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Playing President

Posted on Apr 11, 2006
Scheer with Carter

Robert Scheer interviews then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter for Playboy magazine in 1976. During the interview’s final session, Carter made the famous “lust in my heart” admission.

Don’t Miss Robert Scheer’s New Book:

“Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton—and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush”

(With a foreword by Gore Vidal)

Scheer’s interviews with and profiles of U.S. presidents have shaped journalism history and had a tangible impact on national debate—such as the eminent 1976 Playboy interview in which Jimmy Carter, the then-presidential candidate, admitted to lusting in his heart; and the 1980 L.A. Times interview with Bush I, in which he confessed to Scheer his dream of a “winnable nuclear war.”

Scheer, whom Joan Didion called “one of the best reporters of our time,” offers with this book unparalleled insight into the presidential mind. Through both new writings and reprinted material, Scheer analyzes every administration from Nixon to George W. Bush, offering insights that will surprise the reader—particularly those with rigid preconceptions about the decision-making processes of our leaders.


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In the pages that follow, Truthdig presents the full-text version of Scheer’s introduction, along with a foreword by celebrated man of letters Gore Vidal.

Scheer covered presidential politics for the Los Angeles Times for thirty years. He is the author of six books, including With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War and America after Nixon: The Age of the Multinationals; and co-author of The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us about Iraq. He is a clinical professor of communications at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. Scheer is a nationally syndicated columnist, editor of, a contributing editor of the Nation, and cohost of NPR-affiliate KCRW’s Left, Right, and Center.

“Playing President” is a joint Truthdig / Akashic Books publication.


by Gore Vidal

The twentieth century produced a great deal of writing about American politics, much of it bewildered when new notions like empire started to sneak into nervous texts whose authors were not quite certain if “empire” could ever be an applicable word for the last best hope of earth.

The bidding then changed dramatically after World War Two, when Harry Truman armed us with nuclear weapons and gave us an icy sort of permanent war against Godless Atheistic communism, as personified by Joseph Stalin, standing in for Hitler, whom we had got rid of with rather more help than we liked to admit from the new world demon Stalin. How, why did Truman lock us all into a national security state, armed to the teeth? The simple story was dread of communism everywhere on the march, but those of us who had served in World War Two knew as well as our political leaders that the Soviet Union, as of 1950, was not going anywhere very soon: They had lost twenty million people. They wanted, touchingly, to be like us, with consumer goods and all the rest of it.

What actually happened was tragic for the Russian people and their buffer states: Truman, guided by that brilliant lawyer Dean Acheson, was quite aware that by 1940 the world Depression of the early ‘30s had returned. The New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt had largely failed. What was to be done? FDR took a crash course in Keynesian economics. As a result, he invested $8 billion into re-arming the United States, in order to hold our own against the Fascist axis of Germany, Japan, Italy. To the astonishment of Roosevelt’s conservative political enemies, the U.S. suddenly had full employment for the work force and a military machine of the first rank with which we were able to defeat Fascism, and just about anyone else who defied us.

Truman and friends learned and never forgot an important lesson: It was through war and a militarized economy that we became prosperous with full employment. After victory in Europe and the Pacific, Truman himself began to play the war drums. Stalin was menacing Turkey and Greece (Acheson threw in nearby Italy, and why not France?). We must stop the rising Red tide, while acquiring that era’s latest propaganda toy, a TV set. This wearisome background was well known to historians like William Appleman Williams, but hardly suspected by too many of the usual publicists of the American way of life.

Robert Scheer has had the good fortune to observe first-hand the last half-dozen Presidents, from Nixon to “W”. He has also had the perseverance as a journalist to insist that he be able to conduct one-on-one conversations with the odd sort of men who were playing (or trying to play) President. This makes for a fascinating immediacy in the book at hand, particularly when he is giving his protagonists a harder time than they had expected. Scheer has always suspected that he would be one of the last journalists able to use the print medium fully in the electronic age that had dawned around 1960.

Scheer makes a telling analysis of Nixon and his “frozen smile,” with the comment that “despite being unquestionably the best prepared of all modern Presidents before assuming office, it was his indelibly awkward and secretive style that did him in.” Scheer is impressed by this President’s mind despite himself, as was Walter Lippmann, whom I once teased for supporting Nixon. Walter was serene: “I only know,” he said, “if I had a difficult lawsuit on my hands, I would go to him as a lawyer. He presents you an entire case before your eyes: He is simply brilliant, unique in public life.”

Print journalism is a challenge to the writer’s intelligence, as well as to that of his subject. Of course, few journalists and player Presidents are up to Scheer and Nixon. Yes, Nixon did much that was evil along the way (Cambodia, Watergate), but he usually managed to harm himself most—a form of good manners. He was primarily interested in foreign affairs and the opening up to China; dtente with the Soviets; these were significant achievements, and he had no strong domestic policies, which should have been a great relief for Us the People. No wartime tax breaks for cronies is quite enough for us to applaud him in other roles.

