DATE September 27, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Former presidential speechwriter Michael Waldman
talks about his years in the Clinton White House
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
President Clinton has a reputation for being more involved in writing his
speeches than most presidents, often even ad-libbing at the podium. My
Michael Waldman, says this is true. And he should know. From 1995 to '99,
Waldman served as the president's director of speech writing. He started
writing for the president in 1993 and joined his staff during his
presidential campaign. Waldman wrote or edited nearly 2,000 speeches or
policy statements for the president, and worked with him on two inaugural
addresses, one convention address and four State of the Unions. He now
teaches as the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Waldman has written a new book called "POTUS Speaks." POTUS is the acronym
for president of the United States. I asked Michael Waldman what he
the best speech he helped write.
Mr. MICHAEL WALDMAN: There are a lot of speeches I was very proud of. But
interestingly, for me, the speech I was proudest of was not one that was
memorably eloquent but memorably effective. It was the 1998 State of the
Union address. If you remember, that speech happened just a week after the
world learned about Monica Lewinsky. And it was a crazy time. Nobody was
sure whether he would be able to get up and do it. Nobody was sure what he
would say. People speculated he might be resigning. And we were able to
pull that speech together and very much have a huge impact on policy at a
time of almost surreal pressure.
GROSS: When you found out about the Monica story, what were your reactions
about what the State of the Union address should be? I mean, did you
initially think he should say something about the allegations, or that he
should ignore that the allegations existed?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, what--once I got over my initial surprise--and it's
pointing out that those of us on the White House staff basically had the
reaction to all this all along as most people watching--I thought that he
should focus, to the extent...
GROSS: Which was what? You mean surprise? Is that what you're getting at?
Mr. WALDMAN: Which was surprise and disappointment.
Mr. WALDMAN: But it wasn't something I was expecting.
Mr. WALDMAN: The day before, I had seen a friend of mine who was a special
counsel for the president who dealt with all these various investigations,
and I had said to him, `You know, this is the one week of the year that my
job is harder than your job.' And then, overnight, the whole Lewinsky thing
blew up and I saw him, and I said, `That's what I call one-upsmanship.'
I thought it was really important that he focus on policy, on his goals for
the country, and if at all possible, he should find a way to not have to
about the unfolding scandal in the State of the Union address. Now if you
remember, in the end he spoke about it the day before, perhaps
in answer to reporter's questions. But I really felt that it would be far
better if he could focus on the work at hand.
One of the reasons was I knew that if he'd said even one sentence about it,
then that was what the press would focus on; that was what the headlines
would be. And I think he was convinced to do that, and he wanted to do it
that way from the beginning also. The reality is, he had a lot he wanted to
talk about that year on the budget deficit, on Social Security and on other
policies. It was--as a matter of policy, it was a very powerful speech, and
I think he knew that that was what would carry him forward.
GROSS: Did you ever, during that period, ask him, point blank, whether the
allegations were true?
Mr. WALDMAN: No. No, for two reasons. One is, as we found out, people who
ask that have to get lawyers and go before grand juries later on. And I
was--I'd been around the White House long enough to know that this wasn't
a salacious story in the press. This was a criminal investigation, and even
innocent conversations among people were prone to being misinterpreted.
But also, I--it would have been entirely inappropriate, I thought, for me to
do that. I was trying to focus on the speech. And in my experience, to a
remarkable degree, that was what he was focusing on, too. I remember just
how tense the whole thing was. When you drove in to work, the camera crews
were following you to see if you were anybody and it was a sense of a White
House under siege. And walking around the West Wing, every TV set was tuned
to Mike McCurry, the press secretary's briefing, which was that day being
carried live on all the networks, not just in the briefing room. And
was being bloodied. You know, the reporters were asking question after
And my pager went off in the middle of this, and it said, `call the Oval
Office.' And the president got on the line. And I didn't know what he was
going to be talking about. And he said, `Have you read the memo from Steven
Carter, the Yale law professor?' And I had read it two hours before, but
I couldn't remember what it said because of all this other stuff going on.
And I said, `Yes, sir. Yes, Mr. President.' He said, `Well, look on page
two. I really like the language about the idea of America and some
suggestions. I think you should use it, and I'll send it out to you.' And
hung up. And I looked back at the TV set, and McCurry was still being
pummeled. And it was quite amazing that at this moment of maximum peril to
him and to the presidency that, at least at some level, he was able to focus
on the speech and on getting it done.
