Interview with Walter M. Brasch, Author.
About the author:
Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D., a former newspaper reporter and editor, is a university professor of journalism and mass communications, and a syndicated newspaper columnist. He is the author of 17 books, most of them focusing upon the fusion of historical and contemporary social issues. He is also the author of over 200 magazine and journal articles, and writer-producer of 25 multi-media productions. Doctor Brasch has won more than 100 regional and national media awards as well as numerous humanitarian and scholastic excellence honors. He is listed in Who’s Who in America, Contemporary Authors, and Who’s Who in the Media. His family consists of his wife Rosemary, and two sons Jeffrey and Matthew. His special family includes Kashatten and Sherkka, two lovable German shepherds; Cabot, a cute shepherd/husky mix; Sheba, a canine bundle of energy; and Pig Floyd, a pot-bellied Vietnamese pig, a.k.a. PWA – Pig With Attitude.*
* Sinking the Ship of State, page 439; http://www.walterbrasch.com/family.htm
M: Welcome Doctor Brasch and thank you for giving Alternative-Read the time for this interview. Can you tell us briefly about your book Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush and a little about yourself?
W: Sinking the Ship of State is an outgrowth of syndicated social issues column, “Wanderings.” As the name suggests, the columns jump from topic to topic—it might be about the environment or animal rights, another week it could be about labor, health care, or the media. It could be a vignette of someone interesting; it could be laugh-out-loud humor, biting satire, or piercing investigative reporting. A few have been personality profiles, “feel-good” stories, and “tearjerkers.” With the election of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2000, the column wandered less and focused more upon this administration, its politics, and the effect upon the people. Never have I devoted so much ink to one presidency; hopefully, never again will I have to. There was just so much information that needed to be put into a book format.
The book itself isn’t just a compendium of columns about the past eight years. It’s more like an annotated chronological history of the country and the people. The work to bring them to book publication has been almost as great as writing a book with no base. In developing this book, I did a lot of additional research and have updated many of the columns, noting the updates and additional material in italics. Further, some phrasing and style has been modified to conform to the genre of books rather than that of the newspaper; redundancies necessary in column writing have been diminished. There was also a lot that needed to be said, but which wasn’t appropriate for newspapers for a number of reasons, often relating to format; for example, some of the columns/chapters in the book are 2,500–3,000 words. They were written and then stored for future publication. A few columns were written solely for this book during the time frame noted at the bottom of each column.
M: How would you describe yourself politically?
W: While others may call themselves Progressives, perhaps because the conservatives have brilliantly managed to make “liberal” a curse word, I am a liberal! At least in most things. I am a strong proponent of social justice, who believes we can make the world better for all people, but I don’t believe in “tax-and-spend” as a way to do it. And, certainly, over the past eight years it seems that the conservatives have continued to spread the fiction that liberals just spend more money on wasted projects, without even acknowledging that the Bush-Cheney Administration received a surplus from Bill Clinton and then squandered it into the largest debt this country ever had.
M: What first motivated your interest in social and political issues?
W: I grew up in a family that cared about people and about this country. My grandparents came to America as immigrants from Russia and Germany/Austria, bringing with them their ethnic and cultural identities and not much else. My parents experienced both poverty and the challenges that needed to be overcome for all people. My family believed in social justice, and that working with individuals helps improve the fabric the Founding Fathers created. I didn’t always understand this while a child—children tend to be rather self-absorbed and self-centered—but I had the “genes” implanted in me, and they eventually sprouted.
M: How do you pick topics for your columns, and what influences your decisions?
W: I read newspapers and magazines, watch a lot of television, and try to absorb what’s happening in the world and how the media cover the issues—or, often, how they don’t cover the issues. I also try to talk with people, not to mine them for information, but just to talk. Everyone has a story, often many stories. Some lead to columns, many don’t. But, it’s important that a columnist gets out with the people and doesn’t isolate himself or herself in an office. The advantage I have that many columnists don’t have is a luxury to write what I want, when I want. That freedom comes from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania paying me a rather generous salary as a professor and staying out of my way in my writing.
