BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Cal Thomas, on the front of your book it says "America's most controversial columnist."
CAL THOMAS:, AUTHOR, "The Things That Matter Most: Debunking Fuzzy-Headed Liberals": That was a triumph of the public relations department. I would not say that about myself, although I get some very wonderful mail and letters to the editor from tolerant, pluralistic, open-minded, pro-academic freedom liberals who say such things as, "Volunteer yourself for brain trauma experiments, you sadistic creep."
LAMB: Why do you think they wanted "America's most controversial columnist?"
THOMAS: Oh, it's part of the hype. I'm in 350 papers in all 50 states and most editors, gratefully, respond that they get more mail on my column, pro and con, than all of their other columnists. As you know, one of the premier things in the information or communications business is to get people to read or watch you, and if you don't have that you don't have anything. I deal with the cultural, moral, ethical, political dimensions that seem to rile people up the most and get the most controversy going, so I guess that's why they said it.
LAMB: The foreword is written by Rush Limbaugh.
THOMAS: Up-and-coming broadcaster. Rush was very generous in saying some very nice things about me. He said I was his mentor -- something I never knew -- said he was aware of me long before I was aware of him, and he very graciously and generously and commercially did the introduction to the book. It doesn't hurt to have his name on your book.
LAMB: How do you get somebody like Rush Limbaugh to write an introduction?
THOMAS: I just asked him, and to my great delight and surprise, he immediately said yes. I had that experience in high school once with a good-looking girl I wanted to take out and didn't think she'd ever go out with me, and so I got up the nerve to ask and to my utter amazement and astonishment she said yes. I learned a lesson from that that I applied with Rush, though in a different context.
LAMB: He says -- I'm just picking a parenthetic phrase -- "the major media have engaged in ridicule, put-downs and even censorship."
THOMAS: I think that's true for those people who call themselves traditional-values people, conservative, church- or synagogue-going people who believe in an authority higher than the state or their erogenous zones. I think it's very easy to label people. You call people like this fundamentalists, intolerant, imposers of morality, and the stated objective of applying such labels is to end the debate, to cause such people to shrink back from the public square and to defend themselves rather than to cause the people who are doing the labeling to defend their agenda. This book is about the nine broken promises of the '60s, and I feel that my agenda, my philosophy, my world view does not need defending. The other side's does. They're the ones who have brought us crack cocaine in the school yard; third-graders bringing guns to school; test scores on the decline; $3.5 trillion in tax funds spent on poverty and yet there are more poor people than at any other time; progressive education, where we've spend more per capita on students but are getting less and less return on the test scores. Those aren't my ideas, morals, ideals and values. That's the other side, so I'm trying to get them to de-fend their philosophy and get a controversy and debate going with this book.
LAMB: Where were you born?
THOMAS: I was born in Washington, D.C. My mother was there at the time, so it was convenient for both of us.
LAMB: What were your parents doing here?
THOMAS: Well, my dad was a very successful salesman. My mom was a homemaker and is still living. He sold business equipment, calculating machines, and moved here at the age of 19 from another Washington -- Washington, Ind. The oldest of nine children, he and all of his brothers were in the Army during World War II and never expected to give birth, to sire a journalist like myself. There was nobody like me in the family, and I think there are some family members who may be grateful for that.
LAMB: How many brothers and sisters?
THOMAS: I have one brother, a younger brother.
LAMB: What's he do?
THOMAS: He's mentally retarded and is in a group home in Maryland and has greatly outlived the life expectancy of people like him when he was born in 1950, at a time when most people shut away these kinds of children. Through the courage and commitment of the Kennedy family, as a matter of fact, they have brought a lot of these children and adults to public attention and they no longer suffer the ridicule they once did.
LAMB: What impact has it had on you that you have a mentally retarded brother?
THOMAS: You know, Brian, nobody has ever asked me that question before. I think, among other things, it has caused me to appreciate the fact that all life is valuable and all life can make a contribution. It worries me greatly that we are focusing on killing the unborn, the elderly with a Dr. Kevorkian type, and that only the perfect, the intellectually sound are worthy of living. As the pressures on our culture and society increase, as the burden on the Social Security system gets worse and as health care, perhaps in its current form or not, is passed, I'm afraid that the value of people's lives is going to be determined not by the self-evident truth that we're endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights and that among these the right to life, but by a formula devised by an authoritarian elite that will determine who is fit to live and who is fit to die. I think my brother Marshall has given me a sensitivity to the handicapped, mentally and physically, to the fact that we're all not perfect according to somebody's standard, and that all life is valuable. He certainly has made me more sensitive to the less fortunate and less perfect.
LAMB: Have you had much of a relationship over the years?
THOMAS: Yes, we see each other about once a month. He is in a group home, as I said, and his mental level is around, I think, 8 or 10, and it's difficult to communicate, but he understands far more than he's able to articulate.
LAMB: Is your dad still alive?
THOMAS: No, he died about 10 years ago, and I'm grateful that he saw at least the dawning of the success as a columnist and filed away some of my early columns and gave me the verdict that no Pulitzer Prize would be superior. He told me he was proud of me. I don't think there's anything that has been said of me that has meant as much as that did.
LAMB: He came here when he was 19?
THOMAS: Nineteen years old, off the farm, small town in southern Indiana. Went to night school, put himself through, worked for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and some other jobs. He told me once he wrote his father, my grandfather, that he was changing jobs from one to another. His father, who spent 50 years on the B&O Railroad, was shocked, thought he had been fired, saw that you got a job and you stuck with it all of your life, but Dad was exposed to a different life in Washington, D.C., than Washington, Ind., and saw that there was room to move up the ladder and not stay in one place.
LAMB: When was the first time you ever left this town?
THOMAS: Golly, I think I was, yes, 14 years old and went to work at a small hotel in Kennebunkport, Maine, back before the nation had heard of Edmund Muskie and George Bush. I go back there every now and then because it recalls a lot of pleasant childhood memories from the late '50s.
