The Report From Baghdad and Pension Funding Troubles

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The war is won, but are the toughest battles in Iraq still ahead? NOW reports from Baghdad. It’s been nearly two months since President Bush declared major combat operations ended in Iraq, but attacks on British and American troops continue. Just this week, six British soldiers were killed during a shooting rampage in southern Iraq, and at least 19 American soldiers have died in hostile fire since the President’s declaration on May 1. Deb Amos reports from Baghdad on the how the presence of US troops in the war-torn country is perceived both from our own soldiers’ perspectives and from those of the Iraqi people.

Bill Moyers sits down with best-selling author Erica Jong to discuss what people today can learn from ancient Greek poet Sappho. Jong, probably best known for her explicit writing about women’s sexuality in her first novel, FEAR OF FLYING, takes on the erotic poet in her latest work SAPPHO’S LEAP. In the novel, Jong seeks out connections to Sappho’s ancient world and discovers how this poetry rooted in antiquity has transcended time.

Is your pension plan hemorrhaging money? A good pension was once a part of the American Dream, and for generations, traditional, company-sponsored pension plans have been one of the bedrocks of retirement income. But today many Americans may never get the full value of their pension funds. Now, Congress is considering legislation that could relieve companies from having to make good on their commitments to fully fund pensions for their employees. Forty-four million Americans are counting on these pensions to be there when they need them. NOW examines how some companies have used accounting loopholes to avoid fully funding their pension plans, while at the same time go out of their way to ensure the retirement benefits of their top executives. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.


TRANSCRIPT

MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. In Baghdad today, an American soldier buying DVDs in a local shop was shot in the head. Earlier this morning, several American soldiers were driving to Baghdad to make telephone calls to their families back here in the States. On a dirt road northwest of the capital, an explosive device went off. Some of the soldiers were wounded and had to be evacuated by helicopter.

And even earlier, a GI was ambushed and killed while investigating a car theft. Since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1st, at least 21 American and six British soldiers have died from hostile fire. Iraqi Resistance continues to increase and Washington is worried. The Pentagon has sent a team of outside experts to assess what’s going wrong. And companies seeking to invest in the rebuilding of Iraq have been told by a private intelligence firm that there’s an even chance Iraq could be slipping into revolt. National Public Radio’s Deborah Amos has been in Baghdad for the last month. And she is with us now by satellite.

Welcome, Deborah. Does your reporting show that these attacks on Americans and British troops are the result of organized resistance, or are they simply isolated events?

AMOS: The military continues to say here that there is no organization to these attacks, it is just a spike over the last couple of days. No command and control. No one commander that they can go and catch and it would be all over. That they are small resistance groups around the country.

The big question is “why?” Are these the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime who are fighting for the old days? Or are these simply Iraqis who do not like the occupation and have decided to take a shot at the Americans all over the city?

MOYERS: So there’s no evidence that you can discern that these attacks are organized?

AMOS: Bill, there’s a couple of theories about what’s going on here. And depending on which one you buy would have to do with which solution you choose. There are some people who say that this is a rump group of Saddam Hussein loyalists. I think the Secretary of Defense called them “the dead-enders of the Saddam regime.”

And the reason that they are attacking American and British soldiers is because they want to wear them down and get them out of here. And so that’s why these attacks continue. There are other people who say it’s not that at all. It’s Iraqis who are disillusioned with the occupation, angry over no electricity and no jobs, no salaries for two months.

And so they have taken potshots at American and British soldiers. Remember, this is a place where the citizenry are fully armed and they know how to use those weapons. So it’s not out of the question that that’s what it is. I think that nobody really can say which theory is correct. But there are two different solutions for it.

If you believe that these are remnants of the Saddam regime then you have to stamp them out. You have to be very aggressive, go town to town, find them, arrest them, sweep them up. If these are disgruntled Iraqis, what you have to do is you’ve got to speed up the reconstruction. You have to make sure people have electricity. You have to bring the anger down at what’s happening here.

MOYERS: THE WASHINGTON POST had a story this week in which it said Americans are caught between a rock and a hard place.

“That they’re being sent out at night to look for some of Iraq’s most wanted men, some of Saddam Hussein’s old buddies, cronies, and killers. And so that, at night, for the sake of surprise, the American troops come in like SWAT teams, ramming down compound walls. Children cry. Women are terrified. And men are handcuffed and led away, sometimes with nylon bags over their heads.

More often than not, they are innocent, or family members of the targets, or housekeepers or guards, and later released.”

But nonetheless, this is creating a great sense of injustice among the Iraqi people. Is that your understanding?

AMOS: It is, Bill. And I’ve talked to families who actually have been victims of some of those searches. In particular, when they have gotten the wrong person. And it does happen because of bad intelligence.

In the daytime, you will see American soldiers on the side of the road eating ice cream cones with kids, stopping and buying soft drinks and fruit. They take off their helmets. They look like the friendly policemen down the street.

But at night, they are conducting weapon searches and looking for armed groups. They knock down doors in the middle of the night. They scare children. I have been in homes where kids are scared of any stranger that comes in the house after one of these raids.

Sometimes they’re successful, they do find armed men who are moving against them. But sometimes these are families who have nothing to do with the armed attacks. And it does sort of fuel anger and resentment in those towns.

