News & Politics

“Strom Thurmond Kissed Me”

Fending Off Advances, Getting Yelled at by Ross Perot, Why David Letterman Isn't Nice, and Other Tales From Four Lives in Radio.

YOU MIGHT NOT EXPECT RADIO INTERVIEWERS TO be fond of silence. But Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg, and Nina Totenberg are.

"If you just keep quiet long enough," Stamberg says, "the person may give you an amazing answer."

These four National Public Radio personalities have built careers from talking–and listening. All have been with NPR since the network's beginning or nearly so.

NPR started with loads of talent but little money, and it nearly went bankrupt in the early 1970s. In November, McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc ensured NPR a golden arch by bequeathing it more than $200 million.

More than one in ten adult Americans listen to NPR. Its programming–led by its flagship Morning Edition and All Things Considered–is carried by more than 750 stations.

Linda Wertheimer joined NPR at its inception. She helped launch All Things Considered in 1971 and cohosted it from 1989 to 2001. She has reported on every presidential and congressional election since 1974. She has anchored 15 national election-night broadcasts and ten presidential-nominating conventions. For her live coverage of the Senate Panama Canal Treaty debates, she won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.

Before joining NPR, Wertheimer worked for the BBC and WCBS radio. She's the author of Listening to America: 25 Years in the Life of a Nation as Heard on National Public Radio. She's married to campaign-finance reformer Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and former president of Common Cause.

In Cokie Roberts's three decades with NPR, she's been inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame and named one of the 50 greatest women in broadcasting history by American Women in Radio and Television. She also has covered politics and public policy for ABC News for 15 years, including cohosting This Week from 1996 to 2002. Her TV work has earned her two Emmy Awards.

Her first book–We Are Our Mothers' Daughters, about women's roles and relationships in history–was a bestseller. She and her husband, Steve Roberts, write a syndicated column and are the authors of From This Day Forward, an account of their 30-plus years together and other prominent marriages. She is finishing Founding Mothers, on the women who shaped America. She is the mother of two and grandmother of four.

Susan Stamberg helped launch NPR in 1971 and cohosted All Things Considered for 14 years. The first woman to host a nightly network-news broadcast, she now pitches in as guest host for NPR's top shows and reports on cultural issues. Previously she was general manager of WAMU radio. She has won most major broadcasting honors, including the Edward R. Murrow and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University awards.

Stamberg has written two books about NPR and coedited two, including The Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road, an anthology of short stories. Her husband, Louis, is retired from the Agency for International Development. They have one son.

Nina Totenberg covers the Supreme Court and legal affairs. She's best known for breaking the 1991 story of Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas.

For this and other coverage, Totenberg won the Peabody Award, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, the George Polk Award, the Sigma Delta Chi Award, and the Joan S. Barone Award. She's been inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, and in 1999 she became the first radio journalist to win the Outstanding Broadcaster of the Year Award from the National Press Foundation.

Before joining NPR in 1975, Totenberg covered legal affairs for the National Observer and was Washington editor of New Times magazine.

She is married to Dr. H. David Reines, vice chairman of surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital. She has four stepchildren and four grandchildren. Her first husband, Senator Floyd Haskell, died in 1998.

At NPR's Massachusetts Avenue headquarters, the women talked about what they've learned.

What works on the radio?

Nina Totenberg: I was in print before becoming a radio reporter. There you write what's most important first, because people will soon stop reading. In radio, you must hook people, so they don't turn the dial, by telling a story–like to your husband or friends. In television, pictures compete with what you're saying. You say very little since the mind can't absorb much more.

Cokie Roberts: I do all three and find radio to be much more intimate. People listen in their car or shower. They wake up with you. They feel very connected to you.

In radio, writing makes a huge difference. People concentrate on the words and voices. They pick up on emotion, accent, or hesitation. I did a piece in '92 asking students in Maryland and New Hampshire to name a Democratic leader. There were these long silences: "Hmmm–living or dead?" I was terrified that some production assistant would cut these pauses, so I left a big message on the tape: DON'T TOUCH THE PAUSES. They told the story.

What's the best medium for conveying information?

Roberts: That depends on what you're trying to convey. A complicated story with a lot of facts–about the federal budget, say–is easiest in print. People can reread and keep it around. If the story's about people's attitudes toward the federal budget, radio's best. If the story's about the California fires, television's best.

Totenberg: Some stories are tough in any medium. These don't involve real people but abstract ideas. They may be important, but they're complicated and mostly boring. Take McCain-Feingold election-finance reform. I spent weeks trying to get it interesting. Finally I got Alan Simpson talking about "dragging" politicians over "to talk to fat cats."

Roberts: Television just can't handle ideas. It can tell some stories better than other media, but not ideas.

Susan Stamberg: It's more about action.

But radio pieces are gone so fast.

