Transcript

338:

The Spokesman
Transcript

Originally aired 08.10.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/338

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Adults don't understand anymore what it means to be a nerd. Have you noticed this? Nerd, somehow, has become a badge of honor. You meet all kinds of people who say, proudly, that they were nerds in high school. It's like anybody who had anything that made them feel different now says that they were a nerd.

And that population-- the population that thinks that it was different-- that's like, everybody who went to high school. You know? People who were chubby, people who were in band, people who liked comic books, people who just didn't drink. I've met people who were actually popular, who actually had a social circle and boyfriends or girlfriends, who now claim they were nerds. That is just wrong.

I believe that we have forgotten the sweaty, unsexy, cringe-inducing face of hard core nerdom.

David Iserson

I remember seeing a character on Beverly Hills 90210 wearing sports jackets to school. And I decided that that was a cool thing to do, and that I would do that. And it was the sort of thing that nobody quite understood. And everyone thought I was dressing up for something I had to go to after school. Everyone was sort of already tired of me at that point.

Ira Glass

That's David Iserson. When he was 13, David got a chance to change schools, leave the tiny school where everybody had known him since he was five, and start all over at a big public school where nobody knew him. And he had a very clear strategy for how he was going to create a glorious new life for himself.

David Iserson

I bore no illusions that I was going to be cool. So my only goal was to be anonymous. And I had some friends who were a year ahead of me in school. And that was their advice to me. Go in there. Do not say a word. Don't talk to anyone. Don't go up to anyone. Just sit in the back and stay anonymous. And that was my goal.

That was actually a pretty exciting prospect, of just being somebody that people barely noticed.

Ira Glass

And for a few months it worked. But David didn't just want to be invisible. He also wanted to be an actor. I know. Complete contradiction. He was 13, remember.

He'd had a small part in Guys and Dolls at summer camp. He played a boy who talked to whales in this tiny community theater. And a couple times a week, his grandmother would drive him to auditions for TV commercials, though he never got cast in anything. Then, his dad came to him with a proposition.

His dad worked in the family business, this furniture store called Silvert's Furniture. And they'd just added a room full of desks, and beds, and shelving that was designed specifically for teenagers.

David Iserson

And for a while he had been doing the local television commercials for the store. So he said to me, "You want to be in commercials. I have a great idea. You should do the commercial for our store." I think he may have even presented it like, you know, I'm only so good at this, but you are a talented young actor. So I think you should promote our room of teen furniture.

Ira Glass

He was flattered. He was thrilled. And they shot the ad. Which was a gas.

David Iserson

So a few weeks later, my dad brings it home. And he's really, really excited about it. He talked to the guy, the director of it, and they both decided that this was a great commercial. And so he gathered the family into the family room. And he put on the VHS tape. And he started the commercial. And it didn't even have to run for a second before I just had this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. Like, this was horrible.

I'm sure all your parents know about the great selection of furniture for them here at Silvert's in Freehold. But they may not know about Silvert's huge selection of teen furniture. After all, we need something that suits us too.

Ira Glass

Could you just describe what your hair cut looks like right here?

David Iserson

Well, I was sort of fashion-- I guess what could be described as a pompadour.

Ira Glass

I would describe you more as, like-- and I don't want this to sound harsh. I mean this in a -- you look like Big Boy. You know Big Boy? From the hamburger chain? But with braces.

David Iserson

Yeah. I think that's probably accurate.

Ira Glass

For somebody who wanted to stay invisible, it is hard to imagine how this particular ad could have been worse for him. Everybody saw it. In the commercial David has an air of perfectly cheerful naivete.

In the first shot, he crosses the screen, careful to never stop facing the camera as he does this. Cut to him putting his school books onto a table. Cut to him lying on a bed on his stomach. In one shot he nods knowingly to the audience.

David Iserson

And furniture we feel comfortable just hanging out in. Oh yeah, Silvert's has sets for you girls, too. So take your mom and dad--

To stop it there-- I mean, I think that's the line. That's the line that killed me. "We have sets for you girls, too." If anyone was to watch that commercial-- and when anyone did watch that commercial, who went to school with me, or anything like that-- that's the big laugh line. That's the thing bullies would say. You know, if I'm walking down the hall, and I hear someone say, "We have furniture for you girls, too," I know that I'm about to get shoved into a wall of lockers. It was almost like my warning.

That's the line that ended up following me, basically, all through my adolescence.

Ira Glass

I have to say, when you say it, you give a little jaunty, over the shoulder, one thumb point.

David Iserson

As I recall, that's how I was directed. And thank God they didn't use the take where I think I actually took a comb, and I combed it through my hair as I said it. Because if it could ever possibly be worse, it would have been worse by doing that.

Ira Glass

And let's just describe what happens in the very last moment of the commercial.

David Iserson

So I'm saying my last little button on there. And my dad walks in--

So take your mom and dad to Silvert's Furniture in downtown Freehold for all the furniture we need.

Dad

Thanks, Dave. I couldn't have said it better myself.

David Iserson

I'm smiling. He puts his hand on my shoulder. I mean, it's like holding hands with your mom in the mall. And the "Thanks, Dave. I couldn't have said it better myself," was another line that got a lot of life out of it when I was walking through the halls of junior high school, and then later, high school.

Ira Glass

He says that a day did not go by for the next year without somebody mentioning the ad. Strangers, his friends, even adults. One teacher tried to get him to quote the commercial in a school play.

The ad ran a lot during New York Rangers hockey games. If you know anything about Rangers fans, this is maybe the least hospitable possible audience for an ad featuring a pompadour-wearing 13-year-old. These huge guys, men, would stop David and make him perform the ad for their girlfriends.

David always tried to protect himself by telling people that the stuff that he said in the commercial-- the way the he acted-- the store made him do all that. But, um, that wasn't true. He had written the whole thing himself.

And when he watched the ad, it was actually a profound thing for him. He thought, this is how I seem to people? This is how it comes across when I talk?

