Where the Tone is Set — the West Wing, with Pete Souza and a special guest
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Major crises like COVID-19 are managed from one place. With the election approaching, there will be many takes on the politics but Andy wants to take you inside the West Wing bubble. He starts with Pete Souza, who photographed the Reagan and Obama administrations, to talk about what it’s like inside the West Wing of the White House. If you had an image of beautiful offices and wide hallways because of a certain TV show, forget about all that. You can see for yourself in Pete’s new documentary, The Way I See It. Plus, stick around for a surprise guest who also knows a thing or two about The West Wing.
Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt and Instagram @andyslavitt.
Follow Pete Souza on Twitter and Instagram @PeteSouza.
Check out these resources from today’s episode:
- Don’t miss The Way I See It, the new film about Pete’s time as the White House photographer for President Obama: https://www.focusfeatures.com/the-way-i-see-it.
- Check out some of Pete’s greatest photos of President Obama in his book, OBAMA: An Intimate Portrait: https://www.petesouza.com/content.html?page=8.
- Watch President Obama sing Amazing Grace during the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN05jVNBs64.
- Learn more about Ady Barkan’s story in the film Not Going Quietly, executive produced by Bradley Whitford: https://www.adydoc.com/.
- Buy Ady Barkan’s book, Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance, here: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Eyes-to-the-Wind/Ady-Barkan/9781982111540
- Are you hoping to vote in the 2020 election? Are you confused about how to request an absentee ballot in your state? This website can help you with that: https://www.betterknowaballot.com/
- Pre-order Andy’s book, Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response, here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250770165
[00:42] Ronald Reagan: And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future and we’ll continue to follow.
[01:19] Andy Slavitt: Welcome to In the Bubble. This is Andy Slavitt. That’s the audio of Ronald Reagan on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger 7 shuttle was lost in space and we lost seven U.S. astronauts. What is it that we expect to hear from our leaders at times of great challenge, at times of great struggle, at times of great uncertainty, when we’re really just unsure what’s going to happen next, when we’re mourning, when we feel loss, when we feel pain? What do we expect out of the Oval Office, out of the West Wing? It’s one of these questions that I think we are right to ask and right to try to answer at this moment. We’ve had a number of challenges in our history. If we only were to go back 100 years in U.S. history, we lived through the Great Depression. We heard words from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. World War Two, where the words of Roosevelt and Churchill from across the seas rang out. In the 1960s, we had Kennedy shot, a great deal of unrest. Maybe more than anything, we remember the voice of Walter Cronkite than we might of those who have been in office. After Watergate, we had the more comfortable, direct, maybe fatherly figures of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter. Of course, with those words from Ronald Reagan just now telling us what was important. Helping us mourn. Of course, 9/11. There were some moments that George W. Bush — for all of the destructive wars overseas — when he stood up and spoke on behalf of the people that we lost. And then with President Obama, you recall in 2008, we had a massive financial crisis and we had these two guys, John McCain and Barack Obama, running for president. One of them was a vision of a very cool, competent, strong manager. And that was who we hired in Barack Obama. And during his term, of course, we had the terrible killing in the church in Charleston. And in fact, more on that a little bit later in the podcast. And terrible shootings like the one at Sandy Hook.
[04:02] Andy Slavitt: What we heard from the president was sometimes damp eyes, sometimes speaking deeply, sometimes speaking to everybody, sometimes challenging us. Now, over the last four years, we’ve also had our moments of great public challenges when we’re used to looking to leaders to lead us through them. Of course, the very traumatic events in Charlottesville when we had hate-inspired groups marching, trying to displace people, and we had a very different reaction out of the White House. And I think one of the reasons why people come back to that moment is we’re used to the president in those moments pulling us together. Whether we admit it or not, we want to have somebody who tells us that things are going to be OK to some degree and shows us and can speak for us in a moment when we need someone to give voice to our pain. And now with the global pandemic, we are again seeing Trump’s approach, even just to the words. I know there’s very little talk of people we’ve lost. I noticed very little flags at half-staff. I noticed very little visit to hospitals, to cemeteries. Mourning, compassionate words, kind words. We have an election coming up in a few weeks. What kind of person do we want in that West Wing during a crisis? Who do we want sitting there? What’s the right kind of leader, what’s the right kind of president, where the right kind of compassion?
