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Newt Gingrich on the Lessons He's Learned as a Politician.

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. He's written a new book, "Newt Gingrich: Lessons Learned the Hard Way: A Personal Report" (HarperCollins).

31:07

Other segments from the episode on April 8, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 8, 1998: Interview with Newt Gingrich; Interview with Jill Ker Conway.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 08, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 040801NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

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

In his early days as Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich exuded confidence in his ability to remake the structure of American government. He was leading the first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years. His first book as speaker had the assertive title "To Renew America."

But in his new book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," Gingrich confesses that he's astonished at how badly he underestimated the size and intensity of the problems that would confront him as Speaker of the House.

Yesterday, I spoke with Newt Gingrich about some of the lessons he's learned and some of the challenges confronting him today.

What's the main message you want to send about who you are now compared, to who you were in the Contract With America era?

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE, AUTHOR, "LESSONS LEARNED THE HARD WAY": I don't think the message in Lessons Learned the Hard Way is primarily about me. It's about lessons I learned, but they're lessons that apply to anybody who wants to try to lead a positive governing movement in the United States. It is much harder; much more complex to be the governing majority, having to actually pass legislation, than it was to be the opposition minority, whose job was just to stop things.

And I think we really dramatically underestimated how big the difference was between being a minority and being a majority. And I would say that's the biggest single difference.

GROSS: That's funny -- you say you want your book to teach that lesson, but every political pundit when you became Speaker of the House was trying to say that -- you know, that Newt Gingrich is going to find himself in a really different position now as leader of the House than he did when he was the bomb-thrower in the minority party in the House.

GINGRICH: Well, they were right. And I think it just took two and a half years for that to sink in. I think even when we thought that we understood it, we really didn't appreciate -- it would be a little bit like somebody who was used to driving a horse and buggy who got a 747 airplane, and even though you thought you were learning new things, it turned out that all the different dimensions, all the different complexities, were far greater than we thought they were.

GROSS: In your essay in the book of the Contract With America, you said: "we will cooperate with anyone and we will compromise with no one." What do you think the consequences of that "no compromise" position?

GINGRICH: I think that it was probably the right direction for us to go in in terms of proving that we were really committed to our values. But I think it sent a signal to Washington and to the press corps of a level of militancy that did not get covered very well.

And I think that we have to recognize that to get things done in Washington, you have to compromise on details, even if you refuse to compromise on principles.

GROSS: In your new book Lessons Learned the Hard Way, you have a whole chapter titled "Learn to Keep Your Mouth Shut." When would that have come in most handy for you?

GINGRICH: Oh, I think clearly the biggest single example was the Air Force One incident, which for our listeners -- when the Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin was killed in Israel, we had a sudden trip. And the president and Senator Dole and I -- all three -- went on Air Force One to Israel for the funeral. And we had a long time in the air together going and coming.

But none of that time was used to talk about the budget negotiations, which were then just beginning to enter their most serious phase. When I came back, I went to a Sperling (ph) breakfast, which is a political reporters group in Washington, and I talked analytically about what had happened: why didn't we meet? What did it mean? Et cetera?

And because I'm not an analyst -- I'm not a historian -- I'm the Speaker of the House, it got covered terribly. It sounded like I was whining and whimpering and it was probably the worst single press I got in three years, in terms of just something that was totally unnecessary that I didn't have to do. And that as a result, weakened us for no good reason.

And it was entirely because I forgot the basic rule that I never, ever am anything less than the Speaker of the House. I'm -- I don't have the right to be an assistant professor of history. That's not the job I have anymore. And so, reporters legitimately were covering the Speaker of the House and then Democrats legitimately were attacking these comments by the Speaker of the House and that was an objective reality. I was the Speaker of the House and I couldn't get out of it.

GROSS: So, now that you feel you've learned the lesson -- learned to keep your mouth shut -- you're on a book tour. Are you trying to be very discreet during this book tour?

GINGRICH: Well, I'm trying to apply the lesson of being disciplined and part of what I learned was that, legitimately, if I give you a quote that is very, hot -- very exciting, very sensational -- it's going to get used. And that, then, drowns everything else. Imagine a room that had really pretty candlelight, but then you turned on a really bright neon sign. The neon sign would drown the effect of the candlelight.

And sometimes, what I was doing is I was giving people very aggressive information that they could use -- either my body language if I was angry or the words I was using or the topic I was talking about. And that, in effect, drowned out whatever I was trying to say that was positive, constructive, and problem-solving.

