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July 9, 2006
Mona Charen and Ruth Marcus
Syndicated Columnist
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Info: Mona Charen and Ruth Marcus discuss Journalism and other topical issues.

Uncorrected transcript provided by Morningside Partners.
C-SPAN uses its best efforts to provide accurate transcripts of its programs, but it can not be held liable for mistakes such as omitted words, punctuation, spelling, mistakes that change meaning, etc.

BRIAN LAMB, C-SPAN: Ruth Marcus, can you remember the first time you met Mona Charen?

RUTH MARCUS, AUTHOR: I can’t remember the first time but I can remember many other times in the middle there because we were – we both started in Livingston, New Jersey in fourth grade. We were both new to the school but we were in different classes, so I remember fifth grade on up.

LAMB: Where is Livingston New Jersey, where is it?

MONA CHAREN, AUTHOR: It’s about 20 miles due west of Manhattan.

LAMB: Can you remember the first time you thought you were going to be a writer in your life?

CHAREN: Fairly early, yes, I fantasized about being a writer because I loved to read and probably, you know, fifth-sixth grade, something like that. But so a lot of people do who then wind up doing other things but I stuck with it.

LAMB: Are you surprised that the two of you are in writing today but might have a different political opinion on things?

MARCUS: Not at all, neither one of those things. Mona was a wonderful writer all through school. We used to in high school – I was explaining this to my kids this morning as I was telling them that I was going to do this because, of course, they now I am. I said we used to be on the phone and we’d be writing our English papers and we’d put the phone down and then we’d read it to each other. And every …

CHAREN: I’d get a stiff neck holding the phone and typing.

MARCUS: Right, yes. And we both always really liked to write, really cared about writing. I think the only surprise – Mona is doing exactly what she wanted to do and I think could have been predicted to do. I think I am a little bit less obvious, in part because I’m less opinionated.

CHAREN: Well, and also Ruth has many talents in many areas so she could have done any number of things. I mean she went to Harvard Law School and got all As and, you know, could have been a huge, you know, corporate attorney or whatever. But she chose to go into writing and take a pay cut.

MARCUS: Did you go to law school?

CHAREN: I went to law school.

MARCUS: Thank you.

CHAREN: Didn’t go to Harvard.

LAMB: George Washington.


LAMB: The purpose of this – I invited you both to come here because we – you’ve been on our program for years. We discovered years ago that you were from the same town, knew each other. I actually don’t know how – I didn’t know that you started in the fourth grade nor did I know that you actually were friends, so that’s the first thing we learned.

MARCUS: We were really – I mean Mona was my best friend in high school. I hope you (INAUDIBLE).

CHAREN: No. That’s fine.

MARCUS: But we were really best friends and stayed really – have stayed really close.

LAMB: And …


LAMB: Go ahead.

CHAREN: … one of the things that I tell people – and my experience with Ruth actually – and she’s heard me say this before, but it has – it was one of the things that makes me a conservative. Why? Because conservatives believe in the power of competition, you know, that competitive enterprise is a good thing because it spurs you to prove yourself and to – and to excellence.

Well, if it hadn’t been for the friendly competition with Ruth with, you know, her spur to me, she really – because we were friendly competitors and because she was so good, I pushed myself in school in a way that I definitely would not have done had she not been there.

LAMB: How – we know that Mona Charen is conservative, how liberal are you?

MARCUS: I’m not anywhere near as liberal as Mona is conservative. And I don’t know if you’re going to disagree with it …

CHAREN: Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know.

MARCUS: Mona – my – most of my career in journalism has been as a straight news reporter. And then Mona and I have had any number of arguments over the years about the possibility of being objective in journalism and how objective one can be.

But I can tell you that I always tried my best. And I never felt constrained when I did have opinions about things. I never wanted to sort of go up and shout them from the rooftop. So it’s only been in about the last four years as I moved from the news side of the Washington Post to the editorial page and now writing editorials I’m also writing a column.

But I’ve started to really have to figure out exactly how liberal and not liberal I am and I would call myself a moderate liberal.

LAMB: Mona Charen’s looking at you like saying, no, no, no.

CHAREN: Well, I did tease her when she told me that she was – had been appointed to the editorial board of the paper. And she said, ”You know, nobody asked me my political views.” And I said, ”Well, maybe they didn’t have to.”

LAMB: But one of the things you might agree on – and we’ll get into this – is the Iraq war.

MARCUS: What do you think?

CHAREN: Well, I was supportive of the war and I’m very, very dubious about the opponents of the war and the way that they have politicized it, you know, the Democrats having beforehand said, ”It’s obvious and clear that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.” After we went in and didn’t find them they said, ”George Bush lied to us.”

And so I think the opponents of the war have been utterly disingenuous and irresponsible. And even though the war has proven to be difficult, I still think that you can only make the best decisions with the information you have available at the time. And reasonable people believed that it was vital to our national security to do it.

MARCUS: One of the things that I’ve really found disturbing about the conversation of the war – because the Washington Post editorial page was very supportive of the war going in, continues to be supportive of the necessity of staying there – is the notion that one can’t have that attitude in good faith. Because I listened to all the internal struggles as we debated this and as we’ve discussed it over time, and people of good faith and serious patriotism can differ on the war.

And the notion that if you’re on one side or the other that you’re an absolute blithering – what’s – your book idiot.

CHAREN: Oh, that was a …

MARCUS: Useful or unuseful idiot.

CHAREN: … that was a – that was a term apart …

MARCUS: I’m trying to plug you.

CHAREN: … that we can talk about though.

MARCUS: That I just – that’s what I find so disturbing about the modern conversation to the extent that one could call it a conversation.

LAMB: Well talking about the books, her first book was ”How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First.” And when you read that title – did you read the book, by the way?

MARCUS: Yes, Useful Idiots, right?



LAMB: Useful Idiots, I forgot – sorry, I forgot the most important …

MARCUS: www.

