Memo to the People of the Future
Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Full audio: http://tal.fm/167
Back toward the end of the 20th century, in the last few months, there was a flurry of last minute scrambling. People trying, for some reason, to document what the 20th century was all about before it ended, as if human civilization was suddenly on a global term paper deadline. We had to get everything down before the semester that was the last century ended. Or there would be points taken off our papers.
And during this odd period of human beings thinking about the past, and the present, and the future, The New York Times Magazine decided to do a special issue summarizing who we were at the turn of the millennium which it was going to bury in a time capsule for the people of the year 3000. And among the dozens of people who they invited to take part in this, they caught a guy who I know named Bennett Miller, who makes films.
The New York Times could include films in the capsule and stills from the films of the frames in the magazine. And they asked if he had any interest in documenting something for the people of the future. As it turns out, just the night before, Bennett had been at a party where he had met this guy who he just adored, really funny, smart guy who was a professional actor and a dwarf, as I understand it, very tiny man.
And Bennett suggested to The New York Times that he would make a very brief movie, where he would take this guy on the street somewhere and film him alone. And the guy would look directly into the camera and say something along the lines of, "Hello, people of the future. Scientists tell us that by the time that you're seeing this, humankind will have made unimaginable advances. Gone will be the problems that plague us today, disease, inequality, pollution, war. Why, I am told that 1,000 years from now, human beings may grow to be as large as five or perhaps even six feet tall. People of the future, I salute you." And that would be it.
And presumably, the people of the future would at some point look at the other pages in the magazine buried in this time capsule and realize that 20th century humans had already reached five or six feet in height, many of them. And hopefully, they would understand the whole thing was a joke, a joke launched deep into the future, which The New York Times did not go for this. But I have to say, I love this idea. Can you imagine what it would be like to get a message like that from 1,000 years back? If we would find little pranks left for us in the ruins of Egypt, or Rome, or Pompeii, we would love those people.
Anyway, around this time, when people I actually knew and loved were worrying about the civilization of the future and what it would think of us, there came a point where I realized, I hate the people of the future. I don't care what they think of us.
Picture them. There they are, 1,000 years from now, the people of the future. Not only are we dust, but our children are gone, our children's children. Everything we ever believed or cared about, it is long, long forgotten, all of it. And there they are, the people of the future, busy with their busy lives, driving to work, making plans for the weekend, getting together. To hell with them.
I hate them. I mean, I don't hate them, but they can fend for themselves. And they don't care what we were like, not in a big way. Who do we remember? Name 10 people from the 15th century.
Lots of people, of course, think differently than I do when it comes to the people of the future. And they have their work cut out for them, worried about their legacy, what will people think of them. And they're trying to set the record straight. They are the subject of today's radio program.
From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, preparing for the people of the future. We bring you three stories in three separate acts.
Act One, Dewey Decimal Beats Truman. Bill Clinton is building a presidential library to memorialize himself for the people of the you-know-when. Our own contributing editor Sarah Vowell tours the libraries of four dead presidents to come up with suggestions and tips for how he should handle the job.
Act Two, One And One Don't Make Two in which we hear the story of somebody who, through an accident of history, became obsessed with how the future would view her, Marguerite Oswald, the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald. We have rare audio recordings of her from the 1960s that have never been played publicly.
Act Three, You Don't Have To Be An Einstein. Mike Paterniti weighs in with this story that begins with Einstein's brain preserved for the people of the future and ends in a karaoke bar. Stay with us.
Act One. Dewey Decimal Beats Truman.
Act One. If somebody is straight up a hero, the question of his legacy is just not that interesting. It's the flawed people, the imperfect, who have to think hard about how to best present themselves, which is why the question of a Clinton presidential library is such an interesting one. Sarah Vowell has taken it upon herself to offer some advice to the president on how to handle the job.
Memo, To President William Jefferson Clinton, From Citizen Sarah Jane Vowell, RE Presidential Libraries Fact-Finding Tour. Mr. President, I'm tired. Who wouldn't be after eight long years of sticking up for you? 60% of the American public still likes the way you do your job, but somehow, I never seem to run into any of these people.
So I'm excited about your impending presidential library in Little Rock. No longer will I be responsible for defending your honor to friends, family, and the occasional cab driver. What a relief to turn over what's left of my faith in you to some building in Arkansas. But before I relinquish my duties as your crabby, little cheerleader, I scoped out four presidential libraries to help you figure out how to do the job right. Not that you asked me. I just don't want you to mess this up.
We'll begin our tour at the John F. Kennedy Library overlooking Boston Harbor, partly because your youth and flash have been described as Kennedy-esque and partly because you, yourself, have often invoked the comparison, most notably by trotting out that film of you shaking JFK's hand as a teenager, an image of eerie destiny. I talked to the Kennedy Library's curator, Frank Rigg. We agreed that the plainest pleasure of visiting presidential libraries is getting close to the actual stuff of history.
