SPP: First thanks for being on the show. I know you’re a busy man. I guess I first want to kind of talk to you about you’re a Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist, multiple bestselling author, you got a lot of good things under your belt. How did you get to where you are? How did you know you wanted to write for a living, and kind of bring us up to date?
Ron: Okay I’ll tell you a short version of that tale. I went to the University of Virginia College and after college I was out running campaigns. I had done some of that when I was in college as kind of a young hired gun type. And I was running a campaign in Connecticut US Senate race for a guy named John Downing. Now I was way too young to be doing this, I was only 22 but I kind of stumbled into it. And my father had died, when I was a kid of 14, of cancer. He had written a letter to me and my brother as he was dying about living a worthwhile life.
I was actually sitting in the campaign headquarters of this Connecticut Senate race filling out law school applications and one of them, and my mother who said my father always wanted me to go to law school. In any event I was filling out these applications and I reach into the bag and pull out this letter, this beautiful letter that he wrote to us, and tried to attach the worthwhile life to being an attorney, which is really creative writing.
And I leave the essay on my desk. I come back after lunch and the press secretary in the campaign she said “Look I read that essay you left on the desk.” I said “What do you mean you read the essay?” She was like “Look if you leave it on the desk we’re going to read it, you’re the campaign manager.” And I said “Okay.” She’s like “From that essay it doesn’t sound much like you really want to go to law school.” I said “Really you don’t say?” She said “No.” She said “But it’s very well written. Have you ever thought about writing?” Well you could be a journalist. I don’t want to do that and go to journalism school.
So yes she gave me a book a famous novel called “Winesburg Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson, which I’d never read of course. It’s like one of the 20th Century’s great novel. I read this book and it’s about the reminiscence of the young man coming of age. And I wrote a Winesburg like reminiscence of my own college life at Columbia University Graduate School Journalism. I had no writing samples to send in, which a lot of young journalist of course have, and they accepted me and that’s how I became a writer off I went.
And of course people say “Geez what a nice thing that young girl did for you? Where is she now that girl that gave you such a good steer?” At which point I can say “Well she’s just in the kitchen. She’s running some errands right now.” That would be the fair Cornelia.
SPP: Wow that’s amazing.
Ron: My wife and partner in all things. And I off I went through the various stays and stops. After Columbia I was an under staffer so-called a News Corp and assistant and interim reporter at the New York Times. Then I got farmed out to some paper the St. Petersburg Times which is a great Florida paper, wins a lot of awards. Then I was there for a year and a half.
Then I went to Boston I was the editor of a magazine called Boston Business, met a lot of interesting writers. Then I went to the Wall Street Journal covering banking and finance in New England, but a bit of an undercover guy because I was sort of writing magazine stories on the front page of the journal and helped started a magazine called Smart Money I was like in a little team.
And then I was the Journal Senior National Affairs guy from 1993 until 2000. During that time I wrote a book called “A Hope in the Unseen”, which starts kind of eternal of the book. At the beginning it’s a series of stories that I wrote in the journal and that series of stories won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. And that’s my first book and then now I’m on the fifth book.
SPP: Thank you for sharing that with us. And you recently wrote a book about the Bush Campaign and now your newest book “Confidence Men” is more based on the Obama Campaign along with the economic situation. And you do a great job of covering each political campaign and things like that. With “Confidence Men” what was your primary goal? Were you just trying to show the growth of Obama through his presidency or his first term or were you trying to explain more the economic crisis that we’re going through?
Ron: Well you know I think it’s yes to both in a way. I sort of joke around what’s the book about? It’s about America is kind of my one line because the books are about a lot of things. You find a narrative arc I guess is the best way to put it, a spine of the book from which the ribs spring and that forms its body. And I think the spine of the book is the collapse of the US economy starting in 2007.