GROSS: What do you think was most effective about the speech?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, in the middle of the craziness of the Lewinsky crisis,
his weakest moment politically, Clinton really was able to deliver his most
effective speech. He got up there--and this was a line that he had worked
with us to craft--he got up and said, `We have a brand-new budget surplus,'
which nobody had seen in decades. `We have a new budget surplus, what
we do with it? I have a simple, forward answer. Save Social Security
Well, the Democrats jumped up and applauded. They were applauding
by this point. And Gingrich thought about it for an instant, and he stood
and applauded. And the Republicans in the Congress looked at each other and
looked at him, and they stood up and applauded. And they had been
to use the surplus for a tax cut, which would have had huge consequences.
But at that moment, with everyone standing up and applauding on national TV,
trillion dollars shifted in the budget from the column marked `tax cut' to
column marked `Social Security.' That's where it's stayed ever since. And
that moment has set the stage for this election and the budget priorities in
the next several years at least. And this was--the most amazing thing about
it, it was at the depths of the Lewinsky crisis. It--to me it was the most
powerful use of the bully pulpit the whole time I worked with Clinton.
GROSS: Let's talk about the most famous presidential speech snafu during
Clinton administration to date. And that was the time when the wrong speech
was on his TelePrompTer. Tell us what happened.
Mr. WALDMAN: In September of 1993, he went before the Congress to put forth
his health plan for national health insurance. And somehow, the wrong
got put on the TelePrompTer. It was the speech that he had delivered
outlining his economic plan nearly a year before. And he got up there and
saw that it was the wrong speech, and for about 10 minutes, while they
out what went wrong, he basically vamped and ad-libbed from memory and from
having been in the middle of writing the speech, the first 10 minutes of the
speech, and then eventually the TelePrompTer caught up.
Now I'm happy to say I wasn't involved in that particular snafu, but I was
relieved at the same time because I had been responsible for my own snafu a
week before that people really never heard about.
GROSS: And what was that?
Mr. WALDMAN: When the president launched his fight for NAFTA, the North
American Free Trade Agreement, with Mexico and Canada in the East Room,
remember, he had President Carter and Ford and Bush there. And what
was he was given a set of talking points, or a speech I had written, to
from, and he chose to do the speech. But the folks who printed out the
printed the wrong version of the speech--the first draft with, in a sense,
placeholder numbers rather than the fact-checked final draft. And he went
there and read it, and I think partway through he realized what had
And I was there in the East Room, and I practically fainted. And later that
day we put out some corrections and told people that some of the numbers
wrong. And the press thought it--we said it was a staff error, and the
was very skeptical because how could it be--how was that possible that there
could be an error like that? But that's actually what happened.
But the reality is nobody, in that intense fight over NAFTA--the other side
never quite figured out what had happened. All I could think of was those
movies of the early rocket launchers where the rockets blew up on the
launchpad and that that was what we were about to have happen. And so, as I
say, when the mess-up happened with the TelePrompTer a week later, I was at
least somewhat relieved that it had happened again more publicly than my own
GROSS: You were working with Dick Morris on one of the speeches for the
president, and you had written something that Dick Morris then made slightly
more concise and changed to `the era of big government is over, but the era
of every man for himself must never begin.' And then it went through
other people's eyes who read it and it was accused of being a sexist line
because `the era of every man for himself' was male gendered. What did you
think? Did you think that that was sexist? Did you think that that needed
to be changed?
Mr. WALDMAN: At the time I didn't see it that way, although when I tell the
story now, enough people say to me that they thought it was sexist that
it was the right call. But what happened was Clinton always talked about
third-way approach; not a traditional liberalism and not Gingrich-style
libertarian conservatism, but a third way. And that was what the sentence
that I had written and the more concise version that Morris suggested was
trying to convey. And we thought that saying `the era of big government is
over' would lead to a big ideological fight within the White House. But it
was, in fact, the second half of the sentence, `the era of every man for
himself must never begin,' was--people said that it was sexist.
And so we spent days trying to think of what the second half of the sentence
should be, after the president, you know, basically agreed that we should
change it. And `you're on your own,' `fend for yourself,' we thought about
all these things. And interestingly, the result was that when he got up and
said, `the era of big government is over,' the second half of the sentence
a very soggy, long clause. I don't even remember. It was something like
must not go back; to go forward to a time when you're on your own and
everybody is'--whatever it was, it wasn't remotely as memorable as `the era
big government is over.' And that was what the headlines had, and that was
what people remembered. At the time I joked that political correctness
liberalism and it was an accidental homicide. It was one of those moments
where you really realized that a president, with the way he talks about
policy, can really set a tone and have an impact.
