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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  November 22, 2013 12:00am-12:31am PST

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tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis in smiley. an unedited anniversary of the assassination of president kennedy, we begin with a conversation with robert dallek whose most recent book is "camelot's court," which takes a close look at the president and his inner circle of advisers. then we will turn to a conversation with award-winning novelist ayana mathis whose first tome, "the twelve tribes of hattie," was a national bestseller. we are glad you have joined us. those conversations are coming up right now.
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>> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. tavis: it has been estimated that over 40,000 books have been written about resident john f. kennedy. two of the most respected come from presidential historian robert dallek who has been called by "the new york times" kennedy's leading biographer. his latest book is "camelot's
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."urt on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of john f. kennedy, robert dallek joins us tonight from washington. good to have you on this program, sir. thanks for your time. >> a pleasure to be with you. over 40,000later, books, and still we are fascinated by the life and times of john f. kennedy. why so? >> yes, it's really a bit amazing, isn't it? you know, i think part of it has to do with the fact that he was assassinated, and he's frozen in our minds at the age of 46, so young, vibrant, witty, charming. we still capture him on the tapes from his press conferences that we have to this day. it is not just the assassination. there was a very popular president assassinated in 1901, william mckinley. he had been elected to a second term.
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his death, hardly anybody remembered who he was. i think television has a lot to do with it, the fact that we can still see kennedy, that he looks like one of us, that if he walked into this room now, he would be a familiar figure. you can't imagine that if he were alive, he would be 96 years old. i would say there were at least two other things that give him this hold on the public's imagination. it is not just here in the united states. it is around the world. there are documentaries -- documentaries in britain and france and germany about him. there is interest in newspapers and magazines all over the globe. at any rate, i think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people are not happy with the subsequent presidents. johnson was vietnam, richard nixon was watergate, ford and carter, seen as failed presidents. was defeated in
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reelection when he runs for a second term. then, of course, the second bush, the younger bush, who leaves under a crowd -- a cloud because of katrina, the iraq war with no weapons of mass destruction, and because of the economic downturn. entity, we remember his words, ask not what the country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country. he promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. he spoke of a new frontier. this gave people -- it was inspiring. it gave people hope. is what they associate with him. finally, i would say it is also the kennedys. the kennedys are america's royal family, not the clintons or the bushes. they are the embodiment of the american success story. irish catholics who achieved such great wealth and fame.
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the olderer hand, brother was killed in world war ii, the older sister killed in a plane crash in france in 1948, the president assassinated, his brother robert running for president in 1968, assassinated. ted kennedy goes through a tragedy with a young woman killed. the son, john kennedy junior, killed in a senseless plane crashed off of cape cod. it is a combination, i think, of continuesthings that to recommend kennedy to us as this very, very appealing figure. >> i wonder whether or not whether -- what ever john kennedy did or did not accomplish, there are those to this day who are concerned about the hype of the kennedy years, and they see him as a mediocre president, at best, not a failed
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president, but mediocre. my question is whether what he did or did not accomplish in life will always be overshadowed by how he died. >> yes. you know, he did have some accomplishments. there was, of course, the most striking feature, the way in which he led the country through that cuban missile crisis. we know in retrospect that he avoided a nuclear conflict with the soviet union. successseized upon that to make his famous american university speech in which he spoke about thinking anew, a fresh about our relationship with the soviet union. if he lived, i think we would've had an earlier detente then we did under richard nixon. then the nuclear test ban treaty, which eliminates radiation pollution from the atmosphere. he did put the civil rights bill before the congress, and it was inact -- an act of courage
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the sense that he and his brother, robert, the attorney general, had the feeling that this could cost him the election. he won in 1960 with a very narrow margin, with southern states coming on board. there were some comp insurance, but i think his greatest -- someshment accomplishments, but i think his greatest accomplishment is his postpresidential hold on the country, the extent that he still has a kind of inspirational quality to him, that people identify him with a better america, a better day for their children. that may last for a long time in the future, unless some other president comes along who has such a commanding hold on the public's affection. i think kennedy is going to remain a kind of heroic figure. >> what do the people that kennedy chose to be around him -- to your book now, "camelot's court: inside the kennedy white house."
