Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
"We are the ones we have been waiting for." That's what Barack Obama proclaimed the night of Super Tuesday in 2008, borrowing the line from a 1980 June Jordan poem (without citing the poet). His aspirational emphasis on we was a foundation of the campaign that brought him to the White House. But it's the president's inability to find a way, while steering the nation through a series of crises, to turn that we into a reality that has brought him and his party to the darkness of Election Day 2014, when Republicans bolstered their tea-party-driven majority in the House and handily seized control of the Senate. Soon they will crown Mitch McConnell, who easily dispatched his Democratic challenger, as Senate majority leader. And imperiled GOP governors across the country—Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, and Rick Snyder in Michigan—vanquished their Democratic foes. Dems flamed out across the land—even as voters in red states approved initiatives to boost the minimum wage.
As president—as opposed to as candidate—Obama has not been able to engage fully the voting public. He has faced numerous obstacles—GOP obstructionism in Washington, global circumstances that yield one tough-to-resolve dilemma after another, and the rise of a profound unease and uncertainty (about now and about the future) among Americans. And Obama, like most two-term presidents, has had to confront the six-year itch that usually leads to a loss of House and Senate seats for the chief executive's party. Still, it is partly Obama's failure as the nation's storyteller-in-chief to keep the citizenry—especially his voters—involved in the ongoing political narrative that afforded the GOP, a party on the wrong side of the country's changing demographic tide and often at odds with public opinion (on the minimum wage, on gun safety, on key components of Obamacare), the chance to expand its political power.
Obama announcing Perez's nomination as labor secretary in 2013.
Whether or not the Democrats lose their Senate majority on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will need to show some fight after the midterm elections. If the Republicans triumph, Obama must do something to rally his discouraged supporters and show he won't spend his final two years as a truly lame-duck president. If the Dems manage to hold the Senate, the president, who has been pinned down by ISIS, Ebola, and other crises, will still be looking for a way to take back the political narrative and flex his political and policy muscle. Either way, he has a good option: nominate Tom Perez as attorney general.
The chatter in Washington is that Obama will announce his pick to replace the outgoing Eric Holder soon after Election Day, and Perez is on the White House's short list. Based on his resumé, Perez, who is now secretary of labor, is a reasonable choice. He's also one of the administration's most stalwart progressives.
Before taking charge of the Department of Labor in July 2013, Perez was the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's civil rights division. The office had been eviscerated under George W. Bush, and Perez revitalized it by mounting voting rights cases and legal challenges to discrimination against gays and lesbians. During his tenure, the division opened a record-breaking number of investigations into police abuse and forged wide-ranging agreements to clean up various police forces accused of misconduct, no small matter given recent national debates and controversy sparked by the Ferguson episode and the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Using its authority to compel institutional changes in local law enforcement agencies that have engaged in systemic violations of Americans' constitutional rights, Perez's office has helped to overhaul the police department of Puerto Rico and New Orleans police force. (New Orleans police officers shot several civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.) It has scrutinized the Miami and Seattle police departments and exposed the civil rights abuses of Arizona's notorious anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Perez has long demonstrated a commitment to civil rights and a robust role for government. As a federal prosecutor during George H.W. Bush's administration, he won notable convictions of several neo-Nazis who had committed a string of murders designed to spark a race war. He later worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy before being elected to the Montgomery County council in Maryland and joining the board of an immigration rights group.
Since the financial meltdown, the Justice Department has faced criticism that it did not prosecute the Wall Streeters most responsible for triggering the catastrophic recession that hit in 2008. That wasn't Perez's call. But as chief of the civil rights division, he did target big banks by bringing enforcement actions against financial institutions for racial discrimination and for foreclosing on active-duty military service-members in violation of federal law. He created a fair lending unit within the division that went on to win a $335 million settlement against Bank of America and a $175 million settlement against Wells Fargo. These were the two largest fair-housing settlements in Justice Department history.
After being promoted to run the Labor Department, Perez also fired up that bureaucracy. As Politico recently noted,
It was one of the federal government's sleepier outposts for most of the dozen years that preceded Perez's arrival just over one year ago. But Labor has been newly energized under Perez. "Enforcement activity is up," Alfred Robinson Jr., who was an acting wage and hour administrator for the Labor Department during the George W. Bush administration, noted earlier this month in a blog post. The department has also raised its public profile on issues like minimum wage and paid medical leave and lavished favorable attention on companies that give employees what Perez calls "voice."
