John Frederick Dickerson is an American journalist. Dickerson is the host of Face the Nation on CBS News, the political director of CBS News, and a political columnist for Slate magazine.
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Hello! I’m John Dickerson, the host of Face the Nation and author of the new book Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History. The book was inspired by my podcast of the same name. In addition to the familiar tales, Whistlestop also remembers the forgotten stories about the bruising and reckless campaigns of the nineteenth century when the combatants believed the consequences included the fate of the republic itself. I’m also a co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest and Political Director for CBS News. Ask me anything!
More info on Whistlestop: Whistlestopbook.com
Thanks everyone. I've got to move on for now. I really enjoy these though and I hope I can do another one even when I don't have a book that's just come out. It reminds me what people care about and forces me to think through the things I believe which is always helpful. Well, it's more than that. It's crucial.
What do you think your mom could have uniquely brought to coverage of Trump?
This is my favorite question. She would have known about Wallace and Goldwater so she would have personal experience to fall back on. She also would have been able to speak to the death of the establishment that previously would have been able to offer better competition to Trump.
Hey John, congrats on the book!
In the past year you've started as the host of Face the Nation, been a host/co-host of two podcasts (and guest on many others), and somehow found the time to write a book - in addition to having a family and I'm sure dozens of other commitments. My questions are:
1) How do you manage your time so effectively without letting the stress get to you?
2) How are you going to relax when this insane election season is finally over?
1) I meditate (not enough), I try to work out, I rely on the kindness of my colleagues, I do things I love and in which I find meaning and I worship and pray.
2) I am not sure I know how to relax. I'm not trying to be funny. It's an issue. I fortunately have an amazing family that helps me break this. I'm also going to pick the guitar back up again.
You always come across as a very calm and composed person. What would you (or your wife) say riles you up or gets you blood boiling?
People who are excessively judgmental, unfair or rude.
Your extended interview with President Obama on Face the Nation last month was terrific — some questions of the day, sure, but also conversation about the qualities of the presidency.
If you could have one of the people profiled in Whistlestop on FTN for a similar interview, whom would you pick?
Oh man I love that question. I'm having a James G. Blaine fixation at the moment but I would have liked to have covered Kennedy or Reagan though I'm not sure what kind of interview Reagan would have been. Kennedy probably. He thought a lot about the office and what it took to be president. Thank you for the compliment about the interview.
How do you think the 2016 Election will be viewed in 20, 50, or 100 years?
I think it will be seen as an inflection point. The GOP is changing. This will be the election that changed it. The Democratic party is changing but it is not undergoing the kind of transformation the GOP is in this election.
John! I love the Gabfest and Whistestop podcasts, and I've been refreshing this page for 15 minutes waiting for your AMA to post!
Anyway, you are obviously a huge fan of history and it seems like that informs the lion's share of your political knowledge. "Pivot" is a word used often in PoliSci to explain an attempt by a party to capture a segment of the population it has previously neglected. Do you think we are seeing a fundamental pivot of the Republican party right now in response to Trump and that in response the Democratic party is pivoting to some more conservative ideals? How do you think this will shape the parties going forward?
Hillary Clinton is moving to the left so I'm not sure how many conservatives she will win on policy grounds. If she wins them for the 2016 election she may have simply rented them. That's what's so interesting about the Trump fracture. It's hard to put the finger on the ideological fault lines that have been a part of previous party changes.
In the forward of WhistleStop, you mention the many books you used as reference when writing the book. If one were to have a "must own" book from your collection, which book(s) should be had?
That's such a hard question. I really like See How they Ran for a sweeping view, What it Takes for a dense view of a somewhat meh election and 1960 Making of the President for genre creating and White's writing.
What do you think is an important and under-reported issue?
PS please bring a live gabfest to Boston
Poverty. The number of high poverty neighborhoods or tracts in Detroit grew from 51 in 2000 to 184 by 2013. That's happening in lots of places.
No. Talk more.
Ha! Okay. More me. Excellent.
How do you think the GOP will change the most from this election?
