Writer Robert Draper

The best-selling author explains the inspiration behind the title of his new book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do, comments on whether the media has an impact on Congress and shares his thoughts on this year’s “freshman class” on Capitol Hill.

Robert Draper is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic and a correspondent to GQ magazine. He's also author of several books, including a novel, the best seller Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush and, most recently, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, which looks at the new legislative branch that was elected in the history-making 2010 midterm elections. He previously worked as senior editor at Texas Monthly, where he began covering then-Gov. Bush.


Tavis: Robert Draper is a noted journalist and best-selling author who’s a correspondent for “GQ” and a contributing writer for “The New York Times Magazine.” He joined us on this program for his 2000 best-selling text about the Bush presidency, “Dead Certain.”

His latest, out today, is already causing quite a stir inside the Beltway and beyond. It’s called “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.” Robert Draper joins us tonight from New York. Robert, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Robert Draper: Thanks for having me, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start by asking why we do not want to ask what good they do. (Laughter)

Draper: The title of the book, Tavis, comes from a quote from one of our first congressman, a fellow named Fisher Ames from Massachusetts who was one of Congress’s first great orators. He wrote the language to the First Amendment.

But after serving four terms in the House he was fed up with partisan divisions, and so he wrote that lament to a friend, “Do not ask what good we do; that is not a fair question in these days of faction.”

But there’s partisanship and then there’s partisanship. Back then there may have been divisions, but they got a lot of things accomplished. In that first term of Fisher Ames’s, they set up an executive branch, they set up a federal judiciary, they paid off their war debts, they annexed a couple of states, and for good measure they passed the Bill of Rights.

By that measure, the kind of partisanship that’s taking place in Washington today, if only it were like the kind we saw back then. Unfortunately, what we see now is paralysis.

Tavis: So this is a fair and legitimate question to ask today?

Draper: I think it is. I think that what I set out to do, Tavis, in writing this book was primarily to follow around a number of these 87 Republican freshmen who had come to Washington to shake things up.

They rode in on a Tea Party wave, and I was really interested in the experience of them being in Congress, since about a third of them had never had any kind of – had never held any elective office before, but what the book really, I think, ended up being more than anything else was a parable of dysfunction.

Tavis: Is it just my historical read, or maybe I’m off here, but the notion of freshmen in any particular class coming in thinking they’re going to turn Washington upside-down is as naive as what President Obama thought he was going to do when he first came to Washington, turned the place inside-out?

Draper: Yeah, well, look, in fact more to sort of buttress your point, Tavis, it had long been held on Capitol Hill that freshmen were there to be seen and not heard.

In fact, in 1902, there were 42 freshmen who came in on the Teddy Roosevelt wave, but they so quickly learned that they were impotent that they formed this club called the Tantalus Club, which became sort of a little entertainment group that would entertain members of the press and other politicians. What they basically did was mock their own powerlessness.

But I think that this, to be fair, this group of freshmen is quite different, and as the book details, they had a lot of influence, I think more than their Republican leadership had bargained on.

By the end of it all, they were pretty much calling the shots. Speaker Boehner was more inclined to follow the lead of the freshmen than the other way around.

Tavis: You call it influence; Boehner, if he’s being honest, would call it a pain in my behind. So which one was it really? Is it really influence or is it – because you could have positive influence and negative influence.

There are some right now who could argue that these guys have cost their party a great deal with their shenanigans this first time around.

Draper: Well, that may be true, Tavis. At the same time, John Boehner became Speaker because of these 87 freshmen who came into town. He’d be a minority leader if it weren’t for them.

So he recognized that it’s not just a matter of gratitude towards them, but that there was a movement that blew them into town, and it was a movement of the Tea Party movement, which different people have construed different ways.

But it was certainly a very conservative one, and Boehner was well aware of the fact that he could either be at the end of this train or get crushed by this train. Speaker Boehner has an expression, Tavis, which is that if you say follow me and you start walking and you look over your shoulder and no one’s behind you, you’re not leading. You’re just taking a walk.

So he recognized that to some degree he would have to lead by following as Speaker, but the short answer to your question is yes, they’ve been a big pain in the butt to him.

Tavis: To the movement that you refer to that swept them in, I take your point. I’m not sure I buy there’s a movement as yet. Some momentum, yes, but I digress on that point.

But to your word, the movement that swept them in, have they delivered for that movement? Have they honored that movement? At the end of the day, now that they’re standing for reelection, vis-à-vis the movement that got them there, have they delivered?

Draper: Well, yes, so far as it goes. The problem with the movement is that the movement they were referring to is never satisfied. I think if there was anything that I found so surprising and even disquieting, it was when I went to the town halls of some of these freshmen who had very conservative voting records, but if their records were in any way blemished by failing, say, to cut a particular discretionary program, then the Tea Partiers who showed up to these town halls really let them have it.

