Studs Terkel

Chicago fixture Louis "Studs" Terkel has worked as an activist, a civil servant, a labor organizer, an ad writer, a television actor, and a radio DJ, among many other occupations. But since the 1960s, he's been particularly well-known as a world-class interviewer, a writer and radio personality who draws celebrities and, far more often, average citizens into sharing their oral histories and revealing the complex commonalities and differences that define human existence. In a series of celebrated books, stretching from 1967's Division Street: America to the upcoming Hope Dies Last, Terkel interviews dozens of people, drawing out their thoughts and personal experiences on specific topics: the Great Depression (Hard Times), WWII (the Pulitzer Prize winner The Good War), their jobs (Working), America's racial divide (Race), and death (Will The Circle Be Unbroken?), among others. Hope Dies Last, due for release on Nov. 1, addresses hope, particularly through the lens of activism, and the attempt to change society for the better. In his introduction, Terkel writes, "As we enter the new millennium, hope appears to be an American attribute that has vanished for many, no matter what their class or condition in life. The official word has never been more arrogantly imposed. Passivity, in the face of such a bold, unabashed show of power from above, appears to be the order of the day. But it ain't necessarily so." At 91, Terkel himself continues to illustrate that point by remaining politically active and maintaining his own sense of hope. He recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Hope Dies Last, activism, interviewing, George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the man he believes is best qualified to become president in 2004.

The Onion: How do you find your interview subjects?

Studs Terkel: Oh, I don't know. Why do I like jazz? I improvise a great deal. Some people I already knew about, but the best example might be... I'm interviewing a woman. Let's say she's a middle-class housewife, or working-class. And she's talking to me, and says, "You know who you ought to see? Florence, down the block." I say, "Why do you say that?" "Well, Florence, somehow, she... just see Florence." What she means is, Florence is of the same status she is–religion, economics, education or lack of it–but that person has a certain kind of insight, although she's the same person as the other, as far as the social bracket is concerned. Those are the kind of people I get. They say the things, articulated in their way, that the others can't bring out. So I'll hear about someone... Someone I know tells me about someone else... There's no set way. Now, in this last book, I wanted to talk about certain people, who are called "activists." It's a common word now, in the vocabulary. It doesn't mean they're full-time to it, but they're always the prophetic minority. For example, during the American Revolution, most people didn't give a damn whether they were... They could have been Tories. But certain people were activists, like Tom Paine, Samuel Adams. During the Civil War, slavery days, there were people called abolitionists. They were beaten up, smacked about. And then, during the '60s, there were students and others who were objecting to a war, and also African-Americans and others who revived a tradition of civil rights that was betrayed during Reconstruction. They were always more or less smacked about a bit, but bit by bit, their causes become some of the law of the land. So those are the people... Whether they're in labor, whether it's race, or changing neighborhoods, fighting gentrification... Any form, it could be. That's more or less how I work. By hunches, improvisation. There's no one way. I was sitting in a cab one day, for my first book, Division Street: America. It was in an Appalachian community. I wanted to interview some Appalachian people. Raining like hell, and luckily there was a cab. I had this big tape recorder, a German one, around my shoulder. And the cab driver, this young guy, looks like Li'l Abner, he sees the tape recorder and says, "Are you a journalist?" I say, "Sort of, I dunno." He says, "You ever see the movie Lord Jim?" I say, "Yeah, with Peter O'Toole. There's a book, too." He says, "Well, that movie's about me." "What do you mean, about you?" "It's about someone who was a coward and who finally got the courage to do something. That's why I joined the John Birch Society." You know what the John Birch Society is? I gotta ask, because you're young, and a lot of young people, I gotta explain it to 'em. Like the other day, someone said, "You had a guest at your party in New York, spells his name S-double-E-G-E-R. First name, I think, is Peter." And she works for my publisher, too. [Hope Dies Last includes an interview with Pete Seeger. –ed.] So anyway, I tell him I'm doing a book about people in Chicago, and he says, "Sure, I'll talk to you." As he talks to me... He came from a family where he was in fear of everything. He took his kids to the beach: Fear of drowning, it wasn't joy. And he wanted to be a man among men, but he felt like he was nothing. One day, a big shot says to him, "How about joining a patriotic group of Americans? John Birch is fighting all the Commies." "Yeah, I'll do that, they're big shots!" So he joined the John Birch Society. He talks about the Commies, how he'd rather be dead than red, and he goes on and says, "I lost a job as a guard at the county jail." "Why'd you lose the job?" "Because they say I'd fraternized with the prisoners. The prisoners are mostly black, you see." "Well, what do you mean you fraternized?" "Well, one day, a guy says 'What time is it?' One of the inmates. And I say, 'What, do you got a plane to catch or something?' and I walk away. And then I say, 'You know what? Why'd I say that? This guy's in here for 20 years.' I went back to apologize to him. And you know what? I'll tell you a secret"–this same John Birch guy–"I trust black people more than I do white people. I think they're more honest." As he talks more and more, the guy is yes and no. He could go either way, this guy. He's a mixture. I found that in doing this book, rules of thumb went out the window. People are an admixture... It's been an adventure for me, all these books. This one, of course, was the toughest, because it's the most abstract. About hope, you know? The others were about specific events: the Depression, WWII, race, working. But this... I thought it would be abstract, but it turns out it's very personal. And it's of the moment. A lot of people feel helpless about things, hopeless, "The hell with it." And here are these people I'm talking about: the prophetic minority I told you about, there in the flesh, around us, you see. It becomes a very personal book.

