DATE March 24, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Meg Wolitzer on her new novel, "The Ten-Year Nap," and
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Meg Wolitzer has written a new novel called "The Ten-Year Nap" about
highly educated working women who have given up their careers to stay home and
raise their children. The main character, Amy, left her job as a corporate
lawyer to have a baby. She planned to return after a brief maternity leave;
but when the novel opens, 10 years later, she's still home raising her son.
As Wolitzer writes, "unlike in the past, there were no presentations to give
to colleagues. There were no colleagues."
Amy and her three good friends have different degrees of ambivalence about
their decisions to leave work for motherhood. The novel follows how leaving
the working world has affected their identities and their marriages. Wolitzer
is also the author of "The Wife," "The Position" and "Surrender, Dorothy."
Meg Wolitzer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading
from your new novel, "The Ten-Year Nap." Would you introduce it for us?
Ms. MEG WOLITZER: Sure. This is sort of toward the beginning of the novel;
and one of my characters is named Amy Lamb, and she is a stay-at-home mother
now who left being a lawyer years ago, and her son is now 10 years old. Hence
the "ten years" of the title. And this is sort of about her day, and it's
just a little bit of the kind of interior life of being a mother, someone who
has left the work force and is spending her day as a stay-at-home mother.
"There were empty segments of time in the day, and Amy had become highly aware
of them. She'd only infrequently regretted being at home with Mason when he
was little. There had been boring times and maddening times, but there were
moments when he wanted only her, and there were also sudden bursts of the
extraordinary. There was always so much to do. There were lists and plans
and schedules that were essential to a well-run household and that were still
laughably, almost hysterically, tedious. You, the brainy, restless female
were the one who had to keep your family life rolling forward like a tank.
You, of all people, were in charge of snacks. Your hands tore apart the
cellophane on six-packs of juice boxes while your head, cocked to hold a
cordless phone into which you spoke the words, "Maureen? Hi, it's Mason
Buckner's mom. I'm calling to set up a play date with Jarrod?" You had to say
"play date," that nonword that had so easily been welcomed into the lexicon.
And you had to say it without irony."
"Certainly you can also focus the thick, keen lens of your intellect on the
greater world if you wanted. You could anguish over the war that ground on
far away on another continent, and Amy did dwell on it periodically,
hopelessly during the day. But you would have to do this on your own time,
between plans. You were the gatekeeper and nerve center, and the pulsing,
chugging heart of your family, the one whom everyone came to and needed things
from. You were the one who had to coax that unconscious child from his bed
day upon day."
GROSS: That's Meg Wolitzer reading from her new novel, "The Ten-Year Nap."
Meg, did you find the play date era more difficult than the baby and toddler
Ms. WOLITZER: Yes, definitely. I can't say words like "play date" and
"juice box" without feeling that they're somehow a corruption of language, and
yet they have been absorbed into the vocabulary of motherhood. But it was
hard for me to make that leap and to not feel that everything had little quote
marks around it and that I was being ironic.
GROSS: And why was it harder?
Ms. WOLITZER: I'm not sure. You know, when I became a mother, I didn't know
what I would feel about motherhood. I thought that there would always be a
kind of winking irony in everything I did, and there wasn't always. Some
things don't require irony. Sometimes I even found myself irritated at the
way in which certain kids' TV shows, baby TV shows, needed to put in something
for the parents to relate to, some cultural reference from the, you know, the
baby boomer era. Some things are just for the kids, and some things are
without irony. And a lot of stuff in early childhood is. I found myself, as
a young mother, overwhelmed by that. I wanted the irony. I thought that, you
know, maybe motherhood and hanging out in a play group could be kind of like
Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin roundtable, but with baby bumpers on the
edges of the roundtable. It wasn't always like that.
But after awhile, I mean, there's great profundity and great beauty in
spending time with young children. I think it's been mocked a lot in the
GROSS: Why did you want to write a novel about women who've given up, at
least for now, their careers to have children?
Ms. WOLITZER: Because it was something that I saw that hadn't seen before.
