Grant Engle | Staff Writer
Lauren Rock | Staff Photographer
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, co-authors of The Presidents Club and editors at Time magazine, bring the season to an end with a conversation on the upcoming presidential election.
The final morning lecture of the 2012 Season offered Chautauquans a preview of the upcoming presidential election from two veteran journalists. Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, editors at Time magazine, inspired the Week Nine morning lecture theme of “The Presidents Club,” with their book of the same name.The Time editors’ casual discussion covered everything from Mitt Romney’s wealth to the relationship between Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.The conversation started with Gibbs asking Duffy the most obvious question: “What’s this race about?”
After a brief pause, and asking Gibbs to repeat the question, Duffy said the answer has changed in the past two weeks.
Before the Romney campaign selected Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) as the vice presidential candidate, the election would be what it’s about every time a president is up for re-election: it’s a referendum on how the president has performed during the last four years.
However, now that Ryan has entered the race, the focus may be changing on the fiscal policies of the Republican candidates versus the appeal President Obama has to average Americans.
Duffy said although the Romney campaign’s focus has been on job creation, the addition of Ryan makes the campaign about budget cuts and reducing the deficit.
The 27-year veteran of Time said he thinks Ryan was chosen for three reasons:
The jobs platform wasn’t working for Romney. It had them close, but the campaign needed a push over the top
Romney is coming out of a “bruising primary” where he took a lot of criticism for not being conservative enough. Ryan is a social and fiscal conservative.
The other top choices were either too risky or not exciting enough. Ryan is somewhere in the middle.
When the conversation turned to what the Obama campaign has to do, the journalists looked at the president’s past four years of legislation that has received mixed reviews. Nonetheless, President Obama is still ahead in every major poll.
“It’s amazing he’s in the lead,” Duffy said. “All the metrics and numbers tell you he shouldn’t be.”
Gibbs and Duffy said most polls indicate that Americans feel the president can relate to them better than Romney — and that may be the reason why he’s hung onto the lead.
The two sat on stage and navigated through a myriad of topics with stories, jokes and analysis.
Akin and abortion politics
In the wake of Missouri Senatorial candidate Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” victims not getting pregnant, Gibbs said the debate about abortion has shifted in the last two decades.
Gibbs said while polls indicate the majority of Americans are pro-life, the vast majority of Americans are in favor of exceptions to an abortion ban.
The controversy has forced the Romney campaign to answer questions about Akin’s comments. Duffy said the stir has been a headache for the Republicans in the crucial swing state of Missouri.
“It was not the week they were looking for the week before the convention,” Duffy said.”
Where is Ann Romney?
Duffy pointed out that most political spouses are heavily scrutinized, but the journalists were curious as to why Ann Romney has been absent during several campaign stops.
He pointed out that Ann Romney is dealing with multiple sclerosis, and that the disease can flare up at any time. Gibbs noted that exhaustion can be a factor in the onset of symptoms of MS.
Duffy said the Romney campaign can only benefit from including Ann as much as possible, and he said she is a “very good” public speaker.
The Romney family’s trip to Europe, which included a pit stop at the Olympics, was highly criticized by Duffy. He joked about Romney’s appearance at the dressage event — an event often referred to as “horse ballet.” Ann Romney is the owner of a horse that competed in London.
Duffy pointed out that the Republican candidate essentially took off eight crucial days from his presidential campaign.
“It made no sense because it was built around dressage,” Duffy said. “There was no upside. It was all downside.”
What’s the difference?
When Gibbs asked Duffy to compare and contrast the two candidates for the audience in the Amp, Duffy said he’d rather just compare the two men.
“They strike me as remarkably similar,” Duffy said. “Both men — it seems to me — aren’t crazy about politics. They don’t need people the way Clinton did. They don’t relish the sale the way Reagan did.”
Duffy said he is excited to see the candidates side-by-side so the public can compare and contrast them accordingly.
The Presidents Club
Keeping in step with the lecture theme their book inspired, Gibbs asked Duffy how, if elected, Romney would fit into the “the world’s most exclusive fraternity.”
Duffy said Romney would be just fine, and he talked about the wide range of personalities that make up today’s club.
