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Barnes and... A Conversation with Johathan Alter

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HELLO AGAIN, EVERYONE, AND THANKS VERY MUCH FOR JOINING US. JONATHAN ALTER WAS GRADUATED FROM HARVARD UNIVERSITY IN 1979 AND SOON ENOUGH JOINED THE LEGENDARY WASHINGTON MONTHLY MAGAZINE. FOR THE PAST QUARTER CENTURY, HE HAS BEEN AN EDITORIAL MAIN STAY AT NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE, AND HE JOINS US NOW. MR. ALTER, THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR COMING IN.

HI, STEVE.

YOU ARE THE AUTHOR OF A VERY HIGHLY REGARDED VOLUME ON THE ROOSEVELT -- ACTUALLY, THE FIRST 100 DAYS OF THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION. AND YOU ARE AT THE CLINTON SCHOOL OF PUBLIC SERVICE IN LANDMARK LITTLE ROCK AS THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION ENDS ITS, MORE OR LESS, FIRST HUNDRED DAYS. PARALLELS?

A LOT OF PARALLELS. ALMOST EARY SIMILARITIES. OBVIOUSLY, 19933 WAS WORSE.

SUBSTANTIALLY WORSE.

TODAY WE HAVE ABOUT 8% UNEMPLOYMENT, AND THE STOCK MARKET IS DOWN 30%. BACK THEN, WE HAD 23% UNEMPLOYMENT, DIDN'T INCLUDE WOMEN, SO IT WAS REALLY HIGHER. THE STOCK MARKET WAS DOWN 90%. A LOT OF PEOPLE THOUGHT THAT BOTH CAPITALISM AND DEMOCRACY WERE AT AN END. SO THINGS WERE WORSE THEN, BUT ON THINGS LIKE THE FORECLOSURE CRISIS, THE BANKING CRISIS, THE CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE, THE QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT WE OWE EACH OTHER AS A PEOPLE, WHAT THE SOCIAL CONTRACT SHOULD BE, MANY OF THOSE ARE VERY, VERY SIMILAR.

WHAT ABOUT APPROACHES? THERE'S A LOT OF MONEY BEING SPENT.

THE APPROACHES ARE ALSO SIMILAR, AND BARACK OBAMA ACTUALLY WENT TO SCHOOL ON FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, SO WHEN ROOSEVELT SAID WE NEED BOLD, PERSISTENT EXPERIMENTATION, OBAMA SAID WE'RE GOING TO EXPERIMENT A LOT. ROOSEVELT SAID IN HIS INAUGURAL ADDRESS, THE ONE THAT'S FAMOUS FOR THE ONLY THING WE HAVE TO FEAR IS FEAR ITSELF, HE ALSO SAID WE NEED ACTION AND ACTION NOW. OBAMA HAS ALSO USED THE WORD "ACTION" A LOT. THEN HE FOLLOWED THROUGH LIKE ROOSEVELT. ROOSEVELT HAD ABOUT 15 MAJOR PIECES OF LEGISLATION IN HIS FIRST HUNDRED DAYS. OBAMA, IF YOU INCLUDE THE STIMULUS BILL BEING, YOU KNOW, FIVE OR SIX MAJOR BILLS, WHICH IT REALLY WAS, HE HAS ABOUT 11 OR 12 MAJOR PIECES OF LEGISLATION, AND HE'S ACTUALLY IN CONSTANT DOLLARS SPENT A LOT MORE MONEY THAN ROOSEVELT DID, PARTLY BECAUSE WE HAVE UNDERSTOOD IN THE YEARS SINCE THAT THE ONLY WAY TO GET OUT OF A SERIOUS RECESSION OR A DEPRESSION IS THROUGH MASSIVE GOVERNMENT SPENDING. THAT'S THE ONLY WAY WE GOT OUT OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION AND EVEN CONSERVATIVE ECONOMISTS RECOGNIZE THAT IN THE SHORT-TERM YOU HAVE TO SPEND HEAVILY. SO HIS -- OBAMA'S SPENDING HAS BEEN REALLY, REALLY EXTENSIVE. ROOSEVELT WAS QUITE A BIT MORE CONSERVATIVE IN HIS FIRST HUNDRED DAYS, THEN WENT ON TO DO MORE BOLD THINGS LIKE SOCIAL SECURITY A COUPLE YEARS LATER.

