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Animal Bites

A Chat With Columnist (and Now Author) Brian Morton

Christopher Myers

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 10/29/2008

Brian Morton has been an award-winning radio reporter, a veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War, a former congressional press secretary, a magician, and City Paper's Political Animal columnist. Now he can add "author" to his résumé: In October, Morton's first book, Political Animal: I'd Rather Have a Better Country, was published by Loyola College's Apprentice House publishing company. The book is a collection of columns Morton has written during his eight-year stint writing for the paper, in addition to a few unpublished pieces.

On a recent afternoon, Morton sat down in a Federal Hill coffee shop to discuss the book, his career, and the current political climate. If you've met Morton, you know he's never at a loss for words and has an opinion on just about everything. What follows is an abridged version of our conversation. A more complete version of the interview can be found in a podcast at citypaper.com.

City Paper: Before we get down to serious political talk, I want to address something I know about you that some readers may not: You're a magician. Can you tell me a bit about your other career?

Brian Morton: I have spent a good, long time trying to compartmentalize my life so that it's separate--the entertainer part is separate from the political commentator part, because I'm aware in the current era that one can affect the other. You don't want to offend people. I don't want to become the one-man version of the Dixie Chicks.

But when it comes to magic and politics, and I'm asked about this a lot more lately, I can say if there are any parallels it is dealing with the concept of honesty. Because a magician is essentially a paid liar. His job is to deceive you honestly without any consequences. I say in my marketing materials that I'll lie to you, but unlike your lawyer, your accountant, or possibly your Congressman, I'm just doing it to entertain you.

CP: It's worth noting that sleight of hand is basically part of politics.

BM: There are a lot of metaphors dealing with the two of them. More often than not, when you talk about politics, you'll hear somebody talk about either playing the shell game or playing fast and loose with facts. . . . But in politics the artifice is not that well concealed. There is far more visibility to it all [than in magic]. That isn't to say there is not artifice at all--there is, there's lots of it--but it's harder to conceal and it's also for bigger stakes.

CP: And you would actually know about that, about how politics is constructed. You've been a congressional press secretary and a White House staffer, in addition to being a radio guy and a newsman--you have a lot of diverse experience, more than probably a lot of pundits have.

BM: Yes, as a journalist working in broadcast journalism, in covering stories I realized that there were two tracks, more or less: You could wind up covering cops and crime, and then you spend a lot of time outdoors in not very good weather covering very seedy people and very seedy subjects in very seedy places. Or you could wind up covering politics, and you could spend a lot of time indoors in reasonably nice surroundings, and quite often you might even get fed. So that led me toward covering politics a lot more. Plus my natural affinity for the political stuff . . . so it was kind of a natural progression that way.

I won't say that I fell into working for politicians. I never thought of myself as somebody who would do that. But in 1992 the statewide Clinton operation that coordinates the campaign was literally four blocks from my house in West Baltimore in the old Mount Clare Junction shopping center. I could walk there. So I more or less walked in, Democratic sympathizer that I am, and said, "Hey, I can give you a hand."

Pretty soon there I was working my way up to becoming the press secretary for the operation, running a lot of communications, running a radio operation. I had two volunteers who took microphones and radio equipment and did interviews at events. We had our own radio actuality service where we'd call and send these radio sound bites to stations who couldn't afford to send a reporter . . . I was taking advantage of broadcasting, using all the tools I had learned as a journalist.

From there, the next year Congressman Kweisi Mfume needed a press secretary, and this was just as he ascended to the head of the largest Congressional Black Caucus in history, at 40 members then, which had never happened before. Then the CBC pretty much jumped onto the political map by bringing Bill Clinton's budget to a screeching halt, because the thinking was, Hey, wait a minute, we've got a block, we've got power, you are not going to take us for granted as you so often had in the past. And I remember Cokie Roberts getting all peeved on NPR, talking about "How dare they?" How dare they?" This is how politics works, Ms. Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs Roberts. You should know this. I remember getting very incensed upon hearing that, and I've always listened to her Monday morning NPR commentaries now with a grain of salt. Because if there is such a thing as stratified conventional wisdom in Washington, Cokie Roberts embodies it. Her and Maureen Dowd.