“The great thing about the Presidents Club is that anyone can join,” Duffy said. “The Presidents Club is a distinctly and totally American thing. We made that club. That club is a reflection of what we want, of who we are, of our aspirations, of what we’re capable of.”
Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Michael, you made a statement about Hillary Clinton’s intentions. Whether it is she or someone else, how is the club different when a woman joins?
Michael Duffy: Nancy should really answer this one.
Nancy Gibbs: Well, it would be a lot more fun.
MD: It’s my hunch that (Clinton) will do it. I don’t know. I’m sure she hasn’t decided yet, so I don’t want to say that her intentions are clear. It’s just a good bet. I think again, as I said a second ago, I think this club, if it can accept men of different generations and different political outlooks and so forth — and so far it’s only been men — given the vast differences in culture, and outlook, and philosophy and view that it already has been able to wrap its arms around, I have no worries that it can transcend gender.
Q: his question begins with Romney and moves to Ryan — but I’m not sure if you’ve had the same exposure to Ryan as to Romney, so take it either way. Romney may say they’ll fix the economy but he doesn’t say for whom. Paul Ryan clarifies that. Ryan, a fan of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, aims to prevent the road to serfdom for the rich through privatization and cutting government programs such as Medicare. What does he plan to do for those who are already serfs?
What does your research tell you about the effect of Mormonism in the context of how Romney is perceived? And do you think that will rise to any level of importance in the coming months?
MD: I think if it was going to be an issue, it would have been so in the Republican primary race. It turned out not to be, except at the very margins, and so I don’t expect it to be a factor in the fall.
Will Voter ID laws actually effect the election?
NG: That’s another of the fights that we’re going to be having for the next 10 weeks. As you know, there are lawsuits in a great many states about a lot of these laws. Obviously, we aren’t going to know until we see what the turnout is. We see if there are instances all over the country of people getting turned away. It’s heartbreaking to me when you see the 93-year-old woman who has voted in every election in her life who is now worried that she won’t be able to vote because she doesn’t have a driver’s license with her picture on it. I have to believe we’re better than this, and the challenges, it will work its way through the legal system. The tricky thing is that we’re on pretty tight deadline. So we don’t know how that’s going to turn out.
Has a preoccupation with presidential candidate character/personality become a substitute for the discussion of issues and an expectation that we can hold candidates accountable for positions? If so, why? And is this a good thing?
MD: Yes. Because it’s easier. And no. When I hear accountability, I think about the press and our job. And I think, yes it’s our job to kind of tee up that stuff. If we do it right, we give you both the substance and the stuff that tells you about how these guys think and who they are and what they’re made of. But we also can’t do it for you. You have to make these judgments and these investigations yourself. We’ll do our best, and as you see, we sometimes don’t. And so you’ve got to do this work — most of it — yourself.
NG: I would just add to that — I think it is tricky to try to separate the questions of character and the questions of policies and issues. And you only have to look at the 2000 election for that. You never know what a president is going to face. And this is something they all talk about: that successful presidents typically come when you have a temperament that is matched to the times in which he ends up governing. So, in the case of George W. Bush, who ran in 2000 on the idea of a humble foreign policy — which is not what we saw — but he did not know, no one had any way of knowing, what was going to face him. And certainly Obama had an idea of what he was running into because the financial collapse was already underway when he was elected, but the issue of character becomes important only when you know what the challenges are going to be, which is impossible to know. So I think they’re both important. I think valuing one over the other doesn’t really take us anywhere. I think we have to do both.
Let’s connect two things here — What role will race play in the election and how will the immigration directive effect the election?
MD: … Hispanics in polls are trending about two and half to one for the incumbent against the challenger. Their percentage of the vote is growing, but it’s still only 13, 14 percent. What’s interesting — and it was only about eight years ago, so it’s growing fast, they are getting more Democratic — in 2004, Bush won 44 percent of Hispanics. Romney’s on track to get about 33, 34. And the White House knows it, and they’re going to do everything they can between now and the election to decrease Romney’s percentage because he doesn’t have a lot of maneuvering room on immigration. On race — is it more of an issue this time than last time? Yeah, but I tend to think it’s less because of racism than because of the fact that fewer people will vote for Obama simply for the — there’s less of an aspirational, “I feel good about myself for having done that,” this time than there was last time. It’s not the kind of — it’s a less aspirational vote, I think, a little bit, for some people than it was last time. But I don’t think it’s because they hate him more this time than they did before. That’s tough, but that’s what I think.
