Carl Cannon

Carl Cannon was interviewed on January 12, 2015. Mr. Cannon appeared on Booknotes on December 28, 2003, where he discussed his book The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtje, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vae. Today is January 12, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Carl Cannon, who appeared on Booknotes on December 28, 2003, to discuss his book, The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War.  Hello, Mr. Cannon, thank you for speaking with us today. How are you?

Doing well.

So how did your book come to be on Booknotes?

Well, you know, I don't know. I just got a call from a producer at C-SPAN, and they asked me if I'd do it. This is my recollection. And of course I was delighted. Considered a great privilege, and pretty happy. And how did you prepare for your appearance on the show? Well, I prepared for it about as well as I prepared for this interview with you, because I started, I looked at these questions, I thought, well, I don't know this stuff, I don't. And in all seriousness, I thought, you know, what am I going to do?

Okay. Well, I got a haircut. And then I thought, I opened my book up and said, do I know this book well enough to talk about it? And I thought, I sure do. So I just went on, you know. And what do you remember most from your appearance on the program? Well, what I remember most, I think, whatever, is a question that Brian asked me, and my answer and his answer, my answer, I'll just, I'll explain this. He said, about halfway through the interview, maybe 20 minutes into the interview, how, correct me if I'm wrong, he said. But I don't think you wrote a negative word about a president. And now the book was called The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War. And it's a, it was a book about how presidents in the United States, wartime presidents, but also other presidents, used the words of the Declaration of Independence, used the preamble to rally Americans to a cause, usually war, but some, but another cause, poverty, whatever the fight was. And I used most of the presidents and a handful of other people who never became president, but who were called upon to rally Americans. I have Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass and Eleanor Roosevelt, John McCain, and maybe one or two others. Anyway, that was my book about. So, Brian had clearly read it, which is rare, and I'm sad to say, when journalists interview people about books. But Brian had read it. And then he said, so, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think you wrote a negative word about a president. And I clipped back to him. Well, you'll notice I didn't mention Richard Nixon. Nixon's not in there. And the transcript says, "laughter" in parentheses. But the laughter's mine. Brian did not laugh. He kept a straight face, which kind of threw me off, because it's supposed to be, you know, it's a laugh line. But then I went on to explain, but it showed me, I've been a journalist for a long time, but it showed me it was that interviewing technique that Brian uses. He threw me off a little bit. He asked me a very insightful question.

But then without saying anything, just looking at me while I'm laughing at my own joke, he made me explain it.  And the explanation, it was, now my book's already in print, but it's as clear, it was like I was realizing what I had found in my book while answering his question. And what I said to Brian was, well, if you believe in American exceptionalism, and you believe that, as I do, that what it means is that it doesn't really, America's special, it means, as much as it means that, the United States of America has an obligation to its own citizens in the world to extend freedom to people who do not yet have it, you know, and whether you're talking about African Americans, women, handicapped, Kurds in Kurdistan, whoever you're talking about. Two groups of people always get this, American presidents and immigrants. Anyway, that's the answer I produced for Brian. And it was sort of more, it was more clear, it gave me a clearer understanding of my book until I had had, until that moment. I had never been able to explain to people as clearly what I was writing about until Brian asked me that question in that way. Yeah, I remember that question and that exchange from watching your book notes interview. Really? Yeah.

So this question stood out to you, but were there any other questions that surprised you that Brian Lamb asked?

