'First World Problems' with David Rakoff
Writer David Rakoff has a new collection of essays, Now, Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems. Rakoff is a regular contributor to public radio's This American Life.
Other segments from the episode on September 28, 2005
DATE September 28, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Mike Allen discusses an article he co-wrote for Time
magazine about Bush administration cronyism
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
An article in this week's Time magazine asks the question, `Are there more
Michael Browns out there, more political appointees who don't have a lot of
expertise in their area but are responsible for decisions that will affect our
safety?' The article concludes that at top positions in some vital government
agencies, the Bush administration is putting connections before experience.
My guest, Mike Allen, co-wrote this piece. He joined Time magazine this month
as a White House correspondent. He previously worked for The Washington Post,
where he covered the Bush White House for four years, then covered Capitol
The Time article points out that a benign cronyism is, more or less, presumed
with old friends and big donors getting comfortable positions and impressive
titles. But according to the article, what's going on now is different.
Mr. MIKE ALLEN (Time): What my colleagues Karen Tumulty and Mark Thompson
and I looked at was if there was something different about the way the Bush
administration was shaping the bureaucracy. And we actually were digging into
this story before Michael Brown, the outgoing head of FEMA, came into the
news, but he sort of served as an obvious case study to look at whether there
were people in the government who'd been chosen more for their connections
than for their competence. And so often patronage jobs are people who are in
the bureaucracy or have a job like ambassador or something where there's only
so much harm you can do.
Now in a time when there's threats at home and abroad, the bureaucracy can
matter, and we saw that on a grand scale down in New Orleans. We saw that it
matters whether you know how to and are able to reach down into the
bureaucracy and ask someone to drop diapers on the Superdome. There is a way
to do that, but you have to know how to do it.
GROSS: Well, let's look at some of the Bush administration appointees. Let's
start with somebody at Homeland Security Department. And your article says
that a `well-connected White House aide with minimal experience is poised to
take over what many consider the single most crucial post in ensuring that
terrorists do not enter the country again. She worked briefly for Michael
Chertoff as his chief of staff when he was at the Justice Department, and she
just married Chertoff's current chief of staff. Her uncle is Air Force
General Richard Myers.' So what are some of the questions surrounding the
nominee Julie Myers to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, Terry, Julie's someone who has very close professional and
family ties to the administration, someone that they're very comfortable with.
Now when she went up for her confirmation hearing, senators debated whether or
not she met the statutory minimum for that job of five years of management
experience. Now she convinced them that she did, but some of the senators
expressed to me surprise that they were confronting a nominee who it was
debatable or a close call whether or not they were minimally qualified.
Now I talked to Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who was one of the senators
raising those questions, and she said she now is satisfied that Ms. Myers met
that requirement. But the point that she made to me is Ms. Myers would not be
her choice, but it's someone that the secretary of Homeland Security, Michael
Chertoff, is comfortable with, someone the White House is comfortable with.
And so as opposed to bringing in an outsider to learn the Bush culture, this
is an example of a younger person from the extended family who's being put in
a big and important job.
GROSS: You mentioned the importance of already knowing the Bush culture. Do
you think there are times when being comfortable in the Bush culture and
understanding the Bush culture is considered more important than bringing
expertise in the field?
Mr. ALLEN: Of course, what they would tell you is that they look for both.
But a very important question as they're vetting potential candidates is: Is
he a Bushy? Is she a Bushy? And by that, that's meant: Is it someone who
has been around either the campaign or the administration, somebody who
understands the way they do things, who understands their culture of message,
discipline and who understands their culture of always putting the focus,
spotlight, on the president? Microphone-hoggers, camera-hoggers are not
invited. And that's why, in this administration, you have a lot of, even at
the Cabinet secretary level, people who are devoted to Bush or who have
connections to this administration but are not necessarily stars or
authorities in their field. And a notable exception would be Colin Powell,
secretary of State, and we saw what happened to him.
