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2006-07-10

Veteran Journalist Robert Scheer on Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan and Clinton- and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush

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We speak with veteran journalist and author Robert Scheer about his new book, "Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan and Clinton- and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush." [includes rush transcript]

The Vietnam, War, North Korea, The Cold War and Presidential Power. These are just a few of the topics that veteran journalist Robert Scheer has reported on in his long career. From 1964 to 1969 he was Vietnam correspondent, and editor in chief of Ramparts magazine. From 1976 to 1993 he served as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and in 1993 Scheer launched a nationally syndicated column based at the LA Times where he was named a contributing editor.

Robert Scheer’s column ran weekly for 12 years until November of last year when he was fired. Scheer said publicly that he believed his firing was due to ideological reasons and his steady criticism of the Bush administration At the time, Scheer wrote on the Huffington Post blog that "The publisher Jeff Johnson, who has offered not a word of explanation to me, has privately told people that he hated every word that I wrote. I assume that mostly refers to my exposing the lies used by President Bush to justify the invasion of Iraq. Fortunately sixty percent of Americans now get the point but only after tens of thousand of Americans and Iraqis have been killed and maimed as the carnage spirals out of control. My only regret is that my pen was not sharper and my words tougher."

Scheer’s column is now based at the San Francisco Chronicle. He also recently launched the political blog, "Truthdig.com." His latest book is called "Playing President: "My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I and Clinton—and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush."

  • Robert Scheer, journalist and author of several books. His latest is titled "Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan and Clinton- and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Scheer joins us in our Firehouse studio today in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s good to have you with us. First, the firing, because you’re still writing. In fact, you’re probably known more now than before. Can you put it into the context of what is happening to the press today?

ROBERT SCHEER: Well, first of all, there’s a lot of opportunity. You know, AJ Liebling said, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Well, I now own at least half of one, along with Zuade Kaufman, my publisher. So, you know, you can land on your feet, your show, which, you know, a lot of us listen to, as mainstream media now. And my wife, for instance, she’s a deputy editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, she sits in her parking lot listening to your show before she goes into her meetings. So alternative media is no longer really alternative, and we’re no longer that dependant upon newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times_, for our information. You know, go to BuzzFlash or "_The Nation":http://www.thenation.com or TruthOut or TruthDig. There are many, many sites, as you’re well aware. So, I don’t want people to think, "Wow! They were able to silence me." Nonsense.

Did they try to silence? Yes. The Tribune Company took over the Los Angeles Times. There are issues of media conglomeration. This was a newspaper that I had worked for for 30 years. The interviews in this book, with the exception of the Playboy interview with Jimmy Carter, were all done for the Los Angeles Times. I was nominated by the paper some 20 times for Pulitzer Prizes. You know, I was a finalist. So, you know, I had a very good relationship with this paper. Chicago Tribune, the Tribune Company took it over. They’re very conservative. The publisher definitely was ideologically opposed to my view. I was attacked by Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, sometimes nightly on O’Reilly. I mean, he called me the most dangerous columnist in the world or something.

And I think that one of the problems is that I got it right. Now, that doesn’t give me any satisfaction. I would have been much happier if we could go into Iraq, and democracy would flourish, there would be no casualties, the oil revenue would pay for everything, the country was reborn as a democracy. I mean, I think most people who are against the war would have been very happy to have been proved wrong. But to have had your column ended after you got it right all those years, it shows where the paper is.

I think there’s one other factor that should be mentioned. These are businesses. Tribune Company owns television stations and newspapers in the same market in Los Angeles, in Hartford and other places. They only can do that now, because there’s a waiver from the F.C.C., a Bush-dominated outfit, the F.C.C., and the Congress did not pass the bill that they wanted, which would allow them to have that ownership in the same market. So they were defeated by Congress, these big multimedia corporations, and they’re very dependant upon favors from the Bush administration. So aside from their own conservative politics at the Tribune Company, they need this administration, and so it doesn’t take much to put pressure on them.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the presidents that you have interviewed and known. But before we do that, on this issue of media conglomeration, on the issue of what the press can say and what the press can’t say, the Bush administration lashed out at the New York Times and other media outlets for their reports on the government’s secret monitoring of — well, the latest one, of international bank transactions without court approval. President Bush himself strongly denounced the disclosure of the program by the media.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Congress was briefed. And what we did was fully authorized under the law. And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Bush. Robert Scheer, your response?

