Celebrations and tributes are taking place across the country to mark the 95th birthday of Studs Terkel, the legendary radio broadcaster, oral historian and author. The Chicago History Museum is hosting a party today in honor of Studs, and a skywriter will fly over the city to spell out happy birthday wishes. WFMT, the local station Studs long called his radio home and where he is known as the “resident free spirit,” will devote the entire day’s programming to him. Studs Terkel joins us from a studio in Chicago for a wide-ranging conversation about his life, his work and his thoughts on the past century. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Today is Studs Terkel’s birthday. That’s right, the legendary oral historian, radio pioneer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author turns 95 today. Celebrations and tributes are taking place across the country to mark this day, no more so than in Chicago, the city Studs has called home for most of his life. The Chicago History Museum is hosting a party in honor of Studs, and there will also be a skywriter to spell out happy birthday wishes over the city. WFMT, the local station Studs long called his radio home and where he is known as the station’s “resident free spirit,” will devote the entire day’s programming to him.
The longtime publisher of his books, The New Press, has set up an online tribute page, where visitors can see a play list of Studs’s favorite music, favorite martini recipe and even buy a pair of red socks like the ones he famously wears. Studs Terkel has penned more than a dozen books, including Division Street, Working and “The Good War”. And at the age of 95, he is still going. His first memoir, titled Touch and Go, will be published in November.
Today, we spend the hour with Studs Terkel. On Monday, he joined us from a studio in Chicago for a conversation about his life, his work, his thoughts on the past century. I began by asking him what it feels like to be 95 years old.
STUDS TERKEL: It feels like I’m 95 years old. It feels rotten, physically, to tell you the truth. I’ve had several accidents, falls, broken necks, arterial substitutions. However, here I am, breathing and inhaling and exhaling. But when Robert Browning said in his poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” come and “Grow old [along] with me! The best is yet to be,” he was telling as much truth as George W. Bush and Karl Rove. He lied like a rug. No, growing too old is not that great, quite frankly, especially if most your life has been tempestuous and involved with matters of the world, he, this young guy, through the years thought.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, you came into our firehouse studio, oh, about two years ago or a year and a half ago, and at the time, you were just recovering from open-heart surgery —
STUDS TERKEL: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: — from, I think, quadruple bypass, and I think you were the oldest living person to have undergone that. And that was already a year and a half ago. Here you are, 95 years old, almost a century old. I think a lot of young people, especially the people that you care about, that you’ve been talking about, would like to know what your secret is.
STUDS TERKEL: Well, that’s the whole point of it. I use this book of mine, which I call Touch and Go. It’s a memoir. “Touch and go” is a line from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Toward the end, he had the old preacher say some sort of evening prayer about see our good side, not our bad, and whether you wake or no, life is always “touch and go.” And that’s the name of the book I did with the help of Sidney Lewis. You see, I can’t type anymore. I can’t write anymore, so I was telling this story. I’m talking my life to Sidney Lewis and a guy who’s my caregiver, J.R., who was fantastic in his own understanding. So it’s been a kind of a collaborative effort.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have advice for caregivers, like J.R.? What works best for you?
STUDS TERKEL: I have a liking — well, he happens to be special. I suppose you might say I find everyone special, especially myself. And that is, I’m known as a poet of the tape recorder, right? The fact is I have no idea how the hell it works. I’m terrible, I’m a nut, mechanically. I can’t drive a car. I can’t ride a bike. I don’t know what “Internet” means, or “website.” Google is an old-time comic strip — “Barney Google” — with his goo-goo-googly eyes. And so, you see, I’m not up on all the current stuff. And people say, “Boy, on that tape recorder, you capture those people.” No, they capture themselves, because I am inept. That comes out quite clearly.
