For nearly all of Let Me Down Easy, which premieres on PBS’ Great Performances Friday night, Anna Deavere Smith is the only person onstage. Yet through her, nearly two dozen people have their say, from a rodeo bull rider to Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. Working from her own interviews, Smith recreates not just their words but also the rhythms of speech and gesture, embodying their spirit as well as their thoughts. Where her earlier works Fires In The Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles focused on the aftermath of race riots—the former sparked by a car accident in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where a black child was killed by an Orthodox Jew, the latter by the Rodney King verdict—Let Me Down Easy has a broader and slipperier focus. The piece began when Smith was invited to interview doctors and patients at Yale New Haven Hospital, and grew from there into a sprawling investigation of life, death, and the state of the health-care industry. Through the voices of a Buddhist monk and a Texas governor, Smith explores the inevitable approach of mortality and the ways in which we as a society, and a planet, reckon with it—or as often, fail to.
The A.V. Club: Let Me Down Easy started with an invitation from Yale New Haven. What about that environment intrigued you?
Anna Deavere Smith: Well, I was very cautious. I didn’t say yes right away. What ultimately had me say yes were the people who were inviting me, and that was Ralph Horwitz and his colleague, Asghar Rastegar. I was so taken with them, and very drawn to them, and liked them very much. I liked the kinds of things they were thinking about. This was back in the ’90s. They were very invested in trying to see how to help save the good things about doctor-patient relationships that they thought were going down the drain, for many reasons. One, because medicine was being taken over by the marketplace, and that takeover is final. Also because of technology. As Dr. Rastegar said to me, “You know, we can see inside cells, we can see inside genes, but the way we deal with our patients is really lacking. We treat the disease, and not the whole person.” And it’s important to treat the whole, because by paying attention to some aspects of that person’s story, you may learn more by how they themselves may participate in their healing, and in their care.
AVC: There’s a sense in which the more powerful technology becomes, the further we get from a holistic, non-technological approach to healing.
ADS: Right. Many of us still long for that. I suppose people who never had a family doctor don’t have anything to long for. It may be a thing of the past, or it may be that there’ll be other kinds of healthcare professionals who will take over for that part of it, and machines will do the rest. That’s probably a harder enterprise, wellness in general, how to think about wellness proactively. In my profession, I’m around a lot of people whose bodies are their instruments in one way or another. So I probably have a skewed idea. I’m not sure how the country as a whole thinks about their care. Is this something that I am the center of, that I do, that I offer, until I can’t? Or is this something that is done to me? You hang around actors, or dancers, the minute you sneeze, everybody has a remedy, and we’re all on a million different kinds of diets, and different kinds of things that we do for exercise. That’s not going to help you a whole lot if the Big C comes, but I think part of it, and a lot of doctors are calling for this, is “Stay out of the doctor’s office.” Take care of yourself.
AVC: Fires In The Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles are driven by events, but you’ve moved away from that sort of focus. House Arrest is about the political culture of Washington, D.C., and Let Me Down Easy is about the body and mortality; it’s existential rather than topical. What’s taken you in that direction?
ADS: This play, Let Me Down Easy, is part of this long, long series called On The Road: A Search For American Character. House Arrest and Twilight are a part of that, but not all of the performance pieces that I’ve made are event-based. It’s one way of structuring, but it’s a formal matter. It’s not that I set out to explore another way, but there was no event that really sparked this project. What really sparked this project, when I finally did say yes to Drs. Horwitz and Rastegar, what I realized, talking to people about illness, is that they become extraordinarily expressive and passionate. I see myself first and foremost as a student of expression. When I went to do plays about riots, people were very expressive, because everybody either felt that something had happened to them that was unfair, or they’d been accused of something they shouldn’t have been accused of. A linguist told me a long time ago, when I first started trying to think of ways that would get people to talk to me that would deliver dramatic material, she said, “I’m going to give you three questions that will ensure that.” One was, “Do you know the circumstances of your birth?” Another was, “Have you ever been accused of something that you didn’t do?” And the third was, “Have you ever come close to death?” So the riot plays are all—I never really actually literally asked the question, “Have you been accused of something you didn’t do?”—but the nature of the riot plays is about justice, whether it’s that [Rodney] King got beaten and the cops got off, or whether it’s that an innocent Korean shop-owner got their place burned down. That was all around that type of linguistic project.
