This interview originally appeared at Barnes &

Though it's a job requirement that he remain impartial when on the air, Ted Koppel is certainly not a man without opinions. In Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public, a journal begun as a legacy to his descendents, Koppel draws back the curtain on his private thoughts, offering insights and opinions on the events of the tumultuous year that was 1999. I spoke with Koppel regarding such disparate topics as the circus that surrounded the impeachment of President Clinton, the future of NATO, the drudgery of author tours, and the current cult of celebrity in the United States.

—Brett Leveridge

An Interview with Ted Koppel

Throughout much of Off Camera, you seem frustrated and even disheartened by the events of 1999—the impeachment circus at the beginning of the year, for example, or the media overhype of JFK Jr's death. You even express concern more than once that we are living in a "pre-war" time. Looking back now, are you feeling better about our overall prospects now than then?

There's an easy one: No. I think most of the concern that I felt in 1999 I still feel. Absolutely.

Much of the book focuses on your thoughts about and reactions to the major national and world events of 1999. Decades from now, what event do you think will most dominate history's view of that year?

That's an interesting question, because I tried in at least one or two of the entries to draw a distinction between what's newsworthy and what's historical. What seems important at the time...the JonBenet Ramsey stories or stories of that genre are the kind that preoccupy us when they happen. And, for example, when the nonproliferation treaty is rejected, we pay almost no attention to it. I'm sure a few years from now people will look back and say, boy oh boy, did we miss the boat there.

I also think that, years from now, people will look back on our involvement in Kosovo—though it seemed like such a positive event, in the sense that it was clearly a NATO and, most importantly, a U.S. victory—and say that that may have been the first step toward NATO's impotence. That may have been the event that caused NATO to think, five and ten times over, about whether it ever again wanted to get involved not just in something like that but in something more important.

Mark Twain used to say that once a cat has sat on a hot stove, she'll never sit on a hot stove again. But she'll also never sit on a cold stove. And I think that may be our problem, that [Kosovo] was a misunderstanding of what NATO ought to be about. And, as noble as it may have seemed at the time, it may keep us from doing really important things in the future with NATO.

What do you think we should have done differently?

As I wrote in the book, nations go to war not for reasons of morality. Morality is the icing that they put on the cake to justify national interests. A country has to have its own national interests very much at stake before it goes to war, or it shouldn't go to war. And I have yet to be convinced that U.S. national interest was in any fashion involved in Kosovo.

Were we only concerned about the violations of human rights, we'd be involved in 50 different wars around the world right now. Human rights are constantly being violated; innocent people are constantly being killed, raped, tortured, imprisoned. That's happening in many, many places around the world right now, but the United States doesn't get involved. It cannot afford to get involved in every one of those cases. And ultimately the defining judgement has to be made on the basis of national interest. It's my view that the U.S. national interest was not involved.

You're pretty rough on just about everyone involved in the events surrounding the impeachment of President Clinton. How are future generations likely to view those events? Will history view the whole process as a sort of coup attempt, as some people feel it was, or as a righteous crusade, as others see it?

I think both of those observations are absolutely true. I think in some respects it was a coup attempt by some on the right to do through the impeachment process what they had failed to do through the electoral process. By the same token, I think that the President's behavior was misunderstood, in the sense that the President's defenders described it as though it were purely a sexual dalliance. And why, after all, is that the business of the rest of us, let alone the U.S. Congress?

When, in fact, it was significantly more than that. It was the chief officer of the land lying under oath and undermining the rights of another citizen, in this case Paula Jones, to bring a case against him.

Did all of that add up to impeachable crimes? I probably have to say no, I don't think so. But having said that, I don't think you then take the next step and say, therefore the President was a perfectly moral, decent, and upstanding human being. He wasn't, and what he did was wrong. There should have been some punishment for it, and I think I write, on more than one occasion, that it's my view that he was severely punished, that in some respects he was put in the 20th-century equivalent of the stocks. He was pilloried, he was mocked, he was humiliated. And I think for a proud man that can be a particularly terrible punishment.