And while those people may not have been supporting the armed insurgents before, they certainly will after one of those evenings spent with the American troops, especially when the men come home and tell their wives that they have spent the night on the floor with their arms tied behind their back, and a bag over their heads.

MOYERS: It is true that they’re looking for some of Iraq’s most wanted men.

AMOS: They are. Although today, Bill, the British in southern Iraq have suspended their search for weapons. I think the British, may have concluded that this has been such a flash point that it’s a good idea to just back off a little bit. A few days ago, as you know, six military policemen were cornered and killed in a police station in a small village.

It was a terrible event. The British say that they were killed in cold blood. What the villagers there say is that they didn’t like it that the British were coming in in the middle of the night. And worse still, say the villagers, that the British were bringing in sniffer dogs.

Now, for Islam, bringing a dog into the house is a great cultural crime. It’s a mistake. Dogs are unclean. And they didn’t like that the British were coming into their houses.

What the British have now done is backed off a bit. Decided that maybe it’s not such a good idea to do these middle of the night raids. And perhaps that will cool the situation down.

MOYERS: Talk a moment about this collision of societies.

AMOS: There’s quite a bit of that. Let me tell you a story about Falluja which is the town that is about an hour’s drive north of here. It is a very conservative town. It’s a place— and I’ve never seen this before in Baghdad. In the restaurants, there’s a separate section for the women.

I’ve seen that in Saudi Arabia. But I’ve never seen that in Iraq. And it tells you just how conservative Falluja is. It’s also a tribal place. They’re— it’s a clanic society and conservative. Back in April, there was a violent demonstration there. And American troops opened fire and killed 18 people there.

I have talked to psychiatrists who are working with troops in the field. And they explained to them that what has happened in Falluja is a blood feud. That in a tribal society, people are duty-bound to avenge civilian deaths. And that may be why some of the first shots were fired in Falluja.

It has taken a while for American troops to understand that. That there are ways around these kinds of conflicts. Ways for both sides to save face. But there is a huge cultural gap between American soldiers who, remember, they came here to fight a war. They weren’t trained to keep the peace. They’ve been given another job in the last couple of weeks because there were no other troops to do it.

They’ve had really very little cultural sensitivity training. And I know that sounds very PC but it really means something in these situations because the wrong moves can enflame a population when Americans don’t really mean to but they do.

MOYERS: There was a story the other day about an American convoy passing through the neighborhood coincidentally at a time of a dispute on the street between two Iraqi men. One of the Iraqi men fired his pistol into the air and the Americans started shooting indiscriminately. Shooting up cars, shooting out store windows. Are American troops on edge there?

AMOS: Bill, I’ve certainly seen examples of that. When we drive around, we are in a car that has the back windows smoked out. That always makes me feel better when I’m in small villages because nobody can really see that I’m an American in the back until I choose to show them. However, on the road, we look like everybody else who’s driving.

We’ve been behind military convoys where we’ve had soldiers point guns right at our windshield. It makes me very nervous when it happens. We always pull back as far as we can from them because they do feel like they’re twitchy when they go under the overpasses here. You can see them shooting up, at least aiming up over the overpasses.

Out by the airport there have been a number of attacks on the American military from exactly those kind of overpasses where Iraqis can hide on the overpasses and shoot over the Americans as they drive through.

I think at this point, these soldiers are a bit twitchy. They are under attacks. Someone has died every day over the last two weeks. So it is understandable that when they look at a sea of Iraqi faces, they have no idea who may be the one to pull out that gun.

MOYERS: Do you see any evidence of progress? Are we doing some right things there?

AMOS: Bill, I’ve been here for a month and Baghdad has changed an enormous amount. Restaurants are opening. Clothing stores are opening. I could buy a little pair of summer sandals up the street if I wanted to. That shop opened two days ago. You can now buy satellite dishes here.

That was illegal under Saddam Hussein’s rule. They are very popular. And people are beginning to watch television from around the globe. That’s very new for Iraqis. The problem is that some of the progress that was made in the early days, turning on the power, turning on the water, has been reversed.

Saboteurs have been after the electric plant, the electric water— excuse me — after the electric plant and the electric wires. In the past couple of days we’ve had huge blackouts in Baghdad. I know people who have had no electricity and no water for days. And that has fueled resentment here even as the temperatures have soared to over 100.

There has been progress. There’s no doubt about that. Government ministries are finally bringing their people back to work. They’re getting monthly salaries. The army which was dismissed a month ago, that problem seems to have been solved. The American-led administration is putting some of them back to work.

People have money in their pockets. But not everybody. There’s rampant unemployment in this country. That has not been addressed yet. Businesses, private firms have not really been able to start up again because of insecurity. You can’t import goods to sell if you can’t get them over the border, if you worry they’re going to be robbed before they get here.

So it would be wrong to say there hasn’t been progress. There has been a lot of returning to normal. I feel I see progress every day. But I also see steps backwards. That is what the problem is. The reconstruction is not going fast enough. The move towards democracy is not going fast enough. And people are very, very unhappy.

MOYERS: Before the invasion there were fears that the fall of Saddam would unleash new tribalism and new warfare between the Shiites and the Sunnis, between the factions and ethnic and religious factions of Iraq. Do you see evidence of that? Or is all of this violence and anger directed only at American and British troops?

