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Studs Terkel on Impeachment

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Today, the Senate will vote on whether to call the three witnesses from a scaled-back list presented by House managers: Monica Lewinsky, presidential friend Vernon Jordan and presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal. They will also vote on a motion to dismiss the impeachment trial, although it is not expected to pass. The managers asked senators to invite President Clinton to testify, a suggestion that the White House quickly turned down. We talk about impeachment and the significance of perjury with renowned author and radio host Studs Terkel, joining us from Chicago. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Today the Senate will vote on whether to call three witnesses from a scaled-back list presented by House managers—key witness Monica Lewinsky, presidential friend Vernon Jordan, and presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal—as well as on a motion to dismiss the impeachment trial, which is not expected to pass. The managers also asked senators to invite President Clinton to testify, a suggestion the White House quickly turned down.

Conspicuously absent from the list is the president’s secretary, Betty Currie, whose testimony before the grand jury investigating the Lewinsky scandal supported the president and contradicted some of Lewinsky’s most damning testimony against the president. Clinton’s lawyers then suggested that they will need time to depose potential witnesses before calling witnesses of their own and bitterly complained about the House managers.

We’re now going to talk a little about what’s coming up today. Today, the two votes, the first on dismissal, the second on the issue of subpoenaing witnesses. As I just said, the dismissal vote, which was introduced by West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, is expected to go down to defeat. The second, the subpoenaing of witnesses, is expected to be passed.

Then the question is this: will those witnesses be deposed and then not appear in the well of the Senate, perhaps just on videotape, or will senators just read their depositions? After the depositions that the senators read, they will then vote on whether to bring them to the Senate or watch them on videotape. Just some of the issues that will be discussed today in the Senate impeachment trial.

But right now, for some impressions and thoughts on what’s happening, we turn to Studs Terkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has written the book Working, as well as American Dreams: Lost and Found, Division Street: America, Hard Times and “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, and so much more.

We welcome you from your home in Chicago, Studs Terkel.

STUDS TERKEL: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what are your thoughts today? You’re a man who has really watched this century, and at the end of the century you see what we have come to.

STUDS TERKEL: I have one thought. This reminds me of an old-time burlesque show. Years ago, burlesque had four ingredients: the first banana, the second banana, straight man to the talking lady. All four ingredients are in this. For the last months now, we have seen a rather cheap burlesque show, an amateurish one, but burlesque nonetheless. And let me explain this further.

The costume is somewhat different. The costume in many burlesque shows: baggy pants comics, bright wigs and perhaps putty noses. These guys are dressed well.

But the language may be somewhat different, but it’s really the same. The burlesque show, first of all, had the first banana. First banana is the star of the show. He is the Bert Lahr, the Bobby Clark, the W.C. Fields. That, of course, is William Jefferson Clinton. Notice, three names they use, which adds to the burlesque quality. There’s that—the air of phony seriousness, as pomposity. It’s perfect for the thing. He’s the first banana.

The second banana is the one who tries to get at the first banana. And his air is one of always sanctimoniousness. And there’s a serious kind of heavy thing, calling all stops pulled. Well, that, of course, is Congressman Henry Hyde from my home territory. And I’ve met Hyde a couple of times, and he’s witty at times and rather gracious at times. So I have a feeling he doesn’t really believe this. But the show must go on. It’s a show business, you see.

The third ingredient is the straight man. The straight man is the one who is dressed normally, who—he’s Bud Abbott to the Lou Costello and the others. And the straight man is the one who considers this farce, this nonsense, this hijinx, as serious as, say, Euripides’ the Oresteia, which adds to the comical aspects of it. And the straight man, of course, is the media. Straight men are the pundits we hear and see—we will, no doubt, today, of course—the ones on all the networks, the papers—the New York Times, of course, included—and the radio. That’s the straight.

Now, the fourth ingredient is the talking lady. Now, the talking lady is in every burlesque show, even the shabbiest. Minsky is, of course, in New York, but the shabbiest, like the Gem Theater in Chicago, a little rundown place on South Street that I went to a couple of times, you know, 60 years ago, 55 years ago. They have about three or four tired girls, and they were there as a chorus. They choose the one who can spell “cat,” and they make her the talking lady, give her a couple of lines. And she’s in randy skits, you know, kind of double-entendre skits with the first banana. So that would be the talking lady.

These are the four ingredients of burlesque. I see this every day. And—but, however, unlike the old burlesque shows, I get no kick out of this. But neither does most of America. That’s the point. The audience in the old days were the bald heads and a kid like me going in now and then for, as you would say, sociological reasons, you see. And so, we’d get a kick out of it, because there was a zest, and there was a kind of a joy to it. Here, there is not that at all, so the audience is turned off—way, way ahead of the straight man, the media, you know, the serious ones, these empty vessels. And the difference between the two, I like the first before the Washington hearings. Of course, then there was always a Gypsy Rose Lee. So that’s the way I see it. That’s why I say, “So don’t ask me to take this seriously, as to who’s doing what to whom.” Do you follow me?

