tv Charlie Rose PBS February 20, 2017 12:00pm-1:01pm PST
hockenberry: welcome to the program. i'm john hockenberry sitting in for charlie rose. we begin this evening with russia and talk to investigative journalist and author tim weiner. >> mr. flynn lied to everyone in the white house up to and including the president. the president concealed those lies from the vice president. mr. flynn got caught in a lie about what he said or did not say to the russian ambassador, mr. putin's man in moscow, and he was shown the exit. this is the reverse of the normal procedure in washington. we know the coverup, it's lying. what's the crime? this is what the f.b.i. wants to know very, very badly. >> hockenberry: we continue with russian scholar kim martin. >> possibly it is putin just trying to test the trump administration to see where
they're going. it could also be the putin regime is feeling a little bit uncertain and they want to demonstrate areas where they are strong to try to sort of prevent any uncertainty within the united states from leading to some sort of a strong response against putin. >> hockenberry: we conclude with seth myers interview with author george saunders, book is called "lincoln in the bardo." >> i noticed every time i had an artistic thing work out, my mind would go to that, you know, what do you think. in 2012, i finished my last book, the idea showed up. i was, like, why don't i try that? and the answers were it's too hard, too earnest and would require too much heart of you. i thought, okay, i'm 58. i'll at least try it. i gave myself a window, at least three months to goof around with it and it game came alive. >> hockenberry: russia and a
new novel by george saunders when we continue. >> rose: funding for "charlie rose" has been provided by the following: >> and by bloomberg, a provider of multimedia news and information services worldwide. captioning sponsored by rose communications from our studios in new york city, this is charlie rose. >> hockenberry: good evening, everyone. i'm john hockenberry sitting in for charlie rose. we begin this evening in washington. michael flynn set a record this week, not one he necessarily wanted. on monday the 25th, the national security advisor was asked to resign after just 24 days on the job. flynn got caught in a lie
because transcripts of his phone calls with the russian ambassador turned up in an ongoing counterintelligence investigation, the investigation examining ties between the russian government and president trump's upinner circle. meanwhile, leaks are springing up from all over washington from the white house to capitol hill to the intelligence community itself. here to talk about all this is pulitzer prize winning journalist tim weiner, author of histories of both the c.i.a. and f.b.i. tim, welcome to the program. >> hi, john. >> hockenberry: you know all about leaks. leaks are nothing new, but what is new about the nature in which these leaks are being outraged against by the president and the way inner agencies compete with each other to get at something which is most disturbing of all which is what's at the bottom of this. >> leaks have very little to do with this, john.
this is about lies. mr. flynn lied to everyone in the white house up to and including the president, the president concealed those lies from the vice president, mr. flynn got caught in a lie about what he said or did not say to the russian ambassador -- mr. putin's man in moscow -- and he was shown the exit. this is the reverse of the normal procedure in washington. we know what the coverup is. it's lying. what's the crime? this is what the f.b.i. wants to know very, very badly. >> hockenberry: how unprecedented is it for campaign officials to talk to foreign officials of one kind or another? >> well, henry kissinger haddent been appointed as national security advisor and richard nixon hadn't been inaugurated in january 169 when -- 1969 when mr. cousin jeer talked to a soviet spy at the soviet embassy
in washington and said we would like to see something about open relations with moscow. president nixon put that in his inaugural address. kissinger checked with the f.b.i. before he went to the embassy. do you think flynn checked with comey before talking to the russian ambassador? no, because mr. flynn knew or should have known he was the subject of one of the biggest counterintelligence investigations this country has ever seen and that concerns the kremlin's ties to the trump campaign. >> hockenberry: when did that counterterrorism investigation begin? because it was certainly a conversation throughout the campaign early on. >> that counterintelligence investigation began last summer and included the targeting and the dismissal of paul manafort
who was then mr. trump's campaign manager. general flynn was on board chanting "lock her up" at the republican convention and rewarded with the post of national security advisor. we've seen national security advisors get in trouble with the law before during the reagan administration. we've never seen one get tied up to a major counterintelligence investigation involving espionage by a foreign adversary. >> hockenberry: the vulnerability here is the national security is not confirmed by the senate and, so, therefore, in theory, may think he or she has more autonomy to move forward on questions of national policy. so let me give flynn the benefit of the doubt here and then you can saw off his legs or whatever you want to do, tim, because you know this here. maybe flynn was just in a
chaotic trump administration situation, going to the russians and saying, i know what you're hearing, it's all over the map here, everything's kind of confused, let me tell you where rear really headed, he says some things, then heads back home and all of a sudden, boom, he's in trouble. what's wrong with that scenario? >> mr. flynn hasn't been charged with a crime, and he deserves the presumption of innocence. however, why did he lie to everybody in the white house? and why did he, in the opinion of the f.b.i. and the acting attorney general expose himself to blackmail from moscow? that's why they had to show him the door. this is a very disturbing development, and we are in a situation now where the f.b.i. director jim comey has a hell of a case on his hands, and senator
john mccain is the leading republican in the senate who's also the last cold war yore standing in the senate saying the kremlin isn't going to get away with this, they're interfering with our democracy, and that's what is at stake here, john. >> hockenberry: but in the beginning it was hacked into to influence the election, that was one thing. now that's completely gone. we are talking about a potential president with some sort of goal in moscow, some sort of deal he wanted with moscow, and flynn is the bag man. is that really what we're talking about here? >> it's more complicated and scarier. we know -- the american intelligence community knows and the american people have been warned that vladimir putin has been on a campaign going back for years to destabilize western democracies from the western border of russia to the west coast of the united states. he's doing it in europe right
now, and every american intelligence service, along with the british intelligence service and the german intelligence service, has concluded, a, that mr. putin is running this campaign to destabilize western democracy and the american intelligence services conclude that a goal was to elect mr. trump. what has been more disruptive of american democracy than donald trump's presidency for the past four weeks? >> hockenberry: let's talk about leaks. donald trump we want insane over leaks at the news conference this week. this whole russia scam you guys are building, russia is fake news, russia is fake news, it's put out by the media. first of all, who's leaking on whom and for why? personal vendettas? or are the agencies inside the government trying to essentially fight putin, what he's doing to create this chaos, to basically
reclaim the government as donald trump basically denies anything's going on? >> the president is at war with his own intelligence services. >> hockenberry: clearly. e called the c.i.a. nazis. he puts quotation marks around the word "intelligence" when he tweets about the f.b.i. and the c.i.a. this can't continue, especially without a national security advisor. the job of running the n.f.c. is one of the hardest jobs. you have to coordinate all the information coming in from all the intelligence services and the state department and f.b.i. and tell the president what's going on so he's not getting his news from cnn but from every aspect of the government built to collect, analyze and deliver intelligence to the president. this is a dangerous situation,
john. >> hockenberry: in the middle of the campaign, all right -- say six months ago -- and you were sitting around, talking with your friends about various scenarios of the election, what was the chance you would be having this conversation today? >> a million to one. >> hockenberry: really? we've never seen anything like this before. presidents have been accused of misfeesens, malfeasance and nonfeesens. no president and no administration has been suspected of being a tool of a foreign power, and that is where we're at, and the senior republicans in congress know this. >> hockenberry: do they want trump as their agent, the kremlin? do they like this scenario or do they feel like they've basically, you know. >> if the american intelligence
community is correct and it was the primary goal of the kremlin and vladimir putin to disrupt american democracy, then they have already achieved their goal and they can pack up their tools and go home. >> hockenberry: and trump, they don't care about him? >> i think we do not know, but i think we will find out. >> hockenberry: tim weiner, thank you very much. >> you are welcome, sir. >> hockenberry: nature abhors a vacuum. guess what? so does geopolitics, and while america has been focused inward, russia has been stepping out. kim martin of barnard college at columbia university is a russian scholar who brace on u.s.-russian relations and is a counselor on foreign relations. welcome. >> thank you. >> hockenberry: we've talked about the spy and cloak and
dagger aspect, but what constitutes u.s.-russian relations now? >> it's unclear. the trump administration is not speaking with one voice. we know each of his cabinet members that has spoken out on russia seems to be taking a pretty mainstream line, seems to be saying we need to be tough on russia, can't let putin take advantage of us and seems to be accepting the knowledge that russia tried to interfere with the election campaign. >> hockenberry: let's start with rex tillerson as secretary of state. >> sure. >> hockenberry: he's already had meetings with the russian officials. it's his view that he wants to maintain a stable relationship with russia to advance financial goals, energy goals, that sort of thing? or is he trying to continue policy that pre-seeds him from the obama administration? >> we don't foe because -- we
don't foe because he hasn't said that much. he gave a statement when he came out of his meeting with sergei lavrov at the munich security conference, and what he said there is the u.s. is ready to cooperate with russia when russia is ready to cooperate with it, but it will do so on terms that serve u.s. interests, so i think that was presenting a very moderate line, an open line but not an overly generous line to putin. >> hockenberry: you start with trump's comments about n.a.t.o. being obsolete. the reaction in europe that unsettles all the countries in europe under the obama administration, u.s.-russian relations were based mostly on a consensus within europe and the united states that ukraine was the issue, and the protection of the baltic states was with essentially all of what was of concern to europe and the united states regarding russia. do we have any idea whether that is a priority with the trump
administration right now? >> well, we don't know for sure, but we do know that, for example, nikki haley, the new u.n. ambassador coming from the united states, said sanctions will not be lifted unless russia gives crimea back to ukraine, and that's an indication ukraine is still an spornt issue. we know the discussions that were off the record held yesterday between secretary of state tillerson and foreign minister lavrov touched on ukraine, lavrov said they did. so ukraine is still an issue. it's really bad because the fighting is increasing in ukraine once again. a lot of people believe putin is testing the resolve to trump to see what it takes to get a reaction out of trump. >> hockenberry: and there are other tests. we've got a spy ship off the east coast observing connecticut, apparently not to buy real estate.
