Faith In The Halls of Power: How I Got The Interviews
D. Michael Lindsay, author of Faith in The Halls of Power, spent long hours trying to get to the bottom of the Evangelical mind-frame. In the podcast below Lindsay explains how he got the interviews that shaped his book. Additionally, on Beliefnet, they are holding a Blogalogue (such a cool word right?) about Lindsay’s research with journalists Hanna Rosin and Jeff Sharlet, evangelical author Jerry Jenkins, and former Bush aide David Kuo. Read Lindsay’s first piece here.
How do I get these folks to talk to me? Well, a couple of things. One is that through my work with Gallup I had built relationships with lots of institutional leaders. So I started off by interviewing about 160 leaders of evangelical institutions: these are college presidents, heads of evangelical non-profit organizations, social service agencies, evangelical thought leaders. I went all over the country, basically trying to ask them “what’s going on in evangelicalism” and “what’s your sense of evangelicalism’s relationship to American society?” At the end of each of those interviews I would say—now do you happen to know some other leaders that you think I ought be in conversation with? And I’m particularly interested in leaders in politics or in business or in wider culture that you think might share your faith who would be willing to talk to me. And normally they would say, “Oh I don’t know I’ll get back to you,” and I’d say, “No, no, let’s just think. Are there some names that you might be able to suggest?” And I would just sort of wait—you know, the Barbara Walters technique, ask the question and then just be silent. So I did. So I’d ask them to make some recommendations. And I would sort of prod them cause I had done a little bit of research, so I would ask them about particular board members that were on their organization or if I knew that they were friends with somebody I would say “Well, what about so-and-so?” And then they would say, “Oh yeah, you really ought to go see him,” and I would say, “Would it be ok if I mentioned your name?” And they’d say, “Sure.” And then I’d try and schmooze a little bit more, and I’d say, “You know it would be so helpful if I could get some contact information. Do you think maybe I could get a phone number or an assistant’s email address, or something like that?” And it worked like a charm. They would say, “Sure.” So I ended up getting—I’ll never forget; I interviewed Pat Robertson at CBN, and he was a tough nut to crack, but it worked, and in the end he gave me several recommendations of folks who I would never have gotten otherwise, but because Pat sent me they were willing to talk to me. And so he just went out to his secretary and said, “Hook him up with so-and-so,” and in the process I got a lot of interviews.
And then I found also I was able to build some credibility by some of the folks who agreed early on to be in the study. I did my undergraduate at Bailer University in Texas, and while I was a student I was really good friends with a guy named Joel Vestal. Now Joel is just a regular guy, my age, and we got to be friends. And I met his parents, Dan and Erlene Vestal. Well, in the years since we finished up at Bailer, Dan Vestal has gone to head up an organization called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which is kind of the mainstream, more moderate Southern Baptist wing based in Atlanta. When I started trying to do some interviews I knew that Dan Vestal was friends with Jimmy Carter. And so I thought, “Well, I have nothing to lose here, I’ll just call Dr. Vestal and see if he might be willing to help me out.” So I called him up and I said, “Dr. Vestal, it’s Michael Lindsay.” And we kind of reconnected, and I told him what I was doing, and said, “You know, I’m a poor graduate student, and I really need some help. Do you think you could possibly put in a good word to President Carter’s staff? And then I’ll follow up with a formal letter, and at least my name might register in some way.” And he said, “Well, I don’t know, Michael, if it will be any good, but I’ll be happy to go ahead and call.” Two days later—I hadn’t even written the letter—I get a call from President Carter’s scheduler. “Hi, this is so-and-so. President Carter hears you’d like to meet with him; he’ll be happy to give you 45 minutes; can you like to come in next week?” I said, “No! I’m not ready. I have to do more research!” But in the end I got the interview. And he was the 10th person to go into my study. So I did what any good entrepreneur would do—I dropped his name every chance I could. So, you know, I would say, “I’m trying to get an interview with, let’s say, the Secretary of Commerce, or something like that. Well, President Carter is going to be in this study, and I thought it would be something he might want to be involved with as well.” And suddenly they’d say, “Oh well, ok, I might be willing to do that.” And so it was a snowball effect, that after I got a couple of good folks in the beginning, they were willing to talk with me.