So I don't think that it's fair to come down entirely on one side or the other. I think the case was more complicated than that.

Are we better off that those who did try bring the President down failed, even if he perhaps got off relatively easy?

I don't think he got off scot-free, and yes, I think the nation is better off. I don't think you reverse the electoral process, the democratic process, lightly.

Bill Clinton has endured nearly nine years of rumor and innuendo from those who oppose him. Hasn't he been subjected to a greater personal scrutiny than previous presidents? Did they, to put it another way, change the rules on him?

Look, I think that people are going to look at the life and times of Bill Clinton through their own particular prism. But let me try and be the objective reporter for a moment. I remember, because I participated in it and interviewed him live on Nightline, that Gary Hart didn't make it as far as Clinton—for precisely the same reasons. Gary Hart, who, as you may recall, was the frontrunner among Democratic candidates for president, ended up losing the nomination almost certainly because of his sexual dalliances. Bill Clinton, you have to remember, made it past that New Hampshire stage in spite of the questions that were raised. All I'm saying is, those kind of questions had been raised long before Bill Clinton came on the scene. They were questions that were raised about Gary Hart.

In Bill Clinton's case, they were raised and then the public gave him the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because he just flat-out lied. Not only did he lie, but he brought his wife into it. And I don't want to say that she lied, but she certainly was complicit in getting across the notion that whatever it was that happened was in past, that it had only happened one time, and that was behind them. It was between the two of them, and nobody else was involved. That's how he got the nomination. I mean, that's how he became the Comeback Kid. He lied about it and was never really held to account for that. It turned out that Gennifer Flowers was telling the truth, and he was not.

And so later on, when the same things appeared to be happening—not just once, not just twice, but several times—do I think it's reasonable then that he was judged by a fairly harsh standard? Yes. Again, not because of the sexual dalliances—I'm inclined to agree that that's between him and his wife and his family—but because, under oath, giving a sworn affidavit in one case and during a deposition in another case, he lied. And thereby may have cost Paula Jones her day in court. Do I think Paula Jones is pure as the driven snow? Of course not. But do I think she is more the victim than the perpetrator? Probably. What we'll never know is just what did happen in that case, and the reason we won't know is because Bill Clinton lied.

Now, he didn't really get away with it. You have to remember that a federal judge fined him $90,000 and he may still be disbarred in Arkansas. Those are not trivial things for the President of the United States. So will history look back, as it often does, and say, well, those were secondary issues and the fact of that matter is he was a great president, that the U.S. economy was never stronger, unemployment was never lower, and all those good things? It may very well; I've learned not to judge what history will say. But I wasn't writing a history book; I was offering my own take on these events.

In your introduction to the book, you relate anecdotes about people approaching you on the street as if they know you. What do you make of the way celebrities are treated in this country?

Well, I guess the most important thing that I've learned over the years is not to take it too seriously, because while people appear to know you and you can be seduced into believing that they know so much about you and care so much about you—the fact of the matter is they know next to nothing. I'll bet for every time that someone yells "Hey, Ted" at me, someone else yells, "Hey, Tom Brokaw" or "Hey, Dan Rather!" In a sense, they just look at us, recognize the face, know that we all appear in the same box, and regard us, to an extent, as interchangeable parts.

You've been interviewed over the years, of course—you've even appeared a number of times on The Late Show with David Letterman. And you'll no doubt be interviewed in the coming weeks about this book. What, if anything, do you take away from the experience of being interviewed that carries over into your work as an interviewer? What have you learned from being on the other side?

I've learned that, most of the time, interviews tend to be kind of predictable and not terribly challenging, in the sense that—and I'm not saying this about this interview, honestly I'm not—most of the time—and I've done books before and book tours before and I've gone on the road promoting programs that we've done on Nightline or documentaries that I've done—people don't know what they're talking about. Most of the time people haven't read the book; most of the time people don't have the time or don't really bother. Have you ever been on a book tour?

I did a 14-city tour this summer, in fact, promoting my first book.