So the guy has the legal, policy, and management chops to be attorney general. And if Obama nominated him, the president would send a resounding message that he remained committed to a progressive agenda.
Now for the politics: Perez is the son of exiled Dominican immigrants. Hispanic members of Congress, immigration reform advocates, and labor organizations have called on Obama to tap him for the nation's chief law enforcement job. On Friday, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 39 leading Latino outfits, sent the president a letter requesting he name Perez. Does the president want to disappoint key constituencies at a time when he could use all the friends he can get? Other names reported to be on the AG short list—Solicitor General Don Verrilli and US attorneys Loretta Lynch and Preet Bharara—will likely not elicit much grassroots enthusiasm.
On the other side, would Republicans, who are already on the outs with Latino voters over their opposition to immigration reform, fight this high-profile nomination and risk further alienating a growing voting bloc? Perhaps.
Perez has been a favorite target of the right for years. While he did win confirmation relatively easily when he was nominated to be assistant attorney general, with a 72-22 vote in the Senate, some GOPers had tried to stop him, citing Perez's support of immigration reform and (discredited) allegations concerning a voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party.
But when Obama tapped Perez to be labor secretary, Republicans, as the White House expected, put up more resistance. Some in the party didn't fancy Perez's success revitalizing the civil rights division. And critics on the right claimed he had cut a corrupt deal to prevent a Minnesota housing discrimination case from reaching the Supreme Court. The case was odd and complicated: landlords had used a federal fair-housing law to oppose an effort by the city of St. Paul to enforce basic housing standards. The property owners had argued that a crackdown on horrible conditions at low-income housing sites discriminated against minority tenants.
Civil rights advocates feared that if this weird case landed before the highest court, Chief Justice John Roberts and his fellow conservatives would use the occasion as an opportunity to gut the fair housing law. But city officials offered Perez a deal: they would drop their Supreme Court appeal, but only if the Justice Department declined to support a separate case filed against St. Paul by a whistleblower who alleged that the city had failed to use $180 million in federal funds meant to go to programs for lower-income residents. Perez consulted with the appropriate ethics and professional responsibility officials within the Justice Department—and the department official with authority over the whistleblower's case—and he received green lights from all before accepting the offer. (The city of St. Paul was required to agree to meet the spending obligations in question in the future.) The maneuver helped preserve an important civil rights law—which many conservatives have long wanted to weaken—and a bunch of Republicans were hopping mad and accused Perez of bribery.
Not surprisingly, Senate Republicans tried for months to stymie Perez's nomination as labor secretary. Eventually, he was put to a vote as part of a larger deal involving other appointments that had been delayed by GOP lawmakers. In July 2013, Perez was confirmed on a party-line vote of 54-46.
Should Obama appoint Perez, it's a good bet that Senate Republicans would see red and kick off a holy brawl. (In a taste of things to come, a Wall Street Journal columnist raised the St. Paul case again just this week.) But win or lose, a fight could help Obama. It would signify that the president is serious about advancing voting rights, civil rights, immigration reform, and fair lending—and it could well yield the extra benefit of reinforcing the negative attitudes Latinos have toward the Republican Party.
Presidents are defined in part by their battles—especially the ones they choose to wage. Perez presents Obama a chance to take a stand that could bolster his party's political prospects and boost his policy agenda, at a time when he surely has to do both.
Whitney Ball is one of the most important money people in the conservative movement. Though she receives little public notice, she controls DonorsTrust, a fund that over the years has distributed more than $400 million to underwrite a host of right-wing operations, including the National Rifle Association, the Heritage Foundation, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. A self-described libertarian, Ball set up this fund in 1999 as something of a cash box for wealthy conservatives who wanted to be sure that the money left behind when they died would not be used by liberal-minded heirs to finance their own favorite political causes. So before they expire, these millionaires and billionaires direct their assets to Ball's fund in the comfort of knowing that her group will responsibly manage their wealth in accordance with their ideological wishes. The priority for DonorsTrust, Ball said in a 2005 interview, is to "safeguard donor intent." But a few years ago, Ball became involved in an unseemly estate controversy, when her father, a lawyer in West Virginia, unethically handled the wills of three elderly people and Whitney Ball and her brother personally benefited from his misconduct, with nearly half a million dollars deposited in their bank accounts.
