DATE May 2, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of the
Department of Homeland Security, discusses his new book "Open
Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Clark Kent Ervin, was the Department of Homeland Security's first
inspector general. It was his job to inspect the department's programs and
see that they were effective, conduct audits and dispatch a team of criminal
investigators to look into criminal or civil violations. In his new book,
Ervin says his efforts to call attention to the gaps in our security were
derided, dismissed or ignored by the men whose job it was to close those gaps.
We contacted the Department of Homeland Security and its former head Tom Ridge
and invited them to respond to Ervin's interview. They declined.
Clark Kent Ervin served in the administration of George W. Bush when he was
governor of Texas. In 2001 Ervin joined the State Department as inspector
general. In 2003 President Bush gave Ervin a recess appointment as inspector
general of Homeland Security. His appointment was never confirmed by the
Senate. And the president declined to renominate him. Ervin left the
position after two years.
His new memoir is called "Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to
Attack." You write in your book, `Why are we deceiving ourselves?' What do you
think we're deceiving ourselves about?
Mr. CLARK KENT ERVIN: The Department of Homeland Security's leaders are
overstating how prepared we are for the next attempted terrorist attack. In
program after program, the department touts itself as being better able to
handle another terrorist attack than it in fact is. Let me give you one quick
example. In the port security area, and this is important because every
expert agrees that the likeliest way for a terrorist to sneak a weapon of mass
destruction in this country would be through our sea ports. We are inspecting
only about 6 percent of the thousands of cargo ships that come into our ports
every day. And to answer the charge that we're not doing enough, the
department points to a program called the Container Security Initiative.
Basically, the department has an agreement with about 40 ports around the
world now representing about 70 percent of the cargo that comes from abroad to
the United States, whereby we station our inspectors abroad and they work with
foreign inspectors to insure that those foreign inspectors inspect cargo that
we deem to be high risk.
The problem is that recent reports, one as recently as just a few weeks ago,
points out that only about 17.5 percent of the time, less than a fifth of the
time, do these foreign countries with which we have these agreements actually
inspect cargo that we have intelligence that leads us to believe may be high
risk, may contain a weapon of mass destruction. And yet, the department touts
the Container Security Initiative as the antidote to the problem of a smuggled
weapon of mass destruction.
GROSS: Are there other ways you think we're deceiving ourselves about how
protected we are?
Mr. ERVIN: Take the aviation security area. We have done more, to be fair,
to secure ourselves against another aviation-style attack than with regard to
any other sector. And that's understandable since, of course, that was the
mode that was chosen on 9/11. We've spent something between $18 to $20
billion to secure ourselves. And we're somewhat more secure, but we're not
secure enough. And we're not secure as the department claims. And according
to a recent congressional report out just a few weeks ago, investigators were
able to smuggle bomb components, undetected, through 21 airports throughout
the country. And yet, the department claims that we are significantly safer
in terms of aviation today than we were beforehand. And, indeed, there are
people in the department and department supporters who claim that another
9/11-style attack simply could not happen again. And that is not borne out by
the facts, frankly.
GROSS: So you ask the question, `Why are we deceiving ourselves?' You just
gave us a couple of examples of how you think we're deceiving ourselves. But
let me get back to the question, why do you think we're deceiving ourselves?
Mr. ERVIN: Well, I think two things. First of all, I think we Americans
just as the 9/11 commission said there was a failure of imagination before
9/11, which prevented us from really taking the threat of 9/11 seriously and
doing what we could have done beforehand to avert the disaster. Similarly,
there's a failure of imagination still. 9/11 was so catastrophic. It was so
outside our consciousness that we Americans, subconsciously, our leadership
finds it really hard to believe, even though all the intelligence is to the
contrary that another 9/11-style attack or one even worse could happen again.
So part of it is a subconscious failure to recognize just how vulnerable we
remain and how determined the terrorists are to strike us again. That's part
Secondly, frankly, and this is more nefarious, the people at the department to
this day and during the Ridge years, we're deceiving ourselves because I think
they're concerned about the political implications for the department, for the
administration, if the average American were to know just how vulnerable we
GROSS: What was the reaction that you got from Tom Ridge, who was the head of
Homeland Security when you were the inspector general, from Ridge and from
other leaders in the department each time you issued a report of problems that
you and your team found?
