Other segments from the episode on January 26, 2005
DATE January 26, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ahmed Rashid discusses events in Afghanistan, Pakistan
and Central Asia
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Before most Americans had ever heard the word `Taliban', journalist Ahmed
Rashid wrote a book called, "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism
in Central Asia." After September 11th and the war in Afghanistan, the book
became a best seller. In 2002, he wrote the book "Jihad: The Rise of
Militant Islam in Central Asia."
Rashid lives in Lahore, Pakistan, and covers his country, Afghanistan and
Central Asia for the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Daily Telegraph of
London. Ever since the publication of his book "Taliban" in 2000, we've been
checking in with him occasionally to get his take on what's happening in his
part of the world.
Ahmed Rashid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, the last time we spoke was
just before the US invaded Iraq. Now we're speaking just before the election
in Iraq. Could you describe the range of reaction you're seeing in Pakistan
and in Afghanistan, if you were recently there?
Mr. AHMED RASHID (Correspondent/Author): Well, I think there's a lot of
despair about the situation in Iraq and I think it's galvanizing anti-American
opinion in the wider Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan and even in
Afghanistan. A lot of what we talked about before the invasion, I think,
unfortunately has come to bear fruit in the sense that Iraq has become the
center of Islamic extremism. The ethnic equation, the sectarian equation in
Iraq has not been properly tackled by the Americans, you know, and all the
rest of it.
So I think the reactions in the wider Muslim world are very, very negative and
I don't think that these elections are necessarily going to be a panacea or
give the US a potential exit point.
GROSS: Why don't you think the elections will improve the situation?
Mr. RASHID: Well, I think there are going to be only partial elections. I
think you will see large chunks of the Sunnis, and in the Sunni triangle,
people really not being--either not voting or not being allowed to vote by the
extremists. And there is now--with this huge presence of al-Qaeda and
al-Zarqawi really calling for the murder of all Shias in Iraq, this is a very,
very dangerous sectarian divide that is escalating day by day.
A lot of today's victims--the victims over the last few weeks of the bombings
in Baghdad and other areas have been Shias, and I think this is something
that's overlooked. It's not just the political division, it's the sectarian
divide which is growing in Iraq, and for which obviously an occupying power
does not have any real answers to.
GROSS: The Bush administration has said that we're fighting the terrorists in
Iraq so that we don't have to fight the terrorists in the United States. I'm
wondering, you have been following some of the terrorists groups for years;
what impact do you think the war in Iraq has had on the recruiting into
Mr. RASHID: I think it's had a huge impact. First of all, for Iraq itself--I
mean, you have the case now of many, many nationalities, not just Arabs, but
for example, seven Pakistanis have been recently killed fighting with the
extremists in Fallujah. They belong to the Lashkar-e-Taiba group, one of the
major militant extremist groups in Pakistan. So you have the phenomenon
of--and clearly there are many more Pakistanis there, Afghans perhaps, people
from Southeast Asia. Iraq itself has become a magnet. I mean, you know, this
is--it's being advertised as the place--the easiest place to come and kill
Americans. And--or, if you are of that...
GROSS: Wait, I'm going to stop you--when you say it's `advertised,' is that
what--what are you referring to?
Mr. RASHID: Well, in the local underground of extremism, on the Web sites, on
the--in the kind of inspirational talk given in some of the more extremist
mosques and madrassas, that is religious schools, that is how it's being
advertised: `If you want to really kill the infidel, well, there is no better
place to do it than Iraq.' It's a major recruiting kind of slogan, if you
GROSS: Well, the picture that you're painting is not one of victory over the
Mr. RASHID: No, not at all. I mean, I think the American-led war on
terrorism, you know, ever since the Americans went into Iraq, has been a
failure. And they--you know, they took the eye off of Afghanistan, they moved
all their resources to Iraq for nearly two years, they virtually ignored the
Afghanistan and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region where a lot of these
al-Qaeda people were based. And they created--you know, the Bush
administration created a whole round of complex difficulties for themselves in
the Muslim world.
