How to uncloth an emperor: A talk with the greatest political interviewer of modern times
by Jonathan Cott
Little man whip a big man every time if the little man’s in the right and keeps a’ comin’.
—motto of the Texas Rangers
When Oriana Fallaci went to interview Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, the emperor’s two pet Chihuahuas, named Lulu and Papillon – sensitive antennae of the monarch’s autonomic nervous system, geiger counters registering the presence of friend or foe – stopped dead in their tracks. And after this interview (in which the emperor sounded “sick or drunk”) was published in Italy, the Ethiopian ambassador in Rome was recalled to his homeland, and no word of or from him was ever heard again.
It is not uncommon for political repercussions to result from a Fallaci interview.
Her uncomplimentary portrait of Yasir Arafat attracted scores of threatening letters and letter-bomb scares. The original tapes of her conversation with Golda Meir, Fallaci claims, were stolen by agents of Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi. Her interview with Pakistan’s Ali Bhutto delayed a peace agreement between Pakistan and India. And Henry Kissinger paid Oriana Fallaci one of her greatest compliments, saying that his having consented to an interview with her was the “stupidest” thing he had ever done.
Like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and like the “Plain Dealer” of Restoration comedy, whose unremitting rudeness signified to the audience that this stock character was being true to himself, Oriana Fallaci has, simply with a tape recorder, exposed the inanities and pretensions of those contumelious rascals and fat-hearted popinjays who pose and act as the powerful leaders and manipulators of the world’s destiny.
After years of interviewing “vacuous” movie stars, this slight (in stature), passionate and mettlesome woman – who speaks in a candent, husky tone – has become the greatest political interviewer of modern times. The Oriana Fallaci Tape Collection is now housed in humidified shelves at Boston University. And just this month, Liveright is publishing Interview with History – a book consisting of 14 of Fallaci’s extraordinary interviews with persons such as Kissinger, President Thieu, General Giap, Golda Meir, the shah of Iran, Archbishop Makarios and Indira Gandhi. As an international correspondent for the Italian magazine L’Europeo, she has become a star throughout Europe – where her articles, interviews and books appear regularly in translation – and has attracted a devoted following in this country through the publication of her interviews in magazines and newspapers such as the New Republic, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Magazine. Her most recent work – a spare, annealed dramatic monologue entitled Letter to a Child Never Born – has sold almost half a million copies in Italy and will be published by Simon and Schuster in the fall.
Oriana Fallaci claims that she prepares herself for her interviews “as a boxer prepares for the ring,” but it is as a “midwife” – as she defines her role in the following interview – that she has drawn from her subjects many astonishing revelations. Through her gentle ministration, Kissinger finally explained the reason for his abiding popularity: “Well, yes, I’ll tell you. What do I care? The main point arises from the fact that I’ve always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else. Maybe even without a pistol, since he doesn’t shoot. He acts, that’s all, by being in the right place at the right time. In short, a western.”
From the shah of Iran, Fallaci received the following remarks concerning the role of women in his life: “Women, you know. . . . Look, let’s put it this way. I don’t underrate them; they’ve profited more than anyone else from my White Revolution. . . . And let’s not forget I’m the son of the man who took away women’s veils in Iran. But I wouldn’t be sincere if I stated I’d been influenced by a single one of them. Nobody can influence me, nobody. Still less a woman. Women are important in a man’s life only if they’re beautiful and charming and keep their femininity and …. This business of feminism, for instance. What do these feminists want? What do you want? You say equality. Oh! I don’t want to seem rude, but. . . . You’re equal in the eyes of the law, but not, excuse my saying so, in intelligence.”
From the tortured leader of the Greek Resistance, Alexandros Panagoulis, Fallaci elicited his haunting description of how it felt to rediscover space after years sequestered in the darkness of prison: “I made a terrible effort to go forward in all that sun, all that space. Then all of a sudden, in all that sun, in all that space, I saw a spot. And the spot was a group of people. And from that group of people a black figure detached itself. And it came toward me, and little by little it became my mother. And behind my mother, another figure detached itself. And this one too came toward me. And little by little it became Mrs. Mandilaras, the widow of Nikoforos Mandilaras, murdered by the colonels. And I embraced my mother, I embraced Mrs. Mandilaras.”
And at the conclusion of her conversation with the ill-fated President Thieu, Oriana Fallaci presented the following dialogue that extends the interview form into the realm of the greatest comic farce:
THIEU: Voyez bien, mademoiselle, anything I do I like to do well. Whether it’s being converted, or playing tennis, or riding a horse, or holding the office of president. I like responsibility more than power. That’s why I say that power should never be shared with others. That’s why I’m always the one to decide! Always! I may listen to others suggest some decision, and then make the opposite decision. Oui, c’est moi qui décide. If one doesn’t accept responsibility, one isn’t worthy to be the chief and . . . mademoiselle, ask me this question, “Who’s the chief here?”
FALLACI: Who’s the chief here?
THIEU: I am! I’m the chief! Moi! C’est moi le chef!
FALLACI: Thank you, Mr. President. Now I think I can go.
THIEU: Are you leaving? Have we finished? Are you satisfied, mademoiselle? Because if you’re not satisfied, you must tell me. Mademoiselle, I hope you’re satisfied because I’ve hidden nothing from you and I’ve spoken to you with complete frankness. I swear. I didn’t want to in the beginning. But then . . . what can I do? That’s the way I am. Come on, tell me. Did you ever expect to find such a fellow?
