CoastLine: Don Gonyea talks Trump, 9 / 11 from the White House, and the Man in Black
Don Gonyea is a national political correspondent for NPR based in Washington, D.C. and 2016 marks his 30th year with the network. He’s covered some pivotal moments in political history -- including the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
When Bush moved into the White House in January of 2001, it was also the beginning of Don Gonyea’s assignment as White House correspondent for NPR. And it was the same year the United States faced the worst terrorist attack in its history.
Gonyea moved into the role of "National Political Correspondent” in 2010. He’s won numerous national and state awards for his reporting – including a Peabody for the series Lost & Found Sound.
He is currently, of course, eyeball-deep in coverage of the 2016 Presidential Elections but spent this Wednesday in Wilmington, North Carolina.
RLH: It is my pleasure, Don Gonyea, to welcome you to CoastLine.
DG: It’s so good of you to have me. It’s nice to be here, and it’s a nice, brief break from the trail in a beautiful place.
RLH: I’m glad you feel that way. We’ll find out if this is actually a break.
As you’ve been hearing, North Carolina has made national news with its recent passage of HB2, what’s popularly known as the Bathroom Bill. This is requiring people to use restrooms that correspond with their biology, not their gender identity. It prevents local governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances. There are lots of moving parts to this. Governor Pat McCrory just signed an executive order that pulls back one element of that law, but it’s been so controversial. We’ve heard condemnation from Hollywood. Large companies have cancelled plans for expansion here, including PayPal and Deutsche Bank. The NBA is considering moving it’s 2017 All-Star Game. All kinds of repercussions here. How does this kind of state law fit in with what you’re seeing across the country?
DG: It’s clearly a law that has put a lot of focus on North Carolina now. North Carolina is one of that states that, as a political reporter, we watch it closely because we’re in a Southern battleground state, and it’s a state that has been hotly contested, obviously, in recent years. And clearly, within the legislature as well, there are these things happening—and again, I’m not covering it on the ground, so I’m not well-versed in all of the various moving parts that you described, clearly a story that’s still evolving—but it does speak to some of the movement that we’re seeing, mostly on the local level, mostly on the state level within the Republican Party nationally.
Now, we’re all focused on the presidential election, right? We’ve got Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and John Kasich, and they’re slugging it out, and at times, Trump also seems to be at war with the Republican Party itself. And there’s all this back and forth. So we see this—I don’t know if it’s too strong to call it a civil war within the Party, but clearly, there are factions kind of battling it out within the Party on a national level. Trump obviously has his own group and Ted Cruz his and Kasich obviously the more kind of traditional, establishment types.
But on the state level—even as all this battling has been going on that causes us to wonder, “What’s the future of the Republican Party?”—on the state level across the country, the Party has really gained strength over the past 20 years or so. We’ve seen more governorships move into Republican hands and more state legislative seats across the country in a Senate chamber, in a House chamber, in an assembly, whatever it’s called, wherever. So the level of Republican strength or representation in states, on the state level, is higher than it’s been in many, many years—I wish I could just pull the number off the top of my head, but it’s decades. There’s a group called the National Conference of State Legislatures that keeps tabs on all of this. And with that increased strength comes control over more states and more legislative bodies, total control, as we have here in North Carolina, and when that happens, there are issues that these candidates campaigned on, and if they’ve got the votes, they’re going to push it. They’re going to push it. Sometimes, getting laws like this passed—and you know, we saw Georgia, we’ve seen other places—you suddenly get the pushback. And sometimes the pushback is local and sometimes the pushback is national and corporate, as we’re seeing here.
RLH: That’s exactly what we’re seeing here. As you travel around, you spend a lot of time just talking to people, citizens, people who are engaging in the political process and showing up at fundraisers and fish fries, I imagine.
DG: A lot of fish fries and pork roasts and just at diners, and I do try to spend most of my time, if possible, just talking to people, just finding people.
RLH: When you talk to people and laws like these come up, laws that are emblematic of this new socially conservative movement—and I shouldn’t call it new, it’s not new, but it’s strengthening and it’s getting louder—what are you hearing from people around the country?
