Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Sound & Fury:  The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics
ISBN: 0060168749
Sound & Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics
Alterman's shrewd and entertaining book proposes that our national political dialogue has become nonsensical, and that our politics are now enslaved by the sitcom-dominated values of the Washington pundits--the George Wills, the John McLaughlins, the Robert Novaks, and all the opinion makers who are regarded as authorities on government.
—from the publisher's website
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TRANSCRIPT
Sound & Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics
Program Air Date: December 20, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Eric Alterman, author of "Sound & Fury," in the conclusion of your book you write, `Moreover, as virtually every reporter who covered the campaign was willing privately to testify, Clinton was simply a hell of a guy--charming, funny, able to laugh at himself and a brilliant backroom politician to boot.' Is the media biased for Bill Clinton?
Mr. ERIC ALTERMAN (Author, "Sound & Fury"): Yes and no. By the way, that's, in part, on personal experience. I felt the same way during the time I spent with Clinton. I was seduced just like everybody else. And then I tried to step back afterwards and figure out what was going on. But, yeah, basically, the media's had enough of the Republicans. They've had enough--certainly enough of George Bush. And they're--they're--they decided after the Gulf War that--that they'd like to see another president, and they chose Bill Clinton--the punditocracy did anyway. And...
LAMB: The punditocracy?
MR. ALTERMAN: The punditrocracy, which is this--the main people I write about, actually. It's this group of mainly Washington-based pundits, people who appear on the media and give you their opinions about what you should be thinking and what you should be thinking about. They're mostly white, upper middle class, conservative men who live in the area--live in the suburbs in and around Washington and make quite a lot of money and, in my opinion, are pretty far--pretty well divorced from the problems of the everyday American. But to get back to your question, yeah, the media's had enough of George Bush, but the--and there's--there's really no point in denying it. There are some pundits who are still strongly for the president, but what's more important than--I think, than the sort of very narrow tilt towards Clinton, both in the punditocracy and in the media at large, is the fact that after 12 years of a Republican president and 12 years of--of sort of favoriting--fav--favoring Republican policies in the media, the very basis of the debate, the very foundation of our discussion is held in Republican terms. So even though Clinton gets an advantage on the sort of narrow 40 yar--40-yard line--between the two 40-yard lines that the debate takes place, the--the 40-yard line has moved so far into Republican territory, so far into--into the far right--into the direction of the far right that it actually, I think, helps George mu--George Bush quite a bit, even though it's not as easy--it's not as easily perceptible.
LAMB: You start out in the opening introduction saying that--you--disqualifier--that George Stephanopoulos, the communications spokesman for Bill Clinton...
MR. ALTERMAN: Right.
LAMB: ...was in your wedding.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah. He was my best man, and he--I must--I want to say to George, if he's listening, that he was completely useless on this book. I was going to say--I wanted to show that; I didn't get a chance to say it--that the mere fact that Clinton can get such results out of George that he's gotten is--is proof enough to me that he can fix the American economy because when I was writing this book, I would call George up and he would promise me documents that I needed and he would never get them, never--never keep his word. And that's why I say that all the mistakes in the book are his fault.
LAMB: But you did quote him.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Was it hard to get him to talk about--because in--in one--in the conclusion, again, you--you quote him talking about how the punditocracy works and how the leaks work on speeches...
MR. ALTERMAN: Right.
LAMB: ...and you--you got him to say that, `"Clinton's foreign policy speeches, for instance," explained deputy campaign manager and spokesman George Stephanopoulos, "were crafted specifically with the punditocracy in mind."'
MR. ALTERMAN: Right. Well, you s...
LAMB: Explain that.
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, you see, the thing is--is that the punditocracy plays a slightly different role in the presidential election than it plays for the other four years that--that policy goes on. For most of the time in Washington, most of the--most of the policy debate in Washington is completely out of sight to the American people. They don't--the American people don't simply get involved in which faction in Nicaragua or Angola or Ethiopia that we should be supporting. And I actually--I think that's proper. So the pundits--the punditocracy, these--these men and a few women who appear on the op-ed pages and the television shows--they are, for all practical purposes, the democracy. If they approve of a policy, then the policy goes through because that's--those are the people that pundits are answerable to. So they get to decide whether or not...
LAMB: O--only the people--that the politicians are answerable to.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: You said pundits.
MR. ALTERMAN: Sorry. So they get to decide whether or not we're intervening in--in Nicaragua's affairs and supporting the civil war there because the American people--while they don't support it, 2/3rds of the American people were against that war. The pundits did, and that's--those are the only people that really--it was important to. Now in the case of a presidential election, eventually--quite late in the process, actually--the American people are actually invited in to--to have some say in the matter. But before that--before the--before the--finally we get to the primaries and into the general election, there's a winnowing out process, which largely takes place before the punditocracy. And Bill Clinton won this winnowing out process hands down. And what I'm quoting George about there is this process whereby Clinton was able to convince the pundits that he was the candidate who most clearly--whose views were most clearly sympathetic to their own. And he did this by supporting the Gulf War, by going to The Washington Post editorial staff and crediting Ronald Reagan's defense buildup with winning the Cold War.

And by making a speech, I believe it was at Georgetown, whereby he--he put at the center of his foreign policy--and this is where I'm critical of Clinton--the--the need--the need for force, the need for a strong military, the need to be able to uni--unilaterally intervene anywhere in the world. And what I think George is describing here is the--is the--the exact mechanism whereby those views were leaked to the media, to the very influential columnist Les Gelb of The New York Times. And then they're disseminated throughout the punditocracy.

And so before anyone has cast a vote in New Hampshire, you have a front-runner. You have someone who has been `anointed,' in the words of Sidney Blumenthal in The New Republic, who was very important in anointing him as well, who has been anointed as the candidate of the punditocracy and of the establishment, who is, therefore, better funded than all the rest of the candidates and able to buy himself a place of prominence in the actual election. And then after the el--after--once we finally get to the voters, they get--they get the choice. But the choice has been quite narrowed by that time.
LAMB: Go back to this--just--I--I won't dwell on this, but you say back in December of '91 he made this foreign policy speech at Georgetown.
MR. ALTERMAN: Right.
LAMB: And you--you get Mr. Stephanopoulos to tell you that they leaked the--What?--the basic speech--the points of the speech to Les Gelb?
MR. ALTERMAN: I don't remember if they gave Gelb the speech or not. I...
LAMB: I ju--what I'm getting at is the public out there watching all this happening and your--your book is instructive on how--how...
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, what happened was...
LAMB: ...how to watch it, so...
MR. ALTERMAN: Right. What would happen was--is the day before the speech, I believe, there was a phone call, but I--I think--I don't--I don't know for sure whether or not Gelb had the speech. I wouldn't be surprised if he did. It--it really doesn't matter. But there was a phone call between Clinton and Gelb where, quite honestly, I'm sure in Gelb's opinion, he found Clinton very impressive on these points. And he--he talked to some of Clinton's advisers at the time who were people like Sam Nunn and Stephen Solarz, who was recently defeated--defeated just yesterday in New York, and Lee Hamilton.
LAMB: You say yesterday, but we're taping this long before people will see this.
MR. ALTERMAN: All right. Is defeated...
LAMB: Recently.
MR. ALTERMAN: ...recently. And these people are the kinds of politicians who the punditocracy respects. And so speaking quite honestly, Les Gelb--I mean, there's nothing underhanded about this...
LAMB: No. But they picked...
MR. ALTERMAN: Les Gelb found that...
LAMB: They picked somebody that was going to be interesting.
MR. ALTERMAN: Right. They picked--they picked the person who they thought would have, on--on these issues--on foreign policy is--issues, would have the widest resonance within the punditocracy because it's not--Gelb is not a report--a commons--Les Gelb is not important in the larger scale of readers. He doesn't have the readership of anyone like George Will or even James Kilpatrick. But--Will is important, but, for instance, Kilpatrick, while he has many millions of readers, he has no influence at all in the insider debate. Les Gelb has the best sources of--of anyone in the State Department and Defense. He used to be in, I think, the Defense Department. His--his column is very well--is very well read in the same way that sort--Jim Hoagland's column is read in The Washington Post.

