Skip to main content

Journalist and author Walter Isaacson

He has written the new biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Reviewer Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writes of the book, "both an absorbing narrative biography and an acute assessment of the man and his impact on his time and on posterity." Isaacson is also the author of a biography of Kissinger, is president of the Aspen Institute, and was managing editor of Time magazine.

33:04

Other segments from the episode on July 3, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 3, 2003: Interview with Walter Isaacson; Interview with Ted Conover.

Transcript

DATE July 3, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Walter Isaacson discusses his new book about the life
of Benjamin Franklin
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As much as Americans honor our Founding Fathers, particularly around July
Fourth, they're often portrayed in ways that don't capture the drama of their
lives or the ways in which they shaped our country. My guest, Walter
Isaacson, has written a new biography of Benjamin Franklin that explains why
Franklin may be the most accomplished American of his age and the most
influential in inventing the type of society America would become. Franklin
was the only person to sign all four of America's founding papers: the
Declaration of Independence, the treaty with France, the peace accord with
Britain and the Constitution. Walter Isaacson is former managing editor of
Time magazine and former chairman of CNN. This year, he left CNN to become
the president of the Aspen Institute.

Your previous book was a biography of Henry Kissinger. Why go from a
contemporary figure to one of the Founding Fathers?

Mr. WALTER ISAACSON (Author, "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life"): I got
very interested in Henry Kissinger's view of realism in American foreign
policy and was looking back to the historical roots. And you have to go back
to Ben Franklin, who played this absolutely brilliant balance-of-power game
between France, Netherlands and Spain during the Revolution, and people hadn't
really written about that, and that was the first thing that got me interested
in Franklin. And to be honest with you, Terry, after writing about a live
character like Henry Kissinger, I really wanted to do somebody who had been
dead for 200 years after that.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. ISAACSON: Well, there's sort of the agony of taking on somebody, writing
a critical biography of somebody who's still alive and having to deal with
them afterwards. It was sort of a relief to go back and not have the person
calling me up afterwards.

GROSS: Oh, did Kissinger threaten to sue you or anything?

Mr. ISAACSON: Oh, I think there were a lot of phone calls and letters.

GROSS: Right. OK. Well, I should warn you, if you come to Philadelphia,
there's somebody dressed like Ben Franklin who walks around the Colonial part
of the city a lot, so you better be careful.

Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah, Ralph Archbold. I've run into Ralph Archbold. He's a
great Franklin impersonator.

GROSS: All right. Is there a certain textbook image of Ben Franklin that
you'd like to rescue him from?

Mr. ISAACSON: You got to rescue him from that doddering old sage flying the
kite in the rain and spouting maxims like `A penny saved is a penny earned' or
`Early to bed, early to rise.' First of all, he never was an early-to-bed or
early-to-rise type of guy, and he portrayed himself in that fashion sort of as
an exemplar to young tradesmen. But he was a much more complicated, nuanced
man and not exactly the person he portrayed himself to be in the
autobiography.

GROSS: Why don't we give an example of that, and this is starting with part
of his personal story. And this is the fact that--you didn't learn this part
in school--he had a child out of wedlock before he was married with a woman
who was probably--What?--a prostitute.

Mr. ISAACSON: `A woman of low repute' is the way it's described in some of
the letters, though he took responsibility for the son, William, and he raised
the son, educated him and very much in love with the son. And they had a very
intense and complicated relationship, William Franklin and his father Benjamin
Franklin, and William Franklin eventually became very aristocratic and stuck
as a Loyalist during the Revolution as the royal governor of New Jersey. And
so they had this huge political falling out in 1775 just as the Revolution was
beginning.

GROSS: Well, he raised this son, William, with the woman that he married,
Deborah. Let's talk about his marriage just a little bit. You know, you
write that to be a well-respected man in the Colonies you had to be married,
and that Franklin knew he had a large sexual appetite which he had to control,
also. So he wanted a wife, but he wanted a wife that would bring him a dowry
big enough to pay off his debt on his printing press. Why couldn't he achieve
that goal?

Mr. ISAACSON: Well, he almost married somebody who was going to bring him the
dowry, but it didn't work out. And printers were not an exalted profession
back then, and Franklin realized he was being a little too greedy to seek a
dowry. And instead, he decided he wanted a practical, frugal, industrious
partner as his wife, and that's what Deborah turned out to be. And as he
later said, and what passes for deep romantic affection on his part, `That
meant all the world to me more than any other dowry, somebody who would just
be my partner and would be industrious and work side by side with me in the
shop.'

GROSS: Now they had a common law marriage because they couldn't really get
married. Would you explain why?

