Other segments from the episode on May 3, 2006
DATE May 3, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bill Carter discusses his new book, "Desperate
Networks," behind-the-scenes look at network TV
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Cable, iPods, DVDs, DVRs, video games and the Internet are all taking a bite
out of the ratings of the major broadcast networks. Bill Carter's new book,
"Desperate Networks," looks at how the networks have battled for hit shows and
ad revenues over the past few years, years that saw the ending of "Friends"
and NBC's Thursday night ratings juggernaut. Carter documents the onslaught
of reality TV, from "Who Want to Be a Millionaire?" "Survivor," "The
Apprentice" and "The Bachelor" to the current powerhouse, "American Idol."
Carter also reveals the behind-the-scenes stories of how the most successful
shows were passed up by other networks. Bill Carter covers the TV industry
for The New York Times, and is the author of the best seller "The Late Shift"
about late-night TV.
Bill Carter, your book starts with Bob Wright, the chair of NBC, trying to
find out if Marc Cherry, the creator of "Desperate Housewives," pitched his
show to NBC before taking it to ABC. And, as we all know, it became a huge
hit at ABC. Why did you start your book there? What's the significance of
Mr. BILL CARTER: Well, I just think that the "Desperate Housewives" story is
kind of emblematic of the way television works, which is, somebody has a good
idea and an awful lot of people ignore it, and finally somebody decides that
it's a good idea. And this was a guy who struggled for seven years, being
basically unemployed, and no one would pay attention to him. And then all of
a sudden he had the hottest idea in the country. And it was interesting that
you had a chairman of a network, of a big, you know, media conglomerate,
calling this guy--cold-calling him on the phone to find out what happened and
why his network had missed this tremendous opportunity.
GROSS: So what did Bob Wright, the chair of NBC, do once he find out--once he
found out for sure that his network did miss the opportunity, that they were
pitched before ABC?
Mr. CARTER: He made a few other calls to speak to the people who had not
listened to Mr. Cherry to find out, well, why did they not respond to his
scripts the way people had ABC had? And I guess he got some answers, and a
few of the people who were involved are no longer there.
GROSS: So what did "Desperate Housewives" do for ABC?
Mr. CARTER: It transformed them in ways that only hit television shows can
do to a network. It basically made an ice cold network into a red hot network
basically overnight within the first week it was on the air. Of course, it
came on the air at the same time that ABC launched another enormous hit, which
is very unusual. Their other hit was "Lost." But "Desperate Housewives" is
really a statement that ABC was not out of business. They were on the cusp of
really be written off, that they could never come back. And this show,
because the response to it was so instantaneous, made everyone all of a sudden
say, `Instead of being a network we're not going to pay any attention to, it's
the network were everybody has to pay all the attention to because it has the
GROSS: Meanwhile, Fox is killing the networks on Tuesday nights with
Mr. CARTER: It's killing the networks pretty much across the board now. I
mean, not every night, but "Idol" has driven so many other shows to success.
They put shows behind it like "24," which has become an extremely popular
show. And now they have a medical show called "House," which they launched
behind "American Idol," and that's become an enormous hit. And they can use
"American Idol" like no other show in television. They can stretch it out.
When it starts, they run it three nights a week. It's always on at least two
nights a week, and it just vaporizes any competition. It is really quite a
phenomenon. I don't think I've ever seen it in all the years I've covered
television, a show quite this powerful. And it's quite a weapon for Fox, and
they've used it really, really well.
GROSS: So meanwhile, CBS, NBC, ABC, they're not only competing with cable,
they're competing with Fox , and they're competing with UPN and the WB, which
have just merged. But those networks, you know, capture a lot of younger
Mr. CARTER: They're more niche...
GROSS: Right, they're more niche oriented. But they capture a lot of African
American and younger viewers. So what's left for what CBS, NBC and ABC are
fighting over? They seem to be fighting over a smaller and smaller share of
Mr. CARTER: There's no question that it is shrinking, that the market is
shrinking. And when they have shows that don't hit, they now are basically
out of business. One of the things that's changed in television is you can't
get by with mediocre or poor performing shows. They're going to completely
tank on them. And they have to drag those shows along. They have to depend
on breaking through really on a big scale now for basically most of their
income. The lower-end shows are complete failures now. In the old days, they
could sort of, you know, get by because there wasn't that much competition.
Now, if you don't have really successful and very big popular shows, you are
in serious, serious trouble.
GROSS: Is that why so many shows just kind of end after two episodes?
Mr. CARTER: That's exactly why. They get a pretty good read right away.
ABC put on a show this year called "Emily's Reasons Why Not." It was on--they
put billboards all over the country for this show. They promoted it to the
max. It was on one week. They looked at the rating after one week and they
said, `There is no hope for this show,' and it was never seen again. And I
think we're going to see more and more of that. If it doesn't come out of the
gate fast, they can't waste their time, so they'll put a repeat of a
successful show on because it doesn't cost as much money and it'll probably do
better in the ratings.
GROSS: It must be crazy making though at the network because you never really
settle in. You invest all this time and money into something and then you
give up on it immediately.
Mr. CARTER: Yeah. And you can imagine how it is for the creators of a show
like that. They put all that effort into it. They've already made six or
maybe even 13 shows by the time they've put one on, and after one week you're
out of business. You're cancelled after one week. The business has become
extremely precarious because of that.
GROSS: Your book "Desperate Networks" focuses a lot on reality programming.
Does--is reality TV outside of "American Idol" still has hot as it was?
Mr. CARTER: Well, it isn't quite as hot as it was, but I think it's a
mistake to write it off because the format really works on a lot of levels for
the networks. It's cheaper to produce. There's a skew to it that's very
young, which they like. When they work, they get a lot of young viewers. And
in the last six or seven years, the big breakthrough shows have been basically
dominated by that format. So people are still tinkering with it. Obviously
what's hurt it is there's been endless copies of every success one. So the
originals have lost a little bit of their pizzazz because everybody copies
them. And they do tend to run--except for "American Idol," they do tend to
run their cycle out pretty fast. Like "The Apprentice" was an enormous hit
for NBC, but they had to run it so frequently, two cycles a year, that they
wore the audience out.
There was a couple of shows, new ones this year, that have done extremely
well. I mean, the show called "Dancing With the Stars," which ABC put on, was
really their only successful new show on ABC this year. So I don't think the
format is dying. I think they just have to be original with it and not
constantly do copies.
GROSS: You write about how "Survivor" was pitched to CBS by its creator Mark
Burnett, and how CBS and Burnett formed an unusual partnership. What made
this partnership unusual?
Mr. CARTER: Well, the strange thing about it was Mark Burnett had pitched
this show to everybody and really maybe even two or three times to everybody.
And it only got traction when a real unknown underling executive at CBS
decided it was, you know, an exciting idea. And he went to the boss of CBS,
Les Moonves, and he pitched it to him. And Les, listening to the idea, his
initial reaction was, `That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard.' And he
basically threw the guy out of his office. But he didn't give up on the idea.
So when this executive, name Ghen Maynard, came kept coming back and pushing,
Les started to listen to it, but he made an interesting requirement. He said,
`I'm not going to waste any money on this. I'm not going to lose any money.
If you guys can get sponsors to fully back this show before it goes on the air
so that CBS doesn't have to pay a penny for it, then we'll put it on the air.'
And Mark Burnett is a very good sales guy, and he went out with some of the
CBS sales people and he found advertisers, and they wound up selling the show.
So it was a basically fully sponsored show when it went on the air.
But that is not a formula that usually is convention in television. So they
had to make a new arrangement. They created a company called The Survivor
Company, which was a 50-50 split between CBS and Mark Burnett. And they
didn't think this show would work so they didn't know what was going to happen
in the future. And they left it kind of wide open as to what would happen if
this thing worked. So it works on an enormous scale and is such a big hit
that Les Moonves adds an entire episode--two entire new episodes to the show,
and adds commercials to the show, and they have to come to Les and say, `Well,
we can do that, Les, but, you know, it's a 50-50 deal. This guy is going to
get half. He's going to get half the advertising revenue.' And Moonves was
furious because that's never suppose to be done in television. You don't give
away the advertising revenue to the creator.
