Interview Date: Thursday May 26, 2011
Interview Location: Denver, CO USA
Interviewer: Larry Satkowiak
Collection: Cable Center Collection
Cable Center Interview with Steve Scully
May 26, 2011
Interviewer: Larry Satkowiak
LS: Hi, I’m Larry Satkowiak, President and CEO of the Cable Center. It’s May 26, 2011 , and we’re here today with Steve Scully, who was C-SPAN’s Senior Executive Producer and Political Editor. He’s also an adjunct faculty at the University of Denver and the Amos B. Hostetter Chair for the Cable Center.
SS: Good to see you again, Larry.
LS: Good to see you. We’re going to explore several different things during the interview. Why don’t we just start off with a little bit of background on you. How did you get involved with C-SPAN and what was your career before that?
SS: You know, it was pretty traditional. I came to school in Washington, D.C., went to American University and had a couple of internships. I worked for Joe Biden, Senator from Delaware at the time, as an intern, so I had my first chance to really see politics up close in Washington, D.C. I worked for Senator Kennedy. I was involved in his ill-fated campaign in 1980, which was interesting; having worked as a high school student in the Carter campaign in 1976, I saw from two different perspectives. I always knew I wanted to come back to Washington. I finished in D.C., went back to my hometown, worked as a reporter and anchor. I decided I wanted to go to law school and as I was applying for law school, I applied for journalism school at Northwestern in Chicago. They sent me a letter back at the time—we didn’t have e-mail—and they offered me a scholarship. So I thought, I’d go to grad school and then I’d go to law school. I loved journalism, loved Northwestern, and decided I wanted to pursue a career in the media. I worked in Rochester, New York, for a couple of years. Before that, I worked in Rock Island, Illinois, and then came down for a job interview in Baltimore, Maryland, at WBAL. While I was in Baltimore, I thought I would just swing by—I had a friend that worked at C-SPAN. Long story short, they hired me for the political editor position. I got involved in the ’92 campaign, looking at it from the media standpoint. Front row seats at the Bill Clinton campaign. And I’ve been there ever since.
LS: How did you develop your interest in politics? You have to have a passion for politics to do the kind of job you’re doing. And I know it’s exciting being around some of the people that you’ve interviewed over the years, but was there something in your early childhood with your parents or anybody that excited you about politics?
SS: Well, I don’t want this to be about me, but I grew up in a large family. I had twelve brothers and sisters so just growing up in that size family at the dinner table with a lot of heated discussions. My mom was a Democrat and my dad was a Republican and so that in and of itself was interesting. But my uncle had run for a local office and I remember going door-to-door passing out literature, going to shopping malls. He lost in the general election, but I was only eleven years old at the time. It really kind of excited me. Then I got involved in the Carter campaign and my only claim to fame in the Jimmy Carter campaign is that if you go down to the Carter Library in Atlanta, Georgia, you’ll see a picture of Jimmy Carter shaking hands with Mr. Peanut in Pennsylvania. And you’ll notice that Mr. Peanut is wearing a god-awful 1970’s Argyle sweater. Well, that’s me. Because the Peanut costume was in Erie, Pennsylvania, at the Planters Peanut Shop. They needed somebody to greet Jimmy Carter as a candidate as he arrived in Erie to campaign for the Pennsylvania primary. I volunteered, they took the picture, it was sent around the world as Mr. Peanut meets Jimmy Carter as he was kind of on the ascendancy of getting the nomination. So that was it. That was my first real taste of national politics. It’s been downhill ever since.
LS: That’s something to remember, for sure. Let’s talk a little bit about C-SPAN. I think most people that would be viewing this tape would be familiar with C-SPAN, but C-SPAN is a nonprofit organization. Can you tell us about its mission and how it goes about doing its daily business?
SS: Its mission hasn’t changed in its 30-35 years since Brian had the idea with people like Amos Hostetter and other early pioneers in the cable industry. The idea was to educate the American people about their government. C-SPAN is really all about Brian Lamb because if you look at his career, he worked in the Johnson White House as a Navy officer, he worked in the Nixon White House in the communications shop, and then he worked in the cable industry in the mid-1970’s. He really had a sense that the American people needed to get more than what they got from the evening news or from the New York Times. So the early goal was to open up Washington and the Houses on C-SPAN only because the House agreed to cameras first. If the Senate had agreed, the Senate would be on C-SPAN and the House on C-SPAN, too. It was from that premise that then we began to grow with Congressional hearings and then events in Washington in 1980, which was the first year of C-SPAN; we covered about 100 hours of the Reagan-Carter campaign. I was looking at the archives and there were some stories on the CBS morning show on Sunday morning with Jeff Greenfield saying, “A whopping 100 hours of unfiltered campaign coverage only available on C-SPAN.” Of course, in 2008, we had about 5,000 hours of unfiltered campaign coverage. So we’ve really grown from its origins, but the mission has stayed the same. We now have three networks, about a dozen websites, a radio station heard coast-to-coast on XM-Sirius. But the idea of opening up the process and giving people a sense of what happens on the floor of the House of Representatives, what happens in Congressional hearings, what happens on the campaign trail, the policy speeches, the think tank seminars—it’s all available, and that’s really been our mission for 30-plus years.
LS: Brian—I know in the early days of cable, trying to sell this idea of C-SPAN—I guess it wasn’t always just a smooth sail, people didn’t jump right up to say, yes, I want that. Can you tell us a little bit about just how C-SPAN, when they got started, what kind of reception they got from the audience and from Congress?