Mr. ISAACSON: Well, Deborah had been married before. What happened was she
and Ben Franklin got to know each other when they were both very young, when
Franklin was a 16-year-old, 17-year-old runaway arriving in Philadelphia, but
then Franklin goes off and lives in England and Deborah marries somebody else,
a potter. And then the potter disappears; he just runs away. And they were
worried about the bigamy laws because they didn't know whether this first
husband would ever reappear. So they just entered into a common law union to
avoid the bigamy laws.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Which would have been punishable by 39 lashes and life
imprisonment.

Mr. ISAACSON: Oh, yes. And also, he would have had to assume all the debts
of the first husband, which I think worried him more than the 39 lashes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit more about Ben Franklin's family. As we
mentioned earlier, his son was illegitimate, born out of marriage, but he and
his wife raised the son. And no one seems to know who the mother was. You
say, well, it's one of history's delicious mysteries. So they were close when
William, the son, was growing up, but then they were on the opposite sides of
the Revolution. Franklin supported it, and his son remained a royalist. Can
you explain that difference?

Mr. ISAACSON: You know, it was a great human tragedy, one that reflected the
tragedy of the politics of the time. Benjamin Franklin loved his illegitimate
son, William, raised the kid, educated him. And then William becomes more and
more aristocratic, a little bit more pretentious, starts getting a little bit
too much on a high horse and putting on airs. And that's why Franklin writes
the autobiography. It's a letter to his son, at least initially. It says,
`Remember we're you're coming from.' you know. `We were poor. We're a poor
family. We're struggling tradespeople. Don't go putting on airs.'

But it doesn't work. William Franklin remains loyal to the crown, the royal
governor of New Jersey. And in 1775, there's a great showdown between
Benjamin Franklin and William Franklin over the Revolution and they split.
And Benjamin Franklin becomes an American patriot and rebel and William
Franklin remains a Loyalist to the crown and is finally arrested by George
Washington's troops on Benjamin Franklin's orders and finally exiled to
England.

What makes this soap opera even more wrenching is that William Franklin had
his own illegitimate son, a kid named Temple. And Temple was a beautiful
little child whom Benjamin Franklin helped raise. Benjamin Franklin provided
for the education and helped raise his grandson, Temple. And when they all
get together in America in 1775 and 1776, there's a struggle for the heart and
the soul of this beautiful kid, Temple Franklin, between Benjamin Franklin,
who wants Temple to become an American patriot, and William Franklin, the
kid's father, who's trying to keep him loyal to the crown. And Temple
Franklin ends up siding with his grandfather and becoming a rebel. And
Benjamin Franklin and his grandson, Temple, sail off to France together
without even telling William Franklin that they were going off to France. And
it was just this heart-wrenching struggle that's very personal, but it mirrors
the great political struggle of the time.

GROSS: Did Ben Franklin and his son, William, ever reconcile emotionally or
politically?

Mr. ISAACSON: Right at the end of the Revolution. After Benjamin Franklin
negotiates the peace treaty that settles the Revolution and restores peace
with England, William Franklin, who's then living in exile in England, writes
Benjamin Franklin and says, `Let's reconcile.' And it's a tortured, anguished
letter in response from Benjamin Franklin, saying that he would love to get
together, that nothing has hurt him more. But then it goes into a screed
against William for having opposed him during the Revolution, and it puts off
for a while any reconciliation.

But finally, they meet in Southampton in England while Franklin is about to
sail back from Europe to America at the end of the Revolution, and they meet
only for one evening. And it's Benjamin Franklin, William Franklin and the
grandson, Temple Franklin, all at the Star Inn in Southampton, England, and
all they do is negotiate over property and they both basically take all the
American properties and lands from William Franklin and transfer them to the
grandson, Temple, and then they never speak again and never write again.

GROSS: So the answer would be I guess they never reconciled.

Mr. ISAACSON: No, it was sad. It was sad.

GROSS: The reason why I'm particularly interested in hearing all of this is
that the Founding Fathers are always held up to us as, like, these paragons of
virtue. You know, there's so much of an emphasis in some circles on family
values and what that means and--you know. And so here you have, like, one of
the Founding Fathers who has a son out of wedlock. His son, Franklin's son,
also has a child out of wedlock. Franklin has to have a common law marriage
because his wife's first husband ran off with a slave. I mean, so--you know,
when you look at, like, what the country is built on and everything, it's not
these perfect family values.

Mr. ISAACSON: You know, there were a lot of--yeah. Well, there were a lot of
illegitimate children back amongst the Founding Fathers in that generation.
But you know, Franklin had a very solid, moral life and I do think there were
underlying values that we sometimes trivialize as family values, but the
values of loyalty and honesty and industriousness. He believed in that
throughout his life, and he took responsibility for everything he did. And in
some ways, those are bourgeois, Market Street, middle-class values, but I
think in Franklin, you actually see why they're so important to our country.

