DATE August 20, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Eric Dezenhall, communications management specialist,
discusses his work and his novels
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies of the Philadelphia Daily News filling in
for Terry Gross.
If you're a celebrity or run a corporation your Rolodex might well include the
phone number of my guest, Eric Dezenhall. He's a specialist in crisis
communications management, advising high-profile clients when they get sued,
investigated or embarrassed by public accusations and media scrutiny.
Dezenhall won't reveal the names of his clients but he is widely quoted on the
art of damage control. He says there are times to keep quiet, times to
apologize and times to attack your accuser.
In addition to his communications management work in Washington, Dezenhall
writes novels about a communications management specialist from South Jersey.
His latest is called "Jackie Disaster," about a Martha Stewart-like character
accused of peddling toxic products whose reputation is saved by the spin
doctor. Dezenhall's earlier novel, "Money Wanders," tells the story of a
damage control specialist who cleans up the public image of a South Jersey mob
leader applying for an Atlantic City casino license.
I asked Dezenhall how close the spin doctors of his novels come to his
Mr. ERIC DEZENHALL (Crisis Communications Management Specialist): Well, I
think that made it more abrasive to make a fictional narrative more
interesting. In my day job, in my real life, I'm constrained by the law,
ethics, reputation. But as a fiction writer I'm not constrained by anything,
so I ratchet up the attitude a bit and my alter ego, Jackie Disaster, does
some absolutely vile, despicable and thoroughly illegal things in order to
vindicate his clients. That's what makes for a more interesting read. In my
day job I'm not allowed to do those things. Can't pistol-whip anybody,
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, the people in your book make Nixon's `plumbers' look
like Boy Scouts. Is that your fantasy? Is that what you kind of wish you
could do sometimes?
Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, you know, it's hard to be involved with civilization.
When you're civilized and somebody cuts you off in traffic you are limited in
your responses. The thing about a guy like Jackie Disaster is, if you cut
Eric here off in traffic, the worst thing that's going to happen is I'll yell.
If you cut Jackie off in traffic you're dead. And I think that I am amazed to
see what people get away with in terms of their passion for smearing a public
figure or a business, and there are times that my id runs wild and I think of
things that I'd like to do, but of course can't.
DAVIES: Your books are set in South Jersey, home of Atlantic City, the
Philadelphia-South Jersey mob. What do you think they add to the feeling, the
atmospherics, of the book?
Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, South Jersey is, in effect, the character in my novels.
I grew up there. I grew up around the racketeers. I had some colorful in my
background, the kind of people who--one time when I was a little kid I asked
my Dad, I, you know, said, `What does Uncle So-and-So do for a living?' And
my Dad said, `What kind of stupid question is that?' I mean, I thought it was
a perfectly innocent question.
But what's interesting about it is, it allowed...
DAVIES: Well, Did Uncle So-and-So end up in some trouble?
Mr. DEZENHALL: Uncle So-and-So did end up with wearing an ankle collar for
home detention. And I remember very vividly as a kid, I was--around the time
"The Godfather" came out--this is 1972; I was about 10 years old--and I went
to see the movie. I snuck in because I heard that one of my neighbors was in
the movie, and lo and behold, one of my neighbors was in the movie--Al
Martino, who played Johnny Fontane, the singer. And I totally bought in to
the whole Godfather ethic. And around that time I was beaten up at school,
and I came home and talked to my grandfathers, my uncles, and I wanted, just
like in the movie, justice to be done for me, and they didn't have the
remotest interest in justice. And finally it was either my grandfather or my
uncle said, `Look, you went on to an area of the playground where there were
boys who were bigger. That means you're stupid. And you got beaten up. That
means you're weak. What could we possible do for somebody like you?'
And the great lesson to me is you believe the fantasies about this elite,
secretive structure that protects its own. You believe this nonsense at your
peril. What the rackets are, and always were, was a loose affiliation of
crooks. That's all it is. It's about money. It's not about a noble
lifestyle in any way, shape or form. And, you know, I've had a lot of fun
with the concept of how the public, the Mafia, has been spun by Hollywood as
an elegant organization, and it's just not something I believe, that the root
of these things is something very banal, and the backdrop of organized crime,
and what they are, versus what the culture wants to believe they are, is a
nice metaphor for spin control.
DAVIES: My guest is crisis communications management consultant Eric
Dezenhall. His new book is "Jackie Disaster."
