DATE January 25, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bob Dole discusses his new book, "Great Presidential
Wit," and his experiences with political humor
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Bob Dole's new book, "Great Presidential Wit," is subtitled, "I Wish I Was
the Book." He tried. He was the Republican nominee for president in 1996,
the year he left the Senate after being the longest-serving Republican
He had a reputation in Congress for his sense of humor. That reputation has
been spreading with the help of his appearances on "The Daily Show" with Jon
Stewart, Comedy Central's nightly news satire.
Dole is currently the chairman of the World War II Memorial Campaign. He
wounded in the war. And President Clinton appointed him as chair of the
International Commission on Missing Persons in the former Yugoslavia. In
Dole's new book, he says, `It's hard to believe, but there was a time in
American politics when candidates thought up their own soundbites.' Dole
he's turned to friends for help with his laugh lines. As for his own sense
humor, he gives some credit to his father.
Former Senator BOB DOLE: My dad was kind of a wisecracker, and I sort of
it from my dad. And I worked in a drugstore as a young boy in high school,
and it's a little drugstore in our hometown where you have to--the two
who were brothers who ran the place sort of insulted--every customer who
in would be insulted, and they kind of came back to be insulted again. And
you sort of get this rhythm and you learn, you know, a little about humor.
And I've sort of had a reputation--even in World War II when I was in the
hospital, they used to send me around to different wards to sort of cheer
people up and talk to people and try to make fun of even--not fun of their
injuries, but just fun of, you know, what happened to be going on that day
Battle Creek, Michigan, or wherever it might be.
GROSS: So it sounds like when you were a kid, you were the drugstore Don
Mr. DOLE: Yeah, sort of the drugstore Don Rickles. And I remember when I
first ran for Congress, my good friend and mentor was a fellow named Huck
Boyd. And now he said, `Remember, we don't want to elect anymore Jack
to Congress.' Now you may not remember Jack Benny, but he was a comedian
in the good old days, and in other words, he was telling me, `Don't overdo
this. Don't go too far. I mean, people, they like to have somebody with a
sense of humor and kind of funny, can laugh at themselves; that's the key
thing: You've got to be self-deprecating.' And I have always tried to
that. I think sometimes I've probably stepped over the line.
But so there's, you know--and I've also learned the higher you sort of go up
the ladder, whether it's in your business or professional life or politics,
think the more apt people are to laugh. I mean, if you're the president of
the United States, you kind of feel like you should laugh. I mean, if
President Clinton or President Lincoln or whoever it might be says something
that's supposed to be funny, I guess you laugh, because the president of the
United States made it funny or said it was funny.
GROSS: Now you said when it came to self-deprecating humor, you thought you
might have stepped over the line and gone too far, you know, once or twice
your own career. Can you think of an example?
Mr. DOLE: Yeah, I can think of a good example. I used to tell a story that
sort of pointed at me about when I first came to Congress, and people didn't
know I was Bob Dole or Bob Doyle. And I was invited to go out somewhere in
Indiana to speak, and I went on this radio station for an interview and they
were having trouble getting anybody to come. Nobody knew who Bob Doyle was.
And so they started this little interview with a statement that `Bob Doyle
will speak tonight. Tickets have been slashed to $1.' Went on and gave me
little bio. It said that `He suffered a serious head injury in the war and
then went into politics.' You know, and it was real funny and a lot of
laughed, and I used it. Then I heard from people who had head injuries, and
it never occurred to me, you know, that it might be hurtful to someone.
Mr. DOLE: So that joke went out the window. And I was really pointing at
myself. I didn't mean to reach out and--because I know people who have
injuries and head injuries, and you never want to get into the personal, the
physical appearance of somebody or any physical disability. But yeah, I
that's probably the most glaring example of what I learned the hard way,
there are certain things you don't do.
GROSS: Bob Dole is my guest, and he's just completed his second volume of
"Great Presidential Wit."
You describe Lincoln as our greatest and funniest president. Why do you
Lincoln was the funniest?
Mr. DOLE: Well, he had all these old homespun stories, and he could go on
and on and on, as he did, whether it was with General McClellan or in the
Douglas debates or--you know, he and McClellan--McClellan ran against him.
never really liked McClellan and he kept saying, `You ought to give me more
information on what's going on on the front.' And so McClellan sent him a
wire one day and said, `We captured six cows. What shall I do with them?'
And Lincoln wired back: `Milk them.' And that was it. You know, they had
this sort of relation--everything that--Lincoln always had a response. And
somebody called him two-faced one day and he said, `If you think I had
face I'd use the one I have?' And so that kind of maybe wouldn't be funny
today, but in those days--and you knew it was probably pure Lincoln. It
wasn't somebody penning the joke.