[05:52] Andy Slavitt: They’re getting it in New Zealand with Jacinda. And they’re getting it in Germany with Angela Merkel. We’re not getting it here. And I know that the issues we see polled whenever we read about these polls are, how do people feel about healthcare and the economy and the environment and all of these other issues. But at some level, there is a question which is, does the country feel like it’s been missing a person? Sitting in that room, who can do only symbolic things? Of course, they do more than symbolic things, but in addition to the things that they can actually do, we know they’re on the job, we know they’re on the case. Are we are hiring somebody right now to sit in that West Wing who we believe has the characteristics that the country needs. What are those characteristics? I think they are compassion, competence, honesty. I think it’s integrity. I think it’s surrounding yourself by good people. People who don’t get lost in their own view of themselves, trapped in their own little worlds. I think it’s people who know what it’s like in America. I think it’s people who will lead with energy and passion and people who want to leave the country a better place than they find it. So we’re going to talk in this episode about the West Wing, about that very unusual and interesting and special place with two interesting conversations that I hope you find enjoyable. I think I am reflecting on what we want to do and who we want to have and how we want the country to be led going forward. It’s beyond the moment. It’s beyond the issues of the moment. It’s even beyond, to some degree, the management of the epidemic, it’s the management of this republic. It’s what kind of people we are. And yes, that will bear more on how we handle the epidemic, what kind of people we choose to be, than anything else, than even our good science. Because we can nail the science, but if we’re not willing to look out for one another, we’ve shown we can’t do justice getting through this pandemic. So my first guest is going to be Pete Souza, and Pete was a White House photographer for both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Two iconic leaders. And he has a new movie that is out, The Way I See It.
[08:31] Andy Slavitt: And then we have a surprise at the end. Another look and another view of what it looks like inside the West Wing. By the way, we’re going through a very important time. We all need to remember that. We only remember that maybe this is our single greatest chance to influence the outcome of the pandemic, and also our lives and how we see ourselves and how we’re seeing this country. So with that, I think you’re going to enjoy my two conversations, first ones with Pete Souza.
[09:13] Pete Souza: Andy, are you there?
[09:14] Andy Slavitt: I am.
[09:28] Pete Souza: I mean, you have no idea what it’s like to try to finish this movie during COVID. Oh my goodness. I bet part of it involved, you know, doing some audio. And yeah, it’s not my forte. The movie was fun. You know, it was interesting to me on the other side of the camera for sure. But, you know, I was dealing with a bunch of professionals so they knew what they were doing.
[09:58] Andy Slavitt: Speaking of professionals, when you were shooting in the White House, you described your role as an historian to capture the real-time first-draft of history, as people say. Do you feel that in the moment? Do you feel connected to it? Do you have to in order to get the picture right? Or do you feel like an outside observer and you don’t click into the things that are happening quite as much?
[10:28] Pete Souza: No, I think you have to click into what’s what’s happening in the moment. If I’m in The Situation Room, I wouldn’t have gotten the memo of all the other people that are in the meeting. But certainly I am there while they’re discussing important things and, you know, the stakes and learning to know his mood more than anything, I think in terms of, wow, he’s really stressing over this decision or he’s really, you know, pissed off about the ACA website. So I’m definitely attuned to all of that, like, how could you not be? And I think my job is to translate that and try to capture the right moment that shows that, you know, that shows the emotion and that shows the context. And sometimes there’s obviously key players involved in any discussion. But there’s also instances where you need to show, you know, everybody in the room. Like the bin Laden raid, for instance, it wasn’t like I was zooming in on his reaction. It was more how everybody else was reacting with him.
