DATE November 1, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
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
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
But up above it you have the Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest shrine in
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
life in Jerusalem. Muslims will gather there to pray together, to discuss,
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
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,
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
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
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
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, the Muslims had always venerated Jerusalem. As soon
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
traditions of Mecca and reaching out to the god of the Jews and the
whom they were now going to worship. Islam, especially at the beginning,
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
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
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
established themselves on the site of the great prophets of the past. As
as celebrating the prophet Mohammad and his mystical journey to heaven on
Temple Mount, they also venerate Solomon and King David and Jesus, who plays
very important role in the Islamic devotion to Jerusalem.
GROSS: What shape was the temple in when the Muslims took over that area
rebuilt the temple?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, the Christians, who had been in charge of the city,
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
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
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
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
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
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
as the precursors of the messiah for this act of piety in rededicating their
GROSS: How long did these good feelings between Jews and Muslims last in
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
Crusades. The Crusades marked the real nadir of life in Jerusalem. It was
horrible, devastating attack by the Western Christians of Europe, and many,
many Jews and Muslims died in Jerusalem as the victims of the crusaders.
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
GROSS: My guest is religion scholar Karen Armstrong. We'll talk more after
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
religion, Karen Armstrong, whose books include "Jerusalem" and "Islam: A
Short History." She's also written about the history of fundamentalism
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
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
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,
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
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,
a Jewish homeland, though there was much debate about how that was going to
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
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,
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
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
before the Holocaust. And so there was bad feeling there. The Arabs
naturally distrusted and hated the British for giving away their land. But
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
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
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
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,
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
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
partition. And it was a great and sort of emotional moment, because Jews
able to visit the Western Wall again, and there were huge scenes of
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
thing largely, I think, because the Jews recognized the Western Wall as
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
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
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
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
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
a shameful defeat. They seemed unable to make any headway against Israel,
people turned back to religion. They said, `Let's go back to the time
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
of that sacred identity and no compromise, at the moment, seems to be
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
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
Wall. They hated watching these rabbis with long beards and archaic clothes
clutching at these holy stones and kissing them and weeping. They said,
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.'
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
and airy city and get rid of the past, because we're branching out towards
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
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
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
Armstrong. To better understand the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis,
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
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
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
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,
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
And, of course, Jerusalem has always become, in its past, more sacred and
important to a people after they've lost it. You see that phenomenon
happening again and again throughout the long, troubled history of
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
Jewish life. Some see the Jewish Jerusalem as a rising, like a phoenix out
the ashes of Auschwitz. It's seen as one way in which the Jewish people
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
you go to synagogues. As somebody who embraces all three faiths--and I
mention here that you used to be a nun, that you were brought up
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
devote myself to presenting the three viewpoints simultaneously, seeing them
as the same religious family. And it tragic now after it gave me that
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
Ms. ARMSTRONG: That, I think, is again true, and you see it on both sides
the conflict. It's a sort of myth--Isn't it?--that when we've suffered,
become wiser and more sympathetic and be able to empathize with the
of others. But it doesn't. It--very often, the bully--the child that's
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
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
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,
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
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
and the best-seller, "A History of God." Her latest book is called "Islam:
Coming up, satirist Christopher Buckley on the presidential campaign. This
(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
who's voting for Ralph Nader. This morning I spoke with conservative
Christopher Buckley. He's voting for George W. Bush. Buckley is the
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
than Democratic ones, and I'm wondering if you have any guesses about why
Mr. CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY (Conservative Satirist): Well, yes. My guess is
might-be Republican satirists went into fields that compensate a little
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
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
for, you know, daring to hold these beliefs, which struck me as sort of
given the political homogeneity within, you know, the joke-writing crowd.
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
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
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
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
has managed to neutralize that a little bit by the good old ploy of making
But I don't think George W. Bush is a second Dan Quayle, despite the
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
GROSS: Wait. You're the second person...
Mr. BUCKLEY: George...
GROSS: ...I heard say that.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Really?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, maybe...
GROSS: Someone on "The Imus Show" said the same thing.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Oh, is that right?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, either great minds think alike or I'm a plagiarist.
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
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
to be, you know, putty in their hands. It's going to be four years of
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
that perceived as a problem? Why wouldn't you want the president to be
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
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
by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of
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
Mr. BUCKLEY: And he's the guy who said that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BUCKLEY: Actually, I'm obviously aiming for an increase in my
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
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
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,
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
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I wrote for George Bush's father. I was his
for two years in 1981 to 1983 when he was vice president. I'm not now or
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
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
I would like to actually reveal who's writing George W.'s humor, and it's
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
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
White House, he would always take it, even if he was in a meeting with
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
I still can't figure out how to use. But if you figure out how to use 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
new split-screen TV. And I think it's going to be an exciting night. I
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)
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Profile: Former "Tonight" host Steve Allen, who died at the age
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
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
show, a show so free-wheeling and so popular that eventually it was
from a special studio that seated 800 people. Instead of playing records,
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
York experiment that eventually grew into a late-night show that NBC wanted
expand and broadcast nationally. In 1954, that show, retitled "Tonight,"
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
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"
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
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,
Harrington Jr., band leader Skitch Henderson, all of them worked through
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
His guest roster ranged from Carl Sandburg to Lenny Bruce; from Coleman
Hawkins to the Three Stooges. The Muppets got their first exposure on
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
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News. We'll
with Steve Allen at the piano, recorded in 1992. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of piano music performed by Steve Allen)
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.