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SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Hey there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. Throughout the spring and summer, we'll be taking you on the road to meet the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. These special episodes are a collaboration with New Hampshire Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio, which is why we have an extra special guest today, Casey McDermott, who covers politics for New Hampshire Public Radio.
CASEY MCDERMOTT, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.
DETROW: How's it going?
MCDERMOTT: It's good.
DETROW: So, Casey, you're from Pittsburgh, right?
MCDERMOTT: I am from Pittsburgh.
DETROW: But we are not here to continue our conversation about Pennsylvania regional convenience stores. We are here to talk about presidential candidates so...
MCDERMOTT: We are not, but I would be remiss if I did not say that Sheetz is better than Wawa.
DETROW: Casey and I were at a community center in Concord, N.H., to interview Democratic Senator Cory Booker. Standing in the back of a bright blue gymnasium, we watched him give his stump speech.
CORY BOOKER: This is an election where a lot of people rightfully say, oh, we got to - I need a candidate that can beat Donald Trump. Well, that's really wonderful, but that should not be your highest aspiration. That should be the floor, like, the entrance into it.
DETROW: So he spoke for more than an hour. What jumped out to you?
MCDERMOTT: I mean, I think we heard a lot of familiar themes that he's been talking about on the campaign trail. We heard a lot about his new gun policy. And I think we also heard a lot of him kind of carving out his brand as a candidate as someone who does not want to necessarily get out there and get in the mud quite as much as maybe some voters want their candidate to. So I think that's going to be interesting to watch, particularly as, you know, the field is pretty much taking shape right now.
DETROW: Cory Booker jumped into the presidential race in February, running around the big idea of making love and unity and common purpose a central theme of his campaign and, if he wins, his presidency. He's been representing New Jersey in the Senate since 2013 and before that served two terms as mayor of Newark. Early on in Booker's mayoral career, he made a name for himself as one of the first politicians to use social media to reach out to voters and constituents. That's since become the norm, but running for president, Booker is still committed to connecting. He regularly gives out his phone number and makes a point of posing for pictures with every single voter who wants one and recording videos with them, too, to send to their friends and family.
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BOOKER: Hey, Maureen (ph). It's Cory Booker. I have the honor to stand here with your progeny, your son, wishing you all the best. Happy Mother's Day a day late, and I hope - look forward to seeing you along the road. All the best.
DETROW: After that very last selfie, Senator Booker sat down with Casey and me in a room off to the side of that gym.
So we are here in the game room. We've got some archery target practice. We could play some volleyball as well. But I think here we might just have a conversation.
BOOKER: I'm just glad I'm not sitting in front of targets like you all are.
BOOKER: I guess that's what I do professionally, so it's nice to not have it done right now.
DETROW: Well, welcome to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
BOOKER: It's very good to be with you both.
DETROW: We're going to talk about some serious things. But, you know, it's a podcast, so I wanted to start with a very important topic.
DETROW: After Barack Obama, you would be the second president to be a known "Star Trek" fan.
DETROW: So, you know, we're trying to get a sense of what kind of president you would be. So I feel like I need to start with what captain is your leadership style most similar to?
BOOKER: I am far more of a Picard man.
BOOKER: But I definitely have things I like about just about everyone.
DETROW: Picard feels more comfortable delegating than some of the other candidates.
BOOKER: Yeah, I really do like Picard's style. I really do.
MCDERMOTT: OK, so hold up. Can you just explain who you're talking about?
BOOKER: (Laughter) Well, I know a lot of people are upset that I didn't say Sisko, by the way, because he had the best haircut.
DETROW: He did.
BOOKER: Although Picard's was pretty much like mine as well. These are incredible leaders in the "Star Trek" universe. And we should always - you should have it - it would be so cool if you started this podcast by saying engage.
DETROW: We could talk about that for a while, but I think we'll shift to...
BOOKER: I could go deep with - deep nerd with you.
DETROW: I think we'd lose Casey very quickly, though.
MCDERMOTT: Unfortunately, I cannot go deep nerd in the same way that you guys might be able to. But I guess just to kind of switch gears, we're obviously out on the campaign trail. You've been officially running for president for a few months. But you I think it's probably fair to say have been thinking about it for longer than that. We're visiting New Hampshire. When did you decide that you were going to run for president?
