ROXANNE KHAMSI It would be really nice if some of these health departments were more informative in terms of having some of this data at hand to say, OK, yeah, we actually made this based on some facts. Here you go.
BOB GARFIELD From shutting down schools to banning the sale of open toed shoes, official policies seek to stymie coronavirus, but based on what? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. The paranoia energizing the American right has old roots, very old.
JEFF SHARLET All conspiracy theories tend to have some similar structures. You've heard this song before. This is a cover song. This is not an original.
BOB GARFIELD Plus, Obama's chief White House photographer reflects on the makings of a lucky shot.
PETE SOUZA I've prepared myself for moments like that my whole life. You have to anticipate them. Unfortunately, I didn't screw it up.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, Brooke Gladstone is away, I'm Bob Garfield. This week, a quarter million deaths into a historic pandemic whose latest wave is ravaging the heartland came the news that public health restrictions to keep Americans alive are still an attack on liberty. Trump administration spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany.
KAYLEIGH MCENANY Yeah, I think a lot of the guidelines you're seeing are Orwellian. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Yeah, somethings Orwellian. It isn't masks. Meanwhile, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem continued to castigate mask mandates and other precautions even as her state's COVID infection rate has approximately quadrupled in the past 60 days. She's standing by the policy that welcomed 400,000 people to a town of 7,000 this summer for the Sturgis biker rally, leading to an estimated 250,000 infections.
KRISTI NOEM They're happy because they're free. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And maybe because, as we learned this week, there's a vaccine on the way. In fact, two of them.
NEWS REPORT Moderna, issuing bombshell news when it said that their vaccine is more than ninety four percent effective. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Pfizer reporting their vaccine is even more effective than first thought. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But as we head into winter with widespread distribution of a vaccine still months away, we are faced with a reckoning. If a vaccine falls in the forest and half the population doesn't take it, will it make a noise?
NEWS REPORT So about two thirds of the country would need to basically be immunized. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That is far from certain.
NEWS REPORT A new Gallup poll finds that 58 percent of Americans said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine. That's actually up from 50 percent in September. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Some are active actors who wrongly believe vaccine components are dangerous. Some are dubious of big pharmas integrity because it's been known to suppress clinical data, hide manufacturing defects and lately addict millions to opioids while denying the risks.
NEWS REPORT The company that makes OxyContin has agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges related to how it marketed the drug. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Others are skeptical of a brand new treatment developed at warp speed. Still others have been trained to disbelieve anything uttered by scientists and other elites. Orwell, has indeed had his say. Up is down and down is up. The upshot being that the long sought after world saving vaccine may turn out not to matter. This is the toll of demagogery ignorance and hatred for which no vaccine offers immunity. On the question of public trust, there is yet another irritant when official policies like partisan rhetoric also are arbitrary, inconsistent and sometimes untethered to science.
Writing in Wired this week, science journalist Roxanne Khamsi documented several cases, beginning with New York Gov.. Andrew Cuomo announcement that under certain circumstances out of state, visitors could quarantine for only four days.
ROXANNE KHAMSI When I contacted the state's health department to say, Hey, what study did you use to come up with that metric? They just sent me Cuomo comments saying we're we're really respectful of science and this is a good decision, but I didn't see any study, and I think that that's what I continue to chase is the studies. Particularly because the new research I had in front of me was suggesting that six or seven days was a better time to get that test, to know if you could exit quarantine.
BOB GARFIELD In Alberta, Canada, because people found it inconvenient to be isolated for a long period of time, they allowed incoming travelers to quarantine for only 48 hours.
ROXANNE KHAMSI Yeah, they tell you to please also get a test at six or seven days after your arrival, just to be sure, but like, what is the point of that? You've already been walking around potentially spreading the virus there. You know, I reached out to Alberta, I asked them to help me understand and I didn't hear back from them. The onus is really on people like me, the reporting on this pandemic to ask these questions, but it would be really nice if some of these health departments were more informative in terms of having some of this data, this literature at hand to say, oh, OK, yeah, we actually made this based on some facts. Here you go.
BOB GARFIELD This week in Iowa, where COVID is just out of control and where Governor Kim Reynolds announced policies on Monday, including this.
KIM REYNOLDS Starting tomorrow, when you're in an indoor public space and unable to social distance for 15 minutes or longer, masks are required to be worn.
BOB GARFIELD She also announced that indoor gatherings would be limited to 15 people. Now, science tells us that being indoors in a crowd is the most dangerous thing you can do right now. But evidently in Iowa, 14 people for 14 minutes is just fine.