So, I think there was a real need to learn that if you're going to communicate effectively -- for example, I feel very strongly that we need to use the budget surpluses to save Social Security in a way which will actually increase the retirement for baby boomers and their children, by giving them a personal Social Security-plus savings account that has a tax-free buildup of interest and that allows them over time to have far more resources.

If I talk about that and stay on that topic, I can probably get it covered, although it probably won't be page one. But if I then give any comment on Paula Jones or Lewinsky or Starr or all that junk, that'll drown out whatever I'm trying to say in a positive way. And I've had to really learn to focus on staying disciplined on the topic you want to talk about.

GROSS: You use the word "junk" there -- all that "junk." In what way do you see the allegations about President Clinton and the investigation as being "junk?"

GINGRICH: Well, it's not so much the allegations. I mean, if in fact there was perjury, obstruction of justice, and felonies, that's serious. That's the rule of law. But if you were to take the total number of hours dedicated by the networks, for example, to discussing rumors, gossip, unsubstantiated stories, leaks, counter-leaks, rumors of leaks, analysis of leaks -- it's just -- it's nonsense. It's a terrible way for the most powerful nation in the world to talk to itself.

And you know, I don't want to contribute to it. So, I consistently tell people: wait for Judge Starr's report. Now, would you like to talk about Social Security? Would you like to talk about winning the drug war? Would you like to talk about education and learning? Would you like to talk about modernizing government so we can cut taxes?

These are real, positive, serious things that affect people's lives directly. Sooner or later, Judge Starr will report. When he reports, we'll know something. And until then, let's not waste our time on theoretical analysis of the possible implications of a speculated hypothesis based on a potentially leaked, but not very reliable gossip who may or may not know anything.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you think that the Monica Lewinsky aspect of Kenneth Starr's investigation is sending a chill through Washington. I imagine that there are a lot of politicians who have been involved in their share of infidelities. And if -- at the same time that they're criticizing the president, if they're concerned about at some point a similar investigation being mounted into their own infidelities or accusations of infidelities.

GINGRICH: But see, now you're going down the same trail. I mean, now here we are from an interesting book interview, off on a whole range of topics that are historically, I think, totally different. Kenneth Starr's...

GROSS: No, no -- wait. Let me defend myself here. I think this is relevant for anybody going into politics. Now, do you know -- to -- what aspect of your life is going to be open to investigation either from a prosecutor or from the press?

GINGRICH: Well, first of all...

GROSS: Where is that line?

GINGRICH: First of all, from the press standpoint, nothing is sacred. Nothing ever has been sacred and the press has often had a pattern of going out and writing virtually whatever they want to. And that's been true for all of American history.

But you know, what Judge Starr has is a very different assignment. He has the question of whether or not there was perjury, which is a felony; whether or not there was obstruction of justice, which is a felony. And that's very different. It's one thing to say to somebody: are you perfect in your private life? My working assumption is none of us are; that we all need salvation based on faith, rather than justice.

But that -- there's a difference between saying all of us are imperfect and saying all of us commit felonies. And I think what we have to wait and see is: does Judge Starr report and say "here is proof that felonies that were committed." Or does Judge Starr report and say: "you know, I looked into everything; a lot of stuff here you may not like as a personal matter, but in my judgment the law has not been broken."

Now, that's a very clear and very vivid line, I think. And what we discovered with Richard Nixon was that the law had been broken. And that's a very powerful distinction as compared to: did Bill Clinton do things I may not personally approve of or things that lots of people do, but nobody personally approves of?

GROSS: In a March 16th column that you wrote for Insight magazine, you wrote: "I would like Congress to pass a resolution that says national celebrities are, and therefore should act like, role models." And I wonder if you put politicians and, you know, congressmen into that national celebrity category, who should act like role models?

GINGRICH: Absolutely. And I think the topic of that particular column was drugs. And I was making the point that when you have somebody who makes a lot of money as, for example, endorsing Nike shoes or endorsing tennis racquets or endorsing things that young people really look up to, that those people ought to have a special burden because after all they're getting very rich in part because they are appealing to the young.

And when that person shows up as a cocaine addict or a heroin addict or a crack addict, there's something very sad and we shouldn't just say: "well gee, that's unfortunate, but you know, we'll suspend them for one week and they can come back next week."

There really ought to be some kind of sanction. And part of what I suggested was that they should be required to turn in the drug dealer from whom they bought the illegal drugs, as a price of getting back on the field or getting back on the court.

GROSS: But do you think that that role model should apply to somebody's private life? To their marital life? To infidelity?