BOOKER: I think it was a real process. And I - you know, there was somebody from New Hampshire that came down to talk about - to me about in 2017, a sort of a well-known political-involved person that was trying to make the case to me about why I should run and why I would win even in a crowded field. But that wasn't even persuasive. I think it was something that I was mulling over for quite some time. And it was more of a getting to a point where I realized that my reasons for not running were not worthy and that I should run.
MCDERMOTT: So what is it about you versus the 20-plus other candidates that are running right now that you think is compelling for the American people?
BOOKER: Well, I think there's two things that are distinctive about my purpose for running. One is what makes me distinct. I'm the only person in this race who was a chief executive of a state's largest city in the middle of a massive recession in a city that had a reputation for decades and decades of decay and decline. And we turned it around in pretty dramatic fashion. Now, it's going through its biggest economic development period from its school systems - 30% increases in graduation rates - to reforming the court systems to reforming the food deserts. I can go through a lot of that. But then that part of the resume plus being somebody who was a senator for last five or six years and actually got big things done, like our criminal justice reform bill that I led from the Democratic Senate side with Dick Durbin. But that's not it. That's just one thing - my unique resume as a chief executive and a senator who worked across the aisles to make things happen - but also it's just the theme.
You know, my whole career has been marked by taking on the toughest problems, bringing people together, creating uncommon coalitions to ultimately produce uncommon results, things that people said couldn't be done. And I really do think we're at a crossroads now in this country where there is a descent into tribalism. It's - tribalism to me is fear-based. It's us versus them. It's a zero-sum game politics. And that, to me, is going to lead us further and further into an intractable world where we don't get things done, and we divide this country more.
DETROW: But when I hear you talk about that and talk about that revival of civic grace, I wonder how you use the presidency to do that. Because nobody talked about hope and unity more than Barack Obama. He literally sang "Amazing Grace" in 2015. And yet after eight years of President Obama, there was an anger and a division in this country that played out in the 2016 election. So what can you do from that position that he wasn't able to do?
BOOKER: I am literally sitting here as the fourth popularly elected African-American in the history of the Senate, and the rights and privileges I'm enjoying were fought by people who were told you're moving too fast, you can't get this done, it's impossible to pass civil rights legislation. The longest filibuster in Senate history is Strom Thurmond, who fought and was able to defeat attempts of passing civil rights legislation. But we did not give up. What we did do was have activists and leaders that were able to inspire the moral imagination of our country to get us to do things we didn't achieve before. You have just seen a president do the exact opposite. And quite effectively, he's using the highest office in this land to commit act after act of moral vandalism to do things to divide, demean and degrade us. And he is doing great in the politics of pitting Americans against each other.
And so the flip side of that is I believe that the right leaders - plural - because I hope done are the days that we think some savior is going to come in and be the sole purveyor of hope and possibility. What we need is a president that trusts the American people, that works with them and does things to revive those ideals I talked about but, more than that, to use his creativity from their office like I did when I was mayor when I had a nation that had looked at Newark, N.J., as a place you don't go to - and now our population is growing for the first time in 60 years - that you don't invest in because it's decaying, and we turned that perception around. So I will bring a creativity to the office, a - actions that use not just the official powers of the presidency but ways that you inspire the moral imagination in this country as past presidents did to do things people said couldn't be done, like putting someone on the moon.
DETROW: We then turned to policy. Booker has just come out with a pretty big gun control platform. Among a lot of other things, he wants to require a national licensing system for buying guns. Casey asked him about how some of those new restrictions would work.
MCDERMOTT: That plan includes a lot of different components, but one of them would be to incentivize states to pass what are called extreme risk protective orders or sometimes red flag laws. That's something that we've heard politicians in New Hampshire look at. But one of the things that's come up here is people have raises concerns about how do you balance due process when you put together that kind of a policy? So what do you think about how you would approach that?
