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A Disenchanted Look at 'The American Way'

John Ridley's comic-book series The American Way has just been collected into a graphic novel. The series takes place in 1961, when the government has created a team of super-heroes to battle foreign super-villains. But it's all just a sham — a diversion created to pacify the public.

Ridley, who co-created The American Way with Georges Jeanty and Karl Story, previously wrote the screenplay for Three Kings and the novel A Conversation with the Mann.

18:41

Other segments from the episode on May 2, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 2, 2007: Interview with George Tenet; Interview with John Ridley.

Transcript

DATE May 2, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Former CIA director George Tenet, author of "At the
Center of the Storm," on the Bush administration and how it worked
with the CIA in the lead-up to the Iraq war
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's part of the CIA's job to keep secrets, but this week its former head is
being called on to answer a lot of questions. George Tenet is on his book
tour promoting his memoir "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA."
Among the issues the book addresses are the controversies surrounding Tenet's
leadership of the Agency in the lead-up to the September 11th attacks and the
invasion of Iraq. Tenet was appointed by President Clinton to serve as
director of Central Intelligence in 1997. President George W. Bush kept him
in that position. Tenet resigned in 2004 in the wake of criticisms over
intelligence that was used as part of the justification for invading Iraq.

George Tenet, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you write in your book that the
weapons of mass destruction was the public face that was put on the war in
Iraq. The real reason was, quote, "core beliefs, larger geostrategic
calculations, ideology and the view that the democratic transformation of the
Middle East through regime change in Iraq would be worth the price." So one of
the real reasons for the war in Iraq, you're saying, was ideology. Did you
think you were being asked to find intelligence that would support the
ideology?

Mr. GEORGE TENET: No, I didn't. And we have to look at this very, very
carefully. I mean, let's look at the whole issue of weapons of mass
destruction and what intelligence has said about that. We've been writing
about this--I've been involved in thinking and writing about this--going back
to the Clinton administration. This is a story that we thought we understood.
We followed Saddam in the '90s when we had UN inspectors, we lost UN
inspectors. We followed a regime that deceived and denied. Very difficult
intelligence target.

You know, the truth was, it turns out, when you do an evaluation and you step
back and say, `Well, you were wrong. Why did you get it wrong?' There were
professional reasons. There were reasons that dealt with how we thought about
history. We thought the biological weapons file was closed, and he reopened
it. How did you think about the first Gulf War, when you got on the ground in
Iraq and his nuclear weapons program was much further along than you
predicted? So there was history, there was deception, there was denial, there
was, you know, from '98 forward, when the inspectors left, lots of technical
data that caused us a great deal of concern, particularly with regard to his
procurement mechanism.

And interestingly, Terry, even after the estimate was printed, there was some
insightful, very valuable human reporting that told us chemical and biological
production continued, that told us he understood how to deceive inspectors and
was going to implement a program to do so. So we came to these conclusions on
our own. I've said publicly at a number of places, no one told us what to say
or how to say it. And when we step back, we understand that there were great
shortcomings in what we wrote and how we wrote it, and that's pretty much how
the WMD story transpired.

Now there's a lot Silverman-Robb, the Congress, lots of people have gotten
underneath lots of those issues. I think at root--Saddam said something to
his FBI debriefer that's really interesting in the context of this deception,
and he said, `You cannot expect Iraq to give up a rifle and live only with a
sword,' and what he was saying in that time period, the interpretation is, `I
can never let the Iranians believe that we don't have this capability.' Well,
in any event...

GROSS: But...

Mr. TENET: ...the fear in society and how pervasive it was, we were wrong.

GROSS: But you were saying that the real reason why we invaded Iraq had to do
with core beliefs within the Bush administration and ideology.

Mr. TENET: Well, Terry...

GROSS: At what point did you start to think, `Well, that's the reason why
they're going to war? It's not even about the intelligence. It's about core
beliefs and ideology.'

Mr. TENET: Well, Terry, I went back and reflected on all this. I mean, we
went back, and I looked at documents and I talked to people and, you know,
there was a predisposition on the part of many at the beginning of the
administration to think about Iraq, and think about the necessity to deal with
Iraq in the context of regime change. All I'm saying is this: Countries go
to war for lots of reasons, and policymakers--intelligence is one input,
somebody's worldview is another input. In this case, the unarticulated view
that democratic transformation of the Middle East should begin with Iraq is
another input, while the public case was made on the case of WMD. There were
many more factors that went into it, and how you weigh them and what
percentage is accorded to each is difficult for me to say, but when you stand
up and make policy decisions, it's often much more than just about
intelligence.

GROSS: You write, "Should we go to war had already been decided in meetings
at which we were not present. We were just called in to discuss the how, and
occasionally how we will explain it to the public." So you're saying that
going to war was decided before you had even given a lot of intelligence about
whether there...

