertzberg, it's good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. HENDRIK HERTZBERG (Author, "Obamanos!"): It's lovely to be here.

ROBERTS: So your book starts with you describing why you were so engaged with the 2008 election, and it wasn't, as in years past, because you felt the Republican was particularly dangerous, and it wasn't ultimately because it was a razors-edge, every-vote-counts election. So what was it?

Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, there were several things. I mean, mostly it was because of the remarkable character of the candidate. It was because of Barack Obama, and because the stakes were so high. But I became kind of emotionally involved with it, as I think a great many people did, in a way I hadn't been involved with a candidate since Bob Kennedy, since Bobby Kennedy in 1968.

And I think a lot of it was for the same reason. It had to do with a sense of the inner life of this person. You know, normally I'm very political. Normally I look at these things very coldly and think of the presidency as a branch of government and not as a person and think of these matters as being historical and political. And so to get involved with the kind of personality of a candidate was unusual, but I think an awful lot of people had that same experience.

ROBERTS: Were you aware of the pull of his personality when you first became aware of him in the 2004 convention, or is it something that snuck up on you more?

Mr. HERTZBERG: I had heard about him. I had heard about him. I had heard rumblings coming out of the Midwest about this character named Barack Obama, unusual name, unusual guy, and - but I was blown away by the speech. The speech - I've had that experience a couple of times before. I've been to a lot of Democratic conventions. I started going in 1964. The only one I ever missed, which was, I suppose, the best one, 1968, but I was in the Navy at the time and couldn't be there.

But I've been to all the others, and the speech that was most like Obama's in its impact was the one that Mario Cuomo gave in 1984, and there was a - they were different as literary products. What was similar was a sense of mastery and relief, you know, that you're in the hands of somebody who knows what he's doing, and that - the - in its fine detail, though, that speech of Obama's was superior to any that I'd heard at a convention before, and so suddenly there was this flash of hope, and I wrote about it the following week, and I thought I was being very daring when I said that, you know, well, maybe in five years or 10 years, you know, this person could really be the future of our party and our country. I thought that was - I was really going out on a limb there.

ROBERTS: And Ken Rudin, you've probably been to as many conventions. Did that speech stand out for you in the same way?

RUDIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, everybody talked about, you know, the nominee basically was overshadowed by that speech. John Kerry may have shown up. I believe he was nominated at that convention, although I didn't see him�

ROBERTS: If memory serves.

RUDIN: If memory serves. But one thing Rick mentioned, and I agree completely, when I first saw Barack Obama, the first person I thought of was Bobby Kennedy as well, both in '64 and '68, the Bobby Kennedy. But the difference of course is that we never saw what Bobby Kennedy could accomplish because of course he was tragically cut down in '68.

Rick, when do people who supported Obama, liked Obama, when do they go from hope to disappointment? How long do you have to be in office for that transformation to happen?

Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, judging from the way a lot of people are reacting already, I guess one year would be about the right quantity of time. I don't think they should go from hope to disappointment in that way. I think that it reflects some of the weirdnesses of our political system, that people do end up disappointed in a performance which I think has been, on balance, a very fine performance by Obama as president.

ROBERTS: Well, let's turn this out to our callers. As you look back on the last year, has President Obama met your expectations or not? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Of course, one of the things about meeting expectations is that the expectations were enormously high, probably more so, Rick Hertzberg, as you were talking about with someone who it felt like a lot of the hope was caught up in him as a person, and it's possible that no mere mortal could have lived up to those expectations.

Mr. HERTZBERG: Yeah, and I'm not sure if the degree to which the expectations were exaggerated may have been exaggerated. I mean, I certainly did not think that there was going to be an overnight change in everything when - just because Barack Obama was president.

Things have gone not worse, certainly not worse than I was expecting them to go, for one, because Obama as a candidate was a receptacle for fantasies and hopes and dreams, and we kind of agree among ourselves as an electorate to believe that whoever is president is going to be in charge of everything and that - and indeed that we have a government at all that's capable of sentient behavior, which obviously we do not have.

