DATE June 29, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Danforth discusses his views on religion and the
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Describing himself as a Christian moderate, my guest, John Danforth, a former
three-term Republican senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopal priest,
has criticized his party for becoming the political arm of conservative
Christians. His criticisms were made in two Op-Ed pieces published in The New
York Times. In late March, he criticized his party for its fixation on a
religious agenda. His Op-Ed from June 17th discussed how moderate Christians
reject the notion that religion should present a series of wedge issues to
energize a political base. He wrote, `We believe it is God's work to reach
out to those with whom we disagree and to overcome the meanness we see in
We invited Senator Danforth to discuss his concerns. He was first elected to
the Senate in 1976 and served for 18 years. In 2001, President Bush appointed
him special envoy for peace to Sudan. He was appointed UN ambassador by the
president last July. He resigned from the position after less than seven
months. He's now a partner with the law firm Bryan Cave and is based in their
St. Louis office.
In your March 30th New York Times Op-Ed piece, you said, `By a series of
recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political
arm of conservative Christians.' In what way do you think the party has
become the political arm of conservative Christians?
Former Senator JOHN DANFORTH (Republican, Missouri): This is a recent
development. It's just occurred, I think, in the last, oh, two, three, four
years. But increasingly, the Republican Party has become a religious party,
taking upon itself the agenda of Christian conservatives. And the agenda
items include such matters as the Terri Schiavo case, which prompted that
Op-Ed piece that I wrote, and then the opposition to stem-cell research, which
I think can only be justified by--as a religious position, and then other
matters as well. The proposed constitutional amendment on gay marriage, I
think, is part of it.
So I think what's happened is that it's not just isolated issues that people
can agree on or disagree on, but it's the studied way in which the Republican
Party has become the party of the religious right.
GROSS: Now you're saying that as a retired Episcopal priest, so how does
being a priest yourself enter into your analysis and your concern about the
Rev. DANFORTH: I am a Republican and always have been. I am a practicing
Christian and have been since I was an infant. I am ordained into the
priesthood of the Episcopal Church. This is all part of what I am. But there
is a big distinction between church and state, between religion and politics,
especially in this country. We've seen what happens in other countries when
politics and religion get mixed up, and when the state does become an
instrument of religion, it has very bad results, very divisive, sometimes
violent results. We have steered away from that in the United States, and
it's important to continue to steer away from it.
That doesn't mean that religious people should not be involved in politics. I
think they should be. They're going to insist that they be involved in
politics and that they do their best to put across their own positions on the
issues, but the problem is when there is a direct connection between
government and religion or between a political party and religion.
GROSS: What do you think are the greatest dangers now to your party? Because
you think the party has become the party of conservative Christians. And what
kind of dangers do you think that that poses for the larger political climate
in our country?
Rev. DANFORTH: I think some people would say this is great for the Republican
Party, that they've benefited, that people who have not traditionally been
Republicans are voting the Republican ticket. But in a larger sense for the
country, it's not a good thing because the importance of our political system
right from the beginning is to try to hold together a very diverse nation as
one nation. That was the purpose of our Constitution. That's our system of
GROSS: During your three terms as a senator from Missouri, did being an
Episcopal priest ever--was that ever in conflict with how you saw your role or
your vote as a senator?
Rev. DANFORTH: I don't thing being an Episcopal priest was the issue. It's
more a question of being a practicing Christian. And it's clear that I
brought to the Senate the totality of who I am as a person. I am a lawyer. I
am a husband. I am a father. I am a practicing Christian. All of that goes
into my makeup. But there is a big difference between your faith affecting
who you are and being a part of who you are, on one hand, and on the other
hand, viewing yourself as the political instrument of a particular religious
point of view. And I definitely did not do that. Now were some of the
interests that I had in the Senate influenced by my religion? Yes, they were.
But did I do anything, to the best of my knowledge, to try to advance a
particular sectarian cause when I was in the Senate? No, I didn't. I thought
that that would have been very improper.
GROSS: Now you are a Christian and a Republican, but you've arrived at
different points of view than the majority of people and the majority of
legislators in your party have, and I'd like to go over a couple of those
issues and see how you've arrived at your point of view. As I said, you're a
Christian, you're a Republican, but, you support stem-cell research. On what
grounds do you disagree with the Bush administration, for example?
Rev. DANFORTH: You know, let me just say this: I don't want to leave the
impression that I am substituting my own religious point of view for some
other religious point of view. I mean, what I'm saying is that people in
government have to be open, and they can't be consciously just putting forth a
political agenda. Whether it's a conservative political agenda, a liberal
political agenda or somewhere in between, I think you have to try to call them
as you see them.
On the issue of stem-cell research, people who are engaged in stem-cell
research will tell you that this is a very promising area, that science offers
the possibility of unlocking very, very difficult scientific problems, matters
relating to terrible diseases like Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease and
maybe even cancer. And I think that science should be able to do that, that
it's very difficult to say, `OK, let's shut the door on science.' And I think
the only explanation for either prohibiting stem-cell research or trying to
curtail it is a religious explanation; that is, it's a particular view that
somehow life exists even before there's implantation of an egg in a uterus,
that life exists in a petri dish. And I think most people would say that is
not something that's consistent with their view of what's reasonable, and they
would say maybe when there's implantation in the uterus, but not outside the
uterus, not for cells that are never going to become living, walking,
breathing human beings--never. They're never going to advance beyond the
And so it's my view that science should be allowed to get on with the
important work of trying to find cures for these terrible diseases.
GROSS: So you think that banning stem-cell research--that the only
explanation for that would be a religious one.
Rev. DANFORTH: Yes, I think that's right. I think...
GROSS: So--but you--what does your religion tell you about stem-cell
research? What does your interpretation of your religion tell you about it?
Rev. DANFORTH: You know, again, let me say that I don't think that government
or people in government should make decisions solely on the basis of trying to
implement their religious view, whether it's my religious view or somebody
else's religious view. I don't believe that. I--my own religious point of
view--and I think the reason why some very devout religious people would say,
`Let's get on with stem-cell research'--is that they see the human misery
involved in these terrible diseases. And if there is a choice between cells
that exist in a petri dish, that will never become human beings and never will
become implanted in a uterus, on one hand, and my next-door neighbor who has
Alzheimer's disease on the other hand, I choose my neighbor.
And so, I mean, my religious view is that the love commandment would say to
many people who are very devout people, devout Christians, this research is
important to alleviate human misery.
GROSS: Now what about Terri Schiavo? What was your position? Because this
was something you criticized your party for. What was your position on how to
handle her case?
Rev. DANFORTH: Well, the Terri Schiavo case was one that was the immediate
cause of the first Op-Ed piece that I wrote to The New York Times, because I
thought that it was an outrageous situation and it struck me as a dramatic
departure from what I had thought to be traditional Republican principles.
Suddenly you had Washington in the act. You had members of Congress scurrying
around, rushing to pass legislation, trying to stop the removal of Terri
Schiavo's feeding tube, trying to keep her hooked up to this artificial tube.
You had the president of the United States flying back from Texas. You had
the odd instance of empowering the federal courts to get into something that
had been within the province of the state courts.
Now the notion that Washington has the answer, that Washington should come to
the rescue, that the state court should cede responsibility to the federal
court or be bumped by Congress in the name of putting the federal courts in
place--these are really inconsistent with anything I ever associated with the
Republican Party or basic Republican concepts. So I thought that it was
wrong. Also, I thought that it was a sad state of affairs when this poor
soul, who was in a persistent vegetative state, was kept hooked up to a
feeding tube. I thought that matters should be allowed to run their own
course, that she had--at least the Florida court so held--stated her position
to her husband that she didn't want to be kept alive under these
circumstances, and therefore I thought that she should be allowed a merciful
GROSS: One more position I want to ask you about and how it compares to your
party, which is a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Rev. DANFORTH: Right. Well, I think--I mean, just my personal view is that
marriage is between a man and a woman. But I can't imagine the issue of
homosexuality finding its way into the Constitution of the United States. I
mean, to me, that really is a stretch. Here is a Constitution that deals with
the whole setup of government. It deals with matters such as freedom of the
press and freedom of speech and due process of law, and on and on, and then
suddenly people are proposing that, in addition to those important subjects,
the issue of gay marriage gets into our Constitution. I just don't see it. I
mean, I think that that is really a stretch, and I think that this is pretty
much of a political movement aimed at appeasing a religious point of view in
the name of saving the institution of marriage.