Sometimes I turn the wrong button down. And that person in the housing project, she sees it doesn’t work, and she reminds me of it. And as I say, “Oh, I goofed,” at that moment, she is my equal or better than my equal. In other words, I am not, whoever it is, [inaudible], today or 60 Minutes or Kathy, whoever she is. It’s me, a guy who’s in trouble, and she helps me out. And so, I’m playing this tape recorder for this woman, very poor, very pretty. I don’t know whether she’s white or black. In those days, the early public housing projects were all mixed. And these little kids running around want to hear their mama’s voice on this new machine. And so, I’m playing it back, and she’s hearing her voice for the first time in her life, and suddenly she says, “Oh, my god!” And I say, “What is it?” She said, “I never thought I felt that way before.” Well, that’s an astonishing moment for her and for me, one you might say are fellow travelers together. So that’s the exciting stuff. She discovers that she does have a voice, that she counts.
The key word, by the way, in all of these people is they must feel they “count.” Nick von Hoffman, the columnist, used to work for the organizer Saul Alinsky, and he said once people get in a group and that group thinks as they do, he feels he counts or she counts more than alone. And so, that’s what it’s about.
There’s a short story by Flannery O’Connor. You know, they’re all apocalyptic stories. And it’s about this — it’s called “The River,” and it’s about this couple in the South, just dissolute, stupid, silly — pay no attention to the kid, whom she puts in the care of this rigid, tough Christian fundamentalist, who takes this little boy out to the river every Sunday to see people baptized, and he sees this charismatic young preacher — the little boy does — and he dips the person’s head in the water, and out, jumps sputtering. And he says, “You count! Now, you count!” Well, the kid never counted. He’s left alone one day, and he wanders toward the river. And he wanders toward the water. He wants to count. And that’s the single most important aspect.
My own ineptitude is my ally, because that person feels very easy — in fact, a bit superior to me in matters of technique, certainly. And so, I’ve met all sorts of people, known and unknown, on these various subjects.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, you were born May 16, 1912, in New York. You don’t need me to tell you this; just letting the audience know. Talk about your parents. You were born in New York?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, there it was, 1912. That’s the year the Titanic went down, and I came up, so that must tell you something about life not quite being fair. Well, there it was, my father, tailor, sweet, hard-working man. I see my older brothers, two older brothers — I’m the darling of the family, the third little boy — and I see them, and my father created all that clothes. And my mother is a rough one. She worked hard, nimble seamstress. But this was a man’s world, and she behaved like a man, and she was tough, and she was rough — except for my wife, who was a social worker, who knew people like my mother very well. And so, even she liked me in her possessive way. So I was a darling as a kid growing up, my older brother told me.
My father loved Eugene V. Debs. Eugene V. Debs, you know the irony of that? The coldest warrior in LBJ’s bad days as president, the Vietnam days, was Eugene V. Rostow. Eugene Victor Rostow was a scholarly warrior, and that’s the name he took. His parents loved Debs. And he had the gall, the effrontery to use Eugene V. Debs’s name in the name of war. Debs, you know, was imprisoned during wars in his time for objecting to the drive toward war, especially 1916 — 10 years in Atlanta Penitentiary — and the prisoners all came to love him, as did the warden, too. And one day, of all things, Harding in 1920 — the book begins with that: I’m eight years old, going to Chicago — Harding, the stiff-neck Republican, pardons Eugene V. Debs and insists to his attorney general that his handcuffs be taken off and that he’s sent first passage on the train to Washington. He wanted to see him, because they both admired Tom Mix, the movie cowboy. But Eugene V. Debs pardoned by Warren Harding! So sometimes the individual, you find that.
Near the end of the book, I have a story called “The Old Right Wing,” and it’s about the father of Dave Dellinger. You know who Dave Dellinger was? One of the oldest of the Conspiracy 8 trial during the 1968 troubles in Chicago. I think the young do know about that, don’t they? See, we’ve forgotten so many things. It’s not that; the kids are never told things, never told about the Depression, never told what it does to families. I saw it at the men’s hotel we ran, what happened with the guys, to their self-esteem. And finally, there came the government that saved industry. And the very children and grandchildren whose daddies asses were saved by big government condemn big government. And so, we have a non-memory. And this book is about memories, of seemingly little things, but they add up to big things.
AMY GOODMAN: Legendary broadcaster and author Studs Terkel turns 95 today. Coming up, Studs talks about loyalty oaths, how Mahalia Jackson stopped CBS from blacklisting him. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with Studs Terkel — today, his 95th birthday. Here, Studs talks about Henry Wallace, who was FDR’s vice president, but he begins by talking about former Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler.