FALLACI: No, Mr. President.
THIEU: Merci, mademoiselle. And, if you can, pray for peace in Vietnam. Peace in Vietnam means peace in the world. And sometimes I feel as though there’s nothing left to do except pray to God.
It is clear that, at their best, Oriana Fallaci’s brilliantly theatrical interviews remind us of the aims of historians and playwrights such as Thucydides and Ben Jonson, in whose works history and human relations are seen as nothing less than moral drama.
Interviewing Oriana Fallaci is an instructive and reassuring experience. She approved of the kind of cassette recorder I use (she has the same model) and, as well, my 90-minute tapes (120-minute tapes jam up, as interviewers learn not soon enough). And throughout the interview, she positioned the machine and checked the battery indicator, turned over the tapes while remembering and repeating the last words of her unfinished sentences on the new side, then numbered the tapes for me. She suggested that I learn how to ask one question at a time instead of rambling and ranging over a series of suggestive ideas, and turned the recorder off when she wanted to say something off the record. “Only Nixon,” she once stated, “knows more about tape recorders than I do.”
It wasn’t so long ago that advice-to-the-lovelorn columnists and love advocates in Hollywood movies used to suggest that all a woman had to do to get a man interested in her was to cajole him gently into talking about himself all evening, thereby flattering him and bolstering his sense of self-importance. In your interviews you seem, almost unconsciously, to have taken this piece of folk wisdom and pushed it very far down the line, using it in order to expose your grandiloquent subjects for what they really are.
I’ve never thought of that. Neither in my private nor my public life have I ever thought in terms of “seducing” somebody, using what are called the “feminine arts” – it makes me vomit just to think of it. Ever since I was a child – and way before the recent feminist resurgence – I’ve never conceived of . . . I’m very surprised by what you say. There might be some truth here, but you’ve really caught me by surprise.
What you’re talking about implies a kind of psychological violence which I never commit when I interview someone. I never force a person to talk to me. If he doesn’t want to talk, or if he talks without pleasure, I just walk out; I’ve done that many times. There’s no courting or seducing involved. The main secret of my interviews lies in the fact that there’s no trick whatsoever. None.
You know, there are many students who write about my interviews – in Italy, France, and America, too. And they always ask me how I go about it and if I could teach them to do it. But it’s impossible, for these interviews are what they are, good or bad, because they’re made by me, with this face, with this voice. They have to do with my personality, and I bring too much of myself into them to teach them.
When I was reading Interview With History, I began thinking of the great Enlightenment author Diderot, who, it’s been said, had an “instinctual” urge to expose what was concealed. And it seems to me that one of the underlying impulses of your work – along with your unmediated hatred for fascism and authoritarianism – is exactly this instinctual urge to expose. Do you feel that this is true?
All right. You must give me a little time to answer, as I do with the people I interview. It’s a difficult question, very difficult. As I told you before, I bring myself into these interviews completely, as a human being, as a personality; I bring what I know, what I don’t know, what I am. Oriana is in there, as an actor. And I bring into these encounters all my choices, all my ideas, and my temperament as well. So, being at the same time very antifascist and very passionate, it’s very difficult for me to interview the fascist, in the broad sense of the word. And I say it with shame, since I’m perfectly aware of how ridiculous this is. If I am, as I claim to be, an historian as much as a journalist (I claim that a journalist is an historian of his time), how can I reject at least half of humanity? Because at least half of humanity is fascist.
And when I happen to be interviewing a fascist, and if he really “counts” in history and the interview is going well, I get fascinated. I want so much to know why he’s a fascist. And this “fascination” on my part then leads to what Socrates called maieutica – the work of the midwife, whose role becomes especially interesting when I have in front of me someone like Thieu. You see, I think that power itself is in some sense fascist by definition (I’m not speaking here of the Mussolini-type of fascism but am rather referring to it in the philosophical sense of the word). And I almost always end by being captivated by it.
I say “almost,” because I did once walk out during an interview with Almirante. Almirante’s that nice gentleman whom the Americans invited to Washington, the man who’s reconstructed the Fascist party in Italy. And I really did violence to myself when I asked to interview him. He received me immediately, he was happy to see me, of course; an interview with me is always publicity, even if it’s negative. The more negative, the better for Almirante! So I went to see him, and he was immensely polite, most intelligent, and I started with my maieutica. And my maieutica was working so well that at a certain moment he said: “Oh yes, sure I was a Fascist, sure I was, I’m very proud of it.” And I said: “Well, listen . . . Mussolini, what about Mussolini?” Believe me, I was very nervous, I was suffering like hell, I was hiding my head and suffering. And he said: “I love Mussolini, I loved him, I still love him.” And I got up and said: “That’s enough! I refuse to stay one second more. This bullshit – you don’t think I’m going to publish this!” It was such a wild thing. Almirante first became pale, then red, then green, and all he could say was: “I’m sorry, you’re not going, you’re not really . . . .” Argh argh, argh! And after that, for five years, Almirante has tried to see me again, to be interviewed by me. He wrote me a letter: I didn’t answer. He sent me messages through two people: “You know, he would like so much to be interviewed by you. You can do the nastiest of interviews to him, he doesn’t mind. He’s so sorry that you walked out like that.” And I believe he would like that, sure he would like it. But I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to give him an interview.