DG: It’s all over the place, right? It depends where you are. It depends what state you’re in. It depends what corner of what state you’re in, and sometimes it depends on what precinct you’re in and who happens to be a regular at this particular fish fry or this particular diner, and you hear, generally speaking—and I don’t like to talk in generalities too much—but you hear different things in Wisconsin than you hear in Georgia, maybe, you know?
RLH: Can you give us an example of those kinds of things that are on people’s minds?
DG: Yeah, I think it is exactly what you would think. Here’s another phenomena that you quickly realize when you’re covering politics for a long time: With the internet, with cable channels with this point of view or that point of view, be it FOX News or MSNBC, with talk radio, people everywhere tend to be getting the same analysis, especially if they’re choosing a news outlet or websites or Twitter feeds that tend to reinforce their beliefs, right? But when I say, you hear different things in Wisconsin than maybe you do in Georgia, it’s, you know, Wisconsin is a state that has gone Democratic in every election since Michael Dukakis, since 1988, whereas Georgia is a very red state. It’s not that you don’t find some shared opinions when you look at those two places, but again, generally speaking, a Wisconsin Republican is maybe more of an establishment-type person—again, speaking in trends—whereas a Georgia Republican is maybe more likely to be Christian conservative or maybe even Tea Party, so you hear different things as a result, but the fact that you do have this national conversation taking place, you do kind of get the same arguments everywhere depending on where a person falls on an issue.
RLH: NPR recently went to some lengths to publicly define the role of Cokie Roberts at the network as a commentator—not a reporter, not an analyst. This conversation resurfaced, in part, due to a column that she wrote along with her husband that expressed a strong opinion about Donald Trump. They wrote that Donald Trump is not qualified to be President of the United States; in the event he were elected, it would be a blow to the United State’s reputation around the world. So, that’s when NPR decided to re-clarify her role. And I just want to talk about her role juxtaposed against yours. She is a commentator, which means -- what -- compared to what you do, as a reporter?
DG: We had not always been defining her as a commentator on air. I think the thing they wanted to clarify is she was often characterized as a news analyst, someone who analyzes news events, and a news analyst at NPR—again, every news organization is going to have its own definition of these terms too—but a news analyst at NPR is someone who may analyze the news and break it down and maybe even offer predictions of where it’s going or this or that, but they should not be based on personal opinion and it should not be an expression of their personal beliefs. A commentator is someone who can indeed offer their opinion. The commentator on NPR, which is Cokie’s official role, is not unlike that person who writes the editorial or the op-ed piece in the newspaper or whatever.
RLH: And that’s not something you would ever do in your role.
DG: I’m a correspondent/reporter. My job is to be on the ground, covering elections, and to cover as much of the country as I can, to go as many places as I can talking to people. I mean, I literally spend all day every day finding people to talk to. And sometimes they’re people within campaigns, and sometimes they’re the campaign manager or the campaign strategist, and sometimes it’s the candidate—though we don’t get as much time with the candidates as we would like—but sometimes it’s the candidates. But most of the time, and it’s my time that’s best spent, is talking to voters, talking to voters of all stripes in all places, and then my job as a reporter is to basically try to share with you what I’ve learned and what I’ve heard. It doesn’t matter what my opinion is on anything, and as I talk to people, I want everybody to know that I’m going to be an honest broker when I talk to them and when they hear themselves on the air, they’re going to recognize themselves on the air as what they told me, as an accurate representation of what they told me. Doesn’t mean that they’re going to like what they hear on the air because they might regret telling me what they told me.
RLH: Have you run into that? Have you met someone that you spoke with and they didn’t realize how they sounded?
DG: It happens, it happens, but when you have a conversation with them, it’s like—this is what we talked about.
RLH: The Trump campaign recently underwent something of a reshaping, a reconfiguration. Can you tell us what’s happening there?
DG: So, they have brought in one of those old political hands whose experience goes back to Gerald R. Ford’s campaign for president in 1976. So Paul Manafort is in now. Corey Lewandowski is Trump’s sometimes controversial campaign manager.