Depends on the outcome. I think there is a faction -- represented by the 2016 autopsy-- that believes in a different party than the Trump faction. Hard to think of a synthesis candidate who can keep them together. There is going to have to be a sorting.
With all the different jobs that you have to juggle, how much sleep do you normally get?
Also what is your favourite book on elections?
On a good night I get 7. On an average night I get 6.5. In the last 3 weeks I've gotten 4-5 on average. I long for 8 but I can't get 8 even if I tried because my biological clock is broken. I need more sleep, that's for sure.
Love the Gabfest, Face the Nation and Whistlestop.
When you were writing the book or researching the podcast was there anything that stood out to you that helped you contextualize or understand the 2016 election better?
Wallace 1968 helped a lot in terms of the way certain pitches and language work on the electorate. 1964 and the Stop Goldwater movement helped me think about #nevertrump and what Humphrey did in 68 to stop Wallace in the Midwest is not unlike what Clinton is trying there now with Trump.
Hi John, big fan of the podcast.
In your opinion who in US history was the best political campaigner?
Truman 1948. He came from way behind. He wasn't great in the sense that some others like FDR and TR were probably better on the stump (Kennedy and Clinton too as well as REagan) but man did Truman grind it out.
Is it hard to keep a straight face during interviews?
Not really. I'm trying so desperately to get useful answers and do right by the viewers I am too distracted. I probably need to lighten up.
We are reading Whistlestop. What are you reading this summer?
Bless you for reading Whistlestop. When you sweat over a book the way I did that one, it literally makes me emotional to hear that people are reading it. (See answer above about lack of sleep). I'm reading All the Light We Cannot See but I'm not reading it well. I'm trying to find something to read with the kids this summer that we can all enjoy.
Hi John, love Whistlestop, will be picking up the book first chance I get!
You've mentioned before the competing theories about whether campaigns actually matter or if underlying factors like the state of the economy play the main role in determining winners. Where would you say you stand?
I think the underlying factors play a huge role but candidates matter too-- sometimes more than others. Also, it's hard to know whether presidential approval is an underlying factor or something that's affected by the candidates. We've seen a correlation between those who don't like their choices and an improvement in Obama's numbers.
How many people have told you before that you project a sort of 1960s newsman-vibe?
Also, how do you keep stumbling upon all those tidbits and anecdotes of presidential history you talk about so often during cocktail chatter?
I'm taking that as a compliment. I grew up hearing my Mom talk about the 1960 newsmen (and there weren't newswomen so much in broadcasting (well...until her) (Is that a double parenthetical? Yes, and now a triple))).
Hey John! Long time listener, first time caller here. You're one of my favorite political reporters, but if you could choose any other beat/story to cover, what would it be?
Washington beat would be Congress. Everything happens there even when it seems like nothing is happening there. Other than that I'd like to cover film or review books or something in the culture where I could bring political experience to see if I can learn something about and say something about the country through its cultural choices.
Hi John! I love the stories you write about your kids! What questions have they had about this election that have made you think the most?
They ask a lot of questions about how you for opinions, fairness, whether the snap reactions of Trump supporters we know are valid and whether the reactions of Trump detractors we know are valid. How you come up with valid positions. We also talk about judgment a lot and restraint and how to listen to what other people are saying and how to test your own views against what other people are saying.
Been a huge Gabfest fan since the beginning -- weirdly feel like you, Emily and David are my friends.
I always rely on you to check my own prejudices when I analyze a political situation and have come to rely on your steady judgment. One place where I find in the last 6 months that YOU seem oddly aggressive/off-kilter is the Hillary email scandal. Every time it comes up, you appear much more animated, impassioned and over-annoyed at Clinton -- very much more so than anything I have seen you report on about Trump's transgressions. Can you explain?
That's interesting. I wonder if it has to do with actions taken in office v. things said on the stump. (And thank you for the compliment)
How exactly would you describe your political beliefs? Also, huge fan!
I believe in kindness, sacrifice, idealism, generosity, reserving judgment, restraint, compassion, that a martini is made with gin only, and that the worst thing about a person isn't the most true thing about them.
If you could interview any US president from history, who would it be and why?