David Iserson

My big fear was that they were all right, that everything they were making fun of was true. That that was me. Like I'd presented myself, and that was me.

Ira Glass

Do you think it was you? When you shot the commercial, you thought it was good. You wrote the commercial.

David Iserson

I mean, truthfully, I think it was me. I think it was me. I think as bad as it was, yeah, that was me.

Ira Glass

And in a way, that's so much worse.

David Iserson

It's unbelievably worse. Because you can't escape that reputation even when you're alone.

Ira Glass

But whatever it did to his personal life and to the way that he saw himself, the ad worked. It got people into the store. It ran for years. He was a successful spokesman, which is the subject of today's program. From Chicago Public Radio, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Today on our show, The Spokesman. A program in three acts. We have a story where some people refuse to believe that a certain spokesman is an actual, real person. Adamantly refuse, to the point where it becomes a real public fight. That story from Jon Ronson, in Act One.

In Act Two, we have the story of a teenage spokesman whose private life is the exact opposite, almost, of what he seems like in public. And in Act Three, a very unusual look inside the life of a presidential spokesman. Stay with us.

Act One. What Part Of "Bomb" Don't You Understand?

Ira Glass

Act One, What Part of "Bomb" Don't You Understand?" Jon Ronson has this story about somebody who becomes a spokesperson entirely by accident.

A quick warning to people who are listening to our show on the internet, on our podcast or by streaming. For the internet version of this show, we have left in-- this is an experiment for us-- we have left in one curse word that occurs at a crucial moment in the story. Versus the broadcast version, where we bleeped it out. Here's Jon.

Jon Ronson

One morning two years ago, Rachel North, who works in advertising, got on the Piccadilly Line tube at Finsbury Park, in north London.

Rachel North

It was the most rammed carriage I have ever been on in my entire life of using that line. And more and more people were pushing on and on. And I was sitting there thinking, this is ridiculous. And the train trundled off. And we'd been going for about 45 seconds, and then there was this explosion. I was about seven or eight feet away from it. So I felt this huge power smashing me to the floor.

And everything went dark. And you could hear the brakes screaming, and it was racketing around. It was about being on an out of control fairground ride, but in the dark.

And it was very hot. You couldn't breathe at all. The air was just completely thick with smoke. And I was suddenly wet, completely wet. And I was on the floor. And there were people lying on top of me. And then the screaming started.

Jon Ronson

Three years earlier, Rachel had been violently attacked by a stranger in her home. In July, 2005, she wrote an article about the attack in Marie Claire magazine. That's what she was doing the moment the bomb exploded, standing on a packed tube train, reading the Marie Claire article about her violent attack. As she lay on the ground she thought, not again.

Rachel North

We started to evacuate the train. And I was one of the last people to get off. And as I went to leave, I did a quick sweep around behind me. And I did see some of what had happened, yes. And that has stayed with me, because I still worry whether I should have stayed and tried to help people, even though it was really dark and all I could see was that there was some bent metal, there was people on the floor, there was-- I won't say what I saw, but it was pretty horrific.

Jon Ronson

How many people died in your carriage?

Rachel North

26 people died in my carriage. It should have been more, but because the carriage was so packed-- what happened was the people who were very close to the bomb got the full blast. And then the people who were about three, four yards away from the bomb got very bad lower limb injuries.

Jon Ronson

There had been three simultaneous bomb explosions on London Underground trains around 9:00 AM and one more on a bus an hour later. 56 people were killed, including the four suicide bombers who were all from England, and one was a primary school teacher. 700 people were injured.

Rachel had a bad gash full of glass on her wrist, which was so deep she could see her bone. But she was what paramedics call walking wounded. When she got home from the hospital a few hours later, she took a shower and tried to sleep. But she couldn't. So instead she got up and went online to her favorite web site, a large London community message board.

There were hundreds of messages about the bombs already. But none had been written by someone who had actually been a passenger on a bombed train. She began posting.

Rachel North

"Thursday, 7th of July, one minute to 11. I was on a crowded train to work. It was 8:40 AM when I boarded the Grand Piccadilly Line train at Finsbury Park--"

Jon Ronson

She wrote and wrote, day after day. A flood of blog postings. The BBC discovered her blog and published it on their website. Her accounts of the July 7 bombings became one of the most read, and most beautifully written, on the internet.

Rachel North

"Saturday, 9th of July. Yesterday was a weird day. Couldn't stop watching news. When I started hearing the bomb was in my carriage, I flipped. I started pacing about. I was alternately pounding with anger and adrenaline and having mini flashbacks, then feeling falling over tired. I drank several whiskeys. My sister came to visit--"

I didn't see it as putting myself into the public eye as a spokesperson at all. I just wrote about it. It was a way of disentangling all these horrible memories that were keeping me up at night. And by typing them down, it was like cleaning a wound. I was picking all the grit and the smoke out of my mind.

Jon Ronson

Rachel started getting emails from other survivors who had seen her blog. These were people like her, who had walked away that day in a daze, and just tried to get on with their lives. But they discovered they were experiencing much the same post traumatic symptoms.

Rachel North

There were people saying that they were unable to feel any joy in being alive. Every time they went to sleep, they would have nightmares. They would have nightmares of banging their hands against the glass of the train, battering away, trying to smash their way out of this train that was filled with smoke. And a lot of people thought they were going to burn to death. And they couldn't get out. There was no way of escaping. And they all thought they were literally going to die entombed.

And none of us expected it. We were just on the way to work.

Jon Ronson

Rachel organized for them all to meet in a pub together once a month. They formed a kind of unofficial support group and called themselves Kings Cross United. The media found out about them and thought it was a good story. So they needed a spokesman. Rachel had a background in advertising, and now she was quite a famous blogger. And she was able to hold it together in public. So she was the obvious candidate.

She carried on writing her blog. And this is when it started getting a bit strange. People she didn't know began posting weird, cryptic comments she didn't quite understand on her site.

