Politics and Journalism: An Interview with E.J. Dionne Jr.


On March 31st, DPR’s Natalie Ritchie sat down with E.J. Dionne Jr. Dionne was one of two guests speakers featured at the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture “Politics, Pundits, and Polarization.” Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written extensively on partisanship, the future of progressivism, and the role of religion in politics. His book Why Americans Hate Politics was a national best-seller and National Book Award nominee. Dionne also worked as a political reporter and foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. A well-respected political commentator, he is regularly featured on NPR, MSBNC, and NBC’s Meet the Press.

DPR: How would you analyze the new legislation in Indiana given your experience studying religion in politics, particularly in terms of progressivism?

Dionne: It’s funny you ask that question because I started writing a column about that for Thursday. I am very sympathetic to religious freedom, and I am in favor of gay marriage. If we are going to legalize gay marriage in the country, it is important to be sensitive to the religious freedom issues, which I define mostly in terms of “you can’t tell a religious denomination that they have to marry same sex couples.” But I worry that when you start using religious freedom as a rationale for discrimination, we really run into all kinds of trouble.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was mostly about protecting individuals from impositions from the state—so that you couldn’t arrest a Native American for using peyote in a religious ritual. That is quite different from justifying a baker not baking the [wedding] cake.  Our country has moved so quickly to embrace this that I can see there are a lot of people out there who are uneasy—and as a matter of social etiquette, my hunch is that same-sex couples would not want to hire a baker who thought their union was immoral in some way. But I do think it’s important to protect religious freedom, even in the context of gay marriage, which I support. I think if you push it to all of these other places, you’re going to undercut it in the long run.

DPR: What role do you think the Hobby Lobby case had in changing the perceptions of religious freedom exemptions? 

Dionne: I think that Hobby Lobby was a bad decision. I worry about what kind of power you are giving to the employer vis-à-vis the employee. What if the employee has religious objections to the employer’s religion? When it came to the contraception mandate I was for a fairly robust exemption for religious institutions, and I wanted it bigger than the one Obama originally came up with. I criticized Obama for the initial one and was much happier with what they came up with later—and I’m a liberal. I believe everyone should have access to contraception, but I understand that there are traditions that have objections. I hope there are ways around this where you can try to protect an employee’s access to contraception without forcing the Church to do something it feels it can’t do on moral grounds. But that is very different from extending this to employers. I thought Hobby Lobby went down a dangerous road. 

DPR: You started writing your column in 1993, but before that you were a reporter. How was that transition? Have you felt freer to express your opinions on these issues than before?

Dionne: Totally. It’s a totally different thing. The story I love to tell is of a gentleman called Pete Secchia. He was a political guy in Michigan whom the first Bush appointed ambassador to Rome. I spent a lot of time in Michigan and got to know the entire Republican hierarchy there, so we became very friendly. Twelve years later, I was writing about the Republican primary between Bush and McCain. I showed up at this Bush rally at a hotel in Grand Rapids, and there’s my friend Pete Secchia. Pete comes up and gives me a warm embrace and then he looks at me and says, “What happened to you? You used to be a reasonable guy and now you’re some kind of communist!” And I said to him, “I’ve always held these views. You don’t know how fair I was to you guys!”

To me it’s a different pact you have with your readers. When I was a political reporter covering a campaign, my job was not to use a reporter’s perch to impose my views on my readers, whereas when I switched into writing a column that is precisely what I was being asked to do by my readers and by my editors. I think people find it hard to believe that reporters actually do take this seriously, but Pete Secchia is my witness that I really did take it seriously. On the other hand, I will also say you should do reporting for a column too. And sometimes I use the column, particularly during campaigns, as a reporting vehicle.

DPR: Gearing up for the 2016 election already, what kind of differences do you expect from the 2012 cycle, not only in terms of the candidates themselves, but also in terms of the types of campaigns they run?

Dionne: First of all, you’re going to begin with this very big argument within the Republican party. You’ve got Jeb Bush having a fairly clear field for the kind of moderate conservative wing of the party. There’s no real moderate wing of the party any more—it’s moderate conservatives versus very conservatives. Rubio can contest him for some of that ground. Christie might have, once upon a time, contested him for some of that ground, but I’m very skeptical he can really break through at this point. Right now you have an earlier contest about who becomes the champion of the religious conservatives, and that’s where Cruz is going to try to contest Huckabee and Ben Carson for that mantle. Then he can try to displace Walker, if Walker can hang on to this position he has as the leading challenger to Bush’s right.

