NPR's Don Gonyea Talks Politics, Journalism With Sally Mauk

May 23, 2017

Montana's special election is getting lots of attention from the national media. That includes NPR, which sent national political correspondent Don Gonyea here for coverage that will air this week. Gonyea stopped by MTPR to talk about the American political scene now from his perspective. He spoke with MTPR News Director Emeritus Sally Mauk.

Sally Mauk: How surprised were you that Trump won?

Don Gonyea: I was surprised like anyone was surprised, because we had all of the polling and we were all just all reading, looking not just at the polls but reading Nate Silver on 538 and the New York Times, Upshot and those places that were you know calculating probability and this and that.

So that was the data that we all had to go on. But, I spent a good chunk of the campaign not just going to Trump rallies, but I did go to a lot of Trump rallies and talked to a lot of people.

And it wasn't so much the rallies as much as it was the ability to work that line of people who gathered hours and hours and hours before the rally to get in. You could have long conversations with people. So I was hearing the discontent. And and I was hearing people explain why they felt left out and why they didn't feel Washington was working for them anymore.

That was an important thing to hear, and then quite apart from any of the campaigns I was in Warren, Ohio, in Youngstown, Ohio and those those counties that went big for Obama and flipped and went for Trump. And I was hearing everything that played out on Election Day in conversations that I had, and I put these folks on the air and in the weeks and months leading up to the election. So I heard it all. So once it happened, I wasn't shocked, but surprise is still an inappropriate word.

SM: It was such a political turnaround to go from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, and as you say many previous Obama supporters flipped to Trump. The why of that is still being parsed and obviously economics was part of it but not all of it, right?

DG: That the people I talked to, the biggest issue, but there was there was just a sense that Washington doesn't work anymore. And there was a great deal of respect and admiration for Trump's business success.

There was certainly a readiness, a willingness to kind of forgive his sins, forgive the all the things ... the Access Hollywood tape and insulting John McCain and you know we don't need to go through them all here.

There was a willingness to kind of forgive him all of that, or at least overlook all of that because they felt he could do something. They felt he was speaking to them. And I will also tell you there was a tremendous dislike of Hillary Clinton among Trump voters, and it was maybe that Clinton weariness. You know, this couple, this family has been around since 1992. You know, that campaign for starters.

SM: Also some misogyny maybe? 

DG: Perhaps. Perhaps, and I know I would hear some of that, but I wouldn't call that the dominant thing even among those who disliked her. But yes, absolutely, some of that was there.

SM: You've covered both the Bush and Obama White Houses, which obviously were quite different from each other. How different is this one?

DG: So let me tell you about the Bush and Obama White Houses. I covered the entire Bush White House, George W. Bush. When Obama won, it was kind of time for me to not cover the White House anymore, because nobody had covered the White House for eight years for NPR, and most news organizations have a shorter kind of turnover cycle. It's a pretty grueling job.

Just because it's an intense beat, you're just kind of always on the ready, always on high alert; weekends, everything else. But I talked to my editors and I said I'd like to stick around because I'd like to see what it's like covering a different White House. And I'd already covered the Obama campaign and I was well-sourced and all that kind of stuff. And the thing that struck me was, policies aside — and that's an important important caveat, right? Policies aside, it was pretty much the same the routines of the White House. The way you interacted with the press secretary was pretty much the same, and the people you would deal with beyond the press secretary still didn't want to tell you anything, and you had to find people who would share things and then you had to go to the Hill to see if you could get more information.

So all of those things. I was struck by how similar was Bush to Obama, ... just, everything from the briefing to the way the president treats his communications team. I mean, they don't seem to know what he's going to do on any given day, and they read the tweets the same time we read the tweets, and they're left scrambling. And when he does something huge like fire FBI Director James Comey, either W. or Obama, they would have kind of carefully worked through that, and if they came to that decision they would have had their story straight, and they would have had a communications plan, and there would have been surrogates ready to go to talk to us, and to all the networks. And his communications team got an hour's notice and you could see it showed how messy it was and kind of still is. So yes it's different.

SM: His supporters would say, well, that's refreshing. He said he would come in and run things his way. But in reality it's not refreshing to the people who are having to deal with it.

DG:  You can tell that just his own staff is just, at any given moment, at wits end.

And obviously they have to deal with us. And obviously they need to have something to tell us, that makes it all seem like this is all part of the play and that it's under control. And then they're undermined by their own boss. Yeah.

SM: It's a very very different world. But his supporters, as you said, they wanted him to shake things up.