Rachel North

You can install a thing that tells you where your visitors are coming from called Site Meter. I noticed a few weeks after installing that, I seemed to be getting an awful lot of hits from a particular website. So I went to look to the website. And I was interested to discover that somebody on that website had taken my original account of the bombs, and was claiming that it was actually a description of a power surge, which I found very strange, because a power surge doesn't rip people's limbs off and kill people.

Jon Ronson

There's a small but loud group of July 7 conspiracy theorists who believe that an accidental power surge had coursed through the London Underground that day, and that the British government wanted to cover up this corporate manslaughter by blaming it on Islamic suicide bombers.

On the site that Rachel found, a poster had quoted one of her original descriptions of her experience, where she writes about the electricity being cut out and the train descending into total darkness. The poster used her writing as evidence to support this power surge theory.

As Rachel read all of this stuff, she wondered how they'd account for the bus bombing. And then she found it. The conspiracy theorists maintained that the bus on Tavistock Square didn't really explode. It was actually a fake stunt using fancy pyrotechnics and stuntmen and actors.

Rachel North

Which I thought was just obscene, given that, by that stage, I had met people who had lost loved ones on that bus. To call the people on the bus, who died, actors and stuntmen, was, I thought, quite abhorrent.

Jon Ronson

And the people who were spreading these theories, had they brought you into it at this point?

Rachel North

They were just quoting me, as if I had--

Jon Ronson

Confirmed it.

Rachel North

Confirmed it.

Jon Ronson

And so Rachel felt uncontrollably compelled to do something unwise. She decided to jump into the fray, jump into the lives of the internet conspiracy theorists. She decided to get involved, and try and convince them that their theories weren't true.

Rachel North

He was inviting comments on his website. So I dived in, and I read all his stuff. And then I came up for air. And then I left a very angry comment going, how dare you misquote me in this way. Power surges do not tear people's legs off. And then he responded by saying, you didn't even know the bomb was in your carriage. You keep changing your story. And basically had a go at me.

Jon Ronson

And you started engaging with him a lot?

Rachel North

I was furious with him. I just thought, oh, they don't realize. As soon as they actually talk to a real person, they'll realize it's a load of nonsense and they'll give up. I had no idea, at all then, about what these people were like.

But what comes through again and again is this lack of empathy. Complete lack of empathy. So they would, for example, cut and paste these most harrowing descriptions by emergency services officers of going into carriages and seeing buckled walls that were streaming with blood, and pieces of human flesh, and stepping over body parts. And stepping over the hole where the bomb had torn a crater in the floor.

They'd post this. And you couldn't read it without actually wanting to weep. And then they would say, that you see. The hole there appears to be on the right-hand side. And that would be their comment.

Jon Ronson

They're just interested in the crater?

Rachel North

Yeah, just weird.

Jon Ronson

Rachel believed what most people believe, that the July 7 attacks were the workers of Mohammed Sidique Khan and his three accomplices, and not a conspiracy involving actors and the British government. She told the conspiracy theorists that they were fantasists, and that it wasn't nice to find yourself a character in another person's paranoid fantasy, especially when you've just been blown up on the tube.

But by engaging with them, Rachel herself became part of the conspiracy.

Rachel North

They all started discussing me. And they formed the most bizarre theories about me. They decided that because I had this group that I'd set up, and that I had this blog that I'd set up, I was feeding the official story to the survivors. And I was somehow controlling them. And I was a government mouthpiece who'd been tasked with disseminating disinformation.

And they became very suspicious of me. They formed this theory that I was some kind of counterintelligence professional or security services covert operative. Actually, some of them thought I didn't even exist. They thought I was a team of men who were tasked with creating this Rachel from north London persona, and maintaining it as a means of what they called psy-ops, you know, psychological operations to control the population of the UK.

Jon Ronson

I've just found what somebody's written about you here.

"Rachel--" and then in brackets "Rachel Schmachel" as if to imply that your name's not really Rachel. "It's your tone of voice that is the give away. You also seem to think that having been involved directly in the events of the day-- were you really-- confers upon you some special status and insight." That's annoying.

Rachel North

Oh, that wasn't even the worst of it. There was a lot worse than that. [INTERPOSING VOICES] "--people disinformation shill all [BLEEP] and no evidence. It should be clear from Rachel's dis-info tactics she's part of the same lying media and police who set up this scam. Bet it ain't even female."

Jon Ronson

They're referring to you as it. They're saying, "Bet it ain't even female." You wrote this at the bottom of all this stuff about you, which just seems really sad. You wrote, "I do not work for the government. I'm a normal person. I have a normal job in a normal office, and I'm getting sick of this. I'm requesting politely that you drop this and stop making accusations which are not true. It is completely out of order, frankly. Please stop."

What they were doing to Rachel was incredibly insulting. She'd almost been killed. She runs a support group for people who were almost killed. And now she was getting death threats from the conspiracy theorists. They contacted her parents, who found the whole thing frightening and confusing. So Rachel decided to confront them, face to face.

She went to a meeting where the conspiracy theorists spokesman, David Shayler, was speaking. The floor was opened up for Q and A's. And Rachel raised her hand and argued against the idea that July 7 was an inside job.

Rachel North

Then everybody started shouting. And so I raised my voice to be heard over them shouting. They shouted, I shouted. They make it sound like I got up from the floor, marched onto the stage and started declaiming away. That's not what happened. The whole room erupted in shouting.

David Shayler

Let me talk about Rachel North being an excellent composite MI5 person.

Jon Ronson

This is David Shayler, who was on stage that night. He's a former MI5 officer who's jumped sides to become a hero to the conspiracy theorists. He says it's not so crazy to believe that Rachel is the creation of a team of agents from his old organization.

David Shayler

Honestly, I think you should present the evidence to people of why people are saying that.

Jon Ronson

OK. Why do you think people are saying that?

David Shayler

They're saying it was so because Rachel North won't have a dispassionate briefing about 7/7 in which somebody talks her through the evidence. Anybody who's not prepared to engage with evidence, their opinion is not worth anything.