RLH: He is still part of the staff.
DG: He is still part of the staff. He is still the campaign manager. The new guy is the campaign strategist, and he’s in charge of everything that relates to the convention and getting delegates.
RLH: And why did Trump feel the need to bring on an additional person with that kind of strategic expertise?
DG: I mean, the interesting thing is, when you say he is in charge of anything that has to do with getting delegates, that sounds like he’s in charge of everything that has to do with the campaign—to me. But again, Trump is very loyal to Corey Lewandowski and is not cutting him loose. But we don’t even know yet how these changes are affecting the internal relations of the campaign, right? But there’s the sense that, as successful as Trump has been, and he has been very successful, he’s been running an insurgent campaign, the ultimate insurgent campaign, the guy who’s running for the Party nomination while even kind of running against the Party, and the guy who hasn’t been a Republican his whole life and has given money to Democrats, including the Clintons, for gosh sakes, you know—but the insurgent campaign has tapped into something among voters. Now, early on, he was the great beneficiary of the fact that it was a really crowded field. So, you get in the mid-twenties, twenty percent, that’s enough to win, you know, but as the field has shrunk, Trump’s numbers have increased—still only in the 30s, generally speaking, in terms of what he’s been winning with. But it’s also allowed an opening for Ted Cruz. But here’s the catch: We’re now getting into that very complicated part of the race where, just because you won Louisiana, it doesn’t mean that the delegate allocation goes exactly according to the vote in Louisiana. Those are rules that have been in place for a long time. Every state has different rules, the state Party makes its own rules. To simplify it is, for all of its insurgent power, the Trump campaign has not been organized in a way that it knew how to navigate all the rules in every state, which is how Ted Cruz goes to Colorado this past weekend and cleans up and gets every single one of the thirty-four delegates. It’s not like he’s got 100% support there, but because Cruz is organized and has been organized in these places a long time, according to the rules in each place, he’s been able to take advantage of it, and he’s narrowing the gap. Again, hasn’t closed the gap, but he’s narrowing the gap. The Trump campaign is realizing they need a pro.
RLH: And he’s also angered some within the Trump campaign because he’s going after delegates who are pledged to Trump for that first vote at the convention and trying to secure the next round of balloting.
DG: Here’s where it really gets complicated. I’m going to try to not go too deep into the weeds here, but maybe a simple way to explain it, it’s like, okay, so, if you win a state, and that means you win a certain number of delegates, and those delegates have to vote for you on the first ballot at the convention in Cleveland, winning them does not say who those delegates actually are. So people still have to run in the state Party or congressional or district conventions in their state to actually become the delegate that fills that slot. So, you can have a guy that supports Cruz run and be one of those delegates who is bound to Trump on the first ballot, but guess what? If Trump doesn’t win on the first ballot in Cleveland, that person is not sticking with Trump on the second one. They’re a Cruz loyalist, now they’re free to go for the candidate they really like. Here’s the other thing that becomes complicated: That person may also be sitting in on the Rules Committee at the convention, so even if they’re pledged as a Trump delegate on the first ballot, it doesn’t mean they’re a Trump loyalist sitting in on that Rules Committee thing, so they could actually be writing rules and supporting rules that Trump does not like, even though they will be voting for him on the first ballot because they have to. That’s one example of— And we’re all looking at this process in ways we never have before. Only the real—I’ll say it—the real kind of geeks and political obsessives really lived in this world, but now, everybody with any passing interest in politics is trying to figure out the delegate rules everywhere so they can see what could happen in Cleveland.
RLH: So, as we go to the Republican Convention in July, I’ve heard some people say that if Trump or Cruz don’t wind up with the nomination, this would wind up disenfranchising, really upsetting, and possibly causing an un-mendable rift within the GOP. How do you see that playing out? Because other people have said, “Well, this is not a democracy, and we don’t have to operate by the same rules as a government does.”