AMOS: At the moment, it doesn’t— all those early predictions seem to be not coming true. The war is not between the Sunnis and the Shias in this country, not yet anyway.

That may happen later, as politics begin to develop here. And that war will be nothing more than a political war. The Shias are 60 percent of this country. And they’ve not had a voice in this region, in this particular part of the Middle East, for 300 years.

This is the first time that they sense that they have a chance. That they have a chance to develop a political leadership that represents them. And they want a voice in this government.

Now, as you know, Paul Bremer has held back on any elections here. He says he’s going to appoint a political council. When that happens, we will begin to see how the Americans see the political power break down in the country.

Because we’ll see who he puts on that political council. And everybody will be counting on their fingers, how many Shias, how many Sunnis, how many Kurds, how many Christians, how many women. It’ll give us our first indication of how the Americans see the political power here. That’s when you may see a bit of a break between the Sunnis and the Shias.

But in terms of who’s shooting, I think we don’t see that yet. I think security is the toughest, toughest problem for the military here. I also think giving Iraqis a voice in democracy is the toughest problem for the U.S.-led administration.

Iraqis are clamoring for it. They want to run their own affairs. The Americans are going very slow because they want to get it right. And sometimes I think that they really don’t understand this country well enough, that there are enough Iraqis who can get it right.

They are ready to take over their own affairs. They want to. There needs to be an Iraqi face on the government here, even if it’s for Iraqis to throw tomatoes at it when their electricity doesn’t go on.

MOYERS: Deborah Amos, National Public Radio, you’ve been doing an outstanding job of reporting. Thank you for joining us on “NOW.”

AMOS: Thanks Bill.

ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW: Erica Jong on Sappho, the world’s first poet of love.

MOYERS: We come home for our next story, and 44 million of you have a direct stake in our next story.

That’s how many Americans are employed by companies with defined benefit pension plans. Nearly one in five working people are at or near retirement age, and over the next two decades, aging baby boomers will swell their ranks.

So all of you counting on security in your old age, will want to pay attention to this report by producer Bryan Myers and correspondent Keith Brown.

MAN 1: We lost our post-retirement medical. We’ve lost, some of us, up to 50% of our pensions.

MAN 2: They have taken away what you and I worked our lifetime for.

MAN 3: You know, when I retired, it was the promises and the dream, and now it has become the lie and the nightmare—

BROWN: Last week, hundreds of workers, retirees, and elected officials gathered at Boston’s historic Fanueil Hall. They came from all over New England to rally over what they call the crisis in retirement security.

MAN 4: Just protect the benefits you promised. Don’t want anything more. If you retired and you were promised a benefit, a company should meet that commitment.

BROWN: Nothing has this crowd angrier than cutbacks in their retirement benefits. They say those cutbacks keep on coming.

THIBIDEAUX: It’s an anger, it’s an anger, and I see it as a trend, a kind of movement all over the country. It’s not just like it’s my company that’s doing it. It’s like all the companies are doing it.

BROWN: For many workers headed into retirement, it could get even worse. America’s defined benefit pension plans are in deep financial trouble. 44 million Americans — almost 1 in 4 private sector workers — have been promised retirement income from company plans. But those plans have been losing money hand over fist.

These are not 401K’s, in which employees contribute their own money. With defined benefit pension plans, the company sets aside money to pay the workers in retirement. Retirees are promised a check every month as long as they live. For generations, these defined benefit plans have been a bedrock of retirement income. People like Pete McGuirk were counting on it.

MCGUIRK: Other things may come and go, may go up and down, but what you expect more than anything from this job is that at the end of the job that you’re going to be able to live comfortably.

BROWN: But McGuirk found out otherwise. He’s a pilot for US Airways. He’s been a commercial pilot for 33 years and is just two months away from the mandatory retirement age of 60. McGuirk was supposed to get a pension of about 75,000 dollars a year. Now it’s a different story.

MCGUIRK: My pension is going to be $25,000 a year. I have three children, two rising eighth graders and a rising ninth grader. If they stay on track, they’re eight years away from finishing college. So I have obviously got a lot of concerns.

BROWN: And it’s not just McGuirk who saw his pension slashed. 3000 of his fellow pilots will only get around 25,000 dollars a year. The reason? US Airways recently went bankrupt. When that happened, the pilots’ pension plan didn’t have enough money to pay the full amount retirees were supposed to get.

MCGUIRK: I expected to have options at retirement, do what I wanted to do. Whether I wanted to play golf, or whether I wanted to continue working in some fashion or another, I expected to have that. And I don’t have that anymore. What I have now is I have to go back to work. I have to find some way to able to support my family. And that’s hurts.

MUNNELL: I think there is a looming retirement crisis in this country and it’s going to catch a lot of people unaware.

BROWN: Over the last few years, most defined benefit pension plans have been losing money. And the problem is huge. Altogether, they’re 300 billion dollars in the hole. That’s the largest shortfall ever.

Sherwin Kaplan worked for the Department of Labor for 23 years. He was a senior official overseeing retirement plans. He can’t remember it being worse.

KAPLAN: What we have now is a very unique problem caused by two things: one is the lousy stock market performance of the last three years; and the second is the unnaturally low interest rates.

