DATE June 16, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Robert Bryce discusses his book "Cronies: Oil, the
Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Robert Bryce has written a new book called "Cronies: Oil, the
Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate." The book traces how
Texas politicians and Texas corporations have taken leading roles in America's
energy policy and foreign policy, including the war in Iraq. Bryce says this
book grew out of the research for his first book, "Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego
and the Death of Enron." Bryce lives in Austin.
I think a lot of people are aware of the fact that the first President Bush,
the second President Bush, Vice President Cheney have all had connections to
the energy business; they've all worked in the energy business. Perhaps a lot
of other people did, but I did not know that James Baker, who was secretary of
State under the first President Bush and directed the Florida recount for the
second President Bush, has also been very connected to the energy business and
is a former Texan who was very close with George H.W. Bush even before he
Mr. ROBERT BRYCE (Author, "Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas,
America's Superstate"): Well, and it's interesting to me because Baker, in
terms of his power now as former secretary of State, is perhaps the most
powerful former secretary of State in America. And his family's law firm,
which he is now affiliated with, Baker Botts, has always represented the
energy business in Texas and, before the energy business, the big railroads.
And now Baker Botts represents ExxonMobil. They represent Occidental
Petroleum. They represent ConocoPhillips. And Baker has all these
intertwining relationships with all of these different energy interests, while
at the same time President Bush has appointed him as the envoy to deal with
Iraq's debt. So, you know, in this case, it seemed to me he's wearing a lot
of hats, and in many cases we don't know who he's representing.
GROSS: Well, one of the companies that James Baker represents is Halliburton.
Mr. BRYCE: That's right. And, in fact, before Halliburton went to Baker
Botts, they were represented by Vincent & Elkins, which was another old-line
Houston law firm, very powerful and very well-connected with the state's
energy interests and also was a key backer of Lyndon Johnson. And in 2002,
after a lot of the Enron mess hit, Halliburton fired Vincent & Elkins and
hired Baker Botts. And so, again, what is, you know--all these different
relationships, when you start looking at them, you see, OK, well, there's a
Baker Botts lawyer, a man named Robert Jordan, just stepped down as the US
ambassador to Saudi Arabia. We have Baker working on the issue of Iraq's
debt. And we have Halliburton working in both countries in very profitable
contracts. And yet we can't find out what these lawyers are doing, you know,
what they're representing, who they're talking to. And they're clearly not
interested in discussing it.
GROSS: How did James Baker and the first President Bush become close?
Mr. BRYCE: They met, according to all the sources that I can find, on the
tennis courts at the Houston Country Club. They met there, become social
friends and then became political allies. Baker was a key player in George
H.W. Bush's first run for political office when he ran for the US Senate in
1964, and now they've been friends for going on 50 years. And throughout,
when you look at the history of both the older George Bush and the younger
George Bush, Baker Botts, Baker's law firm, has continually played important
When the elder George Bush was in the energy business, in Zapata, the law firm
that represented them was Baker Botts. When George W. Bush had problems with
the Securities and Exchange Commission, the law firm that represented him was
Baker Botts. In fact, it was Robert Jordan who then George W. Bush later
appointed to be the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. When the Florida recount
came around in 2000, again, it was Baker Botts. Baker became the lead player,
but he also brought in key trial lawyers from Baker Botts, who then
immediately went to Florida and argued several key cases that helped turn the
tide for Bush.
GROSS: When George H.W. Bush first entered politics and ran for the Senate in
1964, he was then chair of Zapata Offshore Oil Company, which was based in
Houston. How much did his early campaigns rely on oil money?
Mr. BRYCE: Well, it was the key to his ability to even run for office. I
interviewed former Texas Governor Bill Clements, who was also in the drilling
business. In fact, Clements and George H.W. Bush were partners in energy
ventures in the Persian Gulf, in Kuwait and in Iran in the early 1960s. When
I was interviewing Clements--I'd looked at some of the old campaign finance
reports about Bush's funders for that 1964 race, and I saw that Clements had
given him several tens of thousands of dollars. And I asked him about it.
And he said, `Oh, no, I gave him way more than that.' I said, `Well, how much
did you give him?' He said, `I gave him $500,000.' And I said, `Well,
Governor, you realize that in today's money, that's $3 million, $3 1/2 million
dollars?' He says, `I know.' But, you know, for him, that was just part of
being in the energy business; that he was a man with deep pockets, and he
wanted someone who was going to go to Congress and protect the depletion
allowance, who was going to look out for the Texas energy interests. And in
1966, when Bush won a seat in Congress, that's exactly what he did.
GROSS: What were the energy interests at the time? What did the oil
companies in Texas want?
