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'National Geographic' Mines 'The Real Price Of Gold'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. I would guess that most of us are wearing something gold - a wedding band, earrings, gold chain, your Christmas gift. Speaking for myself, I have no idea where the gold in my jewelry came from and under what conditions the gold was mined.
The cover story of this month's National Geographic is troubling. It's about the true cost of gold today, and it concludes that the price in dollars and suffering has never been higher. According to the article, the world's richest deposits are fast being depleted and new discoveries are rare. Most of the gold left to mine exists as traces buried in remote and fragile corners of the globe. The techniques for extracting gold often degrade the health of the miners and the environment.
To research the National Geographic story on gold, reporter Brook Larmer and photographer Randy Olson went to some of the corners of the world where gold is mined. Larmer is joining us from Bangkok, where he is based, Olson from Pittsburgh.
Randy, you have a photo of a mine in Congo. It's in a shaft that was dug decades ago by a Belgian company. Would you describe the photo and what mining conditions are like there?
Mr. RANDY OLSON (Photojournalist, National Geographic Magazine): Well, I think describing just getting to this place because everyone that mines in that place has to do this as well. The story that I was actually on was on pygmies and how the last forests in Africa are disappearing, and what's destroying the pygmies' forests are these kind of cancerous growth of gold mines all around the Atouri(ph).
And just to get to these gold mines you have to choose whether you're going to go by car, which is about four days, or by motor bike, which is about a day and a half. And to get there, we had to strap extra bags onto the motor bike and fill them primarily with Jack Daniels because as you go every few miles, you've got to stop at a warlord's hut and put a bottle of Jack on his card table while some child soldier eyes you with that look that - that it'd be just as easy to talk to you as kill you. You know, that kind of glazed-over look that they get.
So after about four or five of these warlords, you actually get to some of these gold mines where people are crawling over these hillsides like ants trying to get the last little bits of gold out of what was huge Belgian mines that were used at the end of World War II to support the war effort.
GROSS: So they're - they're just kind of feeding on the remains of an abandoned mine.
MR. OLSON: You go back in a huge shaft, and you'll find an African back there banging a couple of rocks together. It's very low-tech compared to what the Belgians were doing.
GROSS: So - so what do these miners who were ekeing out an existence looking for remnants of gold in the abandoned gold mine, what do they do if they actually find something? How do they sell it?
MR. OLSON: Well, they sell it to intermediaries, and in any of these places, third-world gold mines, there are people on site. Like, there's a photograph in Guyana of a woman trying to weigh gold in an outpost in Guyana. And these intermediaries pay them much less money but then they are responsible for getting them to the main distribution points.
GROSS: And this way the people who are mining the gold don't have to travel through all the checkpoints run by the warlords and the child soldiers.
Mr. OLSON: Right.
GROSS: And you just described what conditions are like in this mine. Your photograph has basically like layers of people with shovels.
Mr. OLSON: Well, this mine is just a crack in the earth left by the Belgian colonialists, and they are trying to just pound out bits of rock to get the last little bits. I mean, they got the main gold when they went in initially, but they don't really - they don't have any kind of science. They're just hoping that since the Belgians dug there that it's a good place.
GROSS: And so do the people find anything in this mine?
Mr. OLSON: Yeah. People come up and show little bits of gold and - but artisanal miners, you know, they don't make that much money, and the process is really pretty harmful. I mean, one-third of the mercury that we all breathe comes directly from artisanal mining. So the people that are involved in any of this kind of mining are brushing their teeth in the same amalgam ponds that the mercury is being washed in. Water becomes a resource in most of these places, and so it's all polluted, it's all dredged out, and there's very little water for these folks to use. And UNIDO goes in and tests these folks for mercury levels, and I think 200 or 300 is normal, and they're all, you know, 1,000, 2,000 parts per million. It's a pretty insidious deal to get a little - a little bit of money.
GROSS: Brook, do you want to explain why there's so much mercury released into the environment and absorbed by these miners in the process?
Mr. BROOK LARMER (Journalist, National Geographic Magazine): Well, if you're looking at the small-scale mines, this is where the mercury is really released, and it's released at two separate points. I mean, I think it's the same in most parts of the world. There's the first part. After the rock has already been removed from the hole and people are milling the rock, they are grinding it down to tiny particles, and then the mercury - liquid mercury, what used to be known as quick silver - is added to the mix. And the gold, it basically gloms onto the gold as the heaviest particle there.