GINGRICH: Well again, if you notice that the example I just cited -- using illegal drugs -- is illegal. It's not a private matter if you break a felony law. It's not a private matter if you're buying crack cocaine or heroin. That's a matter of illegality. And I'm trying to set a very -- in a society that needs standards, I'm trying to set some very simple standards: don't break major laws.

GROSS: What about adultery?

GINGRICH: Adultery is not -- I don't think it's the same issue. The same thing with -- there are a lot of things that I think you may not approve of personally, but you don't go to jail for them. And I'll -- I think people have a right to make their own minds up about whether or not you want to condemn Bill Clinton or you want to condemn John F. Kennedy. You can go back through history about people that we now know a lot more about than we used to. That's one level.

Breaking the law's a different standard, and I think that we have every right as a society, particularly in America which is bound together only by the law. I mean, we're not bound together racially. We're not bound together by nationality. We don't have any unique characteristic. We are Americans by virtue of having -- we the people having founded a Constitution. And we are uniquely a nation under the law, unlike almost any other country in the world.

GROSS: In your book, you write a little bit about having survived a near-coup within your party members of the House -- Republican members of the House who were trying to depose you and failed. What message did you take away from that?

GINGRICH: Well, I -- several things. First of all, as I recount in the book, it was probably the saddest moment for me, because I had almost a sense of grief comparable to having a close relative die. I had worked very, very hard for my whole adult life to create a majority. I'd worked very closely with most of the members who were unhappy with me. I was very, very proud of the sophomore class that were the real -- class of 1994, but sophomores by the time you're talking about -- who really had made such a huge difference in our history.

And here I was, so out of touch with them and so lacking in the ability to communicate and lead that both some of the members of my leadership had lost their nerve and some of the freshmen, now sophomore class had gotten so isolated and so upset that they thought that causing chaos and potentially ending my career was less expensive than trying to work things out. It was a very, very sad time.

I flew home to Georgia and went out to dinner with my wife Marianne (ph) and my older daughter Cathy (ph), and we sat and talked. And I remember thinking at the time that I just had this very heavy heart and this sense of grief.

I think in retrospect, and I try to cover this in Lessons Learned the Hard Way, I take a lot of responsibility for having failed to communicate clearly, and a lot of responsibility for not having listened to their concerns and understood more sympathetically that even if they were sometimes wrong, that their intent was very sincere, and they were very frustrated and very frightened. I mean, they had come to Washington to effect real change and they were very worried that we were selling out and compromising and losing our commitment and our desire and our momentum.

And as I look back on that, I feel much greater sympathy for them than I did at the time.

GROSS: What's it like to keep working with them?

GINGRICH: Oh, it's fine now. We -- it's a lot like a family. We have a very big, tough fight and you go through a little counseling and you learn to live with each other. And you gradually look back on that and you say: that's one of the memories that made us who we now are.

I mean, you -- I think anybody whose had any long relationship will have occasionally had some kind of a fight in that relationship or some moment of disappointment in that relationship. And then you've gotta decide: one, do I want to rebuild and keep that relationship moving forward? Or, has it shattered the relationship?

And I think in these cases, virtually all of us have gotten back in the same room, worked with each other, and moved forward as a positive team.

GROSS: My guest is Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He's written a new book called Lessons Learned the Hard Way. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Newt Gingrich is my guest, and he's written a new book called Lessons Learned the Hard Way.

Elizabeth Drew (ph), formerly of the New Yorker, has written about you extensively, and one of the things she said is that both you and President Clinton have a lot in common. You're both from middle class backgrounds; both from dysfunctional families; both had missing fathers, adoring mothers, and problematic relationships with adoptive fathers. She writes: "both are exemplars of the meritocracy; both are garrulous; both had to show off; both had deep flaws and histories of infidelity."

Do you think that you have this kind of connection with President Clinton, although you have very little in common politically? Do you feel that you have some kind of shared background and shared generational sense?

GINGRICH: Well, I think we have a shared generational sense in that we both grew up in an America that was very different, say, than the America that George Bush or Walter Mondale or Bob Dole grew up in. I think in that sense we're much more similar. He -- he grew up in Arkansas. I grew up as an Army brat born in Pennsylvania. I lived in Fort Riley (ph), Kansas; Orleans, France; Stuttgart, Germany; and finally came to Fort Benning/Columbus, Georgia when I was a junior in high school.