They could have used Hoagland; it would have--it would have accomplished the same thing, but they chose Gelb. And--and it worked. It worked perfectly. And, in fact, The--The Washington Post media reporter, Howard Kurtz, repor--reported how, after--after George told me this--when I didn't report it. I mean, it didn't appear until my book appeared a few weeks ago. But he reported how important this one Gelb column was in convincing other media people that Clinton was the most serious candidate.
LAMB: Let's try to put somebody in Des Moines, Iowa, for the moment and they just live there, and they read your local newspaper and Jack Kilpatrick's column comes through that Des Moines Register...
MR. ALTERMAN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and Les Gelb's column comes through The New York Times' News Service and they had both of those columns. You're saying that even though those columns are in that Des Moines paper, that out here in Washington that punditocracy only reads the Gelb column and only cares about what Les Gelb says, in this case?
MR. ALTERMAN: Pretty much. Someone like Kilpatrick is important in--on those very few issues where the public is involved. I mean, if Kilpatrick were to st--to start a crusade against congressional pay raises or on behalf of term limits, where there was some--some means of the people to intervene in the policy, that would matter. But if Kilpatrick doesn't like our policy in Ethiopia, that doesn't matter. That--that--that's why you read Les Gelb. To find--I mean, there's--there's about a dozen people who matter on certain very arcane policies.
LAMB: Let's try--I mean, try some of the others. Who...
MR. ALTERMAN: Who else matters?
LAMB: Who matters? And who doesn't matter?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, Jim--Jim Hoagland matters a great deal.
LAMB: He's Washington Post.
MR. ALTERMAN: Washington Post.
LAMB: Washington Post.
MR. ALTERMAN: He--he writes. He--he's quite a good reporter, actually. He's one--one--you'd probably want to read Jim Hoagland whether or not he mattered because he does a lot of reporting to back up his opinions.
LAMB: But what m--why does he matter? And how did you decide that he matters?
MR. ALTERMAN: Why does he matter? Because he's got the ear of--you see, it's--it's kind of an amorphous process, and it's--it's--in--in large measure, people just have to decide whether or not they accept my judgments on the basis of the research I've done. But there are some people, the most prominent being William Safire, who simply because they say something in Washington, it matters; the same way the president says something and it atters. They are part of the permanent Washington establishment.
LAMB: But what--but try--try to get through the why--Bill Safire didn't all of a sudden wake up one day and become somebody that matters.
MR. ALTERMAN: Right. No, you--I mean, it's a matter of who--who--to whom you're connected. I mean, Safire is his own special case. He happens to be a terrific reporter and a brilliant writer and he's in a class by himself. But in the case of people who are simply working hard to matter, it--it gets to the point of: How are you quoted by other writers and reporters? Who your sources are. It has a lot to do with who your friends are. I mean, if you socialize with the right people in the administration, you're taken seriously. George--a great deal of George Will's appeal in the Reagan era was his very close relationship with Nancy Reagan.
LAMB: What about his writing?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, Will is a great writer and his views comported with the times as well. I mean, it's--you know, it's--it's hard to say it's this rather than this; it's this rather than this. I mean, maybe--you know, maybe my friendship with a certain person will--you can identify the only reason I'm taken seriously--I'm a lousy writer, I've got nothing to say, but because this person is--is--was in my wedding, I'm going to be taken seriously. You might be able to find an example of that.
LAMB: All right. Now let me ask you just--in--in one of the footnotes, and I'm not sure I can find it quickly enough, you take a little bit of a--an aside about Evans and Novak.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: And I remember you saying something to the effect, `Well, that's about as accurate as most of the things they write' or--are they known for accuracy or not?
MR. ALTERMAN: No. The--the nickname...
LAMB: Are they read?
MR. ALTERMAN: The nickname they've been given for years is Errors and No Facts. In fact, at one--you know, I think the footnote--actually, in the text; it's not in a footnote that I'm thinking of--there's one point where I report that--I'm quoting another journalist by the name of Michael Massing, who originally wrote this story, but he noted that if you believed everything in Evans and Novak that they had written during the '80s, you would think that, number one, the Soviets had i--invaded Poland; number two, that they were about to invade Pakistan; and number three, we read in March 1985 the unfortunate news that Mikhail Gorbachev was no longer the heir apparent in the Kremlin.

