DATE February 1, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Michael Specter of The New Yorker talks about deaths of
journalists in Russia who were critics of Russian President
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Since Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, a shocking number of his critics
and political opponents have been murdered, including prominent journalists,
two members of parliament, an executive in Russia's Central Bank and former
KGB agent in exile Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London after getting a
lethal dose of radioactive polonium. British police have completed their
investigation into Litvinenko's death and submitted a file to prosecutors.
The death of so many of Putin's opponents was the subject of a piece in last
week's New Yorker by our guest, journalist Michael Specter. He traces the
roots of the killings and their relative toleration among Russians to the
country's wrenching transition from communism to a market economy and the lack
of a tradition of independent journalism.
Michael Specter was The New York Times Moscow bureau chief in the late '90s.
He's been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1998. Terry spoke to
Specter earlier this week.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Michael Specter, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Now you write that 13 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1999. Can
you go through this morbid roll call of which journalists were killed and what
was done to them?
Mr. MICHAEL SPECTER: Thirteen journalists have been killed since Vladimir
Putin became president. They share a couple chilling characteristics. One is
ugly deaths and the other notable one is that they were opponents of the
Kremlin. Different people were shot. One man, who I knew fairly well, Yuri
Shchekochikhin who worked at Novaya Gazeta along with Anna Politkovskaya, who
was also killed recently and who I wrote about in last week's issue of the
magazine, died mysteriously while he was investigating nefarious connections
between the FSB, which is the federal security agency, the successor to the
KGB, and mafia in government. He died--doctors said he died of an allergic
reaction, though they could never say to what, and his family is convinced
that he was poisoned in the manner of Alexander Litvinenko, who was not a
journalist but he was a former FSB agent who was murdered through radiological
assassination in London in November.
GROSS: You know, you describe the Litvinenko murder as the first known case
of nuclear terrorism perpetrated against an individual, nuclear terrorism
because he was killed with polonium-210, which is a rare radioactive isotope.
What are the theories in Russia about who is behind these murders and what the
Mr. SPECTER: Well, there isn't enough time in this show or in our lifetimes
to go through every theory because there are thousands of them. Here are some
facts. Alexander Litvinenko was an extremely outspoken opponent of Vladimir
Putin. He was asked to kill Putin's most famous opponent, Boris Berezovsky,
seven years ago and instead defected to London. Became a member of the
Berezovsky camp. Has said that Putin was responsible for starting the second
Chechen war which began when a bunch of buildings in Moscow blew up, killing
300 or more people and which the government blamed on Chechen separatists
without any real evidence whatsoever. Litvinenko was poisoned, and there
seems to be very little doubt that it would have required a sophisticated
organization to bring an isotope of polonium, which is rare and which is
almost exclusively manufactured in Russia into London, slip it into a drink so
that he could die. It's an unusual poison because if you touch it, you won't
get sick. You have to ingest it, but if you ingest even a microgram, you'll
die, and you'll die a very ugly way.
GROSS: Well, a law was passed by the Russian parliament, the Duma, that
permits the assassination of, quote, "enemies of the Russian regime abroad."
Is it believed in Russia that Litvinenko is a victim of this law?
Mr. SPECTER: It's certainly believed by many people, and I guess I would
have to say I would be one of those people. As you asked in your last
question, there are many theories. There are theories that Putin's opponents
had him killed to make Putin look bad. That Putin personally had him killed
because he hated him. I can't personally believe, though I will never know,
nor will I think anyone know, that the president of Russia actually had him
killed, but I do think there's an atmosphere where you can go out and kill
people who you oppose and know that you're not going to get prosecuted, and
part of that problem is that last year the Duma passed a law at the
president's behest which basically said, `If there's an enemy of the Russian
regime abroad, we can kill them and if you kill them, it will be fine.' And it
just seems somewhat tailor-made to kill people like Alexander Litvinenko
though definition of enemy of Russian regime is a rather vague term these
GROSS: And I find "abroad" a little vague, too. Does it mean a foreigner
who's an enemy of the regime or a Russian who has gone to another country to
visit or to live. Are they an enemy abroad?
Mr. SPECTER: Well, this is like asking how many angels can dance on the head
of a pin. I believe most people felt that the meaning of it was a Russian
defector, people like Litvinenko who had turned against the country. But it
isn't legally the case that it means that, and it could mean anyone that
opposes the government in terms of the law. I mean, you know, I don't believe
that any country can pass law saying it's OK to kill other people's citizens
but that basically is what it says.