DG: Right. This is a Party picking its nominee. There are democratic elements to it, obviously, and there are things that make people think it’s just like a democracy because there’s Election Day and you vote and you vote in the same precinct that you vote in in November and everything else, so that confuses the issue for a lot of people, but ultimately, it is a Party picking its nominee, and you know, it’s why the Democrats have super delegates as kind of this buffer that may or may not go against the vote in a given state, for example. Republicans have a smaller number of what they call unbound delegates. But it is a Party function and a Party setting its own rules to determine how it picks its nominee, and people, especially people new to the process, and let’s say it, Donald Trump is new to the process, he’s calling it a rigged game, he is lambasting the chairman of the RNC, Reince Priebus, he’s calling it a scam. He’s doing all of that. He’s already running against the Party when he may indeed still be its nominee and is still the most likely person to be its nominee. I’m not predicting that he’ll be its nominee, but he’s ahead, and by virtue of that, he’s still the most likely person.
RLH: So, I’m putting you now in the prognosticator seat. We go to the Republican convention, what happens? Who’s going to walk away with the nomination? Could it be Paul Ryan?
DG: Is the March Madness tournament too long ago to make an analogy?
RLH: No, not here, not here.
DG: So I’m the guy who—I shouldn’t say this in this state. I went to Michigan State, so I’m the guy who had Michigan State beating, you know, North Carolina and winning the whole title.
RLH: We’ll forgive you for that.
DG: Because of course, right? And along comes Middle Tennessee State and knocks Michigan State out in the first round, a 15 beating a 2, you know? So that’s my prognostication skill. But I mean, look, it is becoming more likely that we will have a contested convention. It’s becoming more likely. There’s still a path for Donald Trump to nail it down, to get the magic 1,237 by the time California votes.
RLH: Is that a pretty optimistic outlook at this point for him?
DG: He’s got to do well. He’s got to do well. Put it this way, it’s all relative, right? It’s far more likely for him than it is for Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz would just have to go on a huge roll and win everything by big margins, but Trump still needs—I’m going to throw out a number but it may not be spot on—but he needs to get something like 57% of the delegates the rest of the way. New York’s got something like 95 delegates next week, and if he really cleans up in New York, as polls indicate, then he’s got more than 57% there, maybe he’ll get 67%, maybe he’ll get 100%. That’s a big thing, and then suddenly we revise downward the challenge for him going forward. He doesn’t have to do quite as well as 57% going forward if he really does well in New York. Then comes Pennsylvania where he’s also doing really well. So if he cleans up in those two states, suddenly the narrative may be, “Oh, now he’s kind of back on track, and it looks like, under reasonable circumstances, he’s going to get it.” But as it stands right now, he’s got to have a really good run to nail it down on the last day. There’s no way he can do it before the last day.
RLH: So, then, let’s say he gets to the convention and he doesn’t have that magic number of 1,237 delegates and it’s a contested convention. Do you think that someone like Paul Ryan could parachute in and walk away with the nomination?
DG: Paul Ryan yesterday for the umpteenth time, he held a news conference on Capital Hill and said, “I am not running. We should change the rules so that the only people who can get the nomination would be someone who has run.”
RLH: But didn’t he say that about the House speakership as well?
DG: He sure did. So, you know, but the thing with Paul Ryan is he is the new Speaker of the House, and he wants to protect the House majority because if it should turn out that it’s a great Democratic year, and, you know, the Democrats win the presidency, and if Trump is the nominee, there’s talk that that could hurt candidates down-ballot, Republicans all the way down, running for House seats and even at the state level. The fear among many Republicans is that they could lose the House. And then, guess what? Paul Ryan becomes the Minority Leader of the House. So he wants to protect the leadership, the majority, and his speakership. You’ve got to believe he’s got his eye on 2020 or 2024. He’s still a young man, but it feels like he means it. I guess the question is, how many questions can Paul Ryan be the answer to? You know, I mean, it’s like every time there’s a crisis, “Oh, we’ve got Paul Ryan, we’ll just go to him.” I think he means it. I think he really means it. I think he wants to protect his House majority. But, it ain’t going away, that talk because the way you just asked the question is the way it’s going to continue to be asked.
RLH: Before we get to the Democratic side, which is also interesting and unorthodox but seemingly less complicated, I just have to ask you about Donald Trump himself. On Meet the Press recently, some of the correspondents on the panel said that he was a fun guy. They characterized him as fun in a one-on-one situation.
DG: I haven’t had a one-on-one with him, so I can’t speak to how fun he is.
RLH: Okay, that was just an adjective that I wouldn’t have expected.
DG: Yeah, but I guess I can see it. But I’m not sure in what context those reporters were hanging with him, if they were actual reporters and not other kind of, uh, consultants or whatever. But yeah, I don’t have that kind of experience with him so I’ll just leave it as that.
RLH: So taking a look, then, at the Democratic side, does Bernie Sanders still have a chance or is this really just about how soon Hillary Clinton can shake him loose?
DG: He has a chance, but she has a big lead. She not only has a lead in delegates in actual contests even though he has won, you know, he’s won a string now—7 in a row, something like that? Now, some of her wins are states like Florida, which is a big place with a lot of votes. His, some of them at least, have been in smaller places. You add it all up, which is what you have to do, she has many more actual votes, which gives her a delegate lead and then there are those super delegates, you know, 700 super delegates on the Democratic side, more than 700 actually, and I think they represent something like 15%, 16% of the total. She overwhelmingly has those. So the challenge for him is not only to go on a continued winning streak where he wins by greater margins than he has been winning so far. It’s not just a matter of winning. He has to win by a margin enough so that he can make up ground, right? He has to keep doing that, and then he would have to persuade super delegates already pledged to her to switch to him. So those are two very, very big tasks. She has not clinched it yet, but she has a big lead.
RLH: There’s no doubt that this year’s presidential campaign is going to go down in history as one of the more compelling races—
DG: I was wondering what adjective you were going to come up with. Compelling works.
RLH: Last night, at an event, you talked about how, six months ago, you just, you were wrong and wrong and wrong about how this was going to go. You weren’t alone, everybody was.
DG: Right, I was in good company. And I didn’t put my predictions on the air because that’s not my job.
RLH: So, going back fifteen years to 2001 when you became the White House Correspondent in the George W. Bush White House. It wasn’t that much— nine months later, September 11th happens.
DG: Yeah, it was less than 9 months. And that presidency, obviously, came on the heels of the kind of election that we would never see the likes of again, it was so unprecedented and everything else, and we haven’t seen the likes of it again. We’ve just seen different kinds of totally unexpected things.
RLH: Has there ever been another presidential election decided in the Supreme Court?
DG: No, no, no. And it took weeks and weeks and weeks for the final decision to come down and battles over the recount, and ultimately, the Supreme Court weighed in and stopped the recounts where they were and awarded Florida to George W. Bush. So you come in to a presidency and to covering the presidency under those circumstances, and we talk about how divided the country is now, well, you know, it was plenty divided then, you know, there were open wounds, and people were just angry. I remember seeing, during the recount in those weeks, there would be protesters every day outside the Naval Observatory in Washington where the Vice President lives, with signs that said—and Al Gore lived there, he was still the Vice President and either way would be until January—waving signs, “Get out of Chaney’s House!” And I mean, it was, both sides, it was hugely polarized, and you could also see it in the reaction of the coverage we would do of the new president. But then 9/11 happened. And then, I didn’t think it was possible, but obviously that was such a horrific occurrence and a searing event and tragedy, that the nation rallied behind George W. Bush.
RLH: And what a position for you to be thrust into as a relatively new White House Correspondent. What was that like for you?