Jon Ronson

So do you think there's a chance that Rachel North is a composite of MI5 agents?

David Shayler

Well, I don't know. I'm sorry. I haven't seen the full evidence on that. All I know is--

Jon Ronson

But do you think it's a possibility?

David Shayler

Well, anything is a possibility, isn't it? Of course anything's a possibility. But I don't think we should dismiss these things, the idea that the intelligence services would create a composite figure. I don't think we should dismiss that idea, because that's exactly the kind of thing they would do.

Jon Ronson

But you've met her?

David Shayler

I've met her. But what I'm trying to say is that Rachel North can exist as a figure. But it doesn't mean necessarily there's not five people behind her, posting in her name on the internet to get stuff out there. Once you've got a name, anybody could be posting that stuff on the internet, can't we?

Jon Ronson

Well I think you seem to think that the only reason why Rachel might be a group of men working for MI5 is because she doesn't want to sit down and engage with the conspiracy theorists.

David Shayler

No, I'm not. It's to do with her prestigious posting on the internet. And again, I think you should look at the evidence there about how many posts she was doing at one point.

Jon Ronson

She was posting a lot.

David Shayler

Because I think other people have looked at this in the movement, and come to the opposite conclusion, that there were far too many posts to come from one person.

Jon Ronson

You know what bloggers are like. They just write, and write, and write. I don't understand why, because they're not getting paid.

I've crossed paths with the conspiracy theorists myself. I've spoken out against their irrational thoughts. And in retaliation they've set up a discussion thread called "Jon Ronson, shill or stupid?" A shill is a paid stooge.

My experience with them is nothing compared to the abuse and the hate that Rachel incurred. But still, I've had terrible online fights with them. You're probably thinking it's nuts to engage with them. And you'd be right. It is nuts. It does nothing but bad. But when you're inside the bubble, sitting alone in your room, staring at the internet, sometimes it's really hard to control yourself and do the sensible thing.

Jon Ronson

Do you regret jumping in and getting involved with them?

Rachel North

I think morally it was the right thing to do. I think from a personal point of view, I could do without the hate mail. I could do-- I've had death threats. I feel upset that my family were contacted.

Jon Ronson

When somebody who was actually there, at the moment of the explosion-- rather than somebody who sits at home on the internet and theorizes-- comes and confronts the theorists, why do the conspiracy theorists get so angry and so personal?

David Shayler

Well, I think again, you're trying to make this to be the case. But I have to say when Rachel North did come to one of our meetings, I thought her behavior showed signs of mental illness.

Jon Ronson

You think Rachel is mentally ill?

David Shayler

No, I'm saying that the behavior I saw of her then-- I don't know her particularly well-- showed signs of mental illness.

Jon Ronson

What did she do that was mentally ill-ish?

David Shayler

It was the degree with which she attacked me for happening to say this thing about precisely the same stations. It was a fact that once she said it, she stood up, came running towards me and started shouting at me. There was a madness about this. And I would invite you to actually interview anybody else who was there, because they will say the same thing.

Jon Ronson

But that's because Rachel thinks it's nonsense--

David Shayler

But how does she know until she's seen the evidence? I'm getting the same sort of vibe off you here, Jon. You think it's nonsense. You haven't seen the evidence, you see? This is the problem we're in, because a viewpoint arrived at without evidence is prejudiced. And to say that Muslims carried out 9/11, those three guys from Leeds, and one from Aylsebury, without evidence--

Jon Ronson

7/7, you mean?

David Shayler

Sorry, 7/7. Sorry, 7/7. The four guys that supposedly carried out 7/7, the evidence is simply not there to say it.

Jon Ronson

What about--

David Shayler

To say they did it--

Jon Ronson

What about the video? Was that set up?

David Shayler

Is racist, Jon. It's racist. You're being racist against Muslims, if you think those three guys carried out that attack on the evidence there.

Jon Ronson

Oh, fuck off.

[LAUGHTER]

Jon Ronson

It's what I uncontrollably feel as if I should say to you, though. For so many reasons, David.

David Shayler

-- include the recording of that in the actual interview, please, because-- or could I have a recording of that to play to people now? Because I don't think Jon here is actually being an objective interviewer at all. This is very, very personal, Jon. No one seems to appreciate that I've come to talk to you today. There has been enormous interest in 9/11 Truth Movement.

I'll be absolutely honest with you that certain people have said to me, before I came here, you should be very careful of this man. He may be a shill, and so on. I said, I don't think that. I'm going to go and talk to the man and find out what he's all about.

Jon Ronson

And now that you've met me, do you think they're right and that I am a shill?

David Shayler

No, I don't. I don't think you're a shill at all. No.

Jon Ronson

So will you tell them that I'm not a shill?

David Shayler

Of course I will. In fact, that's a conclusion I've-- Well let me explain. What I've read about you, and what I understand of this interview here, Jon, I honestly can say, the honest opinion from my heart, I don't think you're a shill.

Jon Ronson

I've got to admit, the whole thing began because I inadvertently typed my name into Google, and accidentally pressed search. And I found a website-- or I found a discussion that was called "Jon Ronson, shill or stupid?"

David Shayler

Well as I said, I don't think you're a shill. But I think we're entitled to say anybody--

Jon Ronson

You think I'm stupid?

David Shayler

No, no, no. But if you don't want to see the evidence about 9/11, I've got to say that's not a sign of intellect.

Jon Ronson

OK. When you go back and tell them, will you tell them that I'm not a shill, but also that I'm not stupid?

David Shayler

OK.

Jon Ronson

Because it's a bit insulting.

David Shayler

Jon, I get the same thing myself. So I'm entirely sympathetic to you. But I have to say with proviso, again, that if you don't take the briefing, I will have to say that's a sign of--

Jon Ronson

Shilldom?

David Shayler

No, no, no--

Jon Ronson

Stupidity?

David Shayler

No. Ignorance.

