DATE January 23, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: ABC legal correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg talks
about her new book "Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the
Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court," about
the Rehnquist court and the new Roberts court
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts is more conservative than
any other in a half century. "George W. Bush and his team of lawyers will be
shaping the direction of American law and culture long after many of them are
dead," writes Jan Crawford Greenburg. Greenburg's new book about the
Rehnquist court and the new Roberts court is called "Supreme Conflict: The
Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court."
She's covered the court since 1994. She's currently legal correspondent for
ABC News. She's been a legal analyst for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on
PBS and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.
Jan Crawford Greenburg, welcome to FRESH AIR.
What were you looking for in this book? What were you trying to evaluate?
Ms. JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: One of the most, I think, puzzling things for
people who followed the court is why the Rehnquist court, a court that had
seven Republican-appointed justices became, in many ways, an illegal and
ideological disappointment for conservatives. You know, why did that happen?
Why was this a court with seven Republican-appointed justices that refused to
overturn Roe, that refused to ban affirmative action, that outlawed school
prayer--I mean, on case after case the conservatives cared about, this was a
court that let them down.
GROSS: Do you think this was one of the most ideologically selected courts in
the history of the court?
Ms. GREENBURG: Republican presidents for decades, dating back to Ronald
Reagan, have tried to influence the direction of the court. You know, Reagan
campaigned on appointing justices who would start undoing some of the liberal
legacy of the Warren court. But in case after case, the justices that they
nominated were not as conservative as those presidents had hoped, or those
that were conservative, like Justice Thomas for example, affected the court in
GROSS: Well, there was one particular unexpected way that you described with
Clarence Thomas. Let me ask you to describe it.
Ms. GREENBURG: Well, Justice Thomas when he came on the court was a forceful
conservative voice, very independent. Of course, the storyline on Justice
Thomas in his first couple of months, and even years later, the storyline has
persisted, you know, that he was following Justice Scalia. That he was a
clone of Justice Scalia. That Scalia was basically telling Thomas what to do.
That's one of the most interesting things that I discovered in doing research
into the Blackman papers--the papers of Justice Harry Blackman--Thomas, when
he first came in the court, from the first week on the bench, was this
independent forceful voice who stood alone, and if any justice that year was
changing his votes, it was Scalia changing his votes to join Justice Thomas,
and, of course, that's not what anyone assumed or reported and still that
stereotype lingers today. But that had an unexpected impact on the Supreme
Court. Justice Thomas' views, the forcefulness of his views, caused Justice
O'Connor--Sandra Day O'Connor--to shift to the left, so that term, Thomas'
first term when everyone, conservatives and liberals alike, thought the court
was really going to start undoing all these liberal landmarks like Roe vs.
Wade, separation of church and state--they had a big school prayer case that
year. That year, the court went inexplicably to the left because Justice
Thomas, coming on, replacing this liberal icon, Thurgood Marshall, caused
Justice O'Connor to back away.
GROSS: What makes you think that there was a cause and effect there, that it
was Thomas that caused O'Connor to move more toward the left?
Ms. GREENBURG: In the Blackman papers, there are memos and documents that
have never really been publicly released so we get a good feel for some of the
behind-the-scenes discussion in the writings that the justices had, and that
term Justice O'Connor, in document after document and memo after memo, is
responding to Justice Thomas and almost bristling on paper. You can see her
words as she's just having this kind of visceral kind of shying away from the
forcefulness of his views. So it's very evident from looking at the documents
and also from interviews I did with people who were inside the court from that
Now, Justice O'Connor's an interesting justice to watch because, you know, we
think of her as the moderate. She was the justice who, as she went, so went
the court. And for many years, people who clerked for Justice O'Connor and
followed the court, before Thomas got on, believed that she was staying to the
right because of liberal stalwart William Brennan. And so when Brennan
stepped down from the court the year before Thomas went on, you know, that
force field was gone, so that enabled her to again move further to the left
once Thomas came on.
