Two Journalists and their Books (Mike Wallace and Anne Garrels)

I read two relatively brief memoirs: Anne Garrel’s “Naked in Baghdad: the Iraq was as seen by NPR’s correspondent”, and Mike Wallace’s “Between You and Me”. Very different books, each of which I picked up and read by happenstance. I recommend both.

Anne Garrels has worked for National Public Radio since 1988. During this time, she has covered conflicts and wars in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. In 2002, she went to Iraq.

As she points out, her role was relatively unique. Most journalists are either print journalists, or they are television journalists. She is neither; she’s a radio journalist. It gives her advantages. First, she does not move around with television cameras and camera operators; she is much more flexible, moving by herself, or with a translator or “minder”. Second, she does not have to spend ours writing long reports – she speaks her stories, using portable electronic transmission equipment, live on radio.

This does not mean that her job is easy, or that it isn’t dangerous. On the contrary, it is very difficult and very dangerous, and she has to be a bit nuts to keep doing it. (Earlier this year, I saw Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still” at the Studio Theatre – the central character is a woman who was a war correspondent in Iraq, badly injured, her personal life in tatters, but who decides to go back and continue reporting from the war zone. “Impossible”, I said, and then I read about the late Anthony Shadeed, who in spite of serious health issues kept returning and returning to the fray. And now, Anne Garrels. Margulies had it closer to reality than I thought.)

Her book is in the form of a diary, interspersed with entries by her husband, former CIA operative and current artist, Vint Lawrence, who refers to her as a real life Brenda Starr (cartoon super-journalist) and so she is. And her diary reads like a suspense novel, whose plot is being written as the days move on.

She headed to Baghdad when it seemed apparent that there would be an American invasion; she was one of hundreds of American and other journalists hanging out in the city, trying to report accurately in spite of the serious limitations put on them by the Saddam Hussein regime – controls on equipment, controls on where they stayed, controls on where they could go, controls on with whom they could speak, controls on how they could get stories out, the need to have an official “minder” certified by the government, the need to have an approved “driver”, the need to bribe everyone about everything. Quite fascinating – how you deal with these issues (you need to be clever and fearless) – you try to establish trusting relationships, you avoid those whom you cannot trust, you evade restrictions when you can, you look for people who are willing to talk to you and, hopefully, speak some English. And you report back from your hotel room surreptitiously at night, lights out, naked or almost naked (hence, the book’s title), under the covers, so that if someone barges in at night, you can throw your equipment under the bed, look like you had been asleep, and hope for the best.

And then comes the war. And when the bombing begins, the reporters scatter. They leave on their own accord (not easy, by the way) or at the instructions of their employer. But Anne Garrels does not leave, and her NPR employers do not ask her to go. She is one of 16 American reporters, and certainly the only one broadcasting live by radio, throughout the bombing campaign. Her hotel is hit (she moves several times), bombs are falling all around her, food and water are in short supply, her Baghdad support vanishes. But she continues.

She has to be a little nuts to do this, but as a result NPR listeners heard some fascinating live reports from Iraq, and readers of “Naked in Baghdad” learned a lot about the Saddam regime pre-bombing, the invasion itself and the aftermath. And a lot about Anne Garrels.

How does she do it? What kind of person is she? As her husband writes: “Brenda’s claim that she has absolutely no idea how she got her visa strikes some who know her as slightly disingenuous. When her switch is OFF here at home, many make the mistake of assuming that she carries with her overseas that slightly muddled, directionally challenged, technologically inept persona that is so pleasurable and delightful. Don’t be fooled. About three weeks ago there was an audible click when the switch went on. Annie became Brenda in an instant.”

Mike Wallace recently passed away at the age of 93. A few years ago, he published a book, “Between You and Me”, written with co-author Gary Paul Gates (should have been “Between You and Us”, I think). How different was Mike Wallace’s approach and career than Anne Garrels’. If Garrels’ book read like a suspense novel, Mike Wallace’s book reads like a fireside chat – no suspense at all. In fact, it is easy, easy reading.

It is basically a book of his memories of interviews he conducted over many, many years, mainly on 60 Minutes, but some on predecessor shows and specials. Most of the interviews were conducted in the studio, often live, but some of them were recorded overseas, although never in places where Wallace was in any danger. His persona, of course, was to ask tough (some would say somewhat impertinent) questions, although usually (but not always) in a relatively good natured spirit – often he meant to induce an emotional reaction from his subject, rather than just the answer to the question. Usually, he succeeded, sometimes he failed with strained relationships the result. (Only one time, did someone walk out of an interview in the middle – that was Burt Lancaster when Wallace was asking him about his well-known temper.)

The book relates conversations with presidents and first ladies, politicians and world figures, entertainers, con men, gangsters, artists and musicians. Each of the stories is interesting and entertaining – but here is my problem. I just finished the book yesterday, and already I have forgotten virtually all of the interviews.

OK, I’ll look back at the book. There was journalist Drew Pearson, who reported (right, wrong?) that Jack Kennedy did not write “Profiles in Courage” and that Ted Sorenson wrote it – that caused some problems. There was Clint Hill, the Secret Service man with Kennedy when he was murdered, who thought that he could have, and should have, done more, acted faster. there was Lyndon Johnson speeding around his ranch, and Richard Nixon whom, for a while, Wallace admired and trusted. Jimmy and Rosalind Carter, the perfect couple. No that was Ronnie and Nancy Reagan: Wallace knew Nancy longer than Reagan did, and that’s a story in and of itself. Horrifying interview with Senator James Eastland of Mississippi. Very different one with Martin Luther King, Jr., and even with Malcolm X, who seemed to know he was doomed, and then with his daughter. And Farrakhan. Begin, Sadat, Arafat, the Shah of Iran. Margaret Sanger, Frank Lloyd Wright, Salvador Dali, Thomas Hart Benton, Itzhak Pearlman, Vladimir Horowitz, Mickey Cohen, Jimmy Fratianno, Joe Bonanno. William Westmoreland (that one, about troop strength falsifications in Vietnam, ended in a famous law suit). Shirley MacLaine, Vanessa Redgrave, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner. Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller. Johnny Carson, Mel Brooks.

All were fascinating. But what did any of them say????

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