One of the principles of damage control that you've written about is that when
a high profile, one of your clients, is attacked, the attacks will stop only
when the attacker himself is put at risk. Is that how this works? I mean,
you've got to defend your client by attacking his critic?
Mr. DEZENHALL: That's often the case. I mean, as a general rule of thumb,
if you're guilty, repent. If you're innocent, attack. But what has happened
more and more is the whole damage control business has risen out of legitimate
concerns. I mean, in the 1960s and '70s you had Watergate, you had Vietnam,
you had automobile companies sending private investigators to investigate
Ralph Nader's sex life. You had legitimate bad things that happened. The
problem is this has led to the rise of a culture of the watchdog, where the
watchdogs themselves now need watching.
And for many years, because America is an activist nation, we don't like the
notion that anybody with an activist complaint should be asked a hard
question. What I find, though, is in the 16 years I've had my own business
there is the tendency to view any attack on a public figure or a business
interest as noble, and any defense as somehow corrupt, and I'm absolutely
unrepentant about defending somebody who I believe is wrongly attacked. I
think the best case example that's in the public domain is years ago when
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was accused of molesting an altar boy. He was
forced to actually fight an altar boy who, it turned out, was lying. And the
way I like to describe my business, even though I had nothing to do with the
Cardinal's case, is sometimes you have to fight the altar boy. And that's a
lot of what Jackie Disaster does, and that's a lot of what I do.
DAVIES: Now I've been a beat reporter for a lot of years and I get tips all
the time from people who want me to do a negative story about somebody, and
most of them I don't do, because the, you know, the allegation is exaggerated,
because it doesn't quite rise to the level of news, or, quite often, because
the story just doesn't check out. Do you find reporters are different? Are
they willing to just compromise their ethics and publicize somebody's attack,
even when it has no merit?
Mr. DEZENHALL: I think that a vast majority of reporters do not want to
traffic in disinformation. But what I have found is a lot of reporters in the
tabloid era enjoy validating an existing prejudice rather than defusing it, or
disabusing people of it. And a lot of times what I have to do, and you'll see
this come up in Jackie Disaster, is in a witch-hunt sometimes the only
strategy is to switch the witch. And I think that the media have become very
vulnerable to anybody with an allegation--anybody with a modem is considered
an expert. Anybody with a grievance is considered a reporter. And I think
that recently reporters have caught on to the fact that they are being had by
special interests of some kind, and are more aggressive about it.
But that being said, the rise of my business and the rise of my own writing
can be directly correlated with the interest in negative information about
businesses and public figures. Americans have a long history of a passion for
witch-hunts, and the reason why we like them is it's our notion of democracy.
If you make it in America it's only a matter of time before we want to stone
you in the town square, and we validate our notion of democracy and equality
by cutting somebody down who gets too far ahead of us.
DAVIES: Now in both of your books, "Jackie Disaster" and "Money Wanders," one
of the techniques that the spin-control artist does is to get on Internet chat
rooms and generate buzz, often with stuff, again, that's inaccurate
information, but would be helpful to the client. Is that something you do?
Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, we certainly can get involved with coalition
building-type efforts, where you find people who are sympathetic to your
client and you mobilize them. A lot of the Internet chat room stuff, the
mischief that you see in "Jackie Disaster" and "Money Wanders," is culled
directly from techniques that have been used to attack my clients over the
years. The Internet gives an illusion of grass roots.
So a lot of times--I mean, for example, several years ago there were rumors
all over the Internet that women's feminine care products contained asbestos
and dioxin, and we found that these were information that was trafficked in
chat rooms by a competitive interest. But the Internet, there's something
about seeing something in print that gives it the proxy for authority. When
you see it in writing, even if it's just on the Internet, it looks as if it's
been checked out. And a lot of times what we have to do is defuse those
tactics by getting onto chat rooms and seeing who exactly these people are.
DAVIES: Well, in that case--I assume it was your client whose products were
being undermined with these false rumors--what did you do about it?
Mr. DEZENHALL: In that particular case we were able to determine through a
forensic investigation on the Internet that the thousands of e-mails that were
going into newsrooms across the country alleging that consumers were being
injured were, in fact, sent by one person thousands of times. But the news
media, having seen all of these e-mails, they began to think there was a
legitimate grassroots of injured people, and what we did is we went to the
news media. I mean, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And one of the
things--as much as I'm willing to criticize the news media--when they get hold
of a scam, especially an Internet, a technology-driven scam, the news media
have been very ethical about coming out and exposing it.