ONE OF THE BOOKS MR. OBAMA READ WAS YOURS. I'LL LIFT THE BURDEN OF CONFLICT OF INTEREST. THE DEFINING MOMENT WAS YOUR WORK, WHICH MR. OBAMA REPORTEDLY ACKNOWLEDGED READING. IN A STATE NOW, ARKANSAS, THAT WAS NOT THE ONLY STATE RESCUED BY THE NEW DEAL. BUT ONE THAT WAS ESPECIALLY RESCUED BY. FOR EXAMPLE, I'M NOT ALONE IN THIS. I HAVE AN UNCLE WHO SURVIVED BECAUSE OF THE OLD CCC. WENT OFF TO WASHINGTON.

BIG PART OF MY BOOK, THE CCC. ROOSEVELT'S TREE ARMY. THREE MILLION MEN PLANTED THREE BILLION TREES, AND THEY SAVED THE TOPSOIL OF THE UNITED STATES. NOT ONLY FED A LOT OF FAMILIES, BUT WE WOULD BE IN A LOT OF TROUBLE IN THIS COUNTRY IF IT WASN'T FOR THE CCC.

HERE'S ANOTHER PARALLEL, IF I MAY. CRITICISM LEVEL AT MR. ROOSEVELT FROM THE RIGHT, FROM THE OLD CAPITALIST BASTIONS, WAS VIRTIOLIC AT TIMES, AND NOW WHAT'S DIRECTED AT MR. OBAMA IS ABSOLUTELY POISONOUS. HE'S DESTROYING CAPITALISM ALL OVER AGAIN.

YEAH. YOU DO HEAR A LOT OF THAT.

NOT SO CREEPING SOCIALISM. IT'S EMINENT. MEANS OF PRODUCTION BEING CONFISCATED BY WASHINGTON AND THE LOT. YOUR THOUGHTS.

YEAH, I ACTUALLY THINK THINGS WERE ARE YOU EVER IN THE 30s.  -- ROUGHER IN THE 30s. IT'S KIND OF HARD FOR US TO IMAGINE, BUT THEY REALLY PLAYED ROUGH. FOR INSTANCE, TAKE THE CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS, WHICH BY THE WAY, WAS THE FIRST NATIONAL SERVICE PROGRAM, AND JUST RECENTLY, PRESIDENT OBAMA SIGNED A BILL THAT EXTENDED BILL CLINTON'S AMERICORPS FROM 75,000 TO 250,000, WHICH WAS THE ORIGINAL SIZE OF THE CCC. SO IN THE SPRING OF '33, WHEN THEY'RE TRYING TO GET THE CCC THROUGH, IT'S ATTACKED ON CAPITOL HILL AS STALINISM AND HITLERISM. THEY CALLED HIM STALIN DELL KNOW ROOSEVELT. AND WORSE. THEY ACCUSED HIM OF HIDDEN HIS BACKGROUND, A JOOU, ALL KINDS OF NASTY STUFF THAT WENT ON DURING THE NEW DEAL. YOU DO SEE A LOT OF IT NOW. IT'S KIND OF A PERMANENT PART OF OUR POLITICS, UNFORTUNATELY. BUT WHAT I FIND A LITTLE BIT SURPRISING AND UNUSUAL IS A POSITION OF A STATE LIKE ARKANSAS VIS-A-VIS A PROGRESSIVE ADMINISTRATION IN WASHINGTON BECAUSE TRADITIONALLY, IF YOU GO BACK TO, IN THE HISTORY OF ARKANSAS, IT REALLY DOES HAVE PROGRESSIVE ROOTS THAT COME OUT OF THAT NEW DEAL PERIOD, AND A LOT OF ARKANSANS FELT LIKE THE GOVERNMENT TAKING AN ACTIVE ROLE IN SOCIETY SAVED THEIR FARM, SAVED THEIR HOMES DURING THE DEPRESSION. SO NOW HERE COMES ANOTHER PRESIDENT, WHO IS ALSO INTERESTED IN DOING SOMETHING ABOUT, SAY, FORECLOSURES, WHICH, YOU KNOW, HERBERT HOOVER AND GEORGE W. BUSH DIDN'T CARE IF YOU WERE GOING TO GET FORECLOSED ON. ROOSEVELT, OBAMA TAKE A DIFFERENT VIEW. BUT THE ARKANSANS THIS TIME ARE SIDING MORE WITH THE REPUBLICANS, WHICH I FIND VERY, VERY INTERESTING TO WATCH.