We have on display in one of the cases in that room the little card in which he's written, "Ich bin ein Berliner," spelled out phonetically so he would-- and if you watch the film, you can see just before he gets to that line, he looks down at the paper and then looks up and says, "Ich bin ein Berliner." And I love those little correspondences between an artifact and a piece of film.
And the most beautiful one comes towards the end of the museum where we have a video of his tour of Ireland in 1963. And as he was leaving, he quoted a piece of poetry that Mrs. de Valera, the wife of the president of Ireland, had recited to him the night before at dinner. And he'd written them down on the back of his itinerary.
John F. Kennedy
And she immediately quoted this poem. And I wrote down the words because I thought they're beautiful.
And you see him in the film pick up a piece of paper that he has under a silver jug. It's windy, that's why he has it under the-- and it's blowing around in the wind. And he picks it up, and then he recites. There's these very beautiful lines.
John F. Kennedy
Thus returns from travels long, years of exile, years of pain, to see old Shannon's face again, over the waters glancing. Well, I'm going to come back and see old Shannon's face again.
At the end of the recitation, he folds it up. And you can see the crease. And again, it's one of those things where you feel as if you're there at that moment in time.
In this I.M. Pei-designed white box, JFK's life and death unfold primarily on television monitors and video screens. I walk in suspicious. I've never particularly worshipped Jack Kennedy. He didn't really do anything except talk. He spoke of civil rights, but it was Lyndon Johnson who got actual laws passed. And then there's the minor matter of the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the scariest single week in the history of the world. And yet, at JFK's Library, I found myself hoodwinked by pretty words.
John F. Kennedy
No other free nation has demanded so much of itself. Through hot wars and cold, through recession and prosperity, through the ages of the atom and outer space, the American people have neither faltered, nor has their faith flagged. If at times our actions seem to make life difficult for others, it is only because history has made life difficult for us all.
As you may have noticed, there are no narrators to our films and our videos. The principle voice is that of John F. Kennedy himself. And we did that very consciously.
There are also a lot of pretty pictures-- home movies of JFK handing a dandelion to John-John, one weirdly evocative film strip of the president in which all he does is carry a briefcase and walk to a car. I watch this wondering, why is it so riveting? He's taking work home. But I can't resist him. The man is Medusa. Don't look in his eyes.
President Clinton, you should milk this in your library. Where the legislative record is perhaps ambiguous or downright shabby, go for the flashy soundbites. You're such a sweet talker, the Charlie Parker of the press conference Q&A, riffing rhythmically about everything from interest rates to Greece versus Turkey with regards to Cyprus. Get a couple of great quotes, throw a little music under them, and listen to what a great president you were.
America is far more than a place. It is an idea, the most powerful idea in the history of nations. And all of us in this chamber, we are now the bearers of that idea.
When we get this all worked out, we're all living to be 150, young people will still fall in love. Old people will still fight about things that should have been resolved 50 years ago. We will all on occasion do stupid things. And we will all see the unbelievable capacity of humanity to be noble. This is a great day.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military meteor on the rise.
President Clinton, I wanted to go to the Dwight David Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, to see how they handle something your library will have to tackle. Which is, if one of the achievements of a presidency is economic prosperity, how do you display that without putting out a bunch of toasters and hula hoops, without making people seem dumb and materialistic? How do you convey the decency of making people's lives better?
Unfortunately for our project, the way the Eisenhower Library deals with this challenge is they basically ignore it. In fact, you'd barely know the man was president. The exhibit devoted to his White House years is mostly heaps of weird, but swanky gifts he got, like a mosaic desk from the Shah of Iran. What the museum's great at is Eisenhower's military career. As I walk around with its director, Dan Holt, I think, who cares if he accomplished anything after V-J Day?
And this is some early World War II-- the original note that Roosevelt and Churchill signed appointing Eisenhower the Supreme Commander.
It's funny, at this point in the museum, I forgot he was president.
Yeah, right. Yeah.
President Clinton, there is a lesson to be learned here after all. Which is, play to your strength. Eisenhower's greatest achievement was liberating Europe. Your greatest achievement? Balancing the budget. Not as dramatic, I know. They're probably not going to make a Tom Hanks movie about fiscal policy, no matter how inspired that fiscal policy might be.
But still, as the White House web page cheerfully points out, your money wrangling did create the longest economic expansion in US history and the most new jobs ever created in a single administration. In the Eisenhower Library, the climax of the visit is D-Day in which you turn a sharp corner, and suddenly, you're standing like a soldier on a ship's ramp facing a Normandy beach.
And then you walk through a small mock-up of an LCI, Landing Craft Infantry, and then the photograph that's been called The Jaws of Death, which is the landings on Omaha Beach.
