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Rescuing Dogs, and Learning from Them

In his new memoir, writer Ken Foster talks about his experience in recovering and sheltering lost animals. His book is called The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned from Pets who were Left Behind. Foster also contributed to and edited the collection Dog Culture: Writers on the Character of Canines.


Other segments from the episode on April 6, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 6, 2006: Interview with Ken Foster; Review of the television show "West Wing;" Review of Jaheim's “Ghetto Classics” and Van Hunts' “On the Jungle Floor."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Ken Foster, author of "The Dogs Who Found Me," talks
about his life with his dogs and what he's learned from them

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

He doesn't go looking for stray dogs. The dogs find him, says my guest Ken
Foster. He says they come up to him and sit at his feet. They tap him with a
paw, they loiter in his path, and when they do, he tries to find them homes or
take them to shelters. He lives with three dogs. Foster is a writer. Dogs
are often the subject. He's written for Bark magazine, McSweeney's and the
Believer, and edited the anthology "Dog Culture." His new book is called "The
Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned from Pets Who Were Left Behind." Last
summer, just before Hurricane Katrina, Foster and his three dogs moved to New
Orleans. As we'll hear later, they evacuated and are now back in the city
where he's been volunteering at the SPCA.

Why do you feel a responsibility to stray dogs when you find them?

Mr. KEN FOSTER (Author, "The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned from Pets
Who Were Left Behind"): That's one of the questions I was trying to explore
when I wrote the book, and I didn't really know the answer, I guess. I wanted
to try to figure out what is it that actually compels me to do something since
there's so many people who, you know, don't seem to notice them or see them
and hope somebody else is going to take care of it. I kind of wanted to
figure out why. Why, why do I keep running into these dogs everywhere and
instead of continuing on my way, taking them home. And I think one of the
things I found, at least in myself, is I guess a number of things. But one of
them is that it's so easy, really, to solve this problem of this little furry
life that needs some direction, you know, that needs a place to go, that needs
to be taken care of. And so why not do it? Why not help this animal out?
The other thing that I talk about a lot in the book is the fact that so many
things in our lives aren't under our control or don't seem to be. You know,
fate plays a big part in our lives, and it plays a big part in what I write
about in the book, and for a stray dog, we can actually change their life, and
we can do it in an afternoon.

GROSS: You have three dogs. Tell us the story behind how you found the first
of those three, Brando.

Mr. FOSTER: Brando's like my soul mate in some strange way, although I hate
to say that because it makes me sound a little bit crazy. But I'd actually
been living in Costa Rica, but there was a dog there named Duque who followed
me home every day after lunch and would take a nap and then get up and follow
the gardener around the property and then come back for dinner and then guard
my door while I slept at night. And it really was the first that I fell
completely in love with and began to appreciate the things that a dog can sort
of show you about the world because they're always watching things. They're
always attuned to things that we sort of filter out, I think. And I couldn't
bring him back. The airline wouldn't let me, so I left him in the village
with a huge bag of dog food for everyone to take care of him with. And yet
when I came back to New York, I had fallen into this lurk pattern of having a
dog in my life. And so I went on to Petfinder and found this picture of a dog

that didn't look anything like Duque because I would feel guilty if I felt
that I was replacing him. So it had to be a unique dog. And there was this
little, teeny, tiny striped puppy that was unlike anything I'd ever seen
before, and so I went over to the shelter in Brooklyn called Bark and met this
little dog named Brando. And I visited him every day for a week, actually, to
make sure that we liked each other. And then I put him in a hired car and
drove him across the river to Manhattan to my apartment there, and we've been
together ever since. But what I didn't realize was that he'd been abandoned
on the street as a puppy and he had really bad separation anxiety, which I'd
always heard about but I didn't understand how severe it can be. So there
were many months of dealing with this hysteria every time I left him in the
apartment and self-destructive behavior. My neighbors actually thought that
I'd purchased a bird of some kind because the noises he made when I was gone
were like a high pitched sort of shrilling, you know, parrots or something.

GROSS: Some of the advice that you took when you got Brando was to keep
Brando in a crate, in a cage, while you were gone for the day at work. And he
ended up chewing through three or four crates. And once you came home and
found--tell us the worse that had happened.

Mr. FOSTER: I came home one day, and there are a couple worse things,
actually. I came home one day and he had eaten my razor blades and I found
the handles of disposable razor blades scattered throughout the house with no
blades left in them. And, obviously, he had been watching me shave every
morning before I left him and made some kind of association with this object
and me. There was another time that I had came home and he had gotten into
the trash and bit into a can of dog food.

