DATE April 9, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Professor William Taubman discusses the life of Nikita
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York
Daily News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
William Taubman just won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for biography for his book,
"Khrushchev: The Man and his Era." During the years he was the leader of the
Soviet Union, from 1954 to '64, he provoked the two biggest crises of the Cold
War, one in Berlin, the other in Cuba. In a Washington Post review, Robert
Kaiser described Taubman's book as a `masterful and monumental biography.'
Taubman started researching the book in the '80s before the collapse of the
Soviet Union. After the collapse he gained access to newly opened Soviet
archives. Terry spoke with William Taubman last year right after his book was
TERRY GROSS, host:
Let's start with the things that Khrushchev is responsible for that have
changed the world in profound ways. If you could just list some of the things
that Khrushchev was behind that have had a profound effect on the shape of the
former Soviet Union and the world.
Professor WILLIAM TAUBMAN (Author, "Khrushchev: The Man and His Era"): I
think the single most profound effect was of the secret
speech he gave in 1956, unmasking Stalin as a tyrant. The effect of that,
essentially, was to begin the end of the Soviet Union by destroying a god whom
so many had worshiped and which had legitimized or helped to legitimize Soviet
rule. So that was an epochal event, both for the Soviet Union and the world.
If one shifts to foreign affairs, I think the event I would probably choose
is the Cuban Missile Crisis, the decision to send to Cuba missiles capable of
reaching the United States with nuclear weapons, triggering a crisis which was
eventually resolved peacefully but which could have sparked a nuclear
GROSS: Well, let's get back to the secret speech in which he talked about
Stalin. He knew Stalin very well. He was one of the top people under Stalin.
Did he have any objections to what Stalin was doing when he was working with
Stalin and carrying out Stalin's orders?
Prof. TAUBMAN: This is a kind of mystery, but I think I have at least
partially resolved it. If you read what he said in public during the Stalin
years when he was one of his closest henchmen, you would have thought he had
no doubts about Stalin, but of course he had to talk that way. If you read
his memoirs, you discover that he is critical of Stalin, but in a puzzling,
surprising way, he still manages to praise Stalin at a point when he had no
conceivable reason to do so, so the puzzle remains.
But the thing that helped me solve it was on one of my trips to the Soviet
Union I went down to Ukraine and to the city called Donetsk in eastern Ukraine
where Khrushchev had been an official, had sort of grown up and been an
official in his early years. And I found a woman who had--who was the
daughter of one of his very best friends from childhood, and she had been
there and witnessed a conversation between Khrushchev and her father in 1940
when Khrushchev confessed to her father, with nobody else present, that he was
angry and almost in a rage about what some of Stalin was doing. And when she
told me this story, I couldn't believe it, but she described it in detail and
then I found some further documents which supported it, and I slowly came to
the conclusion that Khrushchev had harbored dismay, anger, maybe even rage,
and that that had come out in a flood in 1956 and was one of the main reasons
why he gave that speech.
GROSS: What did he say in that speech?
Prof. TAUBMAN: Well, it was a partial unmasking of this terrible tyrant. It
did not criticize everything Stalin had done. It drew a kind of line in 1934
and said that until then Stalin had done many good things, and of course, we
know that many of the things he did before '34, like ordering the
collectivization of agriculture in which millions died, were not good, but
Khrushchev drew the line in 1934 and said it was after that that the terrible
things began. So that makes it sound as if it was a kind of moderate
compromise of a speech, but it certainly didn't sound that way to the people
who were in the hall that morning in February 1956.
GROSS: Who was in the hall? Who was he addressing?
Prof. TAUBMAN: Well, he was talking to the 20th Congress of the Communist
Party of the Soviet Union, and that means the top elite of the members of the
Central Committee, which is a smaller group, and then several thousand more,
the elite, and this included people who--many of whom were Stalinists, many of
whom had blood on their hands, many of whom secretly had hated Stalin, but
none of them had expected what they heard that morning, which was this attack
on Stalin himself, so there was a kind of deathly silence in the hall. One
of the people I talked to or I read about said there was a kind of buzzing
noise in response to what they were hearing. They sort of left the hall in
silence. They were absolutely thunderstruck that their leader had done this.
GROSS: You're not supposed to talk about this stuff if you're under a
totalitarian regime. Did this help or hurt Khrushchev?