If, you know, Muslim regimes, whether they be tyrants or dictators or even
elected leaders, wanted to cooperate with the United States after 9/11 and
after the war in Afghanistan ended, they found it much more difficult to
cooperate with the US on intelligence, on counterterrorism, on all these
issues once the US invaded Iraq because there was just no international
consensus on Iraq. And in the light of this, you know, extremism has
I think one of the other very, very big negatives as a Muslim and
being--living in the Muslim world, there was a debate that started after 9/11,
that, you know, the Muslim world needs to reform, we need to relook at
ourselves, we need to condemn this extremism much more strongly, etc., etc.
And that debate was just killed after Iraq, because, you know, no Muslim could
stand up and talk about, you know, modernization and reform and democracy
because you were just shouted down and said, you know, `You're an American
agent or a Western agent.' I mean, look what the Americans are doing in Iraq.
So I think, you know, on so many fronts, at least in the Muslim world, Iraq
has resulted in a failure of what I would call the more important strategy,
one of countering Islamic extremism, which after all is not an American
effort. It has to be a global effort. And secondly, of trying to promote
some kind of genuine reform in the Muslim world.
GROSS: I'm wondering what kind of impact the recent Seymour Hersh article in
The New Yorker had? This is the article about how the Bush administration is
considering bombing Iran to take out their nuclear weapons sites.
Mr. RASHID: I can tell you in Pakistan, it's created enormous waves and
enormous trepidation and enormous fears. And despite the denials by
Washington and you know--it is bound to create even more anti-Americanism,
make it much more difficult for even the allies of the United States in the
Muslim world to support the Muslim world.
For example, President Musharraf, the military ruler in Pakistan, is an ally
of the US, but I think he has already denied that Pakistan is involved in
helping the Americans. He will also have to publicly come out very strongly,
I think, in the next few days or weeks against any such use of force in Iran.
Iran is a neighbor of Pakistan; it's one of the biggest Muslim powers.
Although it has differences with Arabs and with Pakistan, I think you'll see
all the Muslim countries advocating very strongly any such use of force
You then have the prospect--I mean, you then have other fallouts. You have
Shias, because Iran is predominantly Shia Muslim, the Shia minorities around
the world will, particularly the Middle East, in Pakistan, will react
extremely angrily. If, God forbid, I mean, the Americans do attack Iran, you
may well get a wave of Shia terrorism, if you like, or Shia extremism directed
at the Americans, which so far, we really haven't had. You know, what you are
seeing is Sunni extremism; you're not seeing Shia extremism.
The other potential fallout is that you might get a common platform by both
Sunnis and Shias condemning this. So, for example, someone like Musharraf
could be in big trouble because you may get the Sunni parties in Pakistan and
the Shia parties uniting in condemning the Americans and condemning Musharraf
for being an ally of the Americans. And I think this could well be repeated
across places like North Africa. I think this would create even tensions in
Saudi Arabia and Arab countries who have huge difficulties with Iran, but
where there would be enormous sympathy for another Muslim country being
attacked by the Americans.
GROSS: You said that you think a lot of the Muslim countries will be very
opposed to any American intervention in Iran. Now many Muslim countries are
very opposed to American intervention in Iraq; that did not stop America from
intervening in Iraq. Do you think that the strategy would be any different
this time around, if there is a this time around?
Mr. RASHID: You know, Iran is viewed much more differently. I mean, the
failure of the fundamentalist parties across the Muslim world to galvanize
support in favor of Saddam Hussein, of course, fell flat because Saddam was
who he was. I mean, he was a tyrant and, you know, he killed more Muslims than
almost anyone else. So I think, you know, most people accepted that. That is
not the case with Iran. I mean, Iran is considered, you know, a legitimate
government. Probably most Muslims would argue it has a legitimate reason to
acquire nuclear weapons. It has taken a very strong stand against Israel,
which has pleased not just radical Muslims, but even many moderate Muslims.