BROWN: The money in pension plans is often dependent on a rising stock market and gains from interest. So, many major plans have been in a freefall. Here are some of the most troubled pension plans. ExxonMobil’s has only half the funds it needs to meet current obligations. Northwest Airlines, less than half. And Procter and Gamble’s, even less.

GREGORY: They’re not unhealthy.

BROWN: Janice Gregory is not alarmed by those numbers. She represents industry on retirement issues in Washington, DC.

GREGORY: The rationality tells you that, that we are going to pull out of this. That our economy is going to get going. It may take a little longer than we want to, but it’ll get there.

GORDON: There’s no way of knowing at this point in time whether the economy is gonna rebound, as some of its cheerleaders hope.

BROWN: Michael Gordon was a pioneer in benefit issues. He was once an aide to the late Republican Senator Jacob Javits and helped write the nation’s first comprehensive law on pension plans.

GORDON: What they’re really hoping for, in my opinion, is a return in some fashion of the bull market they experienced in the ’90’s. And the question really is whether or not we can ever realistically expect that type of bull market to come back any time soon.

BROWN: Gordon believes these plans need a big infusion of cash, and fast. In fact, the law Gordon helped write established what it calls minimum funding standards. If plans gets too low, companies are required by law to put in extra money to fully fund them. It’s often called “make-up payments.” Given the poor health of pension plans, some companies are facing billions in such make-up payments.

KAPLAN: What happens if a plan becomes underfunded is there is a financial obligation on the company to sufficiently fund the plan. And so, in the normal situation, what happens is when a plan is underfunded it simply means the company has to put more money in.

BROWN: But critics charge that companies are trying to get around that law and avoid the cost of fully funding their pension plans. And, they say, companies are doing so by using accounting that may be legal, but is nonetheless deceitful.

GORDON: We have a suspicion that, in fact, even before the so-called bull market collapse that there was a certain amount of rigging going on. In fact, the size of some of these pension surpluses was really kind of a mirage.

BROWN: Gordon calls this kind of accounting “Enron-esque.” Here’s how it works. Each year, companies must estimate how much their pension plan investments will grow in the upcoming year. For example, they may say, “the plan is going to grow by 10% next year.” But accounting rules allow them to post that projected gain immediately.

In other words, pension plans can post profits on paper, regardless of whether they actually make that money.

In 2002, many companies continued to use high predictions even though their plans had been losing money. Here are just two examples: General Motors assumed its plan would grow by 10%. It lost an estimated 7 and a half percent, an estimated difference of almost 13 billion dollars. And Northwest Airlines projected 10 and a half percent, only to lose 13 and half percent. Critics believe some companies are posting phantom pension profits simply to make their plans look good and eliminate the need for make-up payments.

And America’s most highly regarded investor has questioned such assumptions. As the stock market swooned in 2001, Warren Buffet wrote this about pension plans:

“Considering how poor returns have been recently and the reprises that probably lie ahead, I think that anyone choosing not to lower assumptions—is risking litigation and misleading investors.”

And, says Alicia Munnell, endangering the fiscal health of the pension plans.

MUNNELL: It’ll make the numbers look better today, but it means there’s a chance the firms will not have the money that they need to when it come time to pay benefits.

The risk is, you’re saying, ‘I’m going to earn this higher return for sure.’ And as soon as you start talking about investment that has some risk, you’re not talking about ‘for sure.’

BROWN: Rather than looking for ways to cut their payments, Alicia Munnell says companies as a whole need to increase their contributions by 40 billion dollars a year. Munnell was once the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, now she runs the retirement research center at Boston College. In the future, she warns, the demand on pension plans is only going to get bigger.

MUNNELL: The baby boomers are now in the late part of their working lives and they need to have a lot of funding contributions made on their behalf. So you’ve got the stock market, you’ve got interest rates, and you’ve got this baby boom bill coming due.

BROWN: And this is what one of America’s most respected business journals has to say: an article in this month’s HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW labels current pension fund gains as “accounting fantasy.” And even worse, says Michael Gordon, companies now want Congress to make that fantasy into reality. They’re asking lawmakers for relief from those make up payments.

GORDON: Hard questions can be asked as to whether or not these assumptions were real when you made them. Well, they don’t want that type of scrutiny and so they’re going to Congress and they’re saying, “Give us a blank check. Don’t ask questions.”

BROWN: Gordon says the blank check some companies want is to keep using those high predictions for pension fund gains. Government auditors generally use lower, more conservative estimates. Now, industry is pushing Congress to raise that government yardstick. Remember, the higher a company is allowed to estimate it’s pension plan profits, the less it needs to put into its plan.

GORDON: It’s a sleight of hand that abolishes the need to perform catch-up funding.

BROWN: Industry spokesperson Janice Gregory says that higher rate is entirely appropriate.

GREGORY: It is still a very conservative rate.

BROWN: Averaged over the long haul, many plans do grow by 9 or even 10 percent a year. Gregory also emphasizes the long-term view when looking at pension plans. Most companies with defined benefit pension plans are big, well-known firms. Those companies aren’t going anywhere she says; they’ll always be around to meet their obligations.

GREGORY: Most pension plans don’t terminate. They keep right on going. So to determine the health of the pension plan in the middle of an extraordinary economic time, when the plan’s going to last for 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years — it gives a distorted view of the long term health of the plan.