Presidents are trapped in history as well as in their own DNA codes. After Watergate, Nixon starred as Coriolanus for a while, but when he saw that this got him nowhere, he realized he was so steeped in blood that he could not turn back, so he went on as Macbeth, to our benefit at times. Scheer is not the first of our journalists to recognize how like classical players the Presidents tend to be if they have the right war or disaster to contend with. Scheer is generally good-humored about them, though Bush I’s implacable self-love seems to rub him the wrong way; also, Reagan’s rambling does not get either of them very far, yet Scheer has grasped what few others have: Mrs. Reagan’s importance not only to her somewhat listless husband but to our country, where she seems to have understood before other politicians that the Cold War was getting us nowhere.

Scheer had problems with Jimmy Carter and, perhaps, with Southern politicians in general. He struggled with the man’s compulsive fibbing about himself and his place in an imaginary Plains, Georgia, which kept changing to fit his restless re-imagining of his career, recalling homely barbershop quartets as well as killer rabbits at large in catfish ponds. Scheer had an edgy time with Carter, but it was to Scheer that Carter confessed he had lusted in his heart for ladies, causing much of the nation to admire and smirk.

Scheer concedes Clinton’s brilliance as a player but frets over (as many of us did) “the end of welfare as we know it.” It is with this President that Scheer is most interesting, largely because Clinton is as intelligent as he, at least on the subjects they discuss. Clinton has dared occasionally to touch the third rail of American political discourse: the superiority of other nations’ economies to that of America the Beautiful and the Earmarked.

Scheer: Some now blame the Europeans and Japanese for our problems and call for protectionism. Are you sympathetic to such calls?

Clinton: But to be fair, the biggest problems we have in maintaining the manufacturing base are our failures to work together to achieve high levels of productivity, to control health care costs, to have a tax system which is pro-manufacturing. Our tax system now is anti-manufacturing. And it was during the Reagan/Bush years. I think, you know, it rewarded money making money and not production, not jobs, not goods, and not services.

Scheer: Well, that’s what we say now. But when the last tax-reform package was passed, many Democrats supported it. It was supposed to help production.

Clinton: I never thought it would . . . You know, the elemental principle of taxation should be [that] people should pay according to their abilities to pay. And you should have incentives that do specific things. Those ought to be the two driving, in my view, principles of the tax system.

This is very grown-up stuff.

The final chapter, perhaps in every sense, deals with George W. Bush. Scheer confesses he was ill-prepared for someone who seems to have no idea of, or interest in, playing President, as opposed to playing “Wartime President,” easily the trick of the week when Congress has modestly declined to declare war on anyone.

Certainly, with these observations on a section of our history, Scheer joins that small group of journalist-historians that includes Richard Rovere, Murray Kempton, and Walter Lippmann.

Next Page (from Scheer’s introduction): “The problem is that in our system, as opposed to a parliamentary one, the presidential candidate’s performance is a solo act. The basic test is not that of a leader emerging from a pack made up of peers; instead, it revolves around a performer and a largely untutored electorate that is his jury and his audience. ”

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By Gregory A. Wood, April 26, 2006 at 8:23 am Link to this comment
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Election reform would be something serious when the intent of the Founding Fathers toward free speech is extended toward all media; All manner of distortion and exploitation center around such neglect.  Now we can have lies prevail as just another version of media truth and no one is accountable.  If Constitutional values are not elevated to the level of public pride then we will never know what the aim toward democratic culture can accomplish and we will barely know to miss it when it disappears.

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By, April 23, 2006 at 5:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The sobriquet, “West Texas Oil Man” is more often than not a euphemism for liar. It is a culture and a culturally learned skill set. I do hope Mr. Scheer has some understanding of this.

If the Congress had understood this mentality they would never have voted to give W’ carte blanche or an open contract vis a vis Iraq..

The Texas/oilpatch oil man/promoter is an archetype/euphemism. He sells by inference and near lies.
If one promoter said to another promoter, “I’m honest, my word is my bond” it’s possible they both might crack up with laughter. The honesty gig is for rubes and neophytes.
Many circle the GB honesty conundrum. Al Gore’s rendition of GB, i.e. “a man who by inferences, distortions and exaggeration” sells what is not true is accurate and archetypical.
(caj 7.2.04)

I recently went to Tokyo,
gosh, they all speak Japanese!
In Rome, in church, guess?
people praying on their knees.
In West Texas, oil men, so friendly,
saying, “I’m honest” with a drawl.
and, “Shucks son, I’m so sorry,
it didn’t work out for y’all.”
June 20, 2004)
by CAJ

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By Joe Citizen, April 22, 2006 at 6:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am convinced one reason ‘W.’ is not very popular is that the public has caught on to just how much he in particular is just playing president. (“I am the decider,” he felt the need to declare.) 

