Andrew Ferguson Transcript

Table of Contents

I:   A Career in Writing 0:15 – 28:22
II:  Revenge of the Baby Boomers 28:22 – 44:58
III: Conservatism and Journalism 44:58– 53:3
IV: “Crazy U” 53:31– 1:18:51


I: (0:15 – 28:22 ) A Career in Writing 

KRISTOL: Hi. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS, I’m Bill Kristol. I’m very pleased to be joined today by my colleague Andy Ferguson from The Weekly Standard, author of many, many brilliant articles over the years.


KRISTOL: Three or four. I was going to say four. And three books: most recently, Crazy U, which we will talk about a little later, on current system of higher education; Land of Lincoln, and then a book of essays from 1996, I think, Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces. Where did that title come from?

FERGUSON: Well, it was imposed on me by my publisher through the agency of P.J. O’Rourke, who wrote the introduction. I’ve never quite figured out what it means. It was my idea, actually!

KRISTOL: It’s deep, there are many levels to it.

FERGUSON: Yes, I just don’t know what they are. I’m sure there are many levels. The phrase is from an aphorism. It goes, “Fools’ names, fools’ faces are often seen in public places.” The idea being that I think there are a lot of idiots in the world. And the conceit of the book was that it was a series of semi-profiles or discussions of individuals – Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, Donald Trump, and a number of other people – who were kind of known for their ridiculousness. I wouldn’t say that about Bill Bennett, I should take that back.

KRISTOL: I picked it up just a little while ago. I hadn’t looked at it in a while. I guess it came out, what, just after The Weekly Standard began, as I recall. In ’96, yeah. I had forgotten that there was an essay on Donald Trump, which makes it very topical. Written in 1990, I think?

FERGUSON: Probably, ’90 or ’91. It was a book review, and it was written – If anybody who has read a good Trump book – that is where he’s had somebody [ghostwrite it] who tries to mimic his tone and his cadence and everything – you start reading it and you just get caught up in the rhythms of these, you know, his bombastic phrasing of everything. Everything is an exaggeration; everything is to the extreme. So when I wrote the review, I thought probably the easiest way to make fun of it was just to use his tone and his conversational pacing, and so on. And so I did, and I thought it was one of the meanest things I’d ever written – up to that point. But apparently, he loved it. He called up –

KRISTOL: Is that right? Did he call you or did he call the [Wall Street] Journal?

FERGUSON: No, no, [the Journal]. Loved it. Saying, “Good review; fair.” And I said, “Oh God, I didn’t do it then.” If he liked it, then I didn’t achieve my objective.

KRISTOL: I re-read it a couple of weeks ago and it’s obvious you’re mimicking him or mocking him. But you do so in sort of a gentle way, in a somewhat kind way. The book cheered me up a lot because these are all essays from 20-25 years ago about how ridiculous our public life is. And I’ve been sitting around all year this year – it’s the end of September now, 2016 – thinking we’ve gone totally downhill from some height in the past to this new low in our politics. And reading your books made me think maybe we’ve always been this way.

FERGUSON: I think you can go to any particular era, certainly in American history – you go back to the 1840s and there are people laminating the decline – I mean, Thomas Jefferson, before he died, was lamenting “the decline of character,” and so on. That was sort of the theme of this book 20 years ago, and if anything, it’s just gotten worse.

I don’t think that the fact that it’s a common trope among social observers that, “things used to be better and they’re worse now,” invalidates the point. So, it’s not really an argument against saying, “God, things are really going to hell,” by saying, “people said that in 1840, and they said it in 1950,” and so on. It just may be the fact that things are always going to hell in a hand basket.

KRISTOL: Let’s talk about that. Is it worse, and in what particular way – is there one thing that jumps out to you? You’ve been writing about this your whole adult life.

FERGUSON: There are lots of different things that are going on that I think weren’t going on even 25 years ago. Trump is the perfect embodiment of a kind of decline. I remember Ronald Reagan running in 1980 and people said, “My God, this is the end of American politics; you got a guy who is a bad actor and in bad movies, and superficial, clearly doesn’t know anything. By God, back in the days of Ike or Roosevelt, you could never tolerate a man like this.”

Of course, he turned out to be a fine president, and actually quite intelligent person, and well-read, and so on. I don’t think that’s going to happen with Trump. I mean, if, God forbid, he was actually the President of the United States. I don’t think that we will find that, you know, back of him, as it was back of Reagan, a long trail of books read and ideas gone through.

KRISTOL: Handwritten radio addresses, which he himself edited.

