BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John F. Burns, for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen stories about you that say you are the best writer or reporter in American journalism. I know you’ve seen those. What’s it like to have people say that about you?
JOHN BURNS, BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF, NEW YORK TIMES: My mind goes to John LeCarre’s use of the word legend, which is a say a false identity in the intelligence world that is imposed on people for good or ill. You know who is to measure. It’s an entirely subjective thing. I don’t want to give any false modesty here but if you work for The New York Times and you have a ticket to ride around the world for, in my case 32 years, you know, you have a wonderful opportunity, an opportunity that is really unrivaled in the print business by any other vehicle that you could ride.
And The New York Times has sent me to certainly some of the most interesting and I would say probably the nastiest places in the world and I personally thrived there. I enjoy it and I just count myself lucky to be still at it at 62.
LAMB: Is it true that since you’ve been in Baghdad that your wife lives with you in the house that is maintained for The New York Times?
BURNS: Yes. She is the bureau manager for The New York Times. Sounds highly nepotistic, but I think works very well because amongst other things she is much better at saying no than I am, which means that we have a budget that’s under control. And you’ll understand as a chief executive how much that matters. It’s a very, very expensive operation for The New York Times that absorbs a very large proportion of our foreign budget.
We have a staff of a hundred people in a compound, a heavily-guarded compound beside the Tigress River in the center of Baghdad. And she takes care of a lot of that and she’s quite strict
So I think and I think she’s quite popular but I think that they appreciate a firm hand. And it leaves me free to worry about journalism and it leaves The New York Times assured that the ship won’t sink and that the money will be spent in the way that it’s supposed to be spent.
LAMB: Are you finished with Baghdad yet?
BURNS: No, I’m not. I’m going to go back until mid summer. And I will then go on to London to the job of bureau chief of The New York Times in London. I’ve just settled on this with my editor Bill Keller in New York, and I’ll do so in quite a conflicted state of mind. And I think I should be conflicted about it because the London job is a wonderful job and especially so for me, I was born and raised in England, a country which I left when I was I think 18. And though I’ve had a home there, a holiday home, a retreat if you will, for the last 15 years a curious situation that I know distant countries much better than I know my own. So I have an opportunity to get to know my own country.
On the other hand, I’ll be leaving what is inarguably the main story of our times and the main story of our times as covered by great newspaper and that’s a hard thing to do. But I’ve been there four-and-a-half years there already, it will be nearly five years by the time I leave, and I think it’s time to move on. I think all institutions need renewing.
And we’ll remake our bureau this year substantially, we’ll get new people. And The New York Times is committed to seeing it out.
One of the first questions I asked when I returned to New York, aware as I am of the very large sums of money that we spend there at a time when the economics of newspapering in America are not as good as we would want them to be a subject I’m sure that you have discussed with your guests many times.
But we’re in a phase where we are adjusting to the new cyber world and finding ways of new ways of getting our message across. I personally feel, though I’m no expert in it, that what will matter in the long term is content and as long as we continue to product content of the quality that I believe we do I’m not speaking about myself now but just reading The New York Times on the train this morning from New York to Washington it’s an opportunity I don’t often get. In Baghdad they do not deliver The New York Times. I do look at it on the Web but I don’t very often have the chance to read the paper from cover to cover.
I think we’ll see this through and we’ll see it through successfully. But in the meantime, there’s no doubt that it’s a time of some constraint and difficulty.
And so I was interested to know from our executives how they felt about the budget, the amount of money that they’re spending in Iraq. And the commitment is to stay at it. And I think that’s in line with it sounds like a sort of a company brochure but it’s actually true that The New York Times historically has made getting to the story, and covering the story, its priority. And on the assumption that if you get that right, if you get the journalism right, then the economics will follow.
And so Bill Keller, the editor of the Times, when we discussed this the other night, said we are going to continue to maintain the commitment that we have in Baghdad forward and we’re going to see this through for as long as may be necessary. And I have to say that that is, I think, a very brave thing to do because I know the figures and I know the strain that it places on the company.
Our company, like so many others, has had to lose jobs in the last couple of years very, very painful process. So some very hard decisions have had to be made, but this is the defining story of our time.
And this is my interpretation but I think it’s probably I think that the publisher and the editor would agree that we want to be able to say when this is done, however it comes out, that we gave a comprehensive coverage of the best that we were capable of doing and that our readers were informed in the way they need to be to make the decisions individually across America, and the Congress, and the White House, to make the decisions that they will need to make and our making about this war.
LAMB: How often, in your four-and-a-half years in Baghdad, have you thought you might lose your life?
BURNS: It’s an odd thing and I suppose I don’t want to get into psychobabble here but I think probably the psychologists could probably explain this. I find the war in Iraq much more frightening to watch on television when I’m on leave outside Iraq than I find it when I’m there.