GROSS: Has there been any attempt to investigate the murders of journalists
or of political or business people who were believed to have been murdered by
Mr. SPECTER: Yes. There have been attempts. They don't seem to be very
wholehearted, and the reason I say that is because of the 13 journalists who
died in the last seven years, there have been zero convictions and almost no
one has been apprehended yet. In the rare cases where people were
apprehended, the trial was a mistrial or it was very clear that they were
Paul Klebnikov was an American who is the founding editor of the Russian
edition of Forbes. He was gunned down outside his office. His murderers are
still at large, and I actually do believe the Russian government is somewhat
forcefully trying to prosecute that but they're not having a lot of luck, and
again I think part of it is even when they want to, there is an atmosphere
there where, you know, go kill people. It's OK. And people shoot people in
the head there and walk away, and people see it and they're not reporting.
Anna Politkovskaya, who was the most famous journalist and the one who died on
October 7th, was shot in her elevator four times on a Saturday afternoon, the
last time just inches away from her head. They call this in
Russian...(Russian language spoken)...which means "control shot." It's a
totally common term in Moscow. Everyone knows it. Housewives know it. When
normal people know that term, it's not really a good thing for your society.
GROSS: Now, as you've pointed out, you know, there have been 13 journalists
who have been murdered in Russia since 1999, when Putin became the president,
so how has the press been covering the murder of journalists?
Mr. SPECTER: The press has changed dramatically, and their ability to cover
events has been altered quite a bit. When I lived in Russia, which was in
1994 through '98, there were many problems. But the press was vibrant and
vigorous and did what it thought it ought to do, sometimes for better or
worse, but there were lots of voices and one sort of felt that people could go
out and try to find out the truth. These days it's much more complicated.
You're allowed to write what you want, as long as you write it for a newspaper
that nobody reads. Most people see TV and that's all they see. TV is totally
either completely owned by the Kremlin or owned by political organizations or
most importantly, businesses like the giant gas and oil concerns, Gazprom and
the Rosneft, who are basically arms of the state.
So TV is so tightly controlled and 95 percent information people get is from
TV, that all these other investigations are somewhat meaningless. It is the
case that you can go onto the Internet, and people write what they want and
see what they want and they don't believe there's censorship there at all.
It's also the case that very few people, once you get outside of Moscow and
St. Petersburg, and even in those cities, either have access to or really get
their information from the Internet.
GROSS: Can you describe how the TV network became owned by the state or by
companies that function, as you describe it, as corporate arms of the state?
Mr. SPECTER: Yes, I can. When I was there, the first Chechen war started
about when I got there and lasted almost two years, and it was a bloody war
and the Russians knew that it was a bloody war because they saw it every
night, particularly on a station called NTV, which stands for Independent
Television Network, which was owned by one of the very rich Russian so-called
oligarchs named Vladimir Gusinsky and run by a man named Igor Malashenko, and
it was sort of like in America during the time of Vietnam. I mean, people
were shocked. They turned on their TV at night and they saw their kids
getting killed and they saw cities being destroyed, a countryside being laid
waste, and it very quickly turned the Russian people against that war and
against the president, President Yeltsin, whose popularity plummeted
dramatically in large part because of that and also because of economic chaos
Vladimir Putin wasn't about to let that happen and when he became president,
he made sure that these major networks were owned, either by companies, they
just bought them--in the case of NTV, it's almost like the godfather. They
just made an offer you couldn't refuse, and if you did refuse it, they upped
the offer and if you refused that, then you were prosecuted and hounded out of
the country. Vladimir Gusinsky now lives in Israel. I don't think that he
would last one hour on the street in Moscow if he were to return.
GROSS: The state-controlled energy company Gazprom took over the TV station,
NTV, in the middle of a broadcast. Would you describe what happened?
Mr. SPECTER: Well, they took it over. They bought it. They so-called
bought it. It's not the type of purchase that we'd consider a normal purchase
where people offer fair-market value and buy things, but they got it and then
they just said, `We're going to change things.' And a man named Andrei Norkin,
who was an extremely brave and intelligent broadcaster was on the air, trying
to explain to his viewers, of which there were still millions, what was going
on, and they simply cut him off. They just cut him off. It was like the old
Russ Soviet days. The television went to test patterns, and Norkin and his
gang were out and, you know, within an hour or two, a bunch of people speaking
pablum were giving the news.
DAVIES: New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter speaking with Terry Gross.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with journalist Michael Specter.
His piece about the death of opponents of Russian president Vladimir Putin
appears in The New Yorker.
