Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Looking Past Appearances The Daily Beast editor-in-chief joins NPR's Steve Inskeep for another chat about the best reading she's been doing lately — books and articles about an iconic Depression-era photo, campaign promises and a country that has a way of flying too close to the sun.
NPR logo

Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Looking Past Appearances

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/127859150/127874267" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Looking Past Appearances

Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Looking Past Appearances

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/127859150/127874267" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Tina Brown of The Daily Beast joins us once again this morning. She comes by occasionally for a feature we call Word of Mouth. She tells us what she's been reading, and we talk a little bit about it. Hi, Tina.

Ms. TINA BROWN (The Daily Beast): Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we've got a list of books and articles here that sort of play on a theme of looking behind the appearance of things. And that is certainly true for this first article you've sent me: "Five Boys: The Story of a Picture."

Ms. BROWN: Yes. This is one of my favorite magazine pieces ever. I mean, it really is a brilliant piece of work, that I'm sure will be in anthologies for a long time. It's by the great British feature writer Ian Jack, and it's in that new magazine Intelligent Life, which the economists have started in the U.K. quarterly, which isn't really seen here, but I've become a regular reader of it.

The piece takes a very famous iconic photograph taken in 1937, which is - shows two boys in top hat and tails - very much the Eton boy, the upper-class, snooty boy - two of them standing outside of the cricket ground being watched by three scruffy young boys who are looking at them with a kind of satirical expression. It's the absolutely emblematic picture about a class divide, and ever since 1937, that picture has been wheeled out again and again in the U.K. to illustrate articles about class.

And it's recently had a resurgence because David Cameron, the new prime minister in the U.K., is an Etonian boy. And so, of course, anyone who wants to make a kind of snide point about him being, you know, somebody who's not of us, as it were, this photograph is used.

INSKEEP: You can see why it would become famous at the time, because it was 1937. It was the Great Depression. You can see, I suppose, why it would be repeated and repeated and repeated in different contexts. But what this article, "An Intelligent Life," does is try to find out who the five boys in this picture of class division really were.

Ms. BROWN: Yeah. And that's what's so great about this piece, because what Jack does is he deconstructs this picture from every single angle: the photograph, when it appeared, the whole social climate of the U.K. at the time. And by the end of it, you really get to learn who these boys were and what the picture says, but also how pictures also lie. You know, on one side, it looks like a picture about class. But in reality, the story was pretty different. The two upper-class boys, in fact, ended very tragically. The tall, snooty one, in fact, died at 16 of diphtheria on his way to see his parents in India. The smaller one went mad at 40, had a nervous breakdown, and at the age of 60 he died deeply unhappy and quite impoverished.

INSKEEP: And the kids who were less privileged did OK.

Ms. BROWN: They did fine. They joined the Navy. They led happy, prosperous lives. And you know, Ian Jack, though, at the end, he ends by saying even though this kind of emblem of the class system seems so archaic in some ways, it's still very much true today. A recent figure showed in England the schools which we call public schools are in such kind of disarray, really, that you get far less an education than you do if you're in an upper class school, and, of course, the schools the boarding schools are - you have a far better future if you graduate from those schools. So the point is, he says, you know, it really hasn't changed, even though it has changed so much.

INSKEEP: So that's the article in Intelligent Life, looking behind the appearance of something. And now let's move on to another article you've sent us, Tina Brown. This one is from Rolling Stone. I suppose the appearance is of Ken Salazar, the Interior Secretary under President Obama who came into office last year and said he was going to clean up the agency that regulates oil drilling.

Ms. BROWN: Yes, indeed. This piece, "The Spill, The Scandal and the President," terrific piece of reporting, I must say, by Tim Dickinson, and I think the most definitive piece yet, even though much has happened since it was published on June the 8th.

But the piece goes right deeply into the Minerals Management Service and shows how under George Bush, it really was stuffed with political cronies, with former oil operatives, back-scratching good old boys who were completely in cahoots with the oil companies - something that we've since learned.