DG: And new to Washington. I’d been NPR’s Detroit bureau for many years before that. It’s, again, you know, every day you just try to keep your focus: What is happening here? What did we learn today? What does it mean? How do we go forward? The thing is, when it’s a story like that, it becomes the focus of everyone and everyone at the network as well, so there’s a lot of support, obviously, and a lot of people figuring out, “What’s our story today? How do we tell the story?” But it set into motion a series of events that I’m still covering today. We had the war in Afghanistan, troops are still there and turmoil is still there and leadership problems and everything else. Obviously, the Iraq war followed and all the controversy leading up to it and all the controversy since. I’ll go to a Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton event or debate, and he’s still questioning her judgment for voting to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq, and that’s the story that started that day, on 9/11. It’s the long reach of that horrible moment in American history that will continue to define so much of our politics and what we do for so long going forward.
RLH: Can you go back to that day? What was it like to be a White House correspondent during the September 11th attacks?
DG: That day, people may recall, President Bush was in Florida—and he was in a classroom reading to kids, reading a children’s book, My Pet Goat was the name of the book—when he got the word, Andy Card whispered in his ear. I wasn’t with him that day because we’d covered a few of these previous education trips, and we didn’t go on that one. So I dropped my kids off at the public school, couple blocks from our house, and I was catching the bus to go to the metro to go to the White House, and I was going to have a day without the President there to work on future stories or whatever.
And it was after I’d dropped my kids off, and I’m at the bus stop, my phone rings, and it’s my editor, Ron Elving, who says, “A plane hit the World Trade Center. Looks like it’s a small plane or something. Just, you know, keep an eye on it, and there might need to be some reaction from the White House later.” While I’m on the phone with him, the second plane hit, and we both immediately knew. I get this pit in my stomach even just thinking about it now.
So I hustled to the White House. I got a cab, went to the White House. And as I’m going through security, that’s when the Pentagon got hit. That’s when they evacuated the White House. So, I was halfway through the security path, and suddenly they’re pushing everyone out. There are young women who work inside the West Wing running up the driveway, holding their high heels, their shoes, because they can run faster in their bare feet. And there are people who have been working in the White House kitchen, with chef’s garb on, piling out. All of these people running up the driveway, and the next thing you know, you’re pushed into Lafayette Park, which is where the first perimeter was, right across the street.
I remember thinking, I’ve got to call home, I’ve got to call home. And of course, you can’t get cell service, right? I’m going back and forth on speed dial, trying to call Morning Edition to get on the air—busy, busy, no signal. Then I’d try home, then I’d try work, then I’d try home, and I figured, if I got on the air, maybe my wife would hear that and she’d know I’m okay.
But she picked up, right? She picks up the phone, and she goes, “Hey, what’s up?” And I realize she has no idea what is happening in the world. What do you do in that moment? You’re standing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, and there are Secret Service everywhere, and there are helicopters flying overhead, and by now, there are fighter jets flying overhead, and I have to tell her quickly what’s going on. So finally I just said, “There’s been an attack on New York and Washington. I’m okay. Turn on the radio, just turn on the radio, and you’ll hear everything.”
I had this moment where I remember telling her, “I don’t know when we’re going to talk again, and if you feel like you need to get the kids out of school and go somewhere, be prepared to just make that decision and do what you think you need to do.” Because I knew how hard it was to reach her in that half an hour. You stop and it’s like, I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. And everybody in the country is kind of experiencing this in this powerful, gut wrenching way, and everybody felt like there was a potential for something to happen right where they were. And I happen to be at the White House. And god knows, that was certainly a potential target if not an actual target. It was just one of those moments.
And I hung up, and then Morning Edition called me, and you just take the deepest breath you’ve ever taken in your life and you just describe the scene around you. I stayed there for the whole day. I was in the very unusual position of not being anywhere near a television. So I didn’t see any of those images of the planes hitting the Towers or anything until the end of the day, 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock at night, because that was when I finally left the front of the White House. I stopped at the National Press building on my way back to NPR and there were monitors there.
RLH: So other than what you were observing at the White House, where were you getting your information?
DG: There were some White House staffers around who had evacuated but, guess what, they didn’t know anything more than we did. I was getting practically no information. I was describing what I was seeing, I was describing the scene outside the White House. Suddenly, the fighter jets are appearing overhead, and it’s so oddly comforting. So that’s all I was doing was describing the scene, and people were gathering, and I was talking to people. You kick into reporter mode, and you do your job. And then I think I walked all the way home that night—like, miles—because there weren’t cabs and the metro was either not running or too crowded or something. I got home and it was just— That’s the moment you just let it go.
