DATE January 27, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Charles Lewis talks about his new book "The Buying of
the President 2004"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Primary voters in New Hampshire hit the polls today as America dives into its
first presidential race since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. But
our guest, Charles Lewis, says the new law hasn't made the world safe for
democracy. Lewis heads the Center for Public Integrity, a DC-based non-profit
that doggedly tracks political contributions and assembles reports on special
interests at work in Washington. Lewis and the center have published a new
book, "The Buying of the President 2004," which concludes big money is still
finding its way into politicians' campaign chests. The book is in part a
reference guide, including lists of the top-10 contributors to every
Charles Lewis spent 11 years as a producer for NBC and CBS News before leaving
to found the Center for Public Integrity in 1989. I spoke to him last week.
He said presidential candidates now have to raise a lot of money the year
before the election to be seen as serious contenders in early media coverage.
Mr. CHARLES LEWIS (Author, "The Buying of the President 2004"; Center for
Public Integrity): It ends up being very detrimental to the other candidates
who maybe can't raise that much. So if one's raising 30 or 40 million and the
other is raising 3, then the story line, you know, months and months before
Iowa and New Hampshire is that someone is a loser and can't find any support.
And you frequently see candidates drop out months before the actual primary
season starts for that very reason, and a lot of people are very frustrated by
this. They call it the wealth primary or private referendum where the people
that actually select some of our choices at the front end are sort of
faceless, nameless. I mean, you can find them in the records somewhere, but
they are writing checks. And the people who write checks and max out the
$2,000 contributions and things like that--90 percent of that money goes in
the year before the election. So it is--a lot of the election, a big part of
it, occurred already last year.
DAVIES: You said a private referendum, in effect, of contributors that occurs
before the rest of us get involved.
Mr. LEWIS: That's right.
DAVIES: Let's go over some of the Democrats that are still in the race and
tell us a little bit about where they get their money and where they are on
issues of campaign integrity and accountability. Howard Dean: Now you might
look at his Internet-based fund-raising campaign and think it's exactly the
kind of broad-based, democratic effort we'd like to see in campaigns. Is it?
Mr. LEWIS: Well, his numbers are very low. As a Vermont governor--and they
have limits up in Vermont, unlike Texas. A lot of Bush's numbers are high
because he was from a state with no limits, so Enron is his top donor from
when he was in Texas. Dean's top donor is $65,000, approximately 1/10th of
the Enron numbers, partly because of the function of Vermont. Certainly the
Internet phenomenon with Dean is very, very interesting and will be studied
for years. It has revolutionized fund-raising. Candidates in 2000 used the
Internet but not anywhere as effectively as Dean did. Being able to raise
800,000 to a million in a single day is really quite, you know, amazing and
Now a lot of donors outside Vermont have begun to flock to Dean. In the fall
it appeared he was--in the summer and the fall he started to look like the
possible nominee. So you have Time Warner, Microsoft, IBM are his top three
contributors. But the amounts of money are pretty low and their executives
inside those companies presumably--65,000 the top donor, the other--second one
is 25,000. And so the amounts of money he has raised are not very large in
the general context of candidates at that level as a major presidential
He does have a closeness to companies in Vermont; for example, the utility
industry has given him thousands of dollars. His former chief of staff went
to become the chief lobbyist for the largest utility in Vermont, and there are
some rate payers who still fighting mad about favors they perceive were given
to the utility companies up there.
So he has actually acknowledged that special interests have access that's
uneven and unfair compared with other citizens and that a candidate can be
influenced. He's been open about that. He hasn't been that open about his
records, which we also talk about in the book.
DAVIES: John Kerry is a long-standing advocate of campaign finance reform.
He's refused to take political action committee money in the past. Does he
put his fund-raising conduct where his mouth is?
Mr. LEWIS: Well, no. The short answer. He's gotten in some brushes,
scrapes himself with scandal. Remember Johnny Chung, the funder who
mysteriously gave money to Clinton and went to prison and there was another
fellow named Paul from Florida. These were associates or donors to Kerry and
he had to give their money back over the years. But he has raised large sums
of money. His top donor is Mintz, Levin, a law firm in Boston that his
brother's a partner at. They represent at lot of telecom interests, and Kerry
is on the Commerce Committee in the Senate. He has assisted some of these
wireless and other high-tech telecom type companies--try to get favors from
the Federal Communication Commission. So he has gone to bat for his donors.
Now some of those companies are probably in Massachusetts and he would argue,
you know, that he was helping his constituents. But there is a pattern of
assisting donors and doing things for them and having a--he's on amazing
committees. He's on the Finance Committee and the Commerce Committee, which
means those two committees have jurisdiction over every industry in America.