land-based cruise missiles were deployed and that was a surprise and very serious. a destroyer buzzed a ship in the black sea. the foreign minister announced russia is keeping crimea, and some assertion there that crimea will remain a part of russia forever and never be a negotiating point in any discussion of ukraine. what do you make of that? >> it's hard to know what to make of all of this. possibly it is putin trying to test the trump administration to see where they're going. it could also be the putin regime is feeling a little bit uncertain and they want to demonstrate areas where they are strong to try to sort of prevent any uncertainty within the united states t to from leadingo a strong response from putin. there is been pushback from trump statements coming from john mccain, lindsey graham, also members of trump's cabinet all down the line.
i think that putin has reason to feel confused about what's happening and maybe a desire to sort of remind people about russian strength, but, you know, the missile deployment is the one that is most concerning to me outside ukraine because what putin is doing is violating the intermediate forces accord signed in 1987, and that was really the first arms control agreement that marked the beginning of the end of the cold war, and if they're going back on that now, that's a real indication russia isn't interested in cooperating with the united states anymore. >> do they think the u.s. is going to do something rash in the midst of this chaos and confusion? >> some concern has been impressed in the russian press that facing this domestic pushback, president trump might need to do something strong to demonstrate he's not weak on russia. we don't know what that means, but wouldn't surprise me if concerns about what the implications of that are might
be leading putin to just want to remind people about russian weapons and the russian military and what russia can do to upset the situation in ukraine. >> hockenberry: an interesting point because it shows how the russian press is ahead of the u.s. press to figure out this chess game because it seems to me that if trump thinks or if some people -- it was in the trump administration to think that the only way to demonstrate leverage against russia is to do something rash and military, we've lost our traditional leverage. the leverage we have we had in the obama administration vanished. do you think we lost our leaf rablg? >> no, because the russian press isn't free. you can bet the push is coming from the russian state, from the putin regime and the kremlin. we know there has been a push
from the kremlin to stop lauding the wonderful things that the trump administration is going to mean for russia. for a while there was lots of celebration and apparently there was a message that came from the kremlin, enough of that, we need to get back to serious business. >> hockenberry: so they kind of don't know who to deal with, and tillerson is sort of first on the list right now. >> well, and also, i mean, general mattis, the secretary of defense has been speaking with the russian counterpart. we have the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff talking to the chief of the russian general staff about military activities. apparently they wanted to make sure as much as they could that they were deconflicting things again in syria, and, so, i mean, there are a variety of ways that the united states, over the last few days, has been reaching out to their russian counterparts. >> hockenberry: as long as there is no nuclear phone ringing off the hook in a dark room in the white house. >> exactly. >> hockenberry: how do you decipher the statements of the
president on russia? i have nothing to do with russia, i have no deals there, i have no anything, it's all fake news, speaking for myself i i don't know nothing in russia, i have no loans or deals in russia. he doesn't sound terribly sophisticated about russian policy. he certainly sounds very defensive about the accusations that are coming fast and furious. >> i think a lot of people have been saying the last few days that rather than paying so much attention to what president trump says on his tweets, we should be paying attention to the actual actions the trump administration takes. as of yet we haven't had any action on russia, so i think we're waiting to see what it actually means. >> hockenberry: so let's see the first scenario would be something to do with n.a.t.o. would you expect, in the next couple of weeks, months, that the trump administration would attempt to repair its relations with n.a.t.o. -- >> it's already starting because various members of trump's cabinet have been saying, of course n.a.t.o. is a very strong
relationship. you know, we have the secretary of defense saying it's our most important alliance, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't pay attention to what president trump is saying and ponying up more money. it's time for you all to take some more responsibility, which is sort of a moderate way of getting across the message that trump was getting across earlier in the campaign. >> hockenberry: in the early days after the inauguration which seems about six years ago -- >> it really does. >> hockenberry: -- some people were saying that trump's idea could possibly be some sort of alliance with russia as a way of confronting china, and the abandonment of the t.p.p. was a way of, you know, telling china that he's much more interested in confronting in the pacific and that russia was going to be his colleague in that. what do you make of all that? >> russia made very clear that they are not interested in that. russia has had a very good
relationship with china in recent years. russia has been emphasizing a little too strongly the idea that china is its ally. china is happy for the talk that's in favor of having a strong relationship with russia. but again when you look at the actions that have happened, there has not been actually that much action on the ground on china's part to reach out to russia beyond the talks. but nonetheless, a lot of leading russian analysts have made it clear and presumably speaking for the kremlin that russia has no desire to turn against china, that it seized the ability to draw on the eastern partnership as a way of balancing off things if things don't go well with western powers. >> hockenberry: the forensics, when you tried to do criminallology in the brezhnev days -- >> who's on the wall when the parade goes by. >> hockenberry: -- that has completely changed and it's almost as though that style of trying to figure out what's going on applies more to the white house.
