BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: Marc Pachter, you’ve interviewed people for 25 years. What’s it like turning the tables and having to answer questions for the next 57 minutes?
MARC PACHTER, RETIRED DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY: Well, I just told my son, Adam, that it’s the first time I’ve ever been nervous on stage. It’s because, when you’re the interviewer, you’re in control of the situation and when you’re being interviewed, suddenly I realize, or whether you’re being portrayed in a portrait or written about in a biography, somebody else is in charge of your life, so it’s interesting.
LAMB: Why are you retiring?
PACHTER: I’m retiring so that I have another chapter in my life. I think of life as chapters. There’s a completion, I think, to my time at the Smithsonian. The Portrait Gallery is more than back. It’s gloriously back. This building is beyond belief and I suppose part of it is leaving on top. But part of it is thinking that if I just stay here until somebody pushes me out the door then I won’t have fun in another context, so I want a little bit of freedom to discover another phase of my life.
LAMB: Let’s pick the number five and let’s say that somebody came to the Portrait Gallery and said to you, as I’m going to, take me to your five favorite art objects in this portrait gallery. What would be the first?
PACHTER: Well, the first thing I’d say to you is that it’s not principally about the art. I would take you to five people that we are looking at and remembering and it would be about that, but it’s the way they’re portrayed, of course, that, so I’m not going to surprise anybody by saying the first thing I would do is take you or that person to see George Washington, the Lansdowne portrait. It’s the portrait and the person that, in the end, has become most identified with my time here. That’s because of saving it; finding money to save it for the Portrait Gallery, but also because I feel that the way the Lansdowne portrait was saved is providential. It’s a word I use a lot. I’m not quite sure why, so much, so I’d want you to meet George Washington in the portrait that defines the presidency, no question about it.
Then, when it’s up, the next person I would take you to would be Alice Neel, self-portrait, naked in her, I believe, 80th year, looking straight out you and saying, ”I’m in complete possession of myself and my life. This is who I am; you have any problem with it.” So that is, that’s my second one.
The third one, and it may have that same theme in it, I suppose I would take you to see Toni Morrison, who looms in an extraordinary image, which, again, is about owning yourself. I suppose if you ask me this now, which you just have, it would be in the mood of retiring and taking ownership of my life, so I would love that.
Whom else? Interesting enough, mostly women, Gertrude Stein in an extraordinary sculpture done by Jo Davidson, she looms there. She owns herself. She doesn’t worry what you’re thinking about her but she controls the space around her and the artist has captured that feeling.
LAMB: One more.
PACHTER: One more. Well, I’m going to bounce back to the Presidents and that would be the cracked plate negative of, photo of Abraham Lincoln one month, essentially, before his assassination because it reminds me, because I’m, above all, a historian, of the toll that the presidency exacts, even on the greatest presidents. He’s exhausted. He doesn’t know that his life is going to end soon, but he knows that he’s given everything for his country and I suppose I’d want a visitor to see that, as well.
LAMB: Who supports this place? How much do the taxpayers pay every year?
PACHTER: The taxpayers guaranty that we’re all, the staff is paid. Beyond that, the taxpayers don’t seem too interested, or at least their representatives in necessarily a constant source of supply for the exhibitions we do. Taxpayers also supply us with an acquisitions amount of money, but beyond that, the exhibitions that are the lifeblood of this institution, we need to raise money for and I don’t know that there’s a percentage, one way or another. I suppose we could have a great museum and not do exhibitions, but I would say the taxpayers are probably guarantying that we exist, giving us something like 60 percent of what we need and then we raise the rest.
LAMB: What’s that cost a year?
PACHTER: Again, it sort of depends on an exhibition. We are, ourselves, coming to terms with what it costs to do an exhibition of the ambition that we often want to do. We did an exhibition called Great Britain’s, in which we honored our mother ship, the English National Portrait Gallery. That exhibition of their masterpieces cost almost $800,000, so it sort of depends on the ambition, but on the other hand, we’re going to do an exhibition on great hip-hop figures and that’s opening in February and that will have cost probably about 200, 250,000, so there’s not cumulative amount. It’s what we’re willing to take on as an ambition.
LAMB: How about the every year appropriation from the government?
PACHTER: Well that’s, roughly, I’m going to say five million. I mean it, give or take, and then everything thereafter is really what we raised.
LAMB: How much of MTV do you watch a week?
PACHTER: Well, if that’s supposed to be a surprising question to the director of an esteemed national institution, I’m going to tell you, I watch it a lot and, actually, I find MTV to be kind of old-fashioned now. So I’m really very interested in Fuse. I’m usually in the next stage of what’s going on in the culture. I don’t mean that, I hope, arrogantly. I mean that just that I’m fascinated by what the culture is taking on, so what I don’t watch very often, and not because I don’t love it, is the History Channel. I figure I know that. It’s what I don’t know that interests me.
LAMB: What’s Fuse?
PACHTER: It is a presentation of videos and music today, but also has some bizarre things that they ask of their audiences to participate. It’s something that I think is mostly a cable channel for people in their 20s.
LAMB: You are the second person I’ve met that has never driven a car. Why?
PACHTER: It’s the thing that people who know that think is the most interesting thing about me. I’m not quite sure why. I, it has a lot to do with my childhood in Los Angeles and my confusions about a place that I’m from that I love, but clearly created the pre-conditions for leaving. I remember when I was 17 and I did, I went to Washington High School and actually a classmate of mine; Jeffrey (ph) is here tonight. We were there and I took driver training and I got a B, not an A but not a C, and was on my way to get my driver’s license and I stopped and to this day I don’t know why and I said I don’t want to do this. And I never got my driver’s license. Now the complication about Los Angeles, which I alluded to, is that you cannot live in Los Angeles unless you drive. I suppose it’s possible; a few people do, but basically. So it must have been something that I created to propel me out of there into another world. I don’t know why cause I was very happy.
LAMB: So how do you get around?
PACHTER: I am the greatest urban strategist you will ever meet. The, I know, even in Los Angeles, how to get anywhere, not by a car. I know buses; I know subways, metros. I know how to figure it out. I do a lot of walking, which I don’t do by nature. I’m actually quite lazy by nature, but I do it because I’ve got to get places and so somehow, deciding not to drive has given me exercise and a way of being in any city in the world and getting around, so I’m still pleased with the decision.
LAMB: What were your parents like?
PACHTER: Well, it’s a story that may seem sad. I don’t remember it as sad. My mother became ill with multiple sclerosis when I was an infant, maybe two months old, and so, actually, although I don’t remember it, apparently I was handed from aunt to aunt and so forth in that period. And she really never recovered. She was ambulatory through my very early years and then was consigned to a bed for the rest of her life. So my mother was an influence as an object of affection and care; probably made me prematurely old in the sense that I felt responsible for her rather than the reverse. My father, a wonderful man, and I said at this memorial service that I was; the most important thing to be said about me was that I was his son. I think he was extraordinary, but he bore the burden, it’s the word, of her condition, of having to raise me, of working very hard; he was extremely loving. He had views of what he wanted me to do in life, but he never imposed his notions on me. It’s funny cause I did an interview with Steve Martin about a month ago and, as you have said, I’m more the interviewer than the interviewee, and we grew up in the same part of Los Angeles, basically, and so there were lots of things in common, but I started my inquiry of him much tougher than you did of me in the sense that I started out by saying that all comedians supposedly have unhappy childhoods; was his unhappy. And he looked at me and before he answered, because I knew his childhood had been unhappy, he turned to me and he said what about you? What was your father like? And I said my father was loving and supportive and that’s why I’m not funny. But that’s a long way around of saying my father was loving and supportive.
LAMB: What did he do for a living?
PACHTER: My father was trained as a lawyer. Nothing that he expected in his life really happened. Because my mother was ill he wasn’t able to build a law practice, at least as he saw it. He wound up owning a store. It was called a variety store. I don’t know such places exist anymore. And he chose a part of Los Angeles, which, again, it’s very rare to find people out of Los Angeles from. It’s a part of Los Angeles County near Gardena, near Englewood, if you know Los Angeles at all, southwest Los Angeles, and so that determined where we lived and I would; he would always be there. The good news was that I always knew where he was so I could always go and check in on him and he on me, but I think his was a disappointed life which didn’t feel tragic. Somehow that’s what he managed. So he wasn’t a lawyer. I knew how much he wanted to have been one because all of the books he read was about great legal cases, so that was his hope and actually, I hope this is true, the only way I disappointed him and I think he was certainly disappointed was that I did not choose to be a lawyer. When I told him that I did not want to be a lawyer and wanted to be a historian it was like telling him that I wanted to be the whore of Babylon. It was almost inconceivable to him. Now, you know, you’re lucky if your child wants to be a historian or something with a steady paycheck and so forth, but no, he hoped I would be a lawyer.
LAMB: I know you’ve been fascinated with biography all your life. Can you remember the first one you read?
PACHTER: Yes, but it’s funny because I’m pretty determined when I talk to the people in a biography group that I run about the notion about what is a biography and isn’t a biography and I’m obscure the whole point by saying that I fell in love with biography through a novel and the novel was ”David Copperfield,” which is the most important book in my life and which is the story of a life. Now it’s Dickens transposing, transforming, transmogrifying his life, but the idea that one life could be the filter of understanding, at least in that point, an era hooked me.
