JFK Transformed

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on October 27, 2013.

On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, with bookstore shelves overflowing with reexaminations and conspiracy theories, John T. Shaw takes a look at an important but under-reported period of President Kennedy’s life in JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency.

Shaw, a Capitol Hill correspondent for Market News International, focuses on the period from Kennedy’s first campaign for the House of Representatives in 1946 to his campaign for the White House in 1960. During those years, Kennedy built his foreign policy expertise, won a Pulitzer Prize, and became a media star.

JFK SenateShaw and I discussed his book last week by email, which I lightly edited below.

You wrote that the Senate was “a forum, a platform and a launching pad” for Kennedy to become president, but President Obama is the only other president in modern history to get elected from the Senate. Is that a historical accident, or is there more to it than that?

I believe that both Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Obama had a very shrewd sense of both the opportunities and limitations the Senate offered for those running for president. They both saw that it was wise to use the Senate’s visibility as a campaign asset but it was important to avoid getting ensnared in protracted legislative battles that almost always ended with messy results.

I’m convinced that then Sen. Obama and his campaign team in 2007 and 2008 looked at Sen. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, at least in its broad themes if not its exact details. Obama saw that it was possible for a relatively junior senator to get his party’s nomination and win the general election without having an extensive legislative record. Obama also saw, as did Kennedy, that being viewed as a Senate insider, was an electoral liability rather than a political strength. Obama saw in 2008 as Kennedy did in 1960 that the political moment allowed for a different kind of candidate to run and win. Each sensed, I think shrewdly, that he had a unique opportunity to run for, and win, the presidency in the year they choose which might not be available four years later.

Even before Kennedy was in the Senate, he had higher aspirations. Why didn’t he run in 1956 when the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson, who had already lost to Eisenhower four years earlier?

Democrats generally agreed that Adlai Stevenson ran a strong and principled campaign against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, deserved a rematch in 1956, and would be their best candidate against the politically formidable incumbent.

It’s important to recall that Senator Kennedy’s political career took off in 1956 – especially the second half of the year. Before then he was a little known junior senator from Massachusetts. But in 1956 his book, Profiles in Courage, was published and became a bestseller, and he was the star of the 1956 Democratic convention. He narrated the film opening the convention, nominated Stevenson to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and came within a handful of votes of becoming Stevenson’s vice presidential selection. And within weeks of Stevenson’s defeat in November of 1956, Kennedy decided to run for the 1960 nomination.

By the end of 1956, JFK was a political rock star, but he was relatively unknown at the start of the year. Kennedy may have also sensed that Eisenhower was going to be get re-elected in 1956, probably by a landslide, and there was little to be gained by leading a Democratic ticket that got trounced.

There’s a fair amount of controversy about whether Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Did he write it?

Kennedy loved to read history and also aspired to write it, first as a Harvard undergraduate when he turned his honors thesis about England’s foreign policy into a best-selling book, Why England Slept. Nearly fifteen years later, while convalescing in Palm Beach after major back surgery, Sen. Kennedy decided to expand an article he had written about political courage into a book. Kennedy assembled a small research team of academics for the project, overseen by his aide Ted Sorensen.

Sorensen’s group gathered background materials and sent Kennedy memos and draft chapters which JFK honed into a manuscript. As I see it, Kennedy acted more as an executive editor of Profiles In Courage than a traditional author. Sorensen, in his 2008 memoir, credits JFK with playing a large role in writing the first and final chapters of the book, suggesting others did much of the work on the rest of the book. Allegations that Sorensen effectively wrote Profiles in Courage were first made in the spring of 1957 and they made Kennedy furious. So did Sorensen’s very carefully worded denials.

One thing that jumped out at me in the book is how good Kennedy was in his congressional campaigns at what we would now call grassroots work – knocking on doors, sending thank-you notes, keeping detailed contact information, etc.  Was that a surprise to you?