So in that sense, there were huge differences in our background. His stepfather was part of a business class in Hot Springs, which was a particular kind of town. My stepfather was a career soldier, an infantryman, which is a very different kind of background -- honor, duty, country; the sense that wars are real and dangerous; the sense that the nation is in peril -- I think was probably much more part of my life than it was in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

On the other hand, we both love talking. When we get together, we can chat for a long time and we both like ideas. We share books with each other. You know, we're both sort of policy wonks. He is a broadly based liberal Democrat who would like to move his party towards the center. I'm a broadly based conservative Republican who's trying to redefine a center that's much more conservative.

So, there's some real similarity and there's some real differences. But you know, certainly at a personal level, we find we have a lot to talk about and to share with each other that is interesting and I think that that does reflect our generation's efforts to deal with the information age, the world market, the rising differences in our culture. And I think in that sense, Elizabeth Drew's probably broadly accurate.

GROSS: What surprised you most about working with President Clinton?

GINGRICH: Either -- I would say probably his toughness in trying to survive -- the sheer resilience and energy he has in bouncing back time after time. And then I would say second, his -- the fact that he constantly gets in trouble where he needs to survive. I mean, there's a point where you say, you know, it's great that you can survive. Have you ever considered trying to avoid these problems?

Sometimes as you grow up and as you grow older, it's sort of nice to acquire the wisdom of maybe not touching the stove for the 1,100th time to prove to yourself it's hot.

GROSS: Newt Gingrich is my guest, and he has a new book called Lessons Learned the Hard Way.

I'd like to ask you about the Christian Coalition, and their current power. The leadership of the Christian Coalition has complained that they haven't gotten enough from the Republican leadership in return for all the support that the coalition has given to electing Republican candidates in the past few years.

Donald Hodel, the president of the coalition, told the Republican chairman that he was concerned that the party was being too accommodating on abortion, and he said that conservative Christians might break away from the Republicans and form their own party. I think probably few people think that that's about to happen, but it's been posed as a possibility.

Do you think that there is a growing rift between the coalition and the Republican Party?

GINGRICH: Well no, I think that there is a natural tension in any majority party in America. This is one of the reasons I wrote the book, because as we become a majority, we suddenly have these new problems. You know, when you're the minority party, you can kick out 10 percent of the minority and it doesn't qualitatively change your experience. You were the minority before you kicked them out; you're the minority after they're kicked out. And so, you can be much purer as a minority party.

When you're the majority party, that 10 percent may be the margin of your majority. But if you're going to be a majority party in America, this is a great country filled with good people, but they sure are diverse.

GROSS: It was recently reported that you met with Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed and agreed to follow through on certain aspects of the conservative Christian agenda. What did you feel like you recently had to pledge to get back their support?

GINGRICH: I don't think we had to pledge anything we weren't already doing. We're already moving a religious liberties amendment through the Congress, because we believe that the Supreme Court is profoundly wrong in its effort to drive God out of the public place. We think people should be allowed to pray; that they should not be persecuted by the government for engaging in religious liberties.

We're already moving a bill on religious persecution overseas that Congressman Frank Wolf had authored. We have a bill on child abuse that we're going to move because it's been something we've been working on for the last six or eight months.

I would say overall, for example -- I'll give you an example. The partial birth abortion ban, which about 80 percent of all Americans agree with -- I mean, very few Americans believe you should kill a baby in the last two or three months of its pregnancy. That -- that -- and particularly when they learn about the partial birth abortion technique, where the baby is partially born and then killed. There's overwhelming opposition to that technique.

We were going to move the effort to override President Clinton's veto of that bill. We passed the bill last year. President Clinton vetoed it. But frankly, we're coordinating with the right-to-life groups and we had an argument, between some of the organizations who wanted us to move it quicker, and some of the organizations who wanted more time to educate, because they're trying to find one or two votes in the Senate that they don't have yet.

So, I think some of this is just a process of communication and trying to move things in a broad way in the right general direction.

GROSS: Newt Gingrich -- he's written a new book called Lessons Learned the Hard Way. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of the interview I recorded yesterday with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He's written a new book called Lessons Learned the Hard Way.

You've had the support of the Christian Coalition and have worked with them. One of the things the Christian Coalition is opposed to is homosexuality. Your sister Candace is a lesbian. And I'm wondering if her coming out has had any impact on your views of homosexuality.

GINGRICH: You know, it's very fascinating. I have a sister Susan who's very active in the Christian Coalition; and a sister Candace who's very active in the human rights organization; and a sister Robbie (ph) who sort of mediates. And when we get together, as you can imagine, we have a very individualistic family.