>> oh, well, i'm still one of the people who tries to figure out what's going on with russia by figuring out who's in connection with who. it's a different measurement these days. it's not any longer who's standing next to the wall with whom else, it's who's being fired from the kremlin, having prosecutions launched against them, versus who is putin choosing to lead expensive new proonlts that involve a lot of state money. so i think there is still a lot of trying to figure out who's on putin's good side, where are the coalitions going. it's just a little more subtle. >> hockenberry: in the positive, seems for reasons that have to do with energy and the maintenance of growth in the global economy, that there are a lot of reasons for the u.s. and russia to work together on the development of oil and the development of other resources and the development of technology in russia to make russia more prosperous. if that is the case, do you
think the next four years will be stable, will devolve into some sort of confrontation in the baltics? where do you think we're headed here? we've got four years. >> a lot of stuff to cover. >> hockenberry: yeah, yeah. one thing to keep in mind about the the oil is currently global oil prices have not recovered to their former level and one would argue distinctions might make russian policy more rational because the sanctions prevent western oil companies from working on what's called tight oil, the oil resources more difficult to get, the ones in the arctic north, the ones in the caspian basin up, ones that are not just on the surface and easy to get access to which a global climate where energy prices, oil prices are not all that high, that might be a direction that doesn't really make sense for russian state investments to go. so i think we have to wait to see what happens with global oil
prices before we understand whether investing in russia again is a good deal for capitalist businesses who want to make a profit. on the question of whether cooperation generally will be possible with russia, i think it depends on russia. it's not the united states and not n.a.t.o. who has been the aggressor in recent years. it really is russia just in so many different ways. you've already mentioned the breaking of the i.n.f. arms control treaty agreement by the deployment of these new missiles, the buzzing and the harassment of u.s. and n.a.t.o. ships and airplanes, you know, the fact of the russian military intervention in ukraine, the taking over of crimea and the very clear evidence that there's been around at various times 10,000 russian troops deployed in eastern ukraine, those are all things that indicate russian hostility. so it's not that the u.s. is necessarily going to be the one
that breaks the log jam. i think everybody is waiting to see whether putin will step up to the plate now that he might have an opportunity under trump. >> hockenberry: that's very interesting. quickly, before we go, you heard all the discussion of counterintelligence and the spy investigation. really one of the biggest counterintelligence investigations going on right now in washington with, in the first month of the trump administration, how much does that scare you? >> the implications are so complex and so varied, and i would say there are two things that are potentially scary. one is whether russia actually does have an influence beyond what we know it tid in terms of the hacking and publicizing of the e-mails, and the second is, you know, these leaks them rvls are kind of dangerous. we don't want intelligence agencies that are getting involved in politics. even for those of us who may not be all that comfortable with all of the directions that the trump
administration is taking, it's not good for anybody if you've got those kinds of intelligence leaks about what's happening in the presidency becoming political fodder. so i think this is a dangers time all around and in all different kinds of directions. i wake up afraid of what i'm going to learn what happened in the news overnight. >> hockenberry: i wish a good weekend for you, kim martin. >> you, too. >> hockenberry: thanks for having with us. >> thanks for having me on. >> hockenberry: when we come back, seth meyers talks to george saunders. >> myers: good evening. i'm filling in for charlie rose. george saunders is here, one of the most critically acclaimed and popular writers at work today. his 2013 collection of short stories tenth of september had the national book award. he just wrote "lincoln in the bardo" telling the story of abraham lincoln and the death of his 11-year-old son. zaidi smith called ate masterpiece. i am pleased to welcome george
saunders to the table. >> thank you. send my love to charlie and speedy recovery. >> i don't think he watches the show, but we'll pass it on to him. this book, i've heard you say this came from a story you heard 20 years ago. >> yes. >> myers: first tell us the story and also how a sry you heard 20 years ago turned into something you decided to write. >> my wife and i were in d.c. driving past the oak hill cemetery and her cousin said that crypt is where willie lincoln was buried. i didn't even know lincoln had a son. she threw off the detail that lincoln had reportedly in the newspapers of the day gone into the crypt and somehow interacted with the body, he was so grief stricken. that hit me. but at that time i was just starting out and i kind of just figured out that i had to be funny if it wasn't going to be lame. so that i did and seemed like
comic fodder. so i veered away from it and pushed it away over the years. but i noticed every time i was happy, if i had another artistic thing work out, my mind would go to that, like you know,, what do you think. finally in 2012 i finished my last book feeling good, that idea showed up, and i'm, like, why don't i try that. the answers were all it's too hard, too earnest, it would require too much heart of you. so i thought, okay, you know, i'm 58 or whatever i was, i'll at least try it. then i just kind of gave myself a little window, maybe three months to goof around with wit and it kind of came above. >> and do you have other ideas like this that have stuck around in your head for 20 years? >> no. or is this unique? that's unique. sometimes you hear this thing that the ideas you should write and you should think about writing and if you could distinguish between the two, you could save yourself a lot of years. so i just thought this was kind of a freak. i don't really work that way so just leave it alone. >> did you know this was a
subject matter that would lead to the first novel or was it in the writing? >> it was in the writing. as a person of a narrow talent wedge, i know if i try to expand i always screw up. so for me over the years, the mantra has just been wind the thing up, put it on the floor and hope it goes on to the couch quick. i fought this all along the way. you know, are you trying to be a story? because i don't want to get in your way. >way. >> myers: how quick did you know this was going to be bigger than anything you'd done? >> i was 50 pages in. i'm a big reviser. i looked behind me and everything seemed right. it was only sort of the first fifth of the movement. so i was, like, okay, i'm at myers: from the story you heard 20 years ago, i think no other author who heard that story would take the path you did. obviously, everybody knows who abraham lincoln is.
explain what the bardo is and why you decided to make it the setting for the book. >> it's a word for transitional zone and it's used to describe the period between the incident of your death and your reincarnation. so it's a little like purgatory but less strict. it's kind of a a little more transactional. originally i thought i would study the realty bean bardo and -- deal tibetan bardo. i just made my bardo be whatever it needed to be. for me the use of that word was nice because it triggered a bunch of eastern ideas that were intriguing, you know, for example that your after-death experience wouldn't be unrelated to your life experience, your neuro sees and habits would just get super sized. so that word was a reminder to me to make death weird because
it would be odd if we kicked the bucket and we were just, oh, this is how i thought it would be. cool, hey, peter, nice to see you. ese historical figures andave have to adhere to the facts of their lives and the historical accounts of the time, but you also get to create the ghosts and other characters, and there are so many characters in this book. was it more enjoyable to sort of create these characters straight from your imagination or was, as the writer was it exciting to try to put thoughts into existing characters from history? >> it was an organic system where one supports the other. ghosts are like dream sequences. tobias told me you're allowed three dream sequences in your career. so the idea would be you could have fun with the ghosts. about the time the reader was going, yeah, okay, you're enjoying yourself, then you
buttress it with historical facts. it also turned out that the history, at least in my read of it, the history stuff was kind of essential to the emotional vector because it's a really incredible moment where he's losing the war, he's kind of a screwup, people are starting to really turn on him, and his son dies and all the hard work of that, you know. and there's a lot of recriminations. people were saying that this party the lincoln's had might have contributed to the kid's death. so i thought to get the real emotional half that first appealed to me all those years ago, the historical stuff would work as a brace against the goofiness of the ghost stuff. >> myers: is this the most research you've ever done. >> i literally had never done any. this was sort of hobbiest. instead of watching tv, i would pick up a lincoln book and read it. >> myers: i imagine the election process must be difficult. there are no shortage of books about lincoln.
how do you decide what read? >> whatever book shows up, that's the book i read. after a while, i knew what i was looking for but i literally would just go into a book store -- or in syracuse we have a great civil war collection and i just kind of go, all right, who needs to be in my book and pull it off. because the idea of actually trying to research it and make it historically m meticulous, that's a 40-year project. there is 35,000 books about lincoln or something, so -- >> myers: so you write the ghost characters. they're comical, but you also have to write in the voice of lincoln. the research tells you not as much how he would talk in these moments. did you get to a place where you felt safe talking with abraham lincoln? >> not exactly. first of all, the pit falls. when you're writing, the pit falls are your friend because you know what you're trying to steer away from.