I was at this one, a Tea Party freshman from Corpus Christi, Texas, named Blake Farenthold, and he had said in the course of this town hall that the reality is in a situation of divided government you have to compromise.

These guys in the audience got really riled up and one of them stood up and yelled, “We didn’t send you there to compromise.” So every time these Tea Party freshmen were in any way construed to be derelict from the wishes of the movement, then they let them have it.

So, but yes, they definitely took the Republican Party and the House of Representatives much farther to the right than we’ve seen in a very long time.

Tavis: I was going to ask you a question, and I will in a second. I want to read this quote first that comes out of your text. I think it sets up the question nicely. The question I want to ask here in a second, Robert, is why even target Congress for a text – a text that talks about the fact that they’re not doing much good there.

Nobody in the country needs to be disabused of the notion that they’re going anything good when they had a 9 percent approval rating. This is the easiest target in town. This is, even for a great writer like yourself, a layup, as it were.

Let me read this quote from your text: “Yet something deeper is being expressed when a democracy reserves its greatest hostility toward the elected representatives who most acutely reflect the public mood. Perhaps Americans can no longer decide what it is they want or perhaps after being bombarded by the Internet, agitated by cable news and talk radio, bifurcated by redistricting maps and dispirited by homegrown preoccupations, the outcry is, in fact, simple and plaintive – a plea for one America again.”

So is Congress just an easy target or is there something here that what the people are longing for is less divisiveness, less bipartisanship, and are these guys capable of that?

Draper: Well, the paradox, Tavis, is as that quote alludes to, that Congress, and particularly the House of Representatives is the most democratic institution we’ve got. They are most acutely hotwired to the public passions.

So it says something, I think, discomfiting about our society that the people who are closest to us, the political officials, the one who we most regularly elect, the ones who are most responsive to us, are the ones who are most angry at the ones we even loathe, and I think that it’s that the public themselves have been whipsawed, have been moved from one thing to another.

That after the hope and change moment of Barack Obama’s election, then in 2009 and 2010, the public began to be dissatisfied and even whipped up into a frenzy against the Affordable Healthcare Act, also known as Obamacare, the stimulus, and other things, and decided then that they wanted essentially the opposite of that and then rolled into town these 87 freshmen believing that they had a clear mandate from the people to reverse everything that the Obama administration had enacted?

But I don’t think that’s really what the 2010 election was bout. I think it maybe was about applying the brakes, maybe about some dissatisfaction, but it was not about doing a 180-degree turn any more than 2008 was necessarily a 180-degree turn from every single thing that had happened in the Bush administration.

So I think that I didn’t perceive this as a layup coming in. I actually really thought that one thing that interested me was that this of course was now the one part of a branch of government that the Republicans could control.

So to the degree that the Republicans had anything to use as the point of a spear against the Obama administration, it would be the House. So I knew that to the extent that there was going to be political warfare, the House was going to be in the center of it and thus would be, among other things, entertaining to watch.

Tavis: Just offer a clarification here – when I used the phrase a “layup,” I was only trying to make the point that nobody seems to like these guys these days, and I wasn’t disparaging or in any way casting aspersion on your fine work.

Draper: Oh, no, no, I get it. And furthermore, Tavis, it has proved to be more of a layup than before, because after all, when there was last a Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Speaker Gingrich, in fact, worked with Clinton on a lot of things, including welfare reform.

When a Republican president Bush was in the White House, the Democratically controlled house under Nancy Pelosi worked with them, or attempted to, on immigration measures, on energy measures. This is really the first time in a while that we’ve seen the House controlled by a different party and using it as political warfare rather than governance.

Tavis: So here comes the politically incorrect question. It may not be the last, but it is the first for this conversation tonight, which is whether or not any of this, and if it does, how much of this has to do with the fact that we have an African American president?

I know there are African Americans right now, and maybe even other progressives who happen not to be of African descent who will draw a direct line to the fact that it has never been this bad. The lines have never been drawn so starkly. No one has ever stood up and said in front of a sitting potential or a standing president while they were sitting in the House, “You lie.”

The great picture on the back of the book, you got members of Congress holding up signs inside the Well. You’re right, and you make the case very clearly. It’s never been this bad. How much of that, if any, has to do with wanting to make sure, as Mitch McConnell said, that the president loses, that he does not have a chance at all at a second term.

Draper: Well, I do think there is a great contempt within the Republican conference of the House of Representatives for Barack Obama, but I don’t think that the performance of the House per se has any kind of – that you can draw a line from the color of the president’s skin to their performance.

Now, do I think that there are elements of the Tea Party that have a racist component? Yes, I do. I don’t think that – I’ve met a lot of people in the Tea Party; I certainly don’t believe all of them or even the preponderance of them are racist.

