BRIAN LAMB, HOST, C-SPAN, Q&A: Carol and Tom Wheeler, you’re long time residents of Washington D.C., and several months ago you decided to get involved in the Obama campaign. We want you to tell that story, and we’ll start with Carol. Why did you get involved and where did you get involved?
CAROL WHEELER, OBAMA CAMPAIGN WOKER: Well, the why, it can either be a short answer or a very, very long answer. We were inspired by Barack Obama, as so many folks were. And I hope later in this session we’ll have a chance to get into all of those reasons. But we were so excited about this person and what we saw as his sort of unique talents for this moment in history, and were so committed to the notion of him being in the White House, we were trying to figure out what we could do besides raise money, which is what you spend a lot of time doing when you’re our age. Campaigns really do tend to be for a few very old folks at senior levels and a lot of young people, like all of you who are here sitting here. And I think it was Tom who actually, we need to give credit for saying, ”Why don’t we go to Iowa?” I’m from Ames, Iowa, and I don’t know I’m going to ask all of you, how many people here can imagine themselves back in their hometown say, 10 years from now? Want to raise your hand? Yes, good, good. How many think, ”Oh my goodness, spare me?” Raise your hand. Yes, OK, I’m with the latter group. And it started at a very young age.
I mean, I swear, I can remember being in second grade and sort of being driven by my wonderful mother somewhere in the car and kind of looking around and thinking, ”Oh, yikes.” When and how can I get out of this place? And so even though I had an absolutely in so many ways wonderful childhood, I wasted a lot of it just by constantly looking across the border and sort of wishing I were somewhere else. Well, for those of you who were in the second group of hands raisers, let me tell you, 40 years later, I changed my mind and I’d had occasion to go back to my hometown Ames, sadly, to bury my mother and see friends every once in a while, and I began to get a sense that this wasn’t such a bad place after all. So, I must say, for me, what was especially wonderful about Tom’s suggestion that we go and work with this man to whom we were so committed was that, lo and behold, the first contest was going to be in good old Iowa, and I could go home again. And jumping to the punch line, I’ll say you can go home again. It’s a little different, but I am just a mush of nostalgia now about Iowa. I won’t bore you on that score, but we just had a wonderful time reconnecting, in my case, with a few people who I had known when who are still there, but making all kinds of wonderful new friends.
LAMB: Want to go to Tom in just a moment, but tell our audience that this is our regular Q&A program, and we have a fabulous audience here at the University of the District of Columbia, but they’re from all over the United States, here for the week as they lead up to the inauguration of Barack Obama. And they’re from 47 states, some 650 students. Another 60, part of the faculty of the Washington Center, which has brought students to this town for over 30 years. And we’ll come back and introduce some of you to our audience in a moment, but I want to go to Tom Wheeler.
Go to the specifics, when did you decide you wanted to get involved in the Obama campaign, and then how did you hook up with the campaign and go to Ames Iowa, and what did you do there?
TOM WHEELER, OBAMA CAMPAIGN WOKER: Well, Carol was the first wake up to Barack Obama, because she read ”Dreams Of My Father” and she kept talking about this incredible guy. And then I was at the Democratic Convention in Boston, four years ago, and saw the speech and came back and said, I guess I better read the book. And realized how right she was, and realized here was a guy who was essentially half my age, putting on paper insights that I wish I had you know at that 2X his age. And it happened over time that a good friend of ours became his chief of staff, Pete Rouse. I picked up the phone one day and there was a message from Barack Obama that he wanted to talk about some issues related to technology. Things began to develop. We got really interested in the potential of this person and the opportunity that he represented for a transformational moment in American history, and we decided that it was, that Iowa was the place.
I mean, it was really simple. I mean, it’s very hard today to remember back to pre-Iowa, when Barack Obama was an idea that people said, ”Isn’t that interesting, and wouldn’t that be good, but this guy can never make it.” And it was a crusade in Iowa, and that was an exciting thing to be a part of. And I guess the other part about it is Carol and I are both in our 60s, and in the 1960s we got excited about politics, we cut our teeth in politics. And it was really, it was kind of it all coming together so that if you learned in your 60s, in the 1960s and in then in your 60s in years, you can actually put to practice some of the same things you were doing back then, and it was great fun.
LAMB: You should know that these two came years and years ago to this town, Carol Wheeler, 1967, Tom Wheeler, 1969. This is what, dare I use the term, lobbyists look like. They made their living initially as lobbyists. But, the thing that you might find interesting, Tom Wheeler used to run the National Cable Television Association, that’s how I first met him, and Carol Randall, now Wheeler, used to be at the National Association of Broadcasters. Before we go any farther, how did you two meet, and then why did you get married, other than the obvious that you fell in love?
TOM WHEELER: Well, why we got married was really simple. I mean, my goodness
TOM WHEELER: Exactly. I could, I could be lucky enough to marry Carol? We were, we were opposing each other on two different sides of almost every issue in the Congress. And that’s how we got to know each other.
LAMB: What year did you get married?
TOM WHEELER: 1983. Whew, got that one right.
LAMB: Let me go back to the question about Iowa, be specific, where did you go, what did you do?
CAROL WHEELER: Well, we went to Ames Iowa, as previously noted, the place I grew up in, which is about 30 miles north of Des Moines. It’s a university town, Iowa State University is there. And what we did was whatever there was to do at the moment. I mean, I will say we felt a little guilty after we were there about a week, because we did what a lot of the young people who had come into Iowa, motivated by the same things that we were, but underline the word ”young” in the description of those folks. And when we initially went to Ames , we were committed you know we were going to knock on doors, we were going to make the phone calls, we were going to you know put together the packets. Whatever it took and we were going to just be one of the gang. Well, we discovered that we were a little old for that.