Evans and Novak usually get their facts pretty close to right. They're--they--they like--they enjoy reporting and they work hard. But what they do is they create this context for their reports, which I personally find so bizarre that it's often comical. I mean, when one--I--I think--one example I use is that when Mike Milken was sentenced by Judge Kimba Wood in New York, Evans and Novak decided that, as a result of this sentence of this junk bond swindler, that this country, while not quite total--totalitarian, was only semi-free. And I have other examples of sort of the way they explode the single kernel of fact that they have into the wildest kind of analysis.
LAMB: Are they read?
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah. They're read because they always get that damn kernel of fact. Can I say damn on C-SPAN? Sorry.
LAMB: You can say anything you want to.
MR. ALTERMAN: All right. No, they always--they do report. They--they wore--they wear out their shoe leather, particularly Novak. Evans is--Evans is more of a foreign policy sort of parlor reporter who goes to see the diplomats and so forth and--and gets a story there. But--but Novak works hard. And they always find out something that people on the insider baseball game need to know. So they read Evans and Novak, and they basically dismiss all their surrounding stuff.
LAMB: Let me catch up on some--the--the basics. Where--where do you live?
MR. ALTERMAN: I live now in Palo Alto, California. I lived in Washington for most of the '80s, and I moved to Palo Alto when I finished this book, when I turned it in.
LAMB: Why--why Palo Alto?
MR. ALTERMAN: Because I wanted to complete my doctorate in American history at Stanford University.
LAMB: Where have you gone to school, prior to Stanford?
MR. ALTERMAN: I went undergraduate to Cornell University and studied history and government there, and then I got a masters in international relations at Yale University.
LAMB: And where were you born?
MR. ALTERMAN: I was born in New York.
LAMB: City?
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah, I guess. Flushings, New York City.
LAMB: Why did you write the book?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, I think I wrote this book for--I mean, I hope I wrote this book for the same reason that people want to read this book, is that I--I started to watch these guys and they drove me crazy. And--and I thought that their level of analysis wasn't much better than what I see on "Cheers," sometimes worse. And--and as I started to think about it, I read actually--I'll credit Jim Fallows with a very important article in 1986 in the New York Review of Books, where he was the first person to take the effect of these guys seriously. And that set off some alarm bells in my head, and I started to look at it and I decided that these guys--these pundits, mostly on television but also a few other people, like The New York Times' pundits, were actually setting the terms of our debate. And the reason, in my view, or an important reason and one that's been ignored--why American politics seems so irrelevant to so many people's lives is the fact that these guys set their terms of debate, and they have no relationship whatsoever to the problems that most Americans face.
LAMB: When did you first approach somebody about writing a book about it?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, I wrote a very long article in it--in a journal called the World Policy Journal. I am a senior fellow of a think tank called the World Policy Institute, which is now associated with the New School for Social Research in New York. And I wrote this article called Washington and the Curse of the Pundit Class, which was about the 1988 election and the pundits. And that article got a--a pretty big reception--for me, anyway--at the time. nd an old professor of mine at Yale, Paul Kennedy, read it and he had just published his big book, "The Rise & Fall of the Great Powers." And he sent me to see his editor, who was the vice president of Random House. And, in fact, I didn't end up signing with Random House, but the fact that the vice president of Random House wanted me to write a book made me very attractive to other editors, publishers and agents. So that's what got me started.
LAMB: What--how would you define your political biases or whatever? Political...
MR. ALTERMAN: Most people would probably define me as a liberal, but I--I don't really like the definition. I don't--I don't like most labels. I--I think I'm quite conservative in a lot of ways. I think some of my views are radical views.
LAMB: What's the most radical view you have?
MR. ALTERMAN: Hm. Well, I--I was just talking about this with a friend at lunch before I came over here. I think that the United States would be a lot better off if we gave up the idea of unilateral military intervention; if we cut our military by, say, 75 percent, turned it over to the UN and allowed ourselves to con--I'm something of an isolationist in the--issue and--and an internationalist, but in a different way than anyone's willing to talk about in this country.

I think our biggest problem in this country, in terms of the economy, is that we focus so much energy on the military that all our best scientists, all our best engineers, all our--many of our best thinkers are thinking about military problems, problems that are not really serious to the American people. There are no military threats--significant military threats to the United States. There weren't even in the last 10 or 15 years of the Cold War. And the fact is we have let our entire--the very basis of our security, our prosperity--things like the New York City subways, which are terrify ing to me--go down the tubes, while we've armed ourselves, in large measure because of the punditocracy's influence, I think, to--to face a non-existent threat.

So I think in order--I think if Bill Clinton is serious and becomes president, he's serious about fixing this economy and--and getting our productive resources going, he's going to have to basically slash the military far more than anybody's willing to talk about.
LAMB: What about the punditocracy and the Gulf War or Desert Storm?
MR. ALTERMAN: OK. That's an interesting story. I think--to me, it's--it'sas illustrative as anything of the--the way the punditocracy influence works.
LAMB: Let me interrupt--and I--I don't want to do this, but I think somebody in the audience might not know what we're talking about when we say punditocracy. Name 10 of those people. Who are we talking about?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, the punditocracy are the people you see on "The McLaughlin Group," on the "Capital Gang," on the David Brinkley show and in the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New Republic.
LAMB: Are they liberal or conservative?
MR. ALTERMAN: Mostly conservative, but not exclusively. They're important liberals. But the liberals are usually not anywhere near as influential as the conservatives.
LAMB: Are you upset because you may not consider yourself a conservative and that most of the conservative thought's getting through, or you just don't like the idea that...
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, I do consider myself a conservative, as I said, in a lot of ways.
LAMB: In what ways?
MR. ALTERMAN: I--I--I--well, I--I have--I have very little faith in the government's ability to fix things. I have very little faith, particularly, in our country's ability to go around the world and make this world a better place. I am not a Wilsonian at all. I think that we should try and--I mean, society is pretty fragile, and I think we should try and build slowly from what we have. And so there are a lot of social programs that I'm skeptical of, and certainly in the area of foreign policy, I don't--I don't support a sort of liberal interventionist view. But the thing about the punditocracy and I think about most American, quote, "conservatives" is that they're not very conservative. They're--they're radicals in a lot of--in a lot of fashion and they're reactionaries.

Pat Buchanan--what does--what does Pat Buchanan want to conserve? I mean, Pat Buchanan wants to transform this country. Same thing with Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan came to power, and he--he sla--he--he made the defense budget enormous, and he slashed the tax--the tax burden on rich people. And he--he transformed the country in fundamental ways. These are--you may agree with it, you may not, but there's nothing conservative about it. You know, I--I think hat people like George Kennan, Walter Lippmann--these are--these are real conservatives--Hans Morgenthau. And I don't think we have a very strong conservative tradition in the United States. I think that ever since BarryGoldwater and Ronald Reagan took over the Republican Party, we've had really no conservatives.
LAMB: Gulf War.
MR. ALTERMAN: Gulf War. OK.
LAMB: Punditocracy.
MR. ALTERMAN: Here's the thing about the Gulf War. The most important thing--the most important reason we went to the Gulf--we fought in the Gulf War is that George Bush wanted to fight in the Gulf War. So it's not like the punditocracy runs this country and they forced George Bush. George Bush wanted to go.
LAMB: By himself.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah. I mean, he--George Bush decided we were going to go to--go--go to war in the Gulf War, and he probably could have done it anyway, but we'll never know. But the fact is--is when George Bush made this decision, as we learned much later, the--literally, the only people in the country who wanted to go to war then was the--were in the punditocracy--not the only people, but the only people with a voice.