AMY GOODMAN: I follow you.

STUDS TERKEL: Now, I want to end this, if I can, this little bare oration, with something of Mark Twain. And this is something the New York Times would never have put in their op-ed page, but I did something on it, about this, something that Hal Holbrook, the actor—you know Hal Holbrook, the actor, back in the '50s did Mark Twain, and he was quite wonderful on this in many cities. And he came across this little essay of Mark Twain, and I've lifted it from him. And I use this as part of an op-ed piece that appeared in the Chicago Tribune — get that — three months ago. It’s September 24th, September 24th. And this is what Mark Twain would have said tonight, and this is what I said—I’ll read this quote—three months ago.

“May I suggest we read Mark Twain rather than Kenneth Starr?” Starr stuff in the headlines then. “At the end of the century (the 19th), Twain wrote a piece called 'On the Decay of the Art of Lying.' At the time, he had written several scathing essays on our policy in the Philippines.” That’s about 1905, when we were, you know, kicking a group—Aguinaldo, he was the rebel leader. He was chased all over the landscape—we were doing, you know. And Mark Twain wrote a piece, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” and he—at the time of the scathing essays on our policy in the Philippines, “of which nothing too much was said in the mainstream press.

“Here are a few passages from his 'lying' piece.” And this is Mark Twain. “’When I talk about the decay of the art of lying, I’m talking about the silent lie, the unspoken one. It requires no art: you simply keep still and conceal the truth. For example, it would not be possible for a humane and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for slavery, and yet in those days of Emancipation agitation, those agitators got small help from anyone. Argue and plead and pray as they might, they could not break the universal stillness that reigned from pulpit to press all the way down to the bottom of society. The clammy stillness created and maintained by the lie of silent assertion. The silent assertion that there wasn’t anything going on in which humane and intelligent people ought to be interested.

“'Well, when whole nations conspire to propagate gigantic mute lies, like that one, in the interests of tyrannies and shams, why should we care about the trifling ones told by individuals? Why make them undesirable? Why not be honest and honorable and lie every chance we get? Why should we help the nation lie the whole day long, and then object to telling one little, individual, private lie in our own interests? Just for the refreshment, I mean, and to take the rancid taste out of our mouth. No, there is no art to this silent lying. It is timid and shabby.'” And that’s the Mark Twain quote.

And then I went on in this op-ed piece, as I continue. “Imagine what Mark Twain would have said today. He may have had a word or two to say about Bill Clinton’s extracurricular activities. But he’d have been out for bigger game, much bigger.

“When he spoke of 'silent lies in the interest of tyrannies and sham,' what would he have said of our role in overthrowing the legally elected governments in Iran and Chile and Guatemala? What would he have said of our role in El Salvador and Nicaragua, whimsically referring to the death squads (we trained) as 'freedom fighters'?

“With the exception of a few alternative journals, our media have been in the words of Mark Twain, guilty of 'the silent, unspoken lie.'

“Instead of our 'humaneness and intelligence'” — quoting Twain — “being called upon, during this shabby season, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr has appealed to our under-the-bed prurient nature. The public release of the report, with its gratuitously revealed trashy details, has put us all under-the-bed, and in so doing, has demeaned every one of us.

“The Starr report is the dream document of the righteous Peeping Tom, the respectable voyeur. Starr has succeeded in making Weird Harold” — I should point out that Weird Harold in Chicago some years ago was a rather celebrated porno peddler, he was in headlines sometimes. Listen, he succeeded—Starr—in making Weird Harold “occasionally the wretched subject of a sardonic Mike Royko column, respectable.”

“As the one individual lie has become the most advertised in history, the mute silent, gigantic ones merit hardly a footnote.

“Mark Twain is fulminating in his grave.”

