DATE March 27, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jeffrey Goldberg discusses the article he wrote about
a chemical weapons attack in northern Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's unclear what chemical and biological weapons Iraq has today, and what
weapons Iraq has made or might make available to terrorist groups. But we do
know that Saddam Hussein has already launched chemical attacks in Iraq,
although most of us know very little about what happened. In the early '90s,
Human Rights Watch published a report titled Iraq's Crime of Genocide, which
estimated that between 50 and 100,000 people were killed in chemical attacks
launched by Saddam's regime against as many as 200 Iraqi villages and towns.
My guest, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, has written about the chemical attack
on the city of Halabja in northern Iraq on March 16th, 1988. Halabja was then
home to about 80,000 Kurds, many of whom opposed Saddam's regime. Goldberg
traveled to Halabja, interviewed survivors and doctors, and published his
report in last week's New Yorker. He's a staff writer for the magazine, and
covers the Middle East. One of the survivors he spoke with, named
Nasrine(ph), was in her basement at the time of the attack, taking shelter
from bombs. I asked Goldberg what Nasrine saw when she emerged.
Mr. JEFFREY GOLDBERG (The New Yorker): She was the first one in her family,
as best as I can tell, to notice that something was awry, there was something
different about March 16th. She had been in the kitchen cooking with her
sister for the 30 or 40 relatives who were in her basement, and she saw a
helicopter come by with photographers in it taking pictures of Halabja--an
army helicopter--and she thought that was very strange. She went into the
basement when the artillery bombardment occurred.
You have to understand something here that's so diabolically clever. The
Iraqis, knowing that gas is heavier than air and would penetrate cellars and
basements more effectively, drove everybody into the basements by launching a
conventional artillery attack on the town for several hours. In other words,
they knew that people would do what they always did during an artillery
barrage and run to their basements. They were stuck in their basements, and
then they launched the chemical weapons attack and this, of course, made the
chemical weapons attack very effective, because the gas started seeping into
the basements and the cellars, turning them, really--I mean, the way it was
described to me, really as gas chambers, in essence.
Nasrine came out, she saw that her family partridge, bird in a cage was dying,
she saw some of the farm animals dying, and she went downstairs to her family
and a lot of the people in the basement were getting sick rather quickly. The
children were vomiting, the old people were vomiting. Their eyes were
becoming extremely red and they had to make this awful decision: stay in the
basement, which was what they had been conditioned to do during an attack, or
go out on the street and run and risk being exposed. Eventually they decided
to get out. They started making their way out out of town. Nasrine was only
16 at the time, but she was married already, but a lot of the small children,
cousins and nephews and extended family, couldn't walk any longer, so they had
to be carried.
And what happened in this exodus from the town when they were trying to get to
the hills obviously, what happened in this exodus were that people just would
fall along the roads, along the roadsides, they would just fall and collapse.
The mustard gas in particular was burning out their lungs and creating
conditions in which they couldn't breathe.
GROSS: So after Nasrine and her family decided to run for the hills, they
managed to jump on a truck...
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.
GROSS: ...a truck that was carrying the dying and the dead.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right. Right.
GROSS: And how far did they get on the truck?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, they didn't get very far, because the driver was blinded.
People in this town lost their vision in a matter of minutes sometimes,
certainly over several hours. He was blinded. His own family was in this
truck and he basically said he got out of the truck blind and sort of yelled
at everybody, you know, `Get out if you can, but I can't go on.' And he
wandered away. And Nasrine, it's interesting, 14 years after the fact, still
sort of apologizes for his behavior, and it's her belief that possibly some of
the nerve agents that were used affected his mental capacity, affected his
ability to think clearly. And that's the way she explains his decision, if
you will, to abandon his family.
The people who still could see led the people who couldn't up a little bit
into the hills where they found a mosque that was empty and then they found a
house next to a mosque. They went to the house, and people started dying
there. They were looking for food. Of course the food was probably
contaminated by that point. The children were screaming, you know, that their
eyes were bleeding, that they couldn't see, that they were all blinded. And
then at a certain point in that long, dark night, Nasrine herself went blind.
And it was only because her husband, a man named Bakthear(ph), who was outside
the town at the time, managed to find her that I think they survived. He had
his vision, and he wasn't directly affected by the chemicals and so he
organized them and washed them up and tried to give medicine to those he
could. And I think that's why they survived.
GROSS: Her husband had managed to get two syringes of a medication, atropine,
that's supposed to counter the effects of chemical attacks.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.