As you trudge across the ramp, you glimpse your buddies ahead of you slogging through the bloody wet, and the beach so far away. In short, this is very effective theater, which leads me to my next recommendation, Mr. Clinton. What about a similar stage set? Only in your library, instead of being a soldier leaving the boat for Omaha Beach, the visitor could walk in the shoes of Fed chairman Alan Greenspan as he steps out of a Lincoln Town Car and into the Dirksen Senate Office Building to endorse the Clinton deficit-reduction strategy before the Senate Banking Committee.
A word on the people who run these libraries, Mr. President. Fortunately for you guys, they are very attached to their subjects, very loyal. Their president becomes a kind of mental roommate, someone they live with. And each of the library directors I interviewed spoke of their president with affection, like moms almost. Dan Holt praises Ike's correspondence skill.
Eisenhower was a wonderful letter writer.
Talks up up his private sector prowess.
He was an outstanding business man.
His book learning.
His grammar is very good. As a matter of fact, when you read his diaries and letters, even the diaries, you can hardly ever find a misspelled word.
And his looks.
Oh, he was a very handsome man.
All the loyalty you would want while you're in office you finally get after you quit. None of the library directors have written kiss-and-tell memoirs and gone on to work for ABC.
If you were involved in the planning for this new presidential library in Little Rock, is there any advice you could give to those people based on your experience?
Bigger restrooms and more drinking fountains. But I think you have to have fun in it. I'm a true believer of that, that there has to be bells and whistles.
The first thing I think we'll take a look at is called an animatron. It is a figure of LBJ. It has sound with it. And it tells some of Johnson's stories.
I'm with library director Harry Middleton in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. We're looking at a robot of LBJ, a robot who wears cowboy garb and tells folksy stories. Have you heard the one about the man who goes to a doctor because he's hard of hearing? The doctor advises the man to quit drinking and sends him home. A few days later, the man returns to the doctor's office. He hasn't stopped his drinking. The doctor scolds him.
Lyndon B. Johnson
He said, didn't I tell you when you were here that you should cut out your drinking if you wanted to improve your hearing? He said, yes. Well, he said, why didn't you do it? Well, he said, doctor, he said, I got home, and I considered it. And I just decided that I like what I drinks much better than what I heard.
And as we move into this area, we show some of the correspondence that President Johnson got, some of it quite critical, some of it supportive.
There's a letter on the wall addressed to Lyndon Johnson from one Francis Mercer of Beverly Hills, California. "Mr. President, you have engaged this country in an active war without the consent of Congress. I consider having worked for your campaign one of the most tragic mistakes of my life."
President Clinton, I'm going to hazard a guess that you, yourself, have received one or two angry letters. Which brings us to the question what are you going to do about all the people who hate your guts? Not to put too fine a point on it. What are you going to do about all the aspects of your presidency you'd rather forget about?
Tell me if this rumor is true that, in the initial exhibitions, there was little or no representation of Vietnam, and that the President himself came to the library and insisted that that part of the exhibition be beefed up.
To a certain extent, that's true. There was a representation of Vietnam, but nothing that showed the controversy of Vietnam. And when President Johnson walked through the library just a few weeks before the library was to open, one of the things that he commented on was that the library did not indicate how contentious that time was. And he said to me, that was a very controversial period, and we've got to make sure that people know that we understand that. And he said to me, I don't want another damn credibility gap.
And do you think the people who are in charge of a president's legacy are more apt to protect him than the president himself would be of his own legacy?
Yeah, I think that's probably true. I think unless you get a clear direction from the president that he wants it all laid out-- in the case of Johnson, I've been director here from the beginning. And on one occasion when he was concerned that we might be too protective, he said to me, good men have been trying to protect my reputation for 40 years, and not a damn one has succeeded. Now what makes you think you can? So we've not tried to do that since.
Mr. Clinton, here's a list of things you should not whitewash. Before we even discuss the scandals, let's talk about the ordinary failures. What about one of your key campaign promises, to reform health care? A fiasco. Ditto Waco. Or the 1994 Congressional elections in which the voting public punched Republican names on their ballots with one hand while using their other hands to give you the finger.
I'm not even mentioning all the half-assed policies, like Don't Ask, Don't Tell, or Bosnia, or Somalia. Finally, you did have sexual relations with that woman. You have to confront this. Again, LBJ Library director Harry Middleton.
I think that a library should not proselytize and should not sugarcoat, and should not in any way distort the facts or the truth in order to hide a controversy surrounding the president. Otherwise, it's just unfair to the public.
Meanwhile, in Yorba Linda, California.
Well, first of all, I don't think a presidential library should necessarily bend over backwards to be objective and fair and inclusive of every important and telling fact on all sides of the argument.
This is John Taylor, director of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. It's about a 15-minute drive from Disneyland. Just as Harry Middleton of the LBJ Library is doing his job according to LBJ's wishes, John Taylor is doing his job the way Nixon would want.
I think people expect presidential libraries to reflect the point of view of the president, the president's family, and the president's institutional advocates.