I grew up thinking that everyone would find their passion, everyone would find
the job that they loved. I did. But it hadn't really occurred to me that,
for a lot of people, work is work, and it isn't the great deep and abiding
pleasure and passion that it turned out to be for me. I knew women who'd gone
to law school, for sort of lack of other ideas, because they were verbal and
really smart and didn't know quite what to do with their lives. And some of
them who ended up in corporate jobs didn't like them so much. And then when
it came time to go back after they'd had their kids, they were resistant to
it. They weren't sure what they were going back to. They were going back
sometimes to a corporate world that didn't love them or need them or want them
in the way that, in some senses, their children did.
And I started seeing these women and liking them. I met them through my kids'
school when they were young. They were all smart and educated. They had
been--they were feminists. They were interested in the world, but they didn't
quite know what to do. And I thought, I hadn't seen this done in fiction.
There were various books about, you know, what happens if women work, what
happens if women don't work, that used statistics, that made a point, that
could be polemics. And I thought, what if I just kind of showed what it was
like. What if I set for myself the idea of having every main character not
have a job.
GROSS: Now, your main character, Amy, when she leaves her law firm after she
starts her maternity leave, she says, you know, `Don't move anything on my
desk. I'm going to be back after 12 weeks.' And then 12 weeks are up and she
realizes she can't. She can't leave her baby, at least not yet. Why does she
feel she can't go back to work?
Ms. WOLITZER: You know, I have a little passage about this. Could I
possibly read from it?
GROSS: Please, yeah. Mm-hmm.
Ms. WOLITZER: It may take me a second to find it. OK.
"But 12 weeks proved to be nothing; and when the time was up, it was as though
an alarm had suddenly gone off, sending electronic doves cooing, chickens
squawking and horses galloping. The entire rotation of animals in a clamor as
if there were a fire in a barn, and yet she could just not get up."
"She could not leave the apartment, that crazy land of strewn burp rags and
un-ironed miniature outfits and gifts of rattles and soft pillow books that
still lay with the detritus of their wrapping paper all around them. The
garbage overflowed. The baby confused day with night, and anyone in her right
mind would've wanted to run from that place and return to the sharp corners
and fragrant tang of the office climate, with its industrial carpet and
stuttering fluorescent lights that forced you awake in the morning, like a
flask of ammonia passed under the nose. But a new mother was not in her right
"Something overcame her, and her entire purpose was to save that baby, as
though she was a superhero flying with arms outstretched through the
metropolitan sky. Even a quick trip to the Korean market for yogurt and juice
was interminable, and Amy ran the three short blocks back to the building.
She could not leave Mason yet; she loved him too much for that. But neither
could she turn him over to some woman from Jamaica or Guyana or Mount Olympus.
She could not turn him over to the kindest, softest woman in the world. Even
a gigantic gelatinous floating human breast would not be good enough."
GROSS: Did you write that paragraph out of your own feelings, feelings that
surprised you about your inability to leave your baby for more than a few
Ms. WOLITZER: Yes, I did. How could you tell? I really did. I think
something chemical happened, and there was a sense that, you know, I was
needed. And even when milk had been expressed and everything was taken care
of and someone says, `Now you go off and relax. You go see some trashy Brad
Pitt movie, we'll be fine here for a couple of hours.' And I did this. I
remember sweating, sitting away from my infant and feeling a certain kind of
dread that something would go wrong because I wasn't there.
And there is a funny narcissism to that idea, that you have to be the one
there, that your husband is this kind of Fred Flinstone character who couldn't
really do anything right and, you know, is `Duh," and you come in as this
absolute superwoman and, you know, sort of take over everything. And of
course it's not true, but I think some of it is really chemical.
GROSS: You know, you also write about how it changes Amy's marriage once the
baby's born and she's staying home to take care of the baby. You know, she
and her husband met at the law firm, they both worked there. They were the
couple having the office flirtation, then the couple in love and then the
young newlyweds at the office. And he's still there and she's not. And so
this happens with a lot of couples, that the thing that brought them together,
their work, is no longer something they share once a child is born and the
woman leaves work, at least temporarily.