GROSS: How did he get them, and who did he decide to use those two syringes
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, this was not the first chemical attacks in Kurdistan, so
people knew a little bit about what to do. He was a physician's assistant, so
he had some training in this. And the Kurdish guerrillas who were fighting
the Iraqi regime had managed to gather up some syringes of atropine. He had a
couple that he got from a clinic, and he injected himself--this is before he
found Nasrine. He injected himself; a wise decision, obviously. It meant
that he could function and help people. He had one more, and he was faced
with this--you know, I don't want to invoke this too lightly, but kind of a
"Sophie's Choice," if you will.
When he found the 20 or 30 people who were with Nasrine in the house up on the
hill, many throwing up, many blinded, many obviously suffering, he had a
choice. He could have injected Nasrine, but he didn't. He found the person
who seemed to be suffering the most, a woman named Azmi(ph) who, as they
described it, was experiencing kind of a psychological breakdown or a mental
breakdown, caused either by reality, the events that she was seeing, or by the
actual workings of nerve agents on her brain. She was slamming herself into
walls and doing all kinds of very destructive things. So he chose to use this
one syringe of atropine on her, but she died anyway. And I think to this day
he still questions his decision not to inject his own wife with this one
syringe of atropine that he had.
And it's fascinating to watch the dynamic between the two of them, because she
has forgiven him completely for his decision to help the most seriously
GROSS: What were the long-term effects of the chemical attack on Nasrine?
Mr. GOLDBERG: She was blind for 20 days. They were eventually taken to Iran,
to hospitals in Iran. She was blind for 20 days. She had some burning, some
mustard gas-related burning on her skin. But the most insidious, terrible
effect on Nasrine is the following: She was in the hospital--and let me
preface this by saying that Kurdish society is quite conservative; it's a
Muslim society, and she said that she'd noticed, and told her doctors very
quietly, that she began to menstruate soon after she got to the hospital in
Iran, and it didn't stop after a few days, it just kept going. She was
horrified by this. She found out through quiet conversation with some of the
other women that they, too, were menstruating and couldn't stop. Eventually,
they told the doctors and the doctors prescribed them medicine to help stop
this bleeding, but the doctors told her at the same time that she would be
infertile, that she could not bear children. She didn't believe them. She
chose not to believe them, and two years later, back in Kurdistan
already--this is after the Gulf War--she conceived and she delivered a baby
boy. And Bakthear and Nasrine named the baby boy the Kurdish word for hope.
What happened was that the baby had a hole in his heart and he died after
three months, and that was the last time she became pregnant. And that's her
And this is a story that's replicated across Kurdistan, various problems with
congenital malformations of babies conceived after the attacks. Obviously, if
you broaden it out, the problems range from colon cancer, skin cancers, lung
cancer, liver cancer, to cleft palates and harelips and strange tumors growing
on people's backs. Obviously the long-term effects on the lungs of mustard
gas are lung scarring and diminished capacity to breathe. A lot of these
people need lung transplants, which of course they can't get in Kurdistan.
The effects are never-ending. I could go on all day about them, but I think
that gives you a snapshot of what's happening there.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, and in a recent edition of
The New Yorker, he reported on the short- and long-term effects of the Saddam
Hussein administration's chemical attacks on Kurdistan in 1988.
Part of your article is devoted to the story of Nasrine and what she saw and
experienced on the day of the attacks.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.
GROSS: How did you meet Nasrine?
Mr. GOLDBERG: When I got to Kurdistan, the Kurds, who are running their own
self-government, their own administration, if you will, in the north of Iraq,
are obviously quite keen to get their story out to the world. They don't get
a lot of journalists visiting them, so when I told various Kurdish officials
what I was interested in doing, namely meeting victims of the chemical weapons
attacks, they organized for me, very efficiently, different groups in
different cities of people who had been attacked in this town or that town.
These meetings are very difficult, obviously. It's very difficult for a
journalist to focus, if you will, on seven different stories coming at him at
once. It's also very difficult to keep your own humanity and express the
sympathy that you feel when there's so many people and you're so inundated
with these terrible stories.
Something about Nasrine stood out, though; it was the sort of the
biblical-sized calamity that occurred to her family. She lost five siblings
in this attack, as well as her mother. And her father was permanently
blinded. She was also a very composed, very eloquent woman and obviously very
frank. I mean, telling me about her problems with menstruation. I mean, here
I am, an American male journalist she had never met before, and she was
willing to talk about these things.
GROSS: Now you interviewed several other people who survived the chemical
attack in Halabja.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: Were their stories similar to Nasrine's?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yes. What's interesting is that extended families huddled
together during these attacks, so those families who are in cellars which were
affected--those families were wiped out. It's really astonishing actually to
meet some people in Halabja who did not have a single person in their family
die and then to meet others who tell you very matter-of-factly--and they also
hand you lists of 120 relatives they lost, or 80 relatives that they lost in
one day. It all had to do with where the chemicals were dropped. And so you
do hear stories also, by the way, of families that were completely wiped out.
