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John Updike's Alter-Ego Lashes Out at the Literary World

Updike's newest book features Henry Bech, the moderately well known Jewish-American writer who was the hero of Updike's previous novels, "Bech: A Book," and "Bech is Back." His newest book is "Bech at Bay" (Knopf).


Other segments from the episode on October 29, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 29, 1998: Interview with John Updike; Interview with Jimmy Carter.


Date: OCTOBER 29, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102901np.217
Head: John Updike: Bech for More
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In November, John Updike will be honored with the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Updike has won just about all the big literary awards an American writer can get, with the exception of the Nobel.

But Updike's alter ego, Henry Bech, wins the Nobel in Updike's new novel "Bech at Bay." This is Updike's third book about the fictional, moderately-successful writer, Henry Bech. The first was published in 1970.

The Bech stories satirize the writer's life, the literary world, and contemporary culture. I asked Updike to describe Bech.

JOHN UPDIKE, NOVELIST: Henry Bech was born in Manhattan in 1923, which makes him nine years older than I am. He is Jewish, a New Yorker from birth to '76, which is his present age -- no, 75. He is not prolific. He has famous -- he is famous for writing blocks and for having a rather dandyish, exquisitist approach to his writing.

He remained unmarried for many years. He has married and divorced and now has a permanent live-in sidekick called Robin. He is, in short, in as many ways as I could think of, not like me. He is my attempt to make a writer who is, really, an alter ego, with the emphasis on "alter."

GROSS: Why did you want to have an alter ego who was so different from you?

UPDIKE: In the mid-'60s -- in '64 I went to communist -- Soviet Union -- it was then called, and a number of other Eastern European countries as a cultural ambassador of sorts; helping to keep the Cold War from happening. And I had experiences which only a writer could have had.

So to unpack -- one of these experiences I had to have a writer, and so I invented Henry Bech; being as unlike myself as I could imagine. The story was called "The Bulgarian Poetess." It came out in '65, I think. The "New Yorker" ran it; and even won, I'm proud to say, the first prize O. Henry Award for that year.

So thus encouraged, I've written a number of others, and wrote enough, indeed, to make the first book, which was called "Bech, A Book." And one such book tends to produce another.

GROSS: Although Bech is very different from you as a writer and as a person, I think it's fair to say that he -- you use him to unleash some of your views of the literary world.

UPDIKE: Yes, I use him to display a few of my wounds, my many wounds, and to write essayistically a little bit about the literary game -- the literary racket -- which has changed a good bit in the 40-odd years that I've been practicing it. So, yes, he's a vehicle for -- for a lot of not too serious thoughts about the literary life.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read an excerpt from the chapter called "Bech Noir." And this is actually reprinted recently in the "New Yorker." And this is a chapter in which he is so wounded by bad reviews he's getting, he starts killing critics.

This is a section in which he's describing just how -- how cutthroat the literary world has become.

UPDIKE: "Bech had not always been an evil man. He had dedicated himself early to what appeared, plainly, a good cause: art. It was amusing and helpful to others, he imagined, as he emerged from the Army, to turn contiguous bits of the world into words. Words, which when properly arranged and typeset, possessed a gleam that in wordless reality was lost beneath the daily accretions of habit, worry and boredom.

"What harm could there be in art? What enemies could there be? But he discovered that the literary world was a battlefield, mined with hatred, rimmed with snipers."

GROSS: Does the literary world strike you, John Updike, as a battlefield, where jealousy and rivalries are always getting played out?

UPDIKE: I think -- of course, I don't live in New York, unlike Bech, so I'm just guessing. But, yes, I think there is a lot of envy and enmity. It used to be worse, I suppose, when people took writing more seriously.

I think back in the "Partisan Review" days, you got a lot more really bitter, heartfelt, ideological reviews, attacking not just a writer for the quality of his work, but for where he or she stood. But it's like a sinking raft that too many people are trying to get onto in the literary world, so, naturally, any push you can deliver makes the raft a little higher in the water for you.

I think there's a good deal of unexpressed -- unexpressed, fortunately -- unexpressed, I would say, rivalry involved, in what should be, strictly speaking, a noncompetitive business.

