DATE August 27, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: James Thurber of the Center for Congressional and
Presidential Studies at American University on the role of
lobbyists and semi-lobbyists in the presidential campaign
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
John McCain and Barack Obama promised to ban active, registered lobbyists from
holding paid positions on their campaign staffs. But are the bans full of
holes? Just because someone isn't a registered lobbyist now doesn't mean they
weren't recently one, or that they won't go through the revolving door and
return to lobbying after the election is over. We're going to take a look at
the role of lobbyists in the presidential campaign. My guest, James Thurber,
is a distinguished professor of government and director of the Center for
Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. He's written
many books and articles about congressional reform, interest groups, lobbying
and elections. He worked with McCain and Obama on the lobbying reform bill
that was passed one year ago.
James Thurber, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Well, since you worked with McCain
and Obama on this lobbying reform bill, let me ask you, were they getting
along together when you were working with both of them?
Mr. JAMES THURBER: The two senators actually did get along very well and
collaborated in the effort to have lobbying reform and ethics and procedural
reform in Congress. There were a couple of times where they both wanted to
take credit for things, and so it got a little tense then, but both were
pushing for reforms.
GROSS: What have they each had to say about the role of lobbyists in
Mr. THURBER: Both of them say that they will not have lobbyists on their
campaign staffs, but also will not use lobbyists when they're in the White
House. They say, `We're going to change the way Washington works.'
GROSS: And how successful are they in changing the role of lobbyists in the
campaign so far?
Mr. THURBER: They haven't been very successful at all. In fact, some people
think they're disingenuous when they say this. There are over 40 key former
lobbyists, and some of them were former lobbyists just a few months before
they got into the campaign, on the McCain campaign; and probably about 20
associated with the Obama campaign at high levels.
GROSS: Well, since McCain is ahead in the lobbyist sweepstakes numerically,
let's start with McCain. He's called lobbyists "birds of prey." Now, let's
look at some of the people who are the top advisers in his campaign. Let's
start with Randy Scheunemann. He's the campaign's foreign policy adviser.
He's not currently a lobbyist, but what has his position been as a lobbyist?
Mr. THURBER: Well, Randy Scheunemann is a foreign policy adviser to Senator
McCain's presidential campaign. He heads Scheunemann & Associates and worked
on behalf of numerous high profile clients, including foreign nations,
including the nation of Georgia. This became an issue when Russia invaded
Georgia and he gave advice to Senator McCain, and McCain came out very
strongly condemning Russia. One wonders, in that situation, since Scheunemann
just left his firm a few months ago, who the client is. Is the client the
president of Georgia in Georgia, or is the client John McCain, or is the
client the American public? And a objective analysis of the situation makes
me think that he leans heavily towards Georgia.
GROSS: Does it make a difference to you that Scheunemann is not now
officially a lobbyist, he's left his firm? I suppose he could go back to his
firm after the campaign.
Mr. THURBER: Well, this is quite common. When people get involved in
campaigns, they go back to advocacy or lobbying. And they may not even be a
registered lobbyist, but they're still lobbying. They're lobbying to sell
something to the Defense Department or intervene in the regulatory process, or
just set strategy for other lobbyists to intervene and try to influence
Capitol Hill. It's easy not to be a registered lobbyist in Washington, DC,
and still be quite successful monetarily in terms of advocacy here.
GROSS: Now, Scheunemann was also McCain's foreign policy adviser in McCain's
2000 presidential bid. Do you think that that affiliation with the McCain
campaign helped Scheunemann in his own lobby company?
Mr. THURBER: Absolutely. When foreign nations look for lobbyists, they find
people who they think are wired, are connected to power. And certainly John
McCain was in the Senate and is now, as the presumed nominee of the Republican
Party, but also was highly respected and well known internationally as a
result of his previous campaigns for the presidency. Many lobbyists in
Washington use their connections in campaigns to help get clients, and then
they also, after they have the clients, just take a little time off and go
back into campaigns. It's quite a common revolving door.
GROSS: Let's look at McCain's chief campaign adviser, Rick Davis. He has
been a lobbyist. What kind of interest has he represented?
Mr. THURBER: He's been a partner in a very well known and successful firm in
Washington, DC. It's called Davis Manafort, and he's now the campaign
manager. He was--just a little bit about his background, he's a former aide
in the Reagan administration and deputy manager of the Dole campaign in '96.
He's been a well known political operative, but also a lobbyist that has a
variety of corporate clients in the top 100 corporations in America, as well
as associations that are very concerned about advocacy here in Washington, DC.