LAMB: When you read the book, when you saw the title and all that, and from what you know of her, what was your reaction?

MARCUS: Precisely what I expected but, you know, we’ve been arguing about this for years.

LAMB: Why did you expect it?

MARCUS: Because I know that – because I know that Mona has very strong views and can be dismissive of the views of people who don’t agree with here – nicely dismissive. Is that fair?

CHAREN: Well, maybe. But I think in ”Useful Idiots,” which is a term of art, let me say for the viewers …

MARCUS: From who?

CHAREN: Lenin. Lenin said that liberals in the West would be useful idiots for their side. And it’s become a term of art and people use it all the time to describe those who are easily duped.

And – but my – I think what I attempted to do in the book was just to, you know, provide chapter and verse of what liberals had been saying during the Cold War and then, you know, show how wrong they had been.

And was I dismissive? Well, you might say that. On the other hand, you know, I was pretty thorough in the documentation.

MARCUS: Thoroughly dismissive.

LAMB: Why did – was she opinionated when you were in high school?

MARCUS: About everything, about absolutely everything. But you have to understand about the arc of our friendship was in fifth grade and sixth grade we were friends and then we were – I wouldn’t say mortal enemies but we really intensely disliked each other.

And what happened was when we went to high school our mothers ran into each other at back-to-school night early in the year. And your mother said to my mother, our daughters don’t know it but they’re going to become best friends. And they don’t like each other – I mean but it wasn’t like a secret – they don’t like each other but they’re going to find each other and this is the right friendship.

And as usually and, you know, if my mom is watching, mothers were right. Mothers – now I know that mothers are always right.

And so – but what actually I think during the years that we did not get along was …

CHAREN: That I was so opinionated.

MARCUS: … that you were really opinionated. We had – we’re in a home economics class together in eighth grade maybe, ninth grade, and we had an argument about James Bond movies.

CHAREN: Oh, yes.

MARCUS: OK. And so I said, ”Oh, I think James Bond movies are really interesting and kind of retro.” And Mona was denouncing them. Oh it’s terrible, it’s vile, it’s filth.

And so finally I had the presence of mind to say, ”Excuse me, have you ever seen a James Bond movie.” And her answer was no.

CHAREN: So I was (INAUDIBLE) opinion.

MARCUS: There you go.

LAMB: Have you been to one since.


LAMB: Still …

CHAREN: And I was right, of course, no. Well, you know, I did – I’m strong medicine and some people like it and some people don’t.

I remember having lunch with a gal who actually was conservative. But she was from the deep south and I had been holding forth on something and she sort of paused and then looked at me and said, ”My, but you are empahtic.”

LAMB: What was the – what was the cause, was it your disagreement when you – back in grade school and before you went to high school?

CHAREN: I don’t remember it well as Ruth.


CHAREN: But it might have been, you know, just …

MARCUS: Two strong personalities.

CHAREN: You know Ruth has a really strong personality, too. I mean she’s no shrinking violet.

So, you know, we at first, you know, sort of like these two strong people we came together and bounced off, you know. But then the next time, as my mother had predicted, we found that we had so much in common that in the end it did make for a very good friendship.

LAMB: So let’s go over the situation. Livingston, New Jersey, both of you born there?


MARCUS: No, neither one of us. I was born in Philadelphia.

CHAREN: I was born in New York.

LAMB: Both are lawyers?


LAMB: Both have children, what’s the circumstance, how many?

CHAREN: I have three boys, they are 14, 12 and 10.

MARCUS: And I have two girls and they are 11 and nine.

LAMB: Oh, my goodness, we – need one more girls and we’ve got a …

MARCUS: I don’t think that’s going to happen.

LAMB: Married to what – who are you married to?

MARCUS: I’m married to a wonderful man named John Leibowitz, who I met covering the Clarence Thomas hearings when he was working for the Senate Judiciary Committee – it might be guest for a Democrat.

And we didn’t start dating until after the hearings. I want all the ethics folks out there to know. And he is now a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission. He’s a Democratic appointee to the FTC.

LAMB: And, Mona Charen?

CHAREN: My husband is Bob Parker, a lawyer with Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton & Garrison – give the whole title. And our husband actually like each other too, which is nice. And Bob and I met …

LAMB: What are his – what are Bob’s politics?

CHAREN: Bob is a conservative Republican, though he is not as conservative as I am, or at least he wasn’t when we first met. And he likes to tell the story that we were having a drink sort of – I guess shortly after we were married. We were sitting at an outdoor cafι here in D.C. and we were discussing the Bush 1 administration. And Bob was allowing as how it really wasn’t that – it was understandable that the Bush administration was sort of urging the Lithuanians and the Latvians, you know, to soft pedal it a bit with the Soviets. You know this is when they were about to break free.

And Bob said – according to Bob and I’m not sure I completely endorse this story – but according to him, I looked at him and said, ”You know, Bob, sometimes you can really be quite a moderate.” And he said then the words were dripping with contempt.

LAMB: Well go back – let’s try to – let’s go back to high school, what was high school like? I happen to have the 1975 Crossroads yearbook here with a couple of interesting pictures in it.

Mona Charen …

CHAREN: Yes, that was an imposter …

LAMB: Yes, right.

CHAREN: … sneaked in to pose for me that day.

LAMB: What was high school like? I mean what did you – when did you begin to really learn what you were interested in?

MARCUS: Well, I – you know we write these days about the sort of super competitive nature of American high schools and the real zest and pressure to get into a good college. And it’s funny because that was actually the way I think we experienced it then.

There was, as Mona said earlier, there was a group of us that took a lot of advanced placement courses, AP English and AP History. And we didn’t – we weren’t in AP Science class.

And we were – we got a very good education …

CHAREN: At the public high school.

MARCUS: … I think at a public high school.