ROBERT SCHEER: First of all, if the war on terror is endless, you could forget about democracy. If it’s against any target he mentions, if you could spread it — and you never win it, which is, I guess, clearly what’s involved here, because Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein was an opponent of bin Laden, bin Laden did not have a base in Iraq. So this guy takes us to war in Iraq, which is really the irritant. Now, he doesn’t pursue the situation in Afghanistan. In fact, he coddled the Taliban before 9/11. In my book, I have columns. I wrote a column in May of '01, blasting the Bush administration for ignoring the Taliban. I happen to be one of those in the antiwar part of things who actually supported Clinton when he sent the cruise missiles in to take out bin Laden. I had thought we had the right to use Special Forces to go in for bin Laden. He had attacked American embassies. He attacked ships. And so, I didn't see any need to coddle the Taliban.

As a matter of fact, the one group in this country that consistently raised questions about the Taliban was the Foundation for Feminist Majority, Peg Yorkin and those folks. And that’s where I learned about it. And for five years they were telling us what’s going on in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous, first of all, to women and girls, of course, who were treated in a most horrible way. But this was also a place where terrorism was being sponsored. Also by Pakistan, our other big buddies out there. And so, the pressure to do something about bin Laden was coming more from the left than these so-called great patriots on the right before 9/11.

And, you know, as I say, in the book I had a column I wrote in May, blasting them for giving $44 million through the U.N. to the Taliban, supposedly for suppressing the opium crop, which they didn’t even do. They were putting it in sheds to drive the price up. And six weeks before 9/11, Christina Rocha from the State Department met with the Taliban ambassador in Pakistan and congratulated him once again for his great effort in the drug war. So this administration wasn’t interested in terrorism. They were interested in the drug war before 9/11. They ignored all the warnings from Sandy Berger. They ignored the warnings from the N.S.A.

So it’s such garbage for this guy who ignored terrorism and then misdirected the whole fight against terrorism to Iraq, and everything else, has weakened our country, has alienated it. We need our allies. We need France and England and Germany and Spain, you know, and all of these countries. And you routinely attack their citizens. You attack their governments when they agree with their citizens. He’s weakened us in that battle. Now, he says, "Well, this was all authorized by law." Why don’t they tell us what they’re doing? If they’re looking into our personal banking records, if they’re listening to our phone conversations — we’re supposed to live in a democracy — why don’t you tell us you want to do that?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, they say if they tell you, then they’re telling terrorists.

ROBERT SCHEER: Look, first of all, the terrorists are going to believe the worst about this society. They think we spy on everything. They think we kill everyone. They think — they don’t believe that we believe in democracy, right? They don’t believe we have limits on our government. I’ve never met any strong critic of the United States anywhere in the world who gave us any credit for having limit on government. So they think the worst, and they’re not naive about that, any serious terrorist.

But I think the American public has a right to know to what degree their privacy is being invaded and then decide whether we want to pay that price. That’s, after all, what democracy is about.

But the really dangerous thing in what Bush said in that clip you had, if you define the enemy as this vague terrorism thing, because we still know very little about it — if you read the 9/11 Commission Report, there’s a disclaimer, a boxed disclaimer — I forget what page it is, I think it’s 176 — which says the whole narrative that we have about al-Qaeda and these people who did this to us comes from so-called key witnesses. The 9/11 Commission was not able to interview those witnesses, nor were they able to interview the people who interviewed the witnesses. So we have people like Cheney basically telling us we have this sort of James Bond marriage with the Mafia, enemy of al-Qaeda out there. We still don’t know who the 15 Saudis were. We still have not traced the money to the real sponsors. We still don’t know the role of Pakistan in this.

