MOYERS: John Leonard is our most prolific and eclectic cultural critic. His movie and television reviews appear every week in NEW YORK MAGAZINE.
Turn the pages of HARPER'S and you'll find his critique of a new memoir by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His byline is there in the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS and THE NATION. And you'll see him on CBS SUNDAY MORNING. His reviews take no prisoners. Consider this one about the movie, no slight intended, KILL BILL.
In his spare time he's written four novels and seven works of non-fiction. He's the editor of this new one, a collection of essays each about a different state of the union by a different writer. Here to talk about the state of the union is John Leonard.
LEONARD: Thanks for having me, Bill.
MOYERS: Well, welcome. You call this book a sort of rescue project. Your own reality programming. How so?
LEONARD: Well, you begin to feel that the bog people have taken over the country, have taken over the flag, have taken over the patriotism of wholly occupied the Grand Canyon and that those of us who still insist as part of the nostalgia craze in believing in social and economic justice have been dumped in the Atlantic. We don't belong here anymore.
And I know that's not to be true. I know that even watching the Dixie Chicks, I realize that there is an alternative to the agenda that comes out of Washington. What I don't know as somebody who has lived in New York for a very long time is actually what people are thinking outside of the city and outside of journalism and outside of editors who determine what's culturally important and what's not according to what they hear at pubs. And depending on how much money is being spent to advertise a cultural event. So we thought to do in this book what THE NATION magazine had actually done back in the 1920s.
LEONARD: The first time that was of THESE UNITED STATES. And they'd gone to as many writers as they could think of, including H.L. Mencken and Theodore Dreiser and W.E.B. Du Bois and some others and some many that you haven't heard of. And the same probably will operate with our people.
We have famous names. We have unknowns that are coming up. But we thought to just check with them were we out of our minds that something was missing? That what network television presented as America, what the news programs present as America, what Fox News thinks of as America, what the blogosphere and Clear Channel and all these people think of as America.
Which leaves us out. Were there any people like us out there? If so, what were they doing? How did they feel? What did they, you know, what got them angry? What brought them to exaltation? And I particularly wanted to bring more novelists into the…
MOYERS: Mystery writers. Detective writers.
LEONARD: Yeah, and they… this is a…
MOYERS: Odd assignment for…
LEONARD: Well, if for your sins you read as much fiction as I do, one thing that occurs to you is that many of the academic novels, the serious, elite novels are about language.
They're not about community. They're not about social justice. They're not about class if you can mention the word class struggle, class animas, class mobility. Mystery novelists begin with an ethical dilemma. Begin with a crime. And more often than not, the private eye especially, is the Don Quixote of the social order.
MOYERS: Even Garrison Keillor has Guy Noir.
LEONARD: Yeah, here we go. So, yes, Janwillem van de Wetering up in Maine who has written wonderful Zen Buddhist mysteries. And James Lee Burke down in Louisiana. And you know, we've had and Tony… And what we get is a different sound, is a different, it's, you know, it reminds…
MOYERS: Different sound from…
LEONARD: Yeah, a different sound from…
MOYERS: …from the mass media.
LEONARD: …from the homogenization that has occurred. I give you an example that goes way back in my life. It involves Molly Ivins. And when I was the editor of the TIMES BOOK REVIEW in the early 1970s and was reading Molly down in Texas and saying, "This is an extraordinary voice."
It's something that we have to have in the TIMES BOOK REVIEW. And I called her up. And she agreed to review some books for us. And I hung up feeling very satisfied. And then I had to call her again because it occurred to me I didn't want her to try to write for the NEW YORK TIMES. I wanted her to write the way she wrote.
Not the way she thought people wrote for the NEW YORK TIMES. And she did. She wrote only one way. Her mistake was then coming to work for the NEW YORK TIMES thereafter where they didn't really want her to write the way she wrote.
MOYERS: And using a word…
LEONARD: Yeah, yeah, using those words and use…
MOYERS: …that offended the NEW YORK TIMES style.
LEONARD: Yeah, but also it's not just the words because the words, the style always reflects a habit of mind. And the habit of mind comes in from a different angle. The habit of mind uses the colloquial here and uses the joke there. And then creates some discordant music and then something strange and wonderful happens.
And you see things differently. You see a different light is shed on it. Well, it's that tone. It's the NEW YORK TIMES having a style which it not… the TIMES is much more hospitable to different styles now than it was 25, 30 years ago. But the culture as a whole is losing its individual notes, its diversity. And this is… it's not only sad. It's devastating. It's devastating because routine language means routine thought. And it means unquestioning thought. It means if I can't… if new words cannot occur to me and new image does not occur to me, then what I'm doing is I'm simply repeating what I've heard.
