Carol Felsenthal
On politics

A Talk With Dan Balz of the Washington Post

The Daily Illini editor and D.C. veteran reflects on the ’12 race and the sale of the newspaper to Jeff Bezos.

Photo: Melina Mara, Courtesy The Washington Post, via NPR.org

Dan Balz of the Washington Post

I’d never met him—he was three years ahead of me at the University of Illinois—but the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, 67, was instantly recognizable to me from his appearances on PBS’s Washington Week and MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown when I met him this morning at the Union League Club.

I read his latest book, Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America, hoping for some juicy tidbits about Chicagoans who had starring roles in the ’12 election, and found lots on David Axelrod, but not too much on the usual cast of local characters (Rahm, Valerie, Bill, et al.). 

When I learned that he was coming to Chicago for an appearance tonight sponsored by Axelrod’s University of Chicago Institute of Politics, I jumped at the chance to interview him and to ask him about his roots in Freeport, Illinois, why he went east, and what’s the deal with Jeff Bezos buying the paper where he has worked for 35 years.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: You say the Chicagoans you focused on in Collision are the people who ran the campaign. Who were the major players?

DB: David Axelrod obviously was a big player.

CF: If Axelrod had decided he wanted to become a rabbi or do something completely different or retire . . . would Obama have won this election? Just how pivotal was he?

DB: He’s very pivotal, but Obama probably would have won the election with or without David. Probably would have won the election with or without any individual in that campaign because it was a campaign of a lot of people and a lot of talent. But David was absolutely central to the operation because of his relationship with Obama, because of his ability to think through and frame the message, and because he’s good at what he does. He knows Obama; he can talk to Obama candidly; he can take the Obama message and put it out in a public way; he can help develop the advertising and the strategy and all that. He’s one of the two or three most important people in that operation, but . . . if you take any one of them out could they have still won? Probably.

CF: It’s been reported on many times that Axelrod was given a little shove out of the White House before he was quite ready to go.

DB: I don’t know if that’s the case. I know that David was always eager to get back to Chicago after the first two years. He . . . loves Chicago, misses Chicago, and he obviously didn’t go reluctantly to serve in the White House—nobody does. I always thought he was going to go relatively early in 2011 and that’s the way it turned out.

CF: You interviewed Valerie Jarrett for this book and your book before this one, The Battle for America 2008. What do you make of the constant criticism that she’s been more of a drag than an asset to Obama’s presidency?

DB: It’s hard to measure anybody in the White House in terms of what they actually accomplish because they’re all derivative of the president. . . . I think that Valerie is what everybody sees and that is one of the closest confidantes of both the president and the first lady and therefore has unparalleled access. . . . To the degree that there have been stresses and strains with the business community, I think those come mostly because of Obama’s policies.

CF: And Bill Daley, you’ve written that one of his problems as chief of staff was that he didn’t have a personal relationship with Obama.

DB: It may have been he got there and decided that this was not quite the right thing for him. When you’re in a job like that and there’s a campaign coming up, you can’t sort of linger. If there’s a thought you’re going to leave, you certainly have to make the decision to leave. Otherwise you leave the operation in a kind of tenuous position and Bill’s a smart enough politician and political strategist. . . . I never thought that Bill had a real intimate relationship with Obama. Obviously they had a relationship, but it wasn’t as though they were long time pals or confidantes. . . . It wasn’t the kind of relationship that Axelrod had. . . . Some people thought Rahm’s out, Bill Daley’s in; it’s one Chicago pol for another. And I never thought it was quite that.

CF: How about Rahm? How much of a player was he?

DB: Rahm was very loyal and did what he was asked to do. Rahm had the city of Chicago to worry about and was brand new in the mayor’s job. He may have offered some back channel advice. But I never got the impression that Rahm was in the middle of the campaign. Rahm can multitask, so there may be more private stuff that went on than we know. On a political level Rahm and Obama were close, but I’d find it surprising if he was talking to the president every day. . . . He may have been talking to people at the White House, but not necessarily the president.

CF: Your interview with Mitt Romney for this book was fascinating. It and the interview you did with Chris Christie have gotten the most attention. Did you get any alone time with President Obama?

DB: No; I did on the 2008 book, but not on this one. He declined to be interviewed.

CF: Who were other political people you wanted to interview but couldn’t get to agree to be interviewed?

DB: I really wanted to get to Rick Santorum. I could never get that worked out. . . . I wanted to talk to Vice President Biden, but because the president wasn’t talking, he didn’t do it either.

CF: Who were the top three interviews; the ones you came away from saying, “Oh, boy, I really hope the recorder worked.”

DB: The Romney interview, the Chris Christie interview, which is very lively. . . . I had a good interview with Rick Perry long after he was out of the race. Had a really interesting interview with Tim Pawlenty who nobody remembers at this point.

CF: Do you think if Pawlenty had stayed in he could have been the Republican nominee?