LAMB: Why did you do that?
THOMAS: It was a summer job during high school days. I first got exposed to New England because my great uncle by marriage, Calvin Coolidge, from which the Cal comes, was from that area and my parents took me up to Northampton, Massachusetts, to meet Grace Coolidge and was just incredibly impressed by her grace and her just wonderful mind and roamed around her house at the age, I think, of 13 or 14. I've since joined the Coolidge Memorial Society, which sends me the raw speeches, unedited by historians or commentators, if a man who has really been slandered by those historians, who didn't say a whole lot, but when he did say something, he had something to say. He wouldn't do very well in this age.
LAMB: How was the relationship? How did it work?
THOMAS: My grandfather on my mother's side and Mrs. Coolidge were first cousins and they double-dated during their pre-marital days and I still have a lot of stuff handed down to me of presidential correspondence, handwritten things, notes back and forth, and it's very dear to me. It's very exciting.
LAMB: Did you ever ask your parents why they named you after Calvin Coolidge?
THOMAS: Well, I did. They were fishing around for names, and John -- who is still living in Vermont; he's in his mid-80s and looks like his father, a dead-ringer -- is my first name and Calvin was their second son who died at the age of 17 of an infection that had penicillin been invented at that time might have prevented. And so I was named after those two boys, John and Calvin.
LAMB: How much do you know about Calvin Coolidge?
THOMAS: I know a lot more than I might have known if I'd been named for somebody else. I've read up a lot on him, and I've read some marvelous speeches. He gave a speech on July 4, 1926 -- his birthday, July 4, the only president ever to be born on July 4 -- on the Declaration of Independence and its purpose and what went into it that is one of the finest statements about the principles and ideals of the founding fathers I've ever read. I've read quite a bit about his life. I have the privilege of speaking in Massachusetts once, and I referred to a speech he made in great detail called "Have Faith in Massachusetts." He was always harking back to certain principles that founded America and sustained America through times of economic and political difficulty, and that's what I try to do in my writings. There are things that matter a great deal. I think being a conservative means conserving those principles that have proven their truthfulness and worthiness, and then going on in the modern age to add to things to them that improve a lot of men and women.
LAMB: From what you know, would he be able to put his name on this book?
THOMAS: Well, I would hope so. You know, things change over the years. He was a formal man. One of my favorite pictures of him was going fishing. He had hip boots on and he had a three-piece suit on at the same time -- a very formal, very correct, very elegant and gentlemanly man. He sure had a lot of smarts because he got out just before the Great Depression and let, unfortunately, the crushing blow of that fall on Herbert Hoover. If he had something other than "I do not choose to run" in that campaign in the late '20s, he might have been saddled with the historical criticism of the Great Depression.
LAMB: Didn't he have a son that died at about 16 years old?
THOMAS: Seventeen. Yes, that was Calvin.
LAMB: And he died of what?
THOMAS: It was an infection, as I understand it.
LAMB: Oh, you mentioned that earlier. And that had a tremendous impact on him.
THOMAS: It did indeed, and many people think that that probably was the main reason why he did not seek reelection. It affected he and Mrs. Coolidge greatly, as the death of any child would a parent.
LAMB: When you mentioned it earlier, I didn't track that that's who you were talking about. You at 14 were up in Kennebunkport. Did you go to college?
THOMAS: I did. I went to American University here in Washington. I majored in English literature. I wish I could say it was because I wanted to expand my literary skills, but I found that mostly the good-looking coeds were majoring in that, and so I decided to major in it, too. My minor was French and international relations of Western Europe. But if I had known at the time that I was going to be a journalist, I probably would have majored in history. I think that we lack a historical perspective today. The closest we get to history in America anymore for the masses is the instant replay, and I think that's tragic. What you've been doing during the D-Day observance has just been wonderful. I've been fascinated by all of it. I think understanding the past is key to understanding and not repeating mistakes in the future.
LAMB: Can you remember when you really started formulating what you think? How much of it is in this book?
THOMAS: A friend of mine gave me Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative" as a young man and I read some Ayn Rand, or however the moderns pronounce it, and I found it incredibly fascinating. But I started out as a copyboy at the age of 18 at the NBC bureau here in Washington, and I was surrounded mostly by liberal thinkers and I tried to think like they did and I tried to read the way they did, but it was like putting a square peg into a round hole. It never really fit, and so I began to read Goldwater and some others and found myself energized by their words and their thoughts and their positions and began to embrace conservatism, I would say, in my early 20s.
LAMB: What did you try to do in this book?
THOMAS: What I've tried to do in the book is to take the nine broken promises of the '60s and to say that those who are now running the government and much of the educational establishment and a good deal of the media continue to operate on a failed philosophy that I believe has negatively impacted this country in the area of education, in the area of interpersonal relationships, in the area of sex, marriage, family and so many other categories. And then miraculously -- it's not just another book trashing the ideas of the ideas of the other side -- I end it by noting that a good number of liberals who are from this generation and philosophical world view are now starting to say the very same thing. They're starting to diagnose the ailment, which any doctor will tell you is key to proper treatment. People like Norman Lear, David Broder and E. J. Dionne and Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, a wonderful name, are all saying the same thing, that we cannot go on the way we have been.
We cannot expect to father children out of wedlock and bring them up in some kind of moral order and atmosphere that will promote the general welfare. We just cannot continue to operate as totally secular society without at least considering the things of God and the Ten Commandments and some of these other eternal truths. And so I find this very, very hopeful when Bill Bennett has a book on the best-seller list called The Book of Virtues or when Norman Lear says what we really need in America is a new examination of spiritual principles or a spiritual renewal, so I'm very optimistic and hopeful.
LAMB: At the same time "The Book of Virtues" is on the best-seller list, a Howard Stern book is on the list. It's not there anymore, but how do you explain that?
