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John Podhoretz
John Podhoretz
Hell of a Ride: Backstage at White House
ISBN: 0671796488
Hell of a Ride: Backstage at White House
Mr. Podhoretz, former speech writer for President Reagan and former special assistant in the Office of Drug Control Policy, discussed his recent book, Hell of a Ride: Backstage at the White House Follies 1989-93, published by Simon and Schuster. The book describes the White House from the perspective of mid-level staffers, from their euphoria immediately following the Persian Gulf War to the depression after the 1992 election loss. Podhoretz believes that President Bush won the presidency by running on the record of President Reagan, but, once in office, he turned away from the style of government which had made Ronald Reagan so popular. In the conclusion he describes the Bush presidency as a "cosmic joke."
Hell of a Ride: Backstage at White House
Program Air Date: December 19, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John Podhoretz, author of "Hell of a Ride", one of the quotes in your book near the end is, "He didn't believe in anything very much except that he wanted to be president, and finally somehow, through some fluke of nature called Ronald Reagan, he made it. In the final analysis, George Bush's presidency was kind of a cosmic joke." Do feel that way?
PODHORETZ, AUTHOR, "HELL OF A RIDE" Yes, I wrote the words so I guess I feel that way. You are reading the conclusion for which the 220 pages prior to it set up. The book, I think, builds to a point at which it would be fair and legitimate to make that criticism. It's a little bit tough to begin that way because it seems so extreme, but the animating theory of the book is that the Bush presidency was largely the result of his running on the record of Ronald Reagan and then in office turning away from the policies and style of governing that made Reagan successful and began to stumble through a series of errors that eventually cost him his re-election.
LAMB: There is something in here -- eight of them -- called freeze-frames. I kind of felt there were two books as I was reading through it. What are the freeze-frames?
PODHORETZ: The freeze-frames are portraits of Bush White House staffers over the course of the last 18 months of the presidency. The book begins at the parade honoring the American victory in Desert Storm in June of 1991 and ends with the last week in office as a young staffer has to take down a banner that he hung outside his office window, and in between the book charts what happened, from 90 percent in the approval ratings, which was what Bush had in March of '91, to 38 percent, November 3, 1992, and then out of office Jan. 20, 1993.
LAMB: What was your vantage point during those years?
PODHORETZ: I briefly worked, technically, in the Bush White House. I was a special assistant to Drug Czar William Bennett in the office of National Drug Control Policy, which is nominally a part of the White House staff. I was there for five months. After that I was for two years a journalist in Washington at the Washington Times and at Insight magazine. Then I left to write this book.
LAMB: It's hard to figure out who these people are, but the first freeze-frame is a 24-year-old.
PODHORETZ: A 24-year-old mid-level staffer -- the book is basically about the Bush White House and mid-level staffers in the Bush White House, meaning people in their 20s and 30s who are actually the ones who basically run the White House, work under the big guys -- the chief of staff, OMB director -- the people who work in the west wing in proximity to the president but are the ones who stage the events, write the speeches, deal with the fallout from the public. The book is written uniquely in Washington journalism terms. It's written from their perspective and not from the perspective of what was going on inside the Oval Office, why Bush made the decisions that he made. It's about what life is like for people who work in a White House that is beginning to fall apart.
LAMB: So the audience can get an idea of the kind of writing you did, here's this 24-year-old, and you don't put any of this in quotes. How did you get this 24-year-old's feeling about the White House?
PODHORETZ: Every one of these freeze-frames is an unnamed specific staffer, a real person -- not a composite -- someone that I interviewed extensively. These are essentially second person. As you've described, they're written in the second person. They are interior monologues, basically, that are reflections of many hours of interviewing each one of the players, each one of the people who are portrayed in the freeze-frames.
LAMB: Let's read just a little bit. "You were high that day too because the inaugural was the culmination of more than a year's work on the presidential campaign of George Bush, but you are even more elated than you were on Jan. 20, 1989. It's like the mood around the White House these past few months, the complete and overpowering spirit of victory throughout the place the day after the war started when it became clear it was going to be an amazing coup. You and everybody else began walking around with a purposeful gait."
PODHORETZ: In fact, there was an atmosphere of self-congratulation and excitement around the Bush White House at the close of the Gulf War, which largely contributed to the defeat; that is, everyone in the White House believed and assumed that because Bush's popularity had skyrocketed so extraordinarily and because he was seen to have had such a decisive victory that there was no way he was going to lose and that this atmosphere moved down from the Oval Office to capture the hearts and minds and souls and gait of the staff who worked in the White House complex itself, which is the name in the White House that you give for the two major buildings of the White House, that is, the White House proper itself and the Old Executive Office Building, which sits right next to it across a closed and shuttered street called West Executive Avenue.
LAMB: Was this 24-year-old a man or a woman?
LAMB: "`He is just the greatest guy, you said over and over again, so nice. He's so nice.'" This is the quote from the 24-year-old?