[11:54] Andy Slavitt: That’s a picture that I think so many of us have studied so many times. And you’re right. You’re so intently focused on everybody’s face. I would say I watch every probably two or three weeks the Amazing Grace video. For the last couple years, I’ve found it’s been — it’s incredible just that I mean, the juxtaposition of that man against historic events, and you captured so nicely the kind of ramrod strength and discipline and focus that was there at times when the nation really was in a bad spot.
[12:54] Pete Souza: Two of the videos that are in the film are Amazing Grace and the press briefing room after the Newtown shooting. In some ways, it’s hard to watch because he became so emotional. Amazing Grace was something that — I had done these public presentations, you know, showing my photographs while I’m talking about them, and when my book came out, and I figured out how to incorporate — this is where I’m not very technically proficient — but I figured out how to incorporate a couple of video clips into my presentation. And I included The Amazing Grace one, and the thing that really struck me seeing it again was there’s this pause for it seems an eternity, but it’s probably like ten or fifteen seconds where he gets to the point of his speech — in hindsight, I knew it was like the words for Amazing Grace were written down for him. And he was trying to decide, can I pull this off by singing. I mean, Valerie Jarrett, who was on helicopter with him when we went to Andrews. I wasn’t on the helicopter. They said that he was telling her and a couple other people that he was thinking about singing those words. But to see that video, and you see him in the moment decide can I pull this off? That’s the thing that really, really hit me.
[14:59] Andy Slavitt: Did the people behind him know he was going to sing?
[15:03] Pete Souza: No. No. Nobody knew. Nobody knew.
[15:04] Andy Slavitt: Because there was an audible sigh. And then you captured a picture after he’s sang it from right behind with those folks. And he somehow stirred up emotion that nobody expected to feel that day because people were smiling. And there was warmth in that room and in that moment.
[15:26] Pete Souza: My recollection was I think the direction he took with that speech — I mean, you can probably ask Cody for sure, but was a direct result of learning that the families who lost a loved one were in court after he was indicted. They said they were going to forgive him and pray for him. And I think he was just kind of blown away by that.
[19:34] Andy Slavitt: So I want to give folks a bit of a feel for the West Wing, if you could help me do that, because you know it in ways that almost nobody else does. And I think a lot of people’s image of the West Wing may be colored by some movie or TV show they saw where it feels like there’s very big, broad hallways and very tall ceilings and kind of ornate carpet — he’s laughing — and very stately. And in fact, the main part of the White House is indeed like that in the East Wing, and maybe you will talk a little bit about the difference. But the West Wing, I mean, is a trailer park shack connected to the White House of some form. It’s like you’re your trailer office park at a construction site. No, I’m exaggerating.
[20:27] Pete Souza: My office was like that.
[20:29] Andy Slavitt: But it’s closer to that. It’s like an adjunct. You describe the West Wing. What is it like? What does it feel like inside?
[20:38] Pete Souza: I had an office on what’s called the ground floor, and it was actually the old barbershop. There used to be a White House barber back in the day. And, you know, the mirrors are still there. And it’s just like a little cubbyhole office. And it’s on the same floor as the Situation Room. And right next to the men’s bathroom. It was across from Ben Rhodes’ office. And then just around the corner is the White House mess. And so in a very narrow hallway and the offices on the ground floor, they’re all like little tiny cubbyhole offices. And then there’s a stairway that goes up to the main floor where the Oval Office — very narrow stairway that goes up to the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office and the Roosevelt. Those are the three big rooms on the main floor of the West Wing. So the Cabinet Room, people are familiar with that. The Oval Office, which does have that big high ceiling. And then the Roosevelt Room is kind of a smaller meeting room, smaller than the cabinet. And that’s where the room that you were in a lot for ACA type meetings. That is kind of like a working meeting room, not as ornate as the Cabinet room. And then if you walk down that hallway, also a very narrow hallway, the chief of staff’s office, who I will say has a really nice patio. The patio is actually — I was there when it was redone during the Reagan administration. And Don Regan, who was the chief of staff in the second term, paid for it out of his own pocket. And then there’s a floor upstairs which, you know, I rarely went up to, where Valerie was, where the White House counsel, where Larry Summers was. I went up there a few times when President Obama went up there. But I never knew which way to turn there.
