CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
In the Green Room

Sunnylands President Geoffrey Cowan

At One Time in My Life, I Wanted to Be Gene Kelly

Geoffrey Cowan ITGR

Geoffrey Cowan is most recently president of The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands and a professor at the University of Southern California, where he directs the Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership and Policy. Before USC, he served as director of the Voice of America. His most recent book is Let The People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. Before he talked about the rise of primary elections in the United States, he visited the Zócalo green room to chat about TR’s ability to turn a phrase, his childhood heroes, and his feelings about holidays.

Q:
What’s your favorite Theodore Roosevelt line?

A:
This man was amazing with the pithy phrase. “My hat is in the ring” or “bully pulpit.” Or in this 1912 campaign [detailed in his book], a famous line is, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.” That also tells you that there was a religious conviction. During the Bull Moose convention, they were playing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Q:
What salad dressing best describes you?

A:
Let’s go with blue cheese. Hopefully there’s a lot to chew on.

Q:
How do you pass the time when you’re stuck in traffic?

A:
I love to listen to audiobooks now; Audible has been terrific. I listen to a lot of radio. I do a lot of driving because one of my jobs is in the desert. It can be 2 ½ hours one way and 2 ½ hours the other in a day. I can have leisurely telephone calls. My favorite thing is talking to my kids, who are not really kids anymore.

Q:
Who was your childhood hero?

A:
One of them would have been Edward R. Murrow. There were a number of people who stood up to McCarthyism whom I admired—Herbert Lehman, Alistair Cooke. You may not recognize their names, but these were people who had the courage, at the time when I was young, to stand up to that anti-communist crusade.

When I got older, it was people in the civil rights movement. I helped start a newspaper in Alabama called The Southern Courier. I wrote essays about Clifford and Virginia Durr, two people from Alabama. Clifford Durr was an FCC [Federal Communications Commission] commissioner who can take much of the responsibility for public radio. Before he was reappointed, he was asked to take a loyalty oath and he said he couldn’t make people take this. Eventually, he went back to Alabama, started a law practice, and represented Rosa Parks when she sat down on the bus.

Q:
What was the toughest course for you in law school?

A:
The teacher of my anti-trust law class was particularly interesting—Robert Bork. But the hardest class for me was civil procedure. The difficulty had to do with who taught it. It was a fascinating subject to me later.

Q:
What’s your favorite holiday?

A:
Maybe Thanksgiving. It wasn’t as a child, but now it is. It’s such a great time for families to celebrate together. You don’t have to give or get the right gift. You get a long weekend and, when it works nicely, you get a lot of family together. This is strange for someone Jewish to say—Christmas is a special time in my life. My parents are Jewish and proud of being Jewish, but in New York, when I was growing up, we still celebrated Christmas. I loved being with family at Christmas. This past Christmas was especially interesting because we had the children, the grandchildren, my son, and my son’s girlfriend. Everyone knew except the little kids and my son’s girlfriend he was going to propose to her.

Q:
Whose talent would you most like to have?

A:
The person I kind of wanted to be at one time in my life was Gene Kelly. If I could be a great singer and dancer! My favorite movie for many years was An American in Paris. That America doesn’t exist; that Paris doesn’t exist; that world doesn’t exist. But I love the image of it. I love the idea of people breaking out in song.

Q:
As you mentioned, you are one of the founders of The Southern Courier, the first civil rights newspaper in the Deep South. What was the most memorable story you published in that paper?

A:
I was just there for one summer. One that I remember was about the integration of a public school and what that was like. It was hard to explain what it was like—who was going to talk to you? I actually knew one family—a white family—where the kid agreed to talk quietly.

We were trying to be a paper that would be embraced by the civil rights world without losing the values of journalism, which is always a challenge. We decided it would be important to have a lot of pictures in the paper. First of all, the lives of the people we were talking about were not well documented. Also we liked seeing their pictures. The chief photojournalist for us, Jim Peppler, became quite famous. A lot of books of the era rely on Jim Peppler’s photography.

Q:
Do you have any recurring dreams or nightmares?

A:
I have at times. I don’t now. After my parents died—they died in a fire together—I didn’t have horrible dreams about fire. But I did have intense recurring dreams about my parents.

*Photo by Aaron Salcido.