But is there an element to that? I would expect that the depth of contempt that we’ve seen for President Obama can’t be attributed to anything other than that.

Tavis: So if not his race, then – I take your point – if not his race, then, what is the contempt based upon? Because the earlier point, as much as Gingrich and Clinton didn’t get along, they got some stuff done together. So what is this contempt for Barack Obama based upon if not race?

Draper: Well, I think that let’s recall, Tavis, that when Bill Clinton was president all the Slick Willy and draft-dodger stuff that was said about him, accusing him of being involved in his good friend Vince Foster’s suicide. There was some really outlandish things said back then too.

What I think is different is not so much the difference in skin color, I think it’s the difference in the political climate now, where people are whipped up into that much more of a frenzy by the media, by the blogosphere and by outside groups.

Division is rewarded these days, and conversely, moderation is not. People who try to reach across the aisle, people who try to get things done, tend to be punished. There’s a striking moment in my book about a Republican Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson, who is definitely a Reagan Republican but who in today’s climate would certainly be termed a moderate.

She learned that some group she’d never heard of, Redstate.com, headed by a conservative blogger Erik Erickson, had gone after her and in his blog had said Missouri Tea Party, here’s who won the primary. It was because she had not always voted the most hard right line when it came to certain spending things.

That’s fairly typical, so I think that the contempt is just that much more exacerbated by external forces.

Tavis: I take your point. Speaking of those external forces, so you’re right. It’s not just about contempt for the president, it’s contempt by the Tea Party for anybody that doesn’t vote the way they want on every piece of legislation. I come from the state of Indiana, that’s my home state, and Richard Lugar is up against the same thing right now.

This guy is not the most – he’s not a liberal, and yet Lugar is facing the same kind of challenge in Indiana now, and this guy, whether you like him or loathe him, agree or disagree, is one of the most foreign policy experts the Senate has ever known.

I think he’s going to win this thing, but he’s got a fight on his hands in Indiana because you’re right, those external forces are just as powerful outside of Washington as they appear to be inside, where you wrote the book about.

Draper: Sure, no, and in fact, Senator Lugar, I saw an ad from one of the outside groups saying that Senator Lugar is a statesman, but he’s not a true conservative. It’s as if the word “statesman” had no currency anymore in today’s debate, which I find lamentable.

Tavis: I think that the media, to your point, has been very complicit in this, because in that quote that I read earlier, talk radio and cable television and beyond, the blogosphere, we’ve whipped this thing up into such a frenzy and there’s such a divide in this country, would things be as bad as they are on the Hill, would Congress be as dysfunctional as they are, put another way, if the media weren’t drawing lines in the sand outside of the Capitol building?

Draper: The short answer is no, I don’t think things would be as bad. But it’s not even just a matter of them drawing lines. It’s that even in the more neutral networks, as I was saying before, extremism is rewarded. One of the guys that I mentioned in my book, Blake Farenthold, the freshman from Texas, had made the comment that he doesn’t get on television nearly as much as some of his more extreme colleagues, and the reason he doesn’t is he’s not a hair-on-fire kind of guy, as he put it, and hair-on-fire kind of guys are rewarded.

The guys like Allen West, who’s one of the characters in my book and who says a lot of outlandish things but is kind of an equal opportunity offender, therefore is someone who’s always on call to be on shows. Joe Walsh, a very right-of-center Tea Party freshman from Illinois, the same thing.

So that kind of behavior is rewarded, and at the same time, when you’re sitting in the audience and that’s all you hear, you hear people from the far left and you hear people from the far right, then you begin to have an appreciation for why it is that our governing institutions can’t come together and get things done.

Tavis: That fourth group I want to talk about are we the people, because these folk do, in fact, get elected by somebody, and you’re right, obviously, that this last class was a pretty large class of freshmen, 87 freshmen. That’s not typical in Washington, as you well know.

Typically, incumbents get reelected. So what role – you don’t want to ever beat up on the American people, but we do have some complicity here as well. So what role do the American people have in fostering, in aiding and abetting, this dysfunction on the Hill?

Draper: One answer to that will be we’ll find out in November, won’t we? After all Congress had, as recently as a couple of months ago, an approval rating of 9 percent, the Republican controlled-House, the Republicans in the House had an approval rating of 19 percent.

Will that be reflected in how people vote in November? We shall see. The reality is that the incumbent advantage is not quite as strong as it used to be anymore, and I think there’s some things that are good about that and some things that are not so good.

But the bottom line is if the public registers dissatisfaction and even outright disdain of an institution, then it’s really incumbent upon them to clean house, and they’ve got the tools to do so every other year.

Tavis: There’s one member of Congress who you quote in the book who said to you with a straight face, “I did not come to Washington to be a part of a team.” Now, to your point, we have 435 members of the House who represent us in these districts across the country. They’re the closest to us, they run for reelection the most, and so I get your point about our proximity to them.

