David Rennie, Washington Bureau Chief For 'The Economist' Reflects On 6 Years In The U.S.

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 8:07 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

These last six years have been momentous ones in American politics and life. Edward Snowden stole and spilled secrets about government surveillance. Black Lives Matter changed the national discussion on race. The Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the country. The #MeToo movement took off. And of course a real estate mogul and reality TV star named Donald Trump became president.

Well, David Rennie has been here to witness all that and more. He's the Washington bureau chief for The Economist magazine, a foreign correspondent trying to make sense of America both for Americans and for the rest of the world. Later this month, Rennie leaves that post after nearly six years, so we have invited him to stop by for an exit interview. Hey there. Welcome.

DAVID RENNIE: Hello.

KELLY: I am told you landed for this assignment on July 23, 2012. And I'm curious if you can even remember what was dominating the headlines. What was your first big story?

RENNIE: I think I had to write about Mitt Romney's foreign policy and what it was going to be. And it was basically, you know, everyone agreed on a whole bunch of obvious things - that Russia was a very dangerous power, and it was whether you thought that Mitt Romney put a little bit too much stress on that. I mean, those whole...

KELLY: He was ridiculed at the time and was...

RENNIE: He was by President Obama. That's right.

KELLY: Years have maybe proven him right or even - many thought at the time.

RENNIE: Time and again recently I've thought that there's a headline that basically a lot of newspapers need to promise basically Mitt Romney an apology. I mean, remember when the most sexist thing a presidential candidate could say was that when hiring women for their administration they had binders full of women?

KELLY: Lessons learned. Yeah, that feels like a long, long time ago...

RENNIE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...That we were debating Mitt Romney.

RENNIE: Innocent days.

KELLY: I'm curious what will stick out to you about D.C. because you've reported on Brussels, on London from Beijing, lived and reported in all these places. What has struck you about covering politics and life here?

RENNIE: I guess the thing that makes me gloomy about Washington, D.C., is it is getting harder to persuade politicians to compromise, to cross the aisle and to work with the other side. So when I arrived in 2012, it was plenty rough. People would disagree vehemently about immigration or guns or gay marriage. I think what has changed is that in the old days, it was vicious enough to be arguing about the meaning of the Second Amendment or your reading of the Bible or what the correct role of the government is in kind of policing. What should - should you deport all the people who are here without papers?

What has happened is somehow weaponization of fear and resentments of the other in some of these really hot-button issues. There's a case being made literally that the other side wants to hurt children whether it's arming teachers in schools, whether it's the DREAMers. Are they good kids who've done everything right, they just don't have the right papers? Or are they bad kids who might be murdering kids? You know, you see the president bringing the parents of children murdered by gang members to the State of the Union. It's very hard to compromise if the other side wants to hurt your child.

KELLY: You're saying you're hearing a coarsening of American political discourse where not only is the other side wrong, but you're going to hurt me and my family, and that's why I want to push back.

RENNIE: Yeah. And they are bad people. And therefore how are you supposed to compromise with people who are going to hurt your kid? So...

KELLY: It's personal.

RENNIE: It's personal. And it's about who's often a good person and a bad person. So some of the most sort of interesting reporting I've done - you know, I went to Oregon, eastern Oregon, to an area of public lands that was worried that there was going to be a national monument declared that was going to stop them ranching. And, you know, everyone had their scientific arguments about the merits of cattle in this place or should this area be protected from mining?

But actually, what was really going on was that the ranchers thought, you know, my grandfather's been farming this land, then me, then, you know, my father. We're good people. You could trust us to care and love this land versus in their view outsiders, big city environmentalists, maybe retirees who've moved in who thought that they were bad people, that they were bad for the environment. They didn't care about the land. And so you realize that although in theory people were arguing about facts, they were actually having an argument about who was good and who was bad.

KELLY: What are you going to miss about America?

RENNIE: I'm going to miss interviewing Americans. Americans are just amazingly tolerant about some English guy who looks and sounds like Harry Potter asking them what they voted...

KELLY: (Laughter).

RENNIE: ...What they think of Muslims, what they think of gay marriage. They're just astonishingly tolerant.

KELLY: That is an accurate description for our radio audience, I'll just shout out.

RENNIE: They're just astonishingly tolerant of being asked questions by someone like me. People are just amazingly generous with their time in this country. I'm very proud of the fact my kids, both born in D.C. up the road, they're little Americans. So I'll always have a link to this place. And I'll be back.

KELLY: David Rennie, Washington bureau chief for The Economist for another - how many days? You counting?

RENNIE: About two weeks.

KELLY: About another two weeks, and then heading off next to be The Economist's bureau chief in Beijing. David Rennie, thank you so much.

RENNIE: Pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OCTOPUS PROJECT'S "KORAKRIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.