Tag Archives: George Will

Books about Baseball Part II

10 Apr

 

 

 

 

 

Remember it was a tight sphinctered guy from St. Louis who opined that April was the cruelest month. Just ask any baseball fan about April. More than most, followers of the hardball understand failure and adversity.and yet… So, the 2017 Liges Grandes season has opened and the World Championship Chicago Cubs have already despoiled a perfect 162-0 season by losing in the Cardinal’s home opener (but eventually taking 2 out of 3). In any case, you will understand my focus on the books that follow below when I tell you that I am an expatriate Northside Chicagoan whose relationship with the Windy City’s National League outpost traces back to the time of Ernie Banks`and a team that never even achieved a .500 win-loss record.

So no surprise that a number of books have taken up some aspect of the Chicago Cubs…

The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Cubs: A Decade-By-Decade History

Until further notice, this tome should serve as the semi-official record of the current MLB Champions. As one of Chicago’s two metropolitan dailies left standing in the 21st century, The Chicago Tribune has a vast archive of information dating back to the Cubs’S origins in 1876 as the Chicago White Stockings. The paper’s sports department culled through that archive, assembling a decade-by-decade  history and a paean to the “Friendly Confines” also known as Wrigley Field. A straightforward survey of the Cubs, for what its worth, this 336-page volume includes a good number of photographs never published before.

 

 

 

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The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty by David Kaplan

The fact that Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein was anointed  “The World’s Greatest Leader ” by Fortune magazine is, on the face of it laughable ( Alibaba’s Jack Ma came in second), but don’t tell that to northside Chicagoans and northern New Englanders. Having engineered the end of the championship droughts of two cities made him  (his religion notwithstanding)him eligible for beatification. Chicago journalist Dave Kaplan ( CSN Chicago and ESPN Radio) chronicles the team tear down, the hiring of an imaginative manager in Joe Maddon and the making crafty trades as well as investing in a farm system that five years into Epstein’s tenure (as in his posting in Boston) yielded a World Championship team built to achieve the exalted status of dynasty.

 

 

 

 

Teammate: My Journey in Baseball and a World Series for the Ages by David Ross

To anyone who watched the Chicago Cubs last season, 39-year-old, 15-year veteran backup catcher David Ross’s value to a team laden with young talent was obvious. Simply as ace Jon Lester’s personal catcher, Ross’s contribution was significant. Early on in his two-year stint, the young Cub studs Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, dubbed him  Grandpa Rossy”  extolling his positive presence in the locker room as well as on the field. And as is now part of baseball lore, Ross hit a key home run in his career’s final at- bat in the 7th game of the world series… that’s quite a feel good story.

 

 

 

 

 

The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse by Tom Verducci

Amidst a gaggle of journeymen baseball announcers and reporters, Tom Verducci (Sports Illustrated baseball writer and FOX Sports analyst) presents himself as thoughtful and insightful and it is to his credit that he was given full access to the Cubs organization and Theo Epstein’s post-Moneyball team operating manual, The Cubs Way”. This approach was not a dismissal of the sabermetric revolution in sports but an expansion of the understanding and belief  in the value of team chemistry and clubhouse culture. Mix in the unorthodoxy of manager Joe Madden (known for coining prosaic phrases such as “Don’t Suck”) and you have substantial evidence of what a thoughtful blend of statistics and intangibles can achieve.

 

 

A Nice Little Place on the North Side: A History of Triumph, Mostly Defeat, and Incurable Hope at Wrigley Field by George Will

Gasbag 19th century Conservative,  bow tie wearing, pundit and Chicago Cub fan George Will (who has in some ways redeemed himself with his disavowal of the Bedlamite POTUS) had put together what he asserts is a “true, hyperbole-free history” (given his propensity to overblown prose and metaphorical acrobatics) updated to include “bonus material on the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win” Of course he missed a chance to comment  on  the abomination that is the “Budweiser Bleachers” (not even to comment on the irony of  naming rights being sold to the owner of the arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals.)

Here’s some copywritten hyperbole —

In the end, A Nice Little Place on the North Side is more than just the history of a ballpark. It is the story of Chicago, of baseball, and of America itself.

 

Oh my…

 

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Thomas Mallon: Watergate, the Novel

12 Jan

 

 

 

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Given the deplorable state of historical literacy in the greatest country in the world, I have long held that if I were allowed to teach history there are a number of novels I would include in my lesson plans—in addition to the eye-opening, ground-breaking People’s History by Howard Zinn. Thomas Mallon has written a number of those novels—Henry and Clara, Two Moons, Dewey Defeats Truman, Bandbox, Fellow Travelers, and now Watergate.

This is the fifth or sixth conversation I have had with Mallon since the mid-’90s. Needless to say, he is a delightful and erudite conversationalist. Watergate, the historical event, which we both remember vividly, occupies much of what follows, including postmortems on Nixon, Kissinger, the Mitchells, John and Martha, and some others. Additionally, Mallon dedicated Watergate (the novel) to his good friend, the late Christopher Hitchens,[1] which, of course, sparks an enlightening tangent on Hitch.

By the way, it should be useful to keep in mind that what follows is a chat about both a nexus of historical events and a novel of the same name.

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Robert Birnbaum: I keep reading that it’s the 40th anniversary of Watergate. So what? Why should anyone care?

 

 

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon: The [book’s] publication was not timed for the anniversary. In fact the book was ready to come out in the fall. I would have been happier if it had—it would have been an easier semester for me, traveling around. And I don’t think Watergate anniversaries have been big, generally. The problem is there is no one thing to peg the anniversary to. You could do an anniversary for when Nixon resigned, the anniversary of the break-in—so I think it’s just a journalistic convenience to mention it.

RB: Did I miss John Dean’s review of your book?

TM: Just this morning I saw—I was sent something.

RB: He mentioned the book in the context of a review of Max Holland’s book about Mark Felt [Deep Throat].

TM: That’s right.

RB: Dean suggested he wasn’t going to read your novel.

TM: He said his friends were reading it. They were asking him, “Did Mrs. Nixon really have an affair?” And he said, “No, not to my knowledge.” And he didn’t think she could have had an affair in the way she does in the book. That I didn’t quite understand. The affair she has in the book predates her husband’s presidency. It’s an affair she has in New York in the ’60s.

RB: Doesn’t she meet her lover in South America?

TM: In Brazil. He does meet her there, but while she’s First Lady they have only two fleeting and chaste encounters in the context of big public events. So I wasn’t quite sure what he [Dean] meant by that.

RB: This is historical fiction, which readers ought to be reminded of. But why create a love affair for the character, Pat Nixon?

TM: I think in some ways it’s the emotional heart of the book—Mrs. Nixon and this affair. Frank Gannon [in the Wall Street Journal] was quite nice to the book but he did not like that.

RB: Many reviewers have lauded the book.

TM: People have been very kind—I’ve been delighted. But he was left queasy by the affair. He said, “Imagine the Nixon daughters reading this.”

RB: He quoted you saying you can’t libel the dead.

TM: It’s very interesting what he tried to do. But finally, I had to disagree with him. I had once written in an essay that there are things you shouldn’t do to the dead even though they are dead and can’t be litigious. This was in reference to a movie that had been made implying that Thomas E. Dewey, who was once a character in one of my books [Dewey Defeats Truman], had actually been corrupt. To me, to say that Mrs. Nixon might have had this tender, brief affair is not an iniquitous thing. I fictionalized her life more than some of the others, but in a way this falsity or invention somehow allowed me to get inside her head in a way I don’t think I could have otherwise. In a peculiar way, I got to some aspects of the truth about her via invention.

RB: Again, the critical chorus was adulatory. One critic called the Watergate episode “vaudevillian.”

TM: It may be my own fault because I wrote the flap copy myself.

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

RB: That’s one part of the book I didn’t read.

TM: And I did write in the flap copy (picks up book), “It conveys the comedy and the high drama of the Nixon presidency.” And there definitely are comic moments in it. But I have been somewhat surprised by the reviews that have emphasized the comedic aspects of the book. More than I expected; more than I thought they existed.

RB: There are a lot of characters, but Fred LaRue becomes central to the story. He has this personal tragedy and an odd relationship. Why focus on LaRue?

TM: He appealed to me for a couple of reasons. I remember seeing a documentary that was made about 20 years ago and featured him. His soft-spokenness, his shyness, the fact that he choked up at one point. He just began to intrigue me. There are about three invented characters in the book. The tip-off in the dramatis personae is the three names in quotation marks. The woman he is involved with, Clarine Lander, is also a fiction. But the great calamity of his life, prior to Watergate, involved him killing his father in a hunting accident in Canada and inheriting a lot of money. Naturally, a certain amount of suspicion or whatever you want to call it is going to cling to a person in those circumstances. That intrigued me. He is very shadowy.I am not very good with villains generally. I think the closest I come to villainy in my books is the shadowy presence of John Wilkes Booth.

RB: Did he never find out if it was an accident?

TM: In my story he never really knows. And that gets all wrapped up with what happened in Watergate years later. He’s very shadowy. He had no title, no salary. He did a lot of things for John Mitchell, whom he really loved. And he lived in the Watergate.  There was one newspaper profile of him in September of ’72, prior to Watergate really exploding. It suggested something like, “He seems to be out of one of [Faulkner’s] Snopes novels.” And that appealed to me. I had a list at the beginning—I still have it in my files somewhere—with dozens and dozens of names that were potential point-of-view characters. And it finally came down to seven. There’s a huge cast, but only seven—

RB: And you cast Alice Longworth prominently. I lived through Watergate I don’t remember her presence. Was she interviewed a lot?

TM: A little bit. She turned 90 at the time. Nixon went to her birthday party at her house in Dupont Circle. She wrote somewhere, when time was running out for him, “Oh I think the clock is dick, dick, dicking.” She had known him from the time he had come to town in the ’40s. She had marked him as a comer. She was very fond of him and Pat, and at least one of the daughters. She said to an interviewer, one time, “Tricia:  what’s wrong with her?” She was in the Nixon White House more than I thought when I began looking at the schedules. So I made her into my one-woman witches’ chorus. People have wondered why I didn’t use Martha Mitchell, who was so flamboyant—

RB: She was a drunk.

TM: (laughs) That’s the problem. She was really too far gone for most of Watergate. And she is really absent from the scene—the Mitchells decamped for New York pretty early on. She just wouldn’t have worked.

RB: From the outside, John Mitchell struck me as a gruff and unattractive person. He does come off as a more sympathetic character in your narrative—as do most of the people.

 

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

TM: I am not very good with villains generally. I think the closest I come to villainy in my books is the shadowy presence of John Wilkes Booth [in Henry and Clara] (laughs).

RB: Haldeman? You seemed to get Nixon dead on—a misanthrope in a flesh presser’s profession.

TM: Yeah. There are people who claim that he actually liked politics and liked campaigning. I find that kind of hard to believe. But where Nixon is concerned:  what would be the point of writing a novel about someone who’s just a mustache-twirling villain? I just wanted to see all this with a certain intimacy. You are right; Haldemnn seems sort of nasty in the book, though you tend to see him through Rose Mary Woods—he’s the man who displaced her in a way.  It’s generally that old Graham Greene term—the human factor—that interests me.

RB: George Will’s review

TM: It was actually his syndicated column.

RB: I thought he got it exactly right—that you learn so much from novels by Gore Vidal, Max Byrd, and Robert Penn Warren [“bring… men alive in ways that only a literary imagination can”]. Here’s the thing, it seems that no one knew who ordered the break-in, but what does beg for emphasis is that the real crime was the cover-up. That’s what brought Nixon down. One wonders what might have happened if he had cut his losses? Was he incapable of admitting he was wrong or mistaken?

TM: A lot of it involves Mitchell. It’s true that nobody knows for sure, to this day, who told them to go into the Democratic National Committee at that point. There is a whole kind of grassy-knoll theory of Watergate that posits something very different, which I don’t buy into.

RB: What, Castro funding the Democrats?