[23:19] Obama would obviously sleep inside the main part of the White House upstairs. Even a couple levels above what you’re talking about, there’s a main area, and he would get up and walk to work in the morning across what people have seen this sort of open portico. People have probably seen that image. Would your day begin when he went into the West Wing and would end when he went back into the rest of the White House? Or would you follow him depending on events and continue to photograph there as well?
[23:52] Pete Souza: Yeah, I’d say every day was different. At the start of the day, I would meet him, you know, outside the Oval Office when he showed up. Now, I mean, there were some times where he might be having a private breakfast, I would go to the residence for things like that. But for the most part, I’d say 90 percent of the time, I’d just be in the Oval Office when he showed up and then I’d be with him all day long. I basically just hung out. If I wasn’t in the Oval Office or not traveling with him or not going to the Situation Room, I’d be sitting right outside the Oval Office if he was, you know, working by himself or something like that. I tried to never — I kind of stopped him, basically. Not in an untoward way, but meaning that he was such an unconventional person and the way he went about his job in the sense that he gets a schedule, but the schedule is just like a starting point. And like if he just wants to go talk to Larry Summers or walk down the hall to see Denis McDonough, if you’re not there, if you’re not hanging out, you’re gonna miss that. So, you know, my approach for all eight years was just to basically always just be there in case, you know, something popped up. And I just didn’t want to ever miss anything. So even though I had an office in the West Wing, I was only there in the morning before he showed up, and then I usually at the end of the day, I’d be in there for a little while.
[25:31] Andy Slavitt: Now, you take what I think are probably some of the most famous photographs, I would argue, in the history of the country at this point. And I’m telescoping a little bit. And, of course, you know, we have three copies of your book because my son wanted it for his Hanukkah present and we, of course, bought one. And my wife calls it the only coffee table book she’s ever actually opened. And it’s a wonderful book, if people haven’t haven’t seen it. I mean, it is so engrossing. But, you know, there’s the picture of the little boy rubbing his hair. There’s a picture of the president and Michelle, the first lady, dancing with an older woman in the White House. There’s, of course, a picture of the Situation Room. There’s pictures of him and with bunny ears from the back. What are your favorite moments, your favorite photographs, maybe even some of the ones that represent things that have a story that you know about but aren’t really well-known.
[26:27] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, thanks. For me, it’s always the photographs that are unexpected and in almost every instance I think he’s interacting with other people. So, I mean, you mentioned Jacob Philadelphia touching his head. The other one, the only picture I really have hanging in my house, he had gone to Sasha’s school for some event. Yes, he did those kind of things. And as he was walking back to the motorcade after the event, there was this daycare center next door. It was like a warm June day. And there are these like four little kids of different backgrounds, different colors and creeds, basically hanging out of this window. And they’re like probably two years old, maybe three, three years old. They all know who this guy is. And he sees them hanging out the window because, you know, there’s all this commotion, Secret Service guys. And so they’re wondering what the heck is going on. So they’re just like hanging out the window, the window’s open. And so he walks up to the window, which is almost at eye level for him, and he goes right up to the window to see these kids. And it’s just like these kids are like, who is this guy, you know? And to me, it tells you so much about him that instead of just going to the motorcade, he’s like, let’s go see these kids. So I love moments like that that you can’t expect to happen. And it’s the kind of picture that is never going to happen again. There’s another one where we were going from one of the meeting rooms there and he’s walking down this big hallway, you remember how big and ornate those hallways are. And there was a White House custodian there. And, of course, the Secret Service are like servants to the side, and President Obama’s walking by and he goes and he fist bumps the guy. And like you can’t predict those, and you’ve always got to be ready for them.
