In her new book, My Turn at the Bully Pulpit, Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren, who hosts On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, gives her straightforward take on the issues of the day, from patriotism to medical malpractice. The following excerpt is about loyalty and conflict, and how meanness in politics cheapens debate.
Here is an excerpt from My Turn at the Bully Pulpit:
Chapter 4: On Loyalty and Conflict
People who like each other — even love each other — can disagree. They can fight. What is better than spirited debate? But it doesn't need to get personal, and it should never become mean. Also, mistakes happen; it's people who make them. It's critical to admit your mistakes, pay the piper, and move on. As for the rest of you — get over it!
I don't think there are many subjects as dear to my heart as the topic of a good fight. Come on, I'm a lawyer — I'm paid to argue. But for me the ability to disagree with people and maintain respect and affection is a fundamental value. I believe in good strong aggressive debate.
The writer Annie Lamott wondered aloud if people who are cruel get sent to the mean-people's room in heaven. I wonder too. Why do we have to be mean and call each other names when we disagree about something, whether it is abortion, the death penalty, tax policy, or homeland security? Why the finger-pointing and the challenging of other people's patriotism? Why has good old-fashioned disagreement suddenly turned into a question about moral character and patriotism?
I don't think we have to be cruel and personal. I'm not naive, and I am not the sweetest person in the world. But I think the level of rancor we see in politics today cheapens the quality of our national debate. And it is exactly this quality — we Americans can disagree and fight with each other, hold fierce electoral campaigns, and yet not shoot and kill each other — that distinguishes our two-hundred-year history of democracy from the rest of the world. That's not the way it is in Iran or North Korea. If we do not protect that open quality of our public life, we are finished.
Let's start with a major national nonissue: my arrival at Fox News. A lot of people flew out of their skins when Fox hired me. Wasn't I a liberal Democrat over at CNN? Hadn't I defended Bill Clinton and O.J. Simpson? How could I possibly go to Fox, the conservative cable network? Leaving CNN was one thing, Greta, but going to Fox?
Everybody went nuts. The conservatives hated me before they even knew me, and the liberals felt betrayed. Even people who had never seen me on television seemed to have an opinion.
Now wait a minute. Let's put aside the fact that nobody really knew my personal opinions on anything. I had never taken any big public political positions, so how did people form these ideas? And who says I have to agree with everyone I work with or they have to agree with me? I didn't agree with everything said at CNN. I don't agree with everything said at Fox. I don't agree with everything my husband thinks either, but I still love him.
What I need to worry about is what I think, not what somebody else thinks. What I say on my show are my words, my thoughts, my opinions, and my ideas. Frankly, from time to time, as I rethink matters and as the facts change, my ideas and opinions change. Nobody tells me what to say; nobody tells me what my views are. They didn't do it at CNN when I was there, and they haven't done it at Fox.
When I first met Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Channel, I wanted to see if he was serious about being "fair and balanced," which is the famous Fox motto. We talked for many hours, and I got it that Roger meant what he said. We all have our personal political views — anybody who says journalists and broadcasters don't have views is just plain lying — but the key issue is what you put on the air.
People have opinions on talk shows — that's the point. They are opinion shows. The best examples are The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity and Colmes. The news shows are about the news, and opinion plays no role. Of course, there are occasions on all networks when opinion does slip into the presentation of the news, but the viewers are smart and can discriminate between fact and opinion. And the viewers are bright enough to decide for themselves where they stand on an issue.
I have lived in Washington, D.C., for more than twenty-five years. This place is all about politics. That's the business of Washington. Conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans have fought each other for decades, but often they have been personal friends. They can stand on the Senate floor and give passionate oratory about the North American Free Trade Agreement and then go out and enjoy dinner with their opponents. George McGovern says Bob Dole is a good friend. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch reportedly play tennis. That's the way it should be.
Over the last few years that I've been in television I've met some hard-core conservatives, some of whom have challenged me, assuming I was a stereotypical white-wine-and-Brie liberal.