Roberts: That's what I like about it–radio stories disappear fast. Nobody remembers the stupid things you said.

Stamberg: But the Internet lets someone punch up a transcript you did years ago–so it still lives.

Voice on radio tells everything about a person's character. What he says and what he chooses not to say.

Totenberg: Susan, you did an interview with David Letterman, who refused to answer your questions. Remember? He sat there–a real pud. It was hilarious, but everyone understood from that that Letterman may be talented, but he sure isn't nice.

Stamberg: You knew it from his voice.

Roberts: Remember Linda's interview with Ross Perot during the '92 campaign? I was driving down Sunset Boulevard, laughing wildly as Ross Perot was yelling at Linda, "Who are you, anyway?"

Linda Wertheimer: I asked him an innocent question about whether ethics in business are acceptable in public life. He said, "What are you talking about? You have to give me an example!"

So I mentioned his big contributions to congressional-committee members who later helped pass a loss carry-back provision that would have given him a $15-million tax refund–the biggest ever.

After I told all that on our telephone interview, there was a pause of about three beats. After this long pause, he said, "Who is this? You could be just anybody. I don't know who you are." He went on and on. In the middle of his tantrum you could hear a nervous laugh from me. We ended the piece right after that.

I had to get my nervous laugh back in after a production guy cut that part. The whole section revealed the real Ross Perot.

Do you four get along well?

Wertheimer: At our first public-radio conference, Susan and I swapped badges. The listeners had never seen us. Some woman came up to me to say, "I like you so much better than that Linda Wertheimer."

Roberts: Linda and I were standing in a line to buy a ticket for some show and a woman said, "You're Susan Stamberg." Linda said, "No, I'm Linda Wertheimer." The woman stopped for a minute, thought, and said, "You're right."

Totenberg: We often go to the movies on Saturday nights, with spouses. At the restaurant afterwards, someone once said real loud, "There's Cokie Roberts and what's-her-name and what's-her-name." One of our husbands went up and said, "And I'm what's-her-name's husband."

Wertheimer: People are constantly asking me about my cranberry-relish recipe. I'm mortified since that's Susan's gig. And it's completely dreadful.

Totenberg: It's so disgusting!

Wertheimer: Who really has tasted it?

Totenberg: I have! It has horseradish and sour cream in it. It's disgusting!

What funny things have happened on the air?

Roberts: Strom Thurmond kissed me on the floor of the convention. I walk up, stick a microphone in front of him, trying to be a grownup, and he puckers up.

Then there was Red Barber trying to–

Stamberg: Oh, God.

Roberts: When any of us substituted for Bob Edwards in the morning, Red Barber would undermine us. He worried that we might be taking Bob's job.

One morning he asked me, "Who's home with your children while you're doing this?" That was on the air!

Stamberg: He always called me "young lady."

When have you really screwed up?

Totenberg: Early on, when I was hosting All Things Considered, someone had mistyped the intro, turning the words to gibberish, and handed it to me on the air. Rather than saying we're having a technical problem, I screamed, "I can't read this!"

Stamberg: I recall you saying, "I can't read this damn thing."

Totenberg: Okay, so I did.

Stamberg: In the early days, we had gobs of disasters–like tape breaking while we were on the air. I'd do a blow-by-blow description: "They're taking this reel of tape now. They're throwing it across the room. The director's caught it and he's shoving it. . . ." I had nothing else to say.

Let's go to the big L question. Isn't NPR real liberal?

Totenberg: I'll start, since a lot of that impression came out of the Clarence Thomas hearings. Yet I won every journalistic prize for that except the Pulitzer, which broadcast people can't win.

I won them since I did what journalists are supposed to do. I investigated a story that there were serious allegations that had not been investigated by the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the committee had done its job, I wouldn't have had a story.

While those hearings were explosive and nasty, that's no reflection on NPR. We covered them live. That's all.

But you had running commentary that to some listeners seem slanted.

Totenberg: It wasn't true. We had on senators from both sides, very assiduously and all the time. Since I'd broken the story, I bent over backwards to be even-handed, to the point of blandness.

Roberts: I think the criticism of NPR being liberal was fair once–when NPR was young and countercultural.

Totenberg: And unedited. *

Stamberg: We didn't have enough money to have editors.

Roberts: Since then, two things have happened. One, everybody grew up. Two, we were no longer an "alternative" news source. NPR became the prime source of information for millions. It's among the few mainstream news operations that continue to grow year after year. That forces us reporters, our editors, and our bosses to do more rigorous reporting and editing.

When I was covering Congress every day, of the 535 members, 300 had heard me that morning. I could afford no screwing around. We had to be fair or I wouldn't have had the access.

Totenberg: We do have some member stations that are unabashedly liberal. That may tag us as part of a liberal establishment, but those stations are separate entities. We can tell from our e-mails that conservatives listen. If they really didn't trust us, they wouldn't be listening at all.

Here I am interviewing four of the greatest interviewers. So what makes a great interview?

Stamberg: Paying careful attention, so you can make something happen during the conversation. Figure out beforehand where the person's coming from and how you can to embellish on that. Then seize any opportunity that arises.

Recently I interviewed Barbra Streisand. After a bit, I asked what she had sung to her little boy when putting him to bed. It was a lullaby, "Lula Lula."

That sounded like something my mother used to sing to me. So I had the nerve to start singing it to her. Streisand said, "No, no. It wasn't that one. Now you're trying to get me to sing it, aren't you?"

I had not thought of that–I swear to God I hadn't–but said, "Well, yeah, I am." So she sang it. There she was, singing in her kitchen to me over the phone.

I closed that interview by saying, "Barbra Streisand, whose new album is called simply The Movie Album. I'm Susan Stamberg."

Well, she broke in and said, "Excuse me, Susan, but don't call it simply The Movie Album because people will think that the name of the album's Simply the Movie Album. It's actually The Movie Album.

I said, "Okay, fine. Take two." Then I said–and all this was on the air–"I don't believe this! I'm going home tonight having been directed by Barbra Streisand. I'm Susan Stamberg."

Roberts: I've learned that if somebody's terribly boring and you simply must have them on the air, have them on as little as possible. Remember that folks are listening in their cars. You can cause wrecks if they're falling asleep at the wheel.

I remember telling George Mitchell, "Stop talking to me in 11-second sound bytes. This is public radio–you get 30 or 45 seconds here."

What have you learned about news broadcasting?

Wertheimer: Listening is the most important thing I've learned to do.

Roberts: Good, solid writing's the one I'd choose. A great radio reporter makes a name by good writing. It's clarity, a turn of phrase, something that makes people sit up and say, "Now, that's really interesting."

Totenberg: For me, it's developing different sides on a topic. You need the tension of opposing views.

Second, I need to listen to that little person in me. I ignore that sometimes at my peril. Go back to Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill–that story broke after I saw the committee members being handed an envelope that contained a document, which each senator read and put back in the envelope. I thought, "What's that? I've got to find out, because they're all looking weird."

Stamberg: Henry James said a writer is someone upon whom nothing is lost. I've always wanted to be that person. Maybe someday I will be. That's our ambition.

What have you learned in life?

Stamberg: I've learned that it never gets any easier. Second, things worth doing are worth throwing yourself at.

A wonderful thing about getting older is understanding that many things aren't worth doing at all. It's a chance to slow down and zero in on the good stuff–doing good work, as good as you can do–and being with family and friends.

You know the really good stuff since it makes your heart go faster. It feels really fulfilling.

Totenberg: There's something profound in losing a husband and being lucky enough to find somebody else you love. That made me realize that, as important as my job seems, it's really not that important.

I've learned that when you're lucky enough to have a family that loves you, and that you love, seize it and enjoy it. Don't ever let it go.

Roberts: My sister died when she was 51. From that, I learned that you can always work–it'll always be there–but relationships have to be handled at the moment. They need to be nurtured and cared for right then, and constantly.

Luckily for us, we've had them at home and among ourselves at work. When we talk about nurturing relationships, we're talking about each other.

When my sister was dying, Linda and Nina staggered their vacations to be there with me. Everybody took care of me when I had breast cancer. And we've all taken care of Susan during her bout with breast cancer.

How do you do all that when you're so busy?

Roberts: It's too important not to do.

Some days when Floyd, Nina's late husband, was in the hospital, my various employers weren't going to see me until 10:30 that morning. I had to stop in and see him first. They just had to suck it up.

Totenberg: I was doing a Nightline piece after the Oklahoma City bombing. Floyd had been in the hospital for months, and the doctors said he was stable enough that I could go. I went. Yet when I called in that night, he had turned for the worse and was sinking fast. Nightline chartered a plane for me the next day to get back. All the way back, I cried and cried, because I thought my husband was going to die alone. Yet when I got there, I found that Cokie had been there all morning.

He survived that time and died two years later. It was a long siege. He'd had a serious head injury, and for the first few months I depended on Cokie and Linda, who were there with me, taking notes as the doctors briefed us daily. I couldn't listen or didn't understand what they were saying.

Wertheimer: We each struggled during the early years–working and being married, and trying hard to get it all done, and finding it all very difficult. I look back and realize how incredibly lucky we were to have the work we were doing and the relationships we were building.

We've gone through incredibly hard times together.

Totenberg: Both professionally and personally.

Wertheimer: But we've seen each other through those times. These friendships have been as important as anything that's ever happened in our lives.

Nina Totenberg: As Susan has always said, we'll all be at the Shady Radio Rest Home together.