But even worse, from his point of view, they hadn't built in a license fee, a
few for the show to come back, so again Mark Burnett had them by the throat,
and they had to give him an enormous amount of money to bring this show back
on CBS a second time. Now, it paid off for everybody because the show
remained an enormous hit and everyone made a lot of money.
GROSS: CBS also had to come up with a contract to indemnify CBS against
accidents and injuries and all kinds...
Mr. CARTER: Yes.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about this contact that they came up with for
Mr. CARTER: Well, it was interesting. No one had ever done a show with,
like, real people as the center of this sort of action adventure show, and no
one knew what would happen, and they were scared because when "Survivor" had
been tried one other time in Sweden--and was a big hit there in Sweden--but in
the first round of it, when they eliminated--the first contestant was voted
off the island in the first Swedish show, he went back to Sweden and he
committed suicide. And everyone was like, `Wow, this is a--this show must
So they didn't know how to deal with any of this, so they wrote this elaborate
contract to cover any eventuality, like if you were attacked by crocodiles or
birds or monkeys or you caught some tropical disease or you were at--you had
to write off rights to everything, everything possible that could happen to
you before they let you go on. And even then they went through a lot of these
strange psychological tests with these people to make sure that they weren't,
like, you know, high-strung. And they brought them to California and they put
them up in a hotel, and then they would, like, wake them up at 2:00 in the
morning and put them through these, like, you know, extensive personality
tests to find out if they would like fly off the handle. And, you know,
eventually that became, interestingly, the template for virtually all the
reality shows that followed it.
They basically made these people give up the rights to everything, including
the right to even discuss the show once they were off. They were at risk of
losing $5 million if they, you know, revealed to anyone the outcome of the
show. And it really became the template. Every reality show does it now.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Carter. He covers the TV industry for The New York
Times. His new book is called "Desperate Networks."
We'll take more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Carter. He covers the
television industry for The New York Times. His new book is called "Desperate
You describe Mike Darnell as the impresario of reality TV for Fox. What were
his big successes?
Mr. CARTER: Well, he had been the guy responsible for some of the most
memorable of these outrageous specials that Fox did in the late '90s and the
early part of the century, where he brought, you know, these strange video
things together like, you know, "The World's Greatest Police Chases" and "When
Animals Attack" and "When Good Pets Go Bad" and "Outrageous Behavior Caught on
Tape." And these are really the most violent or outrageous scenes that people
caught on their camcorders and video recorders and packaged together. And
they were enormously successful in a audience way, but not in an advertiser
way. Advertisers felt they were trashy and sleazy and didn't want to pay for
them, but they would generate very big ratings for Fox.
And Darnell was, like, an impresario of this. He loved this material. And
the thing about Mike is, he's not a guy that puts this on because he's just
sheerly be exploitative. He actually likes this. He loves the idea of, you
know, grabbing some people and making them a little bit offend, or a little
bit shocked or, you know, they--sitting back from the TV and saying, `I can't
believe this is on television.' He thought that was a great way, you know,
boost people's ratings and give Fox a name, which he did. He was very much
sort of the signature executive at Fox because they became know for these kind
of outrageous special programs.
GROSS: And what are some of the problems he ran into with his contestants?
Mr. CARTER: Well, he did a show called "The Chamber," which was a--it was
essentially like almost torturing somebody. It was suppose to be a quiz show
where they put people in this cage and then they would either turn--really,
like, roast them on a spit. They, like, had flames coming up underneath them.
They were shooting them with water while they were asking them quiz questions.
And at one point when they were doing one, I guess, the pilot for this show,
they had a guy in this cage and he got stuck. And the guy was literally,
like, frying under these flames and they barely got him out in time before he
was, like, cooked inside this torture chamber. That show didn't work, but it
was a perfect show for Mike Darnell because it captured all of his kind of
GROSS: Are the networks worried that one day somebody is going to die on one
of these reality adventure shows?