BOOKER: Well, first of all, I want to say that a lot of these policies are really important that we get them done. And, again, I'm glad that you gave some nod to the urgency of the moment. But I think most Americans don't realize that we live in a country where in the last 50 years we had more people die from gun violence than every single war in our country's history combined from the Revolutionary War to present. There is a grievous urgency to this that when - one of - my plan is based on not just the personal experience as the only person in this election, I think, the only person in the Senate I think that has had shootings in their neighborhood, shootings on their block. There is a personal urgency to this, but the plan itself is actually based on evidence-based things that we know work.
And so when it comes to red flag laws, to me, if we can't find a way to get the details right and surrender on the whole plan because we can't get the details right, then we're not going to solve the problem of folks getting their hands on guns that should not have them. And so we can - I often hear people wanted to quibble on a lot of the details. I wanted - but we should at least endorse the policy and work on getting it right through the legislative process. And so I imagine it - you'd need to balance due process. I'm all for that, but you cannot have a society where someone who is showing sign after sign of distress, sign after sign of imminent danger to themselves, can go into a gun shop and pass a background check and get a weapon. That's what I'm trying to get at, and I know we can get there.
MCDERMOTT: So are there any, like, specific provisions that you think would be really important to have in that kind of a policy?
BOOKER: Yeah. There's opportunities for judicial review. There should be a process put forward that has to - you have to go through. I think it should involve law enforcement. I think it should be temporal. In other words, you don't permanently lose your gun rights. There should be opportunities for appeal. A lot of the substance that we've spelled out in general due process should apply to this.
DETROW: We put out a request for questions from listeners, and we got a ton of questions about climate change - probably doesn't surprise you. You called it an existential crisis a few minutes ago. Out there, you were talking about a lot of different ways to deal with this - research and incentivizing green trends, fuel efficiency, things like that. But a central part of that Green New Deal framework that you've endorsed is, over the course of a decade, over the course of the coming decades, totally changing America's energy economy, the way we produce energy, the way we consume energy. It's a huge thing to do. A lot of candidates say it's just like the moonshot. But I'm curious - how do you specifically get there? Is it a carbon tax? Is it cap in trade? Is it mandating energy sources?
BOOKER: Well, first of all, again, it seems like the Green New Deal has done a lot in terms of just inspiring people about what should be possible, and this urgency that we need to move boldly is one of the reasons why I endorsed it. There is an urgency for us to think bigger, and taking our transportation sector and moving it towards electrification is something that will happen, but we need to be doing it a lot quicker. And so there are a lot of things we know have to happen, but creating a sense of urgency and having an aggressive plan in doing it I think that's something we all should be endorsing.
DETROW: But in terms of that central piece - because at some point, the government is going to have to mandate some sort of large-scale change in power plants. Do you have a sense of what the best way to do that is?
BOOKER: Well, there's - you've mentioned some of them in your question to me. I mean, we have to start understanding that carbon is a pollutant. And we can't let people externalize the cost of their business onto the rest of society and not having some way of accounting for that. And so there's a whole menu of things that we can do, a lot of things that aren't in the Green New Deal, to begin to move us more urgently. We need a commander in chief in this sense that's going to drive us towards those solutions and then understand that we only produce 14% of the problem. And right now, the coal plants that are being opened in places like China and India are significant and staggering when we think about this problem in the larger global context. And that means that we're going to have to play a role internationally as well, using the levers we have from foreign aid to diplomacy to treaties to make sure that we are helping the entire planet move towards a lot of the innovations that we're going to embrace if I'm president of the United States.
MCDERMOTT: I want to just bring it back to another issue that has been pretty hot button in New Hampshire, especially in the last few weeks, and that's family medical leave policy. We've had some dueling proposals from Republicans and Democrats, and it's really sparked a big debate about how do you actually go about getting this kind of a policy passed? And I guess just to - from, like, a big-picture standpoint, do you think that this is something that the federal government should be taking the lead on as opposed to kind of a patchwork of state approaches?