GROSS: Well, what are some of the issues that McCain campaign adviser Rick
Davis has lobbied for that you think might impact the kind of advice he would
Mr. THURBER: I think that Rick Davis has a major impact on the campaign and
on John McCain and what John McCain says, even though John McCain's very
independent. Especially in the tax area. He's very much of a person who
feels that we have to have major tax cuts to stimulate the economy, and he has
many clients that would like that. He also has corporate clients that would
not like a corporate tax, as advocated by Obama. And he's certainly giving
Senator John McCain advice about that, also.
GROSS: And I should say, Rick Davis is on leave from his lobbying position
and has worked for McCain without salary for a year. So does that eliminate
the conflict of interest question?
Mr. THURBER: I don't think that it does. I think that just not having a
salary from Davis Manafort does not change his relationship in his mind with
his clients and with John McCain. He's not advocating for the clients in the
campaign explicitly, but he doesn't need to because he's influenced by many
years of relationships with those clients.
GROSS: OK, moving down the list in the McCain campaign of people who have
been lobbyists, Charles Black. What's his role in the campaign, and what are
some of the companies he's lobbied for, or foreign governments and foreign
Mr. THURBER: Charlie Black of the BKSH & Associates was very involved in the
2004 Bush campaign. He was a Bush pioneer. He's probably the most
experienced and respected Republican lobbyist in Washington, DC. He has a
very successful firm. He's a close friend of George H.W. Bush, Bush I, and
served as advisers to Reagan and George W. Bush. He's been an official
spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, and he has dozens of
corporate clients that have issues that are related to this campaign in the
area of energy, environment, tax, trade; issues that can cost a corporation
hundreds of millions of dollars.
GROSS: Now, among Charlie Black's clients have included leaders of countries,
including some dictators. His clients have included--and correct me if I'm
wrong here--Jonas Savimbi of Angola, the Philippine President Ferdinand
Marcos, Zaire's Mobuto Sese Seko, Somalia's President Mohamed Siad Barre.
What concerns do you have about that?
Mr. THURBER: Charlie Black has represented the heads of nations in Africa
and elsewhere that have very questionable backgrounds in terms of the way they
treat their people, questions of human rights. He's been doing this for many
years. It's a very lucrative business. At times one wonders whether he ever
says no to a foreign client.
GROSS: Now, let's get to Phil Gramm. Phil Gramm is a former senator who was
McCain's chief economic adviser, no longer is. I understand he's still close
to McCain, and there's still rumors that McCain, if elected, would choose him
as secretary of the Treasury. Phil Gramm is not a lobbyist, but do you think
of him as having lobbying connections?
Mr. THURBER: I define lobbying very broadly. Phil Gramm serves as vice
chair of an investment firm, UBS Warburg, and they certainly have issues
before the federal government right now. He was largely responsible for the
lax regulations that led to the Enron debacle and led also to some of this
loose lending. Phil Gramm is a conservative, former Republican senator from
Texas that is close to McCain. They like each other. Even though he's
stepped down as a result of the controversy recently, his statement about
America isn't in a recession, he still will have a great deal of influence on
the campaign, and he's likely to be called in to serve in a McCain
administration, maybe as secretary of Treasure.
GROSS: Let's get to John McCain's wife, Cindy McCain. Now, she's the head of
a beer distribution company that her father founded--this is Hensley &
Company--and she and her children own about 68 percent of the privately held
stock in the company. Is the company involved in lobbying?
Mr. THURBER: All companies are involved in advocacy or lobbying. All
companies have to deal with state and local regulations, but also federal
regulations. Right now, the InBev corporation out of Brussels, Belgium, is
trying to buy Anheuser-Busch. Now, Cindy McCain's company owns $100 million
worth of stock, Budweiser stock. The entire issue of whether Budweiser can be
purchased or not is in the public sector. She is not, I'm sure, lobbying one
way or the other for this, but she has a great deal to gain if InBev buys the
company. It looks like that's going to happen. The Budweiser stock was at
$42. The bid by InBev is about $64. She's going to make a great deal of
money out of this.
GROSS: Now, on a state level, Cindy McCain's company opposed initiatives in
Arizona that would've raised liquor taxes and used that money to fund a
statewide childhood education program and more pediatric hospital beds in poor
communities. In the Senate, McCain has recused himself from alcohol-related
issues. What would it mean if he were president, and he had to sign or veto
any kind of issue related to liquor, and Cindy McCain still owned the beer
Mr. THURBER: Presidents cannot recuse themselves on all issues, and if an
issue came up related to alcohol and she still owned this company, or the 60
percent of this company, 68 percent of this company, this would be a huge
conflict of interest.