DAVIES: It's interesting that what you're describing are occasions in which
critics of your corporate or celebrity clients use these unethical
tactics--the Internet, bogus stories--and you're in the position now of having
to play by the rules and ferret those out and defuse them. In your books you
wan to be like them, you want to use those tricks to get the opponents.
Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, you're point is very accurate. I mean, what my clients
come up against is really guerrilla warfare. They are up against smaller
entities--trial lawyers, activist groups, individuals with allegations--and
they can't really fight them back because it looks like when the big celebrity
fights back against a little person with an allegation, or a corporation does
something like that, it looks unfair. And one of my id fantasies is to be
able to use the tactics that are used against my clients.
I got to tell you, regardless of what you think about corporations, if you
think for a minute that a large blue-chip corporation would sign off on the
kind of tactics that my character uses in "Jackie Disaster," you have another
think coming. I mean, these type of vicious tactics are more effectively used
by guerrilla forces then by large entities.
DAVIES: My guest is crisis communications consultant Eric Dezenhall. We'll
talk more after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're back with Eric Dezenhall; he's a crisis communications
consultant in Washington, and he's also written a new novel, "Jackie
When do you advise your clients to apologize?
Mr. DEZENHALL: I think that if a client has a pattern of having done
something wrong and their attacker has them dead to rights it pays to embark
on a program of repentance. One of the things you'll see in "Jackie Disaster"
is what Jackie determines about his client is that, even though she did some
things wrong, the thing people really hate about her is that they lost control
of her. Everybody liked this domestic diva when she was small time and when
they had a role in building her. When they hated her was when she got above
them. And there is a scene toward the end of the book where she engages in
what is an act of penitence of sorts. I mean, the great myth of damage
control is the myth of the unblemished escape, the whole idea that you can
pull a cute trick and get out of it. I mean, there has to be a reckoning,
there has to be a price if you really did it, and a lot of what we have done
for a living is help walk a client through that kind of repentance and
That being said, there is a great myth that apologies are the best damage
control strategy. I haven't found this to be the case. I mean, you have
House Speaker Livingston apologize, lost his job. You have Jimmy Swaggart and
the Reverend Jim Bakker apologize, they lost their pulpits. Bill Clinton lied
and left office with the highest approval ratings you can imagine. So the
whole idea that there's a correlation between repentance and forgiveness is
not always the case.
DAVIES: You mentioned that Bob Livingston, the House Speaker, and the
Reverend Jimmy Swaggart did not get away with apologies for their
transgressions. Was that because they weren't simply sinners, but preachers?
I mean, was there a self-righteousness that angered people?
Mr. DEZENHALL: You know, a lot of my Republican friends have said to me, and
said to me during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, `You know, the media would
never let Republicans get away with this.' And I said, `That's right.' That's
because one of the problems, or the challenges, Republicans have is when you
preach morality you can't have an affair, and so a lot of it comes down to
hypocrisy vs. truth or not truth, and one of the problems that Congressman
Livingston ran into was that he was up against people who were hammering the
issue of hypocrisy vs. whether or not Clinton told the truth or didn't tell
And one of the things that you have to keep in mind in a damage control
situation is we evaluate, not just what you say, but who you have said you
are, and who somebody could make you out to be. And when Bill Clinton
defended himself against an affair we all kind of knew what we bought when we
got into it. And when Ronald Reagan said dumb things or George W. Bush
mispronounces stuff we knew what they were to begin with, so we don't have
that shock to the system that you have when somebody preaches and then turns
around and is alleged to have done something that is quite the opposite of
what they preached.
DAVIES: You've written that there are different kinds of PR challenges.
There are nuisances, there are problems and there are crises, and that
sometimes clients will mistake one for the other. Do you ever find a client
who's been attacked and wants to give a full-bore, outraged response, when the
smartest thing to do is just keep their mouth shut?
Mr. DEZENHALL: This happens all the time. You know, somebody asked me--a
reporter asked me--a few weeks ago, you know, `What is it about these
corporate and celebrity clients that they just don't apologize?' And I said,
`You know, in 20 years of doing this I have not once, ever, had a client look
at me and say, "You know what, I did dump the acid in the river, and let me
tell you why I did. I thought it would be cheaper to dispose of that way, and
you know, frankly, I didn't think anybody would catch me."'
The fact is is the first thing that happens in a crisis is the first thing
that happened in the Bible when Adam and Eve were embarrassed. They covered
up. The cover-up is a visceral reaction and I have yet to find somebody who,
at least in the short term, will look at their behavior and said, `You know, I
did something wrong.' They tend to want to strike back when, in fact, they
don't always realize they have little moral equity.
