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'Sand Cafe' Offers Fictional Take on Gulf War Reporting

Journalist Neil MacFarquhar is a veteran Middle East foreign correspondent and was Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times. Next, he will cover Islam in North America for the Times. His new novel The Sand Cafe is set in Saudi Arabia and examines the day-to-day reporting life of foreign correspondents in the Middle East during the Gulf War.

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Other segments from the episode on October 24, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 13, 2006: Interview with Barry Werth; Commentary on language; Interview with Neil MacFarquhar; Review of two Korean films "Memories of Murder" and "The President's…

Transcript

DATE April 13, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Barry Werth discusses his book "31 Days" about the
first days of President Ford's presidency
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Gerald Ford has the distinction of being the only president who was never
elected president or vice president. When Nixon resigned on August 9th, 1974,
Ford had to hold the government and the country together. The first month of
Ford's presidency is the subject of the new book "31 Days." The book also
explores the early careers of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney when they were
Cold War hard-liners and worked in the Ford administration. My guest is the
author of "31 Days," Barry Werth.

Remind us of the unique position that President Ford was in having never been
elected as vice president.

Mr. BARRY WERTH: Gerald Ford became vice president in October of 1973 after
Nixon's first vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned. He was facing a tax
evasion charge. And there are so many things that make the Ford presidency
unique, but one of them is that the--there were two thirds Democratic
majorities in Congress at that time, and Ford was not Nixon's first choice, in
fact he was probably his fourth or fifth choice. But the Democratic
leadership in Congress made it very clear that only Gerry Ford would be
acceptable. So Ford was chosen--and he had no aspiration to be president, so
he was chosen more or less by mutual consensus between the White House and
Congress, and he was chosen quite specifically because he didn't have any
ambition to run for president himself. So when he came to office 10 months
later, after Nixon's resignation, he was widely believed that he was not going
to be running in 1976 in his own right, that he was going to be a caretaker.

So here we have a man who was not elected to national office, had no
aspiration to run for the presidency on his own, and had less than 48 hours to
prepare for his presidency. Nixon, as we well remember, struggled to the
bitter end to retain power, and only left when confronted with certain
impeachment in Congress. And when Ford was told that he would become
president, he had two days to assemble a staff and to organize himself to
become the world's most powerful leader.

GROSS: There was a transition team that was organized to help President Ford,
and this transition team recommended that Ford not appoint a chief of staff at
the outset, but that, instead of a chief of staff, he should appoint someone
who could rapidly and efficiently re-organize the staff, that who would not be
perceived as chief of staff and would not be eager to become a chief of staff.
And when Ford read this recommendation, he wrote in the margins, "Rumsfeld,"
and that's the person who he chose. Why did he want Rumsfeld to be this
transition manager?

Mr. WERTH: Back in 1974, Rumsfeld was a former congressman from Illinois who
had been instrumental in helping Ford rise through the congressional
leadership. He was, fortunately for him, out of the White House during the
most critical stages of Watergate, he was our NATO ambassador. But Ford knew
that he needed to bring in somebody who would help him implement what he
called the spokes on the wheel organizational chart as opposed to a top-down
organizational chart, and who would not be afraid to move against the Nixon
staff, somebody who was aggressive and unafraid to take on complicated
problems, a maverick. He was comfortable with Rumsfeld from their service
together in the House, and he thought that Rumsfeld was just the guy. But as
you indicated in that quote that you read, he wanted somebody to run the
transition who did not want to be in that position and would not perceived as
wanting to be in that position. Ironically, just a couple of weeks after the
pardon, Rumsfeld became Ford's so-called staff coordinator, but in fact he was
chief of staff in the White House, and Dick Cheney was his deputy.

GROSS: One of the big decisions Ford had to make was whether to keep Nixon's
secretary of State and national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Why was
that a controversial decision?

Mr. WERTH: The Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, which was generally known by
the term detente, which meant a lessening of tensions, was very controversial
within the Republican Party. There were a lot of hard-liners and hawks who
felt that Nixon had gone soft on communism and that Kissinger's realism in
foreign affairs was making the United States, as they put it, "provocatively
weak." It was probably the first truly controversial decision that Ford made.
At the time, as someone put it, Henry Kissinger was America's foreign policy.
Nixon had been so discredited by Watergate that Kissinger was America's face
to the world. He was enormously popular and he was enormously effective
during the previous year in negotiating settlements between Israel and Egypt
and Israel and Syria in the wake of the 1973 October war. So Ford felt very
strongly that he needed Kissinger, but he knew that he was going to be
inviting attack from the Republican right and from the so-called neocons, who
were just then beginning to address foreign policy issues.

