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  •   Q&A with E.J. Dionne Jr.

    E.J. Dionne Jr.
    E.J. Dionne Jr.

    "Levey Live," appears each Tuesday from 12 to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering washingtonpost.com users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey.

    Bob Levey
    Bob Levey
    Todd Cross/The Post


    Bob's guest today is Washington Post national political columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. Dionne joined The Post in 1990 as a reporter covering national politics. His best-selling book, "Why Americans Hate Politics," published a year later, won the Los Angeles Times book prize and was a National Book Award nominee.

    Dionne began writing his op-ed columns for The Post in 1993 and became a frequent television and radio political commentator. In 1996, Dionne joined the Brookings Institution as a Senior Fellow in the Governmental Studies Program. His most recent book is "Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America."

    Please submit your questions for E.J. Dionne Jr. now and during the hour.

    On Friday, join us for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," an open-agenda conversation about anything on your mind, in the news or in Bob's Monday through Friday columns .

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    Columbia, Maryland : What do you think historians will describe as the most important development in American politics in the 1990s? Will it be the exceptionally bitter partisanship (culminating, of course, in impeachment), the apparent triumph of conservatism (in both parties), extraordinary levels of public alienation from politics, or something else?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Very good question. My sense is it will be a combination: a bitter partisanship that is in fact a response to an underlying battle between roughly equally matched progressive and conservative forces. My hunch is that we're moving more in a progressive than a conservative direction -- but that's one of those things we might argue about all day!

    Many thanks.


    Bob Levey: I was surprised by your Monday column about Chelsea Clinton and the piece about her in the current People Magazine. You said People should have held its fire. Why, when Chelsea is so obviously a public figure (whether or not she chose it or made it happen)? Also, the piece was such a cupcake that I can't see why the Clintons feared it so.

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: I've always felt strongly that politicians' kids should be off limits to us because the parents decide to run for office, not the kids. It's true the piece was very positive. I think the Clintons hit so hard because they didn't want the next piece and the one after that. Leave the kids alone, I say.


    Herndon, VA: Mr. Dionne, Some of those who consider the impeachment trial as a partisan exercise view the procedings as a referendum on liberalism. What is your view of the short-term prospects for liberalism? Can a candidate with a progressive social agenda succeed in 2000?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: I wrote a book a couple of years back called They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives will Dominate the Next Political Era. So I do think the trends are moving more that way. But I'm not sure impeachment is a referendum on liberalism. I think a lot of Americans who have opposed throwing the president out have a kind of "conservative" reaction -- they just don't want to take such a momentous and radical step given the charges. Short term, it's hurt the Republicans. Long term? We'll see. Many thanks.


    Adams Morgan: Mr. Dionne,

    I've been a big fan of yours ever since reading "Why Americans Hate Politics." I hope you have another book coming out soon!

    My question is regarding the Republicans' insistence on holding deliberations in secret. Is the party aware that most of the country views their efforts as a partisan witch hunt? I have to assume that they aren't. By holding the debate in secret, don't you think that the nation will assume the worst about the Republican party -- since its leadership has given us every reason to do so? [edited for space]

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Many thanks for your kind words. FYI, after Why Americans Hate Politics, I wrote a book called They Only Look Dead that's in paperback. Appreciate your interest very much.

    I think the GOP would have been smart to open up the debate, but my sense is that they really want to shut this down fast and figure a closed proceeding will go quicker. Most Republicans are aware, I think, that the country doesn't like this impeachment business, which is why Lott kept making deals with Democrats on witnesses etc. As for why the GOP pushes on, I know from my conservative friends that they really and truly believe on principle that they're doing the right thing -- partly because of what they think of Clinton. They are willing to pay the price, and we'll see how big it is. Many thanks again.


    Bob Levey: I would bet my bottom dollar (one of about three I possess!) that the Senate will censure Clinton, in some way, at some time. So why is there such agonizing about it?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Hold onto those three bucks! Problems with censure: 1.) it'll be hard to write one that's tough enough for Republicans and mild enough for Dems; 2.) Many GOPers think censure is just a way to get Dems off the hook for backing Clinton and will filibuster. Yes, it could still happen and enough moderate Repubs may come on board to break a filibuster. But demand some odds when you make that bet.


