'Cross Country' with Robert Sullivan
Author Robert Sullivan's new book chronicles his family's cross-country trips from Oregon to New York. Its subtitle paints the picture: Cross Country: Fifteen Years and 90,000 Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a lot of bad motels, a moving van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, my wife, my mother-in-law, two kids, and enough coffee to kill an elephant.
Other segments from the episode on June 29, 2006
DATE June 29, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Writer Robert Sullivan, joined by his children Louise
and Sam, talks about his new book "Cross Country," chronicling his
family's cross-country trips from coast to coast
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Parents in the front seat, cute kids in the back and a trunk filled with
stuff. Like a lot of people, my guest, Robert Sullivan, is taking a long car
trip over the holiday, longer than most. He's traveling cross-country by car
with his wife and two children. He lives in New York but he has family on
both coasts, which is one reason why he's traveled cross-country by car about
30 times. Now he's written a new memoir called "Cross Country." It's got a
long but great subtitle: "Fifteen Years and 90,000 Miles on the Roads and
Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a lot of bad motels, a moving
van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, my wife, my mother-in-law, two kids and enough
coffee to kill an elephant."
Sullivan has joined us several times on the show, most recently to discuss his
book "Rats." Let's start with a reading from "Cross Country," and then we'll
ask his two children about life in the backseat.
(Soundbite from "Cross Country")
Mr. ROBERT SULLIVAN: (Reading) "We're packed in, the kids in the back, the
parents in front, our stuff filling the trunk, piled up around our knees. In
our hearts, we're excited. We're excited in the part of our hearts that knows
3,000 miles is doable, a snap, three or four or longest-case scenario, five
days, which is about as much time as we have. Like many Americans, we have
stuff to do, stuff to deal with and about as much time as we can stand. In
our hearts, we're also weary. We're weary in the part that's done this
before, that knows that 3,000 miles is a long, long way, that has been out
late at night on a dark road when our eyes have been trying to stay awake and
our eyes only wish, like all the rest of our tired bodies, that they were not
GROSS: Well, Robert Sullivan, how many times do you think you've traveled
cross-country by car?
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Traveled for 15 years, more than two times a year, so, a
couple of dozen times. One time we did five round trips in a year.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Yup.
GROSS: Why have you been traveling cross-country by car so much over the
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Basically, it started out having to do with the fact that
I was dating somebody who lived in Oregon and I--was from Oregon, where I was
from, and lived in New York. Then it went from dating someone who lives in
Oregon to marrying that person from Oregon, and then to having grandparents
in--on the East Coast and the West Coast and having to go back and forth to
see those grandparents with the grandchildren. And, frankly, I'm a writer, I
mean, you know, I can't--I don't know--I can't make tickets early--I--for
planes and so you go at the last minute and pay $18 million or you drive. And
up to about this year, it's still been economical to drive but I fear that
this is--I always think that the year we do it is the last year we're going to
do it, but we'll see.
GROSS: There's one passage in your book where you're packing up the car,
you're getting ready for another cross-country trip, and you say to yourself,
`Why do we do this to our kids?' What do you think you put your kids through
when you have to do a 3,000 cross-country car trip?
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Well, of course, I don't know what I put them through
because, as anybody can tell you, especially them, I am not them, but you
know, when sometimes kids get these puzzles when they're little, little United
States puzzle where you try to remember where to put the states and so forth.
And I remember that when my son was very young, he could do that very early
on. So I think at the--you know, we put them through a lot, and we're always
saying, `Oh, my gosh, we shouldn't drive.' On the other hand, when we did fly
very recently--one time we flew--I felt, and I think, at some point, all of us
felt, as if we were cheated somehow. We've gone through a lot. There's a lot
of, you know, `Everybody hold on. It's one more day. We'll just eat some
cheese and crackers in the gas station.' But, on the other hand, we've stopped
in these amazing little state parks and at some point, maybe, after they grow
up despising us for driving them so much, at some point, our hope is--I think
I can speak for my wife in this one moment--our hope is that they'll say, `I
remember a waterfall' or `I remember a really nice guy in that rest stop' or
`I remember those people who--there weren't any rooms but they let us stay.'
GROSS: Well, Robert, while we have this nice conversation, as we speak, your
wife is preparing for a family trip cross-country tomorrow. It will be you,
your wife and your two children, and your two children happen to be in the
studio with you, your daughter Louise, who is 10, your son Sam who is 15.
