ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
Tonight we return to that Washington Week bookshelf, where we bring the nation’s best authors to our table to discuss their latest work. Our guest is John Dickerson, 60 Minutes correspondent, political analyst for CBS News, and author of the fascinating new book The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency. But before we bring in John, let’s recall some of the biggest moments of those who have held the hardest job in the world in modern times.
FORMER PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: (From video.) Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
FORMER PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: (From video.) People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.
FORMER PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: (From video.) Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From video.) I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people – (cheers, applause) – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) Out of this terrible tragedy God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.
(Singing.) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.
MR. COSTA: John, welcome.
JOHN DICKERSON: Thank you, Bob. What a – what a panoply of sound that was.
MR. COSTA: And John, we did not play sound from the Founding Fathers because it does not exist, but if we had sound from the Founding Fathers talking about the American presidency and the amount of power that should be contained in that office, what would they say?
MR. DICKERSON: What the founders would say about the presidency is when you need it, you really need it. Gautam Mukunda, who’s a professor at Harvard, says the presidency’s like an airbag; you may not think about it, but in an emergency you need it. And that’s the way the founders thought about it, and that’s what we see in the multiple emergencies the president faces today. That’s what the presidency is required to do, is answer those moments of crisis. But they would have quickly hastened, the founders would, to say we may give the president emergency powers and give the president powers to do things alone as a single human that are very tempting – because they worried so much about ambition and the abuse of it – we may give a president these powers, but we are going to shackle the president and weigh Congress against him and give the courts power so that a president doesn’t get out of control. Which means if they looked at the presidency today, with its multiplying duties and the power that’s been given to the president sometimes by Congress itself, they would be quite in a state of fretting and worry.
MR. COSTA: John, we just saw a photo of Lyndon Baines Johnson go across our screen here, and he is a prominent character in your book. Why did LBJ matter when it comes to understanding the presidency?
MR. DICKERSON: Lyndon Johnson mattered in looking at the presidency because, one, he loved political power. He loved husbanding it. He loved finding it. He loved using it. And so he was a – he was a political animal who believed that if you gained power in all of its different ways, including flattering your opponent or flattering somebody you needed something from – he wasn’t just a bully; he was also a great flatterer as a way to gain power through that – that you could use power and do good with it. And he was presented with a moment in the assassination of John F. Kennedy to move and do something with it. He was presented with a moment after the beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to use that moment to try to get civil rights legislation passed. And he was also a complicated, failed, gnarled person with lots of carbuncles on his character, which represent the full complexity of the presidency. We do not elect angels in part because the job of getting the presidency – and this was something the founders worried about – the job of getting the presidency requires some low acts now and again, and nevertheless you are elevated to a job where you can harness your ambition and your skill to do great things for millions of people and generations.
MR. COSTA: And one of LBJ’s tactics was – they called it the treatment, right, where he would lean up against people and physically loom over them to try to get a deal done. But John, we don’t see those kind of LBJ-style deals as much anymore; we see a lot more executive orders, presidents having their own orders from the Oval Office, rather than working with Congress. Is that a product of the lack of bipartisanship in Congress, or is something else happening?
MR. DICKERSON: It’s a product of two things. You and I have been in a lot of those gymnasiums and VFW halls and listened to candidates make promises that just balloon outside the room they are so grand and they are on every scale. And we have come as a country to expect presidents alone to do the job, and what that does is it creates an expectation from the campaigns that when they get into office they will move quickly and with great results. And under that kind of pressure once you get into office, you have to do something. The work with Congress is slow, dull, patient, full of compromises. That’s not the pace that you set when you’re out there campaigning, so you use a lot of executive orders to make it look like you’re making more progress than you actually are.