GROSS: Before the state basically took over control of the TV networks in
Russia, they were owned by the new oligarchs, the really wealthy people who
prospered after the collapse of communism. You write a little bit about what
journalism on television was like then, and you write about how some of the
journalists after a while were so concerned that there was going to be a
return to communism, or to neocommunism, that the journalists started taking
sides and even slanting the news. What are some examples of that?
Mr. SPECTER: Well, there's one particular example. It's a very major
example, and it changed Russia in a significant and maybe very depressing way.
Boris Yeltsin, as I said earlier in this conversation, had become extremely
unpopular by 1996, when he was running for re-election. He was running
against a guy named Gennady Zyuganov, who was the head of the Communist Party
and he was a hard-core old-line communist, and a lot of young Russians really
felt they'd gotten rid of communism. It was dead forever. It was never going
to come back, and here was Zyuganov saying, `Hey, this guy's a joke. The
economy's terrible.' Sort of what Ronald Reagan said when he ran. `Are you
better off now than you were four years ago?' And what Bill Clinton ran on.
`It's the economy, stupid.' This is what people care about in the world, not
just in Russia or the US, and things were terrible. There was chaos. There
was fear. There was also the sense that a great, powerful nation had been
humiliated in almost unspeakable ways and become meaningless.
Zyuganov played into this and people in the liberal world, in the press world,
in the world that had a stake in the new economy, some of them for worse but a
lot of them for better, said, `Gee, I don't want to go back to collective
life.' And the people who owned those networks and newspapers basically
decided, `Hey, we're going to re-elect Yeltsin.' He had about 3 percent
popularity at the time, and they pumped him up to 54 percent, just by
accentuating the positive and trashing Zyuganov like you can't believe, and
the press basically, including my friends, including really good, honorable
people, went along with it. They hadn't had a history of thinking about these
things, and all they really knew was they didn't want communism coming back
and that was the worst thing that could happen to Russia, and they were going
to stop it no matter what, and so they did.
GROSS: Do you think that in any way that opened the door to the manipulation
of the press now?
Mr. SPECTER: Yes. I think that Vladimir Putin and his people are very
clever and smart, and they watched this happen, and what they took away from
this was a very important lesson, which is the press is powerful, and you can
use the press to manipulate voter opinions, the way people think about issues.
You can bring a man down, you can destroy a company, you can turn people
against a policy, a nation, if you get out there and shove it down 95 percent
of the people's throats, and that's what happened. And they were able to do
that because they were very sophisticated and they also saw that in 1996,
`Hey, these guys actually turned the election around. These guys have some
power. Let's use it.'
GROSS: You mentioned that although freedoms are limited now in Russia, people
are living better than they have in a long time. You know, the economy has
improved and that has a lot to do with oil. How is oil affecting Russia now?
Mr. SPECTER: How isn't it? Russia is basically a cold version of Saudi
Arabia at this point. It produces--it exports something like 30 percent of
the world's oil and gas. That number could go up. We live in a world now
where the Mideast is a mess, where you can't rely on the oil, where we're
trying to cut down, and one we'd like to think we're trying to cut down on
what the president of our country eventually and finally called our addiction
to oil, and Russia has it, and we need it, and the price of oil when Vladimir
Putin assumed office was something like $19 a barrel. It fluctuated. It got
up to $70. It's down around 55 or 52 now. That money goes right into the
coffers of the Russian government.
When he took over--all the time that I lived in Russia, the Russian government
spent all its time trying to raise enough money to feed its people, to run its
programs. It used to have to go to the IM--the International Monetary Fund
all the time to ask permission for things. Now they have just tons of money.
They don't ask permission, nor should they, nor do they need to, for anything
they want to do. They have all the money in the world. And they've gone from
being a debtor-begger humiliated country to an extremely rich, powerful and
politically potent one, and it's all because of oil.
And oil prices do fluctuate. When the price of oil dropped in the '80s, it's
pretty clear that it was one of the things that led to the destruction of the
Soviet Union because they didn't have a Plan B and neither does Russia right
GROSS: So who's benefitting from the oil? Who's financially benefitting from
Mr. SPECTER: To be honest, the entire country to some degree. A bunch of
people are getting obscenely rich, but that was true under Boris Yeltsin.
What is also happening is that people are living better. Average people.
Middle-class people. Pensioners. Retired people. Sick people are getting
better benefits. It's really remarkable. If you go to Moscow today, it's not
just the case that there's a bunch of shockingly rich people, but it's also
the case that working people are taking vacations and sending their kids to
schools and taking better care of their parents and buying new clothing from
fancy stores and living like we consider ourselves to live in the West.
