LAS VEGAS — Last Saturday, CBS News anchor John Dickerson discussed his new book “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency” during a webinar for the 2020 Las Vegas Book Festival. He is a correspondent for the CBS Newsmagazine program 60 Minutes.
The webinar was moderated by Steve Sebelius, the politics and government editor of the Las Vegas Review Journal newspaper.
Sebelius: The new book is based on an article that Dickerson wrote for The Atlantic in 2018. At what point did you know that you had a book with all of this material?
Dickerson: “It goes back 30 years because it basically encompasses all of the things I’ve learned or thought about during the course of my career covering politics. There are various points along the way. In 2004, I was at President Bush’s Ranch in Crawford, Texas, talking to him after having interviewed him for TIME magazine. He was running against John Kerry at the time and he said, ‘If you want to know if a person is able to do the job of president, ask them how they make decisions.’ Because he said making decisions is the centerpiece of the job. That was one of those turning point moments. Many of them over the years in which I began to think about the job as it actually is: what a president really has to do. We don’t pay very much attention to the attributes and requirements of the job of being president when we elect someone to be a president. As a result, we find some disconnect and mismatches. We have a situation where the standards of the office are constantly shifting whereas the duties of the office are relatively fixed. Certainly, the most important realms of the office.”
Sebelius: Your last book, Whistlestop, was about campaigning for the job and the different aspects and stories about campaigning. This book focuses on the job itself. They are two very different books.
Dickerson: “In this book, I was helped by The Whistlestop podcast which started out just being about campaigns just morphed once the 2016 campaign was over into being a podcast about key presidential moments. That was part of where I did some of the initial run up to this book. I also wrote that cover story for The Atlantic about some of these themes. It allowed me to use specific instances in presidential history to test some of these ideas to use them as a way to illustrate these ideas. Campaigns often set the preconditions for the way we look at the presidency and also the testing ground for the candidates themselves who then have to engage in the presidency. In the most recent book, I spent the middle section trying to make the case for how the way we run campaigns mostly in the post-Kennedy era although some people would go all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt. That we have come to run campaigns in a way that drives us further and further from a process that measures for the attributes for the job. Largely because we’ve become fixated on the immediate response to events rather than a longer term view.
Sebelius: It seems to me that you don’t make things easy on yourself in this book. It’s not just a book about the presidency. It’s not just a book with advice for journalists who are covering the presidency. It’s a book about the wholesale revision of how voters think about the presidency.
Dickerson: “On the one hand, putting it out in the course of the election is the perfect time do it because we’re in the course of a selection process that I argue is not as good as it could be. The momentary distractions of the campaign are just too hard for people to resist. They’re entertaining, they’re maddening and they appeal to our emotional reactions which are the ones we have the most ready at hand. But what’s been the case for American politics always is the emotional issues to issues that are ready at hand are only a portion of what is part of government and making decisions that will improve the country as a whole. To get at the really complicated questions of American democracy, you have to kind of put your emotions to the side for a moment or think long term and not be distracted by the short term as much.”
Sebelius: What are the most important aspects that voters should look for when selecting a presidential candidate? It’s really not what we think.
Dickerson: “One of the best examples of that point is when I was doing interviews with people who have served in the West Wing, people who had been CEOs of companies, philantropists, military leaders, and I would start with all of them by asking, ‘If you were doing a job interview for the presidency, what would be the first question you would ask?’ Not all, but the vast majority of them said, ‘Well, I want to know how they hire people. I want to know how they would build a team.’ And this connected with something I come across in my other work. President Obama said this when I interviewed him. In fact, he said it on the stop he made yesterday in Pennsylvania when he was making the case for Joe Biden. He said Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will know how to put together a team to attack all of these problems that America faces. We should think of the presidency as an organization, not as a single person operation. President Trump has had crises hit in a surprise nature and also significant turnover in the top spots sort of constantly in his presidency.”
Sebelius: When the concept of The West Wing was drafted, it was supposed to be about the presidential staff. The president was going to be a little scene figure who appeared on camera occasionally. The next thing you know Martin Sheen is front and center in every episode. He exemplifies everything you say in the book should be presidential qualifications.
Dickerson: “I lay out, in the end, I came up with 18 attributes, which is more than any human can encompass. I was trying to lay out the different attributes. On any of the attributes, let’s say honesty, they treat it as if it’s a binary thing. So you either lie or you tell the truth. They use that to either promote or knock down a candidate. The fact is that every president lies. The question is, do they lie a little bit for the right reasons, or do they lie all of the time for the absolutely wrong reasons. Sometimes, presidents will say, ‘I’m not a politician.’ Well, in some ways, he’s the ultimate politician.”