LAMB: What’s the one thing you could tell us about your life that nobody here knows?
PACHTER: Well, you know, it’s funny. For a piece in a magazine that we have, ”Profile,” I was asked that and I said well, it wouldn’t be a secret if I told you. I suppose I
LAMB: It’s secreted tonight.
PACHTER: Yes, I know. I’m trying to think. I suppose it’s a secret to some people but not other people because I think I mostly say what I think and who I am and that is that I am, in my spirit, an anti-bureaucrat. Not, no, not anti; an a-bureaucrat and yet I’ve made my life in a bureaucracy and I even say sometimes that I have an anarchic nature, which I do. So I’m this wild child whose career and life and productive life has been within a bureaucracy and to this day, I don’t know why I made that choice. I think it’s because my mind triumphed over my temperament. My mind, my intellect believes in institutions. I believe that they are the way that you transmit values, meaning from generation to generation, so I committed myself to what I would argue is certainly one of the greatest, if not the greatest institutions in America, the Smithsonian, because the Smithsonian transmits so much that’s important. And it’s one of the reasons, also, why I’ve retired. It’s all connected, although I hadn’t thought so until you just asked that question. I’m retiring because I don’t believe that an individual should define a place or an institution. What institutions are are places that survive individuals and any time a museum or an organization is the equivalent of an individual, it’s unhealthy. So I’m leaving it as I entered it, in this stream and I think I made the right choice, but it was against my temperament.
LAMB: Where’d you meet your wife?
PACHTER: Oh, that was wonderful. We’re no longer married, but it was still wonderful. I met Lisa, Lisa Forbes, because I was a tutor in the honors program at Harvard as a graduate student and I had a wonderful tutee then, a fellow named Kit St. John (ph), Kristopher St. John (ph), and this was the time, this was in the ’60s, this was the time of Vietnam and I was going to the spring mobilization that Martin Luther King had organized in New York and I think it was 1967 and my tutee, Kit St. John (ph), said there’s somebody I want you to meet who’s also going to the spring mobilization and that was somebody he had known on a Harvard/Radcliffe program in Africa called Project Tanganyika, Lisa Forbes (ph), and I said sure, you know. Why not? So we met in the spring mobilization. She also brought along her parents and I thought that was so cool that, you know, her parents were there too. And I’ll just finish that story of meeting by saying that, of course, I took her number, you know. I wasn’t stupid and I called her back in Boston and I thought I had conceived just the, absolutely the coolest first date imaginable and I, there was some, it was the beginning of movies that started at midnight and, you know, and you went then and it wasn’t the ”Rocky Horror Show.” It was before that but like that, and I thought this is really going to impress her and so I asked her and she said to me, when I proposed that as our very cool date, she said that’s the stupidest idea I have ever heard. And I just fell for her on the spot, you know. I just thought how great that she would say that. We got married only about six of seven months after that.
LAMB: How long were you married?
PACHTER: We were married 19 years and it was the marriage of my life. We have two children. I have two children; Adam, who’s our oldest, and Gillian, who lives in London now. Adam is in Boston. And it was the right marriage for as long as it was the right marriage, but I still can’t conceive another marriage like that.
LAMB: So I guess we should just write you off for the future; no more marriage?
PACHTER: No more marriage, absolutely. What happened was that after the marriage ended, I went into that period. We were, I suppose, the sort of stupid phrase for it was co-dependent, in the sense that it was very hard to imagine each of us existing independent from each other, so that next period was learning how to be independent and then I kind of liked it. Then I kind of liked it so, no, I don’t think I will couple in the sense of being regularly with another person. I think I like my independence.
LAMB: Go back to the biography. You formed a group that studies and talks about biography in what year?
PACHTER: It was 21 years ago, whatever that is, ’88, was it? The mother superior of the group, Judy Nelson (ph), is here; ’86 and it happened, actually, again, as many good things in my life, because of the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian Associates, which is a, you know, the wonderful membership and program organization at the Smithsonian, asked me to conduct a seminar on biography and I did. I had David McCullough there and Edmund Morris and anyway, it was a fascinating discussion. It was almost an all day conversation. At the end of it, and it actually was Judy Nelson (ph) who came up to me, whom I didn’t know at that point, and said this was such a great occasion; can’t we continue to have these conversations. And so I said, well, if you can organize people who want them and so we started meeting and we have continued to meet. We have people doing their own life stories. We have people who have done the lives of Rachel Carson. We have people who are in the academy. We have Kitty Kelley, who is not in the academy. We have the most incredible variation of people and what we all share in common, and it’s a word I have never been afraid of, is that we’re all gossips in the sense that we care about the details of human life; and I’ve always said that that’s the core test for a biographer or an interviewer, for that matter, to like the little details as well as the big details.