GROSS: And where did Rumsfeld stand on this?

Mr. WERTH: At the time, Rumsfeld's charge was to stay away from foreign
policy entirely, that was Kissinger's alone to run. When Rumsfeld and Cheney
came into the White House to work on the transition, Ford was very explicit,
he said, `Look at the Office of Management and Budget, look at the
relationship between the White House and the Cabinet Department, but stay away
from foreign policy, stay away from Defense, stay away from State.'
Subsequently, Rumsfeld challenged Kissinger, but at the time, Rumsfeld's
duties were generally regarded as having to do totally with domestic politics.

GROSS: What do you feel like you could learn about Rumsfeld and his deputy,
Dick Cheney, by looking at their performance in the Ford administration?

Mr. WERTH: Well, let me put it this way. Ford started out feeling very
strongly that after Watergate and Vietnam, what the country needed to do was
to move to the center. He adopted what one of the Washington Post writers
called "the mantle of the presidential center." The country had been so
divided, so torn, and all power was reeling, and Ford was determined to unify
the country. So he made a number of, what in retrospect looked like
extraordinary decisions; the first trip that he took outside of Washington, he
went to the VFW convention in Chicago, really the most difficult audience he
could find, to suggest that Vietnam War resisters should be welcomed home,
there should be some sort of limited amnesty. He met with the Congressional
Black Caucus, which Nixon had not met with for five and a half years, only
once, in fact, did Nixon meet with the--that congressional caucus. He chose
as his vice president Nelson Rockefeller, who was widely despised on the
Republican right. And, in fact, the choice of Rockefeller catalyzed
right-wing opposition to Ford and galvanized support for Ronald Reagan, who
challenged Ford in the 1976 primaries.

So what you had was a president starting out, trying to move to the middle,
trying to work with the Democrats. And then with the pardon, his popularity
plummeted, went from 70 percent to 48 percent and never really recovered. At
which point, Rumsfeld and Cheney came in and tried to direct the Ford
presidency, which was increasingly faced with a challenge from the right. And
they moved Ford as much as they could to face that challenge and to implement
right-wing policies himself. So in the same sense that Rumsfeld and Cheney
became the center of strategic power in the George W. Bush White House, they
became the center of strategic power in the Ford White House. And they did
then, in somewhat lesser form what they have done subsequently, which is to
make sure that they never get outflanked by the right.

GROSS: One of the things that President Ford had to do early on was to choose
a vice president. What does the Constitution say about the position that he
was in on how to choose a vice president?

Mr. WERTH: The Constitution didn't have a provision about this well in this
century. In fact, after John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, there was no
vice president at all until Lyndon Johnson was elected in his own right in
1964 and Hubert Humphrey came on. After that, Congress passed the 25th
Amendment, which says that if the--if there's an unoccupied vice president
seat, that the president shall choose someone who--to be confirmed by
Congress. So this was really the signal decision of Ford's first couple of
weeks. He was having the opportunity to pick somebody who, as far as anyone
knew, was most likely going to be the Republican candidate in 1976 since Ford
himself had pledged not to run.

GROSS: So how was Rockefeller finally chosen by Ford as vice president?

Mr. WERTH: Well, it--Ford wanted somebody who had independent standing and
stature, some--and Rockefeller was in his own right one of the world's most
powerful people coming from his family and also having been the nationally
very popular former two-term governor from New York. And he also wanted
somebody who would be a strong ticket mate in 1976. Rockefeller, it was
believed, could help Ford win New York, probably California, maybe Florida.
And he also was in agreement with the Nixon-Kissinger real politic in foreign
affairs. So he--Rockefeller was really the strongest person that Ford could
have selected.

GROSS: You keep describing Ford as being someone who didn't plan on running
for the presidency and no one expected him to run for the presidency. His
vice presidential appointee was considered to be the next presidential
candidate, but that's not the way it worked out, Ford did run.

Mr. WERTH: Well, yes, he did run. And, in fact, he made the decision very
early. Let me say first that Betty Ford had hated being in Washington and
had, as we know, struggled with additions and then had a very hard time as a
political wife, and had really hoped that Ford would quit politics. In fact,
Ford had planned after the 1972 election to leave Washington. His only real
aspiration has been to be speaker of the House, but the--he had not been able
to win enough seats to make that happen. And so he first had to convince
Betty that he ought to run himself. But really what was more crucial, which
was pointed out to him by Henry Kissinger on the second day of his presidency,
was that if he was perceived as a caretaker, that would invite a succession
fight within the party that would begin immediately, and that foreign powers
would take him less seriously. He realized that, in order to be perceived as
a strong president even during this interim period, he needed to run in 1976
and show that he intended to be president for longer than that.

