In welcoming George Stephanopoulos here it's great fun for Mary and for me. We've known George since 1987 when we were both younger (poor George just turned 40 on Saturday, so you know) and he's been a good friend ever since. In our White House days we, I think, pretty much started and ended each day together. I sat next to him at the senior staff table. He's left-handed, so he always had a seat at the end of the table at 7:15 every morning. And he's pretty much still working through the drama of "The West Wing" episode that Rob Lowe is actually playing me and not him, but he'll get over it. (To audience: why are you laughing at that?)
He's a graduate of Columbia, he's a Rhodes Scholar. He taught at Columbia after he left government and now, of course, he's ABC News' political analyst. He's known to you through his very insightful analysis of the politics of the day. Many of you have read his very fine book, All Too Human, that's for sale in the back of the room. It does not contain the most flattering photo of the President of Hobart and William Smith, but nonetheless, it is a very good book.
But in welcoming George here—someone who I think really represents to our students what the very best of public service can be about, from his time on Capital Hill as a campaign aide and then a White House staff member. Now in his transition to being a journalist for ABC, I'm so thrilled to welcome tonight's President's Forum lecturer, my friend, George Stephanopoulos.
Thank you, thank you Mark. Mark was especially kind in that introduction because he left out what has been the most notorious part of my résumé in the last few years—I directed the intern program at the White House. It's not true. That's not true.
It is true that Mark and I met on the Dukakis campaign a long time ago and I actually had two jobs on the Dukakis campaign. I worked in Mark's office. He brought me into the Dukakis campaign after I had trudged through the snows of New Hampshire. That was the high point in the Dukakis campaign. We won New Hampshire, but my job for the Dukakis campaign was a very strange one. I both wrote jokes and did rapid response. For any of you who remember the Dukakis campaign, what most people really think is that our rapid response team was a joke. We didn't do a very good job of rapid response, especially to the Bush campaign at that time. I also owe Mark, because he actually introduced me to Bill Clinton in back September of 1991. He didn't do much of a favor when he introduced me, because he told then Governor Clinton that my job for the Dukakis campaign was writing jokes and doing rapid response, and we weren't very good at it, and I wanted the job, but I did recover relatively quickly when Mark introduced me.
I love Michael Dukakis, but he wasn't known for his sense of humor, and I said 'well, listen, I didn't really write jokes. They just need a short, Greek guy with no sense of humor to test the jokes off of.' From then on, Clinton and I got along. I owe a lot to Mark, both for taking me into the Dukakis campaign and for that introduction. I didn't feel that every single day we were in the White House, but it was the most amazing experience of my life, and Mark has been a tremendous friend and public servant. I really envied him during the dark days of Whitewater and beyond, when Mark ascended to the position of director of the Peace Corps and left us back there. He used to say—it was very funny at the beginning, you know, Mark was a very young father at the time and our early days in the White House, as you remember, weren't the smoothest, and I envy President Bush his start so far—but Mark used to say that we were having crisis after crisis after crisis. And Mark would say 'we were like kids on a soccer team. We would just see the ball and all of us just go run and jump on top of it.' But, he is a terrific public servant and it is a real pleasure to be here and it's such a great crowd.
What I want to do is just speak for a few minutes about politics, about the lay of the land here, and then I hope we'll have time to take some questions. Politics is something I didn't know, when I was growing up, I was going to go into. I come from a family of priests. My father, grandfather, and uncle and godfather are all Greek Orthodox priests, and I think that's what I was supposed to do but I'm not only Orthodox, I'm Greek, and so politics is really in my blood. We Greeks—are there any Greeks here today? I know there's Armenians. Are there any Greeks here today? We're a little arrogant about it. We think we invented politics, we invented democracy. In fact, the very word politics is Greek. It comes from the Greek root 'poli,' which means many, and 'tics,' which are bloodsucking insects. (Laughter) Believe me, everybody thinks that now.
But really, the definition of politics I prefer comes from Czech playwright and president Valclav Havel who, a little over ten years ago (in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin wall) when he became the first democratically-elected President in the new Czech Republic, said in his inaugural address that politics can't just be the art of the possible, it must also be the art of the impossible. Trying to change peoples lives for the better, I know that politics can get nasty and I guess I've been on both sides of it in my time in politics. But I also believe that most people, most of the time, who get involved in politics and public service do so out of that same fundamental impulse—the desire to change peoples' lives for the better.
