Guests: Robert Littell, Molly Bingham
ANNOUNCER: DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT.
DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST: Memories of John. He was born into wealth and privilege, the golden boy in an American dynasty.
An entire nation watched him grow up from the unforgettable images of a little boy at his father‘s funeral to the relentless paparazzi shots of a handsome young man.
But few people knew John Kennedy Jr. better than Robert Littell.
ROBERT LITTLE, FRIEND: There‘s been a lot written about John in the past couple of years. I didn‘t recognize him anymore.
NORVILLE: Tonight, he shares a few secrets about his long time buddy.
From his private life...
JOHN F. KENNEDY JR., SON OF JOHN F. KENNEDY: My family‘s photo album in my head is shared by a lot of people.
NORVILLE: To his political ambitions.
KENNEDY: I have a few years to make that decision.
NORVILLE: Tonight one of John Kennedy Jr.‘s closest friends on the men they became.
Plus, eight days in Abu Ghraib. Award winning photojournalist Molly Bingham, arrested by Iraqi police.
MOLLY BINGHAM, PHOTOJOURNALIST: They drove us to a place. I didn‘t know where we were going.
NORVILLE: That place turned out to be Iraq‘s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
BINGHAM: Every other moment of every day, it was like, you know, are the—are they going to kill me?
Tonight, Molly Bingham recalls the torturous sights and sounds from inside Abu Ghraib.
BINGHAM: You can hear that they‘re in physical discomfort.
NORVILLE: And why she thinks U.S. troops have a long fight ahead.
ANNOUNCER: From Studio 3-K in Rockefeller Center, Deborah Norville.
NORVILLE: And good evening, everybody.
We begin tonight with a glimpse into the private life of John Kennedy Jr., as we approach the fifth anniversary of his tragic and untimely death.
Robert Littell met John Kennedy at Brown University in 1979. He‘s the one we‘ve highlighted there in this freshman year photo. JFK, of course, is the one holding the football.
For 20 years, Rob and John were close friend and confidantes. Littell recounts his friendship in a new book entitled “The Men We Became.” And he joins me in the studio tonight.
Good to see you.
LITTELL: Thanks for having me.
NORVILLE: Why did you write a book like this? There have been more books written about the Kennedy family, including John Junior, than you can count.
LITTELL: Yes. That‘s a good point. Unfortunately, I didn‘t recognize him in the many books, in the media and television that has been presented over the last five years. And not recognizing him and having some of my own memories fade, caused me to write it.
Essentially I started putting my stories—writing my stories down on a yellow legal pad. Next thing you know, I had 72 of them. And I started the process of writing a book.
NORVILLE: And you weren‘t—you weren‘t trying to write a book. You were trying to make sure I don‘t forget my friend when you started writing this stuff down.
LITTELL: Yes. Exactly. Just had a little yellow pad and a file in my drawer there. And I didn‘t expect to do anything with it. I was just trying to protect that memory and some of his spirit with it.
And I feel now that it‘s—I‘m not necessarily defending my friend. I don‘t think he needs to be defended. But it is fun to be able to provide some of those stories and in context of his spirit. So to capture the real guy that I knew, because I don‘t recognize him in what I see out there anymore. So...
NORVILLE: And talk about not recognizing him. When you got up to Brown, you didn‘t recognize him then either.
NORVILE: He was just another guy in the mob of new freshmen at the university.
LITTELL: He was another guy in the mob, and I was a Republican by birth. And I‘d never had “Life” magazine or anything like that. So it was kind of refreshing for him, I imagine, to find someone who didn‘t know him. Or didn‘t necessarily care. In point of fact, someone who wanted to compete with him. And so we ended up thinking we were better than each other at stuff for a good—for 20 years.
NORVILLE: You talk about there was sort of a freshman orientation beach party. And there were two alpha males who were preening for one another, really.
NORVILLE: You‘d just been a surfer dude who spent his summer in California, and he‘s the guy who‘s grown up on the eastern shore and knows everything there is to know about jumping waves and tossing Frisbees.
LITTELL: I did, but I‘m not saying that I had—I had braces at the time. And I had some seaweed in them. So it certainly wasn‘t a look thing. But it was competitive thing. I was standing there, up there in the sunset. Alpha male. And the other alpha male walked up, and we had some fun from there.
NORVILLE: What was about it John Kennedy that made him such a good friend to have?
LITTELL: I try and capture that in the book. He was a kind man. And speaking to his girlfriends, in writing this, that‘s what they wanted me to say.
To me he was loyal. And he was extraordinary in that fashion. I‘ll never have another friend that way. That will extend his loyalty. That will be my biggest fan, day in and day out and will bend over backwards to make sure that I know that he‘s loyal.
And he did that because of who he was. We had to carve out a little world out—inside of his celebrity. I wanted some stability. I had an interesting youth. And I came at 18 years old. I found my wife and my best friend the first week. And the stability we worked on. And we had to stay outside of his—the fame and the maelstrom that goes along with it, because it is intimidating.
