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New series bridges political divides over a meal

This interview originally aired on "In the Moment" on SDPB Radio.

In his new show, journalist and civics educator Alexander Heffner discusses current issues with politicians over a good meal. Heffner the host of "The Open Mind" on PBS and creator of "Breaking Bread with Alexander" on Bloomberg TV.

One of its first episodes features South Dakota Sen. John Thune. They shared a pickup basketball game and cheeseburgers while talking about military issues.

Heffner joins "In the Moment" to explore the themes in the episode and his goals for the series.
The following transcript was auto-generated.
Lori Walsh:
Journalist and civics educator Alexander Heffner has covered U.S. culture and politics from several unique angles. In his new series, "Breaking Bread with Alexander," he gathers top American politicians around lunch counters and kitchen tables for in-depth political conversations.

One of his season one guests is South Dakota Sen. John Thune. They met on the basketball court in Murdo and then they took a deep dive into leadership, the Supreme Court and the Golden Rule, as well as a couple of cheeseburgers.

Well, Alexander is the host of "The Open Mind" on PBS. He's the creator of "Breaking Bread with Alexander" that's currently on Bloomberg TV. And he last joined us on "In the Moment" on stage at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Brookings.

We talked about his extraordinary book "A Documentary History of the United States" at that time. He's returning us today via phone.

Alexander, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Alexander Heffner:
Lori, always such a pleasure to hear your voice.

Lori Walsh:
I'm delighted. I'm inspired and delighted by your work and by this show and by your courage of taking on John Thune in basketball because he has a slight height advantage over you, which you knew going in. Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to be on the court and in Murdo with John Thune as part of "Breaking Bread."

Alexander Heffner:
Oh, thank you, Lori. You are one of my favorite, if not my most favorite person in the public broadcasting system, so it's a delight to be with you.

Congratulations to your South Dakota state team. They will be participating in a championship game, I hear soon.

Lori Walsh:

Alexander Heffner:
And so a shout-out to them and to all those folks in Brookings in the Book Festival.

I knew of Sen. Thune's passion for basketball. It's one that I shared, however, I didn't have the luxury of going outside to play quite as easily growing up in Manhattan. That said, I had a little Fisher-Price hoop, and as I told him in the interview, in my bedroom and I practiced on it fastidiously and meticulously. We also in the city used the hallways as the pitcher's mound and where the pitcher and catcher set up when possible if you can find an apartment house with such a hallway.

So it was a shared passion as are cheeseburgers. He says he has cheeseburgers at least three or four times a week, whether he's stateside or in D.C. And I was told by his staff he would be showing up in athletic gear. And so knowing the height disadvantage that I'm at, I said, "I'm showing up in shorts and a T-shirt." He was a little bit more professionally dressed than me. However, it worked out because we created a rhythm of conversation on the court as well as playing a little pickup one-on-one. And it breeds the kind of emotional intelligence that in a political sense can be applied to forge consensus and compromise on issues. And I hope you felt that watching the series and our exchanges, and I hope viewers on Bloomberg TV and Bloomberg Originals where "Breaking Bread" streams each week will pick that up, whether it's Sen. Thune and Gov. Cooper of North Carolina or Gov. Lujan Grisham of New Mexico.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah, for listeners who haven't seen the program, Sen. Thune's idea of athletic gear is an untucked button-down shirt with no tie.

However, I want to get back to this idea of the journalism that you're doing because of the recent polls that we just talked about earlier on the show, a poll in South Dakota that talked about how concerned South Dakotans are about the stability of democracy. And we've seen that nationally in some work the Washington Post has done as well. And you are on the forefront of this kind of journalism.

Sen. Thune says people sort of attack each other via the press, and you're doing the opposite here. You're asking him what he has to say about Cory Booker that's positive. You're asking him who he enjoys working with. Tell me about the philosophy that you bring to these conversations, especially around food and figuring out how someone eats and how they serve and how they talk about government.

There's a whole lot in what I just dumped out there, but tell me a little bit about the philosophy that you bring to the interviews. Let's start there.