THOMAS: I think it's a question of the wheat and the tares, to use a biblical analogy. Certainly there are people who continue to be devoted to this philosophy. You don't turn a great nation around morally or in any other way overnight. It took us a while to get here; it will take us a while to get back to where we need to be, in my judgment. Between the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, and the first civil rights legislation in 1964 was 101 years. It didn't happen overnight, so I think it's going to take a while, but, as has been said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I see the steps are beginning.
LAMB: God is mentioned a lot in your book.
THOMAS: I think we've made a real mistake here in not realizing -- we spoke of history a moment ago -- that great men and women of our past, creative people, political people, all had a familiarity with Scripture, with the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, the way life works. Now, I'm not calling upon everybody to embrace my church or my beliefs, but I am saying that there are certain truths. Ted Koppel said some years ago in a remarkable speech at Duke University on the Ten Commandments that truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder; it's a howling reproach. He also said we've actually convinced ourselves that slogans will save us. Shoot up if you must, but use a clean needle. Enjoy sex whenever and with whomever you wish, but wear a condom. Then he said the answer is no -- not no because you might end up in jail or dying in an AIDS ward, but no because it's wrong. There are some things that are always right and that are always wrong, self-evident truths. I think that we've run out of gas in exploring other things.
You mentioned Howard Stern. I noticed a review in the New York Times of Madonna's latest act. It opened in London, and some people who attended were interviewed after the show. They were blase. They said, "There's nothing new in this. This wasn't even exciting." Well, she had bestiality, she had group sex, she had lesbianism. They'd seen it all before. There was nothing new that could titillate them, that could excite them, that could make them want to go back and see it again. I think that's where we are. There's absolutely nothing new in a perverted sense that we can do. Now maybe we might like to try God once again.
LAMB: What church do you belong to?
THOMAS: We go to an evangelical Presbyterian church just outside of Washington called Fourth Presbyterian where Dick Halberson, the chaplain of the Senate, was for many years, and a Welshman by the name of Robert Norris speaks the king's English the way it was designed to be spoken every Sunday.
LAMB: When did you first learn about God?
THOMAS: I had a vague familiarity as a young man because my parents took me to church, but there was no personal relationship for many years. I think it was in the midst of this great success syndrome that many of us feel. When I started working for NBC, I wanted to be a network correspondent by the time I was 30, and, like many others in the town or around the country, bent every resource -- academic, financial, personal -- to achieve that. The closer I got to it, being on the network, radio and television, the less happy and successful and fulfilled I felt.
So my wife began to do some volunteer work at the national prayer breakfast office here in Washington, introduced me to some men that I would have regarded as successful -- a United States senator, some other political and even non-political people. They took me to a prayer breakfast, and I heard a federal judge stand up one morning and talk about the possibility of everyone there having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Now, that's a phrase I'd never heard before. I began to realize there was something these people had that I did not, and so I decided that the intellectual thing to do was to do something I'd never done and sit down and read the Bible for myself, put aside the hypocrites I knew or some of the phonies I'd seen on television and just say, "Look, is this real or isn't it?" I found out that it was very much real.
LAMB: When did you go to work for Jerry Falwell?
THOMAS: I worked for Jerry between 1980 and 1985 as a vice president of Moral Majority. It was the only non-journalistic thing I had ever done. I had some very serious concerns about the country at that time and wanted to try to do something about it. It was a great time, a great opportunity, but it also taught me something else. It taught me that real revival in this country and a real change is not going to come from the top down. It's not going to be trickle-down morality. I think conservatives make a mistake when, as Chuck Colson says, they think that the kingdom of God is going to be ushered in on Air Force One. It just isn't going to happen. No president can lead a people where they do not want to be led, and so if we're concerned about the moral and spiritual direction of the country, we'd better not look for a solution in Washington. They only reflect what is going on in the states.
LAMB: What impact did televangelists have on people's belief in televangelists and in God, do you think?
THOMAS: I think there's a real difficulty when you get on television and you try to remain pure and keep your message pure. I mentioned Dick Halberson, the Senate chaplain. He's a terrific-looking guy with the white hair. You know him; you've seen him. You've probably had him on before. He was asked once to do television. Actually, he was asked several times. I asked him, I said, "You know, Dick, you'd be so good on television. Not only do you look good, your voice is great, you really have something to say. Why don't you ever do it?" He told me something that I thought was very insightful and very profound. He said, "I don't want to do it because I don't want to submit myself to the temptations that go with being on television." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, it's been my experience that people are never satisfied being on one station. Then they have to be on five or 10 or 100. Television, of course, is extremely expensive, as you know. Then you have to go out and start raising the money to be on television, and when you raise the money, you're in competition with a lot of other people trying to raise money who are making outrageous claims, some of them, and not telling the truth, some of them." And so he didn't want to put himself under that temptation. I thought that was a great insight.
LAMB: But what about their impact, Swaggert and Jim Bakker and all those things? What has that done?
THOMAS: I think God is cleaning house, actually. I think those with integrity, the Billy Grahams, the Charles Stanleys, the James Kennedys and others who have financial integrity, who live what they preach are doing well, and those that are not, are not. There's nothing new in this. This has happened in the past with the Elmer Gantrys and other frauds. But we have frauds in anything. We have frauds in our profession. There are frauds in banking and car salesmen and there are also some good people, too, so I think most people realize that not everybody is a phony and not everybody's a fraud, and you have to sort out the good from the bad.
LAMB: What did you think of Ronald Reagan, by the way?
THOMAS: I thought he was the most fascinating president that I've ever met. I've met every one since John Kennedy, and I think that he incarnated for many, many people in this country a set of standards and values that had not been articulated from the White House in a very long time. This is one of the reasons he made the liberals so angry, because not only did he do it, he was effective at it.
LAMB: What do you think of Bill Clinton?