Obama is the head of one of three separately elected governments that all have to agree for anything important to happen in domestic policy certainly, and things are going slowly. Things are going slowly, as I expected them to go. Maybe not everybody expected that, but I did, and there was really no way, there was really no way for that mood of exhilaration and that extraordinary mood that the country was in, certainly Obama supporters were in when he was elected and when he was inaugurated, there's no way for that to not come down from that high.

ROBERTS: You're a former presidential speechwriter yourself. You make your living by words. Obviously words matter to you. How have you seen the rhetoric of President Obama evolve from candidate Obama?

Mr. HERTZBERG: Gosh, that's a really good question, and I have not delved into that enough to have a really intelligent opinion on it. Inevitably, certainly, the rhetoric suffers from being embedded in this dingy reality and from the exponentially larger number of audiences that a president has to address every time he opens his mouth than even a presidential candidate addresses.

His rhetoric has been of a high quality, just as writing -just as pieces of writing has been of not as high a quality as his book, and his speeches were not as high quality as the book as a candidate, and his presidential speeches are maybe not quite up to his speeches as a candidate, but they're pretty damn good for what they are.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Henry in Margate, Florida. Henry, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

HENRY (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. I have to say that I voted for Barack Obama. Okay, I'm a black man, grew up in Sweden, I'm an American citizen, and I had so much hope. But I am so tired of this sickening lack of spine that Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership are exhibiting that - we need to remember that a Republican ran this country, absolutely ran this country into the ground. So why in the world is Barack Obama, the man that I have voted for, and this inept leadership in the House and the Senate, why are they running around begging Republicans, who raped this country, to vote with them? I don't get it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERTZBERG: You were lucky enough, sir, that you're brought up in Sweden where there's a normal democratic government - that's small D, democratic government - where you elect the government and then the government carries out its policies. We don't do it that way here.

We elect a president. The president has got to get - to get, for example, health care. The president has got to get the House of Representatives. Well, he's got that. He's got that. In fact, a very strong health care program would be law right now if it were just up to the House of Representatives. He's got to have the Senate. Well, he sort of got that. And if the Senate could vote by a majority vote - even as distorted as the Senate is by geography and by the fact that one senator may represent about as many people as in Rego Park, Queens - yeah. But that's not all that he has to cope with. He's got the filibuster that he has to get it passed.

And it's not just kowtowing to Republicans, it's kowtowing to Democrats -conservative Democrats - too, because the - at the moment, the Democratic Party includes the center. The Republican Party has pretty much relegated itself to the right. So if you're going for those votes that have to be persuaded, they're in the center and they're Democrats, and you got to get 60 of them to get a bill.

ROBERTS: Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Rick, what I think what Henry was talking about - or at least the way it hit me - is that President Bush didn't have anywhere close to 60 votes. I mean, he'd be - he was lucky sometimes to have 51, 52, 53 Republicans in the Senate and yet he seemed to know what he wanted and went after it. Whereas, I think as Henry pointed out, there's a certain reticence about Obama that he just wants to - he doesn't want to just go overboard and let them come up with a solution on their own and then maybe he'll weigh in. But there's a frustration out there among many people who liked Obama, saying that, if Bush could do it with far fewer numbers in the majority, why can't Obama do it?

Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, you might be then asking, well, why didn't the Democrats filibuster Bush's tax cuts? That's what that question kind of boils down to, because just - what was it exactly that Bush wanted to do, that the Republicans wanted to do when they were in power? I don't remember them wanting to do anything much except small favors for big business.

