Leonard Pitts Looks 'Forward From This Moment'

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts has written about everything from the tragedy of September 11th to the death of Michael Jackson. He has collected a selection of his columns in a book, Forward From This Moment.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In the past few weeks, Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote columns on human rights abuses in the Obama administration, the life and death of Michael Jackson, the strange politics of tea parties and why we need a history lesson on Nazis. Whatever is driving the engine of American life - children and family, race, politics, religion, celebrity - you can expect to read all about it in Pitts's column, syndicated by the Miami Herald to more than 200 papers, large and small, across the country. Fifteen years of 800-word observations is collected in a new book titled, "Forward From This Moment." The title is taken from a column published immediately after 9/11. It was singled out by the Pulitzer committee when it honored Leonard Pitts with the 2004 award for commentary.

Later in the hour, we'll hear excerpts from two remembrances of Senator Edward Kennedy from this past weekend. But first, Leonard Pitts Jr. joins us to talk about the life of a columnist. And we want to hear from you. Have questions for Leonard Pitts about his columns or his life? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Leonard Pitts Jr., with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on, as always.

Mr. LEONARD PITTS JR. (Author, ""Forward From This Moment"): Nice to be on. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: How do you start your day - start the process of how to decide what you're going to write about?

Mr. PITTS JR.: Well, you try to find something that will not leave you alone emotionally. I think that a lot of people think to simply look for what's in the news or what people are talking about, which is not necessarily the case -at least for me.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PITTS JR.: I need to have something that I have some kind of personal and also intellectual investment in talking about before a tour of sitting down and spend the time to actually spin out a column on it.

CONAN: But that emotion part, is - that's the key?

Mr. PITTS JR.: Yeah, that's - I've got to care. In other words, it can't be just something that's important, quote-unquote; it can't be just something that people are talking about, has to be something about which I have some sort of, again, investment in…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PITTS JR.: …some sort of - that I bring something to the table beyond just the ability to analyze it.

CONAN: You write a lot of great leads - one of most revealing, though, was one where you said, you know, mused on the fact at whether you could get a column out of being 50…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PITTS JR.: Well, of course I can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PITTS JR.: That was probably a little too much truth, but yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So, you've got the topic. What next?

Mr. PITTS JR.: Then you try to figure out how you're going to attack it. What is it, exactly, that you're trying to say? It doesn't really make a lot of sense to write a column if you're going to say the same thing everybody else is saying, the same way everybody else is saying it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PITTS JR.: You've got to be unique in one or preferably both of those regards. So, you got to figure out what it is that you're going to say and what approach you're going to take. Are you going to use sarcasm, which happens to be one of my personal favorites.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PITTS JR.: Are you going to be sort of direct and analytical? Are you going to go for the emotional punch? Are you going to use humor, you know, etc., etc.. You got all these different approaches - all these different approaches that are open to you, and then it sort of flows from there. You know, what's the lead, what are the main points that I want to hit. And how can I get out of this very, you know - what's the strongest way to get out of it.

CONAN: If you're trying to say something different from what everybody else has said, it requires you to read what everybody else is saying.

Mr. PITTS JR.: Yeah, you've got to do a lot of research. I don't read other columnists so much to see what they're saying. As a matter of fact, if I know that a columnist is writing about the same topic I'm planning to write about, I probably won't read his or her column that particular week, just because I don't want their thoughts to become my thoughts.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. PITTS JR.: But just in terms of, you know, the things that you hear on television or the things that you hear, you know, in the supermarket checkout line, you want to try to not be saying exactly the same thing that everybody else is saying.

CONAN: And there's several, once you've read, you know, a collection of columns like this, you can see several, you know, tropes that you use regularly - the open ladder to the response to the angry emails.

Mr. PITTS JR.: Yeah. Those are becoming just my trademarks, for better and for worse. I never wanted to - I somehow got into the thing of responding to the angry emails. It wasn't something that I wanted to become one of my tropes, but there's just something about me that won't let it go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PITTS JR.: When people respond. I don't mind if they respond angrily. I don't mind if they disagree. But when they respond with something that is so outlandish that it just defies, you know, description, then that's something that is usually going to get a rise out of me.

