Newsweek Japan Interviews Andrew Nagorski

Q. You have a long career as a journalist in Europe, Russia and Asia. Please tell us who you have interviewed, especially which political figures.

A. Ive interviewed many top political leaderswhether it was Russias Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, or Germanys Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder, just to name a few. I found that some of the most interesting political interviews were with persecuted dissidents before the transformation of their countries that they helped trigger. Im talking about people like Polands Lech Walesa, Czechoslovakias Vaclav Havel, and South Koreas Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Young Sam, who couldnt imagine at the time that they would lead their countries one day.

In Gorbachevs case, his comments once he was out of office were more interesting than many of his declarations while he was in power. Politicians are often the least forthcoming when they are at the peak of their power.

Q. What was the most exciting interview you had?

A. After the Polish communist government declared martial law and outlawed Solidarity in 1981, Zbigniew Bujakthe underground leader of that opposition movementwas Polands most wanted fugitive. I wanted to interview him, but the secret police was looking for him everywhere and I knew that they were also watching me. In August 1985, I managed to get to Bujak at a secret location, where he met me sporting long hair and a goatee that made him look very different than in his pictures. Just like in the movies, a chain of underground activists passed me from car to car, on foot through buildings and crumbling courtyards, until we had shaken off any of our tails. We then talked for three hours and my interview helped spread the message that Solidarity wouldnt be crushed.

Q. What was the most boring interview?

A. Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall in 1992. Antall was an intelligent man, but he was a former history teacher who talked and talked and talked in a deadly monotonous voice. Hed start discussing every contemporary problem in Eastern Europe by going back several centuries and working his way slowly to the present. Although I love history, it was agonizing. Normally during an interview, you want more time; with Antall, you were desperate to find a polite way to stop him.

Q. What was the most difficult interview to get?

Austrias Kurt Waldheim when he was running for president and his cover-up of his wartime service in the German Army became a huge scandal. I had interviewed Waldheim when the charges first surfaced, but, as we uncovered more and more details about the atrocities committed in Greece and Yugoslavia where Waldheim had served, he kept refusing my requests. Finally I confronted him after a campaign speech, and he launched into a denunciation of my coverage, saying hed never agree to an interview anymoreall the time talking into the tape recorder that I was openly holding in front of him. I just printed that outburst verbatim, which made him even angrier.

Q. Did you have any unsuccessful interviews, or ones where you were thrown out in the middle of them?

A. When I was covering the Soviet Union, I tried to do as many spontaneous man-in-the-street interviews as possible, particularly when I traveled to the provinces. KGB agents often followed me very openly, since they wanted to scare away Russians who were brave enough to talk to me. But many did want to talk, especially in places where they rarely, if ever, saw foreigners. In some cases, the KGB agents would rush up in the middle of our conversation and start screaming at us. Most Russians would then hurry away, since they got the message. I never diddeliberately. I kept trying to get the most real life stories I could in that closed society, and, in the end, the Soviet government expelled me from the country.

Q. How do you like your job as a journalist who has to constantly interview people?

A. I love it. It isnt always easy trying to figure out the best way to get people to open up, but its immensely satisfying when they do. And you get to peek into so many peoples lives. Aside from politicians, Ive interviewed people like Steven Spielberg while he was shooting Schindlers List, Boris Becker when he was the superstar of tennis, and the legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal as he continued to track war criminals even in his old age. Just as fascinating are the countless ordinary people who have gone through extraordinary experiences, often demonstrating tremendous courage that theyre not even aware of. Its wonderful to be able to tell their stories. I couldnt dream of a better job.