GROSS: When Bech starts killing off some of his critics, you write:

"After 50 years of trying to rise above criticism, Bech liberated himself to take it personally." I'm wondering if, for you, if you have always felt that you were able to kind of rise above the criticism, or if it ever really wounds more than you'd care to admit?

UPDIKE: No, I've had some reviews, especially when I was younger, that I felt were really lethal and hoped to eliminate me from the map. As it turned out, I didn't -- I didn't go away. But for a day or two I felt pretty low, if there was much truth in what they said.

So there was a nearly full effect here, and it's not so surprising that Henry Bech as a hyperactive -- an elderly writer and might try to eliminate some of them. The etiquette is you don't respond to a bad review, you take your lumps. After all, you are a writer. And a prizefighter takes his lumps, and your lumps come when a book comes out and it's reviewed.

That's the correct attitude, but, in fact, down deep you to take it personally. It does seem almost like sometimes an assault on you, who were doing no harm, like you're just walking down the street smiling and humming, and, suddenly -- splat -- a big mudball hits you in the face and you don't see what you've done to deserve the mudball.

So Bech liberates himself as the passage said, to begin to act upon his real feelings, instead of suppress them in the name of literary etiquette.

GROSS: Of course, you're on both sides, because you're not only a writer, but you're also a very active literary critic. Your reviews are published quite frequently in the "New Yorker." And so you've given and you've gotten.

And I'm wondering if the reviews that you've gotten over the years -- which have mostly been, you know, really good reviews -- but people do say: oh, this is not one of his major works -- this, you know, this a minor thing for Updike -- and you know, you've gotten your share of reviews that say things like that.

Have the reviews that you've gotten over the years affected how you write criticism, how you give it?

UPDIKE: I think I began, I undertook to be a critic, in part, because I was smarting from reviews I'd received and was determined to model good behavior as a critic. So my initial reviews worked hard at being fair and trying to understand the author's intention, at being generous, and in dwelling on the book and not upon the reputation of the writer, or what I imagined to be his reputation.

So the answer is, resoundingly, yes, yes, I did try to write good reviews, fair reviews, in the hopes that I would slightly elevated the tone of book reviewing. I'm not sure I succeeded. And in the process, I certainly wrote a lot more reviews; devoted a lot more of my energy to reviewing books then I wanted to.

I'd love to ease out of the business, frankly, but I don't quite know how. I've written very few harsh reviews. Once in a while a book has irritated me, and I let the irritation show. But, in general, I've -- I've tried to write reviews, that if it won't entirely please the author, might at least instruct him or her about the impression that he or she has made on this particular reader.

GROSS: Let may read a sentence from a review written by a critic with the last name of Featherweight, that really sets Bech off. And the reviewer writes:

"One's spirit, however initially well-disposed toward one of America's more carefully tended reputations, begins severely to sag under the repeated empathetic effort of watching Mr. Bech page after page strain to make something of very little; the pleasures of microscopy pall."

That must have been a lot of fun to write. And whose writing or criticism were you thinking of when you wrote that? I don't know -- is that the kind of thing you would write in real life in a review, do you think?

UPDIKE: I wouldn't write it, but somebody like Featherweight might, that wretched Featherweight. I think I remember the reviewer's name is Rabinowitz - Dorothy Rabinowitz. But I may be all wrong. It was a review, at any rate, of a short story collection called "Museums and Women."

And it was -- like all my short story collections, I was very proud of these. They had appeared in the "New Yorker" mostly. I had worked hard on them. They were polished, and pretty well told the story of my life to date. And then she said this about making much of little. And that was one of the wounding reviews.

It was intelligent enough to sound plausible, and yet, if true, was kind of devastating, because it could apply to everything I had written; and would, in essence, wipe me off the map of serious literary consideration. So I didn't look up the review. It would still be too painful to look at it. But Featherweight's quote is something of a paraphrase of that review.

GROSS: My guest is John Updike. His new book is called "Bech at Bay." We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: John Updike is my guest, and his new book is called "Bech at Bay." And it continues the story of his fictional alter ego, Henry Bech.

A lot of this new book is about Bech's public self. He's going on literary tours and book tours. He wins the Nobel. And it's clear that you've had more of a public life, I think, over the past decade than you had before that.

And you know, you've gotten many prizes and awards over the years. I guess -- what was my question? I think you do a wonderful critique of what it's like for a writer who would just as soon not have such a public life to be forced into one all the time.

