Born and raised in the Bronx and a graduate of City College, Robert Scheer is the former editor of Ramparts, the leading radical magazine of the 1960s. From 1976-2005, Scheer covered national politics for the Los Angeles Times, first as a correspondent and then as a columnist. In the Bush era, Scheer’s politics proved to be too liberal for the Times, which replaced him with a right-wing columnist. Scheer now writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle and is the editor-in-chief of truthdig.com. His new book, Playing President (Akashic Books), is a quite lively and insightful collection of his many interviews, profiles, and columns about Presidents Nixon through Bush II—including Scheer’s classic Playboy interview in which Jimmy Carter confesses to having “committed adultery in my heart many times.” I sat down with Scheer in late July at The Hump Restaurant (a.k.a. “Rick’s Place”) in the Santa Monica airport. -T.H.
Rail: Do you have any way of ranking the presidents you’ve covered?
Scheer: I think that Nixon was clearly the best prepared to be president. He really knew the most in terms of foreign policy. I don’t think he was really interested in domestic policy, although by comparison he was pretty liberal—more liberal, in fact, than Clinton. Nixon accepted Daniel Moynihan’s idea of a guaranteed annual income, while Clinton—the great liberal hope—ended the federal obligation to poor people and destroyed welfare, so that it’s now with the states and there isn’t a federal poverty program at all. But while Nixon looks pretty damn good on domestic policy, on foreign policy he has this terrible contradiction. On the one hand, he recognized that communism was national, not international, and he broke open the Cold War that way; on the other, he wiped out a lot of people. But let me explain how I got involved with Nixon. I didn’t interview him until 1984, long after his presidency, when I did a retrospective on him for the L.A. Times. I did it because Reagan was running for a second term, following Jimmy Carter, and I wanted to know where the hell Nixon fit in. I’ve gone back and thought about it a lot and I had my own reasons for being hostile to Nixon. While he was in office, my taxes got audited and I was followed by the FBI. There was even a Scheer case, and although I ended up being exonerated by Hoover, I nonetheless knew the dark side of Nixon firsthand.
Rail: What’s your view of Nixon’s foreign policy legacy?
Scheer:I had been to Vietnam, a war he inherited from LBJ, one should not forget, but that Nixon certainly escalated. I had also gone to Cambodia in ‘64-’65 and I knew that this was a country that didn’t need any social change. But Nixon expanded the war into Cambodia. I went back there ten years ago. It’s just a horror what they did to that place. A couple of extra million people died in Indochina because of Nixon, so I don’t want to let him off the hook. In fact, it’s all the more glaring because he knew that all the arguments for the war in Vietnam were phony, because he saw communism there as nationalist, which is why he made the opening to China. Before he met Kissinger or became president, he was for opening relations with China. He knew the Chinese had occupied Vietnam for a thousand years and that the Vietnamese communists were nationalists. The Cambodian communists were also nationalists. That’s why Pol Pot didn’t get along with the Vietnamese. That’s why the Chinese didn’t get along with the Russians. And it’s why Tito didn’t get along with Stalin and Castro didn’t get along with anybody. Nixon exploited that sentiment in making the opening to China, but at the same time he killed a lot of people in Indochina who he knew were not a threat to anybody. He knew it was all bullshit but he did it for political reasons. That’s why the book is called Playing President. It’s not something that began with George W.—it’s something that’s been going on for a long time.
Rail: What, exactly, do you mean by that specific phrase, “playing president?”
Scheer: In physics there is this law that says a quantitative change gives rise to a qualitative change. I think the corruption of our presidential process began, really, with the electronic media, which has increased the role of sound bites, photo ops, and lying, as well as the use of national security. George W. represents the perfectly electronically transmitted president because there’s no accountability. He doesn’t have to do his homework. He doesn’t have to know anything. That’s what I mean by “playing president.” You’re not really serious. You don’t really have adults watching the store. You’re fucking with people, playing with ideas.
Rail: Do you think that having access to these presidents made you any less critical of them? In the book, you mention that you liked Reagan personally, and found him charming. But you also said, “Looking back at his record, I am dismayed that I warmed to the man as much as I did.”
Scheer: Well, I may have been being a little overly self-critical when I wrote that . But there was a funny thing that happened when Reagan was making his second successful run for the presidency. I describe it in the piece that I did on him that’s in the book. I saw that the anti-California bias of the East Coast media was nagging on him irrationally. But that stereotype has always been bullshit. I don’t like it when it’s applied to Barbara Streisand; I don’t like it when it’s applied to Paul Newman or Warren Beatty. And I didn’t like it when it was applied to Reagan. There was nothing wrong with Reagan’s brain. You know, he’d been around the block. He had a real life. He’d been born in the Depression. His father worked for the New Deal. He struggled his way through school. He became a successful actor through his own efforts. No one did him any favors. He participated in the union. He swung over from left to right. I didn’t agree with him on most things, but he was a real person and he cared about the issues. I had even more respect for Nancy, who I always thought was the key to keeping him on track. That said, the issue I’m angriest with Reagan about is AIDS. I guess that’s what I really meant by “I should have been more critical of him.” I would say Reagan’s great crime was in that area because we didn’t do the research in a timely fashion and we didn’t do the sex education. I mean they couldn’t get incubators in San Francisco or at UCLA to grow the virus to study. Funding was really shitty and there absolutely was no interest in education on it. And Reagan could have done it in a big way and millions of lives could have been saved.
In general, I’ve had access to a lot of politicians and I try to follow this rule from Lawrence Ferlinghetti: have an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out. There’s no point in my schlepping along after someone if I’m not going to listen to them. I like to think that a big difference between myself and the Neo-Cons is that I can be influenced by facts or argument or logic, and if I’ve got it wrong, I’ll change my position. I just wrote a column today criticizing Israel for going into Lebanon and criticizing the Bush position. If someone wants to come along and argue differently, I’ll listen to it and if my position is wrong, I’ll change it. I’d like to think that that I’m not overly influenced by the access that I’ve had. I can be tough-minded in my questioning and try to keep my listening ears open and be sufficiently critical. But I don’t know. They all are charming, I guess—
Rail:—although I’ve never heard anyone say that about John Kerry .
Scheer: I saw Kerry here in L.A. not that long ago. I would say he was pretty charming, actually. But after he spoke, I challenged him. I told him that “You really blew it when Bush asked you in the debate, ‘Knowing what you know now, would you have opposed the invasion?’ And you said ‘no.’” To that Kerry replied, “Well, I never really said that.” I kind of let it slide at the moment, but when I went and looked at it, he’s full of shit. He did say it. But you know, these guys are successful because they’re good at it—even George W. looks great on television. Reagan was a professional actor and he was charming. He also had a quality that Clinton had: He wasn’t the least bit afraid of an interviewer. I spent a lot of time with Reagan and the press guys were always trying to break it off. They’d say, “It’s time to go, sir,” and he’d say, “No, let’s take another question.” He didn’t say, “What the hell am I doing talking to Scheer for all these hours?” Reagan would get right into it, fully confident that he could explain his position to anyone. And Clinton had that. I had a pretty rough interview with Clinton when he was first running. The press guys wanted to cut it off after a half-hour or an hour. But he went on for probably two hours. You know, these guys are good at charming you. They get to be president because they can sell themselves. I mean, why not admit that? They take you into their confidence. They give you this valuable time while other journalists are waiting outside trying to get this time. They acknowledge you the next time they see you: “Oh hey, how are you doing? That was a good interview.” Still, I think I managed to resist the siren call and do some pretty tough interviews.