The art of the interview
I am under the somewhat weak impression that I have managed to collect every book written by Christopher Hitchens, yet it would not be unfair to say that I am delusional, because, when confronted with such a prodigious writer as Hitchens, who knows the true extent of his works. (Yes, I know, I should have researched his bibliography before sitting down to write this ...)
Still, I am currently engrossed in ‘and yet…essays,’ a posthumous collection released by Simon & Schuster in November of 2015. Make of Hitchens what you will - a man who was unafraid of rattling many cages, a brilliant thinker who died far to soon - but can you imagine, that if he were alive today, how he would have approached the current presidential nomination fiasco? He was one of the few writers that I would have had complete faith in having the ability to tear apart all of the candidates with his coruscating and erudite polemics. As Michael Washburn of The Boston Globe said of Hitchens, "One reads him, despite his reputation as someone who wants to drink, argue, and tear the ornaments off the tree, because he is, first and last, a writer, an always exciting, often exacting, furious polemicist. This fact, the most salient thing about him, often gets neglected in the public jousting."
"The public jousting..." yes. And when I've watched videos of his talks and/or interviews, performance art is a term I would apply too. The world needed Hitchens, it shrank a little when he left us.
Jorge Ramos, the host of ‘‘Noticiero Univision’’ and ‘‘Al Punto’’ on the Univision network, has a brief interview in the New York Times magazine today. I will return to this in a moment, but I want to point out that when he was asked who was his favorite interviewer, he picked five; his top pick was the brilliant inquisitor Oriana Fallaci.
That I read Ramos' brief interview is serendipitous, as it relates to the fact that I was reading, just last night, ‘Oriana Fallaci and the Art of the Interview,’ an essay in Hitchens’ book. It was originally published as a eulogy in Vanity Fair in 2006, the year of her death. Here’s a couple of extracts:
Here is an excerpt from an interview with what our media culture calls a "world leader":
Dan Rather: Mr. President, I hope you will take this question in the spirit in which it's asked. First of all, I regret that I do not speak Arabic. Do you speak any … any English at all?
Saddam Hussein (through translator): Have some coffee.
Rather: I have coffee.
Hussein (through translator): Americans like coffee.
Rather: That's true. And this American likes coffee.
And here is another interview with another "world leader":
Oriana Fallaci: When I try to talk about you, here in Tehran, people lock themselves in a fearful silence. They don't even dare pronounce your name, Majesty. Why is that?
The Shah: Out of an excess of respect, I suppose.
Fallaci: I'd like to ask you: if I were an Iranian instead of an Italian, and lived here and thought as I do and wrote as I do, I mean if I were to criticize you, would you throw me in jail?
The Shah: Probably.
With Oriana Fallaci's demise at 77 from a host of cancers, in September, in her beloved Florence, there also died something of the art of the interview. Her absolutely heroic period was that of the 1970s, probably the last chance we had of staving off the complete triumph of celebrity culture. Throughout that decade, she scoured the globe, badgering the famous and the powerful and the self-important until they agreed to talk with her, and then reducing them to human scale. Facing Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, she bluntly asked him, "Do you know you are so unloved and unliked?" And she didn't spare figures who enjoyed more general approval, either. As a warm-up with Lech Walesa, she put Poland's leading anti-Communist at his ease by inquiring, "Has anyone ever told you that you resemble Stalin? I mean physically. Yes, same nose, same profile, same features, same mustache. And same height, I believe, same size."
Henry Kissinger, then at the apogee of his near-hypnotic control over the media, described his encounter with her as the most disastrous conversation he had ever had. It's easy to see why. This well-cushioned man who had always been the client of powerful patrons ascribed his success to the following:
"The main point arises from the fact that I've always acted alone. Americans like that immensely.
Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else. Maybe even without a pistol, since he doesn't shoot. He acts, that's all, by being in the right place at the right time. In short, a Western.… This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style or, if you like, my technique."
Neither Kissinger nor "Americans" in general liked this passage when it appeared in all its full-blown absurdity in late 1972. In fact, Kissinger disliked it so much that he claimed to have been misquoted and distorted. (Always watch out, by the way, when a politician or star claims to have been "quoted out of context." A quotation is by definition an excerpt from context.) In this case, though, Oriana was able to produce the tape, a transcript of which she later reprinted in a book. And there it is for all to read, with Kissinger raving on and on about the uncanny similarities between himself and Henry Fonda.
The book is called Interview with History.
And so, back to Jorge Ramos.
In his short NY Times interview, he is, of course, asked about Trump and Cruz and their proclamations of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants should either of them win the presidency. (Let's not forget that Trump had Ramos physically removed from a news conference.) His response though, is very clear: "President Obama has deported more than two million undocumented immigrants in seven years, more than any other U.S. president. Trump is talking about deporting 11 million. Ted Cruz said he wants to deport 12 million. For us, immigration is not something abstract. It is personal. Very, very personal."
It is worth noting, that weirdly, his interlocutor doesn't ask Ramos about his views re immigration or deportation of either Clinton or Sanders. The media obsession with Trump, Cruz and Rubio, for the moment remains intact.
For Ramos, and the millions of undocumented immigrants facing deportation, I can only imagine that, yes, it is very personal. And with Hitchens and Fallaci no longer among us, hopefully Ramos is the interrogator that picks up their torches; it could happen; should Ramos get in front of our next president he would surely ask the difficult questions that Hitchens and Fallaci never failed to ask.
Fallaci's power was, that like Hitchens, she considered herself a writer rather than a journalist. And, as a writer, she explained, "as you know, I never give interviews." Perhaps Ramos should hold off doing interviews too...