GROSS: My guest is Walter Isaacson, author of the new book "Benjamin
Franklin: An American Life." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Walter Isaacson. We're discussing his new biography of
Ben Franklin.

As the former head of CNN, former managing editor of Time, what did you find
most interesting about Ben Franklin's philosophy of being the owner of a
printing press, like, what it meant to own a printing press?

Mr. ISAACSON: You know, he was a great media entrepreneur. He not only owns
a printing press, but he creates all this great content. He starts a
newspaper, he starts Poor Paul Richard's Almanac and then he franchises it so
that all of his friends and former apprentices and relatives across the
Colonies--he franchises the print shops. And then he creates the US Postal
Service so he can have this wonderful distribution system and even uses the
distribution system to help advantage his content and his own franchises. So
in that sense, he was like one of the modern media entrepreneurs of today.
But he believed very much in an open system. He believed in allowing as much
competition as possible, as many voices as possible in the media and he hated
the notion of media conglomeration or media domination.

GROSS: He also believed in publishing many different points of view. He
said, `There'd be very little printed if publishers produced only things that
offended nobody.'

Mr. ISAACSON: Oh, that's a wonderful editorial when he first takes over The
Pennsylvania Gazette. It's called "Apology for Printers." And he was
criticized for something he printed and, as you say--he ends by saying, `And
if truth and falsity each have fair play, truth will always win out over the
falsities.' And that's the important thing, you know, that helped this
country was a belief in robust discourse, many different voices of opinion.

And Franklin, who, as you said, led this slightly flawed personal life--there
were more articles at the time whenever he ran for election that would make
modern-day stories about Bill Clinton or anything else seem pale by
comparison. But Franklin loved it all. He was very honest about his life and
he loved a raucous press, and he didn't mind--he never threatened to sue for
libel or anything.

GROSS: What do you consider the most important thing he ever published?

Mr. ISAACSON: I think the most important types of writing he did were those
in favor of religious tolerance. And, for example, he did an appeal for a new
hall they wanted to build in Philadelphia. And he said, `Even if the mufti of
Constantinople were to send somebody here to preach Muhammad to us, we ought
to give him a pulpit.' And over and over again, he wrote things that said we
have to be tolerant of all religions. And I think that it's something we
forget as being the core value of America. And as we go into the 21st
century, we're facing religion fanaticism around the world, but even religious
fundamentalism threatens our liberties at home. I think Franklin's notion of
tolerance is a thing I most want people to take from this book.

GROSS: Ben Franklin went to London to live. He lived there for 11 years
starting in 1765. He went as a representative from the Pennsylvania
Legislature. Was he a royalist then?

Mr. ISAACSON: He believed in the British Empire. He called the British
Empire a fine noble China vase, and he said, `Once it gets shattered, we'll
never be able to put it back together.' So he fought long and hard for the
type of compromises and the type of accommodation that would allow the empire
to stay together. And he very much was a believer in the king. He wanted to
turn Pennsylvania from being a proprietary colony into a royal colony, but he
did not want to overthrow the British Empire or to have an American Revolution
until much later.

GROSS: What's the meaning of a proprietary colony?

Mr. ISAACSON: It just meant that the Penn family were sort of the owners of
the colony. So instead of being governed directly by the king, it was
governed by these proprietors who owned it, the Penn family.

GROSS: So what changed Franklin's mind about being a royalist? What turned
him into a supporter of the American Revolution?

Mr. ISAACSON: It was pretty late, around 1774, 1775. He finally gives up all
hope that he can't hold things together. He's humiliated by the British
ministers and by the king's ministers, the prime minister in London as he
tries to argue that they should not subject the Colonies to tyranny and to
taxation without representation. And so finally, he sails back from London in
early 1775, gets back to America and he declares his break with Britain and
becomes a patriot and a rebel.

GROSS: What do you think was his greatest contribution to organizing for the
Revolutionary War?

Mr. ISAACSON: Well, he was the one who came up first with the concept of
federalism, really, which is taking all the different Colonies, 13 Colonies,
and saying that they'd each remain Colonies or states, but they'd be part of a
larger whole, that you'd had a federal government as well as state
governments. And as early as 1754, in the Albany Plan, it was called, because
they want to Albany, New York, to discuss it, he came up with a plan for
uniting the Colonies. And then even in 1776, as they're writing the
Declaration of Independence, he comes up with the first Articles of
Confederation, where you share power between the states and the federal
government.

