St. Louis on the Air
1:08 pm
Thu March 7, 2013

NPR’s Ari Shapiro On Politics, Pink Martini And Dinner Parties With Nina Totenberg

Ari Shapiro is a White House correspondent for NPR.

His stories about ongoing political negotiations in Washington, D.C. are familiar to public radio listeners as is his recent guest hosting of Talk of the Nation.

Shapiro, a graduate of Yale University, began his journalism career in 2001 in the office of NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg.  He would go on to cover the Justice Department and serve reporting stints in Atlanta, Miami and Boston.  The award-winning journalist was the first NPR reporter to be promoted to correspondent before age thirty.

Shapiro, during his visit to St. Louis at the invitation of the Saint Louis University College Democrats and Political Science Club, spoke with host Don Marsh for a wide-ranging discussion, giving insight into his career and the ongoing political climate in D.C.

Conversation with Ari Shapiro

Uncertainty, gridlock, posturing and bluffing are terms which often describe the current state of politics.

Marsh: Is it as frustrating for you and the media to cover this as it is for the rest of us to watch it going on?

Absolutely, because you know where the compromise will be if they can reach the compromise. But for reasons which people in the media explain again and again, they are not able to reach compromise until the very last second, if at all. But leading up to the very last second they have to look like they’re trying so they’ll have these marathon meetings.

Why in your view are we in this position?

You can’t give a single reason but one that’s easy to point to, is that the districts in Congress have been drawn so carefully that swing districts have been drawn so carefully that swing districts have more or less been eliminated. So, Democrats and Republicans are not so much at risk of being ousted by someone of the other party in the general election … they are more at  risk of being ousted by somebody more to their extreme within their own party in a primary election. That means Republicans have less incentive to compromise with Democrats, Democrats have less incentive to compromise with Republicans because if they do compromise they may be booted out of office by someone in their party.

On expressing himself as a reporter vs. host

There’s a difference between expressing opinion and expressing personality.  I can express personality when I’m having conversations with people in a way that’s it’s more difficult to do when you’re telling a story as a reporter.

For example, when I was guest hosting Talk of the Nation we had a conversation about why romantic comedies are so terrible and I said, “I’ve always thought that romantic comedies were the female equivalent of horror stories where movie producers know they can put cheap schlock on the screen and just as teenage boys will flock to whatever the horror movie of the moment is, young women will flock to whatever the romantic comedy of the moment is.”

That was an opinion, I suppose, it wasn’t a controversial political opinion, but it’s the kind of thing you can say when you’re hosting a program that you can’t say when you’re a reporter.

I was interested in your time with Nina Totenberg. How intimidating might that have been for a youngster who listened to NPR all his life?

The best thing about working for Nina is that in the building she has a reputation as this icon, she’s this woman who everyone respects so much … yet when you work with her  you learn first-hand you learn that she is the nicest, sweetest, most wonderful person in the world.  So, of course, the first time you meet her, it’s this sense of, “Oh my God, the woman whose voice I’ve heard for years. But within a day, it’s Nina.”

Over the years, she’s become one of my closest friends and mentors in the building … I just love her dearly.

When Ari Shapiro was finishing up his internship with Nina Totenberg, hear the story of how she threw a “Washington power-hitters dinner party” to benefit him.

Ari Shapiro on dinner parties with Nina Totenberg

What’s this singing thing all about?

There’s a band from my hometown of Portland, Oregon called Pink Martini, they’re sort of a mini-orchestra.  I’ve been a fan of theirs since I was a kid and became friends with them 10-15 years ago.

And then a few years ago, the band leader, who’s the pianist, asked if I would be interested in singing something on their next album. 

Hear the story about how this relationship has blossomed and to sample Shapiro’s singing.

Ari Shapiro on his singing with Pink Martini

Follow St. Louis on the Air on Twitter - @STLonAir

Related program: