February 13, 2009
Welcome to the Journal.
The battle is joined as they say and here's the headline that framed it: "High Noon: Geithner v. The American Oligarchs." The headline is in one of the most informative new sites in the blogosphere called: baselinescenario.com. Here's the quote that grabbed me:
"There comes a time in every economic crisis, or more specifically, in every struggle to recover from a crisis, when someone steps up to the podium to promise the policies that they say will deliver you back to growth. The person has political support, a strong track record, and every incentive to enter the history books. But one nagging question remains. Can this person, your new economic strategist, really break with the vested elites that got you into this much trouble?"
And here's the man who asked that question. Simon Johnson is former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. He now teaches global economics and management at MIT's Sloan School of Management and is a senior fellow of the Peterson Institute. He is co-founder of that website I quoted baselinescenario.com where he analyzes the global economic and financial crisis.
Welcome, Simon Johnson to the Journal.
Nice to be here.
What are you signaling with that headline, "Geithner vs. the American Oligarchs"?
I think I'm signaling something a little bit shocking to Americans, and to myself, actually. Which is the situation we find ourselves in at this moment, this week, is very strongly reminiscent of the situations we've seen many times in other places.
But they're places we don't like to think of ourselves as being similar to. They're emerging markets. It's Russia or Indonesia or a Thailand type situation, or Korea. That's not comfortable. America is different. America is special. America is rich. And, yet, we've somehow find ourselves in the grip of the same sort of crisis and the same sort of oligarchs.
Oligarchy is an un-American term, as you know. It means a government by a small number of people. We don't like to think of ourselves that way.
It's a way of governing. As you said. It comes from, you know, a system they tried out in Greece and Athens from time to time. And it was actually an antithesis to democracy in that context.
But, exactly what you said, it's a small group with a lot of power. A lot of wealth. They don't necessarily - they're not necessarily always the names, the household names that spring to mind, in this kind of context. But they are the people who could pull the strings. Who have the influence. Who call the shots.
Are you saying that the banking industry trumps the president, the Congress and the American government when it comes to this issue so crucial to the survival of American democracy?
I don't know. I hope they don't trump it. But the signs that I see this week, the body language, the words, the op-eds, the testimony, the way they're treated by certain Congressional committees, it makes me feel very worried.
I have this feeling in my stomach that I felt in other countries, much poorer countries, countries that were headed into really difficult economic situation. When there's a small group of people who got you into a disaster, and who were still powerful. Disaster even made them more powerful. And you know you need to come in and break that power. And you can't. You're stuck.
Both the "Wall Street Journal" and "The New York Times" reported this week that Obama's top two political aides, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, have pushed for tougher action against the banks. But they didn't prevail. Obama apparently sided with Geithner and the Treasury Department in using a velvet glove.
What I read from that is that there is an unnecessary and excessive deference to the experts, or the supposed experts.
And I think the view that a lot of people have in Washington - I live in Washington, I follow this very closely - the view is that you need to rely on the technocrats. And the technocrats are saying, "This is the way to go, and you mustn't be too tough on because banks, because that will have adverse consequences for credits, and for the economy, and for unemployment," and so on and so forth. Those technocrats, if that's what they're saying, are wrong. That is not the right way to deal with this crisis.
There are many find professionals at Treasury with great experience, who have spent their lives working on important issues related to the United States. What we face right now is not a typical U.S. issue. We face a crisis, and the president said this on Monday night, the president said, President Obama said, "We've never seen anything like this since the Great Depression."
Therefore, nobody working now, you know, has any firsthand experience. And he also said, "We may face what we call a lost decade." We've never seen that anywhere other than Japan in the 1990s, right?
And something for Treasury officials to really understand, and to really understand the alternatives - they're not, I mean, with all due respect to them, they're not the ultimate authority. I don't think they're the right people.
The correct people you should be asking this question to are people at the IMF. And I can tell you what they're saying is the policy that we seem to be perusing, of being nice to the banks, is a mistake. The powerful people are the insiders. They're the CEOs of these banks. They're the people who run these banks. They're the people who pay themselves the massive bonuses at the end of the last year. Now, those bonuses are not the essence of the problem, but they are a symptom of an arrogance, and a feeling of invincibility, that tells you a lot about the culture of those organizations, and the attitudes of the people who lead them.
Geithner has hired as his chief-of-staff, the lobbyist from Goldman Sachs. The new deputy secretary of state was, until last year, a CEO of Citigroup. Another CFO from Citigroup is now assistant to the president, and deputy national security advisor for International Economic Affairs. And one of his deputies also came from Citigroup. One new member of the president's Economic Recovery Advisory Board comes from UBS, which is being investigated for helping rich clients evade taxes.
You're probably too young to remember that old song, "Sounds like the Mack the Knife is back in town." I mean, is that what you're talking about with this web of relationships?
Absolutely. I don't think you have enough time on your show to go through the full list of people and all the positions they've taken. I'm sure these are good people. Don't get me wrong. These are find upstanding citizens who have a certain perspective, and a certain kind of interest, and they see the world a certain way.
And it's exactly a web of interest, I think, is what you said. And that's exactly the right way to think about it. That web of interest is not my interest, or your interest, or the interest of the taxpayer. It's the interest, first and foremost, of the financial industry in this country.