There’s a lot of lead up as to how that happened. That’s a story that a lot of it is centered on Wall Street in New York which ends up being the epicenter. Really it’s our financial capital. On one put I sort of talk about us being a nation of two capitals, the financial capital and the political capital. And you see the economy collapsing. You also see as that happens the rise of Barack Obama because those things are linked clearly and certainly in how he does emerge from the midst, from a place of, not anonymity but not a person who is well known, who is has been on the national stage very long, and his rise then to the White House. And the first half of the book is the fall of the economy, the rise of Obama.
And the second half for the most part is what happens then, once he gets to the political capital and how the battle between our financial political capitals unfold with Obama having to tame Washington and New York, and stave off what could be a Depression. A man with very little experience but in enormous capacities it’s the drama of these times. And it’s hard it’s about the evolution of the country over the last four years as well as the evolution and education, as it says in the subtitle, of this era’s central act or of Barack Obama.
SPP: The book seems to focus on Barack Obama’s I guess inexperience as what you would call a manager within I guess the economic sense, and then a staff that really didn’t help him out in ways. There was a lot of bickering between staff members and just rivalries that didn’t get along. Can you explain to our listeners what really went on during the crisis of 2008 in terms of the staff butting heads?
Ron: Well Obama was elected under a certain premise. It was emerged from his campaign that he would be a particularly forceful leader. He was ahead of everyone else, all of the other politicians in America, in understanding this notion of a bottom between the two capitals. And that the political capital, busted though it is, needs to step up to really force corrections on the financial capital. And that New York and the financial system really do define a great deal of the lives of people across America at their kitchen tables.
And that’s where he was coming through the election with a team around him that was very strident along those lines. And it certainly was a successful campaign. What you find is that many of the advisors around Obama, many of whom served Bill Clinton, were not really that attentive to something of the miracle of the rise of Barack Obama.
The extraordinary campaign the crusade almost that carries him to the White House. They weren’t particularly mindful of the nature, either of his mandate by virtual of that, but most of the political team like David Axelrod and others had their eyes on that, but the team that really helped him run the government was not really connected to all of that. And there was a great deal of bickering between advisors because Obama really had trouble holding the middle I guess that’s the best way to put it. He had never managed anything other than pretty much as one man crusade, as one man show, of course he did that brilliantly. And he steps on top of them as complex managerial organism on the planet at a time of crisis.
And what’s interesting about the book or the twist and turns of what unfolds, advisors are there to advice but presidents must decide. And the difficulty I think for Obama was having to learn the nature of what only a president is able to do, which is make very, very tough decisions, even when the evidence is lacking, even when you’re not going to get a clear path of this side versus that or right or wrong.
And I think his hope, very much like Jack Kennedy in the first days of his administration also a young man of great promise and potential, was that Obama felt that he would bring in the smartest people you can find with high IQs and stowing credentials, you put them in the room and they’re going to come up with a solution. Obama’s search for consensus among these advisors and in large measure he didn’t get it.
At the same time, he didn’t have sort of a natural infrastructure in terms of a Chief of Staff. Rahm Emanuel wasn’t the classical pick or natural pick for that job. Obama knew that he was warned that Emmanuel’s impulsive and emotional and not all that well organized. And Obama says “Look I’m a brilliant guy I can do some of that job myself.” That was not right that was a misjudgment.
And what you had is a, let’s just say enormous political capital that was spent a bit haphazardly. The kind of political capital with those 75% approval ratings and a Democratic Congress for Obama, 2 million people crying and clapping and cheering on the freezing day on the Mall, that did not express itself with much coherence in terms of policy And actually quite a bit of havoc, which I do mark through the shank of the book. And of course I make sure that it unfolds so the readers understand not just all the key disclosures that have driven the news cycles, but also the context of intent and motive, who these characters are, what it feels like to be next to them, to be in their shoes.