UPDIKE: Well, one says that. And I say it to interviewers, and I say it to my wife. And I say it in print here. But if you sincerely wish to avoid been interviewed and made much of from time to time, presumably, you would be like Pynchon and Salinger and the other true recluses of the literary world and not do it.

So I'm ambivalent. I think it is somewhat disgusting and demeaning for a writer to go around, in effect, selling himself. On the other hand, what is life but not an exercise in selling yourself? And if it helps the books, if it exposes me to people and landscapes I wouldn't ordinarily see, I have done it.

Yes, the last 10 years, the last 20, I seem to be more invited to do this and that than I was, certainly, in the first 20 years of my writing life. And it's not just that my reputation, such as it is, has grown larger. It's that literary world, I think, has grown more dependent upon author exposure, upon interviews, upon speaking appearances, upon book tours.

When I began writing so long ago in the mid-'50s, I never heard of the word -- phrase "book tour." There were no book tours, And now everybody expects that automatically. Even my mailman says to me, are you going on a book tour? It's become known as the thing that writers do.

GROSS: In the first chapter of your new book, Bech is on a literary tour of Czechoslovakia. And he's in Prague when the book opens. And he says that he supposes it's interesting to travel to other places because you encounter your fictional selves, "the refreshing false ideas of you that strangers hold in their minds."

And I'm sure you encounter a lot of this when you go places for readings or literary dinners or whatever. People have imagined what, you know, John Updike is going to be like. And then you present the reality of yourself.

Are you often surprised at what people's expectations of you are?

UPDIKE: Yes, they expect me to be witty, and I'm not especially; maybe in print, but that takes time and mulling over. And they expect me to be rather roguish; maybe on the strength of some of my fiction. But the truth is I'm a very timid, as men go in this day and age. I'm a pretty timid, shy person with, in fact, a kind of invincible innocence.

So, yes, you do encounter your literary self shining back at you from these hopeful faces. And in a way, you have a relationship with them, in that they've been reading you -- and you have had none with them, so you're relatively at a disadvantage in the transaction. But on the other hand -- no, it's nice. It's nice to meet people who have read you and who are in some way pleased.

GROSS: When Bech wins the Nobel, everybody is writing to him making demands. They want him to do this. They want -- everybody wants a piece of him. Or they just hate him because they are jealous. He's getting this barrage of mail that's a combination of requests and jealousy.

I'd like you to read an excerpt of that chapter in which he's just basically listing the things that have been coming in the mail.

UPDIKE: I'll try reading it. It's not easy to read. It's all in italics, and it's separated into these fragments of letters he receives and are separated by "..." which I will read as "..."

But this is --

"His winning the prize had unleashed a deluge of letters that battered him by hostile winds," I say in the authorial voice. And then we get this italic illustration:

"You would think that now they would give it to some American who wasn't a kike or a coon or an immigrant who can't even speak English right ... I've been struggling to complete my novel while holding down two jobs to pay for my wife's prohibitive chemo treatments, plus the child care, and just one percent of the enormous amount you have so undeservedly, in my opinion, won would enable me ... you have probably forgotten me, but I sat in the row behind you that PS-87 over on 77th and Amsterdam, and though you have never paid me any attention I always knew that some day you ... celebrity auction, even the tiniest personal item, last year we had remarkable good success with Mariah Carey's toenail clippings, and a used paper towel from Julia Child's kitchen ... well, Hank, I guess you got them all fooled now except me, I still had your number, Jew boy, and it isn't number one or even 1,001 ... Temple Emanuel, our reading circle, can offer not even a modest honorarium, but your cab fare would be covered and there are home-prepared refreshments beforehand ... my son is going to be two this December and a friendly note from you on your personal letterhead copying out a favorite passage from your own work or that of another great writer and dated month and date and year ..." -- and so on.

GROSS: I find that very funny, and I'm sure some of this -- some of the requests probably came right out of your mail.

UPDIKE: There's a lot of varied requests. You become a celebrity, and there's quite a vivacious celebrity-seeking culture out there. And even a humble writer gets a lot of requests for, you know, autographs; sign books; that's the least of it; the personal items; "would you do a doodle -- a doodle for a celebrity auction?"