Celebrities, by the way, are the worst because they are surrounded by
sycophants who basically tell them that any form of outrageous behavior is
absolutely acceptable, and anybody who would seek to deprive you of behaving
that way is just jealous. So I have to often refuse to work with a celebrity
client because you just can't get through to them. Often the best thing for
them to do is to disappear, but you can't get a celebrity to dig a hole. They
think the answer to everything is yet another People magazine cover shot.
DAVIES: You worked in the Reagan White House. I'm curious about how you
would handle George Bush as a president, somebody who misspeaks at times but
also seems to have a gift for imagery. I mean, he did very well with landing
on the deck of that aircraft carrier in a flight suit. How would you handle
Mr. DEZENHALL: I believe that George W. Bush, his vulnerability, his
malapropisms are an asset, not a liability. You know, he could very well have
suffered the fate of somebody like Ted Kennedy which is the prodigal son, the
rich man who think he's better than anybody and who can get away with stuff.
What I think about Bush is when he pronounces something wrong, while people on
the Upper West Side of New York and Malibu might laugh down their noses,
there's a whole heartland out there that mispronounces things, too, and we
find that to be endearing. And while those who are inclined to hate George
Bush find his mispronunciations evidence of his stupidity, people in the
heartland find it evidence that he is not, in fact, the superior rich kid,
that he's no better than any one of us.
And one of the most brilliant things Bush did is during his first campaign
when he was asked, you know, `Is it true that you only got where you did
because of your family?' rather than saying no, he said, `Yeah, you know,
that's basically true and, man, am I lucky.' And I think that his anchor in
knowing who he is and knowing what his vulnerabilities are are an asset. I
mean, it's sort of like people used to ask, friends used to ask me, `Boy, what
did you Reagan White House staffers used to say when Reagan would make a
stupid comment like, you know, `98 percent of pollution is caused by trees,'
and everybody thought that there was this gigantic spin machine. And what I
said to one friend of mine who hated Reagan is, `You want to know what we
really said to the press?' And he said, `Yeah,' and I said, `We said to the
press, "He says stuff like that."' I mean, that was your brilliant spin.
But, yeah, he said it and he says stuff like that. And so there's really
nowhere to go with it because people basically knew who it was they were
DAVIES: Eric Dezenhall. He's a crisis communications consultant and his new
novel is called "Jackie Disaster." We'll talk more in the second half of the
show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
Let's get back to our interview with damage control expert Eric Dezenhall,
who's co-founder of Nichols-Dezenhall Communications Management Group.
You said, Eric, that some of your clients are guilty. Are there times that
you have pangs of conscience that wonder, `My God, how did I get into this?
How can I defend these people?'
Mr. DEZENHALL: Yeah. I think that, you know, public relations is about
telling pretty lies; damage control is about telling ugly truths. And there
have been times, and this is one of the reasons why I write, that I do wrestle
with the morality of the situation. I mean, what happens when you get a
client that really doesn't have the remotest interest in repenting? And, yes,
there are moral issues, but there's also, I think, other things that are
frustrating. I think that the public often believes in what I like to call
`the fallacy of evil man,' the notion that anybody does something, is accused
of doing something wrong, you know, did so in a plotting way.
I think what's more frustrating to me is that I don't really find a lot of
evil, but what I do find is a lot of carelessness, stupidity, bad things that
happen basically because the entity wanted to cover their rear ends rather
than solve the problem. And it's these type of work-a-day frustrations that I
find very, very difficult, not this grand notion of evil. It's that the very
same people who think that corporations do naughty things to get away with
something, what often is the case is you have a corporation that is inactive,
can't do anything, basically because everybody is so terrified of going in to
the CEO and telling him they have a problem; that you can't even do anything
for them, that you have an inoperable case.
DAVIES: Are there certain clients you simply won't take?
Mr. DEZENHALL: Yes. I have refused certain criminal defendants. You know,
I've done plenty of legal work, but I don't really want to represent
murderers, especially somebody that I think did it. I don't do tobacco work;
my mother died young of cancer. I do pro bono work on cancer issues, and it's
very difficult to look somebody like you in the eye and say, `Why are you
saying that tobacco causes cancer? There's no evidence of that.' I mean, I
can't do that. I would much rather do my righteous indignation routine. I
mean, Jackie Disaster tells his priest that he spends his career in search
of a lower truth; that he spends his career searching out ugly truths. I have
no problem using hardball tactics to vindicate someone who I think is wrongly
accused, but I don't really want to be running across the countryside telling
people that tobacco does not cause cancer.