SS: Let me caution, because I wasn’t at C-SPAN at the time. I was still in college.
You have to keep in mind the business model of C-SPAN, which is we don’t generate any revenue, we’re a nonprofit, we take money from the cable industry, we have the support of the industry, we get less than ten cents—I think it’s six-and-a-half cents per month per cable subscriber that funds the entire C-SPAN operation. So when cable operators are looking for revenue, we’re not a draw of revenue, but what we do provide, I think, is a value and a relevance. People get cable for a number of reasons: sports, entertainment, news and information. And we’re the only network of its kind anywhere in the world. Nowhere else do you have the private industry, the cable industry, supporting something that really allows the American people to get a sense of how their government works. And there have been models in different states; Pennsylvania has one, California has one. It has taken the C-SPAN model and done it on a statewide level, and we would like to see even more of that. But it was tough early going because who’s going to watch a Congressional hearing? Why do people really care about what happens on the floor of the House of Representatives? Now it’s second nature, and I think that the American people would miss what we offer because I think we offer something they’re not going to get anywhere else. Let me make one other point. The news industry—CNN, MSNBC and Fox certainly cover events, but they’re going to do it in short form. Or you’re going to listen to part of the speech or part of it the hearing and then they’re going to go away to something else or go to a commercial break. You’ll never get that on C-SPAN, which I think adds to the value of what we’re all about.
LS: How then does C-SPAN decide what events to cover and how long you’re going to cover those particular events? Is there some kind of a body within C-SPAN to do that? Is it audience-driven? How does it work?
SS: You know, it’s one of the biggest misnomers. People think that we just turn on the camera and shoot these different events. We’re probably the purest form of journalism in the country and I say that because we’re not driven by competitive pressures and we’re not driven by ratings. What we’re driven by is what we think is in the best interest of public policy programming. Some examples could be—there could be a celebrity testifying on Capitol Hill about a cause that could be very important, but you could also have the Defense Secretary, Bob Gates or whomever is in that post, talking about Pentagon spending cuts. And if we have a choice between one or the other—we can only get one—more often than not, we may choose to get the more serious event and let others worry about the celebrity, whoever that happens to be. So we sit around every afternoon, a group of people who look at all the day’s events and then determine where we send our cameras. We’re like any other news operation because we have a limited number of people who can cover these events. Some days are going to be busier than others. The real challenge tends to be Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays when the House and Senate are in. There are a lot of blockbuster hearings and there may be some great speeches we want to get. So we really have to decide what is newsworthy, what is relevant, what is important. The same with politics. My approach to covering campaigns is we can cover presidential candidates almost every single day. We have to cover events that are important, whether it’s a campaign announcement or the first time a potential candidate has been in Iowa or New Hampshire. There was a lot of interest in John Huntsman this week; we were live with him in Franklin, New Hampshire. So we have to decide where we’re going to put our resources because it’s not unlimited and we want to make smart decisions.
LS: C-SPAN is known for being very neutral in the approach to the news and unlike a lot of other cable news networks especially nowadays. It seems very opinionated, very harsh on either side with that. C-SPAN has chosen a different path. Why is that? Is it successful? Is it something that works? Is it one of those things that really sets C-SPAN apart from the other cable networks?
SS: That’s a good question. I mean, it does work for us. It’s who we are. You’re not going to see opinions expressed by the host of the Washington Journal or the interviews that Brian Lamb or Susan Swain or any of us do. As these other networks move much more into opinion journalism, which is what their model is all about and that’s fine, I think by staying neutral, by offering an alternative, I think that actually helps us. You know, Brian has always said, Stick to your knitting, stay with your mission. And it’s what we do best. What I tell people about what C-SPAN is all about—it’s like a kaleidoscope of information out there. If you want opinion journalism, you’re going to tune into Bill O’Reilly, or you’re going to watch Chris Matthews. If you want long-form documentaries, you might watch the History Channel or you might tune in to “Sixty Minutes” for those 15-17 minute news segments. If you want a snippet of the news, you’re going to watch the evening news. But if you want to watch events unfold—especially live, and that’s where I really think we’re shifting is to do a lot more events live, especially in this digital social media, web age. That adds to the value of what we’re all about. And the other thing that we do—and we’ve been doing this with presidential candidates—is we’ve given them the chance to kind of talk in long-form about who they are, why they’re running, what motivates them, their own political background. Brian Lamb, with his interviews on Sunday, an hour: he just did two hours with David McCullough on his book. You’re not going to get that anywhere else. We realize that long-form programming is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. And if you want that, we’re the place to go. If you want something else, you’ll simply go somewhere else.
LS: Talk a little bit about how social media is changing your business right now. Obviously students that we deal with here on the University of Denver campus are right in the middle of the social media revolution. Obviously it has to have an impact on C-SPAN. How do you see this developing?