PODHORETZ: Yes, this kid, as is true of most of the people who worked in the Bush White House, was bound to George Bush by a kind of personal fealty. Bush, a man of extraordinary personal qualities -- charismatic, friendly, very much present when people talked to him, people from his closest aides to the lowliest campaign worker. Bush, unique, I think, in the annals of the modern presidency and, indeed, in the annals of Washington, had built this relation to the people that worked with him that was ferociously loyal and the problem, of course, is that that does not necessarily get you very far. Bush's staff did not write books about him, did not leak about him, did not do all the things that the Reagan staff did against Ronald Reagan, who was a stronger and more decisive and more charismatic leader but was quite distant and aloof from his staff. His staff eventually sort of took revenge against him in large measure. But Bush's staff -- and I think that the quote you just read reflects it -- loved him in a way that is very rare in Washington among Washington staffs. I think they thought and Bush thought that their love for him was reflective of the mood of the country; that is, that he lived in an atmosphere that was so friendly to him that he transmuted this and imagined that his daily life reflected the spirit of the country and reflected the spirit of the country towards him. It was the fundamental miscalculation that proved to be so disastrous to him.
LAMB: How old are you today?
LAMB: How old were you when you were around the White House?
PODHORETZ: I was 27 when I went to work in the Reagan White House as a speech writer to the president, and I was 28 working in the Bush White House.
LAMB: In these freeze-frames that you have in the book, where did you get that idea?
PODHORETZ: It sort of developed over the course of writing the book. "Hell of a Ride" is an effort to write a different kind of Washington book, a book that describes a presidency from the inside but is a work of journalism and is, moreover, funny and takes a narrative approach so that people who do not live in Washington, who do not know how it works, can understand what it feels like to work in the White House, what it's like for the people who live there and work there, what it is like to be in the center of power in this way. Having interviewed 80 or 90 people over the course of 11 months when I was working on the book, over the course of time I developed this technique, which also obscures the identities of the people that I was writing about because a lot of them were extremely shy and ticklish about talking to me. Almost no one wanted to talk on the record specifically for quotation for the purposes of this book.
LAMB: Have any of the eight been found out?
PODHORETZ: They found themselves out to some extent.
LAMB: But has it given them any trouble?
PODHORETZ: No, because -- I don't think so, anyway -- in no instance in these portraits are these people caught saying anything nasty about anybody that they really cared about. As I'm sure people know who read Washington journalism, it's come to be the case that people who talk to journalists at length do so wanting their identities not to be revealed; it's a convention of behavior in Washington. In fact, I call these freeze-frames abstractions rather than composites because they are each a specific person, but I call them abstractions because I essentially erase their faces and their identities so that their experiences could come through and so that to some extent their identities could be obscured. But in some cases there has been around the last couple of weeks a guessing game going on and people have in fact been found out but no one has complained to me so far.
LAMB: The 11 months you did your research and interviewing was what period?
PODHORETZ: From February of `92 to January of `93.
LAMB: Were these eight folks in the White House at the time?
PODHORETZ: All but one -- the first freeze-frame. The 24-year-old kid had left the White House by the time I had started working on the book, but he had been there at the time of the parade, which is the chapter he is described at.
LAMB: "Water Damage" is the freeze-frame dated Nov. 2, 1991. It starts, "`Honey, the president's on CNN,' your husband calls to you. You go into the living room on this cold Saturday afternoon to watch. Upstairs your 14-year-old daughter is being entertained by the Filipino nanny. What you see is heartbreaking. The president is in a slicker looking cold and forlorn walking through the debris of Walker's Point, his Kennebunkport house. A freak storm has torn the place to shreds. `It's rather devastating,' is all he can say." It's a woman.
PODHORETZ: That is a woman, yes. The interesting thing about choosing this occasion, which was spoken to me by the subject, was, as is often true, that it's almost novelistic how life unfolds. The very fact that beginning with what happened at Walker's Point throughout 1992, there were almost Shakespearean signs that George Bush was not going to win re-election; that is, that nature in a peculiar way was turning against him, constantly staging campaign events which you could watch on "The Road to the White House" on this very network.

He was rained on constantly -- terrible freak storms. There would be a barbecue in Illinois on what was supposed to be a sunny day in August and there would be a rainstorm. The day after he left the Republican Convention to do a rally in, I think, Louisiana -- downpour. He, of course, had the famous gastrointestinal bout when he met the Japanese prime minister at a banquet and had an unfortunate incident there. There were all sorts of things that don't happen to people for whom things are going well but seem to happen to people for whom things are going badly. This incident at Walker's Point when a freak storm destroyed his mildly ancestral home in Kennebunkport was almost a kind of portent of what was to come. The chapter itself then describes what was going on at the White House around the same time, things like the soon-to-happen departure of John Sununu as chief of staff -- all the trouble he had gotten in over the course of 1991 for having flown on military craft to New York and having gone to stamp auctions in his limo -- and a general sense that things were starting to go wrong after the overpowering atmosphere of victory that had been present at the time of the Desert Storm parade, which is the freeze-frame that precedes it.
LAMB: Did this woman like John Sununu?