Mr. CARTER: Well, in fact, they were very worried about that at Fox. In
fact, the executive in charge at that point, a woman named Gail Berman, when
she first met with Mike Darnell, one of the first things out of her mouth was,
`Listen, Mike, nobody dies on my watch.' And you really had to be careful with
Mike because another idea he had for a show was a guy doing what he called a
space jump. He was going to take him in a plane into the stratosphere and
have a guy jump out in a parachute. And some people said, `Well, wait, he
might die. You know, we better not do this.' He also had an idea to take a
747 that was being made out of--you know, taken out of service and fly it
above a desert where he would then have it point nose down, have the pilot
parachute out, have it loaded up with cameras and watch it just plow into the
desert. I don't know how you'd make an hour-long show out of that, but they
thought it was unsafe.
GROSS: So other network executives declined on those.
Mr. CARTER: Yes. And interestingly, Fox was considered sort of outrageous
for doing this, and below-the-belt. But the other networks, even as they were
complaining about what they were doing on Fox, they were trying to hire Mike
Darnell. They were, like, bringing him in for interviews and trying to hire
him because, boy, was he generating ratings.
GROSS: You know, your book is partly about how networks pass on ideas that
turn out to be brilliant ideas and end up being successes for competing
networks. An example of that is "American Idol." You write that no network
executives, even the ones at Fox, were enthusiastic about it when Simon Cowell
first pitched it.
Mr. CARTER: No. It was a remarkable thing. Simon Cowell came to the US
with his partner, Simon Fuller, and they had invented the idea of, you know, a
contest, an amateur singing contest, and they sold it to British television in
basically half an hour. But they were well known in Britain for their, you
know, ability in making recording artists. So when they came to the United
States, nobody knew who they were. So they went around, you know, to various
networks and pitched this idea. And people listened to them thinking, you
know, `Who are these guys? Are they serious? You know, we've never heard of
these guys.' And they got absolutely nowhere. They were thrown out of
meetings. They were really mistreated and dismissed, essentially.
And, you know, Cowell is kind of a kind of guy who can shrug that sort of
thing off and think to himself, `Well, you know, you're going to regret this
later.' So he went back to England and they started the show in England and it
was an enormous success in England. And then they partnered up with a big
talent agency, CAA, and came back at the networks again. Now, they had
already turned down the idea once. Now they have a second chance and they
have the evidence that the show is a big hit in England. Well, again, they
get turned down by everybody. ABC had turned them down twice, even after
seeing the tape from the British show, which at least gave you an idea of what
it would be and probably gave you an idea of how successful it could be. They
were turned down again.
Now, Fox had a need for a summer show. "Survivor" had been a big hit in the
summer, so people had seen that you could put reality on in the summer and
basically get away from doing repeats, at the very least. So they had a need
for summer show but they didn't want to spend a nickle on this. So when Simon
Cowell and Simon Fuller came to pitch the show, they said, as Les Moonves had
said about "Survivor," `If you get sponsors who will advertise in this show
and buy the whole show out, then we'll consider it. But we won't spend a
nickel on it. We won't pay you at all.'
And Fox is just sitting on this show. And, actually it was--they gave the
British people a 48-hour deadline and said, `You know, if you don't get
advertisers on this in 48 hours, we're going to just drop the whole idea.' And
at that point the show, because it was so big in England, obviously seen by
the British audience, and a very important viewer was Elizabeth Murdoch, the
daughter of Rupert Murdoch, who obviously owns the Fox network. Elizabeth
Murdoch owned the BSkyB channel in England, which was not where "Pop Idol," as
it was called in England, was playing. It was playing on ITV, but she saw it
every week and could see how big it was and what a hit it was. And she called
up her father, and she said, `You know, dad, I hear that your network Fox is
negotiating for this and nothing is happening. You ought to know, this is an
enormous show. I think you should buy it.'
