Wendell Potter, author of ‘Deadly Spin: How Corporate PR is Killing Healthcare and Deceiving Americans’, traces his life from growing up poor and Republican in Tennessee, to radicalization during the Vietnam War, to cynical journalist who just wanted to make money – on Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay
PAUL JAY Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And we’re continuing our discussion with Wendell Potter, who was an insurance executive, private insurance executive, and became a whistleblower on the private insurance industry. Thanks for joining us.
WENDELL POTTER Thank you, Paul.
PAUL JAY So we’re going to talk a little bit how you got to be a whistleblower. Tell us a little bit about growing up. What were the kind of–what was the political culture of your household? Did you believe in the American dream, and the mythology of, sort of, the flag, and patriotism? What was the culture and politics in your house?
WENDELL POTTER Well, it was that; I grew up in one of the most Republican parts of the country, historically Republican. East Tennessee. Which is–I don’t think my congressional district has ever been represented by a Democrat, the First Congressional District of Tennessee. We were raised poor. My parents didn’t have a lot of money. Neither of them was able to go to college. My dad was a farmer, initially, and they operated a little country store. And that wasn’t doing too well. They were losing money.
So dad took a job at a factory several miles away in Kingsport, Tennessee. That’s where I grew up. We were certainly a working-class family. And I don’t know that I even knew a Democrat for much of my life.
PAUL JAY You were born in 1951.
WENDELL POTTER I was born in 1951.
PAUL JAY I think there’s, like, one month between us.
WENDELL POTTER Is that right? Yeah. Yeah. And yes, certainly, we were patriots. My dad had served in World War II. He–in fact, I wear my dad’s dog tags to this day, to honor my dad. He didn’t talk a lot about the war. But we were certainly patriotic folks.
PAUL JAY It’s interesting. I kept my dad’s dog tags for a long time.
WENDELL POTTER Is that right?
PAUL JAY Why do poor people in Tennessee vote Republican?
WENDELL POTTER It actually goes back to the Civil War, because that part of Tennessee did not want to secede from the Union. There were a lot of Union–I refer to them as Union sympathizers. But there were a lot of folks who joined the Union Army from that part of Tennessee. It’s very different, Tennessee is really. It’s often referred to as the “three states of Tennessee.” The three grand divisions of East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee– and East Tennessee has been Republican for, for as long as I guess anyone can remember. And so it’s cultural. You’re born into–it’s kind of like being born into the Republican faith, to a certain extent.
PAUL JAY But it’s changed. That faith has dramatically changed from back–even when you were-
WENDELL POTTER It has changed. The party has changed. The Republican Party that I grew up in and that I was familiar with, it’s unrecognizable now.
PAUL JAY Like, the party of the Civil War, the party of Lincoln-
WENDELL POTTER Yeah.
PAUL JAY That’s a whole other world from the party of George Wallace and the other-
WENDELL POTTER It’s true. But for a lot of those folks-
PAUL JAY George Wallace was a Republican, right?
WENDELL POTTER He was a Democrat. But he was a Democrat.
PAUL JAY But he became a Republican. Wallace Democrats–most of these Wallace Democrats became Republicans.
WENDELL POTTER Yeah, yeah, yeah. Dixiecrats, yeah. In fact, there were a lot of Democrats in Middle and West Tennessee that have over the years certainly become Republicans, and that’s why Tennessee now is a very red state. But in East Tennessee you’re just kind of born into it like you’re born into the Baptist Church, for example. It’s just part of your identity. And even though the policies have changed, people still feel that they need to be a Republican.
PAUL JAY I mean, at least since the ‘50s and ‘60s, certainly during FDR in the ‘30s, one would have thought poor people would’ve identified more with the FDR Democrats and even what came later, certainly in comparison to Republicans.
WENDELL POTTER Right. In fact, my dad–and I’m probably here because of FDR’s social programs that were labeled as socialism back in the day. One was the CCC, the Conservative Conservation Corps, I think I’m getting that right, which was one of the first programs that Roosevelt implemented to try to get young men at that time trained to do some–to work on public works. And my dad actually went all the way across the country to serve, to work in Washington state, developing a national park or a state park out there. And then later when he came back, he was hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was another Roosevelt-
PAUL JAY “Socialist”-supposed program.
WENDELL POTTER Exactly.
PAUL JAY But he’s still in the faith. The Republican faith.
WENDELL POTTER Yeah. They always, to my knowledge, continued to vote Republican. I’m named after Wendell Willkie, you know, a Republican from before I was born. But that just shows you how Republican my family was. And even though my dad got those jobs, and the training that he got from those jobs was invaluable, I don’t think I ever saw, like I said, I’m not sure I even met a Democrat until I was almost in college.
