One-On-One with Neil Cavuto

By Ken Dunek

Posted: 02/14/2012

Neil Cavuto
Photos: FOX Business Network

This self proclaimed “nerd” is one cool cat when it comes to reporting on business and politics.

I am not smitten by celebrity. I’ve been around a few, and I know they are pretty much like you and me. It may have been natural born talent that took them to the stars — or a stroke of good fortune — or being a charter member of the “good old boy” network that brought them to the top. For the most part, they are usually regular people with the same flaws as the rest of us, but find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

Every once in a while you stumble upon someone of great character who had nothing handed to them, and has overcome considerable odds to make it to the top. That was my impression of Neil Cavuto, the impresario of the Fox Business Network.

This fifty-something JerseyMan (he lives in Mendham, NJ with wife Mary and children Tara, Bradley and Jeremy) sat down with us recently to discuss his initial goal of becoming a priest, the current cast of Republican candidates, President Obama and the corporate bailout, his ability to beat stage four cancer and MS, and the dire straits he sees for the USA unless we get our governmental financial act in order.

So lace up your wing tips, straighten your bow tie and get ready for a healthy dose of Neil Cavuto…JerseyMan style:

JerseyMan: How did you get started in broadcasting? Was it a goal of yours early on?

Neil Cavuto: I know it sounds crazy, but originally I went to St. Bonaventure to be a priest. I did always love journalism though. I was editor of my high school paper; I worked on the paper in college. But I would have been happy being a priest and teaching journalism. That would have been the ideal world. But truth be told, it really wasn’t cut out for me to be a priest for a variety of reasons…It upset my Irish mother and my Italian father, who was a man of few words, said, “Good, there is no money in it anyway.” So I went into a profession that had even less money it in at the time; journalism. But I always loved to read and write…I was a nerd. So I veered towards that, but I loved it.

JM: So your background in journalism started with the school newspaper?

NC: Yes, ever since I was a kid I always wrote for my paper. When I was eight years old, my dad had gotten me a subscription to the Wall Street Journal…I didn’t know what in the heck I was looking at. But he was a big believer in having us be up to speed on these things. My mother would laugh at him through all this, and in retrospect she was right. But he would joke about all the kids’ books around and say that a little of that stuff was okay, but you really should know your way around the business world…he would teach me about investing.

He didn’t have a lot of money to invest, he was not a rich man, but he was very observational with common sense. Only a high school education, but that approach to not only investing but to life was crucial. Although he didn’t live in Jersey, he had a “Jersey way.”

JM: How would you characterize your style?

NC: My wife says I have none.

JM: (Laughing) Not fashion style…interviewing style.

NC: I don’t like to go for the gotcha moments. I think there are a lot of journalists who love to make themselves look good in an interview and go for the so called gotcha moment. An interview isn’t about me; it’s really about trying to elicit information about the person. I think if you can make a person feel comfortable, they will be more forthcoming. There are different media styles…if I’m faulted for anything now and then on my show, it is interrupting a guest, particularly now with interviewing so many politicians…

Neil Cavuto
Photos: FOX Business Network

There was a question at the last presidential debate, and some people faulted me for interrupting Newt Gingrich to say he hadn’t answered my question. My point was…time was precious and answering a basic, simple question was important. But I know that when you are interviewing someone, they are out to make themselves look good. I guess I’m doing that with you now…I don’t think you have to say shut up or shout at them…just answer the question. And it’s particularly problematic with politicians and business types.

JM: Especially in a debate format?

NC: Oh my goodness yes. Each one has their salient point. The other night when we were doing the Iowa caucuses on Fox Business…every candidate was doing a twenty minute stump speech. And they are each…very good at it, but they go on and on and on. We will cover it; we’ll cover them all. But TV doesn’t allow for an elaborate amount of time. I always tell people if you want to go into great detail on the story, you can read any number of newspapers the next day.

JM: I watched several videos recently of you while doing my research for this interview.

NC: You’re still awake, that’s a very good sign.

JM: The first one you were interviewing was Ron Paul and you asked him about Donald Trump and why he didn’t kiss his ring, which I found interesting. The other was when you made a statement regarding journalists and how they should stay away from making statements like “Ron Paul can’t win.” The gist of what you were saying is that as journalists we should let the people decide.