GROSS: Let's move on to David Safavian, and he was the chief procurement
officer. He was appointed in 2003. He resigned on September 16th of this
year and then shortly after that was arrested and charged with lying and
obstructing a criminal investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
So what experience and qualifications did he bring to the position of chief
procurement officer? And perhaps you should describe what that position
Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, well, they're partly responsible for purchasing decisions by
the government, and the Office of Management and Budget has emphasized to me
that he doesn't have that sole authority; that no person does. But Clay
Johnson, who--Terry, you remember him--he came to Washington with
then-Governor Bush from Austin and was the director of the transition--was the
first director of personnel and so is, in many ways, the architect of this
personnel system that you and I are describing. He hired Mr. Safavian, and he
told me that he was the most qualified of the three or four people who were
chosen. But certainly it was an embarrassment when last week he was arrested
in connection with this case.
Now the administration makes the point that that was unrelated to his duties,
but this was the first time, I think, that the Abramoff case had been visibly,
publicly, specifically brought into the White House. And Clay Johnson gave a
very candid account of how Mr. Safavian came to be there, and he says that
Safavian mentioned before his background check that there might be an issue;
that he had some connection to `some people,' as Mr. Johnson put it. Now
after the FBI check, after this went through the White House Counsel's
Office, he was cleared, and so he did take the job. But that certainly
raises a question that--about what the standards are. If the candidate knows
that they might be questionable, it's quite amazing that they would survive
that screening process.
GROSS: Somebody else who you write about in your article on Bush
administration cronyism is Scott Gottlieb. In July, he was named deputy
commissioner for medical and scientific affairs at the FDA. He's one of three
FDA deputies. And you write about questions concerning his financial ties to
the drug industry. What are those connections?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, because of work he'd done previously, Mr. Gottlieb had to
recuse himself from dealing with issues that involved many of the major drug
companies in America, which makes you question how effectively he can do his
job if he has to recuse himself. I saw the letter, this long list of drug
companies. And this is a case where you have the political people who are
coming in, those 3,000, who clash with the career or civil service people who
Scientists on the FDA staff told my colleague, Karen Tumulty, that they felt
intimidated or they felt constricted by questions that he was asking about
decisions they'd made about drugs. And we got some of the e-mails that he had
sent second-guessing decisions that they'd made, questioning either that--even
whether these questions should have come up. And anybody who gets an e-mail
from their boss second-guessing them, it certainly is going to affect what
you're going to do next time. And so there's a lot of people in the FDA who
say, you know, `This is meddling by politicians,' which is inappropriate. Now
Scott Gottlieb has said that he does stay away from decisions like that. And
we had a long string of administration people phone us up to tell us how
qualified he was.
GROSS: Your article mentions that before he became an FDA commissioner,
Gottlieb was the editor of the Forbes/Gottlieb Medical Technology
Investor, which was a Wall Street newsletter about medical and biotech
Mr. ALLEN: Right. And so that's what makes the scientists question his
involvement in the decisions. To them, he's a 33-year-old stock picker and
not someone who's an authority in their areas. And, Terry, this raises the
question about people from an industry coming in and then regulating that
industry. And, again, this is something that was ever thus, but the FDA is an
example of where this is a life-and-death decision, where consumers depend on
the FDA to protect them. And what you'll have critics of the administration
saying is these people have been trained in industry, focused on the lobbying
agenda, what that industry is after. Then they go into the administration,
and they go right to work; that there's not a learning curve; that people from
industry know what they want to do the moment they hit the ground in the
GROSS: Your article also writes about inspector-general positions, and these
are positions that were created after Watergate. And they're supposed to be
hired without regard to political affiliation. What do inspector generals do,
and why did your article raise questions about those appointments?
Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, Terry, there are 57, 8, 9, something like that, inspectors
general in the federal government, and these are somebody--people who are the
internal watchdogs in a department or agency. So someone who works, for
example, in the State Department and is charged with looking for and exposing
waste, fraud, abuse in that department--so it's a little like internal affairs
for a police department. And these positions are even more important, now
that you have an administration that has the same party in power running
Congress. This Congress has taken a very--a generally passive approach to
oversight of this administration.