ROXANNE KHAMSI This is tricky because there are definitely papers that say in a room of X cubic feet X, many people for X number of minutes, like there are people doing calculations to estimate how many particles of the virus will end up in the air and how safe it is and how likely you are to catch it. There's like tons of modeling. I think what you're getting at is my gut reaction, which is at this stage, until we're more like informed and feel more secure about that science, we might want to play it safe and just say, hey, like indoors is not a great place to be right now, particularly with dining. I think, like in Madrid, they closed the parks, but they kept indoor dining and people were just scratching their heads and saying, how is this adding up? In a year that's particularly befuddling, I think these rules just add another level of befuddlement, which we really don't need.
BOB GARFIELD If the subject is COVID theater, there's this other category of focusing on fine detail instead of the broader risks. You write about South Africa, which instituted a policy last winter, which is our summer on sales of shorts and open toed shoes. Open toed shoes?
ROXANNE KHAMSI So, yes, South Africa decided it wanted people to only go out for, like essential clothing for their winter. So only things that could keep them warm. And they said you could only buy cropped bottoms like shorts or things like that if there were to be worn over leggings. And like I have not seen that style since maybe the 1980s. I don't know who wears that style. But like, can I also just say that I like to wear open toe shoes in the house all winter long. So I would be really sad if they had instituted something like that here. Like what is winter clothing after all? I think it's nuts.
BOB GARFIELD I think I've buried the lead here because you're in Montreal and there they have some public health guidance, which I guess is about [LAUGHS] just tell me what it is.
ROXANNE KHAMSI In September, the country's chief public health officer, Teresa Tam, recommended that you skip kissing and that if you're going to have sex, you might want to wear a mask during it.
BOB GARFIELD Is there any scientific basis for that whatsoever?
ROXANNE KHAMSI I don't know if NIH would fund that. I mean, what would...it would be an unethical study, right. [LAUGHS] So, no, I mean, the short answer is I am not aware of any science suggesting that you are going to be much better off having sex with a mask on than with it off as it pertains to coronavirus.
BOB GARFIELD I want to talk to you about thermometers. I have had my temperature taken more in the. Past six months, then all of my previous 65 years put together, does being ninety eight point six or lower mean I'm not a vector?
ROXANNE KHAMSI I mean, no, right. This is the great paradox of this pandemic, perhaps. It's like we're getting our temperature checked all the time. And at the same time, what we're being told by the scientists is what makes this pathogen so special and so hard to quash is that it is readily transmitted by people who are totally asymptomatic. So, again, like show me the data, show me why people are running out to buy these temperature checks when it might even be giving us a false sense of security, and that's really concerning.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Now, finally, let's turn to the policy that has become basically the 11th commandment. Thou shalt socially distance to six feet. And that commandment has worked. I mean, it's influenced humans because it sounds so definitive. Where did it come from? And does it really deserve to be etched in stone?
ROXANNE KHAMSI Well, let me just say that if you're etching it in stone and you're in Europe, you're going to want to put two meters instead of six feet because somehow the virus can travel a little bit further in Europe than here, where we only have six feet. So, you know, maybe you want two stones. This stuff goes way back to like the 1930s where there was this guy, William Wells, who was a sanitary engineer, and he was just looking to see how far droplets went out of people's mouths. People were placed in these special honeymoon resorts where they would have pairs of people spending time with one another, figuring out how quickly the virus spread from one person to another. And they started to get an inkling, OK, three feet based on Wells's work, based on these experiments with people spending time in the same room, three feet seemed like a good rule of thumb. And that's how they got to three feet. You're probably wondering how they got from there to six feet.
BOB GARFIELD I'll be asking the questions here. How did they get from there to six feet?
ROXANNE KHAMSI [LAUGHS] So what happened was three feet seemed good, but then more recently, you know, with the original SARS outbreak in 2003 with swine flu, people started to look at patterns of transmission on airplanes. And they would look and see that people seated like a couple rows apart. One person would transmit the pathogen to the other. So three feet seemed like too short. Six feet was maybe like the distance between two rows of an airplane. And the problem is we're trying to reconstruct the logic by which the six foot rule was arrived upon, but we shouldn't be having to do this guesswork. It would be great if our public health officials put out a document and said, by the way, for the last eight months, you've all been wondering how we came to six feet. This is how we came to it. I mean, that would be a wonderful, if not Thanksgiving gift, like a Christmas present for all science journalists.