O: In your last two books, Will The Circle Be Unbroken? and Hope Dies Last, it seems like people deal with the abstractness of the subject by describing their lives...

ST: Well, of course. Nothing is ever abstract, really. Even the book on death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, basically it's about life. It's about death, of course, reflections on death, but it's about how we live our lives on earth. I'm an agnostic–you know what an agnostic is, right? A cowardly atheist–and at the same time, I envy the people who believe in the hereafter. I mean, that's nice, if you feel that, makes you feel good, I don't mock them. I can't make book on it, you know? It's about how you live your life. The book ends with two lesbian mothers, the sperm of a great doctor... You know the story, don't you? Very moving story. They met, and they each had the sperm of the gay doctor, each had a boy, and one day they met at a tribute to him, as he knew he was dying of AIDS, and that's when they fell in love. And they raised the family, the two boys, themselves. Well, you can't beat that. [Laughs.] If ever there were a case of family values... The key word is "love." There's family values. So nothing is abstract, really. Hope is very personal. What's the alternative to hope? Despair. Well, if you despair, then put your head in the oven. What's the point? Am I sanguine about the future? Hell, no, I'm worried stiff. But I think the American people basically are decent. This I know. And also, they have a native intelligence, this I know. But do they have the information? Of course not. So Schwarzenegger gets elected because they know who he is. But they've never heard of a guy named Dennis Kucinich. You know who Dennis Kucinich is, don't you? He's the least known of the nine candidates for the presidential Democratic ticket. [Kucinich, an Ohio Congressman, is also interviewed in Hope Dies Last. –ed.] He's the one you don't know. He's by far the most qualified guy. Boy mayor of Cleveland. He fought corporate power and he won. He's the chairman of the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party. He's the one who first told Bush "Go to hell!" when it came to the pre-emptive strike. He said "No!" The first one to do it. He's the one who said "No!" when it came to sanctions, hurting, killing kids, you don't hurt the brute Saddam at all. He's the one who said "No!" to tax cuts that would just benefit a few. But people don't know who he is. He's never mentioned in the news–just a throwaway phrase, "The ninth candidate." And he's the closest thing there is to the answer. People looking for a guy with guts, with principles, here he is. And one in a thousand Americans knows his name. You've heard of Al Sharpton, you've heard of a million of those other guys, you've heard of that clown Joe Lieberman, who would be a perfect running mate for George W. Bush. Because we misuse our language. We speak of "winnability," meaning, of course, being more moderate, which means, of course, being more centrist, which means, of course, going closer and closer and closer to the right. That's what it means. We pervert our language, as well. I want him to be known, so he can make a speech at the Democratic convention, so he can get a little clout. In any event, I don't mean to talk so much about him. I was talking about the American people. So they don't... We know who runs the media, let's face it. Fox is owned by the Australian Neanderthal, Rupert Murdoch. You know the people on it. These are powerful people, and Americans hear that day after day. And there's a muscle-headed muscleman named Schwarzenegger, and most of the white women voted for him, despite what his record seems to have been. Doesn't matter: known. You've got Oprah Winfrey, the Teflon girl. She had him on for a whole hour. Did she have any opponent on? Most astonishing thing in the world. No one has ever challenged her. She says, "We didn't talk about politics." But if it's not political advertising, what the hell is? And no one ever thinks of saying, "Hey, why aren't others on?" She's got millions of women listeners, doesn't she? And it's white women who voted tremendously for this clown. So I use him as a grotesque case in point. Contrast him with Dennis Kucinich, who nobody knows. So we got a lopsided... The assault going on is an assault on our intelligence, an assault on our decency.