So Rupert Murdoch calls his people at Fox and he says, `You know, I'm hearing
that you guys are negotiating for this "Idol" show.' And they said, `Well, you
know, yes. We've been talking about it. We're thinking about it.' And
Murdoch just said, `Listen, stop thinking about it. Buy it.' And he ordered
them to buy it. And that turned the whole thing around. They would not have
done it. I think the 48 hours would have run out because they didn't have the
advertisers, and Fox would have turned that show down if Rupert Murdoch had
not gotten a phone call from his daughter. And the dramatic effect that
that's had on Fox cannot even be measured, it's so enormous. And it all
happened by chance, the way a lot of these hit shows happen.
GROSS: What has it meant for Fox to have "American Idol"?
Mr. CARTER: Well, there's no show that can come close to it in terms of what
an advertiser will pay for a 30-second commercial. The average price for a
commercial on network TV might be 200,000, 250,000 for a good show. This show
gets 450,000 at a minimum. And for it's finale this year it's getting $1.3
million for a 30-second episode. That's at the Super Bowl level. That's an
enor--just a gigantic price. So initially they get the revenue from the show.
Secondly, they get this tremendous circulation of viewers. I mean, 30, 35
million viewers a week are coming to their network to watch this show. And at
all those times that they do that, Fox can promote their other shows. And
that's helped a lot of the new shows that they've added. And as I said
earlier, they can also put shows adjacent to "American Idol" and launch them
So at the same time, the fourth thing that it does, is it kills the
competition. So if another network is getting a show launched that Fox thinks
might be a threat, they'll move "American Idol" against it and try to crush
it. They did that this year with--ABC had a show called "Commander in Chief,"
which started off the season doing pretty well. But it was on Tuesday nights,
which is when "Idol" comes on. So when "Idol" came on at the turn of the
season in January, it just crushed that show, and ABC was not probably going
to be able to bring that show back now.
So it's just had an enormous, across-the-board impact on Fox that I think is
almost unmeasurable. There's never been a show, I don't think, quite this
powerful for one network to use against the others.
GROSS: Well, Bill Carter, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. CARTER: I've enjoyed it a lot, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Bill Carter covers the TV industry for The New York Times. His new
book is called "Desperate Networks."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Here's some of the final performance on last night's "American Idol."
(Soundbite of "American Idol")
Mr. TAYLOR HICKS: (Singing) ..."she knows, and all I have to do is think of
her. Something in the way she kno
ws, don't want to leave her now. Whoa, you
know I believe her now. Ooommmm."
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. HICKS: Whoa.
(End of soundbite)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Ken Tucker reviews Neil Young's new album, "Living with
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Neil Young's new album "Living with War" generated a lot of attention before
it was even recorded when it was announced that he was including a song called
"Let's Impeach the President." Young recorded the album in a little over a
week in early April. He was so anxious to get its music heard that he posted
the entire album on his Web site last Friday, free to anyone. Yesterday, the
album went on sale in CD form.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review of "Living with War."
(Soundbite of Neil Young song "After the Garden")
Mr. NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) "Won't need no shadow man running the government.
Won't need no stinkin' war. Won't need no hair cut, won't need no shoe shine
after the garden is gone, after the garden is gone, after the garden is gone.
What will people do?"
(End of soundbite)
Mr. KEN TUCKER: As that opening song called "After the Garden" suggests,
this is primarily a Neil Young electric rock 'n' roll album, as opposed to an
acoustic Neil Young folky album. The choice of style is significant. Young
has long opted for loud power chords and brute simple lyrics when he wants to
get a message out. That message could be, as it was in 1970s Ohio, that four
students were shot dead at Kent State University, or in 2001's "Roll On" that
some determined passengers had brought down a hijacked plane in Pennsylvania.
This time the message is both direct and more widely dispersed.
"Don't need no more lies," he yells over and over on a song called "Restless
Consumer." He does an end-run around potential criticism of his politics by
praising the family unit in all its forms on a song called simply "Families."
He claims the symbolism of the flag for himself and for people of any
political persuasion on another tune, "Flags of Freedom." And "Let's Impeach
the President" is pretty self-explanatory.
(Soundbite of Neil Young song "Let's Impeach the President")
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) "Let's impeach the president for lying and misleading
our country into war, abusing all the power that we gave him, and shipping all
our money out the door. Who's the man who hired all the criminals, the White
House shadows who hide behind closed doors? They bend the facts to fit with
their new stories of why we have to send our men to war. Let's impeach the
president for spying"...