Mr. ERVIN: Time and again there was never a counter example. The reaction
from Secretary Ridge and the rest of his leadership team was either that the
problems that we were pointing to did not exist or that we were exaggerating
things and making a mountain out of a mole hill or that the problem at issue
had already been solved and my reports and recommendations were old news. To
give you one example, we issued a number of reports about laxity in visa
processes, border security matters. And I recall very, very vividly Secretary
Ridge, at one point, summoning me to his office to complain about that report
and asking whether I was his inspector general and questioning why I was
issuing these damning reports. My response to that was that I was not his
inspector general. Instead, I was the American people's inspector general,
and I was issuing these reports because I had an obligation to the Congress
and to, most importantly, to the American people to apprise them of these
vulnerabilities and gaps so that they could be aware of the danger that
they're in. And so that aware of that danger, they could put the appropriate
pressure on the administration and the department to do what was necessary to
close these security gaps.
On another occasion when, for example, we completed our work that I alluded to
earlier at airports showing just how easy it was for guns and knives and
explosives to be sneaked through the then-federalized screener work force.
When I presented those results to the then-head of TSA, Jim Loy, who
subsequently became the deputy secretary of the department, if, for example,
the report said that there was a failure rate of 40 percent at a given
airport, he stopped me midway through the presentation and said, `Clark, why
are you focusing on failure rates? Why not talk about the pass rate at that
airport? It was a pass rate of 60 percent.' My response was, `Jim, because it
doesn't matter if screeners were able to detect these deadly weapons six times
out of 10. If they were unable to do so four times out of 10, four times out
of 10 is four times too many in the age of terror.' So rather than making bad
results better, he was focused on making bad results sound better. And that
was emblematic of what I found time and again at the Department of Homeland
Security during my tenure.
GROSS: Now one of your concerns is the fact that we have tightened security,
not enough you think, but we have tightened security in places like airports
and some buildings, that that has made softer targets even more vulnerable
because if the airports are harder to attack and the airlines are harder to
attack, then restaurants, shopping malls, apartment complexes, things like
that, become more enticing targets.
One of your big concerns is mass transit. You say 33 million people use mass
transit a day in the United States. And yet there is really very little
security on mass transit. Part of the reason why there is so little security
is that, I think, no one can figure out what to do if they have the kind of
screening that we do for airports, for buses and trains. It's tough to
imagine anyone would get to where they're going in a reasonable fashion. So
what do you think we could be doing to increase security on mass transit,
particularly on the wake of London and Madrid?
Mr. ERVIN: Well, I think there are a number of things that we actually did
do in response to Madrid and to London that make a lot of sense. As you say,
it's hard to believe that the very same kind of intensive screening procedures
that we have in airports would work in mass transit because of the nature of
mass transit. It's mass transit as the name implies.
On the other hand, after Madrid and after London, we took a number of sensible
steps. For example, increased police presence, greater use of bomb-sniffing
dogs, greater use of surveillance cameras, bomb sensors, etc. All of these
measures were instituted in the immediate aftermath of those attacks. The
problem is, though, that as soon as the headlines faded and the sense of
danger faded from those two attacks, those measures were all either ratcheted
back dramatically or done away with altogether. The problem with that is that
terrorists are adaptive and they're flexible and they're alert. They know
that we've relaxed those measures. And so I'm sure they would simply wait
until those measures are relaxed or done away with before attempting attack on
mass transit. So what we need to do is to institutionalize those measures.
To have those measures part of mass transit security on an ongoing basis, not
just episodically when there appears to be a threat.
GROSS: My guest is Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general of the
Department of Homeland Security. His new book is called "Open Target."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Clark Kent Ervin. And he was the first inspector general
in the Homeland Security Department. He served in 2003 and 2004. Now, he's
written a new book called "Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to
As a conservative Republican, I would assume that you're opposed to tax
increases. Perhaps I'm wrong about that. But I'm wondering if you're
thinking about taxes changed at all, wanting more money for the Department of
Homeland Security and watching the president cut taxes at the same time.
Mr. ERVIN: Well, certainly, as you say, I am a conservative Republican. But
I try very hard not to let my ideology interfere with experience. And I think
the experience of the last few years with our very, very dire fiscal straits
leads--should lead any reasonable person to conclude that we've got to change
our fiscal policies. I think that tax increases should always be a matter of
last resort. I think there's no alternative to tax increases. And if it were
up to me I would, as I say, divert some of the money from the defense budget
to the Department of Homeland Security. I would also, if necessary, and I'm
afraid that it would be necessary, forego making the tax cuts that have
already been passed permanent. That would save us billions of dollars that
could go to protect the homeland and make us measurably safer.
GROSS: A Senate report on the government's response to Katrina recommends
doing away with FEMA and creating a new department which would be called the
National Preparedness and Response Authority. And this new agency would take
on some additional responsibilities, and it would still be in the Homeland
Security Department. And the budget for this new agency would be doubled. Do
you think that that's the right solution to FEMA's problems?
Mr. ERVIN: Well, I think it's another example of what Washington always does
when there is a significant political problem, and that is, it proposes
changes to the organization chart as opposed to actually solving the
underlying problem. I don't think that creating a new agency with a new name
will, in and of itself, make the problems of FEMA go away. The problem of
FEMA in a nutshell is that it has been underfunded like the rest of the
department. It has lacked expert leadership like the rest of the department.
And it has had a culture that has not welcomed outside scrutiny and criticism
such that there would be concentration on solving the problems that there are.
And if there were a new organization, with a new name, and again, the same
budget and the same leadership and the same culture, you'd have exactly the
same result the next time there is a catastrophe, whether it's a manmade
catastrophe or a natural one. The only thing in the Senate report, the Senate
proposal, that makes sense is doubling the budget of FEMA. I wouldn't wed
myself to a particular figure. But as I say FEMA needs more money. But the
last thing that it needs is another reorganization. We need to take the
government that we have, and we need to give that government the resources it
needs and the leadership it needs and the culture it needs, and we need to
make the government work.
GROSS: You write that a lot of the most critical infrastructure is owned and
operated by the private sector. And the government has been reluctant to use
its power to mandate security enhancements in the private sector. Can you
give us an example of parts of the critical infrastructure that are actually
owned and operated by the private sector?
Mr. ERVIN: Absolutely. In fact, about 85 percent of critical infrastructure
is owned by the private sector here in this country. And that distinguishes
us from much of the rest of world where so many of these sectors and sites are
either owned or operated or both by the government. It's actually, generally,
a good thing. It's been a key factor in our economic primacy in the world.
But virtually every one of these sectors that's significant is in private
hands. You know take the food sector, chemical refineries and other elements
of our energy sector, which, of course, are so much in the news today with gas
prices. The electricity grid. So many of the nuclear facilities are actually
run by private entities as well. And so it's difficult because there has
generally been a reluctance in our country to use the power of regulation in
legislation to require the private sector to do what the private sector
otherwise would not do. And that's especially true for a conservative
administration, a conservative Congress. And here we are nearly five years
after 9/11, and the evidence is in now. And it's pretty clear to me and to
other experts, I think it's fair to say, that the private sector has not done
what it needs to do to secure itself to the maximum possible degree.
There's one bit of good news, and that is, in the chemical sector. There are
so many chemical plants that, in fact, EPA estimated there are around a
hundred chemical plants in the country, concentrated largely along the
Northeast corridor, New York, New Jersey, that if they were hit in just the
right way, could result in millions of casualties. Because of the uniquely
dangerous nature of these chemical facilities, a consensus is emerging that
includes industry. And the department's embraced it now, that there does need
to be regulation in the chemical sector. Now, Secretary Chertoff announced a
measure just a few weeks ago that to my mind is more watered down and more
accommodating to industry than it should be, but at least there's a
recognition that something should be done in terms of regulation in this
sector. The problem is the chemical sector is not the only sector where there
has been less than--less progress than there should be. Because these are not
just private assets, an attack against one of them would be so devastating to
the overall economy of the country that each event is, by definition,
critically important to the security of the country as well.
GROSS: Let me go back to something that we were talking about earlier. So
you've criticized the leadership of Homeland Security for not being qualified
enough. And I'm wondering if you think that Michael Chertoff is worthy of
that kind of criticism, too? What do you think of the job he has been doing
and of his qualifications?
Mr. ERVIN: I'm afraid to say that criticism, in my judgment, is equally
applicable to Secretary Chertoff as well. I thought, I was cheered by his
nomination, by his appointment, by his confirmation. I thought that he would
be a huge improvement over Secretary Ridge. Certainly, he's a different
person, a radically different person. He's incredibly bright, razor-sharp
mind. He's very, very details oriented. He's hands-on. He's decisive. All
qualities that seems to me, frankly, were lacking to one degree or another in
the prior regime. But the first big test for Secretary Chertoff was, of
course, Katrina. And it's plain for all the world to see that he failed that
test. And I think what it shows is that he, too, lacks managerial experience.
