Thursday, February 28, 2013

Q&A with author David Maraniss

David Maraniss
David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and associate editor of The Washington Post. His books include First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton, They Marched Into Sunlight, and Barack Obama: The Story.

Q: You've written biographies of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. What do you see as the main similarities and differences between the two?

A: The backgrounds of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have several commonalities. They both came from provincial places far from the centers of power - Clinton from southwest Arkansas, Obama from Hawaii. Neither boy knew his father; Clinton's was killed in an auto accident before he was born; Obama never lived with his father, and saw him only once for a few weeks when he was ten.

In their childhoods, both Clinton and Obama had to deal with family dysfunction. Clinton's stepfather was an abusive alcoholic; Obama's mother, though loving, was often gone, leaving him with his grandparents, who were also devoted to him, but suffered from alcoholism themselves. Both Clinton and Obama invented themselves in the sense that they their strong male role models were few or none.

Yet they dealt with their situations in completely different ways. Clinton plowed forward, relentlessly, never trying to resolve the contradictions life threw his way but just getting up every day and forgiving himself and the world and moving forward. He became the ultimate survivor with incredible instincts about the people around him. Those traits helped get him to the White House, and into trouble in the White House, and then out of trouble, in an endless cycle.

Obama spent much of his young adulthood intensely, introspectively trying to resolve life's contradictions, and to find his own identity, racially, culturally, politically. He emerged from that process with a self-confidence and self-reliance that also helped get him to the White House and then at times got him in trouble in the White House. He didn't need people the way Clinton did.

Q: As you did your research for Barack Obama: The Story, were there particular things you uncovered that surprised you or changed your previous impression of the president's younger life?

A: As I studied Obama and his forebears, I could see certain patterns emerge that helped me understand him today. But I try to start fresh, with as few assumptions or prejudgments as possible, so that everything seems a surprise to some extent. I was struck by a few things.

First, that as much as he missed not having a father, and based his memoir Dreams From My Father around that hole in his life, he was in fact lucky that he never lived with his father, who was not just an alcoholic but physically and mentally abusive.

Second, that his mother was the conscience of his life, and always there in that sense, but that he carried a larger measure of anger toward her than I thought, and it came out later as a rejection of what he saw as her naive idealism. He carried that but also rebelled against it at various times.

Third, as my previous answer indicates, I was struck by the length and breadth of his effort from age 17 to 28 to figure himself out.

Q: Your book They Marched Into Sunlight dealt with the Vietnam War in October 1967--on the battlefield, on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, and at the White House. Why did you decide to structure the book the way you did, and why did you pick that particular time period on which to focus?

A: As I was researching and writing my first books, First In His Class, the biography of Bill Clinton, and When Pride Still Mattered, the life of Vince Lombardi, I noticed that I slowed down and became almost obsessed as their lives moved through the 1960s. That was the formative decade for me and millions of other postwar baby boomers, and I wanted to understand it.

I decided that the best way to do that was to write a book about Vietnam. I knew there was great literature about the war itself, and not such great literature about the antiwar movement, and that I hadn't seen a book that took those two very different worlds that were nonetheless about the same thing and tried to weave them into a single interconnected narrative. I started with the protest at Wisconsin because I was a freshman there that year, and it had stuck with me. I did not want to be a character in the book, but 1967 seemed perfect because everything was still up in the air, no one knew how the war would go, or what the antiwar movement would accomplish; life seemed to be changing week by week.

I went to the morgue at the Washington Post, where I work, and looked at newspapers from that 48-hour period and discovered the battle of my book, and just started reporting from there, finding connections that I never could have imagined. I consider They Marched into Sunlight my best and most creative book.

Q: In First in His Class, your Clinton biography, you describe Clinton's tortured relationship with the military draft. Do you think his lack of military service affected the decisions he made as president? Why or why not?

A: I think Clinton was deeply and unavoidably affected by Vietnam and his dealings with the draft. All the people of his generation were in one way or another, whether it be Clinton or John Kerry or John McCain or George W. Bush or Dick Cheney. Either they wanted to absorb the lessons of Vietnam or try to erase them, for better and worse.

Because he did not serve, and actively opposed the war, and because he was president at a time when Democrats were still losing the public relations or rhetorical ground on what defined loyalty and patriotism and strength, every action he took was either affected or interpreted in the context of his past, going back to Vietnam. It made it harder for him to develop a strong relationship with the military.

Obama, by contrast, came of age after Vietnam, and did not carry that baggage, and felt no pressures to either absorb or reject the lessons of Vietnam, but could approach military issues free from all of that, for better and worse.

Q: What are you working on now? Are you planning another Obama biography to pick up where you left off in the story of his life?

A: I have enough books on the horizon to keep me busy into the foreseeable future. I intend to do second volumes on both Clinton and Obama, but first I am doing a book on Detroit. Not its collapse, which will be the shadow of the book, but on what Detroit gave this country before its collapse. The book will take place in 1963 and focus on automobiles (the Big 3 sold more cars that year than any other year) music (Motown was starting to boom), labor (the UAW was at its peak) and race.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview also appears on David Maraniss will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival April 19-21, 2013. For a full schedule of events, please click here.