And, Sam and Louise, if you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a couple of
questions about your experiences of cross-country travel. Are you looking
forward to or dreading this big trip tomorrow?
Miss LOUISE SULLIVAN: I'm looking forward to it, but I'm kind of dreading it,
GROSS: And, Sam?
Mr. SAM SULLIVAN: I--yeah. Same answer, same answer. I would be probably
OK with flying, a little bit OK with it.
GROSS: Robert, did you hear that?
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Yes.
GROSS: So what do you both do, Sam, Louise? What do you both do to keep
yourself, you know, busy during this really long car drive?
Miss SULLIVAN: Well, I have a lot of books that I read, and, of course, my
mom tells me that at home enough. But I read most of the time and also a lot
of sleeping. We do a lot of sleeping, and--but sometimes we miss all the
sights, but, yeah, and a lot of being annoying to one's brother or sister, so,
GROSS: Sam, what do you do to keep busy?
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: Well, in the past, my sister and mother are really, really
productive in the car. They like craft stuff, and I've never really been able
to do that so either I read or I--but now this trip I get to take musical
instruments in the car with me, so I guess I'll just be practicing my fretted
stringed instruments nonstop and driving my sister insane.
GROSS: Do you, as a family, ever revert to singing songs together on the road
to keep occupied and entertained?
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: Oftentimes, yes.
Miss SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah? What are the songs of preference?
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: Trad.
Miss SULLIVAN: Yes. Trad. Or folk.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: They're hard-core trad, or as it's sometimes said,
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: Trad is rad.
Miss SULLIVAN: But I didn't know what trad meant until this year so...
GROSS: So what does it mean?
Miss SULLIVAN: Well, it's abbreviation for traditional. So, yeah.
GROSS: So are you--you're doing traditional folk music or traditional jazz?
Miss SULLIVAN: Mostly traditional, both, but mostly traditional folk. I
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: It's hard. There's a lot of trad.
Miss SULLIVAN: Yeah.
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: There's so much trad.
GROSS: Should I ask for a rousing version of a car favorite, a cross-country
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: That'd be--if it's OK? All right? Should we--could we do
Miss SULLIVAN: Yeah...(unintelligible).
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: OK. I mean--Terry, is it OK?
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: OK. How's this? OK.
(Soundbite of unpacking)
GROSS: Do you actually have a guitar with you?
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Well...
Miss SULLIVAN: Yes, we have all our instruments. Well, not all of them,
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Did you know it's National Accordion Awareness Month?
Miss SULLIVAN: Dad just got an accordion that he's very excited about so...
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: I don't know how...
GROSS: This is going to be like a traveling family act. Who knew?
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: We're kind of like...
Miss SULLIVAN: We...
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: We look a lot like the Von Trapp family singers...
Miss SULLIVAN: Yeah.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: ...except it's like Homer Simpson instead of Christopher
Plummer, but I'm not quite as good-looking as Homer Simpson. OK? Ready?
(Soundbite of accordion and guitar being prepped)
Miss SULLIVAN: (Singing) "Tempted and tired we're oft made to wander. Why it
should be thus all the day long? Why there are others living about us, never
more lasted though in the wrong."
Miss SULLIVAN and Mr. S. SULLIVAN: (Singing) "Farther a long we'll know all
about it. Farther along we'll understand why. Cheer up, my brother, living
is sunshine. We'll understand it all by and by."
Miss SULLIVAN: (Singing) "Often I wonder why I must journey over a road so
rugged and steep. Why there are others living in comfort while with the lost
I labor and weep."
Miss SULLIVAN and Mr. S. SULLIVAN: (Singing) "Farther along, we'll know all
about it. Farther along, we'll understand why. Cheer up, my brother, living
is sunshine. We'll understand it all by and by."
Miss SULLIVAN: (Singing) "We'll understand it all by and by."
GROSS: Wow, who knew you'd sound so good?
Miss SULLIVAN: Thank you.
GROSS: I was thinking more of my family. You guys are good.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: You're nice to say so.
GROSS: No, you must actually have fun doing this in the car together.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: I do. I'm sure that will be another thing that they'll
bring up in court against me...(unintelligible)...when the restraining order
is put out so...
GROSS: So, just to clarify. I'll just explain. You're in a studio in New
York, I'm in a studio in Philadelphia, so I'm not seeing you. So, Robert,
that's you on accordion, and. Sam, you on guitar, and, obviously, Louise,
that's you singing. You have a really beautiful voice.
Miss SULLIVAN: Thank you.