And at the end Obama speaks in a very long interview where I lay out all of the disclosures of having this extraordinary access to all these key advisors hour in after hour of long taped interviews. Some of it is hard for him to hear, not that he denies any of it, and frankly none of it is news to him. but it prompts Obama to dig deep, to ask himself their on the tape in that interview some very I think provocative questions about the nature of leadership. And what he’s learned during these tough times, he says he’s grown, he said this diversity has hardened him, deepened him, stilled him in a way to understand what need be done and helps him grow into the fullness of the office.
SPP: It seemed to me like during the bush Administration George Bush had and an idea and he said “We’re going to do it”, and he just did it. He got things done. and I think a lot of the people will fault the Obama Administration for not being able to get things done. Is that because in your opinion the people he’s put in place, the team he’s built even within the Democratic Party, he can’t get people to agree on moving forward on issues?
Ron: Well it’s interesting, in the interview I did with John Stewart the day the book was published on September 20th it was really quite telling. The story of course is just a brilliant guy he’s not just aridly funny guy but he’s really quite bright, he’s really a smart cookie. And he said something sort of half in jest that the end of the interview half nod, I think it’s on the extended portion. Because he knew I’d wrote three books about George Bush and the Bush Era, the conduct and character of the Bush/Cheney Administration, and all of that. And I’d been on the show about that stuff and he sort of like “Do we swing too far in the other direction for Bush to Obama?” From Bush’s sort of incurious I don’t care about the briefing I’m going with my gut, my instinct that whole Bush thing.
Ron: I’m the Decider. Did we sling all the way over from that often impulsive and nonanalytical emotive and go with your gut guy Bush to a guy who is discursive and sometimes a bit Hamlet like? And I think half in jest and half not Stewart was making a pretty sound point. Obama you couldn’t in a genetic way you couldn’t create a guy in Obama who’s more the opposite of Bush. A guy that’s expressed himself in Obama finding that his belief in the powerful and convincing might of persuasion based on the facts, based on the available data that that will bring people around, even when it might not be in their short term interest to agree. And maybe not in their financial interest to agree, which gets it back to that old Upon Sinclair line that somebody’s pocketbook is going to be diminished by agreeing with, they’re simply not going to agree with you. It’s nothing personal it’s just self-interest.
And I think Obama during the first two years, as he says to me in this interview, sort of wanted some hard lessons about that. That this notion of consensus maybe too merical. Even if they believe in their hearts that your position is sound and they see some middle ground they often will not go there unless they’re forced to, and forced to by a very clear sided and often brazen exercise of power. And that’s why through the administration various folks in the White House, as well as in Congress, were always harkening back to what would Lyndon do, as in Lyndon Johnson who also had a Democratic Congress even a very strongly Democratic Congress. But also he was a man sort of the Senate, as Robert Carroll points out, and a master of the making sure people did what he wanted them to do no matter what; nothing personal.
SPP: Have you seen President Obama go from what John Stewart said where we’ve swung too far from Bush to closer to Bush now in terms of making decisions and moving forward with what he believes in? And also as a follow on what is the one thing that you’ve noticed about President Obama that you’re most impressed with after following him from ’08 until present day?
Ron: Yeah. Well I mean I think he has moved. I think that’s part of his evolution that I trust what he tells, which is in fact that very thing. He says “I want to get out, in the last interview, which of course people have read and cited widely, but it’s really quite revealing. He says “Look Carter, Clinton and I have what he called the Policy Wonks, the disease and I want to break free from some of my Democratic inclinations” Obama says, “And act more dynamically and a more dynamic form of leadership. Basically I make my decision and that decision alone will change the landscape and I’ll push it forward. Expressed conviction, not constantly be saying the other side has married in their position too and let’s split the middle.