PODHORETZ: She did, very much, and a lot of people did. The book has a very layered portrait of the White House staff, particularly of John Sununu and Richard Darman, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, neither of whom I expect will like the book but, in fact, says they were both extraordinarily competent, knew what they were doing but that they represented a kind of style of governance that had no substance behind it and that ultimately was doomed to failure because it was not driven by ideas but was driven rather by circumstance and pragmatic reality.
LAMB: How old was this woman?
PODHORETZ: Late 30s.
LAMB: You say about John Sununu, "He's confident as always and serene when it comes to his own standing, and he was equally serene about the political future. He speaks amusingly of the three K's that are going to win the presidency in 1992" -- as you say, election in a walk -- "crime, quotas and Kuwait." Three K's?
PODHORETZ: That's right -- K noises anyway. It was thought among the people I described loosely as the Bushies, the people that were the optimists who believed the president was simply going to win a second term because that was the natural order of things.
LAMB: By the way, is that a derisive term?
PODHORETZ: No, every administration has such a term; I mean, Reaganites was the term in the Reagan White House. I guess it's now either Clintonites or the Clintons, which seems to have become the term of art at the moment. It's a way of describing the courtiers in the palace court of the United States, which is the White House complex.
LAMB: Were you a Bushie?
PODHORETZ: No, I was a Reaganite, but I was not a Bushie.
LAMB: What would be the major difference?
PODHORETZ: Reaganites were people who were driven by a set of ideological notions about America in the world; put quite simply, that there were two imperial powers that had to be resisted. One was the federal government; the other was the Soviet Union. The Bushies, as I described in some length in the book, were Republicans whose primary purpose in politics was to support and aid the presidency of George Bush and George Bush personally; that is, you could not describe a Bushie as having any coherent set of opinions or views.

You would not know exactly where they stood on a range of issues. Whereas you could draw a kind of caricature of a Reaganite that would be relatively close to reality, someone who on the one hand wanted to cut taxes and on the other hand wanted to increase the defense budget, you could not draw any such portrait of a Bushie. You would not necessarily know whether they were for increased environmental legislation or wanted to cut environmental legislation or regulation. You could not know where they stood on the 1991 civil rights bill. Some Bushies were for it; some were against it. It would be very, very difficult to get a sense of who they were. The only thing they had in common was their relationship to, their fealty to and their support for George Bush personally.
LAMB: Can you imagine a Bushie liking this book overall?
PODHORETZ: Probably not, although there are so far fewer of them in November of 1993 or December of 1993 than in November or December of `92 or `91 that it's considerably less of an issue, I think.
LAMB: Your dedication is, "For my mother -- I manned the lifeboat; for my father, to whom this is not in any way a letter and for Todd Lindbergh, a paragon of friendship, wisdom and good cheer." What's that all about?
PODHORETZ: My mother and father are both writers.
LAMB: Your mom's name?
PODHORETZ: Midge Decter. My mother wrote a book in 1976 called "Liberal Parents, Radical Children", the dedication to which was "To my children, man the lifeboats." My father, who is a writer named Norman Podhoretz, who has published many books and is the editor of Commentary magazine, wrote a book in 1967 called "Making It", which is dedicated to me and my sisters. The dedication says, "To whom this is in many ways is a letter." So my dedication says, "This book is in no way a letter to you." Todd Lindbergh, who is my closest friend, is the editorial page editor of the Washington Times and the person who most had to suffer -- besides me -- through the gestation of this book, which, as any first-time writer can tell you, is a nightmarish experience for the writer and probably an even worse nightmare for the friend of the writer.
LAMB: Is this your first book?
PODHORETZ: It is my first book, yes.
LAMB: What do your parents think of it?
PODHORETZ: They like it, so they tell me. They seem to like it very much.
LAMB: Were they Bushies?
PODHORETZ: No, no, my parents are commonly known as neo-conservatives, the leaders of the movement of former `60s leftists who moved to the right during the late `60s and 1970s, alarmed by what they saw as an anti-American turn in the leftist culture and a corresponding procommunist or anti-anti-communist development in foreign policy and the view of the Soviet Union in the world.
LAMB: Did you go through that period at all?
PODHORETZ: I went through it as a child and as a teenager -- I watched it. I myself can't claim having ever been on the left, I'm afraid. But I inherit the mantle of the neo-conservative by birth.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
PODHORETZ: I grew up in New York City.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
PODHORETZ: I went to the University of Chicago.
LAMB: Studying what?
PODHORETZ: Political philosophy with a then-obscure political philosophy professor named Allan Bloom, who several years later would come to some fame as the author of "The Closing of the American Mind", a book about how his students were ignorant and illiterate. I can only hope he was not describing me.
LAMB: Did you get a master's degree?
PODHORETZ: No, just a B.A.
LAMB: What was the impact of having parents that were visible and controversial?
PODHORETZ: It had several impacts. One is that my parents are both very brave; they are politically unconventional in the circles in which they travel. For the purpose of defending views that they held dear and supporting things that they thought were important, they lost a lot of friends, they lost a lot of support, they lost a kind of social standing in the world of conventional opinion and it's a very difficult thing to do. It was very hard, but they did it because they believed in certain things and they were willing to go to the wall for them. That is a great example for anybody to have.

