Podcast • March 27, 2013

For Anthony Lewis, with love and thanks

The best fun of being president of the US, I often thought, would be appointing Anthony Lewis to the Supreme Court. He was a non-lawyer with a persuasive understanding of the gift and genius of ...

The best fun of being president of the US, I often thought, would be appointing Anthony Lewis to the Supreme Court. He was a non-lawyer with a persuasive understanding of the gift and genius of the Constitution. He had a historian’s grasp on how the law evolved. Justice Frankfurter said Tony knew the cases before the Court better than most of the sitting judges. And he could unfold the issues in lucid prose that grabbed me as a teen-age reader of the New York Times. It turns out now that lots of people, like my pal Rick Hertzberg, had that fantasy – of putting Tony Lewis on the Court, as a sort of teaching judge, a people’s man with law and language. Here’s what he stood for and loved to recite – in the Lydons’ living room – for example: Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in a free-speech case from World War I time, the Abrams case. The best test of truth, Holmes bellowed, is “free trade in ideas.”

“…That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment… While that experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in dissent in Abrams vs. United States (1919), quoted in Anthony Lewis’ Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, page 78.

Reading that stuff, as Tony liked to say, you felt the hair rise at the back of your neck. This was his meat: law, experiment, the rights of embattled South Africans, Palestinians and American outcasts, free expression, dissent, room for ideas we hate, and thundering prose. And of course Tony found he could thunder on his own, too.

My favorite Tony Lewis columns – oddly unmentioned in the Times obit – might have been his answer to the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, the Nixon-Kissinger “terror bombing” of Hanoi – with no measurable purpose or benefit. Peace was at hand, they had said, the war all but over, but American B-52s poured it on: 2000 strikes over 11 days. “An episode that will live in infamy,” Tony Lewis wrote. And lest we forget he kept rewriting that column every Christmas for a decade. The lessons for Americans were still: “Beware obsession. Beware secrecy. Beware concentrated power. Beware men untouched by concern for the moral consequences of their acts.”

To my taste, Tony Lewis leaves the high-water mark in consequential newspaper work in our time – before snark and life-style and propaganda and the I-I-I voice in political columns came to seem standard. Chris Hedges wrote the other day that TV as a news medium began to die when MSNBC dismissed Phil Donahue ten years ago for his reservations about the war in Iraq. I would say newspapers started their descent to the grave right about the same time, when the Times sent Tony Lewis into retirement and retained William Safire who thought the war was a great idea. “Wait and see,” Safire ended a column. I wrote to him later: “Bill, we waited, and we saw.”

Tony Lewis was my standard of excellence, though the “narcissism of small differences” kicked in, too. I thought Tony was unfair to Ralph Nader. He knew the quality of Nader’s citizenship since their law school days in the 50s, but then Tony led the liberal chorus against Nader in that very stilted and stifling Bush-Gore campaign of 2000. I thought Ralph would have ventilated it, maybe brought Al Gore out of his own infamous lock-box, maybe scratched the veneer off George Bush. I thought it was unlike Tony to be narrowing the field and the conversation that was stuck in a deep rut, going nowhere. So we disagreed, and made a radio program around the argument with both Tony Lewis and Ralph Nader. Tony indulged his friends, like me, in all manner of differences. But then I realized years ago: inside my own head the relationship went further, maybe deeper. I found myself arguing all alone over small points of politics or taste with the mind of Tony Lewis. The oddest part was that as I sparred with my internal Tony, he often won the argument – with his patience, forbearance, and long view.

