DATE March 2, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Eyal Press discusses new book "Absolute
Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As the son of an abortion provider who has been the target of protests and
death threats, my guest Eyal Press is a close observer of the abortion wars.
Press is a journalist who is a regular contributor to the Nation. He tries to
understand both sides in his new book "Absolute Convictions: My Father, A
City, and the Conflict that Divided America." The city is Buffalo, New York,
where Press' family moved from Israel in 1973, just a few weeks after the
Supreme Court legalized abortion. Press' father is an obstetrician and
gynecologist who performs abortions as part of his practice. You may remember
that another abortion provider in Buffalo was murdered by an anti-abortion
extremist in 1998. That doctor, Barnett Slepian, was a friend and colleague
of Press' father. In fact, Slepian used to fill in for Press' father,
delivering his patients' babies every third weekend of the month. I asked
Eyal Press to describe how Dr. Slepian was murdered.
Mr. EYAL PRESS: Well, Dr. Slepian, it was a Friday night. He attended a
memorial service commemorating the death of his father. He went to temple.
He came home that night with his wife, Lynne. His four boys were at home.
And Dr. Slepian was standing in his kitchen. He had just put a bowl of split
pea soup in the microwave oven. And, suddenly, there was a pop. And he
turned to his wife and said, `Lynn, I think they shot me.' And then he
collapsed to the floor in a pool of blood and was pronounced dead shortly
GROSS: And what was his relationship to your father?
Mr. PRESS: He was a colleague, a professional colleague. Buffalo is a city
where the community of ob/gyns is small enough that people know one anther.
And by the '90s, they had been covering for each other on weekends doing
deliveries. And that's an interesting thing in that both my father and
Barnett Slepian were targeted by protesters for years because they performed
abortions. Both of them also had regular gynecological practices, and my
father--when I was growing up--what I knew him to be doing and his profession
was delivering babies, because that's why he always left and, you know, why he
was always gone for the weekend and so forth. So it was a professional
connection and a collegial one. And then, of course, they had a bond in that
they both found themselves embroiled in the middle of the very fierce protests
that broke out in Buffalo starting in the late 1980s.
GROSS: How did your family find out that Dr. Slepian had been murdered?
Mr. PRESS: They found out when an officer from--actually it was--the very
first thing was a phone call from someone who worked at my father's office
telling him that she had seen the news and that Dr. Slepian had been shot.
When my father first heard it, he in certain disbelief thought she was joking.
And he couldn't quite let it sink in. Then the doorbell rang. There was an
officer from the Amherst police there. And, of course, he was there for two
reasons, both to tell them what had happened and also to make sure that they
pull down the blinds and that they were very careful that there wouldn't be
two attacks that night. And so after that, they, you know, still in a sort of
state of shock, made their way to the hospital. And by the time they got
there, Dr. Slepian had been pronounced dead.
GROSS: When Dr. Slepian was murdered, did you father think, `I better stop
performing abortions myself. This is just too dangerous.'
Mr. PRESS: Well, others thought that. You know, we--I found out about the
murder the morning after and, like my parents, sort of just felt just the
shock, this kind of surreal feeling. And I flew to Buffalo a couple of days
later. And during this period, we had lots of friends and colleagues and
people who knew us calling and saying, `Look, this has just reached a point
where you have to stop.' My mother, who had always supported what my father
did, never waivering, she felt he should stop. And I, very reluctantly,
grappling with what it would mean to actually tell my father to do something
he probably believed was wrong, also felt that his safety was the most
important thing to me right then. But I both wanted this and knew that very
likely, because of who my father is, the murder would not have that effect.
And indeed it didn't.
My father came to Buffalo from Israel. That's where he grew up and was
raised. And he was--ingrained in him was a very strong belief that people
should do what they believe is right, regardless of the risks and the
sacrifices that that entails, particularly in the face of a threat. And, you
know, that's obviously a very deeply ingrained sort of national, an Israeli
mentality. And he carried that with him to Buffalo. And when the murder
happened, I think his resolve only deepened.
GROSS: Let me ask you to read a letter that a friend of your parents wrote
after the murder of Dr. Slepian.
