unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

A Supreme Experience (part 2)

Having gone to law school and studied the U.S. Supreme Court, it is a memorable experience to interview a sitting justice or even a former one.  As a student, it’s hard not to start thinking of them as black-robed demi-gods.

When I was in law school, I had a brief social encounter with Justice Harry Blackmun and I considered it one of the highlights of my student days.  And a few years back, I had the good fortune of interviewing Justice Stephen Breyer.

Likewise, my encounter last week with former justice Sandra Day O’Connor will stand out by virtue of her personality and what she said.  On the personal side, she struck me as someone who definitely knows who she is and is extremely comfortable in her own skin.  She has a palpable “center” and is clear about what she thinks.  She also strikes me as someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

And what she had to say made an impression too:  that at its core, the U.S. Supreme Court is a very human institution.  In her book, Out of Order, she cites several examples of that, including a demonstration that was a first-ever for me during an interview.  We aired the interview last night; watch it to see if you can identify what she did that no one has ever done before in any interview I have ever conducted!

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A Supreme Experience

As some of you may know, I went to law school and practiced law for six years before I switched career paths.  In law school, many of the cases we studied and debated were written by justices of the United States Supreme Court.  As a result, it was hard for me not to think of the justices as larger than life. The names Holmes, Cardozo, Frankfurter and Black almost took on the same mythic quality as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart have in the world of music.

Imagine if you are a Roman Catholic priest and you get to interview the Pope.  That is kind of what it feels like to have been a lawyer and to interview a Supreme Court Justice — or even a former justice.  Which is a long way of saying that I interviewed Sandra Day O’Connor last week and the interview airs tonight.  I’ll share my personal impressions of her tomorrow. In the meantime, view our timeline of key events in her life and career.

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A Woman of Ireland

This past week I interviewed the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese.   She was Ireland’s president from 1997 to 2011, serving the two seven-year terms allowed under Irish law.  She happened to succeed another woman president making McAleese the world’s first woman to succeed another as president.  Another distinction–she was the first Irish president originally from Northern Ireland.

In fact, it was her family’s experience as Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland that caused them to leave.  Her family was the object of sectarian violence there–her father’s bar was bombed and her family’s home machine gunned.

As a result, she selected “Building Bridges” as the theme for her presidency.  As president, she not only visited Northern  Ireland, she also had people from there make official visits to see her.  She’s given much credit for the peace that has ensued.   The highlight of this effort to build bridges may have been her invitation to Queen Elizabeth to visit Ireland.  The queen accepted the invitation, making her the first British monarch ever to visit the Republic of Ireland.

When McAleese talked about coming to terms with former opponents, she said something that stuck with me:  “It’s better to get 90% of something than 100% of nothing.”

I’ve interviewed a lot of people who are noteworthy, accomplished and compelling.  What a pleasure it is to interview someone who is also inspiring.  If you watch any part of this interview I think you’ll see what I mean.

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History at the Table

Last night it was an honor to speak with two former members of the old Negro Leagues:  Ray Knox, who played with the Chicago American Giants from 1950 to 1951 and Hank Presswood, who played with the Cleveland Buckeyes from 1948 to 1950 and the Kansas City Monarchs from 1950 to 1952.  Along with writer, Jonathan Eig, they were on the show to discuss the anniversary of Jackie Robinson entering the major leagues–an event underscored by the new movie about Robinson called “42.”

These former baseball players were so gracious and spoke in such a heartfelt way about their regard for Robinson and their continuing love of the game.   And sitting so close to them, I could almost read the lessons of history in their faces.  We showed a picture of Presswood sitting in the dugout when he played for the Cleveland team and he looks so young in the picture, it almost hurts.

It occurred to me even as I spoke to them on-the-air that talking to them was like pulling a book off the shelf — one you’d read and thought you’d understood but realizing anew the beauty of the lessons it holds.

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So Glad I Called

Last week, an old friend of mine contacted me to let me know that Bud Herseth was doing poorly and that I should give him a call.  Bud, as you may know, is the legendary former principal trumpet for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  “Legendary” is a word that can be thrown around lightly, but in this case it’s an apt term.  Bud, arguably more than anyone else, helped define the very sound of the CSO — a sound that still endures.

I became friendly with Bud when I became obsessed for a few years with learning to replay the trumpet (after not playing since high school.)  I interviewed him for Artbeat Chicago and one thing led to another and my wife and I socialized with him a handful of memorable times.  I would call him on his birthday, but had not seen him in recent years as his health declined.

I got the heads-up about Bud at 6:30 pm, while I was getting ready to go on the air but something made me call him immediately.  Bud’s wife, Avis, picked up the phone and handed me off to him.  I knew it might be the last conversation we would ever have, so I did my best to make the words count–not idle chit-chat, but something of substance and appreciation.  I did not want to ever think, “I wish I had told Bud…”

I am so grateful to have had that conversation — and that I didn’t put it off.  It’s a gift, isn’t it?  As I think of the families of the bombing victims in Boston, I’m reminded of how we hardly ever know when a conversation with someone we care about will be the last one.

Last night, we aired a clip of my interview with Bud.  You can watch the entire conversation below.