And so what comes out of that - and you squeeze it through a sack cloth - is a little nugget called a mercury amalgam. And some of the liquid mercury that was with it gets washed out right into the streams outside - outside of these little mills. And I saw this in particular up in La Rinconada, the mine in Peru, up around 18,000 feet, where all the streams are - are basically infected by this mercury that's coming out of hundreds of little teeny mills that are releasing liquid mercury. Now that's just one part of it.
The second part, though, is what do you do with that mercury amalgam when you have it? It's - people you'll see going from there to the buyers. And in the village where I was in Peru, in La Rinconada, the buyers were in the same village. And they basically burn off - with a very hot blue flame - burn off the mercury so that it is actually released as a gas into the atmosphere. And this combination of both the liquid and the gaseous forms of mercury are really the double whammy of small-scale mining.
And in the place where I was visiting, which was so high in the Andes, it was 18,000 feet and the air was very thin, mercury gas was heavy so that it almost immediately recondensed on the roofs of these little shacks that were around the village. So people are really being coated with mercury, literally, as you walk through the village, and much of this mercury is being burned off the nuggets as people try to get to the little gold that they've gotten out of the earth.
GROSS: The mine that you're talking about is high up in the Peruvian Andes, and you describe it as being literally on top of the world. You also describe it as a Shangri-La in reverse. You say electricity just got there a few years ago. Is there still no plumbing?
Mr. LARMER: There is still no plumbing, and I don't know when or if plumbing will ever arrive. They do have, because of the wealth that has been generated over the last few years, they have fancy TVs for sale on these mud- and excrement-strewn streets, but they don't have any plumbing.
So this is - I call it a Shangri-La in reverse because people seem to age about twice as quickly there. The actual age expectancy is about 50 years, and you meet people who are in their young 30s and actually look like they're already at a very advanced age. And that comes from just the exposure to very harsh conditions that high up.
You know, this is the highest inhabited - permanently inhabited town on Earth. And it's not just a little outpost. I mean, I was attracted to it partly because it was - it did show an extreme, but it's not really extreme. This is the largest small-scale artisanal mine in South America, so this has brought people who have been out of work in the countryside, who are not necessarily used to being up at 18,000 feet on a permanent basis, and so they are exposed to the elements in many different ways, as well as all of the hazards that mining itself brings.
GROSS: So - so this mine attracts a lot of people who are basically destitute, and this is like their last hope of getting something. In order to get it - in order to try to get some gold, you expose yourself to mercury poisoning and probably all kinds of other health problems because of the lack of plumbing. Yes?
MR. LARMER: That's right, that's right. I think you'll see all across the world that these gold mines are really kind of the last lottery for a lot of people. And in - in Peru, it really is a lottery. There is a system of work there that's called the cachorreo, which is basically a system in which the miners, who as you say have come from the countryside where they received a pittance for a monthly salary, and they come, and in the mines they don't earn any money for 30 days. Every month, 30 days they work for the owner of the hole in the ground. On the 31st day - in some cases it's 45 days, in some cases it's a little less than 30 days - but basically, one day a month, one shift a month for four hours, they and their little group of men go in and are allowed to pull out the rock that will be their monthly salary.
So this is really a lottery. If they get a nugget of gold, which is very rare, they will feel like this is - what other place on Earth could they have this chance? For the most part, though, they get much, much less than that, barely enough to subsist, and in some cases, to go broke.
GROSS: Wow. So you work for thirty days or so with no pay, and then you get a lot of rocks and hopefully there's a fleck of gold in it that you can sell.
MR. LARMER: That's right. And that day, you can imagine, is fraught with a lot of tension. It differs for each - each mine. Basically, these are hard to call mines because each one is a narrow hole in the ice. They're digging about 50 meters to 100 meters through a glacier to get to the rock below, which is where the - where the gold is. But on that day, there's - there's a lot of spirits that are invoked in order to help their luck, and you'll see these guys gathered outside of their holes drinking a little pisco, making their offering of cacao leaves to the Earth, their offerings to the Earth. And also, of course, chewing cacao leaves in order to enhance their own stamina and endurance to make it through.
