Studs Terkel is a celebrated broadcaster and oral historian. He's also that rare thing: an old-fashioned US radical
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"HERE'S the crazy thing. Five years to go. Five years away from the millennium - the millennium! A hundred years since Queen Victoria's death and the time when we became an empire and now, now, will we lose our empire? Because we did lose a war you know. We lost. We lost!"

Studs Terkel pauses for breath, savouring the memory, feasting on the stupendous irony of it all. "We lost to those little guys in black pyjamas! How can you forgive those little bastards that beat John Wayne and Gary Cooper all rolled into one, for Christ's sake? John Wayne got the shit kicked out of him by that little guy weighing 110lbs! Think about it now. We're it! I mean, we're the macho kid - and we lost! We're the guy who kicked the shit out of Hitler. We kicked the shit out of Japan's imperialism, by God! But the little Vietnamese guys: think about it. They kicked the shit out of us. So how can we forgive them?"

Terkel, a little guy of 83, is explaining America to me. It's four in the afternoon. We're sitting in a restaurant in Chicago nursing a couple of cognacs. Outside, it's raining and a chilly wind is blowing from the Great Lakes. We're the only customers left but the waiters are in no hurry to get us out. Had we been sitting in a restaurant in, say, Des Moines, Iowa, they might have thrown Terkel out at gunpoint, for in a society as conventionally rigid as the United States, his views on Vietnam, the verbal cartwheels he performs in recollection of Uncle Sam's humiliation, come across as utterly outrageous. But in Chicago, Terkel is a celebrity, and here, as elsewhere in America, celebrities can get away with murder. Besides, Chicagoans have a history of celebrating scoundrels and subversives. Al Capone put the city on the international map; Louis Farrakhan, the spectacularly controversial Nation of Islam leader, has made Chicago his home. This is "the City of Big Shoulders" - the city with the biggest skyscraper in the world, the biggest airport, the biggest commodities market. And such is the force of Terkel's personality that it has earned him a place among these monuments. Bill Campbell, a retired political cartoonist who used to work for the Chicago Daily News, describes Terkel as the heartbeat of Chicago: "To imagine Chicago without Studs Terkel," he says, "is like imagining the New Testament without Jesus."

Terkel, who is Jewish - and as such, in the words of a friend, "has an advance on social consciousness" - is a man who trades in the spoken word. His fame at home derives from The Studs Terkel Show, a one-hour radio talk show that has been running daily in Chicago for more than 40 years. Usually, the shows are built around a studio guest, but the format is invariably imaginative, peppered like a docu-drama with music, studiously selected archive material and Terkel's own boisterous stage persona. In the rest of the United States, and beyond, he is best known as the master of oral history, a man who has produced 10 classic books, most of them based on voluminous taped interviews. Race (which included the memorable quote that being black in America was like wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes) won Terkel a Pulitzer Prize. A stage and radio actor in his youth, he supplements his income these days on the lucrative American lecture circuit. People pay to hear his discourses on, among other things, jazz, politics, racism, old age, US foreign policy. They pay, also, for the theatrical flourish and the dangerous political edge he brings to his performances. He is an impertinent non-conformist who speaks - or, rather, barks, hoots and stage whispers - in exclamation marks, who takes delight in declaiming in wonder, pity and horror at the unfathomable idiocy of the species. No intellectual, but an admirer of intellectuals who counts Bertrand Russell among his greatest heroes, he is the crude, sharp, viciously witty voice of blue-collar Chicago. A rare survivor of America's Old Left, he refuses to allow the loud voices of today's rampant conservative crusaders to drown him out.

In his books, and through thousands upon thousands of hours of unpublished radio interviews, he has chronicled the lives of the great men and the common people - but mostly the common people - who have spanned the Great Depression, the Second World War, the McCarthy witch-hunts, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, the Vietnam War and today's Brave Newt World. Len Despres, a Chicago labour lawyer of 87 who has stood alongside Terkel on the barricades for half a century, describes him as a "walking treasury of America". Never solemn, but rarely less than serious, he's the wise jester, the capering conscience of the Land of the Free.