GROSS: My guest is Barry Werth. His new book is called "31 Days." More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barry Werth. We're talking
about his new book, "31 Days," which is about the first 31 days of the Ford
presidency, right after the resignation of President Nixon.

One of the most important decisions that President Ford was faced with early
on was whether or not to pardon Nixon. Why was that a decision that was
filled with landmines along the way?

Mr. WERTH: That's a very apt description. This could not have been an easy
or straightforward decision under any circumstances. It was probably made
more difficult by the fact that Ford owed his presidency to Nixon. But let me
try to go through some of them. There were the legal issues first. Nixon had
been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up. He was
being investigated in connection with another dozen abuses of power and the
legal brief against him was--had grown enormous. And there was no question
after the Watergate tapes came out that he was going to be indicted. By
special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, did not want to indict him. He was looking
for every opportunity to transfer the responsibility to somebody else. On top
of all that, Nixon was quite ill. We'll never know exactly how ill, but he
had suffered from phlebitis, which had caused him great pain and caused
enormous swelling in his leg and had threatened to cause a stroke or a heart
attack if he had a clot that got loose and into his bloodstream. Besides all
that, he was obviously depressed, there were reports that he was drinking and
suicidal. So Ford felt really enormous pressure right from the get-go
to--from all sides to pardon Nixon, simply to put the Watergate morass behind
the country in a way that only he could, by one swift and decisive act of
presidential compassion and leniency.

GROSS: Now, you think that there were personal issues in Ford's life that
also led to him pardoning Nixon? What was the personal issue?

Mr. WERTH: We tend to forget this now, but Gerald Ford was not born Gerald
Ford, he was born Leslie King Jr. His father and mother divorced shortly
after he was born. In fact, his father had started physically abusing his
mother on their honeymoon, he was an alcoholic. In their divorce agreement,
he was obligated to pay child support for Ford during his growing up Michigan,
and he was a deadbeat, he never paid any of it, to the point where when Ford
was 25 years old and a law student at Yale, Gerald Ford's father, Leslie King,
was put in jail briefly. Ford, in that, finally took the situation and became
a broker between his parents. He brokered an agreement that his father would
pay his mother a lump sum and the legal proceedings would go away. And this
was a way of him closing out a chapter of real strain and difficulty that had
dogged him throughout his life. And I believe Ford, on top of all these other
pressures that he was feeling, had a kind of inner urgency to just resolve
this as only he could, by splitting the difference between the parties and
sealing the record and getting Watergate behind the country and behind the
White House so that he could go ahead and do what he needed to do, which was
to lead the country out of Watergate and Vietnam.

GROSS: What was the reaction to Ford's pardoning of Nixon?

Mr. WERTH: It was overwhelmingly negative. As I said earlier, Ford's
popularity went from 70 percent to 48 percent and never really recovered. And
it aborted what he was trying to do. After that he was distrusted, the pardon
ended up looking like the last cynical act of the Watergate cover-up, here was
President Nixon's hand-picked successor telling the country that he--Nixon
would not have to go to jail or even face trial while 40 of his subordinates
had faced legal proceedings.

GROSS: Three of the people who were in the Ford administration, Dick Cheney,
Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz...

Mr. WERTH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...eventually became to be considered hard-liners. Were they
considered hard-liners in the Ford days?

Mr. WERTH: Again, Rumsfeld, I don't--was the least ideological of the three
of them. But yes, I think they definitely were considered hard-liners. There
were many people in the military and on the right who felt that Nixon and
Kissinger had compromised America's strength and that America needed to be
strong and to be able to assert its strength around the world. And I think
that was the definition of hard-liner. And certainly Cheney and Wolfowitz
were among that group.

GROSS: What was Wolfowitz's position in the Ford administration? He went on
to become deputy secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration
and is considered to be one of the architects of the Iraq war.

Mr. WERTH: Wolfowitz was nowhere to be found in the first 31 days. He
showed up in the Ford administration as one of the key members of what's
referred to as Team B. One of the things that Rumsfeld did the first time
that he was at the Defense Department was he convinced Ford to set up a group
that would independently review all of the intelligence that was coming into
the CIA regarding the Soviet Union and its nuclear programs. They felt that
the CIA was underestimating the Soviet threat. So Rumsfeld established this
Team B. Wolfowitz was a key figure in that. This must have been 1974, 1975.
And Team B issued a report which said that the Soviets were bent on world
domination, that they were building space-based weapons to destroy us.
Everything--practically everything in that report turned out not to be true.
But the Team B report became a rallying cry for hard-liners who felt that the
United States would become weak and needed to become mightier and assert that
might around the world.

