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John Dickerson, who turned 47 on July 6, is chief political correspondent for Slate and political director for CBS News. He graduated from the University of Virginia and covered politics at Time for 12 years. Last month he became the new host of Face the Nation. Here are edited excerpts of an interview in front of students at Patrick Henry College.
You grew up in McLean, Va., just across the Potomac from Washington, in a home where you met lots of politicians. My mother was the first female news correspondent for CBS News and my father was a successful businessman. They divorced when I was 14, but until then I lived in a very big house where they entertained Republicans, Democrats, independents. That was the way Washington worked in the ’70s and ’80s: Nobody had to fundraise at the end of the day or on weekends, so you had a lot of social mixing.
Your job from age 8 to age 13 was to open the door, look each guest in the eye, and say … “Welcome to Merrywood,” which is the name of the house.
How many times did you say that? Probably hundreds. They had a lot of parties. I would have to dress basically the way I’m dressed now, in a coat and tie, and they’d trot me out.
Why didn’t politicians have to fundraise evenings and weekends? It didn’t cost as much to run for president as it does now, or to run for the House and Senate. The parties played a stronger role in the campaigns than they do now, and the fundraising laws were different.
‘Plenty of reporters I know are very strong people of faith, but there are not a lot of people going to church on Sunday.’
We sometimes hear about that period as the golden age of civility in Washington. I suspect it really wasn’t. There was lots of dirty trickery and incivility, but people weren’t performing as much for the cameras as they do now. That probably kept relationships a little better.
Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, but in general the parties were not as ideological as they are now. Having an enemy with a lot of nuclear weapons concentrated some minds on avoiding backstabbing. True, but think about Taft and Eisenhower competing for the Republican nomination in 1952. Taft was saying we don’t want a huge, open-ended NATO commitment, and the Asian threat is maybe more important to worry about in respect to Communism. It was a policy difference about where to put troops to most adequately resist the Communist march, but Clare Boothe Luce said about Taft’s campaign that if he won Stalin would be cheering. That’s as if he was saying, “Communism is just fine,” which is not what he was saying at all. So, it got pretty heated back then too.
Late in 2013 Mark Leibovich was here and we talked about his book This Town. As a long-time Washington Post and New York Times reporter, he knows Washington, as do you: Do you agree with his view that Washington is now “full with assumptions bred by the same conversation, the same echo chamber”? Nobody wants to seem wrong because your job is to have information and you don’t want to have bad information. The system does not create incentives for you to take a risk and maybe be wrong because people will think, “He or she is not worth listening to.” It’s also faster and easier if everybody believes the same things: That’s the darkest portrait to paint of this. But conventional wisdom exists for a reason. Sometimes it’s just everybody’s trying to assess and analyze everything and they come to the same conclusion. Then, history surprises them.
A lot of old-time reporters looked at politics as a circus and enjoyed having a front-row seat, but starting in the Vietnam War era a lot of young reporters entering the field were ideology driven. They used to say in television news that the cameramen were in favor of the war because they had come from a more blue collar background, and the fancy-pants Ivy League correspondents or writers were a little more anti-war. To the extent that reporters live different lives than the people they cover, that’s not good.
Yes, the famous Washington Post incident: Huge pro-life march, no coverage of it in the Post at all. The editors didn’t say, “We don’t agree with the march, we’re for abortion rights.” Instead, they plea-bargained by saying, “We just didn’t know about it.” Right. A whole host of Americans would think, “How could you have missed that?” Plenty of reporters I know are very strong people of faith, but there are not a lot of people going to church on Sunday.
Isn’t the church activity on Sunday morning watching Face the Nation or Meet the Press? So you go to the 5:00 service on Saturday night. But except during the Kennedy period, when it became cool to be a Catholic, religion in Washington as a lived experience has been secondary.
Is it decidedly uncool in Washington to be an evangelical, especially if you’re opposed to abortion, and double-especially if you have concern about same-sex marriage? The system of the city does not encourage people to bring that up at dinner in the way they might bring up some great restaurant they went to.
Leibovich said, “I live in northwest Washington and don’t know a lot of evangelical conservatives in my neighborhood. I don’t know of any in my newsroom.” That’s probably true of his newsroom and probably true to his experience—it’s not true to mine. But he’s not far from the larger reality. Although he says he doesn’t know any, he actually does know them. He may not know they’re evangelicals, but that may also say something.
What do you believe in? What do I believe in? I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in my family. I believe in fairness and generosity and humility and the power of pride to make us say and do stupid things. I believe in trying to help people who don’t have all the incredible number of advantages I have, and I also believe in trying to take risks. I believe in the power of failure to teach you things. I think people should restrain themselves a lot more than they do in conversation, so that wherever you are on the spectrum you recognize the humanity in the other person on the other side. I think the lack of that restraint is destroying our private and public life. I think a lot of people make money and political careers based on exacerbating that lack of restraint. That’s a long list, but it’s incomplete.
When you say “I believe in Jesus Christ,” what do you mean by that? I believe that Jesus Christ existed and that He died for my sins. And I believe that what He said in the Gospels is a model for the way I should try to lead my life, that I will always fall short of that, and therefore need Him to redeem me for that falling short.