On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka (recorded weeks before the election), former White House speechwriter and “Keepin’ It 1600” co-host Jon Favreau talked about why Donald Trump connected with audiences, but Hillary Clinton didn’t.
You can read some of the highlights from Peter’s interview with Jon at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of the conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Jon Favreau, one of the two Jon Favreaus.
Jon Favreau: That’s right.
This is the Jon Favreau that used to work in the White House.
Hung out on Air Force One.
Once in a while.
Now you’re talking to me on a podcast, I’m sorry about that.
Life’s going well [laughs].
This is very cool! You’ve been in my ear, once or twice a week, since July. It’s a super intense relationship. So you’ve got a podcast ... among other things you’re doing a podcast …
Doing a podcast.
... for Bill Simmons’ Ringer network.
“Keepin’ it 1600.” You and a cast of three or four other folks sort of rotate in and out.
An Obama crew.
We should talk about some of the mechanics of podcasting. But we should talk about Trump and the campaign. We’re recording this on a Thursday. This is going to come out hopefully on Tuesday morning. It’s nearly impossible ... actually it’s literally impossible to keep up with the news cycle.
Something could happen 10 minutes after we finish this. It probably will.
Yeah, which just happened, right? So I was listening to you this morning — you taped something yesterday, in between then every woman in the world said Donald Trump had — I’m being facetious and flippant; I probably shouldn’t — had assaulted her.
As you’re thinking about sort of commenting publicly on the race, I mean, in a podcast how do you do that? I don't know myself.
When we plan each podcast, I think we all talk about, “Okay, what’s happened this week?” We try to make it obviously as topical as possible. But you know, the good thing is even if something does’'t seem super newsworthy, we try to cover it in a different way from a different angle than you would see on cable news or read about. And so I think our philosophy, to the extent that there is one, is we try to bring to bear sort of our experience having worked in the White House and on campaigns to what’s happening in the news today.
The idea of someone who worked in politics is now commenting on media, in media, pretty time-tested one. Seems for some reason like what you’re doing is a little different. Maybe it’s just perspective. We haven’t had someone who’s been that high up the totem pole in Washington who’s talking that much. Or maybe I’m wrong — maybe it’s just something we’ve always had.
I mean, you see people who worked in politics for a long, long time in television and commenting all the time, and there’s plenty of pundits. I think it’s the format of podcasting is different because it gives you the space to have a real conversation and not come up with your quick soundbite that you’re going to have and your five-minute television hit. I think that’s what’s different about it.
Right, because we’ve had that revolving door ... George Stephanopoulos, and at one point that was controversial, and depending on the person or the circumstance, it still can be controversial. Corey Lewandowski.
I kind of argue that it’s actually less a big deal than other people are saying. We should set the stage. So, you’re podcasting, you’ve got a consulting business.
In politics, in communications, in both?
Fenway Strategies. It is ... we haven’t done a lot of politics because, like, there was a Senate race that we were thinking about doing, and it would have taken up all our time. We’re extremely small, our firm. It’s myself, Tommy Vietor, my business partner, who’s also on the podcast, and we have one other employee. So we just can’t take that many clients.
And so you left the White House in 2013.
March of 2013.
And was the plan, “I’m going to go into consulting”? You were in Los Angeles. Was it, “I’m going to go to LA and make movies”?
Yeah, Tommy and I thought maybe we would do some screenwriting, but then we sort of had the opportunity to start this business together because we figured we’d pay the bills. And we took on some clients and we mainly focused on speechwriting, sort of message development for folks. And we took on a lot of nonprofits, a few tech companies. And we did that for a while. And then I think once this political season began, neither of us could turn away from politics [laughs]. We’d had our break.
So you’re on camera and off camera talking about politics, and then you’re still touching it, right? Like, did you work with Obama on his DNC speech?
Yeah, well, whenever our friends in the White House who are still there need help, you know, I can pitch in. I’m always happy to do that.
So you’re still in the mix, really.
Once in a while. It’s like, “Can you look at this draft?” That’s more of that kind of thing.
