Many of us Know Jeff Golden as the previous host to the Jefferson Public Radio program the Jefferson Exchange. When he left the ‘Exchange’ to pursue new endeavors I wondered what Jeff was doing with himself. When I called him to inquire I learned that he had recently completed his 4th book ‘Unafraid’. This is an interview that I conducted with him about his latest work.
Locals Guide (LG): So..UNAFRAID: A Novel of the Possible; What made you take this project on?
Jeff Golden (JG): It continues an invitation I extended to people with my last book, as If We Were Grownups (www.asifweregrownups.org), to pull ourselves out of the pit of cynicism that most of us have slipped into over years of political involvement. I run into plenty of smart people who think the game is over and the bad guys won, and they have politics and the media wired their way so that we’ll never get our country back. If we believe that ‘and I think many of those currently in power desperately want us to believe that’ then of course, it will be true. I want us to try out another possibility: that if we’re alert, overcome the distracting issues waved in front of our face like red flags to keep us divided, and work tenaciously together, we can push this country much closer to the representative democracy it’s supposed to be.
LG: Was that the theme of As If We Were Grownups?
JG: Yes. The subtitle of Grownups is: A Collection of ‘Suicidal Political Speeches that Aren’t’. It lays out a series of speeches on hot-button issues to suggest that Americans are ready to hear much more about real solutions to real problems than political consultants think we are. It undermines the view that we’ll only vote for candidates who treat us like children who demand instant gratification. It puts forward a kind of confidence that we’re capable of thinking of our self-interest in much more mature and sustainable ways.
LG: And how did Grownups lead to UNAFRAID?
JG: Grownups is non-fiction, kind of an alternative political handbook. UNAFRAID aims to stimulate a broader audience than the small slice that looks at a bookstore’s Political Science shelves. I wanted to tell a story that would make general readers turn pages. And, it came to me that one good vehicle to do that would be the answer to a question that has teased me for forty years. Given the radical change in America’s attitude and identity that took place on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, how would the world have turned out if JFK had lived through Dallas and served two terms as President?
LG: So UNAFRAID is an alternative history where everything turns out perfectly?
JG: It’s an alternative history, but you don’t have the ending quite right. JFK is transformed by the shooting, and his perspective shifts to see the futility of the kind of power he’s sought his whole life. He decides to see what he can do in his remaining five years in office to nudge America’s walk much closer to its talk. But he has to do all that in the world that exists, with a Cold War going on and people like Richard Nixon fanning the flames of fear with some success. So there’s a real-world tension surrounding all the issues he tackles. The core of his job is to appeal to the part of us that has breadth and generosity, that’s determined to leave a decent and safe world to our kids and their kids, rather than appealing to us to, say, ‘go shopping so that the terrorists don’t win.’ Leadership is very much about what part of human nature leaders call out to, and their decision about that shapes the history that follows. We can see that clearly in our current mess. But that doesn’t mean that the Kennedy in UNAFRAID wins every struggle and everybody lives happily ever after. That would be a fairy tale instead of a ‘Novel of the Possible.’
LG: In calling it ‘A Novel of the Possible,’ are you trying to draw clear boundaries for what is and isn’t possible in politics?
JG: I can’t do that, and I don’t think anyone else can, either. There aren’t clear boundaries. They shift with the historical moment, the kind of leaders who are calling to us, how courageous and determined we are to give what we can. My worry, though, is that we’ve been shooting far too low.
This uncertainty is at the crux of the tension between JFK and his pragmatic brother Bobby in UNAFRAID. In one passage, Bobby is reminding Jack of Bismarck’s definition of politics as the Art of the Possible. Jack hears that and says ‘But what is possible? Where is that line? Because every line gets drawn by men, limited, small-brained, spectacularly fallible men. Everything we claim to know about what’s possible is guesswork. What the experts give us is expert guesswork, rooted mostly in a past that doesn’t exist anymore.’
LG: The what-if question most often asked about JFK is whether he would have gotten us out of Vietnam much earlier. What do you think?
JG: What I think is in UNAFRAID, and if I told you now I’d undercut the raging curiosity that I’m sure is rising at this very minute in every single person reading this interview. And, I sure don’t want to do that. I will say, though, that anybody who’s getting curious can get a little satisfaction by going to www.unafraidthebook.com and clicking on the link that says EXCERPTS: Come sample the world of Unafraid.
LG: You say ‘the historical course the country could have taken.’ But it didn’t take that course, and what’s done is done. So will UNAFRAID hold much interest for those who may not be all that interested in the history of the Kennedy years?
JG: What I can tell you is that I’m getting a really wonderful reaction from readers from about 20-80 who have all kinds of things to say about their reading interests. There are, first of all, close similarities between then and now on some issues, particularly Vietnam/Iraq, the debate over how America should use its power in the world, and the connections between big government and big business. They also tell me that by reading about the back-and-forth political forces back then, they get the sense not only that past history could have turned out differently, but that we have some real choices about the course America will take from this point forward. One reader said it this way on amazon.com: ‘He has changed one fact of November 22nd and created the story that could have happened. This gives us a vehicle for our imagination and our emotions to take the rebuilding of our country into our own hands.’ I really appreciate that.
LG: There was a feature in the Medford newspaper a month or so ago with the headline ‘Jeff Golden: Is he Actually a Cock-eyed Optimist?’ Are you?
JG: I’m not completely sure about the ‘cock-eyed’ part. It depends which day you catch me. I can sink into discouragement and cynicism like anybody else. But what fueled both Grownups and UNAFRAID is the feeling that we’ve been sleep-walking, and absorbing the attitude of the bitterest and most disillusioned among us, whether it’s Rush Limbaugh or Ralph Nader. Yes, our national politics have been purchased wholesale by the wealthiest narrow interests in the country. But what enables them to hang onto that power election after election is the widespread belief that we can’t do anything about it. I remember some of the desperately discouraged people who called me when I hosted the Jefferson Exchange, who explained to me in great detail how corporations have taken over the system, and because of their comprehensive networks and their control of the media that’s supposed to be telling us what’s happening, we’ll never get our country back. And sometimes after hanging up I’d have a vision of Dick Cheney at his Undisclosed Location, feet up on the desk, listening to the show on computer (I’m sure he listened in every day). And after hearing this long passionate explanation of how it’s all over and there’s no point to standing up and getting politically active, I could see Dick high-fiving an aide and saying ‘Yes! Another one down!’
That’s part of what fuels me through all this. And the truth is, none of us know on the front end what we can and can’t accomplishment. And I find that the folks who are optimistic and active seem to be having a whole lot more fun than the pessimists who sit back with their arms folded, explaining so intelligently how we’ve already lost and there’s no real hope. I’d rather hang around the folks who are having fun.
LG: Anything else?
JG: I really hope that folks who are intrigued with the notion of what politics and public life could be will take a look at UNAFRAID. The samples at www.unafraidthebook.com are quick and easy to read. See what you think.
LG: Thank you.
JG: And you. I’ve enjoyed this.
Jeff Golden lives in Ashland, Oregon. Please visit his website to learn more about his work. www.UnafraidTheBook.com