STUDS TERKEL: You know who Burton K. Wheeler was, to the young? He was for years the senator from Montana. And he and the senior senator, Tom Walsh, were enemies of Anaconda Copper. And Burton K. Wheeler ran for vice president with Bob La Follette, Progressive Party, in 1924. And they had five million votes. And so, I mean, he — later on, he changed, but Burton K. Wheeler was a great source of information for me. I saw him long after he retired.
I worked for Henry Wallace. Now, people may wonder who Henry Wallace is. They know the name of Mike Wallace. They know the name, perhaps, George Wallace, but not Henry Wallace. I think one of the three great Americans, leaders of our time: Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Henry Wallace. He was secretary of agriculture. He saved the farmers. He saved the camps that were run by the Okies themselves. Grapes of Wrath is all about Henry Wallace’s work, really, the Tom Joad, Ma Joad. And they’re coming — there, they’re coming to California. Again, this is the thing about the Great — I hope you’ve read — I hope the young have read Grapes of Wrath as often as they’ve read The Fountainhead, because the author of The Fountainhead, I call her the sultry Tucker of free marketry. And they’re taking her seriously, whereas Henry Wallace — when Tom Joad points to the new camp after they’ve been hit by vigilantes and big growers to go back home and threatened, as they go to California, they come to this camp that says WPA, FA, Farmer Sullivan. It’s part of Wallace’s program. “And this camp is yours,” says the director. “Your camp is ours. Yeah, you decide. And we’ll teach you things and help you find jobs.” So that’s all the stuff that’s utterly forgotten.
Well, it means — and so, one of the purposes of the book is, for me, to remember me as I grew up and various developments in my life. Some bits are very funny. By the way, I should point out it’s a very funny book. There’s a great deal of humor in it — acrid, but funny nonetheless. Touch and Go is the book.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, you moved from New York to Chicago, as you said, and then you grew up in a rooming house, the Wells-Grand Hotel at Wells Street and Grand Avenue. Can you talk about how that shaped you?
STUDS TERKEL: You’re touching on the two biggies. First, there was a rooming house, not too far from Hull House. My mother respected Jane Addams, but she loved Hetty Green. Amy, did you ever hear of Hetty Green? No, Hetty was the richest woman in the world. Hetty Green was a man’s man. She used to read the financial page at the age of six, because her father, I think, was blind. And Hetty became tough and rough and rich. My mother modeled herself after Hetty Green. She never quite made it. But that was her life. My father was Gene Debs, and my brother admired him, my oldest brother, very much so. And Ben, the middle brother, loved life itself. He’s sort of a precocious Don Giovanni. And so, all these influences.
The rooming house — I’ll never forget, even though my mother was rough and tough, I’ll never forget, in the hotel, now and then we’d rent to somebody, and she’s a hooker, but not allowed to bring tricks in the hotel. But there was always room at the inn, unlike the [inaudible], always room, even for couples without baggage. And one day we hear screaming and a shouting and a whimpering. My mother and I rush in, and this little pimp who’s paying her rent is smacking the hell out of this girl. My mother just leaps at him. Leaped. Not jumped at him. Leaped at him and started pounding him with her fist. And he didn’t know what happened to him. And she bloodied him. And she said, “If you touch that girl again, I will kill you.” That’s my mother. You might call her a feminist’s feminist. But there she was, two people in one, a bipolar person, you’d say.
But meantime, though, the hotel taught me things about the Depression, what not having a job means. The book is about self-esteem, your own self-esteem, which we lack. That’s how come we have an idiot for two terms as president. And so, in the hotel during the week, it was empty. They were working. One was a foreman in a vinegar factory; a tool and dye maker; an old seafarer, the Great Lakes. But then came the Depression, and now they’re paying off, and that’s on a Saturday. And now they’re in the lobby, and they’re doing nothing, playing cribbage maybe, and they’re getting drunk, and they’re getting in fights over nothing, a nickel. It wasn’t a nickel, it was their self-esteem. They were nothing.
