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A Narrative Problem: The Many Faces Of McCain

Journalist Robert Draper examines the connection between a presidential candidate's narrative and his ability to win voters' confidence in his recent New York Times Magazine article, "The Making (and Remaking) of McCain."


Other segments from the episode on October 28, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 28, 2008: Interview with Robert Draper; Interview with Jonah Goldman.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
A Narrative Problem: The Many Faces Of McCain


This is Fresh Air. I am Terry Gross. Presidential campaigns nowadays are in part about selling the candidates' narrative. The McCain campaign has changed its narrative over and over, portraying the candidate as a fighter and maverick and as a bipartisan conciliator. Why and how the narrative has changed and how effective those changes have been is the subject of the article "The Making and Remaking (and Remaking) of the Candidate" by my guest, Robert Draper.

It was the cover story of Sunday's New York Times Magazine. It's based on interviews with senior and mid-level McCain advisers as well as a number of his former senior aides. Draper is a correspondent for GQ and the author of "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush."

Robert Draper, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's start with just an overview of the different narratives that the McCain campaign has used.

Mr. ROBERT DRAPER (Writer, New York Times Magazine): Well, sure, Terry. I mean, let's start with the fact that John McCain is someone who America has known for a very long time, and we've only known Barack Obama, by contrast, for about 18 to 20 months or so. And yet, what has happened over recent months is that Barack Obama has had one story, and he stuck to it. That story is change.

John McCain, though, he's an individual we feel like we've known, has nonetheless had difficulty selling himself as a candidate as opposed to someone we should simply admire. And so, what the campaign has attempted to do is find a story line that can connect to the needs of the electorate in this election year on a landscape that's very unfavorable to Republicans.

So they have kind of toggled between these different qualities, these different characteristics of McCain. And none of them is invalid. They're all part of McCain, but in so doing, in emphasizing that the guy is, for example, a maverick the one minute and a post-partisan deal maker the next minute, it has achieved the nearly impossible, or one would thought impossible, which is that this guy who we thought we knew so well has become unrecognizable to us throughout the campaign.

GROSS: Well, I think, just simply, I have a feeling he has become unrecognizable not just because of competing narratives that he used in the campaign but because it has been so negative in the campaign, and that was something he always said he opposed, that kind of negative campaigning.

Mr. DRAPER: Well, in fact, Terry I think that's one of the narratives that I struck upon that sort of dropped into the campaign, not of the campaign's volition, but there it is, which is John McCain versus John McCain, that McCain has been running to some degree not only against Barack Obama but against John McCain circa 2000, the guy who took down his negative ads in the very contentious South Carolina primary because, as he put it to one of his aides, he wanted to run a campaign that his daughters could be proud of.

He often would say about George W. Bush's campaign, that's not honorable. What they've done is not honorable. The Jeremiah Wright matter, he said back in May or June of this year, was something that his campaign ads would not exploit. On the other hand, McCain has authorized ads, I think, of a very personal nature. It's not just simply that they attack Obama for being a flip-flop or being inexperienced or being too liberal, but they have also attacked his character, questioned his patriotism, suggested that those views that he espouses are not the views of ordinary Americans. And those play to fear rather than hopes. They don't appear to be honorable in the eyes of many. It does run counter to the narrative that we always believed was at the essence of John McCain.

GROSS: OK, so McCain was successful in convincing his strategist that he would not go with ads that tried to attack Obama through his relationship with his former pastor, Reverend Wright. But McCain did go with ads attacking Obama for knowing Bill Ayers and for having worked with him on a board of directors. What do you know about what happened inside the campaign in terms of how to use Bill Ayers against Obama?

Mr. DRAPER: Well, Terry, I think that, in a lot of ways, Bill Ayers became a release valve for McCain and his staffers as a result of the constraints that McCain had put on them about Jeremiah Wright. I think that McCain felt bound by his word on Jeremiah Wright. He had given his word, and McCain does not go back on his word, and that is where he drew a line. Well, he didn't give his word about Bill Ayers. And so, in a way, that became kind of the release valve and it disproportionality occurred using Ayers in a way they were unable to use Jeremiah Wright.

I think that they felt that this was a legitimate issue, and I've heard this all the way up until the end of my reporting from Steve Schmidt and others, that absolutely this reflected on Barack Obama's judgment and on his honesty, that he would hang out with somebody whose views are reprehensible and would not come clean about the extent of his involvement with it. And they believed that those are themes that, if anything, they were hammering on too late in the game and should have been hammered on earlier.

