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Legal Correspondent Jeffrey Toobin on the Potential "Terms of Impeachment"

We'll talk about the latest news in the Clinton/Lewinsky matter, including the controversy surrounding the release of videotapes made during the president's testimony in front of the grand jury. Toobin's article in the September 14, 1998 New Yorker is entitled "Terms of Impeachment."


Other segments from the episode on September 17, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 17, 1998: Interview with Jeffrey Toobin; Interview with Joan Nathan.


Date: SEPTEMBER 17, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091701np.217
Head: Terms of Impeachment
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Jeffrey Toobin is writing a book about the Starr investigation and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and he's covering the story in his positions as a staff writer for the "New Yorker" and legal analyst for ABC News.

Toobin is a lawyer who established his journalistic reputation with his intelligent reporting on the O.J. Simpson trial. Toobin has some first-hand experience in a special prosecutor's office. He was an assistant counsel to special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh during the Iran-Contra investigation.

I spoke with Toobin early this morning, before that House Judiciary Committee began its meeting about whether to release the videotape of the president's grand jury testimony, responding to questions about the exact nature of his physical contact with Lewinsky. I asked Jeffrey Toobin if there's any precedent for releasing videotape of testimony before grand jury.



... the grand jury testimony of any witnesses that the government calls in its case. So defendants often see the grand jury testimony of witnesses against them in criminal cases. So one of the things that I think there's been a little misinformation about is that it somehow completely unprecedented for anyone ever to see grand jury testimony.

It is virtually without precedent for any grand jury testimony to be videotaped, so the format of the disclosure is certainly rare -- or at -- certainly unprecedented in my experience. But the mere fact that grand jury material is disclosed is not all that out of the ordinary.

GROSS: Well, you were talking about disclosing it to other participants in the trial, as opposed to disclosing it to the public. Is there a difference?

TOOBIN: Well, I think that, you know, in big cases that material often filters out to the public. You know, in most criminal cases the public doesn't care about the grand jury testimony. Certainly there's never been this kind of celebrated disclosure of grand jury testimony. But the notion that grand jury testimony always is inviolate is just not correct.

GROSS: Some people are saying that can Kenneth Starr is taking advantage of the fact that President Clinton chose to testify through video and it's taking unfair -- it's like punishing him for having used that form.

TOOBIN: I think this is a fascinating issue and I think both sides bear some fault here. Certainly, I think the Starr team has exploited some of vulnerabilities that the president has had because he is the president. But it's important to remember that it was the president's team that insisted on this videotape deposition and refused to walk can into the grand jury.

You know, I think this was a tremendous miscalculation. And there were some members of the -- and this is not just hindsight -- there are some members of the legal team who were thinking this at the time, that, hey, once you go before video cameras, there's going to be a permanent record of this. And through whatever legal mechanism, they were worried that it was going to come out at some point.

They were saying: look, you go into the grand jury room. Sure, there is an element of humiliation of actually walking in a being the first president to do that. But the one thing you can be sure of in a grand jury wrote is that there's no permanent videotape record. And I think that's going to be proved to be a historian miscalculation on the part of Clinton's lawyers.

GROSS: I think that House Judiciary Committee is thinking that the point of releasing the video is the public's need to know, the public's rights to know. What is the role of public opinion in impeachment hearings or in even the decision of whether to hold impeachment hearings?

TOOBIN: Impeachment is more of a political process than it is a legal process, and it doesn't operate according to legal rules of evidence. It is a product only of Congress. And I think both, sort of, in the Constitution and, in fact, Congress, especially the House of Representatives, is designed to respond at least in part to the will of the people. And they are not going to impeach someone if their constituents dramatically do not want them to do that.

So the public doesn't have an official part in the impeachment process, but I don't think, you know, we should pretend that they are not -- that they don't have a role. And I think keeping the public involved is a legitimate concern of the Judiciary Committee and everyone else in Congress.

GROSS: How do you think the release of this video might change the story?

TOOBIN: Boy, I've been wrong so often on that. I think the -- it's hard to imagine how it could do anything good for the president. Certainly there will be just the mere fact of the president discussing these extremely intimate, embarrassing subjects, it is going to be unpleasant. The famous Clinton temper is apparently going to be on display, as well.

And I think, perhaps, worst of all is some of the legalistic distinctions that his lawyers have been so greatly taken to task for. You know, the most famous being that the president didn't believe that oral sex with sex. Instead of being in the lawyers mouths, these statements are going to be in the president's mouths. And if people -- mouth -- and if people think that, you know, he's weaseling or at worst lying about this, I think it's really bad.

GROSS: My guest is ABC News legal analyst and staff writer for the "New Yorker" Jeffrey Toobin.

What happened to the grand jury? What has the grand jury's actual role been in the release of the materials?

TOOBIN: Well, as a former prosecutor, I have to say I have a lot of skepticism for the grand jury as an institution. They are essentially rubber stamps for what the prosecutors want to do. I mean, they are 23 people of whom 16 you hope show up at every session. And they don't even have to be the same 16 people. But basically, in addition to just other than logging in a few questions, this grand jury had even less to do than most grand juries, because most grand juries at least that the end of the day they have to vote indictments.

They didn't have to vote anything for this report, this was completely the product of the Starr -- of the Starr prosecutors. They sit there and they listened to testimony, but, in fact, they have nothing to do with the direction or results of this or any other investigation.

GROSS: So what's the point of having the grand jury?

TOOBIN: Well, this is -- in legal circles, that issue has been debated for a long time. The fact is, the Constitution -- I'm -- I think it's either the Fifth or the Sixth Amendment -- speaks of the need for grand juries, that you can't be indicted for a felony without a grand jury. I think, you know, there's not much chance of a constitutional amendment changing that, but they are to a great extent a fiction.

You know, the famous line from former Chief Judge Saul Wachler (ph) of the New York Court of Appeals is that any prosecutor worth his salt could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. And I think that is demonstrably true, and this myth that you have to persuade the grand jury of something is just that -- it's the prosecutors who run the show, and that's true in this and every other investigation.

GROSS: And what happens to them now?

TOOBIN: Well, there actually still in session. And one of the mysteries here is what Starr will continue to do with them. There are reports that he is still investigating matters related to the Kathleen Willey incidents. He has a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington that he's still supervising.

He still has jurisdiction over Filegate, the Travelgate, Whitewater, and he has filed no reports regarding those matters. And presumably, he will file reports with the three-judge court that supervises his work, or potentially return indictments about them.

GROSS: Jeffrey Toobin, you were an assistant to Lawrence Walsh during part of the period that he was special prosecutor investigating the Iran-Contra affair. How would you compare the charges of Iran-Contra to the charges against President Clinton?

TOOBIN: I think if you ask most Americans they have a much clearer idea of what oral sex is than what the Boland Amendment is.


GROSS: That's, I think, a fair statement.

TOOBIN: And I think that's the root of some of the difference between the two -- the two -- the two matters.

You know, I think it's easy to say that, you know, Iran-Contra was, you know, so much more serious, and this is trivial, yet this is getting more attention. I think it is actually more complicated than that.

Iran-Contra did -- was a very complex and serious matter regarding whether the White House violated congressional restrictions on aid to the Contras in Nicaragua and then lying about it later. I think there are real issues about whether that -- all of that, however serious it might have been, whether it was appropriately a criminal matter. And Walsh and I later had some disagreements about that.

I think the irony here about the Lewinsky matter is that I don't think there's any doubt that -- everyone agrees that perjury in obstruction of justice are crimes; there's just the dispute about whether the underlying matter is serious enough to merit all the attention we've given it. So I don't think they are perfect counterpoints to each other; they actually have a good deal in common.

GROSS: Lawrence Walsh was quoted in the "New Yorker" as saying that during the Iran-Contra period that he and his assistants knew of "awkward personal relationships" in the Iran-Contra inquiry, but they wouldn't question anyone about it. Do you have any memories of how that was treated and why?

TOOBIN: Gosh, I -- that's interesting. I wish I had known. I don't remember any awkward personal relationships. I think we had a much more deferential attitude towards the office, if not the occupant, of the president of the United States in the Iran-Contra matter. We did written interrogatories to President Reagan. Then-Vice President Bush gave an interview, but I think once Bush became president, they also dealt with him more in writing.

It's ironic. I simply don't even remember. Perhaps there were other people who were privy to these discussions; they certainly didn't get very far about even the discussion of subpoenaing the president of the United States. So I think, you know, we were cognizant of the significance of the president in the constitutional scheme, and I think we treated the -- we treated him and both -- in the office itself with a lot -- with a lot more respect been Starr has treated the Clinton presidency.

GROSS: Do you think that Starr has expanded the definition of special prosecutor significantly since the days you worked with Lawrence Walsh?