So this was really, in a way, a kind of a bookend to the so-called
independence intelligence gathering that was done in the Defense Department in
the run-up to the Iraq war, in which Wolfowitz was involved.

GROSS: And did Cheney and Rumsfeld support Team B in their conclusions that
their...

Mr. WERTH: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. WERTH: Yeah. And I think this--you know, by the end--you know, Nixon
had negotiated the first strategic arms reductions and was in the process of
negotiating which was called Salt II, which was the second stage of that. By
the end of the Ford presidency, Rumsfeld and Cheney had pretty much run Salt
II into the ground. The word "detente" was no longer used in any of Ford's
speeches. And the United States was starting to assert a more militant
posture towards the world. This was part of their answer to Vietnam, which
was, you know, `We didn't lose Vietnam, we're stronger than ever.'

GROSS: Do you feel like you understand Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz any
better from having studied their role in the Ford administration?

Mr. WERTH: The Ford administration was truly the formative experience for
them. I think they developed their attitudes towards the world and their
position on America's role in the world as the sole superpower during that
period. Of course, then we were so engaged in the Cold War with the Soviets,
but this is where they prepared and trained for the power that they have had
in the Bush administration. So in that sense, I--you know, it's like going
back to somebody's childhood to sort of figure out why they became the way
that they did. I think we can understand a lot about Rumsfeld and Cheney by
looking at how they became powerful the first time. And it should be
remembered that, at the time, Rumsfeld was 44 and Cheney was 33; when he
became White House chief of staff, he was 35, the youngest chief of staff in
history. So this was really his training.

GROSS: Barry Werth, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WERTH: My pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Barry Werth is the author of the new book, "31 Days."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, journalist Neil MacFarquhar. He's written a new satirical
novel based on his experiences covering the Gulf War. He's reported from war
zones without a scratch, but was nearly killed riding a bike in Manhattan.
Also, Geoff Nunberg considers the meanings of the word "alien," and John
Powers tells us about two hit films from South Korea now out on DVD.

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

Profile: Meanings of the word "alien" and other words used
when referring to immigration
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Alien: illegal, undocumented, immigrant. The debate over immigration policy
is also about the words used by the various sides. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg
says the language of immigration has been controversial for as long as
immigration has been an issue in immigration life.

GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:

Back in 1920, the New Republic reported on an exercise in which the students
at a New England college were asked to provide definitions of the word
"alien." Their answers were uniformly negative: A person who is hostile to
this country, a person on the opposite side, an enemy from a foreign land.
Commenting on those responses, Walter Lippman remarked on how odd it was that
emotional meaning should attach to what was in fact an exact legal term. But
by then, the word "alien" had been colored by decades of anti-immigrant
sentiment, which reached its peak in the red scares of the years after World
War I. "Fully 90 percent of communist and anarchist agitation is traceable to
aliens," the attorney general and president hopeful A. Mitchell Palmer
announced in 1920, by way of justifying the rage that rounded up and deported
10,000 suspected radicals whom he described as "aliens of misshapen cast of
mind." Or as the American Legion Weekly put it, "Aliens are not of our sort."

That's a chronic feature of the language of immigration, the words refuse to
be confined to their legal and economic senses, but swell with emotional
meanings that reflect the fears and passions of the time.

True, "alien" no longer conjures up images of wild-eyed, bomb-throwing
anarchists, not even the fiercest opponents of immigration reform claim that
the Mexicans, Chinese, and Irish who entered the country illegally are seeking
anything but economic opportunity. But "alien" still suggests strangeness and
difference, people who are not of our sort. That's partly due to the science
fiction writers who picked the word up in the 1930s to refer to
extraterrestrial beings. And it's revealing that "alien" is far more likely
to be used to describe Mexicans and Central Americans than Europeans.

The tens of thousands of Irish and Poles who are in the country illegally are
almost always referred to as immigrants, not aliens. And anti-immigrationists
almost never use "aliens" to describe foreigners who are in the country
legally. On news broadcasts, "illegal aliens" outnumbers "legal aliens" by
about 100 to one.

