Interviews with History and Conversations with Power

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Release Date: 
April 4, 2011
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Were I suddenly granted the power to assemble the greatest dinner party in history, Oriana Fallaci would most certainly occupy a seat at the table. Indeed, if I were to discover that she had somehow been overlooked, I would feel obligated to give her my own seat, for the sake of all.

Ms. Fallaci, an Italian freedom fighter in her youth who grew to become one of the world’s foremost journalists (even though, throughout her long and storied career, she referred to herself always as a “writer” and never as a “journalist”), through her unique style of interviewing world leaders—one that combined passion, cynicism, and a complete willingness to stare them down and ask the questions that everyone else was afraid to ask.

In his 2006 tribute to her in the pages of Vanity Fair magazine, Christopher Hitchens assessed her career and her life as follows:

“With Oriana Fallaci's demise at 77 from a host of cancers, in September, in her beloved Florence, there also died something of the art of the interview. Her absolutely heroic period was that of the 1970s, probably the last chance we had of staving off the complete triumph of celebrity culture. Throughout that decade, she scoured the globe, badgering the famous and the powerful and the self-important until they agreed to talk with her, and then reducing them to human scale. Facing Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, she bluntly asked him, ‘Do you know you are so unloved and unliked?’"

Through the Age of Fallaci, surely nothing else could have struck so much fear into the hearts of despots everywhere as the experience of having Oriana Fallaci sitting nearby—just a few feet away, her hair in its beautiful blunt cut framing her complicated face. Her hands fitting the tapes into their recorder, moving the microphone closer, closer, to mercilessly record the conversation that was about to begin. . . .

In this way, oh, so briefly, she gave us the notion of the journalist as superhero. As defender, hero, leader.

Henry Kissinger—who, one must remember, at the time of his Fallaci interview in 1972, was both at the height of his political power as a foreign-born U.S. Secretary of State (for which many might well have considered him a despot of a sort) and, through some apparent deal with the Devil, considered a friend to journalists everywhere and therefore given a pass by the profession as a whole—described his encounter with her as the most “disastrous conversation” he had ever had.

He had good reason. Not only did she manage to wring from him the description of the Vietnam conflict as “a useless war,” but she also got him to take part in the following:

HK: “I’m sure that you too have a theory about the reasons for my popularity.”

OF: “I’m not sure, Dr. Kissinger. I’m looking for one through this interview. And I don’t find it. I suppose that at the root of everything there’s your success. I mean, like a chess player, you’ve made two or three good moves. China, first of all. People like a player who checkmates a king.”

HK: “Yes, China has been a very important element in the mechanics of my success. And yet that’s not the main point. The main point . . . Well, yes, I’ll tell you. What do I care? The main point arises from the fact that I’ve always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into town, the village, with his horse and nothing else. Maybe even without a pistol, since he doesn’t shoot. He acts, that is all, by being in the right place at the right time. In short, a Western.”

OF: “I see. You see yourself as kind of Henry Fonda, unarmed and ready to fight with fists for honest ideals. Alone, courageous . . .”

HK: “Not necessarily courageous. In fact, this cowboy doesn’t have to be courageous. All he needs is to be alone, to show others that he rides into the town and does everything himself. This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style, or, if you like, my technique.”

And so it is in these Interviews with History and Converstations with Power, as Oriana Fallaci points her microphone at the likes of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Lech Walesa, and a startlingly young Dalai Lama, among many others; and many, if not all, were they to be as honest as Kissinger was, would surely deem them outstandingly disastrous conversations, if only from their own point of view.

As the title promises, this collection of outstanding interviews, many of which are presented verbatim, with only the harsh spotlight of the words on the page, a format that gives us a deeper sense of history, a feeling of sharing the moment exactly as it happened. And, more important, the years fall away as the reader reads, and the interviews resonate with meaning today.

Who, for example, could be a more important interview in today’s world than Muammar el-Qaddafi?

In offering her 1979 interview with Qaddafi to us today, Ms. Fallaci gives us the gift of knowledge and insight so keen and information so important to our understanding of the transfer of power in today’s world, that this single work is well worth the price of the book.