Prof. TAUBMAN: Well, I think it helped him to feel as if, in the end, he was
an honest man, that he had a conscience and he had acted on it. I think it
also helped him, or so he thought, that he had sort of cleared the air. One
of the reasons he did it, I think, was that he believed that if he didn't do
it then, that somebody else would do it a few years later, and then the
question would be why hadn't he done it? He also felt that it helped him
because, bloody as his hands were, some of his co-leaders, some of his
colleagues in the leadership, were even more complicit in Stalinist evil, and
so by unmasking Stalin, he was really unmasking them, which was a good thing
for him, or so he thought, in his battle against them for leadership of the
And in one other way I think he thought it was a good thing for him. He was a
kind of idealist and a true believer, and he believed in socialism, communism,
and he thought that once he had purged it of this terrible Stalinist stain, it
would go on and inspire people forever. So he thought it was a good thing,
but I think it turned out to be not a very good thing for him because turmoil
exploded in the Soviet Union, not really demonstrations but at meetings. Then
there were strikes and demonstrations and people killed in Poland shortly
thereafter, and then there was the Hungarian Revolution in November 1956 in
which the Soviets had to invade. So in the long run, it was devastating
really for the Communist system and it was devastating for Khrushchev.
GROSS: It was devastating for the Communist system because why would people
put up with it once Stalin was unmasked and they started to rebel?
Prof. TAUBMAN: Yes. Because he had been a kind of god, and his godlike
status had been one of the things that people had been forced to believe in.
Many of them did believe sincerely; others pretended to. It had held the
system together. And to say suddenly that this figure, the leader of the
country, the leader of the party, the leader of world communism, the leader of
all progressive forces, or that's the kind of way they would have put it, was,
in effect, a mass murderer was to begin the unraveling of communism in the
Soviet Union and eventually everywhere.
GROSS: One of the great contradictions about Khrushchev is, on the one hand,
he criticizes Stalin for the bloodbaths and, you know, many human rights
abuses and, at the same time, Khrushchev is guilty of plenty of human rights
Prof. TAUBMAN: Well, he certainly was. He was the party leader in Moscow at
the height of the most terrible purges, the great terror in 1937-'38, and
there are documents which show that he not only carried out orders to approve
executions, but in at least one case asked for the quota to be increased. And
among the people who died, not at his own direct hand but with his approval,
were some of his absolutely closest associates, friends whom he had known for
years. And then in 1938, Stalin sent him--he'd done so well in this job in
Moscow, Stalin sent him down to Ukraine where he was the party boss of the
whole Ukraine, and there, too, again, he signed documents. I found one in an
archive--I remember in the KGB archive in Kiev, a document, an indictment of a
particular leader of the Young Communist League in Ukraine, and scrawled
across the top in Khrushchev's familiar handwriting was the word `arrest, N.
Khrushchev.' So we know he had blood on his hands there. You asked the
question why; that's another story. But there's no doubt that he had
blood--as he himself said in retirement at one point in a conversation, he
said, `I have blood up to my elbows.'
BIANCULLI: William Taubman, speaking with Terry Gross last year. More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back with Terry's 2003 interview with William Taubman,
who just won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Nikita Khrushchev.
GROSS: One of the things you wanted to know is how did he manage to have such
a contradictory personality and such a contradictory set of achievements?
Part of your investigation was psychological. You consulted psychiatrists and
psychologists, presented them information about Khrushchev and asked for their
analysis. What are some of the things that they told you about his
personality, based on the information you gave them?
Prof. TAUBMAN: Well, I have to admit it wasn't so much that they gave me an
analysis; it was more that I tried out my own notions, with some great
hesitation, because I'm not a psychologist myself. So with their help in that
sense, I developed several notions. I developed the notion, for example, that
this was an ignorant peasant in the beginning. He grew up in a poor peasant
village. His parents didn't even have a horse, let alone a house, and he had
probably no more than two years of elementary education, possibly three or
four; he's a little vague on it. Twice later on, he goes back to school,
attempting to get into an adult education program, and each time he gets
distracted by politics. So this man is, as the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny said
once, `the most uncultured man I'd ever met in my life.'