Nobody in--nobody in--no--no one on the day that--the--on the day that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait--literally, no one was talking about actually fighting to save Kuwait. There was some discussion over whether or not we should defend Saudi Arabia, but nobody was talking about ejecting--United States going to war to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, except the pundits. And, in fact, I quote both Robert Novak and Fred Barnes on the weekend that the war began, saying there's no way in the world the United States would send troops there because it was just simply not important. Kuwait--Kuwait wasn't that important. It didn't justify the commitment. But William Safire, the editors of The New Republic, A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times, Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post and a few other important writers decided that we should go to war over this issue. The question was not whether or not to go to war; the question, as Safire put it, is, `War now or later?'
LAMB: Let me ask you about Abe Rosenthal, who is same page as Bill Safire...
MR. ALTERMAN: Right.
LAMB: ...in The New York Times. Same views?
MR. ALTERMAN: I think Abe Rosenthal's a parody of William Safire. I think William Safire is a great reporter and an independent thinker and someone you have to read whether or not you agree with him or not. I think that Abe Rosenthal is--is--I think he's the worst pundit in the business.
LAMB: Why would he want to go to war?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, this is a sensitive subject, so we have to talk about it...
LAMB: Sensitively.
MR. ALTERMAN: ...sensitively. But among neoconservative writers, neoc--writers who--who were once liberals and are now conservatives, an enormous influence on their thinking has been what they perceived to be the safety and security of Israel. And--now I--I want to--I want to--when I say this, I want to particularly disassociate myself from the views of Pat Buchanan, as he--as he put this. But I do think there's--there is a relationship between the views--the--the intense support of--of Israel security as defined by Yitzhak Shamir at the time--because don't forget, Israel had been run by a Likud government for the past 10 or 12 years, whatever--and the intensity of the feeling on the part of many of the people who openly support Israel and open--and wrote about how important the threat of Saddam Hussein was to Israel in supporting the war.

Now my view is not that we went to war because of Israel or even that any of these people wanted to go to war, because they wanted to go to war anyway. They--they--they believe that Saddam Hussein had to be gotten rid of anyway because they believe in a--in--that the United States should oppose the forces of radicalism and Islam all over the world regardless. So there was no conflict between their support for Israel and their own views on the war. But the intensity of it; it was an emotional intensity, I think, that derived from their support for Israel, particularly in the--in the--in the face of Abe Rosenthal, more so than anyone else. In fact, I--I'll say it about Abe Rosenthal. If you want to talk about anybody else, we have to talk about them in particular.

But Abe Rosenthal--he basically uses his column, I believe, as a means of defending Israel whenever possible, even when Israel does things which most people feel are indef--are not defensible. I consider myself a very strong supporter of Israel. I've gone to school there. I've studied there. I go to synagogue every week. I'm a Jew. But my view of--of how one supports Israel is very different than Abe Rosenthal and different than the rest of the punditocracy. And so I think that many of these pundits decided that it was necessary to get rid of Saddam Hussein in order to save Israel from the possibility of a gas attack or a nuclear attack, and that gave an--an additional emotional intensity to the views that they would have held anyway.
LAMB: Wh--when did you go to school in Israel?
MR. ALTERMAN: I went there for a semester in my sophomore year of college. I've been there four times. And my next book is about Israel. I'm about to sign a contract for a book about Israel.
LAMB: You--you--you say you're Jewish. I wanted to ask you, is it easier for someone who's Jewish to talk about this than someone who isn't?
MR. ALTERMAN: It is and it isn't. I mean, emotionally, it's harder because you can be called a traitor to your people, which is a difficult thing to be called. I was called it once in college, and it--it never left me.
LAMB: You're not allowed to think differently than the...
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, for a long time, this--this began to change after the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and it certainly--it--it only began to change then. It--it--it had changed--the Intifadah actually changed it, so now--so now the situation is not the same. But up until 1982 it was impossible to criticize Israel publicly. You could criticize Israel amongst other Jews, but because Israel was seen as so beleaguered and under such enormous threat and because of the memory of the Holocaust, quite understandably, I think, Jews were very reluctant to give any enemies of Israel any additional ammunition. And so they basically refrained from criticizing Israel in public.

Now I think that was probably a mistake because I think it allowed Israel to develop in certain ways with an American Jewish blank check that it needn't have developed. But I certainly understand it on the basis of the emotional and psychological reaction to, number one, seeing six million Jews murdered while the United States sat still and did nothing, and, number two, the very real danger to Israel throughout this period.
LAMB: You said earlier that you wanted to separate what you feel about this from Pat Buchanan. Explain that further.
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, I actually--I wrote an article at the time where I was one of the few people who raised the possibility that Pat Buchanan was not an anti-Semite. I've actually--I'm not so sure I agree with that anymore. I--I didn't--I certainly didn't think we had the evidence to call Pat Buchanan anti-Semite at the time that he wrote these columns about Israel's amen corner and where he criticized the neoconservatives for putting Israel first. I think Pat honestly believed that. I think these people were confusing opposition to Israel, which Pat clearly feels, with anti-Semitism. And I think that that weapon is used to silence critics of Israel. It's certainly used quite frequently by people like A.M. Rosenthal.

I mean, the--the weapon of ant--of accusing someone of being an anti-Semite in this country is a very powerful one, as is accusing people like Tony Lewis, who I think is a very brave and courageous voice in the debate, of being a self-hating Jew for criticizing Israel. And so I thought Pat was being silenced without--without taking his views--without seeing that his views were pretty consistent on the issue, at least--at least for that moment; that he had--that he had a view he could defend.

Now the problem with Pat is that his views on Nazi war criminals, on--well, also, I think defensible in most cases--I've talked to Pat about this, and I--he made a pretty good defense, given his absolutely crazy views in the first place. Give--given those nutty views that he holds about how this country is--is run by a liberal conspiracy and we're very--we've always been soft on communism and liberals want to turn the country over to Communists the first chance they get, and the Democratic Party is a party of communism--given all those nutty views that Pat has in the first place, he can actually defend his support for accused Nazi war criminals on civil liberties grounds in ways that I find at least truthful on his part.

But I think what happened was--is that the neoconservative attack on Pat as a result of these issues and the--the attack of some of the major Jewish organizations was so powerful and so strong that it may have--Pat lost whatever sensitivity he had towards Jewish sensitivities that, again, derive from the Holocaust. And so wheth--I--I--I come down, I guess, with William Buckley on this. See what a good conservative I am? I come down with William Buckley, whereas whether or not Pat himself is an anti-Semite--and I don't--I pers--I--I--I know Pat doesn't think he's an anti-Semite, and that counts for something. But whether or not Pat is an anti-Semite, he may have encouraged anti-Semitism.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the--there's so much we can talk about, but let me ask you about the cover of this book...
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...for people listening. You've got on this cover Henry Kissinger, George Will--I may be wrong about this--William Buckley and John McLaughlin?
MR. ALTERMAN: You're right.
LAMB: Did you pick those four?
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah, although I wanted Jeane Kirkpatrick. But...
LAMB: Jeane Kirkpatrick.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah. But we couldn't get her because the--the cartoon by David Levine--David Levine is a famous caricature artist; he writes for the New York Review of Books. And we had to pay him a lot of money to--for the rights to these. He didn't do these just for me. And, unfortunately, his--his portrait of Jeane Kirkpatrick--her head was chopped off in the middle. So we couldn't use it because it would look oo funny. I also was--I was--I was hoping that once Pat Buchanan ran for president, he would get--he would do Pat so I could use Pat. But he--they used a photo of Pat. They didn't use a drawing of Pat.
LAMB: What's Henry Kissinger doing on this cover?
MR. ALTERMAN: Henry belongs there, actually. Buckley is the one I'm a little nervous about because Buckley is not a member of the Washington punditocracy. Buckley is his own special--Buckley lives in New York and Connecticut, and whereas he has an influence in Washington, he--it's--it's not--he's more of a historical figure.

