- Studs Terkel
his books include My American Century, Division Street, Hard Times, Working, “The Good War” (which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction), and Spectator. His latest book is Hope Dies Last, featuring interviews with presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, Voices in the Wilderness founder Kathy Kelly, Tom Hayden and many others.
Studs Terkel, 91, 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.
For 45 years, Studs Terkel spent an hour each weekday on his nationally syndicated radio show conversing with famous and not-so-famous guests and with a loyal audience of Chicago listeners.
With his unique style of oral history on subjects such as race, war and employment, Terkel has spent decades interviewing Americans across the country, creating intimate portraits of everyday life and chronicling changing times through this century.
Hope Dies Last is the latest in the series of American oral histories he’s been publishing since his first book, Division Street: America appeared in 1967. In the 36 years between then and now, he’s covered, in separate books, the Great Depression, World War II, race relations, working, the American Dream, and aging. Hope Dies Last features interviews with presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, Voices in the Wilderness founder Kathy Kelly, Tom Hayden and many others. [includes rush transcript]
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah!
AMY GOODMAN: “Trouble of the World,” Mahalia Jackson. Our guest today certainly knows about Mahalia Jackson. We are now joined in our studio by Studs Terkel—Studs Terkel, who has graced not this studio before, but we have spoken to him in both Chicago and here in New York. He has a new book out. It is called Hope Dies Last.
Studs Terkel, for half a century, broadcaster and author—probably more—spent an hour every weekday on his nationally syndicated radio show conversing with the famous and not-so-famous guests, with a loyal audience of Chicago listeners.
We want to thank you for being here today, and we want to start off by talking about what happened yesterday in the Senate. It’s not clear who was on the floor of the Senate when this vote took place, but it looks like George Bush got everything he asked for.
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: $87 billion.
STUDS TERKEL: It’s as though a coup has already been accomplished, the coup that began with the November election of the year 2000. You have one voice—and this is ironic—the conservative senator from West Virginia, James Byrd—Robert Byrd, the one eloquent voice, by the way, who throughout has been talking about the dangers of a coup, the dangers of our no longer being this country that’s so proud of its democratic spirit and openness—the one voice. And I heard the voice of Biden going along with Lugar, as we hear the perversion of our language itself. Biden is generally considered middle of the road. Some call him liberal. And Senator Byrd is called a conservative, which tells me that our language, as well as our thoughts, are being perverted. And the fact that his is the only voice—you would think this would be headlines. Byrd, the dean of the Senate. We know what he had been saying in the past, remarkably eloquent, about John Ashcroft, who, by the way, is my fellow alumnus—we’ll talk about that in a moment—and the PATRIOT Act and how it connects to me with the witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts, way back. It’s a tale I’ll tell you later on, the connecting link between him and me, that is abstract. But right now, the thought of Byrd being the only voice is mind-boggling.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a break, and when we come back after 60 seconds, we’re going to hear what Robert Byrd had to say about this $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan, for George Bush. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Mahalia Jackson, “Move On Up a Little Higher.” You’re listening to Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. By a voice vote, the Senate yesterday approved giving President Bush nearly everything he asked for in his $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan. This is what Robert Byrd had to say. The Washington Post reports the bill was one of the largest military and foreign aid bills in U.S. history. Senator Byrd of West Virginia was the only senator—remember, this was a voice vote—that could be heard saying “no” when the voice vote was held. Let’s take a listen to some of his comments.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: It has been said many times on the floor of this Senate that a vote for this supplemental is a vote for our troops in Iraq. The implication of that statement is that a vote against the supplemental is a vote against our troops. I find that twisted logic to be both irrational and offensive. To my mind, backing a flawed policy with a flawed appropriations bill hurts our troops in Iraq more than it helps them. Endorsing and funding a policy that does nothing to relieve American troops in Iraq is not, in my opinion, a “support the troops” measure.
Our troops in Iraq and elsewhere in the world have no stronger advocate than Robert C. Byrd, senior senator from the great state of West Virginia, where mountaineers are always free. I support our troops. I have been supporting our troops for more than 50 years as a member of the Congress of the United States. I pray for the safety of our troops. I will continue to fight for a coherent policy that brings real help, not just longer deployments and empty sloganeering to American forces in Iraq.