GROSS: Yeah. So, Robert, I can only hope that when you're playing accordion
your wife is driving.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Yeah--or--but when I'm playing accordion, of course, I'm
driving her--well, I don't have to finish the sentence. I'm sure you know.
But, yeah, it is a button accordion which, of course, is a big distinction
among accordion players, not that I could, you know, be technically considered
an accordion player, given the way I play accordion.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Robert Sullivan and his
son Sam Sullivan and daughter Louise Sullivan. Robert has written a new book
called "Cross Country: Fifteen Years and 90,000 Miles on the Road," and it's
about traveling cross-country back and forth many times with his family by
When you're traveling as a family by car--I mean, I think one of the big
issues is who gets to decide when you stop for the rest stop, you know,
and--is this a matter of dispute when you're all traveling together whether
it's time for a bathroom stop yet or not?
Miss SULLIVAN: I think that most of it, like, if we're all hungry we need to
stop at a rest stop because they have lots of food. Well, not really food but
stuff that you can eat. But--and so--but also it's because you need to go to
the bathroom, so I think that's mostly when like my mom needs to go to the
bathroom or needs food, because she's kind of like the head, and so we all
follow her. So, yeah. I think that's when we stop.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: You know, as the nonhead, I think the parents are always
confused, because, you know, on the cross-country car trips because they're
saying, `OK, now we're, you know, we're going to stop for the rest. Here
comes the rest stop' or `Let's stop for the rest stop.' OK, we stopped for the
rest stop. And then we're trying to--the parent sees it as, OK, we're trying
to keep going, but now there's a call to use the rest stop, but we just--`I
thought we just stopped at the rest'--so that's kind of the paradigm--yes?
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: Actually, I think that maybe after having driven across
country all these times, sort of like impeccable bladder control has been
beaten into me.
Miss SULLIVAN: Yeah.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Yeah, it's true. Sam has almost never stopped going
cross-country. It's pretty amazing so...
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: I'm able to shut down all body functions completely.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: But he's also a teenager so that's another thing. You
know, that's part of the--yeah.
GROSS: Now what kind of like devices do you travel with to keep busy? Do you
have like, you know, iPods? Do you listen to the radio? What--you know, what
do you do to keep yourselves plugged in?
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: I used to have an iPod but I can't really focus on an
iPod. I need a CD player because I switch from song to song, you know. I can
only listen to 30 seconds of a song now. I officially have no attention span
GROSS: Oh, hey, that's great. Yeah.
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: But I--no, but a CD--CD player lets me listen to the
entire--you know, really appreciate the entire, you know, not just a
single--although it's sort of cool that with iTunes, it sort of brought back
the single, you know, and now singles are being released again. It's pretty
Miss SULLIVAN: Well, I don't--I do not have an iPod and I do have a CD
player, like a Walkman, but mostly we just pick out--everyone picks out like
25 CDs and then we have 100 CDs to go through cross-country so we each get to
pick, but that's kind of a problem, because most everyone wants their CD to
play, because that's one they like a lot.
GROSS: Well, Sam and Louise, I'm going to let you leave the studio and move
around and stuff while I talk to your father a little bit more, but listen, I
really appreciate your talking with us, and I appreciate you playing for us.
I mean, I really had no idea so--thanks a lot and have a great trip.
Miss SULLIVAN: Thank you.
Mr. S. SULLIVAN: Thank you.
GROSS: OK. Bye-bye and thank you.
Miss SULLIVAN: Bye.
GROSS: OK. We'll talk more with Robert Sullivan about his new book "Cross
Country" about driving cross-country by car, time and time again with his
family. That's after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Sullivan. His new book "Cross Country" is a memoir
about traveling cross country by car which he's done about 30 times. When I
spoke with him yesterday, his family was preparing to leave today for yet
another cross-country road trip. I asked him what he's driving.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: As a concession to the troops, we're going in a minivan.
I've only done that once before. I--if it was just me making the decision, we
wouldn't be in the minivan for several reasons, one of which, I think it's
going to cost more, but the other is that everybody--if you're in the
backseat, I can't talk to you. I can't bore you with historical details of
the trip, but now you can see why--how could I do this to these people?
Who--why would you want to be with me? But we can't talk, we can't talk at
all. But you know--but I think we'll do some seat--you know, some
seat-shifting from time to time. We'll see. I'm sure--you know, I have a
feeling that this is the year there'll be a headline in the newspaper about,
you know, the car found abandoned on the side of the road and just the father
in it. And, first, you know, people might be worried about the kids but then
they'll realize, I know, `The kids were smart, they got out of there, and so
they left him and'--yeah.