I think, you know, the main thing is that, you know, the way that Iraq and
Saddam was demonized by the Americans, I mean, you can't demonize Iran to that
extent. I mean, the neoconservatives might be able to demonize Iran for their
constituency in the United States, but they will utterly fail to demonize Iran
in the eyes of Muslims.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ahmed Rashid, and he reports on
Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the Far Eastern Economic Review and
The Daily Telegraph of London. He's also the author of the best seller
"Taliban" and of the book "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central
How much awareness is there in Pakistan, where you're based, of the so-called
culture wars in the United States?
Mr. RASHID: There is a lot of an--I mean, there's a lot of anger and anguish
about what is seen as a very right-wing Christian evangelical Bush, and the
power that the right wing, especially the Christian right wing, is going to
potentially have over this administration. Now I think there's a lot of rumor
and innuendo, and it certainly suits some of the extremist groups to kind of,
you know, push this line. But for example, I mean, you know, given we've been
through all these rumors after 9/11, if you remember, you know, the big
speculation after 9/11 in many parts of the Muslim world was that Israel had
carried out the 9/11 bombing, and, in fact, all the Jews had been told not
to--who worked in the World Trade Center not to go to work that day.
Well, I mean, those kinds of absurd rumors are now being extended to the fact
that, for example, the American military is trying to turn, you know, Muslims
into Christians in Iraq. You had stories about these Christian evangelical
groups trying to convert victims of the tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Now all these kinds of things are picked up and magnified enormously, even
though it might be--you know, I'm sure these evangelical groups are probably
1/50th of the aid and the NGOs that are working in Southeast Asia, but this
kind of news is magnified and picked up enormously. And certainly, you know,
there is a sense that, you know, part of the neocon agenda in the Muslim world
is to carry out proselytization and the evangelism and, you know, try and
GROSS: That's interesting, because, you know, another criticism of the
neoconservatives is that it's some kind of like Jewish thing to help Israel,
because some of the neoconservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol,
are Jewish, so it's like they're getting it from both ends, Christian
evangelizing and being Jewish.
Mr. RASHID: Yeah, but I think after this election and the results of these
elections, I think the, if you like, you know, working for the neocon kind of
link with Israel, etc., is being perhaps overtaken by the evangelical idea...
Mr. RASHID: ...the idea that the Bush heartland is basically evangelical
Christian, and, you know, in the local media, we haven't heard much about it.
We heard a lot about the links to Israel by the neocons, I think, in the
aftermath of 9/11 and just before the Iraq War. I think it's subsided to some
extent now. But what is very hot is now this idea that, you know, America
wants to Christianize the whole world.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Ahmed Rashid. He covers Pakistan, Afghanistan
and Central Asia for the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Daily Telegraph
of London. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Ahmed Rashid, and he
reports on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the Far Eastern Economic
Review and The Daily Telegraph of London. His books include the best seller
"Taliban" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia."
You've covered Afghanistan for more than 20 years. Your book "Taliban" was a
best seller. What was it like for you to witness the elections in October?
Mr. RASHID: Oh, it was absolutely exhilarating. I was petrified, like
everyone else, that, you know, given the security scare and the threats from
the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that nobody would turn up, but, you know, people--I
mean, 70 percent of the population turned out to vote. I mean, it was such a
moving experience. I had tears in my eyes. You know, I was out at 6:00 in
the morning, and there were people lining up two hours before even the polling
stations opened. And you went to the polling stations and you saw, I mean,
people--although, you know, some of the staff there had been trained by the
United Nations, etc., but, you know, a lot of them had no clue as to where to
put all those materials they had, how to do it all. And, you know, they were
kind of learning on the job, and it was just an incredibly heartening
And then, of course, the fact that, you know, the Taliban and al-Qaeda failed
miserably to carry out any acts of violence on election day and in the
aftermath. So I think, you know, the elections really did--it was really the
result, I think, of a population who are sick and tired of war, who want to
see stability and, you know, who want to go through a process where
governments come and go, not through the gun but through the ballot box. And
for all of them, it was a very new experience.
GROSS: Would you describe a scene that sticks in your mind?