So that’s going to be interesting. On the other side, you will either have some contest with Clinton or you will have a contest among Democrats for Hillary Clinton’s soul and mind. Some of the fight is artificial. Everyone says it’s populist versus Wall Street. The fact is that Hillary Clinton is a little bit of both. 

DPR: As open as the field is for presidential candidates, it’s all the more so for vice presidential contenders.

Dionne: It feels like Marco Rubio is the perfect Vice President for everybody except [Jeb] Bush—who can’t do it constitutionally because the party desperately needs to figure out how to prevent the continuing collapse of its share of the Latino vote. And I’m not sure putting Rubio on the ticket solves that problem all by itself, but I don’t think they can win an election with the level of Latino vote that Mitt Romney won. 

DPR: If you were Hillary, whom would you pick?

Dionne: I’m not sure—there’s a lot of talk about Julian Castro. He’s a very interesting guy, very young, so he doesn’t have a lot of foreign policy experience, but he’s very smart. I’ve heard some people talk about [Senator] Michael Bennett of Colorado, but I think he might want to run for reelection. Somebody just suggested that Joe Biden should be the permanent Democratic Vice President. There’s something very appealing about Biden to different kinds of Americans. The other interesting thing is, when you look at who’s doing up in the Democratic Party, some of the most interesting Democrats coming up are women. But I don’t think she’s going to go for a two-woman ticket, just on the theory that maybe there are some votes to be had from having one man on the ticket. It would be very bold.

DPR: Shifting gears, let’s talk about the time you spent as a foreign correspondent. 

Dionne: I was assigned to Paris for two years, and with that job, I used to joke I was the cannon fodder correspondent. There’s an old now-sexist journalistic term—a fireman—where you sit in one place but when something bad happens, you’re the guy they send. And I was the guy they sent, and my fire was Beirut. I never got to fly into Beirut, actually, because whenever it was time for me to go, the airport was getting shelled. I was there during the civil war in the 1980s and it was a very powerful experience. Wars test you in odd ways, and you have no idea how you’ll react in that situation.

I wrote about our Marines before they were blown up. I actually broke a story in September with the Marines saying “We’re sitting ducks.”  I was always convinced that our military was encouraging us to write stories about those Marines because they were scared to death about the situation they were in. Then I was out of the country when 241 of them were killed in the terrorist attack. It was gruesome, and for a lot of people to have known how vulnerable they were beforehand—it’s something that stays with you forever. But you also see extraordinary heroism in how people learn to live with war in day-to-day life, how they raise children in the middle of the war. 

DPR: How much of your time was spent primarily with our military and how much was spent covering the local conflict? 

Dionne: Most of my time was not spent with the military. Most of my time was spent covering the civil war. I had a friend with whom I covered the state government in Albany, New York. He went to Salvador when I went to Beirut, and we ended up coming up with the same description for what we were covering. We used to call it “Albany with guns” because it was essentially a political story, but the means being used were different.

DPR: And you were also in the Vatican?

Dionne: Yes, from Paris I went to Rome.  I covered Italy and the Vatican, and I got to travel with Pope John Paul II. The New York Times kindly agreed with me that it was important to cover every one of his trips, so I got to see a lot of the world courtesy of the Pope. He took this extraordinary visit through Africa where we went to Cameroon, Togo, the Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Zaire, Kenya, and Morocco. This is a story I always use for journalism students: I called The New York Times “Week in Review” section and said, “look we’ve taken every idea in the world seriously–capitalism, socialism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam–I want to write about animism.”

So we were in Cameroon and the reporters flew ahead of the Pope and it was pouring rain. I had my notebook out just interviewing people, and they tell me it’s been raining for six days. I’m interviewing this young man who’s giving me good information about the area, and he says, “Don’t worry, it’s not going to rain on the Pope.” I said, “How do you know?” and he said, “The rain doctor told me.” And he was Catholic and college-educated, but the rain doctor knew something that we didn’t know. The Pope’s plane lands, the Pope opens the door, and it stops raining. The Pope comes out, says Mass, the sun briefly comes out and shines on the Pope as he blesses the crowd, and then he gets back on the plane and it starts pouring rain again. And this young man sees me on the press platform getting drenched and points to the heavens with a big smile on his face and says, “I told you! I told you!”

I love to tell this story to young journalism students and ask—what happened in that story? The standard, secular, rationalist answer is that it was an accident. Well, how do you know it was an accident? Maybe the rain doctors knew something we didn’t. In the piece I wrote it was not clear who had done the work, but Someone—with a capital S—was clearly on the job. 

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