We have the presidential system we have because the public apparently has been comfortable enough with the idea that real power lies elsewhere, in the private sector. Our system must reflect, in some degree, the faith Americans have had in Corporate America.

The Democrats, more the party of government than the GOP, have had to work harder to establish their credentials with the public. I think this is why a number of current Democratic governors first served their states as attorney general.

Therefore, one reform comes to mind that might benefit the quality of our presidential leadership. I would ask the parties to consider A) doing away with one-term only governorships, and B) extending terms beyond two years where they are so limited.

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By Maurice Diepeveen, April 16, 2006 at 6:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The reason G.W Bush could be elected (?) and subsequently be re-elected is in my opinion caused by a lack of information / education of the American population. Partially due to limited and/or biased media reporting, partially due to lack of general education, which is not the learning of the 3 R’s, but the learning of “learning”. And that may be based on the school system as a whole, as well as the old fashioned and worthless concept of “self-made men”, learning of the school of hard-knocks, etc.
The educational system could have made a difference if it was geared to teaching the young people to learn to think, to question and to reason.
That is how G.W.Bush was elected and re-elected.

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By Robert Crawfis, April 13, 2006 at 4:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How did our country elect, and then re-elect, George W. Bush?  Here is a poll result I saw recently that might help explain this disaster:
52% of Americans do not believe in evolution, and instead accept creationism or intelligent design. 86 years after the Scopes evolution trial and the anti-science side is winning in this country.  What other Western country would get such a poll result?  Karl Rove and the Republican party want American to remain ignorant, because it’s how they win elections.

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By felicity smith, April 13, 2006 at 11:32 am Link to this comment
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#6950 I agree that our presidential system NEEDS some kind of reform, an opinion that is gaining some allegiance here in the States.  Most particularly the regime of Bush has changed our political landscape to the point where we’d better do it sooner rather than later.  Point of fact, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in every country it has been attempted except the U.S.  The way things are going our exception is fast becoming a thing of the past.

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By Earl Prignitz, April 13, 2006 at 6:50 am Link to this comment
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Too bad Sheer and Vidal’s ideas don’t get wider coverage.

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By Jason_w, April 12, 2006 at 11:29 am Link to this comment
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A book by Robert Scheer with a forward by Gore Vidal?  There’s *no* political bias here <cough!>.

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By Salamander, April 12, 2006 at 11:29 am Link to this comment
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In the end, our problem is “us”.  It’s a “we” thing, not a “they” thing.  If we all had to choose a year of public service at age 18, it might help to weaken the strong polarities and rigid mindsets that limit our individual and collective character, personality and intellect.

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By Roger Drowne EC, April 12, 2006 at 11:02 am Link to this comment
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By M Henri Day, April 12, 2006 at 10:59 am Link to this comment
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From the outside, at least, the system seems to be hurtling to its own demise, not least due to the ideological fundamentalism of the circles closest to Mr Bush. He may well become remembered - in the event anyone survives to remember it - as the man who brought the temple crashing around not only his head, which would be poetic justice, but also around those of the peoples of the whole globe. But if, which is doubtful, it is possible to postpone the Götterdämmerung, then at least two things will have to be done in the US, and that soon :

1) Prohibit political TV ads

2) Institute proportional representation for legislative offices, and run-offs until a candidate receives 50 % of the votes cast for executive offices….

Maybe, just maybe, the end of the world as we know it will then come with a whimper instead of a bang….

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By Tim Rawlins, April 12, 2006 at 4:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Profound stuff.

Doesn’t the analysis lead to the conclusion that the US presidential system actually NEEDS some kind of reform?

As an outsider (Australian) it seems to me the US public culture is hopelessly corrupt.  Not just the emphasis on the one man actor at the head, but the whole realm of business lobbyists, corporate controlled legislature, elections that are not only bought by the biggest personal war chest, but even corrupted judges, machines that cheat for one party because they are operated by one party and about a billion other things that are incredibly venal.

From what an outsider can gather from a distance and the present administration and moment in time especially.

The whole political architecture, the whole social structure and much of personal morality in the states needs some kind of hard scrub down and re-invention!

May some kind of common sense please prevail?

I think you might start to stop kidding yourselves about the self-deceptions, about American virtues.  Acknowledge and deal with the facts of the past, as well as other strange uncivilised remnants like the madness about owning guns.

Australia also has similar shadows and a similar evolution required.

Thus I am not bashing the states in particular but reflecting that we in the modern “west” have a road to the future that we need to find by truly understanding our present.


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By Vet, April 12, 2006 at 1:54 am Link to this comment
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Bush is a Kakistocratic nightmare, a curse upon America, from which Scheer and Vidal expose so well.

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