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Churchill, Orwell And The Fight Against Totalitarianism

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Churchill, Orwell And The Fight Against Totalitarianism

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Churchill, Orwell And The Fight Against Totalitarianism

Churchill, Orwell And The Fight Against Totalitarianism

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Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Tom Ricks says the writings of Winston Churchill and George Orwell still resonate today. Ricks also discusses the generals serving in the Trump administration.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Trump has given generals prominent roles in his administration - James Mattis, secretary of defense; John Kelly, secretary of Homeland Security, H.R. McMaster, national security adviser and Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who was forced out after 24 days.

My guest Tom Ricks has covered these men and is going to talk with us about them. Ricks is a former Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post. He's written five books about the military and America's wars. His best-seller about the Iraq War, titled "Fiasco," kind of became the title of the war itself. Now Ricks writes the blog The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine.

He also has a new book called "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom." It's a dual biography of Winston Churchill, who led England through World War II, and George Orwell, who's best known for his dystopian novels "Animal Farm" and "1984." The theme that unites these two men is standing up against totalitarianism, Hitler and fascism, Stalin and communism. Ricks says their writings have a lot of resonance today. In fact, "1984," Orwell's novel about a totalitarian state whose Ministry of Truth has on its wall the slogan ignorance is strength became a best-seller after President Trump's inauguration.

Tom Ricks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write a dual biography of Churchill and Orwell?

TOM RICKS: Partly because I wanted to figure out why I enjoyed these two people so much. They're so different, yet they both meant a lot to me. They're both kind of heroes of mine. And also, as I was working on it, the more our world today seemed to me like the 1930s, which is the crucial period for both these guys. When they both say, wait a second, you can't put politics ahead of the facts. You have to tell the truth, even if it's uncomfortable, even if it bothers your political allies.

GROSS: So both Churchill and Orwell were writers, and they both actually started as war correspondents. I was wondering if you could read an excerpt from each of their writings, an excerpt that means a lot to you.

RICKS: There's a passage in the book in which I quote Orwell at length. And I think it's my favorite passage in the whole book because it speaks so much to today as well as to Orwell's own time. He went to Spain, the civil war in the 1930s. And he was a committed socialist, very much a leftist. And so he was naturally skeptical of the right, of the fascist, the nationalist side.

But he came away shocked to find that both the left and the right were not telling the truth about what was going on there. And this really determines him that his role in life is to tell the truth, to perceive the facts and act on the facts according to his principles. And it's striking because I think it resonates with today.

Here's the passage, his conclusion from Spain. (Reading) I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting and complete silence where hundreds of men have been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories. And I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written, not in terms of what happened, but of what ought to have happened according to various party lines.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, that really resonates with "1984" in which he writes whatever the party holds to be truth is truth.

RICKS: Yeah. And he's saying, no, that we have to preserve the ability of the individual to think for him or herself, to express him or herself and to keep records of history, of what happens independent of other authority, independent of the state or of the corporation.

GROSS: How is that resonating with you today?

RICKS: It resonates with me enormously because I think in this country, we have especially recently started putting ideology over facts. And on this I blame both the left and the right. The left and the right both have a responsibility to tell the truth.

I don't expect it of politicians. I do expect it of the media, that even when it's uncomfortable, even when it's not supporting your account, your view, your narrative, that the responsibility of journalists and honest intellectuals is to present the facts, to first observe the facts and not to suppress facts that disagree with your own personal views.

GROSS: So we've been talking about Orwell. Let's talk about Churchill a little bit. He was a writer, too. He wrote memoirs. He had early in his career been a war correspondent. And, of course, he made very stirring speeches that helped get the British through World War II.

So when you look at his speeches and his writing, what do you think are his most important contributions in terms of moving people or making them - you're strengthening them through words?

RICKS: Churchill was a politician, but you're right, he made his living by writing. He wrote and published 15 million words in his lifetime. That's a river of words. That's an avalanche of words, never ending for decades upon decades. But of all the words that Churchill wrote or uttered, the most important ones are the speeches he gave in 1940, which is really the crucial period in his life and I think the crucial period in Western history over the last couple of centuries.

1940, England is at war with Germany. America is not yet in the war. Holland, Belgium, Denmark and France have fallen much more quickly than anybody expected. And so there are a couple of speeches that Churchill gives during that period that I just take to heart, and I love. And I have read again and again. He becomes prime minister early in May.