And I would just say that I love Candace. She's my sister. And I respect how she has decided to live her life. And we're on opposite sides of the political spectrum about two-thirds of the time. But I think you can reach beyond politics when you talk about your own sister or your brother, you know, and your mom and dad. And so we try to do that.

We don't get into very many political arguments when we get home with my mother, who is also a very strong-willed individual. But as you can imagine, when we have all of us in the same room, it's a swirling opportunity if we wanted to get into some real political debates.

GROSS: Well I guess I'm wondering if you would like to see your sister protected by civil rights -- equal rights legislation that would apply to homosexuality.

GINGRICH: No. I don't understand -- I frankly don't understand that concept. I think it's one thing to say about an objective external fact, that you should not be discriminated against, but I don't think we need police in the bedroom. And my view is that we in fact we do not need, and it would be very confusing, to have those kind of laws that apply to sexual behavior.

GROSS: But the idea, I think, wouldn't be necessarily to put police in the bedroom, but rather to prevent a teacher from being fired if they were outed.

GINGRICH: I think that -- the question is not is a teacher fired if they're outed, but for example could you be a transvestite and be a second-grade teacher? And I think that there are community standards there that you could ask -- that are very legitimate.

GROSS: Getting back to the Christian Coalition and homosexuality -- I mean, I think the coalition stands hold that homosexuality is morally wrong; should be discouraged; shouldn't be tolerated in certain positions.

GINGRICH: Well, I mean, the Bible's...

GROSS: I know -- I'm wondering if you agree with all of that, particularly because you are so close to somebody who is gay?

GINGRICH: Let me say first of all, the Bible is very clear about that as a concept. So I mean if you believe the Bible, the Bible has a very straightforward position about it. But again, the Bible also says that...

GROSS: What are you referring to...

GINGRICH: ... whatever you...

GROSS: ... in the Bible?

GINGRICH: There are strong references in the Bible to homosexuality.

GROSS: What are you referring to specifically?

GINGRICH: Well, I'll let you go read the Bible and pull them up. I don't particularly want to get -- this, again, is a topic I don't spend a lot of time on. I don't want to get off and create a brand new controversy. But I would just suggest if you read the Bible, it's fairly explicit.

But I think also that in my mind, it's not a public political issue. And it's not something that I think that is at the center of our society. And I think that it is certainly not something which ought to be involved in the center of national politics.

GROSS: Newt Gingrich is my guest and he's written a new book called Lessons Learned the Hard Way.

One of your jobs -- and one of the things you have to do -- is sit in back of the president while he's making the State of the Union Address. And so, you're on camera just about the whole time.

LAUGHTER

GINGRICH: Yes...

GROSS: Facing the camera.

GINGRICH: ... it's very awkward.

GROSS: Yes, I would imagine it's incredibly awkward. So I would just love to hear what goes through your mind when you're sitting there. Are you trying to be expressive or trying to show no expression of approval or disapproval? How awkward is all of that?

GINGRICH: Well first of all, you try to show support for the things you believe in. When the president indicated we'd be discussing Social Security this year, it was a topic he and I had already been discussing for two months. I was very -- I stood on my feet. I gave him a lot of support because I think it is very important for us to solve Social Security before the baby boomers get any older.

On the other hand, when he stands for things I don't agree with him on, I try to be very disciplined and just sit there quietly and let Al Gore jump up and applaud without me. And it's kind of fun. Every once in a while, he'll say something which I think is so wrong I'm half tempted to get up and disagree with him. But since I'm the host, I show great discipline and don't intervene.

But in particular, for a couple of the State of the Unions, he had this totally false comment that we know the Russian missiles aren't targeted at the U.S. Now in fact, it's totally false. I've talked to the CIA. I've talked to the Defense Intelligence Agency. Nobody knows where the Russian missiles are targeted. And, the targeting is all done by a computer inside the missile and it takes less than two minutes to re-target them.

So it is a misleading statement that says: "why don't we all relax because we're safe?" -- which I think is a terribly dangerous thing for a president of a democracy to say. But you know, when he says it I just kind of grin and bear it and don't -- hey, I try not to overtly express hostility because he is our guest. I am his host. And we have a real obligation as a country to be unified during the State of the Union.

I feel very strongly that the President of the United States, as an institutional figure, deserves the respect and the support of the entire nation because we only have one country to display to the world. The whole world watches the State of the Union, and they should see a strong, unified America, even if it is to our partisan disadvantage sometimes.

GROSS: One last question: when you became Speaker of the House, you said that, you know, you may have a limited success in terms of bills, but the whole language of politics is going to be transformed. Do you feel that you've been effective in transforming the language of politics?

