Sam Waterston

Non-partisanship, Presidential Politics and Celebrity

VTR Date: October 24, 2008

Actor Sam Waterston discusses the intersections of politics and celebrity.


GUEST: Sam Waterston
VTR: 01/24/20008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And over the half century and more since I began to produce and host this weekly conversation, I’ve focused much more on cerebration than celebration. And – Alas! – celebrities in any traditional American sense…certainly show biz celebrities…have been few and far between at this table.

Yes, Alan Alda was here, when his Freudian lecture pun that became our broadcast topic was “Celebrity and its Discontents”.

Robert Redford once joined me, and we discussed the role he meant his film version of “All The President’s Men” to play in our national politics … though he feared that it hadn’t.

And at this table Director Oliver Stone seemed to me particularly proud of his efforts to mold audience perceptions of our young President’s assassination with thousands of artfully designed, subliminal mind-altering film edits in his epochal “JFK”.

Also, of course, my friend Eli Wallach has several times been annoyed at what he thought were sly suggestions at this table that perhaps show biz people shouldn’t mix into real biz in America!

Whatever, as the kids say!

For today, The Open Mind clearly comes closer than ever before in parsing the role of celebrity in politics with one of my own – and probably your own – favorite Broadway, film, TV and stage actors: Sam Waterston, formerly Assistant District Attorney, now Mr. District Attorney in Dick Wolf’s “Law and Order”, the longest running prime time drama currently on American television.

Now, of course, something of a conflict-of-interest disclaimer may be due here. For almost 20 years, my son Andy really was an Assistant District Attorney in Robert Morgenthau’s distinguished Manhattan DA’s Office – where my guest now presides…at least on the screen.

But, back to Sam Waterston, citizen and voter.

For it is, to be sure, my guest’s political persona that I first want to talk about today, his role as participant in – and perhaps spokesperson for – “Unity08”, an effort somehow to escape the bitter partisanship of current Presidential politics and, as I understand it, to select a moderate, centrist “Unity08” bipartisan Presidential/Vice Presidential ticket for 2008.

And I would begin by asking Sam Waterston if I’ve got that right? Is that what you’re up to?

WATERSTON: You have got it right and I wish I could have said it as fast as you just did …

HEFFNER: Why do you want to do it?

WATERSTON: … myself. Why did I want to do it? Well, I, I guess because … you could start almost anywhere, but … by personal predisposition I think I am a moderate Centrist. And there has been … for most of my life I felt kind of ashamed of that because moderate Centrists are widely regarded as people without any real point of view of their own.

But then times have changed to the point where moderate Centrism which was axiomatic in the, in the design of our government, has become scarcer and scarcer in the halls of our government. So, I felt like something needed to be done and then there are all the statistical things about how there is a very large and growing … the largest and fastest growing party in America is the Independent party.

And, and then … I suppose cardinally a concern about the problems that have been building up which do not seem to be beyond the reach of the American public to agree about in a rough way … but when it comes down to working out the details of health care or education … or for me … most important of all … the environment … precious little seems to be getting done anymore.

HEFFNER: Do you take the … do you take the old Parties off the hook in a sense by trying to push this Centrist position?

WATERSTON: Well, Unity08’s idea was not to institute a new third party for all time, but to have a bipartisan ticket that would have a place to stand, separate from the Republicans and the Democrats … to be able to say … “Boys and girls, we’ve got to get together.”

These problems are not beyond solution. You can’t shoot me down because I’m not the Republican President, so the Democrats can’t shoot me down. Or conversely, you can’t shoot me down because I’m the Democratic President.

I did a play a long time ago, called “A Walk In The Woods” …


WATERSTON: Which was based … or inspired by Paul Nitze’s collaboration with a Russian negotiator about disarmament in Geneva. And they had both been frustrated for a very long time by the fact that whenever the Americans made a proposal, the Russians automatically shot it down. And whenever the Russians made a proposal, the Americans automatically shot it down. So they conceived of the idea of having a disarmament proposal land on the bench between the two of them in the park. And to just take it from there and to present it to their governments. And …

HEFFNER: That’s … that’s Unity2008 …

WATERSTON: … that kind of Unity08.

HEFFNER: And what happens afterwards?