We, maybe not eight hours of sleep a night, but five or six was necessary. And the young people in the Ames office, and it was true in every headquarters in Iowa, continue to throughout the campaign, I mean, we’re living on four hours of sleep and a lot of caffeine and Cheetos. And it was, we made the decision fairly early on that we were going to have to respect our age, and if we were going to be any use to them at all, then we were at least going to have to call it quits shortly after supper time. But, we did the sort of basics of campaigning. As I said, the knocking on doors, the making telephone calls. In our cases, we also might have had some impact on the way the Ames, Iowa Obama office looked when you walked in the front door. Not a lot, my first impression was a sort college dorm room, at the very end of the semester. And we went and bought some garbage bags and started throwing some of the old Coke cans and stuff in, so the environment
TOM WHEELER: They started calling Carol, ”Mom.”
yes, might have been a bit different.
LAMB: Go to a day, a normal day, now what were you doing prior to going to Iowa? And what, did you work in a precinct? Did you work in a whole city?
TOM WHEELER: So, Ames was, there were nine regions in Iowa. Iowa has 99 counties and there were nine regions, and we were at the headquarters of region 2, which happened to be in Ames. So, every morning at 9:15, or actually Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9:15 there would be a conference call of all the regional headquarters around the state, and you would kind of get everything organized as to the candidate’s going to be here, this is scheduled and we’re having this problem, we want to work on this message, et cetera. Then you would spend the rest of the morning doing work that related to your precinct, working with various folks, worrying about venues, all the kinds of details that have to put things together. And then about 3 o’clock there would be a message call, and you get on the phone with, again, the other offices and you’d work on, here are the messages that had been developed by the other campaigns during the day, here are our responses to those messages, here’s what you need to know about a new initiative that Senator Obama is proposing, or whatever.
And then, at 4 o’clock we’d get on the phones. And from 4:00 to 9:00, you would dial, and you would talk to various people about their thoughts about the caucus. Then, on weekends you’d go out and knock on doors all day long. But, one of the things that I hope you’ll come back to here is we went to Iowa not understanding the caucus process, and hearing a lot of people grunt and groan about whether this is a great way to pick candidates. We came away from Iowa, and Carol can speak for herself, but I know I came away from Iowa a strong believer in the caucus process and the seriousness of the people of Iowa. I mean, we also did Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Virginia in various, not full-time campaigning like we did in Iowa. But, the difference between the kind of people and the involvement of the citizens in the state of Iowa, compared to the other states, is substantial. And they really take it seriously.
LAMB: Let me ask this group here, how many of you, among the Washington Center visitors to Washington have been involved in this past campaign in any way? So, we have a substantial number of people here that already have been through this from your position, meaning from below the age of 21, and this is above the age of 60, all of us on this stage. Go back to Iowa, what happened in the precinct that you worked in on election night, and what was election night, and by the way, how many weeks did you spend in Ames ?
CAROL WHEELER: We were there for 6 weeks.
LAMB: Six weeks.
CAROL WHEELER: We were there for 6 weeks.
LAMB: And you went, what, right after Thanksgiving?
CAROL WHEELER: Yes.
TOM WHEELER: We arrived on Thanksgiving Day.
LAMB: And what happened in your precinct?
CAROL WHEELER: On caucus night?
UNIDENTIFIED PARICIPANT: Election night?
CAROL WHEELER: On the night of the caucus. It was telling. We have a friend who is a reporter for CBS News and covered the election, and he said the moment he knew that Barack Obama was I mean he, like virtually everybody we knew, was skeptical in the beginning but the moment that he knew that this was a serious candidacy and he might actually just be able to pull it off, was when they started counting the numbers of people showing up at caucus locations. What happened at our location, Meeker Elementary School, in Ames Iowa, was just a flood of people that was way behind what the organizers, who were anticipating an increased turnout and had planned for that, but the number of people who actually showed up was way beyond that. And so it took a lot of time just to figure out where they you know the logistics of where they were going to put them all. I mean, there were initially speeches planned, everybody was going to get you know a representative of each candidate got a minute to sort of tell the group why they were supporting their candidate. In fact, they had to shuffle all of that around in about just reorganizing on the basis of a flood of people.
LAMB: So, did he win your precinct?
TOM WHEELER: You bet.
LAMB: And how big?
TOM WHEELER: Just by the same percentages that he won the state, the 38%. But, the interesting thing is the way it works is everybody, there were 480-some people who showed up for the caucus in this precinct, in an auditorium of 189 seats. So, the way it works is you physically get up and they say, ”All the Barack Obama people go down that hall. All the John Edwards people go down that hall.” And so then people go through and they go one, two, three and they find the number of people who are standing there. It has to add up to the number of people that checked in, so we had to count twice because some people had moved back and forth. But, the amazing thing is that these people are standing up in front of their friends, their spouses, their significant clients, publicly and saying, ”I’m going to that corner. I know you’re over there, but I’m going to that corner.” And it’s an amazing statement of commitment to the democratic process, and I think it’s one of the things that drives the incredible awareness that caucus participants have about the issues. Because the reason why you’re in that corner or that corner, they can tell you a half a dozen reasons.
LAMB: In about 5 minutes or so, I want to ask you folks to join us and tell us your observations, and then ask a question of our two guests. And it’ll be a couple minutes, because I want to get from our two guests, kind of their personal story about what they’ve done in Washington.