GROSS: He went to France to get aid for the Revolutionary War, financial aid.
What made him so good at that task?

Mr. ISAACSON: He was very seductive. He goes to France and even though he's
a city person--he's lived in Philadelphia and in London his whole life--he
knows that the French romanticized the frontier. So he rides into the streets
of Paris wearing a fur cap and a leather frock and pretending to be this sage
and philosopher from the frontier and from the backwoods and stuff. And he
never wears the powdered wigs and he has all these portraits of himself
painted. He really understood the value of celebrity. He also (technical
difficulties) nobility and the idealism of the American (technical
difficulties) Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence. And he
had (technical difficulties) printed in France where he knew it would appeal
to the sentiments of the people.

In fact, he made a remarkable edit to the Declaration of Independence, 'cause
when Jefferson wrote it, Jefferson had written, `We hold these truths to be
sacred and undeniable.' And Franklin changed that to, `We hold these truths
to be self-evident.' He said, `It's an assertion of reason, not of religion
of where we get our rights as a people.' And that fit very much in with what
Voltaire and Rousseau and the French philosophes were doing, and so he
reprints all of these letters and the Declaration of Independence so he can
appeal to the hearts and the minds of the French people.

GROSS: Yeah. When Franklin changed the word `sacred' for `self-evident'--`We
hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal'--what did
self-evident literally mean to him?

Mr. ISAACSON: You know, he was a friend and a student of David Hume, who may
have been the greatest of the British philosophers of the time. And there
were certain truths that Hume said were not even based on evidence, which like
Philadelphia being smaller than London--that's just based on evidence--but
certain truths are there just by virtue of reason, almost by virtue of
definition; like all bachelors are unmarried or all triangles have 180 degrees
or something. And he said, `Those are just intuitive, natural truths that you
just have to look into the nature of the world to know that they're true.'
And that's what he meant, that all people being created equal in terms of
their political rights.

GROSS: Did he get any argument from Jefferson about that change, do you know?

Mr. ISAACSON: No, although there was a wonderful story, 'cause Jefferson was
very kind to Franklin. He just adored Franklin, and he wrote him these nice
letters thanking him for the edits and saying, you know, he had valued all the
wisdom. So then they bring the document to Congress itself and they're
debating it on the floor of Congress. And, you know, Franklin had made these
few small word changes which Jefferson liked. Well, Congress started tearing
the document apart, throwing out whole paragraphs, rewriting parts of it, and
Jefferson got more and more depressed.

And so Benjamin Franklin told him the tale the first time that he had had a
customer and he wanted a sign that said, you know, `John Smith Makes and Sells
Hats for Ready Cash on Market Street,' and then all of his friends added to
the sign. And at first, they took out `Makes and Sells'--`Well, you don't
need that. You can just say, "He Sells Hats." And then you don't need "Ready
Cash."' And by the end of it, everybody had taken out different parts of it
and it just said `John Smith' with a little hat next to it is all the sign
said. And Franklin said, `That's why I always make it a habit never to be
involved in writing documents that are going to be debated by a public body
because they're going to tear it apart.' And Jefferson found it so amusing
that he calmed down and didn't get upset at the way they were tearing apart
his Declaration of Independence.

GROSS: Walter Isaacson is the author of the new book "Benjamin Franklin: An
American Life." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, Benjamin Franklin the abolitionist. We continue our
conversation with Walter Isaacson.

Also, journalist Ted Conover describes his visit to the prison on Guantanamo
Bay, where hundreds of suspected terrorists are being held. Conover spent a
year as a prison guard in Sing Sing, and wrote about in his book "New Jack."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Walter Isaacson. He's
written a new biography of Benjamin Franklin. He's also the author of a
biography of Henry Kissinger. Isaacson is the former managing editor of Time
magazine, former chair of CNN and is now the president of the public policy
think tank the Aspen Institute.

It's always interesting to see what each of the Founding Fathers believed
about slavery and whether they owned slaves or not. What were Franklin's
thoughts about slavery before the Revolution?

Mr. ISAACSON: You know, when you deal with any of the founders, you have to
wrestle with the institution of slavery, and Franklin himself wrestled with
that institution. He owned a couple of slaves off and on, household slaves,
throughout his life, and then he freed them. He printed some of the first
anti-slavery tracts as a young newspaperman, but he also carried ads in his
newspaper for the buying and selling of slaves.

As his life went on he became more and more anti-slavery, first against the
slave trade and then for the freeing of all slaves. And it was the one sort
of blot on a record spent fighting tyranny over all forms of oppression to
man. And so at the end of his life he takes on the job as the president of
this abolition society, the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, and
dedicates the last few years in his life to fighting slavery and to try to
remove that blot from his record.