GROSS: Putin is supposed to step down next year. Is it likely that he will?
Mr. SPECTER: That's like asking the question of who killed Alexander
Litvinenko. There are 27,000 scenarios. I'll go out on a limb and say, sure,
I think he will step down. I don't think he wants to be seen as Idi Amin.
But stepping down--there's stepping down and there's stepping down. I don't
think he's going to step down and move to a retirement home and play pinochle.
What he has said is he intends to, quote, "retain influence." He could do that
in any number of ways. He could become the prime minister. He could become
the chairman of Gazcom, the biggest company. There's a feeling that he may in
fact just switch jobs with the current chairman who's his first deputy prime
minister. So will he continue as president for a third term? I doubt it very
strongly. But will he stop being obvious in decision-making. I don't think
that's likely either.
GROSS: What's the relationship now between Bush and Putin? You know, early
in his presidency, he said he looked in Putin's eyes and saw his soul.
Mr. SPECTER: I don't pretend to know the answer to that. They seem to get
along on a superficial level. Condoleezza Rice has been openly critical of
the Kremlin, very supportive of free press. But these are just words. We're
not doing anything in this country to try to change Russia's behavior, and, by
the way, either is Europe. European companies and European governments want
the oil and they want the gas, and that's what they want, and that pretty much
governs all relationships.
GROSS: Now, finally, I'm just wondering if your recent report from Russia,
when combined with your experiences when you covered Russia from '94 to '98
have led to any, you know, new reflections about the role of the press in
covering, you know, the most important political news of the day?
Mr. SPECTER: Well, it's not made me happy. I think one thing that's really
important is that people take away the memory of what Anna Politkovskaya did
and not just that she was killed but that she spent years documenting horrible
atrocities in Chechnya when no one else would go, when no one else would write
it, at great cost to herself. There were other--she was ostracized. There
were other attempts on her life. She never gave up because she knew it was
honest, it was the truth, and it had to be done. And I think we all have to
remember that that's what we do our jobs for, and it's not easy to do it
sometimes. It's not easy to be brave when you know that the chances of you
dying are high and the chances of you being hated are even higher.
But I did take away a sense that the Russian people need to understand that
better, and they don't understand it because it's--their freedoms just came
one day and they never, you know--if Vladimir Putin ever says, `Gee, from now
on you can't travel to England or turn in your passports or you can't go out
on Friday nights,' they'll have a different idea about freedom of speech. But
right now that hasn't happened, and living better and seeing your kids happier
and in a better school and in a warmer coat trumps an idea, and that I
understand, but it's sad.
GROSS: Michael Specter, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SPECTER: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Journalist Michael Specter speaking with Terry Gross. His piece
about murders of the opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin appears in
The New Yorker.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Vikram Chandra's book
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, filling in for Terry Gross.
The buzz in the literary world at the moment is about a 900-page epic crime
novel set in modern-day India. It's called "Sacred Games," and it's author is
Vikram Chandra. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Although it seems as though everybody still wants to
write a novel, fewer Americans want to read one, at least serious ones.
According to the oft-cited study "Reading at Risk," which was published by the
National Endowment for the Arts in 2004, the number of Americans who read
literary fiction for pleasure is fast approaching the number of adults who opt
for elective tracheotomies. That's my nightmare take on the future of
literature on especially glum days. But then along comes a bold, fresh and
big--really big--novel like Vikram Chandra's "Sacred Games," and all those
pessimistic predictions vanish.
"Sacred Games" is a 900-page novel about contemporary India that comes
complete with a selected glossary of terms for us non-Indian readers, as well
as with a helpful reminder list at the beginning of the book of who's who
among the many major characters, such as you usually find in the front of a
novel by Tolstoy or Agatha Christie. That odd couple comparison is apt
because "Sacred Games" has the sweep and social commentary of the great 19th
century epic novels, yet it also toys with a crime fiction plot. It cheers me
up that in this age of waning attention spans and apparently waning interest
in literature, Chandra didn't take a safer route and say, produce a slim work
of fiction about relationships. Instead, he's gone ahead and written a
doorstopper of a challenging urban novel, and best of all, not only does
"Sacred Games" deserve praise for its ambitions but also for its terrific
achievement. Maybe literature as a pastime is sinking under the tide of
technology. If so, "Sacred Games," given its size and buoyancy, makes an
excellent life raft for those folks determined to hold on to the pleasures of
In brief, "Sacred Games" tells the intertwined stories of Inspector Sartaj
Singh, who's set apart becomes he's a lone Sikh serving on the police force of
Mumbai, also known as Bombay, and Ganesh, a Hindu crime lord. In a slapstick
confrontation in chapter two of the novel, Sartaj is ticked off that Ganesh is
hiding out in a certain factory district of Bombay. When Sartaj arrives at
the address, he's stunned to see a building, a solid, white, windowless cube
that we later learn is a nuclear fallout shelter Ganesh had commissioned to be
built in a record 10 days. The cube is equipped with a speaker box, through
which Ganesh, hiding inside, taunts Sartaj, `The question is how are you going
to get in?' Abruptly after Ganesh issues that challenge, the tone of the scene
changes and he fatally shoots himself in the head. How are you going to get
in? That question, the windowless cube--of course, they're hoking metaphors
for the mystery of Ganesh and his odd suicide that Sartaj sets out to solve.
