Is Truth Stranger than Fiction?

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Richard Condon
VTR: 5/2/94, Dallas, TX
Title: “Richard Condon – Is Truth Stranger than Fiction?”

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today’s program is one of several we are recording far away from our home base in New York, where I began to produce and moderate this program an incredible 38 years ago this month. We’re actually recording in Texas, in the Dallas studios of KERA, one of our nation’s key public television stations. And my guest is fast becoming a fixture of the Lone Star State, even though he hails originally from the prairies of Manhattan, as I do. Indeed, in the dim, dark days almost beyond recall, we both went to that same quintessential New York institution, Dewitt Clinton High School. But there any resemblance ends beyond, of course, the decades my guest and I each spent in the motion picture industry. For Richard Condon went on to become one of America’s most popular novelists. As one critic described him, “Original, prolific, and profitable, possibly in that order.” Politicians, high living, and bad guys most frequently provide the backdrop for my guest’s novels. From The Manchurian Candidate and Winter Kills, to Prizzi’s Honor and many, many more. A few years ago, in reviewing The Final Addiction, the redoubtable Herbert Mitgang wrote in The New York Times,“There’s nobody else quite like Richard Condon writing satirical novels today. The singular Condon genre combines American politics, scoundrels in various corners of the world, linguistic shenanigans, cholesterol-loaded meals, Cold Warriors and intelligence agencies, legalized thievery in Washington, and putdowns of the high and mighty everywhere. As the comedian Mort Saul used to say in his nightclub act in San Francisco, ‘Is there anyone here I haven’t offended?”

Well, Mitgang concluded his review, “Richard Condon has done it again. As they say in Hollywood, ‘The Final Addiction is high concept.’”

So that I would conclude this introduction by asking Richard Condon just what high concept keeps him writing away here deep in the heart of Texas with what he once characterized as “The ability to make things believable that are baroque grotesque. Every book I’ve ever written,” he said, ‘has been about abuse of power. I feel very strongly about that. I’d like people to know how deeply their politicians are wronging them.” And so I’d ask my guest, “Why?”

CONDON: Well, you know, it’s like talking about religion and politics. We’re bound to offend most of the people who are watching. But we just went through a period of intense hypocrisy with the death of the revered Richard Nixon. And it was carried on into almost a travesty of a funeral and obsequious and professional mourning. The mourning seemed to be done entirely by politicians who were grateful for this untimely death because it took the public’s attention away from many, many other things that were annoying them.
Now, it’s essential that – I assume it’s essential – that there be an abuse of power, because power itself is an abuse against the human spirit.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that power is itself an abuse against the human spirit? Isn’t power frequently defined as leadership? Isn’t that part, very much part of the highest aspect of the human spirit?

CONDON: Well, no, because it’s, in this definition that I’m talking about, it states, it doesn’t just imply, an overwhelming force of object A over object B or over a vast collection of B to Z. It’s a man who has the power to get things done, is the euphemism for many things that are, that would e unacceptable in a very small community or overlooked in this larger community.

HEFFNER: Well, if I had asked you to begin with, “What sense, what picture, what image of the nature of human nature informs Richard Condon’s writing,” would it be a Hobbesian picture? Would it be one, as you seem to be saying, that we all live in a state of nature that is itself a matter of the war of all against all?

CONDON: Well, you know, for example I had a novel called Mile High.

HEFFNER: Uh hum.

CONDON: And in it was presumed that leaders of the religious community, the financial community, combined to conspire to stop the sale of alcohol in the United States. Now, that would be perfectly fine if it were all done on that straightforward, democratic appeal. But instead, in this book – at least in this book …

HEFFNER: Which reflects Condon.

CONDON: Well, yes. Oh, indeed. A group of very wealthy people start in 1916 to buy up the liquor stocks, the wine stocks of the world. They have to install professional criminals to run this entire operation. And you know, when you think of the cost in tires alone, just tires on trucks, to move this booze all over the then 48 states, it took a prodigious amount of money, but more than that, a prodigious amount of planning.

Now, in the middle of all this is a small guy who just wants a glass of beer when he finishes work. (Laughter) And he can’t get it. But the men who organized the entire thing around him made untold billions of dollars and accrued to themselves a great deal more power.

HEFFNER: Now, that again is a reflection of your …

CONDON: Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: … essential feeling about the nature of human nature.

CONDON: Yes, yes. Yes, indeed. I think that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the abuse of power. Because if people who are innocent of intent, of not their intent, but those who intend to influence them, are so easily guided from one side to another, just like Lake Geneva is like a bowl of water, just like that. If they’re so easily influenced, it’s not their fault. They have to get the children to the dentist, they have to pay the mortgage, they have to get up at 8:00 to commute to the office. All of the thousand things that stand in the way. But in the meantime, the group that is using them to deny them the glass of beer after they finish work are, come out at the winners, yes.

HEFFNER: You know, the thing that puzzles me though is that, where does this evil come from. You’ve got the guy who’s …

CONDON: Why do you call it “evil?”