They wanted to cut taxes on the rich and they, yes, they got that. And I guess, you could blame cowardice and pusillanimity and all of that for the Democrats' failure to filibuster the Bush tax cuts. Although you actually can't filibuster tax cuts, because they are - I think that they are past way - you know, budget process that's not subject to the filibuster, you know? So it's an awful lot harder to build something than it is to either do nothing or let something die. The Republicans are interested in doing nothing or letting things die and the Democrats want to do something, and to do something is a much, much, much harder.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from April in Detroit. April, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

APRIL (Caller): Hi. Thank you for - also for taking my call. I think President Obama has definitely exceeded expectations. And look at what he's done politically, what he's working on politically, what he walked into - he walked into an absolute mess. It took us eight years to get in the mess, if not more -it's going to take some time to get out. But when you look at it culturally and socially, the changes - look at the television, the commercials and the diversity, and the uniqueness. It's okay to be diverse now. It - everything seemed so just straightforward and non-diverse before. And it's just - it felt like the day after Election Day, everything changed for the good.

Mr. HERTZBERG: Hmm.

ROBERTS: April, thanks for your call. Let's hear from Kristen(ph) in Carson City, Nevada.

KRISTEN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. This is my favorite, favorite show. I think I'm not disappointed in Barack Obama. I worked very hard on his campaign, going door-to-door, calling, doing a lot of things. What I'm most disappointed in is that we can't get the House and the Senate together, now that we've got - we could have the votes to get things, you know, to get some real change done that really need. And we're probably not going to be able to do it. And I think that's what disappoints me the most, is that we finally have a president that could sign some, you know, historic things that we need to so badly. And now, you know, it's going to be blown by a few Democrats.

Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, it won't necessarily be blown all to hell though. It will be blown away compared to what we would like and compared to what we would get if we had a few reforms in our system, such as no more filibusters. But I think we will get something. I think we will get a health care bill that will disappoint liberals, disappoint progressives - at least in a short run - but that will prove to be an immense gain.

Remember Social Security was viewed as a disappointment by the left - Medicare certainly was. These are all half measures, and Medicare in particular, which was passed over vociferous and bitter Republican opposition, even though now they're claiming to be the defenders of Medicare and trying to keep it from being cut and all that. We'll get something. And it will extend - most likely we will get something that will extend health coverage to some tens of millions of people. It'll be a mess. It'll be a horrible mess. But what have we got now?

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Rick, an observation about Bill Clinton. It seemed like he was kind of -had lost its footing in his first two years as a president. And then, when the Republicans took control of Congress, he became suddenly relevant, or engaged, or on the offensive. Does Barack Obama - I mean, this sounds a little stretch here, but does Barack Obama need Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections for him to just pick up where - what Bill Clinton did after '94?

Mr. HERTZBERG: Well, Bill Clinton tried to be a transformative president in those first two years. He had the disadvantage of only having been elected with, what, 43 percent of the vote and had a smaller majority, I think a smaller majority than Obama has.

I think Obama will - the Democrats are going to lose seats in the next election, you know? This is Obama's time to do something big, and he's trying to learn from the missteps, such as they were, of Clinton's, how to take advantage of this one-time-only window. I mean, it's probably the only time in his eight years, or four years, that he'll have to do really big stuff.

I don't think he - I think he'll do fine if the Republicans gain after 2010. But I don't think - I think he would rather have - he'd rather be able to do the big things than the little things, and Clinton would rather have had that too. Clinton adjusted to reality, and Obama will adjust to reality, if that's what - where the direction reality takes.

ROBERTS: Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor at the New Yorker magazine. He's the author of a new book called, "Obamanos!" And if you want to read his line-by-line breakdown of candidate Obama's speech at the Democratic convention, head over to our Web site at npr.org. He joined us today from our bureau in New York City. Hendrik Hertzberg, thanks very much.

Mr. HERTZBERG: Really fun to be on your show.

ROBERTS: Coming up, Governor Mike Huckabee is going to join us here in studio 3A. We'll reminisce about his candidacy and look ahead to 2012. Stay with us.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was a Republican presidential candidate in 2008. He's the author of a new book called, �A Simple Christmas: 12 Stories that Celebrate the True Holiday Spirit.� And Mike Huckabee joins us today in studio 3A. Governor Huckabee, it's good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas): Thank you very much, Rebecca. Great to be here.