GINGRICH: I would say about 50/50. If you look at welfare -- today, people expect people to go to work or study; if you look at balanced budget, today people expect budgets to be balanced. We're beginning to go down the road on saving Social Security in a way that will change the language there.

On the other hand, there are a lot of other things we have not been able to get through or get done yet that will take longer than I would have liked. And so, I'd probably give us a 50/50 on that one.

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

GINGRICH: Thank you.

GROSS: Newt Gingrich has written a new book called Lessons Learned the Hard Way.

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

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Newt Gingrich
High: Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. He's written a new book, "Newt Gingrich: Lessons Learned the Hard Way: A Personal Report."
Spec: Politics; Government; Newt Gingrich; Media
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: Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 08, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 040801NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: When Memory Speaks
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Memoirs sure have become popular. They're being written by celebrities, politicians, professors, businessmen, recovered addicts, children of alcoholic parents, and your next door neighbor. Some of them are brutally honest; some of them are self-promotional and narcissistic.

But what is it about the form that is so attractive to writers and readers? That's something Jill Ker Conway has been thinking about. She's written two widely-read memoirs: "The Road from Coorain" and "True North," describing her life from her childhood in the Australian outback to becoming the head of Smith College.

She's also edited two popular books of women's memoirs. Now, she's written a book about autobiography called "When Memory Speaks." I asked Jill Ker Conway a question that she asks in her new book: why do so many people write their life stories?

JILL KER CONWAY, AUTHOR, "THE ROAD FROM COORAIN," AND "WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS," VISITING SCHOLAR AND PROFESSOR, PROGRAM IN SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY, MIT, FORMER PRESIDENT, SMITH COLLEGE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO: Well, I think it is part of the development in our culture, which says that there's really no central point of view from which to look at the world today, so that everybody's story is relevant in some way.

And so now, we have memoirs written by very young people. Once upon a time, you only wrote toward the end of your life. They're written by people of every ethnic and class background and every sexual orientation. Whereas once upon a time, that terrible experience of poverty would have been fictionalized by a Dickens, or the absolutely appalling experience of incest would have been turned into a novel.

Now, we have lost most of those senses of what it's appropriate to talk about in the first person, and so much that was previously fiction is now presented as a memoir.

GROSS: Well, you just -- you just really hit on something that I think is very controversial about memoirs. Some people are very kind of disturbed the idea -- about the idea that the line between public and private has virtually been erased for a lot of people, and erased in a lot of memoirs. Memoirs now really do tell everything -- the details of incest, for example.

CONWAY: Yes, that's absolutely true. And of course, I don't think we're the loser for that. Sometimes a person's fictionalized account of some horrible and deeply troubling experience might be more meaningful to the reader, but I think it's good to have to confront troublesome and difficult experiences in -- in the first person, because that's a reality we have to come to terms with.

GROSS: You know, nowadays a lot of memoirs, no matter how candid they are, aren't actually written by the person allegedly telling the story. They're written by a ghostwriter.

CONWAY: Yes, yes.

GROSS: And there's almost a formula that's been created for the autobiographies -- particularly the autobiography of a celebrity. And the formula is: the opening chapter begins with either the moment of great achievement -- "and then I got the Academy Award;" or the moment of, like, bottoming out, the worst despair -- "it was my final alcoholic stupor."

CONWAY: Yes.

GROSS: And then -- and then that chapter's over and you're kind of left hanging at this high or at this low, and then chapter two begins "I was born in 19-so and so, and my parents blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...

CONWAY: Yes.

GROSS: ... and then it slowly makes its way through the story of the person's life. What are some of the formulas you've seen emerging that you're kind of skeptical about? You know, the way the kind of form has hardened into formula?

CONWAY: Well, the formula that I feel most concerned about is the requirement that a woman present her life as a romance. No matter how driven to achieve, power hungry, managerial -- she nonetheless has to present herself as this charming ingenue who is -- for whom everything just happens by accident, even though she has really, through her own drive and ambition, created her life.

And that seems to me a prison that distorts the accounts of many, many women's lives, and is often imposed on them if there's a ghostwriter present. I think Katharine Graham's memoirs are, in many ways, a wonderful illustration of this point.

GROSS: And Katharine Graham is the former publisher of the Washington Post.

CONWAY: That's right. And I'm not sure whether the form was imposed by a very determined editor, or whether it's really Mrs. Graham's voice speaking herself. But this woman, who rescued a failing media empire, turned it into one of the most successful enterprises of our day, and was one of the most powerful figures in Washington -- making decisions like whether to publish the Pentagon Papers or whether to back the reporters who broke the Watergate story -- is -- this woman is presented as though she were the nicest, suburban lady who somehow or other just happened to be in these roles, but didn't bring them about herself -- which is clearly not the case.