FERGUSON: And which are very well written. I just don’t think that that’s going to be the case with Trump. Reagan was a creature of fame, obviously. He wouldn’t have gotten to politics, or he couldn’t have achieved what he achieved in California politics if he had not already been famous, and very good looking, and well-spoken, and so on.

But Trump has taken pure fame, which is to say, well-known-ness, fame without any particular achievement behind it. It’s almost as though there is nothing behind the celebrity. That’s different from the way it used to be.

KRISTOL: I guess that became, though, a theme of critics in the ’60s, ’50s. I want to say, “famous for being famous.” Didn’t Daniel Boorstin write something on celebrity? A book or an essay?

FERGUSON: Yes, he has a wonderful essay on celebrity.

KRISTOL: I should go back and look at that. I haven’t thought about that until this minute.

FERGUSON: Actually, he wrote some amazing things anticipating what was going to happen. You know, he coined the term pseudo-event, too.

KRISTOL: This is Daniel Boorstin, the great American historian –

FERGUSON: And then became Librarian of Congress; Reagan appointed him, in fact.

KRISTOL: Died about 10 or 15 years ago.

FERGUSON:  A really very impressive guy. Wonderful, wonderful writer and, I guess, a good historian, if I were able to judge that. He coined this term, pseudo-event, because he noticed in the late ’50s that the press conference, for example, was a new thing. That is an event totally manufactured just to create news. It was done with, of course, the cooperation of reporters and people in the journalism business. So, he thought, isn’t it odd that they can actually create an event that is an event just to be covered? For the sole purpose of getting publicity. Of course, now we are so far beyond that. There are layers upon layers of falsity that have gone on top of the pseudo-event. Now we are at the stage of pseudo, pseudo, pseudo, pseudo-events, I think.

KRISTOL: Was TV really the break? We hadn’t really thought about this again until now, but you do think that somehow the television and mass televisions was a moment where democracy went to a whole other level of –

FERGUSON: It was truly a mass phenomenon unlike anything. There was – movies, of course, were visual, but to see a movie you had to get up, go the movie theater, and then you had to leave, and so on. The TV was something that came right into your home.

KRISTOL: And was live. Could be live.

FERGUSON: I’m very interested, in fact, I was thinking about this the other day: Even now – with, of course, the saturation of the Internet in everybody’s lives and its ability to convey information, which has just really taken over everything else – I still believe that TV trumps, if you’ll excuse the phrase, everything. TV fame is unlike Internet fame, with all due respect to the medium. You can’t get famous as quickly and as enduringly as you can on television. There are all these YouTube celebrities and so on, but to achieve a fame that will last, say, maybe three weeks as opposed to 48 hours – television is still, you just can’t beat it.

KRISTOL: I guess movies before that were extremely big but that was, again, you’d see a movie by someone every six to nine months, television’s every week or every day, if you’re a newscaster.

FERGUSON: Again, it wasn’t ubiquitous, in the way – you didn’t have Clark Gable in your house every day. Whereas, you do, unfortunately, have Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in your house every day.

KRISTOL: And you don’t think this is a good thing for America, civilization? Communication, more knowledge, all these things that people use to justify –

FERGUSON: It’s interesting to think if you could combine television fame and Aristotle, you know? That would be one thing, but television can’t do that. You can’t screw Aristotle into television. Television, by its nature, rewards people like Donald Trump.

It’s a marvelous medium in a number of different ways. I mean, you can still convey lots of information and you can make experiences immediate in ways that you can’t through other media. But it still places demands on the people who exploit it and, basically: the more superficial, the better.

KRISTOL: I guess what’s changed – but you should discuss this, not me – but somehow it seems like when we were younger there was television and that culture; but then there were other cultures: you had high culture, intellectual culture, university culture. Not that they were all so great, God knows. And it’s sort of a swallowing up of all the others by the mass culture.

FERGUSON: Yes, that kind of flattening of everything. You know, I always think about public television. When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was launched in the ’60s as part of “the Great Society,” E.B. White wrote a wonderful essay, slightly pretentious, about how we were going to rise or fall on the strength of television. And here, finally, was the promise of television being fulfilled, because it was going to be public; it was going to be guided by intelligent people, it wasn’t going to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and so on and so on. And of course, now, you turn on a PBS station and you’re likely to see doo-wop groups. Because of television, and the mass saturation that it allows, there just wasn’t room for high culture anymore.

KRISTOL: That’s interesting.