ROBERTS: And if you have questions for Governor Huckabee about his run for the Republican presidential nomination or the future of the Republican Party, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

So it's sort of amazing that it's been a solid year since Election Day 2008. Does it feel like a long year or a short one?

Mr. HUCKABEE: For me, it's been a wonderful year. I've been, you know, doing television, radio every day, five days a week, a lot of speaking, writing books. This last book that I've just come out was really my favorite 'cause it's a non-political book. And so I've been busier than I've ever been, and yet I continue to get to observe from the sidelines, the political process. So it's a good gig right now. I like it.

ROBERTS: And what about politically? Do you think things have met, exceeded, disappointed your expectations?

Mr. HUCKABEE: There have been a lot of disappointments. You know, I was very hopeful when Barack Obama took office, that he was going to really have a post-partisan presidency. I wanted to believe that was possible and that he was going to do it. I've been disappointed that some of the things that I thought would have helped toward that, the transparency, moving away from lobbyists being so involved in the day-to-day affairs of government.

Truly saying, look, we're going to put this bill out there. We're going to have this whole discussion on C-SPAN. Everything is going to be wide open. You're going to know exactly, not only what's in the sausage, you're going to get to watch it being made. None of that has come true. In fact, the polar opposite. It's locked doors, it's hurry and sign this we got to get it done today.

And I think that yesterday's election results reflected somewhat of a disappointment. The independents breaking two to one in states like Virginia and New Jersey, clearly indicate that the enthusiasm for what they thought was going to happen has waned dramatically.

ROBERTS: I just quoted Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, saying that he thought it was anti-incumbent feeling, a sort of throw-the-bums-out movement. Is that - does that jibe with what you're seeing, or do you think it's more partisan than that?

Ms. HUCKABEE: Well, it is largely anti-incumbent, but when the incumbents are clearly, overwhelmingly Democrat, they're going to get the worse of it.

And, you know, there's some advantages in having all the majorities in owning the whole show. The disadvantage is you can't blame somebody else. And after a year of saying it's George Bush's fault, you know, at some point, you just have to say no, I asked for the job, I got it. I got the entire Congress. I got the Senate and the House, I can pass anything I want to. Sixty votes in the Senate, I got the whole House to go with me. You can't blame the Republicans for that.

ROBERTS: NPR political editor Ken Rudin is still with us here on Political Junkie. Ken, I want to get you back on this conversation.

RUDIN: Governor Huckabee, if this was a reaction to the Democrats who were in power, why are the numbers of the Republican Party, nationally, so dismal?

Mr. HUCKABEE: Because people are just as unhappy with the Republicans as a party, as they are with the Democrats. What they're looking for is a policy that they can support. Many people are afraid. They've lost their job. Their businesses are having to cut back to the bone. They're doing the same amount of work with fewer people, and there's an anxiety there.

But the one thing that are agreed on that Republicans and Democrats alike have spent money they didn't have, borrowed money way off into the future and have created an economic train wreck. And it's affecting their lives. And I'm not sure that there's a great sense in which the Republicans ought to jump up and down and say, oh, yesterday was a great day for Republicans. Yesterday was a great day for people who want to challenge the system. And so next year's elections will not be so much about all the Republicans stay put, it's going to be that the people who are challenging incumbents are going to have a good year.

ROBERTS: Well, if they want to challenge the system and if the system is largely seen as Democratically controlled, then there does seem to be an opportunity for a newly revitalized Republican Party to come in. We saw in 23rd District in New York, yesterday, and throughout that race, that there were some major divisions of ideology within the Republican Party. We have seen that played out on a more national scale too. What's your view on that?