BOB GARFIELD What happens to public trust when authorities pose as men and women of action with actions that are meaningless or worse? You know, isn't there a boy who cried wolf problem here?
ROXANNE KHAMSI That is my deeper concern. Beyond my regret, at seeing how some of the literature on airborne transmission was ignored and how potentially lives were lost because agencies were really slow to act on that or at least relay that information to the public. I think that there's a deeper, more sinister threat here when public health agencies don't become more transparent. One is in the modern day right now, they're contradicting one another, which is already breeding skepticism. But then in the longer term, if we find out that these decisions, these rules that are kind of willy nilly, don't hold up, I think if there's a SARS-cov-3, you know, they're going to start on weaker footing in terms of convincing the public to do things because they've been undermining themselves by not being transparent. You can't be held accountable if you're not transparent.
BOB GARFIELD And then there's the adjacent problem, which is that science has been learning on the fly. When this all began, for example, we were told that, you know, masks were not relevant because the pathogens were smaller than the pores in the masks, and we were told that we should be concerned about surfaces.
ROXANNE KHAMSI I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to cut in, but you struck upon something that was so that I feel so passionate about, which is the we in that sentence that you just used. If you think back people in places like Singapore and places that had seen SARS, they didn't have this equivocation about masks that I think that "we" that you're talking about had. "We" in North America, for example, we didn't know is like, oh, I get chills when I say it because it makes me so viscerally regretful of the way this pandemic has played out. Actually, a lot of places knew. A lot of places have been doing things right. A lot of places looked at the science in a totally different way. I don't know what happened. Maybe the Internet broke down in 2020, but it doesn't seem like some of the information traveled from one continent to the other and it continues. Why is New York doing something different from another state? It doesn't add up. And what I fear is that it's only going to get worse. It's not going to get better. We're going to see so much diversity in rulemaking that it's going to drive us crazy.
BOB GARFIELD Roxanne, we thank you.
ROXANNE KHAMSI Thanks Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Roxanne Khamsi is a science journalist. Her article in Wired is titled The Lack of Transparency is Undermining Pandemic Policy. This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. So two weeks after Trump lost the election, he and his followers still claim victory.
NEWS REPORT President Trump is doubling down on his refusal to concede writing in all caps last night, the president tweeted that he won the election [END CLIP].
PROTESTORS Stop the steal! Stop the steal! Stop the steal! Stop the steal! [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Jeff Sharlet, who has been covering the election for Vanity Fair, credits to Christian adjacent ideas for these claims. The first is the so-called prosperity gospe. The notion that, among other things, positive thinking can manifest positive consequences. Even electoral victory in the face of electoral loss.
NORMAN VINCENT PEALE You can think your way to failure and misery, but you can also think your way to success and happiness. The world in which you live is not primarily determined by outward conditions and circumstances, but by the thoughts that habitually occupy your mind. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That's Trump's childhood pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, whose runaway bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, is thought to be Trump's personal gospel. But the problem with prosperity thinking like day and date rapture prophecies is that when the bets don't pay off. Into egg on a lot of faces.
PAULA WHITE For, I hear the sound of victory. I hear the sound of victory. I hear the sound of victory. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD From spiritual adviser, Pastor Paula White, the day after the election. As Prosperity Gospel loses its edge for Trump, another strain of fringe Christianity, this time dating back nearly two millennia, is flourishing. Charlotte, a professor of English at Dartmouth College, says it has animated QAnon conspiracy's and Trump's base. It's called Gnosticism. Jeff, welcome back to the show.
JEFF SHARLET Hi, Bob. Good to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD OK, Gnosticism, a kind of early Christian apocrypha.
JEFF SHARLET Yeah, a heresy that goes back at least to the second century that its original form is this idea that the God we see is not the real God, but just something that they call a demiurge, a kind of apparatus behind which is the real power. And the way, you know, this power is not through expertise or through study, but simply through experience. You know it in your gut, as Trump likes to say.
BOB GARFIELD So in order for this to function, you have to sort of live with a paradox that Trump or the Gnostic demiurge both has a position of power, but in fact is simultaneously fighting those who wield the real power in this kind of silence, behind the scenes struggle between good and evil. I'm not quite sure how both of those can be true at the same time.
JEFF SHARLET One of the things that makes Gnosticism a nice metaphorical frame for Trumpism is that it presents the Divine as this sort of series of contradictions. Probably the most famous Gnostic texts, The Thunder, Perfect Mind. Is a quite lovely poem. And it sort of set up as a divine voice that is speaking. I am the scorned and the revered and so on.