Ultimately this one revolves around the question, “Have you ever been close to death?” So people were extremely expressive, and I thought, “Oh wow, I’ve got to listen to this, I’ve got to hear this, and hopefully I can then turn it into a play.” And then, because I was fortunately with people who were willing to let me, frankly, flail about in the material—I had three other productions before it came to New York, with theaters that just wanted me to come to work there and allowed me to workshop the play. It revolved around some universal themes. And then when it came to New York, the president was rolling out the health-care bill, so I thought, “You know what? I’d just better narrow this down to health care so that this play can be a part of this civic conversation.”
That said, I think because it’s wandered, and it is not focused on a specific event, it becomes more personal and more universal than any of the plays I’ve done. People who came to Fires In The Mirror and Twilight came backstage weeping or concerned: “How could this happen in my country? I can’t believe that happened in my city.” In this case, it’s not that. It’s, “You know what? This realm of things could happen to me or somebody I love,” or, “I don’t even want to think my community leaves people forgotten,” which is the case. I don’t have favorites, but audiences do, and I would say by and the large the character that people most often want to speak to me about is the young doctor in New Orleans [after Hurricane Katrina]. His account of how this hospital full of poor people of color were left for six days, abandoned by our government, and how appalled she was by that. It’s very interesting, the middle-class, educated people, are—for reasons I can’t tell you, you may be better at it than me—are very drawn to Kiersta Kurtz-Burke.
AVC: I saw Twilight on Broadway, and it was hard not to be struck by the fact that this play about race relations and poverty in America was playing to an audience largely made up of well-off white people.
ADS: I think that’s just the dichotomy of the theater, who funds and who comes to watch. Stick Fly’s on Broadway right now. I don’t know, but I bet you they’re attracting a black audience. I think August Wilson was very successful at that. I’m less successful at that. I will say, it depends on the communities. In Berkeley, I had a wonderfully diverse audience from the Bay Area. I’ve worked very hard on that issue, but I think I would have to write a different type of a work to ensure that I would be able to draw a predominantly African-American audience.
AVC: What’s fascinating about the way Let Me Down Easy is put together is that because you don’t have the engine of plot driving the piece, you’re really engaging the audience on the level of structure and rhetoric. We have to think about why one monologue might follow another, how all the pieces fit.
ADS: I do want to activate, in audience members, their intellect, and the way they put things together. Because I think, personally, that’s a very satisfying process, to have something make sense for me. In that way, I see the event as a way to investigate meaning, to get into very personal things. So, for example, when people say to me, “What do you want audiences to take away?” I say, “This play, of all the things I’ve done, I really believe that people are bringing a lot more than I have.” They’re bringing their narrative; they’re bringing their questions. All I’m saying, really, is, “Listen everybody, this is what I understand about life, actually, not death, because I haven’t been in death. This is what I understand about life, so far. And will you join me? Will you come with me as we go on this journey with these people? Nineteen of them, all who understand more than I do.” I’m just offering that up with the hopes that the people will leave and think about it.
Maybe something that they’re thinking about is adjusted. Maybe they get something from it in that way that could help them deal with something they have that’s very personal, that I don’t know what it is. Like, for example, a woman who was doing my hair for the show in San Diego said to me—and she didn’t talk a lot, I think she was speaking English as a second language—she said, “I’m so glad I brought a friend to this, because it really helped him, because he’s been sick.” And I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, what’s wrong with him?” And she said, “Well, he’s depressed, and the play really helped him understand that he has to grab his life and appreciate his life.” To me, that’s what I’m trying to do. That person’s bringing me his conundrum. I don’t know that, because he’s out there; he’s not talking, I’m talking. But hopefully something happens in the mix, and in that case it did, that helps him unravel his own conundrum and become proactive in a different way.