CONAN: We're talking with Leonard Pitts about the collection of his columns just out, it's called "Forward From This Moment: Selected Columns, 1994-2009." Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Doug(ph). Doug with us from Murphys in California.

DOUG (Caller): Mr. Pitts, I am a great admirer of yours. We get your column semi-weekly in the Stockton Record, and you've almost answered my question with your last comments about negative responses. But you've always been so courageous and gone ahead. What about the other side? How many responses do you get to say right on, go at it.

Mr. PITTS JR.: Depends on the column, and I suspect that it's - the percentage is declining somewhat in the last few years. But generally I can depend on anywhere from 60 to 70 percent favorable on a column, which is one of the reasons that I'm kind of concerned about the fact that I've become known for responding to the angry ones, because I think it gives more weight to them or makes people think that I get more punishment than I do. I get a lot of praise from some very generous people. It's just that the stuff that people say that's negative and that's really extreme, sticks out. The…

CONAN: Also, it's hard to write a column - another person who really liked me was…

Mr. PITTS JR.: Yeah, exactly. I remember when the - you mentioned the September 11 column "We'll Go Forward From This Moment," which I got overwhelming response, 30,000 emails, and there must have been four or five in that 30,000 that were negative. But the only one I can quote is the one that said Osama Bin Laden has just shown that a single pin can take out a roomful of balloons.

CONAN: Oh.

Mr. PITTS JR.: You know, that one is the one - I mean, I appreciated all the very positive and all the very favorable ones, but the only one I can quote eight years later is that - that individual because that struck me as just so outrageous in the context at that moment.

DOUG: Well, all the praise you get is richly deserved.

Mr. PITTS JR.: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.

DOUG: Very well indeed.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Doug. You said the percentage is going down, you fear. Why?

Mr. PITTS JR.: I think that particularly in this last year or two, it just seems a lot more strident. And again, I've - I go - this is just a gut thing that comes from my reading of my email and talking to my readers, but there just seems much more stridency and much more polarization on pretty much anything that you want to argue. And I think a large part of that is because for some people, Barack Obama is a polarizing figure, and of course, George W. Bush was a polarizing figure. There's almost - I sense that middle ground is shrinking like the ice caps, we'll put it like that.

CONAN: Yeah, but you just had the experience of going back and reading some of your columns from the '90s, and some of them are about how polarizing a figure Bill Clinton is.

Mr. PITTS JR.: Yeah, that's true. That's true. I think that, but then, you know, when Bill Clinton was president, I also thought that a crisis was the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PITTS JR.: …I have come to find out, you know, one semi-depression or recession or whatever it is later and a terrorist attack later, etc., etc., what a crisis really is. So I think everything is viewed in the context of the times that you're living them.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we get another caller in, and we'll go to Gary. Gary with us from Buffalo, New York.

GARY (Caller): Hello, Mr. Pitts.

Mr. PITTS JR.: Hi, Gary.

GARY: Hi. You know, I had - but first let me say it's an honor to speak with you. You are my favorite columnist and I'd - have a comment, not a question. And I sent you an email about this recently. One thing I greatly admire is your ability not to demonize, because a demonization is one of those things that has poisoned political debate in this country. So, all I can say is keep up the good work. You're thought-provoking and frequently, I share your columns with my classes so that we can get discussions generated. And thank you.

Mr. PITTS JR.: Thank you, Gary. It's funny you should say that, because that's one of the things that I've always prided myself on and one of the things that I fear, you know, losing - is the ability to have discussions about polarizing things without demonizing the people who disagree with you. But you know, when we're talking about death panels and things that are just so absurd, it's - that's what I'm getting at - it's just becoming more and more difficult to try to have that civil discussion when, you know, civil discussion requires two sides. And when you're missing that second side, it's just getting - it's difficult. And it doesn't trouble me so much for me, for - as a columnist, it troubles me for whatever it says about us as American people.

GARY: I agree. All the praise of Senator Kennedy recently, coming from both sides of the political spectrum, was heartening because as I said to a friend, that's the America I want to live in.