[28:45] Andy Slavitt: And you’re ready for it. Fantastic. So I want to ask you about what I’m surprised it isn’t your favorite photograph in the entire world, which is the first time I briefed the president. And actually, you can help me locate that photograph, you’d be doing me a huge favor. This was a meeting on his birthday, I think it was August 1, 2014, ‘15. And I’m milling around. And I had just been asked to lead a briefing of the president in the Roosevelt Room. And of course, I’d never briefed the president before and I’d never led off a briefing before. And it was on a Monday and I had stuck around over the weekend. And Pete, I kid you not, I practiced in front of the mirror in my apartment talking to the president. And I’m not proud of that fact. But I did. I had it down. I had like a five-minute opening. By the end of the weekend, I was sounding brilliant. I was playing Rocky in my head. I was just like, this is going to be the most prime briefing this president has ever seen. And I walked into the Roosevelt Room. He wasn’t in there yet. And everyone’s milling, milling about. And Jeff Zients came over to me, he was head of the National Economic Council. And he said, how are you doing? And of course, I said, pretty good. You’re about to brief the president, which of course, he does every other day. I said, so any tips? He goes, yeah, he’s not in a good mood today. I said, oh, yeah, why isn’t he in a good mood? He had this thing with Putin and it didn’t go well. And it’s his birthday. And wants to get out of here and see his daughters. So I said, well, any advice? He goes, Yeah. Keep it brief. Keep it really, really brief. So I go like five minutes brief? And he looks at me like I had just, like, peed in the corner. And he goes, are you kidding? No, no, no. One minute brief. And then at that very second, the corner doors open. If you’ve never been in the Roosevelt Room, there’s a door. You walk in and then there’s another door that’s in a corner that is right where the Oval Office is. So he walks in. Walks across to the seat he takes, which is a little bit elevated in the center. He reaches out to shake my hand. I reach up, shake the hand. And you snapped a picture and I’m not sure I even knew you were there, but you came out of nowhere and you took a picture. And I’ve always wanted to find a picture.
[31:13] Pete Souza: Oh, it exists. I mean, it’s at the National Archives. I probably don’t have a copy of it, but yeah, you could get it from them. May be hard right now during COVID, but once it’s over. Yeah. You’ll be able to get a copy. Every single picture I made is now at the National Archives. Even the ones that aren’t that good. I kind of remember that meeting because I sort of remember saying to myself, “man, that guy looks nervous.”
[31:43] Andy Slavitt: He looks good. He looks good. That guy is handsome. I’m surprised that wasn’t in your top two or three pictures. It must have been tough to leave that one out of the picture book.
[35:03] Andy Slavitt: So the movie, which we introduced before you came on, I had a chance to watch it last night. What impression do you think people will have about the kind of leadership required in the Oval Office and the kind of characteristics that people ought to be looking for? Let’s face it, we’re in the middle of a job interview right now for that job. And Americans are making that assessment. It should be said that you also were in the White House for Ronald Reagan, someone with very different politics, but also as someone who you said as an individual, there is much you were able to admire about him.
[35:47] Pete Souza: Yeah, I think it has to be somebody who respects the office, who upholds its dignity, who knows that the job is about us and not him or her. Somebody in that position needs to have compassion and empathy. They need to do their homework. They need to engage people from different points of view. And they need to rely on facts and evidence and science and not conspiracy theories, which is what we’re facing today. I mean, the presidency is not a reality show. It’s real life with consequences for real people. Some people think that I’ve been too political when I left the White House. I don’t think I have. My shade of Trump is not a partisan thing. I worked for the most iconic Republican president of our generation and the most iconic Democratic president of our generation. I would not be doing what I’m doing if you know, John McCain or Mitt Romney or John Case or Jeb Bush or a whole host of other Republicans were president. I would probably disagree with them, but they would bring the right characteristics to the office. They would have empathy and compassion. They would do the work. I may disagree with the decision, but I couldn’t fault the way they upheld that office. How can you be president and not lead the nation and not have empathy? I think leadership and empathy are two characteristics that if you don’t have them, you should not be the president of United States.
