'Vanity Fair' Writer: Is Washington Beyond Fixing?
Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum recently spent a day in the White House following President Obama and his aides around. What he discovered, he says, is that Obama's job "would be almost unrecognizable to most of his predecessors -- thanks to the enormous bureaucracy, congressional paralysis, systematic corruption and disintegrating media" in Washington, D.C.
Purdum joins Fresh Air's Dave Davies for a conversation about the nature of the presidency -- and how difficult it is to achieve much of anything amid bloat, corruption and the 24-hour news cycle -- which, he writes, is "the most hyperkinetic, souped-up, tricked-out, trivialized and combative media environment any president has ever experienced."
"Obama makes fun of this all of the time, as he did at the White House correspondent dinner this spring when he had a PowerPoint presentation with some slides of what Politico would have made of President Lincoln," Purdum says. "And for the Civil War, there was a fake headline that said, 'Saves the Union, But Can He Save the House Majority?' It's funny, but it's also kind of sad because there is a way in which I think so many of our past presidents -- including many of the greatest ones -- could not have done what they did, at least not as easily, if they were operating in this media environment."
Purdum says he thinks Obama has tried to rise above the constant infighting that has taken over the federal government and keep his eye on the long road ahead.
"He's been remarkably consistent in doing what he said he was going to do when he took office. He's pursued education reform, he finally passed Wall Street regulatory reform, he got the health care bill passed, he passed the stimulus," Purdum says. "So I think he is content. He radiates a kind of satisfaction with what he's done, and the question is whether he can sell that to the American public and people will agree that he's accomplished what he said he was going to accomplish. His problem is that he's operating at a time where there's just no trust in institutions. ... He's put himself and his administration behind the idea of an activist, engaged government at a time when people don't particularly trust government. So that's a hard sell for him."
Purdum, the national editor for Vanity Fair, previously spent 23 years at The New York Times, where he was a diplomatic and White House correspondent in the paper's Washington bureau.
On what happens during the president's daily meeting with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel
"Rahm explained to me that he has a quick little briefing of the president: three, four, five minutes, whatever it takes, to sum up what's on the agenda for the day. And of course, the gulf between three, four, five minutes to sum up the entire world is pretty hilarious, but it's only the first take of the day, and then there's a series of other meetings that go on. And I think Rahm's mission is to focus on anything coming up that may be troublesome. ... It's an early warning system where [Rahm] talks about what's going to be on the radar that day."
On how Congress is different today than in past sessions
"Several things are strikingly different. Fifty years ago or so, Congress met for six to nine months a year, and when it was in session, it met mostly five days a week. Most members brought their families to live in the Washington area, and their kids went to school here and they knew each other and socialized with each other on the weekends. Quite frequently members drove home to their districts together at the end of the session to save money in a carpool. There was also no air conditioning, so people weren't holed up in their individual offices the way they are now. That really began to change in the 1970s and then accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. And when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1995, he urged members to keep their families back so they would have to go home every weekend if possible. That's a necessity for campaigning and fundraising. But it has the effect of meaning members don't really know each other. They haven't spoken to each other in human ways. So it's a lot easier to be nasty and say nasty things about someone you don't know than to say nasty things about someone who you go to church with or see in the supermarket."
On the White House daily press briefing
"If what the congressional leaders do is Kabuki theater, then what the press do is really comic theater. ... It just seems so impossible to have a real discussion about anything because there's just so much posturing going on, on the part of both the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and the press. But it's a terrible vehicle for the real exchange of information. The television reporters each ask two to three questions each, they don't move beyond the first or second row of the briefing room -- which is why everyone fights for seats in the first or second row. ... It's kind of a profoundly silly exercise, but there seems no way to stop it. It's so ingrained and it's so traditional that it seems there'd be hell to pay for any administration who tried to stop it."
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in this week for Terry Gross.
Washington political culture these days is gripped by bitter partisanship, which is stoked by a media that thrives on instant analysis and round-the-clock controversy. Add in the influence of roughly 90,000 lobbyists and their campaign contributions, and you have an atmosphere that makes it hard for a president to pursue his agenda.
In the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine, my guest, Todd Purdum, describes a day at the White House as a way of examining the nature of the modern presidency and the challenges President Obama faces.