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: Young has always been a partisan contrarian. Remember, he
endorsed Ronald Reagan for president in 1984. A song here called "Looking for
a Leader" suggests, a little desperately, quote, "America has a leader, but
he's not in the house. He's walking here among us and we've got to seek him
out." That "walking among us" phraseology has a New Testament ring to it, as
does his punning use of the word "house." White House, Houses of Congress, the
House of God? This is in keeping with the rest of the album. Using a
hundred-voice choir to sing an utterly un-ironic "America the Beautiful,"
quoting "The Star-Spangled Banner" with gorgeous subtlety in the title song,
and insisting on taking back flag, family and religion from the right and
spreading it around among everyone, including Democrats and Libertarians,
which I think is probably where Young's tortured politics really align most
He wants to be left alone. There are numerous, strenuous objections to the
Homeland Security Act salted into a number of songs. And on "Looking for a
Leader" he suggests that people consider all sorts of possibilities, from
Collin Powell to Illinois Senator Barack Obama, as alternative candidates.
It's pop music as political product placement. I'll bet John McCain's people
are gnashing their teeth and rending their garments that Young couldn't find a
way to wedge their man into the song.
(Soundbite of Neil Young song "Looking for a Leader")
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) "Looking for a leader to bring our country home.
Reunite the red, white and blue before it turns to stone. Looking for
somebody young enough to take it on, clean up the corruption and make the
country strong. Walking among our people, there's who's someone straight and
strong, to lead us from desolation and a broken world gone wrong. Someone
walks among us, and a I hope he hears the call. And maybe it's a woman or a
black man after all."
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: Young's rallying cry here is, `Clean out the corruption and make
the country strong.' With the phrase "maybe it's a woman or a black man after
all," he implies that he doesn't know who he wants, he just wants change. The
canny thing he's done here is to call for that change within melodies and
songwriting styles that will appeal immensely to his most loyal audience
segment: those old and young at his concerts who sing along with the chorus
"Hey, hey, my, my, rock and roll will never die." He's using the Internet and
new marketing strategies to release music that wouldn't be out of place on
'70s albums such as "Tonight's the Night" and "On the Beach." Except that in
2006, for Neil Young, "Tonight's the Night" of a national nightmare, and we're
"On the Beach" looking for aircraft carriers to land with fresh body bags.
GROSS: Ken Tucker's editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Living with War" by Neil Young.
Coming up, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She's written a new
book about America, God and world affairs.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discusses
her new book, "The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on
America, God, and World Affairs"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Does the US believe it has a special relationship with God? Does it have a
divinely inspired mission to promote liberty? These are the kinds of
questions Madeleine Albright addresses in her new book "The Mighty and the
Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs." Albright was the
first woman to be secretary of state. She served under President Clinton
after first serving as his UN ambassador. Her memoir "Madame Secretary" was a
Why did you want to write a book about religion and politics?
Ms. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, because I wanted to really look forward in
terms of what the issues were for foreign policy. I wanted to look forward
and look at the major forces that were at work as we go into the 21st century.
And I have to tell you, I used to say this, and now that--I can't believe I
actually said it because it was so presumptuous--and that was that I--it
wasn't that I was just the first female secretary of state but I was the last
secretary of state of the 20th century and the first of the 21st. And I think
we saw the 21st century in a more hopeful way. I have to say that, you know,
we all made a little bit of fun of President Clinton, who used to say that he
was building a bridge into the next century. And we were looking at how to
revise a lot of our institutions, and how to look at what the challenges of
the 21st century were, all of which were basically transnational issues to do
with the environment and health and drugs and nuclear proliferation.
And all of a sudden, I think that a lot was turned upside down with 9/11 and
questions of were we dealing with a religion out of the seventh century, and
what was happening in terms of our interpretation of our relationship with
God, and going back to issues that had been troubling for a long time, and
didn't seem like 21st-century issues. And I wanted to explore how, in fact,
the 21st century was evolving, and what we could do to get back to the hopeful
aspect of it.