I like to listen to some of them really step deep into it for their assumptions about me and my political ideas. I can see them thinking, Hmmm, educated lawyer in her forties (late, late forties), all those years on CNN, criminal defense lawyer-her position on Clinton's impeachment must have been because she is a liberal Democrat. (In fact, I thought the Starr investigation was constitutionally misguided! High crimes and misdemeanors relate to professional, not personal extramarital, conduct. I never said I was in favor of his personal conduct — I was not — but merely that it did not meet the constitutional standard for removal.)
I have never publicly defined myself as a liberal Democrat or conservative Republican, but of course others believe they know what I think about every issue. I have seen both sides and had fun debating both sides.
Pat Buchanan once told me that he nearly fell over when he was reading a book and discovered my background. He was stunned that my father, who I adored, was Joseph McCarthy's campaign manager in 1946. People in Washington often make wrongheaded assumptions about your background, your education, everything you believe in. The fact is that nearly everybody in Wisconsin knows about my family's background, but the Beltway is a long way from the Midwest.
It's the truth. Appleton, Wisconsin, is famous and infamous for several things, not just Willem Dafoe and me, and one of them is Joe McCarthy. He was born on a farm near Appleton in 1908, a few years before my father, who was also born near Appleton. Joe was the fifth of nine children, and his parents were devout Roman Catholics. My father was one of thirteen children and was also from a Catholic family.
In Appleton, both my father and Joe were lawyers. They became good friends. They played, had fun, and yes, they were known in those early days as pranksters. Joe was the best man at my parents' wedding. In 1940 Joe ran for circuit judge and won. When he was a candidate for the Senate in 1946, my father managed his campaign.
People have asked me about Joe McCarthy, but I did not know him. Of course he was discussed often in my childhood, but he died in 1957, when I was three. I am not sure if my memory is playing tricks on me, but I think I do remember him in our house one time when I was a child. That's it, though.
I know the many stories my parents told me about McCarthy. Some of them were pretty funny, some of them sad, and some of them very disappointing, given that he was a public official. Folks in my hometown talked about how McCarthy, who my father once described as having read one book in his life, had really gone off the rails in Washington in the 1950s. All of a sudden here was a guy who had been used to shooting his mouth off, except now there was television! There are so many things McCarthy said that in any other time might have been dismissed or ignored. Today, he would be reduced to the chatter of talk shows. His views wouldn't change the direction of national policies. But the new medium of television was hungry, and McCarthy was all too willing to feed the beast. It was almost as if TV was looking for the bad politician, and they found one. McCarthy's statements resonated, and they had effect. That was the problem. McCarthy was not ignored. He did not want to be ignored. And in truth, alcohol did not help Joe McCarthy. Alcohol and television have never been a good mix.
In my house we talked politics all the time. We argued, debated, and fought over the dinner table so much, it was like sports. The topics didn't really matter. What counted was that we could argue, disagree passionately, and still love each immensely. I remember in 1974 when President Nixon's former law partner and attorney general, John Mitchell, was convicted on charges of conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal. Mitchell served nineteen months in a minimum-security prison in Alabama before being released.
I argued with my father that Mitchell should have served time in a maximum-security prison, something commensurate with the criminal convictions against him, instead of a cushy minimum-security facility. My father said I was wrong. Mitchell had been the U.S. attorney general; he would have been killed by the hard-core inmates in one of those prisons. What would be the point in endangering the man's life?
Oh, I was adamant in my viewpoint, and he was calm in his delivery of his. I argued, Hypocrisy and favoritism! An easy life for white-collar criminals! Special treatment! I was unwavering.
Years later, of course, after I became a lawyer and spent time visiting clients in real prison, I came to agree with my father. I changed my mind. Mitchell was not given a death sentence by the judge, and going to a hard-core prison would have been one. A former attorney general in a hard-core prison would have been murdered. My youthful idealism conflicted with the practical reality of the situation. (Aging can do wonders for one's good judgment.) But both my father and I respected our differences of opinion. Frankly, he probably just thought I was a dumb kid, but he granted me the right to have my view.