GROSS: Yeah. Another one you quote by him that I like is, `Whenever I hear
anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him
Mr. DOLE: Right, which I think makes a point. And a lot of Lincoln's
stories made a point; I mean, there's no question about it. You can make a
point with humor and it's like a picture is worth 10,000 words. A good
or a good clean joke can make a point that you could spend 10 minutes trying
to explain to people.
GROSS: Now you say about LBJ that `You laughed at his jokes, or else.' Did
he, like, bully people into laughing at his jokes?
Mr. DOLE: Well, I think LBJ was one of these people I think about. When
get higher up the ladder, you laugh. And, I mean, LBJ, you know, would--he
not at the top of the list, but I want to point out before I forget it, out
the top 10, five are Republicans and five are Democrats, so it's kind of a
bipartisan group. And, let's see. Johnson is not--he's number eight, so,
know, he's fairly well up there. But again, he's a modern president and I
think as we sat around trying to say, `Well, how should we judge these?', I
used to tell the story that, you know, I didn't know all these guys. But
ones I didn't know, Senator Thurmond knew. He knew Washington and
so he helped me out on the early ones.
Mr. DOLE: But how do you judge Garfield or even William Howard Taft, who
a big laugh, laughed a lot in the White House; or John Adams or George
Washington? There's not much recorded that's very funny and we don't know
how they reacted in their private life or personal life when it came to
But Johnson loved to tell stories and he would kind of make you listen. I
don't know whether you've watched. I've watched some of his things that
they've--some of the stuff released in the library in the last three or four
months that's been on C-SPAN. And the stories he would tell and the
he would put on people, in a nice way--I don't mean--but he had this great
about him. And I think he just sort of made people laugh.
GROSS: Now where does Bill Clinton fit into your rankings of presidential
Mr. DOLE: Well, I think, you know--I think what I've tried to do is
these. And, you know, first I have a class by themselves where we have
Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt. Then we have sort
the Yankee wits. Calvin Coolidge was really a very funny guy, and so was
F. Kennedy. And then we get down into the funnier than the average
And there we have Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John
Adams, William Howard Taft and President Bush.
But as I say in discussing Bill Clinton, he has great writers and great
delivery; maybe not a lot of natural humor, but he's able to do it. And I
think history--these are still, you know, sort of--there's no final
It'll take a few years to see how this president does, the one now we have;
the next one--then maybe former President Bush will move up. President
Clinton may move up, or they may move down.
And there's nothing scientific about our ratings, but we thought it would
be--you have all these--you know, have these academics out here rating the
presidents--who was the greatest president. As it turns out, if you look at
the people who have probably the best sense of humor, they also turn out to
pretty much the best presidents. You go down the list with Abraham Lincoln,
Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was one of my heroes because of
way he overcame a disability; Teddy Roosevelt, who was much like Bill
He loved the White House. He loved his job, and he put a lot of emphasis on
himself in everything that he did. He took a lot of credit for things.
were pretty much alike in many ways; Calvin Coolidge, John F. Kennedy,
Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson. I mean, you look at
the top 10, they're, you know, all pretty good presidents. They've had
different styles, different personalities.
GROSS: Let me ask you about our new president, George W. Bush. How would
you compare his sense of humor when he's officially speaking in public and
when you're just talking to him?
Mr. DOLE: I think he's got some work to do. I think Bush, in private--I
mean, again, I don't have that much--haven't had that much close
contact--pretty funny guy and he smiles a lot. And he listens to other
people's jokes or so-called jokes, too, which is an asset. I mean,
when you get pretty high on the ladder, you're so busy speaking, you forget
listen to other people.
GROSS: Now with President Bush, some of the lines that are reprinted as
very funny are things he inadvertently says, the so-called Bush-isms.
Mr. DOLE: Well, some of those--right. Yeah. You know, like I--you know, I
can't remember the exact line, but somebody said they wanted to be
but they didn't know which country he could pronounce. And, you know, so
got different ones. And he does sort of slur the syntax sometimes or murder
the syntax sometimes, but I think that may not be too bad. I don't think
Americans have--you know, that's going to be a concern to most Americans.
may be to people who watch very closely what you say and who sort of analyze
what you say and sort of parse every word. But to most Americans, I think
they believe he believes it and he's sincere and he's reaching out to people
and he is trying to do what he said he would do--is bring more people into
fray and, you know, improve the base and not leave any child behind--all
slogans--if there are real efforts made to live up to the slogans, that'll
GROSS: Sounds like you're waiting to see.