First of all, Carol Wheeler, I know among other things for 25 years you’ve been involved in something called, ”Project Children.” But before that, among other things she worked for Donna Shalala at the Housing and Urban Development Department, and you were in the Carter White House for a while, I believe. What drew you to Washington? I mean, talk to this crowd here who is thinking right now whether or not they want to come back to this town after they graduate from college. What got you here in the first place?
CAROL WHEELER: Well, what got me here in the first place was an interest in politics sort of played at the National level. You all are in school, in my case it was one teacher, who also happened to be the football coach, who taught a government and history class, and one morning a week we read ”Time Magazine.” And this teacher also, in very Republican Ames Iowa, happened to be Democrat, and so would at least get conversations going and ask a lot of questions, and at least pose arguments that I hadn’t heard before until I ended up in Mr. Hauscher’s history class. That one thing hooked me. I subscribed to ”Time Magazine” and read it religiously every week, and started dreaming about, do you suppose it’s possible that I could ever come here. And then came, as you said
LAMB: What was your college?
CAROL WHEELER: I went to Iowa State University in my home town for the first couple of years and then graduated from the University of Iowa.
LAMB: One of the interesting things we’ve learned so far is ”Time Magazine” in Carol’s case, also a book called ”Dreams of My Father,” which ignited your interest, ignited your interest and then got Tom Wheeler involved in it. So, you came here, as you said earlier, in 1967, and you worked in government, in and out of government, and then you got to something called, ”Project Children.” Give us a couple minutes of what that is?
CAROL WHEELER: OK. Well, I will say I’ll answer your question, but can I also just start with something else. When I first came to Washington, I had visions of working in the nation’s capital, underlining the nation part. I ended up getting a job with Washington Urban League, which is, I’m sure, an organize most of you are familiar with. And it was an organization that was very much working at the local level. And though I came here because of what was going on on Capitol Hill, and I hoped that I would be able to get involved somehow some day. What really led to my falling in love with this city was the work that I did with the Washington Urban League. And in fact, in my case, it almost feels like those years that I, I mean, I worked on Capitol Hill a bit, you’re right, I worked in the White House and HUD, were almost a diversion. And what has been so wonderful about the last couple of decades that I’ve been in Washington, D.C. has been the opportunity to get back involved in things in this city. And that’s just to say, why would you want to come here? In addition to everything that happens here that then makes its way to the nightly news, this is also a wonderful city to live in, just a vibrant city with an incredibly diverse population, and lots of energy. I mean, I can’t imagine a more interesting place to live on the planet. We love this place. But Brian had mentioned something called Project Children.
This you know once again, things just happened because of friends or you you know have a dinner conversation one night and it piques your interest, we still can’t quite figure out how we got so involved in Ireland. But one summer, shortly after we were married, we took a couple kids, one Protestant and one Catholic, who had come to the States with a program called Project Children, which was started by a New York city bomb squad detective, ironically, who had family in Northern Ireland. And when he would go to visit them during the summer time, was haunted by what was happening to the kids. This was in the bad, bad days of the troubles, which I think most of you are probably at least a bit aware of, that there is centuries old conflict between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. And this policeman, Mr. Mulkahey was trying to figure out what he could personally do, and landed on the notion of you know at least let’s get the kids out of Northern Ireland in the summer time, bring them to the states for at least one good old carefree summer. And also, by the way, we’re going to bring Protestant kids and Catholic kids, and give them an opportunity to get to know each other a bit in safe territory.
So, we took a couple of kids one summer, got hooked, and yes, almost 20 years later, it has been a huge part of our lives. We ended up starting a chapter in Washington, and have brought over thousands of young people. Ended up sort of morphing the Project Children program into something called, the ”Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership,” which aims at students your age sort of looking for the best and brightest from Ireland, both North and South, bringing them to Washington for internships. Lots of leadership training, public service opportunities back home, and are claiming, and with some good reason, I could give you lots of examples why we can make this claim, to be nurturing the next generation of leaders in Ireland.
LAMB: Now jumping to a greatly different subject, when you got involved in the Obama campaign, did you have any idea or wish that you would want to work in that administration if he won?
CAROL WHEELER: you know really, honestly, no. This is back to the how old we are part. No, we were always very clear that we were optimistic from the beginning that this could happen, and we wanted to be a part of making it happen. But, I mean, we’re at a point in our lives where we’re kind of trying to pull back. So, no, we didn’t go into it with a potential job in mind.
LAMB: Carol’s husband, Tom, is an unusual, should I use the term, ”animal,” in this town because he came to town and has been a lobbyist all his life, instead of working in government. When you first came to, you came out of Ohio State.
TOM WHEELER: Yes, sir.
LAMB: What year did you graduate?
TOM WHEELER: 1968.
LAMB: And when you came to this town, you worked for?
TOM WHEELER: The Grocery Manufacturers of America.
LAMB: Why did you work for the Grocery Manufacturers of America?
TOM WHEELER: Because there was a great guy there by the name of George Cook, who gave a chance to this young kid from Columbus, Ohio, and
LAMB: How’d you know him?
so I moved here. I had met him I had worked in the Senate campaign in Ohio in 1968 in Jack Gilligan’s campaign, which was an anti-war campaign in the heart of when that was the big debate at that point in time, and Jack ended up losing, but people I knew from that campaign knew George Cook. Put me together with him, and this guy took a gamble on me.
LAMB: What we’ve learned here, of course, is that you got involved because of the anti-war, the Vietnam War, Jack Gilligan used to be the mayor of Cincinnati at one time?