It also at the same time taught me the advantage of having a thick skin because it was routine when I was in high school, for example, for me to open the pages of the Village Voice or any other New York newspaper and see the most vicious and horrible things being said about my parents, which is a very, very unpleasant and difficult emotional experience because you, of course, want to go and kill whoever did it and you don't have the wherewithal to do so. You either have to learn to live with it, reading it and dealing with it and go on, brush it off, as my parents had had to do, or you can end up tied up in knots and in a kind of continual rage. So it has its up sides and its down sides.
LAMB: What did you do after the University of Chicago?
PODHORETZ: I went to work at Time magazine as a reporter-researcher, where I was for 18 months.
LAMB: Why did you leave?
PODHORETZ: I was offered a column at the Washington Times, a twice-weekly column of cultural commentary, so I moved to Washington in 1984. As I say in the book, that was not entirely by accident because there was a kind of movement among people of my political beliefs to Washington in the 1980s, rather like the movement of American literati to Paris in the 1920s. This was the center of the action. Alone among the major cities in the United States, at least part of the culture had become not only receptive to but driven by the ideas that we held dear and were fighting for. People were coming here to take jobs in the government and doing all sorts of things so that when I came to Washington in early 1984, there was a kind of atmosphere of solidarity, collegiality and the sense that this was the red hot center of the United States for people on the right. It was quite a heady time.

Things began to turn sour for a lot of us in the mid to late `80s because people we knew, people we were close to, started to find themselves under attack, under indictment, under investigation; things that we believed started to get -- largely, I think, the example of the failure of Robert Bork to get confirmed by the Senate as Supreme Court justice was one of these key moments where you said things are turning ugly. It's a difficult and hard thing to live as a conservative in this atmosphere as well, but for a period of time -- for three or four years -- it was this kind of vital and exciting place to be.
LAMB: How long did you write column for the Washington Times?
PODHORETZ: I wrote the column for the Times for three years. Over the course of that time I became the features editor of the Washington Times and then began and edited a magazine called Insight, which the Times produced, a weekly news magazine. I left the Times and Insight to go and work at U.S. News and World Report, which I left and then subsequently went to work at the White House as a speech writer to Ronald Reagan.
LAMB: What are you doing now?
PODHORETZ: I am a partner in a firm called the White House Writers Group, which is a corporate speech-writing business.
LAMB: What does that mean?
PODHORETZ: That means that for a fee I sit down and write and advise CEOs and other people how they should speak when they have to go give major addresses and address their stockholders, address trade groups.
LAMB: If I were a corporate CEO of some large group and I came to you and I said, "I want a speech and I also want to learn how to do it right," how much would you charge me?
PODHORETZ: Tough question. A couple thousand dollars -- it depends on how long I spend on the speech.
LAMB: Who is with you?
PODHORETZ: It's a firm of former Reagan speech writers -- Clark Judge, Peter Robinson, Joshua Gilder and Robert Bork Jr.
LAMB: How's business?
PODHORETZ: Good. Business is good. We live in a time in which communicating and communicating successfully is now a vital issue for everybody. The days in which a company could be run for 30 years by a benevolent leader who sat and controlled the fortunes of his company and then retired are long since over. The atmosphere is far too dynamic. People need to get out to tell people what they're doing and why they're doing it, just exactly as a politician does, as a way of supporting their stock prices and as a way of advancing the interests of their own business.
LAMB: Back to the book -- freeze-frame number three, "Japanic." It's Japan with an "ic" on the end, right? This is a single woman who is a speech researcher for George Bush. How old?
PODHORETZ: Twenty-five.
LAMB: You realize the most enduring image you have of the president these days is the long shot of him collapsing into the lap of the prime minister of Japan. What is she getting at?
PODHORETZ: At a banquet in honor of the president in Japan, as I'm sure many people remember because it was a staple of humor on the late-night talk shows, President Bush was stricken with a bug and vomited into the lap of the Japanese prime minister, a sight which was frightening for the first couple of minutes because it really looked as though he might be terribly, terribly ill and then subsequently became inadvertently comic. This trip, which was the subject of the chapter, this trip to Japan was itself a kind of comedy of errors. Scheduled to take place as a kind of foreign policy trip in November of 1991, the failure of Republicans, primarily Richard Thornburgh in the Senate race in Pennsylvania in November of 1991, created a kind of panic inside the White House that Bush was spending too much time on foreign policy. The trip was canceled; it was then rescheduled, and it was decided it would become a domestic trip to Japan in which Japan would be asked to change its policies on car imports and exports.
LAMB: Let me jump in -- I want to ask if you have fun writing things like this: "Commerce secretary Robert Mosbacher was allowed to get his grubby paws all over this trip." What's the point?
PODHORETZ: I am reflecting rather than speaking. I am reflecting the view of the subject of the chapter, that she had been in various meetings with Mosbacher, who came into the planning of the trip when it was decided to bring the chairmen of the Big Three auto companies along on the trip and turn it into a Japan-bashing fest. This was something that made the subject of the chapter as well as many people in the White House very angry because they thought this was a valuable trip and they were free traders and that Mosbacher was coming in and seizing, hijacking control. That kind of language -- "Mosbacher had his grub-by paws all over the trip" -- is the way people in the White House talk. That is the way they think; these are relations of power. People get heated and angry. They think that what they are doing is life-and-death work. They are not modulated, they are not calm, they do not take things in stride. It's a very embattled, embattling atmosphere, and people get very heated in their views of each other.