LAMB: By the way, what makes a you did so much interviewing. What makes a bad interview?
PACHTER: A bad interview, modesty. It’s the worst attribute in an interviewee because there you have two people on the stage; other people have gone through, you know, and they’ve, it’s raining outside and they’ve come inside and they’re sitting there and they think it’s important to be there and if you think it’s not important, what’s the point? So, and so the worst interview I ever did; I hope we’ll get to some of the good ones, but the worst one was with William L. Shirer, who was a genuinely modest man. And here was a man who had, within six months, met both Gandhi and Hitler and, you know, I was, wanted him to talk about that and how he had managed that and he thought oh well, it was an accident and, you know, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That’s how an interview dies. So they can’t have modesty.
LAMB: So what are you immodest about?
PACHTER: I’m immodest about a lot of stuff. I’m not going to talk about what I’m modest about, but since this is about immodesty, I really think that because I have a combination of somebody who believes in process but doesn’t believe in it for its own sake that I’ve been a damn good director. I think that it’s a process of always remembering why you’re doing it, not thinking that the procedure is the point. So I’m not modest about that. I think that it was the right thing. I think I came at a time when I followed a great director and I, Alan Fern, and I really thought is there anything else to do? But there always is; there always is and you have to believe that. So I hope my successor is also immodest in saying oh well, this; he did this, now I can do that. So I think that’s one of the things.
Another thing I’m not remotely modest about is my dancing ability. I am an amazing dancer and I’ve always wondered; well, I mean, you know, you are or you aren’t as far as I’m concerned, so I, you know, I knew that from first, but I was on dance programs on television in Los Angeles. It’s another reason why this peculiarity of leaving Los Angeles because, in some ways, it was the Jerusalem of being an adolescent, you know, in the ’50s. I mean, except for Philadelphia maybe, because of American Bandstand, what could be better? So I was a great dancer and I’m very proud of the fact that at 64 I’m still a great dancer, so that’s another one.
Also, I think I’m a serious person who doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s funny, by saying that, I probably do take myself too seriously, but I think, I think I really believe in values and meaning. I use words that a lot of my friends find strange, like sacred, providential, I spoke about that in the connection with George Washington. I feel what I call the secular sacred. I feel that there is a deeper way that we connect with life. Some people connect that to a supernatural framework. For me, it’s not so much supernatural but I, and I feel also that art and museums are places of the secular sacred. It’s another reason why I think I’m in the right place and I was very lucky to have had the opportunities I have, because museums are places where people, again, it’s an odd word. They attend and by that I don’t mean they show up, which is a fairly good definition for attending, but I mean they attend; they pay attention, in a deeper level, to issues, consequences, the importance of life beyond the moment and I have that sense and I’ve had the opportunity to be in a place where that could be expressed in the physical sense. That’s another thing, that’s the thing that surprises me in my life. I would have thought that I would have been a book writer. I love words. I’m a; I’m not a bad writer. I do it easily. I may yet write books. I’ve done a few in the past, but I have found, to my surprise, that the physical reality of the museum, particularly this one, which was in a state of rebirth; the building, which is this glorious building, a museum rethinking itself has been probably what I consider the legacy of the spirit that I will leave. When I was also acting director of the National Museum of American History, I remember being almost proudest of asking questions about the space there; about getting the fountains turned on again, about when I was chair of the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian, getting the bell put in the tower cast. So I’ve surprised myself by the materiality of my spiritual nature.
LAMB: Why has the Smithsonian been so controversial in different moments? You’ve been with it for 34 years?
PACHTER: Thirty-three years; going into my 34th, yes.
LAMB: I mean, you can pick your controversy.
PACHTER: Yes, yes. I, there’s always
LAMB: Do you know it; do you know again?
PACHTER: Absolutely and I was in the castle then because for 10 years I was there, as well as I, I mean I’ve been in the castle for 10 years.
LAMB: What’s the castle?
PACHTER: Our Kremlin. The place where the central administration of the Smithsonian is and I’ve also been director, both of the Museum of American History and the Portrait Gallery at the same time, so I’ve been around, OK; so I have seen controversy. When I was in the castle and I was there as counselor to the secretary; by the way, that was strange phrase. In some ways, my father would have been first thrilled then disappointed that it didn’t mean lawyer. The counsel, the general counsel, who’s also here today, John Huerta, grew up very close to me in Los Angeles, actually, was the lawyer, but I was, I was the man who sat beside the emperor, the secretary, on the throne and whispered in his ear.
LAMB: Who was that?