Ms. WOLITZER: Yeah, I felt that this was something that I'd seen and heard
about quite a bit. I have a reference in the novel to another character who
supposedly finds out that her husband takes Ritalin every day so that he can
bear to listen when his wife talks to him about her day, that the idea that
people's lives are boring to each other if they don't overlap. I don't know
that that's true. You know, it's sort of like that thing that happens--at any
rate, it happens in New York quite a bit, where you go to a party and someone
says `What do you do?' And that's by way of introduction. And if the answer
isn't something interesting to them, you can see the eye roll and the head
sort of swivel away if you say, `I stay at home.' And I could see something
like that happening within a marriage, in which work that was once a passion
for both people in a marriage now is not something they share; and it creates,
sometimes, a fissure between them.
GROSS: My guest is Meg Wolitzer. She's the author of several novels,
including "The Position," "The Wife," "Surrender, Dorothy." Her new novel is
called "The Ten-Year Nap" and is about four women who leave their careers to
stay home and raise their children.
Now, the main character, Amy, her mother became a feminist and started writing
women's novel, novels that addressed women's issues, and this was after the
children were born that she became a writer. And the mother expected the
children--that, you know, her daughters' lives would be different from hers.
She considers her daughters the post-speculum generation. What does she mean
Ms. WOLITZER: Yeah, I was going to say, out of context. The speculum
reference is about a consciousness-raising group in Canada when Amy was
growing up. And her mother had a group of local friends over, and they
invited an educator from Toronto to come in with her black bag, which
contained a speculum. And she did a self-exam so that the women could see
their internal parts. And for Amy's mother, this was the beginning of a sort
of awakening toward the possibilities of her life, metaphorically very much,
because there's also just the uncomfortable factor of it as well, the kind
of--I mean, I'm somewhat jabbing a little bit at that era, and at the sort of
"our bodies, our selves" era. I did in fact have a class in college that was
women only, and someone came in and did a self-exam. And, you know, this was
the '70s, as you might guess, and I remember my face heating up; but I also
remember thinking, `Wow, there's something about being a woman at this point
in time, and what will I do with my life?' And it was all connected to things.
I think that one thing that can happen when you stay home with your children
is that you get to know other women, and there's this kind of collegiality
that can take place that you had maybe in college, a sort of joking around
quality with other women, the day is yours, you're not disappearing into an
But Amy's mother really wants her daughter, imagines her daughter will be a
world beater, will sort of rule the world. And that didn't happen for
everybody. The notion of having it all is some kind of magazine article idea;
but somebody said once to me that, you know, well, you could have a lot or
most of it. And I think that's a pretty good way to see it.
GROSS: Meg, you have two sons.
Ms. WOLITZER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And Amy, your main character, has a son who's 10 years old, and she's
given the advice by a well-meaning person; and the advice is, `The thing you
have to understand about boys is that sometimes they're simple. All they need
is to be run like dogs.' And at first she thinks, like, what a horrible thing
to say about boys. But then something happens to her that makes her think,
well, there's some truth in this. Describe the story that happens to her.
Ms. WOLITZER: She sends her son to a boys' school. And I wanted to have a
little fun with that idea of sort of boys together, which I fear in the book
if, you know, boys in large groups could almost become "Lord of the Flies."
You know, her son is not exactly like her, and I think that there is something
in that, the sort of insult of the idea that your child is not just a little
version of you. And mothers of sons do have to face that.
I was saying to somebody yesterday that I feel like my children practically
came out saying `vroom, vroom,' and that certainly did not come from me. I
had a fantasy that of course I would have a daughter, because I grew up with a
very strong mother and with a sister. So in that sense, it felt like a
matriarchy. That, with my children they would, you know, read "The Secret
Garden" with me in my lap. Now, they did, but, you know, I had to hold them
down with a safety belt and dress them in frocks. No, I mean, I think that,
if you're a woman who has a son, it's easier to see that this is a different
person from you, and Amy has to sort of learn about this.
I was curious, in the book, about what the boys think of these women who
devote themselves to the children. Will the boys think this is what women
will always do? But I didn't really reach a conclusion. I mean, I think that
that would be too simplistic to say that that's the way the boys see it.