It was. In many ways, JFK was not a natural politician. He was a quiet, reserved, sometimes even shy man. He once said that when sitting on a plane he would prefer to quietly read a book than banter with the person sitting next to him. But when he decided to enter politics he swung for the fences. Even though he had ample family financial resources – and he used them – Kennedy worked from morning to night on his campaigns, shaking hands, speaking to political and civic groups, meeting with potential supporters, and making phone calls to party leaders. Both his brother Bobby and his top political aide, Larry O’Brien, built first class political organizations that were the gold standard of their time.

I came away from the book with a sense that Kennedy wasn’t much of a senator in the traditional sense but that his years in Congress were a phenomenal preparation for the White House – particular on foreign policy. Was that your take?

Yes. Kennedy never had any desire to be a traditional senator. He never aspired to be a “Master of the Senate” such as Lyndon Johnson who drove the institution. Kennedy was much more interested in being a “Statesman-Scholar” along the lines of Winston Churchill who shifted between the worlds of ideas and action – and helped frame the policy debate.

As a senator, Kennedy made surprisingly rich and interesting contributions to the foreign policy debate. For example, his speeches on France’s policies toward Indochina and Algeria were remarkably impressive and stand the test of time. And he saw about thirty years before many others did that Poland was the weakest link in the Soviet Empire.

But there is little dispute that JFK’s youngest brother, Ted, was easily the best senator in the family. [Robert Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1964 and served until he was assassinated in 1968.] Ted was more far more patient than either JFK or RFK and seemed to genuinely relish the back-and-forth of legislative and Senate life.

How was your experience researching presidential history in the internet age?  Has the Kennedy Library largely moved online, or did you have to spend a lot of time in Boston?

I’m still edging my way out of the 20th century and so while I did take advantage of the growing availability of online resources I conducted a lot of my research the old fashioned way. I read biographies about JFK, memoirs by Kennedy’s contemporaries, and the three major books that JFK wrote. I also spent a lot of time reviewing original documents in the Senate Historical Office, the Senate Library, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

The Kennedy Library offers some of its collections online and I found important information there. I spent a week at the Library in Boston and stumbled into a number of valuable documents, including a speech that Sen. Kennedy gave to the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1958 in which he described his love of history in a remarkably clear and vivid way. I’ve never seen this speech quoted before and I just stumbled into it as I thumbed through a JFK speech file. Sometimes good accidents happen!

What were the best Kennedy books you came across?

My research into John F. Kennedy’s Senate career propelled me into the seemingly endless, always expanding, universe of Kennedy literature. The books that best help me understand Sen. Kennedy were: John Kennedy: A Political Profile by James MacGregor Burns (1961), Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy by Herbert Parmet (1980), An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek (2003), The Strategy of Peace by John F. Kennedy (1960), Counselor by Ted Sorensen (2008), Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye by Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers (1970), My Twelve Years With John F. Kennedy by Evelyn Lincoln (1965), Master of the Senate by Robert Caro (2002), The Passage of Power by Robert Caro (2012) and Kennedy Versus Lodge by Thomas Whalen (2000).

Are you working on anything now?

I have become deeply interested in the Senate of the 1950s. What an incredible cast of characters: Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Mike Mansfield, Robert Taft, Richard Russell, Everett Dirksen, etc.  My next book will return to this world but I haven’t settled on a specific topic yet.


‘Wilson,’ Obama and Dealing with Congress

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on October 10, 2013.

Here’s one tried and tested way for a president to deal with a difficult Congress: Go to your private office on Capitol Hill and stay there until a deal is done.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, lobbied Congress from his private room in the Capitol Building – called the President’s Room – that has seldom been used in the nearly hundred years since and is now largely forgotten to history. One of Wilson’s innovations that did stick was the State of the Union Address, which previously been a written address to Congress.

Wilson“Wilson wanted to put a face on the presidency,” said A. Scott Berg, whose new biography Wilson is a comprehensive and deeply human portrait of the former president. “He wanted to Congress to see a person who has an agenda of ideas that they might enact together.”

So alive is Berg’s depiction of Wilson that Warner Brothers has already optioned the film rights as a starring vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio.