BROWN: Most people do believe their pension plans will always be there for them. But the fact is, companies do go out of business, pension plans do get terminated, and terminated suddenly. Just ask pilot Pete McGuirk.

MCGUIRK: As far as the pensions are concerned, there is absolutely a cautionary tale. This sort of thing can happen to anybody’s pension plan.

BROWN: When US Airways went under, the pension plan for its pilots didn’t have enough money to pay retirees their full pensions. And McGuirk says if anyone expects a government outfit to ride to the rescue of these troubled pension plans, forget about it. There is an agency that’s supposed to guarantee pensions when a plan goes under, but it makes no promises retirees will get all they’re owed. So pilots at US Airways were left in a lurch.

MCGUIRK: We’ve given huge concessions not only in pay and working conditions, but our pension plan has been terminated and we’ve had severe reductions.

BROWN: But while the pilots were taking it on the chin, their bosses made off with a bundle. The three senior executives who were at the helm of US Airways as it began to slide into bankruptcy left their jobs with payments totaling 35 million dollars. And it’s not just US Airways. In 2002, Delta Airlines set aside 25 million dollars in a special retirement accounts for its executives. And American Airlines CEO Donald Carty recently resigned under pressure after it was revealed American execs had a special retirement account. For McGuirk, it’s all about fairness.

MCGUIRK: We don’t think it’s appropriate that we should have done what we have done and lost everything we have lost and have these people walk away with that kind of money.

BROWN: Airlines aren’t the only ones who have special retirement accounts for their executives — lots of other companies do too. The typical reason given is that’s it’s an incentive for executives. Sherwin Kaplan now represents some of the pilots at US Airways.

KAPLAN: People are told “we are family, we are in this together. If you spend your working life with us, we promise to take care of you in your retirement years.” It turns out that at the same time the retirees are being abandoned, the officers of the company are privately enriching themselves or making sure they’re taken care of, that adds betrayal to the abandonment.

BROWN: By now, you may think you’ve heard it all. But there’s yet another way some companies are using creative accounting in their pension plans.

GORDON: They have used these pension plans as what they themselves call an earnings management tool.

BROWN: What does “earnings management tool” mean? Here how it works: if a pension plan earns such good returns that it exceeds 100% funding — in other words, has more money than it needs — companies are allowed to credit that extra money in their pensions towards their annual bottom line.

GORDON: Rather than using the plan for what it was really intended, they saw it as a device that could be manipulated to try to create the illusion of better corporate financial performance than really existed.

BROWN: According to the Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs, in the year 2000, 35 companies in the S&P 500 attributed more than 10% of their bottom line to pension excesses, even as, in many cases, the value of their pension funds actually shrank. That contradiction has many people baffled. The Securities and Exchange Commission is now looking into whether some pension funds were being abused to gin up company profits.

Critics ask, given all this, why would Congress even consider giving companies relief from pension fund obligations? The people at the Retirement Research Center say Congress should be doing more to hold companies accountable. After all, they point out, employees have earned these pensions, they’re not given as gifts.

MUNNELL: This is not a game. People really need to know these numbers. It’s really crucial because it will determine whether or not there is enough money on hand when it comes time to pay the benefits.

MOYERS: Erica Jong is flying high unafraid, and no wonder. Back in 1973 her first novel, FEAR OF FLYING, rocked America’s consciousness with daring insights into the sexuality of a modern young woman. In fact, Erica Jong helped to define the sexual revolution.

Now, FEAR OF FLYING has been reissued to mark its 30th anniversary, just as Erica Jong is also publishing her latest and eighth novel. This new one is entitled SAPPHO’S LEAP, after one of the least-known but most influential figures in the history of literature — the young and very sensual poet of antiquity who some said was as gifted and inspirational as the muses themselves.

To read SAPPHO’S LEAP is to be reminded that Erica Jong was a poet in her own right before FEAR OF FLYING catapulted her to celebrity.

The heroine in her new novel lived on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea about 600 B.C. So what’s her appeal to one of America’s best-known writers who was born and raised on the island of Manhattan? That’s what I asked Erica Jong when we talked the other day.

Why would Erica Jong, the most contemporary of women and the most modern of writers, go back almost 3,000 years to the life of a poet about whom we know very little?

JONG: Well, you know, I read Sappho again in my 50’s.

MOYERS: Again? You had read—

JONG: I had read her in college and I didn’t get it. I think that the things we read in college, we’re too young to read in college. I mean, we read ANNA KARENINA. We’ve never had an affair with a dashing officer. We read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. We know nothing of the feelings of Raskolnikov and his rage.

So I read Sappho, you know, at another time in my life. And suddenly I realized here was a woman speaking to me across 2,600 years. And her concerns were my concerns.

MOYERS: Plato called her what? The tenth muse?

JONG: The tenth muse.

MOYERS: How come?

JONG: Because she was a force. She was more than a singer. She was poetry itself. She was music itself. Sadly, you know, Sappho was more Bob Dylan than she was Emily Dickinson. She was a singer. But the music has been lost.

MOYERS: You imagine her as the greatest singer of all time.

JONG: I certainly do.

MOYERS: You say that her voice has come down to us all these years later. What do you mean her voice? We can’t hear her sing.