Mr. RASHID: Well, particularly, I mean, visiting women's polling stations.
You know, women going in to vote, many of them uneducated, many of them not
having left the house, you know, for any other reason except to see relatives,
coming into this polling station, having to line up separately from men, but
then having to enter the polling station with hundreds of women milling
around, and the fact that they all kind of realized that at this given moment,
on this given day, women all over Afghanistan were doing exactly the same
thing as they were doing. And this kind of made them, I think, very much
aware of, you know, what a nation-state means, I mean, in the modern era,
given that Afghanistan, you know, has been not a nation-state or a failed
state for the last 20 years. It was just being, I think for them--for a lot
of them, it was just being able to connect, that, you know, hundreds and
hundreds and thousands of women around the country are voting precisely at
this time, you know, with me. And I think for them it was a very, very
GROSS: Well, you've described the elections in Afghanistan as being a very
moving experience for you to witness. Do you think this is an example where
American intervention did good?
Mr. RASHID: Yes. I mean, I think there was no way that the Taliban would
have been dislodged if there had not been an American intervention. And I
think, you know, the invasion of Afghanistan was something very different from
Iraq. I mean, first of all, it was an act of self-defense, as far as the
United States was concerned, after the 9/11 bombings. It was the liberation
of a country; it was the overthrow of a despotic regime which the Afghans
didn't want, and hardly any of the neighbors wanted, either. It was a very
popular move. And again, one can be very critical of the follow-up, the lack
of reconstruction, the lack of money committed, the diversion, that Iraq took
everyone's eyes and focus away from Afghanistan, etc., etc. But I think the
dislodging of the Taliban and the crackdown on al-Qaeda would never have begun
unless that war had taken place.
GROSS: When you're in Afghanistan, do you see any former Taliban leaders in
Mr. RASHID: No. You don't. I mean, you know, the hard-line Taliban leaders
who were opposing President Hamid Karzai are basically living in Pakistan.
There are some Taliban who've come back and are with the regime, but they're
being kept under sort of a kind of house arrest, if you like, because there's
a danger that either they'll be killed by their former colleagues or by
al-Qaeda. And Karzai and the Americans are now trying to work on a plan for
an amnesty for the majority of rank-and-file Taliban who are living as
refugees in Pakistan to come back and take part in normal life. We haven't
seen any major figures coming back yet or any large numbers of families coming
back yet, but this is the plan. And I think it will work because I think, you
know, even amongst the Taliban, there's a very small minority who are actually
doing the fighting, who are trying to kill American troops or disrupt the
The bulk of them--and here we would be talking about maybe, you know, 30,
40,000 men, young men, are living in refugee camps or living in religious
schools in Pakistan, living very boring lives, wanting to go back to their
villages, to their farms, not wanting to fight, having suffered a lot. But
there is still a hard core which is still fighting back.
GROSS: How much power do the warlords in Afghanistan have now? Are they a
part of the government at all? Do they have control of certain areas in spite
of not being part of the government?
Mr. RASHID: It's much reduced. I mean, I think what we are seeing since the
elections is the Cabinet that has been chosen--there's only one warlord in the
Cabinet, a former warlord. The disarmament is taking place of these warlord
militias now at a much faster pace than before. This is all because the
election has, in a sense, legitimized Karzai, made him much stronger. He has
got rid of several warlords completely. He's just sacked them from their
jobs. And consequently, you know, their militias have just kind of dwindled
So I think the last big, you know, hurdle is going to be the connection
between this explosion in drugs production, heroin production, and the
connection with the warlords. The fact is that a lot of these warlords are
still surviving off drug trafficking. If you can deal with the drug
situation, then, you know, you will have also dealt in a very, very decisive
way, I think, against warlordism.
GROSS: Ahmed Rashid is a journalist based in Pakistan. His books include the
best seller "Taliban" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central
Asia." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Pakistani-based
journalist Ahmed Rashid. The Sundance Film Festival is under way; we'll talk
with its founder, Robert Redford. And Lloyd Schwartz reviews recordings of
Handel arias by Renee Fleming and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pakistani-based
journalist Ahmed Rashid. He covers his country, Afghanistan and central Asia
for the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Daily Telegraph of London. His
books include the best-seller, "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and
Fundamentalism in Central Asia."