GROSS: You said that one of the narratives that have emerged unintentionally in the McCain campaign is McCain versus McCain, the McCain who is opposed to negative campaigning and the McCain who has been doing those kinds of negative ads. I wonder how much you know about why McCain decided to bring Steve Schmidt into his campaign over the summer. I mean, Steve Schmidt is known for negative campaigning. He worked with Karl Rove. So, if you bring in Steve Schmidt, that's what you're signing up for, isn't it?

Mr. DRAPER: Not necessarily, and I think that it has been overplayed, Terry, the relationship between Steve Schmidt and Karl Rove. Schmidt had been a Republican operative for a dozen years before he'd ever worked for Rove. And his more direct superior was Ken Mehlman, who is not the slasher that Rove is. Mehlman is an organizational genius, a real disciplined fellow, and I think that that's what McCain believed he was getting with Schmidt.

Now, it's worth backing up a little bit here talking about Steve Schmidt. Schmidt was just one of many consultants, many strategists that McCain had in the summer of 2007 when his campaign kind of blew apart due to problems in fund raising, infighting, and unpopular stance that McCain had made on immigration. And a lot of people left. Schmidt stuck around.

He began to earn McCain's trust and began to tell McCain that, look, the press has written us off. We've already lost, but there is a lot of time on the clock. So I think that we can fashion a comeback narrative, and we have time in which to do so, but now, we need to discuss the means by which that can occur. One of them is to focus our resources on New Hampshire, a state you're very familiar with. Another is to examine what it is that you're saying.

Now, McCain back then had been talking incessantly about Iraq, and it was really driving a lot of people in his campaign nuts. They just thought, people don't want to hear about Iraq. They have war fatigue. Talk about the economy. Please, talk about anything else. But Schmidt began to realize over time that McCain's refusal to turn his back on the surge was a plus for McCain, was, in fact, not impeding the narrative. It was the narrative. And this sort of planted the seeds for the no surrender tour that I think was the beginning of McCain's comeback.

GROSS: One of the turning points in the McCain campaign was the decision to go with the Obama as a celebrity ad, and this was after Obama returns from this incredibly successful tour of Europe and the Middle East, you know, tens of thousands of people showing up to his rallies. What went on in the McCain campaign when they saw how successful this Obama tour had been?

Mr. DRAPER: At this point, Terry, and we're talking about August, really just a couple of months ago, seems like a few years ago.

GROSS: Doesn't it?

Mr. DRAPER: It really does. The McCain campaign still had not developed much traction in terms of how to define Barack Obama. And they were very demoralized by the fact that Obama was out there getting basically round-the-clock coverages. He was on his tour of the Middle East and of Europe.

So there was a meeting that took place among the chief strategists of the McCain campaign in Phoenix at the Ritz-Carlton in August of this year. Steve Schmidt sort of opened it by saying, let me just throw a few things on the table for observation. Would anyone disagree with the premise that we are not winning this campaign? No one disagreed, and he said, you know, would people disagree with a premise that Obama's right now having his way with us, that he's got the media at his feet.

And Schmidt, at a certain point, kind of had this epiphany and said, you know, they're treating him like he's a celebrity, and the sort of euphoria began to overtake the group, and they begin to play with this notion of Obama as this ephemeral character. Now, this is important because they had recognized one flaw to the Hillary Clinton campaign against Obama, and that was that she was downplaying him as a mere espouser of rhetoric. The McCain people believed that words do matter, that there was something admirable about Obama and his oratorical skills.

So the trick was not so much to suggest that words mean nothing, but the trick was to kind of push him up even further, as one of McCain's advisers would tell me, make him an Icarus, sort of push him up to where there's no oxygen and make a rock star celebrity out of him. And so, this celebrity ad campaign resulted in the end, that they did a major ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears. And it really took hold.

GROSS: Another strategy that they had in the McCain campaign was to make McCain seem like he was definitely the candidate of the two who had the international experience. And when Russia invaded Georgia, this was their opportunity because, you know, McCain knew the president of Georgia. So, did they think their strategy was effective in trying to build McCain's international leadership capabilities around the Georgia story?

Mr. DRAPER: Well, it had mixed results to say the least, Terry. And I imagine we will get in a minute or two to the matter of how the experience argument, the experience narrative was undercut somewhat by his vice presidential selection, but after they did the sort of celebrity thing, they began to argue that McCain was the most experienced hand in a dangerous world. The Georgia matter dropped into their lap, they believed, presenting them with an opportunity to showcase McCain's foreign policy experience.

Unfortunately, after Russia invaded Georgia, McCain went out there to give a talk on the subject and mispronounced Saakashvili's name, the Georgia leader, on two, maybe three occasions. And this was a guy he supposedly knew and yet could not pronounce his name. What they did then, the next day, when McCain had a town hall meeting, was have - these town hall meetings that McCain is famous for, that he's been doing since 1999, are very freewheeling. McCain has a microphone, and he's wandering around in front of the audience and speaking off the cuff, and that's sort of the charm to him. There's this kind of reckless quality to him.