TM: Yeah, and then there is the whole theory that John Dean was the evil mastermind. But it’s fairly easily established that Gordon Liddy presented this plan for massive surveillance and—this crazy—you know, the Gemstone plan—in John Mitchell’s office in the Justice Department early in 1972. If only Nixon had said at the beginning, “all those people are now fired from the committee” and gotten Mitchell to take the fall!  Whether Mitchell signed off on it or not, this was not a meeting that should have ever taken place in the offices of the Justice department.  If Nixon had sacrificed Mitchell—To me the real Rosetta Stone of Watergate is the spring of 1970. It’s when Nixon goes into Cambodia and Kent State follows. There were massive demonstrations in Washington and a ring of buses around the White House. He makes that crazy middle-of-the-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The super-charged atmosphere of that—I remember this as a very young man. It was so intense.

RB: Which he had to do anyway.

TM: Eventually. If he had done it at the beginning, he might have survived. But he didn’t want to do it. Mitchell had had so much to do with making him president.

RB: How was it that CREEP was being run out of a government office?

TM: They knew Mitchell was going to run the campaign but he was still attorney general. There is a very large sympathetic biography of Mitchell called The Strong Man by James Rosen, which is very interesting. It won’t convince everybody, but it’s a full-bodied picture of Mitchell. Nixon ultimately blamed Martha Mitchell [for his downfall]. One of the things that was clear to me—the Mitchells were a love match. It was a second marriage for both of them. And Mitchell, I think, really loved Martha. But Martha was tremendously out of control.

RB: Was she always a drunk?

TM: I think so, but her problems at that point were really severe. She really needed to be in a sanitarium. Nixon used to say that it was because of Martha—John’s preoccupation with her troubles —that [Mitchell] wasn’t minding the store. That’s as far as he would go in blaming him. But he was not going to cut him loose in ’72.

RB: They ultimately divorced, right?

TM: Yes, and she ultimately became quite ill and died in ’76.

RB: The break-in wasn’t the only illegality in that nexus of events—the plumbers and the burglarizing of [Daniel]Ellsberg’s shrink’s office, Donald Segretti’s dirty tricks—

TM: He was pretty low-rent. But even Mitchell referred to the “White House horrors”—they knew they had these secrets that were really—

RB: And lots of undocumented cash.

TM: Right. Well, as he famously says to Dean on that tape, “We could get a million dollars. It’d be wrong but we could do it.” People often date the point at which Nixon goes off the deep end to Ellsberg’s publication of The Pentagon Papers. [2]So Nixon, like many presidents, became obsessed with leaks. And he forms this squad, “the plumbers,” to deal with them. And to some extent, yes, that is the crucial turning point:  thats what brings Howard Hunt into the White House. But to me the real Rosetta Stone of Watergate can be found a year before that—to me it’s the spring of 1970. It’s when Nixon goes into Cambodia and Kent State follows. There were massive demonstrations in Washington and a ring of buses around the White House. He makes that crazy middle-of-the-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The super-charged atmosphere of that—I remember this as a very young man, it was so intense—that was what gave Nixon a Manichean view of the world, this us-against-them view. In some ways, that set in motion everything that followed.

RB: There’s not a lot of Kissinger’s presence, but [the book] does say a lot about him (laughs).

TM: Well. It’s all there on the tape.  I refer to something like “guttural rumbling gravitas.”  I wish I could quote myself better. Any time these tapes are released, anyone who has the slightest regard for Richard Nixon has to crawl into a hole for days. You hear these awful things, these slurs and all his prejudices. Many of which to Nixon were a species of tough-guy locker room talk—he worshipped toughness. This last batch, oh my god. Kissinger comes off worse than Nixon. They are talking about the plight of Soviet Jewry. And Kissinger says something like, “If a million Jews were to perish, it is not a national security issue. It is perhaps a human tragedy.” My friend Hitchens said, when those were released, “You’ve got to love that ‘perhaps.’”

RB: You dedicated this book to Christopher Hitchens.

 

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

TM: Yes, I loved him to pieces. And admired him.

RB: I think many people did, even through the twists and turns of his politics. He was brilliant.

TM: Yes, very brave. Lived between two fires.

RB: What other journalist had himself water-boarded to ascertain whether it was torture?

 

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

 

TM: He was a very gentle person too. The tributes to him have been enormous and well deserved but that was the one side that they didn’t quite catch. In my novel Fellow Travelers there is a left-wing journalist for The Nation called Kenneth Woodford who is very kind to the hapless little gay guy, the protagonist Laughlin. And that was Hitchens, and he never recognized himself in it. I know he read the book—we talked about it. He even wrote something about it.

RB: Is there anyone that is like him?

TM: No, there is nobody. I remember he was debating a rabbi when the atheism book came out. And the rabbi said, “Now, Mr. Hitchens, I didn’t interrupt you.” And Hitchens said very softly, “You’re not quick enough.” (both laugh) I don’t think there was anybody who was as fast on his feet—he could debate anyone. And he was a literary man as well as a political man. I just think he was—I mean the grace with which he handled the last 18 months!  He put up a brutal fight against cancer. The pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair about that received a lot of well-deserved acclaim—a lot of people who read those pieces, what they didn’t realize was that all the time he was writing them he was still writing his pieces for Slate about Gadhafi, the election, and whatever was going on. Still doing his real work.  That was really quite heroic.

They are reissuing three of his books in the next couple of months—the book about the Clintons, Kissinger, and the book about Mother Teresa. They have new introductions; I did one for Mother Teresa. Which means another few years in Purgatory, I’m sure. He had this very eclectic mix of people around him because he was on so many political sides. You could go to dinner there and Grover Norquist would be across the table, [Salman] Rushdie would be next to you. And he had a lot of younger conservative journalists around during the Iraq War—also political operatives, people in the administration—they were thrilled to have this blue-chip intellectual backing Bush’s Iraq position, and I always used to sit there waiting for what I called “the Mother Teresa moment.”  I would think, just wait, the conversation is going to take another turn. They are going to have to deal with the fact that Hitchens is an unreconstructed socialist—he called himself a socialist until the day he died. And they were going to have to realize that he was all of a piece.I don’t intend to go on forever. People do. But not everyone has these bursts like [Philip] Roth in their 70s.

RB: So, did you have fun writing Watergate?

TM: I did. Much more than many other books (chuckles). One of the things I was amazed at was, once I really dug into it, it came back to me so quickly. Details, quotes, minor players.

RB: Meaning you didn’t have to do much research?

TM: I did, but it was all sort of there. Like dragging a file out from some drawer. It stuck with me because A) it was so vivid and B) I was so young—you absorb and retain at that age. The amount of stuff available—[the players in the Watergate drama] almost all wrote memoirs, if only to pay their legal bills. There are all the committee transcripts; there are the tapes. It’s that rare subject where I wished there was less.

RB: E.L. Doctorow says he does as little research as he can get away with.

TM: I do think that anybody writing this kind of fiction has to start writing before he completes his research–or else he falls into dissertation syndrome—“I can’t start writing until I have read everything.” And that’s a prescription for never starting.

RB: You had an opportunity to lionize Senator Sam Ervin but you ended up giving attention to Mississippi Senator  James Eastland.

TM: Well, Ervin is so familiar. Eastland was crucial to developing [Fred] LaRue.  LaRue was the one who would bring to Eastland, who was head of the Judiciary Committee, Nixon’s conservative judicial nominations.  And he was another Mississippian. So I had a few Jubilation T Cornpone scenes.

RB: In writing a book like this is there a beginning and an end? What’s next?

TM: I’m going to write about Reagan next.

RB: What happened to the murder book?

TM: It’s been bumped again. If I ever do that one, it would be my tenth novel and that might be it. I don’t intend to go on forever. People do. But not everyone has these bursts like [Phillip] Roth in their 70s. I am going to try to write about Reagan’s Washington, set around the time of the Reykjavik summit, which was a thrilling, bizarre episode. I still write a lot of nonfiction and I am kind of grateful—I’m now 60, which is pretty young—

RB: It’s the new 40.

TM: It’s still young in absolute terms, but I can see reaching a point—I hope I am a few books away from it—when it comes time to bring the plane in for a gentle landing. I still love writing essays and reviews and all the rest. Maybe I can content myself with that?

RB: Well, the conventional wisdom for maintaining mental acuity is “Use it or lose it.”

TM: I do think the real challenge in writing novels and particularly a book like this is organization and structure. There is this massive amount of material to corral into some sort of discernible shape.

RB: So many choices.

TM: That’s the thing. I had lists of dozens of characters—do I go with that person or that person? Eventually you have to make a decision and narrow it down and eliminate people.    You have that nice little magazine up here called Ploughshares, and they are doing an essay issue that’s being edited by my friend Patricia Hampl, a wonderful memoirist. So she’s been putting the touch on all of her writer pals for essays. And I’m doing a little nonfiction thing about Nixon, trying to figure out my preoccupation with him.

RB: Perhaps the greatest indictment of Nixon was in Charles Baxter’s essay “Burning Down the House,” where he faults Nixon for introducing the dysfunctional narrative by employing “mistakes were made…”

TM: The irony is we will never have a president who is more real to us than Nixon–for all his unreality.  You have some tapes that Kennedy made, Johnson made, whatever. But to have all those tapes—Nixon unbound, sometimes unglued—to be able to hold those against all of his recorded public utterances:  that’s an extraordinary thing.

RB: He taped everything.

TM: But he didn’t do it for the first two years. He got rid of Johnson’s taping system at the beginning. And then they decided that the quality of memoranda they were getting from the people who were supposed to record meetings (the low man on the totem pole would be the note taker) was just too low.  Haldeman, in his efficient way, so disliked the quality of what they were getting that he said, “Let’s just tape everything. These things aren’t worth a damn when you try to refer to them.” Once he did it, he went into it in such an enormous way. There must be at least one tape of Nixon listening to the tapes too.

RB: (laughs)

TM: Before the tapes were made public, and the system was then instantly dismantled, in the Spring of ’73, Nixon wants to listen to a tape of that March 21 meeting with John Dean (“we could get a million dollars”). He has one of his aides rig up the tapes so he can listen in hi Executive Office Building hideaway—that had a taping system, too. So there has to be a tape of Nixon listening to himself.  The tapes do put you there in a way that they will never put you in there again.

RB: Do Americans want their president to be human, to be real? Mitt Romney is ridiculed for trying to be a man of the people

TM: Yeah, well, this crew that’s out there now—what he [Nixon] would make of them!  The idea that an election would be hinging on these “social” issues would just bore him. He even said to Mitchell at one point—supposedly said,  just when the presidency was beginning—“You be President, and I’ll be Secretary of State.” To him it was essentially the office from which the foreign affairs of the country were conducted. One of the reasons his domestic programs by and large were so liberal—guaranteed national income, health care, big funding for the arts, all the rest—I don’t think all that engaged him very much. He wanted to be free of that.  Ehrlichman, who was in charge of domestic affairs, felt they didn’t get enough of Nixon’s attention. Nixon said at one point—and I have him speak this line to Rose Mary Woods—“The country can basically run itself domestically.” A sort of Coolidge notion,  in a way. Even though he went in for lots of government intervention and programs.

RB: Later there were efforts to rehabilitate him based on his foreign policy expertise.

TM: He wrote serious books and he never took a fee for a speech.

RB: Was he broke when he resigned?

TM: Yes. He needed to write his memoirs to make money. But they lived modestly at the end. He still did a lot of foreign travel and he gave his advice freely to every American president that followed him. Nixon’s epilogue scene here is his last trip to Russia, just before he dies. And he reports on that to Clinton. And Clinton even says to his advisors, “Why don’t I get memos this good from my ambassadors and staff?” He was a much better ex-president than president.

RB: Clinton was particularly laudatory when Nixon died.

TM: He said something like, “The time has long passed when we should judge Richard Nixon on anything but the totality of his life.” In other words there was more to him than Watergate. I used to wonder how Robert Caro, year after year, book after book, stuck with Johnson (laughs). I still wonder—

RB: Malone wrote six volumes on Jefferson.

TM: —but I could sort of see it after just a couple of years with Nixon.  I didn’t feel as if I’d exhausted anything.

RB: I don’t know who wants to read those door- stop biographies. I like the 200-page biographical essays by someone who is simpatico—Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, or Cabrera Infante on José Martí. But I see that  biographers like Caro are good about clarifying the social/historical milieu surrounding their subjects.

