Michael Kinsley
Michael Kinsley
Big Babies
ISBN: 0688124526
Big Babies
Mr. Kinsley discussed about his book, "Big Babies," published by William Morrow and Company. It is a compilation of 113 different articles written for various periodicals over the years about how citizens espouse a kind of pseudo-populism which always faults politicians for usually giving them exactly what they want. He also talked about his years at New Republic and on CNN "Crossfire."
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TRANSCRIPT
Big Babies
Program Air Date: January 21, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Michael Kinsley, was it your idea to call this book "Big Babies"?
MICHAEL KINSLEY: I think I have to give credit to my literary agent, Rafe Segalen, for that title.
LAMB: What's the reason for the title?
KINSLEY: The reason for the title it's a collection, but there is a theme running through it, which is irritation at the, what I regard as the fairly fatuous seudo populism that suffuses our politics at the moment; this idea that the politicians are terrible and the people, but the people are wonderful; that the people are being ignored by the politicians and that's the reason for our problems. I think the reason for many of our problems is that the politicians are exquisitely attuned to the people. The people say, "Cut our taxes, raise our benefits," and then get shocked when the result is a huge deficit. That's just one problem. That's the best example of my problem; that the people are very often big babies, unable to understand, as babies can't understand, that you have to give up something in the short term to get what you want in the long term.
LAMB: And this is one of those books that I counted 113 columns ...
KINSLEY: Yeah, there's ...
LAMB: ... pieces.
KINSLEY: Sounds about right.
LAMB: You dedicate the book to Ann and Marty Peretz.
KINSLEY: Right.
LAMB: How come?
KINSLEY: Marty Peretz is the editor in chief of The New Republic, which I worked for, for 19 years, until recently, as editor, as managing editor, as the senior editor, as a columnist, in various roles. And Ann Peretz and Marty together financed The New Republic, which has, historically, not made money. It's been owned over the 80 some years of its existence by three families, each of the Peretzes have owned it since 1974, I believe. And it's -- I said they supported me, in essence, and Marty in particular has been an intellectual guide and companion in those years, too.
LAMB: Who is he?
KINSLEY: He is a Harvard professor, or he teaches at Harvard. He was an assistant professor there many years ago when I was at Harvard. And she is a social worker psychiatric F social worker and they have family money, obviously, and they fund The New Republic. And he's very active as editor in chief, even when I was the editor, or the current editor, Andrew Sullivan. There is Rick Hertzberg, who was also the editor in recent years. You're in charge, but Marty is the editor in chief and he's very involved.
LAMB: And did you meet him at Harvard?
KINSLEY: I met him -- he's one of these very charismatic professors who has always has a coterie of students around him. I was not in his coterie, but I knew him well enough to send him a letter when I was looking for a job. And there happened to be a job available at The New Republic.
LAMB: Where did you graduate from college?
KINSLEY: At Harvard.
LAMB: Did you get an undergrad degree or did you get a law degree?
KINSLEY: I had an undergraduate degree from Harvard and then I was in Harvard Law School and I decided I didn't want to practice law, so I wrote letters to couple dozen publications in the fall of my third year of law school.
LAMB: What year?
KINSLEY: This would have been fall of 1976. And they all wrote me back, because law students apply for jobs in the fall for the next fall and I was getting a little nervous because all my friends were getting these jobs, and I thought I would rather be a journalist than a lawyer, but I'd better find a job if I'm going to do that. And every publication wrote me back saying, "If you want a job next fall, write us next summer," except for Marty at The New Republic, who said, "I happen to have a job available now, if you'll take it." So after some negotiations, he offered me the job and I took it. And I, more or less, dropped out of law school with one semester to go and finished up at GW here in Washington at night.
LAMB: And what did going to work for The New Republic do for you?
KINSLEY: Well, it was a wonderful -- it made my life, made my career in essence. I studied in England before I was in law school and I discovered the weekly journalism that they have there the New Statesman was the very lively magazine at that time. It's sort of fallen on hard times since then. And now The Spectator is the lively, weekly, political, cultural journal. And when I found those, I thought, "That's what I want to do with my life. That's really an exciting thing to do."

And I still feel that way. And the only one around at that time was The New Republic, which was rather sleepy. And I remember I was reading in the Herald Tribune one day that Marty Peretz, whom, as I say, I knew slightly but not well, had bought The New Republic. And I turned to a friend and said, "I know exactly what I would do if I were him." And I sent him a long letter saying, "Here's what you should do with The New Republic." He wrote me back politely, saying, "Yes, thank you very much for your letter. We must get back in touch," etc., etc.
LAMB: So what did you learn from him and how many total years did you work for The New Republic?
KINSLEY: I started it at Christmas time 1976 and quit Christmas time 1995, so 19 years. But there were two years in between where I was at Harper's in New York and, of course, I'd been doing other things like "Crossfire." But I've been associated with The New Republic for 19 years.
LAMB: What did you learn in those years about the impact of a specialty journal like that?
KINSLEY: Well, I learned that it's great in some ways and limited in other ways. The New Republic is read by people in Washington and it's read by people who are very interested in politics elsewhere. It's got quite a geographically diverse distribution. But obviously it cannot sway great numbers of people because its circulation is quite small; it's 95,000. It's an -- the phrase is "opinion leader magazine." That's what these serious, fairly small circulation magazines are called. The hope is you influence the people who in turn influence others -- people in the larger media, people in politics.

And I don't know whether I believe that ever happens very much or not. You have to think it happens in order to get up and go to work every day. But I don't have any hard evidence that over 19 years I ever had much influence on public events. And that was one of the reasons I did "Crossfire" when the opportunity came up. I thought, "Here's a chance to participate in politics and reach a wider audience." And you can't reach it with the same subtlety of argument, the same length of argument, the same opportunity to go off and check your facts before you type something out that you can if you're in a journal, especially a small opinion journal. But you do reach a larger audience and you can hope to have a broader impact. I don't know whether I had any impact there either.
LAMB: How many years did you do "Crossfire"?
KINSLEY: Six and a half.
LAMB: Why did you leave it?
KINSLEY: Well, mainly because, as I say, the one thing I've always really wanted to do with my life is edit a weekly journal. And I'm going to do it in somewhat novel circumstances, but that's still it. And this "Crossfire" was a wonderful detour, but it was a detour from the one thing I really want to do. I thought it was time to get back to it.
