Juan Williams was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on January 29, 2015. Mr. Williams appeared on C-SPAN's Booknotes program on October 11, 1998, where he discussed his book Thurgood Marshall: American.
Hello, I am Lindsey Bestebreurtje, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is January 29, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Juan Williams, who appeared on Booknotes on October 11, 1998, to discuss his book, Thurgood Marshall, American Revolutionary. Hello, Mr. Williams, thank you for speaking with us today.
Glad to be with you, Lindsey.
How did your book come to be on Booknotes?
Well, you know, I know a number of people at C-SPAN, beginning with Brian Lamb, but also Susan Swain, Steve Scully, Tanya Davis, and I had been working on this book, I would say, for seven years. I had been a journalist, a reporter at The Washington Post, I'd been their White House correspondent, and, you know, an op-ed columnist, editorial writer. So I knew and had appeared on other C-SPAN shows, like Washington Journal, for example. And so when this book was to be published, it got some attention as the first major biography of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and I was invited to appear on Booknotes.
And how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?
Well, you know, that's an interesting question, because it was so different for me than any other appearance that I had to make in conjunction with trying to sell the book and to raise awareness of the book as it was being released. So I took a lot of notes, because in all honesty, I was in fear of Brian Lamb. I just thought to myself, gosh, you know, he comes prepared to these interviews in a way that I don't think any other interviewer in TV does. So I wanted to be sure that I could handle Brian. It felt like I was going into a bout there. And so I took great and extensive notes on cards about key moments that I thought might be of interest to Brian and specifically to a Washington audience. You know, C-SPAN is based in Washington. The interview is being done in Washington. I thought I really am appealing here to people who have a great deal of interest in Washington as C-SPAN viewers. And the idea was that more so than, let's say, if I was talking to a group of people who are interested specifically in the law or in African-American history or Baltimore City history or any of the ways that you could approach a work on Thurgood Marshall, here I was talking to people who are very interested in the history of Washington, D.C. So, for example, I remember that I paid a great deal of attention in the run-up to the Booknotes interview to the relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and Thurgood Marshall. Edgar Hoover has been the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and had, you know, you would think, given the history, would have been an antagonist to Thurgood Marshall, who was the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for a time and, you know, had had his clashes with Hoover early in his career over the use of FBI agents down south. Once Marshall comes into the federal government as Solicitor General to President Johnson, he develops a very different relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. And at one point I remember thinking I wanted to make sure to mention to Brian Lamb that Hoover has a birthday party and Marshall is invited to the party and is allowed access to a special elevator, all this. But anyway, I just thought it was very interesting that you would have these two major Washington figures who would come into some kind of congruence while the, you know, most of the national audience would think that they were antagonistic.
Well, obviously because he's well prepared, I'm a person who watches Booknotes, and so because he's well prepared, I felt like I had to be prepared in academic terms to defend my thesis. And so it changed my worldview because this is unlike any other interview that I'm going to go into, and I guess the fear that I would have as an author in that situation is to, you know, coming to the point where the book is being published, there's so much in your mind. You've been through, for me, years of research, and not everything is at your fingertip. Not everything is coming right off your tongue. And you just want to make sure that if there's a specific incident you want to highlight that you do have those details in the forefront of your mind because Brian is going to ask. He's going to take it to another level. He's not going to be satisfied to stay on the surface or to be glib or superficial about the interview. And so as an author, I greatly appreciate it, but it's also a challenge.
What do you remember most from your appearance on the program?
Goodness. You know, I guess I think that the slight nervousness, you know, as I was going into it, and I guess the – I know Brian Lamb, you know, not only as the head of C-SPAN, but I remember – I live in Washington, and I would occasionally run into him at Pentagon City Mall drinking coffee and stuff. So he's someone that was there, but I think what I remember most about it was that sense of wanting to do well and be prepared because I thought that a very large, influential audience, kind of my fellow authors, but also people who love books, people who are – you know, for me, the folks I really wanted to take the time to read my book were going to be tuning in, and I wanted to make a positive impression. So I think all that was it. I remember all of that very vividly, those emotions.
Well, Booknote's hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which would last three minutes or less. You obviously have a great deal of experience in media and on-air commentary. What do you think are the benefits or the potential drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the audience?