IN A BIG WAY.

YEAH.

THE ARGUMENT THAT MR. OBAMA IS SIMPLY FINISHING WHAT WAS SET INTO MOTION BY MR. ROOSEVELT, AND THAT WAS A STEADY MARCH TOWARDS STATISM IN THE AFFAIRS OF STATE. DO YOU ACCEPT THAT? WHAT'S YOUR RESPONSE TO THAT?

I FIND THIS USE OF THE WORD SOCIALIST VERY ANTIQUE. FIRST OF ALL, IT DOESN'T HAVE ITS STING ANYMORE. WHEN YOU CALL SOMEBODY, FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, A SOCIALIST OR SOMETHING, WHAT YOU WERE SAYING IS HE WAS JUST SHY OF BEING COMMUNIST. WE ALL KNOW THAT COMMUNISM WAS A TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE FORCE IN HUMAN HISTORY. SO IF YOU CALLED SOMEBODY A SOCIALIST, THE INSULT MEANT SOMETHING. NOW ADAS IF YOU CALL SOMEONE A SOCIALIST, WHAT DOES IT MEAN? IT'S NOT EVEN ACCURATE. A TRUE SOCIALIST WANTS THE GOVERNMENT TO RUN THINGS. OBAMA WON'T EVEN NATIONALIZE THE BANKS. YOU KNOW? SO OBAMA DOESN'T WANT -- AND THE -- THE GOVERNMENT TO BE RUNNING ALL OF THESE THINGS. HE DOESN'T WANT TO GET RID OF PRIVATE INSURANCE EVEN IN HEALTH CARE. SO I THINK IT'S KIND OF AN EMPTY AND INTELLECTUALLY SILLY EPITHET. AS A PRACTICAL MATTER, ARE WE MOVING TOWARD FULFILLING SOME OF THE UNFILLED ROOSEVELT AGENDA ON HEALTH CARE, FOR INSTANCE? BECAUSE ROOSEVELT DID BELIEVE IN EXTENDING SOCIAL SECURITY TO HEALTH CARE. YES. IT BEGAN UNDER LYNDON JOHNSON WITH THE ESTABLISHMENT OF MEDICARE AND MEDICAID, AND NOW FIRST THE CLINTONS, AND NOW OBAMA WANT TO FINISH THAT GREAT UNFINISHED AGENDA. ACTUALLY, HARRY TRUMAN WANTED TO FINISH THAT PART OF ROOSEVELT'S AGENDA AND WAS STYMIED. BUT IS THAT SOME SORT OF LIKE SOMETHING THAT EVERYBODY GOING BACK TO ROOSEVELT WANTED? IS THAT SOMEHOW AT ODDS WITH THE AMERICAN SPIRIT? ONLY IF YOU WERE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE THAT THOUGHT THAT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT WAS A BAD PRESIDENT, YOU KNOW, OR DIDN'T DO ANYTHING. AND YOU DO HAVE A GROUP NOW OF CONSERVATIVE CRITICS WHO FEEL LIKE THE NEW DEAL WAS A MENACE. BUT TO GIVE YOU AN EXAMPLE, IN 1936, ROOSEVELT CARRIED ALL BUT TWO STATES, AND HE CARRIED ARKANSAS BY OVER 75%.

YEAH, HUGE.

SO YOU KNOW, THE QUESTION IS I GUESS IF YOU BELIEVE ROOSEVELT WAS A BAD PRESIDENT, THEN THERE WOULD BE THAT CONNECTION. OBAMA'S ALSO A BAD PRESIDENT. THE PART THAT'S PUZZLING IS IF YOU THOUGHT ROOSEVELT WAS A GOOD PRESIDENT, WHY DOES THAT MAKE OBAMA A BAD PRESIDENT? THAT'S THE DISCONNECT THERE AMONGST SOME VOTERS.