GROSS: You write in your book that you can't remember any leading American
diplomat speaking in depth about the role of religion in shaping the world.
What were you taught when you were coming up through the ranks about the role
of religion in diplomacy?
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think I'm pretty standard for my generation, and also
somebody who spent a lot of time reading Dean Acheson and George Cannon and
Hans Morgenthau, who have a very, what is known as a realistic--reale politic
view of foreign policy--which is that life is complicated enough. The
conflicts are very difficult, so the last thing you want to do is inject God
and religion into it. It only complicates things. And so mostly when we ran
into issues people would say, you know, `We don't need to bring God and
religion into it.' And I really came to realize as I was secretary of state
that actually one had to bring God and religion into it, not because I'm a
theologian or because I've turned into a religious mystic, but because there
really are some tools that allow us to help solve some of the problems.
GROSS: Like what? What are you thinking of?
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that as one looks at the three monotheistic
religions, you see that there are many elements in common. There is clearly
an understanding of the importance of love and charity and respect for the
individual, and a variety of ways that things are framed in the same way, that
if religious leaders talked to each other they are able to find the common
threads. And what we have seen, to a great extent, is that religion over the
centuries has been a very divisive aspect, and I'm--I hope not in
vain--thinking about the way religion and religious leaders can actually help
to break down what some of the problems are, and through using religion can
bring people together.
GROSS: But as a former secretary of state and UN ambassador, you've been in a
lot of situations where you've seen religion as the divisive factor as opposed
to the kind of healing, ethical, moral factor?
Ms. ALBRIGHT: I have. But you know what is interesting--and for instance, I
have been asked whether there were times when we should have thought about
this in more detail. And actually I would just, if I can take a minute, talk
about our experience at Camp David in the summer of 2000.
President Clinton, who is a religious man, but has not made religion a policy,
and I have--he and I have talked about this--and he said he read the Bible and
he read the Torah, and was looking for ways that there might be elements that
would be helpful. And we even, as we were dealing with the issue of
Jerusalem, came up--and the issue was sovereignty--we came up with the idea
that perhaps we could talk about the holy places as being under divine
sovereignty. And so we were looking at ways that religion could help.
But I think the place where we made a mistake was in the following way. A lot
of people think we went to Camp David because President Clinton wanted a
legacy. That's not why we were there. It was because Prime Minister Ehud
Barak felt that the last months of President Clinton's presidency could be
useful for exploring some bold ideas that he had. And Chairman Arafat did not
want to come, and I actually had to persuade him to come. I don't think he
actually was capable in the end of making a very difficult decision of seeing
himself as a president rather than as a freedom fighter, but we thought that
he could make the decisions about the dispositions of the holy places in
Jerusalem. And the truth is that that was not his sole responsibility. We
should have considered much more what the other Muslim leaders thought and how
they could support him. But because Prime Minister Barak had wanted to keep a
lot of the discussions close to his vest and had not really given us a lot of
bottom lines, we were not able to mobilize some of the other leaders to help
in supporting Arafat in what was arguably a very difficult decision.
So it's pieces like that of trying to bring in religion and understanding what
the issues are in a very difficult problem. It's not the solution to
everything, but I do think that if our diplomats were better trained in
religion, they would understand better some of the implications of issues that
are beyond--that are not cultural, but are religious.
GROSS: When you found out that you were Jewish, did that have any impact on
your diplomatic work and how you worked with countries that were primarily
countries of one religion, whether that was, you know, Christian or Muslim or
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, the short answer is, no. I mean, I have a very
complicated religious background. I kid a little bit about the fact that I
was raised a Catholic, married and Episcopalian, found out I was Jewish, which
is why I think I'm capable of having written this book. But it is a
complicated background. I grew up with certain moral standards and beliefs.