TM: Yes, yes. His books are these big history paintings, these murals. But biography—I’m not tempted. It’s too onerous, too difficult.  It’s one thing to go from fiction to criticism, reviewing. But to go from fiction to narrative non-fiction… I’ve been amused by this John D’Agata book, The Lifespan of a Fact. Not my idea of nonfiction. I worked on that little book of mine, Mrs. Paine’s Garage, after a real spate of fiction—Dewey Defeats Truman, Two Moons, and I found it so difficult not to be able to fall back on saying, “Well, it’s a novel,  I can change this.” It had to go through the strainer of the New Yorker fact-checking department. And I just can’t imagine that burden in writing biography, let alone the burden of assembling all the material. I just can’t see it.Aside all the campaigning he did for people, [Nixon] was preparing himself for the presidency. [Palin] couldn’t care less. With her it’s become president or get a better deal with a reality TV show.

RB: Have you seen Game Change?[3]

TM: No.

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

RB: Do you read those kinds of books? Read that book?

TM: Not many. I read him, John Heilemann—I read him in New York magazine and I hope I will see the movie with Julianne Moore.

RB: She’s incredibly convincing as Palin. But everybody involved as a player claims it’s fiction. The end the movie has McCain telling Palin she is now a kingmaker in the Republican Party. Is she a leader of the GOP?

TM: No, no. No. No. Look, I argued in 2008 with my friends that nobody who was in the United States Senate for three years was ready to be president.  So nobody who was the Governor of Alaska for two years is ready to be president.

RB: John McCain was prepared to be president?

TM: Well, all those years in Congress.

RB: George Bush was ready to be president?

TM: Six years as governor of Texas—that’s a weak office. Probably not, ideally.  But I think Palin had been to Mexico:  that was her international travel. She may have stopped in Germany on her way to make a lightning visit to Iraq. She had never seen any of the countries we’re allied with. That strikes me as incredible.

RB: But that’s what politics has degenerated to since Nixon—commercials and advertising. Eagles and flags and all the rest of the beer commercial imagery.

TM: Look at those years Nixon was out of office.  He was an enormous foreign traveler. He would meet with whoever was in power and with the leader of the opposition too. As a former vice-president—anybody was going to see him.  Aside from all the campaigning he did for people, he was preparing himself for the presidency. [Palin] couldn’t care less. With her it’s become president or get a better deal with a reality TV show.

RB: Quitting the governorship was a telling move.

TM: Also, how hard could it have been (laughs)?

RB: Who do you think could be president? Who could do the job?

TM: Umm. Well, uh, I was alone in my peer group who thought McCain could.

RB: Not based on his values but because he knows how things work?

TM: His experience, yeah.   Even though he has been wrong on just about everything through the years, in terms of experience, Biden would be creditable. John Kerry was a creditable candidate. There are other reasons why I might not want them, but I do think people should know something. One result of 2008, and it’s a combination of Obama and Palin—in most respects there is no comparison (intelligence, curiosity, etc.)—but having both of them on the ticket, it has definitely driven down the expectation of experience. People with such thin resumes running for the top offices.

RB: That strikes me as basis for Biden’s place on the ticket.

TM: Oh sure. Once McCain put Palin on the ticket he lost the opportunity to say to Obama, “You’re not prepared to be president. You need more seasoning in the Senate.” Their obvious rebuttal would be the choice he made to be a heartbeat away. His campaign threw away a pretty compelling argument. I think a lot of people would have looked at Obama and said—here’s a very bright guy, come back in four years.

RB: Well, come back in four years with your Ronald Reagan book. Thanks again.

TM: I will. [And he did] see here

########

1. Identitytheory —(my first)conversation with Christopher Hitchens

2. The Pentagon Papers

3. HBO’s Game Change 

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon

8 Jan
Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

 My acquaintance with Thomas Mallon began about twenty years ago when I discovered his novel Henry and Clara, his riveting novel about the couple seated next to Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at the Ford Theater. And so began our small literary friendship that has resulted in my continued interest and appreciation of his novels and thus  a number of interview/ conversations. This latest  chat was occasioned by his newest novel, Finale. Suffice it to say , that as usual, he and I digress from fiction to films to politics to the aging process. No doubt (given the obvious proviso for two geezers) we will be conversating again in a few years.

Allow me to quote from my previous talk with Thomas:

Given the deplorable state of historical literacy in the greatest country in the world, I have long held that if I were allowed to teach history, there are a number of novels I would include in my lesson plans—in addition to the eye-opening, ground-breaking People’s History by Howard Zinn. Thomas Mallon has written a number of those novels—

######

Robert Birnbaum: Onward and upward (as he readies the recording device).

Thomas Mallon: I’m just very aware of how in the midst of all of the changes in the industry that the essentials for me have stayed very old-fashioned.

Robert Birnbaum: Your publisher is remarkably stable. They have editors that have been there for years at all the various  imprints. The publicity  people have been there years and years. They’re  slick—slick in a good way. They’re decent, they’re efficient, sweet; they know the stuff. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine.

Thomas Mallon: A lot the processes of my writing life have changed dramatically, but the personnel of it have really been stable: Dan[Frank]; the people I write for at the New Yorker, for instance. I have been writing for Dan [at Pantheon] for nearly 20 years now. The Times Book Review, whatever. I’ve moved around a little bit with agents but I’ve been with [Andrew] Wiley now for the last 8 years, so it’s been very happy for me. I’ve been sheltered from the storm.

Robert Birnbaum:  Which may or may not be responsible for the fact that you’ve written some pretty creditable books, on a regular basis.

Thomas Mallon: I’m hoping to retire from teaching next year. I will be 65. Nobody in my-

Robert Birnbaum: No! No, you’re lying.

Thomas Mallon: Next year, sure. Can’t tell, right? As I creep along. I’ll keep writing… I don’t know how many of these [novels] I have left in me.” I think I have a couple more; in fact, I’m signed up to do a couple more and I think I can bring everything in for a soft landing.  If novel-writing seems to become too much, I’d like to think I could have a dignified closing act with essays and reviews and things like that.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re not going to do something as ostentatious as announce your retirement —like some other authors.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, I know who you’re thinking of[Philip Roth], but he was 80; for God sakes.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you believe him, is he absolutely … Are we sure there won’t be another novel.

Thomas Mallon: I don’t know. My God, if I could go to 80, I’d be thrilled. I’m hoping to get past 70 doing it.

Robert Birnbaum: Joseph Epstein  wrote a very funny piece when he turned 70— a spoof on  producer Robert Evans’s memoir. Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned 70.[1] The brilliant thing I thought was that he announces  “You know what, I have a birthday, I just want 10 more years. I don’t want to live forever I just another 10 years,” “A happy amount of time to aspire to wherever you are.”

Thomas Mallon: He says that whenever he has a birthday.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, 10 more, 10 more, 10 more.

Thomas Mallon: He’s really been asking for 20, right?

Robert Birnbaum: When did you start feeling you were aging? And that you had to think about  an end-game, a last quarter?

Thomas Mallon: I think earlier than most people in the same game as I am. I think that may be temperamental, that may be  dark Irish stuff, I don’t know. I did have a sense of being off to a late start as a fiction writer. Not as a non-fiction writer, but I published my first novel when I was 36. It seemed very late at the time. It doesn’t seem so right now, but it did in the ’80s. I think I had a sense early on that I needed to work hard and move quickly where fiction was concerned, once I found my feet. I have seen writers, often writers that I admire extravagantly, who went on too long. It’s very difficult to tell somebody to stop.  I knew Gore Vidal a little bit, I edited him sometimes at GQ. A couple times I even wrote about him.  I remember being on the phone with him one time, and he had written what was his last novel.  I can’t even remember the title, but I think it’s set at the Smithsonian or something. He said to me in that patrician voice, “Well, you know, this will be the last one.” I said something like, “Oh, surely not.” “No,” he replied.  “Well, why?” I asked.  He said, “Well, you know, I get to the end of a chapter now, I have trouble remembering how it began.” I do think that the engineering feats of novel-writing are something to keep in mind. I’ve seen this, again, mostly in writers that I admired a lot. Somebody like Elizabeth Hardwick who went on very, very late. Lizzie was still publishing, I don’t know, well into her 80s or whatever. From anybody else it would have been pretty damn good. But if you had been reading her for years you noticed a falling off. How could you not? Once in a blue moon there are these people like V.S. Pritchett who seem undiminished. Updike seemed quite undiminished, too. He wasn’t of a very great age but well into his 70s. Then that burst of … I think, honestly, at the end, his poetry was fabulous. I think his criticism was still sharp, very sharp as he went along.

Robert Birnbaum:  Updike is one of the writers I just never got around to [reading]. First of all I want to … not first of all but I want to thank you on behalf of ordinary Americans for adding to our knowledge of Iceland’s literacy and food culture, so thank you.

Thomas Mallon: Yes, highest per capita book consumption or something like that.  I’ll tell you one last thing before we leave that topic concerning the writer I most admire.  My mentor, my muse, was Mary McCarthy. Mary died at 77 which seems young, but it wasn’t so young for her generation—hard-living writers. I do remember my sense of Mary in her ’60s and ’70s. She was operating in some ways as if she had all the time in the world. I remember thinking this at the time, also because she wrote a memoir called How I Grew. It’s not my favorite among her books; again, for almost anybody else it would be top drawer. She was going over ground that she had already covered in probably her very best work, Memories of Catholic Girlhood. She was going over it in a way that was certainly interesting to anybody who cared about her work. But it was more literal than Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and I kept thinking, “Why are you giving this 3 years, or whatever it is, of your life? Get on to the 1930s which is what everybody wants to read.” One thing about Mary–and I think that some of her biographers notice this:  she never really thought in career terms. She didn’t have a plan, and there’s something about that that I actually admire.

 

 

 

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

 

Robert Birnbaum: [across from the patio at which we are seated a wild turkey crosses the street The return of the species here…

Thomas Mallon: Unbelievable.

Robert Birnbaum: They are all over the place.

Thomas Mallon: I feel like I’m back in Westport.

Robert Birnbaum: Wildlife is  everywhere now—returning to urban populated areas.

Thomas Mallon: I’ll be damned.

Robert Birnbaum: There are a couple of recent portrayals of McCarthy . One in particular  impressed me —Janet McTeer played her  in that Hannah Arendt film.[2]

Thomas Mallon: Which I haven’t seen; which I will see.

 

(the beginning  scene has Arendt and Mary McCarthy in conversation)

 

Robert Birnbaum: McTeer’s a wonderful actress and I hope her portrayal did her justice. So, the occasion for our conversation here is that you just published a book which is a historical fiction. I have to ask, how much of it is fiction?

 

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

 

 

Thomas Mallon: I would say probably about the same quotient, maybe a little higher quotient of fiction than in some of the previous ones. It’s a book that’s on roughly the same scale as Watergate  and it operates in largely the same way with about a half dozen point-of-view characters.

Robert Birnbaum: Right, but to me they were 3 really substantial characters’ points of view.

 

Finale by Thomas Mallon

Finale by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon:Yeah, there are 2 important characters who are purely fictional characters. Anne Macmurray, who’s revived from my old novel Dewey Defeats Truman—she was the ingenue of that—and this fellow Anders Little on the National Security Council. In Watergate there were only a handful of very minor characters who were fictional. Watergate was different, with this juggernaut plot. You had to go from the break-in to the pardon. This book is somewhat more diffuse. It’s more a portrait of an era than it is a single narrative. The subtitle was somewhat carefully chosen: A Novel of the Reagan Years. It’s not trying to unlock the mystery of Reagan or anything-

Robert Birnbaum: I have to backtrack …there are 4 major characters; I forgot about Nixon.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, Nixon in some ways; he’s my Alice Roosevelt Longworth in this book. He’s become the kind of aged one who’s seen it all. I guess I couldn’t let go of him.

Robert Birnbaum: In so many ways, he was fascinating.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I was surprised by a lot of things … Nixon and Reagan were in touch more often than I expected in the ’80s and the-

Robert Birnbaum: On whose initiative?

Thomas Mallon: Both, and that surprised me too. Nixon did not want to wear out his welcome but he would send memoranda to [Reagan’s] chief of staff, things like that. Reagan would call him up and they talked during Iran-Contra and Nixon makes no bones about it. “Apologize for the son-of-a-bitch and put it behind you. Learn the lesson I failed to.” I think Nixon had a … He knew Reagan had something and he had a certain respect for what Reagan was doing. I think he, at times, shook his head thinking that, from his point of view, things had come awfully easy to Reagan.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, right.  My impression, you don’t treat Reagan negatively, but  you cast this notion of him as being a cipher to so many people that they felt they sort of knew him and  also didn’t know him.