THOMAS: I think Bill Clinton is probably the finest communicator that has ever inhabited the White House. I think that if they ever break down and invite me over there, as I've asked them to do on numerous occasions, I probably would have a great evening talking to him. I think he's probably one of the friendliest people that has ever occupied that office, but I do not believe that he is what he represents himself to be. I find all of the promises that he made during the campaign, virtually, to be null and void. Abortion, for example. Said he wanted to make them safe, legal and rare. Well, he certainly continues to make them legal but anything but rare. And a number of other things, from the whole gay rights thing -- he told them one thing; he's doing another -- to taxes to the rest. I think he realized that the country was not going to elect a liberal, and so he put a conservative face on it, but the truth is coming out now.
LAMB: Talk from your perspective about Ronald Reagan and his belief in God and non-church-going that we saw, and Bill Clinton, who has spoken out about God and church-going and family and all that. How do people deal with this?
THOMAS: It's fascinating. I asked former Vice President Quayle in an interview I did with him recently, I said, "You know, you, Dan, are a church-going, Bible-carrying Presbyterian and Bill Clinton is a church-going, Bible-carrying Baptist, so why is it that you differ on social issues?" I don't think he'd ever been asked that question before. He kind of flubbed it, but he said, "Well, I think it's a difference of interpretation." That's the short answer, and I think that's probably true.
Do I wish that Reagan had gone to church more and exhibited more in his own life and family some of the things that he believed? Well, sure, of course. I wish I did. I wish I exhibited in my life more consistently more of the things that I say and believe. But, I don't know, it mystified me, because Jimmy Carter, you know, was another church-going, openly born-again Baptist. I went to church with him on a number of occasions at First Baptist here in Washington because I thought it would be a unique experience to see the president of the United States teaching Sunday School, and as it turns out, it was. I don't believe there's been one since.
But I think it's a question of how one looks at Scripture. Is it the word of God? Is it divinely inspired, inerrant, without error, infallible? Or is it just a collection of nice thoughts written by flawed human beings who had a little inspiration, much as Wordsworth might have had as he looked out over Tintern Abbey and you have to be left to your own devices to decide what it means today? I choose the former, and I think the president did as well, even though, again, he didn't always apply some of the truths of his personal life, but then neither do I.
LAMB: This book has a lot of different two- and three-page thoughts. Are they old columns?
THOMAS: No. What I've done is written an original book. Some of the subject matter, like the one called "Dan Quayle Was Right," referring to the Atlantic magazine incredible article by Barbara Defoe Whitehead last year on the whole family values issue, I have updated some of those and rewritten them. It is largely and almost exclusively new material or updated and rewritten material. It was hard to do a subject like this and not refer to some of the things that I'd written about in columns, but I did not want it to be a column collection, and it isn't.
LAMB: This is book number seven?
THOMAS: This is book number nine. I'm going to keep at it until I get it right.
LAMB: What were the others on?
THOMAS: There were a couple that were column collections. There was one in 1983 called "Book Burning" about censorship from the left. This was the 50th anniversary of the Nazi book burning in Berlin, and I got tired of hearing from the left about all those right-wing censors and snake handlers from West Virginia who were trying to keep our sons and daughters from reading "To Kill a Mocking-bird" or censoring the "American Heritage Dictionary" because it had a couple of curse words in it. So I wrote a book about what the other side was doing.
LAMB: Which one sold the best?
THOMAS: The one that sold the best, I think, was "Book Burning." This one, I hope, is going to sell the best. We've had a 160,000 advance printing and they're looking for it to go New York Times best seller, which would be a great treat for me. That's one of the few things that I haven't been pleased to achieve yet. That would be great. I will laminate that best-seller list and hang it on the wall if it happens.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken?
THOMAS: It was taken in my home office by a photographer for Time magazine. When you look like I do, the guy had to spend a whole afternoon with me just to get one right and airbrush it, but it was very nice.
LAMB: "The Things That Matter Most" -- was that your idea?
THOMAS: I stole it and give the credit to the person from whom I stole it, my pastor, Robert Norris. It was the title of a sermon that he preached, and the minute I heard it I wrote it down and I said, "That's the title I've been looking for."
LAMB: Page 66: "The sweetest sound in the world to me these days is the sound made when I push the off button on my TV remote control device."
THOMAS: I probably should have said switching to C-SPAN, because I do watch a lot of that. But, yes, I feel that television has left me. I was a child of television; so were you. Grew up in the '50s.
LAMB: How old are you?
THOMAS: I am 51. Kate Smith, Sid Caesar and "The Show of Shows," so many of those great, great programs that you could turn on and not worry about being insulted, having your beliefs insulted, your values insulted. Great humor, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, all of these people I grew up with. Now I turn it on and I hear my God blasphemed. I hear various scatological references and jokes about body parts. I see more and more nudity on the air. Frankly, it's worse than junk food. There's just no nourishment in it at all, so I read books and have conversation now. I meet a lot of people around the country who have gone the last step and who have just given up on it and have gotten rid of their televisions. I can't do that because I have to comment on the cultural effluent, but I understand why they're doing it.
LAMB: You've got your own show.
THOMAS: CNBC, Tuesday nights at 8 o'clock. It's been very exciting. I never thought I would have one, but it's fun. We want to do some different things on that show. We don't want it to be a Clinton-bashing show or having only conservatives on or white males. I want to shake up the perception of conservatives, most especially that some of us even have a sense of humor. I want to invite some of my ideological opponents on, not just to debate but to have conversation. We don't have conversation anymore. We get into these shouting matches and we each get in our little sound bites of truth and we feel that we've really achieved something if we've shouted down the other person. We're Americans, we're human beings, we are temporary residents of the planet, and so that's why I have a lot of liberal friends. I enjoy the company of liberals. Some of them are very close friends of mine. I got one of them to kind of give me a backhand endorsement of the book.
LAMB: Which I'll read in a moment, but I want to ask you about CNBC. Check me if I'm wrong about this, but the most popular show on that network is "Real Personal" with Bob Berkowitz, I think at 11 o'clock at night, where they talk about sex.
THOMAS: Yes, the male Dr. Ruth.