I CAUGHT my first glimpse of Studs late last year at a TV studio where he was recording an interview to promote his latest book, Coming of Age, a collection of 67 interviews with Americans in their seventies, eighties and nineties which aspires to tell "the story of our century by those who've lived it". I tip-toed in, sat down and, upon hearing him utter the word "nigger", almost fell off my chair. It's simply not done to use "the N-word" on television, or anywhere else for that matter, however ironic your intent - the most sensible supposition when you're in the company of Americans is that irony will not be understood. So best leave it alone. But that's part of the freedom of old age; as Terkel says in his book, you're free to do your thing because tomorrow you may die. As it was, he was doing what he always does in conversation, speaking in someone else's voice, in this case a man who features in his book, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who changed his spots and ended up obtaining a job - happy, comfortable - under a black female boss. At the end of the TV interview, I introduced myself, he started talking, stepped out into the rain, went back into the studio because he had put on someone else's raincoat, carried on talking (about Gingrich, about the mayor of Chicago, about OJ Simpson), stepped out again, walked a couple of blocks, kept on talking, found a restaurant, and failed to find the door. Instead, he - and I - stumbled into a women's clothes shop. Terkel, I quickly grasped, is a man whose mind is too preoccupied with the big questions to allow much space for the practical. (The reason, I suspect, that he always wears red socks is as much to avoid the embarrassment of a sartorial mismatch as to proclaim his defiance of the establishment.)

But there, at last, we were at the emptying restaurant, me taking notes, he talking about Chicago, "the archetypal American city", the heartbeat of America's working class, still a magnet for immigrants of all shades and nationalities; the biggest city between two coasts, the hub of the nation's railroads ("when I was kid at that teeming station it was like visiting America"); the city's legendary political "machine", corrupt, flamboyant, scornful of the pretensions of other metropolises, of Washington and New York. As he raged on, an image from his biography, Talking to Myself, came to mind: Terkel's description of a huckster he knew in the Thirties called Red Kelly. "He appeared ageless. He could pass for 60. He could pass for 12. His wrinkled face and puny body told us he was undoubtedly a leprechaun." Puny's not quite right. Pugilistic is better. Barely 5ft 4in, Studs is a compact and nimble bantamweight.

Leprechaun was exactly the image that came to mind when I asked if he could characterise the present moment, the sharp jolt to the right in American politics, the Newt Gingrich phenomenon, the predominance of God and "family values". He leapt from his chair as if I'd branded him with an electric prod.

"I have to act this out for you in terms of physical posture," he declared. "Now look. You have to watch me now. Look: here is the centre." He leans right, at 30 degrees to the ground, as if he were doing a stretching exercise. "This would be our normal way of walking if our physical posture emulated our political posture. This is the centre. Now, if I were to walk this way" - he levers his torso up a couple of notches, leaning now 15 degrees to the right - "this would be Ted Kennedy. A leftist. Now, if you lean slightly this way" - he inclines his head a touch left of centre - "now you're a wild-eyed radical, you're nuts. What I'm trying to say is that our posture is cock-eyed. But we accept it. So something's happened to the American language as well. Look at the word 'liberal'. It's become a put-down word. It marks you as a subversive, for Christ's sake! So the centre moves to the right because to be slightly to the left is to cause trouble."

The impulse to stand up and act, to dramatise, is strong in Terkel. The home he grew up in was a sort of theatre. His mother owned a working-men's hotel in central Chicago where Poles and Irishmen and Scots, often freshly arrived in town, would sit and drink late into the night, regaling the boy Terkel with colourful stories of hardships in distant lands and the battle for survival in the brutal Chicago market-place. He also applied himself to his formal education and, after graduating from Chicago Law School in 1934, tried to get a job in the fingerprints division of the FBI. As he was to discover many years later when he looked up what he calls his "Freedom of Information files", he was turned down because he was "somewhat sloppy" and "not the best type of boy". So he went to Washington and got a job in the Treasury Department. He sought relief by night at the Washington Civic Theatre, where he played the role of a handyman with fascist tendencies in a play by Sinclair Lewis. Within a couple of years, he was back in Chicago. He left bean-counting behind and moved into a line of business which allowed him to combine his histrionic talents with his fascination with the Mob: he became a cameo-actor in radio soap operas playing safe-crackers, extortionists and hired assassins.