NC: Absolutely. In Iowa, Chris Wallace and I were doing the debate, and we got into a little friendly argument about that. My only point was that I’m not saying I’m for or against Ron Paul…It’s not up to us to judge who deserves that, or based on poll numbers who deserves an interview. If you were to do that — look at Rick Santorum…Now we were fair to everyone, but who would have known that only a couple of weeks later he would have essentially tied as the winner of the caucus. Many people thought I was slapping my colleagues or acting holier than thou. Just the opposite — going back to my nerd past, I know enough of history to say I’ve heard this before. I can remember distinctly in 1976 after Jimmy Carter won the Iowa caucuses there was a stop Jimmy Carter movement. They said that guy can never become President. He’s a former Georgia governor, no one ever heard of him. Try Scoop Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, even Ted Kennedy, but not this Jimmy Carter, he’s a sure loser.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter, a “good man”

JM: You were an intern in the Carter White House, weren’t you?

NC: Yes, I was there when Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. were duking it out for the nomination. Now I can tell you for a fact (although I wasn’t an insider, I was essentially getting coffee for Jody Powell) that everyone prayed it would be Ronald Reagan (to be the GOP nominee). They thought Bush (who had won Iowa) was harder to beat. He was an ambassador, he was a UN representative, CIA director — he had the resumé. And Ronald Reagan was some fly by night actor/governor…My point in saying this is that in both cases the pundits [us] got it wrong. So who are we to judge who’s electable and who’s not? Who are we to say that Mitt Romney can beat Barack Obama? Maybe the way the economy goes a tin can could beat Obama — or just the opposite and Jesus Christ couldn’t beat him. It’s not for us to judge.

JM: Any repercussion from all that?

NC: No. Obviously everyone says it, so we can all take offense. I said on air…well, who are you to judge? A lot of Ron Paul devotees said “Neil is a Ron Paul supporter.” I really wasn’t. I really believe that by that methodology, Abraham Lincoln would have never been elected president. A paraplegic like FDR would have never been elected president. We can’t make those assumptions. I’m not smart enough to say who is the [GOP] nominee, but I am smart enough to say we shouldn’t predict it.

JM: What was the White House intern assignment like?

NC: Ken, while you were busy climbing the sports ladder, I was climbing any ladder I could relate to my field. If newspaper internships came up, I chased those down. But government internships were a little easier to nab... So through the General Services Administration, I got a job. I made some connections in New York. It seems crazy now, but I lived in Georgia at the time Jimmy Carter was governor, so I followed his career closely. I had done a long high school thesis on his rise, and it got people’s attention. Hamilton Jordan had seen it [it had won a couple of awards], and a couple of years later when they were handing out these precious White House internships, I got on a short list from a small Catholic college. I don’t want it to come across like a big deal, like I had Jimmy Carter’s ear. I got coffee for people and copied stuff.

JM: Still pretty exciting, wasn’t it?

NC: That’s the point…it was weird. I didn’t have much money living in Washington, and so I would work at the White House by day and a couple of different restaurants at night. During the day, everyone working at the White House got these passes to see the President arrive and depart on Marine One, and I would always get jazzed by that. And I would run out to see it. One time I arrived three hours early to see the Italian Prime Minister arrive…I caught the Washington bug and loved the excitement of being there. In retrospect, Jimmy Carter was a better ex-president than President. But I had a front row seat without knowing it, and the exposure was great.

JM: Have you had a chance to interview Carter since?

NC: I did many years ago, but he’s not a big fan of this network. But I am a fan of his. I think we are all dealt tough cards, and I think he responded poorly to some crises. I ended up being a big fan of Ronald Reagan. Some of the things he did were very wise. I think we all have our Presidents and moments. But having said that, some of the things he [Carter] talked about [like energy and concern for the environment], he was talking about when no one was talking about it. Unfortunately, because he is such a deeply religious man, I think he could be snookered. The Middle East proved that. I think his relations since in talking with dictators like Hugo Chavez to Castro have proven his naïveté. But, I think he was and is a good man.

JM: What was your big break in the business?

NC: I really didn’t have one. It wasn’t a single break as much as it was hard work. There is no substitute for it. I always tell my kids…I’ve met so many people who were gifted but lazy.

JM: That happens in sports, too.