Alexander Heffner:
Yeah. I think a lot about that speech President Kennedy gave at American University where he talked about the shared qualities of being human beings and food uniformly unites us in that respect. We all need sustenance and some of us find that more at Dairy Queen than home-cooked meals. Some of us find that more through a medley of vegetables and fruit, and some of us find that more through pie.

But at the end of the day and throughout this series, that was the entry point of the dialogue that I think elicited meaningful discussion of public policy in a way that set up these electeds for success in their negotiations with members of their own party, in their dialogues with the public and town hall meetings. And ultimately, I think that that's what journalism should focus on today if we want to preserve civil discourse and a functioning republic. That is, there is always a place for local investigative reporting in journalism.

You and I have talked a lot about how there is not an incentive, whether you're in public media or commercial streaming television, there's not an incentive to find consensus. The incentives are in the opposite direction of hand-to-hand combat that dislocates any kind of potential for compromise, that divides instead of building bridges. And I think as we work on season two and bring that to fruition, we're nearly complete with the filming of season two of Breaking Bread. We're, for your listeners, still wanting to make this possible, but it's tough in this climate. The feedback in response to season one was you had these exchanges with individual electives where they invited you, but there were no conversations with the D and R together.

And I cite Sen. Lott's memoir "Herding Cats." Have you ever tried to interview a politician for more than five minutes on cable news? It's difficult.

But I am informing our pursuit of season two of "Breaking Bread" with a more tangible goal. And that is to bring together two of the electives who we interview and demonstrate their bipartisan leadership during a time in this primary general election season when it's going to be impossible for the media to incentivize common values.

You have two extremes often that are hijacking the discourse in a destructive way that doesn't enable us to get a hold of issues like border security or comprehensive immigration reform in the long run, or finding more effective instruments to help alleviate the fires in the world going on right now in the geopolitical sense.

Lori Walsh:
Cory Booker arrives at your luncheon and his staff tells you he's fasting or he's a big faster, so he might not even eat, and then they put this great vegan food in front of him and he is like, "Oh, I have to eat that." But there's this vulnerability in someone like Sen. Cory Booker or Sen. John Thune eating on television. You play football with Booker; you play basketball with Thune. That means you're going to see them fumble a ball or miss so that is a vulnerability. And now asking them to, say, sit down together would be an increased vulnerability.

Are you noticing that as a host that part of what you have to overcome is their awareness of the perception that they are stepping out into territory where you might miss a shot or you might dribble ketchup or you might do something that's not— Because we live in this, I think Thune mentions it, this digital, the pace is so fast that everything they do is so scrutinized. What are your thoughts on just sort of introducing a healthy sense of humanity and vulnerability to these conversations?

Alexander Heffner:
Well, your question is well taken. I think it's exceedingly challenging to facilitate that type of meaningful exchange. And I think the proof of that is the low favorability ratings of congresspeople and institutions of Congress and the inability to achieve any great compromises in the 21st century. I mean, we really have not. We have been able to extricate ourselves from crises and find harmony that way during moments of tragedy and upheaval when our nation was confronted with terrorism.

We, in the pandemic era, had a much more challenging time finding unity of purpose than we did following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against us. So what you're saying is there is a media climate now where you don't have to still catch up on yourself. You certainly don't have to eat barbecue on TV in front of the cameras.

So I give a lot of credit to the principal, the elected to participate in the first season and now the second season. And I'm just hopeful that the collective political capital that is cultivated through these exchanges from the perspective of viewers and also the electives and their staffs when they are watching it play out when we're filming and then on television or on the Bloomberg Originals app, that people can feel like they have a path to be a solution. And that's the most inaccessible thing today when there is such hyper-partisanship and toxicity in the water. It's just the capacity to believe that you can make things better and that fundamentally is what this series is about.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah. One of your dear friends is from Spearfish, South Dakota. In your interview with the governor of North Dakota, you're sporting a pretty cool hat, which is from Colton, South Dakota, and you said you're a Manhattan kid. But tell me a little bit about what you learned in your travels through Murdo and your travels through North Dakota to talk to their governor about this part of the country because this is another thing about this for our listeners here on SDPB. It's been a long time since I've seen someone spend the kind of time in these communities as you spend on "Breaking Bread," and it's giving voice to a governor from North Dakota, a senator from South Dakota, and really the people from... I mean governor from North Dakota whose name, I'm just totally blanking right now, talks about what he learned from his Native American leaders about being a better listener. And I'm not sure anybody else is doing that.