Berg, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Lindbergh, his biography of aviator Charles Lindbergh, spoke with me recently by phone from an Amtrak train en route from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to speak at the National Book Festival. Berg talked about his research, comparisons of Woodrow Wilson to President Obama, and Wilson’s lessons for dealing with an obstinate Congress.

Did you start out to write a biography about Wilson, or did you happen into it?

He had been a great figure in my life growing up. I really admired him a lot as a teenager, and one of the reasons I went to Princeton was because that’s where Woodrow Wilson had gone. Wilson has really been with me since I was a proper reader. All that time, I had an image developing of Wilson in my own mind, which I had never seen in another book. And that’s ultimately the question a biographer asks before he falls off a cliff for – in my case – 13 years, which is: Do I have something new to say? And I felt I did.

I felt nobody had ever written a really emotional book about Woodrow Wilson. In part, because he was an academician himself, most of his biographers have been academics who have written, I felt, dusty books that never made him come alive. You get a lot of military history or diplomatic history or political history, but they never capture the personal history, which I felt informed every personal decision he ever made.

I wanted to write the most personal, humanizing biography of Wilson that I could – especially humanizing because he is usually depicted as this very cold, dour Presbyterian minister’s son, and he certainly had that streak within him. But he was a very full-bodied, red-blooded man. That’s what I tried to capture in Wilson.

How did you know about Wilson growing up? I assume your formative reading years were in the 1960s?

That would be correct. I read a book called When the Cheering Stopped by Gene Smith, which was about Wilson’s last few years. And it was really the first book to talk about the role the second Mrs. Wilson played after Wilson suffered the stroke, which was kept a dark secret from the world. I just remember reading that book and being hooked on him.

So at 15, which was in 1965, I really began reading a lot about Woodrow Wilson and books by Woodrow Wilson. By the time I went off to college at Princeton, Wilson was very much in my mind and in my life.

Did you always think you would write this book?

In the back of my mind I had always thought I might get to it, but I wasn’t sure there would be an audience beyond me. Wilson has fallen into disfavor in the last few decades especially. After I finished “Lindbergh,” I went to my editor and we discussed that I would do my memoir of Katherine Hepburn [Kate Remembered].

I went in to talk to my editor – Phyllis Grann, to whom the book is dedicated in part – and I said I wanted to do a Katherine Hepburn memoir that I had thought about for 20 years, and then we went through ideas for potential subjects. And I said, “Phyllis, you know, I must confess to you I have one secret idea I’ve been carrying around with me ever since I started writing, and that’s Woodrow Wilson. She said, “Oh, I don’t even need to discuss that. Done.”

She asked how I ever got interested in Woodrow Wilson, and I told her when I was 15 I had read a book called When the Cheering Stopped. And she went very quiet and welled up a little. She said, “Scott, that’s kind of amazing because in 1964 I was a secretary at William Morrow & Co., and my boss walked over to my desk and said ‘Phyllis, I know you want to be an editor, so here’s a manuscript. See what you can do with it.” And it was When the Cheering Stopped.

Since you already knew a good bit about Wilson, how did you start with this book?

I’ve been reading about Wilson for 40 years, so I had a lot of material under my belt. Starting in 2000, I sat down with his papers and began to go through them. I had a great stroke of fortune, which was a Princeton professor named Arthur Link, who spent 40 years of his life collecting all of the Wilson papers he could possibly find, and he printed Wilson’s greatest hits in 69 volumes. I bought a set of those books so I could work from home, then I visited libraries like the Library of Congress and the Princeton Library to go through the papers left out of the 69 volumes, and then traveled around to some other libraries.

In the last five or six years, two really important caches of personal papers surfaced – one being a couple of trunks of papers belonging to one of Wilson’s daughters, and the other being papers that belonged Woodrow Wilson’s personal physician and really most loyal friend, Dr. Cary Grayson. I had access to those that nobody else had.

I took notes for eight years, six months to sift through and sort it all out, and then about five years to write it.

For the op-ed that you wrote earlier this year in the New York Times about Wilson and Obama, did the Times come to you and say they wanted a history lesson for President Obama?