NORVILLE: But it wasn‘t something that he asked for. It was something that you guys instinctively knew was the right thing to do. You became that protective moat around him.
LITTELL: We did. We talked about it, but anecdotally, not directly. I had occasionally said, you know, “I‘m out of here” if it got too—if the maelstrom showed up. If it got too public or...
NORVILLE: Meaning the paparazzi, the guys with the cameras?
LITTELL: Yes. I just didn‘t want to be a part of that. It seemed too—not flaky, but too flighty. It seemed like it would end at any moment. I didn‘t want anything to do with that. I wanted a good friendship.
NORVILLE: And you guys had an amazing friendship. But I mean, talk about flaky, you guys did some flaky stuff. There‘s—there‘s a story that you tell in the book where the two of you decided that this was the year you needed to go find your roots in Europe.
NORVILLE: You figured you both had common Irish roots, so that was a good place to start.
NORVILLE: And you kept running out of money.
LITTELL: Yes, we did. We would—I think it was because we shared it in the pubs that we went into. We wanted to go to museums, but we made a point, we said to meet the Irish people we have to go into the pubs.
So each town we‘d go in there, we‘d go into a pub and we‘d end up sharing our—buying beers for the locals to try and get some stories out of them. So yes, we ran out of money a couple times doing that.
NORVILLE: And there was one time you were in one place in Ireland where the woman invited you in to whatever.
LITTELL: Yes. That was surreal.
NORVILLE: There is the photograph of your bud‘s dad on the wall.
LITTELL: It was Jesus on the left and JFK on the right. And she
didn‘t know that that was JFK Jr. And we ended up leaving her place and
sleeping in a park, which had again, a plaque about this big with JFK Sr. -
· I‘m sorry, JFK Sr.‘s face on it.
We didn‘t talk about it.
NORVILLE: You wouldn‘t say that‘s your dad?
LITTELL: Yes. We would just joke a little bit but we didn‘t get into it. It wasn‘t a subject that two friends talk about, necessarily. We literally tried to avoid that.
NORVILLE: Right. Interesting. It was on that same trip that, while you were touring Europe, basically pub by pub...
NORVILLE: ... you said, well, we have to go to at least one museum.
NORVILLE: And you tell a hilarious story in here where you talk about going in there. It‘s the mirror thing.
NORVILLE: And in the book, you‘re talking about this. And you say, “John was so distracted that he walked right by a large mirror in the lobby -- and didn‘t look in it. This was my first experience. I had never known him to miss a mirror. And I said loudly, ‘You missed one!‘ He knew exactly what I was talking about. He turned and stomped out of the museum.”
Was he really that vain?
LITTELL: Yes. I‘m pretty vain, too. So I don‘t know how abnormal that was. But hey, if you look that good, you might as well take advantage or optimize it, if you will.
And yes. He‘s—this is a—this is a gray suit. He had 42 gradations of gray. And he would come into my closet once in awhile and say, “This is awfully threadbare in here.”
But he enjoyed it. I mean, it was a sport for him. It was—he wanted to win in clothing, and he slew the opposition generally.
NORVILLE: You also say that, I mean, he didn‘t mind some of the perks of being JFK Jr.
LITTELL: No. I think he enjoyed them. He was, at 3 years old, there he was saluting his father‘s funeral caisson. He had his own birthday that day—mean, he had a birthday in the White House later that day which I recall in the book was kind of sad.
But he was, I think, a sibling of the press. I think he was adopted by the press and adopted them back. And appreciated his fame to the point where our sense of his image was very similar to his own.
He wanted to lead for the people. And he wanted to do it, not for recognition. He had been given recognition. He was given all his fame and his money. So what was he going to do with that? He wanted to perfect—not perfect. He can‘t—nothing can be perfect.
He wanted to master his skill sets for us, so that he could serve the American people at some point. He wanted to go home. He really did. He wanted to go back to the White House.
NORVILLE: And yet he wasn‘t sure what the right route was to get there. And he entered law school after you guys got out of school. You moved to New York. You were still roommates down here in New York.
And he entered law school. And as everybody knows, he had a heck of a time passing the bar.
LITTELL: Yes. Yes, he did.
NORVILLE: And there‘s one quote that I‘d like to just hear from him when he was so upset about not passing the bar. Here‘s John Kennedy Jr.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KENNEDY: I‘ll be back there in July and I‘ll pass it then. Or I‘ll pass it the next time or I‘ll pass it when I‘m 95.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
NORVILLE: Now he‘s looking confident. The press are all around him.
But what was really going through his life then?
LITTELL: He was thinking, “Oh, no, I‘m a little behind on someone else‘s schedule.” Which he—he did have a sense of where he should be in time, if only because his father‘s legacy was so obvious and so public.
But his mother did a great job over the years, I think, in protecting him from that. In their homes, there was very little memorabilia or representations of the presidential years.
NORVILLE: And you think that was by design?
LITTELL: Yes, I do. I do. They had a lot of stuff from that time frame but nothing with the import, with the impact, with the gravity that, the overwhelming gravity that having a father as a president was there.