But McCain opened this particular town hall meeting by talking about the Georgia situation, and rather than kind of give these off the cuff remarks about Georgia versus Russia as a way of demonstrating his superior knowledge, he read from prepared notes that were at a lectern that he stood beside. And it clearly, as a visual, undercut the notion of this guy who you could wake up at three A.M. and would know exactly what to do about Georgia. He was reading from notes just like any of us would. And so, there's - what that was about, of course, was Steve Schmidt exerting a message of discipline because he felt like it had been lacking the day before. And this, by contrast, was a rehearsed-to-a-fault McCain and ultimately undercut the narrative of the guy who has the more experienced hand.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Draper. We're talking about his New York Times magazine cover story, "The Making (and Remaking and Remaking) of the Candidate." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

My guest is journalist Robert Draper, and he has the cover story in this week's New York Times magazine. It's called "The Making (and Remaking and Remaking) of the Candidate." And it's about the John McCain campaign and the different narratives that they've tried in creating a strategy and a narrative theme for him. Before we talk about how Palin changed the narrative of the McCain campaign, can you tell us a little bit of what you know about why she was chosen in the first place. Whose decision was it within the McCain campaign to go with Palin?

Mr. DRAPER: Well, it's - ultimately, it was John McCain's decision, but it was by no means John McCain's idea. That's the bottom line. The idea to pick Palin came from Steve Schmidt and really, principally, Rick Davis, the campaign manager. Davis and McCain had met Palin at the National Governors Association Convention in Washington, D.C. in February of this year. And it was a brief meeting, but it had an impact on Davis because Davis believed that she was someone who had sort of pushed through the Ted Stevens-Murkowski network of Alaska, could bring McCain back to his maverick narrative.

And so, Davis began to gather information, interviews and such about Palin and passed them on to Steve Schmidt. Schmidt was of of view, along with Davis, that this was a very, very unfavorable landscape for Republicans, and any Republican candidate was going to have a tough time beating any Democratic candidate this year. And when in doubt, it was better to go bold. I think their greatest fear would be that the game would be over on November the 4th, they would wake on November the 5th and look at the play book and say, we only used half of it. We never threw the ball down field. We never did our trick pass. There was so many different ways to win, and we just played conservative football. And Palin fit the description of a bold move, and so, as a result of that, they were the guys who came to McCain in late August of this year and advised him very strongly to consider her.

GROSS: Did you get a sense about whether there were any regrets within the McCain campaign about the choice of Sarah Palin?

Mr. DRAPER: If so, Terry, it's the hate that dare not speak its name. But yes, sure, there's plenty of recognition inside the camp that there are other picks available that could have advanced the ball. Obviously, they didn't know that the financial market crisis would occur and would really change the whole language of this campaign, such that the notion of pork barrel spending and getting rid of the good-old-boy network would take a back seat to, you know, having a steady hand and understanding about the fundamentals of our economy, which McCain has said are strong.

If they had known that, then they might well have gone with New York Mayor Bloomberg, who was very high on the list of consideration. They might well have gone with Mitt Romney, who's known for his understanding of the economy, of economic issues, but they didn't. And so, they realized that there's not much point in second guessing.

At the same time, there have been so many melodramas that it consumed the campaign related to governor Palin and the $150,000 that had been spent on clothes and make-up, the use of a voice coach as I disclosed in my story that made her look to be somewhat less than an authentic hockey mom. This is the kind of stuff that they could do without in the waning weeks of the campaign.

GROSS: So, after Palin was chosen as John McCain's running mate, they did the whole maverick thing. That was the theme of the campaign for a while. When did the McCain campaign start downplay the maverick idea? Was there a point that they thought, it's not really catching on?

Mr. DRAPER: Yes. The moment that the financial markets collapsed. You know, at this time of incredible instability, that what we really needed right now was somebody to go in and shake things up. What we needed was for somebody to come in and calm things down, for somebody to bring people to the table. And so, McCain made this decision to suspend the campaign, to go all in, as it were, and to go back to Washington and forge a bipartisan consensus. But leaving aside whether or not that narrative played out, it really didn't. That narrative ran counter to the notion of someone who would take a wrecking ball to Washington, D.C., which essentially was what McCain and Sarah Palin were promising they would do.

GROSS: So take us behind the scenes there during that moment when McCain decides to suspend his campaign and go to Washington with the idea that he would be a key figure in brokering a deal for the financial bailout plan. Why did they decide that he would suspend his campaign and try to be a key player in that?