GROSS: Oh, jees!

Mr. FOSTER: It was stuck in his mouth. And one time, actually, after
September 11th, I left him in his crate and the TV was on and the president
came on to give some kind of address, and when I got back, he had gotten out
of the crate, unplugged the television, dragged it into his crate, gotten into
a pile of The New York Times, which he shredded and stuffed into the crate
about a foot deep. And I thought it was some kind of commentary on the media
coverage of our situation. But really, I also was worried because when he was
doing these things, it clearly could hurt him.

GROSS: So with Brando because he had abandonment issues, you briefly put him
on medication?

Mr. FOSTER: Yeah. He's been on medication a couple of times, actually. But
there's a medication called Clomicalm which is the only FDA-approved
medication to treat separation anxiety in dogs. Which, I mean, is kind of
amazing that such a thing exists. But, you know, the problem with separation
anxiety, apparently, is fairly widespread so much so that the FDA's, you know,
approving medication for it. And it eventually calms him down. It's a
psychotropic drug, I guess, which builds up in the system and keeps sort of
the extreme behavior from occurring. It's used to treat obsessive compulsive
disorder as well, which, of course, separation anxiety is an extension of.
The fact that everyone needs to be here now and never leave the room. And
when the separation anxiety has been its most intense when he was a puppy, if
we were walking on the street and sat and talked to someone for a few minutes,
he would become hysterical when they walked away. So it wasn't even just
about me. It was that anybody who entered into his life for any period of
time. He just wanted to collect people and never let them go, you know.

GROSS: You've described your dog Brando as your soul mate. Why do you think
of him that way? What makes him your soul mate?

Mr. FOSTER: I think because we've been through so many things together at
this point. You know, he was with me in New York on September 11th and after
that. And I write in the beginning of my book, I talk about how, you know,
there are all these things that we try to block out of our lives or our
consciousness or things that we try to be, sort of, coldly efficient about
going about our business. And one of those things, I think, is grieving. And
in those days after, and months after really, September 11th, he would stop me
all the time. If we were passing a memorial on the street, he would sit down
in front of it. And in doing that, I think he, you know, he forced me to slow
down, he forced me to recognize the loss all around us.

And so, I mean, we're so attuned through that experience, I think. You know,
early in the morning, because we lived downtown below 14th Street, for months
afterwards, when they were, you know, pulling the wreckage out of there, there
were fires that would light up again, and I would wake up in the morning, and
he would be crying. And on mornings when he was crying first thing in the
morning, I knew that in a couple of hours, I'd be able to smell it too.

And so we have this experience where, you know, nobody else shared that with
me during those days except him. And then, you know, later with my heart
situation that I write about in the book and Hurricane Katrina, I feel like we
have like a shared memory of this very intense five years of my life.

GROSS: Yeah, you've had a couple of pretty serious health crises. One was
that you broke your clavicle, and you were out of commission for a while. And
another was that you had serious health problems and you needed a pacemaker.
And you needed a long period of rest. So you not only needed people to help
you during those two health crises, you needed people to help your dogs. So
in a time like that when you're temporarily out of commission, is it a real
burden to have the dogs?

Mr. FOSTER: No. A sort of emphatic no. And you would think it would be
and, obviously, there's considerations you need to make. But particularly
with the pacemaker, for months I was exhausted, and I would sleep for days at
a time. I even told friends that I was sleeping like a dead man, and I didn't
realize that I literally was sleeping like a dead man because my heart had
dropped down to a pulse of about 30 or 35. And that was when I was awake, so
when I was sleeping, it was going even lower. And again, I always talk about
how intuitive dogs are and how much we could learn by observing how they
observe things and how they pay attention. I just chose to ignore all these
signs and continued lethargically going about my business for months while my
dogs became more and more frantic around me because they knew something was
wrong. And my rottweiler, who is the most well-behaved dog, ever, you know, I
will nominate her for every dog award there is, she never comes into the bed
unless she's invited, and I would wake up in the morning, and she was sitting
on my chest.

GROSS: Think she knew something was wrong with your heart?

Mr. FOSTER: Yeah. And at the time, I just thought, how strange. And, of
course, it was extremely strange for her to be doing that. But she knew
something was not allowing me to wake up, I think is what she knew. And so
she was sitting on me to get me up. And when I came back from getting the
pacemaker implanted, every time I sat down, she would come over and press her
ear to my chest. So she knew that something had been fixed, that something
that didn't sound right before sounded the way was supposed to now.

