I’m still getting used to be the interviewee and not the interviewer. Here’s a recent Q&A with me conducted by Katie Perkowski, a super-talented former Texas on the Potomac intern who now works and lives in Bratislava.
Katie’s piece first appeared in WBP Online.
Behind Capitol Hill: Q&A with long-time Washington watchdog
Rick Dunham has had eyes and ears on Capitol Hill and in the White House for three decades, giving him a unique view into US politics. In an interview with WBP Online, the former Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle explains how dramatic political party transformations have led to the dysfunction in Congress we are seeing today.
By Katie Perkowski
Few people understand the inner workings of US politics quite as well as Rick Dunham, who covered the White House and Capitol Hill for three decades, during which time he served as Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, White House correspondent for BusinessWeek and board president of the National Press Club.
In a Q&A with WBP Online, Dunham explained the dramatic transformations of the two main political parties, Republicans and Democrats, that he saw during his time in Washington, and why those shifts have led to an ever-dived Congress seemingly incapable of getting anything done. The latest evidence of that now all-too-familiar phenomenon? The federal government’s shutdown, now on day four with no sign of stopping.
Here’s what Dunham had to say:
Q: Can you describe the shift in dynamic you noticed in both the Republican and Democrat parties during your time in Washington? What do you think brought about this change in the way things get done (or don’t)?
There has been a tremendous shift, both culturally and politically, over my three decades in Washington.
One is ideological. Both parties’ representatives were far more diverse in the past. Democrats ranged from far left to far right. Republicans ranged from liberal to very conservative. Now there are no liberals and very few moderates left among Republican lawmakers. And there are very few Democrats remaining who are right of the political center. The party is pretty well split between far left, left and center. Republicans are pretty well divided between right and far right, with a tiny group of centrists. The key Republican division is establishment and insurgent. The establishment Republicans still are in the majority but the radical right Republicans control the agenda through mastery of tactics and willingness to “do the unthinkable.”
Culturally, there has been an even bigger shift. When I arrived in Washington in 1984, Congress was controlled by “doers” and not “talkers.” The goal of lawmakers was to make laws. Legislators used to legislate. Now, the vast majority on both sides of the aisle want to posture and play to their ideological core rather than to get things done.
The great lawmakers I have covered were often very liberal or conservative – Ted Kennedy was hard left and Bob Dole was very conservative – but they believed in moving things forward for their country in the end. There are almost none of those left now, and certainly not enough to get things done.
Q: Covering Texas, you followed Ted Cruz in his rise from solicitor general to senator. What kind of change within the Republican party does Cruz represent? There have been numerous reports out about how senior members of his party, like McCain and Graham are not happy with the way he’s doing things. Do you think there could be a party split among Republicans in the near future? What is the Tea Party’s role in all of this?
The key figures representing the three strands of the Republican future are Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. All are ultraconservative but only Rubio among them is pragmatic and willing to cut deals. The other two are ideological purists who would rather lose than compromise. Rand Paul is the leader of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. He is anti-government. Period. Ted Cruz is an ultraconservative in the mold of the 1964 version of Barry Goldwater, who believed that extremism in the defense of liberty (as he saw it) is no vice. Cruz is against government unless government will help him accomplish his ideological ends. He also is against (almost) anything Barack Obama is for. I call him the leader of the nihilist strain of the modern Republican Party.
That’s why old-fashioned conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham don’t like him. They are very conservative – I don’t buy into the revisionist view of McCain and Graham as moderate because they are willing to cut deals and occasionally act like mavericks.
McCain took an instant dislike to Cruz because Cruz has such an authentic dislike for the institution. McCain respects the institution. Cruz despises it. They are both strong personalities, so it is natural that they will clash. Neither of them is phony. They genuinely dislike each other.
McCain and other Republican leaders believe that Cruz is leading the party on a political suicide mission. They believe he is hoping to burn down the village and then claim to be king of the ashes.
Cruz represents the socially conservative strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Rand Paul represents the pure libertarian strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Both are ideologically pure and strongly “pro-liberty” but both philosophies are distinct and different. They have a slightly different definition of what liberty means.
Q: What kind of precedent do you think it would set if Republicans hold to their current stance and hold the debt ceiling “hostage” as some are calling it in an effort to repeal or delay a law that’s already been passed? Could that lead to similar actions by Congress in the future, or even “revenge” acts of a similar manner by Democrats?
I don’t think it will lead to a “tit for tat” reaction from Democrats in the future. Democrats never held the government or the country hostage during George W. Bush’s administration. I’ve always said that the Democrats’ big problem is that they are too “responsible.” I’m not talking about being ideologically moderate. I mean that they won’t take extreme measures in order to prevail.