Mr. DOLE: Well, I think everybody is. I mean, it's been four or five days
here and he's off to a fast start, as most presidents are, but it's too
I mean, you know, there's nobody--the American people are still--in this
they're still not quite certain what happened in Florida. Most people say,
`Yes, Bush is the president.' Most people support Bush, but I must say the
one I felt for on the Inaugural Day was Al Gore, because I knew Al Gore.
known him for a long time. And he's a decent guy. We didn't agree
philosophically, but I had to hear the--here's a guy who had the most votes,
and some doubts about the electoral votes, closest election in history, but
must say he handled it as he should have, in a, you know, very fine way.
GROSS: Have you given Al Gore any advice on life after politics?
Mr. DOLE: No, but I did call him after the election was final and, you
I called Joe Lieberman. They're both friends of mine. I said, you know,
`I'm--just want to say that I--you know, somebody wins and somebody loses
I know it's not a happy time for you.' That was with Gore, but with
Lieberman, I know so well, I told him he could join the losers' club, that
McGovern and I were co-chairmen, and we had a lot of other members--Dukakis,
and Mondale and Quayle and others who were members of this losers' club.
There were no dues. There were no meetings. There were no speeches. And
there was no media coverage. And Joe thought that'd be a pretty good group
to get together with.
GROSS: This reminds me of another one of your funny lines. When you were
traveling internationally not too long ago, someone said, `What's the point
your trip?' and you said, `I'm still trying to find a country that needs a
Mr. DOLE: Yeah, I'm traveling a lot and I say, `Well, I'm trying to find a
country that needs a president.' And people laugh. They say, `Oh, yeah.
Well, that guy ran for president.' They say, `Yeah, well, who is that
up there? Yeah. Didn't he run one time?' So we're getting to that point.
And, of course, we've also been doing a lot of work in the World War II era.
Our generation is sort of the disappearing generation. We lose about 1,200
World War II vets a day. But we've now raised the a hundred and sixty
dollars that we need to build the--that's gross--we need to build the World
War II Memorial, which we hope will be finished in two or three years so
there will be a few of us around for the dedication. So we've done a lot of
talking about that, and you go out and speak to groups and you try to have a
little fun. You try to think about what's going to happen in the next 10,
years, and what would have happened had we not prevailed in World War II.
you always say to yourself--not just because you were a part of it, but you
say, you know, `Where would we be today?' I mean, I know we don't live in
past, but where would we be today? I wouldn't be on NPR had we lost World
II. There probably wouldn't be an NPR. And somebody else would be telling
what to say and when to say it and how to say it. And so I think when Tom
Brokaw writes a book and calls this the greatest generation, maybe so. I
happen to think any generation could meet the challenge, but it was a pretty
important group of men and women who--just ordinary young men and young
who sometimes did extraordinary things.
GROSS: My guest is former Senator Bob Dole. His new book is called "Great
Presidential Wit." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bob Dole and he's the chair of the World War II Memorial
Campaign. His new book has just been published. It's the second volume of
"Great Presidential Wit."
How has being on Comedy Central and appearing on "The Daily Show" affected
your image, do you think, especially with younger people, some of who might
not know you that well from your years in the Senate, because they're first
starting to pay attention to politics now?
Mr. DOLE: Well, I must say, it's been--I wouldn't say stunning, but it's
certainly been surprising, because as you talk about young people, what's
average age of that audience? Eighteen to 27, or 8 or 9. And wherever I
people will say, `You're on Comedy Central' or somebody's mother will say,
son said he saw you on Comedy Central.' And I say, `Yeah, we've had a lot
fun with Jon Stewart.' We're going to be doing some more here in the next
months. We did some through the election cycle, but Jon Stewart is very
bright, very good and, you know, he's very timely and he's current. So I
think it's--and I think maybe some young people do sort of get information
they wouldn't get otherwise about politics from Comedy Central.
GROSS: Now when you were on a show like "Letterman" or "Leno," how do you
prepare in advance?
Mr. DOLE: Well, I don't think you can prepare in advance. What I'll do,
I'll call my friend Kerry Timchuck(ph) out in Oregon and Rick Smith(ph), who
has written books on Nixon and is out at the Ford Library in Grand Rapids
written books on Colonel McCormick, Chicago Tribune, and now working on a
on Rockefeller. I'll call these two guys who used to work for me, and then
Doug McKinnon(ph) in my office here. And then we just sort of brainstorm,
maybe even Nelson Warfield, who was my press guy in the '96 campaign. `Have
you got any good ideas? Just give me some ideas what might be good.' But
don't spend a lot of time on it. It's always been my theory that you
unless you've got real writers who do it on a daily basis, it's pretty hard
But I found that both Leno and Letterman have different, you know--Leno gets
right back there with you and he'll say, `Do you think this is funny? Do
think that's funny?' Letterman, you see him when you walk out on the stage,
so there's no pre-conference or whatever you call it and you don't--but with
Leno, you don't go over the jokes with Leno either, but he just sometimes
gives you a little ribbing.