SS: We don’t know where it’s going, but we know that we have to embrace it because it’s where people are getting their news and information. It’s interesting; I’m becoming a much more avid Twitter both in following Twitter and also in sending out Tweets. And I do it to try to send out information about what we’re doing in terms of C-SPAN. But I get more news right now, breaking news, off Twitter than I get off cbsnews.com or CNN or even the Drudge Report, because it’s instantaneous. And I think more and more people are using it. What I hope it doesn’t do is replace the blogs and the long-form reporting. I think Twitter is, again, just another avenue to get news and information out there. The biggest challenge we have as a network is to let people know what we’re covering and when it’s going to be on. It’s number one because it’s not like we have scheduled programming seven days a week except for the Washington Journal and some Sunday evening programs. That’s really about it. We cover the events as they happen. The House could be in some weeks, they could be out, there could be hearings that were live or hearings that move. Primetime schedules change because we are live with events. We try to hit an eight o’clock start time for the East Coast for primetime, but it varies. So Twitter and Facebook allows us to get that information to people who are following it. And where is it going? You know, I don’t know is the short answer. What I tell students here at the University of Denver is, just think back, in 1996—not that long ago—the first time we had candidates using the Internet to try to post their speeches. Then in 2004, we had candidates like Howard Dean using the web to raise money. 2008 with John McCain. And in 2012, social media is going to be a real driving force for the Republican nominee and for the Obama campaign. I see it growing, you have to embrace it, you have to be savvy with it, because if you don’t you get left behind.
LS: Let’s talk a little bit about the distance learning class here at the University of Denver. Obviously it’s been funded very generously by Amos Hostetter, the guy you and I both know reasonably well, a really good guy for funding this for a number of years now. I think your involvement with the program goes back to 2002. I know the program was going on before that—
SS: It started about a year and _____ months before.
LS: Really at the time it was a very innovative new sort of thing. Could you tell us how you became involved with the distance education class and how that all developed in the relationship with C-SPAN and the University of Denver and the Cable Center?
SS: Well, first, you’re right. It would not have happened without Amos. Amos, who was one of the very early supporters of Brian and had faith in Brian and had this love that Brian had in trying to create C-SPAN is indicative of what Amos is all about, which is somebody who loves education. He’s certainly done that now with his generosity to a number of colleges and universities and in seeing his own kids go through college and graduate, so a huge thanks to Amos and what he represents. In terms of why C-SPAN began the project, again, it’s what our mission is all about: education. And at the time when Brian was talking to your predecessors here at the Cable Center, the idea was, what could C-SPAN contribute? Sure, we could give some early cameras that we used, those big boxy C-SPAN cameras and the ¾ inch tapes that we used to use (now everything is digital.) But it was Brian’s idea. You know, he loves meeting with students. Even to this day, he loves nothing more than sitting around with a group of students and asking them, where are you from, what do you do, the basic Indiana-type questions, the Midwest-type of personality that he brings to his interviews on C-SPAN. So from that, he had the idea why don’t we bring the best of Washington to students in the middle of the country. So he started with John Splaine, professor at the University of Maryland, and they really got the program up and running. Then after John had done it for awhile, he had come to me because I had done some teaching in Rochester, I love being with students and I love politics. And so they thought maybe we could take what my passion is and try to create a class at the University of Denver. So it evolved over the years; it was just initially Washington and Denver, and then we decided, well, we needed to kind of expand it so we had Pace University because we had connections with Pace, and then we brought in George Mason University. Then we started to air on the C-SPAN networks because we were getting such great guests, sometimes guests that didn’t want to come on C-SPAN but were happy to talk to students. Then we decided that it was too valuable not to put it on the C-SPAN networks and then we put it on the web and then we had students watching the Internet and different universities would call in with questions. So it really began as a simple concept that evolved and grew as technology grew.
LS: And technology has changed during the roughly ten years since the class has been going, and social media, the web and the way people use the web, the way students are being educated has even changed during that time period.
You’ve had a lot of guests that come in and I think a lot of guests have been very generous with their time. I know they don’t charge regular speaking fees or whatever to come in and talk to the students. One of the guests strikes me right off, Madeleine Albright, when she came in. Obviously there’s a connection with Madeleine Albright and the University of Denver.
How do you have the students, or what do you do with the students to have them prepare for Madeleine Albright being in front of the class and the ability for our students at whatever university to go ahead and ask Madeleine Albright questions?
SS: Well, first of all, the guests—we try to make a mirror of what the topic happens to be, whether it’s Congress and the presidency, media and politics or a course on presidential campaigns. So you try to get guests that mirror what the issues and topics and lectures have been about during the quarter. Second of all, in many cases, we require the books these individuals have written. The students are required to read the book and you find they will then ask better questions. Thirdly, what I’ve tried to do is try to teach the students how to ask good questions—short, concise, direct, to the point. Fourthly, using the Internet sending them information in advance about who’s coming so they can do their own research. It is a college-level course so there is an expectation that they will do their own research as well. And what they find very quickly is that these leading public figures love to take questions, they love to engage with students and they love to share their knowledge. And if you’re able to capture that, even though the students may be in Denver or New York City or Fairfax, Virginia, and the guest may be in Washington, I think after the initial intimidation that the students may have because of the technology quickly eases away—this is a pretty tech-savvy generation. I think that once you begin the discussion what I try to do is kind of frame the debate with a couple of opening questions and then go right to the questions from the students, and go back and forth and let them go at it. It’s their class; it’s a chance for them to interact with these leading public figures.
LS: The class itself is so different, it seems to me, than any other class you’d have at a university. It’s not necessarily textbook-driven, although the students have a reading list I know that they have to go through. I’ve also talked to students that have told me that they have worked harder and read more and done more research for this class than pretty much any other class they’ve had at the university. Does your approach to this class reflect your teaching philosophy in general?
