Off Camera

Private Thoughts Made Public
Trade Paperback

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One of America's most admired TV anchors gives us an intimate chronicle of the final year of the twentieth century. In this engrossing narrative, a national bestseller, are all the most significant matters of that year--from Bill Clinton’s impeachment to Columbine, from the war in Kosovo to Y2K and the mass-marketing of Viagra. Here are the people who made the news--from Slobodan Milosevic to Hillary Rodham Clinton to Michael Jordan to John F. Kennedy Jr. The events of 1999 anticipate so many of the on-going challenges America faces today that Koppel’s account feels entirely prescient.

Koppel's book moves on yet another level as events trigger memories of his own past, providing a more personal resonance to his telling of the history we all share. He takes us back to the England in which he lived until he was thirteen. He revisits his powerful experiences as an interviewer investigating prison abuses and probing the violence in our schools. He discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the media; he talks about racial intolerance, about brutality toward gay people, about the absence of political leadership. He also examines such cultural phenomena as our obsession with celebrity and the impact of great theater and overhyped movies.  

        Here is the voice we knew so well from Nightline--intelligent, curious, opinionated, witty, concerned--reminding us in entertaining and thought-provoking ways that even the most public events reverberate in our private lives.


"[Koppel] writes with aplomb. His style puts readers at ease, just as his on-air style seems to put guests and audience at ease."
--The Christian Science Monitor

"Koppel's voice on the page is very much like his voice on camera-wry and measured...The pleasure here is that he is not bound by journalistic restraint."--The Denver Post

"[Y]ou will get to know... Ted Koppel... irreverent, ironical, informative, intimate, sometimes irritable, but always enormously interesting."
--Barbara Walters

"[I]n this magnificently written volume, [Koppel] speaks about himself with his usual elegance and rigor."
--Elie Wiesel


Chapter 1


January 1 / Captiva, Florida

Hope and foreboding. Not necessarily in equal measure, either. What every new year has that recommends it over the old one is the promise of uncertainty. We know what happened last year. There is always the possibility that we will learn from our mistakes, tighten our abdominals, stop smoking, exercise greater patience and dedicate our lives to the selfless pursuit of Man's greater good. There is also the off chance that pigs will fly.

What makes the prospect of 1999 particularly gloomy is that the year begins perched on the detritus of 1998. What punishment, short of removal from office, will the U.S. Senate cobble together for William Jefferson Clinton? Surely someone will find an eighteenth-century solution in the delphic mutterings of the Federalist Papers. Actually, the twentieth century has already formulated its own equivalent to the pillory and stocks: Letterman, Leno, Imus and the various front pages of a hundred newspapers and magazines, together with the daily flaying on radio talk shows and television news programs, have already delivered their populist punishment, without having undermined "the will of the people" or, at least, the will of those millions of civic souls who dragged themselves to the polls to vote for Clinton in 1996.

Whichever way it goes, it will leave a nasty aftertaste. The president and First Lady will speak piously of national reconciliation, while their loyalists ram the rockets' red glare up the tailpipes of the right-wing fanatics, who have confused low morals with high crimes. The right-wing fanatics, meanwhile, will speak piously of having made television newscasts safe for viewing by their children again (as though anyone without dentures even watches the news anymore), and then they will encourage Lucianne Goldberg to collaborate with Howard Stern in the drafting of "A Moral Compass for the New Millennium."

It can safely be predicted, meanwhile, that we are all destined to become wholeheartedly sick and tired of the new millenium before it even gets under way. The term "wretched excess" was coined for the American experience during a year such as this. Has the product been designed that will not presume some benefit of association with the new millenium? Is there a family so removed from the sense of the moment that it has not yet felt the first uneasy stirrings of being insufficiently prepared for next New Year's Eve, even as it shakes off the aftermath of last night? It may yet prove to be a perfectly glorious year, in which decency, civility and good taste prevail.

Or pork chops may sprout wings.

January 2 / Captiva

One more note on the millennium: The New York Times editorial board must be acutely conscious of its responsibilities to point us all in the right direction. Sometimes, though, mere opining or editorializing is not enough; a declaration is required. Yesterday the Times declared that it was all right to take the new millennium seriously. It wasn't altogether clear whether that makes it simply permissible, or if it's now obligatory. The newspaper's finest minds will probably express themselves on the subject again.