If you're a donor and the guy's a three-term senator, you need him; he needs
you. He needs money, they need access and influence over their agendas. And
he takes a lot of their money, and he has been helpful to many of these
It's not a dollar-to-dollar relationship with any of these politicians, but
occasionally they get what they are seeking and they certainly have
DAVIES: What should we know about John Edwards?
Mr. LEWIS: Edwards--you know, the two things that are noteworthy, one that's
probably well-known, yes, as a trial lawyer, a very successful trial lawyer,
he is very close to the trial lawyers. And so 22 of his 25 contributors are
trial lawyers or, you know, law firms or lawyers. But the other thing is, he
actually has--as a freshman senator and only in politics for less than six
years, he has the biggest single contributor in the entire book, which is a
real, you know, man-bites-dog fact, at least to me.
Shangri-La Entertainment, Stephen Bing in Hollywood, who's a big Democratic
Party donor, has given him $907,000. Most of his other donors are $400,000 or
under. But that's somewhat interesting. That shows sort of the Hollywood
thing that sometimes happens particularly with Democrats, where they get
excited about a candidate or two. We need to know a lot more about Mr. Bing,
which--you know, I'd like to know more. But that's what we noticed right off.
And then we have lots of things in the book about his cases and how he rose to
fame and his background, personally, but that's the story with his money.
DAVIES: Wesley Clark, the retired general, hasn't spent a lot of time raising
money. He did do some lobbying.
Mr. LEWIS: Right.
DAVIES: What should we know about him?
Mr. LEWIS: Well, yeah. He is--a lot of the Clinton fund-raising network has
embraced Clark. We added the Clark chapter after we finished the manuscript.
He entered the race, you'll recall, back in the fall and so we added the
chapter. And a retired general doesn't have a long record of contributions in
his career. But he's now raised about 13 million in about three months which
is pretty impressive for any candidate and especially for a Democratic
candidate. And so they're from all--sort of the usual suspects, a lot of the
big business interests and union interests and others. And we're still
waiting to see some of the numbers on that because the fourth quarter hasn't
come out. The most interesting thing is the lobbying relationship. He was a
registered lobbyist at the time he announced his candidacy on September 17th.
He was trying to help this company called Axiom get government contracts,
including airport security and other contracts including defense. And it's
not unusual for a retired general to help contractors get contracts. That
happens, unfortunately, way too often.
But it is interesting because he was an analyst for CNN talking about the war
during Iraq and talking about airport security in the US and other Homeland
Security issues. While he privately had been reportedly lobbying the vice
president personally and other top officials inside the Bush administration
and doing everything he can to help this company, he is publicly being a,
quote, unquote "neutral" analyst. And the viewers were never informed of
that. And it just shows how complex Clark is. He's setting up a committee to
run for president, he's a retired general helping a contractor, and he's on TV
as a commentator all simultaneously, all the same person. And the public
didn't know about one of those three things.
DAVIES: My guest is Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public
Integrity. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're back with Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity in
Washington. His new book is "The Buying of the President 2004."
Charles Lewis, you've written that George W. Bush has redefined the parameters
of fund-raising. What did you mean?
Mr. LEWIS: Well, no one has ever seen numbers like this. He raised $125
million in the 2000 election, including nearly $70 million the year before the
election. Or put differently, $230,000 a day in 1999 compared to Al Gore's
$84,000 a day. So, you know, those were astonishing numbers in '99. He has
now raised $130 million this time the year before the election; he has $99
million cash on hand with no primary opponent. This is just radically
transforming American politics--numbers have never, ever been remotely seen.
The champion fund-raiser of all time we thought was Bill Clinton, and this guy
nearly tripled the numbers of the Democratic candidate back then. And so when
you look at it that way, that's one reason we've never seen anything like it.
The other thing, and the way he has done it, is the Pioneer system. He has
found a way to bundle contributions in a highly sophisticated way, where he
can find an amazing number of people willing to write checks at the maximum
amount. The maximum contribution today is $2,000; back in 2000 it was $1,000.
It's been increased with the McCain-Feingold legislation. But...
DAVIES: You've noted, I think, that they have a sophisticated system of
coding each contribution internally so that they can track who gets credit for
it. What's the significance of that in this bundling process?
Mr. LEWIS: Well, the significance is--and there's a lot of deposition and
question-and-answer testimony that's really quite interesting from the
McCain-Feingold Supreme Court case where they admit this stuff. They say,
`Well, yeah, the industry has to get credit.' And you've got to think, `Why
do they want credit?' Well, they want credit because they're going to be back
asking for something; that's why they want credit. And why else would you
care. I mean, the Pioneer person, the person who raises $100,000 is called a
Pioneer. The person now this election who raises $200,000 is called a Ranger.
And they do want to get credit that it goes to them personally so they get to
be called a Pioneer or a Ranger, so that's--you could argue, that's the only
reason they do it.
