CNN Veteran Reporter on Life as an Alcoholic CNN anchor Jack Cafferty is a veteran journalist often known for his frank opinions. But perhaps few know of his personal battles with alcoholism. In this week's Behind Closed Doors, Cafferty reveals how he managed to turn his life around, as chronicled in his new book.

CNN Veteran Reporter on Life as an Alcoholic

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, our a former intern writes about a loved one's addiction.

But first, if you are a regular CNN watcher, then you know Jack Cafferty is the house curmudgeon on "The Situation Room," who regularly quirks off on everything from President George W. Bush to illegal immigration.

But what you may not know is that Cafferty is a man who battled the bottle for years. It's the subject of Cafferty's new book, "It's Getting Ugly Out There," and he joins us for a behind-closed-doors conversation.

Mr. Cafferty, thanks for joining us.

Mr. JACK CAFFERTY (CNN Commentator; Author, "It's Getting Ugly Out There"): Hello, there. It's nice to be with you.

MARTIN: Thank you. And I should say your biography shares equal billing with your various rants and preoccupations. But I want to start with your personal story, and I have to tell you, I had to read the preface twice to make sure I read it correctly.

This is how you start the book: My folks were both alcoholics who, between them, were married 11 times. It would have been an even dozen, but my dad accidentally killed one of his fiancees. My dad had gotten a medical discharge from the Army for a bleeding ulcer. A half century later, he died from bone cancer, broke and alone in a VA hospital. My mom was so incapacitated by addictions after their divorce, she was eventually unable to hold down a job. I'm the product of a very dysfunctional, sometimes violent, Irish background. Indeed, very little of my back story qualifies as a Hallmark card. This is on the first page.

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, it's not exactly an Ozzie Harriet, is it?

MARTIN: No. I was just wondering why you decided to go right there.

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, the things that I say on television every afternoon sometimes border probably a little bit on the outrageous. And I have a compulsive distrust of authority figures, and it was developed at a fairly early age when the authority figures in your life as a child are not trustworthy.

So I thought if I'm going to write something, I got to try and get a little meat on the bone. And I thought maybe by putting this story into the book, it would give people who watch "The Situation Room" and listen to the stuff I spew every afternoon some sense of context where I get this automatic rejection of authority figures.

MARTIN: When did you realize your father had a drinking problem? Seems like a lot of kids in that situation know something's wrong, but they don't know what it is.

Mr. CAFFERTY: You begin to see behaviors that don't coincide with this loving, caring, parental figure that they're supposed to be. The other thing working against me in that regard was where and when I grew up. Reno, Nevada in the 1950s was a town of casinos and saloons, and drinking was part of a male mystique. I mean, that's what guys did. They hunted. They went out and killed things. And after they got through killing things, then they went to the bar and got sloshed. And it was not only socially acceptable, but even a little chi-chi if you will.

MARTIN: And your dad started taking you to the bars?

Mr. CAFFERTY: Oh, yeah, at a very early age. When my folks got divorced, as often as not, he would come and pick my brother and me up, and we would spend at least a portion of Saturday and/or Sunday in one of his favorite saloons, sitting at a table in the corner, nursing our Coca-Cola until, you know, until you get a little bit older. And then pretty soon, you know, a cocktail waitress would come by combine and set a glass of beer down. You know, I was actually taught to drink without even realizing what was going on by my dad, because that's where we spent our time with our father. It was in the bars.

MARTIN: And your dad was kind of a big, local character.

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, he was a celebrity. He was very popular. There was a time when he might have been able to be elected governor of the state, he had such a wide-ranging audience on the radio. And so, it was this Jekyll-Hyde kind of situation where, in public, he was much adored by his fans. And in private, he was hell on wheels because he had a half a quarter Jack Daniels in him most of the time.

MARTIN: Did he beat you?

Mr. CAFFERTY: Beat's probably not the right word. But he cuffed us around. I describe an incident in the book where - I started smoking when I was 13 years old. And a friend of my dad's apparently drove by and saw me smoking a cigarette one day. And one afternoon after school, I'm home alone and the phone rang and my dad says, are you busy? And there's this chill just went right down the back of my neck and right down my spine.

I knew exactly what he wanted, but he - all he said was, are you busy? And I said, no. He said, well, I'm going to come by and pick you up. I want to talk to you. And I waited an hour. In Reno, you could drive across 25 times in an hour. The car finally pulled into the driveway. I walk out and got in the front seat. He didn't say a word. And we started to drive, and he drove around. And it seemed like an eternity - I'm sure was a half hour. So he finally pulled up next to a lake, shut the car off and sat there, looking out at the window with the ducks. And he still hadn't said anything. I'm dying a thousand deaths.