But the older group, the mothers--you know, it's about these women, there's
all mothers--and then the younger ones are pretty much all boys. There's a
significant girl character in the book. But they are boys, and I think that
in certain ways the mothers are envious of the boys' freedom from constraint,
the wildness that the mothers sort of allow them. I heard somebody say that,
that boys need to be run like animals, run like dogs. But weirdly, there was
some pride in that, this sort of strange pride that mothers sometimes take in
the gender of their kids.
GROSS: You know, you say that you were given that advice, that sometimes a
boy has to be run like a dog. There's a story that comes with that in the
novel, and I was wondering if this happened to you, too, where, you know, Amy,
the mother, is at the Y with his son where he's been swimming, and so as she's
changing back into her clothes, he like runs out the door into the street and
she's like, `Oh my God, like he's running into the world and God knows what's
going to happen to him.' She's naked. So she takes a towel, wraps it around
her and charges out after him.
Ms. WOLITZER: That complete...
GROSS: That happen to you?
Ms. WOLITZER: It completely happened to me. This is like--I don't like to
write autobiographically, I really don't. None of my friends ever has to
worry that they'll appear in a book. There's nothing like that. It would be
too boring to do that. Except, I can pick and choose from little things that
have happened to me. This did happen. I took my son Gabriel to a swimming
class; and he, at this point, was the one who kind of ran off everywhere. And
we were getting changed after it and in fact he did run out into the lobby.
And the towels that they had at the time were like the size of a Kleenex; and
I had to make a decision, `What do I cover, you know, my breasts or below?'
And I didn't know what to do. And, you know, I decided, and I covered my top
and ran out into this lobby full of like old men and walkers, and, you know,
people waiting for their folk dance class. It was just the worst situation, a
brightly lit lobby, as my son almost went into the elevator in this urban
building to never be seen again. And I grabbed him, but it was a horrible
moment for me, the naked woman in the lobby.
But afterward, I had a conversation with my friends, and we went around the
room asking--and I put this in the book--`What would you have covered?' And,
you know, one would say the top, one would say the bottom, and the only good
answer a friend said was, `I would've covered my face.' And I put that in the
book; and of course, that's the right answer.
GROSS: So what did you say to your son when--how old was your son? How
comprehensive of language was he?
Ms. WOLITZER: Too young to be traumatized. He was probably three. You
know, I think those are moments that're horrible. They're not--to get back to
the idea of irony in motherhood, they're not ironic at the moment, they're
just horrible. And yet later, they are because those are the moments that you
remember that make up the sort of chain of events that was your son's
childhood that you'll never forget, that you can laugh about later, that
seemed horrible at the time, but then in fact, say something about you and
your nervousness and your pleasure and your time with him and the closeness
that you had, I mean, I loved spending time with him. My children are too old
to be read to now, which makes me quite sad; but when I think about happiness,
I often think about the moments of quiet and sitting together reading.
GROSS: You have a paragraph in your new novel about Amy's son; and, you know,
she talks about how when her son was a baby, his body belonged to her. And
when she would diaper him, you know, every bit of his body was just kind of
Ms. WOLITZER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And, you know, but when he got older, there was a part of his body
that she couldn't, you know, his private parts were completely off limits to
her. She didn't even know what they looked like anymore.
Ms. WOLITZER: Right.
GROSS: And it would be inappropriate for her to know. And just the sense of
loss that she has. I mean, she knows why he can't physically be hers anymore,
but it makes him kind of out of reach in a way that she feels unprepared for.
It's a loss.
Ms. WOLITZER: It's a real loss. I feel that very much in my life. The loss
of closeness. I mean, the whole thing about having a baby is that it's kind
of like a living Mary Cassatt painting. You are with this baby, you know, you
don't know where one flesh begins and one ends. They need you; you need them.
It's symbiotic. It's all, you know, fleshy and earthy and so wonderful--if
you like that kind of thing, which I do.
And as they get older, there are little bits of independence. Some of them
are symbolic--the first time they do this, the first time they do that--but
for a while, I think you think of it only in a good way. You're proud, but
you're still proud in a kind of ownership way. But the way in which
everything the child does is a reflection of you, that starts to happen less
and less, and their physical bodies become less yours. And particularly with
a boy, you know, I remember the first time my younger son Charlie sort of
said, you know, `Go away' or `close the door.' Wow. And I felt uncomfortable
with it, but it was right, of course.