So, yes, there’s a problem of terrorism in the world. There’s always been terrorism. There will be terrorism. You have to deal with it surgically. You have to deal with it in a serious way. This administration is not serious. So why should we accept that they’re invading our privacies and that somehow it’s going to make us stronger? No, it’s going to make us weaker.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned President Bush supporting the Taliban before attacking Afghanistan. But you go way back. And now I want to talk about the presidents you’ve interviewed. For example, Jimmy Carter. You’re the reporter who did the famous interview in Playboy magazine, where he talked about lust in his heart, and I want to ask you about that, but also you have been dogged in your pursuit of Carter around the issue of the Taliban and Afghanistan.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah, let me just say something about objectivity and whether you’re coming from the left or the right. I have blurbs on the back of my book from Richard Nixon, Nancy Reagan and Bill Clinton. Okay, I actually did a profile — I interviewed Richard Nixon. I did a profile of him. And then after I did that, it was ’84, I evaluated his administration. I got a very nice letter from Nixon, asking me to come — offering to talk to me, that he appreciated my analysis. So I think we can be good historians on the left, as well as on the right or the center. I mean, and I like to think I get the stuff straight, you know, that it holds up.

Now, in the case of Jimmy Carter, I was very surprised when this book came back from — with the galleys and all the new stuff I had written, that I actually am much tougher on Carter than I was on Nixon. And that isn’t because I was a critic of Nixon. He killed a lot of people in Vietnam. It was a horror. But he escalated a democratic war. And when I was interviewing Carter for Playboy, I was very concerned about another hawkish Democrat. After all, Carter came across — two things. We think the Republicans are the ones who started this fundamentalist religion claptrap, you know? It was Jimmy Carter. He’s the one who talked about, you know, "I’m a born-again Christian. I pray all the time. I do this," etc.

So the reason I was interested in interviewing him was, you know, what does that mean? Are you going to have a literal interpretation of scripture? Are you going to impose it on the rest of us? So the questions, the Falwell-type questions, the Pat Robertson, really started with Jimmy Carter. And the reason that Carter was willing to be interviewed by Playboy is he was having a lot of trouble with his base in the Democratic Party, so he wanted to assure more liberal people that he wasn’t. And, in fact, his answer to the lust question was a very good one, very good interpretation of his Christian views. He’s very tolerant, and he was still pro-choice, and he wasn’t going to impose this on everyone, and so forth.

What was controversial in that interview was, I said, "Well, wait a minute, but the Democrats have created a lot of mischief." And we now think — you know, it’s as bad as George W., and he’s unquestionably the worst modern president. He’s the perfectly electronically transmitted president. There is no there there. He’s a captive of the neo-con. I accept all that. He’s part of this — you know, he’s taken over by this cabal of Cheney and Rumsfeld. I think this guy is doing tremendous damage, and he’s in a league all his own. That’s why the others didn’t prepare me. At least the others knew a lot about the world, had experience, had brains about this, cared. This guy had the platinum American Express card and didn’t even want to see Paris or London. He stayed in China for three days. So this guy’s indifferent to the world, and now he’s going to change the whole world. A very ominous combination.

But going back to the Carter interview, what I thought was very controversial in that interview, ignored by the media, because they have this salacious interest in lust and all that, I said, "Look, the Democrats gave us Vietnam." And, by the way, you know, looking at those clips from Baghdad, everybody, they say, "Oh, we can never talk about Vietnam. It has nothing to do." It’s not true. You know, we went into Vietnam as part of a religious division. Everybody forgets Ngo Dinh Diem was a Catholic, that 10% of the country was Catholic, that this was a Catholic-Buddhist issue, quite aside from whether it was an east-west issue, you know? And remember the Buddhist monks were burning themselves and all that sort of stuff. So, you know, religious tension, nationalist tension, there are parallels there.