GROSS: Now you were talking about how the Rehnquist court was a
disappointment to conservatives, and, you know, an example of that was Justice
Kennedy who didn't prove to be as conservative as the conservatives behind his
appointment hoped, and you give examples of two decisions in which he changed
his mind in, like--toward the very end of the case. And he seemed to be on
one side and then switched to another. Can you talk about one of those
Ms. GREENBURG: Sure. This was the pivotal term, the 1991 term when Justice
Thomas joined the court, and that was a term when we really saw the chess
pieces rearranged and the term that the court started moving to the left. In
those two cases that term--I mean, these are the issues that conservatives
cared most about--abortion and in school prayer--and in both cases Justice
Kennedy initially sided with the conservatives, but at the end of the day, you
know, he changed his vote and went over to the liberal side in both of those
cases. The first case was an abortion case and the court was being asked to
overturn Roe, and instead, it really put Roe on more solid ground. We had
Justice O'Connor, Souter and Kennedy joining together and refusing to set
aside that landmark decision. The other case was a school prayer case. The
court was being asked to allow student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies.
Justice Kennedy actually was going to write that opinion for the conservatives
to allow the school prayer, but as he started working through the opinion, he
was in a quandary. He couldn't make the opinion right, as he would describe
it. So he went to the chief justice William Rehnquist and said, `I just can't
write this opinion. I've changed my mind. I think that the prayers are
unconstitutional.' And Rehnquist, the conservative who, of course, felt very
strongly that these student-led prayers were in fact permissible under the
Constitution, really had nothing that he could do, so he said, `Well, go ahead
and circulate your opinion,' and, of course, Justice Kennedy ended up writing
the opinion for the liberals to strike down those student-led prayers at
GROSS: You reprint what I think is a very interesting memo that Kennedy wrote
to Justice Blackman during the abortion case that you were talking about, and
this was Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which was going to put restrictions on
abortion and you say possibly even strike down Roe v. Wade, and so when he
changes his mind when he decides he can't side with the conservatives on this,
he writes Justice Blackman a note and Justice Blackman wrote the Roe v. Wade
decision, and the note that you reprint says, "Dear Harry, I need to see you
as soon as you have a few free moments. I want to tell you about some
developments in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, and at least part of what I say
should come as welcome news. If today is not convenient, I'll be here
tomorrow. Give me a call. Yours, Tony." Is that a typical kind of memo? Did
that memo seem very unusual to you?
Ms. GREENBURG: It seemed unusual to me, and it certainly seemed unusual to
people inside the court, including Justice Scalia, who believed that Kennedy
was a solid vote for the conservative side. Justice Scalia had a sense that
Justice Kennedy might have been wavering in the case, so he actually went to
see Justice Kennedy, and the two had a walk around their neighborhood where
they both lived, and he believed that Kennedy was going to remain a solid
vote, but then, within a couple days, it became clear to everyone inside the
court that Kennedy was, in fact, going to side with the more liberal side and
vote to uphold Roe.
GROSS: Well, Kennedy wasn't really the conservatives' first choice for that
seat in the court, anyways, was he?
Ms. GREENBURG: He wasn't. And this is one of the, I think, great untold
stories about Justice Kennedy. Conservatives now believe that Kennedy really
drifted left once he got on the court, and he did to some extent. I mean, he
has changed over the years, but there was a core group of conservatives in the
Reagan Justice Department who from the beginning believed that Anthony was not
a solid conservative, and they went to great lengths to block his nomination.
It's just a fascinating story. I mean, after the nomination of Robert Bork
went up in flames, Anthony Kennedy was waiting in the wings. He looked like
he was going to be the next nominee. He was a federal appeals court judge out
in California. But this group of lawyers in the Justice Department who had
read his opinions from his time on the bench believed that he was not the kind
of conservative that Ronald Reagan wanted to nominate, so they mounted this
campaign to, in effect, sabotage his nomination. They called senators on the
Hill and said that Reagan had, you know, narrowed it down to Anthony Kennedy
and whoever the senators' favorite nominee was so the senator would call the
White House and say, `Anybody but Anthony Kennedy.' They enlisted the help of
the former attorney general, William French Smith, who called President Reagan
and said, you know, `I don't think Tony Kennedy is the man that you say that
you want to nominate.' And so they were able to persuade President Reagan and
his top advisers to nominate another judge after Robert Bork went down, an
untested, largely unknown figure named Douglas Ginsburg and, of course,
Douglas Ginsburg's nomination--he was never formally nominated. It lasted
only a matter of days because Nina Totenberg from NPR unearthed evidence of
pretty recent or some marijuana use in his past, and so he was forced to step
down. And then Kennedy--there was nothing else that people felt that they
could do at that point.