M: Doctor Brasch, you occasionally write columns with your wife, Rosemary. How does she affect and contribute to your work?
W: Rosemary often gives me the seeds of some very good columns. And, there’s a fertile garden of ideas growing in our home. One person doesn’t have all wisdom, as much as I like to think I do. She often brings new perspectives, and often sees things I completely miss. Like me, Rosemary is a social justice liberal. Interestingly, although I am a liberal Democrat, Rosemary grew up in a conservative Democratic household with fundamental religious beliefs. She is now a political anomaly—she is a liberal and a Republican. There aren’t many of those anymore.
M: How do you fit writing your columns and books into your schedule as a full-time academic?
W: I often wonder that myself. But, I have a gift as being a “fast write.” It probably was developed while I was a newspaper reporter, and had to get information quickly and then write it under tight deadlines. I still have deadlines, but I now have a luxury of being able to take time to think and rewrite—and fact check, something newspapers seldom do any more. I usually get up about 5 a.m. to research and write. I do this every day of the week. And, because publishers do so very little for their authors, a chunk of each day (sometimes a few minutes, sometimes a couple of hours) is spent developing and executing promotion/marketing plans, whether contacting reviewers or developing ephemera (such as bookmarks), or setting up lectures and book signings (which I often do on weekends). (In fact, I’m devoting my entire Sunday morning to answer your excellent questions.) On three days a week, I am at the university by 8 a.m., and stay there until 4 or 5 p.m. I do no research or writing during this time; this time is solely for my students. I avoid as many committees as possible (many profs love the feelings of self-importance of being on semi-useless committees). I consider myself to be a journalist who loves teaching, as opposed to be a “professor.” I believed that when I was an assistant professor; I believe it even more as a senior full professor at the top of the salary schedule. (However, in numerous surveys, professors rank well in the top 5 of all professions in prestige; journalists are somewhere around used car salesmen. When asked my profession, I always say, “journalist.”) For a few weeks every semester, I am at the university on Mondays as well, and sometimes into the evenings. In my upper division classes, we produce a 48-page full-color magazine that is targeted to the residents of our area, Spectrum. The overall experience is like an extended boot camp—this is where students learn how to apply their classroom lessons in writing, editing, art and design, and even media law (there’s nothing like a giant red mark of “LIBEL” on a draft to wake up students.) They also get a bit of capitalism as well—if the students don’t bring in enough advertising and circulation revenue, the magazine goes bankrupt—and so does their grades. This magazine has won many national honors. At home, I will grade papers, prepare lessons, and answer student e-mails. But, all evenings as well as weekend afternoons (unless I’m doing book signings or some other professional activity, which I try to limit) are usually reserved for my family. I tend to be a split personality: writer/journalist, professor, and family person. Somehow it all works out. I also have a luxury of extended times away from the university—four weeks at Christmas, one week for Winter and Spring breaks, plus summers. But, overall, I tend to work a 60-75 hour work week.
M: Reading this book I was reminded of political gadfly H.L. Mencken, especially by your acerbic wit and criticism, who were your influences; political, literary and journalistic?