GROSS: Yeah, let me mention your heart situation, you needed a pacemaker and
basically had to stop completely for a while while you recovered from your
heart ceasing to function temporarily. And then with Katrina, you evacuated
with these three dogs, so, you know, Brando went through Hurricane Katrina
with you. You were living in New Orleans. You'd moved there just before the
hurricane. Now, did your dogs affect your sense of what you should do when
you knew that the hurricane was coming?

Mr. FOSTER: Yes. Yes. Like so many other people, I wasn't planning to
leave, and in fact the afternoon of the hurricane, I was sitting at a wine
tasting with a bunch of friends, and everyone was talking about what they were
going to do to prepare for the hurricane that probably wasn't really coming.
And since my friends and I were all teachers, we were a little bit upset
because we figured even if the storm didn't come, we would probably not have
class Monday, and we would have to redo our lesson plans. And then I went
online, and there was a map of the predicted flooding that would occur if the
storm was as bad at they thought it could be. And it didn't look like my
street necessarily was going to flood, but basically everything else around us
would. And I just thought, you know, I can put myself in a situation where I
might need to wade to safety or swim, but I can't do that to my dogs.

So I woke up early, wasn't even light out, went and got gas, put the dogs in
the car, put their crates in the car, put dog food in the car, grabbed a
couple of bottles of wine that I thought I would drink with a friend in
Mississippi while we waited for the storm to pass, and I had one change of
clothes for myself. And that's what I left with thinking still that I'd be
back in a day. And, of course, we weren't.

GROSS: No, but you are back now. And your home was not destroyed and a lot
of rats in it, I understand. Everything else was pretty intact.

Mr. FOSTER: Yeah, it was pretty much intact, but I also was worried because
there could be wind damage or anything like that. So when I came back, I
loaded up the car as if I was going camping because I thought I may end up
camping in whatever is standing where we used to live. And yet, I came in and
the electricity for my house was already back on. This was in October. So it
was, you know, six weeks later, but still far earlier than for many people.
The electricity was on, there were rats that had come out of the water and had
lived in my house and gotten into a lot of things. There was a small hole in
the roof towards the back and yet, all of those things seemed like nothing
compared to what everyone else had to deal with. So we came back and we sort
of investigated the neighborhood for the first couple of days to see what had
happened. And actually one of the strange things was that there was a
warehouse a few blocks away from us that had caught on fire and they had been
storing propane tanks inside that went shooting all over the neighborhood like
rockets and, basically, obliterated this warehouse. But the smell in the air,
that combination of fuel and cement was exactly the smell from September 11th,
and again, walking the neighborhood with Brando, there was a sense that we
both recognized that familiar sort of disaster smell.

GROSS: My guest is Ken Foster. His new book is called "The Dogs Who Found
Me: What I've Learned from Pets Who Were Left Behind." We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Ken Foster. His new book about rescuing dogs is called
"The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned from Pets Who Were Left Behind."

You've been volunteering at that SPCA in New Orleans. What can you do as a
volunteer? What do you do?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, because I love pit bulls and so many of the dogs in any
shelter, if they even allow pit bulls in, are pit bulls. I mean, the dogs
that are abandoned are pit bulls. Pit bulls make up a huge percentage of the
population across the country of dogs, actually, and yet they're really,
really sweet in spite of what people may be told. So I've been playing with
the pit bulls basically and taking them for walks, and in some cases, we sit
and read to them because they're shy to even come to the door of their cage to
go out for a walk yet. So people have been sitting and reading books to them
and eventually they edge their way closer to you. And one of the volunteers
insists that they prefer "Harry Potter." But I've been mostly just telling
them stories that I invent as I'm sitting with them. So...

GROSS: Is the idea that just your human voice will be kind of soothing and

Mr. FOSTER: Human voice and being closing to someone who's talking to them
and talking to them in a calm voice, that they get used to it. It doesn't
frighten them anymore because, obviously their experience in the past has been
that humans are frightening.

GROSS: You mention that after Katrina, the majority of, you know, lost or,
you know, homeless dogs were pit bulls. Is there a reason for that? Is there
an explanation for that?