Mr. TENET: No, I'm saying, Terry, that when I talked to people, and when I
talked to people who went to meetings when I did the research for the book,
the discussions that were occurring at midlevels and even levels below me
seemed to create the impression in the people going to meetings that we're
having tactical discussions. We were talking about issues and problems that
might emerge in war fighting. We're talking about things that we would have
to do to anticipate war.

All I'm saying is is--and I say something I think in reflecting on it, I say,
`I don't recall, and maybe these had these meetings, maybe they had a
discussion. I never recalled a session where everybody is'--remember the time
period is I'm focused on al-Qaeda and what's happening on the terrorism front
18 hours a day, and in reflecting on this, I wonder whether we would have all
been better served if we sat down one day and said, `OK, we understand that
policymakers don't like Saddam Hussein and we understand you have a policy
interest, and I understand your reasoning.' Maybe we'd have all done better if
someone had said, `Let's sit down and rack and stack this and say, is this
this right thing to do? Is this the right time to do it?'

I think if we go back to the summer of '03, if we looked at what our senior
officers were saying on the ground in identifying the insurgency and
identifying the problems with de-Baathification, and identifying the problems
with disbanding the army, and identifying the problems with taking the Sunni
population and essentially pushing it off to the side, I think if you go back
and look at all of that quite systemically, intelligence was spot-on. We told
a story. We performed our jobs, and I guess at the end of the day that
record, I think, is clear and very good. And that's an important piece of the
puzzle for people to understand. There's just one final point.

GROSS: Yeah. I have another question for you.

Mr. TENET: People--just one final point. I know you have a lot of
questions. I've heard people say in reaction to the book, people have said,
`Well you knew all of these things before they happened, and if you knew all
these things before they happened, why didn't you speak up to stop it?' Well,
I wish I had that kind of wisdom. I didn't. We didn't. In part, we didn't
fully understand at the front end what the back end was going to look like.
We really didn't understand what the policy would be on the ground in terms of
the post-war reconstruction, and all I can say is what we saw and what we
reported was very direct and very honest.

GROSS: Should we have invaded Iraq as part of the war on terror?

Mr. TENET: Well, Terry, I don't--obviously there--you know, policymakers--I,
you know, in this time period that there had been...

GROSS: Did the intelligence tell you that that was a sensible thing to do?

Mr. TENET: Well, the policymakers--no, well, Terry, here's the distinction
again, you know. I don't make the policy. I don't cross that line. I give
you a sense of what these concerns may be. I tell you what we know. You
factor all that in and make a policy decision. If people believed there was a
command relationship, certainly not. There was no command relationship. We
never thought so. But there were issues of concern. But again, I would say
to you that the decision here--all of the things I previously talked about
were probably factored in, and how decisive any of these were, I'd have to
ultimately--policymakers will have to speak to that.

GROSS: You know, there's the famous 16 words President Bush used in his 2003
State of the Union address saying that Saddam Hussein had tried to get
yellowcake uranium from the African country of Niger...

Mr. TENET: Right.

GROSS: ...that could be used for nuclear weapons, and this was really used to
help make the case that we had to, you know, invade Iraq...

Mr. TENET: Right.

GROSS: ...and do regime change there. Now, you had already taken out that
information from a speech that Vice President Cheney was going to give...

Mr. TENET: (Unintelligible).

GROSS: ...and you said that--go ahead.

Mr. TENET: We took it out of the Cincinnati speech...

GROSS: Yeah and you said it wasn't...

Mr. TENET: Which the president was giving...

GROSS: ...you said it wasn't credible--that the president was going to make,
excuse me.

Mr. TENET: Right.

GROSS: How did it get into a speech the second time around? I know you say
you weren't there vetting it, but didn't like the president and his aides
already know that the CIA had said, `This isn't credible. Don't use it'?

Mr. TENET: Terry, I can only tell you what our side of interaction was. I
can't speak to the other side of the interaction. I know that when the
Cincinnati speech was written, I made a phone call. I said `This has to come
out.' We followed up with two memos. We sent them downtown, explained why.
We go through that, you know--the other issue is is that Iraq already had 550
metric tons of yellowcake under seal so if they wanted to get yellowcake they
could've had it readily available.

But our view was `This is not something that we believe is credible. Don't
put it in the speech.' I thought we were very direct about it. I though we
put documents down to make sure that it's not used again. We had to take our
share of the responsibility for that because it came back to us, and we didn't
object again and we had a responsibility to do that. But my view was is that
responsibility should have been shared immediately. How it got in, why it got
in--look, it's very, very difficult to know the reasons. I can't speculate
other than tell you what the record is.