GROSS: My guest is James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional
and Presidential Studies at American University. We'll talk more about
lobbyists and the presidential campaigns after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional
and Presidential Studies at American University. We're talking about
lobbyists in the presidential campaigns.
The press has written a lot more about the McCain campaign connections to
lobbyists than it has about the Obama campaign. Does that represent the
reality of the campaigns, that there's just less lobbying influence in the
Obama campaign, that there are fewer people highly placed in the campaign who
have been former lobbyists?
Mr. THURBER: I think the fact that McCain has been in Washington, DC, for so
many years means that he has many more people that were lobbyists very close
to his campaign. Obama is a newcomer. He certainly knows people, but he
doesn't have intimate relationships with them. He has a few former lobbyists
in his campaign, certainly people that advocate and have not registered. But
again, his theme is the same as McCain. He's just a little cleaner in terms
of the number of people who've been in the lobbying business. Where Barack
Obama boasts about not being of Washington, he says, quote, "I'm the only
candidate who isn't taking a dime from Washington lobbyists." That's where
he's disingenuous. He is getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from
nonlobbyists from corporations. It's all transparent and recorded by the
Federal Election Commission. And he, in fact, had $138 million so far just
from law firms. Now, what do law firms do in Washington, DC? They advocate.
GROSS: So when you say he's getting all this money from nonlobbyists, you
mean people who actually function as lobbyists but aren't registered as
Mr. THURBER: It's a technicality in both campaigns. If you register as a
lobbyist--and there's about 30,000 registered lobbyists in Washington,
DC--that's a lobbyist in their mind. But there's probably 90,000 people in
Washington, DC, in the advocacy business, meaning people who build coalitions,
who do grassroots lobbying, who market airplanes from Boeing to the Defense
Department, who intervene in the regulatory process, who generally come as,
quote, "outside experts" when called by committees on the Hill, and members,
you don't have to register if you do that. If you collect all of those people
in Washington, this advocacy business is huge, and there's a lot of those
people in both campaigns.
GROSS: Are there any people at the top of Obama's campaign who have been
Mr. THURBER: Tom Daschle, former senator, is the campaign chair. He is
certainly in the advocacy business. He's not a registered lobbyist. To be a
GROSS: He's a former Senate majority leader.
Mr. THURBER: Former Senate majority leader. To be a registered lobbyist,
you have to spend 25 percent of your time being paid for by a client and make
at least two contacts each quarter on an issue for that client. Well, he
spends 100 percent of his time advocating, but he doesn't need to register
because there's huge loopholes in the law on that. He doesn't make direct
contacts with members of the Senate unless he's asked. If he's asked to come
up and talk to them or sees them socially, he doesn't need to register. Tom
Daschle is not a farmer. He's not a real estate agent. He's an advocate in
Washington, and a very successful one. And he gives people advice about
strategy. He opens doors. He brings together teams of people that lobby in
coalitions, helps with grassroots and top roots strategy. He definitely is in
the advocacy business. So for that campaign to say that they have no
lobbyists on the campaign, and they will not talk to lobbyists after they get
into office, again is disingenuous, in my opinion.
GROSS: Now what about Joe Biden, the senator from Delaware, who is now Barack
Obama's vice presidential nominee? Let's just take a quick look at him. Does
he have connections to lobbyists?
Mr. THURBER: All senators have connections to lobbyists. They have the
right to come in and advocate, and they also try to take care of the companies
in their own states, as he does in Delaware. He's very close to a very large
credit card company. His son is a registered lobbyist. He tries to recuse
himself from issues related to his son's lobbying, but it's very difficult
because companies go to family members to advocate for them because they know
they have close contacts with the father or the mother in the Senate or the
Now remember that Delaware is a place where there are a lot of corporate
headquarters, and certainly Joe Biden is very close to most of those
corporations, DuPont and a variety of others.
GROSS: If there are fewer former lobbyists in the Obama campaign, what kind
of people has he been going to for leadership within the campaign?
Mr. THURBER: Obama's set a high standard in terms of people being close to
him that have had explicit positions paid for by outside clients. As a result
GROSS: His position is trying to avoid that, is what you're saying?
Mr. THURBER: Obama's position is to avoid working with people who have been
paid to advocate a particular position. He's moved to people who've been in
government in the past in foreign and defense policy. He's moved to people in
academia when it comes to economics, tax and trade policy. He's moved to
people that are on Wall Street, like Robert Rubin, who certainly has specific
positions that he wants for the banking community, investment community. But
he's moved to those people to get advice. So we get immediately into a shade
of gray, of, `Well, is Rubin advocating what is in the public interest, or is
it in the private interests of the investment community that he represents in
Wall Street?' It is not clear sometimes when someone is advocating for a
personal, private interest and a public interest when talking to a candidate.