And as a listener, as a watcher, right, that’s super cool because you’re in it. I imagine that maybe poses a challenge for you occasionally because you’ve got to figure out, “Okay, I can’t talk about this on camera …”
I was pretty open about the fact that I helped out a little bit with the convention speech. Aside from that, it’s like, you know, giving informal advice once in a while to friends in the White House or on the Clinton campaign. But the good thing about how we are on the podcast is, or what we talk about on the podcast, is we don’t pretend to be journalists, we don’t pretend to be nonpartisan... [laughs] I don't think anyone would …
You’re super partisan.
Super partisan, super journalists, and you know, we have a point of view. What I believe is, just because we have a very strong point of view, and are very open about what that point of view is, doesn’t mean that we still can’t offer some real insight into what’s going on in the political process, because we’ve been there before.
Yeah, no, I really like it. It feels like you’re inside, but it’s not wonky. It also feels like if you’re someone who liked the notion of “The West Wing” as liberal fantasy of smart, young, idealistic people who spoke in these flowing sentences, you kind of have a version of it here.
Yeah, well, I always say real politics is a cross between “Veep” and “The West Wing.”
Yeah, I do like the “Veep” version, where everyone’s mostly venal.
Yeah, many days it’s mostly “Veep.” Having worked in the Obama administration for many years, there are a few “West Wing” moments as well.
So speaking of the venal version, I Googled you. But also — I don’t know what the term for it is — I looked you up on WikiLeaks.
Have you looked up yourself on WIkiLeaks?
I heard that there’s an email in there, yeah.
You’re in the Podesta files. And this is, I think, the remarkable slash unremarkable thing about all the stuff that’s in there. It just shows you behaving like a regular person. They’ve asked you for advice about one of Hillary Clinton’s speeches. You’re giving it. It’s super thoughtful advice.
Yeah, well, it’s also advice that ... I mean, I also write for the Ringer. I have a column eventually when I’m not too lazy and sit down and write. It’s mostly advice I would have written in a column publicly [laughs]. When I saw it, I was like, “Uh-oh, I’m in WIkiLeaks.” And then I look at it and I’m like, “Eh, yeah, that’s what I would say.” [laughs]
I was in the Sony leak. I wasn’t in the Sony leak, but there’s an email or two of mine in the Sony thing. Someone said, “You’re in that.” I said, “Well, what is it?” They said, “Oh, well, it shows you asking so and so for comment.” Right! Yeah, that’s what I do.
[laughs] “That's what I do for a living.”
Not that I couldn’t have had lots of stupid, embarrassing emails in there, but …
Yup, same here.
You had a thing, right, when you came on in 2008? There was a Facebook photo?
There was a Facebook photo, yeah. I was a complete moron and I was at a small party at my parents’ house and there was a cardboard cutout and there were pictures taken and a friend put it on Facebook and …
It was you and Hillary. A cutout of Hillary.
Someone took a screengrab of that and sent it to the Washington Post, and then that was that.
And then there was a cool response from Clinton's campaign, right? Or from the Clinton people saying, “We're glad Jon’s interested in the State Department.”
Yes. Well, I apologized immediately, and they were gracious enough to accept it.
Had you thought ... so the back story is — and you’ll tell some of it — is you got to the White House, a very young speechwriter, you were an instant celebrity. You were already a celebrity in that campaign. Had you thought about, as you were going through that and as you were going into the White House, “I’m going to have to button down my profile. I’m going to have to scrub my …” Obviously you hadn’t scrubbed your Facebook, I guess, at that point.
[laughs] Right. Well, I mean, that was 2009, so the whole getting in trouble for social media stuff wasn’t really a big [thing]. I mean, it was starting then, but no, once you get to the White House, and I learned ... I was able to learn a lesson before I get there that yeah, you have to be serious here. Or be a little more serious than you used to be.
And are you still looking at it that way? Or now that you’re out of the White House you can loosen up?
I am ... you know, now I feel like I am who I am [laughs]. Now that I have this podcast, I pretty much say what I want.