AVC: You’re rigorous about reproducing the exact way your subjects speak, right down to every “um” and “er.” Is there a danger of that becoming a tic, or a distraction? When you put them down on paper, it’s easy to make people seem less intelligent than they are.
ADS: Well, first of all, we’re assuming that “not smart” or “smart” is related to complete sentences, and that is a form of literacy that actually has gone by the wayside, given that now people are communicating in shortened form. So now, when you’re writing an email on your iPhone or Blackberry, it’s brief. And even in that received email it will say, “Excuse the brevity of this message,” because people realize certain linguistic things that we do in literature that appear more gracious are going by the wayside. So people send me short, terse answers. Those of us who use messaging, and younger people use it more than older people, use text messaging, break up words, don’t care about grammar. Probably one of the most brilliant advertising campaigns of the late ’90s, early 2000s, was bad grammar: “Think different,” by one of the most brilliant men in the world, right?
So this idea of language as on the page, which school takes us to, and by sixth grade people are pretty good at it, I’ve never felt was a mark of intelligence. I know that some people, Phil Pizzo, the Dean of Stanford Medical School, who speaks in my play, a lot of people, they speak like they write, and they can go right through a sentence without flaws. That’s a certain talent that is linked to intelligence. But I think the cowboy, who has very little schooling, has very idiosyncratic language, is pretty brilliant in many ways. I feel a line working as a rhythmic matter, rather than how you finish your sentence.
I did over 320 interviews on three continents to make this play. I did them in Africa with people speaking English as a second language. I ultimately am looking for very creative people. So I’m looking at people as designing language as they speak. There’s a kind of linguistic brilliance that I’m looking for. That’s what I’m curating. The people in my show all have a linguistic brilliance, regardless of what their relationship to the English language is. So, for example, in Twilight, a woman who’s struggling with English, could barely speak it, a Korean-American woman, said about her pain, about what had happened, “I am swallowing the bitterness.” That’s poetic. She says about Martin Luther King, he’s the only leader in the black community, that she can’t understand why black people got so violent. And they say, “They would all like to be in his spirit.” Non-violence, she claims. That’s brilliant. So I have to look for these linguistic pictures, because I’m in drama. My grandfather, who was one of my great influences, said, “If you use a word often enough, it becomes you”—as a man with a sixth-grade education. And the other was Shakespeare. We know the language of Shakespeare is a heightened language of sound evoking image, so that’s what I’m looking for.
Those “ums” and “ahs,” yes, you’re right, when The New York Times does that, I’m actually not sure what they’re accomplishing by doing it, but when I actually speak it, I need it, because I’ve already been listening to 500, 600, 700 hours of talk to find where people actually stop talking and start singing. That’s what I’m trying to bring to the theater, in a way that Bertolt Brecht actually speaks very eloquently about in his essay “Street Scene.” It’s this dramatic moment. The moment of success, the successful organic, dramatic moment that happens in storytelling, when the person speaks the story of something that is explosive or dramatic.
AVC: The rodeo rider talks about being treated at a V.A. hospital for a ruptured kidney and charged a flat $1,200. He keeps circling back to the phrase “flat rate,” which has the quality of a musical refrain but also underlines how important that detail is to him.
ADS: Not just the detail, but if you put him on a pulpit, or you put him on a political stump, that’s what it would sound like. Because he’s calling for the flat rate, and he has to say it enough to give the audience the rhythm of it. A big influence for me was FDR’s Fireside Chats when I was trying to figure out what I was after with language. With my students, I would just put them on and ask them to move, and they all started waltzing. I realized that FDR’s effect as a leader was getting the country to dance with him, to waltz with him. The interesting thing about that bull rider, who’s a Republican, very conservative, right-wing—he’s carrying the most progressive message of the play, arguing for a flat rate. That interview comes from a series of interviews completed in 2009. When he starts talking about insurance companies raping us, they’re raping the poor, they’re raping the middle class, then they’re going to rape the rich and ruin the country, what does that sound like? It sounds like the Occupy Movement.