W: There are many. Most, not surprisingly, are or were journalists. The radical journalists of the 1760s and 1770s were the spearhead of the American Revolution. And, it was the radical alternative journalists of the 1960s and 1970s who also helped lead a revolution in America. Certainly, Abbie Hoffman, a brilliant thinker and journalist, deserves praise for helping to bring about the end of a war, and a concern for social justice. Among others who I have read and enjoyed, and hopefully learned a bit more about writing, are Lafcadio Hearn, Joel Chandler Harris, Ida Tarbell, Jacob Riis, Ernest Hemingway, James Thurber, Tom Wolfe and the literary journalists. Paul Laurence Dunbar, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes and many from the Harlem Renaissance also influenced me. I also have read a lot of Erma Bombeck, Jimmy Breslin, Art Buchwald, Jim Murray, Paul Krassner, and Mike Royko. I also enjoy the music and lyrics of the social satirists Mark Shields, Tom Lehrer, Tom Paxton, and the Capitol Steps, as well as the comedy of Mort Sahl and just about any of the great Jewish comedians, even those who had no political edge in their routines. And, certainly, the staff at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” provide far more enjoyment and news on any given day than the national networks. The great labor leaders—especially “Mother” Jones, Emma Goldman, Heywood Broun, Sidney Hillman, Saul Alinsky, and Cesar Chavez—have influenced some of my thought. One of my major influences, however, is Horace Greeley, perhaps the most influential publisher in America prior to our Civil War. When most Americans, Northerners and Southerners, accepted slavery, he was a vigorous fighter for abolition. He fought for the right of all Americans, including women, to be able to vote. Although a publisher and owner, he believed in labor unions and the rights of the working class. And, most important, he gave journalism a soul, something that may have evaporated in our recent years as owners have taken enormous profits while downsizing newsrooms and news content, and are now whining they aren’t making as much in our sinking economy as they once did.
M: In your book, Doctor Brasch, you express strong opinions and critical analysis of the Bush Administration, what sort of feedback have you received, especially from your students?
W: Most of my students don’t read my columns or books. Heck, I have trouble getting them just to read their own textbooks. I try to establish a wall between the professor and the journalist/writer. But, they do know I’m a columnist, that I write books. And, they can always find my writings if they wish. Many do. The student body seems to be split in thirds: “conservative,” “liberal,” and “absolutely no clue.” But, all my students know that I believe in discussion, that all views need to be heard, that I believe in the “marketplace of ideas,” and will actually praise a well-reasoned conservative view (even if I personally disagree with it) over a mediocre liberal one. (My senior work-study student—I have four of them—is a conservative religious fundamentalist, but she’s one of the brightest students on campus. And, for some reason, she loves working with me, and I respect her mind.) Two decades ago, journalists got extremely minimal feedback—a column might excite or infuriate someone, but they didn’t write or call the editor. Because of the Internet, more people read my columns than ever—and they respond to editors and to the writer. Part of my mornings is spent answering e-mails. Generally, I get significantly more positive feedback than negative. I always enjoy it when a reader says I opened her eyes to something. And, I even enjoy how some people pillory me for my writings. I have been subjected to severe abuse. (Sometimes I’ll keep these comments and let my students read them, just to see that I am not the brilliant perfect mind that I sometimes think I am.) Sometimes, I’ll even answer disgruntled readers—sometimes, we establish a dialogue and they no longer see me as the “leftist Commie anti-war un-American traitorous pinko out to destroy the greatest civilization in the world.” Most are surprised I even answer them, and many even acknowledge that “in person” (whether by phone or e-mail) I don’t seem like “such a bad fella.” Interestingly, a lot of true conservatives (as opposed to the neo-Cons like Bush and Cheney) actually like and praise what I write—and UI’ve received some decent reviews from conservative reviewers—for they respect that I am a strict supporter of the Constitution, including the rights of free expressions, due process, and privacy from government intrusion. I can’t even count the number of conservatives who have told me that conservatism has been hijacked by the Bush-Cheney administration, and that they hope the horrors of the past eight years will cease. Of course, they want conservative Republicans in the White House, but that’s to be expected.
M: Do you see in your students today the same passion and social awareness as the activist students of the 60s?
W: I see some passion for social justice, but it’s definitely not even close to the ’60s. But, even then, most students were either pro-war or had no views. (The Colonists weren’t all Revolutionaries; in fact, at the beginning most of them opposed the Revolution.) I think I succeed, to some extent, in stirring the need for students to become socially aware, to become socially active. Students on Spectrum magazine run a large-scale clothing drive for the homeless, for example. And, many students do service projects. But, the largest protests seem to be about our country’s archaic drinking laws.
M: In numerous columns in this book you were one of the earliest and harshest critics of the PATRIOT Act, warning of its erosion of constitutional rights and civil liberties of American citizens. One of my favorite columns, “Compromising Americans’ Civil Liberties,” is the story of Nancy Kranich and her success in passing a resolution in the town of State College, Pennsylvania over the opposition of the mayor condemning the loss of freedoms caused by the PATRIOT Act in the fight against terrorism. Can you expand on your thoughts about the PATRIOT Act, and give us any further feelings on Nancy Kranich?