Filibusters are another matter. Both sides are irresponsible and hypocritical when it comes to filibusters. That’s another big change in the Washington culture. But that’s another story.
In some ways, Democrats are to blame for all of this. It started with the defeat of Robert Bork, who was very qualified for the Supreme Court (in terms of legal qualifications) but was defeated for ideological reasons, because he was out of the judicial mainstream. That has led to the political equivalent of an arms race where each side is willing to become more and more virulent in order to make political points. It’s gotten to the point that Republicans will block Democratic nominations just because the nominees exist, not even for reasons of ideology or the nominee’s personal issues. That is utterly irresponsible and, I am sorry to say, bipartisan.
Q: Do you think the current party structure in Washington can survive, or should it be changed to prevent the type of mess we’re seeing now?
I see the party structure surviving because that is the history of American representative democracy. We have always had two main parties. The two parties have not always been Republican and Democrat. Since we entered the R/D era, the two parties have changed radically. Now, just about anyone who would have been a Republican at the time of slavery and the Civil War is a Democrat, and anybody who would have been a Democrat at that time is a Republican. The two parties have reversed regional bases. One of the only common threads is that immigrants still tend to be Democrats.
I see the Democratic Party becoming more “moderate” in coming years as more disgruntled former Republicans and moderate young people join the party. I see the Republican Party finally having a showdown between the establishment right and the hard right. It probably will take the nomination of a far-right Republican for president and an overwhelming defeat for the party to move back toward the center. The last two nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were not purists. Indeed, Ronald Reagan is the last hard-core conservative to be a presidential nominee. And Reagan would be considered a pragmatic moderate by today’s standards.
One last thought: If the Republicans are to have a future at the presidential level, they cannot afford to continue to lose immigrants, minorities and young voters. Those three blocs are the future. Republicans not only need to maintain their current levels of support, they need to increase them. A similar fate befell Democrats during the 1980s as Ronald Reagan cut into the blue-collar Democratic base, young voters went Republican and old New Deal Democrats died off rapidly. Democrats won just once in 24 years before Bill Clinton started to redefine the Democratic Party with his “New Democrat” movement. We’re at a similar point in reverse now. But I suspect we’ll need a disaster like the Democrats faced in 1980-1984-1988 to convince Republicans to rethink Cruz-ism.
Dunham is now based in Beijing, where he is a professor of multimedia journalism and co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University. You can follow him at https://rickdunhamblog.com/.
To contact the author of this story, e-mail email@example.com.
I’ve just completed my debut on Chinese TV before what was probably the biggest audience in my 35-year journalism career.
I was a guest on the nightly news show called “Dialogue” on CCTV (China Central TV). It’s a half-hour program where policy experts sit down and debate — freely, in my case — important international issues. No yelling. No screaming.
That alone is a big change from my appearances on — and viewing of — American TV news.
Here are some other differences between being a guest on Chinese TV and American TV:
1. No limo to pick you up.
2. No make-up artist.
3. No green room.
4. All of the anchors know what they’re talking about.
5. All of the anchors speak perfect English.
6. In-depth discussion of international issues.
7. Thirty minutes. No commercial interruptions.
8. No interruptions at all — the host and other panelist let me finish each answer before responding themselves.
9. No limo to drive you home.
10. I rode my bike home from the East Gate of Peking University subway stop after finishing the show.
My final White House pool report: Inside the Cabinet Room as President Obama meets with congressional leaders on SyriaPosted: September 3, 2013
On my final day at the Houston Chronicle, I was fortunate enough to have White House pool duty, where I witnessed up close the debate over possible military action against Syria. Here is the pool report I filed to fellow reporters:
In-town Pool Report #1
Meeting with Congressional Leaders, Pool Spray
Tuesday, September 3
With the Obama administration ramping up its efforts to persuade Congress (and the American people) to back a resolution supporting a U.S. military response in Syria, President Obama met with a bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers in the Cabinet Room.
A tight pool got a glimpse inside at the top of the meeting. (Check TV video for more precise quotes and more atmospherics.)
The President was seated between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, on his left, and House Speaker John Boehner, on his right. Flanking Pelosi were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Eliot Engel. Flanking Boehner were National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Sen. Bob Menendez.
Vice President Joe Biden sat directly across the table from the President. The VP brushed his fingers across his temples and held his hands clased in front of his mouth as the President spoke.
Secretary of State John Kerry, seated at one end of the table next to Rep. Engel, sat with his hands clasped in front of his chin.
White House press secretary Jay Carney stood behind Kerry.
The congressional leaders sat without expression throughout the President’s six minutes of public remarks.