And that running the criminal division of the Justice Department is
impressive, needless to say, but it is not--training is not adequate
preparation for running the third largest agency in the federal government
with 180,000 employees and a $40 billion budget. And not just a big agency,
but an incredibly complex one with, as I say, the most important mission in
Running the Department of Homeland Security effectively would test the
managerial skills of a Jack Weil or Lee Iacocca. And on top of that, you
would need, ideally, someone who has phenomenal political skills as well.
It's a rare person who has both those abilities. But Secretary Chertoff, I'm
afraid to say, has manifestly proved not to be up to the task as well.
GROSS: You know, the Bush administration has said that we're winning the war
on terror. And an example of that it offers is that there hasn't been a
terrorist attack on our land since September 11th. Do you think that that is
evidence that we're winning the war on terror?
Mr. ERVIN: I don't think that it's evidence that we're winning the war on
terror. And, in fact, I think it's dangerous for the department, for the
administration, to say that or to imply that. To say, to think that simply
because we now have a department called Homeland Security, that the homeland
is secure is dangerous. It's misleading. It makes us think that we're safer
than we actually are. If anything, of course, needless to say, the fact that
we haven't been attacked in five years, nearly five years, of course, is a
good thing. But on the other hand, all the intelligence indicates that the
reason why we haven't been attacked is not because we've made ourselves
marginally more secure since 9/11, but instead because al-Qaeda and its
affiliates and acolytes wants the next attack to be even more spectacular than
the last one. And it takes time to plan these spectacular attacks. And so
everything we know leads to the conclusion that another terrorist attack will
be attempted. The only question is whether we've done everything that we can
do to make ourselves as safe as we possibly can.
GROSS: Clark Kent Ervin, before we let you go, I've got to ask you how you
got the Clark Kent part of your name? And what impact that's had on you to
have that name follow you around?
Mr. ERVIN: I have two brothers, both older than I. One was about 11 or so
when I was born. And when he found out that my parents were to have a baby, a
baby boy, he asked whether he could name me. And they said yes. And the
result was being named after my brother's favorite comic book hero, Superman.
GROSS: Do you think your parents ever considered saying to your older
brother, `Son, we can't really name your baby brother Clark Kent.'
Mr. ERVIN: Well, of course. I was not privy to those conversations back
then. But from everything I've been told since, my parents did not hesitate.
So it just shows they have quite a sense of humor themselves.
GROSS: Well, Clark Kent Ervin, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ERVIN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Clark Kent Ervin was the Department of Homeland Security's first
inspector general. His new book is called "Open Target."
We invited the Department of Homeland Security to respond to Ervin's book or
interview. Press Secretary Russ Knocke declined. He said they've not seen or
read the book, but any suggestion that there was an effort to stifle the
inspector general is fundamentally flawed. He added that Ervin is entitled to
his opinion. He can make claims, but they're not necessarily based on fact.
We also contacted the office of Tom Ridge, the former secretary of the
Department of Homeland Security. He declined our invitation and had not heard
Clark Ervin's interview on FRESH AIR. But he offered this statement, quote,
"Mr. Ervin's recall of events is wrong. I thought our discussions were civil
and professional. In an earlier interview Mr. Ervin told CNN that I never
asked him not to release critical reports. Later, he changed his story. Mr.
Ervin's first recollection is accurate. This one is not. I never sought to
keep any reports from Congress. The allegation is simply untrue," unquote.
I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, poems about the newsroom by poet/journalist David Tucker.
He's assistant managing editor of the Newark Star Ledger and winner of the
Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize.
Also, John Powers changes his tune on the films of Louis Malle after watching
them again on DVD.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Poet/journalist David Tucker talks about his new
collection of poems called "Late for Work"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
David Tucker is a journalist who is also a poet. Lots of people write poetry
on the side. His poems are really good. Tucker is an assistant managing
editor at The New Jersey Star-Ledger and was part of the team that won the
Pulitzer last year for breaking news. He used to work at The Philadelphia
His new collection of poems is called "Late for Work." It's published in
conjunction with the Break Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize. The judge
of the Prize, the poet Philip Levine wrote the introduction to Tucker's new
collection. Levine says the writing is so precise and economical, the
language so familiar and ordinary, that if you're not reading closely, you can
miss how glorious the achievement is.
