Larry Tye, a longtime journalist, has written six books, the most recent of which is Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. He runs the Health Coverage Fellowship, based in Boston, which trains reporters to cover health-related issues.
Q: You are working on a book about Robert F. Kennedy. What have you found in the course of your research that surprised you the most?
A: Lots of things have surprised me about RFK, from his early career as a cold warrior, to the way he evolved his later role as a liberal icon. The transition was dramatic and a lens into the way America was changing in that era. I've also uncovered things that I find new and illuminating about Bobby Kennedy's roles in the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis. Most important, I am starting to understand why he still resonates today -- half a century after his death -- with everyone from Bill O'Reilly to Barack Obama. As for specifics, I can't wait to lay those issues and themes out in my book.
Q: What intrigued you about Superman, and what do you think makes him, as your subtitle says, "America's most enduring hero"?
A: In an era when political heroes seem to last about 15 seconds, and most sports heroes fizzle after a season or two, I was drawn in by the way Superman has stayed atop our list of national icons for what will be, as of next June, a full 75 years. I thought that, by looking at what made Superman stick in the American psyche, I could learn a lot not just about him but about us. And I think I did.
So why has Superman lasted that long?
It's partly that he has evolved more than the fruit fly. In the 1930s he was just the crime fighter we needed to take on Al Capone and the robber barons. In the forties he defended the home front while brave GIs battled overseas. Early in the Cold War he stood up taller than ever for his adopted country, while in its waning days he tried singlehandedly to eliminate nuclear stockpiles. For each era he zeroed in on the threats that scared us most, using powers that grew or diminished depending on the need. So did his spectacles, hair style, even his job title. Each generation got the Superman it needed and deserved. Each change offered a Rorschach test of the pulse of that time and its dreams. Superman, always a beacon of light, was a work in progress.
At least as important, however, is his constancy. Nobody has a more instinctual sense than Superman of right and wrong. He is an archetype of mankind at its pinnacle. Like John Wayne, he sweeps in to solve our problems. No thank-you needed. Like Jesus Christ, he descended from the heavens to help us discover our humanity. He is neither cynical like Batman nor fraught like Spider-Man. For the religious, he can reinforce whatever faith they profess; for nonbelievers he is a secular messiah. The more jaded the era, the more we have been suckered back to his clunky familiarity. So what if the upshot of his adventures is as predictable as with Sherlock Holmes: the good guy never loses. That is reassuring.
There's one more reason I wrote this book: to feel like I was 10 years old again. And that worked, too.
Q: Your books seem to be about very diverse issues, but do you see themes that connect them?
A: Each tries to use the narrow story I am telling -- of individuals like Satchel Paige and Superman, or groups and movements like the Pullman porters and the Jewish diaspora -- as a window into wider issues and forces. Satchel's life, for instance, perfectly mirrored the era of segregation in America, and my book was at least as much a biography of Jim Crow as it was of the Negro Leagues strikeout king. Same for the book on the Jewish diaspora: while it was the story of my people, it tried to say something about every ethnic and national group that, years and continents removed from their homeland, continues to define itself by ancient cultural roots and to find a hyphenated identity in its adopted homeland.
Q: You worked for many years as a medical writer, and now you train reporters to cover health care issues. What do you think of the coverage of the Affordable Care Act over the past few years, and what topics do you focus on in the journalistic training?
A: Our fellowship program zeroes in on issues ranging from health care reform to mental and public health, trying to make medical reporters a bit better at what they do. I think there's endless room for improvement for even the most seasoned reporters, and no issue makes my point better than the Affordable Care Act, which remains an enigma to most politicians as well as most of the public.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just that I love writing books more, even, than I did being a reporter for 20 years, and that is saying a very lot.
Interview with Deborah Kalb.