FERGUSON: You remember, when we were kids, Leonard Bernstein had these marvelous series – which are still available on DVD – series explaining classical music. Young people’s concerts they would give in Carnegie Hall, and they would tape them. He was so charismatic and wonderful to watch. That was just sort of standard fare; it was expected that intelligent people should take responsibility for what they’re doing by putting it on television. And now, I don’t think anybody feels that compulsion.

KRISTOL: It’s striking. One of my favorite essays in this book, which I should say is, of course, available on Amazon–

FERGUSON: For a penny.

KRISTOL: For one cent. That’s what I paid. It’s one penny.

FERGUSON: Worth every penny.

KRISTOL: But what about the $3.98 for shipping? I hate paying more for shipping; there’s something wrong about paying more for shipping than for the book.

FERGUSON: I don’t get a cut of the shipping.

KRISTOL: That’s good, you get a cut of the pennies. Anyway, it’s a very fine book. You could buy it new, and pay more and get a nicer copy of it. One of the great essays in that book – and they really are terrific, all of them – is the essay about you being on television with, do you remember which one I’m talking about?

FERGUSON: Oh yes, Gennifer Flowers. Who was the first of, to use the phrase the Clinton people used, of “the bimbos” who erupted as Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992.

KRISTOL: That seems quaint, doesn’t it? I remember, all of us – well, you and I were in the Bush White House at that time. You spent a year or so away from journalism writing speeches, we should talk about that in a minute, for President Bush. We thought, “Well, that could kill his campaign.” And now? Can you imagine?

FERGUSON: Oh, I remember when the story broke, I walked into the office of my boss, Tony Snow, the late Tony Snow, and I said, “Mr. Clinton, he dead.” And Tony said, “I’m not so sure.” And Tony, of course, was right.

But Gennifer Flowers managed to achieve this astonishing celebrity. She posed for Penthouse Magazine and all these sorts of things. So, I was asked to be on a show, a kind of an Oprah knock-off, up in New York, and I went on with, I think it was Jacob Weisberg, who was then at The New Republic, and a woman named Jane Furse, who was a reporter for the New York Daily News

KRISTOL: So this is what, like in ’98, I think? During impeachment?

FERGUSON: Yeah. She kind of kept trying to find ways to angle her way back into the spotlight, and impeachment was one of those. She also had a book coming out, which, of course, is important. So, it was sort of Jacob and Jane on one side, and me and Gennifer on the other side. I didn’t quite realize that we were supposed to be a tag team, and I was supposed to be her journalistic-defender.

KRISTOL: As the anti-Clinton sort of guy.

FERGUSON: Yeah. And as the taping went on, she was actually quite, um, attractive. Above the usual run of Bill Clinton. Prettier than Janet Reno, for example. Anyway, so, right before a break Jane Furse was kind of insulting poor Gennifer, and she said to her – well, I can’t remember what the claim was – but she said, “Well, if you believe that,” Jane Furse said, “I mean, you’ll think that Jennifer Flowers is a natural blonde.” And people were, “Hooo-oooh,” you know. And they “Cut!” and go to the commercial. I could feel the heat radiating off of Gennifer Flowers. And she slowly rose out of her chair and walked over to Jane, and stuck her face in Jane’s face and said, “Now listen, I have never claimed to be a real blonde, but I can tell you this: my tits are real!” And I thought is she going to, you know –

KRISTOL: This was not on air, unfortunately.

FERGUSON: This was on the break, alas. And of course, the audience didn’t get to hear it. I think she would have won over many more sympathizers to her side if they had been able to hear her make that claim. So, I wrote it up, actually, the whole event, and mentioned that line and it went out over the New York Times’ wire. And Gennifer was so pleased by the story that, in her next book, she wrote about how, really, there had only been one defender in the media of her dignity, and it was “Andy Ferguson of the New York Times.” I thought, “Well, I never really wanted to work for the New York Times, and now I’ll never work for the New York Times.”

KRISTOL: They didn’t insist that the publishers issue a correction? Destroy the book?

FERGUSON: Or at least an errata.

KRISTOL: That’s an old-fashioned idea; I wonder if they have those anymore? You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I remember when you came to the [first] Bush White House – you should talk about that a little. You were a journalist your whole life, really, then you took that, what was it? About year and a half? I can’t remember now.

FERGUSON: Just a year. Exactly from, like January 15, 1992, when he was running for election, to whatever it was, January 15, 1993, when they kicked us out.

KRISTOL: And how did you come into, who asked you? I’m just curious. How did you become a speech writer?