According to a ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which conducted a disciplinary proceeding regarding the matter, in the mid-1990s attorney John Ball prepared wills for two octogenarian sisters, Vivian Michael and Gladys Davis, who were long-standing clients of his. The will he arranged for Michael bequeathed a car she owned to Ball, and the wills of both sisters left all their personal property to Ball's wife.
"To permit Mr. Ball to retain any of the proceeds of his unethical conduct would send a chilling message to the public," the court said.
In April 1998, four months after Michael died, Ball took Davis to a bank where she changed the beneficiary of an annuity she owned. That person had been her sister Vivian, but "while at the bank," according to the court ruling, "Ms. Davis designated Mr. Ball's two adult children, Whitney L. Ball and John P. Ball, Jr., as the new beneficiaries of the annuity." Ball, the court said, knew that Davis was going to make this change and had provided her with the addresses and Social Security numbers of his children. When Davis died three years later, the annuity was valued at $487,783.13. The money was distributed in equal amounts to Whitney and John Jr.
Ball, who was the executor of the wills for these two sisters, also arranged to receive a fee of 7.5 percent of the total value of the estates—though, the ruling noted, "the generally accepted maximum charge for administering an estate" was 5 percent. He pocketed nearly $1.6 million in fees for handling both estates. The wills he had drafted left money to the West Virginia University Foundation and stated that as executor Ball would help oversee the donations of these funds and be allowed to charge the foundation a fee. He netted $337,000 for this, after negotiating with the foundation an annual fee of 1 percent of the $18,400,000 the sisters left to the school. The court ruling notes that Ball also set up a will for another state resident who wanted to leave the bulk of his assets to the West Virginia University Foundation, with Ball awarding himself a 7.5 percent fee. (The court did not determine if Ball actually collected that fee.)
In 2006, after the county bar association had examined Ball's handling of these wills, the state Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the "evidence in this case clearly established that Mr. Ball drafted three wills in which he gave himself excessive fees as an executor, drafted two wills that improperly conveyed property to himself and his wife, and assisted in changing a client's annuity to benefit" his children.
This past summer, Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky and a potential 2016 presidential wannabe, was the GOP's It Girl. The New York Times Magazine splashed his mug on the cover and asked, "Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?" It noted that Paul possessed a "supple mind" and was a "preternaturally confident speaker." Washington Post political prognosticator Chris Cillizza pronounced Paul the "most interesting voice in the GOP right now," andPolitico gave him the No. 1 spot on its list of the 50 "most important people changing American politics through the power of ideas." When Paul, an ophthalmologist, trekked to Guatemala as part of a group of doctors providing free care to indigent patients, he was accompanied by a documentary crew, two political ad makers, and reporters from the Post and NBC News. And last week, Time magazine ran a cover story on Paul, anointing him, "The Most Interesting Man in Politics."
As this government-bashing tea partier moves toward a White House bid, journalists scrutinize his every wiggle and whisper. But one core component of his political personality has largely escaped exploration: The senator is close to being a full-blown conspiracy theorist.
In 2010, before winning his Senate seat, Paul sat for an interview with Luke Rudkowski, a libertarian YouTube personality who specializes in quizzing political leaders about the plot to establish a "one-world socialist government."* Rudkowski asked what Paul knew of the Bilderberg Group, a collection of government and business leaders whose annual conference is a favorite target of conspiracy-mongers. Paul replied, "Only what I've learned from Alex Jones." That's right: Alex Jones, the radio host who claims that Bilderberg is a key part of a global plot to create a "scientific dictatorship" that will exterminate the "useless eaters," a.k.a. 80 percent of the human population.
Paul described the group to Rudkowski in unequivocally Jonesian terms, as "very wealthy people, who I think manipulate and use government to their own personal advantage. They want to make it out like world government will be good for humanity. But guess what? World government is good for their pocketbook." The previous year, Paul had appeared on Jones' radio show, noting that he had watched his host's videos and expressing support for the effort to "expose people who are promoting this globalist agenda." (In turn, Jones urged his listeners to send money to Paul's Senate campaign.)