Mr. PITTS: Exactly. Liberal, conservative, to me it doesn't matter at the end of the day. At the end of the day, I want to be remembered, you know, for being somewhat like - or to get that same kind of praise that Senator Kennedy got. To me, that's the ideal.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much.

GARY: Thank you.

CONAN: We got a call from a woman who was driving and could not pull over to make the call, but she wanted to ask you about an open letter you wrote to someone who plagiarized you.

Mr. PITTS: That would be the column that I wrote to Chris Cecil, who was an individual who worked at a small newspaper in Georgia, and that column was born when I got an email from a reader of mine who said that you might want to check this guy out. There's a line or two of his latest column that's very similar to yours.

And I looked at the paper's email, and indeed it was, and I did a little further research and found out that this gentleman had been very industrious in plagiarizing me. Over two months, he'd done about - he'd taken about eight columns, and this included one column that he didn't take lines from, he took the actual column itself.

CONAN: The whole thing.

Mr. PITTS: Word for word. The only change that he made was, I believe there was a line in the column that said as an African-American; and he wrote as someone who proudly shares the community with many African-Americans. That was pretty much the substance, or the whole sum of the changes that he made.

So that was one of the open-letter columns. I wrote an open letter to him, explaining - I think the lead was: Dear Chris Cecil, this is how you write a newspaper column because, apparently, you know, he didn't have a clue.

Plagiarism, and more broadly, this whole idea that we seem to be embracing -some of us in our society - that you can cheat your way to the top, and it doesn't matter, and it's the same as if you'd worked your way there, is one of my pet peeves. I happen to believe in, you know, working your way for whatever it is that you've got or wherever it is that you've managed to achieve.

CONAN: And you got your column. I mean, it's one of the great soap boxes in America but nevertheless, you got it after, well, you write, being burned out as a music critic.

Mr. PITTS: I spent many - I spent 18 years as a music critic. I tell kids I went from Barry Manilow, "I Write the Songs," to Snoop Dogg: rolling down the street, smoking indo, sipping on gin and juice - which for those of you who don't speak music lyrically, say, is roughly 1976 to 1993 or 4. And if the old axiom is true, that the average lifespan of a music act is five years, I was working on my fourth lifetime.

CONAN: Do you ever miss it?

Mr. PITTS: No. At the end, frankly, I felt like I was working - I started out working for the love of music - at the end, I felt like I was working for free CDs and concert tickets. And you know, when that's what it is, then it's time to go and find something else.

CONAN: We're talking with Leonard Pitts, Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. If you have questions about his work or his life, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. You can also email us. That address is talk@npr.org. More of your calls and emails in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

If you flip through the collection of Leonard Pitts' column in his new book, you can find a phrase that jumps out at you on almost every page: A little girl's tears fall like acid on a father's heart. On another page: I am reminded that if ignorance is a wellspring of fear, righteousness is its favorite refuge. And here's another one: Life is a dance on the high wire above mortality.

"Forward From This Moment" is a collection of columns by Leonard Pitts, from the celebrated piece he wrote after 9/11 to columns on wardrobe malfunctions, family, race and almost any topic that might get you thinking and talking.

You can read that response to 9/11, which makes up the title to his book, at our Web site, npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you'd like to talk with Leonard Pitts about his columns or his life, 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Another phrase that I wanted to ask you about: comic book freak?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PITTS: For many years, yes sir.

CONAN: Me, too, but what are you reading?

Mr. PITTS: Marvel Comics. I was a - I believe the preferred phrase now is Marvel Zombie. I was captured by Stan Lee years ago, when I was 10 years old, and never really got loose nor tried overly hard to do so, as a matter of fact.

CONAN: News today, Marvel just sold to Disney for $4 billion.

Mr. PITTS: I was sharing that information with my son, and we really don't know how to feel about it. We're scared that Wolverine is going to be taking its orders from Mickey Mouse or something along those lines, and we're a little uncertain about it.