[38:02] Andy Slavitt: Well, look, Pete, it’s been such a pleasure. I’m so grateful you came on. I’m so glad you made the movie and recorded history the way you did. And the beautiful book, if you’re out there and you don’t have this book, it is one of the most special things you’ll possess. And the movie, I think, reminds us of an amazing time. And it’s so great for you to be on. The fact you’re sharing it again with us, it’s terrific.
[38:31] Pete Souza: Yeah. Thanks for having me on and thanks for what you’re doing, too.
[38:40] Andy Slavitt: What is that? What is that music I hear in the background? That sounds familiar. That reminds me of our next guest, the former deputy chief of staff in the White House, Josh Lyman. You all may remember Josh from the presidency of Josiah Bartlet, which I think was about 14 years long or something. And Josh was really in the White House during an incredibly idealized time. I mean, the issues that people fought over were of our ideals. And were a far cry from some of the things that you talked about with Pete Souza. And so I was wondering if Bradley Whitford, the wonderful actor, who’s been in so many amazing movies recently, including Get Out and The Post and a little tiny show called The Handmaid’s Tale, would come on because he knows Josh Lyman intimately. So let’s talk about The West Wing with a real president and a real president staff.
[39:53] Andy Slavitt: Bradley. So if you had to remove somebody, just say theoretically from the West Wing, let’s say, for example, they lost an election and they didn’t want to go. What do you think?
[40:19] Bradley Whitford: Well, you know, I come from a fictional world where an unreasonable salary demand would do it. I don’t know. You tell me.
[40:32] Andy Slavitt: I think people are curious about The West Wing’s structure or the setup. It’s very different from the real West Wing.
[40:41] Bradley Whitford: Yeah, our set was very, very open. I think most people who go into the West Wing, where you, of course, have been, are surprised by how small it is, because proximity to the president is of such high value and privacy is — so it’s not at all like our set was, which had a lot of glass and open space. And there’s a lot of little tiny offices — one of them is. FDR’s kennel. It’s a pretty prized office in the West Wing.
[41:24] Andy Slavitt: I think it’s like I think it’s like a coronavirus haven. I mean, if you describe what the best places to get coronavirus are, it’s like you think cramped people stuffed in next to each other, not well ventilated, that’s the West Wing.
[41:37] Bradley Whitford: Yeah. Obnoxious people who are braying a lot.
[41:42] Andy Slavitt: Let’s talk about a mutual friend of ours. And I’m not sure everyone who’s listening will know who Ady Barkan is. But he’s a really special guy. He’s really special to you. I’m wondering if you can just spend a minute on Ady.
[41:57] Bradley Whitford: Yeah. He’s one of the great — I hate to use this word, and I think he hates it — but he absolutely is the most inspiring human being I’ve ever met. I met him when we were doing an action on behalf of the Dreamers at Senator Feinstein’s office in West L.A. That was where I met him. And he was still able to stand a little bit. Ady is is a brilliant guy who in his early thirties, he was an activist, a progressive activist. He was going to be Hillary’s guy, reforming the Federal Reserve and bringing representation of unemployed people, poor people, people of color to the Federal Reserve, which has a tremendous influence over our economy. And he was at his anniversary dinner and his hand felt a little funny. And within a week, he was diagnosed with ALS, which is, of course, devastating and basically untreatable. And, you know, there are a few human beings in the world who tend to sort of build religions around them, who are able to take their unspeakable suffering and transcend it by fighting to alleviate it in others. And Ady is one of those guys. And as he says, you know, he’s not going quietly. And, you know, one of the things this pandemic has done is made clear the complete — if we didn’t know it already — you know, it’s feasting on the most vulnerable among us. Health insurance, which is attached to a job, is meaningless if the job does not exist. And I think it’s going to be the big fight. I know Ady really wants to push Biden on Medicare for all. And I think, God willing, Biden wins, I think that’s where the battle is going to be in the Democratic Party.