Q&A with writer Jefferson Morley

Jefferson Morley
Jefferson Morley is the author of Snow-Storm in August and Our Man in Mexico, and the moderator of the website  He has worked for The Washington Post, The Nation, and The New Republic, among other publications, and he lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Your book Snow-Storm in August looks at a race riot in Washington, D.C., in 1835. How did you first learn about this event, and about the role of Francis Scott Key, who served as district attorney for the City of Washington?

A: I first learned about the riot of 1835 and Key's role as D.A. in the late 1990s when I was reporting on a local history article for the Washington Post Metro section. In a brief passage in Constance Green's Village and Capital, a history of early Washington, I read about Key and the riot. I was intrigued and thought that might make for a good article for the Post. I began to ask people in the Post newsroom if had anybody ever written about this riot or the fact that Key had been D.A. Not only had no one ever written about these facts, not a single person I asked even knew them. So I knew I had a good story. I wrote a long article for the Post's Sunday Magazine in February 2005, called "The Snow Riot."

As I reported that story, I found so much good material that I knew I could write a book about the subject. At first I tried to write the story as a novel thinking that might be more commercially viable, a la Gore Vidal's Lincoln and Burr. But when I told my friend David Corn about what I was doing, he urged me to stick to non-fiction, saying he was sure I would be able to sell it as straight history. He was right. 

Q: How did the events of 1835 change Washington, and change the relationships among the city's black and white residents?

A: Snow-Storm in August is the story of what happened when the anti-slavery movement emerged in Washington for the first time. Led by free blacks and sympathetic whites, this movement challenged the entrenched power of the slave masters in the city and the Congress by doing something that had never been done before: calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The riot ("The Snow-Storm") of August 1835 was the angry and fearful response of pro-slavery whites to the rise of this movement.

These events changed Washington in two ways. 

First, the new anti-slavery movement succeeded in injecting slavery into the Washington political debate for the first time. Multiracial opposition to slavery would continue to grow steadily in the city and the nation for the next 30 years, until the soldiers of the Union Army would defeat it and the passage of the 13th Amendment would bury it forever. 

Second, after August 1835, white authorities would impose more controls on the local black population (denying them the right to hold most commercial licenses for example). But these controls would slowly lose their effectiveness as the free black population grew. By the 1850s Washington had an abolitionist newspaper. Pro-slavery whites tried mob violence again to put it out of business. They failed.

Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you the most as you conducted your research?

A: The first thing I did was read all of Washington's daily newspapers, the pro-Jackson Globe, the anti-Jackson Telegraph, the Whig National Intelligencer as well as the weekly Mirror, and Georgetown's Metropolitan. Then I read the circuit court docket and related documents, which provided a granular look at the workings of the law and the courts. I reviewed the city property records, which disclosed who had money, slaves, and land. Last, but not least, I read the remarkable diary of Anna Thornton, which is found in the Library of Congress. 

Many things surprised me--the opportunism of Francis Scott Key and the courage of Anna Thornton--but what surprised me most was the size and relative success of Washington's free blacks, led by the remarkable restaurateur Beverly Snow. I never expected to find a free black man flourishing in the heart of the slaveholding republic. But there was Snow, holding forth in his restaurant at the corner of 6th and Pennsylvania 25 years before the Civil War. I would not have dared to invent such a character. 

Q: In your previous book, Our Man in Mexico, you examine the life of Win Scott, Mexico City station chief for the CIA in the 1950s and '60s. What new information did you uncover about the CIA's interest in Lee Harvey Oswald?

A: Before I wrote the book it was known that Scott had supervised the surveillance of Oswald during a curious trip he made to Mexico City six weeks before President Kennedy was killed. What I found--and was able to recreate in granular detail--was how Scott came to understand the events leading to JFK's death. I discovered Scott had been deliberately denied information about Oswald by his colleagues while JFK was still alive. 

Interviews with former CIA officers and declassified agency records revealed that some of Scott's colleagues were far more interested in and knowledgeable about Oswald than they ever disclosed to any investigation. Scott himself privately concluded that JFK was killed by a conspiracy and wrote as much in an unpublished memoir. When Scott died suddenly in 1971, the CIA seized his manuscript and suppressed it for another 30 years. To this day the CIA has never acknowledged the scope of its pre-assassination interest in the accused assassin. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on sequels to my first two books. One is about the second race riot in Washington history, the race war of July 1919. The other is about the events leading to JFK's assassination as seen by another CIA officer. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The American history you have been taught conceals as much as it reveals.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 28

Feb. 28, 1894: Writer Ben Hecht born.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Q&A with author Hedrick Smith

(Copyright Hedrick Smith 2013. All rights Reserved – may be transmitted in full, but not for excerpting without written permission)

Esteemed journalist Hedrick Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter and editor, and Emmy award-winning producer and correspondent. His books include The Russians, The Power Game: How Washington Works, and his latest, Who Stole the American Dream?
Q: You locate the start of many of the country's problems in events from the 1970s. What were some of those key events, and how did they change the country's trajectory?