Do you think that Obama understands how these guys play the game? Let me play you the recording of a conference call "Huffington Post" released this week. One of the top officials of Morgan Stanley is speaking to his colleagues. Here it is.
I'm going to turn to a topic that I suspect is near and dear to everybody's hearts, which is retention. There will be a retention award. Please do not call it a bonus, it is not a bonus it is an award. The award will be based on '08 full year production. Clearly it would have been cheaper to do it off '09 but we think it's the right thing to do and we've made that decision.
What he's basically saying is business as usual. Go about your daily lives. Get the bonuses. Re-brand them as awards. But it really shows you the arrogance, and I think these people think that they've won. They think it's over. They think it's won. They think that we're going to pay out ten or 20 percent of GDP to basically make them whole. It's astonishing.
Why wouldn't they believe that? I mean, when I watched the eight CEOs testify before Congress at the House Financial Services Committee earlier this week, I had just finished reading a report that almost every member of that Committee had received contributions from those banks last year. I mean in a way that's like paying the cop on the beat not to arrest you, right?
I called up one of my friends on Capitol Hill after that testimony, and that session. I said, "What happened? This was your moment. Why did they pull their punches like that?" And my friend said, "They, the Committee members, know the bankers too well."
Last year, the securities and investment industry made $146 million in campaign contributions. Commercial banks, another $34 million. I mean, American taxpayers don't have a flea's chance on a dog like that, do they?
It a massive problem, obviously. And I do think, though, the good news there are people in the White House - I think the president himself, is aware of this broader issue. And, obviously, the campaign, the Obama campaign was very good at getting small contributions, and trying to minimize the impact of major donors like that.
But, at the same time, these people are throughout the system of government. They are very much at the forefront of the Treasury. The Treasury is apparently calling the shots on their economic policies. This is a decisive moment. Either you break the power or we're stuck for a long time with this arrangement.
When Tim Geithner said, earlier in the week, that the American people have lost faith in some financial institutions and the government, did it occur to you that this was the same man who was president of the New York Fed through much of this debacle?
I have no problem with poachers turning gamekeeper, right? So if you know where the bodies are buried maybe you can help us sort out the problem. And I did think the first three or four minutes of what Mr. Geithner said were very good.
As a definition of a problem, and pointing the finger clearly at the bankers, and saying that the government had been slow to react, and, of course, that included himself. I liked that. And then he started to talk about the specifics. And he said, "The compensation caps we've put in place, for the executives of these banks, are strong." And at that point I just fell out of my chair. That is not true. That is factually inaccurate, in my opinion.
That this $500,000 limit, and deferred stock, is some kind of restriction on what they do? It's deferred stock, Bill. It's not restricted. You can get as much stock as you want, as soon as you pay back the government, you can cash out of that. That's one.
Second, you can, sorry to get technical, but reset the strike price. This is something you and your and your viewers, you need to hear this one out. Just look for these words, okay, follow them through the press. When you get into trouble, when your company goes down, and you have massive amounts of stock options that aren't worth much anymore, because the stock price has gone down, you say, "Oh, well, we're going to reset our option prices."
And, basically, it means that, at the end of the day, these people are going to walk away with tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars paid for by basically, insurance policy that you and I are providing.
Think of it like this, our taxpayer money is ensuring their bonuses. We're making sure that companies, that banks survive. And eventually, of course, the economy will turn around. Things will get better. The banks will be worth a lot of money. And they will cash out. And we will be paying higher taxes, we and our children, will be paying higher taxes so those people could have those bonuses. That's not fair. It's not acceptable. It's not even good economics.
Are we chumps?
We'll find out. Yes, we may be. Okay. It depends on how we play this politically. It depends on what our political system does. It depends, I think, on the level of reaction. The financial system is playing us for chumps, okay? The bankers think we're chumps. We'll find out. We have leadership that can handle this. We'll find out what they do.
There was a moment in the hearings this week, when Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, the independent senator from Vermont, almost lost his cool. Watch this.
SENATOR BERNARD SANDERS:
In 2006 and 2007, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, was the highest paid executive on Wall Street, making over 125 million in total compensation. Due to its risky investments, Goldman Sachs now has over 168 billion in total outstanding debt. It's laid off over 10 percent of its workforce. Late last year, the financial situation at Goldman was so dire that the taxpayers of this country provided Goldman Sachs with a $10 billion bailout.
Very simple question that I think the American people want to know. Yes or no, should Mr. Blankfein be fired from his job and new leadership be brought in?
Senator, that's a judgment his board of directors have to make.
I want to say one thing which is very important. Everything we do going forward has to be judged against the impact we're going to have on the American people and the prospects for recovery. And every dollar we spend will have to be measured against the benefits we bring in terms of-
Mr. Secretary, you're not answering my question. You have a person who made hundreds of millions for himself as he led his institution that helped cause a great financial crisis. We have put, as taxpayers, $10 billion to bail him out and we have no say about whether or not he should stay on the job?
No, I didn't say that. I think there will be circumstances, as there have been already, where the government intervention will have to come with very tough conditions, including changes in management and leadership of institutions. And where we believe that makes sense, we will do that.
Geithner says that's something "his" board of directors, the board of Goldman Sachs, will have to decide. But aren't we all ipso facto stock holders now?