HEFFNER: You mean you don’t?

CONDON: Oh, I don’t call it evil, no, no.

HEFFNER: Just the use of power?

CONDON: No, I think it’s the human condition.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you seem to differentiate between the guy who just going to get a glass of beer after a hard day’s work …

CONDON: Yes, yes, yes.

HEFFNER: … and the others who are manipulating him …

CONDON: Yes.

HEFFNER: … or manipulating him for power.

CONDON: Yes, but what’s the difference between merchandising no glass of beer at all …

HEFFNER: Yeah.

CONDON: … or merchandising White Diamonds, Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume? It’s simply a matter of our culture. We were born to be sold things. And because we were born to be sold things more than anyone else on the earth, we buy them. Now, they always come in very attractive packages by people who have studied the market, so that when I want to take your glass of beer at the end of the day away, for at least the beginning of all this, you feel morally imbued and transcendent.

HEFFNER: So what you’re saying is that look, if I understand you correctly, this is nothing sinful because it is endemic to the human condition.

CONDON: Well, to the American condition. There are other countries where selling things to people are not as wonderfully refined as they are in this country.

HEFFNER: You’re not saying that it is the American ethic? Or you’re saying that it is, it is, if not quite indigenous …

CONDON: It is cultural. It’s deeply a part of the culture because it’s not only cause and effect, it’s instant response to calculated persuasion.

HEFFNER: Calculated persuasion. Persuasion for profit.

CONDON: Yes, indeed. Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: I remember doing a program here on The Open Mind, oh, it must have been 30 years ago with Nick Samstag, who was the head of the, I guess, of the advertising or of the promotion end of Time, Inc. at that time. And we did a program on persuasion for profit. There are many people who find that persuasion for profit is what makes the wheels go round.

CONDON: Oh, absolutely. I agree with that.

HEFFNER: So there’s no way out of it, is there then?

CONDON: Oh, not at all. No, not at all. I think, however, that now they’re coming up to the great debate about the prohibition of narcotics. Somebody very, very skillful, a whole board of thinkers should spend two years analyzing the prohibition period and the corruption, the ruination of police enforcement, politicians, the introduction of organized crime that came out of prohibition.

HEFFNER: Now, you’ve indicated that you think that, you’ve indicated in your writing that, in a sense, in terms of the prohibition of liquor, there was a conspiracy on the part of certain forces to buy up …

CONDON: Yes.

HEFFNER: … all the liquor that was then going to be worth a hell of a lot more in prohibition.

CONDON: Yes. Yes.

HEFFNER: You’re not suggesting the same thing now with narcotics, are you?

CONDON: Well, you have to, because now the same sources are all in place. I mean, we don’t produce a native crop of coca leaves in the United States. I suppose they could grow marijuana, but that’s a side issue. They don’t grow opium poppies. The stuff is all in place for importation, and believe me, is probably already owned by large mercantile establishments.

HEFFNER: Well, you do have a devil theory of history, don’t you?

CONDON: (Laughter) A devil’s history, yes, rather. Yes.

HEFFNER: A lot of devils around.

CONDON: Well, I suppose it’s a true definition of paranoia. But the three classical symptoms of paranoia are retrospective falsification. Now, we have two political parties in the United States. And if you can tell me any group that can falsify retrospectively better than they can, I’d like to know who it is.

HEFFNER: But not only in our country.

CONDON: Oh, no, not at all. No, no, no.

HEFFNER: Okay.

CONDON: Oh, paranoia is universal.

The second is delusions of grandeur. Well, well, moot. No need to discuss that.

HEFFNER: You have to have that to go into politics.

CONDON: Oh, indeed you do. Oh, good Lord, yes. Gosh.

HEFFNER: What’s the third?

CONDON: Let’s see. That’s delusions of grandeur and retrospective falsification, and, of, I forget the third one, darn it.

HEFFNER: Perhaps a system that embraces the other two? That raises to high power, high positions of power those who are very good at the other …

CONDON: Oh, indeed. At simulating. Yes.

HEFFNER: Now, all of these factors inform your writing, clearly.

CONDON: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: And it’s very popular writing.
CONDON: Yes.

HEFFNER: Does that, in your estimation, does that indicate that there is a popular need to have you and/or others point out the …

CONDON: No …

HEFFNER: Well, you don’t use the word “evil,” but the …

CONDON: No, I think there’s a mutual exchange of permission.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

CONDON: I give them permission to think in terms of these abstruse monsters, and they give me permission to tell them about it.

HEFFNER: But you seem to have no room anywhere for those who are not monsters. Fair enough? You’re saying this is the nature of human nature.

CONDON: No, no. Well, I wouldn’t say that. I’ve written 27 books, and they aren’t all on that relentless theme by any means. The first book I wrote was about stealing fine art. The fourth book was about, was set in Texas and Mexico in 1854, and it was a very innocent love story. I have a book called A Trembling Upon Rome which is about the time there were three popes in the world, all ruling simultaneously. And one called Any God Will Do about a man who goes insane from snobbism. So it isn’t always this relentless dripping of water on the head.