Nowadays, those connotations have led the majority of the mainstream media to
steer clear of the word "aliens," "illegal immigrants" tends to be the phrase
of choice. But "illegal" has some more than a technical meaning, too. True,
dictionaries define the word simply as "not according to law." But there are
disparaging connotations to the negative prefix in "illegal," which is
actually just a variant of the prefix "in." "Inhuman" doesn't mean the same
thing as "not human," and you don't become "irreligious" simply by not going
to church. And you hear the same negative tone in words like "insincere,"
"inflexible," and "illegitimate." So it isn't surprising that we reserve
"illegal" for conveying strong disapproval. We may talk about illegal drugs,
but we don't describe the Porsche 959 as an illegal car, even though it can't
be legally driven in the US.

Then, too, we don't usually describe lawbreakers as being illegal in
themselves. Jack Abramoff may have done illegal lobbying, but nobody's called
him an illegal lobbyist. And whatever laws Bernie Ebbers or Martha Stewart
may have broken, they weren't illegal CEOs.

It's only your immigration status that can qualify you as being an illegal
person or that can earn you the honor of being an illegal all by itself. That
use of "illegal" as a noun actually goes back a long way. The British coined
it in the 1930s to describe Jews who entered Palestine without official
permission. And it's been used ever since as a way of reducing individuals to
their infractions. But where to find neutral language? Out of desperation,
people sometimes turn to borrowing words from other languages, but that can
have its pitfalls, too. "Guest worker" sounds a lot more precious than the
German word "gast Arbeiter" it was based on. In German, after all, "gast" can
mean simply "visitor." And then there's "undocumented," that word was
introduced in the 1970s as a version of the French phrase "sans papier," or
"without papers," which is used in a number of other nations to describe
immigrants who have no legal status. At the recent rallies across the
country, Spanish speakers were using the equivalent "cin papatas."

There's no question "undocumented" is the most decent word that's available to
us, but something was lost in that translation, too. It isn't just that
"undocumented" adds a bureaucratic note, but that it focuses on the
government's records rather than the immigrants themselves. Visitors who
overstay their visas may not be undocumented in the strict sense of the term,
which is why the INS ultimately decided to stay with "illegal." But those
people are still without papers in the more suggestive European sense, people
who have to live without any official status in the shadow of a modern state.

"Aliens," "illegals," even "undocumented," over the past 100 years it's been
in the nature of the language of immigration to suppress the human side of the
story. Yet language can't wholly obscure those realities. As the Swiss
writer Mats Frisch wrote in 1965 about the European experience with
immigration, "We called for a labor force, but it was human beings that came."

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley.

Coming up, journalist Neil MacFarquhar. He covered the Arab world for more
than 12 years. He's written a new satirical novel about the press corps
during the Gulf War. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Journalist Neil MacFarquhar discusses his new book,
"The Sand Cafe"
TERRY GROSS, host:

After spending five years as The New York Times Cairo bureau chief, Neil
MacFarquhar is starting a new beat covering Muslims in America. He worked as
a reporter in the Arab world for more than 12 years. His new satirical novel,
"The Sand Cafe," is based on his experiences in 1991 covering the Gulf War
from Dharan, Saudi Arabia, for the Associated Press.

What's one of the more absurd or ridiculous parts of reporting on the Gulf War
that you weren't able to actually put in print at the time that you were
reporting, but you were able to describe as fiction in your novel?

Mr. NEIL MacFARQUHAR: Personally as a reporter, I'm a little bit adverse to
reporting about the press, but I think there is some interest on the part of
readers or TV viewers about how reporters get the story, and the events that
are portrayed in "The Sand Cafe" kind of highlight the absurdity of the
situation in Dharan during the lead-up to the Gulf War, because basically,
there were 1,000 reporters there and there were 190 rooms in the hotel and
there were 100 slots initially on the combat pool. So it was basically 1,000
reporters vying for 100 slots, although they expanded that later. And I think
what I try and bring out in "The Sand Cafe" is just sort of the ridiculous
array of reporters that ended up there. You know, one of the women's fashion
magazines had sent a lesbian poet who ran around in black leather and, you
know, was asking troops whether they brought sex toys along with them. And
there was somebody from Audubon magazine, because Saddam had opened oil
spigots and all the cormorants were soaked in oil, what we used to call the
dirty bird stories. And there was somebody from Soldier of Fortune magazine.

And it just seemed like every publication on earth had a reporter in that
hotel. And obviously, the complaints about access were written about at the
time, but you really, in the stories, couldn't get the full absurdity of
having so many different kinds of reporters under one roof all battling for
very limited access.