Thomas Mallon:Right, and I think you phrase it exactly. “Cipher” to so many people. I don’t consider him a cipher. I do think he was a formidable figure, but I do think there was a great deal of mystery to him. One of the things I decided almost immediately upon beginning this book was that I was not going to try to turn Reagan into a point-of-view character. I was not going to see anything from inside of him. I had no trouble doing that, or I felt I had no trouble doing that, with Nixon. I felt comfortable writing from Nixon’s point of view, but-

Robert Birnbaum: You didn’t feel comfortable doing it because-

Thomas Mallon: I didn’t feel comfortable at all because I think Reagan has defeated any number of biographers. Which is  not to say that they’ve necessarily been defeated by making an historical assessment of his presidency. Not that, but in terms of his personality they’ve been defeated. When I tried to see things from his point of view I never felt that I had put the skin on. There were times when he seemed very big to me; other times he seemed comically small. I was acutely aware of Edmund Morris’ s frustration with him. I even give Morris a scene with him in the book. I decided I would, to go back to Vidal, I would adopt his approach in Lincoln. He never gets inside Lincoln, it’s all from several different vantage points. I would do that, but I was not trying to render Reagan; I was trying to render the Reagan years. A time about which, politically, I was wildly ambivalent.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Good for you, good.  As opposed to being so proud of our Exceptionalism.

Thomas Mallon: That part I liked. I do think that Reagan had a lot to do with winning the Cold War. To me it was thrilling when his own national security adviser asked him, “What’s your view of the Cold War?” He said, “We win, they lose.” I thought, “Clarity, at last; as opposed to detail.” It was also, it was a time when I was burying my friends and would have liked to have heard a kind word from him about AIDS, you know?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, well. there were any number of those glaring disjunctions. I never worried about Russian tanks showing up on the Rio Grande.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, I did. The Soviets were truly on the march in the ’70s. Whether it was Angola or and then Afghanistan in 1980. The Soviets were extremely expansionist. Now, of course, it’s easy to say, “Oh, well-

Robert Birnbaum: It ruined them.

Thomas Mallon: It wouldn’t have ruined them if there hadn’t been some push-back. This book doesn’t offer any brief for Iran-Contra but I wouldn’t argue with every tactic and every bit of strategy. People said to me, “Why does Reagan come out … Why does he get off so easily with something like Iran-Contra?” I think it’s because of the Contra part of the scandal, whether you agreed with this tactic of fighting this proxy war or not. People view the scandal, a lot of them, as a blunder or even something pernicious but it was part of a much bigger thing. It was a part of the U.S.-Soviet opposition and, ultimately, he won that.

Robert Birnbaum: If you turn around the telescope, then, yeah, great. The Berlin Wall came down, peace dividends were being declared but I’m not that much interested in the fixing blame on historical personalities. I think the process … Some of the things that started to happen under, or suddenly become more visible, under that administrations really were toxic to the democratic process. I don’t care, having someone like Ollie North running around, having ambassadors who really were cowboys and had no … hey weren’t really answering to anyone. Therefore, you could have things like nuns being murdered in El Salvador. Did the United States really say that was okay? Did we really want that to happen?

Thomas Mallon: Now we have government by executive order.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, so-

Thomas Mallon: I don’t think the democratic process is in terrific shape under this chief executive.

Robert Birnbaum: Certainly the promised transparency is not there. You know what’s interesting to me on Reagan is that Richard Reeves*, for instance, who is not particularly sympathetic to Republicans, wrote not a sympathetic, but an understanding biography of Reagan-

Thomas Mallon: Reeves’s book is quite good, I think. As I said, Reagan himself is at the center but he’s the missing center of this book in a way.  It all swirls around him. I do think that in any administration, in any organization, people spend a lot of time trying to figure out the boss. They want to please the boss, they want to get ahead, etc. In his administration I think people spent an inordinate amount of time doing that. It may have lent it some odd kind of creative energy, along with some overreaching, because I think he baffled some of the people that he worked with. I’ve talked to other people who say, “No,” people who knew him.I had a brief phone conversation a couple weeks ago with George Will. He goes, “This remote stuff is very overrated. He was genial and what you saw was what you got,” and he said, “He had one friend and he married her.” My reaction to that was, “How ordinary is that? Who has one friend and marries the person?” Even Nixon had Bebe Robozo. I do think there was some mystery about Reagan, but I wanted, as always, I wanted to show him operating, the president operating, amidst a lot of accident, chance, fatefulness, opposition. We have Pamela Harriman as my sort of my comic…

Robert Birnbaum: I suspect she was a fun character to play with —a wild card.

Thomas Mallon:One of the reasons I think that Anne Macmurray came back laughs) was I realized I had Nancy Reagan and Pamela Harriman and I have to have a nice woman character among the main ones. The women characters have often run off with my books; I’ve noticed that. People talked a lot about that with Watergate. I didn’t set out to do that, but the women were very crucial in Watergate. I thought that they were, on the surface, they had some similarities, Nancy and Pamela. Nancy is this sort of-

Robert Birnbaum:Pamela, the way you presented her, was much smarter than Nancy. Nancy was shrewd but the scope of her general knowledge was limited

Thomas Mallon: Nancy, to me … I think the picture of her is sympathetic; she’s a raw nerve. I don’t think she enjoyed 10 minutes of the White House. Pamela is one of the least self-curious people ever. She’s just a predator, you know? She goes after one life after another. She’s kind of astonishing and is having this quite late third act.

Robert Birnbaum: Am I correct in assuming she wrote a memoir or autobiography or something?

Thomas Mallon: No.

Robert Birnbaum: No?

 

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon: There are 2 substantial biographies of her. She would have written a fabulous memoir. I think by the time she was ready to write it, she had inherited hundred million dollars and really didn’t need to.

Robert Birnbaum: Since she was not self-curious and had no financial need.

Thomas Mallon: It would not have been an introspective book. She had a tremendous desire for dignity. The really funny thing about her was she was an aristocrat. She was a Digby . Yet, throughout her life her reputation was for being a courtesan. Somebody who was trying to push her way into the respectable world,when in fact, it was the world she was born to.

Robert Birnbaum: In America, was she referred to as a courtesan?

Thomas Mallon: Oh, yeah; routinely.

Robert Birnbaum: I wasn’t aware that Americans recognized that position.

Thomas Mallon: When you say-

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what I mean?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. When you say, “in America,” certainly while she was operating in America she was still referred to as that. Maybe she was more often referred to that way by people who had known her in her European days. It’s an astonishing life but the funny thing, at the end, is that she really craves respectability. She really wanted her reward for everything she did for the Democrats. She has to wait until Bill Clinton to get it and then she gets the ambassadorship to Paris. She felt this kind of strange hunger for respectability even though she had been born into hyper-respectability. She had this kind of raffish early and middle life that she had to overcome.

 

Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: As you began this book, how much was [Christopher] Hitchens [ 4]going to be a part of it?

Thomas Mallon: At the very beginning I didn’t have him in mind at all. Obviously, he occurred to me in fairly short order because he’s there throughout the whole book. I didn’t know Christopher in the time-

Robert Birnbaum: In that period.

Thomas Mallon: Of the book. I got to know Christopher—I didn’t meet him until well into the ’90s. I got to know him pretty well in the early 2000’s. At the time the novel is set, 1986, he’s always betwixt and between. Should he stay in the States, go back to England? Is he going to make his was through publications like Vanity Fair or The Nation? Is he going to stay in his first marriage or leave it, whatever? I thought I could plausibly deploy him into the narrative in a lot of ways, though he never did a  profile of Pamela Harriman [as the book purports].

Robert Birnbaum: Is that how you got information about Harriman —through him?

Thomas Mallon: No. I think to go back to what you were first asking about—how much is fiction, how much isn’t—I think that’s a good example of how I feel I can operate. I don’t operate at the extremes of historical fiction, which is alternate history fiction. Those books where the south wins the Civil War, things like that.

Robert Birnbaum: Bill O’Reilly’s-

Thomas Mallon: I think-

Robert Birnbaum: If one  could call them books.

Thomas Mallon: That doesn’t interest me. It has to be what are  Vidal’s   “agreed-upon facts”  that are adhered to. Then people say, “Why write fiction at all, why not write well-done biographies, things like that?” Obviously, there are ways it has an intimacy to it, historical fiction. There are ways to speculate about people…

Robert Birnbaum: Have you read any biographies of George Washington?

Thomas Mallon: No.

Robert Birnbaum: I haven’t either but I’m wondering how many of them refer to the fact that Washington was a real hound and would send his junior officers out so he could liaison with their wives. Is that something you think is … I think that’s the kind of thing, whether it’s true or not, that’s the kind of thing you can put in… that Vidal would put in a  story. I’m glad you brought him up because I think those American civilization novels, I think they’re 5?

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: They are better American history than many scholarly texts of the time.

Thomas Mallon: One big … Let me to try to organize my thoughts on this and I will return to him in one minute. In my own books I’m not going to change something like the chronology of the Reykjavik summit. Those negotiating sessions operate almost exactly…

Robert Birnbaum: I assume that.

Thomas Mallon: The stuff I will change is the smaller stuff that you can plausibly change. For instance, something like, was Hitchens at Reykjavik? No. But is it plausible for him to have been there? Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: Does it make a difference?

Thomas Mallon: Right, and it’s the sort of thing where the only way the reader is going to know that it’s fiction is if the reader looks it up and discovers, “No, there’s no record of him having been there,” things like that. That’s a rule of thumb.  It’s not what happened instead of the big things but what might have happened in addition to the big things. What might have happened behind the scenes, whatever. One difference I would say between me and Vidal, aside from the fact that he remains the maestro, is a … His works have a higher thematic content than mine do. He’s hugely working the thesis, the thesis of American empire, whatever. I’m more interested in serendipity, accident, quirks, telling a story. I think in that sense I’m operating more as a novelist than he is because there’s always a … He goes about more of the business of a historian than I do.

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

 

Robert Birnbaum: Nonetheless you have Truman that’s 1948, and Fellow Travelers covers the early ’50s, and Watergate, the late 60’s , early 70’s. I don’t remember was there a novel that’s set in the ’60s?

Thomas Mallon: Aurora 7, an early book but it’s not really political. Kennedy has a couple of scenes in it but it’s mostly my bildungsroman. It’s all set on the day  of Scott Carpenter’s space flight … Finale is dedicated to Scott, who died a couple of years ago.

Robert Birnbaum: Then Watergate and now this. One could say that’s sort of a kind of American history. Do you want to fill in anything?

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

 

Thomas Mallon: It is kind of a Republican saga. If you go back to Henry and Clara, you’ve got Lincoln-

Robert Birnbaum: My favorite of your books.

Thomas Mallon: Thank you.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s such a novel  perspective to look at Lincoln’s assassination from.

Thomas Mallon: Also, now that I think of it, the Hayes administration in Two Moons—another Republican administration. I am now writing —and it’s so close that I don’t know that you’d be able to call it historical fiction—about the George W. Bush years.

Robert Birnbaum: Is it fiction?

Thomas Mallon:It’s fiction, yeah. A novel called Landfall. I always seem to throw these presidents into the soup. I have them at their lowest points. Reagan here; Nixon during Watergate; and the Bush book is mostly set in ’05, ’06—Katrina, the Iraq insurgency, everything.  I also want to go back to the Civil War one more time. I’ve sold these next two books as proposals and the one thing they said was … I was going to do the Civil War book first. They said, “No, we want you to flip them, and we want you to do the Bush book first and complete the trilogy.” I didn’t know I was writing one. They see Watergate, Finale and the Bush book. To use the phrase that DH Lawrence used dismissively about Ulysses—he said, “It’s so on purpose”—I think my books, in some intellectual, thematic way,  are less “on purpose” than Vidal’s were. I don’t have a point to prove about the country.

Robert Birnbaum: They’re not quite Teddy White’s Making of the President.

Robert Birnbaum: As they say, Vidal had cojones. He believed in himself, yes, and-

Thomas Mallon: He was unfailingly nice to me, too. Jay Parini’s biography of him is about to come out.