LAMB: You know, a lot, I mean, I don't -- this is not scientific but a lot of people would say about you when you went to "Crossfire," "Why is Michael Kinsley doing that? He was such a good writer and there he is on television, and he's got a plug in his ear and he's screaming at somebody on the other side." Did you get ...
KINSLEY: Well, it's not that bad nowadays. That the screaming was always exaggerated. There wasn't that much screaming on "Crossfire."
LAMB: But did anybody ever say that to your face?
KINSLEY: Oh, sure. People said it to me all the time. First of all, all the time I was doing "Crossfire," I was also, for most of it, writing a column and for all of it I was writing serious journalism on the side. I actually gave up being editor of The New Republic, but not a writer for The New Republic to do "Crossfire," which was a roughly a half-time job, give or take.
LAMB: Did you ever like what the "Crossfire" thing, where you just got up every day and you went there and you said, "Boy, I really like this"?
KINSLEY: Sure, for most of the time. You know, you get a little tired of doing everything. You may even get a little tired of what you do, Brian, although you give no sign of it. But for most of the time I did it, I loved it and it was a lot of fun and it was different. For the same reason I'm now going off to do this thing at Microsoft, because it's different, "Crossfire" was different when I started doing it six years ago.

I'd been editing The New Republic for the better part of a decade, and for several years I had what I thought was an ideal combination. I spent my mornings and early afternoons at my lonely word processor in my ivory tower, writing articles, not being bothered with editing other people's stuff anymore. And then in the afternoon, when I was just getting a little stir crazy, I went in for a little bit of tussle, a little bit of office camaraderie and a little bit of quick, cutting edge, news of the day type journalism. And there were many, many days, most of the days when I thought this was just the perfect combination of things to do.
LAMB: You have pieces in here and Time magazine and The Washington Post and The New Yorker and The Washington Post -- did I say that? And The New Republic.
KINSLEY: Right.
LAMB: Lots of pieces in The New Republic. How does somebody, well, I've got one here that I wanted to ask you about, because we used it on the air when you first published it in February of '95: "The Intellectual Free Lunch." This was published in The New Yorker and it's all about foreign policy.
KINSLEY: No, it's not. It's really about polls.
LAMB: Yeah, I'm sorry, but it's also about, well, no, it's about...
KINSLEY: It about a poll about foreign policy.
LAMB: Yeah, but it's -- you give the figures about, when you ask people how much we spent on foreign policy -- you finish it.
KINSLEY: Well, it was about a particular poll that asked a couple questions. First of all, it asked: Is the amount we spend on foreign aid too much or too little? And, of course, everyone said it's too much and it should be cut by two thirds. Then they asked: How much should we spend on for how much do we spend on foreign aid? And it turns out people thought we spent 15 percent of the budget on foreign aid and, in fact, we spend 1 percent of the budget on foreign aid.

And my point was not that foreign aid is either good or bad, but as I was saying, this is an aspect of this pseudo populism is that the people are always right, even if they don't know what the heck they're talking about. It seems to me in a democracy, the people obviously are right in the sense that they're entitled to have their way, but there are burdens of democracy which you ought to have to meet. And one of them is you ought to have to know what you're talking about before you start talking. This could apply to some journalists, too, but it also applies to citizenry in general. And polls, it seems to me, reinforce this idea that everyone is entitled to an opinion, even if they don't know what the heck they're talking about. You know, it's always amazes me in the polls how many people don't give what is the obviously correct answer to a question which is, "Don't know."

I read these poll questions and I think, "Gee, I don't know what I think about that. I don't know what I think about this." But you're supposed to have an answer to everything. And the polls, the culture of polls, it seems to me, adds contributes to this factor in the culture of politics today, which is that everyone can be strongly opinionated, even if they don't know what the heck they're talking about.
LAMB: Now take a column like that. I remember it was published up front in The New Yorker.
KINSLEY: Right.
LAMB: How did it get into The New Yorker? Did you call them or did they call you?
KINSLEY: I can't even remember. I never was an employee of The New Yorker, but I had an informal arrangement with them that if I had a good idea, I'd call them up. I actually think that piece, come to think of it, was written for someone else and was rejected, and The New Yorker [audio loss] on the rebound, which was very nice.
LAMB: But someone in your position, how did you get it in Time magazine? Did you have an arrangement with them?
KINSLEY: I have a contract with Time magazine for a certain number of essays a year.
LAMB: You call them and say, "I'm going to write on this," and they say, "OK, do it and we'll put it in"? Or is it the other way?
KINSLEY: I call them. I'm supposed to produce a certain number a year, and I call them and say, "I've got an idea for one" and then they say whether they like it or not. And if they like it, I go ahead. If they don't like it, I don't go ahead. And I have to make sure that I've fulfilled my quota in the course of the year.
LAMB: In the early part, or, no, not in the early part, someplace in one of the columns you refer to the Cranbook prep school in Detroit where you went.
KINSLEY: Are you sure you want to talk about the school or you want to talk about the column?
LAMB: We can talk about any of that, but we could also start with Detroit. How many years did you spend there?
KINSLEY: I spent 18 years there, the first 18 years of my life.
LAMB: And what did your parents do then?
KINSLEY: My mother was a homemaker. My father was a surgeon.
LAMB: Are they still alive? And are they still there?
KINSLEY: My father is deceased. My mother is living in the mother country, south Florida.
LAMB: And what impact did your parents have on you when you were growing up?
KINSLEY: Well, they were very intellectual is putting it more strongly, but they certainly -- they sent me to this they made financial sacrifices to give me the best education that I could get. And they certainly reinforced the idea that education was important. They certainly never wanted me to be a journalist, so I can't say that they were the cause of that.
LAMB: And what year did your father die?
KINSLEY: He died just as I was finishing a story about the inner law school in 1974.
LAMB: So he never saw any of this writing?
KINSLEY: If my dad was still alive, I might be a lawyer today because he would have, I don't think he would have approved of my being a journalist.
LAMB: Why are you a journalist?
KINSLEY: Who knows? You know, it's just I was on my high school newspaper, my college newspaper. It's just the kind of thing as soon as I started doing it, I always enjoyed it.