But there's a real loss because it's the loss of the thing you thought was
yours. And of course, it isn't yours, and every mother knows this eventually.
GROSS: You know, one of the things, one of the issues that comes up in the
novel is the affair.
Ms. WOLITZER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And without getting into the plot here, I'm just curious about some of
the things that you thought about when you were writing about an affair in the
novel. Did you have certain insights into its pleasures and hazards?
Ms. WOLITZER: I thought writing about an affair would be an interesting
thing to do in the context of a group of women who aren't working and don't
have a sort of engine to their day except the engine that they want to create.
What happens when a woman in their midst, not one of their close friends, has
an affair that one of them learns about? I felt that this character, Penny,
who has the affair, was not so much of a full character as these other women
as a kind of figure that these women had a transference toward. She was the
one who seemed to have everything. She was the one who seemed to have the
kind of job that I described earlier, you know, you make a character have in a
book and then you're supposed to be impressed by. She runs a small museum.
She's very beautiful, she's very smart, she's well educated and, as it turns
out, she's having an affair with a young kind of good looking English guy.
This would be something that I think these women would all sort of perk up at.
I once had lunch with a group of friends--and this was years ago--and I sort
of said, `I'm taking a survey. What do you want to read about in a novel?'
You know, this was a very unscientific survey. And right away, at the same
time, like one and then another said, you know, `Someone having an affair.'
That maybe that there--I think that the affair is just sort of a stand-in for
the idea of something new and exciting. In the middle of your life, there is
a sadness and a recognition that, you know, you've created a lot of what will
be. Your children now are sort of who they are. They will change, their
lives will go through transformations, but you've done your main work. Your
marriage is kind of what it is. But an affair is something new. It's almost
like having a baby. It's this new, exciting thing that could go in any
direction, and it's about possibilities. But better yet is that it's not your
affair, it's someone else's. So then you can kind of follow it like a soap
opera. That's why I really wanted to put it in the book.
GROSS: The main character, Amy, her mother, who became a feminist in the
'70s, thought that her daughters would do important things with their lives.
And Amy has given up her law career, which she never felt particularly
passionate about, to be home raising her son.
Ms. WOLITZER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Do you, the author, think that it's any less important to be home
raising your child than it is to be out in the world having a, quote,
Ms. WOLITZER: No. I think that I--as I have one of my characters say,
because it's something that I realized--that, you know, work doesn't make you
interesting. You know, interesting work can make you interesting, and really
I come down on the side of purpose. I think that a sense of purpose is what
matters most to one's life to sort of get you through it. You know, when I
started writing this, I thought, `I don't know where I stand on working vs.
not working.' I mean, `Who am I to really say you should work?' There are
various legal concerns and monetary concerns; but putting that aside, because
that's for the nonfiction books, really, who am I to say that one kind of life
is better than another? Because, you know, if you feel that it is, then that
would mean that sitting next to the guy who works in equities or marketing at
Revlon is always going to be a more interesting evening than sitting next to
the woman who's home with her children. And it's really about people, it's
not necessarily about what they do. If you don't love your work, you won't
speak about it with passion.
No, I mean, I actually, I wanted to set up the dichotomy not really being
between staying at home with your children vs. work, because that's been done
a lot before; but I wanted to sort of set it up between what happens when the
children are older and don't need you as much, so you're not really home with
them. You may be home, but not with them. They're in school full-time by the
time, you know, when this book takes place. The kids are in school full-time,
and now is the moment when these women are going to think about their lives
and decide what to do.
And I am not--as the writer of the book, if I'm judgmental, if I have an
agenda, if it's a polemic, then it doesn't feel like a good novel to me.
That's not the role of the novelist.
GROSS: Well, Meg Wolitzer, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you
Ms. WOLITZER: Oh, thanks, too.