JONG: I’ll give you an example. “Love loosens my limbs like the wind falling upon the oak trees on the hillside.” In other words, the images are so clear, so precise — “Love loosens my limbs” — that people want to quote them because it seems that these things are being said better by her than by anybody else in history. And—

MOYERS: Here’s one of my favorites.

JONG: Okay. “Tonight I’ve watched the moon and then the Pleiades go down. The night is now half gone. Youth goes. I am in bed alone.”

MOYERS: What does that say to you?

JONG: It says to me that she understood loneliness and isolation, as the poet must. What are the sources of poetry? Love and death and the paradox of love and death. All poetry from the beginning is about Eros and Thanatos. Those are the only subjects. And how Eros and Thanatos interweave.

MOYERS: Thanatos is?

JONG: Death.

MOYERS: Eros is?

JONG: Is passion.

MOYERS: And yet just in reading about her from you and reading some of the poems of hers that you include, I sense this powerful yearning. If I could identify one emotion that runs through the poems that I’ve read of her, thanks to you, it would be yearning.

JONG: Absolutely.

MOYERS: Longing.

JONG: Longing. Longing—

MOYERS: How do you explain that?

JONG: Well, I don’t know how I explain it or whether we should explain it. You know, the great Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, says that, “Art is born from a perpetual I don’t know.” And that’s a quote that I love and it seems absolutely right to me.

I think that Sappho expresses the orphaned part of ourselves. The orphaned part of ourselves that reaches out to passion for completion. That reaches out to motherhood for completion. Ultimately, we all know that we are born alone and that we die alone. And if we can find tender connections with other people along the way, with our spouses, with lovers, with our children, we are very, very fortunate indeed.

MOYERS: You call her the first poet of love.

JONG: She invented the vocabulary of erotic love. When somebody writes for the first time, “I freeze. I burn. A subtle flame runs under my skin. My heart is like the old oak trees, with the wind coming down upon them.” When she writes that she trembles.

When she says, “I am green as grass.” She invented the vocabulary of love.

MOYERS: Aphrodite is the goddess who is invoked in the book more than any other. Why?

JONG: Sappho was a devotee of Aphrodite. And Sappho invokes Aphrodite more than any other goddess. So in a book about Sappho you have to have a lot of Aphrodite.

MOYERS: But why Aphrodite? What do you think appealed to Sappho about Aphrodite?

JONG: She’s the goddess of pleasure. She’s the goddess of love. She understands that pleasure is important. And she understands that pleasure is fleeting. She also has this little son with the poisoned arrows. And we call him Eros.

And Eros can take an arrow and shoot it straight through your heart and make you fall madly in love with somebody or madly in lust with somebody who’s absolutely wrong for you. And the Greeks understood that too. They understood that passion was tricky. And that sometimes you might fall for somebody who was not so good for you.

MOYERS: There’s a scene in the book, where the goddesses are debating. “Is it best to live for love?” one of them asks. Remember that?

JONG: Yes, I love it.

MOYERS: “Should we live for love or motherhood or intellect?” I mean that’s 2,300 years old but it’s very modern, right?

JONG: Right, exactly.

MOYERS: Women still debate that question.

JONG: We’re always debating it now. Should we live for love or motherhood? Should we live for beauty? Should we live for passion?

MOYERS: Intellect?

JONG: Intellect.

MOYERS: And then the mortal among them, she pipes up and she says, “Liberty is at the root for all we want. For only free women can participate in this debate. Choice is the luxury of the free.”

JONG: Right. That’s Sappho’s slave, Praxinoa, to whom I give some of the best lines in the book.

MOYERS: Why?

JONG: I imagine her as a highly intelligent slave who debates questions of free will.

And of course at that time, those questions were very much in the air. Sappho is a contemporary of Heroclitus so we’re talking about a time when people were debating, “What is the universe made of? Is it made of fire? Is it made of water? Is it made of love? Is it made of war?”

They were quite as sophisticated as we. Their technology perhaps wasn’t. They piloted these little tiny boats with square sails all over the Mediterranean. Maybe they didn’t have sonar, maybe they didn’t have global positioning. But they could steer by the stars and intellectually they were far more sophisticated than we. That just grabbed me.

MOYERS: But you don’t answer the question. They ask in the debate, “Should we live for love or motherhood or intellect?” But you don’t answer it.

JONG: I don’t answer it. Because I believe that women should live for love, for motherhood and for intellect and I believe we shouldn’t have to choose. And I believe that’s always been difficult for women, to express themselves intellectually, maternally, and passionately. And I wanted to bring all those parts of a woman together. In fact you could say that all my novels have been about that — how to integrate the different parts of a woman.

MOYERS: One of the things I liked about your book is that you do not romanticize women. That Sappho goes off to the land of the Amazons, and what she discovers there is a stunning reality.

JONG: Well, the women are not so good to each other in the land of the Amazons. You know, during the second wave of the feminist movement, women were always saying, well, if women take over the earth, there won’t be any more war, we’ll be much kinder, we’ll be much nicer.

And then if you saw the way women behaved to each other in some of these radical groups, you had your doubts about whether they were nice to each other at all. But in my Land of the Amazons, Sappho goes with Praxinoa, her beloved friend and slave, and they meet the Amazons. And yes, the Amazons are very idealistic, but they’ve been captured by this evil queen, Antiope.