And why is that? Firstly, the story is so compelling that it drives us onwards. Secondly, I think if you’re a foreign correspondent you’re by nature an adventurer, something of a high-wire artist.
So I don’t think a great deal about it. We spend a lot of money and a great deal of effort to try and keep ourselves safe, in ways that we’ve never had to do institutionally in The New York Times before.
But when I watch it on television here in the United States and I see the things that are happening around us everyday there was a bombing in Baghdad yesterday which is within I would say five or 600 yards of our compound a suicide bombing. I’m very familiar with that. You can have it any time of the day but most commonly at about 7:00 in the morning. We very often work through the night so in I my case I may just be in bed and there will be a sound like it’s doomsday. A sound that is difficult to imagine unless you hear it. These enormous bombs that detonate sometimes two, three in succession, you think your building is going to come down. The building very often shakes.
And one bombing in 2005 in October they did a triple suicide bombing of the Palestine Sheraton Hotels, which are very close to where we’re located, and it did very extensive damage to our compound. The last of the three bombs was a ton-and-a-half of high explosives in a cement mixer. The purpose was to bring down the twin towers of Baghdad these two hotels are 25-story hotels and be familiar to American television viewers. The Palestine Hotel, as the place from which most of the images during the war television images during the initial OF-1 phase, the shock and awe phase were transmitted and, wherefore, two or three years after the American Iraq invasion the stand-ups television stand-ups were done from the mezzanine roof of the Palestine Hotel. And there’s a mosque behind and they frame it so if you stand on the roof and there’s the mosque behind you.
Anyway, the hotel has been largely abandoned, certainly by the news media. There are very few people left there anymore.
But Al-Qaeda decided that they would have their own twin towers attack and they went for those hotels. We thought they would sooner or later. They got the cement mixer inside the hotel compound, 260 yards from my office as I measured it on Google Earth. And the blast is hard to describe. It’s just astonishing the force of it.
I learnt the difference between explosion and implosion. My office was completely destroyed, reduced effectively to a pile of splintered glass, and wood, and masonry. I had left it under the direction of our security advisors. We have we employed, as most news media organizations do, ex-military people in our case. Brits, they dominate this particular field at least where the news media are concerned.
And a tough former chief warrant officer of the Royal Marines had mustered us very quickly as we did what it was our instinct to do after the first of these bombs over a period of three or four minutes we’d gone to the roof to see what it was all about. He mustered us and got us downstairs to our basement. We were halfway down when the second bomb went off.
But when the third, much the largest bomb went off, which did very, very substantial damage to our compound, we were in the most fortified part of our building. And so I wasn’t in my office that was destroyed.
That gets your attention. We met within two hours. I had a meeting with everybody in our bureau and said, when they submitted (ph) final determination probably sometime last night that they were going to go for this target in this area of the city, primarily we think because there were American troops guarding the hotels, they probably had a default option like the atomic bombing of in other ways a vulgar analogy but I think Nagasaki was the ultimate target in August of 1945. They have alternate targets. We would probably have been the alternate target.
So would they have got us? And my judgment was that and our security advisors that using the same M.O., method of operation, of attack they would have got into or close to our compound. And that amount of high explosives I don’t think many people in our compound would have survived.
So we sit down and we redesign our defenses. And we think that we are relatively safe. But as I usually say to people about this, all that we can do, all that we can reasonably expect to do, may, if one had to quantify it, protect us say shall we say on a scale of a hundred about it gives us about 30 or 40 percent protection.
What we can’t protect against, we can’t protect ourselves against the random and unpredictable attack. First of all, the insurgents, as the American commanders say, a learning enemy. They change their methods of attack. And if we were swarmed by dozens or hundreds of armed men, I think that would be a very serious event.
There’s the threat of roadside bombs when you move through the city, again, very hard to protect against. No armored car is going to help you very much if you are hit by a hidden IED, improvised explosive device, if you are ambushed, as now happens. Happened two weeks ago two or three weeks ago when a young American woman from Ohio working for the National Democratic Institute was ambushed in her armored car, heavily guarded by insurgents in western Baghdad. And they tried to break their way into the vehicle. They couldn’t get into the vehicle because it was armored, the doors were locked.
They stood off and they fired rocket-propelled grenades at the vehicle. You have to stand off about 30 meters to be able to do that. No armored car, not a Humvee, is going to protect you against rocket-propelled grenades.
So there are plenty of hazards there but I don’t think many of us spend a great deal of time worrying about it. It is a risky form of business but we’re well rewarded. We’re not better rewarded financially than our colleagues. We are paid exactly the same, as I think is correct, as the correspondents who work in Washington, D.C. and New York City. We do get long leaves.