And at the end of May, the British have this disastrous situation in France and Belgium where their troops are being thrown back up against the sea. The French are moving toward surrender, and the Nazis have just rolled over the allies. And several hundred thousand British and French troops are pinned up against the beaches of the English Channel around Dunkirk, Belgium.

And they managed to get out most of the troops, but almost none of the guns, tanks, trucks and heavy weaponry that's left on the beaches. And England has its back to the wall. It's alone in Europe facing the Nazis. It's not clear that it really can fight. And Churchill's in a very difficult political position. He's not trusted by his own party. And the Labor Party regards him as a little bit of an imperialist rogue who can't be completely trusted, but he stands up and he says, this is what we're going to do now. (Reading) We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

And then he describes something that's quite striking. He talks about where the fight will be. And he describes a fighting retreat from the ocean up to the mountains, almost envisioning how a German invasion might go. And this is probably the most famous words that Churchill ever uttered. (Reading) We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender. And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, in our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle until in God's good time the new world with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.

And there you have, in Churchill's dramatic rhetoric, his basic war plan. We will fight. We will not give up. And eventually, we hope the Americans will come in and tip the balance so we can win this war against Germany. That is his war plan. He basically wants to find a way to get the Americans to come in because then he knows he will win.

GROSS: Well, you've quoted Churchill. Let me quote you (laughter). You write in your book (reading) in wartime, people will believe the worst if they are not told the truth or something close to it, perhaps mixed with a vision of the way forward. When a politician offers nothing but empty and deceptive rhetoric, he is implicitly conceding something very close to defeat.

I'm interested in what inspired you to say that and how that relates to what you just read from Churchill.

RICKS: Well, look at the actual substance of what Churchill is talking about. He doesn't say we will hurl the Germans back into the water. He describes a very difficult situation and even, tentatively, the possibility of defeat. This is at a time when nobody wanted to talk about such things - what would it be like for the Germans to land? How would we fight them? Might we even lose? And Churchill is basically putting that in front of the English people in talking about their worst fears and why it's glorious rhetoric and it's vaunting.

At the same time, he is putting some pretty harsh truths in front of the British people and also the British political classes. And remember that the British political classes - especially his own class, the aristocratic elite - had not thought in these terms. They were talking, even as he spoke, about still appeasing the Germans, about finding some sort of accommodation. Maybe if we allow the Germans to take Europe, we will be allowed to keep the British Empire. And Churchill said, no, you cannot do that; we will not do that.

GROSS: Do you feel - getting back to the idea of empty and deceptive rhetoric, do you feel you've heard empty and deceptive rhetoric about ISIS?

RICKS: Yeah, and I think we've heard it for decades from both our political parties. I think I've talked about this on your show before. I think we mishandled 9/11, which is now some 16 years ago. I think the American political leadership, starting with President George Bush, panicked after 9/11. I think we handled the Middle East in the wrong way. I think we were correct to invade Afghanistan, but I think we handled that very badly. I think we were incorrect to invade Iraq, and I think that is one of the things that helped create ISIS. I don't think we've ever really faced up to the mess we have helped make in the Middle East.

And we talk about ending terror. And I was thinking the other day about this. Somebody and I - I was talking to a friend about crime in America. And he said, nobody talks about ending bank robbery. We talk about catching bank robbers, yet we talk about ending terror. And we're not going to. And so I think we have never really had an honest political discussion with our political leadership and with the American people about what we're doing and how we're trying to do it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks. And he covered the Pentagon for a long time for The Washington Post. He covered the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he has a new book called "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is Tom Ricks he covered the Pentagon for many years for The Washington Post. He covered the war in Iraq and wrote the book Fiasco about that war and that word fiasco tended to become the word that many people use to describe the war. He has written several books about the military and the wars that we fought. His new book is called "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom." Now he writes the blog The Best Defense for the Foreign Policy magazine website.

So we have several generals now in major positions of power in the Trump administration. The first general we had was Michael Flynn. He was forced out. But now there's James Mattis, who's secretary of defense' H.R. McMaster, national security adviser who replaced General Flynn; and General John Kelly, who's the head of homeland security.

One way of looking at this is to say this is pretty worrisome because - you know that old adage about if you go to see a surgeon, he's going to recommend surgery because that's what surgeons do? And it's easy to think, if you have generals in charge of major portions of the government, they're going to take us to war because that's what generals do. They fight wars. You know these guys. So do you think that's a logical conclusion to jump to?