GROSS: My guests are reporter Brook Larmer and photojournalist Randy Olson. We're talking about their National Geographic cover story on the true cost of gold. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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If you're just joining us, my guests are reporter Brook Larmer, who's joining us from Bangkok, and photojournalist Randy Olson, who's joining us from Pittsburgh. And they did the cover story in the current edition of the National Geographic magazine. It's called "Gold: The True Cost of a Global Obsession." And they visited and reported on mines large and small around the world for this story.
You both went to a mine on an island of Indonesia run by a very large mining company that now runs open-pit gold mines on five continents. And this particular mine employs 8,000 people, so it's different from what you've been describing already. You've been describing these artisanal mines in which basically individuals go in and try to eke out an existence finding flecks of gold. But this is a big corporate mine. Randy, do you want to visually describe what the mine looks like? You have an incredible photo of it in the National Geographic.
MR. OLSON: Well, it's a mile wide, and as you fly in, it's a gash in the earth that you can see from space. And the PR person on the flight said one man's gash in the earth is another man's investment. But it has these trucks crawling around it that are operated by Islamic women that have a diesel engine in each tire and are about 40 feet high, and just the sense of scale is kind of overwhelming when you realize that these little ant-like trucks in this crater are actually that large.
GROSS: Rick, you have an incredible statistic about comparing the number of hours it takes in this mine to accumulate ore and waste compared to previously in the history of gold mining. You want to give that to us?
MR. LARMER: Yes. I think this is really one of the points that is so incredible about gold mining right now is that they're chasing these small flecks of gold, and it requires just an enormous amount of movement of earth. In this mine in particular - and it's not a reflection of the mine's inefficiency, this is just the way it works. They actually, in just 16 hours, will accumulate more ore and waste than all of the gold itself that has been mined in human history.
MR. OLSON: There - there are two other ways to put this, if you're interested. One is that just a typical wedding band at this mine involves moving 250 tons of material. The other is that there is only 160,000 tons of gold in the world, which is the typical output of steel in - you know, a few days.
GROSS: Right, you said that the amount of gold that's been mined in the history of the world would fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools? Do I have that right?
MR. OLSON: Yes.
MR. LARMER: That's right.
GROSS: That's kind of incredible. That's not a lot of area.
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MR. OLSON: No.
GROSS: So - OK. So for - you said, Randy, that just to get enough gold for a wedding band, you'd have to move how many - how many pounds?
MR. OLSON: Two hundred and fifty tons of material in this particular mine. It varies from mine to mine. This is a mine that has copper as well as gold, so...
GROSS: So what do they do with all those tons of material, all those tons of rocks? Where do they go?
MR. LARMER: Well, this is the really big question about open-pit mining, and this is the quandary that faces any mining company that has to do work in the - in the developing or the developed world. There are two basic ways in which the waste is deposited. One is the waste that comes right out of the mine, and this is rock that they've determined is not of high enough grade to even process. And at the Batu Hijau mine in Indonesia, which is a very efficiently and well-run mine, they have about a strip ratio of 1.4, which means that a greater percentage of waste will go directly to the piles of waste that are piled around the mine that they will have to then try to seed and reclaim as forest.
Now, the other large portion of waste is in the tailings, and there's always a question of where do you - where does a mine put the tailings...
GROSS: Tailings is what? The effluent from the...
Mr. LARMER: Tailings are the effluent from the chemical process by which they separate the copper and gold from the rest of the rock. And it's heavier in metal than most of the soil around, and then certainly it poses some danger to living organisms. The question in most minds is where do you deposit this and how do you control its influence on the rest of the environment around you?
In Indonesia, which has a unique situation of being an island mine, Newmont decided and got the approval of the Indonesian government to actually release the effluent in the sea through what's called submarine tailings disposal. So there's a huge pipe that goes out 2.1 miles in the sea and about 400 feet deep, deposits this incredible flow of relatively chemically heavy tailings into the sea where it then falls down to a shelf that goes several thousand feet down in the sea.
Now, this is a relatively controversial practice, so though Newmont argues that on an island there really is no alternative, and the Indonesian government would agree because if they released all of these tailings in the forest, that would create much more damage to a higher level of biodiversity than it does on the sea bottom. Nevertheless, this is the only place on Earth where this particular disposal is practiced.
GROSS: So let me get this straight. The rocks that are the waste product of this gold and copper mining, they get deposited on the rain forest, and that's not good for the rain forest. And then...
Mr. LARMER: That's right.
GROSS: The chemical effluent gets funneled into the sea, and that's not great for the sea.