O: Don't Americans have some culpability in their lack of knowledge? Or do you lay all the blame on the media?

ST: Well, think about it. Do they get it? Well, you don't know who Dennis Kucinich is. I don't mean you. You're hip. I try it out on cab drivers, and they never heard of him. Someone very, very, very political will have heard of him, that's it. Readers of The Nation magazine have. It's an old, old story. But now, more than ever... Information today... You know, the FCC's head is Colin Powell's son. It's worse than ever. He's the one who says, "These guys can buy as many stations as they want." Now, Hope Dies Last is dedicated to Clifford and Virginia Durr, two great white Southerners. He was a member of the FCC under Roosevelt, and she was the sister-in-law of Justice Hugo Black, and they were tremendous. They were what I called activists, in those days. They sacrificed much of their lives, but they saw that something happened. She was a teacher, a seamstress with Rosa Parks, and she encouraged Rosa Parks to go to a school called the Highlander Folks School. You ever hear of the Highlander School? It was a remarkable place where black and white organizers went. That led to Rosa Parks sitting on that bus and not getting up. These are the people I'm honoring in this book, that tradition. But I'm also saying that they imbue others with hope. See, as people take part... A certain psychiatrist made a study, that when people participate in something in the community–it could be a demonstration for peace, or with people like them on the street corner, objecting to waste–something happens to them. They feel they count. They're part of something that is happening. The psychiatrist is saying, "It's good for their health!" That it really does something to them. And I believe that, of course. It imbues them with a touch of hope.

O: Even in a political environment like the current one, where the president has openly dismissed nationwide protests as insignificant?

ST: Well, that's what we mean by participation, you see. If they take part... Even if it's a little gathering in the neighborhood, about a neighborhood problem. You know how it spreads out. That neighborhood problem becomes a city problem, city problem a national one, national one a world one. It starts with you. So when they take part in something... This is in all the books I've had. Many people begin questioning and hopeless, like in the Vietnam War. In one of my books, there's a housewife, very devout Catholic, and she hated those kids who were protesting, but she's complaining in her neighborhood about something. The elder [Chicago Mayor Richard J.] Daley is planning an expressway through the community, and "Oh, what's going to happen to our block? Our homes are going to go!" And one day, somehow she met a young priest who was active, who said, "Why should anybody's homes go? Let's challenge the highway. Do we need another expressway here? Don't we go fast enough?" They challenged it, and a group was born, Citizens Action Program. Do you follow? It came out of a local thing, and she became a tremendous peace advocate and civil-rights advocate. She didn't start out that way, but participating in something, that's what's part of it. What you just said... I guess one reason I did Hope Dies Last is because so many people feel hopeless, whereas... You notice in the introduction, I make several references to that. But then you've got letters to the editor... I happen to know the editor of the Chicago Tribune editorial page–you know, the Trib's a conservative paper. At the same time, the letters to the editor are very interesting; he says, "As many anti-Bush as pro-Bush." So you see, there's something in the wind. [Laughs.] And you want to catch that wind and not let it go to waste. If Bush can't be beaten with wars and a depression forthcoming... Herbert Hoover was beaten because of the Great Depression, right? Well, here's a forthcoming depression and wars. If the Democratic Party can't beat this guy, the Democratic Party should dissolve. It's in the hands of something called the Democratic Leadership Council, ever hear of them? They run it, and they ought to be tossed out on their asses immediately. They're the ones moving closer and closer toward the center. That means closer and closer toward the right, but we love euphemisms. Lieberman is a perfect example, and a horrendous one for me. I wasn't kidding when I said, "If I were Bush's brain"–that's Karl Rove, his Rasputin–"I would draft Joe Lieberman to be the running mate for George Bush."