AVC: It’s fascinating that this right-wing cowboy’s call for flat-rate medical care comes out of the context of a V.A. hospital, which underlines the fact that veterans are some of the very few Americans who actually do have access to socialized medicine.
ADS: Because we feel we owe them something. I think that’s a deep question about who owes what to whom. We owe the government taxes. We owe our creditors interest. What do these powers owe us? I think this play started out, as you know, and as we have discussed, in a very esoteric way, in a way of simply satisfying my need, as a student of expression, to learn more about expression. Then it ultimately became a play about a specific political matter in our country. Now, I think it’s beyond health care. When I play this play now, I really believe it’s a social-justice play that is in sync with the Occupy Movement in many ways, as it is with the healthcare issue. Even the matter of health care, as you know, it has a huge effect on the economy, quite apart from what is delivered with the term “wellness” or not.
AVC: You’ve said that after college you went out to the West Coast looking for a revolutionary movement that had run its course by the time you got there. Is that an underlying impulse for you still?
ADS: I think so. I think I’m very interested in what’s there and not there at a very basic level—even in this material, going to people who have certain gifts that many of us don’t have. The person who follows Lance Armstrong, who wrote his books with him, Sally Jenkins, she’s a great sports writer, and talks about athletes as kinds of geniuses. And Lauren Hutton, another person in the play, who was on 19 covers of Vogue and still lights up a room. Or the boxer who can’t fight anymore, but nonetheless had the gift to be able to knock somebody out when nobody expected him to be able to. I don’t think that, if there is a God, that God is democratic in how He delivers gifts—He or She, the mother goddess, or the androgynous wonder, how He or She delivers gifts and challenges. I’m sure when your sister got sick, you thought, “Why her?” And as Michael Sandel, who’s in one version of the play, wrote a wonderful book called The Case Against Perfection, says, “We know fabulous people where terrible things happen to them, and then we know some pretty horrible people and nothing ever seems to happen.”
On a kind of really basic level, that kept bothering me while I was writing this play. I went to Rwanda to hear about the genocide, and you’re in an environment like that and you hear these narratives and you think, “Wow, how could this be? How could this happen?” Or South Africa, doing interviews about AIDS while [Thabo] Mbeki was president, called “The Great AIDS Denialist.” To see how the people just die like this. So I don’t have any answers to that. I wonder about it. Why, what we do about it, still bothers me. But I think that was the coals that I was dancing on while I was working on the entire project.
AVC: You have to reckon with the fact that, on a fundamental level, the world isn’t a fair place.
ADS: And it isn’t. It’s partially. Partially. We keep trying to pretend. It’s unfair at a cosmic level, on a geopolitical level, on an environmental level, on the level that animals treat each other. It’s just profoundly unfair. When people ask me about that title, Let Me Down Easy, the first speaker really lays it out. I asked everybody. I woke up one day out of a dream and that’s what it should be called. I asked these people, “What does it mean to you?” and I start the play with [liberation theologist] James Cone because I think he says it so well, and I’m very appreciative that he puts me in this tradition of black music. “Those black love songs, they’re all about, ‘You hurt me. You hurt me. I thought you loved me. I loved you.’” It’s about that, but it’s also about justice at a social level. Ultimately, he says, it’s really a call for love, because people need something to sustain them in times of difficulty. That’s what I hope the play really serves to be. For somebody who is in difficulty, that they feel better, that it feels not, as Rev. [Peter] Gomes says, “Not so mean.” Not so mean. It’s not fair already, and then a lot of people, in a lot of different ways, take advantage of the fact that it’s not fair. They just make it plain mean and wrong. And that’s always disturbed me, and it doesn’t get any better as I’ve gotten older.