Mr. LARMER: That's correct. They have to clear area in the rain forest in order to have place to put their waste, and that is one area where they're actually running into some limitations. The Indonesian government, which has changed since the days of Suharto when the mine was originally approved, no longer wants to...
GROSS: Suharto was the dictator of Indonesia.
Mr. LARMER: That's correct. And now the new government is not as willing to lend the rain forest to the mining companies to use to deposit their waste. Newmont has had an application for an extra about 80 acres - 79 acres of rain forest because they're running out of space to put their rock waste. And yet the government has not yet approved this.
Now, Newmont has gone to great lengths to try to use a reclamation process by which they try to restore this rock waste to its original jungle state. And of course, this is early days in a primary force that's existed for tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands or millions of years. It's hard to replace that overnight, but that is certainly one of the things that they trumpet in terms of their environmental concern.
The effluent that goes into the sea is chemically treated already, and if you go there, they will actually have you sift your hands through it to show that it actually is not damaging. But it does have a heavier metal content than the surrounding soils, and it does hurt animals that are on the seabed floor. Of course, those are not quite as abundant or colorful as the ones that exist in the rain forest.
GROSS: What about the conditions for miners in this big corporate mine on an island in Indonesia? Is life for the miners better than in those artisanal mines where people are desperately trying to eke out an existence?
Mr. LARMER: Oh, it's much better. The people who get jobs at the mines - at the mine in Indonesia are actually considered the lucky ones, and they usually turn into the pillars of their family, the main provider of income for their extensive families. Now, there are about five villages that are really in close proximity to the mine itself, and Newmont has gone out of its way to try and do programs in these five communities, and that's where many of the local workers come from.
About 4,000 out of the 7,000-plus employees at this mine are actually Indonesians, and a percentage of those are from the local district, and those are really the lucky ones. And you'll go to their houses and they'll have built within the last few years or changed their house from a thatched hut to a two-storey brick house or a brick house. And this is, you know, the local - very local impact has been very positive.
Now, people look beyond these small villages will complain that in the process, the cost of living has gone way up and they don't have jobs, and so life for them is much more difficult, and they haven't seen a speck of the gold or copper that has come out of this mine, so what really is the benefit for them? And so you'll hear different opinions if you travel around the island.
GROSS: Reporter Brook Larmer and photojournalist Randy Olson collaborated on the National Geographic's cover story about the true cost of gold. They'll be back in the second half of the show. You can see some of Olson's photos on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with reporter Brook Larmer and photojournalist Randy Olson. We're talking about their National Geographic cover story on the true cost of gold in human suffering and environmental damage. Their research took them to mines around the world.
You write in this story that all the gold that's ever been mined in the history of gold mining would fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools. And that doesn't seem like very much, and what's hard for me to figure about that is that gold has been an obsession basically through the history of mankind, I think. So how can it be that in all of those years, with all the gold that's been, you know, worn and sculpted and this and that, how can there be so little of it?
Mr. OLSON: Well, I think the surprise in this story is that everyone can get their mind around the fact that gold is inert, it's dense, it's rare. Maybe it's a little more difficult to understand that it's basically worthless, and that's why it's a good source for money. I mean, you can't smoke it. You can't eat it. Most of it's used for adornment - jewelry or hording. Only a small percent of it is industrial. But getting ready for this story, I kept reading that it never disappears, that all of the gold that's ever been mined is pretty much still with us. I mean, sure, some of it could be at the bottom of the ocean in ships or whatever, but basically, it never disappears.
And I really didn't understand that until going to India, and where the artisanal goldsmiths work, just outside their shops, I photographed women panning for gold in streets of garbage because the way artisanal goldsmiths work, they get 103 grams of gold, and they're expected to turn back in 100 grams of jewelry, so they lose about a gram in that process of filing and washing and polishing.
So even though small little bits of gold are so valuable, there's a whole little industry of folks that get in those streets very early in the morning before the streetsweepers come through to get those last little bits. And the most surprising situation was...
GROSS: Wait. Wait. So they're basically looking for gold left over from the jewelry making process? Do I have that right?
Mr. OLSON: Yes. That one gram that disappears in the process of making jewelry, the women in the streets that are panning for gold recover it. There's an industry based on recovering just that little bit of gold.