But there is actually comments from a utility executive who went to college
with George W. Bush who is a Pioneer who said, `We want our industry to get
credit,' and he actually put it out in a letter to his other industry fellow
executives. Now, you know, the utility industry has gotten certain favors
from the administration, and so you've got to think they knew that they would
have close access to power. There was also personal familiarity, and they
were giving astonishing sums of money bundled together, and that's sort of how
We write in the book that this election, because of Bush's fund-raising
prowess, has the chance to be the most lopsided financially since the
Nixon-McGovern race back in '72. I mean, the Republicans, because of Bush's
prowess raising money--there's still a kind of a difficult situation here in
terms of accountability and openness in our political process, to put it
mildly. And one party, in this instance, the Democrats, is frankly terrified
that they are completely outgunned, and they're scrambling to try to recover.
DAVIES: What do you think George W. Bush's particular fund-raising genius
is? How do you account for his enormous success?
Mr. LEWIS: I think his genius is that he has found a way to organize a donor
base nationwide to an uncanny and extraordinary extent where industries are
clamoring to out-give each other, and they all get credit for the giving and
it's all understood. And it is a shameless and unabashed bundling of
contributions, which goes against the spirit of the post-Watergate laws. It
is highly organized bundling and, you know, you have to give them credit.
It's brilliant. I mean, it's ingenious, and it's entirely legal, I should
emphasize. There's nothing illegal about this. It's just disconcerting that
so many people are giving all these contributions from industries, getting
credit for the contributions and boasting that their industry has given the
most. And then we notice later they're getting various dispensations in
Washington. And you can't directly say A calls B, but don't tell me two plus
two equals seven because it's pretty obvious to us what's going on.
DAVIES: Now you recount what happened in 2000 when John McCain got off to a
very good start when he was challenging George W. Bush for the nomination and
then came the South Carolina primary, which you write, `Epitomizes the
profoundly disturbing state of American politics today.' What happened in that
primary that tell us that story?
Mr. LEWIS: Well, what was profoundly disturbing to me was that facts don't
matter. As an investigative reporter, facts to me are very, very important,
and not only did McCain get mugged, figuratively speaking, in South Carolina,
he had won New Hampshire, he's on the cover of all the magazines, and 19 days
later he's a failed candidate. His national campaign's dead in the water.
Well, what happened is Bush outspent him 5:1 and outside groups came in and
dumped millions of dollars as well. So you had more than 20 million probably
spent in South Carolina to McCain's 3 million. But you had a lot of
mysterious groups from the Confederate Flag to, you know, normal--groups that
are frequently associated with Republicans such as, you know, anti-abortion
and those kinds of organizations, all lining up around without officially
saying they're part of the Bush apparatus, sending out phone banks, e-mails,
leaflet drops, radio ads in the 11th hour that are very hard to detect who
paid for them.
Bush never--said he had no idea why this was happening. You know, he took the
high road in all of his--in the latter days of his campaign, and when it was
all said and done, not only is McCain's candidacy stopped cold, but the exit
polling shows that voters thought the reformer was actually Bush. Bush had
run ads calling himself the reformer with results. And when you study his
record in Texas, he never reformed politics. He, in fact, was an opponent of
campaign finance reform. And so by running an ad repeatedly almost into the
ground and in every appearance having a sign behind his head that said
`Reformer With Results,' the public began to think that he was really a
DAVIES: Anybody interested in campaign finance reform would have to say that
this--you know, 2002 was a huge year with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act
and it was upheld by the Supreme Court. How much of a difference will it
make? How far will it go in reforming the way we elect our public officials?
Mr. LEWIS: It's not a panacea. It is an incremental beginning. Yes, soft
money has been ended officially and there are some limitations on these issue
ads as they run in campaigns. But presidential candidates still have to go
out and raise a hundred to 200 million from private sources. Conventions, we
give a check for 12 million but they go raise three or four times that much
from special interests. Three candidates--Kerry, Dean and Bush--have opted
out of the presidential matching fund system which would seem to suggest that
system is broken. If it's going to continue, it's got to be seriously changed
I think by all accounts. And so, yes, the McCain-Feingold thing was huge
because it was a first major piece of legislation since Watergate, since 1974,
in the US, and, you know, as we all know, it took McCain almost a decade to
get the thing passed.
You know, how--everyone understands how hard they worked to try to get it on
the agenda. For three full years, the Republican Congress in the mid-'90s
would not even put the legislation on the agenda. That's how hard it was to
get this thing to climb the Hill on this. And the president signed it holding
his nose, proverbially. He went off to a fund-raiser after he signed it. He
didn't have a public statement for TV or radio about it. He quietly issued a
little statement and left town, and then, of course, authorized his party to
try and overturn it in the Supreme Court behind the scenes.
