Interview with History

Oriana Fallaci was a fearless, powerhouse Italian journalist who somehow finagled interviews with the most powerful men and women of the 1970s. This 1976 collection includes fourteen of those interviews, translated by John Shepley into English, dedicated to her mother and to all those who do not like power. In her preface, she explains how hard it was to get her requests for appointments met, having to wait months for half an hour, but she realized after several of these meetings that powerful people are not better than us, “they are neither more intelligent nor stronger nor more enlightened than ourselves. If anything, they are more enterprising, more ambitious.” Later she states that she has always looked on “disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born… on the silence of those who do not react as the real death of a woman or a man.”

Before relating the interview, she gives us a few intro pages to set the stage. This I found to be her most compelling writing, although the fierce questions were also terrific. The first interview included in the book is in Nov 1972 with Henry Kissinger, whom she scores time with because he read her interview with General Giap in Hanoi in February 1969. She is led into the room and promptly ignored by Kissinger, which gives her time to study him before he studies her… “he wasn’t attractive at all, so short and thickset and weighed down by a large head like a sheep…” The biggest fallout from the interview was Nixon’s pouting that Kissinger didn’t give him credit in any way for his rise. “I’ve always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. American like the cowboy…” said Kissinger. He also is frank about his love affair with power: “When you have power in your hands and have held it for a long period of time, you end up thinking of it as something that’s due you.”

The next two chapters are interviews with the heads of warring Vietnamese sides, Nguyen Van Thieu of the south, General Giap of the north. Both of these men are immediately painted (as was Kissinger) as short–barely 5’3″–but Giap’s interview is much more interesting and prescient as to the ultimate outcome of the war.

There are a few powerful women she includes in the book, interviews with Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel (whose interview tapes were stolen when unattended for a few minutes in a Rome hotel room that Fallaci returned to), and Indira Ghandi. Golda’s interview ends by saying her only fear is to live too long, to lose her agility and lucidity and become senile. “I want to die with my mind clear.” Amen. Indira’s interview was blander, less memorable, perhaps tinged by the introduction where Fallaci outs her as a dictator who overthrew democracy when she didn’t get her way.

Heaps of scorn are tossed onto Yasir Arafat, nothing about him hinting at authority, his short height (again! 5’3″), his small hands, feet, huge hips and “swollen, obese stomach,” all topped by a small head, no cheeks or forehead, large mouth with red fleshy lips and an aggressive nose, two bulging eyes. Wow. Fallaci hints several times that he was gay, with his slightly feminine voice and handsome bodyguard: “What a bodyguard! The most gorgeous piece of male flesh I had ever seen. Tall, slender, elegant: the type who wears camouflage coveralls as though they were black tie and tails, with the chiseled features of a Western lady-killer… perhaps something more than a bodyguard.” His lack of charm made for a dud of an interview, Fallaci claimed. “If a person has talent, you can ask him or her the most banal thing in the world: she will always find the way to answer you brilliantly or profoundly… with Arafat I found myself empty-handed. He almost always reacted with indirect or evasive discourses, turns of phrase that contained nothing beyond his rhetorical intransigence, his constant fear of not persuading me.”