RICKS: I do know these guys. And as you listed them, what struck me as I envisioned each is what a diverse group they are. General Flynn, I think, rose to levels above his level of competence, is a very naive man, not well-informed about the world despite being an intelligence officer. And I wasn't surprised to see him flame out very quickly.

General Mattis is almost the opposite of General Flynn. Mattis, who's now the secretary of defense, is one of the more thoughtful people I've ever met in uniform or out. And he is an example that goes against your surgeon's analogy. Mattis has publicly advocated in the past for a bigger budget for the State Department. In fact, he said to Congress once, look, you can either increase the State Department's budget, or you can buy more bullets for me because if you don't increase your diplomacy, we're going to have more fighting. I would rather have more diplomacy. Mattis is a very thoughtful man, and I think he's handled the job very well.

McMaster is from a generation after Mattis. McMaster was a captain in the 1991 Gulf War and actually led a cavalry troop in one of the key battles in the '91 war, which was very short but did have some battles, called the Battle of 73 Easting in which his unit attacked a much larger group of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles and trucks and utterly destroyed it in about 20 minutes of fighting. McMaster, again, years later, was a colonel in Iraq and did an extraordinarily good job in departing from this very clumsy, stalemated operation that the American military generally was enforcing and operating on in Iraq and instead took a new counterinsurgency approach that proved very successful and became the model for what General Petraeus tried to do a year later.

It's been sad for me to watch McMaster in recent weeks because he's a thoughtful man as well - more emotional, more big and physical than Mattis but an intellectual himself. He wrote a very good book, called "Dereliction Of Duty," about the Vietnam War and the failures of American generals to tell the truth to American politicians, especially President Lyndon Johnson. And so it's almost Shakespearean to see McMaster in the White House as the national security adviser faced with the same situation, in many ways, that the Vietnam generals had. And when it's his job to get up and speak truth to power, instead he appears, in recent days, to have stood up and shielded the president from the truth and dissembled about the truth rather than insisting on the truth. And I think that...

GROSS: Specifically, what are you referring to?

RICKS: I'm referring to after The Washington Post ran a story about a week ago saying that President Trump had blown an intelligence source in front of the Russians by talking about very secret intelligence on ISIS and about a very new thin bomb they had developed that could be put inside a laptop. And he had talked about the actual city where this information came from. McMaster got up and called the story false. And then the following day...

GROSS: He called the story that Trump had said this is false?

RICKS: Yeah. And then the next day, he got up, and he kind of quibbled on that a little bit. He said, well, he actually confirmed the facts of the story, but then said the premise of the story was false. I'd gone through the same situation with McMaster where I'd written a story about McMaster in Iraq in 2006 that put his unit in a very good light and him in a very good light about the work they had done in taking a new approach in fighting the war.

But there was one paragraph in it he disliked. He didn't dispute the truth of it. He just disliked it, and so he called me and yelled at me for two days over the phone in Iraq to complain about it. And I heard that exact same tone when he got up at the White House and called the story false. He actually never said what he thought the wrong facts were, but he basically was saying I don't like that story.

GROSS: Well, you wrote a column about this, and what he didn't like about the article you wrote is that you criticized his unit for what it did before he took it over. So you weren't criticizing him at all, but I - sounded to me like he didn't like the idea of you criticizing, you know, the military. He didn't want to break rank with that.

RICKS: That's exactly right. He specifically wanted to defend his unit, his regiment and protect the morale of troops who he thought might be demoralized by seeing the previous tour of duty that they had criticized. I...

GROSS: And you think that's what he's doing now is trying to kind of protect the president or protect the morale of the administration.

RICKS: Yes. And I think he failed to see that his job is not to protect the president. It's to protect the nation. And what I fear General McMaster has done in recent weeks by coming out and seeking to protect the president is not his job. He shouldn't protect the president. He should protect the nation. And I fear that through his recent actions, he has enabled President Trump to continue to operate in this very reckless, ignorant way. Now, I think what McMaster thinks he's doing is the best he can do in that situation. What I fear he doesn't see is he's enabling it to become worse.

GROSS: So you've written that you don't think that McMaster will dutifully defend President Trump for long. Why do you think that?