Jon Ronson

Ignorance. OK. Well he's not a shill, he's not stupid, but he's ignorant. I can live with that. That I can live with.

The conspiracy theorists insist that if I, or Rachel, or anyone else sits down and takes their briefing, we'll agree with them by the end. I think they truly can't imagine it working out any other way. I guess it's pejorative, but the reason why I don't want to take the briefing is because I think the experience would suck the very soul out of my body through my ears.

Jon Ronson

When they hear this, they're still not going to believe that you exist, some of them, especially because I'm interviewing you, because they see me as part of the cabal.

Rachel North

I've given up trying to change their minds now. I know I exist. All the people on the train who've met me know I exist. I got off the train covered in blood, and smoke, and soot, with glass in my hair, and metal sticking out of my wrist bone. I went and gave a statement to the police. I was photographed. I was stitched up in a hospital. I can produce dozens of witnesses that I was there, that I am who I am. And if some people choose not to believe that, then I pity them really.

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson, who did that story, is the author of a book about conspiracy theorists called Them. A version of this story also appeared on his BBC Radio 4 series, John Ronson On.

Coming up, I was a teenage spokesman. Not me, actually, the kid in the story. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Mr. Successful.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show The Spokesman. Stories about what it can be like to be the spokesman.

We've arrived at act two of our program, Act Two, Mr. Successful.

OK. Anybody's who's ever been to a wedding knows that not everybody can stand up in front of a roomful of people and just talk. Well, Anthony Pico discovered by accident, at 15-years-old, that he has a gift for doing that. He's 18 now. And he has become so well-known as a public speaker on the subject of foster care, which he knows well, that he was appointed to the blue ribbon commission that's now aiming to reform the largest foster care system in the country, the one in California, Anthony's home state.

In addition, Anthony still speaks to judges and legislators all over the state and all over the country, to different groups, sometimes every week. But it's gotten complicated. Douglas McGray tells the story.

Douglas McGray

Anthony is at a hotel near San Francisco Airport. He knows the room. Not this one, exactly, but dozens just like it. The long, windowless walls, the bad carpeting, the government officials, social workers, and nonprofit types sitting in quiet rows, as his host wraps up a long interaction.

Woman

And I just want to let you all know you're in for a real treat. I've seen Anthony speak several times. He's a wonderful, wonderful, powerful advocate. Welcome Anthony Pico.

Douglas McGray

Anthony walks toward the mic. I know what he's thinking right now, because I asked him.

Anthony Pico

I look down at the lectern. Get a sense for my space, how much I need to project, all this other stuff. I usually take a slight pause, look around.

So again, my name is Anthony Pico.

Douglas McGray

Anthony is a steady presence up there, eyes calm and appraising. He doesn't shrink, doesn't hesitate. He just lays out his life.

Anthony Pico

Well, I grew up in the foster care system, was born into it. Adopted at 12 by a relative. That person died when I was 14. And I re-entered the foster care system with another relative, the person who died last year. I've been within the mental health system since the age of 11 and had enough therapists that I believe I have my own PhD.

[LAUGHTER]

Douglas McGray

Most kids in foster care couldn't stand up there, talk for an hour with a half page of notes, and own the room the way Anthony does. Most of them are struggling just to hold their lives together. University of Chicago researchers did a massive survey of teens leaving the foster care system at 18. Within a year, nearly 70% had dropped out of high school. Half had lost their health insurance. Almost half the girls had gotten pregnant. One in five kids had spent a night in jail. And 15% had been homeless. What saved Anthony is public speaking. It came easily to him. He has always been a talker.

Anthony Pico

Yeah, I'd start conversations with anyone. It wasn't hard for me to break the ice. I was this little goth fat kid who would start conversations with people.

Douglas McGray

And so then how is it different now?

Anthony Pico

I'm this tall, fat, politician kid who starts conversations with people.

Douglas McGray

Anthony has the kind of life story you'd expect from a kid in foster care. Born crack-addicted to a mother who disappeared from the hospital just after she gave birth. Never knew his father. Relatives have mostly abused or ignored him. By 15, he was an angry, withdrawn kid. He weighed almost 300 pounds. He hated school, hated his life, thought about killing himself.

Then he started giving speeches, and everything changed. Suddenly foster care wasn't just something happening to him. It was knowledge, knowledge that other people wanted, especially from a teenager who could speak fluent grown-up and who knows how the bureaucracy works and doesn't work.

Anthony Pico

How many people have had another agency call them and say, yeah, I have this youth and I really think they're more under what your service provision is. And we can't really help them right now. So go ahead, and if you could take this youth, or this case, or this stack of papers, that'd be great. How many of you have had that? That's ridiculous to me. And I'm 18. I'm not supposed to know what ridiculous is yet.

People in my classes didn't like me because I would always talk about how bad my life was. I would say, well, I don't have a dad. This and that, I'm worthless, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Well, when I started doing public speaking, it became-- not necessarily a badge of honor, but almost like a purple heart.

Douglas McGray

It's the quarterly meeting of California's blue ribbon commission on foster care. Big shots in the state legislature, the courts, foundations, and the University of California have gathered for a couple days in a hotel near LA. They just finished dinner-- white table cloths, steaks, it was a nice spread. Now everyone's milling around, schmoozing, networking. Anthony too.

He's always angling for new speaking gigs.

Anthony Pico

So Ken, when are you going to take me up to [UNINTELLIGIBLE]?

Ken

You are welcome anytime.

Douglas McGray

He is especially interested in tonight's guest speaker, an influential judge from Utah. Anthony has two half-siblings in Utah he wants to contact, but they've been adopted and their file is sealed. He wants the judge's help finding them. They end up talking for more than an hour. Anthony keeps up easily, even when the jargon and the acronyms start to span several complicated, overlapping bureaucracies, like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, BIA. Anthony and his siblings are Native American.