We've spoken several times on FRESH AIR over the past few years, but we've
never really gotten around to talking about you, so I'd like to just ask you a
little bit about yourself, if you didn't mind. You were born in 1948 in
Rawalpindi, which is part of Pakistan, but 1948 was the year that Pakistan was
created, so were you born just at the time of the country's creation?
Mr. RASHID: No. Pakistan was created in August 1947. I was born just nine
months after partition, what was then the partition of the Indian subcontinent
into Pakistan and India. You know, I was born there. I lived there. My
parents moved to England in the mid-'50s, and my father was an engineer. I
came with them to England, although we kept going back to Pakistan a lot, and
I lived in England off and on for about 10 years, then went back to Pakistan
and did another few years of education and eventually went to Cambridge
University in England to get a degree.
GROSS: Why did you become a journalist?
Mr. RASHID: Well, actually, it was a complete accident. I actually--I had
set out to try and do a thesis, to do a PhD on tribalism, and really I drifted
a lot for about a decade or so and eventually when I got down to it, I
happened to be in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded, when the first--the
Communist coup took place in April 1978. And I was looking at the tribes then
and trying to understand what was going on amongst the tribes at that time,
purely from an academic point of view. And then, you know, I came back to
Pakistan and I went in again, and when--you know, when I was in Pakistan, you
know, friends got in touch with me in London and said, you know, `What's going
on in Afghanistan? Nobody's got a clue. We don't know who these guys are and
these Communists. Are they really Communists?' And I started writing. And
then I, you know, happened to be back in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded.
So I, you know, phoned again the newspapers in London and they just wanted,
you know, anything I could provide. So it really took off purely by accident.
GROSS: Have you ever been arrested or censored because of a story?
Mr. RASHID: Oh, yes. I mean, I was picked up by the Communists in
Afghanistan, you know, after the Russian invasion, several times. In fact, it
was very funny. Right after the Russians invaded, I was arrested and I spent
a day--I was interrogated by this very smooth-talking Afghan KGB-trained guy
called Najibullah, who I didn't know, and who was obviously very clu--he spoke
Urdu and English. He was multilingual. I was interrogated by him as to what
I was doing, and anyway, I was released and I was not handed over to the
Russians, thank God, but I was released. And, of course, the same Najibullah
then became president five years later. And, well, the first time I
interviewed him, I went to him, and after the interview I asked him, I said,
`Do you remember who I am?' And then I reminded him and I said, `Do you
remember, we had this--you interrogated me, but then we had this long
conversation about tribalism in Pakistan.' And he was absolutely taken aback,
you know. And then he apologized profusely and all the rest of it.
But yes. And then in Pakistan, I'd been, you know, arrested during the
Zia-ul-Haq period quite a lot. I was censored. I was told not to write. I
continued writing under a pen-name, pseudonym. And so this went on for three
or four months, and then I started writing under my own name again.
GROSS: Your book "Taliban," which you wrote before most Americans had even
heard the word, became a best-seller. And with 25 percent of the royalties
from that book, you started a fund to give grants to newly starting
independent print media in Afghanistan. Why did you decide to do that?
Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, I had benefited so much from--Afghanistan, in a
sense, you know, made my career, if you like. I had many friends there who,
you know, wanted to be journalists. I had interpreters and translators and
drivers and people who had assisted me and people who were friends--I mean,
intellectuals and academics who'd just lost everything. And, you know, I felt
very responsible that after the success, you know, of this book, I think I
should try and put something back into the country. So I put--you know, Open
Media Fund studies--it's doing very well. It's still, you know--it's in its
third year now. We're funding something like 15 magazines and newspapers
around the country, all types--political, cultural, women's issue magazines in
three, four different languages. And as society develops, presumably, you
know--there's been a huge flurry of the media. I mean, in Kabul, there's
something like over a hundred newspapers and magazines, which is--you know, a
lot of them are shoestring operations, but it's been quite extraordinary.