Purdum is the national editor at Vanity Fair, where he writes lengthy analytical pieces, including a widely read profile of Sarah Palin last year and a controversial 2008 story about Bill Clinton. Purdum spent 23 years at the New York Times, where he was a diplomatic and White House correspondent. His new story is called "Washington, We Have a Problem."
Well, Todd Purdum, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start at the beginning. How does President Obama start his day?
Mr. TODD PURDUM (National Editor, Vanity Fair): Well, he wakes up in the same southwest-corner, second-floor bedroom of the White House that has been the president's bedroom for most of the existence of the White House. It's the room where Abraham Lincoln slept.
On this particular day, he was alone because Mrs. Obama was on her first solo foreign trip, a visit to Mexico. He headed upstairs for some weights and cardio in his personal gym on the third floor of the White House. Then he came back to the second floor for a little bit of breakfast and saw his daughters off to school.
And like most presidents, he rides down in this wood-paneled elevator that is the private first-family elevator, and he goes down to the ground floor of the White House, where he walks through a corridor and through a funny little room that's like a greenhouse called the Palm Room and then along the colonnade to the Oval Office. And that's how he began his day. It's how he begins most days if he's at home.
DAVIES: All right, so then he begins the task of being the president. And you have this wonderful phrase. You say every day in the White House feels like a week. One of the themes here, of course, is that the federal government has become impossibly large and complex.
And you know that the president meets a little before 9:30 with his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. What goes on in that meeting?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, Rahm explained to me that he has a sort of quick little briefing of the president: three, four, five minutes, whatever it takes to sum up what's on the agenda for the day. And of course, the gulf between three, four, five minutes to sum up the entire world is pretty hilarious, but it's only the first take of the day.
And then, you know, there's a series of other meetings that go on. And I think Rahm's mission is to sort of, you know, focus on anything that may be coming up that may be troublesome or, you know, something that might be worrisome.
I'm sure when Greece was having its financial crisis, there was ample news about that. You know, if there's some particularly troublesome issue on the Hill or some member of Congress is upset about something, I'm sure that that probably comes into play.
And just generally, it's a kind of early warning system in which he talks about, you know, what's going to be on the radar that day.
DAVIES: Okay, now what - if the chief of staff Rahm Emanuel meets the president at, what, 9:25 with this, how long has he been up? What has he done before that meeting to get ready for it?
Mr. PURDUM: Oh, Rahm's been up since shortly after five. He goes swimming almost every morning. He exercises. Then he comes to the office probably around seven or so. He has a senior staff meeting of his own. Then he has an expanded staff meeting. Then he meets with the legislative team.
So he's already had two or three meetings of his own before he sees the president. And this president gets to the office a little bit later than President Bush did. His hours are a little bit different.
He works later at home, from the residence, well into the evening. But he gets to the Oval Office more like the way President Reagan did.
DAVIES: Now, one of the things you write about in this piece is just how incredibly large and complex the government is, and the chief of staff's job is to sort of sift through what's important in given day.
You note that when Harry Truman was president, six people held the title of administrative assistant to the president. That's expanded to how many today?
Mr. PURDUM: Oh, there are well more than 100 people that have some variation of assistant to the president in their title, either assistant, special assistant, deputy assistant. And, you know, they couldn't all have a meeting around the president's desk the way they used to.
DAVIES: Right. So there is some process by which all of these inputs get sifted up or down through some process, and then Rahm Emanuel decides what the president needs to know that day.
Mr. PURDUM: Yes, I think, you know, it's fair to say that Rahm is really the gatekeeper, and the whole chain of command flows through the chief of staff.
The president has many other avenues of information, and I'm sure there are plenty of people, including Robert Gibbs, who have virtually unfettered access to the president, who can come into the Oval Office anytime they need to see him. But Rahm is the official point man for the channeling of information.
DAVIES: What are some of the issues that the president was dealing with on this Wednesday that you write about?
Mr. PURDUM: Oh, gosh, you know, it was really it was a typical day, but it was a pretty busy day, in a sense. He was dealing with the aftermath of the coal mine tragedy in West Virginia. There was already a vacancy on the Supreme Court: Justice John Paul Stevens had retired, and he was ultimately in the process of selecting Elena Kagan.