GROSS: Now have you paid much attention to the "Saturday Night Live"
of Bush and Gore?
Mr. DOLE: Oh, I love it, yeah.
GROSS: I'm wondering what impact you think that has on politicians?
Mr. DOLE: In fact, I even saw Janet Reno the other night on "Saturday Night
Live." Well, there was so much written and talked about on NPR--maybe NPR
other radio stations I know, and TV about the impact; I don't know how much
impact they have, but they're really good. I went up there after I lost in
'96, and Norm McDonald was sort of the Bob Dole, and we had suited--you
we're dressed identically, same suit, same tie, the same everything. And we
had a lot of fun doing that. And I can see why somebody who plays Clinton
Gore, Bush or whoever--I mean, I think people like this. They kind of like
make fun of people in public office. And they're not mean about it, at
I don't think they've been--you know, it's pretty pointed, but it's not
nasty, mean. And as long as you keep it in that vein, I think most people
GROSS: Was there ever a satirical sketch about you that made you think,
I'd better stop using that mannerism,' or, `I'd better stop using this
Mr. DOLE: Hmm. But I can't recall--you know, I'm going to be in a Super
commercial. I can't tell you much about it, except it's the first time I've
ever had a double, so they're going to have a double in there, so you see
Bob Doles. And it occurred to me while I was doing this--I'd never done
before, except for Norm McDonald. He was sort of a double, I guess, in
"Saturday Night Live," but it seems to me if a politician were smart, he
get about 10 doubles and they'd spread across the country...
GROSS: And campaign.
Mr. DOLE: ...and campaign.
Mr. DOLE: And look at the money you could save and all the personal
you could make, because they can--as you know now, with all this high-tech
stuff and everything else--makeup, they can make almost 10 of us look alike.
GROSS: Your new book is about political wit, presidential wit, political
humor. This has also been the era of political war and of a lot of
hatred, particularly during the impeachment period. And I'm wondering if
found that disturbing, you know, the kind of degree of political war and
political hatred that surfaced?
Mr. DOLE: Well, a matter of fact, I wrote an op-ed piece that I still think
is accurate and one that everybody should have accepted, not because I wrote
it, but early on in that process, calling for censure instead of impeachment
because I thought I--if I knew anything, I knew the Senate of the United
States. And I was convinced there was never going to be any conviction
And it seemed to me there were just--this anger was being built up on both
sides and outright hostility, that when it was--it probably could have been
avoided. As it turned out, two days before the president left office--I
all that--that's when it finally ended.
And it seemed to me it could have ended two or three years ago and probably
not put the country through it, put the Congress through it, and it
without a doubt, has had some impact on the flow of legislation and
cooperation. I mean, things tend to do that. It's like any other--it
have to be in politics. It can be in the workplace. It can be on the
football field. It can be somewhere else. It can be in the union hall.
you have sharp divisions and personalities, it slows up the process and it
clouds the process, but, again, I think most of these--and, of course, have
been big changes even in the four short years I've been gone. I think the
climate's going to be a little better around here.
GROSS: Well, Bob Dole, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. DOLE: Good luck. See you soon.
Mr. DOLE: Bye.
GROSS: Bob Dole's new book is called "Great Presidential Wit." I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: Coming up, a talk with editor and publisher Jacob Epstein about
changes in the book business, and Ed Ward remembers rock 'n' roller Eddie
Cochran. His big hit was "Summertime Blues."
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Jason Epstein talks about changes in book publishing
in the last 50 years
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Jason Epstein has worked in the publishing industry for about half a
and he finds the industry in a state of increasing distress. He explains
in his new book, "Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future."
Epstein is the former editorial director of Random House. The roster of
illustrious writers he has edited includes Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov,
Philip Roth and Gore Vidal. In 1952, Epstein created Anchor Books, the
literary paperback company. He also co-founded the New York Review of Books
and created the Library of America, whose goal is to keep in print great
American literature. Epstein says that one of the biggest changes he's seen
is the gradual disappearance of independent bookstores and their replacement
by chain stores located mostly in suburban shopping malls. I asked him how
thinks this has affected how books are published and sold.
Mr. JASON EPSTEIN (Author, "Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and
Future): The old independent bookstores were really run mostly by people
didn't think of them primarily as businesses but as vocations, which is how
most publishers back in the '50s and '60s thought of themselves, too, but
those stores went out of business as their customers left the cities for the
suburbs, they were replaced by stores that had to pay substantial rent in
those shopping malls. And, therefore, they had to have a lot of turnover,
that meant best sellers, a constant stream of them, and that put a certain
kind of pressure on publishers to produce those best sellers. And it was
a change for the better, but it was a change. You can't do anything about
change. It happens.