And then came the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Henry Wallace, especially. And here came the jobs, the WPA of Harry Hopkins, Work Projects Administration. That meant work for men, for shovels — also arts projects. There were artists and painters and dancers and singers. And this was all part of the New Deal. And some marvelous plays came out of WPA. The Cradle Will Rock was an example. I once was interviewing Leonard Bernstein, who was wonderful and funny and generous-hearted as he was, and I mentioned the name of the writer of The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein, Marc Blitzstein. As soon as he heard that name, that’s all he would talk about. And what we did is we’d sing — I was in a Chicago production of it. It was a folk opera based upon Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht stuff by Blitzstein. That’s all Leonard would do, Bernstein, is talk about him and how exciting that was.
The theater was denied them. They worked on Sixth Avenue, picked up a crowd. They came to this one theater, which people didn’t know was going to happen. One cameraman person — where’s the person going to be? Only one person allowed on the stage, the composer at the piano. And he simply says, “Enter the girl,” or, “Enter the whore,” as he put it. And a girl starts singing. And the camera looks and finds her in the audience. Her name was Olive Stanton. Everybody — hey, remember these names. And she’s singing “Going home now, call it a day.” And then she, “Sometimes you wonder what it is makes some people good or bad, why some guy, an ace without a doubt, turns out to be a bastard, and the other way about. I’ll tell what you it is. It’s the nickel under your foot.” It’s that kind of stuff. And Archibald MacLeish was the poet laureate, Librarian of Congress. He got up to speak. He said, the most exciting theater he ever saw in his life. It became the movie that Tim Robbins made, you recall. So that’s what the New Deal was about and what we forgot about.
And then came World War II and the consumer stuff and everything else. And everybody suddenly felt middle-class. All these presidential debates, whether it’s Gore versus Bush or Kerry versus Bush, tax returns for the middle class, never mentioned an old-fashioned word called “working-class.” Working-class means you work! We’re all working-class. But in this case, shovel and rake and hoe. And so, our language itself has been perverted. “Liberal media.” What a joke this is! You and Bill Moyers, who is off, who may be coming back maybe, who are about it. And the rest, we know who they are. One name is very well known: Imus. It’s almost a joke name. It’s a great thing that happened, by the way. Now, people can see the others are reflections of this guy, the others who we need not name. But to speak of liberal media, the arrogance, the perversion of the American language. Gore Vidal has a phrase, “the United States of” — what is it?
AMY GOODMAN: Amnesia.
STUDS TERKEL: “United States of Amnesia.” I go a step further. The United States of Alzheimer’s. We’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease. We forget what happened yesterday. We know that from the papers. And so, that’s part of our big one, to remember the past. Past and present are one.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your first experience in broadcasting.
STUDS TERKEL: I didn’t want to be a lawyer and by accident was on a project, a New Deal project, where this actor-director of a theater group called the Chicago Repertory Group, which is the farm club of the Group Theatre of New York, practiced the same thing every day called “method,” practiced the work of the director, Stanislavsky. And so, he said — I was interested in theater, because we had a hotel, Grand Hotel, close to downtown, and the press agents were free and easy guys, put a poster up on the wall, I’d get two free tickets. But the guys in the hotel didn’t care for that, maybe burlesque, but not that. And I saw great plays. Ethan Frome with Pauline Lord and Ruth Gordon was fantastic. Alla Nazimova in Ghost, these sort of things, which leads to another subject: remembrance.
People want to be remembered. And so, I’ve got a chapter called “Wasn’t Your Name Once Dave Garroway?” Again, for the young, they may not know who Dave Garroway was. He was the most famous face in the world, the first television person seen during the daytime, came out of Chicago. Kukla, Fran and Ollie came out of Chicago with Burr Tillstrom, whose little fingers became the characters. And the third was Studs’ Place, an ordinary everyday place with me and my three colleagues, wonderful actors: Beverly Younger, the waitress, Win Stracke, an old friend of mine — he was blacklisted along with me, so we called ourselves the Chicago Two — and then came Chet Roble, the piano player, and me. It was about ordinary people’s lives. Those are three big shows. And it was then that they caught up with me. The blacklist carriers.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain —
STUDS TERKEL: And there’s one great story I must tell you of my faith in the native intelligence and decency of the ordinary American. I’d picked up — and I was blacklisted in TV, and then TV was in, and radio. I’d pick up $100 or so in women’s clubs talking about jazz or folk music. And there was a man named Ed Clamage in Chicago, who was the Joe McCarthy of the town, and he was following me. Wherever I went, he went, threatening these women. And every one of them told him to go to hell. And that was wonderful. But there was one old woman, an elegant old lady, who was so furious at this guy’s bullying, she says to me, “Mr. Terkel, we offered you $100. I’ll make it $200, because of that man.” So what did I do? The most natural thing in the world. I sent the guy a $10 check. He was my agent for the extra hundred bucks. He never replied. And so, I found humor in this, as well.