Mr. PRESS: A few days after the murder of Dr. Slepian, I flew to Buffalo
and I met my mother at the airport. When I got in the car, she burst into
tears and I could just feel the weight of the circumstances and the fear she
was feeling. And she told me that someone had called her and told her, you
know, `Look, get him to stop. Get your husband to stop putting himself in
line of danger.' Then later that day, we--I was home. My mother had gotten
the mail and she opened a letter from a friend of the family. His name is
George Schillinger. George, like my father, was a physician. Like my mother,
he was a Holocaust survivor. And I was sitting upstairs on the floor. My
mother said, `I want to read this letter to you.' And here it is.
"Dear Shalom, undoubtedly, I'm not the only one who calls you or writes to you
expressing concern about your safety. But I am one who survived
Bergen-Belsen, Russian jail, etc., and therefore have the right to say that
survival is the upmost duty, one that supercedes every idea, principle, even
pride. Please, save your family from the potential horror that visited the
GROSS: What was your parents' reaction to this? I mean, what, you know,
"Survival is the ultimate duty." This coming from someone who is a Holocaust
survivor and survivor of a Soviet camp--I mean, how did they react to the
Mr. PRESS: Well, my mother reacted very emotionally. She herself, as I
describe in the book, has an extraordinary story. She is the daughter of
Holocaust survivors who were transported from Romania to Transnistria, where
the Jews of Romania were taken. The majority of them died within a very short
period. My grandparents survived and miraculously my mother was born in a
sort of deportation work camp in 1942 and somehow made it through the war with
her parents, came out of this and came out very much with the mentality and
the belief system that George Schillinger expressed in this very powerful
letter that he sent.
So, needless to say, my mother didn't even have to say so. I knew that the
letter was an expression of what she felt at that moment. For me, there
was--I felt divided because that's one side of my family. The other side of
my family is the Israeli side. I, myself, was born in Israel. And, I
suppose, I'm very much my father's son in that I have certain amount of the
same kind of determination and belief that fear and threats and so forth
should not deter people from doing what they believe is right. And so I felt
very torn and conflicted.
GROSS: Did your parents quarrel about whether your father should continue to
Mr. PRESS: They might have quarreled if it had gone on much longer. There
was a sort of disquieting tension, I would say. And, again, I was in the
middle of it. What ended up happening is a few days after the murder, we got
a phone call. And the phone rang, my mother picked it up. She said, `Death
threat? Death threat?' And sort of in disbelief. I watched her slump to the
ground, and she handed me the phone, and on the line was an officer from the
Amherst Police and he told me that they had learned of a threat that was given
to a paper in Hamilton, Ontario, saying my father was next on the list. And
that was sort of the peak of the tensions. But then after that happened, the
police pretty much were a presence around our home 24 hours a day, and soon
thereafter, my father fell under federal marshal protection. And that served
to diffuse that kind of initial tension. And it also helped, I think, all of
us kind of overcome the initial shock, the initial fear and put what was
happening in perspective.
GROSS: What was it like for you as a high school student to suddenly have,
you know, marshals and cops surrounding your house?
Mr. PRESS: Well, actually by this point, I was out of high school. I...
GROSS: Oh, good point. OK, you were in college already and living...
Mr. PRESS: No. I had finished college. I was living in Brooklyn. I was
starting out my career as a journalist. But during that period, I spent a lot
of time in Buffalo, just coming home. I felt I needed to be there to support
my parents. And I wanted to be there. It was a very strange thing. I came
into the house, and I wasn't sure if it was a house or a fortress. You know,
I wasn't sure if it was their house anymore. And this kind of--and it was
very strange to see my father, this very proudly independent person, being
kind of followed around and protected in this way. And it really prompted for
me some of the questions that I think led me to write this book. In
particular, both the murder and the kind of aftermath made me want to know why
in America has this conflict--why had it become so polarized and embattled as
to reach a point where doctors were hiring armed guards, you know, to work at
their offices and so forth. And why only here has abortion remained so
polarizing for so long. And, of course, I wanted to understand why my father
had a place in the story.
GROSS: My guest is Eyal Press. His new book is called "Absolute Convictions:
My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Eyal Press and he's
written a new memoir about his father and about the abortion controversy. His
father is a gynecologist who also performs abortions in Buffalo, New York.
And Dr. Slepian, the doctor who was murdered because he performed abortions,
was a close friend and associate of Eyal Press's father. Press' memoir is
called "Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that
Now, you were mentioning that, you know, you wrote this book in part to figure
out why is America so polarized about abortion, more polarized than other
countries. Your father was born in Israel, and you point out that when your
father moved to the United States to continue his medical studies in 1973,
abortion had just been legalized here, but it was still illegal in Israel and
remained illegal until around 1977. But you say the illegality of abortion in
Israel had more to do with demographics than with ethics. Would you explain?