My guess is that now, coming out of the experience of the last year, we really ought to change the definition to the art of the improbable, because it really has been a remarkable time in our political life. You know, I was thinking back on the ride up here about Mark starting in politics a little bit before I did in the late 1970s, but basically in the last generation of politics we've seen a tremendous confluence of events. We've had one President resign, and one impeached. We've seen three Speakers of the House forced from office, one before he even took office—Bob Livingston, the last one on the day of impeachment. We've seen things happen with the Congress. Everybody used to say we had such a stable political system and now it changes every two years, and it all culminated just a few months ago now in having the son of a president, who was defeated just eight years ago, serving in Washington with the wife of the man who defeated his father, your senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton. No one could have ever predicted that all these kinds of things would happen in our time, and as I said, it really did culminate in the last election.
I'm one of these people who can't quite get over this last election. In part, because it's the first one I covered as a journalist after serving in three in a row and it was a tremendously exciting post-election day, or at least the longest election day in history. But what was really striking about it (and I think it is worth stopping and thinking about it again, because when you look closely at this election you see things that we're never or unlikely to see again in our lifetime) it's so historically rich. Now, it's not the first time that the person who lost the popular vote became president of the United States, but it certainly is the first time I think, when you look at this election, where a margin of error in the counting of the votes is greater than the margin of victory. You have to say that something truly strange has happened. I think the person who put it best was Rick Hertzberg, a writer in The New Yorker, who said 'this margin is not just razor-thin. It's a negative razor. A razor whose edge is so exotically thin that it pops through a wormhole into an alternative universe where the dull outcuts the keen.'
We're in a new world, but that razor's edge, I think, is also surprisingly revealing and it taught us a few important lessons about voting in America. I think no one can say now-and how many times have, and I had this in my political science classes, you thought that whenever someone said 'oh, you must go vote, your vote counts' oh, this is just some cliché—it doesn't matter at all. Now we all know that it's true. We also learned in this election, and I think this was stunning—it was stunning to me and I've worked in politics for almost twenty years—that basically when we count votes, it's an approximation. That not every vote is counted.
We've learned that our system really doesn't work, and not just in Florida. There were two million votes all across the country that were not counted in this election. Two million votes. And we also learned that the votes least likely to be counted are in the poorest areas of the country. That is an injustice. Even the Supreme Court, when they stopped the vote, and I think in an improper way, suggested we must make sure now that we all have a commitment to modernizing our voting system. So, we can say for a fact that every vote does count.
Now we also have to confront a different situation, and it's somewhat impolite now to talk about this, and that is that we have a president who won neither the popular note, and that's not even in dispute, it's approaching now 700,000 votes, but I think there's a very strong argument that President Bush—and he is the legal and legitimate President of the United States—would not be President of the United States today had the Supreme Court not stopped the counting. Right now there are a lot of news organizations going through the ballots and counting them again, and they're not completed yet and it will probably take several more months. But just in the last two weeks there have been four major studies by the Washington Post, the Palm Beach Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Orlando Sentinel. Every single one of them shows if the votes were counted in a way the people intended them to be counted when they walked into the booths, if every vote were counted as for the person the people thought they were voting for, Al Gore would clearly be the president of the United States. By three-to-one, he had voters who, because of a mistake in ballots, either voted for him and Pat Buchanan or him and the Socialist Party candidate for president whom no one ever even heard of and I can't even remember his name right now, it's so obscure.
The Palm Beach Post looked at it and said by 682 votes he had more of the dimpled and partially indented ballots just in Palm Beach county; the Chicago Tribune went to fifteen republican counties, rural republican counties in Florida, and found that if you actually looked at the ballots of people who had both marked Al Gore's name and written in 'I want to vote for Al Gore,' when you added those up, he picked up another 200 votes. Just this weekend in Orange County, Florida, the Orlando Sentinel found that he would have picked up an additional 218 votes because people used the wrong pen. They used a black pen instead of a blue pen. Now there's nothing that can be done about this at this time, but I think that we do have to recognize that this is a situation where it's not just a disputed election, but clearly where people went into the voting booth thinking they were voting for someone and came out and their vote was not counted.
The second fundamental fact in this election, though, would have held true even without all the problems in the voting. It revealed an incredibly divided country. I think the best way to think about it is like a hairline fracture, where it looks very narrow but it cuts incredibly deep, and the results show that the two candidates were really elected by two completely different countries. Basically, if you were a man you voted for Bush by 11 points; women voted for Gore by 12 points; whites, plus 12 for Bush. But more than 75% of non-whites went for Gore and we all know now that 92% of the African-American vote went for Gore. Class? If you make more than $100,000—voted for Bush; make less than $30,000—you voted for Gore. Single—Gore; married—Bush; regular church-goers voted for Bush; the less observant voted for Gore. Which may explain why if you thought the country was on the right track economically you voted for Gore; if you thought the country was on the wrong track morally you voted for Bush. If you looked at guns, probably the single best predictor of how the vote would come out was whether or not there was a gun in the home. If there was a gun in the home you voted by 40 points for Bush; if there wasn't, you didn't. Finally, Gore won nearly every big city in the country, including Houston in Bush's home state. Bush won nearly every small town. Gore only won 676 counties; Bush won 2,500.
