Friday, August 28, 2009

A Word on Words

June 4, 2009

I’m hoping we don’t look like talking cadavers in the video. In real life we did, owing to the pancake makeup, but at least the conversation was animated.

John Seigenthaler is a perfectly charming man, and handsome, too, at 82. We met Wednesday in the makeup room of his studio in Nashville, where he sat in a chair as a woman carefully applied foundation and powder to his face, slowly transforming it into something that would make Rico proud on Six Feet Under. It was a little eerie.

Heavy makeup is a routine part of television, of course, and Irem (who watched the taping in the control room) assured me that our mask-like visages looked normal on the TV screen, but it was a first for me. In the past, when I’ve been on TV, the most they’ve done is lightly dust my face with powder. But Seigenthaler is a professional; he’s been doing his PBS book show “A Word on Words” for 30 years. He’s also a very thoughtful guy: When he saw I wasn’t wearing a tie, he took his off, and later, when he saw that the next guest was wearing one, he put it back on.

After the makeup artists readied Seigenthaler and me for the cameras, Irem was seated in the control room where she could watch the taping of the interview. The set itself was one of those made-for-TV seating areas – two chairs angled just so with a table between and an Oriental rug to cover the microphone lines. My makeup artist turned out to also be one of the camera operators, if that tells you anything about the precise strata of television we occupied.

For those who did not read yesterday’s note, Seigenthaler was born in Nashville and worked at The Tennessean newspaper off and on from 1946 to 1991. He is an elder statesman among journalists: Founding editorial director of USA Today; chair emeritus of The Tennessean; former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors; and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. He was also administrative assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and chairs the selection committees for the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. “A Word on Words” is 30 minutes long, with each show devoted to an interview with a single author; mine will air on July 25 and after that will be available on itunes.

Seigenthaler, who authored a biography on President James Polk, has a strong interest in history. Off-camera, we discussed how journalists view history differently than historians, and tend to focus more on characters in our narratives. This was also obvious in his line of questioning during the interview, which highlighted the characters of Romulus Tolbert and John Maddox, Tolbert’s little brother Samuel, and Amanda Gardner. Speaking of characters, Seigenthaler told me (again, off-camera), that he did not like Polk after finishing his research, and said he was intrigued to encounter the character Champ Ferguson (a Confederate who was hanged for war crimes after the war) in Sultana, having recently read a book about him. It was apparent that what intrigued him about Sultana was the fact that he had never heard of the disaster, and that the book focused on individual characters.

After the taping, Seigenthaler brought up the Bobby Kennedy book award, and I mentioned that my last book, Mississippi in Africa, had been a finalist. I said I was proud just to have been on the list. “You were more than on the list,” he said. There was concern among some of the judges that they should not choose a book about Africa since the last winner had been set there, he said This was an interesting bit of news to me.

As Irem and I drove away from the studio, it occurred to me that Seigenthaler illustrates how it’s possible to remain a professional journalist into old age. There aren’t a lot of professions that you can continue to hone all your life; in most, people inevitably go into decline. But Seigenthaler is still sharp, and he’s still making a valuable contribution.

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