Interview: Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss

This month, VPR had the opportunity to sit down with David Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post. In addition to Barack Obama: The Story, Maraniss is the author of five critically acclaimed and bestselling books. Maraniss is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and won the Pulitzer for national reporting in 1993 for his newspaper coverage of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. He also was part of The Washington Post team that won a 2008 Pulitzer for the newspaper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting. He has won several other notable awards for achievements in journalism, including the George Polk Award, the Dirksen Prize for Congressional Reporting, the ASNE Laventhol Prize for Deadline Writing, the Hancock Prize for Financial Writing, the Anthony Lukas Book Prize, the Frankfort Book Prize, the Eagleton Book Prize, the Ambassador Book Prize, and Latino Book Prize. Maraniss is currently the writer in-residence at the Martha River Ingram Commons and the College of Arts and Science. He is co-teaching Political Biographies in the Department of Political Science.

This interview was conducted by Kevin Schoelzel and Sufei Wu, and originally appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of the Vanderbilt Political Review.

What brings you to Vanderbilt?

Several things. I am teaching two courses. One a seminar in political biography and another a seminar on Sports and Society, two broad themes that I am deeply interested in, [and that] I’ve have written several books about. And Vanderbilt invited me to come. I also by happenstance have a son and family here, including a two year-old granddaughter, so it was very nice to relocate for a while closer to them.

Your writing tends to focus on sports and political figures. What similarities do you see between these two arenas?

You know people often think that I move from the seriousness of sports to the triviality of politics. Like going from what’s important to the toy store. I don’t look at it that way at all. I think that some politics can be trivial and some sports can be sociologically important and vice-versa. So when I’m looking at whatever I’m writing about, there are sort of cultural themes that move through American life in sociology.  And you can see many parallels between politics and sports. On a superficial level, they’re two aspects of life were there are clear winners and losers: you win a game, you win an election. People who go into those two professions tend to have an uncommon will to succeed. You often find among the leaders of both sports and politics imbalances in their lives because of that uncommon will.  And you see in both of those arenas, as I said earlier, really fascinating ways to explore the transformations of different eras in American life, and the sort of forces that shape people and this country.

You have written biographies on Presidents, both Clinton, Obama, Vice President Al Gore, and house speaker Newt Gingrich along with countless other heavy hitters in American Democracy. You have gotten to see a lot of leaders up close, get to understand them, What common traits do you see among these politicians? As you said like in sports there are a lot of imbalances but are their any other traits you see a lot in that top echelon of national politicians?

I find two sort archetypes of politicians. Generally speaking, they go into politics with a certain amount of idealism but also a very personal… hole they need to fill in their lives. You know the need to achieve. Often in the politicians I have written about, without getting too deeply into psychobabble, or into it all. But just studying their lives, you find that they are trying to redeem fathers who either failed or were lost. [It was] certainly true with Bill Clinton, who lost his father before he was born; his stepfather was an alcoholic. With Barack Obama, whose father he never knew. Similarly with Ronald Reagan, whose father was an alcoholic. Along with Richard Nixon, who had a strong mother, a weak father. Newt Gingrich the same way. You find that it has nothing to do with ideology; it has to do with sort an impulse to achieve. I think the other commonalities in these politicians include, as we said earlier, has to do with a certain imbalance. A will to prevail that can create some other imbalances in their lives. Whether it’s in their family life, or in the way they treat other people. Often you’ll find with politicians, and this is not to be completely critical of them, but you will often find they are much better at creating a sense of community out of millions of strangers than they are out of the cohorts that should be closest with them. You will find that a lot of them have what they might say are ten thousand acquaintances but no real friends. It’s a common trait among politicians and the part of it that I am most fascinated by, or one aspect I am most fascinated by, is that tug-of-war in every politician between idealism and ambition. Every human being has that in them somewhere, the urge to do good and the urge to prevail. And the notion of an integrated life is to find ways to make those not to compete against one another. In politics that’s very difficult, and there are different steps along the ways where you see any politicians of whatever ideology dealing with that conflict with conflict between idealism and ambition.

Do you think part of that difficulty arises from being more in the public eye and all of their actions are scrutinized?

Part of it is that you see it all more rawly. I have said of Bill Clinton that he exhibits all characteristics of humanity just in an incredibly exaggerated sense, for better and worse. I think that’s true for a lot of politicians you see it more clearly. And also, they have more on the line than the average person and they have to make more of those difficult choices

Focusing on Obama, in his second term he laid out his vision in his inaugural address. Having such a close and deep understanding of the President, what do you think lies ahead for his second term? Do you anticipate anything that the general public may find a surprise?

Well the conventional wisdom on his second inaugural address was that it was a liberal manifesto, and to some degree that’s true. It was a clear expression of the world as he wants it to be. I have often said that he had this training as a community organizer where the first lesson was imagine the world as you want it to be, deal with the world as it is. And his first inaugural address was rather bleak; it was just dealing with the world as it at that moment with the financial crisis. The second inaugural he felt freer, even though the public was less excited about his reelection and his inauguration and had gone through four difficult years of promises either met or unmet, but not exactly the hope and change sensibility that he had promised. And yet, Obama himself in that second inaugural was much freer, much more hope and changy himself.  Because he had gotten reelected, it was the last trap of his life, and he had gotten through the most difficult policy agenda he wanted, which was with healthcare, and had survived the economic downturn. And so, he feeling was freer. So I think that with the second term, he laid out what he wants to happen and how he envisions it. It was a very important statement in terms of equality. Obama grew up too late for the Civil Rights movement, and for political reasons, I would say that conflict between idealism and ambition, he made it sound as though he was evolving on gay rights. My presumption is it was a political evolution, but not a personal one, he was already there because his whole life had been centered around the opportunity of equality. So I think that was the emotional center of the speech and there will be more advancement there. I think in terms of surprises my perspective is that his governing style won’t change that much, he will be more confident and more clear about what he wants, what he believes. A little tougher in his negotiations with the opposition, but that he is essentially someone who wants to find a common ground. I don’t think that is going to change. So I think with a lot of those financial issues, where people are thinking that he set a marker and he isn’t going to move from it, I don’t think that’s going to be true. I think he will.

 Obama and Clinton are the two superstars in Democratic politics.  Newsweek recently ran a cover proclaiming Obama “The Democrats’ Ronald Reagan” Whereas Doyle McManus in an Op-Ed for the LA Times earlier this year claimed that “Clinton is to the Democrats as Ronald Reagan is to Republicans: [in that he is] the president they’re all nostalgic for.” How do you see the two Presidents legacies playing out? Is there room for them both to have that mantle, as a Democratic icon or can there be only one?

I think there are three superstars in American politics. There are the two Clintons and Obama. The Republicans have, if you want to use that sports analogy, they have some major leaguers, but no superstars. The Democrats actually have fewer major leaguers, but they have the three superstars. But, I think that in the most important respects, I would give it more to Obama than to Clinton. I think that Bill Clinton was an incredibly capable politician, and I think he was particularly good at certain aspects of the presidency that President Obama had more trouble with — in terms of maneuvering and finding ways to co-opt the opposition and yet get them on board and just the sort of behind-the-scenes politics that he loved and lives for. Clinton is the shark that never stops moving in the waters of politics, and Obama would just as soon go off on land and get out of it.  [Obama] wants to accomplish things, but he doesn’t have that same deep love of politics. But in terms of defining eras, Clinton was more in a transitional period, and Obama really hit a more transformational period, as did Ronald Reagan. So I would compare those two more than Bill and Reagan.

Image credit: Brown University