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Shane Smith ended up with quite a different film than he set out make a year ago. A House Divided, his latest Vice special report for HBO, is an interview-packed look at how eight years of President Barack Obama resulted in a cleft Capitol. The extent of those divisions was only made clear a month ago with the the Nov. 8 victory for Donald Trump.
The special, which draws from several sit-downs with President Obama and a slew of key GOP figures from the last decade, airs Friday and recalls the early days of the administration, the government shutdown, the dawn of the tea party and, ultimately, the recent stalemate over filling the open Supreme Court seat. Smith, the Vice Media CEO, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter earlier in the week about the process of getting both sides to talk so candidly, how it proved nearly impossible to get anyone to talk after the election and how Trump will arrive at the White House in January a very similar scenario as Obama eight years ago.
You mention at the top of the piece that you had the idea over a year ago. How did it evolve given the events of the 2016?
We wanted to speak with the powers that be about the last eight years, so we started with Obama’s camp. There was some frustration there about partisan politics and getting stymied. So we thought, why don’t we talk to these people … Eric Cantor, John Boehner, Frank Luntz, Lindsey Graham and all of the main players on the opposition. These people are all known for being quite partisan and not working with the other side. But when you talk to Boehner and Cantor, they’ll tell you they got kicked out for being too bipartisan. American politics, which is always kind of dysfunctional by its setup, now you can’t even talk to anyone on the other side. During the election cycle, getting their reactions to everything going on, it was interesting to see how polarizing it’s become and how Washington has become ineffectual.
How much of the reporting was done after the election?
There were some interviews after the fact. But, post-election, no one really wanted to talk anymore. I think it took the wind out of both sides’ sails, and people were confused. Everyone was willing to jump on Trump and then everyone didn’t really want to be interviewed afterwards — especially on the GOP side. Trump is going to come to power with the same sort of level of legislative power that Obama had, in the first two years anyway. He’s going to have the Senate, the House and the Executive.
Did you come to see it as an autopsy on how we got to this year?
It’s important to remember how we got here. There was dissatisfaction with Washington, across the board. Instead of being a bit more centrist and logical, everyone became a bit more firebrandy. It’s a weird political situation. I’m sort of a centrist dude, and I was surprised because the DOW went from 6,000 to 19,000 under Obama. Jobs haven’t been better in 15 years. And, in the middle of the election, a census came out saying the middle class grew more than it has in 50 years. And everyone just says, “America is f—ed. Jobs are f—ed. The economy is f—ed.” If that was a Republican government, they’d be hammering on how they saved the world. If you do go back, as an autopsy, no one was allowed to say anything this election. You couldn’t even venture into those arguments because it was all name-calling and bullying. We wanted to do a forensic look at how this happened, beat by beat.
John Boehner is the breakout, for me, in terms of candor and humor. Was his or anybody’s take different from what you expected or surprising in any way?
When you meet him, he’s classic Washington. He tells great anecdotes. He’s funny and he’s charming. He sort of comes across as a non-psychopathic Frank Underwood, the Washington Mr. Fixit. He understands what needs to be done and how to whip votes. He believed that he was in a good position to get legislation done because it had to have Republican and Democratic fingerprints on it. And, when he talks, it sounds great. But he was ousted from his party for being too bipartisan … for even meeting with Obama. I think that’s a tragedy. After meeting him, you think we want more people like this in politics. And what we’re getting instead is demagogues and populists.
I think it’s safe to say that Vice’s audience leans progressive. Does that make booking some of these GOP personalities difficult?
Yes. I give everyone a fair shake. My particular beat on the weekly HBO show is to tell both sides of the story. On some things, we do skew progressive because of our audience and our employees — we mostly employ millennials — but when it comes to me, personally, I think everyone knows that I’m not going to go in there and do any hit jobs.
Did spending all of this time chronicling how divisive the last eight years have been prepare you for the outcome of the election?
We knew that no matter what happened, it was not going to be pretty. If Hillary got in, again, you’d still have a house divided. You’d have a lame duck president to begin. And look at how they attacked the Clintons before. It could have been even more partisan, if you can f—ing imagine that. But we did have a lot of intel, because we were hanging out with both sides, and everyone was telling me 5 percent Hillary lock. But, look, these things are gerrymandered to the point where it’s a 50/50 coin flip. There’s no such thing as a lock.
If a house divided cannot stand, what do you want viewers to take away from this?
I think that what we have to understand is that democracy can be ugly, freaky and weird, but you get the government that you deserve. If you look at the amount of people who didn’t vote, either as a protest or what have you, they can’t complain about what happens afterwards. I think Obama said it best, and it’s not a very bombastic ending, but he’s progressive in policies and a conservative in his institutionalism — and he worries that people will become impatient with the dysfunction and look to have systemic change. Revolutions don’t always go the way we want them to. That, to me, was very telling. We have to make this democracy work because that’s what makes America great, and great place to emigrate … which I did. The tone we wanted to strike here was not right or left. The system broke down for a number of reasons, and it’s up to all of us — politicians, media, voters — to try and have some sanity and not go to extreme right or left solutions.
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