But the rewards are the intangible ones of being involved in a in a story of tremendous moment in drama; and of being able to make careers, also staying careers, past the point where the trajectory of many careers begins to decline.
I used to say that with the folly of youth I remember thinking that 45-year-old foreign correspondents bellying up to distant bars were a pathetic sight. I was at the time I had these thoughts I was 28 or 29. Now I’m 62 and I’m still metaphorically bellying up to the bar and I’m very grateful for it, for the opportunity.
And finally I’m sorry, it’s a long-winded answer about the question of risk I think it has to be said that there’s a great deal of difference between somebody who chooses to put himself or herself at risk, as we do it’s a voluntary thing and who is fairly well protected whether it’s a flak jacket and a helmet, or an armored car, or guards, expensive paraphernalia a great deal of difference between us and people who are there involuntarily. I’m thinking about Iraqi civilians who don’t have the flak jackets, the helmets, the armored cars, and the dollars, and have to face up to these hazards without these protections.
And finally, I would say and I think it’s very important because we are greatly the beneficiaries of the United States armed forces in Iraq in terms of their allowing us to imbed with them and cover what they do, and in terms of the security umbrella that they provide in a general sense, which makes it possible for us to operate at all. No American forces we couldn’t operate, we would have had to have left in a much earlier stage of the war.
And the American soldier who by the very nature of what he does, is in harms way everyday the combat soldier. He’s at much greater risk than we are. So I think it would be inappropriate and self-daunting for a journalist to talk too much about the levels of risk that he’s subjected to. I choose to be there.
I can go buy an air ticket any day and get out. I just I enjoy what I do and I stay there voluntarily. And I think that makes a great deal of difference.
LAMB: You told a story about being imbedded in Canada early in your career in Ottawa, in the Pierre Trudeau government, that led to your life as a New York Times reporter. What happened years ago?
BURNS: I was not long out of college. I got a break from a very good newspaper in Canada, the Global Mail in Toronto. My parents had my father was a military officer who had been assigned in a diplomat diplomatic role to Canada in the early 1960s. So I went to college at McGill and I kind of fell backwards into the newspaper business. I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do. I walked into a newsroom one day in Ottawa and said, ”I’d like a job.” ”Have you worked for the college newspaper?” ”No, I haven’t.” ”Have you written anything for publication?” ”No, I haven’t.”
The managing editor who told me later he didn’t much like Brits, he had fought in the second world war in a Canadian unit under British command. And he said to the city editor something to the effect of this guy is a joker. He comes in here, he has no qualifications. Give him a week’s trial. And I found from the get-go it was more interesting than anything I’d ever encountered in the university library.
So I fell backwards into the profession and not long afterwards found myself assigned to cover the newly elected prime minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, who was I think you could say without any doubt the most interesting person to hold that job probably in the entire 145 years or so of Canada’s existence as a nation.
But he was a very combative fellow, I mean in the literal sense he was combative. He was given to throwing punches at people who irritated him.
And during a crisis that occurred in the autumn of 1970, the Quebec Crisis when there was a apprehended insurrection in the Province of Quebec against the government of Canada, which centered on the kidnapping of a British diplomat and the kidnapping of a Quebec cabinet minister who was murdered, I chased after Mr. Trudeau one day in the lobby of the Canadian House of Commons, to ask if were true that a negotiated settlement was in offing.
He didn’t like the question because he was not somebody who ceded in the face of threat. And his press secretary pushed me back from a throng of parliamentarians who had gathered around him and fell on top of me in an overstuffed armchair. And it was because this press secretary later on became the Governor General of Canada, which is to say the head of state, if you will, or representative of the Queen in Canada, a chap by the name of Romeo LeBlanc.
Trudeau thought that a fight had developed. And as I struggled to get away from this, he threw a punch at me, which ended up on the front page of the opposition newspaper in Toronto the following day. The Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons suspended me. And I’ll be forever grateful to a member of the governing party, a member of that Parliament, who had seen what happened and went to the Speaker of the House and to Trudeau and said, ”That’s not what happened. There was no aggression here. If there was an aggressor it was the press secretary.”
And years then widely launched my career as a foreign correspondent the managing editor of that paper called me down to Toronto and I thought I was going to be banished to somewhere up on Elsmere Island. And he said, ”Clearly, you can’t continue to cover a prime minister with whom you’ve had a boxing match. So we’re going to send you away and we’re going to send you to China.” And I landed in China about a year or so ahead of the Nixon visit to China the Kissinger visits to China.