TOM WHEELER: He was on the Cincinnati city council and then came here to Congress, and he was a member of Congress for several terms.
LAMB: So, if you think about your own life now and why you’ve gotten involved in these campaigns, and then what you want to do with it later. Here are a couple of examples of what happens. Grocery Manufacturers Association for how many years?
TOM WHEELER: Seven.
LAMB: Seven years. And then you went where?
TOM WHEELER: And then I went to the National Cable Television Association. I got a call one day, and it said you’ve got to go see this guy, Bob Schmidt, who was looking for a number 2. And this was when cable television was nothing near what it was today. It was community antenna television. And I was lucky enough to hook up with them, become the number 2 there just at the time that cable television started doing this. And he left after a couple of years, and I became president there and it was an incredible learning experience at a very young age, and a very dynamic growing industry that was spawning things such as C-SPAN.
LAMB: And what we’re learning though is friendship mattered in this. Somebody passed your name on, connections, networking and all that you all have probably gotten involved in. Full disclosure, Tom Wheeler and I have known each other forever. When this network started, he was a big booster and a very important part of helping this whole thing happen, and that’s one of the reasons I thought it might be interesting for you all to meet both of these folks. And when I first met you, I don’t think you were married to Carol.
TOM WHEELER: No.
LAMB: All right. NCTA, National Cable Television Association, and then what?
TOM WHEELER: Well, then I went out to make my fortune, because I had learned technology, or the rudiments of technology, and what technology can do to change the way people live their life and create business opportunities, so I was going to go out and pursue that. And so I went out and I became the president of a company that delivered high speed data, the first company delivering high speed data to home computers. The trouble was it was 1985 and there weren’t very many home computers, and so the company didn’t make it. And so as a result of that, I spun, I started several other companies and along the way also invested in a group that won a license for this new-fangled thing called, ”cellular telephones.” And one thing leads to another, and the folks who are building the cellular industry, who are building the cellular industry, who are very similar to the folks who were building the cable television industry, came to me and said, ”Would you run our national organization?” And so I went back into the association business, and I stayed with the cellular industry association for a dozen years, same kind of a growth curve. And then left that in 2004 and I’m now a partner in a venture capital firm here in Washington.
LAMB: Again, bring it up to today, Tom Wheeler is a member of the transition team of Barack Obama. Now, before I ask you what you’re doing there, do you want to go to work in this administration in any way?
TOM WHEELER: No.
TOM WHEELER: No, I mean, it’s, to Carol’s point, everybody kept saying when we’re going to Iowa, ”Oh you know you know what desk have you got picked out?” I mean, that’s not, that wasn’t the goal for why we got involved.
LAMB: So, what are you doing in the transition, I know you’re doing science, technology and the arts, so what have you been doing? I mean, that’s a big plate.
TOM WHEELER: So, several months before the election, there was a quiet transition team that was put together. And the transition team is really in two parts. There’s the policy group that worries about structuring policy, and then there’s the how’s the government going to run group. And there were six of us who formed the core of this, and we essentially took all of the agencies of government and divided them up among us. And I ended up with the agencies that were involved in science, technology, space and the arts. And our job was to learn about those agencies from the public record before the election, so that the day after the election we would be able to organize teams to go into the agency and know the right questions to ask to dive down to identify what are their structural issues, but also what are the issues that are going to confront the President in the new administration first 90 days. And so our job was to, how do you identify what those issues are that are going to hit in the first 90 days. How do you come to grips with what the options are for dealing with those issues and in essence have staffed up those issues, because on the 21st of January, when everybody walks into their office for the first time, the world isn’t going to stop and say, ”Well, now let’s wait for you to get up to speed.” Boom, you have to be ready for it.
LAMB: We won’t put Mr. Wheeler on the spot right now, but those of you who have the ”Washington Post,” there’s a little story on the business page today suggesting that Barack Obama’s about ready to name the new Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and I’m sure Tom would love to address that, but we’re going to go to you all as students right now, and to get your ideas. And let’s start over here. Give us name and your school, and the rest is yours.
STUDENT: Oh, hi. My name is I’m sorry Oh hi, my name is Ahmad Moustafa from Johnson County Community College. And my question is, in our quest for political excellence, what issues or institutional aspects call for the greatest creative breakthroughs?
TOM WHEELER: What institutions call for the greatest creative breakthroughs?
LAMB: Before you answer that, why are you asking that question? What’s your reason?
STUDENT: Well, I just wanted to know you know if you look at American government and the issues that we have at hand, sometimes we have implement innovative ideas and bring innovative thinking, just like Senator Barack Obama has brought to the spectrum. I was thinking, from your point of view, is there anything, any issue that you think that innovative thinking would foster the significance and success of that issue.
LAMB: Let me ask Carol, just to get a quick, what one issue do you think innovation is required in this new administration, from your perspective?
CAROL WHEELER: Well, from my perspective, because it’s what I’m most involved in now, is education. But, honestly, I think there are so many good ideas out there, be it in education, or you know health care, I mean, you name the issue. I think that one of the reasons that people are feeling so optimistic right now about this administration is that we have a President who is very clear, it doesn’t need to you know the old not invented here then, forget about it. That is the antithesis of what Barack Obama’s all about. I mean, you hear him say that you know at press conferences, you hear him say it in meetings. We’ve heard him say it, and he really means it. Somebody can show me a better idea and convince me that it’s going to work you know and that person is Mitch McConnell, great you know we’re going to go for it.
LAMB: Hold your thought, Mr. Wheeler; I’m going to go to another student. Go ahead, sir.