Robert Birnbaum: Parini is executor of his estate, I think.

Thomas Mallon: Yes, Jay knew him very, very well. I didn’t know him nearly as well. I have to say I was always—in some ways I was scared of getting to know him any better because, I thought, if I do, at some point I’m going to feel the lash. There’ll be the falling out, there’ll be-

Robert Birnbaum: I hear you.  How are you feeling about the city on the hill these days?

Thomas Mallon: Somebody asked, “You going to do a novel about Trump if he goes all the way?” I said, “It’s already a novel.” I wish he would recede quickly. I’m not sure it’s going to happen now. I still think … I do not think he’s going to go the distance. I don’t think he’s going to go the distance to the nomination. On the other hand, I am a terrible prognosticator.

Robert Birnbaum: What is the possibility that the American public becomes disenchanted with him?

 

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, they become disenchanted with a lot of people, so why not with him?  It would be really different if he were 1 of 4, you know? The fact that he’s 1 of 16 or whatever it is, and that a dozen of them are almost completely unknown to the public, is what’s made the race more ridiculous than it would have been otherwise. I think the best thing that could happen to the Republican party right now would be for half of these people running to get out immediately.

Robert Birnbaum: This interesting thing about the status of Ronald Reagan within the Republican party, for me, is that these aspiring politicians really don’t have a grasp of who he was . But he’s given them the confidence to think that they could be president of the United States. Honestly, I look at that group and I would like them to explain, what makes them think they are qualified to be president?

Thomas Mallon:Certainly, Reagan had business running for president; a 2-term governor of California has the chops for it. He did raise the appropriate age so that if Biden gets in we’re going to have the altacocker  primary in the Democratic party, I mean between Bernie and Hillary and Biden. Reagan did that. I’m sure I would get different opinions, but I would argue that nobody did more to lower the credentials factor for the presidency than Barack Obama.  I’m not wild about the idea of electing people who have been in the Senate for a couple years—3 years, whatever it was—as president. I’ve often said this to people:  “I hold Barack Obama responsible for Sarah Palin.”

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs)

Thomas Mallon:I was not a fan of Governor Palin, but do you remember much talk when she was picked by John McCain?  Do you remember much talk of, “God, McCain’s going to put somebody a heartbeat away from the presidency who’s been governor of Alaska for a year and a half?”  They couldn’t do it, the Democrats couldn’t make that point because of Obama.

Robert Birnbaum: Why would they need to?  She was self-discrediting.

Thomas Mallon: You have all of these first-term Senators running. I rather like Rubio, I will say that. But I think something’s wrong.

Robert Birnbaum: Except these  guys are talking  pie-in-the-sky economics and that they— are going make the American worker ,who’s being screwed by the Democrats, they’re going to make their lives better for them. Really, with their voodoo economics? Their  supply side economics and deficit austerity?

Thomas Mallon: You see, Robert, now you’re getting into issues, and I hate that part of politics.

Robert Birnbaum (laughs)

Thomas Mallon: I would much rather … If I were truly interested in issues I’d be a historian, but it’s personalities …

Robert Birnbaum: Its no longer  about experience  in governance as much … I don’t think you can argue that he’s not a very smart man.

Thomas Mallon: Who?

Robert Birnbaum: Obama.

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: That he’s a quick read and that he does have respect for history. In fact , look at the disenchantment by left Democrats. Obama’s a centrist all the way. Bringing Goldman Sachs people into the economic advisory mix, what makes him radical? The right  calls him a socialist …

Thomas Mallon: I can’t see him as a centrist but I know the point you’re making.

Robert Birnbaum:  What operating room do you have if the opposition says, from day one,”We’re gong to do everything we can to make sure he’s a 1-term president.” How do you negotiate? Govern?

Thomas Mallon: As opposed to the gigantic elbow room the Democrats gave Reagan throughout the ’80s? Come on. The Republicans gave Obama the stimulus he asked for.

Robert Birnbaum: The Tip O’Neill-Ron Reagan ‘friendship  was just a myth?

Thomas Mallon: I think it’s overblown, I do. Others will argue differently. There’s that Chris Matthews book about the whole thing. I don’t think either one liked the other.

Robert Birnbaum: Chris Matthews?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: My, my.

Thomas Mallon: You know, Jesse Jackson used to say, “I would rather have Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse.” I would have to say that, because of the basic sense he had of what he wanted to do with the presidency, I would rather have Ronald Reagan at the beginning of geriatric exhaustion—I’m not saying senility—

Robert Birnbaum: Right, got you.

Thomas Mallon: At the beginning of his geriatric exhaustion, than Obama at the head of the Law Review.

Robert Birnbaum: That does point to the fact that there’s this whole bouillabaisse of credentials and characteristics that one would think make a good president but you really don’t know what the mixture is. It’s a mystery, right?

Thomas Mallon: Right, and you really don’t know what opportunities they’re going to have to use the better parts of themselves, you know? I think it’s … It won’t be me but Obama would certainly be interesting for a novelist. Much more interesting than Clinton.

Robert Birnbaum: What about someone like Ulysses S. Grant for whom, I think, his historical stature is being revised . He’s been rehabilitated. I don’t think Americans know his story, they think he was a drunk and a crook, you know? How many people do you think have read his memoirs which I am  told are quite good?

Memoirs by U.S. Grant

Memoirs by U.S. Grant

 

Thomas Mallon: Very few.

Robert Birnbaum: …and were published by Mark Twain, right?

Thomas Mallon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Birnbaum: And then Eisenhower, I don’t think … He turned out to be, looked like a much better president today than he was when people were laughing at his golfing and his lack of polish as a public speaker.

Thomas Mallon:  It’s amazing that the United States has this 10-year stretch with two of the most baroque personalities ever as president— Johnson and Nixon, with their incredible complexities. And then it goes Main Street with Jerry Ford.

Robert Birnbaum: That was sort of accidental. He would have never been elected.

Thomas Mallon: He came close. Clinton would not interest me as a novelist because while Clinton is complicated, yes; everybody’s always talking about Clinton as being compartmentalized, whatever. I don’t think he’s the least bit mysterious.  Can see the different compartments, you know? Obama, is  a much more opaque figure. Much harder to read, harder to get at.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a duo, a comedy due called Key & Peele. They have a  routine where they have an anger  translator for Obama.And Obama brought him to the last White House Correspondent’s dinner

Thomas Mallon: Suppressed anger, I think, is fascinating. I always thought and continue to think, even as I wish him well in his current state of ill health, that Jimmy Carter was a very angry man beneath the surface. Very angry and resentful.

Robert Birnbaum: Is he a Baptist or Methodist ?

Thomas Mallon: Baptist, I think.

Robert Birnbaum:A  more  austere form of Protestantism?

Robert Birnbaum: Well he did  a good job of anger management didn’t he?

Thomas Mallon:That’s the thing, though.  Anger management is not the same thing as anger suppression, because anger management entails letting it out as appropriate, you know? I would be interested to know just how cool Barack Obama really is or how much anger he suppresses. What he’s angry about? I think that it might be something entirely different from what we think. It’s not for me, but I think there’s good material for a novelist there and-

Robert Birnbaum: In all these cases you have a very volatile world setting. There’s lots of stuff going on that you can pull out to deal with. Has anyone talked about making a movie out of any of the books? You optioned?

Thomas Mallon: Say that louder. The options come and go. They don’t buy up properties with the alacrity they used to. Hollywood has the same kind of cautionary chill about it that publishing has now. Henry and Clara options have come and gone. Dewey Defeats Truman was not only optioned, it was bought. I paid for half of my house in Connecticut with it and then they never made it. They could still make it. It was a period piece to begin with.

Robert Birnbaum: What I notice is this expansion of the scope of what the so called cable industry and HBO, Showcase, A & E. They’re making things they’re … The HBO special that David Simon just did [Show Me A Hero]. Can you imagine somebody actually making a movie about the housing crisis in Yonkers?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I would much prefer if somebody were going to film this. My strong preference would be to have it done for television in 8 parts or something. I think that would be a much closer match to the construction of the novel. Television is doing such interesting things with narrative right now. Much more so, I think, than film.

Robert Birnbaum: I think I find myself reading somewhat less and watching more of these extended series. When it comes down to it, my interest in stories, good stories.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, right.

Robert Birnbaum: The streaming services are  a great reservoir of  wonderful movies but, again, in terms of commercial interest, starting with the Sopranos and the Wire , producers  are buying into getting writers writing good stories; investing —like Nick Pizolatto, His True Detective [at least season one][5]was genius.

Thomas Mallon: In terms of adaptation, something like Wolf Hall. If you were going to do Wolf Hall, to me the proper way to do it was the way it was done on television.

Robert Birnbaum: Right,  I don’t know about you but I couldn’t read the book but I thought the dramatization was fabulous. The lead actor Mark Rylance, just perfect.

Thomas Mallon: I like the book, I’ve never read the second one, the one that came after. Maybe I will at some point

Robert Birnbaum: Also the  BBC  did a splendid job on William Boyd’s [novel ]Any Given Heart.[6]  It’s about a writer’s life, from about 1910 I think up until the ’60s or ’70s. 3 It’s just a wonderful story and again, ist based on a worthy text

Thomas Mallon: The single, greatest television experience I have ever had—and I remember the first run of the Honeymooners as a rug rat in the mid-’50s—the greatest television experience I ever had was Deadwood. If you have not seen Deadwood…

Robert Birnbaum:  I have seen Deadwood and I read Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name. There was a piece on the HBO series producer David Milch in the New Yorker. I don’t remember if they referenced Dexter’s skepticism about Milch’s claim  saying he never read Dexter’s book.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, really?  It was one of those things where after a couple of episodes I still wasn’t in the groove with it. I’m thinking, “Am I going to commit to this?” or whatever. Then I got past that crucial point very much as you often have to do with a novel. “Now, I’m in; I’m investing,” whatever. After that, I just felt the whole thing was so audacious, so atmospheric. It just, it didn’t build and build in a narrative way, it didn’t build and build to the climax of the story, but it deepened and deepened and deepened.

Robert Birnbaum: I always loved John Hawkes[plays Sol Star in Deadwood]. Do you know his work? He does  a lot of comedy but in Winter’s Bone he’s resoundingly sinister.

Thomas Mallon: A little bit, yeah. The main character, Al Swearengen, there was a part of him that reminded me of my old boss Art Cooper.

Robert Birnbaum: I think the next time I saw Swearingen was in some odd NBC special about some futuristic kingdom where he’s the king.  Have you seen Winter’s Bone?

Thomas Mallon: No, I know what it is, though.

Robert Birnbaum: It takes place in a hard scrabble Ozarks, really tough people with their own code, insular; 2 really interesting characters. Based on a novel written by a wonderful writer,  Daniel Woodrell credited with creating “redneck noir”.   Are you engaged in this book tour for some period of time? Is it a distraction? Is it hard for you?

Thomas Mallon: No, it’s not steady…

Robert Birnbaum: You’re going to tell me you’re glad they asked you because…

Thomas Mallon: Actually, yes. It would be wrong to say anything else. It’s a little bit different; it’s more broken up than it used to be. In the old days they put you out on the road for a long time. I go home tomorrow and then I’m at home for 10 days; then I go to St. Louis. Then I’m at home for a week and I go to New York.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s good. There will have been time for people to actually read the book?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, over a couple of months it adds up to a lot.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s smart.

Thomas Mallon: Then there’ll be a California leg of it, whatever. I still, I’m always keeping my journalistic life afloat. The truly hair-raising aspect of this week was not just the traveling, not just waiting on reviews. I had to close a piece for the New Yorker this week. From the hotel room in Texas and then at my apartment in New York, I was on the phone with the fact-checkers and getting proof after proof after proof. I’m a nervous closer even during a slow week at home, so my hands have been shaky.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s the state of writing, too.  Writers used to say, “I never write on the road.” Now people are forced to  write on the road.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, I couldn’t actually write on the road but I have to do other stuff on the road. One of the things that I’ve also noticed is a bit of a change in my non-fiction life. I think I’m writing … I’m still writing literary criticism, but I’m writing more about politics and political books that I’m used to. This piece I just closed was about The Drew Pearson Diaries from the 1960s

Robert Birnbaum: He was an influential columnist-

Thomas Mallon: Incredibly so, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: In the  Washington Post, right?  There were a handful of those guys, also Lippmann, Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson?