[44:15] Yeah, I think Ady is someone who, if he hadn’t gotten ALS, probably would have changed the world. And now that he’s gotten ALS, he’s definitely going to change the world. We’ll put a link up to his book and maybe a couple of videos, he just had a nice conversation with Biden. Probably his most famous conversation was one he had with actually with Jeff Flake.
[44:38] Bradley Whitford: There’s a wonderful woman named Liz Jaffe, he was getting on a plane and basically bumped into her. If you know Liz, she is absolutely wonderful and hilarious. I’m actually producing a documentary about Ady. And one of my favorite moments in it is she’s being asked by a local reporter if she’s using his illness to achieve a political goal. And she’s like, oh, yeah, absolutely. Of course. Sure. Liz sort of pushed him to have this conversation. I really think that with — God willing — a Biden victory, we cannot stop short of — I don’t care what you call it, but universal access to meaningful health care. It’s so bewildering to me that whether it’s healthcare, we spend what percentage of the GDP? 18 percent. And other countries spend nine or ten. You know, even if you don’t internalize the moral imperative of giving everybody access to healthcare, it’s the same thing with climate change. There is such a strong economic argument for dealing with this issue. There’s such a pro-business argument for dealing with these. I mean, imagine small businesses — what a boon if they were liberated from the tremendous weight of providing health care.
[46:23] Andy Slavitt: It’s interesting you use the word liberated, because what is so remarkable is there is no greater freedom that you can give someone than their access to be healthy. And that is the foundation I’ve always believed in. And I started an organization, you’ve been part of helping me do that, that you have to have that as a foundational element to actually get access to other freedoms. Because the freedom to — I don’t know, you name it. Fire a gun. All those other things. You don’t get those freedoms unless you’ve got the freedom to be healthy. Because if you’re not healthy, or if someone in your family is not healthy — we’ve all been there, we’ve all lost people sometime in our lives — when you’re dealing with their health, nothing else matters. Everything else goes away. And so if we can’t do that here, then, you know, it’s a fundamental question about what is our responsibility? So saying freedom without this is kind of vacuous.
[47:20] Bradley Whitford: This is part of the problem. I mean, it’s always bothered me that the right owns the flag. They own God. Iin a really dangerous way. And they don’t deserve to, in my opinion. They own the definition of freedom. And, you know, freedom is defined only as, you know, a hypocritical version of free-market capitalism, which doesn’t exist. And the free market is even an Orwellian term. There is no free market unless you think eighth graders should work in coal mines. It doesn’t exist. But they have been able to define freedom. And I think that’s part of the messaging that we need to do in terms of economic justice, in terms of the health care argument.
[48:20] Andy Slavitt: When people ask me that question, which is probably one of the most common question I get asked, which is how do you fix healthcare? My first answer is electoral reform. You fix this republic, you will fix the healthcare system the next day. With an un-representative system, it’s much more of a challenge.
[48:37] Bradley Whitford: Yes.
[49:02] Andy Slavitt: Let’s talk about a couple of happier topics. You have probably — I don’t know how people in your business think about this or read this, but between Get Out, The Post, The Handmaid’s Tale in really short order, I’m not quite sure which time separated them all, but it seemed to that to the entertainment consumer, they happened pretty rapidly after one another. Three remarkable pieces that had massive cultural impact and importance. Did you kind of sit there, go, you know what? In the next year, I’m going to end up doing three of the most successful projects that I’ve ever done, and that had been done in a long time.
[49:51] Bradley Whitford: No. I can tell you honestly from a career perspective, Get Out really was an incredible blessing because I was allowed to be a new version, an older version that I had not been before. In what turned out to be, you know, about the coolest kind of movie you could be a part of, that then became incredibly successful. That was so bizarre. We had no idea, no idea that that was going to happen.
[50:29] Andy Slavitt: When you said you voted for Obama, I mean, that’s that’s like in the pantheon.