NC: Yes, you can have the most natural athlete, but he doesn’t put in the time. And in my business it’s all about tenacity — who reads the most, who studies the most…I don’t think there are many that could out hustle me in this business. You know, I mean out research me, out read me, out follow me, or out market watch me…there is no substitute for just working your ass off. The only break I had was just tenaciously taking advantage of every opportunity. I had an internship at a fledgling news network called CNN soon after I left the White House…I was literally running tapes back and forth from building to building…And I caught the bug. The TV bug just amazed me with the immediacy…When you are reading it, there is nothing like being there instantly…my parents have told me [about] watching the Kennedy assassination — not live, but when everything came in, my parents were all around the TV. They weren’t reading the papers. The immediacy was inspiring to me. So I guess my big break was seeing how exciting TV was and working very hard in trying to do it right.

JM: How have you managed to pull off the crossover of being a business guy in news and politics?

NC: I think in all honesty we are blessed in that they are all married today. There was a time when there was a money section in the newspaper and a business section and the world was compartmentalized. It changed a lot in the early ‘80’s with Reagan…the markets were beginning to boom, tax rates were coming down and there was a great democratization of business news. And suddenly these issues intertwined with general news. When I joined Fox, Roger Ailes asked me how I would do business news there, and I told him I wouldn’t differentiate. That’s why I try to avoid acronyms and jargon like price earning multiples and cash dividend yields and derivative swaps. I’ll still talk about them. But I’m a believer that once you explain it to people, they are very smart and will pick up on it. Use the Wall Street Journal as an example. If you noticed even with the most sophisticated stories on the meltdown that we had four years ago, they would always explain what a dividend yield is up to. Their savvy readers know that, but they are still going to read the rest of the story.

But they are also roping in the not-so-market savvy readers.

I don’t think you are “dumbing down” by doing that. You are inviting more people in. So I would always look at it as just make it part of the regular news world and don’t differentiate. I think we are succeeding at Fox Business…we try to give you the big picture and let you discern from that.

JM: Where do you think we are now financially as a country three years removed from the meltdown? Are you optimistic short term or long term?

NC: I’m worried. This isn’t a right or left thing — this is a “we are in deep crap” thing. And I think both parties need to recognize it. You can talk the talk, but eventually you have to walk the walk…This is serious stuff, and you can’t play it safe. I see these numbers every day. I see us piling up $4 billion in debt every day. And I hear both parties lying. I hear them say we scored a $1.3 trillion debt deal. We’ve cut spending that much. First of all, they haven’t cut anything. This latest deal will still mean in 10 years we will have $9 trillion more debt than we have now. And the 1.3 trillion is just lopping off 1.3 trillion more than we would have had.

That would be like me saying my goal ten years from now is to keep my weight gain to fifty pounds rather than twenty five…Our debt is overwhelming us, and right now we are being saved by low interest rates. If rates were to tick up nominally, just a ½ point tick up is a trillion dollars. A full point is two trillion. You can show the ads that Granny is being pushed off the cliff, or that we are killing our seniors if we address Social Security. But we are killing everybody if we don’t.

JM: Did you agree with the Obama bailout?

NC: No, I didn’t. But to be fair, I didn’t agree with them in the Bush days. My argument was that once you open that spigot, everyone wants their share. It’s human nature. “Hey, you gave to the banks, what about me?” Sure enough, we gave to GM and Chrysler…

You know there is a federal program that you are eligible for if you go three months without paying your mortgage. What are you going to do? You aren’t going to pay your mortgage for three months. A lot of college kids were waiting that had these big loans, and said instead of paying it back I’m going to wait for this college loan re-work program. Cash for clunkers was you would only buy a car if you got cash for the clunker. It sets up this Pavlovian response where I don’t do until I get.

JM: Let’s talk a little bit about Fox. Do you think there is a left wing bias in the media?

NC: I do. It’s undeniable. A lot of my liberal friends say it’s nonsense, but if you watch the certain sameness to reporting, it’s almost endemic in their DNA to say “all priests must be pedophiles” and everyone who is a right to lifer must be a kook. To me, it’s about the media not making sweeping generalities about one or the other.

If you were to say the same things about races, my god, you would be called on the carpet and so you should. All it is for me is just be fair to all. I don’t think all environmentalists are kooks, just like I don’t think all those progressively touting tax cuts are greedy SOBs. My priest training days taught me to be fair and decent to all. There are extremes on both sides…There is nothing wrong with being pragmatic, but there is everything wrong to being blind to the other side and not even paying attention to the other side.

JM: So Fox comes along and tries to make things more balanced? Is that why it’s such a lightning rod for criticism?

