Public Media Arts Hub

Peter Osnos on 5 decades of reporting and witnessing history


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Now to a man behind many bestsellers, including books by four U.S. presidents.

Judy Woodruff recently sat down with Peter Osnos to talk about his new memoir, "An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen."

Judy Woodruff: Peter Osnos, thank you so much for joining us.

You have had an especially good view, as the book is titled. Your book, this is a book full of stories. Your parents narrowly escaped Hitler taking over Poland. You write about being a college student going to the American South during the civil rights movement.

You were stationed as a reporter in Moscow and London and here in Washington. But then you made an abrupt turn and went from journalism to book publishing.

So, which is closer to Peter Osnos, the reporter or the book editor?

Peter Osnos, Author, "An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen": Well, what I discovered was that, as a reporter, you go out, you get the story, you write the story, and you go home.

As a book editor or publisher, you go out, you get the story, the story gets written, and then you have to sell the story. And that is different, a different experience for a journalist, a career journalist.

I will always be a reporter, but somewhere along the line, it turned out I kind of liked the process of making the book available, in addition to acquiring it and editing it.

Judy Woodruff: When you covered Washington early on, it was the 1960s and the 1970s. It was a pretty glamorous time to be a reporter. You work for the famous counterculture editor Izzy Stone. You worked for Ben Bradlee Bradley at The Washington Post.

Describe what Washington was like then to, say, a young journalist today who doesn't have any memory of that.

Peter Osnos: Well, it really was an amazing era.

It was Ben Bradlee's Washington Post and Katharine Graham's Washington Post. And, in that time, they just -- the opportunity to learn was so profound. They sent me to Vietnam at the age of 26. They sent me to Moscow after that. They made me foreign and national editor. It was an incredible education.

And all along the way, what I understood -- and this is really important -- The Post was a place where the newsroom values were the ones that counted most, because we had such a strong commercial base in Washington. We were for and about Washington.

And what changed over time is, today, The Washington Post, sure, it's in Washington, but, boy, is it global. It's all over the world.

Judy Woodruff: As we mentioned, you turned from years and years of being a reporter to being a book editor. You were based in New York City, but you worked with, what, presidents from Jimmy Carter, to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.

Talk about what they were like as writers. What was it like to work with them?

Peter Osnos: Well, I had four presidents. And two of them, when I worked with them, I didn't expect ever in a million years they would be president.

The first president I worked with, Jimmy Carter, and I did a bunch of books with him. And what I say about Jimmy Carter is just an incredibly authentic human being. And then Bill Clinton, I did his campaign manifesto in '92 and the book for his 1996 campaign, which we kept secret.

Somehow, we kept it secret. And it just came out just before the election. And people were stunned. Now, I knew what other people didn't know. It wasn't really all that explosive a book.

But it was done. And I was very glad to have the chance to see the charisma that Clinton had.

Then, Barack Obama, Donald Trump. Barack came to me as a very young man. His book had been turned down after he had missed a deadline at Simon & Schuster. And they came to me and said, do you want to meet this young guy? And I said, of course I do.

And to make a long story short, I was very impressed. We published the book. And it was 10 years later after it originally came out when he spoke at the convention and the book and Barack took off.

When I got the guys, people together who worked with me on the book, we said, this is historic after all. This is one of the great books written by someone who became president.

Trump. I worked with Trump for five years on two books. What I saw then, what I watched carefully, but from a distance, ever since...

Judy Woodruff: And this is well before he ran for president.

Peter Osnos: This was 1987, 1987.

Judy Woodruff: Right.

Peter Osnos: We published "Art of the Deal," which was the book that put in really on the map. It sold a million copies in three months. That's an extraordinary number of books.

What I then knew and saw 30 years later is that Donald Trump has some way of reaching people, some way of reaching a certain kind of people who find him thrilling and inspiring. And what I saw was a young man, lived over the store, meaning lived in the apartment above his office, just as he did in the White House, didn't smoke, didn't drink, was very focused on what matters to him.

And you have got to recognize the degree to which Trump, Donald Trump, for 40 years was in New York real estate, construction, gambling, boxing, and wrestling. And no prosecutor ever touched him.

He had an extraordinary capacity to navigate the complex world he was in.

Judy Woodruff: Peter, you are also very open to take time in this book to talk about your own experience in recent years with depression.

It's something that's hard for others, I think, to acknowledge. What made you decide to write about it, to be open about it?

Peter Osnos: Well, at this very kind of advanced stage of my life and career, I come to understand that stress is something that everybody feel at one point or another, to one degree or another. And we need to understand that.

We need to anticipate that it's not all going to be smooth. And in my really very fortunate life, I wanted to explain, to the best ability I have, that stress, difficulties -- "Wrinkles" is what I call that chapter -- is inevitable.

You're going to go through it. And you will. How you manage it is going to determine a lot about what happens next. It's a phenomenon universal, stress and the consequences.

Judy Woodruff: Peter Osnos, I know many people will thank you for being candid, for being open about an experience that so many -- so many Americans, so many people have experienced themselves.

The book is "An Especially Good View."

Peter Osnos, thank you very much.

Peter Osnos: Thanks so much, Judy.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.