One of the things that was really interesting that I think is different from some public high schools these days is we really learned how to write. We wrote lots, and lots, and lots of papers.

And it was a – I would say a kind of high pressure but thought we had fun environment.

LAMB: What was Livingston, New Jersey like?

CHAREN: It was a bedroom community.

LAMB: How far away from New York?

CHAREN: 20 miles. A lot of people worked in New Jersey and didn’t commute into New York, some did. And it was – you know, it was a community like so many others. I think, though, that maybe if there’s anything that’s instructive about Ruth’s and my experience it is that, you know, we were really quite, you know, average, upper-middle-class kids. And we didn’t have connections, we didn’t have any special entrιe, we didn’t have anything really – no family influence or anything. We just had an interest in public affairs. We had great teachers, some of them, you know, who stimulated us. We had a lot of hard work …

MARCUS: Pushy parents.

CHAREN: We had very pushy parents, especially Ruth.

LAMB: Pushy …

CHAREN: Sorry, Arnold and Judy.

LAMB: Pushy in what way?

CHAREN: They wanted their kids to succeed …


CHAREN: … And they did. And, you know, and so, you know, we always assumed this is America, that if we worked hard that we could achieve whatever we wanted. And frankly, you know, a little slam against the feminists I have to say, both Ruth and I were quite sure that the fact that we were female was not going to hold us back and it didn’t, you know.

MARCUS: That’s not a slam against the feminists.

CHAREN: Well it is because the feminists would say, you know, oh, you know you’ve entered life with a terrible handicap and you’re female. But I mean, you know …

MARCUS: I don’t – I don’t …

CHAREN: … we didn’t feel that way and it didn’t – it wasn’t.

MARCUS: I think that’s a false definition of feminism.

CHAREN: OK, well.

MARCUS: But we can get back to that.


LAMB: What are you parents like? What do they do?

MARCUS: My parent are – they live now in the Washington area, they live in my zip code, something that would have horrified me if you had told me when I was growing up. And, in fact, if you had told me when I was growing up that I was going to move to a suburb that’s not so dissimilar from the suburb I grew up in I would have told you, you were crazy.

My dad was a, you know, son of immigrants, was a pharmacist, became – went on and got his Ph.D. and was a pharmaceutical company executive for years. But also he was a pharmacist because his father was a pharmacist – went on to go to law school. He graduated from law school, I graduated from college, and one of my brothers – two brothers, Bill all graduated from high school all the same year. And my dad got the party. He’s retired now.

My mom also was a pharmacist, was a student of his in pharmacy school in the days before they invented sexual harassment. And – but actually bet a friend of hers that she could get him to ask her out, and she did and they were going out. And as my mother says, ” Well, I was getting As before so nobody had any question about whether I was getting special treatment.”

And she, actually while we were in school went back and got her masters in accounting and she’s now a tax accountant.

LAMB: Where did you grandparents – where were they from? Where did they – I can’t even think of the word, where did they come from?

MARCUS: From Poland, from Lithuania, from – my maternal grandparents were born here and they’re, you know, sort of the usual mix of Eastern European Jews.

LAMB: So your parents live here, dad’s retired, mom’s still working.

And what about your parents?

CHAREN: My parents are deceased both of them. Another parallel though, it is funny, is that my father was also my mother’s chemistry teacher and – in high school, yes. But they waited until she was in college to start dating.

LAMB: What did they do?

CHAREN: But there’s a 10-year distance between them.

LAMB: What did they do for a living?

CHAREN: My dad was a college administrator at a community collect in New Jersey, Bergen Community College. I just had occasion to go back there after many years and there are still people there that he hired, it was kind of nice to go back. I gave a talk.

And my mother was a school psychologist and obviously had good insight into human beings since she accurately predicted …


CHAREN: … that Ruth and I would eventually …

MARCUS: She was great.

CHAREN: … become friends.

MARCUS: She was great.

LAMB: Now politically – all right, go to the parents on politics. What were our – what are your parents’ politics?

MARCUS: I think my parents’ politics are kind of moderate Democrats, not really deeply involved in – interested in public affairs but not sort of out leafleting kinds of things. Though there is a story of me in the 1960 election when I was I guess two-and-a-half walking around saying Kennedy is the good man, Nixon’s the bad man. And so I did actually have this very black-and-white view of Republicans and Democrats.

CHAREN: She was made for the Washington Post editorial page.

MARCUS: Yes. And – but my parents are the kind of democrats who very much moved to the center over the years. I think my dad in particular voted for Reagan, there might have been a vote for Nixon in there. George Bush has pushed them – and particularly my mother who has never been particularly political – just – she is out in left field right now.

LAMB: What about your parents?

CHAREN: Began life as socialists and moved steadily to the right. George McGovern radicalized them and they never voted – well, the McGovernite – the McGovernism of the Democratic Party offended them and they began to move to the right. And I think Humphrey was the last Democrat they voted for, they voted Republican after that.

And I began to get interested in politics around that time and I think I might have gently pushed them even further to the right.

LAMB: So you think you had more influence on them than they had on you?

CHAREN: No, I wouldn’t say that. I think that they had a huge influence on me. But, you know, it was just a – I remember – you know, the kinds of things, frankly, that some people are now just discovering, you know, that sort of affirmative action may not be such a great idea, that it has deleterious affects on the people for who it’s intended, you know – to who it is intended to benefit, and so on and so forth, those are the kinds of discussions we were having around our kitchen table in the 1970s.

LAMB: What do you think of affirmative action?

MARCUS: Well, so were we. And that’s a place where – and I think it’s fairly classic for, you know, especially early generation achieving Jewish families to have some misgivings about quotas because they’ve seen quotas used against them.

I have a kind of liberal queasiness about affirmative action in certain forms that it can be practiced, though I really do believe in the importance of diversity as a – as a factor in school admissions and as something to be thought about in the workplace.