There are several--radio has flourished. There are several TV channels now
operating. Media--there's a real thirst and hunger for media.
GROSS: Are there any press restrictions in Afghanistan?
Mr. RASHID: Well, I mean, there is a press law. And essentially it's that
you can't, you know, defile a prophet or Islam. You cannot talk, you know,
against Islam, as it were, which is, you know, in most countries. I think
there's a lot of self-censorship because the fact is that some of these
warlords still occupy very powerful positions and have the capability of
retaliating against journalists and broadcasters. So I think there's
Some people are pushing the envelope hugely. For example, some of the
publications we have funded are naming warlords as being connected to the
drugs trade and things like that. But generally speaking, there's a kind of
self-censorship about what issues you can touch or not touch.
GROSS Well, Ahmed Rashid, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. RASHID: Thank you.
GROSS: Ahmed Rashid is a journalist based in Pakistan.
The Sundance Film Festival is under way. Coming up, we talk with Robert
Redford. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Robert Redford discusses the Sundance Film Festival
under way this week
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Sundance Film Festival, the premier showcase for new independent films, is
under way in Park City, Utah. Robert Redford is the founder of the Sundance
Institute, which has been running the festival since 1984. Redford has used
his status as a celebrity to help environmental causes and to help independent
filmmakers through the festival. As the festival has become more popular and
more powerful, it has also become more of a marketplace and generated a lot of
hoopla. Redford says he tries to keep it focused on its mission.
Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Founder, Sundance Institute): You always have something
there that has got a loud voice attached to it. And that's fine because it is
a festival that everyone is invited to, but you want to make sure that it
doesn't get so extreme--if they bring their own marketing divisions with them
and try to create a lot of buzz and heat around it, sometimes the press will
follow that and then imagine the festival has lost its course or something,
which is not true. We program the festival the way we always have from day
one in 1986, which is diversity, diversity, diversity. We're not there for
commerciality. We don't want that weight. We don't want that pressure.
That's an endgame I don't like. And also diversity keeps something alive that
might be coming under threat politically. So that's our mission.
I remember in the first years being told, `You're never going to fly with this
because it's not commercial.' And I said, `Well, exactly. We'll show things
that people may never get a chance to see. At least they'll be able to see it
GROSS: Are you pleased to see how documentaries have caught on? I mean, look
at "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Super Size Me"--those were both really popular films
and did very well at the box office.
Mr. REDFORD: They were. They were almost phenomenal in the sense of how
well they did. I mean, normally, documentaries don't break through to that
degree. But, I mean, they did so for a reason, obviously. They were very
bold, very powerful, and unshakably from a very strong point of view.
But, for example, we've been doing this for years. I mean, I think both
"Super Size Me"--we had that at the festival last year. "Fahrenheit
9/11"--that went way off the grid. It was a success phenomenon, kind of like
"The Passion" in a sense. And so it went way beyond. But normally, there's a
kind of frame that they work in. Like, this year we've got some really
exciting documentaries that go into that area of the political. There's
"Shake Hands with the Devil"--that's really the journey of General Romeo
Dallaire, as the commander, to try to prevent the genocide in Rwanda in 1994,
and then come back 10 years later from his book that he wrote about the
horrors of that. And what he had to experience trying to make the thing work
is really a very powerful story. So that documentary is here with the general
to speak about it.
We got a documentary about Nicaraguan civil strifes, in which the US played a
major role. That's called "El Immortal." You got a thing about a pianist in
Baghdad who is a lounge pianist, and what has his life been, having to live
with the changes that have been going on there from the small human
standpoint. Then we have "The Wall," which is really a terrifying portrait, a
look at that wall that's separating Israel and the Palestinian territories.
And then we have also another documentary about exploring the role of the arts
and culture during the cultural revolution in present-day China. And then
domestically, we have "Why We Fight," which is Jarecki, who did "The Trials of
Henry Kissinger," and we have a piece on Enron. So there's a lot of diversity
here that we're very proud of.
