“This is the Alternative Future”: An Interview with Jeff Greenfield

 /  June 2, 2016, 3 p.m.

Jeff Greenfield

Institute of Politics Spring Fellow Jeff Greenfield is an award-winning journalist and author. Greenfield has reported for CNN, CBS, PBS, ABC, The Daily Beast, and POLITICO, among other sources, and has won five Emmy awards for his work. In addition to his extensive media experience, Greenfield served as a political consultant and speechwriter, and has authored or co-authored fourteen books. The Gate’s Dylan Wells sat down with Greenfield to discuss the 2016 presidential race, alternative political histories, and the rise of new forms of journalism.

The Gate: Early in your career you worked as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. What do you think of the rhetoric and speaking style that the 2016 candidates have been using this election cycle?

Jeff Greenfield: It’s really a sharp contrast from say, Obama, whose rhetorical gifts were substantial and who really cared about rhetoric, to 2016. Donald Trump’s speech is a contradiction in terms. It’s free association; it’s a series of rants. He has given a couple of prepared speeches, but clearly he prefers to just wing it. A lot of times, if you’ve actually read the full transcripts, it’s not only incoherent, it’s not even rhetoric. He’ll repeat himself three times, or he’ll say, “It will be great because we’re gonna do great things. Believe me.” Now, it has been effective and he is clearly choosing other paths to communicate, like Twitter.

Of all the other candidates, the one who has the most carefully crafted rhetoric is Ted Cruz, to the point where even in debates, he doesn’t express a single spontaneous thought. They are all framed out, often very effectively, for maximum appeal to the people he is talking to. I give him higher marks than anybody else on the rhetorical front. For instance, when he went after illegal immigration, he didn’t use the nativist approachhe didn’t say they’re rapists or criminals. What he said was, if hedge fund executives, lawyers, and big-shot media people were sneaking across the border and putting those people out of work, you would hear a big outcry, but because it’s lower-income workers in America who are being hurt, nobody cares. So simultaneously he goes after illegal immigration and the elites, and makes an appeal to his basewhite working class people. So he has the most refined rhetoric. But as a general rule, I haven’t seen anything from the candidates that I would remotely consider memorable.

Gate: Your book Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow! depicts the 2000 election, a topic on which you have done extensive research. Do you see any possibility of something similar happening in 2016 with the rise of Sanders supporters who say they will not vote for Clinton if she is chosen as the Democratic nominee?

Greenfield: The analogy that you are making is that Sanders is Nader. Sanders is not a third-party candidate, so it’s not quite the same thing. I would argue that in one state, Nader’s presence on the ballot cost Gore the state. That state was Florida, which cost him the presidency and forced him to compete in other places, maybe diverting resources. The Sanders issue is whether at some point he will turn into an all-out surrogate for Clinton or at least say that we’ve got to stop Trump, and whether he will persuade his followers to do that. That is the great unknown. I’ve stopped speculating about these things after Trump’s rise, which at the beginning I didn’t think would happen. It took me a couple of months to take him seriously.

The other thing about the 2000 campaign is that if you have a very close election, the capacity of the machinery to go goofy increases dramatically. The Florida vote wouldn’t have mattered if the race hadn’t been so closeif Gore had won one other state, it would have been an afterthought. So the question is, is it possible to imagine electoral machinery creating the kind of crisis we had in 2000? The answer is, sure. We have all these states that have put in new restrictions on voting, and you have the kind of human error that happened in Florida with the butterfly ballot and other issues. That is always something to keep in mind. The advantage that we have had is that since 2000, in the last three elections, there has not been anything like that. Bush won with three million more votes than Kerry, and there was no state that was remotely as close as Florida in 2000. Obama won by ten million votes in 2008 and four million in 2012, so nobody was contesting. Except for the real diehards, there was no one claiming that Bush stole the Ohio votes, that voting machines were rigged, or that illegal immigrants all voted for Obama. Except for those people really on the fringes, no one was arguing about the legitimacy of those election results, but it can always happen.

Gate: You have spoken about your disbelief that Trump is a real candidate in this election. Can you talk about the relationship between the media and the candidates, including Trump?

