Gary Hymel

Gary Hymel was interviewed on January 30, 2015. Mr. Hymel appeared on Booknotes on January 23, 1994 to talk about his book, All Politics is Local and other Rules of the Game.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtje, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is January 30, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Gary Hemel, who appeared on Booknotes on January 23, 1994 to discuss the book All Politics is Local and Other Rules of the Game."  Hello, thank you for speaking with us today.

Okay, Lindsey, it's nice to be with you.

So I understand that you have a special relationship with C-SPAN, Booknotes, and Brian Lamb. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that?

I would like to say that I started with Brian back in 1979 when he first started C-SPAN. He had come to the Speaker's office to talk about taking a live feed of the House of Representatives television, and putting it, this was before he even started, but he wanted to take that live feed and put it out to the country. And I was a top staffer for Tip O'Neill at the time. Tip O'Neill was the speaker who had the jurisdiction over such a thing. So Brian came in and I brought him in to see the speaker and explained to him what he wanted to do. He wouldn't affect the House coverage. He would just take the feed and spread it and send it out across the country. Tip O'Neill thought that was a great idea. So I worked with Brian in getting the coverage that C-SPAN would eventually use. And it went on for years. There were some rocky roads when people didn't like it and tried to take it over. But Tip O'Neill believed in C-SPAN and wanted to keep it going and kept it going. Later on, I was on C-SPAN many times. I used to appear regularly before the State of the Union address to explain what was going to happen on the House floor, and kind of a play-by-play thing. And then after I left Tip O'Neill, this would be in the 1980s, and Tip retired. He asked me to write a book with him. And it was a collection of anecdotes and stories that he had told over a lifetime of politics. It all had a political lesson to be learned. So I drafted the book.

Tip wasn't good at putting things down on paper, but I had heard these stories many times. So I was the person who would put them on paper and get him to check what I had written. And after it was done, Brian called up and wanted to have Speaker O'Neill on to discuss the book. And the book was "All Politics is Local," which I wrote with Tip, the Speaker.

And unfortunately, Mr. O'Neill died before he could make the appearance on C-SPAN to talk about the book. And Brian called me and asked me to substitute to explain how the book was written and all about Speaker O'Neill. And that's how I came to be on Booknotes.

Wow, that's a unique story, and that's a great connection with C-SPAN. So how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes ? It's such an interesting route to having been on the program.  

Actually, Lindsay, having lived with -- I worked for Speaker O'Neill for 16 years, and I had heard these stories many times. And to write the book, it was a matter of getting him or somebody to remember the stories. And he would come in the office, call me over, and put a book down and say, "This is a book of anecdotes. This guy stole a lot of my stories. Steal them back." So that's how some of those got in that way. Sometimes he would call me on a Monday morning and say, "I went to Mass this morning, and during the sermon, I ended up recalling a couple more stories." So he would recall them that way, and that's the ones I recall. And we wrote a letter to all the members of Congress who were friends saying, "Can you recall any stories that TIP told you over the years?" So some of them got in that way. But having been on the ground floor with these stories, I didn't really have to prepare very much. And also, having put the whole book on paper and all the stories, I didn't prepare much. It was mostly the knowledge that I had about these stories.

And what do you remember most from your appearance on the program?

Well, I tell you, what I remember the most is Brian putting you at ease. He made it so easy, conversational tone. And I remember being struck when he said, "Well, our hour is up." And it stunned me that the hour had gone so fast. And that was due to Brian, and that's his real talent, is to put somebody at ease and not be formal and not ask questions you can't answer, but just putting you at ease. I mean, that's what Brian does, and that's why he's so good at it. And that's what I remember the most.

Well, you mentioned the length of the program, and Booknotes' hour-long format differed greatly from most network television interviews, which could last three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits or even potential drawbacks of this longer-format interview for the author and for the viewer?

Well, having watched these authors talk and having my own experience, I think you can go into so much more detail in explaining things, anecdotes, and giving more detail as the interview progresses than, you know, having to be interviewed and then get the thing chopped down to three minutes. So it's in the telling of the story to me that the value of the program, because it allows the author to, you know, free range and do it as he sees it, and you get a lot more nuances by having a longer time. So I think it's definitely better. You can have a conversation in depth rather than just a, you know, a short blurb.

Mr. Lamb prepared thoroughly for the interviews. He actually marked up his own personal copies of the book quite extensively. We have a copy of your book here, and it's got lots of notes written in the margin, lots of underline, things like that. Do you find this kind of preparation to be normal for interviewers, and does it change the interview experience?

Well, I don't think it's normal for the interviewers, because most interviewers, you know, just want to highlight and kind of rush through it and get it over with, because it's not going to be used -- a lot of stuff is not going to be used. Brian has the luxury of being able to develop thoughts and get in depth, and that's the value, I think, of him reading the book. I don't think most interviewers read a book. They might probably scan it, and they might even have somebody read it for them and pose questions. But, you know, you watch Brian interview an author, and you know he read the book. And you better be prepared, too, because to know that he read it, you better read it over again to make sure you're familiar with what he's going to say. But that's his unique talent.

Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Your own methods for this book might have been slightly unique based on your relationship with the stories and with Speaker Tip O'Neill. But do you believe the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing to be interesting?

Well, quite frankly, most of them probably don't. I would myself. I love to read biographies, and I love the detail and the nuances of a person's life. And that's what Brian can dig out with the time that he has. But probably people don't like all that much detail about how it was done. I'm sure a lot of people do. I would think authors particularly would be fascinated by Brian's methods and what he exposes through the questioning. But probably the general public doesn't care. Mr. Lamb frequently asks his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you, and is this different from other interviews you've experienced? No. It doesn't surprise me knowing Brian and seeing his Booknotes, knowing the detail that he gets out. So I'm afraid -- it wouldn't surprise me knowing how Brian does it. Most, as I said, interviewers don't get that detail. So Brian's unique in that question.

Were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's other questions?

No, I can't say I was, because I got so deeply involved in the book and the personality of Tip O'Neill and knowing Brian very well, too.

You mentioned that you had watched Booknotes before appearing on the show. Did your experience with the program change your impression of it?

No, it didn't. I knew Brian's methods, and I know how he liked detail and about how it happened. So I was ready for that. And the magical thing of Brian is to carry it on in such conversational tone after, you know, thrilling himself on the facts in the book, but then being aware of it. And of course, we had a big personality here that we both knew, Tip O'Neill, the speaker, who was our vehicle for exposing that.

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

Well, I've thought about that, and I'm not sure because whatever it is, it's shrinking with the lessening of reading the printed word in this technological age where you don't need to go get a book out of a library to get a lot of detail and read what you're doing. So I don't know. I know it's done less and less, but it's a great resource if somebody wants to dig.

Well, Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program once. If asked back, would you have returned for another interview?

Sure. It was a pleasure being on. I would be glad to do it. I don't know why he has that one.

Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after discussing it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes?

I don't know the answer to that question, and I would say probably not. I mean, the book sold because Tip O'Neill had written it, and Tip O'Neill was famous for saying all politics is local, and that carried it. I'm not familiar about any circulation jumps.

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

No, it didn't. I guess the lesson I learned is if I ever interviewed anybody, the key is to put them at ease, because that's what Brian's talent is.

So what have you been working on since this book, and what works are you most pleased with?

Okay, well my hobby is reading biographies. I'm reading Norman Lear's biography right now. I just finished Bob Hope, and I love him. And I also take history classes at Loyola University in New Orleans. I love history, I love biographies. And so Booknotes fits right into that. It certainly does.

Well, in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes on contemporary society and perhaps since?

Well, I think it showed people that if you really want to dig into a book, a good way to do it is to watch Booknotes, because Brian will ask the questions that you'd never think about asking. But it would be about getting detail, nuance, and stretching your imagination. That's what he does, and that's what the show does. So I think it's very valuable.

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

No, I think we've covered it. It was great speaking with you.

Thank you for taking the time to do this oral history with us today.

Okay, Lindsay, it was a pleasure talking with you.