The supplemental package before us does nothing to internationalize the occupation of Iraq, and therefore it is not — I say “not” — a vote for our troops in Iraq. We had a chance, in the beginning, to win international consensus on dealing with Iraq. But the administration was in too big a hurry. The White House was in too big a hurry. The administration squandered that opportunity when the president gave the back of his hand to the United Nations and pre-emptively invaded Iraq. Under this administration’s Iraq policy, endorsed in the president’s so-called victory on this supplemental, it is American troops who are walking the mean streets of Baghdad. It is American troops who are succumbing in growing numbers to a common and all-too-deadly cocktail of anti-American bombs and bullets in Iraq.
Mr. President, the terrible violence in Iraq on Sunday—the deaths of 16 soldiers in the downing of an American helicopter, the killing of another soldier in a bomb attack, and the deaths of two American civilian contractors in a mine explosion—is only the latest evidence that the administration’s lack of post-war planning for Iraq is producing an erratic, chaotic situation on the ground with little hope for a quick turnaround. We appear to be lurching from one assault on our troops to the next, while making little, if any, headway in stabilizing or improving security in that unfortunate country.
The failure to secure the vast stockpiles of deadly conventional weapons in Iraq, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles such as the one that may have brought down the U.S. Helicopter on Sunday, is one of many mistakes that the administration made that is coming back to haunt us today. But perhaps the biggest mistake, the costliest mistake, following the colossal mistake of launching a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, is the administration’s failure to have a clearly defined mission and exit strategy for Iraq.
The president continues to insist that the United States will persevere in its mission in Iraq and that our resolve is unshakable. But it is time—past time for the president to tell the American people exactly what that mission is, how he intends to accomplish it, and what his exit strategy is for the American troops in Iraq. It is the American people out there. It is the American people who will ultimately decide how long we will stay in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Robert Byrd on the floor of the Senate yesterday. He was the only senator who could be heard in the voice vote, for the $87 billion that George Bush requested, saying “no.”
You are listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, here with Studs Terkel.
As you listen to Robert Byrd, your thoughts?
STUDS TERKEL: My thoughts—I’m looking at the New York Times right now, and I thought there would be a headline: “Robert Byrd, senior senator, conservative, West Virginia, and his very eloquent speech,” in which he spoke of the policy as “offensive.” I find it, of course, obscene. Had nothing in it about that. And when he made his previous speech, equally eloquent, as he was this moment, we heard, and so moving and so true, so obvious to the ordinary, average American—I know that’s so—we have the cringing aspect of both parties giving in here. So how come the New York Times ain’t got his speech as a headline? How come it’s not being talked—I’m talking about the best—so-called best paper in the country. Other papers, too. This is the big question, isn’t it? How the intelligence of the American people, as well as sense of decency, is being so—was so assaulted by the senatorial cave-in, as it is at this moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Just a week ago, the newspaper, In These Times , published a piece that you wrote called “No Brass Check Journalists.” Talk about what you mean.
STUDS TERKEL: Well, 1916, Upton Sinclair, known best for The Jungle, wrote a book called The Brass Check. Now, back in those days, when a john went to visit a brothel, he had two bucks. That’s before inflation. He’d pay her two bucks, and he’d get a brass check from the madam. And the brass checks would be presented to the girl. At the end of the day, the girl brought in all her brass checks to the madam, and she received a half a buck apiece. And he referred to the press—Upton Sinclair referred to the press as the girls in the brothel. Today you say “call boys” and “call girls.” We know that. For example, this name, a centrist, a respected centrist journalist, David Broder. After 9/11, what did he call President Bush? Do you recall? “Close to Abraham Lincoln.” See, we have this cringing aspect—
AMY GOODMAN: He landed on Abraham Lincoln_.
STUDS TERKEL: What’s that?
AMY GOODMAN: He landed on Abraham Lincoln on May 1st, the USS Abraham Lincoln.
