Marvin Olasky

Author Marvin Olasky was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on June 2, 2014. Mr. Olasky talks about his appearance on C-SPAN's Booknotes program on January 22, 1995, where he discussed his book The Tragedy of American Compassion.

Welcome Dr. Olasky 

I am very glad to be with you.

I would like to know, how did your book come to be on Booknotes?

Well, the entire situation was a real surprise to me. Early in 1995, in what was touted as Newt Gingrich's inaugural address, he had just become Speaker of the House, he was talking on national television, giving his inaugural address. Suddenly, in a discussion of American history and welfare reform, he suddenly said that I commend to all of you Marvin Elasky's book, The Tragedy of American Compassion. I didn't have any advance notice of that. I think people around the country hearing that would of course be asking, "Marvin who? Tragedy what?" And suddenly, this became a sensation among reporters because the individual, namely me in the book, completely unknown, and all the attention being paid to Newt and what his agenda would be, "What is this book?" And reporters were going around trying to get a copy of it. There weren't any copies available at that point because this also came as a total surprise to the publisher, Regnery. For some reason, the incredibly fine interviewer and president of C-SPAN became interested in this also. And he, as he told me, went around to a bunch of bookstores, spent several hours, I think he said, trying to get a copy of it and found it and then suddenly got a call, "Can you come on Booknotes?" Which I really was not particularly familiar. So that was also a surprise.

He had, I believe in the interview, he talks about having to go all the way out to Herndon to find the book, which is a considerable distance from the C-SPAN studios to find the book. That was a...

This impressed me also, and certainly beyond the normal call of duty, but great valor on the part of a journalist to go all the way out to Herndon.

So how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?

I did not. I was, again, this was all as a surprise. I was committed to teaching a week-long journalism course for graduate students in theology, seminary students at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. So I went and did that and was totally occupied in that and then flew up to Washington for a conference that had long been scheduled. This was, there was a quarterly meeting, and they had been bimonthly at that point, of pro-life leaders from around the country. So I went up to Washington for that. And these were day-long conferences that occurred every two or three months at that point. And I had agreed to go over to be on Booknotes, so right in the middle of the meeting, I just, which again, it was probably just a couple of blocks away from the studios in Washington, I just headed over there, figuring, "Okay, this is an hour it's going to take, and I'm going to come right back to the meeting." So I had done no preparation at all for it. And then really, again, I wasn't familiar with Booknotes. I knew C-SPAN, but in my mind, the reach of C-SPAN was very limited. So I wasn't thinking of it as a big deal. I was just going to go over and do it quickly and then come back to the meeting discussing where the pro-life movement was going.

Well, let's discuss your appearance on Booknotes. What do you remember most from the show? And if you could describe the office and the setting and what the staging of the interview itself was like.

You know, I don't remember anything about the office and the setting and the staging. What I do remember is this. I mean, two things in fact. Number one, our wonderful interviewer does not insert himself into the interview in terms of debating or talking about himself. Anyway, I've had interviewers who have spent much of the time talking about their own reactions to the book, what they think about the book, how they grew up. It's basically an opportunity for the interviewers to talk about themselves. That wasn't the case here. But he did want to ask some precise questions on the setting in which I heard. He heard the new English referring to my book again as a big surprise. So I interpret his questions very, very literally. He asked right at the beginning of the interview, "Where were you when you heard the speech or listening to it?" And so I, again, in a very literal way, said, "Well, let's see. I was in the kitchen and just wandering around. And then I heard him say this and I went into the living room." And he said, "Okay, what city were you in?" So I was in Austin, Texas at that point. So I remember that feeling very foolish at that point. But then he had actually read the book and read it very thoroughly. So that was a delight because most interviewers, as I learned, never read the book.

Booknotes hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits and/or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

Well, the other thing that I remember very, very clearly about it, along with my lack of clarity or lack of memory and other things, is that once it appeared on Booknotes, I got a huge amount of letters and email at that point. And other responses to it. In other words, this was a time because I was such an unknown and this was an unknown book and it was suddenly of such magnitude that there were lots of interviews that all came in at once. And I took seriously the CBS and NBC and other types of network interviews. And as I mentioned, I really wasn't taken very seriously and wasn't really preparing for the C-SPAN interview, but I think I received at least ten times as many responses and questions and queries concerning the C-SPAN interview as those on CBS or NBC. And a couple of things I can think of there. Number one, those are long form, the hour long as opposed to the three minutes. And secondly, those who do watch C-SPAN, highly involved, highly motivated, highly interested as opposed to just the incidental interest of someone watching CBS or NBC with a thousand other things on his mind is likely to have.

Well judging from the extensive marginalia in his books, it appears Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. He marked them up rather extensively. Do you find this to be normal for interviewers? And how does this change the interview process?

No, that is very abnormal for interviewers. I probably did during those initial months, certainly at least a hundred interviews. And the percentage of interviewers who actually had read the book was probably not more than ten percent. And the percentage of interviewers who had read it very, very carefully and probably made marginal notes may have been one percent, namely Brian Lamb himself and no one else.

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

I suspect part of the reading public finds them interesting and again a higher percentage of those who watch Booknotes than probably anything else find that interesting. Most may not, but that's hard for me to judge. I think other writers find this interesting, how you do it. I know when I've taught beginning writers, and I've done that a lot, they always want to know where do you do it, how do you do it, how many words do you want to write a day or do you try to write a day. And now these days just about everyone uses computers and so forth back then. There's a question of, well do you use a computer, do you use a typewriter, do you write it by hand? I mean, shall we? I think younger writers in particular are really interested in the techniques and interested in do you have a particular time of the day do you write, do you try to keep a regular schedule, do you, where exactly do you write, can you write anywhere, can you write on a bus, on a train or a plane or do you have to do it in a particular office? Those questions I think are very interesting to young authors, older authors probably said in their ways, not too interesting, general public probably not too interesting.

Well Dr. Olasky, you are both a journalist and a historical author, do you go about the same thing?

Good question. There's a, at the margins there's a blurring but fundamentally probably yes. For most history unless you're dealing with people who are still alive it's much more a question of records and libraries and writing. Most journalism is largely a question of talking with people and going places and so forth. So that's very different. The basic thought process, what's happened and why it happened, in fact the same who, what, when, where, why, how the journalist uses is also important to historians. And then in writing, a journalist is always looking for action and asking questions, who's my protagonist, who's my antagonist, what's the mission of the protagonist, what obstacles does he face, that's where you need to keep it lively and I think the same thing pertains to historical writing. The best writers of history books are often people who have some journalistic training. I'm thinking of for example Rodney Stark for many years at the University of Washington now at Baylor who writes on religious history, was a journalist early on and that helps a lot even on what can often be as abstract a topic as theological and philosophical battles. He brings a journalist sensibility to it in terms of trying to develop a narrative and keeping it moving. So I think there are a lot of overlaps and if historians think journalistically it's like their product is likely to be far more readable than if they are pure academics.  

Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you and is this generally different from most author interviews you have experienced?

No in fact, I'm just thinking of many interviews people really do want to get into the biographical questions especially if there seems to be something mysterious about the author. The question in fact in the tragedy of American compassion towards the end, one adventure of a sort that I went on after doing six months of research at the Library of Congress, it was March and the weather was getting a little less cold in Washington and I decided to go out for a couple of days dressed as a homeless guy with some tape on my glasses and wearing a couple of odoriferous t-shirts and sweatshirt and so forth. And I just wanted to find out what kinds of services I've been writing or researching the history of trying to help people who are poor and particularly often folks who are homeless. So I wanted to go out and just see what kinds of services food, clothes and shelter medicine will be offered to homeless people in Washington today. And I did that and found an interesting experience in education. I wasn't trying to get into the mindset of a homeless person but just in terms of services there was plenty of stuff offered to me but there was never any personal care or concern. That page, that one page in the book is probably what the interviewers who actually read the book and maybe even the publicist at that point turned out something directing them to that. That was the, that one page was the page I got the most questions off from interviewers generally because they were interested in the biography and they were interested in that particular bit of personal research as opposed to library research. So I don't think, I don't think, I mean the length of time of course that Brian Lamb spent on this was very different but I don't think the interest in biography was different than the normal.

Were there any questions that he asked that surprised you?

Well besides, besides where were you exactly when you heard about this, which I guess stood out and surprised me but it did. I just, I don't recall any but I just remember coming away from it thinking wow he actually, he actually read the book and is thinking about the implications of it so I was very impressed. But again I left at the end of the hour and didn't really expect much to come out of it, much to come out of it

Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview and if so why and did your experience on the show change your impressions of it?

No I didn't watch it before. There were several times I watched it afterwards not on a regular basis but I now knew about it and sometimes when there were particular offers there were several times I tuned in but it wasn't a regular thing. And yeah it certainly did change my impression of it, namely the reach of it and the reach of C-SPAN at that point which surprised me. And after that a few times I went on C-SPAN when I was in Washington on the early morning show discussing events of the day and yeah I always enjoyed doing it. So after that as opposed to thinking well C-SPAN is sub-prime with crime being major networks at that point, after that I always wanted to go on C-SPAN whenever the occasion made possible.

So one of our questions is about the difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it on Booknotes and so you're basically telling me that not only did you get what they call the C-SPAN spike in sales but you became more of a, I don't want to use the word celebrity, but you became more of an asset for, as a person who can discuss the C-SPAN.

To separate the C-SPAN bump from the general bump that was going on right then because again  Newt was suddenly bursting upon the national scene and then and then suddenly talking about this unknown book there were lots of profiles, Wall Street Journal and lots of other national publications, about all of them in fact. So there was that spike from that and I think the book note was the single, certainly the best interview of that whole time in terms of the preparation of the interviewer and the questions he was asking and again a lot of, I do suspect that it greased sales of the book but I don't know how much because he was getting a lot of publicity in other areas also at the same time.  

The Booknotes series focused entirely on non-fiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantages of an 800 book collection as this collection now is with that particular non-fiction focus?

Well it would certainly, it would tell you a lot about what one very perceptive and intelligent reader, Brian Lamb, thought were the most interesting books coming out of that whole period. Would that be, would it be representative generally of what was going on in publishing and non-fiction publishing during that period? That I don't know. Would the books generally be readable? Yes. Would, you know, would they all be incisive? If that I don't know but it would certainly be a window on American non-fiction writing during all those years. Brian Lamb and C-Span in the book note series had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time.

If asked, would you have returned for another interview?


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

Not that I recall. Okay. And what have you been working on after this book? I know of course your work as the editor-in-chief of World magazine, but can you describe some of the other books you've been working on and what have you found in them that has pleased you? Well there were, there were three sequels to the tragedy of American compassion. One that largely as a result of all this attention from Booknotes and others that I started writing right away, which was, if I remember the title of it, renewing American compassion, which was a more journalistic attempt that summarized some of the themes of the tragedy of American compassion but then tried to make some new applications out of it in particular in relation to the welfare reform debate of 95 and 96. And then there was when then governor George W. Bush read the book and was interested in it and started doing a little bit of volunteer work with him, that led to a book that I traveled around the country to research in 1999 called Compassion of Conservatism and came out in 2000 and then later another book on After Katrina which was called The Politics of Disaster. So there were those three books, there were books on other, how their religious life and their personal life influenced their behavior and a couple of other books along those lines, one called The Religions Next Door that grew out of a comparative religion course I was teaching at the University of Texas, so it had chapters on Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam and Judaism and a couple of other things like that. But largely most of my work really, 20 years has been with World and editing it and writing columns and articles for it. Well in your estimation what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in the then contemporary American society and perhaps in subsequent times? Well it certainly drew public attention to a lot of books that otherwise would have largely gone unmentioned. And one of the things, and I still don't know where Mr. Lamb is politically, but he did not seem to, and again I haven't done a study of all the books and the authors he interviewed, but it strikes me that he did not care particularly about political correctness. So he interviewed authors from all over the political spectrum and that was important because NBC and CBS and ABC would tend to puff certain types of books that were more on the liberal side of the spectrum and I don't think that was the general tilt of Brian. So I think that probably future historians if they go back and look at the books that the authors that he interviewed would find, would see a much more interesting discussion concerning the American life than if they just looked at the lead reviews from the New York Times or the New York Review of Books or others. So a broader understanding of America would come out of that and what influence that had on the world, but I suspect that it did help the discourse over all those years because a whole variety of different types of ideas were put forth and not just those that were put at the craft.

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

Well actually, maybe not so much for this purpose, but over the past seven years now, I have first at the King's College in New York City and now at Patrick Henry College located just outside of Washington brought in people for interviews in front of the students. And I try to do it basically. I try to talk as little as possible and ask questions to encourage the authors. So I've just admired his way of interviewing. Again, not inserting himself, being as journalists like to call him more a fly on the wall, a talking fly in his case because he has to ask a few questions, but they're not long questions and he's always trying to push the respondents to give specific detail about how they write and...

Dr. Olasky, thank you for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experiences on this groundbreaking television interview program. Thank you so much, sir.

Thank you. Thank you.