GROSS: You are politically liberal, and that's been known for years, but
does being politically liberal in Hollywood have a different meaning now than
it did 10 or 20 years ago?
Mr. REDFORD: Well, you know, I'm really against labels, Terry. I always
have been. I've been resistant to labels. And, you know, I get labeled
pretty easily in my life and career, and it's been strange. My feeling is,
I've voted for a lot of Republicans in my time. I vote for the person and the
issue and making sure that this world, which is in a very dangerous place
right now, maintains a certain integrity around some of the things that's kept
us alive and strong for so long. And so sometimes that'll move me over this
way or that way. If I think there's a Republican out there that is a good
person, then I will support them. I'm not just strictly label extreme left or
extreme right. I think that there's some value in bipartisanship,
particularly right now. I think that's probably the only answer to our
future, is bipartisanship. We're never going to get anywhere screaming and
yelling and trashing each other right or left. That'll go nowhere. And if
policies follow that, we're in real trouble.
GROSS: You were in a movie in 1972 called "The Candidate." And I know that
you're in the process of doing an updated version of that 30 years later in
which the young candidate is now running for and, I think, elected as
president. Do I have that right?
Mr. REDFORD: Yes.
GROSS: I know you don't like to talk about movies before they're released.
So I won't press you to tell us more about the movie, but what was the vision
of politics in 1972 when you made the movie, and what do you think needs to
be updated about that?
Mr. REDFORD: Well, just the mere fact that whatever the movie was trying to
say at that time, which was basically, `This is how we get people elected in
this country.' And the subtext was, `By cosmetics.' I mean, we were making a
point in 1971--that's actually when I made the film--that was a little fresh
at that time. You know, we were coming off the '60s revolution, there was a
lot of hot, young stuff going on, people were entering government, and people
that hadn't burned out were going into the system. It was a very, very
exciting time, but there was still a vestige of that distrust of the
establishment and so forth. So I kind of keyed off of that and said, well,
why don't we look at how people get elected in this country, because I suspect
it's really more about cosmetics. And so we went in that direction using me
as a sacrificial character to that, and made the point that substance wasn't
nearly as much the issue as look and touch and whether your image was right so
that everything around it--all the manipulation, the building of blocs and so
forth--was tied to selling you as a product rather than a point of view.
Well, now, you know, time--we've seen what's happened. So nothing really--I
don't think--if anybody was hoping for that film to change anybody, it didn't,
nor did "All the President's Men." I mean, we're back to the same stuff. And
so certainly there's enough that's gone on beyond that that fortifies the
point we were making a long time ago, but it's just a different world out
there now. The world is so drastically different, it might be interesting to
look at that now.
GROSS: So will you be playing the senator-turned-president?
Mr. REDFORD: No, I'll be playing a Senate page in--no, I'm kidding.
Mr. REDFORD: Yeah, I'll be playing...
GROSS: Very funny.
Mr. REDFORD: Yeah, I'll be playing him. Yeah, I will. Yeah. Yeah. I'd be
safer playing a page.
GROSS: How are you deciding now what roles you do want to play?
Mr. REDFORD: Well, it has to do with what's feasible, what's realistic, you
know, as you age, you know. You don't want to stretch yourself trying to be
20. And so you don't want to go that way. So you just kind of roll with how
you're developing as a human being with roles that would be appropriate. It's
kind of tough sometimes because you are in a business that is very focused on
youth and looks and perfection and so forth, but that's the way it is.
There's nothing you can do about that, but you can engineer your own way
GROSS: Yeah, well, I think that's an interesting thing because there's--you
know, after directors like you and Clint Eastwood and, you know, other people
in that category who, as you get older, you're finding roles that are good
for where you are in your life. And so since you have the ability to choose
the scripts, direct the movie, get them produced, you're not dependent on a
studio that's only going to want, you know, movies that center around a
20-year-old or a 30-year-old. And I think it's interesting, I think it's
kind of--that, you know, actor-director-producers like yourself are, in a
way, changing the subject matter of movies.