GROSS: Early in his life, when he was skeptical of slavery--he wasn't an
abolitionist at this point, but he thought it wasn't necessarily a good
thing--he opposed it because he thought it wasn't healthy for the white
owners, you know, that it would make the children lazy and shun work. What
were his reasons when he became an abolitionist for opposing slavery?

Mr. ISAACSON: You're right. He first starts off by saying economically it
makes no sense. Then he says it makes no sense even for the owners because it
makes us less industrious. And then finally, he says it is just morally
abhorrent to tyrannize another individual. And he was a believer in the end
of slavery because of the very pure reason that all people are created equal
and nobody should be denied rights by race, religion or color. And that was a
petition that he submitted to Congress near the end of his life. That's what
he fought for. And then some Southern congressman from Georgia got up and
made a speech on the floor of the House ridiculing him for saying that. And
Franklin's last great parody that he writes--I mean, as a 16-year-old he had
written under the pen name of Silence Dogood. Now, in his 80s, on his
deathbed, he writes another pseudonymous piece for the newspaper in which he
parodies this congressman by pretending to have discovered the speech a
hundred years ago delivered by somebody in Africa who was defending the
enslavement of white Christians and why it made sense to enslave white
Christians. And it's an exact parody of the Southern congressman's speech.
And there's Franklin, on his deathbed, trying to attack the institution of
slavery with his pen.

GROSS: Did Franklin have arguments with other founding fathers about slavery?

Mr. ISAACSON: No. He was not an argumentative sort. And he probably should
have had arguments on slavery, but during the constitutional convention, after
a while it became unspoken. People knew if they got into an argument about
slavery they would never end up with a constitution for a new country, they
would split apart. And Franklin thought of raising the issue of slavery and
forcing a debate and an argument on slavery, but instead, he waits until after
they finish the Constitution, and then he introduces it at the first Congress.

GROSS: We haven't talked about Ben Franklin's scientific contributions. Why
don't you just list some of the inventions and scientific contributions that
he's responsible for.

Mr. ISAACSON: He was the most important scientist of his time for one reason,
which is he was the one who first figured out the nature of the flow of
electricity, that electricity was a flow. He invented the terms `positive and
negative,' or `plus and minus,' the term `battery' and `condenser.' And then
he extended that to understand that lightning was a form of electrical
discharge and that you could sap the charges from a cloud through a lightning
rod.

And up until then, lightning had been one of the most devastating scourges
facing the Earth. I mean, they used to ring church bells to try to ward off
lightning, and in one year 300 bell ringers got killed because of it.
Franklin finally said, `You know, we ought to try some different way of doing
this.' And he comes up with his lightning rod experiments. So that's the
most important thing he does is the lightning rod and discovering the nature
of lightning.

Also, there's hundreds of useful devices. Like in his politics, he was very
practical and pragmatic in his science. He invents the bifocals. He invents
the Franklin stove, so you have clean-burning stoves. He invents fins so that
you can swim with and odometers and many other things like that that make life
a little bit easier.

GROSS: What did the other Founding Fathers think of Ben Franklin? You know,
'cause here he is, among other things, doing all this like tinkering and
inventing and science in addition to negotiating treaties and editing the
Declaration of Independence. I mean, he has all these different lives.

Mr. ISAACSON: Well, you know, I guess the most interesting relationship is
the one with John Adams. And, you know, people say, well, Adams hated him and
stuff. No, no, no, it's far more complicated. There was a grudging
admiration and love-hate, especially on Adams' part, towards Franklin. And
they begin their relationship once when they were off in 1775 or so, 1776
maybe, negotiating with Lord Howell on Staten Island to see--Lord Howell had
wanted the Americans to surrender during the Revolution. And so Franklin and
Adams are sent to Staten Island to negotiate with him. Franklin had this
great theory about the contagious nature of colds, that you didn't catch cold
by getting cold; you caught cold because germs, which he turned out to be
right about. So they had to share a room on the way to Staten Island. And
Franklin keeps opening the window in the middle of winter, and Adams keeps
wanting it shut; and they have this big argument about it. And finally Adams
concedes and lets Franklin explain his entire theory of the contagious nature
of colds. And for years afterwards, both in Paris and in Philadelphia and
other places, they were sort of rivals with each other, but friendly rivals
who respected each other's patriotism.

But Adams was very prudish and Puritanical, and he thought that Franklin
was--he was sort of repelled or appalled by Franklin's lascivious ways with
the women of Paris. So that was a most amusing relationship.

GROSS: So Franklin had lascivious ways with the women of Paris?