So far this year the weather here in Captiva has been nothing short of spectacular. That's worthy of brief note, if only because most of the rest of the country is in a miserable deep freeze. Somehow that makes our weather feel even more delicious. Symbolically, that comes close to summarizing America's attitude toward the rest of the world: The weather's just fine here and don't bother us with your whining about crumbling Asian economies, corroding Russian infrastructure, pandemic disease in Africa and the growing likelihood that someone in Isfahan is packing an overnight bag with the wherewithal to pop Cleveland with a biological weapon.

I have the uneasy feeling that a few decades from now people will look back at this year and say: Oh yes, '99. That was one of the last pre-war years.

Think about it. The rest of the world holds a significantly more jaundiced view of how wonderful we are than we do. We are so busy promoting our virtues to one another that we occasionally confuse the advertisement with the product. George Soros, who describes himself as amoral in the conduct of his business affairs, nevertheless contributed more to Russia in at least one recent year than did the United States of America. He, at least, recognizes that well-directed charity can have enormous practical and positive consequences for the donor. The platform of generous foreign aid, however, is not one on which any American politicican would like to run.

Americans appear to have forgotten the generosity and foresight of the Marshall Plan and how it led to the reconstruction of a vibrant West German economy. The rebirth of postwar Japan was only possible because the United States helped the Japanese back onto their feet. In Asia and in Europe the careful calibration of an unambiguous projection of force and a generous policy of foreign aid combined, ultimately, to achieve the erosion of communist power in Asia and its near elimination in Europe. Foreign aid tends to be cheaper and significantly more effective than our when-in-doubt-lob-a-cruise-missile parody of a foreign policy, but casualty-free military action plays well in the polls.

How strange that we wouldn't dream of tolerating the captain of a cruise liner setting his course by surveying the passengers, but that we have become quite comfortable watching the ship of state being steered by polls.

Anyway, the world's in a mess, weapons of mass destruction abound and we haven't a clue how we would respond to a chemical or biological attack against one or more of our cities.

God, it's beautiful outside. I think I'll go sailing.

January 3 / Captiva

The weather is gloomy. The Jacksonville Jaguars are manhandling the soon-to-be Hartford Patriots and I wonder if I'm the only football fan who doesn't care. I have yet to grow accustomed to the notion that Jacksonville has a football team, and, while the name Boston Patriots made some sense and New England Patriots could at least be justified on regional grounds, the Hartford Patriots is just silly. How about the Hartford Adjustors? The Hartford Actuarial Risk? At four the Packers play the 49ers. OK, I know that free agency has reduced us all to rooting for uniforms, but I have my standards. I'll root for a uniform with a little bit of history.

My friend, the executive producer of Nightline, Tom Bettag, has sent me a couple of pages of notes by a historian friend of his, responding to a reckless suggestion of mine a few months ago that Nightline do a series of programs on this last millennium. That, in turn, was prompted by the observations of a Stanford professor friend. My wife, Grace Anne, and I were participating in a Stanford-sponsored hike through Tuscany. Our friend was ruminating on the lifestyle of the Medicis and how they, probably the most powerful and privileged family of their age, lived in conditions that fell far short of those in which an average, middle-class American lives today. Set aside the notion that the Medicis had Michelangelo, da Vinci and Botticelli as house painters and interior decorators; they had lousy heating and cooling, primitive medical care, no electricity, information resources that would be rejected as inadequate by any late-twentieth-century American and no access to fresh fruit in the winter.

In some respects, then, mankind has made significant progress. Unbelievable progress in the areas of longevity, health, communication, travel; even social justice, in some places. But as George Bernard Shaw observed early on in this century (before we'd really gotten the hang of it), where man excels is in the science of killing.

I see by this morning's Times that the North Koreans may already have spirited away a few nuclear warheads. The Times points out that U.S.-North Korean negotiations have been stymied, that Pyongyang is making increasingly bellicose noises and that the North Koreans have shown they have the capacity to deliver such warheads to Japan, Hawaii and Alaska.

As I said, we may well be living through what we will soon recall as one of the last of the prewar years.

January 4 / Captiva

The northern chill has finally insinuated itself into central Florida. Only Canadian tourists and "snowbirds" from Michigan and Minnesota and "this reporter" (as my old friend Danny Meehan, who wet-nursed me through my first job as a copyboy at WMCA, used to say) are walking around in shorts. My excuse is that I never made it past third form at Abbotsholme School in Staffordshire, England, and consequently never reached that exalted status that would have permitted me to wear long pants in winter. This has inured me, from the thighs down, to any temperatures above 20??F.

The spartan rigors of a British boarding school in the early fifties deserve their own footnote as we come to the end of this century.