LAMB: Did you like writing this line: "So when the president tossed his cookies into Miyazawa's lap ..."?
PODHORETZ: I think that, though slightly sophomoric, nonetheless reflects a very conscious effort I made in the book to make it a different kind of book about Washington that did not have the kind of portentous voice and what I always think of as a kind of overly serious, humorless approach to these sorts of things which are, in fact, whether they're done by a president or done by an ordinary guy or a business or anything like that, are funny -- I mean, sort of Catch 22-style humor in which you understand that large organizations, bureaucracies, things like that, are kind of inadvertently comic and that when the president of the United States tosses his cookies into the lap of the Japanese prime minister, one should laugh at that as much as one should think, Oh, my God, what a terrible moment for the Japanese-American relationship. I'm sure the morning after on the morning show on C-SPAN, there was great debate over was he sick and what would this mean for the future. That's the way people in Washington think about these things. Ultimately, like everything, life is kind of comic and life in the White House is as comic as anything else.
LAMB: Who was the French breakfast-roll man?
PODHORETZ: The French breakfast-roll man was a man named Eugene Croissant -- many different pronunciations of his name were attendant. He was a management consultant brought in to the White House by Samuel Skinner, who was the second chief of staff, to advise Skinner on how to organize the White House, an act almost unparalleled in White House history, the notion that the guy who was running the president's political operation and personal staff would need a professional business consultant from Madison Avenue to tell him how to run politics in Washington. It was viewed with a kind of despair and contempt that this had happened in the first place, that the chief of staff to the president of the United States, one of the most powerful jobs in America, was being performed by somebody who was admitting to his staff upon coming in that he did not know how to perform his job.
LAMB: The next freeze-frame, "The Longest Day," is June 11, 1992. Were you there and talking to the person on that day?
PODHORETZ: Yes, I was.
LAMB: So you got this stuff as it was happening.
PODHORETZ: Pretty much, yes.
LAMB: Did you tape record it?
PODHORETZ: No, I was taking notes with a pad, mostly.
LAMB: And they knew what you were going to do.
LAMB: And you were out of the White House at the time.
PODHORETZ: Yes, I was gone. I was working on this book as a reporter; I was in the White House or the Old Executive Office Building almost every day from March of `92 to January of `93 interviewing one or another person.
LAMB: And how did you get in? Who let you in?
PODHORETZ: You call people for an appointment, and they call the Secret Service. They give the Secret Service your birth date, and you walk up to a desk and you say, "I'm John Podhoretz." You show them your driver's license, they check it, they check the birth date and they give you a little pass. You walk through a metal detector, and you're in.
LAMB: Did David Demarest, the communications director, know you were up to this?
PODHORETZ: He did, and did not speak to me for the book.
LAMB: Why?
PODHORETZ: Don't know.
LAMB: Do you think he'll regret it after he reads the book?
PODHORETZ: Possibly.
LAMB: Did Marlin Fitzwater talk to you?
LAMB: Did he know what you were up to?
LAMB: Is that why he didn't talk to you?
PODHORETZ: No, I was not up to anything particularly . . .
LAMB: That's my expression.
PODHORETZ: Yes, when you say that, I was not going around the White House for the purpose of coming up with assaulting the Bush White House. I was actually working as a reporter, trying to find out what was going on and how things were working. People were, to a greater or lesser extent, interested or not interested in talking to me for whatever reasons they had -- they were too busy, I was not part of the daily working press, who always get greater access than I. But since my intention on the book -- and this was my intention when I started -- was not to focus on guys like Fitzwater and Dave Demarest, who worked in the west wing, were part of the decision-making staff but that the book was going to focus on people like I was when I worked in the White House, people who mostly populate the White House, the working staff of the White House, people, as I said, in their 20s and early 30s who make things run, make the trains run. It was their experience and their livelihoods, and some of them were at stake much worse than the people in the west wing. So this was a story I thought had never really been told.
LAMB: "The Longest Day" -- who's the person in the freeze-frame?
PODHORETZ: A speech writer.
LAMB: How old?
PODHORETZ: Late 30s, mid-30s.
LAMB: I'm going to jump because time flies on this program. There's so much to ask you about. You talk about a guy by the name of Bob Grady. Who was he?
PODHORETZ: Bob Grady was the number two official in the Office of Management and Budget, the office of the White House run by Richard Darman, who was the most powerful staffer in the four years of the Bush White House.
LAMB: The speech writer says, "You really like him; he's terrifically smart and lively, but you do find his office a little disconcerting. Its walls are covered with every award he has ever received, dating back to high school, not to mention two dozen photos of him shaking hands with every dignitary he has ever met -- not only the traditional photos of Grady with Bush and Barbara and Reagan but also Grady with Jesse Jackson." Do you know Bob Grady?