The Arizona immigration law was just about ready to pass the Senate in Arizona, and ultimately, of course, the administration chose to file a lawsuit against that law.
He was facing a shortage of disaster relief funds at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and that was just days before the oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, Attorney General Holder was up on the Hill testifying to Congress about the plans to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators.
The president had other routine business. He nominated a federal appeals court judge, seven U.S. attorneys around the country, six federal marshals, and he presented Garth Brooks with a special Grammys on the Hill Award for promoting the intellectual property rights of artists.
DAVIES: Wow. Now, at 9:30 he gets a daily intelligence briefing. That's every day?
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah, the time varies, but he gets an intelligence briefing every day. It's based in part on a binder that is already delivered to him in the residence and that he's theoretically read by the time he gets to the office. It's delivered it's compiled and delivered overnight.
He meets with his national security team, and they run through the latest overnight reports from our intelligence services all around the world, from satellite intelligence, from human intelligence, from frankly the digest of the world press that talks about, you know, what may be going on in various places.
And the people who've heard and seen these briefings say that there's really no way to describe them. There's no way to describe the kind of numbing, sobering feeling that you get from hearing just how many bad people are trying to do bad things.
The president began getting these in Chicago when he was after he received the Democratic nomination, and he's really received one virtually every morning since.
DAVIES: All right, there's a late-morning meeting on this Wednesday, in which the leaders of Congress, the Republican and Democrat, come to talk about financial reform. Give us your sense of the tone of the meeting and then what happens afterwards when these congressional leaders go out to the driveway and meet the assembled media?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, apparently, you know, it was a somewhat contentious meeting because, you know, the thing was stalemated at that point, and there was some discussion about whether the administration was really listening to Republican ideas.
That's been a perpetual complaint of Republicans is that President Obama doesn't really take any of their ideas on board. I think the White House would quarrel strongly with that.
But it was civil, by all accounts. It was in the Cabinet Room, and the leaders of both houses and both parties were there. But then they went into the driveway afterwards, and the Republican leaders, Mitch McConnell in the Senate from Kentucky and John Boehner in the House, both gave very kind of negative appraisals of the meeting and said that, you know, this bill was trying to protect big banks and hurt small banks.
And they said a lot of things that really just were not factually true but were good talking points, as their pollsters had advised them. And it's a kind of kabuki ritual in which I don't think people are usually willing to be rude to the president to his face.
It's hard in the White House and, you know, Aaron Sorkin, the creator of "The West Wing," called the White House the greatest home-court advantage in the modern world, and it's pretty hard to go into the president's office or the president's, you know, house and be snotty with him. People don't seem to find it so hard to go out in the driveway and be a little bit nasty behind his back, and that's what happened that morning.
DAVIES: Right, and the president's no babe in the woods, and he and his advisors, do they simply assume that after this meeting that these guys are going to go out and deliver, you know, harsh soundbites, which really don't reflect what was happening inside at all?
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah, I mean, I think that's part of the strange ritual of modern media life in which, you know, the real work doesn't get done in public, obviously. And that's also one of the interesting realities to ponder is, you know, what we see, what the public sees, what the press sees, is really only the tip of the iceberg. It's not all the whole story about what's really going on, of course.
DAVIES: Right. On the other hand, it does both reflect and shape political realities in Congress, and this is something that you write about. And of course, I mean, harsh partisanship on Capitol Hill is not exactly a new topic.
But I'm you know, you've been around Washington. You've reported for a long time. Give us your perspective, some historical context on this. What's really different about the modern Congress?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, several things...
Mr. PURDUM: That's a fair question, Dave. Several things are really strikingly different. Fifty years ago or so, Congress met for six to nine months a year, and when it was in session, it met, you know, mostly five days a week.
Most members brought their families to live in the Washington area, and their kids went to school here and they knew each other, and they socialized with each other on the weekends. And quite frequently, members drove home to their districts together at the end of the session to save money in a carpool.
There were no remember, pre-airline deregulation, there weren't such good airfares. There was also no air conditioning. So people were, you know, people were not holed up in their individual offices in the way they are now.