Mr. DRAPER: Well, the notion - I mean, again, the predicate for all of this, Terry, is this belief held by Steve Schmidt, Rick Davis, and others that you've got to be bold. When the economic meltdown occurred, McCain happen to be in New York a few days after it, and he had this meeting with his political strategist. It immediately followed a meeting he had with economic advisers, who had told them that this was true crisis, and that if it were not addressed, there will be disastrous consequences worldwide. He had also been talking to House Republican members who had said, we're not going to go along with Secretary of the Treasury Paulson's proposal, the $700 billion rescue package.

And so McCain sat with his political strategists for several hours and discussed options. The options presented to McCain were either to just sort of hold the bailout package at arm's length and, you know, sort of view it with suspicion or to continue to discuss his principles, continue to talk about what he felt would be the right thing to do but do it while on a campaign trail, or shut down the campaign altogether and go in and sort of lead the effort to forge a consensus and get a rescue signed by the president.

They elected the latter proposal, and what I've just described to you, Terry, runs absolutely counter to what the campaign was telling us happened. They were telling us that this was McCain's decision and his alone, that sort of the classic throw the dice maybe fly boy was, you know, conducting this bold move, but, in fact, it was very much, you know, as a result of over discussion with political advisers that was carried on for hours.

And to me, what's kind of remarkable about it is that they eliminated out of hand the middle course, which would have been to discuss all of this while continuing the campaign, and that's what Obama did. That's what a lot of people I think would have advised doing, but they believed that it would be tantamount to walking and chewing gum at the same time, which, for some reason, they thought McCain ain't capable of doing. And I think it proved to be a very, very consequential decision.

GROSS: McCain seemed to almost sit on the sidelines, though, during the discussions about what to do with the bailout plan. So, if he went down there to make a bold move and suspended the campaign in order to do it, why didn't he take a more active part in trying to negotiate agreement on a plan?

Mr. DRAPER: Well, here's the problem, Terry. There were a lot of nuisance things at work. I mean, I've had McCain's people say to me, look, you know, you wrote this book about President Bush, and so you understand that their legislative team sometimes oversells things. They made it sound like this was a package that Congress would go for. In fact, they weren't going for it. There was a lot of protracted negotiation that was going to take place, and McCain needed to sit there and listen to it all. The problem is that, essentially, McCain's people challenged, you know, invited the media and the outside world, followed John McCain and watched the guy be a leader.

They promised this sort of visual performance of this guy coming into Washington, going into this White House meeting with President Bush and Barack Obama and others, and him very demonstrably leading us toward a solution. But there was no kind of visual evidence of McCain doing it.

In fact, somewhat to the opposite, McCain at this - was supposed to suspend his campaign and immediately go back to Washington. He didn't do so. It stuck around and gave an interview to Katie Couric, then the next morning gave a speech at Bill Clinton's Global Initiative, and only then went to the Capitol and kind of hung out in his office for most of the afternoon, then went to a White House meeting where Barack Obama dominated the discussion, and McCain said almost nothing. And so, the McCain campaign was sort of promising us, you know, watch us, just watch this man perform. And the performance left a lot to be desired.

GROSS: Robert Draper will be back in the second half of the show. His article, "The Making (and remaking and remaking) of the Candidate" was the cover story of Sunday's New York Times magazine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

This is Fresh Air, I'm Terry Gross back with Journalist Robert Draper. He wrote Sunday's New York Times magazine cover story, "The Making (and Remaking and Remaking) of the Candidate." It's about why and how the McCain campaign has kept changing its central narrative. Draper is also the author of the book "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush."

The narrative theme of the campaign lately has seemed to revolve largely around Joe the Plumber. This really is, you know, somebody who questioned Obama about what would happen to the business he was planning to buy. And then, you know, McCain kind of took this whole thing as his own. And even after the press discovered that Joe isn't a licensed plumber, that Joe doesn't have nearly the amount of money it would take to actually buy this business, that he was nowhere near ready to buy the business, and that it was unlikely that if he did buy the business, it would make more than $250,000 in profits, and he would pay less taxes under the Obama plan than in the McCain plan. So since all this information is out there and on the table, courtesy of the press, why are they still going with Joe the Plumber?

Mr. DRAPER: Well, for reasons you just outlined, Terry, Joe the Plumber as an actual spokesperson has his limits. But symbolically, the McCain campaign believes that he can be potent. There you see this now in this ad they've been airing, I'm Joe the Plumber, where they show these various individuals who look like ordinary Americans who are concerned about what kind of America there would be under an Obama administration, an America in which there would be this redistributing of the wealth, where people's hard-earned money will be taken away from them. You know, it's a rather old argument, the tax and spend liberal, but they think it may have some traction with independents.

