DATE August 2, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: New York Times national correspondent Nicholas Kristof
discusses his recent series of biographical articles on George W.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Political conventions present carefully packaged versions of candidates. My
guest Nicholas Kristof has been researching the life of George W. Bush for an
ongoing series of biographical articles in The New York Times. Kristof has
served as The Times' bureau chief in Beijing and Tokyo. He and his wife
Sheryl WuDunn shared a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting from Tiananmen
We invited Kristof to talk about the Bush pieces that have already been
published, which cover his life until the age of 40, the year he gave up
drinking and, as Kristof puts it, `tamed his inner scamp.' One of Kristof's
articles was titled "The Cheerleader(ph)." In 1963, George W. Bush was head
cheerleader at Philips Academy, the prep school in Andover, Massachusetts. I
asked Kristof what he thinks is significant about that.
Mr. NICHOLAS KRISTOF (The New York Times): I think that one of the most
remarkable things about George W. Bush is his incredible people skills. I
think that it was really at Andover, a long way from home in this cold place
that initially he felt pretty lonesome at, that he really cultivated those
people skills and that you could first see them. And I think it was really
tough for him because he went to a place that his father had been. His father
had been a great athlete and a great student. And George W. was pretty lousy
in both the classroom and the athletic field, but where he really stood out
was in those people skills and cheering people up. And that was best seen,
perhaps, in his role as head cheerleader.
GROSS: And you say at time when a lot of students were having encounters with
police because they were demonstrating against the war or for the civil rights
movement that George W. Bush had a couple of encounters with police, but they
were for a completely different reason. What were those encounters about?
Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. Yeah. He was pursuing not so much grand principles as
more having a good time. His first encounter was in his junior year when he
was president of his fraternity. Christmas was coming up. He wanted to
decorate the fraternity. And the way he did that was t he and a few friends
went downtown in New Haven. They apparently had had a few drinks, and they
stole a wreath one night from a local hotel. It was a lousy crime. The
police car was coming down the road, promptly arrested them and the charges
were later dropped.
Then the following year during a football game with Princeton--it was a very
exciting game. And he and a bunch of other students charged down in the field
to dismantle the Princeton goalposts. And when the campus police rushed down,
there he was right on top of the crossbars and he was arrested again.
GROSS: Several of your articles were about Bush's very early years--his
childhood, his high school years, his college years. A later article was
titled "How Bush Came to Tame His Inner Scamp(ph)." And it kind of picks up
on this kind of, like, fun-loving, mischievous George Bush of the high school
and college years and how that carried over to his early business career and
even his early political career as well. How did that, you know, inner
scamp, as you put it, get expressed during his early professional life?
Mr. KRISTOF: I think it was a real problem for him, that there were a lot of
people who were kind of wild in college, and then they married, settled down
and got into business. And he had a lot of trouble settling down. He calls
those years in his 20s the nomadic years. And he tried a few jobs and really
didn't make a great success of them. And in a family where expectations were
enormous--his dad at that point had been a war hero, he'd became a millionaire
very young, was Phi Beta Kappa from Yale.
George W. was kind of wandering around not really doing an awful lot. And he
was kind of the wild man of the Bush clan, sort of a bit of the black sheep.
And he was very, very funny, and people liked to be around him. But
especially after he had had a few drinks, he could turn people off by coming
across as arrogant. He could speak a little bit too bluntly. He could make
fun of people. I think especially after he moved to Texas, which is somewhat
of a more socially conservative environment, and when he started making jokes
and teasing people, a lot of people just thought, you know, `Who is this
cocky, little kid who comes in and just laughs at everybody?' And they
perceived him as quite arrogant. I think he gradually, gradually calmed down
GROSS: How much drinking did he do in those younger days, and did it ever get
to the point where it was interfering with his work or interfering with his
Mr. KRISTOF: I don't think that he was--he wasn't, like, a regular drunk.
It wasn't as if he was regularly going out and singing on the sidewalks. He,
himself, says he doesn't really know whether he was alcoholic, and I think
that's probably a fair assessment. He was clearly drinking too much. He was
drinking, essentially, every day, but mostly a lot of beers as opposed to
really hard stuff. And it was usually drinking with his buddies. People who
were around him thought that it interfered maybe with his work but only at
the margin, that he would mostly drink in the evening and he would get a buzz
rather than really get drunk.
I think it did interfere with his family life. You get a lot of different
stories about that, and his family and friends are quite protective about it.
But it does seem that he just came home a few too many times a little bit
sloshed, embarrassing his wife in front of other people, not setting a good
example for his daughters. And this became a growing source of tension
between him and Laura.
GROSS: Do you know how he stopped drinking?
Mr. KRISTOF: It was really quite remarkable. He's a very impetuous guy,
does a lot of things just on the spur of the moment. Back when he was just 20
years old, he got engaged with another woman on kind of the spur of the
moment. And sure enough, when he decided that this was kind of getting in the
way and interfering with his marriage, he very abruptly decided on the morning
after his 40th birthday party with a bunch of friends that he just wasn't
feeling great. And he loved to jog, and it was getting in the way of his
jogging. And he just decided, `OK. I'm going to stop drinking.' And he
didn't tell anybody. It was a few weeks before he told even his wife and his
best buddies. They just noticed that all of a sudden he wasn't drinking beer,
he was drinking sodas. And they asked him, and he kept it up. And as far as
we know, he's never touched alcohol since.
GROSS: Now you also mention a meeting that George W.'s parents set up between
George W. and Billy Graham. And the meeting was at Kennebunkport, the
family's summer home. What was that meeting about and what happened there to
Mr. KRISTOF: I think his parents were genuinely concerned about George W.
They wanted him to settle down a little bit more. They were very happy when
he got married, when he threw himself more into work. And then in--but he
still wasn't entirely getting in. And then in 1985, in their effort to kind
of calm him down a little bit, sober him up, they did introduce him and the
other children to Billy Graham. They had a lot of conversations there. And
there was no sudden, you know, road to Damascus kind of event, but it clearly
got him thinking a little bit more. He had gone to church regularly before
that but apparently less out of any kind of deep, personal commitment and
more because he wanted his daughters to grow up going to church. And after
that, when he returned to Midland, he started reading the Bible regularly. He
joined a Bible study group. And I think it was sort of a steady process in
which he began to settle down in a lot of ways and become closer to the
church as well.
GROSS: Do you know how much of a role religion plays in his life now and how
he identifies spiritually?
Mr. KRISTOF: I think that it plays a pretty important role. He says that he
still reads the Bible every day. I don't think that he uses it as a litmus
test in terms of issues so much, but I think that as a source of comfort, as a
way of steadying himself in terms of the kind of life that he wants to lead.
I think that it does play a quite important role. He's a little bit sensitive
about it because he's a little bit closer to the evangelical end of the
church. And I think he's sensitive to the notion that a lot of Americans, not
make fun of, but have doubts about that wing of the church. And when you
press him on evolution, for example, he doesn't want to talk about his
beliefs, and he doesn't give a very clear answer about it.
He got in trouble at one point when he was governor of Texas because he told
the story of when he was visiting the White House and he and Barbara got into
a discussion about whether only Christians could go to heaven. And he said
that, `The Bible says only people who have accepted Christ as their Savior are
going to get to heaven.' And Barbara said, `No, I don't think that's--you
know, I can't believe that.' And so they called Billy Graham and the White
House switchboard got him and he resolved this. And his view was, `Well,
George W.'s reading of the Bible is, more or less, the same of mine, but
look, you guys, don't play God.' And, you know, `It's not up to you guys to
determine who gets into heaven.'
And there was a--obviously when that story got out, there was a lot of
sensitivity to it, a lot of reaction to it. And he was, I think, affronted by
this notion that he was sort of telling Jews, for example, `No place for you
in heaven.' And that incident and a few others, I think, left him feeling
very, very uncomfortable talking about his inner beliefs.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Kristof, and he's a
national correspondent for The New York Times. He's been writing a series of
biographical articles about George W. Bush.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Kristof. He's the former Tokyo and Beijing
bureau chief of The New York Times. He's now a national correspondent, and
he's been writing a series of biographical articles about George W. Bush.
Now you did some research into George Bush's drinking before he stopped
drinking at the age of 40. There had been some question earlier in the
primary campaign about whether he had ever done drugs, `recreational drugs' as
Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah.
GROSS: And I'm wondering if you decided to investigate that yourself, if you
thought it was worthy of investigation and how you approached that question?
Mr. KRISTOF: I looked at it a little bit. And one of the issues for us as
journalists, of course, is to what degree does somebody's private life--does
mistakes being made a long time ago matter today. I think that it is fair to
do this kind of a biographical series about a candidate and to look at all
aspects of his early life to get a better understanding. And I think that if
they broke the law of various kinds, then that does matter. And so I did,
from that point of view, look at it.
My sense was that this perception that kind of fuels late-night comedy shows
that he, you know, was drugged throughout the 1970s and doesn't really
remember them is really totally wrong. He virtually admits having used drugs.
He comes so close in his comments to acknowledging having used illegal drugs
before 1974 that most of his friends think that, `Well, he must have used them
at some point.' I mean, that he--since he basically admits it, he must have.
You know, he probably at some point, or maybe a few times, at a party used
things, but there's no particular evidence of that. And what is clearer is
that, you know, there's no pattern of him as a druggy by any means.
GROSS: How much did George W.'s father help him through his career, you know,
help him get into the good schools, the private high school, Yale, the
National Guard during the Vietnam War?
Mr. KRISTOF: I think a great deal. On left and right, there are two basic
misconception about George W. I think that liberals don't give him credit for
being as smart as he is. I think he's smarter than people think. And on the
right, among his backers, I think that people exaggerate the degree to which
he did things himself.
He almost certainly would not have gotten into Andover High School if it had
not been for his dad having been there and having been a stellar student
there. Then when he applied to Yale, he again almost certainly would not have
gotten into Yale given his grades and his college boards. They were way below
what was expected at Yale. And so he would not have gotten into, you know,
Andover and Yale. He had been turned down by a private high school in Houston
that was much less exclusive than Andover. Later, he was turned down by the
University of Texas Law School. So you get the sense that where he did not
have that sort of affirmative action based on his parentage that he would not
have gotten into these great schools.
Later on, he had a lot of advantage because of the name when he was first
running in politics, both in 1978, when he lost, later, when he ran for
governor. It certainly helped that this name was known, that he had funding,
that he his dad's Rolodex. It's hard to imagine that he would have been part
owner of a baseball team under very advantageous conditions if it had not been
for his family and his connections. So I think that his dad tremendously
helped. I mean, having said that, I think he has a lot of very good business
skills. I think it's easy to imagine him having been a success in business.
GROSS: One of the things I feel I really don't understand about George W.
Bush is why he went into politics in the first place. Now granted his father,
his grandfather were both in politics. But, you know, George W. in his
earlier years seems pretty uninterested in politics, pretty uninvolved in the
major political issues of his day. He starts off in business and then gets
into politics around 1978. What--yeah.
Mr. KRISTOF: I think people go into politics for different reasons. And I
think some go into it because they have some kind of bedrock political beliefs
or because they're fueled by outrage about something. And I don't think that
is true whatsoever of George W. Bush. I think that he went into politics for
two reasons. One is that he's always liked the limelight. He's always been
great on the stage. He's liked being in the spotlight. And as a kid in high
school or when he was in college, the way to do that was to, you know, have
the great parties or, you know, be the head cheerleader, for example. And
when you're a grown-up, one of the ways of doing that is to go into politics.
And I think he really relishes the limelight and enjoys it and is very, very
good at it.
And secondly, I think that there is this legacy in the Bush family of noblesse
oblige, this idea of going into public service. It's something that has been
drummed into them since they were small kids. And when George W. was a small
boy, his grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a senator. And there were all kinds
of family legends about, you know, the idea of serving the people and doing
good, and I think that's probably also a part of it. But it's not because he
was particularly interested in issues or had some firm ideology, because I
don't he does or did.
GROSS: In doing this series on George W. Bush's biography, what do you feel
you've been able to learn about his core beliefs and the beliefs that motivate
him, that are most central to his personal and political life?
Mr. KRISTOF: I think he's remarkably non-ideological, remarkably flexible.
I think that the things that really matter to him are his friendships--he
invest enormous time in cultivating these friendships, you know, much, much
more time than in reading books or figuring out where he thinks--you don't
get a sense that he has a strong political philosophy, that he's thought out a
lot of issues in great depth or even, particularly, bothered to stay informed
on a lot of issues. He knows baseball trivia just up and down, and he's got a
great mind for that. I mean, clearly, if he wanted to, he could memorize the
names of foreign leaders, but it's just, I think, not something that he's
particularly fascinated by. I...
GROSS: You mentioned that because he was quizzed about the name of--Was it
the president or prime minister of India, and he got it wrong.
Mr. KRISTOF: A number of foreign leaders, yeah.
Mr. KRISTOF: And then he got them all wrong. And it comes up periodically
that he just doesn't know a lot of the things that people expect a
presidential candidate to know about. I'm not sure how much that hurts him
with voters. I think that's an open question. But he's somebody who--even on
the road, he periodically--I mean, he talks about issues, but he sometimes
says something along the lines that, you know, `What's most important is to
lift the spirits of America.' And I think that that is something that he
feels is important. And it's kind of a non-ideological--you know, more of, in
a sense, aspiring to being head of state rather than head of government or
something. But you get the sense, you know, that he certainly has general
beliefs and I think his skepticism about the role of government in a lot of
things is an element of that, but these issues are things that are not
something that he's passionate about.
GROSS: So if he's reasonably disengaged and somewhat uninformed about the
actual issues, nationally and internationally, then who do you think is
calling the shots now and leading the party?
Mr. KRISTOF: You know, it's interesting writing as a journalist about a
presidential candidate because I really try desperately hard to be absolutely
neutral and so on. And so let me say that I think that his supporters don't
adequately acknowledge the degree to which he is uninformed and people
complain about that pop quiz, for example. But I think there really is
something to that, that he is remarkably uninformed about geopolitics. And
it's not just that he's been a governor rather than in the federal government,
but he's not the kind of guy who goes home and reads a book about policy,
about the world, who thinks about these grand issues a lot.
On the other hand, though, in his favor, I think one can say--and I think his
critics don't do him justice in this respect--that he surrounds himself, or he
attracts, some very smart policy advisers. And his economic team, his foreign
policy team--these are smart, first-rate people. And he doesn't seem
intimidated or insecure by the idea of having first-rate minds around him.
Gore clearly knows the issues, I think, much, much better. But I think one
can make the case that Bush has attracted policy advisers who, in terms of
competence within the field, are at least as good.
GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is a national correspondent for The New York Times.
He's writing a series of biographical articles about George W. Bush. Kristof
will be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, satirist Harry Shearer gives us his take on the Republican National
Convention, and we continue our discussion about the formative years of George
W. Bush with Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pulitzer Prize-winning
journalist Nicholas Kristof. He's writing an ongoing series of biographical
articles about George W. Bush for The New York Times. We invited him to talk
about the already published pieces, which follow Bush to the age of 40.
Kristof is a national correspondent for The Times and is the paper's former
bureau chief in Beijing and Tokyo. He's in Philadelphia for the Republican
Laura Bush spoke--George W.'s wife--spoke the opening night of the convention,
and, you know, talked about her husband, talked about the importance of
reading and literacy and education in her life--she's a former teacher and
school librarian. Anything you want to share about her professional life that
might reflect on her future as a first lady, if her husband is elected?
Mr. KRISTOF: I think he's very, very lucky, personally, and--in terms of his
career that he found her and married her. She is very much the opposite of
him in just about every way, and if he had married somebody who was similar to
him, I mean, he would have just really gone off the top, I think, while she
has reined him in, pulled him back, grounded him much better.
And she comes across, you know, as this very meek and mild person one could, I
think, misperceive as sort of a doormat, and I don't think that's true at all.
I think that she--in private--can be very tough with him. I think that he
genuinely worried, when he was going through his wilder times, that she might
leave him and take the girls with him, and he adores those daughters. And I
think she really changed him tremendously in his personality and got him to
One of his buddies told me that in those wilder years that he never kind of
had a filter between his brain and his mouth, and that if he thought something,
he would just spew it out, and that made him outrageously funny, but also just
outrageously obnoxious at times. And Laura kind of put a filter in there, and
I think that she is one major reason why he is, indeed, now coming to
Philadelphia as the Republican nominee.
GROSS: In one of your pieces about George W. Bush, you mentioned that he
reads--I don't know, like, three or four newspapers a day--a couple of the
Texas papers, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and The New York
Times is your paper. Have you found him any more or less willing to speak
with you directly, because he reads The New York Times, and he probably reads
your articles about him in The Times.
Mr. KRISTOF: On the one hand, he and his campaign clearly think that The New
York Times is an important paper, and that helps with access. On the other
hand, there is this feeling among him and the people around him who are
Texans, and in many cases, west Texans, that, `These liberal Northeastern
establishment people look down on us, they think we're dumb, they don't give
us credit, they just want to make fun of us.' And there's a feeling of
unfairness there, and George W., I think, has--he has a certain skepticism
about journalists, and the whole Bush family does, and I think that part of
that is because there's no aspect of--that he thinks is more important than
loyalty. His whole family, you know, has emphasized loyalty so much, and what
journalists are, in a sense, is disloyal.
In other words, we're--you know, there we are on the campaign plane, or
interviewing people, and we're friendly and we joke. And then when something
happens, we write a tough story. And there's a real fundamental tension there
between how we see our roles, and how he and the people around him see their
roles. And also they're used to, I think, you know, the way the Texas press
has covered the governor. And we are much more aggressive. So I must say,
you know, for all the talk about his charm--he can just charm your socks off
when he wants to--he, in the interview that I did principally about his
background, I--he was not charming at all. He was pretty disgruntled. He's
very uncomfortable with having people look, you know, through this past.
GROSS: Can you give me an example from your encounters with George W. Bush,
of him at his most charming and him at his most disgruntled?
Mr. KRISTOF: He's very, very good at asking what you think about something or
asking advice. And, of course, everybody--and reporters included--are just,
you know, they think the smartest people in the world are those who ask them
questions. And he's very good at that. He's very good at jokes, because I'd
been in China before, you know, so he wanted to chat about China informally
and casually. And he comes across as, in those kinds of situations as
eminently likeable and funny.
On the other hand, when I talked to him, for example, I was pressing him about
the degree to which he had followed his dad every step of the way in his early
years, that, you know, he went to the same schools, that--like his dad, he'd
gotten engaged initially at age 20, then he became a pilot, went to Midland to
get into the oil business and, you know, whether there was some pattern there.
And just freezes over and just the room becomes icy. And he becomes very
He's one of the least contemplative people I know. I think he's smart, but
he's not--he doesn't philosophize, he doesn't hold up, you know, an idea to
the light and turn it around and think about it. And I had a sort of funny
conversation with him in which I said that it's difficult because in writing
this kind of a biography, what I'm looking for is a way to round out a
subject, to understand somebody better and to do that, you look for things
like inner conflict or inner debate or some kind of uncertainty, this kind of
thing. And I found him remarkably short of that kind of inner conflict. And
I sort of was asking him for any, you know, any advice about where to look.
And it was interesting, because that was one of the few times when he was a
little bit more reflective. And he said--he acknowledged that he's not
particularly contemplative, that he's uncomfortable with what he calls
psychobabble. And he sort of cocked his head and thought, `Well, you know, I
wonder if that's a bad thing or a good thing.'
But it does make it hard to do this kind of biography, to make it more than
just stringing together the facts, but to find these patterns, when the
subject that you're writing about doesn't himself want to examine himself in
that way and doesn't want to connect dots.
GROSS: Nicholas Kristof, thank you so much.
Mr. KRISTOF: Thank you.
GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is a national correspondent for The New York Times.
He's writing a series of ongoing articles about the life of George W. Bush.
Coming up, satirist Harry Shearer on the Republican National Convention. This
is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Satarist Harry Shearer discusses the Republican
TERRY GROSS, host:
Satirist Harry Shearer is in Philadelphia to participate in the Shadow
Convention, which is presenting discussions on issues likely to be glossed
over at the Republican and Democratic conventions. Shearer is the moderator
of the Shadow Convention's rapid response team(ph), a panel of satirists,
journalists and pundits. Last night in front of an audience at a Philadelphia
theater, they watched a broadcast of the Republican National Convention, while
supplying a play by play analysis of it. Harry Shearer is also an actor and
does the voices of several characters on "The Simpsons." His program, "Le
Show" is heard on public radio stations around the country.
What's been your reaction to the diversity theme throughout the week at the
Mr. HARRY SHEARER (Satirist): Uh, nice try. Nice try. You know this--we
call--what we're doing is the Shadow Convention, but what the Republicans are
putting on is the real shadow convention because it has very little
resemblance to the actual party. The actual party is what's going on away
from the cameras, the Tom DeLay hospitality car, liquor-swilling,
cigar-smoking, lobbyists-entertaining real convention. And what they're
putting on television is a real shadow of that.
GROSS: What did you think when Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who's the only openly
gay member of Congress who's a Republican, spoke about trade--not
homosexuality, but about trade and several members of the Texas delegation
took their hats off and bowed their heads in prayer in opposition to
Mr. SHEARER: Well, I'd say that's a remarkably brief honest moment breaking
out in a convention where the honesty has been rigorously policed.
GROSS: J.C. Watts as Republican conference chair?
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Any reaction?
Mr. SHEARER: You know, they're trying hard. And I don't want to be--because
I will be out of the country when the Democrats are on, I don't want to be
mistaken as deriding the Republicans and giving the Democrats some slack,
because the Democratic convention, unless I'm seriously mistaken, will be
equally mendacious and equally puffy and equally without substance and equally
without an accurate representation of what's really going on. But both
parties, I believe, have decided that what the American public really doesn't
like is politics. And they are dedicated to giving us politics-free political
conventions. The American public responds by watching these things in fewer
and fewer numbers and voting in fewer and fewer numbers, so there seems to be
a referendum going on on politics-free politics. And the politicians seem to
be either losing, or depending on what you think their real goal is, winning.
GROSS: George W. Bush has been putting across this compassionate conservative
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And I wonder why you think that that's the image now that George W.
Bush wants to put forward, and how that's going over with the American public?
Mr. SHEARER: One word. One word. Women. They've decided that the
battleground for this election is women. And that women didn't like the Pat
Buchanan, Pat Robertson image of the Republican Party, and so they
reconfigured the image of the party to be gal-pleasing. It's like, to use a
word common in daytime television, a makeover.
GROSS: W is for women.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah, W stands for women, a wonderfully triple-entendre slogan.
It may mean he stands up when they come into the room, it may mean he puts up
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEARER: ...it may mean that he advocates their issues. Who knows?
GROSS: Have you noticed that none of the people--none of the senators or
congressmen who were really big during the impeachment proceedings are being
featured at the podium?
Mr. SHEARER: I put out a call the other night on MSNBC for them to find the
managers, find the House manager, please. Would you please? Yeah, that's
what I mean. The actual Republican Party has been removed from this program.
Trent Lott was relegated to a noontime speech. You know, Trent Lott is
arguably the most powerful Republican currently in office. You can at least
make a case for that. In any previous political convention, by virtue of his
office, he would have been accorded a prime speaking spot. Relegation--his
happy relegation, he's terribly cheerful about it when asked--his happy
relegation to a non-covered slot is emblematic of what they're doing; they're
covering up the real Republican Party, a party of white men.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is satirist Harry Shearer.
Have you heard George W. Bush speak much extemporaneously?
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah, and I'm looking forward to more of it.
GROSS: Oh, why?
Mr. SHEARER: Because he has his daddy's talent for `Cuisinarting' the
English language in new and refreshing ways. There is a site at Slate.com
called Bushisms and it gives you some sense of what we're in store for if
he wins, or even if he doesn't. And he has--it's a Bush family gene. They're
on nodding acquaintance with the syntax of the English language, but it's an
GROSS: As a satirist, you do the voices of a lot of political leaders...
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...how close is George W's to George Bush's?
Mr. SHEARER: Well, you're hitting a very painful nerve right now because I
did George W. on my last program, and then listening back, I'm saying to
myself, the critic in my head is saying, `You're still doing George, you don't
have George W. yet.' There's--George, pere, is a little more of a baritone;
George fils, is more of a whiny alto. Also there's a sibilance thing that the
son has that the father doesn't. He's got a S-H sound for S's that his dad
doesn't quite have. And there's a way that he punches words, George W.,
punches words, you know. He also doesn't repeat things in the kind of daffy
way his dad did. And George W. will use the first-person personal pronoun,
something that you may remember his dad avoided like the plague.
(As George Bush) Gettin' up in the morning. Lookin' forward to solvin' the
country's problems. Dealing with Saddam Hussein.
He was taught by his mom never to use that first person pronoun and he never
did. George W. doesn't have that problem.
GROSS: There were a lot of protests around Philadelphia yesterday.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah.
GROSS: And I'm wondering--I think one of them was near your hotel. I don't
know whether you were outside for any of it or saw some of it on TV, but were
you surprised by any of your own reaction to either the protests or to the
police reaction to the protests?
Mr. SHEARER: Well, you know, I came, as you said, from Los Angeles. And
we're expecting this, if not more so, for our convention. I say our
convention, the one that's gonna be staged from Los Angeles. I come at it
from this point of view. I'm very grateful to Arianna and whoever else
conceived of the Shadow Convention for re-imagining the theatrics of dissent.
I'm sick unto death of people trying to recapitulate the mechanics and the
theatrics of the 1960s in terms of dissent and protest. You can make an
argument that those tactics were chosen then or erupted then or evolved then
because the issues then were--bodies were really on the line, in the Vietnam
War, in the Freedom Rides, in the civil rights struggle of the South. Human
bodies were on the line. And so confrontational tactics, I think, were
understandable, if not the only conceivable choice.
But in this day and age to tie up rush hour traffic and just tick off hundreds
and thousands of motorists to make a point which, you know, I watched the
television coverage. The point didn't get across. Whatever they were
protesting about was not covered. What was covered was the tactics of the
police, the tactics of the protesters. `OK, they're moving up Walnut St., we
think they're moving over to'--you know, that's the coverage they get. They
got plenty of it. But only one correspondent that I heard in two hours of
television coverage actually read one banner that was being carried by a
protester. So it does not succeed in communicating, which one would think
would be the chief goal of protest. And like a lot of strikes in the bad
old days, it ticks off the innocent bystanders to no good purpose.
GROSS: Harry, you've flown out to Philadelphia to participate in the Shadow
Convention that's being held here. And the convention--the Democratic
convention will be coming to your hometown in Los Angeles. Will you be doing
Mr. SHEARER: I will be--my body will be in Edinburgh, Scotland, I'll be
appearing at the Edinburgh Festival with the rest of "The Simpsons" cast.
Mr. SHEARER: We'll be doing a live performance of "The Simpsons" in
Edinburgh, and then two in London. But I'm gonna leave behind a little
piece on video that I hope will be part of the Shadow Convention, which is
a--something I did at a one-man show in San Francisco earlier this year. It's
a silent debate among the presidential candidates which I have a lot of
videotape of these guys just sitting in front of a television camera not
saying anything. I can't tell you how I get it. And there is something that
happens to you when you see people who you normally see on television
just with their jaws flapping suddenly being quiet sitting there. And I hope
that that's revealing of something to the crowd at the Shadow Convention in
GROSS: How's your Al Gore coming?
Mr. SHEARER: Oh, my Al Gore is well in shape, of course. I've been doing
him for basically the entire length of the Clinton administration. So I
don't want to show it off here now. You're sort of suggesting that I do so?
GROSS: Well, I was gonna kind of push hard, but let me ask you...
Mr. SHEARER: (As Al Gore) Let me just say--let me just say, Terry, that I
look forward to the proceedings in Los Angeles. I think we're going to make a
show of unity and progress and relevance for the 21st century that is sadly
lacking in my Republican brethren.
GROSS: What are the things you hit on for Gore, for his voice?
Mr. SHEARER: A certain calculation. I think his voice carries the same
sense that everything, every move is pre-calculated--a certain lack of
spontaneity, a certain weirdness in the sibilances, which I don't
understand, and just that trace of Tennessee that I think he calculates to
expose at moments when he wants to seem, you know, (as Al Gore) like one of
GROSS: Had you been working up your McCain when we thought...
Mr. SHEARER: (As John McCain) Yes, I was. Yes, I was working up my John
I had the good fortune to meet one of his kids and so I got to see the McCain
mouth without the--and I'm doing this for you physically so I better find
words to describe it or it doesn't really work on radio. But there's a
muscular constriction that he applies to his mouth muscles, and you only
realize it when you see one of his children who has the same mouth, obviously,
but unrestrained by that tension. And I don't know whether that's from his
days as a prisoner or from his days in the Senate.
GROSS: You're kind of wrapping your lips around your teeth.
Mr. SHEARER: Yes, I'm wrapping them tightly around my teeth and John McCain
does that and then all of a sudden you see one of his kids, and they don't do
that. And, ah, I get it.
GROSS: My guest is actor and satirist Harry Shearer. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actor and satirist Harry Shearer. He's in Philadelphia to
participate in the Shadow Convention's rapid response team, a panel of
satirists, journalists and pundits who are doing play by play commentary on
Arianna Huffington, who used to be very conservative and would be on a lot of
political satire shows going up against a comic like Al Franken, you know,
Mr. SHEARER: The liberal.
GROSS: ...more liberal, she being more conservative. And now she's heading
up the Shadow Convention here in Philadelphia and later in LA, which is
standing in the counterpoint to both conventions, saying let's talk about the
issues and not just put on a TV spectacle.
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But she seems to have undergone something of a political conversation.
And I was wondering if you think that's from hanging around with a lot of more
liberal comics and satirists?
Mr. SHEARER: I do know this, when I hung around with her at the last
Republican convention in San Diego--'cause we'd already become friends
somewhat through appearing on "Politically Incorrect" together. I did say to
her, `You know, your friend, Bill Bennett'--I've described as the most
dangerous man in America because of his role in advocating mandatory minimums
during his reign as drug czar--so the effect of which has been that a lot of
violent criminals have had to be freed early to make jail space for the
non-violent pot smokers who are doing 10 hard years. And he doesn't seem to
take responsibility for the effects of his actions, even though he believes,
if you read the introduction to "The Book of Virtues," he believes in taking
responsibility, but he doesn't seem to be doing it in this case.
And I was saying, you know, `You should read up on this.' And now, four years
later, she is having, as one of the major issues not dealt with by either of
the two parties, at her Shadow Convention, the abject failure of the drug war.
So, you know, I don't want to take credit necessarily but I think that Arianna
is rare in the opinionating business for being somebody who, though she gets
paid to have an opinion, is willing to change her mind, is open to reading new
information, and is going to let it penetrate. And I think she gets a lot of
flack for that as a result. You know, people are always saying to me, `Ah,
this is a phony conversion,' as if somebody could make a lot of money by going
left in this country, if left is where she went, I don't know.
GROSS: I feel like I would be remiss in my responsibilities as a hard-hitting
interviewer if I didn't ask you your impressions of hairdos and fashions at
the Republican convention.
Mr. SHEARER: Well, you know, that's the one thing they haven't been able to
change is the amount of hairspray that's used at a Republican convention.
They haven't backed off on that at all. One thing that really stood out to
all of us last night who were on the panel, was the unanimity of choice of the
Republican women on the podium. The dress color, the message dress color
seemed to be sort of aqua, in the aqua, pale green league. That was the color
range that everybody chose, Condi Rice and Elizabeth Dole and I forget, a
couple of others. But that seemed to be a very distinct message that they
were sending. It's a soothing, reassuring color. Nobody wore bright--you
know, Nancy Reagan red.
GROSS: Not even Nancy Reagan.
Mr. SHEARER: Not even Nancy Reagan. Nobody wore what I used to think of as,
you know, Liddy Dole blue. It was very calm, pastel. I think, you know, the
color choice was right along lines with the general soothing reassuring style
and message of the entire convention.
GROSS: This is an interesting theory. Even Laura Bush, who appeared on
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...last night, was wearing pale green.
Mr. SHEARER: That's right. That's right. That was the color of the night.
GROSS: Are you working on your Laura Bush?
Mr. SHEARER: Oh, God, it's a little early for that. I haven't even worked on
my Tipper yet. So the first ladies will take a while. I'll wait till either
of them gets elected to really start working on the first lady's because it
takes the campaign for their character and their role in the, you know, way
they're gonna be used to start coming front and center. And it's not just the
voice, it's the way they're used that, you know, speaks to me about how I want
to use them back.
GROSS: Anything you're noticing yet about either Tipper Gore or Laura Bush?
Mr. SHEARER: Tipper seems to be--they seem to be hiding Tipper a lot. You
know, she was a lightning rod for controversy a few years back. And I think
that they're still a little afraid of using her for fear that that might come
to the fore. Laura is obviously being used a lot. And I think she's there to
say, you know, whatever you--`Whatever the Democrats may say about my
husband's youth, I wouldn't have married him if he was still that kind of
guy.' I think that's the message she--'cause you know, you have to feel that
she's a down-to-earth, you know, reasonably serious woman. `I married a
librarian,' you know, I think the underlying message is, `He couldn't be--he
couldn't have done whatever you've heard the rumors that you might have heard
that he's doing because I wouldn't have married him if he was that guy.'
GROSS: Harry Shearer, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. SHEARER: My pleasure, Terry, as always.
GROSS: Satirist Harry Shearer is in Philadelphia to moderate the Shadow
Convention's rapid response team, a panel of satirists, journalists and
pundits doing play-by-play commentary on the convention.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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