BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Charles L. Mee Jr., author of "Playing God: Seven Fateful Moments When Great Men Met to Change the World", what is this book about?
CHARLES MEE: It's a book about summit diplomacy as it's been practiced from the fifth century, in a meeting between Pope Leo the Great and Attila the Hun, up until the last chapter in the book of seven chapters which is about a G-7 meeting in London when Bush was president and just before Gorbachev was thrown out of office in the Soviet Union. It tries to look at summit diplomacy and the ways in which leaders attempt to shape historical events and the things that get in the way of their succeeding at that.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea for this?
MEE: I've written a lot about diplomacy. I wrote a book some years ago called Meeting at Potsdam about the conference after World War II and another one about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. It's something I love to do. I love to watch the game of diplomacy and second-guess these guys.
LAMB: Where do you live?
MEE: I live in New York. I've lived there for 30 years. I grew up outside Chicago, in Barrington, Illinois, but I feel like a New Yorker now.
LAMB: What do you do for a living?
MEE: I write. I've spent years and years either as an editor or a writer of political history or as a playwright and sometimes all of those at the same time.
LAMB: Where were you an editor?
MEE: I started out at American Heritage years ago, right out of college, and worked at American Heritage for some years and was the editor-in-chief there, finally, of Horizon magazine, which at that time was a hardcover magazine of art and history and archeology and all the liberal arts. I went away for a while to write political history, and right now I'm the editorial director of the Johns Hopkins Medical Letter and of medical books, which is another passion of mine.
LAMB: In the back of the book under "A Note on Sources," you say that this is an extended essay and not a work of research.
LAMB: Why did you have to qualify it?
MEE: Well, I've done works of original research. The Potsdam book was really a book written out of the archives -- out of briefing books that are in the National Archives -- and of letters and other documents from British foreign office archives. It really is a work of original research, and "Playing God" is really a book that's not trying to bring up new historical material but to look at events and consider what trips people up in trying to shape history and what trips up politicians in the same way that we are tripped up in our daily lives or the way businessmen are tripped up in their daily lives by the real conceptual errors they make -- not by the sort of trivial stuff of miscounting the national debt or underestimating the size of their own army but by the real puzzles that get in people's way of seeing clearly and understanding what they're able to do.
LAMB: Have you ever worked in the government or politics?
MEE: No, never.
LAMB: Have you ever been to one of these conferences -- one of these summits?
MEE: Never have, no.
LAMB: "Playing God" -- who invented that title?
MEE: My editor, Alice Mayhew, who is an editor at Simon & Schuster and an old friend.
LAMB: I'd hate to think of how many times I've read her name in the back of one of these books where authors thank her for being their editor, but this is the first time I've ever seen a book dedicated to her.
MEE: Well, she's a good friend and a good, loyal supporter of my work. Her life-long passion really has been politics, and so the back of books where you see her acknowledged I expect are mostly political books. She does a lot of books by folks out of Washington and historians.
LAMB: And who is she?
MEE: She is a woman who has been at Simon & Schuster many years. I think she is now a vice president and editorial director.
LAMB: Why do you call her your mentor?
MEE: My mentor, because I really admire not only her skills as an editor but her political values, which tend to be as mine are -- liberal but pretty tough-minded. I
think she is a person who is thoughtful and doesn't shoot from the hip and understands how complex the world is and doesn't leap to a simple answer when it won't do.
LAMB: What does it mean to be liberal?
MEE: I think what it means to be liberal is to have some respect for the dignity of others and a respect for the complexity of the world. I think that it's rooted in, I guess, the Christian humanism of the Renaissance, so that it implies a set of ethical and moral values as well. It's the foundation of Western liberalism as well as the foundation of the thinking of our founding fathers. I wrote a book some years ago called The Genius of the People, about the Constitutional Convention, and those guys, even the conservatives among them, are people I think of as standing in the liberal tradition.
LAMB: You also said you are liberal and tough-minded. What does it mean to be tough-minded?
MEE: To be tough-minded means to not be a wishful thinker. It means to not be sentimental and not merely hope for the best but expect the best. I think that we all have to try very hard to hope for the best and work out of our set of principles but understand they're not always shared by everyone and that sometimes we have to move to the very edge of our principles and not expect to win just by -- Cosimo de' Medici in the Renaissance said, "The world is not ruled by Pater Nosters." And I think the world is not ruled by wishful thinking.