Mr. ISAACSON: I think he would love to have had lascivious ways. I think by
that point he was pushing 80, and so he had a lot of girlfriends in Paris.
And he once played chess while Madame Brialle(ph), one of his girlfriends,
soaked in the bathtub. But, you know, maybe I'm a little too innocent or a
little too naive; I think these were flirtations more of the mind and of the
soul and of the heart than of the body.

GROSS: Are you ever amused or even annoyed by the ways in which certain
politicians and commentators invoke the names of the Founding Fathers for
whatever political agenda they're pushing at the moment?

Mr. ISAACSON: I am, which is why I wanted to write about one of the Founders.
I think that it's important to understand the Founders in all of their
complexity, not to look upon them as two-dimensional, not to look at them as
pure paragons of virtue but of really honest flesh-and-blood people who did
some extraordinary things and actually were able to cobble together a nation
that survived so well for three centuries. But you don't like the Founding
Fathers to be invoked for every new idea that comes down the pike.

GROSS: Walter Isaacson. He's the author of the new book "Benjamin Franklin:
An American Life."

Coming up, after spending a year as a prison guard at Sing Sing, journalist
Ted Conover visits the prison for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay.
This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Ted Conover discusses the detention of terrorists at
Guantanamo Bay
TERRY GROSS, host:

After September 11th, Guantanamo Bay became the site of a prison for suspected
terrorists who are being held for interrogation. There are currently about
700 detainees from 42 countries. Last month, the human rights group Amnesty
International released its annual report, which described Guantanamo as a
human rights scandal and called on the US government to release or charge
those held there. It's difficult to get access to Guantanamo and virtually
impossible to talk with the detainees. Journalist Ted Conover visited
Guantanamo and wrote about it in an article published last Sunday in The New
York Times Magazine. He says that he wanted to see what kind of community had
grown there and what it might say about America's attitude toward these
prisoners of war.

Conover is very familiar with American prisons. He spent a year as a guard at
the maximum security prison Sing Sing and wrote about the experience in his
book "Newjack." I asked him to describe the cells in the Guantanamo prison
Camp Delta.

Mr. TED CONOVER (Journalist): They have been fashioned out of those shipping
containers that you see on the backs of trucks and on the big container ships,
those elongated metal boxes. Apparently, they cut out the sides; they
replaced them with mesh. They put doors in, a window to the outside. They
put a roof overhead. The sort of squatting toilet that they say is more
customary on the other side of the world, and a bunk bed. So you end up with
quite a small cell, 6'8" wide by 8' wide. So that is smaller than any cell,
for example, in Sing Sing Prison, where I worked.

And the way that the detainees are held there is quite severe. It's stricter
than even a prisoner in the United States, say, who'd killed another prisoner
and was being punished. They still get let out every day for exercise.
That's required by law, I think, everywhere. But because Guantanamo is not US
territory and these detainees have not been designated POWs, we don't have to
treat them any particular way, I guess. And so when I was there, they were
let out twice a week for 15 minutes each in a big cage by themselves with a
soccer ball. Since then, I think the minimum has come up to three exercise
periods of 20 minutes. But that's a long time to be in a very small cage.

GROSS: You say that Camp Delta seems to be modeled on the supermax prison of
the United States, the supermax approach to solitary confinement.

Mr. CONOVER: Right.

GROSS: What's the comparison?

Mr. CONOVER: Well, you know, until 25 years ago, there weren't whole prisons
devoted to solitary confinement. There might be a part of a prison that had
just a few cells for inmates who had misbehaved, you know; who couldn't obey
the rules, who hurt the guards or hurt other prisoners. But then, even there,
you know, they're usually let out to exercise in a group. In the last 25
years, basically starting with the prison in Marion, Illinois, there's been
this model of an entire prison of people who don't come out. Often they have
their own exercise cage attached to their cell and they're let into that for a
few minutes every day. Their meals are delivered to them, and that's it. And
there's almost a thousand cells now at Guantanamo. Seven hundred are filled.
But these cells seem to be based on that model of a prison, and it's a very
restrictive model. I was told it's restrictive because these are extremely
dangerous people.

GROSS: You say that the military is bending over backwards to respect the
Muslim religious practices of the people at Camp Delta. What is the military
doing?

Mr. CONOVER: They have set up a public address system that you can hear
throughout the camp over which they broadcast a call to prayer five times a
day. They provide every detainee with a Koran, a prayer book, oil, a
kaffiyeh, the skullcap, a prayer mat, beads. When Ramadan comes around, they
change the menu. They do work hard to accommodate religious practice to a
degree. I mean, the thing you notice is that Muslims always pray together,
you know, feet touching and next to each other; and so that's impossible,
given this particular setup.