Mr. OLSON: But the most surprising one I found was the biggest jewelry factory in the world, which was actually more complicated to get in through their security than the New York Fed was. I photographed them mopping all the floors. And you know, this is standard in these jewelry factories to mop the floors and then run the mop water through a recovery system. But they encouraged all of their employees to live on site. And the sewers actually went through a recovery system, so if you ingest their gold in the workplace and you then excrete it, they get it back.
GROSS: I'd be interested in hearing how doing this National Geographic cover story on gold affected your thoughts on wearing gold jewelry or on investing in gold or on the symbolic meaning of gold. Brook, can we start with you?
Mr. LARMER: Well, I think anybody who goes out to these mines, whether they're the small - especially the small-scale artisanal mines in remote parts of the world realizes just the amount of sweat and toil that goes into producing a single ounce of gold. And that is a sobering reality that anybody going to the retail shops you keep in mind, and certainly I do. At the same time, though, you also see that how much value is put into them.
While it's used as a decorative item in most - more than two-thirds of gold sales are for jewelry or ornamentation - its value has maintained itself, and certainly since 2001, it has gone up by 350 percent. As people feel uncertainty in other parts of their lives, gold has been a haven for investors. So I can't necessarily denigrate that, but I certainly do have a new appreciation for just the difficulty and the destruction that actually goes along with its mining.
GROSS: And Randy, what about you?
Mr. OLSON: Well, there are certainly things that are bad that need to be corrected. But you know, the most difficult thing about doing this kind of work is not been ethnocentric, and you can never get away from it. But I come from a very wealthy culture in the United States, and when I see folks in an amalgam pond brushing their teeth, women washing the clothes, swimming, bathing, and also ingesting mercury because that's where they're - have mercury, they're working with their hands and everything else, I mean, I'm repulsed by that.
But those people were relocated from East Java to Borneo, where they were getting pennies a day hoeing fields, you know, doing hard labor, and now they're getting $5 a day. And it's just very difficult to come from such a privileged place and realize that 90 percent of the world is struggling in such dire circumstances, and sometimes it's a little bit better and enough better that they're actually very happy.
I mean, there's a photograph in this story of artisanal goldsmiths, and they're in this very crowded sweatshop, and that space they're sitting is the space they have for their life. You know, that's where they work at this little workstand, the clothes hanging above their heads, that's their closet. They push the workstand away and that's where they sleep. And from a very ethnocentric position, you say, you know, how horrible this sweatshop is.
But you know, these guys are all from the same village. They are making $300 to $400 a month, which is a lot of money. They help each other. They need each other. They go for tea, for food. They take care of each other. When someone goes back to that village, they take all the money from all of them, and eventually they'll be able to buy a small farm in their village, and it's just something that they're doing. So there are certainly awful things with small-scale artisanal mining. The mercury is a huge issue for me. But there are also situations where people are making a much better life for themselves because we have this group think that this material is so valuable.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us. And Brook, thanks for finding a way to talk to us from Bangkok.
Mr. LARMER: Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: And Randy from Pittsburg, thank you very much.
Mr. OLSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Reporter Brook Larmer and photojournalist Randy Olson collaborated on the National Geographic cover story about the true cost of gold. You can see some of Olson's photos on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, NBC's new White House correspondent, Chuck Todd. This is Fresh Air.
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Chuck Todd Examines 'How Barack Obama Won'
TERRY GROSS, host:
If you became a cable TV political junkie during the presidential campaign, chances are you saw plenty of our guest Chuck Todd. As NBC's political director, he became a regular on MSNBC and built a reputation as a numbers cruncher who could make the intricacies of delegate counts and the electoral map both understandable and interesting. In a cable world dominated by sharp opinion and shouting matches, Todd earned praise as a straight shooter whose analysis was always supported by hard information. He's now NBC's chief White House correspondent. He replaces David Gregory, who took over hosting "Meet The Press" following the death of Tim Russert.
Todd has a new book with NBC Elections Director Sheldon Gawiser called "How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election." When he spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, Chuck Todd said he went back to look at the candidates' official announcement speeches, and he found that John McCain had never officially announced and neither had Hillary Clinton.
Mr. CHUCK TODD (Political Director and Chief White House Correspondent, NBC News; Author, "How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide To The Historic 2008 Presidential Election"): Hillary Clinton announced via the Web. It was at first supposed to be the exploratory - it was very reactionary when she announced. It was within days that Obama announced that he was about to do this same thing. He made this Web announcement in January of 2007, and he said that February 10, 2007 is when he would have a final decision and make a formal announcement in Springfield, Illinois.
