Huffington Post contributor James Warren recently interviewed his high school classmate — founder of The Weekly Standard, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and a foreign policy advisor to John McCain, Bill Kristol — for their school's alumni newsletter. The two media figures spoke on the day of the vice presidential debate and reconvened a few days later to recap that debate as well as the town hall debate moderated by Tom Brokaw.
Kristol called John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate the "biggest surprise" of the 2008 campaign. He also mentioned that he personally pushed for McCain to choose Joe Lieberman, saying, "that would've made the convention extremely dicey, but I think [McCain] would've ended up with a strong ticket with bi-partisan appeal."
Kristol also said he is "agnostic" on the idea of an "Iraq-like surge in Afghanistan."
"It's such a different circumstance, and the country's so different," he told Warren. "In Iraq we were short the troops we needed to fight a real counterinsurgency, and the surge probably got us just enough. In Afghanistan, we're still going to be short by any normal measure of what it would take to fight a real counterinsurgency, so I'm a little worried that people haven't thought that through."
Other highlights of their conversation include their reminiscing about growing up in the turbulent 1960s, a discussion of whether John McCain is the same man he was a few years ago (Warren thinks not, Kristol asserts nothing's changed), an assessment of the second presidential debate (both decried Tom Brokaw's moderating skills), the bellwether state Kristol has his eyes on (Colorado), and Kristol's bold prediction that McCain will win the race (although the prediction was made back on October 2).
"Obama's ahead now, but I'll go out on a limb and pick McCain," he said. "And I hope everyone forgets this pick if I'm wrong [laughs], and gives me credit for making a bold, upset pick if I'm right."
An excerpt of the transcript of their conversation appears below. The full conversation can be viewed at the Collegiate website.
Jim Warren: What was the biggest surprise of the campaign year to you? Was it: Senator Clinton not winning the nomination? Or, Senator McCain coming back from the political dead? Was it the dismal performance of Rudy Giuliani, or Fred Thompson? Was it Mike Huckabee winning in Iowa without a huge organization--in the state where one presumably has to have a huge organization? Or was it Barack Obama's resilience? Or maybe even something totally different? What was the biggest surprise?
Bill Kristol: I think, personally, the biggest surprise was the Palin pick. I went to sleep Thursday night--I guess I was in Denver, after Obama's speech before 85,000 people at the Democratic Convention--and every indication I had was that McCain was going to pick Tim Pawlenty, the Governor of Minnesota. I was sort of depressed about that. I thought that was a boring and conventional pick that wouldn't do much for the McCain campaign, and at that point McCain was behind and Obama had given what I thought was a pretty effective speech Thursday night. It was impressive just seeing those 85,000 people there. And then McCain shook everything up with the Palin pick. And since we're speaking twelve hours before her debate, we don't know what the ultimate effect of that pick will be [laughs]. I think that was the biggest surprise.
I would say that all of the surprises you mentioned in a certain sense follow from one fundamental fact, which I think is the fact of this year, analytically, which is there's no incumbent president or vice president running for president on either ticket for the first time since 1952. Obviously, there's usually a president running for re-election or a vice president seeking to step up. And that gives these races a certain structure, even a certain predictability. If the country's in good shape, the incumbent party benefits. But this year, with two wide-open primaries--two certainly competitive primaries--with no incumbent and no one who's even like an incumbent on the Republican side--it has meant that the primary races have been much more fluid and unpredictable, even volatile, I would say, than what is normally the case. They're much more dependent on absolute decisions of candidates and campaigns than is normally the case. Again, political scientists have done a lot of work on this--the underlying factors, the economy, whether you're at war--can predict the outcome, but that's, of course, because, basically, most elections are referended on an incumbent administration, and I think this one isn't. Now, Obama is trying to make it that by saying McCain is Bush's third term. But still, so far, at least, it has been very different from the presidential elections we've grown used to for all of our adult lifetimes.
Warren: Whom did you argue for in the internal McCain council for Vice President?
