Movers, Shakers, Music Lovers: Ken Bazinet

This year, HeadCount is taking a deeper look at the people who make and report the news in Washington, D.C. — and we’re talking to them about (what else?) music. It turns out that the people who shape the political landscape are as passionate about music as they are about politics. We’re talking to them about the bands they love and the shows that changed their lives.

Headcount: Having a significant touring history with the Grateful Dead and Phish is pretty unusual for a White House correspondent – speak a bit how you got into the scene in the first place.

Bazinet: Well, going to UMass-Amherst was -- and still is -- a hotbed of Grateful Dead and jam band activity, so I was steeped in the band’s music from the get-go. All of my friends at school went to that famous Lewiston, Maine show in 1980, I heard the tapes, and it blew me away, so I was ready to rock. I caught them the next time they were in Hartford, which was my first show.

I pretty much ‘got’ the scene immediately. That experience was something, boy, and I thought these are some really cool people, a really cool band, and that a really unique, interesting thing was going down in this room. I was a Pink Floyd fan coming out of high school, so I was already into mind-bending music. But this was a bit different, and I knew pretty quickly this was my band.

What were your most memorable shows and experiences?

I guess my top experiences were seeing the Philly JFK Stadium show with Dylan in 1987, with my kid brother, which was great; I really enjoyed seeing Sting open for the Grateful Dead at RFK stadium in DC; and I loved seeing the ’94 and ’95 Sam Boyd Silver Bowl shows in Vegas – just for the sheer spectacle. The Traffic and Dead tour was sick, just sick. I loved that.

I’ve just always liked “the road” and the experience itself. We slept in backseats of cars, on the ground, in tents, in asphalt parking lots… it was kind of like covering a political campaign with Bill Clinton in the 90’s. Clinton was like the Dead – he never stuck to a script; he might have a general text his staff distributed, but he was sure to go off on a riff – interesting riffs that took you lots of different places. I believe with his oratory, he is the Daniel Webster of our day.

And the thing I liked most was being able to see different tunes each night of the tour. I was really into "Help on the Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s" when they started playing that again, and you’d have to go to like 10 shows before you’d see it again. It was always a game chasing a tune.

So after the Grateful Dead, where did your musical tastes take you?

After the Dead, I was musically open minded, and Phish really came out of the box hard and hit the ground running when they got back together. But Phish really grabbed my attention well before the Dead scene was over.  I saw them in a tiny little venue very early on – an armory in Greenfield, MA, and thought this is just some fantastic stuff – distinctly different from the Dead, but definitely of the genre. I didn't tour around with Phish, like I did the Dead at that point, however.

When Phish got back together, I paid attention to the shows down in Hampton and then the next year caught two shows at Merriweather -- and it really changed my perspective even more. No question, at least in my mind, they are the preeminent standard bearer of the jam band genre that my primary band, the Grateful Dead, created. Phish is great. Period.

Widespread Panic is right up there for me. Panic is really hittin’ it hard – Jimmy Herring really does it for me, and when I first saw him play with them, I thought, “Wow, this is really gonna work out for this band.” It clearly has.

I also love the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I was raised on that music in my household as a kid, thanks to my mother, a pianist-turned-organist and my father, a guitar-playing gentleman. When I got to UMass, met MB (my wife from the Berkshires) we spent lots of time at Tanglewood – the summer home of the BSO and another favorite venue of mine.

When people ask me which band I’ve seen most after the Dead, it’s Phish second and the Boston Symphony Orchetra third.

So what do you make of the festival scene and its increasing popularity?

The festival scene is just so vibrant. You get to see everybody these days -- whether its at All Good, Gathering of the Vibes, PeachFest, everywhere -- there’s just so much great music. I love it. One of the bands I got turned on to by seeing festivals is Grace Potter and the Nocturnals – they’re awesome, and I always make an effort to see Gov't Mule, Tedeschi-Trucks, Keller Williams and the dead spin off bands Ratdog, Phil & Friends and the various ensembles Mickey and Billy put together.

I’ve also seen HeadCount all over the place – I like seeing the banners, seeing the booth, and seeing kids getting engaged in the process. Unfortunately -- and I’ve seen it for years -- there’s a group of people who feel they can’t make a difference in politics and government. The mission is right: it doesn’t matter how you vote, it only matters that you register and participate. By having the HeadCount booth at shows it sends a clear message to music-lovers: dance now, but vote later.

For young people, the so-called millennials, it says, 'hey, participation is cool.' For Deadheads with slightly more than a touch of gray, like me, it says, 'yeah, this really has been a one a strange trip, but a good one, a very, very good one.'

So how did you climb your way to being a White House reporter? That’s one of the most coveted beats in the entire world.

I first started on the White House beat with United Press International (UPI) in 1993. I was already with UPI in New England, and a friend in DC asked if I’d come down. He literally said, “Can you start next week?” So I was now on UPI’s international desk. I’d always followed world affairs when I was young, and closely followed Nelson Mandela’s tour when he first got out of prison. I already knew quite a bit about Apartheid, and I was positioning myself for an international post in Johannesburg.

But then, of course, fate intervened. Someone quit at UPI’s 4-member team at the White House. Lucian Carr – UPI’s editor in New York, who just happened to the father of early Beat movement along with Ginsberg and Burroughs and another Massachusetts guy of French-Canadian descent by the name of Kerouac, was looking after me.