The final way to think about it is basically Bush won hundreds of votes in thousands of acres. Gore won thousands or hundreds of thousands of votes in hundreds of acres. Two completely different countries. Now what President Bush has to deal with are these two fundamental facts—a disputed election and a divided country by the vote. And he's also got a divided government, obviously fifty-fifty in the Senate, very close margin in the House, and even state legislatures now are divided 17 republican, 16 democrat, 16 are shared. We have a perfectly divided country.
So, the question for President Bush is how does he deal with it? There are a lot of options here and it's been an interesting choice, at least to me, to watch what the president has decided to do. Never before have we had a president chosen by a minority of the electorate taking office with such an evenly divided government. We've been in situations that were close before. In 1953, Eisenhower won by a lot but he had a divided Senate and House. In 1960, John F. Kennedy won what had been the closest election in close to a century at that point. He won by 100,000 votes. What did he decide to do? Kennedy came in and appointed two republicans to the most senior positions in his Cabinet—Douglas Dillon to treasury and Robert McNamara as defense. And he also put off some of his more aggressive, progressive campaign promises on things like civil rights. John Quincy Adams, when he came in, he was the first son of a president to get elected and he also won in a very disputed election. It was basically a 3-way tie. He cut a deal with Henry Clay and defeated Andrew Jackson. But he noted at his inaugural the peculiar circumstances of the election and even described himself to the Congress as 'less possessed of your confidence than any of my predecessors.'
Bush has taken a completely different tack that I think is probably politically astute; I'm not sure how good it's going to be for the country in the long run. What he's basically done is to act as if he had been elected with a clear win in the popular vote, a clear win in the electoral college. Whether you look at his choices for positions like Attorney General, John Ashcroft, when you look at the programs he decided to put before the country, making a very specific claim each week that he's going to introduce pieces of legislation, whether it's the tax cut or the education plan or his plan for faith-based initiatives, that are to-the-letter of what he promised in the campaign. As I said, my guess is that this is a wise thing to do in the short run. He is becoming more legitimate by acting more legitimate. Look how easily and how quickly people have actually forgotten about how close the election was. Bush understands that there's always this great desire to kind of move on and get on with the next thing and give the president a chance. Now he's also helped by the fact that he has a tremendous surplus to deal with. And this is where I really look back in envy.
As you remember our early days in the White House, Mark, we came in and the first problem we had to deal with was that deficits were projected to be about $290 billion for the next decade. And even though Governor Clinton had made a lot of promises in the campaign for new investments, he had to make hard choices and actually put deficit reduction first on the agenda. We also had a very fractious Congress at the time. We had a democratic majority, but it was slim, and we had controversies over gays in the military and our own Attorney General choices, so we were really lurching from crisis to crisis. But through all of that, we made the decision that I think laid the groundwork for success by putting that economic plan in place, putting a deficit reduction plan in place, that eventually over time did help. It wasn't the sole reason, but did help get the deficit down and create the surpluses we have today.
I think one of the questions at least I have in these early days is will the Bush strategy and the Bush tax cut undo so much of the progress we've made over the last decade. We have tremendous good times now and the surplus is projected to be $5.6 trillion, but one of the things that I think we have to remember is how uncertain these projections can be. Again, to bring it back to our first days, we couldn't have imagined that we could promise to eliminate the deficit. We wouldn't even make that promise in the campaign; we only promised to cut it in half because the projections were so dismal the other way. Now, they turned out to be wrong. When it's going the other way, when you have a surplus, I think you have to be extra careful not to squander it because the projections can be so iffy. All it takes is two quarters of economic growth and you lose a hundred billion dollars right off the bat. That's my fear of the Bush tax cuts, that it will undo that progress. Both because of its size and also because of its composition.
Now, believe me, I think there is nothing wrong with when times are good giving some back, but I think you have to watch who gets the tax cut. My fear is that the way the Bush tax cut is structured, it will actually serve to bring back some of the income inequality that we had started to cut away at over the last eight years, because so many of the benefits go to the wealthiest people in our society, especially when you combine an income tax cut with an elimination of the estate tax and the gift tax. I think you're really doing away with the social compact.
Now, I know some people say what's wrong with people leaving money to their children. Why should that money be taxed twice. The truth is that it's not actually taxed twice. Most of these estates are capital gains, which if you just pass it on without any tax we'd never be taxed at all, and what we're doing is creating a bias towards the wealthiest children while we're leaving the poorest out in the cold, because right now the poorest kids of working families, the ones earning 15 to 20 thousand a year, they pay the absolute highest tax rates and they get nothing from the Bush tax cut. So I am worried about that.
Now, that all said, my guess is that's going to happen, that a significant tax cut is going to pass some time in the next six months, and that we can only hope that the Congress, over time, finds ways to limit it so that if the surplus doesn't materialize then the tax cuts are stopped so that we're not squandering the money we have saved so far. That is just one part of what I think will be a remarkably, and I guess ironically, tremendously successful first six months in office for President Bush, if you combine the tax cuts with his education plan, which does have a lot of bipartisan support, assuming he finds a way to drop the voucher program, which I think he will do with a bipartisan consensus developing around a Patient's Bill of Rights and an increase in the minimum wage. He could have as successful a first six months legislatively as any president since Ronald Reagan, even though he didn't win the popular vote. But like most presidents, Bush may find that his domestic agenda is taking a back seat to crises that he can't foresee and can't control.
All presidents find this out. John F. Kennedy was in office only two months when he faced the Bay of Pigs. We didn't face anything quite that severe in our early days, but even a president like President Clinton, who'd come in saying 'I am going to focus like a laser beam on the economy,' was dealing immediately with foreign crises, with Haitian refugees, the massacres in Bosnia, with uncertain elections in Russia. Bush will find the same dynamic I believe, and I think there's a crisis that is developing right now that will end up being the first test of the Bush administration and that is the crisis in the Middle East. And it comes from two different directions.
It's on my mind because I just spent the last week in Israel for the Israeli elections, which was a remarkable experience, and you saw I was talking about the topsy-turvy, tumultuous nature of our politics here. You just saw the same experience in Israel in the last two years. Prime Minister Barak was elected less than two years ago, May of 1999, by the largest margin ever in history on a promise to complete the peace process. Less than two years later, General Ariel Sharon, with a long history as a general and brutal past in the Israeli military, is elected by 25 points—probably what will be the largest margin in an industrialized democracy in our lifetime. What you saw there, I think, was a country grappling with the most fundamental issues of survival—war and peace and security. And it was both comforting and disappointing to me at the same time, because even though the issues were so fundamental and there was so much of a fear that the results of the election were could lead to more violence, the country was basically taking it in stride. In fact, their turnout was almost approaching our levels. Usually in Israel you have about 80% turnout in an election; this year it was only about 60% because people have basically come to say, 'listen, we don't think there's going to be much of a difference either way, but we know our democracy. We'll survive.'
I'm concerned because I think when you see it in the days immediately following the election you've had a little bit more violence every day. A shooting on the northern border of Israel, violence in the West Bank, and even though the Bush administration will take a completely different tack from the Clinton administration and they don't want to get actively involved in the peace process, I think they will be drawn in by the violence. Particularly when you look at the involvement of Saddam Hussein. Right now there have been reports that every family of one of the new young boys, 13-,14-,15-year-old boys, who goes out and starts to throw stones at the Israeli military, if those boys are killed, they get a $10,000 check from Saddam Hussein. In the Middle East, that's a lot of money. That's like giving someone 100, 200, 300 thousand dollars on the West Bank, and I think it's creating or helping at least to foster a fervor that won't be stopped any time soon. And when you combine that with his continued efforts to build chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, I think you see the possibility, the seeds, of a real violent crisis, and Bush will be called upon to act.
As I was going through the election, as I was in Israel, it actually brought me back though to one of the most hopeful days that I remember in the White House. And I think you were still there, Mark, in September of 1993, of course you were, on the day that Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin came to the White House to shake hands and it was the beginning of the Oslo Peace Process. That was really the most remarkable day in all my time at the White House because (as much of a privilege as it is, you end up spending so much of your days consumed with the minutia of politics and the maneuvering back and forth over appropriations in Congress and whether or not the travel office is being well staffed; thankfully, I didn't have to deal with gifts at that time, but similar issues) you were really dealing with what you dreamed politics could be about—the promise of peace. And you saw something that never happened in decades—Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shake hands and say 'we're gonna work for it.'
Looking back at it eight years later, it's disappointing to see that that promise has not come to pass. One fundamental conclusion that everyone that I spoke to in Israel on every side had to confront was that the peace process, as we know it, has ended. Perhaps something will be resurrected in later years, but more likely than not, it's going to take a great deal of time, because the countries and the people simply weren't ready to do it. And I think that teaches an important lesson about the limits of diplomacy, the limits of politics in the face of enduring enmities when two peoples, two different peoples, are sharing a very small strip of land, both with their own senses of injustice, of what's happened to them over many centuries. It's something of an irony—you know, I was thinking about it today—it's something of an irony that these kinds of hatreds can be so lasting and so deep, especially today, when we find out through this remarkable project of the human genome how few differences there really are between all of us.
