Ubering Toward the Political Morass
In 2009, during President Barack Obama’s first year in office, I received a call from a member of his staff. “Would I be interested in interviewing him live on my radio show from the White House?”
I was promised 30 minutes, one on one. I was told it would be live on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. There were no restrictions on questions, and so, many of my listeners suggested things I needed to ask.
Those offering suggestions also included my sons at family dinner. The boys were then 11, 13, and 15. One of them said:
“Dad, make sure you ask President Obama what’s in the Book of Secrets.”
I was puzzled.
“Well, Dad, you know, we just saw National Treasure 2 with Nicholas Cage. And when the President is elected, he gets the Resolute Desk and the Book of Secrets. The book tells him who killed Kennedy, what’s in Area 51, and if we really landed on the moon.”
I said I’d try, but I made no promise.
The next day at the White House, I waited for the President in the Diplomatic Reception Room. I was seated right where President Roosevelt used to deliver the famous fireside chats. There were members of the media gathered to watch my interview. And then -- President Obama arrived a few minutes early before I was on air. I didn’t want to waste any of my issue questions… I needed to make small talk with the Commander in Chief.
So I asked him: “What’s in the Book of Secrets?”
He immediately replied: “I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
The ice was broken, the mics were hot, and the formal interview began.
The interview itself was a half-hour of substance. No boxers vs. briefs questions. We talked about the economy, the Affordable Care Act, and the hunt for Bin Laden. It was carried live on three cable channels. I didn’t embarrass myself. I went home without having created any viral moments.
But the next day, an AP story ran in newspapers across the country with this headline:
“Obama Mum on What’s in ‘Book of Secrets’”.
They ignored all of our substantive exchanges. The only thing they reported was my ice-breaking question.
There is a lesson in that. Namely that what gets attention today is often not the serious, but the salacious. And not the cordial, but the contentious.
That’s not the way it’s always been.
I’ve been very fortunate. I became interested in politics when I was a senior in high school in Bucks County. In 1980, as a newly registered 18-year-old Republican, I skipped high school with a buddy just to meet Ronald Reagan at a campaign event in Philadelphia’s Italian Market.
At Lehigh University, I then formed a club for Reagan/Bush supporters. I thought other college students shared my passion for politics, but I was mistaken. No one was interested. So I hatched an idea: I’d throw a party. I was sure I could lure them out of their dorm rooms. But the date was October 17th, 1980, when the Phillies faced the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. No one came to the party. Everyone was watching the baseball game (The Royals won 4-3 in ten innings).
I was then living in an all-male dormitory called Taylor Hall. 150 guys. No cell phones. No Internet. Instead, one hall phone was located on each of the dorm’s three floors. It was nearly impossible to get a competent phone message, but my hall phone rang after the party that was a bust.
Somebody told me they were calling from “Ambassador” George Bush’s office. He was then the Republican Vice -Presidential candidate. I thought I was getting pranked. But the caller was real, and he wanted to know if my club members were willing to volunteer to work during a George Bush visit to the nearby Bethlehem steel plant. In a pre-9/11 world, they actually wanted us to drive motorcade cars.
Rather than admit the moribund status of the club, I recruited everyone on my freshman floor, and we did it. We drove the cars.
That experience was the beginning of my relationship with the future Vice President and President. By age 20, I was flying across the country and twice around the world as an advanceman, planning visits for VP George H.W. Bush. I stayed politically active through college, and by the time I got to Penn Law, I myself ran for State Legislature and lost a Republican Primary by 419 votes.
When I was 29, George Bush was now President, and I was appointed to a position in his Administration. I was a Regional Administrator at HUD, responsible for all public housing in five states plus D.C., with Jack Kemp as my boss.
It was the combination of those unique political experiences at an early age that led to my being asked to provide election night radio commentary here in Philadelphia, which in turn led to my work on television. And I’ve been doing it ever since. On Election Night 2016, I spent nine hours on CNN’s set with Anderson Cooper. 13 million watched – then the largest ever cable audience.
Now, believe it or not, that is the short story of how I got into radio and television.
I wanted to share those stories for two reasons:
First, to let you know that no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, there are great opportunities waiting for you if you get involved when you are young. Candidates and campaigns need volunteers – Republican, Democrat, Independent – it doesn’t matter. Get involved early. You’ll have an ownership stake in the future of the nation, and make similarly minded friends for life.
Secondly, because I’ve been intimately involved in our political process for the last 38 years, I’ve been witness to significant political change. Most of it for the worse. I’m not talking about which party or a particular person is in power. I’m talking about the process. The climate. It’s become so negative, and hyperpartisan. The interpersonal attacks, and the predictable party line voting.
It occurs to me, this is all that you know: a world where the media is extremely partisan and so are the politicians.
But that is not the way it has always been – nor the way it should be.