We should certainly have a big say over critical matters like this. Like the CEO. Because, two things. First of all, it's our money that kept these banks in business. Not just the treasury recapitalization money, that's relatively small.
It's the financial support provided by the Federal Reserve. Make no mistake about it, if the Federal Reserve hadn't stepped in late September, in dramatic fashion, to prop up organizations like Goldman Sachs, they would be out of business, okay?
It was our money that did that. The Federal Reserve acting on behalf of the American taxpayer. And secondly, Senator Sanders is exactly right. That a CEO, like Lloyd Blankfein, made mistakes, and led his company into deep trouble.
Now, other companies are in deeper trouble. His company was in deep trouble and had to be rescued at that moment. It's absolutely the right way to pose the question. And the answer to Senator Sanders' question is, in my opinion, yes. We should change the leadership of these major banks.
And, yet, Secretary Geithner's chief-of-staff is the former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs. How - serious question - how do they make a dispassionate judgment about how to deal with Goldman Sachs when they're so intertwined with Goldman Sachs' mindset?
I have no idea. Of course, the administration, the new administration, has a lot of rules about lobbying. And they have rules that basically say, I think, as understood the rules, when they were first presented, I was very impressed. They basically said, "We're not going to hire lobbyists into the administration. There has to be some sort of cooling off period."
And the next day Obama exempted a number of people from that very rule that he had just proclaimed.
Yes. It's a problem. It's a huge problem.
So here's the trillion dollar question that I take from your blog, that I read at the beginning, quote, "Can this person," your new economic strategist, in this case Geithner, "really break with the vested elite that got you into this much trouble?" Have you seen any evidence this week that he's going to be tough with these guys?
I'm trying to be positive. I'm trying to be supportive. I like the administration. I voted for the president. The answer to your question is, no, I haven't seen anything. But you know, perhaps next week I will. But right now, as we speak, I have a bad feeling in my stomach.
My intuition, from crises, from situations that have improved, the situations that got worse, my intuition is that this is going to get a lot worse. It's going to cost us a lot more money. And we are going down a long, dark, blind alley.
Let's not leave our public in despair, here at end, Simon. I've read everything you wrote this week, and it comes down to this. We must break the power of the banks and their lobbies. How do we do that?
I think it's quite straightforward, in technical or economic terms. At the same time I recognize it's very hard politically, okay? What you need to do is the stress test that, actually, Secretary Geithner outlined in his speech on Tuesday.
That's where you go and you check the bank's books, and you say, okay, not only do we use market prices, not pretend prices, not what you wished things were worth, what they're really worth, okay, in the market today. We use that to value your loans and the securities that you have, your assets, right?
And we also assess what will happen to the value of the things you own if there's a severe recession. So that's the idea, it's a stress test, like when you go to see the doctor, they put you on a treadmill, and make you run to see how your heart is going to behave under stress.
So you're looking at how the bank's balance sheets will look under stress. And then you say to them, "This is our assessment of the amount of capital you need to cover your losses, and to stay in business, and be able to make loans, through what appears to be a severe recession."
And, as the president said, we may lose a decade. So we've got to be very hard headed, and all the officials forecasters are still too optimistic on that. This is the amount of capital you need. Now you have a month, or two, to raise this amount of capital privately.
And when this was done in Sweden, by the way, in the early 1990s, they did it to three big banks. One of the three was able to go to its shareholders, raise a lot more capital, and stay in business as a private bank, same shareholders. That's an option. Totally fine. However, the ones that can't raise the capital are in violation of the terms of their banking license, if you like.
We have no problem in this country shutting down small banks. In fact, the FDIC is world class at shutting down and managing the handover of deposits, for example, from small banks. They managed IndyMac, the closure of IndyMac, beautifully. People didn't lose touch with their money for even a moment. But they can't do it to big banks, because they don't have the political power. Nobody has the political will to do it.
So you need to take an FDIC-type process. You scale it up. You say, "You haven't raised the capital privately. The government is taking over your bank. You guys are out of business. Your bonuses are wiped out. Your golden parachutes are gone." Okay? Because the bank has failed.
This is a government-supervised bankruptcy process. It's called, in the terminology of the business, it's called an intervention. The bank is intervened. You don't go into Chapter 11 because in that's too messy. Too complicated. There's an intervention, you lose the right to operate as a bank. The FDIC takes you over. I think we agree, everyone agrees, we don't want the government to run banks in this country.
Never done it before.
Never done it before. It's not gone well anywhere in the world. And the idea of getting your money out of the bank being like visiting the DMV to get your driver's license, it's not appealing, okay?
That's not what we're going to do. That's not what the Swedes did. That's not the state of the art - it's not what the real banking experts are going to tell you to do. They're going to say, you set it up, you set up the government intervention, and there's various technical ways to do this, so that you re-privatize very quickly.
Now, it might take three months, it might take six months. It'll depend on the overall macro economy turning around. But there's a lot of private money out there. Let's call it private equity.
These people would like to come in and buy these re-privatized banks. You would attach antitrust provisions to this, so the banks are broken up as part of this transaction. Senator Sanders has a great saying. He says, "Any bank that is too big to fail is too big to exist."