READER I am the one whom they call law and you have called lawlessness. [END CLIP]
JEFF SHARLET That kind of contradiction is immediately recognizable to Trump, and it also speaks to the shift that Trumpism had to make as it moved from outsider status to the center of power. And that's what Gnoticism gives it as well. The deep state is what the Gnostics would have viewed as the church, the bishops, the authorities, the so-called experts. They called them waterless canals, these sort of dry river beds. And beyond that, beyond the demiurge, is what they called the depth. The depth that you experience, not through fake news, not through experts, not through even elections. You just know, you know this is the truth.
BOB GARFIELD Now, one super handy aspect of Gnostic thinking is that the events on the ground and facts and evidence don't have to conform to your worldview for you to believe it. In fact, kind of the opposite, no?
JEFF SHARLET And there it is again, one of those contradictions. On the one hand, you don't have to trust expertise, you don't have to trust those who have put in the work of developing bodies of knowledge. Because here's the Americanized aspect of this Gnoticism is it has a small D democratic veneer, which is to say that you engage, you make this gospel through your research. You too can become an expert in the technology of voting machines with just a few hours on Parler and a few YouTube instructional videos. You know, obviously I'm mocking that, but it's important to recognize what I encountered as I was going in interviewing so many of these folks. They had what they were experiencing as a kind of intellectual excitement. They said, I am finding out for myself, I'm not beholden to authority. I personally am helping President Trump make America great again because I am making the real knowledge that is beyond the fake knowledge, the fake news, I make this truth.
BOB GARFIELD And in this kind of world, experts and journalists, they're not just misguided, their enemies, no?
JEFF SHARLET You know, I think about this my time sort of covering Trump rallies. And Trump loves naming the enemies and also the promises. Right. So if he talks about illegals, as he puts them, you'll get cheering, guns - even louder cheering. But the loudest noise comes for the denunciations of the press. The press is functioning for Trump, even more so than the so-called illegals or those whom he calls animals - undocumented peoples. The way the Jews function for the czar, the way that communists functioned in the Cold War, they could be anywhere. Your own child could become one within this kind of Trumpian Gnoticism. It is very much people like you and I, Bob, who are laboring in the veil of delusion. We are the ones who are both promulgating the conspiracy, but we're also sort of trapped in the conspiracy. We're lost in this mist. We can't actually see the truth because we haven't done the hard work of research.
BOB GARFIELD If the question is how can something so, you know, bizarre and disjointed flourish in the United States of America, you say agnosticism helps us understand that.
JEFF SHARLET Yeah, it answers this question. How can so many Americans embrace what to many of us looks like authoritarianism or even full fascism and the true ideological sense and and yet insist that they're not? It's because just as the prosperity gospel believer feels like they're participating with their tithing, you're participating through your study. It can't be authoritarian in your mind because you're helping making it happen. It feels democratic even as it does away with even the need for democracy.
BOB GARFIELD After Trump lost the election,Q Whoever he is or she went silent. But then came the notion that the election had been stolen. And it's like, here we go again.
JEFF SHARLET Yeah, he has sort of picked up again, but you don't need Q drops anymore because before whereas Trump was sort of channeling those believers and winking at it. Now Trump himself as the source. You don't need to go to 8chan. You just need to go to Trump's Twitter to get the secret revelations, and what's exciting for the believer is you don't need to now be decoding strangely capitalized tweets. It's all caps and it says we won. The message is clear. The long promised storm, as QAnon puts it, it has in some ways arrived, if not in the form that's expected. I think going forward, Trump in power or out of power. I think he's crossed over. it's almost as if he bought into his own con. I really heard it in that late August interview with Laura Ingraham.
LAURA INGRAHAM Who do you think is pulling Biden's string's? Is it former Obama.
TRUMP People that you've never heard of, people that are in the dark shadows, people that are...
LAURA INGRAHAM What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory. A dark shadow, what it that?
TRUMP People that you haven't heard of. There are people that are on the streets. There are people that are controlling the streets. [END CLIP]
JEFF SHARLET And we all laughed at the campiness of the rhetoric, but we weren't paying attention to what he was saying and how it was different, how it was now flat. It wasn't - maybe I'm talking about a mainstream idea, maybe I'm talking about something crazy. It was full delusion, trump himself wasn't offering it with the same kind of wink as he was before. In fact, he wasn't even making eye contact.