My father taught us that even if you disagreed with someone — even if you felt he was making a mistake —that didn't mean you should question that person's integrity or the fact he believed in what he was saying, even if it was wrong. I recently reread Barry Goldwater's 1979 book, With No Apologies. Goldwater writes:
Joe McCarthy was unquestionably the most controversial man I ever served with in the Senate. The anti-anti-Communists were outraged at his claims that some of the principals in the Truman and Roosevelt administrations actively served the communist causes.
McCarthy was supported by a strong, nationwide constituency, which included among others, Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of John, Bob, and Edward. A variety of respected, credible federal employees disturbed by security risks in the national government provided McCarthy with a steady stream of inside information.
The liberals mounted a skillfully orchestrated campaign of criticism against Joe McCarthy. Under the pressure of criticism, he reacted angrily. It is probably true that McCarthy drank too much, overstated his case, and refused to compromise, but he wasn't alone in his beliefs. That's for sure. Now, I do believe that McCarthy was wrong. He hurt a great many people, and I'm not excusing that. But whatever you say about McCarthy, he was not alone in his beliefs. History is conveniently rewritten by some, and today you would think everyone was anti-McCarthy at the time! (It's kind of like the French — to listen to them discuss World War II you'd have thought every French person over the age of fifty was part of the Resistance!)
When I reflect on this difficult period of history, I also remember how adamant my father was about the business of mistakes-recognizing when you've made one, and learning from it. For him, it was not the end of the world to make a mistake. It happened to everyone. You just needed to fix the damage (and really fix it), whatever it was.
My father taught me a lot. One time when I was sixteen years old, after returning home and parking my father's car, I walked into the house and had some silly argument with my mother. I was probably having one of those I'm-mad-at-the-world teenage tantrums. My mother, choosing a really bad moment, asked me to get in her car, which was in the driveway, and go to the store to get milk or something.
I didn't want to. I had something better to do, like call my friend Amy Wallace and plan revenge on the nuns in our school. Anyway, I argued, yelled, and then stomped out of the house to go to the store.
Well, my mother's car was parked in our driveway. My father's car was in the street where I had parked it, behind my mother's car.
I got into the car, slammed the door, muttered, put the key in the ignition, threw the car into reverse, and roared out of the driveway. Crash! I plowed my mother's car directly into my father's. Needless to say, the fenders of both my mother's and father's cars were significantly reorganized. We are talking very twisted metal here.
Slowly I walked back into the house. My father was on the phone and hadn't heard the crash, and he waved at me to wait a minute till he hung up. I stood there in the den for what seemed three years. Then he hung up.
"What is it, baby?" (I was the youngest of three and always his baby.)
"Uh, I had a little accident."
"Hmmm. Which car?" he said.
"Um … kind of both of them."
We walked outside. My father and I stood there looking at the wreckage. He had his arm on my shoulder.
"Well," he said slowly, "it is sort of good this happened."
I thought, What, is he crazy? Both cars were wrecked and looked horrible!
He turned to me and continued: "You just got your license a month ago and you lost your temper. That could have been a child you hit, and it was just a car. Cars can be fixed. That's why we have insurance. Children can't be fixed. I know there will be times again in your life when you lose your temper, but you will never forget the sound of that crash, and because of that sound, you will never again lose your temper and then get behind the wheel of a car."
He was right. I'll never forget that sound. And I have gotten angry, but never behind the wheel. He taught me a huge lesson that day —and it wasn't a bad way to raise a kid.
Since September 11 we have seen a time of great patriotism in this country, which surely is a very good thing, and long overdue. I am making some assumptions about all of us as Americans, but here goes: We all support President Bush in the war on terror; we all pretty much think Saddam Hussein is a terrible guy who has been a brutal dictator to his people; and we all want to find Osama bin Laden and … well, I'll leave what we want to do to him to the imagination.