Kristol: I argued publicly for a bold pick. My number one choice was Lieberman. That would've made the convention extremely dicey, but I think [McCain] would've ended up with a strong ticket with bi-partisan appeal. I was also intrigued by Tom Ridge, the Governor of Pennsylvania, who would've also been slightly unpopular with the Republican base. Or, I said a woman, just because I think Obama's failure to pick Hillary Clinton provided an opening. And of the women that I mentioned in the New York Times column that I wrote in the week before McCain's pick, I mentioned Palin, and Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, as the two likely picks. I think I'm one of the few people in Washington who actually spent some time with Governor Palin a year ago, when we had our Weekly Standard cruise in Alaska, and I was impressed by her. I thought she would've been a bold and interesting pick and I think she was a bold and interesting pick. She's obviously been pummeled by the media, and has made some mistakes, and I think it has been mishandled by some of the McCain team. And like I said, since we speak 12 hours before the debate, it's a little hard to come to a conclusion on whether this was a smart, bold pick, or a foolish, bold pick.
Warren: So far, McCain seems to have been both rewarded and punished for risks he's taken. Palin clearly helped among a certain conservative base. But then suspending his campaign supposedly as a result of the bailout rescue negotiations in Washington allowed critics to brand him as erratic. Would his intrepid ways possibly make for mercurial and possibly even unstable leadership?
Kristol: Well, I think a little mercurial, a little volatile, maybe--or at least impulsive. But that can be good or bad, depending on whether you basically trust his impulses. I think there's a lot more Teddy Roosevelt, and even Franklin Roosevelt, who we now think of as a steady hand during World War II, but at the time was thought of as having very clashing advisors, and very unpredictable in what he would do. I think McCain's in that tradition, and obviously they both turned out pretty well. I'm probably biased, since I'm pro-McCain.
Honestly, I think we're so close to the race, and the truth is that Obama has been ahead for most of the year. It's a Democratic year. McCain had a nice little bounce out of the convention. You then have a monster financial crisis, in which everyone was reminded that George Bush was President of the United States, and his Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was asking taxpayers to cough up $700 billion--at least for now--to help bail out the entire system, which looks to be on the brink of a really dangerous collapse. McCain's a Republican, and I think it was pretty predictable that McCain would take a hit and go back down to where he is now, down 4, 5, 6 points. But I think all of us who follow this race day-to-day and hour-to-hour are over-interpreting these little decisions like the so-called suspending of the campaign. I think, basically, Obama and McCain, if you look at the polls, remain pretty popular for all the talk of what a negative campaign it's been. Their favorable/unfavorable ratings are higher than Bush and Kerry in '04 or, I believe, Bush and Gore in 2000--both of their ratings, actually. Obama's is a little better now since he's ahead. Obviously if you're a strong partisan you're not going to be very approving of the candidate of the other party, but actually the majority of voters approve of both candidates.
Warren: Let me ask you this: It strikes me that this campaign has been remarkably small-bore, partisan, consultant-driven, money-driven, and falls short of what might have been, given the higher expectations of having two very bright, decent guys running against one another. Did we not deserve a better campaign?
Kristol: I guess we usually do. I could argue that one either way. I think we're always disappointed in the campaigns. Maybe our standards are too high. I guess I was struck, though--to agree with you--that in the first debate, the degree to which neither candidate addressed the serious financial situation, let alone had anything interesting to say about it, was a little startling. Now, it's hard and it's complicated and it's risky for them to just go out on a limb, and when the administration is trying to work something out with Congress, maybe the best thing to do is just to keep it in the background. But I would say that neither has shown great leadership on that or even given the sense that they have any fresh ideas on that. But maybe it's not so easy to have those ideas. And again, Franklin Roosevelt ran a kind of uninspired campaign in 1932, with the Depression and 'time to get rid of Herbert Hoover,' and I don't know if you can really predict much about their presidencies from the campaigns.