That really began to change, you know, in the '70s, and it was accelerated through the '80s and '90s. And when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1995, he urged members to keep their families back in the district so they wouldn't and to go home every weekend if possible. That's a necessity for campaigning and fundraising in some ways.
But it has the effect of meaning that members don't really know each other. They don't - they haven't spoken to each other in kind of human ways. So, again, it's a lot easier to be nasty and say nasty things about someone you don't know than it is to say nasty things about someone you go to church with or see in the supermarket or whose wife is friends with your wife or husband.
And that's something that's culturally quite different. A lot of younger members now live in their offices and take showers in the House gym. They don't rent even apartments here.
I talked to a friend of mine, who works for a senior member from a a pretty senior member from a Sunbelt state. He's been in Congress for eight years. And my friend said that this member doesn't really know anybody except the fellow Republicans in his home-state delegation and his neighbors in either side of his office building. But that in terms of broad acquaintanceship with members of the House, he doesn't really have any, and he's been there for eight years.
DAVIES: And people literally don't have apartments?
Mr. PURDUM: Some of the younger members, especially bachelors, you know, don't have apartments. They sleep in their offices, which is, you know, an ancient tradition dating back a long, long way. But I think it would be a pretty miserable existence.
DAVIES: So there's a loss of kind of mutual understanding and collegiality.
Mr. PURDUM: Yes, that's the human factor. And then at a structural way, there's been a profound change in this way: It used to be that the Republicans were divided among themselves between sort of conservative, Midwestern Republicans, more moderate, liberal, New England Republicans. The Democrats were divided between conservative Southerners and moderate, liberal Northerners from industrial states.
So for either party to get anything done, cooperation with the other party was a virtual necessity. That began to change a lot in the '60s after the civil rights era when Reagan Republicans increasingly replaced Democrats in the South and when Northeastern liberal Republicans essentially died out.
So now there's really no incentive for Republicans or Democrats to reach across the aisle because the key to getting things passed is to hold their own caucus together. And the real threat to most members is not a general election challenge. Most of the seats are drawn to be safe for either Republicans or Democrats, and it's a kind of an incumbent protection plan that state legislatures are complicit in.
The challenge is, the risk is that you'll be challenged by somebody to the left or the right, whether you're Democrat or Republican, on the fringes of your own party. And we saw that happen with Senator Robert Bennett of Utah this year. He was ousted in a Republican primary because he wasn't seen as pure enough on some conservative issues. He had proposed, in conjunction with Ron Wydon of Oregon, a market-based health care reform plan of his own. And he'd voted for President Bush's Troubled Assets Relief Program, the Wall Street bailout. And that was seen as heresy by some of his conservative colleagues, and he was ousted.
It's the kind of thing that, you know, a generation ago really would not have happened.
DAVIES: Our guest is Todd Purdum. He is the national editor at Vanity Fair. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Todd Purdum. He's a veteran journalist and national editor at Vanity Fair. He has a piece about a day at the White House and what it reveals about the nature of the modern presidency.
You make the point that some people say President Obama, when he was trying to get health care reform enacted, should have been like Lyndon Johnson, you know, the one who the president who really understood the Senate, could bring people in one at a time, cut deals, pressure them and get the votes he needed. And you say that just couldn't happen today. Why?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, Rahm Emanuel told me that those kind of tactics wouldn't fly today because, first of all, a lot of things were private deals, private understandings that were done, you know, not in public.
And now, there'd be tremendous pressure to scrutinize them. And Rahm told me he felt that if President Obama had tried tactics like that, not only would it have caused controversy in the press, it might well have prompted a special prosecutor's investigation.
He joked about something that happened in the Clinton years, when he was in charge of helping pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. He and some other aides in the White House compiled a kind of joke binder for President Clinton, showing all the inducements bridges, battleships, highways, whatever that could be given to members if they voted for NAFTA. And they put it all in a binder and called it 1-800-NAFTA Because You Hafta.
And President Clinton roared with laughter when he saw it, but he ordered it to be destroyed because he was afraid it would fall into unfriendly hands and generate negative publicity.
DAVIES: So there can be no secrets, and any secret will be used against you to the max.