SS: First of all let’s talk about the class. It’s never the definitive Poli-Sci 101 or Mass Media 101; it’s not designed to do that. I view the class as a complement to everything else that they’re learning in academia. What I hope to do is to get them excited about politics and public policy, to get them to read the newspapers or go online and have a better understanding of what is going on in the country and around the world. To be a citizen of the United States, which means the obligation of having an understanding of what’s happening out there. If I’m able to do that, if nothing else, then I think I’ve succeeded, but beyond that, you want them to learn something. What I try to do is to demystify what they might have learned about politics and public policy and give them an understanding of how Washington really works, where the backroom deals, why is this happening and what motivates Candidate A for doing this or motivates the White House for doing that or whether it’s the debate over the budget and the deficit—really give them a sense of how Washington really works, and cut through all of the misconceptions they might have and give them a better understanding of politics in Washington. As I say, it’s a nontraditional course taught with traditional academic requirements and if they take this class and they’re Poli-Sci students or journalism students, I think it’s just a chance to complement everything else that they’re getting here at the University of Denver, or wherever the students happen to be going to school.
LS: My own personal philosophy of education is that it gives you the ability to look at a problem from various angles. It seems in recent years more and more—maybe it’s just me—that we’ve become more polarized in different camps around different issues. The students, when they come in, obviously they have some notions of why they believe in something, but it seems to me that you spend an awful lot of time trying to bring out, to really question the root of their beliefs and give them both sides of the issue. I also know that you’ve spent an awful lot of time trying to bring balance to the different guests that you have coming in. So you’ve got a fair number of Democrats and Republicans coming in to give different sides of the stories. Have you seen a change in the students over time or just even over the length of the class in their perspective on the way the political system works?
SS: My framework, Larry, would be the ten weeks that we offer the course based on the quarter system here at the University of Denver because as I see students come in—and again, I’m in Washington, so I don’t have the chance to really talk to them before and after class. I have office hours—them giving me a phone call or trading emails. So it’s a chance for them to really kind of either vent or ask questions or just try to get more information. But what I see to a person—and I’ve seen it this quarter and I’ve seen it every quarter since I’ve been doing this—is students come in unsure about whether they can really participate in a class like this because they don’t know a lot about what’s going on around the country, around the world. They’re afraid to ask questions because they’re afraid it’s a dumb question. I keep telling them: don’t worry about that, there’s no dumb question. Don’t worry about being afraid to chime in and start reading the paper and you will very quickly get a sense of what’s going on and to a person, I have seen that here at the University of Denver. There is no greater satisfaction than seeing students, and there have been a few over the years, that stand out. One in particular who wasn’t sure what she wanted to do decided she wanted to be a doctor, took the class and now decided that after she finishes her medical degree, she wants to be a Peace Corps volunteer because that’s a chance for her to share her love of medicine and also her newfound passion for public policy. Did this class do it? Maybe not, but maybe it did light a fire that spurred her to think about what she really wanted to do, and you know, students who have gone on to law school, many of whom I keep in touch with. There’s nothing more satisfying than to see these students who start out a little unsure about themselves. You try to motivate them, you try to get them excited. They leave with a sense of confidence that they can ask questions, speak out in public, and say—one student told me last year, I’ll never forget it, “I can go home at Thanksgiving and I can debate my dad on the issues and I’m going to be just as smart as he is, and maybe smarter.” And I thought, Go for it.
LS: You’ve been very generous with your time. I can’t imagine what your email looks like and the number of students who’ve told me that you’re always on top of that sort of that stuff. I know they’re very appreciative of the time that you put in with the students.
You’ve interviewed a number of high profile people for the class, and it’s really quite an amazing list of people. Have any of the guests that you’ve brought in really surprised you with what they said or what they do or even their interaction with the students? Were there any real big surprises like that that really stand out?
SS: How much time do you have? [Laughter] Let me share a couple, take it from a couple of different vantage points. The very first year we did the class, my thought was this was a great chance to get people who might be out of the public limelight, but still have a great story to tell. The course was in 2003, looking at the 2004 campaigns, so I thought, why not bring in Bob Dole, former presidential candidate. What’s it like to run for president? So I called up his office. He was more than happy to come and do the class. We were doing the class at the time from what was a closet on the sixth floor of C-SPAN that had no air conditioning, and had transformed into a studio with two cameras and a blue wall and bookcase. So Bob Dole came on and, you know what, I’m going to call and see if Jerry Ford will talk about how Jerry Ford selected Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976. So I knew people from the Ford staff and I called them up and they said, "Sure". So he was in pretty good health, not great health, so he was joining us on the phone and we got into a really interesting discussion about what it’s like to run for president. Ford went on to talk about why he chose Bob Dole and the thought process; why didn’t he choose Ronald Reagan. He told the story about Reagan’s staff told Ford not to ask him about it. Then we talked about the Ford pardon, the Nixon pardon that Jerry Ford gave. And I thought, what an incredible moment of history, to have these students to hear from these two leading public figures to talk about something that was part of my life growing up that they never really witnessed, but it was an eyewitness to history. So that was one.
From Hillary Clinton, you mentioned Madeleine Albright, to Newt Gingrich, although sometimes you have to be careful because in one case I booked James Rosen, who’s an expert on Watergate. So I thought, I’m going to have James Rosen kind of lay out what happened with Watergate. And the week before I pulled a lot of video and created my own PowerPoint and lecture on Watergate so the students could really understand what happened. Then James Rosen came on—he wrote a definitive book about John Mitchell, who was Nixon’s Attorney General. And then afterwards I had John Dean on. John Dean was in California, James Rosen was in Washington, and apparently there’s some litigation between John Dean and James Rosen, which I was not aware of. Needless to say, both James and John, not knowing that one was following the other, were not happy with me. I later had to apologize and they understood. So that’s an example of I thought I did all my homework but I didn’t realize that there was some litigation between these two individuals.
