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CLARENCE PAGE (THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE) INTERVIEW - 26th April 2009

For reasons best known to no-one really, we in the media tend to go on about the first 100 days of new governments and new leaders. Some might say it's a silly way of measuring, for instance, a new US President's time in office, and they could have a point. All week, Barack Obama's advisers have been at pains to point out that they don't really believe in the 100-day yardstick, but then they'll tell you he's been busier than even the late, great FDR, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Who better to help Dateline assess Obama's performance than Pulitzer Prize-winning Clarence Page, Washington-based senior columnist for the 'Chicago Tribune', who was part of the round table we hosted in Washington DC on that historic election night last November.

GEORGE NEGUS: Clarence, it's great to see you again. The last time we were together was that momentous night in Washington in November last year. The question I would like to ask you first up, 100 days into his presidency, does the man sleep or is he a closet insomniac? How the heck has he kept up the pace?

CLARENCE PAGE, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Well, that's a good question. He's young, George, that all I can say. He rather causes reporters to be exhausted just trying to follow him around. He's determined to push ahead with his agenda and doesn't seem to sleep at all.

GEORGE NEGUS: Just shy of 100 days, in fact. First up, he ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison, troop withdrawal from Iraq, easier for women to sue for job discrimination, eased restrictions on federally funded stem-cell research, extended health care for kids, ousted the head of GM, reached out to the Muslim world, tried to reduce tension with Cuba, went off to Canada, Europe and the Middle East and Latin America, and then as set aside huge tracts of wilderness for a federal protection. Other than that, he's done nothing.

CLARENCE PAGE: You left out able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and faster than a locomotive.

GEORGE NEGUS: It seems to me that this is not actually change that he has introduced, it is an agenda for change.

CLARENCE PAGE: Well there's no question about it. There is change. There certainly seems to be a sea change here in Washington. Take stem-cell research for example - the whole philosophy, the whole approach of government to science has changed almost 180 degrees overnight, with Obama stepping in.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you think that he really understood the economic and financial storm that he was riding into because when we were talking in November, things were looking pretty bleak but I don't think anybody realised just how huge the so-called global financial crisis was going to turn out to be.

CLARENCE PAGE: He had something of an idea. He was told early on that was going to require a bigger stimulus than they thought it would initially and he decided to go for it - as big as a package as possible. And all the kind of programs that he wanted to get money out there to the States and so far he has got away with it largely because the Republicans are in such disarray.

GEORGE NEGUS: That $800 billion, Clarence, do think it will stop there, or will the stimulus package become just a package for another stimulus package?

CLARENCE PAGE: Well, me and some other pundits were talking to a top Obama adviser who didn't want to be identified in any other way but top Obama adviser, but we put that question to them. Essentially their attitude is we will cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now they are putting everything into it hoping that the stimulus package will work and so far they are encouraged by the way the free-fall on Wall Street appears to have abated. They are getting some reaction from the market.

GEORGE NEGUS: That's what he meant probably a few days ago when he talked about a glimmer of hope where the American economy was concerned.

CLARENCE PAGE: Absolutely, and that's significant George, because for Obama to come out and say that - that was the equivalent of George W. Bush and his 'mission accomplished' banner - remember? I think Obama really took ownership of the economic crisis when he made that optimistic projection.

GEORGE NEGUS: Did he get a bit of a shock when he went to Europe because there was a bit of European sophistication he had to face? I mean Sarkozy went as far as to say that he was indecisive and inexperienced - hardly a ringing endorsement.

CLARENCE PAGE: I found Sarkozy's remarks amusing because Obama is more popular in France than Sarkozy is, according to the polls I have seen. Obama, in one dramatic point in the G20 talks, took Sarkozy aside and the head of China and did some side negotiating there and broke through this little log jam in negotiations - not a bad showing for his first outing.

GEORGE NEGUS: On the other hand, Clarence, Sarkozy would say that they weren't going to come to any arrangement unless the Americans were prepared to accept that regulation, not just bank bashing, was required.