CHAREN: Well, I mean I think affirmative action does all the wrong things, it sends all the wrong messages. You know you’ve got the – what I consider a terrible problem which is the notion that the talented black, Hispanic, you know, other beneficiary of affirmative action, is tarred throughout his or her career with this notion on – in the minds of other people – even if they don’t say it out loud and they usually don’t – that, you know, I wonder if this person is really good or if they just got special treatment.

And, you know, I also think that – and James McWhorter has been very eloquent about this, the linguist from Berkeley who is doing other things right now …

LAMB: You mean John?

CHAREN: John, sorry, yes.

LAMB: OK, just make sure that …

CHAREN: John, yes, John – who, you know, has written a really – some wonderful books. And one of the things he talks about is that he sees this laziness on the part of his black students where, you know, they know that they get a free ride and so they don’t apply themselves. And I think that’s very destructive.

I also think it’s just not fair to give a racially-based advantage so that, you know, children of middle-class doctors in Stanford, Connecticut, who are black are getting an admission advantage over, you know, a white kid who comes from a single-parent family or a poor family or whatever. I mean I just think it’s unjust and I think it has very deleterious affects on society.

LAMB: Ruth Marcus, do you want to add to that?

MARCUS: Well, we could get into this but I think lots of African Americans and other minorities I know believe that they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves to overcome this assumption. And so this sort of …

CHAREN: Right.

MARCUS: … sense of –- no, but the sense – but that belies your argument that there’s a sense of laziness and entitlement among black students.

CHAREN: Well, both things can be true.

MARCUS: I don’t see that. And I also – while I do think that, you know, at a certain point and particularly as minorities become more economically successful in America that there is less of an argument for affirmative action and there is certainly an argument for taking economic diversity into account also.

I mean I – we, Mona and I went to a school where – a high school where diversity meant, you know, we had Italians and Irish and Jews. And my children go to a school that is actually very diverse because that happens to be a private school that puts a very big premium on diversity.

And I see the way they interact with children of different nationalities and children of different races and, you know, you’re going to accuse me of sort of singing Kum Ba Ya but it’s – I find it to be incredibly useful part of their education. And they have a completely different relationship with – a different comfort level with races than certainly I did at that age.

CHAREN: My kids go to public school and they have the exact same, you know, diverse student body that they deal with and I do think that it is a difference, maybe a small difference from the way – from the time when we were raised because the country has changed – that people are just so much more comfortable. You know the names that kids come – you know, the names of their classmates, which I know that when we were young if you had a name like that you would have been teased if you had anything that was a little bit unusual. Now the names are from all over the world, they’re all strange and nobody bats an eye, that’s nice.

But, you know, I mean the fact that we all have matured in that sense doesn’t at all affect the argument about affirmative action.

LAMB: Our viewers I know would have probably the strongest opinion either on the Iraq War or George Bush …


LAMB: … either one. Because of that I want to ask the two of you to give us your feelings about George Bush, just to try to get to how you think on all of this.

MARCUS: Well, I think …

LAMB: And by the way – let me interrupt …


LAMB: Did you – when you speak here you’re not speaking for the Washington Post.

MARCUS: I’m not – I’m not speaking for the Washington Post, that’s a little piece of the sort of hesitation and breath that you …

LAMB: Yes.

MARCUS: … just saw. But I work for the Post editorial page and – but there are many things actually that we agree with the Bush administration on editorially speaking and there are a number of things that we disagree on.

I cannot count myself in any way to be a fan of this president. I mean when I say in anyway – overall – to be a fan of this president. And I think one of the things that I write about and so it’s one of the things that upsets me the most is the absolute fiscal recklessness of the administration. And the tax policy that’s going to be left to our grandchildren – which actually that’s a nice thought except for the fact that they’re going to have to be paying for tax cuts that were – that were clearly not affordable at the time that they were passed and certainly aren’t affordable now.

CHAREN: Well, I agree and disagree. I agree about the fiscal recklessness in the sense of the spending. And that for which I blame Bush and I also blame the Republicans in Congress who have been a big disappointment on this score.

They discovered that they liked it a little too well and have been spending like crazy, spending more than the Republican Congress spent under Clinton because at least then they had – they felt more of an obligation to I guess in battle with the Democrat.

But in any event, the tax cuts don’t bother me because the tax cuts stimulate the economy and when the economy grows money that comes into the coffers of the state, as you know, also grows and so it has. But I’m concerned about the absolute explosion of spending and I think that’s been one area where this administration has been disappointing.

In other areas, however, I think Bush has been absolutely courageous, does not get the credit that he deserves for some of the risk that he has taken. And, you know, the kind of things that are said about him on a daily basis in, you know, in the papers and among the MSM, the mainstream media, and certainly the callers to C-SPAN on a daily basis are just so over the top and undeserved.

The man has his flaws, which, you know, he acknowledges. His command of the English language could be better. But he has – he has shown tremendous leadership on the war on terror. He has taken great risks and not to line his pockets as some would have it or for, you know, anything other than what he sees is the best interest of the country.

LAMB: Let me go back to the high school thing again or your family situation because that’s one of the reasons to do this is to find out where you started thinking the way you do.

In your family were your parents readers and did they introduce you to reading?

MARCUS: Absolutely.

LAMB: How much, give us some sense?

MARCUS: We read all the time. And I loved reading from an early age and they just kept shoveling books at me as fast as I could read them. I remember actually we would go to the store and get a Nancy Drew book and I would have it finished by the time we got home and my mother would get exasperated with me for reading so fast.

But I – but reading was a big thing. We talked about public affairs a lot. I remember – I remember one night at our kitchen table my – we must have been in like fifth grade or something, my father drew a little circle showing this sort of spectrum from fascism to communism.


CHAREN: That’s one thing we agreed on that the political spectrum is a circle.