TOOBIN: Oh, absolutely. I think if there is any sure thing that comes out of the Lewinsky matter and the Starr investigation as a whole, is that there is a -- close to a national consensus that the independent counsel law is a monstrosity that is completely out of control and will be, when it expires next year in 1999, it will be either sharply limited or done away with altogether.

GROSS: And what do you think the after effect of that will be?

TOOBIN: I think actually it will be a good thing. We'll go back to the situation that there was at the time that Archibald Cox was appointed in the early '70s, which was: in the event of really serious conflicts of interest about the president himself, the attorney general will be able to appoint a special prosecutor under his or her supervision who will be able to, you know, investigate with great political independence.

Now, the argument against that is: well, what about the Saturday Night Massacre? Isn't that why we have an independent counsel law? And my answer to that is: what about the Saturday Night Massacre? The political cost that the president paid for that was so high that I think no president will fire a special prosecutor in the future without, you know, taking grave political consequences.

And the cure here is so much worse than the disease. These endless debates that we have about whether independent counsels should be appointed and whether the triggering mechanism of the statute is too high or too low. I think personally they ought to do away with the whole thing and let the Justice Department prosecute people if people need to be prosecuted, and stop these incredibly expensive and really disruptive and unfair prosecutions.

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer for the "New Yorker" and legal analyst for ABC News. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is staff writer for The "New Yorker" and ABC News legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

The charges against the president now are perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and abuse of office. What's your sense of the charges that he's most vulnerable on?

TOOBIN: I think, based on reading the Starr Report, the -- he's most vulnerable on perjury and obstruction of justice with his secretary Betty Currie. The -- I think the abuse of office charges are really, there's something deeply wrong with the nature of those charges against him. Basically, the core of those charges is that by citing executive privilege, that is in the end of itself and abuse of power.

And I guess I am enough of a lawyer to think that the mere fact that you're using available defenses, which executive privilege was, in which the courts ruled did apply in the cases -- in the circumstances that the president asserted it -- the mere fact of citing those, I think it's really repellent to think that just because, you know, you don't like the underlying conduct, that the citing of the privilege is an abusive power. And I think those charges will fall away rather quickly.

But I think the Starr Report, though we've only heard one side of the story now, makes a very powerful case that the president lied in his Paula Jones deposition and in the grand jury. And I think it makes at least a plausible case that he tried to get Betty Currie to lie in his -- in the immediate aftermath of his -- of his deposition in the Paula Jones case.

GROSS: What he was lying about was sex, and what we understand according to the testimony was a consensual relationship. Are there degrees of lying in situations like this? If you lie about a consensual sexual relationship, is that the same as lying about behavior during the war, or lying about a friend who committed a murder that you witnessed?

TOOBIN: You're asking the question that is really at the heart of this whole -- of this whole inquiry. And I think, you know, people bring very different political views to that question. And I think, you know, that you will -- you will -- you know, this debate over whether all lies are created equal is one that is certainly, you know, going to be at the forefront as Congress -- as Congress debates this issue.

I think, you know, I hate to weasel out of this, but, you know, I'm troubled by it. I really haven't decided in my own mind how I feel about this. If -- if he had just lied in the Paula Jones deposition and then when confronted about it in the grand jury had said: you know, I panicked, look I was wrong, I'm sorry, you know, it's obvious I had sexual relations with this woman, it's obvious I didn't behave properly, you know, I apologize. That would be, I think, one circumstance.

However, that's not what he did. He went into the Paula -- he went into the -- his grand jury testimony -- which, it's worth remembering, is still less than a month ago -- and stuck with this story; which, you know, you know, is troubling to me, if, in fact, it's proved that that story is false.

GROSS: The president has been arguing that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky wasn't technically sex because she performed oral sex on him and he didn't touch her erogenous zones.

TOOBIN: And we know, after all, he was on the phone, so I guess that's part of his defense.

GROSS: But Monica Lewinsky testified that he did touch her breasts and genitals. What is the law for determining who's right in a situation when it's two people alone in a room, there are no other witnesses, and they are contradicting each other?

TOOBIN: The law is really pretty simple. It's a matter of whom the jury believes. You know, the standard in a criminal case is "prove beyond a reasonable doubt," and there is no law that says, sort of, one witness isn't good enough. It's if one -- if the jury believes one person rather than the other, that's the law.

But I think this whole issue of the sort of "look, ma, no hands" defense is the -- underlines the difference between the political process of impeachment and the legal process of perjury.