I'm ambling through the museum, past pictures of Nixon, all smiles in China. And one of the other visitors asks the guard, "Where's Watergate?" The guard tells him, "Keep going straight. It's a dark room." And it is, a very dimly lit tunnel chronicling the break-in at the Watergate Hotel through President Nixon's resignation and farewell.
There are stations in the Watergate Gallery where one may listen to the famous tapes. And there are intricate text panels with labels like, "What did the president do, and when did he do it?" John Taylor says that one of the purposes of this exhibit is that people come here expecting the museum to avoid such a sore subject. And that dealing with it in such an info-packed manner gives them credibility.
But the most important reason to tell the story is that it happened. It was an amazing outbreak of political passion. The anger that Congress expressed during the Senate investigation in 1973 and the impeachment investigation in 1974 was passion that had been building probably since the events around the time of Kent State.
And I think one sees the same effect with President Clinton who was also a figure about whom there was simmering passions among many conservatives. There was a strong feeling among many conservatives, as we all know, that he quote "was not legitimate" close quote or that he had been engaged in activities which had never been fully revealed to the American people. And many of those passions came forth during the impeachment investigation and proceedings in 1998 and 1999.
Taylor offers this advice to you and your library director, President Clinton.
I think it would be appropriate for the Clinton Library to try to make the case, for instance, that there was a political dimension to the Clinton impeachment. And there were people, who did not think President and Mrs. Clinton should be in the White House, who used the impeachment effort as a way to accomplish that end. Pointing that out is fair comment. We pointed out in our museum, and I would think and assume that they would attempt to do so in Little Rock as well.
There's a lot you can crib from the Nixon Library, Mr. President. Just substitute the name Clinton for the name Nixon in the following text from the Watergate exhibit. It reads, "Nixon himself said he made inexcusable misjudgments. But what is equally clear is that his opponents ruthlessly exploited those misjudgments as a way to further their own purely political goals."
One caution, Mr. President. The Nixon Library can sometimes seem a little defensive. In the LBJ Library, a visitor's view of history is complicated by presenting both sides of the Vietnam dilemma. It's an emotional place, but still operates within the language of good old-fashioned civics, a president and his constituents loudly agreeing to disagree. The Nixon Library asks, you want facts? We'll give you some facts. And oh, by the way, grow up. Because you're not going to like any of them.
In May of this year, we marked the anniversary of the death of four students at Kent State. Thanks to the Neil Young song, thanks to the way that event is generally packaged in the media and in history, one rarely hears about it from the perspective of Richard Nixon.
But when you hear President Nixon talking in our presidential forum about what a dark day that was for him, it challenges the prevailing thought that he was callous and unfeeling toward the families of those who had died. In fact, he says in this museum and says in his memoirs that it was the darkest day of his presidency. And he includes Watergate when he makes that calculation.
At the same time, however, you also learn, when going through the museum, that President Nixon had to weigh the lives of those four innocent young people against the lives of innumerable south Vietnamese and American soldiers whose lives were saved as a result of the incursion into Cambodia which was the proximate cause of the demonstration at Kent State which got out of hand and led to the deaths.
President Clinton, perhaps you're wondering if the Nixon Library changed my mind about anything. You're wondering if citizens who shook their fists at your face on TV might someday drop in on a building with your name on it and maybe give you a break. All I can tell you is that I still think Watergate's a horror and Vietnam was wrong. But I do find it useful to remember that those decisions, even the most deadly ones, were made not by a supernatural monster, but by a real man whom we elected, a man who at least believed he was right. And that is not nothing.
In fact, the Nixon and Johnson Libraries were my favorite ones to visit because they deal with quarrelsome subjects. Once, years ago, I was at the LBJ Library. I was walking away from a copy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 towards a photo of a serviceman who'd been killed in Vietnam. In the 10 seconds it took to walk from that law to that face, a song from a nearby pop music exhibit started playing, "Louie Louie." And I felt like all of America was in that 10 seconds. The grandeur of civil rights, the consequences of war, and the fun, fun, fun of a truly strange song.
Mr. President, Americans like contradictions. We elected you, didn't we? So in your library, own up to your failures, but don't stop trying to win us over. In other words, just think of it as running for president forever.
Sarah Vowell's latest book is called Take the Cannoli.
Coming up, Lee Harvey Oswald's Little League career and other things his mother would like you to know before you judge him too harshly in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two. One And One Don't Make Two.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Memo To The People Of The Future, stories of people who want to control how history will see them. We've arrived at Act Two, an act we've called One And One Don't Make Two. What if you're remembered the wrong way? What if you're remembered for something that somebody else did? Well, consider the case of Marguerite Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald's mother.
In 1965, a reporter named Jean Stafford spent three days with Mrs. Oswald at Oswald's home in Fort Worth, Texas, to write a story for McCall's Magazine. Later, she expanded this story into a book called A Mother in History. The book's out of print now. Jean Stafford died about 20 years ago. And the tapes of these interviews were archived with the rest of Stafford's papers at the University of Colorado at Boulder. According to the librarians in the Special Collections department there, this is the first time these tapes have ever been heard by anyone other than Jean Stafford and Mrs. Oswald herself. This American Life producer Susan Burton tracked down the tapes and listened to them.