But he has great hopes for himself, I think fostered in part by a particularly
powerful mother who seems to have idolized him, and also by a schoolteacher
who told him that he could do anything. So he sets out to do anything, and he
succeeds. He moves miraculously up in the Communist Party ladder, into
Stalin's inner circle, eventually becomes the leader of the Soviet Union, but
I think he was sort of plagued not only by his primitiveness, which remained,
but by his knowledge of it. And then complicating that even further is that
the way he survives as Stalin's henchman in a time when so many did not is by
playing the fool.
Prof. TAUBMAN: So the irony is that he's forced to play the fool to survive,
but the fool is what he doesn't want to be, and in this sense, he sort of goes
through life succeeding. Then when he gets the full power, he's suddenly
responsible for the welfare of a transcontinental empire in all of its
aspects. He's not really equipped to do it; in trying to do it, he ends up
making terrible mistakes which prove him, in some ways, to be as foolish as he
feared he would be, and so by the end of the time in power, just before he's
ousted, there's a kind of surreal quality to him. He's just undermining
himself left and right without seeming to realize that that's what he's doing.
He's alienating all of his supporters just when he needs them.
GROSS: Well, it...
Prof. TAUBMAN: And he's sparking a conspiracy against him.
GROSS: You describe Khrushchev as having been prone to depressions,
alcoholism, hypomania? Do...
Prof. TAUBMAN: Well, yes, I got the term hypomania from the CIA, believe it
or not. It's the...
GROSS: Well, what does it mean? Yeah, go ahead.
Prof. TAUBMAN: Well, the CIA conducted a--gathered about 20 shrinks together
at one point in 1961 to prepare a study of Khrushchev for President Kennedy,
who was going to be jousting with him shortly at a summit in Vienna, and of
course, that study hasn't been released, but one of the people who was there
did release an account of it, and the account says they decided, after looking
at interviews--interviewing people who'd met Khrushchev and looking at film,
that he was hypomanic.
What hypomanic means, it's a sort of subclinical case of bipolarity; that is,
there's mania, there's depression, but they're not so serious as to paralyze
him, and indeed, he functions, and functions quite actively and at times quite
well. But nonetheless, there is this tendency toward explosiveness and
impulsiveness and the sense `I can do anything and I can do it now' on the one
hand, coexisting with moods of sort of bleakness and blackness and sadness.
And after I read that I interviewed a Jane Thompson, who was the wife of the
American ambassador, Llewellyn Thompson, who flew with the Khrushchevs to
America in '59, and Jane Thompson said Nina Khrushcheva, Khrushchev's wife,
had said to her on that flight, `He's always either all the way up or all the
way down.' So I felt that was enough confirmation.
GROSS: How do you think that these mood swings affected his style as a
negotiator, you know, as a negotiator with the United States, as a negotiator
during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Prof. TAUBMAN: Well, I think one way to put the decision to send those
missiles to Cuba, with all the risks involved and without consulting with his
most knowledgeable advisers, was to say it was a manic move. You know, he
suddenly had confidence that he could do anything, and some of the other
things that he did were probably--also reflected that. I mean, I daresay that
even the speech attacking Stalin probably reflected this sort of sense that he
could do this tremendous, stunning thing that nobody had expected. I'm
certainly not reducing any of the things that he did to this particular
feature of his psychology, but I think it was there in the background.
And as a negotiator, it made for some absolutely hair-raising and very funny
negotiations. One of my favorites, if I can tell you about it...
Prof. TAUBMAN: ...is with Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was pretty
effervescent himself, one might say, and Humphrey goes to Moscow in December,
I think it was, 1958, to try to figure out what Khrushchev's up to with this
Berlin ultimatum of his, and he expects to get, if he's lucky, maybe an hour
with Khrushchev. He ends up spending eight hours in the Kremlin. Khrushchev
wines him and dines him, and at one point Khrushchev sort of gets up, goes
over to a map on the wall and says, `Where are you from?' And Humphrey says,
`Minneapolis, Minnesota.' And Khrushchev takes out a fat blue pencil and
draws a circle around it and says, `That means we'll spare Minneapolis when
the rockets fly.' And Humphrey, who was no slouch, says, `Well, I'm afraid I
can't do the same for Moscow. Sorry about that.'