When I was eighteen, the same age as some of you, Ronald Reagan was about to be elected president as a Republican. Tip O’Neill was the Democratic Speaker of the House. They disagreed on most matters of policy and fought over issues, but they were able to maintain a relationship of civility.
When Reagan was shot early into his presidency, O’Neill was the only non-family member allowed to pay respects at Reagan’s hospital bedside. The two men recited the 23rd Psalm together. And when Tip O’Neill turned 69, he was hosted by Reagan at the White House. Reagan proposed an old Irish toast and said: “Tip, if I had a ticket to Heaven and you didn’t have one too, I’d throw mine away and go to Hell with you.”
Things have changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Civil discourse is dead. We just saw that with Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination. It’s gotten so bad that today, partyism exceeds racism.
Consider that in 1960, Americans were asked if they’d be displeased if their son or daughter married outside of their party.
Not race or religion – but political party. The results were 5% of GOP and 4% of Dems said they’d be displeased. In 2010, Stanford researchers sought to update that data. They found the results jumped to 49% of GOP and 33% of Dems said they’d be displeased. Lynne Vavreck, a UCLA PolySci professor, ran the numbers in 2016 and found the situation had gotten even worse.
Within this same fifty-year period, acceptance of interracial marriage jumped to 86%. More parents would now be happier that their sons and daughters marry outside their race than their party.
We’ve been heading in this direction for decades. There are many causes, including geography or gerrymandering. Money plays a role, and as I mentioned, the media.
Many factors are at play, but there’s one which all of you are very familiar with.
Don’t misunderstand -- I too love technology. I have a website. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Technology allows me to juggle responsibilities I couldn’t otherwise maintain without a staff. All of my show research is online. When I started in radio, the only things I could have in studio were the hard copies of newspapers.
I like taking pictures with my iPhone, being transported by Uber, directed by Waze, and making reservations on OpenTable. But while technology has made our lives easier, it has hampered our political process in two distinct ways.
First, it has enabled us to segregate ourselves in a way that is unhealthy. Our computers allow us to easily associate with the like-minded. Technology has sped a process of self-sorting that began in the 1960s. Author Bill Bishop calls this “the Big Sort.”
As a society, we began disengaging fifty years ago. Less social clubs and bowling leagues and the like. And when re-engaged in the computer era, we did so in more defined gatherings – settings that have become increasingly political.
In other words, it has become easier to find people with similar tastes, including political.
And we don’t associate with those who don’t think as we do. We’ve never had so much choice today when it comes to where we get our news and entertainment, and yet, so few seem to explore alternative views. Instead, we now live in alternative media universes, hunkered down in our individual silos. Facebook friendships become echo chambers. The more political you are, the more you listen to only one side. I argue that you are not really read-in unless you are giving due consideration to alternative points of view.
But I have an even larger concern about the role of technology and how it relates to politics.
I pay attention when I meet people who want to talk about my work, whether I’m walking down Walnut Street in Center City, Philadelphia, pumping gas near my home, or headed to a back to school night right here. People are always engaging me in conversation about politics, but it has never been uncivil. Surely plenty of people disagree with me, but they always find a way to convey that in a respectful fashion.
But wow… Compare that to my Facebook and Twitter feeds or the comments appended to my newspaper columns. People say things with a keyboard they would never say face to face, and that negativity is having a terrible impact on our political discourse. It normalizes name calling and partisanship, and it prevents the opposing sides from working together to solve big problems.
It also creates the false impression that we as a country are inexorably divided. With today’s headlines, it’s easy to forget our commonalities.
But they are there. I know it because, for the last 20+ years, my job has been to answer telephone calls from radio listeners all across the country. Those thousands of interactions tell me that there is more that unites us than divides us. What I have found anecdotally through response to my work is supported in political science.
In 2017, Morris Fiorina at Stanford’s Hoover Institution published the book, Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate.
Fiorina found that the nation is no more politically divided now than it was in the 1970s, despite how things appear in the news. However, the parties and politicians are more polarized and have sorted into narrow groups that don’t represent many of the rest of us.
But the typical Democratic or Republican voter has not adopted more extreme ideological views. Sadly, what many have done is to think worse of the other side. It’s personal but not issue driven.
I think technology has fueled that.
But at our core, we are interested in -- and strive for -- the same things for ourselves and our families.
Good health. Long life. The ability to prosper. Success for our kids. A few laughs. To be left alone to worship or not.
And we want good things for our country. When I say “we,” I mean those of us who are Republicans, Democrats, Independents. Conservatives and liberals. Regardless of whether we live in red or blue states.
So, don’t get turned off by the nastiness. Get involved.
And when you do, don’t contribute to it by the way in which you use your smartphones and laptops.
Think – before you touch the send key – would I ever send this if they could see my face?
If the answer is no, don’t send it.