the one list is all internal monologue. my approach was to say, all right, that's a lot of pressure, so don't work yourself up. just read everything you can that he wrote or somebody wrote about him, historical letters and just let it sit in this hopper in the top of your head and don't think about it. in writing, i'm sure it's true in any kind of performance, but there is the moment where your best friend is sort of a blank, alert mind that's fully into work you're involved in, in that moment, and then just does that kind of spontaneous, you know, like an improv or something. so my work was if i knew lincoln in my body, then whatever moment the book needed to serve the emotional needs, i could supply it instantly. to the lincoln that turns out in my book, it's a lot me, of course. you're doing kind of a mind melt. almost like my thoughts were like this molten metal and i
poured it into the mold that was the historical facts. for example, he was such a logical thinker, a beautiful, you know -- his best prose work is almost like a mathematical equation. so i thought, okay, probably in his casual moments he was using the same basic approach, sill gistic. so it was like taking my understanding of what it was like to be a father and whatever and dropping it into this model and eseeing what happened. >> myers: you mentioned choosing a time to improvise abraham lincoln. you chose this time of incredible grief, maybe the greatest period of grief in his life. >> yeah. >> myers: how do you persevere through that? is that overwhelming? >> yeah. in the first paragraph, there is problems.
>> meyers: sure. you hope. if you feel the problem, the reader feels the problem. the reader is saying, do you realize you have a it goer? yeah, it's my backpack. you have to find answers to the problems. >> you think can i design it so it's actually not about linken but he happens to come through? then we'll write about him. well, also, it's 11:52 on that particular night, he's sitting in a particular place, ehe's just come from something. so in a way, about 80% of the improv isn't really lincoln, it's just a guy, and then you kind of go from there. >> meyers: yeah. it's sort of taken backstage, this is all backstage of the play about abraham lincoln. it's more where he's left to be in the lincoln story and you're
sort of left in the places he's just vacated. >> that's right. >> meyers: and i apologize for my ignorance, but is this something -- because you sort of -- you write about how his grief changed the way he thought about the civil war which as you matched was a year in. is that something you found in writing of the research or is that something you came to in your fictionalizing? >> ip not actually sure. i remember for many years, i thought about it, and i'm, like, if this story is well located, it has causes and consequences. so i thought, you know, if a person lost the child that would would have to have a tenderizing effect, which certainly wouldn't disappear, ever, you know. so i kind of started with that, and the wonderful thing about writing is that the story both asks and answers questions you're not smart enough to get to, that i'm not smart enough to get to. so i kind of had that as a general idea. you're hoping that book will demonstrate it for you. in this case, i believed it.
i believed his sorrow opened him up a little bit, and one of the things about that president was he was very sad guy. you know, i'm dig dispositionly- people said he was kind hearted. he would be in a situation where a politician would try to exert power and he would exert a higher power which was to withdraw. if he looked stupid or disempowered, he was okay with it, as long as it got the desired result. i felt in my reading of his last few years of life, his pod of empathy expanded beyond him and his family and the party and even beyond the north and even extended to those americans who were being enslaved. that is why i think we loved him because under all this duress, he became more loving instead of less. so i kind of felt that and in the book sort of in its own way
said, you're right, here's how it happened. >> i feel it's impossible not to use that as a segue to the piece you wrote for the new yorker about the trump campaign. you were on the road, and you wrote about trump rallies, and just talking about empathy, i felt you exhibited a great amount of empathy for the people at trump rallies, the people who were trump supporters. was that something that came naturally, spending time with them? >> yeah. i think part of the reason that i was offered the piece is i spent my 20s screwing up and working all kinds of odd jobs and ostensibly being a writer but not writing and a little downward spiral, so i'm naturally sympathetic. my politics which are left of gandhi before this whole thing, i would say the problem is the money is going to the peak and the people on the hillside are
in this anaerobic condition and a lot of my fiction is about that. you take that mindset, drop it in with people with whom you're naturally sympathetic, anyway, and then the program, the movement seems to be depriving the rights of other vulnerable groups almost as a kind of a blind spot. so i had so much trouble with that speos. i submitted two drafts that were rejected, righ rightfully so. i couldn't get myself to analyze it because i liked the people so much. many had never been interviewed so i didn't want to throw them under the bus. it's an incredibly complicated moment, and i think the conclusion i came to actually in my heart anyway is this is a time that we maybe can't know, you know. i mean, human beings love to have answers, i sure do, but this is a time where the pace