WATERSTON: Afterwards everybody goes back to what they were doing before as has happened … well, in my state … this is certainly an oversimplification … but, ah, in my state there had been a long standing argument … I’m from Connecticut … and there had been a long standing argument about whether or not to have an income tax.

And the consequence of not having an income tax was that in boom times the coffers were full from sales taxes and other forms of taxation. And in bad times, they were empty. And so the government was always going from boom to bust.

And in order to sort of level the curve some what, it was pretty apparent that an income tax was necessary. But both the Democrats and the Republicans in Connecticut had been running for so long … signing in blood and swearing on their first born and all of that stuff that they would never, ever have an income tax, that it took Lowell Weicker, running as an Independent …he became Governor, he was Governor for just one term, and the necessary was done and then they went back to politics as usual.

HEFFNER: Is the Mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg, the Lowell Weicker of the 21st century?

WATERSTON: Well, I think you have to say that he could be, and I think we should say, too, to be clear, that Unity08 itself is now in sleep mode because it didn’t succeed in rallying sufficient numbers of troops in time to be able to feel safe, or to have the funds to initiate the ballot access.

HEFFNER: Sleep mode? That’s not a euphemism …

WATERSTON: Sleep mode.

HEFFNER: … for dead, is it?

WATERSTON: It could be a euphemism for dead. I, I definitely don’t think that the idea will die because … while we were sleeping, the politics that I grew up with, the one that I expected to find every time I went to the newspaper, changed under our feet and I remember when I was growing up, people like Gore Vidal used to complain mightily about the fact that there was no difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and they were all just the same and had the same foreign policy and the same everything.

HEFFNER: You thought that was untrue?

WATERSTON: Ah, no, I thought it was true and I thought that everything should change and that they should be really different and that they should present really stark choices to the American people and that that would be a much healthier thing and, and then behold, we got what we asked for.

And it’s now institutionalized … the old Southern Democratic Party is no more. And redistricting and so on has done it’s work, and so there are many more safe seats for both parties. And the parties are much more ideologically divided than they ever were before.

And so the result is we have people standing at either ends of the chamber throwing hand grenades at each other. Which would be fine, if they were bringing fresh ideas into the center that were then argued out and, and led to consensus. I, I said this way back at the beginning … that the whole Constitutional device was worked out to force consensus. The one thing that the Founders felt they really couldn’t design against was faction itself. That if parties … or groups of people became dedicated to working solely for their own benefit and as a team … and to divide and conquer that way … that the Republic couldn’t take it. And that there wasn’t very much that they could do about it.

HEFFNER: And you’re saying that’s what’s happened.

WATERSTON: I think it …

HEFFNER: The Republic couldn’t take it.

WATERSTON: Well, everybody’s talking about partisanship. But I really think … I’d like somebody to show me that the right word isn’t “faction” because it seems to be it to me.

HEFFNER: But “faction” you know, I, I, I read a speech you gave at Yale a few years ago in which you were talking about television, but you really weren’t talking about television, you were talking about America, the new America you know … the America in which everything is for sale, and selling is the most important thing.

You succeed … let’s say we’re talking about a hibernation for Unity08 and suppose it comes back to life and there is a candidate, a Presidential candidate from the one party and Vice Presidential candidate from the other. Four years. Eight years and then we go back to what has happened to this country.

WATERSTON: Well, I go back to what I said, which I think is the cardinal reason for being interested in this at all …for me … is not … it should be, probably, the ultimate reform of the political process. But really I just think that there’s such a pile of work that has been sitting around left undone and that the people who say that by not solving it now, we’re passing our debts on to the future, I think are absolutely right.

HEFFNER: What are the parts of that pile?

WATERSTON: Well, we … we all have our own list. But ..

HEFFNER: What’s your list?

WATERSTON: Trade deficits. Budget deficits. Budget imbalances. The environment, the environment, the environment and the environment. Education. Health care. Social Security.

HEFFNER: But you sound like …

WATERSTON: To name a few …

HEFFNER: … you sound like one of the partisans. One of those two parties. You say that … no?