BOB GARFIELD You spoke to a guy at a Trump rally, a guy named Dave. And I'm going to read a passage from your piece. Dave says, quote, The truth is right there in what the media think are his mistakes. He doesn't make mistakes. And you say that the message to Dave is study the layers. He says there are major operations going on, including one the guy tells you, which is to use COVID-19 field hospitals as a cover to rescue children from the deep state's sex trafficking. QAnon and what you call American Gnosticism seem to be just made for one another.
JEFF SHARLET Or rather, I would say that QAnon is made out of American Gnosticism. One of the most significant things is the way they adapt to changing circumstances. One of my favorites was one Q interpreter who said It turns out Trump is not a five-D chess player, he's a six-D chess player. There's always another dimension, there's always a new interpretation. And so the challenge for you is to maintain the faith and if you seem to have come to the hard wall of reality, that's a weakness of your faith. That's where you need to look deeper. And I think where this gains a lot of energy is to take this kind of Gnostic metaphor. And in this merger with evangelicalism, what began as transactional has become transformational, in a sense concretization what evangelicals have long called spiritual war, which essentially refers to an internal struggle. It's not a particularly exotic term unless you start thinking that the the demons, the powers and principalities are real and they have names like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden that you yourself can be called into action to fight spiritual war, maybe on the streets of Washington with your fists.
BOB GARFIELD Well, we're going to get to the transformational part shortly. But it began, you say, is just transactional people willing to put aside their sentiments about a president who is a serial molester or worse in order to get two hundred conservative federal judges on the bench.
JEFF SHARLET In the sort of the secular press, there's an odd naiveté about evangelicalism, an assumption of Christian nationalism's naiveté. This sense that how could they be fooled by this very unpious con man? Well, they understood this as a deal and as a good deal. They said, look, there's things we want to get done. They had theological models. King Cyrus, who was not a believer but used by God or King David, who was a kind of a very sinful guy, but obviously a hero of the Bible. So they have these examples of how God uses unlikely figures. No surprise that Pence is in God's corner. But what a miracle that a man like Donald Trump could be used to bring religious freedom back to the United States, so that's the deal.
BOB GARFIELD We've spent a lot of time on this program examining the overlaps and the distinctions between evangelical Christianity and Christian nationalism. Big overlap, but definitely distinct. Does Gnosticism inhabit both circles of the Venn diagram?
JEFF SHARLET Yeah, narcissism is sort of it's present in the sort of the Christian nationalist I don't even want to say wing. It's become the sort of the main body of white evangelicalism. But that speaks to what I see as a sort of the transformational power of Trumpism. And I think what's been interesting is to see how many evangelicals have made that quick step to Christian nationalism and from there into the sort of authoritarianism of Trump ism. And with it, they have moved from sort of holding up as central a love ethic and now speaking more and more about a war ethic. The point now is to divide, and I think too many secular folks are stuck on one version of Christianity and saying, you're so hypocritical. This isn't what Christianity is about. There's more than one Christianity in America. And what we're seeing is the emergence of a fully militant Christian nationalism.
BOB GARFIELD This Gnostic mindset is actually uniting very disparate followers in belief about something sinister.
JEFF SHARLET Any kind of right wing social movement to be powerful, it has to draw on a lot of different strands of conservatism and reactionary thought that are often at odds with one another. And it has to find that way to make the Venn diagram at which they meet. And I think this kind of Trumpian Gnoticism, this search for secret knowledge, this sort of awareness that people have something about the systems, institutions, aren't working. Even as we recognize that white supremacy at the center of things, we have to remember that all but the Richard Spencer's, they don't want to think of themselves as white supremacists. So they need a metaphor for what's been lost. This can appeal to white evangelicalism. It can appeal to right wing populists. It can appeal to even free marketeers who discover that more important than their commitment to free markets is the power to make the economy over in their own image and for their own wealth can bring all of these people together under the sign of this divine that transcends institutions.
BOB GARFIELD And you discuss the distinction between transaction and transformation, because Gnosticism in this past four years bubbled up to the surface and was mined like oil for its political power. The wells are dug, the rigs pumping away. And you don't think that now this with this power unleashed, that those wells are going to run dry? Do you? .
JEFF SHARLET They're really not, because for so many folks, the red pill moment, as of course, they refer to it, you know, borrowing from another theological text, the science fiction movie, The Matrix, when you take the red pill and you see the true nature of reality past the institutions and so on, that's an epiphany. I think, for those who really been red pilled, who have been born again into this Trumpian Gnosticism, there is no reason to let go. And anything that we would suggest as proof will become to them proof of our deception. And that makes for a dangerous situation that the best case scenario is going to simmer and simmer for a long time if it doesn't boil over.