Mr. PURDUM: I mean, isn't that the kind of lesson of the modern age? I mean, in this age of email and the sort of digital age, you know, you shouldn't say or do anything that you wouldn't be prepared to see on television or hear on the radio.
DAVIES: It's interesting, you know, you talk in this piece about a day in the life of the president. You also take note of the Federal Register. Explain what it is and why you talk about it here.
Mr. PURDUM: Well, it's a daily publication that basically lists in a sort of comprehensive soup-to-nuts way all the, or almost all the, pending government regulations, agency rulemaking on topics from the importation of Chinese honey to railroad safety standards and on and on and on.
And it's a good way to look at just how multifarious the activities of the government have become and into how many nooks and crannies of daily life the government reaches.
There's hardly any business in the country that isn't somehow affected by government rules, laws or regulations. And there's hardly any business in the country that doesn't want to affect those same rules and regulations. So that's why we have lobbyists. And last year, lobbyists spent a record $3.5 billion trying to influence the government.
DAVIES: Right. You said there are 90,000 people lobbying the federal government?
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah, by the time you count them all, they're something close to that. There aren't that many registered lobbyists, but that's a kind of trick question because in order to register as a lobbyist, you have to spend at least 20 percent of your time doing engaged in lobbying activity. And many people who do lobbying deliberately keep the threshold just below that so they don't have to register.
There are all kinds of people who influence the debate who wouldn't show up in a registry of official lobbyists.
DAVIES: So is Congress simply overmatched by the sheer number of people, the amount of money, the research that the lobbyists are pouring into Washington?
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah, I mean, it really is a huge mismatch. The entity that spent the most on lobbying last year, which was the Chamber of Commerce, spent $144 million.
Well, that's more than the entire combined payroll of Congress, and nobody's very happy with it, including the lobbyists, I think, who don't, you know, who'd rather not I mean, I think a lot of these groups who want action would rather not have to pay so dearly for it, and they would rather not have to go to two or three or four fundraisers every week for some different member of Congress.
And certainly the members of Congress hate having to dial for dollars and go and, you know, in front of trade groups that they have business with to raise money.
DAVIES: In the afternoon, you say there's this what you call one of the most perverse rituals of the modern presidency. That's the press briefing. Why is it perverse?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, if what the congressional leaders do is Kabuki theater, what the press do is really it's really comic theater. It's opera buffa, I guess.
But, you know, I used to cover the White House 15 years ago for the New York Times, and I went to the briefing every day, and I confess that I thought it was kind of silly then.
But when I go to it now, it just seems so impossible to have a real discussion about anything because there's just so much posturing going on, on the part of both it must be said on the part of both the Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and the press.
But it's a terrible vehicle for the real exchange of information. And the television correspondents all each ask two to three questions each. The questions don't move beyond the first or second row of the briefing room, which is why everyone fights so hard to get in those first two rows, why there was such a fight to get the vacant seat left by the retirement of Helen Thomas, which ultimately went to FOX News.
And it's a kind of I think really the only thing I can say it's just a kind of profoundly silly exercise, but there seems no way to stop it. It's so ingrained, and it's so traditional that there'd be hell to pay for any administration who tried to stop it.
DAVIES: Why is this silly? I mean, this the president has important policy initiatives that he needs explained. You have a press secretary who understands them. You have a press that wants answers. I mean, surely it's their chance to get official, on-the-record comment on some really important stuff. Why has it gotten so silly?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, I think that you've put it very well. That certainly is a chance to do that, if that's what people chose to use it for. I think too often, the questions are about minor points of controversy that loom large for four, five or six hours and are going to be overtaken by the next day's events.
One of the examples that I cite and that struck me was when the president unveiled his first budget after taking office in 2009, this is a three-point-whatever-trillion-dollar budget, a pretty important event, the first question from the biggest news organization, the Associated Press, was about a line in the president's speech in which he'd said there are times when people should repair their foundations and times when they can remodel their house.
And this correspondent wanted to know if that was an appropriate metaphor, considering that the Obamas were even then redecorating the family quarters of the White House to accommodate their girls. It turns out, of course, that they paid for this entirely out of their own pocket. They didn't use the money set aside by Congress for that purpose.