I visited a woman in a house that was attacked. She's a new owner of the
house. And she said as far as she knows, every single member of the extended
family that was in this house during the attack died.
GROSS: Now you've mentioned that there were many long-term health effects of
the chemical attacks.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right. Right.
GROSS: Cancers of all sorts and other--you know, lung problems. One of the
odd long-term effects that you mention is that snakes became more toxic.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, this is a very interesting point. I heard this from many
Kurdish doctors. And they said this in terms of, `Be careful, because the
snakes in Halabja are very numerous and aggressive.' I didn't see any snakes,
but when I started asking around about this and they said, `Well, yes, what
happened was'--and they said, `We don't know what happened. We don't know
more than we know about a whole range of issues.' This is one of them. `We
think that in the chemical attacks, a particular kind of bird that eats snakes
was wiped out. The snakes were not affected; therefore, they reproduced at a
much great pace and therefore became much more numerous.' There are also
physicians who say they believe that the bites--that the venom of these snakes
is more toxic now due to a mutation caused by the chemical weapons.
I talked to a number of Western experts on this, and they said this could have
a couple of explanations. One is that this could be sort of a mass psychosis,
if you will, that the people having been afflicted with this biblically sized
plague believe all kinds of terrible things about their environment that
aren't true. Another possible explanation is that it is true, that the
environmental imbalances caused by the wiping out of various bird species in
that immediate area did lead to a great number of snakes being born and not
being eaten by birds. They said that it's probably not true that the snakes
had actually mutated into something more deadly.
But this brings me to a point that's incredibly important to make, which is
that this chemical weapons attack on Halabja and the chemical weapons attacks
on nearly 200 other villages and towns have never been studied by Western
scientists. We don't know what happened in Halabja to any point of precision.
We don't even know for sure what chemical agents were used. We have our
suspicions. American scientists have their suspicions--credible suspicions.
GROSS: We'll get to that in a second, yeah.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah. I mean, this issue of the snakes is one manifestation of
this lack of knowledge about what really happened there.
GROSS: How long did it take until the site of the attacks was no longer
Mr. GOLDBERG: It might still be toxic. We don't know that--that it's not
toxic. Nothing's been decontaminated. I mean, I had this moment when I was
standing in one of these basements where, you know, I was told a hundred
people had died, and I turned to one of the doctors who was accompanying me.
And I said, you know, `Has this place been decontaminated?' It just struck me
all of a sudden. And he said, `Nothing in Kurdistan has ever been
decontaminated.' It's amazing to think about the decontamination process
that's going on in the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, DC, or one of
the Senate office buildings after the anthrax attack. Nothing like that has
ever taken place. Scientists believe that the half-lives of nerve agents are
very short. Mustard gas can linger in the environment--again, the problem is
we do not understand fully the range of weapons used on the Kurds and on the
water and food supply of Kurdistan. So as far as these people are concerned,
they're living in contaminated areas. It's kind of like going back to
Chernobyl and living there.
GROSS: What do experts now think was in the brew that Saddam Hussein used in
the chemical attack on Halabja?
Mr. GOLDBERG: They believe with a reasonable degree of certainty that it was
mustard gas in combination with three nerve agents, VX, sarin and taubin.
There are suspicions--and these are suspicions that are held by Kurdish
doctors as well as some people in the West--that Saddam mixed in this brew a
biological agent called aflatoxin. There's no proof that it was used, but
there's, of course, no proof that it wasn't because no one has ever studied
that. Aflatoxin is a mycotoxin. It's a mold that grows on grain. And in
weaponized form, it can only do one thing, which is cause long-term liver
cancer, particularly in children. The Kurdish doctors see elevated rates of
liver cancer in children. And they've sort of walked this backwards, if you
will, and are questioning whether aflatoxin was also used. But we don't know.
We simply don't know.
GROSS: Now you've been wondering if al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremist
groups might get toxic weapons from Iraq. Are there any connections you've
been able to find between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda?
Mr. GOLDBERG: When I was in Kurdistan I started to do some research about a
terrorist group operating in one corner of the area. It's called the Ansar
al-Islam, which means `supporters of Islam.' It was formerly known as the
Junda Islam(ph), the `soldiers of Islam.' This group is al-Qaeda influenced,
if you will. Its ideology is very similar. And many of its leaders,
according to the people I spoke to, are, quote-unquote, "Afghan Arabs," people
who cycle through Afghanistan either to fight the Soviets or to train in the
camps of al-Qaeda. So there is very little doubt that this group is linked to
al-Qaeda in some serious way. What I found--what I heard, I should say, were
allegations from credible people who said that in fact this group is
co-sponsored; it's not under the sole sponsorship of al-Qaeda. It's
co-sponsored, the other sponsor being Saddam's intelligence service.