But he also really doesn't let Obama off the hook, because frankly, if this was the Bush administration now, everybody would really be going wild about the fact that if after a year and a half, and despite the fact that Obama said in his campaign and said as soon as he took office that he was going to clean up the corrupt atmosphere, his new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who came riding in saying the sheriff has arrived, but it turns out he left the Minerals Management Service really, largely, the same old good old boys running the show.

INSKEEP: Well, let's make sure that we're clear on that, because Salazar did, as the article recounts, go to the Minerals Management Service, give a fierce speech, tell them that they had to clean up their culture and even made, as the article acknowledges, criminal referrals. And yet somehow, Salazar comes off as having done very little here.

Ms. BROWN: Well, you know, the fact is that it does take more than bold speeches and whip-cracking rhetoric to actually get something done. And I have to say that, you know, we're seeing this a little bit now across the board, really, with Obama. I mean, it is more than making speeches. It really is about drilling down and making sure that your management edicts actually do have follow up.

INSKEEP: Or making sure that whoever is drilling down is doing so safety, so to speak.

Ms. BROWN: Exactly right - and calling people to account. And quite clearly, Salazar did not do enough of this, at any rate. I mean, maybe he did some of it. In fact, he did do some of it, but he didn't do enough to stop this tragedy being averted - which, in fact, it could have been if that agency had been cleaned out right at the beginning of this administration.

INSKEEP: I wonder if the theme of that article has some connection to the book you have sent us here. The author is Peter Beinart, who's one of your writers at The Daily Beast. And the book that he's published is called "The Icarus Syndrome."

Ms. BROWN: Yes. This is a fascinating book. I mean, Beinart is really a very, very cogent, smart, clear thinker, and he's done a wonderful book, really, about how America just has to understand and acknowledge the limits of its own power, and that much of the ill that has befallen us in the last few years has really been because of hubris, about not understanding what we can't do.

He starts the book, actually, with a wonderful scene where he and the great liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger are having dinner, and Schlesinger is talking about remember the lessons of Vietnam about Iraq and Afghanistan. And Beinart is saying well, actually, we keep thinking about the lessons of Vietnam. I mean, why did you know, why do we keep learning the lessons of Vietnam? I mean, after all, Schlesinger warned us not to go into the Gulf War I and said remember the lessons of Vietnam. Well, that didn't that worked out fine. And Bosnia with Clinton, remember the lessons of Vietnam. Well, we went there, and it was OK. Bush about Afghanistan, and we went in there and actually it was the right thing to do, says Beinart.

But now, maybe it isn't, because what happens is you get these cycles of hubris which come after success. So three successes, and that's the time when you're in danger. And that's what happened, he says, with Iraq.

So the book is looking at some of these major foreign policy decisions and asking ourselves were we flying too close to the sun? What took us there? What is it about America that doesn't understand the difference between ambition that's appropriate and ambition that's overreach?

INSKEEP: Isn't this human nature, you have to be aware of success?

Ms. BROWN: Absolutely. And he shows it so brilliantly throughout the last sort of 40 or 50 years of foreign policy. He says in some degree, foreign policy is all about deciding in which direction you'd rather be wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: And we've made some decisions that have turned out OK and decisions that have not turned out OK, and...

Ms. BROWN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: ...you end up afterward wondering how you could do that. And he tries to explore that, you're saying.

Ms. BROWN: Yeah. And he says, you know, in a way, the Bush era's inability to prioritize by thinking in fact you could do Iraq and Afghanistan is in itself hubris, because if you think you have - can do everything at once, then clearly, you're not prioritizing.

INSKEEP: Word of Mouth from Tina Brown, who prioritizes and edits The Daily Beast. If you want to see the photo of those five British boys, go to our website: npr.org. You can also find links to Tina's readings and follow us on Facebook and on Twitter. We're @MORNING EDITION and @NPRInskeep.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.