So this has been a very tough road and, you know, these reformers are fighting
mad and they feel emboldened. I mean, they actually feel they've been
validated by the Supreme Court, and they're getting ready to come back with a
whole laundry list of changes in American politics. And the other side that
lost is astonished, taken aback, licking their wounds and getting ready to
continue the fight in other trenches.
DAVIES: A lot of what you do at the Center for Public Integrity is to develop
information and shine a light that exposes relationships that otherwise
wouldn't be known, and as somebody who's done political reporting, I've
written a lot of stories over the years about political contributors who've
gotten government contracts or, you know, favors and apparently in return for
contributions. And I found that they don't have a great effect. I mean, I've
had politicians tell me, `Yeah, I know if I take a contribution from this
company or something, I'll take a media hit, but frankly it's worth it because
in the end it doesn't matter that much.' I'm wondering if you kind of feel
the frustration as someone who constantly cries out about the truth but gets
Mr. LEWIS: Well, I'm not in therapy yet, but yes, it does bother me. It is
frustrating. I mean, let's be honest. It doesn't matter to the politicians
because half the electorate doesn't participate in democracy anymore. A
hundred million Americans do not vote. A lot of the folks that don't vote are
poor and disenfranchised from the system economically already and they've just
essentially given up. They think that they don't matter. They can't get
through to politicians. So the politician desperately needs the money and who
do you think they're going to listen to: the person that doesn't vote--or the
voting bloc that doesn't vote or the folks who are paying their bills for
their consultants and their polling and their ads? And so it's very clear to
see what has happened to our process. It's becoming, you know, not a
government of the people, by the people and for the people, but some people
and folks who have checkbooks.
And, you know, at some point, as a people, we have to--the public has to speak
and try to get their government back, whether it's at the local level or the
national level. The question is: Will they mobilize? Will that start to
happen? And you see glimmers of hope occasionally where there's a pulse.
There's a media ownership vote and nearly three million people contact the
Federal Communication Commission as recent as last June. Now that's unusual.
That's interesting. That's not typical. Most of the things that happen in
Washington are behind closed doors. The hearings are mostly peopled by
lobbyists paid to be there. And the process is sponsored by these elite
interests--$1,000 or $2,000 check comes from 1/10th of 1 percent of the
American people. That is who is substantially sponsoring our politicians
And it is frustrating to continually chronicle it, and this is the third
"Buying of the President" book. But, you know, we are going to continue to go
into the brick wall here and keep tracking it just because, I guess, we're
DAVIES: Charles Lewis, thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. LEWIS: Well, thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity. His new
book is "The Buying of the President 2004."
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, mountain climber and author Joe Simpson. In one harrowing
climb in the Peruvian Andes, his knee was shattered and he was left for dead
by his climbing partner. Simpson survived and his book, "Touching the Void,"
is now a feature film.
Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new book about the rivalry between Queen
Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Joe Simpson discusses his book "Touching the Void"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
My guest, mountain climber and writer Joe Simpson, faced death several times
on one harrowing journey in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. His 1988 book,
"Touching the Void," has now been made into a movie which combines interviews
with Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates with re-enactments of
climbing scenes done by actors. Here's the real Joe Simpson speaking in the
film describing the treacherous landscape.
(Soundbite of "Touching the Void")
Mr. JOE SIMPSON (Mountain Climber): It was this enduring nightmare of
flutings of the finest powder gorged out by snow falling down, meringues and
mushrooms and cornices all over the place. We'd heard about these strange
powder snow conditions you get in the Andes, and we'd never seen it before. I
don't know the physics of it; explains why powder snow can stay on such steep
slopes. In the Alps, it would just slide off if the slope was above 40
degrees. It is some of the most precarious, unnerving and dangerous climbing
I've ever done.
DAVIES: "Touching the Void" tells the story of Simpson and Yates' climb up
the west face of the Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot Andean peak never previously
summited. They reached the summit in two and a half days, but disaster struck
during their descent.
Mr. SIMPSON: When we came down, we came down the north ridge and we spent
half a night coming down, then we bivouacked high on the ridge. And the next
day we started to come down again, and I was trying to down-climb a vertical
ice cliff that was about 30 feet high and some ice broke away and my ax ripped
out. And I fell about 20 foot max, more likely 15 foot. But I landed--my
right leg hit first and the impact drove my lower leg straight through my knee
joint. My tibia went through my knee joint and split off. I also broke my
heel and my ankle. But I didn't really notice that at the time.
We were at 20,000 feet. This was all our nightmare scenarios come true
because we knew there was no other people in that area in the Andes. There
was no mountain rescue. There was no helicopter. And usually to get a man
this badly injured off a mountain, you'd have a 10-man rescue team, and Simon
was just there on his own. And to my amazement--I thought he was going to
have to leave me, and I wouldn't have blamed him if he had done. But he
attempted to lower me down the mountain at great risk to his own life, and
lowered me for 3,000 feet before a second disaster struck.