PODHORETZ: I know Bob Grady; I was in the very office that was described.
LAMB: Why do people do that?
PODHORETZ: Why do people hang pictures like that in their offices? There is a kind of White House etiquette and White House style of personal self-congratulation. It's very odd; I don't know that it attains anywhere else in the recorded world quite, but it is a matter of style that people hang photos of themselves with celebrities, political celebrities.
LAMB: Did you?
PODHORETZ: I did not, no. I had only one such picture, but I still don't have it hanging in my office -- with Ronald Reagan. But I, in fact, don't have it hanging in my office. I don't wish to make any great claims for my character; it's just not my kind of style. But there is a generic White House style that has been the case through administrations, I'm sure, since the invention of the photograph and I'm sure is going on in the Clinton White House now.
LAMB: When people walk in that room now, do they talk about people like Bob Grady, who had all the photos on the wall?
PODHORETZ: Grady was an exceptional example of this. Grady had almost created a museum effect. That was why it was so startling, because he did have -- I myself counted, I think, 24 photos of himself with President Reagan, with the governor for whom he'd worked, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, with all sorts of people, including Jesse Jackson, which was a startling thing to have on the wall of a Republican White House. This was something that was noticed and commented upon by the subject of the freeze-frame itself.
LAMB: Explain this line: "Then Teeter . . ." -- who's Teeter?
PODHORETZ: Bob Teeter, the chairman of the president's re-election campaign.
LAMB: " . . . who has the spine of Jell-O when it comes to his own political prognostications."
PODHORETZ: Bob Teeter constantly shifted his own opinion of what issues were and were not playing with the public. One week he would tell people that education was very important; the next week he would tell them that a reform agenda was important. When speech writers tried to then reconcile his directive of the week, he would then announce that, no, in fact thus and such was more important. Every single poll that came out changed his mind. It was very frustrating for these guys because they did not know exactly what line was going to be taken by the re-election campaign and, therefore, by their own. They as the speech writers were, aside from the people who were making the television commercials, the people who were putting words into the mouth of the president that were supposed to get him re-elected. They were not getting a kind of direction from the campaign or from the upper echelons of the White House on what it was that the president should be saying.
LAMB: Freeze-frame called "The Bush Barbecue," August of 1992. Let me read a little bit: "If you are the type who must appear at meetings on Saturday mornings, as many in the White House are, then by all means you must, if you are a guy, arrive unshaven. You must wear a collage of short pants and pastel shirts in the summer and jeans and a beat-up sweater or sweat shirt with college insignia in cooler temperatures." Why do you say that?
PODHORETZ: This is an observation that I've made about Washington from the minute that I moved here, which is that there is a kind of sartorial style in town -- I mean, obviously, we're sitting here wearing relatively plain Brooks Brothers suits; this is the sort of thing that is worn on a daily basis. But on weekends -- and people in Washington work immensely long hours and work very hard; you, generally speaking, work a sixth or seventh day -- but when they go into work on the weekends -- and again I think this is something that's probably been true since the Carter presidency -- they affect a kind of informality as a way of saying, "I am not a tight-knit Washington guy. I also like to wear sweatshirts and jeans, and if you're going to drag me into work seven days a week, then, darn it, I'm going to come in jeans and a t-shirt. Even though I'm working in the White House, I'm going to come in in a t-shirt." Of course, like all such gestures, over the course of time this gets hardened into a kind of convention so that if you came in in a suit on Saturday, you would be dressed inappropriately. It would be a mistake; it would be a sartorial error; people would think that you had a wedding to go to later on in the day, not that you were coming into work in respectful attire.
LAMB: I want to go to this line: "At the same time, the thought of leaving, even for an hour, seems pointless and foolish." Leaving where?
PODHORETZ: Leaving the White House complex.
LAMB: Why?
PODHORETZ: Because the White House is a totalistic atmosphere. This is a description of someone who is in the senior echelons of the White House. He drives in in the morning, probably 7 in the morning, goes up to the gate, pops his trunk, Secret Service looks in his trunk, finds there's no bombs in it, lets him go through onto West Exec, which is the street that separates the White House from the Old Executive Office Building, parks in the parking space, goes into the White House mess, the dining room of the White House for the White House senior staff, for breakfast, goes to the senior staff meeting and then from 9 in the morning until probably 7:30 at night is on the phone constantly -- 70, 80, 90 phone calls, a couple of meetings maybe -- maybe sneaks a little lunch. And people love this. Peggy Noonan, in her book "What I Saw at the Revolution", says, "Everybody in the White House is happy." And it's true. People do not quit; people do not resign out of frustration. People leave the White House when their hands are pried loose from the fence.
LAMB: A guy in the Clinton administration just committed suicide.
PODHORETZ: That's a very uncharacteristic form of behavior -- actually, interestingly enough suggests the same thing, which is the notion that you can simply quit and leave doesn't seem to occur to people. It's a very strange thing. People, generally speaking, adore to work in the White House, think they are at the center of the universe.
LAMB: Did you like it?
PODHORETZ: Oh, yes. Of course.