STUDENT: My name is David Scott, I’m a student at Johnson County Community College and managing editor for the campus ledger.
LAMB: What town?
STUDENT: Overland Park, Kansas. My question is following an emotional Obama campaign, when will the honeymoon end and the magnifying glasses come out?
LAMB: Before they answer, when do you think the honeymoon will end, based on what you’ve observed?
STUDENT: I would like to see it now.
STUDENT: Because he’s the President of the United States and we’re facing some very big obstacles, and it was an extremely emotional campaign, and I think we need to start looking at him with critical eyes.
LAMB: Did you support him?
STUDENT: Yes, I did.
LAMB: Mr. Wheeler?
TOM WHEELER: I think this gentleman’s right. The honeymoon’s over. There has never been a President, save potentially, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, who were faced, before taking office, with the kind of challenges that Barack Obama has had to face and has had to step up to. And if ever there was a dose of cold, a bucket of cold water being thrown in your face, it’s the realities that we face today as a nation. I can tell you from the experience in the transition team, I mean, it’s really been an interesting process, that putting together a government is no small challenge. But when you pile on top of that the fact that you are in economic crisis and that you have to put together a plan to address that, simultaneously with picking people and addressing issues, believe me, reality exists today.
LAMB: Let’s go over here to this gentleman.
STUDENT: Thank you. My name is Bill Ward from Alvernia University in Pennsylvania. And I was raised in a very Catholic, very Irish-Italian household, and I actually voted for McCain, but now that the election’s over I want to throw my support behind the new administration. But, how can people like me reconcile the fact that the incoming administration and President are very pro-choice and we have top ranking Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden who falsely state that the Catholic Church has actually waffled on their stance of abortion, or are not clear on their stance on issues like abortion.
LAMB: Let me ask you why you think this is a significant enough issue to get up in front of the microphone and make these points?
WARD: Well, for me, I think moral issues, social issues, they may have not been the hot button issues of this campaign, but they’re always something that are close to the hearts of every American, whether you are pro-choice or pro-life. That everybody has strong feelings, and it’ll always come to the forefront, eventually.
LAMB: Mrs. Wheeler, would you like to take that one?
CAROL WHEELER: Well, it’s a hard issue. I mean, I have friends who feel the same way as you, it’s a hard issue. But, I think there are areas where we can begin to work together, and nobody is in favor of abortion. And I think everyone can agree on that great progress we could make if in fact we could cut the number of abortions dramatically. There are some studies, as I understand it, that have shown that in environments, in an economy and having said this in the state of this current economy, it makes your heart sink but there are fewer abortions when there are more supports for young women who find themselves pregnant. And if they feel like they have resources, sometimes state supported resources, to draw on in keeping and raising and supporting their child, that makes them much less likely to have an abortion. Whether they be young, single women or whether they be married. And there are a number of studies and statistics, I can’t remember the exact ones right now so I can’t quote them to you, but I do think that we could all pitch in and work together to try and make sure that there are other alternatives, realistic alternatives for people other than abortions.
TOM WHEELER: Can I pile in there for a second, because I mean, I don’t want go to where Carol was so eloquently and on target making the point. But, that’s the kind of question you get in Iowa. OK? So, when you’re sitting in people’s living rooms the way you organize is house parties, you sit in people’s living rooms and you talk issues. And the issues are that kind of head on, in your face, you can’t skirt around it, where is your person? And that’s good for the process.
LAMB: Were you expected to have the answers to those questions as a representative of Barack Obama?
TOM WHEELER: We’d better know where he was. And I got to tell you one story. I’m working the phones one day, and a woman says to me, ”Well, wait a minute, I want to go into, I want to take my phone into the kitchen where I have John Edwards’ health care plan tacked to the refrigerator. And I want to go through it with you, point by point.” And I’m going, oy you know but that’s the detail that these people want to get into. And you need to be able to say, ”Well, yes, but there’s this and the other side of that is this,” and it’s one of the fascinating things that, again, is different from Iowa than our experiences in other states.
CAROL WHEELER: But, I will also say can I just pitch in very quickly? No, we didn’t always know the answers to the questions. But, as I’m sure you’ve discovered, especially in a campaign, that you can really turn into a plus because it gives you an excuse to get back to them and to create a dialog. You get the phone number down, or even, I mean, I took you know went back to a door that I’d knocked on and somebody brought up an issue I wasn’t sure about. You get some material, you take it back, you sit down since you’re in Iowa, it’s often over a cup of cocoa and so, knowing all the answers to questions asked right up front isn’t a necessity.
LAMB: Let me ask you, can I ask you a question before we start?
LAMB: When you hear their story, it’s some like 40 years later, does this appeal to you, to come to this town and or would you rather stay home and be active there?
STUDENT: Well, as much as I love local politics and serving the people in my community, I do feel that it is a responsibility to help the people in your nation as well, because there are other people out there from different communities and you do realize how diverse the country is.
LAMB: Where are you going to school?
STUDENT: Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Connecticut.
TOM WHEELER: We follow your polls.
LAMB: The fact that your poll is so well known, does that matter to somebody that goes to Quinnipiac (ph)?
STUDENT: I hope so, because I worked in the polling institute for 2 whole days and I enjoyed being there. And I feel that the nation does rely on these polls, and hopefully they remain to be accurate, and yes, I believe that being at the university should follow the polls.
LAMB: Your question or comment?
STUDENT: Sure. Thank you for being here today. My name is Louis Venturelli from Quinnipiac University, and this question is directed toward Mr. Wheeler. Being the coordinator of the Obama Irish American outreach, what is your, and coming from a culture that’s been greatly discriminated against in American history, what is your take on immigration and how will the Obama administration approach the issue of equality for those that seek residency and citizenship in America? Thank you.