But generally, I think Obama is talking to more people that are advocating for
the public interest.
GROSS: Obama has a lot of academics who have been advising him. Do you think
that they're playing some of the role that former lobbyists play in some
Mr. THURBER: I think academics have their own values, and they push those
values, but they usually are not directly related to a very narrow, private or
specialized interest. They philosophically believe in a particular position
when it comes to economics, and they're pushing that position because of the
public interest. So there, they're really pushing what they think--and they
may be mistaken sometimes--but what they think is the public interest, rather
than pushing an interest related to a client that has hired them to advocate
for that position.
GROSS: James Thurber will be back in the second half of the show. He's a
distinguished professor of government and director of the Center for
Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We've been talking about the
involvement of lobbyists in the presidential campaigns. My guest is James
Thurber, a distinguished professor of government and director of the Center
for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
For a lot of people, just the word "lobbying" is a dirty word. Now, you've
been studying lobbying and ethics and writing about it and teaching about it,
advising people like Obama and McCain about it. Do you see lobbying as a
dirty word? Do you think that like lobbying is just ethically wrong, period?
Mr. THURBER: No, I think lobbying is part of the American democracy. We
have First Amendment rights, which means that we can organize and petition
government for grievances. We have freedom of speech. We have freedom of the
press and freedom of religion. All of that grows groups in America, and we
really have a form of pluralism, or group politics, that has a major impact.
Now, most people in America think lobbyists are corrupt, but they don't think
of lobbyists from the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts or other organizations
like that as corrupt. We have over one million groups, Terry, in America.
Probably 40,000 groups during a two-year cycle of Congress are involved one
way or the other in advocating in Washington, DC. That's just the way it
And we've had some real outliers, scandals recently with Jack Abramoff;
Representative Bob Ney; former majority leader Tom DeLay; Randy "Duke"
Cunningham; William Jefferson, Democrat from Louisiana, that all led, in the
2006 election, to America saying, `Hey, the war's not the most important
problem in the exit polls that year, it was corruption.' Seventy-four percent
of the people in the exit polls in the 2006 election felt that corruption and
scandal related to lobbying was the most important issue. So people love to
hate lobbyists, but they also want lobbyists when they've got a problem, and
they want them to advocate for them.
GROSS: Since your issue is ethics and lobbying, what are you keeping your eye
on during the conventions?
Mr. THURBER: Well, the conventions are places where lobbyists work through
parties, social gatherings. I'm looking to see whether they're breaking the
rules. The rules are very clear. You may not have a major party and spend
money for a particular candidate, in honor of that candidate. You can have a
widely-attended event where the candidate comes, along with other people. You
can help support, through the political parties, the convention itself; and
major corporations have done that. So I'm looking at new tools actually that
they're using to try to influence members of Congress and other people from
the states that are there. And one thing is to have a, quote, "educational
event" where you bring in a key member of Congress that's chair of a committee
to talk about global warming, for example, Senator Boxer.
GROSS: Now, this gets around the rule that you're not allowed--a lobbyist
isn't allowed to throw a party for one particular senator or congressman. So
this gets around that rule?
Mr. THURBER: Yes. There are various ways of getting around the rule for
honoring a particular member, and one way is to have an educational event or a
generally attended event on a general topic, where you actually, in the end,
honor that member, but it's not stated as an event honoring that member.
GROSS: Is it frustrating for you? You advise senators and congressmen about
how to create legislation that would make lobbying more transparent and curb
some of the powers of lobbyists, then they find ways to get around it.
Mr. THURBER: Well, I think that the way Washington works is not so bad. The
public has very bad attitudes about it, and that undermines the capacity to
govern, undermines our democracy, so it's important. The main thing I want is
more transparency, make it easier for the public to know about campaign
contributions, more about what lobbyists do and how much they pay. Why?
Because I think it's important for the public to make a judgment between the
public interest and very specific private interests. Frequently private
interests are behind the scenes, they're hidden, and I don't like that. I
think it's better for the public to know about what lobbyists are doing, how
much they're--what their targets and their expenditures. The lobbying reform
went a long ways towards bringing more transparency and enforcement, but we
have a long ways to go, in my opinion.
GROSS: James Thurber, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. THURBER: It's good to be here.
GROSS: James Thurber is a distinguished professor of government and director
of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American
Coming up, we hear from Don Cheadle. He's starring in the new film "Traitor."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actor Don Cheadle on his new film, "Traitor," and his
TERRY GROSS, host:
Don Cheadle first got the attention of critics and movie audiences with
memorable supporting roles like the country music-loving porn actor "Buck" in
"Boogie Nights" and the unhinged criminal "Mouse" in "Devil in a Blue Dress."