Mr. PRESS: Yeah, I mean, I think that this was very important in shaping my
father's view about abortion, which I would describe as pragmatic more than
ideological. I mean, he views abortion as a medical procedure for which there
is demand and a need born of the reality of unplanned pregnancies. And that's
something he witnessed in Israel because abortion there was indeed illegal.
Illegal not because there was a sort of equivalent of the religious right
saying this was murder, but because there was a desire to expand the
population as much as possible, this sort of demographic push. But
nevertheless, even though it was illegal, it was an open secret that abortions
happened. And that when unplanned pregnancies happened, women came to see
doctors, and that is was routinely performed. And so this kind of shaped my
father's pragmatism on the issue. He felt then and still feels to this day
that as a society, we should do everything possible to minimize the occurrence
of unplanned pregnancies. He believes very strongly that--you know, in
educating people about the consequences of sex and contraception and so forth.
But he also saw, both in Buffalo and in Israel, that the women who showed up
to have for pregnancy terminations were an incredible cross section of the
GROSS: Did you father ever have any moral, ethical, religious objections to
Mr. PRESS: I don't think he had any religious objections to abortion. Like
many Jews, he believed that there is a distinction between the very phases of
pregnancy, and that was also a view shaped by his medical practice and his
interaction with patients. He did not perform late-term abortions. And, you
know, I think that he believes in an ideal world both that abortions should be
something that's performed in the early stages of pregnancy and made as rare
as possible through education and the use of contraception.
GROSS: Your father has lived in and practiced medicine in Buffalo since 1973.
Buffalo became one of the centers of anti-abortions protests. Why did Buffalo
become a center?
Mr. PRESS: Well, it's an interesting story because on the surface, the easy
answer is here's this heavily Catholic city and in the '70s, of course, the
right-to-life movement was almost exclusively Catholic. So I kind of grew up,
and when I started seeing the protests when I was in high school, I just
assumed, `Well, it's a heavily Catholic city. That's why we're seeing this.'
It turns out, the answer is much more complicated. The protests in Buffalo,
as in so many places, started in the mid to late '80s. And they were led by
many born-again Christians who entered the right-to-life movement in the
mid-80s and radicalized it.
And there was Randall Terry who started Operation Rescue in nearby Bingington.
And there were a number of born-again ministers in Buffalo who got involved
and started using the same tactics, this sort of civil disobedience, and these
massive protests developed. So the irony of Buffalo is that when the movement
is almost exclusively Catholic, it's not getting a lot of press. It's not,
you know, landing on the front pages of the Buffalo News in the headlines.
When it becomes a more diverse movement and multidenominational one, that's
when it gets really hot.
GROSS: Now, your father has mostly had a private practice, and he is--you
know, had a private office. When did his office become a target of
Mr. PRESS: It started in 1987, and this, again, was when I was in high
school. And one day there was a mock funeral performed outside his office.
And it sort of quickly spiralled from there. He initially thought there would
be one such thing. A few months later, there was a rescue where people
occupied the office. And then this kind of became a regular presence and a
regular possibility. And, again, like many people, I think he was kind of
blindsided by it, perhaps more so than others because he came to Buffalo not
really understanding the politics of the issue, although I think a lot of
people in Buffalo were caught by surprise, both at the intensity of the
protests and the longevity.
GROSS: You mention the first protests in front of your father's office was a
mock funeral. What was it?
Mr. PRESS: It was literally protesters with caskets and the remains of what
they claimed were babies who had been aborted at my father's office, some of
whom were, it was claimed, found in a dumpster. My father and a spokesperson
from my father's office denied that. They never disposed of fetal remains
that way. And, indeed, it was not legal to do so. Nevertheless, the event
was covered in the news, and it began a kind of spiral of protests.
GROSS: Eyal, what are some of the other forms those protests took in front of
your father's office?
Mr. PRESS: Well, the most common thing in the movement in Buffalo, both
there and nationally, were rescues. And these were events where protesters
would clasp hands and either try to block the entrance to an abortion clinic
or a doctor's office or on occasion they would enter and occupy a waiting room
or something like this to try to prevent the women who had appointments that
day from entering. And thus rescuing the unborn babies who would otherwise
have been aborted. And this became a kind of signature expression of the
right-to-life movement in the late '80s and '90s.