I rather doubt that my parents (German Jews who fled to England just prior to World War II) would have sent me to boarding school at age eleven had there been any other option. They, however, were back in Frankfurt, fighting for reparations in the newly reestablished German court system. They didn't want me going to school in Germany, and there were no relatives with whom to leave me in England. Hence, Abbotsholme.

One or two flush toilets may have existed at Abbotsholme in 1952, but if so, they would have been for the private and exclusive use of the headmaster and senior members of his staff. The rest of us used outdoor latrines. These were so utterly lacking in twentieth-century complexity that they cannot have differed much from whatever the ancient Saxons used. Two wooden footrests above a pit constituted pretty much the entire works.

I lie.

Generations of Anglo-Saxons, perhaps with a little help from the Picts up north, had contrived certain additional conveniences adopted at Abbotsholme: a bucket with some sand (civilized people do not leave their waste uncovered by at least a handful or two of sand), and there had to have been some toilet paper, although memory does not serve.

I do remember that "lights out" was at 8 p.m. On those occasions when a coal delivery had been made, our housemaster would creep through the corridors listening at the door of each room for the sound of boys talking. No sooner had such a group of miscreants been detected than the housemaster would launch into his favorite tirade about how "a bunch of juvenile delinquents like you are all going to end up in Borstal" (a juvenile detention center immortalized in Borstal Boy). He always seemed quite pleased to have uncovered our wrongdoing. He would order us to put on our Plimsolls (a crude and early ancestor of Nikes) and then lead us to the courtyard where two tons of coal waited to be shoveled into the coal cellar. Suffice it to say that when we were through with that chore, we were encouraged to take a cold bath. (I'm not altogether sure how the coal was employed, since it was not to produce hot water or heat in our rooms. Indeed, not only were our rooms not heated in the winter, we were required to leave the windows open.)

When there was no coal delivery, boys requiring some form of immediate justice would be sent on a late-evening cross-country run. The various "houses" in which we slept were scattered in a rough circle at some distance around the cluster of school buildings. The complete circuit covered approximately five miles. We would be required to run from one "house" to the next, acquiring at each a signed note from the housemaster indicating our times of arrival and departure. It was actually better than shoveling coal.

Back to the frigid North tomorrow.

January 5 / Washington, D.C.

It is an act of will to become reengaged in the impeachment morass. It now looks as though the trial will get under way on Thursday and, if there are those who know what form it will take, they're doing a brilliant job of keeping that from the rest of us. The White House is lofting trial balloons suggesting that the meek faces the president's lawyers showed before the House Judiciary Committee will be replaced (in the event of a full-blown trial) by a more combative stance. I am infected by a rampant case of beyond-the-Beltway "Who gives a crap?" Bill Clinton may yet convince me, as he seems to have convinced much of the rest of the country, that if you appear not to care, you can be impeached by the House and tried by the Senate, and it won't matter. Of course it will matter if he's convicted, but no one seems to believe that likely.

It seems to me that the Senate is desperately looking for some form of Goldilocks solution. The Constitution has left the senators with the option of doing nothing (too mild), or throwing the president out of office (too harsh). What's needed is a "just right" option. In analogous situations at the local level, juries reluctant to sentence an eighteen-year-old to ten years of hard time for a third possession of marijuana engage in the process of jury nullification. They simply refuse to convict. They, however, don't have to run for reelection.

We in the media are, at the moment, in the awkward position of knowing nothing and interviewing smart people who also know nothing; but we are confronting a story that, on the face of it, is so important we can't ignore it.

January 6 / Washington

What a mess! Our (and NPR's) crackerjack legal correspondent Nina Totenberg tells us that Chief Justice Rehnquist is like a young swain waiting to be called for a date. He's supposed to preside (starting tomorrow) over the Senate trial of the president, but, even though he's written a book on the subject of impeachment, he doesn't know what the rules are going to be this time around and he's waiting for someone to tell him. The Senate, by a simple majority, can, in effect, dictate the procedures as they go along; however, even the chieftains of the Senate, Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, are playing it by ear at the moment. Each is uncertain-especially in Lott's case-what he can get his own membership to accept. The Republicans seem determined to have a full-fledged trial, complete with witnesses. The Democrats are equally determined not to let that happen. Some sort of compromise will, eventually, be worked out, but it looks less and less like it will be of the quick and clean variety. All of this is worthy of note only in the sense that, sometimes, when history has had a chance to clean up reality and make everything nice and neat, we forget how messy reality is in its day-by-day incarnation. In retrospect, for example, Richard Nixon's departure from the White House seems to have been inevitable, when in fact the struggle to make a case sufficient to convince Nixon to leave was protracted and ugly.