And Humphrey was absolutely snowed. He said, `I never met a guy like'--he
said, `I loved him like a'--I wish--I don't remember exactly what the words
were; I could open my book and find them, but he says, `I had the greatest
time with this guy. This guy was amazing. He gave the best speech I ever
heard against racism.' But he also went away saying that the Americans should
assign some sort of psychologist to study him, because he had a tremendous
inferiority complex and they better figure him out before something bad
GROSS: How is Khrushchev described now in Russian textbooks?
Prof. TAUBMAN: Well, he's gone from being a non-person, which is what he was
all the years after he was ousted, until Gorbachev resurrected him as a sort
of predecessor, somebody who tried to reform the Soviet Union before he,
Gorbachev, renewed the attempt. So he's treated as a man who tried his best
to make the changes that were necessary, but he's also treated as somebody who
has blood on his hands.
I think the irony is that these days Russians don't pay all that much
attention to him. Their lives are too complicated, they're too busy
surviving, they're too busy trying to get ahead, and they don't, as a rule, I
think, want to pay that much attention to their past.
GROSS: What's your final analysis of Khrushchev?
Prof. TAUBMAN: I feel a kind of affection for him. He's a wonderfully
colorful character. He's a sort of self-made man who couldn't unmake what his
origins had made of him. He's a man who found himself in a situation where he
was committing great wrongs and tried to repent and do good. He's all too
human in so many ways. I find as a person there are things that I admire and
things that are almost embarrassing. He was profane. There's a lot of
profanity in this book. And as a political leader, he's also contradictory.
He was an accomplice of Stalin and Stalin's terrible crimes, but at the same
time he tried to change his country. He was naive in thinking he could do it,
but that naivete was also something to admire. He tried to mitigate the Cold
War, ease it, if not absolutely end it, and instead of easing it, he produced
its two worst crises. So he's an incredibly complex, contradictory,
fascinating character for whom I feel both affection and admiration on the one
hand, and almost revulsion if one's talking about the bloody years and a kind
of disdain on the other.
GROSS: Well, William Taubman, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Prof. TAUBMAN: You're quite welcome.
BIANCULLI: William Taubman, speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. His biography
of Nikita Khrushchev, "Khrushchev: The Man and His Era," just won the
Pulitzer Prize. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jack Miles discusses his perception of God as literary
protagonist of the Old Testament
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
The book "God: A Biography" won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1996. It
was written by Jack Miles. The book offers a literary examination of the
Bible and analyzes God as the protagonist of the Old Testament. Miles is in a
good position to take this unusual approach. He's a former Jesuit seminarian
and Bible scholar who studied in Rome and Jerusalem. For seven years, he was
the Los Angeles Times literary editor. He's also the author of "Christ: A
Crisis in the Life of God," which was published in 2001. In 2002, Miles was
the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award.
When Terry spoke with Miles in 1996, she asked if he responded to the Bible in
different ways as a seminarian and as a scholar. He says sometimes. When you
were employing the Bible for worship or instruction, you leave certain things
out or gloss over them.
TERRY GROSS, host:
When did you first start reading the Bible?
Mr. JACK MILES (Author, "God: A Biography"): As a boy, I read the New
Testament and we had some books of Bible stories, I think, at home. I recall
in particular a Sunday morning television show that I used to watch in which
the Bible was read and then there were sort of semi-dramatizations of it, and
it was there that I believe I first felt a kind of irritation with God or a
GROSS: Did you say irritation?
Mr. MILES: Irritation or--that isn't perhaps the right word. Call it
puzzlement, a--I was disturbed that some of his behavior seemed unacceptable
but no one was saying anything about it.
GROSS: The more destructive side.
Mr. MILES: The more destructive side, yeah. I recently took the trouble
to--this isn't anything I did as a boy, but I think I was seeing some of this.
I took the trouble to count up how many Israelites God kills between the time
when he takes Israel out of Egypt and out of bondage to Pharaoh and the time
that he leads them across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. I stopped
counting at 40,000; that's quite a few. That's Israelites; that's his own
GROSS: Your book "God: A Biography" is based on a reading of the Jewish Old
Testament, not the Christian version of the Old Testament. What's the
difference between the two?
Mr. MILES: OK. They're--the original is Hebrew, and Jews who speak English
read a translation into English, Christians who speak English also read a
translation into English, so they're both reading translations of the same
original. Christians, when they were first translating the Bible into Greek
and Latin, rearranged the order in which the books come. The first books,
from Genesis until the second book of Kings are in the same order when
Christians read and when Jews read, but thereafter the orders are quite
strikingly different. All the books of prophecy have been moved to the end in
the Christian ordering, and they remain in the middle in the Jewish ordering.