It wasn't until after reaching the Senate in 2011 that Paul clammed up about the Bilderbergers. In 2012, Rudkowski confronted Paul on a Washington street, challenging his endorsement of Mitt Romney, who'd attended Bilderberg sessions. The senator walked on as an aide tried to shoo Rudkowski away. When, earlier this year, the conservative Washington Free Beacon asked a top Paul aide if the senator had ever bought into the Bilderberg conspiracy theory, he jokingly dodged the question, saying Paul believes "Build a Burger would be a great name for a fast-food chain."
Jones' show has also been a hub of the so-called truther movement, which claims that the 9/11 attacks were mounted or permitted by the US government. During Paul's 2010 Senate campaign, it was revealed that his campaign spokesman was a truther (as well as a death-metal musician with racist and satanic tendencies). When a Kentucky newspaper asked if Paul agreed with this view, his campaign replied that it was a "complicated situation" with "truth on both sides."
Paul had his own conspiracy theory about 9/11. In speeches in 2008 and 2009, he warned about the influence of military contractors and zeroed in on Halliburton, the corporation that Dick Cheney headed before becoming vice president. Cheney, he noted, opposed the advance of American troops into Baghdad when he was defense secretary during the first Gulf War. Yet as veep he changed his mind because, Paul explained, the war would benefit Halliburton with a "billion-dollar no-bid contract."
Critics have long questioned the Bush administration's motives for invading Iraq. But Paul's claim that a leader of his own party sacrificed American lives not for a misguided view of national security, but for naked greed—practically a charge of treason—was remarkable. After Mother Jones reported on his statements earlier this year, the senator backpedaled. When he was asked by ABC News if he really believed Cheney had been motivated by financial ties to Halliburton, Paul replied, "I'm not questioning Dick Cheney's motives."
Paul also has embraced one of the conspiracy theories promoted by his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul: that leaders from the United States, Canada, and Mexico are seeking to merge their countries into a socialist megastate that would issue the "Amero" currency to replace US and Canadian dollars and the Mexican peso. (Anti-feminist campaigner Phyllis Schlafly and Jerome Corsi, who led the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, are among the key proponents of this idea.)
At an appearance for his father's 2008 presidential campaign in Bozeman, Montana, Rand Paul was asked what steps his dad would take to thwart the scheme to impose a North American superstate. The first thing to do, he said, was "publicizing that it's going on" and pushing Congress to "stop it." He insisted the Amero push was "a real thing" but cautioned, "If you talk about it like it's a conspiracy, they'll paint you as a nut. It's not a conspiracy, they're out in the open about it. I guarantee it's one of their long-term goals—to have one sort of borderless mass continent." He did not specify who "they" were.
Asked about these comments after entering the Senate in 2011, Paul hedged: "It's not a matter of what I believe. It's just a matter of whether or not there are viewpoints who believe that joining together as a North American Union" would be a good thing. But, the interviewer shot back, who's actually calling for that? "A lot of writers," Paul answered. "You can do an internet search."
Before he was a senator, Paul freely swam in dark conspiratorial waters. After being elected, he shut up. So did he not believe all that stuff? Or did they get to him? Perhaps Rand Paul fears that many voters cannot handle the truth—his truths—and that the only way he can reach the White House is via, yes, a conspiracy of silence.
* Editor's note: After this story was published, Luke Rudkowski contacted Mother Jones via Twitter to insist that even though he is described on several websites (such as this one) as a journalist who grills politicians about their plans to implement "one-world socialist government,"he has not used that particular phrase. "I said one world order before way back years ago but not socialist," he says. He also says he is not a libertarian.
The renowned satirist, actor, author, and musician Harry Shearer—you might know him as the bassist of Spinal Tap, the voice behind a panoply of Simpsons characters (Mr. Burns and Flanders among them), host of Le Show, and a former Saturday Night Live player—has done his share of presidential impersonations, but no subject has captured his imagination like Richard Nixon.