DAVIES: There's certainly other companies that do things that are believed to
contribute to cancer or cause cancer. I mean, do you draw the line simply at
tobacco, or do you ever find yourself dealing with somebody who's suspected of
spreading a carcinogen?
Mr. DEZENHALL: We confront things like that all the time, but I think that
there is a very big difference between scientific evidence proving that
something is a carcinogen and cultural speculation that something is. You
know, I've done a lot of petrochemical work, and, you know, we've conducted
opinion research that shows that if you completely make up the name of a
chemical, 70 percent of the public will identify it as a proven carcinogen
basically because we very much have drawn an association between
petrochemicals and cancer, where I am not convinced that there's a scientific
link the way I am convinced that there is one with tobacco. I mean, just
because something may feel kind of like a carcinogen doesn't mean it is.
And one of the things that distresses me is how easy it is just to float the
allegation and watch the culture and the news media pick up on it. So I am
unapologetic about working with companies where there is an allegation that is
unsubstantiated and, largely, probably untrue.
DAVIES: You came into possession of the famous gangster Meyer Lansky's
diaries. How did that happen?
Mr. DEZENHALL: His granddaughter, Cynthia Duncan, and I became friends.
And, you know, those of us who grew up around interesting elders, there is a
certain bond. There is either a desire to justify what they did, there is a
desire to set the truth out, there is a desire to correct the record, and we
sort of bonded over this. And when Meyer's widow died, his granddaughter
shortly after mentioned that he had taken notes. And I flew down and spent
some time with them. And what was interesting about Meyer's--Meyer was very
much cut from the same cloth as a lot of the old-timers that I grew up around
in Philly and south Jersey.
And what's interesting is whereas the culture ascribes to these guys vast,
vast powers--I mean, Meyer was called the chairman of the board or organized
crime--the reality of them is their rhetoric was very much--Meyer's rhetoric
was that of a tiny immigrant who was very bitter and who was chased out of
business by the corporations. And that very much paralleled some of the
things that I heard from the old-timers around me. I mean, I remember when I
got into an Ivy League college when I was 18, one of my uncles said (laughs),
`Bigshot, Mr. Ivory League.' And I said, `No, you mean Ivy League.' And the
fact that he couldn't speak correctly--I mean, this was not the rhetoric of a
man, whether it was my old uncle or Meyer Lansky, of a guy with great power.
It was the rhetoric of somebody who had very low self-esteem, who recognized
their powerlessness and who recognized that in a fight between an old
racketeer and a large corporation with the capacity to launch an initial
public offering, the corporations are going to beat him every time.
DAVIES: Do you like to go back to south Jersey, hear the accents and listen
to these characters sit on the boardwalk?
Mr. DEZENHALL: You know, I do. And a lot of it is--you know, people always
ask me the things I write about, whether it's in "Money Wanders," where my
alter ego is a Washington-based pollster and the grandson of an old Jewish
crime boss--I mean, people ask me do I know a lot of these things to be true.
And I fully admit what I don't know, that I make up. But what's fun is to go
back and hear the accents, hear the references to the way things used to be,
even if the way things used to be weren't so much better. And, you know,
there are just not a lot of books set in south Jersey, and both of mine are.
And what's interesting about south Jersey is there is a certain chip on our
shoulders, for those of us who grew up there. North Jersey you can always say
you're a New Yorker. But south Jersey is neither New York nor is it Philly.
So there is this certain `What are you looking at?' ethic there that is fun to
tap into. But I do like going back there, especially as a published writer
who can have fun with the locality. I mean, people back there like the story
of how I got a literary agent. I had so much rejection that I figured that,
you know, given that my books deal with tough guys, why not start writing
death threats? So I sent my pitch letter to literary agents, opened up by
saying, `It's a nice literary agency you got there. I wouldn't want to see
nothin' happen to it.' And people back there love that story. They love the
notion that you can succeed by, rather than denying what you came from, sort
of wrapping yourself up in it and exaggerating it a little and throwing it in
DAVIES: Did that work?
Mr. DEZENHALL: Yeah, it did work. I mean, a literary agent took me on rather
quickly and said, `Look, you know, Eric, I've had all kinds of clever pitch
letters, but I've never had such a well-worded, open death threat sent to me.'
And she took me on, and we got published. I had so much rejection for my
non-fiction book that I figured I would risk making enemies in order to get my
novel published, and the death threats worked.