GROSS: There were--your father had protection at his house after Dr. Slepian
was murdered. Was there any protection for the women who were coming to your
father's office for abortions?
Mr. PRESS: No, not that I know of. And I think if there's anything that
would strengthen my father's belief in continuing to serve as an abortion
provider the most, it's seeing his patients kind of run the gauntlet of
protesters and come in and often feel very shaken. Sometimes they came in
with tears. Sometimes they were angry. And this really affected him, and it
affected him not because he believes that the decision to have an abortion is
an easy one. In fact, he has seen up close more than most people that the
decision is often a very, very difficult one, a conflicted one, an emotional
one for a woman. And precisely because of that, to see patients come in, to
see women come in so shaken and upset really had an affect on him.
GROSS: Eyal Press is the author of the new book "Absolute Convictions: My
Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Eyal Press. His new
book "Absolute Convictions" is about the abortion conflict from his
perspective as the son of an ob/gyn. Press' father provides abortions as part
of his practice in Buffalo, New York, and has been the target of protests and
death threats. Press's family moved to Buffalo from Israel in 1973.
One of the kinds of slogans that was used by anti-abortion protesters was, you
know, comparing abortion to the Holocaust and to genocide. Your mother, as
you mentioned, as a Holocaust survivor. She was actually born in a
deportation camp. What was your mother's reaction to having the work that her
husband did be compared to genocide and the Holocaust?
Mr. PRESS: It was very difficult, and it was particularly difficult, I
think, during the 1992 Spring of Life, which was a major national series of
blockades that took place in Buffalo. This after the mayor of Buffalo, Jimmy
Griffin, was a very pro-life Catholic, welcome Operation Rescue into town.
And during the Spring of life, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, there was a
protest and my father and Dr. Slepian, both of whom are Jewish, were named.
And that was very, very difficult for my mother. She is, like my father, a
stoic person and a very strong person and tough. But it carried a sting. I
mean, her own family had survived this. And so needless to say, it really did
carry a sting.
GROSS: You were in high school when your father's practice became the target
of anti-abortion protesters. What impact did that have on you? And, I mean,
did people--where you the subject of controversy among your classmates after
Mr. PRESS: No, I wasn't. But, you know, that's an interesting thing. I did
my best to ignore the whole issue. And I think that that reflects to a large
degree the sense of discomfort, embarrassment, maybe even shame that kind of
rubbed off on me. I mean, I saw the protests and understand just how
emotional and how fierce the beliefs around abortion were. And so it was
something I didn't want to talk about. I didn't mention it to my friends. I
became a journalist after graduating from college. Abortion was not something
I ever wrote about. I sort of--I didn't want to touch it, and I just felt,
you know, why explore something that seems so fiercely polarized and so
The murder of Dr. Slepian changed that in that I felt that I needed to
understand the events and the forces that coalesced to produce such a thing.
And I think I also came to feel that, you know, even though the issue is so
polarized, the more I read about it the more I learned that for the majority
of Americans, the vast majority, indeed, they don't fall on the extreme ends
on either side of the abortion debate. Most people have more ambiguous
feelings. They maybe believe abortion to be legal but restricted in certain
ways. That's also true of the majority of people in Buffalo. And my book is
an effort to engage that sort of middle of America that is the majority of
GROSS: Well, when you were in high school, how much did you observe firsthand
the protests at your father's practice? Did you go there much? Did he try to
protect you from it and keep you away from his office?
Mr. PRESS: I think he did try to protect me from it. He didn't want it to
bother me. He didn't want me to see it. But I did see it. I saw the
protesters with the signs driving by. I saw, "Murderer," "Baby Killer." I saw
protesters on our sidewalk outside our home. One evening I remember shooting
baskets and looking over, and I saw people praying and singing, and, you know,
a certain amount of--not interaction--but just I was aware. I was aware of
what was happening. It was, of course, only after starting to write the book
that I actually met and spoke with some of the protesters.
GROSS: What was that like? You spoke to protesters who were actually in
front of your father's office?
Mr. PRESS: Yes. In fact, in the book, there are various protesters I speak
with. And several of whom took part in veracious actions, whether it was
sidewalk counseling or rescues, getting arrested. It was intense to meet
them, and I would say it was educational. It forced me to confront some of my
own assumptions about the protesters. Growing up, my image of them was of
sort of angry white males holding aloft their signs and insisting that their
moralities imposed on everyone else, the sort of very familiar stereotype.