GROSS: Did you run into those kind of gender problems a lot with language?
Mr. WALDMAN: Interestingly, not really. It was something that you had to
careful about. Where it was interesting was President Clinton, like a lot
other speakers, often would like to go back to the founding documents,
about the ideals for the country. Now the Declaration of Independence said
`We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'
We would usually paraphrase that, actually, to take the quote marks out and
say `we are all created equal.' But not always. I think you have to be
careful, but usually you can--if you--Clinton was pretty deft about those
things and if we didn't catch it, he would.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Waldman, President Clinton's former director of
speech writing. He has written a new book called "POTUS Speaks." More
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Waldman, and he wrote
speeches for the president from his inauguration through 1999 and was the
of the speech writing department for President Clinton from '95 to '99.
Waldman has written a new memoir called "POTUS Speaks."
Did you sometimes have to work in support of policy that you didn't really
believe in? For example, you used to work with Ralph Nader's office, and
were very anti-NAFTA--President Clinton was very pro-NAFTA, the North
Free Trade Agreement--and you had to work pushing NAFTA for a while for the
Clinton administration. How did you feel about that, you know, working in
support of a policy you didn't believe in?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, it's true that coming into the administration I had
opposed NAFTA, and Clinton was for it. And I knew that when I voted for him
and when I went to work for him. And when push came to shove and they asked
me to run the communications effort for NAFTA, it was a real dilemma; in
ways, a primal loyalty test. And I decided that I supported him and he had
made this decision, and I owed it to him to help him get done what he wanted
to get done. I don't know if I would have thought that on all issues, but
that issue that was the--that was where I came down, in part because I did
think that he had put into the agreement labor and environmental side
agreements, which addressed some of the concerns that I had.
Now I'll say that over the time--at that point and later, my own views on
trade actually shifted somewhat, I think partly from working on that. Maybe
it was just convenient, but I came to believe that you couldn't go back on
free trade, that you needed to find a way to make open markets work better
people, work better for labor and the environment, but that simply kind of
retreating was not an answer. So by the end, I was more comfortable with
But I ultimately had to decide whether to do it or to leave, and I thought I
owed it to him to do it.
GROSS: Why did you leave the White House in 1999?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, I'd been working for Clinton for seven years, I had
young children, and it's tiring. And so I wanted to see what was next--do
some writing and teaching and move on.
GROSS: It wasn't because you felt betrayed by, say, the Monica Lewinsky
story or anything like that?
Mr. WALDMAN: No. I was even thinking of leaving before that. As
such an exhausting experience; people are always wondering what they're
to do next. But I stuck it out during that time, in part, because I thought
it was important to stay there.
GROSS: Now what was it like watching President Clinton's convention address
in August and not having worked on it yourself?
Mr. WALDMAN: It was interesting hearing it fresh and being in the position
with the rest of the audience. That was a wonderful speech. People at the
convention center were congratulating me for it, and I hated having to tell
them I had nothing to do with it. I thought it was great to see him make an
argument where he wasn't the candidate. I think that added to its
GROSS: Remember he had that line in that speech, and people were divided
about whether he were saying, `whenever you think of me,' or `whatever you
think of me'?
Mr. WALDMAN: I--at the very end of that speech, he said--I thought he said
`whatever you think of me, don't stop thinking about tomorrow.' And like a
lot of other people, I thought that was a very deft way of saying, you know,
`Put your feelings about me aside and focus on the record and on Gore.' It
turned out that he didn't say that. He said, `whenever you think of me.' A
lot of people are feeling very betrayed by that, but the fact is he said it,
I guess, the way--he said `whenever,' and I think a lot of people liked it
better the other way.
GROSS: Was it written as `whenever' or `whatever?'
Mr. WALDMAN: Yes. It--I asked the speechwriters, I said, `Which line was
that?' And they said, `It was "whenever."'
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, I think, actually, it may have been ad-libbed. I don't
think it was really some big, thought-through strategy.
GROSS: How did it change your writing to have written for the president?