Mr. FOSTER: I think part of it is the pit bull population is much larger
than people realize, and, in fact, a lot of people don't really know what a
pit bull is. I have a pit bull named Sula that I, you know, for a while was
trying to find a home for her, and people would always meet her and be
completely charmed by her and say, `What kind of dog is this?' And when I told
them it was a pit bull, suddenly they would back away, whereas before they
were kissing her and she was kissing them back.

So there's a huge pit bull population to begin with, and I think a lot of
people get a pit bull because they have the reputation of being a fierce dog,
and then when they discover that it isn't a fierce dog, that it's not going to
scare people away or that it's not going to fight, they'll throw it away.
Also in this case, you know, people who might have lived in poor neighborhoods
might have had a dog that they used as both a pet and as security, and those
are the same people who didn't have a way out of town. So they didn't have a
way of bringing the animal with them. And, therefore, they were among the
ones left behind.

I remember it was such a strange experience to be evacuated and to be in this
sort of limbo that we were all in and to read and see coverage of the
situation with the people who were left behind and the animals. But there was
one photograph in particular in The New York Times of a house that was on the
verge of collapse, and in the attic, which was particularly ripped open, there
was a pit bull sitting, waiting for its owner to come home. And that just
haunted me.

GROSS: There's three cities in the United States--Denver, Cincinnati and
Miami--that have banned pit bulls, and Denver has actually put at least a
couple hundred pit bulls to death. And this is because of, you know,
statistics that pit bulls are the dog most likely to attack. Is that it?

Mr. FOSTER: You know, if you really look at the statistics behind dog
attacks, what you find that each attack has in common, regardless of if it's a
pit bull or some other kind of dog, is that they have an incredibly
irresponsible or abusive owner. You'll find they have histories of previous
animal violations, of criminal activity, of abuse of other humans, of abuse of
minors. And yet none of these things are never addressed.

And it worries me, not just for these dogs who I love but also for the way
that we seem to think that we can solve problems in this country by
rubber-stamping weird sorts of legislation. That rather than addressing the
human behavior and the human irresponsibility behind these isolated attacks
with individual dogs, we think the solution is to ban them outright and to put
them to sleep. I'd rather that we focused our energy on dealing with the
humans who are being irresponsible than the dogs.

GROSS: Ken Foster will be back in the second half of the show. His new book
is called "The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned from Pets Who Were Left

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, rescuing Valentino and other pit bulls. We continue our
conversation with Ken Foster, author of "The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've
Learned from Pets Who Were Left Behind." And TV critic David Bianculli doesn't
want you to miss the final episodes of "The West Wing."


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ken Foster, author of
the book, "The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned from Pets Who Were Left
Behind." It's a memoir about rescuing dogs and trying to find homes for them.
Foster has an affinity for pit bulls. He says that whenever he sees one
wandering along a road, he pulls his car over and invites the dog in. Pit
bulls are probably the breed most likely to be abandoned and are particularly
hard to place because they have a reputation for attacking. Three
cities--Denver, Cincinnati and Miami--have bans on pit bulls. But Foster
thinks pit bulls are good dogs.

Well, from what I understand about pit bulls, they've basically been bred to
be tough-fighting dogs with really strong jaws and strong muscle. So do you
think that the problem is the way the dogs were bred, or do you think the
problem is that owners who want, you know, kind of tough, macho, mean dogs
tend to choose pit bulls and that some of those owners, you know, try to train
the dogs to be really mean and tough?

Mr. FOSTER: Any dog that isn't socialized is going to get mean and tough.
And some of the most vicious dogs I've known have been tiny little lap dogs
who, I think, sometimes by virtue of their tininess people think they don't
need to train them or socialize them properly. But I think the problem with
pit bulls--in some cases, there may be dogs that are bred to be more
aggressive, there may be certain blood lines that are potentially more
aggressive, and yet even a dog fighter wants a dog that might be aggressive in
a fighting ring with another dog but not aggressive to another human because
nobody wants to get bit. And if you look at--you know, New York City has a
population of 300 to 350,000 pit bulls. You never hear about them going on
any kind of crazy rampage through the city mauling people.

You know, there's some other cities where for some reason it seems like it is
a little bit more common, and yet, again, if you look at the actual incidents
and the behavior surrounding the dog and the way the dog is housed and the way
the dog has been trained or not trained, I think that's the statistic we need
to look at and that's the behavior we need to address.