So the inspector generals can be the last check on the government. And at the
higher levels, these are presidentially appointed positions, and a number of
the people who have been in these positions have close family or political
ties. The best-known example is Janet Rehnquist, daughter of the late chief
justice, who was the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human
Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, the chief Democrat on the Government
Affairs Committee, did a study of all the AGs and then found that the ones
appointed by President Bush, roughly 60 percent of them, had Republican
political connections, and roughly 25 percent had former audit experience,
which in the statute is supposed to be the sort of deciding point--is
technical expertise like that. In the Clinton administration, according to
this study, those numbers were roughly reversed: that roughly 60 percent had
audit experience; only maybe a quarter had political experience, a striking
GROSS: How much time does Congress actually spend in the confirmation process
of the positions that we're talking about?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, Terry, you raise a great and timely issue because there's a
number of congressmen, there's a number of senators who've been embarrassed to
have their quotes read back to them from Michael Brown's confirmation hearing
when he was confirmed for a lower-level post at the Federal Emergency
Management Agency. He was not confirmed to be director, but he was confirmed
earlier. And among the senators who were lauding praise on him was Joseph
Lieberman, a Democrat of Connecticut. Now, of course, Michael Brown is the
whipping boy for much of what went wrong from the federal government in
I was surprised when Karen Hughes came up for her confirmation hearing to be
one of the deputy secretaries of State in charge of all the public diplomacy
and public affairs--runs a huge empire; is going to be one of the
administration's most visible faces; is in the Middle East at this moment
appearing for the administration; is someone who has been at ground zero
throughout the administration; can answer any question about anything that the
president has done.
Not one Democrat showed up at her confirmation hearing. A huge press corps
showed up, and we thought it was going to be a great show. She'd been
prepared for tough questioning because she knew there would be cameras there,
and her theory was that that would mean that Democrats were there. She had a
private meeting with Senator Biden, a Democrat of Delaware, the day before,
and he actually supported her. And then the next day--I believe it was a
Friday, or it was the day at least that the Senate was gone--no one was there.
GROSS: My guest is Mike Allen, a White House correspondent for Time magazine.
He co-wrote this week's article about cronyism in the Bush administration.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Mike Allen, a White House correspondent for Time magazine.
He co-wrote the article in this week's edition about Bush administration
political appointees who have strong political connections but weak
qualifications for their jobs.
You've been covering the White House for several years. I'm wondering about
the position of Karl Rove now. Over the summer the Valerie Plame
investigation was a big story. Judith Miller is still in prison. And
questions have been raised about what Karl Rove's involvement was in leaking
that Valerie Plame--or Valerie Wilson, her married name--was a CIA agent, and
was that payback for the fact that her husband reported that the Bush
administration's allegations about Saddam Hussein trying to buy yellowcake in
Africa were incorrect. So how has that affected, if at all, Rove's standing
and power within the Bush administration?
Mr. ALLEN: I'm told that this case has really taken a toll on some of the
people in the White House. After five years--and a lot of them worked in the
Governor's Mansion before that, the presidential campaign before that--a lot
of these people are just tired, understandably. These days in the White House
are 7 AM to 7 PM when nothing is going on and longer than that when there is a
crisis. And partly because of the uncertainty, partly because it's clear that
there's more White House involvement that was known or described in the
beginning, I'm told that that is affecting people.
Mr. Rove specifically said that he was not the source of Ms. Plame's--Ms.
Wilson's--identity. But it's clear from some of the information that's come
out that a reporter or two probably considered him their source. If you look
at the Plame language of their stories, they appear to have depended on Mr.
Rove. Now Mr. Rove's attorney has said he's been assured by the prosecutor
that he's not a target of this investigation, but it is a big question mark.
I don't think--I know that it has not hampered Mr. Rove internally. He's as
important as ever. His shop is the sort of idea-cooker for the
administration. They're the hub of input from all over the country. They're
the--he's the network that sort of keeps track of the grassroots around the
As you know, from the beginning, Mr. Rove's formal title has been `senior
adviser to the president.' As you know, in this second term, he also is one
of two deputy chiefs of staff. What's going to happen to the Plame case is
one of the big unknowns that sort of hangs over the second term, and I think
there will be great relief when that is settle one way or the other.
GROSS: In the meantime, what is Karl Rove's role in overseeing the rebuilding
of New Orleans?
Mr. ALLEN: What's interesting about Mr. Rove is he can have the last word on
anything that he wants to, but he doesn't necessarily have operational control
over everything. I think there's this urban myth that he pulls the levers for
absolutely everything, and there's no question that he can stop or get the
ball rolling when he wants to. But there is inside the White House
specifically a Katrina Response Task Force, and it's headed by the other
deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagin, the one who frequently is with the
president at the ranch when he's in Austin. And it used to be Josh Bolten,
who also was a deputy chief of staff, but Joe Hagin is my nominee for White
House official with the most power and the least attention.