I asked David Tucker to introduce and read his poem, "City Editor Looking for
Mr. DAVID TUCKER: I sat out to write a sort of a tribute, maybe a sort of a
sarcastic tribute to, you know, these two city editors who are somewhat
legendary in journalism. They're kind of--you know, they're these wretched
creatures who prowl in newsrooms, tormenting hapless reporters with incessant
questions. And, of course, they never like the answers. They all have--they
have attention deficit syndrome and great romantic ideas about what the news
might become. When I sat out to write this poem, you know, I was thinking
about certain editors I'd worked for. Interestingly enough, when it was
published in the Missouri Review, some reporters in my newsroom saw it and
came to me and said, `You know, that's a nice poem. That's a good
self-portrait of you.' I was a little surprised.
GROSS: Well, let's hear the beginning, and then we'll ask how you feel about
that as a self-portrait.
Mr. TUCKER: All right. "City Editor Looking for News."
(Reading) "What did Nick Deprong say before he died? What noise did his fist
make when he begged little Pete not to whack him with a power saw? Did it go
thub like a biscuit against a wall? Or squawk like a seashell cracking open?
Did he say his mother's name? Has anybody even talked to his frickin' mother?
Is she broke or sick and abandoned? Is she dying of a broken heart? Do I
have to think of all these things by myself?"
GROSS: So how do you feel about this poem as an unintentional self-portrait?
Mr. TUCKER: I think I have been guilty of glorying in the role. It's almost
irresistible to be in the position of asking questions all day long and hoping
to get good answers. And dreaming of stories and, you know, trying to figure
out ways to break the news.
GROSS: In the newsroom, you're reliving and rewriting about a world that's
constantly in mayhem. I mean, particularly when you're writing about city
news, it's like political scandal and crime. And poetry is so much about
reflection on what might have been mayhem. But you're usually not living in
it at the moment when you're writing a poem. You're reflecting on that and on
a quieter moment.
Mr. TUCKER: Right.
GROSS: So it seems to me like really a--different muscles and a
different--just a completely different frame of mind, even.
Mr. TUCKER: Oh, well, it is. It is in many ways. And while journalism is
something that has to be done every day, and there are deadlines that are
relentless and inevitable, poetry really has no deadlines. And the subjects
that, for me and I think for many poets, that ultimately become poems have
to--they have to kick around in your head for a while. I mean, I find it much
easier to write about things that happened a few years ago than I do things
that happened today. And, you know, you can't--at least I can't--I can't
write an angry poem when I'm angry. I can't write a, you know, sad poem when
I'm sad. I mean these are dimensions of poetry that have to present
themselves, and sometimes it takes a while.
GROSS: Do you ever think of daily journalism almost as an unusual form of
meditation in the sense that you have to be so absorbed in the story that
you're covering and focus all of your attention on it, thus blocking out all
the other chatter of life?
Mr. TUCKER: That's a great question. I do. And, you know, Keats talks
about `to write great poetry, you have to avail yourself with something he
called negative capability, which is the ability to diminish your ego and to
cut out everything else and invest yourself in the subject that you're writing
about and almost--so that kind of magic can happen where you become what
you're trying to write about. And I think to an extent, maybe in a humbler
sense, really good reporters do the same thing. They are, they may be
egomaniacs, but they may be quite vain when they're away from the newsroom.
They may be all sorts of things. But they're professionals, and when they set
about in pursuit of a subject, they're able to put their egos aside and their
loyalty is to that story and to getting everything they can before deadline.
GROSS: My guest is David Tucker. He's the assistant managing editor of the
New Jersey Star Ledger. His new collection of poems is called "Late for
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is David Tucker. He's the assistant managing editor of the
New Jersey Star Ledger. His new collection of poems is called "Late for
Work." Here's another poem of his. It's called "Perspective."
Mr. TUCKER: "Perspective."
(Reading) "The stories are forgotten before the paper starts to yellow.
Nobody remembers the name of the county executive who swapped his city for a
few thousand dollars and a three-piece suit. Nobody cares whether the body in
a trunk at the airport even had a name. And the dead in a Kansas train wreck
are remembered by a few relatives in a town near a bridge that isn't there
anymore. But once it was news and drove some slouchy reporter to deadline as
she hammered the keyboard without thinking, throwing in every fact she could
scrounge. The weather, the smell of the air around the event. The color of
the smoke. The names of the victims. Their ages. Calling on loud overheated
words unprecedented, shocking, blazing, devastated. And that old standby,
stunned, baring down with minutes left until the presses rolled. Holding
GROSS: You know what, one of the things I find so interesting about your
poems about daily journalism is that you're writing reflective poems about
daily journalism. And daily journalism is a form of writing that is often
done without the time to reflect.
