Interview with Keith Gaby About The Bigger Hammer

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

The Bigger Hammer

7 Questions with Keith Gaby About The Bigger Hammer and More

Keith Gaby is a political communications and public affairs specialist with over 30 years of experience. Previously, Keith has worked on two presidential campaigns, as well as being appointed to the position of Director of Intergovernmental affairs before working as a speechwriter for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Throughout his successful career he also directed two films, The Quality of Light and The Bigger Hammer, a film which analyzes the messaging of the Obama and McCain campaigns during the 2008 presidential election. Currently Keith serves as the Vice President of Public Affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization dedicated to climate justice across the globe. This week, we asked him 7 questions about his career path and experience. Check out the podcast interview here

You have worn a number of different hats. The one that I find the most interesting is director, with your two very different films The Quality of Light and The Bigger Hammer. As someone who works in politics, what brought you into the work of doing film?

Well, it started in college. I was a playwright in college and had all these big dreams. I think the through line for both the films and the communications work I'm doing is connecting to people through language and craft messages. I listen and reflect back. I think I've probably always been a listener and that helps when you're trying to communicate with people. I've done it in a number of different ways, and the filmmaking was one of the more fun but maybe less lucrative versions of that.

How was it working with Blythe Danner? I adore her.

She is wonderful. She's somebody I had known through the screen for a long time, and I got to meet her in the process of making this film, obviously. She is probably exactly as you imagine, she's warm and helpful, very, very maternal and just a delight to be with. It was a wonderful thing. Then her co-star in that film, Frederic Forrest, who passed away recently, was one of my all time favorites. He was Chef in Apocalypse Now, which was one of my favorite films. He was in a lot of Coppola films, and it was sort of a wow moment to meet him. He was kind of a zany guy, very deeply reserved there. You knew there was a lot going on under the surface, and I think that's why he's such a great actor. So it was really two people that I had admired for a long time, who I was lucky enough to get in the film.

In The Bigger Hammer, you spoke to two very different people in the political space. How did you see bipartisanship change in recent years as it relates to the advocacy space, the policy space, and the electoral space?

Well it's dramatically different as I think everyone who watches politics knows. You look at the campaign that we looked at in The Bigger Hammer, the 2008 McCain-Obama race, you had two presidential candidates who I think everybody thought were reasonable men. They were respected in their own parties. They were, if not aligned on issues, aligned on this positive direction they wanted to take the country in, even if it wasn't the same. I was a passionate Obama supporter, but that didn't mean I didn't respect Senator McCain. The people I talked to in the film, his advisors, his ad people, they were the same. I don't want to speak for them, but I think they are unhappy with the current direction of their party in some ways.You had two people who had very strong differences, but they were both, I think it's fair to say, respected American Patriots. And when I was in the Pentagon as a speech writer for the Secretary of Defense, it was actually a Republican, Bill Cohen, in a Democratic administration. Not that the Clinton administration was a bit of bipartisan roses, anyone who remembers that knows it was very much a partisan time. Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House for much of it. But you had the ability to have a bipartisan cabinet, at least in part, in a central position. And Secretary Cohen was very much an internationalist and a very reasonable man even where he disagreed with Democrats. Then you fast forward to today's politics, and you have, I don't need to explain it to your audience, but a shrinking number of political leaders who are willing to stand up against things that are in the broad mainstream of American policy. The Republican Party is in some trouble, even if they are making some short-term gains from riding on Trump's coattails.

You have been able to engage with crafting targeted messaging through your research and your work on numerous campaigns. Are there any examples of successful messaging or best practices you’ve found, particularly when dealing with such a crowded electoral messaging space this year?

Well, I think as you get closer to people's lives you get more of a consensus, because I remember being told by Whit Ayres, he’s a Republican pollster, a very conservative guy who appears in the film, that everybody hates air pollution. When you're talking about environmental issues and about things that people care about in their own lives, you get more partisan and more polarized as you talk about things that are abstractions to people. And, at least at the time Whit and I had that conversation, climate change was still one of those things, so it was a little easier for people to just pick their partisan sides and fight over it. But when you're talking about whether your kid is exposed to air pollution on a diesel school bus, it doesn't matter whether you're a conservative in South Carolina or a liberal in Massachusetts. You care about that and you want it fixed. I think bringing issues to that level of impact and letting people know that the tax credits and the Inflation Reduction Act can lower their energy bills makes it matter to them. Even if they don't end up voting for Joe Biden, because he passed it, they still want those things in their lives for their kids. They want the jobs created by the solar plant and the wind farm. So we need to make things relevant to people and obviously not talk down to them, obviously avoid the sorts of polarized triggers that get everyone into their corner. But it's not rocket science. It's the things you pick up by listening in the way you would to your own family.