CONAN: I just hope I get invited to the party at Stan Lee's house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PITTS: That's true.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some more callers in on the conversation. This is Laurie(ph), Laurie with us from Lancaster in Massachusetts.

LAURIE (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks, I've really been enjoying the program. One of the things that I think you've touched on when you were talking about making responses to some of the comments that you get from people is that political discourse in this country seems at this point to need a real anger-management course.

There is so much anger and real - where it becomes a personal attack on people and personal attacks on everyone, and everyone thinks from being in a grocery store to being on television that you get to yell at people and to get very angry and to interrupt people. And it makes it very difficult for anybody to follow what the real, core issue of things are because there's so much noise in the conversation, and I was just wondering what your thoughts about that were.

Mr. PITTS: I agree with you whole-heartedly, and as a matter of fact, that's what I was getting at when I said that I really worry for the future of the nation.

I have always prided myself on being someone who could listen to a variety of opinions on a given subject, and we can argue about it and have a spirited argument about it, and maybe we agree, maybe we disagree. Maybe I change your mind, or you change mine or whatever. But I think we've reached a point where that, which I would have regarded as a value, as a virtue rather, where that is no longer the thing to be prized.

I think it's more about winning the argument than persuading people, and those are two different things.

CONAN: There was a column you wrote about that. There's been several columns in which you wrote about, but there was one going back to an incident involving Tawana Brawley. We go back to some of the issues of the '90s that we'd forgotten, but you called one of her supporters saying even if she came out and said it was all a lie - we would know the truth, we know what happened.

Mr. PITTS: Yeah, even if Tawana said she was lying, we would still believe the original story, and you see that mindset across all, you know, all subject matters, all political orientations, whatever. You see that sort of mindset where people say this is what we believe, don't bother us with fact. And my feeling has always been that if we're having an argument, he who has the best argument wins.

I'm not really emotionally wedded to too many positions that I take, emotionally. I mean, if you can show me intellectually where there's a hole in my argument - I warn you, it's going to be difficult, and I'm going to resist - but if you can show me intellectually where there's a hole in my argument, then fine, you know, you win.

But that's not where we seem to be as a nation as regards political discourse. Now, it's about - as I said, it's about winning the argument, which means shouting you down or shutting you up, as opposed to persuading you, which is a wholly different thing and which a lot of people seem unable to do.

CONAN: Laurie, I'm going to cut you off and yell at you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LAURIE: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Bill, Bill with us from Scottsdale.

BILL (Caller): Yes, hi, Mr. Pitts. I just wanted to thank you. I don't know how old your son is now, but when he turned 18, I believe you wrote an article to him, from a father to a son and telling him how much you loved him, and despite possible flaws in his character, what a great person he was, and I held on to that article, and when my daughter turned 18 a year ago, I gave it to her.

Mr. PITTS: Well, thank you, that's very flattering. That column is actually in the book, and down to your question, that son is 27 now and has his first child, a little girl.

BILL: So I held on to it for nine years.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call.

BILL: Thank you.

CONAN: But there's also a series of columns that involve the step-daughter who you say has been such a trial and heartache at times. How is she doing?

Mr. PITTS: She is better. She is, I think, rebuilding or fixing some of the things that went wrong in her life during her teens and early 20s. I think she's sort of, you know, catching up to where she should have been.

CONAN: Let's go next to Pam, Pam with us from Lawrence in Kansas.

PAM (Caller): Hi, pleasure to be on your show and to talk with Mr. Pitts. I saw you here in Lawrence I think about a year ago at the University of Kansas, and I enjoy your column.

Mr. PITTS: Thank you.

PAM: Usually, I agree with you, but during the primary last year, you wrote a column - I don't remember all of it, but I do remember the lines in which you said that your sister hated Hillary. Now, what kind of nice discourse is that? If I remember correctly, it didn't have a single thing to do with the point you were trying to make in the column, and it just seemed like superfluous, gratuitous bashing.

Mr. PITTS: I don't - I'm trying to remember the column. I think - I have a friend who is a female who was really strongly against Hillary, and I recall using that anecdote, but I can't defend or plead guilty to what you're saying because I don't recall much else about the column, unfortunately.