BOB GARFIELD The new administration will be fighting coronavirus pandemic. But what, if anything, can Biden do to fight viral superstition? How can they stop this?
JEFF SHARLET I don't think they can. I almost think they shouldn't try. This is one of those things, the harder you push against it, the stronger it's going to become. I think we need to just keep on speaking clearly, transparently, plainly, showing the sources of data, laying it out and not trying to argue with a conspiracy. You can't win that argument. There's no point in which the believers are going to say, oh, now I see.
BOB GARFIELD I think we should try and do the real work of democracy and build something beautiful democracy we haven't yet had maybe and let them join if they want. But we don't counter evangelism with our own evangelism.
BOB GARFIELD Jeff, thank you.
JEFF SHARLET Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Jeff Sharlet is a professor of English at Dartmouth and his most recent book is This Brilliant Darkness A Book of Strangers. This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BARACK OBAMA Voters are divided, it has now become a contest where issues, facts, policies, persay don't matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That's former President Barack Obama on 60 Minutes this week, one stop on a long press tour for his new 701 page memoir. Until the latter days of the election, Obama seldom weighed in on the divisiveness of his successor, though some of his former White House staff made new careers trolling Trump.
PETE SOUZA I'm going to throw some shade tonight, if that's okay. But I want to tell you first how I how I got there. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD There is a lot going on in the documentary, the way I see it, about the work of Obama's chief White House photographer and latter day Instagram influencer, Pete Souza. The film, now available on Peacock, chronicles Souza's journey from photojournalist to in-house documenter of history in progress in the Reagan and Obama administrations to, let's say, photo polemicist. There is the showcase of Souza's work that ranges from capable to poignant to poetic. There is the nostalgia for presidents who, whatever their policies, understood the gravity of their office. And there was the sort of history porn, the vicarious thrill of proximity to proximity to power. Pete Souza is here to talk it all through. Pete, welcome to On the Media.
PETE SOUZA Thanks for having me on, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD These pictures kind of get your heart racing. Hey, you are there with Reagan and Gorbachev.
[REAGAN AND GORBACHEV TALKING]
BOB GARFIELD With Obama meeting Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai and hugging the Sandy Hook families. Did you feel yourself getting goosebumps?
PETE SOUZA Oh, for sure. I would say mostly during the Reagan administration, because, you know, I was a young guy who just kind of basically starting out my career and suddenly in the room where it happens.
BOB GARFIELD The whole thing, I gather, is always to be around the president, but scarcely to be noticed. Not like some human security cam, because your most compelling photos capture drama, pathos and sometimes just raw humanity. There's one iconic image of President Obama bending over near the resolute desk for a five year old visitor so that the little boy could just touch his hair. What was going on?
PETE SOUZA The little boy was Jacob Philadelphia, and he had come in with his family. His dad had worked for the national security staff and he was about to leave the White House. And President Obama invited the family and for keepsake photographs standing in front of the desk, the grip and grin, we call it. Jacob's mom said that Jacob had a question and Jacob's question was along the lines of that his friends had told him that his haircut was just like President Obama's. And with that, President Obama bent over Jacob, touched his head. It was one of those unexpected, fleeting moments. My composition is not that great, but fortunately, I caught the precise moment when he did touch President Obama's head. I only have one frame. That's how quick it happened.
BOB GARFIELD This wasn't like Bill Clinton playing sax on Arsenio. It was a casual, impromptu and just very touching instant of surrender of presidential majesty that you were lucky enough to catch.
PETE SOUZA Well, I was lucky enough to catch, but I've prepared myself for moments like that my whole life, and when these fleeting moments happen, you have to anticipate them. And fortunately, I didn't screw it up because I think the picture is important not just to that kid, but to all kids of color that they see a young African-American boy touching ahead of the president, United States that looks like him. And I think that's why that picture has resonated with so many people.
BOB GARFIELD So many such fleeting moments. Near the beginning of the film, we see you during your first White House tour with Ronald Reagan, I think, on his ranch in a silly exchange with the first lady.
REAGAN And you want us on the other side of the tree, or what?
PETE SOUZA Well, for relief purposes to be better, have you doing something. And my suggestion with watering the three, we have to shovels, we have a chainsaw.
NANCY REAGAN No, please. It's too hot.