Mr. HUCKABEE: What happened there was a process that was really a disaster. You had 11 party bosses who basically got together at a pizza place, picked Dede Scozzafava�

ROBERTS: Scozzafava.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Boy, I worked on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUCKABEE: And she just simply didn't connect up with Republican ideology. I mean, she's more liberal than 85 percent of the Democrats in Congress, for heaven's sakes. It just was not going to be something that - it wasn't a good move. The problem is that third party candidacies typically end up helping the party you like even less. Jon Corzine almost pulled off a victory that he should never have had because of the presence of a third party candidate.

So if the independent comes in, saying the Republicans over here aren't pure enough, I'm going to be a purer form of Republicanism, they will split enough Republican vote that will enshrine the Democrats in power indefinitely.

RUDIN: Well, that leads to the question of what's going on nationally, and a lot of people are talking about a possible repeat of New York 23 in the Florida Senate race next year, when the establishment seems to be coalescing behind Charlie Crist, the so-called moderate governor and his conservative challenger, Marco Rubio.

Mr. HUCKABEE: But that's a very different situation. Number one, it's within the party. Number two, it is a legitimate primary. I'm supporting Marco Rubio. He's, to me, one of the brightest young stars in the Republican Party. I think he is the future of the Republican Party in many ways. His challenge of Charlie Crist is delightfully good for the party.

Let's have it out, but we're doing it in the context of the party. It's not that Marco Rubio is saying, okay, if I don't get the establishment, I'm going to go out and start a third party and I'll challenge him from the outside. That's why it's healthy. And if Marco loses, I expect he'll, you know, give his support, albeit probably a little bit tepid, to Crist. If Crist loses, I think, he'll do the same thing to Marco.

ROBERTS: And meanwhile you have Newt Gingrich who orchestrated the last similar situation in a off-year election in '94, when people were starting to get frustrated with the Clinton administration and the whole contract with America was an enormous revolution. He is now saying, you know, you can't exclude moderate voices in the interest of purity, or you're going to lose.

Mr. HUCKABEE: You shouldn't exclude the voices. And I think, one of the things Newt took a lot beating over was his support for Dede. I would not have supported Dede, personally. Her views are just so far left in mind that that wouldn't have been a comfortable fit. And people wouldn't have taken me seriously if I'd said, yeah, that's great. Let's get her. But I understand where he was coming from. And I think, that he was unfairly excoriated by a lot of the Republicans for sort of saying, you know, he sold out. No, he didn't.

He just simply understood that, as much as he may be didn't agree with her point of view and at the process itself stunk, it was the process that was in place and you don't ultimately win by going out and creating the dissident movements outside the party. If you don't like what the party is doing, get in it, change it, make it more like you own liking rather than just say, I'm going to go out and challenge it, because that's going to empower the other party.

RUDIN: Well, then who was right in New York 23? Newt Gingrich or Mike Huckabee?

Mr. HUCKABEE: Well, Mike Huckabee didn't jump in the middle of that one until Dede jumped out, because I felt like it was not my place. I couldn't support Dede, but I wasn't going to support a third party candidate.

ROBERTS: Let's here from Tom(ph) in Des Moines, Iowa. Tom, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TOM (Caller): Hello. I thought your approach during 2008 election - you are very respectful to all sides on just about all the issues. And I was wondering if you feel that that rational approach maybe had a price.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Yeah. I think it probably, you know, may - but look, some people in the Republican Party want us to be combative and strident, and there's no doubt about it. And I think the fact that I didn't spend the whole campaign seeing if I could take somebody off at the knee caps probably wasn't, you know, as pure as some want. But what I try to remind people - you can have purity in theology yet you can't have in politics. And by that, I mean that, you know, if we're going to talk theological terms, it's heaven and hell. It's, you know, light and dark.

Politics is about what you can get done. Now, I don't think I have to compromise my core values or principles, but I may have to recognize that it may not happen all at one time and I may not get 100 percent I want - of what I want, I may have to settle for 80 percent of what I want and try to get the 20 percent another year.