Now if I were to take any book that you might care to mention, "David
Copperfield," and say, well, `We'll read--we'll leave the first 40 percent
just as it is, but then the latter 60 percent we'll rearrange and we'll take
the middle 30 percent and move it to the end,' well, you'd have a very
GROSS: Well, how is the story different in the Jewish Bible than in the
Christian Old Testament?
Mr. MILES: The difference is that in the middle where you have the books of
prophecy in the Jewish ordering, you have great hope--a great sense of
expectation. Jerusalem has been destroyed, the nation is in exile, and yet
God has promised that he will forgive them, he will bring them back, and
wonderful things will happen, more wonderful than they had in their moments of
greatest earlier glory.
When Christianity takes those books with all that hopefulness and moves them
to the end, it moves all that hope and all that expectation to just before the
appearance of Jesus. And it gives you--if you were to look only at the Old
Testament, it gives you a story that begins strong, then goes into a period of
kind of quietness and aimlessness or confusion, and then ends with a great
rush of hope. In the Jewish ordering, you have the actions of God at the
beginning and then this speech and all this hope in the middle, and then a
tailing off with the book of Job as the climactic moment. So that the--what I
call the books of silence are the final books in the Jewish ordering.
GROSS: So in a way, in the Christian reordering, ending on that more hopeful
note, it's kind of like the sequel is then Christ comes...
Mr. MILES: So that's exactly...
GROSS: ...fulfilling that hopeful prophecy.
Mr. MILES: ...that's exactly it.
GROSS: But in the Jewish version it ends with the book of Job, so how do you
interpret that? What kind of note does the Jewish version end on?
Mr. MILES: Well, let me mention that the book of Job is not the last book in
the Hebrew Bible as Jews read it. There follow about 10 more books. One of
GROSS: But Job is the last place where God speaks.
Mr. MILES: That was the climactic moment.
GROSS: And it's the last place where God speaks in the Jewish version of the
Mr. MILES: But it's still--what lies ahead is, as it seems to me, a kind of
transfer of authority, and the Jewish people themselves begin by various hints
to recognize they're now expected to do for themselves what God used to do for
them, and where this becomes clearest for me is in the story of the book of
Esther. In the story of the book of Esther, the same situation obtains that
obtained in Pharaoh's Egypt. The Jews are a minority people living in a great
empire, and the emperor has turned against them and wants to exterminate them.
In Egypt, they call on God to rescue them and he does with great, spectacular
power. In the book of Esther, they take care of it themselves. They never
pray to him; they never call on him. The book of Esther is remarkable for
being the one book in the Hebrew Bible in which God is not even mentioned.
If the initial situations weren't so similar, it might not tell us much, but
when they are so very similar, I think the suggestion is inescapable that
though God is still existent and still honored and Israel is still his people,
they are to handle for themselves things that in an earlier age he had handled
GROSS: So the Jewish Bible ends with a sense of take responsibility for your
lives. I'm still here...
Mr. MILES: That's how I...
GROSS: God's saying, `I'm still here, but take responsibility for your life.'
Mr. MILES: Correct. Correct. That, by the way, is--you might call it a
melancholy ending or a somewhat rueful ending, but it certainly is not a
tragic ending or any--there's no sense of failure. There's a sense of a kind
of empowerment, if you will, at the end of the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish
GROSS: Do you think of yourself as a religious man as well as a scholar?
Mr. MILES: Yes, I do. And to me that is a matter more of taking certain
questions seriously than of defending any single answer to the death. It's a
matter of humility and it's also a matter in a way of skepticism--not
skepticism about religion but skepticism about everything else. If I felt
that an adequate answer was to be had from science or art or science and art
together, I might somehow move on and leave the religious questions behind,
but I find all of those sources of wisdom--I respect them, of course--finally
inadequate, and I'm dazzled by the achievements of science and charmed by the
gifts of art, but finally it's not enough.
BIANCULLI: Jack Miles speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with Jack Miles. She
asked if he responded to the Bible in different ways as a seminarian and as a
scholar. He says sometimes. When you are employing the Bible for worship or
instruction, you leave certain things out or gloss over them.