And Antiope is quite as awful a ruler as Pittakos, the ruler of Sappho’s island, Lesbos. So women are capable of cruelty in leadership positions. And I satirized that. Both women and men need empathy, need tenderness. It doesn’t come automatically.

MOYERS: Yeah, and you don’t cast it as men versus women. You cast it as tenderness versus brutality and cruelty.

JONG: Absolutely, yes.

MOYERS: Here we are talking about a poet who lived 2,300 years ago, of whom we know very little. And a goddess named Aphrodite.

JONG: Well, I think Aphrodite is still tweaking the human race.

MOYERS: How so?

JONG: Still making them fall in love with the wrong people. I don’t think that she’s stopped playing with us from above. I see much evidence that Aphrodite is on earth. And getting people, you know, to fall into bed with the wrong people. And mess up their lives in various ways.

So, Aphrodite’s here. And why Sappho? Because she wrote about these things, perhaps better than anyone. And because she informed the way we thought about love for the next three millennia. And she continues to inform it. She has given it voice.

MOYERS: Do you think that a young woman the age today you were when you wrote FEAR OF FLYING, 20s, is more likely to feel at home in FEAR OF FLYING or at home with SAPPHO’S LEAP?

JONG: I think— I hope they feel at home with both in different ways. Maybe SAPPHO’S LEAP because it tells about things mythologically. Gives you a certain kind of distance. But I must say that I do travel around to colleges where FEAR OF FLYING is taught.

And I ask the students, because it’s taught in a lot of American Lit courses and Human Sexuality courses and American Studies. And I say what do you find in the book that still resonates, because it’s a 30-year-old book. And what they always say to me is the double standard is alive and well.

A woman who’s open to pleasure is still considered a slut. That’s what I hear from college women. And it actually breaks my heart. That that part of the book still strikes them as relevant.

MOYERS: Wasn’t Sappho also considered a slut?

JONG: Absolutely.

MOYERS: By people who wanted to slander her?

JONG: Exactly. So nothing has changed there, has it?

MOYERS: FEAR OF FLYING is out this year, republished in paperback. How do you— when you look back, how do you explain the phenomenon that it became?

JONG: I can only quote to you what men tell me. They say whenever I saw that book on a woman’s night table, I knew I was gonna get lucky. So that’s one answer. And women—

MOYERS: An honest answer, right.

JONG: And women will say, “I remember where I was when I read that book. I was on this Greek Island and there was this boy and his eyes looked like black olives gleaming with oil and I had your book in my knapsack. And, well, thank you.”

MOYERS: And you don’t accept the critic who says the great contribution of that book was to be candid about the mechanics of sex. It was more than that to you.

JONG: Oh, I don’t think it was about the mechanics of sex at all. I think that what I sought to do in my early work with FEAR OF FLYING and also with the poetry was to slice open a woman’s head and show everything that was happening inside. To make a woman’s mind and fantasies as naked as certain writers like John Updike and Phillip Roth had made a man’s mind. And that had not been done. Yes, there were many wonderful books about women that were written. Many of them inspired me. But what Roth and Updike had done for the male psyche had really not been done for the female.

I think that what I was trying to do was to speak for women in a way they hadn’t been spoken about before. And frankly I think that’s what got people so angry. Because the idea that a woman could say, “I am; I think,” is far more threatening than anything. In fact, the same thing happened at Sappho if you want to know the truth. I mean, the greatest female singer of love, the woman who invented the language that even songwriters today imitate without even knowing they’re imitating it, that woman was remembered by the Roman comedians as a prostitute. Why?

Because she wrote so beautifully about passion and therefore she had to be considered a prostitute? I think women are very misunderstood in that regard.

MOYERS: It often happens to women. I mean, most people think of Joan of Arc as that of a crazy broad hearing voices—

JONG: Who heard voices.

MOYERS: …when she was really quite a remarkable figure.

JONG: Exactly. And think of all these great women in history. They’ve all been remembered. You know, Elizabeth’s remembered for sleeping with Essex and whoever else. And—

MOYERS: Everybody else. That’s—

JONG: And everybody else. Right. And it’s true. Joan of Arc is a perfect example. What do we remember? She heard voices. She talked to the trees. She went to the tree and confessed. Perhaps she was a pagan. I think that what we’re talking about is the definition of the great woman, the woman who invents something new. Which makes society, both women and men, very nervous. I mean the metaphor of flying, yes, it can be read as sex. And Jungians will tell you that in dreams it might represent sex. But it also represents freedom.

MOYERS: And that’s this scene in Sappho where the goddesses are debating the question.

JONG: That’s really what it’s about, yeah.

MOYERS: It’s as old as Sappho and as modern as FEAR OF FLYING and whatever sequels are coming.

JONG: Exactly. It’s not a new subject.

MOYERS: When you wrote FEAR OF FLYING, didn’t a lot of poets disown you, because you’d written a popular book?

JONG: Absolutely. I was poeta non grata after that. I mean, they— I had published two volumes of poetry. I had won POETRY MAGAZINE’s Bess Hokin Prize, which Sylvia Plath won before me. I had taught at the 92nd Street Y. I was considered very kosher in poetry circles.

And then FEAR OF FLYING took off. And from then on, no matter how many books of poetry I published, they never were reviewed. But now I find that my poems are turning up in a lot of anthologies. And that’s very gratifying to me.