One of the things they found out today, I don't know if you saw this, but basically our genetic structure isn't all that different from a fruit fly, much less each other. There are actually bigger differences within a race than between them or among them. It's the single most important lesson I think you can ever have of how deeply similar we all are, separated only by genetic accidents, geography, and the mystery of free will. Now what I hope is that even though this is a lesson in the failure of politics, it won't be lasting. And I also believe that even when we run up against those limits, even when we see that politics can't solve every historical problem, that that doesn't become the argument for inaction or the abandonment of politics, which I do believe must, in the end, follow the prescription of Valclav Havel. It must be the art of the impossible. That's a paradox.
But fighting paradox is what politics has to be about and we face a lot of paradoxes here in this country right now. We are doing as well as we've ever done. We are at peace, basically. We're as prosperous as we've been in my lifetime, probably as prosperous as we've been in our whole history. We're the world's only superpower. The only country in the world that matches economic and military might in equal measure. But despite our great wealth, we still have the largest income inequality in the industrialized world. We still have 43 million people without health insurance. We still have, in the richest country in the world, one out of five American children poor.
Now we can't solve all those problems, but I believe that to combat them takes collective action. It takes politics, but we also face another paradox, and this is especially important here. I guess I want to address this to the students, because it's something I don't understand, and maybe we can talk about it and think it's something we have to fight, because democracy is spreading all around the world. 120 nations in the last two decades have accepted democratic rule. We have more nations in the world with leaders of their own choosing than any time before in the history of the world. But, when we're seeing that spread all across the world, we have a real crisis of political participation here at home. Ever since 18-year-olds got the vote back in 1972, we've actually seen the percentage of Americans voting go down. Every single year barely beat 50% in the last election.
There've been some recent studies that show that this walking away from politics and from civic engagement goes beyond voting. Basically the number of young people 18 to 25 years old who read newspapers cut in half in the last 20 years. Same for those who sign petitions or join a community group or attend public meetings or write their congressman. Now this hasn't been matched by a crisis in service, and I was hearing stories earlier today about the service days you have here at Hobart and William Smith, and the service houses, and more young people are volunteering and doing community work than ever before, but that is not being met by civic engagement, by an engagement in the political life. And our biggest problems, as important as individual charity is, as important as volunteerism is, our biggest problems, I believe, can only be solved through the collective action that is politics.
Cicero, a long time ago, wrote that 'freedom is participation in power and if we don't participate, we will not long be free.' We're a country doing so well in so many ways for so many people and so poorly in so many ways for so many others, and our challenge has to be to attack that paradox, not surrender to it. To remember the words of Robert Kennedy, he said that 'some people see things are they are and ask why, others dream things that never were and ask why not.' We do ourselves and our country the most profound disservice imaginable when we fail to ask and answer that question 'why not.'
A country that fulfills the promise of our land for everyone willing to work for it, and why don't we all work for it? I know about as well as anybody that to succeed in politics today you have to practice the art of the possible. But we will succeed as a people, as a nation we will achieve our country, only if we also practice the human art of the impossible.
Thanks very much.
It's your turn now. Who's got the first question?
I know that you want to hear from the young people but I, George, am one of the old people.
That's why I called on you.
I have three sons and a hubby who would not come today. You want to know why people are not interested in politics? My sons are a little beyond college age but they've been to college. They look upon you and the occupation you have as used car salesman. They look upon you as total spin. They look upon politicians as total spin. They're all philanthropic people. One cooks at The Gleaner's kitchen, another one does various charitable things; they're all very involved in community in many ways. But what I don't understand is the legacy my father left me. He was a politician. All my life was part of participating in politics back in Michigan. My father was the most sincere person I've ever met in my life. It grieves terribly me now that my sons aren't following in this way.
How old are they?
Thirty, thirty-two, thirty-seven. It grieves me that they're not following in this way.
I think you bring up an important point. I think there's a lot of different reasons for it. Basically you see the decline in trust in government and politicians. It really started in the 60s. In the late 60s, you had Vietnam. A lot of people thought that politicians had lied to them about the conflict, about the number of people dying, about the reasons we were there. And then we had Watergate on top of that and there was another example of politicians lying to the people. The third example, this is one of the great disappointments, and I believe President Clinton was a very good president, but I think there is no question that in his dealing with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in his dishonesty he helped reinforce this cynicism about politics that you talk about. But I can agree with you more about the diagnosis of which your sons' kind of are evidence. My fear is that if we succumb to that, we only make the problem that much worse. Because, especially as fewer people vote, and as coming from someone who did this for a living, if you're dealing with a smaller number of voters, it's much easier to just sell them a very narrow message that doesn't try to draw the community together. It's much easier to divide different groups of people from one another and make sure you get just your most committed voters out there. You don't have to speak to the broader public so I guess we're agreeing that it's a serious problem, and I accept what you're saying, but I think it's something that we can't succumb to.