Thomas Mallon: Anderson was Pearson’s assistant. Until he took over the column. Lippmann and people like Joe Alsop—they were sort of these mandarins of commentary. Although Anderson also had some reporting in his column. Lippmann was very much speaking ex cathedra but Pearson was the Washington equivalent of the Hollywood gossip columnist. A lot of digging, and the diaries are really fascinating. It’s odd, a volume of them covering the ’50s was edited 40 years ago. This volume covering the ’60s is only coming out now. What they really show is the degree to which he operated as somebody seeking political influence behind the scenes. He was often rounding up Senate votes on something. You would think he was the majority whip rather than a columnist; a very interesting dynamic compared to what we have today. And so, in a sense, maybe there’s more overlap between the 2 kinds of writing I am doing, fiction and non-fiction, than there used to be.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow, time flies, as usual it’s been a pleasure.

Thomas Mallon: Same here.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m glad we’re both still walking and talking.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, a little more stiffly but still doing it.

 

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1 The Kid Turns Seventy:And  No one Cares —The Weekly Standard

2 Trailer for Hannah Arendt

3 Conversation with Richard Reeves

4  Identitytheory conversation with Christopher Hitchens

5 True Detective / Season 1 trailer

6 Any Human Heart Episode 1

Me and Nick Dawidoff talk Football and More

5 Sep

Though I am conflicted about football despite watching various levels of play (high school, college, NFL) for many years and despite my disinterest in reading books about sports, I was drawn to Nicholas Dawidoff’s
Collision, Low Crossers because I know him (having chatted with him previously) to bring an insight laden intelligence to bear on whatever interests him. It turns out this book is also unique in that he spent almost a year,essentially embedded, with the New York Jets.Reading this book and the conversation below went some distance to removing the scales from my eyes and I am able to watch my son’s Newton North Tiger’s with a fresh vision and generally having acquired a modicum of respect for players and coaches.

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick  Dawidoff

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

RB: Remember I have the last word—so don’t mess with me.

ND: Even if you didn’t I would give it to you.

RB: Rachel Cohen calls you Nicky

ND: That’s what everybody calls me except for football coaches. They call me Nick.

RB: And they called you ‘Worm’.

ND: That too.

RB: That’s not so bad. I had a high school friend called Worm. He didn’t suffer from it.

ND: Well, from Miami to New York to West Newton Massachusetts, it’s all in how its intended.

RB: Waxing philosophical now, are we? Is there a subject that you wouldn’t write about?

ND:(pauses) So many, probably. I should only write about things that I am really enthusiastic about.

RB: You wrote a book on country music. You wrote a memoir about your grandfather. You edited the Library of America anthology on baseball. And as far as I know you have now done this book on football.

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

ND: In between I wrote a non-fiction, coming of age book of my childhood.

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: About you.

ND: It was mainly about other people.

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: So, is there a subject that you can’t imagine writing about?

ND: So many. It seems to me that these are—they are not all the same book, they all basically come from the same terrain, which is outsider somewhere in the United States who, by virtue of some form of ingenuity and persistence, overcomes different forms of adversity to penetrate the culture and then engage with the culture.

RB: How is that manifest in this book? I didn’t get that?

ND: Football players and coaches? These are not—most of them are not necessarily already in any form of privileged position in American culture. The huddle really is America. There is a little bit of everybody and they all come together.

RB: So with the new ‘no huddle‘ offenses—

ND: (laughs) I don’t know. It could be off shore.

RB: I was bemoaning the fact that my son’s football team doesn’t have huddles either. The coaches call plays from the sidelines. I’m thinking that takes away something from the game. I have come to, intellectually, dislike football. While I seem now to be hard wired to pay attention to it. But I don’t like myself for watching it. To me it’s evolved into a vicious game and a rotten business.

ND: Certainly football has had its share of really bad press lately. Everywhere from New Orleans with the bounties to Miami with bullying to concussions and the deplorable way the NFL handled concussions for many years. To even here in New England, where you have a player on trial for murder.Football evolves so slowly in many cultural ways but it evolves so quickly in many other ways. More than any other sport. It evolves quickly in terms of its relationship to technology.

RB: Are there statistics that cover frequency and degree of injury pre-1960 and the present? Was it a noticeably less injurious game?

ND: I don’t know. There are so many different theories. All I can say is that people are much more aware of injury and even pain. When I was spending time with the Jets I saw the distinction between how some of the players had been taught to respond to their own physical ailments when in college and now in the pros. There really is a change going on. Greg McEllroy, who was a quarterback at the University of Alabama was a rookie, he is now with the Bengals. But he was a rookie with the Jets, my year there. When he was at Alabama you were considered soft if you went to the training room. The best thing about being with the Jets for him, in that respect, was that everybody was encouraged and it was considered irresponsible if you didn’t go to the training room because they understood that a healthy player was an optimal player.

RB: Was that attitude player enforced at Alabama?

ND: He wasn’t blaming anyone in particular and I certainly wouldn’t say it was unique to Alabama. When people talked about concussions, they talk about it exactly the way you do. They talk about football with a kind of queasy ambivalence— that’s pushing towards something in which they feel their guilt about watching it. “How can you watch something that you wouldn’t let your own children play?” That kind of thinking is slowly overtaking the joy in watching it. But within the [Jets] facility nobody ever talked about it unless I asked them. And even when I asked them some of them didn’t want to talk about it. Many football players are very young so they think they are going to live forever. But even more they really want to do this. They love playing the game. It’s extremely hard to gain a foothold in the NFL and then remain there. NFL—Not For Long— that’s what they say. I also think that it would be very difficult to play something that fast, that violent and that dangerous if you are thinking about getting hurt all the time.

RB: What do they say; the injury rate is 100%?

ND: That’s what Rex Ryan always says.

RB: Everybody gets hurt.

ND:Everybody gets hurt at some point or another. It’s about levels of injury and degrees.

Unknown-5

RB: Are you a football fan?

ND: No. With this book— my two previous books had been very internal books. They have been biographical memoirs. And [so] I wanted to write about a subject that was a big American subject that was of concern to a lot of people. I was feeling sort of adversarial in my choice of subjects. Often when I choose a subject I would write a magazine piece first to see if it would be sustaining as a book. Both for me but more importantly for a reader. And I wrote about climate change deniers. I wrote about a presidents [Jimmy Carter]—since I don’t usually write about big public prominent people, that was different for me. I was really curious after President Obama was elected what the reaction to our first African-American president would be in communities where very few people voted for him. I spent a better part of a year in this northern part of Alabama in a county where almost no one voted for him.

RB: So there were no black people there?

ND: Very few. Those who were—the people who were there were very conservative to begin with. Yet their local representative was black.The sport that I was always interested in and felt the most affinity for was baseball. At the Jets facility I was known among some people as the baseball guy. A million things you’re known as —always other than your name. But I was really interested in things about football. I had written about intelligence officers before in my first book (about Moe Berg) I was really interested in the idea of people working very, very hard to the exclusion of everything else. About a big public subject and football people—the games are the exceptions. They are 16 holidays. But most of the life is spent off limits, behind walls in this window-less place where they are plotting and scheming for as many as 16 hours a day. Often it is 7 days a week on how to win football games. I really loved the idea there was this secret world which not only was it planning what every body was going to see but what every body was going to see effectively still remained secret—since when you watch a football game on television you have no idea, really, what’s going on. And it’s all based on these plays —they look like bistro menus or something that these guys are holding up [on the sidelines]. We don’t know what they mean or what they say. So where in baseball eventually everything becomes clear—the camera will even show you what pitch is called and the broadcaster will sometimes tell you. Football— I just liked how mysterious it was. So that was one thing. In a funny way I thought I would be able to bring people closer to something that they loved. Which seemed like a rewarding thing to do. But then also I always wanted to write a book about an office— a group of people working together in a very committed way on some collective endeavor, which was every thing to them to the exclusion of everything else. I would have loved to have written about the Manhattan Project in its time.

RB: What a group [that was].

ND: Exactly. And so this had always just been in mind and I thought of it as the book that I would write about a group of regulars. In effect, the Jets coaches became my regulars. It could have been any group of coaches.

RB: Really. It wouldn’t have been the same book if you had done this with the Giants

ND: It wouldn’t have been the same because the personalities would have been different. But

RB: The difference between an 8-8 team that failed to make the playoffs and a 9-7 team that won the Super Bowl.

ND: Right. It really was true that going in I ,of course, I hoped things would go well for the Jets. You can’t spend all that time with people who you come to really like and admire without wanting the best for them. But it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to see a representative NFL season. And Bob Sutton, who you meet him the book who is the linebackers coach, and is now the defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, told me at one point that he thought of the NFL as a corporation with 32 branch offices. And so itinerant is the NFL life that people who were with the Jets then, are now scattered all over the league. And it’s just the luck of the right combination.

RB: There is a large amount of recycling of head coaches who are bum rushed out of one town and find glory in another town. These guys don’t lose their jobs because they are terrible coaches.

ND: If you are a terrible coach you probably are going to lose your job—

RB: —and you’ll get another one.

ND: Probably but not for certain. If you are a good NFL coach you will keep finding a job. Maybe a more powerful position or lose a little power like Tony Spirano who was a head coach with the Jets who was then the offensive coordinator. Now I think he is the line coach with the Raiders. You move up and down depending on the fortunes of your team. But it is —there is a little bit of serendipity involved. Just the right combination of people at the right time. And it really does start—clearly the Jets would have been a very successful playoff team, if they had even a workmanlike successful quarterback. The fact that they had a severely regressing quarterback—quarterback is one privileged position in the game where—

RB: You were kinder to Mark Sanchez in the book then you are being right now.

ND: I don’t feel I am being unkind to him. He would say the same thing.

RB: He would say he was regressing?

ND: That he had regressed that year? Absolutely. He is a pretty honest, straight-up guy. I really liked Sanchez— even though he teased me sometimes in merciless ways, I was sitting there watching them lose. It is all about inflection. Keep in mind that football players are really young. Some of them are not much past high school. You accept different levels of maturity —

RB: And it must be the case that some players are not intelligent.

ND: People always said that to me but I never felt that way. I always felt the way George Plimpton felt about when he was writing Paper Lion. He was constantly defending football players to his friends.

RB: I am not saying they are stupider than the norm. Unscientifically, I want to say that average intelligence is not intelligent.

ND: All I can say about football is that—it requires, more study, more book learning, more preparation, then any other sport that I can think of. It requires more time in formal classrooms, more time in absorbing information and understanding how to process it and use it with such a mastery of that information, that you don’t even have to think about it. Those are classroom techniques and if you can’t do that you better be a really, really good intuitive athlete, otherwise you are not going to last in the NFL.

RB: You noted a linebacker who couldn’t remember plays.

ND: And they reduced his role. If you just spoke with him you would think he was one the most well-spoken, interesting people in the community. There is a distinction with what we think of as academic intelligence and football intelligence. I really think, for example. that Rex Ryan is an unusually intelligent person. His qualities of human intuition, his understanding of how to motivate people and also his ability to explore the emotional life and what distinguishes people is extremely sensitive. And impressive to me.

RB: You refer a number of times to your being ‘embedded’. Was that your intention from the start?

ND: My intention was simply to spend as much time as a possible with a group of people so that I could understand what they were doing.

RB: You were prepared to but did you think you would end up spending as much time as you did?

RB: When I began I didn’t know. I doubted it; I thought that for sure I would stay through training camp. But nobody has ever been allowed to spend an entire year with a team. And I don’t think it would have happened had Rex Ryan not been head coach. I can’t say for sure ,I don’t people with the other teams—other people with the Jets are very proud of the work that they do and they feel very comfortable with themselves.

RB: You are hinting that he may be unique for the NFL coaching fraternity.

ND: He is a very unusual person whose strengths and flaws were there in very full relief. As a coach he is certainly unusual. Most coaches have a scheme and within the scheme the 11 starters play 11 roles. And with Rex its an extremely elastic scheme and find roles for everybody within it. And he is constantly revising it. He is so flexible and receptive to new information about people that he then uses with football application. That to me was very appealing. See, you know that I was always very interested in baseball and you also know that baseball writing has been far superior to football writing—not even close right? There are a lot of good reasons for that. People like Walt Whitman to Ring Lardner to Thurber to Malamud to Updike to Roger Angell—all these wonderful American writers—

RB: I’m happy you didn’t include George Will in that group.