Sartaj is in his 40s, divorced and afflicted as he admits to himself, with
a...(unintelligible)...an Indian word that literally means a worm and
figuratively means an inexplicable stubbornness, an obsession. Sartaj's
obsession takes him all over Bombay and environs, from Bangladeshi slum
neighborhoods to Baliwood penthouses. The tales within tales here carry us
readers back into India's recent history and take us into detours through the
life stories of minor characters, like Ganesh's holy man father and the
professional street pickpockets who Sartaj questions.
The form of this constantly surprising novel also morphs into different
shapes. Sometimes it's pared down, action-driven. At other times, the
language is meditative. Here, for instance, is a passage where Sartaj's love
interest, a woman named Mary, thinks about the violent death of her sister.
(Reading) "For months she had walked around with a reeling heart, feeling
dizzy through the day, then finally the knowledge had settled in, became part
of the structure of the new world. That's how it was when you confronted
something impossible. At first, there was nausea, a loss of all landmarks.
Your own home became a hostile borderland, and then one day, you knew that
this raw wasteland, this garish alien light was your home. You just had to
have patience and will enough to survive the first terrors."
The test of a teeming narrative like this is its end. Unlike the ordered
universe of the great 19th century Russian and British novelists, all the
storylines here don't converge in one big pleasing click of coincidence. This
is modern India after all. Chaotic, beautiful, on the move. "Sacred Games"
ends in many disparate clicks and some deliberately dangling threads. But
here's one crucial experience Chandra's novel does offer in common with its
sprawling 19th century forebears. When, as a reader, you reach the last page
of "Sacred Games," you feel as though you've been expelled from a world that,
over weeks of reading, has come to feel like a second home.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University, and her
memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" is now out in paperback. She reviewed
"Sacred Games" by Vikram Chandra.
Coming up, we remember liberal columnist Molly Ivins.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Profile: Texas journalist Molly Ivins dies at age 62; excerpts
from her 2003 and 1991 interviews by Terry Gross
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Molly Ivins, the liberal Texas journalist known for roasting politicians on
skewers with plenty of salsa, died in Austin yesterday at the age of 62.
She'd battled breast cancer since 1999. Raised in an affluent Houston
neighborhood as the daughter of a Republican oil man, Ivins once said most of
her strength came from learning how to stand up to her father. In the 1970s,
she edited The Texas Observer, a bimonthly muckraking publication that she
remained committed to all her life.
She went on to work at The New York Times but returned to Texas in the 1980s
and became a syndicated columnist. She was hard on President Bush, often
calling him "Shrub." He issued a statement yesterday, saying he respected
Ivins' passion and that her quick wit and her commitment to her beliefs will
Molly Ivins wrote six books, as well as pieces for Esquire, The Atlantic
Monthly and The Nation. Terry spoke to her in 2003 when her book
"Bushwhacked" was released two years and 10 months into Bush's first term in
TERRY GROSS, host:
Now you're in an interesting position living in Texas and having followed
George W. Bush's career as governor of that state. You write about the
president's religion. And you say, while you acknowledge that, you know,
religion is usually off-limits for the press to write about, you think it's
important to bring it up in the case of President Bush. Why?
Ms. MOLLY IVINS: Well, I think that George W. Bush, unlike his father--his
dad, George Bush, was clearly a sort of upper-class eastern wasp. W is
really, consciously, culturally identified as a Texan. And you see in his
character sort of three common strands of Texas culture. One is religiosity,
anti-intellectualism and machismo. And all three of them are very appealing
to broad groups of voters. And I think in Bush's case, at least with the
first two, absolutely genuine. I think the religiosity is genuine, and I
think it needs to be looked at--as I say, mostly, religion, pretty much, no.
You know, you leave it off base. But to the extent that his religious beliefs
influence policy, which they do at several intersections, then I think it's
legitimate to take a look at it.
