Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, a nationally syndicated columnist, and a Fox News political analyst. His book, Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years, was a New York Times bestseller. He is the co-author (with Keith Korman) of the new thriller, Banquo's Ghosts.
FP: Rich Lowry, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Tell us what inspired you to write this thriller.
Lowry: I originally got the idea at one of NR's editorial dinners hosted by Bill Buckley a few years ago. We were talking about Iran's nuclear program and the idea of sending an amateur assassin to Iran popped into my head and I mused “that would make a good spy novel.” Keith is my literary agent (and a novelist), so we're always bouncing book ideas off one another and I lobbied him to write this one with me. We got started almost immediately and had a blast doing it.
FP: Enlighten our readers what this novel is about exactly.
Lowry: Here's the basic plot: Peter Johnson is a left-wing journalist who writes for a New York-based publication called The Crusader. He's a lush, a cynic, and a little corrupt. But watching the 9/11 attacks from his Brooklyn Heights apartment changes something in him. He begins to have doubts about the "hate America" pieces his editrix, Josephine von Hildebrand, constantly assigns him. Meanwhile, an old forgotten CIA spymaster, Stewart Bancroft (he works under cover of the name Banquo), has an eye on him. Banquo is old school. He's been marginalized in the new overly bureaucratic, politically correct CIA, as an anachronism who believes in aggressively and imaginatively taking the fight to the enemy. He concludes that the best possible man to send to kill Iran's top nuclear scientist is the one no one would suspect--the unreliable, famously America-hating Peter Johnson. And then, as they say, mayhem ensues.
FP: The novel is clearly a critique of the media. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Lowry: Yes, if there's a villain in the book--besides the ones coming out of Iran--it's the media. And why not? The media in this country is shallow, self-obsessed, and defeatist. If it had had its way in Iraq, we would have lost the war there, and now that the situation has stabilized, it has moved onto declaring Afghanistan--previously the "good war"--the latest Vietnam. In the struggle with radical Islam, maintaining our will and civilizational self-confidence is absolutely essential and the media undermines both.
FP: Why do you think our media is saturated with such defeatist elements? What is the best way we can counter this defeatism in our media?
Lowry: A couple of things. As James Burnham said "liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to its dissolution." Also, there's a generational thing going on. For Baby-Boomer media types, whatever it is--it's always another Vietnam and always another Watergate. Ultimately, though, the truth will come out; the press, for instance, was reluctant to report on the progress forged by the surge in Iraq--with honorable exceptions, including USA Today--but when conditions had undeniably changed on the ground, that reality got out. Unfortunately, there's not much we can do about the mainstream press in the near time--all the more reason to at least have some laughs at its expense with "Banquo's Ghosts"!
FP: Banquo’s Ghosts pokes at various people. Some of the characters appear to be based on some real people. Can you give us an insight into some of the realities here?
Lowry: We're hoping readers will enjoy trying to puzzle that out. There's a former New York Times theater critic turned op-ed columnist named Neville Poore. I'm sure people are going to think of Frank Rich. I bet Josephine is going to call to mind a couple real grande dames of left-wing journalism. But ultimately these are characters in a work of fiction, and they have lives all their own. Although we do skewer some real-life media figures by name, from Chris Matthews, to Sy Hersh, to Joy Behar. Jamie, I think you in particular will relish the scene of Keith Olbermann giving a lap-dog interview to a notorious Hezbollah symp from the Council on Islamic Peace and Tolerance, a guy named Ibrihim Mahdi.
But I don't want to give people the wrong impression. You used the phrase "poking fun," and I want to put the accent on "fun." This book is first and foremost a pot-boiler. We do everything we can to keep the pot boiling for 350 pages, with as many thrills and laughs as possible.
You'll meet Agents Smith and Wesson, the gorgeous, leggy FBI agents working the beat in New York, and all manner of other zany and--we hope--memorable characters.