Mr. WALDMAN: When you're writing for a president, you have to try and write
in his voice. If I wrote a speech and people said, `Wow, Waldman, that was
great. It really sounded like you,' then I'd failed. So I'm a New Yorker
through and through and probably have some of the smart-alecky tendencies of
a New York writer and had to learn how to write in a more mellifluous
voice. And I think over time, I'm recapturing my own style. We'll see.
sure it improved it. I learned an incredible amount from Clinton from his
knowledge of history and Scripture and all those kinds of things. And, you
know, I hope that benefits me in the long run.
GROSS: I bet you weren't used to quoting Scripture.
Mr. WALDMAN: No. This was one of these--neither I nor the other
speechwriters were very good a giving him the Scripture passages that he
liked. And when Ron Brown's plane crashed, that was very emotional and
dramatic for all of us, because we'd knew him or knew the people on the
The president rushed up to Alma Brown's house, and we got a call from Alexis
Herman, who was then on the White House staff, saying, you know, `The
president's going to go to the Commerce Department in 20 minutes. Can you
write something up for him?' And we said, `Well, sure, but did or
is one of those moments where you don't know what tent you're supposed to
`Does Ron Brown have a favorite Bible passage or hymn?' And she said, `Yes,
da-da-da-da-da-da. Gotta go.' Click.
So I wrote it down. But we didn't know if we'd gotten it right, what it
really was. And we didn't have much time. We scrambled, we thumbed through
Bibles. We--it was like a joke. We called rabbis, priests and ministers.
looked on the Internet, and we couldn't find it. So we had no choice but to
just put it in the speech and go over there.
President Clinton came in, and we went up to him and one of my colleagues
handed (technical difficulties). `Mr. President, here's some remarks you
could use. There's only one problem. There's this Bible quote here and we
don't know if it's a real Bible quote.' And Clinton looked at it and said,
`Oh, Isaiah. This is the New English Translation. I prefer King James. I
prefer King James. That's what I'll use.' And he got up and sort of
the translations and improvised the whole eulogy around this. And, you
none of us could have done that.
GROSS: Well, Michael Waldman, I thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WALDMAN: My pleasure.
GROSS: Michael Waldman is President Clinton's former director of speech
writing. Waldman's new book is called "POTUS Speaks." I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Coming up, publisher Andre Schiffrin talks about how the literary
world has been changed by the multinationals that now own many publishing
houses. Linguist Geoff Nunberg comments on the changing meaning of the word
`community.' And Ken Tucker reviews a new album from the hard-rock band
Queens of the Stone Age.
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Commentary: Overuse of the word `community'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"Bowling Alone" is the title of a recent book by Harvard political scientist
Robert Putnam, which argues that community participation is in sharp
Our linguist Geoff Nunberg finds this striking, in light of the explosive
growth in the use of the word `community' itself.
The title of Robert Putnam's book "Bowling Alone" is a reference to a
recent trend. While more Americans than ever are going bowling, there's
a sharp decline in bowling leagues over the same period. For Putnam, the
tendency exemplifies a much more general decline in participation in
civic life. PTA membership is down in recent decades and so is membership
the Elks, the Kiwanis and B'nai B'rith and the NAACP. All of these are
signs of what Putnam describes dramatically as the `collapse of American
But if it's true that Americans have less of a sense of community than they
used to, it certainly hasn't stopped them from using the word `community'
widely than ever before. Of course the word has been used for centuries to
refer to groups that are drawn together by some common circumstance that
them off from the people they live among--the merchant communities, say, or
the British community in Naples. In the 19th century, English Jews referred
to themselves simply as `the community,' which is pretty much the same way
that gays and lesbians use the phrase today.
But alongside of these more or less traditional uses of the word, you find
applied to just about any group of people that shares some property or
interest, however incidental it may be. Do a search and you'll find
references to the rottweiler community, the Windows community, the
and vegan community and the video arcade game collecting community. I ran
into a regional transportation plan that talked about accommodating the
of the pedestrian community, a group I commune with myself from time to
And this is not to mention the left-handed community, the asthma community,
the bail bond community, the piercing and tattoo community and the diaper
community, which, in case you're curious, is a branch of the infantalist
community. Then there's just `the community,' the abstract, which is a term
we apply to society when we want to paint it in a warm and deserving light.
Expressions like community service, community relations, give back to the
community. All of them have the positive connotations which are defining
trait of the word, however it's used.