I read your book and I loved it. I thought it was great. I was wondering if you thought what President Clinton thought if it, and had you talked to him since about-
You'll have to ask Mark.
And I also noticed that you were very fair, I thought, in how far you went with it; you didn't go overboard.
Well, thank you. I don't know that he would agree. I've got to tell you, he says he hasn't read it. The last time I called the president—and I left from the White House in 1996 on very good terms, as I wrote in the book, I was just pretty burned out and was in pretty constant contact with President and Mrs. Clinton throughout 1997—I actually called him the day before the Monica Lewinsky story came out, just checking in. But that story did come out, and as I wrote about, I was disappointed and angry, but also in my new job I was called upon to analyze the consequences, which I tried to do as fairly as I could, and I said they would be quite severe and if they were true, could actually lead to impeachment process. That did unfortunately turn out to be true. I think it could have been avoided had the President simply told the truth about it at the beginning, and I wish he would have done that, but since that day I have not spoken to him. I assume maybe one day that will happen and I guess I do hope, to tell you the truth, that he would read the book because I really tried hard to be fair to both sides and to really point out when I thought things went well and I hope that I did that. I did it in my own mind and it's up to the readers to decide beyond that.
I hate to go back to that minutia that you were so critical about earlier, but is there any truth to the rumor that Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida, is romantically involved with Kathryn Harris, the Secretary of State? (Laughter from all) Seriously. And if so, I know maybe you're not allowed to answer that if you know anything, but what incentive does the press have to keep that story from the public when it really is very noteworthy and could have something to do with the past election.
Well, let me challenge you for a second. First of all, I wasn't in either one of their living rooms, bedrooms, cars, whatever, so 'I don't know' is the honest answer, but first you tell me the premise behind the last part of your question. Why would it matter?
Why? Because Kathryn Harris was the one who certified the vote in Florida and it was my understanding that it was that that led ultimately to Jeb's brother George being—
Why do we need to know whether or not they had an affair, which I don't know whether they did or not. I don't think it matters either way. We know she was a political supporter of him, we know she contributed to his campaign, we know he appointed her. What difference would prying into their private lives make?
I'm asking you. (Laughter in audience)
I don't think any, I guess.
George, on a more serious note, your thoughts and feelings about the part that the media played or plays in elections as far as exit polls and predictions.
Good question, and anybody who watched election night knows we didn't do a very good job of it. First of all, on overall coverage, and it was something we tried to do and I was conscious of it throughout the whole campaign, because I know I was always critical of it when I was on the other side. I think the biggest problem with polls and the media is now we use them to structure the coverage of the campaign. It reached a point this year which you had literally, from July on, daily polls. Now anyone who's ever worked in politics can tell you that a daily poll doesn't mean a thing. A 1-, 2-, 5-, 6-point move in a poll in a single day is basically meaningless. It's all within the margin of error. Yet, because we had all these media polls doing these day-to-day tracks every day, the whole campaign was seen through that prism. We ended up over-interpreting day-to-day moves in the campaign, whether an individual ad, a change in the ad, or the speech. The big broad themes end up mattering far more than those day-to-day tactical issues.
Now in the question of exit polls on election eve, I think there's no question this time that the system broke down. You can look at it on the one hand and say actually the networks, by calling Florida for Gore and for Bush and for Bush again and then for Gore and going back and forth four times, perfectly captured reality-a tied election that you couldn't determine. But that's no excuse, and I think that where people are wrong, though, is believing that all of the pressures were sort of commercial pressures. That somehow the networks are so hot to be first, and there's an awful lot of that because they think that's a way to enhance their ratings and enhance their networks, so that drives the decisions. I don't think that's it. I think there's some real competitive pressure to get it right and hopefully to be first, but I don't think its got a commercial root. How can we fix it? Number one, absolute bottom line that should never be broken is that you should not have projections until the polls have closed in a state. I don't know what happened, but this time a few of the networks did call the State of Florida a few minutes before 8:00; that should not have been done.
Now, that said, the Bush campaign's argument that calling an election at 7:52 when the polls close at 8:00 somehow prevented some of the voters from going to the polls in Florida, I think is ridiculous. What are you going to do? You're driving in your car and you say 'I'm going to go home now, they called the vote'? I don't think so. Most people were already in line. I think that doesn't hold any water, but it's still no excuse for calling it. I think that we're going to put some safeguards in at ABC. We're now going to do our own polling that matches the VNS exit polls. We're not going to necessarily stop projecting, because I think it's valid that they've been right over time, but we're going to have an absolute hard line against any early calling of the polls in any individual state. I don't think you can stop using them, I don't think we should stop using them. As I said, I think they have been far more accurate over time, we just have to be more careful about it.