Joe Hagin can decide everything in the White House from your salary to your
BlackBerry to where the president's going. And he's added Katrina to his
portfolio, and the White House is putting out reports that sum up--these fat
reports that they're sending to the Hill that sum up what each department is
doing in response to Katrina to show that it is a governmentwide effort. So
what you'll see is Mr. Rove making strategic decisions, such as--he'd have a
lot of input, for example, in where the president will visit. And you have
other people with operational, day-to-day responsibilities.
GROSS: The Washington Post recently had a story, you know: `Has The
President Lost His Swagger?' Do you think that in any, like, literal way the
president has changed lately? Does he look different to you? Did he
physically have a swagger that he no longer has?
Mr. ALLEN: This is a president whose trademark quality was certainty; that he
always knew what he was going to do and stuck to it, even if other
people--even if people inside thought he should be adjusting course. Now
you've had a succession of bad news. There have been very little positive
news for this White House since the president was re-elected. You had the
brief euphoria about the elections in Iraq, which was no small thing. And
they're very excited about the success of Roberts and how smoothly that went,
partly because of White House operations. And they're discouraged because if
it weren't for Katrina, all the news would be about how great things were with
But with the president now, you have someone who's having to readjust the way
he does things, the way he thinks about things. The president's concession
that more could have been done or different things could have been done with
Katrina was very uncharacteristic of him. And a lot of my colleagues were
struck by how different his tone was in the speech he gave urging Americans to
conserve energy. That just not has been the Bush message, and so it's an
example of how he's trying to find his footing, find a new message in the
What the administration is very intent on avoiding is having the book ends of
the administration be 9/11 and Katrina. That's a story line that a lot of
people in the media are sort of picking up, and the White House is intent on
being sure the president is remembered for something besides that. At the
moment you have uncertainty, something you rarely saw in this White House, and
that's where you see the curtailed, at the very least, swagger.
GROSS: Well, Mike Allen, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ALLEN: This was fun. Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Mike Allen is a White House correspondent for Time magazine. He
co-wrote this week's article "How Many More Mike Browns Are Out There?"
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, writer David Rakoff reads from and talks about his new
collection of humorous essays, "Don't Get Too Comfortable." He's a regular
contributor to "This American Life." Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews "The
March," the new Civil War-era novel by E.L. Doctorow, which has her
thinking about New Orleans.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: David Rakoff describes his collection of essays "Don't
Get Too Comfortable"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is writer David Rakoff. He's a regular contributor to the public
radio program "This American Life" and to the magazines GQ and Outside. He's
also an actor and has worked in theater with David and Amy Sedaris. If you
pay very close attention, you'll see him briefly in the new movie "Capote."
Rakoff's latest collection of humorous essays is about the culture of excess.
It's called "Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the
Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil,
and Other First World Problems." The opening essay is about becoming an
American citizen a couple of years ago. He's from Canada but has lived in New
York for many years. Here's a short reading in which he describes struggling
over the 10-page-long naturalization application. He figures it should
require about a day or two of work, but it took him four months and one week.
Mr. DAVID RAKOFF (Author, "Don't Get Too Comfortable"): (Reading) My first
hang-up occurs at Part 10, Section G, question 33. `Are you a male who lived
in the United States at any time between your 18th and 26th birthdays in any
status except as a lawful non-immigrant?' I make my living with words, and
yet I cannot for the life of me begin to parse this question, with its
embedded double negatives and hypotheticals. How are any non-native speakers
managing to become citizens, I wonder?
Part of my clouded judgment is due to fear. I don't want to piss them off,
and I am worried that a wrong answer will immediately feed my name into some
database for a wiretap, a tax audit or an automatic years-long `misplacement'
of my application, some casual, gratuitous harassment that a thuggish
administration might decide to visit upon someone they identified as a
I spend an entire afternoon trying to map the grammar and come away with
nothing but a headache and no idea. This is in early March. I put the form
away in my drawer and forget about it, my dreams of inalienable rights felled
by just one question. I put all thoughts of citizenship out of my head until
one evening in July, four months later, when, as I'm dropping off to sleep,
the clauses fall into place and the lock turns and I realize the answer is a
With inordinate self-satisfaction, I soldier on. Have I ever been an habitual
drunkard? I have not. A prostitute, a procurer or a bigamist? Nuh-uh. Did
I in any way aid, abet, support, work for or claim membership in the Nazi
government of Germany between March 23rd, 1933, and May 8th, 1945? Nein. Do
I understand and support the Constitution? You betcha.