But there are legitimate disagreements about how to win the war on terror. Some reasonable people are concerned that we are paying too high a price, that we are giving up some of the precious liberties we have enjoyed since this nation was founded in exchange for investigating terrorists who live in our own land. We are facing some serious compromises.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle was one of those who, in his role as leader of the opposition party, questioned the wisdom of some of President Bush's approaches to the war on terror and the success of the president's tactics. In November 2002 he had this to say: "We haven't found bin Laden. We haven't made any real progress in many of the other areas involving the key elements of al-Qaeda. They continue to be as great a threat today as they were a year and a half ago. So by what measure can we say this has been successful so far?"
He appeared on On the Record to reiterate his view: "I don't think anybody has a right to say we're winning the war on terrorism until we see more results."
Now, I don't care whether you agree or disagree with Tom Daschle — that's not the point. But in the first instance, all Daschle did was simply pose questions, propose a different view. Oh, sure, there was more than a touch of politics, but it was still an important question. Boom! Mark Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, sent out a press release saying, "It appears his patriotism has gone away with his party's majority." Rush Limbaugh, on his radio program, began referring to Daschle as "Hanoi Tom." And letters soon began flooding Daschle's office addressed to "Tom 'Osama' Daschle." This was way over the edge — somewhat fueled by the fury that TV created.
The fact is, our leaders, whether they be Democrats or Republicans, have a duty to question the president, whether he be a Republican or a Democrat, without being called traitors!
I also have a right to disagree with Daschle, and here is where I do: Daschle was wrong to say, as he did on my show, that nobody has a right to claim victory in the war on terror. Says who? You may not agree, and you may have facts that point to the contrary, but of course you can say there is victory in the war on terrorism. The president or any other government offcial has a right to say we're winning the war on terror. For political reasons they had better be right or else they'll get pummeled in the next election. Since when do we tell each other what we can and cannot say? We are not talking the classic "fire in a crowded theater" standard here. These are opinions. We have a right to disagree, and Daschle shouldn't complain that the president doesn't have a right to say just about anything he wants to say. This is what I was referring to earlier when I sang the praises of our open society.
The whole tone of these silly exchanges is a perfect example of the kind of thing that cheapens all of us. I don't think Americans can afford right now to attack other Americans for questioning or probing public policy. The stakes are just too high.
I'd like to finish with a brief discussion again about my father, the guy who taught me about right and wrong, and about justice; who taught me to debate but not hate; who showed me how to accept mistakes and strive to become better; and who made me want to be a lawyer because he loved the law so much.
My father procrastinated. He was a procrastinator. I don't think he ever signed my report card on time. The nuns used to get surly at me when my report card was always — and I mean always — late getting back, but it was because of my father's procrastination. That's just the way he was. The nuns blamed me, but my father had his own clock.
Filing his state tax returns was no different from signing my report card. He was always late. But he always paid his state taxes, and he always paid the interest and late penalties that he owed — and there were plenty. You know how interest and penalties can pile up on money owed the state!
In 1983 my father was convicted of three misdemeanors (not felonies) for failing to pay his state income taxes on time. At the time he told me this had been his practice since 1939. My father argued to the state: "For many years I've been filing my state income taxes late, and because I am a state employee, you have all my withholding." He also pointed out that the state had his pension from many years of state service. He added that because he always paid the fines and penalties, the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin, who paid his salary as a judge, had not lost a dime. Unfortunately, while it was indeed true that the state was not out any money from my father, the law did have a deadline for filing the returns even if money was not owed and penalties were paid. His late filing was a problem because he was a judge.
After a long fight, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, as part of its role of exercising supervision over judges, gave him a two-year suspension from the bench for his late filing. That action in 1986 effectively removed him permanently from the bench, because within that two-year period he reached the state mandatory retirement age of seventy.
Now here is the problem as I saw it. My father made a mistake (or you could say he made the same mistake several times). Yes, of course he should have filed on time. The point is, he did something wrong and he was willing to pay the price, which he thought was paying fines, penalties, and interest. For years, nobody told him he couldn't do that. Nor did the state ever tell anybody else who habitually paid his taxes late that this was suddenly a terrible offense against the state. File late, pay the penalty — that was it.