But Cheadle gets lead roles nowadays. He played Washington, DC, deejay Petey
Greene in "Talk to Me" and earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for "Hotel
Rwanda." After shooting that film in Africa, Cheadle became an activist,
calling attention to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Among Cheadle's other
films are "The Rat Pack," "Crash" and "Ocean's 11," "12" and "13." Cheadle
stars in the new film "Traitor," a spy thriller that involves FBI agents
trying to stop an Islamic fundamentalist group plotting terrorist attacks.
Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a former American military intelligence operative,
who's become a devout Muslim whose loyalties are now in question. Cheadle
spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
Let's start with a scene from "Traitor." Samir is in a Yemenese prison, where
he'd gotten into a fight after sharing food with a defenseless inmate whom
prison thugs had been bullying. Now he's playing chess with a member of a
terrorist group, discussing the loss of innocent life in a larger struggle.
(Soundbite of "Traitor")
(Soundbite of background conversations)
Mr. DON CHEADLE: (As Samir Horn) I've been in a lot of battles, and they may
have felt like a suicide mission at the time, but we always had a plan to come
Unidentified Actor: (In character) You must be willing to sacrifice some of
your pawns if you want to win the game.
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Samir Horn) I don't know.
Actor: (In character) I think you do. You risk your life to share your food
with a stranger.
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Samir Horn) That's not the same thing. I was just doing my
(End of soundbite)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Well, Don Cheadle, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Wanted to talk about the new
film "Traitor." You know, the film begins with your character as a little kid
in Sudan. Explain what happens there and how you think that shapes this
Mr. CHEADLE: Well, he's, you know, we establish the movie showing him in
just a very typical setting with his father, they're playing chess, they're
sharing tea. They're Muslim, so they go through their prayers. And then his
father kisses him and he leaves, and he gets in his car and, boom, the car
goes up. And it sort of imprints him at a very young age as to what terrorism
does, as to what this, especially this kind of methodology, how it rends. And
it, personally, he bears the brunt of that. And so that kind of sets him off
on his path. So it makes sense, you know, as you go through the film, to see
where he comes down, on which side he comes down on what he needs to do.
DAVIES: You know, this is a spy thriller, and it's an action film. I mean,
there are explosions and gunplay and chases. But the ideas are serious and
nuanced. And I know that you don't do the marketing for the films once your
performance is done, but I'm wondering if there's a concern that, you know,
there might be an audience for some of the ideas that are raised here that
might not readily go to an action film if you market it that way. Or is it an
opportunity to get people who love action films to maybe think about some of
these issues a little differently?
Mr. CHEADLE: Well, I think you've leaned into hopefully what it will do, is
that if people want to come and just kind of enjoy it on the thrill of the
action, they can. But movies like this, I always want to smuggle in those
ideas and have people--we don't have to lead with them, but I like it if
people walk out of the movie with something to talk about. This film, we were
really trying to--you know, this movie, it's really an opportunity to play
against a backdrop that does exist, and have a character who's really dealing
with these questions in a personal way. To me it was just interesting that we
have a main character in this film who is a Muslim who turns out to be the
hero of the movie, and who is fighting with what it means to be a good Muslim
and to be a good soldier and to be a good mate, and he's trying to figure out
which, quote unquote, "which God he's going to serve." So it's much more of a
personal story than a story about--than we're even educating people about, you
know, the Islamic faith or radical Islam or Muslims or, on the other side, you
know, our government or what we're willing to do or our special operations or
rogue, you know, elements inside of our government. It's really about this
Samir Horn and the decisions that he's making moment to moment.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Don Cheadle. He's starring
in the new film, "Traitor."
You grew up in Kansas City, right?
Mr. CHEADLE: Yup. Born in Kansas City.
DAVIES: Is that right? Dad was a child psychologist, your mom was a teacher.
And I read that you were in a fifth-grade production of "Charlotte's Web" and
that you brought something really special to that performance. Is this Don
Cheadle mythology, or is that where it all started?
Mr. CHEADLE: Oh, I thought you were reading off of reviews. I'm sorry. I
thought you--I have them in my wallet if you want me to--no. No, it's, yeah,
that was kind of my first foray into, you know, into the theater was playing
Templeton the rat in "Charlotte's Web." And it was quite a stirring
performance, if I do say so myself.
DAVIES: And you did stand-up, right?