A: For me, one key discovery in researching WHO STOLE THE AMERICAN DREAM? was the Powell Memo, written by famous corporate attorney Lewis Powell, who was named by President Nixon to the Supreme Court in late 1971. Powell was an ardent advocate of the free enterprise system and strongly anti-union. He was deeply disturbed by the power of organized labor, the consumer movement led by Ralph Nader, the women’s movement and its push to increase and improve pay for women in the workplace, by the environmental movement and the impacts of regulations and controls to protect the environment, and by the proliferation of regulatory agencies established by the Nixon administration.

Friends of Powell at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged him to put his ideas down in writing and when he did, they circulated his memo privately to business leaders across the country. Powell warned, with considerable exaggeration, that the U.S. free enterprise system was in mortal danger. And so, like a modern-day Paul Revere, he issued a call to arms. He urged business leaders to get organized politically, to make a long-term plan, to pool their money, to identify their political enemies, such as organized labor, consumer advocates like Ralph, government regulators, academics, anyone who tried to put limits. He told them to come to Washington and use their political muscle. His memo fell on fertile ground. Business leaders responded quickly.

Powell's memo had a profound impact. It set off a "revolt of the bosses" that changed the landscape of power in Washington, Its impact is still with us today, because business lobbyists dominate the Washington power game. And it all goes back to the late 1970s.

Within a few months of Powell's memo in 1971, the CEOs of the biggest 150 blue chip companies in America formed the Business Roundtable; the National Association of Manufacturers moved its headquarters to Washington; the number of companies with Washington offices mushroomed from 175 in 1971 to 2,425 in 1980; by the time Reagan took office, there were 50,000 people working for business trade associations, 9,000 registered lobbyists, and 8,000 corporate PR people. And that political army generated by Powell's Army had impact even when the Democrats were in control of Congress and the White House in the late 1970s. They blocked pet legislation of organized labor and Ralph Nader. They instituted the 401k plan, rolled back regulations in trucking and communications, changed the corporate bankruptcy law, eliminated the ceiling on interest rates, and cut corporate taxes and the capital gains tax rate from 48% to 28%. So the whole direction of politics changed. What was the anti-business Congress of the early 1970s became the pro-business Congress of the late 1970s - and ever since.

Q: How long did it take to do the research for this book, and what in your research did you find most surprising?

A: It took me about a year to do the research and reporting for WHO STOLE THE AMERICAN DREAM? I was doing reporting all over the country - in Ohio, Washington State, Florida, Virginia, and contacting people from Boston to Denver to Los Angeles, and lots of places in between. I was also devouring books and articles on American economic and political history over the past half century. With the help of my full-time researcher Owen Smith, I was studying government tables on household income, productivity, foreign trade balances, job offshoring, whether there was a shortage of STEM workers in America (Rand says there is not), and on and on. Then it took me another year to write the first draft of my book, and another six months to do four more drafts.

For me, the surprises were endless - amazing because I had covered so much of this period in my reporting for the New York Times and for lots of documentaries that I created for PBS and for Frontline. I didn’t know when I started that the main victims of sub-prime loans were solid prime borrowers, who got talked, bamboozled and cheated into buying high-interest, high-fee loans. Millions of them are still stuck in those bad mortgages. It surprised me to find out that homeowners, mostly middle-class homeowners, lost $6 trillion in home equity - their most important source of accumulated wealth - before the housing boom hit bottom. They were sucking $750 billion a year out of their home equity by constantly refinancing their homes, taking out home equity loans, or just simply borrowing from their mortgages. I had not known that the 401k plan was never intended as a national retirement system, but began merely as a profit-sharing bonus tax shelter for a few New York banks plus Kodak and Xerox. I had forgotten that we had really good growth rates in the U.S. under Eisenhower when the maximum marginal tax rate was 92% and under John F. Kennedy when the top tax rate was 77% and that we had the worst growth rates in seven decades under GW Bush and Obama, when the maximum tax rage was only 35%. So I learned that there is a lot of political nonsense being tossed around about how we have to keep tax rates down on the wealthy in order to generate economic growth. That is not what generates growth. The main driver of growth is consumer demand - strong buying power by the middle class, and that only happens when tens of millions of middle-class families have good steady jobs at good and rising pay, not the kind of high unemployment and stagnant wages that cripple the middle class today.

Q: What were the factors that resulted in major changes in the U.S. economy, leading to the situation you describe today?
A: As readers will see in WHO STOLE THE AMERICAN DREAM? the most important change was the shift in mindset and corporate ethics among American business leaders from stakeholder capitalism to shareholder capitalism.