Given the increasing influence of Super PAC and outside funding on political races, would you comment on if this Supreme Court will revisit this issue, why or why not?
NG: One thing, and you should answer that, (Michael), because you know the court much better. But one thing I do think, misconceptions worth correcting, is that the role of the Sheldon Adelsons, the role of the billionaire sugar daddies who are allowed to write a check for $10 million to fund Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign — Citizens United did not allow that. Buckley v. Valeo allowed that. That had been legal for years. It’s just that this is the first time that we’re seeing it, and we’re seeing it up front and on center stage as opposed to behind the curtains. But it was legal for individuals to write those kinds of checks to Super PACs all along. What Citizens United is about is about corporations. And what’s been interesting, is that it’s not as though we have seen corporations rushing to write $10 million checks now that the Supreme Court has said that’s OK, it is as though the billionaires who would have always thought that had been fun to get in the game, but weren’t too sure about the legality, were emboldened. It was not this decision that unleashed the Adelsons of the world.
MD: Yeah, that’s right. I don’t know what the court’s going to do. I don’t think it’s going to be any time soon. I think these things tend to start from the bottom up. So I’m not optimistic.
So you talk about the progression of this kind of funding going down to the local level. Does the proliferation of that kind of intense magnification of a point of view — does that eliminate a context of governance? Does it take us into a constant campaign mentality at every level where everything is win-lose? And do we lose an environment for governance in that context?
MD: I worry that even local governments are already becoming politicized before the money arrives, at national level intensities. In my little town in Ohio, they have fights about tear-downs of houses that you would think are as important as Civil Rights. All of politics has become intensified in a way that isn’t good. They aren’t that important. But there’s no down side to making them so. And I think that’s only encouraged this money to find the local level faster. But yeah, this is essentially about special interest politics. I think the deeper danger is that the more you have these big, untraceable pots of cash, the sooner there will be foreign money into the mix. And we will not be able to figure it out in time. But who wouldn’t want to get in that game if you’re overseas? So it’s got to be fixed. I just don’t know who can fix it.
So the flip side of money — let’s talk about media technology: social media and the 24-hour news cable networks that pop up everywhere. What effect is all of that having on both the race, and then later, the presidency?
NG: I think it has an enormous impact on the race. And if you think about — we spoke a little about this yesterday — if you think about what we are now in a position to know and see of candidates. That literally not a second that they are in the public eye goes unrecorded. Because whether or not the media —formal media, official media — is around, everyone is a reporter now. Everyone has a video camera in their pocket. Everyone has a tape recorder in their pocket. And can upload any clip of any speech at any time and hold politicians accountable for every word they say. So when you think about the schedules that they keep, and the demands on them, and how exhausted that they are, how human they are — they are all going to say stupid things. And it’s also of course very easy to take the even not as stupid things that they say out of context. And so they’re very aware of this. It’s a challenge for us to try to break through that. It’s great tradition in these issues — these campaign issues — to run the behind-the-scenes pictures. We send a photographer to follow a candidate, but not just be in the pool, watching the event and the audience, but to be able then to go back stage, off stage, in the green rooms, watch the aides meeting, really get up close to the way they are when they’re not being watched. And what we’re finding now is that the campaigns — they’re scripting everything. They’re orchestrating everything. They’re staging everything.
MD: They’re scripting the non-scripted moments.
NG: They’re scripting the non-scripted moments. And it really has changed what we know and what we see. The idea that you could ever have anything like John F. Kennedy’s really significant health problems not being known, his significant issues with women not being known and discussed, or any number of other things that are now this subject of non-stop, unending 24-7 speculation and commentary — it is so fundamentally different. I think it changes therefore, who’s willing to run. It makes the decision to become a candidate a fundamentally different one — of what you are willing to put yourself through, what you’re willing to put your family through, what you think that you can endure. And there’s no way that does not have an effect on who we end up with in office.