O: Of all the interviews you've done over the years, which ones stand out most for you?

ST: You know, that's a hard one, because they all... The Klansman and the black woman is certainly a key one, about the transformation of people. [Terkel's book Race included interviews with former Ku Klux Klan Exalted Cyclops C.P. Ellis and black activist Ann Atwater, who formed an unlikely friendship. –ed.] I told you about that John Birch guy. But the Klansman is the best story of a transformation. Here's a guy who cheered when Martin Luther King was killed, and in the end, he organizes a union consisting only of black custodians. The change in him is one of the most dramatic. So there is no one, but that one's certainly in my mind.

O: Do any of them stand out for you as going particularly poorly?

ST: Oh, sure, I don't use every person I interview. You'll notice that in this book, I name a lot of names, which is my way of paying tribute to them and their precious time. That's my way of apologizing to them, because I didn't use them in the book. You'll find people's names in there, Gloria Steinem among them, who I interviewed, but didn't use. They were good, but it didn't fit in the book. There was overlapping of things. This happens in all the books. Some of them are less good than others, of course, and some are no good. But I generally have an idea... I told you that Florence-down-the-block story. That's more or less a key to it. Over the years, you pick up a certain kind of hipness, a certain knowledge.

O: Your book interviews tend to read like essays, or monologues...

ST: They've been done by actors, by the way. From the very first book on, many people auditioning for roles used material from the books as audition material. But people speak dramatically. That's what I look for, I guess. I look for certain seeds of something. And you find people who have a way of talking that's kind of eloquent. Touches of eloquence come in, or drama.

O: Do you ask questions and leave them out of the transcripts, or just encourage people to talk without being prompted?

ST: It comes out of what I call conversation. 'Cause I take part, too. But remember, I'm very inept mechanically. I've got the tape recorder in my right hand, and I goof up and push the wrong button sometimes. And the person says, "Look, you pushed the wrong button. It's not on." At that moment, the person feels needed by me psychologically. Mike Royko was my friend, and he accused me, "You son of a bitch, you deliberately do that, don't you?" And later he discovers that I am helpless. I am inept. I think he once did a column on it, my deliberately goofing up. It's not deliberate; I do goof up. I lost Martha Graham that way, pressed the wrong button. I lost Michael Redgrave, the actor. I almost lost Bertrand Russell, the philosopher. If I did, I'd have put my head in the oven. And by goofing up, suddenly they feel, "Hey, he's just a guy," which helps a great deal.

O: How do you feel about being interviewed yourself?

ST: Oh, I talk, just the way I'm talking to you. I've been interviewed a lot. I don't mind. I'm a ham actor, after all.

O: What's next on your plate?

ST: Well, I'm kind of running out of steam. But I'll always do books. I'll take off... I probably won't finish. I did a book called The Spectator, which was a book of interviews with people in the world of theater and movies. Buster Keaton, Zero Mostel, Kenneth Tynan, and Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams, and Carol Channing. This one I'm working on now is called They All Sang, and it's about musical performers. This'll be portraits of them. There's a chance I won't finish the book, but that's what I do. I'll have my two martinis daily. I tell my cardiologist, "I have two martinis a day, but what about my cholesterol count?" He says, "At your age, cholesterol count is about as relevant to you as truth is to George W. Bush." And that's about the ticket. I keep going, of course. Otherwise, I'd fade out. I don't intend to fade out, I intend to check out.

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