Now I think the institution of marriage certainly is under fire. The divorce
rate is very, very high. But I don't see any relationship between
homosexuality and the institution of marriage. So the idea that this proposed
constitutional amendment somehow protects marriage seems to me to be a
GROSS: My guest is John Danforth, former Republican senator from Missouri.
We'll talk more about his concerns about his party after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Danforth, the three-term
senator from Missouri, retired, who has also been an Episcopal priest.
You're retired from that as well now, aren't you?
Rev. DANFORTH: No, I've not been defrocked yet.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
Rev. DANFORTH: I'm still...
GROSS: You're retired from that work.
Rev. DANFORTH: I'm still ordained. I'm not--you know, right now I'm the guy
in the pew. I'm enjoying, you know, just showing up and being in the pew.
But they haven't given me the boot.
GROSS: Well, good for you.
Rev. DANFORTH: Some people would probably say that they should, but not yet.
GROSS: Do you think that your views and your concerns about your party are
actually shared by many Republicans who just don't feel comfortable speaking
out about it now?
Rev. DANFORTH: Yes. Yes. And the--and I would also say that my--what I've
said about Christianity is shared by a lot of Christians and non-Christians,
too. I mean, the response to these two Op-Eds has been remarkable. I hoped
that it would be strong, because, you know, I didn't want to just be a one-man
parade. I--you know, I mean, if it was just, you know, good old Jack Danforth
saying `Here's how I feel about issues,' well, OK; so write a piece and then
so what? But my real hope is that people would think about these things and
speak out on them and weigh in, especially with people in politics, and with
their congregations that they belong to.
GROSS: Now you say that you think that there are, you know, a fair number of
Republican legislators who agree with your criticisms of how the Republican
Party has become the party of Christian conservatives. Why do you think
they're not speaking out?
Rev. DANFORTH: I don't know. I think--you know, I think one thing that's too
bad is that people who are in politics aren't speaking out now; maybe it's
just self-preservation, you know? I mean, it's--in other words, the marriage
of Republican, say, economic and foreign policy with the religious right is
something that works. And so, you know, why go against something that works?
But my hope is that there'll be sufficient numbers of Republicans who will
begin pushing back on this and saying, `Wait a second. This is not the
Republican Party we know,' that there will be an incentive for at least some
Republicans in public office to speak out.
I've also been concerned that our churches--what I would call, you know, the
more moderate or main-line churches, have also been silent, pretty much
silent, on what religion means. So it's been the conservative Christians who
have been most outspoken about what they--how they define the nature of
Christianity. So my hope is that churches such as my own, the Episcopal
Church, will be more forthright in trying to express the fact that there are
different views of the relationship between politics and religion.
GROSS: I want to quote you something that was published in The New York Times
this week. It was an article by the reporter Richard Stevenson on Monday,
June 27th, and he wrote: "President Bush still so dominates politics in
Washington that there is little open criticism of him, and few Republicans are
willing to challenge the strategy of Mr. Rove and other top aides. But behind
the scenes, there's increasing grumbling from Republicans about the White
House political style." And then you quote an anonymous senior House
Republican as having said, "There's a view among House members and the
leadership staff that the White House feels it has to deal with us to move
legislation, but that otherwise we don't exist to them." I'm wondering if
you're hearing the kind of grumbling that this article described?
Rev. DANFORTH: Well, I'm in St. Louis, not Washington, but let me just say
this: I am a supporter of President Bush. I have supported him in both of
his campaigns, actively supported him in both of his campaigns. I generally
agree with his positions. I served in his administration not for very long,
but for six months, and was proud to do that. I think he is a good president.
I'm happy to be his supporter and proud to be his supporter. So I don't want
to give the impression that, somehow, I am a Republican who's turned on
President Bush. That absolutely is not the case.
But I think this marriage of religion and politics is not just attributable to
one person or an adviser to one office-holder. I think it's much deeper than
that. There are members of Congress who say--and there have been articles
written about them--pointblank that they view it as their job to advance the
kingdom of God through legislation.
GROSS: Nevertheless, when you say that you think there's Republicans in
Congress who agree with you, but who are afraid or uncomfortable about
speaking out, do you think that they're worried about pressure from the White
House if they do speak out?