LAMB: Did you get the same feeling?
PODHORETZ: Oh, yes. I was sort of demented. I would make lunch dates with people and cancel them because the thought of not sitting at the staff table in the White House mess gossiping with the guys one day out of the week was just too much to bear. I couldn't leave.
LAMB: Did you come in unshaven on a Saturday morning?
PODHORETZ: Of course. Of course I did.
LAMB: This is another line I'd like to ask you about: "Only your beeper indicating a call from the White House operator stays at your side; you are reminded that you are somebody." Did you wear a beeper?
PODHORETZ: I did, although I often forgot my beeper and got into trouble for it a couple of times, actually, I'm afraid.
LAMB: Is that a symbol of something?
PODHORETZ: Yes, by now, I mean, the beeper is one thing; it's also the case that having a cellular phone -- there are all sorts of symbols of this. You have a beeper, you have a White House cellular phone in your car and, most significantly, you have what is known as a drop in your house; that is, a phone line that is directly connected to the White House operator so that when you pick it up, rather than getting a dial tone, you get a voice saying, "Can I help you, Mr. Podhoretz?" You say, "Yes, I very much need to speak to Chief of Staff Sam Skinner." The operator says, "Just a moment, please."
LAMB: How many people get that?
PODHORETZ: I think about 25 got it.
LAMB: Did you have it?
PODHORETZ: No, I certainly did not.
LAMB: Did your boss, Bill Bennett, have it?
PODHORETZ: A drop line? I don't know. Probably, but I actually don't know.
LAMB: "He gets your attention, your support, the occasional anger and frustration that any god invokes in his devotees, but what do the wife and kids get? Screwed, basically." What's that about?
PODHORETZ: People who work in the White House generally work -- people at this level anyway -- 90 to 100 hours a week. It means that if they are married that they never get to the Little League game, they don't get to the parent-teacher conference, they don't get home to dinner very often. When they make promises to go to the school play, they often have to break them.
LAMB: What about family values?
PODHORETZ: It's an interesting complement to the idea of family values. Of course, as in all such places, there are 300 some odd people who are in the universe of this book. The White House staff I'm talking about comprises about 300, 350 people, so they must be on call to help the presidency run, and they live a kind of Washington life that can be very grueling on families.
LAMB: Is the story that you write about Stu Eizenstat true?
PODHORETZ: I believe so, yes. I heard him talk about it. Stuart Eizenstat, who was Carter's domestic advisor, on the day after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, Eizenstat and his wife came out onto their driveway to go into town, and Eizenstat went to his car and opened the back door of his car and got in and sat in the back seat because he had gotten limousine service for four years. His wife said, "Stu, wake up. Those days are gone."
LAMB: "He did that looking-over-your-shoulder-to-find-somebody-more-important-to-talk-to thing." What's that?
PODHORETZ: Go to a cocktail party in Washington, and if you are not a person at a very high level and you are speaking to someone who is at a slightly higher level than you, they will generally have a conversation with you like this: "Yeah, well, I, yeah, well, that's very interesting," scanning the room over your shoulder to see whether someone is coming in the room that they really need to schmooze with. You're sort of OK as a kind of temporary stopgap, but it's not the case that the full force of his attention is going to be focused upon you. He's looking for someone who can actually do him some good.
LAMB: Do you ever do that?
PODHORETZ: I hope not. I hope not, but I guess everybody is afflicted with the disease at one time or another.
LAMB: Freeze-frame, "The Quest for Good Reception." This Aug. 17 to 21, Houston, Texas, the convention. "HUD secretary Jack Kemp lets you know that he is canceling all media and personal appearances that day unless the president rightnow, this second, makes it clear he isn't being fired." Who is this person?
PODHORETZ: The person is someone who is in the office of Cabinet Affairs, which is the office in the White House that deals with the Cabinet secretaries, of whom Kemp was one, of Housing and Urban Development.
LAMB: This person shows that Mr. Kemp is throwing a fit.
PODHORETZ: Yes, but Kemp's fit that day was quite public, actually, and deservedly so. The president had announced on an interview on "MacNeil-Lehrer" that he would make staff changes. If he won a second term, he would be making staff changes. People were going around the floor of the convention, going up to reporters and saying, "The president's talking about Jack Kemp. The president's talking about Jack Kemp." Now, the interesting thing was that Jack Kemp -- it was a massively foolish decision to spin that line that night because Kemp was undisputedly the most popular person at the convention next to Bush -- undisputedly. I mean, there were college-age girls who had face makeup with Kemp's name painted on it. People were wearing sweatshirts. He had this kind of rock star aura; he was in demand at more events than anybody else. He had this extra-ordinary aura of stardom around him, and he was hearing that the line was being put out by unnamed officials that he was on the chopping block. So he announced that unless he heard from Bush that morning, he was not going to be going around promoting the ticket if the line was that he was going to be fired quite publicly.
LAMB: You say, "Kemp is receiving obsequious phone calls from the president and is the subject of an obsequious public statement by Fitzwater. Crisis averted."
PODHORETZ: That's what happened.