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you mentioned his brother robert as attorney general. what do the men that shed -- that kennedy chose to be around him say about him? >> what they say to us, of course -- there was robert mcnamara at secretary of defense, arthur schlesinger, the and teduse historian, sorensen, his wordsmith, his great speechwriter, and of course, most of all, there was robert kennedy who was the advisor in chief, as i call him in my book -- they remembered him after his assassination understandably with great affection, great regard, and they weren't critical of him at all. historians has been critical of him because, of course, they found out about his womanizing, and they saw him as jeopardizing his presidency. i found out about his health problems, all the medications he was on, and that there was a cover-up of his health
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difficulties. this doesn't seem to affect his standing with the public. , it is becauset people see him as a kind of celebrity, and they don't care about the womanizing at this point. after all, he's gone. no recriminations about it at this point. as far as his health goes, people are impressed with the fact that he was so stoic and able to overcome the pain, the back pain he suffered, and all the difficult medical problems he confronted to achieve an election to win the presidency and then to function quite effectively as the chief executive. >> i wonder whether or not it is impossible at this point in history, given that so many of us believe that america lost its innocence when jfk was gunned down the way she was 50 years ago in dallas, whether or not it is possible then that any future president could ever rise to the level of adoration that we have
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for john f. kennedy, not just because he was handsome, not just because he was eloquent, and not just because he was married to jackie o. there were so many comparisons between brock obama and jenna kennedy when he ran. he got the endorsement of caroline kennedy and ted kennedy. before barack obama, there was the picture of bill clinton shaking jfk's hand at the white house. he tried to get some of that kennedy mystique. i wonder whether or not, when all is said and done, it is impossible, given the cynicism, given the nature of our society, that anybody will ever rise to the celebrity -- to the level of celebrity as president that john kennedy had and still has 50 years later. >> i think you're absolutely right that it would be a monumental achievement. the kind of 24/7 news cycle that presidents have to struggle with -- also, it is the fact that
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kennedy had an unfinished presidency, and we can write on that blank slate and he thing we want. you know, when the president serves for eight years the way bill clinton did, and now the way barack obama is serving, people see their flaws. they are not able to sustain that kind of magic, the mystique which they enter the office with. kennedy still holds on to that didn'tthat because we see the end of his presidency. he was only there for 1000 days. if he had spent eight years in the white house, i doubt very much that we would be talking about him now or that the public would have this kind of regard for him that it expresses. >> 50 years after his death, over 40,000 books have been written about john kennedy, but you won't found -- won't find any written better than those written by robert dallek. the latest is called "camelot's courtl: inside the kennedy white house." thank you for your work, and it
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was an honor to have you on this program. >> thank you. it is been a pleasure to speak with you. tavis: coming up, acclaimed novelist ayana mathis. stay with us. ayana mathis' first novel, "the twelve tribes of edges ofworks at the the great migration when southern blacks moved to northern cities, consider to be one of the most transformative moment in the 20th century. it covers the history of one family. it became a national best seller. "the twelve tribes of hattie" earned the sort of reviews of writers covet. it is now out in paperback. great to have you on this program. set your modesty aside for just a second. [laughter] i think every writer believes his or her work is good work. if it is not, why do it? were you at also prized by the acclaim and the embrace of this first -- >> you norma sleet could i
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always make a joke, writers have different hats. sweatpants and computer hat. then you have a public hat. i did not expect it all for my public have to be so big. my relationship with the book was really that of, it was my private manuscript. it was my word document. i'm still very shocked at its public life. tavis: why this subject matter for you? >> it is interesting. it was slightly and next event. i was in grad school when i wrote this book. i was having some trouble with a failed project that i had to set aside. i started working on this, not knowing that it was a book. i was basically writing some short stories, and because i'm slow on the uptake, i got about three or four stories in and realized they were all in philadelphia. it kept being the 1940s or 1950s. when it became clear that these people were of a piece, of a
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family, it became clear also ,hat they needed some sort something that would cohere them or unite them. that would be their mother. so much praise for the text as i said a moment ago. a lot of comparisons to toni morrison. as we say, that is high cotton. >> it really is. tavis: how have you processed -- , how have you this you processed it, number one, and is there a connection that you had to toni morrison's brilliant work in crafting your own? aboutill answer the part the processing first. i try to set it aside. that is about the highest cotton you can get. [laughter] you can't go wading around in there. course, i'm incredibly flattered and grateful. i don't process it purposefully. i can't imagine what it would do for me as a writer other than give me a big head or scare the
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pants off me. i stay out of that. toterms of my relationship her work, i am an enormous fan of toni morrison. i've probably read "beloved" 17 times. also, "song of solomon." the thing that has been most important to me about that work is the way that it is obviously work about black women and black women's relationships, but it is entirely arrived at through character, meaning these people are flesh out people on the page. sula is a flesh out person on the page. all of these characters. there is a resistance to what can sometimes happen in "a black fiction," which is that the characters become caricatures. to aare sort of flattened being that is entirely seen and understood through the prism of race, as opposed to a being entirely seen and understood
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through the prism of their humanity, which is gigantic and broad and capacious. that is what toni morrison does. if there is a great lesson that i have learned from her, it is probably that. tavis: how do you go about writing a book like this that is usable, that is embraceable? does that make sense? >> it does. the same things -- i really deeply believe in the primacy of character. i believe my job as a writer to put a believable human being on a page. as much as writers are certainly concerned with things like themes and tropes and all these things that are sort of happening beneath the text, it seemed to me that first and foremost my job was not to do tricks are sure that i'm smart but to simply write these characters. i think that if you just like your characters, you end up with something that people can access. toertainly wouldn't deign speak for toni morrison, but obviously, what she is bringing to her characters is enormous and complex and deeply layered.
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she is also writing her characters. you can read her 17 times and you can access her the first time on one level, and you ask us for a second time on another level, and another and another. tavis: let's talk about your characters in "the twelve tribes of hattie." >> the title character's name is hattie. is 17. meet her, she she has just come from georgia with her mother and two sisters. or father was murdered. the year is 1925. she has a very sort of difficult very young in her life in the first chapter of the book. what happens to her -- no spoilers -- what happens to her shapes are very much. it makes are not a woman who is unable to love, what a woman who is a great deal of difficulty with tenderness and with affection. deeply capable of love, deeply compromised when it comes to being affectionate. her first twofter
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children, she goes on to have nine marchal june over the course of the bulk of the 20th -- nine more children over the course of the bulk of the 20th century. through the course of that, those 60 odd years, we meet each of her children in some capacity. generally speaking, they are not children. they are adults. hattie is the lifeblood of the model. very often am a what is happening -- often, what is happening is we understand her children and hattie through a prism or lens of each other. the children are looking at her, so we see her through all of her nuances and complexities. so we seeing at them, them in their nuances and complexities. tavis: the genesis of these characters for you is what? how does it come to you? >> it is a very hard question to answer. i do believe that i'm not one of these writers who gets very foo- showero say, i was on the
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-- in the shower, and then she was in the book. [laughter] tavis: every writer has a process though. >> everybody certainly does have a process. interestinghink is is the process of the imagination is so mysterious and so strange, generally speaking with these characters, but when i would start a chapter -- each chapter is titled after and from his perspective of one of the generally- i would know one or two things about them. hard, concrete facts. there is a woman named belle. she is quite ill. she has tuberculosis. she is dying. she is witty and sardonic and wisecracking. she has a very fraught hertionship with hattie, mother. i knew that. that was all i knew. then i began writing. where that germ comes from, i'm
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not sure. mostly what i would need to know is whether the person i was about to sort of embark upon, you know, whether they were male or female, and he sensually, what year -- essentially, what year the story would take place in. that, there was some tabulated thought in that, this needs to be around 1952 and he needs to be a male, and after that, i don't know. sometimes they are fragments of family stories, not re-created in any way in any exactitude, but something that sparks something. the imagination is so mysterious. meis: what always fascinates when i see this kind of critical acclaim coming out is not just the work but the back story to the worker. you're back story is not unlike most people who have done what you have done. it is rather interesting. you bounced through a few colleges. >> i surely did. tavis: dropped out of a few,
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bounced through a few. >> i like to call it my varied undergraduate career. [laughter] tavis: that sounds much more charitable. >> it really was and was kind of a mess and didn't know what i was doing. i did it. i went to three different universities, didn't finish any of them. i waited tables for a long time. i'm from philadelphia. i left philadelphia when i was 18. i went to nyu. i cycled through my university career. it took me six years before i kind of gave up. i waited tables. i worked in magazines for a long time. i lived in italy for five years. i just sort of went around the world. i was collecting experiences. it makes it sound very intentional and. most of the time, i was living life as i do. trying on different shoes if they would fit. they didn't. i would try on a different one. eventually, not very long ago, i guess i was 36, and i ended up
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at the university of iowa, the iowa writers workshop. tavis: not just ended up -- it doesn't get much better than that. we are back to the high cotton again. the iowa writers workshop is high cotton. >> very high cotton. i was very lucky. in italy forlived a few years. i came back. i went back to working in magazines, which is what i had been doing before that. for some reason -- i've been writing my whole life -- i wrote poetry for a very long time, and then i stopped writing poetry. i don't know why. the well dried up. then i didn't write at all for several years, which was very disconcerting. careerough i didn't have aspirations as a writer, it was very much my identity, how i thought of myself. when poetry went away and i didn't write anything, i was really stuck and confused. anyway, i returned from italy where i had been, and i don't know why, but writing became very urgent. from thetransition
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poetry that i had been writing or stopped writing into something like prose, short, language-driven vignettes. it didn't work. anyway, it seemed i began to feel that it was sort of a now or never kind of thing. i was taking a writing class at the time with a very good friend of mine who wrote an incredible book -- book called leave the -- called "leave the animals." he said, come see me. i did it. i thought, this is what i should do. i felt very now-or-never about it. story, some in that advice you have for people about finding their muse or getting to center? >> it is so hard to do that. actually, i suppose i do. reject all the advice about that stuff. simply because i think that we have come to a place in america
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in general where we have a slightly more narrow path then we ought to or slightly more narrow vision than we ought to of how to get to a place that is sort of our place, you know? i think that we have some sort of vision that everybody is moving towards perfection and that there is some sort of step -- set of steps you can move through to get to that place and that is the project is being alive. i think that the project of being alive is to be alive. so, there will always be twists and turns and steps forward and steps back, but that is just your life, you know? there is no place at which to arrive. i think the more one focuses on an end point, the harder it is to get there. it is sort of the horizon forever receding. tavis: in case you don't know this, you have arrived. [laughter] >> i don't feel that way.
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tavis: all the rest of us do. the bestsellers think so. >> there is always another book. tavis: that's a good thing. once you arrive, you can do it again. >> that's the thing. every book is its own test, i think. tavis: i think you are up to it. the book from ayana mathis is called "the twelve tribes of ," a national best seller could we highly recommend it. congratulations. >> thank you so much. a pleasure to be here. tavis: thanks for watching. as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at for a join me next time conversation with musician dave stewart about his new cd "lucky numbers."
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he will also perform. that is next time. we will see you then. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> be more. pbs.
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