Mr. TUCKER: Yes. I think it does fascinate me. And I think there are
similarities between newspaper writing and reporting and poetry. I mean, you
can quickly run out the string. There are more differences than similarities.
But I think great reporters have a lot of poet in them. And I think good
newspapers, although they may not have poems in them unless they have a
section that carries poems, have poetic writing. And I think poets and
journalists both try to be quick and efficient. They try to write in spare
language in most cases. And there is a reference for detail in vividness.
GROSS: We've talked about how some of your poetry is about your work, working
at a newspaper. But not all of your poems are. Many of them are not. I'm
going to ask you to read a poem that's about your father's death. And I'll
ask you to introduce it for us.
Mr. TUCKER: This is a poem that was written after my father died a few years
ago of cancer and suffered horribly for many, many days. As one of his cases
where, as I'm sure so many people are familiar with, the death was finally
merciful. And, you know, I tried--you can't control poetry. It has a
direction of its own. And so subjects present themselves and you can try to
write about big subjects like your father's death, but it's difficult to make
the poem say what you think you'd like to say. So I started out by hoping to
reconcile myself to my father's death. And then finally I thought, `Well,
this is ridiculous. I'm not reconciled.' So this is that poem. "Enough of
(Reading) "Through most of January, my brothers and I drove back and forth to
the hospital where our old man was dying. We did eight-hour shifts, just
watching him go from the final disintegration of liver cancer. Swabbing his
lips, talking into his coma with sidelong glances at death. The tough little
play-making guard who made the shot that beat Cornwall at the buzzer one night
long ago lay in a web of IV tubes and machines, their metal tongues clicking.
Giant of my first memory, a snowball fight on a farm in Tennessee. The giant
grinning and falling into the snow while I laughed in disbelieving joy. The
feisty old rascal who taught me never to trust the big shots, always to side
with the underdog in politics and football, slowly drowned in pneumonia. But
couldn't die. The morphine flowed into him until we thought it would finally
come oozing out of his skin. Once he broke into a holler, calling for his own
father, dead, 56 years. And the whole hospital stopped and turned towards the
shouts. I've seen all the X-rays I ever want to see. Checked all the IV bags
I ever want to check. Heard enough of the morphine counter and its little
metal tongue. And consolation and soothing words about accepting it all and
finding some sort of peace and praying and having faith that you'll get over
it and move on and let go. And the long view you take after losing one loved
so much. I've had enough of that, too."
GROSS: It's such a good poem.
Mr. TUCKER: Thank you.
GROSS: I'm thinking of one of the things your journalism probably has in
common or your approach to journalism probably has in common with your poems
is that they're kind of tough and unsentimental.
Mr. TUCKER: You know, I hadn't thought about that. I hope that's the case.
Journalism does take an unsentimental view of the world. And there is--there
are few people that's tough on themselves as newspaper people I find, who are
always questioning whether they've got the right news to go in the paper. And
poets are great self-questioners, too, I think. And self-doubters.
GROSS: What came first for you: writing poetry or practicing journalism?
Mr. TUCKER: Writing poetry. I started writing years ago at the University
of Michigan. I mean, I was writing poetry before then, but then I took an
introduction to poetry course with Donald Hall who was then at the U of M in
Ann Arbor and was the campus rock star. And everybody wanted to get in that
class. I mean, he was an absolutely compelling, charismatic figure. Great
reader of poetry. And a wonderful generous teacher, and it was like getting
hit by lightning.
GROSS: And what about journalism? How did you start working at newspapers?
Mr. TUCKER: You know, I was--I started out with the hopelessly naive idea
that maybe somehow I could write these poems--and I don't know what I was
thinking--make a living. If there ever was a ridiculous notion, that
certainly proved to be one. So, and then I thought, `Well, I don't want to
teach.' So I did a lot of different jobs. And then I got to be 29 years old,
and I thought, `Wait a minute.' I really need to find a profession, something
to do. And why not find a way to work with words all day long. Nobody can
write poetry all day long. It's far too intense. But I do think the craft of
journalism does--for me at least, it helps reinforce the writing of poetry.