MARCUS: And they really, really, really stressed education. That was …

LAMB: Do you have any idea why they were that way?

MARCUS: Sure because we – my parents were children of the Depression and they had – you know we both went to college …

LAMB: Where did you do undergrad?

MARCUS: I went to Yale undergrad, did – had not intended actually to be a journalist and fell into the school newspaper and went on from there.

But they came from extremely rocky economic circumstances. I just found on the fantastic Ellis Island Web site the ship manifest from my father’s father who arrived with a number of his family members. And it says – there’s a category there that says does he had $50. And there’s a bracket that shows that the totality of all these family members – five or six or seven – had $50 altogether. And so …

LAMB: You’re shaking your head? I this – you do the same thing?

CHAREN: It just so happens that this past weekend my sister-in-law’s mother died and I went down to visit with them and I went down to visit with them and, you know, we were looking at that Ellis Island Web site …

MARCUS: Isn’t it …

CHAREN: … and found my grandfather. And exactly the thing – the thing that struck me was that, you know, how much money did they have. It’s just …

LAMB: Where did your grandfather come from?

CHAREN: He came from what was then Russia, it was called Russia, it was 1911. But it was actually Poland, you know, it kept changing hands.


LAMB: Answer the same question about the family and the reading, did …

CHAREN: Oh, yes. I mean, you know, this is something – I don’t know about you but I struggle with my own children about this because now there’s the competition of the Internet and, you know, my son says, ”Well I am reading, I’m just reading online.” And I say, ”No, you know, it’s just not the same.”

LAMB: Why isn’t it the same?

CHAREN: It’s not the same because, you know, any stray idiot can be writing his opinions on the Internet and what you’re – just because you’re in the act of reading doesn’t mean you’re reading anything worthwhile. I know really smart people who only read, you know, pulp fiction, and that’s not going to improve your mind.

I mean it’s – you should be reading the classics. I mean as a child that’s what – that’s what enriches your life and powers your imagination and teaches you about the world.

By the way, I don’t want to give my son a bad rap. He is reading the Fleishman Series and it’s a really good historical fiction series.

LAMB: Do you – by the way, do you both agree about the classics? Is it …

MARCUS: Oh, absolutely. And I think – I was – I actually went and I sort of looked at a whole set of your columns to get ready for this, to sort of figure out what it was that we agreed on. And I actually think that there were probably a lot of family, popular culture-related issues that we do agree on.

For us, you know, there were three channels, they were terrible. I would tell my mother I was bored and she would tell me a Yiddish expression that was essentially go – so fine, if you’re bored go hit your head against the wall, it will feel better when you stop.

And so we were sort of – and we didn’t have soccer on Tuesday, and this on – and figure skating on Wednesday, and drama class on Thursday. And so we were sort of forced to read. And we learned the real thrill of curling up with good books.

I mean the – we both still remember – I know you do – in 10th grade – I think it was 10th grade – we had to write a huge reported project on an American …

CHAREN: Oh, yes.

MARCUS: … on an author. I guess – was it an American author?

CHAREN: Yes, it had to American.

MARCUS: I wrote about Theodore Dreiser, Mona wrote about Vladimir Nabokov. And we read everything that they wrote and …

LAMB: Yes, but I’d say about Mona Charen that you went to Nabokov.

MARCUS: Better taste in authors.

CHAREN: I don’t know what you read of him, it’s funny I don’t remember …

MARCUS: Yes, I know.

CHAREN: You know?

MARCUS: Yes, because he was a really good writer.

CHAREN: Yes, he was.

MARCUS: Mona’s just naturally a better writer than I am.

CHAREN: Thank you, you are so sweet. But Ruth is smarter so it works out.

No but the – but that’s it. He was such a great technician with the English language and other languages, actually it was his third language. But he was a genius at manipulating words.

LAMB: OK. The political thought in all that, I mean – before we do that though, you two actually are two different worlds right now. You are totally on your own writing columns. How many times a week?

CHAREN: I’m writing one column a week but starting very soon I’m going to be doing a blog on National Review online. So I’m going to be writing everyday actually.

LAMB: And you now have to kind of – beside your column that you write once a week …

MARCUS: Once a week.

LAMB: … you have to get along with how many people on the editorial board?

MARCUS: I don’t know how many I have to get along with.

LAMB: How many do you have to (INAUDIBLE)?

MARCUS: But we have about eight people on the editorial board and I do get along with all of them.

LAMB: But the point I was making is you can’t write anything for – on an editorial page without all of them agreeing or …

MARCUS: We have – we tend to have about four our five meetings – three, four or five meetings a week in the mornings and we go around the table and we discuss various topics. And we each have particular areas of expertise. And we’ll throw out something to – that we’re thinking about writing about and people will have a discussion, a good, animated discussion, back and forth. Depending on the topic, some can be more animated than others. And then as a general matter we sort of tend to find the middle ground.

I think it’s very much like what the experience of China’s crafted judicial opinion is like because sometimes if you write something and you throw in some language or tone it down a little bit or add a little something you can get everybody to feel ownership of it.

LAMB: But you can’t just say so-and-so is a big idiot without somebody over you saying or the group saying no, you’re not going to do that.

MARCUS: Saying – right.

LAMB: But you can.

CHAREN: Right. I wouldn’t say it in so many words other than …

LAMB: I know.

CHAREN: … my book title not withstanding.

LAMB: Yes, but I mean you can – can you literally say anything you want to say and it’s totally your own decision?

CHAREN: Short of libel, yes, yes.

LAMB: You don’t have to ask anybody permission to write what you write?

CHAREN: Absolutely not.

MARCUS: And I’m learning as I have started writing this column, which I have been writing for a little more than six months, that there’s no safety net there. There’s not a group of people who are going to say, well, that one’s totally wrong.

I do try, if there happens to be something that I disagree with the position of the editorial board about, which happens on occasion to all of us, not to write it in the newspaper because there’s just no reason to air that in public. But other than that I get to say where I want.