Well, yeah, I think there were a couple, and one of them threw me off. Probably shouldn't have, probably neither of them should have made their related questions. He asked me if I was a happy person, because I'm writing about happiness. And I didn't expect him to make it, you know, to me personally. And I just kind of said, yeah, I guess I am. Like I hadn't really thought about it, but as I thought about it, I thought, yeah, it's probably true. And I also explained, and then he, I think he asked me a follow up question, a follow up, but it's just, you know, what makes people happy? We got into a kind of a conversation about that. And this I was prepared for because I, while writing the book, I had somebody on it, an editor or a friend, somebody had suggested to me, hey, you're going to be writing about pursuit of happiness, you know. You might explain to people what happiness, what is happiness, what makes people happy? And so I did all this research that was sort of outside my area. It wasn't about politics, it wasn't about presidents, but it was about happiness. Social science into what makes people happy. And what makes them happy is, is one of, I mean, given that if you don't, look, if you found out you had pancreatic cancer and you have two weeks to live, you're not happy. If you're dying of starvation, you're not happy. If you're in a war zone, you're not happy. I don't mean cataclysmic events, but I mean day to day happiness. And if you're just grindingly in poverty, then you probably can't be happy. But those extreme situations aside, what makes people happy is not money. It's being happy in their work. And it's being, it's working in a fulfilling place where they listen to you and you believe in the enterprise and you're able to do good work. And that was gratifying to me to find that out. And I'm sure, I've gotten to know Brian Lamb pretty well since then. I know he sort of lives this creed. And we talked about that a while. And we got on to Phil Burton, who Phil was a congressman from San Francisco, a very powerful congressman when I first arrived in Washington while Ronald Reagan was president. And Phil used to greet people and he'd say, "Are you happy in your work?" And it's a greeting I've adopted. I was close to Phil. My parents knew him. And I did get a smile out of Brian when he asked me about my father. And he, he, he, I had mentioned my father and Brian for the reason of the viewers and said, "Your father is," and then I described him. And then Brian kind of smiled and said, "Well, he had a two-hour book note." And I thought, "Now that's really arriving in Washington if Brian Lamb gives you a two-hour book note." I don't mean to go on and on here, but let me just, the other half of the question is the other part that he, that surprised me a little bit, he asked me if presidents were happy. And I just, you know, I didn't really know that. I didn't, I don't think all of them were. I didn't, I didn't really, I didn't give that much thought and I didn't have a good answer for it. Doesn't mean it wasn't a good question. It was a very good question.

So you mentioned how prepared Brian Lamb was. And judging from the extensive marginalia, which are in his books, he definitely did read them thoroughly. They actually have his copy of your book and it's incredibly, incredibly marked up, "A Librarian's Worst Nightmare." But did you find this preparation to be normal for interviewers? And how did it change the interview experience?

Well, it's not normal. Now C-SPAN's a, you know, a different, different kettle of fish than, you know, it's not like some DJ who's been handed a sheet two minutes before by a producer who's, you know, on AM radio somewhere in Dubuque can say, "Hey, you gotta interview this guy." I mean, it's a different deal and it's qualitatively different and Brian treats it as such. But, but even there, there were people, I'll tell you this, my father and I later wrote a book together. There were people who reviewed the book, reviewed it, mind you, who didn't read the whole book. And we know this because it said the Cannons didn't write about X and we had written about X later in the book, a lot about it, you know. And so for a guy to really read your book and think about it, it changes everything. It's like having a conversation with somebody who knows what they're talking about, who's thought about what you've thought about. You've got to, it elevates the conversation, just not counterintuitive, just as you think it might. But I think it brings out the best in the author. As I was saying before, so Brian's asking me about, I'd never said anything bad about presents. I hadn't thought of that before. But as he asked me about it, I realized why it's so. And we talked about it. It was the, you know, the best moments in the interview were when Brian asks you something that shows he's thought about what you read. And he's not confrontational, but he'll ask you, he makes inferences from what you write and he asks you about it. He asked me if, he inferred from my book that I was in favor of the Iraq invasion, for instance. Now I wasn't. But, and I was then a straight news reporter and I wouldn't have expressed much of an opinion, but I had misgivings about it. But he drew me out and we talked about that. It's just, it's much better. I wouldn't, I would, after that experience, by the way, I endeavored never to interview an author that I hadn't read his book. It's malpractice. Makes you feel like an idiot now. Brian Lamb set the standard there. Well, Book Note's hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which would last three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits or potential drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer? Well, you know, the drawback, potential drawback is you'll be long-winded and you won't be as focused, you know, as the author. You could make the argument that you don't need the full hour. C-SPAN's not about maximizing every second of airtime. It's more of a sort of national open mic night on America's civic conversation. So I think they have their pacing and I think it works for them. But, you know, a two and three minute interview, what you're doing there is you're getting to talking points and that's unfortunate. The Book Note's thing, the Book Note's format is a conversation and that, again, you make the argument he does some are two hours, some are one hour. You could do half an hour, probably. But I really, I think that it really allows, it allows for a conversation that if the rapport between the interviewer and the book author is a good one, I think it makes for a very, it makes for an elucidating conversation. I think it makes me want to read the book and think about the themes the author's discussing.

Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe that the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing to be interesting or do you think that other authors or publishers find them interesting?

I think that authors are always taken aback by them. You know, we operate in this, you know, highfalutin world of ideas. But I happen to know that television viewers and book readers and the public thinks those things are interesting because you get asked those questions. You know, I was covering the White House. I covered the White House for many years and people would always ask you, you know, what is Chelsea Clinton like? You know, did Clinton really throw, did Hillary throw that lamp at Bill Clinton or was it the other way around? You know, stuff like that. And some of it's gossipy, but also it's just, it's human. We want to know, we want to know the people, what they're like. And so, you know, I've got all these plaques on my walls in my office, including a framed Pulitzer Prize that the Senate and Mercury News won when I was on the staff for coverage of the Logan Prairie earthquake. It's not my individual award, but I was one of the people who worked on the story. I'm proud of it. But people come to the office, they sort of look at the Pulitzer, they look at the pictures of the Willie Mays, they look at me and Cal Rick, and they look at a lot of stuff. But then there's this framed thing, photo of Air Force One. And every time people say, "You've been on Air Force One?" I say, "Oh, yes, several times." And so I know that Brian's onto something with those kinds of questions. He asked me, for instance, because I interviewed Jimmy Carter, very brief interview with Jimmy Carter for my book, and he asked me, did I fly down to Atlanta and rent a car and drive to Plains, which is what I had done. And I know that that's the kind of thing people do wonder about. They wonder about the logistics of writing a book just as they do about the ideas behind them.

Mr. Lamb also frequently asks biographical questions. Did that surprise you, and was it different from most author interviews you've experienced?

Oh, yeah. Yeah, he... You know, I've seen Brian do that before. It always surprises you as a reporter to be asked about yourself, but in this case it really shouldn't. And he asked me... I still think those questions are important. Brian's not alone in doing that, and in this day and age, you know, people want to know where the person's coming from. In my interview, as I mentioned, we got to talking about Phil Burton. So, you know, I asked him... I mentioned that my... that I had known him, my parents had worked for him before... literally before I was born when my mother was pregnant with me. And then again when I was an infant, she pushed me around in a carriage while handing out literature for Phil, and he was a Democrat. So, you know, people... Brian didn't go anywhere with that, but sometimes people say, "Oh, well this guy's a... is this guy a liberal Democrat or not?" I mean, I just think... in my case, my parents didn't go into Democrat politics, and I'm certainly not considered affiliated with either party, but Brian asked those questions, I think, to establish where the people are coming from, and I think that's a good thing. Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview? Yes. Did your experience on the show change your opinion of it? Well, that's an interesting question itself, because although I'd watched Booknotes before, I had not imagined, even after I was invited to be on the show, what it would... you know, I didn't... I didn't put myself in the chair. So it's still... it's a singular experience when you're doing it, and I didn't... for some odd reason, I didn't relate it to the shows I had watched. When my colleagues found out I was going on it, they said, "Well, be careful of the Briden/Lam questions," and what they meant by that was just, you know, the abrupt, you know, "Did you pick the book jacket?" questions, you know. Those questions don't bother me. An author ought to be prepared for them.

Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. If asked back, would you have appeared on the show again?  

Well, you know, I... yeah, I was asked back, actually, but it wasn't... I guess it wasn't Booknotes. It was another thing that Bob Schieffer, another C-SPAN program, like it. I don't know what they called it, do you? It was a book TV? Yeah, it was something like that. It was a good 40-minute show, whatever it was. So I went on, and Schieffer interviewed me. It was for this book my dad and I wrote, "Reagan's Disciple." And... but yeah, look, the real answer to your question is I'd do anything Brian Lamb asked me to do. I love the guy, and I believe in C-SPAN, and I like what he does. So, plus, if you're an author, if you don't like talking about your books, you're probably in the wrong business. There's a couple of authors like that. Cormac McCarthy's like that, but he's a much better writer than I am. He could probably get away with it. But if you're writing about public policy and Brian Lamb asks you to be on anything, the answer is yes.

As you may or may not know, George Mason University has been gifted all of Brian Lamb's personal copies of the books which he used in the Booknotes series. This amounts to more than 800 nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think the benefits and uses of such a collection might be?

Oh, well, I can think of a lot of them. I mean, it's pretty nice history for one thing. But look, I'm not comparing Brian Lamb to Franklin Roosevelt because that's probably sacrilege to a lot of people in this city. But, you know, if you go into the note of, now, presidents is what I know, okay, but, you know, "day which will live in infamy," that's Roosevelt. He writes that himself. Fred Greenstein, who really advanced the Princeton political scientists, really advanced our understanding of Eisenhower and how all presidents operate by looking at how Ike wrote in the margins of his speeches and press conferences and stuff and sort of dumbed down his stuff to make, you know, the Democrats are going around saying, "Oh, Ike's this old dumb-dumb," but Ike was smart as hell, and he wanted to speak in a certain way so you can really tell things in that way, what people write in the margins. I might be hesitant to read what Brian wrote about me and my book in the margin, but I would sure like to know what he wrote about others, you know. I think it's very, I think it's instructive. I think you've got a real resource there. Well, I have looked through your book, Brian Lamb's Copy, and it's, you know, nothing but questions and... Nothing highly embarrassing? No, nothing too bad. Okay.

So was there a difference in sales or national attention after your book appeared on Booknotes?

You're asking the wrong guy. I write, you've heard of bestselling authors. I'm a lease-selling author. I don't know why, but I've never had a big commercial hit, so I can't give Brian credit or blame there. What about the critical reception of the book? Was there any difference? You know what? The book, no. Well, I don't know if there was or there wasn't, but I don't know exactly. But I do know that Brian is considered in the reviewing community to be serious. I mean, he's a serious person. And if you're, I think if your book's on Booknotes, I can't quantify it, but I'm pretty confident in saying that people think that to take your book seriously, and probably more seriously than they would otherwise.

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

Yeah, but I can't say I always practiced it. But Brian, there was an old newspaper man named Gene Roberts. He covered the Civil Rights Movement and went to the New York Times and became a famous editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. And he had this interview technique. He wouldn't say anything. Just go in his office and just sit there. People would get nervous and start blabbing. Now, you can't do that on television. You can't just sit there because that silence would look funny. But Brian's minimal techniques where he doesn't do most of the talking and he tries to get you talking, that's a lesson that people need to keep learning and relearning. It really works. It's a very effective thing. He also, as I had said, that he didn't laugh at my joke, he keeps himself out of it in a way, keeps the attention on the author, which I think is a function of Brian's personality. That's also effective because you want to, as the guest, you want to make interesting TV, you want to make sure you're saying interesting things. And the other thing is he doesn't offer his opinions. That's C-SPAN's mission and Brian's sort of, you know, Brian's principal tenet. But that leaves you, that puts people at their ease. They're not going to get argued with. You're certainly not going to get called a name. You're not going to, but he's not on your side either. He's not showing that he agrees with you. And so he's making you make your best argument without worry that he'll sandbag you. What have you been working on since this book? You mentioned a book you co-wrote with your father, and which works are you most pleased with? You know, that book, I wrote another book with a guy about a lawyer who sued every company I ever heard of, the class-action lawsuits king named Bill Lerak, with another friend. I worked on a campaign book in 2012, and I'm doing a book now and the future of the Republican Party, but that book that Brian interviewed me, The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War, that was my first book. I could do it over again. I'd make the prose more spare and reorganize it a little bit, but that's still my favorite book. It was a book about an idea, and like I said, it didn't sell, but a couple of thousand copies. But it was a book. I was proud of the effort and I enjoyed doing it, and being on Brian's book notes kind of capped it off for me in a nice way. It really made me think it was worth doing.  

In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of book notes in then-contemporary American society, or perhaps since?

I may not be the right one to judge that, but I think Brian Lamb and what he did with that show, I think it sort of set a marker, it set a high bar, and people want it at a time when someone like Kim Kardashian can make millions of dollars by, well, getting married and then divorced six months later. You're working on a book like this, if you add it all up at the end of it, your labor, you get paid about 15 cents an hour. But knowing that this, you know, if you were on a program like this and that these programs are out there, how many are there? 800 of them? How many are there? I mean- 801 copies. 801. If these things are out there, I mean, a wise man once said, "Nothing digital ever dies." Now I don't know if that's true or not, but if these things are out there and they're the standard, it shows you that we're still capable of serious discourse in this country.

Well, is there anything else you would like to add about Booknotes, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?

Well, I think you've gathered from what I've been saying. I think the guy is a great national resource, and I think Booknotes is some of his best work product. And if you guys have it, if it's yours, I would urge you to cherish it and treat it with care.