RICKS: It's a crushing burden to be in political power in Washington these days, and you see people almost lose their souls. I think Sean Spicer, the president's spokesman in recent weeks has been pushed almost to the edge of a nervous breakdown from his public appearance. And he's kind of lost a big part of his soul, and I think that's true of some other people. And H.R. McMaster is a man of great soul, of great feeling. I remember talking to him in Iraq, and his voice would grow thick. And when he was kind of angry a little bit, he'd rolled his shoulders as he talked to you, almost as if to loosen up those back muscles.

And watching H.R. McMaster, an officer I do admire, over the last few weeks, I feel like I've seen him come out and give up a slice of his soul a few times. And I wonder how many more times he can do that before he just says I am becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution here.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, a former Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post who now writes the blog The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine. His new book is called "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom." After a break, he'll tell us how he helped make General Michael Flynn famous. Flynn is now most famous for being forced out of the Trump administration after 24 days. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Tom Ricks, a former Washington Post Pentagon correspondent and the author of five books about the military and America's wars, including the best-seller about the Iraq War "Fiasco." Now Ricks writes the blog The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine. His new book "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom" is a dual biography of Winston Churchill and George Orwell and their fight against fascism and totalitarianism.

When we left off, we were talking about two of the generals in the Trump administration, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster who replaced General Michael Flynn. Flynn was forced out of the administration after 24 days.

How well did you know General Flynn when you were covering the Pentagon?

RICKS: Whenever you say General Flynn to me, I think of an Eminem song. It has the line, I've created a monster. I say that because I helped make General Flynn famous years ago. When he was in Afghanistan, an aide wrote a very good paper on how to revamp U.S. military intelligence operations in Afghanistan.

And I was at a think tank then - Center for a New American Security. And I said to his aide, why don't we print this thing? And we got permission from the two of them to print it, and we did. And that kind of catapulted General Flynn to fame. And so I fear that I may have helped him rise above his level of competence.

GROSS: So General Flynn has become quite a liability for President Trump. But do you know why Trump chose Flynn to be his national security adviser?

RICKS: In a general way, I do know how Flynn wound up at the White House, which is that Donald Trump is a profoundly ignorant man. And the people around him are equally ignorant. He doesn't trust anybody. He doesn't know a lot about Washington. He knows almost nothing about the U.S. government and, in fact, appears not to understand the U.S. Constitution. And so people who would kind of drift across his attention would wind up working for him.

I think he gets most of his information from television and from conversation. And I think he's very good at acquiring information from conversation, like a lot of people who are not really literate. He listens well. He hears well. And he remembers well. And so you see, disproportionately, he's inclined to hire people who've appeared on Fox News, which is a very small and dangerous segment of American society.

GROSS: Have you had any direct interactions with Flynn outside of the paper that you published?

RICKS: Yeah (laughter). In fact, I was actually at the Defense Intelligence Agency speaking to young intelligence officers and was in his office the day he was fired. I was with a group of other people who are interested in defense matters, write about defense matters - a small group, about six or seven of us. Rosa Brooks was there. Peter Bergen was there.

And we were sitting at a conference table in his office with General Flynn and some of his senior people, and an aide came in and put a note in front of him. And Flynn got up, left the room. And we found out later that that's the day - that was the phone call he went to get in which they fired him.

GROSS: So you were there.

RICKS: Yeah. And that was the last time I saw him in person. I had some email exchanges with him since, when I wrote about him. But I have not seen a lot of him, no.

GROSS: There are a lot of leaks right now about the Trump administration. You've written most leaks are institutional and not personal. Can you explain the difference and why you say that?

RICKS: Yeah. I mean, as a reporter in Washington for two decades, I was a major consumer of leaks. And usually a leak would come from an office for a reason, as part of some sort of bureaucratic or political fight in Washington. For example, the Navy would be in a fight with a congressman who is saying they shouldn't buy that weapon system. Now, the Navy was suspicious of the congressman because the congressman represents a district that has a company that makes a competing weapon system.

But the Navy captain in charge of that weapons program doesn't want to ruin his career by getting in a public fight with that congressman. So he calls me in and says, hey, Tom, let me show you the documents about why we bought this weapon. And I want you to source this to a Pentagon official. And he gives me several hundred pages and says this lays out the decisions we made, why we made them. Read them and then call me up. That's what I would call an institutional leak, somebody representing an institution disclosing information to further the interest of the institution and believing they are doing the right thing in telling the truth.

