Oriana Fallaci’s interrogations of leaders such as Kissinger and Qaddafi make today’s big-name interviewers look like powder puffs. Wondering when the questions got so soft, the author recounts his last visit with the tempestuous Italian journalist, who died in September, and her last—never published—scoop, a sit-down with the Pope.
by Christopher Hitchens
Here is an excerpt from an interview with what our media culture calls a “world leader”:
Dan Rather: Mr. President, I hope you will take this question in the spirit in which it’s asked. First of all, I regret that I do not speak Arabic. Do you speak any . . . any English at all?
Saddam Hussein (through translator): Have some coffee.
Rather: I have coffee.
Hussein (through translator): Americans like coffee.
Rather: That’s true. And this American likes coffee.
And here is another interview with another “world leader”:
Oriana Fallaci: When I try to talk about you, here in Tehran, people lock themselves in a fearful silence. They don’t even dare pronounce your name, Majesty. Why is that?
The Shah: Out of an excess of respect, I suppose.
Fallaci: I’d like to ask you: if I were an Iranian instead of an Italian, and lived here and thought as I do and wrote as I do, I mean if I were to criticize you, would you throw me in jail?
The Shah: Probably.
The difference here is not just in the quality of the answers given by the two homicidal dictators. It is in the quality of the questions. Mr. Rather (who is in mid-interview in one of Saddam’s palaces and who already knows that his subject doesn’t speak English and uses only his own interpreters) begins to ask a question, half apologizes for doing so, and is then completely unhorsed by an irrelevant remark about coffee. It’s unclear whether he ever returned to the question that he hoped would be taken in the spirit in which it was asked, so we will never know what that “spirit” was. And at no point in the interview, which was in February 2003, did Rather ask Saddam Hussein about his somewhat, shall we say, spotty record on human rights. It was enough that he had secured what the networks call “the big get.” After that, the interviewee could spout all the boilerplate he liked, and CBS would hold the megaphone by which this was transmitted to the world:
Rather: Are you afraid of being killed or captured?
Hussein: Whatever Allah decides. We are believers. We believe in what he decides. There is no value for any life without imam, without faith. The believer still believes that what God decides is acceptable. . . . Nothing is going to change the will of God.
Rather: But don’t my research notes say that you are a secularist?
Actually, I made up that last question. Dan Rather just sat through the preceding answer and went on to the next question on his list, which was about Osama bin Laden. Perhaps there was someone telling him to move things along a bit. At least he never began a question by asking, “Mr. President, how does it feel . . . ”
Whereas when the supposedly secular Shah also began speaking as if the opposite were the case, burbling about his deep religious faith and his personal encounters—“not in a dream, in reality”—with the Prophet Ali, Oriana Fallaci was openly skeptical:
Fallaci: Majesty, I don’t understand you at all. We had got off to such a good start, and instead now . . . this business of visions, of apparitions.
(Subsequently she asked His Imperial Majesty—no doubt with a wary eye on the exit—“Did you have these visions only as a child, or have you also had them later as an adult?”)
With Oriana Fallaci’s demise at seventy-seven from a host of cancers, in September, in her beloved Florence, there also died something of the art of the interview. Her absolutely heroic period was that of the 1970s, probably the last chance we had of staving off the complete triumph of celebrity culture. Throughout that decade, she scoured the globe, badgering the famous and the powerful and the self-important until they agreed to talk with her, and then reducing them to human scale. Facing Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, she bluntly asked him, “Do you know you are so unloved and unliked?” And she didn’t spare figures who enjoyed more general approval, either. As a warm-up with Lech Wałęsa, she put Poland’s leading anti-Communist at his ease by inquiring, “Has anyone ever told you that you resemble Stalin? I mean physically. Yes, same nose, same profile, same features, same mustache. And same height, I believe, same size.” Henry Kissinger, then at the apogee of his near-hypnotic control over the media, described his encounter with her as the most disastrous conversation he had ever had. It’s easy to see why. This well-cushioned man who had always been the client of powerful patrons ascribed his success to the following:
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. . . . This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style or, if you like, my technique.
Neither Kissinger nor “Americans” in general liked this passage when it appeared in all its full-blown absurdity in late 1972. In fact, Kissinger disliked it so much that he claimed to have been misquoted and distorted. (Always watch out, by the way, when a politician or star claims to have been “quoted out of context.” A quotation is by definition an excerpt from context.) In this case, though, Oriana was able to produce the tape, a transcript of which she later reprinted in a book. And there it is for all to read, with Kissinger raving on and on about the uncanny similarities between himself and Henry Fonda. The book is called Interview with History.