LAMB: Where did you go to undergrad?

CHAREN: Barnard College, Columbia University.

LAMB: So we’ve got Columbia and Yale, George Washington Law School and Harvard. Again, let’s go back to the drill down to find out why do you think what you think. What do you – where would you say it all started that you thought you were a conservative and started speaking like one?

CHAREN: Well, I think there were a couple of major influences. The first was that I went through during my adolescence a period where I was completely obsessed with the Holocaust and began reading everything I could find on the subject. I happen to think that in order to have a liberal outlook on the world you – most liberals start out with the assumption that people are basically good and that it is, you know – it’s institutions that make them go bad, whereas – or that ruin things. You know, back to Russo even.

And I think having absorbed all of that about the Holocaust I have a much more skeptical view of human nature. And I actually think that people have to be trained to be good and they have to be encouraged and institutions have to help them to be good. And so that was sort of maybe an underlying emotional influence.

And then in high school a very – now this becomes utterly pedestrian, but in high school I was a bit of a insomniac and instead of sleeping at night I’d be listening to the radio. And the fellow I was listening to was a guy named Barry Farber, who is still around by the way, and a southerner, Jewish, conservative as could be. And he was talking about things like the captive nations, and Stalinism, and really interesting things that I had not been learning and it wasn’t just – it just wasn’t part of the New Jersey suburban milieu to talk about the evils of communism. But I found it extremely interesting and …

LAMB: And he was New York based?

CHAREN: Yes, he was in New York. We got all the New York radio stations.

And so that perked my interest. And then I began to read Bill Buckley and before you know it I was, you know, slipping down the …

LAMB: You worked for Bill Buckley?

MARCUS: There was a lot …

CHAREN: Later I did work for Bill Buckley.

MARCUS: … there was a lot of Firing Line.

CHAREN: Yes, there was.

MARCUS: There was a lot of Firing Line and …

LAMB: Bill Buckley’s television show?

MARCUS: His television show and …


MARCUS: … you – so you watched a lot of Firing Line. Then he had started writing his novel.

CHAREN: Back then?

MARCUS: Back then, yes …


MARCUS: … because I remember reading (INAUDIBLE).


LAMB: But what about you, Ruth Marcus, what …

MARCUS: See I think one of the reasons that Mona and I actually were able to become friendly was that I was actually much less political in high school. And so sort of she had these ideas which I think I thought were a little bit nutty but I didn’t feel so strongly on the other side that I couldn’t tolerate it. And so I think if we had met in our sort of grown-up, dug-in incarnation it would have been a little bit more difficult to do that.

On the other hand, because I thought about this – been watching my own children and having – watching them and, you know, even though they’re nine and 11 they have some pretty strong political views, not surprisingly because they come from a political household – and seeing how much of the way they look at the world – and you probably have this with your boys – is shaped by the way their parents look at the world.

And my nine-year-old will watch somebody on TV and say do we like him, do we not like him? We have a lot of C-SPAN on in our house, as you know, and we’ll be watching somebody on the floor and say was he a good guy or a bad guy. And I always try to make them try to think it through for themselves. Say, well, this is what he thinks, this is the argument against that, you tell me what you think.

But I do think we all you got it from your parents and then absorbed more and I got some from my parents and absorbed more.

CHAREN: Just on that subject though, another thing that I do with my children is – because children do want to know, they want categories …


CHAREN: … good guy, bad guy, do we like, do we not like. And I will frequently say well I don’t agree with that person but he is a really nice guy or, you know – and because I know people on – well some.

MARCUS: Is he a good – because he’s a Republican but a good Republican.

CHAREN: And you know there are a lot of people like that and I just – I just don’t want them to be personal about it.

MARCUS: It’s like …

CHAREN: With Michael Moore, they’re allowed to hate him.

LAMB: Who influenced you though like the Bill Buckley’s and did you have any interest in the Holocaust, things like that?

MARCUS: I – every Jewish girl growing up in New Jersey is interested in the Holocaust.

CHAREN: Not any more.

MARCUS: But I don’t – I didn’t have the same kind of formative political influence because I was not as much of a sort of committed political person. I loved writing. As it turns out I loved public policy. I loved issues. And so I went to law school in part because I’m very – I didn’t want to practice – Mona didn’t want to practice either when she went to law school – because I was interested in many of the kind of constitutional issues that come up.

LAMB: And you have covered the judiciary …

MARCUS: I covered the Supreme Court and the Justice Department and the White House, and I covered a lot of money and politics which was helpful with my law degree, and got interested in politics and campaign finance issues.

But I actually – you’re going to laugh at this so much and, in fact, my boss has laughed at this. When I went over to the editorial page I was very worried about whether I was going to be able to in the end pull the trigger and come down on one side or another because I do see …

CHAREN: I’m not laughing.


CHAREN: No, I’m not laughing.

MARCUS: … the issues that are the most interesting are the ones that really have a couple different sides to them. And my job had been for 20 years to present – to distill as much as I could and present both sides of that issue.

So I didn’t have anybody who was a well a political role model whose footsteps I was following in.

LAMB: What year did you come to Washington?

MARCUS: Came in 1979 after I graduated from college. And you were in New York. Mona decided that when she graduated from college she wanted to go work for Bill Buckley. And I remember we had this conversation, I said well just call him up and you did and it worked.

LAMB: You just called him up?

CHAREN: Well I called him and asked him to be interviewed for my college yearbook. And I sneakily pretended to be a liberal when we met. So I conducted the whole interview as if I were a typical college liberal and played my cards close to the chest. I mean I just didn’t want to be an other groupie, you know, coming in oh, I love you, you’re Bill Buckley, let me kiss your ring, you know.

