Presidents do the darndest things. They abuse power (Richard Nixon). They become micromanagers (Jimmy Carter). They avoid the press (George W. Bush). Veteran White House reporters Helen Thomas and Craig Crawford had front-row seats for much of that action—the bad and the good. And they took copious notes.
Why wasn’t there a primer, they wondered, to teach new presidents how to succeed at the world’s hardest job? In addition to the multitude of advisers and predecessors who offer their two cents, wouldn’t the commander in chief also benefit from the wisdom of a couple of scribes who have been eyeballing the presidency for decades?
So they wrote Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do, offering advice about everything from dealing with world crises to picking a relaxing pastime. They should know. Thomas, 89, considered the dean of the White House press corps, has covered every president since John F. Kennedy and currently writes a column for Hearst. Crawford, 53, writes the popular Trail Mix column for Congressional Quarterly. AARP Bulletin Today spoke with the duo about their new book (read an excerpt) and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Q: Why is your advice better than what a president would get from well-paid advisers or even past presidents?
CC: Because no human in American history spent nearly half a century working at the White House, as Helen has.
HT: Well, when I look at the White House I think about how all presidents could have done better, despite their armies of aides.
Q: What’s Obama’s smartest move so far?
HT: Well, I think getting children’s health insurance passed, after it was vetoed by Bush. And extending a new face to the world, one of friendship. Also, wiping out torture. I don’t think he’s totally done it, though, even though he claims he has. And setting an agenda that is very hopeful and cares about the poor, the sick and the maimed.
Q: And where has he been off the mark?
CC: The name of his book was The Audacity of Hope. He’s been good on hope but a little short on audacity.
HT: That’s well put. I think he needs a little more fire.
CC: I’ve been getting insight into Obama from a weird source, lately—I’ve finally gotten around to reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lincoln, which I know Obama has read. There were a lot of pundits and Republicans who were furious with him for taking so long in abolishing slavery. One thing you come to appreciate about Lincoln is he had good timing—he kind of instinctively understood that timing is everything. That’s why I give Obama a bit of a pass, because I see him trying to figure out that timing on health care.
Q: On health care reform, is he struggling to move it forward because he lacks audacity or is he just being deliberate about his timing?
HT: I think he’s done in by the opposition, and he’s been astounded by the amount of money the health care industry is spending to spread lies. He has to understand there is a way for him to win the people over. But he has to start calling these people what they are. They don’t care whether you’re sick or not—if you can’t afford it, too bad.
Q: Have you ever given him this advice in person?
HT: I wrote a column telling him to drop this bipartisanship. They’re not going to be with you at all. Just forget it and go ahead and do what you can. Go down in flames if you have to lose. At least you would have stood for something.
CC. Helen covered Johnson when he got Medicare done. And that is a real telling lesson for right now.
Q: I was surprised by your praise, Helen, for Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky era.
HT: I admired his stamina. He was never given one second in the White House when he wasn’t being investigated by the ultra-right. They denied him any legitimacy. I think he had great strength.
CC: He could compartmentalize. One part of the day he’d be talking to lawyers about impeachment or grand jury testimony, and the other part of the day running a war in Bosnia. It’s just a phenomenal capacity of being able to get through your day while dealing with all those different things.
Q: You call George W. Bush the worst president we’ve ever had.
HT: He lied us into war. There were no Iraqis involved with 9/11, they had no nuclear weapons, there were no ties to al-Qaida, and no Third World country is going to threaten the United States. He has yet to tell us why we went into Iraq, and thousands are dead.
Q: Did anything positive come out of Bush’s presidency?
CC: I think getting prescription drugs for seniors is about the best thing. Oddly enough, Bush achieved the biggest expansion of health care since Johnson, which is why I think it would be sad for Obama if he could not achieve the next advance.
Q: You tell a story in your book about Jimmy Carter—he was on a fishing trip, when a crazy swamp rabbit swam up to the boat and started attacking him.
CC: It was an example of how things can go completely out of control. Carter had come back from Georgia and told his staff a funny story about this crazy rabbit that had attacked him. Jodi Powell [the White House press secretary] told the story to a reporter, thinking it was a nice human-interest story. And then it completely mushroomed into Jimmy Carter attacking a defenseless rabbit. It was totally nuts.
Q: That story doesn’t even seem real!
HT: I think some administrations are funnier than others. Some are very serious and secretive. In the case of Kennedy and Johnson, we got a real sense of who they were and why they were. It was long before presidents had three layers of security surrounding them, so we really got a chance to know them a little bit, with our nose against the window pane.
CC: One of the things we try to say to future presidents is, find ways to develop relationships with reporters covering you. Johnson was able to do that and still control his message, by taking the White House press corps on what Helen calls the Bataan death marches.
HT: First he’d call his beagles, and then he’d call us. We’d go out to the south lawn, and walk round and round while he let his hair down and vented about Vietnam. He was speaking almost in a whisper, so everybody would crowd in to hear what he was saying. And he walked fast—we were running around the south lawn in high heels and pointed toes. At the end, he would say, It’s all off the record. We’d all rush back to the press room knowing he did want it reported, just didn’t want it attributed to him. So we’d compare notes and write the stories.
Q: When have you had to pinch yourself and say, I can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to be here right now?
CC: Mine was as a White House intern for Jimmy Carter. Every two weeks he’d hold sessions with out-of-town media, and I would brief him on the background of the reporters and columnists who were coming in. Oddly, he did not like the Oval Office—he thought it was ostentatious. He’d do most of his work in that little side office, and that’s where I’d go give him these little briefings. And of course for a college kid that was just an astounding thing.
Q: Helen, how about you?
HT: Well, I’ll give you the cliché—every minute. Every time you walk through the gate of the White House, you feel really privileged. There are so many people lined along the fence looking in, and they’ll say, “Is the president in there?” I’ll say, “Yes, he’s supposed to be.” Well, what’s he doing? I tell them, “I don’t know—but I’ll find out.”
Q: Have you sent a copy of the book to the president?
HT: No, I don’t think we have, but we should, by God.
Christie Findlay is the deputy editor of Capitol File magazine and former editor in chief of Politics magazine.