W: We still have the PATRIOT Act. Congress has now twice voted for it. First time was six weeks after 9/11; few senators and members of Congress read any of the Act itself. Almost none read the entire 342-page bill. The Bush Administration made it seem that anyone who didn’t vote for it was a traitor. A few voted against it—and were condemned as traitors. But, the real traitors are those who sold out our country by defying the constitution. The second time it came up, several years later, we knew how much our civil rights were being compromised, how much of the constitution we had already tried to shred, and Congress still voted for almost all of it again. Benjamin Franklin, living in a time of great terror, told us that those who give up essential liberty for a little security deserve neither. That hasn’t changed. As to Nancy Kranich—she’s now a professor of library science at Rutgers University, and still actively involved in fighting for the constitution and free expression rights. Interestingly, it was the librarians (Nancy was president of the American Library Association) and booksellers who led the fight for eliminating parts of the PATRIOT Act. The numerous journalism groups barely even said anything, apparently afraid of being called traitors.
M: In one of your more in-depth columns, “Unwarranted, Un-American, and Unconstitutional” you detail the warrantless wiretapping program approved by President Bush and carried out in secret by the National Security Agency (NSA). Earlier this year Congress, no longer controlled by Republicans, passed legislation sanctioning this program, including a controversial provision granting immunity to telecommunications companies who cooperated with the government. Presumptive Presidential candidates Senators Barack Obama and John McCain voted YES on this bill. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
W: The Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for six years, the Democrats controlled one house of Congress the past two years. Alas, I have been rather unimpressed with the lack of direction, after much ballyhoo two years earlier. In fairness, Bush has vetoed or threatened to veto a lot of the agenda for social reform, and essentially cut apart anything useful. Still, I believe he violated his path of office to defend and protect the Constitution, and for that he needs to be brought to task. I disagree with both Sens. McCain and Obama on this issue of the NSA/telecommunications bill. A nation can’t allow the government to encourage private enterprise (such as the telephone companies) to violate our constitutional rights and claim it’s in the interest of national security. The fact is that even with all that wiretapping and surveillance, the only thing that was uncovered was that the government found out that Aunt Matilda’s fudge cake recipe was really from Grandma Martha. The time and expense spent into this kind of surveillance is a waste of resources that should be spent on finding and tracking down Osama bin Laden and his operation, and not Aunt Matilda.
M: Doctor Brasch, you are active in emergency management and have written a book, ‘Unacceptable’: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, about the federal government’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina. If you were in charge of the response what would you have done differently, and do you think FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has improved its policies so there will never be another failure such as the response to Katrina?
W: FEMA has improved. Under George H.W. Bush, it had fallen apart, and Bill Clinton used that failure to protect Florida during Hurricane Andrew as a campaign tactic. Under Bill Clinton, FEMA got much better. Under George W. Bush, it deteriorated further than ever. Part of that was the hiring of Bush’s political cronies, with limited knowledge of emergency management, with a corresponding decrease in morale and employee resignations. Part of it was that Bush himself didn’t see FEMA as a major player—he wanted private industry and the churches to take a more active role. But, most of it was Bush’s lack of compassion and leadership. Katrina was a huge wake-up call for Bush and the country. Two years before Katrina, Rosemary and I had written columns warning that the U.S. was not prepared for a major natural disaster. We gave evidence of why and how we believed this. The mainstream media ignored us, as they ignored others who spoke out. And, certainly, no one in the Bush-Cheney administration was going to listen to us—or anyone who disagreed with them. (Heck, even when ‘Unacceptable’: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina was published four months after Katrina, and gave some major information of what had happened and why—the mainstream media ignored the book. And, then, magically, months or years later, suddenly and surprisingly they came out with their own investigations that essentially said the same thing.) And, yes, there will be less failure. But, we are still spending $12 billion a month in Iraq, and that cost is draining the U.S. of resources needed to defend us against natural disasters. (For example, National Guard vehicles, including high water vehicles, are somewhere in the Iraq desert.)