[50:46] Bradley Whitford: I made a joke — it’s so crazy, social media these days — I made a joke to someone in an interview that I didn’t realize that was a joke. And I just got bombarded. What’s interesting about that movie. Jordan was writing that movie with the full assumption that Hillary was going to win. We weren’t headed towards this literal sunken place. It was his statement about the idiocy of the idea that, you know, racism, you know, had been eliminated with the election of Barack Obama, which I think turned this movie into just, you know, a powder keg when it’s coincided with the beginning of, you know, an absolutely racist presidency. But I always think, you know, I’ve been able to be a part of these sort of culturally, zeitgeist-y sort of things. And people always say, was that the plan? And I did a Clint Eastwood movie in the early ‘90s and were on the set and he had just won the Oscar for Unforgiven. And I’m reading The New York Times and he’s sitting in his set chair with his heart beating, like, once every three minutes. And on the cover, the Arts and Leisure Section, there’s this big headline, really, you know, a picture of Clint. And it goes Clint Eastwood’s Vision of America. And I turned to him and I said, hey, did you see this? And he goes, Vision of America. Ten years ago, I was working with an orangutan. Now they think I’m Gandhi. He’s like I just took the best thing available. Of course, Clint has turned into a complicated political figure for me.
[52:53] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, but the example still holds its point. It’s almost impossible to create somebody’s favorite movie of all time. I know a lot of people that that’s a favorite movie of all time. There are a lot of people to whom The West Wing is their favorite TV show of all time. And now there are a lot of people to whom your TV show is their favorite of all time. So it’s pretty remarkable.
[53:14] Bradley Whitford: Well, I can tell you, I actually and Aaron Sorkin had this — everyone’s perception of Aaron is that he’s this, you know, guy who wants to like, you know, unzip. And it’s actually Barbra Streisand, you know, serving everybody civic vegetables. Which is actually the opposite of Aaron. The reason that show worked is Aaron is an impatient entertainer, an impatient writer. And because of my experience with Aaron, I’m always actually skeptical if someone is bringing me something with a message, because I know that the story has to work. There is no more miraculous creative experience to be had than the ones I’ve been able to have as an actor on a The West Wing, Get Out, Handmaid’s Tale is an extraordinary place. And it’s almost like gravy when it’s actually about something on top of it.
[54:23] Andy Slavitt: Well, I wish you tons of gravy, because you’re a guy who is impossible not to like and admire.
[54:34] Bradley Whitford: Oh God. Well, it’s great to see you.
[54:35] Andy Slavitt: Thanks for doing this.
[54:49] Andy Slavitt: Thank you, Bradley. Thank you, Pete, for that episode that gave us a bit of a peek into where everybody can be focusing for the next few weeks, which is who goes into the White House. And I wish Bartlett were running, but he’s not. OK, so coming up on Monday, we have Rajeev Shah from the Rockefeller Foundation. Rajeev is the president and he is one of the leading actors in trying to bring this coronavirus to a halt by using the money of the Rockefeller Foundation and organizing people. You know, he invites me to meetings both in the White House and state government and others who are driving to that conclusion. I think you’ll find that most fascinating about the action we’re taking. He’s the former head of the USAID. That’s on Monday. On Wednesday, Senator Chris Murphy, who I think you’ll find we’re going to get into a conversation about what’s at stake in this election and the Supreme Court hearings and how that all impacts on us. What does it really matter for us as we deal with COVID-19? And then the following week we have Zeke Emanuel, who is formerly of the NIH and one of the most prolific authors, thinkers, leaders in the kind of ethical response to healthcare to talk about COVID-19.
[56:21] Andy Slavitt: Thanks for listening to In the Bubble. Hope you rate us highly. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kryssy Pease and Alex McOwen, produce the show. Our mix is by Ivan Kuraev. My son Zach Slavitt is emeritus co-host and onsite producer. Improved by the much better Lana Slavitt, my wife. Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs still rule our lives and executive produce the show. And our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, and additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me @ASlavitt on Twitter or @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you like what you heard today, most importantly, please tell your friends to come listen. But still tell them at a distance or with a mask. And please stay safe. Share some joy and we will get through this together. #StayHome.