LAMB: What's a Pater Noster?
MEE: Our Father. It's the Latin for Our Father -- not ruled by prayers.
LAMB: By the way, where did you go to school, and where did you study?
MEE: I went to school in Illinois, to public high school, and then I went to Harvard and graduated in 1960. I studied history and literature, which was a wonderful kind of thing that was possible then. I don't know if it is now, but it was an interesting combination of two disciplines. I concentrated in American political history.
LAMB: There are seven chapters in this book, all written about summits of some kind or another. Before we get into any of them, could we go through them quickly -- and I can help here by starting with the first chapter. You mentioned earlier, when we opened it up, that it's Pope Leo the Great and Attila the Hun. What was that about?
MEE: It was about an effort by Pope Leo to meet Attila the Hun, who stood just inside the borders of the Roman Empire in the north, ready to march south and sack Rome. The pope went north to meet him and to say something to him that turned him around, and, indeed, it worked; one of the few instances in history where a man with no material resources of any kind -- I mean, the pope had nothing but Pater Nosters with which to rule his world -- met a heavily armed, hostile barbarian and had nothing to say to him but what he thought was the truth.
That was sufficient, evidently, to get Attila to turn around and not sack Rome; the truth being, in this case, that there was a plague in Rome, and if Attila sacked Rome he and his soldiers might die of the plague. It's a statement that might have been made to Attila by any Roman ambassador but might have been disbelieved had it come from the mouth of somebody Attila was accustomed to hearing lies from and believable from the mouth of the pope.
LAMB: The second chapter is "Henry VIII and Francis I: On the Field of the Cloth of Gold." When was that, and what was it?
MEE: 1518, 1519, and it was a meeting between these two kings from England and France that had been at war for years. They had only recently emerged from the Hundred Years' War, and there was some thought that they might go to war again. They met -- at least the publicly stated reason for their meeting was to avoid going to war. In actual fact, it had almost nothing to do with that ostensible purpose but had a lot to do with their staging an enormous, spectacular political show to reinforce their own domestic position back home, both of whom were in shaky domestic political positions for different reasons. So they had what was probably the most spectacular summit meeting ever staged, and it worked. They remained king.
LAMB: Where was the summit meeting?
MEE: In France -- just off the coast of France in what was called the Field of the Cloth of Gold, but near Calais.
LAMB: Chapter 3, "Cortez and Montezuma" -- and you're going to have to pronounce it -- "at ...
LAMB: Where is Tenochtitln?
MEE: It's Mexico City, and that's the story of Cortez's landing in -- well, he came from Cuba, but coming from Cuba to the shore of Mexico with a small band of soldiers and, we've always learned, conquering the vast, powerful Aztec empire. But it seems to me -- and this is a pretty controversial position -- but my reading of the evidence is that what he did was provide the occasion for a revolution in Mexico, for various subject tribes to rise up against the Aztecs and overthrow the rule of Montezuma.
I guess I should say too that each of these chapters is, I think, a wonderful story. I mean, I love the stories. They're really incredible and fabulous stories, but I chose them all to try to highlight these pitfalls that I think political leaders and all the rest of us always step into. The first chapter about Pope Leo the Great and Attila the Hun is really an illustration of the difficulty of knowing the historical field that any of us ever enters, of really knowing the facts, of having any grasp of what the real world is that we intend to affect. It's real easy for me and others to say at this date that we never would have gone into Somalia in the first place had it been done our way; very hard for a lot of intelligent, well-intended people to know what the realities there were and what surprises might lie in store for them.
The second chapter about Henry VIII and Francis I is really about the illusion of power, the illusion that rulers often tend to have of their own powers to affect the course of history and the illusions that they carry about the powers of others, whether they turn out to be greater or less great than they had thought. This third chapter about Cortez moving into Mexico and the destruction of this empire and the annihilation of it in a very short time -- I mean, following his entry into Mexico City just within a few decades, of a population of about 25 million people, 17 million had died. It was from diseases carried in by the Spaniards, but it's quite staggering to imagine.
And so that chapter really is about what we all know, which is the capacity for surprise in history, the capacity for things to happen that none of us ever expected or anticipated. We have a way of saying, yes, we know that's the case, and then to move on as though we can really make a calculation about things and as though we'll never be surprised, but it's really important always to remember what capacity the world has for surprising us. The Romans were pretty smart about that. They talked about "fortuna" all the time and never forgot how surprising the world can be.