By charging my father with these three misdemeanors for filing late, the state was arguing in effect that my father intended to defraud. They were arguing that he was a thief. It was difficult for me to understand, because how can you be a thief if you are paying the taxes plus fines and interest, a provision that Wisconsin allows as part of its state laws? It seemed like a stupid law. Who was hurt?
The misdemeanors broke my heart. My father decided to fight both the misdemeanors and the collateral civil proceeding.
But you know how slow courts can be. My father died in September 1989. Our hearing before the Wisconsin Supreme Court on the collateral civil matter was scheduled for January 1990.
Some people said I should just forget the whole thing. It was not a huge deal — the problems stemmed from three misdemeanors (which of course are minor offenses), and it did not involve much money. It would cost me more in airfares and expenses to go to Madison to argue the case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court than the case was worth to my father's estate. And, of course, my father was dead.
But I couldn't let it go, because I believed the state was wrong. My father had made a mistake, and he had paid the penalty. For the government to essentially call him a thief even after he was dead was just wrong. It just did not sit with me.
I'll never forget the day in January when I appeared before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It was during a blizzard, the snow so deep and the wind blowing so hard that I didn't even know if I could make it into the building. I had never seen such snow — even the flight into Wisconsin the day before had seemed life-threatening. But I was determined to do this.
I must have looked a wreck when I finally walked into the Wisconsin Supreme Court. (Actually, a newspaper account from the time described my appearance as "the hair that denied knowing of combs." Even then!) I stood up before the court on the little box they keep handy for short lawyers.
"My father was not a thief" was my first sentence. The justices of the supreme court seemed shocked. Those are not the usual introductory words to an argument. Usually you simply say "May it please the court" and then politely proceed.
Yes, I went on, my father had failed to pay his state income taxes on time; that was true. But he always paid them and the interest and penalties. And he had been suspended from the bench for two years for his late filing. To my mind, the state was going too far in saying he intended to defeat the income tax system. All of this I said without breaking eye contact with them.
One of the justices quickly interrupted me and said, "We aren't calling him a thief." But I didn't see it that way.
"If you rule against him, against the estate, you are," I said. Associate Justice Shirley Abrahamson quoted the precedent of a 1947 case where a lawyer hadn't paid his taxes, ever. But she missed the point. My father had paid his taxes — just late.
I argued that the 1947 clause was not a precedent and didn't apply because my father had paid his taxes.
And on it went.
Four months later, in April 1990, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in my father's favor. We had won. They did not reverse the misdemeanors, but on the civil matter they ruled that he had not intended to defraud the state's taxpayers.
There had been lots of talk when my father faced these misdemeanors. Many people liked my father, so they were upset about what they thought was an unnecessary use of state resources to go after him. Some people even had a theory about why my father had been prosecuted, since he was rumored to have been the only state taxpayer ever prosecuted for paying taxes late in Wisconsin. The state attorney general at the time was the great-grandnephew of former United States senator Robert La Follette Jr., the man who Joe McCarthy had defeated in the 1946 Senate primary, the campaign that had been run by my father. They called my father's tax problems "La Follette's revenge."
You know what? I never thought about it. I don't care and I never did. It doesn't matter. I can only hope that a personal disagreement over politics didn't lead to such a dreadful result. This is what I mean when I say disagreement about issues or tactics should never, ever turn personal.
I can only hope that the prosecution of my father was not done for political reasons. And yes, I have no doubt about it — he should have paid his state taxes on time.
Fairness and good judgment — not perfect judgment — is all my parents ever demanded of me, and that is all that I have demanded of others. That means my friends, my colleagues, my family, and my employers. Everyone.
P.S.: I do know my father would have been very proud of me for standing up for what I believe. He also — for me, and not for him — would have loved that I won.
Excerpted from My Turn at the Bully Pulpit by Greta Van Sustern. Used with permission. Copyright August 2003, Random House.