Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer History Lessons

By Leonard Gill

APRIL 19, 1999:  First, a few facts. In the more than 50 years Harold Evans has worked in publishing, he has gone from provincial newspapers in his native England to 14 years as editor of The Sunday Times of London, served for another two (tumultuous) years as editor of The Times, and along the way picked up some awards: Campaigning Journalist of the Year in 1967, Editor of the Year in 1973, International Editor of the Year in 1976, European Gold Medal of the Institute of Journalists in 1980, and Editor of the Year from Granada Television in the same year that he was locking horns with his boss at The Times, Rupert Murdoch.

Evans' next move was to the United States, where he became editor-in-chief of Atlantic Monthly Press, founded Conde Nast Traveler, and acted as president and publisher of Random House. He is currently vice chairman and editorial director of U.S. News & World Report, The Atlantic Monthly magazine, and the New York Daily News. And he is currently the author of a new book: The American Century (Knopf, $50), a coffee-table-size history of the United States from 1889 to 1989, which weighs in at some 700 pages and contains more than 900 rarely seen or unpublished photographs. The American Century has been rightly praised by the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith and Shelby Foote, and it's the reason Evans will be visiting Memphis.

Evans, his wife Tina Brown, and their two children divide their time between New York and Bedford, Connecticut, which is where I reached him by phone. Here's some of what Harold Evans, a U.S. citizen since 1993 and an unapologetic patriot, had to say.

Evans: I just got back from Michigan where I was doing a program with President Ford, which was rather fun. It went extremely well, thank you.

Flyer: It was a different kind of program, then, from the one you'll be doing in Memphis?

In Memphis, it's going to be more of a panel and I'm moderating. What I was doing with President Ford was more of a conversation in which I said some things to draw him out, and he was very good. He was very keen. We did do a panel in New York, which 800 people came to, it was really spectacular. Governor Cuomo and Arthur Schlesinger and Lani Guinier and William Buckley. But the Memphis panel sounds fascinating. Max Frankel is on it.

He wasn't with you in New York?

No. In fact, [Memphis] is more a fresh attempt. Benjamin Hooks, Monica Crowley, and Stanley Crouch.

How did the discussion go in New York?

Very well indeed. But I'll tell you, I learned something in New York, which I might be able to correct in Memphis. One of the questions I asked was, What are the American achievements in the 20th century? And everybody got so busy analyzing the things that were wrong with the last hundred years that well, slightly downbeat they were. And so they were all a bit flummoxed when asked about the achievements. No one mentioned winning World War II! I'm hoping Memphis will be a little different.

How did your appearance here come about in the first place?

I got an invitation from Pat Tigrett and the mayor, and I'm pleased to do it. Because apart from wanting my book to be read which is sort of the normal peculiarity of authors I also want to get people talking about the last hundred years. I feel very keenly about getting schools and kids and immigrants and more of these groups to know something about what's peculiar about America.

Forgive me, but I very often find that Americans are rather too shy or bashful or something to spend much time on it. That's one of the reasons I did the book. I was going around, aware of these wonderful stories and wanting people to be excited about them. I also feel that anyone who comes to America, even from somewhere like England, had better learn something about the country and how these freedoms are maintained that that's more important than, for instance, if you're coming from Pakistan and learning about Pakistan. I'm not a multiculturalist in that sense. I think the United States should come first, and then one can learn, or simultaneously learn, about one's own background.

Coming from England at a mature age, as I like to call it I already know quite a lot about English history. I don't need a voyage of exploration to discover my navel.

It took you 12 years to write The American Century. I hope at least you had fun doing it.

Yes, I did. And as any writer will agree, the fun is at the stage when you've written a first draft and you can start editing. The pain, of course, is in starting. But the pain I had was giving it up from time to time, either for a week or two or whatever and then to reopen the "synaptic wounds." Then the writing did become painful.

What was most fun of all was working with Gail Buckland, collecting the photographs. I had this concept and I sketched out initially about 300 pages. I wanted it all to be "self-contained" so you could dip into it. And then Gail started in with these photographs, and this "corset" I'd created it didn't work, it burst. Because, first of all, I had missed out on a lot in my initial draft, things that were important. Things I hadn't done. Ida B. Wells, for example, a Memphis figure. I didn't know about her.

Many in Memphis will be glad to see her included.

I am too. She's one of my favorite entries, because she's somebody who's not much written about. So I had to bring in more pages, and then Gail brought in these photographs, altogether over 30,000 photographs. The real fun, then, was in reconciling the "needs" of the photographs, many of which had not been published, with the space needed to take account of the latest scholarship. Make it interesting and vivid, but succinct.