DAVIES: Tell us about the moment when your eyes first met Simon's and you
explained to him what happened and you both immediately realized the
seriousness of the situation.
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, when I impacted, I didn't actually feel it. I had this
sound like a thick, dry stick snapping, but then I just catapulted backwards.
I started falling down the east face, and I thought Simon was going to get
pulled with me. But after about 50 feet, I stopped. And the pain was
absolutely excruciating, and for a moment I couldn't believe I had broken my
leg because I remember seeing a mountain in the distance that we were level
with the summit of and I knew that we were still at 20,000 feet. And the
implications of a fracture were like a death sentence. And I remember
actually putting a hand inside my trousers to feel if there was a bone end
sticking out, and there wasn't. So I thought that maybe I was just being a
bit wet. So I tried to stand on it, and all the bones went again, and I knew
it was broken. And then suddenly the rope went slack and it meant that Simon
was coming towards me.
And I was pretty much panicking at that point because I thought, `Well, he's
going to have to leave me.' And he suddenly appeared at the top of the cliff
and he was looking at me and said, `Are you OK?' And I said, `No, I've broken
my leg.' And he just looked at me longer, you know, than he should have done
really, and he didn't say anything at all. And the sort of look he gave me
was strange really. It was like looking at a wounded animal or something.
And then he turned away because he had to try and sort out how he was going to
get down this cliff to me. And I was very scared about that because he was
silent. And I sort of realize now that, you know, we don't have--we're never
taught any protocol, you know, by which you tell your friend that you're going
to leave him to die. And he didn't know what to do so he resorted to silence.
In the meantime, I tried to climb sideways across this ice slope. There was
about a 3,000-foot drop underneath me. And I was sort of thinking, `Well, it
might, you know, show willing to Simon that I wasn't dead in the water,' but I
also thought, `Well, he's got to leave me so I might as well try and get on
with it.' About an hour later or 45 minutes later, he suddenly appeared by my
side. And he didn't actually say anything, and I thought, `Well, this is the
point where he has to leave me.' And I couldn't really make eye contact with
him. I knew what the score was. And he climbed below me and then up the
other side. And then after a while, expecting to see him gone, I looked to my
right and he was digging a small sort of foot trench in the ice and the snow,
helping me to climb sideways towards him. And from that point on, I realized
that for reasons best known to himself he was going to try and stay with me
and help me.
DAVIES: So he improvises this fairly heroic attempt to get you down the
mountain, at which you tie two 150-foot lengths of rope together. And you dig
out a snow seat for him to brace himself and he lowers you down 300 feet at a
Mr. SIMPSON: Yeah. Well, Simon lowered me from sort of 11:00 in the morning
till like 9:00 at night in just the most phenomenal single-handed rescue that
I've ever heard about. And we were both suffering frostbite in our fingers
and in our hands. And we were in the dark, in a storm, almost nil
communication; no visibility after about 30 feet. And unbeknownst to us, he
was lowering me towards an overhanging cliff of ice that was directly in our
path and he lowered me off the edge of it. And a sudden, complete body weight
coming on to the rope very nearly pulled him off. And he had to let the rope
go and then slowly, dynamically break the rope, by which time I was hanging
out in space. I couldn't even contact the wall of the ice cliff and to my
horror discovered that I was a long, long way above the base of this cliff, at
which lay, covered up but quite obviously a crevasse.
Simon, desperate to get my weight off the rope, lowered me, hoping that, you
know, after a few feet, I'd put my feet on the ground. But after a while when
I was still hanging 80 feet above the crevasse, I came to a stop and I knew
that the knot joining the two ropes had come up and jammed in his lowering
device and we were locked into the system. There was nothing he could do
about it. And from then on, basically my body weight was pulling him off. He
hung on to me for about an hour and a half. I could feel him sort of
gradually inching down the mountain and I was jerking down. It was like being
on a fishing line. And I just knew that he eventually would just get ripped
off the mountain.
DAVIES: And you expected to die at that point.
Mr. SIMPSON: Yes. I was in shock. I was in great pain. I was probably
close to hypothermic. And I'd had it bad enough really. I felt basically
sort of a twinge of anger that my friend was going to have to die as well, and
it all--because we'd made a pretty strong attempt to save ourselves and it
seemed so unfair that it should all go wrong literally probably one lower from
the bottom of the mountain. And then suddenly I found myself free-falling
backwards, fell 80 feet, hit the roof of this crevasse, which was very thick.
It almost stopped me. And then I broke through on my right shoulder and fell
headfirst into this crevasse, into the darkness. Fell about another 75, 80
feet and then plowed into a snow bridge that was crossing the width of the
crevasse and stopped.