There are several different questions about your process in writing the book. So segueing one to a follow up: How forthcoming were the staff, family members and past and current presidents in giving you information for your book? And in your interviewing, do you ever get requests not to use specifically personal or controversial information? Put differently, do you decide on your own that you won’t use such information because of its nature or some of the information that you’ve been given?
MD: We were very pleased with the cooperation we got. I think the presidents themselves like the club, they kind of believe in the club, they wanted to know about the club. I got a note back from Bush 41 after he got it saying, “I never knew about Truman and Hoover, that’s just amazing.” So I think that they’re interested in it. He read the Bush-Nixon chapter, which is tough on Nixon and not so tough on Bush, and said, “ I read that chapter. Having liked it, I decided to read the whole thing.” They wanted to help. Not all the same, but they wanted to help. Yes, they sometimes will tell us stuff that they don’t want us to use, and I never use it. I sometimes take stuff out that I think isn’t interesting or doesn’t take us very far. I have this trouble a little more than Nancy, because my presidents are alive.
NG: Mine are much less in a position to complain.
But did you run into any information that you decided not to use in the book, even though they’re not going to complain?
MD: I mean, sure. Editors take things out as much as they put things in. The funny thing is, you go from a magazine to a book, and you think, “Oh I’m going to have all this space, I can put everything in.” But it turns out you don’t have room for everything. So you take some stuff out. There are all sorts of things I kept out, because it might have been interesting or funny or mildly titillating, but it really doesn’t help. Nancy and I have been in this business for a very long time and one of the reasons we have been is because we don’t do that stuff. So there you are.
Is the level of malice and bitterness in politics fundamentally different today? Or just more of the same of what we’ve always had?
NG: I really do think it’s more of the same. If you look at the accusations that candidates leveled at one another 200 years ago, about who had an illegitimate child and who was the anti-Christ — just extraordinary. But of course it’s different now because everyone is in a position to hear every last charge, every last accusation. I don’t think the difference is in what is being said, it’s in what is being heard.
MD: I think it’s worse. I do think it’s worse. I think it’s worse because — yeah, compared to the beginning of the country, there were no rules. But we were civilized. And in the eight or nine campaigns that I’ve covered it’s gotten worse. I think it is nastier. Just in that 30 years I’ve been doing it it seems much worse. Over 200 years, maybe not. But in that segment, yeah. I think everyone knows it, too. It’s not going well. I am concerned that it won’t be stopped. So I have a different view than Nance, but she’s usually smarter than I am.
You referred to the absence of any real undecideds, but by all reports, Independents are a growing factor within political society. So are the Independents leaning one way or another?
MD: They’re pretty much split right down the middle. They lean slightly to Obama. What Independents are — they aren’t so much for Obama or for Romney, they just don’t like the parties. They think the parties are useless. And they tend to make their minds up last. And they tend to be hard to track. But they are, at this point, in the 70 or 80 years they’ve been looking at this, there are more Independents than there have ever been in American history, and it’s because the parties are so feckless.
NG: Again, it’s easy to confuse Independents with centrists or moderates or undecideds or swing voters who actually swing back and forth depending on the candidates. Those are rare as unicorns. There are very few people who actually do split their ticket regularly — go back and forth. As you say, they don’t want to indentify with one party or another, but they generally are going to subscribe to one political philosophy or another. And it is unusual to find someone who truly has, over the course of elections, has gone back and forth between the two parties.
Do you think the Affordable Health Care Act was too complicated for the media to explain to the public?
MD: I do. I still can’t explain it. I ask this of every audience, what I asked of you guys. Name me three things if you can, or just two. It was a large reform of Medicare, which is a complicated thing to explain, and Medicaid. It’s just a very difficult thing to explain to the average person and I was overmatched by it.
This question is repeated a lot. We’ve got fundamental issues about education. We’ve got scary issues going on about foreign policy and homeland security, we’ve got critical and urgent issues on the environment and energy. And yet, all of that seems to be lost inside this sort of tit-for-tat exchange process. Can the media force this? Will the debates force a decent discussion of these issues? And will there be a response on an issue basis?