And what we hear from an overpowering cultural force and the forces of homogenization, what we hear is sell, sell, buy, buy. That's it. That is the function.
MOYERS: You write in here, quote, Ours is a "buzz age. So full of yak, cable, white noise…" advertisments, videos, "dis-information and hypnotherapy that sorting out the signals to arrive at scruple, gravity or grace gets harder and harder." Scruple, gravity, grace. I mean, God, those words call for something that's missing.
LEONARD: Those are pretty good words aren't they? Aren't they? They resonate. And why do they resonate? Because, boy, are they gone. Are they gone. I have to read a Toni Morrison novel to find gravity and grace, you know?
I can't remember the last time I thought of a spokesman for either an institution of government or a corporation that struck me as scrupulous. It, you know, what's happened is if everything gets commodified, value judgments like this don't apply anymore.
MOYERS: By commodified you mean?
LEONARD: No, I mean I grew up sort of in my New York career in the world of book publishing. And the entire 20th century book publishing's margin of profit was probably four percent.
But starting in the '80s the people who bought book publishers thinking they could make more money out of book publishers began assigning arbitrarily higher rates of return that they wanted. They wanted 14 percent or they wanted 17 percent or they wanted 24 percent return on profit to the share… return on investment to the shareholder at the quarterly dividend meetings, whatever.
They arbitrarily decided this. And they aren't getting it, of course, but they decided it. Who were these people? Where did they come from? What books that used to be unique, every book unique, became units. That's what I mean by commodification just on that simple level. It became what it is now which is, you know, they don't want criticism.
MOYERS: Do you, John, do you feel commodified at CBS NEWS SUNDAY MORNING now?
LEONARD: I feel that my role as a critic, I feel that all criticism, and this is not just CBS SUNDAY MORNING. I feel that this is what's happening in the culture in general. To describe, you know, CBS proved, you know, for the last five years essentially hasn't really wanted me to review television.
I was originally hired as a television reviewer. And they used to pride themselves on having the only network television critic of television. And I would review when they first came out LAW & ORDER on NBC. Or I would review CHINA BEACH which I loved on ABC. And I would review PICKET FENCES and MURPHY BROWN and you know, CBS. But it was all hands-off. Well, the competitive…
MOYERS: Nobody said you don't…
LEONARD: No, in fact, I was promised before I ever took the job that I would be protected. But the competitive environment obviously changed. And the competition is fierce. And the affiliates didn't, obviously, didn't want this.
And it was so you know, gradually I found that they really don't want me to review television at all. I'm not saying this is cast in stone. But it's not what they want.
What they want me to review is movies. And, but like, just like the arts and leisure section of the NEW YORK TIMES, just like the cover of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, just like any major media outlet that you can imagine, the movies that demand to be reviewed in the limited amount of the time that we have at CBS SUNDAY MORNING are the movies that everybody else is reviewing, the movies that everybody else can be counted on to talk about, because they're the movies that have the multi-million dollar budgets to promote them in advance.
They're the inevitable movies. They are not the movies that come with subtitles. They're not the movies, usually speaking, that come out of the independents. Because nobody's heard of them.
So it's like the old days of TIME and NEWSWEEK. You used to say, "Aren't they embarrassed when they both have the same covers? Both, same people on the covers? No. They're not embarrassed. They're relieved, because nobody has lost, you know, lost faith. This is what's happening to all the outlets. We're all talking about the same thing.
And it doesn't have to be Jessica Lynch. It doesn't have to be the Paris Hilton sex tape. It, you know, it doesn't have to be Michael Jackson's Neverland. It can be something worthier than that. It can be a perfectly decent movie like SHATTERED GLASS.
But it has to be, everybody has to agree this is what's important this week, or it's on the agenda. And the agenda is created by the buzz, as I said. The agenda is created by the buzz. The agenda is not created by what those of us who are critics would create by discovery.
MOYERS: What could you say then that you can't say now on CBS SUNDAY MORNING?
LEONARD: What has happened now is that I think that CBS is part of Viacom, is part of a huge corporation. The huge corporation is in business to make money. And anything that disturbs the audience out there, anything that might inspire e-mails of protest, like a Reagan movie, anything that will get one pressure group or another-upset is what they don't want.
MOYERS: There was this outcry from the right that the proposed miniseries about Ronald Reagan on CBS was not according to Hoyle. It didn't fit the party line.
MOYERS: And they dumped it to Showtime.
MOYERS: But the other day, the History Channel ran a documentary about the Kennedy assassination, and suggested that the men around Lyndon Johnson, of whom yours truly was one.
LEONARD: Yes. Yes.
MOYERS: Were responsible for his assassination. A few people, a few of my old colleagues from the Johnson era protested. But not only did the History Channel proceed with it, but they are repeating it. Now how do you explain that?
LEONARD: Well here what an interesting question. Because I haven't had a chance to say this to anybody or in any of my various venues. I think the NEW YORK TIMES is partly to blame. Or maybe even largely to blame.
The Reaganauts played this very carefully. When they heard about this, not having seen it, of course having heard one line, an invented line, I mean what fictionalized miniseries has ever been accurate about anything?
LEONARD: I mean that's just a… that was absurd to begin with. But when they got excited about this prospect, among the places they went was the NEW YORK TIMES.
MOYERS: The right wing. When…
LEONARD: Yeah, the right wing. And all of those ex-Reagan administration people, and they were on the phone. And their letters, and the NEW YORK TIMES ran a huge story about their upset.
But the story itself set the agenda. You know what happens. You're in television. When the NEW YORK TIMES has a big story, the television people say, "My God, that becomes the number one thing." If it's about you, it's, you know, there's nothing else you could think about.
That story in the NEW YORK TIMES was the one that had to have started CBS worrying about what it had on its hands. And…
MOYERS: But they didn't write about the History Channel's…
LEONARD: Yeah, no.
LEONARD: Who heard about it? I only heard about it afterwards. And I'm a television critic.
MOYERS: The columnist John Leo, conservative columnist, U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT says the conservative media world has gotten very good, it's his word, at gang tackling.
MOYERS: Matt Drudge, Fox, the blockers, the talk show radio hosts, the columnists, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, it's like David Brooks, who's now writing…
MOYERS: …a regular column for the NEW YORK TIMES, says quote, The conservative media have "cohered to form a dazzlingly efficient ideology delivery system that swamps liberal efforts to get their ideas out." What does that mean for politics? Do you agree with it?
LEONARD: Well, I do agree with it. It means dire things for politics, if ever you close off, it becomes strictly partisan, it is, in effect, a right-wing Jacobinism.
LEONARD: Bloodthirsty. That's the terror in the French Revolution. And that means it's not politics anymore, it's a bloodthirsty crusade.
MOYERS: You haven't given up?
LEONARD: No. Why you can't give up. You know, Studs Terkel's a friend of mine. If he's not gonna give up, I'm not gonna give up.
MOYERS: Ninety years old.
LEONARD: Yeah, right. And his last book was HOPE.
MOYERS: In this book, LONESOME RANGERS, you say that it's "the protean nature of celebrity to shift shapes according to what a society at any given time has been encouraged to value or taught to fear." What are we taught to value today?
LEONARD: Well, I think we're taught to value the Donald Trumps of the world. I think we're taught to value the moneymakers of the world. And right now we're deluding ourselves into thinking that we're valuing the warriors. But we'll get the warrior thing because it doesn't work. Modern warfare doesn't quite yield the cult of personality that…
MOYERS: As Wesley Clark...
LEONARD: Yeah. I think we value success and we define success as money. And I think we fear, oh, do we fear all kinds of things.
MOYERS: James Lee Burke writes in his essay in this book of, "A place each of us has in our hearts like a stained glass cathedral visited by people who are emblematic of our lives." Do you have a place like that?
LEONARD: Well, I would have a couple places. A couple of bridges. The Golden Gate and the Brooklyn Bridge. But the odd thing I would add to it I never would have imagined growing up is it I'd add the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. I don't think I've ever… there was a war I opposed, I was hired by the NEW YORK TIMES out of the anti-war movement.
But I never opposed and neither did most of us, the young men who fought in that war and died in that war. And when I first saw that black wall, I thought, "Oh, my God. They've done it. Maya Lin has done it but she's done it for all of us. This is one of the places we belong."
What it isn't and what I don't have and maybe that's living too much in New York is I don't have a sense of sanctuary. I don't have a place where I think I can go. I once went to the famous Kyoto temple with the Zen garden, the gravel, the little mounds and it's, you know, it's been pictured over and over and over again. And what they don't tell you is that this little acre or some acre of serenity is surrounded by millions of people taking pictures.
So it sounds like a storm of mosquitoes constantly. And it never stops. And there's no serenity. And so not even in Japan can I find sanctuary.
MOYERS: For many of us, this is a sanctuary. THE BOOK IS THESE UNITED STATES. Original essays by leading American writers on their state within the Union. Edited and introduced by John Leonard. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
LEONARD: Thanks a lot.