LAMB: How does that make you feel?
THOMAS: Well, you know, my column appears in 350 newspapers and they have classified ads in there in which men are seeking men and women are seeking women and some of each are seeking all kinds of other things. I think, again, to use the biblical analogy, it's the wheat and the tares. I'm not being asked to talk about that. I'm not being asked to do anything about that. I'm asked to do my own show, and this is a network and it provides different things for different people. I'm just thrilled to be included in the mix.
LAMB: Why do you think television has become what it is?
THOMAS: I think one of the reasons is the lack of talent now. In the early days of television, you had people like Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner and Howard Morris and some tremendous writers. Glenn Campbell in his new book Rhinestone Cowboy talks about the eager young writers of that day of material, who were brilliant, and they were constrained from using foul language or sexually suggestive material, so they had to really be good. When you got a laugh on television in the '50s up through the early '60s, you had to really have good material. Then when television decided the only way it could compete with the movies was to do like the movies did and began to expand the envelope of what was allowable and then finally the censors at the networks were almost no more, and I think at least two of the networks they are no more -- Standards and Practices I think they called them at the time -- then that became open season for virtually everything. It recalls to mind a wonderful Cole Porter song from the '30s: "In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes. Good authors who once knew better words now only use four-letter words writing prose. Anything goes." Now, that was satire then. I'm sorry to say it's true today.
LAMB: What do you say, though, to the younger generation that says it was sanitized and life isn't the way television portrayed it in those days and people talked a lot different at home with all the four-letter words. That's all this is -- reality.
THOMAS: Television does more than reflect culture, I think. This is an endless debate. It's like chicken and the egg for some. But I think it also gives permission for a lot of people to do things. You'll recall this group of 12- and 14-year-old gang members in New York a few years ago who went what they called "wilding" and beat up and raped the Central Park jogger. It turned out they were overdosing on violence on television and violent rap music. Now, you know, when I was growing up, I didn't think about going out and beating up people at the age of 12 or 14. Where do they get these ideas from? They get the cultural permission from the culture. They get it from their music; they get it from films. Not everybody who sees this goes out and does it, obviously, but those who are predisposed to this behavior, in my judgment, are more likely to do so when they see it portrayed in an approving way in what they listen and view.
LAMB: You mention Carl Sagan a lot.
THOMAS: I do. I think he's kind of the god of the other side. The cosmos is all there is or all there has been or all there ever will be, to paraphrase what he says.
LAMB: Have you ever met him?
THOMAS: I never have. I'd like to. I'd like to have him on the show some time. His kind of message is a message without hope. If this is all there is, if this life is all that matters, if we're just going to work so we can make enough money to pay our bills until the bills come in the next month, you know, maybe we ought to go out and commit suicide at least while we're healthy. Get it over with. I think that's a very discouraging message.
LAMB: How sure are you that this isn't it?
THOMAS: Oh, I'm quite sure. Absolutely, because no one could have changed my life more than Jesus Christ. Not religion, not a denomination, not a philosophy, but a person. This book that he wrote -- he only wrote one; I have to do nine and keep at it until I get it right -- has been embraced by millions through the ages and people of different racial, ethnic, genders, philosophies and political parties. He is the only person who ever claimed to be God and to prove it by rising from the dead and to have changed the lives of billions of people throughout the history of the world. It is a book that is self-authenticating. You read it, you understand it to be true. Most people, though, haven't read it. They think "God helps those who help themselves" is in the Bible and separation of church and state is in the Constitution. Neither is true.
LAMB: Let me ask you again, though. How sure are you that is absolute? They're words on paper.
THOMAS: I'm so sure I've staked my life on it. You can't make a better investment than that.
LAMB: You've got a quote in here about liberals. I'll find it here in just a second. Maybe you can remember how you define liberalism. "A bunch of goofy professors" I remember, I think. I'll find it here in just a second. Here it is. "Liberalism exists only in the minds of goofy professors and other elitists who think they are smarter and better than anyone else." How does that go with your friends who are liberals?
THOMAS: Well, you know, I would still go out and have dinner with them. I recall a situation at a university in Indiana a few years ago. Former Senator George McGovern and I were debating -- one of the most civil men I've ever met and a good friend. Afterwards, one of my supporters came up out of the audience. I could tell he was one of mine because he had a flat-top haircut, a blue suit and white socks and was chewing gum. He said, "My wife and I would like to take you out for a bite to eat." I said, "It's very nice of you, but Senator McGovern and I have already made dinner plans." He looked at me as if I had insulted his mother and said, "How can you eat with a man like that?" I said, "Very easily. He's a friend of mine." But I really do believe that liberalism has failed miserably.
We've got the 25th anniversary of Woodstock coming up later this year, and you're going to see all these gray beards with their beads or maybe they'll be in three-piece suits now like Rennie Davis and what remains of the Chicago Seven. But our side has really won, the conservatives, because this time they're charging admission for the reunion.
LAMB: Speaking of Woodstock, you have different parts in this book. Here's "I'm Going Home" in quotes. You go right down to the bottom of the page, there's "Ten Years After Woodstock." You see a lot of this in the book. What's the point?
THOMAS: That was my editor's idea, and I thought it was a tremendous idea. He's a child of that period and thinks more about it than I do. The point is to recall some of the music, some of the titles, some of the philosophy. You know, the "Age of Aquarius" is probably the most famous song to come out of that, and if you listen to the philosophy expressed in that song, you understand where the liberals wanted to take us but were completely incapable of doing so. "Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding." This was their brave new world. This was their new world order that they were going to create largely through the organ of government. They haven't. They failed miserably. That's why I say that the only place where liberalism survives now is in American universities. Most of the world is abandoning it.
LAMB: You also say here, "I don't receive many invitations to speak at universities anymore."