The dog itself has been around, you know, for a long, long time and has
frequently been used as a family dog, as a nanny dog. If you go back and look
in the '30s, it was used in advertising for white bread and for children's
shoes. Buster Brown is a pit bull. "The Little Rascals"' dog Petey is a pit
bull. And so, I mean, one of the things I actually hope to do in another book
is to look at what happened to the pit bull and the way it's been used and
abused, including the ways it's used in the media, the way the image of a pit
bull has moved from being something that would sell a loaf of bread to
something that is used, you know, to frighten people or to show machismo or to
describe a really tough lawyer or, you know. What does it say about us as a
society that we've taken this dog from one extreme to another?

GROSS: Since you feel an affinity for pit bulls and since you've rescued a
lot of pit bulls, and you have a couple of pit bulls, when you see a stray pit
bull on the street, how do you approach it knowing that this dog might be
really tough, might be mean, on the other hand might not be. But it's going
to be strong, probably one way or the other. So how do you cautiously
approach a stray pit bull?

Mr. FOSTER: You know, in the book, I tell the story of Valentino, who is a
dog, a pit bull, an 85-pound pit bull that I found in a gas station. And yet
the reason I approached him, and I approached him and not only approached him
but also climbed over an embankment to essentially chase him to get ahold of
him, which I say in the book, `Do not do this at home,' essentially. You
know, don't chase a dog, don't climb over an embankment, don't grab him by the
collar, all these are things you should not do. And yet in that case, I did
do them because you could tell from his body language that he was a good dog.
He was sitting outside the gas station following people to their cars and
sitting outside their car while they got into their car and waiting to see if
they might invite him into their car.

And even a pit bull, for the most part--I mean, anything's possible, I guess.
But most dogs, they give a warning before they attack. Even a dog that might
have aggression problems, they're going to give a warning before they attack
because what they really want you to do is just to back away. And I think if
you just pay attention to that body language in an animal, you know whether
you feel comfortable approaching it or not. And I always tell people, dogs
pick up on whether you are nervous or whether you're comfortable or
uncomfortable around them. And if you're not comfortable, don't go near the
dog. Call somebody else, you know.

GROSS: You know, considering the story of Valentino, you did rescue him, you
put him in your car, but instead of putting him in the back of the car where
you have a cage, he was on the front seat with you. And what happened?

Mr. FOSTER: Yeah, it was yet another example of what not to do. One of the
things I sat down and thought about before I started working on the book was
that, you know, I don't consider myself an expert on anything, really. But I
thought, well, maybe people can learn by everything I've done wrong. And
Valentino leaned over first, and then he stepped on top of me, and then he
climbed on top of me and sat down facing me. So I couldn't see where I was
driving. And he's staring at me, you know, eye to eye. And I have to say, I
thought, `What have I done?' But then he started kissing me all over, big,
slobbery tongue. And I said to him, because I still couldn't see where I was
going on the highway, and I said, you know, `You need to get back in your
seat.' And he got back in his seat and sat down and stayed in that seat for
the rest of the trip.

I mean, he was an amazing, amazing dog. And yet, I was really worried because
most shelters, or many shelters, at least, would not even take him in if he
was a pit bull. They might take him in and put him immediately to sleep, but
they're not going to try to find a home for him. And he was such a terrific
dog, and I--you know, in the book, I tell the story of some of the
complications I had in making sure he found a home. But he did and lived and
continues to live happily ever after in a home with another dog that he lets
climb on top of him. And, yes, so he's a fine dog. I mean...

GROSS: How did you find a home for him?

Mr. FOSTER: What happened was I'd given my name to the shelter that he was
at and said to call if they needed to get rid of him. And I was hoping that
that wouldn't happen. Of course, what I realize now is that any time you give
an animal shelter your name and tell them to call if they need to get rid of a
dog, they will call you. So they called and said that I needed to come get
him, and I was living in Florida at the time, the dog was in New Orleans. A
student in my classroom volunteered to go, a very tiny, petite girl who drove
to New Orleans, a six-hour trip one way, picked this dog up that she'd never
seen before in her life and drove back to Florida with him. And by the time
she got home, she said, `I'm keeping him.' And I was still a little skeptical,
so I dropped by about a week later to visit her and her other dog and
Valentino in his new home. And it was clear that he'd found his home. And it
was a little difficult and it always is to sort of realize that my role in the
dog's life is done and I need to step aside, but that's what I did.

GROSS: You've said that, you know, you rescued dogs but in some ways you feel
like the dogs have rescued you. From what?