GROSS: Is the military being so careful about helping the prisoners observe
Islamic customs because they made a mistake early on? Do they feel like they
missed the boat early on in terms of religious practices?

Mr. CONOVER: I don't know. You know, I've thought a lot about this. They
also tout the health care, which they told me several times is better than the
prisoners have received in their entire lives. And they told me that, on
average, they'd each gained 13 pounds. So they are very interested in letting
the world know that the religious practice and the health care are really
good. But I think the reason is that we have not designated them POWs, so we
are not offering them a whole range of things that the Third Geneva Convention
provides for prisoners of war.

GROSS: Since the prison camps in Guantanamo are regulated neither by the
Geneva Conventions nor American prison regulations, are there any regulations
surrounding these prisons?

Mr. CONOVER: Well, we were assured several times by General Miller, who runs
the joint task force that runs this operation, that we were doing nothing down
there that Americans wouldn't be proud of. But he won't get more specific
than that, so that's not a lot to go on. And I'm afraid that some of the
first signs that we've had for seeing how it's going haven't been encouraging.
I was told by Captain Albert Shimkus, who runs the medical care at Camp Delta,
that no detainee had ever been forcibly injected. He told me about
vaccinations, and he said eventually everyone was persuaded that a vaccination
was in their best interest. They didn't have to do anything forcible, and
they never had, with injections.

Well, then a couple weeks ago, some New York Times reporters finally tracked
down some of the detainees that had been released. They were found in
Afghanistan. One of them had been one of the 20--excuse me, I think it's
almost 28 suicide attempts so far by somewhere around 20 individuals that
they've registered at Camp Delta. He said that after his second or third one,
they gave him a shot that left him unable to control his head or jaw muscles
for many days and unable to feed himself. Now maybe he's lying. Maybe he
wants to make the American military look bad because he doesn't like us to
begin with, but it was quite a specific kind of charge and a specific kind of
complaint. And, you know, it gives you pause.

GROSS: Did he say that he was given the shot against his will?

Mr. CONOVER: Yes, he did.

GROSS: In your article in The New York Times, you said that, although the
Geneva Conventions don't apply to these prisoners and these prisoners are not
being seen as prisoners of war by the United States, the Geneva Conventions
were cited to you in explaining why the press can't have access to the
prisoners.

Mr. CONOVER: Exactly. It's a little funny. I couldn't understand a good
reason why I couldn't just see a prisoner or say hello or ask a few questions.
And they cited the Geneva Conventions article which says, `The detaining power
shall not subject prisoners to insult or ridicule.' That was the reason I
couldn't see them, which struck me as a little bit odd.

GROSS: There's a special mental health unit that was recently opened in
Guantanamo. It was opened just shortly before you arrived there. Why was it
opened, and what is it doing?

Mr. CONOVER: Well, you know, last year, there were 10 suicide attempts among
the detainees. And then in just the first three months of this year, there
were 14 more, bringing the total to 24. It's now up to 28. And, you know,
the military said this wasn't a response to the spate of suicide attempts in
the first three months of the year, but it just seems a little bit unlikely.
The rate of suicides was picking up at this incredible pace, and since they
opened the mental health center, it has slowed way down. There have been just
a handful. So they're trying hard to keep this problem from growing.

The detainees they've caught up with in Afghanistan said, `Well, the problem
was how small the cells were and that we didn't know how long we'd be there.'
And this struck a chord from my time at Sing Sing. I think you can imagine
that a prisoner places a great deal of importance on the length of a sentence
or the amount of months or years until a parole hearing or, if they commit an
infraction, how many weeks are they going to be in solitary confinement. You
know, as I wrote, knowing there's a light at the end of the tunnel makes being
in the tunnel more bearable. And by not giving these prisoners any
information about how long they're there for or under what circumstances they
might be released, I think we've created quite a large amount of anxiety among
them, which leads to attempts at suicide.

Now am I a sympathizer? You know, do I think they don't deserve the worst we
can give them? I believe the military that these are bad people. We need to
deal with them, but as an American, I like to think we will deal with them in
a humane way. And I don't think slowly driving 700 people crazy is something
I want my government to be doing.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Ted Conover. We'll talk more about Guantanamo
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ted Conover. And he wrote a
recent article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine about the prison camps in
Guantanamo in which suspected terrorists and Jihadists are being held. He's
also the author of a book that was published in 2000 about his year as a
prison guard at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison north of New York City.

Well, you were a guard in the year that you worked at Sing Sing, and one of
the things that you did at Guantanamo is spend some time in the soldiers camp,
the soldiers who are guards at the prison camp for the terrorists. What are
their living conditions like?