YOU SEE A WINDOW HERE -- IF THAT'S THE RIGHT TERM -- FOR HEALTH CARE REFORM, REFORM BEING SUBJECT TO ANYBODY'S INTERPRETATION.

YEAH.

IS IT TIMELY?

YEAH, I DO. I THINK IT IS, AND I THINK THAT WHEN IT HAPPENS, IT WILL BE SEEN AS BEING -- PEOPLE WON'T MAKE SO MUCH REFERENCE TO ROOSEVELT, BUT THEY WILL TALK ABOUT FULFILLING BILL AND HILLARY CLINTON'S UNFINISHED AGENDA. THEY DIDN'T PROPOSE IT IN THE SMARTEST WAY POSSIBLE IN 1993 AND '94, AND I THINK THAT THE OBAMA FOLKS, WITH THE HELP OF A LOT OF CLINTONITES WHO ARE NOW WORKING IN THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION, THEY'RE LEARNING SOME OF THE LESSONS OF THAT LAST EXPERIENCE. THEY'RE WORKING TOGETHER MORE. THEY'RE LESS ANTAGONISTIC. THE MOOD ON CAPITOL HILL IS MUCH MORE RECEPTIVE TO REAL REFORM. THE INTEREST GROUPS -- I JUST SPOKE RECENTLY TO THE HEAD OF THE HEALTH INSURANCE INDUSTRY. THEY'RE MUCH MORE POSITIVE ABOUT REFORM THAN THEY WERE 15 YEARS AGO. THE GUY WHO MADE THOSE FAMOUS HARRY AND LOUISE ADS THAT KILLED HILLARY CLINTON'S REFORM PROPOSAL, HE'S NOW FOR HEALTH CARE REFORM. THERE ARE A NUMBER OF OTHER THINGS THAT PUT IT ON TRACK. NOW, THE DEVIL'S IN THE DETAILS, SO WHAT'S POSSIBLE IS NOT THAT IT WILL BE ENTIRELY DEFEATED, BUT THAT WHAT EMERGES WILL BE MORE WATERED DOWN THAN REAL ADVOCATES OF REFORM WOULD PREFER.

WHERE'S THE REPUBLICAN PARTY TODAY?

WELL, YOU KNOW, IT REMINDS ME A LITTLE BIT OF THAT OLD JAMES BOND NOVEL AND MOVIE THAT I LIKED WHEN I WAS A KID. THEY'RE SORT OF THE DR. NO PARTY. IT'S UNFORTUNATE BECAUSE I'M A BIG BELIEVER IN A STRONG TWO-PARTY SYSTEM, AND I THINK THERE ARE SOME CONSERVATIVE IDEAS THAT I FAVOR. YOU KNOW, FOR INSTANCE, PHASING OUT THE PAYROLL TAX. IT'S NOT A GOOD TAX, AND IT HURTS WORKING FAMILIES, AND IF THEY WERE TO ADOPT SOMETHING LIKE THAT, THEN I WOULD SAY, WELL, AT LEAST THEY'RE STANDING FOR SOMETHING. BUT WHAT DO THEY STAND FOR NOW? IT'S REALLY A PROBLEM FOR SOMEBODY WHO IS BASICALLY KIND OF AN INDEPENDENT-MINDED PERSON. THEIR PROPOSAL ON CAPITOL HILL THIS YEAR WAS A BUDGET FREEZE. THAT'S THE ABSOLUTE WORST THING YOU COULD POSSIBLY DO DURING A RECESSION. IF YOU TOOK AN ARRAY OF OPTIONS AND YOU HAD SOMETHING LIKE MARTIN FELLEDSTEIN WHO WAS RONALD REAGAN'S BUDGET ADVISOR, SHOULD WE HAVE A BUDGET FREEZE NOW? GOD, NO, THAT'S THE WORST THING TO DO.

EVERYBODY'S A CAINSIAN?