LAMB: Telephones -- this person walking around the convention floor had a phone on one side and a phone on the other. One of them's paid for by the taxpayers; the other's paid for by the political party. Would you explain how that worked?
PODHORETZ: The White House staffer has a White House phone so that he can communicate with his superiors in the White House. However, it is illegal to conduct business for the convention or for Bush's re-election campaign on the taxpayer's dime, so if he picks up this phone and calls a local number in Houston to say somebody in the campaign wants X, that is campaign business. He would be violating federal campaign law. So they give him a second phone -- it's on this hip -- and this is the phone he uses to call and say the campaign needs thus and such. Then on this phone he conducts his White House business. So it was a very elaborate way of dealing with federal election law.
LAMB: How many people have that kind of a situation?
PODHORETZ: Oh, there are probably 100 at least.
LAMB: A hundred people walking around that convention with two phones?
PODHORETZ: Well, maybe 50 to 100 had two phones.
LAMB: You write, this person talks about Lynn Martin. She sounds like she made a few demands on the convention.
PODHORETZ: Lynn Martin, who was the keynote speaker at the convention -- gave the keynote address on Wednesday night, the night before George Bush spoke -- behaved in a somewhat primadonnaish fashion, insisting on a larger suite, wanting her hairdresser sent down, stuff like that. She was someone who made a lot of demands, and then her speech was a terrible disappointment, very unsuccessful, badly delivered. For the people who had to put up with her demands all week, there was a perverse satisfaction in watching her kind of fail.
LAMB: Does that kind of a reputation follow you around? Does that word spread among political types?
PODHORETZ: No, less than you might think, particularly around the Bush White House, which was very well-behaved. I think it was certainly the case with more open administrations, as the Reagan administration was, that people did develop terrible reputations, but people were by and large pretty discreet about others.
LAMB: You say this young person was being driven around town by some big high-muckety-muck.
PODHORETZ: I didn't think he was that -- he was the executive director of Houston Crime Stoppers, and there were something on the order of two or three thousand Houstonians who volunteered to work on the convention -- Republicans in Houston. This fellow, the executive director, quite cheerfully would pick up the subject of the freeze-frame at his hotel at 7 in the morning and deposit him back at 3 in the morning. He would be there very cheerfully and pleasantly.
LAMB: We've got one more freeze-frame: "We Will Be Back," the big banner on the outside of the outside of the Old Executive Office Building.
PODHORETZ: That's right, hanging off 17th Street. Someone who worked for the domestic policy staff.
LAMB: A political type?
PODHORETZ: A political type.
LAMB: And somebody from GSA, the Government Services Administration, marches into the office, and it is taken off.
PODHORETZ: That's right. It was the last week before the Clintons were arriving to take up residence, and this fellow had had this banner printed up that said, "We Will Be Back." The guy from GSA, whose office was down the block from this, took one look at it, stormed into his office and said ,"You've got to take this down. How dare you do something so partisan and outrageously partisan." The fellow who is the subject said, "You have no authority here; only the White House staff has authority to deal with this." Tim McBride, who was once Bush's closest personal aide, who was in charge of White House administration, was called. Tim McBride said, "Take the sign down."
LAMB: "Bush seems most concerned about salvaging his own reputation as a decent guy, a gracious guy, especially after the end of his campaign when he called Clinton and Gore bozos."
PODHORETZ: If you remember, Bush at one point said, "My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than those two bozos," which was kind of an act of name-calling not only unseemly and surprisingly unseemly for Bush, who was such a gracious man, but it would be very difficult to find a moment like this in the annals of presidential history -- someone getting down into a sophomoric gutter like that.
LAMB: This is all in the head of this third party.
PODHORETZ: That's right.
LAMB: One more paragraph: "Standing in this office which has been emptied of all its files so they can be carted away to the future Bush library" -- this is the last week -- "where no one will ever look at them, the feeling comes over you in a nihilistic rush. He is the reason that things were never quite right, never ever. George Bush, empty man." This is one of his staff people talking this way?
PODHORETZ: Staff person who was about to be unemployed as a result of George Bush's behavior.
LAMB: But he thought of him as an empty man?
PODHORETZ: By the end of the administration, a number of people looked at George Bush and said, "There's no there there," rather like Gertrude Stein said of Oakland. There was no core there; there was no core of conviction, and it was the lack of this core of conviction that had cost Bush the presidency.
LAMB: Is this what you meant earlier that near the end there were no more Bushies to find?
PODHORETZ: That's right.
LAMB: Can you find many of them now?
PODHORETZ: Hardly any, I would think -- not that I've done a poll.
LAMB: Was this book hard?
LAMB: Why?
PODHORETZ: It was hard because it's hard to write -- it was fun because it's funny and it's always fun to write something light and funny -- but it was hard because it's a sad experience to write about failure. This is a book about a failure. It gets to you; it kind of washes over you, the kind of melancholy, the sense of wasted opportunity that it is provided every day.
LAMB: Next book?
PODHORETZ: Don't know yet.
LAMB: This is the book called "Hell of a Ride" by John Podhoretz. We thank you for joining us.
PODHORETZ: Thanks so much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1997. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.