Personal leaks are much rarer - I would say very small percentage - where somebody actually has a personal antagonism towards someone else, where somebody is angry or wants to tear down some part of the government. And the only time I really saw a lot of those was early in the Iraq War and in the run up to the Iraq War. First, the intelligence community was very upset by the way the Bush administration was disregarding any intelligence that went against its view that we should go to war with Iraq.

And then later, as the Iraq War gets underway, a lot of senior officers were very upset with the way Donald Rumsfeld clumsily handled the war in their view and kind of almost walked away from it and said that's not my problem and didn't pay it much attention. And I get phone calls from generals who were just venting about Rumsfeld and were, you know, really seriously unhappy with him.

GROSS: Well, there are things that Donald Trump has said and tweeted that have antagonized the CIA and the FBI. He just fired the head of the FBI. So do you think - do you suspect that there's a lot of leaking now from within those organizations because they're - because they don't trust the president or because they want to, you know, get even with him for things that he said about them, for ways that he's denigrated them?

RICKS: I think - basically the Trump administration exists in a state of permanent crisis. So where the leaks are kind of both personal and institutional - this big leak that The Washington Post wrote about recently where Trump, talking to the Russians, disclosed very sensitive intelligence information and, perhaps, according to some people, may have burned a very important source in the war against ISIS, the terrorist organization. That struck me as both personal and institutional.

One of the big rules in the intelligence organizations is you don't disclose sources of information. And, by the way, you especially don't disclose it to Russians in the Oval Office who have cameras rolling. And I'm sure that phone calls have gone out the next day from Russian intelligence organizations saying here's what Trump said yesterday in the Oval Office. So I think there was a personal feeling but also a feeling institutionally. That's a very bright line you just crossed, Mr. President. You don't do that. And we need to send him a signal, and they did.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks. He covered the Pentagon for many years at The Washington Post. He's written five books about the military and the wars that we've fought. One of those books is about the war in Iraq, published in 2006. It was called "Fiasco." It was a best-seller. Now he writes a column called The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine, and he has a new book called "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom." Let's take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks. He has a new book called "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom." He covered the Pentagon for many years for The Washington Post, covered the war in Iraq, wrote a book about that war called "Fiasco," which was a best-seller. And now he writes a column called The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine.

I'm just wondering did you ever get a leak that you thought like - which - somebody gave you like a hundred pages of documents, and you thought, like, wow. I've just gotten this leak, a hundred pages of documents, but I don't really care - like, it's not an interesting subject, I don't want to read these hundred pages, I'd rather report on something else, but you felt kind of an obligation to follow through on it?

RICKS: Well, a lot of times people call you up and say, I've got this great stuff. And, you know, you go over and look at them. And it's like ho-hum or it's, you know - actually, this is the opposite of what this guy is saying. These documents are damning of his own point of view. I thought you were going to ask me something different, which is did I get leaks where I thought, man, this is really dangerous stuff?

GROSS: That's a better question. Now that you've asked it, why don't you answer it (laughter)?

RICKS: And, yeah, I did get those a lot. Have you ever interviewed Steve Coll?

GROSS: Yeah, several times.

RICKS: Yes. Steve's a terrific editor. He and I had a very interesting conversation about this once. I got some information late in 2001, and I decided I wasn't going to publish it. And it came out a couple of days later. You know, somebody else published a chunk of it. And I was talking to Steve about this and he said, don't you ever suppress information by yourself.

He said, you see, look at your business card, Tom, what does it say? It says reporter. He said, look at my door, what does it say? Managing editor. I manage, and I edit. Don't do my job for me. And so we frequently would have information after that where I would say, OK, I'm going to write up everything I have. And I'd take it to my editors and show it to them and say, OK, you need to talk to the Pentagon about what they think we shouldn't publish.

And I remember Len Downie, who was then the editor of The Washington Post on the first night of the invasion of Iraq, I wrote a lot of information. I said, I'm going to give you everything I got here. Downie came out with a big smile on his face and had crossed out, I think, eight paragraphs out of the 14 I'd given him, and said, OK, you know, you did your job. I did my job. We're not going to publish this stuff. The Pentagon's given me good reasons not to. But this is - becomes very routine, especially if you work with people you trust and admire as I very much trusted and admired Steve Coll and Len Downie to do their best possible job after I did my best possible job.