FERGUSON: John Sununu. A call came from John Sununu. But I think Tony Snow, who had been hired as the chief speech writer – Tony was actually, at the time, a quite prominent columnist and TV personality. A very good guy – I think Tony had kind of put Sununu up to it. John Sununu was the Chief of Staff for President Bush – this is the first President Bush, of course, not the second.

I was at Scripps Howard Newspapers, in the Washington bureau. And so, you know, I’d always wanted to see what the world looked like from that vantage, and I thought it could only help me as a journalist. And so, I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do that.”

It was – I mean, before I’d been there two weeks, Tony had been fired.

KRISTOL: Yeah, I remember that. Right? Because you came in – I was there as [Vice President Dan] Quayle’s Chief of Staff, so I was watching this from, so to speak, a little bit of a remove.

FERGUSON: I haven’t counted in a while, but I think by May of that year, I’d had five different bosses. But you’ll remember, President Bush was running for re-election, had no real rationale for his re-election. His heart didn’t really seem to be in it.

KRISTOL: He’d been a good president, especially in foreign policy, but the Cold War was over, so.

FERGUSON: The Cold War was over. And he was the last of the World War II generation, which, actually, is one of the things that made me so proud to work for him: he was a genuine war hero. So, I always said, when they hired me in January, Bush’s approval rating was, I think, at 48, and by March, and I’d gotten down to 32.

And it just felt like that: you were in free fall the whole time. There was this churning of bosses. At one point, they only had two speech writers left for the president, writing not only his speeches as president but also the stuff he would use in his campaign. It was chaos. I would never do it again, but I would never trade that experience for anything.

KRISTOL: Wasn’t there some guy who came in – we don’t have to mention his name, but – after Tony, who was kind of a high-brow, I would say, director of speech writing. Interested in conservative ideas –

FERGUSON: Tony had us meet with Tom Wolfe and other writers.

KRISTOL: Pick the brains of serious people. And then there was some guy who was brought in who was more from the advertising world? I actually don’t remember his name, so we don’t even have to say it here, but –

FERGUSON: He had worked for a PR firm in a large corporation, and sort of wrote in jingles. Hardly ever used a complete sentence. But then, you know, President Bush hardly ever used a complete sentence. I remember, I used to joke that I was the speech writer in charge of pronouns, so my stuff never got used. Because the joke was that the president hated to say “I,” or “me,” or “my,” or anything. It was part of the Yankee upbringing from his mother, who told him never to talk about himself – which is a real liability if you’re running for office. So, he would kind of speak in these fragments, and to his credit, the guy from the large corporation understood that about him and got into the cadence that Bush had. There was a kind of natural cadence that Bush used. He was very good, and Bush ended up absolutely loving him.

KRISTOL: Really? I didn’t know that. But they weren’t very effective speeches, somehow, I think, maybe.

FERGUSON: They were not. They were not the deepest speeches. Again, I mean, you know, we were entering a phase where big, deep speeches weren’t called for.

KRISTOL: Right, right. I just remember, being Quayle’s Chief of Staff, and they used to circulate – this was pre-email. I guess it really was. We had an internal thing.

FERGUSON: Intranet in the White House.

KRISTOL: But they circulated the drafts of speeches to senior staff, so someone could just read it to catch a mistake or suggest an improvement, obviously.

FERGUSON: Every speech writer hates that process more than anything, of course.

KRISTOL: Right. All you need is some character from some other office saying, “Hey, I think you should do this,” or, “What about this issue? My favorite, pet, ridiculous issue.” But I do remember the change from fairly high-brow political rhetoric – speeches Tony and his team were doing – to these somewhat jingly, as you say, like things. Literally, you’d look at them and it was written like jingles. The paragraphs –

FERGUSON: He used ellipses. He wouldn’t use a complete sentence and you’d have to connect them by ellipses. And again, it was ingenious because it really did appeal to the president’s sense of verbal rhythm. This was the way that he communicated. And, you know, it was effective to the degree that it pleased him. Which is not an inconsiderable thing.

KRISTOL: Didn’t get him re-elected, however. Didn’t keep us – we were both out of work on January 20, 1993, I think. Did you deal with him much? I mean, how much access did you really have to him, personally?

FERGUSON: Well, the speech writing shop had been explicitly downgraded in ’88 and ’89 when –

KRISTOL: By contrast with Reagan.

FERGUSON: Yes, to set up a contrast with Reagan. Reagan was showbiz, Reagan was all glitz and all that kind of stuff. But, you know, “we were doing the hard work of governing.” And so speech writers who had actually held a fairly high-up status in the Reagan White House were then demoted. And people were hired, who didn’t really have much experience, and Sununu wanted that to be a symbol of the changing of the guard: that we were now past the Reagan age and we were now into the Bush era.