But the whole approach has always been to try to get people who have a story to tell and you share that story with these students.
LS: I remember the Bob Dole in talking to just some students afterward and a couple of people actually commented on how warm and personable they thought Bob Dole was.
SS: Oh, yes.
LS: And still is. You know, his sense of humor I think came out in the interview an awful lot, and something that I don’t think has come out in a lot of different ways for those students. And that’s not the side they really saw, the more relaxed person who was interested in the education process, and coming to talk to the class.
You’ve got a couple of clips that we’re going to show, one with Newt Gingrich and another with Dee Dee Meyers. And after that, I’ll ask you for your comments, but obviously, sometimes it’s a little bit difficult to hit on some sensitive subjects. I think these two clips show a little bit of that. So if we can show those two clips and if you can comment on that when we get done.
…Mr. Speaker, I actually just want to ask real quick, you did a White Paper on the Abramoff scandal, and some interesting info there I hadn’t read before. But one thing I wanted to ask is David Dreier, Chairman of the House Rules Committee, yesterday went ahead and was talking about the reform that the Republicans are trying to get through for the ethics surrounding lobbying, etc. And one aspect he said they’re looking at is removing the right for former Congressmen to come on to the House floor whenever they want to, an advantage they get so if they later become lobbyists, they can get the current Congressman’s ear a little easier than other lobbyists. Do you think this is a good way of curbing what you said was the Washington insider domination that exists today?
Gingrich: Well, I think they should seriously at the notion that if you become a registered lobbyist, that it’s inappropriate to use various perks that you acquire as a former member of Congress. I made the very deliberate decision when I stepped down not to go into lobbying precisely because I want to approach people on the Hill about ideas. I think that’s a legitimate thing to look at, but if you do look at the paper I wrote on the Abramoff scandal, which you can get if you go to newt.org, my personal website, it’s just my first name. You’ll find that in that particular scandal that I outline a whole series of much more profound reforms. I think we should abolish fundraising in Washington by incumbents, I think we should allow constituents back home to give unlimited amounts of money to the candidate of their choice for their district or their state. I think we want to shift power out of Washington back home, and I think you can pass all sorts of minor Mickey Mouse kinds of reforms and they’re not a big deal and the people can do that and say look what I did. But if you want to get serious about changing the system, you’ve got to change the center of money and the system back home and get it out of Washington.
Q: My question is concerning the 2008 presidential campaign and in looking at the campaign, what impact positive or negative do you believe Sarah Palin has had on the campaign and the position of women in politics?
DM: Great question. I think she has definitely had a little bit of both. I think the fact she’s there, on national ticket, the high profile that she’s had is great. I think that she has certain skills and talents that are undeniable. She is resilient, she’s a great communicator, she really understands how to reach out to an audience. She can take a punch. She’s been through a lot in this campaign already in what eight short weeks or nine weeks, however long ago the convention was. And I think that resilience and that optimism that she displays day in and day out, despite what she might be feeling inside, again is a testament to a couple of things. One, it shows that women are tough enough for the campaign trail. Two, it shows that there is a different way to be out there. I think her style is very different than Hillary Clinton’s style. I think that for young women to see somebody who looks like Sarah Palin, who’s young, again it’s a different way of communicating that’s really effective I think is a great thing. The problem is something that I talked about earlier. I don’t think she’s as qualified as many other women out there in the Republican Party to take on the role of Vice-President, particularly given that John McCain is 72 years old. I think it’s raised a lot of questions among not just Democrats and Independents but also Republicans about whether, wow, is she really ready to step into the presidency. I think to have somebody there who’s running and to have those questions about her qualifications surrounding her is a bit unfortunate. But here we are.
[End of clips]
SS: It’s interesting; both of those clips kind of embody what we’ve been able to do in this class for a couple of reasons. First of all, we’ve tried to mirror what’s happening in politics and public policy at the time, so we spend a lot of time in this quarter talking about the debt and the deficit because that’s been the dominant issue; a little bit about presidential politics. That interview with Dee Dee Myers was during the middle of the 2008 campaign in the fall of 2008. But the other thing we’ve tried to do is to always get historical perspective, to not just turn it into “here’s what’s happening today and let’s talk about it.” But explain how did we get to that point? Sarah Palin got there in part because of Geraldine Ferraro. What did she tell the Democrats in 1984, and why did Mondale select her as the running mate? The Jack Abramoff scandal is one of the biggest issues that has plagued Washington since it became a capital. Money and politics. It continues to be an issue and we’ve seen that so often and we’ll see it in 2012 in a campaign where both the Democratic and Republican nominee each could spend almost $1 billion for their own re-election, Barack Obama or for the Republicans’ election in 2012. And that’s incredible. Almost $1 billion. Where’s all that money coming from? Mitt Romney just raised $10 million. And so what I’ve tried to do is explain the campaign laws. How did we get there post-Watergate? What do the laws state today and how does it apply to the candidates moving ahead? So the questions have been related in part to what’s happening but also giving them context and perspective.
