Episode 53: Exit Interview: Rep. Henry Waxman reflects on 40 years in Congress

On April 14, 1994, the top executives of America’s seven largest tobacco companies filed into the hearing room before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. Before speaking, the CEOs took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – as most witnesses before Congress do. Each man then proceeded to testify that cigarettes and nicotine are not addictive. It was a moment that would change America’s relationship with tobacco.

On March 17, 2005, six of the most important Major League Baseball players at the time sat side-by-side before the House Government Reform Committee: Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco, Curt Schilling, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. With fans, kids, and reporters watching, most of the players refused to admit they were aware of the illegal use of steroids in baseball, or downplayed the breadth of the problem, until the question was posed to Jose Canseco. He told the assembled congressmen that a “large number of players” were using drugs, and that the trainers, managers and even team owners knew about it. It was a moment that would turn around Major League Baseball’s response to rampant drug use.

The work of one individual congressman was critical to both of these historic hearings: Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. In both cases it was Waxman’s vision of bringing together the most important people at a sweet-spot in history that led to major changes in American culture.

After a four-decade career in Congress, Waxman announced this year that this term would be his last. As part of DecodeDC’s “Exit Interviews” series, podcast host Andrea Seabrook talks to Waxman about his career – and about mastering the art of the congressional hearing.  

Episode 52: The Vicar of Baghdad

He is called the Vicar of Baghdad, though his life couldn’t be more different from the average English vicar.

The Reverend Canon Andrew White leads St. George’s Church, the last Anglican church in Iraq. He also runs a clinic that sees thousands of patients a month, and a food program that feeds hundreds every week – regardless of their beliefs or religious affiliation.

But though this work is much admired, it is not what has made Rev. White famous. As president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, White has forged personal relationships with the heads of opposing Muslim groups in Iraq. He is one of the precious few people in the world who has the trust of both Sunni and Shia leaders.

Because of this, and because of the gritty humanitarian aid he extends to Iraqis, White says he is a danger to terrorists, especially ISIS, the brutal group ruling over large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“I do not allow them to maintain their own extremist positions, and I do not allow them to say, ‘look, we have got to fight against the other’,” White says.

In this week’s DecodeDC podcast, host Andrea Seabrook sits down with Rev. White in the Library of Congress. He describes the danger and difficulty of continuing his work in Baghdad, and what keeps him going. White says he is driven to go deeper into the conflict, and tells Seabrook:

“You do that by listening to those who might be against you. Who is my enemy? It is the person whose story I haven’t heard. And so you listen to their story, you get to know who they are, and you befriend them. You eat with them, you become their neighbor. And then you can bring about change.”

Episode 51: Does the United States have a responsibility to act against ISIS?

On this week's DecodeDC podcast, host Andrea Seabrook talks to three experts about a deceptively simple question: What responsibility does the U.S. have, if any, to respond to ISIS?

Many Americans have been surprised in recent weeks by the brutal takeover of large regions of Iraq and Syria by the fundamentalist regime as it threatens men, women and children who don’t comply with its violent form of strict Sharia law with the most atrocious consequences -- massacres, beheadings and crucifixions.  

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama outlined his plan for military action against the group and announced the country would be working with a coalition of partners to degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIS.

The experts we spoke with -- Bruce Hoffman, the director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies; Justin Logan, the head of Foreign Policy Studies at the libertarian think tank The Cato Institute; and Jim Wallis, a public theologian and activist -- disagree on what action the U.S. should take against ISIS. 

But they do not differ on these two facts: Americans are exhausted and war-weary. And they are desperate to return to a world where terrible threats don’t interrupt their lives with violent images.

By all accounts, this brutal form of Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorists who propagate it are not fading. The question is what could -- or should -- the United States do about it.

Episode 50: The Political Ad That Changed Everything

It aired only once. A one-minute spot during “The NBC Monday Night Movie.” But it changed every political ad that came after -- as well as the entire field of advertising.

The Daisy ad aired during the height of Lyndon B. Johnson’s re-election campaign, on the night of Sept. 7, 1964.

Republican Barry Goldwater, LBJ’s challenger, had said in speeches and interviews that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons to better America’s position in the Vietnam war.

The ad was the Johnson campaign’s attempt at exploiting Goldwater’s aggressive military stance. And it worked.

Johnson would go on to win re-election by a landslide.

The ad itself has a long-lasting legacy as well. Its mastermind was a man named Tony Schwartz, a young writer at a new kind of ad agency (one that would later be the inspiration for the AMC hit TV show, "Mad Men").

Rather than focusing on a candidate’s policy statements or plans for the future, as almost every political ad before it had done, Schwartz honed in on the viewers and their emotions. His aim was to create ads that evoked feelings the audience might already have, to “strike the responsive chord”, as he called it.

On this week’s podcast, host Andrea Seabrook talks to Joe Slade White, now one of the most sought after political consultants in American politics, and David Schwartz, chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

Their conversations range from the history and importance of the Daisy ad to the psychology that underlies it. It is critical background for the educated voter, especially in these times of political ads saturating the airwaves.

You can view political ads through U.S .history at The Museum of the Moving Image’s archive of political ads, The Living Room Candidate.


Episode 49: Why more Americans are carrying guns in more places than ever before

Americans can carry more guns in more places than ever before. Across the country, grassroots movements in states and on college campuses are demanding that gun regulations be relaxed -- and lawmakers are meeting those demands.

This is one, major trend reported by News21, an eight-month project in investigative reporting that brought together top journalism students to study one issue: Guns in America.

Here at DecodeDC we’re featuring many of the News21 stories, from the prevalence of women carrying guns to the refusal by some local authorities to enforce gun control laws. And last week’s DecodeDC podcast focused on the evolution of the political debate surrounding guns, and a smaller microcosm of that debate: Colorado.

This week, host Andrea Seabrook talks to News21 reporters Kate Murphy and Wade Millward about the sweeping trend they found through their reporting: Americans are reacting to continuing gun violence in a new way. Whereas a few decades ago, a shooting might cause citizens to demand tighter gun control, today they demand more leeway to defend themselves.