GROSS: So you're saying that the emphasis on big profit margins has more to
do with changes in retailing than it has to do with the fact that
conglomerates have bought up most of the publishing companies.
Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah. I think that the shift in the nature of the business
occurred back in the middle '60s, when the chain bookstores, which were then
probably small stores--not the kind of superstores we have now, but small
stores, called B. Dalton and Walden, and you saw them in shopping malls and
airports and so on--needed a certain rate of turnover. They had to move
inventory very quickly and find new best sellers to replace last week's best
sellers and so forth. And they couldn't stock backlist books that don't
very briskly but for which there's a more or less permanent demand.
When Bennett Cerf, who owned Random House when I worked there, bought Alfred
Knopf and joined the two firms together--he said that we could stop
books new books altogether and live on our backlist. `It was like picking
gold from the sidewalk,' he said, and he was right. But, of course, we
want to go out of business; we wanted to be there and go on publishing new
books, mostly to add to the backlist. But what happened when the bookstores
moved up to the suburbs in those shopping mall stores is there was no--it
became increasingly hard to sell the backlist, and that put even greater
pressure on publishers' profits.
GROSS: Do you think that the conglomerates who bought most of the
companies are making the kind of profits that they expected to make?
Mr. EPSTEIN: I don't know what they're doing at the moment. I think in the
long run they will not make the profits they expected to make, no. I think
they made a mistake buying these companies, and they'll discover that sooner
GROSS: What's the mistake? Why is it a mistake?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Because they won't find that they're profitable. In the short
run, they may show some profits by getting rid of redundant overheads. If
they put two companies together, they can shrink the warehouse. They can
one rather than two. They can reduce some of the back office expenses. But
what they're going to end up with after they've done all that is a handful
essentially unprofitable publishing companies.
I don't mean to say that all publishing is unprofitable. School publishing,
for example--school and college publishing can be very profitable, but
not the same as the publishing we're talking about here. We're talking
what's called trade book publishing; that is, fiction and non-fiction for
general readers rather than for specialized audiences, and that kind of
publishing is not in its nature profitable. It can't be, and...
GROSS: Why not? Why can't it be profitable?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Because it depends too much on chance, because publishers will
very often choose to publish a book for other reasons than profit. Such
books, if they are as successful as publishers hope they will be
intellectually, let's say--become part of the culture and they sell for
but in the short term, they won't be profitable--it's a highly risky
It can't be predicted. You don't know what's going to happen with your list
when you announce it. You hope for the best, but you're not often right
your guesses, and you don't go into it to make money. That's not the idea.
Bennett Cerf, in his memoirs, was very clear about that. He said that he
partner Donald Klopfer never expected to make money in the business. That's
not what they were doing there, and I think that was true of other people in
GROSS: But they ended up getting rich.
Mr. EPSTEIN: Only by selling the business.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
Mr. EPSTEIN: That's how when got rich. First of all, they were rich to
begin with, unless they couldn't have done this.
GROSS: Oh, true.
Mr. EPSTEIN: And they were paying themselves very small salaries, less, in
many cases, than they were paying their editors and the rest of their staff.
And it wasn't until they unexpectedly sold the business to RCA--they weren't
planning on that; they could never have foreseen that--that they made
something like real money.
GROSS: How do you think the job of editors has changed because of changes
retail and because of changes in the publishing industry--for example, how
they're mostly owned by conglomerates?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, that hasn't changed at all as far as I can see. The
GROSS: You don't think there's more pressure on editors now to buy books
will be best sellers?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Yes, there is, but the good editors can deal with that. The
editors that I see at Random House--I still go there occasionally, though
no longer part of the firm--are devoted to serious books, books that will
last, books for which the potential profit is really secondary, in the short
run at least. And they're indispensable because the skills required by an
editor are very hard to find, a strange combination of skills. And there
aren't too many people who are good at that. But the ones who are good at
that are just terrific. I think they're as good as they ever were, and they
pay no attention to the conglomerate managers. They just do their work,
the way you do.
GROSS: Some people who have been in publishing for a long time, like
yourself--you've been in publishing for a half a century--some of those
are pretty skeptical about some of the changes now in electronic publishing,
Internet publishing. You're not. You're pretty enthusiastic about what you
see. What's being--yeah.
Mr. EPSTEIN: No, I'm--well, that overstates it. I don't like progress. I
wish the world would stop. I wish the world had stopped 25 years ago, but
doesn't. It keeps on changing, and there's nothing I can do about that.
I think the changes that are going to be brought about by electronic
publishing are inevitable, for better and worse. Therefore, we might as
face up to them, which is what I'm trying to do. And when I say `for better
or worse,' I mean that because I think there are some very, very benign
aspects of this shift we can look forward to.