When people want, they want - they say it's sort of all or nothing, they're going to get nothing and they're going to get it all the time. And that's the danger that Republicans are going to have to work through is, if you don't get everything you want, don't leave the field and say, I'm not going to play anymore. Play a better game. Move the ball further.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Robin in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Robin, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBIN (Caller): Hi. Thank you. Governor, I wanted to ask with the independents breaking, yesterday, two-to-one in favor of the Republicans, how do we, as the Republican Party, capture that momentum and carry it forward if the elections next year and the following - upcoming elections, presidential elections, with regards to the independents, keeping them excited and bringing them back into our base?

Mr. HUCKABEE: It's a great question. I think the key is to put forth some very specific proposals. For example, I think we ought to be talking about balancing the budget, that that's going to be a priority, that we'll put a balanced budget amendment before the Congress. That we would have term limits for members of Congress. I know that's not popular with politicians, but I think it's time. And I know this is rather graphic, but I think from time to time, you need to flush the toilet and bring some fresh water in there.

And frankly when you look at what Congress does, you could virtually pick 535 people at random from the phonebook and you wouldn't do any worse. I think, we ought to have a law that if you run for an office other than the one that you currently hold, you have to resign the one you currently have because you shouldn't be taking a paycheck from the taxpayers to be a congressman while you're running for the Senate or running for president, making people pay for a job that you're not even doing.

We ought to have proposals on the table that specifically talk about transparency, that a bill would have to be on the Internet. Make it a law. You can't just go and rush a bill through that no one has read, cause it to be on the floor or on the Internet for five days before it gets voted on. Those were simple reforms that I think would give people at least a sense that someone is listening to them.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Susan in Minneapolis who says, just how different what everything be if you had won the presidential election.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: It can't be as easy to change Washington as you're making it sound.

Mr. HUCKABEE: No, it's not easy and I would never say it. I was a governor for 10 and a half years, and I came in to office with an 89 percent majority Democrat legislature. I can tell you, it's very hard. But I can also tell you that you don't get things done if you're of the minority party, as I was, very much so, by essentially creating this combative war and saying if you disagree with me then I'm going to go fight you.

You can't say I'm going to fight the doctors and the insurance companies and the drug companies or Fox News or whoever, because they disagree with my policies. You got to find some people on the other side that are willing to work with you, and make sure there's a payoff for them, because they're going to take the risk in doing so.

I'd find Democratic legislators that would work with me. Some would never do it, others would. And the bottom line is, when they did and you got something accomplished, you go to their hometowns and you hold them up as heroes for having crossed the party line and help you get it done.

RUDIN: The obverse of that, I think, is that President Obama reaching out to Olympia Snowe, for example, and try to get her as a Republican vote on health care and yet, when she said yes - at least, in the Senate Finance Committee -she was pilloried by conservatives.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Well, she was, but what he was really asking her do was to come onboard with his plan. I don't think it was a real sincere effort to say I really want to find out what is important to the Republicans and to the conservatives.

They started as of May 11th, asking for a meeting with the president at the White House, to talk about were there some points of common ground, and he never did offer them that meeting to sit down and say, yeah, I understand there are some things that are really critical to you. Here are some things critical to me. Let's find out what we both can agree on, the things that we absolutely can't. Let's take off - those off to table for now, and start working from can do rather than can't do.

ROBERTS: This is Mike in Fort Myers, Florida. Mike, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Thanks. It's great to speak with you, governor. First of all before I say this, I want to do tell you that every time I've seen you, I've liked you and liked what you had to say, but I do think you're missing the point with the liberal Republican issue. As a Republican myself, I'm tired of seeing liberal Republicans getting to office and then misrepresent what we're about.

If Dede would have gotten to office, it would have been a train wreck for what Republicans stand for. People would've look at her and said, that's what Republicans are? I don't want that. If we're going to get Democrat policies, I want Democrats to wear them around their neck. I don't want them to be associated with the Republican Party.