PACHTER: Well that was, in various forms of the whispering, Bob Adams, but also Mike Heyman. And I would, you know, people who like me, I suppose would have called me Woolsey and, or Richelieu, and ones who didn’t like me, maybe Rasputin. But anyway, that kind of person, so I, and what would happen is that I would see the letters that the secretary would get and that gave me an insight into why the Smithsonian is controversial, because the worst problem for the Smithsonian is that it is too loved. And I mean that without a sense of irony. The Smithsonian is too loved, which means that people expect everything of it and they expect it in their terms. If their ideal Smithsonian is this and this happens, the Smithsonian has betrayed itself. And I remember those letters. The number of letters that would start, ”How could the Smithsonian; this is before Enola Gay, fill in the blank. And the one I most remember, just because it seems trivial but suggests that larger question is one that said how the, could the Smithsonian no longer show paper weights at the National Museum of American History. And this went into a, almost tirade which in the end concluded that the Smithsonian was anti-German because most of these paperweights had, in fact, been done by German Americans. They were beautiful and it’s an incredible collection. It had been replaced because it had a lot of things, but the notion that there was something; that this person felt betrayed that the Smithsonian had actually done this knowingly and by betraying itself and I realized then that we couldn’t ever get it totally right, which doesn’t mean that the Smithsonian does not have an obligation to displaying itself as a place that represents the diversity of not only American life, but the natural life of the universe, but it’s a hard concept. We are loved too much and if we are not the Smithsonian in your head, we have failed you.
LAMB: I found a quote in a lot of the material that I ready for tonight. This is from April 24th, 2002 in the Washington Post. ”I think Marc Pachter is very much in the camp of the secretary that it’s OK to commercialize us.” And I believe that came from a curator.
PACHTER: It was a curator at American History. It was actually the only bad comment in that article, so now I know what it’s like to be interviewed. But the
LAMB: And what’s worse for you is that I, the information was provided to me by some other (INAUDIBLE)
PACHTER: Because we’re honest. We’re honest.
LAMB: Oh, I see.
PACHTER: This was a time when the Smithsonian first took on the dilemma, which we still face, of not having enough money to do all the things that the nation expects of us and that’s fair enough. I think Congress provides us with an extraordinary amount of money; just not enough to do everything that even Congress wants us to do. So the question is how do we find the balance? Do we reject all money and simply continue to ask Congress for everything? That would have been an option. Or do we, and this was during the Heyman years, where this dilemma emerged, or do we find a balance where we raise more private money and find honorable commercial ventures. Now the interesting thing about commercial money, as long as you define that we are in control of the message is that it is the purest money that can come in. I know that this seems contradictory. I only mean by that that when you have business money that comes in, you can spend it on things that even a philanthropist would not want, things that have no sex appeal in the world, but is something that some curator, some scientist is desperate to do and that we haven’t found the monies to do it. So business monies come with no strings attached, as long as you avoid conditions that are unacceptable for it and sometimes the Smithsonian has not done that. So getting it right, getting the balance right, rather than saying we only have federal money or we only have private money or we only have commercial money. All of that is wrong. Getting the balance right is what the Smithsonian needs to do for its resources, but I would argue for its message in general.
LAMB: You’ve been inside in another controversy and I actually have no idea who’s in the audience and, but the name Larry Small will be familiar to people in the audience.
PACHTER: I’ve heard of it, yes.
LAMB: I guess I would ask cause I mean, I’m just an outsider reading about it but I wondered, why is it that a Smithsonian that gets about $400 million a year from the taxpayer
PACHTER: More, as a whole.
for the whole; more for the whole organization. What is it, 600 million?
PACHTER: It’s 700, isn’t it?
LAMB: Whatever, it’s a lot of money. Why would somebody that comes to work for it feel that that, that they need to take away $400,000 a year or they need to take away a million dollars a year?
PACHTER: Oh you mean, you mean for payment?
LAMB: Salary, for salaries.
PACHTER: For salaries.
LAMB: I mean what, how do you view that?
PACTER: You know, I’ve been in Washington long enough to say I’m not Larry Small; you’ll have to ask him. So that, you know, that’s one answer but on the broader issue, on the broader issue, the question is I don’t know what the right amount of money for a secretary or a, or a curator, for that matter, is. I mean that goes with the whole question of what are the comparables. Should people only come to the Smithsonian, and this is not a Larry Small answer, but it’s a broader one and I promise you I’ll get back to your question too. The broader one of the problem with institutions that don’t pay anything or very much, and by the way, it’s the problem with teaching as a profession and on and on; is that people don’t give people enough money to do it and then sometimes only rich people can do it, OK. You don’t want that. The paradox of not paying people a decent amount of salary in a profession that has this sort of either research or teaching capacity is that then only rich people can do the job. So I think there should be a reasonable amount of money paid to people. Now that’s before we get the question of an administration. For the administration, I think that the entire country is trying to figure out, at all levels, what is the right salary and the wrong salary for various things. We have a raging controversy in the corporate sector about what a corporate salary should be compared to Japan or Britain and so that’s a legitimate question. In the non-profits, we’re now in a universe that has made, asked some of the right questions and provided, I think, some of the wrong answers.
