What are some of your most memorable interview moments?
I spend a great deal of time preparing for interviews and learning about each guest. For many guests, my familiarity with their work makes them more comfortable and creates a more natural and informative conversation. A good example is my interview with Oliver Stone
. At first he was guarded and distracted, but once he realized I was prepared and had watched all of his movies, his demeanor changed and I was able to zero in on the impact his service in the Vietnam War had on his art.
I interviewed Elizabeth Warren
a year or two before the financial collapse. A Harvard Law professor, she had been working on the economic distress of the middle class. I was terribly impressed with her insights and with her background; she is the daughter of parents who experienced the Great Depression first hand in Oklahoma. When the financial crisis hit, she became an important figure in the fight against the practices of the banks and credit cards companies and was named chairperson of the Congressional commission to investigate the bank bail out.
In 2008 I interviewed Allan Hamilton
, former chairman of the Surgery Department of the University of Arizona Medical School. He wrote a book on how science often couldn’t explain the recovery of his patients. In the course of preparing for the interview, I noted that, as an undergraduate, he had taken a writing course with Rod Serling of "The Twilight Zone." Many of the stories in his book were almost mystical and dealt with the supernatural. When I asked him if that undergraduate course had made him sensitive to these issues. he was taken aback because he had never made the connection in his own mind. Immediately after the interview, he called his wife to tell her about the insight into his intellectual odyssey—a connection that that hadn't been in his consciousness while writing the book.
is a Japanese Nobel Laureate in Literature I interviewed in 2000. His major novel draws on his experience with the birth of his brain damaged son. In preparing for the interview, I realized that he had been heavily influenced by a visit to Hiroshima around the time of his child’s birth. The discussion of this connection in the interview provoked an unbelievably moving account of his decision about the survival of his son and his son's emergence as an outstanding composer.
In 2007 I interviewed Kenneth Kaunda
, one of the great leaders of the African liberation struggle and the first black President of Zambia. We traced the influence of religion on his rise as a political and national leader and I was really taken by his concern for his own people, but also humanity in general. His description of how his love of God made him a better political leader was quite moving and came from the heart.
is a hero for the 1960s generation. In our 1998 conversation, we discussed in detail his decision to leak the Pentagon papers, an extraordinary heroic act that set in motion a series of events that brought down President Nixon. I was terribly impressed with how our dialogue captured the essence of his story: rigorous analysis of the constraints on presidents as as they waged the Vietnam War, together with a moving appreciation for the human drama of a conscientious objector he had met whose example of resistance led Ellsberg to make the decision to give up his career as one of the President’s men and take the path of Resistance, thereby changing the course of American history.
CWH was one of the first programs to air on UCTV and, over the past decade, it has become our most popular series. What’s changed for you since you’ve “gone global?”
When I travel in the state, in other parts of the U.S. or globally (China or Europe, for example), I run into people who know the program and watch me regularly on YouTube
or via podcast
, and I get fan letters from all over the globe. UCTV has done an unbelievable job of expanding to new platforms as new technologies have emerged. It is really mind boggling to be appreciated both locally and globally.
My guests also feel the effect. In 1998 I interviewed the world renowned jurist, Albie Sachs
, Associate Justice of the South African Constitutional Court and a heroic fighter against apartheid. He travels all over the world and, months after the interview, he wrote to tell me how his audiences were asking surprisingly poignant questions about his life and work. When he would ask them about how they knew so much, they would invariably respond, “Oh, we saw the Conversations with History interview!”
Tell us about your new book, "Conversations with History: Political Awakenings."
I collected 20 of the most fascinating interviews from the archive. My editor suggested the title “Political Awakenings” and I ran with that idea. As I played with the concept, I realized that the interviewees stand out because they came to see their world in a radically different way, with important implications for The World. They embraced ideas and actions that implied an alternative way of perceiving politics. In this context, politics means more than party affiliation; it refers to an understanding of power relations. They applied these insights in a variety of arenas, whether world affairs, the role of women in society, the impact on the environment of human behavior. In their own lives, the insights of these guests didn’t just happen but were the consequences of life experiences that helped clarify the way things held together—moments of political awakening.
Invariably, because of the interface between past and present, because of the limits and opportunities of their profession, or because of the interaction of different worlds, my guests were positioned to imagine alternatives to the conventional wisdom. A new way of seeing emerged in their thinking, in their writing, in their activism; with courage, perseverance, and determination, they took their ideas to a broader audience. In so doing, their world and the Politics of their World were changed forever.