Andrew Ferguson

Andrew Ferguson was interviewed on May 21, 2014. Mr Ferguson appeared on Booknotes on November 3, 1996, where he discussed his book Fools' Names, Fools' Faces.

Interview Transcript

Good morning. Today is Wednesday, May 21, 2014, and we are interviewing author Andrew Ferguson, who appeared on Booknotes on November 3, 1996, to discuss his book, Fool's Names, Fool's Faces. My name is Misha Griffith, and Bob Vay is behind the camera. Good morning, Mr. Ferguson.

Good morning.

Thank you for having us to your office.

Very happy to do it.

So how did you come to be on Book Notes?

Well, I had a long history with C-SPAN, Brian, by then. I think I was first on in 1985. I'd been with a magazine called the American Spectator that had been out in Bloomington, Indiana, and had moved to Washington or to Arlington, Virginia. And I guess Brian had read the magazine for many years because he's also a Hoosier, and so they spent a week over at our offices doing interviews with everybody, and I think they filmed an editorial meeting or something. I can't really remember. And it was the first time I was ever on television. It was a roundtable in our conference room with another guy, Bill Tucker, and the sort of right-wing, rich guy, journalist, talkie, and me.

And I was just thinking the other night, it was so long ago that I could actually smoke on camera. That's how ancient it seems now. But anyway, so Brian and I continued to have sort of a friendship, and I was on several times on his regular call-in show. And then I guess he just happened to see the book when the book came out. There were a stack of books that they would get there. And he decided he wanted to do it, and somebody called me and said, "Can you do this?" It wasn't him.

And how did you prepare for your appearance?

I read the book again because I had already forgotten most of what was in it. And let's see, I guess my wife helped me pick out a tie. I used to wear bow ties all the time back then because I wanted to look nice. It was interesting because I watched Booknotes every night, I mean every Sunday, as many of my friends did. And it was a big thing in Washington. For publicity for that book, I did lots of things like Good Morning America and other shows. And the publicist was by far much more excited that I was going to be on Booknotes than Good Morning America, which she arranged, I think. I assume she arranged to get on Good Morning America, but the Booknotes thing came through back channels, sort of. But as she explained, Good Morning America, you'll reach 12 million people, and 40 of them buy books. Whereas Booknotes, you'll reach 500,000 people, and all of them buy books. So which is a better deal? So they were very excited that I was going to be on Booknotes.

What do you remember most about your appearance on the program? And things like the studio, and what was the atmosphere like in the building?

You know, I don't remember that well. I believe it was done on the first floor of that 400 North Capitol building. Because they used to have a studio on the first floor, and then they had stuff up on the, whatever it is, fourth or fifth floor. And so it was a closed-in studio, I remember that. And I don't know, it was a very relaxed time. That was always such a great thing about being on C-SPAN. Especially if it was Brian, it was just extremely, it was like you were sitting in a living room talking to your friend. It really wasn't, it didn't burnish itself in my memory for that. So Booknotes' hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less.

You mentioned your Good Morning America appearance. What do you think are the benefits or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

Well, for the viewer I think it can probably be rough sledding, because a lot of authors have this sort of log area, words just pour out of them and they won't stop talking, which I think can be kind of painful for the viewer sometimes. But of course, from my perspective, you actually can explain what you mean. You don't have to crunch everything down into pithy lines. As you do when you're promoting a book, you furnish your mind with eight or ten or twelve sentences that you just repeat over and over again that are supposed to give somebody an idea of what the book is. And you don't have to worry about that with C-SPAN. So that's an enormous advantage for a writer. You get to explain yourself. And for people who are watching, assuming that I do, that they're all book people, they all love books or they wouldn't be watching the show. They get to see who those strange people are who put all those words on the page. So I loved it just as a writer and as a viewer too.

So judging from the extensive marginalia in his books, it appears that Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. Do you find this to be normal with interviewers? And how does it change the interview experience?