GROSS: You know, one of the things that you've done in your book is alternate
between your story of being on the road and more historical stories, so you
tell the story of, like, the Lewis and Clark expedition as you're traveling
through the Pacific Northwest, and you write about, like, the history of
roadside motels, and you write about Jack Kerouac and his version of being on
the road. Has it made your trips any more interesting to have all these kind
of literary and historical companions as you are traveling?
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Well, I have this kind of disease where, you know, I
just--I want to know why everything is the way it is. Recently, we found out
that the song "Don't Fence Me In" by Cole Porter...
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: ...was actually co-written by a Montana--as I understand
it, a Montana state highway official, maybe an engineer, I'm not sure, who is
the guy who also wrote the Montana historical roadside plaques, which I always
thought were quite good plaques, quite well-written, and so he co-wrote that
song with Cole Porter, didn't get credit at first. Supposedly Porter wanted
to give him credit--I don't know. But--so I just feel like there's so much--I
have way too much excitement about, you know, stuff that's interesting along
the road in terms of history, but I guess lately I've been thinking about how
the road itself is this American public space. This public space
everywhere--the road is, as that landscape historian J.B. Jackson--this
genius writer--says, `The road is the first public space.'
GROSS: What's your favorite kind of place to stop for breakfast?
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Immediately, I'm remembering a place right off the
interstate in Idaho, in northern Idaho, I think near Kellogg in kind of an old
mining area, but there's a place, a little--it's a diner on the side of the
road, and we had pan-fried trout and scrambled eggs and pancakes, and it was
really local, even though it was, you know, kind of where a fast-food
restaurant would have been. But that's really--I feel like pancakes is the
really national food that always can have this local variation. I remember we
had wild huckleberries in the pancakes once in the morning in Butte, Montana,
and there was an old-timer who was running this kind of drugstore that
sold--served breakfast, and I remember Charles Kuralt had been in there--you
know, one of the great road chroniclers--and breakfast is the great road meal.
I mean, forget dinner, forget lunch. I mean, you know, you have to do those
things once in a while, but breakfast, the great road breakfast and then
you're ready to go, but my favorite kind is, you know, pancakes with something
that reflects the localness of the place.
GROSS: Well, have a really good trip.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Well, thank you, thank you, thank you.
GROSS: Thanks for talking with us.
Mr. R. SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Robert Sullivan's new book is called "Cross Country."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Don't Fence Me In")
Unidentified Singers: (Singing) "Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry
skies above, don't fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country
that I love, don't fence me in. Let me be by myself in the evening breeze,
listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees. Send me off forever but I ask
you, please, don't fence me in. Don't fence me in. Just turn me loose, let
me straddle my old saddle underneath the western skies."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Journalist Bill Minutaglio talks about his new book,
The President's Counselor," which documents the career of US
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In his new biography of Alberto Gonzales called "The President's Counselor,"
Bill Minutaglio writes that "Gonzales has crafted and processed the most
secretive and controversial directives in modern US history, but he has
somehow managed to remain the most hidden member of the Bush family's inner
circle." Gonzales' career has been closely linked to George W. Bush since
Bush's gubernatorial campaign. Under Governor Bush, Gonzales was legal
counsel, secretary of state and was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court.
When President Bush went to the White House, Gonzales moved to Washington to
become White House counsel, and last year he became the first Hispanic to
serve as attorney general. Before writing a book about Gonzales, Minutaglio
wrote the book, "First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty."
Minutaglio was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News from 1983 to 2001.
President Bush first got to know Alberto Gonzales when Gonzales was working at
a law firm in Houston called Vinson and Elkins, and this is a big firm that
represented Enron, Halliburton and Brown & Root. What kind of work was
Gonzales doing there?
Mr. BILL MINUTAGLIO: Yeah, they used to call Vinson and Elkins `Vinson and
Enron,' you know, pejoratively nicknamed V and E, Vinson and Enron; the Elkins
was subbed out and Enron was put in. He did a little bit of everything. He
was in an area of the law firm--and it's one of these megafirms where are
hundreds of attorneys, primarily based in Houston but in other important
political and kind of economic capitals around the country and even overseas.
He did--he was assigned to a group called `the transactions team' and he was a
transactions lawyer, and he basically drew up contracts and negotiated real
estate deals, petrochemical deals, very, very high-end bits of business
involving some of those companies you just mentioned.