You have a pretty extensive trail, right? If someone wants to do research on you, it’s all out there.
Should we talk about how you got to the White House?
You got into politics right out of college, right? Or while you were still in college.
Yes, in college. I went to College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. There was an internship program my junior year, a D.C. internship program.
Was your family in politics? Was this something you wanted to do from the get-go?
My family was always very into politics. My grandfather was a Republican state rep in New Hampshire way back in the day. And then, you know, I just remember from a very young age watching politics with my parents.
No, they were Democrats. My father was one of nine siblings from New Hampshire, and he was one of the only Democrats for a while. They've all sort of come around now, or at least a lot of them have [laughs]. But yeah, so they were both Democrats.
So this was something that was in your head that you wanted to do. Did you want to work in politics, did you want to be elected to something?
When I was younger, like when I was in high school, I thought maybe someday one of the jobs I would have was a politician, something like that. Then it was lawyer for a while. I was like, “Maybe I'll go to law school.” But by the time I got to college, I really didn’t know. I was poly sci, major in sociology, and I did a lot of community service, and then I decided, “Okay, why don’t I just try this out because ‘'ve always wondered about politics.” So I interned with John Kerry in D.C., and it just happened to be that I interned in his press office as they were planning his 2004 run. And so I sat next to his communications director, his chief speechwriter, David Wade, and his press secretary, his political director. They were all around the office all the time.
So you hit the lottery, right out of the bag, right?
You get exposure to someone running, to the Democratic nominee.
Yes, and then throughout my senior year at Holy Cross, I would email David Wade every month saying, “I would just love a job on the campaign. Anything, I’ll take anything.” Once in a while he’d email back and say, “Oh, don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of you.” And the night before graduation I still had no job. And David called and said, “Okay, you get two weeks to move to D.C., you’re going to be a press assistant, we’re going to pay you almost nothing, you’re going to wake up at 4 a.m. to send the news clips around to everyone in the campaign.”
“Hey, I’ll take it, I’m in.” So I went down there. It was an unbelievable experience, and at one point it looked like Kerry was going to lose to Dean in the primary ...
This is the scream. No, no, pre-scream.
Pre-scream. Well, the Kerry campaign … there was a big shake-up. The campaign manager was fired. My boss at the time was Robert Gibbs — I was his assistant — he quit. So then they needed a deputy speechwriter, and I wanted to be deputy speechwriter. They said no at first. And then they realized that no one would take the job because they thought the campaign was in free-fall, and they didn't have to pay me any more than my paltry salary, so I got a promotion. And then Kerry wins the nomination, so I stayed on as deputy speechwriter.
So you stayed there, and then you got to Obama how?
Post-election, Gibbs had gone to work for Obama’s Senate race. And he emailed me and said, “Obama’s never had a speechwriter before. He wrote the '04 convention speech himself, but he’s going to need to learn to work with a speechwriter now. Would you be interested in sitting down with him?” So I had breakfast with Obama his first week in the Senate. Sat down with him …
He’s a senator from Illinois. Very low profile.
Yes. Very low profile — 99th in seniority. And we sat down ... he was one of the easier interviews I’ve ever done. He asked about my life, he asked about my upbringing, why I cared about politics, and then at the end of the interview, he said, “Well, I don’t think I need a speechwriter, but you seem nice enough, so let’s give this a whirl.” [laughs]
And did you take him at face value that he was going to do the bulk of the work and you were going to be around to sort of polish up?
Yeah, before the interview, I prepared by reading “Dreams From My Father.” And I remember reading that book, and even more so than when I saw him speak at the convention, reading that book, I was like, “If someone who writes this honestly thinks he can make it in politics, I want to stick around to watch that happen.”
So you go in, you get this job, it’s a cool job. And then at some point it becomes a much cooler job because he becomes a serious contender for president and then he’s the nominee. When you went in, did you have someone you were modelling your writing after? Did you think, “Oh, this guy figured it out, or this woman figured it out, I’m going to ape them.”
