The day will come when people will beg me to interview them. However, in this time prior to notoriety as a great writer, I still have to work hard at securing interesting people to pick their brains for my newspaper and web site. Case in point: Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist and CNN personality. He was the speaker at the University of St. Francis commencement this month. As an adjunct faculty, I always attend graduation and thought that it would give me the opportunity to interview this outspoken gadfly and critic of all things political.
I immediately called Novak's office and requested an interview while he was at St. Francis. His administrative assistant was sure that he would be willing to give me an interview. The only problem was to find time with his busy schedule. While attempting to figure out a time, a solution came to me like a journalistic epiphany. I offered to take him out to dinner and do the interview over Beef Wellington and a Caesar salad. Actually, this wasn't an original epiphany but rather a remembrance of a previous epiphany.
Several years ago, I landed an interview with Studs Terkel, the self-proclaimed voice of the voiceless. I offered to do the interview and then take him out to dinner along with his administrative assistant who helped work out the scheduling details. This resulted in spending over four and a half hours with Studs. Not only did I get the interview, we had a long dinner and then went back to his place for drinks and cigars. I had purchased a box of his favorite cigars to show Studs how much I appreciated his willingness to give me an interview.
My head was whirling when I thought that I could pull off a similar journalist coupe d'etat. Imagine a marathon interview with one of the most outspoken columnists in America. However, it wasn't long before that possibility faded as quickly as it came. If I were going to get my interview, it would be sandwiched in between receptions, appointments, and visits with some of his longtime friends. I gave Mr. Novak's assistant my cell number. When a break came in his schedule, I could be reached on campus. All that I wanted was to get the interview whether or not it was sandwiched between his busy schedule. However, the phone didn't ring. I was going to have to act decisively.
I learned that I had to be more assertive if I wanted to land those really big interviews. A couple years ago, I thought that I had done everything necessary to get an interview with the Dalai Lama. I went to India and arranged my trip to Tibet so that I could see him at his headquarters in Dharamsala, India. In hindsight, I could have been more assertive, but I thought that an assertive attitude was antithetical to the teachings of the Dalai Lama and of Buddha himself. Well, I wasn't antithetical, and I didn't get the interview. I got within an eyelash, but failed to get the interview.
This was déjà vu all over again. I could see this adventure slipping through my literary fingertips. I had spent hours of research for this interview and had enough pithy questions that would last of a couple hours. In addition, I had listened to Bob Novak on CNN talking about that he wished someone would make him popcorn like someone in the Kerry camp made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the senator. I seized upon that tidbit and purchased two boxes of popcorn as a memento of our interview. Was I going to have to eat my questions and wash them down with Cinnabon and Kettle Popcorn by Orville Redenbacher? However, the disappointment of missing the interview was something that I couldn't swallow. I happen to spot him getting ready for his commencement address and just went up to him, introduced myself, and told him that I wanted an interview. We arranged for a short one after his address.
All worked out that Mother's Day weekend in Joliet, IL. Hundreds of graduates and their families left the Franciscan university happy about their academic success. I too left Joliet with an excellent interview with Robert D. Novak. He left happy also. On that May weekend, he received a Doctorate of Humane Letters for the University of St. Francis and two boxes of popcorn. He expressed delight in receiving both a degree and an edible acknowledgement of his years of political commentary.
I only hope that he never finds out that Studs' cigars cost over $150 and his popcorn only set me back $5. However, I still want to spend time over dinner talking with Bob Novak. I'm sure that day will come.
This article appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 7/10/05.