Saturday, April 5, 2014

CNN's Candy Crowley takes Horizons Town Talk audience on a tour of U.S. political scene

CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley signs autographs after her Horizons Town Talk

Making points during her speech

Story and photos by Janet I. Martineau 

When, several times, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney  appeared to charge towards her, presidential debate moderator Candy Crowley didn't think anything of it back there in October 2012.

"I raised two sons," CNN senior political correspondent Crowley told her Horizons Town Talk audience on Tuesday. 

"I  thought at the time, 'I get this, they are prowling around in that establishing territory type thing men do.' I didn't think anything of it. I just thought they were roaming.

"It was way cool; the most fun I've ever had. I never felt the heat that somehow came across on TV."

What she did feel was pressure, she said.

"I had spent the whole day at a town hall gathering  getting questions to ask the two candidates, and I was aware during the debate of how much time we didn't have and how many people's questions were not getting asked.

"I had a producer talking in my ear piece always. We were aware of the fact that Obama talked slower in answering a question than Romney, and that we had to balance their time being heard vs. answering the questions."

And, of course, during the event she challenged Romney on one of his answers, an event that led to much criticism...and support.

"It was what it was," she said. "After the event I'd walk on a plane and people would applaud. I would walk in a coffee house and people would come up to me and challenge what I did. 

"We knew before the debate half the country would hate what we did and the other half would like it; we just didn't know which."

Crowley, 65, has been with CNN  since 1987. Currently she hosts its weekly Sunday show "State of the Union." Earlier  she worked for the Associated Press and NBC and has, at this point, covered nine presidential campaigns as well as many other political races.

Before discussing her career on the Washington DC scene, however, Crowley paid homage to Michigan, "which is home to me, where my soul belongs."

She was born in Kalamazoo, her grandfather worked in a South Haven canning factory, she recalled childhood summers up north, using flashlights to find night crawlers. The family still has property in the Sleeping Bear Bay Area, where she vacations ...  singing Saginaw songs as she passes on her way driving there.

In her hour-long talk, Crowley admitted that yes the U.S. Congress is frustrating. But she also laid the blame on those of us seated before her, the voters of United States.

We like to congregate with people like us, she said, hence redistricting every six years to "assure" one party or the other seats in the Congress. In the last election, she said,  245 of the House members were elected by 60% or more of the vote. "So they feel no need to compromise."

Voters in the midterm Congressional elections use their anger at whomever is president at the time, she said, sweeping his party out "in droves." And in particular lately sweeping out anybody who is a moderate "whose survival rested in reaching across the aisle. The center in Congress has shrunk and almost disappeared.

"It's who we vote for that has helped lead to this dysfunction," the award-winning journalist told her audience.

And adding to the problem, she said, is the pure economics of living in Washington DC. House members face reelection every two years, she said. At one time they moved their families to Washington DC and stayed there most weekends. But with the rising cost of living in that town, most of them leave their families back home and go back there every  weekend and increasingly for extended recesses.

"This results is them not knowing each other except when they are on the floor and yelling at each other; instead of attending their children's baseball games  together.  If they stayed in DC they would connect with each other and not demonize each other."

She recalled the bonding and bill-passing legacy of senators Dick Lugar, an Indiana Republican, and Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, whose families knew each other because they lived in DC. Their children even bought back to back homes in Virginia, "so it became a bipartisan playground. That just doesn't happen anymore. They learned to trust each other by being with each other, and if you can't trust each other then compromise won't get done."

These days it is often a nightmare to book her Sunday show, she said,  "because invited guests tell me, 'I won't sit there with so and so.' That's not good. It's a failure to understand. That kind of thinking does not work in the world of business."

In frustration, she says, more and more centrist congressional members are not running for office again, including four from Michigan (Sen. Carl Levin, Reps. Dave Camp, Mike Rogers and John Dingell). "With those four who are retiring, Michigan will lose 139 years of experience."

She also challenged the rise of the 24  hour news cycle which speeds everything up,  with news organizations more interested in getting the short, snappy sound bite first at the expense of researched detail.

"It leads to snap judgments. It sets up sides immediately. We don't think before we speak." 

Instead, she is a proponent of longer interviews, so viewers can get to know the personalities rather than the flat characters of the people she talks to. "That way people learn to disagree yes but at least respect the place where this person is coming from when they have found out how they came to that place."

Crowley advised her listeners to never watch just one network or read just one newspaper, "ones that reflect your own opinions. Get beyond your comfort levels." She is saddened that the most strident and one-sided networks get the highest ratings.

Not wanting to leave her audience in a downer mood, she said after 30 years of covering Washington DC, "the parts are better than the whole. Most of your congressmen want to do what is right, they try to do a good job, they love their country.

"The people you send to Congress by and large are good people."