Many of the activists I ended up meeting were women. There was a woman,
Mickey Van de Ven, who was a sidewalk counselor in Buffalo and is among the
more soft-spoken people I've met. It's hard for me to imagine her trying to
impose her morality on others.
I also met Karen Swallow Prior, who was the spokeswoman for Operation Rescue
for several years in Buffalo. She is now a professor of literature at Liberty
University, which is Jerry Falwell's school. And when I went to meet Karen to
speak with her, I came with lots of assumptions. I assumed I would be meeting
a religious zealot who would quote the Bible to me. And I walked into her
office, and I saw literature anthologies lining the book shelves, classic
music was playing. I see this very relaxed person who wants to engage me in
dialogue. And it really struck me that I had come to the meeting with the
very assumptions that I had growing up assumed only the other side had.
GROSS: Do you think that the people you are referring to have changed since
they were protesting in front of your father's office? Do you think that they
have become less confrontational in their approach to their thinking about
Mr. PRESS: I think in some cases, yes. In Karen Swallow Prior's case, for
example, she was profiled in, I believe 1992 in the Buffalo News, and at the
time she said that she believed in the tactic of what were called house calls.
These were protests in front of doctors' homes, as for taking the protests
right into the most personal, private space of a physician. And she endorsed
that tactic in that article. By the time I met with her, she had reconsidered
that and decided that it was the wrong message to send. It was not something
she would do. And, indeed, Karen Swallow Prior has in the years since engaged
in many common ground dialogues in which she has searched out, I think very
admirably, efforts to reach common ground with pro-choice people about how to
limit the number of unplanned pregnancies and unwanted pregnancies, to limit
the number of abortions that are performed. Which I was very interested to
learn, and which, again, I think is very admirable.
GROSS: My guest is Eyal Press. His new book is called "Absolute Convictions:
My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Eyal Press. His new
memoir is called "Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict
that Divided America." The conflict he is referring to is the conflict over
abortion. His father is an ob/gyn who performs abortions as well. And his
father's office was the target of many protests in the '80s and '90s. His
father's friend and associate Dr. Slepian was murdered by an anti-abortion
You've said that you wrote this book in part to understand the forces that
procured the kind of extremists that--an example of which is the person who
murdered your father's friend, Dr. Barnett Slepian. And you went to the
murder's trial in--was it 2003?
Mr. PRESS: Yes. Right.
GROSS: It was James Copp. Did he plead guilty?
Mr. PRESS: That's complicated. There was--he admitted to doing the
shooting. I don't think in his mind he was guilty of murder because of the
way he described what he did in court was that he was acting to prevent
murder. And I think what became very clear listening to Copp in court was
that he feels the law is upside down, that, you know, the wrong people are
being put in jail, that the people who should be put in jail are those who not
only perform abortions but condone abortion and make abortion possible. It
was a very intense experience listening to him. You got a sense of just how
clear and coherent and absolute his views on this issue were.
GROSS: What are some of the things you feel like you learned from attending
this trial about the more extreme end--or the most extreme end, I should
say--of the anti-abortion movement?
Mr. PRESS: Well, I think, as in the case of any movement where there is a
violent wing, the common assumption and in some ways the desire, I think, of
everyone, is to just write off violence as a product of craziness, that people
who commit acts of violence are insane. And the reality, I think, is more
complicated than that and in some ways more disturbing. I think that James
Copp in court came across not as someone who was crazy, but as an intelligent
man for whom the world was a very broken, very dark place and who developed a
kind of all-consuming obsession with abortion and with the plight of the
And I have no doubt that that was a sincere obsession, a real obsession. But
it created a very strange sort of approach to the world whereby on the one
hand, this intense feeling for the unborn, on the other hand, an intense
contempt for the living. So in court, for example, he likened the officers,
the Amherst police and the FBI to the Gestapo. And he talked a lot about Nazi
Germany, almost as if America itself is a version of Nazi Germany because of
And so you got the sense of just a world view where doubt and--where doubt has
been eliminated, and there's only one view that can be accepted.