Mr. HUCKABEE: I don't know that I disagree with you, Mike. That's why I said I would never support Dede. I said it on national television, repeatedly, that there is no way that I would support her. But the point I was making, was that if I don't like the kind of party apparatus that would nominate Dede, the 11 so-called, you know, the pizzeria special there, then get in the party and say, I'm going to run for party chairman. I'm going to get involved at the local level, the state level. And that's where you have an opportunity to really affect it so that you don't nominate people that frankly do more harm than good to the Republican brand.

ROBERTS: So you survived a Republican presidential primary that saw the party quite fractured. There were, you know, pockets of support for different reasons among a lot of different candidates. Since then, the Republican Party has had a fair amount of fighting amongst itself - what we're hearing from our callers, what we saw in New York. What is the future there? What gives you hope for the Republican Party and what needs to happen to achieve that?

Mr. HUCKABEE: Well, one thing Republicans need to focus on - where they agree rather than where they disagree. One of the things that hurts us is when people start applying the name RINO to anybody that doesn't agree, just exactly like they do, in terms of Republican orthodoxy.

ROBERTS: This is, Republican In Name Only.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Yeah, right.

ROBERTS: Right.

Mr. HUCKABEE: That's what's the RINO - which is a very, frankly, you know, just - I guess�

ROBERTS: Insulting to rhinoceroses.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUCKABEE: It isn't that, but it's certainly insulting to somebody who goes out and works really hard to be a conservative. And then, if you have 100 issues and on one thing you disagree with someone then that makes you a RINO, that's absurd. I just think it's very important that people need to say, that if we are more different than are the Democrats, then that's better.

I'd love to have everybody agree with me on everything. I mean, I'm pro-life, I'm pro-Second Amendment. I think I'm pretty conservative on all the fiscal issues. I believe in lower taxes, more limited government, local government -pretty darn orthodox. But if somebody is with me 90 percent or 80 percent of the time, I'm not going to throw him off the bus 100 percent of the time, because I'm going to need them a whole lot more - I will someone who is 100 percent opposed to everything I stand for.

ROBERTS: Do you see any national party leaders emerging who can carry that message and include that tent(ph)?

Mr. HUCKABEE: Well, I think, we got a number of people. I mentioned Marco Rubio, who I think, is a rising star that is possibly one of our future presidential aspirants. I really do. I like Mike Pence from Indiana, congressman for there. I think he's a great guy. Jeff Sessions from Alabama is a person I have a lot of admiration for - sticks to his stuff.

You know, there's a whole host of folks out there on the landscape that, personally, I believe are true to their convictions, but they're not mad about it and they're not always pulling out the sword and cutting people's ears off.

RUDIN: Governor, we seem to know where the Democratic Party nationally stands on issues like abortion and guns, and yet when the district makes itself an opportunity, they will back conservative Democrats, pro-life Democrats, pro-gun Democrats if it'll help them win. They seem to be more willing to go outside an ideological barrier than Republicans seem to.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Well, you know, Ken, it's interesting. A lot of the Democrats who got elected to Congress got elected because they ran to the right of the Republican. And it's interesting, because it may show you that the country really is, as polls show, more conservative than it is to the left.

ROBERTS: Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was a Republican presidential candidate in - 2008 - are you running in 2012?

Mr. HUCKABEE: Won't even think about it right now. I'm busy with all the other things I have going and having a great time doing it.

ROBERTS: Including a new book called �A Simple Christmas: 12 Stories that Celebrate the True Holiday Spirit.� Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you.

ROBERTS: He's also got a new guitar. If you want to read the story of how he got it, go to our Web site at npr.org. And thank you NPR political editor Ken Rudin for joining us.

RUDIN: Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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Excerpt: 'Obamanos!'

Cover of 'Obamanos!' i
Cover of 'Obamanos!'

Introduction: My Barack Obama

Along with tens of millions of other Americans, I first heard some of those words and saw the man who spoke them on the night of Tuesday, July 27, 2004, at the Fleet Center in Boston, when Barack Obama delivered the keynote address of the Democratic National Convention. The surest political instinct John Kerry ever had — and the most consequential move he ever made — was entrusting the task of kicking off his general- election campaign to a mere state senator, a man who said of himself that night, with perfect truthfulness, "Let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely."