Mr. REDFORD: I don't think so.
Mr. REDFORD: No, that's a nice idea...
GROSS: Nice try, huh?
Mr. REDFORD: Well, it's a nice thought, but I don't--I think Clint's doing
great. But--I think it's harder now to do those films. I really do. I think
the business has changed drastically and is in a sea motion of change that's
really drastic right now. And I think the new technology has driven a lot of
it. There's a lot of fear out there, there's a tense--you can see from the
programming prospectus that blockbusters aren't going away, no matter what
they do financially. For some reason, there's a held opinion that they're
The smaller, more controversial films that are more humanistically driven,
that are really more in the independent film area, are going to, I believe, be
harder and harder to come by, matter who you are. And that's just the nature
of the beast, which to me points out more than ever the urgency to keep
strengthening the role of independent films so it won't be quite so dependent
on the sensibility of those people that see a more conventional way to go.
GROSS: Robert Redford. Our critic, John Powers, is at the Sundance Film
Festival and will talk with us about the movies he's seen on Monday after the
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews two recordings of Handel arias
featuring Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Renee Fleming. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Two new albums of Handel arias by opera singers Renee
Fleming and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
TERRY GROSS, host:
Two of our best-loved opera singers have new albums of arias by Handel, a
composer who used to be overlooked by most opera stars. Classical music
critic Lloyd Schwartz has high praise for both recordings.
(Soundbite of aria)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:
Two of the best Handel performances I've ever experienced were by soprano
Renee Fleming as the sorceress Alcina and mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt
Lieberson as the vengeful Sesto in "Julius Caesar." Both singers have voices
flexible enough to handle Handel's extreme technical demands, beautiful enough
to make you want to listen, and sensitive enough to convey the deepest
feeling. Handel is usually left to the early music specialists who are lucky
to possess one or two of these three ingredients.
Fleming is the more glamorous singer. Her album is more a collection of
greatest hits than Hunt Lieberson's, although the selection includes some
unusual items and covers an extraordinary range, from dreamlike stillness to
fierce brilliance, to pure seduction, as in Cleopatra's aria "To Julius
(Soundbite of aria "To Julius Caesar's Eyes")
Ms. RENEE FLEMING (Soprano): (Singing in foreign language)
SCHWARTZ: The Hunt Lieberson disc is more focused on individual characters.
She does five arias from "Theodora," all sung by the early Christian martyr
Theodora's comforting friend, Irene, and two arias by the title character in
"Xerxes," both roles she has performed on stage. She also sings a complete
21-minute cantata in the voice of Lucretia, victim of one of the most famous
rapes in literature and art. This emphasis on character allows Hunt Lieberson
to demonstrate Handel's emotional range in an even more profound way, always
reaching inward, as in this area from "Theodora," half hymn, half lullaby
about the possibility of hope at even the darkest hour.
(Soundbite of aria)
Ms. LORRAINE HUNT LIEBERSON (Mezzo-soprano): (Singing in foreign language)
SCHWARTZ: On these two Handel recordings, there's only one overlapping aria,
the most famous, "Ombra mai fu," from "Xerxes"--surely the greatest aria ever
sung to a tree.
Hunt Lieberson's advantage is that she includes the preceding recitative,
which helps explains the king's celebration of quiet shade. But both she and
Fleming are ravishing in the great aria. Here's Renee Fleming.
(Soundbite of aria "Ombra mai fu")
Ms. FLEMING: (Singing in foreign language)
SCHWARTZ: Here's Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
(Soundbite of aria "Ombra mai fu")
Ms. HUNT LIEBERSON: (Singing in foreign language)
SCHWARTZ: Both recordings are with the same orchestra, the Orchestra of the
Age of Enlightenment, with period instruments led by the same conductor, Harry
Bickett, who succeeds in changing my opinion of him as a trivializer of early
music. My only complaint is that the designers of both these albums, as on
many recent CDs, make it extremely difficult to read the information provided.
Still, we're lucky we live at a time when two such glorious artists co-exist.
Handel is lucky too.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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