Mr. BRYCE: Well, they wanted to make sure that the depletion allowance stayed
in place. This was a special tax break that was only given to the energy
producers that allowed them to take 27 1/2 percent of the income that they got
off of a given well or wells and get all that income tax-free. It was a tax
break that was unique to the energy industry, that eastern interests and
Democrats had been lobbying against for decades ever since it was passed in
the early 1900s. And they fought it for years. They finally got it repealed
in 1975. But throughout, particularly the '40s, '50s, '60s and early '70s,
the depletion allowance was a key factor in the ability of Texas energy
interests to have huge amounts of disposable cash that they could then use to
fund their favorite politicians.
GROSS: I think you read they were also interested in an oil import quota to
protect Texas oil prices.
Mr. BRYCE: They were. And, you know, now particularly it's remarkable to
look back at the import quota because the issue now is, you know, we are so
reliant on imported oil. Well, during the Nixon administration, George Bush,
the first, was trying to make sure that imported oil was kept at bay because
this was another way to protect domestic energy producers. The Texas
producers in particular, although their oil was abundant, they could not
produce it as cheaply as oil that was coming from, say, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait
So in the 1950s, during the Eisenhower administration, they placed an import
quota that restricted the amount of cheap imported oil that could be brought
into the US. And that, in effect, helped keep domestic prices up for domestic
producers, and that was hugely important. And, in fact, during the Nixon
administration there was much discussion of repealing this quota. And George
Bush, the first, led the fight to keep the import quota in place.
GROSS: George W. Bush was in the oil business before entering politics. Did
his father's contacts help him get established in oil?
Mr. BRYCE: Oh, of course. I mean, I think this has been very
well-established; that when George W. Bush landed in Midland, one of the
first things he did was go to his father's crony network and appeal to them
for money that he could then use to begin drilling for oil in Arbusto and his
other ventures, Harken and so on. Those contacts that he had through his
father and also through friends of James A. Baker III were key in his ability
to raise the money that he needed to get going in the oil business.
GROSS: Who were some of the Texas friends and businessmen who most helped him
in his election campaign?
Mr. BRYCE: Well, the people from Enron clearly figure throughout. When Bush
began running for the governorship of Texas, one of his first visits was to
Houston. And there, he talked to Rich Kinder, who was at that time the
president of Enron. He was Jeff Skilling's predecessor at Enron. Bush went
to Kinder and asked him if Kinder would be his finance chair in Harris County.
Now this is critically important because Houston is the biggest city in the
state, and it is a huge source for political funds. Kinder was in the energy
business; he was at Enron, which is a thriving company at that time in late
'93, early '94. And Kinder agreed. And, you know, from that time then until,
I think, just earlier this year Enron was George W. Bush's biggest career
patron, and they in total gave him something on the order of $700,000. And
Texans for Public Justice has done studies on this and found that, by far and
away, the industry that gave the most money as a percentage of George W.
Bush's total giving was the energy business.
GROSS: I mean, should there be any surprise on that? I mean, after all,
Texas is famous for its energy business, and all politicians rely on
businesses in their state to help them rise in office.
Mr. BRYCE: Of course. But I think that now the energy business is the most
important--it produces the most important commodity in the world economy.
They are an expansionist business by nature. They are always, you know, going
into new markets. They are always expanding their businesses overseas. It is
not in any way surprising that these companies would be supporting the Bushes
and other conservative politicians. What is remarkable, I think, and very
worthy of note is how this universe of energy people is very small. And the
key people who have been key players throughout the Bush family's rise in
politics, like Ray Hunt, like James Baker, like personnel who are associated
with Halliburton--and it is a very small universe. And we keep seeing the
same faces over and over, and I think it raises the question: Well, where
does business begin, and where does politics begin? And I think what we see
in many of these cases is simply that politics and business have merged, and I
think that's dangerous.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Bryce. He's the author of the new book "Cronies:
Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Robert Bryce. His new book is called "Cronies: Oil, the
Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate."
In talking about whether oil played a part in the decision to invade Iraq, you
cite a report from 2001 that was put together by the James A. Baker III
Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in conjunction with the Council
on Foreign Relations. The report was titled "Strategic Energy Policy
Challenges for the 21st Century." What do you find most relevant about this
report in looking ahead to the invasion of Iraq?
Mr. BRYCE: Well, I think what's remarkable about it is how similar some
passages in that report are spot on with the agenda that was being promoted by
the neocons, the neoconservatives. In specific, there was a passage in there
that said that Saddam Hussein was `a threat to the flow of oil to the
international markets.' And, really, that passage is remarkable because other
people that I talked to in the energy business were saying, `Well, no, he
wasn't a threat. Yes, we knew he was abusing the UN oil-for-food program. We
knew that he was, you know, withholding oil when it suited him. But the
amount of oil that was being produced in Iraq at that time--you know, a
million, a million and a half barrels of oil a day--was not that significant
in terms of overall world production.'
So it seemed to me and the reason I brought that up was that--one was the
Baker affiliation. And the Baker Institute gets a huge amount of its funding
from the energy business, but also that it was so in line with what the
neocons were saying, particularly in terms of, `We've got to get rid of
Saddam. We have to consider all of our military options,' and so on.