    Fairfax, Virginia: How likely do you think it is that Republican Senators and Congressman will really suffer from the impeachment vote? Except in a few districts which lean Democratic anyway (like Rogan's in California), won't people be more concerned with the 2000 Presidential campaign than some sort of impeachment revenge -- especially when the impeachment resulted from behavior of which Democrats are also highly critical?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Good point. Truth is we don't know yet and all predictions on this story have tended to be wrong. (I've suggested that those of us who have been on television or radio in this period should join a Predictors Protection Program.) Here's the GOP problem: About 1/4 to 1/3 of Republicans don't like impeachment and they've been drifting away from the party in this period. Many seem to have stayed home in the 98 elections. Also, Dems have never been so united. Interesting question: will Dem unity falter after impeachment is over? Perhaps. But Dems can taste victory and that might discipline them a bit. Many thanks


    Bob Levey: Here's an easy one: The independent counsel law is up for renewal on June 30. It there a snowball's chance that it will live on?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: I think it's dead, but am not sure it should be killed off completely. Is there a way of streamlining it and limiting it? That will be the debate. But if you want to bet, bet on the law going away.


    Tysons Corner, VA: Yesterday, I saw a sound bite from Mike McCurry that Americans no longer tell their children "I want you to be like the president"; and that it has been that case for some time now, prior to Clinton. At the age of 30, my personal view is that this observation is accurate for my lifetime.

    Do you agree with this? If you do, at what point (or administration) in our history do you feel parents stopped presenting the president as a role model? Is this a loss to our country? [edited for space]

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: I've thought about this a lot, too. I'd like my kids to think it would be a good thing to become president, so the last period has been dispiriting. Perhaps we can be realistic but hopeful too. We never really wanted them to be exactly like the president (whoever he was at the time). All presidents have flaws. But being president is still noble work, and I hope we can still make that case to our kids. Many thanks


    Washington, DC: Mr. Dionne, do you think the 2000 Presidential campaign will be dominated by inquiries into the candidates' sexual pasts? It appears the conservatives have opened a Pandora's Box with their fixation on the President's loose morals that they will scarcely be able to ever close.

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: I've heard completely convincing arguments from my colleagues on both sides of this one. My hunch: there will be a backing away from intensely personal questioning of candidates. Much will depend not just on the press but also on the candidates themselves -- how much will they press each other on these matters. Will they worry about the political version of Mutually Assured Destruction? I think they may. Many thanks.


    Bob Levey: I'm so amused by all the moaning on the Hill about how partisan the impeachment inquiry has been. EVERYTHING on the Hill is partisan! Your comment?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: We only had one other model -- the Nixon impeachment. It was somewhat partisan at the beginning, though less than this one, and much less partisan at the end. The assumption behind the criticism is right: Impeachment should be considered only when there is some serious demand across party lines for a president's removal. This one didn't meet that test.


    San Diego, California: What do you think about this report circulating about a Draft-Tom Harkin, U.S. Senator of Iowa, for President? In a three-way race between Bradley , Gore, and himself, could he run right up the middle and get either the nomination or be considered for Vice President? [edited for space]

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: This is the first I've heard of it, so thanks for the news. I'll check it out. Harkin has made himself popular among Democrats with the way he's handled the impeachment battles. And some of the more progressive Democrats have been looking for a candidate since Paul Wellstone decided not to run. My hunch: Harkin won't run and will stay in the Senate. But I'm sure he'll enjoy knowing there's a draft movement for him. Many Thanks.


    Bob Levey: Elizabeth Dole sure sounded like a candidate in New Hampshire yesterday. You think she is? You think she's nominatable? Electable?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: She sure seems to be running. She's the strongest candidate right now other than George W. Bush. Can she raise the money? Probably. If she can, I suspect she's in. Only doubt: she's never had to face the miserable attacks you get when you run for office. Any sane person might look at that prospect and back away.


    Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with our guest, national political columnist E. J. Dionne


    San Francisco, CA: How do you think the under 30 set will be affected in the long term by the impeachment? Do you see a continued movement towards disenfranchisement and disinterest? And, how do you think this will effect the party system?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Great question and a big problem. There have been some great studies of under-30 attitudes recently. Main findings: this generation of under 30s is more socially committed than those older than they, more likely to volunteer, to work with the needy and community groups. At the very same time, they are very skeptical of government and political action. The issue, I think, is whether the social commitments of this group will eventually translate into political commitment, or will the social become a substitute for political commitment? It depends on them, but it also depends on whether the political system gives them hope that their energies could be put to a useful purpose.

    I hope you'll be one who combines the two. Many thanks.


    Bob Levey: Hop into the time tunnel with me. It's 2002. Both impeachment and Clinton are a memory. Who will have won? Who will have lost? Will anyone have won?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Another for the Predictors Protection Program. My guess is that nobody really wins, but our judgment of who wins will be shaped almost entirely by what happens in the 2000 election. Here's a potentially goofy prediction: The Republicans win back the White House, but the Democrats win back the House of Representatives. Didn't think that possible a couple of months ago, but do now.


    McLean, VA: I'd be interested in hearing the opinions of both our host & guest on Mr. Larry Flynt's role in this drama.

    Thank you. FROM THE HOST: I think Flyntsmanship has been delicious. I'm always for "outing" hypocrites. Larry has done it admirably. Seriously, I think the First Amendment protects and empowers everyone, even smutsters.

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Me. I don't like sex stories about politicians unless there's an overwhelming reason for them (harassment, law breaking etc.). Can't tell whether Flynt reduces the chances of more of this, or opens the way for more as he gets competitors. Also, as someone wrote recently, Flynt ends up being allied with those who want to make a politicians' personal behavior a political issue. Flynt dishes the dirt and the purists drive the affected candidate from office. Not a great cycle, I think.


    Mt. Rainier MD: With the current disgust with the political chicaneries of both parties, especially in how they get and spend their money, do you think we're ready for a serious third party? One that could actually get people elected and form an opposition to the Dems and GOP ?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: There are chances for Third Parties at the state level -- witness Jessie the Body and Mind and Gov. Angus King of Maine. But to have a successful Third Party nationally, you need a serious issue. (It took slavery to make the Republicans move from third to first party status in 1860.) I don't see disgust or disillusionment as an issue. And both parties have survived this long by being porous and open to insurgencies. So more Jessies, perhaps. But quite a while before I see Jessie or his counterparts going national successfully.


    San Francisco, CA: Okay, she's running. What do you think Elizabeth Dole's chances are for becoming president? Do you think Americans are ready to elect a woman?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: I do think Americans are prepared to elect a woman, and my hunch is that the first woman president will be a Republican, because her gender will give her crossover appeal to swing women voters who have been drifting Democratic. A strong female Republican might take votes from the other side.


    Bob Levey: If I were writing the second edition of Dionne's "Why Americans Hate Politics," my first sentence would be: "Americans hate politics because of spectacles like the Clinton impeachment." Seriously, I expect Americans to be massively turned off on the joys of voting after this mess. Do you think so, too?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Thanks for the plug. Yup, the Clinton impechment mess (and, for that matter, how the president got us into this)is a serious turnoff. One odd thing, though: Some Democratic constituencies were mobilized by this fight in 1998, most in reaction against the Republicans. The impeachment mess also creates an opening for a better kind of politics, and I suspect a lot of smart politicians out there are trying to figure out how to position themselves against what just happened.


    Arlington, Va: Do you think that the Republicans have narrowed their base so much that it would be difficult to win the Presidency. I think it might be similar to the Democrats becoming a Bryan party in 1896 and then having to wait several generations (Wilson was a fluke) to emerge as a majority party once more.

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Very good history there. I don't think the Repuiblicans have reached that point yet. If they had, George W. wouldn't be running ahead of Al Gore in the polls. But the GOP does face that problem in some northeastern states and is close to the point you describe in California.