Lets pivot to your work with the Environmental Defense Fund, which you’ve been involved in for a number of years now. There are people, even now, who still dig their heels in despite seeing the impacts of climate change on a daily basis. What are your recommendations to better communicate these impacts to people who still hold those beliefs?

Yeah, that's a big challenge. I think you want to meet people where they are. One of the things we try to do is acknowledge the truth on the other side to get the conversation going. For instance, we talk about fossil fuels; they have brought enormous prosperity to the world. There's no question that we live more comfortable, easier lives because of them, but, as adults recognize about everything in the world, there are downsides. In this case, the pollution we're putting in the atmosphere has gotten to a point where it's impacting our lives. It's causing increasingly negative impacts on our economy. On agriculture, you're going to have to shift crops in Kansas pretty soon because of the impacts of climate change. Low-lying developing countries are getting hit harder with natural disasters. Our coastal cities are facing these infrastructure problems. So it's acknowledging that there is a messy middle for these things, that fossil fuels weren't all bad for society, but they've got a cost, and we need to start moving away from them if we want to have a secure future for our children. I think getting to the economic issues and avoiding some of the things that we know are more partisan or get people polarized when we talk about them is important for communicating with people. Just, again, as we were saying, get to things that impact people's lives and talk about them in a way that connects with their real experiences.

And even recognizing that society has gone through shifts; we didn't always use fossil fuels, we shifted to them, with obvious examples of the Transcontinental Railroad and the internet. Things change and we have to adjust as necessary. And communicating that the future can be bright in California. The power that is supplying our laptops right now was a hundred percent clean the other day. We get so much solar power in California that we sometimes peak into all renewable energy. It's still a mix; we still have natural gas plants, but this stuff is possible and in the end it's going to be economically better for us and better for our health and better for our kids.

Relating to telling a story and crafting a message: as someone who understands storytelling having directed films and thought through a number of ways of communication, how do you apply the skills you gained during your time as a director and in campaigns when working to craft a message, whether in your environmental work or in other instances?

Well, that's at the heart of it. That's how we've always communicated as humans. That's what engages people. One of the problems with the environmental community traditionally is that we have felt so earnest about our mission. We're trying to save the world, and we are, but lecturing people is not the way to engage them. You can get people to understand what's at stake and how this can help them in their lives through story, and often that starts by listening to what they want and what they need. I think one of the problems with the environmental community, which we're wrestling with right now, is that we have not focused on the priorities of environmental justice in communities where you have enormous impacts from pollution and other environmental problems compared to affluent white communities. Understanding and fixing that begins with listening because they clearly know the best way forward for their own lives and their own communities, what matters to them and what doesn't matter to them. When we as an environmental community go in and try to impose solutions, it has the same effect as going into a conservative community and trying to impose solutions. It’s listening and storytelling.

How do we tell these stories and connect them to policy writing when organizing?

We adjust those policies to align with what we're learning from those communities because sometimes we get lost in these blind spots because we don't have the same lived experiences as the people that we're talking to. I think we've made progress. I know in the Environmental Defense Fund we've made progress. But there's a long way to go. There is, as with every element of society, a change that needs to happen.We're not at the beginning of it because we've been doing this for a couple hundred years, but we're at the beginning of really starting to improve things.

What are you currently focused on at the Environmental Defense Fund?

In the next few weeks we're launching a satellite which will track methane emissions around the world. Methane, as you probably know, is a powerful greenhouse gas. It has this particular effect of driving global warming in the short term over the next decade. So, to the extent that we can limit that kind of pollution, we can have the biggest, fastest impact on global warming. The satellite will be able to determine whether a particular field or natural gas plant in either Saudi Arabia or Turkmenistan or New Mexico is leaking this potent greenhouse gas, and we can tell the company to fix it. We are also going to make this open source so activists can pressure the companies and scientists can further refine the data and pinpoint the problems.

