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"This book reminded me again that it isnâ€™t all bad in politicsâ€
An interview with political journalist and 'Love That Boy' author Ron Fournier
Ron Fournier, Book of the Month
July Guest Judge Arianna Huffington selected Ron Fournier's memoir, Love That Boy, about his relationship with his autistic teenage son. We spoke with Ron about writing vs reporting, the universal themes his book brings up, and which presidential candidate would have his son's best interests in mind.
What was the process like of writing a personal memoir compared to the work you normally do as a political journalist in which you have to remove your own personal opinion and experience?
It was quite a bit different than anything I've ever done for a couple of reasons. One, I come out of the old Associated Press wire service tradition, proudly. So I'm used to writing 500 to 800 word stories and then moving on, and I'm almost always a dispassionate observer.
Even if I have an opinion on what I'm covering I like to think I'm very good about retaining my objectivity; even as a calmness when I form my opinions. So I'm always a step removed from whatever I'm writing about, especially having a career in politics, which is not an area that personally, to be honest with you, I have a lot of interest in. I'm not a political junkie. I didn't get into journalism to cover politics so it's always been a dispassionate exercise.
So here, to do this book, first of all it had to be a lot longer than 800 words and so telling a story and maintaining a story - book length - was way outside my comfort zone. A bigger challenge was, as you suggested, me writing about myself and my family. Although the book has just as much content about other parents as my wife and I, and I bring in a lot of other voices from the child development community, a good portion of the book is my story and my son's story and it was awfully hard and took a lot of effort and a lot of trial and error to get myself to think honestly about my actions and then to write honestly about my actions.
Was your son involved in the decision to write this book or was he too young at that point?
No, he was old enough to be aware. He was 12 years old when he was diagnosed and he was 13 when I wrote the essay on him and he was 18 when the book was published, so he was involved to a great extent. He read every word that I wrote and had the ability to veto every word in both of the projects - both the magazine piece and then the book.
He wasn't as involved as his mother who literally is the person who is responsible for this whole project. She was the one who said, 'œGet out on the road with him; spend some time with him.' She is the one who said, 'œWrite a magazine article so he'll have something that he'll always know how much we loved him, even after we're gone.' And then she's the one who said, 'œTurn this into a book so he's got something really big and special that he can hang onto, even after we're gone.'
I thought some of the best anecdotes were when Tyler met the Presidents - Clinton, George W and Obama - have you gotten any feedback from them after writing the book?
I've gotten some. President Bush just a couple of weeks ago sent a nice note through a staff member congratulating me on the book. Hillary Clinton, who hadn't read it yet sent me a nice note about autism, which is a big concern of hers, and congratulated me on publishing the book even though I don't think she's had time to read it. I haven't heard anything directly or indirectly from President Clinton, but I have no reason to think that he's got a problem with it because I thought he was very gracious towards Tyler and so I tried to show that graciousness in the book.
And it was a really quick meeting with President Obama. It was basically a quick moment as we were getting a photo taken with him, along with 500 other people at a Christmas party, so I don't expect to hear from President Obama. But even in that brief exchange, when you read the book you'll see how kind President Obama and Michelle Obama were towards Tyler.
It's one thing I came away with the book; it was just reminding myself that whether it's a Republican or a Democrat, whether it's a Clinton or a Bush or any of their fellow politicians, remember that these are people and they're not just titles. They're not just politicians; that they are people who get into the business for the right reason and they had no reason to - Bush and Clinton in particular - to meet with Tyler. They just did it because it's the kind of thing they've been doing in public service their whole lives and that's a good thing to remember, even for someone like me who professionally has to be a cynic or at least a skeptic. Skeptic is a better word.
Our Guest Judge Arianna Huffington wrote of your book - quote - 'œBut what I find is really refreshing and what I'm most grateful for is that this is a book that transcends the political divisions of our time. Love, expectations, disappointment and longing it turns out are beyond left and right.'
It was something I've always tried to remind myself of. I remember how I went from covering Clinton as a governor in Arkansas and seeing him every day and how my view and even the way I wrote about him changed once he became president and he became more removed from me and less of - I wasn't reminded every day that I was dealing with a person. He wasn't looking at me in the eyes every day and asking me what the heck I was working at.
I remember telling myself then: Don't lose the humanity in what you're writing. Be skeptical, be tough with no fear or favor, but remember that you're covering peoples' lives. You tend to forget that, especially now, I'm a columnist at a time when our politics are falling apart and it's gotten very mean and dysfunctional and short sighted.
So it's easy for me to be a part of that toxicity rather than looking for bright spots and holding up what's good about politics as an example that we can build on. This book, this project reminded me again that it isn't all bad in politics; it's much more worse than it should be and it's much worse than it needs to be for us to be a successful country, but not everybody is depraved.
So I'm glad that she said that. I've been very pleased by how this book has connected with people on so many levels that I wasn't expecting, and one of them is all the Democrats have come up to me and said, 'œI didn't realize what a nice guy George Bush was.' I like the fact that people are looking at Bush differently.
And the reverse is true; I didn't realize that Republicans were coming out and saying, 'œI didn't realize what a decent man Bill Clinton could be.' Well, I think it's good that, even though I didn't do it on purpose, that I am giving people a different view of the men and women who represent that.
You and your wife spent a lot of time to find a learning environment that would suit Tyler, which presidential candidate do you think would be the best advocate for education for those children with special needs?
Unfortunately, it's an easy question to answer. I wish I could tell you that there were two competing plans out there and it kind of depended on what side of the aisle you're on and what color jersey you're wearing, red or blue, for you to decide who would do the best for autism. But the truth of the matter is there is only one candidate who has put forward an autism plan, and it's a very comprehensive one that looks at both the concerns of the community who have very low functioning autistic children and the concerns of autistic adults who are on the higher end of the spectrum who want more support and less money spent on research, and that's Hillary Clinton.
She's the only one who's bothered, her and her staff, to do the homework that's necessary to understand this issue and put forward a comprehensive plan. The only thing I've ever heard Donald Trump says about autism is spreading the false and dangerous rumor that autism is linked to vaccination. So unfortunately, if you're voting on autism there is only one candidate to look at because one candidate has a plan and the other candidate has promoted a lie. I hope that changes. I hope Donald Trump puts forward a plan on it but he hasn't yet.
So you also introduced broader themes of fatherhood - how do you think Trump stacks up as a father, separate from these issues?
How does Trump stack up as a father? Well, it's hard to tell from the outside. I've had a lot of people ask me that about Bill Clinton too, who I covered from when Chelsea Clinton was a little girl, and President Bush - when he was in office I watched his girls grow from teenagers to young women. From everything I can tell, and Obama for that matter - Obama, Bush and Clinton and Trump - from everything I can tell, which isn't much from the outside, they seem to be good parents and the only thing you have to judge by it is their children.
I have no reason to believe that Trump's children aren't caring, loving, devoted people, and if that's the case he deserves some credit for that, him and their mother. That's a very superficial judge; I'm barely equipped to give you an opinion on them politically, let alone what kind parents they are. I don't cover the families.
From all accounts it seems like his kids have turned out fairly well.
So how are your children doing? How is Tyler doing now?
Tyler is doing much better than his father deserves. He's a remarkable young man now. He's 18 years old. He graduates in a couple of weeks from high school, so by the time this comes out he will have been graduated for a couple of weeks. He graduates in June of 2016. Next year he will be entering the workforce, probably part-time, and entering college probably part-time, and we'll seek to get him a little bit of independence, maybe what they call home within a home where he'll still be living with us but he'll start paying bills and being responsible for groceries and laundry and that kind of thing to kind of wean him off of us.
We really think he's going to be living independently over time and have a good job and, as is pointed out in the book, his version of happy; maybe not what I always thought would be happy but his version of happiness. He's learning to drive now, which is something a couple of years ago I would have thought might not be possible but it turns out he's a very good driver. I think he might be a better driver than his sisters were at their age.
That's great to hear.
He's doing good. The project has been good for him and for the whole family. It's made us all, not just more self aware, but more willing to talk about things that fathers don't like to talk about; basically, how good of a job are they doing or how bad of a job are they doing. Since I've put that mess on the table now we're able to talk about it honestly. When I'm doing something that isn't quite right Tyler and his mom - there's a dialogue there. It's very easy for them to say, 'œYou wrote this, why are you doing that?'
I want to ask you about Arianna's book, The Sleep Revolution. You both have very stressful jobs that require around the clock attention to media and what's going on in the world. I'm sure you've seen her talking about the book or read some of it? Do you get eight hours sleep at night and do you kind of have any thoughts on what she's preaching there?
I do and I've read it. I think it's a great book. I get about seven hours of sleep a night. When I was younger I rarely got that much. This 24/7 cycle that she writes about and that we talk about, isn't really new to me. I broke into the business in the wire service in the mid '80s - which was a 24/7 job in the '80s, even before the internet - so I've always been the kind of person whose pager - when it was pagers and then BlackBerrys and iPhones - had always been on. I've been called out of bed for all kinds of stories and worked all kinds of weird hours.
And for a long time, like when I was covering the Clinton and Bush White Houses, I had myself convinced that I actually wrote better when I was real tired because it slowed down my mind and just forced me to concentrate on what I was writing. It took me a while to realize that I was kind of fooling myself that, okay, it might have made me a better writer but it certainly made me a lot more impatient and a lot more forgetful and a lot less of a quality human being the rest of the day.
So as I've gotten older and have less stamina, but also just more self awareness, I now try really hard to get my sleep. I find I can function really good on seven hours sleep and so that's what I get. I'll catch up occasionally and it's not unusual for me to take a power nap during the day.
How does it feel that your book was selected by Arianna as her Book of the Month?
Are you kidding me? This is an incredible honor. It's a huge institution, the Book of the Month Club, and then to be selected by Arianna Huffington, who is a big leader in my industry and one of the thought leaders of our country. For her to pick up my book out of all the other books that are out there, is quite an honor. Like I said, I've just been blown away by how this book has been received and this is just another example of how lucky I got in getting the book in pretty good shape.
What really satisfies me about her response to it is that sees how universal the book is. That it's not just about parents with special needs and it's not just about autism; it's about the expectations that all of us parents have for our kids and how they come out of a place of love, but if we're not careful it can really misshape our kids. I just get a kick out of the fact that she saw it as broadly as that.