Episode 85, with guests Ted Widmer, editor of LISTENING IN, and Bill Nichols, managing editor of POLITICO



Ted Widmer and Bill Nichols are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: January 12, 2013 on SiriusXM “POTUS” Channel 124.
Polioptics airs regularly on POTUS on Saturdays at 6 am, 12 noon and 6 pm.
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Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here

Ever since the campaign ended, I’ve been binging on an outstanding collection of mid-20th Century history, including Robert Caro’s Passage To Power, David Nasaw’s The Patriarch (hat tip Robert Wells), Evan Thomas’s Ike’s Bluff and, now Ted Widmer’s Listening In. I consider myself fully read-in to the chicanery Foster Dulles had going on at the CIA and whether Kenny O’Donnell intended to stay in the White House to serve a President Corn Pone.

It’s enough to make me want to tie a full Windsor knot in a Sulka tie, fly down to Augusta to play bridge with Swede Hazlett, drive a new Cadillac along the banks of the Perdenales, pour a Haig & Haig for Morton Downey at the Palm Beach Country Club and call up old Lem Billings to see if he can meet us at Hyannisport for the weekend.

And on Polioptics this week, that’s exactly what we did.

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The multi-talented Widmer

My old friend Ted Widmer – or to some, the former Lord Rockingham of The Upper Crust – is a busy man. Once a White House speechwriter, he followed Bill Clinton out of office, interviewing him ad nauseum for the former president’s autobiography.

When Ted arrived at the White House in 1997, it was the beginning of the second term. I had been there throughout the first term and was getting ready to leave to try my hand at screenwriting. But first, I was going to try my hand at foreign policy speechwriting. Both Ted and I auditioned on the same Tony Blinken-proctored writing test: prepare a provisional toast for President Clinton to offer to his guest, His Excellency the President of Guatemala, at a soon-to-be-scheduled White House State Dinner.

I took the assignment seriously, which showed how little I knew. The likelihood that the Guatemalan President would merit a pull-out-all-the-stops State Dinner was right up there with the chances that Erich von Stroheim would deliver Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly to old Joe Kennedy on time and under budget.

I don’t know what Ted wrote in his audition toast, but he got the job, and hasn’t looked back. For one of his first works of biography, he picked one of the most obscure U.S. Presidents, Martin Van Buren, who enjoyed the title of being the most famous American named Martin until surrendering that honor to Martin Milner when Adam-12 took off in the ratings in the late ’60’s

It takes a Renaissance Man like Ted to move from Clinton to Van Buren to JFK without missing a beat. Ted was, in fact, a Renaissance Man, with full powdered wig and ruffled frock. As a founding member of the band The Upper Crust in the 1990’s, he adopted the monicker of Lord Rockingham performing vocals and guitar. For a man whose passions swing like a pendulum from music to history, it was the perfect job.


From his perch at Brown University, Ted is now a senior advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and just edited the bestseller “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy.”

These tapes are as rare as a trillion dollar coin, mostly because Presidents don’t make ‘em anymore – at least not any we know about. If Barack Obama, thinking about that most rare moment, the Second Inaugural Address, is talking with aides on what it should contain, would we ever hear that chat? We’ll talk to Ted about Presidents, their recordings, and their speeches.


* * *

Then, on the topic of listening in, we’ll listen in to Bill Nichols, Managing Editor of Politico. I was struck by Politico’s coverage earlier this week of the Club For Growth and its emerging influence with the Republican Caucus in Congress.

A few years before I met Ted Widmer, I had already become friends with Bill Nichols. As the White House correspondent for USA Today, Bill was part of a class of great reporters of the national newspapers (including Todd Purdum at The Times and John Harris at The Post, among others) who covered the ’92 campaign 24/7 and then, for their heroic efforts, became part of the regular pool duty following President Clinton.

So while Nichols, Purdum and Harris all had their bylines in front of hundreds of thousands of eyeballs (in the pre-Internet age) below the nation’s most respected mastheads, they still had to slum it with us with alphabetic frequency in a 15 passenger van, passing long (and I mean very long) movements of the clock as we waited for the president outside Yeltsin’s Dacha in the outskirts of Moscow, Marvin Davis’s mansion in Beverly Hills and the Amry-Navy Country Club outside Washington.

But by far the most fun Bill and I had during our White House reporter/White House aide friendship was during the summer of 1995 when President Clinton, on orders from Dick Morris and Mark Penn, decided to vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming instead of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. It was a two-week stay, and Clinton was being very good about making little news (with the exception of chiming in support of Chinese dissident Harry Wu), thus allowing Bill and me plenty of time to hone our short game at the Teton Pines Country Club and the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club.

Bill, as a giant of Washington journalism and a son of the South, has a unique perch to both bring us into the newsroom and shed light on how representatives of rural – and often Southern – districts are carving their own paths with their voting record.

Bill Nichols in the newsroom

* * *

Adam Belmar and I couldn’t let this 85th episode of Polioptics end without noting the passing of Richard Ben Cramer, author of What It Takes, universally hailed (this week, anyway) as the greatest campaign book of all time. It easily is that. The question should be: where does it rank in the pantheon of all books, period?

I was amused by the rapid rise through the Amazon ranks of What It Takes this week, as if those who profess to be studied in the art of politics have never read the thing before.

My RBC-signed copy sits next to me as I write this. I always thought it was one of the most beautiful of all book covers, with the Presidential Seal set above the title against a shiny silver backdrop. As my friends know, I’m a POTUS seal guy, and this book did for that seal what William Shirer did for the swastika in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

What so captivated me, though, was not the cover, but rather the content, especially the way Cramer found space to glorify even the advance man, the role that I played in the 1988 campaign, beginning with the first page of the first chapter called “The Price of Being Poppy.” Here was one of the greatest of all political writers putting our craft of advance ahead of all other aspects of politicking in his magnum opus. My heart was was.

As some others have noted, the book hasn’t weathered well in 20 years of ownership. It’s warped in a way and some mold has set in. Well, a lot of mold.

But the damned thing still reads well. While so many others with a defter hand at homage have killed a lot of pixels this week extolling Cramer’s work, Adam and I used our unique pulpit of podcast to read responsively, as from the bible, from the advance-heavy pages of Book One, Chapter One of What It Takes. Because it goes a little long — well, a lot long — it’s a Web-only feature of Episode 85.

To set the scene, it’s Game One of he National League Championship Series, October 8, 1986, between the Astros and the Mets. George H.W. Bush, Vice President of the United States, has been invited to the Astrodome to throw out the ceremonial First Pitch. It’s a great opportunity to get out of the shadow of your boss, Ronald Reagan. But there are complications.

Then, the advance team takes over.

Listen in for how it all unfolds.

Then, if you haven’t already, go out and buy the book.

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