THOMAS: That's right. I recall one incident at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1981 where I was asked to speak. It was so raucous nobody could hear me. There was cursing from the audience. There were signs being held up. A lot of women sat down in the front row kissing and holding hands during my entire speech. I assume that that was part of the lesbian community there in Northampton. At the end of my speech I said, "I want to thank you for this incredible experience, one I've never experienced before, because it has finally taught me what liberals mean by tolerance." It was a great night. I loved it.
LAMB: But you really aren't invited anymore to universities?
THOMAS: Not very often, no. I've been to Harvard five times, but that was in the past. I think it's too bad. I don't what they're afraid of. They've got the kids for the entire semester. I just get 45 minutes. Maybe truth is more powerful than I thought.
LAMB: You mentioned your editor. This is a Harper Collins book. Who are they?
THOMAS: Harper Collins is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is one of the world's biggest media giants, as you know. They're a New York publisher. I wanted a New York publisher for the credibility that goes with that. It is co-published by Zondervan, which is a Christian publisher which they own. It's a subsidiary of Harper Collins, so like Dan Quayle and some others, Bill Bennett, they found that the joint publisher arrangement and agreement really helps get greater distribution of the book, so this book is in mainstream bookstores and it's also in Christian bookstores.
LAMB: How many copies will they send out to the bookstores?
THOMAS: They did an initial printing of 160,000, which, if people go in and buy it at that number, will put it on the best-seller list. It was a major under-taking. This is my first New York publisher, so they were taking a little chance, but I guess they looked at some of the other things I'd been doing and the trends of some books that had been showing up on the best-seller list, and they've been very supportive and it's been a great arrangement.
LAMB: It's 219 pages, which is rather short, and $22, though.
THOMAS: It wasn't 219 pages when it finished it, but the editors like to do a little paring, and I think they did a great job. They made it very fast paced. It's certainly not a tome that you would look at and say, "Oh, this is too long." We live in a fast-paced society. You're competing with television and other books, so I wanted to say what I said in as brief a period as possible. I didn't set the price and I didn't set the pages, but we have a money-back guarantee on this book, Brian, very unusual in publishing. If you don't like the book, I guarantee you not to give your money back.
LAMB: You said your editor was from the Woodstock era. How old is he?
THOMAS: Rick Horgan -- I've never asked him. Boy, I hope he's not watching, because if I guess wrong, he's going to not give me a contract for a second book. I would say he's probably in his early 40s.
LAMB: Is he a liberal?
THOMAS: I don't know. I've never asked him.
LAMB: Did he ever argue with you about what goes in this book, the content of it?
THOMAS: No, not in terms of philosophy; only in terms of, you know, you said this someplace else or I think I can help you say this a little better. He's the best editor I ever had. He's wonderful. A really good editor won't do that. It's just like the editor of my newspaper column. I don't know if she is a liberal, moderate or conservative. All I know is she's very good.
LAMB: How long did it take you to write this?
THOMAS: It took me a little over a year, actually. Unfortunately I don't have the luxury of a David Halberstam or some of these others to be Pulitzer Prize winning and have all this support behind me to go off for a year or two or five years and write a book with a large advance, so I had to do it at the same time I was doing the column and the speaking engagements and some of the other things that I do. It's a very great effort for me to put together a book, but there are some things I wanted to say between the covers of a book. I guess it's the closest a man can come to childbirth. The process isn't so good, but the results are OK.
LAMB: You do another thing that I want to ask you about, and that is you mention a lot of books. Almost in every little vignette in here is a mention of a book and a author. Is that done on purpose?
THOMAS: It is, because I'd like to get people back to reading again. We talked about television a moment ago. Watching television is like watching an exercise video and hoping that you'll get in shape by watching someone else sweat. I think the way we develop our brains is the way we develop the muscles. We've got to get on the bike, we've got to jog, we've got to use the weight machines, we've got to push against the attitudes and weight of the world. That's what you do when you read a book. I'm hoping we will come back to books, if not because of the failure of television then just because of the wonderful nourishment that comes from reading a book.
LAMB: You're married because you mentioned your wife.
THOMAS: The same woman I started out with, by the grace of God.
LAMB: What year?
THOMAS: We were married in the late '60s, mid-'60s.
LAMB: How did you meet her?
THOMAS: I like to say we met in a bar. Actually it was a restaurant. We were both in the theater. I wanted to go into show business in the early stages of my life, and she was already in it. She has a magnificent voice, was on tour with Music Fair Enterprises, that summer stock stuff that used to take affordable theater to the masses around the country. Now who can afford the theater at all, especially if you go to New York. Tickets are up to close to a hundred bucks a seat. We met in that and she was much better than I and fortunately I didn't decide to make a career out of show business or I would have starved to death. I was working for NBC as a copyboy at the time and said, "You know, I don't think I'm really good enough to do this. I better stick with what I think I have a possibility of future in."
LAMB: Do you have children?
THOMAS: I do. Four, one of each.
LAMB: How old?
THOMAS: I'm talking personality. They run from early 30s to 21, all works in progress.
LAMB: Do they think like their father?
THOMAS: I think politically yes.
LAMB: Did you try to get them to think that way?
THOMAS: No, I didn't. I learned a lesson from my own father which I tried to pass along to them. The only thing Dad ever tried to get me to be interested in that he was interested in was golf, and I didn't like golf. He loved golf, but I didn't, so he didn't push it on me. When he saw that I wasn't all that excited about it, he just let me go. Nor did he try to get me interested in his career. He was great in math; it was my worst subject. He was terrible in English and public speaking, and English literature became my major and public speaking came naturally to me. I just tell my own kids to work hard and try to make yourself useful to God and try to live as a good example before your own children.
LAMB: You've dedicated this book "to my grandchildren, Crystal, Timothy, Christopher, Jennifer, Jonathan and my namesake Calvin." Was that your idea?
THOMAS: No, it wasn't. Well, there was the idea to do the dedication, yes. It certainly wasn't my idea to name one of my grandchildren after me. My oldest daughter did that, and I thought that was a very sweet thing to do, though I don't envy the young child's future.