And he's exactly right. So, in this transformation, you're bringing in private equity. You're using, I think this is, to me, the right idea, and what we've learned in our country, is you're using part of the powerful financial lobby against another part. You're using private equity, that would do very well in this, against the inbred insider big bankers. And you're doing this in a way so that the taxpayer decides who the new owners are.
The new owners come in and do a lot of the restructuring. They're going to fire all of these managers. I can honestly assure you that. They're going to put in new risk management systems. They're going to have to make the banks smaller. And the taxpayer is going to retain a substantial equity interest. So as these banks recover the value of our investment goes up. And that's how we get upside participation.
So you're not talking about nationalization, are you?
I'm talking about a scaled up FDIC intervention. I think we need the FDIC to be empowered. And to have the political support necessary to get this job done.
Splitting this one powerful interest group into competing factions, and taking them on one by one.
That is classic oligarchy breaking strategy. Now I do admit that once you've done that, you have to worry about the new oligarchs. That's why you're breaking up the banks. You don't want to just change the owners of banks that are too big to fail, because they'll be coming around in five years for another handout.
The structure or banking system, the concentration of power in big financial institutions has to change. There's a lot of appeal to FDR and what he did in the Great Depression.
I would go back to Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago, and think about trust busting. Okay? Now, the banks don't violate existing antitrust laws. That's 'cause our antitrust laws are 100 years old and need to be changed, okay? We need to break them up for exactly the same reason that Rockefeller and the oil interests, standard oil, at the end of the 19th century, was too powerful, economically and politically. And it had to be broken up. And breaking it up was the right thing to do. That's where we are with the banks today.
Simon Johnson, thank you for being with me on the Journal.
And if you want to find out even more about how we got into this predicament, let me recommend a documentary running this Tuesday night on public television's premier investigative series, "Frontline." It's called "Inside the Meltdown."
On September 16th, 2008, all around the world money stopped.
Basically we had a complete shutdown of the world capital markets.
SENATOR CHRISTOPHER DODD:
Unless we act within days, the financial system will melt down.
Forces have been unleashed that we couldn't control.
The entire investment banking model was blown up in a week.
How did it happen?
Regulators have basically been outgunned and outmanned.
Who is responsible?
Oh my God, these guys don't know what they are doing.
And what happens next?
SENATOR CHRISTOPHER DODD:
It's the economic equivalence of 9/11.
We travel now far from the world of oligarchs and high finance, to some enduring matters of the human heart parochial affairs like love and bicycles. Our guide is the poet Nikki Giovanni, and when she came to town the other day, her fans were waiting. It was standing room only at the Barnes & Noble store on Union Square as she read from her new book.
"My Muse." This is so egocentric.
I am my own muse
I delight me with my words of both wit and wisdom
I teach myself so much, such insight into the human soul, such compassion for the weak and weary, such utter contempt for the self-satisfied.
Then it was on to St. Francis College in Brooklyn, performing in memory of the civil rights hero, Rosa Parks.
In order for these kids to grow up, and have some other sense of Rosa Parks, because eventually they'll get to the history, but I thought, well, why don't we just turn Rosa into a dance so that they can sit around and do the Rosa Parks? It's how you teach them.
Do the Rosa Parks, say: "No, No." Do the Rosa Parks, throw your hands in the air. Do the Rosa Parks say: "No, No." Do the Rosa Parks, say: "That's not fair." Somebody's lying, Rosa Parks him. Somebody's crying, Rosa Parks her. Shame the bad, comfort the good. Do the Rosa Parks just like she would. Sit down, sit down. Let's do the Rosa Parks all over town.
These students are too young to know much about Rosa Parks or Giovanni's own fabled story. But some of us remember when she burst on the scene in the incendiary '60s, as a student activist at Fisk University in Nashville, a founding member of the Black Arts Movement, a friend of Angela Davis and James Baldwin. By the time she made the cover of "Jet Magazine", she had been dubbed the "Princess of Black Poetry." Here are some excerpts from a film shown on PBS twenty years ago.
And she would learn
How god was neither north
Nor south east or west
With no color but all
She remembered was that
Sheba was Black and comely
And she would think
I want to be
Where are your heroes, my little Black ones?
You are the Indian you so disdainfully shoot
Not the big bad sheriff on his faggoty white horse
You should play run-away-slave
Or Mau Mau
These are more in line with your history.
Over the years she produced 27 books, and some years ago was named University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She was off-campus that day in April two years ago when a student turned violent. When the massacre was over, 32 people were dead. The next day, at a memorial for the victims, Nikki Giovanni was asked to speak. Her words brought thousands to their feet in a tearful standing ovation, a moment it was said, of profound healing.
We are Virginia Tech, the Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hand to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave, and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail, we will prevail, we will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.
That was April 2007, almost two years ago, and that poem is now the closing work in her new collection, "Bicycles."
Nikki Giovanni is with me now. Welcome.
Oh, thank you.
What do words do for grief? The sadness you sometimes feel, the grief you felt after Virginia Tech's massacre. What do they do?
