Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Laurence Leamer (page 3)
 Talking with
Laurence Leamer
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Are you still in touch with your Peace Corps group?
We’re having — Good God — our fortieth reunion of Nepal Four this summer in Wyoming. I can’t believe it. 1964. It’s the best group of people I’ve even been involved with in my life. Nothing comes close. They were the most varied in background, educations, interests and they were and are simply amazing. Almost all of them have done socially useful things. I’m merely a writer. Lloyd is blind and he brought an illuminating concern for that disability to Nepal. Suzanne works for the Gates Foundation aiding health projects in Asia. George is gone now but he was one amazing third grade teacher. Kitty serves our country in the Foreign Service in China.
You have written three Kennedy books? What has been the reception to them from the extended Kennedy family?
Well let’s see. I had dinner with one of them two nights ago, and we’ve become friends. On the other hand there’s one family member who hates me and tries in every way she can to make my life difficult.
Of all the Kennedys — men and women — who is the most fascinate one?
Eunice Kennedy Shriver is one of the great women of the twentieth century, but you know her husband is one of the great men. One day Willi Unseold, the Peace Corps Nepal director, came to my village. The year before he had climbed Everest and lost his toes. He asked my students why they thought he had climbed Everest. The smartest boy in class jumped up and said “Sir, you climbed Everest because you want to be famous.” “Ah, but I’m not famous,” Willi said. “Sir Edmund Hillary is famous and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay is famous, but I’m not famous.” The little boy jumped up again. “Ah but sir, you are famous to us.” I’ll always remember that. Sarge never became president and he’s not exactly a household word, but he’ll always be famous to us.
Tell us a little about the other books you have written.
Let’s see. I think of each book as an adventure, a life in itself allowing me in a voyeuristic way to live a number of lives. The Paper Revolutionaries: The Rise of the Underground Press was my first book. It was about the underground press. I had just come from one desperately unhappy year as an associate editor at Newsweek writing about foreign affairs. When I got a grant from the Twentieth Century Fund to write not a book but nothing more than a quasi academic pamphlet, I went to work for Liberation News Service, the politically radical voice of the movement. After that I traveled around the country staying at times with the underground press editors, getting to know them. I handed in a substantive enough report that it became a book.
     Playing for Keeps: In Washington was my second book about how power affects people in Washington. I didn’t have much of a name but I was able to interview everybody in the book from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld. That was fascinating stuff and taught me a valuable lesson — people want to talk.
     Make-Believe: The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan was the first book about the Reagans to explore the cultural Hollywood roots of Reagan. I don’t know how I did that book in six months, but it still holds up and some people say it’s their favorite book about the Reagans.
     I got interested in country music when I was working in a coal mine in West Virginia, and I headed down to Nashville knowing nobody. In Three Chords and the Truth: Hope and Heartbreak and Changing Fortunes in Nashville I got almost everybody big and small to talk to me. I spent a month traveling around Europe with Emmy Lou Harris and her awesome band on her bus. I did something on that one I’ve never done before or since. I let the principals read their parts of the book. No one had any major changes at all, in fact I don’t think there was a single change. But when the book came out, Nashville exploded. You couldn’t even read the book in public. It was that controversial. I learned a valuable lesson: the truth has few friends.
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