But the other thing that has changed is something you and I have covered a long time too, which is the structure in politics has changed so much since the days of Lyndon Johnson or even the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could make a deal together. And in writing the book I went back to sort of try and trace the roots of what happened, and basically what happened is we lost split-ticket voting. Voters who used to vote for a Republican president but a Democratic senator, or a Republican president and a Democratic House member, they don’t exist so much anymore for a variety of reasons which I detail. And so the structural thing that made people get into a room and reason with each other, because the voters were going to hold them to account, a lot of those structures have disappeared. Now the structure of politics encourages a lot of behavior that’s basically acting out, a lot of frantic declarations on cable TV, a lot of behavior on Twitter that doesn’t produce anything other than rage in your political base, which keeps getting you elected but doesn’t actually get anything done once you are elected.
MR. COSTA: John, one thing this pandemic has brought to the fore of our national debate is the question of who is in charge – is it a governor in a state that’s dealing with an outbreak, is it President Trump, is it Vice President Pence and his taskforce? And you interviewed Vice President Pence last month and got this issue that’s mentioned in your book, the tension between presidents and state officials about who’s in charge, especially during crisis moments. Let’s take a listen.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) One of the elements of the genius of America is the principle of federalism, of state and local control. We’ve made it clear that we want to defer to governors, we want to defer to local officials, and that people should listen to them.
MR. DICKERSON: (From video.) But Mr. Vice President, the virus doesn’t know federalism. A virus that hits in Texas is in New York tomorrow. This is a problem that requires a coordinated national result.
MR. COSTA: John, what did the vice president’s answer reveal to you?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, it revealed a couple of things. It revealed, basically, an attempt to find a rationale for criticisms of the administration’s tardy response to this pandemic. We know there is a federal expectation of a response to the pandemic because they’ve been practicing it for the last three presidencies. The Trump administration coming into office practiced with the outgoing Obama administration what they would do if a pandemic hit, what the federal government would do if a pandemic hit. There are all kinds of reports within various different agencies about the federal response. The Obama team had a response, a 90-some-odd-page booklet they wrote about how to respond at the federal level to a pandemic. George W. Bush went on vacation and read the book about the 1918 swine – Spanish flu, came back and told Fran Townsend, who was his top domestic terrorism advisor, we need a plan for a pandemic; she came up with one. So we know there’s a federal response. That doesn’t mean governors don’t have a lot to do too, but there is a federal response, and the president has been tardy in embracing that.
The reason there’s a federal response is, as I discussed with the vice president, the virus travels across state lines. The principles of federalism, which are important in the response – for example, if you’re trying to get somebody to wear a mask, it’s more powerful if your local official encourages you to do it than if a distant bureaucrat in Washington, or even a politician in Washington, does it. There are elements of federalism. But the coordination, the fast movement, the emergency action is really – you can – the federal government has a very significant role to play. And there is a national rallying job for the president.
You played that clip from FDR at his first inaugural, nothing to fear but fear itself. He talked in that speech, mentioned the word “action” eight times. Presidents rush to the challenge usually in the American system. And in this case, there was an opportunity for the president to rush into the challenge, to speak to the country as its most powerful spokesperson, to deliver clear information about what was going on. That’s, when you talk to disaster experts, the most important thing is clear information. Even if the information is to say we don’t know much what’s going on, is to have one single, clean piece of information coming from a high level.
The president could have done that. Instead, he gave very conflicting – and continues to this day to give conflicting advice about everything from masks, to tests, to a host of other things.
MR. COSTA: John, you book ends with a chapter about this upcoming election 2020, and it anticipates President Trump’s appeals to suburban voters. You write, quote, “Suburban Republicans, particularly women, who took a chance on Trump in 2016 moved away from him over time. So to win reelection, Trump must go for the throat, pushing his strategy against Democrats even further.” What did you take away from your own reporting and research about President Trump’s suburban strategy in 2020, and how history informs it?