Kissinger belongs there. Kissinger is a pundit. Kissinger has a regular column in The Washington Post. I--I find it indefensible, personally. I mean, he--you know, there's that episode--I'm--I'm sure many of your viewers know about it--where he--he basically defended the mass murder of the students in Tiananmen Square. He said that any government in the world would do it, and that it was a measure of the United States' maturity if we could just sort of forget about it. And then it turned out he was about to launch an enormous investment program under Kissinger Associates in China. And a few weeks after the massacre, he took one of his clients to China with him and got him in to see Deng Ziaoping when the American ambassador couldn't get in to see Deng Ziaoping. Nobody knew this. This is one of my big problems with the punditocracy. In Kissinger, it's most obvious, and so I like the example because people are more aware of--of what appear to be his conflicts of interest. But many people have conflicts of interest.

Kissinger, by the way, had another one during the Iraq war--during the Gulf War, where a member of his staff had participated in a meeting with Saddam Hussein about how to restructure his loans and get more loans from the West. And through this complicated story about Banco--what's it called, do you know?--BNL in Atlanta, what Safire is ranting about all the time? Anyway, fill it in. Read Safire in--in Atlanta. But--and, in fact, Kissinger initially was against the deployment in Saudi Arabia. For the first weekend Kissinger said it was--we don't need to do it. We can just have a--have a blockade, and it will work fine.

And then when Bush totally ignored Kissinger's advice and Kissinger called Bush's performance flawless and brilliant and so forth and totally ignoring him, Kissinger became the most hawkish of people. I--I wou--I don't want to speculate on his motives, but I think if I were Henry Kissinger and I were worried about the appearance of conflict of interest, of being on the board of this bank--or not on the board but advising this bank and having his people advise Saddam Hussein, I would probably come out as strongly against--in favor of this war as I could, too.
LAMB: Where have you worked?
MR. ALTERMAN: I don't work very much. I'm not good at getting up and going to work. I--I first came to Washington in 1982 as an intern at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That's where I met my friend George. And I met a lot of my close friends there.
LAMB: George Stephanopoulos.
MR. ALTERMAN: Right. And I met a lot of my close friends there who are now sort of rising in journalism and politics.
LAMB: How old are you today?
MR. ALTERMAN: Thirty-two and some--some months. Then after Carnegie, I worked for a businessmen's organization called Business Executives for National Security, which was--which lobbies--I'm pretty sure it still exists--which lobbies on national security issues. And I was an--a--I had some fancy title that didn't mean anything, but I basically wrote position papers and did a little lobbying against the Amex, things like that. It was supposed to be the businessmen's equivalent--back then; I won't speak for it now--to positions for social responsibility. But because it was a businessmen's organization, it was much more conservative, much more focused on issues like waste, fraud and abuse. I left that and I started this period of my life where I went to school at Yale and shuttled back and forth to Paris, and I wrote for Le Monde Diplomatique in Paris.
LAMB: In French?
MR. ALTERMAN: They translate me. I read very well in French, I must say--translate it. I can read French, but I don't write it. And then after doing that for a while, sort of playing at being Ernest Hemingway, I moved to Washington in 8--late '86. And in Washington the World Policy Institute supported me while I wrote for a variety of magazines that don't pay very well. And I also ran a seminar program on foreign policy for members of Congress. So I would invite people to come speak on various issues and we'd serve breakfast, and the congressmen and their aides would come and hear them for an hour.
LAMB: Backed by the World Policy Institute.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah. We paid for it.
LAMB: Who pays for the World Policy Institute?
MR. ALTERMAN: It's a pri--it's a private foundation. It's funded by other foundations. Well, actually, now--no, now it's--it's funded through the New School for Social Research in New York. The...
LAMB: Who owns the New School?
MR. ALTERMAN: Oh, it's a--it's a very famous university that's been around forever. It was--it was particularly famous--it's a great place, actually. They do wonderful adult education in New York, but it was--it was--it was the home to many of the European refugees who came here and revolutionized the social sciences--social sciences after Hitler. And people like Hannah Arent and other very important--in the social sciences primarily--taught there. And it's--it's still intellectually on the cutting edge, I think.

But, anyway, this--this only happened a couple years ago. Before that, the World Policy Institute had transformed itself from a think tank called the Institute for World Order, which had been very closely associated with the UN in trying to come up with ideas for world order. It was taken over by a man who's a very close friend of mine named Arch Gillies, a friend of mine since he hired me at the World Policy Institute; I didn't know him before that. And he transformed it into basically a liberal think tank that publishes an excellent foreign policy journal called the World Policy Journal, edited by, in my opinion, the most brilliant strategic thinker in the United States who gets no--doesn't want anybody to know his name, and I'm--I'm trying to ruin him. His name is Shirl Sweninger. And I was published in this journal, and I would write for them and consult for them, and they supported me to do my other work because they thought that I had--I was saying something that wasn't getting said otherwise.
LAMB: You say in your book about Mr. Sweninger, `The most thoughtful, knowledgeable and original unsung strategic genius in American political and intellectual life today.' Can you give us...
MR. ALTERMAN: I--I'm understating the case.
LAMB: Can you give us a little more?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, here's the thing about Shirl. During the period from when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, which I outline in the book, and the time that the Berlin Wall came down and--on November 9th, 1989, which, by the way, there's a Newsweek magazine dated November 9th, 1989, with a column by George Will which reads, `Liberalization is a ploy; the wall will remain.' It's a bad break for George Will because Newsweek comes out actually later than it actually--the date on it...
LAMB: It came out--it came out a week...
MR. ALTERMAN: It came out a week early, but, you know, George Will gets enough breaks in his life, so we'll be a little unfair to him on this. But, anyway, during that period, as far as I can tell, the only place in the United States that, if you wanted to understand what was really going on in the Soviet Union, where the dynamic from change came from and what--and how significant the transformation that was taking place in the Soviet Union was nd how impor--and--and the implications of that transformation for American life, was under Shirl Sweninger in the World Policy Journal. Now these articles were published by a variety of s--very respected Soviet scholars, people like Archie Brown at Oxford and Robert Tucker of Princeton and Michael McGuire of the Brookings Institution, former naval officer in the British navy.