Well, it's definitely not normal, as I'm sure everybody will tell you who's done those kinds of things. It's very rare to find somebody who's read the book. Even on NPR, which is sort of more of a bookish world, you'd think, in my experience, it's very rare that the people will have read the book. I remember one local NPR show I did once. I had written a book about Abraham Lincoln, which Brian Lamb actually kind of helped me with. It was supposed to be semi-humorous sort of thing. We were on this big call-in show in, I think it was Pittsburgh. Big deal, you know, because I was going to be doing a reading that night and it was really going to get out all the publicity. So we're just about to go on the air and the lady has her headphones down around her neck and she says, "Oh, by the way, you've got to talk to your publicist because your publicist is selling this book as though it's really funny." And you know what? It's not. It's not funny at all. "Okay, we're on." And then she puts on the -- and I'm like, "What?" So she had read the book, but that wasn't any help at all because she hated it. So in some instances it's better that you just -- that they haven't read the book. But Brian had read the book and had appreciated it. I mean, I think that was one thing that I've talked to other people who were on it is he always gave you the sense that he liked the book, even if he didn't. And I'm sure there were a lot that he didn't. Sometimes I would think, "My God." Because I know he read every page of every book, but I thought, "How on earth did you manage to finish that awful dog of a book?" But anyway, even if -- he never betrayed his feelings in that way. So the writer was on and felt more comfortable because he figured, "Here's a guy who understands the book, who's read it, and likes it." You know, most important of all, he liked my book.

Do you see the Booknotes interview as being something of an intermediary between just the elevator pitch that you have to give on the typical show and an actual printed review of someone who carefully read the book, you hope, and will hopefully give it a fair shake?

Yeah, that's an interesting point. Of course, with Brian, his great gift has always been to be sort of transparent. I mean, he is America's guy in Washington, you know? And all he's trying to do -- because he's famously self-effacing -- he's trying to become the windowpane through which you can show yourself to the audience. And one hopes to readers. And so in that sense, he's an intermediary. But he's not a reviewer. He's not critiquing books. So that's also a relief, I think, to any writer. Not only does he like the book, he's not going to tell me if he doesn't.

So Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe the reading public finds these tales about the practice of writing interesting? And do you think authors and other publishers find them interesting as well?

Well, I think writers all find stories like that very interesting. Find out, you know, sort of shop talk. You know, what time of day do you write? How many words a day do you feel like you have to do? I'm sure readers, especially viewers of Book Notes, who are book people, I'm sure are very curious as to how books actually get put together and how the words appear on the page. Publishers? No, I don't think publishers care. George Will once told me that -- the columnist said, "I think I just started publishing." Maybe it was when this book came out and he said, "You know, I have to tell you the secret about publishers. And if you know this, everything else will fall into place. Publishers hate books." And, aha, you know, the little light bulb went on and I realized, yes, you know, that explains a lot of my relationship with the publisher. So, I've been lucky actually in my editors and publishers, but publishers are not -- they're marketers more than anything else. And so they're tradesmen in that way. I don't think they care that much about the inside, baseball.

Fascinating. Mr. Lamb frequently asks guests biographical questions, usually in those short staccato kids' ages. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Did that surprise you and is this generally different from most author interviews you experience?

Oh, no, it didn't surprise me because I knew him and I knew his methods and I'd seen the show. But, yeah, it is different from other -- I mean, it is another way in which the Booknotes experience was different from any other book promotion. Because in between all these sort of very substantial and interesting questions he'd be asking you about the meat of the book, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, your kids. Okay, so now I have to switch track and I have to think about my kids. What are their names again? And then all of a sudden it's back to some deep question about the book. And I've always wondered whether he did that kind of strategically. I mean, whether he would mix those questions up as a way of keeping the writer from falling into formulaic answers and stuff. So that he could guarantee that he was going to get something fresh by alternating tellists about cosmology to what's your dog's name kind of thing. And he's just switching back and forth like that was very -- it certainly worked. I don't know if he did it strategically or not.

Were there any of the questions he asked that surprised you?

Yeah, I'll never forget one. He said, "Andrew Ferguson, why do you do what you do?" And I was like, you know, it's the kind of question you don't really want to ask yourself. And so I told him, "Well, you know, it happens every two weeks in the mail I get this little envelope that has a little rectangular piece of paper on it and it has numbers. And that's pretty much why I do it, which is true. But it took me a while to think. Well, you then went into a description of the writing process and how -- Oh, did I? I don't quite remember. Oh, is that -- oh, yeah, yeah. I remember that I went on a song and, you know -- Yeah, it was heartening for those of us who are in the middle of our dissertation process.

Oh, good. Did you watch Booknotes before -- well, we established you watched it before.

Yes, absolutely.

Did your experience on the show change your perspective on it?

No, no, because, you know, as I said, I'd been watching it before and I knew Brian outside of Booknotes because I'd been on these other shows of his. So, no, it didn't really change anything. I was extremely flattered to be asked and, you know, no matter what anyone tells you about their false modesty, everybody likes being able to go on for an hour talking about himself. That's just -- people like that. People get -- and they don't often get a chance to do it, at least not with my wife. You can't. She won't let me. The Booknotes series focused entirely on nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantages of an 800-book collection of these selections? Wow. Well, I just would think it would be invaluable. I'm so happy to hear that this is going on. I'm sure this is kind of a cliché, but it's really sort of a portrait of intellectual life among the academic and political class. And I can't imagine that anybody could dip into it without getting a sense of how the world was changing and what the intellectual currents were. I mean, he really had a great -- I never discerned the principle that he used in picking what books, but -- picking the books he did. But I was -- well, you know, I mean, they were all over the lot, totally unpredictable, but always sort of reflective of something that was going on beyond the book itself. I mean, I don't think he would -- he didn't have -- in the '90s, for example, there were a ton of books. Memoirs became very big, usually written -- Barack Obama's first book is a classic example of it, usually written by people who haven't lived long enough to have an interesting life. But, you know, they were very anguished, and they were nonfiction books, and I don't think he ever fell for that trendy kind of thing. But he did have memoirists on, obviously, but people who had lived substantial lives. So you always got something far beyond just the mere author's experience. You were seeing some kind of larger -- he was giving you a window into a larger world by talking about the book. And if you put all that together, I just think it would be an amazing collage of -- >> Well, even with your book as a collection of essays that you had written since, I think, 1984, you can see that sweep happening, those changes that are slowly happening. And your book is interesting in the way that you actually reflect on how these changes are occurring with the administration. >> Yeah, and that never stops, of course. I don't know, I haven't looked at that book in so long as I imagine it looks horribly dated, but that's journalism for you. >> It's very explanatory of the politics of the time. >> Well, that's good to hear. >> It's a helpful window. >> Well, that's good to hear. >> Into understanding, you know, if you're looking at it from just the position of what the bare bones journalism is happening, or what the scholars are writing about, it has a particular niche. >> Yeah. You know, one thing that always helped me, my fondness for it, his obsessions were kind of my obsessions in a way. I mean, I say he didn't understand the principle by which he picked books, but -- and it's also kind of a Midwestern thing, maybe. I'm from Illinois, my wife is from Indiana, and Brian, of course, is from Indiana. And his love of history was sort of a theme that tied the whole show together, because I think probably if you looked at it, I'm sure there were more history books than anything else. I don't know, he probably made a count. But I really appreciated that, because I'd grown up around people who loved history, and I loved history, and I wanted my children to grow up loving history. My wife loves history. And I really -- I don't know, I really felt compatible with him in that way, that he was so deeply interested in the country's past.

Brian Lamb and C-SPAN had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. You, in fact, came -- were there before and thereafter. If asked, would you appear on the show again?

 In a heartbeat, in a heartbeat. No, it's such a privilege to be able to sit down with him. I mean, people said -- I mean, he really is the greatest interviewer I've ever seen. And, you know, there are great interviewers. Diane Rehm is a very good interviewer, but he's absolutely the best. Partly it's because of this transparency thing I was talking about. It's just Diane Rehm has a very big personality. Charlie Rose, who's also a good interviewer, has a very big personality. Brian does not let whatever personality he has become an issue in any conversation. And, you know, the fact that he has these out of left field questions, you know, like why do you do what you do, or kids, you know, makes him just really the best there ever was, I think.

Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your books after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes?

Yeah, actually, I mean, the book didn't sell worth beans, but it was -- because so many people in Washington, in New York publishing, watched Booknotes, it -- I mean, I became better -- I think being on Booknotes was more important to me than -- or to, you know, any kind of public figure I have than actually publishing the book. You know, I was sort of the guy who got to go on Booknotes to promote whatever the book was. And, yeah, because you just reached people who were very important in the journalism world then.

 Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?

No, I don't think so. Although, the next book I did, which was quite a while later, and wasn't a collection, but was a through-written book about Abraham Lincoln, Brian was enormously helpful in that, in my research, because he's sort of a Lincoln buff, although he says he's not. He is a Lincoln buff. And because of the wonderful things he'd done with C-SPAN, you know, they did the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and he had this series where they followed Tocqueville's Journey Through America, and so just absolutely unique and wonderful television. He knew a lot about people out in the heartland who were interested in history. And so when I told him that I wanted to do this book, he immediately gave me three or four leads that ended up being in the book, I mean, ended up probably being half the book. And so, I mean, that's the influence he's had on my research, I guess, but it wasn't through being on Booknotes.  

What have you been working on after this book? You mentioned the Lincoln book. And which works are you most pleased with?

 Oh, boy, I don't know. I'm not really particularly pleased with them. I wish, you know, I look back and I think I wish I'd done it better or I'd had more time or -- actually, I tell myself I wish I'd had more time, but I don't think more time would have helped. There's a great quote from Karl Krauss, the German philosopher and writer, who said, "A journalist is somebody who, if you give him more time, writes worse." And I think that that's kind of probably true of me being a journalist rather than a historian or academic. So it doesn't. >> But then again, it's your bread and butter is more of a daily column. >> Yeah, well, magazine articles really. >> Yeah, magazine articles. >> Yeah, I was a weekly columnist for a while, but I stopped that. >> Yeah, that's got to drain off -- >> It does, it really does. In another way, though, it kind of replenishes it because you have to keep your mind working all the time. I know a lot of people who write columns simply so it helps them write books because the mind never stops. So it's always kind of in gear and well oiled. >> In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes on the American society? >> Well, I'm sure it's not enough. I don't know. I'm sure that they're everywhere you would go. There are people who remember reading Booknotes and who found a book that they wouldn't have found otherwise or inflamed their love of reading or of the intellectual life or the life of the mind. And I imagine that the -- I don't see any great sweeping cultural effect, but I'm sure the effect is very real through individual human beings who got touched by it.

Is there anything that you would like to add regarding Booknotes or C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

You know, I think I did write something down that I wanted to make sure I got through. Oh, yeah, I think I wanted to say one thing that made him so unique in Washington was I kind of have suspicions about what Brian's personal politics are, but I don't know. And he certainly never explained them to me. But the fact that he seemed so non-ideological and in a time that was becoming where we have what we have now, which is this hideously over politicized, over ideologized atmosphere in Washington, which was just coming to fruition, I think, when he was starting off in Booknotes in the '90s, the fact that he was non-ideological and that his only lodestar was his curiosity, which seemed to be endless. You know, I mean, he could be interested in anything. Gave him a stature here that is really hard to describe. And I don't know anybody who doesn't like him. I would love to know at the end of your project if there's anybody who says something bad about him because he's so admirable in so many ways. And partly because he rose above this awful ideologized world that he was covering. And Booknotes was a perfect example. He had left-wingers and right-wingers and moderates and apolitical people. And you never could tell what his own politics were. Wonderful, very rare thing. The rarest thing in Washington, I think.

Well, Mr. Ferguson, thank you for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experiences on this groundbreaking television interview program.

I'm very, very, very grateful to you for having the chance. Thank you.