Mr. CHEADLE: I did. I didn't formally do it. A friend of mine who I'd gone
to high school with, we're driving by, I think it's The Laugh Factory in
Denver, I'm not sure what it's called, The Laugh Factory or Comedy Store, one
of those, and they had an open mike night that night. And I said, `Do you
think we could do that?' And he's like, `Yeah, let's try.' So we went back to
my house, I remember, and kind of worked up some routine or whatever and came
back, and did the open mike night and crushed, you know, did great.
Mr. CHEADLE: And had a lot of fun, and the club owner was like, `That was
pretty good, you guys. We're doing another one next week. You should try to
come back and do it.' So we did it the next week and came back and crushed
again, you know, killed it, had it great, it was beautiful. Then the guy
said, you know, `We should actually think about maybe giving you guys a
regular spot. The people really seem to dig you.' And we're kind of feeling
ourselves a little bit, so we went back the next week, and I invited my
parents to come see, and we didn't crush. We weren't that good.
Mr. CHEADLE: And that's the worst feeling in the world. I mean, dying
onstage doing comedy is probably worse than being in a bad play--which is bad,
but dying onstage doing comedy, you know, you're just kind of laid bare.
Nobody can rescue. You're looking at the clock like, `We still have four more
minutes we have to do.'
DAVIES: So is that good training for a career in show business, to have your
ego crushed and come back from it?
Mr. CHEADLE: It's good training for a career in becoming an antidepressant
addict, I think is what it is good training for.
DAVIES: Well, we should talk about the performance that got you an Oscar
nomination in "Hotel Rwanda." And I have to tell you, my son did a semester
away in South Africa and saw this film in South Africa with a native South
African who refused to believe that this Don Cheadle was really an American
Mr. CHEADLE: That's funny.
DAVIES: So at least there, you were entirely convincing. Tell us about how
you got involved with this project.
Mr. CHEADLE: Well, this was one of a couple of scripts that I had seen
around the same time. The other one was "Crash." And I had just learned about
what happened in Rwanda. I hadn't known, like many people knew nothing about
it, and saw a "Frontline" documentary television show that was done about it,
and was just, you know, devastated. And shortly thereafter, I saw this
script; so I met with the writer/director, Terry George, and, you know, he
kind of told me right up from the beginning, very straight up, he said, `Look,
I've been trying to get this movie made for a couple years, and I can't make
it. I would love to make it with you. I think you'd be good in it, but if
Will Smith steps up or a Cuba Gooding Jr. steps up and the studio says
they'll make it with them, I'm going to make it with them.' And I said, `I
thank you for being honest, and, you know, I think you need to make the movie
however you can make the movie,' because it's really rare that you read a
script like that, where you just feel like it has to be made. However it has
to be made, it has to be made.
And I really was sincere when I said, `Look, I'll help you produce it, I'll
try to help you raise money if you're trying to find money for it. Whatever I
can do to try and help this movie be made.' And, you know, thankfully the role
came my way and I was able to do it. But it was one of those things that
felt, at the time, to me, to be bigger than just some movie that was out
there. It seemed to me to be a story that the world should kind of be made to
DAVIES: And, you know, and I think it certainly is that. You play Paul
Rusesabagina, who was a hotel manager of a four-star hotel, in, what--Kigali,
the capital of Uganda, when the genocidal attacks on the Tutsi erupted. And
this hotel manager managed to save, I guess, about 1,000 people with his own
kind of courage and guile. And I thought we should hear a clip from the film.
This is at a moment in the film where the UN peacekeepers, who you and others
had hoped would protect folks, the refugees in the hotel, from the attacks of
the Hutu bands around them, the UN peacekeepers in fact left in buses with all
of the Europeans, leaving you to fend for yourselves. And here you are
breaking the news to your wife, played by Sophie Okonedo.
(Soundbite of "Hotel Rwanda")
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Paul Rusesabagina) All the whites are leaving. They are
Ms. SOPHIE OKONEDO: (As Tatiana Rusesabagina) But what about us?
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Paul Rusesabagina) We have been abandoned.
Ms. OKONEDO: (As Tatiana Rusesabagina) But the, the soldiers will stop the
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Paul Rusesabagina) Listen. Listen to me, Tatia, listen. I
said all the whites are leaving: the French, the Italians, even the UN
Belgian soldiers. All of them!
Ms. OKONEDO: (As Tatiana Rusesabagina) Who is left?
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Paul Rusesabagina) I don't know. Colonel Oliver said he
has 300 UN peacekeepers for the whole country. The most he can spare for the
hotel are four men, and they are not allowed to shoot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Paul Rusesabagina) I am a fool.
Ms. OKONEDO: (As Tatiana Rusesabagina) No. No, no.