M: In your opinion what is the greatest success and the greatest failure of the Bush Administration?
W: Let’s look at successes first. Uh, hmmm, well—, OK, in truth there have been successes. He did a brilliant job of media manipulation and the dissemination of his political agenda. The Democrats were caught flat-footed and useless. He believes in loyalty over political expedience. That’s a good thing—but it is also some of his undoing. He made the surge important in Iraq. Most Americans, and especially senior military leaders, weren’t at all sure this would work—and would further a long and costly war. But, the failure to adequately plan for this war and its aftermath, and to commit the number of troops necessary for the invasion is a major error. Bush even fired the Army chief of staff who wanted more troops at the beginning of the war. His administration, in an effort to tie Saddam to al-Qaeda, lied to Congress and to the people. Bush wanted to invade Iraq. But, by invading Iraq, he diverted necessary resources from tracking down the leaders of 9/11 in Afghanistan. He destabilized a sovereign nation, and destroyed its infrastructure. He allowed the development of a civil war. He also put American financial resources at jeopardy by a costly war. Saddam was evil, but he had no connection to 9/11, kept al-Qaeda out of his country—and except for dissenters or suspected dissenters or political alliances that disagreed with anything he did—allowed his country to develop; under Saddam, women had equal rights, there was decent health care, and children were expected to get an education, something that no longer exists in that region. Now, to get back to Bush. Of hundreds of things we could tag on him (and to make it perfectly clear, he’s a long ways from being Saddam’s twin) his use of 9/11 to advance his personal and political agenda, and to tear at our constitution is the area that is his greatest failure.
M: You have critiqued the current administration harshly and held their feet to the fire on many issues, how do you think future historians will view the Presidency of George W. Bush?
W: Bush would like to think that he’s like Harry Truman. Truman had a low popularity rating at the end of his term, much of it because he fired the popular and media-savvy Douglas MacArthur as commander of all forces in the Korean War. But, Truman’s popularity increased significantly after he left office; the people and historians see him as one of America’s better presidents, whose actions improved the nation. I doubt Bush or this nation will see that scenario. There is just too much we know about the past eight years to even begin to think Bush will ever be rated as more than an average president, and may actually be rated well below that. Presidents who abuse the constitution, no matter what their reasons, and who fail to protect the domestic from (i.e., natural disasters and the economy) do not get very high marks.
M: Doctor Brasch, since we are in the middle of a Presidential Election I would like to ask you some questions about the race. Are you surprised by the choice of presumptive Presidential candidates Senators Barack Obama and John McCain when one year ago Senator Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination with the primary season being seen as a mere formality, and Republican Senator McCain’s campaign running out of money, laying off workers and consigned to the political scrapheap?