No, I went to them, actually, around January and said, “March 4, 2013, will be the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s inauguration. I would really like to write a piece to remind people that – A – Woodrow Wilson existed and was important and governed in a brand new way, and – B – I think I could really contemporize this story and really make it reverberate by writing a kind of open letter to President Obama.”

It was partly historical and partly editorial. It was basically: Obama, take a few pages out of the Wilson playbook. Look at the way he legislated. Show up in Congress more. Sit in the President’s Room [in Congress], which no president has really done since Woodrow Wilson. Co-operate the government the way Wilson did with the legislature.

Did Wilson reinvent the State of the Union address as a lobbying tool?

Less for lobbying, though that’s why he sat in the President’s Room day after day. It was mostly that he wanted to humanize, to personalize, the institution of the presidency. He believed governments were not just institutions but the people who worked in them. It’s what he used to say about industry: There aren’t corrupt corporations; just corrupt people who work within corporations.

You’ve been on the road a lot already for the book. Are you more promoting the book or promoting Wilson?

I’m sort of on a mission to reinstate people in Woodrow Wilson’s minds. I don’t mind so much if people love or hate Wilson, but I want them to be informed about Wilson. Until a few decades ago, he was always in the top four or five of the great presidents. Now, most people under 50 don’t have a clue who he is.

This is a man whose ideals are so much with us today. When Barack Obama gave his speech about Syria [on September 10, 2013], that whole speech was pure Woodrow Wilson. When he asked: Are we supposed to be the policemen of the world? When he asked: Can we just stand by while someone is gassing a thousand of his own people, killing children? Can the United States morally stand there and do nothing? Those were the very questions Woodrow Wilson posed on April 2, 1917, when he said the world must be made safe for democracy.

It’s not just foreign affairs. Our economy is built on Woodrow Wilson’s ideas and principles – the Federal Reserve System, the modern income tax, the eight-hour work day, workers’ compensation. That’s all Wilson.

If you take Wilson’s eight years in office and divide that into four congressional terms, did he have an agreeable Congress throughout those terms?

No. The trajectory was a downhill slide. He started big. In the second, he still had a Democratic majority. By his third Congress, things were pretty even. By the fourth, the Republicans were taking over. By the time he left office, a Republican landslide replaced him. [President] Warren Harding and Congress began to undo as much of Woodrow Wilson as they possibly could.

That happened to Johnson, to Clinton, and to Obama. Is there something built into the system that favors the challenging party?

I think it’s sort of the pendulum theory. Pendulums can only swing so far. When you look at the presidents you named – Johnson, Clinton, Obama – who came in like a house on fire and did as much business as they could. Republican’s say, “Let’s slow this down.” And then Congress become increasingly Republican. And then the pendulum swings back.

What’s the causation link? Is the president caught in an up-and-down wharp, or is it a response to the president?

Progress is generally incremental. Woodrow said the country is not really Republican or Democratic. There’s a big independent middle. Republicans and Democrats on either side are trying to move that big independent middle in one direction or the other. I think that’s why there can only be incremental progress. Periodically, a great progressive leader will push things one way, or a conservative will come along – Reagan – and push things the other way. But the public at large only wants so much change at a time. I think the only exceptions to that are times of extreme crisis such as a Great Depression or a war when the public is less inclined to change leaders mid-stream and really wants the leader to carry on with the full support of the country.

Do you see Obama’s presidency as far as the relationship of the three branches of government being analogous to Wilson or any other president?

I don’t think [Obama] exerts the power or the skill that Wilson did in working with the Legislative Branch. That said, Obama has been extremely effective when you start to tally up the legislation that has gone through during his administration. It’s pretty remarkable considering the contentiousness in Washington.

Did Wilson deal with that?

Oh, my God! You’ve got to get to the end of the book! You will see [Wilson] fighting with Henry Cabot Lodge – especially over the League of Nations – which literally killed Woodrow Wilson. Lodge was so hostile that Wilson felt he had to take his show on the road. He went on a 29-city tour for, I think, the greatest cause a president has ever fought for, and collapsed in the middle. None of that that would have happened if Henry Cabot Lodge and Woodrow had said down at a table and hashed things out.