And that’s the piece. So you have my—you have my bare oration in two pieces: the burlesque and Mark Twain. That’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Studs Terkel, our listeners around the country are going to be very grateful for your insights, but I have a mundane question about perjury, and that is this: as you talk about Kenneth Starr and peering under the bed, etc., do you think that a president has any responsibility to tell the truth? And if he does lie, does it matter if it’s about an issue like sex?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, he—of course, he has to tell the truth about the stuff that affects us. Well, as far as his telling the truth about sex, that’s the business of himself and his family. And that’s tough. But he has—

AMY GOODMAN: What about the idea that—

STUDS TERKEL: But as far as telling a lie that affects the nation — “What have we to tell the truth about?” My god. I don’t think Grover Cleveland ever admitted that there was an illegitimate child. And there was a song in those days: “Ma, where’s pa, pa, pa?” “He’s in the White House, ha, ha, ha.” There was talk of that. I don’t think that Kennedy would have not lied about his various extracurricular activities, that made Bill Clinton look like the Puritan of Puritans, you know. Probably, the guy probably had satyriasis, you know. We know his record is a big one in that respect. Nothing much is made of that. And the man I admired most, the one—the one major-league president of the century, Franklin D. Roosevelt. We know the odds are pretty good that he had something to do with a little beautiful socialite named Lucy Mercer. At the end, you think he said—the fact that he had polio. So, to me, that was a wonderful thing; I thought that was good therapy for him, you see. So when it comes to that lie, of course now we have these flatulent ones, making much of that.

However, the big lie, the lies told to me, lies like Watergate, Irangate, or for that matter saying we have to—now I’ll tell you where he’s impeachable. You can say, “Hey, hey, Willie—you know, Billy J.” — for Jefferson — “How many Iraqi kids did you kill today?” Now that is more impeachable, I think. If anything is, that would be, because there was no declaration of war declared. How come you bomb a city of helpless people, let alone—of course this guy—we know Saddam Hussein’s a brute. We know that. We know it. We helped—by the way, we helped him back in those early years. We know that, too. So, in a sense, we’re talking about two different kinds of lies, aren’t we? So, that’s the ticket pretty much.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the idea that he wasn’t just lying about sex, but he was lying to derail a sexual harassment case against him?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, it still dealt with sex. It still—it still dealt with that. I really don’t give a damn whether he did or not that. I give a damn about what Mark Twain gave a damn about, I’m happy to say. And that’s about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do—

STUDS TERKEL: And I’ll watch this. As I watch, you know, I’ll think of Rags Ragland, and I’ll think of Bert Lahr and the great comics past. Some of them worked burlesque. Mostly, I suppose, I think of Clinton as W.C. Fields, and the others as those flatulent buffoons they are, of course. And that’s about it. I can’t take this—I can’t take this serious. I mean, I’ll watch it, and I watch, you know, stuff at the Gem Theater, the old Rialto. Not as funny at all. Not as funny, no. But I watch it nonetheless.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs, what are you working on today?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, today I’m working—it’s a book that will be coming out in August. I’m just going to—I’m doing copy editing. It’s a book called The Spectator. See, the previous books I did were about the non-celebrated people and their lives, whether it be the war or the Depression or race or age. This is about my impressions of people I’ve interviewed on my radio station in Chicago for the past 45 years, in theater and in movies, and how that’s affected me, my fantasy life, but also interviews with these people, whether it be playing straight man to Zero Mostel, and so with Buster Keaton or Brando or Sybil Thorndike, the actress for whom Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan. Stuff of that sort. And that will be—that’s what I’m working on.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever think at the end of this century you would see a president of the United States impeached?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, no. But, you see, then again, you see, burlesque appears in so many ways at so many times, there’s no rule about it. And after all, way, way back, remember—remember the Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That was a burlesque. You know, it was based upon old, old-times Roman—you know, way, way back, Romans wrote burlesque, and the commedia dell’arte were there, you know, all sorts, Punch and Judy show. Been there a long time. So it came along—this one came along on a national scale, you know, at the end of our century, which is an interesting comment, I think, on the 20th century.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think, with people’s frustration overall right now, it could lead to just this notion of “throw ’em all out” and perhaps a new renaissance?

STUDS TERKEL: Yeah, that’s pretty much the feeling. Yeah, I think there’s a cynicism there, a pretty deep one, yeah. Yeah, these guys are—I mean, first, the group of clowns known as House managers, that itself is a funny word. When I see the word “House manager” for the Republican guys, that—the guy could be the house manager of the Rialto Theatre, the Gem Theater, Minsky’s. “House manager” is a theatrical phrase, you see. That in itself is good, too. It’s theatrical. House manager. That fits so well. I hadn’t thought of it ’til the moment. That—these guys must have been—gone to burlesque shows as a kid. I wish they did. We may have been able to get a different. But in any event—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Studs, I want to thank you very much for being with us and sharing your thoughts today. I’m looking forward to your book.

STUDS TERKEL: OK. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, the interviewer of America, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Among his books, Coming of Age: The Story of the Century by Those Who Have Lived It, Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, and Working.

You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to take a look at the 10 worst corporations of 1998, and we’re going to focus on the first one after that. We’re going to be talking about Chevron. Is it possible that once again it’s flown in the Nigerian military into the Niger Delta, once again killing villagers there, as it continues to drill for oil? You’ll find out. Stay with us.

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