CP: Where did the title of your book, I'd Rather Have a Better Country, come from?

BM: I was speaking to the Maryland Writers Association about writing columns, writing about politics, writing about deadlines, and one person got up and said . . . this was 1995--the person asked, "Well, you have to at least like that the political scene gives you a lot to write about." I looked at him in all earnestness and said, "You know what? I'd rather have a better country."

CP: You've been writing the Political Animal for a long time--you started in City Paper in 1994, and it ran until 1996, then the column went on hiatus for a while, until 2002 when then-new editor Lee Gardner asked you to revive it. You've covered a lot of ground and administrations in that time. Tell me about the high points and the low points of doing the column all those years.

BM: Really, low points for me in the sense of the column, that's hard to say. One of my high points, though--it's very funny--I can remember the first time Lee Gardner called me up and said another paper wants to pick up the column. I remember specifically which one it was, and it's not in the book, and probably for a reason. Because that was the column where I called the now Supreme Court chief justice of the United States an asshole. . . . I do not make a habit of using obscenities in my column for a number of reasons. I think there are plenty of better words to use rather than obscenities, it'll cheapen your writing. However, when I do use them I use them for a reason, but I try to be sparing when I use obscenities. And that was the particular one I used to make a point. I talked about the history of the Supreme Court seat, back in the early '70s when Richard Nixon wanted to nominate G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. And the word came down that Carswell was mediocre, there was nothing brilliant about his legal career. And Sen. Roman Hruska said, "Shouldn't there be a mediocre seat on the Supreme Court? Isn't there a place in American for mediocrity?" And then I started quoting from John Roberts' writing back when he worked for the Reagan civil-rights department. It was very sneering toward women and minorities--especially women. . . .Yet there he was. And I said, if it can be said that there is a mediocre seat on the Supreme Court, then we can say that John Roberts is vying to fill the Asshole Seat. That he's basically an asshole. And some paper, I can't remember now if it was in Florida or Iowa or something, they wanted to pick it up. I was like, "Oh great, how long have I been writing this column, six or seven years, and the very first time someone wants to pick it up it's because I'm calling the potential Supreme Court chief justice an asshole?" How nice. I don't know if the world is trying to give me some sort of positive reinforcement, but I still don't try to use obscene words unless they are absolutely necessary.

Low points, when you write 50 columns a year and for eight years, you try not to dwell on what the bad ones were. I don't remember making any classic stupid mistakes.

CP: How many columns do you think you have under your belt with Political Animal now?

BM: Cumulatively, I have written a column longer than I have done anything else in my life, just about, professionally. Magic is getting close. Because I wrote a column for three years at a weekly paper in college, then when I was Congressman Mfume's press secretary and I ghostwrote his column in the Afro--things they don't tell you about, yes, politicians have ghostwriters--then I used to write op-eds for officials when I worked in the Clinton drug policy office. Then when I worked for Jim Brady at Handgun Control Now, I ghostwrote a column then. Then coming back to City Paper, once again, 50 columns a year, eight years--I have written a lot of stuff.

CP: Any particular columns that you felt were especially prescient or that you are really proud of having written?

BM: I'm kind of proud of that column about John Roberts. And a friend of mine asked me, "Why isn't it in the book?" And I said, "You never know when you might be in front of the Supreme Court, and it's probably not helpful to be on record as calling the chief justice an asshole."

A friend of mine who picked up the book last week was telling me that, "Oh, in some parts of it, oh you really were prescient, you really knew what was coming." But I don't know about that--I'm proud of myself about where I stood on the war in Iraq. I mean, right in March of 2003, I was saying, "This isn't going to end well, this is not a good idea, it doesn't smell right." I'm happy to have been in the right on this. But I'm angry that I have to be right on that. I would much rather have had close to 5,000 living servicemen, I would much rather have not had 25,000 injured servicemen in the cause of a war that we were lied into. And I am a veteran.