PAM: My question, since even someone like you would quote someone else as saying they hated Hillary, at what point do you think we're going to get a female president? Do you think this country will ever be ready for a female president?

Mr. PITTS: I believe that it will probably happen sooner rather than later. As a matter of fact, I would be surprised if it didn't happen well within my lifetime. I think that what we are seeing now with President Obama, and I don't mean in terms of his political position but I mean some of the sort of visceral pushback that we're seeing with him, is sort of this stress - and I dealt with this in a recent column - sort of the stresses of the old versus the new, of the past versus the future. And I think one of the things the future will bring is a woman president and, for that matter, is a Hispanic president.

I mean, we've sort of dealt with this black/white dichotomy for so long, we forget that there are other people in the room. I think that we're going to see all of those things, but I think what we're seeing now is the ground being prepared, which is why we're having all this, these sort of stresses and the sort of sense of a nation pulling away from the center.

CONAN: I suspect it would not be easy for her, whoever she is, either, but…

Mr. PITTS: Yeah, as difficult as it is for President Obama now.

CONAN: Pam, thanks very much.

PAM: Sure.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We've talked a little bit about your work and how you go about it as a newspaper columnist, but has it occurred to you, you may be one of the last ones?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PITTS: Newspaper columnists or newspaper people? Yes, it occurs to me just about every day, particularly when I read the latest news about some newsroom shutting down or some big layoff at some, you know, publishing company or whatever. Yeah, it's definitely on my mind.

CONAN: And what, aside from the loss of your own brilliance and genius to the American reading public, what will be the price?

Mr. PITTS: I think the price will be incalculable, and I don't think a lot of people realize that just yet because the fact of the matter is that when it comes to original news gathering, particularly in terms of local and regional issues, there is no entity out there, broadcast news, bloggers, whatever. There's no entity out there that compares with the local newspaper.

Your basic - your average regional newspaper is the largest news-gathering organization in its region, if not in its state. It is the one that is performing the watchdog function on the governor, on the state senator, and for that matter, on the senator, on the mayor, etcetera and etcetera - the local potentates. And if that function is gone, and these people are free to run riot, and we see the kinds of things that they're doing now with the watchdog function. I don't want to think about what kinds of things they will do if they know that no one is watching.

The fact of the matter is that local television news will bring you who got shot last night and where there was a fire and how'd the local team do, and here's the weather for the next five days. But in terms of sitting on the governor for a month or for two months or for three months or sifting through his paperwork or filing the Freedom of Information Act request to get documentation - no one is going to do that except the newspaper. So if we lose that, we lose an essential piece of American democracy.

CONAN: TV newsrooms aren't doing so good either, but anyway…

Mr. PITTS: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go to Cassie. Cassie calling us from Los Angeles.

CASSIE (Caller): Hi. I'm a journalism student and I was wondering, well, if you had any advice for - going to graduate in June and the industry is dying. So what is the advice that you can give?

Mr. PITTS: I was going to be facetious and say something like, let's pray, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

…you probably wouldn't appreciate that or see the humor in it. I would advise that you train yourself in as many different disciplines tangential to print journalism as you can. I would advise that you know your way around radio, that you know your way around the Internet, that you know your way around A video camera. That's what all the people who are - the survivors who are in our newsrooms these days are doing. And I think they do this one; to make themselves more valuable to the companies they still work for, and Two; to hedge against - in case they are no longer working for those companies that when they go out looking for their next work that they have, you got more multiplicity of skills to sell.

But, you know, the thing about this job, the thing about, particularly print journalism, is that you better love it because, particularly, now, you're stepping into something where there is always going to be a great uncertainty. And even before there was uncertainty, it wasn't the type of thing where you're going to get rich and/or famous. So it's a discipline that you have to have a great deal of love for. It has to be a calling.

CONAN: Where do you hope to work, Cassie?

CASSIE: I'm sorry?

CONAN: Where do you hope to work?

CASSIE: I haven't decided yet. I'm on my school's paper and I just finished an internship at a TV station. So, I'm really open to, you know, wherever I can find a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, it's probably a pretty open approach and probably the best productive, most productive one. It's interesting, I was talking with a class of high school students - 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds - who were here at NPR and asked if anybody would raise their hand if they planned to work in print. And not one person raised their hand.

CASSIE: Yeah. It's a test - it's a test outlook right now.

CONAN: Yeah. Cathy, good luck.

CASSIE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Leonard Pitts about his new book, "Forward From This Moment: Selected Columns, 1994-2009: Daily Triumphs, Tragedies, and Curiosities." He's the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And writing a column is also one of those jobs that people think - I could do that.

Mr. PITTS: Yeah.

CONAN: And the fact is, I think, almost anybody probably has two or three or four columns in it. It's the doing it every day, every week, every - however often you have to do it. That's the hard part.

Mr. PITTS: That's - it's funny as you say that because that is the expression that you'll hear from columns from time to time when people say, oh, I could do that job, or I could do a job better than you can. You probably could for a week or two.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. PITTS: But whole idea of producing something worth reading twice a week for 48 weeks out of the year, let's say, is a whole another animal. Which is why when people ask me what am I, you know, what do I hope to accomplish in writing a column, one the first things I tell them is that I'm trying to keep from boring myself.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. PITTS: I am trying to keep myself interested and entertained, because unlike most readers, I've read every last one of them. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So, for me, the challenge is don't - I mean, obviously, you have certain favorite themes, but don't repeat yourself.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. PITTS: And obviously, the further along you go and the older that you get in this business, the more difficult that trick becomes.

CONAN: And going through and selecting these columns for this book, were there a couple that you could - that you felt good about, well, at least, metaphorically, dumping into the garbage bin of history and never seeing them again?

Mr. PITTS: Oh, yeah. There were a bunch that I really did not - that did not make the book, let's just say, that did not make the cut. I tend to be very harsh on myself as - in terms of criticizing columns. So what I had to do in pulling columns for this book was to sort of ease up and include columns that I knew were reader-favorite columns that got a great deal of response. Not necessarily my favorite, but columns that I knew that readers would like. And then, after I'd got a nice selection of those, then the columns that were my particular favorite - which perhaps no reader noticed, but which satisfied me.

CONAN: Now, let's get Michael on the line. Michael with us from Tigard, Oregon.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, hello. Hi. I've been in an online discussion recently with a black woman, and I'm a white guy. And we were talking about the Gates affair.

CONAN: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the professor - Harvard professor who was arrested outside of his own home.

MICHAEL: Right. And I - and then sort of like disputing, sort of like, she thought the arrest was a racist thing and I didn't. I mentioned that there were two black police officers who, in a press conference, supported the arrest and said there was nothing racist about it. So I said that to her and she said back to me, well, they were just Uncle Tom's so they were intimidated.

And I knew where to find on YouTube, there's a video of the press conference where these two black officers appeared and spoke. And one of them was male, the other one was female. And the female, when after the thing ended, she went over and gave Crowley a hug which looked really, you know, like a sincere gesture of affection to me.

CONAN: Crowley was the sergeant who did the arrest, yes.

MICHAEL: Yes. So I pointed this woman that I was talking to to the video on YouTube and said, go look at the video and tell me what you think. I mean, I'm really curious. And she came back and said to me that the two black officers looked really insincere and that she thought the hug was inappropriate. And I kind of - got from that that I'll bet that if she and I had been standing in front of Gates' house when the whole thing happened, we would have seen two completely different things.

And that leaves me wondering, well, what do you do then? I mean, if reality is completely different for two different people or two different groups of people, then what do you do? I mean, because you got to decide you're going to discipline the cop or you're not going to discipline him. And I'm just at a loss at this point. I don't know what you do next.

Mr. PITTS: Well, my own take on the presence of - and I only saw - I've only seen the one - an African-American cop - officer, but I'll take your word for it that there were two.

My own take on that has been that to be surprised that an African-American police officer could behave in ways that, you know, might be perceived as racially insensitive or whatever, is really not to understand what we mean when we talk about systemic racism, which is something I've done time and time again.