All Hillary Clinton did was do this via the Web that first time, where she said the famous phrase, I'm in it to win it. John McCain never did an announcement speech. He just went on Jay Leno, "The Tonight Show," and said he was running for president. And when you sort of look back and say, well, geez, what did this say about the Clinton candidacy, the McCain candidacy and the Obama candidacy, well, Obama had his organizing principle of why he was running for president. He gave the why-I'm-running-for-president speech. Hillary Clinton never gave a why-I'm-running-for-president speech. John McCain never gave a why-I'm-running-for-president-speech. At times they may have touched on it, but they never gave that original organizing principle.
It's campaign 101. If you're running for the city council or you're running for president, you write down why you're running. I've talked to many a political consultant who tell me it is the first question they ask any potential client. If they don't have three or four reasons why they want to be that position, they're usually not going to succeed.
DAVE DAVIES: So in the Democratic primary battle, I mean, it very early shapes up as Hillary Clinton versus Barrack Obama.
Mr. TODD: Not just early, immediately.
DAVIES: Right. And so Obama takes Iowa. Clinton has the great comeback win in New Hampshire. And then you say it was really on Super Tuesday that Clinton would lose the nomination, and this was despite the fact that she scored very big wins in very big places like California and New York.
And I remember you were the first one, I think, at least that I saw, watching you on television, looking carefully at the delegate count and concluding at the end of that night that seemed like a Hillary Clinton win, that she was in a deep hole. Or not a deep hole, but...
Mr. TODD: She lost the night.
DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. TODD: No, I remember doing it - it was funny. It was out of - six months before that Super Tuesday, one of the things that, you know, I got the political unit and I said, guys, we need to learn this delegate math. I said, you know, I've - you learn it every four years. You relearn it. And it is formulaic once you learn it. And once you learn it, then it actually is easy to figure out, as many a - probably a listener here knows that there were quite a few bloggers who eventually picked up on it and got it and figured it out.
But the bottom line was the Obama campaign went to the DNC Web site and got the rulebook for how to get the nomination. The Hillary Clinton campaign did not. And we found out on that Tuesday night, that Super Tuesday night, February 5th, that that is exactly what happened.
I mean, there are multiple reports about how Mark Penn, the chief political strategist for Hillary Clinton's campaign, didn't know there was proportional allocation of delegates and didn't know that a 20-point victory in California wouldn't translate into a landslide victory of delegates wouldn't translate to a winner-take-all of those huge delegates, while the Obama campaign understood the rules and basically realized that this - they were running against the Clintons. They were never going to get her out of the race early and quickly. They made the decision that they were going to have to set up a 50-state campaign early on. Not because they thought it was good for the Democratic Party but because they thought it was their only chance at getting the nomination.
DAVIES: So from that point on, it was clear that Clinton was behind in delegates and it would be very hard for her to catch up. And you write in the book that Clinton staying in as long as she did only helped Obama. Why?
Mr. TODD: That's right. And I think it's something that Obama himself realizes, even as his campaign team to this day is still bitter about it. But it did a couple of things. Number one, Obama, you know, he hadn't been tested in a tough race. You know, losing defines a winner at some point. But Obama, even in that one loss when he ran for Congress against Bobby Rush years ago, it wasn't - in a weird way, it wasn't a tough race, and he didn't have a tough race for the Senate. Well, with Clinton in this primary it was tough, and it toughened him up a little bit. It gave him some political body armor that he didn't have.
But she was also so good at talking about the economy, watching her husband do it in the '90s and the feel-your-pain type of politics that was very successful for him. And because when the economy - when the - you know, we were watching and - remember, Iraq was still the number one issue to Democratic primary voters pretty much all the way until about Super Tuesday, and then you could see everything turning. As the economy was going downward, the economy was moving up and moving up and moving up as an important issue.
And most of those last three of four debates that were really one-on-one debates between Clinton and Obama were dominated almost more by the economy than anything else. And forcing him to learn how to talk about the economy not as an anthropologist but as a feel-your-pain politician - he's still not great at it. I think he's still finding his sea legs talking about the economy. You know, being able to put - you know, make it - make that person who's hurting right now feel as if they - you understand their problems.