But Shirl was, I think--and I--and certainly in the case of my writing, was the intellectual inspiration and--and the sort of disciplinary agent for these articles. And it was Shirl's vision--now the World Policy Institute doesn't have a very large cir--the World Policy Journal doesn't have a very large circulation. It's probably around 10,000 to 15,000, but it--it at least gave people who subscribed to it--policymakers and academics--the possibility that there was another--that there was a whole 'nother way of seeing this issue, instead of the pundits who were, by and large, saying `Gorbachev is a phony. Gorbachev is weak. Gorbachev can't change anything. The thing to do is to keep up our guard and to keep spending fantastic amounts of money on the military, pressuring the Soviet Union and letting our cities rot.'
LAMB: On the back of your book, you have `praise--advance praise for Eric Alterman's "Sound & Fury."'
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Did you choose the people?
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah. I asked them for that.
LAMB: Bill Moyers, William Greider, Barbara Ehrenreich, Todd Gitlin, Walter LaFeber.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Is that the correct pronunciation?
MR. ALTERMAN: LaFeber.
LAMB: LaFeber.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Excuse me. Any reason why you chose those folks?
MR. ALTERMAN: Because I respect them and because I thought that, in each of their cases, they h--they--they spoke to the kinds of constituencies that I would want to take my book seriously.
LAMB: And wha...
MR. ALTERMAN: In case no one had ever heard of me, which is probably 99.9 percent of the world, these people--they would look at this book and say, `This is--this is someone who I at least can't ignore.'
LAMB: Some of the personal stories--personal life of George Will and John McLaughlin and the fight between John McLaughlin and--and...
MR. ALTERMAN: Novak.
LAMB: ...Robert Novak and--and other things are in here. Why was that necessary for your book? What was the purpose of printing that?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, it depends which story you mean. Some of it is gossip. I like to read gossip as much as anyone else, and as long as I think it's reasonably well-supported gossip, I don't see any harm in it, you know.
LAMB: Any new gossip for those who like gossip?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, it depends. You know, I don't really--I--I--I'm willing to say--Barbara Ehrenreich says the book is a fun, gossipy read. I'm not ashamed for her to say that. She also says it's an intellectually serious challenge. Given the fact that you run such an intellectually serious network here, Brian, I think it would be better if we concentrated on those aspects of gossip which have serious consequences and...
LAMB: Which one does?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, certainly the stuff about McLaughlin and--and some of the stuff about Will does. But McLaughlin is the best example because this is why pundits are important, you see? There are no rules about punditry. There's rules about journalism. There's rules about politics. The rules are always broken, but at least we say, `You're breaking the rules, you know, and you're in trouble.' Or--or, `We think we should get rid of you because you've broken the rules.' Whereas in punditry, you can do anything you want and no one can say you've broken the rules.

So in the case of John McLaughlin, he can--let me just give you a--just sort of a quick example. If you--if someone wants to review my book in The New York Times, they're going to ask them, do they know me? Have they ever met me? Do they have any personal connection to me at all? And if they do, they can't review the book. I mean, they may not let you review the book on the basis of merely this conversation. But pundits can say anything they want about anything at all, without revealing any of their connections. And they have enormous influence, and nobody's--nobody's ever stopped them.

So in the case of John McLaughlin, John McLaughlin attacks the credibility of Anita Hill when she is saying she's been sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas in--in pretty--very strong terms. I don't remember the exact words, but they were very, in my view, vicious, as I recall. Now John McLaughlin himself, unbeknownst to the vast majority, the people who are watching this attack, having their views shaped by this attack, has been sued for sexual harassment by a member of his staff, a suit that was settled out of court for undisclosed payments. He--I read these court documents, and I read that at least three other women that worked for him had experienced, in their view, similar attacks. The woman who held the suit--who brought forth the suit was named Linda Dean???, I believe, and she said that John McLaughlin had told her that he needed lots of sex and that he could satisfy every material need of hers--I'm paraphrasing; these are not exact quotes--if she would have sex with him on a regular basis.

Two women who also worked for him said that they had experienced similar things, in their view--again, I'm paraphrasing. And then a--and then another woman, a fourth woman, who I spoke to, told me that McLaughlin had approached her similarly in--on a business trip to Mexico. And, in fact, there were two other witnesses in the office--another woman and a man--who felt that they had seen McLaughlin acting towards this fourth woman in a way that they deemed inappropriate with regard to the rules about sexual behavior--sexual harassment.

Now this is important. We need to know this about these guys because whether or not John McLaughlin was influenced by this, he--you don't know and I don't know and he can't know--but we have a right to form our judgments on the basis of this information, and we don't get it.
LAMB: Why don't we?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, because no one has an interest in giving it to us. I mean, I've sort of committed professional suicide, if I wanted to be a Washington journalist, by writing this book. I decided--I mean, I didn't intend to commit professional suicide when I began it, but it became clear that I would have to if I wanted to write a good book, and it's just as well because I left Washington anyway, so now I--you know, nobody should be feeling sorry for me. But...
LAMB: By--by the way, go back to the--what you just said about John McLaughlin. Has that--have all those charges--have any of those charges been proven?
MR. ALTERMAN: No, because the suit was settled out of court, and the--it's the assumption th--the--that the woman who brought it--that part of the deal was her silence because she stopped talking to reporters.
LAMB: Aren't you innocent until proved guilty?
MR. ALTERMAN: I'm not saying John McLaughlin's guilty. As I said, I don't know if John McLaughlin committed any of these acts. I happen to believe the one--the fourth woman, who I spoke to at length about it and who was sort of telling the story long before the suit was actually brought. I had heard about this long before John McLaughlin was sued. I personally believe her. You know, if I were--if I were to go up as--as a character witness for this woman, I would say she's a truthful woman.
LAMB: Have you talked to John McLaughlin?
MR. ALTERMAN: He refused to talk to me.
LAMB: At all.
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Did he...
MR. ALTERMAN: He ran away from me.
LAMB: Physically?
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah. I--I--I asked him--I was writing an article about him for The Washington Post, which formed the basis for this book, and all these--everything I've just told you appeared in my magazine article in The Washington Post on John McLaughlin. And I went to his show at CNBC, and he was talking to some senator--it's Tim Wirth, actually--and I said, `Mr. McLaughlin, I'm from The Washington Post, and I've had trouble talking to you. I wonder if we could talk sometime.' And he just turned around and walked away and ran back into his dressing room and has never agreed to talk to me. So he...
LAMB: Did anybody talk to you f--for this book?
MR. ALTERMAN: Virtually everyone. George Will and I had sort of a funny experience about not talking, and we ended up not talking--and I'll tell you that in a minute if you want to hear it...
LAMB: You can tell us now if you want.
MR. ALTERMAN: OK. Well, I'm just telling you who di--who else didn't talk to me.
LAMB: Oh, OK.
MR. ALTERMAN: Meg Greenfield of The Washington Post, for some reason, didn't answer any of my queries, either on the phone or in the--in the mail. But virtually everybody else I wanted to talk to talked to me. I--there's--I conducted--you know, I don't know; I didn't count the interviews, but prob--I'm sure 100, if not more. And most people worked--I mean, Fred Barnes--I'll--I'll give him--I'll g--I think deserves respect for this, and people like Charles Krauthammer, who basically decided that if they were going to ask people who clearly disagreed with them to talk to them, that they had no right to turn me down, even though they knew that I would disagree with them. And so they did.

