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Senator Mitch McConnell Holds The Key To The Impeachment Trial Of President Trump; Tim Robbins On Raising Up Refugees In The New Colossus; Esperanza Spalding Takes The Jazz Scene By Storm. Aired 11p-12a ET
Aired January 24, 2020 - 23:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Hello everyone and welcome to AMANPOUR. Here's what's coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The process was good enough for President Clinton, and basic fairness dictates it ought to be good enough for this
President as well.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR (voice-over): Senator Mitch McConnell holds the key to the impeachment trial of President Trump. I ask his former aide, Scott Jennings
and his political biographer, Alec MacGillis about the taciturn Senate leader.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TIM ROBBINS, ACTOR: It is a story that unifies us. It is our story.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR (voice-over): Bringing his career of art and activism full circle, the award-winning actor, Tim Robbins on raising up refugees in "The New
(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)
AMANPOUR (voice-over): Esperanza Spalding takes the jazz scene by storm.
AMANPOUR (on camera): Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in New York.
Senator Mitch McConnell is the man in the spotlight as the architect of the Senate impeachment rules. The Majority Leader and Republican senator from
Kentucky has long enjoyed a reputation as a master tactician, from stonewalling President Obama's choice of Merrick Garland to the Supreme
Court, to blocking campaign finance reform, his imprint will shape America for years to come.
And now as power broker in the impeachment trial of President Trump, a task he says the Senate should handle fairly.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCONNELL: Our founders trusted the Senate to rise above short-term passions and factionalism. They trusted the Senate to soberly consider what
has actually been proven and which outcome best serves the nation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: But Democrats are crying foul, not fair, at McConnell holding out against witnesses and pushing for a short and swift trial. So who exactly
is Mitch McConnell? And what's been his political journey?
I asked his longtime former aide, Scott Jennings and Alec MacGillis, author of "The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell."
So let me just put it this way to open up. Your guy is the man of the moment and by your guy, I obviously mean, Mitch McConnell.
Scott, you worked for him? Alec, you've written the book on him. You know, he's getting a lot of publicity now for somebody who is pretty taciturn. I
guess, I want to know how you foresee his performance and how it will be described at the end of this because, you know, it's very contentious.
Scott, you first?
SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think he is doing a few things that are consistent with his worldview about the Senate and the
nature of politics.
Number one, he, I think, is trying to protect the institution from setting precedents that they may regret in the future. I think you've seen that in
some of his tactical moves. And number two, he strongly believes that politics is a team sport. And that's why he's strived, I think, over the
last several days to maintain as much party unity as possible when it came to setting up the rules and moving forward with the trial.
So to me, I think that's what he is going to be remembered for here. It is trying to keep his people together and trying to stop the Senate from
setting precedents that could come back to haunt the institution in the future.
AMANPOUR: Alec MacGillis, does that resonate with you? What kind of precedents do you think he is trying to stop and will somebody who has so
clearly hitched his wagon to the President obviously of his own party actually be remembered in terms of an impartial jury and setting up an
impartial system here?
ALEC MACGILLIS, AUTHOR: Yes, I would see it quite differently. Actually, I think what you're seeing is actually, Senator McConnell's willingness, as
we've seen before, to really upend and undermine a lot of the norms and precedents and traditions of the Senate, even as he manages somehow to
still be seen as an institutionalist, as a guardian of the institution.
He's in fact willing to push things very far to achieve his political ends; in this case, protecting the President. But more broadly, I think what
you're really going to see coming out of this trial is just how closely Senator McConnell has -- will have linked himself to Donald Trump.
He played a huge role in Trump's election in 2016, I think a larger role than many of us really acknowledge and now will be even more closely yoked
in history and in his legacy to this President.
AMANPOUR: OK, so we're going to talk with both of you about that role, but to set it up, let us play this soundbite from Mitch McConnell, in which he
is talking about -- this is before the impeachment before the process even began about, as you said, yoking himself to the President and I'll get your
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCONNELL: Everything I do during this, I'm coordinating with the White House counsel. There will be no difference between the President's position
and our position as to how to handle this to the extent that we can.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: What do you make of that, Scott?
JENNINGS: Well, look, the Senate Majority Leader has made no bones about it. He doesn't think the House should have impeached the President in the
first place, so that's number one.
Number two, what he's tried to set up is something that's entirely consistent with what happened during the Bill Clinton impeachment back in
the late 90s in terms of both the way the Democrats in the Senate worked with Bill Clinton and the way the rules ultimately worked, and that's how
it all shook out this week.
You had the President's lawyers on the Senate floor being proponents of the rules package being put forward by the Republicans in the Senate. The
difference, of course is, is that we have a much more partisan atmosphere now.
In the Clinton years, you know, it was a hundred to nothing vote. In this particular iteration, the rules package was split along party lines. But
ultimately, the way this trial is being run is pretty much the way they ran it during the Clinton years.
And so for him to say that he's working with the White House in that clip that you played, that's not inconsistent with the White House operations
with the Senate Democrats back in the late 90s.
So again, I think that I disagree with what Alec said earlier. I think what he's doing is very consistent with the most recent impeachment example that
we have. The only thing that's inconsistent is that several Democrats in the chamber this time around who voted for the Clinton rules, including
Chuck Schumer, now want a different set of rules, and I just don't think McConnell thinks that's a very good idea to change the rules just because
you have a different party in the White House.
AMANPOUR: You know, during the Clinton rules process, as you correctly said, it was a hundred to nothing. It was unanimous. It was bipartisan. And
at that time, also, you had the leaders of both parties in the Senate who got together behind closed and figured it out.