Of Qaddafi’s ascent to power, she writes:

“But how was Muammar Qaddafi able to snatch control of the so-called revolution, how had he become its prophet and Messiah? This was a question that troubled me as I planned my approach. It was the same question that had tormented me every time I found myself before a presumptuous imposter, an idiot dressed like a dictator, a prophet, a Messiah: How on earth had this cretin done it? He can’t even speak, he doesn’t inspire fear. He’s just any old guy, with neither brains nor charisma. And furthermore, he’s comical. How had he done it, my God, how?”

The search for the answer to these questions brings up old and personal memories of Hitler and Mussolini for Ms. Fallaci and suggests a path to power as ancient as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Because this interview with Qaddafi (which, along with her extraordinary interviews with Shah of Iran Mohammed Riza Pahlavi and the Ayatollah Khomeini form the must-read centerpiece to this volume) is as much a “think-piece,” a consideration as it is a conversation, the reader can witness not only a startlingly powerful interview with the man who only now, 30 years later, fights to hold power, but also, with the intrusion of “I” into the narrative, the birth of “new journalism.”

By allowing herself to share not just the questions and their answers, but the thought process from which the questions arose and the circumstances through which these interviews happened, Oriana Fallaci infuses them with a deeper passion and a greater resonance.

Take, for example the breathtaking moment in which she sits before Khomeini. In order to be allowed to interview him, she has agreed to wear the chador, the dark fabric that traditionally covers all but the eyes of Muslim women. Though she chafes at the very thought of it, she wears it in order to be allowed a hour of Khomeini’s time.

By the end of that hour, both are tired and irritated with each other. At this moment, she asks:

“’Why do you force women to hide under a garment so uncomfortable and absurd, under a sheet that makes it impossible to move, even to blow their noses? . . .’

“Then those terrible eyes that had ignored me, as though I were an object undeserving of any curiosity, turned on me. And they unleashed a gaze that was much angrier than the one that had shocked me at the beginning of the interview. His voice, which up until then had been thin, nearly a whisper, became fuller, more strident.

“’This is none of your business. Our customs have nothing to do with you Westerners. If you do not like Islamic dress, you are not obliged to follow it. The chador is only for young and respectable women.’

“’Excuse me?’

“I thought I had misunderstood. But not, I had understood perfectly.

“’I said: If you don’t like Islamic dress, you are not obliged to follow it. The chador is for young and respectable women.’

“Then he laughed. A clucking sound, an old man’s laugh. And Ahmed laughed. Banisadr laughed. One by one. All the bearded guards laughed . . . And now, it all began to choke me with deaf rage; I was swollen with distain.

“’Thank you, Mr. Khomeini. You’re so polite, a real gentleman. I’ll do as you ask without further delay; I’ll take this stupid medieval rag off immediately.’ And, with a shrug, I let the chador drop to the floor in an obscene black puddle.

“What happened next remains imprinted on my memory, like the shadow of a car that lies curled up sleeping and suddenly springs forward to devour a mouse. He rose so quickly, so suddenly, that for a moment I thought I had just been struck by a gust of wind. Then, with a jump that was still very feline, he stepped over the chador and he disappeared.”

If there are criticisms to be made of this book, they are directed to the publisher and not at the author. In that the format of the majority of the interviews collected here is something of a tennis match between masters, with words volleying back and forth across the net (see Kissinger excerpt, above), it would have served readers well to have each piece introduced as a means of sharing such ancillary information as place, time and reason for the interview, as well as in what publication it appeared.

Indeed, Interviews with History and Conversations with Power would have benefitted greatly by a general introduction to the volume—perhaps as written by today’s Fallaci-approximate, Christopher Hitchens. And for the sake of short memories, or the short lifespans of those who were not yet born when these interviews first appeared, an index would have been nice, as even the most politically devout are today having troubles differentiating between the names of those associated with North Vietnam and those who aligned with the South.

Still, in today’s world in which those holding power by whatever means are no longer taken to task by journalists, but, instead are ever-so-lightly roasted by comics like Steven Colbert and Sacha Baron Cohen with his Borat mustache in place, it is good to be reminded of the power of the microphone well placed, questions well asked and answers recorded for the world to read.