Truthfully, I had to sort of unlearn a lot of what I did about speech writing to write for him. Because the Kerry campaign — to an extent a lot of Democratic campaigns and Republican campaigns at the time — the running theory is that speeches are sort of a collection of applause lines and quotable lines for the press.
They’re built to be redistributed.
Right. You get your soundbite, you get your applause line at a rally. And there’s a lot of consultants involved, a lot of pollsters involved, you construct a speech with this big committee and all that kind of stuff. Obama was a writer. He’s always been a writer and he’s always been very involved in his own speeches. And so a lot of the language he wanted to use, a lot of the language he would use in his political career up until that point, in “Dreams From My Father,” was just very different language that you didn’t always hear in politics. It sounded more conversational; it sounded more like a conversation normal people would have who weren't in politics. And so it was refreshing to learn that from him. But really to be a good speechwriter, you don’t model yourself after other speechwriters or other speakers. You try to get in the head of the person that you’re writing for.
You do that while you’re reading his stuff. You’re just talking to him all day.
In the Senate, I would have conversations with him before every big speech, 20-30 minutes on the topic. If he didn’t have time to think about it, I would interview him, try to get his thoughts. I’d read every transcript of every interview he did. I’d go to his Town Halls, listen to how he answered every question. And so yeah. I just tried to get inside his head.
So you put in five years there at the White House.
You were saying when you came on in 2009, Facebook was just starting to be a thing. Twitter was barely a thing. When you look at the media landscape and how much it changed between when you went in and when you left, what’s the biggest change you notice?
The diffuse nature of the media. People aren’t getting their news from one source anymore, they're getting it from very different sources. We know this, especially young people. And I think in the White House we learned that to effectively deliver the message you had to meet people where they are.
Because when Obama ran it was, “Oh, it’s the Facebook campaign, it's digital.” But really it was a pretty traditional campaign with some social media sort of attached to it.
Yeah, well, the movement was very ... technology helped fuel this grassroots movement in terms of the fundraising, in terms of the organizing. That was very big. That was very technologically adept at the time. But you’re right. I think once we got to the White House, it took us a little while to realize, you know, there’s a lot of people getting their news and information from very different, diffused sources. And we have to make sure the president gives interviews. Like, we got a lot of crap from the White House press corps for having him do interviews with YouTube stars. It’s like, well, we’re not doing that to avoid tough questions, we’re actually doing that because a lot of people, that’s how they consume their news and information.
Right, he did a whole slew of that stuff in the later part of his term or second term. And then how does it affect speech writing? If you’re in a world … especially now where you’ve got Trump and he gives speeches but they’re just rants. And maybe this is just specific to Trump and what’s going on now, but I can’t tell you a single speech that Hillary Clinton’s delivered. And maybe no one ever can really do that unless you’re really in that world, but it seems like the idea of delivering a speech that has import or even those quotable lines you’re talking about just seems like we’re in a world where we’ve moved past that in some ways.
I did not change my writing style, Obama did not change his writing style because the media changed. I think that was important. Because a lot of times people ask, like, “Oh, did you end up writing quicker soundbites because of Twitter?” No, didn’t do any of that.
Because our belief is, if you write something unique and interesting that people are going to want to hear, if you have something of substance to say that’s different, people will take the time to listen to it. Michelle Obama this morning, right before we did this, gave a speech in New Hampshire. It’s going to be covered as, you know, she sort of took on Trump, but really it was a speech about sexual assault and how we treat women. And it was one of the most important speeches of the campaign, I think. I think people will go watch that speech in full.
So it will start with a Twitter headline.
Yeah, it’ll start.
And maybe you’ll watch the short clip, but you think eventually there’s a subset of people who get to …
Yeah, and there’s enough buzz about it. Like if you look on Twitter, there’s enough people saying, “Wow, this is different, this is a moment.” And so then that drives people to say, “Oh, what are they all talking about?” And then you click on the YouTube link and then you watch 10 minutes, as opposed to the 30-second clips we’re all so accustomed to. So I think that’s the only way to do it, because if you try to tailor all of your communications and writing to the very fast nature of how we’re all sped up right now, you're destined to come off with slogans and soundbites that sound cheesy and inauthentic.