So tell me a little bit about your travels through these two states particularly, and how they impacted you and how you wanted to tell these stories.

Alexander Heffner:
Well, thanks for that recognition. It means a lot for you to say that and to see that. And for your viewers who investigate what we're doing to realize the first season took us to both Dakotas, Oklahoma, Utah and New Mexico. The second season took us back to the Midwest and the plains in the form of Kansas. I recently sat down over a cheeseburger like I did with Sen. Thune, with Sen. Moran, and that was a really meaningful exchange I felt. My takeaway has been that the people of the heartland embody the virtues and the aspirations of the country and that there have to be better ways for us to channel those ambitions and resentments that people experience, whether they're in the inner city or the most rural parts of the country.

And I think I described that in the episode with Sen. Booker, this idea that the media industrial complex and the political industrial complex and of course the lobbying industries have all conspired to make it impossible for us to feel like we can see each other's humanity and that that is the principle objective in public service.

There are going to be disagreements on abortion and reproductive health. There are going to be disagreements on a more active foreign policy and involvement in the world and a more isolationist orientation. But we've been negotiating those tensions for decades as a successful post-Civil War country, a successful country in that we exist. Our existential status is alive. That now what I think was most resonant for me in traveling throughout the state of South Dakota, was just that there is a certain rugged libertarian ethos that is the reality of the politics of rural America. And that can be respected at the same time that South Dakota and the folks from the plains respect the safety nets that are more palpably needed in places that are far more expensive to live.

That somewhat changed since the pandemic struck, but it's still quite accurate to say it's more expensive to live in New York City or Boston or San Francisco. And that the stress of blue-collar angst has been felt by many people who've been maxed out in living in these places. So I think that there can be and is empathy from the perspective of city folk and rural folk listening to each other's stories. And I came away and have experienced all sides of the Dakotas, I think I know South Dakota as well as I know the New York City subway system as I knew it when I used it quite often.

And that's from Colton that had the best Mexican food I've ever eaten in the United States, to the towns or small cities of Sioux Falls and Rapid and everywhere in between the campuses. My suggestion to city folk who disregard the middle of America is don't.

There is an intellectual life that is as exciting and accessible in these parts of the country and there are people who are committed to the values of public service even if they feel more strongly than people from cities that the government ought not interfere in their way of life. And you referenced Gov. Burgum, the governor of North Dakota, who ran for president this time around, but suspended his campaign and discovered this is not the year for him. And we had a pretty intellectually honest conversation about the issue of abortion.

And he was one of the only conservatives I've heard in recent years acknowledge the inconsistency that people would find on the current Republican conservative position as they would on the liberal democratic division on being against big government, but then endorsing laws that would very much infringe on the individual choices of women in North Dakota or likewise in South Dakota.

So I think that that's one of the tensions that needs to be resolved on this issue. I don't know if it's enough to have overturned Roe and enabled states to make their own determinations on the issue of choice and abortion access to then have a message of small government when states would restrict birth control as well as reproductive health care. That's one of these extremely messy issues that is exploited for nefarious partisan gains instead of real questions of how can we come to terms with the two different ways of looking at this issue and have a sensible approach that is either considering what state prerogatives are or a national approach.

But Gov. Burgum grappled with the issue in a way that most don't because the Republican position for some time has been support for capital punishment and support for the abolition of abortion. And to me, that's always seemed on its face in general is just as liberals who in many cases support abortion access but oppose capital punishment. And it's one of those areas where you look in the mirror and say, "Can we be more genuine in thinking through our thought process about why these positions make sense?"

Lori Walsh:
Well, you can see "Breaking Bread with Alexander" on Bloomberg Originals now, that's where season one is at. His book is called "A Documentary History of the United States," and he is, of course, host of "The Open Mind" that's on PBS, and you can watch that on the PBS app and then also on STPB TV. Alexander Heffner, it is always a delight to have you on the program. We'll talk to you next time.

Alexander Heffner:
Thank you, Lori. Delighted to hear you again and my best to everyone in the state and everyone else listening.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.