GROSS: What are you looking forward to?
Mr. EPSTEIN: It's very hard to predict in detail when you have a huge
technological shift like the one that we're now experiencing, when a book
be transmitted directly from its author to its reader with no intervening
steps--because that's what electronic publishing means--any more than you
could have guessed when you saw the Wright brothers take off from Kitty Hawk
what a 747 would look like eventually. But you do know that something
important is happening, a major change is taking place even if you don't
What I think will happen--and this is a guess, but it's an educated
that in the future, most books will be sold electronically but in printed
form. They'll be printed on demand at remote locations. You'll log on to a
vast catalogue of titles that have been digitized and are available
electronically on your home computer. You'll choose the book that interest
you. You'll be able to browse it on your screen at some length, maybe the
entire book. And if you want to buy it, you'll push a button and on your
screen will come a message saying that, `Your book is now printed and
available at the Kinko's store at the corner of Main and Elm Street. You
come pick it up, or we'll deliver it to you.' I think that's what's going
happen, and I think that's going to make book--physical books available to
people in the most remote corners of the Earth. And that will produce such
changes as can hardly be imagined at this point.
When you think of the changes that Gutenberg's invention, the printing
produced in Europe--where until that time books had been made by hand, by
monks in monasteries in Latin where no one could read them--when you think
what happened in the years after the 15th century when books became
everybody's property and they were written in vulgar languages--that is, in
local languages, not in Latin--that produced our civilization. We wouldn't
here if not for that. Just think of what's going to happen now when books
will be available not simply to everybody in Europe and its related
but all over the world.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Epstein. He's the
editorial director of Random House. And he is the co-creator of the New
Review of Books and author of a new book called, "Book Business: Publishing
Past, Present and Future." Let's take a short break here and then we'll
some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jason Epstein, and he's the former editorial director of
Random House. He's the co-founder of the New York Review of Book and the
author of a new book about publishing called "Book Business: Publishing
Present and Future."
You're responsible for some innovations in publishing. In 1952, you were
head of Anchor Books--the first head of Anchor Books. And...
Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, I wasn't the head of it. I invented it.
GROSS: You invented it--the creator of Anchor Books.
Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah.
GROSS: And this is the publishing company that kind of created the literary
paperback. What was the state of the paperback before?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, when I first came into the business in 1950, '51, I
guess, paperbacks were mostly reprints of previous seasons' popular fiction,
or they were Westerns, mysteries, category books like that. But the serious
kinds of books that Anchor published, the kind of books that I had been
reading as an undergraduate at Columbia and that my contemporaries, of whom
there were now millions with the GI Bill and so on, were reading were not
available in paperback. And it occurred to me that it would be a valuable
thing to make paperback editions of them. They would sell for a little bit
more than the kind that were sold in newsstands and drugstores, popular
novels, but they would also be better-produced with better paper, better
binding and so on.
And that worked, and it created what was called at the time a paperback
revolution. I never quite thought it was a revolution, but it did change
industry. And it created--it was the first of those so-called `quality
GROSS: What were some of the first books you brought out on Anchor?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Oh, let me see. One of them was Edmund Wilson's intellectual
history of the French and Russian Revolutions called "To the Finland
One was Stendhal's great novel, "The Charterhouse of Parma." One was a
wonderful book by D.H. Lawrence called "Studies in Classical American
Literature." And they were great other books of literary criticism,
philosophy and so on, but books at that level--the kind of books that we
reading as undergraduates in college in those days. And it became an
immediate success, and within a year or two, everybody else was doing it.
then it created what are now the diamond-end form in which books are
GROSS: Were there any parts of the experiment that were unsuccessful?
Mr. EPSTEIN: No, no. It--well, for me, the part that was unsuccessful was
success because I don't like running things. I like inventing things, but
running businesses and whatnot I find rather tiresome, so I always write,
`Please, to turn your books over to other people,' for those purposes within
year or two. And I began looking around for other things to invent. And a
few things turned up. But I don't like running businesses. It makes me
GROSS: Something else you created, the Library of America. You co-created
that in 1979. Describe that.
Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, that began in a conversation with my dear friend, Edmund
Wilson, who was, in his time, probably the most powerful literary critic in
America. He was actually a literary journalist. He didn't think of himself
as a critic. He thought as someone who explained literature to other
Anyway, he invited me for a drink one day at the old Princeton Club, which
used to be just south of Grand Central on Park Avenue. And we were at the
and he ordered a half a dozen martinis, something I never heard anyone do
previously. And not one of them was for me, by the way. He asked me if I
wanted a half a dozen, and I said no. I thought I might get one of his, but
didn't. And he said, `Well, what you should do,' he said--he was very
peremptory. He didn't ever go in for introductions or beating around the
bush. He said, `What you should do is put all the standard American
writers--Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Poe, etc.--into permanent, reasonably
complete or actually complete editions, like the French, who had a series
called "The Pliad" in which all literature was available.'