PAUL JAY So, you grow up believing in this patriotism, the America–I call, you call the religion “Republicanism,” but I call the religion “Americanism.” You grow up with that. When does it start dawning on you that you start questioning all that?
WENDELL POTTER You know, in college. I was the first in my family to go to college. I began to be exposed to other–other people, and other-
PAUL JAY And this is during the Vietnam War.
WENDELL POTTER It was during the Vietnam War. It was. While I was at the University of Tennessee, I got involved in the student newspaper. I ultimately was able to serve as editor of the student newspaper. I was involved in politics a little bit on campus, so I got–I wouldn’t say radicalized, but I certainly was exposed to other thinking, and certainly to a lot of people who came on campus during the Vietnam era. William Kunstler, and some people-
PAUL JAY He was a very famous civil rights lawyer.
WENDELL POTTER Exactly, yeah.
PAUL JAY An anti-war lawyer.
WENDELL POTTER Right, exactly. So I began to be exposed to other thoughts and other ways of thinking. And that began to open my mind to see the world a bit differently than when I’d been [crosstalk].
PAUL JAY Well, the deciding thing about this era was the war, the Vietnam War, and your stance towards it had a lot to do with what you did with the rest of your life.
WENDELL POTTER Yeah. And while I was there, by the way, Richard Nixon was president. And right after the bombing of Cambodia, Billy Graham was holding a crusade on the University of Tennessee campus at Neyland Stadium, the football stadium. And he invited Richard Nixon–or Nixon invited himself–to come to this crusade. And I went to that to see what was going on. Nixon and Billy Graham onstage in Knoxville, Tennessee. And there were a lot of students who were protesting that, and some of them were friends of mine, and got arrested. So it was quite the time.
PAUL JAY How did you feel towards it?
WENDELL POTTER I became very anti-war, myself. And as I became editor of the student newspaper I wrote some editorials, certainly, that were anti-war.
PAUL JAY Did this put you at odds with your parents?
WENDELL POTTER Not necessarily. Because my dad, as I noted, he had been in the war. And I’m an only child. He did not want me to have to go to battle, to go to war. It was the memories of war were just too vivid for him. He lived through it. And I think he would have wanted me to go to Canada rather than for me to go to to serve in Vietnam. As it happened, we had that lottery. We had a lottery back then when the draft changed. And you were subjected to the draft based on your lottery number. I had a high lottery number, and so I didn’t have to serve. But my dad was–at least that was one thing that he certainly disagreed with others in the party, about the value of war.
PAUL JAY When you say you weren’t radicalized, but you’re writing editorials against the Vietnam War in Tennessee. I mean, that’s kind of radical.
WENDELL POTTER Well, I guess you would say that. Maybe so.
PAUL JAY Tennessee is one of the states that gives rise to a lot of soldiers, isn’t it?
WENDELL POTTER Oh, it has. That’s why it’s called the Volunteer State. Has historically, and probably still to this day. And one reason why it still is today, because a lot of soldiers come from poor communities and poor families. And that’s just–but there still is a volunteer spirit. The University of Tennessee is–they’re called the Volunteers, so it’s historic, and it still is. People I think feel that way, and [there is] a lot of God and country in Tennessee to this day.
PAUL JAY So I’m guessing when you say you weren’t radicalized, in a sense, that you were against the war in Vietnam, but that didn’t cause you to question some of the underpinnings of America; how things are run, who owns stuff, what the politics is made of. Or did it?
WENDELL POTTER Not so much. Not so much. Although I really wanted to be a journalist. And I majored in journalism. I just fell in love with the idea of being a journalist. And I was able to get a good job after I graduated from the university at a sizable metropolitan paper in Memphis. So I moved to Memphis.
PAUL JAY And are you voting Republican or Democrat at this point?
WENDELL POTTER Democrat.
PAUL JAY So you broke the faith.
WENDELL POTTER I broke the faith. In fact, I think the first vote that I cast was for George McGovern.
PAUL JAY Oh, you really broke the faith.
WENDELL POTTER Yeah, I did. I did. I did. So by that time I certainly had changed my political outlook. And I think it, again, is partly because of the war. And I think there’s no denying that.
PAUL JAY Now, your father may have not wanted you to go to war, but you voting McGovern is past–you know, in terms of liberal or progressive values. How’s your father with what’s becoming of you?
WENDELL POTTER I felt that I needed to–We didn’t have a lot of political conversations, to be honest. And I think that was maybe just out of respect for my parents and their point of view. We didn’t have arguments at the dinner table. Some years later I actually went to work for a Democrat, a guy who was running for governor of Tennessee, and we did have some conversations then. And I think actually that might have been the first Democrat that my mom and dad ever voted for was the guy that I was working for as press secretary some years ago; several years ago.