That title didn’t suffer from an excess of modesty, but then, neither did its author. People began to sneer and gossip, saying that Oriana was just a confrontational bitch who used her femininity to get results, and who goaded men into saying incriminating things. I remember having it whispered to me that she would leave the transcript of the answers untouched but rephrase her original questions so that they seemed more penetrating than they had really been. As it happens, I found an opportunity to check that last rumor. During her interview with President Makarios, of Cyprus, who was also a Greek Orthodox patriarch, she had asked him straight-out if he was overfond of women, and more or less got him to admit that his silence in response to her direct questioning was a confession. (The paragraphs from Interview with History here are too long to quote, but show a brilliantly incisive line of interrogation.) Many Greek Cypriots of my acquaintance were scandalized, and quite certain that their beloved leader would never have spoken that way. I knew the old boy slightly, and took the chance to ask him if he had read the relevant chapter. “Oh yes,” he said, with perfect gravity. “It is just as I remember it.”
Occasionally, Oriana’s interviews actually influenced history, or at the least the pace and rhythm of events. Interviewing Pakistan’s leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto just after the war with India over Bangladesh, she induced him to say what he really thought of his opposite number in India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi (“a diligent drudge of a schoolgirl, a woman devoid of initiative and imagination . . . She should have half her father’s talent!”). Demanding a full copy of the text, Mrs. Gandhi thereupon declined to attend the proposed signing of a peace agreement with Pakistan. Bhutto had to pursue Oriana, through a diplomatic envoy, all the way to Addis Ababa, to which she had journeyed to interview Emperor Haile Selassie. Bhutto’s ambassador begged her to disown the Gandhi parts, and hysterically claimed that the lives of 600 million people were at stake if she did not. One of the hardest things to resist, for reporters and journalists, is the appeal to the world-shaking importance of their work and the need for them to be “responsible.” Oriana declined to oblige, and Mr. Bhutto duly had to eat his plate of crow. Future “access” to the powerful meant absolutely nothing to her: she acted as if she had one chance to make the record and so did they.
Perhaps only one Western journalist ever managed to interview Ayatollah Khomeini twice. And from those long discussions we learned an enormous amount about the nature of the adamant theocracy that he was bent upon instituting. The second session was an achievement in itself, since Oriana had terminated the first one by wrenching off the all-enveloping chador she had been compelled to wear and calling it a “stupid, medieval rag.” She told me that after this moment of drama she had been taken aside by Khomeini’s son, who confided in her that it had been the only time in his life that he had seen his father laugh.
Do you really remember any recent interview with a major politician? Usually, the only thing that stands out in the mind is some stupid gaffe or piece of rambling incoherence. And if you go and check the original, it generally turns out that this was prompted by a dull or rambling question. Try reading the next transcript of a presidential “news conference,” and see which makes you whimper more: the chief executive’s train-wreck syntax or the lame and contrived promptings from the press. Oriana’s questions were tautly phrased and persistent. She researched her subjects minutely before going to see them, and each one of her published transcripts was preceded by an essay of several pages in length concerning the politics and the mentality of the interviewee. She proceeded, as Jeeves used to phrase it, from an appreciation of “the psychology of the individual.” Thus, a provocative or impudent question from her would not be a vulgar attempt to shock but a well-timed challenge, usually after a lot of listening, and often taking the form of a statement. (To Yasir Arafat: “Conclusion: you don’t at all want the peace that everyone is hoping for.”)
The commonest and easiest way of explaining the decay of interviewing is to attribute it to the short-term and showbiz values of TV. But there’s no innate reason why this should be true. At the dawn of the television age, John Freeman—a former cabinet minister and diplomat, and editor of the New Statesman—established an inquisitorial style probably borrowed in part from Ed Murrow, and provided astonishing glimpses of hitherto reclusive public figures like Evelyn Waugh. Television allows points to be pressed and repeated: the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman once put the same question a dozen times to a Tory politician who was being evasive. It also brought us the huge advantage of the close-up, which did immense damage to shifty types like Richard Nixon.
Indeed, there is a whole new play by Peter Morgan (writer of The Queen) based on the transcript of the first post-Watergate interview that Nixon “granted,” which was to David Frost. At the time, Frost was much attacked for trading easy questions in return for access (and also for paying Nixon $600,000—more than $2 million today—plus a percentage of the profits for the privilege; this led to a secondary grilling of Frost himself, by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes). However, despite its deference, the interview did elicit a sort of grudging acknowledgment of wrongdoing from Tricky Dick, plus the unforgettable and highly modern claim that “when the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.”
Over time, however, politicians learn the business, too, and television interviews become just another part of the “spin” process. (They also become shorter, and more routine, and the test of success becomes the avoidance of any “gaffes.”) Poetic justice occasionally kicks in. Edward Kennedy obviously could not believe his luck when he drew Barbara Walters for his first televised “grilling” after Chappaquiddick—she started by asking him how he’d managed to cope—but he had no idea how bad he was going to look when Roger Mudd asked him in 1979 the equally soft question about why he wanted to be president.
As someone who has been interviewed quite a lot on-screen, I have started to notice a few unspoken rules of the game. Most interviewers know that you positively want to be on their shows, either to promote a book or to explain yourself, or just to avoid having to shout back at the TV. So Charlie Rose, for example, knows you won’t dry up when he opens by saying, very firmly, “Your book. Why now?” (or many more words to that effect). Larry King is, like Sam Donaldson, a master of asking a soft question in an apparently interrogative way. (“So—you got the big advance. Movie rights up the wazoo. Married to a babe everybody loves. Top of your game. What’s with that?”) You soon start to notice when the station breaks are coming—a perfect way of dissolving any tension that may be building up—though Rose isn’t subject to this and can, and sometimes does, decide to surprise you by running long. The most unsettling technique is the simplest: Tim Russert’s matter-of-fact, research-backed question, asked in the mildest tone; or Brian Lamb’s complete composure, which I have only once seen disturbed, when I was on with fellow guest Richard Brookhiser. (“You had cancer?” “Yes.” “Where?” “In the testicles.” . . . “Nebraska—you’re on the line.”) And of course there’s the guilty companionship of the green room, where rivals forgather to remove makeup and more or less behave as if they all know they’ll be back sometime next week. This is why a real TV event, like Clinton’s tantrum with Chris Wallace, is so extremely rare. And in such cases, it’s almost always the interviewee who is making the difference, by departing from the script. The most searching interviewer of all was William F. Buckley in the days of Firing Line. If you left the show’s set wishing you had done a better job as a guest, it was all your own fault. You had had your chance. But then, this was explicitly billed as ideological combat.
An additional reason for the decline of the interview is the increasing ability of leaders and celebrities to condition the way in which they are questioned. “When you were around Oriana, you sensed that something big was going on,” I was told by Ben Bradlee, who had been one of the first editors to see the importance of her material. “Now, a lot of people get interviewed who don’t deserve to be interviewed. And editors don’t assign enough interviews of the sort that can stand by themselves.” Even when Gary Condit was apparently at his most vulnerable, in the late summer of 2001, he was able to pick and choose among ravenous networks (and to make, wisely in my opinion, the selection of Connie Chung as his fearless interrogator). And then people who become too good at the job get turned down for it and are refused by the subject’s nervous PR people: this happened in Washington to our very own Marjorie Williams, who was just too incisive for her own good. (It has probably happened to Ali G as well, for some of the same reasons.) There came a time when leaders would no longer submit to the risks of a sit-down with Fallaci. She diverted her energies, with some success, into the channel of fiction. And, more and more, she made it her business to point out what she had been picking up in the course of her voyages—that Islamism was on the march. There’s something almost premonitory about her novel Inshallah, which was inspired by the first Muslim suicide bombers in Beirut, in 1983. And as she drew nearer to death she decided that she wanted to be interviewed herself, and to be the Cassandra who warned of the wrath to come.
For all that, she hated doing any listening and was extremely bad at submitting to questions. I went to meet her last April in New York, where she kept a little brownstone, and was more or less told to my face that I might well be the last man on earth she would talk to. By then she had twelve different tumors and had been asked, rather reassuringly, by one of her doctors if she had any idea why she was still alive. To this she had an answer. She carried on living in order to utter rebukes to Islamists, and to make these rebukes as abusive and frontal as possible. Gone was the rather rawboned-looking young woman who had once had her share of romantic involvement with “third world” and leftist guerrilla fighters. Instead, a tiny, emaciated, black-clad Italian lady (who really did exclaim “Mamma mia!” at intervals) ranged exhaustingly around her tiny kitchen, cooking me the fattiest sausage I have ever eaten and declaiming that the Muslim immigrants to Europe were the advance guard of a new Islamic conquest. The “sons of Allah breed like rats”—this was the least of what she said in a famous polemic entitled The Rage and the Pride, written in a blaze of fury after September 11, 2001, and propelled onto the Italian bestseller list. It got her part of what she wanted after the long and depressing retirement caused by her illness. She became notorious all over again, was the subject of lawsuits from outraged groups who wanted to silence her, and managed to dominate the front pages. When someone becomes obsessed with the hygiene and reproduction of another group, it can be a bad sign: Oriana’s conversation (actually there was no conversation, since she scarcely drew breath) was thick with obscenities. I shall put them in Italian—brutto stronzo, vaffanculo—and omit some others. As to those who disagreed with her, or who did not see the danger as she did, well, they were no more than cretini and disgraciatti. It was like standing in a wind tunnel of cloacal abuse. Another bad sign was that she had started to refer to herself as “Fallaci.”
All her life she had denounced clericalism and fundamentalism in every form, yet now her loathing and disgust for Islam had driven her into the embrace of the church. She had, she told me, been given one of the first private audiences with the new pope, whom she referred to as “Ratzinger.” “He is adorable! He agrees with me—but completely!” But beyond assuring me that his holiness was in her corner, she would tell me nothing of their conversation. Four months later, almost at the exact moment when Oriana was dying, the pope did deliver himself of the celebrated speech in which he flailed on about the medieval objections to Islam and managed to set off a furor that moved us a little closer to a real clash of civilizations. This time, though, we did not have the Fallaci version of his views, or the pleasure of seeing him have to explain or defend himself to her. She managed a final “big get,” and then kept it all to herself.
Vanity Fair, December 2006