LAMB: Chapter 4 is about the Congress of Vienna, and there are so many names here that are recognizable: Czar Alexander I of Russia, Emperor Francis I of Austria, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, Viscount Castlereagh of England, Prince Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord of France -- I'm sure these pronunciations leave a little bit to be desired . . .
MEE: You're doing beautifully.
LAMB: Prince Metternich of Austria, Prince Carl August von Hardenberg of Prussia, the Duke of Wellington, Baron von Stein, Sir Charles Stewart, Count Nesselrode: the Congress of Vienna, 1815 -- we can go back over who all these were, but what's the purpose of this chapter, "The Principle of Contingency"?
MEE: There were an amazing collection of enormously sophisticated and skilled diplomats. You know, Kissinger made his reputation by writing a book about Metternich, and it's really on the basis of having understood who Metternich was that people thought Kissinger must be pretty smart to have understood that. Metternich was an amazing, sophisticated practitioner, whether one admired him or not.
The story of the Congress of Vienna is the story of all of these diplomats from Europe gathering to try to put the world back together after Napoleon had torn it apart. It's the story of how in history, really, everything depends on everything else. It's the story of how all settlements are contingent on so many variables that there are no rules; there are no laws of history. One historiographer once said that the only rule of history is that a rise in the price of bread will cause a revolution, except when it doesn't. The perplexing and just anguishing fact is that the course of history is not something so much to be discovered as a preexisting set of inevitable relationships. It's something that people create, and only after it's happened do we really know what it is.
LAMB: Which one of these people that you've listed do you consider the most interesting?
MEE: Gee, they're all so fascinating. Metternich is an extraordinary person and a person worth studying, I think, because he understood that everything depends on everything else, and he also understood that in the absence of force -- that is, if you're not going to impose a solution by military force or economic force -- any political solution depends on the consent of those who are parties to it, and so it must satisfy those who are parties to it, otherwise it's potentially something that must be militarily enforced. So the legitimate solution, in his view, was by definition one to which all the parties gave their willing consent and willingness to attempt to make work.
The only mistake I think Metternich made was that, having given this wonderful definition of an appropriate political solution, his definition of all of those others who must consent was really drawn too narrowly. He thought that those who must consent are the ruling classes. What he forgot was that there were an awful lot of people who were not members of the ruling class who also needed to consent, and the lack of their consent is what really led to the turmoil that finally resulted in the outbreak of World War I.
LAMB: Chapter 5, "The False Lessons of History" -- Woodrow Wilson.
MEE: Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George of Great Britain at Paris in 1919, writing the treaty that ended World War I. The point of the chapter is that maybe the only thing worse than not learning from the lessons of history is to learn from the lessons of history, because so often we don't understand the lessons of history. Thinking we've learned one, we proceed with even greater confidence than maybe we ought to have, to misapply it to the wrong place at the wrong time. Clemenceau came to the conference with an understanding, really, that all the Germans understood was force and that they had to be put down and held down. That was based on his real deep understanding of the history of France through which he had lived. Wilson asked him at one point during the conference, "Mr. Clemenceau, have you ever been to Germany?"
Clemenceau said, "Not in my life. No, but in my lifetime the Germans have been twice to France." He felt that they really needed to be held down so they never came again. Wilson, coming out of his history, which was a belief in democratic, liberal institutions, tended to project that kind of liberalism on the world and wished to believe the best of others and wished to believe, as a later secretary of war, Henry Stimson, once said about the Russians, "I find that the way to gain trust is to give trust." Wilson believed that, and so he tended to come with a fairly soft position and with the League of Nations. Lloyd George, coming out of the House of Commons, was one of the master compromisers of all times.
He managed to work toward and help to work out a compromise between the hard position of Clemenceau and the more forgiving position of Wilson, and so as was said by many people, he got the faults of both approaches and the virtues of neither. The unhappiness with the Versailles Treaty, as it was called -- it was signed at the Versailles Palace -- is what helped lead to the rise of Hitler and so to World War II.
LAMB: Chapter 6, "The Rule of Unintended Consequences" -- FDR, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in 1945.
MEE: Yes. You know, we all approach things with a set of consequences we want to achieve, and we're very careful about organizing things so that we achieve those consequences and forget that almost inevitably there are going to be unintended consequences. I remember Sen. Moynihan said one time that in the '50s we thought we were building a network of interstate highways, and it turned out that what we actually did was to make it easy for people to move to the suburbs, so that we relocated the middle class in suburbs across the country, destroyed the tax base of urban areas and made it impossible to pay for the social services that cities increasingly needed and that that set of unintended consequences was something, obviously, nobody foresaw when they built the inter-state highway system.