But these lawyers in the Justice Department knew, from reading his opinions,
that Kennedy was not going to be that kind of solid conservative. In fact,
one of the opinions really foreshadowed some of the positions that he would
later take on the bench as a Supreme Court justice. He was perfectly
comfortable citing, for example, a United Nations resolution, and Kennedy
today is a great source of frustration to conservatives because he's willing
to look outside the United States, and he'll look to international law, and
conservatives don't think that you should do that on the courts. So they had
clues about Kennedy, and they knew Kennedy was going to probably let them
down, and they were right.
GROSS: My guest is Jan Crawford Greenburg, legal affairs correspondent for
ABC News. Her new book is called "Supreme Conflict."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is ABC News legal correspondent, Jan Crawford Greenburg. Her
new book is called "Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for
Control of the US Supreme Court."
When we left off, we were talking about how President Reagan ended up
appointing Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court.
Let's jump ahead to President George H.W. Bush. Who were the people who were
advising him on who to choose to fill vacant Supreme Court seats?
Ms. GREENBURG: The first President Bush, his White House counsel Boyden Gray
and his attorney general, Dick Thornburg, were heavily involved in the process
as was his chief of staff, John Sununu. When President Bush got a nomination,
William Brennan notified the White House that he would be stepping down, Bush
wanted to move quickly. He did not want the seat to hang open. He believed
that Reagan had waited too long in nominating Robert Bork, so that gave
Democrats time to really gather their troops and fire quickly when the
nomination came down. So he told his advisers that he wanted a name within 48
hours. He was going to make this nomination very quickly after the vacancy
came open--the seat came open. So the lawyers in the White House Counsel's
Office led by Boyden Gray, assumed that the nominee would be Kenneth Starr,
who was the solicitor general, a very highly regarded legal mind. The White
House had lured him off the DC circuit, the federal court of appeals in
Washington, to be solicitor general, and they had told him, you know, he was
going to be on the shortest of the short list for the Supreme Court. Nothing
was promised. Starr certainly didn't think it was a quid pro quo thing that
he was leaving the federal appeals court and that he might be on the short
list, but in the White House and the White House Counsel's Office, it was
clear that Starr was the front-runner and Starr was going to be the nominee.
But when the advisers gathered for an early morning breakfast, it was a
Saturday morning, the next day after Brennan's resignation letter got to the
White House, Bush held this meeting with his White House counsel, his attorney
general, his chief of staff, and before coffee was even poured, Attorney
General Dick Thornburg kind of startled the group by saying, you know, `Starr
GROSS: Why would Starr, some people's favorite, why was he unacceptable to
Attorney General Thornburg?
Ms. GREENBURG: Well, when we think about Kenneth Starr now, what we think
about is Whitewater and his pursuit of President Clinton. He's become a quite
polarizing figure, of course, but back then Starr was a highly regarded
federal judge and considered a very affable, first-rate legal mind and
colleague. But there were lawyers in the Justice Department who believed
Starr, and this is almost incredible to believe now, but who thought that
Starr was too squishy. That he could drift to the left once he got on the
court, like they thought that Kennedy had done, and so they worried that Starr
was not conservative enough. They thought, you know, his views were
unfocused, particularly, you know, on the law.
Two of Thornburg's deputies, Bill Barr and Mike Ludig, who would down the road
become a possible Supreme Court nominee himself, actively opposed Starr's
nomination. They would find Starr incredibly, you know, annoying after his
briefings. They thought he was verbose and meandering, and so they opposed
him because they thought that he was not going to be a solid enough
conservative vote, and Thornburg agreed. Now, of course, the great irony of
that is that it paved the way for David Souter, who on this Supreme Court, is
perhaps the most liberal justice of the nine.
GROSS: Yeah. Why was Souter considered to be such a big blunder by
Ms. GREENBURG: Because David Souter has become, and very quickly became, the
most liberal voice on the Supreme Court, and it's hard for conservatives to
see how a president who nominated Clarence Thomas could have so egregiously
misjudged David Souter. George Bush said he wanted to nominate conservative
judges. He was following on the heels of Ronald Reagan, who also had tried to
nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Bush thought that he was
nominating a conservative in David Souter. His advisers, even in the White
House, had advised him that David Souter would be a predictable conservative.