Greenfield: There are going to be about five hundred panels, seminars, books and articles about the extent to which the media enabled Trump. [Current IOP Spring Fellow] Mike Murphy has an interesting chart that argues that Trump’s rise in the polls follows the attention from the media. The problem with the chart is that it doesn’t tell us what kind of media coverage he got. In other words, was the initial coverage celebratory, or highly critical like when he went after John McCain or Megyn Kelly? Did it not matter, like with the old Hollywood line that “there is no such thing as bad publicity”? I’m not sure that’s true in politics.

What I think absolutely is true is that because he was such a story, the media did give him access in ways that they did not give to other candidates. They let him call into a Sunday talk show. That’s unheard ofyou’re supposed to show up. The media carried entire rallies, which is the equivalent of free advertising. Someone calculated that he got $1.9 billion of free publicity. The problem is that you do not know what that all said, but it’s clear that the media opened a door to somebody in part because he was a phenomenon and in part because he was great for the bottom line. The head of CBS and the head of CNN admitted as much. After the first Fox debate, CNN jacked up its rates for ads during their debate ten or fifteen times because Trump was bringing in all kinds of new eyeballs to the process. That tells me that the media didn’t create Donald Trump, but they certainly rode this phenomenon.

Gate: You have authored several books on alternative political histories; for example, what would have happened if Ford had defeated Carter, or if the forty-third president was Al Gore instead of George Bush. Could you predict some alternative potential futures for the United States if each of the remaining three candidatesClinton, Sanders, and Trumpwere elected?

Greenfield: This is the alternative future. If I were to make up an alternative story, I would make up a story about a billionaire, bloviating, semi-deranged, semi-brilliant carnival barker who manages to get to be president. This is one case where I can’tno pun intendedtrump reality. If you went back, you could look at 2008 and realize that if Florida had not moved its primary up, thus making it not count, Hillary Clinton would have trounced Obama there, won more pledged delegates and might well have wound up as the nominee. One of the reason I like alternative histories is that I like to find these tiny little changes in reality that would have produced huge consequences.

The 2000 election alternative scenario is simply that Elian Gonzalez’s mother doesn’t drown. So she takes Elian, and then there’s no fight between the government and the Cuban community about who’s controlling him. There were huge dust-ups and enormous resentments from this case. There are famous pictures of a federal officer aiming a gun at Elian hiding in a closet. That whole event, at a minimum, cost Gore twenty thousand votes in Florida, which, had he won them, would have made the butterfly ballot irrelevant. It’s tiny little things that change history. I haven’t seen that in this election. I suppose you could argue that if Marco Rubio hadn’t gone off the deep end at the debate in New Hampshire and repeated himself like a robot, maybe he finishes second, maybe he becomes the alternative to Cruz, but I don’t see that. I think what we are going through is weird enough.

Gate: You just mentioned small instances when candidates can alienate voters, which may end up potentially affecting the election. What do you think is preventing things like Trump’s statements against women and minorities from having that kind of impact?

Greenfield: A couple of things. One, the people who like Trump like him in part because he is this totally different figure unafraid to say things. He is so outrageous and so often insulting, but a lot of his supporters say to reporters, “He says what I’m afraid to say.” And that can mean about immigrants, African Americans, women, big shots . . . who knows what it means? But you also find people who basically discount Trump simply because he’s a television star. “Oh he doesn’t mean that. That’s Trump.” They used to say that about a weird Boston Red Sox ball player, Manny Ramirez: “That’s Manny being Manny.

I think Trump’s speaking style has hurt him. It just hasn’t hurt him enough to deny him the nomination. It’s still an open question as to in the fall, when you move from a Republican electorate to the mass electorate, whether those things will come back and haunt him.

Gate: What do you think the political journalism in our country is missing? What do you see are some of the major successes or flaws in the current media landscape?

Greenfield: I think there is so much of it that if you look hard enough you’ll find pretty much everything. There’s plenty of long-form, analytical, smart political journalism going on, but if you look at the firehose of stufffrom BuzzFeed, Instagram, Snapchat, the cable news, and blogsthe fact that there’s so much of it makes it hard to sift out the good stuff.