If this were a criminal case and this was a count of perjury -- and this were a count of perjury, there would undoubtedly be a great deal of testimony about what Bill Clinton was doing with his hands during this -- these oral sex encounters. And that would be something the jury with confront.

Congress has a very different calculation. The Republicans in Congress are very worried about making this investigation all about sex. And they are very wary of the entire country gathered around their televisions, looking at the testimony in their hearing room, and it's Monica Lewinsky testifying about what Bill Clinton was doing with his hands. They don't want that.

And the Democrats, Clinton's defenders, know that. So they have to walk very gingerly about this, and they are -- there is a lot of behind-the-scenes worrying about -- especially on the Republican side -- about how they can make the case against Clinton on perjury without getting into all these salacious details that they think will reflect as badly on Congress as it will on the participants in these now famous sexual encounters.

GROSS: The definition that everybody has been reading and debating about what sex is, is that a fairly standard legal definition of "sex"? Is there a standard legal definition of "sex"?

TOOBIN: This -- there are many poetic definitions, but not many legal. It comes from -- it's not a standard definition of "sex." That definition of "sex" comes from a fairly recent statute involving sexual abuse, and -- a federal statute -- and it was just sort of taking whole from there.

You know, one of the interesting sort of lawyering questions that comes out of this is, you know, the Jones lawyers were trying to the so cute and so official and they gave him this, you know, fancy definition of sex in an effort, it seems, to pin him down.

In fact, all they did was confused a situation. If they had just simply asked him: "did you have oral sex with Monica Lewinsky" -- a lot of these problems could have been avoided. And they would have given him far fewer outs than they had through this silly definition.

I think, you know, it is -- there is no standard legal definition of sex, but it is one that appears in the federal law, but fairly recently and it's not used all that extensively.

GROSS: Jeffrey Toobin is a staff writer for the "New Yorker" and legal analyst for ABC News. Our interview was recorded early this morning. We'll hear more of it in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of the interview I recorded early this morning about the Starr Report with Jeffrey Toobin. He's a staff writer for the "New Yorker" and legal analyst for ABC News. He's also a former prosecutor.

Jeffrey, you're covering the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story now and the possibility of impeachment hearings. And you also covered the O.J. Simpson trial and wrote a very popular book about that. And a couple of questions I want to ask you about those two cases.

DNA has played a part in each of those two cases. In the O.J. Simpson trial, the DNA evidence was highly-contested. In the Bill Clinton story, I mean, no one seems to have contested the DNA evidence on that blue Gap dress. So what does that say to you about the future of DNA evidence?

TOOBIN: Well, it's interesting. I mean given the surreal nature of sort of modern journalism and law, the connection between the two is actually somewhat more direct. You know, Lucianne Goldberg, the famous literary agent who persuaded her friend Linda Tripp to tape Monica Lewinsky, you know, she's also Mark Fuhrman's literary agent; Mark Fuhrman, the disgraced LAPD officer who was so involved in the Simpson case. And when the first reports of the DNA-stained dress came out, Lucianne Goldberg asked her client Mark Fuhrman: you know, what's the deal with this DNA, is it really reliable?

The fact is, there is a difference between semen DNA and blood DNA. Blood DNA, if you recall the defense in the O.J. Simpson case, it wasn't actually that the DNA -- the tests were unreliable; it's that the blood had been planted there; Simpson's blood had been sort of put -- put somewhere.

You can really plant someone's semen without getting it in the first place, and I think there were really no reliability issues here. And also Clinton admitted an improper relationship with the Lewinsky, so he's not -- they were in no position to contest that it was his semen.

However, it's an interesting question -- we'll never know -- but if these DNA tests had not been available, would Clinton even have made that much of an admission? You know, it's hard to know.

GROSS: There was a whole media infrastructure that was put into place during the O.J. Simpson trial, and I'm wondering if you think that part of that infrastructure is now covering the Clinton-Lewinsky story.

TOOBIN: Well, I guess, present company. I'm a girder in that infrastructure.

GROSS: Oh, right.

TOOBIN: You know, I think there is a tremendous interest in and sophistication about legal affairs on the part of -- on the part of the American people. I mean, you know, there was a time when if you said the words "grand jury" or "subpoena" or "deposition" that they required some explanation.

You know, I think there is not total knowledge about these matters, but the drama of investigations and trials and legal maneuverings is something that -- thanks to people like Scott Turow and John Grisham, but also to, you know, Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran -- is something that seems to be -- and, from my selfish perspective, one can only hope -- is a permanent part of the news infrastructure. And I think the traveling band of legal analysts will move from case to case, you know, from now to eternity.