WATERSTON: I don’t think so because … I think there’s at least … when, when you listen to what they’re saying “on the stump” nowadays …


WATERSTON: They’re all agreeing that we do have a health care problem. That we do have more to do about education. That we have to deal with Social Security and entitlements. And on and on. They just disagree about how to get it down. And by disagreeing permanently about how to get it done, it doesn’t get done and then the problems are deferred to the future and our children and grandchildren will pay for them.

So something needs to be done to break the jam. And … I’m a recently appointed … I’m proud to tell you … member of the Board of Oceania, which is a, which is an oceans advocacy group and I’ve been a long time member of the Board of Refugees International. And I think that it’s pretty easy to see that if nothing is done about the environment we’ll have a whole new class of refugees … you probably have some already in Africa … environmental refugees and the oceans … you know the old phrase, “there’s plenty of fish in the sea” …

HEFFNER: There won’t be.

WATERSTON: Yeah. And billions of billions of people depend for their livelihood on this. And so, there was an article in The New York Times about local fishermen on the West Coast of Africa who are unable to catch any fish locally anymore because big fishing fleets from the European Union, China, and the Soviet Union … selling also into the European Union have bought the fishing rights and fished out what the local fishermen used to be able to catch for themselves and subsist on.

So, those people with no livelihood have taken their now useless small fishing boats, only designed for coastal waters and tried to make a getaway to the Canary Islands so that they could get to the European Union and rejoin their fish.

HEFFNER: You know, Sam Waterston …


HEFFNER: I, I’ve read enough about you and your lifelong involvement in good causes … I was going to say “do-good” causes, but somehow or other that’s like saying someone is a “muggwump”. In good causes and I’m puzzled that you’re not throwing your weight, despite your history as a Centrist, politically speaking … throwing your weight with one party to have it accomplish that pile of things you think we have to pay attention to. Do you think that can’t be done?

WATERSTON: Well, part of it is because I’ve watched and not seen it done. And, and then … and that was just as a newspaper reader. But then I’ve been doing my homework since I became involved with Unity08 and I think there’s real reason to think that it’s … that this situation is built into the warp and woof of things now. And that it … so we really need something to brace us. Or we’re just going to keep on doing the same thing.

HEFFNER: I think, from everything I’ve been given to understand that you’re absolutely right about the growth of that central opinion in America, more and more Independents … who … people who call themselves or register as Independents, but most importantly, people whose opinion about matters … when polled … really put them in the middle.

I, I … you know, when I first heard you … in a little bit of salesmanship, which I thought we could play here … but we, we can’t about the organization … I thought “how naïve” … forgive me …


HEFFNER: I thought “how naïve” … thinking more and more about it, I’m not so sure. But I wonder about whether you can survive in this den of thieves.

WATERSTON: I totally wonder.

HEFFNER: That’s why when you talk about moribund and …

WATERSTON: Well, one of the reasons that Unity08 is “on hold” is because the FEC gave a ruling …

HEFFNER: The Elections Comm …

WATERSTON: The Elections Commission … which is peopled by Republicans and Democrats … actually, as I understand it, right now, it doesn’t even have quorum …but it gave a ruling … that we were a political action committee and that we were … that there were heavy restrictions on what we could do. In terms of raising money.

Here’s what was naïve about me. When I heard that that was true I thought, and said, to all the much more seasoned people who are involved in Unity08 … this is great because they have told us that we cannot raise money from any individual at any greater rate than $5,000 per person per year.

HEFFNER: And that’s the way it should be.

WATERSTON: And that’s the way it should be. And the more seasoned people said, “Well, that’s the way it is and, and we’re going to proceed this way and maybe it will turn out to be okay.” But, of course, the problem was that … well, you were talking about that speech I gave at Yale and us living in a sales oriented world. And you need “seed” money in this sales oriented world just to make your “pitch” at the beginning.

So, we were sort of not quite strangled in our crib, but very much set back by this ruling which is being contested and, I think almost certainly will … the judgment will come in our favor.

HEFFNER: Too late?

WATERSTON: But it may well be too late, in which case nobody will mind but us.

HEFFNER: What do you think’s going to happen then, in this political season … 2008?

