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Lewis Black, Justice Ginsburg -- and You


As we launch into the loving-your-public-radio-station-means-never-having-to-buy-a-tote-bag season, I thought a little reminder was in order. It’s a reminder of the kind of programs and the caliber of guests that my team and I put before you every weekday.

Here are a couple of recent ones that have moved me beyond words.

There was Lewis Black, the humorist whose sardonic book, ‘’I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas,’’ doesn’t begin to sum up the man.

He and I talked for more than a half-hour last week; he and his Comedy Central compadre Stephen Colbert are among the comics who have performed for troops in Iraq or Afghanistan or both, and Black is set to do so again in December.

There were two moments in our interview when he was so impassioned that he dropped the professional humorist role: one was when I played a cut of former Arkansas governor and potential Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee mocking the Obama health care reform plan requirement that people with preexisting conditions not be denied health insurance because of their conditions.

Huckabee likened it to trying to get insurance on your house after it’s burned down; Black, who had just performed at a benefit for kids with cystic fibrosis, was livid. He  invoked the ailing kids who’d been born with CF, and he called Huckabee a ‘’schmuck’’ – for want of a stronger term, because we were on the radio, after all.

The other moment came when I mentioned that Black was going back on a USO tour in December, making him a kind of Bob Hope with edgier humor, performing for military men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. As we talked, Black went on about these young, young kids in difficult, dangerous circumstances, and how politicians’ posturings and tributes can’t begin to describe what these young Americans go through. As he talked, he got a bit choked up – again.

And then there was my interview with Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman on the high court. She speaks so softly I sometimes had to lean in to hear her well. At one point she reached into her handbag, a little red and white woven affair, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why – until she brought out a well-thumbed and well-marked copy of the Constitution and other significant federal documents, including Article IV, and the Fugitive Slave Act.

After our interview, we talked a little longer about elements of Article IV and the slave act, which the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution rendered moot by outlawing slavery.

The Constitution didn’t use the word ‘’slave,’’ but that’s what the Act was about; any ‘’person held to service or labour’’ in one state who managed to escape still ‘’shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.’’ In other words, a slave was still property and had to be returned to the slave owner, under the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution, which requires one state to honor the contracts of another state.

Justice Ginsburg told me that novelist Herman Melville’s father-in-law was a Massachusetts judge and abolition supporter named Lemuel Shaw. In the turbulent years before the Civil War, that full faith and credit clause came into conflict with abolitionism and the underground railroad smuggling of slaves to safety and freedom.

In the notorious 1851 court case of an escaped Georgia slave named Thomas Sims, Judge Shaw ruled that he was bound by the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution, and had no legal choice but to return Sims to his slave-owner.

All this, Justice Ginsburg was telling me, left its mark on Melville, and on American literature. When Melville wrote his novella ‘’Billy Budd,’’ he modeled Captain Vere in part on his father-in-law, for Vere, too, was forced into an agonizing choice: as Melville described it, ``We are not talking about justice; we are talking about the law.’’ Vere had to condemn the angelic Billy Budd to hang for accidentally killing a shipmate.


This is just by way of reminding you of some of the phenomenal guests you get to hear here, thanks to … you; in guests and programs like these, you get back every dime you put into these programs – and then some.

Thanks, and keep it up.