LAMB: Back to one of the columns here. You call , at the end of one of these columns you say, "Or you could say it makes him a phony." You know who we're talking about?
KINSLEY: Remind me.
LAMB: Talking about the speaker of the House. And this is all about laptops.
KINSLEY: Oh, yes. That, well, that was another one about someone trying to have it both ways; in this case, Newt Gingrich. He made this famous remark earlier in 19 early in 1995 when he shortly after he became speaker that he wanted to have a federal program of tax credits for poor people to buy laptop computers. And my point in this piece was, you know, here he is cutting food stamps and saying that people ought to be self supporting and so on and so forth, yet he wants a federal program to subsidize them to have laptops. And, of course, in order for poor people to have a tax credit for laptops, the tax credit would have to be refundable, which the Republicans, when you have a refundable tax credit, as in the earned income tax credit, which is the main program for the working poor, they call that a federal subsidy. They don't call it a tax credit in that case.
LAMB: You have a column and I'm going to go through a bunch of these and just pick out ...
KINSLEY: Yeah, be my guest, Brian.
LAMB: You have one called True Lies in The New Yorker, September 26th, 1994, and this is all about Mary Matalin and James Carville and their book. And you, one of the things you start, it's the book "All's Fair", you say, "But lying is something else. 'Cardinal rule number one, no matter what, don't lie to the press,' so writes Matalin and the italics are hers. Carville agrees, 'The best way to develop a good relationship with a reporter is to call him or her back, fight hard and don't lie.'"
KINSLEY: Well, I thought it was very funny because these Carville and Matalin pride themselves on being spin doctors, political spin doctors, and Matalin says at one point she just loved Lee Atwater because he was always there to spin for his guy. And they're totally unashamed and unabashed and proud of playing the spin game, yet they insist that they don't lie. And this piece was an examination -- well, what is the difference between spinning and lying. And through several examples in their own book, it seems to me I demonstrated fairly conclusively that the difference is hard to pinpoint.
LAMB: Well, you have this line, "Outsiders are often surprised and sometimes offended to discover that people in Washington don't take politics very seriously."
KINSLEY: Well, what did I mean by that? Well, politics here is, this is a company town. Politics is our bread and butter here -- if we're journalists, politicians, whatever. And in a funny way, that means you can't take it as seriously. It's the same way, I suppose, a doctor in some way doesn't, can't take life and death as seriously as -- can't feel it or feel it as strongly as someone who's not. The same way a lawyer can't feel that engaged in the guilt or innocence of a client. It's unfortunate, but it's a sort of a psychological reality. And people -- I was contrasting Washington with New York, where people take their politics very, very seriously, and I was saying I don't know which is better. On the one hand, it is a little silly to get all prissy and to say, "Just because we disagree we can't be friends," and, on the other hand, though, it is a little bit amoral, the Washington attitude which is, "Well, we can argue all day and then go out drinking together at night."
LAMB: And you have from her book you quote Mary Matalin saying, "For instance, I think in real life I would like liberal columnist Michael Kinsley if I ever got to know him. But he's one of those guys who I just know is going to hate me no matter what comes up." Is that true?
KINSLEY: Well, I don't hate Mary Matalin, no. I disapprove of her in some ways, but I don't -- I can't be bothered to hate Mary Matalin.
LAMB: But you talk about -- Matalin quotes a private conversation with The Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood to illustrate her belief that the press was prejudiced against Bush, and then excuses Harwood himself from the general indictment of the press, which she has derived from Harwood's own alleged admission.
KINSLEY: See, I thought that "All's Fair," which is the story of James Carville and Mary Matalin. He's a Democratic consultant; she's a Republican consultant -- would be an interal -- I asked to review the book because I thought it would be an interesting way to examine this question of how you integrate your political values with your personal life. You know, here they are, they represent polar opposite political values but yet they're married and obviously in love. And how did they resolve that contradiction? And when I read the book, there's absolutely no reflection on that whatsoever. And I think that my feeling was that they don't really hold their political convictions all that seriously. That was my conclusion about it.
LAMB: Here's a column, another spin column in The New Republic called Spin Sickness. "Clinton's biggest image problem, I think, is that he lacks weight or gravitas, what the British call bottom."
KINSLEY: That's a great word, isn't it? Bottom.
LAMB: "Even those who like him or agree with him on issues don't hold him in much awe."
KINSLEY: Yeah, that column's two or three years old, but I think that's still true. It's his problem. He has this puppy dog quality. He wants to be liked so much that you're tempted to kick him. And even as I say, people who basically agree with him don't hold him in the kind of awe or give him the kind of respect that he might otherwise get.
LAMB: "The worst thing that can happen to him for the rest of his life career wise is that he won't win re election in 1996."
KINSLEY: Well, the point of that was -- I was saying the way he could develop a bit of gravitas, a bit more gravitas, would be if he communicated that he wasn't all that desperate to win re election. And I was trying to argue this half in the spirit of fun, half seriously that what's the big deal if he doesn't win re election? We have a funny prejudice in this country, which is that anyone who actually wishes to run for higher office somehow or other morally disqualified by that very fact from being deserving of it. We love Colin Powell even more because he won't deign to run for president; same with Bill Bradley; same with some other figures. And I think that's sort of silly, but it's very real, and it occurred to me that Clinton could, just as a strategic matter, get some of the benefit of that if he, not necessarily, announced, that he wasn't going to run for re election, but simply communicated that he was out here to do the right thing and it didn't really matter to him that much whether he run for re election.
LAMB: You know...
KINSLEY: It's one of the many pieces of advice he ignored.
LAMB: ...you're going to watch this election from the West Coast.
KINSLEY: Yes, I am.
LAMB: You're going to be 3,000 miles away from where we're sitting right here. Why?
KINSLEY: Well, I got this wonderful offer from Microsoft to create and edit a political, cultural magazine weekly, although what weekly means when you're on the Web is not all that clear on the Internet, on the World Wide Web. And I thought there was a chance -- every journalist certainly dreams of starting a magazine. And this was a great chance to do it, so I grabbed it. And why is it in Washington state? Why is it Seattle when you can be anywhere in cyberspace? Many people ask me that. And the truth is they wanted me to come there. I might have been able to talk them out of it and stay here. I thought it'd be fun to go to Washington state for at least awhile.
