David Maraniss, Michael Quinn and Alexander Lamis are our guests this week.
Special guest co-host Nicolle Wallace, author of It’s Classified (now out in paperback!)
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: June 30, 2012 on SiriusXM Satellite Radio “POTUS” Channel 124.
Polioptics airs regularly on POTUS on Saturdays at 6:00 am, 12 noon and 6:00 pm.
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I was thrilled to have Nicolle Wallace as our special guest co-host on Polioptics Episode 62, recorded on a historic day when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. As she was a member of the White House team that helped prepare John Roberts for his confirmation as Chief Justice, she had a unique perspective on what motivated him to cast the deciding vote in the 5-4 ruling.
Many know Nicolle — a guest on Polioptics Episode 30 — from many places. She was director of communications in the White House under President George W. Bush. She was a senior adviser to the McCain/Palin Campaign. And, after leaving politics, she has become an author, first of Eighteen Acres, then It’s Classified (now out on paperback). In her conversation with me, she pulled back the curtain ever so slightly on the third volume of her history of the fictitious 45th president of the United States, Charlotte Kramer, on which she is currently working (hint: think Air Force One meets 24).
While Nicolle has left politics in the rear view mirror, she still sees a lot in that mirror. The Supreme Court dominated the news this week more than at any time since it ended the recount in Bush v. Gore a dozen years ago in 2000. Nicolle was immersed in that recount, living in Tallahassee at the time, using her experience as the former press secretary to Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. When the recount ended, she moved to Washington to work in the new Administration of his brother. After serving as communications director for the Bush-Cheney reelection in 2004, she returned to the White House where one of her tasks was preparation of John Roberts for the for his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005.
Getting a nominee through Senate confirmation is never easy, but as depicted in HBO’s Game Change, it was a far less challenging assignment than the one she would face three years later, helping to prepare Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the scrutiny she would face as Sen. John McCain’s running mate against Barack Obama and Joe Biden:
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Around the same time that Nicolle Wallace was working with Sarah Palin, David Maraniss was already immersed in his research and writing about Sen. Barack Obama, completing his assignment to write the long-form articles for the Washington Post about the Democratic presidential candidate with the odd-sounding name who gave such a stirring speech at the 2004 convention in Boston.
That in-depth reporting led Maraniss down the same path that he pursued following the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, where his reporting on the Arkansas governor earned him the Pulitzer Prize. Maraniss’s study of Clinton ultimately became First In His Class, the Clinton biography that, among other things, formed the basis for Barak Goodman’s American Experience documentary on Clinton for PBS (Goodman was a guest on Polioptics episode 42).
After many more years of research, a journey which took him around the world, from El Dorado, Kansas to Kenya to Indonesia, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York City, Cambridge and Chicago, Maraniss is now out with Barack Obama: The Story, his epic account of the early years of the life of the 44th President of the United States.
In his conversation with Nicolle and me, it wasn’t hard to detect ambivalence on Maraniss’s part about writing the book in the first place. He knew, as one of the keenest observers of Washington and its personalities, that the book was likely to be seized upon by interested parties on all sides for their own purposes. As we discussed, campaigns routinely employ teams of specialists, private investigators and vast resources in “oppo research” to compile life-spanning dossiers that pale in comparison to the picture that Maraniss offers about Obama and the family and background from which he emerged to become an Illinois state senator representing the 13th district from 1997 to 2004.
Still, any reader — me among them — who buys a book and sits in an armchair in the comfort of their homes with the expectation of being transported to a different time and place has to be grateful to authors like Maraniss, a rare breed, who dedicates the time, legwork and thoroughness to paint a picture of places like Kansas in the 1920s, Honolulu in the 1970s and Nairobi in the 1980s.
Chronicling Barry Obama’s years at Occidental College in California, Maraniss tells us exactly how many steps it took to reach the future president’s dorm room and gives vivid details of the furniture inside. He walks the streets over which Barack Obama, Sr., the president’s father, drove like “Mr. Toad,” a manner which, mixed with alcohol, led to his doom.
Those details don’t necessarily open a window into Obama’s soul, but they do transport you from that armchair, without moving a muscle, through the decades and across continents. I enjoyed reading Barack Obama: The Story as much for its vivid description of college life at a time different from my own as for insights into what drives our president today.
This is the same kind of journalism that has always attracted me to David Maraniss, especially in areas that veer away from politics. They Marched Into Sunlight was one of the most evocative books of the Vietnam era. And one of my favorite books of all time was When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. Both books have enjoyed second lives. Marched is being made into a movie, set for release next year. Lombardi was a Broadway play we saw last year, a co-production with the National Football League.