One of the hardest areas to get an in, to get a chance to talk to different folks who might be helpful, was the entertainment sector. If you think there are a lot of gatekeepers surrounding the political elite, let me tell you, it’s nothing compared to Hollywood. They make an art form of keeping you out, of not returning your phone call, and of trying to keep a great distance. So, one of the persons I had been told I ought to try and reach was Phillip Anshutz. Phillip Anshutz is actually a businessman out of Denver, but he happens to have a Hollywood production company called Walden Media. They were the ones that put out The Chronicles of Narnia which came out a couple Christmas ago. And I had been trying really hard to try and get access to him, and he had lots of gatekeepers around him, and it was just really going nowhere. And then, lo and behold, I happened to be at an event, I was observing an event by a group called Legacy, which is kind of a conservative political group of folks in their 30s and 40s. They were having a meeting in Beverly Hills and Phil Anshutz was on the program. So I thought, “This is my big break, so I’m going to try and figure out what I can do.” And it just worked out perfectly. We walked out of the room at the same time while we were walking to lunch, and I just made sure that I stayed close to him. And we just started talking and I started telling him a little bit about it, and in the end he gave me an interview. It’s off the record, so you won’t be able to see in the book what Phil Anshutz said—he’s never given an interview in 30 years. So it’s tough to get him to go on the record. But I got the story that nobody got, because his words are in my book, and a lot of his ideas are behind it.
Another kind of interesting conversation was when I interviewed Kathy Lee Gifford—you remember, the entertainer? We did the interview here in New York; I met her for lunch one day. It was funny, we were doing the interview, and she’s larger than life. In person you just feel like you need to back away to give her some space, because she just has this ebullient personality. My cell phone rings, which I always thought I had turned it off, but I hadn’t, the cell phone rings, and she said, “Well, who is it?” So I pull out my cell phone, and I said, “It’s actually my wife.” And she said, “Well, you better take that!” So I did. “H-Hi love.” And then she said, “I want to talk to her! I want to talk to her!” So I said, “Um, Rebecca, Miss Gifford would like to speak with you.” So, I hand over the telephone, and they had this long conversation. In the end, my wife and Kathy Lee Gifford became friends. We had a 2-month-old at the time, and Kathy Lee sent us, she’s done a whole series of CD lullabies, we got a whole packet. We have all types of Kathy Lee Gifford paraphernalia in our house. So there were lots of interesting episodes that happened along the way.
So, in essence, what I think the book does is it gives the definitive statement on evangelicals. But it tells the story that nobody has gotten, in what I hope is rich color and some interesting dynamics, in a way that presents the movement in all of its complexity, but at the same time helps to make sense of some of the most salient features which I think make a real difference. And the process tells some very interesting stories.
I close with the vignette that we open the book with. I was in the process of doing some different interviews, and a friend of mine knew that I was trying to study the ways in which the major American elite had interacted with the evangelical world. And this was just at the time that Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, was doing fairly well. And Rupert Murdoch and News Corp decided to throw a party to celebrate the 20 millionth copy of The Purpose Driven Life being sold. And it was being held in the Rock Club, which is atop 30 Rockefeller Center—not a shabby place to have a party. And so my friend sort of arranged for me to get the interview, or at least get an invitation to go. So I go. And it was fascinating—were any of you here? There were folks from the publishing world that were there. It was interesting because the New York publishing elite and the evangelical world sort of mixes like water and oil. It was fascinating to kind of witness the interactions. And Rupert Murdoch gets up and his opening line is: “You know, when an author sells 1 million copies of a book, we say, ‘My God, he’s a genius!’ When an author sells 20 million copies of a book, we say, ‘My God, we’re geniuses!’ ” And that’s kind of representative, I think, of the way in which the conversation, when it was fantastic—and my hope is that the book will open the eyes not just to the evangelical world, but to the rest of the wider American society that is trying to figure out how has it come to be that evangelicals have joined the American elite and the ways in which faith has come to be at home within the halls of power.