LAMB: Why are you doing this in the first place? Why are you leaving "Crossfire"?
KINSLEY: I've been doing it for six and a half years, and it's a chance to do something. You shouldn't do the same thing for too long.
LAMB: Have you ever lived on the West Coast?
KINSLEY: I spent a summer -- when I went to law school, I spent my summer in Los Angeles.
LAMB: How did this happen, the Microsoft magazine?
KINSLEY: Well, that's not the name of it, by the way. We don't have a name. If we don't have a name at this point. If anyone has a suggestion, I hope they'll write it in.
LAMB: Do you have one that you like?
KINSLEY: I have one that I like I can't say because there's a trademark problem with it at the moment. But we hope we'll straighten that out.
LAMB: But how did it work? How did you first make contact?
KINSLEY: Well, I was reading Newsweek, and Newsweek had an article in it about online journalism. I'd had this thought that maybe someone would back me to start an online magazine, an Internet based magazine. And that would be a fun thing to do. And I hadn't really gotten much further than that. And then I read in Newsweek an article about online journalism that said something to the effect of "Microsoft's plans are in abeyance while they look to hire a big name editor." So I wrote to someone I knew at Microsoft and said, "Am I, by any chance, a big name editor?" And this person wrote me back saying, "Actually Newsweek has it completely wrong. But since you've written, let's talk." So I talked to them. I flew out there, talked a little more, and, ultimately, they offered me a job and I grabbed it.
LAMB: Why would you think you would want to write in cyberspace or have a magazine on. I mean, is this going to ever be on hard copy anywhere?
KINSLEY: Yeah. Well, there will probably be a print version available if anyone wants it, and although we're not going to peddle that very hard. And you can always download it and print it out yourself, and we're going to make that as easy as possible. But there are two general categories of -- there are lots of disadvantages to trying to do this in cyberspace. You know, obviously you have to have a computer; reading things on a computer screen or printing it out can be cumbersome.

But, well, there's three advantages. Number one, someone's willing to back me to do it, so I would do it on Mars if necessary. But the two serious advantages of cyberspace are, number one, you eliminate the cost and time it takes to print, distribute, mail the magazine. A magazine like Time or Newsweek, which are the quickest because they're the biggest, they're the weeklies, go to press Saturday afternoon. Basically, they have to be basically done by Friday night. They hit the newsstands Monday. Subscribers get it maybe Tuesday, maybe Wednesday, and meanwhile, they've spent millions and millions of dollars for printing plants, for trucks, to truck it all over the country and so on and so forth. So the economics and the time are completely different. When the journalists are done doing their work on a magazine on the Internet, you push a button and it's going to be available to everyone all over the world, instantaneously.
LAMB: When's the first issue coming out?
KINSLEY: Unclear. Sometime in the spring.
LAMB: How...
KINSLEY: There's a second category of advantages, which is the ones that get most of the attention, which is the interactivity, the hyperlinks, the multimedia, the fact that you can click a button and have a little sound bite, and that sort of stuff. I think there will be a lot of that some of that on in this magazine, but I think that is less important, at least initially, than the way cyberspace changes the economics of it.
LAMB: Do you know what it'll cost the public?
KINSLEY: Unclear. Microsoft has its own online service called the Microsoft Network, which is similar to America Online -- they've just started it up -- and Prodigy and CompuServe. Probably it'll work and I'm making no promises here; this is all terra nova for me and for everybody else you'll get it for free if you're part of the Microsoft Network, and you can also get it directly on the World Wide Web, if you have another system or another access to the Web. And you will probably have to pay something for that.
LAMB: How many people will it take to put it out, or to compose it every week?
KINSLEY: It's going to be mostly free lance written, so it'll be a small staff of editors. I have no idea. I don't even know the answer to that at this point,maybe half a dozen.
LAMB: And what will the content be about?
KINSLEY: I think magazines are unlike other products, as you can't design them in advance. And a lot of new magazines start up, and the mistake they make is they're over conceptualized. They say, "We're going to have this department, that department, the other department." They don't know what's going to work, what's not going to work. Then what's really great about a magazine is it comes out every week or every month or whatever, and you can reinvent it as you go along. So I can't know what it's going to look like, and certainly, the fifth issue will be very different from the first issue. But it's going to draw from my experience as a worker and a reader of magazines like The New Republic, like The Economist, where I worked for awhile like The New Yorker, like The Atlantic, you know, and so on.
LAMB: Is it a statement? I mean -- by the way, on page 259 of your book, here's what the cover looks like.
KINSLEY: Thank you, Brian.
LAMB: "Big Babies." Yes; want to make sure that people know what it looks like. "My own political views are more or less liberal," meaning yours. And you write this in one of your columns. And the reason I bring this up, I want to ask you, does this mean that Bill Gates is a liberal?
KINSLEY: This magazine is not going to be ideological. We're not going to -- I don't want to get into any arguments with people who say, "Why aren't you creating a magazine that is a liberal voice?" People say we don't have one anymore because The New Republic has drifted to the right. The Weekly Standard is now started up by Rupert Murdoch, a new right wing magazine. There's already The National Review, The American Spectator. There is a need for -- and The Nation is regarded as still a little too far left. There is a need in this country for a strong conventional, moderate, liberal magazine, but this is not it, and I don't want to get into any arguments with people who say that's not what this is.

At the same time, it's not going to be ruthlessly balanced. I think that's an intellectual dead end, too. It'll probably have some ideological flavor, but I'm not going to worry about what that flavor is. We'll see as we come along.
LAMB: Column -- On the Case for Ross. Now first, let me ask you this. The last column was in 1995. When was the first column?
LAMB: The first column in there was towards the end of the Reagan administration. There was a couple of pieces about Iran Contra in there.
LAMB: What makes you or your publisher think that in 1996 a book that was written over a span of time between '86 and whatever, and '95 will sell?
KINSLEY: Well, the interesting question is: What makes the publisher think that? And I don't really know. I, myself, enjoy reading old, old columns, not just my own, obviously, but other people's. I think it's a good way to, if they're well written, they're still well written years later, it's a way to remind yourself of what was going on. I would never compare myself to George Orwell, but one of the most wonderful publications, one of my favorite books it's a four volume series a collection of his, not just his columns, his letters, his essays, sort of all done chronologically. And it's sort of what we have from him instead of an autobiography, which he never wrote.