So I was a little bit combative and he enjoyed it. And then I sent him a copy of the completed interview where I put my cards on the table said, you know, I think he’s wonderful, I challenged my classmates to read any of his books and, you know, so on and so forth – and sent him a copy of the interview.

And so, you know, he wrote back and said, you know, you were so cagey I had no idea.

LAMB: What was it ”God and Man at Yale?”



LAMB: Now but you went to Yale, did you ever read that book?

MARCUS: I did, I did.

LAMB: When?

MARCUS: In college I think. I must – I did. And it’s funny, I’m very interested in this issue right now of this Taliban student they have at Yale. And I really want to write about it in part because I’d like to have a headline that says ”God and Taliban at Yale.” But I think nobody is going to – we’re going – nobody is going to be old enough to remember where it’s from. But I …

LAMB: Well I think it’s time to show the audience the yearbook pictures from 1975. And right now you’re looking at Ruth Allyn Marcus on the screen. And underneath it is says, ”Where is the yesterday that worried us (INAUDIBLE)?”

MARCUS: A little neurotic don’t you think?

LAMB: Question mark. But here’s what interesting and I just saw this because you just brought this in. It says, ”There are so many wonderful memories, too many to be recaptured in this short space. I’d just like to thank all the people who were a part of these years, my teachers, DAB” – whatever that is – ”and my friends, especially Randy, Mona, the guys and Brad who made the happy times more special and the sad times bearable. To all of you I wish only one thing, happiness as great as that which I have experienced in knowing you.”

Did you remember that she had singled you out?


LAMB: It’s time for everybody to see Mona Elaine Charen. ”As I look back the past three years seem to be a mιlange” – oh, you were using big French words then – ”of names, faces and events. I recall with amusement and affection Lolita” – is it Hayes? …

CHAREN: Oh, yes, that was from …

MARCUS: That’s from Lolita …

CHAREN: … the book in a – yes …

LAMB: In Lolita, yes …

CHAREN: In Lolita, yes.

LAMB: … I didn’t know she had a last name.


LAMB: … ”on Firing Line. Mrs. Payne’s canoe pillow” …


MARCUS: That was our high school …

CHAREN: We had a high school …

MARCUS: … admissions …

CHAREN: … yes. And I don’t know what the pillows reference be.

LAMB: … ”Alice Sycamore” …

MARCUS: That I didn’t know.

LAMB: …”Andrea’s smile” …

CHAREN: Oh, gosh.

LAMB: … ”the politics of History with Mr. Paul” …


LAMB: … ”the Y Group, Ruth Ruthie” …

CHAREN: Ruth Ruthie, that was your nickname.

LAMB: … ”the laughter, the work, the friends, the joy, and to all the others who by some strange quirk of fate made me a supremely happy person I will be eternally grateful.”

MARCUS: You sound much more (INAUDIBLE).

LAMB: But you know what – you can just – you know that there are some people watching right now saying, oh, isn’t that so cute. I mean they’re in Washington, this is – no but I mean what I mean is this is heavy duty stuff, they’re spending our money, they’re playing politics and they’re all just buddies. What do you say …

CHAREN: First of all, neither Ruth nor I control a dime a federal money so they can breathe easy about that.

LAMB: But I’m talking about the internal, inside the Beltway buddy system.

CHAREN: Actually, you know, she and I are on – in all honesty, we are on different sides of the divide. I mean Washington basically in the old days I think there was a lot more cross pollination, you know. Democrats and Republicans partied together and did – back maybe in the days before television, I don’t know when – but when it exactly began to change but certainly in the years that we have been here it’s pretty much separate camps. I mean we don’t go to the same parties for the most part.

When Bob and I showed up at Ruth’s wedding, you know, there were people who looked at us and they just thought what are you doing here, you know, you really have come across the pond.

And you know as I say, our groups of friends are different. We get together as couples, you know, a couple times a year. But, you know, the milieu in which we swim is different. That’s just the way Washington is.

MARCUS: I agree and I think Washington is a small town. People aren’t ready to understand that. I’m not even sure that Bob knows this but one of the things that I’ve written about for the editorial page is about Fannie Mae and as it turns out Bob worked on an investigation – the internal investigation of Fannie Mae. I actually didn’t call him because I didn’t want to put him in a bad situation.

CHAREN: He doesn’t talk to the press anyway.

MARCUS: So but, you know, he doesn’t want anybody to feel obliged. In any event, so there are lots of sort of, you know, bazaar interconnections. But the reality is, if anybody is watching this and thinking oh, this is so cozy and so sweet, my response would be there’s just not enough of it. It’s really too bad that we live – you know we’ve lived literally on different sides of the river and, you know, the one party is in Virginia and one party is in Maryland and the District and it’s really too bad that there isn’t more cross pollination.

LAMB: Why is that, one party is in Maryland and the District and people who are not from here ought to know that they all are contiguous, they’re all together. Why is it they live that way?

MARCUS: Well, you know, people like to clump together with like-minded people. When my parents – when we were moving to New Jersey my parents wanted a community that had a kind of certain number of Jews in it. And I think that it’s just become grown up over time a sense that Virginia is a more conservative state, Maryland is a more liberal state, and everybody has sort of divided up. So much so that I actually did live in Virginia for about three or four years and I remember one of my editors calling me and saying this can’t possibly be the right number, you don’t live there. You’re not a person who lives there. And I enjoyed it while it lasted and then I woke up one day and decided I needed to go across the river.

LAMB: But the interesting thing is that the governor of Maryland is a conservative Republican and the governor of Virginia is a Democrat …

CHAREN: That’s true.

LAMB: … and the representative …

CHAREN: Teddy Kennedy lives in McLean, I mean there are …


CHAREN: … exceptions, yes.

LAMB: Yes, did you – did you pick Virginia because of the politics of it?

CHAREN: No, no. The taxes were lower and, you know, all those folks who, you know, are in favor of higher taxes, you know, wonderful go live in Maryland.