The enmity was so great between them that when Woodrow Wilson died and Henry Cabot Lodge was going to show up for the state funeral as the leader of the Senate, Mrs. Wilson wrote him a note that said, “Please don’t show up.” And he didn’t.

Did you read John Milton Cooper’s Woodrow Wilson: A Biography?

I didn’t read it. I didn’t want to be influenced in any way or have anyone think I had been influenced in any way. I will confess I always had what I thought was a great beginning and end for my book. So when his book came out [in 2009], I went to a bookstore and read the two opening pages and two closing pages just to make sure my opening and closing were not the same thing, and mine were far from it.

Did you decide at some point that Wilson would be a single volume?

I decided at the beginning. There are several multi-volume [Wilson biographies], and that’s the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to write a readable but historical biography of Woodrow Wilson, and I really tried to write it in a style unlike any other biography of Wilson. I wanted to write a page-turner, and I think it is.

<em><a href=”https://porchland.wordpress.com/&#8221; >Scott Porch</a> is an attorney and writer in Savannah, Georgia. He is writing a book about the historical impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.</em>

Lynda Obst: Tentpoles, tadpoles and TV

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on June 18, 2013.

2013-06-18-ObstCover.jpgFilm producer Lynda Obst’s career has had more twists and turns than a big-budget action movie — which is not the sort of movie she makes. (Not yet anyway, but more on that later.)

Obst started her career as associate producer on Flashdance and made a film every year or two from the early 1990s through the early 2000s — One Fine Day with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer, Hope Floats with Sandra Bullock, Contact with Jodie Foster, and iconic romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

In 2001, Paramount Pictures greenlit her rom-com How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days starring Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey. It opened No. 1 at the box office in February 2003, was Paramount’s second-highest grossing movie that year, and is one of the 25 highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time.

Obst continued to read scripts and develop budgets for the kinds of films she had always made — smart, character-driven, medium-budget comedies and dramas. A year after How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, though, Paramount had not greenlit her next film.

“Suddenly, I was getting blank stares when I asked to go to hire directors,” Obst said in our recent interview. “My son (talent manager Oly Obst), who is incredibly smart, said to me, ‘Mom, trying to get a movie made because it’s good is so 2003.'”

By the late 2000s, the industry was in a full-on reboot: DVD sales dropped by more than half from 2007 to 2010 as consumers turned to much-less-profitable streaming services like Netflix. Studios unloaded many production deals in the wake of the 2007 writers’ strike and started making fewer films.

In her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business (Simon & Schuster), Obst explains the revolution through interviews with studio executives, producers, writers, etc. The book grew out of her own search for answers.

“I set off to figure out what the hell was going on because I couldn’t figure it out myself,” Obst said. “I didn’t understand why I wasn’t able to get the same kinds of movies made that I was able to get made the first half of my career.”

The book is both an outstanding work of reporting about how Hollywood evolved from a film-driven American industry to a brand-driven global enterprise and a personal account of how those changes drove Obst’s film career from studio to studio, and from film to television and back.

Obst is Thriving in the ‘New Abnormal.’

Nothing has ever been normal in Hollywood, Obst says. She calls the days before the massive upheaval the “Old Abnormal” and the period since then the “New Abnormal.” Obst recovered — as did Hollywood — and is thriving in the New Abnormal. She has more projects in pre-production and production than at any other time in her career and in all three areas where Hollywood is trending: tentpoles (big-budget films), tadpoles (small-budget indie films), and television.


Obst’s just-announced tentpole film is the sci-fi epic Interstellarwhich she will co-produce with director Christopher Nolan and writer Jonathan Nolan for a November 2014 release. The film will star Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, and Matthew McConaughey, who Obst worked with on both Contact and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

“We’re all in a very happy cone of silence aboutInterstellar,” Obst said, declining to elaborate on the film’s premise or provide other tidbits.

For her tadpole film, Obst has financing, a script, a director, and is in casting for How to Get a Guy in 10 Days, an indie kind-of-sort-of sequel to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. The hottest property a producer can own, Obst says, is a franchise with pre-awareness.