Whatever else it may be, community is good for you. Nations, states,
regions, those are all things that can sometimes make us nervous when they
exert too strong a hold on people's allegiances. But nobody ever complains
about an excess of community feeling. And just to ensure that community
remains an absolute good, we withhold the word for any group that we
disapprove of. Not long ago I heard a speaker at an AIDS conference say,
need input from all the effected communities, the gay and lesbian community,
the minority communities, the intravenous drug using community.' That one
stopped me in my tracks. You don't usually hear drug users referred to as a
community, nor do you hear people talking about the terrorist community or
Holocaust denier community. It isn't that the members of those groups don't
have common interests or convivial interactions, but for us they aren't
in the glow of warm sociability that the word `community' evokes. A phrase
like the pedophile community sounds pretty weird to me, but it turns out
pedophiles use it all the time.
The explosive growth of community began long before the Internet age. It
its first modern boost from the sociologist who popularized the word in the
1920s and 1930s around the time the American public first started to take
social science seriously. Among other things, that was when housing
developers began to exploit the term. And it enjoyed a further boom in the
1980s, with a rise of an identity politics that defined everybody by their
But it's only with the Internet that the word has achieved its current
(technical difficulties) versatility, as it becomes possible to organize a
national conversation around any common interest or concern, however
it may be. And like the housing developers of the 1940s and '50s, Web
developers have been quick to perceive a commercial opportunity in the new
uses of the word. Software companies offer tools for building high-traffic
community around a Web site or a new video game, and most commercial sites
have what's called a community page, where people can gather to commune
Campbell Soup or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Software makers are in hot competition right now to develop community
that are specialized to the needs of everybody in the farmer's insurance
community or the purchasing agent community. Community is on its way to
becoming one of those commodified American versions like `heritage,' you can
buy it by the yard. There's something about the word `community' that ought
to make us nervous. It's not just because of the rosy light it casts but
because it's hard to see how there could be much meaning left in a word so
elastic that you can use it to wrap anything from an ethnic group to a bunch
of people who like to exchange soup recipes online. Maybe it wouldn't be a
bad thing if it was finally stretched so thin that it snapped.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and at Xerox Palo
Alto Research Center.
Coming up, the business of books. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Publisher Andre Schiffrin of The New Press talks about
the history of contemporary publishing
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the new book "The Business of Books," Andre Schiffrin writes about how
literary world has been changed by the conglomerates that now own many
publishing houses. Five major conglomerates now control 80 percent of
American book sales. These changes have directly affected Schiffrin's life.
He was the long-time head of Pantheon Books, which his father co-founded.
Pantheon was later bought by Random House, which was bought a couple of
ago by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann. Schiffrin was forced out of the
company in 1990 after refusing to make cutbacks and other changes. In 1992,
he founded a not-for-profit publishing company called The New Press.
Some of the conglomerates that now own publishing companies also own movie
TV companies. I asked Andre Schiffrin how books sales compare with profits
from the other media.
Mr. ANDRE SCHIFFRIN (Founder, The New Press): Right. Well, that's, in a
way, one of the problem, because books are really a relatively small
percentage of the sales of these very large corporations. Overall, for the
country as a whole, we sell about 21 or $22 billion worth of books a year,
which is, you know, like, a seventh, an eighth of the Time-AOL annual sales
all together. So book publishing is still a relatively small industry in
comparison to the other media holdings and not that profitable a one, which,
of course, is a major problem for the people who belong to conglomerates,
because how are they going to get investments from their owners, how are
going to get enthusiasm when all they can do is come up with a very piddly
amount of money at the end of the year?
GROSS: So how has this affected the amount of profits that book publishing
companies are expected to make, those publishing companies that are now part
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Right. Well, that's the key to the change in publishing.
For most of the century, publishers really made, you know, 4, maybe 5
on an average. It was like having a savings bond or an ordinary savings
account. And people went into publishing for all sorts of reasons, but
a big amount of money was not the major reason. And that 4, 5 percent, by
way, is the average from the most commercial of the most esoteric firms.
Nowadays, the large conglomerates, understandably, expect to make as much
money from publishing as they do from the other holdings. So they want 15
20 percent. And, of course, tripling, quadrupling, quintupling the amount
profit that you get is very, very difficult and very few of them have been
able to do that and to do it successfully. But they try to alter the nature
of publishing so as to allow for that kind of increase.