GROSS: You know, apparently the forged documents that that statement was
based on were so amateurishly done that an Italian journalist was able to
figure out that they were forgeries so I wonder how they ever got any
credibility within the Bush administration.

Mr. TENET: Well, Terry, I have to tell you, the interesting thing is is I
know the story of the forged documents, but they really don't come into my
play in terms of making a determination that we shouldn't use this. I mean,
you know, back in October when we were testifying on the national intelligence
estimate, people in testimony in Congress asked us, `Where do you differ with
the British White Paper?' And back in October we were very explicit about that
fact that we didn't buy this Niger story. So documents or no documents, the
record of what we said is fairly clear months in advance.

GROSS: Valerie Plame was outed as part of this story because her husband, the
ambassador Joe Wilson, had gone to Niger to investigate these claims and found
that there was no validity to them. So do you walk away from the story
thinking that she was intentionally outed to get even at him?

Mr. TENET: Well, Valerie--again, Valerie was one of our officers and I
reacted--I was quite upset about the fact that one of our officers was in this
fray. You know, Joe Wilson's a public figure. My view of Joe Wilson is is
that he's fair game. He's a public figure. He's spoken out publicly. I
never believed Valerie should have been involved in this in any way, shape or
form, and I never believed that an intelligence officer--a sitting
intelligence officer, certainly, should be involved in any way. So motives,
what happened, you know, all you do is read and speculate. All I can say is
is that we didn't think it was appropriate. You know, people said, `Well, she
sent Joe Wilson.' She didn't send him. She may have made a suggestion, but
other people just made that decision. And so my view is if people have
heartburn over Joe, that's fine. But she should never have been involved in
any way.

GROSS: My guest is George Tenet, the former director of Central Intelligence.
His new memoir is called "At the Center of the Storm."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is George Tenet, the former director of Central Intelligence
and as I'm sure you know by know, he's written a memoir called "At the Center
of the Storm."

You write, "Time and time again during the months leading up to the invasion
and for months thereafter, the representatives of the vice president and
Pentagon officials would introduce ideas that were thinly veiled efforts to
put Ahmed Chalabi in charge of post-invasion Iraq. My CIA colleagues were
aghast." Why?

Mr. TENET: Well, I guess we understood and believed that no exile--nobody
who's been living outside of Iraq for so long, nobody who's experienced the
pain and suffering of Saddam Hussein is going to really be very credible on
the ground. Now, it's not a secret that the CIA had issues with Chalabi going
back many, many years but at the bottom line and at root, we were greatly
skeptical that somebody--an exile, or an exiled group imposed from the outside
would ever have much legitimacy in post-war Iraq. Iraqis had an election. He
got no parliamentary seats in that election. Think our view is ultimately
validated. And I've now read people who say, `Well, if only we had, you know,
handed this over to Iraqis a lot sooner.' Well, the people who make those
criticisms, I think, believe in their heart of hearts, if only we had handed
this over to Ahmed Chalabi, this would have all gone away. Well, we never saw
him as an answer.

GROSS: While you were the director of Central Intelligence, Donald Rumsfeld
created the Office of Special Plans to supply the administration with
intelligence. This was headed by Douglas Fife, who was the under secretary of
defense from July of '01 to August of '05. You say that Douglas Fife
mischaracterized intelligence. You describe this as `Fife-based'
intelligence. First of all, what did it say to you that Donald Rumsfeld
started his own intelligence unit?

Mr. TENET: Well, look, my view of all this, of course, is policymakers have
a right to push us, prod us, ask us questions. Listen, intelligence is a
contact sport on a daily basis. You have a right to do that. My concern
about that this particular effort, and this particular effort was particularly
focused on--at least the one issue I was aware of--focused on Iraq and
al-Qaeda. You've got to be careful when policymakers come to conclusions
about intelligence that the intelligence community and the director of Central
Intelligence doesn't share, then you have an obligation to say, `I have my own
views. These are not the views of the director of Central Intelligence and
his analysts.' And I believe on this one paper that was written and ultimately
shared with the Congress, I believe the paper did mischaracterize our sources.
The paper was ultimately withdrawn. We had not cleared on the paper, but the
point here is, you know, this was such a heated issue--Iraq and al-Qaeda was
such a heated issue that policymakers--in this case, Mr. Fife went off and
did his own bit of work.

Well, I can't say that that's good government. I can't say that it's a
reflection of the way our system is supposed to work, and we should always be
questioned on how we come to our conclusions. You just can't come to your own
conclusions if you don't make it clear that they're not ours.

GROSS: Reading between the lines, would it be fair to say that what you're
saying is when you didn't deliver the intelligence that Donald Rumsfeld wanted
to hear, he would get it from his own Office of Special Plans?