AVC: There is a real meanness that’s really come out in the presidential campaign. The idea that people would cheer denying health care to someone just because they don’t have money seems insane.
ADS: Or worse. It’s okay to take advantage of people when they do have money, or some resources, when they scrape it up. That’s okay. You and I, as professional people, if we go to a lawyer, we have to check the bill six times, because most likely we’ve been gypped. That’s the standard of excellence, that you go to Harvard Law School, and you come out, and that gives you the right to inflate your bill. I think we all just need to think about this. The fancier the school is, the more likely the grades are inflated. We have to think about that. I tell my [NYU] students, “You know what? I’m not going to inflate your grade, because I know at Borough of Manhattan Community College, it’s most likely that grade’s not getting inflated. So why am I going to inflate yours? You’ve already come from advantages, or you wouldn’t be talking here, you wouldn’t be sitting in my room.”
AVC: They have a saying: “The only thing harder than getting into Yale is flunking out.”
ADS: Right. I got an honorary degree from Wesleyan, and the student speaker that year proceeded to make fun of everything she’d learned, particularly anything that had to do with searching for more equity in race and gender. The guy sitting next to me was falling asleep, he was a professor at the ceremony, and that comment woke him up. And he got up and he said, “You know, I used to teach at CUNY, and the kids would come to my lab”—he was a chemist—“and I actually changed lives. These people walking across the stage, there was never any doubt from day one they’d be walking across that stage.” He talked about the difference between a college for poor kids, or working-class kids, what it means to those parents that they walk across the stage. I thought about that when I got an honorary degree from John Jay [College of Criminal Justice], which is part of CUNY. A lot of these people, it’s the first person in their family that went to college. So I don’t want to get off on this, but I am more aware every day. You’d think that as you get older it’d get better, but every day I get more and more evidence of just how unfair it is. The only thing one can do, all I know from Let Me Down Easy, is to call upon ideas that are in their nature, even if they’re not true, that call on embracing kindness.
AVC: You mentioned animal behavior before. Obviously, fairness is not a concept that means anything to them. The only fairness is what we make for ourselves.
ADS: You’ve said it all right now. That’s the only fairness. There is no universal fairness. There’s no law of the world, no underlying law of fairness. A friend of mine’s dog was dying, and her other dog got meaner and meaner to the dying dog. That’s nature. When I went on safari, nobody preys on the lions. But the way you say it is so good, because you’re saying, “We have the opportunity to be creative in this way. We have the opportunity to try to work toward a more equitable sharing of resources.”
AVC: You did The West Wing around the time you were working on House Arrest, both shows about politics, and now you’re doing the medical drama Nurse Jackie around the same time as Let Me Down Easy. Is there any connection between your own work and the other roles you take or are offered?
ADS: That’s just a weird fluke that happened each time. I don’t know. It’s funny, because I’m just lucky whenever I get a part in somebody else’s work. I don’t audition often, and I don’t audition well, so the likelihood that I’m going to go to an audition and come away with a job is really low. It’s always been really low, which is probably one of the reasons I developed my own form, my own way of working. The fact that I walked out of that audition for Nurse Jackie and came away with a job is kind of miraculous. And also lucky, given the fact that the way the theater works, and being in production, that we were able to get them to allow me to do the show. So that when the show was in New York, I was doing the show and filming at the same time, which was pretty rough, but I was glad I was able to do it.
AVC: In your own work, you’re working very precisely with audio and video, as well as your own memories of the people you’ve interviewed. Does it feel like an impoverished experience to go into playing a part with only words on a page to work from?