Lou and his significant other Kathleen Silvassy always looked after me, and Lou liked the copy that I cranked out of the UPI Springfield (Mass.) bureau. He knew I was a friend of the road and respectful of literature. Jerry and Bobby got to know Lou a bit! And Bobby, thanks to historian and Dead biographer Dennis McNally, has been very kind to me. We got to hang out in DC after gigs a couple of times. Means a lot.

With the help of Lou, and legendary UPI editors Andy Tully and Frank Czongas, one thing led to another and I was asked to join the White House bureau. Obviously, it was very cool. I did a lot of travelling and a lot of learning – principally from veteran UPI scribes Lori Santos and of course Helen Thomas, my boss and my colleague on that beat, and a good friend, whom I miss dearly, though most days it feels like she's still around.

What’s especially amazing special to me is that a guy named Paul Basken would eventually join me at the White House UPI bureau. Basken is the king of the road, top shelf journalist, my roommate from college and thereafter, and the guy who got me off-duty at the White House in order to join him at the Soldier Field shows in '95. Of course, we didn't know at the time that we were seeing Jerry and the Grateful Dead for the last time -- so you can imagine how significant that is for us to have been there.

So what happened when UPI went belly-up?

UPI of course, eventually starting falling apart, and the same opportunity popped up at the New York Daily News in 1998 -- and I ended up being their White House correspondent for the next eleven years. I loved it. That paper hit hard and wide. And I got to do time with another set of kick-ass scribes, Tom DeFrank, Mikey McAuliffe, Dick Sisk and James Gordon Meek.   We were the best bureau in DC, per capita, bar none. You did not want to come up against us.

Eventually, I did over 250 legs on Air Force One, combined for UPI and the Daily News, but it was easy to log those kind of numbers when Clinton was doing like five stops a day on the campaign trail in '96. Bubba Clinton, love him or hate him, the guy is a road warrior, Hillary, too. I still have my t-shirt from the '92 inauguration event where Bobby played. It's the Steal Your Face logo with a saxophone in the middle.

What are your best memories and experiences from the White House beat?

There are several: I’d say the Clinton trip to China in the summer of 1998 was a landmark moment for me. Filing a story from on top of the Great Wall was a pinnacle moment in my career. That would be the trip that stuck out for me.

Another episode that stuck out for me -- actually, more of a spectacle -- was the Clinton summit with Boris Yeltsin at Hyde Park in 1995 where Yeltsin got hammered over lunch and came out and did the news conference drunk. Clinton did a great job covering for him. We all knew Yeltsin was wasted; it was obvious, and a low, yet clearly very high, moment of his tenure as Russian President.

Covering the election of 2000 was memorable – I still don’t know if we ever really figured out what really happened. It was just a moment that made you think of the greatness of the country – when Al Gore decided it wasn’t in the best interests of the country to keep fighting in order to preserve the republic. That was a stand-up moment in our time in my mind.

The election of Obama? That was huge; another moment to see firsthand the greatness of our country – for me it had nothing to do with politics, it had to do with the sheer humanity of our citizens making that choice. Whether it has all worked out for him and the country is an entirely different matter – and frankly that won't matter compared to the legacy.

Soon the White House journalism pack will start their hunt for presidential legacy stories. It's an anachronistic routine, but frankly that ship has sailed. His legacy is set: Obama is the first African-American elected president, he signed health care reform into law and he ordered the successful hit on Osama Bin Laden. As far as legacy goes, everything else is strictly sixth or seventh paragraph material in his eventual obituary.

If you’re an aspiring young journalist in high school today, what’s the path to becoming a White House correspondent?

You have to do it totally different than how I did it: I was in a world-class journalism program studying American history and the history of American journalism; the emphasis was on post-Vietnam, the Cold War era; you need to understand all of that for context with a very global view, obviously, especially as I was involved with the international beat at UPI, the Daily News and then at Kiplinger, where thanks to extraordinary editors like Melissa Bristow and Kevin McCormally, I learned more about economics and economic forecasting than I even could have sitting in a classroom.

But now, you simply can’t succeed unless you have the new media technical skills. With no technical skills, you’re done before you start. You need to have the ability to put a small camera in your own hands and learn how to interview people, manipulate the video, and get it out there pronto. Text, video, audio, social media -- it's all got to be part of the symphony that keeps the temporary journalist playing on.

I’m really intrigued by outfits like – their strength is they live-stream so much content. When I was following the Ferguson, MO violence, the Vice live feed had no partisan chatter – just objective narration of what we were seeing… no talking heads blabbing like we see on cable news. Pure objective content and no opinion is where it’s at in my mind. Outlets like Vice are the future, I think, and I’d be taking a close look at that enterprise and business model if I was a young person wanting to get involved in journalism at any level.

But at the end of the day, a real grounding in American history – and, better yet, world history – is critical to the White House beat. But you also need to realize that it’s not just about right and left as we now see in our politics today – it always eventually boils down to right and wrong.

Editors note: Bazinet is currently freelancing and doing data- and source-driven geopolitical and economic forecasting and election handicapping for private clients. He is part of a team of journalists and entrepreneurs putting together a consumer, business and investor online startup that will focus of producing and curating relevant and practical information useful in everyday life.