GROSS: She presents herself as somebody who wasn't really prepared for this life, and just kind of inherited it after her husband died, and felt unprepared for it, but grew into it.

CONWAY: That's right, but she also presents some of the major decisions as ones that she made almost without thought. You know, she tells you what all her advisers told her, and then she says things like "I found myself saying: let's publish" -- you know, when she must have reasoned about it and reached a rational decision.

GROSS: I think, you know, memoirs seem to have a certain coherence and shapeliness that real life lacks.

CONWAY: Absolutely.

GROSS: Real life is usually, you know, very much a muddle...

CONWAY: Yes.

GROSS: ... particularly as you're going from one experience to another and it doesn't have that -- that coherence that a narrative has in book form. And I'm wondering, you know, you've written two memoirs. Did your life take on a shapeliness in book form that it didn't seem to have in real life? What was the difference between your life in that shapely form of the book and your life as it felt like as you lived the parts that you later wrote about?

CONWAY: Well, I think the important thing to remember is that in shaping that narrative -- drawing that our of the ebb and flow of very different kinds of experience -- you choose the things that seem meaningful to you at the time you are writing. And, naturally, what you put into the narrative is shaped by what are important issues to you at the moment of composing that life thought and describing it.

So I think if I look back at the Road from Coorain, at the point at which I wrote it, the relationship with my mother, who had recently died, and the reasons why I left Australia were absolutely compelling to me. And so, the narrative of my life takes its form around those issues.

And of course, since I'm a strong feminist, I also wanted the narrative to drive home the point that I'm writing about two generations of Australian women who couldn't contribute what they might have to their society because of their being female.

Were I to write that story today, you know, I've come to a much different understanding of my mother, partly from being widowed myself. And the things that drove me out of Australia seem less important to me, and I would probably construct the narrative quite differently.

But that doesn't mean to say that it wasn't true at the time I wrote it. And if I think about the second volume of my memoirs, "True North," one of the things that I wanted to convey as clearly as I could was that it's possible for a professional woman to form a very deep and powerful marriage relationship, and yet retain a bounded identity and a strong professional self -- and not experience those two things as in conflict.

And I'm still close enough to that experience that I want to tell that story the same way.

GROSS: You would tell that story the same way.

CONWAY: Yes.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CONWAY: Yes, indeed.

GROSS: Now, how...

CONWAY: You know, if I were in another life phase completely and struggling with other issues of meaning in my life, I might tell that one differently too. But I'm not at the moment. I'm in the same life stage that I was when I was writing that.

GROSS: Your husband passed away since we last talked...

CONWAY: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: ... and I was very sorry to read about that. You just mentioned that you would tell your mother's story differently now, having experienced losing your husband as she had lost hers. What -- what would be different in how you told her story now, based on what you've experienced?

CONWAY: Well, you know, at the time, before I'd had this experience, I attributed her excessive and overwhelming lifetime of grief as incomprehensible to me. I couldn't understand how she did not have the energy and drive, as a powerful and very strong woman, to get herself together and take up life again. Having lost my own husband, I can see what a temptation that is. Although it's not one I've succumbed to, I understand how it might happen.

GROSS: My guest is Jill Ker Conway. She's written a new book about autobiography called When Memory Speaks. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Jill Ker Conway. She's written two memoirs about her life, from her childhood in the Australian outback to becoming president of Smith College. Her new book is about autobiography. It's called When Memory Speaks.

Would you choose a contemporary memoir that you felt was a particularly good example of the form? And, tell us what you liked about it?

CONWAY: Yes. I think one that I absolutely love is Vivian Gornick's (ph) "Fierce Attachments." It's a wonderfully witty, passionate analysis of a very troubled mother-daughter relationship. Gornick's mother is of Jewish immigrant stock; a committed left radical; locked up in a marriage with a husband with whom there's not much mutuality, although they're tied together by their left socialist principles.

And when the father dies in his 40s, the mother, who never really seems to have felt deeply about him in a loving sense, takes on the role of the woman who has lost the love of her life. And she keeps the two children, son and daughter, in absolute thrall to her, because she's so bereaved -- and tries to suffocate any movement toward independence on the part of the two children.