And I could see asking a question like that well down into a discussion, you know, maybe the 25th or the 30th question. But that it was the first question from the biggest news organization struck me as a kind of metaphor for what's wrong with these exchanges. It was an attempt by the reporter to score a sort of rhetorical debating point instead of a real exploration of what was going on.
DAVIES: Todd Purdum is national editor at Vanity Fair. He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with Todd Purdum, national editor at Vanity Fair about his story in the magazine's current issue. It describes a day at the White House and the challenges of the modern presidency. It's called "Washington, We Have a Problem." Purdum writes about the sprawling size of the government, partisanship in Congress, the influence of lobbyists and the demands of a media that seem obsessed with controversy and instant analysis.
It seems that there is this sense that one is to be judged by their ability to handle a problem immediately. I mean we take immediate polls on whether the president, four days after the BP spill is doing a good job.
Mr. PURDUM: That's true. I mean there's just a very highly developed lack of patience in the public now. And I don't know whether this is a corollary of the instantaneous nature of our age, of the instant gratification society of, you know, too much screen time for everybody, you know, the BlackBerrization(ph) of life. But it is quite true that most big things take time to solve and we don't seem to be willing to give a president or anybody that time. We're constantly taking the measure of things without waiting for, you know, events.
Events - the world is not actually spinning any faster on its axis than it ever has but we're spinning faster all the time. And so, you know, we want - we're always rushing the dawn, you know? We're always so how will this play tomorrow or next Tuesday? And we just have to wait and see sometimes.
DAVIES: There's this wonderful metaphor you have where, we can't let the carrots grow. We have to pull them out of the soil every so often just to see how they're doing.
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Mr. PURDUM: Exactly. And I think, you know, that does sum up sort of the inherent impatience that seems to be working here. Obama makes fun of this all the time, as he did at the White House Correspondent's Association dinner this spring, when he had a PowerPoint presentation with some slides of what Politico might have made of say President Lincoln in the Civil War. There was a headline something like: Saves the Union, But Can He Save the House Majority? And, you know, it's funny but it's also kind of sad because there is a way in which I think so many of our past presidents, including many of the greatest ones, could not have done what they did at least not as easily if they were operating in this media environment.
DAVIES: Yeah. You say Obama faces the most hyperkinetic, souped-up, tricked-out, trivialized and combative media environment any president has ever experienced. How are they handling it? How do you think Robert Gibbs and company are managing this?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, at one level the Obama administration is handling it with complete hostility and even, you know, sort of bordering on contempt for the press that they I don't think they very good relations with the press. They don't help the press very much by and large. The press complains about lack of access, lack of regular news conferences, lack of access for professional news photographers and the White House often puts out its own very good photographs by the official White House photographer Pete Souza, which is one of the reasons news organizations use them because they are good photographs. But I think they feel quite frustrated.
On the other hand, it's easy to see why the president would want to pick his shots and talk selectively to the press because, you know, as competent and as capable as he is, you could argue that the one time he really got in trouble through his own words, was in that news conference last summer where he talked about Skip Gates and that led to this controversy over, you know, the whole handling of that incident in Cambridge and it led to a kind of racially-charged discussion about the president and was he favoring African-Americans over law enforcement and so on and so forth. And that was the last formal news conference he held for a very, very long time. He's had only one other since, I believe.
DAVIES: Right. And so there are good reasons for the president to want to manage its media relations. The more they are managed, the more resentful the media become and more determined to get a gotcha story.
Mr. PURDUM: Exactly.
Mr. PURDUM: Exactly. And there's a sense of, you know, a really corrosive lack of trust I think.
DAVIES: You say here: The sheer growth of the federal government, the paralysis of Congress, the systematic corruption brought on by lobbying, the trivialization of the news by the media, the willful disregard for facts and truth, these forces have made today's Washington a depressing and dysfunctional place.
This is I guess sort of in some respects a summary of what you're seeing as you look at the presidency. How is Obama doing in trying to manage that environment and get something done?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, obviously he has to play in it and he has to deal with the world as it is, and they're not pie-eyed over at the White House. They don't think they can change reality. But to a remarkable degree I think the president has tried to rise above that, to not get into every little tiff, not take the bait, not engage in every fight just because someone else wants a fight, and instead to keep his eye on the long game. And, you know, in a way that in some ways he doesn't get credit for, he's been remarkably consistent in doing what he said he was going to do when he took office.