That he had a view of the Constitution that the court wouldn't be involved in
contentious social debates like abortion, and, you know, on gay rights, civil
rights. So they believed, if you can believe this, that David Souter was
going to be a solid conservative. They were obviously wrong, and after
Souter's first year on the court, his views became very clear. So
conservatives see that Souter, when we think about how the Supreme court, the
Rehnquist court, became that court, conservatives see Souter as just a
mistake, whereas they see Kennedy as someone who maybe have been a mistake but
who also changed, kind of a hybrid. But with Souter, he was really no
conservative from the beginning. You know, he had only been on the federal
bench just a very short time, hadn't even written an opinion, so they believed
that Souter may have thought he thought those things, but he didn't know
himself. He didn't have a conservative legal philosophy. He didn't have a
conservative legal framework. He was--his advisers, Bush's advisers, told him
that he was conservative, and maybe in New Hampshire, he seemed like he would
have been conservative. But once he got to the Supreme Court, it became clear
that he was not conservative.
Souter also tipped his hand during his confirmation hearings. He responded to
questions from Democratic senators in a way that the advisers watching these
hearings in the White House, told me that they just started having a sinking
feeling that they had made a terrible mistake. They watched Souter heap
praise on William Brennan, the man he was replacing, in a way that suggested
that he hoped that he could kind of live up to what the liberal justice had
done. So he tipped his hand a little bit. The first term on the court, he
looked like he might be conservative, but by his second year, it was very
clear that he was going to be firmly in the liberal wing.
GROSS: Let's skip ahead to one of the most controversial decisions of the
Rehnquist court, and I'm referring to Bush v. Gore. You write about
Kennedy's place in that decision, and I want to ask you to tell us what you
learned about his place.
Ms. GREENBURG: Sure. Now, of course, Bush vs. Gore. When we talk about
the Rehnquist court and how it became a disappointment to conservatives, you
know, obviously, this is still a court that five of his justices joined
together and voted to stop the Florida recount, which delivered the election
to George W. Bush. But that decision opened the court to charges that it was
deciding the case on politics, not on the law, and certainly academics believe
and the evidence is there, that that decision actually forced the court
further to the left in the years after Bush vs. Gore, and particularly
Justices Kennedy and O'Connor, those two moderates that after that decision,
they didn't want to be seen as partisans or casting predictable votes for the
Justice Kennedy is a justice who, you know, his vote was sometimes always in
play. He was someone who would change his mind. He was someone who would
take a position, think it through, decide it didn't work for him, and then
take another position. And the justices knew that. So two of the more
liberal justices, Justice Souter and Breyer believed that they could get
Kennedy's vote, so they, you know, began working on Justice Kennedy, trying to
convince him that there was another approach to take, that this case could be
decided on grounds of equal protection grounds and that the standard
was--recount in Florida would violate those equal protection concerns. That
there was a way to do them the right way, and the recounts could continue. So
they tried to get Justice Kennedy's vote but, as a result, what happened was
the court, at the end of the day, kind of came out with a mess. I mean,
Kennedy ended up being responsible for this opinion that these standardless
recounts did violate equal protection concerns but that the recounts had to
stop. Kennedy refused to go along with Breyer and the liberals to say that
the recounts could continue. So--but he refused to sign on to a more clear
and legally defensible position from the conservative point of view that Chief
Justice William Rehnquist had written. So that decision, in a way, came
about--really, at the end of the day, didn't serve the court very well.
GROSS: Jan Crawford Greenburg is a legal affairs correspondent for ABC News.
Her new book about the Supreme Court is called "Supreme Conflict." She'll be
back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross, back with Jan Crawford Greenburg, the author of the new book,
"Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the US
Supreme Court." It examines how the Rehnquist court was shaped and how the
Roberts court is taking shape.
What do you feel you've learned so far about Chief Justice Roberts? Do you
feel like you truly have gotten demonstrations of his judicial philosophy in
Ms. GREENBURG: Not completely yet. This will be a quite interesting term
for the court because they've got some pretty significant cases on abortion,
affirmative action and the environment. But I think Chief Justice Roberts has
been pretty clear from the beginning, even back to his confirmation hearings,
in outlining what he sees as a very conservative view of the courts, a very
conservative view of the judicial role. He thinks courts should have a more
limited place in society. That's a view that's clearly shared by Justice
Scalia. I think that what we'll see, though, is Roberts is going to be a more
effective chief justice, perhaps a more conservative chief justice than
Rehnquist and a more effective chief justice than Rehnquist because he wants
to build consensus and coalition. He's got--you know, he's got good people
skills. I mean, remember from the confirmation hearings? He wowed the
senators with his ability to explain the law, kind of this smooth, easy-going
manner that he exhibited. So I think Roberts will be quite effective, but I
also think that we're going to see Roberts taking quite conservative
GROSS: So you think he'll be more effective in getting other justices to side
with his conservative views?