The American Century is sort of a continuation of a book you did in 1984 called Front Page History, isn't it?

You know that book? Well, that's interesting. I thought there was no one left alive who knew that book.

I've got it right here.

You do? My God.

You write in the Introduction to Front Page History, in a paraphrase of Lord Macaulay, that "the only true history of a country is to be found in its newspapers." Considering this past year's U.S. newspapers their coverage of Clinton, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr, etc. do they represent a "true history" of this country?

Oh, how long have we got here? I do feel quite strongly, as a journalist, that we didn't come particularly well out of it in terms of some people getting things very badly wrong and the "sourcing" of stories. And I'm saying this knowing that we didn't do perfectly well in [my] publications. At the end of the day, though, I emerged with an admiration for the American public.

From my point of view (and I signed the thing, along with 400 historians, that said the president should be censured but not impeached), it was a historical judgment rather than a political one, if you can separate the two. I thought the American people were better than the distorted machinery of government.

You started in journalism when you were 16. What are the biggest changes you've seen since you began?

First, any deference to authority has vanished. The necessary skepticism, which is a badge of honor in journalism, has more often become a mask of cynicism not merely asking questions and trying to get proof . Some of the old-fashioned things that I was taught at 16, like double-checking and going back and all that, that seems to have fallen a bit by the wayside. The excitement may be of newspapers and TV to beat each other and to beat the Web.

And then there used to be some limits to privacy. A photograph was never published of Franklin Roosevelt in his wheelchair, for example. There were only two photographs ever taken of Roosevelt in a wheelchair and the photographers who intruded in that way were black-balled by other photographers. So there was once a tremendous respect for Roosevelt's privacy. Nowadays, everything's fair game. I'm very critical of it, because we really have to worry about how relevant these intrusions are. There are those in journalism who are interested in truth, and there are those who are interested in getting "a story," even if it's untrue.

I've said this before and I'll say it again and I don't care if they punish me for it: A story shouldn't appear in The New York Times as "it is rumored that ." It should either be a fact, or it's a rumor. If it's a rumor, it shouldn't be printed. And if it's a fact, it must be printed. The difference between the two is the essence of journalism as opposed to gossip. The Times is a fine newspaper that's why I'm mentioning it but it will now publish ad hominem "blind" quotes. The Associated Press will not do that. The AP is maintaining the traditional standards of journalism. The ad hominem "blind" quote is justifiable only in certain investigative pieces but it's not often used as that. It's used in reporting corporations' internal struggles. A newspaper becomes the dupe of whoever's spreading the poisons.

You learned this at the London Times under Rupert Murdoch?

Yes. I've seen it happen a lot. But I'm rabbiting on here.

Then let's switch gears. You traveled the U.S. for a couple of years in the mid-1950s. You traveled the South. Describe what you saw.

I'll tell you something you won't believe. I can remember the physical sensation of arriving in Memphis and being exulted by the city. I'd never been in a city like Memphis before.

But a second thing. I've been looking at my notes from 1956 and I describe Clinton, Tennessee. I was in Clinton when a Baptist church had been burned down, and I have a very chilling entry in my diary of going into a bar in Clinton, of asking questions about blacks in a white bar. I interviewed a young man who was a Nazi. I described the hard faces of the people, the anger. And I photographed a restaurant, Howard's restaurant, with its sign "Colored Folks This Way." It was the biggest shock because I had no idea. I'd absorbed basically the Gone with the Wind stereotypes.

I'd go with my first wife and meet these wonderful people, these Anglophiles, and ask them about blacks and get, from very decent, kindly people, the standard answer that blacks were "children" and we should leave it to them to look after blacks. They understood them. But to be fair, I was excessively naive. I remember saying to a man in Mississippi, a Mr. Robert Patterson who founded the White Citizen's Council, that we never have any trouble in England. In England, we're all so tolerant. Well, of course, it was bloody untrue.

I'm just saying this because my expectations of tolerance were very high when I got into the South. I went to Tuskegee and met a doctor who told me that when he drives to Atlanta there was nowhere he could stop for a pee or a coffee. I remember being very shocked by that.

Tell me what so impressed you about Memphis.

When I entered Memphis and New Orleans, I got an enormous lift that these were "real" places with "real" people, "real" life. Unfortunately, I don't have my notes here. I cannot remember the physical things I saw, and it's now 40 years since I was there, but I know the excitement of it. And it was a genuine excitement. The other place that gave me that feeling was San Francisco, but most of the places in between, no. I lived on a corn farm in Illinois, which was wonderful, but I'm talking about a community, a town, a city.