It must be frustrating for you, right? You work on these speeches, they take you days, weeks in some cases. But inevitably they are going to get reduced — just the nature of media — to a second or a couple seconds. You sort of make your peace with that, right?
Yeah, but it’s also why I fight against length. That was always a fight I would pick in the White House. I think, you know, 15 minutes is the max for a speech these days. I think if you have a lot to say, you can go 20. I think that the idea that presidents give 45-50 minute, hour-long, State of the Unions is ridiculous and will be anachronistic in, you know, five to 10 years. I don’t think we will have that anymore.
And what about just that style of the State of the Union address and other formal addresses and the trappings that come with that when we’re in a world where a YouTube star is someone in their basement speaking directly to the camera — it’s head-on. Do you think that maybe politics will eventually adapt to that or it already has?
I do. I think there’s a few moments where you need the gravity of the trappings. But I think most of the time, politicians and politics need to adapt to a much more informal sort of culture. Because I think part of the reason there’s such distrust, mistrust, out there of politicians or any institution is that there’s a dead language that people in politics still use, and on cable news and in other places use that we don’t use in normal conversation, right? You don’t hear it on podcasts, you don’t hear it in real life, you don’t hear it in other places.
No. We even talk about it in digital publishing. We’re like, use a conversational headlining style. If it’s something you wouldn’t say to someone about the story, don’t put it in the headline.
That’s right. That’s right. No, I mean, my buddy said — who's a speechwriter now at the White House, he took over for me, Cody Keenan — he said, “If you can’t say it to a friend at a bar, don’t make me put it in a speech.” [laughs]
I like that we can just have all the conversations at a bar. It’d be great.
Yeah, right, exactly.
A little sloppy. [JF laughs] What do you think of the work ... Hillary seems like the archetype traditional politician. She’s been in politics for 30 years, as Donald Trump always says. You can see her trying to loosen herself up a little bit, but it seems like she's never going to be loose and that’s just who she is. If you were working with her — you work with her a little bit — would you try to push her off that? Or you’d say it is what it is?
I think that having seen her now for a year — I watched her very closely — there are times when I think she’s very effective. And those times are when she’s telling stories. Now obviously there are the very cliche — “I met a woman in Iowa and she didn't have health care,” right? I’m not necessarily talking about that, but she has these sort of quiet moments. She did a couple of times in the convention speech. She did when she won the nomination, where she’s just sort of telling a story in conversational ... or I think she’s most effective when she’s hit Trump — she just kind of throws out the line that Trump has said and will say in deadpan, like, “Oh, he says he knows more about ISIS than the generals. No, you don't.” “No, you don’t” is not some snappy line.
But it was the right line, it was effective. And so I think when she doesn’t put a lot of spin on the ball and try to use the snappy lines and all that kind of stuff …
Speak directly and clearly.
Speaks directly to people, doesn’t try to, like, pound the podium, she’s much better, she’s much more effective.
And do you think there are people in her campaign trying to get her to do that or do you think they’ve got a more traditional campaign? I mean, their social media stuff seems super smart and savvy. It seems disconnected from her in a lot of ways.
I think they would love it if she did that all the time, but I think once you get going on a campaign and it’s every single day and all you’re doing is just like, “What’s the topper on the stump for tomorrow?” [laughs] You know?
The train is going …
It’s just going so fast, you know, and there’s a million other things you have to think about in a campaign. You’re not sitting every day and trying to start from scratch.
And as someone who does this professionally, there was one that really stuck out for me. I’ll get your perspective on this. In the first debate, she comes out with this, I want to say “Trumped-up trickle down.” It’s a catchphrase. She doesn’t do off-the-cuff stuff, like you said. They worked on it. I would assume they even focus-grouped it?
Nah, they wouldn’t have focus-grouped it.