But I also understand that when they get there they are making and passing national legislation, but how much does the territorial nature of trying to give your own district the hook-up and looking out for your own people back home, and you don’t really see yourself as part of a team, how much does that psychology impact the debate in Washington?

Draper: It always will. I think there’s always that tension between parochial interests and the national interests that you see especially represented in a body of 435. For what it’s worth, the guy you were referring to who that quote in my book is from, an Idaho freshman named Raul Labrador, who is a rather distinct individual.

He’s a Mormon Puerto Rican, very, very conservative, and a former immigration lawyer. Labrador’s point was that he didn’t come to Washington to immediately do whatever Republican leadership wanted him to do, and in fact came to Washington because he believed that leadership on both sides of the aisle was taking America off the rails.

I have a certain appreciation for that level of plainspokenness, and actually I think that Labrador is an exception that tests the rule of a number of these freshmen. He’s actually someone who does try to forge solutions and has worked with Democrats as well as moderate Republicans on immigration issues, for example.

But that is one of the paradoxes that you see when people come to town. They come off and running on national issues. That certainly is what happened in 2010.

But then you see like a lot of these, a number of the Tea Party freshmen who have districts that abut the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi was swollen with floodwaters last year, and suddenly a number of these freshmen congressman found themselves representing districts that were literally under water and were suddenly in need of emergency aid and federal aid – the kind of federal aid that they’d vehemently opposed.

But they began to realize that there were certain parochial issues that would have to trump their more national philosophy about the limited role of government, and so you saw a lot of these guys writing letters to the federal government and petitioning them for federal aid that they would surely have opposed in another district.

Tavis: One-third of these guys – you intimated this earlier – one-third of these guys, namely freshmen this time around, had never held public office before. Interesting and fascinating for me, because nobody wants to run as a Washington insider, no matter how long you’ve been there. They all want to run as an outsider who can go back and fix and change Washington.

But how much of that really does impact, again, the dysfunction on Capitol Hill when you have people there who first of all, they’re new, they don’t even know where the bathroom is, but moreover, they’ve never written legislation, they’ve never passed legislation. How much of that gets in the way?

Draper: Well, it has an effect, and in fact three of the five freshmen that I spent a lot of time with had no prior legislative experience, had never run for office before. A couple of them in particular were behind the eight-ball for at least half of the legislative session. They were still learning parliamentary tactics, they were still hiring staff, they were still learning how to craft a bill, and they just didn’t have possession of the facts when it came to particular issues.

What they do then is rely very heavily on these outside groups, usually conservative groups, that would basically tell them how to vote, and they would do so.

Now having said that, this is not – you could also make an argument that there’s a lot to be said for fresh faces and fresh voices, and Democrats elected nine freshmen as well, and Democrats much more than Republicans have benefitted from these huge waves.

After all, it was in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt came to power that 131 Democratic freshmen came with him. So we’ve seen this on both sides.

Tavis: I don’t want to put you in the same sentence with Jack Abramoff –

Draper: Oh, come on.

Tavis: But we had Abramoff on this program not too long ago, and he talked about how one of the ways they succeeded was – my words, not his – they would pick off these freshmen the moment they hit town. How much impact, again, with regard to dysfunction on the Hill, has to do with the lobbyists getting to them before they can even get their head straight on trying to pass good public policy?

Draper: Well, there was some of that, definitely, and again, mentioning the Texas Congressman Blake Farenthold, because he came in late due to a recount, he just didn’t have possession of a lot of the facts, and so he would stand before industry groups and he would say, “I sometimes get these anxiety dreams that I walk outside and I’m not wearing my pants. You guys are going to be the ones who tell me whether or not I’m wearing my pants. You make sure that I am. You guys are going to be the ones who make sure that I’m voting the correct way.”

But the reality, Tavis, is that it’s not like a lot of these conservative freshmen needed to be bought off by conservative groups. They were already there. There’s one South Carolina freshman, Jeff Duncan, had told me that he would go to his local businesses and he would say, “Do you guys have cash reserves that you’re not spending? If you do, how can I help you spend them? Perhaps corporate tax cuts, perhaps repealing Obamacare?”

He was reaching to the choir, and so while it makes sense to grab these guys while they’re green and wet behind the ears and not fully conversant on the issues, instinctually the Tea Party freshmen were already where these lobbying groups wanted them to be.

Tavis: The new book from Robert Draper should be an instant best seller. It’s all the talk in Washington now. It’s called, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.” Robert, congrats once again on some fine work, and delighted to have you on this program.

Draper: Thanks for having me, Tavis, appreciate it.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Be sure to download our new Tavis Smiley app at iTunes in the app store. We’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 7, 2012 at 2:04 pm