I was a would-be cartoonist once, so I'm sort of -- I like to doodle skillfully. I hate to doodle carelessly, and so I don't generally doodle. And you find in yourself, over-obliging, you try to be at some point at which you cease to oblige the requester.

GROSS: I think the Nobel is about the only literary prize that you haven't won yet. And I wouldn't expect, necessarily, an honest answer to this, but, I mean, do you care? Do you feel, like, I really should have won, or, I want to win?

UPDIKE: It's a prize that I really thought -- I didn't think much about until my mid-'50s, when a German critic who I greatly respected, assured me, sitting there, wherever it was -- Frankfurt -- that I was going to win the Nobel Prize, because I had created a character, and almost nobody was creating characters these days.

And so this little seed of irrational expectation was planted in me, but it didn't come to anything. And if I was a betting man, I wouldn't bet that it would. I think -- I think if I was going to get it, maybe I would have gotten it. I'm 66, and Nobel laureates tend to be in their early 60s or later. Some are quite young. Garcia Marquez and Albert Camus were both in their 40s.

So I tried to console myself for not winning it by describing, as I do in this, the torrent of publicity, the hell of exposure that accompanies winning it.

GROSS: You're just one lucky guy to not have won.

UPDIKE: I'm one lucky guy, exactly.

GROSS: When Bech is asked by one of his readers, where do you get your ideas from? He says, "spite."

You know that all good ideas come from spite, from trying to outdo your literary rivals. And I imagine that your sense of jealousy and rivalry doesn't -- doesn't quite measure up to his.

But still, I think everybody carries around a certain amount of jealousy and rivalry. And I wonder if yours is something that you work hard at trying to transcend, or whatever. I mean, how do you deal with the natural rivalry that you would feel about other writers?

UPDIKE: One way in which I tried to deal was by asking the "New Yorker" not to give me any contemporary American writers to review. I just didn't quite trust myself to give them a fair shake, though I have reviewed Roth and Bellow. And maybe I didn't give them a fair shake. But, yeah, that's one way in which I try to cope with my dark side.

Really, I don't feel much that affection for my fellow writers. We're like astronauts in a way, in that we have been there; we know what it's like, and there aren't too many others. So whenever I meet a fellow writer like, say, Philip Roth, my real feelings are one of happiness and a kind of giggly good cheer.

As for Bech's remark, I don't think stories or novels written out of some angry need for vengeance are generally very good. I think you should write, if you can, out our love; wish to resurrect some memory; dress it up in different form as something positive.

But Bech is not entirely wrong that spite, old wounds, getting even, may play a part in some fiction; and certainly in "Bech Noir," very much so. That was written in a kind of payback mode.

GROSS: John Updike, his new novel is called "Bech at Bay." We'll talk more in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with writer John Updike. He has a new novel called "Bech at Bay," his third book about his fictional alter ego, the writer Henry Bech. Updike wrote four novels about his character Harry Rabbit Angstrom.

John Updike will receive the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American letters on November 18th.

John Updike, since you've written about American presidents in your fiction, and you've also written a lot about sexual mores and changing sexual mores in America, and you really use sex to get that character in your fiction, I thought I'd ask you a couple of questions about the Clinton-Lewinsky story.

I think it's fair to say that some people seem particularly outraged and disgusted by the fact that it was oral sex that the president and Monica were engaged in. And someone who writes a sex column named Dan Savage -- it's a very funny column -- pointed out that it wasn't too long ago that oral sex for heterosexuals was considered really quite adventurous.

And he used your first "Rabbit" book as an example of that, because an act of oral sex in the novel kind of changes the lives of two characters in a way. I'm wondering...

UPDIKE: What about oral sex, you're wondering.

GROSS: I'm wondering just if you have any thoughts about oral sex in that context? How you used the act in your first "Rabbit" book, and how people are reacting to the act now?

UPDIKE: Yeah, my putting an act of oral sex into a would-be mainstream novel was, believe it or not, quite daring in 1960. It became less daring rather rapidly. But it was in there as a central moment in the development of the adventures of the characters. And, oh, gee, my high school experience -- it was talked about -- oral sex -- talked about much more than it was committed, I daresay.