GROSS: Now in "Bushwhacked," you describe the Bush administration as driven
by ideology. What do you see as the ideology that drives it?
Ms. IVINS: The ideology of this administration--Bush himself, as a political
operator, didn't seem to me, as governor, terribly ideologically motivated.
He was on some issues--death penalty, some others you couldn't move him
on--but basically he was, you know, flexible enough to play the game with the
powers that then were in the Legislature. And I think Bush has always chosen,
you know, these older male mentors. And his pick on his way to Washington was
Dick Cheney, who is really quite ideological. If you go back--political
reporters are great believers in look at the record, look at the record. Have
you checked Cheney's political record as a voting member of Congress? You'll
find it's really quite extraordinary. He was often one of only one, two or a
handful of votes opposed to what would normally be considered, you know, the
legislative equivalent of voting in favor of a resolution commending
And I think that part of what has happened is that Washington is such a
polarized place, and there genuinely is a--the people who call themselves
movement conservatives who really genuinely subscribe to the ideology that
`government is bad; the marketplace will solve all problems; we're much better
off, you know, with unfettered capitalism, no government; just let the
marketplace solve everything.' And I think that's almost like a religious
belief rather than a political belief. It seems to be an article of faith
with many of these people, undeterred by reality, experience, the record or
And so it seems to me that Bush has actually become more ideological since
he's gone to Washington, particularly to the extent that he--and this is a
really elementary political mistake--I can't believe Karl Rove, who's a very
smart guy, is really letting this happen. It seems to me the mistake is that
they're only listening to one another, that there is a sort of loop of
insiders. Did I mention Rumsfeld and Cheney and all that circle of people?
They're just talking to each other and they're not hearing from anyone outside
the circle, which is always a fatal mistake.
DAVIES: Molly Ivins, speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. Ivins died yesterday
at the age of 62. Her first interview on FRESH AIR was in 1991, when her book
"Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" was published. She began with a
reading from the book.
Ms. IVINS: (Reading) "In my youth, I aspired to be a great journalist.
George Orwell, Albert Camus and I. F. Stone were my heroes, great writers
and intellectuals who helped illuminate their times. But look, God gave those
guys fascism, communism, colonialism and McCarthyism to struggle against. All
I got was Lubbock. It's not my fault."
GROSS: So, you used to feel like you didn't get the big stories to cover?
Ms. IVINS: I'm afraid so, although I must say there's enough real about the
great state of Texas to keep anybody busy.
GROSS: It seems to me what your stories have turned out to be is Texas,
women, and general overall stupidity in politics.
Ms. IVINS: I've been writing about Texas politics for a long time, and that
will give a person plenty of material.
GROSS: You've written that, as a lifelong Texas liberal, you've spent your
whole life, the whole of your existence, in the political climate to the right
of Ronald Reagan. You're, in fact, from a family who is very right wing.
What was right wing about them?
Ms. IVINS: Well, my daddy was John Connelly's campaign manager. I guess
GROSS: All right.
Ms. IVINS: I have to say my daddy and I don't agree on much politically. In
fact, it's true about the political climate of Texas and what I think of as
most of the real world. I define the real world as just about every place
outside Manhattan island. It has always sort of amazed and amused me that so
many of these right-wing intellectuals, whether they're called
neoconservatives, seem to be operating under the bizarre impression that the
world is actually run by people of the liberal persuasion, a notion I find so
comical that I can--I'm barely able to talk politics with those folks.
GROSS: What got you questioning the conservative world view that your family
Ms. IVINS: Well, I think all Southern liberals come from the same starting
point, which is race. I grew up in the South before the civil rights
movement, and it was an era when all grownups lied. If you lived in a white
part of town and you go to the drinking fountains, they'd say now, `Don't
drink out of that fountain, dear. That's dirty.' That was the one that said
"colored" on it. Well, of course, you lived in the white part of town and
kids had been crawling all over the white fountain all day. It was full of
bubble gum and dirty grease marks and stuff, and you knew that the colored
fountain wasn't dirty. There was something they weren't telling you. And you
know how horribly logical little children can be. You just start picking up
on those clues early on, and somehow I never got over it.
The first great political question when I was coming up was civil rights, and
I was in favor of it. And the second great political question to come along
was the war in Vietnam, and I was against it. So people told me that meant I
was some kind of double-dyed full-blooded liberal. I said, OK. What did I
know? Later on, people took to claiming that it meant I was in favor of big
government and communism and high taxes. And that's when I figured out that I
should never let anybody else define my politics.