“We’re trying to take the notion of preawareness” — the built-in buzz that a well-known brand brings to the table — “of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days‘ fans and say, this is something like that. It’s not exactly that,” Obst said. “But it’s a movie in that vein. It’s not a reboot, it’s not a sequel, but it’s a movie in that tradition.”

In television, Obst is an executive producer on Hot in Cleveland — the popular TV Land series now in its fourth season was Obst’s idea — and has a series in production calledHelix that will air this winter on Syfy.

Romantic comedies are (mostly) out.

American romantic comedies lost favor with the major studios because they don’t have blockbuster potential at home and don’t sell as well in places like China and India. In the last two years, the only romantic comedy to gross more than $100 million at the U.S. box office was Silver Lining Playbook — and much of that was due to Oscar buzz and a Best Actress win by Jennifer Lawrence.

“There are cultural nuances that don’t travel. Broad comedies play because falling on a banana peel is funny in every culture, but nuance — cultural nuance, or wit — are peculiarities. They don’t travel. So-called ‘writing’ — wit and nuance — doesn’t travel,” Obst said.

“Broad comedy travels, which is why you saw Hangover play [internationally], which is why you saw Horrible Bosses play to a certain extent, and why you saw Bridesmaidssurprise everybody and play so well.”

That has pushed romantic comedies into smaller-budget indie productions like Friends with Kids, which Jennifer’s Westfeldt and John Hamm made for less than $10 million, and (500) Days of Summer, which had a budget of $7.5 million.

Blockbuster franchise films are in.

There are new rules to making a box-office hit in Hollywood, and they aren’t complicated: You need a franchise, you need pre-awareness, and you need international appeal. And if — if, if, if, if, if — you pick the right project, you join the billion-dollar club.

Notice what wasn’t in those rules: making a good movie. Decent reviews are optional.Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest each grossed more than $1 billion worldwide despite generally bad reviews.

In 2012, Walt Disney Pictures made a big bet on John Carter — which, you may not know, was based on the John Carter of Mars series of books that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote roughly a century ago — and it lost $200 million. It had no fan base, no bankable stars, and no social-media buzz. It was the biggest flop in box office history.

“I think the problem was that it wasn’t an IP [intellectual property] worthy of being made,” Obst said. “I don’t think science geeks were interested in it, and I don’t think fantasy geeks were interested in it. I’m a science geek; I didn’t want to go.”

Ann Kingman on Project Short Story

Note: This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on April 29, 2013.

George SaundersWith George Saunders’ Tenth of December (Random House) and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf) already drawing strong praise from literary critics and several other short story collections inching toward publication this summer and fall, short stories are looking to make a big comeback this year.

Popular book blog and podcast Books on the Nightstand — run by Random House reps Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, though not as an official Random House project — has gone so far as dub 2013 “The Year of the Short Story.” Kingman has even taken on an ambitious effort to read one short story a day for the entire year that she is calling Project Short Story.

Kingman took a few minutes to talk about how the project is going.

What’s the last story you read?

“Shakespeare’s Memory” by Jorge Luis Borges, read by Hisham Matar on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. It’s a brain-bender in every sense of the word, about a man who is offered the gift of Shakespeare’s actual memory.

Have you missed a day yet?

Sadly, I have. I had about a week and a half of heavy travel that also included the death of a family member and the Boston marathon bombing; I was too exhausted or distracted to read on several of those days. I did make up for it, though, by reading or listening to multiple stories on a few days, so I think that the numbers will even out.

Has it added to what you have to read for work, or have you just shifted the balance of novels and short story collections?

This project is strictly additive; only two of the stories I’ve read have also counted as “work” reading. I try to squeeze in the short stories during the day, and read novels and nonfiction books in the evening before bed.

Have you heard from many people who follow your blog or the podcast who are doing their own Project Short Story or at least reading more of them?