Now in the case of Will--let me--let me get the--let--first, let's get this stuff on Will above the table, which I think is import--the sort of important gossip about Will. The--the gossip about Will's marriage and love life is not important, except to the degree that he takes a very high and mighty view of people's morality and then doesn't live up to it himself. But I--I'll let people be the judge of that, if they want to read it in the book. I don't really want to talk about that. What I do think is important is when Will decides to write 10 columns in a row on behalf of Robert Bork, an 11th column on what a great book--a masterpiece book--Bork had written. And just last month I read a c--I read a column that was about Hillary Clinton, where Bush--Will was bashing the Republicans for bashing Hillary, but he said, `But it's kind of OK because Hillary's friends had beat up on Robert Bork, and I'm sure she enjoyed it.'

I mean, the man is completely obsessed with Robert Bork's losing his Supreme Court nomination. And he never says anywhere, as far as I know--and I could be wrong--but as far as I know, he's never once revealed that he was an usher at Robert Bork's wedding; that they're very, very close personally. Like I said, you couldn't review my book probably because I know you now. But George Will can write a whole column about what a great book his friend Robert Bork has written, and--and we're supposed to take that as--as the truth. We're supposed to say that their close personal friendship has no bearing on what Will writes, you know?

It's possible, you know? If--but if so, Will is a better man than I because if I were reviewing my friends' books, I--I either wouldn't review the book or I would only say positive things. I wouldn't--I wouldn't embarrass or humiliate my friends in public. I would say, `Let someone else do it. Maybe they deserve it, but I'm not going to be the one to do it.' I'm not going to tell you back things about George here. I mean...
LAMB: Let--let me ask you, though, about--you say that you're kind of journalistically undesirable in this town now--or you--you've...
MR. ALTERMAN: No. I--I'm...
LAMB: ...you've used the...
MR. ALTERMAN: ...saying this. I've made--I've made some enemies by writing this book of powerful people who--it would be better if I hadn't made--for my career.
LAMB: Now the fact that you're on this show, does that make--does that give us a--are we now making enemies of the powerful people? Is that the way it works in...
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, no, it doesn't work that way. It's much--see, there are some left-wing groups who will tell you that the media's one big conspiracy, and that if you--if you attack the media in one place, you'll never--you'll n--your views will never be heard, but it's much more complicated than that. It doesn't work that way. I mean, I attack John McLaughlin, who's very close friends with the president of GE, Jack Welch, as I detail in the book, who owns NBC, and yet I was on the "Today" show and "The Tonight Show." I mean, the--and I wasn't on ABC. I was on two--the two major A--NBC shows. So I think there--there's a lot of room for disparate views in the media. It's just that...
LAMB: Well, let me just ask you, if John McLaughlin invited you to be on his CNBC show, would you go on it?
MR. ALTERMAN: No.
LAMB: You would not go on it.
MR. ALTERMAN: No. No, I wouldn't appear with John McLaughlin unless-- in fact, one show actually--I won't mention the show, but I was just told this morning that he was invited to debate me this weekend and declined. I would be happy to debate John McLaughlin, but I won't debate him where he controls the format. It wouldn't be--it wouldn't be a fair fight. And I also wouldn't go on "The McLaughlin Group" because I think it's a destructive influence on the debate. I think it's--I think it's crap, basically. I think it diverts us from important issues. And I wouldn't want to lend myself, my presence, to it.
LAMB: What about the "Capital Gang" on CNN?
MR. ALTERMAN: I don't get--you know, where I live right now, I don't get cable, so I--I haven't seen the "Capital Gang" in a while. It--I think it's a little better than "The McLaughlin Group."
LAMB: But where do you draw the line? I mean, what's...
MR. ALTERMAN: Tough question. It's a very tough question. I mean, I go on "Crossfire" and I won't go on "The McLaughlin Group," and part of the reason is that--see, part of the problem is I don't own my own network, like--like I guess you do.
LAMB: I don't own this network.
MR. ALTERMAN: OK. But I--I don't--I don't have a network of my own, and I don't have my own newspaper and so I'm at the mercy of these same forces that I'm attacking. So, actually, they've been pretty good to me so far. They're putting me on television and they're putting me on the radio, and I've been lucky. I mean, you know, I don't know exactly what combination that--has allowed for that. Maybe my book will get slammed in the newspaper...
LAMB: Who owns Harper Collins, the book publisher?
MR. ALTERMAN: Rupert Murdoch. You know, he's got no reason to like me. I don't agree with his politics, and I--I mean, I've never written anything about him. But, you know, there's--there's--there's a r--there's a relatively--I mean, we have--we have a sort of informal degree of censorship in the United States whereby only certain views are taken seriously; only certain views are debated, but you can say anything you want. The thing is--is that you're ignored, by and large.

Philip Roth made a wonderful comment about the difference once between Eastern Europe under communism and--and the United St--and the West. He said--he said here--he said, `There, nothing goes and everything matters; and here, everything goes and nothing matters.' And that's, I think--actually, it--it sort of explains "The McLaughlin Group": anything goes, but nothing matters. It's a trivialization of important issues. And that's one big problem, I think, with the punditocracy and one thing I'm trying to rescue. I'm trying to say that these are serious issues, and they shouldn't be subject to food fights the way they are on--in much of these--many of these debate shows.

I mean, this is--this is one--really one of the only places on television--I don't know how many people watch this show, but it's one of the only places on television where you really sink your teeth in and allow for some of the nuances and complexity of issues. Even on "Nightline," which is the best of all the network shows by far, issues, in my view, are still very much oversimplified and said in black-and-white terms so that we lose the nuances which are, in some cases, more important than the--than what was black-and-white about them.
LAMB: In your introduction, you say--you talk about Ron Steel because you write two chapters--actually, the first section is all about Walter Lippmann...
MR. ALTERMAN: Right. Right. Yeah.
LAMB: ...and post--pre-Walter Lip--Walter Lippmann and post-Walter Lippmann. You say that you wanted to thank Ron Steel, who wrote the biography...
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...the long one and--`for writing his magnificent Lippmann biography, which saved me a great deal of work; second, for taking the time on--on a frigid Christmas Eve a few years back to come to my apartment and disabuse me of many of my misconceptions about the man; and, third, for giving me one hell of a tough time on the Lippmann-related aspects of the man--of the manuscript.' What was that about?
MR. ALTERMAN: Well, this book took a very long time to get to be as good as it is now. I first began it with a different publishing company, and--and I--I'm not the kind of writer who knows what he's going to write until he sits down to write it. It's sort of in my subconscious, but I have to sit down at the s--at the--the word processor, the computer. And so the first version of this book, which was the sections you're reading about, wasn't very good. It wasn't--it was--didn't have any coherent theme, and it wasn't very well organized. I was trying to get in every little story I could get in.