In the heyday of the American middle class, the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, business leaders believed that companies should share the wealth generated by economic gains. When you read the statements of former CEOs such as Charlie Wilson of General Motors or Reginald Jones of General Electric or Frank Abrams of Standard Oil of New Jersey, you see that they believed that it was their responsibility as CEOs to balance and support the interests of all the stakeholders in their companies. By stakeholders, they meant all the groups that had a stake in the success of the corporation. Of course, that included the shareholders as owners of the company. But it also included the managers, rank-and-file employees, the suppliers, creditors, customers and communities in which their companies operated. One way that they balanced those interests was to pay their workers well, to raise their pay as the company made higher profits, and to provide their workforce with lifetime pensions and fully paid employer health insurance. These terms were often embodied in the contracts that these major companies signed with trade unions that represented their workers.
Under this social contract, the American middle class prospered for three decades and became the envy of the world. From 1945 to 1973, the productivity of the American workforce almost doubled. It rose 97% and along with that, the earnings and incomes of average Americans rose 95%. In short, as President Kennedy said, the rising economic tide lifted all boats. The nation's wealth was widely shared.
That wide sharing of wealth was reinforced by the exercise of people power, the political power of mass movements like the consumer movement led by activist Ralph Nader, the women's movement pushing for equal pay for women, the environmental movement demanding protections for the environment, the organized labor movement bargaining with American businesses for solid wages and worker benefits. Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon as well as Democratic presidents like Johnson Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson heeded people power and so did members of both parties in Congress. They responded with policies that protected middle-class prosperity and steadily raised minimum wages and other worker protections.
But as we moved into the widely heralded New Economy of the 1980s and beyond, the mindset of business leaders shifted. Instead of stakeholder capitalism, they pursued shareholder capitalism. As economist Milton Friedman defined it and Harvard Business School and others taught it, the CEO's sole mission was to deliver the maximum return to shareholders. Instead of running the business to benefit all the stakeholders, New Economy CEOs focused on delivering higher profits and higher company stock prices for the benefit of big investors on Wall Street and elsewhere. CEO's like Jack Welch of General Electric won favor with Wall Street by cutting costs - laying off tens of thousands of workers, freezing wages, moving employees out of lifetime pension programs paid for by the company into 401 (k) plans.
Back in 1980, 84% of the workers in companies with more than 100 employees got lifetime pensions from their employers and 70% got fully paid employer health benefits. Under shareholder capitalism those numbers shrank drastically. Today, only 30% get lifetime pensions and only 18% get fully paid employer health insurance. So hundreds of billions of dollars in costs for those benefits were shifted from the corporate books to the checkbooks and pocketbooks of average Americans, costing the middle class dearly.
At the same time, middle-class paychecks stagnated, even though the economy grew and corporate profits soared. The rising tide no longer lifted all boats. The link between the nation's rising labor productivity and the incomes of average Americans was broken. From 1975 to 2011, the productivity of the American workforce rose 80% but the incomes of average American households, right at the middle of our economy, went up only 10%. Male workers were particularly hard hit. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the hourly compensation of the typical male worker in 2011 was equal to the level in 1978 (actually a tiny fraction lower), adjusted for inflation. Three decades of going nowhere.
Over that same long period, top-level incomes have skyrocketed. CEOs now dominate that sliver of the super rich in the top 1%. Why? Because they are being paid mostly in stock grants or stock options by the companies they run.  CEOs and other top executives are the primary beneficiaries of shareholder capitalism. In some companies, CEOs and other top executives can get a grant of a million or more stock options in one year, with their earnings in one year sometimes running into hundreds of millions of dollars
So while middle-class Americans were stuck in a rut, CEOs went from making about 40 times the average worker's pay in the 1960s to making more than 360 times the average worker's pay in the 2000s. Big-time CEO salaries jumped 300% to 400% while worker wages stagnated. Among the top 1%, incomes rose 600%. So the shift from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism over the past thirty years has cost the middle class heavily and created massive gaps of economic inequality, gaps so great that Citigroup, in one of its fancy investment brochures in 2005, compared the hyper concentration of wealth in America today to 16th Century Spain. 
In fact, economists warn us that today's lop-sided income distribution in the US is bad for the country. It is not smart economics. Several economic studies have found that high income inequality is harmful for growth. On the contrary, history shows that economics of stakeholder capitalism which produced the "Great Compression" in incomes is actually the best condition for growth. 

Q: Is there another period in American history that you would compare to this one? If so, what would it be?

A: What we are seeing in America today is the third wave of the great concentration of wealth in the hands of the business and financial elite. We saw that first in the 1880s and 1890s during the era of the railroad boom and the Robber Barons. We saw it again in the roaring 1920s. Each of these eras not only generated high inequality of income but also led to long depressions. So what we are seeing now is not new. We are once again seeing that high inequality of income - the concentration of so much wealth and political power in the hands of the 1% or 2% at the top of the economic pyramid - is not only unfair but bad economics. It generates slow growth or depression and recessions.

Q: You say that civic engagement is necessary to reverse the country's direction. How likely do you think this is to occur, and from which sources is it likely to come?