On the afternoon Jean Stafford first came to visit Mrs. Oswald in her white stucco bungalow, the two sat in the living room drinking coffee. A print of Whistler's famous portrait of his mother hung over the couch. Stafford thought she would start out by asking Mrs. Oswald about something small and personal, like her recipe for brownies. "But before I could open my mouth," she wrote later, "Mrs. Oswald opened hers and never shut it once during the three monologues she granted me."
It turned out that Mrs. Oswald thought that she and her son were being remembered the wrong way. And she'd devoted her life to setting the record straight. On these scratchy tapes, she tells stories like this one about when Lee was in seventh grade, and the two of them had just moved to New York.
Lee came home one day. And we were in New York just about a week or so. And it was exactly the time he was supposed to get home from school. He said, "Mother, I didn't go to school today." I said, "You didn't? Where did you go?" "Oh," he said, "I rode all around." He said, "I rode all day long on the subway. I went to Brooklyn. I went to Queens, blah, blah, blah." Now I want to say this. How many boys at age 13 that play hooky from school would come home and tell his mother that he did so? And he did. In defense of my son, let's have some defense of Lee Harvey Oswald and his mother.
The Warren Commission's 26-volume investigation into the Kennedy assassination discusses Lee's childhood at length. The Commission collected testimony about everything from his favorite board games to his fondness for playing hooky. They described how Mrs. Oswald sent Lee and his brothers to an orphanage then took them out again, how she moved the family around a lot, how this led Lee to become the kind of anti-social loner who'd shoot a president.
From Mrs. Oswald's point of view, the government basically gave a grant to people who wanted to prove what a bad mother she was. Plus, she complained to Jean Stafford, they didn't have the courtesy to come to me and verify these facts. They printed whatever they were told. Take, for instance, the testimony her sister gave about a trip Lee took to New Orleans back when he was 11 years old.
My sister remarks in her testimony that while he was there, he refused to play with any other children. She went into great details that they tried to get him out of the house and play with the children. Let's understand things a little bit. Here was a perfect stranger, a visitor. I have to smile because the whole thing is so ridiculous. Did she bring any 11-year or 12-year-olds into the home for Lee to meet? And did he refuse to meet them and to go off and play with them? Ah, that would be different. But no, no. So again, let's have defense of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Why am I so concerned that the people will understand? It is natural because, as I say, I am in 26 volumes of the president's report, which is all over the world. And so I must defend myself and defend my son Lee.
Did Lee like sports?
Yes, he loved sports. He played baseball. I know, when I was in the insurance business, I took him to Farrington Field right here in Fort Worth, Texas, and watched him play. He used to play on a team. He belonged to the Y in Fort Worth, Texas. When I think of all the things that this boy did, how can you call him a loner, or an introvert, or whatever they want to call him?
Well, he was going to be 20 in October. And that's when he hit Russia, which brings another point. All of the news media, he's such a failure in life, even The Warren Commission, such a failure in life. A failure in life at 19 and 20, a young boy going to Russia? I think this took courage, for whatever reason he went.
Most boys are going to college. These men don't understand. These men that are making $100 and $150 a day, the attorneys that are interviewing these witnesses and all. They never lived this type life. I find this a very intelligent boy, and I am really proud. I think he's coming out in history as a very fine boy.
She was so convinced that he was coming out in history as a fine boy that she actually tried to get Lee buried in Arlington Cemetery. Even so, it's hard not to feel sympathetic toward her. The most innocuous things she did as a parent were being scrutinized by millions of people. And she didn't believe her son had killed the president.
Like 3/4 of all Americans today, she thought he'd been caught up in some bigger conspiracy. Though her ideas about that conspiracy included a few scenarios that The Warren Commission probably didn't bother to investigate. Like her theory that the owners of Neiman Marcus were behind the assassination. Or the one that Lee's Russian wife, Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova was French, not Russian. Or the one that Lee was under surveillance back at Arlington Heights High School.
Lee, when we came back to Texas from New Orleans and he entered Arlington Heights High School, he entered in the end of September, I think is when school opens-- oh, let's give and take, the middle of September. And Lee joined the service on October the 17th. So approximately, he was in school four weeks. Yet, there are three pictures of my son for the yearbook. Now why pick out Lee Harvey Oswald?
Now you'll say, Mrs. Oswald, I don't get the point. Well, the point is it goes on, and on, and on, and on. This is an instance here, that Lee Harvey Oswald's picture was taken three times at Arlington Heights High School out of all the boys. You understand what I mean? And this goes on and on. It looks as though this boy's life has been supervised.
