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PSS Spring '09 - The Houghton House Renaissance

Bookshelf

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1,000 Conversations

by Cynthia L. McVey

In 20 years, George Liston Seay '62 has never missed an interview - he's recorded more than 900 of them as host and executive producer for Dialogue, the awardwinning weekly radio program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. When he retires next spring as he plans, Seay will have conducted an astounding 1,000 interviews. His guests have included presidents, diplomats, historians, dissidents, professors, biographers, poets and even HWS President Mark D. Gearan when he was director of the Peace Corps. Each conversation fills a half hour of informative, relevant and insightful air time.

Then, they're gone.

"Broadcasts are ephemeral," says Seay. "My goal is permanence."

To achieve permanence, Seay recently wrote "The Art of Conversation: Dialogue at the Woodrow Wilson Center." The book is a collection of Seay's favorite 24 conversations from the radio show.

Guests featured in the book include Robert McNamara, secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations during the buildup to the Vietnam War; General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., leader of World War II's Tuskegee Airmen and the Air Force's first African-American general; Alma Guillermoprieto, Mexican journalist; Joaquim Chissano, former Mozambique President; and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian dissident intellectual and human rights activist.

Seay graduated from Hobart with a B.A. in English and joined the Peace Corps, spending three years in Brazil. He spent an additional four years in Brazil with the Foreign Service Office before returning to the U.S. and graduating from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. He worked for the Ford Foundation in Mexico just prior to joining the Woodrow Wilson Center.

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Q & A

Did you ever think you'd interview 1,000 people?
Absolutely not, and none of this would have happened had I not come to the Woodrow Wilson Center. I never saw myself being involved in broadcasting and it has certainly been fulfilling.

How did you choose which interviews to include in the book?
It was difficult. We could've made a celebrity list but we wanted a cross-section of people. All of the guests in the book exhibited a passion for ideas and people and a reverence for history and language.

Do you have a favorite?
General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was the most powerful to me for a number of reasons. For one, his father was a general during World War I. When I was a boy, Davis Sr. came to Buffalo on a recruiting trip. I was dressed in a custom-made Army Air Corps uniform and brought to welcome him with a bouquet of flowers. I still have that photo. When Davis Jr. walked into the studio for his interview, I literally felt goose bumps at his presence; his story was so compelling. Also, there's an irony to it - a lot of his classmates in West Point who gave him the silent treatment became prominent generals, like Westmoreland, who later praised him.

Did re-visiting any of these interviews make you think how much times have changed?
Most made me realize how much things have remained the same because human nature hasn't changed.

Did any of these conversations change your perspective on life?
Yes, much like water dropping on a rock, change seeps into me with each interview. In the 34 years I've been here at the Woodrow Wilson Center, it's been like an extended, post-graduate liberal arts education.

What does this book mean to you?
To me, it is a symbol of the program itself and an enormous chapter of my life because I'll be leaving it soon. It has also inspired me to work on more books.

Nightstand: "Art of Conversation" edition

We asked three people featured in Seay's book what they are reading.

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Kristie Miller, scholar on early 20th century women in politics; Washington correspondent for NewsTribune, La Salle, Ill. Diana Athill's Somewhere Towards the End, a truthful yet humorous account of the last stage of Anthill's life and A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter. Showalter writes about women writers, both the well-known and the obscure.

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Norman Corwin, writer-in-residence, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Calif. At the moment, I'm reading two fascinating books about President Thomas Jefferson and slavery - The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed and Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wells. The first gives an honest look at Jefferson's divided view of slavery, while the second gives a harsh but supported critique of Jefferson.

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Dr. Walter Reich, Yitzhak Rabin memorial professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior, and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Reconstructing Ashkenaz: The Human Face of Franco-German Jewry, 1000 - 1250 by David Malkiel makes some interesting arguments that force us to think again about the differences that are typically attributed to the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi Jews.