WATERSTON: I don’t know, but I think you have to … we can’t take credit for this, but this thing that we’re talking about, all the people who are running are aware of … everybody’s … in particular Barack Obama … who has sort of based his campaign on the idea of consensus, government and bridging the gap and bipartisanship and working to solutions. All of this stuff that Unity08 would hope for. But he’s not the only one. There’s a lot of rhetorical reaching across the aisle and they’re very definitely addressing those Independents that you were, we were talking about before.

So, this idea is not going to die. The beauty of Unity08 was that it … and it potentially still is, if the FEC were to somehow rule while it was still pertinent … the beauty of it is that it’s connected to a vote; it’s a … body of people with the power to vote. And therefore it’s more likely to get politicians real attention.

HEFFNER: But the political parties have to go back to your Yale address … have the capacity to sell.


HEFFNER: Do the Independents have that capacity. It takes a lot of organization and a lot of dollars.

WATERSTON: Yes, it does, but all that really requires is a very large number of people. And Unity08 … what I thought was really exciting about this sort of “nuts and bolts” of the idea was that it was going to rely very heavily on the Internet which is a cheap form of communications and with a very large number of people and a very sophisticated website and software that we’re going to have a national primary on the Internet … a heck of a lot less expensive than the primary system, where really obscene amounts of money are spent.

And as a consequence of those obscene amounts of money being spent … politicians are indebted to the providers of the money and that automatically feeds into the situation that we see today.

HEFFNER: Unity08 …

WATERSTON: Not that some hero couldn’t resist all this … and I certainly hope one will …

HEFFNER: And that was my question to you. We have a few minutes left … you want to talk about the nature of that hero, maybe even the name of a hero?

WATERSTON: No, I don’t want to talk about the name of a hero … certainly …

HEFFNER: Why not?

WATERSTON: Well, because … from where I sit it’s very, very hard to tell until the person is in office whether or not they mean what they say …


WATERSTON: … and to what extent they are indebted.

HEFFNER: But, Sam, then let’s give up totally …

WATERSTON: No. Let’s have …

HEFFNER: You’ve got to …

WATERSTON: … let’s, let’s hold on to the idea of this vast center …


WATERSTON: … and persevere until we figure out a way to make it have weight that the politicians will have to regard. At the moment, the 51% solution … the “just enough votes to beat the veto in the Senate” …

HEFFNER: The 60 votes …

WATERSTON: I mean … no … I mean 51% … just the, just the number of votes necessary to pass a Bill in the Senate …


WATERSTON: I beg your pardon …

HEFFNER: And then the 60 votes to prevent a veto, which is the strangest thing in the world, but …

WATERSTON: Well, that’s a much harder thing and that implies either consensus or overwhelming power.

Now, overwhelming power … I don’t know … you’re the historian, but has overwhelming power really played out very well for us?

HEFFNER: But now you …


HEFFNER: But now you … you are the person … and I said this in a previous program … let’s not run the clock … minute and a half left. Certainly you are thinking of someone. You, Sam Waterston, citizen … political activist … there must be some candidate or candidates … those two …

WATERSTON: Well, I will vote for somebody in the Connecticut primary, for sure … given whoever’s available to vote for.

HEFFNER: But who would you choose to be 08’s candidate, if it had a candidate? Unity08?

WATERSTON: I really … I’m not dodging your question, I’m just afraid I’m not making myself clear. The idea of Unity08 was to have a process in which millions of people would participate and out of their deliberations, choose a candidate.

HEFFNER: And if you were one of those …

WATERSTON: It’s a very different thing than me picking a guy.

HEFFNER: Okay, I don’t mean you picking a guy. I mean you’re casting your vote on the Internet … how would you do it?

WATERSTON: Who’s running?

HEFFNER: Who do you want to run?

WATERSTON: Who’s running?

HEFFNER: (Laugh) And we are running out of the clock …

WATERSTON: (Laugh) I may …

HEFFNER: I can’t get you to commit …

WATERSTON: No, I can’t … I have very deliberately not made a choice because the thing that I’m speaking for is a process. And part of the difficulty that Unity08 has is that it is speaking for a process. But my reason for being here even when Unity08 is more or less dormant is to plead for the idea … not for a person.

HEFFNER: Fair enough. And I’m being told to say “Good bye”.

WATERSTON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Sam Waterston, thank you and good bye. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.