MOYERS: I want to come back to this scene in SAPPHO’S LEAP in which the goddesses with the one mortal are arguing about whether— debating whether one should live for love, for motherhood, or for intellect. Living for love is the hardest, isn’t it? Because the intellect, you have. It’s yours. Nobody can take it away from you. Age can, but no one else can.

Motherhood, once you have committed it, even though it’s full of trauma and pain, you have done it. But love is so tentative, and love is so difficult. That I’m wondering if you wouldn’t choose the other two.

JONG: I would probably at this point in my life choose the other two. But there again, the Greeks knew that love was very fickle. That it wasn’t the be-all and the end-all of life.

And that friendship, amity, complicity between marriage partners, between friends, was perhaps more valuable and lasting than sexual passion. That’s another thing that appeals to me about them. That they were so savvy about it. They understood, you know, that we are moved by sexual passion, that we make fools of ourselves by sexual passion, but that if we want something that lasts, we look to friendship. So, I was— I’m very moved by their philosophy of love.

MOYERS: There is this — “One Story,” you call it — this poem of yours that is unforgettable, I think. I mean, once I read it, I’ve read it several times now. There is only one story. It’s very short. But it stays with you. Would you read that one, and tell me about it?

JONG: “There is only one story. He loved her, then stopped loving her. While she did not stop loving him. There is only one story. She loved him, then stopped loving him, while he did not stop loving her. The truth is simple. You do not die from love. You only wish you did.”

MOYERS: The book is SAPPHO’S LEAP. Thank you, Erica Jong.

JONG: Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: Connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org.

Post-war Iraq: get the latest on efforts to rebuild the nation. More on planning for your retirement; Erica Jong, a complete bibliography of her prose and poetry.

Connect to NOW at pbs.org.

MOYERS: You’ve been writing and we’ve been reading. It’s time for some of your letters and e-mails.

Your mail ran over three to one in support of our story on President Bush’s efforts to outlaw abortion, but some of you were really ticked off. Diane Levesque, for one:

“It is incorrect to portray the group ‘Catholics for a Free Choice’ as Catholic. A Catholic who participates in or promotes abortion incurs excommunication. These people are not Catholic and should not be portrayed as such.”

This response came from Fred Caruso:

“I thought the ‘politics of choice’ was slanted pro-abortion… Jimmy Carter got hell for saying, ‘I am personally opposed to abortion…’ while supporting the Supreme Court’s decision. He had it right.”

We heard from one good soul somewhere out there — hopefully with the right contacts — so distressed over our sins that she wrote:

“God has instructed me to pray for you but it won’t be easy — you are so wrong in almost everything you do and say. May God bless you with swift correction and discipline.”

And so we were, with a plague of angry letters deploring our story about guns. We reported that some leading gun companies know that certain gun dealers sell weapons to criminals. And then we told how the industry is using its power in Washington to gain immunity against any lawsuits arising from crimes committed with those guns. Like boiling oil, the letters poured over us, epitomized by this one from W.W. Voelckers:

“Your views on guns impress me as being intellectually shallow and strongly prejudiced. You don’t seem to have the foggiest ideas about guns as useful tools in a wide range of activities.”

And from Linda Jaynes:

“A gun by my bed saved my life from a criminal who broke into my home to rape me. My gun was legal, his was stolen. Is that the gun manufacturer’s fault?”

And these few but choice words from Mitchell Davis:

“I thought your segment about the gun industry was the worse (sic) example of journalism I have ever seen on PBS.”

Maybe so, Mr. Davis, but there’s competition for that dubious distinction. Many of your fellow viewers would nominate our story on how American tax dollars may be helping Israel’s government subsidize settlements in the West Bank. That one produced ten times the usual negative mail. A lot of you felt like this:

“You’ve lost a good deal of my respect for this B.S.” Phyllis Morrow.

We had a long letter from Tamar Sternthal in Boston. She says we were wrong to report that the American plan for peace — the Road Map — calls for a freeze on the growth of the settlements and their eventual removal to make way for a Palestinian state. She says it was, quote, “highly deceptive” of us to claim that the signers of the 1993 Oslo accords “envisioned” those same steps.

And she says it was incorrect again to say that the Oslo accords promised a Palestinian state in return for Israeli security. How to interpret the Oslo accords and the Road Map is, of course, a matter of great debate. To read the transcript of our report, you can, as usual, go to pbs.org.

Some of you wrote to say that our report was anti-Semitic. I would respond by saying I’ve supported Israel’s right to exist since I was a young man in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, and that criticism of Israel’s democratic government no more makes one anti-Semitic than criticism of the Bush administration or the Clinton administration or the Johnson administration makes one anti-American.

The last word tonight goes to Susan Robbins, who wrote about our coverage of the FCC and its chairman…

“I cannot believe that each time mention is made of Michael Powell, NO MENTION IS EVER MADE of the fact that he is Colin Powell’s son…The direct connection to the White House and this administration is not only an inexcusable omission, it makes me wonder just how much PBS is being controlled by the very media moguls/regulators upon whom they are reporting.”

Sorry to disagree, Ms. Robbins, but we couldn’t find a shred of evidence that Michael Powell’s decisions at the FCC have anything to do with who his father is, and it would have been irresponsible for us to suggest otherwise.

That’s it for NOW. Thanks for watching. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on April 13, 2015.

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