The moment of Obama's speech that sticks in most people's memories came about three-quarters of the way through:

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America — there's the United States of America.
The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

It's worth savoring the rhetorical precision of these lines.

In the wake of terror in New York and Washington, and in the midst of carnage in Iraq and political viciousness at home, there is a widespread yearning to recapture the solidarity of the weeks after September 11, 2001. For Democrats, there is anger and frustration at being somehow shut out of a patriotic consensus. In this speech, Obama comes riding through the smoke and scoops up his audience like a hero sweeping a stranded damsel onto his horse. He reformulates patriotism in a way that's bursting with energy yet free of either rancor or defensiveness. He frames his examples in ways that soothe every hurt and suture every wound.

An awesome God. Millions of people — even people like me, crusty skeptics fed up with the browbeating of "Christian" busybodies — heard this phrase as simple, comforting sweetness: "awesome" is a kid's word, a word we hear from our children every day in praise of everything from an ice cream cone to a really cool teacher. Millions of others heard it as a different kind of praise, a thrilling echo of a modern church anthem:

Our God is an awesome God,
He reigns from heaven above
With wisdom, power, and love,
Our God is an awesome God.

We don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. Suspicion of "federal agents" is a staple of right-wing crankiness; fear of witch hunts in libraries is a staple of the left-wing variety. Matter meets antimatter, producing light rather than heat. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. Coaching Little League ties together sports and family into a universally unthreatening package of communitarian volunteerism, but "we've got some gay friends" is the truly brilliant touch. In a casual, non- defensive way, it identifies the speaker ("we") as reassuringly, matter-of-factly heterosexual — but without defining homosexuals as "they": gays have gay friends, too. It casts gayness not as an "issue" but as an everyday human reality. It plants a premise flattering to nearly everyone: that at some level, all of us are tolerant. It subliminally urges "anti-gay" people to look past abstractions and think instead of some gay friend or relative, while urging "pro-gay" people to think of the other side almost affectionately, as mistaken rather than cruel. Obama puts "patriots who opposed the war in Iraq" and "patriots who supported the war in Iraq" on an equal footing, instead of consigning the antiwar patriots to some "also" or "us, too" or "just as much" category. Of course, the conventions of English sentence structure being what they are, one or the other set of patriots has to be mentioned first. Obama's choice is a subtle corrective to eight years of Bush administration slurs. By the end of the passage — "the United States of America" — a lot of people were on their feet and, not for the last time while listening to Obama, crying.

Obama was responding to, and sharing, a yearning for unity, but not with split-the-difference mush. Even in this most unifying passage, the underlying political direction is plain: against racism, for civil liberties and gay rights.

As a former speechwriter, I was impressed. But it wasn't just the words. It was equally the aura of mastery. The only other time I had witnessed a comparable performance at a convention was in 1984, in San Francisco, when Governor Mario Cuomo's keynote address instantly made him a national figure. Both men took hold of the audience, in the hall and at home, with preternatural confidence, playing the murmurs and cheers of the crowd like a musical instrument. Both made Democrats, haunted for decades by a phantom of themselves as losers who are weak and glum, suddenly feel like winners who are strong and joyful. Cuomo was grand opera and Obama was the rebirth of the cool, a jazz formalist, but both were virtuosi. Their very names were music.

Touching on Obama and his speech a couple of weeks later in the piece that opens this collection, I wrote, thinking myself rather daring, that it was "not hard to imagine circumstances under which, a decade or two hence, he might represent the future of the country." A decade or two? Well, in my defense, he was young, he had no government

experience except being a state legislator, he was black, and he was (as he had put it) "a skinny kid with a funny name."

Excerpted from Obamanos! by Hendrik Hertzberg with permission from The Penguin Press.

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Twelve Stories That Celebrate the True Holiday Spirit

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The Birth of a New Political Era

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