LAMB: I think you stumped her.
CAROL WHEELER: No, I just thought you had said Mr. Wheeler, I’m sorry. And I was wait, wait, no, I did that. OK. Immigration, I mean you know Obama has said often when he talks about his personal experience with immigration and the fact that he is the son of a father who saw the United States as a place of opportunity and came here and that that has informed his opinion on the whole issue. And I think he agrees, like everybody does, that there needs to be order brought, there needs to be effective enforcement of the laws. But you know he was clear during the campaign that there also needs to be a way for people who are already and here illegally to, in a responsible way, ultimately get citizenship. You know you do raise an interesting issue at this point. I know, certainly in the Irish American community and in lots of other communities that have a lot of immigrants, either here already or wanting to come here, they’re hoping that immigration is going to be you know high on the list of priorities. I personally, and I’m not speaking at all for the administration now, but as we find ourselves dealing with these other crises that Tom was referring to earlier, I personally worry a bit about when that issue is going to be able to be tackled.
LAMB: I want to do something a little different thank you, by the way, I want to take six of you and the Wheelers I’m sure will be happy to listen, but six of you come up to the microphone, give your name and college and all that stuff, and make your statement or your question. We’re going to go through six, one after another, because if we don’t do this, we’re not going to get a lot of these folks involved. I want you to be able to be heard, so why don’t we start over here.
STUDENT: Thank you. My name is Megan Karen. I go to Suffolk University. As we all know, this past Election Day was a truly historic day, in terms of civil rights. However, Proposition 8 in California was passed the same day. So, I was just wondering how you feel about the invitation of Reverend Rick Warren and the message it may have sent to the LGBT Americans as they fight for their rights?
LAMB: Quickly tell us how you feel about it.
STUDENT: I think it’s, I think it sends messages of how far have we really come in terms of civil rights, as I mean, obviously, I think it’s a great thing that we do a black President, or we will as of the 20th, but it was really disappointing. I didn’t think that that would actually happen, that it would pass.
LAMB: Thank you. And your statement?
STUDENT: Good morning. My name is Shawn Malabon from I’m a little tall Monclair State University in New Jersey. My question to anyone on the panel, Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas spoke yesterday of the common ground. With the new administration that President-elect Obama has chosen, do you think the new administration can bridge the gap with Congress and themselves, especially with aggressive tactics, the way the politics that Rahm Emmanuel uses?
LAMB: Thank you. Over here, next person.
STUDENT: Hi, my name is Kean Richards from the University of Alaska, in Fairbanks. My question was, Obama led a very successful campaign, and obviously he had the better part of the media, compared with John McCain. I was wondering what you think in particular, he did that gained his success in the media?
LAMB: What do you think he did?
STUDENT: Well, for one, for one, I know he was a very successful speaker, but I don’t have much experience with the media and politics myself, so beyond that, I’m not really sure.
LAMB: Thank you. And back over here.
STUDENT: Good morning. My name is Carrie Potter from Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA. My question is, Barack Obama is arriving to the presidency on the shoulders of bruised Americans, and when I say bruised Americans I mean the morale is extremely low in our country. So, obviously, Obama’s policies and Obama’s ideals will change the country in terms of policies and in terms of Congress, but socially, what effect will Barack Obama have on our country, in your opinion?
LAMB: What do you think?
STUDENT: I think that he will have a phenomenal effect on our country, socially. I think that he’s a beacon of light and of hope for young Americans like all of us in this room, and of everyone in the country, for that matter.
LAMB: Two more.
STUDENT: Good morning. My name is Austin Core. I’m from the University of West Alabama, in Livingston, Alabama. My question is to the entire panel. With the enormous amount of problems left by the Bush administration, what should the Obama administration put its main focus on? Should it be the unemployment rate, the economy, the automakers or the housing crisis?
LAMB: What do you think?
STUDENT: I think it should be the unemployment, because without employment you can’t you know buy a house or even purchase a car. Some of the things that we need to stimulate the economy, without a job you can’t do it.
LAMB: One more and then we’ll go to our guests.
STUDENT: Hi, I’m Cody Wood from Winona State University, in Winona, Minnesota. And I think that most of us here would agree that young people have a really important role to play in campaigns, but that we’re not all going to be in our 20s forever. So, my question was that, how do you think that your age actually helped you to better relate to the people that you were reaching out to and allowed you to offer a different viewpoint or new ideas to what you describe as a young campaign staff?
LAMB: I’ll ask you the same question I asked the first gentleman. What do you think of their story and does that appeal to you at all, or would you rather stay local?
STUDENT: Well, I love that you are actually local, but still doing something national. So, why don’t that’s really appealing to me in that I can go into my own community and make a difference in my larger nation at the same time. So, I think you get the best of both worlds.
LAMB: Thank you.
CAROL WHEELER: Good answer.
LAMB: The two of you can pick any one of those and I’ll try to steer you with the rest of them. So, why don’t we make the answers somewhat short so we can go back to the students.