CP: How has political writing changed since you got started?

BM: At the national level it has turned into theater criticism. It drives me crazy. Like I said, people like the aforementioned Maureen Dowd, people like Cokie Roberts--it drives me nuts when people talk about, "Well, it looks like this." No. There is ample public record out there, context matters, history exists. Don't sit there talking about, "This person seems like this or looks like that." No, talk about their policies. It's funny every now and then to take a little cheap shot in a joke, but don't use that as the basis of a column. Because to hang an entire column on what something seems like--"Well, Barack Obama doesn't seem patriotic because he's got a funny name"--it drives me crazy. . . . It is fundamentally unhelpful to the public, fundamentally useless when it comes to informing anybody, and it contributes to the trivialization of politics. Granted, we have been trivializing politics for years. But what has it gotten us?

CP: So you say you'd rather have a better country--I think a lot of us would these days--but can you be specific about what kinds of things you want to see get better?

BM: We can always hit the reset button and default to 2000. Because it would be nice if government respected science. It would be nice if government reports that reflected reality were not eliminated, killed, anytime the Bush administration found a report that came out that went counter to their policy ideas. . . . I'd like to see the United States government do something serious about climate change. I'd like to see a government not use the military for partisan purposes during an election season. I'd like to see the Department of Justice depoliticized again. . . . A working Securities and Exchange Commission that doesn't allow us to wind up having to bail out Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. I want a government that hasn't pretty much outsourced medical policy and drug policy, not to the Food and Drug Administration but to the pharmaceutical companies. There's a whole bunch of stuff I would like my government to do the way it used to do, the way it's supposed to do. You know, having the Federal Emergency Management Agency actually respond in emergencies and not serve as a care and feeding ground for people who used to run the Arabian Horse Association. James Lee Witt, who ran FEMA before Michael Brown, was actually good at what he did. He came out of Arkansas and he made FEMA the envy of government. And that just all went to heck.

CP: Do you think that's likely to change under a new administration?

BM: I can only hope. I don't know. I mean, like I wrote in the column, I'm not in the tank for Obama--Barack Obama has disappointed me big time when it comes to things like FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act bill. They went with the expedient way, but there is no need to be spying domestically on Americans stateside. . . . FISA was working well the way it was supposed to, you didn't need to create any more holes in it. I fear my government sometimes just as much as people in the National Rifle Association do.

CP: Change has been the biggest theme in this election season, in both campaigns. Obama keeps reiterating that a John McCain administration will bring eight more years of Bush policy back to us. Do you agree?

BM: Yes. I believe that an Obama presidency will be significantly different than a McCain presidency. If anything, I worry about Obama not being forward enough. Because Clinton over eight years more or less held the line against the conservative tide. . . . To [Republican conservatives] Medicare is socialism, Social Security is socialism, socialist, socialist, socialist. But these are some of the most popular programs in American history. They work. Medicare saves lives. Social Security provides a safety net for seniors, for older people. It's not a panacea, but it helps. But they don't believe in that. Imagine what would have happened if George Bush got his way after 2004 and was able to pull money out of Social Security and put it in the stock market. You think your 401(k) looks bad now? This would have bankrupted Social Security. The market doesn't cure everything. In some cases, it is the opposite of the cure. These are the things I hope Barack Obama can go about strengthening, strengthening the safety net as opposed to weakening it, which they have done every chance they get.

CP: So in your recent columns that you've been writing about the upcoming elections, what have you been trying to bring out or make people aware of that they may not be paying attention to?

BM: National polls don't mean squat. I say that over and over again. We should have known this after 2000: National polls don't mean squat. . . . My last week's column dealt with accusations of voter fraud, of which there really is little, if any, at any real level in the United States. Because I come form a predominantly black family, as the Eddie Murphy joke goes, I'm very attuned to what I consider to be the conservative effort to drive down voter turnout by Hispanics and African-Americans, minorities in general. It's historical and ongoing and almost on a nationwide basis, and if anything the current president used the Justice Department to further his own political agenda in that regard, which is what he whole U.S. Attorneys scandal was about, firing his own U.S. Attorneys because they wouldn't bring voter-fraud charges that those U.S. Attorneys thought had no merit.