A: There are many issues on which a new surge of civic engagement could emerge - creating a fairer tax system so that companies which move jobs overseas do not wind up paying lower corporate rates than companies which operate entirely inside the U.S.; making the banks that got bailed out by taxpayers bail out homeowners who still stuck in bad, high-interest bubble-era mortgages; fixing our broken election system so that it is easier for voters to vote; restoring the legitimacy and integrity of elections for the House of Representatives and for state legislatures by ending the egregious gerrymandering of political district lines by political parties and turning that important task over to nonpartisan commissions; reducing the overwhelming influence of big money in elections either through public financing of state and federal elections or through changes in federal election rules to bar political campaign donations by organizations and institutions such as corporations and labor unions; opening up party primaries to all candidates and all voters to force politicians to appeal to the political middle and reduce the polarization in Congress. You’ll find a list of reforms in WHO STOLE THE AMERICAN DREAM?.
Different groups are already at work on these issues, such as Fair Elections, No Labels, Take Back the American Dream, The Organization for Campaign Finance Reform, and others. Smart middle-class voters will start getting active in issue campaigns - just as people got engaged in the environmental movement, consumer movement, women’s movement, civil rights movement in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s- when they get angry enough at the corruption of our politics by Big Money and the unfairness of wedge economics.
I am not sure what the specific trigger will be. But there is a mass of public discontent out in the country. It is political tinder just waiting to be set off - if people will stop feeling powerless to change America and Washington through direct citizen action.

(copyright Hedrick Smith, 2013 All rights Reserved. May be transmitted or Tweeted in full but not for excerpting without written permission)

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 25

Feb. 25, 1983: Death of playwright Tennessee Williams.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Q&A with writer Donna Britt

Donna Britt
Donna Britt is a former syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, and writer for USA TODAY, and the Detroit Free Press. She is the author of Brothers (and me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving. The book focuses on the often inexplicable need that many women have to give to others, particularly men, and how in Britt's case, that need was heightened by the shock of her brother Darrell's death at the hands of police decades ago in their home town of Gary, Indiana.

Q: In Brothers (and me), you write about the hidden effects of loss. Can you describe that, and how it has affected you since your brother’s death?

A: I think most of us are afraid to deeply examine our losses. When someone we love dies, we talk about our pain but don’t look deeper into its effect on us--no one likes to dive deeper into pain. We try to get past it as quickly as possible. I did that when my brother died; the agony was so profound that I backed away from it, and away from him in my memories—remembering too clearly hurt too much. It took decades to realize how I had processed his death. One way was to feel responsible, even though it wasn’t rational, for his having died, and to act on that feeling.

Q: How long did it take you to gain more of an understanding of your feelings?

A: I don’t know that I fully understand now. The main theme of Brothers (and me) is women and giving. In my case, the loss of my brother informed my own giving to others, especially to the men in my life. The compulsion to give, especially to men, is extremely common among women—so common that I think it’s in our DNA. Many of us know the tendency is there and are confused by and ashamed of it. Different women come by the impulse in different ways. Darrell’s death had everything to do with me giving more; he had been my favorite brother and when I stepped away from my role of cheerleader and supporter and confidante, he was killed by police under suspicious [circumstances]. Although it made no sense, I felt somehow that I should have prevented it.

Q: In the book, you write about someone reminding you that Darrell also had done the same kind of stepping away during those years.

A: We were both young adults in our 20s, finding our way—that’s what you do in your 20s. We probably would have come together again, and been as close as adults. He, too, had stepped away, but I didn’t notice that. Human beings tend to blame themselves.

Q: You write about looking through a box of Darrell’s memorabilia. Could you talk about what your emotions were at that point?

A: I already had the book contract to write Brothers (and me) about women and giving —about the effect of loss on my own giving, and the motivations other women have for offering themselves to others. I knew I had to examine my relationship with my departed brother. But because his dying had been so painful, I’d buried him too deeply in my consciousness to find him. As a protective impulse, I had tucked him safely away. I could only find the obvious, well-worn memories. So I was in a panic. I knew I needed to resurrect more for about him the book, and I couldn’t find it.

One afternoon during this period, I opened a little-used drawer and stumbled upon a plastic bag, the sort that a down comforter comes in. And it was filled with Darrell’s stuff—receipts, note-cards, poems, sketches. He was a comic; there were excerpts from performances, receipts from a pawnbroker—a collection of disparate, and much of it personal, stuff. It was a treasure trove—exactly what I needed. But I immediately zipped it up and put it back into the drawer. And I couldn’t go back to it for two weeks. I couldn’t figure out why I was so frightened, and I realized I was afraid of learning more about Darrell; I didn’t want to dislodge him as a hero. So many black men are painted as villains, and I couldn’t risk finding something that made him less perfect in my eyes. 

There are so many layers to our feelings, our reactions, our behavior. I’m known as an introspective writer who digs deep—yet I had so much unexplored terrain within me. That told me that we are all walking around with so many feelings and motivations that we’re unaware of. I wish everyone could write a memoir. It was very frightening to go so deep, but I’m so happy I did it.

Q: You write that you, like many women, often feel like you’re “shouldering the whole world.” Is it possible to continue to be giving while lessening the sense of responsibility? How did you learn to give to yourself?