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah, is that it? Yeah. Boy, oh, boy. So we have this—so, Upton Sinclair was talking about the girls and boys in the brothel who are owned. We do know that the difference between 1916 and today is technology, radio and TV, as well as press. We do know that more and more of the media is controlled by fewer and fewer. We know that an Australian Neanderthal named Rupert Murdoch, one of the most powerful media moguls in the country, is in on it. We know that the son of Colin Powell, who is the butler to Bertie Wooster, our president—remember P.G. Woodhouse. He’s his butler. Now, it so happens that Bertie Wooster, Bush, has a British butler in Tony Blair, but he has an American—elegant American, African-American butler in Colin Powell. His son is head of the FCC. And his son has declared that they can take as many—own—one guy can own 100—can own as many stations as possible. So, what Upton Sinclair said in 1916 is true now, doubly troubling than it was then.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, you mentioned the FCC. And the book begins with a dedication on one page. It’s blank, and it just says, “Remembering Clifford and Virginia Durr.” Who were they?
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, they were two great Americans. Clifford and Virginia Durr were two white people out of Montgomery, Alabama. Clifford was an FCC member under Franklin D. Roosevelt. And when Roosevelt died and the Cold War began and McCarthy came into being, he was told that all his staff had to sign loyalty oaths. And he says, “I refuse to do so.” And Harry Truman said to him, “Cliff” — they knew each other — “Cliff, it doesn’t apply to you, just to your staff.” He said, “I will not demean my staff by forcing them to sign those.” He resigned.
Now, Virginia Durr is a Southern belle, daughter of a clergyman. And one day I heard her in Chicago. She was on tour with Mary McCleod Bethune—Dr. Bethune, the distinguished African-American educator, friend of Eleanor Roosevelt—on tour against the poll tax. This was in the '40s. And this speech that Virginia made was so powerful, a number of us went backstage to shake her hand. And so, I offer her my hand. She says, “Thank you, dear.” And in my hand she puts in a hundred leaflets and says, “Now, dear, you step outside, outside the curb. Pass them out, because in half an hour or in two hours, Dr. Bethune and I will be speaking at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on the South Side.” I'm doing a takeoff on her dialect. Well, this was Virginia.
Now—and then, she and her husband were then ostracized by the community. And she could have led three ways. She could have gone three ways. Virginia could have been the Southern belle, Gone with the Wind type, nice to her, quote-unquote, “colored help” and join a garden club, or she could have gone crazy, if she had an intelligence and a conscience and did nothing, as did her college mate, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife—you know, went crazy. She was a friend of Virginia Durr’s. Or she could have been the rebel and said, “This is wrong.” And she took the third course.
Well, these two people, to whom I dedicate the book, represent that hope, that prophetic minority. It had always been a prophetic minority. There used to be 15 of them marching down the streets of Montgomery or Birmingham, and they’d be egged and tomatoed and threatened. And then, in 1965, August, 200,000 people gather for the Selma-Montgomery march. Remember that, 1965, two years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Two hundred thousand gathered. And originally, there were 15. And those 15 people are in the home of the Durr’s, Birmingham, at that moment, 2 Felder Street. And among them was Myles Horton, who was the founder of a school called Highlander Folk School. White and black organizers were taught, and Martin Luther King went there. And so did Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks happened to be a seamstress who worked for Virginia Durr. And Virginia Durr encouraged her to go to the Highlander Folk School. It’s not accidental that Rosa Parks did not get up off the seat that day. But the big thing is, George Wallace went on the air that night. And we were at the home, these 15 original people and others at the home. C. Vann Woodward was there, too, and others were there. And we hear—am I still on?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
STUDS TERKEL: Can you hear me? My hearing is on the blink. We’ll talk about that later.
And we hear George Wallace excoriating people who are in that room as being subversives and commies going to that school, Martin Luther King and Parks. And that’s when Myles Horton said, “Isn’t it remarkable? Remember there were 15 of us, and we knew each other by name? Now, 200,000 showed up. Two hundred thousand. I didn’t know a single one. They didn’t know me. Wasn’t that a marvelous moment?” That’s what I mean by a prophetic minority. Fifteen, then there were 200,000.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, you interviewed Martin Luther King, didn’t you?