DAVIES: So you fell because Simon had cut the rope.
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, I didn't know that. I thought Simon had fallen off. I
had no idea. I thought he'd just come off, and that's what I was expecting,
that he would suddenly, you know, come wangling off. And, in fact, when I came
to in the crevasse and made myself safe and looked at this rope that was going
up and out through the ceiling of the crevasse 80 feet above me, I though,
`Well, Simon's body's flown over the crevasse and he'd dead down slope. And if
I pull on the rope, it will come tight on his body and I can use that as a
counterweight and using special knots, I can climb up the rope. So I kept
pulling on the rope, and then suddenly there was this sort of--vroo--and this
frayed rope came down and it meant two things. It meant that Simon was alive
and he had my knife.
DAVIES: At that moment, were you angry that he'd cut the rope? Did you
Mr. SIMPSON: No, not at all. I was never angry. I mean, my friend was
alive. You know, it was important. But more important from an entirely
selfish point of view was that, you know, while he was alive, he could help
me. I was now trapped in a deep crevasse that was impossible to climb out of
vertically from where I was. And, you know, Simon being dead was of
absolutely no use to me and not much use to himself. And I then had a
nightmarish night not sure whether Simon was climbing down. Actually, he'd
taken shelter quite wisely.
I was then forced to make perhaps the most frightening decision I've ever had
to make in my life, which was--you know, you don't die of a broken leg, you
die slowly of dehydration and hypothermia, and it would take three or four
days in a twilight world. I mean, crevasses are very claustrophobic,
nightmarish places to be and have the feel of a tomb about them. And I wasn't
prepared to do that. But my only option was to lower myself with my half of
the rope deeper into the crevasse, which was completely counterintuitive to
everything that my mind wanted to do. It was a very, very frightening
decision. But I did eventually do it, and I lowered myself another 80 feet
deeper into this crevasse and, to my very good fortune, found a way--by
crawling towards the north, I found a slope running up about 160 feet and
managed to eventually climb out of the crevasse.
DAVIES: So you did this...
Mr. SIMPSON: At which...
DAVIES: Yeah, you're climbing out with your right leg utterly useless
using, I guess--What?--ice axes and pulling yourself up and crawling. And
Mr. SIMPSON: Yes, it's quite a steep slope. I mean, you know, you're having
to hop upwards. The trouble is if you fracture your knee, you can't bend your
knee to get your lower leg out of the way. So when you hop out, you almost
never make land on your bad foot which puts pressure on the broken joint
because your knee doesn't bend anymore. You know, the leg has gone through
the knee joint and so it was excruciating painful trying to climb up. And
when I did get out--I mean, initially I was just laughing because I was so
relieved to get out of this place--this sort of claustrophobic nightmarish
place where I was going to die. And then I looked around and way off to my
left I saw a rope hanging down a rock and ice buttress and--which Simon had
obviously used to abseil down and when I looked to the glacier, I saw his
tracks in the snow and I knew at that point that, you know, he would never
have left if he thought I was alive. And that the only person who could
possibly help me in this world that I was in now thought I was dead and that
was a pretty chilling moment.
DAVIES: But you took--What?--three days and you kept yourself going.
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, then another three and a half--the best part of four days
really without food and water, I eventually on the morning of the fifth day
since breaking my leg--and it actually was four days since parting company
with Simon, I got to within 200 yards where the tents were in the dark in a
storm, completely disorientated and by then very delirious and not really
knowing where I was. I mean, by then I weighed about somewhere between 80 and
85 pounds and I was probably dying at that point. And I was delirious and I
think I screamed out--not because I thought they were there, but just in
desperation and fear. And suddenly these lights came on in a tent about 200
yards away and they were still there. They were leaving three hours later at
6 in the morning and suddenly Simon came sort of charging out of this tent and
DAVIES: I want to just go back to one moment. When you had to make this
overland trek--the eight miles back down to the base camp you had a bum
Mr. SIMPSON: That's one way of putting it.
DAVIES: Yeah, a shattered leg. You crawl, you hop, how did it work?
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, you can't really crawl because you're crawling over
boulders and huge sort of rocks and often they're all jumbled on top of each
other and so you're doing everything from hopping, using your ice ax as a
walking stick and trying to clamber over things. And you're falling virtually
every time you try and hop. You're constantly falling and you're falling on
the broken knee and I can't remember the pain, but I know it was just almost
unendurable. I mean, what I--I don't even remember the fear either because
that's difficult to recall. But I recall a long, drawn out sense of
abandonment and loneliness that is very difficult to put your finger on. I
think what I now realize is that it was is I was dying alone and that's the
memory I'm left with. And the one thing I think I kept doing was I was
crawling up because I wanted to live, but because I wanted somebody to hold me
when I died and I still can recall that moment when Simon's hands grabbed my
shoulders and he pulled me towards him and carried me to the tent. I mean, it
was just the most extraordinary reprieve from--you know, it was as if I was
walking to the gallows and somebody just tapped me on the shoulder and said,
`It's OK, Joe, everything's OK now. You're going to be safe.'