Lincoln. He was so complex, so moody and so powerful. He was a leader but knew about restraint. Also, his heart had been so pounded, he must have been so wise about mankind.
What do you think the long term effects of the Sanders campaign will be on the Democratic party? Or would it be best suited for that movement to create a third party?
I think it has made the Democratic party more liberal and if he can keep his coalition within the party he will keep that energy for Democrats. Reagan decided in 1976 not to leave the GOP and that was a genius move. Splitting means losing Reagan decided. He simply reorganized the party in his ideological way. That worked out pretty well for them not just in his two terms but all the local politicians who are Reagan acolytes.
I am at a fork in the road. I'm a PHD student in political science at Princeton and I really am no longer interested in an academic career path. How can I start a career in political punditry and public history?
It took me about 25 years. If you love politics and history just keep loving them and find jobs that get you closer and closer to having a public platform. Along the way have great mentors, be patient during the awful times and write as much as you possibly can.
Who's a guest you'd love to have on the Gabfest?
You've compared this election to the Goldwater campaign in 1964. After his nomination, were there Republican congresspeople who refused to vote for him publicly, as we're seeing now with Trump? Does Trump seem to be causing more public breaking of ranks among Rs than Goldwater did?
Yes, there were Republicans who refused to vote for him. But Gov. Scranton who was the Ted Cruz-like opponent spoke on behalf of Goldwater at the Convention and endorsed him.
I love the Political Gabfest. I'm looking for a conservative podcast analog that isn't crazy. Just some people sanely talking about the issues with a conservative bent. I'd like to understand both sides. Any suggestions?
The Federalist Podcast, Radio Free GOP
Congrats on the book! My wife and I are huge Gabfest fans.
How do you come up with the topics to discuss on each episode?
Do you have a favorite episode or cocktail chatter?
Will David ever change his stance on Pandas?
Looking forward to reading Whistlestop!
Thanks for buying the book! My favorite chatter was Jackson being shot because it was one of the first ones (or it feels that way). David never changes. That's why we love him.
What the hell is your work/life balance like? You seem so incredibly busy all the time I'm wondering when and how you escape it all.
I don't escape it very well. It's not necessarily to be envied. I escape it when I do, with my family. They are what holds me together. I also read Getting Things Done, use a Field Notes notebook to capture and have super colleagues who help make me better.
Trump has repeatedly complained about "dishonest" media and there is a perception that journalists on the east coast are out of touch with "real" America because their own lifestyles are so different.
Could you assess the way media-at-large is representing the viewpoints of Trump supporters, and suggest how they could improve that representation ?
Huge question. I think we need to think about people on the Trump bus as more diverse than portrayed. I think defining any group by the most extreme things said by some of its members never gets us anywhere good, whether that's Trump supporters or people marching in a Black Lives Matter march.
What's something you think every American should know about the electoral process but maybe doesn’t because of lack of civic engagement?
That America was set up to be as wary about the passions of the people as to be as nervous about giving too much power to a king.
I can never think of compelling questions to ask during an AMA, but I really admire your work so I will just ask the first thing that comes to my mind:
If you are still doing Whistlestop podcasts ten years from now, what day from the 2016 campaign do you think would make good fodder?
The launch of the Trump campaign is an interesting day -- it foreshadowed a campaign that was going to be very different-- and the Khan appearance at the DNC which has touched off something different it appears.
This is a little off topic I suppose but I greatly admire your sartorial flair, so: Where do you like to shop for blazers? Specifically unlined ones for DC summers?
Oh that's a great question. I'm still working on one I bought five years ago from Paul Stuart. Not cheap but a nice fit though it's getting a little shiny from too much dry cleaning.
Hi John! Huge fan! Just listened to your interview with David Axelrod and I enjoyed it immensely.
My question: You consistently stress the need to look past talking points and headlines, and the importance of nuance in understanding any issue. But with developments in technology and changes in media, it feels as though the importance of nuance to people is eroding rapidly. What can be done about the loss of nuance in our discourse these days and is it gone for good?
I think people can exercise restraint and empathy. Don't jump to the first conclusion and even if after consideration you don't agree, figure out why that person is saying what they're saying.