And I am also very much a child of World War II. And while I certainly knew
about the Holocaust, I didn't know that it applied to me personally. And I
had certain beliefs about how one dealt with various issues. I don't think it
I had--there were lots of people actually before I became secretary of state,
who said that a woman of whatever religion could not deal with Arab countries,
particularly. And I actually found I had no problems. I went to many Arab
countries. I, of course, did arrive in a very large plane that said "United
States of America," but when they dealt with me they knew--or when they wanted
to deal with the United States, they had to deal with me. And I sometimes say
I actually had more problems with the men in our own government who had seen
me kind of rise through the ranks and wondered how I'd gotten to be secretary
of state. So I did not have those kinds of problems. And I had always had
very strong beliefs about the importance of the American relationship with
Israel. So from my own perspective I did not have any change of heart having
found out about an addition to my already very rich heritage.
GROSS: My guest is Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state and former
UN ambassador. Her new book is called "The Mighty and the Almighty:
Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs."
You write in your book that the invasion of Iraq may eventually rank among the
worst foreign policy disasters in US history. What do you think the long-term
repercussions might be?
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think they are very, very significant. First of all,
I from the very beginning said this was a war of choice, not of necessity. I
totally agreed with what President Bush said about Saddam Hussein, and I said
the same things, and I actually said them longer, for eight years. But I
didn't understand why the war had to happen when it did. We had not finished
the job in Afghanistan, and that's, after all, where the terrorists came from.
And we certainly did not have an adequate plan for the post-invasion aspect of
The repercussions are many. One is obviously that Iraq is a mess. That's a
diplomatic term of art. And we don't know what is going to happen to it.
There have been suggestions about a more federally formed Iraq, and with a
weaker central government, but an existing one. But what I am concerned about
is actually the break-up of Iraq, which in fact would be totally destabilizing
with the Kurds linking up with other Kurds, and Shias with Iran, and Sunnis
under the influence of Saudi Arabia. It's a very complex story. But
certainly the break-up of Iraq is one issue.
The second is, I think one of the biggest unintended consequences, and that is
the rise of Iran as a regional power, and certainly one where we're unclear
about their nuclear ambitions.
The third is that the message out of Iraq is wrong. The president talked
about the "axis of evil," and that was Iraq, Iran and North Korea. If I were
either Kim Jong Il or President Ahmadinejad, I would read that to say, `If you
don't have nuclear weapons you get invaded, and if you do have nuclear weapons
you don't get invaded.' We didn't invade the Soviet Union, Russia, or China,
and we did invade Iraq.
And then finally, I think in many ways it puts some question as to what
American power is all about, and our reputation. I loved--and I underline
that--representing the United States. I knew that we were not perfect, but I
did see us as an exceptional nation. And what we're now asking is that
exceptions be made for us, and our moral authority has been seriously damaged.
And that's why I say that this could turn out to be one--the, or one of the
greatest disasters. I hope it isn't. There isn't anybody I know that wants
us to fail. I hope it isn't. But it is--you know, there aren't a lot of
people that look at Iraq now and say, `I'd like my country to look just like
GROSS: Madeleine Albright, you were the first female secretary of state,
Condoleezza Rice is the second. You disagree with Condoleezza Rice on a lot
of political matters. But you have something very much in common, which is
that you were the first and second secretaries of state who were women. Do
you ever commiserate about that with her?
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, we do. But do you know we have something else in
common, which is that my father was her professor and actually persuaded her
to go into international relations. So it is one of the really interesting
coincidences, and she and I have talked about that. She says that my father
was the major influence on her in her life. And when I worked for a lot of
Democratic presidential candidates, in one of them I called her up and she
said,`Madeleine, I don't know how to tell you this but I'm a Republican.' And
I said, `Condie how could you be when we had the same father?' So she and I
have talked about that. I don't think we--well, we talk, we don't commiserate
because I think we both--I certainly loved being secretary of state, and
there's every indication that she does. And she's very busy and she's
traveling so we haven't spent a great deal of time on personal issues. But
when she first became national security adviser and I was still secretary, we
had some conversations about how to operate within the US government.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, thank you so much for your really incredibly important
and difficult questions, Terry.
GROSS: Madeleine Albright's new book is called "The Mighty and the Almighty."
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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Sign-off: Fresh Air
TERRY GROSS, host:
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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