LAMB: Have you done this kind of book before?
KINSLEY: I well, I just wanted to repeat, I'm not comparing myself to George Orwell; I'm simply answering your question as what's the point of collecting old columns.
LAMB: I know. But have you done this kind of book before?
KINSLEY: I had one earlier collection.
LAMB: Have you ever done a book, just a regular book about anything?
KINSLEY: I wrote a Nader book years ago about development of commercial satellite communication.
LAMB: A quote, this is the 1992 column "I have a soft spot for Ross Perot." This is before he dropped out in June of 1992.
KINSLEY: Well, you should also point out there were many critical things about Ross Perot in that column, but I had a soft spot for Ross Perot, because he was making the deficit, which I regard as a very serious problem, an issue in the way that neither Clinton nor Bush was at that time. And he was advocating a rather sensible combination of policies to address it. Now that's not to say I don't have all the usual problems with Ross Perot, but I had a soft spot for him, simply because he actually did cause both Clinton and Bush to have to talk more about the deficit.

And as a result, Clinton came into office very concerned about those 19 percent voters who went for Ross Perot. He's taken much criticism from the left for this, but he has actually achieved huge amounts of deficit reduction, which is one of the things he doesn't get sufficient credit for. And I think he did that as he did that in part because of Ross Perot's role in the 1992 campaign.
LAMB: In a New Republic piece in March of 1992, "In a country" -- you wrote this -- "In a country that's going down the rat hole in several dozen ways, this question of arts subsidies plays an absurdly overblown role in the public debate." Let me just start with the first one. Is this country going down the rat hole in several dozen ways?
KINSLEY: I could probably come up with at least two dozen. Don't ask me to do it on the spot. But my point there was that was a complaint about the role of the arts subsidy debate as sort of symbolic politics, which too much of our politics are. It's a substitute for discussing the really major issues is to get waylaid by symbolic issues. And I think the art subsidy question is largely a symbolic issue.
LAMB: January 1992, You said, "Patrick Buchanan will never be president of the United States for many excellent reasons and one bad one."
KINSLEY: Well, I think even in that column, I say the excellent reasons are too obvious to need to go into. The bad reason was that he had spent most of his career as a columnist and as an opinionator on television, therefore, he has a very lavish record having expressed opinions which could be seized upon, twisted, quoted out of context, although in Pat's case you don't have to do too much quoting out of context.

But I was talking there about the way politicians invent themselves from scratch and shape their opinions to serve the needs of the moment, have their spin doctors like Carville and Matalin to do it. And it's a great disadvantage to have been a journalist all your life and having had -- because a journalist's incentive is an opinion journalist, I mean, their incentive is to express their opinions as crisply as possible and even to go a little further than good sense might require to make an interesting piece; whereas a politician's incentive is to be very cautious, not say anything unless it's been checked out with the pollsters and all that sort of thing.
LAMB: In November of 1991, you have a piece in here that it says was unpublished.
KINSLEY: Yeah, that was a piece ...
LAMB: On term limits ...
KINSLEY: ... on term limits. It was a ...
LAMB: ... for pundits.
KINSLEY: ... it was a humor piece called Term Limits for Columnists. It was when George Will did his dramatic conversion and wrote a column that began, "I have changed my mind," which I thought was a little pompous.
LAMB: You say here, "That there must be strict term limits by constitutional amendment, if necessary, on pundits."
KINSLEY: Yeah, this was a humor piece; I hope that's obvious.
LAMB: Why wasn't it published, by the way?
KINSLEY: The reason is I came very close to finishing it. In fact, I had basically finished it, and I was about to send it off. And someone pointed out to me that The Nation magazine had had a piece using the same joke. And I got a little nervous, and I thought I don't want to be look like I'm plagiarizing, so I killed it. And then I was rereading it when I was putting together this collection and thought, "You know, this is a lot funnier than that piece that ran in The Nation. I'll stick it back in."
LAMB: This is a quote from you, "But is it not hypocritical for someone who has spent his own adult life entirely in Washington climbing the pundit pole to suggest that a professional pundit class is bad for the country?"
KINSLEY: Well ...
LAMB: That George Will? Mr.
KINSLEY: No. Well, that was part of the gimmick of the piece was to take all the arguments made against congressional term limits and apply them to this argument for pundit term limits. I can't say that's George Will because George Will has never expressed an opinion on term limits for pundits, since the only person who's ever suggested it is me and this guy in The Nation. But I do think it's one of the hypocritical arguments made by term limits advocates, like Newt Gingrich in the political arena that Newt Gingrich in his memoirs, in fact, brags and I don't see anything ignoble about having decided early on as a child he wanted to dedicate his life to public service and public policy. And he essentially means he wanted to be a professional politician, which I think is a perfectly noble ambition. But he's the one who's out there saying it's not a noble ambition, that we want amateurs, and that professional politicians are inherently corrupt and everything. I do think that's a hypocritical argument.
LAMB: A column, It's Your Fault, The New Republic, October 28, 1991. This quote, "The citizenry makes demands for benefits, refuses to pay for them, runs up a huge tab called the national debt, then blames the politicians for being irresponsible spendthrift, etc., etc., etc."
KINSLEY: Well, that is the inherent thesis of the "Big Babies" argument. It's very interesting. Lot of people I get several criticisms for this argument. And one of them is, "You're writing as a liberal Democrat and, therefore, since your side has been losing the elections, you're just a sore loser when you criticize the people for in this way."

Well, what's been happening lately is, now that the Republicans are in charge, they're being victimized by the same big babies phenomenon. Polls show that people are totally in favor of the Republican goal of balancing the budget in seven years, but they're totally against the Republican Medicare cuts or slowing the growth in Medicare or whatever their euphemism is.

And I almost feel a little sorry for them. They're getting bitten by the same monster that bit the Democrats before, which is the people's wish to have it both ways.
LAMB: This picture on the cover of the book.
KINSLEY: Yeah.
LAMB: Where was it taken?