In Nixon's the One, a series that first aired on British television and premieres October 21 as a YouTube series, the 70-year-old Shearer reenacts the follies of our 37th president word for word from Nixon's secret Oval Office recordings. (In the exclusive clip above, Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman aide discuss how to destroy the networks, and come up with something that sounds a lot like Fox News.) The "comedy-drama," cowritten by the distinguished Watergate historian Stanley Kutler, is pure unadulterated Nixon. And Shearer, a talented impersonator, has nailed the cringe-inducing, can't-help-but-watch pathos of perhaps our oddest and most paranoid Oval Office inhabitant. I caught up with the actor last week to discuss his comic attraction to Tricky Dick, his favorite Simpsons character, and the one thing he can't stand about The Daily Show.
You also can listen to the unabridged audio version* (~46 minutes):
Mother Jones: You spent a great deal of time researching and developing this project. What draws you to Nixon?
Harry Shearer: I'm drawn to him like a bunch of flies to a pile of fascinating comic characteristics. I grew up in Southern California, and Nixon was omnipresent. I have dim memories of actually seeing the "Checkers" speech, where he saved his vice presidential bid by making a very mawkish, lachrymose speech. He was accused of taking—here's a quaint concept—illegal campaign contributions, and defended himself by saying, oddly enough, somebody gave us this dog, black and white checkered, and we're gonna keep her. And that saved his bacon! And then, you know, he had this silly kitchen debate with Khrushchev; in 1958 he runs for president at the first televised debates and loses to John F. Kennedy; runs for governor of California two years later and has this remarkable press conference after he loses where he says, "You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore," and then, of course, spends the next six years running for president.
MJ: Being kicked around!
"He had these smiles that would come at the most inappropriate times—just flashes that there was an inner life screaming to get out."
HS: And kicking around. And so he sort of stood above and beyond the normal creepy politician. The first thing I was aware of as a kid was his hardball, if not mudball, politics. You may remember this cartoon by Herblock in the Washington Post which had Richard Nixon crawling up from down below in the sewer, followed shortly after by a picture of Nixon with just the words, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" Nixon with his endemic five o'clock shadow!
MJ: So it was essentially his creepiness that attracted you?
HS: That was the first thing. But then it became obvious that there were really funny characteristics about this guy, chief of which would be that he seemed to devote about 85 percent of his waking energy to suppressing any sign of his emotional response to anything that was going on around him, and the other 15 percent blurting out those authentic responses in the silliest and most inopportune ways. And he had these smiles that would come at the most inappropriate times—just flashes that there was an inner life screaming to get out.
MJ: Are you saying that he had more pathos than the average president?
HS: No, not more pathos. More—if the cortex is just a series of twists and bends and folds, he had more folds. [Laughter.]
[Listen to an unedited audio clip of the previous exchange:]
MJ: How long did it take you to feel you really had him nailed?
HS: I've been doing Nixon pretty much my whole professional life. I was in this comedy group called the Credibility Gap in Los Angeles when he was president. I was doing Nixon on the radio, and when we did live shows I physicalized him—if that's a word—for the first time. And then I did a Nixon sketch on a very short-lived NBC show called Sunday Best. It was Nixon as a guest on an infomercial, where he was demonstrating a teeth-whitening miracle product. It was an opportunity to do full Nixon makeup and do the whole body, and a really great moment for me to see how far along I was.
MJ: Did you see any traits this time around that you hadn't captured in your earlier impersonations?
"For a guy who is always banging on about the masculine virtues, Nixon had this remarkable proclivity for very dainty gestures."
HS: Yeah. I did emphasize more something that I'd never seen anybody capture, which is, for a guy who is always banging on about the masculine virtues, he had this remarkable proclivity for very dainty gestures. If you go look at that iconic moment where he's standing on the bridge of the helicopter about to get in after he's resigned, and he gives a salute, it isn't a crisp, military salute at all. His hand is sort of like this butterfly flying away from his forehead. And he would purse his lips, he would flutter his eyelashes—there were a lot of these kinds of gestures.
MJ: Nixon has been satirized by Philip Roth in Our Gang. Anthony Hopkins played him in Oliver Stone's Nixon, Frank Langella in Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon. Dan Aykroyd did him early on in SNL.
HS: With a mustache!
HS: For added verisimilitude.
MJ: Who do you think has done him best or worst, mustaches aside?
