Episode 22, with guests filmmaker Peter Schnall and C-SPAN’s Howard Mortman

Peter Schnall and Howard Mortman are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton
Original Air Date: August 13, 2011 on SiriusXM Satellite Radio “POTUS” Channel 124.
Listen to the show by clicking on the bar above.
Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here

A quite personal post from me this week.

First, before we get to Episode 22, there’s big doings in Iowa as our excellent show goes on the air on August 13.  Every four years, the Iowa Republican Party holds its Straw Poll in Ames, about 30 miles north of Des Moines.  This weekend also coincides with the annual opening of the Iowa State Fair, famous for its fried food of every kind, the battle of the butter sculptors and, the coup de grâce, deep fried butter-on-a-stick.  ABC News’ own @jaketapper files his own twitpic of the sculpted butter cow that’s not to be missed.

In 2008, on assignment for Men’s Vogue, I filed a story about Iowa’s best week that featured color from the Straw Poll and my own photography of Mitt Romney at the Iowa Pork Producer’s tent, along with a look at Hillary Clinton’s own brand of Iowa campaigning — almost a relic, only four years later, in today’s digital age.  It was called Rules of the Road, and took a look at the 20 things that a campaign advance man simply must do to get the picture right for the cameras.  As I reread the piece before the Fox News Iowa Presidential Debate, a lot of those rules still hold true.

Speaking of that Fox News Debate, it was a good one.  My wife and I continue to be impressed by Michele Bachmann’s stage presence and we were disappointed that Jon Huntsman didn’t warm up more. One has to wonder whether the faulty internal mechanics of the Huntsman campaign reported by POLITICO,  including the previously unreported departure of his scheduler and head of advance, are weighing on the candidate.  I may be a contrarian, but I thought Newt Gingrich did his best to try to climb out of the deep hole his campaign has created.  Here’s a snippet of what viewers saw beamed live from Iowa, with Ron Paul (do you remember him from the classic scene in Sasha Baron Cohen’s Bruno) skirmishing with Rick Santorum on Iran:


Some of the most cogent analysis from the Iowa debate comes via the Huffington Post from my friend, Northeastern University Professor Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV (Columbia University Press, 2000).  It’s worth a close read.

All in all, the message from the debate was: Welcome, Gov. Rick Perry!

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Now onto this week’s show, our 22nd episode.

When I worked at the White House, one of my favorite projects was working with a team from the National Geographic Channel on a documentary called Inside the White House, which was narrated by Morgan Freeman.

More information about the show is here and, if you’ve got some time on your hands, you can watch it here on Hulu.  Pay close attention for my brief cameo as a much younger man.

A White House takes some risks when it allows documentarians with cameras behind-the-scenes to see how the sausage of presidential events gets made.  But in the right hands, these efforts offer a window on history and the Institution of the Presidency that no daily news coverage can match. It takes trust, and filmmaker Peter Schnall is a man who can be trusted.  He worked on the White House project and is the cameraman behind so many titles that educate millions of parents and their kids about the wonders around them.  Included in his filmography, which includes work that earned him seven EMMY awards, are many of Robert Ballard’s expeditions to the Titanic and the mysteries of the deep that keep my son and daughter transfixed on long drives through New England.

Former President George W. Bush, one of the principal characters in a later Schnall project, On Board Air Force One, trusted Peter so much that he invited him down to his office in Dallas in early May to offer his own account of what happened in the historic days between September 11 and September 15, 2001, almost ten years ago.  They talked for four hours, resulting in a stunning 48 minute documentary that premieres on the National Geographic Channel on August 28, 2011, inaugurating what will surely be a roadblock of broadcast remembrances of the horrific anniversary.

No one needs to narrate this special broadcast, except the former President himself.  Here is a preview of that must-see TV:


I wrote about my own perspective on the optics of 9/11 in the Story of Polioptics, Part 6, found on an earlier post on this site, but President Bush’s personal recollections are so much more illuminating.