PAUL JAY So you become a journalist.
WENDELL POTTER Yeah.
PAUL JAY What kind of journalism? What are you working on?
WENDELL POTTER I was a general assignment reporter, initially. I was on the police beat for a little while. But I soon began to get assignments to cover local politics in Memphis and cover the city council in Memphis. And then I got lucky. I got noticed and was asked to go–was assigned to cover state government in Nashville. So I was a statehouse reporter for a while, covering the governor’s office, the state legislature. And then after a couple of years of doing that, I got noticed once again and was given a chance to go to Washington. And I was a newspaper reporter in the Scripps Howard newspaper chains bureau in Washington. It was back when Scripps Howard owned a lot of newspapers.
PAUL JAY What year are we in now?
WENDELL POTTER This was in the mid-70s. That’s when I went to Washington. It was during the last part of the Ford administration and the beginning of the Carter administration.
PAUL JAY The more you see inside the workings of politics, what does that do to the way you view the world?
WENDELL POTTER I get very cynical at a very young age. And this was back during the time when there was such a thing as bipartisanship in Washington. But I got pretty cynical when I actually saw how Congress really works up close and personal, to see that. And I frankly decided I didn’t want to grow old as a reporter in Washington. I would go sometimes to the National Press Club. I was a member there. And I would see these old reporters, probably my age now, but at the time they seemed ancient, and they were always at the Press Club bar getting loaded after work. I thought, that’s not the way I want my life to turn out.
PAUL JAY By more cynical, you mean you started to see the way money controlled the politics.
WENDELL POTTER I did. I did. And I saw all the reporters becoming cynical observing it, and just making them cynics.
PAUL JAY Yeah, I always thought it was very similar–I made a movie once about professional wrestling, which is called “Hitman Hart, Wrestling With Shadows.” It became fairly well known. But you would have the theater of wrestling, and then the real business behind the scenes. And there’s a whole media and press that covers the theater–at least it used to–as if it was real.
WENDELL POTTER Right.
PAUL JAY And I always thought that’s how a lot of the press corps covers Washington.
WENDELL POTTER Oh, it is, to this day. And it’s one of the reasons I have written the books that I have written, because of the insufficient quality of journalism out of Washington. Almost all of the reporting that you see, in my view, is very superficial. It’s almost as if they’re sports reporters, covering politics as if it were a sporting event. It’s exactly how it’s done. And there’s very little reporting about policy issues. And when I was a reporter there, that was back before money was as influential as it is now. And there were far, far fewer lobbyists in Washington during that time. But they certainly run the town now.
PAUL JAY So you get cynical about the whole system. And that cynicism, I guess for a lot of people, leads one to the conclusion, well, you might as well make some money.
WENDELL POTTER Well, that’s exactly what I ultimately decided to do. And my way out of journalism at that time, my first venture into the world of politics, if you will, and then later business, was to serve as a press secretary to a guy who was running for governor. He lost. He won the Democratic nomination but he lost the general election, and he asked me to stay on to work with him. He–it turned out he was from Knoxville. In Knoxville he was leading a group of local folks who were trying to bring a World’s Fair to Knoxville, Tennessee. And I thought that was kind of silly. But he asked me if I’d stay on and help him pull that off. And I did. And we did. Knoxville had a World’s Fair in 1982. And I went from there to Atlanta, and was a partner in a small PR firm. And then from there into health care. So I was making more money. Certainly more money than most journalists make. And by the time that I got recruited to one of the big health insurance companies, I thought I had it made.
PAUL JAY So what do you do with this, kind of, this being who had gotten somewhat radicalized and sort of progressive, and you saw the role of money and corruption in politics and such. What do you do with that person as you get more and more in the corporate world and start to embody, I guess, the values of where you’re working?
WENDELL POTTER I tried to bury that guy from, you know, my earlier years. I was pretty happy making more money, and getting promotions, and having jobs with important-sounding titles. And it’s very hard to walk away from that. It really is. But I was pretty impressed with myself. And the money bought a nice house and a couple of cars, and we were able to establish a lifestyle that a lot of people would envy. Certainly one that I couldn’t imagine when I was growing up in East Tennessee. I was making more money probably in a year than my dad would make in 10 years, if not more.
PAUL JAY You were making something close to, in today’s dollars, would have been close to $500,000 a year when you left.
WENDELL POTTER Right, exactly.
PAUL JAY Well, the story of being so successful and making a lot of money and leaving it, blowing it all off, is going to be the subject of our next segment. So please join us for the next segment of Reality Asserts Itself with Wendell Potter on The Real News Network.