The New York Times had no correspondent in China at the time was taking the coverage of the Global Mail to say what I was writing they were printing in The New York Times. And I think as much as I know about it, I think the reason that Abe Rosenthal, the then editor of The New York Times gave me a job was that it was a time when there was a there have been cycles of this in the Western world when Western intellectuals centrist and leftist intellectuals were inclined to excuse what were the evident brutalities of the cultural revolution in China, the great noble human experiment as one China scholar insisted to me I would find in China when I arrived. And I found on my very first night in China I saw bodies floating in the river and I quickly became convinced this was not no great human experiment.
And when I got enough confidence I started to write very important lesson started to write according to my own instincts and to do exactly the opposite of what many China scholars had advised me to do, don’t judge China by your own standards, judge it by Chinese standards.
Well that left me if I’d done that I would have simply stood back and applauded the cultural revolution. You how much Chinese do you have? Not much. How much of China are you going to see or be very restrictive? Well, I came to the conclusion, and it’s a lesson that I think has served me quite well every since, that a foreign correspondent, domestic correspondent for that matter, he’s trying to put together a jigsaw that may have 2,000 pieces. And in difficult circumstances like the cultural revolution in China you may only have 25 pieces of the puzzle.
Not much to go on you might think, but if what you see is an amber eye and a black-flecked yellow tail, you can be pretty sure that what you’re looking at is a tiger. Which is not to say that you should you should over project from what you see but I think that you are more than a stenographer and that a you should try and develop a voice of some authority and say here’s what I think this means. It might be wrong, there may be other alternative explanations. And don’t leave, as they used to say in China in those days, don’t check your brains at the border. Take your values with you, your eyes, and your ears, and your values the absolutely basic equipment that you take with you. They can’t take that away from you.
And not only this has to do with how I got a job at The New York Times, once I started to do that it didn’t happen for the first year I think it caught the eye of Abe Rosenthal who was who was a little exhausted with some of the, if you will, rosy rose-tinted spectacle’s interpretation of the cultural revolution in China.
And he told me later I wrote a story about 1,001 Chinese officialdoms 1,001 ways of lying. And Abe had had a similar experience when he was a correspondent in Poland in the late 1950’s.
He liked it and he rang me up. He said, ”Come and see me in New York and I’ll have me a job.” And that was 32 years ago and I’ve been a foreign correspondent almost ever since.
LAMB: When were you incarcerated in China?
BURNS: I was sent back by The New York Times in the 1980’s just as China’s open-door policy began under Deng Xiaoping. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had died and it was the beginning of the process which has made China what it is today, an enormously powerful state. It was an enfeebled state under Mao and Zhou.
So I went back at the dawn of that reform and got very frustrated because we knew very important things were happening across China outside the cities but we were not being allowed to travel. So with a friend of mine, an American, we decided to make a motorcycle trip across China from northeast to southwest. And in the course of that trip, two-and-a-half-thousand kilometers or so, made what to us at the time seemed like the most astonishing discovery, which was that the communist party completely disappeared.
But the China we were seeing was a China that had gone back to something similar to what had been in the 1920’s where the traditional hierarchies in the village had reasserted themselves, the communist party secretaries had become largely irrelevant, where private enterprise was thriving, and it was a joyous thing to experience.
But we ran out of luck one night. We had to stop because the motorcycle needed to be repaired. We stayed in a county town, which I knew wasn’t a good idea because in county towns they have telephones. And the police are then able to pick up a phone and call the regional seat and the capital of the province and finally Peking and say we’ve got these two wild characters here riding a motorcycle, what should we do with them?
So they arrested me, held me for a couple of days. And then got orders from Peking, which has been a bit of mystery to me ever since, to let us go and to give us a dinner to welcome us to they said we regret to say that county historians said we were in Sichuan Province. And the southwestern Chinese said, ”I would like to have made a speech tonight saying you are the first foreigners who have ever been to our town, but we looked at the records and it’s not true because an American fighter pilot was shot down over this town in 1943 and he broke both his legs and we carried him out of here in a sedan chair. But you are the second and third foreigners ever to visit.”
So we went back to Peking and felt that we that we had had a successful trip. And six weeks later I was arrested and charged with spying and put in the central prison in Peking. And it was a charade of a kind that when you’ve lived in China and know something about Chinese culture was pretty recognizable to me. It was a theatrical performance.
But The New York Times couldn’t assume that because spying is a capital offense under Chinese law and they went through a lot of melodrama. They painted a big poster painted slogan on the wall outside my cell that the penalty for spying is death, and interrogated me through the night, ludicrously sent for all my notebooks from my apartment. And I have the most appalling handwriting and said you’re going to have to read these notebooks to us because we can’t read them. And I said, ”But this is a big farce because if there was anything having to do with espionage in these notebooks I wouldn’t tell you.” ”Read us the notebooks anyway.”