Warren: There's been a lot of negative advertising, especially in contested states. And Obama, for many months, has still been the object of insinuation that he's a Muslim who's going to be the front for some sort of attack on the U.S.--and the insinuations of a lack of patriotism. Why didn't McCain, who has argued steadfastly for more honor and bi-partisanship in American politics, publicly denounce this sort of stuff?
Kristol: I don't really think either campaign has gone over the line much, or any more than is normal, with some of these ads, in terms of selectively reproducing their opponent's record. In terms of the personal attacks, there hasn't been much of that in this campaign. Where there have been attacks, they've been more ideological, with each side distorting their opponent's records, but again, people aren't that negative on either man, so I don't think that suggests such a negative campaign.
Warren: When it comes to Obama, it's stating the obvious to say that this climate, with the poor economy and the bail out, would unavoidably help the Democratic candidate, it would seem. Has it also seemed to you that voters simply began to get a little bit more comfortable with the idea of Obama as President as the economy became a central issue?
Kristol: Yes. Now, I don't think it's over yet, but I think he's done a pretty good job throughout the primaries as well as the general election of being calm, cool, and collected. And the challenger always has to prove that he's up to the presidency, especially if he's inexperienced, and that was Carter's challenge in '76, and Reagan's challenge in '80, and both met it. And one way they did meet that challenge was by doing pretty well in debates. Carter in '76 held his own against Gerry Ford--Ford actually made that mistake about Poland, which hurt him--and Reagan in that one debate in 1980 did fine against Jimmy Carter, and most people think that put him over the top. And I think the Obama camp's theory of the campaign, based on people I've talked to who are close to Obama, has always been that it's naturally a Democratic year. People want change, and we just need to be acceptable. [The Obama campaign] needs it to not look like a really risky change, which is why Obama, in a funny way, has run kind of a low-key general election campaign, pretty cautious. It doesn't make those of us who are political junkies all that happy because of a certain lack of fireworks. And when's the last time you can remember Obama saying anything memorable, really?
Warren: Right, right.
Kristol: But it's not a foolish strategy, and it may work.
Warren: It was a strategy also, in part, predicated on significant turnout of youth, and there were some examples during the primary season of the Obama campaign having had success. To the extent that this is seen as a pivotal test of whether young people will vote, I must admit great skepticism, and find projections of a huge upswing to come exaggerated. What is your assessment of what will happen on Election Day with younger prospective American voters?
Kristol: To me, it's hard to say. I guess there was some uptick in youth vote in '04 as part of a general increase in turnout--almost 20 million more people voted in 2004 than in 2000. A lot of people think we could have another 10 or 15 million more this year, of which a somewhat disproportionate number would be younger voters. Obviously, the Obama campaign is working very hard to turn those voters out. They do have other things to do, and they're not used to voting. They're in college, and it's confusing sometimes whether they should vote in their college town or their hometown, and if they want to vote in their hometown they have to get absentee ballots. But I think there's too much moralizing sometimes about how irresponsible young people are--we have one kid in college--and it's just harder to vote if you're living in one place and in college in another, than if you're driving to work everyday and are in the habit of taking a detour to the voting booth early in the morning or when you come home from work, or if you're in the habit of voting the weekend before, if states permit that. So I think turnout will be high. There's been a lot of interest. There was a huge turnout in the Democratic primaries this year--the highest ever, obviously, in a Presidential primary, so I think the youth vote will be higher. I'm not sure it will be transformative, though. I sort of agree with your skepticism on that. If you do the math, it's hard for it to be transformative. You have to have a really massive increase in voters 18-29, and you certainly have to have a really massive increase in voters 18-25, to change the overall vote. Most voters are not in that demographic category, and so even if you increase the youth vote by thirty percent, then you're increasing the overall vote by two or three percent. So there might be a little too much attention paid to that, I think.
Warren: Let's speak about youth and politics, but a long, long time ago. When we were at Collegiate, especially in high school, in the late 1960s, it was a period of huge political ferment--with the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, among other omnipresent cultural and political realities. What do you remember most about the period and its impact on your politics? And what do you remember vaguely about your often-activist classmates when it came to politics?