Over many years Tony was inexplicably generous to me as broadcast host. He’d begun with the granddaddy of public broadcast news, Louis M. Lyons on WGBH. He was an almost-regular on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and then on my Ten O’Clock News on WGBH-TV, where he could make a 4-minute interview sing – on anything. One night it was his idol Fred Astaire, and suddenly Tony broke into song with one of the Astaire classics — I think it was “A Foggy Day.” Margie Marshall, Tony’s new wife, said she would kill me, or him, if I ever let him sing again on TV, but he might have been happy to defy us. There was more to Tony than law and politics. He wrote and talked wonderfully about his suit salesman in Filene’s Basement; about Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; about a fine revival of “Porgy and Bess;” about Boston’s Mayor Ray Flynn, who rated better than Ed Koch of New York, Tony judged. I loved to hear him on newspaper guys – on his sponsor, the incomparable team-builder James Reston; on the great independents and adventurers Harrison Salisbury, I. F. Stone and Sy Hersh; on the nonpareil columnist, the genius among the great craftsmen of the Times, Russell Baker.

I saw Tony at home a month ago, not knowing the end was so close. His first words: “God, I miss Tom Winship at the Globe.” The last were: “Sure, let’s record our conversation the next time.” What we talked about most that February afternoon were song lyrics. He had a great book on the top of his pile: Reading Lyrics, compiled by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. Tony knew the words of Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Tom Lehrer, P. G. Wodehouse and Company the way he knew the law. And he worshipped above all, I think, Frank Loesser for the words and music of Guys and Dolls: “I Got the Horse Right Here” and Adelaide’s song: “A person can develop a cold,” which Tony loved to sing. The next time, I was going to bring him the Ray Charles / Betty Carter version of another Frank Loesser classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Tony leaves us, I’d say, a memorable model for the best and broadest idea of a liberal at work. It wasn’t about dogma, much less radicalism. It was temperament as much as politics. It was about a modest optimism, a belief that institutions, even societies, could work on their flaws and get better. He was the human embodiment of the Warren Court, in that sense. He made a pair with his friend Justice William Brennan, who stood also for civility, compromise, persistence on an upward course. They stood for that era of reform in civil rights, in one-man-one-vote political representation, in the protection of defendants’ rights and the expansion of free speech and expression. Tony goaded the country with columns and landmark books on those central subjects, and by gum, the country got better. It can sound almost quaint, but he knew for certain that there were remedies for real ills in patient, hard-working devotion to our ideals in the Constitution and the law. So he never let up, and he never despaired.

Podcast • January 25, 2011

David Rohde’s Taliban Captivity

What can Taliban captivity do to a man’s judgment, even to his soul? It made David Rohde root for the CIA’s drone missiles buzzing on the horizon, even when his captors assured him the drones ...

David Rohde

What can Taliban captivity do to a man’s judgment, even to his soul? It made David Rohde root for the CIA’s drone missiles buzzing on the horizon, even when his captors assured him the drones were hunting for them and him, and were going to take his life with theirs:

DR: At first you’re sort of afraid because you don’t know when the strike’s going to happen. There’s no warning. The missile comes down faster than the speed of sound, so you won’t hear the missile that kills you. After a while you sort of get used to them and you don’t pay as much attention to them. But it’s a devastating weapon, and you have no idea when a strike will come. It sort of haunts you.

CL: But what was your fundamental response to the sight and sound of these things in the sky? Was it, “Whew, help is on the way,” or,  “Holy shit, this could take me out too” ?

DR: It changed with time and as my view of my captors changed. I want to be honest: I came to just despise them. I hated them. I hated them for what they were doing to my family. I hated them for the fact that they were essentially making my wife and my parents and my siblings feel like they were just cheap people, and if they could somehow just come up with the millions of dollars they wanted, that my family could save my life.  Kidnapping’s really an incredibly personal crime.  As time went by, if drones were killing Taliban it frankly made me happy. I saw them [my captors] as hypocritical criminals who were doing horrible things to my family. We tried to escape because we were basically ready to die. And we wanted them to get nothing. We wanted our families to not have to suffer like this, and we just completely despised them. So my view of the drones changed over time…

David Rohde, with Kristen Mulvihill, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 25, 2011.