This makes sense. This has the benefit of making sense. Saddam and al-Qaeda
have an interest in destabilizing the Kurdish free zone, if you will, the area
of Iraq that's under the protection of the American Air Force in the no-fly
zone. So it would make sense that they would work together on this project.
And of course, Saddam's intelligence agents and al-Qaeda operatives do share a
hatred of America and a hatred of America's allies, who include most
definitively the Kurds--the Kurdish leadership in Kurdistan.
So I guess I'm left with this feeling--when I was there, I asked my Kurdish
sources on this subject why they were giving me so much information on this.
And they said, `Well, we really want you to go back to Washington and tell the
CIA that we have all this information about al-Qaeda and its links to Saddam,
because we think that this is useful information.' Which, of course, raised
the question, `You mean the CIA hasn't been here?' And they said, `No. And
we're trying to get them interested.' The only conclusion I would draw
definitively from these encounters is that this is an area worthy of further
American exploration. This would be an interesting place for American
intelligence agents, officers, to go and explore. And that's what I came away
GROSS: Of course, the people you were speaking to wouldn't necessarily know
if the CIA had been there.
Mr. GOLDBERG: No, the people I was speaking to would know. I'm talking about
the head of the Kurdish intelligence agency.
GROSS: Oh. Oh, yes. OK.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.
GROSS: All right.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, he could be not telling me the truth. I
was just--after several days with these people, I felt that they were more
earnest than manipulative and that their desire was really, you know, `Could
you please let them know what's going on over here and have them come out?'
And, you know, I was open to the idea that I was being used by the Kurds, but
after several days of exploring this, I decided, `You know, there really might
be something here. And it really might be something useful for American
intelligence service to actually go and explore.'
GROSS: Jeffrey Goldberg is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He covers the
Middle East. His article, The Great Terror, was published in the March 25th
edition of the magazine. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, more on Saddam Hussein's 1988 chemical attack on the Kurds
in Halabja. Also, satirist Harry Shearer talks about the new movie he wrote
and directed, "Teddy Bears' Picnic." It's a satire based on the Bohemian
Grove, a secretive retreat for rich and powerful men.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jeffrey Goldberg, a
staff writer for The New Yorker who covers the Middle East. In the March 25th
edition, he reported on Saddam Hussein's 1988 chemical attack on the Kurds in
the northern Iraqi town of Halabja. Goldberg pieced together what happened
based on eyewitness accounts and wrote about the short- and long-term effects
of the chemical attack.
During the period of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was described as having a
comparatively secular regime. You say that about 10 years ago he underwent
something of a battlefield conversion to a fundamentalist brand of Islam. Do
you know what happened?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, I can say with reasonable surety that it was not
heartfelt. You know, Saddam's an interesting character. He's a pan-Arabist
secularist when that's useful, but he also speaks in the language of Islamic
fundamentalism when that's useful. I'm not saying that he's a religious
person now. God knows. But I think what occurred was he decided that he
could link up his cause--his anti-American cause, if you will--with the
Islamic fundamentalists, who are also developing these anti-American feelings.
And that is why it's credible that Saddam and al-Qaeda might be working
together. On the face of it, it seems illogical. Saddam is a secularist on
paper, and al-Qaeda is obviously, you know, a religiously fundamentalist
movement. But they share interests. And so it's not inconceivable.
GROSS: You say that Saddam Hussein is now a prime supporter of the
Palestinian anti-Israeli groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.
GROSS: Is that common knowledge, or is that something that you found out?
Mr. GOLDBERG: It's certainly common knowledge in the community of people who
pay obsessive attention to these sorts of issues. When people look at the
supporters of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, they look more to Iran than Iraq. But
Saddam Hussein is doing something very interesting. He is--and this has been
documented--paying the families of suicide bombers a lump sum of $10,000,
which, of course, is an extraordinary amount of money in the West Bank or the
Gaza Strip. So he's buying his way into the conflict, if you will, through,
these large cash grants to suicide bombers. Of course, these kind of cash
grants encourage other people to become suicide bombers because they know that
their families will be taken care of by Saddam Hussein when and if they blow
themselves up standing in the middle of a crowd of Israeli civilians.
GROSS: You say that Israel and the Jews are now Saddam Hussein's main
preoccupation. Why is that?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah. An interesting scholar named Amatzia Baram, who's from
Haifa University, who knows more about Saddam Hussein's family than anybody
I've ever met--he reads everything coming out of Iraq--explained it this way.
And this was echoed, by the way, by Iraqi Muslims, dissidents I spoke to. He
says this: Saddam wants to be remembered a thousand years from now. He wants
his legacy to be taught to fourth-graders in every Arab country a thousand
years from now. He can't do that by killing Kurds. That's not the main game
in the Middle East. He can only ensure immortality, if you will, by bringing
Israel to its knees. That is the struggle. That is the main field of battle
between Arabs and the West, if you will.
And so he's a very historically minded figure, from everything that I've read
and from everyone I've talked to. He frequently compares himself to
Hammurabi, to Nebuchadnezzar, to Saladin. And he's looking for a way--Amatzia
Baram put it this way--to absolve himself of the sins he's committed against
Arabs and against Muslims over the past 20 years.
And here's the thing. I think there's some logic to this. If he brought
Israel to its knees in some manner, through a biological weapons attack, say,
he would be known as the one Arab who actually brought about the destruction
or the permanent weakening of Israel. And it's quite a fascinating point.
And that's why American military planners, Israeli military planners, Iraqi
dissidents, the Kurds themselves will actually say this. They all believe
that when push comes to shove, Saddam will save his missiles for an attack on
Israel, not on Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or the Kurds.
GROSS: If there's a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, then
al-Qaeda could conceivably get chemical weapons from Iraq. I'm wondering if
al-Qaeda would need Iraq for chemical weapons. How difficult are these
chemical weapons to make?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, I'm convinced that that's the actual short-term danger.
There's a famous Iraqi dissident named Kanan Makiya I spoke to for this story,
and he says this is the scenario. Iraq is the address; Iraq is a state
everyone in the world knows builds chemical and biological weapons. If you're
a terrorist who needs biological and chemical weapons, that's the address.
Right now, of course, with all the focus on al-Qaeda and all the focus on
Iraq, it's very difficult, presumably, to make such an arrangement.
But Kanan Makiya's argument, and the argument of others, is that if Saddam is
allowed to stay in power over the next couple of years--three or four
years--our interests will wane. If he plays this smart, he'll be very quiet.
And then terrorist groups will look to him as the pharmacy, if you will.
They'll go to him and go to Iraq for these weapons. And I think it's
extraordinarily important when you have an actual state apparatus behind your
chemical weapons programs.
It's not so easy, I would imagine, for an al-Qaeda operative sitting in
Hamburg, Germany, to create a weapons laboratory. It turns out, you know, as
we're seeing, you know, hints of this from Afghanistan, that there was a
development program in Afghanistan developed by al-Qaeda to create these kind
of weapons. That sanctuary has now been denied to al-Qaeda by the American
military, but Iraq still exists as an independent state, and an independent
state sponsor of these programs is obviously a great threat.
GROSS: The Bush administration is trying to line up support internationally
for attacking Iraq and going after its...
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.
GROSS: ...chemical and nuclear capabilities. Do you feel that your article
in The New Yorker adds weight to the Bush administration's argument that some
action against Iraq needs to be taken?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, I can't deny the obvious. The vice president and the
president have both invoked my article as proof of Saddam's nefariousness, if
you will. I'm going to let my article speak for itself. As I said, I started
working on this two years ago. And let me say this: If I had an agenda, it
would be to get medical attention for the Kurds, who suffered through these
attacks. I'm a reporter. I'm not a pundit. I try to go to places and gather
information. If the information adds up to a certain conclusion, then the
information adds up to a certain conclusion. But I'm uncomfortable,
obviously, being a pundit on this subject. You know, am I glad that people
are talking about my article? Of course. I mean, the worst thing in the
world is to have people ignore it. And if people draw certain conclusions
about the nature of the regime, well, then they're going to draw those
GROSS: Well, Jeffrey Goldberg, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you.
GROSS: Jeffrey Goldberg's article The Great Terror was published in the March
25th edition of The New Yorker.
Coming up, satirist Harry Shearer; he has written and directed a new movie.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Harry Shearer discusses his new movie "Teddy Bears'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Satirist Harry Shearer has written and directed a new movie called "Teddy
Bears' Picnic." Shearer is a former cast member of "Saturday Night Live." He
has appeared in many films. He does the voices of several characters on "The
Simpsons" and presents his own political satires every week on his public
radio program "Le Show."
His new movie is a satire based on the Bohemian Grove in Northern California.
It's an exclusive and secretive all-male retreat for the rich and powerful.
The membership has included presidents, Cabinet members and business tycoons.
Shearer's satire is set at a retreat called Zambezi Glen(ph). In this scene,
the Glen is having its inaugural ladies' day for the wives and companions of
the male membership. The women are welcomed by the patriarch of Zambezi Glen,
Porterfield "Porty" Pendleton, who is also the chancellor of a California
university. He's played by Michael McKean.
(Soundbite of "Teddy Bears' Picnic")
Mr. MICHAEL McKEAN: (As Porterfield "Porty" Pendleton) What you will see
today in your short time here, ladies, is a glimpse of a special place, a
place where warmth, fellowship and a love of the arts blossom in the splendid
bosom--excuse me--in the splendid lap of nature. Whether we be construction
mogul, banker, university president, Cabinet member or humble spinner of the
webs of commerce, this is our once-a-year sanctuary. We hope you understand
at the end of your brief visit here why, to stay special, this place must
remain unknown to others. We share it with you today so that in six weeks,
when you lose your menfolk to the Glen for their summertime sojourn here, you
will have the smell of our sacred redwoods lingering in your lovely nostrils.
And now in line with our most treasured traditions, as patriarch I hereby
declare the Glen and all its bars open.
(Soundbite of applause)
GROSS: Harry Shearer, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. HARRY SHEARER (Satirist; Writer/Director, "Teddy Bears' Picnic"): Thanks,
GROSS: So your new movie is a satire of the Bohemian Grove. Before we get to
your satire, what is the thing that you're satirizing?
Mr. SHEARER: Well, it's a retreat that has been held every year, every
summer, for more than a century in the redwood country of Northern California,
where the richest and most powerful white men in our country assemble to
basically regress to the activities of a college sophomore in a frat house,
except on a much higher budget.
GROSS: Such as?
Mr. SHEARER: Well, prodigious amounts of consumption of very potent alcoholic
beverages, for one, and the concomitant results therefrom, i.e. lying face
down on the golf course for much of the following day. Walking around naked
and peeing ceremonially on redwood trees from time to time and putting on
elaborate shows that involve a lot of drag are three of the main activities.
And the thing that got me into this--I'd heard about it for years and known
about it a little bit--but that these people, at the peak of their power,
that's their choice of a week of, you know--a very special week carved out of
their busy schedules devoted to that just seemed like such a weird, funny
choice to me.
GROSS: So since the Bohemian Grove is so secretive, how did you do any
research to figure out what you want to satirize?
Mr. SHEARER: Well, you know, most people who know secrets love to tell them
to somebody. Otherwise nobody knows that they know a secret. The two
independent film producers from San Francisco, both women who originally
approached me and said, `We want to do a movie about Bohemian Grove but we
don't really know what kind of movie to do.'
I said, `Well, I'd do it as a comedy.'
They said, `OK.'
So they knew a lot of people who were former members or relatives of members,
sons who had rejected the call to follow the family into the club, hookers who
worked for the retreat. It's a very high class of hooker they get. So they
made it possible. And they even made it possible for me to see the archives.
The Grove is a retreat run by the Bohemian Club, and they have an archive in
their clubhouse in San Francisco of all of the posters that they've done of
the various shows they've put on, these elaborate shows at the end of each
encampment with a lot of drag and a lot of pseudo-classical references. And
they keep an archive of the posters back a hundred years, so I got to look at
that. So they really opened the door for me to do a lot of research.
And then, totally coincidentally, after I wrote the script, I was invited to
visit a little kind of weekend preview at the place itself when I think they
were trying to see if they wanted me to consider thinking about joining. And
I was going, `Well, this is a good opportunity to fact-check for me.'
GROSS: Excuse me? They were thinking of asking you? Do you represent the
rich and the powerful?
Mr. SHEARER: No. But one of the other goofy things about--and thank you for
asking. One of the other goofy things about this place, as opposed to the
other gatherings of the rich and powerful, because the original club started
out as a club of writers and artists--hence the name--before the businessmen
took it over, they retain a certain fondness for having a certain
representation of show business people there, kind of as mascots, partly
because they like to have--they need a certain amount of professionalism to
put on these shows, but also they like having people from show business there.
And so I think that was the reason that I was extended the invitation, 'cause
they've heard that sometimes I'm in show business.
GROSS: So you were invited to actually be a member, or to show up...
Mr. SHEARER: Not to be a member, but to come, you know. It was like, I think
in their eyes, a mutual sniffing out.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And you didn't make the final cut, huh?
Mr. SHEARER: I don't think either side wanted to--basically I went, as I say,
just to fact-check...
Mr. SHEARER: ...just to see how close I'd gotten in my script. But I don't
think that I made whatever cut there might have been, no.
GROSS: Have you heard from anyone from the Bohemian Grove?