DAVIES: Did she kind of believe it?
Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, you know, it's funny. When you write about the rackets
and when you acknowledge having had some colorful characters in your
background, there's people who really kind of want to believe it, but, no, I
don't think that anybody who knows me or who knows my background could
possibly think that I would exercise some sort of, you know, violent option.
It's just something I have fun with. But I think people just get a whole kick
out of the fantasy that, `Well, somebody can pick up the phone and call
somebody and have somebody killed.' I, quite frankly, don't think that that's
possible or that big an achievement, if it is.
DAVIES: Is it true you collect campaign songs from the presidential campaign
against Martin Van Buren in 1836?
Mr. DEZENHALL: I collect old-time political campaign buttons and campaign
songs. And one of the reasons why it gets back to spin control, we love to
think that viciousness is something in our modern age. But the fact is if you
look at old campaign materials, I mean, people were saying Abraham Lincoln was
an illiterate baboon. One of the campaign songs against Martin Van Buren--I
recall the lyrics: `who never did a noble deed, who deserves the lowest place
in hell, Van Buren.' You know, we were vicious way back then, too.
What makes our times different is we like to think that we're classier. But
America has always rejoiced in beating up on the other guy because it's one
step short of violence, which would, of course, make it a dictatorship of some
kind. So it's fun to look back and see that our Founding Fathers, with their
powdered wigs, were actually really rough customers.
DAVIES: I know you're a good mimic. Can you sing us your favorite campaign
Mr. DEZENHALL: You know, I don't think that I could sing one because I don't
think that I know all the tunes. But I remember the Van Buren one was
basically filled with rhetoric that compared him to a baboon and justified why
he was going to hell. And what's so funny is when you hear people talk about
how George W. Bush is stupid, if you look at what was said about Abraham
Lincoln--Democrats have always attacked Republicans by saying they're idiots,
and Republicans have always attacked Democrats by saying they're moral lepers.
This goes back hundreds of years.
So even some of the things that we think are new are really not. And a lot of
the damage-control strategies that you see that even I thought were original
years ago go way back. I mean, damage control goes back to the Bible. The
first damage-control guy was Moses' brother, Aaron. It was Aaron's job to
basically tell these people wandering across the desert, `Hey, look, this is
going to be great. We're going to have oceanfront views, we're going to have
milk and honey, promised land. This is going to be terrific.' And ultimately
it came to Moses, when he had to deal with people protesting in the desert, to
spend in special forces and beat up people who didn't go along. So you had
this damage-control strategy of both: Aaron, the spin doctor, saying, `This
holy land is going to be great'; to Moses, who occasionally had to hire a guy
like Jackie Disaster to go in and pistol-whip people to getting in line. So
spin control has always been about both the muscle and the rhetoric.
DAVIES: So maybe you really are in the oldest profession.
Mr. DEZENHALL: You know, I think it's possible.
DAVIES: Eric Dezenhall, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. DEZENHALL: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Damage-control expert Eric Dezenhall. He's a Washington, DC-based
communications consultant. His new novel is called "Jackie Disaster."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Daniel Glick on his new book about a journey he took
with his two children
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Two years ago environmental writer Daniel Glick was enjoying professional
success but struggling with calamities in his personal life. His wife had
left their 15-year marriage for a lesbian relationship, making Glick a single
father of two children, age nine and 13. A year after that Glick's older
brother died of male breast cancer. Glick, who had long found personal
renewal in travel, decided to take his children on a five-month,
around-the-world tour focusing on endangered species and disappearing natural
wonders. The journey is recorded in Glick's new book, "Monkey Dancing: A
Father, Two Kids and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth." Daniel Glick
worked for Newsweek for 12 years and has written for a variety of
publications, including Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine.
Let's start with a reading from "Monkey Dancing."
Mr. DANIEL GLICK (Author, "Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids and a Journey
to the Ends of the Earth): `In the middle of the night, after my daughter
Zoe woke me for the third time because she was afraid of the snakes, I
wondered, not for the first time, whether this trip had really been such an
inspired idea. Earlier Zoe had been complaining about leaches and, before
that, mosquitos. And it dawned on me that unless you were raised in the rain
forest, accustomed to strangler figs and spiders the size of gerbils, Borneo
was a pretty forbidding environment. For a nine-year-old girl reared in
suburban Colorado, this place looked downright menacing. My 13-year-old son
Kolya, also awakened by his sister, didn't help things when he
authoritatively informed Zoe that since she was the smallest mammal among us,
any predator would obviously eat her first.'