Systemic races means that you as an individual don't necessarily have to take responsibility for whatever is being done or don't have to necessarily be, you know, you're basic white supremacist or whatever, but the organization, at which you are a part, is so encoded with those beliefs - as either policy or as unspoken policy - that it becomes a way of life. It becomes the way it is.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much.

MICHAEL: Okay.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're going to end, let me pitch with this email from Mary in Waverly, Iowa. I read your column in the Waterloo Cedar Falls Iowa Courier and I've been an ardent fan of yours for years. You say what I wish I could say. You make me laugh, you make me cry. I may not always agree with everything you say, but you always, always make me think.

Thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. PITTS: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: The book is called "Forward From This Moment." Leonard Pitts Jr. joined us here in Studio 3A.

Coming up next, we'll listen to two remembrances of Senator Edward Kennedy from this weekend.

This is NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'Forward From This Moment'

Forward From This Moment

Leonard Pitts Jr.'s columns range in subject matter from September 11, all the way to musings on Britney Spears and the nature of celebrity. Cover design, Al Brandtner hide caption

itoggle caption Cover design, Al Brandtner

September 12, 2001

We'll Go Forward From This Moment

It's my job to have something to say.

They pay me to provide words that help make sense of that which troubles the American soul. But in this moment of airless shock when hot tears sting disbelieving eyes, the only thing I can find to say, the only words that seem to fit, must be addressed to the unknown author of this suffering.

You monster. You beast. You unspeakable bastard.

What lesson did you hope to teach us by your coward's attack on our World Trade Center, our Pentagon, us? What was it you hoped we would learn? Whatever it was, please know that you failed.

Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause.

Did you want to make us fear? You just steeled our resolve.

Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.

Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political and class division, but a family nonetheless. We're frivolous, yes, capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae — a singer's revealing dress, a ball team's misfortune, a cartoon mouse. We're wealthy, too, spoiled by the ready availability of trinkets and material goods, and maybe because of that, we walk through life with a certain sense of blithe entitlement. We are fundamentally decent, though — peace-loving and compassionate. We struggle to know the right thing and to do it. And we are, the overwhelming majority of us, people of faith, believers in a just and loving God.

Some people — you, perhaps — think that any or all of this makes us weak. You're mistaken. We are not weak. Indeed, we are strong in ways that cannot be measured by arsenals.

Yes, we're in pain now. We are in mourning and we are in shock. We're still grappling with the unreality of the awful thing you did, still working to make ourselves understand that this isn't a special effect from some Hollywood blockbuster, isn't a plot development from a Tom Clancy novel. Both in terms of the awful scope of their ambition and the probable final death toll, your attacks are likely to go down as the worst acts of terrorism in the history of the United States and, probably, the history of the world. You've bloodied us as we have never been bloodied before.

But there's a gulf of difference between making us bloody and making us fall. This is the lesson Japan was taught to its bitter sorrow the last time anyone hit us this hard, the last time anyone brought us such abrupt and monumental pain. When roused, we are righteous in our outrage, terrible in our force. When provoked by this level of barbarism, we will bear any suffering, pay any cost, go to any length, in the pursuit of justice.

I tell you this without fear of contradiction. I know my people, as you, I think, do not. What I know reassures me. It also causes me to tremble with dread of the future.

In the days to come, there will be recrimination and accusation, fingers pointing to determine whose failure allowed this to happen and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. There will be heightened security, misguided talk of revoking basic freedoms. We'll go forward from this moment sobered, chastened, sad. But determined, too. Unimaginably determined.

You see, the steel in us is not always readily apparent. That aspect of our character is seldom understood by people who don't know us well. On this day, the family's bickering is put on hold.

As Americans we will weep, as Americans we will mourn, and as Americans, we will rise in defense of all that we cherish.

So I ask again: What was it you hoped to teach us? It occurs to me that maybe you just wanted us to know the depths of your hatred. If that's the case, consider the message received. And take this message in exchange: You don't know my people. You don't know what we're capable of. You don't know what you just started.

But you're about to learn.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Forward from this Moment, Agate Bolden, 2009

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