Mr. SHEARER: We heard--I think the production office heard kind of informal
feelers that may be it would be nice to a have a screening of the movie up at
the Grove. This is sort of in the tradition of--the saddest thing about doing
satire that I've discovered is that you can think you're making really, really
hard-nosed fun of people and nine times out of 10 their reaction is, they're
flattered, which is so disappointing. I mean, we did "Spinal Tap" and we
thought, `Man, we really socked it to the heavy metal and hard rock guys,' and
they've been nothing but flattered ever since. And so I think probably these
guys might feel the same way; I don't know. We haven't followed up on those
feelers as of yet.
GROSS: Now your movie "Teddy Bears' Picnic" is about to open in a few cities.
And so you're in the phase now of movie making that's about, you know,
promoting the film, getting to people to know that it exists. Now promotion
is something that you have parodied a lot--you have satirized a lot on your
Mr. SHEARER: Yep.
GROSS: So what's it like to be on the other end of actually having to do it?
And to do it in a way that you feel comfortable with?
Mr. SHEARER: Present company excepted, it's the worst. No, I mean, I enjoy
these kinds of situations where some dusty NPR person is asking me
GROSS: And sexless.
Mr. SHEARER: And sexless. But you know, this is a world--and I've made fun
of this, and now I'm having to deal with it. This is a world in which the
entertainment business is owned by about five or six huge, huge corporations.
When they open a movie, when they bring a movie to market, they spend more
money just advertising it than I would spend making 20 of these movies. I'm
being literal. So just make the public aware that a movie exists in this
climate is a Sisyphean task. And it's very difficult. Plus, you know, we're
coming out like a week and a half after the Oscars, so for a long period of
time a lot of people wouldn't come to our press day, which is when you have a
lot of reporters gather together to sort of interview you because there was
better food at some Oscar preview luncheon. You know, stuff like that. It's
very, very difficult. I would easily say it's been the most difficult part of
the whole process of making an independent movie.
GROSS: Now even though you've made fun of people who overplug their thing on
a talk show, are you in the position now of being interviewed and having to
find creative ways of working in the name of your movie?
Mr. SHEARER: Absolutely. "Teddy Bears' Picnic" opens Friday. Yeah, sure. I
mean, part of the curse of being a good observer, I guess, and making fun of
the stuff that's really going on is you find yourself doing it willy-nilly.
I mean, we had made "Spinal Tap" and then went out on a rock 'n' roll tour and
thought, `How stupid are we? We're now going through exactly the same kind of
crap we made fun of people for doing.' So...
GROSS: Yeah, but without the codpiece.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. Without--well--yes.
GROSS: Well, maybe not. OK.
Mr. SHEARER: Asks about codpiece again. But, yes, it is a humbling
experience to be doing some of the same stuff you make fun of people for
doing. One hopes one can do it a little more gracefully or at least with a
little more ironic self-awareness than most people who are flogging stuff in
public are doing.
GROSS: Do you go through those, like, nightmare moments, though, where you
feel like, `Oh, my God, I'm doing exactly what it is that I make fun of'?
Mr. SHEARER: The most nightmarish it was ever in that sense was when we were
on the road with Tap and we're running into, you know, promoters who are just
as vile and just as stupid...
GROSS: Oh, gee.
Mr. SHEARER: ...and record companies that were just as rapacious as anything
we ever made fun of.
Mr. SHEARER: And then you just think, `How stupid are we?' We already know
this. We don't have to do the research now. But in that case, the saving
grace was we were on stage for two and a half hours every night playing very
loud. And that's always fun.
GROSS: My guest is satirist Harry Shearer. He wrote and directed the new
film "Teddy Bears' Picnic." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is satirist Harry Shearer. He wrote and directed the new
film "Teddy Bears' Picnic." It's a satire based on the exclusive and
secretive all-male retreat the Bohemian Grove.
Now your film "Teddy Bears' Picnic" is opening just after the Oscars.
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So I'm sure you were home watching the Oscars from the vantage point
of independent filmmaker. So what did you think of the Oscars?
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. Schadenfreude. From the Schadenfreude seat. What did I
think of the Oscars? Too long. Bring back Steve Martin as the host or let
Nathan Lane host it. I didn't really need to have all those people telling me
why movies were good--those little sequences telling me why movies are great.
You know, it was a little self-serving. The Oscars, self-serving? I'm
shocked. What else? Oh, yeah, and just on the joke level. You know, when
Whoopi walked over and covered up the statue, I was yelling to my significant
other, `But the statues that John Ashcroft covered up had sexual organs
visible.' The thing about Oscar is, he doesn't. That sort of changes the
joke. Oscar has no genitalia. So what she was covering up was a lack of
something, not something. But, well, you know, it's the Oscars. What are you
going to do? It's the Oscars.
GROSS: Have you ever been to the actual ceremony?