LAMB: Does it, just for a point of argument though, a Supreme Court Justice gets a couple hundred thousand dollars a year.
PACHTER: Yes, a public
LAMB: Official, but this is an institution.
PACHTER: Right. The, it’s not a public institution but that’s not it is and it isn’t. Here’s, again, this I’m a historian so I have to tell you context. There are many institutions, whether you could look at universities which are like the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the National, all sorts of things where the salaries are up in the range where Larry Small’s salaries are. So the question is, does the non-profit world, because the Smithsonian is better seen in the context of the non-profit world, have to have salaries that are either starvation or here or something. I don’t think that the notion of whether or not, by definition, anybody who is in this world should get more or less than the President; I don’t think that that’s the way it should be looked at. The President actually is a formal public service office. It has a reward after it as well as before it, so I think it’s of, it’s the right question to be asked, but it’s being asked at the Getty. It’s being asked universities. What I think the problem was, now to, really to get to this question, I don’t think it’s about salary. You have to give the right amount. The problem was the whole question of whether or not people from outside the non-profit world are the right people to get non-profits working right, OK. That is an idea that emerged only, mostly in the ’90s, OK, and not only at the Smithsonian. And I think that the notion that we need corporate people, and by the way, the kind of salary Larry Small was getting for a corporate person was nothing. So coming from the corporate world, you’re already confusing two cultures. It’s not that it couldn’t get on normally in the corporate world and I think this is what went wrong in that case. When they go to the non-profit or the public, they go into the dollar a year thing. People say you’re rich already and here what Larry Small was no doubt negotiating with the regents was a, what seemed to them a reasonable non-profit salary. I’m much more worried about the broader issue of whether people in the non-profit sector don’t know how to manage the non-profit sector and I believe we do profoundly and I also think, maybe arrogantly, that the non-profit sector is tougher to manage than the for-profit and that the for-profit should be hiring non-profit managers.
LAMB: Well let me ask it in a different way then. You, the man that runs the Federal Reserve makes a hundred and sixty, seventy thousand dollars a year and you talk about responsibility.
PACHTER: It’s not degree of responsibility. The responsibility, I mean of the President is
LAMB: Yes, no. My question though is will the public accept this kind of business for the future?
PACHTER: That there needs to be a conversation; I still think the conversation is about the non-profit sector in general. The nation needs to figure that out and to figure out what is a fair salary for that, for the public sector, the secretary of the Smithsonian is not, by the way, a civil servant. So what happens in those other universes? Let’s get good talent. Let’s pay them fairly. Let’s look at real comparables. What is a comparable for a Smithsonian secretary and go with that figure. I think that the fact that all of this was an internal conversation with the regents and the secretary turned out to be a problem that was going to explode. I think in the future the Smithsonian is going to have that conversation about itself with the public, but I don’t think that there is a fixed number and I don’t think necessarily there’s a number that is too much or too little, as long as it’s understood to be the right one for the right secretary.
LAMB: Because you’re an insider, I’ll just ask it one more way. Did Larry Small do anything wrong?
PACHTER: I don’t think it’s for me to say. Honestly, I will, I will say this, that Larry Small did one thing that I think was triumphantly right and one thing that I thought was very much wrong, which, by the way, everybody does in a job. These are; these are the Larry Small ones as far as I’m concerned. One is Larry Small understood that the physical plant of the institution was collapsing. It was Larry who brought that to general recognition internally and externally. And also, it was Larry Small, in the positive side, who recognized that buildings are as, are an important part of the soul of the institution. There, I used my language again. This building would not have emerged as triumphantly as it is without Larry Small’s perspective. What Larry Small, I believe, did not get was that the institution is only, in part, about facilities and not, also about program. I could not ever get him, in the conversations I had with him, to say when he went out and talked about the erosion of the Smithsonian to talk about our mission eroding as much as our facilities eroding. So he was on that one track and on that one track he was right, but we were in danger of having this, a place saved physically and not in its mission.
LAMB: Let me ask you a trite question, but it’s still a lot of fun. How many portraits are there in this gallery?
PACHTER: Hanging up, I would probably guess about 900. In our collection, we have roughly 20,000; of those, probably about 16,000 would be, we would call graphic, which is not to say, you know, dangerous to look at, but on paper, and 4,000, roughly, in other materials.