GROSS: And how did he start to work with George W. Bush and Karl Rove?
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: In Houston, you know--it's America's fourth largest city but
in some ways it's a small town. Everybody knows everybody at a certain level
above the cloud line, and as you ascend in prominence at a place like V and E,
Vinson and Elkins, and then dip your toe into political circles as Gonzales
was showing some interest in the late '80s and early '90s, his name just sort
of gusted forward, and quite frankly there was a concerted effort by Karl Rove
and George W. Bush and even the elder George Bush to identify suitable
minority figures whom they could draw into the Republican Party and, you know,
use in some dimension politically speaking, to advance their agenda in Texas
and even nationally. And that's how Gonzales came on the radar. His first
encounter with the Bush family was with the elder George Bush when the elder
George Bush spoke to colleagues and friends in Houston and literally said, `Do
you know of any good, prominent Latinos who might make members of my
administration, my presidential administration,' in the late '80s and early
'90s, and Gonzales was offered some positions by the elder George Bush to come
to Washington but turned them down and--but remained on the radar. And his
son later on identified, or remembered, Alberto Gonzales.
GROSS: You make it sound in your book as if the relationships between George
W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales got started as a result of Karl Rove's feelings
that in order for George W. Bush to rise to power, he needed more support
among evangelicals and Hispanics.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It was carefully deliberated and
orchestrated and talked about that beginning here in Texas and then later on
nationally, the Republicans would want to steal the middle ground, so to
speak, as they called it, and then cater to Latino voters by arguing that they
had a socially conservative agenda that might actually be appealing to a
greater majority or greater numbers of Latino voters than maybe some
Republican strategists had previously assumed. And again, Alberto Gonzales
just seemed like a perfect person to kind of put that agenda on his back and
push him forward.
He, you know, was admittedly a very, very reluctant participant in some of
this early one. I think he was intrigued by the proximity to power and the
entreaties, the visits from the Bush family, but he's not--and I think to this
day remains a distinctly, almost nonpublic public figure, if that makes sense.
GROSS: Let's just go through the positions that Alberto Gonzales held in
Governor Bush's administration, starting with general counsel to the governor.
What's one of the more interesting things you think he did in that role that
have shaped your impression of him?
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: In Gonzales' tenure as counsel to then Governor Bush, he
produced or oversaw clemency recommendations in 57 death penalty cases. In
other words, he was processing and looking at paperwork for 57 death-row
inmates. All of those were basically sent to Bush with a sense that these
executions should go forward. There wasn't one of the 57 in which Gonzales
stated that `I think we should pause, I think we should grant a 30-day
reprieve and review and almost challenge whether or not this execution should
go forward.' I found that extremely profound.
And one thing that I came across in my research that I hadn't been aware of
before--I'm not sure too many other people had known about--was the fact that
Gonzales had attended an execution in Texas, and I think was able to, you
know, witness firsthand the complexity, the wide array of emotions that go
into an execution here.
For some reason, I think as a biographer and historian, I was looking for some
of that emotional quotient, and for lack of a better word, almost a poetic,
deeper sense in his memos to Bush about the death penalty, and I thought that
would speak to just the challenges that go into deciding whether someone
should live and die, and whether you're recommending to the governor that you
stay an execution at least for 30 days. And I didn't see that there as much
as I think just personally I would have hoped for.
GROSS: Tell us something about what Gonzales did as secretary of state in
Texas that helped shape your impression of him.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: Sure, yeah. As secretary of state in Texas, Gonzales--I
think it was a politicizing period in his life. It was a moment when he had
to begin going out in public. As a--as Governor Bush's counsel, he did a lot
of work in-house behind closed doors, sometimes in courtrooms and just sort of
out of sight, off the radar or below the radar. As secretary of state, he was
forced for the first time really in his life to go out and grip and grin, and
you know, pose with babies and take pictures and this and that, and do a lot
And I think he understood at that point in his life that he was off on a whole
different tangent. If he had ever had any inclinations in his life to view
the law and the practice of law as sort of a higher, almost artistic kind of
calling, I think a lot of that began slipping away a little bit when he had to
go out as secretary of state in Texas. It's kind of a showcase job in the
sense that you go out, not a lot of wielding of power but you almost raise the
profile of the governor by being his roving ambassador and try to drum up
votes, and as well, you know, frankly a lot of his utility within the Bush
network and the Bush family--the Bush dynasty at that point was coming to
fruition. He was out as secretary of state in a unique position, according to
Karl Rove and George W. Bush, to draw more Latino voters to the Republican
GROSS: President Bush appointed Alberto Gonzales to the Texas State Supreme
Court. Was that a controversial appointment?