We’re also working on hydrogen, which is getting a big boost from the Inflation Reduction Act, but has some problems. When that leaks into the atmosphere, it's a powerful greenhouse gas. So we have to use it for the right things and in the right ways. We're working on sustainable aviation fuel, which is, again, more complicated than it seems. Some sustainable aviation fuels are actually sustainable, but some aren't. Sometimes the pre-flight movie on your airline is not quite as straightforward as we'd like it to be. What we at the Environmental Defense Fund try to do is use science and economics to get into what I referred to earlier as the messy middle, which is when some things are not all good or all bad. Sometimes the details are what matters, so let's look at the hard science and figure out the exact policies that get us where we want to go. And try to put aside the rhetoric a little bit.

As someone who made a career out of political affairs communication, what are some tools, traits, or qualities that contribute to an effective public affairs communicator?

Well, I'm probably repeating myself here, but I want to go back to the act of listening because it's the one thing I think I do well in writing whether it's an ad for the Environmental Defense Fund or a film; dialogue is getting voices, and that comes from going through life as a leaning introvert, so that means you listen to people more often. You're standing in the circle at the party and you're doing more listening than talking. You are finding out how other people speak, so maybe your dialogue is a little sharper, and you are finding out what they care about. You're analyzing them as people. It may be counterintuitive because communication is an outgoing process, but it begins by absorbing all that. Standing back a little bit is probably the first step to being a good communicator.

How do you utilize that idea of listening when talking to legislators and their constituents who are on the opposite side of yourself politically?

One thing is to start by understanding their political situation and their imperatives. If they come from a state that's relying on a certain industry, that's an agricultural state, or a district that is a certain employer then that's going to be top of mind to them. If you can explain to them how it works for them politically and maybe how they can get around some of the polarized issues that would cause a problem with their base, then you can find a path for them and help them with the language. It's interesting, the 2008 campaign was the last one, I think, where you had two candidates who both put forward aggressive climate change plans. And as I mentioned, that's the campaign we covered in The Bigger Hammer, which you can watch on Amazon Prime Video. McCain had climate change bills before he ran for president. His first ad of the general election I think was on climate change. Now, I think Mitt Romney's a reasonable guy. I think he probably recognizes the reality of climate change, so I'm not criticizing him. Today, there are some people who you're not going to reach because, even if they agree with you, they understand the base of the Republican Party is not going to allow them to go in a certain direction. Nevertheless, you had the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which had a lot of pro-climate elements to it. You can get things done. I think there are many Republicans in Congress who want to have an agriculture bill that makes sense for the climate, and there's going to be a farm bill coming up, so there are places you can do this. There are places where you can make progress. You just need to help them with the politics.

What are some current favorite podcast TV shows, movies or books that you're really into right now that you recommend?

The Criminal Record on Apple is a great show. And although it is not about politics, it is about how the issues that we think of as straightforward really can wrap themselves around some complicated narratives. I'm currently reading A History of California by Kevin Starr which is on California history from the middle of the 19th century forward. Everything that's good and bad in history has happened in California, and it happened in a bigger and more dramatic way than you would imagine from the home of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. That's a very interesting book. There is also a book called Eyewitness to History, which are first person accounts of things throughout American history: someone who was a first person witness to the Boston Massacre or the intern of someone who experienced internment in the Japanese American relocation camps during World War II or soldiers in different battles. It's fascinating to read the unadorned reports of people in the moment which sometimes are quite different from what historians end up saying later on.

Are there any particular projects that you're currently working on that you want our listeners to know about? How could they potentially get involved with you or the work that you're doing at the Environmental Defense Fund?

Well, thanks for asking. I'll do the plug again for The Bigger Hammer, which is a behind-the-scenes messaging movie about the 2008 presidential campaign with some ads that never ran and interviews with the top strategists. It shows what really goes on behind the scenes of a presidential campaign, so go to your Amazon account and watch that. It's a nice throwback to what didn't seem like softer times then, but now certainly do. If you want to check out what we're doing in the Environmental Defense Fund, it's and we are one of the biggest national environmental groups working almost solely on climate change. That's the biggest problem we have to tackle right now, in all its facets. And from clean vehicles to aviation fuel to EPA standards, vote “Yes”.

Thank you Keith! Have questions? Drop us a line.