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NPR's Mara Liasson To Deliver Feigenbaum Lecture On "America At The Crossroads" In Pittsfield

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson

Joe Biden is largely campaigning from his basement and Donald Trump is accepting GOP’s nomination far from the convention floor in one of the strangest elections in memory. Covering it all is Mara Liasson, who is heard daily on WAMC as NPR’s national political correspondent, where she has worked for 35 years. She also appears regularly on FOX News.

On August 30, she’ll discuss “America At the Crossroads” in a virtual lecture at Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield. This is the eighth presidential election she has covered. She previously gave the Hilda Vallin Feigenbaum lecture in 2006.

So we went back and checked. You spoke at this temple in 2006. How do-

When I was 10.

Do you think politics has changed since then? That's before Obama, and before Trump.

Well, it's changed a lot. Although 2006 was after 9/11- And 9/11, of course, was really an earth shattering event for the United States, but politics has changed a lot. We have had increasing polarization. We also have had a handful now of presidents who lost the popular vote but still became president. So that has caused a lot of people to wonder about the legitimacy of our system by which we elect our presidents. And we also have had the kinds of crises that we couldn't imagine happening one at a time, let alone all together. You know, right now we're in a pandemic, a severe recession, and we're in a period of racial turmoil, around racial inequities and racial justice. So all of that happening at once. Politics has also gotten disintermediated. That's a big word, but it just means that the institutions that used to exert influence in politics, whether it's the press or political parties have become less important, because of the internet because of social media, because everyone can have their own YouTube channel and can be their own pundit. And, you know, we've also- And then there's other bigger, deeper things that are happening. And they've actually been happening for 30 years, but they've kind of reached a tipping point. And that is the inability of American capitalism, as currently regulated, to provide broadly shared prosperity and economic mobility. And I think that's one of the big things we're debating this year. Democratic capitalism is the best system man has ever invented, but it has to be properly regulated. So it provides broadly shared prosperity and economic mobility, when it stops doing that, which it has, you get a lot of populism on the left and right. People who lose faith in the system- And they lose faith in the economic system, and they also lose faith in democracy itself. So that's my long winded answer.

You know, we're speaking during the Democratic Convention, the Republicans will go in a few days. The Democrats are saying this election is about "saving democracy itself" and that in order to do that Trump's got to be sent packing from the White House. Do you think there's some truth to that?

Well, I think that it is fair to say that Donald Trump has been a stress test on democratic institutions. He has a concept of the presidency where he said famously, "I alone can fix it." He is claimed he has all sorts of unilateral powers. He has crossed or, or, or thrown over many norms of democracy. And now of course, the latest controversy is his repeated claim that unless he wins, "the election will be rigged". I think he said that today, and also that he doesn't believe in mail in ballots, and Democrats are accusing him of undermining the post office. He has said that he doesn't want an increase in mail and balance and he doesn't want to provide any funding to the post office to do that. So yes, there are I think that every political party engages in hyperbole, to say that we're not going to be a democracy if Donald Trump is reelected, I think is a gross exaggeration. But there's no doubt that most Democratic voters feel that democratic institutions will be severely undermined if he gets a second term.

Assuming that he is defeated, what are your expectations for a Biden presidency? I mean, it's such an interesting election, he'd be the oldest president ever elected. He's spoken about maybe being a transitional figure, and possibly not being there for two terms. So what do you think a Biden presidency would look like?

Well, that's a really good question. You know, he would be the oldest person ever inaugurated, if he wins. And so it's- So would Trump, actually. But Biden has made it pretty clear that that he probably would only serve one term. So that raises a lot of questions. Does that mean that he is freed from political calculations, and he can make all sorts of deals that he thinks, thinks are good for the American people? A lot, a lot of what the Biden term will look like will depend on whether he has control of both houses of Congress or not. And if he has control, if the Democrats have control of the Senate, by how many votes? We don't know those things. There will be tremendous pressure from the left wing of the Democratic Party to move further in a progressive direction than I think Biden would like to go. Although he is currently running on the most progressive platform of any modern Democratic presidential candidate. But I think that Biden is, is a, still a centrist Democrat, he, he flatly rejected the idea of defunding the police. He doesn't want to get rid, outlaw fracking although he says he will prevent fracking from continuing on federal property. He is, he is someone who stands pretty firmly in the center of the political spectrum, the Democratic Party has moved left, he's moved left with it. But they haven't moved as far to the left, as the Republicans have moved to the right. So I guess what I would say is a Biden presidency would be a lot calmer than a Trump presidency- Almost any other president would be. He's a lower key person. He's not a performative politician, meaning he doesn't believe that, that, that the presidency exists on Twitter or in front of the camera. But I think that a lot will depend, as I said, on the size of his majorities in Congress, if he has them, and also who he appoints to his cabinet.

One more hypothetical question. I'm very interested in how we cover post-presidents. Typically they take on, you know, an elder statesman role. They do things when called upon by the White House, in terms of, you know, aid and relief, but they don't wade in a lot into day to day politics. And I'm having a very hard time picturing Donald Trump staying off Twitter, even if he's not president anymore. Do you think the press will have to recalibrate how it covers Trump, whenever it is that he does leave the presidency?

Well, that is an excellent question. And it's hard, like you said, it's hard to imagine that he would go quietly. Every president has, up until now, abided by the norm that ex-presidents keep a low profile, they kind of go off the stage and let their successor govern. Certainly Obama has done that, George W. Bush did that, even Bill Clinton did that. But Donald Trump, probably he- It's very possible that he will claim to be the rightful president, that he "was robbed", that the election "was rigged that", that in fact, "he's the real president in exile", something like that. We don't know. There's been a lot of talk that he would want to start his own television channel, "Trump TV". And so what I think is, although he will still have a fervent following- We don't know how large that is, his base has been shrinking ever since he got elected. The question of how the, the, the press covers him will be really interesting. I don't think he's going to be covered- In that case, I don't think he would be covered as a major political player, because he will have no office at all, he might have a very energized audience, you know, a following on social media and television, but you won't have a vote. And don't forget, if he loses, depending on the size of his loss, the Republican Party is going to be going through a soul searching, identity crisis about what it means to be a Republican in the post-Trump era.