TOM WHEELER: Can I start with one of the questions asked by the lady over here, because it hits right on something, again, we’re talking about house parties. And I think your question was the change in the country, how the country views itself, and we used to talk about a very basic thing in house parties in Iowa. And we talk about how on the 21st of January, 2009, when Barack Obama wakes up his first morning in the White House as President of the United States, three things will have happened. One, the world will look at America differently. Two, America will look at America differently. And three, a large segment of the American population will look at themselves differently. That’s the kind of opportunity for change that was represented by this election. And the fascinating thing, to me, is that those have happened before January 21. That the American people, it seems, have looked and said, ”My golly, look, our better angels have stepped forward. Aren’t I proud. Aren’t we, don’t we have, can we stand tall again?” The people of the world are turning and saying, look, American leadership is back. And segments, significant segments of our population are saying there is opportunity in this country. That’s the kind of transformation that can happen when somebody like Barack Obama says we want to go out and we want to talk about change, and we want to hope and I want to talk about a set of new ideas.
LAMB: Carol Wheeler, go back to the first question, Proposition 8 and the Rick Warren invitation. And I noticed in the paper this morning, or was it yesterday, he has invited a woman minister to speak, I believe, at the Lincoln Memorial. I’m not sure about that, there are so many speakers coming up in the next few days. But what’s your reaction to Rick Warren?
CAROL WHEELER: It’s conflicted. It’s conflicted, because I agree with I don’t know where you went but the young woman who asked the question. I was initially disappointed and I still have concerns about the message it’s sending to a lot of folks, including a lot of close friends of mine. But, I also so welcome the seriousness with which Barack Obama takes or how serious he is about including people he doesn’t agree with on a lot of stuff. And the intensity he brings to the opportunity of bringing America together, and I think a lot of people who might not be inclined to be celebrating what is going to happen on January 20 might take a slightly different look because Barack Obama invited Rick Warren to be a part of the ceremony. I hope so.
LAMB: Let me ask Tom Wheeler about one of the questions about the media. And you know if you’re a Republican and Conservative, you thought that Barack Obama got a free ride. Taking the opposite part of it, why did he do as well as he did?
TOM WHEELER: There were also, and there were also, there was a book published about you know the media’s free ride for John McCain. I mean you know it’s the old thing about where you stand depends on where you sit. And it always, there’s a perception. I think that Barack Obama was exciting to the media because of the fact that he was, once again, offering the kind of things I talked about before, offering this message, not only of change, but of hope. And we’re in, we have come out of a government for 8 years where the government has been run by people who don’t believe in government. And that people were looking for someone who could challenge them with a message that says it can be better than that. It’s not just that I’ve been the Senator and had this amendment or that amendment, or I have this policy or that policy, but a broader picture that says you know people, we can do better. And I think that was the core of the Obama message, and that got people interested.
LAMB: Before I go to the next question, how many other 60ish people did you see leave Washington and go out and work on the campaign? And I assume neither one of you got paid.
CAROL WHEELER: Oh, yes.
CAROL WHEELER: Yes, yes.
LAMB: How many others did you hear about, many?
TOM WHEELER: We weren’t unique.
CAROL WHEELER: Yes, perhaps not for the period time that we went, but there were a lot of people who took long weekends, took weeks. I mean, one of the things that I noticed in Iowa, the young woman who answered the question about or asked the question acknowledging the fact that yes, campaigns tend to be a young person’s game, and at the staff level to a great extent that’s true. But one of the things you noticed in Iowa, in part, I’m sure, because Iowa tends to have an aging population, but in any of the campaign offices that we went to around the country, there are a whole lot of older people, even older than us. And I think in the Obama campaign in particular, it’s because a lot of these folks were retired and they had the time to put in, but I think part of probably what was motivating them was what motivated us that you begin to feel your age. You being to feel a real anxiousness about your country, things you care about, getting it right in the time that you have left. And I think that’s what motivates a lot of senior citizens.
TOM WHEELER: Let me pile on for a second, because we’ve got to talk about Bob and Debbie Gitchell, OK? Because they were our precinct captains in precinct 1-5, in Ames, and they worked just as hard and pounded the doors, and they were the people, retired people, a retired surgeon, who were the mainstay. We came in, they stayed.
LAMB: Are they, by the way, coming to the inaugural?
TOM WHEELER: You bet.
LAMB: Let’s go to this young lady.
STUDENT: Hi, my name is Lillith Votlaya, and I’m from Oakton Community College in Illinois. My question was, obviously, Obama is very charismatic. Do you think that a large reason that he won the election was because of what he symbolized and his image and how he presented himself, as opposed to just platform? Although he definitely listened to what the American people wanted.
LAMB: Before we leave you, do you think he got elected because of what he symbolized?
STUDENT: I think it played a really large role in it, definitely. But, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
CAROL WHEELER: I agree. Yes, I do agree.
LAMB: That’s an easy one. Let’s go right over here. Yes, sir?
STUDENT: Hello, my name’s Adam Butler, and I’m from Alvernia University, in Reading, Pennsylvania. My question kind of corresponds with the Proposition 8 question. I was just curious if you see or how you foresee Obama and his administration handling equal rights issues, such as Proposition 8.
LAMB: Do you have any idea?
TOM WHEELER: No, I don’t have any idea. I mean
LAMB: I’m going to take this opportunity, I’m sorry that Mr. Wheeler and Mrs. Wheeler don’t have the answer, but they do, Mr. Wheeler has an answer to one question I want to ask him about before we lose the time. And that is the digital television transfer on February the 17th.
TOM WHEELER: Yes, sir.
LAMB: As the head of the transition on technology and science, are you advising that it be postponed or that it happen on February the 17th?
TOM WHEELER: That it be postponed.
LAMB: And why?
TOM WHEELER: Because we’ve had, the Congress passed this, the law saying that you will go to digital television and cut all analog signals in 2005, and in the intervening 3-plus years, the groundwork hasn’t been laid. First of all, there was a couple program put in place so that people could get coupons to help defray the cost of a converter so that they could use their old television sets and not have to buy new television sets. There has been so much demand for that, in part because of the economy, but also in part because of underestimation, that it has gone broke.