Yes, and I’m delighted! There are a few people who are also reading a story a day, and I’ve heard from several of our listeners that they have increased their short story reading. Dan Wickett of Dzanc Books has declared May to be Short Story Month, so I’m hoping that many more will jump on the short story bandwagon, at least for a little while.

What has the balance been of stories you found online vs. stories you are reading from collections?

I’d say it’s a fairly even mix. Several of the stories I’ve chosen have been in collections I own, but as I’ve blogged them, I’ve found them online. I love when stories are online because it feels that I can more easily share them, and that others may read them. I do own well over one hundred collections, both single-author and anthologies, so I am trying to at least sample most of them over the course of this year.

The New Yorker has always been sort of a home base for great short story authors like Alice Munro, Richard Ford, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Is that part of your reading routine?

It’s a more important part than I realized it would be at the beginning of this project, thanks to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, a monthly podcast that features one short story read aloud and discussed. I spend several hours each week in my car driving to and from bookstores, and I have fallen completely in love with the podcast. I especially love the conversation between the author who has chosen the story and the podcast host, Deborah Treisman. It’s like a mini lit class. It’s a monthly podcast, and I’m dreading the day when I’ve listened to all of the episodes.

Seems to me that George Saunders’ Tenth of December (Random House) and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf) — both published in early 2013 — are the two titles that have really marked this as the year of the short story collection. Is that your sense?

Yes. I had read both collections in the fall of 2012, and they were both instrumental in my declaration that 2013 was going to be the year of the short story. Of course, I had no idea that on January 3rd New York Times magazine would put Saunders on the cover and callTenth of December “the best book you’ll read this year.” I have to say it made me feel good about my proclamation.

Were there other collections you had read in galleys or heard advance buzz about that signaled to you that 2013 was going to be a noteworthy year for short stories?

Yes, I knew that Jess Walter had a new collection coming, We Live in Water (Harper). I was a huge fan of Walter’s novel, Beautiful Ruins [published in 2012]. Ethan Rutherford’s first collection, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories (Ecco, May 7th) has been getting a lot of buzz and is terrific. And there’s a new Aimee Bender collection, The Color Master (Knopf) coming in August.

Is there a big short story collection for summer that are you are looking forward to?

Definitely the Aimee Bender. I have the manuscript, but I am saving it for closer to publication because I know I won’t be able to stop talking about it once I’ve read it.

T.C. Boyle’s ginormous, 944-page Stories II (Viking) collection of stories he has published since 1998 will be out in October.  Have you read much of his last three collections that will make up the bulk of this mega-collection?

I have not, and am very much looking forward to reading it. I don’t think I’ve read any T.C. Boyle stories at all, come to think of it.

Is there a Twitter hashtag for short stories like #longform for short nonfiction? Have you thought about starting one?

According to the Short Story Month website, Knopf started #shortreads. I think it’s time to give it some more traction, so let’s spread the word…

Jeffrey Toobin on future of the Roberts Court

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on June 4, 2013.

Jeffrey Toobin The Oath

Jeffrey Toobin’s 2007 book The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court — the most revealing insider account of the Supreme Court since Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s 1979 classic The Brethren — was the story of how the court of Bush v. Gorebecame a moderating force against the Bush administration on issues like abortion and the legal rights of enemy combatants post-9/11.

In The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, which is just out in paperback from Anchor Books, a division of Random House, the veteran New Yorker staff writer, CNN analyst and Supreme Court chronicler finds a court transformed. After 11 years in which which the same nine members served on the court, Chief Justice John Roberts replaced Chief Justice William Rehnquist in 2005 and Justice Samuel Alito replaced Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006.

Although the two new justices in the mid-2000s did not change the 5-4 conservative majority on the court, they forged a different kind of conservative majority — one that made an aggressive and confident right turn on issues like affirmative action, search and seizure, campaign finance, and voting rights. (O’Connor, meanwhile, is not so sure the court should have gotten involved with the 2000 election.)

Toobin and I discussed his books and the current state of the Supreme Court earlier this week by email, which I lightly edited below.

In The Nine, you reported that Justice David Souter would eat an entire apple — core and all — every day for lunch when he was on the court. Did you come across any more weird anecdotes in reporting for The Oath?

