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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Columnist to the world Mark Steyn on jihadists…and Sinatra.

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HH: Joined now by Mark Steyn, columnist to the world. You can read all of his stuff at, as well as order his imminent appearing book, America Alone, in which, Mark, you describe the Societal Stockholm Syndrome we suffer under. And two examples of that, Khatami at Harvard and today’s action, or non-action in the Senate concerning military tribunals. These are extraordinary times. Everything is upside down.

MS: Yes, I think it is, and I find the appearance of this man at Harvard absolutely incredible. You know, we often talk about the famous Oxford Union Debate of the 1930’s, when they voted that this house would not fight for king and country. And that debate came to embody the decadence of the young elites in Britain in the 1930’s. But whatever one says about the Oxford Union Debate at that time, they didn’t actually invite Adolf Hitler to propose the motion. To have leaders of countries explicitly committed to destroying the great Satan, who have funded organizations that have killed Americans, to have them come and speak at Harvard is ridiculous. And then you know, the guy runs rings around them by saying one thing in Arabic. I mean, this is the old Yassir Arafat trick. But even Arafat didn’t in fact do it live.

HH: Yes.

MS: Khatami said one thing in Arabic, and there was significant differences in his simultaneous English translation. It was quite incredible.

HH: I was struck by the account in the Harvard Crimson, which I’ve linked to at A couple of excerpts. “In his thirty minute address under heavy security, the Muslim cleric also defended the militant Lebanese group, Hezbollah, as a legitimate resistence movement fighting for the territorial integrity of Lebanon. Khatami, widely considered a reformer in Iran, was often met with applause from the Kennedy School audience. In response to another question, Khatami also justified his country’s use of capital punishment for acts of homosexuality, but said that the conditions for execution are so strict, that they are virtually impossible to meet.” “Homosexuality is a crime in Islam, and crimes are punishable,” Khatami said. “And the fact that a crime could be punished by execution is debatable.” His audience responded with silence to his remark.

MS: Yes, they didn’t seem to find that as uproariously delightful as his support of Hezbollah. You know, this is the foolishness and stupidity of the left, like this idiot, what’s her name, Rosie O’Donnell on TV the other day…

HH: Yes.

MS: …saying that militant Christianity is as big a threat as militant Islam. No, it isn’t. No, it isn’t. And to be gay and not to understand that is a level of stupidity that is almost incomprehensible, because the fact of the matter is that if you’re homosexual in a lot of these countries…for a start, it’s always a crime in Muslim countries. And in a lot of countries, including Iran, they punish it very aggressively. In Saudi Arabia, they behead homosexuals. In Afghanistan, they built a wall and crushed them. You know, the fact of the matter is that already, there’s a big epidemic of gay bashing, not in some horrible red state part of the world, not in some redneck bit of the American South, not in Mississippi. In supposedly the most tolerant city in Europe, Amsterdam, they’ve got this epidemic of gay bashing now. And who is doing the gay bashing? Well, it’s that particular militant form of Islam that Rosie O’Donnell is fatuous enough to think is no bigger threat than militant Christianity. These people are their own worst enemy.

HH: And it is unfortunately true that anyone in that audience who did not hiss…you know, I do not believe in shouting down speakers, but evidently…making evident your objection. Hitchens, on this program yesterday, we disagreed about issuing visas to people like this, because he thought, you know, it’s good to knock them about a bit. But they never get knocked about, Mark Steyn.

MS: No, no, you’re right. And I would accept the Hitchens point, if Khatami was coming here, and he had to go on a panel with Christopher Hitchens. That would be one thing.

HH: Yup.

MS: That would be perfectly fine. I would pay good money for that, and I think it would be terrific TV. It would be HBO pay per view, and they could beam it, except in the Arab world, where they ought to see it for free. He’d demolish the guy. But it never happens like that. Instead, what you get, particularly beamed back to Iran, is pictures of this disgusting man being fawned over by some of the most respectable figures and institutions in American life. And that’s one reason why unfortunately this idea that these people come from their dictatorships, and they come from their sheltered and coddled dictatorships, and they’re exposed to the bracing blast of free and open discussion in America. Unfortunately, I wish it were like that. But unfortunately, it’s not. Instead, these creeps and fawners are all over the guy.

HH: Now I am also on this day, I’m wondering what Osama bin Laden, CNN cave edition, is thinking when he sees Khatami at Harvard? It’s just got to be weak horse/strong horse all over again. He must be laughing. Even though it’s his enemy, he must be laughing at the United States.