So I knew what we were going through. We were going through a process which would end up with their either finding me guilty in a court or, as has happened, after former President Nixon wrote a letter to Den Xiaoping, the Chinese leader at the time, on my behalf, at the request of The New York Times, saying he’s not a bad chap. And they woke me up at 5:00 in the morning and took me out of my prison garb and took me manacled to a military plane at the airport and flew me to Hong Kong. And that was the last moment I ever set foot in China and that was 1986.
Later on I saw President Nixon, who took great pleasure from this event. He said I said, ”You know it was extraordinarily good of you to do this.” And it was clearly the decisive moment. The ambassador had delivered the letter to the Chinese at midnight and at 5:00 in the morning, after refusing all other entreaties they let me go.
And President Nixon said that The New York Times had not always been his greatest admirer or friend and it had given him enormous pleasure to have been approached by The New York Times and to have been of assistance in this matter. And he had a good laugh about that.
And I have not been back to China ever since.
LAMB: When were you a tennis doubles partner for
BURNS: That was
BURNS: That was
Herbert Walker Bush?
BURNS: Yes, during my first assignment in China there wasn’t a great deal of news and the arrival of an American ambassador, where didn’t carry that title in the early stages but he was called head of the liaison office was a news event. So I went out to the airport and was chatting to President Bush, as he was later to become, when his baggage came off the baggage carrel, which included a tennis racket. And I said, ”Are you a tennis player?” And he said, ”Yes, do you play?” And I said, ”Yes.” So he said, ”Is there a court we can play on?” And I said, ”Sure.”
So this was about 2:00 in the afternoon. He said, ”4:00?” So within two hours of arriving I was playing tennis with him. And he was a very good tennis player. His uncle, as I recall, was the Davis Cup captain in the 1930’s and had taught him a rule which was written in every stroke he played, which was on service you lost the point if you were not inside the service box on the return. For anybody who knows tennis, that means that you’ve got to be able to volley and he was a beautiful serve and volley player.
I was, to tell you the truth, a pretty rubbish player and he and I went to the finals of the Peking Diplomatic Tennis Tournament doubles, two years running. Lost both times because of my debility and he said to me once he, as you know, is an extremely gracious person and he said to me, ”Godarn it.” It’s about the harshest expletive that the older George Bush would ever use.
He said, ”What is it with you Brits?” He said, ”You really don’t like to win do you?” And he was right. I’d gone through an education system where we were told that it wasn’t the winning that mattered, that it was, you know, play up and play the game. And I’ve grown up in a country which was in retreat after the second world war. I was born in 1944. And by the late 1950’s, when I was a teenager, I think our principal export had become self-mockery. Anybody familiar with the humor of Britain in the ’50s and ’60, Monty Python, for example, will know what I mean and it’s an alien thing to Americans.
When I arrived at The New York Times I still had some of this character in me. And one of my first editors of The New York Times in effect told me, you’ve got to be more assertive and you’ve got to want to win, that’s the American way. It wasn’t entirely instinctive to me. It certainly wasn’t in tennis with George Bush, who as I say, had to carry me through many a tournament, ultimately unsuccessfully.
But it created a friendship with him, long before he was a politician. And I met the younger, the present president, when he came out to Peking in the summer of 1974 or 5, as I recall. And his parents, we are pretty much the same age I think the present president has just turned 60.
And so he and I came to know each other as two young men about town in Peking at that period in the early 1970’s. And I didn’t see very much of him again until we met in Baghdad on his second trip to Baghdad when a secret service agent came to my huge irritation when the President was addressing troops in the Republican Palace, the American command center in the wings of late in his trip, which is a five-hour secret trip.
And because I didn’t have a White House press credential I’d been moved about quite a bit during the day. There was a traveling White House press corps of perhaps half a dozen reporters and me, and an AP correspondent. And this secret service man came to me and said, ”Come with me.” And I said, ”I’m listening to the President talking to the troops.” And he was very firm and said, ”You’ll come with me.”
So I followed him out of the dining facility, the difac (ph), where the President was addressing the troops, and was put into a room off the rotunda of the palace. And three or four minutes later the President walked in and said, ”My parents would never forgive me if I didn’t if we didn’t have a chat.” And we chatted mostly about personal things.
But I remember that I’ve been thinking about that encounter in recent days because I think that there was a brief moment in June of 2006 when the President had come to Peking, as he said publicly, to look Nuri Kamal al-Malaki in the eye and see if I’ve got a partner, if the United States has a partner in this enterprise in Iraq.
I think that afternoon he felt he’d found a partner. I think he was tremendously energized by his encounter with the troops.