In the Lombardi book, we understand through Maraniss’s writing how the coach of the Green Bay Packers motivated his teams to win on the gridiron on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field behind the arm of Bart Starr. But we also understand how young Vince, just like young Barry, worked to avoid life’s traps in Brooklyn that could have seen him live a life as a butcher in Harry Lombardi’s meat shop. Along the way, younger readers raised on Peter Gammons, Will McDonough and Bob Ryan were reintroduced to legendary sportswriters like Grantland Rice, adding popular tailwind to writers like Bill Simmons to bring us a new generation of sports writing on sites like Grantland.
Where does Maraniss journey on from The Story? He has hinted that he’ll do a second volume on Obama, but doesn’t want to make it a lifetime pursuit like Robert Caro has with Lyndon Johnson. Perhaps a sequel to First In His Class? Someday, he says, he may “revisit” the Clinton story. That work would certainly take Marannis around the world, many times over. First stop: Harlem, but there’s no Moviegoer in Clinton.
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The second segment of our special Fourth of July episode of Polioptics features Michael Quinn and Alexander Lamis discussing the plans for the Museum of the American Revolution.
Those who have read my 10-part series, “The Story of Polioptics,” especially Part 2: Founding Fotos, recall that a significant slice of my philosophy of presidential stagecraft came from a youth spent in Boston around the time of the Bicentennial, surrounded by the sites that played an integral part of the American Revolution. But merely following the path of the Freedom Trail, gazing up at the steeple of the Old North Church, isn’t enough to bring the period to life.
My dad rarely missed a chance to bring my brother, Rick, and me to sites up and down the Eastern Seaboard to soak in as much as we could about what drove the colonists to rid themselves of the yoke of monarchy two centuries prior. We marched with re-enactors in Williamsburg. A horse threw me off my saddle on a trail ride at Valley Forge. And in Charlestown, dad was patient enough to take me to repeated showings of “The Whites of Their Eyes,” an early multi-media extravaganza that recreated the Battle of Bunker Hill with sound, lights and Disney-quality animation (at least that’s the way I remember it). The long-closed exhibit, my brother insists, still sits in a warehouse near Cambridge, waiting to be resurrected for another generation of young historians.
One place I might hope to see it play again (or something much better, given the advances in cinematic technology), is the new Museum of the American Revolution, set to open steps from Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 2015. A few weeks ago, I spit up my coffee in excitement over a New York Times article detailing the plans for the new museum, designed by legendary architect Robert A.M. Stern, which has been given a jump start in the $150 million fundraising goal by a $40 challenge grant from philanthropist H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest. Modern patriots like Gerry Lenfest and David Rubenstein (Polioptics, Episode 36) are using parts of their fortunes to preserve our history that’s threatened in the age of video games and other modern distractions.
In my early years at the White House, in 1994, a battle raged over the proposal by Michael Eisner, then head of the Walt Disney Co., to build a theme park dedicated to American history not far from the Manassas battlefield in Northern Virginia. After a lengthy skirmish, Eisner’s troops were turned back at the Potomac, and I have long wondered whether that was such a good thing. Disney, and its divisions like Pixar, are unrivaled as masters of using creativity and technology to transport visitors and viewers to a different time and place. And instead of Disney’s America, what did we get in the succeeding two decades? More suburban sprawl encroaching on the meadows that Union and Confederate forces squared off in one of the first battles of the Civil War.
In its effort to build a museum to house the collection of the American Revolution Center near Valley Forge, the museum’s advocates suffered a fate similar to Eisner’s forces. After an extended struggle over land approvals near Valley Forge Park, they were rebuffed. But like George Washington’s troops in the winter of 1777-1778, Michael Quinn, the President and CEO of the American Revolution Center, and his team have persevered, arriving now in Philadelphia with a perfect parcel to build the quintessential stage to tell the entire story of the war that gave birth to our nation. To open the doors of the new museum, they have a monumental fundraising battle ahead, but it is well worth the fight.
As Quinn and the building designer, Alexander Lamis of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, told Nicolle, me and my brother, Rick, their new site nearby the Liberty Bell, with its millions of annual visitors hungry for the newest approaches to historical storytelling, will allow them to ultimately win the war.
The museum that Quinn and his team are working to build won’t be cast in the mold of the old repository, with priceless artifacts shielded behind bulletproof glass. Lamis, who is currently engaged in the design of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University, was also Bob Stern’s project partner for Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts at Walt Disney World in Florida. Quinn and Lamis plan fully interactive museum content, including experiential exhibits that allow visitors to experience what it was like to serve on a frigate under the command of John Paul Jones facing British broadsides at close range. That approach has proved successful, despite its critics, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. In the end, maybe there will be a bit of Disney’s America in Center City Philadelphia helping to teach future generations of Americans about our founding. And now many might agree that’s not such a bad thing after all.
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To all of our loyal Polioptics listeners, our best wishes for the Fourth of July.