But with Carter, I say, "Look, Lyndon Johnson gave us this war. It’s true Nixon escalated it." I said, "But, you know, you’re coming on very hawkish here. Why won’t you do the same?" And he said, "I will never lie to the American people the way Lyndon Johnson did." That was Jimmy Carter. Now, he had already gotten the party nomination at that point. Lady Bird Johnson — I was on the plane with Jimmy Carter as part of the press. When we landed in Dallas, Lady Bird would not meet with him, you know, because he had made that statement. And I thought that was the serious news.

And I still think it’s the serious news now about Democrats. There’s a question I want to raise about somebody like Hillary Clinton. It’s why I think history matters. Democrats can give us wars, you know? Democrats can play the false patriotism card. There’s no assurance that a Democratic candidate who is elected will not move to the right of Bush on intervention, warmongering, playing to the military-industrial complex, so I am very concerned that we have a choice in the congressional elections, that we have a choice for the next presidential elections, and that we have candidates who at least will recognize this war for the monstrosity that it is.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying the Republicans escalated Democrats’ wars, like Nixon escalating the war from Johnson, from Kennedy. Carter, though, you haven’t talked about the Mujahideen.

ROBERT SCHEER: Oh, I’m sorry. By the way, it’s not just escalated. You know, Eisenhower was a pretty peace-oriented president. Truman was a pretty hawkish. I would argue, if we had more time, I would argue Truman had a lot to do with getting the Cold War going. Gore Vidal has a very good essay at the beginning of my book, a forward, where he makes that point. You know, Truman kind of wrapped it up. Eisenhower provided the first break in the Cold War, by bringing Khrushchev to the United States, in humanizing the Soviets; and then Nixon, by making the opening to China; and then Reagan, even meeting in Reykjavik with Gorbachev and acknowledging that nuclear weapons are a horror. So I wont accept that Republicans just escalate. Republicans, at least when they were more moderate, they were maybe even more isolationist, they sometimes brought sanity to the debate. We don’t have that now. We have — all these Republicans have gone off the neoconservative deep end.

But bringing it to the point of Carter, yes. After 9/11, everyone went, "Where did this happen? Where did these people come from, these Muslim fundamentalists?" Now, clearly, we know where they came from. They came from Afghanistan. That’s where they were based. How did bin Laden get to Afghanistan? Why isn’t that the question that everyone asks? What was the guy doing there? What were these other fanatics doing in Afghanistan? Well, Jimmy Carter is this guy, and in the book I quote Bob Dole back in 1980. I happened to interview Dole, because he was a — I used to do all these interviews of presidential candidates for the L.A. Times. California is important to presidential aspirants. And also print used to matter a great deal. So, you know, I got a lot of time with him. I spent — I don’t know what, seven hours with Reagan, six hours with Carter, that sort of thing.

And I interviewed Bob Dole and all the guys who didn’t make it. And Bob Dole said, "What’s this big" — this was 1980. He said, "What’s this big Afghanistan thing?" He said, "I think they’re using it as a ploy to take attention away from the Iranian hostage crisis, which they had not been able to resolve, and from their domestic economic problems and the price of oil, and so forth." He said, "The Soviets have always had a great deal of influence in Afghanistan. It’s right on their border. They got along with the king and everything. They’ve been there for seven, eight months with this secular guy in Kabul. You know, and why is this suddenly the biggest thing?" This is Bob Dole said that. He said, "I think it’s a ploy to take attention away from their problems."

And sure enough, in 1988, Zbigniew Brzezinski told Nouvel Observateur, he said, "We wanted to give the Soviets their Vietnam." It was very cynical. It was once again foreign mischief for domestic advantage. And then, that’s when Jimmy Carter said, "We’re not going to the Olympics in Moscow, and this is the worst thing to ever happen." It’s all stuff that Zbigniew ignored. Cy Vance, who was really his Secretary of State, favors Zbigniew Brzezinski. And Carter made this big deal about Afghanistan, and then he said, "We have to support these freedom fighters, the Mujahideen." And they began this process of recruiting them from all over the world. And then Reagan came in, and he accelerated that. He actually had a Freedom Fighter Day.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had Brzezinski famously saying about the Mujahideen, "What’s a few riled-up Muslims?"