DG: And you can look at, you know, how his executive order, that travel ban has been put on hold, and you can look at how the wall hasn't been started. And you can look at health care, you can go through all of these things that he promised and that he portrayed during the campaign as, you know, were going to be very easy, he's just going to do it right away, it's going to be the greatest first 100 days ever. You can look at the things that he has not accomplished; but he has accomplished that big thing that he promised which is to disrupt and turn Washington on its head. Now it doesn't always seem to work for his benefit, but his supporters are more than ready to say, well this is what we want, this is what we like, his hard core supporters.

SM: Right. But his support is eroding. I think he's at 38 percent approval right now. It's not among his base, his base is pretty much hanging in there. So they stick with him no matter what.

DG: Some some certainly will. I'm always reluctant to predict what might cause somebody to change their mind or justify staying right where they are. But here's something I've noticed. I'm still going out to those diners, and sometimes I go back to the same diners I visited during the campaign, and sometimes I find the same group of people sitting at the table, you know, for their weekly Wednesday breakfast they have, or whatever at this particular diner. It's good to be able to come back to that, and if they were not knee jerk, but if they were so quick to just tell you what they like, and why 90 days ago, 100 days ago. I'm finding that it's taking them a little longer to explain it, because maybe they feel compelled to justify it or whatever.

SM: So is that a sign of them moving along the continuum toward maybe having second thoughts?

DG: I don't know. I'm not ready to say that yet. I'm not ready to report it out that way yet.

But the kinds of conversations I'm having with them are often times surprising, the things they'll tell me even though they're still with him.

SM: There's great speculation of how long Republicans in Congress are going to stick with the president, and impeachment is a word that's actually part of the daily conversation now and especially among Democrats, of course. Do you see the possibility?

DG: It sure feels like we're a long way from that, in any meaningful way. There are a lot of easy comparisons and quick comparisons made to Watergate, and some of them ...

SM: Which took years.

DG: ... Which took years.

Obviously we're in an age where things happen much more quickly because of the way we consume news and the way word gets out. But it feels like — while I don't quibble with anybody who raises that possibility because it's even come from some, you know, some pretty high placed folks — but we have a long way to go. And let's not forget the Republicans do still control the House and the Senate, and those proceedings would go through the House, and you would need a majority. And then you would need a two-thirds majority in the Senate. So that's a long way.

But look, the President hasn't helped himself, you know, the way he's talked to the Russian foreign minister, and others and the things he tweets and the things he said in interviews so he's fueled that discussion.

SM: We shouldn't ignore the impact the upcoming 2018 elections and the special that are happening this year and you are in Montana. They cover our U.S. House race. If some of those races are upsets, and Republicans get unseated that would influence probably the president's standing with Republicans in Congress?

DG: It could, because I think it's pretty clear the thing that will move the Republican majority in Congress is political pressure.

SM: Their own political lives.

DG: Their own political lives, and whether or not they think this is going to affect them. And X number of them, I don't know the number off top of my head, are in battleground districts or battleground states. Some of them are in districts that Hillary Clinton carried. So there will be a great deal of pressure on those folks first. They're watching, yes, to see who wins these special elections including Montana's, but also how close it is. These are all Republican seats. So, you could assume that Republicans have the edge in each of those places, and I think that's the case here. But we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know what's going to happen. And, yeah, that people will be parsing the results regardless of the actual winner of these various races.

SM: What do you hope to find out here in Montana?

I want to hear the degree to which voters are thinking about Trump, as they vote.

I mean, I'm a National Political Reporter. So, while I'm certainly interested in what the issues are here, that are driving the debate between the candidates. I'm looking at the world through the prism of the Trump presidency and I'm always looking to see how people are talking about it and if it affects their votes. So that's what I'll be talking to people about.

SM: One of the many ironies of the current age we live in is that our profession has never been more reviled, and never more crucial.

DG: You know, you look at those surveys that rank us, you know, way down there. I won't even say who it ranks with, because I don't want to offend any other profession, but you know, you just go out and you just do your job.

You just do your job. You just talk to people. And I tell my stories, and I want anybody I talk to, no matter what their political persuasion, or what their beliefs are, to recognize themselves when they hear themselves in my story, and to feel like I accurately represented what they said, and to feel like I gave them a fair shake.

That's all you can do. All you can do is keep doing the work, and others will criticize the media as one giant entity, which it's not, and is not one group. I've got my little corner of it and I'm privileged to work for National Public Radio. And I'm just going to go out do my job every single day.

SM: Well, you do it so well. I've been speaking with Don Gonyea, who's National Public Radio's political correspondent. Don I'm thrilled to have you in our studio.

DG: Thank you so much, you're kind to say that, and thank you for having me and I'm really glad to be here.