GROSS: Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran had their own shows. I'm not sure if they still do or not. But have you seen them be experts weighing in on the Clinton-Lewinsky story?

TOOBIN: Oh, absolutely. Marcia Clark is a substitute on the Geraldo Rivera -- substitute host of the Geraldo Rivera show. And Johnnie Cochran has a show on Court TV. And you know, you -- one of the great complaints about the legal analysts, and certainly my own complaint, they -- I try not to do this myself -- but there's this practice of acting by all these lawyers are the greatest lawyers in the world, and they're always critiquing the performance of the people who happened to be in the spotlight at the moment.

You know, if you look back on the Simpson case, you have to wonder what gives them the right to be experts about much of anything. But, no, the "Simpson alumni association" is well-represented in all -- in this one.

GROSS: You had to deal with the rumor mill in the O.J. Simpson story, and now you're dealing with it, I'm sure, in the Clinton-Lewinsky story. Are there a lot of rumors that are being put out to the press now?

TOOBIN: There is. This has been an extremely difficult story to cover. It's actually somewhat easier now that was in this period between January and August, because almost everything we knew between January and August about the investigation came in the form of leaks; often from Starr's office, but not exclusively from Starr's office. A lot of defense lawyers knew information from their clients testifying in the grand jury and information, you know, came out through that route, as well.

But it was really hard, I think, to maintain some sort of journalistic discipline, in terms of reporting the progress of the investigation when it was a illegal for the start people to disclose anything. And, you know, we in the press have a tremendous sort of bias here, because, you know, on the one hand, we are the people who were begging the Starr office for these leaks. And that's, you know, what our editors and our producers expect of us, and that's something that we're supposed to do. Yet, in our general role as kind of policeman of the facts, the fact that the Starr office was leaking was relevant in determining the credibility and the responsibility of that office.

And I think the Starr office, you know, got away with the law, because we were so dependent on them and very reluctant to blow the whistle on this behavior.

GROSS: Can I ask how you do with those leaks?

TOOBIN: Well, why not getting a lot of them, I think. I -- you know, the work that I did -- I for the "New Yorker" tended to be a little bit off the main stories of what was being disclosed at any given moment. But I think certainly in my work for ABC, I would often analyze the latest leaks and what that meant for the case, and I think by doing that, you know, I was a party to these leaks, as well. And I think that's one of the issues that, as we get some distance from this story, we're going to have to search our souls about.

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer for the "New Yorker" and legal analyst for ABC News. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer for the "New Yorker" and legal analyst for ABC News.

"Salon" published this story that Henry Hyde, the head of the Judiciary Committee, had had an adulterous affair 30 years ago. My understanding is that story was shopped to several newspapers, and they turned it down. And I'm wondering if you are aware of this going on now, if there are other stories being shopped around of other sexual indiscretions on the part of people in Congress?

TOOBIN: I am aware from first-hand knowledge that there are stories in this -- in this genre being shopped around. And it's a real struggle. And I think, again, this is one of the most difficult areas to be dealt with, because, you know, I think, you know, all of us in the press are aware that politicians, like anyone else, deserve some measure of privacy. And it is just repellent to us that people's personal lives will be, you know, the subject of everyday attention.

However, we are also aware that if, you know, Congressman X calls for the president's impeachment on the grounds that he's immoral and that he committed adultery and that congressman himself had committed adultery, I do think that's fair game.

Now, I think the Hyde story is, you know, repellent in every way, because Hyde had never been one who said anything about, you know, the president being impeached for adultery. I think it was a completely unfair in inappropriate story to run. But with some other people, I might be more interested.

GROSS: Everyone is covering the story, and I'm wondering what it's been liked for you to find your place in this kind of mass journalism.

TOOBIN: It's funny that you mention that. It's something that I struggle with a lot, and especially at the "New Yorker," where, you know, we pride ourselves on either providing information or analysis that you can't get anywhere else, yet staying fairly close to the news and being sort of on top of -- being on top of these very, very covered stories.

I think what I try to do is concentrate on taking a step back and not look at, you know, look at what day-to-day developments necessarily happened, but, sort of, why, you know, why, say, the Republicans are so afraid of seeming sex obsessed. What are the roots of that and how do that happen and what's the context for that? And trying to pick out corners of the story that are right for exploration that other people won't -- that other people don't have the resources or the time or the sort of background to do.

But I ain't going to kid you, it's hard. I mean, you know, I look at "The New York Times" and I see that they have 20 or 30 reporters on this story. And, you know, it's an intimidating prospect, they're all very good.