GROSS: How did your experiences covering the Gulf War affect how you see
coverage now of Iraq?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: I think the military has been trying to evolve its own
coverage. So, as I said, there were initially 100 combat slots during the
Gulf War, and that eventually expanded to about 160, I think. And the number
of embedded reporters at the beginning of this war was 500 to 600. But the
problems that you see in "The Sand Cafe" in reporting events in the first Gulf
War also carried into the Iraq war. Because the scud attacks and all the
things that could be reported from the hotel become much more important. And
that all happened in real life, of course, in Dharan, because everyone had
access to the scud attacks. And even though they wouldn't change the course
of the war one iota, that was what became the nightly news or the main
headline. And I think with the embedding during the Iraq war, yes, you got
intensive personal stories about what the soldiers were doing, but you--they
tend to be exaggerated slightly. I mean, if we take the Jessica Lynch story,
it's--it was a moving human and obviously news. But events like that sort of
get blown up out of proportion because news organizations devote so many
resources to getting their reporters embedded, and so the focus becomes what's
happening around their reporter, and I think you lose some of the larger
picture.

And certainly in Iraq, while it was a very difficult reporting experience, you
didn't get the sense of any kind of stirring among the Iraqis or any
resistance among the Iraqis to the American presence. And I think that, you
know, the march to Baghdad became this sort of glorious victory which really
had nothing to do in the end with, you know, the terrible, bloody consequences
of toppling that government.

GROSS: Neil, in March of 2005...

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...you wrote that "elections and events in the Middle East, in
Lebanon, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestinian territories, Iraq, have all
combined to give the sense, however tentative, that twilight might be
descending on authoritarian Arab government. A combination of outside
pressure and internal shifts has merged to create this moment. Arabs of a
younger, more savvy generation appear more willing to take their
dissatisfaction directly to the front stoop of repressive leaders." Still feel
that way?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: A little less, I guess. You know, there was a combination
of events there that seemed like it was coming together to really push for
change. But I think a number of events have changed that, first of all, the
continuation of bloodshed in Iraq. And I think one of the things that's
striking about coming back to the United States after so many years in the
Middle East is you can't turn around over there without having some sense
that, you know, there's war in the region, and a big war. You turn on the TV,
and it's the first headline and, you know, people are talking about it in
coffee shops. And, you know, because I'm an American, and I--you can't see
me, but I'm six-foot-four and I have blond hair, so I look like an American,
so I'm accosted on the street about the war when I talk to people. And it's
just part of the everyday vocabulary in a way that it is not here. And I
think that's really kind of soured people on democracy, because the United
States, to a certain extent, sold the war in the region as, you know, this is
going to be the end of despots and force everyone to change.

And there was certainly some initial push toward that. I mean, the fact that
the United States sent its army in there to topple a dictator gave
everyone--or gave all the other leaders in the region pause. But a number of
things have changed that, I mean, because the leaders can point to Iraq and
say, `You want democracy? That's what it is.' And since there's no experience
with democracy in the region, people fear that any change really will descend
into the kind of bloodshed that they see every day.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Neil MacFarquhar.

You were The Times' Cairo bureau chief for five years. In the last election
in Egypt in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an Islamist group, did very
well, and it was the freest election in 50 years. How much power does this
group actually have now?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: Well, there is a parliament in Egypt, it's kind of a rubber
stamp parliament, and most of the power in Egypt lies with President Mubarak.
But in capturing between a fifth and a quarter of seat--there's 444 seats in
parliament, and the Muslim Brothers got almost 100. That gives them a huge
voice to press for change and, you know, to try and embarrass the national
democratic party. And just--it gives them some kind of a stick to poke the
government with, which is one reason, I think, that the government of Hosni
Mubarak has delayed municipal elections, because they're worried about that
growing power and growing visibility of the Muslim Brothers.

GROSS: What does the Muslim Brotherhood want? It slogan is "Islam is the
solution." What's the agenda?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: And that slogan is what gives people pause, because it can
be anything, you know, because the solution for what? And I think when you
talk to people on the street, you know, they just want a sense that someone's
listening, and the Muslim Brotherhood does that very well. I followed one
candidate in a very poor quarter in Alexandria, and people voted for him
because he'd gotten the streets paved, he'd gotten the garbage collected, and
he was seen as uncorrupt. Whereas the government candidate was kind of the
rich businessman who was perfectly nice but, you know, he'd never been in the
neighborhood before. And I think the most telling interview I had was an
engineer came up to me after a rally and he said, you know, `Yes, I'm
religious, and yes, I believe in the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, but I'm
not voting for them because I want another form of despotism, I'm not voting
for them because I want the religious system to replace the system of Hosni
Mubarak, I'm voting for them because I want change and I want a good system.
So that if they turn out to be bums, I'm can throw them out.' And I think
that's the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood is that they are seen as the best
chance for real change. But, of course, it's a gamble, because people are
worried that, you know, in the end that they will seize power and not let real
democracy unfold.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter Neil
MacFarquhar. And he's just written a new satirical novel based on his
experiences covering the Gulf War in 1991, and it's called "The Sand Cafe."