Mr. MILES: I taught the flood story in Sunday School one time, and I noticed
that the--my instructions were to go easy on the violence of God--might upset
the children and stress the rainbow that comes at the end and God's promise
not to do this again. Children are sometimes very sensitive, the teacher's
manual said, and we don't want--and also they have very tender feelings about
their animals and the fact that God destroyed all these animals, you know,
could upset them. Someone might say, `Well, let them take it straight. After
all, it's the word of God.' I don't feel that way. I think the text can be
used and combined with other materials and adjusted any way that religious
authorities wish, so long as they understand what they're doing. It's not
really written for children, I'd have to say though, and there is great merit
in allowing a completely adult free reading of it to take place, and
indirectly there can be some religious gains from that.
GROSS: Let me ask you, when you were teaching Sunday School, did any of the
children become upset when they heard the story of God, you know, destroying,
well, nearly everything that he'd created?
Mr. MILES: Well, they didn't...
GROSS: What kind of questions did they want to know and how did you answer
Mr. MILES: They didn't because I followed the instructions. I mean, we
GROSS: You played it down.
Mr. MILES: I played it down. I mean, the instructions were--we got a little
teaching kit and there was a picture of a rainbow and we'd be--the rainbow
comes at the end of the story, you know. But the instructions were to pass
out the rainbow card at the beginning and then just to be on the safe side, we
ended the class with a reading of the 23rd Psalm, you know, `The Lord is my
shepherd.' And I thought that that was laying it on a bit thick, but I did it
and so no one was upset. But a good friend of mine tried to read the text
just as you find it aloud to his son, and stopped. You know, he stopped. He
himself was shocked at what he was reading, and realized that what he
remembered from his childhood wasn't the Bible but Bible stories. Bible
stories are just that--you know, they're the expurgated version that we teach
to children. And the notion is so widely spread that the Bible is for
children--you know, that--this becomes rather the standard.
GROSS: Well, you know, it's funny. I--the flood story the way I always
remember it, the destruction isn't stressed. It's all the cute animals...
Mr. MILES: All the cute animals two by two going in.
GROSS: ...two by two going into the ark.
Mr. MILES: It's a wonderfully pictorial story and, sure, no harm is done, I
guess, but something is definitely obscured about this story. You know, in
the--Israel got its flood story from ancient Babylon, and in Babylon there
was a creator god who stood for social order and dry land, and then there was
a destroyer goddess, actually--a kind of flood monster who stood for chaos and
destruction. And they fought each other, so you had one on one side and the
other on the other side. After monotheism, the two became one, so in our
master myth, God creates the world; the same God then destroys the world.
Makes for a better story, I think, actually, but a much more mysterious one.
And if you don't allow the destructive part of that story to shine through,
you'd certainly--you lose something.
GROSS: Well, now I really want to hear your interpretation of the flood story
looking at the Bible as a book of literature. What do you think the flood
story says about God? You're the author of "God: A Biography."
Mr. MILES: What it says is that there's more to him than we have seen in his
story to this point. Let me remind you of what God said during the days of
creation. After the end of each day, God looks at the world and sees that it
is good--`tov' is the Hebrew word, `tov tol(ph).' And then `tov mahod(ph)' he
says on the last day, `very good.' And now he looks on the world again, and
what does he see? Traditional translations say he sees that the world is
corrupt, suggesting that mankind is the problem--moral evil. But in fact the
word that is used, the word `ra,' is the most general Hebrew word for `evil.'
It's just the opposite of what he saw at creation.
And he hasn't given any Ten Commandments yet. He hasn't given even one
commandment, except the one he gave to Adam and Eve in the garden, and they're
not in the garden anymore.
GROSS: So it's not like he's punishing humanity for breaking...
Mr. MILES: No.
GROSS: ...God's rules.
Mr. MILES: No, he's not. So what then do you have? What you have is a
rather disturbing change of heart in him. That--it isn't that something has
happened. It is that he mysteriously has changed or else that something that
we hadn't had opportunity to see in him before has now suddenly erupted, has
GROSS: Have you found any explanation for that?