In Talking to Myself he tells the story of a certain Jimmy Two, a schoolmate he helped cheat in exams. In later life, Jimmy Two was "doing magnificently in the field of fire and bomb insurance" until one day he was found dead, eyes wide open and staring into the blue sky, in a Chicago alley. Terkel confesses in his memoirs to a certain admiration for Jimmy Two and other anti-heroes of organised crime, who he sees as no more immoral, and certainly more honest, than organised government. His book is peppered with affectionate references to the likes of Kid Pharaoh, Momo Giancana (hired by the Kennedy administration to kill Castro) and Terrible Tommy O'Connor. "Who can ever forget," he writes, "the moving plea of Al Capone, dying in Alcatraz: 'Set me free and I'll help you fight the Bolsheviks'?"

Terkel set himself free from soap radio when he got the chance to have his own soapbox on air. He modelled his persona on the outsiders - be they bad guys, philosophers, or Irish navvies - who peopled the images of his youth, figures deemed dangerous or fanatical by the establishment. His boyhood idol, a politician whose memory he reveres to this day, was Fightin' Bob La Follette, a senator from Wisconsin who ran for president as an independent in 1924, quixotically challenging what he saw as the cosily undemocratic alliance between the two big parties and Big Business. La Follette's example still shapes his views and colours his contempt for 1996 America.

"To understand how we reached this pass," he told me, "we've got to go back to the Thirties, to the Depression. To Roosevelt and what he did to get us out of it, to meet certain basic needs. So here's the exquisite irony that the economist Galbraith is known for: if it weren't for the goddam liberal legislation, half these guys - remember Ronnie Reagan's father was in the WPA, the federal jobs Works Project Administration - were it not for that and the jobs, well, that's what put them out of poverty and made them comfortable, and conservative! After the Second World War the soldiers moved to the suburbs and, generally speaking, we became very prosperous. Hoover's slogan in the Depression was 'A car in every garage and two chickens in every pot'. Now we have two cars in every garage. Consumerism came into being, and all this led to a feeling of self-satisfaction and association with the rich boys. Then, as this was happening, came the Cold War, the evil empire, and with the Cold War came McCarthy and with McCarthy came something with which we still live. He's dead. Hoover's dead. But there remain in our heads certain things you don't talk about. You're a bore if you do, or you're dangerous if you do. During the McCarthy days what was the talk? Babies and movies - and sports, of course. That was it. Serious conversation would be considered dangerous." (As was Studs' Place, a pioneering NBC TV show that was taken off air in 1953 after Terkel brought Harry Belafonte on as a guest. Belafonte was black, it was the McCarthy era and his views - as well as Terkel's - were considered politically suspect.)

Studs paused for breath, took a sip of his cognac and reflected that serious conversation remained, if not exactly dangerous, certainly frowned upon today. "Our minds have become zombie-ised. Ronnie Reagan was elected overwhelmingly, and today he's considered to have been one of the most popular presidents of the century. Now, even those that voted for him know that Ronnie Reagan would never be confused with Einstein. Never! They know he's not very bright! And you know what? It's OK. It's OK. It's OK that he's dumb! You know why? Because if the president of the United States is dumb and not so fucking egg-headed intellectual, then I-DON'T- HAVE-TO-BE-THAT-FUCKING-BRIGHT-EITHER! Now look at all those disciples of Reagan we have now. Rush Limbaugh, the radio host they all love so much. His admirers call themselves 'the dittoheads'! And they're proud of being called that! They're proud of being mindless! And so you're at a cocktail party: 'What's the guy talking about?' 'He's talking about the homeless.' 'Oh, furchrissake! You know what the Bears [Chicago's football team] did yesterday? They...' - we are the most well-versed people in sports, the males. So sophisticated. So well-versed. Ask them where Nicaragua is - what it is - and they don't know what the fuck you're talking about. But when it comes to the trivia we're fantastic. That's what you see: tri-via-li-sation. It's all one ball of wax. So on the TV news you don't hear about jobs, you hear about sports and Liz Taylor's latest thing. And of course OJ, for Christ's sake."