So how does something that ungainly and ugly get on national TV? [JF laughs] Because anyone who looked at it goes, “Oh no.”
You’re in a bubble and you’re like, “Okay, we’ve got to make something stick.” Someone says, “Oh, this might be an interesting phrase; let’s do it.”
And they just float it.
They just float it. If I’d been there, I’d say, “Let's not go with that one, guys.”
So there’s a limit. So you got a bunch of people in your ear and someone has that bad idea and someone else can’t stop that.
I was fortunate on the Obama campaign because I had that relationship with Obama in the Senate office and people knew that when I said something probably wouldn’t fly because it doesn’t sound like him, they trusted that I had some authority over that. And David Axelrod was there, too, and he had the same authority. And so when someone came up with some idea that wasn’t so great, or a phrase that was a little off, I would be there and say, “No, he’s not going to say that.”
You’re the gatekeeper for that.
Yeah. I mean, Axelrod, obviously, and Plouffe would make some of those decisions as well, but yeah. Nine times out of 10, I knew if it was something that Obama would say or wouldn’t say.
So do you guys think you would run the same campaign? I mean, Trump is the wildcard here. If you were with Obama, if he was running in 2016, are you running essentially the same ... I mean, the messaging will be different because it’s a different time, but in terms of how you do speeches and how you communicate and how you want the candidate to express themselves, it’s the same as it was eight years ago?
Oh, for Obama now?
I bet the communications strategy would be different. The messaging and the speaking, the speech-making, would be the same. It would be the same. But I think the communications strategy would be different because you’d see sort of ... it'd be the same difference [between] the first term of the White House and the second term of the White House, where he tried to do all these different kinds of interviews. So getting the message out would change, but I think the message itself and the way he delivers it would be the same.
There’s this thing now in the last year ... the late-term Obama, right — done, lame duck Obama. There’s really interesting policy stuff he’s done with Cuba and the FCC, and then some of it’s the way he communicates, right? You see these speeches where he’s in Philadelphia, someone tells him that gas prices are down, he says, “Thank you, Obama.” It’s a great laugh line. There was one this week where someone ... he’s talking about him and Hillary being compared to the devil and he sniffs himself. He’s loose and funny. Is that just because, look, it’s 2016 and he’s allowed to do that? Or is it something that he didn’t want to do earlier on?
I think that there’s a little revisionist history. I mean, him doing the sniffing and the demon thing, there’s so many instances of him having done that during the first campaign, during the second campaign in 2012 when he was president. I think it’s the difference between him on the campaign trail and him in sort of informal environments, versus him standing in the Rose Garden giving a statement on policy, right? He’s never going to be loose and funny ..
He's never going to crack a joke.
Right ... when he’s announcing something serious. And I think part of the issue we dealt with when we were in the White House is now he’s got all these serious policies, serious responsibilities, and sometimes you have to be scripted and you have to be more cautious because the words you say have real consequences.
Someone in another country’s going to listen to you.
They can send stock markets tumbling, they can send armies to war. And so there is a caution built in in governing that sometimes makes communications, or informal communications, conversational communications, a little bit more difficult.
And there’s two schools of thought about what happens in the next election. That there will be another Trump — it’ll be a smarter Trump and he’ll tweak it a little bit and he’ll be just as racist but better at coating it. He won’t grope as many women. And there’s another one that says no, no, this is a one-off, there’s no one like him. Where do you come down on that?
I’m pretty worried that it will be a smarter Trump. I’d like to think that’s not true, though. It’s funny. Even though, you know, the never-Trump people, if their preferred candidate would probably give our preferred, you know, our next candidate a lot more trouble in the next race, I’m pulling for them. Because I don’t want to lose an election, but at the same time, what we have gone through in 2016, 2015, is so awful because of Donald Trump, I just don’t want to see that happen again. And so within the Republican party, I’m not pulling for the Trump forces just so we can keep winning elections and piling up victories. I want that party to change because I think Democrats need a healthy opposition party to fight with.