Once again [I'll be] reminding people that government is not the enemy, that it serves to bring good to people's lives, it's there to help you do things you cannot do for yourself, or to level the playing field. If there's any one thing I can't stand, it's the tilting of the playing field toward the well-off. I've always thought that newspapers had that charge to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and over the past eight years it's been almost the other way around. . . . I truly miss the late Molly Ivins, because she really had it pitch perfect. She said you can laugh about it, no matter how serious it is. And I try to. I don't always, especially as my outrage meter gets cranked up. You can laugh about it, but it means you have to smile and buck up and try that much harder to make it a better country.

CP: Where's your outrage meter right now? On a scale of 1-10.

BM: Given the fact that we're about two weeks out, give or take, from an election, on a scale of 1-10, I'm really at about seven and a half right now. I'm sure we'll get closer to pegging the meter the closer we get to Nov. 4.

CP: Do you have any opinion on which of the two candidates might be more adept at trying to turn this economy around--or even if they have any power to turn it around?

BM: I'm no economist. All I know is it helps to have serious people looking at things. I did look at that first plan Hank Paulson put forward, it was ridiculous, three pages long, and basically turned Hank Paulson into a czar. Anything Hank Paulson decided was unreviewable by Congress or the courts. That's insane. . . .

I just know that the market needs to be regulated. I'm no socialist, I believe in capitalism, but I don't believe in laissez-faire capitalism. I believe if you are going to have the market, it needs to be regulated so people don't take wild and outrageous risks with other people's money and end up creating a collapse that affects the entire world. We are talking about Iceland being bankrupt now because a bunch of people said, "Hey, we can lend all this money at outrageous risk making loans we shouldn't make on houses of cards, so we can make more money on it." Then when that house of cards collapses, it affects everybody.. . . I'm not prescient, I can't see the future in that regard [to what either candidate could to fix the economy], but what I can say is that one side has been very thoughtful and reserved about it. The other side has been, "Hey, I'll throw out this person, even though I don't have the power to do that. And here I have this plan and another plan and another plan." It's not serious and it's not helpful.

CP: You've been very open in your column as being a liberal Democrat--

BM: An unapologetic liberal.

CP: --an unapologetic liberal. Is it safe to say you are an Obama supporter even though you are "not in the tank" for Obama?

BM: Yeah, yeah. I think it's pretty clear. I have said I was in was in favor of Obama back before we had the Maryland primary back in February, and I haven't seen anything that's changed my mind.

CP: Do you think Obama has a pretty good chance of winning this election?

BM: Statistically one could say it's in the bag. Statistically, I have been wrong a lot. Horse race: I make no predictions, [and] hope is not a plan. I will go out like everybody else does on Election Day, and go out to the booth and cast a ballot. Used to be able to say pull the lever. Can't say that anymore.

CP: So, what will you have left to complain about if Obama wins?

BM: The same things I had to complain about in 1993 when Bill Clinton was president. I'd rather have a better country. I know I'll never have a perfect country, much as I would love to. But there is much to be done, and like I said, I see failings in Obama on any number of things, and they will be there as well.

The unfortunate problem is disillusionment: We get all happy, "Yay, our guy won." And then the ugly part of running the government actually comes about. That's what happened when we said, "Yay, Bill Clinton was elected," in 1992, and then two years later everybody was disillusioned and everybody stayed home. And the angry white men went to the polls, and we got Newt Gingrich and friends.

It's long, it's not pretty, it's complicated, it's serious . . . the fact is that governing is hard work. Politics is one thing, governing is another. Politics is how you win the majority to get the governing done. Governing is often not interesting, but it's serious work that needs to be done because this is how people stay alive. It affects every part of your life, be it health care, all the way down to who saves your butt when the rainwater starts to rise when you live in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. As a clear-cut example, it doesn't get much more basic than that.

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