How has your time as a political commentator and journalist now, after having been on the other side of the fence, given you a different view of the media and of its bias?
It's probably only reinforced some of my previous views. I don't buy, as you might expect, I don't buy this notion that there's a liberal bias in the media. I do think probably if you did a poll of most journalists, probably more journalists vote democrat than republican, but I actually think that tends to lead journalists to bend over backwards not to be seen as biased towards one side or the other. I also think that there's far more of a bias towards any kind of a scandal or conflict than there is an ideological bias one way or the other.
The surest way you're going to get a story on the news, I know this from my old job, I know it from my new job, is whenever you can get the candidates clashing on a particular issue, whether it's all that important or not. I think there's probably also an overall bias on issues that cuts sometimes democrat and sometimes republican, and I think there's basically a corporate bias toward things like free trade, on issues like entitlement reform, that would tend to favor republicans, but on social issues like gay rights and abortion that I think tend to favor the Democrats, I think that ends up washing itself out over time. But I don't think there's much of an ideological bias. One of the things, again, I think we have to try to deal with in the media, and we're not doing very well with it right now, is to try to make the substantive issues sexier so that people will watch and try to stay away from some of the more scandalous issues that, in the end, aren't all that important. I don't think we're doing a particularly good job of it right now.
I believe that both the President's final pardons and this whole issue of the gifts is inexcusable and indefensible, don't get me wrong. But the fact that it's getting as much coverage as a new President's first few weeks in office when he's put forward education plans and tax cut plans and now, this week, his whole agenda for defense, I think that's indefensible as well and we, in the media, don't often get that balance right.
I was just wondering what utility you see in the national conventions in the summer. Nowadays, it looks more like a parade, kind of like a Superbowl of politics, and it's more for the TVs and for basically those presidential candidates to be paraded through the public, but it seems to me that before the whole TV revolution they actually had a purpose. Is that purpose still being served and is there still the same utility and still the same function that the national conventions have?
That's a good question. No, it's changed, but I don't think it's necessarily less valid. Conventions used to be about the job of picking presidential candidates. We didn't have primaries really or the primaries didn't particularly matter. The parties went to the conventions and chose the candidates on 1, 2, 3, 4, or 43 ballots. The delegates did the deciding. Now that started to change. I mean, it really happened as late as 1960. It began to change in 1960 on the democratic side when Kennedy was forced to compete in more primaries but he was still chosen at the convention. 1968 wasn't really decided in the convention, but basically ever since the party reforms of 1972, which really empowered the primary system, the conventions have mattered less and less and less, with a couple aberrations—the 1976 Republican Convention, where it looked like Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan might broker a deal, but basically with that exception—the conventions have simply been an attempt to ratify the choices and then present them to the public.
Now the entire job of the conventions is basically for the party to get together and tell the story of who their candidate is, what their party stands for, what they feel they need to stand for during the course of the campaign. I still think that's a very important function. One of the things we struggle with, at least in my new job at the network, is how many days actually to give to the presentation of the candidates and how to allocate the coverage between what candidates and the parties wanted to say about themselves and balance that off with analysis of how much that meant, either the reality of what they're proposing or their past. That was something we were struggling with throughout our coverage of the conventions. I think that we're probably not going to go back any time soon. I guess what I'm far more concerned about is how uncompetitive the primaries have become. I mean, you saw it I think, on both sides this time. That basically the candidate had built up—particularly, on the republican side, Bush had built up—such a war chest, 100 million dollars by August, that he almost couldn't be beat and he did a quick kill and the primaries were over basically by March, both on the democratic and republican side. I don't know that there's any kind of a procedure or reform that would fix that. You're not going to do away with New Hampshire and Iowa at the front end.
Some people have talked about a series of regional primaries, but I think that wouldn't solve the problem of the person who has the largest war chest and can last the longest is likely to do the best. That's why I would even argue for keeping Iowa and New Hampshire and the smaller states in the game early on, because at least there's a chance then that a candidate can break through with a different kind of message, even if they are less well-funded. You saw John McCain try to do that this time around. It wasn't enough to overcome Bush's advantage, but at least it created an opportunity.
My question to you, sir, is have we slicked ourselves into a corner? All the questions, the woman with her sons disenchanted, the monotony of what used to be a pretty thrilling thing, the conventions, and so many of the people not even trying in the primaries, have we slicked ourselves into a corner? David Gergen mentioned in an article recently that perhaps our greatest goal for the next century might be partisanship and power and replacing it with patriotism and principle.