Rev. DANFORTH: No, I don't think that's true. I think that what happens
is--you know, I mean, most people who run for, let's say, the Senate are not
elected by huge margins. It could be, say, 52 to 48, something like that.
And so they are very concerned about their political base, and if their
political base consists of very energetic people who are voting for them and
supporting them because they think that this is God's will or that this is
God's way, then the people who are trying to win the next election want to
satisfy them and want to make them happy.
GROSS: John Danforth is a former senator from Missouri and former UN
ambassador. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we'll listen back to an interview with historian Shelby
Foote. He died Monday at the age of 88. He's best known for his three-volume
history of the Civil War and his appearances on Ken Burns' PBS series on the
war. Also, David Edelstein reviews "War of the Worlds," and we continue our
conversation with former Senator John Danforth.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Danforth, former
Republican senator from Missouri. He was elected in 1976 and served in the
Senate for 18 years. In 2004, President Bush appointed Danforth ambassador to
the UN. He resigned after less than seven months. He's now a partner in the
law firm Bryan Cave and is based in their St. Louis office. Danforth is an
ordained Episcopal priest and considers himself a Christian moderate. In a
couple of recent New York Times OP-ED pieces, he expressed his concerns that
his party has become the party of Christian conservatives.
You were one of Clarence Thomas' chief supporters and, in fact, I think your
law firm was the first to actually hire him. So you're...
Rev. DANFORTH: No. Bryan Cave did not hire Clarence, but I hired him and
when I was state...
GROSS: Oh, I see. OK. Thank you for correcting me.
Rev. DANFORTH: When I was state attorney general, I hired him right out of
law school, and he came to work in the attorney general's office in Jefferson
City, and then when I left the attorney general's office to go to
Washington, he then went to work for Monsanto in their legal department, and
then I hired him again from Monsanto to come to work for me in the Senate.
GROSS: Since you were his mentor and his chief supporter during the Supreme
Court nomination, I'm wondering what you think of how--of his positions on the
establishment clause, of separation of church and state?
Rev. DANFORTH: My relationship with Clarence Thomas is that I'm his friend
and he's my friend. And he is just one of God's good people. He is just a
wonderfully, warm, decent human being. And I have not set myself up as the
critic of his jurisprudence. I haven't done that kind of an analysis, and
it's not the nature of my relationship with him. I am sure that I would agree
with some things that he has written and disagree with others. That was
always the case of my relationship with Clarence, even when he served with me
both in Jefferson City and in Washington. But he is much more than any
position than he takes, either on the court or that he took before he went on
the court. He is just one of the good people, and that was why it was so
painful to see what he went through in the confirmation process.
GROSS: Would you like to see Clarence Thomas become the chief justice of the
Rev. DANFORTH: No.
Rev. DANFORTH: Because he would have to go through confirmation all over
again in the Senate. The chief justice has to be confirmed, as well as
members of the court. And I don't--I mean, just selfishly, I don't want to go
through this again. I don't want to see that again. I don't want this
meanness to happen to him again. He's too kind a person.
GROSS: While we're on the subject of confirmations, you were the former
ambassador to the United Nations, and President Bush wants to appoint John
Bolton to serve as ambassador. The Democrats have blocked that. The
president might decide to make him a recess appointment, and I'm wondering if
you think that he is the right choice? And I'll just mention one of the now
famous quotes that he made, that his critics have been mentioning a lot. He
once said, "If the UN building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a
bit of difference." So some people think that if he's appointed to the UN, it
would be, you know, like putting somebody who really doesn't like the
organization to be our representative to it.
Rev. DANFORTH: I can't say that I know John Bolton. I met him once. I spent
maybe 15 minutes with him. And I don't have any opinion about his personality
or his style. I do think that since I left the Senate, something has changed
with respect to confirmations. It used to be that there was a presumption in
favor of presidential nominees. I don't think that exists anymore. And I
think that it would have been unthinkable when I was in the Senate to try to
block a presidential nominee by filibuster for a position like representative
to the United Nations. It would have been viewed as a presidential
prerogative, and especially in a position like that, which is not a
policy-making position, let the president have his person, and there would
have been a vote. Maybe there would have been some people voting against the
nominee. But here you have the blockage of a presidential nominee by
filibuster for a non-policy-making position, and that's just the difference of
how things are done now and a difference that's happened in the United States
I think that from the standpoint of the US mission of the United Nations, it
would be a good thing if they would have a permanent representative in place.