FP: What are some of the joys in writing fiction that surpass the joys of writing non-fiction for you? What are some ways that fiction can make a point about the real world in a stronger way than non-fiction can?
Lowry: Obviously, just making it up is tremendously liberating--no foot-noting, no checking of sources. And it allows you to dramatize, and therefore make more vivid, certain truths.
FP: Did anything unexpected happen to your way of thinking while you wrote this novel?
Lowry: Not having done this before, I was surprised by the extent the characters take on a life of their own. We set out to make the journalist Peter Johnson a lovable rogue, which is easier said than done. Most rogues aren't particularly lovable. But by the end we really cared about the guy--it's his development that is most central to the novel as he confronts the question of whether, for the first time in his life, he will care about something enough to put himself utterly on the line for it. Josephine is not the most sympathetic character, but I found myself admiring her self-promotional moxie. And there are characters who sprang up unplanned as we wrote, like the "deliciously” named Yasmine, the young woman who is the assistant to the Iran scientist. She's one to watch.
FP: This thriller is, more than anything, a reminder to all of us of the dire threat we face from Islamic Jihad. What is the greatest threat in your view and who is posing it?
Lowry: Well, it's a hydra-headed threat obviously, but it emanates from Iran more than any other one place. That regime has a hand in practically every terrorist movement destabilizing the region from Gaza to Lebanon to Iraq. It declared war on us from its inception in 1979, and is getting closer and closer to a nuclear weapon. As Banquo says of A-Jad at one point, when he is trying to gin up Johnson for his mission, "That single man is on the verge of delivering to crazed monkeys high on Apocalyptic crack a supply of radioactive handguns, matches and gasoline -- then sending them into a kindergarten with unsupervised children and hoping for the best."
FP: Your thoughts on the behaviour of the Lib-Left in this terror war? How is the Obama administration handling it thus far in your view?
Lowry: The left's performance has been appalling, as you yourself have documented. In Banquo's Ghosts, we refer to the Left and the elite it has taken hostage as "the West-hating, postmodern, gender-bending, self-congratulatory super-rich and talentless mediocrities -- the whole collection of 'progressives' who, as the saying went, wouldn't take their own side in a fight, even if they knew which side they were on."
As for President Obama, I have been pleasantly surprised so far. I think he's been relatively centrist on the Iraq and the Afghan wars.
I'm not sure that's out of any great conviction--in fact, I don't trust his gut instincts in the least. But my sense is that he doesn't have any great interest in foreign affairs and just wants to reasonably manage the war, while he goes about massively expanding government at home.
There are two big questions outstanding: 1) Even though he's committed to shutting down Gitmo and limiting interrogation methods to those approved by the Army Field Manual, he's also left the door open to long-term detention of enemy combatants--although he won't call them that--and ramping up interrogation when necessary. Where does he come down on this stuff when push comes to shove? 2) What does he do about Iran's nuclear program when Tehran insists on keeping it--as it almost inevitably will--despite his diplomatic blandishments?
FP: What are the essential things we need to be doing to defend ourselves from radical Islam?
Lowry: We need to leave in place the domestic architecture--the Patriot Act, the terrorist surveillance program, etc.--created by President Bush. We need to win in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where the future of Pakistan is also at stake. We need to do everything we can to keep the Iranians from acquiring a nuke. We need to keep from feasting on ourselves--as we did so disastrously in the 1970's--when we make mistakes. And, above all, we need to realize that this is a war and buckle down for the long haul, because will and patience are absolutely indispensable.
FP: Rich Lowry, thank you for joining us at Frontpagemag.com.
Lowry: Thanks so much, Jamie, and keep up the great work. We can work in a cameo for you in any sequel if you like!
FP: It’s a deal!
I read Banquo's Ghosts, and I want to tell all of our readers at Frontpage that this is a real thriller, a roller coaster of a ride – and an immense pleasure to read. So BUY IT!!!! Click here.