I think the second reason also is that they've kind of run out of merit of options, Terry. I mean, this is all that they've gone through five or six of these, and this is basically McCain the Fighter who will fight for ordinary Americans. It's kind of a throwback to their very first narrative of McCain the Fighter fighting on behalf of the troop surge. But it's a little late for them to come up with a final iteration, a new storyline. And so there's sort of sticking to this one, hoping that it will galvanize independents.

It strikes me as a pretty ineffective one because I'm just not sure the tax and spend argument works as well on this economic landscape. And that the McCain campaign has hitched itself to this wagon, and done so so late at the game. I think it's providing challenges for them, but I also think that they really have run out of other narrative options.

GROSS: But they're not calling Obama a tax and spend liberal. They're calling him a socialist.

Mr. DRAPER: That's right, yeah. That's it, and, you know, what this again goes to is this notion that the McCain campaign has promulgated for a while, which is, you don't really know this man. And what gives the lie to it, Terry, is that Americans have actually seen Obama for a very long time now. He has participated in, what, something like 24 televised debates. They watched in particular his performance in his three debates with McCain. They really have a pretty good sense of him.

And a lot of people don't like him. They may not like him for policy reasons, for ideological reasons. Some may not like him for racial reasons. But they do have a sense that they know him. And this argument that you don't really know this man is going to pull a bait and switch on you. I think it sort of goes against the grain of the reality, that Obama's narrative is and has been set for a very long time.

And so describing him now as a socialist, it more plays into the counter-narrative that Obama has been running against McCain, which is that this guy is melodramatic. That they're a little bit erratic. They're prone to this sort of acts of flamboyance, going over the top and suspending a campaign, insisting that the debate be postponed. They're now calling Obama a socialist, you know. Sort of what's next? At a time when we have two wars to wage, and we have a bonafide economic crisis, these acts of shrillness and melodrama, I think, are not playing very well with the electorate.

GROSS: One of the McCain campaign aides has said recently that Palin is going rogue, that she's now in it for herself in case McCain losses, and that she's saying things that aren't official talking points, that the campaign doesn't want her to say, that she's behaving like a diva. Have you heard anything like that coming from within the McCain campaign?

Mr. DRAPER: I have, yes. And I've heard, as well, expressions from the McCain campaign that Palin has been disloyal, which is about the worst thing that you can do to John McCain, be disloyal towards him, that she has veered off of talking points, that she's indicated that McCain has the wrong policy views, made the wrong campaign decisions by pulling their ad resources out of Michigan, for example, not talking about Jeremiah Wright. And I haven't heard that she's viewed as a diva, but that she's gone a little bit off the reservation. And they don't like that.

Now, on the other side of the coin, I've heard from some people in the Palin camp that she has been very frustrated by the way that she has been stage managed, and there had been concerns from some McCain campaign people from the start that she was being over-managed by people. And going all the way back to the days leading up to her convention speech, she was being coached to answer questions very, very carefully.

And I have some sympathy for those people who were stage-managing her because they could see an individual who just didn't know that much about international affairs, and letting Sarah be Sarah might not necessarily be a good thing, as one of the McCain senior advisers said to me. But this was the balancing act that they have not quite achieved successfully, which is to keep her from, you know, making a fool out of the McCain campaign while at the same time giving her enough oxygen, enough space to have a kind of recognizable persona. I think it's been very frustrating for Palin and her supporters, very frustrating for McCain. And I think he knows sort of goes to the capriciousness of having picked her to begin with.

GROSS: During the 2000 campaign, McCain was known for, you know, the so-called straight talk express, where he, on his bus, used to talk a lot with the press. You say that really changed during this campaign when Steve Schmidt took over the campaign, and we've seen that McCain's access to the press has been very limited. During this campaign, Palin's has been very, very limited. You aren't able to speak to either of them for your article. Why did Schmidt think that McCain had to keep his distance from the press in the way that he didn't during the 2000 campaign?

Mr. DRAPER: Well, he wasn't there at the 2000 campaign. But his belief was - and he's indicated this to Senator McCain - was, look, senator, the press may have loved you in 2000 when you were this maverick running against Bush. But you would have found, had you been the nominee, that the love would have been short-lived. That, basically, the press is liberal, and they will turn against you.

And Schmidt's view has been, this is nothing to be bitter about. It's just simply a fact. It's like, you know, no point shaking your fist at the rain. Rain occurs. The media is liberal. And ultimately, particularly today's media in Steve Schmidt's view, are these sort of very young Harvard-educated, blog-obsessed kids who are all going to vote for Obama. And you just can't expect them to be on your side. So, at a certain point, you're going to have to draw the curtain.