Obama can still come across as professorial or, you know, someone told - I think it's Paul Bagallo(ph) one time said to me, he says, you know, Obama's a creature of his mother. His mother was an anthropologist by trade. And going that distance with Clinton forced him to get better at that, to talk to voters, not at voters. And it made him better at being able to take advantage of what was an economic opportunity for him in the fall campaign against John McCain.
DAVIES: You know, when you talked about the McCain campaign, I was startled by a fact that you presented, which was that McCain was able to wrap up the nomination by campaigning in all of four states.
Mr. TODD: Yeah.
DAVIES: It's almost a photo negative of the Obama campaign. Not having to run hard meant he didn't have to sharpen his skills and build an organization.
Mr. TODD: Yeah, absolutely.
DAVIES: Was it an advantage or a disadvantage to win it so easily?
Mr. TODD: Well, you know, you present this to a political strategist, and they would say, boy, if you could get through your presidential primary in four states and wrap it up, should be an advantage. It gives you more time to prepare for a general. But when the gap was Obama had a campaign in 48 states - because of the whole Florida-Michigan mess, he ended up not campaigning in those two states during the primaries - and you realize McCain only really campaigned in four, and the four were New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida. Sure, he ended up - when I say campaigning, he really only set up organizations and ran TV ads in the primaries and tried to win four states. The goal was run the table in all four.
Well, he ended up losing Michigan, but he was able to still pull off South Carolina. And New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida he wins, and it's over. Sure, Mitt Romney stayed on one week after Florida. Sure, Mike Huckabee won a few primaries, stayed in the race. But it was essentially over, and he wrapped it up in four states. Financially and organizationally he wrapped it up in four states. He didn't have real organizations in Texas, in Virginia, in these places that Obama had to truly set up true, big political campaigns in.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Chuck Todd. He's the political director of NBC News and its new chief White House correspondent, also the author, with Sheldon Gawiser, of the new book, "How Barack Obama Won." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Chuck Todd. He is NBC's new chief White House correspondent. He was also an analyst in the past presidential campaign and the author, with Sheldon Gawiser, of a new book, "How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election."
Well, Chuck Todd, you were a prominent face and voice on cable TV in a year in which cable coverage of the presidential race got a lot of attention and more influence, I think, than it has had before. And of course, cable is known at times for being outrageous and offering extreme points of view. You got attention by being thorough and fair and straight and balanced. Were you tempted to be more sharply opinionated on the air? Did you feel a tension as you went on the air, particularly surrounded by people who had more hard-edged opinions?
Mr. TODD: I never did, and there's never been that pressure there. You know, my role model was Tim Russert. And you know, you can be hard-edged with your analysis, and that's what I enjoyed doing. I mean, you know, I was - sometimes you can be cold and calculating about the facts, and that's - you know, that's what I love. And I love that sort of the game of politics and understanding it and the numbers and the demographics in it.
You know, that's just never - that's not how I was brought up covering campaigns. You know, I originally came - my first journalism job was with a publication called The Hotline, which is a - basically a trade publication that covers politics for professionals and campaigns for professionals. So to me it was all about, you know, it's like covering sports franchises, and you know, you're a baseball beat writer, I was a political beat writer. Not a political beat reporter, you know, explaining why team A was beating team B, not to say why I was rooting for team A over team B or whether I was rooting for team B instead of team A.
DAVIES: Well, you know, it raises another interesting question to me. As you are taking on a new job here as chief White House correspondent for NBC, and of course, you've had many, many years in the political trenches of this country covering congressional elections, and you know politics throughout 50 states perhaps as well as anybody out there. And one of the things that's always troubled me to some extant about coverage of Washington is in a city that is so partisan, so much gets analyzed in political terms.
And of course, a reporter - you can't report nearly all of the information you gather on a day, and so you have a lot of discretion as to what to leave in and what to leave out and what angle to take. And I'm wondering, since the debates in Congress and with the White House are both debates about policy but also expressions of political rivalry and ambition, are you worried you'll be too tempted to go back to what you know, which is politics, and write more about the politics than these important policy debates?
Mr. TODD: It's funny. You bring up in public the number one cautionary tale that every - what I would call mentor of mine, and I don't want to say that I have many that have been very helpful to me in my career, but the big warning I've gotten from a lot of my smart friends and colleagues is just what you said. You know, you don't have to assume everything is a political - that there's a political debate and a political reason behind it. But I've always felt like I should enter that way, and I think that that's obvious in what you want to do. The problems are very serious, and so you want to present - you know, I do think the ultimate job of a journalist is to seek the truth.