If the law required it, would I be willing to bear arms on behalf of the
United States? Again, I stop. The same headache as before marches its little
foot soldiers across my cranium. I put the application back into the drawer
and return to my bed, not picking it up again until seven days later, when I
surprise myself by checking yes.
GROSS: Why was that a surprise that you would check yes to that question
about bearing arms?
Mr. RAKOFF: Well, because for a variety of reasons. You know, I was raised
as a sort of pacifist, socialist, you know, Hebrew school child. So bearing
arms was--is a fairly extreme thing and very alien to my upbringing. And
we're also not even sort of violent or aggressive people. You know, we can't
throw balls. We can't catch balls. We don't--you know, there's none of that
sort of--I wasn't a hockey child, so I don't have that particular bellicose
outlet. So that was a surprise.
And then, of course, if you weren't born here and you become a citizen, if
you're an adoptive American, that whole kind of swaggering, militaristic
George Patton, that whole framing of masculinity is not something that is in
your DNA regardless of your placement on Kinsey Scale. It's really rare. Do
you know what I mean? It's just rare to sort of come here not having been
born here and be John Wayne. You know, at most you might be Burt Lancaster,
but in "The Swimmer" or in "The Big Tent" or whatever it's called, you know,
but otherwise--and so that was a real surprise. And also given the history of
the United States and long before, you know, what's going on in Iraq and
everything, I can't think of a whole lot of wars that I would willingly take
up arms for.
I say at the beginning of the chapter--well, I say later on in the chapter
that there are a whole lot of conflicts that I could imagine taking up arms
for. You know, the situation in Darfur strikes me as being fairly cut and dry
and perhaps I'm being naive but it seems like one should just go in there with
armaments and, you know, stop the Janjaweed or, you know, the minute the words
ethnic cleansing were coming out of former Yugoslavia, it struck me as being
an opportune time to, you know, twig to that historical precedent of what
happens in Europe when they say ethic cleansing and really do something about
GROSS: Well, why did you want to become an American citizen? You're from
Mr. RAKOFF: I'm from Canada and I have lived in New York essentially since I
was 17 years old, 6 1/2 years. No, it's been, you know, a long time. I'm now
pushing 41 and so all my formative years have really been spent here in New
York and it got to the point where I had this civic life which was pretty
rich. You know, I paid taxes. I went on demonstrations. I was if not
directly politically involved, politically informed, engaged and everything.
And there was this one central lack in my life and that was the right to vote,
and things were becoming very dire in my opinion. I really needed to vote for
myself. I have no illusions of the fact, like, yet another gay New York
Jewish liberal who works in the media is really going to tip the balance in
any way. But for myself, it was just--I couldn't go on in this sort of shadow
I also have to admit I stopped feeling safe here despite the fact that I am,
you know, white, well-spoken, well-educated. I make a living. I pay taxes.
I own property. It had stopped. I no longer had this kind of implicit faith
in the ultimate fairness of the administration that is sitting. And I stopped
feeling safe here and I didn't want to be put out of my home.
GROSS: So does it feel much different to be a citizen now?
Mr. RAKOFF: Does it feel different? A little bit. It feels--I confess to
having some ambivalence about having done it still, and this apparently from
my very anecdotal and informal poll turns out to be a very common feeling among
adoptive Americans, at least people who are adoptively American late because,
you know, the reputation of the country has changed over the last few years
and so I do feel ambivalent about it. I feel that it has on the other hand
completely legitimized and ratified the most important reason I did it and the
most important relationship of my life which is my relationship to New York
City, which I love with a kind of embarrassing depth.
This is the thing that actually makes me the typical American immigrant is the
way that I feel about New York City. It's been a state of affairs for
immigrants to this city for a century or more, you know? I just can't get
over how much I love New York City.
GROSS: My guest is writer David Rakoff. He's a regular contributor to "This
American Life." He new collection of humorous essays is called "Don't Get Too
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is writer David Rakoff. He's a contributor to "This American
Life." He has a new collection of essays called "Don't Get Too Comfortable."
One of your essays is about your experiences going to two cosmetic surgeons in
Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.