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, on several times, yeah. And through Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia, of course, was quite a character. She was tremendous. It was at her bedside. She was a—said, “Martin wants to see you.” Well, he didn’t know me from Adam, but she insisted. But I did introduce him a couple of times at some of the rallies, too. And one of the things we talked about was sense of humor. So I was telling him about my friend Big Bill Broonzy, the blues singer, who was also a friend of Mahalia, and who, at certain moments, recounting a moment of humiliation, he’s laughing. Now, why—I asked this of Dr. King, this matter of humor—sometimes there’s a chuckle, while there’s a moment of humiliation recounted, like Big Bill teaching a young white kid how to be a welder? As soon as the kid became a welder, they fired Big Bill. And he chuckles. He says that that is save—that’s our saving grace. Without sense of humor, without the laughter through adversity, we’d be gone. So, that’s one of the things we talked about.
AMY GOODMAN: You co-hosted a radio show with Mahalia Jackson.
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What show was that?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, that’s a long tale, you see? I was—as you can gather, I have a big mouth. And Mahalia always said to me, “Studs, you’ve got such a big mouth, you should have been a preacher,” she says. Well, it happened I was a disc jockey way back in the early days. My program was eclectic. I played opera and jazz and folk. And that’s why—and played Mahalia records. I was the white jockey who played her. And she’s saying—much too much credit—she said I let the white world know about her. She would have been known anyway.
But in the meantime, TV comes into being. TV was new. Six to 10 at night, Chicago had free programs. It was not the sales medium it is today. And so, it had Garroway at Large. Dave Garroway, he was the easy jockey. He went to New York and was the first face ever seen on daytime TV, a program called Today. He was the first host. The second program was a puppet show, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, with a wonderful puppeteer who made these little rags in his hand come to life. The third was a program I was involved with, Studs’ Place. All three were improvised nature. And everybody was looking at these three programs as examples of early TV.
I was considered hot property then. It’s just, at that moment, the McCarthy era came into being and the Cold War, and I signed all sorts of petitions. I always say, I never met a petition I didn’t like. It was petitions—anti-poll tax, anti-lynching, anti-Jim Crow. And sure enough, a guy comes from New York, and he says, “Hey, we’re in trouble.” I love that “we” stuff, you know. “We’re in trouble. You signed all these petitions.” I says, “Yeah, I did.” “You know that commies are behind those? Commies.” I says—that’s when I get cute. That’s when I said, “Suppose communists come out against cancer. Do we have to automatically come out for cancer?” He says, “That’s not very funny.” I said, “No.” Then he said, “You’ve got to stand up and be counted.” So I stood up like Charlie Chaplin. I stood up. He says, “Sit down. That’s not funny, either.” And then he said, “There’s a way out. You were duped. You were stupid. You didn’t mean it. You were taken by them.” I said, “But I wasn’t duped.” And to this day, Amy, this day, people say, “Studs, you were so heroic.” I wasn’t. I was scared crapless. But the point is, my ego was at stake, my self-esteem. And that’s what I think it’s all about.
So I got canned. And I’m blacklisted. And then I go on an FM radio station in Chicago. That was my saving grace, WFMT. I was on for long, and I would play Mahalia records. And one day Mahalia now is internationally known. And so, CBS—now it’s CBS, the other was—is offering a program to Mahalia on the radio network. She—on one condition, that, she said, Studs be the host of it. Reluctantly, they agreed. A couple of weeks before, while the show was on the air, a guy comes onstage. We’re still rehearsing. And he says, “Will you sign this, please?” And it’s a loyalty oath. I said, “Well, of course I won’t.” And back and forth our voices are going. And Mahalia says, “Is that what I think it is, baby?” I says, “Yeah.” “Are you going to sign it?” She says no—I says, “No.” “OK, let’s rehearse.” He says, “Mrs. Jackson, Mr. Terkel has to sign it. From CBS, New York.” She says, “If you fire Studs, find another Mahalia.” You know what happened? Nothing. He disappeared. He vanished. She said “no” to the official word. And she proved what America is about, really—more than General Sarnoff, more than William Paley, more than all the agencies put together. And she represents what Virginia and Clifford Durr represented years ago. That’s what I mean by what this country is about.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to, you’re watching, if you’re on public access TV station channel in your community or if you’re at a Pacifica station, a community radio station, NPR station, that’s broadcasting Democracy Now! in this largest public-media collaboration in the country, Studs Terkel. That’s right, none other. And he has another book out. I think that makes it a dozen, but it may well be way more. And it’s called Hope Dies Last. Let’s turn to a little Mahalia Jackson.