LS: The guests, when they come in, they obviously know that they are talking to a group of students. It seems to me that they take that obligation very seriously. They know that there is a news relationship here, that’s going on. Do they ever have any fear, any of the guests, that whatever they say in kind of a looser atmosphere would end up on the evening news?
SS: No, although I can tell you that we did book one guest who told us in advance he wanted to make news, and that was Senator John Kerry—
LS: I remember that.
SS: He was thinking of running for president. His staff, they were really looking for a forum to talk about a potential bid for 2012; he was kind of floating the idea. So his office called me that morning and said, “I just want to let you know he’ll answer anything you want, but if you ask him about 2008, he may have a good answer for you. That signals to me we better ask about it. It’s fascinating that you can get people who will come in and come to C-SPAN who won’t come and take calls from viewers, who may not want to do any other interviews, but there’s something about being with students. And I’ll be honest with you, we’ve tried to capitalize on that because it is a way for us to get people that we otherwise could not get. I think it’s good for the students, I think it’s good for C-SPAN, it’s been good for the Cable Center and the University of Denver, and I think it’s been a way for us to show that we’re not just a network that points a camera and covers events, that we have a lot of substance and depth.
LS: The thing that excited me about the class when I first came to the Cable Center—I came to the Cable Center in 2003—I think you were one of the first people I met when I was interviewing for the job. You were here doing the class, but—
SS: And the Center wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for you.
LS: But it’s really interesting how the relationship between C-SPAN and the Cable Center has developed. Obviously a lot of that is thanks to Amos Hostetter. But just the willingness to actually do something like this and the universities that have participated. I think what a lot of people don’t realize you could be a 19 year-old sophomore at the University of Denver, at Pace University, and get a chance to actually ask Madeleine Albright a question, or Dee Dee Myers. I know we were very sensitive during the class in trying to give the students enough time to develop some of the questions and actually have a good dialogue between the universities and the guests. We have also had it in other universities over time and I know that it reduced the amount of time each university had to ask questions. Can you remember any guest from some of the guest universities that we’ve had at the program that—the class just wouldn’t have been the same if you didn’t have that university call in, for instance?
SS: It is a challenge because every university wants the guest by themselves, and yet I think while you want to make sure that if you have an hour and more often than not, I would stretch it to an hour fifteen, or an hour twenty, and I would try to push it as long as I could because I wanted every student to ask the questions that they could. While it would be great to have just twenty students at one university to have a chance to really interact with one individual guest, I think Denver students come to the table from a very different perspective than students from USC in Southern California, when they joined us for a couple of the classes, or Pace University, you have a Northeast/New York-centric group of students; George Mason University tends to draw from an international pool of students. I think overall that’s better. I think it’s better for the students because they are able to see other questions from a different perspective and a different vantage point and I think it’s good for the guests who come because they’re getting peppered from a number of different universities. And I think that the people who come are prepared for that, so it works for them. I think it’s been overall a complete advantage.
Has it been perfect? No, because some students will say, gee, this is my class and I don’t get a chance to ask all the questions. But as I’ve said to you before, this class should complement everything else you’re doing in academia, in your college career. It’s not the definitive course on any topic or issue, but I think it will open your eyes and give you a better understanding of the topics and issues that we discuss and lecture on.
LS: I think the other thing that impresses the students is you know each of them by name, you call them by name, and you spread the questions around to the various students. And so everybody in that class is involved, no matter which location they’re at and I think the students appreciate that an awful lot.
We’ve got a couple other film clips that we want to show. Once again, if you could make some comments on the people. The first is Helen Thomas.
SS: Oh, yes. I think she came three different occasions.
LS: Thanks to you, I actually had a chance to meet her in Washington several years ago.
SS: She’s now almost 91 years old.
LS: She was holding court in a corner when I saw her and everybody was coming to her, which was great. And then another clip, with John Kerry. If we can run that and then have you comment on it.
On behalf of the students joining us at the University of Denver at the Cable Center, and Pace University in Midtown Manhattan, and at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, we’re delighted to welcome Helen Thomas of Hearst Newspapers, previously with UPI, and Sam Donaldson of ABC News. Thank you both for being with us.
SD: A pleasure.
Q: I want to begin by sharing with the students two different examples of you questioning a president. But let me begin by asking you, Sam, whether it’s Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, or Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, what’s Sam Donaldson’s approach?
SD: The approach is to try to find out something that’s going on and pass it on to the public. And when you question a president, it ought to be a direct question that he or she, someday, could answer directly if they choose. The problem is they often don’t choose to and then if you get a follow-up, you have to try to dig it out. But it’s too important when you talk to presidents to just throw away some frivolous thing. It’s got to be something the public really needs to know.
Q: And Helen Thomas, you have questioned every president since John Kennedy. Do they give you the answer you’re looking for regardless of their political ideology or party affiliation?
HT: Hell, no. Of course they don’t. I mean they ?punch , they _____ the bets, they absolutely change the subject.
Q: I want you to go back to the fall and winter of 2003. Leading up to the Iowa caucuses where people were saying, “It’s over.” What happened, and what changed?
Kerry: Well, I believed in myself and I believed in the message that I was talking to people about. I mean I think that in any campaign, you’ve got to have a sense of why you’re doing it and I had a very powerful sense of why I was doing it. I began to feel a connection. I felt that people were responding to what I was saying, had a sense that I could be president, a sense that I was offering real leadership on real issues, and I just felt that a campaign is never where the polls are six months out. A campaign is the result of what it’s called—a campaign. You’re out there meeting people, pushing an idea, talking, growing. The growth doesn’t come to its head if you do it right until the time of the election or the caucus or the primary or whatever it is. And that’s what we did.