I think that’s clearly what he says his evolution has expressed and revealed and shown. And I think you are seeing some of that. I think the thing that’s the most impressive about Obama is the breath of his insights, analytical insights, into both the issues of the American experiment, its exceptionalism, but also the center role of his own journey as an actor on the American stage. I mean it’s rare you find a president who can write like Obama can write. It’s a bit intimidating for a writer “Dreams from My Father” and say, “Wow the guy’s got chops; really good stuff.” He’s got an ability to dig deeply into the human architecture that often novelist have and poets, but very few others. And I think that may be something that expresses itself in a way that’s valuable for the American public.
SPP: Now I know you did extensive research for this book. I read you interviewed over 200 people and 700 something plus hours of interviews. I was just wondering out of all that and the kind of free reign you were given in terms of you interviewed, like you said everyone from the President down. What did you find to be the most shocking revelation that you had when talking to all these people?
Ron: Well I think the thing that was most surprising was many opportunities when Obama could have acted boldly and he was right there with the sword in his hand and he just put the sword down. Even when there was a lot to recommend plunging it into the chest of some folks who were all but saying “Do it, just get it over with.” Whether it’s the bankers or some of the healthcare providers who understood cost needs to be reigned in and they in a way were ready for the President to express Presidential power in terms of the greatest goods for the greatest number. Even if it meant they might be slain in terms of their specific interest as an industry or as lobbyist or as folks from a community like banking or healthcare.
These are big complex symptoms that run through the society that really do define the lives of people day-to-day. Money and risk huge healthcare, how long we can live and how well huge, these systems are both broken in the country. That’s no secret to anyone and the self-correcting hope, the hope that markets will self-correct and move toward the glories of “efficiencies”, which sometimes I think is overstated, that hasn’t happened in these two giant systems that are so defining and are busted. And I think the feeling was it’s time for the public sector, for the public realm led by Obama to step up and force corrections, an corrections thereby in the direction of the wider of the ship of state rather than continue adrift that’s pretty much gone forward along the lines of from whence we came. And I think that was the thing that was most surprising. ‘m getting the details of various meetings and I’m like well here is your moment. Instead of expressing presidential power in those ways I think historians will look back and say “That was a big opportunity missed” he would get right up to the edge and then pull back and say “How can we come together?
And that kind of blended, split the middle balancing of interest and positions. We know that it’s been more or less the way things have gone for quite awhile and I don’t think what he kind of got elected for. He was elected to do something more dramatic, but that is what’s surprised me the most is opportunities that often he created or certainly were right there for the taking and how in those first two years he did not cease those moments.
SPP: Well Ron I think that’s a perfect place to end here. That hopefully will lead our readers to want to go pick up your book “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President”. Do you want to point our readers to anywhere? Are you in the process of writing any new books now? I mean is there anything you want to plug?
Ron: No right now this book is just about five weeks out. And I would just tell young folks or people who want to click on Amazon where the book is, it’s in every bookstore too, or your Kindle or what have you. The book though is consequential and it has a lot of the goods, so to speak, that do sort of affect and drive news. It’s really the story. It’s written novelistically, that’s the way I write these books. And of course every word has to be cured they’re nonfiction, but also I think that readers are finding a great deal that they say “Well this is kind of fascinating and interesting and fun.”
And it’s like the unfolding narrative of the times in which we live. And I just feel like that’s something readers deserve. You know books should not be written like you’re offering a deposition in court or offering some bloodless multipage analysis at a Think Tank. It’s about the story of who we are and how we got into this spot we’re in, how we might get out. And often some things in the book that are quite hopeful is people are trying to figure it out, like if the President does or doesn’t do it I don’t know what that has to do with me. I’ve got to move on my own. And I think that people generally understand that things work best when we kind of bend toward the sunlight and it’s the kind of miracle of what American has long been about is the country’s in enormous capacity to self-correct. That’s the brilliance of our system. And this book in a way it’s about that.
SPP: All right Ron, well again thank you so much. We appreciate your time and best of luck. I know you don’t need it the book’s already doing amazing. So thanks again.
Ron: Okay. Well take care guys, do well.
SPP: All right you too.