Mr. TENET: Well, actually you know, you have to be carefully here. You
know, actually, the secretary was a tough taskmaster. I never had a problem
with the secretary. The secretary always listened to what I had to say. I
don't--I think you've got to be careful here about extending this, and you
know, branding people and saying things that may or may not be true. Let's
just focus on--I don't know what his interaction was with Mr. Fife. I don't
know how much Don believed this or didn't believe this or asked him to do it.
That's not really the point. I can't speak to that side of the record. I can
only speak to you about what I saw, what we thought about it, how we
encountered it, how we dealt with it.

GROSS: How often did information coming out of the Office of Special Plans
contradict information that you had gotten from the CIA?

Mr. TENET: I don't know the answer to that question.

GROSS: Do you...

Mr. TENET: You know, people have asked me, `Well, didn't you see all this
running around you?' I say, `Well, you know, actually, I didn't.' I had a
full-time job. I walked in and saw the president of the United States every
day. I told him what the American intelligence community believed. You know,
beyond this one case of Iraq and al-Qaeda, if there were other things running
around, I never saw them. People say, `Well, Mr. Tenet, how is that
possible?' Well, I can only tell you what I experienced. I can only tell you
what I saw. I can only tell you--you know, I didn't pay a lot of attention to
what was running around me. And this is the one issue that caused me concern
because I became aware of it, became aware of it a bit later. But the point
of the matter is is I can't tell you more because I don't know more.

GROSS: So, what you're saying is that there was one paper that you were aware
of that made a specious connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq?

Mr. TENET: Yeah. Well, I mean, and maybe there was more, and maybe there
was more debate about this. And maybe there were other issues. I can only
tell you that's the one that I ultimately engaged on and joined on.

GROSS: So, how did you kill that paper?

Mr. TENET: I don't think it was--I think it fell of its own weight,
ultimately. I believe the paper was sent to Capitol Hill. I believe the
paper was ultimately withdrawn. I mean, much has been made of that paper
through a recent Department of Defense inspector general report. I can't take
you farther than that, but I don't think the paper lasted very long once it
came into public focus.

GROSS: Once the Office of Special Plans was created, did you feel like the
CIA was included as much? I mean, did that--when the Defense Department had
its own office...

Mr. TENET: Look, Terry...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. TENET: Look, Terry, I had thousands of people working for me. Al-Qaeda
was a full-time job. Afghanistan came along. Iraq came along. We had people
on the ground. We were writing a president's daily brief every day. We've
got liaison relationships around the world. I had plenty to do. You know,
now--so people always want to put you in the moment, you know. I had enough
to do and worry about in terms of my own responsibilities. I didn't think
very much about these issues at the time. People have asked me,
contemporaneously, well, what did you think? Well, you know what? Not part
of my day, not part of how I thought about my life. I had plenty to do. I
believe that I was responsible providing intelligence to this administration.
I did it faithfully, and the rest, God only knows.

GROSS: George Tenet was the director of Central Intelligence from 1997 to
2004. His new memoir is called "At the Center of the Storm." He'll be back in
the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with George Tenet. He was
the director of Central Intelligence from 1997 to 2004. His new memoir, "At
the Center of the Storm," addresses, among other things, the controversies
surrounding his leadership and the CIA's intelligence in the lead-up to
September 11th and the invasion of Iraq.

Let's talk about Iran a moment. You write that part of the Bush
administration was focused on Iraq, but some members of the Bush
administration were really focused on Iran. And you write particularly of one
incident involving Michael Ledeen, who was actually a character in the
Iran-Contra scandal. He introduced Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms
dealer, to Oliver North. And you describe Ghorbanifar as a con man and a
fabricator.

Mr. TENET: Right. And the history of that is is that, of course,
Ghorbanifar was put on--we call in the business, `a burn notice.' The irony
is, as I describe in the book, some time in January...

GROSS: Which means that you didn't think he was credible?

Mr. TENET: Yeah. No one from the Central Intelligence Agency will ever meet
with this guy.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. TENET: Not credible. So...

GROSS: OK. So...

Mr. TENET: You know, the story starts in January of 2002, when a senior
representative of Italian intelligence came to see us and said, you know,
essentially, what we know about US government officials exploring contacts
with Iranians. And we all looked at each other and didn't know what we was
talking about. Later on, the US ambassador to Italy told our senior officer
there about this meeting that had occurred.

Well, in any event, when Secretary Powell and I heard about the fact that US
representatives were meeting with Ghorbanifar, we both hit the roof. When we
understood that, potentially, people were talking to these guys about
exchanging money in return for regime change, we said, `Whoa! We will never
meet with this guy. We will never have anything to do with him. Knock it
off!' And essentially, I think we succeeded in putting a stop to it, so it was
one of those instances where this one came out of left field, but very
difficult for us to understand.