Mr. SHEARER: When I was a kid, I went as part of a radio show with my
colleagues, Michael McKean, way back then. And we were not in the auditorium.
We were in the radio interview area. And we were being annoying kids,
annoying, satirical kids who asked the stupidest questions we could think of
to people--to celebrities as they were departing the Oscars, because we knew
the radio interview area was the last part of the gauntlet they had to walk
before they could get out to freedom. And so our particular form of torture
that we applied to them was just to ask really insanely stupid questions to
GROSS: Like what? What did you ask?
Mr. SHEARER: `Have you ever been New York?' was one of the classics that we
asked. You can't imagine the looks on people's faces when you shove a
microphone in front of their face at the Oscars and say, `Let me ask you a
question. Have you ever been to New York?' `Yeah.' `Thank you.' 'Cause
they've just been asked, you know, insanely stupid questions, but nothing as
bad as that.
GROSS: Endearing yourself to the industry at an early age.
Mr. SHEARER: That's right.
GROSS: Something else I want to know what you make of, and that's of the
"Nightline"-"Letterman" controversy. I wonder what you think of ABC putting
"Nightline" in jeopardy?
Mr. SHEARER: Well, "Nightline" and "Jeopardy!" together would probably get a
better rating. I did a piece on my radio show where I had Ted kind of submit
an audition tape for where he thought the program should be going, which is
doing a show called "Late Nightline"(ph) with a studio audience, and Paul
Shaffer and the ABC News Symphony. And his guests were Aaron Brown, who comes
on the show and reveals that since he's on opposite Greta Van Susteren,
Aaron's now had some eye work done, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who comes on to
discuss, you know, the trouble spots in the world while being dipped into a
big vat of oatmeal. And that's basically my opinion of what's going--you
know, for anybody who's shocked that the major networks would rather not be in
the news business at this point, pay closer attention is all I can say.
I thought that the most bizarre part of the whole thing is the door that it
opened into--the thing that drives most decisions in commercial broadcasting,
which is not ratings and certainly not quality, it's demographics. It's the
fact that the advertising business demands the delivery of 18- to 34- or 18-
to 49-year-old people, and the belief that anybody outside that age
range--well, they--you know, because everybody when they hear that fact for
the first time says, `Well, but I'm 54 and I buy a lot of stuff.' But the
myth in the advertising business is once you've passed 34 your brand
preferences are established and you cannot be swayed by advertising,
GROSS: Oh, is that it?
Mr. SHEARER: That's it.
GROSS: I didn't realize that.
Mr. SHEARER: So therefore--yeah. And that's the tail that wags the whole
dog. And there are people even inside the advertising business who are
saying, `This is a 30-year-old model now, and the boomers are different, and
boomers probably are still making new choices and we shouldn't be adhering to
this model anymore.' But they're voices in the wilderness of the advertising
GROSS: Do you take this personally that you're part of a demographic that
Mr. SHEARER: Me personally, I never counted because--well, I had the
advantage of working in advertising at a very early age. When I was 18 I
worked at an ad agency for a couple of summers. And when you see how the
sausage is made, you know, dot, dot, dot, you have bacon.
GROSS: So did you have to write ads yourself when you were working?
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I wrote ads.
GROSS: I mean...
Mr. SHEARER: I produced ads, produced commercials; did the whole thing. I
was part of a big--my favorite part of the advertising experience was when
they summoned all of the talent in the agency together for a big push--I think
they called it--because a competing soap product or detergent product to the
one that was our client had a hugely successful campaign and our client was
desperate to come up with something to match it. And so everybody had to go
home and just, you know, push to--you know. And it was just an agencywide
search for some idea that would be as good as `Stronger than dirt.'
GROSS: Well, Harry Shearer, good luck with the movie. Thank you so much for
talking with us.
Mr. SHEARER: Thank you, Terry. Give my love to Gene Simmons, will you?
Harry Shearer wrote, directed and co-stars in the new satirical film "Teddy
Bears' Picnic." It opens in New York this weekend and in Los Angeles and San
Francisco next week.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Here's Harry Shearer with Spinal Tap.
(Soundbite from song)
SPINAL TAP: (Singing) Little girl, it's a great big world, but there's only
one of me. You can't touch me. I talk too much. Tonight I'm gonna rock ya.
Tonight I'm gonna rock ya. Tonight I'm gonna rock ya. Tonight I'm gonna rock
ya. Tonight. You're sweet, but you're just four feet and you still got your
baby teeth. You're too young and I'm too well-hung, but tonight I'm gonna
rock ya. Tonight I'm gonna rock ya. Yeah, tonight I'm gonna rock ya.
Tonight I'm gonna rock ya. Tonight. Whoa, yeah.
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