I met him immediately after that and he was ebullient buoyant, flew back through the night and gave a Rose Garden news conference very early the following day, which I watched on television. And I think that the really believed at that moment that this was a winnable war, that a corner was being turned. Of course, the next six months brought that’s the last two months of 2006 brought an unending cascade of bad news.
I’m only intuiting here because I do not cover the White House, but I think at that moment, and perhaps for a few weeks afterwards, he really believed that the American trajectory in Iraq was an ascendant one. And it took some time for him to grasp just how serious the situation had become and to revisit that question as to whether he had a partner. And I think that the answer he might give now as to whether he had a partner or not was, you know, we’ll have to see.
LAMB: Have you been able to write in The New York Times most of what you’ve seen and thought about the Iraq situation or do you hold back things that we should know?
BURNS: It’s a very fair question, it’s one that people often ask us. I think I can honestly say that we write what we know. Of course, we don’t write, if we are given off-the-record briefings and we are bound by trust. As you know there are various gradations, there’s on background, on deep background, off the record. We occasionally are told things, characteristically would be about some future operation, some future military operation, which we clearly are honor bound not to disclose.
But I think I can say, speaking for myself and my colleagues at The New York Times in Iraq, that there is no truth of significance to our readers and the judgments that they have to make about this war, which we withhold. And it would be something bordering on the criminal if we did. And I think our editors would be very quick to remove me or anyone of my colleagues if they felt that that was the case.
We are somewhat constrained, of course, by the rules, that’s to say The New York Times’ rules about what responsible journalism involves. And they do not expect us to get involved in the expression of opinion. They don’t expect us to get involved in issues that are highly politically controversial. But there’s quite a lot of latitude within that. So if I were sitting here speaking to you what’s to say whether I felt the surge was a good or a bad thing, that would be a clear contravention of New York Times’ rules and it should be.
I read the British papers a great deal when I’m on leave, and they’re not nearly so strict about this. And I think that it’s greatly to our benefit as correspondents that we are constrained not to become propagators of opinion in the news columns. That doesn’t mean to say we can’t interpret or analyze and it doesn’t mean to say that it constrains us from telling important truths about the situation.
And it might be it’s probably worth saying at this point that when we gather together around our refectory table in compound in Baghdad, usually we have a full table of about 12, sometimes 14 people, reporters, photographers, our administration component, our security people. And we talk about the war in very personal ways.
We have not ourselves reached fundamental conclusions. Dexter Philcans (ph), one of my colleagues, described it as like a kaleidoscope that gets shaken up almost daily and you see a different picture.
And so, you know, do we believe this war is won or lost? I think the honest answer is that we that we don’t know, that the situation is extremely complicated, that it looks pretty dire but all hope is not exhausted. And if journalists are inclined to be some holier than thou or at least smarter than thou since we sit in the bleachers and now in the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt said, I think it’s also fair to say that if you’d sat at that table amongst us or at any similar table at any news organization in Baghdad a couple of years ago, you would have found a range of ideas as to how things could be done better. But there have been so many course corrections, so many lessons learned, that we aren’t any longer a fount of abundant, uninvited advice about this.
But what do I mean by that? Not necessarily that this war was a good idea, that’s not for us to judge, but that the situation is so difficult, or as General Casey said to me in a telephone conversation recently, so convoluted, that it is hard to see the options are so narrow that it’s hard to see any better options than the ones that are being reviewed in the Congress of the United States right now.
Surge and hope that you can turn the situation around; or alternatively, as the Democratic leadership would apparently prefer, begin a phased withdrawal. There are no evident other options to me, at least, and I think to most of our colleagues because we’ve debated endlessly. And that fully expresses the tragedy of this situation. Would that there were other options but that’s what it’s come to.
LAMB: Do you still carry an essay from a speech, part of a speech that Theodore Roosevelt gave that said the following: When he was talking about journalists, ”It is not they who are in the arena. It’s not they who share their blood, toil and sweat.” Do you still carry that?
BURNS: I do, I do.
BURNS: You know I don’t want to be holier than thou about this, as a matter of fact this is all about not being holier than thou, but I think the journalist, the self-righteous journalist, the hectoring journalist, the I-know-better-than-you-do journalist, the I-know-it-all-journalist, and the journalist as hero, it makes a very unappetizing spectacle. I think that there is an instinctive dislike of this amongst the people for whom we write and the people as broadcasters to whom you transmit your programs.
And I think it’s as well to admit, first of all, as Teddy Roosevelt says, that there’s a big there’s a great deal of different being in the bleachers and being in the arena. I think he went on to say about pale, timid souls or something. I mean he was a rambunctious fellow.
But I think it’s best for us to be modest in the face of these great and tragic events, to recognize that whilst we have the advantage of proximity to great events and to powerful and interesting people, that that doesn’t automatically qualify us to lecture people about these things from a moral or political viewpoint.