MR. DICKERSON: One of the downsides of writing a book is that at some point you have to put the pen down. And the book was finished before George Floyd’s death, before COVID, before the economic collapse. And so that picture of the suburbs, which is still true, has been changed a little bit in the wake of those things. We’ve seen extraordinary movement even further away from the president in the suburbs because of his failed response, as those voters see it, to the racial questions in America, and the notion of implicit racial bias that a lot of people in the suburbs believe exist and have seen the president not only have no real answer to those issues, but not even seem to be able to hear the complaints that are being voiced in the streets of America about the racial inequities. And so that has hurt his position in the suburbs.
What I was writing about is what we see the president trying still to do, and which he is having some difficulty doing, which is essentially criticizing the other, which is talking about those radical liberal Democrats, talk about the Chinese, basically follow the playbook that we’ve seen before, going all the way back to Governor Wallace, to Richard Nixon, where they raise boogeymen in order to basically say to their base: You may or may not like me, but the enemy on the other side is at the door, and they are dangerous. And so we must all gather together against them. The problem for the president is that as he tries to do that, following his traditional playbook, reality has inserted something else, which is the consistent question of whether he has been up to the task of handling these three big problems he faces.
MR. COSTA: You almost said Mike Wallace there, 60 Minutes on your mind on a Friday night, John, clearly.
MR. DICKERSON: (Laughs.) You have a good ear, Bob.
MR. COSTA: Hey, John, just to wrap up here, I was really intrigued by your book because it comes three and a half years into the Trump presidency, the ultimate outsider to this institution. And you’re grappling with this institution, its history, its power in the Trump era. But we’re also in the middle of an election where Vice President Biden could in less than 100 days become president of the United States, president-elect. You’ve covered Biden for a long time. He’s about to make his vice presidential selection. Based on your experience with him over the years, how does he see the presidency, and why does that matter?
MR. DICKERSON: It’s a great question. He sees the presidency, of course, from two special vantage points in Washington. A long-time member of the Senate who has worked with presidents of both parties, but then working inside the administration. And one of the things I did in the book is go back and look at a lot of what Mitch McConnell had said and then what he wrote in The Long Game, his book about Washington. And in that book he gives Joe Biden all kinds of credit for being able to work with him. Mitch McConnell was no pal of Barack Obama’s, and the feeling was mutual.
And yet, Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell could get business done, in part because they recognized something we don’t talk much about in campaigns, but which is a truth of Washington, which is deal making is a little ugly. And deal making requires you to kind of put aside the fact that you may violently disagree with the person you’re negotiating with on 90 percent of what they believe. But you focus on the 10, and you make the deal, and you make the progress you can on the 10 percent. And Joe Biden believes that. Ronald Reagan believed that. FDR believed that.
And so Joe Biden believes in working within the system. And so his vice presidential pick, I think, while it will spend – first of all, it’s the best window into his current state of decision making. And the presidency is a job of making decisions. So we are going to get to see in real time how the vice president makes decisions. And one thing he wants to do, of course, is keep his party unified at a moment where America is having a complete rethinking of its racial landscape. And he wants to take advantage of that as the person who can reshape that landscape in the best and most equitable way that’s consistent with our founding principles.
But he also wants to show that he can do the job. And so he wants somebody who can be – who can step into that job and can work with him to explain what the job is to the American people, because his ultimate case is that Donald Trump has not done the job; he will be able to do the job, not only in terms of handling things in the day-to-day excitement of the presidency, but also tend to those values and play that role as a steward of the American presidency. And I think that will be somebody who will try to bring his vice president into that same lane for the American people.
MR. COSTA: That’s so well-said, John. The presidency is a job about making decisions. It has an onslaught of other issues and challenges, but at the end of the day about making decisions, and leadership.
That’s it for this edition of our Extra. Thank you very much to John Dickerson for joining us, and to our viewers.
And you can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, sign up for our Washington Week newsletter. It has a lot of information in there, great stuff to keep you updated on the show. It’s for our most fervent viewers, our long-time Washington Week regulars, like yourself. But for now, I’m Robert Costa, and we’ll see you next time.