A: I have a saying on my desk from Vandana Shiva that says, “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember the planet is carrying you.” It’s funny that Atlas was a man—because to my mind, women are the ones who are doing most of the carrying. We shoulder so much because of our desire to make everyone more comfortable and safe, to keep them from harm, to be seen and appreciated. 

What I’ve enjoyed most about having written this book is the recognition that so many women feel this way. But we hate admitting it. As women, our sense of equality with men, our independence, is very hard-won. To admit that we’re still so wired to give, that it’s an impulse we have so much trouble controlling, feels like a betrayal of feminism. But it’s so deep and universal that I see it as sacred, and believe it should be honored.

Q: Can feminism and giving go together?

A: I think so. I expected to be attacked for being so up-front about how reflexive most women’s giving is and it’s never happened. I’ve done dozens of interviews and appearances, and it’s never once come up. I have had a few women say, “I’m not like that,” but they’ll add that they know plenty of women who are. I understand our reluctance to explore this, because many of us already feel taken advantage of. To broadcast this tendency [could exacerbate] the fear that people will take even more advantage.

I’m convinced the thing to do is to embrace our giving, to celebrate it—but to control it. To understand, “Okay, I have this tendency; how can I use it rather than have it use me? Feminism was never about being more like men, but having the freedom to be a woman and not be demeaned for it. The idea that we should all be the same is ridiculous, and it’s not going to happen.

Q: What about giving to yourself?

A: One of the first gifts women should give is the recognition that it’s okay to be a giver, that we don’t have to feel bad about it. Being aware of it, and accepting it, while refusing to let it control you. Awareness is everything—I’m a yoga teacher in addition to being a writer; it’s all about awareness of breath, of your body in space, of movement. We need to be more aware of our behavior. Now, I examine myself when I’m giving, and if part of myself says it’s not the best idea, I can stop myself. These days, I challenge people who are the beneficiaries of my giving to give back. 

With my sons, I challenge them to be more mindful of their asking—I want them to be giving to the women in their lives. I want my sons to be guys who intuit that for the women in their lives, they should give back as much as they take. I also try to treat myself, give unto myself some of what I give unto others. You need to fill up so you don’t become depleted. I’m mindful of that. I love clothes so sometimes, I’ll say, “Hey, I’m going to buy a dress!” and not beat myself up for it.

Q: Have the dynamics changed at all in your interactions with your family and friends since you’ve become more aware about your giving?

A: I have such a close relationship with my sons. Part of the closeness is my being as brutally honest—actually lovingly honest--about who I am, and how I see them. It’s a real sense of knowing and respecting each other.

Writing Brothers (and me) made me more aware when people don’t give back; I’m more likely to say something, to challenge that. To say, this should be honored. A gift should be respected whether it’s in a package with a nice bow, or an act of kindness. There’s the idea that with true giving, you shouldn’t expect something back, but I don’t know that I agree with that. Acknowledgement is important. Who wants to be around someone who only takes, and who doesn’t give back?

Q: What’s been the reaction from male readers?

A: A male book club read it, and they were so appreciative—for them it was one way to peek into women’s minds, to be more aware. If you go to Amazon, there are two glowing reviews from 50-year-old white men. I felt this was a woman’s book, and that it might be especially relevant for black women simply because I am black, but I love that it makes men reflect on their own journeys. That’s what I want a memoir to do—to make every reader dig deeper into his or her psyche. There’s really rich stuff for us to mine.

I feel I am a better person for having written it, but I wasn’t “cured” [of my giving].

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Not yet—I really do want to maximize this one. I didn’t get a New York Times review, and the Post didn’t do it until the Trayvon Martin [incident]; what happened to my brother is as inexplicable as Trayvon’s death. I love this book and know that it deserves to open more eyes and hearts.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love that readers tell me Brothers (and me) is funny. There’s a tragedy at its heart with Darrell’s unjust killing, and the tender subject of women and giving, but I’m proud of the humor in it, and that I’m able to crack jokes at my own expense. I’m proud of how honest it is, and how that honesty stuns people. At book clubs, people will say, “I can’t believe how open you were.” I was afraid to be as honest as I was. This is a brutal culture in so many ways. I’m so heartened by how lovingly the book has been embraced by readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Professor Fredrik Logevall

Fredrik Logevall is the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies in Cornell University's Department of History, and the director of Cornell's Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. His most recent book is Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam.

Q: You begin Embers of War with a description of a 1951 visit by John F. Kennedy to Vietnam. Why did you start with that early Kennedy visit?

A: I find it an extraordinary episode on several levels. Here is the young JFK (age 34), visiting Indochina to burnish his foreign policy credentials in anticipation of a Senate run the following year, seeing through the French professions of optimism to ask large and prescient questions about what France—and by extension any outside power—will be able to do against Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary forces.  It’s also a key point in the war: in 1951 the war is becoming more and more internationalized, with the United States and China taking on increased roles, even as French fighting morale is sagging. 