GROSS: You know, I think when I mentioned James Copp I described him as being
from the extreme end of the anti-abortion movement. I'm wondering if it's
fair to even describe him as being a part of the anti-abortion movement. Is
he perhaps just like a lone wolf extremist who identifies with the movement
but wouldn't be embraced even by the extreme end of it?
Mr. PRESS: Well, there is no doubt that I met various right-to-life
activists, including Rob Shank, a minister who led the rescues in Buffalo, who
described James Copp as an imposter, as someone who does not belong in the
movement, does not represent the movement and does not share his pro-life
views. And various other right-to-life activists I met said the same thing
that, you know, no one who harms someone, who commits an act of murder, can
call themselves pro life.
On the other hand, the wing of the movement that embraced violence grew out of
Operation Rescue. There was a sort of militant core that came to feel that,
`Look, if we are going to equate abortion with murder and sanction breaking
the law to stop it, at what point do you stop?' And so the supporters of James
Copp would say that the imposters are the people who don't go as far as he
Now, in terms of Copp himself, I think he was very secretive about what he
did. I think in some ways he fits the stereotype of the kind of lone wolf. I
also spoke to various law enforcement people who believe that, you know, he
got help in different ways. And whether the people helping him knew what he
was actually up to, that's not so clear.
GROSS: Your father, who is an ob/gyn, has continued to perform abortions
through all the protests, through the murder of his associate Dr. Slepian.
Are there still protests in front of his practice?
Mr. PRESS: There are protesters. I would describe them as protests in the
sense that the protests occurred in the late '80s and early '90s where you had
massive numbers of people. There are individuals who come on certain days.
The large scale protests stopped to a large extent after Congress passed and
President Clinton signed the FACE law, the Freedom of Access to Clinic
Entrances Law in 1994. And that pretty much put an end to the rescue
movement. It made it a federal crime to blockage a building.
Now, at the time, I thought, `Well, OK, so it's over.' Of course, it's not so
simple. And what the FACE law did was further convince the more militant
members of the movement that the only answer was violence. Although I should
also say that we moved along since then, and there's been a lull in the
violence as the focus has shifted to Washington.
GROSS: And to the courts.
Mr. PRESS: And to the courts. Yes.
GROSS: Your father is near retirement. Do you think that there is a doctor
who will replace him, when your father retires, and take over the abortion
part of the practice? In other words, will there be somebody else providing
abortions in that part of Buffalo when your father retires?
Mr. PRESS: There will be abortion providers in Buffalo when my father
retires. As I said, the clinic where Dr. Slepian worked is still open.
There are other doctors in the nearby area who perform abortions. There's the
place in Niagara Falls. What there isn't, increasingly, are doctors who set
up a regular ob/gyn practice and include abortion as part of that practice,
which is what my father did. He never did abortions exclusively. And he just
thought of this as one of many medical procedures that he would perform. And
that is increasingly rare. And it's increasingly rare because people now,
unlike when he was starting out in the mid-70s, people now are so aware of the
controversy that comes with it that you increasingly have abortion isolated
into these clinics and into a kind of corner of the medical world.
GROSS: We've talked a little bit about the religious and ethical views held
by anti-abortion protesters, some of whom protested at your father's medical
practice. What are some of the things you learned about the politics of the
Mr. PRESS: I think the politics are fascinating and they're central to my
story. As there were some conservative strategists who realized that one way
to bring a new constituency of working class Catholics and white ethnics and
evangelicals into the conservative movement was to address the social issues,
the culture issues. And abortion was prominent among them.
That doesn't mean that the people in the right-to-life movement that their
views weren't, their feelings weren't sincere. It's more that the people who
were sort of thinking strategically felt, `Well, let's--you know, let's look
at what the Republican Party's platform is on abortion, change it and
integrate this new constituency into it.' And in the book, I describe how that
played a central role in the emergence of this new form of conservative
populism, which cultural issues rather than class issues were center. And I
think that's very much the case in our politics today.
It was the case in Buffalo, this working class city where you had tremendous
inequality and a lot of factories left the city throughout the '70s. And yet
out of that emerges this kind of cultural populism and not serf class
GROSS: Well, Eyal Press, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. PRESS: Thank you very much for having me on.
GROSS: Eyal Press is the author of the new book "Absolute Convictions." You
can find an excerpt of his book and listen to NPR's 1998 coverage of Dr.