CLARENCE PAGE: Yes, and I think the Obama Administration knew that was coming but from the European point of view the kind of stimulus that Obama is trying to get out of the US - countries like France, Germany, England have had for years. So it's harder for Americans to tell them to spend more stimulating the economy in your own countries.

GEORGE NEGUS: Certainly his moves in places like the Middle East and Iran etcetera, by extending the hand and his offer to the entire Muslim population of the world when he was in Turkey, he has been putting his mouth where his mouth was, as it were, during the campaign.

CLARENCE PAGE: There's no question, first of all, that Obama is showing that change has happened in so far as the contrast between him and the Bush-Cheney administration. He is willing to go out, not only meet people close up, but to admit openly that the US has not been perfect in the past.

GEORGE NEGUS: You mentioned the Bush-Cheney combo, as it were, I noticed Dick Cheney was not terribly pleased with the things that are happening with both the CIA and torture. That was a remarkable moment, the President of the United States marching in to Langley, Virginia, and lecturing the CIA about what they ought to be doing in the world.

CLARENCE PAGE: Yes, at the same time the people there in Langley, his audience was as enthusiastic as any other Obama rally. I have been over to Langley, as you might imagine, it is a quiet place. It's devoted to top-secret matters and all this and it looked a rather like another Obama rally over there. I think when you look at Dick Cheney, there are two things. Number one, Dick Cheney is a proud man and an ideologue who believes wholeheartedly in his tough-minded approach to world affairs and he doesn't mind going out to defend it and his place in history. And number two, I think he is trying to soften the moves towards his actually being criminally investigated because that is very much a possibility as President Obama has said, the Department of Justice is looking into all the people who had anything to do with the torture memos and the torture policy. Everybody knows that goes right back to Dick Cheney's office and his man-size safe and his penchant for secrecy - right and left. Now he's the one pleading with the Obama Administration to reclassify some documents that he says shows that torture did yield some useful information.

GEORGE NEGUS: Despite everything, despite all the change and despite the fact that he has been a man of action to say the least, there are still those snide cracks about whether he is more style than substance and even that very, very funny phrase that he is America's "Orator in Chief". How so you feel? I mean, how much of Obama - you know him - how much of Obama is style and how much is substance?

CLARENCE PAGE: When it comes to his actual policies, the proof is in the pudding. He has done more than any previous President, since Roosevelt, in his first 100 days. Also as a word man, I rather take umbrage at people who cheapen the value of words because at a time like this, when we are in an economic crisis globally, and people want some reassurance, some confidence in a system that has completely let them down, you are boldly to articulate leadership in these times like Franklin Roosevelt did, like Churchill did or John F. Kennedy. That's not a cheap talent to have.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is it the case though, Clarence, that his supporters, his disciples as it were, they are mad for him. He is the incarnate, if you like. But to his political opposition, he is the worst thing that ever happened to the United States?

CLARENCE PAGE: Yes, it's rather pathological. I am not going to say that only people on the right are pathological because people on the left can be loony two. But there was for example a Gallup poll here about a week or so ago that showed about 9% of the public still thinks Obama is a secret Muslim who was born in Africa and that his Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake. This is the sort of buzz you see on the internet but it's being fed and helping to feed the paranoid wing that still can't get it through their head that this man was democratically elected President.

GEORGE NEGUS: Clarence, his mantra in the run-up to the election was "Yes, we can". Can he? Given the height of the mountain that is the world, at the moment, can he make it to the top, can he stay on the top or is he likely to lose his footing?

CLARENCE PAGE: Well, the easy answer is he is all we've got. But as far as his ability to do what he wants to do, it's workable. People talk about how we are spending away our children and grandchildren's inheritance, I remember how 20 years ago people were saying the same thing and then in 2000, under Bill Clinton, lo and behold, we had a balanced budget. People could argue until they are blue in the face about what is going to happen with the future. But as the great old philosopher, Yogi Bear, has said "I can't tell the future, it hasn't happened yet." And that's what we are waiting for.

GEORGE NEGUS: Clarence, that's a good place to end. It's great to talk you again and we will stay in touch.

CLARENCE PAGE: I hope you will bring me back in the future, thank you.