Mr. MILES: The explanation is--if you simply take the text as you find it,
the explanation can only be character or logical explanation. This is the way
he is. You have to take him as you find him. Historically, of course, Israel
did receive its creation myth from Babylon, and there there was a creator god,
Marduk, and a destroyer god, Tiamat. Marduk was the god of social order
and of dry land, and Tiamat was a kind of flood monster, a dragon. Imagine a
wandering sinuous river--looks rather snaky in its shape and then suddenly it
swells up and swallows everything, you know. That's what she was. But in our
text, he and she are just he. We have one God playing both roles.
GROSS: So you're saying that some of the contradictions in God's personality
in the Bible is really a function of monotheism, that formerly there was a god
for destruction and a god for creation, a god for love and a god for hate, for
good and for evil. And now it's monotheism. There's one God and so all of
those contradictory things in life have to be embodied in this one figure.
Mr. MILES: That's right. And that, I think, isn't as wide...
GROSS: Except for Satan. We've got Satan.
Mr. MILES: Well, except for Sat--well, he--yes, but he's--I mean, he doesn't
play any role until very, very late, you know, He does appear there in--he
appears at the very beginning as the serpent who tempts Eve, you know, in the
garden of Eden. Then he's gone and we don't hear from him again essentially
until the book of Job, and all the intervening time God is the only God who
matters, and all the other are simply fictions. Well, what isn't generally
recognized is the extent to which the character of God, what he is like--never
mind whether he exists or not--but what he is like comes about by this
amalgamation or this fusion of...
GROSS: Into monotheism.
Mr. MILES: Yes, into monotheism, so that monotheism is a kind of sum total of
all gods with reality denied to any god operating under another name.
BIANCULLI: Jack Miles, speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. His book, "God: A
Biography," won the Pulitzer Prize for biography that year.
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "The Alamo," the new movie, not the old
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: New film "The Alamo"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Hollywood's most famous treatment of the legendary Battle of the Alamo, the
1960 movie called "The Alamo," starred John Wayne as Davy Crockett and Richard
Widmark as Jim Bowie. The protagonists of the new film, also called "The
Alamo," are played by Billy Bob Thornton and Jason Patric with Dennis Quaid as
General Sam Houston. David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
The director of the new Alamo movie, who bears the revolutionary name John Lee
Hancock, vowed to make the definitive story of the fabled Texas last stand,
not like that piece of ahistorical myth-making propaganda fashioned by John
Wayne in 1960 at the height of the Cold War. It's true that the rah-rah
jingoism of this new Alamo is not as in-your-face, that it's a carefully and
relatively nuanced retelling and that parts of it are affecting in a mournful,
post-9/11 way. But the absence of politics is politics too, and Hancock's
Alamo is likely to leave most people scratching their heads and wondering,
`What's the back story here?'
It's been suggested over the years that the defense of this crumbling San
Antonio mission without the support of US troops might not have been the
wisest move, and that the Texians, as they were called, were actually trying
to pull off something of a land grab at a time when the Mexicans had only just
won their freedom from Spain. But there is no denying the valor of the men
who fought and died at the Alamo, most famously, the Tennessee
frontiersman-turned-politician-turned entertainer, Davy Crockett; the
ambitious land swindler with the custom-made knife, Jim Bowie; and the young,
in-over-his-head lieutenant colonel, William Travis. In this telling, the
story of the Alamo is one of those quintessential American myths, ragtag
underdogs outmanned and outgunned holding their own against a large and
better-equipped and sadistic foe. The sadists in this case aren't the
ordinary Mexican soldiers, who are brave and decent, but their leader, General
Santa Ana, portrayed by the Mexican actor Emilio Echevarria, as a
cigar-smoking voluptuary who relishes the execution of his prisoners.
A lot of the events in the movie are telescoped. The real Alamo fighters had
months to prepare for Santa Ana and his thousands of troops, but here their
arrival is a shock, most of all to Crockett, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who
has come to Texas to revitalize his political career and didn't figure on
anyone shooting at him.
(Soundbite of "The Alamo")
Mr. BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Davy Crockett) Now there was this little detail
of a re-election back home. All right. All right. 'Cause you know what I
told them folks?
Unidentified Man #1: What'd you tell 'em?
Mr. THORNTON: (As Crockett) I said you all can go to hell. I'm going to
(Soundbite of cheers)
Unidentified Man #2: Welcome to Texas, Davy.
Mr. THORNTON: (As Crockett) Thank you, son.