ROBERT SCHEER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: As they were supporting the Mujahideen.

ROBERT SCHEER: And he said that quite late in the day, also, similar things, quite late in the day. I mean, if you want to go to the origin of 9/11 — you know, we’re recording this, I think, blocks, what, ten blocks away from the World Trade Center — you know, where does this stuff — unintended consequences. You know, it’s always so easy to throw and say — what did the New York Times say? — throw some country against the wall. It’s so easy to intervene. Everybody says, "Oh, you don’t have the courage to make war." Well, it takes no courage to make war, particularly if you’re not going to go and your children are not going to go. What courage is that? You know, but the unintended consequences, stuff happening now, you see that bloodshed in the clips you had from Iraq today. 50 years from now, somebody’s going to blow up some cafe in Manhattan, and maybe with a primitive nuclear weapon and take out Manhattan, and it’s going to be avenging some dangerous, mischievous thing that we did now.

That’s what happened — by the way, Iran keeps coming under the radar. Where did Iran come from? There was a guy named Mohammed Mossadegh back in early 1950s, secular in Iran, popular. He dared to nationalize the Italian oil company. He was moving against the English oil companies, started that process.

AMY GOODMAN: British Petroleum

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah, British Petroleum. The C.I.A. overthrows this guy. I remember, for the L.A. Times, I interviewed Kermit Roosevelt, who actually brought in the money. I did one of the first stories on that. You know, Kermit Roosevelt, he was dying in a hospital in Washington. He told me the whole story. And, you know, did Kermit Roosevelt — no, it was just fun. He went in there with, what, $28 million, bought a mob in the bazaar and started a riot, and they overthrew this guy. Unintended consequences. You get rid of Mohammed Mossadegh, who was a secular leader, you end up with the Shah. You sell him all this junk he can’t use, you know, airplanes and everything. He then has to raise the price of oil. You get rid of him, because he was active in OPEC. And you get the Ayatollahs.

AMY GOODMAN: And Kermit Roosevelt was the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt.

ROBERT SCHEER: Right. And now you go into Iraq. Unintended consequences. You knock out a secular dictator, and you replace him with the proteges of the Ayatollahs in Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Scheer, we’re going to have to break, but we’ll come back to you. Robert Scheer is the author of Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan and Clinton, and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush. We’ll talk more about his encounters with these presidents in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Robert Scheer, columnist with the Los Angeles Times for more than a decade, a columnist for years, one of the editors of Ramparts, has written a number of books. His latest is called Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan and Clinton, and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush. You went to North Korea.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah, Eldridge Cleaver, actually, when he got out of jail, was a writer for Ramparts magazine, and he arranged a trip. My interest really was not so much North Korea. I wanted to go to China and North Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: This was when?

ROBERT SCHEER: China was then in the Cultural Revolution, 1969, while we started doing it —- yeah, 1969. I think around ’69—'70. And so, we went to North Korea, and then we also went through China, and then we went to North Vietnam, which had been bombed in carpet-bombing and all that. And then we went back through China. So the exciting part of that trip was, I got to see China during the Cultural Revolution, when in this country they were still describing China as, you know, the little red ants and they were going to conquer San Diego. And they were — the whole reason for the Vietnam War was supposedly going to China. And you could tell then, this didn't have to be.

And Richard Nixon, to bless him in that respect, even before becoming president, before meeting Henry Kissinger, he said, "This is ridiculous. Communism is nationalist. The Chinese and Russian and Yugoslav and Cuban and — none of these communists get along, and the Koreans and the Vietnamese, and we can do business with them." And then he opened up to China, and that’s when the Cold War started.

So we were there, actually, as a witness to history, and we happened to — we were in North Korea, you know, and we had gone in there. And it was a very strange place. North Korea actually had been fairly successful during the sort of Stalinist build-up of heavy industry. But now they were collapsing. Even then, in the late ’60s, they were collapsing. It was a horror. And, you know, you could see this thing was — what do they call it? — the hermetic state. It was awful. It was just awful, as opposed to North Vietnam, where — you know, China, under the Cultural Revolution, was no pleasant place, either, and was scary.