Barnett Slepian's murder on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new biography of William Jennings Bryan,
best known for making the case against evolution in the Scopes trial. This is
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Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan on "A Godly Hero: The Life
of William Jennings Bryan" by Michael Kazin
TERRY GROSS, host:
William Jennings Bryan has been fixed in the popular memory as the
fundamentalist anti-evolution heavy in the 1925 Scopes trial. But according
to historian Michael Kazin, Bryan was the provocative combination of lay
preacher and reformed politician. Kazin's new book "A Godly Hero" is the
first major biography of Bryan to appear in almost 40 years. Book critic
Maureen Corrigan has a review.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: In one of those coincidences that sometimes strikes in
the random universe of literature, I just finished teaching some essays by
H.L. Mencken when I picked up Michael Kazin's new biography of William
Jennings Bryan called "A Godly Hero." Among Mencken's most scorching essays
are those in which he chronicles the 1925 Scopes trial where Bryan argued for
the prosecution against the teaching of evolution in public schools. "More in
fear of social Darwinism," as Kazin describes it, "than in support of biblical
Mencken never had much affection for ordinary Americans, and his contempt
runneth over as he reviled Scopes' critics, whom he saw as ignorant Bible
thumpers and their spokesperson Bryan. Mencken spat out this verdict on
Bryan, `He seemed only a poor clod, like those around him, deluded by a
childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all
human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come
home to the barnyard." Bryan died five days after the Scopes trial ended, and
Mencken's withering words have pretty much constituted Bryan's epitaphs for
scholars of the left ever since.
But conservatives have also been queasy about embracing Bryan as one of their
movement's political forerunners. After all, Bryan was a champion of labor
unions and argued for expanding the powers of the federal government to combat
the evils of big business.
Biographer Kazin has confessed in a recent article in Dissent magazine that
even he feels ambivalent about his hard-to-categorize biographical subject who
drew on both Jesus and Jefferson for political guidance.
Bryan was a sunny populist, dubbed "The Great Commoner," who captured the
adoration of millions of Americans, yet lost his campaigns for the presidency
three times. He was an anti-modernist, teetotaling son of the heartland, who
nonetheless fought for women's suffrage. He was a titanic defender of the
working man, whose great flaw, as Kazin succinctly puts it, was that he could
never extend his lifelong faith in the people to black Americans, most of whom
worked at decidedly common jobs.
Perhaps ambivalence rather than adoration is a good stance for a biographer to
adopt, at least it is in this case, because "A Godly Hero" is an
extraordinarily rich and rewarding work, a biography of one of the most
crucial Americans never to win a presidential election. It also doubles as a
fascinating one-volume history of America prior to and during the great age of
reform that spanned the end of the 19th century and the first two decades of
In rescuing Bryan from the strangling legacy of the Scopes trial, Kazin deftly
separates out the often contradictory but always dramatic storyline of Bryan's
epic political career, a career that transformed the Democratic Party and laid
the groundwork for FDR's New Deal.
I'll just mention two key moments that Kazin illuminates. The first is one of
Bryan's legendary speeches, delivered without notes on the floor of the House
of Representative in 1893, when Bryan was serving as a young congressman from
Nebraska. In about the third hour of this speech, which was a call to moral
combat against the gold standard and the forces of laissez faire capitalism,
Bryan thundered like an Old Testament prophet. `The poor man,' he said, `is
called a socialist if he believes that the wealth of the rich should be
divided among the poor. But the rich man is called a financier if he devises
a plan by which the pittance of the poor can be converted to his use."
With that kind of rhetoric which, by the way, earned Bryan a standing ovation
in the House that day, you'd think that the famed Socialist journalist John
Reid would have fallen down and worshiped Bryan in 1916 when he interviewed
him for Collier's Weekly. Not so. Reed sneered at Bryan in the story he
eventually wrote. And as Kazin carefully describes it, `Reed's sneer marks a
key transition in the history of the American left. It was the sneer of the
urban secular modernist directed at the pious populist crusader.' It was sneer
that, as Kazin points out, "would soon render the idea of a political movement
of the Christian left, which Bryan embodied, history."
One of the greatest services a historian can perform for readers is to remind
us that what is accepted as the norm today was not ever so in a nation where,
as Kazin shows us in this deeply perspective work, democratic values often
intertwine with religious faith. Our own sneers at this remarkable American
and his flock betray a self-defeating smugness.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is
the author of the memoir "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading." She reviewed "A Godly
Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan," by Michael Kazin.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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