ON CAPITOL HILL, THEY ARE SO OUT OF SYNC WITH THE MAINSTREAM OF THE COUNTRY THAT, YOU KNOW, IT REMINDS ME OF SOMETHING REGAN -- THEY'RE SO FAR LEFT, THE LEFT-WINGERS WERE OUT OF SYNC, SO THEY'RE SO FAR LEFT THEY LEFT THE COUNTRY. THE RIGHT IS SO FAR RIGHT THEY'VE WRITTEN THEMSELVES RIGHT OUT OF THE DEBATE. THEY'RE NOT RELEVANT RIGHT NOW IN WASHINGTON. THEY MIGHT BE IN ARKANSAS, BUT THEY'RE NOT IN WASHINGTON. IT'S A REAL PROBLEM FOR THAT PARTY.

IT RETAINS, AS IT -- IT WOULD APPEAR TO, ANYWAY, AS ITS VERY CORE, THE SOCIAL CONSERVATIVES, CHRISTIAN EVANGELICALS, THE GODS, GUNS, GATES. HOW DOES IT MOVE BEYOND THAT? WHERE DOES IT FIND ITS POLICY FOOTING? OR FISCAL INFORM.

ONE THING THAT HAS HAPPENED, ON GUNS, FOR INSTANCE, IT'S VERY INTERESTING. OBAMA DOES NOT WANT TO TAKE ON THAT DEBATE, SO HE'S NOT GOING TO TRY TO PUSH TO REIMPOSE THE ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN THAT BILL CLINTON GOT THROUGH IN 1994. HE DOESN'T WANT TO HAVE THAT FIGHT ON GUNS, AND HE DOESN'T WANT ANYBODY TO ACCUSE HIM OF TAKING PEOPLE'S GUNS AWAY, EVEN ASSAULT WEAPONS, SO HE'S JUST GOING TO LEAVE THAT BE AND NOT HAVE IT BE A DISTRACTION.

DEMOCRATS ON THEHILL DON'T WANT ANY PART OF IT EITHER.

THEY DON'T EITHER BECAUSE THEY LOST CONGRESS AND IT HURT BILL CLINTON BADLY. ARGUABLY THEY LOST THE CONGRESS AT LEAST IN PART ON THE GUN ISSUE IN 1994.  ON GAYS, THAT ISSUE HAS ALSO LOST SOME OF ITS STING. THE COUNTRY IS KIND OF CHANGING, AND YOU HAVE A WHOLE LIBERTARIAN STREAK THAT SAYS LOOK, WHAT BUSINESS OF IT IS MINE? DO I REALLY CARE? IS IT REALLY HURTING ME THAT MUCH WITH WHAT THESE FOLKS WANT TO DO? AND THAT'S WHERE PUBLIC OPINION IS MOVING. SO THERE'S STILL SOME POWER IN THAT ISSUE, BUT I DON'T THINK AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL, IT'S NOT SOMETHING THAT OBAMA'S GOING TO ENGAGE ON, SO IT'S BECOMING MORE OF A STATE AND LOCAL ISSUE.  AND ON GOD, I THINK THAT WE REACHED A -- A TURNING POINT IN OUR POLITICS WITH THE TERRY SCHIAVO CASE IN THE SECOND BUSH ADMINISTRATION, WHEN THE CONGRESS STOPPED EVERYTHING TO INTERFERE IN A VERY PRIVATE MATTER INVOLVING THIS BRAIN-DEAD WOMAN IN FLORIDA, AS IF IT WAS A MATTER FOR POLITICIANS TO BE DECIDE ARE, YOU KNOW -- DECIDING, YOU KNOW, FROM THOUSANDS OF MILES AWAY WHAT SHOULD BE GOING ON IN THESE VERY PERSONAL, MORAL CASES. I THINK THE COUNTRY AS A WHOLE KIND OF REBELLED AND SAID LOOK, ENOUGH OF THAT. WE ALL HAVE OUR PRIVATE FAITH, AND THE CONNECTION BETWEEN POLITICS AND FAITH I THINK WAS GREATLY AFFECTED BY THAT. AND SO NOW IT JUST DOESN'T HAVE THE -- THE SOCIAL CONSERVATIVES JUST DO NOT HAVE THE POE TENNESSEE THAT THEY ONCE HAD IN THE NATIONAL DEBATE. THEY WILL CONTINUE TO BE IMPORTANT IN A LOT OF LOCAL RACES, BUT YOU'RE NOT GOING TO SEE THEM WITH A HAMMER LOCK ON OUR NATIONAL POLITICS THE WAY WE'VE SEEN FOR THE LAST DECADE. THAT'S OVER.