AMY GOODMAN: “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” Mahalia Jackson.
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah, yeah, only she could sing it that way. See, Mahalia had a certain—when I heard her first on an old 78 RPM Apollo record, it was called “Move On Up a Little Higher,” written for her, by the way, by Professor Thomas Dorsey. He was the great writer of gospel songs. He did “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which was Martin Luther King’s favorite song, wrote that for Mahalia.
But, you know, as I was thinking, Senator Byrd’s on my mind, and one thing—someone in that book, toward the end of it, is named Kathy Kelly. So—
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel’s book is called Hope Dies Last. Kathy Kelly, the last chapter.
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah, she’s called—I call her “the pilgrim.” The last—this book is—these are vignettes of various people who have spoken out, members of dissent, those who have dissented. “Hope dies last” is a phrase that was coined for me by Jessie de la Cruz, a farm worker. He said, “When times were bleak, we were saying, in Spanish, esperanza muere última, 'hope dies last.'” And Kathy Kelly was up for the Nobel Prize, by the way, won by this remarkable Iranian woman, whom Kathy knows, by the way. Kathy was a candidate, too, for the Nobel. Kathy founded a group called Voices in the Wilderness. She’s a disciple of Dorothy Day. And one day, Dorothy Day was asked, “Why do you get in such trouble? You could lead an easy life.” And it’s asked of Kathy, who weighs 85 pounds, by the way, “Why are you doing this?” And Kathy said, as Dorothy Day said, “I’m working toward a world in which it will be easier for people to behave decently.”
So, one day, Kathy, by the way, was bearing witness in Basra and in Baghdad. But this one incident, she’s describing going to a missile site—as you know, we have hundreds of missile sites—and some places where corn was grown. And the corn can’t grow there because of the missile sites. So, Kathy one day goes through and starts planting some corn at a missile site and calls up the authorities. She’s violating the law. And sure enough, the assault companies come, the truck. The general hollers, “Will the personnel on the missile site get off and come down and be handcuffed and kneel?” And it’s Kathy Kelly. She’s the personnel. And she kneels and is handcuffed. And a young soldier boy—and he’s the one Senator Byrd was talking about—a young soldier boy of 19 years old has a gun to her head. And he’s trembling, because here’s the enemy, Kathy Kelly. And she says, “You know what I’m doing now?” And he says, “What, ma’am?” He’s a Southern kid. She says, “I’m praying for the corn to grow. Wouldn’t you want the corn to grow?” He says, “Yes, ma’am.” “Will you pray with me for the corn to grow?” And the kid knelt down with her and prays with her for the corn to grow. And then the kid looks at her. He’s still got the gun pointed at her head. He says, “Ma’am, are you thirsty?” She says, “Oh, God, yes, I am.” And he puts the gun down, which I’m sure is a violation of what he’s supposed to do, and he takes out his canteen. He says, “Ma’am, will you lean your head back a little?” And he pours—he says—he pours the water in like worms into the mouth of a little bird. And there he was. “This is the kid with the gun to my head.” And that’s the kid in Baghdad today, whom Senator Byrd was defending and the others who voted for Senator Byrd didn’t give a damn about. And that’s what it’s all about. Who’s for this kid? It was Senator Byrd saying no. It’s Kathy planting corn. And that’s the truth of it, and the audience knows that. Your audience does, of course. I think the great many others do, too. And so, it’s this cringing, this obscene giving in to Bertie Wooster—oh, well, Bertie’s [inaudible] is beyond that—to this appointed chieftain, that, to me, is so obscene.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, the war abroad and the war at home—what’s your connection to John Ashcroft, the attorney general of the United States?