ADS: It’s hard. It’s different. I don’t really have a technique yet. I wish I knew a good technique. The only thing I know to do is to pay attention and concentrate. Inevitably I finish shooting a scene and I go, “Oh! That’s what it was about.” You don’t know until you’re actually in there in that circumstance, saying it with the other actor. It doesn’t even help it necessarily even to run lines with another actor, because it’s very fast. Television is very fast—when they say “rehearsal,” rehearsal’s for the camera, it’s not for you—and I think it’s basically highly, highly improvisational, but at a very sophisticated level. With both The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, the writers are very, very aware of words. As we know, Aaron Sorkin, I don’t need to tell you. On [Nurse Jackie], Liz Brixius is a poet. So I’m lucky that there’s some inherent meaning in the words, and there’s also a kind of an athleticism. If Gloria Akalitus has a mouthful to say, sometimes there’s a discipline to that, like a hard word to say. With The West Wing, it was always like that. That then becomes a thing you’re trying to achieve. But basically you have to be a person who can automatically drop into a kind of concentration that lets you work with whatever’s in front of you. So it looks like nothing, but it’s highly improvisational and demanding in it’s own way.
AVC: Is there any overlap between the two kinds of acting?
ADS: No, not really. Nothing that I do in my work really helps me here. I wish it did.
AVC: How about the other way around?
ADS: No. There’s no crossover. Although I will say this, have you seen the movie The Artist?
AVC: Yes, I have.
ADS: I actually think the acting in that movie is very forward-looking, because it’s extraordinarily physical. I think we as actors are in crisis right now, because those of us who can get work, there’s this other thing called reality TV going on, and the way we act in this country and our training is still set in the late 19th century, when Stanislavski and classical realism became the Method here. The notion of the inner life, a fabricated inner life. What I liked about The Artist is that there is no fabricated inner life, unless you see it in their face. And yet it wasn’t mugging. I think that movie offers a lot to modern-day actors who are thinking about technique, because the film and television are not asking you to be a verbal technician at all.
On The West Wing, again, a little bit, because of how Aaron Sorkin writes, but that’s not really what you’re asked for. You’re asked to bring yourself as a charismatic entity. And again, you’re born that way or not, quite frankly, and then the best you can do is to try to stay in physical and intellectual shape. Musicians—I’m going to be making a new piece now for Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I’m working with a cellist. He practices five hours a day, every day. The closest as an actor that I can get to practicing five hours a day is for the work that I’ve created, the Let Me Down Easy work. In a way, one of the many reasons I created that way of working is that I wanted it to keep up. I didn’t want it to be catch-as-catch-can, or, again, walking into an audition and having absolutely no idea what you do and you try to nail it. To this day I can’t tell you what you do to nail an audition.
AVC: Just fill the space with something.
ADS: Fill the space with something and hope they like you.
AVC: I wanted to ask about the famous people in the plays, and—
ADS: Why do you think people ask me about that, by the way?
AVC: Because there’s a point of reference, and because people are more familiar with celebrity impressions than what you’re doing. Is it more difficult to get things out of people who are used to speaking on the record, and consequently are more guarded or self-conscious about the way they speak?
ADS: Okay, so let’s look at the famous people in this play. Lance [Armstrong], maybe, because he doesn’t like interviews. He says as much in the show. He doesn’t like interviews. He doesn’t like to sit still. When Sally [Jenkins] wrote those wonderful books with him, the only way they could do it—the whole thing flopped after the first interview, he was like, “I can’t do this.” So the way they decided they could work is she could interview him while he was doing something. He was doing errands or on a flight, but just to sit down and talk, that’s not what he does. So quite apart from being famous, or hating interviews, that’s not what he likes to do. So I think he’s a special case. I think Lauren Hutton let many cats out of the bag, deliberately. She basically says, “Because I was beautiful, I had the flu, and the man went crazy. [Charles] Revson went crazy, because I’d just signed a million-dollar contract. The first one in history. He sent me all over town, I got hooked up with the best doctors in the world.” She’s saying that with a keen awareness that most people don’t get that. And, she says, because she’s been in the trenches with many wealthy people and many wealthy men, rich guys want to live forever. Really, I would never have known that if I didn’t talk to someone like Lauren, who is an outsider in that world, who doesn’t take that for granted. She was a poor girl from Florida who Diana Vreeland discovered, and really changed fashion through picking this girl, Lauren Hutton.