HEFFNER: But it is, to a very large extent, just that.

CONDON: Oh, yes, I agree. I agree. Yes.

HEFFNER: And I’m still trying to figure out: A) Where it comes from and
B) Where does it take you? A) Where does it come from?

CONDON: Well, perhaps you could say it came from, when I was about 16, a friend of mine was the son of a leader of Tammany Hall. And every Election Day we would turn out at 5:00 in the morning, report to the Tammany Clubhouse, in the 50’s on Third Avenue, and be assigned to a driver, given, oh, about 30 envelopes containing two bucks each, and we’d go out into the saloons to pick up the voters, to bring them back to vote them, to pay them the two bucks to elect these men for high office. And I suppose you have to say that cynicism begins at home.

HEFFNER: And that’s where it began?

CONDON: I think so.

HEFFNER: Now, heroes. Are there any of them around?

CONDON: Well, I feel that there are hundreds and hundreds of them. I can’t think of any, but I think these men that, like Salk, research scientists and astronauts
and …

HEFFNER: You don’t find them in political life, though.

CONDON: No, I don’t. No, I haven’t yet. No.

HEFFNER: So what does that mean for our future? Yes, there’s the Jonas Salk. There may be journalists like Ed Murrow. There may be others.

CONDON: Yes.

HEFFNER: But if, in our political life, you can’t name one, what does that mean about our future?

CONDON: Well, now, as a young man, of course, I would have named Franklin Roosevelt. Absolutely. Absolutely. No question about that.

HEFFNER: Retrospectively, would you?

CONDON: Not as much as I did then, but I would still have more admiration for him than I have had for contemporary politicians.

HEFFNER: What’s happened?

CONDON: I think political action committees have happened, where our biggest legislative body, the Congress, voted an irrevocable system to bribe themselves. And when you take bribery on such a legitimate scale that it can no longer be called bribery, where men accumulate funds of a million and a half and two million dollars which they don’t touch, and which, the day they leave office, becomes theirs entirely, I think the basis of the disease began with this legalized bribery called “political action committees.”

HEFFNER: What hope for the future, if any?

CONDON: Well, there’s wonderful organizations like Common Cause. And I think people are getting really tired of the fact that legislators can vote themselves $135,000 a year plus all of the plus and plus and plus and plus. And on top of that, political action money. The worm will turn.

HEFFNER: The worm being?

CONDON: The public.

HEFFNER: The public.

CONDON: I’m so tired of hearing politicians, they never refer to the public. They refer to them as “The American People.” And it’s the same public that buys the packaged bread, the same people are being merchandised out of their birthright by political action committees.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you know, lets look at it from another point of view. If they are the same people, in terms of our commercial life, and if they are the same people in terms of our political life, they are the ones who make these decisions. And why do you think the worm will turn?

CONDON: I happen to …

HEFFNER: Wishful thinking?

CONDON: No, no. I happen to, now, fall back on the Constitution of the United States. And even though I can recognize them as being absolutely willing dupes from time to time, I take it as my right to sort of kid them about it. Which is what satire does.

HEFFNER: Okay. Now, is there any indication of that in novels to come?

CONDON: Novels to come. Well, now, let’s say this. I’m 79.

HEFFNER: You’re a kid.

CONDON: Well, I know. But this is how it works. About five years ago I was writing 10 pages a day. Every day, 10 pages a day. And I worked seven days a week. Now, I do three pages a day. And by the time another year passes, it might drop to two pages a day. (Laughter) So these books in the future are a little bit obscured by steam, the steam of time.

HEFFNER: We have just two minutes left. But let me ask you – and I wasn’t really talking about the quantity of books; I’m really not talking about productivity …

CONDON: Yes.

HEFFNER: … though you have been such an incredibly productive person – talking about what ideas feed into those books. Will we expect something different from Condon? Not, again, in quantity, but in terms of the nature of your message?

CONDON: Well, the book I’m working on now is, I think, really has just shifted the emphasis away from politicians down to individuals.

HEFFNER: Do we come out better?

CONDON: Well, we come out better because in the end it’s a love story. And therefore we … But it’s still a struggle over the prejudices of concept, the concept of what is right and what is improper – not wrong; improper – that brings the conflict between this man and this woman.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting to me that you don’t want it to be between right and wrong; but right and improper.

CONDON: Well, I wouldn’t, I mean, it would take really a double-dome philosopher to define “wrong.” It’s easy to define “right,” but it’s very hard to define “wrong.”

HEFFNER: Takes a satirist, that’s all. Right?

CONDON: (Laughter) Well, perhaps that’s right, yes.

HEFFNER: And perhaps that’s why that’s the nature of what you’ve written all your life.

CONDON: Well, that’s why I’m … Thank you. That’s an explanation for me how that happened.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Richard Condon, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind. I am grateful for you to be here.

CONDON: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time too. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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