Well, you know, I think that you have to be able to tell stories, and not all authors are very good at it. They might be good at writing a story, but telling a story is different than writing a story. So I think that's a big challenge, and given the length of the interview, you have the opportunity to tell stories that can grip a viewer. The question is, you know, are you able to translate the written story into the oral, telling the oral tradition? The second thing is, I think that this differs very much from, let's say, Oprah Winfrey or any other kind of book interview that authors clamor for. Whether it's Oprah or Charlie Rose or even something like some of the radio people—Don Imus is a great bookseller—their interviews not only are shorter, but they tend to run to the news of the day, Lindsey. So if there is some news hook for whatever your book is about, they're going to use that as a way to hold the listener/viewer attention. And Brian Lamb may touch on that, but really he's interested in the book, and so you're going into the material in the book in a depth that is uncharted in terms of any other interview you're going to do as an author for your baby, for your precious newly released publication.
Well, 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?
Well, I don't know. I know that as a writer I find it interesting how other writers work, and I know that I've had researchers and assistants on books. I've now written, I guess, seven or eight books. And one of the recurring themes I hear from young people is they like working with me because they find out how a writer works. And at first I didn't pick up on that, but then as it was repeated several times I thought, "Oh, people are figuring out how a writer works." And so when Brian asked about this, I remember in the Booknotes interview talking about how, for example, I had three computers on my desk when I was doing the Marshall biography. There was one computer that kept a list I had generated of, I called it "chrono" because it was a chronology of his entire life. And so I would list there if I knew where he was on a certain date, if I knew what he was involved with, what he was working with, relationships, different aspects of his life in chronological order. And I remember this is a man born 1907, and so I'm coming forward as I'm writing the book in the 1990s. That's almost 100 years, right? And so I had that computer on my desk. Then I have a separate computer with notes, just kind of biographical notes, notes from other books, research notes, etc. And then I have the computer up that I am writing on. So I was describing this experience, which was different than other books I had written. I think this was really, for me, using computers to write in a way that I hadn't before. And so it was a great interest to me as a new way of approaching the writing process. I don't know if other people were interested, but for me it was an opportunity to reveal something that actually no other interviewer has ever asked about.
Well, Mr. Lamb also frequently asks guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you, and is this generally different from most other author interviews you have experienced?
In a way, it's similar, because as I say, if you're talking with Oprah Winfrey or any of these other people, sometimes they're interested in the celebrity aspect, the celebrity author type of approach. But with Brian, it's a different type of personal question is what I find, Lindsey, that, for example, he was aware that I was born in Panama. So all of a sudden you're talking about, "So where did you come from?" It's like, "How did you come to be this writer in Washington? How did you come to work for B?" So it's going behind the veil in a way that is different, because again, the Booknotes audience, I think, wants to go beyond the book and beyond the author biography on the back flap so that they can have a greater appreciation of the book. So this has to be added material, and I think that's what is certainly different from any other author interview that I did.
Were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's questions?
I don't recall. It's been a while now, obviously, so I don't recall that. Well, you mentioned that you watched booknotes before your appearance on the show. Did your experience appearing on the program change your impression of it at all? I think I had a greater appreciation for the authors who took the time to properly prepare, and I think that's obvious. There are authors there who I think come into it with expecting that it's going to be the ordinary interview situation, and I think give more sort of quick-fire answers and are, especially I think after the first ten minutes, they look as if they are surprised to still be there and somewhat drained. So I think it's not that it's changed my view afterwards of the show, it's that it informed me before I did my own interview of how I wanted to appear.
Well, 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 on Booknotes, which this is 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?
Well, I think that for people who are interested in a specific topic that's covered in the book, it's a real opportunity to see from Brian's notes and from the interviews themselves, not just how a writer works, but secondly how somebody, a smart reader, looked at the book and given Brian's background, given C-SPAN's audience, what was it that people were looking for, looking at, at that time? In the case of the Thurgood Marshall biography, the title is Thurgood Marshall, American Revolutionary, I think it would be an opportunity to understand how a veteran Washington hand like Brian Lamb viewed this book from his notes, where he was trying to go, what he wanted to get at as he was considering Thurgood Marshall and this author, Juan Williams. So for me, I've never seen those notes obviously, but I think that if a third party, if a student who was doing research either on Thurgood Marshall or on the book that I wrote or on me had access to that material, it would be of great value to them.
Well, you're welcome to come and take a look at your book whenever you would like. Thank you. You mentioned that you had appeared on other C-SPAN programs, but Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on Booknotes one time. If asked back, would you have returned for another interview?
Well, was there a difference in sales, national attention, or critical reception after your appearance on Booknotes?
You know, I don't know. I did a bunch of interviews. Obviously, this was when the book was first coming out. So I did a bunch of interviews. And I think today people would look at their sales on Amazon or something and see if there was a spike subsequent to the broadcast of the show. But I wasn't doing that, and I still don't do that. So I don't know the answer. I do know that it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. I do know that it made the Times Bestseller List. So I would, and for me, the value, by the way, goes beyond that. I mean, to me, the value was that the book was taken seriously.
Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?
Well, you know, that's a curious thing because I remember thinking, you know, given how Brian Lamb asked the questions and the way that he really, he really focused in on the idea that it was, that I was the storyteller. And, you know, when you're involved with the research, at least when I'm involved with the research, I'm really thinking I am seeking to understand someone's life and to put it in context and make it interesting for the reader. And so in a way, I subjugate my ego and my personal views. And I think this comes from having been trained as a newspaper journalist. You know, I was trained not as an opinion writer, even though I've done a lot of opinion writing and editorial writing. I was trained as a hard news reporter and investigative journalist. I spent most of my youth doing that. So the idea was always, you know, put yourself in the background. You don't use the first, you know, don't use the pronoun, you know, the first person pronoun, I. And the idea that somehow this is the life of Thurgood Marshall, as told by Juan Williams, struck me as, well, I was thinking I'm doing the best job of telling the life of Thurgood Marshall, no matter who the writer is. But after the Brian Lamb interview, it just occurred to me, you know, the reader wants to hear your voice more and the reader wants to feel some identification with the writer. And I think it helped me to grow in that sense as a result of the Brian Lamb interview. Yeah, and I think that links back to the biographical questions, which he does ask that audience wants to know where you're coming from on these various issues.
Exactly. Well, what have you been working on since this book and which works are you most pleased with?
Oh, gosh. Well, you know, I wrote several books since then, and I've been very pleased. I'm thinking, you know, I wrote a book about the history of black religion in the United States this far by faith. I wrote a book that's about black colleges in America. I'll find a way or make one. And then there was a book, you know, the ones that I've been the one that I've been most pleased, the two I've been most pleased with. One is called Enough, The Phony Leaders, Dead End Movement, Culture of Failure. That's hurting black America and what we can do about it. And that book became a bestseller and really picks up on some of the ideas that come out of the Thurgood Marshall book about getting people getting looking at America all these years later, seeing what had been done with the legacy of the Brown decision and the like. But doing it, interestingly, through the remarks, the controversy that surrounded Bill Cosby, the comedian, when he spoke at a 50th anniversary celebration of Brown decision in 2004. And so obviously this predates all the recent controversy about Bill Cosby. But it was an opportunity in a way to pick up on some of the thoughts and experiences I had while writing the Thurgood Marshall biography. So that book grew out of the Marshall biography. And, you know, I did another book before Enough called My Soul is Rested. But the book that I did afterwards then was, given what we were saying about putting yourself into the book, the first time I wrote a book where I really appeared as a central character in my own book was a book called Muzzled. I had been fired by National Public Radio and it was talking about me. And I think that when I look back on the Booknotes interview for the Thurgood Marshall book, it was, again, the first time that I realized, you know, people want to know you and want to have a sense of your perspective as they watch the interview, but also as they read your book.
In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then contemporary American society and perhaps in subsequent times?
Well, I think it's the best book interview show television's ever seen. You know, I'm obviously, as I mentioned earlier, if you're an author, you'd prefer 60 Minutes or Oprah because they're so commercial and they'll get you lots and lots of exposure to casual folks who might wander into the bookstore to pick it up. But in terms of an audience of people who are genuinely fascinated by American history, people who are in the case of Thurgood Marshall, principals in his life, people who may have known him, they watch Booknotes much more, I think, than any other of these shows. So, you know, it's a different audience. I think it's a much more specifically history-oriented, book-oriented audience. And I think as a result, the show is not only for the author the best book interview show in the history of television, but I think it's the best for the viewer who might, is looking for understanding the history of television. Understanding contemporary life and understanding books.
Is there anything else you would like to add regarding Booknotes, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?
I think that, you know, it surprised me initially that Brian did the interviews. I think that what struck me, as I say, was Brian doing the interviews and the whole notion of the life of the mind, that Brian genuinely took the time. So he's an executive, you know, he was starting and building this network and, you know, he's got to be in charge of all that people and staff and equipment. But he was genuinely interested in this topic. I mean, he clearly took time. And not only with me, but I, as I say, as someone who watches these shows, he takes time with other books as well. So it was to me, we talked a moment ago about understanding who the author is and then understanding the author's perspective. But I think in many ways, and especially since now you have Brian's notes in the margins of all these books, I think in a way that it becomes that it's revealing about the life of Brian Lamb's mind.
Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
Well, you're very welcome, Lindsey. Thank you, Bob.
You're most welcome.