GROSS: Well, where do you do -- I mean, at the O.J. Simpson trial you show up in court; there's a place you're supposed to be every day where the story unfolds. But the story is unfolding in many places, and there isn't -- you know, where do you go to find out what your story today?

TOOBIN: It's interesting. I mean, this is against something that I have noticed about this story, that it has a particular kind of formlessness. Iran-Contra had a similar problem, ultimately. You know, you did have Central America, but the Washington part of the story didn't have the -- didn't have this scenes that you want as a journalist.

I mean, today, obviously, the House Judiciary Committee would be a place to be, although it's in executive session. And being on Capitol Hill as the 535, you know, congressmen and senators deal with this and talk about it constantly, and all their aides talk about it constantly. That's a place where you'll get a lot of opinions, if not necessarily always a great deal of insight.

You know, the White House is another place. I mean, you can't wander around the White House the way you can -- the way you can Congress. And the Starr office is certainly off-limits to reporters.

But this story doesn't have a center, and it is sometimes frustrating that, you know, that you don't -- you don't have a place to go. But I do think increasingly, Capitol Hill is going to be the headquarters of this story and that's where all the drama's going to take place

. GROSS: Well, Jeffrey Toobin, I want to thank you very much for talking with us today. I mean, I'll let you get back to your work of the day. Thank you for being with us.

TOOBIN: My pleasure as always.

GROSS: Jeffrey Toobin is a staff writer for the "New Yorker," and legal analyst for ABC News. Our interview was recorded early this morning.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jeffrey Toobin
High: Jeffrey Toobin is the legal correspondent for ABC news and a staff writer for the "New Yorker" magazine. We'll talk about the latest news in the Clinton-Lewinsky matter, including the controversy surrounding the release of videotapes made during the president's testimony in front of the grand jury. Toobin's article in the September 14, 1998 "New Yorker" is entitled "Terms of Impeachment." Despite the tawdriness of the Lewinsky case, the gravest of constitutional procedures is unfolding much the way the Framers intended.
Spec: Jeffrey Toobin; Starr Report; ""New Yorker""; Clinton; Monica Lewinsky

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Terms of Impeachment

Date: SEPTEMBER 17, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091702NP.217
Head: Jewish Cooking in America
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Jewish high holy days begin Sunday at sundown, and for many American Jews it's a time for preparing an eating traditional foods.

My guest Joan Nathan is the host of a new 26-part PBS series on Jewish cooking in America, and she's the author of the companion book. It's not just her grandmother's gefilte fish that got her thinking about Jewish food. She got interested in the 1970s when she was working for Teddy Kollock (ph), the mayor of Jerusalem.

Her PBS series covers such subjects as the Borschtbelt (ph); the Sabbath dinner; brisket, the Jewish pot roast; the knosh, Jewish fast food; and a history of chopped liver. In one edition, and elderly Eastern European immigrant demonstrates her recipe for gefilte fish.

JOAN NATHAN, HOST, "JEWISH COOKING IN AMERICA": Well, this woman is -- her name is Doris Salganik (ph), she's 92 years old -- I should say 92 years young. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and she came over to this country in 1911. She remembers everything.

And it was actually -- filmed that one in my kitchen in Washington. And everybody -- the people showed up because it was, you know, my kitchen was being films, and it was hysterical. I was just cracking up. This woman who had never been on television before could have been Mel Brooks older sister. She was so wonderful. And -- but what was really wonderful about her is that she told the story of the immigration. It could have been -- it doesn't necessarily have to be a Jewish immigration, but it's the immigration of the Eastern European to the United States, and the importance of something like gefilte fish in her life.

GROSS: What was the importance of gefilte fish in her life?

NATHAN: Well, for her, I think it brings everybody around her. Everybody expects her to make gefilte finish, she makes a big deal about each year, how much it costs. She cuts about, she uses an 85-year-old grinder -- hand grinder -- hand chopper -- excuse me. And she's chopping it in this wooden bowl. And she doesn't believe in food processors, she tastes the fish.

It's -- I think that what this fish recalls for her or represents for her, as it does for other people that had been in this series, is her life, and it's the link between generations. The fish, as she makes the fish she thinks about Russia, or the Ukraine, where she was born. She thinks about her mother and her father who, of course, are long gone. She thinks about her children. She thinks about what she's doing for her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. She's thinking about the tradition of the Jews, the Jewish holidays.