GROSS: Meg Wolitzer's new novel is called "The Ten-Year Nap."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Michael Kirk, producer of the new PBS "Frontline"
documentary "Bush's War"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Just a few days after last week's fifth anniversary of the invasion of the
Iraq, the coalition military death toll reached 4,000. The war has divided
America. The invasion and the occupation also divided the Bush
administration, and that's the subject of "Bush's War," the new two-part PBS
"Frontline" documentary that airs tonight and tomorrow night. My guest is the
producer, Michael Kirk. He's produced several "Frontline" documentaries about
the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, including "The Lost Year in
Iraq," "Rumsfeld's War," "The Dark Side" and "Gunning for Saddam." The new
documentary, "Bush's War," includes material from previous "Frontline"
editions, as well as new interviews.
The documentary is titled "Bush's War," but in a way, Bush isn't even one of
the main characters in the documentary. The main characters are more like
Cheney and Rumsfeld and Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Tenet. Do you really see
it as Bush's war? Do you see it as other people's war and Bush goes along for
Mr. MICHAEL KIRK: Certainly. You know, as we were making all of these
films, we kept saying to ourselves, and people would often say to us when they
saw one of the films, `Where's the president?' And in a way, he wasn't really
engaged. Everybody we've talked to about this says, until the spring, really,
of 2006, the president was a much more passive player in the war in Iraq than
many people would believe or expect. But he is, after all, the president, and
so he does, you know, in lots of ways he dictated fine points or fine-grained
parts of the decisions, and he was also the object of everyone's attention.
They, you know, were battling for access to him. Not so much because of
whatever he would decide, but because it gave them a leg up on their opponent.
If you're Rumsfeld, you want to have implied to Powell that you've been seeing
a lot more of the president than he has, for example.
GROSS: Now, your documentary shows that right from the start, there was
conflict between Tenet and his CIA and Rumsfeld and his Defense Department
over who was running the show. What was the first conflict between them after
Mr. KIRK: Well, it became fairly clear that the Defense Department was not
in any way prepared. There were no plans, for example, to go to war in
Afghanistan. It is a place that all militaries around the world, especially
the United States military, remember as the place that took the Soviet Union
down. Nobody wanted to think very seriously about ever going anywhere near
Afghanistan. But the CIA had a plan. They had an ongoing kind of idea about
a way to take places like Afghanistan if ever there were the war on terror
that they kept believing was going to eventuate.
So from the very beginning, the first argument, the first instance of the
first argument is between the big heavy military and Rumsfeld within the
Defense Department, and Rumsfeld and George Tenet. In other words, the
Central Intelligence agency wanted small, light, nimble attack forces that
they would go in and do things covertly. The heavy United States military,
the Army, especially, said, `No, no, no, it's going to take seven months and
hundreds of thousands of people, and we want to do a strategic bombing, etc.,
etc., etc., the usual game plan.' And Rumsfeld himself, who was, as secretary
of defense, and in an ongoing battle with the military to transform the way
they fought, wanted something in between what the CIA had and the military
So there were really three forces at bay in those early days about what to do
about Afghanistan, and the CIA eventually won.
GROSS: So the CIA goes in first. And the way you describe it in the
documentary "Bush's War," the CIA does its covert work in Afghanistan, and
then it's ready for the military to come in, but the military doesn't come in
yet. The CIA waits for nearly a month for the military to come in. Why?
Mr. KIRK: Well, you know, the way that everybody tells us the story,
Rumsfeld was very upset about the fact that he was going to have to follow the
lead of the Central Intelligence Agency, of all places, that he would have to
be secondary to George Tenet, of all people; and that essentially what
Rumsfeld did was hold everything kind of in the background while the CIA
waited for him to come forward with the troops, the special forces that would
be necessary to execute the phase of the CIA's plan that would swing the
northern alliance into action against the Taliban. They waited for 30 days up
in the valleys, some of the CIA agents, waiting for Rumsfeld to come in to
order his guys to come in; and it isn't until a National Security Council
meeting that Richard Armitage, in our film, talks about, in the first person,
where he says to the president, `I think things are FUBAR.' The president is
wondering, `Why isn't anything happening in Afghanistan?' If you'll recall,
the press was reporting "quagmire." In the end, of course, the president
chooses Don Rumsfeld to be in charge; and as soon as he gives Rumsfeld the
lead, the forces begin to arrive, and Kabul falls three days later.