REAGAN Did you get that, Pete?
PETE SOUZA Yeah. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD When you worked for him, you weren't particularly caught up in politics at the time, but you also weren't a Reaganite and he was a hard president to be neutral about. When, for example, he was ignoring the AIDS epidemic or during the Iran-Contra scandal or when he was demonizing supposedly welfare queens. Were you able to compartmentalize and just put your whatever personal political feelings you had entirely aside as you went about your business?
PETE SOUZA Yeah, I think so. You know, I sort of feel that I was not as educated as I should have been about the AIDS crisis. And I think that's probably true of Reagan as well. I did think during the Iran-Contra scandal that he had done something wrong.
BOB GARFIELD But you kept your trap shut and kept on shooting, right?
PETE SOUZA Yeah. Yeah. During the Iran-Contra scandal, I was always pushing to be in the room when it was going down. And I do think that I made some pictures during that scandal that really elevate the imagery for history. I mean, I've got that picture before he announces to the public that they had found that proceeds from the arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the Contras. And you can see the pained look on everybody's faces. And then months later, when the tower commission made their report to him in person and you see that anguished look on his face as John Tower concludes that Reagan, in fact, did trade arms for hostages. I did as best I could for history under the circumstances.
BOB GARFIELD I'll ask you the same questions about Obama. His eight years in office did leave some things to answer for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, prosecutions of journalists, many extrajudicial drone strikes. Your body of work, not literally, but essentially has a kind of gauzy filter to it, not unlike the Camelot vibe of the Kennedy years. It's definitely not warts and all - right?
PETE SOUZA I disagree 100 percent.
BOB GARFIELD Tell me.
PETE SOUZA Well, I mean, I think if you even go through the many pictures we posted on Flickr, photo stream every month behind the scenes pictures, I think you see him anguishing about these decisions. So much so that many of the photographs that we posted publicly on on Flickr were years later used out of context in attack ads by the GOP because it made him look as if he was not the Camelot that you describe.
BOB GARFIELD But there was a bit of a paradox about him documentation wise. He gave you almost total access not only to his work time, but even a great deal of his family time. But equally, he was very stingy with the press corps, not just for answering questions, but even photo ops. Did that occur to you at the time?
PETE SOUZA The administration made it made a mistake on the very first day where they didn't allow news photographers to be president when Obama walked into the Oval Office for the first time, that set people off right away. That's not my role. But I should have said something to the press office. And I can only think of like a couple or two or three other times during the eight years where they made mistakes like that. I think the complaint more was that I happened to be the photographer and President Obama happened to be the president. And when social media exploded and the administration took advantage of social media by using my pictures. And I think that pissed off a lot of the press corps.
BOB GARFIELD I want to ask you about the flip side and not to trigger you were anything but. One thing you can say about Donald Trump is that he has constantly been available to the press. He lies to us, and he calls us traitors, but, you know, he's available. But he has no Pete Souza fly on the wall of his presidency. There seem to be hardly any candid presidential photos to document his term in office.
PETE SOUZA I mean, he does have a chief official White House photographer and they have three or four other White House photographers that are documenting his presidency. I have no inside knowledge of what their access is like. We don't see hardly any behind the scenes moments or human moments of him interacting with other people. But you're right, although he has in the last two weeks made himself available for questions, ironically. But when it fits his advantage, you do see him spouting off quite a bit. And I think you can make the argument that that diminishes the presidency to be out there every day spouting off. I can remember during the Reagan administration where there'd be three or four or five days would go by and the press wouldn't see Reagan. And I remember I ran into Helen Thomas running between my office in the Oval Office outside the press office one time.
BOB GARFIELD This is the UPI correspondent who was in the White House briefing room for decades.
PETE SOUZA For decades. I mean, she was that considered the dean of the White House press corps. She cornered me and she wanted to know if I had seen President Reagan and had he had a heart attack or something, why haven't we seen him? [LAUGHS] It'll be interesting in years to come how people reflect on Trump's press conferences and the lies that were told during them. But I think it keeps the press happy that he, up until two weeks ago, made himself available quite a bit.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Now, this gets to the reason I said triggered in my previous question. It gets to the whole raison d'être behind the way I see it.
ALICE GABRINER When I first met Pete, his politics were not at all evident. I always wondered, what did Pete Souza get from President Obama? Like, how did he change? The feeling that he could no longer be this fly on the wall? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That's photo editor Alice Gabriner, who for two years was your colleague in the Obama White House in this film, talking about a new Pete Souza, a transformation in you that did not go unnoticed elsewhere.