GROSS: Was your family prosperous? Were you a debutante? Did you have a
Ms. IVINS: No, I was not myself a debutante, but I went to debutante
parties. And I suppose to some extent did grow up in a rather privileged
world. I went to a private school in Houston, Texas, and later went on to
Smith College and Columbia University. The flavor of my political opinions, I
think, comes not from--in part, I think, I grew up different from other girls
of my background simply because I read a great deal. And I suppose there was
an additional factor. I'm almost six feet tall, which makes it hard to be a
sweet, dainty, pretty, feminine, little, sweet, proper Southern belle. I
mean, they made me captain of the basketball team when I was four and that
sort of went like that.
GROSS: When did you start writing about the Legislature, the Texas
Legislature? And what was your early response to that?
Ms. IVINS: My first session was in 1971, and I walked onto the floor of the
Texas House of Representatives, and it looked sort of like the first day of
school. There were 150 men all slapping each other on the back and patting
each other on the butt, and meeting and greeting and carrying on, and I saw
one old boy dig another old boy in the ribs with his elbow and say, `Hey,
fella, did you see what I found myself last night. And she don't talk
neither!' And they went off shortly, and I just thought to myself, you know,
`This is fabulous.' It makes some people kind of sick but, Terry, from the
beginning, I just thought, this is reporter heaven. This is too funny to be
believed, and I've been writing about it that way every since.
GROSS: It's good that you were able to keep your bearings and think that you
were sane and they were crazy. Not everybody thrown into such a situation
would be able to maintain their bearings.
Ms. IVINS: Oh, if you had ever witnessed that collection of yeeks and dorks
and bozos they have in the state Legislature of Texas, I don't think you'd
have much trouble.
GROSS: Do you think that the Texas Legislature is any worse than any other?
Ms. IVINS: Certainly we're number one bad, and I'll fight to the death with
anybody who says we're not. I simply have to tell you. Of course, there's
some great politics in our neighboring state of Louisiana, and in a political
storytelling contest, I often get a run for my money with folks from New
Jersey and Illinois. But I have been in political storytelling contests all
over this country with my fellow political writers, and I've never lost one.
All I have to do is keep telling true stories about the Texas Legislature and
sooner or later they all give up and say `Uncle.'
GROSS: And can you tell one of your favorites for us?
Ms. IVINS: Well, there's so many it's hard to say, but perhaps my all-time
favorite Texas representative was Mike Martin from Longview. He was an early
harbinger of the moral majority. Got elected on a platform of being
pro-family and pro-American, but frankly if you put that man's brain in a
bumblebee, it would have flown backwards. He could not get a single bill
passed, not even memorial resolutions for people in his district who had died.
So when it came time for re-election, of course it's kind of hard to get
re-elected if you haven't done anything. Looked bad for Mike's re-election
chances but he came up with an innovative scheme. He paid his cousin Charlie
to shoot him in the arm with a shotgun. Then he claimed it had been done by a
Satanic and communistic cult, and he had the law enforcement people running
all over the state of Texas trying to find some Satanic communistic cult,
which is fairly hard to do, and there was a great uproar in the press about
it, and everybody running around thinking people--the lives of legislators
were in danger and nobody knew what to think about it.
Well, the plot came unraveled. Charlie had too much beer, as I recall it, in
a bar one night and spilled the beans. And I always point out, only the Texas
Legislature would have had the foresight to make it illegal to pay someone to
shoot you. It is illegal in our state to come down and do it, Terry. And
with that, Mike Martin became a wanted man. But instead of facing up to his
then-legal difficulties, Mike Martin then took it on the lam. He went
underground. He went into hiding, and we had to send the Texas Rangers after
him. They hunted high. They hunted him low. It took them two weeks to track
Martin to earth. He was hidden at his mother's house outside Longview, and
that's where they found him hiding in the stereo cabinet. And many people
have asked me what Martin was doing in that stereo cabinet, and I'm here to
tell you that man always did want to be a speaker.
DAVIES: Molly Ivins speaking with Terry Gross in 1991.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1991 conversation with liberal Texas
journalist Molly Ivins, who died yesterday.
GROSS: The title of your new book, "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?"
comes from an actual story. Would you tell the story?