Q: So what in your mind changed the dynamics? Why did the Dean campaign begin to unravel and why did they turn to you?
JK: I can’t speak to what happened to another campaign, etc. I just know that I was talking about the things that I think are relevant today. I felt there was a better way to wage the war on terror. I talked about how we could make America strong in the world again, how we could restore our moral authority. I had a major initiative on energy independence. I was the first person running for president of the United States to ever advertise on energy independence. I’m proud of that. We laid out a plan to be able to make America more secure, healthier, create more jobs, and protect our environment all at the same time. Now everybody’s beginning to talk about it. I laid out a health care plan, which would have reduced the cost of health care for everybody in America. That plan is still relevant today; it’s urgent today. So I think the things I was fighting for are as relevant today as they were then and it’s because they were relevant then, people responded.
[Comments by Scully]
SS: You know it’s interesting, Sam Donaldson, I just finished reading a book about the “Tear Down this Wall” speech by President Reagan. President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were on Red Square in Moscow as one of the final overseas trips by the president. After President Reagan had given that “Tear Down this Wall” speech and Sam Donaldson yelling out a question, “Mr. President: Is the Soviet Union still the Evil Empire?” And the president said, “No, it’s changed over the last couple of years.” But that’s an example of asking a very simple, direct question. I grew up watching Sam Donaldson and admiring him. He’s actually one of the nicest guys in Washington, although if you saw him on ABC, he came across as bellicose and stern and a fierce questioner, and he is all that as well. He and Helen Thomas epitomized the White House Press Corps. Helen Thomas was there from John Kennedy through the Obama Administration, so I thought having the two of them together, sharing some incredible stories covering the presidents. And of course, Donaldson especially Carter and Reagan, and a little bit of Bill Clinton. It was a great chance for the students to really understand the evolution of the relationship between the press and the presidency.
With John Kerry, here’s a guy who had run for president, had everyone around him, all his aides and handlers, and the day that he came in, he walked in by himself, it was two years after his campaign. Had Ohio turned, he would have been President of the United States and we probably would have gotten him into class. I know we would have gotten him into class. I wanted to get a sense of you often learn more from losing than winning. Here’s a guy that almost won. He certainly won the nomination. We talked a lot about his selection process of John Edwards, his own career in politics, one of the longest-serving junior senators in Massachusetts because Ted Kennedy was such a long-serving senior senator from the state. The kids had a chance to really get some good questions. That’s what we do best in this class.
LS: Once again, it’s just an amazing experience for students to be exposed to our political system, especially at this level. The class is ending after a number of years. Could you talk about some of the challenges that a distance learning class like this would encounter. What are some of the things that worked very well, and some of the things that maybe didn’t work so well?
SS: What worked well is incorporating the best of the C-SPAN archives in bringing the class to life because we have the ability to use the events that we’re covering, and the events that we’ve covered as a network for thirty years, and using the National Archives with old newsreels and film clips to really bring topics alive, like the Civil Rights debate of the 1960’s. Or Watergate or presidential campaigns or presidential speeches like Reagan’s Challenger speech, and John Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs speech. That’s what we do best. I think going forward the challenges are how do you make it as widely distributed as possible. Again, it goes back to the model that we’ve talked about so often here. You want kids to have a chance to question these leading newsmakers that come into the class. So if you have twenty universities you’re going to lose that. I think that maybe moving forward, one way to do so is to use the Internet, which is a very powerful tool, using Skype as a way to try to bring down the cost of the technology and have students maybe not always participate, but at least watch these newsmakers and I think it has immense potential going down the road for other universities, especially in the rural areas. I mean, we’re in a major metropolitan area here in Denver, New York City with Pace University. I can envision that there are universities in smaller communities—I was in New York State just a couple of weeks ago and a lot of small universities in Ithaca and Binghamton and Corning, New York, that or colleges in Pennsylvania or California or Indiana, that would be able to benefit immensely by having these people speak to the students or just share their oral histories that again, might go back to what we tried to do, which is to get students excited about civics, history, politics, public policy.
LS: I think the experiences of the class—and I really would have not seen it possible without the vast archives of C-SPAN, the ability to bring in those video clips. When I look at the age of students that are in the classroom and you talk about Ronald Reagan, that’s ancient history to a lot of these students.
SS: So is Bill Clinton for some of these students.
LS: Exactly. And the ability to see how things have changed over time, just the way you introduced different clips into the class and have the discussion with the students. Obviously it’s had to have had a wonderful on the students themselves. I don’t know how many students have gone through the class. Do you have any idea? I don’t know if it’s hundreds at all the universities.