Joel Siegel is a famous man, but he’s letting us in at one of the most vulnerable times in his life. Basically accepting death. And Ann Richards wanted to talk to me right before she went into this incredibly adventurous new therapy, proton therapy. I think in each case, the “famous people,” and I believe I’ve just named them all, are a separate case, each one wanting to communicate outside of the realm of their fame. Why did Lance even talk to me? He didn’t have to. So for some reason, what was he going to get out of it? It’s not about a Tour de France or anything like that. I think he probably is trying as well to share something from his experience with cancer, as an extension of his LiveStrong project. The other thing I wanted to say about famous people, it’s so interesting to me—most people ask me that, that’s why—but the questioner never realizes: Every show of mine has famous people in it. Some of them are quite famous. Al Sharpton was very famous when I wrote Fires In The Mirror. The police chief of Los Angeles [Daryl Gates] was very famous when I wrote Twilight. Each play has many famous people, famous in their community. So both Fires In The Mirror and Twilight are filled with people famous in their community. And as we discussed before, the community of health and mortality is broader than the community of an event. So nobody escapes it. Richards didn’t escape it. Joel Siegel didn’t escape it. Lance and Lauren did not escape it—she was beat up in a bad, bad motorcycle accident. They don’t stay well forever. They too remain vulnerable.
AVC: Was that one of the issues with House Arrest, where it was hard to get people to drop the persona?
ADS: Well, that’s Washington. Nobody’s on display like those people were, not even Lance. What became the real trail on this play, the bottom line is, I’m a student in expression and I’m looking for excellence in expression. Nobody’s in it who isn’t providing that. With House Arrest, the problem was that, as one Jefferson scholar said, “Jefferson could never be found in verbal undress.” I call the language of Washington an haute couture language. I appreciate it; I understand why it is what it is. I expect the president to speak a very formalized language. When the president said that the cops who stopped Henry Louis Gates behaved stupidly, we had to put up with two news cycles on it, until we finally had the beer party. We couldn’t get that out of the news.
The press is looking for slip-ups, all the time. And I think one of the reasons they’re looking for slip-ups is they too have to speak in a highly, highly formalized way. It’s formal, that’s what we said about The New York Times. That’s what it is. That’s the given. So I appreciate that language, and we see that type of language in Shakespeare and Moliere. That language seeks to be without flaws. I’ve told this story many times, what opened my heart to Shakespeare was my teacher saying to me, to us, that iambic pentameter, usually goes da-DA-da-DA-da-DA. If, in the second beat, it goes da-DA-DA-da-da-DA, that leads you to know that the character is in some sort of psychological journey. She gave the example in Lear, where he says, “Never, never, never, everything’s upside down.” Of course, dramatic characters have to have that type of language. And people in office are not dramatic characters. Now, more than ever, we do not allow them to be. So we look for them to have explosive flaws, so we can play “gotcha.” And the bad news about that is that it’s keeping a lot of people out of leadership.
AVC: There’s a vicious cycle, too, because the more the media jumps on any incautious utterance, the less likely people in power are to ever accidentally speak the truth.
ADS: Not only are they not going to speak the truth, they’re going to have a very hard time leading people on a basic level, like what I talked about with FDR. They’re going to have trouble getting to the heart of the people. People say that Obama is cold. Not a lot of people warmed up to Bush. Clinton is more interesting. In fact, of the 525 people I interviewed in Washington, Clinton was a person who did speak with very interesting images, very interesting rhythm. He was singing. There were other flaws, and that certainly cost him and the country. There are people who would say that, in sort of more mythic ways, big leaders, big people have flaws, and often indiscretions. We don’t allow it, and because we don’t allow it, we’re paying a price, because people full of gusto aren’t going to participate.