New Library of America anthology of Football  writing

New Library of America anthology of Football
writing

Ed note:A Library of America anthology on football, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport has been published

ND: (laughs) All these great American writers who have written so well about the game and there are lots of good reasons for it. The primary is that baseball is accessible. It’s accessible because everybody has played it. Because you can see the faces. The game moves at a reflective pace, which lends itself well to being written about. Also, the game has always been receptive to journalist and reporters who can come and talk to the people for as long as they want. Whereas football has always been closed off. The form and function of the sport —it happens so fast. It’s hard to see. The players wear masks. They are obscured by armor. The rules are abstruse. Most of the life takes place off camera backstage. I wanted some way to slow football down so that you could write abut. That is what Plimpton did. He suited up and became a last string quarterback. It was a stunt but a necessary stunt because it was the only way you could get to know the people but also to get to know the mechanics of the sport with sufficient precision. For me what I came to see is the way a football season is planned, a game is planned. That felt literary to me. It was slow and gradual and resolute and fraught with mistakes and corrections and revision. That felt, to me, artistic. That was the artful part of football. For that reason, if you go and look at the acknowledgments and the source notes to my book, only one football book was a great influence to me. And that’s Paper Lion. Other than that—

RB Fredric Exeley’s A Fan’s Notes?

ND: Especially the first half, it is a wonderful book. But the books that were most affecting to me as I thought about this, were not those books.

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Do you know Dave Meggessey’s book Out of Our League?

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

ND: It’s a good book.

RB: Don Dellilo wrote a football novel.

ND: End Zone. A few people would say that Don Dellilo is the highest tier .

RB: I read this book because of you —you did open my eyes to the less obvious aspects of football. I loved that the Jet’s coaches let you call a play. Also, that Ryan called a play where all the linebackers were supposed to rush and they dropped back instead and the play worked. And Ryan didn’t want anyone to know that it was a mistake.

ND: [Ryan] “Don’t tell! Don’t tell!”

RB: Then Marv Lewis [of the Bengals] sees his guys running the same play, ”You dumb asses!” He knew it was a mistake. (laughs)

ND: There is a whole world—if you sit as I did, for an entire year with a group of seven defensive coaches in effect watch the season through the prism of their experience of it. They are watching a completely different sport. Just as the angles on film, the way that you watch film is different from what’s televised. Everything that is happening is completely different —or not completely different —its two parallel games.

RB: It does give one pause to wonder about the intelligence of the football fan.
I think of the obese, widow maker wearing, beer swilling, chip devouring, couch tuber—yelling at the TV when his team is not performing well.

ND: Not Fred Exeley?

RB: Right. Every sport has fans that couldn’t perform one athletic feat but are able to denigrate the players when they aren’t doing well.

ND: Isn’t it the same with politics—you’re up, you’re down. Same thing.

RB: You think that people approach politics in the same way they view athletic contests?

ND: People feel perfectly comfortable assuming a level of expertise that would risible and yet they do and that’s also acknowledged within and without as part of the pleasure of it. It ‘s fun to talk about politics, wherever you are, and its fun to talk about football. And you would talk about these things and, maybe write about them in ways that you wouldn’t talk or write about other activities.

RB: I’ve seen the observation that many people would rather read about baseball then watch a game.

ND: It’s a testament to good writing.

RB: And the andante tempo of the game.

ND: Most of the best baseball writing probably isn’t an account of a game except for the exception of Don De Lillo. But even that is so inflected with his imagination. I am talking about “Pafko at the Wall”, which became part of Underworld. Your conception of football fans —I know you don’t really mean because football is the single most popular thing in the country. So every body is watching.

RB: Can you explain why? Especially as you point out most people don’t really know or understand the game.

ND: When we say they don’t know what they are watching, they don’t know the coded essence of the game, the underpinnings of the game. But what people see is incredibly dramatic. It’s graceful. It’s violent. It’s exciting. You can understand it. Also, a lot of the appeal of football, of course, has to do with television. Television has amplified, broadened, brightened and also slowed down football in such a way that you can —coaches after games who were just watching it live standing in the sidelines often will tell the press. I can’t answer your question until I look at the film. And the only reason we can answer questions, sometimes, is because of replay. There are other more, deeper reasons why people respond to football. The Jet psychologist would say that people respond to football because there is somewhere in everyone the urge to ‘drill’ another person. I would say that so much about football is actually counterintuitive. Football is the game of touchdowns and America is the country of films with happy endings, feel good films. I really think of football as the sport of disappointment and failure and what you do with it. Even though fans watch hoping to win, people stick with a franchise like the Jets which hasn’t won everything since 1969 —it has to do with, not misguided loyalty, but acknowledgment that there is something in football disappointment that is powerful and compelling. If you walk into an NFL facility on a Monday morning after these guys have all but eliminated sleep and all but eliminated family life pleasure and joys to completely concentrate on this. And to have gone out there in the most public way in front of all these people and been humiliated. And you have to walk in the facility on Monday morning and watch the film of what just happened to you and know that there is a press corps that is going to writing about this in the most scathing possible ways and then you have to play another game the following weekend. To walk in on a Monday morning is like —I just always thought of it as something into the picture of a depression.

RB: (laughs)

ND:I expected to round the corner in the hallway and there would be trees down and there’d be overturned cars and garbage cans and broken glass, papers blowing around and things like that. People are devastated after they lose. Especially a big game. They don’t sleep. And then they have to do it all over again. I thought what was most admirable about football people—people who were made for the sport—which wouldn’t be me— are they can overcome this by Wednesday. And greet their players and subordinates in such a way that they can be optimistic. They can resume their sense of confidence and even bon hommie. And by the following week they can be ready to do it again.

RB: Baseball is also a game of failure. Every [good] coach will tell his players after they strike out or make an error. “Forget about it. On to the next one.”

ND: Yeah but in baseball the stakes are so much lower. The ultimate stakes are similar. A three game losing streak in baseball— in football is the equivalent to a 30 game losing streak in baseball. The Jets just lost 3 in a row as we sit here. How would you feel after you lost 30 baseball games in a row? I mean, it’s unimaginable. But the proportions are the same.

RB: Is there a growing interest in football by women?

ND: Much greater. It’s the fastest growing demographic.

RB: Why?

ND: Why shouldn’t women take some of the same pleasure that the men do?

RB: They don’t play it.

ND: A lot of the man who enjoy football didn’t play it either. More people play baseball than watch baseball but football is a different thing—its graceful, beautiful, dangerous and dramatic. I talked to several wives of Jets people about this. They all pointed out how handsome football players and how great they look in those uniforms.

RB: You can see well-defined butts.

ND: Yeah and you can see then doing the most balletic things. The aesthetic qualities of football have been much enhanced. Also, how people think about their bodies. Look at Tom Brady when he was a rookie versus Tom Brady now. I am sure it doesn’t help that he is married to someone whose whole business is appearance. He has completely transformed his appearance.

RB: And the Super Bowl winning Redskin offensive line—what were they called The Hogs?

ND: Most linemen are enormous men But to watch people who are that big and run that quickly with that kind of choreographed agility is something to see. Why do we like spectator sports? Ultimately, it is a chance to do something, which I think is one of the most admirable things about humanity, which is the appreciation of things that other people can do. People who can play professional football for all of the —you talk about people in the peanut gallery talking in disparaging ways about athletes. Everybody understands that underneath it all, that the worst guy on a football team is the most sensational athlete from his town in generations.

RB: I don’t think they understand that.

ND: I’m not sure.

RB: IF they knew that there might be a more generous attitude about the players. If you are right than tht unerstanding must be very deeply buried

ND: One of the advantages of football being so distant, in a way, is that you didn’t have to be kind. It was a place to put those lesser angels.

RB: The defense of what I call crass behavior of fans is that you buy the ticket and you can say whatever.

ND: There are a lot of people walking around with a lot of frustration—wouldn’t you say? This is a fairly reasonable way to express frustration.

RB: It’s preferable to going into a post office and shooting the place [and people] up. It doesn’t make those fans more attractive.

ND: Nobody would say this is the Platonic ideal of spectating.

RB: Do you still watch football? And might you watch it with more devotion than before?

ND: It’s a funny thing I really never thought of this as a football book. Obviously, the setting is football and I was learning abut something that I didn’t know very well and was interested in—but I always thought of it as an n office book. Once I was no longer in that office it —the sport that I would really follow is the office. And while I watch football games now and certainly watch the games of the people I came to know well and care about who are in my book I wouldn’t watch it nearly as avidly as I would if I were spending time with them day in and day out. Its so different’—once you know how it works moment to moment leading up to a game if you are really immersed in it, than just to see it with a little more distance —you can see what a wonderful sport it is but for me it feels not quite as satisfying.

RB: So you enjoyed Michael Lewis’s Moneyball that is ostensibly a baseball book.

ND: A wonderful book. If I am saying that everyone of my books that boils down to outsider on fringes of society uses prominent American institution to enter and influence the culture, wouldn’t you say that everyone of his books involves looking at, somebody finding some sort of weakness or flaw in a system that can be exploited for short term even long term gain before everybody else figures out what this person has anticipated first. That’s every Michael Lewis book—that’s
Michael Lewis on business, on baseball, on high tech. That’s because it’s a great theme. And it’s so interesting.

Editor’s note: I contacted Michael Lewis on Dawidoff’s take on Lewis’s oeuvre:

“Certainly true of Moneyball and The Big Short and maybe The New New Thing. Not sure it fits the others.”

RB: What I found compelling in your book was the way coaches and scouts evaluated players and the colorful phrases that used to describe them.

ND: Obviously for me it’s going to be a book about interesting characters going through something together. Overcoming a form of adversity or not. Situations that throw them into some form of conflict. It’s just setting for the oldest virtues of storytelling.

RB: Have you carried over relationships from the book?

ND: Are there people I stay in touch with? Yeah, even coming here I got an email from one of the people I met.

RB: What’s their reaction to the book? Rex Ryan’s,if he’s seen it?

ND: I doubt it. Most people in the facility —I sent them copies but whether they have opened them I have no idea. There were a few people who read it before the season began. They have been uniformly positive. They all told me, like Mike Pattin who is the defensive coordinator and is now with the Bills told me, “You shouldn’t really worry about what I think. You should be worried what you reader is thinking.” And my experience by and large with football people was they were pretty straight up people. I loved how frank and candid they were. And they would have been disappointed with me if I weren’t the same. Bart Scott, the linebacker said, “You know football isn’t always pretty. It’s not any easy life in lots of ways. And you do us a disservice if you don’t describe it that way.” That was fairly consistent throughout. Even the very anxious general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, whose job is to be anxious and controlling —its his nature and his job. Even his response to it has been very generous. I wasn’t writing it for them. I was writing it for someone else. Your question points to something, which is a decision for a writer. Because once you are that intimately involved, in a sense that I am with them every day, watching what they do, part of the necessity of the culture is to bring everybody together in a common cause. And that common cause may ask people to make sacrifices in their own careers—statistical or otherwise. It’s just a very seductive thing to be a part of a big group especially for a writer who works by himself. It was very different to step outside it. As somebody who was inside/ outside all the time, I really got a sense of how fragile is the life in football. But also to write about it you really would have to be outside. You really have to make a definite break from it all, otherwise they were no longer characters to you— they were still people who you worry about how they felt.

RB: My son plays football and he is smart about it —he doesn’t unnecessarily throw himself into the fray. He is not one of those kamikaze players who hurls himself into the play. And I realized that he is into it because of the camaraderie. When the season was over I asked him if he missed it and he does.