I know Secretary Powell and I felt, don't these--you know, we were furious.
`Don't these people understand the past? Don't they understand what this
history is with this particular individual?' And then in any event, these are
things that should have been deliberated by principles and policy should have
been made around it, and it was not, and we stopped it.

GROSS: Now you write about this meeting that Michael Ledeen had with Manucher
Ghorbanifar: "What we were hearing sounded like an off-the-books covert
action program trying to destabilize the Iranian government. Without the
appropriate presidential authorities and without congressional notifications,
such a program might well be illegal. This started to give the appearance of
being son of Iran-Contra." Do you think that members of the Bush
administration condoned or participated in this back channel to accomplish
covertly what they couldn't do overtly? Is that what you were saying?

Mr. TENET: Well, I don't know who approved it. All I know is is we put a
stop to it because we couldn't allow this to occur. I've never understood
with any precision where it came from and all of its tentacles. All I can
tell you is the secretary of state and I, when we were apprised of it, put a
stop to it. So as near as I can tell, we put a stop to it.

GROSS: Do you think that if we attacked Iran--what do you think the outcome
would be if we did attack Iran?

Mr. TENET: Well, Terry, my thoughts on that are as follows. One, we've got
a very difficult situation on our hands in Iraq. Two, many of the instruments
of our national power are very, very tired. We've got divisions of the Army
that'd been in Afghanistan and Iraq and back to Iraq, so people need to show
some care about this. The other thing is is you need to remember that--just
look at the demographics of Iran for a minute. Sixty-three percent of the
Iranian population was born after 1979. They don't share the Ayatollah's view
of Iran, and I think when you're talking about a country of 70 million people,
the last thing you want to do is drive those people, you know, toward a
leadership that I don't believe they have a lot of faith in.

Now, obviously I don't know the specifics of where we are on the nuclear issue
today and it's obviously a source of great concern to all of us. I would keep
this firmly in the diplomatic track. You obviously never take military
options off the table. I understand that. But I would keep this with the
international community, I would pressure and sanction the Iranians. I would
make them--I would talk to the Iranians, let them understand no good is going
to come of this. This is an economy that's in shambles. These are people who
are dissatisfied with their government. I would be very, very careful about
talking about the use of force, even though they need to understand it may be
on the table on this nuclear question. But I would be very careful--I mean,
you know, you can't--everything is about timing, context and where you are.
You can't be at war with Sunni and Shia Islam simultaneously. It doesn't seem
to make a lot of sense to me.

GROSS: A lot of people have been responding to your book and what you say
about the intelligence that you provided the Bush administration, how the Bush
administration used it. Michael Scheuer, who is the founding head of the
CIA's bin Laden unit, wrote a Washington Post op-ed on Sunday that I'm sure
you've read, and he says, "At day's end, Tenet's exercise in finger pointing
is designed to disguise the central tragic fact of his book. Tenet in effect
is saying that he knew all too well why the US should not invade Iraq and that
he told his political masters and that he was ignored. But above all, he's
saying that he lacked the moral courage to resign and speak up publicly and
try to stop our country from striding into what he knew would be an abyss."
What's your reaction to that?

Mr. TENET: Well, everybody has a right to an opinion. America's a great
country. I react quite negatively to what he has to say. He implies that I
understood that all the horrors that would unfold. I didn't. He implies that
we sat back and told policymakers what they wanted to hear. We didn't. He
implies that we didn't speak truth to power when we got on the ground and saw
things unfold that the intelligence was very, very clear about.

So, you know, the issue for me, Terry, is is that I was the director of
Central Intelligence. I'm agnostic on policy issues. I'm not a hero. It's
not my job to make policy. I didn't go in and say to the president `Don't do
this,' but at the same time, we were faithful to what we saw. We were
faithful to what we wrote. We told the truth as we saw it.

As to this matter of resignation, you know, I had a job to do, thousands of
people I was leading. I had lots of things going on. I did the job to the
best of my ability and as honorably as I could, and I find it interesting that
people would impugn your honor when they aren't walking in your shoes every
day and don't understand all the pressures that you're under.

GROSS: But it does, sound from your book, like you felt you were watching the
Bush administration lead the country to war because of ideological beliefs as
opposed to because of hard intelligence that the CIA was supplying.

Mr. TENET: Well, remember, Terry, we believed the intelligence was hard.
What I'm saying to people is--you know, I want to be clear about this--I
understand the intelligence was wrong. People will say, `Well, the
intelligence is wrong is a function, and you're just deflecting
responsibility.' No, I'm saying that countries go to war from more than just
intelligence. They go to war because policymakers believe it's the right
thing to do and they have a whole bunch of things in their kit bag that
justify the view that it is. How it all got calibrated--but I believe there
were more reasons, and intelligence, in their minds, may have been important.
And all I'm saying is there was more to it than that. We have to take our
fair share of responsibility. We are responsible for what we, you know, for
what we wrote, and I'm the first one that's going to stand up and say, `This
is how we thought about it. This is what we did.'