At Yalta, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin came together with the stated intention of guaranteeing a generation of peace and with their personal goals: Churchill of shoring up the British Empire -- he said, "I've not been elected prime minister to preside over the liquidation of the empire."; Stalin, wishing to secure his western frontier against potential incursion from Western Europe -- at least at its most modestly stated, that's what he was trying to do -- and then guarantee the security of the Soviet Union; and Roosevelt, to secure the victory of World War II and the democratic principles for which American soldiers had given their lives.
These were the intended consequences, and the unintended consequences were that Stalin, by trying to rule what he thought he could, set the Soviet Union on the course of destruction. I mean, he destroyed what he meant to preserve. He overextended what the Soviet Union was ever capable of supporting. Churchill, because of the knocks the British empire and the economy of Great Britain had taken in World War I and then again in World War II, did preside over the liquidation of the British empire and found the best that he could do for Great Britain was to attach it to the fortunes of the United States.
And Roosevelt, by setting in course a great American global set of commitments, set on its way the chain of events that always in history has tended to undermine democratic government; that is, when a nation becomes a great international power, it discovers that it has to do things -- like maintain a permanent military establishment, like support a central intelligence agency, like police even its own citizens to make sure that its secrets are secure -- that erode the very constitutional liberties that he genuinely -- I think he was an honest person, genuinely -- was prepared to give his life to save.
LAMB: The last chapter, The Fantasy of Realism, includes George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, John Major, Mr. Mitterand, Mr. Kohl and others in London.
MEE: Yes, the G-7 conference. The fantasy of realism, I believe -- we've all -- we being the chattering classes who talk about foreign policy and a realistic foreign policy -- I think that we've all made a mistake in assuming that it's quite so easy to be a realist. If you add up what I think are the lessons of the book -- that is, the difficulty of knowing what the historical field is, the illusions you encounter about your own power and that of others, the inevitability of surprise, the inevitability of unintended consequences, the principle of contingency -- you discover that the principal of realism, which assumes our ability to suit our actions to the world as it is and as it is becoming, is a really tenuous proposition.
And so what's called for, I think, is maybe what might be called meta-realism, which is an understanding, really, of the very limits of realism itself and an understanding that other things apply in the field of history, such as accident and unintended consequences. I think that that G-7 meeting is a good illustration of that, where the seven powerful industrial nations of the world met, really, to talk about the world economy, and Gorbachev showed up asking for financial aid for the Soviet Union. It was clear to everyone that the Soviet Union was collapsing, and I think that during that G-7 meeting pretty much everyone understood the situation.
I mean, I think that they understood they didn't really know; they understood they didn't know what the conditions were in the Soviet Union; they knew that they weren't certain what kind of power they had to assist the Soviet Union, even assuming they did know what shape it was in; they knew that there were surprises in store back in the Soviet Union for Gorbachev and for the economy and for anybody who might become involved with trying to help the Soviet Union and so forth. Knowing all of these things, I think they really, with their eyes open, tried to arrive at some decision, and the decision was not to give the Soviet Union any financial assistance.
We look back now, and I suppose we could wonder if somebody had stepped in a little more forcefully and said, "Look, stuff is falling apart. We don't think we know what to do, but we think we'd better do something pretty substantial. The dangers of the Soviet Union disintegrating are so horrific for us to think about -- the consequences for the rest of the world -- that we can't afford to wait and see what happens." But it's unknowable whether what we might have done then would have made any difference, or it would have been swallowed up in the enormous chaos that they suffer from now.
LAMB: Did you ever, during this process, have other major world events in history you were going to write about in conjunction with this book? You had seven.
MEE: I had a bunch. It was hard to rule them out.
LAMB: What were some of the others?
MEE: Oh, there was a wonderful meeting between the emperor of Germany and the czar of Russia on the eve of World War I. They pulled their yachts in next to each other in a bay off Norway, and Wilhelm of Germany went over onto the Russian yacht and they signed a little agreement. The significance of it mainly was that Wilhelm was convinced to ditch France as an ally. Wilhelm got back home, and all of his ministers said to him, "Well, that was a cute thing to do, but it simply won't go. You can't do this." So he had to take it back, and it led to a lot of unhappiness between the Germans and the Russians on the eve of World War I. But, unfortunately, there was not a shred of information about what was said at that dinner.