But I think even Schmidt was unprepared for the degree to which, in his and Mark Salter's view, the media really gave Obama a pass and did not investigate Obama with the rigor that they would have hoped. They talked to me a lot about this notion that Obama has never paid a price from his own party for bucking his party. That whenever he's done something against his party, it's never been a controversial move. Where McCain has done this, they've loved to say that the scars the proof for bucking President Bush and the Republican Party, nearly lost his candidacy due to immigration.

And they wanted to see the media really pursue this, really kind of buy the narrative and take it and run with it that Obama is not who he says he is. That this guy is just sort of a classic Democrat and will never really be this bipartisan problem-solver. That the media failed to promulgate that particular narrative was proof to Schmidt, further proof that the media was not on McCain's side. It was, in fact, against him, and that they ought to conduct their messaging accordingly.

GROSS: One more question. You wrote a book called "Dead Certain" about the Bush presidency, and you wanted it to be a non-judgmental narrative, just kind of recording what happened during his presidency. And, of course, he won that presidency by defeating McCain in the primary in 2000. Yeah, I mean, that is one of the ways he won. So, as President Bush is ready to depart the White House, and as we see McCain trying to distance himself from George W. Bush, I wonder if you have any thoughts you'd like to leave us with about surprises in this Bush-McCain relationship or surprises for you in watching the terms in which President George W. Bush is leaving the White House.

Mr. DRAPER: Well, we've been, you know, talking earlier, Terry, about McCain's performance during the financial meltdown. By contrast, you have George W. Bush's performance, which in September of 2008 looked very much like what most Americans had expected to see of George W. Bush in January 2001, that is of the guy he promised on the campaign trail, a uniter, not a divider. That turned out really not to be the case. We're more of a divided nation than we were before Bush took office.

That he certainly said to me, while interviewing him for my book, that he's a results-oriented kind of guy, that he didn't care much for process, that it really wasn't ultimately that important to him whether he brought lots of people on board, just that he got results. But by 2008, with his power greatly diminished, we finally began to see the George W. Bush that I saw of him when he was governor of my state, of Texas, who was a constitutionally-weak governor and therefore worked hard with the Democrats in both the House and the Senate to forge bipartisan consensus and get things done.

You know, this was basically Bush's approach in August of 2008, that, look, you know, Secretary Paulson has a proposal, but the important thing is that we respond to this crisis. I'm really interested in whatever everybody's got to say. And what we saw was a very, very conciliatory White House. Of course, you know, ultimately because of the lame duck status, but it does kind of leave, you know, I think a lot of people wistful while seeing Bush, frankly, perform admirably during that and leaving us with the question of what might have been had Bush been, from 2001 all the way up until the present, the man that he promised that he would be when he ran for president.

GROSS: Robert Draper, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. DRAPER: It's my pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Robert Draper's article "The Making (and Remaking and Remaking) of the Candidate" was the cover story of Sunday's New York Times magazine. He's also the author of "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush." Coming up, preparing for problems on election day. We talk with Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections. This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Hotline To Help Secure Voters' Rights On Nov. 4


With the election just one week away, both parties have raised concerns about potential voting irregularities. In recent weeks, Republicans have warned of massive vote fraud from the grassroots group ACORN, which has turned in over a million new voter registration applications around the country. Democrats counter that the charges against ACORN are a manufactured scare campaign designed to lay the basis for challenging Democratic voters in key states. They say Republicans themselves are engaged in a wide range of voter suppression tactics. Meanwhile, others warned that a combination of new registrations, heavy turn-out, and new or inadequate voting systems could lead to long lines and other problems on election day.

For some perspective, we've turned to Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections, which is part of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The campaign will staff a national voter hotline and have lawyers in 45 locations on election day to answer voters' question and respond to problems. Goldman spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Jonah Goldman, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's talk about some of the things that people have been reading about in the campaign. One of them is the charge by Republicans and John McCain that ACORN - this community group is an acronym which stands for, I guess, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, they've been conducting mass registration drives throughout the country. And the Republicans say that they are deliberately turning in fraudulent registrations, presumably to get phony votes cast. And John McCain said that they are, quote, "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." What's your take on what ACORN is up to?

Mr. JONAH GOLDMAN (Lawyer, National Campaign for Fair Elections): Well, I think it's unfortunate. You know, the facts are out there about this. I think that that kind of language is just incendiary, and I don't think that it's very helpful. There is certainly a problem with turning in false voter registration forms, and that has been a problem in this cycle.

But with that problem is is that it puts a burden on election officials that are administering a historic registration right now. This puts an additional burden, where they now have to sift through these cards to determine whether somebody is or isn't eligible, but there is absolutely no evidence, and, in fact, people have looked into this time and time again, there is no evidence that any of these folks end up coming to the polls and voting.