NC: When I first joined Fox a little over fifteen years ago, one of the things I noticed in my nerdy purview of covering business is that every CEO is an evil bastard. Look at it in movies. I don’t think from “It’s A Wonderful Life” to any modern motion picture that I’ve ever seen a good representation of business people or business. They are all just horrible people. Now, I’ve interviewed thousands of people over the years, and the horrible people would take up two and a half hands. Most are decent folks just trying to keep their companies solvent and keep them going.

I would agree that some of the pay packages went out of whack when we went to stock for performance. But by and large I’m not coming in here with an agenda that says these guys are awful or that all of these guys are saints. I’m just calling it as I see it. I know that sounds simplistic, but I tell you I’ve been in meetings at other networks and in editorial positions at other networks and I hear that kind of stuff go on. It just blows your mind when you hear, “Ok, how can we get this guy?” To me, Carl Icahn is not the devil, but maybe it’s the companies he is targeting that are. So, I just want people to think outside the box and don’t make that assumption. Just like we said with candidates, don’t come out and say that Ron Paul isn’t electable. It’s not our job. And that is bias.

Bill Clinton
“Rock star” Bill Clinton

JM: You had a front row seat for the recent Republican debate. What do you think of the Republican field?

NC: I covered the ’92 campaign. That was the year that George Bush Sr. was going to be automatically re-elected coming right off of Desert Storm. And they called the seven Democrats battling it out in the primary the “Seven Dwarfs.” The tallest of the dwarfs was Bill Clinton. But the party didn’t want him. They were saying, “Is this the best we can put up against George Bush Sr.?”

My only issue in raising that boring history is again be careful what you are saying in the moment. Paul Tsongas, the senator and candidate who got cancer and died, was always calling Clinton the “Panda Bear” and…with the sexual allegations they didn’t want him as their candidate. He did ok…a President for two terms, he’s a rock star.

I’m not here to judge him; I’m just here to judge the media’s perception. The media’s perception is that now all these candidates are lightweights, and they may be. But who are we to know? I disagree with it. I’ve had them all on the show at various times, and they all bring a lot to the table. But they all have their flaws and they all have their issues. Mitt Romney’s flip flops? They’ve all had flip flops. Obama has had flip flops. Why focus on Romney? Another thing with Romney as a Republican Governor of Massachusetts, you might as well be Governor of Russia. You have to bend in a state like that. Be pragmatic enough to know that. But that is getting back to the gotcha thing, where we all have our selective gotcha’s. I don’t have that agenda.

JM: As a political insider, are you as mesmerized as the rest of us are at the fragility of the political theater when it comes to the rise and fall of the popularity of these candidates? Is that as captivating to you as it is to us?

NC: Oh, yeah. It really is to me. In this race, it’s almost as if every one had had their time in the sun.

JM: Newt Gingrich was talking a few weeks ago like he had the nomination wrapped up, and now he is fighting for his political life.

NC: Right…and before him Herman Cain, and before him Rick Perry, and before him Michelle Bachman. I had wondered when I was in Iowa a couple of weeks ago and I was talking to Rick Santorum and I thought, “You know, you are the only one that hasn’t had his time in the sun.” Everyone else (with the exception of Huntsman) has. And I was shocked at that, but sure enough he did and he peaked at the right time…

I think anyone can do it if there is a proper confluence of events…It happened for Bill Clinton. They fell into place for Jimmy Carter. They even fell into place for George Bush Jr. People forget that the year he won Texas governor, and his brother Jeb lost Florida governor, it was supposed to go the other way. Even George Bush Sr. was shocked. That upset the succession order. Jeb was supposed to be the next Bush president, not George. My only point in saying it is that history changes our guaranteed priorities.

Michael Dukakis
Michael Dukakis on his infamous tank ride.

JM: And it could be something as simple as George Bush Sr. looking at his watch during the debate, or a Hillary Clinton tearing up at a rally. Or Santorum responding to a question about his baby that died. It could be something minute but impactful that changes everything.

NC: Positive or negative, it works both ways. We all remember Michael Dukakis in the tank. The stories are legend that John Kennedy never wanted to be photographed in a hat. He was wise. It’s a good rule for anyone running for office, because someone looks goofy in a hat. That whole thing hurt Dukakis. It could be a vignette or a moment that can make or break you.

JM: What do you think of Governor Christie and the phenomenon of his meteoric rise in popularity? Is it his straight talk approach?