DAVIES: Welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. GLICK: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Daniel Glick, you're an environmental writer, and you organized a lot
of this trip around a focus on several endangered species: the Great Barrier
Reef in Australia, orangutans in Borneo, rhinos in Vietnam, tigers in Asia.
And you used your journalistic contacts to get some pretty sophisticated looks
behind the scenes of conservation efforts. And I'm wondering, were any of
these stories particularly compelling to the kids? Did they catch on? Did
they appreciate what they were getting?
Mr. GLICK: Well, something happened fortuitously early in the trip that
really set the tone. We were in Queensland in Australia, which is where the
rain forest meets the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. And I
had been telling the kids about this particular animal called a cassowary,
which is cousin to the emu and ostrich, the world's, I guess, second-largest
bird, flightless and endangered because of land clearing, because of all kinds
of human activity that's constricting its habitat. And I was giving the kids
one of my little eco lectures when they were rolling their eyes and saying,
`Oh, Dad, come on, please, we don't need all this.' And all of a sudden we
saw a cassowary by the side of the road we were driving on, and we got out of
the car, and we watched it disappear into the forest.'
From there, we went to an ice cream parlor, where they had served all these
macadamia nut and papaya and coconut and these wonderful, exotic fruit ice
creams. And the woman who had been serving us--we had gone back there three
or four days in a row--said that we were very, very lucky to see a cassowary
because even the locals didn't get to see them very often and that the
cassowary had some interesting habits, given our circumstances: that the
females lay the eggs, and then they split. And it's the male cassowaries who
hatch the eggs and who take the chicks and live with them for a year and teach
them everything they need to know. And even the kids understood that this was
almost a magical metaphor for what had happened to us. And at one point Kolya
said to me, `Pop, that's what you meant. You wanted to take us to see some of
these things before they're gone, didn't you?' And I said, `You got it.
That's what we're out to do here.'
I thought of this as a `before they're gone' tour. One of the `before they're
gones' was to take the kids to see these places of great ecological wonder
before they disappeared. The second was to spend some time with my kids and
really get to know them and have them get to know me before they were gone,
before they fled my single-father's nest. And the third `before they're gone'
was the big one, was mortality. My brother died at 48. He was one of the
healthiest human beings I knew. He was an athlete. He was a doctor. He took,
really, very, very good care of himself. And he died so early and so young
that I figured what we all know, is that we can't guarantee how long we're
going to be around. And I wanted to, really, live life on my own terms before
it was gone, my own life was gone.
DAVIES: You say late in the book, in the epilogue, that `grief and loss,'
you've come to believe, `provide the glue that binds humanity together.' What
did you mean by that?
Mr. GLICK: That thought occurred to me after I had had a conversation with a
Nepali who ran a shop where I was. And he had told me that he had gotten
divorced, which was unusual not only because divorce is relatively rare in
Nepal but also because sharing that information with a stranger was fairly
uncharacteristic. And he went on to tell me that his father had passed away
from cancer the year before. And as I write in the book, fearful of matching
him tragic revelation for tragic revelation, I shared with him my story. And
we sat there together, and there was something that bound us together. And
subsequent to writing the book, the letters I've gotten from people who can
share one element or another or several of the losses that I've gone through,
the death of a loved one to a disease or an accident or anything or a divorce
that shatters a family, it is grief and loss that is the most universal truth
that we have as a species.
DAVIES: Were you together 24 hours a day? Did you and the kids have any time
Mr. GLICK: Very little. Occasionally we did. We met up with some friends
along the way a couple times. Like I said, I had some friends in Phnom Penh.
But for the most part, as the kids put it, we were together 24/7.
DAVIES: And how did you handle that? I mean, weren't there times that you
just wanted to go away and be with adults?
Mr. GLICK: There were. There was one place--we were in Australia where,
although we had rented a camper van, at one point I checked us into a kind of
a traveler's haunt, and I got them into a little cabana and I said, `I'm going
to the bar.' And they said, `We want to come.' And I said, `No, I'm going
alone.' And after a little tug-of-war, I just left them in this room and went
and had a couple beers and came back, and they were snoring.