He’s obviously suffering from an unrequited interview.
Unrequited interview! [Laughing] That it was. And it happened again with Mujib Rahman, the man who was martyred in Bangladesh. I started the tape recorder, and all at once he started behaving so badly. He was so arrogant and so stupid – one of the most stupid men I’ve ever met in my life, maybe the most stupid. So I said: “Listen, Mujib, I’m not going to go on like this, you know. If you’re not polite, I’m not going to do this interview.” Argh, argh, argh . . . he started yelling. We both yelled, there was a big fight, and he said: “Get out of my country, don’t come back again, leave my people, leave us alone, leave us alone!” And I yelled back: “Be sure I’ll leave you alone!” It went on and on and on like that. The Mukti Bahini – the guerrillas – almost lynched me because of that, and I was only saved by two Indian officers.
Another interview that ended tragically was with Muhammad Ali. I’d previously done a very bad interview with him. Some people say they liked that one, but I didn’t. (Usually, the interviews that people like, I don’t.) So I’d gone to see him again in Florida and found him in front of an enormous watermelon which seemed to disappear in his mouth with one bite – like one of those Mickey Mouse movies. And when I asked him a question, he just belched. I asked him again – it was a question about the Vietnam war–and again . . . a few belches. At that point. I got so furious that I took the microphone and threw it at him and shouted: “You think that I came to Florida to be insulted by you?” Things like that. And then a Black Muslim started to approach me. And I was really scared. I kept yelling, because when you’re scared, the only thing to do is to attack. . . . So these “unrequited” interviews, as you call them, are always very dramatic and always end tragically because I’m passionate and I’m not able to control myself sometimes.
In your book you often talk about your desire to “remove the veils” masking the politicians you’re interviewing. And when you’ve done that, what often appears before you and us are characters straight out of Alice in Wonderland or Ubu Rol. (I’m thinking here of your interviews with Kissinger, Thieu and the shah of Iran.) But with persons such as Helder Camara – the leftist archbishop of Brazil – and Alexandros Panagoulis – the jailed and tortured head of the Greek Resistance–you are clearly presenting portraits of two unalterably heroic human beings.
You see, I think that each of us is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But with Dom Helder and . . . Panagoulis . . . well, maybe I didn’t want to look for that in them. I am the judge, I am the one who decides. Listen: if I am a painter and do your portrait, have I or haven’t I the right to paint you as I want? It’s my interpretation. I’ve seen the last portrait that Annigoni painted of Queen Elizabeth, and it’s really cruel. I said: “Annigoni, how could you do that, she’s not like that!” And he said: “Yes, maybe she’s not.” “Then why did you do it like that?” “Because that’s the way I saw her.” So if this is permitted to a painter, why shouldn’t it be permitted to us? I saw Dom Helder as a saint, and I portrayed him as one; Panagoulis as a hero, and I portrayed him as a hero. By the way, they are two very decent people. [Laughing] It’s not my fault. But I’m sure that they have their Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sides, too, which I didn’t look for. Maybe Dom Helder goes around in the nighttime stealing the virginity of the girls of his village. I doubt it very much. But I saw him as a saint.
Improbable as it might seem, might there have been a saintly side to someone like President Thieu?
Thieu is very far from being a saint. I interviewed him when Kissinger had just taken him by the nose. And Thieu was damn right when he realized that Kissinger only looked at the world in terms of global strategy. “I give you Russia, you take China, I go to America, add a little salt and then some onion, a little of Guatemala and then some parsley, and maybe some Brazil.” That’s the way Kissinger cooks the destiny of people. And Thieu said: “I’m not that. If Kissinger cooks like that, I’ll fall immediately. I’m Vietnamese, I’m small, if they give me a slap – boom – I fall. I’m left here with 300,000 North Vietnamese and their tanks inside South Vietnam. What kind of an armistice is that?” And he was right! He was a victim of Mr. Kissinger, of American power, of American arrogance – as much as the people of Hanoi were victims of American bombings. And naturally I pointed that out.
But in the introductory essay to your Thieu interview, you finally judged him harshly, saying: “Almost every time that I have tried to give compassion and respect to a government leader, almost every time that I have tried to absolve even partially some famous son of a bitch, I have later been bitterly sorry.” And I wanted to ask you about your unmitigated sense of justice and your inevitable judgmental assessments. It’s obvious that you view people in strict moral terms – almost as if they represented physiological humors like choler, phlegm or black bile.
Yes, you’re right, and that’s terrible. It’s very Protestant. I guess it’s the destiny of atheists to become moralists. And the more they age, the more moralistic they become. I think that it helps to dramatize things but I don’t do it because of that, unfortunately. I’m really a moralist. It’s a defect I have, and it limits freedom, it limits my freedom. Imagine, I don’t feel free to go and interview a son of a bitch, I suffer when I do it. But I am a moralist.
Your criticism of Arafat, however, was couched in aesthetic rather than moral terms, accusing him of lacking “originality and charm.”
I think that the interview demonstrates well enough that he also lacked intelligence. As for lack of “charm” . . . maybe the translation isn’t very happy. In Italian, when you say that someone lacks charm, you mean that the person’s arrogant and impolite. It’s too “charming” in English. Arafat was shouting all the time and was watching my photographer, whom he liked very much, maybe a little too much. He wasn’t sincere. The interview with Arafat has the value of a document, nothing more. I didn’t get to the soul of Arafat – maybe because there was no time, maybe because there was no soul.