You survived a lot of things in your time as a reporter, but you were nearly
killed on a bicycle in Manhattan in 1997. What happened?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: Well, I, fortunately or unfortunately, don't remember it.
My memory consists of being on my bicycle on Fifth Avenue one minute and the
next being on a stretcher being run through a corridor, just seeing the
florescent lights overhead flash by, but not really knowing where I was. What
basically happened was I was riding my bike down Fifth Avenue, and a bus
driver had an epileptic seizure and fell over the wheel, and the bus kept
going and it knocked me off my bicycle.

GROSS: Wow. What was the damage that was done to you?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: I was in a coma for about 10 days and I was in the hospital
for about four months. I lost a kidney and I lost my left hip, and my--about
20 percent of the nerves in my leg. And I was in a wheelchair for eight
months. And then it took about two years to get off a cane. But, you know,
I--one of my doctors said to me, you know, `You got really banged up, but you
had a bit of luck,' and part of that luck is he hit me on 28th Street and
Fifth Avenue, and First Avenue and 20th Street is the entrance to Bellevue
Emergency Room, so I got to one of the best trauma teams in the country within
half an hour or so, and they basically saved my life.

GROSS: Are you still dealing with a lot of pain?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: It's--you know--I mean, there are certain things I can't
do, long car trips, long airplane rides, things like that. But, you know, I
went to Iraq and I felt comfortable reporting there. I mean, there are limits
to the amount of danger I can face just because the doctor said, `You're
missing too many body parts already to lose anymore.' But, you know, it's all
manageable.

GROSS: How has this changed your sense of what a sensible risk is? Because
again, you know, you've covered war, you've been in really dangerous parts of
the world and you came out unscratched, and then on Fifth Avenue you got
really terribly hurt in an accident, a driver with an epileptic seizure. So
what has that done to your sense of measuring risk in a reasonable way?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: You take less, obviously, because, you know, you know that
the--it's funny because you--when you've been through great pain, you think,
well, you know, it immures you to it, but it doesn't, it makes you much more
hesitant. So knowing what you've been through, it's like, OK, I'm not going
to go through anything that puts me as--into that level of trauma again. At
the same time, also, though, you empathize with people who are going through
trauma much, much more, you know, because when you see the victims of
accidents and you see the victims of bombings and things like that, you know,
when--it just puts your emotions much more closer to the surface. But I think
you get much more level-headed just about assessing what stories you can and
cannot do and there's some, you know--I mean, I think Iraq is an incredibly
interesting story, but I just have to accept the fact that I personally can't
do it.

GROSS: So you became the Cairo bureau chief after recovering from your
injuries?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: Yes.

GROSS: And you felt well enough to go abroad and do that?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: I was fine. I felt like I had enough mobility. I--and I
talked to my surgeons about it and they said, you know, `Just don't put
yourself in a situation where you're going to get a blood infection, because
that will cause you terrible problems with all the metal in you.' And I--you
know, the wonder of e-mail, I would send an e-mail to my doctor, I'd say, you
know, `I'm in Baghdad and there are car bombs going off. What do you think?'
And I'd get back usually cryptic one-liners like, `Perhaps a more stable
environment would be better.'

GROSS: Your new beat for The New York Times, which you're starting right now,
is covering Muslims in North America. This is a weird question, but you speak
Arabic, are you ever, like, in a taxi or at a food stand or someplace in New
York or California where somebody's having, say, like a cell phone call or a
conversation, but they assume you don't understand, but you do understand--as
a reporter covering Muslims in America, do you learn things overhearing
conversations that people don't think you understand?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: I--you know, I haven't done it. I just came back from the
Middle East about six weeks ago, so I haven't really started reporting yet, so
that hasn't happened yet. But it happened in Baghdad a lot, in, like, the
Ministry of Information office and things like that.

GROSS: What did you get overhearing in the Ministry of Information office?

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: You--we were always watched in Baghdad, and there were so
many reporters right before the war--in the week before the war, they brought
in a bunch of new minders, and the head of the press office yelled at one of
the new minders, he was waving a piece of paper at him, and he said, `You call
this a report? You didn't even say who these reporters interviewed! We need
much more about what they did every day.'

GROSS: Great. That must have inspired a lot of confidence.

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: Yeah, it just sort of confirmed what we had always feared,
or knew.