But at any rate it was something that was taboo in print -- in most print. And so in my modest and innocent way, I was a pioneer, and have followed the career of oral sex in literature with some interest since. In fact, there's a little essay I wrote in "Picked Up Pieces" about a sentence in "Samler's Planet" -- "Mr. Samler's Planet" by Saul Bellow -- in which the magazine version is a little bolder talking about oral sex than the novel is.

But now it's become a fairly standard fare. You have females writing about giving oral sex to men, as well as men writing about receiving it. In "Couples," in my novel "Couples," it was meant to be one of the bonds that Pete and Foxy, the illicit couple, had between them; is that they're both happy to give it and receive it. And there's something about our amorous nature, is oral sex is less animal than genital copulation.

It's the use of the thinking end of us, in a way, to explore the unthinking end. So, yeah, I have feelings about it. On the other hand, now that it's become so -- such a feature on late-night comedy shows and everything, and it's so part of the news, I must say even I feel a little squeamish.

There's a melancholy -- there's a poignance in the descriptions in the Starr Report, which I've seen paraphrased in newspapers, about "he did this" and "she did that," and exactly what they did; and like all such descriptions, it acquires the melancholy of the purely physical.

I mean, the president of United States with all the power in the world was reduced to the kind of contact that adolescents in high school corridors have to be satisfied with. And the whole thing made me embarrassed and sad, and I kind of wished it weren't in print. But, anyway, my own fictional descriptions of the thing have been a serious attempt to explore our sexual natures and why oral sex is important to many of us.

GROSS: You know so much has hinged on what is the definition of sex, and is oral sex sex? Had you had characters in your novels who have had oral sex thinking that it wasn't as -- as serious in terms of betraying their marriage? You know, had oral sex outside of marriage and felt that it wasn't as serious a betrayal as if they had had intercourse?

UPDIKE: No, I must say that it never occurred to me or my characters that it was somehow more innocent than genital sex, or less sex than genital sex. I think, because it does involve the head, I think it's rather more intimate -- more intimate; less brutish; more potentially meaningful. And, no, I don't buy that -- if Bill Clinton had that in mind when he was telling us he didn't have an affair with Monica Lewinsky, I think it was mighty intricate thinking.

GROSS: Well, you have a new editor at your home base of many years, the "New Yorker." Any thoughts on David Remnick as editor of the magazine?

UPDIKE: I admire him as a writer, of course, and like him as a person and think that the morale on the staff, insofar as I can detect, it is very upbeat; very intelligent, able young man. I'm just surprised that he wants to take on such a potentially -- well, such a really big job as editing the "New Yorker."

It used to be thought that was all a man could do; certainly the way William Shawn (ph) did it was sort of morning-to-midnight task. And I admire his willingness to take it on. And it's always nice to have an editor who has been on the writing side of things, I believe.

GROSS: Well, John Updike, one small quick question for you. The pages of your new Bech book are kind of gold-edged on the top of the page. Did you notice that? I was wondering if you were in on that at all? I haven't seen that a long time in a book.

UPDIKE: It's what's called in the trade a "topstain." A topstain used to be a common feature of books, where they spray some color -- it needn't be gold, it can be red, blue, green. I've had them all. And an early feature of my books at Knopf was that the topstain, then more ordinary, was done.

I've actually been to a printing house and seen it done. You have a stack of books, and some poor devil stands there all day long with a spray can, spraying this one edge of the stacks of signatures. And that gives you the topstain. It's not an effect I'm wild about. I wouldn't stop writing if they stopped giving me the topstain. But they see me as a topstain kind of guy, and so that's why it's there.

GROSS: John Updike, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.

UPDIKE: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: John Updike's new novel about his literary alter ego, Henry Bech, is called "Bech at Bay."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: John Updike
High: Novelist John Updike. His newest book features Henry Bech, the moderately well-known Jewish-American writer who was the hero of Updike's previous novels, "Bech: A Book," and "Bech is Back." His newest book is "Bech at Bay."
Spec: John Updike; Literature; Art; "Bech at Bay

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Updike: Bech for More

Date: OCTOBER 29, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102902NP.217
Head: Jimmy Carter
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:36

TERRY GROSS, HOST: President Jimmy Carter was 56 when he left the White House in 1981; old enough to qualify for membership in the American Association of Retired Persons, but hardly ready to retire. He has since become a successful author and professor. He and his wife Rosalynn created the Carter Center to promote democracy and protect human rights. And he's flown around world helping to mediate in civil wars and international disputes.