BOOKER: Yeah. This - we should have paid family leave. We're the only nation - only industrialized nation that just does not have paid family leave. And it's stunning to me. What we do for children in this country even before they get to school - we don't have what I would call universal prenatal care, with too many of our children being born low birth rate or even stillbirths. We're leading the planet Earth in that. We're not investing in universal preschool, affordable child care, and we're not investing in paid family leave. And living in a low-income community, I see the torture so many parents have to go through when they're working two jobs, trying to balance shifts and then have to make that terrible decision about going to the hospital emergency room or staying at work to get a paycheck that they desperately need to keep a roof over their kid's head. So this is, to me, not even debatable.
We need to join the rest of the developed world and have a paid family leave plan. Now, to pay for it, I actually think there's creative solutions that involve the states and the federal government working hand to hand, like we do with Medicare and Medicaid, is making sure that we're finding joint ways to cover the cost. But ultimately, this is what I know - as a former mayor, I used to always say if you look at a balance sheet analysis, doing the right thing is usually actually doing the cost-efficient thing as well.
MCDERMOTT: So in terms of - you kind of floated the outline of a plan there, but do you have any thoughts on whether it should be, you know, mandatory, should it be voluntary or the amount of time that maybe people should be able to take off?
BOOKER: Again, I think that the - number one, we should have a system that is universal for everyone, that every single parent, should the issue arise, has the opportunity to take paid family leave. Again, there are details in this that are worth discussing when we get to the legislative drafting point, like does that start immediately on day one of your job? Or should there be a ramp-up period? These are things that are really important, but I don't want to obscure and start - have people trying to tear down because of the small details and miss the larger urgency of the policy plan, which is I believe we can fund it through state and federal partnerships and that it should be something that's universally applied.
DETROW: You've been getting a lot of questions from interviewers and from voters like today about social media and the best way that the federal government should regulate it. And, you know, I think a lot of people in America are still adjusting to this governing-by-tweet style of President Trump. But you were really the first politician in a much different way to embrace Twitter and to use it to create community, to reach out to people. So I'm wondering, as you sit here in 2019 and you probably might have a different answer than you did at the beginning of your mayoral career, do you think that social media has done more harm or good?
BOOKER: So first of all, I'm glad that you recognize that we were really early innovators on the platform, and we realized we can go from, you know, e-government, which people talked about, to we government. And we really empowered our constituents in Newark not just to drive by a traffic light out but to actually take a picture of it and tweet your mayor. And we actually used it as an efficiency tool and could start driving down the amount of time it took to fix a pothole from - God, when I got to Newark, it was maybe weeks, if not months to fix a pothole to literally hours. And I was very proud of how we created more community, as you said, bonds that were tighter where more people were taking responsibility for their neighborhoods. And in that sense, social media created constructive social environments.
DETROW: But there's so much downside.
BOOKER: So much downside.
DETROW: I mean, white nationalism has been reinvigorated because of social media.
BOOKER: Yeah, absolutely. Not just white nationalism - I'm worried about privacy issues. I'm worried about Russian attacks. They - literally, if you look at what their insidious aims are - to divide this country, to make us hate each other, not to - make us not to trust media - but even this - one's self-esteem. I've seen studies for young kids, what it's doing to their own views of themselves, the views of their own worth. And so we need to start having a far more determined conversation about the upside and the downside and learn how to mitigate these issues that are real. And government does have a role.
DETROW: And is that through the Department of Justice or through something like the SEC, treating it as a regulated business?
BOOKER: Well, I think it's a lot of the above. I mean, we've - I think that we've seen, with the erosion of net neutrality, just all the different people that have touches upon this marketplace. And so, yeah, I do think it's the DOJ, and I do think that this problem we've had with corporate consolidation - we need to start taking antitrust law seriously. I do think it's the FTC as well. There's a lot of ways that we have to approach this problem, but we right now have a president, an administration that seems to not have an approach and not recognize that this is a problem, whether it's Russian interference or the privacy we all have. We have things we haven't even thought through. Like, what happens when - if Uber wants to start using our ride information, and people who've gone to everywhere from abortion clinics to doctor's visits - you name it - things that to me are chilling if we don't start getting into this space and doing thoughtful regulation.
DETROW: OK. We're going to take a quick break. Back soon with more from our interview with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, including what he can't let go of this week.