All these things go in her mind as she makes this one dish. So that, to me, this woman especially in this series, represents traditions, not just what we put on the plate.

GROSS: What is gefilte fish?

NATHAN: OK. Well, gefilte fish traditionally meant -- "gefilte" means "filled fish." And what it was was chopped fish that was put back in the skin of a fish and then it was simmered. She does it for three hours; I do it for 20 minutes. And then it's served cold with a gel.

And I suspect the reason that she really cooks it for three hours is that she wants to reduce the stock to a gel. Of course, you can reduce it without having the fish cooking for three hours. But this is the traditional way she did it. And then you serve it cold.

Traditionally, gefilte fish was something that was used for Jewish holidays, but also the Sabbath. And the reason that you ate gefilte fish cold was that you couldn't cook on the Sabbath. And also, one rabbi told me that you're not supposed to pick, you're not supposed to really work at eating. And by chopping the fish and putting in back in the skin, or as we do, more of a lazy American way, is we make it in patties, you wouldn't have to pick at anything, you could just eat it.

GROSS: Did you like gefilte fish as a kid?

NATHAN: Well, as a kid, I must tell you that we always had canned gefilte fish, and I thought it was awful. And in my house we had it before the Passover seder; that was really the only time that I think that we ever had it.

My mother-in-law makes gefilte fish from scratch and it's wonderful, but I never liked it as a kid. And it's taking me until I had hers to realize that it can be good. And of course, what makes it even better is good horseradish.

GROSS: My mother recently told me that when she was young and her mother -- my grandmother -- used to make gefilte fish from scratch, that it would just terrorize my mother because sometimes, like, the fish broth with broil over on the stove and it would, you know, smell up the house as it was -- as it was cooking. And just that smell of fish drove her crazy.

NATHAN: Well, it still drives me crazy. I don't really like that smell particularly when I do it. But I do it, and as long as my mother-in-law's alive I will do it for the different holidays. Because it's -- in my house, it's a chance for my mother-in-law to be center stage. And she stands there -- and she's very elderly now and very frail -- but see thinks about her mother when he's putting -- she likes to take ahead of the fish and put the -- have the eyes bear. She puts carrots in the eyes.

And she always says -- every time she does it she stuffs that head and she says: my mother always saved the head of the fish. And her parents perished in Belzec concentration camp. And this is her moment to think about them. And, again, she's making it for her children and grandchildren. So it's sort of a continuity of life.

GROSS: My guest is Joan Nathan, host of the new PBS series "Jewish Cooking in America" and author of the companion book. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Joan Nathan, host of the new PBS series "Jewish Cooking in America," and author of the companion book.

Part of the book explores how keeping a kosher kitchen affected Jewish cooking. For example, part of keeping kosher means never mixing meat and milk in the same meal, and that makes some dishes and some preparation styles off-limits.

There's something very funny in your book "Jewish Cooking in America." You write about how Crisco was the first vegetable shortening that in Jewish cooking could be considered parve (ph), which is, it's neutral, it's neither considered, you know, milk or meat. So you could use anything; you could cook anything in Crisco. So Crisco developed an advertising campaign geared toward Jewish cooks. And it said that this was the product that the Hebrew race had been waiting for for 4,000 years.

NATHAN: I love that. That's one of my favorite anecdotes from the book. But what's also interesting is that Crisco, as a company when they put out a Yiddish-English cookbook for the Jewish population, they also put out a Japanese-English cookbook for the Japanese population of Hawaii. And my guess is -- and this is in the teens or early '20s -- was that they realized that they would use Crisco for tempura. So they were reaching out.

GROSS: Now, before things like Crisco...

NATHAN: Jewish cooks used schmaltz...

GROSS: Right.

NATHAN: ... which is chicken fat.

GROSS: Right.

NATHAN: They also used beef fat.

GROSS: But they probably had more chicken around than...
NATHAN: right. Absolutely

GROSS: (unintelligible) beef. How would you cook with schmaltz?

NATHAN: Well, you would use it in a way the way the would use Crisco. First, what you would do is, you would try to render the fat. And if you're using it for dessert, you wouldn't put onions in it. You would just cook it down, cook the fat down, and then, once it's cooled it becomes -- it looks a little bit like Crisco. I mean, it's a little bit different color. And an...

GROSS: White and pasty.

NATHAN: Right, white and pasty. And then what you would do is you would use it the way the you would use butter, let's say, in a recipe. It's the same with beef. But then, if you wanted to be very flavorful, let's say for chopped liver, you might saute it when you're cooking it down with onions. And then there's a lot more flavor to it. But you wouldn't want that for dessert, of course.