LAMB: Where do you write something like this, physically?
MEE: Physically, at home. I spend some time in the national archives and the New York Public Library is an amazing resources, and I have a researcher in Great Britain who has worked for me for some years. And from the old days at Horizon, I have contacts around the world, of stringers we used to use for the magazine who do research. Some of them are skilled diplomatic researchers, and so they feed stuff to me.
LAMB: When did you start this book?
MEE: I don't remember, to tell you the truth. I think it's been about seven years in the making.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
MEE: I don't remember that either. I think it's about 10.
LAMB: What is your favorite?
MEE: That's like asking me to choose among my children.
LAMB: How many of those do you have?
MEE: I have four and love them all.
LAMB: Which one was the hardest to write?
MEE: The hardest to write -- I guess in some ways this was the hardest to write, although it's not a work of research. It was just incredibly difficult to get my mind around seven different historical epochs. You know, at least when I write about all these figures it's so easy to be smarter than any of them in hindsight. It's so easy to be smarter than Metternich or Talleyrand. It's a lot easier to sit here and be smarter than Clinton any day of the week. Part of the work for me is to really try to step into their shoes and see the world as they saw it, with the limitations of the moment in which they had to act. To enter that many minds and not simply surrender any judgment or set of standards to hold them to but to still really give them their due is a big piece of work.
LAMB: Did you have to get, seven years ago, Simon & Schuster to say, "This is the book we want"?
MEE: Yes, and this is easy. This is my third book with Simon & Schuster, and so we sit down and we talk about ideas and decided what I'd love to do and what they'd love to publish.
LAMB: How many copies of this $23 book do you have to call it a success?
MEE: Gosh, I have no idea. I mean, I call it a success when I put down the last period and hand it in. That's a success to me. I'm so relieved I can hardly bear it. I have to lie down for a couple of weeks after I've done that. I have not a clue how many copies they want to sell.
LAMB: How do you physically put this all together? Do you use a computer? Do you write little cards? Do you write longhand? Set the scene for us.
MEE: All right. Here I am in my little study, surrounded by bookshelves and piles of Xeroxes and some notes -- although these days it's mostly photocopies of things, photocopies from microfilm -- all in neat folders for each chapter and within a chapter, folders for different characters and different issues and so forth. As I'm reading and doing research I'm scribbling notes to myself all the time, so there is a pile of my own notes -- really thoughts and tentative conclusions or guesses about things.
And so I sit down with all of that stuff and work on a word processor. I mostly
start at page one and go to the end. It's funny, I write plays too, and those are
mostly political plays -- or they're not quite political plays in the sense that it might seem; that is, they are not political preachments -- but they're theater pieces set in some context of history. Those I start anywhere, and I make notes directly in the computer. It's this kind of wonderful thing you can do with a computer, is write a little bit at the end or in the middle or at the beginning or anywhere you want to go, and that sort of gradually gives it a shape and coherence.
But I find that writing books is really more like constructing -- it's like constructing a syllogism, really. You have to sort of get your premises in order, get your assumptions stated, examine those assumptions and then see where they lead you. And so, I'm much more linear and mainstream in the way I go about that.
LAMB: Have you ever met any of the people you wrote about here?
MEE: In this book, no.
LAMB: If you could invite any of these people to sit around and talk for an evening, who are the ones you'd really like to sit down and talk to?
MEE: Well, I think Attila the Hun would be wonderful to get in a room with. He's not my idea of the ideal dinner companion, but it sure would be fascinating to really see what kind of guy he was.
LAMB: What does it mean when somebody says "He's right of Attila the Hun"?
MEE: I think that's a slander on Attila the Hun, probably. Attila the Hun led a group of warriors. They were not hunter-gatherers; they were plunderers and conquerors.
LAMB: What year?
MEE: This was the fifth century, A.D. Where the Huns come from is kind of a mystery. They seem to have come out of the East. Since there is so little that
remains, you sort of grasp at things to figure out who they were. You look at their names, and there seems to be some Turkish influence in their names.
There seems to be some influence from what is now Iraq. They seem to have come out of the East into the West. They seem to have started out in life as peaceful, nomadic shepherds, and there is some evidence that a massive drought gradually, over a period of years, destroyed their agricultural economy and sort of set them on the road. Once they were set on the road, there was a sort of ripple effect as they came across.