GROSS: ...and you have them each give you an assessment of the work that they
think should be done on your face.
Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.
GROSS: New definition of masochism to do that. Why did you do this?
Mr. RAKOFF: Well, initially I did it, you know, for an assignment, but, of
course, you--I don't take any assignment that I don't immediately leap at. I
mean, the thought of--when it was suggested to me, I was at dinner with my
editor and I virtually leapt across the table at the prospect of doing
something like this. It seemed fascinating. There is a masochistic quality
to it that I reacted to. I sort of would enjoy that. You know, I kind of--I
don't know I want to bother it like a loose tooth or something. It just
seemed fascinating. And also it seemed that we are--I was going to say on the
cusp of something. We are right down the rabbit hole in terms of this
aesthetic tyranny which seems to be getting worse and worse and worse and
worse and worse, to the point where I often think, you know, about 20 years
ago, or maybe it's longer--I can't do the math right now--you know, Jill
Clayburgh was a bankable movie star. She was, you know, the star of movies, a
lovely looking woman. Jill Clayburgh couldn't get work now as Quasimodo. I
mean, it's just--you know, it's just what's happened is, you know, the ugly
best friend is now Julia Roberts because she's over 37. It's unbelievable to
me. Imogene Coca, huge star. Julia D'Amacena(ph), a huge star, you couldn't
get work as Julia D'Amacena today. You know, waiting tables, you couldn't get
work as Julia D'Amacena.
So it seemed like we're in this place where--you know, I'm an OK-looking guy,
but as I say in the book, you know, my face has never been my calling card.
At the same time, I'm very lucky. It's not a punch line. You know, it's not
the worst face in the world. People don't look at me one way or another.
Whatever ways I've had to manifest have been through other, you know, tricks
like a fancy vocabulary or something. But, you know, so I went to these guys
because I thought, mistakenly as it turns out, these guys were the pharisees.
You know, I essentially thought that these were the guys pushing the agenda,
and on some level, they must be the guys pushing the agenda because they
normalize, you know, procedures that--let's be honest--cut you open, shove a
tube in, suck the fat out, break your bones, move stuff around. I mean, it's
really brutal, brutal stuff. I don't have cable, but apparently is there a
channel that's either just the surgery channel or it's the plastic surgery
channel. I can't remember which, but, you know, a lot of people have become
inured to these processes. They know what it is, but, you know, I watched
videotapes of liposuction. It's unbelievably violent.
So I went to these guys thinking, `You are the people who are perpetrating all
this on to an unwitting public. You're the guys who have made it a cardinal
sin for Jill Clayburgh to exist.' Of course, that wasn't the case. These
guys are extremely conservative in their approach, and there's a reason
actually that these two guys are the two top surgeons in Beverly Hills for
what it is they do. You know...
GROSS: So what do they say to you looking at--I mean, you're a writer and an
actor. So what do they say to you looking at your face?
Mr. RAKOFF: Well, I mean, they were very reluctant to do anything. Like, I
kept on telling them about my thick skin and that I didn't mind and that it
was for the story and that they should just have at me. And they still
wouldn't really do it. One of them mentioned--they both actually mentioned as
how they might straighten out the tip of my nose, that apparently it droops
down to an unhealthy degree. It's, you know, your typical user's nose from an
anti-Semitic cartoon kind of thing with a little less character actually, and
they thought that they might get rid of a furrow between my eyebrows, you
know, and clean up some of the bags under my eyes, but really other than that,
it was just sort of a freshening up. It was like tuning up a car I guess,
although I don't drive a car. So what I'm assuming is like a car tune-up, but
they never said, `You know, we'll cut out this. You know, we'll give you a
huge square jaw. We'll cap your teeth. We'll give you a new nose. We'll,
you know, change your eye color, you know, all manner of thing. We'll give
you a hair transplant.' I was really hoping for that kind of overhaul at least
theoretically and it just didn't happen. They wouldn't do it.
GROSS: Why is it in your writing that on the whole you've chosen subjects
that are not the most life-and-death subjects of our age?
Mr. RAKOFF: You mean, why am I not going towards them?
GROSS: Yeah. Do you ever feel like you should be doing this as a writer, you
should be--you know, instead of going to the cosmetic surgeon or, you know,
writing about seeing the show "Puppetry of the Penis," or, you know...
Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah.
GROSS: ...writing about your affection for Martha Stewart, yeah, that you
should be going into war zones or, you know, covering, like, the major stories
of our day or, you know, the personal tragedies or, you know, just like...
Mr. RAKOFF: You mean, my personal tragedies or other people's personal
GROSS: Any. Either. Either.
Mr. RAKOFF: Well, a few things occur to me. You know, the fact that I am
shallow as a puddle frequently worries me enormously and the hope is--well,
two things. The hope is that somehow the pieces touch on something deeper
than their surface subjects. You know, the "Puppetry of the Penis" piece is
meant to be this sort of deeper meditation on the way a city recovers, mostly
New York City, after 9/11. And, you know, it's done in the most oblique,
subtle, perhaps, not detectable to the reader kind of way but also because of
this sort of humorous sensibility that I have. I mean, I can be deadly
serious and I'm deadly serious about many things, but those are generally
I wouldn't be the person--I wouldn't want to write about someone else's
personal tragedy. I'm very--I'm uncomfortable with that kind of reporting.
I'm uncomfortable with prying in that way. I'm not dogged about other
people's information in that way. I just--I can't do it. I've tried, but my
feeling is other than elected politicians, no one owes you their story. And I
think you need--but to be a really good reporter, you need to feel that people
owe you their story. I've never been that guy, and that might be having grown
up in Canada. I can't do it. I can't--you know, I could no sooner go up to
somebody who had just lost everything and say, `How do you feel?' I mean, I
can guess how they feel. They feel lousy, you know, and I can't ask that sort
of second question when they essentially tell me to drop dead. I can't do it.
I'm not brave in that way.
GROSS: The last time we spoke in 2001, you said something that I thought was
very interesting and also very funny which was that you'd carry around a Xanax
with you and probably, like, never use it but just having it there calmed you
down because you knew that you had an option. If things got really bad, you
had the chance...
Mr. RAKOFF: I could just check out...
Mr. RAKOFF: ...you know?
GROSS: You could take this anti-anxiety pill or give it to somebody else who
needed it even more and...
Mr. RAKOFF: Exactly.
GROSS: ...so do you still carry it around as almost a talisman?
Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, absolutely. It's still there in my little--in the container
that I keep my breath mints in. You know, my breath mints I take with, you
know, almost religious regularity, but the Xanax I don't take so much, but its
presence is tremendously helpful. You know, as I get older, certain little
phobias get more pronounced. You know, my claustrophobia's worse than it used
to be. Sometimes my agoraphobia kicks in. And you just--you never want to be
the person in the stalled subway car who is just losing it. You know, you
don't want to be that embarrassing example of, `Oh, my God, you guys, we're
all going to die.' You know, I've certainly felt like I've wanted to be that
person. I don't want to be the person 'cause then eventually--you know
something? The subway starts to move and you emerge into the light and you're
just there having soiled yourself. You need to get home. You know, so it's
just--so, you know, as a sort of a counterphobic measure, I keep the Xanax on
my person, but I also have to say I now ride in the front car of the subway...
Mr. RAKOFF: ...because I just--I need to look out the front window. I just
need to know that we're moving forward. I need to be near the driver to know
that he doesn't--you know, that he exists or she exists. It's just one of
these little, you know, counterphobic things because here's the thing. I
don't not take the subway. That's the main thing. I won't avo--you know, if
I can walk, I'll walk, but that's just New York. I just like to walk. You
know, I can't let it stop my life.
You know, I was a very phobic little kid, faggy, phobic. It was a lot of fun,
and it was my father who said, you know, `You can let these things rule your
life and you mustn't.' And so I sort of understood early on, `Feel the fear
and do it anyway.' And I was even talking to one of my nephews recently
'cause we were in Buffalo over Labor Day weekend. We were going up to the old
city hall which is a beautiful building. It's got this beautiful observatory
at the top and I said, `I'll go to the elevator with you and I'll come up with
you, but I'm not going on the balconies.' He said, `Why?' `Don't you know
that I'm scared of everything? I'm scared of everything but I do it anyway,
but I won't go on an outdoor balcony 25 feet up in the air.'
But, yes, I do keep the Xanax and also, I have to say, I give away a lot of
GROSS: Well, you've given me a new aphorism to live by now, `Feel the fear
and do it anyway.' I like that.