And you’d also like to be in the bounds of the conversation, right?
Yeah, and I’d like to be arguing about issues, and I think we have a better position on issues and I think we can win on that. And I think Trump’s going to lose in a couple of weeks, but I think he’s already done a lot of damage.
Again, some of the conventionalism on Trump’s wealth ... he’s speaking to this angry, disenfranchised, white, angry male. And another one says he’s popular because he’s popular. He was a popular TV character, and it’s pro wrestling and it’s not the policy, it’s him as a character. Which would mean that he’s sort of a one-off. Do you think ... I mean, it seems like you think someone’s going to tap into the anger that he found.
Yeah, I think he gets some attention because he’s just a celebrity in general. But the people who like Donald Trump aren’t the people who are ... it’s not like the whole “Celebrity Apprentice” audience is now Trump’s base. All Trump did to get elected was he actually had his people listen to talk radio for 13 weeks or 14 weeks and watch Fox and read Breitbart and say, “Okay, what do these people care about?” He’s basically parodying what the right-wing media, the far right media, has has been talking about for the last eight to 10 years. And that’s his platform.
Do you think he believes it?
I don’t know. It’s so hard ... I mean, I think the idea of, like, getting into someone’s head, it’s such a pundit thing to do.
But he puts it on display.
I know. I don’t know — maybe he does believe it. Maybe he does. Maybe, you know, when you say something enough, when you say a lie enough in your own head, it starts to sound like the truth.
As someone who’s been inside and now outside, when it comes to punditry, do you think media ... the reporting’s been very good, right?
The New York Times is going great work. The Washington Post is doing great work. Lots of other sites. Especially those two. Do you think the pundits are doing an adequate job, given what they’re supposed to do?
No. I think punditry is, writ large, broken in this country. And I think ... I have to be very careful of who ... like you said, I think reporters when they’re reporting are doing overall a fantastic job on this election. Washington Post, New York Times, BuzzFeed, a lot of great reporting. I think there are journalists on cable news who are doing an outstanding job. If you’ve see a Jake Tapper interview, you know that. I also think that when people announce that they’re ... “I’m a Conservative pundit,” or “I’m a liberal pundit,” then at least you know where they’re coming from. But there’s a lot of pundits out there who pretend that they don’t have a side or that they’re not liberal or Republicans.
Oh, that’s your critique, is that they’re biased?
No, it’s not that they’re biased one way or another. See, I don’t think they’re biased towards one ideology. When someone complains about the pundits, they’re like, “Oh, they’re a bad pundit because they just want Trump to win or they want Hillary to win.”
They want the entertainment.
They want the entertainment. They’re coming up with a narrative in a horse race that’s not reflected by the polls and the data. Every day is some new drama that they think is going to affect the entire race, and maybe it's not. I mean the second debate ... we watched the second debate here, and that first 30 minutes for Trump was an unmitigated disaster.
It looked like he was going to fall off the stage.
No one has turned in a worse debate performance than he has in those first 30 minutes. The next 60 minutes, he was regular bad. And the debate ends and all these pundits are like, “I don’t know, he did a lot better than the first one. I think he won that one.” And then 30 minutes later, every single poll comes back that Hillary Clinton won by a large margin. And you’re like, “What was that analysis that we just got?” [laughs]
Right. It didn’t seem like it changed the ... I mean this is the problem, right? Like, because what does the debate really mean and did it change the polls? It didn’t change the polls.
But sober analysis would say, “Okay, so that was a disaster, the first 30 minutes — will it change the race? We don’t know. We have to wait and see.” [laughs]
So you just think there should not be that sort of ... drama critic.
I think there’s less predictions. I think there’s less about the drama. There’s less about performance, there’s less about optics. And there’s more about ... if you’re talking about the horse race, I think the people who do data journalism and who look at polls and look at data, I think those are good people to listen to. I think reporters who are finding out new information from sources, those are good people to listen to. And I think people from both parties who have been in these campaigns who can tell you, you know, forget about just us, there’s plenty of other people who do it.