HS: I'm not going to get into that. I saw a little bit of Anthony Hopkins after we did our show out of curiosity—I'm not a big Oliver Stone fan. But even sighted men have different versions of the elephant. And this is my version.
MJ: One of your most harrowing scenes covers the minutes before Nixon's televised resignation speech. It really makes you cringe as Nixon nervously attempts to make jokey small talk with the television crew. Did you do anything special to prepare for that very emotional scene?
HS: It's interesting. That is the one scene that is not from the White House taping system he installed. It was videotaped by an anonymous CBS engineer, and that tape circulated around in many bootleg versions of really dire video quality. When I went to the repository of the Nixon tapes at the National Archives, I befriended one of the guys there, and I said, "You know that tape?" And he said, "Oh, yeah, we have a great broadcast-quality version of it." And so I managed to get a copy. And for years I would watch that tape with friends, and I'd memorized that scene long since. We'd recite it along with watching it—it was just such a wonderful moment.
MJ: [Laughs.] Is that what you do for fun in the Shearer household?
"Now he has to climb off that pole in humiliation and mortification. And what does he do in this room for these eight minutes? He engages in small talk."
HS: Instead of betting on football! But—this sounds like goofy actor talk— having lived with that scene for all these years, the closest I could come to understanding it was the following: Here's a guy who had no gift for small talk, never liked to be around strangers, was physically awkward, and he goes into the one business that calls for ease with strangers and a gift for small talk. And he manages through sheer determination—let's be Horatio Algeristic about it—to rise to the top of the greasiest pole in America. And now he has to climb off that pole in humiliation and mortification. And what does he do in this room for these eight minutes? He engages in small talk.
I just thought it was ironically goofy. Then, while we were making this series, I happened upon a memoir by a midlevel White House staffer, and he had been in the room that night. This guy's memoir told me what Nixon's last words were. And they were, on August 8, 1974, to the crew: "Have a Merry Christmas, fellas!" That was just so bizarre.
Now we're rehearsing the scene, and suddenly it came to me what was going on. This was the beginning of his next campaign! This night was to become the beginning of his campaign for rehabilitation. In his mind, all those crew members were going to walk out of there saying, "He wasn't bothered. He wasn't angry. He wasn't upset. He was the nicest guy. He was making jokes, he even wished us a Merry Christmas!"
MJ: Christmas in August?
HS: He wanted them to remember him at Christmastime. He was planning little seeds of his rehabilitation. That's my theory.
MJ: Listening to so many of these Nixon tapes that never made a lot of news, what other new gems did you discover?
HS: I wasn't looking for newsworthy material. My partner, Stanley Kutler—the historian whose life has been steeped in these tapes and who filed the lawsuits that made them public—we were looking for the character stuff, the stuff that made us laugh. I'm not sure there are any bombshells left.
MJ: Well, did you learn anything new about Nixon?
"A lot of his domestic policy was mind-numbingly, head-spinningly to the left of Obama's."
HS: I couldn't help but be struck that this guy I had thought was the embodiment of everything wrong with American politics, a lot of his domestic policy was mind-numbingly, head-spinningly to the left of Obama's. It was under Nixon that the EPA was created. It was under Nixon that OSHA was created. Under Nixon that the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed. He wasn't necessarily leading the parade, but they did happen during his administration. And he actually gave a speech late in his truncated second term advocating a guaranteed annual income for all Americans.
MJ: Sounds like a commie!
HS: Imagine the number of drugs you'd have to administer to Obama to get him to make that speech!
MJ: Or any Democrat. Nancy Pelosi. Harry Reid. Even Paul Krugman wouldn't advocate that, or at least I don't think so.
HS: Even Bernie Sanders probably wouldn't! If Nixon were a Republican senator today, he would have been primaried out.
MJ: Did you feel any sympathy for the man as you spent hours putting on makeup to look like him and produce these hours of reenactments?
HS: I wouldn't say sympathy. Because sympathy implies you're taking his side in things.