Peter Schnall didn’t even know if he would be able to get them on tape.  He arrived in Dallas on the evening of May 1, 2011, with expectation that he would have two sessions with President Bush.  But as he collected his gear at baggage claim at DFW, his eyes, along with everyone else in the terminal, were transfixed on the television monitors above the carousel.  President Barack Obama was about to announce to the world that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Special Forces.  Would President Bush still consent to the interview?  Would he be called away to stand with President Obama at the White House?

History will note that President Bush largely kept silent, as he has since he left office.  But he didn’t keep silent with Peter Schnall.  They talked.  And talked.  And talked.  This wasn’t your usual staged interview in an ex-president’s office, with the standard family photos and memorabilia arranged on the credenza as an ever-so-blurry backdrop.  As Peter explains to Adam Belmar and me, the former President walked in with no notes and just talked.  For his part, Peter was more interested in creating a neutral “black box” in which to interview the former President, with the sights and sounds of 9/11, and the days that followed, providing all the color that was needed for the documentary.

In the show itself, Peter expertly intercuts footage from his Air Force One documentaries, along with previously unseen White House still photos and video.  On the soundtrack, beside the President’s voice, is somber but electrifying music mixed with air traffic control conversations with Air Force One on 9/11.  Taken together, it weaves a unique narrative of a week seared in our collective memory.

The day started innocently enough for George W. Bush on a presidential trip.  He received his daily intelligence brief.  It seemed so…normal.  He went out for a long jog at the golf course at which he was staying in Sarasota, Florida seen, as we so often see it, in the grainy long-range pool video shot by network cameramen keeping a watchful eye on the President when he ventures outside.  Then, the motorcade over to the Emma T. Booker Elementary School for another one of the largely unremarkable “No Child Left Behind” events with students across the country.  As that event was unfolding, the world changed forever.

President Bush takes over the story from there…  I encourage you to watch the show: August 28 on the National Geographic Channel.

Today, I live and work in New York City.  The window in my office looks right down on the reconstruction of the site of the World Trade Center.  Over the past two years, I’ve watched steel and glass rise upward, beginning the transformation of Lower Manhattan.  And, at ground level, and below, are the twin fountains that will permanently mark the tragedy and sacrifice of ten years ago.  Every few days or so, construction workers test the fountains.  They are at once both beautiful and stoic.  Trees now surround those fountains. It will be a place of memory, and rebirth.

As President Bush confided to Peter Schnall, the death of bin Laden on May 1 doesn’t bring with it celebration, but rather a sense of closure.  [Has anyone noted that President Bush’s infamous Mission Accomplished speech on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln happened on May 1, 2003, eight years to the day before the death of Bin Laden?]  The era won’t truly close — the mission won’t truly be accomplished — until the last troops are home from wars overseas but, hopefully, we’re getting there.  With President Bush and President Obama attending the opening of the 9/11 Memorial next month, along with President Bush’s 9/11 interview, one chapter ends, and another begins.

* * *

On a lighter note — as Ann Curry and Matt Lauer say each morning previewing the Today Show, Polioptics — Episode 22 also includes a conversation with Howard Mortman of C-SPAN.

Don’t let the name of his employer fool you.  Howard is one of the funniest guys in Washington.  Read this interview to get a sense of his well-honed comedic timing.  An example of his rapier wit:

Interviewer: “If you could have one superpower, which one would it be?”
Mortman: ” The power to digest corn.”

Howard is also a pioneer of Washington-based blogs and online political commentary.  Back in the late 1990’s, along with the likes of Rich Galen and his Mulling’s column, Howard’s “Extreme Mortman” column — now a crack den of Web-based enticements — once blazed a trail for a legion of hard-edged and humorous writers who followed.

He even inspired this occasional blogger in his first effort called “Wanderings” for a now long-defunct Website called SpeakOut.com.

Today, Howard works to usher a well-known name in broadcasting circles — C-SPAN — into the 21st Century.  As Howard explains to Adam and me, while we love gavel-to-gavel coverage of Congress, Booknotes, Washington Journal and Road to the White House, you ain’t seen nothing yet.


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