and the weirdness of the situation is kind of confounding us and -- >> meyers: and i feel there is a rush to find those answer force people and to divide this as black and white. and one of the things i thought was incredibly helpful in your piece as well is you also saw bad behavior from anti-trump protesters. >> yes. >> meyers: and that sort of happened later in the piece. >> yes. >> meyers: is that something you law later in the campaign. >> yeah, and these nonfiction have a way of self-dramatizing. i had gotten that far. i was in a railway in san joseé. i was writing and clinging to my left of gandhi idea that only right was violent. that was my hope. that would be a good punch line. then luckily, i was nearby and went to a rally when all hell broke louis and i pulled a trump supporter out of the crowd with
people slapping her. bad for her but good for my story. eth not just simply this group of people are violent, this group of people are righteous. most the physical flow ofsn the energy from him outward, first in the early rallies i saw it happening through the crowd, people getting revved up and then the violence happening on the periphery. by the time i got to san joseé, the violence had gone out into the whole culture, essentially. but i'm kind of stuck on this issue of people -- i don't know -- i consider myself a sympathetic, kind person somewhat, but i found myself rebuking myself for not being forceful enough in opposition to these things. my insirchghts are that somehow doesn't work, but this kind of conundrum of what does liberal empty look like in the face of a movement that seems to be not very empathetic or at least has a blind spot for a very vulnerable population, what's
the right moral stance in that situation. >> meyers: yeah. do you foe it? now, but i'm trying to hard to make a distinction between the man saying these things and the people who are susceptible to the message. is in your short stories, and tell me if this tracks to you than me, but you often would present characters who, at first, were unsympathetic, and then you would let out more of their story. >> right. >> meyers: and you would see things that happen in their lives, oftentimes fail, your characters were working jobs they didn't want or jobs they had to take because they lost the previous one, all in the service of taking care of their family. >> right. >> meyers: and that seems to be one of the stories. i think there are a lot of different ways people have found their way to this president, but that does seem like one of the paths that maybe there is a
chance, i don't know, liberal empathy maybe missed. >> well, in the stories, it's interesting because it's kind of part of the process. you start with a character you use because that's what we do. you say imagine nebraska and you come up with a wheat field or something. ten the mystery is that prose doesn't like that, actually. i don't know why, but it doesn't. it wants specificity. as you revise the specificity sort of mysteriously, i think it revises you towards something like -- empathy is a funny word because it's loaded with this kind of feel-good thing, but it revisous towards precision which i think is a form of affection. you know, if i really want to know you and i get all your details, that's kind of a form of love. so the fictional form does that, i think in some ways. so that's -- i like that. i mean, i love being able to do that every day and train yourself in, first of all, identifying your projections and then critiquing them for rigger, you know.
but it's interesting, when you do that to actual people, i suppose there is always the danger of that becoming a tick, you know, and this moment seems to be highlighting that, that certainly, i think empathy is always good, empathy always just means interest, and interest is always good. you know, there was a very wise man who said to me once, life is not fixable. at the time i thought, yeah, except it is, but in a moment like this, i think you kind of realize that the great gift is to be able to be a little bit comfortable on a pitching ship or at least not to deny your discomfort, and i think that political moment is going to be a pitchle ship for a while. >> meyers: based on your time on the campaign trail, how has this first not even a month match your expectations, exceeded them in a negative way? >> one thing i thought at the time is it seemed like people weren't talking quite enough about the inefficiency of the whole operation, which i think now is coming home to roost.
you know, of course, back then, most of the reporting was in the spring and i didn't even think he would get the nomination. >> meyers: i was with you on that. >> apparently a few of us felt that way. >> meyers: i want to go back to the book real quick, because it's written almost entirely in dialogue. >> yeah, i think there is, like, some hundreds of monologues, and 166 speakers. >> meyers: 166 speakers. yeah. >> meyers: did you have a sense of that going into it, as far as the cast of characters you were going to give yourself in. >> no, not really. years ago i tried another graveyard book which everyone should have eight of them, but in that one there were only ghosts, but it was in the early days of chat lines. i loved the way it looked on the page. some name would be there, then a rant. someone would ask a question, and the answer appears six pages later. it's something in prose where it gave off energy on the page.
