That one interview

Sometimes a journalist’s finest moment isn’t in what he asks, but how he answers.

Harry Truman with his wife and daughter 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Harry Truman with his wife and daughter 370
(photo credit: reuters)
All journalists have their best story. Here is mine: As a young journalist I had an exclusive interview with former US president Harry S Truman, in his office in the Truman Library in Kansas City.
It was in December 1958, five years after he left office. I arrived with 25 questions, which I hoped he would manage to answer in the 30 minutes I was granted for an interview.
However, before the interview began he wanted to inquire about my home country of Denmark’s view on NATO, which Truman had helped organize. I looked at my watch and said: “I would very much like to answer your questions – but only after the interview, as none of my readers are interested in what I have to tell you, but solely want to know what you have to tell me.”
Truman looked at me. “What nerve he has,” I believe he thought. But the 33rd president of the US swiftly reacted by asking his secretary to inform waiting senators and generals in the anteroom that their meeting with him would be delayed by 10 minutes.
When the interview was over, Truman had his turn, and I answered his questions about Denmark and NATO.
Before we parted, I was allowed to take a picture, and I have a great smiling memento.
Later, when I reached Los Angeles, I sent him two prints with a thank you note. He reacted by returning one of them to me with his autograph. I thought that perhaps I had found a new, magic formula.
Four years later this was put to a test.
In September 1962, Israel’s then prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was going on an official visit to Denmark. That was the year after I had come to Israel, and I had asked him for an exclusive interview some days before his departure to Copenhagen. At the interview I found myself sitting across from Ben-Gurion in his office in Tel Aviv.
“I would like to ask you some questions,” he said.
Immediately, I recalled my conversation with Mr. Truman and said: “With pleasure, but only after the interview, because I have 25 questions and only 30 minutes. If it can be after our talk, it will be clear that you are in the same category as Truman.”
Ben-Gurion looked at me – probably sizing me up as Truman did. Commenting that the comparison with Truman sounded interesting, he agreed to be patient until the interview was over.
After answering my 25 questions, he said in his very direct and personal way: “Tell me, what was your mother’s maiden name?” I told him that my mother was born Gruen.
“That was also my name before I became Ben-Gurion. My name was also Gruen,” he said.
“Then perhaps you are my long-lost uncle David?” I said.
Ben-Gurion laughed. From then on, our talk became very informal.
Eighteen years went by. Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s foreign minister, was going on an official visit to Denmark in June 1980. The Foreign Ministry called and invited me to an interview, and I readily accepted.
I found myself across from Shamir one Friday afternoon. He began to question me and I remembered my formula.
I explained that if he wanted to wait until our interview was over, he would be classed in the same category as Truman and Ben-Gurion.
I imagined what went through his mind. “Truman, Ben-Gurion and myself? What is the connection?” Shamir also waited until the 25 questions were answered. He and I also had a good laugh.
The writer is a Danish journalist working in Jerusalem as a Middle East correspondent for Scandinavian papers. His new book Me and the Middle East will be published in English by Gefen Publishing House (Jerusalem and New York) and in Norwegian by Norge IDAG Publishing House, Bergen, Norway, and in Danish by Udfordringen Publishing House in Christiansfeld, Denmark.