LAMB: "To you falls the task of reclaiming the landscape which two generations have let spoil. Your task won't be easy, but the effort must be made." How long did you think that dedication through?
THOMAS: I don't know. It just kind of came to me like so many other things do. People ask me sometimes about the process of writing, particularly writing a column. I discussed this once with the actor and entertainer Steve Allen, who has so many gifts. I said, "Does it ever amuse you that people compliment you for your gift as if you'd lined up when they were being passed out and took one from here and one from there?" And it did, and it does me as well. I don't know how I do it. I don't know how ideas come to me. They just do. It's just a gift. I'm grateful I have it.
LAMB: Do you write fast?
THOMAS: Sometimes. It depends on the subject and it depends on the story. Sometimes I'll have to go look up some information or do a little research or get somebody to do it for me, and that'll take a little while. I start with a certain series of ideas and ideals, a certain philosophical base. I'm not looking for a deliverer, for example, from any government agency or from the Congress. There's no doubt in my mind as to why we have cultural collapse. As Lincoln said, we've forgotten God. That's why all this has happened. That gives me, in my judgment, kind of a step up on others who are still looking for a worldly savior.
LAMB: I've got to ask you about this introduction and acknowledgement, "to my wife Ray." Where'd she get that name?
THOMAS: The story she tells was that when her mother delivered her in the hospital -- back then they used ether, I guess, and she was a little groggy, and when she filled out the birth certificate, she meant to put an "e" on the end of the name but didn't. So we pretty much used to list ourselves as Cal and Ray in the phone book. It would confuse a lot of people who thought it was a different kind of living arrangement and they'd leave me alone.
LAMB: You say in the last paragraph, "This sure beats subways in New York at 2 in the morning and cream cheese and walnut sandwiches on the whole wheat raisin bread at Chock Full O' Nuts because we couldn't afford anything else, doesn't it? Thanks for believing in me and for not giving up."
THOMAS: When I was in the Army with Armed Forces Radio and Television in 1965 and '66, I was stationed in New York. We didn't own a car. The subway was 10 cents then, which seems ancient history today, I guess, like 20-cent gasoline to a lot of people. We had a lot of fun, except that we couldn't afford to do anything, so I considered a luxury lunch going out to Chock Full O' Nuts -- I think there's still a few of them left in New York; the automats are long gone, used to eat there, too -- and having a cream cheese and walnut sandwich on whole wheat raisin bread. A few years ago, now that I'm considered by some people successful, we were in New York and went by one of those places and said, "Hey, let's go in here for lunch," and I left a big tip. It felt good.
LAMB: Senator Edward Kennedy on the back of your book, "Cal Thomas usually says the far right thing instead of the right thing, but I like reading him anyway." How did you get him to endorse this book?
THOMAS: I asked him. Ted and I have had an interesting arrangement that began -- not arrangement, but a friendship. I genuinely like him. Again, separating the political philosophy from the value of the individual. He and Vicky, his wife, have become good friends of ours, and I unapologetically and unashamedly say so and watch the expression on the faces of some of my conservative friends. It started when I was with Jerry Falwell when the Moral Majority mistakenly sent him that computerized membership card. One of his staff people told the Washington Post, and they got a big laugh out of it and called me and said, "Are you going to ask for the card back from Kennedy?" I said, "No, I think everybody has the possibility of redemption," so they put that in the paper and got a laugh. I wrote him a note and expressed the humor of it.
I said, "Hey, by the way, why don't you come on down for a visit some time and see the situation here, the college and other things." His chief of staff called me two weeks after that and said, "The senator's decided to accept your invitation." I said, "What invitation?" "Well, the invitation to speak at Liberty University." I told Jerry Falwell and you would think that -- I don't know how to describe his reaction. He was shocked. I said, "Look, it'll be great." We had 8,000-10,000 people turn out in this multipurpose center. All of the networks sent camera crews. The New York Times and Washington Post sent reporters and camera persons, Time and Newsweek and U.S. News. This happened to be a time during the primary campaign when a lot of other people were up in New Hampshire slogging around in the snow, and the entire national media was focused on Lynchburg, Virginia. That was one of my first columns I wrote coming out of that for the Washington Post called "The Man Who Came to Dinner," so he was partially responsible for helping me to launch my career. We've had an interesting relationship. I like him.
THOMAS: I don't know. That's a really interesting question. I guess he's been through so much and his family has been through so much. I mentioned earlier that we were drawn early to the Kennedy family because of the tremendous work they did with the mentally retarded and our family's own experience with that. I guess if you can explain why you like a person, it becomes conditional. You know, I like you because you're handsome or pretty; you have money; you have power; you have position. I've known famous people all my life, and so it's not that, I don't think. I don't go around the country bragging that I know him and when I last met with him and things like that. But I do tell people who notice things, like on my book, that I do care about him. I do love him. I even pray for him, which will shock a lot of my fellow church-going folks.
LAMB: You tipped your hat in the book to JFK. You talk about an era where he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country."
THOMAS: By the way, I think President Clinton, who has often identified himself with President Kennedy, could get a tremendous amount of goodwill and do something extremely effective if he rejuvenated the Peace Corps. I think the world is in great need not only of American technology, but the goodness that is America. I think a whole new generation of young people are looking for a fulfillment of ideals as well as ideas that many in that generation in the '60s were looking for. We need them certainly in the old Soviet Union. We need them in parts of Africa, particularly in South Africa now, building a whole new economy and a whole new government down there. We could certainly even use them in places like Haiti if they'd let us in. But I find this to be a wonderful idea that I think President Clinton could give some moral and political encouragement to.
LAMB: When did you write your first syndicated column?
THOMAS: First syndicated column was on April 17, 1984.
LAMB: How do you remember that date?