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, well, he and I—I must make this confession. We are fellow alumni of the University of Chicago Law School. Now, he came there a generation after I did. I’m about 25 years older than he is, perhaps 30. But he’s much older than I am. I figured it out: John Ashcroft is 350 years old. You know why? We saw him in a previous incarnation, Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. Now, you recall The Crucible, the Salem witch hunts, the late 16th century—no, late 17th century, 1690, around there, Salem, Massachusetts, the old women accused of being terrorists, the witches. And here comes this evangelist, Reverend Parris. And that is John Ashcroft, word for word. “If you’re not with me, you’re against me. If you’re not with the word of God, which I represent, you’re consorting with the devil.” And so hysterical girls name these women, who were hanged, the old ladies. So John Ashcroft is 350 years old, second oldest guy of our species next to Methuselah, you know? So, he and I went to the law school together.
AMY GOODMAN: But you’re only 91.
STUDS TERKEL: I’m 91, yeah, and he’s 350 years old.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, being 91, a young one that you are—my grandmother is 106, so she would call you “Sonny.”
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You have seen a lot in this country. You talked about the loyalty oaths. You talked about standing up to them and Mahalia standing up for you standing up to them. But how would you characterize this time? How would you, God forbid, put it in a historical context, something that the media — that word “history” — seems to have blotted out?
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah. There is a time in which the people themselves—except I hate to use the word “People,” capital P—in which ordinary persons—a phrase I dislike because it’s patronizing—the anonymous person, those that made the wheels go round, are so far ahead of the political figures, those cringing ones who voted for this military budget and for all these phony pundits, these shallow pundits, who are brass check artists, as Upton Sinclair would call them—are so far ahead, it isn’t even funny. They’re ready for someone to speak, as Senator Byrd, the conservative—this is the irony, the exquisite irony of it all. Our language has also been perverted. I think the words “liberal,” “conservative” and “moderate” should be wiped out of the vocabulary. Issues only. Let’s stick with it. And Byrd did it on the button.
And we live in a remarkable moment. Well, the candidate with the least chance of winning the nomination, you know, who is by far the most qualified of the Democrats, would be Dennis Kucinich, of course, because of his track record, as the boy mayor of Cleveland, defying corporations and winning. But he has as much chance of winning as the Chicago Bears have of winning the Super Bowl, you know. But the point is, the people are far more ready, I think, for what is good and decent in the world. That involves reviving all the New Deal programs that are now being under attack, of course. We know that. But more than that, I think they’re ready, far more than those who seemingly represent them.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about having something in common with John Ashcroft. You also have something in common with Rush Limbaugh. You both are—well, he became deaf for a time, or hard of hearing, though perhaps what you don’t have in common is that you can still listen.
STUDS TERKEL: I can still listen, but the thing that deafness does, sometimes it comes—it works in my favor. Sometimes deafness works in favor of truth. For example, during the triumphal days of Bush’s liberation of Iraq, the few days—remember that? The phrase was, “embedded journalists.” “Embedded journalists,” to my defective hearing comes out with “in bed with journalists,” you see. So, you see, being deaf sometimes eliminates euphemisms and brings a further truth.
For example, I hear the name “Mr. Justice Scalia.” We know he’s the most powerful man in the country. We know that. We know that he appointed a new chieftain. But it doesn’t come out “Scalia” to me, you see; it comes out “Scarpia.” For those who know opera, Tosca has a villain heavy in it named Scarpia, before whom Rome trembles. He’s the John Edgar Hoover of Rome at the time, following the French Revolution. His name was Scarpia. So, “Scalia” comes out “Scarpia.” And so, “embedded” comes out “in bed with.” So, the hearing difficulty I have sometimes works to the benefit of truth.
AMY GOODMAN: You say hope dies last. Do you think people should have reason to be hopeful right now?
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah, I think so. This is not being a pollyanna. I know this is a hell of a time to say it, but it’s not being a pollyanna. There are many groups. There are scores, hundreds of groups on different issues. It could be lights for the community. It could be environment. It could be peace. It could be civil liberties. It could be some—but there’s no umbrella group. It needs an umbrella group. It’s happening.
There’s a guy in the book, John Donahue, who’s a priest who happens to be married. It’s a long—married a Panamanian woman. He tells of hope. He came to this panel with a bag of coffee. And the coffee was so great, far better than Starbucks. Coffee was made by the peasants of Panama. One day, he speaks to the certain priest in Panama, whom he knew, who says, “How much money is in the house?” So it was 18 bucks altogether. “We’ll buy some salt.” Hitherto, they patronized company stores only, run by agribusiness. And as they bought salt, then they bought dough, and they bought other things. And they stared making their own coffee. And now it’s in millions. Now it’s a company. And this coffee is sold everywhere. And it’s this cooperative coffee made by these peasants themselves. So this stuff is going on. Frances Moore Lappé speaks of that in Kenya, in other areas. But here, too, in this country, there are these various movements, but they need this one umbrella, is what I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, you are 91 years old.
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You have just published Hope Dies Last. What next for you?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, I’ve got an—
AMY GOODMAN: And how do you keep going? What continues to give you hope?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, I have to keep going, of course. I’m not going to fade out. I’ll check out. I could be talking to Amy Goodman right now, and I could pass out. That would be pretty dramatic, wouldn’t it? Well, you’d be in headlines. I’d be in a—not headline, but we’d be a good obituary column, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I would have passed out also.
STUDS TERKEL: And so, basically, I’m working on a book on music, as a matter of fact. No, I’ve had different musical guests—operatic and folk and jazz—and certain singers approach certain roles, good and evil.
AMY GOODMAN: You interviewed Louis Armstrong, didn’t you?
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, yeah, way back, sure, but also his first wife, Mrs. Armstrong, who played the piano, you know. And she was fantastic. She taught him all of the little amenities of city life when he came to Chicago to work with King Oliver. But there was Tito Gobbi, various ones, opera singers, and young, young—well, Bob Dylan, early interview with him. But then Pete Seeger’s legacy, his family, that come from an old, old world of troubadours. And it could be anything, jazz, Dizzy Gillespie and his adventures, but his thoughts about the rest of the world are very fascinating.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of sound, in your latest book, Hope Dies Last, you profile or you bring us your conversation with your sound engineer, who’s also an independent filmmaker. He’s the sound engineer at the Chicago Historical Society, Usama Alshaibi.
STUDS TERKEL: He’s a Palestinian kid. And Usama is so—
AMY GOODMAN: Born in Iraq.
STUDS TERKEL: Who I’ve known for a long time. He’s my sound engineer. I said, “Usama, tell me the story of your life, of your childhood.” He tells the story of what it is. He’s a Palestinian. It’s during the time of the Iraqi-Iranian war, when our ally, by the way, was Saddam Hussein. You know, we were on his side. You know that. As we’re beginning—
AMY GOODMAN: Speak for yourself.
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah. And we were on his side—speak for myself here. But in any event, he tells us, though, what it’s like to be a kid under fire. He did it so calmly. He’s my engineer. He did it so calmly, so casually, and yet you saw the terror in it. But at the very end, he’s sworn—and he couldn’t make my 90th birthday party. It was a big celebration there, and Garrison Keillor showing up and Garry Wills. And he couldn’t make it because that’s the day he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. And the judge made a beautiful speech. The judge made this wonderful speech about: you’ve got to speak out, you’ve got to dissent, if you think the official word of the government is wrong. And Usama has done that, and now and again gets a little difficulties. But there he is. But it’s the casual way he told the story of what it is to be under fire.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re about to win the Eleanor Roosevelt Award with Senator Byrd?
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, yeah. There are five of us, yeah. It’s an Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt Award of some sort up in Hyde Park. And it’s—naturally, being there with Byrd is something. Dolores Huerta and Father Drinan and George Mitchell. I think that’s it. But, in any event, being with you, see, it’s so good, because you know what’s happening. You know, that’s the phrase that Preacher Casey used way back, remember? When the Joad family’s going to California, he says, “I want to go with you, because something is happening out there.” And I feel, as you and I are talking right now, something’s happening out there.
AMY GOODMAN: Any closing words for George Bush?
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, closing for—yes: “Get out.” Just, that’s it. “Step down.” Of course, he won’t. Closing words for me, I’ll tell what you my epitaph is and make it easy for you. “Curiosity did not kill this cat.” And that’s about it, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, fortunately, we won’t be reading that anytime soon. I want to thank you very much, Studs Terkel, for being here, being everywhere, listening to people and bringing us their stories, as well as your own. Studs Terkel is 91 years old. He is continuing to write books. His latest is Hope Dies Last.