Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

February 2, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

Leonard Downie Jr.


  • Former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr., has been hired to teach at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. We talk to Downie about his new post and his recently published novel, Rules of the Game.
Guests:
  • Leonard Downie Jr. - Professor, Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of journalism and Mass Communication and former executive editor, Washington Post


View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Leonard Downie Jr. worked in the "Washington Post" during the heyday of the American media, the Watergate scandal. He's now a teacher at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite school of journalism and mass communication. He also published a new book "The Rules of the Game" a novel about corruption and intrigue in the nation's capital. Here to talk about his new job and book is Leonard Downie Jr. Good to have you back on the program.

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Very nice to be back.

Ted Simons:
Ok, let's get to the novel, right? We talked about journalism while we were -- you were here last year. Why did you decide to write a novel?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
In the 2000 election, I felt I really wanted to bring everybody into the country into how you Washington works and the moral ambiguities of choices you have to make when you're dealing with power, the relationships between journalists, politicians and lobbyists and members of depress.

Ted Simons:
And there are pretty strong leaderships in this book. There's seedy stuff as well. With fiction, you can go overboard with things, correct?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
You can exaggerate things to make your point, involve the reader in what you want to say.

Ted Simons:
How long did it take you to write?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Because it was my hobby, because I was running a newspaper at the time it took about five years.

Ted Simons:
We had Jim Lehrer on the program, a novel writer that wrote many books and his number one point to writing fiction was sit down and do it.

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Right.

Ted Simons:
Is that what you felt as well? Did you have to kind of almost force yourself?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
I guess I’m not as talented as Jim is but, no, I didn't have to force myself at all. I wrote when I felt like it. It was my hobby. I came to inhabit this world and these characters doing these things and I would wait until it weld up inside me and I had to sit down and write that better part of it. You know what happened -- it would happen during long walks it would happen late at nights sometimes. I had to get up out of bed and start writing.

Ted Simons:
When people say, don't wait for the muse, you say, go ahead and wait for the muse.

Leonard Downie Jr.:
In my case it worked that way.

Ted Simons:
As far as writing a novel, some folks say you’ve got to outline, you have to know where you’re going. If you're driving a car, you have to know where you're going. If you write a book, you have to know what you're going to write about. Others say don’t outline let the characters develop on there own. What do you say?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Something happened to me, scenes and ideas would occur to me I would write those out. Then I would wait until I got to the part of the book where that scene took place. I can't tell you why that particular scene formed itself in my mind and was there waiting for the right time.

Ted Simons:
It’s almost like a form of discovery about you?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
It is, it actually is inhabiting somewhere inside yourself.

Ted Simons:
Point view, omnition. Why not the first-person?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Because I’m a journalist. None of the characters are based on me in the book. Because I wanted to give different view points. I wanted people to feel that the President of the United States or the lobbyist as a chief character was just as important to understand as the young woman reporter was.

Ted Simons:
The comparisons with Sarah Palin with one of your characters, the comparisons to a young woman as a running mate to an older presidential candidate, who unfortunately later on meets a different fate, which is fine for us, but not for the character. But was that was thought of before Sarah Palin?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Five years before I ever heard of Sarah Palin. I wanted to have a woman president in the book. I decided the way it would happen is the older senator would be nominated and surprise the country by picking a charismatic and inexperienced young senator woman to run with him. She was attack dog against the other tickets. The difference in real life -- as turned out in real life -- is that they won in this case. And he did not survive his term and she became president of the United States.

Ted Simons:
When the Palin pick was made public and it all happened, were you excited because now my book may click with some people or will -- were you thinking, oh no, they might think I’m a copycat.

Leonard Downie Jr.:
They couldn't have thought was a copycat. The book was out for printing already. Actually it was a little eerie for me. I know John McCain a little bit. I was worried for John McCain.

Ted Simons:
Considering the character doesn't make it. Do you have folks that come to you now and say you son of a gun, that’s me in that novel, isn't it?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Not yet. There's one person in the novel who is based a real-life character. That's the editor of the paper who's got a small role in the novel. I based that on Ben Bradley because he was my mentor and I wanted to pay homage to him in a novel.

Ted Simons:
Were some of the characters, though, a compilation of people you’ve known?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Yes, yes, yes. Obviously you pick traits from different people and ideas from different people you know. They meld together over time in your imagination. Sometimes they take on new traits you didn't even realize were going to be there but as you're writing, they become something a little different from what you thought they were going to be.

Ted Simons:
Indeed. There's so much in the way of gamesmanship, intrigue and chess matches going on in the book, you have to ask, are there any more Mr. Smiths or Jimmy Stewarts anymore in Washington?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Not exactly, among other things because I don't think Jimmy Stewart could get elected now. You have to raise money. You have to navigate the right wing and the left wing and the media and everything and the internet and blogs and so on so that’s why I tried to explore that in the book. Not many people in the book are really bad in their motivations or are angels this their motivations but they're somewhere in between. They trying to make things better. They're trying to do their jobs right, but sometimes they feel they have to cut corners in order to do it. So the question is when you break the rules, are you breaking them? How seriously are you breaking them? What are the consequences for you? What are the consequences for the people you're with?

Ted Simons:
It’s so important to follow the money and follow the rules that are broken, etc. You're going to be teaching at ASU journalism students. How do you feel about that?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
I’m going to be teaching that subject in the spring semester of 2010. I'll be teaching journalism and decision-making. I'll go over some of the things in the novel. What kinds of relationships do you have with your sources? When do you make decisions about publishing the private lives of public figures? What do you do when the President of the United States says please don't publish that story because it'll harm national security?

Ted Simons:
Do you feel like now is the best time for you to enter academia?

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Yes. I've retired as executive editor of the "Washington Post". I wanted to devote some part of my life to help out the future of journalism.

Ted Simons:
There you go. Great book. Great to have you back on again. Thank you so much for joining us.

Leonard Downie Jr.:
Thank you.

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