The Byron York Interview
John Hawkins:: Would you think it’s fair to say that Air America Radio is failing as a business venture?
Byron York:: So far it looks like they are. One of the problems with Air America is that it’s on in so few places around the country. It’s still only on about 50 stations so it’s hard to measure its nation-wide impact. We know that it’s doing extremely well in Portland, Oregon. We also know that it’s not doing that well most everywhere else. In New York where it had a pretty decent start in April and May of 2004, it’s pretty much fallen back down to the audience level that existed on that station before Air America took it over.
John Hawkins:: This is certainly a venture that has gotten an enormous amount of publicity. It’s been talked up just about everywhere. Why do you think it hasn’t succeeded? I mean, certainly there’s a big audience out there for left wing political fod, as you can see on the web.
Byron York:: Well, there’s a certain bitterness of tone to the network that I think does not really attract listeners that well. For example, last year during the turn-over of sovereignty in Iraq, from the United States to Iraq, Al Franken did a comedy piece that was commentary on an imaginary parade that was marking this turn-over — except the parade was interrupted by all sorts of gunshots, explosions, and attacks. This was all supposed to be kind of funny, but it wasn’t.
In addition, I think Air America has a little bit of a problem in the sense that if you look at the entire sort of liberal coalition, large parts of it, large segments of it, are black Democrats and Hispanic Democrats. However, both groups have specialized entertainment outlets that they’re loyal to. Then this leaves white liberals and they have NPR. So its audience is more fragmented than that of conservative talk radio.
John Hawkins:: This is sort of a related question. Maybe I’m off base here, but when I see an ultra left-wing radical like Michael Moore, who buys into all sorts of wacky conspiracy theories, being embraced by elected Democrats, I have to think something seems to have changed on the left in the last few years. Do you think it’s fair to say that the “mainstream left” has become much more radicalized and willing to buy into conspiracy theories over, let’s say, the last 5-10 years?
Byron York:: Well, I think they’ve certainly become radicalized during the administration of George W. Bush. In the book I write about what you might call the emotional wing of the movement which is characterized by people like Michael Moore and organizations like MoveOn. They really were motivated largely by anger: anger at the Clinton impeachment, anger at the Florida re-count, and then anger at the Iraq War and now pretty much anger at anything George W. Bush does.
So I do think that there was a wing of that movement that is deeply reactionary and just essentially angry. There is a more professional wing of the movement and I would include in that the Democratic 527’s, like America Coming Together, and I think they were motivated by their realization that McCain-Feingold had done enormous damage to their cause. They had to find a way to keep their millionaire donors in the game. So I really distinguish between two types of people in this movement.
John Hawkins:: Well, let me ask you this. I think I see sort of a merging in some ways of those groups. For example, when Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 debuted there were all sorts of senators and congressmen there. Terry McAuliffe called it a great movie. Michael Moore went to the Democratic convention & sat beside of Jimmy Carter. To me, I don’t see that happening in, let’s say for example, in 2000 when Al Gore was running. I’m just wondering if maybe the ideas of people like Michael Moore are making a lot of in-roads into the mainstream of the Democratic party.
Byron York:: Well, they were so desperate to try to beat Bush that they embraced anything they thought would help and I think they thought Fahrenheit 9/11 would help. Certainly they embraced George Soros because he was giving them millions and millions of dollars. So to that extent I think they did mainstream some radical groups like MoveOn and radicals like Moore.
Now I think what you’re seeing is a war inside the Democratic party ‘tween the people that I write about in the book as “The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy,” meaning MoveOn and Moore and Air America and the like — and the more centrist elements of the Democratic party who are dismayed to see these more radical elements gaining power. Right now it looks to me like MoveOn is winning. Remember after the election Eli Pariser, who is the political head of MoveOn, said of the Democratic party, “We bought it, we own it, and we’re going to take it back.” So they are feeling very powerful inside the Democratic party now.
John Hawkins:: Well, I think you’re right. I mean they certainly do seem to make a lot of in-roads, but that makes me wonder now: the Democrats often do seem, if you look at polling data, to be split on a lot of issues. There’s like a more moderate wing and then there’s a more radical liberal wing and they do split a lot of times 50/50 or 60/40 on issues. Do you think that’s going to lead over time to moderates defecting to the GOP while the party becomes more liberal as the MoveOns and the Michael Moores dominate?
Byron York:: I think that really depends on events. I think in the present political conditions, circumstances that prevail in the United States, I think I would agree with you that we will see a bit of the migration there.
On the other hand, one of the things I do write in the book is that it’s entirely possible that political conditions could change to favor these left-wing activists. By that I mean if we are fortunate enough, for example, not to have another terrorist attack, it’s possible that the urgency of the war on terror could really diminish over time. I think that would make the voters more open to the idea of electing a Democratic president. It’s also possible that the voters can simply become tired of Republicans and just decide that they’ve been in power too long. If that happens, these groups — particularly America Coming Together, particularly the Center For American Progress, the new think tank founded by John Podesta, the former Clinton White House Chief of Staff — would be well placed to take advantage of that.
John Hawkins:: A related question: in the last election, Democrats just killed Republicans in soft money spending. What do you think the GOP needs to do to try to catch up…or can we catch up?
Byron York:: Well, Republicans did catch up a bit toward the end. In the last 30 days their 527 spending equalled or exceeded Democrats although Democrats had about a 2.5 to 1 advantage over the whole course of the campaign.