By contrast, North Vietnam was a place where people were fighting for their independence, and they supported their leadership. And, you know, we’ve seen the result. North Korea is a case of a seriously arrested development. They got caught up in the whole Cold War. They got involved in this dynasty, crazy dynasty.

And I think that the policy — right now it’s interesting. These days, the Bush administration is talking about diplomacy. They’ve suddenly rediscovered diplomacy. And I think it’s very important to follow the lead of the South Koreans and the Chinese and not back North Korea even further into a corner, because that’s when they’ll be dangerous. And what they’ve really asked for is one-on-one talks with the United States — I don’t know why we’ve always resisted that — and, I think, normalization. We’ve seen it with China. We should do it with Cuba. The great enemy of any totalitarian regime is normalization and trade. We should have done it with Saddam Hussein. Boycotts don’t work. They work in certain isolated situations, where you have some potential. But in the main, the best way to bring about freedom in a society is to normalize, have tourism, have trade, have contact. That’s what we should be doing with Korea. And South Korea has been on that track. They’ve extended the rail line. They have tourist facilities. You’ve got to bring them into the modern period. But, you know, life is a horror for the Korean people. And I think isolating them further is going to make life more miserable.

You know, as far as the military threat, that, I think, is very much being exaggerated. For example, we’ve coddled Pakistan and India now in post-9/11. You know, Pakistan, India, that’s the real nuclear arms race. India just test-fired a rocket that could hit China.

AMY GOODMAN: This weekend.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah. What are the Chinese supposed to think about them? They’ve had historic problems with India. India and Pakistan could easily go to war at some point. We don’t know what’s going to happen in Pakistan. Very unstable regime. We know Khan in Pakistan is the one who gave North Korea their key technological material. We know they did the same with Iran. So if there’s been serious proliferation of nuclear weapons, it didn’t come from Korea, it came from Pakistan, okay? Instead of punishing Pakistan, if that’s what they want to do, they coddled Pakistan. They dropped the boycott. Now they’ve embraced India. We’re going to exchange nuclear material with India. So it’s okay for one nation to have rocket tests and develop these weapons and not for another.

You have to take a clear position, which this administration is not willing to do, which is that nuclear weapons, which we are, by the way, the main ones in the world developing. We’re the — also, also, people should remember. Everybody says, "Well, if it’s a democracy, let them have nuclear weapons." We’re the only ones who have ever used nuclear weapons. We’re the only ones, this democracy, our great democracy, and I happen to love this country. I love this freedom and democracy. The fact is we are the ones who killed innocent people, men, women and children, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons, weapons that should have never been used, should have never been developed in the first place, you know? And so, yes, these weapons are inherently threatening to all of civilization. If that had been a nuclear weapon at the World Trade Center, even the most primitive kind of the Hiroshima, Nagasaki, you wouldn’t have a Manhattan, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. There wouldn’t be a democracy of any kind in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Scheer, author of Playing President. You interviewed George Bush, the first. You interviewed George H.W. Bush.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah, that was an alarming — in fact, it was 1980, and it knocked him out of the election. He was the frontrunner. He had won Iowa. I got on a little airplane with him. And because it was the L.A. Times, and blah, blah, you know, and he was a supremely confident man, establishment cool, I think I call it. And I asked him, I said, "What are you going to do — you’re calling for even more nuclear weapons? What are you going to do with these weapons? What does it matter, whether we have 3% more or 5% more than the Russians? What do you do with them? You already have these, you know, 5,000 of these things, and they have it, and you can make the radioactive rubble bounce."

He said, "Well, that’s true if you don’t believe that nuclear war is winnable. And he believed nuclear war is winnable. He thought the Soviets believed it was winnable. Well, we had abandoned that idea. We assumed that mutual assured destruction. We assume these were not useable. And here was Bush, pretending to be on top of it all, talking about winnable nuclear war, because he had been listening to these people who wanted to develop a war-fighting capability. That was a very dangerous — I wrote a book about this, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War. It was a very dangerous tendency.