GROSS: Do you ever wonder why international conglomerates want to buy book
publishing companies in the first place if the profits usually aren't that
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Well, there are all sorts of reasons, and a lot of this is
mythology, of course. I remember once asking a friend who was very high up
the Time Warner world and said, `How did the people who own the firm go from
rent a car and funeral parlors'--which is where they started--`to movies?'
And he said, `Oh, they wanted to be in business with dames, at least live
dames.' And in a way that's a little bit why publishing has always had that
appeal, not necessarily genuine sex appeal, but the appeal of something more
picturesque, more interesting. And, of course, the illusion of synergy, the
idea that if you own a publishing house you can then get the movie rights
so on to the books you publish. That's what led Miramax, for instance, to
up Talk and Talk Books, the idea that you'd have a kind of synergy, that the
books would turn into films. And, of course, that's relatively rare, and
there are agents involved and so on, so things don't quite work out. I
I don't really see, you know, the latest Talk best-seller, Martin Amos'(ph)
memoirs, you know, turning into a long feature movie about Martin Amos'
You know, I think it's hard to do that, but there is that illusion.
And, of course, the other factor is that foreign firms, like the German
want to get out of German; they want to get into English--that's the world
language, that's the language of the future--and so they're willing to take
huge risks to buy into the US. Now the two major German conglomerates,
Holdspring(ph) and Bertelsmann, have moved, you know, many, many billions of
dollars into the US in order to that.
GROSS: So do you think that international conglomerate ownership of
publishing companies is affecting what is published here?
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Oh, absolutely. There is an enormous change, and I've tried
not to be hyperbolic or just to go on my subjective feelings, and I've
at the catalogs. I've looked at the catalogs from 1950, '60, '70 and 2000
the major firms, and there's a chapter in the book devoted to the changes
have taken place among just the three biggest firms, and it's replicated
throughout the industry.
And it really is unbelievable. I mean, even I was shocked when I looked,
instance, at the Harper catalog for 1960, 1950. It was really incredibly
impressive. They had dozens and dozens of history books; it had books on
philosophy, on theology, on art criticism. They published some of the major
authors of our time. And, you know--but so did Simon & Schuster and so did
Random House, to a lesser degree. If you look now at the catalogs of those
firms, you just don't see those books. They've disappeared.
GROSS: What do you see instead?
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Well, you see pretty much what you see on--on the
list and what you see in the bookstores; that is, you see a lot of would-be
best sellers, the Stephen Kings and so on, that we are all familiar with.
see, still, a lot of fiction that people hope will be commercial, but you
don't see any of the experimental or foreign fiction that these firms used
publish. You see a lot of how-to. You look in the HarperCollins catalog,
they have something called Harper Entertainment, which had, last year, 136
volumes, including, you know, the "Jerry Springer" picture book and so on
so forth. You know, that comes from a firm that used to publish the major
history and theology and so on of our time, so that the shift, if you put
those catalogs side by side, is pretty phenomenal.
GROSS: What about the place of independent publishing companies and
university presses? And the independent companies and the university
stand outside of the conglomerization of publishing.
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Right. Well, you know, one of the sad things about writing
this book is that increasingly the examples that I get of marvelous
independents who are still doing a good job, you know, changes with every
month. So about--the number of the traditional firms, the older firms that
are independent is really dwindling. There are very, very few of them left.
On the other hand, and it's an important and encouraging sign, there are a
of new, small firms beings started, mostly by very young people throughout
country. I remember going to Minneapolis the other year for a meeting with
bunch of independent publishers, and there were three, four of them that
based in Minneapolis, and they were run by young people, some of whom had
corporate lawyers and others who, you know, decided there was more to life
than simply making money. And they wanted to try the traditional kind of
So I find that very encouraging. And, of course, these firms are
coming up with a larger and larger percentage of the interesting and
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andre Schiffrin. He's the
former managing director of Pantheon, and he's the founding director of The
New Press. He's written a book about publishing called "The Business of
Your father was in publishing. He was born in Russia, went to France after
World War I, began his career as a publisher and translator there. He
with Andre Geid(ph) on translations. But after the German invasion of
he was forced out because he was Jewish. You were about six at the time
your family left the country and then eventually wound up in the United
States. In the US your father joined a new book company called Pantheon and
that's the company that you ended up working at for, I think, about 30
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Right.