MD: No. We will follow the candidates in what they say. That will keep us busy 95 percent of the time. You will not see a substantive discussion about energy or environment, I do not think. Certainly not education. You are invited, and there are many places for you to go to find those things out. But if you looked at 90 percent of the coverage when this is over you are going to see coverage of the day-to-day conversation between the two men and their ads.
Is the long-standing issue of the popular vote versus the electoral vote likely to take center stage in this particular election?
NG: Haven’t we all learned not to go anywhere near predictions after what we’ve seen? But in this case, and Michael tell me if I’m wrong, it does not look like we’re heading towards that kind of a split. I think Obama has something of an electoral college advantage still. A bunch of the swing states have tightened in the last seven or eight days. A state like Florida, which was about 51-45 for Obama is now within the margin of error. So yes, there is a chance, but I think Romney has to sort of pull an inside straight in order to get to 70. I think if Obama manages to do it, I think he will also have the popular vote. But tell me if you think I’m wrong.
MD: I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. And we’ve had it happen once in the last 15 years, anything could happen. I just don’t know. You go to those wonderful websites where you can click on the electoral college states of your choice and make up your electoral college map — it’s quite a bit of fun: “I think I’ll give Indiana to Romney and North Carolina.” It’s great. You can do 50 different scenarios and you can get to 269-269 plenty easy. And it’s getting easier, because unlike just having just Ohio, Virginia and Florida in play, now maybe we have Wisconsin and Iowa and I’m not sure about Ohio and Michigan. That’s interesting — Missouri. Up for grabs. And so I’m saying that there are many more combinations this time for a 269-269 than there typically are. Because more states appear to me to be in play than normal. And so I’m not sure that people won’t be talking about that. Which of course, we hope for clear victories either way.
NG: I think just as important, obviously, is what’s going to happen in the Senate. I think the House is clearer, but in the Senate, Democrats are defending 23 seats. I think Republicans are only defending 12. So Democrats have a tougher fight. This is why something like Missouri is so important. That is one Republicans absolutely have to pick up in order to win the Senate back. So this is going to be very interesting to watch going forward. I mean Claire McCaskill, who is the embattled Democratic incumbent in Missouri, is the only political figure in America this week who was not talking about Todd Akin. And the reason for that is because, the more what he said is the story, the more the pressure from Republicans for him to get out will continue. And of course she does not want him to get out. So she is going to try to make the race about everything other than what he said and hopes that he will stay in and she will have a chance of beating him, which she did not really have until five days ago. So some of these races are going to be simply fascinating and playing by rules that we have never seen before.
So thinking about the way you divided your work — the living and the dead — in looking at the presidents club, is there one person that you studied, that from your point of view, is an ideal in terms of statesmanship? Is there one that stands out for you, Nancy, and for you, Michael — in terms of the way you think about a great statesman?
NG: I think maybe, what heartened us, and what got us interested in the first place, was how — not without exception — but how each of them made these extraordinarily statesman-like decisions when they were in their role as former presidents, where they intervened and they helped in ways that were not in their personal interests, that were not in their party’s interests, but where they really felt like this was what the country needed. And we saw this over and over again of this desire to put the office of the presidency first. And they all talk about this. That once they’ve been in that job, they think that for America to be successful, and peaceful and prosperous, we need a strong president. We have an extremely messy, inconvenient system of government that we have built. And that’s fine. It keeps anything bad from happening too quickly. But at the top of it, you need a president who can function. For whom the majesty of the office and the stature that comes from being elected by all the people empowers them to do great things. And so the former presidents don’t like anything that hurts the office of the presidency. And this is why right now, you have George W. Bush, who left office amid clouds of controversy in 2009, and who has gone completely off the grid — and all he will say whenever he is asked about taxes or the environment or all the ways Obama is surely terrible, what Bush says is, “I don’t think it’s good for our country to undermine our president. And I don’t intend to do so.”
MD: I think better of all of them, having studied them, with the possible exception of Nixon — possible. He was helpful too. I think better of all of them.
—Transcribed by Jen Bentley