Seems like in political journalism there’s a conversation about this that’s gone on for decades. “We should stop covering the horse race. We should stop doing this kind of empty punditry. We’ll get better next year.” And then they just double down on it. And they’re usually rewarded by the audience — definitely rewarded this year. Four years ago, Nate Silver really seemed like he’d blown it up because he just said, “No, there’s the polls and that’s it. Every other discussion is pointless. I have the numbers, here they are.” And again, we’re in 2016 and again, there’s great journalism, but there’s just plenty of airtime to fill just talking.
The tough part is some of the people who are on TV, you meet them, they’re very smart, intelligent people. A lot of them are great political reporters. But there’s a format issue where when you’re just sitting on TV and there’s airtime to fill, you just say things. And I’ve been there. I’ve found myself on TV just like, “Blah blah blah,” you know. And you’re like, “Did anything I say either A, make sense, or B, you know, add anything to the conversation or people’s understanding of politics?” Sometimes I tell myself, “No, I don’t know why I just did that.” [laughs]
Let’s fast-forward to the end of this campaign. We’re going to assume that Hillary wins. You think Trump does the TV thing? Or you think he’s done?
I think there’s a good chance he does the TV thing. I mean, I think Ailes’s departure and everything else, Fox is in sort of a weird transition and, you know, the Breitbart forces. Believe it or not there’s a big segment of the country out there that thinks, or a big segment of the viewership or audience out there that thinks, Fox is not conservative enough. So the Breitbart world will have some kind of television venture, and maybe Trump will be involved in that.
Yeah, I mean, I do think we’ve learned watching Glenn Beck and Oprah and everyone who tried to launch a personality-driven thing, you’ve got to be on camera daily if you want it to be about you, and you can’t just sort of bless it.
Oh we know, we know Trump loves that.
Yeah, although it’s still work. He’s got to show up.
And do you have any inkling on what Obama does post White House?
We’re helping out a little bit with the foundation, and I think right now there’s a lot of work left to do, and we’ve got to wait for them to leave the White House. But his campaign and his entire political career has been based on sort of grassroots change and a different model of change that comes from the grassroots, that comes from civic engagement, citizenship or renewal of citizenship, very bottom up. And I think what he’ll be focused on through the work of the foundation is finding, across a wide array of issues, finding ways to sort of drive this grassroots notion of change.
People in my world think, “Oh, it looks like he really likes tech. He did the cover of Wired and he just did a tech thing on the White House lawn, a South By [Southwest] thing. He’d be a really good VC.” Can you imagine him being someone who walks into an office and funds a startup?
You know, I can’t. Why he likes tech so much is he’s very taken with the idea of new tools to help create change and help create bottom-up movements. And I think to the extent that both of his campaigns were built on the latest technology and very driven by data, I think that appeals to him in a big way. And he’s very into science, very into innovation.
He’s a nerd.
He’s a total nerd.
He’s a card-carrying nerd.
And to see what some of these companies, some of these startups are doing, I think that fascinates him. But that’s different than writing …
Trying to woo the guy with the next Yo app.
I don’t quite see him doing that, no.
And then what do you do? Does the podcast continue past …
We certainly would like to continue it.
Yeah? This is a job for you?
I’ve got to figure that out. I think once the election ends, you know, we’re sort of doing two jobs right now. But I’ve learned after taking a couple years off from politics that I think no matter what I do in life, I’m going to have to be involved somewhat in politics. Because I care about the stuff too much. Sometimes I care about it to a point where it becomes a bad habit and I’m checking Twitter too much for sure. And I find myself in the punditry game and I need to step back and look at the bigger picture. But a career and a life where I’m totally not paying attention to politics and just focused on other stuff, I don’t think that’s in the cards.
So you’re back in the game in some capacity.
Some capacity. But I’m staying in LA, and I’m certainly not moving back to D.C. [laughs].
If you can pull both those things off at the same time, that’s pretty cool.
Awesome. Thanks for you time. I appreciate it.
Thanks for talking. It’s been fun.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.