You know, trying to think through lessons that were learned, how we think
about this in the future, I'm not trying to stick fingers in people's eyes.
I'm not trying to reach, you know, grand conclusions other than to say when I
thought about it, here's how I thought about it. Other people will differ.
All I can tell you is as I lived through it--as I lived through the torrent of
what I was doing every day, as I lived through the pressures of terrorism and
having people on the ground in Iraq and providing the best intelligence
possible. I'm not going to tell you I had instantaneous special wisdom on all
these things. I'm trying to give you a sense of what I saw when I reflected
on it.

And you know, there's balance in the book. We did good things. We did bad
things. You know, there were things that were done on the terrorism front
that I think were spectacularly successful. There are things that happened in
Iraq, particularly in the post-war implementation, that I think, you know,
don't look very good and weren't very good, and I'm trying to provide as much
balance as I can.

GROSS: George Tenet was the director of Central Intelligence from 1997 to
2004. His new memoir is called "At the Center of the Storm."

Coming up, a comic book about American propaganda. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: John Ridley, writer of the comic "The American Way," on
the comic, American propaganda, and the lack of African-American
representation in modern media
TERRY GROSS, host:

"The American Way" is a comic book series about an unusual form of American
propaganda. It's set in 1961, during the Cold War, when American superheroes
vanquish communist villains in an ongoing series of spectacular battles. But
the heroes and villains are creations of the government--the American
government--for reasons we'll explain in a minute. Now the series is
collected in the form of a graphic novel.

"The American Way" was written by my guest, John Ridley. He also wrote the
screenplays for the films "Undercover Brother" and "Three Kings." He's an NPR
commentator, and is working with Spike Lee on a new movie.

John Ridley, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to describe the
superheroes in "The American Way."

Mr. JOHN RIDLEY: Coming into the comic book, the graphic novel, the
superheroes are meant to be icons of America and also shorthand for heroes
that may be more familiar to some readers. So you have your Superman
archetype, your Wonder Woman, your Captain Marvel. But in "The American Way,"
these characters are meant to represent aspects of America, so they have names
like Old Glory and Amber Waves, Muscle Shoals, Old Miss, the Mighty Delta,
Southern Cross. My favorite--I think my favorite name for any of these
characters is the East Coast Intellectual.

GROSS: Describe the East Coast Intellectual physically.

Mr. RIDLEY: The East Coast Intellectual is, basically, he's the smartest man
in America. He's incredibly intelligent but, you know, represents East Coast
sort of professorial intelligentsia.

GROSS: Now, these superheroes are all part of a group called the Civil
Defense Corps, which is what?

Mr. RIDLEY: The Civil Defense Corps is ostensibly much like the Justice
League or the Avengers. It's this group of heroes who come together to save
the day from either alien invasions on some occasions, or to fight these
personifications of evil in America around the world at that era. It's
enemies that are very specific to a time and place and represent real evils
that are out there.

What we find out in the story is that the Civil Defense Corps, even though
most of these heroes have real superpowers, it's sort of a sham. They put on
these fights as shows, like wrestling, not an Orwellian fraud, but to really
give hope to America that our society's not going to end tomorrow in atomic
ash, that we are not going to fall prey to communism. It's the idea that it's
a grand lie to make Americans feel good and to feel safe, and the question
becomes, in this story, is any lie a good lie, and can you perpetuate these
lies over time? And what happens when reality overtakes a fraud?

GROSS: How did you come up with this idea of superheroes who were created by
the government to vanquish phony villains just to make Americans feel good and
feel secure?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, part of the idea, and a lot of the story--for me when I
write, it's--I sit around and I just, I think all the time, and I get an idea
over here that kind of works, an idea over here that would be interesting, and
then I wait for that thing that helps it all coalesce. And for me the thing
that really helped to bring the story together was the Jessica Lynch story at
the beginning of the second Gulf War, the Iraq war. You know, here was this
young girl, she was out on patrol, her patrol was ambushed. You know, as the
story went, most of her comrades were captured or killed; she fought to the
last bullet. She was taken to a secret location, but American commandos found
her and in an amazing rescue, saved her, brought her home, and it's a great
story. And it's the story that the Pentagon and the government put out. It's
the story that most of the media ran with. And little by little, we found out
that that was not actually the story.

The idea wasn't wasn't to--that this story was not put out there because the
government was evil. It was not entirely made up. But we wanted to believe.
At the beginning of the war, who doesn't want to believe a wonderful story
about a young girl, an American hero, who is rescued and saved in a
spectacular operation? There was nothing wrong, essentially, with that story
except that it wasn't the truth. But we ran with it and we believed it and we
liked what we were hearing.