I guess they let us know that we're not alone. I think what words do is we acknowledge that we're human and we hurt. And so you don't have to pretend you're not hurting. Because you have a hole in your heart. Poems, I mean, go back to 9-11-01 here in the States. People were posting poems all over the internet, because they were trying to find a way to connect. To say, "This hurts, but we're not alone. Someone else is sharing this pain." And this thing that happened at Virginia Tech, it was an incredibly sad time for us. And I think that the only thing that I could do to make sense out of it was to connect these dots. And the only thing to connect the dots was going to be love. Because, no matter what else is wrong with you, good wine and good sex will make you feel better. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that.
You are, you most certainly are.
Yeah. But, you know, 65 year-old women are not finished. It was great. And I just thought, you know, I've got to rethink it, and then I've got to find an object.
But the object you chose was bicycles. Why bicycles? And what do they have to do with tragedy and drama and loss and death even?
Well, tragedy and trauma are wheels. And they're always with us, aren't they? They're always spinning around. That's the perimeters of life, of these tragedies. They just spin around and spin around. And so what you're trying to do is bring them together. And when you bring them together you've got the bar, right? So you have a vehicle, right? Well, when I grew up, you learned to ride a bicycle by getting on a bicycle. Which means you're going to fall off. And love and life and bicycles are about trust and balance. It's about riding it and believing that this thing that doesn't make sense for you to be on, can move. And we see it here. This is such a great city, I love Manhattan. And I miss it in my dreams sometimes. But when we see the messengers on that bike, that's just trust and balance. They just say, "I'm coming at it. I don't care if the cars are going to swerve, I'm-" It's beautiful watching them on their bicycles. But we do that in our relationships. It's the same bike. We are continuing relationships through trust and balance.
So you learned to ride a bicycle, right?
I did. An emotional bicycle. I saw the spinning wheels because I was spinning. I was being hurt by things that had nothing to do with me. I was being hurt because my sister had a lung tumor that had metastasized. And I would go to my grave believing my mother died because she didn't want to bury my sister, because there was nothing wrong with my mother until it was evident that my sister was not going to make it. And I say it all the time, I hope, when I get to heaven, the only reason I want to go to heaven is to tell those two women, "You did it to me again." Because they were always they did, they were always leaving me, Bill. I was a baby.
And, remember, Robert Louis Stevenson, "In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight. In summer, quite the other way, I have to go to bed by day. I have to go to bed and see the birds still hopping on the tree." And I had to go to bed at nine o'clock. Mommy would bathe us at seven. And then we'd sing or tell stories or something, I had to be in bed. But she would come and get Gary my sister's name was Gary. She would come, about 9:30, and I would hear her, "Is she asleep?" And Gary would say, "I think so." And then they would sneak out. And when this thing happened I said, you know, they did it again. Mommy just decided, okay, I'm going to go and Gar, I'll be back for you. And nobody said, "Well, what about Nikki?" 'Cause everybody would always think, well, Nikki can take care of herself. Nikki's strong, and Nikki can do it. And Nikki was feeling very sad. But, fortunately, Nikki's a poet, so I began to write my way out of it.
Read your poem "Bicycles" for me. It's on page 29.
"Midnight poems are bicycles
Taking us on safer journeys
But never as beautiful
As my back
Touching you under the quilt
Sing a sweet song
Is all right
Here for us
I reach out
To catch the laughter
"The dog thinks
I need a kiss
With the flow
Of the earth
Like a cloud
In the October sky
Like licking ice cream
From a cone
Like knowing you
"All day long I wait
For the sunset
"The first star
The moon rise
To a midnight
I love that.
You know my favorite poem of yours?
"Choices." Would you read it?
"if i can't do
what i want to do
then my job is to not
do what i don't want
"it's not the same thing
but it's the best i can
"if i can't have
what i want then
my job is to want
what i've got
and be satisfied
that at least there
is something more
"since i can't go
where i need
to go then i must go
where the signs point
though always understanding
"when i can't express
what i really feel
i practice feeling
what i can express
and none of it is equal
but that's why mankind
alone among the animals
learns to cry"
Where did that come from?
I wrote this book, "Cotton Candy On a Rainy Day" and I wrote it while my father was dying. Losing your father's real different from losing your mom, I think.
When you lose your father, you have your mother. And you bury your father, you know, and you're there with your mother and your sister. Normally, when you lose your mother, you would have your siblings, in my case, my sister. But I'm going to lose my mother knowing that my sister is going to it's imminent.
And burying my dad was a sad affair because I wasn't that close to him. But my mother liked him. And I liked my mother. So I figure, you know, maybe she knows something I don't know. But burying mommy, I knew that I was going into a place that there was no one that I could actually talk to. I can talk I mean we talk, but there's no one that's going to enter that boat that you row by yourself back to that place where your deepest fears reside.
There are a lot of somber books born of grief. But not many books I've seen that are about love born of grief. And, yet, that's what this book is about. It's a book of love poems.
Oh yeah. Well, what else was going to make you smile? I enjoyed it so much. The writing of it makes me smile. What else will get you through it, you know? And you start to dress better because you there's so much that if you don't take care of yourself I'm a freak for how food looks. I will not eat ugly food. I'm an American, I will not starve to death. So I do not have to eat ugly food. I refuse to do drive-through. I am not a grazer, I am not a cow. You eat. You sit down. You put a napkin there. And it has to have the colors. If you're having a steak then you'll have a little carrots because it's really yellow, and it looks good. And maybe a little broccoli. So that the plate first, you plate it. And my aunt, because my uncle died, and she'd been very sad. And I had to call her and say, "Ag, what'd you have for" you know, because she didn't have any daughters, right? And so I said, "Ag, what'd you have for dinner?" She said, "Oh, I just had a bowl of cereal." I said, "You can't do that. You have to plate your food." You have to take of yourself. I've started to have massages because it's like, I have to make time to have a massage. It feels great, somebody just rubbing oil in your back. Where's the downside? You have to do things to remind yourself that it's a really good idea to be alive.
Do you, today, think a lot about death? I mean, you're on the campus that was stalked by death. You lost your mother and your sister in the approximate time. You've lost a lung, right?
I was glad to give that up. It was a bad lung. Nasty. Mean lung. It was my left lung. I didn't need it. I have another one.
But are you, at 65, thinking more of death because of all of these that have preceded your own?
No, you know, I think, Bill, I think I fell in love. And so I started thinking about, what else are we going to do?
You fell in love?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. It is wonderful. You know, you just keep thinking of things that are wonderful to do. And life is a good idea.
Tell me what it takes to write a love poem.
I think a generous spirit and a willingness to make a fool of yourself.
That's love, right?
That's love too.
And you somewhere that love is about you and not the beloved. And that's very important to remember as you're writing a poem. Why?
Because it's your trip. And, you know, it's one of the reasons, I think, that people, and I've always been amazed that you can break up with somebody, and somebody will say to you, "Well, if you leave me I'm going to kill you." Now, logic says, if I'm dead, you still didn't get me. Right? So how do we get you see what I'm saying? How do we get to that point?
And I think that we have to look at I love you, which is enhancing to me. I learned a long time ago, because I just fell madly in love, and I don't mind saying this, his wife knows it, with Billy Dee Williams. Billy is so good looking. If I was 40 years younger I'd be in love with Barack Obama. But I realized that it had nothing to do with Billy Dee. And I remember meeting him. And I said, you know, "Your wife's going to kill me." He said, "She don't care." But being in love has nothing to do with how the person feels about you. It has to do with how you feel about yourself.
That's often the source of the pain is if you love someone who doesn't love you.
No, that's just because you're expecting something that you can't have. The love is itself. That is the journey. And that's the journey that you're on. Because love, that kind of love is crazy. And it's going to go away. It's like a cold. Except that the cold is uncomfortable. I mean, you're madly in love, and the hormones are raging, but, hey, six months from now you'll be off doing something else. So you give over. It's the truth. You enjoy that feeling. Being an artist you, of course, put it into that. I mean, you look at and I'm really fond of the writing of like a Paul Williams, you know, "You and I against you and me against the world," something like that. For that moment that you are in that spot the best thing that ever happened to you was that you saw that person and all the lights went on. Now you ask yourself, not what can that person do for me, but what can I do. I've got the light, what do I do with it?
I read these poems, every one of them reeks with desire.
Well, desire is there. You fall in love, there's always desire. But, also, there's a lot of longing. And I realize a lot of this book, too, still has a lot to do with my mother. That I miss the safety. And I think that one is never so safe again as when one's mother is not there to put their arms around. I mean, they're just your mom just makes you safe. You know? No matter what it is you go and your mother just says, "It's going to be all right." No matter what it is, you say, "Yeah." So I really had to almost stop myself, on April 16th, from picking up the phone, because she wasn't there. But that's who I would have wanted to talk to from that tragedy. I wanted to hear my mother's voice.
When the killings occurred you wanted to talk to your mom?
Yeah. I did. I wanted mommy. Because I knew she'd make sense out of it for me.
My mother's been dead almost ten years now, and I still reach for the phone to call her. And then suddenly I realize there's nobody to pick up 4606, you know.
What I think all of us realize is that it's not that phone, but there's another one. Because you do sort of, sometimes, you know, in the middle of the night, you're sleeping, you just feel like somebody. And I felt that, that I just heard, "It's going to be all right. Everything's going to be all right." And it just allows you, just you know, science teaches us: matter is neither created nor destroyed. And that's true. I believe that. I have no problem with it. If that's the case, then what was, is. So we lose the body but we keep the spirit. And it's up to us, the spirit is not there to scare us. I don't believe in ghosts and things like that. But there is an energy. And we have to keep finding ways to tap into it.
And you do that by writing.
I do that by writing. I do that by listening. I do that by allowing myself to admit that I'm sad. I don't always I mask a lot of my feelings, but there are just times that you have to admit, "I'm really sad. I really wish I had my mother." And you just have to kind of let see if you can get the feeling to come to you.
Read "Everything Good Is Simple."
"Everything good is simple: a soft boiled egg...toast fresh from the oven with a pat of butter swimming in the center...steam off a cup of black coffee... John Coltrane bringing me 'Violets for My Furs'
"Most simple things are good: Lines on a yellow legal pad... dimples defining a smile...a square of gray cashmere that can be a scarf... Miles Davis 'Kind of Blue'
"Some things clear are complicated: believing in a religion...trying to be a good person...getting rid of folk who depress you...Horace Silver 'Blowing the Blues Away'
"Complicated things can be clear: Dvo‰ôˆ°k's 'New World' Symphony... Alvin Ailey's 'Revelations'... Mae Jemison's riding in space... Mingus 'Live at Carnegie Hall'
"All things good are good: poetry... patience... a ripe tomato on the vine... a bat in flight... the new moon...me in your arms... things like that"
Oh, I like that.
It's a nice poem.
And then there's "Give It a Go?" on page 34.
"Give It a Go?" is just an old lusty poem. I love it.
"I like to polish
Rub the paste in
Let it set
Then shine shine shine
"Even as a little girl
I loved to wash
Watch the light bounce
Off of the edges
Of the glasses
"We were taught
Never to use clear
But trim our nails
To a respectable length
And buff them
With lamb's wool
"I wipe my bathroom
Mirror after each shower
And always shine my faucet
In order to properly care for things
They must be loved
"Want to give it
You know, that's a shout out to Prince Charles and Camilla.
Yeah. Because you remember, when they met, the myth, I don't know them, but the myth was Camilla said, "You know, my grandmother was the mistress of your grandfather. Want to give it a go?" And so I did this as a shout out to Charles. I'm a big fan of Charles. I think he's a great kid. And had a lot on him to be, what, is he 55 years old? To spend your life waiting for your mother to die so that you can do what you were born to do. That's a burden. And that's where that's a shout out to Charles.
These poems are a long way from your days as a young revolutionary.
Did you know love then? Or was it the love of the cause? The passion of the commitment?
Thank you. Young people do things differently. And I did what I thought I should do. And I'm very, very proud of my work. But as we go along, I mean, the hip-hop generation elected a president. Barack Obama's President of the United States. This is something that we would have dreamed of.
One of the poems here in "Bicycles" is a poem I did for Huey Newton, who was a wonderful young man. And I just hated that people had so misunderstood Huey. But this was Huey's dream. He's the one electing people. He's the one registering voters. He's the one having school programs and things, you know. The politics of it was Huey. Martin Luther King, Jr. was about justice for the world. Martin would be happy, I'm sure. And, I don't want to speak for Martin, I don't want you to misunderstand. But he would be happy that the United States had elected a fine young man. But he would still weep for the genocide that we're finding all over Africa. He would weep for the children dying of malaria. He wanted a just earth. His vision was way beyond an American president.
Are you saying that his dream, "I have a dream," was not fulfilled in Obama's election?
No. I'm yes. That's what I'm saying. That it was not. Obama's election, we hope, is a step. Obama said that. Barack is a smart man. I really, I'm so proud of the United States for having elected him. Because this is not the change, as Barack Obama himself said. This is the ability to make the change. And that it's a fine line, but it's so true.
And King's Dream was for a just world.
For a just world, sure. Martin was Martin is one of the great people in the 20th century. He's way beyond America. He, again, brought a simple thing, a bus boycott, by a great woman, Rosa Parks. Without Mrs. Parks there's no boycott. Because Mrs. Parks was so well regarded that when this happened to her, it was like not, not Mrs. Parks. And so the city came together and they asked, as you know, Martin to speak. You were there. And Martin spoke. He's 26 years old. So he's a child. And he knows, when he goes to that podium, that a bell, you know, a clock starts to tick. He knows he's not going to die of old age. He knows he's not going to see his grandchildren. He knows these things. But he did his job. But his job was not the bus boycott, or what happened in Birmingham, or that wonderful speech on the March on Washington. His job was to change the earth. And he did. You can go anyplace on planet earth, any part of Africa, any part of Europe, and you see pictures of Martin. He's way bigger. He's way bigger.
Does Obama's election mean in your eyes, that we've moved into a post-racial world, as some people are saying?
Well, I think as much as people don't like it, yeah.
Is that feasible? And is it desirable? That we don't think of race anymore?
Oh no, no, we think of race. But we now don't think that that is an automatic exclusion. And there's going to be racist things that are going to happen. I mean, we've already seen a young man gets shot in the back in Oakland, California. The young baseball player gets shot in his own driveway, you know. We see things like that.
But when for me, Bill, to say it's post racial, is to say that we now have to find a way to move our nation, and our own individual desires and possibilities, beyond it. We have to recognize that when we look at a Barack Obama, we are looking at a man of color. If we just go back even ten years, when we looked at Tiger Woods, maybe 15, I forget how long Tiger Woods has been around, I remember Tiger Woods having that discussion, "I'm not really black." Well, it was fine with me, 'cause you don't want to be black, you don't have to be. But it's really one of those you want to call up and say, "Tiger, baby, have you looked in the mirror lately?"
And, you know, we're moving, not that we don't see race, because we'll always see it, but that now it is an enhancement. Right now, somebody is saying, "My daughter, my daughter, can be president of the United States." 'Cause maybe the first Chinese-American will be a woman president of the United States. We've opened up the world.
What opened up your world? What empowered you?
I think, largely, my grandmother. Because she was a great old girl. I adored her. And, you know, grandmother would walk, and I'd be right behind her. If she stopped, I would bump into her. I absolutely adored her. I always felt I wrote the poem "Knoxville, Tennessee" for grandmothers love poem to grandmother. And I know the term I use a lot is safe, and it's because I'm an artist, and I never feel safe. So I'm always looking for safe places. And, you always felt safe with grandmother. With grandmother was always saying, you know, "You should do this." Mommy would say, "You can." You know. But grandmother's like, "You should." Because grandmother wanted to change the world. And, you know, when you have a retrospective on your mother, your father, your grandparents, or something, you realize that grandmother wanted to change the world. She wasn't ambitious, like she didn't care about money and stuff. But she wanted to make an impact. And she fought very hard, in Knoxville, Tennessee, to make changes for those of us who are black. Grandmother's, you know, a black woman, obviously. And I think I took her drive to make a difference. You want to make a difference.
Where did this adoration of words come from?
Oh, probably grandpapa, because he was a Latin teacher. And grandpapa was 20 years he's a Fisk University graduate. He taught Latin at Austin High School. And grandpapa was 20 years older than grandmother when he met talk about a crazy love. He fell in love with her. And, he was married, unfortunately. And grandmother wouldn't have any truck with him. And it took me the longest I used to hear them talk, 'cause I lived with them. And he would say, "I only wanted to kiss your grandmother." And his name was John Brown Watson. And grandmother would invariably say, "John Brown, if I had let you kiss me, you would have never married me." And I had no idea, you know, you can't corrupt the innocent. Had no idea what that meant. And I was old before I realized that's a metaphor. It wasn't about a kiss. 'Cause, to me, a kiss is, you know. It was a metaphor. And grandmother was right. If she had let him make love to her he'd have never married her. So he divorced his wife and he married her. But now he's 20 years older. So when we come along, grandpapa is an old man. And was not one the suffer fools gladly. So I never knew why grandpapa spent time with me.
But he would say, you know, "Nikki, let's go look at the stars." I know the stars. We'd go out, and, "That's Orion's belt. And that's the Big Dipper." And he would explain that. He would help me, I'm not good at conjugating Latin verbs. He read all of the myths to me. Because I guess I was the granddaughter that I don't know why. I don't know why grandpapa spent time with me.
Why he invested so much in you?
Yeah. I really don't.
He saw something.
Yeah. But he did. I mean, he I don't know. But that's where all of that comes from. And my father's a big talker. So if you put the combination of my grandfather's intellectual with my father's B.S.-ing, I think that you end up with a Nikki.
You wrote a poem once to specifically empower girls.
Why did you think they need a special kind of empowerment?
Because girls are always sitting around listening to stupid things that boys say. And girls, you know, half the games girls play, Little Sally Walker, what is she doing? She's rising to the east, looking for the one she loves the best. What did what's her name? Snow White. And she's going to go to sleep until "one day my prince will come."
You get sick of that. You got a girl who can spin flax into gold, and her father, "The Miller's Tale," which became "Rumpelstiltskin," her father than takes her up to the prince to say, "You should marry my daughter. She can spin flax into gold." What does she need with him? If I can spin flax into gold I would I mean, she didn't need the prince. And I got sick of girls always saying, you know, "Well, we'll just see what the boys want to do." And so I wrote "Ego-Tripping... I was born in the Congo." I wanted to give the girls a shout out to how wonderful it is to be a girl. You are complete within yourself.
"(there may be a reason why)
"I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
"I sat on the throne
drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
the tears from my birth pains
created the nile
I am a beautiful woman
"I gazed on the forest and burned
out the sahara desert
with a packet of goat's meat
and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
so swift you can't catch me
"For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
He gave me rome for mother's day
My strength flows ever on
"My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
men intone my loving name
"All praises All praises
I am the one who would save
"I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filings for my fingernails are
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
across three continents
"I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended
except by my permission
"I mean...I...can fly
like a bird in the sky..."
But you know, the joy of my life I wrote this for little girls but the joy of my life was watching a couple of little kindergarten boys recite that for me once. And I realized, I think I have a good poem because the boys didn't feel excluded. You know, when you can do something like that and little boys say, "I was born in the Congo," it was, like, whoa, wait a minute. We might have something here. So I was 'cause little girls are always getting dumped on. And I just wanted to say, but, look, everything that happened on earth is about you.
What was the turning point in your life? As you look back, what do you see as the moment that was the hinge?
I think its maybe ten years down the pike. I haven't hinged yet. I haven't thought about it like that.
No, but you start out as this passionate, incendiary, controversial activist. What was it? The Princess of Black Poetry?
Yeah. That was nice.
Yeah, and here you-
I'm still passionate. I just don't try to censor myself as I go through things. I was never an ideologue. I think-
What were you?
I was just a woman looking at the world, trying to find a way to be happy and to be safe and to make a contribution. And, in order to do that, a lot of bush had to be cut down. I don't think I cut down any trees. I'm a big fan of trees. But there was a lot of weeds out there. And racism, poverty, just basic prejudice against women. Prejudice against any number of things. And so you go through, not the jungle, because the jungle is impassable, but you go through that field. And you say to yourself, "I have got to knock some of these weeds down." And so that's all I was trying to do. And I was just trying to be me.
The book is "Bicycles: Love Poems." Nikki Giovanni, it's been wonderful to talk with you.
Oh, Bill, thank you. It's been my pleasure.
That's it for the Journal this week. Be sure to join us on our website at pbs.org, where you can find more poetry and prose from Nikki Giovanni, as well as some useful online tools that will help you track just where all those billions of economic stimulus dollars are supposed to go.
That's at pbs.org. I'm Bill Moyers and I'll see you next time.