Now that he is in his 70s, Carter reflects on getting older in his new book, "The Virtues of Aging." After his presidency, he and Rosalynn returned home to Plains, Georgia, and faced something many retired couples face: more time home together, perhaps too much time.

The Carters learned they needed to give each other a lot of private space, to keep separate, except for times that they'd scheduled to be together. I asked them how they first realized that too much time together was the source of tension.

JAMES E. CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, it was after I had left the White House that we found that we would be confronting each other in the same house all day long, and not have a job outside; although we do it a lot of things now that we didn't anticipate then.

Also, when I lost election in 1980, I discovered to my horror that a very successful business that I had put into a blind trust when I went to the White House was now $1 million in debt. We had moved back to Plains, Georgia, a town that had a population of 600. Our last child was leaving home. We didn't have a job. We didn't know what in the world we were going to do.

And so Rosie and I have evolved a lifestyle over -- after some difficulty, I may admit -- in adjusting to each other, so that we respect each other's privacy.

We know now, after a number of years, what times a day we get together. But during the work periods, where we're writing a book, for instance, books -- that's how we make our living now, writing books -- we respect each other's privacy, and we don't encroach on it.

GROSS: You write a little bit about reconciling differences within your relationship with Rosalynn, and you say that, you know, your families were so different by temperament. Her family would always get together with these big reunions and just sit around the table and talk, talk, talk. And in your family, there were never reunions like that. And when you did sit around a table, if people did talk it had to be about important issues.

Is it one of the reasons why your family didn't get together for big reunions all the time is that your grandfather and great-grandfather were killed in arguments? So these big reunions were a little bit dangerous. And I started wondering, what were the arguments that they were killed over?

CARTER: Well, my great-grandfather was killed, according to a newspaper article at the time, in a dispute with his partner over the proceeds of a Flying Jenny, which was a merry-go-round that they had built together and they leased out to children. And they got in an argument, and my grandfather was killed -- my great-grandfather.

GROSS: Was he shot or knifed?

CARTER: He died as a result of knife wounds. And then my grandfather had a thread case stolen from the front of his little store. And he was told who had stolen the thread case.

It was a man named Wills Toliver (ph). And my grandfather went to get the thread case, and Wills Toliver called my grandfather a liar. And they fought each other with their fists for awhile. And then my grandfather left to go back to his store and Toliver went into his place and got a pistol and shot my father -- grandfather in the back and killed him.

So my father died a natural death, I might add. And I very rarely get into arguments. But one of the key reasons that our meal discussions have always been so intense is that my mother ordained when I was a child that all of us could read at the table.

And she did. She was an avid reader. And so almost by default any discussion that we had with each other had to be more interesting than what we were reading. And this kind of limited the discussions to things that were of controversy or important to us. And that's just the way we lived.

In fact, Amy was severely criticized when she went to her first state dinner at the White House and took a book with her. And while I think Marshall Tito was making his toast, which lasted a long time, Amy was reading a book. And the next day "The Washington Post" had some critical comments about anyone who would read at the table was not very polite.

But this has been the aspect of my family -- my grand -- my father had first cousins who lived 10 miles from us whom I never met. But Rosalynn knew all of her first, second, third, and forth cousins who lived within 50 miles who came to family reunion every year at the same Sunday in July and October.

GROSS: Were you ever afraid when you're running for office -- whether it was local office or president -- that these stories about the murders of the two men in your family would become public and would somehow be used against you to tarnish your character?

CARTER: You know, the most complete genealogy that has ever been done about me was done by the "National Enquirer"...


... who got their records from the Mormon Church records, and also hired the seven most outstanding genealogists in the nation to do studies of different aspects of my family's life.

And they published almost an entire edition of their newspaper -- late in 1977, I think it was. But it's a treasure house of actual reports from different courthouses and from records of marriage licenses and deeds of sale of property, and wills that go all the way back to about 1640, when my family first came over to Virginia.

So, strangely enough, the "National Enquirer" has done the most reporting. And they were the ones who really emphasized and proved by courthouse records and newspapers that my great-grandfather and my grandfather were, indeed, killed.

GROSS: Jimmy Carter is my guest. His new book is called "The Virtues of Aging."