That the reason Roberts and Obama messed up the oath on January 20, 2009, was because a congressional secretary didn’t download the attachment to an email. The attachment was Roberts’ version of the oath, but the secretary never passed it along to Obama’s staff.

One of the big takeaways from The Oath is that the conservative majority has moved the Supreme Court to the right. Isn’t that just what majorities do — move the court in their own ideological direction?

That is what majorities do — just as the liberal majority in the Warren Court moved the court and the country to the left. My preference on these issues is simple candor. Too often the judges (on both sides) simply insist that they are doing “the law,” which has nothing to do with politics. My view is that law, especially constitutional law, has everything to do with politics.

Do you think the record numbers of vacancies in the district courts and the D.C. Circuit reflects more a dysfunctional Senate confirmation process or Obama’s lack of interest in the courts relative to other priorities?

Hard to separate out the two. I think Republican obstruction is probably the bigger factor, but Obama’s lack of interest in the subject of judicial appointments is one of the mysteries of his presidency. It does appear that he is taking a more aggressive tack, with a group of nominees to the D.C. Circuit soon to be unveiled. But the lost opportunity of his first two years in office, with 60 Democratically controlled Senate seats, will never be recaptured.

The big decisions from the current term will be delivered in the next few weeks. What decisions are you most interested in seeing?

There are four huge cases still to go. Fisher on affirmative action, Shelby County on the future of the Voting Rights Act, and the two same-sex marriage cases about the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8. The first two cases will be an important signal of how the court will address the great question of twentieth century law — race. And the second two will tell us about a great issue of the twenty-first — gay rights.

What issues do you expect the court will take up in the next term?

When Republicans recaptured statehouses in the 2010 midterms, they set about restricting abortion rights in new and inventive ways. By next term, several of these issues will arrive before the justices. And many of them have never addressed abortion on the court. Also, the Roberts court seems determined to undo racial preferences and affirmative action, and any issues left open this term may soon return.

Aside from his Obamacare decision, do you see Chief Justice Roberts positioning himself to preside over a court where he may not always have a conservative majority?

Tell me who wins the 2016 presidential election, and I’ll tell you the answer to that question. The ideological breakdown of the court is stable and likely to remain that way for the rest of Obama’s term. (I expect Ginsburg will retire and be replaced by someone like-minded, probably Sri Srinivasan.) The real question is who will replace Scalia and Kennedy, who will both be in their eighties under the next president.

Given the strong odds that a Democrat elected president in 2016 would have an opportunity to shift the court from a conservative to a liberal majority, if one of the conservative justices passed away and left an open seat, do you think the Senate confirmation process could simply shut down and leave the court with eight justices for a term or longer?

I don’t see how that would be possible. Supreme Court appointments are sufficiently important that the Democratic majority in the Senate would force Republicans to engage in an actual talking filibuster, and those cannot go on forever. Refusal to allow a vote on a Supreme Court nominee would almost certainly result in the Democrats changing the rules in the Senate to restrict filibusters on judicial nominees. So I don’t think Republicans could hold up Supreme Court nominees indefinitely.

You wrote a profile of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a few months ago in The New Yorker. Did you get the sense from talking to her and the people around her that she would likely retire at the end of this term?

Not this term. And probably not next term. But very possibly in the third year of Obama’s second term.

In The Oath, you quote Justice Stephen Breyer as saying: “It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much.” Do you think a liberal majority anchored by Justices Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor would be more inclined to preserve the court’s recent conservative decisions like Citizens United on the basis of precedent or reverse them?

Hard to speculate about something that is really way off and may never happen. My sense is that the liberals would try to limit various decisions they don’t like (such as Citizens United) and possibly overturn them down the line. But it would be a long process.

The Nine and The Oath are essentially a two-volume history of the Supreme Court since 2000. Are you planning on writing another volume?

Not immediately and probably not for my next book. But the Supreme Court is a great subject, and it’s not going away. For better or worse, I don’t think the court (and the reading public) have seen my last word on the subject.