Studs Terkel, 95, worries U.S. memory is failing

CHICAGO Wed May 16, 2007 4:08pm EDT

1 of 3. American original Studs Terkel gestures during an interview at his home in Chicago May 15, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Stephen J. Carrera

CHICAGO (Reuters) - American original Studs Terkel, the author and oral historian who for decades gave a voice to working men and women, turned 95 on Wednesday. But don't worry about his memory. He's sharp as a tack.

In fact, he's the one doing the worrying -- about what he describes as the memory loss of a country he suggests may be more interested in the transgressions of celebrities than more substantive affairs such as the politics of the Bush administration, which he characterizes as a "burlesque show."

"Look at the headlines, about how football player Tank Johnson went home to his mama, about Paris Hilton," said a frail but ever-tenacious Terkel during an interview in his home on the north side of Chicago this week.

Terkel, a legendary Chicagoan, won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1984 book, "The Good War," an oral history of World War II.

"We can't make any choices unless we connect the past with the present," he said.

"The thing that horrifies me is the forgetfulness," Terkel said in the famous gravelly voice that charmed generations of radio audiences beginning in the 1950s when he first introduced his interview format on Chicago station WFMT.

"Gore Vidal uses the phrase, the United States of amnesia. Well, I say United States of the big A -- Alzheimer's," he said. "Because what happened yesterday is forgotten today."

His new book, "The Studs Terkel Reader, My American Century," has been timed for release on Terkel's birthday.

Terkel planned to celebrate with an appearance at the Chicago History Museum, which has archived hundreds of his classic radio interviews. They span authors James Baldwin and Nelson Algren, musicians Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan, politicians, scientists and the everyday people whose voices he relished giving air time.

Terkel's latest book attempts to connect Americans with their past, touching on themes where he staked his claim -- labor, war and race. It offers the best interviews from his oral histories, including the well-known titles "American Dreams," Division Street" and "Hard Times," with new introductions to each.

Terkel, a pro-union voice who was blacklisted during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s McCarthy era, bubbles with strong opinions and surprising bursts of energy for a man who had heart surgery at age 93.

He sits upright in his easy chair, dressed in his trade-mark red-checked shirt and matching red socks, sawing the air for emphasis.

In less than an hour, he ranged over topics from President Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada to Enrico Fermi and the creation of the atomic bomb to "Medium Cool," the film by Haskell Wexler that chronicles Chicago during the tumultuous summer of 1968 when protests against the Vietnam War included bloody clashes in the streets at the Democratic Convention.

'GREAT FAITH IN THE PEOPLE'

"I have great faith in the people, provided we give them the news," said Terkel, who thinks the American media has moved too far to the right. He still watches the news and follows his favorite sport -- baseball.

Few kids today, he said, know of the New Deal politics of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which saved millions from the economic hardship of the 1930s Depression years.

Terkel said he counts FDR and Henry Wallace, who served under Roosevelt as vice president, along with Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., as the greatest Americans of the 20th century.

"You can ask kids about the Great Depression and they wouldn't know," he lamented.

Terkel, who has yet another book -- a just-completed memoir called "Touch and Go" -- due out in November, is also worried that the United States is becoming an ageist society.

"We're living longer lives but a lot of people, as soon as they get to be 50, they become redundant," he said. "You get someone younger, no pension, no union, no talk of union."

For the next president, Terkel favors Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, who cut his political teeth in Illinois. But he said he wished the senator would be a tad more decisive.

"I think Obama is good, but he's a little too careful," he said. "He should say, 'Yes, pull out,'" Terkel added, referring to U.S. troops in Iraq.

Terkel was at his most animated when recounting the hardscrabble tales of the ordinary people he interviewed.

"If I did one thing I'm proud of, it's to make people feel that together, they count," he said.

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