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The Seer

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Reality Check on the 2020 Election:

An Interview with Walter Shapiro

After stints at Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Salon, Walter Shapiro is covering his 11th presidential election as a correspondent for The New Republic. We talked about predicting the vote, the Supreme Court, and his surprising take on Mitch McConnell.

Thanks to our Emergency Video Technician, Leslie Ann Epperson.

JOTPY Editor Susan Zakin interviews The New Republic's Walter Shapiro.

Who is this Shapiro guy, anyway?

JOTPY: How many presidential elections have you covered?

This is number 11.

JOTPY: That's not possible. You're a mere stripling.

I was a childhood runaway. We started counting with '80 when I was with the Washington Post. Or if you really want, '84 I did it for Newsweek, '88 and '92 I did it for Time and was Time's person on the Clinton plane, '96 and 2000 and 2004 I did it as a columnist for USA Today.

JOTPY: USA Today? I forgive you.

No, no, no. There was a period after Neuharth stepped down when they were really trying to be a good paper. A ten-year period after Neuharth stepping aside and the collapse of the advertising market.

In 2008, I was Salon’s Washington bureau chief. 2012 for Yahoo News. 2016 for Roll Call. And 2020 for The New Republic.

JOTPY: Was your family involved in politics? What I know about them is mostly about your great-uncle the con man, the subject of your book, Hustling Hitler...wait, was he your great-uncle?

He was my great uncle. Freeman Bernstein.

JOTPY: So he was a con man, and conned Hitler, which could be considered political in a sense.

Freeman was an American con man. He was born in Troy, New York in 1873. He was first-generation. I think he was the first child born in America. Basically, this is an American con man story. He only looked at politics as a way of making a buck out of it.

JOTPY: The Mitch McConnell of his era. What about the rest of your family? Were they involved in politics?

Can I tell you a story?

JOTPY: Sure.

John McLaughlin, who is Trump’s favorite pollster, is somebody I got in the habit for a while of having lunches with. We discovered both families were in New York area dating to the 19th century. He's very conservative, even before Trump. But we discovered one important thing.

In the late 1920s, his family were all ward heelers for Tammany Hall and devoted to Jimmy Walker [known as Beau James, Walker was mayor of New York from 1926 to 1932, a liberal Democrat who was part of the Tammany Hall political machine, forced to resign after a corruption scandal).

My two uncles as young men worked on the Seabury investigation made up of liberal Republicans to bring down Tammany Hall. You can do the history of urban politics over the last century in how he and his family became rabid Republicans and my family became liberal Democrats.

JOTPY: What does that tell people who don't know about Tammany Hall and the arcane history of New York politics? What's the takeaway?

Oh, God, every story has to have a takeaway? The story really is that there was a reformist wing of the Republican party in New York up through the 1950s. And that , basically, Tammany Hall was all about jobs for the Irish.

JOTPY: So politics is really tribal affiliations and opportunism?

Well, yeah, if you want to be meta. I’m not a meta guy. Which is why I'm hated by meta guys.

Jimmy Walker, since we’re talking about him, defending pornography in the 1920s, said quite accurately "No girl was ever ruined by a book." One can make a real case that I was ruined by a book.

JOTPY: Which book?

The Making of the President 1960. I read it at an impressionable age. It was like growing up hearing the stories of the railroad and Casey Jones only to realize you’d signed on to Amtrak.

My mother dabbled in local Democratic politics in a Republican area of Connecticut. I grew up in South Norwalk, which is now upper-middle-class but was then a middle-middle-class community.

My father was a city planner. He came out of the idealistic 1930s: "We can rebuild cities and make everything rational." He was a very idealistic city planner and he got a job in South Norwalk. My parents moved to the suburbs and I spent the rest of my life hating them for it.

There are very few things I have believed unalterably, unchanged, since I was 12 years old that I still believe. Probably the most important thing is you don’t want to live in the suburbs. Which is why I’m talking to you from West 86th Street.

JOTPY: I have a question about the debate.

It seems like months ago now.

JOTPY: Astounding, isn't it? You turned out a very adept piece on the Biden-Trump debate in record time.

Debate nights have always been a little high-stress for me. In the old days, I had to turn copy around in an hour. Time and Newsweek would have helicopters waiting to take the pages to the printing plant in Chicago. It amazed me this time around that I had 90 minutes and no helicopters.