You say one thing we must do nowadays is prepare for long, drawn out illnesses near the end of life, now that there's be medical technology to sustain us through long, chronic illnesses. I wondering if you have any thoughts about living wills, or where, if anyplace, you want to draw the line if you had a debilitating chronic illness?

CARTER: Yes, as a matter of fact, I wrote about that in the book. My father, my mother, my -- both my sisters, and my brother, all died from the same illness, and that is cancer. They all smoked cigarettes, and they died, most of them, prematurely.

I've never smoked, and that's one reason I have better health, I think. But when my family members approached death, all of them, for some reason, approached it with great equanimity. My sister Ruth was a famous evangelist, Ruth Carter Stapleton.

My brother and my mother were great humorists, and they were still telling jokes and kidding back and forth with the family members around their bedside when they were approaching death in the last few hours.

My older sister Gloria was an avid biker. She had a home, you might say, for motorcyclists who were on their way down to Daytona to race. And they would spend two or three days with Gloria while she fed them and took care of them and took care of their leather jackets and so forth. When Gloria was on her death bed in the hospital -- we all knew she was going to die with pancreatic cancer -- she had two -- the bikers moved into Plains. And two motorcycles were at Gloria's hospital room door 24 hours a day.

And when Gloria finally died, her funeral procession was a hearse, and in front of the hearse were 37 Harley-Davidson motorcycles. And carved on Gloria's tombstone in Plains is, "She rides in Harley heaven."

So you can see that death in our family has not been a sordid, morbid, psychologically-wrenching experience. We all know we're going to pass on sometime, and we try to approach it in a reasonable way.

And to get back finally to your question, Rosie and I both have living wills. We want to pass away the same way my family members have, without tubes and without an artificial extension of our life that's very costly. So we have ordained already, legally, that we die natural deaths.

GROSS: You say that one of the most interesting and gratifying responsibilities at your age is to decide what to do with accumulated wealth and possessions. And you and Rosalynn are planning to leave a substantial portion of your estate to the Carter Center, and I'm wondering how you both decided what's the right thing to do, you know, by your country and by your children?

You know, how much to give to the Carter Center, and how much to leave for your children? I think, you know, for people who are lucky enough to be in that position, that's a difficult question.

CARTER: Well, I think almost everyone is in that position to some degree. You know, we might only have a small bank account or we might only have a house and a lot -- but this is something that we face after reaching, you might say, retirement age; and we had not considered before.

But in my book, I give some simple advice on what everybody should do. One fact that we can't avoid is that we have -- all of us in the United States have a major heir, the same one, and that's the U.S. government. If we don't plan our estate, then a major portion of it, maybe sometimes all of it, will go to the U.S. government instead of the people about whom we care, or the projects or the entities about which we are concerned.

So we finally agreed that we would -- Rosie and I did -- that we would have all our children come down home for one Thanksgiving weekend, for instance. And we discussed with them very frankly everything that we owned.

And we took them around and showed them the boundary lines of our land. We discussed with them what do you want us to leave to you? Would you rather us skip you with some of our estate and give it directly to your children, that is, mine and Rosalynn's grandchildren?

Rosie and I have decided with counsel from estate planners how much of our estate to leave to the Carter Center. The point is, that no matter who we are, we ought to make some plans about what kind of legacy we want.

GROSS: My guest is former President Jimmy Carter. He has a new book called "The Virtues of Aging." We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Jimmy Carter is my guest. His new book is called "The Virtues of Aging."

I want to remind you of something that I know you haven't forgotten, which is that when you mentioned to "Playboy" having once had lust in your heart, you fell 15 points in the approval ratings after that. So I'm wondering what your reaction has been to what the polls have to say about President Clinton, since the Starr Report came out documenting, you know, saying that he had oral sex in the White House?

CARTER: Well, I made the serious mistake in the campaign of 1976 against Gerald Ford of almost losing the election. I dropped from 18 points ahead; 15 points in the public opinion polls within a week because of that "Playboy" interview.

All I did was to quote one verse in the Sermon on the Mount about not being condemnatory toward other people if someone has committed adultery, that someone who's looked with lust on a woman or man shouldn't be criticized.