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Glad We Weren’t Wearing Them at the Same Time

Last night we had former Reagan budget director David Stockman on the show.  He has a new (lengthy!) book out which argues that the Federal Reserve’s perennially low interest rates and the move away from the gold standard have put America on the path to financial ruin.  He himself considers it a polemic against the policies of both Wall Street and the federal government.  Before the interview started, I told him I really liked his glasses–I thought they looked really sharp.  Then I took a closer look at them.  Egads, they were identical to mine: same brand, same style.  Regardless of what I think of his polemic, he sure has great taste in eyewear!



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What I Didn’t Know About Rahm

Last night, we aired my interview with Ezekiel Emanuel about his new book, Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family.  As you may know, nationally prominent bioethicist “Zeke” is the oldest of the three Emanuel brothers, Rahm is the middle brother, and Hollywood super agent Ari is the youngest.

At twenty-five minutes, our interview with Zeke is longer than most author interviews.  But given the insights into the mayor–and into his remarkable family–we thought it was worth the investment in time.  Plus, Zeke is a great talker.

What the book says about the mayor:  as a boy he was an underachiever, shy outside the house, stayed on the sidelines, he was an observer, a peacemaker.  At one point, he was so slow to talk his parents were worried about his development and took him to a specialist who assured them that Rahm was fine — he just didn’t feel like talking much.

A game-changer:  his near-death experience after he sliced his finger working at an Arby’s; it got infected and the ensuing sepsis put him in the hospital for six weeks.  According to Zeke, Rahm was a changed person after this.  His brush with death and realization of his own mortality lit a fire under him and made him impatient to accomplish things.

Another revelation:  the remarkable freedom and independence given the Emanuel boys.  Zeke writes that when the boys were six, four and three years old, they lived close to Foster Avenue beach in Chicago, and their mother would give them towels and beach toys and off they went without a parent.  They would leave their apartment, cross Marine Drive, walk under Lake Shore Drive and spend hours at the beach–again, a six-year-old watching a four-year-old and three-year-old.  Zeke acknowledges that no parent would get away with that today.

The author acknowledges there were topics the brothers agreed he should not include in the book.  But if you want to get some insights into the family forces that helped shape Chicago’s mayor–including the hyper-vocal, hyper-competitive dinner table conversations, I invite you to watch our full interview.  I think you’ll  find it as engaging as I did.

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Getting the Kids There and Back. Alive.

There are a host of issues attendant to the planned closing of 53 Chicago public elementary schools.  But from the perspective of many parents, a key issue is the safety of children.   Given the very real gang boundaries that exist in Chicago, it’s no wonder parents are worried if their children will have to walk a different route to get to a new school.

CPS officials say they are working closely with police officials to design safe routes for kids headed to new schools.  It involves the expansion of the so-called “Safe Passage” program, already in place for thirty-five high schools and four elementary schools.

On tonight’s program, we will have not only representatives from the CPS and the police department, but also some critics skeptical of the system’s ability to keep these newly displaced students safe as they go back and forth to school.  Among the questions we will ask:

  • How good is the existing “Safe Passage” program working?
  • Will there be enough resources to expand it effectively?
  • Do downtown decision makers really have the experience or knowledge to how ever-shifting gang boundaries affect life for children?
  • “Community watchers” will be posted along the route–but what about the blocks in between watchers where kids are on their own?

These questions are not academic.  They deal with matters of life and death of children.  And absolutely nothing matters more than that.

I hope you tune in. Click here for a live stream, online chat, timeline and more.

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What I Told ’em in Texas

On a recent vacation, my wife and I went to Marfa, Texas.  Marfa is a west Texas community of about 2,000 which has become an arts mecca, particularly in the fields of minimal and modern art.  It has been featured numerous times on NPR and The New York Times.  It has a cracker jack NPR station run by a former Chicagoan, Tom Michael.  When I gave Tom a heads-up that I was going to be in town, he invited me to appear on the station’s talk show, Talk at Ten.  We taped the interview several weeks back and it aired today.  The topics included Obama, Blago, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and the perils of interviewing!  Check it out here.



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Real Story Behind Ponce National Anthem Performance!

As you may know, my sons and I performed the national anthem yesterday at the White Sox home opener.  It was an honor and a thrill.

But here’s the full story:

To their credit, when they invited us to perform, the Sox asked for a sample recording first.

We rehearsed three separate times before opening day.  I’m pretty sure the boys could have gotten by with two rehearsals but they probably suspected their old man needed the third one for his self confidence!

For the first time in years, I vocalized every day for about 10 days to get my voice back into shape.  My wife kindly accompanied me each time.

I actually printed out the words to the anthem to make sure I had them down cold.

On the drive down to U.S. Cellular Field, Dan told Anthony and me about national anthem etiquette:  be understated and make it about the anthem, not about the performer.  Afterwards, give the audience a brief, polite wave and then quickly get off the field.

One last thing about the performance.  If you watch the clip at the top, you’ll notice Dan is assertively directing.  That’s because the echo in the stadium threw us off slightly during the rehearsal so Anthony and I asked Dan to give clear visual cues because we couldn’t rely on our ears.

Some people have said that afterwards I looked intensely proud of my sons.  I was.  But, believe me, the overwhelming emotion was relief that we got through the one-and-a-half octave anthem without doing it any apparent permanent damage!

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