DAVIES: And as I recall, you discover that sort of the local young adults
kind of weren't that interested in a guy like you traveling with the kids by
Mr. GLICK: Well, it's funny. I joke that, you know, being a single dad
hardly makes you a babe magnet, and I was traveling with these two kids, and I
was a single man. And I had asked a friend of mine, who was divorced, what
was the youngest woman he had gone out with, and he said he had some fail-safe
theorem that you could halve your age and then add 7. And I realized that by
that theorem, I could go out with a 29-year-old woman, and there wasn't
anybody even that old in the place. And so this was not a dating scene on
this trip, and I quickly abandoned it, but that didn't allow me to completely
abandon my fantasy life.
DAVIES: Daniel Glick, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. GLICK: My great pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Writer Daniel Glick. His book about the journey he took with his
children is called "Monkey Dancing."
Coming up, Liz Phair returns to the music scene. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New album by Liz Phair
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This summer Liz Phair returned to record-making after taking a hiatus that
included some time spent raising her first child alone. She came back to
music to find the pop landscape had filled up with young female singers.
Phair's response was to return to the group of pop songwriter-producers who
call themselves the Matrix.' The move proved to be controversial among
Phair's fans and the rock press. Rock critic Ken Tucker offers this
postmortem on the summer's sell-out scandal surrounding the album entitled
(Soundbite of "Extraordinary")
Ms. LIZ PHAIR: (Singing) You think that I go home at night, take off my
clothes, turn out the light. But I burn letters that I write to you to make
you love me. Yeah, I drive naked through the park and run the stop sign in
the dark, stand in the street, yell out my heart to make, to make you love me.
I am extraordinary if you'd ever get to know me. I am...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
So here I was happily spinning pop-rock records for you for a month or so,
helping to turn you on to the high strung as well as Fountains of Wayne. And
all the while the rock press was full of snarky profiles and nasty reviews of
Liz Phair and her first album in five years called "Liz Phair." Liz, who
wants you to know that she's a 30-something hot mom, also knows that she has
to get her brand name out there through sheer repetition in this cluttered pop
marketplace. She started off the album with the sort of self-affirmation we
used to call empowering, a song about how extraordinary Liz Phair is called
The thing is it's not written by Liz Phair but by the hydra-headed team called
the Matrix, producer-songwriters Lauren Christy, Scott Spock and Graham
Edwards. And the song itself, as you heard, isn't all that extraordinary. So
why'd Liz do it? Lack of confidence in her own hook-bending abilities?
Maybe. But a new song she did write called "It's Sweet" sure sounds good to
(Soundbite of "It's Sweet")
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) Down on the lower east side, in the dirtiest apartment
you could find, you took me up to your place. But the elevator threw me into
space. And I really don't believe...
TUCKER: Personally, as a big fan of Phair's albums "Exile In Guyville" and
the underrated "White Chocolate Space Egg," I had no trouble hearing which
songs were the Matrix and which songs were Liz. Any tune that was too on the
nose, like one called "Rock Me," were Matrix. Anything that evinced
ambiguity, ambivalence or amazing self-exposure was Liz, like this song in
which Phair imagines what her little son thinks about seeing Mom with a
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) Dig a little deeper. Don't be shy. You saw your mother
with another guy. You think you'll tell her that she's one of a kind. You
say, `My mother is mine.' You put your trucks upon the bed next to him, so he
can get a better look at them. You say, `This one's my favorite one. This
one you can't have. I got it from my dad.' You say, `I got...'
TUCKER: The worst thing about Liz Phair's desire to craft a hit record by
collaborating with the Matrix is that this became the story, pushing aside
some extraordinary songs. Well, that and the kind of sad little spectacles I
happened to stumble upon, like seeing Phair, every inch the empowered hottie
with big guitar and spike heels, preforming on "Regis & Kelly" at 9 AM in
the morning. Our Liz deserves better.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I was a mess in my own youth. I grew up thinking,
`What's good for one oppresses the other.' It's my turn, my life, my way, my
needs. It made me crazy. I couldn't fight it. I couldn't wait to get away.
It's a war with the whole wide world. It's a war with the boys and girls.
It's a war, and nothing's gonna change. And nothing's gonna change.
TUCKER: When Phair sings on that song, `It's sister and brother, mother and
daughter, father-son, husband-wife thing. It's drugs, it's hunger, it's race,
sex and government,' well, when that's sung with her conversational urgency, I
don't see how you can resist. But you did. The album never topped number 27
on the Billboard chart and is plummeting below 100 now. But this working mom
is out on tour. The album is the kind of sell-out we'd expect from her, an
honest, ferocious, forthright one. And she deserves our support and, yes, our
respect, especially when she's behaving most disrespectfully.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) Oh, baby, you're...
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.