Oh, congratulations. Well, you know, then, that during these book tours, where you do ten, sometimes 15 interviews in a day, you're just dying for someone who's read the book and is going to challenge you on something. It becomes so tedious to be cheerful and friendly to people who clearly haven't bothered. Maybe they've read the dust jacket. And they try to ask you a couple of questions that they think might be relevant to the book, and it's all you can do not to say, "Do me a favor. I'll be glad to come back tomorrow, but just read a chapter or two and I'll come back."

So what I've learned is that I owe my interviewees the courtesy of at least trying to know enough about the subject that I can ask them tough, intelligent questions. And friendly is less important than the intelligent part. Everybody doesn't have to love [the book], and I'm more than confident many people will dislike it intensely and want to come after me. That doesn't bother me; what bothers me is when people don't even bother to look at it and then try to fake it.

I've been interviewed far less often than you, I'm sure, but I've found it difficult to face the same questions over and over. You try to keep it fresh and interesting, but it's not easy.

Yes, which may be a mistake. One of the things I've learned from following politicians around on campaigns is that they are not the least bit embarrassed at having a press corps with them who have heard the jokes, the one-liners, the answers a hundred times over. They don't bother trying to do something fresh for each one; they just try to get their message across, whatever that message is. And amateurs like you and me feel embarrassed. "Oh, I said that yesterday in Buffalo, so I can't say that today in Minneapolis." Of course you can.

What, if anything, did you learn from the process of keeping a journal so faithfully for a year? Is this something you've always done, or did you undertake it for the purposes of this book?

I didn't undertake it for the book; I undertook it in part as an exercise and in part, as I write somewhere in there, because on January 1st of '99, it suddenly occurred to me that this was going to be the year of my mother's hundredth birthday. And it occurred to me how much I would've enjoyed it if my grandfather had kept a journal in 1899 and had sort of left it for me to look at, so that I could look back and say, "Gosh, so that's what they were interested in back in 1899." Or that's what they thought was important, and look at what they thought of this. They thought this was kind of trivial and it ended up leading to the First World War, or whatever it may have been.

And so, in part, it was an effort to leave something behind for my kids and their kids. And then, as I got into it, and realized that, though in some instances it was personal, in many instances it was not; it was really just sort of giving my own perceptions and my own views on events of the day, it occurred to me, in about March or so, that this might actually make it as a book—not just for the family but as a book for other people to read. And so I think in April is when I started shopping it around.

Do you still keep a journal?

No. I mean, I've done it on occasions in the past, never had the discipline to do it for a year. I kept a journal for about 27 days in Vietnam and have often wished that I'd had the discipline back then to do it, because those 27 entries are pretty good and pretty revealing to me now, looking back 30 years later. But I didn't, so that's another reason, I guess, that I felt I had to prove, to myself at least, that I had the discipline to do it for at least a year.

Do you think that the American public, after reading about the personal side of your life in Off Camera, will perceive you differently as a journalist? Will they take you less seriously because they have now seen a less impartial side of you, or more seriously because they can see you on a more human level, doing things that everyone does—battling with the phone company, for example, or helping your son move into his new apartment?

I don't know; honestly I don't.

Were you concerned about that at all?

You know, since you've just done a book—I assume that this is true of most, if not all authors—you didn't sit there writing that book for me. You wrote that book for you, and you were not thinking about the reader. One of the interesting things about the process of writing is that when you're writing, I'm not sure that there are very many writers or authors who sit there saying, I wonder what that housewife in Dubuque is going to think as she reads this paragraph. What you're doing is trying to put your own thoughts on paper, and the notion of what impact this book is going to have on my life, I'm about to find out. I haven't a clue. I don't know what people are going to think. I don't know if they're going to like it or hate it, if they're going to think more of me or less of me because of it. And frankly there's not a thing I can do about it either way. I mean, it's done; it's there.

Is it important, though, for someone in your position as a media professional to somehow remain a blank slate—to give the news and offer very little of himself in the process? And have you risked that by writing this book?