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: It was controversial in the sense that he wasn't seen as an
arching legal visionary. His appointment to the Texas Supreme Court was
challenged by some folks who wished that Bush had picked someone who was a
great legal mind and was a great legal scholar, and Gonzales just simply
didn't have that reputation. He had a reputation as a dogged, very, very
loyal and good corporate attorney and someone who was fiercely loyal to George
W. Bush, so if there was controversy here about his appointment to the Texas
Supreme Court, it stemmed from the fact that he seemed like a Bush insider
without a great, you know, wide swath of legal experience being appointed to
the highest court in Texas.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Minutaglio, author of the new book, "The President's
Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Minutaglio. His new book
is called "The President's Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales."
After George W. Bush was elected president, he made Alberto Gonzales his
White House counsel. Did you learn any of the behind-the-scenes reasons that
went into that appointment?
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: Yeah, absolutely. You know, among the many reasons that
George W. Bush wanted Alberto Gonzales to come to Washington with him as his
White House counsel, ironically he was heartily recommended by Harriet Miers,
who had been a--kind of a mentor to Gonzales in Texas. She had once been
George W. Bush's personal attorney here in Texas, and then when an opening
emerged for a governor's counsel in Texas, she recommended Alberto Gonzales.
When Bush was going to Washington and casting about and asking people who he
should bring with him to Washington, Harriet Miers, among many people, said,
`Yeah, you should bring Alberto Gonzales yet again, let him be your counsel in
the White House as well.'
Again, most Bush insiders have told me that there was a unique political
dimension. It was a moment for Bush to name the first Latino White House
counsel. It was a great way to position Alberto Gonzales for two or three
political steps down the road, and have him begin to raise his profile
nationally and position himself for elected office nationally. Maybe even
back here in Texas at the gubernatorial or Senate level. But yet as well,
maybe even to position Alberto Gonzales for a seat on the US Supreme Court.
GROSS: You make it seem in your book like perhaps a couple of reasons why he
remains so close to President Bush and why President Bush made him White House
counsel was because he was already very protective of the president and also
he didn't compete for the limelight.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: One thing that--again, critics and adherents of Alberto
Gonzales all agree upon is that he grew up authentically as the son of poorly
educated and economically poor migrant workers. His father was an alcoholic
who had only had a second grade education. His mother had only gone to school
through the sixth grade, and Alberto Gonzales grew up in a just a bubbling,
you know, wild environment in a city, Houston, Texas, where people were making
money left and right in the 1980s, and the, you know, the real go-go years in
Texas, and just wild, over-the-top, almost cowboy Caligulas in Texas just like
something out of the old television show "Dallas" or "Dynasty" if you will.
And he grew up in this environment really, really poor. He grew up in a home
with no hot running water. There was no telephone in his home right up
through his high school years. He used to have to go down to the corner to
make telephone calls, and you know, at some point in his life, in the 1980s
and then into the 1990s, he was--the edge of the gilded tent was cracked open
for him and he was allowed into the Bush network. It was just a startling and
life-changing experience for him, and I think he felt forever grateful and
some critics would say slavishly loyal to George W. Bush.
GROSS: What would you say is the most important part Alberto Gonzales has
played in defining executive powers for the president after September 11th.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: As an outgrowth of his loyalty to George W. Bush and then
as an outgrowth of what he and some of the folks who were advising him as
co-counsels in the White House believed, they were hell-bent, in a sense, in
expanding presidential authority and presidential power. They would argue,
not to the dereliction of faith, legal faith to the Constitution and our laws
but to really be, quote, "forward leaning," to really try to find the
nuances--again critics would say, the loopholes--in laws and statutes that
would give the president the muscle, the might, the power to fight terrorism
on any level: whether it be prosecuting the war on terror with secret
military tribunals; studying the exact tenets of the Geneva Convention to see
if they were applicable or not to enemy combatants, folks that we would be
detaining in the war on terror; to domestic spying, looking at bank records,
phone calls, everything else. There was a lot, a lot, a lot of discussion at
all levels of the executive branch about what exactly it meant in terms of the
beginning and end of presidential powers, where--what was too expansive, what
was just appropriate? What was right?