HS: Empathy gets a little closer to it. You know, I came up working for Jack Benny—I was a child actor. I think through osmosis I kind of got what his comic genius was about. If one recalls Jack Benny's comic persona, he was not a nice man. He was vain, he was miserly, he was a bad boss, all characteristics we would regard as unlikable, and yet he was a lovable performer, because he was portraying the very flawed humanity of that character. And I wasn't playing Nixon's satirical stick figure. I was playing Nixon the man. As an actor, I felt I had to get to the deeply flawed humanity of the guy. Here's the eerie part: We were word accurate. We did our own transcripts. We actually hired John Dean's transcriber.
"I wasn't playing Nixon's satirical stick figure…As an actor, I felt I had to get to the deeply flawed humanity of the guy."
MJ: And some of these tapes are hard to make out.
HS: Oh, they're incredibly difficult. We hired someone who is skilled at that and even she had "inaudibles" and guesses at words. I have these digital sound-processing tools so, as we were rehearsing, the cast and I would discuss these phrases that just didn't sound quite right. And I'd run the tape again through more of these tools, and almost magically words would pop out. And all of a sudden, Oh my God, that's what he's saying!
We had more script revisions than a troubled sitcom. The script supervisor would come around after what we thought was a great take and say, well, you moved this word or you paraphrased this. And I would curse her, but we'd do it again. And strangely enough, the takes where I got the words absolutely right, true to the transcript, were the performances that I felt and looked most Nixonian. Getting to his weird word choices and the weird word order and the repetitions and the backtracking that make it impossible almost to memorize got me closer to that guy.
MJ: Did you find that he had his own unique internal logic?
HS: Absolutely. When Nixon died, on my radio show I started doing sketches with three basic conceits: One, there's a place called Heaven. Two, Nixon got in. And three, he's still taping. I was writing these sketches and trying to approximate the way he and Haldeman would jump over each other and race to confirm each other and then race to negate each other, and Nixon's way of expressing himself. So by the time we're doing the real stuff, I felt so familiar with that inner world of his. The relationship with Kissinger is so funny and goofy we made a whole episode out of it. Kissinger was everything Nixon hated: a Harvard professor and a Jew and an intellectual. And Kissinger knew it. But the offer to be in a position of power was so intoxicating that he put up with all that shit.
Especially in the Kissinger scenes, Nixon would repeat the word "never" as if on a loop: "There's never gonna be people from Harvard invited into this White House ever again. Never. Never. Never." And he's saying this right to Henry's face, knowing that every time it's a little pinprick into Kissinger's gut. He did that on several occasions. You hear the "never, never, never" partly, I think, because Nixon knew that so many of the crazy things he told his staff to do they would ignore. There's a scene in the pilot episode where he tells Haldemann flat out, "Destroy the tapes!" and he says, "Can you do that?" and Haldemann nods and says, "Yes." Of course, the tapes aren't destroyed.
There's another scene where he's bitching about how he never got invited to a social occasion at the White House when Kennedy was president. Now, Kennedy is long dead by this point, and this is still burning deep within Nixon. That's one of the things that I think is one of the darkly comic parts of his character. He just couldn't let go of these resentments.
MJ: What was the response to the series in England?
HS: It got a great critical response.
MJ: You know how they love to feel superior to us.
HS: Yes, and sometimes they're right. But I was thinking about why the show could get made there with this sort of creepy accuracy and couldn't get made here. I just imagined if I'd been in the office of an American highfalutin' cable channel, there would've been meetings that started with, "We know he didn't like black people, but did he have to hate Jews too?" And I wanted to avoid those meetings. I think the British learn their history through the prism of this gallery of grotesques known as the royals.
"I'm sure, though there's no evidence of it, one of the things that rankled him down deep was that it was called McCarthyism and not Nixonism."
MJ: Who are easy to caricature.
HS: Drawing as well as acting. So in some ways, Brits just saw him as another one of those, except without a crown. Whereas in this country, at least when I was growing up, we learned our history almost as lives of the saints. And it came as a shock, "Oh, Jefferson had slaves?" It always comes as a shock to us that elevation to the White House didn't somehow cleanse them of all their deep character flaws.
MJ: Does the fact that Nixon attained the highest office in the land say something about America?
HS: Every president that makes it up there says something about the country. I think Nixon says a lot about those times. It was possibly hard, in the '90s and early 2000s to understand the grip of fear that communism had on the country in the 1950s and 1960s—a fear Nixon rode like a endless great wave on the Pacific to high office. I'm sure, though there's no evidence of it, one of the things that rankled him down deep was that it was called McCarthyism and not Nixonism.