THOMAS: I remember it because it was very significant. It was a great opportunity and blessing and achievement for me. It was kind of the fruition of something that I had always wanted to do, not necessarily the syndicated column because that was sort of dumped in my lap, but this kind of national expression or platform. I still remember the column. It was called "The Children of Divorce," and it came out of a personal experience, which is what I like to write about the most when I can. I was sitting across the aisle in an airplane from a little girl who was clutching a Cabbage Patch doll and crying. The country being what it is, I didn't want to go over there and comfort her myself, so I called the flight attendant and I asked her if there was anything she could do for the little girl. She said, "Oh, we get these kinds all the time." I said, "What do you mean, these kinds?" She said, "The children of divorce being shuttled back and forth between parents." So I used that as a kind of little morality tale asking us, what are we doing to ourselves when we are only interested in fulfilling our feelings or if someone gets too old and a few wrinkles we trade them in like a car on a new model?
I got a tremendous amount of mail, including one from an assistant secretary of labor in the Reagan administration who thanked me for saying these kinds of things, particularly as a man. So that was very gratifying. I get a lot of wonderful mail as well as the crummy stuff.
LAMB: You did this right after your experience with the Moral Majority.
THOMAS: Actually, they kind of overlapped because the column started in '84. I had never intended to stay in any other kind of organization other than journalism for very long, and I stayed there five years.
LAMB: How did you do it, though? In order to get somebody to let you write a column, who'd you call?
THOMAS: After these little freelance opportunities like the New York Times and Washington Post, I began to send them to various syndicators and got the high school equivalent of a Dear John letter back: "You write well, but . . ." Then I remembered an old friend who I had not seen in a number of years. I met him when I was with NBC and he was a White House Fellow. His name is Tom Johnson. At the time he was publisher of the L.A. Times, now, of course, president of CNN.
LAMB: You met him when he was a White House Fellow?
THOMAS: I met him when he was a White House Fellow working for Lyndon Johnson.
LAMB: What were you doing?
THOMAS: I was still with NBC as a copyboy, and we were both young men just sort of starting out on our careers. I called him up, and he graciously took my call. I said, "Tom, I think there's a dearth of good conservative opinion, at least from an ethical-moral standpoint. I'd sure like to write a column." He said, "Next time you're in California, let me know and I will set up a meeting with our syndicate people. They're separate from us even though we own them." To make a long story short, they decided to take a chance on me. I'd never written a column before. I was coming out of a political organization, very controversial, but Tom had faith in me and he, more than anybody else, I think, is responsible for my current success. I owe him a lot.
LAMB: What do you purposely do in writing your columns to get people to read them?
THOMAS: I try to write about things that really matter to me. Any columnist, if he gets too egg-headed and tries to impress people by quoting obscure 14th century monks or literature or things that people have probably never read or come across, has a very limited audience. I try, without dumbing down or talking down to people, to talk about things that really matter the most to them -- moral issues, ethical issues, relational issues.
LAMB: Where do you get the ideas? In what format?
THOMAS: I don't know. We talked about that earlier, about the gift. They just come to me.
LAMB: Do you listen to a lot of radio? Do you read the newspapers?
THOMAS: I read two things every day, my Bible and the New York Times so I know what each side is doing. I read eight to 10 newspapers a day. I read books. I read press releases. I have conversations with people.
LAMB: How many speeches do you give a year?
THOMAS: I've never really counted them, but I think it's probably at least 50 or 60. I've got to cut back. I'm on the road too much. I'm in the executive premier 100,000-mile club of one airline, and I'd just as soon give up the honor.
LAMB: When are you the happiest?
THOMAS: I think I am not the happiest at the moment. I think I will be the happiest when I'm absolutely convinced that all of my kids are turning out okay. But I think professionally I'm the happiest when I get letters from people who say -- for example, there's this little group of nuns that write me every now and then from Iowa who tell me they're praying for me and how much they appreciate me. Jewish people who write me from Miami or other places who thank me for standing for Israel and the Jewish people and against anti-Semitism. Someone who will write me and say, "You know, I never quite thought about the subject you wrote about before, and I think you've changed my mind." Those are very fulfilling.
LAMB: When are you the maddest?
THOMAS: I try not to get too mad. I think anger properly used is okay.
LAMB: If you're angry, do you write better?
THOMAS: Yes, I think so sometimes. Passion, I would say, more than anger. I feel very passionate about this RU486 business and Dr. Kevorkian and how life has become so cheap. USA Today recently had a juxtaposition of headlines. I'm sure they didn't mean it this way, but to me it was almost an editorial. The top headline said, "U.S. to import abortion pill," and right under it there's a story about massacres in Rwanda. I thought that was worth a column all by itself.
LAMB: Have you reached all your goals?
THOMAS: I don't have goals as I used to. I used to have five-year plans and things and they'd usually fail, so I try to let God surprise me every day. There's some things I'd like to do, but, boy, I'll tell you, having in one year the 10th anniversary of your column, a book from a major New York publisher and your own TV show -- it doesn't get much better than that.
LAMB: Do you have another book that you're thinking about doing?
THOMAS: Not yet. I want to see how this does. If it does well, and I hope it will, then I think we'll talk about it afterwards. Somebody told me, "You ought to do another one right away, and we can get writers to help you." Well, I've always written all of my own stuff, and I kind of think that if I'm going to put my name on a book that it ought to be by me. It takes longer. It may not be done as well, but at least it's me when you read it.
LAMB: Your political heroes alive today in this country possibly running for office in the future?
THOMAS: I think there may be some that maybe I haven't thought of yet. I think Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, certainly Dan Quayle, who stood against some of the most incredible onslaught, unfair in my judgment, that has ever been dumped on anybody in the political history of this country and responded with grace. He could have justifiably responded in kind, but he chose not to do so and I think he's a better man for it and I think that he has set himself up to at least be a player in the 1996 campaign.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like, and you can see Mr. Thomas right there on the cover.
THOMAS: A face only a mother could love.
LAMB: "The Things That Matter Most: Debunking Fuzzy-Headed Liberals." Thank you very much for joining us.
THOMAS: Brian, it's always a pleasure. Thanks.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.