And there is a reason for that. The motivation behind submitting a false voter registration card is often to get paid by the registration organization that you're working for, which is obviously a significantly different motivation than going to a polling place and risking 10 years in prison to change one vote. It's really not that the false registrations turn into false votes at the polling place, but what this is doing is really creating sort of chaos and confusion at the local level, possibly leading to things like voter challenges at the polls, and what that's going to do is put an additional weight onto an already overstressed system that we just don't need right now.

DAVIS: Let's go back over a couple of things you said. You said there's no evidence that these people actually turn up and vote at the polls. Now, that's obviously not from this election. You're referring to what - the primary that we just saw in the spring or the election of 2004?

Mr. GOLDMAN: There has been a lot of research into this from elections for the past 10 or 15 years. There's been - there have been problems in the past with turning in false voter registration forms, and there's been an effort to look into it both from the Justice Department, from independent groups, from local enforcement to see if these voters ever turned out, and, in fact, they don't.

That's not to say that it's never happened. What it is to say is that - I think that the last study that looked into it found that - they looked specifically at Ohio, and in the, I don't know, 10-15 million votes that were cast in the past two or three presidential elections, they found evidence of seven voters, that's seven just single digit, seven voters who may have cast, you know, ineligible ballots, which puts your chances of finding somebody who's committed this type of voter fraud around the same as your chances of getting struck by lightning.

DAVIS: And in the - you mentioned that what ACORN does, does create additional work and burdens on local elected officials who have to process all these voter registration applications. Most of the problematic registrations, though, really aren't fraudulent as much as duplicates, right? I mean, their cases were an already registered voter has signed up again because an ACORN volunteer met him on the street, and they said I've just got be sure that I'm registered, right?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Oh, absolutely. There are plenty of those, and that's certainly no faults of ACORN's or any other community organization, you know. I think that what we have to understand about this, and, you know, some of the other things we've already been talking about today is that this is a system that is good but certainly can be better. There is no reason why we have to leave it to these community groups to do a lot of the great work that they do in registering voters.

This should be the responsibility of the government to register voters, and it's not that hard to do, and it's not that expensive to do it. It's a lot more efficient to do it. It takes out the risk of the people who are going to show up at the polls on election day and not be on the registration list because of backlogs of voter registration, and it also takes out any risk at all of this type of in-person voter fraud. It really is the direction we should be moving into. We need to reform the system, and then we can really sort of get over these kinds of conversations every four years. I may be out a job, but I'm happy to be.

DAVIS: I want to talk about some of the reforms you propose in a couple minutes. Now, a lot of Democrats have been complaining that Republicans are trying to strike voters from the rolls, and there have been actions by election officials in a lot of places, maybe motivated by Republicans, maybe not. One of the things that we're seeing is some places where election officials take their lists of registered voters and then match them against other government lists like Social Security lists or driver's license lists and when they discovered a discrepancy do something about it, take them off the rolls, file a challenge. Tell us what's happening there and how troubled we should be about it?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, I think that it's a new issue this year that largely came up because these databases, the statewide voter registration databases are relatively new. They first came online across the country in 2006, so this is the first big election. I think that we're worried about it because we've seen a lot of activity, and one of the problems with this matching is that the government databases don't match so closely with the voter registration database, so often, there are false positives, people who don't come up as a match between these two databases, but are, in fact, who they say they are. They live where they say they are. They continue to be living, breathing American citizens who are eligible to vote.

DAVIS: When you say a false positive, one database has the middle initial, the other doesn't, and therefore, they flag it? Is that what you mean?

Mr. GOLDMAN: That's right, or one database has - or when somebody has been keying in a voter registration card, they invert a couple of letters, so there's not a direct match there. There's a lot of different reasons why there are matching problems or not, you know. One of the reasons why this matching process is often a first step to determining eligibility but certainly by no means the last step and certainly shouldn't be like what we're seeing the discussion is in Ohio right now. It certainly shouldn't be the case that 200,000 names that don't match a government database are either flagged or taken off the rolls or subject to challenge when we know that, often, these matches are so faulty that sometimes 20, 30, or 40 percent of the matches are false positives.

DAVIS: Well, what exactly is happening in Ohio?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, right now, what's happening is the Ohio Republican Party basically tried to get the secretary of state to give out the names of - to the local election officials of the 200,000 people who have come back as a no match on one of these various databases, and there was litigation that actually went all the way up to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court basically said that the Ohio Republican Party doesn't really have grounds to stand and challenge this decision by the secretary of state.