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DETROW: And we're back. Over the next few months, the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, New Hampshire Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio are going to be interviewing a lot of the presidential candidates and bringing you those conversations. One of our goals is to give you a sense of who these people really are. So talking to Cory Booker, NHPR's Casey McDermott and I try to get the senator to be more personal.
MCDERMOTT: So you like to tell a lot of stories on the campaign trail, and there's a lot that maybe people who've been following your visits have heard maybe one or two or even three times. But I'm wondering if there's anything that you don't talk a lot about on the campaign trail that, you know, people should know about you.
BOOKER: Well, first of all, I'm a big Brene Brown fan and this idea that making yourself vulnerable is actually not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. And even in my book, the best compliment I got from people that were reading "United" was this doesn't seem like a politician's book. You're talking a lot about how you are a jerk here or how you fell down and made a mistake here. And I think that sharing in that way - unlike Donald Trump who campaigned saying he was perfect and only he could solve these problems - I think that it's important to let people know who you are, where you've stumble, where you've failed and what you learned and what you're going to apply. And so I try to be very open with folks and try to engage in that because I do think campaigns, in and of themselves, are important processes in our country for effecting the national conversation, for changing the energy in our society because you all are putting us out there all the time.
I want to make sure, as my mom says, tomorrow's not promised to me; do everything you can today. And so the frequency of my town halls is - one reporter came up to me in South Carolina and literally took off his press credentials and said I thought I was going to come in here - just a policy talk, but this was more of a revival. Well, I'm a guy - as you've heard already, I think we need more of a revival of the best of who we are, not - especially when we've seen so much toxic politics that are I think making our society and our dialogue worse, not better.
DETROW: What's a moment in your life where you really failed, and what did you learn from it?
BOOKER: You know, the - a very painful moment of failure was when I first got elected to be mayor of the city in Newark. I was then living in these high-rise public housing projects. And I was coming home leading into the election, and there were guys that I'd watch grow up from kids to now young high schoolers, and they hung out in my lobby. I got to know them. I know their families and everything. And one of them, Hassan Washington, was, like, the leader of the crew there who was this incredible young man - reminded me of my dad. They were so similar - both born poor, both born in a segregated environment, both being raised by their grandmother for a little while, and he had the same spark as my dad. And one day, I came home and I smelled marijuana in the lobby. And every one of us sitting here who went to college knows that we have different marijuana laws for different people. Well, the law says it's the same, but people at Stanford smoking pot don't have anything to fear compared to what people in the inner city that do that. And so I knew it was a crisis, and I intervened, and I said, guys, let's get out of this lobby. Let's go do some things. I made the mistake of letting them choose the movie, which the first one we saw was "Saw." I thought it was home improvement, but it was awful (laughter). But I got busy.
BOOKER: When I got elected, and now I'm mayor-elect, I had death threats, and they surrounded me with security so there were now cops in the lobby in the projects. And, you know, I don't care who you are, from the suburbs to the cities, you don't want to hang out where there are police, so I lost track of them. But I was the big job. I was going to save all Newark's children - yada, yada, yada. Well, in the first days in office, I got called to a scene of a murder. And I was showing up to talk to people that we were going to change the violence rates in Newark. And there was a body covered - dead - and another one being loaded and racing off to the hospital. And I shamefully tell you I'd barely acknowledged the humanity - kill on the sidewalk. I was just ministering to the living and talking about my plans. But when I get home that night to steal a couple hours of sleep, I go to my - and then BlackBerry and go through all the reports and the data for the day, and I see that the - murder report, and I look at it. And then I get chills because the name on the report is Hassan Washington.
And for me, it was the worst gut punch I had taken in my life because my dad was Hassan. And when my dad was growing up, lots of people kept him from falling in the cracks. His grandmother couldn't take care of him. They brought him into their house. They took a collection to change our family's destiny and send him off to college. And God had put this kid right in front of me and it - I'll never forget his funeral, which is the perversion that happens in cities like mine all the time - of parents burying children. And we were all packed together there, crying and holding on to each other. And all I kept thinking is, here we all are gathered for his death. But where were we for his life?