GROSS: What was the goal when your father joined Pantheon when it was a
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Well, Pantheon started in 1942 really as an exile publishing
firm. It was started by Kurt Wolff, who was a very distinguished German
publisher who had published Kafka and so on in Germany and who had also been
forced to leave because of some Jewish ancestry in his family. And they
started publishing books in German as well as in English. And then my
had been publishing books from the French resistance, books that were being
published clandestinely in France. And so the original books were really
attempts to show to Americans that there was a culture of politics going on
during the Second World War even under the German occupation that they
know about. But after a while, Pantheon, you know, developed titles that
much better in the US and eventually they were to publish "Dr. Zhivago" and
"The Tin Drum" and a number of other books that became huge best-sellers.
it was an attempt at the beginning to fill the gap, a very real gap that
existed in wartime America about what was going on in Europe, what had gone
in Europe, and then, you know, at times--it doesn't always happen, but
was rewarded and they got a lot of best-sellers that made huge successes.
GROSS: Now as an example of the fact that takeovers in publishing is
new, Pantheon was purchased by Random House back in 1961.
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Right.
GROSS: Do you think the company changed by that takeover?
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Well, Pantheon at that stage had finished a first stage; the
Wolffs, who were the chief editors, had left. It was sort of in limbo and
was very profitable because of the books they had brought in and their
stockholders figured this was the time to sell out and make some money,
they did. But what was interesting in the takeover is that Random House
didn't just amalgamate it or make us part of Knopf, as Pantheon now is.
said, `No. Do what you can. Start off on your own. See what you can
publish. See what a new generation can do with this kind of heritage.'
you know, I was all of 26 at the time, and because I suppose I was so young,
it didn't occur to me that this was a crazy thing for anyone to do, to
a publishing house to someone that age. But Random House was incredibly
supportive, as I say in the book, and we were able to publish, I think, some
of the most important books being published from Europe and from the US at
time, ranging from Michel Foucault to Noam Chomsky and Gunner Myrdal and so
on, a list of which I'm very proud to this day.
But it wouldn't have been possible if Random House initially hadn't been
supportive. And that was, you know, the difference between then and now.
They were willing not to make any money for a while. They were willing to
the company grow. They were willing to see what young people could do, and
they were marvelously supportive--Bennett Cerf and Arne Claude(ph) and the
other people I write about. Nowadays, when you buy a firm, you, you know,
fire the staff. You keep the back list insofar as it's profitable and you
more or less destroy its identity. When HarperCollins bought Morrow and
the other day, they had 200 people on staff. You know, they got rid of 120.
No one even mentioned it anymore. It didn't even make a paragraph in The
Times. It's just taken for granted.
GROSS: You know, the business of business is usually to make money. And
you're criticizing publishing for being too involved now with the goal of
making money at the expense of bringing out the books that you think
ought to be bringing out. Why should publishing be different from any other
businesses and pay less attention to the bottom line than any other
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Right. Well, you know, the idea of profit maximization is,
on the whole, you know, a relatively new one. It's now that everybody's on
the stock market and that everything is globalized, that you're competing
the time with how much money can you make if you invest it in China rather
than here and so on and so forth. But in publishing, there's also the fact
that if you're going to look to the future, if you're going to develop
authors, if you're going to find new ideas, new people, you have to take
risks. And if you don't, it's not going to work. And one of the
things is if you look at what happened to Random House in the last years of
Newhouse and to HarperCollins and so on, they made less money than ever.
They--when Random House was finally sold to Bertelsmann, their profit was
1/10th of 1 percent that year and they'd written off $80 million worth of
books that they knew would never earn back their advance.
So it's not necessarily even good business, but even if it were, you know, I
think publishing, like radio, like TV, has a kind of social responsibility.
We're not licensed by the federal government and nobody would ever want that
to happen, but there are a lot of programs that help publishers that come
public moneys, whether it's library purchases or schoolbook purchases or
cheaper postal rates and so on. As with all print, the assumption since the
Revolution has been that the dissemination of knowledge is something that is
worthy of government support in that respect. You know, publishing has gone
very far from betraying that trust and, in a way, betraying that investment.
GROSS: What's one thing you understand now about authors that you think you
didn't understand until you wrote your book?
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: How oversensitive they are. You read every review, you
with your teeth clenched and worried about it. It makes a difference
you get a phone call from somebody who says, you know, `I just read your
and I agree with what you say.' I've always tried to encourage and praise
authors and occasionally hide a negative review from them, but I've learned,
think, this way how very sensitive you are about anything you've written.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SCHIFFRIN: Well, it was a great pleasure. I really enjoyed this.