MJ: He should've trademarked it.
Harry Shearer Mark Sullivan/WireImage
HS: But now, in the grip of a very similar wave involving terrorism, we've succeeded in a far greater receding of our civil liberties in the name of avoiding an enemy much less powerful than the enemy when we were afraid of with communism. Yet that fear propelled Nixon to the White House. Nixon's genius was that he was able to portray himself as the toughest of the anti-communists, and yet run on a platform that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War. And, of course, his plan was to prolong it until his second election—but he didn't tell us that then.
MJ: Is there any other president you'd like to play?
HS: Well, I've, on my radio show I've played every one since—
MJ: How's your Garfield?
HS: Poor. But who's to know?
MJ: Good point.
HS: My Franklin Pierce is spot on. But I'm not sure that there's anybody else that's as psychologically complex and who's given us this window into his soul that Nixon gave us. That's what I find absolutely addictive and seductive.
MJ: You're the voice of many characters on The Simpsons: Mr. Burns, Smithers, Flanders, and probably 27,000 others. Stupid question: Do you have a favorite?
HS: Stupid answer: C. Montgomery Burns. [Watch the following clip of Shearer reading a scene:]
MJ: Is there a Nixonian quality to Mr. Burns?
HS: Burns is much purer evil than Nixon was. I think it's the purity of his evil that attracts me as a comic character.
MJ: Will The Simpsons ever end, and if so, what should happen in the finale?
HS: As they say in Washington, above my pay grade. But I've long had an answer to the first question, which is that The Simpsons will end as soon as Fox is able to find an 8 p.m. comedy hit to replace it—so I give us another 50 years.
MJ: Long may you wave.
HS: Thank you.
MJ: Is it true that Spinal Tap is reuniting to do a collection of Crosby, Stills & Nash covers?
HS: It'd be great! But sadly, no. I think you can look for a Crosby, Stills & Nash reunion doing Spinal Tap covers before you look for the other.
MJ: I'd like to see that! So, looking around at the state of political satire—SNL, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, etc.—how would you say the form is faring today?
HS: Well, I will say one thing that all those shows have in common, which I find sad, if not reprehensible. Satire is an art best practiced behind the back of the intended target. I think inviting politicians on a satirical show becomes a very big trap. Because one of two things happen: Either you have to kind of unsharpen your fangs because you can't be quite as cruel to people to their face as you are behind their backs…
MJ: When you have the Pakistan dictator on, you kind of yuk it up with him.
"Why should satire be in the service of humanizing these people who are supposed to be the target of our venom and vitriol?"
HS: Yeah. Or you don't defang, and those guests get the word and they stop coming. I think the former has happened in all three cases. I remember when Christopher Guest and Marty Short and I joined SNL in 1984. And we said to Dick Ebersoll, then the producer, "This show is established. We can get our own ratings. We don't need these guests that can't do comedy and are often politicians—everything kind of gets distorted by that." In fact, the first show of that season had no guest host. And we thought "Okay, great!" And by show three, our guest host was Jesse Jackson, and he had moved half of Operation Push into our office so they could make free long-distance calls.
HS: Yeah, I just think everyone knows you go on those shows if you're a politician to, "humanize yourself"—to show, "Hey, I can take a joke." Well, why should satire be in the service of humanizing these people who are supposed to be the target of our venom and vitriol? I think that's unseemly.
MJ: So many political satirists seem to be on the liberal side of the equation. Are there any great humorists out there with a conservative bent?
HS: Yeah, sure. PJ O'Rourke has been funny and conservative for years. I find myself being lumped in with the left, though I'm as critical of Obama as I have been of any president. I think it's the satirist's job to be critical of—the cliché—the guys with the monopoly on the guns. In the United States you have to amend it to say the guys with the majority of the guns. Or the bigger guns. But I think that's the gig. Otherwise you become a court jester. You become the satirist who ended up writing jokes on the side for one of the recent presidential candidates. Well, now you're really a hired gun. You're just comedy oppo research.
Editor's note: In the audio, Shearer attributes the "used car" poster to Herblock. It actually was produced by the Kennedy campaign.