DAVIES: My guest is mountain climber and author Joe Simpson. We'll talk more
after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to our interview with mountain climber and author Joe
Simpson. His book "Touching the Void" is now a feature film.
Well, Joe Simpson, you write in this book that you were a different kind of
climber back in--I guess--you were 25 when you first made this disastrous
attempt. Well, it was a successful climb but a disastrous trip. You wrote
of `having a sense of invincibility, the confidence of born of youth, too much
testosterone and too little imagination.' Were you and Simon ill-prepared...
Mr. SIMPSON: Is that right?
DAVIES: Yeah. Were you and Simon ill-prepared for this thing?
Mr. SIMPSON: No, not at all. No. I mean, there's no way we would have
managed to climb that route if we were bad climbers. We made mistakes. Every
friend of mine who has died in the mountains, and there's some 15 or 20 of
the, made a mistake and that's what killed them. The best climbers in the
world that are dead made a mistake. That's just a game you're playing.
DAVIES: But were these mistakes of immaturity? I mean, looking back now
would you do it differently?
Mr. SIMPSON: Not really. I mean, I think that, you know, we'd done a huge
amount of climbing, extreme climbing in the European Alps in both the winter
and the summer. We'd done some of the hardest routes in the Alps. We were
technically very, very competent climbers. This was our first trip to high
altitude and so we were moving into a new plain and had a new area. I would
still have climbed the route to the same style. We did it in two and a half
days and when the route was repeated, you know, 16 years later, the people who
repeated it took the same time as us, despite the advance of 16 years of
development of ice climbing years.
So we were good climbers. We would never have got up the face if we weren't
good climbers. And to be truthful, we would never have survived, but we did,
if we didn't know what we were doing. But without a doubt, we made mistakes.
We didn't take enough food with us; we didn't take enough gas with us because
we were trying to go as light and as fast as possible. And it meant that when
something did go wrong, we didn't have any sort of backup insomuch as we
couldn't take shelter and take back control because we'd run out of gas and we
couldn't make any water and we had run out of food. And I suppose just like
any experience in that this is what you do as climbers, you know, we got home,
we looked to what we did wrong and thought, `Well, what did we do wrong?' And
then we went climbing again having learned very strong lessons. And that's
tends to be what you do in climbing.
DAVIES: You know, one of the striking things about the ordeal you went
through is that there were so many times in which it seemed clear that you
were a goner. I mean, not many people come so near death. Did it change you
at all? Did it change the way you look at climbing? Did it change the way
you look at your life?
Mr. SIMPSON: I never quite climbed the same again. I actually climbed at a
much higher technical standards on rock and ice, but you know, a lot of
high-end climbing is actually mental and I never quite did such a committing
route again, which I think was a shame. That was something stolen from me.
But I didn't...
DAVIES: I'm sorry, what do you mean that you never did such a committing
route again? What do you mean by that?
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, I went to the Himalayas and Peru and I did Alpine-style
first ascents of new routes, but they were never as technically difficult and
serious as the one we did on Siula Grande. Which is really what I wanted to
do, you know, so--that was not because of the technical difficulty, that was
because of the mental scars that I carry with me from that experience in Peru.
But, I mean, I regret that I have climbed all over the world. But I think,
you know, people sort of wonder what it must be like to experience something
like this. You don't feel when you survive something like this, like, you
know, you're gung ho or heroic or you've done anything, you know, particularly
special because the process of surviving this, or in my case, a long drawn out
dying, was very, very destructive, both physically and eventually perhaps
mentally worst of all.
You know, I never expected to be so slowly destroyed so that everything that
you thought you were, everything that you thought made you strong as a man or
good as a person was just whittled away until you were just a crying, feeble,
childlike figure. And you'd even seemed to have lost your whole personality.
And right at the end, I was given my life back because Simon found me and I
had just always felt and have always felt very humbled by the experience.
That it was--it made me feel very fragile and very weak even though I may have
at times shown a great deal of strength and determination. It's never struck
me as like that. It struck me that I was very lucky and I just sort of live
every day now and plan on things I want to do in the future.
I don't--this did happen 18 years ago. Although the book's been very
successful and now the film, it sort of locks you in the past and makes you
always sort of seem to be living in 1985 and touching the void all over again.
But I don't do that. I think of the next book I want to write and things I
want to do, my gardening, the fly-fishing trip I got to Scotland next
week--not in Scotland, in Ireland. And I don't think about what happened in
Peru. It's not worth dwelling on the past and beating yourself up. You just
get on with life.