GROSS: One of the superheroes dies because of a heart attack brought on my
his smoking addiction.

Mr. RIDLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: And then he has to be replaced. So the marketing guy comes up with
this idea, like let's find a black man to be the first black superhero. Why
does he want to do that? Why does he want to recruit a black man?

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, the character, who is the entree into the story, is a guy
named Wes. And Wes is a marketing executive and ends up losing his job, and
one of his friends from college is Bobby Kennedy, and the Kennedys have just
been elected and just been put into office. And Wes gets a call from Bobby
Kennedy and he says to him, `Look, I've got a job in government that I really
want you to help me with,' and Wes, being unemployed, and his wife is pregnant
says, `You know, look, I'll think about it.' Comes down to Washington, and
Bobby lays all this on him. That these guys are--"these guys" being the The
Civil Defense Corps--are kind of fake but it's the most important job that we
have right now, is to make Americans feel safe and strong and secure; and we
want you to spearhead this for us in our new administration.

Wes, being a good liberal guy and also being a guy who wants to feel good when
he looks in the mirror and he looks at his wife, thinks that the Civil Defense
Corps can do more, more than just representing where America is, they can
represent where America should go. And he has this idea, which is `We need to
integrate this formerly all white super group. We need to bring, in the
parlance of the times, a Negro hero to the fore.' And they realize that they
can't just give a black man super powers and put him in this group. The idea
is that they will hide this guy behind a mask, call him the New American, and
after he's a hero for two or three years, after America completely loves him,
they reveal the fact that he's a black man.

By the way, this is--part of this story is actually based on reality. Lyndon
Johnson, when he was vice president after Kennedy had just been elected and
initiates the space program, he thought that one of the original Mercury
astronauts should be black, and he thought that that would go a long way to
quelling race relations in America. And when I heard that, that's another
aspect that really helped bring this entire story together.

GROSS: My guest is John Ridley. He wrote the graphic novel "The American
Way." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is John Ridley. We're talking about his comic book series
"The American Way," which is now collected in a new graphic novel of the same
name. It's set in 1961, during the Cold War, when American superheroes
vanquish communist supervillains in an ongoing series of spectacular battles.
But the heroes and villains are creations of the American government in a
campaign run by marketing experts to make Americans feel good about the
government's ability to protect them. After the campaign gets off the ground,
the marketing experts decide to create a black superhero.

I want you to read the section from "The American Way" in which the marketing
guy from this superhero Civil Defense Corps tries to convince the young
African-American man to become a member of the the Civil Defense Corps, to
become one of these superheroes. And just like set it up in any way that you
need to get us on the page.

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, as you mentioned, you know, the marketing guy, Wes, who's
been charged with finding, much as with the Mercury astronauts, the guy who's
the right stuff, a black man, or again, a Negro, as they would say at the
time, who's got the right personality, who's got the right aptitude, and who
can handle having his body transformed into basically a superhuman. They find
this individual, a guy named Jason Fisher who, at the time, is like a lot of
young black people, he's very much a hothead, he's very much got a lot of
opinions, but up to this point hasn't really engaged himself in the civil
rights process. So as we come into the scene, Jason has been sat down in a
room in the government and, like a lot of black people who are probably sat
down in a room by the government or government officials, doesn't like what's
going on and Wes has to convince him that he's actually there for a higher
purpose.

So we come in, this first line is from an angry Jason. "Hey, I know my
rights. You better let me see a lawyer, you lousy"...

This is Wes, "Right. Yeah. I'm the blue-eyed devil, and you're the oppressed
minority always getting shafted by the man. We did that dialogue already.
You care to move on? So you're Jason Fisher. You're a Howard grad,
paratrooper with the US Army. Three years ago you were discharged for
striking another soldier."

Jason, "He made the mistake of calling me a nigger to my face. And I didn't
strike him. I ripped his ear off."

Wes, "He was junior grade. You could have had him court-martialed."

Jason, "I don't know what military you were in. I was in the one that cares
more about race than rank. The brass wouldn't have done"...

Wes, "In the years since, you haven't held a job to speak of despite having a
master's degree."

Jason, "Nothing America fears more than an educated black man."

Wes, "Maybe America's not the problem. Maybe you are."

Jason, "Do you even own a television? Do you see how they treat us, overcrowd
us in the ghetto, lynch us down South?"

Wes, "And what have you ever done about it except talk loud and act angry?
What have you ever done for your people?"

Jason, "What are you offering?"

Wes, "Just the chance to heal the country, be an icon to America, white and
colored alike. That's about it."

Jason, "The word is Negro, and that sounds like some blue-eyed crap to me."