MARCUS: But you would not be as comfortable living in my neighborhood …

CHAREN: That is true.

MARCUS: … as in your neighborhood.

CHAREN: That is absolutely true. I mean …

LAMB: Why is that?

CHAREN: … my friends who live in Maryland, you know, will make fun of it and they’ll say, you know, they live in the People’s Republic of Maryland, that sort of thing.

So, yes, I mean you definitely – you definitely feel – I mean was delighted to learn that, you know, a number of people who live on my block are Republicans.

LAMB: Well let me ask you this though, you alluded to the fact that we’d be better off if we talked to one another more. Do you believe that, too?

CHAREN: Yes, I do, I do.

LAMB: Why?

CHAREN: Because there is this, you know – one of the great things about America is that we settle our differences peaceably. And I do worry a little bit about this tendency to objectify the other side and to treat them as the enemy instead of the opponent or somebody who just thinks about it differently.

LAMB: You call them useful idiots.

CHAREN: Well, I was – I was – again, that’s a …

MARCUS: It’s a quote.

CHAREN: … term of art, it’s a quote of Lenin and I was really, you know, I was doing …


CHAREN: … that for a reason. Well, you know, it was the perfect title for what I was writing about. But, you know, anybody who reads that book you will not find name calling in the book. You will only find the facts and you will only find, you know, say – you know, basically I was rubbing their noses in it and saying, you know, you were wrong, you were really tragically wrong, and it was important and so on.

But you can say that without hating people and without thinking that, you know – I don’t think the country is going to – is going to be destroyed if a Democrat gets elected but there are a lot of people who feel that way.

MARCUS: I listen to talk radio a lot as I’m driving the kids from one soccer field to another, which is a big piece of my life these days, and I find it appalling both conservative talk radio and liberal talk radio the degree to which there is just nastiness, and derision, and hatred, and disrespect for both sides.

And I think that look, we’re all Americans who want what’s best for our country and there are a lot of – when Mona talks about affirmative action, for example, I disagree with her and we could go on for, you know, another five hours about it. But I understand what she is saying, I respect what she is saying, and I think that the concerns that she has are legitimate concerns. And I think, I think that you can see that the things that I believe are worth it are valuable …


MARCUS: … attributes.

And this absolute failure of one side to respect what the other side is saying or even in the age of the Internet to even ever be exposed to what the other side is saying, because you go to your liberal blogs and I go to my conservative blogs and so how would you ever know what you thought.

LAMB: Let’s go back to the fact that the two of you are at the top of your game, you’ve got a column, you write books successfully, they’ve been on the bestseller list; you’re on the editorial board of the Washington Post and you write your own column every week. What do you say to younger people watching about how you get to do this kind of thing? How did you get to write a column?

CHAREN: My way was not the typical way and it’s probably not the best way to do it.

LAMB: Yes, but how did you do it?

CHAREN: How did I do it? I became involved in political writing – well I started at National Review, they taught me a lot about writing, got a law degree, continued to write constantly. That I would say is essential, you know, just write book reviews, write, you know, anything you can get published get published.

I was constantly doing that even when I was in law school. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I didn’t do so well in law school. I was doing a lot of outside writing.

MARCUS: I was doing a lot of outside writing and I did really well in law school. So come up with a better excuse.

CHAREN: I told you, you were smarter.

But in any case I think – then I got a lot of political jobs. I got a job in the White House. I worked as a speech writer. I worked as a speech writer for Jack Kemp and others.

And then I decided to launch my syndicated column because I heard about a new syndicate that was starting and was looking for new talent. And we just happened to meet up at the time when they were looking for a new, you know, some new talent.

LAMB: What was the name of the …

CHAREN: It was Creator Syndicate. Rick Newcomb was the president and founder and he had Ann Landers and Johnny Hart, the cartoonist. And that was enough to start a syndicate because Ann Landers was in more papers than anybody else.

But he needed new people and so – and he happens to be a distant cousin of Bill Buckley’s. And so we met and he agreed to give me a shot. So I went directly from nothing to syndication.

LAMB: And what’s your situation when, you know …

MARCUS: Well I …

LAMB: … how did you get that first job with the Washington Post?

MARCUS: Well I had done a lot of – I’d worked for my college newspaper and had a lot of summer internships when I was in college. And we both took some time off between college and law school. And I was working for a little newspaper called the National Law Journal, not surprisingly about law.

And the summer after my first year of law school I was an intern at the Post. And they wanted me to come back. In fact, they couldn’t really understand why I was going back to law school and …

CHAREN: I remember that – I remember that.

MARCUS: I was going back to law school because I actually really liked law school and wanted to finish it up.

CHAREN: One of the weirdnesses about you.

MARCUS: And so it was – oh, opportunities that came my way that if I hadn’t been at the Yale Daily News would I have gotten my first internship at the Wall Street Journal and those things build on each other.

And so I think you need to – what I would say to younger people or young people since we’re not even close anymore is you know make sure you make space for some fun in your life but also if you want to be a writer that means you have to write and it also means you have to read and you have to build up. And so …

CHAREN: Can I just – can I just interject something on that subject because I do find when I talk to younger people that this is one thing they’re not – they don’t seem to be as willing to do as we were which is I was willing to just get my foot in the door and do whatever I had to do to just be in the place I wanted to be. And National Review, you know, paid me $10,000 a year for that job. And you know I had to live with two other women in a one bedroom apartment and so on. But I knew that that was a great opportunity even though, you know, there was a very limited financial reward.

I hope people realize that it’s worth it, that you have to, you know, make that sort of an investment.

LAMB: We’re out of time.

CHAREN: Oh, my gosh.

LAMB: We just got started we’re out of time.

CHAREN: It went so fast.

LAMB: Ruth Marcus, Mona Charen, thank you …

CHAREN: Thanks.

LAMB: … both very much.

MARCUS: That you, this was great.


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