I don't see those as incompatible. I don't think that partisanship and patriotism are necessarily incompatible. In fact, I actually would make a plea for more, but different, partisanship.
Have the parties made it impossible for our groups, the Americans, to get involved? Have they made decisions outside of us?
That's great. I'm going to turn it around slightly because I actually agree with that, but I don't think it's for the reason you talk about. I think the problem is not partisanship, the problem is money. If you want to make an argument about what's wrong with the parties right now it's that at some level the parties have simply become money collection machines from the wealthy. And if I could make one change, after working almost 20 years in politics-one change-it would be for full public financing of all campaigns.
I worked for Congress for many years, both for a junior congressman and for the Majority Leader of the House at the time, Dick Gephardt. I worked on campaigns, I worked in the White House, and after all that time I really am convinced that money is the root of political evil. There's no question. And I think it's actually less pernicious at the White House than at any other level because the President ends up being above a lot of the different transactions most of the time, but basically, the money works like a high class protection racket. If you have money, you get access. If you have access, you get influence. If you have influence, you get protection. And you watch this tax bill now. Right now everyone's talking about across-the-board cuts in income tax rates. It's going to cost 1.6 trillion dollars on top. The minute it gets to the Congress you're going to see all sorts of special interest corporate tax protection provisions that are going to cost another trillion dollars. And like I said, I'm not a big fan. I don't think we should go overboard on the tax cut now at all. But you watch the proportion in the end that goes to individuals and goes to corporations.
Democrats and republicans play exactly the same game, and one of the reasons I was so upset with this Mark Rich pardon is that it really brought, to my mind, the whole issue of money and politics to a place it should never go. The constitution gives the president very few sole powers, powers the president has unquestioned. It gives the powers to make treaties and give pardons and when you have a situation, and I'm not saying President Clinton traded a pardon for donations to his library, I'm not even saying that, but what is clear is that someone, because they were wealthy and powerful, got their case heard in a way that no one else would ever get their case heard. And that happens every single day at every single level of politics. I know that the solutions are not perfect, and I understand the argument that says listen, the Supreme Court has said that giving money to a political campaign is an expression of speech and you can't really constrain it. You have to be careful about how far the limits can go. I think there's a pretty strong argument, though, on the other side and that is that your First Amendment rights. You no longer have full First Amendment rights in politics if you don't give money. And Justice Stevens said it well in the last Supreme Court case that dealt with campaign finance. He said that money is not speech, it's property and that therefore, the only way you can make sure that everyone has equal protection under the laws or that everyone has First Amendment rights is to level the playing field.
That's why, as I said, I think we should have full public financing of campaigns. Once you figure out a proper qualification system, I don't think that every single person, just because they say they want to be president, should get money. If they can figure out a way to show that they have some level of support, raising some small contributions, getting petitions signed in certain states, they should get a grub stake. And then we should make sure that each side, who abides by the limits, gets the public financing. I think it's the single most important change we could make in the political system.
We have a lot of folks that aren't here in this room but that are listening in some of our classrooms. So we have questions that have been sent in. This perhaps would be our last question.
Why can't a successful campaign manager get elected President? (Laughter from audience)
Has that ever happened? Let's see. Gary Hart tried, Bill Clinton was an unsuccessful campaign manager of George McGovern's campaign in Texas. George W. Bush was an unsuccessful campaign manager for a congressional race in Alabama. There must be somewhere in our history some example. I'm tempted to say that John Adams ran Washington's campaign but that's probably not right. I'm sure there will be a first and that's why I nominate Mark Gearan.
That was a real question from the classrooms. Thank you all for joining us. Thank you, George. You can readily see why I very much wanted to have George come to our campus, so that you could see beyond the, frankly, the cartoon of modern politics and modern communications. The depth and sincerity and the true sense of civic duty that George Stephanopoulos showed, in my observation, in service for the President and today as a journalist. It's all too often that public figures get cartooned and get caricatured. George proves that quite wrong. When I called George to come up here I said 'George, do you believe in free speech?' He said 'yes.' I said 'Well, I have this President's Forum and you're coming and we don't pay.' (Laughter)
But we do leave you with something. And it's our tradition, as our students know, to leave with you a tie from Hobart and William Smith. Women who've addressed the President's Forum get a scarf. Your colleague, Sam Donaldson, was here last year and we gave him a tie so I think some Sunday morning we should be looking at both of them in their Hobart and William Smith attire.
We thank you for coming. We're thrilled with the attendance of our students, both here and in the classrooms. We're thrilled by our neighbors here in Geneva who came out and really build this community.
Thank you all very much for coming.
"An Inside View of Politics, the Presidency, and the Press"
Feb. 12, 2001