And "Playboy" asked me if I had ever look with lust on a woman, other than Rosalynn. And I said "yes." That's all it was. But it turned out to be a catastrophic -- almost a catastrophic political mistake. Well, times have changed, obviously, over a period of 20 years. And I don't have any feeling of resentment or persecution, because the public looks with a different attitude toward the allegations against President Clinton.

We have a different reaction, I guess, between President Ford and me. We were very close friends, and we had discussed these revelations. And it's a little bit of a special problem for someone who has lived in the White House; who revered the Oval Office and the White House almost like a religious place, where Abraham Lincoln has lived, and Franklin Roosevelt has lived, and Woodrow Wilson has lived, and Harry Truman has lived and served our country.

So there's a personal aspect of it that causes me some concern. My hope now is that this investigation and hearings in the House can be expedited as rapidly as possible and get it overwith. I think it's very likely that a highly-charged Republican House of Representatives -- if they still have majority after the elections next Tuesday -- will see that it's to their advantage and to the nation's advantage to end the ordeal.

I do not think there's any chance in the world that the Senate would vote to remove President Clinton from office. There's certainly no chance that he's going to resign from office. So President Clinton will finish his term, and there'll be some aftermath of the charges and allegations against him, I think, maybe in history. But I just hope it will soon be over.

GROSS: So you're hoping that the Congress will have some kind of deal that they can put together to just end it?

CARTER: Yes, I think that's going to come. The Senate is not going to ignore the charges -- if it gets to the Senate. And I think there's a chance it will. I think there will be some negotiated agreement between the Congress and the White House, you know, provided there are no other revelations made, or provided there are no other surprises in store. And I don't think there will be.

GROSS: If you could write the scenario yourself, would you want to see President Clinton resign or stick it out in office?

CARTER: Well, I think it's inevitable that he'll stick it out in office, and that's what I would prefer, of course.

GROSS: If President Clinton did have sex in the White House with Monica Lewinsky, how serious is that, do you think?

CARTER: That in itself is not serious at all, as far as legal aspects are concerned; or as far as his performance of his duties are performed. And if you notice, none of the allegations that are now being considered by Chairman Hyde and the House Judiciary Committee have anything to do with sex. They involve not telling the truth, and they involve possible abuses of power and so forth.

So, legally, I think the -- the sexual acts, if they did occur, don't have any impact on his performance or duty or on the legalities of the impeachment hearings.

GROSS: What about the weight of lying about consensual sex? How much weight do you think that should have? Should it have the same weight, as say, lying about Watergate or Iran-Contra?

CARTER: There is a more serious nature of lying about anything to the American public, and to a grand jury by someone who is sworn to enforce the laws of our nation, than to lie to one's own family members about whether one did or did not violate marriage laws. So, obviously, it's more serious to have lied to one's cabinet, to the American people, and to the grand jury -- if these allegations are proven to be true -- than just to try to protect the reputation of one's lover or to protect the sensitivities of one's wife.

But I'm not the one to make a judgment. And I'm answering these questions with some degree of reluctance, as you may have noticed.

GROSS: I noticed. Is it hard for a president -- a former president to pass judgment on a president?

CARTER: Well, it is, because I see -- and certainly President Bush and President Ford would see -- the diverse nature of people who've served in the White House. We're all different, just like news reporters are all different from each other; and farmers are all different from each other; and lawyers are all different from each other; so presidents are different.

We do different things after we leave the White House. We set different standards of performance for ourselves. We set different priorities for our nation. We relate to the Congress and to the Supreme Court in different fashions.

But we're all bound by the same laws. We all have taken exactly the same oath of office, to uphold the integrity of our office, to carry out and enforce the laws of our nation as interpreted by the Supreme Court. So we're all bound by the same rules, but we respond to them in office and after we leave office in different ways. And I think that's inevitable.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CARTER: I've really enjoyed it, thank you. You had some good questions.

GROSS: Jimmy Carter's new book is called "The Virtues of Aging."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jimmy Carter
High: Former President Jimmy Carter. He's written 13 books since leaving office. His latest is "The Virtues of Aging." In his retirement, Carter founded The Carter Center to address issues of public policy nationally and internationally; and launched the Atlanta Project, a community-wide effort to attack the social problems associated with poverty.
Spec: Jimmy Carter; Human Rights; World Affairs; Politics

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Jimmy Carter
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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