President Obama began speaking at 9:52 a.m. EDT, summarizing his case that Syria “should be held to account” for what he said was clear evidence of chemical weapons use.
“I made a clear decision that America should take action, ” he said.
He then addressed the congressional leaders, calling for hearings and a “prompt vote” on a Syria resolution.
“The key point that I want to emphasize to the American people,” President Obama said in the take-away quote (check transcript for accuracy): “It is proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq. Thos is not Afghanistan. This is a clear proportional response…”
The President responded to one question, saying the U.S. “will be more effective” if Congress approves a resolution. President Obama said “I’m confident” Congress will act.
The pool was ushered out at 9:58 as the President twice said, “Thank you, guys.”
He then started the meeting by saying “good to see you, Buck” to Rep. Buck McKeon.
Other lawmakers in attendance were Sens. John Cornyn, Bob Corker and Carl Levin, plus Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Ed Royce, Dutch Ruppersberger.
White House reps also included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, James Clapper, General Martin Dempsey, Rob Nabors, Ben Rhodes, Miguel Rodriguez, Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, per pool wranglers.
Some of the lawmakers may speak at the stakeout after the meeting. Open press.
On a personal note, today is my final day with the Houston Chronicle. I am heading to Beijing tomorrow to teach multimedia journalism and run the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University’s graduate school of journalism. It has been an honor and privilege to cover the White House for most of the past 29 years.
I’d like to salute the hard-working White House correspondents who strive for transparency, access and information. And I’d like to wish Godspeed to President Obama, my (very) distant cousin on the Dunham side. My grandfather Barrows Dunham and President Obama were both known as Barry to their schoolmates, but the comparisons end there.
Good luck to all!
People who know me well know that I don’t possess one of the larger egos in American journalism. So I’m a tad apologetic for the blatant boosterism that follows. But I wanted to do it to thank all of my friends and the public officials who took to social media to respond to this announcement.
Breaking news, Twitter friends: I’m leaving the @HoustonChron to run a graduate journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
— Rick Dunham (@rickdunham) August 13, 2013
My co-director job at Tsinghua’s Graduate Business Journalism program will allow me to pursue my love of multimedia journalism and training.
— Rick Dunham (@rickdunham) August 13, 2013
— Rick Dunham (@rickdunham) August 13, 2013
The overwhelming — and rapid — response reminded me of the power of social media. Twitter and Facebook have transformed our means of communication in just a few years. (Six years ago, when I left Business Week for the Houston Chronicle, I had to send emails to all of my friends just to let them know what had happened.)
Just like we do on Texas on the Potomac, I’ll start with Capitol Hill reaction:
Best wishes in your next journey @rickdunham Thank you for the years of professionalism
— JohnCornyn (@JohnCornyn) August 13, 2013
Congratulations to @rickdunham and thanks for your years of service! Wishing you all the best in your next endeavor.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) August 14, 2013
Even former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who’s had to deal with my questions since my days as a young pup at the Dallas Times Herald, weighed in:
— Kay Bailey Hutchison (@kaybaileyhutch) August 14, 2013
In the polarized American political world, there was bipartisan agreement — for once.
.@RickDunham, TX & DC are losing a great reporter and a true pro with your departure. You’ll be missed. All the best in your new adventure.
— Ricardo A. Ramírez (@rramirez44) August 14, 2013
— Rebecca Acuna (@racunatx) August 14, 2013
— Rich Galen (@richgalen) August 13, 2013
.@rickdunham Best of luck on your new journey. Thanks for your service to our community. Keep us informed.
— Aaron For Texas (@AaronForTexas) August 14, 2013
@rickdunham Rick, going to miss your coverage & insight! But, can you do all of us a favor and take Steve Stockman, among others, with you?
— John Weaver (@JWGOP) August 14, 2013
Reaction poured in from around the world, Helsinki to Beirut to Shanghai:
— Kristiina Helenius (@AmChamKristiina) August 14, 2013
Congratulations @rickdunham. Lucky students.
— Ayman Mhanna (@AymanMhanna) August 13, 2013
— Daniel Wright (@DanSWright) August 13, 2013
In Austin and Manhattan journalism circles, disbelief:
— Jay Root (@byjayroot) August 13, 2013
@rickdunham Wow. Just wow.
— Harold Cook (@HCookAustin) August 14, 2013
— Andrea Stone (@andreastonez) August 13, 2013
It was nice to hear from my colleagues:
@rickdunham Bummer for us, good for you! Congratulations!
— dwight silverman (@dsilverman) August 13, 2013
— Lisa Falkenberg (@ChronFalkenberg) August 14, 2013
— Carla Marinucci (@cmarinucci) August 14, 2013
— Melissa Aguilar (@MelissAguilar) August 13, 2013
Yes, Melissa. Definitely.