He's pursued education reform. He's finally passed Wall Street regulatory reform. He got the health care bill passed. He passed the stimulus. It wasn't popular but I think almost everybody, you know, every reasonable economist agrees that at a minimum, it saved jobs, probably created some jobs and certainly staved off an even worse economic situation than we might otherwise have faced. So, you know, I think he is content. I mean he radiates a kind of satisfaction frankly, with what he's done. And the question is whether he can sell that to the American public and people will agree that he's accomplished what he said that he wants to accomplish.
His problem is that he's operating at a time when there's just no trust in institutions. There's no trust for the press, particularly. There's no trust for government. And President Obama has, you know, brought the government to bear on big problems like health insurance and financial regulatory reform and he's, you know, he's put himself and his administration behind the idea of an activist, engaged government at a time when people don't particularly trust government. So that's a hard sell for him.
DAVIES: How does President Obama end his day?
Mr. PURDUM: He ends it he leaves the office some time usually around 6 to 6:30 with a brief session with Rahm Emanuel, who sums up the day. Then he goes and has a kind of sacrosanct time. He has dinner with his family and his kids if he's in town or if they're in town. And after dinner, about 8 or 8:30, his aides know that they can count on him to begin emailing them or calling them with questions. He works in the second floor of the White House in a room called the Treaty Room, which is kind of the president's informal office. He's apt to stay up till midnight or after reading reports, documents, going over speech drafts, which he does in this kind of fine little architect's letterings, printing that he uses, it's very precise. And he's a bit of a night owl. So he ends his day some time usually after midnight with a lap full of work at home.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Todd Purdum. He's the national editor at Vanity Fair. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Todd Purdum. He's a veteran journalist and is national editor at Vanity Fair. He has a piece about a day at the White House and what it reveals about the nature of the modern presidency.
Probably your most controversial piece at Vanity Fair was the one you wrote in 2008 about former President Clinton.
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah.
DAVIES: That was called "The Comeback Id." And there was lots of serious stuff in here about his, you know, not disclosing donors to his presidential library and some of his conduct on the campaign trial in 2008. But it got a lot of attention because of its dealing with the concern of some staff members and some suggestions that he might have been running with a fast crowd or had improper relationships with women.
Any regrets about that piece?
Mr. PURDUM: I think if I have a regret it's that I didn't understand fully how the piece would be received. The piece was very carefully edited. It was very carefully reviewed by legal experts and I was persuaded after a long series of conversations with my editors that the piece would be regarded as the mildest possible statement of the obvious and would be seen as a story about sort of judgment and decorum and discretion. And instead, I suppose in a testament to, you know, maybe some flaws in the story as well as the world we live in, it was seen as a story about sex. And that wasn't the intention at all. So I have some regrets that I was perhaps naive in thinking about how it would be received.
The thing that I am proud of though, is that at the end of the day nothing in that story was ever challenged in any meaningful way, no fact in it was ever challenged by the Clinton people. And the other thing that happened is that when President Obama nominated Hillary Clinton to be secretary of State, exactly the kinds of vetting processes that I had in some sense predicted would have to happen if Secretary Clinton had herself been the president did happen. President Clinton agreed to disclose the donors to his foundation going forward. He agreed to not do certain overseas activities involving raising money and things like that that he'd been doing.
So, what I was really trying to raise in that story were a whole series of issues that might come to the fore if Secretary Clinton had in fact been the president. And, in fact, the whole story was conceived on the assumption that she would probably be the Democratic nominee and President Clinton's business dealings and other things would be of interest to the public. So I guess I regret very much the way it was perceived. And I regret not having been a little bit more realistic about myself, about how it would be perceived.
DAVIES: Right. Well, I want to talk just a little bit about that issue and the sourcing here. You do say in the story that there's no proof of any post-presidential sexual indiscretions on Clinton's part. But then there's a section here where you quote four people speculating or expressing concerns about the crowd he's running with or whether there might be women.