Moreover, a decade later this same man will dramatically increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam as president, even as he privately retains some of his earlier skepticism.  Finally, I was drawn to this episode as a starting point in the book because Kennedy keeps a diary on the trip that is a fascinating historical document in its own right.  

Q: You write of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem that his "prospects after 1954...were never as hopeless as most early histories claimed," and that "it was Diem, not the United States, who possessed the dominant voice in South Vietnamese politics. Washington never had as much influence over Vietnamese affairs after 1954 as France had had before." Why, in your opinion, was that the case?

A: As historians we’ve too often failed to give Diem his due. He had important limitations as a leader, to be sure, limitations that would ultimately be his undoing. But he also brought important attributes to the table, including strong credentials as a nationalist and his own vision for his country’s future.  He was personally courageous, and intelligent. 

Ultimately, it’s hard to see the “Diem experiment” succeeding over the long term, but as recent work by Philip Catton, Ed Miller, and Jessica Chapman has also shown, we need to take his leadership and his years in power in Saigon seriously. And we also need to see that U.S. leverage over Diem, never great to begin with—he knew that America needed him at least as much as he needed America—dissipated over time, despite his regime’s utter dependence on U.S. aid.

Q: Ho Chi Minh, you write, "would lead his people into total war against not one but two Western powers, first France and then the United States, in a struggle lasting three decades and costing millions of lives." How would you compare Ho's attitude toward France with his view of the United States?

A: He had complicated views of both Western powers.  It’s clear he possessed deep affection for the French language, for example, and for the city of Paris, and for French poetry and literature.  But at the same time he hated France as colonial overlord, and he determined from an early age that he would do all in his power to liberate his country from French imperial control. 

With respect to the United States, it seems clear that, as A.J. Langguth has put it, Ho had a lifelong admiration for Americans.  He believed until well into 1947 that the U.S. could be his ally in his quest for independence, and he retained faith in the principles of the Atlantic Charter—to a naïve degree, arguably. Yet one should not take this argument too far.  Ho Chi Minh always saw himself as a loyal member of the Socialist camp, and it would be hard to imagine him ever siding with the United States and the West in the broader Cold War.  But he might have been a Titoist figure, loosely tied to Moscow but treading an independent line.

Q: Much of your book deals with the time period when Harry Truman and then Dwight Eisenhower served as president. How would you characterize the similarities and differences between the two presidents' Vietnam policies?

A: Neither of them took the kind of personal interest in Vietnam’s future that FDR had taken before them. But both came to believe that the strategic stakes in Indochina were large, and Eisenhower in particular thought it imperative to keep the area from falling into Communist hands. (In 1952-53 he insisted that Indochina was more important strategically than Korea.)   

And so both presidents opted to back the French war effort, and to steadily expand America’s involvement.  After the French defeat, Eisenhower made the critical decision to try to succeed where Paris had failed, and to build up and sustain a non-Communist bastion in the southern part of Vietnam.  

For both Truman and Eisenhower (as for their successors), moreover, the perceived domestic political stakes in Indochina loomed ominous on the horizon.  Both men feared being tagged with the “Who lost Vietnam?” label should they fail to persevere.  For both of them—again, as for the presidents who came after them—Vietnam mattered in part because of the danger that it represented to their political fortunes at home.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m casting about for the next “big” project, and have not settled on anything. Suggestions welcome! In the short term, I’m going to write a short, interpretive history of the entire 1945-75 period in Vietnam, from the end of the Pacific War to the fall of Saigon.   

Having taught classes on the struggle for two decades now, and have authored or edited four books on the subject, I have some broad analytical points that I really want to make in print—about why the war lasted as long as it did; about whether it could have been avoided in the context of the time; and about why first France and then the United States failed to achieve their objectives, despite being far more powerful militarily than their adversary.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I find real power in Bernard Fall’s assertion that Americans dreamed different dreams in Indochina than the French “but walked in the same footsteps.” It captures a key theme in my book. Far more than U.S. officials ever admitted (at least publicly), France’s experience had a great deal to teach them.   

Colonialism, after all, is often in the eyes of the beholder—to large numbers of Vietnamese after 1954, the United States was just another big white Western power, as responsible as France for the death and destruction of the first war and now there to impose its will on them, to tell them how to conduct their affairs, with weapons loaded.  U.S. officials for a long time didn’t fathom this reality; after they did, they generally refused to acknowledge it. The result was disastrous for all concerned.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 19

Feb. 19, 1917: Writer Carson McCullers born.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Q&A with author Leslie Maitland

Leslie Maitland
Leslie Maitland, a former reporter for The New York Times, is the author of Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed. She lives in Bethesda, Md.

Q: How did you decide to write Crossing the Borders of Time, and was it difficult to delve into such personal details about both your parents?

A: I grew up so mesmerized by my mother’s dramatic stories of love and war and of the European world she’d left behind that I always felt my own life would not be complete unless I managed to preserve her saga for future generations, including my own children. 

Just recently, though, I was surprised to encounter evidence of how long I’d consciously embraced that goal when I found a Mother’s Day [card] that I had written when I was in college. “On the day that you became a mother,” I’d written to Mom, “I entered life to mirror your life through my eyes.” That seemed to suggest that I viewed my role as the teller of her story as a kind of existential mission, and the implication that I felt destined or purposed to take it on struck me as astonishing.