ND: That’s what all the coaches say. More than playing the game itself they miss the company of other people. Some of the players were even prematurely sentimental.They were thinking about what it would belike not to have all these people to talk with everyday. For a lot of people in football they come from terrible childhood circumstances. Many come from single parent families, grew up in dire poverty. Lot of them knew considerable violence when they were children. There is the player in the book—Julian Posey who says football is his father. But he speaks for lots of people I the book in the sense that its very seductive appealing thing to have this community of people who want the best for you but are going to push you to achieve your best and also are going to be on hand all the time to support you. Sure there are many other accouterment of daily life—meals are there at the facility for you. There’s a dry cleaner. There’s a car wash. Everything is taken care so you can concentrate on being as successful as you can ta very difficult pursuit. More than anything, the younger players just really having older players who they can look up to. Older players like having coaches. For me. that was the most appealing part of it.

RB:What do you make of what happened in Miami?

ND: For me. It was different. It’s a SUV world. I drive a mini Cooper. It’s a steak and burger world and I would eat beet salads at lunch. When I exercise I wear a bandana. One of then is purple—the chief of scouts stops a meeting and he says, ”So Nicky, there are headband concerns.” There was a tremendous amount of teasing, all of which I loved. And you can just tell —intuitively, you can tell the difference between something that is affectionate and makes you feel closer to other people and something that’s mean spirited. What can happen is—we were talking earlier about Mark Sanchez and the other quarterbacks—they called me Bookworm, which quickly turned to Worm. Nobody likes being called worm or creep, everyday. I can see that when your whole life is endless meetings and practices, which go on from before dawn till deep into the evening, everyday with the same people and one of them is just getting a lot of pleasure about making you feel badly about yourself. How pretty quickly it could become intolerable if you were a certain kind of person. Especially, if that person were the most powerful colleague you had.

RB: I get that.

ND: Football is tedium. It is practicing and revising and over and over. The few days that you are repeating the same physical motion hundreds and hundreds of times and if you have someone around who can bring joy and humor and seem as though—Rex Ryan used to talk about his greatest coaching ability was his ability to make people believe that they weren’t doing the same thing over and over again. Sounds like small thing but it isn’t.

RB: So what do you think happened with the Miami Dolphins? Or how was it allowed to happen?

ND: One of the things that can happen is that environment things almost casually devolve. I don’t think it was ever that any one pointed to any one.

RB: Abuse wasn’t pointed toward Jason Martin?

ND: I think it was —of course I think it was disgusting and degrading and he was the object of derision. But it was never done—the expression of it wasn’t so deliberately brutal (this is all speculation on my part) but over time it gradually devolved into something that was horrible.

RB: Martin took it for a while and then it reached a point where he didn’t.

ND: The degrees of what he was taking and how it was feeling abut it. He’s young person. Nothing could be more troubling than Incognito’s behavior bit almost as troubling was that—I talked to some of the Jets guys about this, “I never saw anything remotely like this was I missing something?” They said no, what they couldn’t understand were the other Dolphins players. Bart Scott said, “If I saw anything remotely like this, that guy would have had 6 of us, he would have been up against the wall, answering for this.” Let’s not pretend that football locker room all harmony and comity but there is a great deal of fraternity and a great deal of —the word ‘love’ was used an awful lot. I saw a great deal of affection and concern for other people I don’t know why that didn’t happen in Miami. Makes me glad I wasn’t in Miami.

RB: I find the professions of ignorance disturbing.

ND: You shouldn’t be as surprised by that. The idea that this is locker room culture is a misnomer. Football players don’t spend all that much time as a team in the locker room. Even when they are together somebody is in the shower. Someone is in the equipment room. Someone is late. Someone has gone to lift weights. Only in team meetings is everyone together. By and large, the time when people spend the most time together would be in their position groups. In those little windowless rooms where they go to have their meetings and things. Somebody who is bound and determined to give you a hard time, pretty quickly those walls will close in.

RB: Are all NFL team facilities like bunkers?

ND: That’s what I am told. This is a job where you want be completely focused and committed to your purpose and you want to have mothering else going in but football. That’s the object.

RB: Are football players conservative by and large?

ND: You shouldn’t think of professional football players in any sort of general way. Every kind of person is playing football. Rex Ryan used to begin training camp, the first team meeting, by describing who was on the team. It was a long, bluesy riff and it was funny. In effect we have tall guys and short guys we have wild guys and religious guys and he would just go on and on. And it was true.

RB: But there are demographics that stand out—lots of black males, many from poor circumstances.

ND: Sure the sport is 67 % African American.

RB: Many who were sold football as a way of climbing out of their poverty.

ND: I don’t think too many of them would use the word ‘sold’. For many of them it was a joy and a pleasure and escape.

RB: I was reading Greg Easterbrook’s King of Sports. He argues that Nick Saban recruits for Alabama by selling it his program as a steppingstone to the NFL. As opposed to appealing to his kids with Alabama’s glorious tradition and wonderful campus and the joys of being a student athlete.

ND: All these guys want to be in the NFL.I don’t see that has anything to do with their reasons—

RB: The notion of selling the program—

ND: That’s what all college programs do. Penn State used to have—every team has a pro day in which professional coaches come to visit and evaluate the draft eligible players on a college team. One the things they do is sprint and the coaches see how fast they can sprint. At Penn State the place where they hold the sprints is slightly downhill grade. Every college team wants its players to go to the NFL and the players want to go. It’s no different than Yale selling its drama program by the number of people who get to Broadway.

RB: Yes, but what are the odds.

ND: And the odds are better from Alabama than from other schools. You are suggesting they are giving these kids false hope.

RB: Sure.

ND: Might be. Ever read Darcy Frey’s book The Last Shot. It’s a whole book about false hope. And yet the only reason people make it is because enough people have to believe they can overcome and be the exception and it creates an activity full of exceptions.

RB: Maybe this an obvious question —are you happy with this book?

ND: Yeah, I think so. It’s not really for me to say any more. I did the best—

RB: —you wrote it. I am not asking, is it a good book?

ND: Am I pleased with it? Yeah. It takes a while with books —the same thing happens with every book. Which is to say where your book is going to go and how you are going to feel about are so mysterious. When I say where its going to go even for your more obscure books, you’ll still have business in some far fling place and you’ll check into a little inn and you’ll get into bed and you turn on the night light and there will be some books there and you’ll look and then one of them will look pretty familiar. So you never know where they are going end up. But then if you are the sort of person who hadn’t looked a that book in long time and maybe it was published 30 years ago and you open up that book and you start reading—most writers I know would say that they felt, ”I guess it was ok”. And so far I think this one is ok

RB: You haven’t gone back to look at past books?

ND: I was projecting to my own future. I have heard other writers talk about their books in that way. For me, I don’t really like to look back because there are so many books I want to write. Life is short and they take me so long to write that I wouldn’t want to spend time feeling nostalgic. I am reading portions of it around the country right now. When I read from it I feel ok about the portions I am reading. You can always immediately think of small things you wish were different. The major decisions, the conception and the architecture of the book are sound. I created it based on two outlines that took me many months to make—one was chronological, the other was thematic. The whole pleasure and joy of this kind of non-fiction writing is to embed a series of themes in events and move in and out of them so that the whole thing is woven together in way that reads like a good story. The actual structure of it is based on a fairly if only to yourself complex notion of what it could be.

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: So now you are about the task of hawking your book, publicizing your book…

ND: (chuckles) I am telling you, you would just be a phenomenal success in an NFL locker I can just see a “C” [captain] on that jersey very soon.

RB: (laughs) Did I say something wrong?

ND: You have skin like an armadillo

RB: (laughs) So what’s next?

ND: I am interested in two big themes and I want to find the right subjects for them. One, is I am very interested in income inequality. I grew in a city which is one of the poorest cities in the country. New Haven. And it has one of the wealthiest universities in the world there. Since my childhood not much functionally has changed abut New Haven even though New Haven has changed a lot. It breaks my heart that New Haven is this way and makes me want to think about why in America, such a prosperous country, why this happens.

RB: What’s an organizational entry point in that issue?

ND: I have some ideas. They are so inchoate it’s not right to say yet. And then I would really like to write a book about a great American artist.

RB: Any candidates?

ND: Even when I was writing this book when I had free time I would go and visit Robert Frank {The Americans).

Genesis by John B Judis

Genesis by John B Judis

The Americans by Robert Frank

The Americans by Robert Frank

RB: How old is he now?

ND: He’s in his late 80s.

RB: How coherent is he?

ND: I love spending time with him. I find him to be a wonderful person.

RB: He opened up to you?

ND: I think so.

RB: You get football players to like you. Cranky, old artists. Not bad.

ND: I am going to have to work on you. Just kidding.

RB: I like you fine.

ND: I am just so interested in his work and then was interested in that he’s the person who made it.

RB: The more recent work or the work that made him famous?

ND: I love the Americans—like most people that’s what brought me to him. If that is a source of attraction once you become interested in someone everything is apart of it. If you are interested in a novelist like Svevo than he come to him because of Zeno’s Conscience. But all the other books, which are essentially small sketches for that novel, are still interesting because you all the years that made the great book.

RB: How is it that Rolling Stone is interested in Robert Frank?

ND: They asked me if there was something I would like to write about.

RB: So can offer suggestions. They must like you.

ND: (laughs)

RB: Add magazine editors to the list

ND: Pretty soon I am going to have a whole team. (both laugh)

RB: You’re pretty popular.

ND: Tell that to my neighbors, maybe they’ll like me

RB: What, do you play music too loud? Raise chickens? Your kids break windows?

ND: I aspire to raise window breakers. Remember the part in the book where the coaches teach my son how to be a better tackler?

RB: Why would think I have time to read a 460 page book? (both laugh)

ND: There is a point in the book where my son —

RB: —I know.

ND: —tackles a little 2 year old girl in his singing group who is wearing a pink ballerina tutu. And the coaches are overjoyed the next day. And they give me tips how to teach him to tackle better

RB: What are the people who come to your readings wanting to know about football?

ND: They want to know quite a few of the things that you have asked.

RB: What! (laughs)

ND: I mean, with in the broader themes that you are interested in—pain or injury. The big national subjects of concussions and bullying are—its clear football has to change. This should not be the conversation especially about something that is intended to be for enjoyment and pleasure. They shouldn’t be talking about brain injuries, about bounties and murder. And they shouldn’t be talking about harassment. So this is not good for football. If football is savvy about it and football has always been pretty savvy in its modern era.

RB: And recalcitrant.

ND: Recalcitrant but savvy. Football has many advantages that saw that I don’t see the NFL taking much interest in. Namely, there are so many interesting people within the sport. And they are all obscured form the public. Football would do better to continue with Hard Knocks, the Bill Bellichick documentary—even my experience where you tell the stories about football that have been traditionally told about baseball.

RB: More questions?

ND: People want to know what it was like to call a play. Only 10 % of the time do all eleven players do what they are supposed to do. It was really fun. Nothing can compare to actually doing it under live conditions. Football coaches by and large—I had so much admiration for first and foremost what we were talking about earlier—their ability to overcome tremendous pubic adversity and to some degree shame and walk out into the world, days later with an integrity to their optimism and self confidence intact. That is, they were able to arouse the same I their players. That’s hard to do. The really good ones—I would say that every coach (with Jets) would have been so clearly the best coach I had ever been around. I never had any coaches like that. They are in the NFL for a reason. What a really good coach does is he has you thinking about his ideals long after you have been around him. I think a lot about their expectations. And their expectations of me— these are people who are simultaneously nurturing and evaluating all the time. I felt it that I had to behave and be on my marks at all times. It is such fragile professional life. People were getting cut all the time. That phrases “on the street—that’s a true phrase. You are either in or you are gone. Once you are outside that facility. The gate closes and— it’s a large and lonely echo. I felt entirely to the end, all the time, I felt I the back of my mind that they could just wash their hands of me. That I had become a distraction in some way. Once some one began making jokes in a meeting that I was a spy for the Patriots and I was going to divulge secrets (I didn’t understand the secrets well enough to divulge them) it was horrifying to me. There were several moments like that. Of course I didn’t want him to know it was horrifying to me but it was. There was a day that had a media consultant come in (who usually worked with politicians) on how to deal with the press. Up on the screen come the Michael Hastings /Rolling Stone piece, “The Runaway General”. He was going on and on about how all reporters were just trying to make friends with you but they were just out to betray you and ruin your life. And I had just written a Paul Simon profile for Rolling Stone, which the coaches all knew and they were all looking at me

RB: (laughs)

ND: IF I could disappear into the fabric of your seat that would have been me then.

RB: Excellent, thank you.

ND: Thank you —always nice to see you