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Paul Rusesabagina) They told me I was one of them, and
I--the wine, chocolates, cigars, style? I swallowed it. I swallowed it. I
swallowed all of it.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: And that's our guest Don Cheadle from the movie "Hotel Rwanda."
You know, I read that some refugees from the Rwanda genocide were a part of
the cast. Is that right?
Mr. CHEADLE: Yes. Not the cast, but the extras, and a lot of the people
that we had to sort of fill out the hotel, yes, a lot of them were.
DAVIES: Yeah. What do you think that added to the film, to the performances?
Mr. CHEADLE: Well, a lot of veracity, I mean, because people would come up
to you and tell you the way you needed to be doing something, or how something
had gone down, or the reality of it. And it always kept me in a frame of mind
of what was really important and what we were doing it for and what it was
DAVIES: Can you recall a moment when someone came to you and gave you that
kind of advice, or admonition?
Mr. CHEADLE: Well, I remember one moment when we were shooting one of the
hotel scenes, and I noticed that one of the extras was really--she was having
a hard time. It was--I think it's the scene where the Interhamwe have come in
the hotel and they're ushering people out into the carport, and by our
understand are about to start killing them. And the woman was having a really
hard time dealing with it. And I went to the woman that was consoling her and
said, `Is she OK? Does she want--should she leave? Does she want to leave?'
And the woman like looked up at me and she said, `No, no, I'm not leaving, and
this is important and we have to tell this story, and it has to be told right,
and I'm participating in it and I'm not leaving.' You know, she was adamant
about it. She just had to get through what she was dealing with emotionally.
And later she came over to me and she lifted up her shirt and showed me her
back, and she had these machete scars on her back, and said, you know, `This
is not just a movie. You know, this is real to me.' And it was like, `Wow.'
And that's when you feel a great responsibility, and you feel, you know, that
you have to honor these people's lives who've, you know, given you their--I
felt like the spirits were there. I felt like ghosts were there saying, you
know, `Get it right.'
GROSS: Don Cheadle will talk more with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies
after a break. Cheadle is starring in the new film "Traitor." This is FRESH
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies
recorded with Don Cheadle. Cheadle is starring in the new film "Traitor."
When we left off, he was talking about meeting refugees of the Rwandan
genocide during the filming of "Hotel Rwanda."
DAVIES: Now, I've read that your activism on the issue of Darfur grew out of
your experience making this film. Is that right?
Mr. CHEADLE: Yeah. We had a screening for this film at one of the MGM
facilities in Los Angeles, and a congressman from Orange County, California,
Ed Royce, approached me about coming along with--he and several other
congressmen and -women--on a congressional delegation to Sudan to see the
camps, to talk to the NGOs there, and talk to the African Union peacekeepers
there on the border between Chad and Sudan. And we were able to bring
"Nightline" along, and "Nightline" documented it for us; and along with myself
and John Pendergast and Paul Rusesabagina went as well. We were able to sort
of bring this story back at a time when it was very under-reported and very
few people even knew where Darfur was or what it was or what was happening.
And that sort of pushed me into a wave of activism and advocacy that was
happening before I had gotten there. It just sort of made me a focal point of
a lot of it, I think is what happened.
DAVIES: Right. Now, you co-wrote "Not on Our Watch," the book, right, and
you were profiled in the film called "Darfur Now," right?
Mr. CHEADLE: Yes. Yeah.
DAVIES: I wonder if the experience might have--what you've learned about both
the potential and the limits of celebrity activism and how it affects people's
perceptions of you.
Mr. CHEADLE: Well, I think at the beginning, you get a lot of good will. I
mean, at least you get attention. And there were those who would say to me,
`Are you doing this just to get shine? Are you just trying to have people
look at you?' I said, `The only reason I'm trying to have people look at me is
so that they look at them.' You know, it's something that Brad Pitt had said,
which is true, he's like, `We can't get out of the light, and they can't get
in the light.' You know? So you're trying to reflect and refract it so that
it shines on the people that actually would do with having people follow them
around and record what they're doing and becoming engaged in their lives so
their stories can be out and people can find conduits to try and help them.
So I know that there are limitations to it if your celebrity involvement
starts to look like it's self-serving.
But also, you can't play down to cynics, you know. I know what I'm doing; I
know why I'm doing it; and I know what it means to me. So I just keep moving
forward on the basis of that, and the people who it's helping, you know, the
people who are getting the attention, let me tell you what, they're very happy
to have celebrities saying, `Look at us.' They're very glad that people are
pointing toward them and trying to drive attention in their direction.