GROSS: So what did we lose? Did we lose something during that period when
the military wasn't going in, and the way you describe it, it's as if Rumsfeld
was holding them up until he got control, until he was given the power.
Mr. KIRK: It may not be so much that we lost anything. It's the potential
for what could've happened. And of course, who knows how different the war on
terror would be if the CIA had been given their head to lead what is an
asymmetrical war, after all. I know they believe, when you talk to Central
Intelligence Agency officers at the highest level, they all believe that they
were ready to fight kind of across the board, across the map, 80 different
countries, all kinds of efforts that they were ready to go with, and
especially once they'd been given the legal authority to go to the dark side.
They really believed that they could eradicate or at least go after and
seriously diminish al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that they were
watching for. The nature of the conflict, of course, would change
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Kirk; and he's produced
many "Frontline" documentaries on the war in Iraq, and his latest is a
two-part program called "Bush's War," that airs tonight and tomorrow night on
most public television stations.
Now, this documentary goes over a lot of the conflicts in the Bush
administration, and it goes into how Colin Powell, who was then secretary of
state, was shut out of some of the major decision making. For instance, he
was shut out on the decisions to set up military tribunals, to dispense with
the Geneva Conventions, to do, you know, extreme interrogation techniques.
Why was he shut out, and who shut him out?
Mr. KIRK: I think it's pretty clear in the film. We kind of went back in
history a little bit to figure out what was at the heart of the disagreement
between Rumsfeld, primarily, and Colin Powell. As you know, the State
Department and the Defense Department, across many administrations, have
always been slightly at odds. But this is unusual, and this is also personal
in the sense that the two individuals, Rumsfeld and Powell, don't really seem
to like each other. And the vice president, who's had a long-standing,
obviously, relationship, a 40-year political friendship and alliance with Don
Rumsfeld, also doesn't seem to like Powell very much.
We date the actual moment when it happens as the very first day of the Bush
administration back in December after the Florida decision had been handed
down by the Supreme Court, and the president of the United States names Colin
Powell, in a kind of healing gesture, as secretary of state. Powell gives a
very expansive press conference. In that press conference, he kind of veers,
as former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, kind of veers between
military and diplomatic; and it seems like what he's--it appears to certainly
the vice president and other conservative supporters of the president that
really what this moderate Colin Powell is doing is acting like both secretary
of defense and secretary of state. And, of course, they can't brook that, and
Don Rumsfeld is brought on to be the sort of anti-Powell force inside the
administration, and he becomes that. And they go at it for nine months, in
the months right before 9/11. And of course after 9/11, their world views
become very apparent, and all the things that follow for Colin Powell and Don
GROSS: Well, Condoleezza Rice was shut out of a lot of decision making, too,
when she was the national security adviser. And Elisabeth Bumiller, in your
documentary, who's a New York Times reporter who wrote a recent book about
Condoleezza Rice, tells an incredible story about the extremes that Rice
sometimes had to go through to get information. Would you tell the story she
Mr. KIRK: Yes. It's completely astonishing when you think about it, that
the national security adviser of the United States, and a person who had a
personal friendship with the president of the United States, actually had so
little power in the run-up to the war, partly because she was surrounded by
what one person in our film calls "the elephants in the room," very big,
powerful men like Colin Powell and Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Rumsfeld treated
her, Elisabeth says in the film, like a graduate student, a Russian studies
graduate student. He was very secretive anyway, always holding very close all
of the information about troop plans and ideas for how they were going to do
what they were going to do in Iraq. But she felt, by necessity, that she
needed to know some things. But Rumsfeld rarely spoke directly to her in most
meetings, and she couldn't gather the information.
So what Elisabeth Bumiller tells us is that what Condoleezza Rice--the
national security adviser of the United States of America and a close,
personal friend of the president--had to do to get troop information from the
secretary of defense, was one of the members of the National Security Council
staff would put on a military uniform and go over to the Pentagon and access
information based in their role as a military member, not as a member of
Rice's staff. That, I think, to almost anybody who hears it and know how the
inner circle works finds it just astonishing that such a thing would
GROSS: My guest is Michael Kirk, and he's produced many "Frontline"
documentaries on the war in Iraq, and his latest, "Bush's War," is a two-part
program that airs tonight and tomorrow night on most PBS stations.