Ms. GREENBURG: Well, he only needs one. He needs Anthony Kennedy, and I do
think he will be more effective in getting Kennedy to side with his views and
those of the court's more solid conservative than Chief Justice William
Rehnquist was. You know, Rehnquist ended up disappointing conservatives,
including conservatives on the Supreme Court. When he started out as an
associate justice, Rehnquist often was the lone dissenter. In fact, his
clerks gave him a little Lone Ranger doll that he kept in his chambers. But
when he became chief, it seemed to people on the court--justices on the court,
in fact, that Rehnquist started caring less about the reasoning and more about
the result, more about the outcome. Roberts is not going to be like that. I
mean, Roberts is more principled and more disciplined in his approach to the
law, and that will have, I think, a significant impact on the court and on the
development of the law.
GROSS: But do you think Kennedy will be swayed by Chief Justice Roberts'
Ms. GREENBURG: Yes, I do. And I think one of the things that we're seeing
now is, you know, Roberts has given a lot of talks, and he had a very
interesting interview recently with Jeff Rosen in The Atlantic, and also when
I spoke with the chief justice in Miami back in November, he talked at length
about the need to have consensus on the court. The need to try to reach
unanimity more often. The need to have more narrow opinions, not to write so
broadly. And I think that that is an appealing way to think about bringing
the court together and keeping Justice Kennedy from being such a pivotal vote.
I'm not saying that's what Roberts' intent is, but it certainly seems to me
that that's the way that the court could move in that direction together more.
Write more narrow opinions and so then you don't have Kennedy kind of everyone
playing for Justice Kennedy's vote as we saw with O'Connor.
GROSS: What are some of the cases coming up that you think will really test
the court and demonstrate how it's functioning?
Ms. GREENBURG: I think perhaps the biggest case this term is certainly the
one that we're all most interested in watching how the court resolves it and
the one that will really test Roberts' leadership is an abortion case. It's a
challenge to a federal law that banned an abortion procedure that opponents
call partial-birth abortion. Now the court just a few years ago struck down
state laws that banned partial-birth abortion, but the case was 5-to-4, and
Justice O'Connor had the deciding vote. Kennedy voted with the conservatives
in that case. He would have allowed the state regulation, so now with Alito
taking O'Connor's seat, the court appears poised to uphold this federal
partial-birth abortion ban, which means, of course, the court will be going in
a very different direction. Kennedy's opinion in that case a few years ago,
when the court struck down the state laws, was fascinating because it goes
back to the decision in 1992 in Casey when he went and joined O'Connor and
Souter and refused to overturn Roe. His opinion in the state partial-birth
abortion case suggests that he really felt he had been had. That when he
agreed with the more liberal justices back in Casey, he thought it still meant
the states would have an important role, that the government would have an
important role, in allowing some restrictions or regulation on abortion, and
so in his view, that's exactly the kind of thing, that's exactly the kind of
deal that they had struck back in Casey. So his opinion was just outraged,
and I think it will be very difficult for Justice Kennedy to walk away from
that now, to change his mind and now say that the federal law should be struck
GROSS: What are the most controversial parts of the late-term abortion or
partial-birth abortion as it's known by its critics. What are the most
controversial parts of this federal law?
Ms. GREENBURG: Well, this federal law does not contain an exception to allow
doctors to perform it to protect the mother's health, and that is what
opponents of the law say just dooms it and makes it flatly unconstitutional.
So how the court resolves that will go a long way, a long way, in giving us a
sense of how conservative this Roberts court is going to be, whether or not
the justices believe that that health exception is critical. Of course,
Justice O'Connor, that's--she believed firmly that any restrictions or
regulations on abortion had to have that health exception.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. GREENBURG: Oh, thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Jan Crawford Greenburg is a legal affairs correspondent for ABC News.
Her new book about the Supreme Court is called "Supreme Conflict."