W: I was surprised by Sen. McCain’s win. I liked him in 2000 when he came up against Bush. I knew he was a conservative, and had cast some votes that I strongly disagreed with, and had some values I also strongly disagreed with, but I also saw his sincerity. His straight talk was refreshing. He was the maverick. And, he was destroyed by vicious personal attacks (most of which had no basis of fact) launched by Bush’s campaign team. But, in the next eight years, I saw him at first reluctantly embrace Bush, and then become the loyal ally. He proudly says he voted with Bush over 90% of the time. Maybe he had to do this to get the nomination. But, he lost part of his soul. His comeback was brilliant campaign strategy; even when his staff left him, when he had to fly commercial airliners, McCain still had a focus on the mission. But, as one American politician recently stated, he doubted the McCain of 2000 would vote for the McCain of 2008. (I do believe he has overused the POW issue; we know and appreciate what he went through, but in 2008 as opposed to 2000 we are being hammered with this part of his life; interestingly, Bush barely even showed up for drills while stationed in the Texas Air National Guard.) As to Sen. Obama. He waged a brilliant campaign, using the grassroots tactics espoused by Saul Alinsky, who also influenced how Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez developed their own organizations. While Sen. Clinton was getting establishment support, Sen. Obama was going to the people. I often found, as a reporter covering this campaign, that Clinton’s field teams were not as strong as Obama’s; as a reporter, I noticed a greater arrogance—and lack of experience—by Clinton’s press staff than by Obama’s. Bill Clinton understands the grassroots, and is brilliant at “working the rope line,” talking with people of all levels. Hillary Clinton had to develop her own persona. I don’t believe she is naturally at ease among crowds. She was pilloried by certain Democrats for voting for the PATRIOT Act and for supporting the war. But, she has been a consistent fighter for health care reform. She is brilliant and caring, and certainly had paid her dues to deserve the nomination. But, there were some significant tactical and strategic errors that left her vulnerable to Sen. Obama’s brilliance, charm—and ability to work the grassroots for change. The Democratic Party was split—it seemed that White older men and a large percentage of women of all classes and ages wanted to see Sen. Clinton as the nominee; younger Americans, especially in urban America, wanted Sen. Obama. There is a lot about him and his campaign that remind me of Bill Clinton running for president in 1992. I’m sure that Sen. Obama and his staff have to be aware of this. It was surprising to see how well Sen. Obama did; I figured he’d be in the “top 5,” but never called that he’d be the nominee.
M: Though the polls have narrowed recently Senator Obama is still leading. Do you think there will be a “Bradley” or “Wilder Effect” where white voters tell pollsters they will vote for the black candidate, but in the privacy of the booth vote for the white candidate?
W: I have no doubt that the effect may go both ways—many will think it’s “politically correct” to say they’ll vote for Obama because they don’t want anyone to think they’re racists. And, I believe some will say they will vote for McCain because they worry what it’ll look like if they say they like Obama. And, there is no question that many women were so bitter about Sen. Clinton losing the nomination that they’ll vote for Sen. McCain and, apparently, overlook the extreme conservatism of his female VP pick. Pollsters like to say their work is based upon statistical science. But, how they phrase questions, how they ask questions, when and where they ask the questions, all influence the result. Fortunately, people don’t know what statistical science is, so they just do things that no pollster or commentator can understand.
M: Recent polls have shown that Iraq has lessened in importance as a campaign issue for the American people, what do you think will be the major issue in deciding the Presidential Election?
W: In 1992, Bill Clinton, with James Carville’s assistance, looked at America and “focused like a laser beam” upon a sign that hung in his campaign offices, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” The war probably affects the economy more than anything else at this point, but the people are now seeing the effects of the war and not the war itself. With unemployment, layoffs, downsizing, right sizing, and outsourcing, we see major problems. With housing foreclosures and bankruptcies high, we see the effects of a failed economic policy by the Bush-Cheney Administration. Traditionally, the upper classes supported the Republicans, the middle- and lower-classes supported the Democrats. That is no longer true. The white middle-class, especially the white middle-class religious fundamentalists, gave Bush his victory. But, economics affects every American, including the rich whose stock portfolio has tanked.
M: Who do you think will win the 2008 Presidential Election and why?
W: I’m hoping it will be Horace Greeley, who won the nomination as a Democrat and Liberal Republican in 1872, but lost to Grant. But, I don’t know if a dead newspaper publisher is eligible for office—except in Chicago, of course. It seems that every pundit, columnist, and bloviator has an opinion on who’ll be elected. They want America to believe they’re erudite and knowledgeable. They’ll even dissect the polls on their daily walks on the river. Most are just blowing cold steam. However, I am outspoken and definitely out front on my prediction—I have absolutely no idea.
M: Doctor Brasch, thank you for answering my questions and sharing your thoughts with us. Good luck in your future endeavors, and please keep us informed when your next book is published.
W: And, thank you for allowing me to answer these questions. Before I “plug” my own books, let me just note that Alternative-Read is one of my favorite sites. I’d also like you remind your readers that to find out what I really think—even the best questions can generate only so much of an answer—check out any of my books, or go to www.walterbrasch.com to read some of my recent columns.