You have one quote from what you describe as a former aide to Clinton who is still in occasional affectionate touch with him, second quote from another former aide trusted by Clinton for his good judgment, a third quote from what you describe as a long-time Clinton-watcher who has ties to the former president since his first campaign for governor, and then a fourth quote from what's described as yet another long-serving Clinton aide. I mean that's four quotes raising questions about someone's judgment and activities, nobody identified. Is that fair?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, you know, it's certainly a fair question for you to ask. One of my friends, a former Clinton administration official, told me when the story came out that this friend had asked a colleague, do you think the story is unfair? And the answer was, well, it would be if it weren't true and well-sourced. So I guess what I have to count on and in some ways the publication of the story showed me that it isn't enough, is I have to count on my own and reputation and I have to count on the fact that my colleagues in Washington who know me, my colleagues in journalism who know me, my sources over the years, you know, in politics, know me to be reliable. So in some sense, I'm putting my credibility on the line by granting these people anonymity, I'll give you that.
And, you know, I wouldn't have done it if I didn't trust them and if I didn't think they were telling me the truth and I wouldn't have presumed on the reader's good faith if I didn't have faith in my own reporting. But I'll grant you that in this day and age that's probably a slender reed to hang on and people are welcomed to draw their own conclusions.
But, you know, what I was really trying to get at in this piece among other things, was the fact that these were not the president's enemies. These were not Republicans. These were not research opposition people. These were the president's own former and current aides who were concerned that his behavior left him open to, you know, left him open to criticism in a way that wasn't helpful to his cause or to Hillary Clinton's cause.
And in a strange way that I only came to see later, they were conducting through me a kind of effort to influence him, I think, by saying, you know, some of them had tried to raise these issues with him and were rebuffed. And it was a kind of a strange bank shot of an intervention or something in which that they were doing it indirectly through me. But I'll tell you, it was by far the most painful thing that ever happened to me professionally, the reaction to that piece, and I was very greatly pained that people, you know, that people some people found the piece unfair because that had not been my intention.
DAVIES: Did it change the way you practice journalism at all?
Mr. PURDUM: I think it certainly has made me much more conscious that good intentions aren't always enough and that you have to be very well aware of how what you write, what might be seen by others, and that, you know, in this day and age trust me is not a strategy. It's not a workable strategy. It might once have been, but I don't think it's enough these days.
DAVIES: I should note that you're married to Dee Dee Myers who, you know, worked for President Clinton in his campaign and during his first term. Did that affect this in any way?
Mr. PURDUM: It didn't affect it in the sense that Dee Dee played no role in the story. She didn't she wasn't a source for the story. She didn't help me with the story. She really didn't read it until it was about ready to be published. But it played a part in the sense the way some people reacted to it. I think frankly, some people thought that the fact that I was married to Dee Dee must somehow give the story added credibility because I must somehow have some inside knowledge, that wasn't really the case. Other people some Clinton people - seem to feel that I should never have written the story at all, given Dee Dee's past and very cordial relationship ongoing it's not a deep ongoing relationship but she sees the president from time to time and he's fond of her as he's always been and she's fond of him. So I think it was a non-issue in terms of the substance of the reporting but I'll grant you that it became part of a perceptual issue in people's eyes.
DAVIES: Did you ever talk to Bill Clinton about the piece?
Mr. PURDUM: No, I have never talked to him about the piece. I have seen him one time since the piece appeared. I saw him this spring at the Gridiron Dinner and I had a very pleasant conversation with him afterwards, shook his hand and said it was nice to see him and it was quite civilized. I've heard through reliable intermediaries that he felt very bad about his own reaction to the piece, when you'll remember that blogger caught him on a rope line in South Dakota and he called me some unpleasant names.
He - I know for a fact that he told someone that he didn't regret very many things he'd done during the 2008 campaign but that he very seriously regretted that and felt bad about what he'd said about me. And that he did not like the story, did not like the anonymous sources, did not think that was particularly fair but did, you know, regretted that he'd kind of gone over the top rhetorically in name calling.
DAVIES: Well, Todd Purdum, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. PURDUM: Thanks for having me, Dave.
DAVIES: Todd Purdum is national editor of Vanity Fair. His piece in the current issue is called "Washington, We Have a Problem."
Coming up, David Bianculli says Max Headroom is back on DVD and he likes it. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.