DAVIES: You've done a lot of serious roles, but I thought we ought to hear
from a kind of a fun character you did for the "Ocean's 11" casino heist
movie. This is Basher Tarr. He's the English explosives expert, and...
Mr. CHEADLE: What, are you about to play a clip?
DAVIES: I was going to, yeah.
Mr. CHEADLE: You're going to crush me.
DAVIES: I am? Why?
Mr. CHEADLE: As long as they can't hear it in England, that's all right.
DAVIES: Did you take some grief for your accent on this one?
Mr. CHEADLE: Did I? Do I? Only every time I bump into anybody who's
actually from there.
DAVIES: Ah. Well, I hate to inflict this on you, so cover your ears if you
Mr. CHEADLE: Do you? Do you hate to? Because it sounds like you're getting
some delight in it.
DAVIES: Well, I, you know, it's...
Mr. CHEADLE: Have at it.
DAVIES: It is a fun, over-the-top performance. Here's Basher Tarr, and he's
come to the crew that are getting ready to knock over this big casino, and
there's some problem that he has discovered. Let's hear him.
(Soundbite of "Ocean's 11")
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Basher Tarr) That poxy demo crew haven't used a coaxial
feed to batten the main line, have they? They've only nosed up the mainframe
couplet, nosed it right up!
Mr. ELLIOTT GOULD: (As Reuben Tishkoff) Do you understand any of this?
Mr. EDDIE JEMISON: (As Livingston Dell) I'll explain later.
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Basher Tarr) Listen, they're so ponied that they've gone
gone and blown the backup grid one by one, like dominoes.
Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) Basher, what happened?
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Basher Tarr) They did the same what I would've done, only
they did it by accident. Problem is, now they know their weakness and they're
sorting it out. They're fixing it.
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) So...
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Basher Tarr) So unless we intend to do this job in Reno,
we're in Barney. Barney Rubble. Trouble!
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: And that's Don Cheadle from "Ocean's 11." I don't know what's not to
like about that.
You know, your career has really developed gradually; in other words, that
really terrific performance in "The Devil in the Blue Dress," and, you know,
going back to "Boogie Nights." And you're now somebody who, you know, who
leads, who stars, who carries movies. Is fame a burden in any way to your
Mr. CHEADLE: Do you know, it's really--either I'm being surveilled at a
distance and in a way that is actually pretty scary, because they're not
coming out with anything, or I'm just so boring that nobody cares. And I
think it's probably the latter. I just don't--I'm not--I don't have the
weight on me that, you know, we see the people in the, you know, like Brad
gets, like George gets, like Matt gets. You know, I got an e-mail from Matt
that he had his baby right before I got on the plane, and by the time I landed
my wife said, `Oh, Matt had his baby.' I said, `Oh, do you know because he
called you?' She said, `No, I'm reading it online.' I'm like, oh, man, you
know? So I'm not freighted with that kind of attention, and I really
appreciate it because my kids don't like it, and I'm glad to be able to just
run around with them kind of, you know, anonymously.
DAVIES: Well, I read that Brad Pitt once came over to your house and then you
had to tell him don't do that again because...
Mr. CHEADLE: Yeah, he came and it was in People magazine the next day. I'm
like, `Well, that's a wrap for you at my house, Brad.' You know? So it's
definitely, you know, you hear people complain about it, and it's hard, you
know, like, `oh, poor celebrity,' you know, `he's got people following him and
all these people just want to take pictures of him.' No, it's not, `oh, poor
celebrity,' but at the same time, it's like, would you want somebody following
you around in a car and chasing you down, you having to run in the house with
your kids? It's not all it's cracked up to be.
DAVIES: Well, Don Cheadle, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Mr. CHEADLE: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Don Cheadle stars in the new film "Traitor." He spoke with FRESH AIR
contributor Dave Davies, a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Correction regarding Manny Farber's political leanings
TERRY GROSS, host:
We want to set the record straight about something that was said on our show
last week. On Friday, our critic at large John Powers did an appreciation of
Manny Farber, a painter and film critic whose writing was very influential,
although it didn't reach a mass audience. In John's piece he said that
politically Farber was conservative, he twice voted for President Bush; but
aesthetically, he was not.
After the text appeared on our Web site, John received an e-mail from Farber's
widow, Patricia Patterson. She wrote, quote, "Manny was not a conservative, a
libertarian, a Republican, an anything. He did not vote for Bush twice."
Patterson went on to say, "Other than the political misinformation, I thought
your piece was lovely and accurate." To read John's appreciation of Manny
Farber, and Patterson's full response, go to our Web site, freshair.npr.org,
where you can also download podcasts of our show.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.