I’m especially grateful for the kind words from my former interns who have made me proud over the past six years.
Congrats to @rickdunham on his move to Beijing’s Tsinghua U. Those journalism grad students are lucky they’ll get to learn from him. I was.
— Priya Anand (@Priyasideas) August 13, 2013
— Alan Blinder (@alanblinder) August 13, 2013
big loss for DC print scene. will miss you rick! RT @rickdunham I’m leavingto run a graduate journalism program at Tsinghua University
— Elizabeth Traynor (@ektraynor) August 13, 2013
@rickdunham Congrats!!! What an adventure. You will be missed.
— Mackenzie Warren (@MackWarrenTV) August 13, 2013
— Emily Wilkins (@emrwilkins) August 13, 2013
— Samuel Rubenfeld (@srubenfeld) August 13, 2013
— Al Weaver (@alweaver22) August 14, 2013
— Hailey Branson-Potts (@haileybranson) August 13, 2013
And I’ll leave you with the words of that ancient Chinese philosopher Wayne Slater:
@rickdunham Wow, sorry to see u leave but what a great opportunity. A great reporter. Like the proverb: May you live in interesting times.
— Wayne Slater (@WayneSlater) August 14, 2013
I will periodically offer insight, news and analysis on topics I find interesting. I’ll also post multimedia tips for aspiring journalists and mid-career professionals alike. And I’ll experiment with innovative story-telling techniques.
Feel free to interact and send ideas for posts.
I’ll start with the basic biography:
I’m a veteran political journalist and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the use of social media for journalism and community-building. I’ve been Washington bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle since 2007 and also served as Hearst Newspapers Washington bureau chief from 2009 to 2012.
I am the creator and chief author of the popular political blog “Texas on the Potomac” on chron.com and mysanantonio.com. I was the leading content provider for Perry Presidential, an award-winning web site dedicated to comprehensive coverage and analysis of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign.
“First, readers were lucky to have a newspaper willing to dedicate the staff to cover Perry’s bid as an intensely local story,” the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors wrote in the 2013 award explanation. “Just as important, the overall level of work was superb.”
From 1992 to July 2007, I was the national political correspondent for Business Week magazine, covering the White House, Congress, economic issues, and political and policy trends.
I earlier spent seven years in the Washington bureau of the Dallas Times Herald as a national political reporter, congressional correspondent and Supreme Court correspondent. During my 13 years at the Dallas Times Herald, I also was a city desk reporter in Dallas and a correspondent in the Austin bureau, where I covered state government, the Texas Legislature, the state budget, education and Texas politics.
I have offered political analysis on ABC, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, the PBS News Hour and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. I also have appeared on C-SPAN, the BBC, National Public Radio, ABC Radio, Fox News Channel and numerous radio stations and networks.
From 2005 to 2009, I wrote a “Letter from America” column for the Finnish newspaper Aamulehti explaining U.S. politics and culture to an international audience.
A former president of both the National Press Club and the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the educational and charitable arm of the world’s leading professional organization for journalists, I try to remain on the cutting edge of journalism technology and training. I have taught classes and hosted panel discussions on journalism skills, web content, social media and journalism ethics.
From 1999 to 2005, I was a mentor with the UNITY Mentor Program for young journalists of color, where I worked one-on-one with young journalists and taught workshops on journalism skills. I have lectured to classes at institutions including Texas A&M University, American University, Boston University, the University of Alabama, Towson State University, Carleton College and Flagler College.
I also have written for the Philadelphia Inquirer (as University of Pennsylvania stringer) and the Cleveland Plain Dealer (as a summer intern), and have contributed to three books (“The Founding City,” Chilton Books, 1976, “The Handbook of Campaign Spending,” Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992, and “The Almanac of the Unelected,” Bernan Press, 2006). I wrote a new foreword to the 60th anniversary edition of my grandfather Barrows Dunham’s classic philosophy book, “Man against Myth,” which was republished in 2007.
I have served on the steering committee of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press since 1999 and am a former chairman of the steering committee.
From 1992 to 1999, I served on the Executive Committee of Periodical Correspondents, which oversees the press galleries on Capitol Hill for more than 2,000 news magazine and newsletter correspondents. As Executive Committee chairman from 1995 to 1997, I helped to coordinate press logistics for the national conventions and presidential inauguration.I am a graduate of Central High School in Philadelphia (233rd class) and hold B.A. and M.A. degrees in history from the University of Pennsylvania. My wife, Pam Tobey, is a graphic artist at the Washington Post.