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The Jennings Interview

Inside Track


Published October 15, 2003 at 4:00 p.m.

One of the monsters of the TV news midway was in beautiful downtown Burlington Monday morning to interview our favorite presidential hopeful Howard Dean at the Firehouse Gallery.

Peter Jennings told Seven Days that ABCNEWS is preparing "a series of long, fairly in-depth personal interviews with the Democratic candidates." They'll air coast-to-coast in December. Ho-Ho's is the first one they've shot.

Over the years, yours truly has interviewed Howard Dean a zillion times. So, no offense, Ho-Ho, but, Peter Jennings, the anchor and senior editor of ABCNEWS' "World News Tonight" appeared a much better catch for Seven Days.

Over coffee at the Red Onion across from City Hall, Mr. Jennings graciously sat down for a little one-on-one. Instead of asking questions, Jennings answered them. Awfully nice of him, wouldn't you say?

Seven Days: You're from that world of national media, Peter, where Howard Dean wasn't even a blip on the radar screen a few months ago. When he first showed up, everybody said, "You've got to be kidding. He's from Vermont. No chance. Howard who?"

You weren't alone on that. All the national experts were saying that back in May. What do you think happened?

    Jennings: Well, first of all, I can't imagine myself thinking anyone from Vermont was a nobody, having come to this neck of the woods for a long period of time. But what I, like most people in the national scene did not know, was a great deal about the governor's family background, business background, medical background. I didn't know the story of his brothers, particularly his brother who was lost in Southeast Asia. So to come and sit down and talk to him about much of that is to get a bigger sense of what it is that forms this man.

    But all you have to do is look at the various Democratic debates at the moment. You begin to see a man of enormous confidence, enormous self-confidence, considerable presence, a threat to his competitors in the Democratic competition, and a man who has clearly thought a lot about the national issues and [someone] who had very clear answers at the moment for those things in which he believes.

SD: You do the news every night. America watches you do it. In America right now there's not a great sense of security or hope for the future. A lot of people are worried about tomorrow on many fronts: Iraq, politics, the war, the White House, the economy. Is this time different than other times? Is this a flashback to the Vietnam era?

    Jennings: No, I don't think it's Vietnam at all. For one thing, we don't have the draft, and so the tension that we felt at the time of Vietnam is mostly absent.

    I tell you how I notice it mostly these days as I travel back and forth across the country. It's the difference between now and the spirit that we had in the country right after 9/11. Having come here first more than 40 years ago, I cannot remember any time in which the country seemed so united and so one, and so caring about one another. I think that's broken down.

    It's broken down over the economy. It's broken down over people's differences of opinion over the Bush administration. It's broken down about Iraq. It's broken down, I think to some extent, about the media. And I now find a lot of angry people in the country on both the left and the right. That's a great tragedy, but I think it's inevitable when the economy is bad and the war's unresolved. So I'm not surprised. But I don't compare it to the Vietnam era.

SD: Has the press, in your opinion, our American press, done its job in being the watchdog of this administration?

    Jennings: Let's put it this way. This administration, even more than the previous one, plays things very close to its vest. Reporters joke sometimes that they like Democrats better than Republicans because they leak. And this is a very tight and tightly controlled White House. And the power of the bully pulpit that the president has, particularly in the wake of 9/11 and his leadership there, which I think was unchallenged by most of us in the country at the time, has given him an edge.

    I think the press goes though cycles all the time, and it's hard to generalize about the press in the first place, but I think the press is being tougher on the administration now than it was, say, six or seven months ago.

    The Democratic candidates for president have more confidence now than they had six or seven months ago to challenge the president. The president's own standing in the polls is different. The press is one institution in the country which is not at all insensitive to the great surround. So it isn't as if we operate in a vacuum.

SD: We got hit with "weapons of mass destruction" every day and it seemed unquestioned by the networks.

    Jennings: Quite frankly, I've seen some studies in which we at ABC were deemed to be negative on our war coverage. I think if you look at that a little more closely, one of the reasons we were judged that way was, we were asking some of the questions before the war that people are just beginning to ask now.

    So I can't generalize for the media, but I think that we've all, some of us who know the area pretty well -- I spend a lot of time in the Middle East -- were reasonably skeptical about whether or not Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction.

    But when you have the intelligence agencies in the country as confident as they were, the president as confident as he was, and the entire administration as confident as it was, that's a pretty powerful message from Washington. To disagree about that on other than your own instinct is something of a challenge.

P.S. A challenge, indeed, Pedro, but we all know governments lie. Sometimes a reporter's better off going on instinct. The American people swallowed Dubya's lies about Iraq because the mainstream American press swallowed them first. Remember that for next time, will ya?

Dean on Limbaugh

-- As luck would have it, Dr. Dean had followed up his Jennings interview with an hour of phone time in the gallery's basement. We were guarding the door as he left.

Last winter, Ho-Ho was the first candidate to publicly go after the Humpty Dumpty of right-wing talk radio, Rush Limbaugh.

Recently, he was the first to call for ESPN to fire the pompous blowhard from its NFL preview show for his racist remarks about a certain black quarterback.

As everyone knows, Limbaugh, under investigation for buying dope in Florida, told his audience last week he's hooked on Oxycontin, a.k.a. "hillbilly heroin." He then checked into a drug rehab facility to try to kick the habit.