The documentary looks at a lot of conflicts within the Bush administration,
and the lead-up to the war and after regime change in Iraq. It also looks at
some of the conflicts between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.
And you have a new interview in there with the man who was then the ambassador
from England to the United States, and he tells you an interesting story about
the deal between President Bush and Tony Blair. Would you tell what that deal
Mr. KIRK: Yes. Right after 9/11, literally the day after 9/11, in England,
you know, Tony Blair doesn't know George Bush very well, certainly is uneasy
about what might happen. They're afraid, as Ambassador Meyer tell us, they're
afraid of some cowboy action by the unknown and freshly-minted American
president, that maybe he has a hair trigger, that maybe something untoward
will happen in the Middle East or somewhere else, maybe even in a European
capital. They don't really know what he's going to do.
And so Blair's task from the onset is to get to the new president and find out
is he--and be assured by the new president, you know, that America will move
carefully in the direction of al-Qaeda and no place else. He talks to the
president, and is assured that everything will be all right. He comes to
Washington, worried because there have been noises from almost the very
beginning that America is aiming for Iraq ultimately. He's worried about
that, Blair. He comes to Bush and says, `I'm really worried about this.' The
president assures him that Afghanistan and the Taliban and al-Qaeda are job
one for the United States, and anything that follows in the future has still
not been decided. It makes Blair feel pretty sure that everything's going to
But Blair is very, very interested, throughout this time, in making sure that
the United States goes to the United Nations and cuts the rest of the world,
and especially Europe, into the decision, that Blair's an ally of Secretary of
State Powell's. And they're very interested in making sure that a broad-based
coalition supports any effort that happens in the war on terror. And the
president assures him that, in the end, that he will go to the United Nations
and seek a resolution. But in return, he wants Blair to promise him that if
the United States exhausts the process at the United Nations, he, Blair, will
support them if they decide to go to war, no matter what. And Blair,
realizing the implications of this, I think, still agrees to do it. And in
the end, according to Chris Meyer, his ambassador, and others in his
government, gives away Britain's leverage at exactly that moment, much to
GROSS: You've done so many investigations into the war in Iraq, what happened
behind the scenes. What do you still want to know?
Mr. KIRK: Oh, that's a great question. I want to know why and how a group
of people working together, maybe even with really good intentions, found
themselves not wanting to know, not wanting to brook any outside opinion. How
is that you can function at such a high and important level and want to
exclude all the forces that are designed and built into the system to act as a
break on policymakers who want to go forward based on information and
intelligence but shouldn't. How did that happen?
And the second level is, how personality, just how those personalities could
so impact policy. What is it about the dynamic between, as I call them, these
big Shakespearean characters, has taken place that caused them to go the way
they went here and there?
And finally, why didn't Colin Powell resign? Why didn't George Tenet resign?
GROSS: In protest, you mean? Resign in protest instead of being pushed out?
Mr. KIRK: Yes. Yes. Exactly. At the moment that, if they really felt as
strongly as their surrogates tell us they felt, why didn't they go when they
could've had an impact on closing something down? That is always fascinating
to me about policymakers.
GROSS: Do you ever wonder if President Bush ever has, ever has second
thoughts about the war?
Mr. KIRK: It is a question I ask everybody who knows him fairly well, and
the people who've been in meetings with him; and they always say that he's a
man who makes up his mind fairly quickly, and when he does he thinks it's
wrong to change it, that it somehow shows a kind of weakness. And that is
fascinating to me, because it means that--I think there's a kind of certainty
there that seems to be part of the hard wiring of the president that has
manifest itself in what has happened in Iraq and the Middle East.
GROSS: Michael Kirk, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KIRK: You're welcome, Terry.
GROSS: Michael Kirk produced the two-part "Frontline" documentary "Bush's
War." It airs tonight and tomorrow night.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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