And I’m very struck, traveling across America, sitting on airplanes next to people I’ve never met or going to the Metropolitan Opera in New York as I did the other night, and sitting next to a very charming retired executive from Merrill Lynch, very struck at how well educated the American public is about this war.
And I say, you know, in terms of making a judgment about what should be done it’s a curiosity, I’m there living in the midst of it but I’m not sure I’m better qualified to judge this than you are because you know all the essentials.
The Americans actually know about Fallujah, they actually know about Sadr City and Muqtada Al-Sadr, and God knows they know the price that is being paid in American blood and treasure. This is probably the most covered war in American history.
So it’s just really a plea for a certain kind of modesty in what we do. We are not the story. Nobody has appointed us under God to lead and guide people. Our job is to try and describe what we see and hear as accurately as we can, to help other people make up their own minds, and not to posture and to be pompous and not, God help us, to become celebrities. I think there’s a danger in which I’ve only just begun to encounter because I haven’t done that much television in my life.
It’s a curiosity you can live on the front page of The New York Times as a reporter anonymously for 30 years. The Iraq war has put some of us, myself amongst (INAUDIBLE), on television quite frequently, on American television. Why, because the American television networks have drawn down their own presence as a matter of safeguarding the lives of people quite considerably and, therefore, they turn to people like me to appear on CNN and PBS and elsewhere. The consequence of which is that I walk down Fifth Avenue in New York and for the first time in my life people will stop me. It’s a very pleasant experience but it reminds me of the hazards of this is a very minor kind of celebrity, you know, it’s warhorse (ph) 15 minutes probably.
But the hazards of celebrity in journalism, they don’t mix very well. A celebrity journalist is almost a contradiction in terms because I believe fervently and it’s a lesson I had to be taught, it wasn’t instinctive to me in something that my first city editor told me when I first worked for a newspaper in Canada Scotsman, who by nature didn’t much like Englishman, although I have a Scottish name with Scottish roots.
And I’d been shut out of an education committee meeting at city hall or something and I was a rather, I suppose, presumptuous, young college graduate. And I expressed my indignation that I had had to sit outside the locked door all night and come back empty handed.
And he addressed me and I remember the word laddie, if laddie appears at the beginning of a sentence it’s like an Australian who says mate, if it’s the first word in a sentence you know you’re in trouble, if it’s the last word in a sentence it’s usually amiable. ”Laddie,” he said, ”you have a lesson to learn and you may as well learn it right here.” He said, ”Where the carpet begins you will halt.”
I’m not sure I understood then what he meant. I came to understand later he was telling me you don’t belong on the inside. Where you belong, it’s your privilege, is to be an outsider.
So anonymity is not a bad thing for a journalist because celebrity of any kind, even of the fleeting kind, can cause a tremendous confusion, a fatal confusion, which is to say that it’s a celebrity earned by the charming nature of your personality, or of your wit whatever, it’s a celebrity earned entirely because of your proximity to important people and important events.
It’s a very derivative thing. So I think it’s best for us to operate in the shadows of anonymity.
LAMB: Let me get some things on the record before we run out of time, go back over the list of the places you’ve been. We start out in ’71 to ’75 you were in China with the Toronto Globe and Mail. Johannesburg, ’76 to ’81, for The New York Times?
BURNS: For The New York Times. The deep freeze of apartheid.
LAMB: ’81 to ’84 Moscow?
BURNS: Yes, Brezhnev.
LAMB: And you trained in Russian language where, at Harvard?
BURNS: I did.
LAMB: Trained in what language did you learn at Cambridge, China
What languages do you speak fluently?
BURNS: You know I could tell you that I can speak French, Russian learned at school, Chinese, German but the truth is, if I had to sit sort of a grade 12 examination in any one of those languages I’d probably fail it because it’s become kind of an archeological dig for me now. If I sit down on an airplane next to I can speak French and German is not too much trouble.
But if I find myself on an airplane sitting next to a Russian, I’m likely to get terribly jumbled up between Russian and Chinese. But if I go back to one of those countries and I spent a couple of months there, I think I could probably survive.
LAMB: ’84-’87 you were back in
BURNS: I was
at that time it was Peking?
BURNS: I was sent ’84, yes, I was in China, which ended rather miserably, as I explained.
LAMB: Yes, and ’87 and ’91 you were in Toronto, bureau chief of The New York Times?
BURNS: I was, yes.
LAMB: What and then there’s a gap for me. I could find the ’91 I know the last four-and-a-half years in Baghdad, you
BURNS: I spent
were in Sarajevo and in Belgrade?