DAVIS: But you're a nonpartisan group, but Democrat's are saying that these are things that Republicans are doing because they want, you know, fewer people able to vote. Are they right?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, first of all, I think some of the accusations about people being removed out of voter registration rolls at a time period when they shouldn't be removed off of voter registration rolls is an equal opportunity assessment. I think that there are Republican and Democrat chief election officials that are potentially at risk of this, and I say this sort of in a way not to be cagey, but just because we're not sure what the details are of a lot of these long removals. But I think that the broader point is that no party has a monopoly on bad acts related to elections. They both are - both parties have their initial interest in getting their guy elected.

We've already seen this happening in Ohio, with the Democratic secretary of state trying to reject absentee ballots because a relatively superfluous box wasn't checked by the people who are requesting absentee ballots, and these were an absentee ballot forms that were produced by the McCain campaign. And then, at the same time in Colorado, you have a Republican secretary of state trying to reject voter registrations because people didn't check - this is becoming a theme - people didn't check a superfluous box on those voter registration forms. It really is, from a candidate level and from a party level, it's really all about getting someone elected.

DAVIS: We're speaking with Jonah Goldman. He's the director of the National Campaign for a Fair Elections. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIS: If you're just joining us, our guest is Jonah Goldman, he's the director of the National Campaign for a Fair Elections in the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights under voting laws, Voting Rights Project. If you had the chance to craft some - a new election law or at least proposals for Congress to consider about what ought to be changed. Let's take one area, registration. What should be done there, voter registration?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, we should move to a system of universal voter registration. Basically, what that means is that we should transfer the responsibility from the voter to the government. We do this in a lot of different places. It may sound like we're proposing some big new government program where we're not, I mean, we do this in a lot of places. 18-year-old men register for Selective Service, for instance, and the Selective Service system can find them if they don't register. We have high school rolls. We have tax rolls. There's a lot of these list.

These lists that are imperfect, and there needs to be a lot of safeguards to make sure people are put on the list, and those are the people who are actually eligible voters. But what we should be doing is focusing on putting people on the list, doing it in a relatively constant way so we're not focusing just on registration deadlines, and then providing a backstop for voters at the polls who don't show up on the list.

If we do that, we do a couple of things. Number one, we remove third-party registration groups from the process. That means that we don't have to worry about these stories about ACORN, and we don't have to worry about whether or not registration groups are sending registration cards to the right election official versus the wrong election officials. The state really would have control over that, so that's the first thing that it would do.

And then the second thing it would do is, it will allow people who get engaged in the process late to still be in the rolls. They don't have to worry about these 30-day voter registration deadlines. You know, when we're talking about this - this incredibly heartening new generation of political advocacy that we see through the young voters that are going to be turning out this election season, a lot of them don't understand why they have to register 30 days before they vote. They've never had to register for anything 30 days before. They click a mouse, and everything is sort of instantaneous.

We don't need for that to happen. It's an arcane structure that's an obstacle to the ballot box, and we could take that away. Election Protection, that coalition that we lead at the Lawyer's Committee, finds that, on election day and before election day, about 30 to 40 percent of the problems that we get from voters, even at the polling place, are actually related to registration. We can wipe those out if we significantly reform our registration process.

DAVIS: Briefly, what are some of the other changes you would make in the way we conduct elections?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, I think one thing we need is we need to have a good deceptive practices prevention act that will prevent these deceptive practices that are happening every year. We need to be really creative about how we recruit, train, and deploy poll workers. Right now, the average age of poll workers in the country is somewhere hovering around 72, and I know a lot of my colleagues who are recruiting, training, and deploying college poll workers, which means that there's people on the other end of the age spectrum that are averaging the average age of 72, and what we need to do is make sure that we don't put all of the burden on the senior community. Instead, what we need to do is be creative with things like public, private partnerships, with using government workers as poll workers, with having more sophisticated training structures for poll workers. That's going to solve a whole lot of our problems.

And then, the last area that I think we should address is things like early voting and absentee voting. There is no reason why we should be confined to 13 hours on a single day in the middle of the week to be able to vote. We should have as many options as possible for eligible voters to be able to go out and cast a ballot. It's the way that we need to be.

The only reason why we cast a ballot on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November is because of an arcane law that was passed by the Congress in the 19th century that we wanted to make sure that growers could get in from their farms into the town to be able to cast the ballot, and it was far enough away from Sunday, where it was the Sabbath, and it was close enough to the day of market, and it was after the harvest. I mean, these kinds of considerations are obviously less important in a situation where we are all driving our cars and flying on our planes and not having to take the horse and buggy into the town center.

DAVIS: Well, Jonah Goldman, good luck on election day. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GOLDMAN: Thanks, Dave.

GROSS: Jonah Goldman is the director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections, which is part of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davis, who is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. You can download podcast of our show in our website Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. 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.

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