Kristol: We graduated in 1970, so I suppose the last three years of our high school years--tenth through twelfth grade, ninth through twelfth grade, even--were the height of the so-called '60s, really, if you think about it in terms of Vietnam, the student protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. I actually remember Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles on June 5th. It was actually the day before commencement that year at Collegiate.
Warren: It was right around there.
Kristol: I really have this memory of the shock and then going to the commencement exercises that day, or the day after. So you have those events of that magnitude happening when you're a 15, 16, 17-year-old, and it's jolting--and I don't think anything that has happened in this decade is quite comparable. Iraq was a difficult war, and it remains a challenge, and Afghanistan's a challenge, but in terms of magnitude it pales before Vietnam. And there's no draft. And thank God we haven't had any assassinations. 9/11 is now seven years away. And the youth are now so energized and involved, which is good, but it isn't the way it was, with the sense of things just spinning out of control, and the revolution of the '60s, which was a very unusual thing, I think, in retrospect. How many times has that kind of cultural revolution occurred in the U.S. or worldwide, with so many traditional norms overturned so quickly? I think, in a way, politics was the least of it. I would say, generally--and maybe I'm just looking at things through rose-colored glasses--that I'm pretty cheered up when I speak on college campuses. I think the students are pretty engaged, and there's quite a lot of seriousness about the future. And I think, unfortunately, this financial crisis has made people more serious. Everyone now understands that we're not just going to coast into the 21st century. It's a combination of the world we live in, with 9/11 and its aftereffects, and the financial crisis, have given a kind of soberness, I think, to people thinking about the future. I guess I've been pretty struck by the high level of knowledge and engagement among young people today, trying to learn things--and not always coming out where I wish they would in terms of their views [laughs]--but I think there's been a lot of wailing about the young generation, probably especially among some of my fellow conservatives, but I actually rather disagree with that. I think young people today are probably more seriously engaged, if less-spectacularly activist, than we were.
Warren: One really dramatic change in the world we knew at Collegiate and the world we inhabit now, is an enlarged media landscape, and the world of computers and the Internet. My high school graduation present, which I was absolutely delighted to get--and scared silly because I didn't know how to use it--was a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Now we fast-forward, and the two of us--you even more than myself--have done lots of media, lots of TV punditry over the years. Tell me whether you think the public is more informed, less informed, or none of the above as a result of all that gabbing? I have to admit that as much a part of it as I remain, I do worry about a culture in which being provocative and interesting can be more important than being sober, accurate, and correct.
Kristol: I worry about that. And I worry about the short attention span that everyone has, including me, these days. Especially young people. They need to be encouraged to read longer books and take a longer time to learn things, whether it's languages, or literature, or history. And in a way, that does cut against the spirit of the modern Internet age. There are a lot of pluses and a lot of minuses when you go through a change of this magnitude, so I guess I'd say two things: one, I do think it is a big change. Technological change is often overrated, honestly, in certain ways. In terms of transportation, for example, the way we live at home, the office buildings we work in--they're not that different from what they were when we grew up. All the prophecies that we'd be like the Jetsons, driving to work in personal helicopters or whatever, all that turned out to basically not be correct [laughs]. And in some ways our lives are quite a bit like our parents' in a day-to-day way. I do think the revolution in communications, the combination of the Internet and the personal computer, really has changed things fundamentally, and will continue to do so. But we're less than halfway through the effects of that revolution, I think. In terms of politics and citizenship I'm, generally speaking, bullish on it. As a whole, I think the diversity of sources of information is healthy. When I talk to students today and tell them that when we graduated from high school, there were competitive newspapers in New York, so that was a good situation--much more than in most cities--but basically, there was really one national newspaper, the New York Times. The Journal had no political coverage at all. And then there were the three networks, and that was it. No cable news, no talk radio, no Internet. If you wanted to read a good columnist from Chicago, or from Washington, in New York, you couldn't do it. Maybe someone could send it to you in the mail a day or two later. And I think there was too much of a monopoly back then--too few sources of information--and in that respect, I'm encouraged when I go speak in colleges, again, by people who are going to a bunch of websites and reading a lot of stuff, and getting consenting opinions, and debunking the mainstream media quite a bit of the time. And, having said that, there's obviously a downside. Everything tends to get a little equalized online, and then you don't know what's serious and what's not. People make assertions and then it takes awhile for them to be debunked. So, it's a mixed bag, but I think, on the whole, a positive.