BURNS: Yes. I actually didn’t spent three years in Canada because I was sent off to Afghanistan at the time of the civic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which began a long engagement with Afghanistan that continued right through the rise and the fall of the ouster of the Taliban by American forces.
I went back to South Africa for the release of Nelson Mandela and the opening of the negotiations that led to that government there. And it at the tail end of that period in 1991 I went and I spent a year, give or take, at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York when I had lymphoma, a form of cancer which will be familiar to millions of Americans. I think that the time there were well, I think they told me at Sloan Kettering that there were seven million Americans who had cancer.
And I, not for the first time, my family learned and in danger of getting involved in controversial issues in American politics here, but I learned the virtues of American medicine. I have a son 25 years old who owes his life, having been born a very, very premature baby in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital
LAMB: How big was he?
BURNS: He was a little over a pound when he was born. He was, as I recall, a 26-week baby. And he’s now 25 years old and a strapping rugby player and freelance photographer who spends his time in Afghanistan and sometime in Iraq.
LAMB: You have another son and a daughter?
BURNS: And a daughter.
LAMB: Where are they?
BURNS: They’re both at that stage which people like you and me become familiar with when they’ve done their college educations and they’re casting about for a way forward in life. Which is think is more difficult than it was for you and I. Jobs were more easy to get. Both of them showing interest now in journalism which they didn’t they didn’t before.
So I had an experience of American medicine for which I’m eternally
LAMB: What year
did you get that lymphoma?
LAMB: So you’re clear?
BURNS: Well, you know, help me here. Intel, Andy Grove, founder of Intel, who I believe came to the United States from Hungary in the after the uprising in 1956, was asked in a BBC interview the very same question, you’re clear now. He had maybe it was lymphoma, I’ve forgotten. And he said, ”Anybody who has cancer should be wise enough to know that cancer and cured do not belong in the same sentence.”
Now for me it’s 15 years past. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this but it’s a serious warning in anybody’s life. And I think that in a sense you live, if you will, not so much under the shadow of it but you’d be wise to remember the lesson which is that realize just how fleeting life can be and to make the best use of your time.
And I don’t want to make too much of this because I think you can make a melodrama out of it, but I think it’s probably true that some of the best the more productive years in my career at The New York Times came after 1991. I can’t personally make any direct connection between the two. I don’t remember having come out of the hospital and said, you know, I’ve got to make due make more of my life than I did before.
But I think it’s probably fair to say that it would be odd if it didn’t have some kind of compelling affect on you. And the Chinese have a wonderful saying, out of all things good something bad, and out of all things bad something good. And I suspect that that, you know, that was a wake-up call for me that life is not, as many of us I think, live in the illusion that life is endless, there will always be a tomorrow.
And a year in a cancer ward or a year, or two, or five in the war zone reminds you just how fleeting life can be and how you’d be well advised to make the most of whatever talents and opportunities you’ve got.
LAMB: Do you ever write all this these thoughts down about your life?
BURNS: You know I’ve not I have not written a book and I have many friends who say that I should. I’m just not sure what kind of a book to write. I’m disinclined to write a book, you know there are many journalists’ memoirs which march straight into the remainder bin. And I think that one common element in there are others that, of course, don’t. I mean if you read Walter Litman, Scott Erest (ph) and the great American journalists, of course, they lived lives that were exceptionally compelling.
But I think it would be wise and I hope if I do write a book I’ll be held to this to remember it’s not the journalist who is distinguished. It’s not really the journalist who is the interesting character. He has a walk-on part. And that if you’re going to write a book, if you will a memoir which in itself makes it sound unbearably pompous of experiences, make sure that you remain always a minor character in the story, an observer, and a traveler a privileged traveler. Because I think it’s as I said earlier, I think the journalist who makes of himself a sort of principal personality in the story is at risk of exhausting his readers pretty quickly.
LAMB: John F. Burns, 32 years with The New York Times, on his way back to Baghdad for a couple of months and then on to London as the bureau chief, how many years in London do you expect?
BURNS: Well, I was very pleased to hear the other day one of the editors of the paper saying I was fretting about the thought that I was 62. My father retired from the military at the age of 55 and he said he used to say I went from having an air force of 60,000 men to having a lawnmower. It was very difficult for him.
I’m now seven years older than he was when he retired and I have 65 staring me in the face. I was very pleased to hear that there is no instinct at The New York Times for mandatory retirement. And, frankly, I think I’d be a bit vexed. I’m not sure I’d know what to do.
I sometimes say to myself, I say to my friends, ”God, I would love to get up in the morning and be able to go to the golf course every morning.” My wife is sage enough to say, ”One week of that and you’d be heading for Heathrow or for JKF.”
LAMB: Thank you.
BURNS: Thank you very much indeed.