KINSLEY: It was taken in New York, and actually they had -- there's, you know, there are professions you can't imagine in New York, especially, and there's a profession called baby wranglers, who will supply little babies for a picture. And the original idea was to have me standing there, and to have a lot of little babies crawling around. And we had a baby wrangler who brought these babies, and they were adorable and they were running all around and grabbing my leg and all that. And they had donkeys and elephants on their T shirts that they were wearing. And I thought that was great, but the sales force at Morrow, which published the book, thought that the book would be misclassified under child care if we used that picture on the cover. So we just ended up using this straight photograph.
LAMB: Was that -- is it hard for you to pose for pictures like that?
KINSLEY: Oh, yeah. I'm a blinker, among other things.
LAMB: On page 190 of this compendium is this quote, "The double standard is a large part of the basis for American financial support of Israel, $77 billion in aid" --this is 1991 dollars -- "in the past quarter century." This country has given $77 billion to Israel in the last quarter century?
KINSLEY: If I said it, it must be true, right? I that sounds about right to me.
LAMB: Have we gotten our money's worth?
KINSLEY: Well, I am in favor of foreign aid, but so I don't have any problem with that. I think that was a piece about Alan Dershowitz's book, "Chutzpah"...
LAMB: "Chutzpah," yes.
KINSLEY: ...where he says that there's nothing wrong with chutzpah, and Americans, Jews are being held and Israel and so on and are being held to a double standard. And I said, Yes, there is a double standard. Israel is supposed to be better than other countries morally better. And it is better. It's the only democracy in the Middle East. It's a very admirable country. And I think we have to recognize supporters of Israel should recognize that American aid to Israel this was just one point in the piece is premised on the great admiration that Americans hold for Israel as a country. There is a double standard, and Israel's held to a higher standard and is rewarded for meeting that higher standard, and it's very foolish to complain about the double standard.
LAMB: You say, "Alan Dershowitz's best selling book "Chutzpah" makes me, as an American Jew, cringe."
KINSLEY: I began by saying, "The cringing ethnic is an embarrassing social phenomenon, but I cringe anyway." I was making the case against chutzpah. He was making the case for chutzpah.
LAMB: Time magazine, 1991, May, Please Don't Quote Me. I underlined this, "Under the conventions of American journalism, his insight was worthless to him until he could get someone else to utter it, thus conferring on his nugget some spurious authority and relieving himself of any taint of opinion or bias." Now you're talking about a reporter that called you up.
KINSLEY: Yes, this was, I guess I can say, this was Jeff Greenfield of ABC. I know [him] slightly, calls me up during I think the 1988 campaign, and says he wants to come by and interview me. And I was extremely flattered, because I think Jeff Greenfield knows a hell of a lot more about politics than I do, but I said, "Sure, come on over.'

He says, "Mike, would you say that -- blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?" And it was some theory he had about the campaign. And I said, "I never thought about that before, Jeff. You're absolutely right. That's a very good point." Then he says, "No, no, no. Would you say it?" And the point was, under the conventions of objectivity, which I think can be rather silly and stifling in American journalism, he was not allowed to say it himself. He had to get somebody else to say it. And the same thing happens in print journalism, where a reporter wants to make a point a perfectly valid, a perfectly true, perfectly intelligent point, but is not really allowed to say it him or herself, has to find some expert somewhere to quote to say it.
LAMB: How often does that go on -- not in print, but in television journalism that you know of?
KINSLEY: Well, it goes on a it goes on a fair amount.
LAMB: I mean, now that you've been a part of this, when you watch...
KINSLEY: Well, it's on "Crossfire" it's different.
LAMB: Yeah.
KINSLEY: "Crossfire," of course, you're expected to have opinions. I have spent my life in opinion journalism, and I find that this is where I prefer to be, because I think you can be more honest and more straightforward, and you don't have to pretend to be unopinionated. There's a difference, as one of the pieces in here argues, between biased and being opinionated. I think any intelligent person who studies public affairs is going to develop opinions about them. And that includes journalists. To expect journalists who are devoting their lives to thinking about and reporting on and learning about public issues, to have no opinion about them is ridiculous. What you can expect people to do is to try and be fair and non biased.
LAMB: Did you get along personally with all the folks that sat across the table from you, in "Crossfire"?
KINSLEY: Yeah, I did.
LAMB: John Sununu.
KINSLEY: Sure.
LAMB: Robert Novak.
KINSLEY: Novak.
LAMB: Fred Barnes.
KINSLEY: I will say Fred Barnes is actually a friend of mine. Fred I hired as White House correspondent for The New Republic when I was the editor of it.
LAMB: But did you ever have a moment after, you know, one of those little set tos there on the set where you get so ticked off at each other that you don't have a few words to...
KINSLEY: Sure. That happened once every couple of months. The...
LAMB: Over what, though? Give us an example of something that...
KINSLEY: I can't even think of an example, but they tended to be occasions when I thought they were making a disingenuous argument. Now I mean, if I thought they were making a sincere argument about something they really believed, it didn't bother me that we disagreed.
LAMB: Which two people that ever came to your table there ever got up - I mean, were really uncomfortable after the show was over, not hosts, but guests?
KINSLEY: Oh, let me see. We once had a show -- I can't even remember what the issue was, but the guests were Ed Meese, the attorney general under Reagan, and Christopher Hitchens, the British journalist, who I know has been on C SPAN. And they started calling each other liars and "You're a liar." "No, you're a liar." "Don't call me a liar, you liar."
LAMB: On the show?
KINSLEY: On the show. And then Hitchens got up and stormed off the set. And that was rather heated. The biggest liar we ever had on "Crossfire," he wasn't on the set. He was a remote. It would have been very uncomfortable if he'd been there, was Radovan Karadzic, the head of the Bosnian Serbs, who asserted in the middle of the height of the siege of Sarajevo, I was asking him about this, and he was insisting there was no siege of Sarajevo. And I don't know about you, Brian, but when I'm I was preparing to interview someone, I'd have what I expected to be their two or three most likely evasions of the question I was asking, and I'd have a response to their evasions.