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT Pete Souza is a very unlikely Instagram superstar. Attracting millions of followers after he started applying to President Trump's tweets, but posting Obama White House photos. Along with snarky captions, it's earned him the moniker the "king of shade."
PETE SOUZA Yeah, there had been things stirring up inside of me between Election Day in 2016 and the inauguration. I felt that Trump was a vigarista. That's a Portuguese word, that loosely translated means, con man. You know, my initial posts on Instagram showing pictures from the Obama administration contrasted with somewhat subtle and humorous captions, caught a lot of attention. And then as the months and years went by, my commentary became even more pointed as I could see the disrespect and the lack of dignity that he was showing to the office. And I was really offended by it.
BOB GARFIELD And three million followers nearly offended right along with you. From fly on the wall to nine hundred pound social media gorilla.
PETE SOUZA Yeah, I mean, it's funny, I was talking to David Axelrod, former political strategist for Obama, and he said that I was the least likely person working at the Obama administration, that he would have expected to have gained the kind of attention that that I did. You know, because I was like this behind the scenes guy never gave interviews. I didn't really want to be known, and then suddenly, you know, now.
BOB GARFIELD Those early scenes with the Reagans in the film seem to serve a purpose. They demonstrate that your disgust with Trump isn't about policy or politics necessarily, but character or the lack thereof.
PETE SOUZA It's not about partisanship. I wouldn't have been doing this if someone like John McCain or Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush or John Kasick or a whole host of other Republicans had become president. I may have disagreed with them fundamentally on some of their policies, but I don't think I would have been as outraged about them as human beings as I am about Donald Trump.
BOB GARFIELD You were offended by Trump as as a human being, but also more specifically as a photographer. In the film, you showed the picture of Barack Obama and his national security team huddled in The Situation Room as they waited for the bin Laden. Operation to unfold, the tension in your images is palpable. You compare that to the Trump Situation Room in similar circumstances, the fatal drone strike on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
NEWS REPORT Breaking news that the world's most wanted man has been killed in a mission led by United States special forces. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT President Trump laying out what he watched as he started to view this operation in The Situation Room. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD You look at the photo that the White House released, which seems to mimic your iconic Obama photo, but something looks fishy to you.
PETE SOUZA Well, I mean, to me, it looks posed. Looks like they're looking at the camera. And, you know, if you look at the timeline, you can tell in the embedded information that the picture was taken like 40 minutes before the Special Forces guys even landed to conduct the raid. Thus, I question the caption as well.
BOB GARFIELD Can we go back for a second to a moment with much lower stakes? I want to ask you about the photo that day on the Reagan ranch where the president and the first lady were clowning around about the president trying to chainsaw down a tree. It's cute, but the whole process was also staging a photo.
PETE SOUZA Mhm
BOB GARFIELD I cringed when I saw it. Should I have?
PETE SOUZA Yeah, I cringed, too. I cringed, too.
BOB GARFIELD Was that some previous version of Pete Souza?
PETE SOUZA No, I don't think that was a previous version of Pete Souza. I think that it was sort of just a different outlook for the Reagan administration than it was for the Obama administration.
BOB GARFIELD So what is the White House photographer's job to begin with? It isn't journalism. You work for your photo subjects and in your work is released by the White House as it sees fit to advance its narrative. But you also don't see yourself as a PR guy, and you're also not quite a historian, again, because the photo history is curated by the government. What breed of animal is the chief official White House photographer?
PETE SOUZA The job is to document, visually document the presidency for history. And we'll call whoever does become the new White House photographer. And I will offer some advice and counsel to this person about making sure that he or she needs to have a conversation with Biden directly about making sure that he or she has access to every meeting, whether it's a national security meeting or not, that they have the right security clearance to be able to be in those meetings when they're talking about real stuff and to not lose sight of all your pictures end up at the National Archives and your job is for history. You know, the administration is going to want to use this person's pictures for social media and whatnot. That's not the most important part of the job. Most important part of the job is to make sure you're documenting what's taking place for history.
BOB GARFIELD Pete, I want to thank you very much.
PETE SOUZA Oh, thanks, Bob. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD Pete Souza is now a freelance photographer, former chief official, White House photographer, author of Shade: Tale of Two Presidents, and star of the documentary The Way I See It.
And that's it for this week's show on the media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Eloise Blondiau with help from Ava Sasani. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, our Engineers this Week, were Adrienne Lily and Josh Hahn.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.
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