I remember talking to a guy, I wasn’t there at the time, but the people who were taking over the White House and kicking all the Reagan people out when Bush was elected saying, “You know, the Reagan era is just going to be thought of as the prelude to the Bush era.” Maybe you have to convince yourself of things like that when you go to work for a president, but I thought it was absurd at the time. And it was, obviously.

KRISTOL: And what did you learn from that experience? You said you always wanted to do it, to see it from the inside.

FERGUSON: Well, I learned that government policy is created in chaos. And I was never given to conspiracy theories, but if I had been, it would have disabused me of any inclination like that. The idea that government can operate efficiently enough, say, to orchestrate the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or whatever the crazy conspiracies are, is just absurd.

And so much of the way a policy takes place is through personal considerations. Mrs. Bush used to have this phrase: “What happens in your house is much more important than what happens in the White House.” That was kind of a clever phrase. And I remember saying: “What happens in the men’s room is much more important than what happens in the speech writers’ room.” Meaning – nothing salacious – that people would exchange ideas, or tick each other off, or insult each other while they were passing each other in the men’s room, and that would affect policy more than anything that we could do as “conscious policy makers.”

Of course, speech writers aren’t supposed to be policy makers, but it did kind of fall to us; because there was a vacuum.

KRISTOL: Well, and it had become such a thing under Reagan with Peggy Noonan, who had made it famous, I suppose, with her memoir. And others that were well known; some of the speech writers became well known, I guess.

FERGUSON: This was right after Peggy’s magnificent book had come out. And it is a magnificent book, but it’s also something slightly uneasy-making about it for anybody who works around a president or a politician; which is that you really ought to keep your mouth shut about what happened in terms of who wrote what, and that kind of thing.

KRISTOL: I mean, this is another sign of – I don’t know, decline may not be quite right, but let’s just say – change in public mores. When her book came out, I think it was the first time – maybe [David] Stockman’s book had come out, too, I can’t remember now – a book had been written about, not the first time, but people were shocked that someone, especially someone who was loyal and a fan of the president, had written a book about the White House, his White House, while the White House was still ongoing. I mean, in the middle of the term, not the end of the term. And it was considered, “Oh, she’s revealing conversations,” and all this sort of thing.

I mean, now, it seems so quaint to even worry about that. People quit. Really, even Bob Gates or serious, distinguished public servants, who I don’t think had simply, you know, money-making goals – though, I’m sure that was a little bit of it – or settling-scores types goals. No one really said much when Gates’ book came out, in the middle of Obama’s presidency, about conversations he had with President Obama. And everyone has written those books, right? I think, literally, there must be half a dozen.

But that was a little shocking at the time. And a lot of the people kept quiet after the presidency. [Published ] ten years later or something like that, you know. Or masked their conversations with the president directly a little bit. Or were somewhat cryptic about those. But to come out in the middle of a presidency and talk about how the sausage was made –

FERGUSON: I tried to sort of trace the origins of that, and I went back to William Safire, who later became a very well-known columnist for the New York Times, who was a speech writer-plus, kind of, for Richard Nixon. Before Nixon was out of office, Safire had quit and had published a book that had an awful lot of what would you think of as privileged stuff.

KRISTOL: That book came out while he was still president? Or as Watergate was un–

FERGUSON: Yes. I think the first one was in ’73. And then he wrote another one, called Before the Fall. Which really, really, I mean, there were – he threw all caution to the wind.

And then, you know, James Fallows wrote a piece, who was a speech writer for Jimmy Carter, spilling the beans about Carter and was actually quite negative about Carter. And under Reagan, there were more than you could count.  David Stockman, and Donald Regan, who had been the Chief of Staff for Reagan, wrote a very insulting book about the president, while he was still in office.

You know, I still don’t think, whether it’s common or not – a lot of awful things are common in the world, and that’s one of the awful things; I just don’t think that you can do that.

And Clinton had a ton of them, too. Some of them are very good books, as I said about Peggy’s book. George Stephanopoulos wrote a book [All Too Human], that I actually wrote a long piece about in The Standard, which is just dazzling, in a way, about a young man being introduced to real power for the first time. They tell me that he wrote it himself, but anyway, it’s a fantastic book. But it is so damaging to Clinton and it came out, I think, right after Clinton had been re-elected. A wonderful book, but kind of a low motive, I think.

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