So I went to journalism school, and I absolutely fell in love with every thing
GROSS: You are now the assistant managing editor at the Newark Star Ledger.
Why don't you describe the job description for us?
Mr. TUCKER: The Metro section at the Ledger is a little sort of
counterintuitive for newspapers because it does not--we're based in Newark,
but it does not take in Newark. That's the domain of another editor, one of
my colleagues. The reporters that I work with cover a lot of the major
institutional beats of federal court, education, transportation. There's
several general assignment writers. And then there's the coverage of Trenton.
The Star Ledger--New Jersey really is a state that kind of doesn't have a
center. And the Star Ledger figured out years ago, an act of genius I think,
they would make the state government coverage the centerpiece of the newspaper
and part of the papers identity. So we cover state government with a
vengeance. And we hope that we specialize and are known for uncovering
scandals, be they small or large. So there's a lot of investigative stuff.
My reporters do a lot of enterprise. And we try to write about state
government in a way that makes it compelling.
GROSS: You and your team won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news a couple of
years ago with the story that you did on Governor Jim McGreevey right after he
admitted that he'd had an affair with a male aide. What are your most vivid
memories of that day?
Mr. TUCKER: That was an amazing day. I was actually part of a broad effort
that was the entire newsroom coming together to write a story for the ages
where New Jersey was concerned. It broke around 4 in the afternoon and it was
on an August afternoon when so many people are on vacation, so our ranks were
depleted. There was nothing going on and, suddenly, there was absolutely
everything going on. And it was a story that was exhilarating and you begin
by--with a, you know, ambitions of producing--I think we produced 12 pages in
the space of about six hours. Because you're going from a standing stop at
4:00. But when you begin, you have no idea how you're going to get all this
done. But it was--I think the best experience you can have at a newspaper is
being a part of a great team that is focused with tremendous intensity on a
big story. Everybody's working together.
GROSS: Since the story was about how the governor had put a man who he'd had
an affair with on the payroll and that they'd done favors for each other, how
did you decide how to handle the part of the story that the governor was gay?
How much of the story was that?
Mr. TUCKER: There was no question that the fact that he was admitting he was
gay was really not the issue. Fascinating, though it may have been for the
governor to call a press conference and say, `I have a gay lover.' But that
wasn't the point. And, you know, it's clear that the governor knew on that
day that the real problem he had was that he had put a lover on the state
payroll. And whether that lover had been homosexual or heterosexual didn't
matter. That's the kind of thing that gets you kicked out of office.
GROSS: I'd like to end with another poem of yours. And this poem is called
"Putting Everything Off." It's a poem I think many of us can relate to on many
levels. Would you introduce it for us?
Mr. TUCKER: I'd love to. I write poems early in the morning. And then I go
to the newsroom, and I'm usually there until late. But my real aspiration is
to just loaf and do nothing. It's a lost American art. An early champion by
Walt Whitman who said, `I lean and loaf and invite my ease.' "Putting
(Reading) "The objectives for the day lean against sagging fences now. The
shovels and hoes are covered in dew. Parking tickets from places barely
remembered go unpaid another day. Tax forms from years I'm not sure I ever
lived slip a day closer to being forgotten. Along with letters stamped but
never mailed. Their thoughts obsolete. Their news old. Lone socks and
quarters are hiding out in the dust under the bed like the strays that won't
come in. Here are the windows I once thought of as dirty, but that was an old
list of things not done. Their dirtiness is relative now to the other urgent
tasks left undone. And therefore, not very dirty anymore. May we always have
mountains of things that have to be fixed. Acres of the unfinished. Let us
hear as long as we can the kitchen faucet that drips all day with its one
inscrutable syllable. And let us have joyous screen doors with a rip in the
corner like this. An amusement ride the flies dive through, while the moon
glowers down. And the stacks of things not done grow beautifully deep."
GROSS: David Tucker, thank you so much for reading that for us. Thank you
for being here.
Mr. TUCKER: I've been delighted to be here.
GROSS: David Tucker is assistant managing editor of the New Jersey Star
Ledger. His new collection of poems is called "Late for Work."