MS: Well, I’m not (laughing) I’m not so sure Osama bin Laden is in much of a condition to do…

HH: Okay, he might be dead. Zawahiri…

MS: …do a lot of laughing. But I take your point seriously to this extent, that you know, what the liberal progressive mind most wants to do is negotiate with people. It wants to sit down at a table and talk, talk, talk, talk, because it always figures if it can talk long enough, and give enough away, everything will be all right. And there is a desperation at a certain level among people not just on the left, but on the sort of center and soft right, too, to find somebody in this whole, stinking, radical, Islam, horrible mess that we’re facing, to find someone in there that we can just sit down and talk to and negotiate with. And that’s why there’s an almost desperation to find, if you like, you know, in Northern Irish terms, a Gerry Adams figure, a figure who’s only kind of mildly revolting, that one might be able to sit down and trade and reach some kind of an agreement with. And the worry is, I think, that eventually, this pressure will become absolutely massive, and the Europeans in particular will be demanding this or that. You know, eventually, the head man of Hezbollah will be coming and giving speeches at the United Nations…

HH: Oh, it’s a matter of time, yeah.

MS: And he’ll be sitting around the table with prime ministers and heads of state.

HH: Just a matter of time. Now that brings me to the two connected subjects, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road To 9/11, Lawrence Wright’s new book, which you have referred to favorably. And I think it’s an amazing and important book, like your own, America Alone. But this one’s out. And then, the military tribunals debate, because the military tribunals debate, the Graham-McCain-Warner objection in rolling of the President is our prisoners will not be treated well if we don’t fawn over the enemy and give them every right that could conceivably be in common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. But as you read the Looming Towers, and you know this, and I know this, they have no intention of ever doing anything except torturing and beheading our people.

MS: No, and they don’t…they see themselves as soldiers of God. And as soldiers of God, they believe they are bound by their own code, and that code is not the Geneva Convention. So it doesn’t matter whether when you arrest these guys, you put them up at the Ritz Carlton in one of the large suites and give them unlimited room service ’round the clock, and the premium cable TV. It doesn’t make any difference. When they catch your guys, they’re still going to reach for the scimitar, and saw their heads off. And so that’s the basis on which, when you’re deciding on how you treat these fellows, you should start by assuming that in the event that any American troops fall into their hands, they’re going to be beheaded, and they’re mutilated bodies will be left by the side of the road, as happened in Iraq not so long ago. That’s what they do. That’s what they do. So in other words, is it worth, effectively, giving a massive, generous rewrite of the Geneva Convention, that only one side is bound by? And I say no, because all it means is that the Geneva Conventions were designed to civilize war, in effect, to make war something that took place between professional armies operating to professional standards. What this ridiculous Senate ruling does, this Senate vote does, is effectively say oh, well, we’re going to reward you for skulking among civilian populations, in civilian dress, and blowing up civilians, we’re going to reward that behavior as it has never been rewarded by civilized states since those Geneva Conventions were written.

HH: Now there is the second vague objection, that the world, the civilized world will think less of us if we even…I heard Warner making this argument, not the other two. If we even could be accused wrongly of allowing torture, and they’re still on the torture issue, Mark Steyn.

MS: Well, where has Senator Warner been since about late in the evening, Central European Time, on September 11th? Because that’s the point when sophisticated continental elites were going to dinner on that Tuesday evening, September 11th, 2001. And they were all sitting around those dinner tables, arguing that America had brought September 11th on itself. And if you go back and you look at what appeared in European papers, and in British newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent on the morning of September the 12th, and in the days that followed, they already…this idea that the rest of the world recognizes the moral justness of America’s cause, it hasn’t been like that for five years. And the fact of the matter is, you don’t wage a war expecting to get applause from the wings. That’s not what it’s about.

HH: I’m playing One For My Baby, because it’s the subject of an obituary which is really a fine, fine obituary, Mark Steyn. I didn’t know anything about Bill Miller, but now I had to go listen to all this. Tell people about him, and why this song matters.

MS: Well, Bill Miller was Frank Sinatra’s pianist. And you think that’s no big deal, that when you’ve got Frank Sinatra singing for you, anybody can kind of play along. But in fact, if you followed Sinatra through the years, over the decades, a lot of the way he was on stage depended or not on whether he had Bill Miller up there with him. And Bill Miller is the guy playing the piano on that recording of One For My Baby, which was really the kind of definitive Sinatra song. And Bill Miller is an important part of what makes that a great performance. He was a superb musician right until the end. He died, he was in his 90’s when he died, and he basically broke a hip, and then had a heart attack, while he was playing a month of concerts in Montreal, which most nonagenarians are not doing.

HH: No.

MS: And he was a terrific pianist. What I liked about him, and I met him a couple of times over the years. But you know, Sinatra was one of these guys who was like out ’til four in the morning.

HH: Right.

MS: And then when you saw him, he looked great, he was fantastically tanned, he looked in the blooming figure of health. Bill Miller was out with him until four in the morning, and looked like a guy who’d been out ’til four in the morning. He was always kind of pasty faced, and sunken cheeked, and hollow eyed. And he looked like hell, but when he sat down at the piano, a little bit of magic happened, and he was one of the master accompanyists.

HH: Well, a couple of lines of inquiry here. First, you describe his laconic nature, especially after the tragedy of losing his wife in a mudslide. Sinatra comes in and says if it’s any consolation, there wasn’t a mark on her. And he used to tell friends it wasn’t any consolation. He was…that’s very austere, and it certainly sounds like that’s how every day was with Bill Miller.