So the whole idea was to let him grow on his own. And both his mother and sister did that on purpose.
NORVILLE: And—and at this time, when this headline was in the “New York Post,” you said that one of the things that helped John was he actually went to a therapist...
NORVILLE: ... to deal with his public rejection, if you will.
LITTELL: Yes. It was the first time he had done that. And he expressed great—he loved it, frankly. Because he said—he said to me, “It‘s the first time I can just say anything I want.” You know, and he was on 24 hours a day. He was comfortable with that.
But he loved the idea of just being able to tell anything. He didn‘t have a lot of secrets. He was an open book, as you know. From age 3 on, there he was. But he did love going to get a little help.
NORVILLE: One of the things that you quote his mother as having said to him that was probably the most useful piece of advice Mrs. Onassis gave her son, was “Don‘t be afraid of your name.”
NORVILLE: And that was a big thing for John when he was able to embrace that.
LITTELL: Yes. That was—That was a big thing. It was a big part of his life, that period when his mother got sick, and they knew that she was too sick.
He spent a lot of time with her. And she imparted her love and her wisdom on him, as sort of the last lesson. And she did. She said, you know—she kicked the eagle out of the nest and said, “Go fly. Be yourself. Use your name.” And...
NORVILLE: Use it but don‘t be burdened by it.
LITTELL: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. He earned his flight, is what she was telling him.
And she knew that he was a good guy and wouldn‘t go out and—there was nothing—John‘s fame was how he connected to people. He had—every time—anything he did, he came out with 10 friends, and they were generally very sincere friends, as far as I can tell.
So he used his—he took advantage of it for spiritual reasons, I would say. Not exploitive reasons.
NORVILLE: When we come back, we‘re going to talk more about the many friends of John Kennedy with one of his dear friends, Rob Littell, who‘s with us. When we come back, the women in John Jr.‘s life, including his mother.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KENNEDY: There‘s this quality of—this calmness that they had about each other and about what was to happen. And an incurable sense of optimism that is just, it was just all going to work out, you know. And that was a wonderful thing to be a part of. And it sort of was a beacon and remains a beacon, I think, for all of us.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
NORVILLE: That was JFK Jr. offering a toast during the wedding rehearsal of his close friend, Robert Littell, who has written a book, recounting their 20-year friendship.
That still makes you kind of warm and fuzzy when you hear that all over again doesn‘t it.
LITTELL: It does. It does. Yes, a lot of these pictures do, frankly.
NORVILLE: In the book you talk about, John was almost jealous of that part of your life. You had a girlfriend. As you said, you met her the same week you started school that you met John. And your wife, Frannie, has been a constant in your life. And he always seemed a little wistful about that.
LITTELL: Well, as I—I say here in the book that he was looking for his wife pretty much the same time. I mean, he met Sally Monroe that year, and went out with her for maybe the next six years, seven years. And they were madly in love.
And then he met Christina Hague, who he met when he was 15, actually, and had a crush on when they did a play together at some point. So he left his girlfriend of six years, they just sort of fell apart. They‘d done their growing together. And then he had another relationship for six years with someone he had met when he was 15 and had a crush on. And then again, they sort of parted ways.
But I think that he may not have been wistful. But he was looking for
· he was called a playboy and this and that, but he was a monogamous guy, and he was looking for his wife, as far as I knew.
NORVILLE: And when he met Carolyn Bessette, and he had you come over and basically kick the tires and check her out.
LITTELL: Yes, yes.
NORVILLE: You knew she was the one.
NORVILLE: How did you know?
LITTELL: She had an intellect and a sensitivity that neither he nor I had seen before. She really did look you right in the eye, and you sensed that had she knew you, but more importantly, that she cared about you. And there was real sincerity. And that empathy, I think, ultimately hurt her, that sensitivity. She wasn‘t able to enter the role of, you know, John‘s wife in front of the paparazzi day in and day out. She couldn‘t be on 24/7 like he had learned to do. To him it was secondhand.
NORVILLE: You said that she felt a certain—or you suspected that she felt a certain kinship with Princess Diana and the way the paparazzi had swarmed around her life.
LITTELL: Yes, that‘s true. She was very sympathetic to that. And more than sympathetic, actually. She—concerned, very concerned for her and was upset, what happened—was terribly upset by what happened.
NORVILLE: Was she worried for her safety?
LITTELL: She was just worried for her persona—and for her own sake?
NORVILLE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) safely, yes.
LITTELL: No, she wasn‘t. No, no.
NORVILLE: Just—Just the intrusion...
LITTELL: Yes. Right.
NORVILLE: ... of these strangers into every day life.
LITTELL: She saw a maelstrom and wanted to avoid it and wanted to keep her husband out of it.
NORVILLE: You said a moment ago that a lot of the books you‘ve read about your friend, you just didn‘t recognize.
Christiane Amanpour, another roommate of you guys from Brown, has said the same thing. She said, “I simply don‘t recognize the people I know in the caricatures I‘ve seen in some of these books.”
