Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #23: David Horowitz on Henry Ford (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

David Horowitz
In the chapter Icons Revisited, I included a number of writers who re-examined past iconic figures whose personalities still continued to overshadow the decade. Some of the writers included Barbara Branden on Ayn Rand, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Kennedy family, John Malcolm Brinnin on Truman Capote, Heather Robertson's fictionalized biographies on former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and former leftist activist (now neo-conservative) David Horowitz who, along with Peter Collier, wrote a riveting and complex study of the Ford family empire called The Fords: An American Epic. Horowitz, the founder of the online FrontPage magazine, had already previously written a fascinating and highly readable biography of the Kennedys, but the Ford family posed a whole different challenge for two men who once stormed the barricades against the kind represented by Henry Ford and his automobile empire. This interview in 1988 took place three years after Horowitz, a former editor of the San Francisco leftist magazine Ramparts, had turned his back on the left and began his career as a social conservative.

kc: You and Peter Collier have written previous biographies of the Rockefeller family, the Kennedy family, and now the Ford family. What is it that attracts you both to the elite families in American culture?

dh: It's a long tale. We were both working for a radical magazine in the sixties called Ramparts and we started hustling a story on the Rockefellers, and on their children. It seemed like an interesting story to look at the children of the ruling class. And while we were researching the piece, we discovered that they weren't the members of the executive committee of the ruling class controlling America and the world. We found that they couldn't even control their own family and we got a whole different story out of it.

kc: What kind of story did you get?

Henry Ford
dh: It was the story of identity and a family dynasty that's created and the difficulties of maintaining the family ethos through the generations. Some of their kids just didn't feel that they had earned the power that was given to them. We were also searching for a story where we could tell a multi-generational tale like The Forsyte Saga that would tell us something about about the way were are living now.

kc: Your biography of the Kennedys certainly did that.

dh: Yeah. That was ambitious (laughs). With the Kennedys, we found the creation of the family myths, how people feed off the myth, or are destroyed in their attempts to live up to it. But in both the Rockefellers and the Kennedys, after the first generation, the family industry tended to be just manipulation of the family image. There wasn't anything really substantial after that. With the Fords, however, we hit upon the story we originally set out to do.  

kc: What did you discover about the Ford family that set them apart from those other elites?

dh: Basically Henry Ford was about making cars which are now so central to the way we live today. More than any other person, he created the modern world as we know it. That's what sets the Ford family apart from the others. It's not that he invented the car - which he didn't - it was his idea that everyone should have a car. Early auto manufacturers saw it as a luxury item for the rich. Henry wanted to design a car that would be cheap enough so that everyone could own it. That mobility and freedom we now have and the movement between urban centres has everything to do with that idea. Modern industry was born out of this, too. You could call him a modern industrial messiah.

kc: The one link, though, that ties all those American families together is that they are essentially about fathers and sons.

dh: That's right. And there's a tragic tale at the center of this epic about the Fords. That tragedy is the relationship between Henry and his son Edsel. Henry Ford's identity became invested in his company, then he became a billionaire. Then he became somebody that everyone wanted to interview. They wanted his wisdom on everything under the sun, just because he had one spectacular idea. One woman, Rosa Schwimmer, persuaded him to hire a 'peace ship' to help stop World War One. Of course, it failed, and it made him an object of ridicule. So he became convinced that there were conspiracies against him and, as a result, he turned paranoid in that American crack-pot way. In particular, he thought the Jews were persecuting him - like Rosa Schwimmer - and he published things like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which talked about a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. In fact, he is the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf - a figure even Adolf Hitler admired. His son, Edsel, revered his father, but he was appalled by all this and he tried to soften and temper the old man's anti-Semitism..He also tried to modernize the company because Henry became attached to his Model-T's - he never wanted to change them. Because of this, the company started to go downhill. He tried to control 60% of the market and it dropped to 20%. So Edsel tried to temper the madness he saw in his father, but his father saw him as a threat.

Edsel Ford
kc: How did his father respond to this threat?

dh:  Henry had an alternate family. He had a mistress and an illegitimate son by the mistress he set up in an estate in Dearborne. He also had a surrogate son named Henry Bennett who was a thug that he put in control of the Ford Motor Company. His own son, Edsel, died tragically of stomach cancer at a young age. And then the irony is that Edsel's name was put on the automobile that was supposed to honour him, but it's now a synonym for failure. You can look it up in the dictionary! Edsel means failure. If you were writing a novel, you'd be hard pressed to find anything more literary.   

kc: But don't you and Peter Collier treat biographies in a novelistic manner? 

dh: True. But it isn't because of any invention on our part. It's because the strategy we use going in is that we inhabit the characters. Most biographies tend to be analytic and they compare all of the stuff that has been written on the subject. We try to tell a story and start out with a character and then we look on institutions as revelations of character. That was a problem with the Rockefellers after they created Standard Oil. They became so hated that they withdrew from their institutions so there was a disjuncture there. As a result, they didn't express their characters through them. It was through people they hired and so on. With the Fords, that company was very central. It was the company and the struggle over it that caused the founder to crush his own son.

kc: You mentioned earlier this notion of becoming paranoid in an American crack-pot way and it made me think that there is something in your biographies that attempts to define some characteristics that are part of an American obsession, an American madness, and an American dream.

dh: Just let me add something else: We learned something about ourselves. There was a moral teaching involved. Henry Ford taught us something as middle-aged males (laughs). Peter and I had these radical roots and intellectual biases against the heartland in America and against business. Our first surprise was that the automobile industry was complex. The second was how open the family was in giving us access to material. When we were doing the Kennedys - who are liberal politicians - they ran their show like the Mafia. People were really frightened to talk to us. In doing the Fords, we gained an appreciation for what makes the country go. Also our central figure in The Fords was not an intellectual, didn't read books, and yet we saw in his story a guy who gained everything, revived a company, made tragic mistakes, and embarked on an odyssey that led to a peace where he finally discovered what he really wanted. It's like in King Lear where you have the stripping away of royalty and the pertinence of power down to the naked man. And in the end, Henry was this naked man confronting the elemental and the basic. This was quite a discovery for us. And to come through this book dealing with these nuts and their empires and still arrive at something like this, that was just great.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins October 5th (6:30pm until 9pm). Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)  On October 16th, CBC Radio's Inside the Music presents the documentary Dream Times: The Story of Perth County Conspiracy...Does Not Exist, written and hosted by Kevin Courrier with sound design and production by John Corcelli.

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