GROSS: President Bush was considering the possibility of nominating Gonzales
to the Supreme Court. That would have been very controversial among
conservatives because of one of Gonzales' opinions when he was in the Texas
Supreme Court. Would you talk a little bit about his opinion in that
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: In Texas when Alberto Gonzales was on the Texas Supreme
Court, the Supreme Court had to weigh in on an abortion-related decision, and
in a nutshell, if you review the case and the specifics, and it was an
enormously complex case, and it was loosely related to the fact that down here
in Texas something called the parental notification act had been passed and
broadly speaking, it required minors to tell their parents and their
health-care providers to tell the parents of the minors that a minor was
seeking an abortion. If you really read the way that Gonzales weighed in on
the case, it could be interpreted that he was upholding abortion rights and
whether that's true or not, and that's a matter of some debate because he put
in some qualifying language in his opinion that seemed to cater to both sides
of the issue, the net political effect of the whole matter is that by the time
he wound up in Washington and wound up on the short list for the Supreme Court
of the United States, leading conservative activists and commentators,
including Robert Novak, seized upon that decision and some of the language in
Gonzales' opinion back in Texas to underscore their belief that he might be
supporting abortion as opposed to being an archenemy of abortion, and it
became really probably the death knell for Alberto Gonzales, I think, in terms
of his ascension to the Supreme Court.
GROSS: President Bush has talked about how much faith is a part of his life.
A lot of the people who are close to him share his faith or share deep
feelings about faith. What about Alberto Gonzales? What did you learn about
his religious life and how close it is, or isn't, to the president's?
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: Alberto Gonzales grew up ardently Catholic in an ardently
Catholic community. He was a Catholic churchgoing, you know, youth. He was
one of eight children in his family. They were very, very close to the
Catholic Church. They knew the parish priest and just grew up in a, you know,
extensive religious environment and a migrant worker Catholic religious
What I found, you know, incredibly interesting, again, in terms of a
sociocultural evolution, the more that he got to know George W. Bush and the
more that he went deeper into that kind of gilded tent again that George W.
Bush opened up for him, the more his denominational tendencies changed. And,
you know, at present, he worships at what some people call kind of a
power-conservative church in Virginia that's populated by kind of a
Protestant-Episcopalian congregation in that--is also populated in the pews by
a lot of powerful conservatives, former head of the CIA and conservative
commentators and conservative speechwriters and so forth. So his, you know,
practical application of faith has actually become more like George W.
Bush's, in a sense, denominationally speaking. He's moved away from the
Catholic religion and become more of an Episcopal attendee.
GROSS: Were you able to get an interview with Alberto Gonzales for your book
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: No, I tried, repeatedly. I'd say probably for five months
running, posing that question and literally dozens if not hundreds of
questions to his aides. Received answers to a few questions, ones that I
actually frankly already, you know, knew the answers to.
GROSS: What's the question you most wish he'd answered of yours?
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: I'd like to know whether or not he truly believes in all of
George W. Bush's policies and philosophies and whether the way that he
ascended to power can be easily replicated by other people in the United
States and especially people who grew up in similar circumstances.
GROSS: And you want to know if he's an independent thinker or if he's
basically a good soldier?
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: That's it. That's the question for the ages. I'd love to
sit down with him here in Texas and explore that, you know, in an open, honest
way whether he's just a rubber-stamp adviser or whether he feels that he's
providing authentic, you know, independent legal advice. And again, not just
simply in pursuit of the answers that the president, you know, wants, a
predetermined answer, but whether he's giving him, you know, really the full
breadth of history and legal knowledge so that the president can make an
GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: Thanks a lot, Terry. It was great to talk with you.
GROSS: Bill Minutaglio is the author of the new book, "The President's
Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales."
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the sometimes outrageous rhetoric
of TV political pundits.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: Linguist Geoff Nunberg comments on outrageous nature
of political talk shows, using Ann Coulters' remarks about 9/11
widows to illustrate his point
TERRY GROSS, host:
The recent flap over Ann Coulter's remarks about the 9/11 widows has many
people worrying whether the national political conversation has gotten coarser
and meaner than ever before. Not by historical standards, says our linguist
Geoff Nunberg. What's new is that politics has become just another kind of
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: Is American public discourse more virulent and partisan
than ever before? It might seem so. But, in fact, the political rhetoric of
earlier days was laced with a venom and outright mendacity that could go
elbow-to-elbow with anything you're liable to see in the modern media. It's
the setting that's gotten a whole lot weirder. Americans have always enjoyed
the spectacle of political brouhahas. But before the advent of talk radio and
Fox News, nobody realized that you could build an entire business model by
turning political vilification into a form of popular entertainment.