DB: I think if he had stayed in he would have gotten a second look, that’s for sure. Whether it would have amounted to anything I don’t know. I think he always would have struggled with being able to raise enough money to go up against Romney, so I think in the end Romney may well have prevailed. But I think he made a mistake in dropping out when he did because it wasn’t obvious at the time but became obvious later that there was such fluidity in the race that just because you were down didn’t mean you were out. . . . He dropped out two years ago yesterday I think it was. He was obviously down at that point, but as we saw with others there was an ability to come back in this campaign because . . . part of the party was searching for someone other than Romney

CF: Will we see more of Pawlenty?

DB: I don’t think so. I think that was his time to run. . . . I don’t get any sense at this point that he’s one of the ones kind of stirring around looking at the possibility to run in 2016. 

CF: What about Rick Perry?

DB: I talked to him a month ago and he’s thinking about running again.

CF: He destroyed himself over having a senior moment. He doesn’t seem able to escape that, even today as he goes about the business of being governor of Texas.

DB: I think it’s a big obstacle to overcome. He actually thinks that that moment was not the moment that killed him; he thinks his campaign was in a downward spiral because of the debates that happened in September.

CF: His performance was subpar?

DB: It was subpar, yeah.

CF: Looking back over this campaign, what were a couple of things we missed.

DB: We didn’t know the extent to which Romney had doubts about running. Now I don’t think he was truly ever going not going to run. I think he was always going to run, but it gives you an insight into what a human being goes through when they have to decide to get into this arena. It’s a long process, sometimes a brutal process, and your whole family’s kind of exposed to public view. And there’s no guarantee even if you’re a frontrunner that you’re going to win. . . . We knew that Chris Christie had been encouraged to run, but I didn’t know the whole story of what kind of process he went through. We knew that the Obama campaign was building a pretty sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation, but I didn’t understand until I wrote the book what all went into that and how they put it together and what their strategy behind it was. 

CF: Romney didn’t understand that either. 

DB: No, Romney didn’t understand it either, and they were shocked when they saw the gap between what they were able to do and what Obama folks were able to do.

CF: What about the economy? It was supposed to tank Obama and it didn’t.

DB: It was just good enough for him to win the election. . . . I think the other things that we underestimate are the things that are in the background; the mood of the country, the changing demographics of the country. . . . Those kinds of things which have a huge influence on how a campaign ends up.

CF: There’s something almost old-fashioned about writing a hard covered book these days. Obviously you think there’s a place for books like yours.

DB: I do for this reason. Obviously we [newspaper reporters] cover everything in minute detail; day by day or minute by minute because of the way news and information flows. But when we’re doing it that way we don’t know in the end what’s really going to be important and what’s not going to be important. We have to jump on things as they happen. Sometimes we make more of things than we should; sometimes we probably don’t pay enough attention. The value of a book is two-fold. One is you can unpack everything and put it back together and tell the story whole. My editor said . . . `You can’t write the beginning until you know the ending.’ But once you do then you can construct the story in a way that’s more understandable to people; you can explain why things happened and you can give proper context. . . . The other value is there is so much that is going on inside campaigns that we never know about at the moment that it’s happening and you have to go back to people to get a fuller account. We never get the full account but we get closer to that after a campaign is over than we do in the middle of it.

CF: You were born and reared in Freeport, Illinois and then went on the U. of I. in Urbana where you studied journalism.

DB: Yes, I was editor of the Daily Illini and have my bachelor’s and master’s in journalism from the U. of I.

CF: Why did you go east?

DB: I did a summer internship in D.C. when I was at the U. of I. for the house member who represented our district, John Anderson, then the 16th District. I got infatuated with Washington and politics and so really had my eye set on getting to Washington as a journalist and was able to do that. [He went briefly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and then took at job from the National Journal that took him to D.C. He went to the Washington Post in 1978 and never left.]

CF: Were you stunned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos buying your newspaper on August 5?

DB: Totally stunned. I had not a hint it was coming. I never thought the Grahams would sell the paper. The day of the announcement there was an e-mail that went out to everyone on the staff saying please come downstairs to the auditorium for an important announcement at 4:30. I was at up in New York at the time. I called a friend at the paper and said, `What’s this about?’ He said I was just told that the Grahams have sold the Washington Post. This was 10 minutes before the announcement. I said I don’t believe that. I can’t believe they would sell it.

CF: What does Bezos have in mind for you?

DB: I haven’t a clue literally. Have not a clue. None of us have heard from him.

CF: Do you think you might move on to do something else or do you plan to stick with the Bezos and the Post.

DB: I plan to stay doing what I’m doing unless there’s some particular reason not to. The Post has been a great home to me. . . . You have to expect that the paper was sold because the status quo wasn’t going to be sufficient over the long haul, maybe fine for six months or a year or two, obviously there will be changes. . . . It’s not as though this has been a static operation for the last 15 years. Lot of changes in the way we operate, lots of turnover on the staff, any number of buyouts that have cost us a lot of talent and history, and an influx of some young people who are enormously talented and are helping us chart the future.

Balz dicusses his book tonight at Google’s Chicago offices (20 W. Kinzie St.) beginning with an hourlong discussion of Collision 2012 moderated by the IOP’s Steve Edwards, formerly a program host at WBEZ.

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