DO YOU SENSE THAT -- OBVIOUSLY, AFTER MR. OBAMA'S INAUGURATION, THERE WAS, IN A SUBSTANTIAL PART OF THE COUNTRY, KIND OF A EUPHORIA, BUT I WONDER IF YOU HAVE A SENSE OF A DICHOTOMY IN PUBLIC SENTIMENT, BUT I'M PICKING UP SOME PRETTY POISONOUS STUFF. YOU LOOK ON CABLE, YOU LOOK ON TALK RADIO, AND SOME OF IT IS PRETTY ARRESTING.

IT'S POISONOUS. IT DOESN'T SURPRISE ME. I REMEMBER THE KINDS OF THINGS THAT THEY SAID ABOUT BILL CLINTON. I THINK THAT THIS HAS A LITTLE BIT OF A -- AN UNDERTONE, EVEN IF IT'S NOT EXPLICIT, THAT RELATES TO PRESIDENT OBAMA'S RACE WHICH MAKES IT MORE POISONOUS. THEY ACCUSED BILL CLINTON OF KILLING PEOPLE AT THE AIRPORT, WHATEVER THAT STUFF WAS IN THE '90s, SO THERE'S A A LONG HISTORY OF THIS. TALK RADIO IS STILL IMPORTANT, STILL POPULAR. RUSH LIMBAUGH IS NOT GOING AWAY, BUT IT'S BEEN MOVED TO THE FRINGES OF OUR POLITICS. AND THE BEST ILLUSTRATION OF THAT IS THAT THE WHITE HOUSE IS DELIGHTED TO HAVE RUSH LIMBAUGH AND EVEN DICK CHANEY SAYING THESE VERY POISONOUS THINGS -- I SHOULD SAY THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE. THE WHITE HOUSE LESS SO. BUT EVEN THEY, ON LIMBAUGH, NOT CHANEY, HAPPY TO HAVE HIM AS THE FACE OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY BECAUSE THEY KNOW THAT WHAT WE'RE TALKING ABOUT HERE, STEVE, IS 25% MAXIMUM OF THE ELECTORATE, AND AS LONG AS THAT 25% IS TALKING TO ITSELF AND THEY'RE NOT MAKING HEADWAY WITH INDEPENDENTS, WHAT'S HAPPENING IS THE RANKS OF DEMOCRATS NATIONALLY SWELLING, THE RANKS OF SELF-IDENTIFIED REPUBLICANS SHRINKING, AND AS LONG AS THAT HAPPENS, I THINK THE POISON IS JUST A PERMANENT PART OF OUR POLITICS THE WAY IT WAS WITH ROOSEVELT.

I DON'T MEAN TO SUGGEST THAT THERE'S NOT SOME PRETTY VEHEMENT STUFF ON THE LEFT AS WELL.

SOME OF THE STUFF ON THE LEFT THAT I GET, YOU KNOW, YOU WOULD THINK WHY WOULD I BE GETTING HIT BY PEOPLE ON THE LEFT. I GET BRUTALIZED ON SOME OF THESE BLOGS, LEFT-WING BLOGS. SOME OF IT JUST GOES WITH THE TERRITORY.