I don't think so. My view of my responsibility as a journalist is that, when I'm committing journalism, I have a responsibility to be fair, accurate, and objective—at least as objective as I can be. That doesn't mean that I walk around 24 hours a day being objective. I probably don't walk around 24 hours a day being fair. I'm sure I don't walk around 24 hours a day being accurate. There are many things I say to friends in conversation that I wouldn't put on the air because I haven't had the chance to check it out, but life is not lived that way. You don't live life saying, "Wait a second, let me go check the research pack to be sure that what I'm about to say here is accurate."

I guess if there is a point to be made, it is only that we live on different levels. As a journalist, I hope that I will continue to be what I have always tried to be in the past, and that is a fair and decent and objective journalist. That doesn't mean, I think, that I can't also put out a book in which I am more subjective, perhaps less fair, certainly more opinionated. If all I was going to do was release a bunch of scripts, I don't know how interesting that would be to the public at large. I think they have a right to know there's more to me than that, and they have a right to expect that part of me to be set aside when the camera light goes on and I'm on the air. I intend to be just as fair next year as I was last year. I think the key is not what I wrote in 1999, but whether, in the course of 1999, as you and others were watching Nightline, you had the sense that, "What the hell happened to Koppel? He's so different; he's so unfair." My assumption is that people watching in '99 didn't think I was any different than I was in '98. My hope is that people watching in the year 2000 are going to say, "Well, at least on the air he's the same." And if they have a different insight or two into me—well, that's fine.

Many conservatives insist that the media has a liberal slant. Is that so? Based on your experiences, what percentages of those in the various news media would you estimate are Republican, Democrat, or Other?

I don't know, I'm not going to give you a guess, and I don't think it really matters. And let me explain why.

Your assumption is probably correct, and I've thought about it a lot over the years and wondered why that is. I think one of the reasons is that reporters tend to cover a lot of bad things. Reporters tend to be eyewitnesses to wars and revolutions and bankruptcies and businesses failing and human beings acting at their worst, when they've just lost a close family member or they've just been convicted of a crime or whatever it may be. And I think that you can't really do this job without having some sympathy for the people that you cover.

One of the definitions of a journalist's responsibility, to me, though it's not my definition, and I'm sorry I can't tell you whose it was, is to make the powerful uncomfortable and to be a voice for the powerless. The assumption being that the powerful are perfectly capable of getting their own views across, and the powerless are not. So that's one of the things that a reporter does, just automatically, as part of his or her job.

That tends to be the kind of attitude that makes you, most of the time, more liberal than conservative. Now, I defy you to tell me, based on Off Camera, which I am. You may have a lot of insights into how I feel about particular issues or people, and in some of those cases, you'll say, that's a conservative point of view or that's a liberal point of view. But I think you'll find examples of both in the book, many times over. I'm just saying to you that if there tend to be more liberals than conservatives in the media, I think it's a professional hazard.

Let me raise a question for you: If, as is commonly held, the media are as influential as they are believed to be, then how, over the past 50 years, did we end up with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush as opposed to Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter? The fact of the matter is that we elect an awful lot of conservatives in the country—or, at least, we have over the last 30 or 40 years—and if that's in the face of an overwhelmingly liberal media, if it's true that the liberal media just doesn't give those conservatives a break, one of two things has to be true: Either the media are a lot less influential than people think they are, or perhaps the media are not quite as uniform in their coverage as people believe them to be.

And one final thought on that: I've lived my life around journalists, and I honestly don't think journalists give a damn. Whether it's a liberal politician or a conservative politician, we are equal opportunity destroyers. [laughs] We go after everybody with the same sort of zeal and enthusiasm. The same press that went after Richard Nixon during Watergate went after Bill Clinton during Whitewater and then later Monica Lewinsky, and if you were going to believe that journalists operate on the basis of their own private ideological preferences, you would have to assume they'd go after Nixon but not go after Clinton. Or go after Reagan but not go after Carter. It's not so; we go after everybody.