There was a book that came out by Ed Klein called “The Kennedy Curse.” And he talks about Carolyn, and I wanted to read this excerpt just to get your specific reaction to it.
He says of her, “Sprawled on the floor in front of the sofa, disheveled and hollow-eyed, snorting cocaine with a gaggle of gay fashionistas and screamed, ‘You‘re a cokehead!‘ before retreating to his room.” That this was an encounter that John had had with Carolyn.
LITTELL: Yes, I must admit, we—a couple of John‘s friends and I have had a good chuckle over that in the past year. And we don‘t—to use that word again, we don‘t recognize our friend there. He wouldn‘t say that. And we never—I knew her pretty well. I knew all her friends. That‘s not the kind of person she was. So it sounds—it sounds entertaining. It may sell a book or two. But as far as I‘m concerned, I see it as fiction.
NORVILLE: Did you write this book, then, to undo the fiction you perceive being done on the memory of people who aren‘t here to defend themselves?
LITTELL: That‘s part of it. That‘s not all of it, though. I mean, I wanted to tell our story. And I feared—as I said, I saw my memories going away, and I wanted to get them down. And I‘m a storyteller by nature. And the—in the past 18 months, there‘s been a lot—that just steeled me to the task and probably pushed me over the hump to do it. Yes, you‘re probably right.
NORVILLE: Yes. Tell me a little about Jacqueline Onassis. It must have been awfully intimidating for a college freshman to be invited over to Mom‘s house when you know Mom is one of the chicest women on planet Earth.
LITTELL: Yes. By the time I had gone over there, which was several months after I met him, I was aware of that.
My grandfather had actually warned me of the Kennedy‘s. You know, an old Republican out of Barrington Hills (ph), Illinois.
But when I went over there, the first time was with my sister on Christmas Eve. I just got my—something happened and I ended up calling John, as he had asked me to do. And we went over there about 6:00 And of course, you have all the statuettes, the Greek busts, and it was impressive.
NORVILLE: Was it intimidating?
LITTELL: It wasn‘t intimidating because he was so casual. And then when she called us out for milk and cookies, it might as well have been with Mrs.—the neighbor, Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Jones on the other side.
And she knew that she could be intimidating, and she made a point of making sure that you were comfortable. That was the first thing she did was make you comfortable.
NORVILLE: And you tell a lovely story in the book about a later time when you were visiting Mrs. Onassis, and you had this fear of scallops and all this icky, fancy food.
NORVILLE: And all of a sudden—the way you put it in the book is just great. I just want to read the quote. You say that you—you sat down and your “stomach was in a knot that night at the prospect of having to push scallops or veal around my plate under the all-seeing gaze of Mrs. Onassis. And there wasn‘t a pet in sight to help” you.
“Efigenio came through the door”—that was one of the butlers—
“placed a plate in front of me and I looked down to see a burned hamburger on a toasted Wonder Bread roll and a mount of white Minute Rice. My favorite meal!”
LITTELL: Right. Right.
NORVILLE: You got that every time you ate there.
LITTELL: Every time. And they never said anything about it. She may have nodded her head that evening but that‘s just sort of the way they were. They were very graceful. They didn‘t want recognition for it, though. They took care of you and, you know, they did it subtlety, which was really—it just made you feel so comfortable.
NORVILLE: But you also said that she was enough of a mom to clue you in on some of those social niceties that you might not have understood.
NORVILLE: Tell us what fastest fork is all about.
LITTELL: Yes. Right. That‘s, my wife does it now. She‘s the third fastest fork in the east.
But I had watched her several time, whenever we sat down. When the meal—she was always served first, and then the guest was second and then Maurice Templesman and then John or whoever.
But as soon as her meal was placed, usually the soup, first course.
NORVILLE: Where‘s your fork.
LITTELL: She would, without even—she would like a wild west Wyatt Earp or something. It would just go—like that.
NORVILLE: Onto the plate.
LITTELL: Onto the plate. Just the side of the plate. Put the tines over the edge of the plate. I noticed her a couple times, and I was friendly—you know, friendly with her, and I said, “What‘s with the fastest fork in the east thing?”
Then she explained to me that that is one of the protocols and manners, that you put your fork—a lady is supposed to put her fork on the plate to allow the other people to eat their meal while it‘s still hot.
NORVILLE: One doesn‘t begin eating until the hostess has commenced.
LITTELL: Yes. That‘s exactly right. Yes.
NORVILLE: From Mrs. Onassis.
We‘ll be back. More recollections with Rob—Rob Littell right after this.
NORVILLE: We‘re talking with John Kennedy Jr.‘s good friend, Rob Littell, who met John at Brown University back in 1979 and wrote a new book called “The Men We Became.”
What do you think John Kennedy‘s future would have been? Would he have followed his father‘s footsteps ultimately into politics?
LITTELL: Yes. I mean, he wanted to serve the American people. He wanted to fulfill the obligation that he didn‘t take as a burden. It was a challenge to him. And it was what nourished him.
I mean, it‘s why he woke up in the morning. “What are you going to do?” He was preparing the serve.