New York Times reporter David Rohde was a prisoner for seven months in 2008 and 2009 of the Haqqani network in the Taliban-run Tribal Areas of Pakistan. This is the same Haqqani network that a generation ago (pumped with Saudi money, Wahhabi theology, American Stinger missiles and CIA generalship) led the charge of the mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The late Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (as in Charlie Wilson’s War) pronounced the Haqqani patriarch, Jalaluddin, “goodness personified.” What should it tell us that a generation later, the Haqqani sons, Badruddin and Sirajuddin, are the point of the Taliban lance against U. S. forces in the region and both seem to have enjoyed overlordship of David Rohde’s kidnapping ordeal. In David’s account with his wife Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer, and in many other versions, I take the large arc of the story to be about the killer mix of fanaticism and firepower that came back to bite us on 9.11 and ever since, and how it is still tearing up the home grounds where the US helped plant the virus thirty years ago. David Rohde knows the details of that story — of our “Frankenstein’s monster,” as he puts it — far better than I do. And still I have to say his thematic question in this book strikes me as stunningly wrong. First with smoke in his nose in Lower Manhattan in September, 2001 and on to the last strokes of this book, he is asking himself “how can religious extremism be contained?” He thinks those drones might actually be part of the answer.

I am presuming in this conversation not just to differ on the drones, but to suggest he “buried the lede” of his own story. He lets me get away with it, perhaps because I’ve watched his work with affection, often with awe, since he interned as a Brown undergraduate with our Ten O’Clock News on WGBH, public television in Boston.

Podcast • October 1, 2010

John Mearsheimer: Why does a smart country act so stupid?

When Barack Obama delivered his defining “dumb war” denunciation of war against Iraq in October, 2002, he was a state senator standing in at Chicago’s first big anti-war rally for the invited keynoter, John Mearsheimer, ...

When Barack Obama delivered his defining “dumb war” denunciation of war against Iraq in October, 2002, he was a state senator standing in at Chicago’s first big anti-war rally for the invited keynoter, John Mearsheimer, who’d been booked elsewhere.

It was John Mearsheimer, the foreign policy scholar at the University of Chicago, who’d drafted the ad — op-ed in the New York Times on September 26, 2002 — that I keep pinned over my desk 8 years later. “WAR WITH IRAQ IS NOT IN AMERICA’S NATIONAL INTEREST,” was the headline. Signed by 33 university-based analysts, the ad was a marker then of rare vision, independence and mettle in the “expert” ranks. (My interviews with these uncelebrated heroes are here). Their ad came to stand also for the sorry truth that hitting the target smack-on in these surreal times is not often a good career move. All of that was before Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt at Harvard wrote the book that made them famous, The Israel Lobby.

In conversation here at Brown this week, Mearsheimer is reviewing a course that’s been “all down hill” for nearly a decade. We face four big unfixable fiascos abroad, in the Mearsheimer brief — all legacies of the “radical, reckless” George W. Bush. Afghanistan is being driven by demography and war back into Taliban control. Iraq, centrifugal by nature, continues to tear itself apart. Iran is not about to foreswear nuclear sophistication. And Israel, hell-bent on extending settlements, will defy the world’s pressure for a two-state deal with Palestinians; a Greater Israel, with apartheid rules, will be “a festering sore” on the American imperium for decades to come.

For President Obama, Mearsheimer sees no ways out, no “clever strategies” at hand. Obama might better have told the country in the Spring of 2009 that, on sober review, our problems were beyond solving any time soon — that we had to lower expectations and be prepared to shift directions. But Obama has mostly stayed the Bush course with softer rhetoric; and lots of people are angry at him because none of the problems are getting fixed.

Mearsheimer makes (to me) the intriguing argument that the great snare and delusion on the way to these quagmires was the first brief “successful” war on Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001. What felt like a quick and easy toppling of the Taliban so soon after 9.11 persuaded the Bush warriors that the combination of air power and special forces could wreck regimes and install puppets almost overnight. This was the premise for the invasion of Iraq — with dreams of turning over Syria and Iran after that, on the way to transforming the Arab and Muslim worlds. In time, that Afghan victory proved a “mirage” and a trap. The Taliban hid out, then resurged. Hamid Karzai proved both incompetent and corrupt. Iraq proved to be a bottomless quagmire, and nine years later we are still bleeding in Afghanistan.