And Gornick deals with this with exquisite humor and deep passion. So, you're just slipping between laughter and grief every page that you turn. And Gornick's point at the end of this narrative is that the woman who construes herself as a romantic heroine and looks at the world as though life has cast her in a tragic role, has so obscured her own motives for hanging on to these children, and her wish for power over them, that she -- she's not even able to subject that to any kind of moral scrutiny. And that's the reason for Gornick's rage against her mother, whom she also loves. And she makes you feel all of that in a very powerful memoir.

GROSS: So you -- one of the things you liked about this, obviously, is how complicated the emotions are.

CONWAY: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. Now, choose a memoir for us perhaps that you don't really like -- that you think is an example of the form gone wrong.

CONWAY: The "form gone wrong" -- well, I think I would probably choose -- ah, yes, I would choose "The Kiss," I think -- Katherine (ph) Harrison's story of her incestuous father.

GROSS: Perhaps the most controversial literary memoir of the recent past.

CONWAY: Absolutely. And she tells it like a fairy tale. And you know, I think of it as like a Grimm's fairy tale, because of course she presents herself as having a spell cast on her as a teenager by her father's powerfully erotic kiss. And she presents herself, then, as incapable of exerting any will in the relationship that unfolds.

GROSS: The incestuous relationship that unfolds.

CONWAY: Yes, yes, absolutely. And she casts the story in fairy tale form, because she says she's released from this spell, and recovers her volition only after she's kissed her then-dead grandfather a kiss of farewell. And one is obviously a good kiss; the other is erotic. But she really treats herself like a very sick romantic heroine in this relationship, having no will, no volition, no moral sense to assess what's happening.

And I find that very unsatisfactory.

GROSS: Do you find it too tidy also? That you ...

CONWAY: Oh, much -- yes -- much too tidy. There must have been good and bad parts of this horrible experience. There must have been moments of humor. There must have been moments of despair. But you don't really get that sense of a richly nuanced life.

GROSS: A lot of people were troubled by how she told the story of incest. You know, what do you think was so troubling about it?

CONWAY: Oh, I think what troubled people was that she is an incest survivor who tells about the erotic attraction of the relationship and how deeply she was pulled into it. And, you know, stories of incest are meant to be stories from total victims who are not enjoying it. And she broke those codes and more power to her for being honest about that. But she didn't tell a story in which the father is a fully developed character. He's -- he's his genitals and his eyes and his hands. That's all he is.

And so, the story lacks depth and ambiguity.

GROSS: Now, I'm going to ask you to choose another memoir for us -- this time, a memoir from history that was particularly important in developing your interest in the form.

CONWAY: Oh, well without any question, the most important was Jane Addams' "Twenty Years at Hull House," which every American school child seems still to read. And her memoirs, along with many, many others of her generation, who were the first generation of American women to get access to graduate education, and they were the founders of all the women's professions, and the people who were the great women reformers of the progressive era.

And their memoirs had a tremendous impact on me, because even though they told them in romantic form, they were stories about women who were absorbed in politics; saw themselves as shaping history; wanted to and felt that it was important to. So, they all had a tremendous impact on me.

GROSS: Do you plan on writing another memoir?

CONWAY: One day I will, but you have to be in another stage of life from the one you're writing about in order to know what's significant. You know, we fuss a lot about experiences, which at the time seem important and with hindsight seem not so important. And we often overlook at the time something that's very significant and shaping.

So you have to be in another stage of life to know what the shape of your previous one was.

GROSS: I think also when we're in a certain -- when we're in the stage of life that we're talking or writing about, we're much more defensive about the actions that we took.

CONWAY: That's right.

GROSS: We're much involved in justifying what we've done.

CONWAY: That's right. I mean, that's why the memoirs of statesmen written right after they lose office are so terrible because...

GROSS: Yes, right.

LAUGHTER

Well, Jill Ker Conway, thank you very much for talking with us.

CONWAY: It's a great pleasure, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Jill Ker Conway's new book about autobiography is called When Memory Speaks. Her own memoirs are called The Road from Coorain and True North.

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

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jill Ker Conway
High: Historian Jill Ker Conway. She's the author of the bestselling memoir, "The Road from Coorain," about growing up in the Australian outback. Conway also edited two volumes of women's memoirs "Written By Herself" -- Volumes I and II -- which were, in part, about the nature of autobiography written by women. Her new book is "When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography." Conway was the first female vice president of The University of Toronto, and from 1975 to 1985 was the president of Smith. Since then, she has been a visiting scholar and professor at MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society.
Spec: Women; Books; Authors; Jill Ker Conway; History; Australia
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: When Memory Speaks
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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