He finally said, are you smoking? And I said, yes. And he had a big turquoise ring on his right hand. And his hand came off the steering wheel of the car and across and into the side of my head. And my head crashed into the passenger's window of the car, and there was blood coming from my ear and my mouth and my nose. And, you know, I'm seeing stars. And he said, quit. And he started the car, didn't say another word, drove back to the house. I got out, and I didn't have another cigarette for five years. So, you know, that was the kind of presence that he was at times.

MARTIN: He's so worked up about you smoking a cigarette, but he doesn't have a problem taking you to bars?

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, now, isn't that interesting? And you wonder why I spent all that money with shrinks later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAFFERTY: And, of course, he smoke.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. CAFFERTY: I don't mean to interrupt…


Mr. CAFFERTY: …but he smoke two or three packs a day. But he didn't want his kids smoking. And you know, he was probably right. I've got four daughters, and if one I know smoking at 13, I wouldn't like it, either, regardless of either I was smoking or not. So maybe he was right about that.

MARTIN: Sure. But I do hope you wouldn't be slamming her head into the passenger side of the car.


MARTIN: I'm sure that would not…

Mr. CAFFERTY: I haven't done that.

MARTIN: But it does raise - sort of the question for me is that, you know, kids a lot of times who are exposed to that or sort of treated that way, you know, one of two things happen. Either they say I'm going to be the opposite of that, or they wind up following in the footsteps some way or another. Now, you did follow in your father's footsteps in going into broadcasting in the Midwest. Why were you attracted to broadcasting? Was it because of him? Were you emulating him?

Mr. CAFFERTY: That was probably a part of it. The other thing that happened was my mother got very sick and was unable to work and there was no money. And I was able to get a job at a local radio station there in Reno, working out at the transmitter site were you sat all day for eight hours and just did the meter readings and stuff for the FCC.

So it was the only job I could find at the time, and that was the first taste of it. But my dad, being in the business, too, you know, I'd been around it all my life. So I'm sure that that was part of the influence, of course.

MARTIN: And you jumped around, as a lot of people in broadcasting do. Is that where the drinking got serious? Because I'm struck by the fact that you would take another job not for any, you know, fancy reason of job satisfaction, because you needed to make more money.

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, the part about being very pragmatic about my career is absolutely true. I had - my first marriage ended in divorce. I had child support and stuff to pay because of that. In practical terms, you go where the money is. That's why they call it work. And eventually, it led me to New York City. But I was drinking from, you know, the time I was a kid in Reno. Alcohol was as much a part of my daily living as brushing my teeth was.

MARTIN: How do think you were able to function at that level?

Mr. CAFFERTY: I learned how to drink and how to, quote, "handle my liquor," because that was part of that macho thing. You got to learn to handle your liquor, son.

MARTIN: Did you ever go to work drunk?

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, when you say drunk, that's a word that has a certain connotation. Did I go to work under the influence of alcohol? You bet. Many, many times. Did I go to work drunk, where I slurred my words or couldn't go on the air? No.

MARTIN: By this time, though, you had remarried, and you seemed very happy.

Mr. CAFFERTY: I met maybe the finest woman on the planet.

MARTIN: No, no, that would be me but go ahead.

Mr. CAFFERTY: No, after you.

MARTIN: After me.

Mr. CAFFERTY: She's - I'm telling you. She was the reason that I made all the changes eventually, because I could see myself starting down the same road in the second marriage that I'd gone down in the first marriage, which was to eventually drive her away from me because I was not fit to live with. And she wasn't worth losing. And so I made a decision to quit, and I stopped. I stopped cigarettes and booze in the same year, and somehow she and I survived that year and things began to take turn for the better.

MARTIN: How did you quit?

Mr. CAFFERTY: I just got up one morning and said I'm through. That's it. No more. And I stopped. And it was terribly difficult, I must tell you. I mean, there were times in the first couple of years that I didn't know if I was going to make it or not because this craving is huge and it's very powerful, and it comes over you at the most inopportune times. And it's like all you want to do is have a drink.

MARTIN: How do you figure it may have changed when you - because you were already so successful as a drinker. And I'm just wondering that in the middle of being successful, you quit.

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, I was…

MARTIN: And I wonder if that was frightening for you, if you thought, gee, all things that brought me here. My crutches, I'm loosing them.

Mr. CAFFERTY: No. No. I don't see it that way. When I stopped drinking, I began to succeed at life, and that was so much more fulfilling than succeeding at television. I mean, I kind of knew I could do television. I'd been doing it for 40 years. But I didn't know, if I could do the other without the crutch, the booze.

Since this book came out a couple of weeks ago, I have had hundreds of letters from people who, you know, could identify with the struggle.

MARTIN: How does that make you feel?

Mr. CAFFERTY: It makes me feel like that's probably the most important part of the book, and I'm glad I decided to put it in there. Because if it helps somebody else then, hey, that's, you know, that's a good thing.