so i worked on that book for a while, and i think that contributed. but one thing i was trying to do was, you know, in -- you tried to avoid sucking, basically. the idea of saying a ghost moved in from the west. i thought, no, he can't do that. so how do you avoid that construction? likewise, to do sort of in a more traditional, historical novel, a dark and stormy night in oak hill. for me, i can't do much. i've got a pretty narrow band in which i operate. but one of the big principles -- well, two, try to have fun. second of all, try to avoid the stuff that makes you look queasy. if something makes you a little, yeah, i guess i could write that -- that's death. >> meyers: it's interesting because obviously this is about a very tragic moment. is it safe to say you would get quizier at fake kindness than yeah, and that's probably a defect because i think there is
that saying that happiness reds white. for me, for sure, it's easier to narrate the negative vai lances. as i'm getting older i find a real desire to do some kind of balancing that the beautiful things and the things which are grateful. they have to be in fiction or it doesn't make sense, but they're somehow harder to achieve, i think. so, yeah, i think that's -- i'm hoping, you know, to some day write a book where the good and the evil are both there, kind of unadorned, not too fake and resonate bark and forth. >> meyers: i'm glad you said fun because i think with the description -- the way i read them described in the book, it's obviously about this very sad thing, about the temporariness of life, but also there is fun enjoying it. something that speaks to that is the way you've approached the audio book and i want to talk about it quick. you mentioned 161 characters, and this is an unproducable
theater play. >> right. >> meyers: you've done 161 different voice actors to read the book. >> for me, it's a beautiful artistic moment because kelly asked me to redo the audio book. i'm, like, i don't want to do 166 voices in this south chicago voice. i said, can we get other people to do it? she came back a few days later and said what if we got a different gna narrative for evey voice? i thought that would be great. she got a couple of people and it caught fire. we had great actors and an all-star team of audio people and my wife and kids and mom. >> meyers: it was a great list. >> it was in the spirit of the book. i love the ideaov this american cho russ, you know, high, low, every region, every accent. so it was really a treat. you know, also, the book for me was such a joy to write, and one
day you finish and it's kind of this cold turkey. i've got to get out of 1852. and parking bumpers, what are those? so to be able to work on that stair stepp and work on the audio book was fun. >> meyers: was it thrilling to hear it? >> it's a different experience. the book is weird and kind of designed -- in a sense, there is stuff you can scan like some of the attributes you can scan. the audio book sort of slows it down a bit. actors are amazing people. you know, and the things they find, you're so grateful. >> meyers: i want to ask because i was relieved to read because you have such acies ticket style, but when you were starting as a writer, you were actually trying to emulate other writers you loved. >> yes. >> meyers: hemingway. yep.
>> meyers: and what was the moment you had when you realized you had to go away from that and develop your own style? >> you know, it was -- i wrote this novel, this big novel -- and everything you need to know about is in the title which means, i think, ed's wedding. i gave it to my wife and she responded honestly. i recoil bought that. i knew it wasn't a good book. so i went to work. i was a tech writer and we were having a conference call. i started almost out of angst drawing pictures and writing poems. when i brought them home, my wife genuinely laughed. so like a switch kind of went off. i think, you know, i didn't trust humor. i didn't trust pop culture. those are sort of low virtues. and when i got that reaction from her. i've been, like, my god you have been holding back -- your natural personality has been suppressed. so i went in the next day and
said, okay, you're allowed to be funny and a little scatlogical. so a moment shifted. i have my ideas, i have my concepts, i have my lineage. if you're a reader, wait till i'm done and i'll drop my manure concepts on you. when my wife laughed, it was, like, yeah, it's a communication. you have an audience. i like to be entertained, i like to be liked too much. i thought, all of a sudden, you're in an intimate relationship with another person. you've got to keep your eye on her more than your own stuff. >> i think that's something we have in common. i would say my wife is my most trusted reader as well. has that always been your relationship with your wife? >> yes, because in our marriage the reading is sort of emotional and thumbs up and thumbs down. if i can get her to be moved, i'm good.
if not --, yo >> meyers: you have that. y wife is a terrible actress so she can't trick me. i can give my wife something, walk into the room and which her posture, i can tell. this book, she helped me because it's a strange book. i wrote about th the first third and i didn't show anybody. there is a lot of technical things that you have to have perfect or they won't work, so i really obsessed over it. i thought, i might be insane, so i should give it to her. she just reacted so beautifully and said a couple of things to me that i remember the whole time through. when i was in doubt, she said, yeah. so that was invaluable. >> meyers: did she take credit after the fact and say, without me... >> she should say that.
>> meyers: my wife has every right to as well. we're both lucky. thank you so much. >> i appreciate being here. >> meyers: get well soon, charlie. again, george saunders. >> rose: for more about this program and earlier episodes, visit us online at pbs.org and charlierose.com. captioning sponsored by rose communications captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org