And Ron was kind enough--Ron, who's been a--a--a sort of friend of mine and an adviser to me since I went to the Carnegie Endowment 10 years ago, where he was working then--he was kind enough to, first of all, talk to me--actually, our first conversation was--which was about this book, which was Christmas Eve 1989, was the first day I sat down to write the book. I researched the book for over a year before I actually started to write. And I kept researching, but I didn't fee l that I--I was comfortable enough in my subject until I had researched it for a full year, full-time. But then I wrote these first sections, and--and they were lousy, you know? It--it--I had to clear away a lot of the chaff before I could get to the wheat, and Ron--I think Ron could have been a little nicer about it, I'll say that, but he did me an enormous favor by being as harsh as he was.
LAMB: Harsh--What?--to your face or on paper or to the--legally or...
MR. ALTERMAN: No. Ron--Ron, quite correctly--he's in Berlin now, so he's not going to watch this, which is good. But he--he, quite correctly, understood the one thing about me is that if you criticize me to my face, I defend myself. And I may decide that--you know, write two weeks later and tell you that. In fact, every once in a while, I'll tell my mother she was right about something she said, like, 15 years ago. Takes me a long time to agree with my critics about my work, and I do come to agree with them, but it takes me a long time. So Ron understood that there would be nothing to be gained by saying this to me out loud, and he--he wrote it all down and gave it to me and then went to Paris that afternoon.
LAMB: All right. One other paragraph in this introduction I'd like to a...
MR. ALTERMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...or the acknowledgements I'd like to have you explain. `A special thanks in this department goes to Charles Krauthammer, who helped me quite early in the process to understand the moral and intellectual complications of the task I had undertaken, and he deserves an apology for a callous imputation I once made on a Washington, DC, radio program regarding his friendship with a dishonest US government official.'
MR. ALTERMAN: Right.
LAMB: What is that all about?
MR. ALTERMAN: The first part or the second part?
LAMB: Both.
MR. ALTERMAN: OK. Well, the first part is about Charles. They're actually related. When I began this book I had what I would consider to be a less sophisticated understanding of the way friendships and influence was transmitted in this city. So I felt that Charles Krauthammer's friendship with this dishonest government official--and I'll be glad to talk about this dishonest government official in another context, but I'm not going to identify him here because this was a confident--co--conversation held in confidence between myself and Charles, so I'm not going to tell you who it was. But he was dishonest and has been proven as such in a court of law--has admitted to being as such in a court of law, so you can probably guess, actually, if you really want to. But Charles heard me on this radio program where I was attacking the idea that he was defending this person without ad--and I just said basically, `Look, they're close friends. He's defending him. What do you expect?' You know, very sort of--there's nothing to it. Charles gave me some more facts about their friendship, which I could not have been privy to, and I--I came to see that the issue was much more complicated and that Charles' defense of him was far better intellectually grounded than I had allowed for. And so I was wrong to make that imputation, which is why I try to be more careful when I make them today on this show, three or four years later.

So far as the moral and intellectual com--complications of the task I had undertaken--well, just to give you an example, Charles is an editor--is now senior editor of The New Republic. He was a--he was--or contributing editor. He was the senior editor when I wrote it. I used to be a contribut--I used to--not--I was never on the masthead, but I used to write for The New Republic with a little bit of frequency. And they used to slic--solic--solicit my work. And if you read The New Republic chapter in this book, it's very, very, very tough, particularly on the owner and president, Martin Peretz, who also was one person who didn't want to talk to me. Everyone else at The New Republic who I wanted to talk to spoke to me at length and quite openly. But Marty Peretz decided not to talk to me for his own reasons.

Now Charles pointed out that I was not only writing about people with whom I lived in a social world with, but people who at that time my livelihood depended on and that I--if I was going to be so quick to criticize them, I had better think about how I was treating--what compromises I was making in writing about people. And, you know, I can't point to any compromises that I made in writing the book, so I can't say I was easier on this guy because I like him, but I probably was. I mean, one reason it was so easy for me to--to be so tough on McLaughlin is because I'd never met him and--and I don't like him, as far as I can tell on--on--on the show. Some of these guys I liked--I came to like. Pat Buchanan I like. Bob Novak I like. The big--the big secret about Bob Novak is that he's really a very sweet man, you know, behind this--this mask. And--and they knew that. I mean, the--these guys know that, and that's one reason they gave me their time. This is--this would actually bring me back to the Will story, if you wanted. In any case, I probably, like anyone else, was influenced by these things, even th ough I wasn't consciously aware of it.
LAMB: What's the Will story? Because we're running out of time.
MR. ALTERMAN: Oh, the Will story. Well, Will--Will had scheduled two interviews with me and canceled them both, and so we didn't have an interview scheduled. And I don't know why he canceled, and I can speculate on that, but, anyway, he canceled them. And then we both went to a reading in Washington of a British novelist, and I--I went up to him and said hello. And we got into a discussion about the state of contemporary American literature, and we sort of had an audience. We were, like, debating back and forth. It--it taught me something about George Will. I was right, but he won. He's a very--he's a very smart man and a very good debater.

But, anyway, I said to him--I--I reminded him of two things after we were done debating. It was very civil and I enjoyed it a great deal, even though I lost and I was right. One was that I had once sent him, when I was just a reader of his column 10 or 15 years ago--I sent him a song about the Chicago Cubs by a folk songwriter named Steve Goodman, which he appreciated very much. And, you know, I didn't have to do that because, as I said, he was wrong about everything. It's generally a bad thing for American politics. And, number two, I said to him that I thought he should decide to give me the interview because, as I just said, I can't help but be nicer to people who I--who I know. And he looked at me and he said--I can't imitate George Will, but it was a very funny moment. He said, `That sounds precariously close to a threat, Mr. Alterman.'

And it hadn't occurred to me that I cou--I was able to threaten George Will because I was just this punk, you know, who was working on a book that I never knew when it was going to be published. So I realized that he was right, it did sound like a threat. So I said, `Listen, I'm sorry if it sounds like a threat. I didn't mean it as such. I'm not going to ask you for an interview. If my--if my editor decides I absolutely must interview, I'll call you again, but I'm going to say don't let me interview you because, number one, I don't want it to sound like a threat. Number two, I'm afraid I'll be too nice to you, and I really do want to come after you, George, because you deserve it.'
LAMB: Eric Alterman is his name. He's at Stanford right now getting his doctorate degree. Here's what the book looks like "Sound & Fury" about the punditocracy. Thank you for joining us.
MR. ALTERMAN: Thank you.


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