Warren: A couple final things. One narrow policy question of a military sort: Do you think, at this point, that there should be an Iraq-like surge in Afghanistan?
Kristol: I was a strong supporter of the Iraq surge, but I'm not as convinced about Afghanistan, in all honesty. People I trust who follow these things, and people in the military, do think we're under-resourced there, so I think it makes sense to plan on that. But it's such a different circumstance, and the country's so different. In Iraq we were short the troops we needed to fight a real counterinsurgency, and the surge probably got us just enough. In Afghanistan, we're still going to be short by any normal measure of what it would take to fight a real counterinsurgency, so I'm a little worried that people haven't thought that through. So I'm a little agnostic on it, and we haven't said that much about it in The Weekly Standard for that reason. I figure the new administration will come in and take a fresh look and at that point, people who want to have a serious opinion will have to educate themselves much more about Afghanistan. In Iraq, there has been a lot of work done outside of the government, and some in the government, about how a surge might work. And some people, like me, have been calling for more troops for three years. And I didn't know it would work, obviously, but I felt pretty confident that it was the best shot at having something work. I don't really have that confidence about Afghanistan, to tell you the truth.
Warren: I want to ask you now about the education system, notably big city public education. As your old boss [former U.S. Secretary of Education] William Bennett argued when you guys were at the Department of Education long ago during the Reagan years, by and large, big city public education is a disaster. Now, the two of us went to a wonderful private school in New York City. It all seems rather quaint now, when one looks back at those often-male bachelors who taught us and who were totally and absolutely committed to the institution, and committed to us and to our learning. What do you recall about Collegiate that might inform your views of how America improves the mess that is the overall education system?
Kristol: That's a big question. I went to a good private school and our kids went to good suburban public schools, so I don't have too much personal experience with bad urban public schools, which is sort of the third category. I still think, though, that the most obvious thing to say is: what is it about Collegiate that makes Collegiate so good? And I would say it's a strong Principal, or Headmaster. A lot of the research that I remember from when I was at the Education Department 20 years ago really showed that Principals are, really, the most important person. If you could make one change at any school, get a good Principal. The way these urban school systems--or really most school systems--are set up, it's a unionized, bureaucratic system. It's very hard to pluck someone who's very good out of nowhere and make him or her Principal, and it's very hard to fire someone who's not a good Principal. And I would say the same about the teachers. At the end of the day, there are problems of money and discipline and socioeconomic backgrounds in terms of these kids. And the inability to have the flexibility that a private school has, in terms of recruiting teachers, including teachers who didn't go to education schools, promoting them fast if they're good, letting them go if they're not good--that truly is a huge problem. I certainly saw that at our public schools in Fairfax County, where, luckily, it's a prestigious and attractive place to teach, so the teachers somewhat recruit themselves, and they've figured out ways in Fairfax to do some rewarding of good teachers, and some discouraging of the less-good ones. Here's the simplest way to put it: next year, Collegiate is probably going to hire some 23-year-old from Columbia or Duke or the University of Virginia to come in and teach English or history, and that young person might teach for three or four years, and might be a fantastic teacher and then might go on to grad school or do something else. That young man or woman could not be hired, probably, by the New York City public schools because he or she wouldn't have taken education courses. And plus he wouldn't have any choice on where to teach, and might be assigned some place and not be permitted to teach the subjects that he actually wanted to teach. And, if you think about it, there's something kind of crazy about the fact that the private schools, which have paying customers and are very competitive, have one way of hiring, and the public schools have an inferior way. They don't let themselves hire in the way that the private schools do. There's something a little crazy about that.
Warren: As you know, I'm a late-in-life Dad in Chicago, with a five-year-old who is in a nearby public elementary school. Now, fortunately, we have a superstar pre-K teacher. But everything you just said about a strong Principal, strong teachers, and the inflexibility when it comes to the practices of the system, including hiring, I can now speak to with absolute personal experience. It is absolutely, unequivocally, true. And I'm not sure how, in the long run, you deal with some of these intractable problems, particularly the union rules, even in cities like Chicago and New York, where you had de facto takeovers of the system.
OK, final question: who will win the presidential election? And then, when will the last American troops depart Iraq?
Kristol: Well, I don't think American troops will fully depart from Iraq. I think we'll have, in effect, an alliance with the Iraqi government and we'll probably leave some American troops--not in combat--there for awhile, like we've done in many other places we've fought, such as Korea and, obviously, Germany and Japan. So I wouldn't bet that all American troops will be home from Iraq, no matter who wins the presidential election.
Obama's ahead now, but I'll go out on a limb and pick McCain. And I hope everyone forgets this pick if I'm wrong [laughs], and gives me credit for making a bold, upset pick if I'm right.
Warren: If there was one state in the union that you would dearly love to know how it will turn and then, presumably, with that knowledge, run out to the city of Las Vegas or some Indian reservation and place a huge bet, what would it be? Which one?
Kristol: I think Colorado, because I think if that goes from Republican to Democrat--if that goes for Obama--then I think it gets very hard for McCain.
Warren: O.K., the Biden-Palin vice presidential debate. Clearly, the bar was set quite low for her and she exceeded poor expectations and at least momentarily reassured nervous Republicans. But can I ask whether you thought that her responses were atypically evasive, even in a political world in which everybody tends to answer the question they want to answer, or frame a question in the most self-serving fashion? So how did she do, and did you agree with that obvious strategy of "talking straight to the America people" and avoiding the thrust of various queries?
Kristol: I thought she did fine and the strategy served her well. She can handle questions. It was foolish to keep her locked up for three weeks and only put her out for high-pressure interviews where the interviewers had incentive to trip her up, and they did trip her up a couple of times. What she did was reasonable. She's entitled to not entirely defer to [moderator] Gwen Ifill's idea of what people wanted to hear about. She did fine. It didn't change the race fundamentally. But she did fine.
Warren: The second McCain-Obama debate struck me as a bit of a dud. I thought Tom Brokaw talked a bit too much, the questions from the "real people" weren't particularly good and the responses on either side were not inspiring. And McCain did come off as a tad crotchety. What did you think overall?
Kristol: I thought Brokaw, whom I respect, did a disservice with the questions he chose. It was not an authentic town hall meeting with randomly-selected questions. All questions were presented to him ahead of time and he chose the topics he thought people, McCain and Obama should be asked about. So it ended up like an inside-the-Beltway talk show with cabinet secretaries. "Let's have a discussion of health care plans, a standard discussion of foreign policy hotspots." They did a competent job in articulating them [policies]. But it really was a waste of 90 minutes mostly. And the reason for having them [town hall debates], which a lot of elite media types don't like, is that you do want oddball questions. It's not unimportant to get a sense of their character, judgment, how they think about the job; not just details of competing policy proposals, none of which will be enacted as outlined in campaign documents. Much too conventional, inside-the-beltway questions. And you get the answers you get when you ask those. The candidates are both interesting candidates, and it was a boring debate.
Warren: A final McCain question: I knew him fairly well once and really liked him. He seems very different this time around and frustrated.
Kristol: I don't think that he's different than the one I've known. I haven't seen him much the past year. But a campaign is not good for our perception of people. A lot of people knew Al Gore well, and had a good opinion of him. Then he runs for president and seems huffy and unpleasant. A lot of people knew [1996 Republican President candidate Robert] Dole well and he came off different. Even [Bill] Clinton, who impressed the press corps before '92, people then had a lower opinion of him. I think it's more about running for president and what that's like than any real change in character.