What I discovered in that case was a flat, outright lie, you're powerless. I looked down at my list of follow up questions, and nothing applied. I couldn't sit there in that studio and prove that there was a siege of Sarajevo. And I felt at the end this was very early in the Bosnian controversy the viewer was thinking, "Well, I think I trust Kinsley more than this weird Bosnian Serb, but there seems to be some controversy about whether there was a siege of Sarajevo." He managed to plant that doubt in people's minds, and I felt very bad about that.
LAMB: Let's see, December 1989, we go way back in your book.
KINSLEY: Yeah.
LAMB: Essential Reading and this is all about jacket endorsements for books. I notice that on your show the audience on the back of your book here, there is no endorsement. Did you find it difficult to get an endorsement after you'd kicked them so badly …?
KINSLEY: .... Oh, I had it my book contract that there would be no blurbs no solicited blurbs. If someone had, if they wanted to lift a quote from a review of one of my previous books or something like that, that would be OK, but I think the practice, the publishing industry practice of requesting blurbs from people is, A, silly, and, B, a little bit corrupt, because I give your book a blurb, and you give me a blurb, and so on.
LAMB: You like the word "essential."
KINSLEY: Yeah, I did a Nexis search on the phrase "essential reading."
LAMB: Let me stop you, though, and ask you about Nexis, because three or four times in your columns, you talk about, "I did a Nexis search." What is Nexis?
KINSLEY: Nexis is the computerized database of news media, essentially newspapers, magazines; they've added the TV interview shows and everything. And you can do it's been around for practically 20 years now. It's one of the early online services. And it started off as Lexis. It's called Lexis Nexis is the full name, which is a research tool for lawyers. And then early on they branched out into the news media, and it's a tremendously valuable tool. You can do word searches. You search for "Brian Lamb" and "essential," and you come up with every time the word "Brian Lamb" and "essential" appeared in the same article. And it's a way you can do various things with it, and I use it all the time.
LAMB: And in this case, it's for instance, you say, "Emblazoned across the top was this inspirational message: Essential reading -- Stuart E. Eisenstadt."
KINSLEY: That I think I was something I clipped, because that was -- I had been maintaining a file for several years of what I thought was ridiculous book blurbs for the day when I would need to write a column about it. And that was in an advertisement, and advertisements are not part of Nexis.
LAMB: Let's see if we can find some of the other ones here. Let's see. "A recent New York Times book review carried a large blurb, chalked ad for an "On Becoming A Leader" by someone named Warren Bennis. Peter Drucker offered the artfully qualified phrase, quote, 'This is Warren Bennis' most important book.' In fact, on close reading, several of the blurbs in this ad seem strangely off key. USA Today said of the book, quote, "It's ideas are wise enough to stand re examination."'
KINSLEY: Yeah.
LAMB: How often do -- I mean, why do these publishers use these blurbs?
KINSLEY: Well, I think they possibly would say they use them because they sell books. I think the publishing industry is an industry in which there are a lot of, sort of, ancient encrusted habits and traditions, which this is one, which cannot really be justified on a business basis. But I'm not an expert on it. It's just my suspicion.
LAMB: Column, Democracy Can Goof, November 1988, quote, this is you writing, "I am free to say that the voters or at least a majority of them are idiots, betrayers of their country's future, misperceivers of their own best interests, ignorant about the issues, galled by slick lies."
KINSLEY: Well, that was supposed to be a little bit of comic overstatement, but the point is, once again, there is a the premise of democracy is not that democracy always makes the right decision, but that the people have the right to be as Warren Rudman said, he put it I thought brilliantly at the time of Iran Contra, the former senator, he said, "The American people have a constitutional right to be wrong. And I think you have the true democratic spirit is one in which you express your own opinions. And just because people disagree with you doesn't mean you're wrong." You say, "I respect you. You won. That's fine. We'll have another election later, and my side might win; meanwhile, I respectfully disagree."
LAMB: You kick off this book with something that we talk a lot about here, because it comes up in a lot of books. Your first line in the introduction of this group of columns is, "As a magazine editor, I try to forbid quotations from Tocqueville." Why would you do that?
KINSLEY: Because I think there're too many of them: Tocqueville, Dr. Johnson, a few others, Shakespeare, maybe. They're crutches and clichés. But as I went on to say I have to violate this rule, because I found a great quote from Tocqueville. I was reading Tocqueville, and I came across this quote that was too good to pass up.
LAMB: In 1995 everybody from the president to the speaker quoted Tocqueville all through the year, other politicians, columnists. What is it about Tocqueville that first of all, where did you first learn about Alexis de Tocqueville?
KINSLEY: Oh, gosh, probably in Government 1A in my freshman year or something like that.
LAMB: At prep school.
KINSLEY: No, no, in college.
LAMB: College.
KINSLEY: I'm sure I'd heard about him in prep school, but had no clear idea who he was.
LAMB: And why would you, you know, as a magazine editor, try to forbid the quotations, and when did you find yourself in the position of saying, "I'm so sick of seeing another Tocqueville quote. That's it"?
KINSLEY: That was in the early to mid 80s when I had been editor of The New Republic for a few years and had had enough.
LAMB: Did it work when you would tell a writer to stop quoting Tocqueville?
KINSLEY: Well, the editor gets the final say, you know? Sometimes you have a bargaining game, and sometimes you have to give in.
LAMB: But why then did you give in to yourself and have this, well, I'll show the audience. You have a big quote here, huge quote in the beginning.
KINSLEY: Well, I guess I'm a hypocrite, Brian. I'm taking advantage of the fact that I'm the writer this time, and it was up to the editor to stop me, and he didn't stop me.
LAMB: And so what is it about Tocqueville?
KINSLEY: Well, this particular quote was about the courtier spirit in America, as he called it, which I thought was a wonderful phrase. And his point was that in Europe courtiers pay homage to the king and the royalty, and they're pandering to him, and bow and scrape and stuff. And, of course, they don't do that in America. What they do is bow and scrape to this concept of the citizenry, the voters, the people, the people are always right. And I thought that was a beautiful way to illustrate my point, which is the true democratic spirit does not say that the people are always right; the true democratic spirit is one which holds "the people," quote, unquote, to the same standards you would hold you if we were having a political argument.
LAMB: You used two words in here a couple of times I want to ask you about. And I want to ask you, first of all, why do you think anybody would understand what you're talking about? And those two words are -- and I don't mean that the way it sounded, but half the way it sounded zeitgeist. Why is that word used so often by people? And I'm sure I'm going to mispronounce this, but Schoi...