GROSS: Well, Neil MacFarquhar, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MacFARQUHAR: Thank you. Appreciate it.

GROSS: Neil MacFarquhar is a reporter for The New York Times and author of
the new satirical novel "The Sand Cafe," based on his experiences covering the
Gulf War.

Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers tells us about the best crime movie
he's seen in years. It's now out on DVD. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: Film critic John Powers discusses Korean movies
"Memories of Murder" and "The President's Last Bang"
TERRY GROSS, host:

DVDs have enabled us to see movies from some unlikely places. Our
critic-at-large John Powers says that some of the best films he's seen come
from South Korea.

Mr. JOHN POWERS: I often hear people complain that foreign movies just
aren't what they used to be. `Where is the new Truffaut?' they ask, `the new
Fellini?' The short answer is in Asia. And at the moment, the most exciting
place in Asia is South Korea, whose culture is just exploding. Its pop
singers and TV stars are hot from Seoul to Singapore. And its film industry
keeps cranking out vibrant movies ranging from Tarantino-esque thrillers like
the international hit "Old Boy" to refined art films of Hong Song Su, who
dissects Korean machismo in a literary style reminiscent of Eric Roman.

Although it's still hard to see Korean movies in our theaters, many of the
good ones are now available on DVD. And, in fact, two of the very best ones
have just come out. The first is a Korean hit called "Memories of Murder" by
the gifted filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho. Based on a true story, this is the best
crime movie I've seen in several years. It's smart, funny, and unsettling.
The action takes place in a 1980s small town and begins with the discovery of
a woman's corpse. The film's hero, Detective Park, is a cocky, jocular,
weirdly likable cop who sets about solving her murder the old-fashioned way.
This largely involves beating confessions out of anyone he finds suspicious.
But when that doesn't work, he's joined by a smug big city cop who insists
he'll solve the crime scientifically.

The movie's amusing first hour follows these cops as they scour the community,
joking and bickering and brawling. But as more women start to get killed, the
story deepens and takes on moral weight. The detectives get worn down by the
horror of what they're investigating. This is especially true of Detective
Park, brilliantly played by Song Kang-ho, who emerges as a frivolous man
sobered by the experience of dealing with terrible things that may just be
inexplicable. And as in a Hollywood crime film like, say, "Chinatown," we
gradually grasp that we're actually being shown a portrait of a whole society.
We see Korean culture during the '80s dictatorship with its quiet complicities
and repression. There aren't enough police officers pursuing the killer
because so many are being used to clamp down on protests against the military
dictatorship.

Korea's dictatorial past is also the theme of "The President's Last Bang,"
which is based on an even stranger true story. On October 26th, 1979, South
Korean's president/dictator, Park Chung-Hee, was gunned down by the head of
the Korean CIA during one of the president's notorious boozing and womanizing
sessions at his mansion. The killer claimed he was striking a blown against
the dictatorship. Now, this was shocking stuff. I mean, just imagine Richard
Nixon being shot down by J. Edgar Hoover in an orgy. And what filmmaker Im
Sang-soo has done with this event inspired controversy with its irreverent
subversiveness. Rather than treat the assassination with the customary
docudrama blandness, he's turned the whole episode into jet-black comedy.
It's like remaking Oliver Stone's "JFK" in the style of "Dr. Strangelove."

In capturing the events of one murderous night, filmmaker Im conjures up a
corrupt ruling order populated by self-loathing bureaucrats, good-time gals,
cynical secret servicemen, small-time fall guys, and politicians who philander
as if every woman is their last. In the process, "The President's Last Bang"
shows how big events actually happened in all their sad, funny, messy energy.

This isn't the clockwork Hollywood hocum of "Syriana," where George Clooney
arrives in the desert precisely in time to get zapped by a missile. Instead,
the movie treats Park's assassination as a stew of self-promotion,
cross-purposes, lousy communications, highfalutin ideals, and people dashing
off the toilet for bouts of nervous diarrhea.

By treating the assassination as a grandiose farce, Im captures the profound
truth often left out of the textbooks: History isn't neat. But it is
important to everyone, and part of what makes "Memories of Murder" and "The
President's Last Bang" so memorable is that they're so accessible and
entertaining. And these movies are not alone, one reason Korean film culture
is so alive is that so many of its best filmmakers grapple with big issues in
commercial movies aimed at the mass audience, just as Hollywood famously did
back in the '70s heyday of "Easy Riders" and "Raging Bulls." In fact, watching
these two Korean movies be smart, politically-savvy, and fun to watch, you may
find yourself complaining yet again that American movies just aren't what they
used to be.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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