RLH: And was your family there?
DG: Family was there, yeah. They’d let out of school. It kind of quickly became calm after the initial hour or two. But that was, yeah— To talk about it, it does, it comes right back, what it was like to be in that moment. And I’ve never gone back and listened to NPR’s coverage of that day. Yeah, I don’t feel the need to relive it by listening to it.
RLH: You were NPR’s lead reporter in 2008 covering the Obama campaign, and of course, not even talking about political leanings, as that’s not an issue for a correspondent or a reporter or journalist—what is it like to be on the road with a campaign? I would think that almost by definition because you’re sharing space and you’re sharing that narrative, you’re sharing that journey with that candidate that your human capacity for empathy would almost cause you to become a supporter? How do you keep that emotional distance?
DG: For me, that’s never an issue. You don’t have a horse in the race, and when I’m covering a story, I don’t have an axe to grind or a point of view to represent. And I can tell you, there are plenty of times when, you know, they really don’t like to see your face in the morning because of the story you did yesterday about the rough day they had or whatever it is. And they have their narrative, and it’s always the rosy scenario narrative, and it’s your job to puncture that and to put a reality check on it, which they don’t like. My goal was to try to capture what I was seeing on the inside and how they were maneuvering through this process, and early on, it was the jockeying against Hillary Clinton, which was interesting because they agreed on so many things, obviously. But it came down in the debate on health care, Obama saying you didn’t need a mandate and Hillary Clinton saying you did need a mandate—kind of fact checking the mandate stuff against the real world. And guess what? When we get Obamacare, guess what it’s got? A mandate, just like Clinton said was needed. So you’re kind of involved in the minutia a little bit, but you’re also trying to capture why people are coming to see him, what they’re looking for. And your pieces are always paired with pieces from the other campaigns and the other side. In hearing all of them together, people get a complete picture.
RLH: Going a little bit further back in history to the beginnings of your career, you started your professional radio life not in news at all.
DG: I’ve never studied journalism. I took a class here and there, even though I was a new junkie. But I went to Michigan State, as I said, couldn’t find a job when I got out of school with my dual degree in Advertising and Broadcasting. I knew I wanted to write. I knew I wanted to do something creative. I found a job as a country—we used to call it country western disc jockey, now it’d just be a country disc jockey.
RLH: Is that your music of choice today?
DG: I love country music. I love, like, the real-deal classic stuff. I just mourn the passing of the great Merle Haggard and George Jones and Loretta and Tammy. All of that music really does speak to me. I heard a good bit of it growing up, even though I grew up in a household where it was mostly classical music. But I always had this affinity for the old country classics, and I still do.
RLH: And then one day in 1981, you wandered into the county fair, holding your gear, and one of your personal heroes was there.
DG: Yeah, so, it was the Monroe County Fair. This was in Monroe, Michigan; it’s rural, it’s south of Detroit, and Johnny Cash was coming to the fair. Johnny Cash, for gosh sake! So I tried to get an interview with him, nothing. I went through his management, no response. They weren’t turning me down, just nothing, no response. I finally went to a guy who worked for the Fair Bureau, I think it was called, and he said, “These people are always nice when they get here. I don’t know if I can get you an interview, but I can tell you where he’s going to walk. His bus is going to be parked there, and the stage is there, so if you park yourself on this railing right here, he’s probably going to walk by and maybe you can at least get him to say hi and record some station promos for you or something.” And sure enough, he came by, and I already had my recorder rolling. There were a few other fans and a guy from the local newspaper there. So I asked him a question, and he answered it. And he stood there. And I asked him another one. And I asked him another one. And he stood there for 15 minutes with me. He was the nicest guy in the world, he was the nicest guy in the world, and I asked the stupidest questions. It was so encouraging to me, and I held onto that tape forever, including the photo of me in my little plaid shirt and my corduroy Wrangler vest and my thick head of dark hair and sideburns.