LAMB: Where did they spend most of their time? I know you set it up with meeting Pope Leo, but where in the world were they at that point?
MEE: At that point they were in the territory that is now Albania-Romania-Yugoslavia-Hungary and further east, with attempts to come west. Just before they met Pope Leo, they had engaged in a huge flanking maneuver of the Roman army up into Germany and France. They fought on the plains of Champagne and were thrown back after enormous bloody battles, and they were back in the north of Italy.
LAMB: How many Huns were there?
MEE: I don't know. These accounts talk about 500,000 Huns, but some people speak about 300,000. If there were 100,000, that would have been quite a lot under arm.
LAMB: How long did Attila live?
MEE: Only six months after this meeting with Pope Leo the Great, he retired for the winter and met a suitably horrible end. He had taken a young woman as a bride -- I don't know how many women he had been married to, but he evidently, one supposes, was maybe suffering from impotence and as men often feel a young woman will cure this, married a young woman and on their wedding night died of a horrible hemorrhage and drowned in his own blood. The conditions of his death sound like the condition of esophageal varices, which is something that occurs to people who have been lifelong alcoholics or heavy drinkers. It's a hemorrhaging that's often seen in hospital emergency rooms when derelicts come through the door and collapse on the floor.
LAMB: How old was he?
MEE: He was in his 50s, and it must have been a real unpleasant death.
LAMB: You have some rather graphic language in that chapter about what the Huns did, like carving a fetus out of a woman and putting it in the soup or something like that. Was there a lot of that stuff in history that you wrote about?
MEE: Roasting babies and stuff like that. It's so hard to know what's true and what's false here since that information all comes from Roman historians who were pretty intent on giving Attila a bad name. It's clear that he was a nasty customer; it's not so clear that any of those stories are more than rumors.
LAMB: But you would like to meet him.
MEE: I think it would be real interesting to meet him.
LAMB: Who else of this group? Who is next?
MEE: I think the next guy is Talleyrand, who also is a real disagreeable character but certainly one of the smartest and subtlest and most resourceful diplomats who has ever lived.
LAMB: Who was he?
MEE: He was a French diplomat who had been foreign minister of France before Napoleon, and then when the monarchy was restored he was back as foreign minister. He was an older man who arrived at Vienna with a youthful niece, and there was a lot of scandal and gossip about that. Again, we don't know whether anything is true about any of this gossip, although it is true that his wife left him instantaneously and never returned.
He was a guy who would sit in his rooms in Vienna, often with someone there playing a little music for him, as he went through his personal files and really plotted how to sow discord and confusion at this conference, because, as the foreign minister of what was, in effect, the defeated power -- Napoleon's country, although the monarchy had been restored -- he was not one of the victorious allies, and therefore they were not eager to let him in on discussion of the peace settlement. But he was resourceful enough that he really forced his way in. In fact, what he did was, by clever maneuverings -- placing diplomats in untenable positions and making it impossible for them to call formal meetings, through many kinds of stratagems -- I mean, he pretended for a time to be a champion of the small powers of Europe and to disparage the efforts of the great powers to settle matters privately.
This embarrassed the great powers, and so they never, in fact, convened the
Congress of Vienna. Talleyrand forced them to keep postponing it and not quite having it, and this is why the Congress of Vienna really occurred in the ballrooms and bedrooms of Vienna, where people were able to have private conversations without anybody pointing out that some diplomatic protocol was being violated or was offensive to someone. The Congress of Vienna only convened at the very end to accept the treaty that had been drawn up in the back rooms, so it's a model of that kind of diplomacy.
LAMB: How old was he when he died?
MEE: I can't remember. I think he was in his late 70s.
LAMB: So we've got Attila the Hun with the group, Talleyrand and who else?
MEE: Gee, I guess I'd love to spend time with Roosevelt, but for completely different reasons. I've always been a great admirer of his.
LAMB: What did you admire about him?
MEE: I admired the New Deal. I admired the New Deal legislation, and I think we're all the beneficiaries of that. I remember hearing a commencement address that Mario Cuomo gave at Harvard when my daughter graduated there in 1985, and he said to the graduating class of Harvard, "I'm just a guy from Queens, and I feel lucky for the life I've had. I know that two-thirds of you students here are here on scholarship and you're lucky to be here and this is a wonderful place. I hope that in the spirit of Roosevelt, now that you've come to occupy a position of privilege and relative comfort, that you won't slam the door on those who come behind you." I feel that Roosevelt tried to open the door to lots of others, and this is the ambition of democracy.