GROSS: Andre Schiffrin is the founding director of The New Press. His new
book is called "The Business of Books."
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by the hard rock band Queens of the
Stone Age. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Queens of the Stone Age's new album, "R"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Queens of the Stone Age are a California band with a new album called "R,"
in the movie rating code for restricted. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the
pulls together its hard rock music from a wide range of often contradictory
(Soundbite of song)
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE: (Singing) Still know why they're calling. Just
it ring. No reply. ...(Unintelligible) ain't no use in picking up. Still
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Someone recently told me that his summer guilty pleasure was going to see
teen cheerleader movie "Bring It On," because he's not a teen-ager and he
knows it's cheesy. Queens of the Stone Age started out as a guilty pleasure
for me, because its CD is all adolescent melodrama, and I ain't no
and because it's full of cheesy guitar riffs. But they're big, well-played
cheesy guitar riffs, so I've decided not to feel guilty about this pleasure.
(Soundbite of song)
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE: (Singing) Nicotine, ...(unintelligible) marijuana,
ecstasy, like it how. Nicotine, ...(unintelligible) marijuana, ecstasy,
it how. Nicotine, ...(unintelligible) marijuana, ecstasy, like it how.
Nicotine, ...(unintelligible) marijuana, ecstasy, like it how.
C-c-c-c-c-cold. C-c-cold. ...(unintelligible) C-c-c-c-c-c-c-cold.
TUCKER: Really, it takes talent to come up with stuff that stupid that
this good. Meet Queens of the Stone Age lead singer guitarist Josh Homme
Rolling Stone magazine reports, often greets audiences by saying, `Hello.
We're not angry and we don't rap,' not that Homme has anything against rap.
It's just that he's a 20-something in love with the sound of buzzing guitars
as heard on 20-year-old records by artists as various as Lynyrd Skynyrd,
Bowie and Black Sabbath. In fact, Queens of the Stone Age are currently
touring as part of OZZfest, the hard rock tour for stoner kids headlined by
Sabbath's old geezer, Ozzy Osbourne.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. OZZY OSBOURNE: (Singing) Little girl, walking down the street, I
(unintelligible) you gotta be with me. Well, I know. You know. Everybody,
everyone, let's go. Oh, baby, ...(unintelligible). I'm so old. You're so
young. I know. You know. Everybody, everyone, let's go.
TUCKER: Josh Homme and his band make hard rock with elaborate structural
ambitions. His best compositions unfurl with grand flourishes and the
riffs that keep his grandiosity witty, not merely pretentious. On the CD
jacket, he subjects each Queens song to his own rating system: SE for
subversive elements, D for disbelief, R for revenge. These prove generally
be more incisive than the ones Jack Valenti's henchmen give to movies.
Hailed as great post-grungers, the band sounds to me like guys who want to
extend the tradition of divine stupidity of '70s punk bands like The New
Dolls and The Dead Boys.
(Soundbite of song)
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE: The flowers are closing in again. Oh, well. The
flowers are closing in again. Oh, well. I've seen some things I thought I
never saw, covered in hair. Paul's dad is warped and bubbly. Oh, well.
Paul's dad is warped and bubbly. Oh, well. And my mind is up here on
wave, covered in hair. She won't grow. She won't grow. She won't grow.
won't grow. She won't grow. She won't grow. She won't grow.
(Soundbite of music)
TUCKER: Here's the most intriguing thing about Queens of the Stone Age. I
bet if you heard each of these songs on this album at different times,
interspersed over a period of time on the radio, you'd think they were each
created by a different group. Except for the lead singer's calmly crazy
voice, the tunes have very little in common with each other stylistically.
Yet the album hangs together as a work of young men bent on cracking the
secret code of harsh rock 'n' roll. Or, to use a different metaphor, I
this CD contains the DNA for a strain of rock that will carry heavy metal
this new century as a new monster.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"R" by Queens of the Stone Age.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE: I've got a secret I cannot say. Blame it on
movement to give it away. You've got something that I understand. Hold it
tightly. God demands. Leap of faith. Do you doubt? Cut you in I'll just
cut you out. Whatever you do, don't tell anyone. Whatever you do, don't
anyone. Look for reflections in your face...
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