Ms. IVINS: When I first started writing the column for The Dallas Times
Herald back in 1982, I found Dallas, Texas, to be really quite a buttoned-up
sort of town, really very proper, and they were not used to someone with my
kind of free-wheeling style, and I reviewed the performance of a local
congressman. He was a Republican from north Dallas, and I took a look at what
he'd done lately, and it caused me to render the judgment that if that man's
IQ slipped any lower, we'd have to water him twice a day. Well, that, good
heavens, touched off all kinds of outraged protest from Republicans around
there, and they all threatened to cancel their subscriptions and start
advertising boycotts and such, and my paper did kind of a gutsy thing. They
took out billboards all over Dallas, Texas, that said, `Molly Ivins can't say
that, can she?'
GROSS: And what effect did that advertising campaign have? How did it go
Ms. IVINS: Well, it's been really interesting. Every year, they do polls to
see who is the best liked and most hated columnist, and I'm always both of
them. I guess that means maybe people are reading it.
GROSS: That's great. Now is it right that The New York Times fired you for
describing a community chicken-killing festival as a `gang-pluck'?
Ms. IVINS: That comes close to truth. I...
GROSS: How close?
Ms. IVINS: I resigned from the Times but I was not in good smell with the
powers that be, and it was over the time I tried to call that community
chicken killing a gang pluck. They felt that was conduct unbecoming a New
York Times reporter.
GROSS: And how did they let you know that?
Ms. IVINS: Oh, I had this hilarious interview with Abe Rosenthal, then the
executive editor of the Times. I had been Rocky Mountain bureau chief for The
New York Times for three years. Covered nine Mountain states from the
Canadian to the Mexican border. It was a wonderful assignment, and that's why
I wrote the story about the community chicken slaughter. And when I got back
to New York, I was abruptly recalled, kind of like a defective automobile.
Abe hauled me into his office and we kind of went around about whether or not
I was deliberately trying to stick my thumb in the eye of The New York Times,
as I recall his words. And I explained that, no, I never tried to do that
actually. I just never understood where they drew the line at the Times and
when it was pointed out to me, my honest reaction was always, `You've got to
be kidding.' So we argued that up and down a bit, and then he said in an
accusatory tone, `You tried to call that community chicken killing a gang
pluck.' I said, `Yes, Abe, I did.' And he said, `Gang pluck.' I said, `Well,
Abe, I thought it was a good line.' And he said, `Gang pluck.' I said, `Well,
Abe, it's a play on words.' He said, `Gang pluck. You were trying--that is a
play on gang...(word censored by station). You were trying to make our
readers think of the word...(word censored by station).' I said, `Damn Abe,
you are a hard man to fool.'
GROSS: I'm wondering, you know, some people from Texas end up telling stories
about their state and everything. Do you think that some people camp it up a
little bit when telling colorful stories about the South?
Ms. IVINS: Yes and no. There's a genre of person that we refer to somewhat
scornfully as professional Texans. I must say sometimes I feel in danger of
becoming a professional Texan myself, and people who, you know, have lived up
here in the North and who dine out on old stories for many years, eventually
becoming terrible bores to everyone, including themselves.
There is an almost irresistible tendency to play Texan, however. I know when
I first joined the Times, the editors were taking me around, and they'd
introduce me to someone and say, `This is Molly Ivins. She just joined the
paper. She's from Texas.' And people would look up very expectantly and say,
`Oh, from Texas?' And I found myself sticking out my hand and saying, `Howdy.'
You know I just didn't want to let anybody down.
Ms. IVINS: And there is an extent to which you play the role, particularly
if you're a Texan in the North because people expect it of you and enjoy it,
and sometimes I feel when I'm in the North as though I speak two languages and
they only speak one.
GROSS: You speak North and South?
Ms. IVINS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: In Texas circles, do you ever end up at parties with some of the
politicians who you cover?
Ms. IVINS: Yes. I have always been something of an outsider journalist
because my political opinions aren't popular in my home state, but, yes, I
have over the years socialized with Texas politicians.
GROSS: Does that make it harder to say what you want to say about them?
Ms. IVINS: Not for me.
GROSS: Do you ever learn anything that gives you insights into their
character or politics from the parties?
Ms. IVINS: I'm trying to think. Yes, I suppose so, although as a
journalist, stuff that you learn that you can't use really isn't that much use
GROSS: I bet you see a lot of stuff you can't use at those parties.
Ms. IVINS: Yeah, but I don't--I have--you know, I love to make fun of
politicians, and as far as I'm concerned, they're all in a free fire zone, but
I do have some respect for their privacy. Even the dimmest of them actually
devote a fair number of hours to public service, and I think they deserve some
respect for their privacy.
GROSS: Molly Ivins, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Ms. IVINS: All right. It was my pleasure.
DAVIES: Molly Ivins, speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Ivins died in Austin
yesterday at the age of 62.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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