Oh, I just remembered! I have to order your book!
Who do you think is the most underrated President in history?
Yes. Please order the book. Everyone: please order the book! I think George H.W. Bush is quite an underrated president. (Barack Obama thinks this too). David Plotz has convinced me that Grant belongs there too.
As someone with a unique vantage point of the American political system, do you think American politics has changed enough during this election cycle to allow a centrist third party to emerge?
Third parties will be helped by this election but if you mean viable third party, I'd say no.
What books have you read lately that you really enjoyed?
I haven't really had time to read books all the way through. I've loved a lot of the political books that I've read but a lot of them I haven't read cover to cover. I default to The Glory and the Dream. Marshall Frady's book on Wallace has some great writing. I liked Arthur Herman's book on MaCarthur.
Hi John! Huge fan of your work and your personality, which shines particularly bright in the Gabfest and Whistlestop podcasts. Just received my copy recently and am looking forward to cracking it open!
Taking over for Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation seems like no easy task. Have you had any growing pains in taking over host responsibilities?
Asking questions in a short period of time is a tricky thing to do. There's so much you want to ask and follow-up on but you have limited time.
I'm sure there are plenty of "campaign curiosities" around the globe we've never even heard of in America. Would you ever consider doing Whistlestop Podcasts for foreign elections?
I'd love to but it would take some considerable time to lean the context so I'm not sure I could do that very well or in a timely fashion.
You are my favorite journalist and one of four people whom I follow on twitter. This is a silly question but I have always been curious. I saw you both times but I have always wondered why you brought a live political gabfest to West Lafayette, not only once but twice. Did Andy graduate from Purdue or something?
Heh. We had a sponsor who paid for the gig! We'll play anywhere. We do weddings too.
John, many questions. 1. Your mom was a great reporter, how did that influence your life, even besides job choice? 2. What is it about the podcast that keeps you all continuing to do it even after each of you got so busy doing other things? 3. What has changed the most in your time covering politics and what always stays the same? 4. What is your favorite Whistlestop story?
I love your dry humor and tangents in Whistlestop - they make it one of the best podcasts I've ever listened to.
As a fellow journalist, I love your quotes from the various legends of our profession like Scotty Reston and Theodore White. Do you have a favorite reporter's book or collection of articles?
I'm very sad to be missing your talk in D.C. - please have more in the future!
I love Menken.
You've sometimes compared Trump to Goldwater, but after 1964 the GOP gained seats in 1966 and ended up winning the White House in 68 with the same candidate they had eight years ago. Do you think the GOP could bounce back so quickly or do you think they might spend much longer in the wilderness?
Absolutely. The GOP in the states is quite strong and the party has a strong farm team.
Hi John - Trump does not seem to able to stay on a question, he flits from topic to topic. How do you go about preparing for his interviews?
You read everything he's been saying to anticipate and then you've got to be on your toes for game time decisions!
Hi John, I've followed you on Twitter for years...all started with a witty tweet of yours a long time ago that made me chuckle. How long do you spend thinking about a tweet before you hit submit? Do you sit and stare at those 140 characters for a while? Multiple edits?
I think of them quickly and then delete 50% of them. The ones that get published get a light edit.
I've been listening to you for years and I really appreciate your ability to stay so level-headed and impartial in this increasingly turbulent political climate. John Dickerson for President!
But seriously, could you please name one living person and one deceased person who you would want to interview the most?
Also, would you ever want to have your own Charlie Rose style talk show?
Thanks for everything you do!
I would love to have a Charlie Rose style talk show and I'd love to do it half as well as Charlie. I'd love to interview the Pope and Jesus. But if you were looking for a political figure from the past, it would have to be Lincoln.
for those of who listened from the beginning, Slate political gabfest was clearly superior when you hosted it rather than David. What are the odds of a palace coup returning you to your rightful place?
I disagree! David is a wonderful host and puts in a lot of time and effort. When I hosted I didn't get a chance to talk and as you know from listening there's nothing I like to do more than talk talk talk. THat's meant to be self-deprecating but I think it's true...I am trying to talk less.