LAMB: Let me ask you this structural question, did that issue come to your desk in the transition? Did you take it to John Podesta and did he take it to Barack Obama? Or how did it work?
TOM WHEELER: Yes, it came to my desk.
LAMB: It came to your desk.
TOM WHEELER: Yes.
LAMB: We haven’t got much time, back over here.
STUDENT: Hi, I’m Jordan Luchen from Central College, Iowa. My question was to what extent you think Obama’s early victory in Iowa changed the national perspective of the Democratic primary, and if you think it would have been possible for Obama to win the national election if he didn’t win in Iowa?
TOM WHEELER: Go for it.
LAMB: Carol Wheeler, refresh us first, how big did he win in Iowa?
CAROL WHEELER: You know
do you remember?
TOM WHEELER: 38%, and next was 36, and Senator Clinton had 35.
LAMB: If he
CAROL WHEELER: I think the spread was more than that, sorry. It was a solid win, whatever the numbers were
LAMB: If he had not won Iowa, would he be President-elect?
CAROL WHEELER: I don’t think we would be preparing for the Obama nomination, had he not won. Barack Obama needed to he certainly needed to prove to the African American community that he could get white votes. He needed to prove to the white community he could, too. But, I think you know he’s the first person to say you know this guy with the strange background, a funny name, I think Barack Obama has a very healthy ego and a sense of what he does bring to the table. But, he also fully recognized the fact that people were going to tend to be suspicious, and it goes back to what is so valuable about the Iowa caucus system. It is a long, drawn out process. I mean, I remember trying to get a woman to come to a meeting, just as sort of you know a group of women. And she said, ”Dear, you don’t understand. I’m an Iowan, I don’t need to need to go if the candidate’s not there.” And sort of forget it if you can’t produce Barack Obama at this meeting. People had a chance to really get to know him in a way that is just impossible in a primary situation.
LAMB: Did he come to your precinct?
CAROL WHEELER: Yes, he did.
LAMB: What’d he do when he was there?
CAROL WHEELER: Multiple times. I mean, he didn’t come, he came a couple of times when we were there. He did a speech in an auditorium much like this, I think he did a town hall meeting. But, prior to that, and this is what was critical in creating a buzz, he would go to living rooms, he would go to you know barbecues, anybody who would be willing to gather around. And in the process of doing that you know individuals began to get as excited as Tom and I did, and they would begin to talk to their friends and the buzz would begin to be created. And, yes, Iowa made what happened ultimately possible.
LAMB: We have time for one last student question, and then we’re going to have to wrap it up. Yes, sir?
STUDENT: Hello, my name is Michael Casey from Martin University in Indianapolis, Indiana. I was listening to a conversation yesterday wherein Barack Obama’s very even tempered and poised disposition was perceived to make him somewhat ambiguous, and it was displayed that if he didn’t project some type of volatility or aggression that he somehow didn’t meet the American standard, and I wondered if the majority class in America is aware of the paradox that African American males in this country are expected to be very congenial, but when we display a very firm deportment, we become the stereotypical angry black male.
CAROL WHEELER: That’s interesting, I’ve heard that, yes.
LAMB: And your reaction?
TOM WHEELER: I’m with Carol on that. I think you make a very good point.
LAMB: How important is that to you in your own thinking about this man being elected president?
STUDENT: Well, I think that symbolism and imagery mean a lot. I think that if African Americans will continue to be proponents of transformation in this country, they need to be thoroughly understood in order to be accepted.
LAMB: Are you surprised at all that he was elected?
STUDENT: Not the least bit.
LAMB: And why not?
STUDENT: Because as many others in my point of view share the same perspective, we know that it is quite possible to excel beyond those odds.
CAROL WHEELER: Could I ask, did you believe strongly in the possibility of his election from the beginning, or did you get increasingly confident as the process went on?
STUDENT: I believed it from the beginning, but as it excelled and as it went forward, it became even more impacting, the reality of it.
CAROL WHEELER: Yes.
LAMB: Let me be sure to tell the audience at home that this group of students are here in Washington for a week and the inauguration, through the auspices of the Washington Center, which is, obviously, based here. Students come all year long, some come for seminars, others come for internships, which last a whole semester and they get involved very much in the community. Last minute, both of you quickly tell us; you look back on your own life, what’s had the biggest impact of what you think and why you’re involved, that you can remember?
CAROL WHEELER: Oh, my goodness.
TOM WHEELER: Well, let me turn it around another way. Carol and I have talked frequently, at least I feel and I think, I won’t speak for her, but when I come there to meet my maker, and I look back on a really blessed life, the 6 weeks that I spent in Iowa are going to rank right up there as the best 6 weeks of my life. The most significant 6 weeks of my life.
CAROL WHEELER: I agree with that. The most --my early time in Washington, I came in 1968, a time of incredible activity and tragedy, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the anti-war movement. But, at the same time, as I said, for the first time I not for the first time but I really, I was doing work that made me feel a part of the Washington community. And I came to understand, even though my experience growing up was very different from what was going on in the neighborhoods that we were working in, I connected. And from that moment, actually, decided that I wanted to keep involved and keep doing things that ultimately and you know all these many decades later, it’s the reason that we got so involved in the Obama campaign. The young woman who talked about this you know he climbed to the presidency on the shoulders of very bruised Americans who see in him a new hope, so do I.
LAMB: Carol and Tom Wheeler, thank you very much, and students, thank you.