Anthony Pico

It probably wouldn't be that hard to just go through BIA and see if they have them under their roll too. Because wouldn't BIA have a list of all enrolled members of every--

Woman

I don't think they do. Because each of them determines their own eligibility for membership.

Douglas McGray

This is what Anthony has learned in three years of public speaking, how to work the system and his connections to get what he needs. In the end, the judge agrees to help him. Later, he tells me about a time he transferred schools and got stuck halfway. The new school wouldn't let him in. Most foster kids would have stayed home for weeks, maybe longer. And they do. This sort of thing happens all the time.

Anthony Pico

They kept me out of school because I didn't have the right papers. Well, there's a law that was passed about a year and a half before I tried to go into that school that said you can not keep a foster youth out of school for more than three days, regardless of if they have their paperwork, or uniform, or anything like that. You have to keep them in school.

And I emailed them after about a week saying, you are out of compliance with AB 490. If you do not enroll me as soon as possible, I will call my lawyer and the state ombudsperson. And I forwarded it to the school district, my placement office, my lawyer, and the foster care liaison to the district.

Douglas McGray

It almost sounds like you're your own pushy parent here.

Anthony Pico

Yeah. Pretty much. I will be the person whose, like, I don't get a [BLEEP] what you say. I'm going to raise hell.

Douglas McGray

Anythony's gotten good at a lot of things most kids leave to their parents, like finances. During a break, I give him a ride to a cash machine so he can make a deposit. Savings are a huge problem for most kids leaving foster care. But Anthony's banked $10,000, working close to full time at a movie theater.

Alone in his hotel room, Anthony unpacks. He's been on the road all week. He came to LA straight from another speaking appearance outside San Diego. He pulls an armful of conference swag out of his wheeled suitcase. A windbreaker. A travel thermos. A squishy stress ball. He unfolds four or five dress shirts, hangs them in the closet. Then he stops, pushes everything else to the floor, and plops in an overstuffed chair by the window.

He is quiet for a minute. Then he says what's on his mind.

Anthony Pico

I've been speaking for so long that it's kind of second nature for me to just get up, say a 10, 15, 30 minute speech, sit down, and it's nothing. It's part of my personality, part of who I am. I don't think. But that's what's tiring about it. I don't know what the hell I'm doing in the world anymore. Not that an 18-year-old is supposed to, but I'm at this pivotal point where, where does this fit in 10 years down the line?

Douglas McGray

At 18, he's almost out of foster care. And when he leaves the system, his days as a spokeskid are pretty much over. All this will end.

The next day, Anthony visits a local prison with the blue ribbon commission. It's a low, sprawling complex. It's looks a bit like an elementary school surrounded by razor wire. We have to go through a security checkpoint. It takes forever.

Once we're through, a man approaches Anthony.

Man

And you are the man of the hour?

Anthony Pico

Yeah.

Man

OK. I'm the administrative assistant to the warden and public information officer. And you are?

Anthony Pico

Anthony Pico.

Man

Anthony--

Anthony Pico

Pico.

Man

Pico. OK. What's your claim to fame, Mr. Pico?

Anthony Pico

Born and raised in foster care. I'm a commissioner on the commission that's here.

Man

You're a success story?

Anthony Pico

Sort of. We're yet to see.

Man

Well, you are. I can look in your eyes and tell. You are definitely a success story.

Douglas McGray

Anthony winces. People say stuff like this to him all the time. And he hates it. He doesn't like being called a success story, because he knows there's a big difference between the way people see him and the way his life looks and feels from the inside.

The fact is, Anthony's gone to six high schools in four years. And he's not close to graduating. Most people who meet Anthony have no idea. The few who do are worried and keep nagging him to finish. If you want to drive Anthony crazy, talk about his potential. The word is like an insult to him. A bunch of times, when we talked, he cut me off mid-sentence. You're not going to say potential, are you? Don't say potential. I know, I know, potential. Please don't say anything about my potential.

I hang out with Anthony for a few weeks, trying to understand how this kid who seems like he should be doing great isn't doing well at all. Our relationship settles into a routine. I follow him everywhere with a microphone. He feels free to tell me--

Anthony Pico

I'm totally uninterested in your questions right now.

Douglas McGray

He gets a kick out of needling me.

Anthony Pico

Let's get a nice sound of my back cracking.

[BACK CRACKING]

Douglas McGray

God, that still makes me shudder. And he calls me late at night to talk about girls. He is always up late. Sometimes that means grown-ups having to drag him out of bed in the morning, like at a blue ribbon commission meeting that was supposed to start at 8:30 AM.

Christy

It's Christy from downstairs. I was told to come get you, make sure you're awake.

Douglas McGray

This sort of thing can frustrate the adults who depend on him as a speaker. Despite really good intentions, some of them want it both ways. They want Anthony to speak for kids, but they don't want him to act like one.

The more time I spend with Anthony, though, the harder it is to see anything but a kid.

Anthony Pico

I kind of think I should put my retainers in, because my teeth are starting to shift way too much.

Douglas McGray

For the last couple years, Anthony's been living on his own in a group home for foster youth near a highway overpass in San Francisco.

Anthony Pico

Here's our living room. That's my roommate's uneaten food. I mean, isn't it lovely? There's oil all over the stove, a pan with a bunch of oil, a pot with potatoes. Yeah, it's just really dirty.

Douglas McGray

The dirt is not what gets me. What does is this. The place is crushingly lonely. The neighborhood outside is dead. Anthony's roommates are strangers. Every couple months, someone moves in and someone else moves out. Some are OK. Some pick fights. For the most part, everyone holes up in their locked bedrooms and avoids each other.

Anthony spends his time online, checking email, MySpace, Facebook. When he gets curious who else is home, he flips off the hallway light and looks for a glow under each bedroom door. I start to understand why he travels so much.

Anthony Pico

Texas, Atlanta, Washington state. And that's outside of California. Inside California, all the way up to Arcata, Humboldt, a lot in southern California, Monterey--

Douglas McGray

Most of the time, there is no adult at the group home. None. There's someone there during business hours. But when the kids come home from school or work they're alone. Nobody for advice or protection. Nobody to crack the whip.