JOTPY: What amazes me is that you write so well on deadline, Walter. The rest of us are still figuring out what happened. It seems that there are two ways to assess the debate. One is the hard-nosed way: Who benefited? It seems to be Biden. On the meta level -- yes, that's a joke -- the dreadfulness of the debate is making a lot of Americans wonder why they exist.

Intellectuals complained about the shallowness of the debates since 1960.

JOTPY: In Neil Postman's seminal book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, he talks about the Lincoln-Douglas debate as an alternative to our sound bite culture.

Lincoln-Douglas, those debates were in 1858. Neither of them were nominees.

JOTPY: What were they running for?

I believe Senate in Illinois.

JOTPY: Have you read the speeches?

If you like to hear people talk yes or no about Free Soil for an hour, I'm sure it's fascinating.

Let’s be honest. I’ve been thinking about writing about the best three American elections in the last 100 years in terms of the quality of the candidates. In 1940, it was Wendell Wilkie versus FDR. Wilkie got the Republicans to abandon isolationism and to marginalize Lindbergh and all those other people. That really played a role in how quickly Americans reacted to Dec. 7. [The attack on Pearl Harbor.) And then Wilkie became a roving ambassdor in FDR’s unified country.

The other two were the Eisenhower versus Adlai Stevenson elections. These were elections of such high caliber that I have come around to thinking that Eisenhower's caution and the CIA coups in places like Iran and Guatemala were not the whole story and that he was really a good president at a time of risk. And Stevenson was genuinely a high-minded, smart man. Probably not as smart as my parents thought he was, but against what came later, these were wonderful elections. It did not matter in any epic way who won.

There were no debates in any of those elections. Candidates went around the country giving thoughtful speeches. They made jokes.

There are a lot of ways that you can restructure campaigns but certainly it would not be the end of America if we did not have these presidential debates.

JOTPY: What about primary debates? This year, those were horrendous, too.

In a lot of ways, primary debates might be more important. And they were terrible. The way Tom Perez and the DNC distorted incentives for candidates, changing the rules, forcing smart candidates who were former governors and senators off the debate stage.

Andrew Yang was treated as a more serious candidate than Michael Bennet of Colorado, one of the most respected senators in the United States.

At the last minute changing the rules so Michael Bloomberg could have the experience of being eviscerated by Elizabeth Warren.

I have a friend who went to work for Bloomberg for the money. After 45 minutes, she closed her computer and said: “this campaign is over.”

JOTPY: You told me once that you'd started watching debates with the most famous one: Kennedy-Nixon.

I’m just old enough to have the odd distinction, I've seen every fall televised presidential debate in real time, starting with Kennedy Nixon.

JOTPY: I was too young for that.

Most were.

JOTPY: How old were you?

13 years old.

JOTPY: What do you remember from it?

Not much.

JOTPY: Then you can't claim it.

Do you want to know the debate I remember the least about?

JOTPY: Sure.

Mike Pence v. Tim Kaine. 2016.

JOTPY: (laughs) As far as the recent debate, I'm not sure we should forget it so quickly, although we might like to. Everybody and their sister seems to be writing a “most important moment of the debate” story. There are several contenders here:

  • Biden sticking up for his son Hunter. 
  • Biden dodging the question on packing the Supreme Court. 
  • For the meme crowd, it was the Shut up, man moment (regrettably). 
  • At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick invoked Biden’s statement that it’s the voters, not Trump, who will determine the outcome of the election. And Biden's reassurance that if Trump loses, the Donald, despite his bluster, will leave office. Period, end of story. This was clearly meant as a way of reassuring people who are freaking out about Trump sending tactical units from federal agencies to quell demonstrations. 

What’s your most important moment, Walter?

None of it was particularly important. The most important moment was that Trump was totally out of control, totally disdainful of anything, interrupting in an incoherent way.

What this did is it underscored to suburban women, particularly college-educated suburban women, that it isn't that he reminds of your first husband, it’s that he reminds you of a stalker in any dangerous movie.

It almost didn’t matter that Biden was there.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue ::: Them

A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall ::: Leon Russell

Everything Is Broken ::: Bob Dylan

Gone Dead Train ::: Randy Newman

Time Will Tell ::: Bunny Wailer