We asked you a couple of questions about how you do your job nowadays. You know, there's no conventions to cover-

At home, in my house!

Right. I mean, do you miss being at the convention? Or is it-

Oh yeah, absolutely. This is crazy. It's- Look, you- The phone and the computer are very important tools. But yes, I want to talk to voters, I want to talk to delegates. I want to see real people. Yes, I really miss all that and I assume that we're going to get back to that as soon as there's a vaccine, even if conventions are changed forever. Conventions always were infomercials. And now they're purely infomercials with none of the distractions of actual delegates having fights over things. Those- That might never go back to the way it was. But I think every single journalist that I know, can't wait to get back out and do the kind of reporting that we're used to doing in person with real people.

Are there things that you don't miss about being there?

Oh, hmm. You mean like being at a convention?

Yeah. Because the hours are, I'm sure, intense and that kind of thing.

Well, I don't know. I mean, we were- I was on the air last night from 9 to 11:30. And then I was up at, you know, 4:30 to be on the air at 5am. I think it'd be pretty much the same. Yeah, I mean, we're still working hard. Just not doing it with, with the kind of personal interaction that we want.

Let me ask you about Kamala Harris. You covered her in the Senate, obviously. Many Americans are first, just getting to know her on a national level now through her presidential campaign and as a running mate. What do you think she brings to the ticket for the Democrats?

Well, I think that, it's just like Mike Pence represented the backbone of the Republican Party base: white evangelicals. Kamala Harris represents the backbone of the Democratic Party base, which is African American, black women. They are the activists who fuel state parties all over the country. So I think she represents that, but she also represents Indian-American, South Asian Americans, Caribbean-Americans. She is the first woman of color on a presidential, a major presidential party ticket. And I think she has the potential to energize the Democratic base. I think that she also- Her job is going to be the same as Any other vice presidential candidates job, which is to prosecute the case, to carry the kind of attacks that the, the, the presidential candidate doesn't want to  do on their own. And she was a prosecutor. We saw her in the Senate, prosecuting the case against various Trump administration officials. She's pretty ferocious. And what's interesting to me is that I think she's actually better suited to being a vice presidential candidate than she was to being a presidential candidate. Her run for the president lasted very briefly, and she never seemed to quite figure out why she was running.

What about on the other side? There are always reports that, you know, "The White House is considering making a change on the ticket." But as it stands, Mike Pence is there with Donald Trump, as he has been for the last several years. So what role does he play in this election?

Well, you know, I've never heard actual, well sourced information that there was consideration to getting him off the ticket. I think there's chatter, "Gee would, would- Donald Trump would rather have a woman on the ticket," something like that. I think Mike Pence was extremely important. Like I said, he represents the backbone of the Republican Party base, white evangelicals. I think that he's balanced, you know, he's kind of a steady, anchor to the ticket. And I don't think they're- I have never heard credibly, any talk about actually throwing him over, it would be a huge sign of desperation and weakness. But he was put on the ticket to send a message to conservative Republicans that Donald Trump was going to carry out their agenda. And he has, he has been a man of his word on that he had the list of judges, conservative judges that he would pick from. He has done I think more for social Conservatives than they were even expecting. Don't forget, this was someone who was pro-choice not very long ago. So I think that in that sense, Vice President Pence is like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and I don't believe anyone who says that he is in danger of being, you know, tossed overboard.

You covered the 2000 election, of course. And it seems likely that on election night, you know, we won't have many gatherings to cover or victory parties, because there's a very good chance we just won't know so many of the results all the way up to the White House.


How are you gaming that out in your mind?

Well, I think one of the most important things is that- Certainly the Democratic Party, state election officials, and I think a lot of people in the media feel that it's important that voters are educated that, that might happen. In other words, the voters understand that we might not know who the winner is on election night. And that doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the election. Remember, in 2018, we didn't know if there was a blue wave in the house? Because California hadn't finished counting its ballots. Well, the weeks went by, and then two, three weeks later, there was a blue wave, you know, 40 odd seats were picked up by the Democrats. So I think people have to understand that, especially with the increase in voting by mail, it's going to take a long time to count the ballots, that doesn't mean there's massive fraud. And I think that- But, but it's a very perilous period, because it's possible that if Donald Trump, if it's a close election, if there's some states that aren't called, that he'll say that, "that it has to be done over" or that "he's the real winner," whatever. He's already said things like that many times. So I think that there are a lot of things that can go wrong on election night and beyond. And I think that it's important for us to just communicate to people what those things are.

Is there somebody in the Republican Party who can deliver a 'come to Jesus' message to him in that situation?

You mean, you mean if, you mean if he's not accepting- If he truly loses and isn't accepting it?


Is that the scenario that you're talking about? Okay. Well, first of all, that, that, that assumes that it's a clear, popular vote loss, a clear Electoral College loss, and he's saying- I think the Republican Party will absolutely want to move on. And I don't think it's so much a one person who would go to him, but I think it would be multiple people. It's possible that Mitch McConnell would lead that. If that is the case, if he is clearly the loser- We're not talking about a close election that can be litigated or anything like that, if he's clearly the loser, I think the Republican Party will want to move on as fast as possible and put him in the rearview mirror. And I think that kind of push for him to leave graciously, will come from, from all points in the Republican Party.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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