Public speaking gave Anthony access to caring adults. He's lucky, kind of. When he's anxious, or facing a big decision, he makes the rounds, asks all the adults he knows what he should do. But the problem is they never agree. And they can't make him do anything. Add them all up and they don't equal even one stable parent.

Back at the hotel, I had watched Anthony put on his tie, and asked who taught him. No one, he said. He stood in front of a mirror one day, knotting and unknotting, until he figured it out. He doesn't have a driver's license. He doesn't really know what it takes to get one. And he doesn't want to go to the DMV alone.

I'm driving Anthony to school. Finally, I'm going to see what happens that keeps Anthony from living up to his-- sorry, Anthony. No other word for this-- potential. I could tell as soon as I had picked him up it was going to be a bad day.

Douglas McGray

So describe to me what's around us.

Anthony Pico

You've got the narrator position. You [BLEEP] narrate it.

Douglas McGray

Fair enough. Here's the situation. Anthony should be off to a university in the fall. He's fallen a full year behind though. So he enrolled in a couple summer classes at City College to try and catch up. Today is his first day of class. But it isn't the first day of class. That was a week ago. He skipped week one of just a six-week session so he could make his speaking gigs in southern California.

I'm relieved he's finally here. Anthony's a little dismayed about this, but I've become one more adult in his life, all wound up about his high school diploma.

Douglas McGray

So tell me what class--

Anthony Pico

I'm going to today?

Douglas McGray

What class we're going to hear today.

Anthony Pico

Learn 50. It's wonderful. It's for retards.

Douglas McGray

Wait, what? So what do you learn in Learn 50?

Anthony Pico

Study skills. Stuff like that.

Douglas McGray

Do you think it's a good idea to take it?

Anthony Pico

For me, yes, because I don't have study skills. I have procrastination skills and [BLEEP] skills. But I don't have study skills. Turn right up here.

Douglas McGray

He had to skip orientation too. So he's not sure where the classroom is. We start wandering around campus. We go to one office then another. We cross the entire campus twice. Finally, someone points him to a building.

Anthony Pico

Let's hope it's down this way. Hi.

Man

Who you looking for?

Anthony Pico

I'm supposed to go to the Guardian Scholars Program, I might have gotten this wrong.

Man

Yeah.

Anthony Pico

I just wrote down 233.

Man

No. Wrong room. Guardian scholars? I'm not sure where you go.

Anthony Pico

OK. Thank you. Well, I feel like a dumb ass.

Douglas McGray

The longer we look, the more anxious he gets. And embarrassed. He pokes his head into another classroom.

Anthony Pico

I may be in the wrong room.

Woman

Yeah.

Anthony Pico

Sorry. OK. [BLEEP] I give up.

Douglas McGray

We go outside, stand in a small courtyard, silent for a moment. I don't know what to do. I wonder if I should keep my mouth shut, see what he decides to do on his own. But I can't help it. I try to convince him to go back inside, ask someone else, make a phone call, anything.

Douglas McGray

So where could you find out the class number? Is there like a number at the college you could call?

Anthony Pico

[BLEEP] that. I'm not going to even bother. I give up.

Douglas McGray

Well, you've still got, five minutes. We can find-- we're right there. Five minutes late is better than not there at all.

Anthony Pico

Not there at all is what I'd prefer, though.

Douglas McGray

I don't get anywhere. So we walk to the car and get in.

Douglas McGray

Let me ask you something. And I don't want this question to sound disrespectful at all. It's just--

Anthony Pico

Do I even care about education anymore?

Douglas McGray

Well, you can answer. That wasn't exactly what I was going to ask. But maybe that's a good one to answer.

Anthony Pico

Not really. What were you going to ask?

Douglas McGray

Why not, though?

Anthony Pico

No. What were you going to ask?

Douglas McGray

I was going to ask if today was something you wanted to do if you would have found the room?

Anthony Pico

Yeah.

Douglas McGray

But do you think, like-- I know you missed last week. And I know you're stressed about education and stuff. Are you sort of digging a hole here?

Anthony Pico

Well, that's because this is a [BLEEP] class.

Douglas McGray

But it is a class. I mean, it's credits. It gets you closer to graduation.

Anthony Pico

I don't care if it's-- I want to be able to learn something when I go to class. I don't want it to be a filler class. I hate [BLEEP] filler classes.

Douglas McGray

This is the flip side of everything public speaking has given him. At some point, it turned into maybe the biggest obstacle keeping him from graduating. He's made the same choice-- in one form or another-- over and over again. He's put public speaking first and school last.

Speaking, he gets his own hotel room. He gets to spend time with people who appreciate him. He gets to feel mastery over something. He gets to be a star. Going to school, he gets math homework and the feeling of being a screw up. It can't compete.

Douglas McGray

Do you think you'll go to college?

Anthony Pico

I don't think I'm college material.

Douglas McGray

Do you think you'll graduate from high school?

Anthony Pico

No. All signs point to no. I'm not, apparently, willing to change anything to make myself graduate. And thus far, I've failed at every turn. Education-- no matter how important in the back of my head-- it has not been a priority. And I don't know why.

Douglas McGray

It's not clear to anyone whether Anthony will make it or not. Not to me, not to him. And if he can't make it-- with all his talent and connections, an actual spokesman for foster kids-- you have to wonder, who can?

Anthony is the kind of kid you can find at any high school. That super smart one, who has so much messy, distracting stuff going on outside school that he can't keep it in the background. Anthony's problems are just bigger. And he has nothing like a family to help him through, not even a dysfunctional family. But now that he's 18, he doesn't have much time left to fix things and graduate.

The fact is, foster kids who don't have a diploma when they leave the system almost never get one. Anthony knows he's contributing to his own problems, probably more than anyone else at this point. He also knows that the older he gets, the more he'll be able to mess up his life in a lasting way. He's just not sure he knows how to stop. It's a lot harder than talking about it.

