Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Q&A with Stephen Hess

Stephen Hess is the author of the new memoir Bit Player. His many other books include America's Political Dynasties and The Professor and the President. He is a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, and he's based in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take to complete it?

A: I had no intention of ever writing a memoir. I thought memoirs were for very important people like generals who fight in big wars.

What happened was that my feelings about Donald Trump when he became president were such that I didn’t want to send the next two years of my life in a crossfire with what Trump was doing. I gave myself a leave of absence from writing about presidencies.

But then what would I do with myself? My colleague Henry Aaron reminded me that you don’t have to be a general to write a memoir. My wife, Beth, a social worker, had me read the theory of reminiscence, and it was good therapy. So why not?

She was right. It was one of the best years of my life as a writer. I think I learned things about myself I probably didn’t know. I started in the winter of 2017, so I guess it took roughly a year. It’s a small book.

Q: How did you choose the book’s title—you take it from a quote from Senator John McCain—and what does it signify for you?

A: That was the moment I saw that expression “bit player” used in a way that was political. If it was good enough for John McCain, it was good enough for me.

What is a bit player? People think of it in terms of movies—not the leads, but the supporting actors. You think of Casablanca—I wasn’t Humphrey Bogart in life, but Peter Lorre. Or Dooley Wilson, the piano player. They were significant to the plot, but they weren’t on screen that often.

Q: Of the various stories you tell in the book, do you have one or two that are particular favorites?

A: Obviously, as my life really entwined with presidents, particularly Eisenhower and Nixon, my role had to be explained and defined.

But then I got to the end, and there were all the stories I like that wouldn’t ordinarily fit into a book. I set them out in the final chapter. For example, dancing with Jacqueline Kennedy. It was a memorable moment I’ll never forget.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s now a virtual pop star, is Beth’s first cousin. We’ve had a lot to do with her. I was involved in the orchestration of trying to get her nominated [to the Supreme Court]. People might look at the index and go to the stories about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

There are others that are significant because they were famous people, such as Richard Avedon, Oliver Stone, John Major. They’re worth mentioning, but they didn’t save my life. It is ultimately a book of stories.

Q: You mentioned your feelings about Trump—how would you compare him with the presidents you worked with?

A: I’ve taken leave from writing about the first two years of Trump’s administration. I think I’ll go back to the business of being a communicator on the presidency.

My views of Donald Trump haven’t changed very much from when I wrote a column for USA Today when he was running for office, and it was clear that Trump had no idea how to be president and seemed to have no interest in learning.

Most people [who are running] read the literature, they go abroad. He did none of those things. He seemed to lack interest. In some ways, I could write the same column today that I wrote in February 2016.

As he enters the third year, the third year of a presidency is in many ways the toughest. I wrote the book Organizing the Presidency, and I’d been on presidential staffs for the first two years of an administration and for the last two.

In year three, it’s always very tough. The fault lines in his own policy advisors start to appear. From a personnel and a policy sense, it’s a rough year, compounded by the midterm elections.

When you look at what the Democratic House is likely to turn to, particularly his tax returns, now he may have to fight to keep them away from the House Ways and Means Committee. And then there’s the Mueller investigation.

It’s his rough year, and it’s a year I hope to get back into the fight. The United States does not deserve a president who knows and cares so little, and is such a vulgarian.

All the people I know agree with me, so how do we reach people who don’t? It’s a real question for commentators [opposed to Trump], how to break through [to Trump supporters]. They’re Americans and they care too.

Q: So as a longtime observer of politics in Washington, what do you see looking ahead?

A: The whole history of the United States and the presidency, I think, as an optimist, is an ascending line. But it’s not a straight ascending line. It takes leaps back, and reforms, and goes forward again. The Trump presidency has put poison into the system, and the trick is how to get it out. And it will.

People expect me to compare this to Richard Nixon. But Richard Nixon destroyed himself, not the presidency. That’s not true with this president. There are many things he’s done that are unconstitutional, attacking the press and the judiciary—there are deeply disturbing trends. But the sooner he stops being president, the sooner we can snap back to what makes America great.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: This could lead to another book. I could write on the presidency after Trump. It’s a worthwhile topic to build a file on.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Stephen Hess.

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