    (By the way, I admire Bryan, even if he did lose three times.)

    Many thanks.


    Washington,DC: Mr. Dionne, a moment ago you said of Ms. Dole: "...she's never had to face the miserable attacks you get when you run for office. Any sane person might look at that prospect and back away."

    Then, at the same time, you say you want your children to think it's a good thing to be president. Yet by this logic, only a non-sane person would actually run for the office!

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Yes, that looks like a logical contradiction. But I am hoping we fix this by the time my kids and yours are ready to run! Thanks.


    loveland, colorado: can we put something in the
    constitution, so someone
    like bill clinton can't pull
    something stunt like this
    ever again?

    b walsh

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: I'm not sure there is a constitutional remedy for getting a specific kind of president. It's up to us (and, for the moment, it seems, the American public seems ready to accept the good with the bad in Clinton's case). Many thanks.


    Hyattsville MD: As a liberal Christian, I find the conservative Christian movement horrifying -- more than my unchurched friends I think! Are they really going to have any success with their agenda? I am amazed at how much support they seem to have drummed up.

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: There are lots of moderate and liberal Christians and some are getting organized through groups such as Call to renewal. But I guess I'm less fearful of the Christian Conservatives because (1.) I don't see them gaining power; if anything, their influence ebbed a bit in '98, and 2.) Many people who were drawn to the Christian Right were engaged in what Prof. Nathan Glazer have called a "defensive offensive." They thought they were being marginalized by the culture. Paradoxically, now that they've won that famous "place at a table," rank-and-file Christian conservatives may be in a mood for less militancy and more moderation. My guess, anyway. Many thanks.


    Colesville, Md.: Since it's pretty clear there will be no real punishment of his actions while still in the White House, what is/are the likelihood/possibilities of Bill Clinton being charged with crimes after January `01?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: My hunch is he won't be charged. But legally, he could be. And there are rumblings that Mr. Starr might like to charge him.

    But you have my guess, and I'm stickin' to it!

    Many thanks.


    Alexandria: Senator Wellstone was quoted recently as being troubled that the Democrats were sounding increasingly like they were moving away from ethics and values. As a disillusioned Dem, I think that is true. Your perspective on this concern?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Many conservatives have also said that the cost to the Dems of this scandal is that it's harder for them to talk ethics and values. I think there's some truth to that. But the solution to this problem will probably lie in individuals speaking up and providing example. One reason, by the way, that Dems want censure is that they want to make sure their opposition to removing the president is not consfused with approval of what he did.

    Many thanks.


    Richmond, Virginia: Would there be an uproar in Washington if Attorney General
    Janet Reno fired Kenneth Starr
    using the Monica Lewinsky justification?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: Yes, indeed. I think after the Saturday Night Massacre under Nixon, it became impossible, politically, for a president ever to fire an independent counsel. I think she'll just let that investigation take its course.

    Many thanks


    Bob Levey: The country is screaming for campaign finance reform, but Washington doesn't seem to want to play. Any chance this will change as the 2000 campaign looms?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: My friend Peter Milius of our editorial page always says that anyone who expects Congress to pass campaign reform is like Charlie Brown expecting Lucy to hold down the football long enough for him to kick it. But someday, someday, both have to happen.


    Bob Levey: Your take on Hillary Rodham Clinton--Why so silent throughout? Why so loyal to Himself throughout? What makes this woman tick?

    E.J. Dionne Jr.: The truth: No one knows for sure, and I wouldn't claim to. I think there is a real personal bond there, despite everything. I think there's a shared interest in a political project -- not just power, but some ideas, too. I think there's a shared, very intense dislike of their political opponents.

    Maybe she'll run for the senate and we'll learn more than we know now. But I don't think that'll happen.


    Bob Levey: That'll do it for today. Many thanks to the irrepressible E. J. Dionne. As soon as I sign off, Washington Post movie critic Rita Kempley signs on, with an extended look at the Oscar nominations. I'll be back Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time with "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," our weekly anything-goes show. Next Tuesday on "Levey Live," my guest will be The Washington Post's director of polling, Richard Morin.




    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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