Mr. CONOVER: Well, they're better than the prisoners, but not by a lot. They
live right next door on the same sort of barren piece of coastline that the
camp is situated on. Most of them are reservists from the mainland. They
were sent there for six months in most cases, but when I arrived, many had
just found out they'd been extended for another six months. So they don't
know how long they're going to be there, either. They come from military
police companies, either National Guard or regular military reserve. At least
half of them work law enforcement in their other lives, with a lot of those
working corrections. So a lot of them know about working in prisons and
dealing with difficult people. But several of them told me that this is a
particularly hard job because, you know, they start with a feeling that,
`Everybody in there hates my guts and would like me dead,' which is not the
typical situation if you work in a prison. You know, you can usually arrive
at a point of some joking back and forth with certain prisoners who aren't too
difficult. And you get to know them. You call each other by name, I think,
in most prisons after a while.

That doesn't describe Guantanamo. There's not a lot of sort of on-the-job,
you know, casualness. It's extremely serious, as I suppose it needs to be,
given the way it's being run. But the language barrier keeps people from
really speaking to each other. If there's a disagreement, the guards have to
call a translator to come help out. There are women guards as well as men,
just like in the States, and one of them told me, `No, things are not always
calm in there.' She said, `I've had everything thrown on me that a man could
throw,' which means body fluids. And, you know, that's typical of an American
maximum security prison, too, but at least an American maximum security
prison, the guards, you know, they work an eight-hour shift. They go home to
their families; they have another life. And people in the military work
really long hours. They wouldn't tell me exactly how many a week, but I got
the feeling 60, 70, 80 hours on the job was not unusual. And I think it takes
a toll. I think this is a very hard posting.

GROSS: You mentioned that in American prisons after a while the guards and
the prisoners, or at least some of them, call each other by name, that there's
some sense of communication. Some of the guards in Guantanamo told you that
they actually covered their own names on their uniforms. Were they afraid to
have the prisoners see their names?

Mr. CONOVER: I think so. You know, when I worked at Sing Sing, we only let
them know our last names. But at Guantanamo, they don't even want them to
know that because I think--let's say you have a distinctive last name and you
anger a person who has some political clout in a country that doesn't like us,
I think the soldiers are, you know, perhaps reasonably concerned that that
person could bear a grudge and remember you and come and get you someday.
Anyway, that's why they cover them is out of that kind of fear, that kind of
concern. When they leave the camp at night, they tear these pieces of tape
off of their names sewn onto their uniforms and put them under the bills of
their cap.

GROSS: Do the soldiers consider this a difficult posting or do any of them
consider this a good assignment?

Mr. CONOVER: There is a sense of duty to one's country and of performing a
service that a lot of these soldiers have that, say, a typical corrections
officer would not have. You know, you don't have much of a sense of mission
working in an American prison after a while. It's kind of discouraging. But
the military, you know, they do a lot to try to boost morale and keep people
feeling that this is part of an effort for our country, that this is an act of
patriotism and loyalty and there's a--when soldiers pass each other at a
checkpoint there, one will salute and say, `Honor bound,' and the other
replies, `To defend freedom.' This is an esprit de corps kind of slogan to
keep them mindful of the fact they're doing this for their country. But, you
know, it's said so fast almost, you can't even tell what people are saying. I
kept thinking it was a secret password of some sort. And it's a little
peculiar to see this slogan on the gate of a prison camp, or at least it was
to me. And I asked my first lieutenant escort if it wasn't odd to see a
slogan about freedom on the gate of a prison camp. And he said, `Doesn't seem
strange to me. Does it look strange to you?'

GROSS: Well, I guess from his point of view, I mean, it's not the freedom of
the prisoners being protected, it's the freedom of the Americans.

Mr. CONOVER: Precisely.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CONOVER: And I was told more than once, freedom ain't free, right? We
pay a price to keep our country free. And that's the way they look at it.

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

Mr. CONOVER: Thank you. Thanks very much.

GROSS: Ted Conover's article In the Land of Guantanamo was published in last
Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. I hope you enjoy the holiday weekend.
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:09

'Black Radical' Traces The Life And Legacy Of Activist William Monroe Trotter

Trotter was a Black newspaper editor in the early 20th century who advocated for civil rights by organizing mass protests. Historian Kerri Greenidge tells his story in her new book.

09:21

'Promising Young Woman' And 'Pieces Of A Woman' Examine Trauma And Revenge

Film critic Justin Chang shares reviews of two new movies to watch at home. The thriller "Promising Young Woman," starring Carey Mulligan, can be found on various on-demand platforms. And the drama "Pieces Of A Woman," starring Vanessa Kirby, is on Netflix.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue