DATE July 12, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Aleksandar Hemon discusses his book "The Question of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the largest massacre in Europe since
World War II, the massacre in Srbrenica. My guest, Aleksandar Hemon, is
a Bosnian writer who narrowly averted the Bosnian War. He was in the US on a
journalist exchange program eight years ago. The day he was scheduled to
return home, his city, Sarajevo, came under siege. Hemon stayed in the US and
became obsessed with learning English. He gave himself five years to write a
story in English and have it published. Now eight years later, he has a book
of stories written in English, published by Doubleday, that is receiving rave
reviews. It's called "The Question of Bruno." Critic Van Burcitz(ph) wrote
in Esquire, `as vivid prose as you will find anywhere this year and as
heartbreaking.' In Entertainment Weekly, the book was praised for its
piercing cultural observation. Aleksandar Hemon says he made up his mind to
stay in the US even before the siege of Sarajevo. I asked him why.
Mr. ALEKSANDAR HEMON (Author, "The Question of Bruno"): Why did I want to
Mr. HEMON: 'Cause I wanted to live, and I guess I was not brave enough to go
GROSS: So even before the siege you knew that there'd trouble.
Mr. HEMON: Yeah. I was a journalist. This is a strange thing. I knew
everything I needed to know to know that there would be a war, and it would be
the way it was. But on the other hand, emotionally, I could not face up to
that fact, and none of us could. We simply stared the facts in the face and
would not see them. And that's one of the things that I thought about a lot,
too. And I realized that it is kind of the same mechanism that I believe
human beings have which prevents them from being able to imagine their own
death. Because if we were able to imagine our own death we would be paralyzed
with fear of death. And most of the people outside of this small group of
people, who were actually organizing the crime, could not see what was going
on because it was too big. It was so much bigger than our lives that we could
not see what was going on.
GROSS: Before you were able to write in English, you took a lot of odd jobs
in the United States. Why don't you run through a list of some of the jobs
you had in your first few years here.
Mr. HEMON: Well, first there were a few illegal jobs. I hope no one from
the INS is listening to this. I served food in some place. I worked for a
real estate agent who paid me less than a minimum wage, putting in real estate
data into the computer. Then my first legal job was working for Greenpeace as
a canvasser, which I did for two and a half years, which was a crash course in
American middle class. I worked in a bookstore; I worked as a bike messenger.
I worked in a kitchen of a fast-food restaurant. I worked as an ESL teacher.
I worked in several bookstores. And then I was a graduate student. And now
I'm a professional writer.
GROSS: In one of your stories, the character talks about--this is a character
in Bosnia--in Sarajavo--and he talks about how, you know, when you walk from
point A to point B in Sarajevo you risk getting killed by a sniper. But if
you make it to point B, then you're momentarily thrilled to be alive even
though you're living under siege. So one of the things, you weren't living in
that world of danger, but you weren't also getting that kind of surge of joy
to be alive.
Mr. HEMON: Right. A lot of friends of mine talk about this kind of
adrenaline rush that they would have in Sarajevo because--for the very fact
that being able to survive, which was also, you know, would be followed by
this horrible, horrible--depressed is not even the word--sounds too mild--the
horrible fear and, you know, the endless darkness that they were facing, it
seemed to them. And not to mention the physical obstacles like the lack of
food and lack of movement and lack of health care and all kinds of lacks. But
this adrenaline rush made a lot of people in Sarajevo, particularly artists,
do incredible things and they were really excited to be alive in that city at
that time as strange as it sounds. Whereas I was not very excited to be alive
in the United States at that time although I was in a much better position
GROSS: There's a passage in your new collection "The Question of Bruno" that
I'd like you to read. And this is about a character who, like you, has come
to the United States from Bosnia and he's working at a restaurant. Would you
introduce this passage for us? Set the context for us?
Mr. HEMON: Well, my character, Jozef Pronek, who had decided to stay in the
United States because of the war in Bosnia, has to find a job. And so he goes
out and finds a job in a bakery that serves sandwiches of all kinds. His duty
is described as the kitchen help. So he's at work at this moment.
(Reading) He was listlessly piling up trays on the top of the bin when a man
in a grass green shirt with a golfer shade swinging a golf club in its
coronary area said, `Young man, would you please come here?' Pronek
obediently walked to the man's table and stood there as vague hatred brewed in
his muscles. The man had nicely combed blond hair and Pronek could see the
immaculate lines disappearing into the pate. The man pointed at a croissant
on his plate, there was monstrous golden seal ring on his pinky and he said,
`I wanted romaine lettuce on my turkey Dijon. Excuse me, but this is not
romaine lettuce, this is iceberg lettuce. What do you have to say about
Pronek was about to go and tell the sandwich person about a problem,
but then abruptly overwhelmed with a desire not to be there the moment said
nothing. `I'd like my turkey dijon with romaine lettuce, please,' the man
said. `What difference?' Pronek said. `Excuse me?' The man raised his
voice, his double chin doubly corrugated in disbelief. `Romaine lettuce,
iceberg lettuce, what difference?' Pronek said with a sudden vision of
stuffing the lettuce leaf into the man's mouth. `May I talk to someone who
can speak English, please?' the man said and pushed his tray away with
resolve, as the croissant shuttered and slid to the edge of the plate.
Pronek left pain climbing up his calves passing his pelvis to settle in his
stomach as a cramp. He wanted to say something, something clever that would
smash the man but could not think of any English words that could convey the
magnitude of the absurdity other than `Romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce,
what difference?' He kept mumbling it to himself like a magic word that would
make him fly and wobbled away in a vain hope that the man might just give it
up. But the man naturally did not give it up. For he the man that, and
rightly so, full and responsible service for his hard-earned money.
GROSS: I'm wondering if what when you were working before you had really
brushed up on your English, people often assumed that you were stupid because
you didn't speak the language well.
Mr. HEMON: That is true. And in fact, I--when I taught English as a second
language, I would have students--most of my students for one reason or another
were Russian Jews or Jews from the former Soviet Union. And some of them were
literally rocket scientists, some of them were inventors and they would design
things and gadgets for cars that would be pursued by General Motors. But they
would be on level two and could not figure out the plural of ox. They would
say oxes rather than oxen as if they would, you know, encounter a herd of oxen
on the streets of Chicago anytime. So they needed to know the plural. And
this kind of condescension that is so frequent and so insulting to people who
have had full lives and very complicated lives because--and I would tell my
students that they would be so--some of them would be so ashamed of their
accent that they would decide which is impossible to learn the English and
then start speaking it. They wanted to be assimilated. They wanted to work
on their accents. I still, until very recently, I was working at the literacy
center in Chicago where most of the learners were, you know, non-native
speakers and more than half of them would come in and then you would ask them
what it is that they wanted to work on first. They would say speaking, that
is the accent. They wanted to have the accent gone.
GROSS: How did you go about learning the language? You already knew some of
it when you decided to stay, but not enough to really write. How did you go
about learning pronunciations and the words themselves?
Mr. HEMON: Well, I never really worked on my accent. I worked as a canvasser
for Greenpeace, so I had to talk a lot and without having any time to be
self-conscious. And I don't care...
GROSS: So you were going door-to-door canvassing people for Greenpeace?
Mr. HEMON: Yes. Yes. So, you know, I never worried about my accent. But
it--the other good thing about canvassing was that you pick up on, you know,
the colloquial idiomatic things which are not hard to pick up on. So there
was one way of learning, just talking a lot and being more involved in
exchanges with people. But also I read obsessively at the beginning. I still
do read a lot obviously. But I read--when I wasn't working, I read. That's
what I did. I read and worked and ate and slept. And I would make lists of
words that I did not understand and then look them up in the dictionary. I
had the Advanced Learner Oxford Dictionary--or the Oxford Dictionary for an
Advanced Learner(ph) it was called. And so I would look up these words. Some
of them I would have to look up 10, 12 times before I understood them,
understood them in a sense that I could use them as I write. That is with all
the ...(unintelligible) implications and the aura around the word and so on.
And I guess it sounds, you know, complicated now. But whatever language you
write in, you learn to write in that language and learn the language that you
use to write by reading. This happens to any writer in any language at any
time except I had to do it, you know, quickly.
GROSS: There's a character in one of your stories who's walking down what's
called the magnificent mile in Chicago, and he finds himself thinking of the
film "The Magnificent Seven." I'm wondering if you made any bizarre word
associations because there were words that you had known for a long time in
English back from your days in Sarajevo, and now you are encountering
the--well, actually trying to learn the English language.
Mr. HEMON: Well, and since you put it that way--I wasn't aware of that at
the time, but it seems to me what you are saying is true. "The Magnificent
Seven," I mean, the word `magnificent' was always--and it still is--as you
were talking, I understood that, was always related to this film, "The
Magnificent Seven"--Yul Brynner and other guys.
GROSS: Steve McQueen.
Mr. HEMON: Steve McQueen, yes. Yeah. It is. I picked up some words. The
way I guess you get the words if you're not in an English-speaking country is
you get them in strange streams, you know, from odd places because you're not
aware of the context that they are attached to. They just come to you in a
sense. And, you know, I've watched American movies, which were not dubbed but
subtitled, and also I listened to pop music that had English lyrics. And I
knew all these words but I was not always aware what--how exactly they
GROSS: Did you find that when you started writing in English that you started
writing about different subjects or writing in a stylistically different way
than you did when you were in Bosnia?
Mr. HEMON: I did indeed. When I was in Bosnia, I wrote kind of minimalistic
stories which were really a symptom of helplessness and the lack of
imagination that will allow me to imagine the magnitude of evil that was to
come. But I am a different writer in English absolutely. But it's also I'm a
different person and this change--the switch from the language--my previous
language to this language--was related to my, you know, transformation as a
person. I still do write in Bosnia, however, I write for a magazine in
Sarajevo called Dani. I write a biweekly column in Bosnia.
GROSS: My guest is Aleksandar Hemon, whose new collection of short stories is
called "The Question of Bruno." We'll talk more after our break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Aleksandar Hemon. He's a Bosnian writer who has lived in
the US since shortly before the siege of Sarajevo.
Do you have friends or family who stayed in Sarajevo and lived in Bosnia
throughout the siege and were really transformed by it and are really, as far
as you can tell, like different people now?
Mr. HEMON: I do have friends. One of my best friends is--he spent three and
a half years in the Bosnian army. And it was not easy for him because his
ethnicity was not exactly good for being in the Bosnian army, let's say.
And--but he's not a transformed person. He has changed, but changed in ways
that I could anticipate knowing him so well. And so we had to do some
catching up. But other than that, it wasn't a spectacular transformation.
There were people who were my friends before the war and then they chose their
nation over their neighbors, which kind of ended our friendship. And so I
don't know to the exact ways in which they've changed, but they became
nationalistic and, you know, blood thirsty in some ways.
GROSS: I read that one of your Shakespeare teachers ended up in the Milosevic
government and you saw him on TV.
Mr. HEMON: Well, I saw him everywhere because he wasn't in the Milosevic
government, he was in the Bosnian Serb government, which was controlled by
Milosevic, strictly speaking. He was my professor in college. He taught
poetry and criticism and all kinds of things. He was well versed in
Shakespeare and he spoke English slightly. He taught in Champaign at the
University of Illinois at some point because Champaign--I mean University of
Illinois at Champaign has a huge literary department. And he was a rather
brilliant man. I liked him as a teacher very much. I graduated in 1990. And
in 1991, he joined the Serbian nationalist party.
And I worked at a magazine at the time and would go to news conference where
he would be along and the conference would be held by Radovan Karadzic, which
was way on the top of the list of war criminals in former Yugoslavia. And so
after the conference I would go in--the press conference, I would go and greet
him and he would tell me things like, `You should stay out of this. You
should stick to literature.' And then in '92 or '93, he became obviously
heavily involved in the crimes committed in Bosnia. And the word has it--and
I'm not sure this is exactly true--that he was kind of the instigator of the
burning of the library in Sarajevo--the infamous burning of the library, a lot
of books, which is ironic since he was a literature professor and he, you
know, publicly denied the existence of camps and rapes and such.
He was kind of a Rosenberg-like war criminal. He would have been had he not
shot himself. He wasn't directly involved in the military operations, I don't
think. But he was, you know, being the soft-spoken English-speaking
intellectual. He was involved with foreign journalists and was a kind of a
propaganda man, in a sense. He shot himself in 1995, I believe, took two
GROSS: When you were studying with him, did you know much about his politics?
And did your knowledge of his politics interfere with your taking him seriously
as a professor of Shakespeare?
Mr. HEMON: I did not know his politics, and the politics were invisible.
And the way he taught literature is in a kind of a new critical tradition.
The way it was taught in this country for a long time until, you know, at
least until the feminist revolution, let's say, which, you know, assumes that
the work of art is a thing unto itself. That the only thing that you need to
understand is how the internal structure of the poem or a novel, the things
outside of it do not matter. And his politics, it was not visible at the
time. I mean, he would not say anything in the class. And then we'd be there
ourselves, you know, analyzing poems and, you know, finding rhymes and
decoding images and all this.
So his politics was completely invisible. But then I realized later on that
it was still political, this kind of attitude towards literature in which it
is just this thing that exists outside of the realm of general human
experience, outside of politics or, you know, everyday practices. This realm
where we go when we want to be excited and, you know, reach the divine realms
and all this new romantic stuff. And I realized that while I was busying
myself analyzing poems, he was plotting a crime. And I, you know, felt
terribly guilty for not being cautious enough, although I was very young at
the time, so I guess I kind of eventually forgave myself. But I then busily
tried to detect a moment or the moments when his politics or his genocidal
proclivities, let's say, were detectable. And so I re-read a lot of books
that he taught and a lot of poems and then some news and completely changed
the way I thought about literature.
GROSS: It changed the way you thought about literature?
Mr. HEMON: Yes. I mean, thinking about it. Thinking about what his role
was in all that. I suddenly realized that literature at one level or another
is always political and it always implies a political attitude, and it's not
this thing outside of all that but, in a sense, in the center, in the center
of all that.
GROSS: You said that a new language developed in Bosnia during the war.
This is the period when you weren't there to hear any new expressions. What
were you able to glean about new expressions?
Mr. HEMON: Well, you know, a language is always related to the experience of
the people who speak it. Then the war was a different experience, and it
transformed the language in many ways--you know, the words--the military
words. I translated the words--some of the writing of my friend and arguably
the greatest living Bosnian writer, Semezdin Mehmedinovic. His book is
"Sarajevo Blues." I translated it into English because largely I wanted to
show it to some people. It's the best book written about the war and stuff.
And I had some of the words, I had to call up my friends who were, you know,
under siege during in the war, and ask them, `What is this?' The words may be
for, you know, some kind of piece of military equipment. There was a word for
a martyr fighter in the Bosnian army and, you know, a large number of other
words. The word for--which is incredibly beautiful to me in a strange
way--the word for the point of impact of a shell on the street, which is a
little crater that would raise around it. The word for that became the word
that is--I mean, the word for rose--the rose, a flower. And, you know, I came
upon the word and suddenly it was confusing to me. I didn't know what it was
until I saw it when I went back to Sarajevo. And so my experience was
entirely different here from the experience of people in Sarajevo. And I had
no words in Bosnia to describe this experience here. And words in Bosnia that
I knew were kind of inadequate to describe the experience that was--or to
understand the experience of the people in Sarajevo and Bosnia.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HEMON: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Aleksandar Hemon's new collection of short stories is called "The
Question of Bruno." I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Wayne Barrett discusses his new Rudy Giuliani
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Rudolph Giuliani, the controversial mayor of New York, was being closely
watched by political reporters around the country when he was running for the
US Senate opposite Hillary Clinton. But he dropped out of the race in the
spring, announcing that he had prostate cancer and that he was separating from
My guest Wayne Barrett has written a new investigative biography of him.
Barrett is senior editor at The Village Voice and has covered Giuliani for
over 20 years. Giuliani is a former federal prosecutor who made his name
going after the Mafia and white-collar criminals. He was the hero of
Barrett's 1989 book, "City for Sale," but Giuliani isn't depicted as a hero in
the new biography. Barrett portrays him as a politician who steals credit for
successes he isn't responsible for and dodges blame for problems he helped
create. I asked Barrett when his opinion of Giuliani changed.
Mr. WAYNE BARRETT (Author, "Rudy!: An Investigative Biography of Rudolph
Giuliani"): I would say that, you know, there was some changes in both
campaigns, when he ran in '89 and '93. I thought particularly he ran to the
right when he ran in '93 against the then-incumbent Mayor David Dinkins. And
I was troubled by many of the racial aspects of the 1993 campaign.
But really I think the point at which Rudy changed in a fundamental way was
after he endorsed Mario Cuomo in '94. George Pataki won; Newt Gingrich won
control of the Congress; the rise of the right within his own party, with him
having made this misstep endorsing this liberal Democratic governor. And it
was at that point in late '94 and in early '95 that we saw an enormous
ideological shift on Giuliani's part. I think it continues to this day, and
that would be the point at which I felt that he had changed his politics in
such a fundamental way. And his welfare policies and many of his anti-poor
policies and anti-black policies began to be very much a prominent part of his
GROSS: Did you feel like he underwent this ideological change to ingratiate
himself to the Republicans who he had alienated by supporting the Democrat
Mario Cuomo? Or did you feel it was a genuine political change that he
Mr. BARRETT: I don't think any of his political ideology is genuine. This
is a man who became a registered Republican to get a job in the Reagan
administration when he was appointed associate attorney general. He is
extraordinarily flexible and non-ideological. As a person, that's the way
I've known him. I think that's the way I write about him. He adapted to what
he saw as the change within the country and within the party. And he did an
abrupt 180-degree turn. He can do that on a dime.
GROSS: Now you say that there's little question that New York City became a
better place to live on Giuliani's watch. What improved in New York?
Mr. BARRETT: Well, certainly we have safer streets. Certainly we have
cleaner streets. I point out particularly that the sanitation department I
think was the strongest department of his administration in the early years
and dramatically improved productivity on the streets of New York. You know,
he has somewhat of an overblown reputation which I think he has hyped on the
crime front but there's no question but that crime has been reduced here as it
has been reduced in most major cities in the country. And to a certain degree
just by his appointment of Bill Bratton, the police commissioner of the first
two years of his administration--he certainly should get credit for appointing
Bratton who did a number of things that did have some impact.
GROSS: Now you think that Giuliani took credit for many things that he wasn't
responsible for. One big example is the renovation of Times Square. Times
Square has gone from a kind of, you know, seedy block to now it's got, like,
the Disney Stores and other megastore, big tourist attraction now. In what
way do you think he took credit for something that he wasn't responsible for?
Mr. BARRETT: Well, you know, he's the first mayor to ever push the button on
New Year's Eve. Mayors didn't do that. He insinuated himself into that spot
very early in his administration, and I think he kind of merged, particularly
when he pushed the button on a new millennium. Every year when that happens,
there are news stories about the resurgence of Times Square. And every year
he has identified himself in the public consciousness with that resurgence.
In fact, if you cite the Disney deal for an example, which I think was a
pivotal deal, that was all negotiated by the Dinkins administration. In fact,
crime went down 27 percent in Times Square in the final year of the Dinkins
administration. Street cleanliness improved dramatically in the final year of
the Dinkins administration in Times Square. So even if you look at porn shops
where he did introduce legislation which ultimately passed, was tested in the
courts to try to reduce the number of porn shops in the Times Square area, by
the time that law went into effect, the number of porn shops had already
declined from 140 to 21. What produced the decline was the condemnation of
those properties by the state and the city and that was put together really
under the Koch and Cuomo administrations.
And this irony was that I decided to write this as the opening chapter,
thinking that this would be a balance chapter, that I would have pluses and
minuses, that I would have things that I could say, `Well, Rudy did this, and
this is'--I thought it was a metaphor for his government. It turned out it
was a metaphor for taking credit which he is an expert at doing for things he
had virtually nothing to do with.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Wayne Barrett. He's the author
of the new book, "Rudy!: An Investigative Biography of Rudolph Giuliani."
And Wayne Barrett is senior editor at The Village Voice where he's been
covering politics for 22 years.
Rudolph Giuliani takes some of the credit for crime having dropped in New York
during the years that he's been mayor. What are some of the statistics and
how much of the credit do you think Giuliani deserves for that?
Mr. BARRETT: Well, you know, I quote Mike Giulian(ph), who was a very
high-level police commander under both Dinkins and Giuliani. And he tells the
tale about if you asked the average New Yorker what were the five things that
Rudy Giuliani did, one of them would be he got rid of the squeegees. The
squeegees were the guys that washed your windshield when you didn't want them
to wash your windshield and seemed to intimidate some drivers in the process
of doing it at many pivotal street corners--well-trafficked street corners,
rather, in New York.
And it turns out Mike Giulian says, `We got rid of every squeegee before Rudy
Giuliani took office,' and that he saw Rudy Giuliani give a speech in which he
laid claim to this and Cristyne Lategano, who was Rudy's press secretary, was
there. So Giulian goes up and explains to Cristyne, shows her the numbers,
talks with her about this, is assured that he won't do this again. Of course,
he's continued to do it.
I cite that as sort of an example. Now the thing that propelled Giuliani's
election in 1993 more than any other factor was what the widespread perception
that the murder rate had soared under David Dinkins, soared and topped 2,000
for the first time in the history of the city. There was no question but that
there were more than 2,000 murders a year in the first two Dinkins years and
that the murder rate was very high. But the fact is that the murder rate had
been artificially lowered in the years prior to David Dinkins taking office.
There was no great upsurge in the murder rate in the Dinkins years.
And there was--the perception of that upsurge was key to Giuliani's election.
He had nothing to do with the manipulation of the figures prior to taking
office, but what actually happened was that during the Koch administration and
even going back to the Beame administration and even to the Lindsay
administration, the number of undetermined external deaths was allowed to grow
dramatically in New York, atypical of anywhere around the country, and these
are deaths where the medical examiner cannot determine if they're homicide or
if they're an accident. And that number grew to 720 in the final year of the
Koch administration. It actually averaged throughout the '80s somewhere
between seven and 800.
This was a figure that created the possibility of diluting the murder rate
because--and when Charles Hirsch, the new medical examiner, took office in
1989, he instituted new policies, hired 28 new assistant medical examiners,
and they dramatically, in Dinkins' first year, reduced the number of
undetermined deaths, undetermined external deaths, and this resulted in a
dramatic increase in the number of murders. That's why everyone believed
throughout the Dinkins administration that we suddenly had a dramatic turn in
the murder rate.
GROSS: Although the crime statistics look improved under the Giuliani
administration, there were some really horrible police brutality cases that
became big national stories. For example, Amadou Diallo, a West African man,
took 19 bullets from four cops while he reached for his wallet which the cops
thought might be a gun. Abner Louima, a Haitian man, was sodomized with a
stick in a police precinct. Anthony Baez, a Puerto Rican man, was choked to
death by a cop. A few weeks ago women were attacked in New York by groups of
men in Central Park and cops stood by as the women screamed for help. What do
you think Giuliani's reaction to these police brutality cases have been? The
last case wasn't a brutality case; it was a standing-by case.
Mr. BARRETT: Well, he's--other than in the Abner Louima case, which occurred
when he was running for re-election in 1997, when he acted promptly to suspend
the police officers that were involved and he took dramatic steps, those are
the kinds of steps he should have done in many other instances, but he clearly
did this for political purposes because that case occurred really close to the
election in 1997. He appointed a task force, and then after he was
re-elected, he derided the task force findings. And I think that really
exposed just how political his actions were in 1997. But he did appear to
deal with that case promptly and appropriately.
In every other instance, he has been abysmal in the handling of these cases.
I find the two cases that disturb me the most are two young men who were not
killed, Michael Jones(ph) and Dante Johnson(ph), one in Brooklyn and one in
the Bronx, both 16 years old, lying in critical condition in their hospital
beds. When he went public and derided their parents for letting them be
out--one was out at 2:00 in the morning and one was out at 12:30 at night--and
said, `What kind of parents are they to let their kids be out at night'--these
were kids who were not in any way involved in any criminal activity. And the
police shootings of them were clearly mistakes, and instead of expressing some
sympathy for either the young men or their families, he attacked their
families while they sat in critical condition. This is the kind of things
that he has done that I think have really poisoned, in a way that's
unprecedented in the city, the relationship that he has as mayor with the
GROSS: My guest is Wayne Barrett, author of a new biography of New York City
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Wayne Barrett, author of a new investigative biography of
New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Politicians are always trying to place pressure on their opponents'
vulnerabilities. Rudy Giuliani commissioned a vulnerability study about
himself so that he and his aides could examine all of Giuliani's weaknesses
and then figure out how to defend himself against attacks on those weaknesses.
You managed to get access to this vulnerability study that Giuliani
commissioned in 1993 during his mayoral run. What was in the study?
Mr. BARRETT: Well, it's about five inches thick, and two researchers did it
and worked on it for many months. The study reviews Rudy's entire public
career and personal life prior to 1993. The study is published in April of
'93. And Rudy Giuliani believed that he had had all copies of it destroyed.
I mean, the day he received it, he sent an aide to the desk of the two
research assistants and the aide killed it on the hard drive of both of their
computers, took the discs and confiscated what he thought were the only four
copies that were made of it.
Though, the theory of a vulnerability study as you look at the weaknesses and
then you come up with strategies to counteract it, and certainly the
vulnerability study had strategies that it recommended to counteract all of
the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that it described, none of those strategies
were ever implemented or discussed because Rudy was so upset about the tenor
of the report itself that he just wanted it deep-sixed.
But just to give you an example--and, you know, there are sections in there
about his ruthlessness. There are sections, if you remember, that he
spearheaded a rally of police officers outside of city hall at the time of the
Dinkins administration that turned into a riot, with cops overturning
everything and Giuliani spoke there, and he used expletives several times to
denounce Dinkins, and he was roundly condemned for that, but never was he
condemned more for it than in his own vulnerability study. The chapter is
called The Human Scream Machine, a description of the mayor himself by his own
research director. So that's the kind of thing it exposed. It also looked
into things on his personal life. For example, his first marriage to his
second cousin, Regina Peruji(ph), is described as evidence of a weirdness
factor in his personal life. And then it discusses his, quote, "raucous"
social life, seeing other women during his first marriage.
GROSS: Giuliani dropped out of this Senate race running against Hillary
Clinton, saying that he had prostate cancer and that he was separating from
his wife. But it turned out he hadn't told his wife that yet. Then his wife,
Donna Hanover, held a press conference of her own in which she announced that
she hadn't been part of his public life for several years because of another
woman, who turned out to be his former press secretary. Did she know about
the affair that he was having at that time with the woman he's still with,
Mr. BARRETT: She apparently learned about that very late. That's at least
what she says. I really can't get into her head, but she has said that she
learned about that very late. You know, he brought her to the Inner Circle.
The Inner Circle is this annual event that all of the press corps in New York
gets a stage show. The reporters perform, and then Rudy performs, and it's
one of those big tux nights with--everybody in the elite is there. And he
brought her there and had her there at the table. And apparently, some time
after that, Donna Hanover learned about the relationship between Judith Nathan
GROSS: The line between public and private life now for elected politicians
and people who are running for office is so fuzzy now. I'm wondering if you
had been reporting on Rudolph Giuliani's private life, if you had inside
information about Judith Nathan or about the woman who had been his lover
before that who was a member of his administration; if you knew about it and
if you thought you should write about it or not?
Mr. BARRETT: It's a very complex question. I think it's different for a
reporter than it is for a biographer. I'm a biographer wearing that hat
Mr. BARRETT: And certainly, I think someone's private life, I think, we
expect to read some things about that in a biography, and I think it would be
ridiculous to suggest that someone's romantic life was irrelevant to a
biography. But on the other hand, I knew about Judith Nathan. I learned
about her, you know, in November of 1999, and the New York Post did a story
maybe two or three months ago. It was a front page story in a Saturday Post
saying that the reason why Rudy revealed the relationship with Judith Nathan
was that he knew I knew about her. I have no idea--he cited blind city hall
sources as saying this. I have no idea if that's the case. It certainly is
true that I knew about her. I had not yet made up my mind to write about her.
I was saving it for one of the final issues to deal with. Once he publicly
announced it, I think it resolved all question really as to whether or not to
write about it.
Now on the other hand, the relationship with Cristyne Lategano, I have
absolutely no question in my mind that that is totally within the public
purview. She became the second-most powerful person in his government. She
was a 28-year-old kid when she went to work for him. She had no governmental
experience, and to have that kind of a relationship with a person that is
raised to that level within your government who gets raises all the way
up--she even got a $9,000 raise while she was on leave, and in the end, she
was making a hundred and forty-one thousand dollars as his communications
director, and then his administration helped to point her to her current
position as the head of the tourist bureau. I have no question but that that
is a totally legitimate story. There's no zone of privacy, as far as I'm
concerned, for the Lategano matter. The Nathan matter, I think she has
nothing to do with his government. She's a personal friend of his. If he
hadn't announced it, I think it's a very close call as to whether or not
that's a legitimate story.
GROSS: My guest is Wayne Barrett. He's the author of a new investigative
biography of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Wayne Barrett, author of an investigative biography of New
York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. You investigated the lives of some of
Giuliani's family members, including Giuliani's father, who you say was an
enforcer for a loan shark, and how is the loan shark connected to Giuliani?
Mr. BARRETT: The loan shark is Rudy's uncle, Leo Davanzo. He's Helen
Giuliani's brother. Helen is his mother.
GROSS: And Giuliani's father also did time in Sing Sing for?
Mr. BARRETT: Armed robbery. He was also convicted of burglary at the age of
15. He was convicted of armed robbery at the age of 26.
GROSS: What's the relevance of that information to Giuliani's career?
Mr. BARRETT: Well, I have never seen a politician in my life invoke his
father more often than Rudy has. He's constantly talking about his father,
and just a couple of months ago, he said he wouldn't be mayor were it not for
Harold Giuliani. Harold Giuliani had a very important influence on his life,
and again, I've never seen a biography that didn't look into the family roots
of an individual, the individual that was being written about. And so I
certainly think that Harold Giuliani is an enormously important character and
what he did and the fact that he did it all through Rudy's young life. He was
working in this mob bar. He was an enforcer in a loan shark and a gambling
operation. That's what put the bread on Rudy's table.
And cousins younger than Rudy knew that the bar was that kind of operation.
They told me that on the record. I quote one cousin who's several years
younger than Rudy as saying that Uncle Leo was mafioso. And, you know,
there's a Mafia wing to the family. Rudy has unimpeachable credentials as a
Mafia fighter. I don't think it says anything about that. In fact, maybe
this experience helped drive him, but there's certainly no question in my mind
that this criminal history, Rudy has absolutely no empathy, no sympathy for
anybody who comes into contact with the criminal justice system, apparently
except members of his own family. He treats fare beaters as scoundrels, and I
think that's really one of the interesting insights in him. You would think
that this personal history, this family history that he's had would open him
to the idea that life is a little more complex than that.
He's still saying--Rudy is--that his father was the most honest man he ever
knew. Well, if his father was the most honest man he ever knew and he did a
year and a half in Sing Sing, maybe that should be instructive to Rudy about
the complexity of life, that there's a few grays in there. It's not all black
and white. And instead, he's had precisely the opposite attitude. So I think
there are many ways in which it's very relevant. Rudy obviously has
transcended the cesspool that some members of his family lived in, and he has
been an enormously effective prosecutor of the mob.
GROSS: Now Giuliani also had five uncles who were cops, and that might have
influenced his thinking, too.
Mr. BARRETT: He had one uncle that was a cop very briefly, but four who were
cops for most of their adult lives. One of those cops was also involved with
the bar. In fact, the bar was in the name of one of the uncles who was a cop,
and this uncle who was a cop was also busted on gambling-related charges. But
the rest of the cops in the family were very outstanding individuals, as best
as I could determine. And he had four cousins who were cops, one of whom was
killed in the line of duty. So certainly, he has a long police tradition in
his family. That's one of the reasons he says he understands the psyche of
the police department better than any other mayor.
GROSS: Is there something personal going on in this book, too? You used to
really admire Giuliani. As you say, he was the hero of your first book, "City
for Sale." Then you really felt betrayed by the way he handled himself as
mayor and handled himself as a campaigner. You felt betrayed, I think, by his
change of politics. So is there something personal between you and him?
Mr. BARRETT: Well, I wouldn't use the word betrayed, I don't think. You
know, I'd use the word disappointed.
Mr. BARRETT: Yeah. I've been--you know, there's no question but that I've
covered him, known him since 1979. I've been dismayed and disappointed by his
race policies, by the ethics of this administration. You know, I'm certainly
a human being and I approached him as a human being, you know, and I write
passionately about issues and I think you see that in there. But I don't feel
some deep personal animus towards him or anything like that.
GROSS: You were pretty close to Giuliani for a while.
Mr. BARRETT: I was, yes.
GROSS: Are you afraid to get close to people who are in politics now?
Mr. BARRETT: Well, you know, I was close to him when he was a prosecutor. I
had many, many meals with him, many, many social moments with him while he was
a federal prosecutor. I never had another meal with him the day he left the
United States Attorney's Office. When he became a politician, I don't buddy
up with politicians.
GROSS: Wayne Barrett is the author of "Rudy: An Investigative Biography of
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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