Mr. FOSTER: I think from--well, I mean from my heart situation, look at what
actually got me up out of my chair and sent me to a clinic where I thought
maybe they would tell me I had some kind of respiratory infection was the
dogs. The fact that, you know, they were sitting all around me, very close
staring at me. Sula kept climbing into my lap and licking my nose in a way
that just seemed strange, as if she could smell something. And I thought
maybe she smelled a respiratory infection because I was feeling a little short
of breath. And if I'd been living alone, I probably would have just--you
know, I hate to say this--but I would have been one of those people who went
to bed one night and didn't wake up.

GROSS: Do you mean emotionally, too, that the dogs have rescued you?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, I think so, too. I think I'm so much more in touch with
my--it feels strange to say it, more in touch with my emotions because of my
dogs. You know, it sounds like, you know, crazy dog talk. But I think
because they've made me appreciate life and being alive and so many of the
aspects of the world around us that I chose to ignore before, I think that
that's tied into my emotional life in a way that I'm much more honest than I
ever was before, I'm much less concerned about superficial things. I don't
think I could have--even though the book is obviously about dogs and what I've
learned from them, I don't think I would have been capable of writing this
book or of learning these things or of communicating them in the way that I do
if not for the dogs.

GROSS: Ken Foster, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. FOSTER: Thank you.

GROSS: Ken Foster is the author of the new book, "The Dogs Who Found Me."

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Profile: Remembering Gene Pitney and his 1961 hit "Town Without
Pity," dead at 65

Let's listen to a great record by Gene Pitney. He was found dead in his hotel
room yesterday at the age of 65, after performing in Wales the night before.
Pitney had a big and expressive voice. His hits in the early '60s included
"Town Without Pity," "Liberty Valance," "Only Love Can Break a Heart," "24
Hours from Tulsa" and "It Hurts to be in Love." Here's his big 1961 hit, "Town
Without Pity."

(Soundbite of "Town Without Pity")

Mr. GENE PITNEY: (Singing) "When you're young and so in love as we, and
bewildered by the world we see, why do people hurt us so? Only those in love
would know what a Town Without Pity can do.

If we stop to gaze upon a star, people talk about how bad we are, ours is not
an easy age, we're like tigers in a cage. What a Town Without Pity can do.

The young have problems, many problems. We need an understanding heart. Why
don't they help us, try to help us before this clay and granite planet falls

Take these eager lips and hold me fast. I'm afraid this kind of joy can't
last. How can we keep love alive? How can anything survive, when these
little minds tear you in two? What a Town Without Pity can do."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli wants you to watch the final
episodes of "The West Wing." This is FRESH AIR.

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Review: "The West Wing" ending the series after seven years

After seven years on TV, "The West Wing" comes to an end next month. TV
critic David Bianculli says he doesn't want to wait until then to discuss the
show because lately it's simply been too good to ignore.


When "The West Wing" premiered in 1999, in the previous century just before
the premiere of "The Sopranos," it instantly was the best drama series on
television. Creator Aaron Sorkin took a potentially dry and wonky subject,
the inner workings of the most powerful inner circle in politics and made it
funny, gripping, thought-provoking, even exciting. If you want to see how
easily such a topic can go south, watch ABC's "Commander in Chief," which is
about to return. But if you want to watch a perfect dramatic TV series, get
the DVDs and watch the first two seasons of "The West Wing."

The fictional world of "The West Wing" has a political cycle two years ahead
of or behind our own. The story began with Martin Sheen's President Bartlet
having two years to go in his first term. He ran for re-election and won in
2002, and we got to see his devoted passionate staffers plan and fight his
campaign whether a scandal about his hidden health problems and deal with one
global or domestic crisis after another. But in Bartlet's second term, "The
West Wing" became a little less focused and substantially less satisfying.
After Sorkin left the show, and even in the final year while he was there,
"The West Wing" didn't crackle the way it used to. Characters began to do
things that were wildly uncharacteristic and totally unbelievable. Richard
Shift's Toby got into a fist fight, for example, when his strongest weapons
always have been his intellect and his mouth.

But a funny thing happened as "The West Wing" approached the final year of the
final Bartlet term. Executive producer John Wells and company had to decide
what to do next. And they gave their familiar characters divided loyalties.
Some stayed with the White House. Others quit to work for the campaigns of
various Democratic candidates, including two former vice presidents
established in previous seasons of the show. Josh Lyman, played by Bradley
Whitford handpicked his own candidate and persuaded him to run, Matt Santos, a
Latino congressman played by Jimmy Smits. And as Santos very slowly evolved,
Jimmy Carter-like, from dark horse joke to improbable Democratic front-runner,
"The West Wing" also introduced his formidable Republican opponent, California
Senator Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda.

This was brilliant casting on both sides, adding to a concept that was genius
in the first place. Instead of focusing on one side of the campaign, as "The
West Wing" had done four years before, it now showed us both. It even brought
back Ron Silver as a strategist hired by Bartlet for his campaign, now
working for Vinick and the Republicans. Shows alternated between showcasing
Vinick and Santos or offered equal time to both. There's no question that the
quality of the shows improved once the writers saw what Smits and Alda were
capable of doing. These were the sorts of candidates you wanted to vote for.
And when "The West Wing" staged a live debate, Smits and Alda walk into that
high pressure arena and killed, not each other, just as actors. The cop from
"N.Y.P.D. Blue" and the doctor from "M.A.S.H." have found, later in their
career, roles that good, and they've responded accordingly. These fictional
campaigns have gotten the details right, from the earliest days stumping for
votes door to door in the Iowa caucus to the current election-day tension and
last-minute maneuvering. As the climax to a long-running story, that would be
plenty. But reality threw a tragic curve into the mix this season. John
Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, former White House chief of staff and the
current vice-presidential running mate of Matt Santos, died suddenly.

This Sunday's episode begins as last week's ended. Only a couple of hours are
left until the polls close in the West on Election Day, and the race still is
too close to call. Red states and blue states all over the map, all boiling
down to a fight for the one still in white, undecided. That's when Santos
gets the news that Leo has collapsed in his hotel room and been hospitalized.
Santos reacts one way, but his entourage, including his deputy campaign
manager, played by Janeane Garofalo and his wife played by Teri Polo have
other ideas.

(Soundbite of "The West Wing")

Mr. JIMMY SMITS: (As Matt) Where is he?

Ms. JANEANE GAROFALO: (As Louise) They're taking him to Methodist. The
ambulance should be there by now.

Mr. SMITS: (As Matt) Where's Josh?

Ms. GAROFALO: (As Louise) He just left for the hospital.

Ms. TERI POLO: (As Helen) Was Leo talking?

Ms. GAROFALO: (As Louise) We don't know.

Ms. POLO: (As Helen) Should we be going to the hospital?

Ms. GAROFALO: (As Louise) No, no. Press doesn't have this yet.

Mr. SMITS: (As Matt) Why not?

Ms. GAROFALO: (As Louise) Polls out West are open for another 90 minutes.
The longer the wait...

Mr. SMITS: (As Matt) You want to try to keep this a secret for an hour and a

Ms. GAROFALO: (As Louise) A quarter of the country is still voting.

Mr. SMITS: (As Matt) And I'm asking all four corners to trust me to be their
leader. I am not hiding the health problems of my vice president.

Unidentified Man: It may not be the best place to have this conversation.

Ms. GAROFALO: (As Louise) Anything to highlight...

Mr. SMITS: (As Matt) I am not having this conversation. We're issuing a
statement to the press now.

Ms. GAROFALO: (As Louise) Congressman, this is still a campaign, and there's
only two kinds, the pitiless and the dead. Every minute we stand here, votes
are being cast. Undecideds vote late in the day. If they were looking for a
reason to vote Vinick, a press release from us could just punch their lottery

Ms. POLO: (As Helen) It's going to come out. Ten minutes, 15 minutes, the
paramedics, somebody at the hotel or the hospital is going to say something.

Ms. GAROFALO: (As Louise) Maybe we get lucky and it takes an hour for the
press to confirm to get something out of it.

Ms. POLO: (As Helen) They're not going to wait to confirm it. They're going
to go with the rumor.

Ms. GAROFALO: (As Louise) I know he's your friend. He's my friend, too.
But we can't be sentimental about this, or we will have a Republican president
who will gut education, he will auction off Social Security and cut taxes
until we're bleeding red ink. And when Leo wakes up, he will kick your ass
for letting that happen. You know he will.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: What does Santos decide to do? That's revealed on Sunday. So is
the winner of the election, but I won't spoil the suspense by saying anything
here. When a show is this good, you really should see for yourself. And "The
West Wing" in its final year has returned to the fabulous form of its first.
It's earned a renewal but isn't getting one. So the least we can do is
support the series and applaud it as it goes out in glory.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News. "The West
Wing" airs Sunday night on NBC.

This is FRESH AIR.