YEAH. IN THE CASE OF SOME TALK RADIO HOSTS, IT'S RAPIDLY AGING. I THINK I NOTICED ON --

OH, YEAH, YEAH. SEE, HERE'S THE PROBLEM FOR THE REPUBLICAN PARTY. AND AGAIN, I DON'T THINK THIS IS GOOD FOR THE COUNTRY BECAUSE I REALLY WANT A VITAL TWO-PARTY SYSTEM. BUT THEY'RE TURNING INTO AN OLD, POORLY EDUCATED, WHITE REGIONAL PARTY. THAT IS NOT THE FUTURE OF THE UNITED STATES. IF THEY WANT TO JUST DIG IN AND DO THE SAME OLD THING WITH THE SAME OLD-TIME RELIGION, THERE ARE A LOT OF REPUBLICANS WHO ARE SAYING THAT THAT -- THAT WAY LIES THE FATE OF THE WHIG PARTY. NOT A SMART WAY TO GO. BY THE WAY, AT THE STATE LEVEL, IT'S ALSO A PROBLEM. I WAS IN ARIZONA RECENTLY, AND THE REPUBLICANS THERE ARE -- THEY'RE FIGHTING THE DEMOCRATS ON STATE AID TO EDUCATION. WELL, HOW DO THEY EXPECT TO HAVE A VITAL STATE IN ARIZONA? I KNOW IT'S AN ISSUE IN ARKANSAS TOO -- IF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IS STANDING AGAINST FUNDING FOR EDUCATION. THEY WANT THEM TO GO BACK TO 1995 LEVELS OF FUNDING FOR ARIZONA EDUCATION. IS THAT SOMETHING FOR A POLITICAL PARTY TO STAND FOR AT THE STATE LEVEL? AND THIS IS REPLICATED IN A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT PLACES. SO THEY'VE GOT SOME REAL SOUL SEARCHING TO DO. THEY NEED TO THINK PAST THESE OLD CATEGORIES, THIS IDEA OF THE BASE, AS IF THEIR BASE IS GOING TO BRING THEM BACK TO NATIONAL POWER.  THE COUNTRY HAS MOVED ON. SMART REPUBLICANS KNOW IT. IF YOU LOOK AT SOMEBODY LIKE STEVE SHAH MYTH WHO RAN McCAIN'S CAMPAIGN, HE KNOWS RUNNING AGAINST GAYS IS A LOSER. THEY KNOW POLITICALLY THAT THEY HAVE TO TURN THE PAGE AND HAVE SOME SORT OF A NEW AGENDA WITHIN THE REPUBLICAN PARTY. AND BEING OUT OF POWER SHOULD FOCUS THEIR MIND ON DOING THAT, BUT ON CAPITOL HILL, THEY HAVEN'T REALLY RESPONDED IN VERY CREATIVE WAYS SO FAR.

YOU HAVE WRITTEN -- AMONG THE OBJECTIVES THAT MR. OBAMA HAS PUT FORTH IS -- I DON'T SAY THIS WITH ANY IRONY -- YET ANOTHER WAR ON CANCER.

YEAH.

THIS IS VERY PERSONAL TO YOU. YOU'RE A SURVIVOR.

I AM, YEAH. YOU KNOW, I WROTE A LOT IN MY BOOK ON FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, ABOUT ROOSEVELT'S POLIO AND HOW THAT HELPED PREPARE HIM FOR LEADERSHIP. AND I WAS INSPIRED AS I WAS WORKING ON THIS BY THE CHEERFULNESS WITH WHICH HE DEALT WITH HIS ILLNESS BECAUSE RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF WORKING ON THE DEFINING MOMENT, I GOT LYMPHOMA, A VERY SERIOUS VARIANT OF IT AND ENDED UP HAVING A STEM CELL BONE MARROW TRANSPLANT NOW A LITTLE BIT MORE THAN FOUR YEARS AGO. AND SO I -- I WAS VERY INVOLVED IN TRYING TO GET THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES TO PLEDGE TO EXPAND CANCER RESEARCH FUNDING. HILLARY CLINTON WAS AHEAD OF ME. SHE HAD ALREADY CALLED FOR DOUBLING CANCER RESEARCH FUNDING DURING THE CAMPAIGN, AND I PRESSED OBAMA TO MATCH THAT, WHICH HE DID, AND THEY PUT THROUGH A LOT OF MONEY IN THE STIMULUS. AND THEN THERE'S MORE IN THE BUDGET TO MOVE US BACK TO A SCIENCE-BASED RESEARCH APPROACH, WHICH WE'D KIND OF GOTTEN AWAY FROM SOME IN THE BUSH YEARS.  LOOK, CANCER TOUCHES ALMOST EVERY FAMILY IN THIS COUNTRY, AND IT -- YOU KNOW, IT KILLS MILLIONS OF PEOPLE. AND IF WE WERE IN A WAR THAT WAS KILLING MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, I THINK WE'D HAVE PEOPLE'S ATTENTION A LITTLE MORE IN TERMS OF FIGHTING IT. BUT I THINK WE'RE GETTING BACK INTO -- BACK INTO GEAR ON THIS, AND AS YOU SAY, IT'S A PRETTY PERSONAL ISSUE FOR ME.