SS: We’ve had over a thousand here at the University of Denver, and many more when you count the other schools that have been part of it. I think we’ve had three fulltime partners and a lot of students who’ve joined us, in some cases whether it’s USC or Northwestern’s students where there would be 25 or 30 participating for individual classes. They worked with us the whole quarter, the whole semester, but for part of the classes. But you know what? It’s interesting; I know it’s not because it’s me, it’s because what the class represents, is from the very beginning that we started to do this, the attendance was for the most part was between 90-95% and more often than not, 100% of the students who came to every class. I think they did so because they found it interesting. I think by using technology and using video, this is a generation that’s used to television. And some say, hey, I like coming to the television show. It’s not a show, it’s a class, but the point is, we try to make it interesting. I mean, learning should be interesting. It doesn’t have to be boring. You don’t have to be up giving a lecture for a half hour and then taking questions. It should be something that engages, excites and interests the students. Let’s face it: using video brings these folks to life. I mean when you talk about the Johnson treatment that he gave in the 1960’s, you talk about Vietnam issues that we talked about, and Watergate, and the assassination attempt on Reagan. The evolution of presidential speeches and presidential inaugurations or budget debates that might seem dry and yet you show what’s happening on the House floor. By using the video, it’s like watching a television show in terms of learning something. And they’re not short 30-second clips. We made a concerted effort to give full context, 2-3-4 minutes, sometimes longer so that you really understand what’s being talked about, and give the students some perspective and context.
LS: Do you still keep in touch with any of the students that have gone through your class?
SS: I do, I do. I do a lot of recommendations and references as they go on to law school or grad school, and I’m thrilled to do it. There’s a couple—I’ve been doing this now, what, eight years. There’s a couple, now in their late twenties who I think might be running for office, so I think we could see a few alums running for Congress or maybe running for local office, and that’s great. I mean, you want kids to grow and succeed and if I played a very, very small part in their educational process, then I will take that as a thank you.
LS: I think that’s real positive. I know from our experience at the University of Denver, this class filled up sooner than most other classes in the University curriculum. I think it’s a real tribute for you and to C-SPAN and obviously to Amos Hostetter for having the vision to pull this together. Technology changes and the technology has changed just in the years that we’ve been doing the class. I think this was a groundbreaking experience and something that, I don’t know, as technology changes, we may see a resurrection of something like this in a way that will make a difference to students. You say it has for a number of students that I’ve talked to. I guess that would be the ultimate compliment to have one of the students from the class actually get involved, get elected, and just really make a difference to the country, which is something I know interests both of us in the missions that we have both at the Cable Center and at C-SPAN.
SS: The good news is that C-SPAN is looking for ways to take what we’ve learned here at the Cable Center. We’re going to be working with the Washington center in the fall which is basically Washington, DC. And looking for ways that we can build on the successes and continue this so that we can apply the lessons looming ahead.
LS: Just a couple of things to wrap up. I think this afternoon is the last class and it’s been a long experience, but a very gratifying experience, I would imagine. How is your routine going to change now that you are not going to be doing this class? Obviously C-SPAN has been very generous to give you the release time to go ahead and do this class, so what’s in the future for you?
SS: Part of it is what we’re doing with the Washington center to look for ways to offer this class in the fall and beyond. But we also have a presidential campaign coming up. My main job, my day job is to cover politics. I also speak at different universities and will do so again in the summer and fall. And make sure we have campaign coverage that is second to none in terms of what our viewers have come to expect. Between that and the Washington Journals and everything else that I’m doing, I’ve got a lot on my plate.
LS: Well, Steve it’s been a pleasure—
SS: This class would not have happened without your support, without the support of the Cable Center, and I venture to say the Cable Center would not be here if you didn’t have the vision to try to bring it back into some fiscal sanity. Congratulations.
LS: I appreciate that. Thank you very much.
Robert Coombe: Hi, my name is Bob Coombe. I’m the Chancellor of the University of Denver and it’s a great pleasure for me to be here, to be able to say thank you to a number of people. This has been a really extraordinary program, an extraordinary class at the University of Denver that’s been running for ten years now. I have heard so many times from so many different students about what an incredible experience this has been for them, incredible learning experience it has been for them, that it just makes one’s heart glow when we hear those kinds of words from students. So I’d like to thank Steve Scully, a faculty member at the University of Denver, a holder of the Amos Hostetter Chair for all that he’s done to make this class a success over the course of these remarkable ten years. I’d like to thank Brian Lamb and the people at C-SPAN for their support of this enterprise. Obviously it could not possibly have been accomplished without this unique partnership between C-SPAN and the Cable Center and the University of Denver. And of course the Cable Center has been a wonderful partner to us, Larry, over these ten years. The result for these students really rests on the partnership between these three entities. But of course most important of all has been the extraordinary generosity of Amos Hostetter. Amos, if you’re hearing this, thank you so much for everything that you’ve done. For this program but more importantly for all of the students from the University of Denver who have participated. You have immeasurably enriched their lives, and this is something they’ll remember forever. Thanks so much.
SS: And if I could just add to that, it has been a collaborative effort, so thanks to Larry and the great staff here at the Cable Center, to your incredible team at the University of Denver. It’s been a remarkable ten years and you have some pretty incredible students—
BC: We do.
SS: —so I’m very impressed. And of course a huge thank you, as you mentioned, to Brian, who has allowed me to do this and to Amos Hostetter, a tremendous thank you for his generosity and giving me an opportunity that as I said to you just a moment ago, I think I’ve gained more in being with these students than maybe the students have benefited from the class. But it’s been a tremendous opportunity. So Larry, and Chancellor, and Amos Hostetter, thank you.
LS: And I would just add the same thing. I don’t think the class would have been possible without the participation of C-SPAN, the rich archives in the C-SPAN organization and certainly the people at C-SPAN. Our faculty and university partners, and especially the University of Denver. We’re located on campus; working with the staff and the people of the University has been a great pleasure. Obviously it was one of those things the Cable Center enjoys doing. It’s a big part of our mission, but we recognize too that it wouldn’t have been possible without Amos Hostetter…