Coming up, country singer Bradley Walker. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Country music singer Bradley Walker talks about his
TERRY GROSS, host:
At the age of 27, country music singer Bradley Walker recently made his
recording debut with the CD, "Highway of Dreams." Our rock critic, Ken Tucker,
called it one of the most striking debuts of 2006 and described Walker's style
as harkening back to an earlier generation of vocalists, like George Jones.
Some of Walker's early performances were on Jerry Lewis telethons. Walker was
born with a nondegenerative form of muscular dystrophy and gets around in a
wheelchair. Here's the opening track of "Highway of Dreams," "Life or Love."
(Soundbite from "Life or Love" by Bradley Walker)
Mr. BRADLEY WALKER: (Singing) "Well, I've tried to stay on the straight and
narrow, but I walk a crooked path. I've felt worthy of forgiveness and
deserving heaven's wrath. Right on the money and all...(unintelligible).
Ahead of my time and way out of style. But I'm hanging tough, ain't had
enough, ain't giving up on life or love."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Bradley Walker from his new CD, "Highway of Dreams."
Bradley Walker, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. BRADLEY WALKER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: You have some great bluegrass session musicians accompanying you, but
I want to quote something that our rock critic, Ken Tucker, said when he
reviewed your album. He said, `While Bradley Walker has a lot of bluegrass in
his wail, he is at heart a hard-core honky-tonk man.' Do you agree with that?
Mr. WALKER: I do. I do. I do agree with that. I loved that quote when I
heard it. And my style is just a mixture of country music and bluegrass music
because I grew up singing country music for a lot of years, and then was
turned on to bluegrass and everything about bluegrass music about six or seven
years ago, and so he's right. My music is a mixture of those two styles, of
traditional country music and bluegrass.
GROSS: How were you introduced to classic country songs?
Mr. WALKER: Just my parents and grandparents always loved country music.
Music was always on in the house. Nobody in my family was really a musician
or a singer. My dad sang from time to time, but not really that much even,
but we always listened to music. The radio was always on at the house, and so
I was introduced very early to country music and to all types of music, but I
always took to the traditional country sound.
GROSS: Did you have friends your age who were listening to the same kind of
classic country recordings that you were?
Mr. WALKER: Back then, there weren't many. I was one of those that was
country when country wasn't cool. I got teased a lot by friends, you know,
who were listening to heavy metal or rock and roll music, different kinds of
music, and I was always listening to classic country, you know, or what was
then current on country is now considered classic country, you know, and that
was just what I--and everybody knew that that was what I was. I was an old
country boy, you know, who sang and who loved that kind of music.
GROSS: How did you start performing?
Mr. WALKER: Oh, man, back--my first, what I consider my first stage
performance was when I was four years old at a local talent--not a talent
show, but it was just a variety show in Athens, Alabama, my hometown, and this
show's been going on now for going on 30-some odd years. I know over 35
years, I believe. I was four years old at the time. My dad had sang in that
show in previous years, and I went out at that time and sang "Elvira," the old
Oak Ridge Boys hit, "Elvira." But that was my first performance at four years
old, and then it just grew from there. You know, folks, you know, eventually
found out that I sang and that music was a big part of my life, and so as I
grew older, you know, eight, nine, 10 years old, I was singing at that time in
benefit shows, in churches, dance halls, around home, you know, anywhere where
I could find a country band at that time and an audience to listen. I
would--give me a microphone, and I'd go to town. You know, I would sing and
just enjoy every minute of it. And once I realized that people enjoyed
hearing me sing, you know, then that just made me want to do that even more.
GROSS: Well, let's hear another song from your new CD, and the CD's called
"Highway of Dreams." My guest is Bradley Walker, and this is a Lefty Frizzell
song, which is called "I Never Go Around Mirrors."
Mr. WALKER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Do you want to say anything about why you chose to do this song?
Mr. WALKER: Oh, man. This tune has been around for so many years and been
recorded by so many great singers down through the years. My favorite version
would probably have to be the Keith Whitley version from back several years
ago. It appeared on one of Keith's studio albums, and I started singing this
song when I got into bluegrass music. It was just a favorite of a lot of
friends of mine, and we always would sing the song, and it just carried over
into our live shows, and people really seemed to love the way I sang it and my
version of the song. So we felt very strongly that we should include it on
the record, and so that's the finished product.
GROSS: Well, here it is. "I Never Go Around Mirrors." Bradley Walker from
his new CD.
(Soundbite from "I Never Go Around Mirrors" by Bradley Walker)
Mr. WALKER: (Singing) "Well, I can't stand to see a good man go to waste,
one who never combs his hair or shaves his face. A man who leans on wine over
love that's told a lie. Oh, it tears me up to see a grown man cry. So I
never go around mirrors. I can't stand to see me without you by my side. No,
I never go around mirrors because I've got a heartache to hide."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Bradley Walker from his new CD, "Highway of Dreams."
Now, you were born with muscular dystrophy, which is a degenerative muscle
disease, and that's made you unable to walk, so you get around in a
Mr. WALKER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Can you just describe a little bit about how it affects the muscles
and how it's--what impact it's had on your body?
Mr. WALKER: Well, fortunately, my form of MD is not a progressive form,
so--that means it's not going to get worse with time. I feel like that's a
real blessing. Really, I--the way I am today is the way I've been my whole
life basically. The main difference is that I can't walk. Just like you said
I'm in a wheelchair. I hold down a full-time job. I drive myself. I have my
own home in north Alabama. I lead a perfectly normal life for myself, you
know, with the only difference being that I can't walk, you know. So it's not
something that I've had to adapt to or something that I've to learn how to
redo a lot of things. This is the way my whole life has been. So I don't see
that as a drawback or as a negative. You know, I just deal with it and go on,
you know, enjoy life.
GROSS: Now, your arms and hands are affected, too, aren't they?
Mr. WALKER: They are, they are. My hands are affected, and I do a lot of
things differently than most folks do, but for the most part I get it done,
you know. It may look a little different. It may seem a little different to
folks, but for me, that's the way it's always been, and I've learned how to do
day-to-day activities and most everything that anybody else can do in my own
GROSS: Excuse me if this is kind of a weird question but sometimes, like, if
you're in a wheelchair, people stare at you.
Mr. WALKER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And, of course, if you're on stage, people stare at you...
Mr. WALKER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...for different reasons.
Mr. WALKER: Mm--hmm.
GROSS: So what was it like to be stared at on stage because of your singing?
Mr. WALKER: Well, normally, I have to--stages have steps, you know, so
wheelchairs can't climb steps very well so you have to have help getting on to
a stage normally. So that is always--you know, people kind of always affix
themselves to somebody getting on stage in a wheelchair, and they're thinking
in the back of their minds, probably thinking, `Who is this guy and what's he
doing up here?' But once I start singing, I've always hoped and have been told
that this is the case, that once I start singing, the fact that I'm in a
wheelchair goes away, and that's what I want to happen. You know, sure, when
people see me, they're going to see a guy in a wheelchair. That's just part
of my life. That's the way it's always been. It's the way it's going to be,
but once the music starts to play and once I start to sing, then to me I want
folks to just disregard everything else and just get lost in the music because
that's what I'm all about is my music.
GROSS: I know that once or twice when you were young you performed on one of
the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethons.
Mr. WALKER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: What effect did it have on you to, like the first and second time you
were on the telethon to perform there?
Mr. WALKER: Just the response that you get from all over the country. I
mean, that's something, you know. Myself growing up and having muscular
dystrophy, Labor Day weekend is not complete unless you turn the telethon on.
You know, and there's a lot of folks, folks who are affected by MD or people
maybe who have a family member who has MD or just a friend, you know. There's
a lot of folks that watch that telethon and watch Jerry Lewis religiously
every year when it rolls around. It's something that we've been very
fortunate to be able to be a part of and to have the opportunity to take my
music to that national level and get the exposure from that. It means a lot.
GROSS: Well, I really wish you good luck with your music, and thank you very
much for talking with us.
Mr. WALKER: Thank you, Terry, for having me on the show. And I just
appreciate your support so much.
GROSS: Bradley Walker's new CD is called "Highway of Dreams." Here's another
track from it. "Love's Tombstone."
(Soundbite from "Love's Tombstone" by Bradley Walker)
Mr. WALKER: (Singing) "Here stands an open bottle. Here stands an empty
glass. My new best friends console me and forgive me for my past. We all
join here together to pay our last respects to love I couldn't keep alive and
now I can't forget. Born in 1999 inside her heart and mind, taken from this
world too soon, it died before its time. Gone but not forgotten, the memories
linger on are the words that should be carved upon the face of love's
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new biography of Thomas Hardy.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews new biography of
Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin
TERRY GROSS, host:
Claire Tomalin has distinguished herself in the field of literary biography by
her celebrated biographies of such figures as Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel
Pepys. She's just written a biography of the 19th century novelist and poet
Thomas Hardy. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that if your part of the
country is blanketed in the gray-gloom of January, this is a fitting book to
curl up with.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Early in "Jude the Obscure," Thomas Hardy's
hollow-voiced novel about fate and the futility of self-improvement, his young
hero, Jude Fawley plunges into despair while trying to teach himself Latin and
Greek. We readers are told that `Jude wished he had never seen a book, that
he might never see another, that he had never have been born.' Granted, Jude
is not just a fictional double for Hardy, but after reading Claire Tomalin's
disturbing new biography, you can't help but wonder if there weren't many
times in his long life when Hardy himself wished he had never been lured away
by books from the toiling classes into which he'd been born.
The son of a village builder and a servant girl who came to be feted by the
aristocracy for creating such charged characters as Jude and Tess of the
d'Urbervilles, Hardy seemed psychologically isolated by his astounding class
climb. But then by nature, he was always a Gloomy Gus. As Tomalin shockingly
recalls, when the 10-year-old son of a fellow writer died, Hardy wrote these
words to him in a sympathy note. (Reading) "To be candid, I think that death
of a child is never really to be regretted when one reflects on what he has
Tomalin's engaging and enlightening biography called "Thomas Hardy: The
Time-Torn Man" might well give Hardy some contentment if he could look down
and regard it from the heights of a heaven in which he didn't believe. An
astute reader of even more sluggish novels like "Under the Greenwood Tree" and
"Two on a Tower," Tomalin dramatizes Hardy's accidentally crucial role in the
history of English literature. How, out of his acute sense of solitude and
self-division, he created great bleak novels and poems that gave voice to a
certain no-exit despair of the modern age. Tomalin doesn't overreach here.
She acknowledges that the pressure to puff out his novels for serialization
marred Hardy's work, and that in terms of theme, he was essentially a Johnny
one-note. But it was a note that he hit time and again with shattering
intensity. Hardy's impoverished characters strive and yearn, while some
indifferent force in the universe, call it fate or luck or the ruthlessness of
the late Victorian English class system, grinds them down into dust.
As Tomalin points out, the irony here is that the plot of Hardy's own life
followed an upward, if bumpy, trajectory. Born in 1840, he had the luck of
being a sickly child, and so recognizing that he wasn't suited for manual
work, his parents scraped up the money for some extra schooling for him. At
age 16, Hardy was apprenticed to an architect, becoming the first in his
family to try to enter the professional world. And then, bravely,
inexplicably, a few years later, Hardy leapt into the unknown. He moved alone
to London in 1862. He'd only been there once before as a child and set out to
try to break in to magazine writing. Nothing came easy. Hardy had to pay for
the publication of his first novel, "The Poor Man and the Lady." He courted
his first wife, Emma, long distance for years, and the two married in defiance
of her middle-class parents' objections. And even when he did make it as a
novelist, his work always drew fire. When "Far from the Madding Crowd" was
published in 1874, Henry James wrote a patronizing review for The Nation in
which he declared that "Everything human in the book strikes us as
insubstantial. The only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs."
Purebred literary figures like James never let Hardy forget that, in their
eyes, he was a mutt.
As she's done in some of her other superb, literary biographies, like those of
Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys, Tomalin opens this biography of Hardy with a
vivid scene that establishes the signature mood of her subject's life.
Tomalin describes how when Emma died, Hardy had her body placed in a coffin at
the foot of his bed, where it remained for three days and nights. They'd been
married almost 40 years, many of them bitter. For years, Emma slept alone in
the attic. Hardy was in love with another woman. Yet Tomalin declares,
"Emma's death not only released emotions in Hardy that transformed him from a
good into a great poet but also posthumously rekindled his love for her. Like
so many of his fictional characters, Hardy lived his life yearning most
intensely for that which was always out of reach." Fortunately for us readers,
his biographer Tomalin, has Hardy firmly in her grasp.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is
the author of the memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading," which has been
published in paperback.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
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