WELL, IT ISN'T JUST MONEY, THOUGH. IT'S PROCESS. WITHIN THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY, YOU'VE BEEN CRITICAL OF THE LACK OF DIALOGUE OR THE RIVALRIES, THE PETTINESS IN RESEARCH THAT'S CHARACTERIZED RESEARCH.

YEAH. IT'S LIKE EDUCATION WHERE MONEY IS NOT THE ONLY ANSWER. YES, WE NEED MORE MONEY, BUT THAT'S KIND OF AN OLD AND SORT OF DISCREDITED LIBERAL IDEA THAT YOU JUST THROW MONEY AT A PROBLEM. YOU HAVE TO SPEND THE MONEY IN THE RIGHT WAY. AND SO ON CANCER RESEARCH, IT NEEDS TO BE SPENT ON WHAT'S CALLED TRANSLATIONAL RESEARCH. RIGHT NOW, BECAUSE YOU GET REWARDED MORE WITHIN MEDICINE FOR PUBLISHING A PAPER ON BASIC RESEARCH THAN YOU DO ON EXPERIMENTS THAT DON'T WORK, THERE'S NOT ENOUGH -- AMAZINGLY ENOUGH, THERE'S NOT AS MUCH EFFORT TO FIND CURES AS YOU WOULD THINK BECAUSE THE PAYOFF INSIDE THE CANCER BUSINESS IS NOT AS GREAT AS IT IS FOR DOING OTHER KINDS OF RESEARCH. THEY DON'T WORK WELL TOGETHER. THEY DIDN'T TAKE THE LESSONS OF KINDERGARTEN AS MUCH AS THEY SHOULD. LOOK, CANCER DOCTORS, ONCOLOGISTS, ARE SAINTS AS FAR AS I'M CONCERNED. THEY'RE UP THERE WITH TEACHERS, AT THE VERY TOP, WAY ABOVE JOURNALISTS; RIGHT? BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN THEY'RE PERFECT. AND THEY NEED TO WORK BETTER TOGETHER IN THE SAME WAY TEACHERS NEED TO BE MORE ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR PERFORMANCE. CANCER DOCTORS AND DOCTORS IN GENERAL NEED TO APPROACH THE WAY THEY DO BUSINESS DIFFERENTLY THAN THEY HAVE IN THE PAST BECAUSE WHEREAS IN HEART DISEASE WE'VE MADE THESE HUGE ADVANCES IN THE LAST THREE DECADES, WE HAVE NOT IN CANCER. THERE HAVE BEEN SOME ADVANCES, ONE OF WHICH HAS KEPT ME ALIVE, BUT NOT ENOUGH AND NOT ENOUGH OTHER PEOPLE ARE BEING SAVED, AND SO WE NEED -- WE NEED TO CHANGE THE WAY THE SYSTEM WORKS.  WHEN YOU INCREASE FUNDING FOR SOMETHING, YOU MUST ADD PERFORMANCE METRICS TO GIVE YOU MORE DATA WITH WHICH TO ANALYZE WHETHER THE MONEY IS BEING WELL SPENT, AND THIS APPLIES TO THE RECOVERY ACT AS WELL, AND THAT'S WHAT JOE BIDEN IS NOW IN CHARGE OF. IS THIS MONEY GOING TO BE SPENT WELL? IF IT'S NOT, IF A LOT OF IT IS WASTED, THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION IS GOING TO BE IN A WORLD OF HURT.

JONATHAN ALTER, THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR TIME.

YEAH, THANK YOU, STEVE.

AND WE'LL SEE YOU NEXT

YEAH, THANK YOU, STEVE.

AND WE'LL SEE YOU NEXT TIME.

AETN.org > Programs > Barnes and... > Barnes and... A Conversation with Johathan Alter