We--I thought that had to be a non-profit business. I thought because you
might sell enough of Melville and James and so on to keep the thing afloat,
you wouldn't sell enough of some of the minor writers that we also had to
publish. So I decided that we would try to raise funds from foundations.
to make a long story short, it took 25 years to raise the necessary funds
foundations and, of course, it became very successful and now is exactly the
series that Wilson envisioned all those years ago at the Princeton Club bar;
`little compact books, short and stout, like himself,' he said, that
the major and sometimes the complete works of important American writers in
very good editions on fine paper. And they can be conveniently carried in a
raincoat pocket, like his own. And we can be very proud of that. I'm
delighted by that. But, again, I have nothing to do with it these days.
GROSS: I want to ask you about one of the writers you worked with, and that
was Vladimir Nabokov. And you didn't edit "Lolita," but you did recommend
that your company publish it, controversial though it was. But you and
Nabokov split off for a political difference. Would you describe what
Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, what I discovered when I came to know Vladimir, whom I
liked very much, is that he was really determined to go back to Russia as he
had known it as a young man, and his father had known it. They came from a
great old noble family, the Nabokovs did. And as far as he was concerned,
Communists were temporary usurpers who would soon be gotten rid of, and he
right about them, but not for the timing; it took a little bit longer. And
when the Vietnam War came along, he was all for it. He thought that would
help him reclaim the family estates in Russia. He was wrong, of course.
could never have had that result. And I was very much opposed to the war in
Vietnam. I thought that that was not the way to deal with our Soviet enemy.
Though we never had a discussion on that, we never confronted each other
that, our friendship ended, I think, temporarily. I had been his literary
executor and I was no longer his literary executor, and we stopped
communicating with each other and so on.
And I lost track of him, until one day in Paris--it was a day in August when
nobody was around; it was a Sunday, and I smoked cigars in those days, and
there were none in the hotel I was staying in. So I walked around the
to the Ritz to see if they had a cigar, and in a corner of the bar I saw a
in a loud Hawaiian shirt speaking in a loud, Midwestern voice, accent,
American, and it was Vladimir celebrating his American status in a country
that was becoming increasingly anti-American. So I went over and we sat and
talked for a while, and we had dinner that night. And I proposed a toast to
three Americans in temporary exile, the Nabokovs and myself, and he proposed
toast, in return, to Richard Nixon, thinking that would offend me. And his
wife was very upset. Vera said, `Oh, dear, Vladimir, don't do that.' And
made no difference to me, I toasted Richard Nixon, and he was, after all,
president. And we parted friends, and that was the last time I ever saw
But he was determined to go back. And the irony is that I read somewhere
the Nabokov mansion in St. Petersburg was eventually liberated and bought by
one of those 20-year-old instant ex-Soviet millionaires, someone in the
computer business who set up a kind of disco in it. But that would have
a Nabokovian twist; he might have been amused by that or perhaps not.
GROSS: Well, Jason Epstein, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. EPSTEIN: It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Jason Epstein is the author of "Book Business."
Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward profiles Eddie Cochran. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Career of rock 'n' roller Eddie Cochran
TERRY GROSS, host:
When Americans list the great rock 'n' roll originators, Eddie Cochran's
hardly ever appears, while in England he's revered almost as much as Elvis.
Rock historian Ed Ward profiles the career of a performer who pioneered
multitrack recording and contemporary production techniques, had hits which
became classics and died at the age of 21.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. EDDIE COCHRAN: (Singing) Oh, look at there. There she comes. There
comes that girl again, wanted to date her since I don't know when. But she
don't notice me when I pass. She goes with older guys from out of my class.
But that can't stop me from thinkin' to myself, she's sure fine lookin',
she's something else.
Eddie Cochran was probably the first American rock 'n' roller to be far more
celebrated outside his native country than in it. It's a shame because, in
many ways, he was an innovator and a technological pioneer. He was born in
Minnesota in 1938, but his family moved to the LA suburbs when he was 12.
Three years later, he'd formed a three-piece country band with a couple of
neighbors; and two years after that, he dropped out of high school to go
professional. He teamed up with Hank Cochran--no relation--as the Cochran
Brothers, Eddie dropping the E from the end of his name to make it look
They didn't get far, although Hank Cochran would go on to write a slew of
classic country songs. But they did attract the attention of a man named
Jerry Capehart, who had decided that Eddie, at least, was star material.