DAVIES: Well, Joe Simpson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. SIMPSON: Thank you.
DAVIES: Author and mountain climber Joe Simpson. His book "Touching the
Void" is now a feature film.
Coming up, a new look at the highly charged relationship between Queen
Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Jane Dunn's new biography, "Elizabeth and Mary"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Some four centuries after their reigns, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of
Scots seem more like icons than actual flesh and blood women. Elizabeth is
the stern virgin queen, Mary, her beautiful cousin, is a romantic who died a
Last year in England, a book came out that explored not so much the lives of
these two queens, but the life of their highly charged and very human
relationship. Called "Elizabeth and Mary," it's written by celebrated
biographer Jane Dunn, who's written previous biographies of Mary Shelley and
Virginia Woolf. "Elizabeth and Mary" has just been published here and book
critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
The age-old question of how a woman in politics is supposed to behave came to
the fore last week when Dr. Judy Steinberg Dean was criticized for behaving
as though she still had a right to a autonomous private life while her
husband, Howard Dean, was busy campaigning for the Democratic nomination for
president. Dutifully, Dr. Steinberg Dean responded by materializing at her
husband's side. Smiling and clapping with the good wifely gusto of a Hillary
or a Laura. I was disappointed at Dr. Steinberg Dean's capitulation.
I complained to a friend that government should just appoint Harvey Fierstein
to be permanent first lady. He did such a good job female impersonating Mrs.
Santa Claus in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And he could really carry
off those little red suits and that helmet hairdo and the adoring gaze first
ladies are supposed to wear. I thought I was being so clever, then I read
Jane Dunn's fascinating biography, "Elizabeth and Mary," about the vexed
rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. It
turns out Queen Elizabeth was way ahead of me in hitting upon the mixed
messages of androgyny as a strategy to navigate her way through the
overwhelmingly masculine world of Renaissance politics.
In response to vicious critics, like John Knox and John Calvin, who pronounced
female rulers monstriferous and hurrying a deviation from the primitive and
established order of nature, Dunn says Elizabeth declared that she was
possessed of a mystical sexuality duality. Though she had the natural body of
a woman--frail, flighty and flirtatious--she also possessed the maleness
inherit in her body politic: the heart of a lion and the mind of a scholar.
In contrast, poor Mary, Queen of Scots, who ruled in a strictly feminine
manner by relying on her sexuality and her husbands and male admirers to
achieve her political ambitions, wound up literally losing her pretty little
Both queens explicitly reflected in letters and other documents on their
conundrum as women in power, a subject that makes Dunn's elegantly intertwined
biography of their relationship feel so contemporary. At the same time Dunn
also invokes a substantive vision of a superstitious and bloody Renaissance
world that's impossibly weird and distant. A world where torture on the rack
or assassination by poisoning were everyday political realities.
The gist of her scrupulously detailed argument is that Elizabeth and Mary, who
never once met in person, were hyper aware of each other from childhood and
that in part they fashioned themselves as rulers and as women in reaction to
each other. Mary, who was Elizabeth's junior by nine years, was brought up in
the glittering Catholic French court where she was encouraged to believe that
she was the legitimate heir to the English throne rather than Elizabeth, the
daughter of that Protestant Jezebel, Ann Boleyn. Mary married three times,
each succeeding husband more virile and dastardly than his predecessor.
Elizabeth's early and dogged allegiance to celibacy, despite her passion for
the Earl of Lester, allowed her to maintain her independence while
strategically dangling her hand in marriage to decades to eligible foreign
monarchs. Yet, as Dunn points out, Elizabeth's canny political choice was
surely also motivated by the spectacle of grotesque marriages, her mother's
and father's chief among them, she witnessed from childhood. Marriage, family
and political entanglements noted, Dunn says that the turbulent relationship
between the two queens was the most important connection of both their lives.
Even towards the end of their joint story, as Elizabeth held Mary her prisoner
for 19 years on suspicion of treason, a charge that would result in her
beheading, Elizabeth attested to the emotional thrall her cousin held her in
declaring, `I am not free, but a captive.'
Dunn's astute psychological reading of the relationship between the two queens
never oversteps into the realm of glibness or sensationalism. And after all
there's plenty of R-rated material inherent in even a bare bones account of
Mary and Elizabeth's reigns. There's also a fair amount of humor here, an
element that humanizes Elizabeth, in particular. Dunn tells the story of the
Earl of Oxford who returned to Elizabeth's court after seven years of
self-imposed exile after having embarrassed himself in front of the queen.
The mischievous Elizabeth greeted him with the words, `My Lord, I had forgot
the fart.' It's hard to imagine a woman in the political spotlight these days
saying anything in public remotely so ribald. Harvey Fierstein maybe, the
first lady's club, never.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Elizabeth and Mary" by Jane Dunn.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.