Mr. RAKOFF: Oh, you know, I think it might be a self-help book that's called
GROSS: Oh, really? OK.
Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah.
GROSS: David Rakoff, it's great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
Mr. RAKOFF: Thank you so much.
GROSS: David Rakoff's new collection of humorous essays is called "Don't Get
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews E.L. Doctorow's new Civil
War-era novel "The March."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: E.L. Doctorow's new novel "The March"
TERRY GROSS, host:
E.L. Doctorow is known for his best-selling novels like "Ragtime" and "The
Book of Daniel" that focus on crucial moments in American history. His new
novel, "The March," continues that tradition by taking readers back to the
Civil War. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
It's impossible to read E.L. Doctorow's new novel "The March" and not to
think about New Orleans. Practically every page of this novel is saturated
with descriptions of an army of the dispossessed roiling through the South
covered in mud and slime, peopled by the lost and innocent, as well as my the
vultures who prey upon them. Doctorow's specific subject here is Sherman's
march during the Civil War, but his overarching subject is always the idea of
America writ large, its democratic promise, its nightmare possibilities.
Doctorow writes like a visionary poet whose gaze encompasses American history
past, present and to come and so it's easy for me to believe that even as he
was imagining these scenes from the Civil War, he was also foretelling the New
Orleans disaster when once again the democratic crowd would dissolve into a
As befits a story about bedlam, there's not so much a linear plot in "The
March" as there are fragmented images pushing and shoving their way to a
foregone conclusion. The novel opens in 1864 after the burning of Atlanta
when General William Tecumseh Sherman led the Union army through Georgia and
up into the Carolinas, fighting and pillaging as well as accumulating an
auxiliary civilian army of exiles, newly freed blacks and fugitive whites.
Doctorow plucks a few individual characters out from this throng and sketchily
tells their intersecting stories. Among others, there's an of course
beautiful ex-slave girl named Pearl who passes for white, a chilly army doctor
who becomes expert at battlefield amputations, a steely Southern bell or two,
a decent Irishman named Walsh who joins the army as a paid substitute for a
wealthy New Yorker and General Sherman himself who's periodically depicted as
mentally unhinged. Even Lincoln has a cameo.
But the American multitude is really Doctorow's main character here and his
writing is most electric in the pages and pages and pages of this novel that
he devotes to describing the swarm. Sometimes those descriptions are majestic
as when Sherman's forces make their entrance into the novel in a cloud of
dust. Other times, Doctorow describes the crowd as horrific as in this
snippet where General Sherman wanders through the night and watches Columbia,
South Carolina, go up in smoke. His troops were everywhere drunk. Some stood
in front of burning houses cheering. Others lurched along, arms linked,
looking to Sherman like a mockery of the soldierly bond.
It was all in hideous accord, the urban inferno and the moral dismantlement of
his army. These veterans of so many campaigns who had marched with him
hundreds of miles fought stoutly with nothing less than honor. They were not
soldiers now. They were demons laughing at the sight of entire families
standing stunned in the street while their houses burned.
Whether or not you'll think "The March" is an instant American classic will
depend on whether or not you think a novel can be sustained solely on the
power of its language. In a recent and as one would expect very smart essay
in Slate, writer Francine Prose argues just that, that style is all in the
literary novel and plot is, as she says, the least of it. Certainly it's the
least of it in "The March" where Doctorow's elegant meditations roll on,
swallowing up plot, character and all other fictional elements that stand in
their path, but with all due respect to Prose's pronouncement, I think some
great writers like Doctorow really produce their best books when their soaring
style is held in check by the mundane demands of telling a story.
Doctorow can generate pages of biblical riffs, but sometimes that's all he
produces, as in his last novel "City of God" which, along with a lot of other
reviewers, I found incomprehensible. When his meditations are tethered to a
strong historical plot line as in "Ragtime" and the incomparable "Book of
Daniel," there's no other American novelist who so unironically steps into
Walt Whitman's bardic boots retelling our national stories in the larger
contexts of myth, anthem and tragedy.
"The March" offers amazing descriptive and contemplative passages about the
Civil War, but ultimately it doesn't go anywhere. It's stalled in the
accumulated profundities of its own language.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is
the author of the new memoir "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading." She reviewed "The
March" by E.L. Doctorow.
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.