KINSLEY: Schadenfreude.
LAMB: Schadenfreude.
KINSLEY: Well...
LAMB: What do those two words mean, and why would you use that in the...
KINSLEY: ...I don't think I'm a William Buckley type who's always throwing in fancy words. These two words, it seems to me, Brian, have in recent years become part become common enough that, this is another judgment call you make as an editor, when you allow a word in, when you cut it out, but when you allow it in, make the writer define it. And zeitgeist means "spirit of the times," literally, and it means the cultural, political atmosphere of any particular moment. And Schadenfreude means "joy in other people's suffering." And I think that's a very common phenomena, and that makes it a very useful word. And as an editor I used to think, I used to say if you're going to use the word Schadenfreude, you have to define it, but it's become so commonly used in recent years, I think you can argue about this, I think it's moved from a word you have to define to a word you're allowed to use without defining it, although that's a judgment call.
LAMB: Time magazine, The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, of all those, which one of those outlets gave you the most visibility, I mean, where you got the most personal reaction on something you did?
KINSLEY: Well, I suppose CNN. Being on television is a multiplication factor that no print medium can duplicate. The disadvantages, of course, at CNN you're just talking, whereas you don't, you can when you're writing, you can refine your thoughts and you have more space, more length and you can think things out and express them more carefully or at least you hope to do so.
LAMB: What about those other publications? Which one of those...
KINSLEY: Well...
LAMB: ...did you get the most response from?
KINSLEY: ...it's a...
LAMB: Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York...
KINSLEY: Well, The Washington Post. When I used to write the TRB column in The New Republic, and then I did a shorter version of it in The Washington Post. And appearing on The Washington Post Op Ed page is a way to really effect the zeitgeist, if you'll forgive me, in a way that no other medium that I get to write for does, I'd have to say. But I enjoy the most, writing, in a way writing for The Wall Street Journal. I had an arrangement for several years. They used to have an every Thursday liberal slot on their very conservative Op Ed page, and I got to do it once every third week. And I could go in there and bash them for what they had been saying, and that was a terrific amount of fun.
LAMB: Who was responsible for asking you to do that?
KINSLEY: I guess Bob Bartley, who is the editor of the Journal.
LAMB: And you also did appearances often on The National Review show, the "Firing Line."
KINSLEY: "Firing Line." I'm still doing those.
LAMB: Now what's that all about? What's the connection there?
KINSLEY: I can't remember how that started. I've been doing it since the early '80s. This is William Buckley's interview show. For awhile the format has changed over the years. For awhile he used to have a liberal come on about 10 minutes before the end and interrogate him and the guest. Then for a while I played a sort of Ed McMahon role where I introduced the show and then said, "Here's Buckley. Take it away." And then lately I've just been doing these two or three or four times a year these two hour debates he has. I play the modera...
LAMB: In...
KINSLEY: ...I play the moderator so that Buckley can take a side.
LAMB: Well, pick a 20 year old watching this saying, "I wouldn't mind living that way. sounds like a great life, living the way you've been living."
KINSLEY: Yeah, and I've been really lucky. I'm not complaining.
LAMB: How old are you?
KINSLEY: Forty four.
LAMB: And, you know, you got a law degree, and get to write for all these publications. What advice would you give someone if they want to do what you've done? I mean, I know you got to have a native talent, but what works for you?
KINSLEY: You have to have talent. You also have to have a great deal of luck. I've been extraordinarily lucky, and I think, as I suggest in several pieces in this book, luck is a greatly underrated factor in life and in American success in general, and I'm very grateful for my good luck. But people often ask me, "Should I go to law school?" And I mean, I went to law school. I can't honestly say that that was a good career move. I think the reason to go to law school is you might want to practice law, and my feeling was I didn't want to end up being an unsuccessful journalist; I'd rather be an unsuccessful lawyer, because they get better remuneration.
LAMB: What about learning to write? How did you learn to write?
KINSLEY: Well, at this school I went to a private school in Detroit called Cranbrook School they had a very good English department, and they had from seventh grade through 12th grade, you had to write a thousand word essay every week, which is like writing a column a week, actually. And that was very good experience and very good training.
LAMB: So how many years did you have to write 1,000 words a week?
KINSLEY: Six years. I don't know, maybe by the time you were a junior or senior, there were...
LAMB: Every week?
KINSLEY: Basically every week. That was terrific.
LAMB: Could you pick what the subject was?
KINSLEY: I'm sure they don't do it this way anymore. This was years ago, but there used to be a cycle of everyone in the school did the same cycle. It went autobiographical article, biographical article, formal essay, informal essay, light verse, serious verse I can almost remember it by heart historical essay, and this added up to about 15, and then it started all over again.
LAMB: And that went on for six years.
KINSLEY: Yeah. That was very good training.
LAMB: Have you ever heard of any other school that did something like that?
KINSLEY: No. Cranbrook has produced a lot of professional writers.
LAMB: How long are you going to give yourself in Seattle, Washington, to make this all work, or how long is Microsoft going to give you?
KINSLEY: Well, that's the more important question, Brian. I don't know. There don't give you employment contracts. They can -- I was a little taken aback by that. I said, "Now how long is this employment contract for?" And they gave me this funny look. They said, "There's no employment contract, you know. You can quit tomorrow. We can fire you tomorrow." So it's a no nonsense arrangement. I don't know -- a couple years?
LAMB: And CNN didn't -- they weren't getting rid of you.
KINSLEY: Well...
LAMB: I mean, you could have stayed there.
KINSLEY: I could have stayed at CNN, yes.
LAMB: With a contract.
KINSLEY: With a contract, yes.
LAMB: So you head off and do this project, no contract, no guarantee.
KINSLEY: Well, it's not a high risk thing, because I think I can always come back to Washington and make a living as a writer. So I'm once again in a very fortunate position that I can have this adventure. Even if it's a complete flop, it doesn't really matter to me. I can still put bread on the table.
LAMB: If you want to read a lot about what Michael Kinsley's been thinking about since 1986, it's right here in this book. You can find it in your bookstores. It's called "Big Babies." Thank you for joining us.
KINSLEY: Thank you, Brian.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1996. 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.