GROSS: Is your interest in Jewish food more about taste or about tradition?

NATHAN: I think mine is, I would say it's more about tradition. It's really -- I'm interested in this story behind the food. I like the food, but what really is my primary concern is carrying on that tradition.

I mean, if I thought they were bad-tasting foods I wouldn't include them in my books. But I really like the link between a person, his recipe and his past. That's what really drives me.

GROSS: Do you find that there are new foods or new variations on old foods being added to the repertoire?

NATHAN: There are definitely new variations on old foods. I mean, look at what's happened with bagels. You know, that's a great example.

GROSS: The chocolate chip bagel. The apple honey bagel.

MAKING: Or knishes. I mean, you think that your grandmother ever had a broccoli knish? Certainly Madison Avenue has changed the way that Jewish people eat in America.


NATHAN: Well, every time that a new product came on the market -- let's say -- let's say canned pineapples. Somebody might have wanted to sell them to the Jewish public, and so that what they were -- they smartly did was they'd find recipes to include with Dole pineapples, crushed pineapple, make a really good kugel with pineapple, and send it, package -- there used to be all these little recipes that were sent out.

There was a wonderful man named Joseph Jacobs who wanted -- he knew that the immigrants Eastern European women desperately wanted to be American, but they didn't read English, just like Italian American women. I'm sure this was not just limited to Jewish population. And what he did was he went to people like Joseph Kraft and said to them: I will translate your recipes into Yiddish. Will you please give me some recipes, I'll translate them and will put them in the Yiddish press. Then he'd have advertisers. These women could be more American.

So you'd see ads for, let's say, Crisco for American fried chicken, with people like Molly Goldberg showing people how to make them in the English press. And so these women wanted to be American and they'd talk about in Yiddish "leemon pie" or "ba-na-na pie," you know, with a Yiddish accent. And they were written in transliteration in Yiddish, but American pie. There is no pie in Eastern Europe. And they wanted to make a double crusted American high, and that's what they learned to do from all these -- so that that was early on.

And then, of course, when people started reading English, they would send them to different Jewish newspapers in English -- like canned pineapple, cream cheese -- and give them different versions of each recipe so that people could try something new. Cranberry stuffed cabbage. We have that in one of our shows.

GROSS: The Jewish high holy days are coming out...


GROSS:... and Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, where people who observe fast from sundown to sundown. And I'm wondering how your family broke the fast when you were growing up.

NATION: When I was growing up, we always came to our house, and my mother still does it -- and she does it alone now, she's 85 -- she might have one or two people, but she doesn't like to break it with a big party, which has become very much in American tradition. And we always broke it with herring and sour cream -- my mother's recipe, it's in one of my cookbooks -- and a little bit of wine, and just bagels, cream cheese, that kind of thing, be a light meal.

GROSS: But a lot of it, right?

NATHAN: A lot of it. A lot of a light meal, right, exactly.

GROSS: And what would you eat before breaking -- before fasting? Would you have a huge meal the night before?

NATHAN: Know, absolutely not. It would be something like roast chicken. I always have something like the chicken fricassee. You don't want anything that's too salty, because you don't want to be thirsty throughout the fast. And we have it very, very early him, you know, like an about 5:30, because we have to be at our synagogue by about 6:30. So I make a very quick meal, and it's only our family. I never have people before -- it's just to hurried. And you know, the important thing is really not the meal, it's going to synagogue.

It's the one-day a year that you really don't -- at least I don't think about food. I never do break the fast. I used to when I felt that I was thinking about who was coming over and what I had to do during the fast of Yom Kippur, and I just decided that's the one day I'm not ever cooking. So I'm grateful every year when friends invite us over.

GROSS: Well, I wish you an early happy new year.

NATHAN: Thank you.

GROSS: And I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

NATHAN: Thank you very much, Terry. It was my pleasure.

GROSS: Joan Nathan is the host of the new PBS series "Jewish Cooking in America," and author of the companion book.

I'm Terry Gross, and we'll close with the music of Mickey Katz.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Joan Nathan
High: Joan Nathan talks about "Jewish Cooking in America," her book and her new PBS series. The book and show are a patchwork of reminiscences and recipes from around the country. The 26-part series premieres this month; check local listings for times.
Spec: "Jewish Cooking in America"; Food and Beverages; PBS; Joan Nathan

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Jewish Cooking in America
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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