LAMB: Who was shot?
MEE: Clemenceau was shot.
LAMB: And lived with the bullet in him.
MEE: And lived with the bullet in him and made a wonderful impression. In Paris in 1919, Woodrow Wilson was immensely popular all over Europe for articulating democratic values that everyone admired and aspired to, and he arrived in Europe as sort of a conquering hero and a great man. Then as he was forced to make one compromise after another, the Europeans became kind of disenchanted with him over the course of the conference, and then in the middle of the conference Clemenceau was shot by an assassin.
The attempt failed, but the doctors decided to leave the bullet in Clemenceau's chest, right next to his heart, and Clemenceau returned to meetings within a few days. Because the conference was occurring in Paris and that was his home, he was the presiding officer. Occasionally, as he was delivering some judgment on the proceedings, he would erupt in this horrible kind of rumbling cough and have to take a minute or two to finish this coughing, which was the result of the fluid in his lungs. It was immensely impressive to the diplomats and to Europeans, who read of these reports in the press and figured that this tough old guy, finally, was the guy who had the answers.
To the extent that these little personal things matter -- and I think in this case it mattered not a whole lot but to some extent -- it helped to tip the balance toward the tough realist and away from the idealists who seemed to be losing ground.
LAMB: What would it be like if David Lloyd George were here?
MEE: He was a wonderful, engaging man. You'd be having more fun that you are with me, I assure you.
LAMB: He had some women problems, too, didn't he?
MEE: He found it difficult, I guess, to choose among all the women who found him attractive and whom he found attractive. He was having an affair with his secretary at the time of the Paris conference, Frances Stevenson, and did for many years thereafter. I mean, he was really quite attached to her. So I guess it has to be said that he really loved her and after his fashion was very faithful to her, although it was said that no secretary was safe in his presence.
LAMB: Of all these folks that you wrote about, which one would you find to be the most useful to study?
MEE: Metternich, I think. I think that Kissinger was right about that. Unfortunately, I think that what Kissinger learned from Metternich was limited because I think Kissinger made the same mistake that Metternich did, really, which was to limit his understanding of whose opinions needed to count in a political settlement. But the principal that the only legitimate political settlement is a settlement to which everyone who counts gives their willing assent -- I mean, that's the golden rule. There is no question.
LAMB: Did you think at all about doing a Kissinger-Pham Van Dong kind of thing? I know you've got the G-7 meeting in here, but was Henry Kissinger ever a possible chapter?
MEE: He was. I think he's real interesting. The book could have been eight times longer than it is, I guess.
LAMB: Do you ever worry when you write a book like this about how you keep it interesting for people?
MEE: You know, to tell you the truth -- and I guess this goes back also to your earlier question of how many copies does it have to sell to make it a success -- I've written books that have been big best sellers, and they've been published all over the world . . .
LAMB: Which one is the best seller?
MEE: I guess the one that's sold better than any of them was Meeting at Potsdam, and it's in 10 or 12 foreign editions and it was made into a television program. And I've written books that have dropped like a rock and just disappeared. I think publishers have to decide whether those are successes or failures for them, but truly, as a writer, I try to write, I guess, for two reasons. One is, I write not so much to say stuff as to discover stuff. I find that the process of writing is for me a process of finding out what I think, and so once I've found out what I think it's been a success for me. Once I look at the book and I say, "Yes, I think this is what I think, and I like this book," then I've succeeded. I have to assume that if I've done something that I like, because I'm not too weird, some other folks might like it, too. That's really the only standard I can bring to bear.
LAMB: You're a junior. What did senior do?
MEE: Senior, who is still alive, was a businessman. He was with the Commonwealth Edison Company of Chicago for many years and then with the Northern Illinois Gas Company, which split off from that and became sort of an energy conglomerate.
LAMB: How about your mom?
MEE: My mom died more than 10 years ago now. She was a wonderful woman and a great storyteller herself. Much of my love of storytelling comes from her.
LAMB: Next book?
MEE: The next book, I don't know. I'm exhausted, and I'm happy to take the weekend off.
LAMB: The name of the book is "Playing God", and the author is Charles L. Mee Jr. We thank you very much for joining us.
MEE: Thank you.
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