Unidentified Man #3: Would you mind calling him `Mr. Crockett'?
Unidentified Man #4: Look out. Let me through here.
Mr. THORNTON: Absolutely.
Unidentified Man #4: I'm half alligator, half snapping turtle. I can slide
off a rainbow and jump to Mississippi in a single leap.
Unidentified Man #5: Tell 'em, Davy.
Unidentified Man #4: I'd even whoop your weight in wildcats. I seen you on
Mr. THORNTON: (As Crockett) Well, that wasn't me.
Unidentified Man #4: Why--why sure it was.
Mr. THORNTON: (As Crockett) No, sir. That was just an actor in a play. He's
performing a character.
Unidentified Man #4: Oh, come on, Davy. Say the line. Davy Crockett, the
lion of the West.
Unidentified Man #5: I dare Santa Ana to show his face now you're here.
Mr. THORNTON: Well, I understood the fighting was over. Ain't it?
EDELSTEIN: That's a terrific bit, and the best part of "The Alamo" is the
conception of Crockett, a man trapped by his own mythic persona who by the end
fills the legend out. Thornton is warm and funny, and he anchors the scenes
with Jason Patric's terminally ill Bowie who's good, but perilously low-key,
and Patrick Wilson's Travis, who's good but hobbled by poor screenwriting.
Dennis Quaid has worse luck as General Sam Houston, a drunk who urged Bowie
to abandon the Alamo and then refused to take Travis' panicked missive
seriously. Houston gives oddly vague responses, and Quaid drops his voice and
pops his eyes and looks rather constipated. Director Hancock doesn't seem to
know what to do with this character, who lets hundreds of men die but then
comes back to life post-massacre as an avenger, as Wellington to Santa Ana's
Napoleon. That's because Hollywood retellings of disasters like the Alamo and
Pearl Harbor need to end with Americans getting their own back.
Americans, did, of course. They got Texas, which Santa Ana signed over in
return for his life, earning everlasting disgrace in his native country. But
thanks to Hancock's muddy story-telling, it's never clear why so few Texians
came to the aid of the Alamo in the course of the siege.
The middle of the movie is pokey and unfocused, and given the circumstances
bizarrely lacking in urgency. It's possible though that the pacing is true to
what actually happened in the course of that siege. No one in the US quite
realized the peril.
What I took away from this Alamo is that nothing motivates us like revenge.
When we remember the Alamo, we don't remember the reasons we shouldn't have
fought or the lives that were needlessly lost. We remember the galvanizing
power of martyrdom. We remember that people, especially Americans, often
never know quite how they feel about something until they're mad as hell about
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
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Profile: Remembering Victor Argo, who died at 69
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Actor Victor Argo died this week in New York at age 69. His name may not be
familiar, but you'd recognize his voice and certainly his face. He played the
tough guy, the hard-boiled detective or the gangster in over 70 movies. Argo
had roles in the Martin Scorsese films "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver." He
was also in a number of films directed by Abel Ferarra, including the "Bad
Lieutenant" and the "King of New York." In that 1990 film, he plays an aging
but still tough detective who has been trying to build a case against a
murderous drug lord named Frank White played by Christopher Walken. Here's a
scene from the end of the film, the final confrontation between those two
really tough guys which takes place in the New York subway. Walken's
character is holding one of the passengers hostage.
(Soundbite of "King of New York")
Mr. VICTOR ARGO: Let her go.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (As Frank White) You let her go.
Mr. ARGO: Frank, put the gun down.
Mr. WALKEN: (As White) And make it easy? I've done things in my life that
you wouldn't even think about. Why should you be different? You got that
gun. Use it. Come on.
Mr. ARGO: No more stories, Frank. Put the (censored) gun down.
Mr. WALKEN: (As White) See this woman? Nice woman. You have a family? I
don't want to hurt you, but I will blow you away if I had to. You
Unidentified Woman: Yes.
Mr. WALKEN: (As White) Could you do that?
Mr. ARGO: Leave her alone, Frank. It's me and you. Me and you. You can't
hide behind her forever.
Mr. WALKEN: (As White) I don't need forever.
(Soundbite of gunshots)
BIANCULLI: A scene from the 1990 film the "King of New York," starring
Christopher Walken and featuring actor Victor Argo. Argo died earlier this
week. He was 69.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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