Conservative Cal Thomas and liberal Bob Beckel have come together to write "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War that is Destroying America," to be released October 9. Thomas writes a twice-weekly syndicated column that appears in over 600 newspapers across the country, and is a frequent panelist on the "Fox News Watch." Huffington Post was given a sneak preview of the book and I spoke with Thomas about "Common Ground," why he is a conservative and what the latest play he saw on Broadway was...
Eric Kuhn: Your new book is "Common Ground." What inspired you to write this book?
Cal Thomas: Well Bob [Beckel] and I had a long personal relationship, being on different sides of the political aisle. We would debate a lot on television and wound up being good friends. I think you could ask my liberal friends if I've ever disliked them because of their political beliefs and I think most of them say "No." I count among people I admire and who I regard as friends, Frank Rich of the New York Times, Ted Kennedy, these types of folks. I think that our political atmosphere has been poisoned by the demonizing of people who you may have a policy difference with. Bob felt the same way and had gone through a crisis in his life (gives me a little credit, I guess, for helping him out) and then we began to talk. We said "You know, we don't know a lot of people in Washington who have the relationship we do. Let's see if we can agree on some things and move the ball forward to something that promotes the welfare of most people." Out of that came a column in USA Today, which they immediately lapped up. We have been doing that for two and a half years and the editorial people say they get an enormous response, over 95 percent of it positive. And we get that response on the lecture circuit, when we go out and perform this live. It brings down the house every time with huge applause, often a standing ovation, from people who are sick of the partisan bickering, the one-upsmanship, the demonizing of, if you are a Democrat of the Republicans or reverse, who want to actually see government that works and works for the most amount of people.
Can you walk us through the history of how we evolved into such a polarized nation?
There are a number of factors. Certainly cable TV in the 24/7 news cycle, which constantly needs controversy and disagreement. We tell a story, in the book, where both of us have been called by bookers for certain shows, asked our opinions on things and gotten passed over because we weren't vitriolic enough. They want somebody where one person calls another "A communist, running America," and the other will respond, "You are a fascist, running America" and then they go to commercial break. So that is part of it.
The fundraisers are another big part of it, all of this working together on both sides: "Send me $25, $50, $100, or so-and-so is going to ruin America." Then the other side says "Send me the same amount because those guys are going to ruin America." The fundraisers have figured out these hot button issues. On the right it is abortion, gay rights, gun control and secular humanism. On the left it is religious right cultists who want to bring cameras into your bedroom and police your private behavior, prayer in school and a number of other things. They each got their little universe of names on mailing lists that they send these things to. They get everybody excited but almost nothing gets done because most of the money is going into the pocket of the fundraisers and to improve the lifestyle, and presumed political power, of people getting the money.
Where do you go for "Fair and Balanced" and not polarized news?
I read the same things that most journalists read everyday: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Times and my little local paper, the Washington Examiner. These are all on my reading lists and then I will go on the Internet and look at some of the more respectable blogs throughout the day, left and right, and foreign papers to try and get a sense of what people are feeling and saying from different perspectives. I read fewer conservatives then I do liberals, for a number of reasons. Number one, I don't think that just because someone disagrees with me they are always wrong. And I frequently learn things, things I have not thought about, things I should have thought about and, at a minimum, how better to defend my own position when I see what the other side is arguing. But I think we have gotten to a point in this country, and it is very, very sad to me as a native Washingtonian and American, where if I disagree with somebody, it makes them less patriotic or less worthy than I am. I just think that is almost an evil thought. You don't get anywhere. We have enemies on the outside trying to kill us, who have already done so on September 11th and are trying to do so some more. To be fighting on this level with each other weakens us. It is not that these things are not important. I can go out and debate and have a spirited discussion with someone on the other political side, but then go out to dinner with them. They are not my enemies; they are my fellow Americans, as corny as it sounds.
How was it writing the book with the liberal Bob Beckel?
Well, it was not difficult writing with the liberal Bob Beckel, but this was his first book so he hadn't done one like it before, so he tended to go on a little bit and had to be (as I did, too) edited by our editor quite a bit. We turned in something that was 300 - 400 more pages longer than what we wound up with. So that was a little more difficult than other books I had written with other people, but we talked it out. This is one of the keys. We don't have relationships with people on the "other side" any more. We don't talk things out. Oh, you're a liberal, you're religious, you're a conservative, you're whatever, therefore I know everything I need to know about you. I have put you in a box, I've slapped a label on you and therefore I don't really need to talk with you any more. But Bob and I talk all the time. If we were married, it would be what a good marriage is supposed to be: communication!