At a time when everybody was looking for the next Elvis, Capehart managed to
get Eddie signed to Liberty Records where his first single was a hit.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. COCHRAN: (Singing) I'm just a sittin' in the balcony, just watchin' a
movie, or maybe it's a symphony. I wouldn't know. I don't care about the
symphony. Those are cymbals in the ...(unintelligible), just a-sittin' in
balcony on the very last row. I'll hold your hand and I'll kiss you, too.
The feature's over but we're not through. I'm just sittin' in the balcony.
WARD: "Sittin' in the Balcony," oddly enough, sold better with black
record buyers than white, but it meant that his career had begun. But the
follow-ups failed, one after another, whether they were copycat takeoffs on
the hits or they were top quality rockers like this one.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. COCHRAN: (Singing) Ooh, well, I got a gal with a record machine. When
it comes to rockin', she's the queen. We rock and dance on a Saturday
I'll hold her like no one can hold her tight. But she lives on the 20th
of town, the elevators are broken down. So I'll walk up two flights, three
flight, four, five, six, seven flights, eight flights more. About the 12th
I'm startin' to drag before I'm ready to sag. Get to the top, I'm too tired
to rock. Well, she called me up on the telephone, says, `Come on over,
WARD: "Twenty Flight Rock" even made it into the film, "The Girl Can't Help
It" where Eddie performs the song on television, while Tom Ewell's
black maid swoons over him, but it didn't sell. It took a lot of touring
a lot of effort, but finally in the summer of 1959 Eddie had another hit.
(Soundbite of "Summertime Blues")
Mr. COCHRAN: (Singing) Well, I'm gonna raise a fuss, I'm gonna raise a
holler, about working all summer just to try to earn a dollar. Every time I
call my baby, try to get a date, my boss says, `No dice, son, you gotta work
late.' Sometimes I wonder what I'm a-gonna do, but there ain't no cure for
the summertime blues.
WARD: "Summertime Blues" has assumed classic status by now, but if you
to it on a good stereo, you'll notice it has an odd sound. That's because
of the side benefits of being based in Hollywood was that you got to play
around in recording studios, and Eddie had learned how to overdub himself.
All of the instruments and voices on "Summertime Blues" are Eddie Cochran.
was a substantial hit, and maybe that explains why the follow up flopped.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. COCHRAN: (Singing) Oh, come on, everybody, and let's get together
tonight. I got some money in my jeans and I'm really gonna spend it right.
Well, I've been doin' my homework all the week long, and now the house is
empty and my folks are gone. Ooh, come on, everybody.
WARD: Or rather it flopped in the US. It went top 10 in England, and his
manager Jerry Capehart decided that that was probably where Eddie should go
next. He started working on plans for a tour. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Eddie
had fallen in love. Sharon Sheely is the teen-age songwriter who provided
Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson with hits. And she'd met Cochran when
both shown up to see Don Everly flat on his back in a hotel with the flu.
auditioned some of her songs for Eddie and Capehart, and Eddie was fairly
arrogant to her. Sheely fled in tears, and Capehart said, `You just chased
away a million dollars.'
By New Year's Eve, he definitely changed his mind. She showed up at a party
he was at, and he was so captivated that he asked her to marry him on the
spot. But he was also acting weird. Buddy Holly's death in a 1959 plane
crash hit him hard, and he recorded a bathetic tribute song to him.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. COCHRAN: (Singing) Look up in the sky, up towards the north. There are
three new stars brightly shining forth. They're shining, oh, so bright from
heaven above. Gee, we're gonna miss you, everybody sends their love.
WARD: Towards the end of the song, he actually cries. He began to seem
indifferent to his career, although he continued writing songs with Sheely
Capehart and recording them. Finally, the British tour came together. He'd
be on the bill with Gene Vincent, long since washed up in the States, but a
huge star in Britain, thanks to Jack Good, who swathed him in black leather
and made him seem menacing. Eddie went into the studio to cut a few more
songs and then he left for the tour. It was a huge success and he flew
over to be with him. He told her he wanted to spend more time in the
that they'd finally get married and that this was his last tour. He was
on one count. On April 18th, 1960, he, Vincent and Sheely were in a limo on
their way to Heathrow Airport to fly home when a tire blew at high speed and
the car plowed into a lamp post. All three went to the hospital and Eddie
died of head injuries two days later. Sharon Sheely returned home alone.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin.
Mr. COCHRAN: (Singing) I'm having a nervous breakdown, a mental shakedown.
I see my hands how they shiver, whoo, I see my knees how they quiver. My
whole body's in a tither. I'm having a nervous breakdown.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Mr. COCHRAN: (Singing) Yeah, I'm about to tell you what the man had to say.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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