You've got to feel bad for the Dope Head's legion of "Ditto Heads" who've religiously swallowed Rush's ravings as gospel all these years. Hard to wake up and find your political Jesus is a junkie, eh?

Dean could have really stuck it to Rush for the recent great fall, but he didn't.

"I consider drug addiction to be a medical problem," said Dr. Dean. "So I'm not one of those who is jumping up and down with glee over this guy's illness. But Rush Limbaugh has been a very unhelpful, hate-filled voice on the airwaves for a long time. I hope he does well with his addiction, but I'm not in any big hurry to have him return to the airwaves."

P.S. Does anyone seriously think that all the Bush horses and all the Bush men will ever be able to put this Humpty Dumpty back on the radio again?

Showtime for the Circ

-- As Seven Days hits the street Wednesday, attorneys representing four environmental groups are filing a 108-page complaint in U.S. District Court. It's designed to once and for all halt Gov. Jim Douglas' passionate quest to build the controversial Chitten-den County Circumferential Highway.

Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, VPIRG and the Conservation Law Foundation argue that the project violates federal law in more ways than we can list here.

"There are federal environmental laws that need to be satisfied," said Attorney Brian Dunkiel. "As of right now the legal requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Department of Transportation Act have not been satisfied, so, yes, those laws have been broken."

The Circ will increase sprawl, as well as air and water pollution, say the enviros. And the government's own studies show it's not going to help with traffic or bring new jobs to the region.

The complaint also notes the remarkable political deal cut between Candidate Douglas and Vice President Dick Cheney at the Vermont GOP fundraiser last fall. All of a sudden President George W. Bush signed an "executive order" speeding up highway construction and overriding environmental review.

Then, just days before the November election, the Circ appeared on a list of seven highway projects put on the "fast track" by the Bush administration. Jimmy D held a press conference by the side of the road in Williston to tout his victory.

The courtroom battle is expected to last until next summer. The state has agreed to hold off any construction that causes "irreparable harm" until then. This one, folks, is for the whole shooting match.

Rebel in the Ranks!

-- One year ago it was hard to find a stronger supporter of gubernatorial candidate Jim Douglas. Today, it's hard to find a stronger critic of the Douglas administration.

Veteran Republican state Sen. Vince Illuzzi tells Seven Days he's "disappointed" in the performance of Gov. Douglas on a host of issues, from Jimmy D's handling of a possible purchase of the hydro dams on the Connect-icut River to promoting strip development in New Haven and backing away from campaign promises concerning traditional uses within the Champion Lands.

Last winter Illuzzi jumped on the idea of the state purchasing the dams on the Connecticut.

Douglas' position on the dams last winter, said Illuzzi, was "Let's study it." Appointing a study committee, said the King of the Kingdom, is a sure-fire tactic to kill a good idea.

Illuzzi says the "Let's have a study" route is the same tactic Vermont's largest private utility used in the 1960s to scuttle a proposal by Democratic Gov. Phil Hoff to bring in low-cost hydro power from Labrador. Gov. Douglas stacked the current study committee, charged Illuzzi, with private utility loyalists like Luther Hackett and Richard Mallary.

Hackett and Mallary, noted Vince, were Republican leaders in the legislature when Hoff's deal went south. They've subsequently played prominent roles in the Vermont power industry. Hackett's the vice-chair of the CVPS board of directors.

"Manufacturers like Ethan Allen have left, or have threatened to leave Vermont," said Illuzzi, "because of high power rates. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. If we buy the hydros, and that's a big if, they won't be the end-all of high electric rates. But manufacturers need to see a light at the end of the tunnel."

According to Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs, "Sen. Illuzzi is entitled to his opinion." Gibbs said Jimmy D doesn't want to "rush into a half-billion-dollar purchase."

As for the unexpected incoming fire from a former Republican ally, Gibbs said, "We're not sure why he's mad at us. We certainly wish he wasn't. We like him. We're looking into it."

Don't you just hate it when Republicans fight?

Mary Fanny Goes Offshore

-- The big sucking sound of American jobs moving offshore can be heard just about everywhere these days. From Barre stonecutter jobs to Levi's textile jobs to IBM software design jobs, and now even jobs at our local hospital -- Fletcher Allen Health Care, a.k.a. the Mary Fanny.

Yes, the same hospital that was spanked last week by federal and state law enforcement with a $1 million fine for bad conduct by its former top brass.

Seven Days has learned some of the folks who transcribe doctors' notes don't live anywhere near Vermont. Last year, the Mary Fanny contracted with two firms in India to handle its overflow transcription work.

According to Maria McClellan, director of public affairs, "Approximately 15 percent of our transcription volume is being done overseas."

The Mary Fanny, said Maria, has 62 transcriptionists on the hourly payroll and 35 home-based transcriptionists who are paid based on production. She said it's been difficult for the hospital to recruit locally. The work being done in India, said McClellan, amounts to that of 11.5 full-time employees. And guess what? The folks in New Delhi do it better -- 50 percent fewer errors!

But the Mary Fanny's policy of moving local jobs offshore has drawn the attention of Burling-ton City Councilor Phil Fiermonte (P-3). Prince Philip called it "unconscionable."

"It's not appropriate for the largest employer in Burlington to be sending jobs to India at very low wages," said Fiermonte.


-- Last week we blew the URL for the Verde Group, the talented video production outfit that recently relocated to the Burlington area. Sorry. It's a pretty snappy Web site, too: -- not com.

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