NPR's Robert Siegel on Interviewing Politicians, "Terribly Discouraging" Former USSR, Mel Brooks

May 10, 2014

Robert Siegel, Senior Host of NPR’s All Things Considered, starts his day with what he regards as indispensable daily reads:  The New York Times and The Washington Post. 

He’s likely to glance at an Israeli or Egyptian paper and look over the British daily The Guardian. 

At NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., he’ll interview world leaders, notable authors and artists, international experts on health, finance, politics.   That’s if he’s not traveling to Qatar to find out why the tiny Middle Eastern country enjoys a disproportionate influence in the region -- or if he's not investigating a world in which World War One never happened.  

During a recent trip to Wilmington, the award-winning journalist talked with WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn about why he no longer falls prey to youthful optimism, why politicians make for the least compelling interviews, and the one person who made him laugh so hard in the studio that even the Master Interviewer concedes – he lost it.  


RLH:  Can you think of a time that you’ve interviewed [a politician] and you have been able to get in through the back door and find a way around the talking points?

RS:  With a politician? Sitting in the Oval Office and interviewing a President, which I’ve done a couple of times, is very memorable for all of the things going on around you.  But as for getting inside the person you’re talking to or – you know – the person has been interviewed more often than I’ve interviewed people – which is saying a lot – that doesn’t happen.  It just doesn’t happen.  Political interviews are really tough.  And I have nothing but the greatest respect for people who do them really well. 

I was once in the studio, sitting next to my then-cohost and colleague Linda Wertheimer when the Director of Management and the Budget was doing a live interview with us – something which we desperately try not to do.  No matter what question Linda asked about the budget, she got the same answer. 

“The President blah blah blah…. The President blah blah blah…”

And as Linda said afterwards, she said, “If this went on for one more question, I was going to ask, ‘And what do you think the Redskins chances are next year?’” because she would have gotten the same answer! 

“The President blah…”

The questioner, the interviewer, is irrelevant to those people. 

RLH:  How many interviews might you do in a day?

RS:  On a very busy day, maybe five.  But much more typically three.  And they can vary tremendously.  Nowadays, we might very well talk with somebody about something in Russia or Ukraine.  Then there might be something about – somebody had a good, clever idea from the meeting about talking with a guy with a pet raccoon in Tennessee who refuses to relinquish it to the local authorities so he’s going to run for governor…

RLH:  Is that a real story?  Or did you just make that up?

RS:  Could I make that up?  I couldn’t make that up...  which turned out to be a great deal of fun. 

And then there might be a book interview for which I’ve been, first, obviously, reading the book, but also looking for other sources to see if there’s something interesting I might bring to that.

RLH:  Do you vote?

RS:  I do.  I do vote.  I don’t vote in any primaries, but I vote in general elections.  I draw the line at party participation. 

RLH:   As you mature, do you find yourself…

RS:  I’m still maturing, but I’m glad you pointed that out. 

RLH:   Do you find yourself becoming more tolerant of points of view that might have irked you a decade ago?  Or do you find yourself becoming more cynical as you learn more about what happens behind the scenes?  You have this view that not a lot of people get.  How does that affect your outlook personally?

RS:  I don’t know that I’m… that’s a good question, Rachel.   I don’t know that I’m really a lot more cynical.  I think there are moments when I’m not as optimistic.  I’m not as easily hopeful about things as I might have been. 

I’d only done one real reporting trip to Egypt before Tahrir Square. 

When it happened, I remember thinking and saying in our meeting, “The Muslim Brotherhood is going to come to power in Egypt now.  I realize there’s a lot of enthusiasm out there for democracy but the Muslim Brotherhood is going to come to power, and there’s going to be a challenge between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

That seemed obvious to me.  I couldn’t achieve the kind of youthful optimism about young people in public squares demonstrating…

Forgive me my discontinuity here, but when I was once covering anti-nuclear protests in Germany – against basing U.S. missiles in West Germany – a West German politician once told me – he was very dismissive of the Green Party and he said, “What is the Green – what is this Green Party?  When I was young, we had the Brown Alternative Party, the Nazis.” 

He says, “We believed in that.  We didn’t believe in Auschwitz.  We didn’t believe in Stalin, but we believed in a new order.   Since when is the sincerity of young people a test of policy?”

“We were wrong” is what he was saying. 

And I think I’m more likely to be more skeptical about the sincere positions of young people than I was when I was covering the sincere positions of young people when I was one of them.  So perhaps that’s a change.

RLH:  Has there ever been…

RS:  I sound so old.  Geez, Rachel, you’re bringing out the deep curmudgeon in me. 

RLH:  It doesn’t sound curmudgeonly.  It sounds wise. 

RS:   A fine distinction…

RLH:  But an important one.

RS:  Yes.

RLH:  So then, are we evolving as a species?  Or are you just seeing the same stories told over and over in different configurations?  I mean… the Arab uprising, for instance.  Does that mean democracy, in fits and starts, is spreading? 

RS:  You’re taking me in over my head intellectually.  I mean, is there some Hegelian direction to social and political existence that’s driving us toward some positive end? 

You know, what’s happening right now in the former Soviet Union is very discouraging.  It’s terribly… and for those of us who – we got there when the Berlin Wall came down – and experienced the huge optimism at the end of the Cold War and at the end of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe – to see what it’s come down to at this point… And who knows what comes next?  Whether it’s creeping annexation or just harassment or a real invasion – it’s terribly discouraging. 

It shouldn’t make people feel that there aren’t things to stand for in the world – that there aren’t values we should support – but as for those who declare the final triumph of democracy or the end of history or the end of conflict – we should be disabused of such thoughts. 

RLH:  Have you ever fallen apart on the air in a fit of laughter?  Or just completely lost control?

RS:  When I was interviewing Mel Brooks for a recording, that I couldn’t control, and everything I said -- play the music from The Producers, from the musical, and everything I asked him, he said, “Siegel.  Just play the music.  Just play the music!” 

And finally he said, “Look.  What time does this show go on the air?

I said, “Four o’clock.”

He said, “So I figure 4:00 the jurors from the Tonys should be just about waking up from their Cosmopolitan stupor the night before, and they’ll turn on the radio, they’ll hear my music, and they’ll vote me a Tony!  So just play the music!” 


RS:  And, uh, I reacted pretty much as you did. 

RLH:  Robert Siegel, thanks so much for joining us today.

RS:  Rachel, you’re very welcome.  It’s been my pleasure.

[Robert Siegel ending the Mel Brooks interview as laughter fades out...]


During a recent trip to Wilmington, the award-winning NPR journalist and All Things Considered Host Robert  talked with WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn about how being a “schoolteacher’s kid” shaped his commitment to good journalism. 

The rush in mass media to dismiss the academic or the intellectual – to accord little importance to the artist – is exactly what Robert Siegel takes pride in working against at NPR.  It's why he considers himself part of the classroom.   And it's one reason he undertook a project exploring what would have happened if there had been no First World War. 

"The chains of events that are set off by something that happened several thousand miles away and perhaps many years ago come to affect us in all sorts of odd ways.  Our lives have been created by strange foreign events.   As Americans – I don’t know how true this is going to be in 20 years – but as Americans we have been accustomed to being in the driver’s seat and setting off events that affect other peoples’ lives."

But when news organizations engage in anti-intellectualism in order to appeal to those who aren’t naturally curious, no one is served, according to Siegel.

"While one of the functions of journalism is to reach out to people who might not bring their curiosity with them at full boar, we also should accept that some people really don’t care about these things."

It's a fine line, says Siegel, that is all art and no science.