The confounding riddle for Mearsheimer in all this is why the upper reaches of the American establishment have been so slow about examining the damage, so stubbornly set in doctrines that don’t work. He underlines the correspondence between the Iraq disaster and the money meltdown that Michael Lewis memorably set out in our conversation about The Big Short last spring:

The big question in the United States is how is it that a country with so much intellectual capital could have screwed up not just foreign policy so badly, but the economy as well. … Virtually all the economists and all the key business people thought that the American economy was in terrific shape, and hardly any of them foresaw the tsunami that hit us in 2008. Something is fundamentally wrong here.

Let’s go back to the discourse about the Iraq war. The fact that so few prominent people in the national security establishment foresaw a problem here is really quite remarkable. I don’t think you had to be very smart to understand that invading Iraq was likely to lead to disaster. …

So this leads us to the question: what is wrong in the United States? How is it that a country with all this intellectual capital could have been simultaneously wrong about two such fundamentally important issues, the economy and foreign policy?

Truth be told, I don’t have a good answer.

John Mearsheimer with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown University, September 27, 2010.

Podcast • April 23, 2010

Anthony Shadid: Questions a Reporter Asks Himself

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anthony Shadid. (60 minutes, 36 mb mp3) I find it almost painful to come to the States… I tell you, part of me is convinced that the legacy ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anthony Shadid. (60 minutes, 36 mb mp3)

I find it almost painful to come to the States… I tell you, part of me is convinced that the legacy of this war is that Americans come away thinking we figured out how to win wars like this. If there’s a worse lesson you could take away from it, I’m willing to hear it, but I think it’s just spectacular that we don’t appreciate the devastation that has been wrought in Iraq over the past 7 or 8 years. It’s just spectacular. To my mind the society has been destroyed at some level. Is it going to turn out alright, in 10 years? Or 20 years? Or 30 years? You know, it may. It doesn’t feel that way to me right now. It feels as precarious, as dangerous, as unsettled as it ever has. In fact, it reminds me of 2003 in some ways. There was an incredible amount arrogance that went into this entire experience on the part of journalists, on the part of policy makers and the military. There wasn’t even a desire to learn. It does give you pause.

Anthony Shadid in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, April 22, 2010.

Anthony Shadid won his second Pulitzer Prize this spring for his unusual Washington Post pieces from Iraq — personal horror stories, most of them, about the war’s toxic effects on ordinary Iraqis. Underlying our conversation is an awkward question: was anybody reading him?

Shadid is a natural storyteller whose Oklahoma boyhood and Lebanese family roots add his own humanity to big-time journalism. He has an eye for gentle details of Arab social life. “Lunch for a stranger, any stranger, was requisite” is a typical Shadid aside in print. He is the rarity among American reporters in Iraq who lets himself and his readers feel the pain of plain Arabs.

“When you’re in Baghdad,” he says, “it’s almost overwhelming, the sense that this society has been broken… Everyone you meet there has lost a relative or a friend, every single person. When you think about the scope of the bloodshed, it’s breathtaking. The war is over, but it’s not over. It’s legacy is not over… We won’t know for a generation what we’ve done to Iraq, and that’s putting it optimistically.”

Anthony Shadid is in transit this Spring through Cambridge, Massachusetts where he and his wife Nada Bakri, also a Times correspondent, have just delivered their first child. Shadid is talking — fast! — here about the vicious circle of war; about the news industry’s role in exoticizing, then dehumanizing the Middle East; about his hero Ryszard Kapuscinski, who famously mixed fact and fiction; about Shadid’s own switch late last year from the Washington Post to the New York Times, for which he’ll be writing again soon from Baghdad. Will the Times indulge Anthony Shadid, and us, in his long, lingering village sagas? He worries a bit about being the last survivor of a golden age of foreign correspondence. Is there room for ambition in the newspaper game? Are the readers still there? He has the temerity to dismiss objectivity as an absurd standard in journalism. “I’ve always found it more interesting,” he says, “to imagine that I’m out there to answer a question I’ve been asking myself.”