Ira Glass

Douglas McGray, he is a fellow at the New America Foundation. In the year since we first broadcast this story, a lot has changed for Anthony. He met a California legislator. And she took a chance on him, hired him onto her staff, answering phones, helping out. Anthony moved out of the group home, got an apartment, got his GED, and is currently enrolled in community college.

[MUSIC - "BAD MOUTH" BY FUGAZI]

Act Three. Impeachment Day.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Impeachment Day. Well you can't do a spokesman show without hearing from a presidential spokesman. And there is an unusually candid recording of Joe Lockhart, who did that job for President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2000. Long after Lockhart was out of the White House, he agreed to go on stage as part of The Moth, which is this group that does these great storytelling evenings.

Lockhart went on stage and talked about his early days on the job as White House spokesman.

Joe Lockhart

Just after I started, we went on a trip. We went off to Russia. We were going to Ireland, doing big foreign policy stuff. Trip was going pretty. The last night in Moscow, I was coming into the hotel. And I ran into a friend of mine, an old friend of mine, the godfather to my daughter, I hadn't seen in a couple years. He said, come on, we've got to go out. We've got to go out. And he convinced me, you know, we were going to go see the real Moscow. And we went to-- I'll never forget-- a place called The Hungry Duck.

And they were doing things there that I couldn't take my eyes off, so I had to stay till 5:00 in the morning, which was OK because we weren't leaving till 6:00.

So I got back to my hotel and made one mistake, which was to sit down on the bed. And obviously, I fell asleep. And I'm telling you, you don't know anxiety until you've woken up as the White House press secretary on your first foreign trip at 6:15 in Moscow without a passport, knowing you've missed Air Force One.

Now the only good thing that I could think of--

[LAUGHTER]

The only good thing I think of was the day couldn't get worse. When I finally caught up with the traveling party, I was immediately surrounded by reporters who said, how do you feel about being the first White House press secretary to ever miss Air Force One on a foreign trip? And a strange phrase just caught in my head. And I couldn't lose it.

About a week earlier, the president had been at a prayer breakfast talking about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. And he said, you know, I'm really sorry for what I did. And I'm working very hard to make up for it, particularly to those I've hurt the most. So when I got the question of how do you feel, I said, I'm really sorry for what I've done wrong. And I'm working hard to fix it, particularly those who I've hurt the most.

Now mocking the president of the United States when you make a mistake isn't always the best idea. But it came in my head, and I said it. So anyway, the day went on. And we finally had a little break where the president had some private meetings. And I went to the back of the Irish Ambassador's residence to go to sleep. And I hadn't been asleep for more than five minutes. And I was actually pretty hungover, which was why I needed the sleep. And the president's personal aide came back and said, the president's in a meeting right now. And he wants you to come into it.

Now, I'm not the smartest guy in the world. But this had practical joke written all over it. And I said, get lost. About three minutes later, he came in and said, hey, the president's in. He's in with the band U2, with Bono, and they want to talk to you.

I said, well, if the president wants to see me, he can walk his presidential ass right back to this room and ask me himself. Well, about 60 seconds later, the presidential ass showed up and said, what is your problem? These guys want to meet you.

So I walked into the meeting. And this guy, this rock star, Bono comes up and gives me this big hug and says, I really want to meet you. And I said, well, that's great Mr. Bono, but why? And he said, anyone who can handle world affairs-- you know, Monica Lewinsky and all that-- and still has time to stay out all night drinking is my kind of guy.

Ira Glass

When he was on stage at The Moth, Joe Lockhart also talked about what it was like to be press secretary the day that Congress voted to impeach the president, December 19, 1998. He had, he said, three things to deal with that day. The impeachment vote, of course. Also the same day, Bob Livingston, the speaker of the House, declared that he'd had an affair and he was going to resign. And so the White House had to beat back the notion that President Clinton should also resign because of Monica Lewinsky. That was just the early afternoon.

Also that day, the Defense Department had bombed Iraq with cruise missiles, because Iraq was not complying with the UN weapons inspections. And Joe Lockhart had to convince the press-- and the country-- that the attacks on Iraq were not a kind of Wag the Dog distraction.

Joe Lockhart

I then had what we call in the business a communications challenge, because we had two things we had to do in the same time space. And we tried to figure out what to do. We had 150 members of Congress down to stand with the president-- Democrats-- and say, this impeachment was all partisan, it's all politics. And then we had to talk about the war.

And I thought, you know what? Sometimes the best thing to do is not worry very much about it, just go out and do it. So out on the south lawn we had the Democrats, very simple message. Partisans, this is politics, Republicans suck. It all went well.

Then we went inside-- only 10 minutes apart, the same podium, just a different room, a different set of flags-- and said, there are no Republicans in this country. There are no Democrats. It's just Americans, and we've won the war. And then the president left, leaving me in the room to explain to 50 waiting reporters how the two things fit together.

And I think it was so audacious that we even took the breath away from the press. And they seemed to let us get away with it. And I remember at the end of this long day, walking across the hall about 20 feet to my office, going in. And one of my closest friends in the White House was there, one of the president's top aides. And he saw me come in. And I sat down. And he went over to the little bar in the office, and got two beers, opened them up, sat down, put his feet up.

And I'll never forget what he said to me, which was, you know, except for getting impeached, we had a pretty good day.

Ira Glass

Joe Lockhart. He's now a consultant in corporate and political messaging in Washington DC. Thanks to The Moth, You can listen to all kinds of stories like this at their website, themoth.org.

And of course, those are the musical stylings of the 42nd president of the United States, recorded in Prague on an official foreign trip.

Our program today was produced by Lisa Pollak and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, John Jeter, Sarah Koenig, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our web site. Production help from Seth Lind and PJ Vogt. Musical help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who, as always, has this bit of narration to end our program.

Anthony Pico

You've got the narrator position. You [BLEEP] narrate it.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Male Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.