GROSS: Well, getting back to the question of whether the invasion of Iraq was
connected to the oil industry or not, let's say hypothetically it was and that
the oil industry wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein. What would they gain by
Mr. BRYCE: Well, I don't necessarily see it in those same terms. I think the
issue is more about controlling the flow of oil. We don't want to own the
oil, and I don't suggest that any of the oil companies--in fact, Lee Raymond,
the CEO of Exxon, recently said that they're not interested in getting into
Iraq now because the situation there is so unstable. The broader issue for
the United States is being able to control the flow of oil out of the Persian
Gulf. We don't need to own it; we just need to make sure that, you know, the
flow happens unimpeded, that there is no restriction on the flow of oil. So
that's more the key issue. I don't think that there's some industry cabal
where, you know, the big energy guys said, `We need to invade Iraq and take
over the oil.' I think it's simply a strategic issue for the United States
over the long term to assert control or some authority over the oil that's in
the Persian Gulf because, as George H.W. Bush said in his '91 security
directive, it is vital to US national security. Our economy depends on that
GROSS: And isn't that an argument for saying perhaps that, you know, we're
lucky there's so many oil industry people in the Bush administration. Since
oil is a security issue and these guys know the business, they will represent
our security interests and knowing what is best for oil. And oil is in our
Mr. BRYCE: Well, fine. I take your point. So let's call a spade a spade
then. Then let's stop talking about, you know, these other issues in terms of
spreading democracy in the Mideast. Let's admit that we have a strategic
interest there, and we can't do anything about it, or at the same time if we
can admit that and say publicly, `Yeah, we have to control this oil, we have
to be concerned about the situation in Saudi Arabia because if we aren't ready
to invade, then our economy is going to be severely hurt'--so what I guess I'm
looking for is just some more truth in advertising here. If this is our
strategic interest, let's admit it. And then furthermore, and I think most
importantly, let's do something about our energy situation. Can we reduce
this reliance on the Persian Gulf? Can we ameliorate it somehow with further
efficiency or renewable efforts here in the US or developing other sources?
I mean, I think that this begs the question of, you know: Can we really, as a
nation, now face the facts in terms of what our interests are in the Persian
Gulf? Because we're stuck now; we can't stay, and we can't leave. And that's
a bad place to be.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Bryce. He's the author
of the new book "Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's
What were some of the challenges you faced in researching this book,
"Cronyism," about oil and politics in Texas and how that's affected presidents
like LBJ and the two President Bushes?
Mr. BRYCE: Well, I mean, the key one was access. You know, neither George
H.W. Bush would talk to me, James A. Baker III refused my interview request.
So I was forced to essentially, you know, ambush him in an interview and ask
the few questions that I could. Generally, people in power and people who
have these kinds of relationships don't want to talk about them. They will,
you know, generally only talk with, you know, journalists that they perceive
will be, you know, very friendly to their interests and very friendly to their
position. And, you know, I didn't go in there promising that I was going to
soft-pedal any questions. When I asked for an interview with George H.W.
Bush, I made it very clear I wanted to talk with him about The Carlyle Group
and I wanted to talk with him about his involvement with business interests in
Saudi Arabia. So I wasn't hiding at all what my agenda was or what my
questions would be. And so, no, it's not surprising at all that they didn't
want to talk.
GROSS: How much investigation were you able to do into The Carlyle Group?
Mr. BRYCE: Well, The Carlyle Group, to me, is interesting, but it's not the
`evil empire.' It's important because, you know, among these major investment
banks, major capital venture firms, I guess, merchant banks, it is perhaps the
best example of the cronyism that, you know, is now infesting our government.
It's an important part of the story, but the part about The Carlyle Group
that, to me, is interesting goes back to James Baker; that is as Bush's
dead-on boy for Iraqi debt, Baker goes to Saudi Arabia to talk to the Saudis
because the Saudis hold more Iraq debt than any other country. Baker had
previously been to Saudi Arabia with the elder George Bush in an effort to
raise money, investment funds, from wealthy Saudis to invest in The Carlyle
Group. And apparently they were successful because Prince Bandar and several
other very prominent Saudis later invested in The Carlyle Group. So...
GROSS: Now what about...
Mr. BRYCE: Sorry.
GROSS: Go ahead.
Mr. BRYCE: You know, just fast forward to, you know, recent months when
Baker goes to Saudi Arabia to talk about the issue of debt, well, who is he
representing there? He's still working for The Carlyle Group. He's now
talking to the Saudis about debt relief. But at the same time we don't know
what his own personal financial holdings are because when Bush appointed him,
he appointed him as a special governmental employee, and as such Baker's
financials, his personal financials, were not disclosed and, in fact, were
only disclosed to the White House general counsel's office. So he goes to
Saudi Arabia wearing the hat of the US government, maybe wearing the hat of
The Carlyle Group, which does huge amounts of business in Saudi Arabia through
United Defense, which is one of its subsidiaries. But, again, we can't know,
you know, what are Baker's other interests while he's doing this job for
George W. Bush.
GROSS: Your previous book was about Enron and its collapse. How does that
book and this book connect? You say in your introduction that this book grew
out of writing that one.
Mr. BRYCE: Well, after finishing "Pipe Dreams," I started thinking, `Well,
what was it about Enron? Why did this company have so much political power?
What was it that made it such an extraordinarily politically potent entity?'
And I puzzled over it for months trying to think, `OK, well, what is it that
has made Texas powerful? What is it that has made Texas such a dominant
player in American politics?' And, you know, I just kept coming back to the
energy slice of it; that, in fact, pretty much, you know, every Texas
politician of note of the last 50 years has had major connections to the
energy business. And so that was the genesis of it. You know, once I started
puzzling over it and thinking, `Well, what about all these other industries?'
I realized Enron would never have been the powerhouse that it was had it been
in the candy business or in something else. And it was in the energy
business, and it was in Houston, and those were key parts of its ability to
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BRYCE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Robert Bryce is the author of "Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise
of Texas, America's Superstate."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Bruce Eric Kaplan. He's a cartoonist for The New Yorker.
He signs his work BEK. And he's an executive producer of "Six Feet Under."
He has a new collection of cartoons.
Also, Maureen Corrigan recommends a few novels to read this summer.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Bruce Eric Kaplan discusses his career as a writer and
cartoonist and his new book, "This is a Bad Time"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
If you're a fan of the cartoons in The New Yorker, you'll recognize my guest
by the initials BEK; that's how Bruce Eric Kaplan signs his cartoons. His
work has been featured in The New Yorker for over 10 years. Kaplan has also
written for the TV shows "Cybill," "Seinfeld" and "Six Feet Under," where he's
now an executive producer. This HBO series about a family that runs a funeral
home had its season premiere Sunday.
Kaplan has a new book called "This is a Bad Time." It collects his cartoons
from The New Yorker and other publications, including The Boston Globe and LA
Weekly. I asked Kaplan to describe one of the cartoons in the book.
Mr. BRUCE ERIC KAPLAN (Author, "This is a Bad Time"; Executive Producer, "Six
Feet Under"): This is a chicken talking to a bird in a barnlike setting. And
the chicken's saying, `Sometimes I get so bored with myself, I can barely make
it to doodle do.'
GROSS: (Laughs) Now where did that come--what made you think about that?
Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, come on, please. Don't you get--you can't make it to doodle
do some mornings, can you?
GROSS: But I wouldn't have thought of the chicken.
Mr. KAPLAN: Right.
GROSS: I just would have thought about myself.
Mr. KAPLAN: Yeah. Well, that's the thing. I mean, it's like a whole
language of the world of cartoons. I mean that there's images, classic ones,
like the people crawling in the desert or the people on the deserted island.
But, you know, there's a whole--Is it lexicon? Is that using the word
Mr. KAPLAN: Of just images and worlds that you can sort of take your thoughts
and plug them into, like, you know, a farm setting is a wonderful one, I
think. I love farms. I love--not that I've ever been to one, but I love
GROSS: You mentioned desert. You have a great one of two people crawling
across the desert.
Mr. KAPLAN: Right.
GROSS: Would you describe it?
Mr. KAPLAN: Sure. It's a woman and man crawling in a desert, you know,
obviously starving and thirsty. And the woman turns to the man and says,
`This isn't really about water. It's about what's going on between us,' you
know, as if they've been arguing.
GROSS: Yeah. Now how did you start drawing cartoons? What made you think,
`This is something I can do'?
Mr. KAPLAN: I just always drew little people. You know, like, when I was
talking on the phone or when I was watching TV, I would always draw little
people, little men and little women, you know, going about their business.
You know, I actually think--some holding cocktail glasses the way that I still
do for New Yorker cartoons. I mean, I always loved The New Yorker, so I'm
sure that it was very--and I loved New Yorker cartoons when I was very little
and looked at, you know, the anthologies, or whatever they're called, out of
the library--or collections. So I think it was in my head that, you know, as
just something that was out there that I could do, and I like to draw.
GROSS: Who were the cartoonists who you liked the most when you were a kid
looking at those?
Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, my gosh. Well, I loved them all. I don't remember ever not
loving one, to tell you the truth. I mean, they're just, you know--the one--I
was very passionate about Charles Adams. I was definitely, like, very Charles
Adams focused as a child and would, you know, take his stuff out of the
library constantly, you know, all the time. I just said this the other day to
someone else, `I was taking out his books, like, all the time from the
library, like, you know, every two weeks. I don't know why someone just
didn't give me one.' But they didn't.
GROSS: (Laughs) What came first, writing for television or cartooning?
Mr. KAPLAN: They actually came at the same time. What happened was I had
been trying to write for television and not succeeding at it. And I thought
like, `Oh'--I don't remember how it came to me, but I thought, like, `I could
be a New Yorker cartoonist.' I mean, one day it was just like, `Yes, that I
could do. You know, I'm not succeeding at this other thing, but this one I
can do.' So I, like, you know, read in the library--like, I got a book out,
"How to Be a Cartoonist," and it said there was an art meeting once a week.
And I started submitting, you know, 10 drawings and then sent them off with a
self-addressed envelop, like the book in the library told me to do. And, you
know, of course, like everything I did at the time, I was, `Sure, they were
going to buy all 10 drawings.' And I just sat there in my apartment and I, you
know, drew my next group, so I wouldn't miss next week's meeting and sent that
And then my first envelop came back with a rejection letter, and I was so
shocked. I couldn't believe it. It was this formal rejection letter, and I
thought, like, I had sent them these brilliant things, I thought. And so I
just, you know, assumed they had made a mistake on some level and that they
were going to buy some of the second group. So I started working on my third
group, and then, you know, of course, needless to say I got my envelop
back--second group. And, anyhow, it was a compulsion by this time, and I
actually spent a few years sending, you know, 10, 15, 20 cartoons every week.
I never missed an art meeting for a few years. And so now I was also
concurrently trying to be a sitcom writer and failing at both. So now I had
instead of--you know, The New Yorker cartoons were supposed to be like this
easy way into, like, a wonderful life, and yet it was now just another thing
that I was not succeeding at. But I was very compulsive, for lack of a better
word. It was very--I had to do it.
So then a few years into it, my friend Kenny had hired me for the Emmy Awards.
And I came back from work one day, and instead of my self-addressed envelop,
there was a FedEx from The New Yorker. And I just cried, I mean, because I
knew something was happening, obviously. And I opened it up, and it was an
acceptance letter, you know. And it was such a big deal. It was just--I
would get these little, tiny--they're not even 8 1/2 x 11. They're like
note-card rejection letters that are--no signature. It was like sending these
off into a void. So the idea that finally someone, you know, had read them--I
mean, I would write cover letters that said--like, cursing at them saying,
`Here are, you know, 10 bleeping cartoons that any other bleeping magazine
would publish except for you,' because I figured no one--I didn't feel like
anyone was actually reading these cartoons. It just felt like they would open
them up and put them in my self-addressed envelop and send them back to me.
Oh, so then when I got the FedEx, the first line was, `I know you think we
haven't been reading your stuff, but we have. And here are these cartoons
we'd like you to draw. You know, revise them.' And, of course, then that led
to a new world of horror because revising--I thought I was drawing these
perfect things. I had no idea I was supposed to be revising these images.
GROSS: What kind of revisions did they ask for?
Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, God, it's embarrassing now, but, I mean, you know, I had no
idea. I really did--you know, this is how I was in my 20s; I thought that,
`Oh, these are perfect.' So I called him up; it was Lee Lorenz*, the art
editor at the time. And I said, like, `Hi. I'm Bruce Kaplan, and I'm excited
to do these revisions. But what should I change?' And he's like, `Well, you
see the table in that picture? It doesn't look like table. You know, a table
should have four legs.' It was like that type of thing. So he would tell me,
you know, things in my drawings that just really weren't cutting it.
GROSS: Now here's what confuses me. You don't seem like somebody who's
brimming over with confidence, and yet you had the confidence in these
cartoons and you thought, like, `Hey, any self-respecting magazine ought to be
accepting these cartoons and publishing them.'
Mr. KAPLAN: I know. Tell me what this is in my psyche and, you know, save me
a lot of money. I don't have the answer to that. It's like a split kind
of--you know, a duality of, I don't know, wildly confident and then also
mildly not secure.
GROSS: Here's a cartoon that I figure relates to writing in some way.
Someone's driving in a car along a big, deserted strip of highway and passes a
billboard. And the billboard says, `Your own tedious thoughts next 200
miles.' And, I don't know, to me, that's not only about just kind of having
to be alone for a long time on a deserted highway or alone anyplace like that.
I just have a feeling, too, that for you as a writer, maybe it feels that way
sometimes; that you have a dry spell and like...
Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, my God, have a dry...
GROSS: ...you're just stuck alone with yourself.
Mr. KAPLAN: It's never not a dry spell for me. I'm one of those writers who,
you know, moans in agony--or cartoonist--constantly, you know, `Why are there
no good ideas?' You know, `I despise myself.' It's always the same thought
going on in my head. Oh, so, yes, it's completely autobiographical about
writing and the creative process.
GROSS: So what do you do to kind of break the dry spell when you're feeling
that way? Sit there and hope for the best (laughs)?
Mr. KAPLAN: Actually, for me, it's more than hope. Well, I've tried
everything. I mean, I've prayed, I've cried. I've, you know, kicked. But,
you know, it's actually just worth going through that emotion to the next
emotion of, `Well, I'm going to produce something. I'm going to write
something. I'm going to draw something. And what do I want it to be? What
is interesting to me?' Sometimes also it helps to go through the negative
emotions in terms of, like, to do a drawing about hating oneself or about, you
know, not having any ideas. And maybe that drawing will be great or not, but
then it'll be exercised a little bit, and then you'll think about something
else that's on your mind, and, you know, you'll move forward. I mean,
gradually it's always like a trick to just lose yourself in the process. And
if you have faith, then you can. That's my feeling.
GROSS: My guest is Bruce Eric Kaplan. He has a new collection of cartoons
called "This Is A Bad Time." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bruce Eric Kaplan, who has been cartooning for The New
Yorker for over 10 years. He signs his cartoons BEK. His cartoons are
collected in the new book "This Is A Bad Time." Kaplan is also an executive
producer of the HBO series "Six Feet Under."
Now you've been working on "Six Feet Under" since the very beginning of the
series, since the pilot. One of your famous episodes is "The Foot" episode.
And in this one, in the opening death, I think it's a baker is killed in some
of the baking technology, and his body's mangled. And you want to describe
what happens with "The Foot"?
Mr. KAPLAN: Yeah. I mean, the baker dies in a dough mixer, I believe, and,
you know, his body's chopped up into different parts. And later in the
episode Claire is in the funeral home talking to Nate, and she steals a foot
from--I mean, she's in the prep room talking to Nate, and she steals, you
know, the foot of this man, Mr. Romano.
GROSS: And she puts it in her boyfriend's locker.
Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, yeah, she puts it in--yeah, she's mad at him because, you
know, she sucked his toes, and he told the school about it.
GROSS: So it's a kind of gruesome--it's not treated gruesomely. It's kind of
an absurdist touch.
Mr. KAPLAN: Right.
GROSS: But it could be very gruesome. Whose idea was that?
Mr. KAPLAN: That was Alan's idea. Sorry not to have that be my idea again.
But, yeah, I remember Alan--this was, you know, the third episode of the
series. And I remember we were talking about stories for future episodes
before the first one actually shot. And he came in one morning and said,
`What if Claire stole a foot?' And, like, the second he said it, it's like,
`Yes, Claire must steal a foot, and I definitely will write that episode
because I understand stealing a foot.'
GROSS: How can you understand stealing a foot?
Mr. KAPLAN: I don't know. I haven't done it yet, but I just understand the
emotion behind stealing a foot and, you know, feeling like wanting to make a
statement with it. I just understand the sort of `operaticness' of that. You
know, I connect with that. I don't know.
GROSS: Have you been to any funerals since you started working on the series?
Mr. KAPLAN: Sure. Sadly, yes.
GROSS: I'm wondering if writing the series kind of affects what it's like for
you when you're at a funeral, I mean, not the grief itself but just watching
how the actual ceremony unfolds.
Mr. KAPLAN: Mmm.
GROSS: Maybe that's a stupid question because you'd be much too absorbed in
grief to even think about that...
Mr. KAPLAN: No, because it's like anything in life.
GROSS: ...depending on who the person is.
Mr. KAPLAN: I mean, I'm never too absorbed in any activity, you know,
GROSS: To stop thinking (laughs).
Mr. KAPLAN: ...you know, that I can't all see--exactly. I wish. Please give
me that activity, and I'll take it all day long. No, I--yeah, it affects--you
know, I have a more process-oriented eye now, like, `Oh, this person is doing
that. That's how'--the reality of eulogies is different than the eulogies of
"Six Feet Under" I feel sometimes. I can't quite--you know, I'd love for them
to be the same, and I can't quite, like, tell you why my experience or the
reality of the eulogies in real life is--maybe it's just because, again, it's
just real life vs., you know, drama.
GROSS: Now I think we've established that you have your own share of
neuroses. Now you used to write for "Seinfeld," which, I mean, so much of the
show was about each of the character's, like, neuroses and issues. And then I
think--well, Larry David is the co-creator and was the head writer, and
certainly--I mean, his persona on his own show on HBO is somebody who is just
so incredibly neurotic and self-absorbed and unempathetic (laughs). And then
Mr. KAPLAN: It's funny to hear you describe it because it's like I have such
a different experience of it. I mean...
GROSS: Oh, good. Well, that's what I want to hear.
Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, yeah.
Mr. KAPLAN: Sure. I mean, for both "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm"...
Mr. KAPLAN: ...I think like, you know, `Oh, God, these are such fully
developed human, real people.'
GROSS: Right, right.
Mr. KAPLAN: Like, I never could put it in terms of neuroses or that type of
thing because, to me, it's just like they're people. They're just, you know,
people fully naked or, you know, they're exposed. And this is sort
of--they're vain and they're funny and they're interested and they're not
interested and they're, you know, sort of greedy, but they're also altruistic,
I guess, sometimes. They are. I mean, you know--so it just seems like people
in their full regalia, whatever that is.
GROSS: Right, right, naked and in their full regalia.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KAPLAN: Right, exactly.
GROSS: Yeah. But what was it like working on "Seinfeld" with what must have
been a pretty interesting and maybe combustible mix of personalities? Because
you've got Larry David, then you've got Jerry Seinfeld. And, you know, just
Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, this is a factual one. I can correct you on this. Actually
I worked on the final season...
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.
Mr. KAPLAN: ...of "Seinfeld," so Larry had left...
GROSS: So Larry David was already.
Mr. KAPLAN: Yeah. He came to do the final episode, but he wasn't really
there for, you know, the bulk of the year.
Mr. KAPLAN: So...
GROSS: Well, I mean, the final season of "Seinfeld by that time--you know,
"Seinfeld" started as a show that was, quote, "about nothing." It was just
about, like, little day-to-day things in life: you know, shopping for an air
conditioner and losing your car in the shopping mall, not being able to find
it, that kind of thing. By the end the stories were, really, kind of
extravagantly impossible (laughs). How did you feel about writing for that
end of the series when it was no longer a show about the little details in
life as much as it was about these really improbable things happening to all
Mr. KAPLAN: Mm. Again, this wasn't my experience of it. I mean, definitely
the show became more stylized in the final two seasons, and the stories kept
bigger and bigger. But at the same time they were very rooted in real, sort
of, emotions. Like, I mean, one of the ones I wrote was about Elaine getting
frustrated because she doesn't understand a New Yorker cartoon, which, you
know, it's a very natural thing that happens to people, I believe. Or, you
know, in another episode I wrote she was upset by someone at work who, you
know, sidled up too close to her, I mean, and she didn't enjoy that. So I
think they were grounded in reality things. They sort of then, by the end of
the second act, just really ballooned. But it was fun. I enjoyed it.
GROSS: In the episode where Elaine is confused about the meaning of a New
Yorker cartoon, does she also try to become a cartoonist in that?
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes. In the second act she decides that, you know, `If this is
what they're publishing and'--then she could definitely do a better job. And
she comes up with one, and it ends up--you know, they buy it, and they publish
it. And it ends up being a cartoon that she's unconsciously ripped off from a
GROSS: Do you remember the cartoon?
Mr. KAPLAN: Yeah. Ziggy's at the Complaint Department, and he's saying, `I
have a complaint. I wish I were taller,' something like that. That's the bad
cartoon, everybody. I hope everyone knows that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KAPLAN: It was the cartoon--you know, the whole gang, like George and
Jerry and Kramer--no one can believe that she thinks this is funny, you know.
And Kramer's like, `It would be much funnier if he was saying, "My wife is a
slut."' I don't know. You had to be there.
GROSS: (Laughs) So it wasn't a real Ziggy cartoon? You made this one up?
Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, no, no, no. Yeah, it was a false Ziggy. Yes, we created our
own Ziggy for that episode.
GROSS: I want to get back to another cartoon, and this one is of a couple in
bed (laughs). And one of them is saying to the other, `I don't understand how
people with full lives do it (laughs).
Mr. KAPLAN: Well, I know. I feel the same way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What inspired that?
Mr. KAPLAN: I remember thinking it. I remember thinking about these two
people. I mean, it was just, `I don't know how they do it. You know, they
have a full life. How is it possible'--I mean, again, this is one of those
where it's true. I know on some level it's funny, but hearing you saying it,
like, in the moment, it's not. How do they do it? Please, I want the answer.
GROSS: (Laughs) One final question. When you sign your cartoons, your name
is Bruce Eric Kaplan, but you sign them BEK, and each of those initials is
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes.
GROSS: And so the boxes are adjoining. Did I describe that OK?
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes, beautifully.
GROSS: Thank you (laughs).
Mr. KAPLAN: Yeah.
GROSS: How did you--two things: Why do you use your middle name, Eric? And
how did you come up with your signature?
Mr. KAPLAN: OK. The first answer, I remember feeling like that Bruce Kaplan
wasn't enough. It had to be my whole name, Bruce Eric Kaplan. Like, I just
felt like that's who I am creatively. I am my whole name, whatever that
means. And then the second is: How did I come up with the boxes?
Mr. KAPLAN: I tried, I think, in the early days of doing the cartoons just
doing a signature, and it just felt like everything was wrong: the script and
how long it was and how much space it took up. And just the script, it just
didn't look right with this, you know, whirl that I have. And I remember
playing around with things and coming up with the BEK because this felt like,
`Oh, yes, this is a part of this world, the BEK.'
GROSS: Well, Bruce Eric Kaplan, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, thanks for having me.
GROSS: Bruce Eric Kaplan is a cartoonist for The New Yorker. His new
collection of cartoons is called "This Is A Bad Time." Kaplan is also an
executive producer of the HBO series "Six Feet Under," which had its premiere
of the season on Sunday.
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends novels for summer reading.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Recommended summer reading of "The Rule of Four," "You
Remind Me of Me" and "The Master"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Depending on your mood, you could decide to be entertained, haunted and/or
enlightened by some of this summer's standout novels. Book critic Maureen
Corrigan has a round-up of three new books.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
Summer is the season when publishers put out literary novels by award-winning,
midlist writers whose voices might be drowned out in the fanfare of fall
blockbusters. It's also the season when publishers take calculated risks on
unknown authors with a gimmick. And the gamble has certainly paid off in the
case of "The Rule of Four," a thriller co-written by two friends in their 20s
named Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. "The Rule of Four" has been hyped on
the front page of The New York Times, no less, as `This summer's suspense
novel for smarties in the tradition of "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Name of
The novel's crack-the-linguistic-code plot focuses on an arcane renaissance
text called the Hypnerotomachia. It's an actual brain teaser of a book
written in seven languages and illustrated with nightmarish woodcuts that was
published anonymously in 1499 in Venice. The very clever conceit of "The Rule
of Four" is to have a Princeton student named Paul Harris writing his senior
thesis on the Hypnerotomachia. When the novel opens, Paul's thesis is due in
24 hours. And as he and a roommate get closer to solving the text's central
riddle, betrayals and dead bodies begin mounting. "The Rule of Four" uses
Princeton's gothic campus to eerie effect, and it has some astute comments to
make about ambitious scholars who `start off wanting to serve books and end up
wanting books to serve them and their careers.' Just don't be misled by the
academic trappings. "The Rule of Four" is pure summer diversion. You won't
get course credit for reading it.
The young losers who populate Dan Chaon's new novel, "You Remind Me of Me,"
wouldn't have a prayer of being accepted into the likes of Princeton. There's
an apathetic, teen-aged mother named Norma who gives up her first baby for
adoption and keeps the second, only to grievously ignore him. That boy winds
up having his face chewed apart by the family's pet Doberman. Another boy
named Troy grows up to become a minor-league drug dealer, but he's known
enough parental love to feel fatherly concern for his own neglected son.
Chaon's Midwestern drifters-in-training are limited but not necessarily doomed
by their personalities and circumstances. One of the most captivating aspects
of this novel is the way it zeroes in on the inherited weakness, the small
stores of ambition, the pivotal moments of cruelty or accidental mercy that
will eventually determine who sinks or swims.
Chaon is known for his award-winning collections of short stories, like "Among
the Missing." "You Remind Me of Me," his debut novel, works like a bunch of
short stories, especially at first when he's establishing the different plot
strands and time lines before crisscrossing them together. Comparisons to the
work of the immortal Raymond Carver abound, beginning with the tossed-off
title of Chaon's novel and continuing through with his tone of "Lost in
America" melancholy. Like Carver, Chaon makes forgettable nobodies
unforgettable, not by ladling on the schmaltz but through the stark alertness
of his language.
Speaking of comparisons, in his new novel "The Master," Colm Toibin gives an
enhanced imitation of his subject, Henry James. I dare to say enhanced
because Tobim explores the older James' regrets and lifelong sexual
uncertainties in elegant sentences that contain all the complexity of James'
but avoid the, `Hey, look at me' marathon contortions often found in the
originals. "The Master" explores James' interior and public life throughout
the 1890s when he was living in England. It's the decade of James' horrific
artistic failure, the play "Guy Domville," that was booed at its London
debut, while those of his rival, Oscar Wilde, were cheered. Tobim's
omniscient narrator says that, `After the failure of "Guy Domville," James'
determination to work did battle with the feeling that he had been defeated
and exposed. He had failed, he realized, to take the measure of the great
flat foot of the public.'
James here tentatively confronts the shades of dead family and friends, whom
he disappointed, like his sister Alice, a lifelong invalid. His solitude is
also disturbed by society matrons with skin like bottled fruit, self-important
friends, like Oliver Wendell Holmes so adept at finishing their sentences, and
handsome young men who stir up the love that dare not speak its name. "The
Master," however, does something even more extraordinary than treating its
readers to this gorgeously evocative language or to an imagined life of James
himself. It illuminates the creative process, slowly tracking how bits and
pieces of images, voices, memories and moods perhaps coalesced into "The Turn
of the Screw" or "Portrait of a Lady."
"The Rule of Four" may be a fun puzzle of a novel about a cryptic book, but
"The Master" probes a more absorbing mystery, the mystery of how great books
happen. And in so doing it becomes a great book itself.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Rule of Four," "You Remind Me of Me" and "The Master."
(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.