MS: Yes, he was one of those guys who…I think musicians, it’s a very funny business, you know? They know big celebrities better than anybody, because they’re there with them in the plane, on the bus. They see them, they know how they work as well. They’re up there doing what they do with them. And to get through that, because a lot of the time, you’re basically bolstering people who are incredibly insecure when you’re traveling with a big time celebrity. And you get through that in various different ways. Bill Miller had absolutely no ego, and he had one…as you say, this very laconic way of reacting to everything. It was a tragedy. His wife was swept away in this terrible…and he was, too, swept away in this terrible mudslide out in your part of the world, and his daughter. And they found Bill Miller and the daughter clinging to wreckage and trees, and in a very perilous way. And Sinatra had to go around and identify his wife’s body. And people, you know, people have different opinions on Frank Sinatra, and one accepts that. But there are a gazillion biographies that all focus on these murky mob connections and all the rest of it. You could just as easily flip that around and write a lot of biographies just focusing on all the times he did really incredibly generous things to people over the years. And he certainly, and I think you judge these people by how well the people around them speak of them. Bill Miller had his differences with Sinatra. He disagreed with him on songs, and this and that, and all the rest of him. But he stuck with him for fifty years, and most of the core musicians around Sinatra were like that. Bill Miller, by the way, his sort of musical low point, he’s actually the conductor on that hit record of My Way.

HH: Oh, I saw you referenced that, yes.

MS: Which is about the least of his musical accomplishments.

HH: Now the other aspect of this is, it’s an obituary of one of those many people who you never see, but who are indispensible. They’re in the background of a lot of people’s lives. Are there parallels? That’s immediately what I wanted to know is, if you bring up another great performer, whether it’s Bing Crosby or Bob Hope, is there a Bill Miller there? And is it the songwriter? Who are these people?

MS: Well, I think everybody…I think that a lot of the time, if you’re an incredibly successful person, you often find you’re spending your time surrounded by sycophants and third-rate people who want to tell you how great you are. And I think every great artist in any field needs someone who is their kind of off-stage alter ego, that understands what it is they do, and can tell them about it honestly. I mean, for example, with someone like Fred Astaire, who’s a great dancer, his kind of alter ego was a man I doubt, maybe three of your listeners have heard of, and that’s a guy called Hermes Pan, who basically choreographed every memorable Astaire moment in the movies that you’ve ever seen, and basically was, he thought like Astaire, he understood what Astaire wanted to do. When they went to rehearse together in the 1930’s, they’d be doing their numbers, and Astaire would be doing his part, and Hermes Pan would be sort of sitting in for Ginger Rogers, and dancing Ginger’s bit. You know, they thought as one. And I think almost any great performer needs someone like that, that just understands the way they think like that.

HH: It’s the only reason you need, although there are many others, including Robert Kaplan, to subscribe to the Atlantic, are to read these obituaries. Mark, you don’t reference, and I’m curious, what relationship between Bill Miller and Sinatra’s songwriters was there.

MS: Well, I think the…Sinatra understood songs very well. You know, I love the great American songbook. And the one problem I find, and this is true in your part of the world, too, that if you go into like a really…sometimes, you’ll just go into a piano bar late at night, and there’ll be a talented singer doing the song. And everyone reveres, everyone knows Cole Porter and Rogers and Hart, and all these people, that they’re great now. They’re regarded as classics. And so, people are over-reverential to them. One thing they do is they always sing the verses. And often times, the verse to a great song is not terribly good. It was just something they had to have because it was used in a spot in a show or a movie, or whatever. And one thing Bill Miller always did with Sinatra was he ran through all the numbers for him. He basically, when they were talking about what songs they were going to do on an album, Bill Miller would be at that brainstorming session, running through the numbers. And they were very good at deciding we don’t need this verse, it’s just some boring bit of stuff in the beginning, it’s not necessary to the meat of the song, and whatever. They were very…so in that sense, they were sympathetic in what they regarded as great material.

HH: Great. Last quick question, complete off topic, but tangential. Alan Bergman is one of my favorites. Do you much like his work?

MS: Oh, yeah. Alan Bergman, in fact, did a…he and his wife, Marilyn, who I must say, and this is why one should never be exclusively political, because of course, they write all Barbra Streisand’s special material.

HH: Oh, yes. I know.

MS: When she’s slamming Bush and Cheney in song, they’ve generally written that. But Alan and Marilyn wrote a lot of, they got their early start, one of their biggest early hits was writing Nice And Easy for Sinatra. And they also wrote a terrific version of Old McDonald for him, Old McDonald had a farm.

HH: Oh, that’s in this, yup. That’s why…

MS: And on that farm he had a chick, and you can basically pretty much guess how it goes from there.

HH: (laughing) Mark Steyn, we’re out of time. Always a pleasure. We’ll leave you with Sting singing a little Alan Bergman, Windmills Of Your Mind. The obituary in the Atlantic. Thank you, Mark Steyn.

End of interview.


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