When and why did you become a U.S. citizen?

1993 is the "when." The "how" is by answering 12 questions before two women. And they told me, "Mr. Evans, I'm sorry, you failed." And I said, "What?" They said, "Yes, you failed." And they burst out laughing. They were having a joke on me because they knew I had a keen interest in history.

The "why" was something almost approaching guilt. I'd come to this country and been received after having had my career interrupted rather rudely in London. Nonetheless I was able to pick up life again in the United States, which was enormously warm and welcoming. My children were growing up, having been born here. I identified with the U.S. I love England, and I don't have any hostile things to say against it on the whole. But I like the mobility of the United States.

When I first came, I said I couldn't possibly write opinion editorials at U.S. News because I was a stranger in this country. But I gradually did start to write them, and I did feel kind of slightly guilty: coming in as a foreigner and saying Americans should do this and Americans should do that. Americans might as well have said, "Piss off. Who should listen to you?" But I feel quite patriotic.

You were at Random House for seven years, from 1990 to 1997. Why did you leave?

Two reasons. I'd been asked endlessly by the chairman and editor-in-chief at U.S. News, Mortimer Zuckerman, to leave. I'd always been excited by journalism and, to be quite frank, hesitated a lot. But I'd done everything I'd set out to do at Random House. I loved it. I still do. I just this minute opened a pile of books from Random House. How exciting it is see the books I commissioned still arriving. But Mr. Zuckerman offered me a stake in the company.

Do you have any comments to make on Random House's 1998 purchase by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann?

Some people think I left because I saw that coming.

Did you?

Well, I knew that was coming, but that wasn't the reason I left. It was Zuckerman. And the only way to shut him up was to say yes.

Actually, I was excited about the prospect of getting back into the journalism end of publishing. But if I had to say where I was happiest I believe it was at Random House. [My position now] is a more difficult thing, because I've been an editor all my life and I'm no longer editing. I'm a strategist. It's like being back in general headquarters drinking whiskey while the captains are doing the job. Having said all that Sorry What did you ask? You got me thinking.


I know them. I've talked to them. They're highly intelligent and extremely well organized, and they'll probably be good for the business. There's nothing wrong with the Germans, but size is always a worry. I'd like for them to keep the distinct identity of the Random House imprints. The fact is, I'm told, not only has [Bertelsmann] done that, they've done it more than they needed to do. They've given greater independence to the publishers, which I think they needed to do. So I'm very pleased about that.

You imply in The American Century that the coming century may belong to the Chinese.

I don't say that it will be. I say that the Chinese loom on the horizon. Anyone's a fool who says China is not going to count in the world. It could go a number of different ways. It could break up into epic fiefdoms. Or it could break up as the Soviet Union has done, with the collapse of Communism. Or it could develop in a semi-democratic way, in which case one has less anxiety about it, because you're less worried about a totalitarian, militaristic assault.

Insofar as the United States having any claims on the 21st century, I rather feel that the U.S. is about in the same position as England was in 1830. England had a sense of high moral purpose, which the United States I think has these days. And we were way ahead in the development of the main source of energy, which was steam. The United States is in a dominant position as the main source of creativity today, which is information, the Web, the Internet, and all that stuff. In that sense, America is very important in the next century.

America also has a much richer panoply of financial instruments and pools of independent capital. In Japan, between the banks and the industries, there's nothing. That's one of the big weaknesses of "Japan Inc." Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which I quote at the end of The American Century, is somewhat more pessimistic than I am. But of course there are some dangers for America

You bring them up in the context of Robert Hughes' The Culture of Complaint and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s The Disunity of America. I'm referring to affirmative action.

I have two views on affirmative action. I go back to 1889, when foreign visitors predicted that the heterogeneous nature of the United States was combustible and that the different "tribes" would never settle down the Italians, the Germans, the Russians, and whatever. And of course that wasn't right. It didn't happen.

I do feel that minority preference, which, when it isn't applied just to blacks and the struggle for civil rights they have a historic grievance when it's applied to people who are newly arrived, whether from Latin America or Asia, I don't think there's a historic grievance there that has to be remedied. On the contrary, I think it's insipiently dangerous to give somebody a minority preference and a stake in not joining the melting pot. I believe in the melting pot. The common heritage in America has to be respected and celebrated.

Is there real danger of the word "assimilationist" becoming a pejorative?

Yeah. Exactly. I'm a Martin Luther King assimilationist, an integrationist, and I think those abstractions have served the United States well. Schlesinger in The Disunity of America ends up, as I do, optimistically about the United States. I hope we're not whistling in the dark.

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