What exasperates Terkel is the failure, in Ezra Pound's phrase, of the great "mass of dolts" to sift through the trivia, the meaningless labels, and reach down to the living, breathing issues of the day. "That's what has meaning. And the number one issue is jobs. We speak of crime but jobs is the point. Here in Chicago, a mile from where we are right now, there was a new hotel being built. Word got out that 1,000 jobs would be available. The next day 5,000 people showed up. At 5.30 in the morning, along the lake front, which is blizzardy and freezing. Overwhelmingly black males. Four thousand did not get the job. Where did they go? Now don't tell me they're lazy, no good. But what happens to them all, to all that energy that would have gone into a nine-to-five, a buck-in-the-pocket, self-esteem, a family? They hit out, at one another mostly, and now and again an occasional white. And so there's crime. And it's so obvious the answer is more jobs. But no one sees it."

Terkel is not exaggerating. The words "jobs" and "unemployment" barely register in the political vocabulary of America. In the Thirties, when Middle America was hurting, those were the only words that mattered. Now that Middle America is more comfortable, better-fed electoral candidates trade in bogus spirituality, seeking to elicit the feel-good Pavlovian responses associated with faith in God and traditional American values. And Terkel, of course, has his own feelings about that. "We are the most religious country in the world, for Christ's sake! And yet look at us!" A waiter steps up, pours us a couple more cognacs "on the house" and looks at Terkel, who's in a froth of Rumpelstiltskinian indignation. The waiter backs away warily, as if regretting his largesse, as if the extra shot of cognac might detonate a bomb. "Family values!" Studs yells. "Fa-mi- ly values: we use these phrases all of a sudden...We have these New Age kind of churches for yuppies where 3,000 people turn up for a service. They sing gentle rock. It drives you out of your fucking mind! It's bland, it's elevator music, wallpaper music. It's part of this flattening out, that trivialisation - zombiesque. Why do they hunger for this religion? Confusion is a big part of it. Something they believe is the answer. But real religion is working towards the answer, battling for it. This is easy. It simplifies. You say you love God and that's it. God then loves me no matter what I do and I, I - I'm for myself, by God!"

The spirit of Fightin' Bob La Follette still breathes through Terkel - the maverick La Follette, who fought for the poor all his political life, took on Calvin Coolidge in the 1924 election and lost by a mile to the president who declared "the business of America is business". La Follette knew his stand was hopeless but, as Terkel sees it today, he reckoned that someone had to stand up and tell people what was going on in the hope that some day reason might prevail. As Terkel believes it did, fleetingly but marvellously, in the Sixties. But Terkel does not anticipate that, in his lifetime, the culture of the banal will be swept away by a bright new age of intelligence. Middle America, the politicians and the big corporations are locked in a blind embrace. And the media, TV in particular, is the glue that binds them together.

"Who determines political taste, the words that are in and out?" he demands. "In a sense, the press, the media. They're the handmaidens - I don't like to use the word 'whores', that's not nice - the handmaidens, they're kept women. The obeisance of the press to whatever the authority of the day might be! This passive acceptance! Now, you may ask, is it a conspiracy? No. It doesn't have to be. Look at General Electric. They own NBC. Are you hearing Tom Brokaw [the NBC news anchorman] criticising General Electric for some horrendous thing it did? Are you crazy? I'm using this as a gross case, but all this adds up, you see. People are kept in the dark. So the big thing is the news sources. Who runs them? Who owns them? Who determines what we know or what we think? I hate to be old-fashioned, but who does? There's the thing. We don't have a heavy hand of government censoring us. It's not Castro. It's not Hitler. It's not Pinochet. It's something else. It's more subtle than elsewhere because, you see, we're free. We're free, by God! But we're a nation of zombies. And that's what it's about." !