September 15, 2005

Anthony Shadid on Iraq

It’s only now, looking back on some of our shows from the last few months, that I can see an Iraq mini-series of sorts that should have been obvious for a while: smart talkers who, ...

It’s only now, looking back on some of our shows from the last few months, that I can see an Iraq mini-series of sorts that should have been obvious for a while: smart talkers who, one at a time, have helped us understand what’s going on in the bewildering, occupied country thousands of miles away.

First was Kanan Makiya — the only Iraqi in the series, interestingly enough — who wouldn’t let us forget the horrors of Saddam’s regime and was still making a passionate case for the war as humanitarian intervention. Then came Juan Cole, the academic, historian, and blog aggregator extraodinaire. Last week was John Burns, the veteran war reporter with a breadth and vision that helped us glimpse, if only for an hour, the past, present, and possible (and terrifying) future of Iraq.

Now we welcome Anthony Shadid, the Pullitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post (and, before that, the Boston Globe). It’s his turn get us past the screaming headlines — the numbing numbers of new dead or the fitful constitutional process — and to focus our attention on the war and the country as he sees it. We’re turning to him for a lot, but taking our cue from his new book, which has at its beating heart a mosaic of human stories from Iraq: not generalizations, not caricatures, but real people.

Anthony Shadid

Washington Post reporter

Author of Night Draws Near

[In a studio in Oklahoma City, OK]

September 8, 2005

John Burns back from Iraq

We are catching the New York Times’ ace war correspondent John F. Burns on his way back for his umpteenth tour in Baghdad. Burns was there with his eyes wide open, his ears tuned to ...

We are catching the New York Times’ ace war correspondent John F. Burns on his way back for his umpteenth tour in Baghdad. Burns was there with his eyes wide open, his ears tuned to “listen to whispers,??? under Saddam Hussein’s republic of fear. Burns filed every day from Baghdad during the US assault in March 2003. And he’s been an unblinking witness ever since to the crumbling of official US expectations. In a Sunday “Week in Review??? analysis this past July, John Burns marked indelibly for me a turning point:

From the moment American troops crossed the border 28 months ago the specter hanging over the American enterprise here has been that Iraq, freed from Mr. Hussein’s tyranny, might prove to be so fractured—by politics and religion, by culture and geography, and by the suspicion and enmity sown by Mr. Hussein’s years of repression—that it would spiral inexorably into civil war… Now, events are pointing more than ever to the possibility that the nightmare could come true.

I am riffling through the electronic file of John Burns’ dispatches with awe at his range: he has stared into the eyes of Saddam Hussein in the dock, and eaten with the regulars at the favorite diner in Tikrit—(not to mention that Burns has been kidnapped in Iraq, as he was also imprisoned and charged with espionage in another reporting incarnation in China). But I’m also struck by some persistent threads in John Burns’ last year of Iraq stories—the stuff of tonight’s conversation: the daily carnage, the oceanic depth of the insurgency, the multiplicity of roadblocks to a constitution, the steep decline of American hopes in Baghdad, and (weirdly!) the persistence of the unsinkable badboy in the epic: the now Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi.

John Burns made his name the first time as the Toronto Globe and Mail‘s reporter in Beijing–before American correspondents could go there. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting from Afghanistan and Sarajevo under siege. He is one of those reporters out of the Harrison Salisbury tree who’s been to every awful place in the world and written exquisitely about it–one of those legends of whom you’d say: “they don’t make them like that anymore,” except that “they,” and especially the Times, keeps making them.