And so for me, the lesson for that is life is - positions and titles come and go. All of us sitting here are going to have lots of different jobs. But I've just learned that the biggest thing you can do in any day still will most likely be a small act of kindness, decency and love. And even - I'm a presidential candidate right now, I'm staying in touch with the mentees and the young guys I've been working with in my town. And as much as this - my political life is about the policies I'm pursuing, to me, the drive has still got to be about human connection, human decency, being there for each other no matter what your title is, no matter what your job is and showing up for each other. And it's something I will never forget.
DETROW: This is one of several intense, personal stories that Booker regularly tells voters as he runs for president. He's responded to shootings like this by trying to connect to as many constituents as he can. But that's easier when you're a mayor than when you're a senator, and it's even harder to do on the national level.
MCDERMOTT: So as I understand it, you like to text with people that you meet on the campaign trail...
MCDERMOTT: ...Or just out in the community. And I'm just wondering, you know, would there be a way for people to text a President Cory Booker in the White House?
BOOKER: I - from the time I was first campaigning in 1998 for city council, I would give myself - then it was my home phone. I still remember the number actually - out to people 'cause people are really respectful, ultimately. And I just found it just a very good way to govern.
And when I was mayor of the city of Newark, we, as you said, got a national reputation. I was, like, tweet me if there's an issue. And if it was late at night and somebody said, I'm stopped on the side of road, had an accident and the cops still haven't showed up yet, I'd get up out of my bed and go.
You can trust that as president of the United States, I'm going to try to reinvent a lot of the norms of the presidency - to be far more engaged, far more present, to use a lot of the tools and technology, not to demean and degrade and divide like, I think, this president does on a regular basis but to connect, to affirm, not to demean but to redeem.
DETROW: Senator, the last question for you is the way that we end our podcast every week with one thing we just can't stop thinking about - politics or otherwise; the thing that we just can't let go. What can't you let go right now? What's kicking around in your head? It could be serious, could be the opposite of serious. Just what are you thinking about as you drive from event to event, when you're not posting live videos on Instagram about that drive?
BOOKER: So the problem is I'm reading David Brooks' book right now, so I - it's all up in my head.
BOOKER: And I - again, tomorrow's not promised, so I'm just trying to figure out better ways to talk about what I think is that crisis in our country, and it is a moral crisis right now. I think the poverty that most worries me is the poverty of empathy, the poverty of compassion because you need that to do something else. And so I really do challenge myself every day. Like, how can I talk about this in a way that touches and inspires other people to be more aware? As I joked inside - you heard me earlier when I said, you know, I walk into a town hall in Iowa and some guy puts his arm around me, thinking he's going to have a kind of a bro moment. He was, like, I want you to punch Donald Trump in the face. And I joked with him back. I said, dude, that's a felony (laughter).
And I don't - I came from parents who taught me - I mean, the stories I learned as a kid, hearing these lessons of love. Like, that black folks and white folks, Christians and Jews - like, the stories - firsthand stories I heard about the affirmation of human connection of what mattered, that we weren't a society that confused wealth with worth, celebrity with significance. And so I think that what we need in this country right now is that. And I'm trying to read books on this campaign trail of people that are - from both sides of the aisle - Brooks is a Republican - that speak to that American spirit that has enabled us to go to the moon, to beat the Nazis, to beat Jim Crow, to, at that point, do the biggest infrastructure plan and project in the Eisenhower era that we'd ever done that united this country, quite literally, by roads and bridges. That's sort of my mission, and I'm trying to figure out a better way to be the best possible exponent of those ideals on the trail.
DETROW: My Can't Let It Go for this week is that I met a Muppet. Yours is a little more lofty.
DETROW: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, as you put it, you were one of 2,020 Democrats running for president.
DETROW: Thanks so much for talking with the NPR POLITICS PODCAST and New Hampshire Public Radio.
BOOKER: Thank you both for having me.
DETROW: That's the first of several conversations that we'll be having over the next few months with many of the 22 and counting candidates for president. Next week, Tamara Keith and Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters are interviewing South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. In the meantime, we'll be back in your feed soon with our regular podcast as soon as there's news to talk about. Thanks so much to Casey McDermott and everyone else at New Hampshire Public Radio. I'm Scott Detrow, and thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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