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Review: Rock critic Ken Tucker examines Jaheim's "Ghetto Classics"
and Van Hunt's "On the Jungle Floor"

At a time when hip-hop dominates the R&B scene, it's often easier for a rapper
to achieve commercial success than a singer. Rock critic Ken Tucker examines
why that is in his review of two new albums by R&B vocalists, Jaheim's "Ghetto
Classics" and Van Hunt's "On the Jungle Floor."

(Soundbite of Jaheim song)

JAHEIM: (Singing) "I don't sit out on the block, 12:00, still pitching. I
don't cook up grits with baking soda in the kitchen. I done lost my religion
and spend nights twitching. I couldn't fill up the holes in my soul, there's
something missing. I've...(unintelligible) love, been left. Let the
beat unfold. Don't spoil...(unintelligible)...stones. (Unintelligible).
Five years parole, kid. I've been locked up. Done lost so much my heart is
botched up. I thought I'd never see..."

Mr. KEN TUCKER: Jaheim's presumptuously titled "Ghetto Classics" tries hard
to please fans of old-fashioned R&B slow jams and devotees of more rough-style
vocalizing. The New Jersey native sounds as though he listened hard to nearby
Philadelphia acts like Teddy Pendergrass and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
But he also invites rappers to cameo on his album, in an effort to keep it
real. That is, to root his romancing in the tough attitude of the streets.
The result is a song like "Fiend" which commences with a spoken word intro by
the rapper Styles P, and amidst the lush strings section contains the refrain,
"I'm just an addict for your love."

(Soundbite of "Fiend")

STYLES P: (Singing) "She helped me focus in, get my rhymes right too, and my
mind right too. That's why she shine through."

JAHEIM: (Singing) "I got to quit. I got to get this chick up out my system.
She's no good for me. All of my dogs want to hit her. Right after I'm with
her, I eat then I fall asleep. And it's getting costly. Lately all I've been
banging is the chicks that come to see, but shortly, she's a dime. In fact
that girl's a dub. And I think I'm falling in love. She gets me all chocked

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: Jaheim, in trying to prove that he can be both a burly love man
and a rock hard street player has created a very interestingly strained album.
It doesn't so much lurch between R&B and hip-hop as it tries for a synthesis
that he can only rarely pull off for an entire song. He's trying for some
amalgamation that could prove original.

On the other hand, Van Hunt's new sophomore album, "On the Jungle Floor," is
frequently one big game of `name that impersonation.' For example, think of
Curtis Mayfield singing "Superfly." Got it in your head? OK. Now listen to
Van Hunt singing this song called "Character."

(Soundbite of "Character")

Mr. VAN HUNT: (Singing) "Faces have troubles smile less when there's less
than the...(unintelligible). When you communicate, there's a writing on the
wall. There's no love for you there. You wanted control pictures, but your
relationship could never hold a pose. You're left with a room full of
sketches. They only hint at the love you wanted to know. Let it out."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: Pretty dead on Curtis Mayfield, right? OK. How about this? Is
it late period Sly Stone or is it Van Hunt?

(Soundbite of Sly Stone song)

Mr. SLY STONE: (Singing) "Sister, child of mine. We are the sweetest kind,
yeah. Drugs and death in our place and time, restless and running blind.
Running blind. Life..."

Mr. TUCKER: Actually, as a Sly Stone riff, that's a really entertaining
tune. Even more intriguing, it's actually a cover of a song by the protopunk
band The Stooges. But Van Hunt is also capable of some original, novel
inspiration. He comes up with some really nice effects when he modulates his
voice, shifting upward into the chorus of "Being a Girl."

(Soundbite of "Being a Girl")

Mr. HUNT: (Singing) "Every once in a while, you meet a child that drives you
wild. What I must think of that downtown style. A winter coat, six
foot...(unintelligible)...don't prepare you for...(unintelligible). A
princess and a mistress in her Sunday best, impress
a...(unintelligible)...dress. To set the stage, receive a praise and leave us
all with taste, that only gets sweeter as it fades.

She just can't help being a girl. She just can't help being a girl. She just
can't help herself.

She'll respect a golden charm like nothing else. Being a girl."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: What it comes down to with both Jaheim and Van Hunt is their
social and musical dilemma. To make music that displays vulnerability and
softness at a time when most of your potential audience prizes stoic pride and
macho, you have to convince young consumers that sometimes it takes a very
mighty man to let his shy side come through.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Ghetto Classics" by Jaheim and "On the Jungle Floor" by Van Hunt.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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