LAMB: The trite question is, if you had to go pick about half dozen of those people for a dinner party.
PACHTER: Wow. Well, it’s the right question because I often describe the National Portrait Gallery as a dinner party with history. Well, you know, for one thing, you’d have guessed I would pick the ones I mentioned in the first context and I would hope Alice Neel would put on clothing for the occasion but no guaranty. I’d take her as I found her.
LAMB: But as you know, a good interviewee then would go onto another six that we can have a dissonance.
PACHTER: There are, there are others here. You know, again, Charlie Chaplin, love to have gotten to know him better, Samuel Gompers, fascinating figure. People who are still alive, Toni Morrison I did bring up but, you know, definitely would want to have a drink with Toni Morrison. Hillary Clinton, whose portrait we commissioned as First Lady. I’d love to have a conversation with her in the flesh. Gore Vidal, whom I did actually do an interview once but that was public; I’d have a private conversation with him. Definitely a baseball player would have to be there, again, Babe Ruth. You know, I, you know, I’d want baseball there, I’d want writing, I’d want in your face people. I’d want Presidents who bore the terrible burden, but most of all I’d want people who owned themselves.
LAMB: What makes a good biography?
PACHTER: A biography is also written by an immodest person because the notion that you can understand another person’s life is preposterous. So you’ve got to take on that conceit and then what you have to do is you have to have an artist’s sense, it’s not about facts, of how a life reviewed in retrospect took on a shape because the person who lived the life doesn’t know the shape of the life. It’s only the person who sees it as a whole who can see that this was done and that resulted. Most of us stumble through our lives. We don’t really plan them although planning is what we do while we’re waiting for our life to happen. So a biographer looks back and decides I’m going to impose a shape on this life which is, which is deeper and more important a meaning for life than the individual would have guessed.
LAMB: The group that you have that meets, how often do you meet and who’s, what kind of people are in the group?
PACHTER: We meet once a month. Well, as I say, every kind of person there, some, I always start the session the same way. I always say I, we are all here, assembled because we are writing biographies, we are reading biographies or we are in danger of being the subject of biography. And that pretty much covers the range. Some people are writing their own lives, other people’s lives. Some people are only interested in lives like their own, women writing about women. Some people are writing lives that people would say you have no business writing about. You don’t know what it’s like to be a man. You don’t know what it’s like to be a professor. So we have every imaginable form of immodesty.
LAMB: Your friend, Kitty Kelley, is in the audience. What would you advise somebody who got a call from here and said I want to do a biography on you?
PACHTER: Well, I think Kitty would understand that anybody sensible would run for their life. But I will say that about Kitty, who’s one of our loving and self-supporting groups is that she is the most obsessed by getting the facts right of anyone I have ever met. Now the construct, the meaning, the shape of the life that she comes up with, a lot of us, even within the group, sometimes don’t agree about, but the integrity of the research and the clear need for people to read what she writes is manifest. But, as I say, Kitty is the one who everybody knows about. I, you know, I, she often honors, in the group, people who are writing for themselves or for a family. I think what I love about the group, and maybe here is the modesty of it, is that in that room, everybody understands that they’re each doing the impossible and that it is a support group as much as anything else. Nobody talks about technique. Everybody talks about the dilemma of understanding human life.
LAMB: Let’s go over a little of the same ground we’ve been over; born in New York, raised for how long in Los Angeles?
PACHTER: Yes, I mean born but no memory of it. Because my mother was sick, my father took me out when I was something like on so I have no memory of that. I grew up in southern California in the ’40s and the ’50s. It is the place that shaped me and it’s the place that everybody says you’re from southern California. I mean they don’t get it and yet I feel I am completely of that time and space, like Steve Martin. It was a, first of all; it was a time where the orange groves were really out there. Secondly, it was a place that was one further removed from the American immigrant story, so that when people gathered, you know, in little clubs and so forth, when they talked about, it was from, it was a Cleveland club, or a Philadelphia or a Pittsburgh club. It wasn’t a Poland club or a England club or something like that, so we felt that next degree of being American and it was the perfect place to be young and I guess I’ll evoke Steve Martin for another reason because I was so struck at his book by the fact that he spoke about what holy place Disneyland was for those of us who were growing up at that, at that time and place. Disneyland was beautiful and true. It was a and it’s interesting because my whole life has been the fight against artificiality and inauthenticity and you would say well, Disneyland represents artificial, but there was something very clean about it, literally. Of course it was clean, obsessively clean, but it was a place of reimagining things and you would go there and you would see, and all of us were, in spirit, Midwesterners. In my southern California, we were really from Nebraska and Kansas. Those were our teachers. Those; that was our mentality. Disney was another version of that and we were sort of rethinking America. We were probably idealizing it. I become even more passionate about America the older I get, but understand that the passion can be defined through flaws, but Disneyland was just a perfect place to be safe and young and to create a past that would build a future. I
LAMB: Why UC Berkeley and what did you study there?