RLH: And as you were asking these questions, you kept expecting him to walk away.
DG: I kept expecting him to walk away, but he kept, you know, I mean, for whatever reason. I said, I said, “So why do you always dress in black?” It’s like, “Ugh, what a question!” And he gave me the best answer! First he said, “Well, it’s slimming.” I love that! And then he actually talked about the song and how he wears it to highlight injustices in the world. It’s a beautiful answer, but it also kind of captures him.
So I put together a special for my local commercial station that I was working for, and it ran on Saturday night, and nobody heard it. But I held onto the tape. I held onto that tape. Of course! It was this cassette that I kept in my basement. And about four years ago, I think it was, I was filling in as a host on one of the weekend shows on NPR, and I told the producer that I had this old tape, and he said, “We’re doing it. We’re doing a story.” I said, “What are you talking about?” So he encouraged me, it was Tom Bullock. We put together that piece. And I’m very proud of it and I’m very thankful for that moment, I really am.
RLH: And when you look back, you’re kind of hard on yourself about the questions that you asked. Is it hard to listen back to you as a cub reporter?
DG: It’s a little hard, except we also played clips of me being a DJ in that story, which was the really hard part to listen to because I was awful. You know, I cut myself a lot of slack because I was 22 years old or something like that. And you know, I had the nerve. I had the nerve to hang in there and make it happen when there was no reason it should have happened. It truly was a moment, especially given how decent he was, and he didn’t need to be so decent to me. I was a nobody from a station he’d ever heard of. But because he was so decent and it was such a positive experience, I drew on that for years. I drew on that for years. It was such a positive experience that—I was a dopey kid of 22, and it’s still one of my all-time favorite high points of my career.
RLH: When you look back over your career, just looking at the political side of things, has your own view of politics changed based on your experience in the world and what you’ve covered? Do you think that you’ve become a more tolerant, more empathic person or have you become less tolerant over the years?
DG: I hope I’ve always been pretty tolerant. Empathy is something I hope I always have. When I walk up to people and interview them, I realize what I’m asking them to do, to talk into my microphone, especially if they’re just a citizen trying to eat their eggs for breakfast.
I’m a skeptical person, but I’m not a cynical person. That’s just me. I guess I can credit my dad’s temperament for that. My dad was a really sweet, sweet guy. I went through my whole life and never had an argument with my dad.
I just feel like this job gives me license to talk to people, and I feel like, if they trust me to talk to them, I have to treat them well. I kind of approach covering politics that same way. Obviously, you have to be skeptical and you have to fact check and do all of that, but I don’t approach it from the point of view of a cynic and that this is all a mess and no good’s going to come of it. That’s just not my point of view or my temperament—temperament is a better word, point of view isn’t the best word.
RLH: Do you vote?
DG: I do vote. I do vote. I know some reporters don’t, but we’re citizens. We’re citizens, and we live here. And I do vote, and there’s all kinds of local issues that are important and this and that, but my feeling is, I want to think I’m good at separating whatever my personal views are. You know, everybody’s got an opinion, and even if you didn’t vote, you have an opinion, but I have no right to impose my opinion on our listeners. I have great sources and great relationships with people from all across the political spectrum, and I think it’s because they think I’ve treated them fairly and represented them fairly on the air. And you know something? Who knows if my opinions are right. So, if I need to put my opinions in my stories, then I just need to do something else.
RLH: How do you fill the reservoir? How do you fill that creative reservoir and rest and rejuvenate?
DG: You know, hanging out with my daughters is certainly a thing. Family is important. I listen to country music. Nothing like a great old George Jones record or a Johnny Cash record. I go to a lot of baseball games, and when I’m on the road, if I have the chance to catch a minor league game somewhere, I’ll just take the night and sit in a minor league ball park. And maybe I’ll think about the next day and what I’m going to do, but I’m watching baseball. And that helps a lot too.
RLH: It’s been a pleasure having you on CoastLine today. Thank you.
DG: It’s been fun. Thanks for having me.