Do you know Lenin’s dictum: “Ethics will be the aesthetics of the future”?
No I didn’t. That’s interesting, but my moralism is not of the Leninist kind. I’m too much of a liberal to see things . . .
You really are full of contradictions–an anarchist in spirit, a socialist in theory, a liberal . . .
Listen, Jonathan, in my last book, Letter to a Child Never Born, I have brought to such a paroxysm exactly what you’re saying – a book that’s the apotheosis of doubt. Every time the female character says something, she soon thereafter says the contrary of that, and then the contrary of that without denying the original statement. And it goes on in this way. Antithesis and synthesis occur here at the same time, all at once. The woman keeps contradicting herself, keeps being controversial with herself, and in the end she is terribly human.
Speaking of the “terribly human,” I was struck by a moving moment during your interview with Mrs. Gandhi when you talked about “the solitude that oppresses women intent on defending their own destinies.” You mention that Mrs. Gandhi, like Golda Meir, had to sacrifice her marriage for her career. And I got the feeling that here you were somehow also talking about your sense of yourself.
The first difference between me and them is that I never give up. Marriage is an expression that to me suggests “giving up,” an expression of sacrifice and regret. I never wanted to get married, so I didn’t make that sacrifice – it was a victory for me. The solitude I was referring to wasn’t a physical solitude. Nor was it, for instance, for Indira Gandhi, because everybody knows that at the time I interviewed her she wasn’t alone at all. She likes men, thank God, and she makes use of that. It was an internal solitude that comes about from the fact of being a woman – and a woman with responsibilities in a world of men.
That kind of solitude is a victory for me, and I’ve been searching for it. Today, you are interviewing me in 1976. If you had interviewed me in ’74 or ’73 or ’65, I would probably have answered a little differently – but not too much. Like a photograph, an interview has to crystallize the moment in which it takes place. Today. I need that kind of solitude so much – since it is what moves me, intellectually speaking – that sometimes I feel the need to be physically alone. When I’m with my companion, there are moments when we are two too many. I never get bored when I’m alone, and I get easily bored when I’m with others. And women who, like Indira and like Golda, have had the guts to accept that solitude are the women who have achieved something.
You must also consider that, in terms of the kind of solitude we’ve been talking about, women like Golda and Indira are more representative because they are old. A person of my generation and, even more so, a woman younger than myself, really wants that solitude. Golda and Indira were victimized by it, since they belonged to a generation in which people didn’t think as we do today. They were probably hurt, and I don’t know how much they pitied themselves. Golda cried at a certain moment during the interview. When she spoke of her husband, she was regretting something.
As for myself, in the past I felt less happy about this subject. It was still something to fight about inside myself, trying to understand it better. But today I’m completely free of it, the problem doesn’t exist anymore. And I don’t even gloat over the fact that what could have been considered a sacrifice yesterday is today an achievement. We must thank the feminists for this, because they’ve helped not only me but everybody, all women. And young people, both men and women, understand this very much.
Golda spoke of having lost the family as a great sacrifice – she was crying then. But to me, the worst curse that could happen to a person is to have a family.
That’s not a very Italian attitude, is it?
You’d be surprised. We know about Marriage Italian Style. But people in Italy today are getting married less and less. We have an unbelievable tax. law that makes two persons who are married and who both work pay more taxes than they would if they were single. So they get separated or divorced. And there’s nothing “romantic” or “Italian” about this. No, the family, at least morally and psychologically, is disappearing in Italy, as well as all over Europe.
What should exist in its place?
But no community.
You ask me too much. If I could answer you I would have resolved the problem. If you said to me: “All right, socialism as it’s been applied until now hasn’t worked. Capitalism doesn’t work. What should we do?” I’d have to respond: “My dear, if I could answer these questions, I’d be the philosopher of my time.”
In the introduction to your interview with Golda Meir, you comment on the resemblances you noticed between Meir and your own mother, writing: “My mother too has the same gray curly hair, that tired and wrinkled face, that heavy body supported on swollen, unsteady, leaden legs. My mother too has that sweet and energetic look about her, the look of a housewife obsessed with cleanliness. They are a breed of women, you see, that has gone out of style and whose wealth consists in a disarming simplicity, an irritating modesty, a wisdom that comes from having toiled all their lives in the pain, discomfort and trouble that leave no time for the superfluous.”
And in the introduction to your interview with Henry Kissinger, you tell how you were immediately reminded of an old teacher of yours “who enjoyed frightening me by staring at me ironically from behind his spectacles. Kissinger even had the same baritone, or rather guttural, voice as this teacher, and the same way of leaning back in the armchair with his right arm outstretched, the gesture of crossing his legs, while his jacket was so tight over his stomach that it looked as though the buttons might pop.” It’s at special moments like these in your book that I get the sense of a little girl looking at the world so clearly because she remembers so much – a sense one usually finds in the best literature and films, but almost never in interviews.
Do you understand now why I can’t teach someone how to make these interviews? Do you understand now why they are what they are because I do them? Kissinger was sitting on this raised armchair, having asked me to sit down on the sofa. So he was up there and I was down here, and it was like seeing . . . Manchinelli was his name, that professor of physics and mathematics. He was a real bastard who used to sit up high and mighty at his podium like God, judging us instead of teaching us, and from there cursing and reproaching us, making us suffer. He made me suffer particularly because I was the only one who answered him back. Oh, I was terrible in school. Poor people, poor professors, I made them suffer so much. Because I was very clever, I was always the first of my class, but I was terrible. Because if they said something wrong, I didn’t keep my mouth shut. Anyway, when I saw Kissinger sitting like that – poor man, he wasn’t aware of it, of course, and he didn’t do it on purpose; he is what he is and was showing what he is – I said: “Oh God. Here we go with Manchinelli again.”
I associated the two things, and I always do. I always go back to childhood. But do you know why I make these comparisons? Not only because they come spontaneously to me but because I like to be simple when I write, I want to be understood, as I used to say, by my mother when I write about politics. How can my mother understand me? And my audience is made up mostly of people who have not been to university. So in order to simplify things, I use everyday facts, “human” facts – that word is overused, but I’ll use it here again. So you associate Kissinger with a nasty old professor, or Golda with your mother, the same wrinkles, the same irritating modesty. And then people understand. My use of associations is a result both of spontaneity and tactics.
I didn’t start writing about politics until fairly recently – until Vietnam, in fact. But I’ve always been a very politicized person because of the family I was born into – I’ll come back to this in a minute – and because of my experiences. I was a little girl during the Resistance – and a member of the Liberal Socialist party – and I spoke in public the first time when I was 15 at a political rally. I’ll always remember – I had pigtails and was trembling: “PEOPLE OF FLORENCE . . . A YOUNG COMRADE SPEAKS TO YOU. . . . ”
And I kept saying to my editors: “I want to write about politics, I want to interview politicians in the same way that I interview actors. Because it’s boring when we read politics, it must be done in another way.” But they didn’t let me do it because I was a woman. (There we go again.) And only when I demonstrated that I could be a good war correspondent in Vietnam did they allow me to do interviews with politicians in the same way that I’d done them with astronauts, soldiers and actors.
Do you think that your forceful way of doing interviews was in any way determined by the humiliation and contemptuousness you might have felt being a girl growing up in a world of political men?
Absolutely not. I can’t complain too much about men because, number one, I had the luck to be born into a feminist family – they didn’t know it, but indeed they were. To begin with: my father. He always believed in women. He had three daughters, and when he adopted the fourth child, he chose a girl – my youngest sister – because . . . he trusts women. And my parents educated me with the attitude of: you must do it because you are a woman. It was, for sure, a challenge, which implies the recognition of a certain reality. But they never thought that I couldn’t do it.
In the beginning I wanted to become either a surgeon or a journalist. And the only reason why I didn’t choose medicine was because we were too poor to afford six years of medical school. So then it seemed obvious for me to get a job as a reporter when I was 16. I gave up medicine because I was poor, not because I was a woman. What I never forget is that I was poor. And this is probably at the roots of my moralistic attitude that we were speaking about before. Not the fact that I was a woman.
I noticed that you dedicated your book to your mother. Was she a strong influence on you?
She pushed me. She pushed all of us. But my father did, too. I dedicated it to her more than to him because she’s dying from cancer, but I should have dedicated it to both of them, because the person who gave me my political ideas was my father. I’ve changed my mind about many things, but not about my belief in freedom, social justice and socialism – that came from him. And when we get to this point, it doesn’t matter whether one is a man or a woman.
We were speaking before of Golda and Indira. The feminists are wrong to say: “Ha, ha! Indira behaves the way she does because she lives in a society of men.” No, sir. She does it simply because she’s a person of power who wanted more power. She wasn’t ready to give it up and she acted as a man would have acted. At that point, it was the moment of truth – el momento de la verdad, as the Spanish call it. She could have said goodbye, sir, thank you very much. That means democracy to me. But instead she became a dictator, she demonstrated that being a woman makes no difference, she was no better because she was a woman . . .
I want to return to something I spoke to you about earlier – about my obsession with the fascist problem and how it relates to my family experiences. I’ve just said that I come from an antifascist family, and this was important for me because, to me, being fascistic means making antipolitics, not politics. The fascist – as I once told an interviewer – is someone who resigns, who obeys, who doesn’t talk, or who imposes himself with violence and avoids the problematic. The antifascist, on the contrary, is a naturally political person. Because being antifascist means to fight through a problem by means of a discussion that involves everybody in civil disobedience. And this atmosphere of disobedience . . . I’ve breathed it since I was a little girl. My mother’s father was an anarchist – one of those who wore a black ribbon and the big hat. He was a deserter in World War I, and I remember my mother proudly saying: “My father was a deserter in the Great War”– as if he had won some kind of medal. In fact, he was condemned to death because he was a deserter, but they couldn’t catch him. And my father’s father was a Republican follower of Mazzini, when being that meant one was an extreme leftist. And my father was a leader in the Resistance. It’s really in the family.
What you’re saying reaffirms what I find most inspiring in your work – the fact that you stand on the side of those who have been abused and humiliated. As you state it so movingly in the introduction to your book: “I have always looked on disobedience toward the overbearing as the only way to use the miracle of having been born.”
That’s socialism, Jonathan. Being a socialist, or wanting socialism, doesn’t mean just the distribution of wealth. It should work, but it doesn’t in the so-called socialist countries. And for sure not in the capitalistic regimes. Socialism means much more to me. One of the great victories has been what we call the spirit of socialism with its sense of equality. When I was a little girl, the reality of hierarchy was so strong – the teacher above the pupil, the rich above the less rich, the bourgeoisie above the proletariat. In Europe we had it, we still have it, but we have it much less. And this was brought about by socialists and is why, for me, socialism is synonymous with freedom.
Socialism is freedom. When I say this, I imagine that if I were a peasant of Chianti and you were a landowner, I’d look at you like this [fearless and skeptical look] because of my belief in socialism, in freedom. And this spirit has such deep roots in me that when I go to interview a person of power, the more power this person has – would you believe me? – the more I intimidate him. And inevitably, this personal attitude of mine is transferred mentally and technically in the interview. So I undress them. I say: “Come on, come on, maybe you’re better than you look, or maybe you’re worse.”
This is interesting: I’ve noticed that when a person goes to interview someone, he often sees himself in a position of inferiority. It’s a nuance, it’s very subtle, it’s difficult to explain. And this feeling increases when this someone being interviewed is a person of power. If you’re observant, you can see the eyes tremble and something in the face and the voice changing. That’s never happened to me. Never. I’m tense. I’m worried because it’s a boxing match. Oh ho! I’m climbing, I’m going into the ring, I’m nervous. My God, who’s going to win? But no inferiority complex, no fear of the person. When someone starts acting superior, then I become dangerous, then I become nasty.
In a recent interview with Jean-Paul Sartre on his 70th birthday, he stated: “I believe that everyone should be able to speak of his innermost being to an interviewer. I think that what spoils relations among people is that each keeps something hidden from the other, something secret, not necessarily from everyone, but from whomever he is speaking to at the moment. I think transparency should always be substituted for what is secret.”
I don’t believe it. He’s not sincere, he’s acting. Noble, intelligent, yes; he’s playing the philosopher. But I can’t conceive for a second that he means what he’s saying because his daily life is the contrary of that. He’s a superb man, often proud, and he can be very cruel and cold to people. He never forgets to be Sartre.
You want to know what I think of his idea? You cannot deny a human being his right to his privacy, to his secrets, to himself. When I speak of socialism, I don’t mean that. I am mine, and to hell with the others: at a certain point I have the right to say that. What he’s saying is pure intellectualism. If he had said that to me, I would have replied: “Come on, that’s enough of that bullshit, you don’t believe that. Come on now.”
You’re obviously more Shakespearean – knowing that if you conceal something, you reveal it at exactly that moment, while letting it be known when and how this occurs.
What have you studied, politics or English literature? You studied it well, huh? Did you finish? Bravo. I’m very surprised, I’m fascinated – now I would like to interview you! But anyway . . . to get back to Sartre. I really believe so little in what he says. You know, there’s always a moment during an interview, during my research into the soul of the person, when I stop. I voluntarily stop. I don’t want to go on, I haven’t the guts to invade further the soul of that person.
Listen, I’ll give you an example. I’ve had two moments of great embarrassment. Not superficial embarrassment, because I’m a tough person, but here, inside. One was with Golda, when I asked her about her husband and she cried. And I felt – I’ll make a confession now – a sort of shame. It was far from the vulgar way that journalists put questions, you know: “Tell me about Mr. So-and-so.” I’d done it very sweetly, very elegantly, but all the same I felt ashamed of myself when she was crying. And the other moment was with Thieu, when he started crying while talking about being just a little man. And God knows, I was against everything he represented, but I saw a man, a person, and again I felt a sort of shame.
There are moments when I listen with an internal embarrassment that you’d never notice, but I have it very deep. For instance, with Kissinger – when we got to the problem of women he was like that, he didn’t want to talk about it. But I didn’t want to either. Even with Hussein, when he spoke of the fear of his being killed, I felt uncomfortable, uncomfortable.
I think it’s important to make a distinction between “mystification” and “mystery,” and I feel that you respect the latter.
Ah, you see how coherent I am for once in my life? The way I reacted to Sartre . . . well, the explanation is here. Because I wouldn’t like them to do it with me. I wouldn’t.
The duty of a journalist is to reveal everything that’s possible. Not to leave any interrogation point. To wipe out all curiosity. But I’m not a journalist 100%. I’m a writer, and I bring that into the journalism. I much prefer to have something well written, well built from a literary and a dramatic point of view, so that it can be read as a piece of literature – and this necessarily includes the mystery. I’m more interested in doing that than in telling everything as a good journalist should.
And when I’m asked, “What do you prefer to be, a journalist or a writer, and what is the difference between them?,” I reply that there is no difference for me. And I mean that. My approach is to see the president of Angola, for example, as if he were a character in a novel rather than just an important name mentioned in the New York Times.
It might sound a bit farfetched, but while reading ‘Interview with History,’ I was reminded of Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ – though I know that you are hardly a propagandist for the ancient Roman senatorial caste or Spartan despots.
Don’t forget that they’ve broken my balls with Plutarch for years in school. It’s part of our culture. And they tortured us with Herodotus, too. But listen, these idiots who want to get rid of these things from the school curricula – it’s nonsense. It was good to study Plutarch, Herodotus and even Cicero.
A lot of the things from my book that you’ve liked and quoted to me today come out spontaneously, but they come out that way because we have a “classical” culture. Thank God you studied literature! You should listen to Panagoulis when he talks. One day he was in Bologna for a speech, and he hadn’t prepared it. And I said: “Oh God, what are you going to do now?” And he replied: “Something will happen.” So he went up to the platform and he began: “I did not want to kill a man. I cannot kill a man. I wanted to kill a tyrant, and I can kill a tyrant.” And I complimented him: “My God, it was great when you said that.” “Ah, come on!” he retorted, “we say it in school when we’re children.” Another time, at a rally in Florence, he said: “Freedom has no country. The country of freedom is each of us.” “You prepared that, didn’t you?” I asked him. “No, I didn’t,” he replied. “I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was going to say.” “But how did it come off so well?” “Because . . . because I felt it, no? Because I say things like that on other occasions.” You see, he has classical culture. This is a richness that you don’t have much of in the United States. I agree that it’s good in high school to learn how to drive a car. I’m still not able to drive a car because I’m too lazy to learn, and I would like to have been in a school where they taught me how to drive. However, a little Plutarch when you’re 13, 14, 15 years old, it’s not bad. And I defend our Italian school system, which is going to be destroyed because they want to follow the American style. I think they’re committing a crime. Maybe we’ll have better drivers and more technicians, but we’ll have fewer poets and writers – and also, which counts more, fewer people with the sense of history. I know that I have this sense. When I see things, when I judge a situation – personal and overall political situations – I always see it as if I were at a window very far away in the space and time. I have the sense of perspective.
I had a discussion the other day with an American about the Communists coming into the Italian government and, in the end, taking over power in Italy. We don’t want, I kept saying, American tanks in the streets of Rome, like the Soviet tanks in the streets of Prague. The first stage of the discussion was passionate, and I was saying these things, and yelling. The second part of the discussion was quieter, and I told my friend: whether you like it or don’t like it, whether I like it or don’t like it, it has to happen. It’s the normal development of history. They have to take power, it’s their turn. You’ve been very stupid in not understanding the importance of Italy these past years. Italy was never on the front of the New York Times. Now it is, not for the right reason, but because you’re scared and angry. But if you’d looked at us with more intelligence and less ignorance, you would have seen that things were developing that way, inevitably. And that in Italy something was going to happen that would be terribly important, not only for Italy but for the rest of Europe and, therefore, for the world. I don’t mean it’s good or bad. But it will happen. And then it will begin in France, it will spread all over, and will be as important as the French Revolution was in France.
So I see things in perspective, and when I perform my work as a journalist, I do it in that way. And this is another secret of these interviews: being able to see people from afar. I always say when I ask for an interview: “I need time, I’m not looking for scoops, I’m not looking for sensationalism.” If I ever went to Brezhnev, who’ll never see me, of course, I wouldn’t go with the idea of asking him: “What will you discuss tomorrow with Dr. Kissinger?” I don’t give a damn what he’s discussing with Dr. Kissinger. I want to do an interview which will be interesting in ten, possibly 20 years.
Are you going to continue doing interviews?
It’s becoming more and more difficult for me and I’ll tell you why. First, I’ve launched a fashion and now everybody does it, or tries to do it. There are more people requiring those interviews and so you see more of them around. And second, it’s become more difficult because people are stupidly scared of me. They’re worried. And if they decide to do an interview with me, it’s because they think the moment is good for them, I’m a good vehicle for publicity. And then they act too nice. I have one to do soon, and when I telephoned yesterday, the people said: “Oh, Oriana Fallaci, we’re so honored,” and I thought: “Oh, no, Madonna mia.” Others like Qaddafi, for example, don’t want to see me. (I accused him of having stolen my Golda Meir tapes – which is true.) Some persons really don’t have the guts to see me.
In the preface to your book, you regret that no one had tape recorders during the time of Jesus, in order to “capture his voice, his ideas, his words.” Were you being hyperbolic or serious? And if serious, what would you have asked Jesus if you had had the chance to interview him?
I meant it seriously. For sure! Today we think and speak of Jesus as he’s been told to us. So now, after 2000 years, I’d like to know how important he was at the time or find out how much he was built up. Of course, I reject the concept of Jesus as God, Christ/God. I don’t even pay attention to that for one second. But as a leader, was he that important? You know, he might very well have been a little Ché Guevara.
And a deeply enlightened person.
He might have been, but not the only one. Because many of those people were crucified just as he was. We make all this fuss about him, but it would be like saying: “Jesus Christ has been executed by Franco!” What about the others? For Christ’s sake, how many people have been executed in Spain? La garotta! What about Paredez Manot, called Txiki – one of the five Basques who was executed in the fall of 1975 in the cemetery of Barcelona, in front of his brother Miguel. He’s the one who died singing, “Free, free the country of the Basques,” smiling all the time and singing, then waving goodbye to Miguel. And that was Txiki. But there were four others who were executed, and hundreds of others all these years. So I don’t know if Christ was that important later on.
One of the first things I would have asked him was: “Where have you been all those years, where have you been? Did you go to India?” Ooh-la-la! That would have been the first question. Then I would have asked if he really behaved chastely or if he had women, if he slept with women, if he went to bed with Mary Magdalene, if he loved her as a sister or as a woman. I would have asked that. And I would have loved to have found the grave of Jesus Christ – that would have been good reportage. And those who had stolen the corpse and reported he had flown to heaven: “Who told you to do that? For whom did you do that?”
That might have ended Christianity then and there.
It might have been a good thing.
I imagine that you’d have one question to ask the Virgin Mary.
[Laughing] Certainly one.
This is getting a bit sacrilegious.
Well, why be scared of that?
Don’t you think it’s possible that Jesus was an avatar?
Listen, I don’t know how much about Jesus is just the image created by Mark, Luke, Matthew and John. They were so damn intelligent, those four. And I’m afraid . . . listen, Jonathan, do you know how many times I make people more interesting than they are? So what if Mark or Matthew did the same thing with Christ, huh? What about if this Jesus Christ was much less than Luke or John? I have no evidence, I have no tapes. . . .
I guess you don’t believe in miracles.
Oh no, come on, come on. You must be very religious, no?
I believe that some people have certain special powers. And I’ve always loved the simple and radiant view of the miraculous as depicted in films like Rossellini’s The Miracle and The Flowers of St. Francis.
Well, remember Kazantzakis’s book on Christ and that scene where Christ dreams of making love with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus!
Who else in history would you have liked to interview?
Julius Caesar, very much. And the Emperor Augustus, because he was such a damn fascist Nazi. He was a real Nazi, that man. Unbearable. And Cleopatra. Ahhhh! Simpatica! Che simpatica, Cleopatra! Intelligent. I’m sure she was extremely intelligent, with enormous culture.
You don’t think that she was like Mme. Chiang or . . .
Those are puppets, little puppets. Just think of what Cleopatra did with the library at Alexandria! She put together . . . I mean, it would take the National Library in Florence and your library. . . . My God, she did marvelous things. Think of the scientists she called upon. And although she was obsessed with her own beauty, she had people who studied cosmetics. Nothing was banal in that fantastic woman.
Then, of course, there’s Joan of Arc. With Joan of Arc, however. I would have gotten myself in trouble. Because I would have forgotten my duty as a journalist – that is, as an historian – and I would have tried to free her. The moment she was condemned to death. I would’ve done everything to free her. This is the way I feel. I am not able – and this explains my interviews, all of this explains my interviews, of course – I am not able to see things in a cold way. Looking at things from afar doesn’t mean looking at them coldly.
For instance, when I was in Bolivia – Torres was the president at that time until your CIA got him out – there were three brothers named Peredo. Two had already been killed. The third and youngest one was leading a group of guerrillas in the center of Bolivia, and the group was surrounded and caught. So the students of the opposition whom I was interviewing and working with came to me and said: “Fallaci, Fallaci, they’ve caught Chato Peredo.” And I started working like hell. I went looking for a certain Major Sanchez, who was Torres’s man, and with him I went around to the presidential palace to get the news to Torres, who stopped the execution. I wasn’t thinking a second of the newspapers I was writing for. Afterward, I wrote up the story, of course, but at that moment I got very much involved. . . . And I would have tried to save Joan of Arc.
But just to go back in time for a minute: I would have loved to interview St. Paul – I almost forgot him. He’s responsible for everything. . . . And Dante, for sure. Not as an artist, but as a politician. You know, Florence of that time seduces me. I’m Florentine, and that was the very first experiment in democracy – in the commune at Florence, not in Periclean Greece.
How about Dante’s Beatrice?
Who cares about Beatrice? . . . But you don’t have to go so far back, because I’ve missed some recent ones. I missed Chou En-lai because the Chinese never gave me a visa, they didn’t want me. I almost cried when he died. He was the person of our times whom I wanted to interview more than anybody else. And he died without seeing me. Oh God, he shouldn’t have done it to me! They were too intelligent to invite me because they knew I’m too unpredictable. If I arrived there and I saw all those red this and red that, I would have really started carrying on, giving them problems. . . . And so I lost Chou En-lai. And of course I can’t see the Pope, but I would have loved to interview John XXIII. Ahhh, another one.
You’d be the person I’d choose to interview the first being we met from outer space.
And I would do it like a child. That’s the secret. . . . I’ll tell you something. During the first moonshot, there was a press conference just before the launch. There was a group of Very Important American Journalists there, and, thank God, there was also my dear friend Cronkite among them. And Cronkite sent me a note – we were in the same room because the press was interviewing the astronauts via TV – asking me if I wanted to ask them a question. “Put a question to them? Thank you.” And I wrote down my little question – three words–and sent it to Cronkite. The other questions went on and on . . . about the fuel and not the fuel, about the gas and the starter and the trajectory. . . . I didn’t understand anything being said. You know, I wrote a book about the conquest of the moon and I still don’t know how and why a rocket goes up. I’m very proud of that. And I didn’t understand the questions of the journalists, who were extremely pompous. Everybody was pompous. And then Cronkite said: “I have a question here from Oriana Fallaci.” Pause. And he didn’t ask the question. (He was marvelous, he was a real actor.) Then, dramatically: “The question is: ARE YOU SCARED?”
Well, after discussing it with Aldrin and Collins, Neil Armstrong was elected to take the walk: “Well,” he hesitated, “you know, the adrenalin goes up.” “Ah, bullshit. Say you’re scared!” I yelled out loud to everybody in the press room. “Who cares about the adrenalin! Tell me, tell me, fear, fear! Walter, ask them about fear!”
And that was the question of the child. If you asked my youngest sister to put a question to the astronauts, she’d say: “Are you afraid going to the moon?” Of course. That’s what she’d want to know.
Source: Rolling Stone, June 17, 1976