And so, I remember when I was — they came from New York to save me. I was a valuable piece of property, like Mike Wallace was or Dave or any of those marvelous people. And so they come to see me. And he says, “Is your name on all these petitions?” “Sure, because I never met a petition I didn’t like. And so, my name as Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, Victims of the Spanish Civil War and Heroes Who Lost, a variety” — he says, “Don’t you know they are commie-inspired?” And that’s when I say, “Suppose the communist comes out against cancer. Must we come out for cancer?” He says, “I don’t think that’s very funny.” And then he says, “You’ve got to stand up and be counted.” So in those days I could stand up better than now. I’d stand up, and I’d say, “Count me.” And so, finally, I got fired.
And later on, I played a lot of Mahalia Jackson music. I was the first white disc jockey to play Mahalia. And, in fact, they give me too much credit, the black people do, because millions of black people knew her, but the whites didn’t. And so, she insists — she now has a program of her own on network radio, CBS — that I be the host of the show. And at first they agree. And they did it. And we have an audience there. It’s a studio in the Wrigley Building in Chicago, CBS network. And right in the middle of the show, about the third or fourth program, which was 13 weeks, a guy comes in from New York, another guy. He was, “Do you mind signing this?” Very polite. And it’s signing I was never a — I don’t believe in that stuff. I like the Quakers very much. My yea is my yea, and my nay is my nay. And I refused.
And Mahalia is going to the piano to rehearse our new theme song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” and she hears this argument. And she says, “Is that what I think it’s about?” She knew all about me. She said, “You’ve got such a big mouth, Studs. You should have been a preacher.” And so, she says, “You going to sign it?” I said, “Of course, not.” “OK, let’s rehearse.” And this guy is very gentle. “Come here, please.” “Oh, no, Mr. Big” — he was referring to the head of CBS — “has said he must sign this.” Then she said, “You tell Mr. Big if they fire Studs Terkel to find another Mahalia Jackson.” You know what happened? Nothing. We ran through all 13 weeks just like that. The answer is saying no to authority when authority is wrong, and God knows how wrong the present clown is there and his fellow clowns.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel turns 95 today. Coming up, Studs talks about Donald Rumsfeld, Albert Einstein, Tom Paine, the war in Iraq and what he wants to be remembered for. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with Studs Terkel, today his 95th birthday. In this final section, Studs talks about Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project that developed the atom bomb, American revolutionary Tom Paine, and much more. I first asked him to fast-forward and talk about the war in Iraq and leadership today.
STUDS TERKEL: Rumsfeld. Rove. The guy’s from my university. Wolf — Wolf — Wolf, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: Wolfowitz.
STUDS TERKEL: And there they are. And they’re down the line, every — some from my university. Remember how the — you know, the man responsible for all this? Who do you think is responsible for all this? Albert Einstein. An old guy said to me, “Albert Einstein had one flaw. He was a man of the future who came to us too soon. We were not ready for him.” And this marvelous, great human being, remember, was talked into talking to president and to dropping — to making the atom bomb. And so it went from that. He moved to Chicago. Enrico Fermi, who did the unthinkable. He cut the uncuttable. He made the atom bomb. And then we go to Arizona, J.R. Oppenheimer in Los Alamos.
AMY GOODMAN: New Mexico.
STUDS TERKEL: The great scientists are there. And there it goes in the desert. And he raises his hand, Oppenheimer does, like a [inaudible], then lowers, then he drops it. He realized the death this could be. And that was the fight, of course, that ruined Oppenheimer by those clowns and ruined Robert Maynard Hutchins, as well. Hutchins, when he heard they were building the bomb at the University of Chicago, said, “We should never have given up football.”
And so, the war in Iraq, what can we say? It destroyed one thing, that we are an exceptional people, that we can never do wrong. Whatever we do is the right thing to do. Well, there was one guy, a war hero, during the Philippine insurrections — his name was Smedley Butler — and he was there during the Bonus March in Washington for the soldiers, the opposite of MacArthur. And MacArthur said of Smedley Butler, “He was the ideal Marine hero.” Smedley Butler wrote a paper saying, “I was a chief leader in the fight for the banana fruit company. I was a chief leader in the fight for the so-and-so pineapple company. I was the chief leader for U.S. Steel.”
And so, here’s a guy — see, all this underneath is felt, and it’s there, and the humans have it. I find it people like Peggy Terry, who had fifth grade education, raised as a racist, bit by bit grows into being the spokesperson for Appalachian people in Chicago. And Peggy says, “When I picked up Grapes of Wrath — one of my student followers gave it to me — I suddenly felt proud of me. I felt proud of the Joads. I felt proud of all of us.” She found her self-esteem. And that is deep, deep, deep, what it’s all about, that you count, finding your [inaudible] little boy watching the water.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, you talked about being blacklisted yourself and Mahalia Jackson standing up for you. Do you see anything similar today? A crackdown here at home? And what about the resistance to it?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, here it’s done simply. Nobody objects. The dropping of Bill Moyers way back — how many have we got on the air? Now, your program, this is a remarkable program. I think you have an audience of young people who are seeking, who are looking, who are searching, but mostly thinking. That’s what Tom Paine had in mind. He wasn’t talking of summer soldiers and winter patriots and now is the time. He was talking about thinking Americans. Common Sense sold a couple of hundred thousand copies. It sold. What was the population? Four million? It was a best-seller for years. In Rights of Man, he says we tend to confuse reason with treason.
No, for the first time, there came a new society. The United States of America never was, because slavery is the one subject that was left out. But there it was, colonials holding a new government and telling the royalty, George V, telling him — George III, was it? The nut. There he was saying to him, the ordinary person saying to the man on horseback, [inaudible], that’s what we’re all about. That’s what I hope I’ve been doing all these years. I’ve made mistakes. I’m sure I have. Hundreds. But as to my life, well, it’s run its course. Here it is. And that’s what keeps me furious, because I can’t do much now. But I like to watch and see what’s happening.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you see the war in Iraq ending?
STUDS TERKEL: How is it ending? Well, it’s practically finished. We have lost a war! We lost Vietnam! How could this happen to us? We never lose! Because we’re right! We’re the city on the hill. Do you know there was a poll — I have a chapter in the book called “And Nobody Laughed.” There was a poll taken: Who was the greatest president? And the name George and Abe and Thomas J. and Franklin D. By far, the greatest president voted by the millions was Ronald Reagan. And nobody laughed!
A young kid from the — what’s the Bushy paper? — National Review online, his name is Jonah Goldberg. He says, “What Iraq needs” — he said Iraq or some country needs — “is a Pinochet.” He said it seriously. And nobody laughed.
I have a little friend, a CIA whistleblower, now dead, [Philip] Roettinger. And he says he was down in Guatemala. First, he was down in a training camp. And we’re told we’ll take another Guatemala, because whoever runs it, Arbenz, is a commie. Arbenz was not a commie. He was elected fighting for the Native Americans, the Indians there, for piece of land. But we wanted him out, because the big companies with whom we dealt wanted him out. And so, he says, “Let’s put Armas in. Yeah, he’s a pain in the ass. Let’s get rid of him.” This other guy with the gun — they both have guns. This is how they named the new president of Guatemala at the time. And they got rid of Arbenz. They had a gun to his head and got him out. Another guy says, “How about the kid who double-crossed Arbenz? He’s a pain in the ass.” They finally decide on the boy, simply with this quote: “You do it, or you don’t.” And that’s how we democratized Guatemala. And nobody laughed. That’s my sequence. And nobody laughed. We need humor, of course.
AMY GOODMAN: How would you compare the era we’re in now with this past century that you have lived?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, that’s a crazy thing. We always were considered special, especially during the Gilded Age, the age of Jay Gould and John D. and all the big crooks. But what’s made it is technology. Do you realize I am here because of technology? I should have been dead 50 years ago. My two brothers and my father and I all had angina. They died in their fifties. And here am I, 95. Why? Because the advances in medicine that can make this world fantastic.
At the same time, those advances gave us Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And with nuts like Teller and brutes such as Strauss — they were the guys who destroyed Oppenheimer, who says we got to stop this now — and so, what the difference is, the speed, the exponential jump and how things can change. Right now, things can change overnight. And the way our machinery is run today, communication machinery, one stupid little thing makes a headline. And so, that’s the big difference. The big difference is the mistakes we make now are quintrupled.
You know, Einstein felt at the very end, he never dreamed the bombs would be dropped on human beings in Hiroshima. He thought they would be dropped on the wide Pacific. And so, he said, “I know what the weapons of the next war will be: sticks and stones.” Get that. He’s saying our ancestors, as we know now, as we say, non-creationists, came out of the caves. Our ancestors. What Einstein is saying is our descendants, our children, will come out of the cave. The world could be destroyed by them, as the science is universal. No matter how many spy cases there were, science itself is universal, cannot be owned by any one society. So they have it, as well as we, and we can destroy one another. And then what is Einstein’s world then? My children’s children come out, and yours, and bull’s eye on back, everything is eliminated, club in hand. And then, out of that cybermemory comes a name: Shakespeare. Who’s that? “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” What’s that? Mozart. Who that? That’s what it could be.
But! And here’s the big hoofer “but”: there are those who listen to you — I’m serious — and many others out there who have no other source of information. They’re out there, and they agree with Einstein and with Bertrand Russell — who met, you know, when the Pugwash Conference came into being — how there’s going to be peace in the world as never before. Einstein and Russell spoke of a paradise on earth in which you eliminate all the unnecessary labor and you do the work that is your life. And so, you have two ways of looking at it. And you’re surprised at what ordinary people, so-called — a word I dislike, because it has a patronizing quality — because ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things, and that’s what it’s all about. They must count!
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, do you have thoughts on the presidential race right now? The Democrats, the Republicans?
STUDS TERKEL: That’s interesting. Naturally, I’m drawn to Barack Obama, but he’s still a little short about a good drawing. I’ll tell you who I find interesting. Obama, certainly. Al Gore! There’s another Al Gore than it was eight years ago. This is someone else, not only touching the environment, winning awards for that, but something else. And these are personal things. I admired a woman from the South, a white woman named Virginia Durr. Have you heard of her?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Civil rights activist.
STUDS TERKEL: Virginia Durr. She was attacked and everything. And she was saying the poll tax that was disenfranchising millions of African-American voters in the South was attacked mostly by her committee. And it was under the Eastland eye. And she ignored him completely and used a guy named Joe Gelders in it. Joe Gelders was a communist. Nobody fought harder than Joe Gelders did against the poll tax. He was tarred and feathered. So what a person is — the big thing here is, what a person is called is of no meaning. It’s what you do on each issue.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute. But when people say your name, what do you want them to think of?
STUDS TERKEL: Say my name?
AMY GOODMAN: When someone says “Studs Terkel,” what do you want them to think of?
STUDS TERKEL: What does what?
AMY GOODMAN: What do you want them to think of when someone says “Studs Terkel”?
STUDS TERKEL: I want them to think of somebody who remembers them, to be remembered, whether it be me or anyone else. They want Studs Terkel, maybe as somebody — I’m romanticizing myself now — somebody who gave me hope. One of my books is Hope Dies Last. Without hope, forget it. It’s hope and thought, and that can counting. That’s what it’s about. That’s what I hope I’m about.
AMY GOODMAN: Last words to young people today?
STUDS TERKEL: Last words? Oh, I always say my epitaph. I know that. Can I try, Amy? My epitaph is, curiosity did not kill this cat.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, radio pioneer and chronicler of our times. He turns 95 years old today. Happy birthday, Studs. If you have a birthday message for Studs, email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll pass it along.