A Depression Diary, Sotomayor's Style, An About-Face Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown shares with NPR's Steve Inskeep the three best things she has read lately: An ordinary man's first-person account of the Great Depression, a profile of the newest justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and a surprising change of heart about how to prosecute terrorists.
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A Depression Diary, Sotomayor's Style, An About-Face

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A Depression Diary, Sotomayor's Style, An About-Face

A Depression Diary, Sotomayor's Style, An About-Face

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Now that we've made it through the experience of the last decade, we can wonder how that experience shaped us. Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast, has sent us some readings about what people learn through experience. It's our regular feature: Word of Mouth.

You begin here with a book called "The Great Depression: A Diary." What is it?

Ms. TINA BROWN (Editor-in-chief, The Daily Beast): It is a really fascinating real-time diary by a man called Benjamin Roth, and now edited by his son, Daniel B. Roth. He was a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio. It's this wonderful blow-by-blow account from the point of view of a professional guy - not a sort of a Dorothea Lange character, you know, from the sort of real underclass or a person like, you know, a Mellon or something, but just a regular, professional guy who, day by day, chronicled his reaction to this terrible depression that settled on the land.

INSKEEP: And it's an especially powerful perspective, I supposed, because this is a guy writing day by day. He doesn't know when this depression is going to end.

Ms. BROWN: No, he doesn't. And what, of course, I've always loved about diaries - I'm a complete addict of diaries. I keep one myself. But every diary is a mystery story to the person who's writing it. And, of course, in this mystery story, we know that this depression is going to last, I think, 11 years, it lasted in the end.

But Benjamin Roth doesn't know that. He keeps looking for green shoots. He keeps on collecting worried, anecdotal evidence from his friends, the dentist who, suddenly(ph), is noting that people aren't getting their teeth checked or that the extraordinarily low price when movie tickets dropped from $.65 to $.35 cents. And like so many of us today, he's always looking for hope, you know, and it's very touching and also speaks to us now when he talks about - always about how, you know, if only I had the money to get to make this deal, it would be a great deal. But I don't have any cash, so I can't do it.

You know, and that I - you hear that all the time at the moment, people thinking, oh, you know, if only I had the money to buy that house next door. I know it's worth four times the amount, but I don't have the cash. And you see this in the diary, too. It's very poignant.

INSKEEP: And when we talk about what people learn from experience, one of his lessons that he learns seems to be that he has no idea why stock prices go up or go down. It seems to be purely emotional.

Ms. BROWN: It's pure emotion, and it's also, of course, he becomes very, very disenchanted with the so-called experts and the pundits. And, of course, now, we're all - you know, we just put Ben Bernanke on the cover of Time magazine, man of the year. Are we going to be like Benjamin Roth, you know, five years from now, and look at that cover and think what were we thinking? The truth is we don't know. We're in the middle of our mystery tour of this depression, and we don't know what's happening.

INSKEEP: The experience of the Great Depression changed Americans' spending habits for a generation, or maybe considerably more. People are wondering now if this recession will change people's spending habits and money habits for a long time to come. How did this diarist change his habits through his experience?

Ms. BROWN: Well, he changed enormously. And actually, the son who is editing the book says that he was first given it to read when he joined his father's firm to understand - his father told him - the psychological condition, in a sense, of many of his clients, because he said unless you understand how shattering the depression was, how undermining of our faith in government and banks and all of these things, you won't understand why these guys are so cautious. It's very interesting.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the experience of another person, a modern-day person. Sonia Sotomayor, the newest justice on the Supreme Court is the subject of a profile called "Number Nine" in the New Yorker - which is on your reading list here for us, Tina Brown. And it talks a great deal about how Sotomayor was shaped by her life experience.

Ms. BROWN: Very much. This is a terrific profile by the young writer Lauren Collins in this week's New Yorker, and what I love about it is, for a start, it's very three-dimensional. You really understand this woman at the end of the piece. She's a tough, up-from-the-bootstraps woman who loves to bust out a poker game and knock back a scotch. And she's a great godmother to her kids. She's had a life where no one has really handed her anything.

And it's very, very interesting to see how really, in her life, it was the power of education that was the great beacon in that family. But because her mother, the nurse, you know, sat there at the kitchen table encouraging her daughters to study and study and study, this is what shaped Sonia Sotomayor. I mean, she is still that woman today. She's a woman who works 40 times harder than anybody else, who is rigorous about, you know, reading the briefs even before her clerks do, because she knows that study, study, study is the answer.

INSKEEP: And let's set aside whether her judgments are right or wrong for a minute. There's a great sentence in this article where Sotomayor's opinion is paraphrased. Legal opinions, in Sotomayor's view, are like instruction manuals: Everyone should be able to follow them - which is a great view of anything, the idea that people should be able to understand their government, what it's doing and why.

Ms. BROWN: Absolutely. And Lauren Collins really writes about how - you know, this is not a great prose stylist. She's not a fancy flourish merchant. You know, she's not a person who is going to reinvent the philosophical approach to law. But she does believe that the law is to be understood by the common man in the street. And I think there's a lot to be said for that, actually.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about one more set of experiences here, and these are the experiences of Gerald Shargel, a well-known lawyer who writes for you in The Daily Beast about the aftermath of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a jetliner heading into Detroit. And Mr. Shargel writes that he thinks he's changed his opinion about the criminal process when it comes to terrorists.

Ms. BROWN: Yes. He says that he was once on a television show with Alan Dershowitz shortly after the 9/11 attacks. And the professor asked him whether he'd be willing to defend Osama bin Laden. At the time, he said absolutely yes. He would regard it as a great act of patriotism to defend someone as heinous as bin Laden because it would really show how America had stuck to its values in a - allowing even bin Laden, you know, due process and a fair trial.

But he really takes issue with the fact that on last week's "Meet the Press" on NBC, John O. Brennan, the president's deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism, argued that trying these terrorists in a civilian court was a terrifically a good idea because you would actually be able to have plea bargains, and you could get and download their information. And Shargel makes the point: How can we honestly say that a plea bargain is going to affect a defendant who is willing to die for the cause? Shaking them down for information is not going to happen. They're not going to just make a plea bargain for the sake of some kind of a reduced sentence.

And also, he says, you know, how can you even then allow them to have the traditional plea bargain as perks? So he's saying, you know, these people are, in fact, soldiers, soldiers in an openly-declared holy war against infidels. Their skill set is similar to the most elite of our forces. It's quite an about-face for Shargel, who is, you know, the ultimate defender of heinous criminals.

INSKEEP: Well, he's forced to admit along the way, though, that quite a few terror suspects have been put through the criminal justice system just in the last few years, and it's been quite successful at putting people away for long, long, long, long, long periods of time.

Ms. BROWN: Yes, he does. But, you know, what is really interesting, I think, about this moment in our society is that this terrorist threat is making everybody sort of rethink their approach to law, you know, civil liberties.

And, of course, the great success that the terrorists are having is that one of their big weapons is to sew mistrust, this sense that you cannot trust the man next to you. And, of course, you know, this is very threatening to our democratic values and our approach to civil liberties.

INSKEEP: I'm not entirely sure what Gerald Shargel is calling for in place of that. At the end of the article, he says, this week, I'm thinking keep Guantanamo open. He doesn't actually say let's go back to torturing them for information, but is that what's on his mind?

Ms. BROWN: I think he's feeling if you bring the terrorists back to the United States and try them as civilians, you are, of course, then opening the Pandora's box about what actually happens when they get defended, and presumably, how they have a chance to also be released. It is a quandary of what to do, and it's not easy. And I don't envy Obama this whole question.

INSKEEP: Tina Brown of The Daily Beast, always good to talk with you.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Word of Mouth from Tina Brown, who calls our attention to readings we may have missed. You can find links to her recommendations at npr.org.

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