I don't think - in fact, I've always said the phrase, fair and balanced, balanced is incorrect. You can't balance the truth. The truth is the truth. So you can be fair about how you present the truth, but it's actually difficult to balance the truth. How do you do that? You balance the truth with a falsehood? It's always been a weird phraseology to me because I think that they don't go together, oddly enough. And I think that's the way I need to enter this.
At the same time, you know, you can't be Pollyannaish about it. There are motivations. You know, when people get frustrated with us in the media that we will cover things too much as if through the prism of red versus blue or through the prism of D versus R, and sometimes here in Washington through the prism of Congress versus the White House, which actually more policy debates are about that more often than they are the two parties.
You know, yes, we can simplify it, sometimes too much. And I actually think the public now doesn't want the simplification that we in television sometimes were trained to deliver, that they actually want more information, more guts. And I think you will see more of that coming out of our newscasts going forward.
But I do think it's important to understand the motivation of a policy, to explain how we got to that policy. Sometimes the motivation is safety. Sometimes the motivation is helping the poor. Sometimes the motivation is politics.
DAVIES: Before I let you go, I have to ask you, how do you think covering the Obama White House might be different from having had to cover the Bush White House? You weren't there, but you certainly know people. How's it going to be different, do you think?
Mr. TODD: Well, I think it's going to be more similar than people realize. I think this is a very disciplined - the Obama administration, I think, is going to be very message disciplined in the same way the Bush folks were. I think that in many ways Obama is going to be more - as combative with the media as Bush was. So, I think that the small differences will be, you know, here you're going to have a new White House press secretary who's very close to the president when every single White House press secretary barely had a personal relationship with President Bush. That isn't the way he believed the White House press secretary's job should be. This is going to be different. That in itself is unique in that the person that I'll interact with every day and the person that the public, other than the president, will see every day, Robert Gibbs, is somebody who might be closer personally to the president than the chief of staff.
DAVIES: I would think that has to be good for the journalists, right?
Mr. TODD: I think that's good for journalists. We haven't had something like that, say, since the days of Kennedy, you know, when there was more of a personal relationship between press - or even Marlon Fitzwater, who was press secretary to former President Bush 41. He was in the room and part of the inner circle. So that will be a big difference, and I'll be curious to see how long that lasts.
I think Robert's got a tough job because he is - I've known Robert a long time. He's not - he doesn't lie. He's not a deceptive guy, and he is either going to have to be - not know certain pieces of information so he doesn't have to be deceptive, or he may end up realizing he's got to take himself out of the role.
George Stephanopoulos early on tried to be the spokesperson - everyday spokesperson and realized he couldn't - it was tough to be in the room knowing certain pieces of information - you know, nobody likes - you know, in being put in a situation where you knew a piece of information that a reporter asks about but you couldn't give it out. You know, you don't want to be in that situation.
DAVIES: So effectively - to effectively deflect questions, you need to not know the answers.
Mr. TODD: Where you're being honest sometimes. Sometimes. Arguably, the Bush White House took it to the extreme. The - what seemed to be the right balance would seem to be what Clinton and McCurry had, Bill Clinton and Mike McCurry, who was probably the best known of the press secretaries for Bill Clinton.
DAVIES: Well, Chuck Todd, good luck on the new assignment and thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Mr. TODD: Well, Dave, this is the longest I've been able to talk in months. So I love it.
GROSS: Chuck Todd is NBC's chief White House correspondent and co-author of the new book, "How Barack Obama Won." He spoke with Fresh Air contributor, Dave Davies, who's a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Earlier this week, we noted the death of guitarist Ron Asheton, who co-founded the influential proto-punk band, the Stooges, along with his brother Scott and Iggy Popp. Asheton died Tuesday at the age of 60, so we ended our show Tuesday with a Stooges recording, which we said featured Asheton on guitar. Turns out, he played bass on that one, as several of our listeners pointed out. So we're ending today's show with another classic Stooges record, this time with Ron Asheton on guitar. This is "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of song "I Wanna Be Your Dog")
STOOGES (Singing): So messed up I want you here
In my room I want you here
Now were gonna be face-to-face
And I'll lay right down in my favorite place
And now I wanna be your dog
Now I wanna be your dog
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