NORVILLE: And it was a running joke with you guys. He used to tell you, you were going to be the ambassador to Bangladesh or something.
LITTELL: Yes, I always felt bad for Bangladesh. It seems like the biblical—an artillery range.
And I thought—so he joked, well, “Why don‘t you go be the ambassador to Bangladesh, then?” And so we joked about that through the years. And I remember in 1999, actually, when Hillary Clinton was starting to run—and they were good friend, John and the Clintons. But she was in the post for running—for the Senate. Daniel Moynihan‘s Senate seat.
LITTELL: And he went, “What, do I got to move to Arkansas?” But all in good nature. When he would have run, who knows?
NORVILLE: But in utter seriousness, you have to doubt that he would have...
LITTELL: Yes. No, there‘s no question in my mind, that was his objective. That was why he got up in the morning.
NORVILLE: And—and the other thing that—that hangs over the Kennedy‘s is this notion of the Kennedy curse. And yet the picture of the John that you portray is a man who‘s actually pretty cautious.
LITTELL: Yes. Well, he was an adventurous man by nature of the fact that when he was 5 years old to 10 years old he became a wonderful water skier. And how did he do that? From the back of a converted luxury freighter. I mean, just picture the image of—all right, you‘ve got a yacht. You‘ve got a big yacht. And you‘ve got a converted luxury freighter, which he tooled around in the Greek Islands on with his stepfather, Aristotle Onassis. So that was sort of his understanding of what adventure was. And then he flew in F-15‘s regularly. And so that—so his perspective of adventure was a little wider than the next guy‘s. But he was a nerd about when did he stuff. I mean, whether it was his buckeye or biking or flying, he was a beautiful flyer, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) was great. I would have—I still would fly with him. I mean, they got bush whacked. In terms of a curse, that‘s just silly.
NORVILLE: What do you mean they got bushwhacked?
LITTELL: Well, he‘d checked—he‘d done everything he could than night in terms of the weather. Checking the weather. There was—he checked it on the radio. He checked it on the Web. This is the all in the NTSB report.
LITTELL: And this haze came out of—came from Nantucket, essentially, around the corner and took them out. But it didn‘t have anything to do with recklessness. It‘s not like he said, “let‘s just fly into this thing.” It wasn‘t—It wasn‘t there. It—It‘s a confluence of factors at that time of the night created it, but it wasn‘t anything that could be avoided.
NORVILLE: And when you heard that your friend‘s plane had gone missing, you knew instantly he was gone?
LITTELL: Yes, I mean, you hear—my wife came into the room and said, John‘s plane is missing. I‘ve never heard of a missing plane being found, frankly, in any good condition.
LITTELL: Especially on this.
This was his milk run. This was I-95 for him. He had done it, I believe, 30 times previous, several times on his own. So I was heartbroken. I went into a fetal ball for a couple minutes. And that don‘t work, so then I ran up a hill. And thinking—actually, I thought that that‘s what he would do. So I ran up this hill that I was at in New Jersey.
And halfway down, it was interesting. And I felt his presence. I was out of oxygen, probably full of a little bit of dopamine from the exercise. But I pictured him right over here, sort of buzzing and telling me that he was OK. And that was—and that comforted me greatly. It was in my own head, but I just—I may have created him telling me that he was OK, but there he was.
And Epigenio (ph) had a similar experience up in the vineyard, where he—Epigenio Pinera (ph), who was John‘s—not only Mrs. Onassis‘ butler over the years, but he became John‘s butler here in the city, with Carolyn downtown.
And he, well, up at the vineyard that following week, saw some writing in the sand next to one of the little ponds that had John‘s mom, Carolyn and John saying they were OK, same language as I had seen. So, coincidence, spiritual or not, I‘ll take the comfort that it gave us.
NORVILLE: You still feel his presence?
LITTELL: Yes. His spirit is very much alive in me. And I drive around—I exercise in Manhattan, riding my bike every day. And I go by all our old haunts. And I generally smile now. I feel I‘ve reconnected to him, partially from this book.
NORVILLE: And, lastly, how would—you have remembered John the way you wanted to remember him. How would John Kennedy want people to remember him?
LITTELL: He was the type that would want other people to make that decision. I don‘t think that he would want to dictate what somebody thought.
NORVILLE: He wouldn‘t get hung up in it.
LITTELL: No, he wouldn‘t. He was a kind man. He was a very fair man. And I think that is—what came after that was whatever we come up with.
NORVILLE: Well, the book is called “The Men We Became.” He was a fun friend, according to Rob Littell.
Thanks so much.
LITTELL: Thank you very much.
NORVILLE: And if you would like to read some excerpts of this book, “The Men We Became,” all you have to do is just log on to our Web pages, NORVILLE.MSNBC.com.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up, her camera has taken her from political back rooms to military front lines. But award winning photojournalist Molly Bingham had never seen the inside of a torture chamber until she was arrested by Iraqi police.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MOLLY BINGHAM, PHOTOJOURNALIST: For sort of lack of a better word, checked us in as prisoners.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: Molly‘s terrifying eight days in Abu Ghraib prison—when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns.
NORVILLE: She was held captive in Iraq. A photographer describes what it was like being held in the Abu Ghraib prison while Saddam Hussein was in control next.
NORVILLE: Before we get to the story of photojournalist Molly Bingham, who in March of last year was arrested in Iraq and locked in a cell in the Abu Ghraib prison, then under the control of Saddam Hussein, a couple of items out of the region we want to be sure to tell you about first off.
Now the latest on the American hostage who has been held in Saudi Arabia, Paul Johnson. An Islamic Web site today showed videotape of Johnson blindfolded, the apparent abductors on tape saying they are threatening to kill him within 72 hours unless al Qaeda prisoners are freed. Johnson was kidnapped on Saturday.
Also today, as the countdown to the June 30 handover continues in Iraq, President Bush insisted that he must have assurances that Saddam Hussein will stay in jail and will not return to power before releasing him to Iraq‘s interim government. The entire region, from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, still not a place where Americans can be safe.
And, certainly, no one knows that more than Molly Bingham. She knows it firsthand because she was kidnapped and then released in Jordan after eight days in captivity. And, incredibly, just 17 days later, Molly Bingham was back in Iraq, still committed to covering the war and its aftermath. She has since taken hundreds of pictures which tell the story of Iraqis and their daily struggles and their hardships.
And Molly Bingham is with me now safely in the studio.
It‘s nice to see you.
BINGHAM: Good to see you.
NORVILLE: I remember when you and the other journalists were kidnapped and just having this wave of cold chill going over my body. What went through your body and your mind as suddenly you realized, I‘ve just been taken hostage?
BINGHAM: I didn‘t really have any sense of how it was going to play out, so just the moment-to-moment anxiety of not knowing, are they going to kill me? Are they going to dump me in the river? Are they going to chain me to something important? Are they going to take me to a site where Saddam Hussein is and say, well, you can‘t bomb it because we have Western journalists here with him?
I didn‘t know. And really that—it was about five or six hours from the time I was first detained to the time I was taken away. And that period was very difficult, because I didn‘t know where I was going.
NORVILLE: Well, because you didn‘t know if you were actually being kidnapped in the beginning, right?
BINGHAM: Well, I didn‘t know whether I was being taken prisoner. I didn‘t know whether I was being taken to the Syrian border. I didn‘t know whether I was going to a prison or to a detention facility of some kind.
And when I arrived at Abu Ghraib, I didn‘t know where I was because I had never been there. I knew it was clearly a prison once I got inside, but I didn‘t know that was about it. So it was all a big mystery to me until...
NORVILLE: When you see the videotape that we‘ve seen quite a bit of since those notorious photos came out, do you see things that look familiar to you?
This was the prison that I was in. I was in the Arab and foreigner section, which was isolation chambers, much smaller cells than what we‘re seeing on the screen right now, which were 6-by-9-foot cells with a metal grate door with no facilities in it. So you had to ask. There was a bathroom down the hall to go to the bathroom. And you were fed in the cell.
So it was quiet, no conversation, and alone for eight days.
NORVILLE: And yet, you could hear other things that were going on in the prison that was pretty horrific.
BINGHAM: Sure. Particularly one night, there was another prisoner, I presume, who was being beaten pretty badly by the other guards on our—in the hallway right outside of my cell.
NORVILLE: So that would have been a foreigner or an Iraqi?
BINGHAM: Don‘t know. I literally turned my face to the wall and didn‘t watch and didn‘t want to be seen to be hearing anything or seeing anything.
I think all of us had the same reaction. And Matt McAllester wrote about it in his book as well.
BINGHAM: You just—you didn‘t—you wanted to ignore it. You wanted to be seen to ignore it and not be interested.
NORVILLE: Ultimately, how were you all released?
BINGHAM: Excellent question.
We were all released one day, on April 1. And they were going to drive to us Jordan. They were going to take to us Baghdad first and get our passports stamped. And on the way, driving out of the prison, the airstrikes started on the road to Baghdad.
And so they said, oh, OK, you‘re not going to leave right now. And they put us in another cell all together for the first time, with all of our gear, all of our suitcases and everything. And we ended up staying overnight the last night. And so the next morning, they put us in GMCs and we were driven to the border, to the Jordanian border.
NORVILLE: In less than three weeks, though, you got yourself back across as a freelance journalist, not assigned to any particular news organization. Why have you felt such a compulsion to be in Iraq, to report this story and to take the pictures that you have?
BINGHAM: Well, I think it took a lot of resolve to go in the first place before the war. I knew I was taking a risk. I knew it was going to be dangerous. I knew that there were things like being in prison that I could face.
And being a photographer and being in prison for eight days during really the most important part of the days of the war there, and then missing the few days after, I felt like I needed to go and do what I originally went to do. And I thought, OK, now it will be different and I can go and work there and I won‘t have that sort of oppression and fear that I had before and tell the stories that I want to tell.
And the first story I went back and told was about female political detainees under Saddam‘s regime and finding some of those women and talking to them about their experiences. And part of that was very helpful to me in getting through my understanding of what happened to me and my feelings about that, and just building relationships with Iraqis and having the kind of journalistic experience that I hadn‘t been able to have there before.
NORVILLE: You also—and we have a photo, a very poignant photo of a little kid who was I guess part of the war going on, target practice at the man in the poster, I guess.
BINGHAM: This is actually—the gentleman in the poster is considered a spy by the Iraqi resistance. This was in the Adamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad.
And the poster says, he‘s a spy. Hunt him down. Kill him if you see him. And this child is on the street and playing with his handgun. It‘s a plastic one, but playing with his handgun, which a lot of kids do on the streets of Baghdad. It is the toy of the moment.
NORVILLE: But is that any different from an American kid playing G.I. Joe with their plastic gun? We read a very nefarious tone to that, but it‘s cop and robbers, bang, bang. This is...
BINGHAM: Yes. It‘s the same. It‘s the same.
It‘s just—it‘s very present for them in their daily life. They see Americans patrolling on the streets. They often don‘t have little handguns. They have bigger things. They see where the power is and they see what kind of weaponry they have. And they play that game.
NORVILLE: Another photo you took is not something that is play, but the very real specter of death that too many people in Iraq have seen. And this is sort of the cropped version of a casket, I guess.
BINGHAM: This is—this was during the Shia uprisings at the beginning of April, when Sadr‘s—Muqtada al-Sadr‘s aide was arrested, his newspaper was shut down and he was declared an outlaw by Bremer.
And there were a lot of people on the streets in Sadr City and all over the country, actually, people in the south, who came out on the streets in support of him and took over the police stations and were showing their faith in him. The Americans went and met that with force. And that resulted in the three days in Sadr City that I was photographing there. There were 80 dead, some civilians, some fighters, but children and women as well.
NORVILLE: It was the deadliest month since the end of hostilities, as President Bush called it, since the Iraq war began.
We‘re going to take a short break. When we come back, I want to hear more about why you believe the insurgents may have the upper hand in this conflict right now.
More with Molly Bingham in just a moment.
NORVILLE: We‘re back with photojournalist Molly Bingham, who has been in and out of Iraq over the past year finding out what causes ordinary Iraqi men and women to become insurgents, teachers, shopkeepers, mothers. All of them have joined the armed insurgency. And she has been chronicling their exploits with her cameras. Some of what she has learned is shared in the current issue of “Vanity Fair” magazine.
One of the things, Molly, that I think I don‘t understand is, who are these people? We say insurgents, as though they wear a sign that says, hello, my name is insurgent, and we can lump them all together.
I didn‘t know exactly what I was going to find when I went. And I thought it was important to understand who these people are who are opposing the occupation of the country. And what I found was largely that they are normal people. Some of them hold down day jobs. Some of them move weapons. They use whatever skills they have. Some of them are fighters. Some of them are sort of thinkers and policy strategists who are figuring out what to do.
They‘re very normal people in—exactly. They don‘t have sort of insurgent stamped on their forehead or horns growing out of their heads. They‘re very normal people who really have one ambition. And that is self-determination for their country, which is defined by American and foreign military and political influence withdrawing from their country.
NORVILLE: How do they square—because you‘ve had very intimate conversations with a lot of people over the last year. How do they square the notion that they wouldn‘t have the possibility to self-determine their political future if the Americans hadn‘t come in with what‘s clearly Islamic-dominated hatred of the Americans because they are the infidels and in their country and therefore must be removed?
BINGHAM: I think that‘s kind of right.
I think the 15 or 20 people I spoke to, some people actually liked Saddam Hussein. Some of them never liked him. Some of them never liked him and now like him and think he is great and appreciate what he did for the country. Almost all of them said, we didn‘t invite to you come here. We didn‘t want to you come here. The people that asked to you come here are exiles, people who didn‘t live here. They didn‘t suffer through what we suffered through.
We want to determine what our own choice is. And either Saddam Hussein would have died. We could have taken care of that ourselves. But now that you‘ve done it, OK, it is history. Leave us alone. Let us do this ourselves. And that—they all share that.
NORVILLE: And you say that the insurgents have a huge advantage over the American military. For what reason?
BINGHAM: Well, they have—I think it‘s a psychological advantage.
They‘re obviously militarily at a disadvantage, because they don‘t have the kind of firepower. But, as one of the characters said to me, this is our field. We play as we choose. We pick the time. We pick the place. We pick the weapon. And they‘ve done that, I think, quite effectively. They‘ve used—it started off early on with very simple attacks, AK-47s, sometimes RPGs.
That developed into IEDs and bombs used on the roadsides. And they actually changed that tactic. Many of them told me they changed that tactic because of the number of civilian casualties that were getting hurt when they were attacking the Americans.
NORVILLE: So they realized they were hurting their own people in the process of fighting the Americans.
BINGHAM: Exactly. Exactly.
And in that process, the Americans and the Iraqi police built higher walls, put up concrete blast walls, and sort of pushed back from the population. So they started using bigger bombs, car bombs, mortars. So, they were responding. They‘re very flexible and very intelligent in about how they‘re going about it.
NORVILLE: but you also say the Americans can‘t say why they‘re there, but the Iraqi people can say why I‘m fighting.
One of the characters in Iraq said to me, we know what we‘re fighting for. The American soldier that‘s here, he doesn‘t know what he‘s fighting for. And when he dies, he‘ll to go hell. And if he survives, he will live in hell here in Iraq. For me, I fight. I die. I go to paradise. If I don‘t die, I fight and I go to paradise later because I‘m fighting jihad.
NORVILLE: There are two people who you give names to, because anybody who spoke to you for the record would have been killed for sharing their knowledge with you. One of them you call the teacher. Tell me about the teacher.
BINGHAM: Teacher is a very interesting character.
He spent his entire life in education. He didn‘t like Saddam Hussein because he found that the level of education in his field went down significantly over the last, particularly over the last years of his reign during sanctions. And he had no love for him. He said: He never did anything for me. I was a simple guy. I wasn‘t interested in politics. I wasn‘t interested in doing anything.
And when the war came, he saw how the Americans—he saw foreign fighters came, Fedayeen fighters came to his area of Adamiyah of Baghdad and were fighting for God. They were fighting for Allah and they were fighting against the Americans. And he saw this battle unfold in front of him. And he ended up helping some of the Arab fighters to find their way around, navigate the streets of the city, which they didn‘t know.
And in seeing them lay their lives down for defending Iraq, he was inspired by that, literally. And he said, I didn‘t know my way to the mosque before. I wasn‘t a particularly religious guy.
NORVILLE: So he became a more religious person because of this.
BINGHAM: He was really created by the American occupation—by the war and the American occupation. He wouldn‘t have done and been involved in any of this before.
So he said: Within a week, I was lucky enough to find a group of people I agreed with, within a week after the end of the war, find a group of people I agreed with. And I started moving weapons for them. I do weapons procurement for them.
NORVILLE: You have been back and forth into Iraq a number of times over the last year. What do you think the final resolution of this saga is going to be?
BINGHAM: It‘s a great question.
I think, without full political and military independence, certainly the people I spoke are going to keep fighting. And they‘re keep fighting and dying and killing until they feel that they‘ve reached a level of self-determination, independence.
NORVILLE: Molly Bingham, it is a terrific article in “Vanity Fair” magazine. And the photos are amazing.
BINGHAM: Thank you.
NORVILLE: Good to see you.
NORVILLE: MSNBC is building an incredible slideshow of Molly‘s photos. So you can come to our Web site. Link it from our Web page, which is NORVILLE.MSNBC.com. I really recommend it. They‘re really, really great pictures.
And when we come back, something else that‘s pretty great, a viewer e-mail that sheds some light on a story that we‘ve been talking about here, the O.J. Simpson case, in a way you might not have thought about it.
NORVILLE: We get lots of e-mails here, but there‘s one that we got just after last night‘s program, 10 years after the arrest of O.J. Simpson, that really stood out to all of us. And for reasons that you will understand, the writer prefers to remain anonymous.
Here‘s the e-mail. They said: “I was watching your show tonight regarding O.J. and wanted to comment on yours and Catherine Crier‘s remarks about how odd it was that O.J. never talked to his kids about the murder. My own sister was murdered by her husband in a well-known case in Los Angeles in the 1990s. And it was witnessed by one of her kids. You can‘t even imagine how horrific that is on a family.
“It is so painful an event that there are many times when I can‘t bear to talk about it, and I was an adult when it happened. I know it seems crazy and I wouldn‘t have believed it if my own family didn‘t go through it, but it is not something we talk about with her kids. We let them know we‘re here to talk about it. They‘ve been in counseling for years and they‘ve had the chance to talk about it and are in a safe environment to do so.
“We as a family talk about my sister and her life, but we don‘t ask the kids to go back to that dark day. If they want to go there, fine, but we don‘t bring it up. It‘s hard to explain, but talking about the murder itself can only make the kids feel bad. The murder and the day of the funeral were the two worst days of their lives. There is no good side to talking about those two days. We can talk about her life. We can talk about her feelings of loss, but to talk about the particulars is just too much. You have to live it to know what I mean. And I pray your family never goes through it.”
Thank you, anonymous, for helping us to see that aspect of the Simpson case in a way that simply isn‘t possible for most of us.
We do like to hear from you, so send us your e-mails to NORVILLE@MSNBC.com.
And that is our program for tonight. Thanks a lot for watching. I‘m Deborah Norville.
Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Sally Field, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Robin Williams, the list goes on and on. All the A-list actors have gone inside “The Actors Studio With James Lipton.” And tomorrow night, it‘s James Lipton‘s turn to come into our studio, inside the NORVILLE studio, coming up tomorrow.
Now, coming up next, Joe Scarborough takes a look at the faith factor in the race for president. Stay tuned, because “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” is coming up next.
We‘ll see you tomorrow.
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