There are five people at full strength who were ambassador's rank at the US
mission to the UN. Now they're down to two. And so it's a mission that
doesn't have its full complement of leadership, and it would be better off if
they would have the full complement of leadership.
GROSS: You served as UN ambassador in the Bush administration for actually a
very brief period, less than a year. It was just a few months.
Rev. DANFORTH: Six months.
GROSS: Yeah. Why did you resign after such a short amount of time?
Rev. DANFORTH: Because the United Nations was not located in St. Louis. It's
just as simple as that. This is the third time I've left the East Coast to
come back home to St. Louis. I was born here. I married the girl across the
street. Three of our children live in St. Louis. Seven of our grandchildren
live in St. Louis. I'm at the same law firm, Bryan Cave, the same law firm
that I was in when I was in my 20s. This is the third time I've gone back to
Bryan Cave, so I'm glad they'll have me back. But I really like my life right
now. I'm having a lot of fun, and as the lifestyle goes, it's just what I
want to be doing right now.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Rev. DANFORTH: Glad to talk with you. Thanks a lot.
GROSS: John Danforth is former senator from Missouri and former UN
Coming up, we remember historian Shelby Foote, who became famous as the chief
commentator on Ken Burns' PBS Civil War series. He died Monday.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Shelby Foote discusses the Civil War
TERRY GROSS, host:
The historian, Shelby Foote, became something of a celebrity when he served as
the main commentator on Ken Burns' documentary series about the Civil War,
which was first broadcast on public television in 1990. The series drew on
Foote's three-volume history of the war. Shelby Foote died Monday at the age
of 88. He lived in Memphis and grew up in Greenville, Mississippi. He was
also the author of several novels, including "Shiloh" and "Love in a Dry
Season." We're going to listen back to an interview I recorded with him in
1994. He said that civil wars are often the most savage wars, but he thought
the American Civil War was different from the civil wars of our own time.
Mr. SHELBY FOOTE (Historian): Our Civil War, it seems to me, is exceptional
in many ways. For one thing, it's commonly said that wars don't settle
anything. Now that war settled a great many things. And the others that I
have followed don't seem to me ever to settle much. Revolutions do, but
civil wars don't. That's why Southerners wanted to call it the Revolution.
GROSS: You've described the Civil War as the central event in our history.
Mr. FOOTE: Yes. What I meant by that was it defined our character. The
Revolution set us free, gave us the Constitution, gave statements as to what
this country was all about with regard to civil liberties and other things.
But it was the Civil War that determined which way we were going. One part
of the nation was determined not to go the way it seemed to be going by 1860,
and the other side wanted to go even further in the direction that the other
side did not want it to go.
And I seriously doubt that despite our reputation for being able to compromise
things, there was really no way to settle this thing except by fighting. The
fact that it went on for four years and it cost over a million casualties was
certainly not intended at any point. It just happened, so it was, however, as
Robert Toombs said, a war between one form of society and another form of
GROSS: Well, what personal meaning has the Civil War had for you? And I
assume it has to have some, because you spent about 20 years of your life
writing your series of books about the Civil War.
Mr. FOOTE: Well, I'm from Mississippi, and Southerners tend to be more
interested in that war than the rest of the nation. Part of that's
psychological, too. If you look back on your youth--if you're a man,
anyhow--the fights you remember that you got in were the ones you lost. You
remember those the best. And, of course, the South got about as thoroughly
defeated as any nation, if it could call itself that, that's ever been
defeated. And we're not apt to forget that, nor are we apt to forget what
followed it. Reconstruction was about as far opposite from something like the
Marshall Plan as you can get.
GROSS: You use the word `we.' Do you think of yourself as personally having
lost the war? Do you feel a personal part of that?
Mr. FOOTE: Yes, I do. And I think that's inescapable, too. You are where
you came from. If I had been a young man in 1861 and the war had started, no
matter how much I was opposed to slavery, how much I saw the right on the
other side and the wrong on my side, I still would have gone with my people.
Mr. FOOTE: It's--you are that people, and you can fulminate against it and
everything else, but when it comes down to choosing sides, you go with your
people. There are people who didn't, and I respect their choice. But for the
most part, you do that. It's a form of patriotism narrowed down.
GROSS: Do you have relatives who fought in the Civil War and whose stories
were handed down as you were growing up?
Mr. FOOTE: Yes, my grandfather, who commanded an auxiliary cavalry at Shiloh,
for instance, and served through the war. It's a very close relationship.
Other members of my family were in it, in Barksdale's brigade at Gettysburg,
for instance, so that I take a particular interest in those things when I
touch them. I've been on battlefields with various people, and the invariable
thing you get, whether they're Northerners or Southerners, they want to say,
`Where were the Georgia troops?' or `Where were the Iowa troops?' They feel
that strong connection.
GROSS: Well, let's get to the Battle of Gettysburg, which is the subject of
your new book "Stars in Their Courses." This was the bloodiest battle ever
fought on American soil. Would you give us a sense of the losses?
Mr. FOOTE: Well, there was a total of about--over 150,000 men on that field,
well over 150,000; in fact, there was about 165,000. But the casualties were
just about exactly 50,000. There were slightly more Confederates than
Northerners. The Confederates lost about 28,000, and the North lost about
23,000, somewhere in there.
GROSS: Why were the losses so great?
Mr. FOOTE: The losses were so great because they fought by old-style tactics
with very modern weapons. The rifle that was used in that war was as
accurate, as hard-hitting and, in some ways, even more deadly than our modern
Garand or Springfield. It was accurate at a range of 2 to 300 yards, whereas
the tactics had been designed for a smooth-bore musket whose accuracy was
maybe 30 yards at the most. And they believe that the mash of fire--you had
to mash your men in attacking so they're lined up shoulder to
shoulder--marched against a position and, of course, got blown away time after
time after time. Pickett's charge was just the biggest example of it; there
were plenty of others.
GROSS: So really, if you were a soldier in that battle, you knew if you were
toward the front, you were going to die, period, right?
Mr. FOOTE: There was a very good chance that you would die. Casualties ran
very high. In Pickett's division perhaps it was at least 60 percent of those
men were casualties or were captured.
GROSS: Have you often tried to put yourself in a position of a soldier who
was in the front lines?
Mr. FOOTE: I not only have tried; I have. I have made that advance across
that field, had the emotions, I hope, that those men had, and I'm still
marveling at how men could do that. The simplicity of those men in the best
sense was what enabled to do it, that and unit pride. In the Civil War, both
on the Northern side and the Southern side, groups, whole regiments, came from
definite regions of the state, and a company would be from a particular town.
So you had a loyalty to each other, which meant that if you refused to go, you
were letting down these people that you'd fought the war with up till then,
and you'd be going home, those of you who survived, and everybody in that
little town would know what you had done when you refused to go. It would
have taken more nerve not to go than it would to go.
GROSS: Toward the end of your book about Gettysburg, you describe how General
Lee took the blame for the defeat...
Mr. FOOTE: Yes.
GROSS: ...at Gettysburg. It was--is that a surprising thing?
Mr. FOOTE: It's not only surprising, it's absolutely unheard of. Every other
general I ever heard, especially after a defeat, had all kind of blame to hand
around, and `This person didn't do what he's supposed to, and therefore that
happened' and so on. Lee walked out on that field, met those men coming back,
many of them badly wounded, and he said, `It is all my fault. I may have
asked of you more than a man could give. This is my fault.' Rather than
`Help me, help me,' `It is all my fault.' He said it on the field. He said
it the next day to Longstreet in a sort of apology for not having taken his
advice. He said it in his report to the president, and the rest of his life,
after you would expect all his defensive feelings to come to the front, he
still said, `It is all my fault.'
GROSS: Do you agree with him that it was his fault?
Mr. FOOTE: I do. I do. A lot of people don't. They try to put the blame on
Longstreet. They do various things because they don't like to speak ill, as
they say, of General Lee. It is not speaking ill of General Lee when you
understand--this book is called "Stars in its Courses," and that title is the
clue to what the book really is about. It's how fate pulled Lee closer and
closer and closer to disaster.