My feeling is that 527’s are going to be reined in by still more campaign finance reform. In that case, the soft money will be going toward what are called 501-C4 groups and I think basically one of the reasons the Republicans didn’t go that route as much this last election is because they didn’t see a need to. Bush was very popular and had an enormous number of donors. My guess is you’ll see Republicans doing more of that and they’ll be much more equal in the next campaign.
John Hawkins:: One of the stereotypes you often hear from the Left is that Republicans are “the party of the rich.” Do you think the last election proved that really it’s the Left, the Democrats, who benefit more from rich patrons?
Byron York:: Well, I think that the dirty little secret of campaign finance has always been that Democrats are far more beholding and dependent on their multi-millionaire donors than Republicans are. Republicans have more donors in the small donor range, $200 and less, and Democrats have more donors in the million dollar plus range.
To give you an example of that: about two months after McCain-Feingold was passed, was signed into law, in other words about February of 2003, the three big Republican committees, the Republican National Committe and the two congressional committees took in about 19 million dollars in contributions (from small donors) in February of ’03. The three big Democratic Committees took in 4 million dollars.
So that is why Democrats had to rely on the 527’s as much and I don’t think that will change very much in the future. I think Democrats are still going to be more beholding to mega donors and they’re going to find ways to use that money regardless of whatever is passed as campaign finance reform.
John Hawkins:: Let me switch gears here a bit and ask you another question that’s related to what you wrote about in the book. Do you think the Democrats would be better off working to come up with new ideas instead of being so obsessed with repackaging their old ideas that have already been rejected by the American people?
Byron York:: I certainly would. I mean, I have a chapter in the book on the Center For American Progress which is the new think tank founded by John Podesta, the Clinton White House Chief of Staff. The whole point of it was to come up with new ideas, new governing ideas, and the point I make in the book is they didn’t really do that in this last campaign. They were born in 2003 as the campaign was really just getting under way and they functioned all the way through the campaign more as a war room, an anti-Bush war room, than an actual think tank.
Now I think they’re trying to do a little more along think tank lines but it’s very clear the Democrats need some new ideas and in the book I quote a centrist Democrat who is dismayed at what the Center For American Progress is doing and suggested that there was too much emphasis on communications and not enough emphasis on substance. John Podesta often likes to speak of finding simple ideas that you can communicate simply — that you can put on a bumper sticker — and this Democrat told me the problem is not the bumper sticker. The problem is the car. In other words, the problem is the substance of Democratic ideas and it’s something they certainly need to work on but whether they will remains to be seen.
John Hawkins:: I want to ask you another question and you’re in a particularly good place to answer this because I know in the book you interviewed and talked to a lot of Democrats, a lot of liberals. One thing conservatives often grapple with is when liberals say things like: “Conservatives want a theocracy,” or that “Iraq was a war for oil,” or even that “Bush is another Hitler,” — how much of that is something they believe? I mean, do they really think that’s the case or is that just the spin they’re trying to get out there for the public?
Byron York:: One of the things I did in this book was to take these people seriously. I didn’t dismiss them as nuts or cyncis. I think that a number of them actually believe the things they’re saying and so I take it pretty much at face value. I do have a chapter on this whole idea of a theocracy and the accusation on the Left that Bush is ushering in a theocracy in the country.
I discussed the ideas of a man named Mark Crispin Miller who’s a writer and a professor at New York University and the ideas will just kind of blow you away if you listen to them or read them. He really believes that Bush is leading a covert effort to establish a theocracy in the United States based on the first five books of the Old Testament which will include things like death by stoning for adultery and things like that. It seems just kooky; I mean it really seems kooky. On the other hand, I do take him seriously and I believe that part of them actually believe this — as wild and, you know, unattached from reality as this seems.
John Hawkins:: Tell us a little bit about your book,”The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy”
Byron York:: By “The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy” I refer to people in groups like MoveOn.org, George Soros, the Democratic 527’s, Michael Moore, Al Franken, Air America, & John Podesta and the Center For American Progress. This is a group of people who very intentionally and consciously put together a political movement in the last few years.
It’s kind of another Democratic Party outside the Democratic Party and the effort to begin with was to defeat George Bush — which has failed. The effort now is to stop the Bush agenda any way possible and to take control of the House and Senate in 2006 and then the White House in 2008.
They very self consciously are trying to work together to do this so the Center For American Progress works closely with Air America. MoveOn.org works closely with Michael Moore, works closely with the Center For American Progress, works closely with Robert Greenwall, the filmmaker. I mean they’re all cooperating quite a bit and together it really does constitute a new well organized and well funded political movement which by the way they often refer to as the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.
John Hawkins:: Are there blogs that you read regularly?
Byron York:: Blogs that I read regularly? I normally, as far as blogs are concerned, read about 5 or 6. I usually go to Left Wing blogs as you might imagine to find out what’s going on there on that side. So I basically look at those and I will look at some conservative blogs.
I look at: Andrew Sullivan’s blog,: Mickey Kaus,: Talking Points Memo: which is Josh Marshall,: Atrios,: Daily Kos, and I also look at: Powerline: on the conservative side. Of course the one I see all the time is: National Review’s Corner: if you call that a blog. I would probably list that one first because that is where most of the ideas of people close to me are found.
John Hawkins:: Is there anything else you’d like to say or promote before we finish up?
Byron York:: That’s about it.
John Hawkins:: Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.