NC: I do think it’s what you were saying. Being real and frank and stating your mind; there is something refreshing about it. I think it’s high time we had someone say, “We’ve got a problem here, and I’d love it to go on just the way it is, but we can’t.” I’m all for frankness, from the left or the right. It’s why I’ve always admired Ralph Nader. You can say he’s a kook, but he has been consistent since the day he started writing about the auto industry. And I admire people like that.

JM: Do you think that’s part of the attraction to Ron Paul?

NC: Yes, I do. And a lot of people are offended that his Libertarian streak takes him all the way to saying, “I wouldn’t invade Iran.” But if you follow Libertarian thinking, it does mean leave the despot alone. But he is honest about it. And I admire that.

JM: Any goals for you if you decide to leave the anchor chair?

NC: Just to continue to communicate in a way that makes the world approachable and understandable. I don’t have any pet cause per se, but I do think as the chief on air numbers nerd at Fox Business, I have an obligation to tell people straight what is going on. I have an obligation to say that nothing is being cut in these budget deals. If slowing the growth is a cut to you, then welcome to the North Pole. I have an obligation to say the Republicans are talking a good game, but they aren’t practicing. I have an obligation to say both parties are at fault.

I have an obligation to explain how bad things are. Not morosely or a popeyed view of the world. I’m trying to give people clarity. The one thing I think I’m fairly good at is explaining things in terms everyone can understand. We have so much more money going out than is coming in, if we don’t change we will make Greece look like the Poconos. If there is a cause I want to get behind, it’s that.

I’m not trying to sound Yankee Doodle Dandy, but I admire what this country built and what my parents tried to sacrifice so their cherubic kid could go to college. I think it’s very important to remind folks that regardless if you’re Democrat or Republican, this is important stuff. Protecting what we have is important stuff. Handing it over to the next generation so they can do what we did and do better than our parents is important stuff. Some may say that sounds a little too much like Jimmy Stewart. Well, maybe so. But I really think life is too precious to [not] take advantage of the days that God gives you.

JM: You’ve had some health challenges?

NC: Yes, I’m a cancer survivor and I have MS now. But the great thing about having a disease is that you value your time here. And you become much less interested in silly stuff, and much more interested in real stuff. Before I got cancer and MS, I was all for climbing the ladder and getting ahead, and I didn’t really care who I bumped off along the way.

I learned you can advance without being a jerk, and that you can get ahead without being an ass. I hear these horror stories about athletes and stars. I met a certain well-known NY Giants football player once, and he was a total ass. And I thought, “Life is too short to be a d——k.” I’m very happy and very lucky with the opportunities that Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch have provided me. I’m like a kid in a candy store…I can’t believe it. But I never forget where I came from.

This country provided me an opportunity for me to do what I did, and for you to do what you did. And someone saw something in you, maybe people took pity on me, to keep us going. In America, anyone has a shot. There are literally class systems in other countries where some make it, and others don’t. We just interviewed a young kid who developed a website that marries academia with those that want to get into certain colleges, and the kid is now a millionaire. That same kid in a former Eastern Europe country…would it have been as easy to do? I doubt it. So warts and all, we have that opportunity. Regardless of what ails you — life is too short to bitch.

I can remember when I was diagnosed with cancer, it was stage four and I was given three to six months to live, last rites, etc. I can remember just before that my wife and I were in enormous debt. But when I heard the diagnosis, I didn’t care about the debt. My point is that all of a sudden, I just wanted to survive. I remember getting out of the hospital; it was like getting out of Attica. My daughter was a toddler at the time, and I would look at the cars going by and think, I’m leaving this world. I can’t believe this. And the world seemed so busy with the rushing around and I would say, this world is going to go on without me and I’m going to be gone.

Obviously it didn’t happen, but then I got the diagnosis of MS and at least with MS you don’t die, you just have a merciless end. But I’ve dodged that so far. The thing I’ve learned is that you value your time, and you try not to be a jerk. My kids will see the times when I have trouble walking, or when my voice goes. And I start thinking that guys like Alan Combs make sense — then I know that something is wrong. I learned to appreciate what’s important.

Video: Watch the full interview with Neil Cavuto

Neil Cavuto is an original. He turned out not to be a man of the cloth, but the material he is made out of is certainly silky smooth. Although he might not have been the first choice of his prom date, his professional success has propelled him to the ranks of Homecoming King or Student Council President. And I wouldn’t put captain of the football team past him. But ignore the pencil case in his shirt pocket…some habits just seem to die harder than others.

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