GROSS: Well, in talking about that and talking about how you and your editors tried to protect the U.S. national security, how are you reacting now to hearing all these charges from Fox News and from the Trump administration about fake news - and from the president himself?

RICKS: I find it enormously dismaying. I don't think President Trump has any concept of what truth is. I think he says whatever comes to his head, and then, like a psychopath, can say something very different the next day and believe both statements entirely, even though they're contradictory. What I distrust most about Fox News is the use of the word patriot.

And I've stopped using the word because when people call themselves patriots, I start smelling a skunk these days. I do love this country. I want my best for my country. But people who go around calling themselves patriots these days just stink to me. It really is getting on my nerves.

GROSS: Why are you saying that?

RICKS: I don't know. I'm kind of actually weary of saying it to you right now because I haven't thought through it. But it just - I don't trust the political rhetoric today. I don't trust especially Fox News to the point - (laughter) this goes back. I got kicked off of Fox News several years ago.

GROSS: As a commentator or a guest?

RICKS: As a guest. I said - they said why is something going on with Benghazi? And I said, well, look, you know, you guys are operating as a wing of the Republican Party on this story. And they didn't like that, and they cut off the interview. And I've been told since, I'm on a no-fly list at Fox News to the point, where once a Fox News producer sent me a note saying, hey, Mr. Ricks, I saw you write about this thing in Foreign Policy, could you come on the show and discuss it?

And I wrote back, look, I'm willing to do it. But you should first check with your public affairs shop because I believe I am banned. And he wrote back, and he said, yeah, I checked. Thanks for the heads up. And I didn't go on. I wasn't invited on.

GROSS: You must be wondering what's going to happen at Fox News now, especially after the death of Roger Ailes.

RICKS: I think there's a special place in hell for Roger Ailes, for Sean Hannity and for Bill O'Reilly. I think they introduced a feeling of thuggishness into American discourse. And ultimately, I blame that on Rupert Murdoch, who I think has done more to poison American political life than any single person since Jefferson Davis.

GROSS: You wrote a column nearly three years ago for Politico that was headlined "Why Am I Moving Left? I Used To Be Right Down The Middle, But America's Changed And So Have I." You wrote this when you were in your late 50s. So what do you mean when you said you were moving left?

RICKS: I had a lot more faith in America 25 years ago than I do now. I thought we were moving generally in the right direction. I thought we were handling race better than we had in the past. I thought we were confronting some of our historical flaws better than we had. And I thought the American middle class was really moving AND getting its just desserts. It was doing well. Since then and after 9/11, I have seen the American government panic in response to 9/11. I've seen us go to war on false premises in Iraq. I have seen us go backwards on race in America, especially since Trump has been elected. People now feel it's OK to say racist things and other things that used to be seen as too extreme to be in polite company.

And also, income inequality has really become a huge problem in America that we're not facing. And we have seen basically the middle class not move forward economically in about 30 years while the top 1 percent of this country has been making out like bandits. And I see, ultimately, our political system stymied and not able to deal with any of these questions, I believe, because of campaign finance - has basically made Congress unresponsive to the American people and more responsive to the interests of the top 1 percent. It struck me in the election that no matter whether Trump won or Hillary Clinton won, Goldman Sachs would win. And they have.

GROSS: I want to quote something that you write in your book "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom." And again, this is a book - it's a kind of dual biography and looking at how their political views evolved and how it was reflected in their writing and their hatred of both fascism and Stalinism.

So you write (reading) the fundamental driver of Western civilization is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter.

So I'd like you to talk to how that reflects on Churchill and Orwell and how that reflects today.

RICKS: That's the last line in the book. And if - I'm glad you read it because if there's anything I have to say I learned from this experience of reading and re-reading thousands upon thousands of words by Churchill and Orwell over the last three and half years, it's that. That's my conclusion - that this is the essence of Western society and, at its best, how Western society operates.

And it's - you can really reduce it to a formula. First of all, you need to have principles. You need to stand by those principles and remember them. Second, you need to look at reality to observe facts and not just have opinions and to say, what are the facts of the matter? Third, you need to act upon those facts according to your principles.

GROSS: Tom Ricks, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

RICKS: You're welcome. I love it.

GROSS: Tom Ricks is the author of the new book "Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom." He writes the blog The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine. After a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new reboot of "Twin Peaks." This is FRESH AIR.

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