Coming up, four films by Louis Malle have been released on DVD. Our critic at
large John Powers has a review.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Critic at large John Powers reviews four films of Louis
Malle just out on DVD in Criterion box set
TERRY GROSS, host:
The French director Louis Malle who died in 1995 was among the most popular of
all foreign filmmakers. Four of his most famous movies have been released on
DVD by Criterion. "Elevator to the Gallows," his first feature, and a new box
set with "Murmur of the Heart," "Lacombe Lucien," and "Au Revoir Les Enfants."
Our critic at large John Powers says that watching these films years after
their release made them seem all in a different way.
Mr. JOHN POWERS: The first Louis Malle film I ever saw was "The Lovers,"
starring Jeanne Moreau as a bored wife and mistress. Although I was in
college, I should have found her story tres sexy. I just thought it was no
good. Slick, trendy and faintly loathsome. It seemed vacuous compared to the
bold work of the artiers I was discovering at the same time: Preston, Godar
and Toni Oni. I decided on the spot that Malle was third rate. And I carried
that perception with me for decades, even when I saw films of his that I loved
like "The Fire Within" and "Atlantic City."
But one invigorating thing about the DVD explosion is that you get to
re-examine your clotted old judgments in a whole new historical light. And
that's just what I've been doing with Malle. Four of his movies have just
come out in extremely good transfers, complete with Criterion's usual battery
of topnotch extras. A precocious talent, Malle always possessed a polished
technique that gave his work a high sheen, but often muffled real emotion like
a coat of shellac. You can see this in the DVD of his first film "Elevator to
the Gallows," an amusingly shallow thriller about adulterous murder that he
made when he was just 25.
The movie won scads of French prizes when it came out in 1958. And it's easy
to see why. This briskly told story boasts obvious virtues: a finely etched
turn by Moreau as a wayward wife, knockout photography by the great Henri
Decae and a very cool score by no less than Miles Davis.
Born into privilege, Malle was never any kind of revolutionary, artistically
or personally, unless being a lady killer counts as revolution. But he was
one of those well-born souls who loved to nibble around the edges of
respectable middle-class existence. He was drawn to the perversity,
pettiness, self-destructiveness and yearning for transcendence that keep
bubbling up in ordinary life. This fascination took potent form in two films
in the early 1970s that could hardly be more different.
With its autobiographical overtones, "Murmur of the Heart" is one of Malle's
most enjoyable films. Set in 1954 Dijon, it explores the coming of age of one
Laurent Chevalier, a brainy, willful 15-year-old who drinks, smokes cigars,
visits a brothel with his chortling brothers and has a brief incestuous
encounter with his free-willing sensuous mother, wonderfully played by Lea
Massari. These days such behavior would be treated as a cautionary tale. But
what makes this movie so memorable is its refusal to moralize. It's the
warmth, humor and delicacy with which Malle treats Laurent seemingly shocking
story as something affirmative. A search for self-hood and freedom far
different from the child prostitution in his later more compromised film
Played for charm, "Murmur of the Heart" seems a million miles away from
Malle's next feature "Lacombe Lucien," whose hero, or anti-hero, is a young
French peasant boy who becomes a naughty collaborator, tracking down and
torturing people for the Gestapo. From the moment it came out in 1974, this
film was branded a portrait of the banality of evil. And though it does
suffer from some duft performances and bouts of sluggishness, it grapples with
something that very few films have ever tried to explore: the narrow horizon
and impoverished sense of self that lie at the heart of fascism. In fact,
it's a far more original look at France during the occupation than Malle's
later more popular "Au Revoir Les Enfants," a sentimental, slightly prettified
Holocaust movie that plays to obvious emotions rather than taking us into new
Of course, the gap between these pictures is not surprising. For one
signature of Malle's career is that it's so shockingly uneven. Something of a
man about town, he lacked the solid core and steady vision you find in the
greatest artists. The director who could harrow you with the "Fire Within," a
riveting tale of suicide, would then crank out "Viva Maria," a groaning
slapstick romp that slips on its own banana peel. The director who could
delight you with "Atlantic City" with its magisterial performance by Burt
Lancaster could just as easily fall into the flooding incompetence of the
mirthless comedy, "Crackers." But consistency isn't everything. And looking
back on Malle's career with older more forgiving eyes, I realized he made
seven or eight films that really are well-worth seeing. Which of today's
filmmakers could you say that of? Indeed, watching Malle's DVDs in our
current, less ambitious film culture where last year's biggest foreign film
was a documentary about penguins, I've got to say Louis Malle looks a whole
lot better to me now.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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