PACHTER: I went to Berkeley in 1960. That was considered very exotic. Normal people went to UCLA in my day or one of the southern California places. I was already on my journey to more historical places, so it’s more that I went to San Francisco, essentially the Bay Area than that I went to Berkeley. Berkeley, I’m glad to say one thing about Berkeley, which I loved, which was before the free speech movement so it was Berkeley in transition, but I want to describe my first hour of my first day at Berkeley and that will define why I love the place. My professor was Jacobus tenBroek. He was a blind man, quite famous as a lawyer. He had fought the case against Japanese internment in the Supreme Court of California and we sat in our desks terrified that first day. He forced us to sit in rows and we were never to leave because he couldn’t see where we were moving and he had a card and he would flip the cards and suddenly would come upon our name and then ask us the toughest questions. We would have been told to read Plato the day before or something like that and he would ask us a question. We would be confused in our answer and he would clean up our minds. So I had my mind cleaned and ordered and ready to go from that first hour of the first day. Berkeley made me lucid and I’ll never forget that. And I also got to sing carols on the cable cars going up and down the hills. I had the most wonderful college experience. And then, just to wrap it up, my, the junior year, junior year I went to Europe and I discovered I was American. It’s sort of a building story in my life because the thing is, when you find on your first significant trip that everybody isn’t American, you know, it dazzled me that everybody wasn’t American, you know. I just couldn’t get over it and so I thought well then there’s nothing automatic about being American. It’s its own construct and so I came back and my senior, and I’ll always bless Harvard for this, I wrote an essay explaining to Harvard cause I decided I needed to go into American History. I was in political science. I’d never taken a history course in my life and I wrote an essay to Harvard, Harvard History, saying why I needed to go to Harvard History even though I’d never taken a history course. That must have been a hell of an essay. I’ve never been able to find it. I got a five-year prized fellowship to Harvard in American History and then I went there and began my life as a professional historian. I’ve never looked back.
LAMB: So where do you want to live for the rest of your life and what do you want to do?
PACHTER: The partial answer will always be Australia. Another thing that surprises people about me; they don’t automatically assume that I would say that. I will always have Australia in my life. I’m going to go there for two months after retiring and I will continue to go there two months. The reason for that is that Australia is America through the looking glass. It started out with comparable kinds of conditions and yet very different conditions. We had a country that was rich. They had a country that killed their Lewis and Clark. It’s sort of the opposite but pre-conditions are the same, so Australia will be part of my life. Another part of my life will be Scotland, which is another place that I, particularly Edinborough that, and it’s, the reason you fall in love. You never know why, exactly, you fall in love. And the third place, when I’m not in America, and America will always be my home, is Berlin. So whatever it is in me that needs completion or expression that has not entirely been satisfied now will happen here, Australia, Scotland and Berlin.
LAMB: Will you write a biography?
PACHTER: I’ve always been afraid to write a biography, not so much because, because we know already I’m immodest, I don’t think I could but because I haven’t found a life that I wanted to be married to for the five to six years that’s necessary, so I’m probably going to write about life-telling, as I have done in the past, but I’ll probably never write a biography.
LAMB: If you had to do this all over again, would you change anything?
PACHTER: I think I did the right thing in letting my will triumph over my temperament so I think I would have done again the course I did, but I’m not sure about that other person. I think, I think the person is I have an artistic temperament without the talent to being an artist, so I think I’m really lucky that I chose the path I did.
LAMB: One last question, now that you’re about to leave Washington, what do you really think of the place?
PACHTER: I’ve never liked Washington. From the first, I’ve made a home here. It’s given me the greatest job I could have imagined and I understand that it’s Washington that did that. I’ll never forget something that Lisa (ph) and I, when we moved here. She turned to me after the year that we had been here and we both felt discomfited by this place, never unwelcome, never entirely unhappy, but discomfited and she said to me, Marc, you know the problem with Washington for us. And I said, Lisa (ph), I’ve been waiting for you to tell me and I meant that seriously because I knew she would put her finger on it and she said it lacks a sense of healing irony. This is a very literal place and I don’t know how to describe it otherwise and I’m ironical, so the fit with Washington as an environment is probably not perfect, but the opportunities that Washington gave me, I’ll always be grateful for.
LAMB: How’d you like being interviewed?
PACHTER: It’s great. I’m going to; I still prefer to be the interviewer though.
LAMB: Thank you, Marc Pachter.
PACHTER: Thank you.
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