Take Ann Coulter's recent description of the 9/11 widows as witches who are
enjoying their husbands' deaths. As defamation goes, that's no more
over-the-top than the things people were saying in the 1864 election when the
Democrats were calling Lincoln `a leering buffoon' and Horace Greeley was
accusing the Democrats of `stealing the votes of dead Union soldiers.' But
it's only in the current age that remarks like those can turn someone into a
media celebrity who's invited to appear on Jay Leno and the "Today" show to
repeat her choicest charges for the delectation of the public.
In a way, it's just another sign of the modern triumph of tone over substance.
You wouldn't call Coulter a political thinker no more than you'd call Simon
Cowell an arts critic. But like Cowell, Coulter has an unerring sense of
television as performance art. It isn't just a gift for making outrageous
remarks. Plenty of people do that without being invited onto the "Today"
show. And, in fact, Coulter doesn't get a lot of national attention for her
run-of-the-mill ruminations about giving rat poison to Justice Stevens or
fragging John Murtha. What made the remark about the 9/11 widows irresistible
was its flamboyantly gratuitous tastelessness and the obvious pleasure Coulter
took in the effect it had.
People have different takes on what Coulter does, of course, beginning with
deciding on what to call it. Her defenders like to describe her as a satirist
or an ironist, with the implication that her liberal critics don't get the
joke. But satire and irony seem pretty far from the mark here. The point of
satire is to depict things as grotesque in order to make them seem ridiculous
the way Stephen Colbert does in his Bill O'Reilly persona or Christopher
Buckley does with a pointed caricature of `Thank you for smoking.'
But Coulter isn't actually sending anybody up. Not herself certainly and not
the targets of her remarks. Coulter's fans may take pleasure in hearing her
talk about poisoning Justice Stevens or saying that it's pity Timothy McVeigh
didn't park his truck next to The New York Times building. But that's not
because those remarks made either Stevens or The New York Times seem
particularly ridiculous. It's because Coulter seems to be able to get away
with unbridled aggression by disguising it as mere mischief-making.
If you had to come up with a name for this rhetorical maneuver, the closest
you could come would be smut. In a strict sense, of course, smut is the sort
of leering innuendo that veils sexual aggression. But, in a broader sense,
you could think of smut as any kind of nastiness that pretends to be mere
naughtiness. It might be a sexual vulgarity, a racial epithet or simply a
venomous insult. What makes it smut is that it's tricked out as humor, so
that if anybody claims to be offended, you can answer indignantly, `Touchy!
Can't you take a joke?' In that broad sense, smut can be innocuous on
occasion. In fact, it's a staple of sitcoms in what you could thing of the
`whoo!' moment. That's the moment when the character who's comically
malicious or outspoken makes a remark that's just offensive or risque enough
to test the limits of taste, and the studio audience respond by saying,
The political talk shows traffic in these moments, too. That shouldn't be
surprising since most of these shows owe a lot to the classic sitcom. In
fact, when you think of the most successful practitioners of this genre, like
Coulter, O'Reilly or James Carville, there isn't a one of them who couldn't be
a model for a recurring character on "Cheers" or "Drew Carey"--the waspish
termagant, the bombastic blowhard, the sly yokel. And as on the sitcom, the
drama here is character-driven rather than plot-driven. Watching O'Reilly or
Hannity and Colmes, you can't help recalling the bickering on "All In The
Family," where politics was always just a pretext for the clash of
Whatever the issue the shows are talking about, the massacre of Haditha or an
increase in wild bachelorette parties, it's going to be grist for the eternal
Archie-vs.-Meathead squabble between left and right. Who are these parents
who allow their kids to sleep with Michael Jackson? Alan Colmes asked a
couple of years back, and Sean Hannity answered, `Liberals.'
It's the formulaic comic framework of these shows that make political smut
possible. However offensive a remark might sound in the abstract, it's all in
the spirit of entertainment. And as Coulter and other masters of the genre
understand, the effect is to aggravate the insult, not alleviate it. You not
only get to offer an offense but to charge people with prim humorlessness when
they take umbrage. That's the great rhetorical achievement of our age. Other
ages may have been better at mere abuse, but no one can touch us when it comes
to driving people up a wall.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley. His new book about politics and
language is called "Talking Right."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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