It was a three-day battle. On the first day he won a victory that wasn't
exploited. On the second day, he almost broke that line. He got up on the
ridge and had to pull back. Then on the third day, he said, `This is what
will do it,' and the disaster of Pickett's charge occurred, so that he was
like Cicero in the Bible; the stars in their courses fought against him.
GROSS: How much did you grow up with the Civil War? I'm wondering even if,
like, you think your view of, say, Lincoln was different than people in the
North growing up, learning their history.
Mr. FOOTE: Yes. That was at a different time. I'm 77 years old, so we're
talking about the 1930s. As a schoolboy, I learned obscene doggerel about
Abraham Lincoln. There was a vilification of Yankees in general. There was a
very different attitude.
GROSS: I'm curious about your own experience with war, since you've written
so much about war. I know you served in Europe during World War II as a field
artillery captain. Were you ever romantic about war?
Mr. FOOTE: Yes, I think we were all somewhat romantic about war until we were
exposed to the horror of it. I think it's necessary to be somewhat romantic
about war if you're going to engage in it, or you'd run the other way as hard
GROSS: So what were some of the early sobering experiences that you had on
Mr. FOOTE: I was never under fire on the battlefield. I was a captain of
artillery and got in a terrible argument with a colonel in the artillery thing
and got sent home and joined the Marine Corps and served for a year, and
didn't get in combat there because they dropped the bomb just as I was about
to cross the Pacific. But I got to know the Army and, believe me, it's a very
valuable experience when you have to deal with the politics in the military
and have to understand the command structure. Even as simple a thing as
knowing close-order drill and the manual of arms are a big help to you when
you start writing about war.
GROSS: You mentioned you were sent home. You were actually court-martialed,
I believe, for visiting your girlfriend in Belfast.
Mr. FOOTE: That's right.
GROSS: Why did you do it? I mean, I can only assume you knew you weren't
supposed to be doing that.
Mr. FOOTE: What I did, many people around me did. It was this colonel who
was out to get me, and that's Army politics. I belonged to a battalion that
was 54 miles from Belfast, and there was a division order that vehicles were
not to be used for recreation beyond a distance of 50 miles. And we commonly
made our trip tickets out as 49 miles. I made mine out as 49 miles, was
charged with falsifying a government doc.
GROSS: So everybody was doing this?
Mr. FOOTE: Right.
GROSS: Were you upset to be court-martialed, and did you think that this was
going to be a permanent blot on your record that would ruin your life?
Mr. FOOTE: Yes, I had some of that feeling. I was in despair. I felt very
guilty about not having made up what was required of me, including getting
along with an unreasonable man. And that was a bad scene. However, I came on
home, worked for about four to six months for Associated Press in New York
there on the city desk and couldn't take it any longer and went down and
joined the Marine Corps. My fellow recruits used to have a lot of fun with
me, saying, `I understand you used to be a captain in the Army; you might make
a pretty good Marine private.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FOOTE: They had a lot of fun with me.
Mr. FOOTE: But I liked the Marine Corps. I liked a lot of things about it.
GROSS: Why did you go back for more?
Mr. FOOTE: It has to do with the same thing I joined in the first place. I
didn't want something that big going on in the world without being part of it.
I also had this regional thing about when something like that comes along, you
GROSS: Shelby Foote, recorded in 1994. He died Monday at the age of 88.
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "War of the Worlds." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Steven Spielberg's film "War of the Worlds"
TERRY GROSS, host:
H.G. Wells published "War of the Worlds" in 1898, his story of a martian
invasion of Earth in which humans are exterminated like ants. Over the years
it's been adapted as a radio play by Orson Welles, a fake newscast that caused
a national panic, and a 193 movie. In the new film, director Steven Spielberg
and actor Tom Cruise retell the story from a more personal angle. David
Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
As a thrill-meister, Steven Spielberg is all by himself. No one comes within
shrieking distance. In his aliens-attack epic "War of the Worlds," the
catastrophic destruction doesn't just make you go `Wow!'; it's infused with
emotion. And Spielberg is right there in the head of his protagonist, a
construction worker named Ray Ferrier played by Tom Cruise. You see the
horror from Ray's point of view, and it turns you inside out.