MARTIN: If anybody's heard you once, they know they've heard you. But it's just kind of like here's how it is and…

Mr. CAFFERTY: You know, that's…

MARTIN: But it's very…

Mr. CAFFERTY: That's part of the way I see the world around me. I figure, after 40 years in the news business, and the years growing up in the kind of a family environment that's described in the early pages of this book, you develop wonderful b.s. detectors. And the easiest way to set them off is for some ignorant politician in Washington, D.C. to start talking down to me and you and the people who pay the taxes and own this country, and it just makes me nuts. I offends me and I get angry, and so, I guess, that's worth to see on the air some time.

MARTIN: The subtitle of the book is "The Frauds, Bunglers, Liars, and Losers Who Are Hurting America." And in Jack Cafferty's rendering of - that's a pretty big group. But part of me wonders whether, you know, is that really fair? You know, did people really get into public service with the idea of ruining the country?

Mr. CAFFERTY: You know, the road to hell's paved with good intentions. And I'm sure a lot of these people go into this for the idea that they're going to change the world for the better. And occasionally, one of them does. But most of them get captured by a system that's corrupt and broken and evil and driven by money and big corporations and power. And there's, you know, there are no term limits. So, you know, the first priority after you're sworn into office is starting to worry about the next reelection so you can hold on to the power. And I find the government contemptible in many ways.

MARTIN: Okay. But what do you believe in?

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, one if the things that would be very refreshing is if these people would tell us the truth and not lie to us about almost anything, whether it's the war in Iraq or the deficits or illegal immigration. They lie to us. Our government lies to us. That infuriates me. How dare you?

MARTIN: But are you always as careful with the facts as you could be? I'll give you an example. One of the quotes in the book that comes from one of your segments in "The Situation Room" is "You know what illegals do about health care? They walk into a hospital and get it free, courtesy of the American taxpayer. Tens of millions of citizens, no health care. Illegal aliens, free health care. Twilight zone." End of quote.

Come on now. You know, American citizens who don't have health insurance - just as illegal immigrants who don't have health insurance - walk into emergency rooms everyday and get free health care.

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, the significant difference being that they're American citizens.

MARTIN: Okay. But that's not what you said. You said no health care. You know, the implication is that they're standing on the sidewalk.

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, you know, I'm not going to defend a passage in a 300-page book. I mean, you know, I'm not going to get into a debate with you about illegal immigration. The word is illegal.

MARTIN: Now, there's a question of being fair to people…

Mr. CAFFERTY: And it's a burden on the economy and it's a threat to national security and it's wrong, and there are laws against it that are being ignored by the federal government. And, you know, if you want illegal immigration and if you want 12 million people here that don't belong here, then change the law. But don't pay lip service to laws that are on the books and we have this and we have and then simply ignore it all because cheap labor makes big bucks for the corporations. How many terrorists and felons do you suppose…

MARTIN: Okay. Hold on. Hold on. I get what you're saying.

Mr. CAFFERTY: …have crossed the border in the last 15 or 20 years?

MARTIN: I get what you're saying and you're tough on, you know, big corporations who you feel are enabling this for their own purposes. I - you know, I take your point on that.

But here's another one. "They can go" - it's also from the book. "They can go first to Mexico, climb on their burros and head north, no questions asked. Makes a lot of sense."

Mr. CAFFERTY: I got some heat I put that in there.

MARTIN: "As things stand now, most Europeans don't need a visa to visit the U.S. And of course, Mexicans don't need anything."

Mr. CAFFERTY: That's true.

MARTIN: And I wonder, for a guy who hates authority and who has been bullied, I wonder whether you sometimes cross into being a bully yourself.

Mr. CAFFERTY: I'm not a bully at all. I have nothing to do with public policy in this country. I'm simple an observer of the passing scene. And the passing scene is the president of Mexico who says any place in the world there's a Mexican is Mexico and who tries to drive the debate in this country about immigration reform, read that amnesty, is a man who runs a government in a country that cannot provide a standard of living, can't provide jobs, can't provide economic opportunity for his own people. So his idea is to create some sort of an impression that it's the responsibility of the United States to absorb these folks. It's not. That's not our job.

MARTIN: Not that you have strong feelings about this or anything. What do you want folks to get from this book?

Mr. CAFFERTY: Oh, maybe by the time they get to the end of it, they go, you know what? The guy makes some sense on some stuff. They're not going to agree with all of it, and I understand that. I'm not out trying to craft an image for myself. I hope it's engaging and interesting and maybe brings a smile. And it might even bring a cuss word. But, you know, at the end of the read, I hope they didn't feel they wasted their time.

MARTIN: All right. Jack Cafferty is a CNN host and commentator who appears regularly on the network's news program "The Situation Room," where he hosts "The Cafferty File." He joined us from his home in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. His new book is called "It's Getting Ugly Out There."

Jack Cafferty, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CAFFERTY: Well, thank you for having me. This has been fun.

MARTIN: And maybe you'll come out of your shell one day.

(Soundbite of laughter)


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