Wes, "Then accept my offer. Prove me a liar. Otherwise, you're just another
Negro who wants to change things but won't do anything to get there. Do you
have what it takes to be a hero?"

GROSS: What's going on in that scene, and who's playing who?

Mr. RIDLEY: In terms of who's trying to get one over on the other
individual, or?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIDLEY: Well, I think that both individuals, honestly, are coming into
this trying to believe that they're doing what's right. I think for me,
relating this to 2007, there are a lot of black people out there who are
angry, and in some cases very rightfully so, but we have to ask ourselves,
particularly with what's going on in America, `Where are we focusing our
anger/ Are we focusing at the system or are we looking at ourselves and
saying, "Look, we are part of the system"?' Particularly now in writing this,
I do want to speak to a modern audience, not necessarily write a love letter
to 1961.

You know, look, we're at a place where potentially, a black man in the near
future could be president of the United States of America. If that happens,
there are a lot of black people in America who are going to have to give up
the line that says America is racist. Now, that's not to say that there
aren't now and there won't always be racists in America, but if a black man is
elected president, we can't say that America is racist. So we have to sort of
change our dialogue in terms of how we address other people in this country,
and also, how we look at where we, as black people, are moving in this
country.

Also with Wes, I think there's a level of an individual and particularly we're
talking about people who are white people who are very much in the liberal
camp who think that they can talk through issues and intellectualize issues,
and in so make those issues either go away or be able to address them or make
them better. I don't think that's necessarily true, and I think that for
black America, we understand the ills and the evils of the extreme far
reactionary right. I mean, that's what we've been up against since we got
dropped off on a boat and got our teeth checked and were sold into slavery.

On the other end, I think that there is extreme liberalism, and I think that
there is danger in extreme liberalism, and I think that that's what we have to
look at in terms of where we are now and where we are on the liberal
plantation. And I do believe that there's a soft bigotry out there and I do
believe for us, as black Americans, having succeeded when we faced all the
dire consequences that were put against us--slavery and the failed
Reconstruction and Jim Crow and the civil rights era--and we've succeeded
against all those things--why is it in some areas of black America we are
still failing? I think we can't look towards the extreme right in those
circumstances. I think sometimes we have to look toward the extreme left and
how it treats us, and what we need to do to move to the next level.

GROSS: Wait. When you said that there are dangers of extreme liberalism,
what were you referring to?

Mr. RIDLEY: I think that there's an idea in some areas of the black
community of eternal victimization, that it's always the white guy who's
causing problems, that it's the government that's against us, it's racism
that's against us. That we need affirmative action in all instances. That we
need handouts. We need the largesse of white people to get ahead. I think
that those ideas of black people--blacks who preach to black people that we
are always victims--just reinforces in our heads that we are victims. But you
look at black America and you look at the successes, I don't think those two
concepts, they actually equate with one another. How can we always be victims
and yet succeed both in personal life, in public life and in social life? I
shouldn't say both; those are three things. I don't think that the idea that
we are victims yet we can succeed, they don't really jibe with one another.

GROSS: You work in movies, television, books, comic books. Are you satisfied
with the diversity of ways in which African-Americans are depicted in American
entertainment now?

Mr. RIDLEY: No. Absolutely not. I think it's getting better, but you look
at the success of "The Cosby Show" in the '80s, and you wonder why there
aren't more images of middle-class blacks on television, in movies and things
like that. You certainly see more black people that are out there. I mean,
you've got Forest Whitaker, you know, winning an Oscar and Jennifer Hudson
winning an Oscar. It's taken for granted that there will be strong
performances and good roles for people of color that are out there, and that's
absolutely terrific. But in your day-to-day broadcasting, you just don't see
a lot of positive images.

And there's nothing wrong inherently with the hip-hop image. There's nothing
wrong inherently with, you know, the images that are perpetuated in, say, like
the NBA, of black males. But, you know, with women in these hip-hop videos, I
mean, they're always video hos. Almost always. I don't think that's
particularly positive. The idea of black people being just about entertaining
in sports and putting the ball in the hoop or running the ball down the field.
Some of these individuals are wonderful individuals, they're involved in their
communities. They're good people. I don't want to say that if you're
involved in the NBA or you're an athlete, there's something inherently wrong
with that. But is that the predominant image that we want to see out there as
black Americans?

And also in terms of real media. You can go through watching the news, you
know, from morning to night, and see so few black people delivering the news,
adding commentary, putting voice out there. And generally when they are out
there, they tend to be your Al Sharpton types who express a single point of
view and that then is considered to be the majority black point of view. And
the reality is is that Al Sharpton is in, by no means--by no means does he
express the majority view of black people.

GROSS: Well, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. RIDLEY: Thank you very much for having me, Terry. I truly appreciate
it.

GROSS: John Ridley wrote the graphic novel "The American Way."

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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