By contrast, Reagan, who had been being dismissed as this bumpkin, didn’t make that extremist statement, and suddenly Reagan knocked George Bush’s father out of the race at that time. He was very angry, tried to get me fired. Plenty of people tried to get my fired at the L.A. Times. The only one that succeeded was O’Reilly and these people.

But at that time, Otis Chandler took me aside. George Bush came into the building, and he complained about me. It was interesting. He said, "Are you going to bring up Reagan’s age?" And he said, "No, I won’t. But could Reagan, could Ronald Reagan put up with that nasty questioning from Scheer here?" You know, and fact is, Reagan did. I interviewed Reagan before he was governor, when he was governor, after he was governor, when he was a candidate. I had a very good relationship with Reagan. And Nancy Reagan distributed one of my major pieces on him at the Reagan Library towards the end of his life. I got along quite well with Reagan. I didn’t agree with him. But I certainly felt he knew what he was talking about it and had strong views, and we can discuss it, and that sort of thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does he compare to Bush today, George W. Bush?

ROBERT SCHEER: Well, my point in that subtitle, which you’ve read a few times, that they did not prepare me for Bush, is all of these people had led a life, okay? Reagan had been born in the Depression. His father lost his job. He went to work for the New Deal. Reagan had had to scratch his way through college and get jobs and make a living. He was the head of a union. He had actually had to work his way up in Hollywood. He cared about the issues. He cared about what was going on. He followed what was going on in the world.

This was certainly true of Richard Nixon, who was the best prepared president. He had been vice president. Richard Nixon, you could say, "Bulgaria." He would tell you the five different factions in Bulgaria, you know, where they stood and what their history was. He would have been able to tell you the whole story I just told you about Mossadegh. He would have known it in great detail. It doesn’t mean he did the right thing. He had the opening to China. He still killed millions of people in Indochina, stopping communism while he was drinking Mai Tais with Mao Tse-tung. So he was still capable of enormous dangerous contradictions.

Clinton, obviously the smartest, maybe the smartest of all of our politicians. The reason he wrote a letter criticizing me is, I called him a right-of-center. I said he’ll be remembered as a great president, but a right-of-center president, bringing us back to the center. I would say that this — in physics, they say quantitative change suddenly produces a qualitative change. You heat water, it becomes steam.

We’ve had the trivialization of our politics going on ever since we had electronic media. We’ve had the photo-ops and the dumbing down and the one-liners, and everything. But it hit a critical mass with George W. He is the first perfectly electronically transmitted president. There is no there there. Here is a guy who came in, he wasn’t even the one his father wanted to be president. He had no real interest. He — you know, we don’t pick senators because they have a track record. We pick governors from states where governors don’t do anything, like Jimmy Carter from Georgia, George W. from Texas.

So here was a guy who must have arrived that first day thinking, "How did I get here? What do I do?" And he basically turned it over to people he thought would allow him to one-up his father, that great psychological drama that we’re suffering through, and he turned it over to Cheney and to Rumsfeld and to the neo-cons, which is a real cabal. They’ve been meeting together. They’ve been preparing position papers together.

We have lots of good documentaries now out on this. Greenwald’s Uncovered, I think, is an excellent one. The other one I saw the other night, Hijacking 9/11. There are many of these things. They’re right. People have a right to question how this happened. But clearly, these people hijacked the government with a very narrow ideological view. They excluded the old establishment, the Brent Scowcrofts and that group. And they went in a very dangerous direction. He went along with them, because there is no there there. There is no George W. Bush. Here is a person who is totally disinterested in the world, uneducated. I’m not saying he’s stupid. I don’t think he’s stupid. He’s crafty as hell, but he projects well on television. And that’s the real big problem. He is the perfect "what, me worry?" president.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Robert Scheer, I want to thank you for being with us. Robert Scheer, columnist for many years, fired from the Los Angeles Times, now writing at the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as at his website, TruthDig. And his new book is called Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan and Clinton, and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush.

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