All the same, I can’t really claim that it was difficult to delve into my parents’ lives – and here I’m assuming you mean emotionally – because most of the personal aspects of the book involved things that were already quite familiar to me. There were difficult periods in the past in our experience as a family.

But in terms of researching and writing the book, the painful part derived from my deep regret that I could not discuss it with my father. In thinking hard about my parents’ marriage, I probably came to view his side of things with more understanding and empathy than I ever had before, and I desperately wished I could express that to him. It was surely not the easiest thing for him to co-exist with an idealized romantic rival as a constant presence in my mother’s heart. I see that now.

Q: Your family seems very close-knit. What did your mother and other family members think about your taking on this project?

A: For the most part, they were supportive and encouraging. I think they were also a bit surprised to find how deeply and extensively I would choose to research and describe the wartime context in which my mother’s tale unfolded – that I would personally want to travel to every place involved and track down so many of the participants who had figured in different episodes. My mother – by nature somewhat uncomfortable as the center of attention – has since said half-jokingly that she loves the book, but wishes that the main protagonist were someone other than herself!

Q: When you were growing up, did your mother often tell stories about her experiences during the war, and did you think back then about what Roland might be doing?

A: My mother told me stories for as far back as I can remember. Indeed, growing up in a neighborhood of northern Manhattan so full of German-Jewish refugees that it was informally dubbed the Fourth Reich, I learned that many of our neighbors were people my mother or her parents had known in Germany. Among them, for instance, was a Hebrew schoolteacher who had terrified her in childhood. 

But knowing that my mother had come to New York from a land called France across the ocean, as a very young child I earnestly believed that a radio tower I could see across the Hudson River on the Palisades in New Jersey was actually the famed Eiffel Tower in Paris. The truth eventually came as a memorable disappointment to me. Regarding Roland, I always pestered her as to why she never tried to find him, but since she felt that he’d abandoned her, she always brushed off such suggestions as impossible.

Q: What surprised you most when you returned to the places where your mother had grown up and spent the first years of the war?

A: Our first trip to Germany in 1989 was amazing from the start, because I’d never imagined that my mother would agree to travel back there. When she learned that the mayor of her birthplace of Freiburg was inviting Jewish former residents for visits of reconciliation, her suggestion that we participate was the first time she’d ever shown any inclination to return. 

Going with her then, I was profoundly moved to meet so many Germans who carried the legacy of the Nazi years as a burden of their own and were eager to extend themselves in welcome. In Freiburg, I was charmed by the beauty of the town and fascinated to see the places that were the backdrop of my mother’s stories, especially the stately house at Poststrasse 6 that had been her family’s home.  

Of course the synagogue that she’d described to me was gone, because like so many throughout Germany, it had been burned to the ground on Kristallnacht in 1938. But my grandfather’s former business was still there, just across the street from the family’s former home, as was the hotel next door, exactly as my mother had described.

My greatest surprise involved becoming friends with Michael Stock, the grandson of the hotel’s late proprietor, who had taken over my grandparents’ home in 1938 with an eye to enlarging the hotel. Michael genuinely welcomed us to tour the house and later came to visit my parents in New Jersey, experiencing his first Passover Seder at their table. 

All the same, his own mother, still living at Poststrasse 6 in Freiburg, continued to display on her bedroom wall a certificate from a 1934 Hitler Youth track meet, complete with Nazi swastikas. And so I was fascinated to explore a country where the generations were confronting a terrifying past in such complex and varied ways.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: After finishing the book, I first got busy narrating the audio version, which was challenging, making sure I got the right pronunciation for words in French, German, and Spanish. Since publication, I’ve done a lot of traveling around the country on book tours, and it has been great and gratifying to meet readers who tell me how much they enjoyed the book and gained new insight into the period of history that it describes. 

In preparation for the upcoming publication of an edition of Crossing the Borders of Time in France, I’ve also been engaged in retrieving all the letters, documents, and speeches that I’d translated from French to English, because the publishers in Paris wanted to use the French originals.  As to writing, I’m now working on an article about the book for the University of Chicago Magazine.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In research for the book I was reminded of the adage that the truth is often stranger than fiction.  There were aspects of the story – things that happened beyond my mother’s knowledge or after she left Europe – that were astounding and unpredictable. Things I would never have invented because they would have seemed improbable. After spending years as an investigative reporter for The New York Times, I discovered once again my own unquenchable zest for chasing down the facts of things. That was truly fun for me. 

It’s also been a marvel since the book was published to hear from strangers in my mother’s past: a man of 80 in Freiburg whose father had worked for my grandfather, for example, or a relative of a German soldier who had wanted to marry my mother in order to save her life after the French surrendered in 1940. We even rediscovered a branch of the family in Lyon whose postwar whereabouts had been unknown to us and have reestablished contact through reunions. So crossing borders of time is a journey that’s continuing.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb