Illustration by EVERYBODY’S GOT TO BE IN A GANG
Harry Shearer — aka the voice of Mr. Burns, Mr. Smithers, Ned Flanders, Otto The Bus Driver and Moe the Bar Tender, aka Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls, aka the voice of reason on NPR’s Le Show, director of the muckraking Katrina documentary The Big Uneasy to speak out about the truth behind the flood of New Orleans — is a man of many hats, and the voices that go with those hats. His latest project, ‘Nixon’s The One,’ finds him donning the face and voice of President Nixon. Presented as a 6-part mini series that premiered on YouTube on October 21 and as a limited engagement live performance, Shearer and leading Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler combed through hundreds of hours of the infamous White House tapes made by the President while in office and reenacted some of the bizarre, historically significant and (often unintentionally) hilarious moments as if filmed on hidden camera in the Oval Office. He’s presenting ‘Nixon’s The One’ live with anecdotes about his research and an audience Q&A at Philly’s World Cafe Live on Monday October 27th. Earlier this week we got Harry on the horn. DISCUSSED: Nixon, Obama, the vast criminal syndicate that is contemporary American politics, the sinking of Louisiana into the Gulf Of Mexico, the Army Corps of Engineers, NPR censorship, SNL, Lorne Michaels and the Jews, and whether or not Ned Flanders is gay.
PHAWKER: Why do you continue to find Nixon fascinating all these years later?
HARRY SHEARER: Well I guess because he’s the most strangely screwed up, complicated, self-defeating while self-promoting guy that we’ve ever had in American public life. I first developed the serries then made it over in Great Britain and it showed on television over there earlier this year and I was thinking about it — why they would care? — and I realized because their history runs through this succession of grotesque, bizarre personalities who happen to have crowns on their heads, so Nixon was just another one those, except uncrowned. He’s a guy who, not to make insidious comparisons, he’s a guy who Shakespeare would have gotten his teeth into. He’s just such a twisted, folded-in-on-itself personality. For one thing he didn’t have the ‘let it go’ gene, there’s a scene in the series where he’s sitting with his Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger bitching — it’s really, really eating at him — ‘For the whole time of the Kennedy administration I was never invited, never invited to one social event in the White House.’ He’d been the vice president of course before Kennedy was elected. And nobody says to him, ‘You know, sir, Kennedy’s dead and you’re the president now, you could let it go’. He just doesn’t have that. In a way that’s what I think propelled him. He was a guy who wasn’t equipped with a lot of skills we think you need to succeed in politics. He wasn’t a good looking guy, he didn’t have the most likeable smile to put it mildly. He didn’t like small talk, he didn’t really hang out with strangers very easily, and yet he climbed to the top of the greasiest pole in America, I think partly fueled by just the unending flame, the high octane flame of all these resentments that burned within him. He could probably power a city the size of Akron, Ohio, just on his resentments.
PHAWKER: Tell me something you learned during the process of working on this project about Nixon that was totally new to you or unexpected.
HARRY SHEARER: Well the last scene in the last episode is the eight minutes before he resigns the presidency, before he delivers the speech to the nation acquitting the presidency, a monumentally humiliating moment in the life of any politician, especially this guy who worked so hard and fought so many battles and had been denied the presidency once and then got it, then to have to climb down from it. You ask yourself, what did he do during those eight minutes, it turns out what he does is especially bizarre given what I just told you about his absolute lack of gift for small talk — he makes small talk with the crew and cracks jokes with the crew. This tape had been floating around for years and I’d seen it and memorized it long since, it was a party thing, me and my friends would I would watch and laugh and recite it but I always thought it was probably goofy. When we were taping the show I happened upon something on the Internet, a guy had been on the White House staff and wrote a memoir among other things about that night he’d been in the room that night and he had the words that Nixon spoke after he delivered that speech because the tape stops when the speech ends, and the words were, “Have a happy Christmas fellas” and this is August 8, 1974. All of a sudden as we were rehearsing, it sort of clicked with me this wasn’t goofy, this wasn’t improbable, this wasn’t incomprehensible, this was Nixon not really living in the moment of humiliation, it was him already planning his next campaign for the rehabilitation of his reputation. In his mind I think those guys on the crew were gonna walk out of that room that night and go home to their friends and their families and say he wasn’t upset, he wasn’t depressed, he wasn’t angry, he was a nice guy, he was kidding around, he even wished us a Merry Christmas!
PHAWKER: How do you rank him on the scale of political evil? I mean, after all compared to the vast criminal syndicate politics has become, his crimes seem almost like misdemeanors…
HARRY SHEARER: Yes and no, I mean there were things he wanted to do that his staff defused, there’s a huge amount of incidents in the tapes where Nixon’s called for things that are still pretty shocking. He wanted to firebomb the Brookings Institution which is the slightly left liberal think tank in Washington. One of the roles his aides carried out was to amiably ignore many of his crazier schemes. It’s not for lack of wanting to that a lot of worse stuff didn’t happen on Nixon’s watch. He very clearly used the IRS to go after his enemies which is something that had been alleged in later administrations but we have iron clad proof of it in his administration and that’s not a good thing. He had, as he told all of us or at those of us that were voting age of that time, a secret plan to end the Vietnam War which actually was to prolong it by four and a half years until after his reelection campaign. And if you listen to the LBJ tapes there is pretty good evidence that LBJ told Nixon and the other candidate running to succeed Johnson in ’68, that he was going to start having cease fire talks with the Vietnamese and two days later there’s tape of LBJ discovering that Nixon had sent an emissary to the South Vietnamese president saying ‘Don’t participate in the cease fire talks because you’ll get a better deal when I’m president,’ and on tape LBJ calls him a traitor. And of course the blood of the assassination of democratically elected leader of a foreign country is on Nixon and Kissinger’s hands, a lot of stuff. So it’s, I don’t know how you rank him in the annals of, I wouldn’t call it evil, I’d call it evil-doing. But he has nothing to be ashamed of in the evil department, I think he’s right up there.
PHAWKER: You pointed out in interviews that lot of his domestic policies were actually to the left of Barack Obama.
HARRY SHEARER: Oh my god get, mind-splittingly to the left. Under his administration OSHA was started, the EPA was started, the Clean Air Act was passed, the Clean Water Act was passed. Nixon gave a speech late in his second administration calling for a ‘guaranteed annual income for all Americans.’ You can just imagine the number of wild horses it would take to get Barack Obama to deliver that speech. Nixon was not in his day what was considered a liberal Republican, those were the so-called Rockefeller Republicans, and he wasn’t really considered a hard right conservative Republican, which was the wing led by Barry Goldwater. He was a centralist republican in that eras republican party but I think in todays republican party he would have been primaried out if he had been an incumbent senator two or three cycles ago.
PHAWKER: In 2008, America voted for Bobby Kennedy and best I can tell they wound up getting Jeb Bush, do you not agree that if the election of Barack Obama proves anything it’s that voting doesn’t matter and until elections are publicly-financed they will continue not to matter because politicians will continue to be responsive to people that fund their campaigns instead of the actual people that elect them.
HARRY SHEARER: I think there’s a very good case to be made for that. I worked at the state legislature in California when I was a kid. Politics was very different then, it wasn’t as dominated by money as it is today. Even then I thought individuals can make a difference at the margins, the guy I worked for allowed me to get somebody who had been improperly sent to a mental hospital out of that mental hospital, back when we had mental hospitals, his opponent may not have allowed an aide to spend time on that particular cause. Might have but might not, so you know little individual cases at the margins might make a difference but overall national policy, big things I would have to agree with what you say. I think that you look at every other western democracy and they don’t do it the way we do so we’ve got to be right, right? You know they give candidates free time on television before the election, the elections are very short. In Australia it’s five weeks, in Britain it’s something like six weeks. Why does it take 18 months to elect a president? Well, so they can spend a lot of money and keep the broadcasters happy. It’s just a totally silly system that does good for the people that raise the money, it does good for the people that donate the money, it does good for the people that receive the money, mainly broadcasters, and it doesn’t do much good for anybody else.
PHAWKER: You’re 70-years-old I believe you have a bit longer institutional memory than me, can you recall a time where the political process in this country was so broken?
HARRY SHEARER: Well it depends what you mean by broken. I mean we hear a lot of calls these days for bipartisanship, but the worst stuff that ever happens in America is done by overwhelming bipartisan votes. I would give you the Iraq war resolution, I would give you the Gulf Of Tonkin resolution, you know usually when both parties agree on something it’s bad stuff, you know the problem isn’t that we don’t have more bipartisanship, the problem is smart enough partisanship. It didn’t take a genius when Mitch McConnell said ‘I’m gonna do my best to make Barack Obama a one term president’ it didn’t take a genius to figure out that meant you weren’t gonna be able to work with Republicans so you better damn well be able to work with your own party and I fault the current president for not having built the relationship. You hear this in whispers, because people don’t like speak ill of their party leader out loud, but you hear it in whispers that he never really developed relationships with people at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, even in his own party, that would motivate them to really go to the mat for him and I fault that much more than those nasty Republicans — they just did what the Republicans said they were gonna do! That’s one of the rare cases where you can say somebody said something in politics and they meant it and they delivered on it.
PHAWKER: Moving on, to new Orleans I’m assuming you read the Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Sunday Magazine piece about Louisiana sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.
HARRY SHEARER: The piece about John Barry? Yes. Sure
PHAWKER: Can you comment on that?
HARRY SHEARER: Well yeah, my comment would be it’s about time that the New York Times figured this out. It was a major story line in a documentary called The Big Uneasy that I did five years ago about the causes of the flood in New Orleans and about what was happening to Louisiana and it was wildly ignored by the East Coast media at that time because they had other fish to fry, but now since Superstorm Sandy I guess the picture has gotten the attention of the New York editors. John Barry is a hero, he sees the urgency of the need to save the disappearing wetlands of southern Louisiana, for us who live here and for the rest of the country because among other things a huge amount of the oil that this country still runs on goes through the port of south Louisiana, an awful lot of the seafood this country eats is frozen and Chinese and comes through Louisiana, You know, the whole country has an interest in this area surviving. Not to mention the cultural heritage that’s represented by this city surviving and it is a problem that is going to be encroaching on other cities as we go along. In my film, John Barry makes an interesting point. He says that because New Orleans is built on swamp if you build up the wetlands and rebuild that land that the Mississippi river has been building up for the last 7000 years New Orleans can survive sea level rise. It compares that to cities like New York which is built on rock. You can’t build on rock, so they’ve got a sea level rise problem that’s ultimately much more serious than ours.
PHAWKER: The film is great, Harry, I saw it in theaters when it came out, but I want to ask you about your battle with NPR over The Big Uneasy. Why did they essentially impose a blackout on the movie? Was it because you were calling out the Army Corps of Engineers who certainly know how to pull strings behind the scenes and shut people up? And that their false narrative of the overtopped levees had prevailed and a number of powerful people had a vested interest in maintaining that false narrative?
HARRY SHEARER: The closest I can come is I did a talk at the National Press Club a couple of years ago about this, and Peter Maass, the great investigative reporter is now The Intercept had written a piece for The New Yorker earlier that year about the toppling of Saddam’s statue in the early days of the Iraq war, about how that story was covered about how once the editors in new York, producers decided Iraqis are toppling Saddam’s statue they ignored the reports they were getting from their reporters over there in Baghdad and photographers saying there are only about 300 Iraqis here, this is all being done by Americans, ‘no no no I want you to do it’ you know they wanted the story that they wanted. I’d experienced this when I was a kid working for Newsweek, a really trivial story but the same thing. Once the guys in New York, or wherever the editing is done, get the idea of a template of the story in their heads the last thing they want is to have to break that up and say, you know what we were wrong it’s a whole different story now so stay tuned. I think it may be something as simple as and as stupid as human pride gone to extremes because I’ve seen, as I say now in three different situations early in Newsweek and then Peter Maass’s example in Iraq and then with the story in New Orleans. Why particularly NPR? I wish I knew. I’ve been bamboozled by that and I have no inside sources so I can’t really say. A friend of mine says when the choice is between stupidity and evil always bet on stupidity. I think In this case it’s the stupidity of pride that these guys in the news business think that their reputation depends on having gotten it right whether they did or not so they will defend that really hard.
PHAWKER: I have two more questions for you do you have time?
HARRY SHEARER: Yeah sure.
PHAWKER: You had an unhappy tenure at SNL. Nobody seems to be able to speak candidly about Lorne Michaels because they all want or need something from him or fear repercussions to their career. You seem to be beyond the reach of Lorne at this point so I was wondering if you could give your honest thoughts about Lorne, the show, and his place in the–
HARRY SHEARER: Well, I have no thoughts about the show because I haven’t seen it in, you know, many years, by choice. Lorne, you know I have been fairly outspoken about this over the years, even when I might’ve had something to lose but I just couldn’t help myself. People would ask me, this is not anything that I would go up and volunteer to say, but you know he was just the worst boss I’ve ever had in my life. And that was Lorne, and you know just in ways far beyond you’d think an employer would do, it seemed like psychological warfare of the most devious and darkest kind that went on every week and there’s something seriously going on in that guy’s head.
PHAWKER: I’ve heard others describe it as a culture of fear.
HARRY SHEARER: Oh it’s worse than a culture of fear. A culture of fear characterizes most of our corporations, this was very individualized. The very first thing he said to me when I showed up for work was, ‘I’ve never hired a male Jew for the company before, I’ve usually gone for the Chicago Catholic thing’ and I thought, well that’s a weird thing to tell me, especially since he’s Jewish himself. You know, it was just fair warning of what was to come.
PHAWKER: On a lighter note. Tell me something about Mr. Burns that nobody knows.
HARRY SHEARER: [assumes Mr. Burns voice] He’s going to live forever. [reverts to normal voice] I’m not privy to anything nobody else knows because I don’t write him, so I don’t know if he’s ever going to release the tension that is within Smithers, he’s my favorite character
PHAWKER: Did you say release the tension, were you alluding to the…
HARRY SHEARER: The yearning, the yearning?
PHAWKER: Speaking of sublimated homosexuality, I read somewhere that you don’t think there’s an ounce of gay in Ned Flanders?
HARRY SHEARER: No, no I don’t.
PHAWKER: I think that’s a perfect place to end on — whether or not Ned Flanders is gay. Oh, one more question, are there any Christopher Guest projects in the pipeline?
HARRY SHEARER: Not that I would know of but I talk to Chris all the time so I always live in hope.