Sebelius: If reason and restaurant, temperament and the ability to build a good team are qualities that we want in a president… What are some things that would or should be disqualifying in a presidential candidate? If we saw them, we should go on red alert and say, ‘hold on a second.’
Dickerson: “In keeping with my theory that it should be about positioning on a continuum, I think what I would say is…I don’t know if there are any absolute red flags. But if they have very low marks in a couple of key categories, I think you are in real danger. I think being tested is one place. If they have never been in a tough spot, personally or publicly, where they’ve had to endure some extended period of time facing real durable pressure and I think that’s dangerous. Again, on each of these it doesn’t mean if they don’t have any experience that they are disqualified for the job. But it means they have to overcompensate with other attributes. When it comes to the idea of building teams or managing people. I mean bringing in people who are very talented and then letting them do their thing. Delegation is a management technique. Abraham Lincoln was very skilled at this. He had no experience in building teams really. And yet he was smart enough to build a team that would be able to work together, help protect him from his blindspots. He had a bigger goal in mind. That was incredibly foresighted of him. He hadn’t built teams before, but he basically hit a home run on his first at bat. That’s why you don’t want to throw out someone who doesn’t have any attitudes of the job. It’s not crucial that a presidential candidate have Washington experience but it’s extremely helpful. The job requires getting along with the American system.”
Sebelius: You did say something that I wanted to focus on. You point this out in the book. Only in politics is experience considered a bad thing. You say a CEO may not be the best choice for a president even though the jobs are somewhat comparable in certain respects. Only because the job of president is wholly unlike a CEO in terms of the execution of your vision.
Dickerson: “Hoover said when you’re sick you want an uncommon doctor. When you are fighting in court, you want an uncommon lawyer. But when it comes to politics or being in government, the American people are willing to hire somebody with no experience at all. In other words, not an uncommon Washington figure and kind of just the opposite. The funny thing about that is Hoover got very bad marks for his presidency. He was, in a way, an uncommon Washington operator. He had such a powerful role in the Department of Commerce that he was called the deputy secretary of every other Cabinet agency. He was so influential and effective. Previous experience is not a guarantee of success. It is, in some ways, a precondition. To your other point, being a CEO is not a proxy to the presidency. It can hone a set of skills if you are the right kind of CEO or the right kind of entrepreneur can be quite effective and quite useful in Washington. Well, if a president has been a CEO, and recognizes that second important piece of it, that they can be blinded by their previous experience as they can be helped by it, then they are in fine shape.”
Sebelius: The Constitution itself was a product of a great compromise that did not appeal to all sides but agreed to for the greater good. That example provides a way forward for radically reshaping the government documents or a revolution that’s inevitable result of people frustrated that the system doesn’t work and hasn’t worked in many years.
Dickerson: “Now the question is how to find these instances in which people will step away from the political process as it exists now. Even if Donald Trump loses, will it be sufficient to change his party or if Joe Biden loses will it be sufficient to change the system? A lot of the reasons why politicians are behaving the way they were behaving is because the incentives of the system and of our media culture, in particular our social media culture, are driving lawmakers towards these more disastrous outcomes.”
Sebelius: We should definitely talk about social media because that has had an outsize impact of the presidency and the way we pick presidency and the way we have conservations. It’s a constant stream of things and you have two seconds to react and all of that.
Dickerson: “It’s Twitter and Facebook as well. What draws skeptical people, like yourself and me, back to Twitter is that every once in a while, in the floating pool of muck, is some really brilliant view of the world or some beautiful music or some video that is affirming or a well argued point made in 240 characters. The best possible writers can convey a lot in a short amount of space. Occasionally, you come across that in Twitter. The problem is it’s not purely awful. It’s got 3 percent of good and that is pretty alluring. There’s also a way in which those of us who cover politics misunderstand the conversation that’s happening on Twitter and mistake it for what’s happening in the country. In this case, the rest of the country is not represented by the political obsessives on Twitter. Most of the country is off having their lives. Not that isn’t to say that the opinions of the obsessives on Twitter are meaningless; they are quite important. But they shouldn’t be given the obsessive meaning or meaning within their context. Sometimes we cover the hobbyists and the obsessives as if they are the whole show and get caught up in the nature of their debates. That’s not healthy either for us as journalists but it’s not healthy if we are trying to give an accurate picture for what’s happening in the country.”
Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. Go Vote!
John Dickerson’s new book, “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency” is available in bookstore everywhere and on Amazon.
For more information about the 2020 Las Vegas Book Festival, visit www.lasvegasbookfestival.com.
Watch the webinar below: