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Remembering Steve Allen.

TV critic David Bianculli remembers Steve Allen who died Monday at the age of 78.

04:01

Other segments from the episode on November 1, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 1, 2000: Interview with Karen Armstrong; Interview with Christopher Buckley; Commentary on Steve Allen.

Transcript

DATE November 1, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Religion scholar Karen Armstrong talks about the
religious history of the Middle East, and the significance of the
region to the people there
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's impossible to understand the current crisis between Israelis and
Palestinians without a grasp of history. Today we're going to examine one
chapter in the complicated history of the region, the Old City of Jerusalem
and its holy sites. Jurisdiction over these sites remains one of the
contested issues between Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, one of the
incidents that led to the current crisis was when Ariel Sharon, the Israeli
hard-liner and former defense ministry, asserted Jewish claims to the Temple
Mount, a Jewish holy site that is also a Muslim holy site known as Haram
al-Sharif.

My guest Karen Armstrong is a scholar of the world's religions. She's the
author of "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths," as well as the best seller
"The History of God." Her latest book is called "Islam: A Short History."
She is a former nun. I asked Armstrong to describe the importance of the
Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif to the Jews and Arabs who worship there.

Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author): The Temple Mount is the holiest place in the
Jewish world, and every day worshipers will go there, people who live in
Jerusalem will pray there at the Western Wall, the last link with Herod's
Temple. They'll also celebrate marriage there, they'll celebrate the bar
mitzvah of their sons. And it's the hub of Jewish religious life in
Jerusalem.

But up above it you have the Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest shrine in
the
Muslim world, and there you have, every Friday, the inhabitants of Jerusalem
and the surrounding countryside will gather for the Friday prayers to hear a
sermon and to pray together as a community. They'll visit the Dome of the
Rock, the oldest great building in the Muslim world, the site of the prophet
Mohammad's ascension to heaven. And that is a site of pilgrimage for
Muslims all over the world. And that's very much the hub of Muslim
religious
life in Jerusalem. Muslims will gather there to pray together, to discuss,
to
study. And it's the center of their religious lives in Jerusalem.

GROSS: Let's go back to the origins of the Jewish temple. When was it
first
built?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, the Bible tells us that King Solomon built a temple
round about 950 BC, and this was the temple to his god, Yaweh, and it was a
shrine of great importance to the people of Israel. His father, King David,
had conquered the city from the inhabitants, the Jebusites, some 50 years
earlier, and now Jerusalem was brought into the Israelite religious world,
and
it became, gradually, over the centuries, a very important shrine for the
people of Israel.

GROSS: And how was it destroyed?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, it was destroyed a couple of times. It was destroyed
in 586 by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon when, in the course of
hostilities against the people of Judah, and then the Jews later rebuilt
their
temple and eventually that one was destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish
revolt against Rome in the year 70. And Jews mourned the loss of that
temple,
but created a new form, new ways of being Jewish.

GROSS: Now how did this area become both an Islamic holy site and a Jewish
holy site?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, the Muslims had always venerated Jerusalem. As soon
as
the prophet Mohammad began to preach in Mecca in the year 610, he made his
followers bow down and worship several times a day facing Jerusalem, in the
direction of Jerusalem. It was their way of turning their backs on the
pagan
traditions of Mecca and reaching out to the god of the Jews and the
Christians
whom they were now going to worship. Islam, especially at the beginning,
did
not regard itself as a new faith. Mohammad simply felt that he was bringing
the old faith of the Jews and the Christians, the one god, to the people of
Arabia who'd never had a prophet before and had never had a scripture in
their
own language. And so the Koran venerates all the great prophets of the
Jewish-Christian past, and the Koran remembers, with great piety, the story
of
Solomon, the prophet Solomon, who built a temple in Jerusalem.

And so when the Muslims arrived in Jerusalem and conquered the city in the
year 638, they immediately made a beeline for the Temple Mount, and there
they
established themselves on the site of the great prophets of the past. As
well
as celebrating the prophet Mohammad and his mystical journey to heaven on
the
Temple Mount, they also venerate Solomon and King David and Jesus, who plays
a
very important role in the Islamic devotion to Jerusalem.

GROSS: What shape was the temple in when the Muslims took over that area
and
rebuilt the temple?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, the Christians, who had been in charge of the city,
had
left the Temple Mount in a state of ruin. It was a mark of disrespect to
Judaism. The place was piled high with rubble and fallen masonry. And in
recent years, shortly before the Muslim conquest, the Christians had taken
to
using the site as the city garbage dump, and so it was piled high with
stinking garbage and rubbish. And the caliph and his entourage where
absolutely horrified when they arrived on the Temple Mount and saw this
scene
of absolute desolation. And immediately the caliph began to take stones and
rubbish into his cloak, and then hurl it over the parapets clearing the
site.
So the Muslims reconsecrated the site and built, first of all, a very simple
little mosque at the southern end of the platform. And that's the site on
which the mosque known as al-Aqsa stands today.

Later, in the year 691, they built the famous Dome of the Rock, which is the
shrine with the great golden dome that's so famous and so clearly associated
with Jerusalem today.

GROSS: When the Muslims reconsecrated the area that had been the Jewish
temple, did they welcome Jews to that area to pray?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, indeed. The Christians had never permitted Jews to
reside permanently in the city, but the caliph and the Muslims brought Jews
back. Seventy families from Tiberias, up in the north of Israel, were
brought
back into Jerusalem, and they settled down. And Jews, they didn't want to
build a temple of their own, of course, on the Temple Mount. The rabbis had
told them that only the messiah could build a third temple. That would be
in
the end of days. It wasn't for mere men to do that. But they really
celebrated the reconsecration of the site by the Muslims, and there are text
in the 7th century which show Jews welcoming the Muslims and celebrating
them
as the precursors of the messiah for this act of piety in rededicating their
holy site.

GROSS: How long did these good feelings between Jews and Muslims last in
Jerusalem?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Good feelings between Jews and Muslims lasted a very, very
long time, really, I would say, up to the beginning of the 20th century.
There was tension between the Muslims and the Christians, especially after
the
Crusades. The Crusades marked the real nadir of life in Jerusalem. It was
a
horrible, devastating attack by the Western Christians of Europe, and many,
many Jews and Muslims died in Jerusalem as the victims of the crusaders.
But
relations between Judaism and Islam in the Middle East and in Jerusalem were
generally good, and that's why the present conflict is so particularly
tragic.

GROSS: My guest is religion scholar Karen Armstrong. We'll talk more after
a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about some of the ancient
history that might help us understand the current events in the Middle East
and the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians. My guest is a scholar
of
religion, Karen Armstrong, whose books include "Jerusalem" and "Islam: A
Short History." She's also written about the history of fundamentalism
around
the world.

Let's jump ahead to more contemporary history, more recent history. The
British captured Jerusalem in 1916.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: 1917.

GROSS: 1917, thank you.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

GROSS: Why did the Brits want in that part of the world? What were they
doing there?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Ah, well, the British, at that time, were fighting World War
I, and one of the enemies that they were fighting in World War I was the
Ottoman Empire, the Turkish empire, which had sided with Germany, and so
they
were invading the lands of the Ottoman empire right across the Middle East,
Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, where they already had a military
occupation. But, of course, once the war was over, the British did not go
home. It was part of their colonial mentality. Britain, at that stage,
felt
that it should rule the waves, and Britain and France, in 1920, virtually
carved up the Middle East between them, and established protectorates there.
They felt that they were a civilizing force in the region, but this was, of
course, much resented by the Arab peoples of the area who'd all hoped for
independence once the Ottoman Empire had been defeated.

GROSS: And how did the Zionists establish a foothold in that area during
the
British mandate?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, in 1917, the British government issued what's known as
the Balfour Declaration, which gave British support to the idea of a
Jewish homeland in Palestine. And so while the British were in charge in
Jerusalem and in Palestine, they were supporting the idea of a Jewish state,
or
a Jewish homeland, though there was much debate about how that was going to
be
implemented. But I'm afraid, and this saddens me to say this, the British
behavior was not good in Jerusalem. I mean, in a sense as colonialists they
tended to despise both sides, treated both sides with a certain amount of
contempt. And it's very marked when you go to Jerusalem as a Brit today
that
the hostility is still there on both sides, but neither the Jewish side nor
the Palestinian side have much good to say about our rule in Jerusalem,
which
was racist and colonial and imperialistic.

GROSS: And do you think that that imperialistic British rule helped set the
tone for what happened later?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, it was a very ugly struggle, because it was one thing
for the British government to say, `Oh, yes, by all means, let's have a
Jewish
state in Palestine or a Jewish homeland in Palestine.' But then when they
were actually there and saw that the place was filled with Palestinian
inhabitants, then they realized that it wasn't quite so easy to implement
this, and so they adopted all kinds of policies blocking immigration, even,
shamefully, during the time when Jews were trying to escape from Nazi
Germany
before the Holocaust. And so there was bad feeling there. The Arabs
naturally distrusted and hated the British for giving away their land. But
I
think basically what you just had was a clash of two peoples who both felt
that they had a claim to the land, and that clash is still not resolved
today.

GROSS: Let's jump ahead to 1947, the UN partition. What happened to
Jerusalem in 1947?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, in the UN plan, the idea was that Palestine should be
divided between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but that Jerusalem should
be a separate body, a separate entity, ruled by the international community.
It should be an international zone. But that plan fell by the wayside when,
during war between the new Jewish state and the invading Arab armies in
1948,
in the course of which Jordan invaded East Jerusalem and Israel invaded and
captured West Jerusalem, and between them Jordan and Israel divided the city
between them in a partition. It was a very ugly state of affairs. There
was
barbed wire dividing the two sectors of the city. Jews were not allowed to
visit the Western Wall, which was in the Jordanian side, and they complained
that in the bad feeling following the Palestinian loss of their homeland,
they
claimed that holy synagogues in the Old City of Jerusalem were desecrated by
the Palestinians, and similarly Palestinians complained that many of their
homes in West Jerusalem had been purloined by the Israelis. So you have the
beginnings of the conflict about Jerusalem, about who owns it and what
should
be done with it.

GROSS: I'm going to jump ahead again now to 1967 at the end of the Six Day
War. How was the status of Jerusalem changed by that?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, during the Six Day War in 1967, Israel achieved a
stunning victory over the invading armies, and entered and occupied East
Jerusalem, and Jerusalem, they said, was now united again after this period
of
partition. And it was a great and sort of emotional moment, because Jews
were
able to visit the Western Wall again, and there were huge scenes of
rejoicing.
People who had no religious beliefs--generals like Mosha Deian(ph), who was
not a religious man at all--had tears pouring down their faces. It was a
huge
thing largely, I think, because the Jews recognized the Western Wall as
being
rather like themselves, a survivor. It was linked with the most sacred
traditions of their past, but it was a survivor, just as they had
survived--some of them had survived--the terrible events in Europe during
World War II. The wall, the Western Wall, had survived nearly 2,000 years
of
bloody and turbulent history in Jerusalem, and it was an immensely important
and moving moment.

And from that moment, too, a new religious element entered the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

GROSS: Because of the holy sites.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Because of the holy sites, and there was, too, a religious
revival on both sides of the conflict. There was a religious revival within
Israel, and religious parties came more and more to the fore. A religious
form of Zionism was established. Zionism had begun as a secularist
movement,
almost as a revolution against religious Judaism. But now, in the new
religious climate after 1967, there was a sort of new form or religious
Zionist fundamentalism. On the Muslim side, not just on the Palestinian
side,
but in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, there was also a religious revival.
People felt that ideologies of socialism and nationalism, which had been
imported by the West, had been discredited. The Arabs had lost--had
suffered
a shameful defeat. They seemed unable to make any headway against Israel,
and
people turned back to religion. They said, `Let's go back to the time
before
the West invaded our lands with all these new ideas like nationalism,
socialism. Let's go back to Islam, which is back to our roots.'

And so from that time, a religious dimension has entered the conflict, which
makes it all much more difficult to sort out. When there is simply
secularist ideals, then people can feel free to make concessions, to make
compromises. But when something is regarded as sacred, as absolutely
essential and central to a people's identity, then it becomes much more
difficult. And Jerusalem has become, for both sides of the conflict, a
symbol
of that sacred identity and no compromise, at the moment, seems to be
possible.

GROSS: Now you mention that Zionism started as a secular movement, and you
quote Theodore Hertzel, one of the fathers of Zionism, as saying in 1898,
when he first visited Jerusalem, that he deplored the city's, quote, "musty
deposits of 2,000 years of inhumanity, intolerance and foulness."

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah.

GROSS: And you say his first impulse was to tear down the Old City, he just
so wanted to distance himself and Zionism, from the warring over it.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, Hertzel was a secularist, and he had very little, I
think, understanding of religion. He, quite rightly saw--he sensed that
there
was going to be an impending anti-Semitic disaster in Europe. He sensed the
coming Holocaust, and felt that it was essential that Jews had a place of
refuge. But as for the holy aspects of Jerusalem, he wasn't interested in
that at all. Many of the Zionists hated watching Jews praying at the
Western
Wall. They hated watching these rabbis with long beards and archaic clothes
clutching at these holy stones and kissing them and weeping. They said,
`This
is an image of the old Jew. This is an image of the defeated, craven Jew.
This is an image of everything we want Zionism to transcend. We want to
create a new, proud, secular Jews.'

And so Hertzel, when he saw all this, he said, `Oh, let's get rid of it.'
But
then the next day in his diary he changed his mind and he wrote down that he
decided, `Let's put all the shrines in the Old City, put them in sort of a
separate cordone sanitar(ph). Let's make them into a sort of museum. And
let's build outside the walls, a new, Zionist, modern, fresh, tolerant
bright
and airy city and get rid of the past, because we're branching out towards
something new.

So that was very much the spirit. The Zionists were willing, right up to
1947, 1948, to make concessions about Jerusalem. Their priority was getting
a
Jewish state working and a viable entity. Jerusalem was something that, you
know, they were willing share it, divide it with Jordan. They agreed to the
United Nations' plan to make it an international zone in 1947, because the
priority was to get a Jewish state, especially after World War II, when so
many Jews had died in Europe. And had there been a Jewish state, perhaps
they
need not have died.

GROSS: Karen Armstrong is the author of "Jerusalem: One City, Three
Faiths" and "The History of God." Her latest book is called "Islam: A
Short History." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up here, Jerusalem as it's divided now. We continue our
discussion with religion scholar Karen Armstrong. Conservative satirist
Christopher Buckley gives us his take on the election. And TV critic David
Bianculli tells us what he thinks is Steve Allen's greatest legacy.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with religion scholar
Karen
Armstrong. To better understand the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis,
we're
examining some of the ancient and recent history of Jerusalem and its holy
sites. Armstrong is the author of "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths," and
the best-seller "A History of God."

How is Jerusalem divided now?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, of course, the city is technically united under
Israeli
sovereignty, but there are areas in East Jerusalem where Jews don't feel
comfortable about going because these are Arab sectors--Arab neighborhoods.
And especially in time of political crisis, tension runs high in these
areas.
And similarly, many Palestinians don't feel at all comfortable about going
into West Jerusalem, which is predominantly an Israeli zone. And there
are very--so you have, in a sense, a city that is technically at one, but
still there are lines of demarcation.

There are also--the Israeli government has established settlements in Arab
East Jerusalem so that there are new Jewish neighborhoods in what Arabs feel
is their land, is their part of Jerusalem, and that is also the source of a
great deal of tension.

GROSS: What do the Palestinians wants now for Jerusalem?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: They want a share in sovereignty. They are not--except for
their extreme hotheads, they are not claiming sole sovereignty over the
entire
city, but they do want sovereignty in part of the city. They want to share
the city in sort of an official way with the Israelis. The Israelis,
however,
say that Jerusalem is the eternal and indivisible capital of the state of
Israel, and say they must have sole sovereignty. So there is a tension
here.

And, of course, Jerusalem has always become, in its past, more sacred and
more
important to a people after they've lost it. You see that phenomenon
happening again and again throughout the long, troubled history of
Jerusalem.
When a people have been exiled from Jerusalem, have lost sovereignty of the
city, they return and they say, `We'll never leave this city again,' and it
becomes precious to them.

Now we have the Israelis, Jewish people now again in charge of Jerusalem for
the first time for nearly 2,000 years after periods of tremendous suffering
in
Jewish life. Some see the Jewish Jerusalem as a rising, like a phoenix out
of
the ashes of Auschwitz. It's seen as one way in which the Jewish people
feel
that they can perhaps begin to come to terms with the Holocaust.

But on the other hand, the Palestinians watch the city slipping daily from
their grasp, and they feel more passionate about it than ever. They see the
city surrounded as it is by these big powerful Jewish neighborhoods as a
symbol of their own beleaguered identity. And so both of them--you have a
clash here of two people who have either just returned to Jerusalem or feel
that they are losing it, and are both feeling more passionate about it than
ever. So, you know, that makes the whole thing very inflammatory and very
sensitive, and holy sites are likely to be particular flash points.

GROSS: Now you are a scholar of the religions of the world, and you worship
in all three monotheistic religions. You go to churches, you got to
mosques,
you go to synagogues. As somebody who embraces all three faiths--and I
should
mention here that you used to be a nun, that you were brought up
Catholic--do
you feel like you empathize with both the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. I can see both where they're coming from. I really
can.
I can see that after the Holocaust, the Jewish people is still profoundly
wounded. And the--and its attachment to Jerusalem is understandable. But I
can also understand the Palestinians, who have always loved Jerusalem. The
Muslim world looked after Jerusalem and allowed Jews, always, to come and
live
in the city when they were in charge of it.

And I sympathize with them, too, because it's not just the holy sites or the
holiness of the city. Jerusalem is the home of Palestinians, you know.
Their
families have lived in the city for generations. They feel about Jerusalem,
apart from its being a holy city, as we all feel about our hometowns. And
so
there is an attachment there--two people who've both been wounded in very
different ways and to different degrees, but have been wounded. I hate
seeing
this bloodshed, which I see as tragic for both sides--tragic for the
Palestinians; most of the loss of life has been Palestinians--but I also
grieve for the Israeli army, which was a magnificent achievement and which
is,
in a sense, almost, I feel, wounding itself by gunning down children and
civilians. This is a terrible, terrible situation, and I feel really quite
torn by watching this.

My own religious journey was strongly shaped by Jerusalem. I was sick and
tired of religion when I first visited Jerusalem in 1983. And--but it was
the
vision of these three faiths living together, however uneasily, in this holy
city which made me profoundly aware of the interconnection, the link between
these three religions of Abraham. And from that time on, I've always tried
to
devote myself to presenting the three viewpoints simultaneously, seeing them
as the same religious family. And it tragic now after it gave me that
plural
vision to see the city, as so often in its turbulent history, a city not of
peace, but a city of bloodshed and war.

GROSS: Well, one of the things you say in your book "Jerusalem" is that the
history of Jerusalem proves that suffering doesn't necessarily make us
better,
nobler people.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: That, I think, is again true, and you see it on both sides
of
the conflict. It's a sort of myth--Isn't it?--that when we've suffered,
we'll
become wiser and more sympathetic and be able to empathize with the
suffering
of others. But it doesn't. It--very often, the bully--the child that's
been
bullied in the playground learns to bully other people. And on both sides,
the Israelis, who have the triumph--and they are--they are powerful--and
have
achieved enormous power and success in the state of Israel. But sometimes,
they seem to be acting in a way that's disproportionate to the violence
offered to them.

And the Palestinians--sometimes, the sort of ugliness of defeat, the
corrosive
effect of prolonged defeat on the spirit is also terrible. And I sympathize
with them because nobody cares about the Palestinians; not we in the West,
not
their own Arab neighbors. And I think they feel this, and hence the awful,
nihilistic and dreadful prospect of more suicide bombings. I can't imagine
an
expression of greater despair and hopelessness than that.

GROSS: Would you want to go to Jerusalem now?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, yes. In fact, I may be--I was scheduled to be going to
Jerusalem in December for a conference on the future of the city. Goodness
knows whether that conference will be canceled in the light of the present
crisis. Probably it will. But no, I--I--it's not just a holiday place. I
think if you really love a city, then you have to been there in its hard
times, as well as in it during its happier times.

GROSS: Karen Armstrong is the author of "Jerusalem: One City, Three
Faiths,"
and the best-seller, "A History of God." Her latest book is called "Islam:
A
Short History."

Coming up, satirist Christopher Buckley on the presidential campaign. This
is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Christopher Buckley on comedy and politicians
TERRY GROSS, host:

Yesterday on FRESH AIR we talked with two satirists about the presidential
campaign: Al Franken, who's writing for the Al Gore campaign, and Bill
Maher,
who's voting for Ralph Nader. This morning I spoke with conservative
satirist
Christopher Buckley. He's voting for George W. Bush. Buckley is the
author
of the novels "Little Green Men" and "Thank You for Smoking," and he's the
editor of Forbes' FYI magazine.

Let me say that we had a harder time finding conservative comics and
satirists
than Democratic ones, and I'm wondering if you have any guesses about why
that's true.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY (Conservative Satirist): Well, yes. My guess is

that
might-be Republican satirists went into fields that compensate a little
better
than his one. There was a piece in The New York Times Sunday Magazine some
weeks ago about political humor. It focused in on the staffs of the people
who work for Jay Leno and David Letterman and, I think, Jon Stewart. And
they
were--it was interesting how uniformly liberal and left wing they all were,
while I caught a note here, too, of sort of self-congratulation on their
part
for, you know, daring to hold these beliefs, which struck me as sort of
funny
given the political homogeneity within, you know, the joke-writing crowd.
It
tends to be, I would say, 99 percent liberal, so that may be one reason why
you had a hard time tracking down a so-called conservative pundit.

But there are some, you know, brilliant ones, much better than myself. P.J.
O'Rourke is surely, you know, the funniest--or at least for my money, the
funniest political writer around, and he's very right wing. Maybe you
should
have called him.

GROSS: May I say that we did call him?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Oh, you did call him?

GROSS: Yes. We called you both.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, what was his excuse?

GROSS: We called you both. Well, you called back and he didn't.

Mr. BUCKLEY: That makes me sound rather desperate, I'm afraid.

GROSS: No. He might have been out of the country or...

Mr. BUCKLEY: He was probably out of the country.

GROSS: Who knows?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Maybe he was drilling for oil in the Arctic preserve, getting
a
head start on George Bush.

GROSS: Let me get to the presidential campaign.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Sure.

GROSS: I was talking to a foreign journalist the other day, and he said, `I
can't believe that you Americans might really elect someone so stupid as
George W. Bush to be president.' What would you have said to him?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, foreign journalists generally have sort of a disdainful
view of our politics. On that one, I would say that, well, politicians get
pigeonholed into their sort of comic personas. Al Gore got typed early on
as
the stiff guy, and Bush got tagged as a dumb guy because he--well, you know,
he's not much of a book reader, and he can't pronounce words. Bush, I
think,
has managed to neutralize that a little bit by the good old ploy of making
fun
of yourself.

But I don't think George W. Bush is a second Dan Quayle, despite the
attempts
to make him into one. You know, Al Gore is, obviously, a better student. I
mean, Al Gore's the guy who, in high school, would have raised his hand and
reminded the teacher that she had forgotten to hand out the homework
assignment.

GROSS: Wait. You're the second person...

Mr. BUCKLEY: George...

GROSS: ...I heard say that.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Really?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, maybe...

GROSS: Someone on "The Imus Show" said the same thing.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Oh, is that right?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, either great minds think alike or I'm a plagiarist.
But,

no, I don't claim that's an original insight, but I think it's one worth
repeating. Bush is the guy who shows up five minute before the test, not
having cracked a book, and asks whether or not this is, you know, the
chemistry test or the history test. I leave it to you, you know, to decide
which one is funnier.

I think as a satirist, or as someone who, you know, sort of writes about
these
people, I'm frankly torn as to who to be for this time around, I mean, in
terms of, you know, who's going to be a funnier target for the next four
years. I suspect that all the liberal writers on the Leno and the Letterman
and the other shows are secretly hoping for a Bush victory, because he's
going
to be, you know, putty in their hands. It's going to be four years of
Quayle
II. You can make fun of Gore, but Gore, I think, is a more--he's a more
serious guy, obviously. And the humor about Gore is going to have to go
deeper because you're making fun--you're going to end up satirizing such
things as his apparent inability to tell the truth. Now that perforces a
nastier kind of humor than making `sublididibal' jokes.

GROSS: Now I want to get back to your comment about Al Gore being the
equivalent of the smart kid in class who would raise his hand and say, `But,
Teacher, you forgot to give us homework.' Why are people against Gore so
concerned that he's too smart, that he's like the smart kid in class? Why
is
that perceived as a problem? Why wouldn't you want the president to be
smart?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, you know, if IQ were the ultimate determinant of success
in the Oval Office, Jimmy Carter would have been our most successful
president. I mean, Jimmy Carter was, as he would describe himself, a
nuclear
engineer. And you know who the second brightest guy probably was? Richard
Nixon. Now neither of those two presidencies, I put it to you, ended in
spectacular success. A very wise man once said that he would rather be
ruled
by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of
Harvard.

GROSS: So...

Mr. BUCKLEY: I think with Gore, you would get the faculty of Harvard. With
Bush, you get the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book.

GROSS: But you're a smart guy. Your father, William Buckley, is a smart
guy.

Mr. BUCKLEY: And he's the guy who said that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So...

Mr. BUCKLEY: Actually, I'm obviously aiming for an increase in my
allowance.

GROSS: So you're really arguing against voting...

Mr. BUCKLEY: No, I'm not...

GROSS: ...a smart guy?

Mr. BUCKLEY: No. No. No. If you reduce it to that, it sounds silly. I
mean, the bumper sticker becomes, `Vote for the dumb guy.' You know, `He'll
be the best.' No, I'm saying that IQ alone, smartness alone, is not the
only
qualification. I mean, David Halberstam wrote a brilliant book about this
called "The Best & the Brightest," which is about all the smart Harvard guys
who got us into a long, tragic war in Vietnam. All of them were bright
guys.

GROSS: Yesterday on our show, we heard from satirist Al Franken, who's
actually writing some material for Gore and working for the Gore campaign,
and
we heard from satirist Bill Maher, who says he would never write for a
candidate. What about you? Have you ever or would you ever write for a
candidate?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I wrote for George Bush's father. I was his
speechwriter
for two years in 1981 to 1983 when he was vice president. I'm not now or
nor
have I been writing material for George Bush. The...

GROSS: You didn't come up with `sublimidible'?

Mr. BUCKLEY: I wish I had. I really wish I had. They called me about a
year ago and asked me, but I was in a slightly awkward position because I
edit
a magazine at Forbes, and as you know, my capo di tutti capi, Steve Forbes,
was then running. So I said, `Well, I kind of can't do that.' But he's got
talented people.

I would like to actually reveal who's writing George W.'s humor, and it's
our
old friend, Ray Siller. When I heard this a week ago, I was amazed because
Ray Siller--it was to Ray Siller that I used to turn when I was in the White
House in 1981 to '83 for the jokes. He was then Johnny Carson's chief
writer.
And he liked Bush. He liked Bush's father, and he had volunteered his
services. So I would call poor Ray Siller, and because it was a call from
the
White House, he would always take it, even if he was in a meeting with
Johnny
Carson--I always felt moderately embarrassed about that--and I would say to
poor Ray Siller, `Ray, he's speaking to the National Association of Realtors
tomorrow. Do you have any realtor jokes?' And I would hear this sigh on
the
other end. He'd say, `Well, I'll call you back.'

And, you know, the next day Bush would be about to go on, 5,000 realtors in
Miami, Florida, whatever, and a WHCA guy, a White House communications guy,
would come up with one of those heavy, clunky, portable phones and say,
`Some
guy named Ray Siller for you.' And Ray would--I would sit there taking
dictation on index cards from Ray and do a quick humor triage of the
funniest
jokes and hand them to George Bush before he went on. And so I was sort of
thrilled to hear that he's still doing that 20 years later.

GROSS: Do you have any favorite lines that you wrote for President Bush?

Mr. BUCKLEY: No. I didn't write `Read my lips' or any particularly, I
don't
think, memorable lines, but we had some--there were some good moments. It
was--you know, the lines don't survive, but, you know, some of them were not
bad. There were a couple of flubs when I--those always end up being the
most
memorable ones.

One time I put a quote from the historian Thucydides in the speech, and
it--boy, you know, he got to that word, and he got kind of tongue-tied, poor
guy, and it--he went, `Thu--Thu--ooh.' And it went on for about 15 seconds.
And I was sitting at the staff table opposite Admiral Murphy, the four-star
admiral who's the chief of staff--and, you know, I went to a Catholic
school,
and I thought I knew strict, but I never worked for a four-star admiral
before. They're really strict. And he started glaring at me. And I looked
at the admiral and said, `Wait, wait, wait. I didn't make up this word.'
And, anyway, finally Bush got it out `Thidides,' and Admiral Murphy came up
to
me afterwards and poked me in the sternum and said, `Next time, say Plato.'

GROSS: What are you going to be doing on election night?

Mr. BUCKLEY: I'm going to be sitting at home with this TV that I bought
that
I still can't figure out how to use. But if you figure out how to use it,
it
will split the screen so that you can see what, you know, one network is
doing, and then flick to the other. But I have a week to get through this
200-page instruction manual, so if I do, I will be sitting at home watching
my
new split-screen TV. And I think it's going to be an exciting night. I
think
it's going to be a late night.

GROSS: Well, I hope you don't have to learn how to program your VCR in the
next week, too, because then you're really going to be in trouble.

Mr. BUCKLEY: That's hopeless, hopeless. I read some years ago that William
Shatner, Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise, could not program his VCR,
and I was delighted.

GROSS: Well, Christopher Buckley, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Christopher Buckley's latest novel is "Little Green Men." He's the
editor of the magazine Forbes FYI. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli
remembers Steve Allen. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Former "Tonight" host Steve Allen, who died at the age
of 78
TERRY GROSS, host:

Steve Allen died Monday at the age of 78. He was a composer, author and
entertainer. But for TV critic David Bianculli, his greatest legacy is in
the
arena of the late-night talk show, which Allen personally pioneered.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

In the late 1940s, Steve Allen made his mark as the host of a late-night
radio
show, a show so free-wheeling and so popular that eventually it was
broadcast
from a special studio that seated 800 people. Instead of playing records,
he
chatted with guests, took his microphone into the audience and generally
goofed around. In December 1950, he got his first shot at a TV series, a
New
York experiment that eventually grew into a late-night show that NBC wanted
to
expand and broadcast nationally. In 1954, that show, retitled "Tonight,"
was
launched as television's first national late-night talk show--90 minutes a
night, all of it live, and very little of it planned. Here's how Allen
opened
that very first program.

(Soundbite of "Tonight")

Announcer: Now to meet the star of our show, Steve Allen.

Mr. STEVE ALLEN: Anyway, in case you're just joining us, this is "Tonight,"
and I can't think of to much to tell you about it, except I want to give you
the bad news first. This program is going to go on forever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: Boy, you think you're tired now...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: ...wait until you see 1:00 roll around.

BIANCULLI: Allen was right, you know. The "Tonight" show has gone on
forever, hosted first by him, then by Jack Paar, then Johnny Carson, and
currently by Jay Leno. Meanwhile, Steve Allen fans like Dave Letterman have
absorbed his comic sensibility into their own shows. With his "Tonight"
show,
Allen provided the basic blueprint for all subsequent talk shows--opening
monologue, band leader and band, desk and guest chairs, a mixture of
performance and casual talk.

But rather than be stifled by the format, Allen ran wild with it. In one of
his most famous stunts from the early days, Allen was annoyed by a studio
audience he thought was particularly unresponsive, so right in the middle of
his live show, he led them in a conga line, steered them through the studio
doors, re-entered first, and locked those doors behind them, then finished
the
show with just the stage crew. Allen pointed his cameras outside the studio
doors to catch real New York and real New Yorkers. And in addition to those
real people, he had his talented improvisational core of regulars, who got
even more exposure when Allen quit the "Tonight" show to focus on his
prime-time variety series. Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Louie Nye, Bill Dana,
Pat
Harrington Jr., band leader Skitch Henderson, all of them worked through
such
bits as Man on the Street, Stump the Band, the prankish Funny Phone Calls,
Allen's Answer Man, the solemn reading of inane rock lyrics, the news spoofs
and the reading of actual angry letters printed in The New York Daily News.

Allen jumped into a vat of Jell-O, turned himself into a human tea bag, and
often made audiences laugh simply by releasing his own genuine torrents of
uncontrollable giggles.

His guest roster ranged from Carl Sandburg to Lenny Bruce; from Coleman
Hawkins to the Three Stooges. The Muppets got their first exposure on
Allen's
show, and Elvis Presley got a famously self-depricating one, wearing top hat
and tails to sing "Hound Dog" to a real hound dog.

Three years after Leno inherited "The Tonight Show," he told Newsweek
magazine, `I think we all borrowed from Steve Allen.' Before Letterman even
got his late-night show, he identified Steve Allen as one of his two comedy
idols. The other was Johnny Carson who, like Leno and Letterman, borrow
liberally from what Allen did all those years ago. He really was one of the
originals.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News. We'll
close
with Steve Allen at the piano, recorded in 1992. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of piano music performed by Steve Allen)

(Credits given)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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