Out of everyone running in 2008, on the conservative side, who is the best person to find common ground?
You know, that is a really good question. Hillary Clinton is certainly talking about it now and Barack Obama --
Cal, Cal! I said "conservative!"
No, I know, I am just pointing out we are getting a lot of the language, and that is a good thing. I think certainly Mitt Romney is a possibility. He had to deal with Democrats in a primarily Democratic state, he being a Republican in Massachusetts. He has some experience in that. Rudy Giuliani, of course, being a Republican mayor in heavily Democratic New York City. He has often said he has a lot of experience in dealing with Democrats.
Why do you think "common ground" has become taboo in American politics?
I think because people see compromise as a dirty word and they don't see it in the classic sense that we try to resurrect in the book. They see it as selling out. They see for example, if you wanted to pick an extreme, someone who is a civil rights advocate agreeing in the 50's to a proposal where African Americans could eat at lunch counters and not use restrooms. This would be selling out a principle. Or, on the right, it would be splitting the difference between abortion: outlawing it in the last three months, but not in the first six months. So people would see that as a sell out of principle. But that is not what we are calling for. We are calling for -- look, if you only have the votes to do certain things and if both sides can agree, whether if it is poverty or abortion or whatever, on a particular thing that moves the ball forward, at least some, to the mutual agreement of both sides, then it is better to get that than nothing. But in our current environment what we have is "I want 100 percent and if I can't get it, I am not going to allow you to get anything because then you will get credit." We see that all the time. We saw it when Clinton was in the White House with the Republican congress and we see it now with Bush in the White House with the Democratic congress. They cannot afford to allow the president to succeed at anything, because he might get credit to their detriment. I just think, frankly, that is un-American.
How have those inside the beltway reacted to your columns and ideas?
Well, they don't really call me up. The president or Nancy Pelosi does not call me up and say, "That is a great idea, I will implement it!" But the ones we have interviewed, Republicans and Democrats who we quote in the book, and many privately who did not want to be quoted, tell us they are sick of the system. They have to constantly fundraise. Freshman members have been reported in the Washington Post, when they get to town for orientation, before they have even been sworn in (this would be in December), are already dialing for dollars for their re-election. They can't go out to social events anymore because they are all busy doing other stuff. And when they do go out it is basically to fundraisers or their own Democrat or Republican restaurants. There is no social life in this town anymore, the way it used to be. We talk about that in the book. The loss of the women, primarily, who were the head of these salons who would invite people in from both sides and they would have discussions over the shrimp bowl or over a drink. Nobody does that anymore! If you get a picture with some one conservative senator seen having dinner with Ted Kennedy, it would be all over YouTube and both sides would be getting slammed (probably the conservative more than Ted).
Talking about food makes me hungry. So Washington, D.C. eateries -- where is your favorite place to go?
I don't get out much, I have been on a diet recently. I don't go to these trendy places. I have been to Café Milano, but they are mostly ego places where, you know, "I have been to this restaurant, therefore I matter." Since the Jockey Club closed some years ago, I hardly go anyplace. We actually go to the Route 29 Diner, because it is close to the house. I am way beyond trendy. I don't care if my name is in the Times or the Post.
My other culture question is we all know you are a big show guy. Any recent Broadway shows you have enjoyed?
Mostly revivals. Well, I did love, really loved, Gray Gardens. I just thought that was incredible and the woman who played the lead in that was just overwhelmingly good. The revival of Carnival at the Kennedy Center, the great Bob Merrill musical, which I have virtually memorized the entire score, has always been one of my favorites. Those are a couple recently, but I will go see the 75th Anniversary of the Christmas Spectacular, this winter, at Radio City. But tickets now are $110 each. Gee wiz! When I first started going to Broadway and seeing shows in 1960 tickets were $4.95. Now you can't even park for that!
True! Okay, so finally on a serious note, do you see politicians and people in Washington finding a common ground?
I think people are tired of the bickering. That is the feedback we get around the country. When you get out of New York and Washington and Los Angeles and you get away from the polarizers, the people want this. They are paying an awful lot in their taxes and they are not getting the government they are paying for. They want to see people getting along and getting something done. Yes, they have principles. Yes, they believe in their principles. But most of them believe that someone on the other side is their enemy. I have been to the cemetery at Normandy. And on all of those crosses and stars of David, there is not an R for Republican or D for Democrat on them. They are Americans. American blood is red, not conservative or liberal. It may sound foolish to talk this way, but that is not how I was brought up. I think Bob and I will not be a unique relationship. I hope people can see something meritorious in this and go and do likewise.