I’ll give you one example. In covering the primaries, they keep talking about who wins states, but at least in the Democratic Party, that is meaningless. You don’t win states, you win delegates. So the fact that Bernie Sanders wins something doesn’t tell you anything unless you find out how many delegates he wins. The cable networks are hard pressed, when they’re in the middle of making a call, to say that Bernie Sanders has just won whatever the hell he won and that it is a setback for Hillary Clinton. But it’s not November. It’s not the electoral college, where you win a state and get all the votes. But as I say, if you are a consumer of political information and you’re willing to fight your way through the noise, you can find some awfully good stuff. So I don’t have a complaint about what’s missing, it’s just harder and harder to find it.

Gate: What do you see as the future of journalism?

Greenfield: Well, we’re having Snapchat’s Peter Hamby here next week, and [Gate Co-Editor-in-Chief] Liz Stark just showed me the Good Luck America Snapchat thing. Out of these new forms, I hope there will be the ability to do long form stuff. For instance, BuzzFeed, which is big on listicles, has in more recent times been hiring real reporters to do real reporting, getting into places like Africa. There have been some financial constraints. Maybe someone will figure out something like what Hamby apparently did in that Snapchat video, that is only five to ten seconds, but there’s an actual way to build a piece out of it. I couldn’t do it, it’s not in my wheelhouse. There’s a lot riding on how VICE does in the future, since it began a real newscast on HBO. I’d like to think that out of all these new forms, we’ll get the essence, which is smart people who think seriously about politics and not just short bursts of video or image or text. We’re at the starting gate of all this stuff. If we had had this conversation two election cycles ago, would we be talking about Twitter, BuzzFeed, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook? I can’t see into the future, but I’d like to be around long enough to see what happens.

Gate: Going back to your own career, can you talk about how you got started and your development as a journalist?

Greenfield: I’ve always wanted to write. I can’t remember when I didn’t. I think I was writing for my fourth grade newspaper which was mimeographingdo you know what that is? It’s pre-Xerox. You can ask your grandparents what it is; there was a lot of purple. I grew up in New York. One of my class trips was to the New York Times, and we all had to write a report about it. I wrote that this was what I wanted to do. Once I knew that I couldn’t be a major-league baseball player, that’s where I was going. I entered my college newspaper, and when I was in college I would occasionally send pieces to magazines and very occasionally they would buy. Even when I was doing political consulting, I was writing on the side, but then I decided I couldn’t do both. I was a journeyman, I didn’t have a job. I was a freelancer and would write for any magazine that would let me write for them.

I wound up on television in a weird accident, since I wrote a lot about the TV industry. Sunday Morning, which was then a brand new show on CBS, wanted a media critic, and I did that. Then they said, “Oh you know politics, why don’t you do some politics?” The whole thing was sort of an accident. The writing part was what I wanted to do. Sometimes you’d send out a piece and if one magazine said no, you sent it to another. And sometimes they’d say yes. And what you’d find is that once a couple people publish you, the next group is more willing because they’ve seen your byline. They might even call you and ask if you would like to do a piece.

Gate: What advice do you have for students here at UChicago who are interested in a career in journalism?

Greenfield: Write, write for anybody. Write for whoever will publish you. Sure, write for the Gate, but if you’ve got an idea, there are so many outlets for you now. At first, I wouldn’t even worry if you got paid. We used to say, “Just get your name in print.” I don’t know what the equivalent is nowget your name in pixels? If you see something interesting, sit down and write about it. Don’t fear rejection. That’s part of what you live through unless you are an absolute genius and the first time you write something, people go “Oh my god, I’ve never seen anything like it.” You plug away at it. No matter how daunting it may seem, they can’t say no to everyone. These magazines and book publishers have to put out something, so it might as well be you.

Dylan Wells

Dylan Wells is a fourth-year Political Science major and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations minor. This summer Dylan worked at CBS News in the Political Unit. Previously, she interned at ABC News' Washington, DC bureau as a Political Unit Fellow, twice at the Institute of Politics as the Events Intern and the Summer Programs Intern, and with POLITICO Live at the DNC. Last year she served as The Gate's Editor-in-Chief, and before that she served as the Elections Editor. Dylan was the recipient of the inaugural David Axelrod Reporting Grant, which she used for a story on domestic human trafficking. Dylan enjoys traveling, exploring the Chicago brunch scene, and playing with her dog, Wasabi.


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