There are some people who would like to think that I have hallucinations. I know. It's been already said in The Warren Commission Report. It was asked by some of the attorneys, point blank, words put in their mouth. Do you think your mother or do you think-- to my sister-- that your sister has hallucinations? Because why? Because I notice the inaccuracies and the coincidences and things that don't jive? Because I know some who wouldn't hesitate to try to make a mental case out of me. And believe me, if anybody's in their right mind, it's Mrs. Marguerite Oswald.
There's a way in which the kind of mother Mrs. Oswald most resembled was a stage mother. When Lee was in Russia, she traveled to Washington to personally petition President Kennedy to get him to come home. She spent most of each day managing her son's posthumous career, clipping articles, sending out photographs, phoning reporters, analyzing The Warren Report for character and motivation. But what happens when a stage mother becomes famous too?
After the assassination, Mrs. Oswald toured the country, giving speeches about her son. She heard that Ernest Hemingway never gave away his autograph for free and started charging for hers too. She had a sense that she'd been picked to be in history, that she'd been cast in a great American epic. When there was news about Lee and she wasn't included, she was offended. For instance, when Lee's diary mysteriously appeared, she couldn't believe that the FBI didn't call to see if she'd been the one to release it.
After the third day, I called the FBI, which is in Dallas. And I forget the man's name, and I told him who I was. And I said, I have been waiting for somebody to come over and question me about the release of the so-called diary. And I said, nobody has. And he said, well, do you have the diary, Mrs. Oswald? And I said, no, I don't. But I just can't imagine all the fuss about the diary and not coming and asking if I released the diary. He said, because they know you didn't have it.
But you see, now this is a good example of agent or of whatever you want to say. Because, here, I could have had the diary if they were sincere. Let's face it. You see, one and one don't make two. My book's going to be One and One Don't Make Two or This and That. Those are the titles I'd like to have.
Mrs. Oswald honestly didn't understand why she didn't get the same kind of sympathy Mrs. Kennedy did. She felt a kind of kinship with her. In Mrs. Oswald's mind, they'd gone through something very similar.
I'm not unhappy, Jean. You can see I'm not. But really, I am a mother in history. I'm all over the world. My son's the one accused. History's been made because of him. And here, we have Mrs. Kennedy very well and Marina very well. And here, I'm wondering where my next meal is coming from. And it's almost unbelievable. Sometimes it's almost like a spiritual thing because if you research Jesus Christ's mother, you never heard any more about the mother of Jesus, Mary, after he was crucified on the cross.
At the end of the day, when her driver arrived to pick her up, Jean Stafford decided to leave the tape recorders at Mrs. Oswald's house overnight. They were heavy, and she was coming back the next day anyway. Early the next morning, Stafford lay in bed, dreading her session with Mrs. Oswald. "My impulse was to eliminate the day by taking a sleeping pill," she confessed. While Stafford dawdled in her hotel room, Mrs. Oswald picked up the microphone and started to speak. It was Mother's Day.
Jean, you left the tape recorders yesterday afternoon in my home, which was Saturday, so that we could work again about an hour today. Upon waking up this morning, and it being Mother's Day, I've decided that in defense of myself and my son, Lee Harvey Oswald, I would put a little something on the tape. I sincerely hope that you will find it newsworthy and print it.
Mrs. Oswald began reading from The Warren Report, page 378, which describes how she left Lee home alone a lot when she had a job selling insurance. "This is not true," she exclaimed. From there, she pointed out that telling Lee not to talk to strangers did not make him a loner and offered menus of the nutritious dinners she cooked for her family, such as spaghetti and meatballs. "This," Jean Stafford writes, "is what she witnessed as her car crept up the street in a rainstorm."
Somewhere in the neighborhood, a voice, much amplified, was blaring. "I thought at first it was coming from the soundtrack of a political candidate on a mobile stump or from one advertising an American Legion carnival. But as I got out of the car, I realized that it was pouring out of Mrs. Oswald's house and that the voice belonged to her." Mrs. Oswald was playing back the tape she had made that morning, doing the work she'd devoted her life to, answering questions no one had asked, piling detail on detail, amplifying her voice in a quiet neighborhood where nobody seemed to be listening.
Really and truly, as I say, this is Mother's Day I'm taping. And I'm very proud of the role that I played as a mother.
This American Life producer Susan Burton.
Act Three. You Don't Have To Be An Einstein.
Act Three, You Don't Have To Be An Einstein. After he died, here are some of the unfortunate things that happened to physicist Albert Einstein. He started showing up as a comic character in Hollywood films. He appeared in Pepsi ads with that evil little girl. And until very recently, his very brain was on the loose without his family's consent in the unauthorized possession of the doctor who did the autopsy, a man named Thomas Harvey. Mike Paterniti recently took a cross country road trip with Doctor Harvey and the brain. At one point, in search of the global epicenter of those who have attached themselves to Einstein after the physicist's death, Mike headed to Japan.
Kenji Sugimoto is an obscure math professor at a place called Kinki University in Osaka, Japan. He is also one of the most prolific collectors of Einsteiniana in the world. When I find him at his office at Kinki, he's wearing a green tie with Einstein's face on it. He offers me a seat, then realizes it's occupied by a huge canvas, a crude, though heartfelt portrait of Einstein in later life. He briefly admires it, by way of registering its importance, and sets it on the floor next to a trembling tower of Einstein books.
He produces a cache of black-and-white photographs, marking Einstein's progress through Japan during his 1922 trip here. These are among his most prized possessions. Einstein, wearing a heavy overcoat and wide-brimmed hat against the December chill, looking more exorcist than physicist. Einstein jamming on a piano. Einstein standing before a chalkboard scrawled with inscrutable equations, a nimbus of numbers about his head, under the rapt gaze of his audience. As we riffle through the photographs, the professor runs his fingers over them as if reading Braille, traces the path on which Einstein is seen walking, gently touches the great scientist's head.
We're interrupted by a knock at the door, three sharp raps, and then in step the polished wingtips of a man introduced to me only as Abe, Kenji's good friend and secretary of the Einstein World Congress, an organization founded by Sugimoto to further cooperation among Einstein scholars and enthusiasts as well as to establish the first-ever Albert Einstein museum. Abe is dressed in a very sharp, shiny suit, the coral color of the sea off Bora Bora. Sugimoto and Abe stand amid the clutter of Sugimoto's office, talking turkey. They need $3 million to make the museum work. And most of all, they need the support of the powerful Mr. Kobe, the director of Kinki University and the man who apparently can make it rain gold doubloons if he likes the cut of your jib.
Abe is here to join us for lunch with the powerful Mr. Kobe. And when Sugimoto consults his wristwatch and realizes we're late, both World Congress members suddenly look stricken, compose themselves, straighten their respective ties, slap each other on the back as a kind of psych, then lead me out of the office and up the elevator. When I first spy the powerful Mr. Kobe, he is sitting behind a large desk, chatting on the phone. He is a larger man than either Sugimoto or Abe, with big hands and an impassive face. He has a way of looking through a person to the skeleton reality of who you really are. He gives me a grave look and a bone-crushing handshake.
I'm introduced as an American scholar though he doesn't even pretend to buy that nonsense. In his presence, even Sugimoto is more subdued, a bit more manly. There's some tough guy small talk, and the powerful Mr. Kobe's voice is a low, commanding rumble like a tank unit running through an abandoned village. Everything rides behind it.
With the food, the mood lightens. Abe lays out a business plan for the Einstein museum. And Sugimoto breaks in every now and again with a statement, uttered seriously, that seems utterly unserious. With each intervention, the powerful Mr. Kobe lets out a low, Lurch-like growl, as if stricken by indigestion, then goes back to chain smoking. When the powerful Mr. Kobe gazes out at the Kusunoki Mountains, he seems to be considering the cost benefit neon-light proposition of Kinki University's Einstein museum, a place where day and night, the citizens of the world will stand on line, pockets bursting with Yen.
Next up is the teacher's lounge, where Kenji seats me on a naugahyde couch, then rushes from the room and returns with a videotape, a 1994 BBC documentary about Kenji's journey to America to find Doctor Thomas Harvey and Einstein's brain. Kenji refers to it as "my movie." In it, he crisscrosses the country on a bizarre, month-long odyssey from the corridors of Princeton Hospital to a succession of humdrum Midwestern towns, dogging anyone who might know anything about Einstein's brain until he finds Doctor Harvey in Lawrence, Kansas, an old man sleeping on a sofa bed in a cramped apartment.
When Kenji requests a piece of Einstein's brain, Harvey takes a steak knife from a kitchen drawer, places his hand in a glass cookie jar full of brain, and fishes out a slab, plopping it on a wood cutting board, where he silently begins slicing.
And it is here where the off-screen Kenji, the real Kenji, intervenes. Impatiently, emphatically, he plunks a white canister on the table before me, switching off the television, then pacing around the table a couple of times. Then he rolls up his sleeves, loosens the knot of his tie, and unlids it. Inside the canister is a tea tin, a purple Twinings container, flavor Lapsang Souchong. Kenji gently removes it and, again, pries off another lid. Here, he reaches slowly into its dark gullet and pulls out two wide-mouthed, plastic pill containers. These, he ceremoniously sets on the table, as if he's handling two Faberge eggs.
When he screws off these last lids, we both draw close, expectantly. "Einstein brain," says Kenji, beaming broadly, gesturing to the formaldehyde pools in each container. The smell catches me first. I come forward, breathing solely through my mouth. What floats in the liquid looks less like a brain than a sneeze, just gobby pieces of phlegm.
"Shono," Kenji blurts, in his excitement, momentarily abandoning his English. "Cerebellum," shaped like a bonsai tree. "Piece of Einstein's brain bring harmony," he says. "My spirit belongs to Einstein's brain." He riffles through a Japanese-English dictionary that he has brought with him from his office. "Shugo," he says. "Divine protection." Then "ishiki." "Consciousness, oneself." We sit in silence.
And after a time, I move closer to the floating brain bits again. "But what does it mean," I ask him, both repulsed and fascinated. Kenji furrows his brow, starts to speak, then stops, then starts again, considers the question at length, trying to forge the perfect grammatical sentence. "To be or not to be," he says. "This is what Einstein's brain is all about."
After seeing the brain, there is nothing to do but celebrate by going to a karaoke lounge, a favorite haunt of Kenji and his colleagues. There are seven or eight ladies who attend to the clientele, a collection of suited men in various states of besotment. I'm introduced to Miss Michiko Miyata, the matron of the lounge. A short, friendly, over-busy woman who employs a quiet arsenal of hand signals, whispers, rib-prodding, and foot-stamping, all with a smile to keep her girls in line and on the ready. The hostesses have names like Jun and Kyoko. And one 19-year-old Chinese singer, with eyes of soft, brown liquid, is called Lily.
Of all people, the powerful Mr. Kobe is here too, wearing his Noh mask of no expression, sitting in a dark corner, accepting visits from his minions, chain smoking Omar Sharif cigarettes, and making neat work of his whiskey. He is here, I'm told, six nights a week, all except Sunday. The powerful Mr. Kobe regards me from behind a wraith of smoke, but shows no flicker of recognition. The set of his face is severe, a perpetual frown from the heavy, heavy weight of his world.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the night is that Kenji has a beautiful Wayne Newton voice, a supple manliness in the notes he sings to a syrupy Japanese favorite, "Blue Airport," the tale of two lovers separated by a plane trip of some sort, thankfully reunited when the return ticket is executed. He sways, he closes a fist to show pain. After some point in the evening, everyone is sloshed and beginning on a maudlin march to some unknown destination.
The hostess named Lily has sung with a slew of men. And now, I'm told, that this is Lily's last evening with the troops after three years of singing at this lounge, of being in all of their lives. She is going back to China in the morning. It is very late when, at the proddings of the patrons, Lily picks up one of the cordless mics and begins a slow, sad goodbye song in Chinese. She is unquestionably stunning, long, black hair, full lips, a thin back partially revealed by her gown.
As she sweetly finds the notes, as she throws herself into one last song, I realize people are weeping-- the hostesses, the men, Kenji. And Lily, who has been doing just fine, begins to falter, realizes that this is it, that her life lived at night in the cozy confines of this purple-lit lounge, among so many men who have become like fathers to her, among her fellow sisters, who have watched her become a woman, this life of money and freedom and joy will so cruelly end with a short flight to Beijing and the prison of her family.
And then she is blubbering, honest wails that she tries to suppress, her grief monstrously revealed in the professional spotlight. The music carries on without her, mournfully, slowly, but with a trace of seeming malice now. Though she is trying not to lose face, she can only eke out a word or two of each verse in an attempt to catch up, bent at the waist, covering her eyes.
In her last act as a karaoke lounge singer, she is dying on stage. A wave of discomfort washes over the room. But then suddenly, just as one hostess begins to rush toward the crumpled girl, a voice rises out of nowhere like a large-winged bird. Out of the shadows in the room, on a second cordless mic, a strong, full-timbred voice, deep and sure, conveying with each note the ache and pathos of goodbye, the rent feelings of everyone in the room, the death of this era, the Lily years.
There is so much emotion in it, a remarkable lifetime of feeling, really, and yet such strength that even Lily looks up from where she is kneeling, a single tear sparkling on her cheek.
And rising from his table, stepping into the spotlight is-- impossible-- the powerful Mr. Kobe. He stands before Lily in his well-tailored suit though he doesn't offer her a hand. He just sings. Lily, looking up to him, gains her balance, rises from the floor, and begins to sing again too. And he carries her right to the end. And everybody is bawling.
When the song is over, Lily smiles, then turns to the powerful Mr. Kobe and bows to him. He nods stiffly, retires to his table, and then later, when she visits him one last time, he presents her with an envelope full of money. Even as formality and reticence slowly reassert themselves, something has happened here that no one will forget. It's one of the most honest acts of love I've ever witnessed.
Out in the early morning street, six of us pile into a cab, Kenji, me, and some of his inebriated friends. No one says anything. We just watch as the neon lights of downtown Osaka fall into the melancholy swirl of the river. During the war, after Tokyo was firebombed, American fighter jets attacked Osaka, destroying much of the downtown where we now drive. Kenji himself was born in the short years after his own hometown, Nagasaki, was obliterated.
His parents somehow survived the horrors of Einstein's most dubious legacy, the bomb. It's only when we come to where I'm staying, only after I've gotten out of the cab and placed a hand on its closed door, that Kenji comes down from some faraway place in his mind. "To be, Mr. Michael," he says. "It's much better to be."
Mike Paterniti reading an excerpt from his book Driving Mr. Albert.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who says that he is not defensive. You just have to remember.
I am in 26 volumes of the president's report which is all over the world.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.