The film has a ham-fisted script and some clunky turns and an ending that,
given the sustained level of anxiety, isn't cathartic enough. But in all the
ways that matter, it's uncompromised. It's not your father's "War of the
Worlds," but it is a father's "War of the Worlds." Cruise's Ray isn't some
manly alien slayer, although he does have a terrific gotcha scene that's a
sock to the audience. Ray runs away from the towering, tendriled,
three-legged alien death-ray machines, not to save himself, but his young
daughter played by Dakota Fanning, who screams incessantly, and his teen-age
son, played by Justin Chatwin, who challenges his every move. As his ex-wife
reminds him, he's never taken his responsibilities as a dad very seriously.
But once the conflagration begins, he operates out of dadlike primal
instincts. His reaction time is faster than his thinking.
This "War of the Worlds" movie doesn't bear much resemblance to H.G. Wells'
novel or to Orson Welles' '30s radio play that used it as a springboard and
caused a national panic. Parts of the more faithful 1953 film were scarier.
It's still shocking in that movie to see three humans approach the first alien
ship, waving flags and hollering friendly greetings, only to be incinerated,
leaving a white ash outline of their bodies on the ground. I'd like to think
that Spielberg found this scene too heartbreaking to remake. It's a reversal
of his "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," in which the aliens are
welcoming, beatific, harmoniously musical. In the new film, the giant alien
walking machines emit a theater-shaking metallic honk before disintegrating
people. It's the perfect sound of death.
The opening of the film is masterly and low-key, when dark clouds approach and
bolts of lightning hit the earth, Ray calls to his daughter, `Wanna see
something cool?' He thinks it's great until the eerie quiet that follows,
with only barking dogs, fading wind chimes and cars that have stopped dead.
The sequence in which the first alien ship breaks through the asphalt--the
gimmick here is that they come from below--is as blood-curdling as anything in
movies. But for all the momentous effects, the scene in which a frantic Ray
can't bring himself to tell his kids that he's just seen a city block toppled
and hundreds of people disintegrated is just as wrenching. It's all he can do
to get them into the street.
(Soundbite of "War of the Worlds")
Mr. TOM CRUISE: (As Ray Ferrier) We're leaving this house in 60 seconds.
JUSTIN CHATWIN: (As Robbie Ferrier) Why? I have no idea what's going on.
Mr. CRUISE: (As Ray) Robbie, ...(unintelligible) and put it in here.
CHATWIN: (As Robbie) What's going on? Just tell me.
Mr. CRUISE: (As Ray) Just do it. Rachel, sweetheart...
DAKOTA FANNING: (As Rachel Ferrier) Dad, it's really scary. Dad--Dad...
Mr. CRUISE: (As Ray) ...I need you to get your suitcase, the one that you
brought, bring it to me, OK? Can you just do that for me, darling? OK?
(Soundbite of music)
CHATWIN: (As Robbie) What's happening?
Mr. CRUISE: (As Ray) I can't tell you now. We only got about another minute.
(Soundbite of panicked crowd; screaming)
Mr. CRUISE: (As Ray) Just keep it down.
CHATWIN: (As Robbie) Ray, I'm standing right beside you. Can you please
Mr. CRUISE: (As Ray) Just get in the front seat, Robbie.
(Soundbite of vehicle door)
FANNING: (As Rachel) Whose car is this?
Mr. CRUISE: (As Ray) Just get in.
FANNING: (As Rachel) Whose car is this?
EDELSTEIN: The screenplay plants thematic signposts all over the place, but
Spielberg's work could not be more subtle or Cruise's performance more
quick-witted. Ray is a poor communicator, but he's responsive in his prickly
paranoid way to everything around him, and Cruise seems to be plumbing his own
anger to bring out all the character's inner tension.
Later in the film, there's a sequence as great as anything that Spielberg or
Cruise has ever done. It's in a basement with Tim Robbins as Ogilvy, a man
who has lost his family and gone around the bend. He wants to take the aliens
on, but Ray knows that this means certain death and, more important, certain
death for his daughter. As insectoid aliens appear, the hidden Ray and Ogilvy
struggle silently over a shotgun. That's what you'll remember from "War of
the Worlds," that ferocious stillness and its morally devastating aftermath.
The ending is a deus ex machina. The aliens are a devil ex machina. But it's
the human struggle that makes this a masterpiece.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
(Soundbite of music)
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.