Alec, that's not happening today, and do you see any chance people are pointing like Democrats may be pointing to maybe some moderate senators on
the Republican side who they may be able to convert to their cause. I mean, is that at all likely? Or do you think as Scott said, and as most people
believe the measure will be to acquit along party lines.
MACGILLIS: Well, the measure will be to acquit, but you have seen, it's notable, you have seen some pushback from some Republicans on some of these
-- on some of these rule and procedure issues on the trial. That's pretty notable.
I would say to Senator McConnell's quote about, you know, being completely in close conference and consultation with the White House. It was a
remarkable quote, but you have to hand it to Senator McConnell, he has always been quite candid, almost refreshingly candid on sort of points to
exhibit his kind of raw, you know, political instincts.
You think back to the time what he said about Barack Obama and the number one goal being to keep Barack Obama from being a two-term President. He
does show these flashes of real kind of candor in moments like that.
It's also worth pointing out, though, that the rule -- how this trial has been shaping up is not in fact, identical to the Clinton impeachment.
There's a whole list of differences that we could go into. For instance, Senator McConnell's insistence on holding a vote, initial insistence on
holding a vote simply to bring the evidence over from the House, and we're going to be getting a lot less evidence, a lot less witnesses than we did
in that impeachment.
So there are some really major differences. It's not just that the political climate has changed so much since the late 90s.
AMANPOUR: OK, so let's just roll the clock back a little bit, and I want to start talking about Mitch McConnell himself and his evolution and
particularly, how he has -- Scott, you have said yourself that he has been the principal enabler of the Trump agenda.
And you heard Alec say that, you know, he was in large part because of his policies and the kinds of things he did in the Senate, kind of responsible
for paving the way for President Trump's election.
Just describe for me, Scott, what you mean by President Trump's principal enabler?
JENNINGS: Well, look, I think this presidency looks a lot different if Mitch McConnell and his Senate Majority isn't there making things happen.
You know, without McConnell, making the tax cut happen, the Trump presidency looks different. Without McConnell setting up a situation where
Donald Trump could remake the Federal judiciary, this presidency looks a lot different.
I think people discount the pent up demand that existed in the Republican and conservative movement for tax cuts, conservative judges and regulatory
form that had been built up over 10 years.
Remember the last two years of the Bush administration were largely a wasteland, you know, for policy moving forward if you're a conservative,
and then of course, all eight years of Obama.
So you had a full decade where conservatives thought they were in the wilderness, and so here comes McConnell, he sets up a situation where the
next Republican President can remake the Federal judiciary. He keeps his people in line and passes a tax cut. They've done unprecedented amounts of
regulatory reform, taking onerous regulations off of business.
JENNINGS: These are all things -- all things -- that require legislative skill, someone who can keep his party together in the Senate. If McConnell
is not there, I'm not sure Trump could have driven a systematic agenda like that.
So in some ways, I view Trump as sort of up in sales and marketing and McConnell's down and, you know, he's like the product engineer. And even
though these two guys are very different, you sort of need both ends to make a company work.
And so far, I think it's working. McConnell himself has said this has been the most successful period of center-right governance in his history in
Washington, and Trump has played a part in that and McConnell certainly played a huge role as well.
AMANPOUR: OK, Alec. I want you to comment on that. But particularly, I want you to tell our viewers and remind us all how important Mitch McConnell was
for laying the groundwork for President Trump's election, mostly about the Supreme Court Justice fight that he denied President Obama the ability to
name his Supreme Court Justice, also Citizen United and the money that's able to go into the elections now.
Just describe how you have sort of sort of talked about Mitch McConnell as a very important political figure in today's politics.
MACGILLIS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, he was just so crucial to Donald Trump's election, and so he's really been yoked to Trump really from the very
If you just start in the election year, there were two key moments in the election year. One was -- is refusing to even hold a hearing, much less to
vote for Merrick Garland after he was nominated by Barack Obama with nine months left in the year before the election. That really served to drive a
lot of conservative voters to come out to vote for Donald Trump, voters who might otherwise, religious voters who might otherwise have had some qualms
about Trump came out to vote for him in huge numbers, because they wanted to make sure to win that Supreme Court seat.
Later into the 2016, there was the key moment where C.I.A. was alerting the White House and congressional leaders about the role of Russia in trying to
influence our election, and it was Mitch McConnell, who, in a crucial moment, basically warns President Obama against speaking out about
interference, saying that he would attack Obama for making things partisan.
So voters did not find out as much as they could have about that interference before the election. That was huge. And then going back
further, Mitch McConnell -- Senator McConnell has been very pivotal in preserving the flow of huge unregulated spending on our elections. That's
really been his number one political goal.
And that is really, as I see it, helped to sort of foment a lot of cynicism among voters about our political system. That cynicism and resentment
played a big role in Donald Trump's election.
So I think when historians look back, Mitch McConnell's real legacy, as a senator, and as a Senate leader will have been to bring us Donald Trump and
now to help keep him in office.
AMANPOUR: Scott, I want to ask you because Mitch McConnell has said himself, think of me as the Grim Reaper, you know, the person responsible
for, you know, preventing certain legislation from getting to the President.
As we know, during this administration, the House has passed something like 400 pieces of legislation that Mitch McConnell has prevented from actually
getting anywhere near passing.
I want to ask you about the effect of this kind of whatever cynicism or politics as usual on the senate itself, because some are saying, like Harry
Reid told "The New York Times," "I believe that Mitch McConnell has ruined the Senate."
Is that a sour grapes from a former Senate Majority Leader on the Democratic side? Or is it an accurate reflection of this great deliberative
body kind of being ground to a standstill very effectively by McConnell, his filibuster and his, you know, political agenda of the moment?
JENNINGS: Well, yes, I agree with you that Harry Reid is exhibiting sour grapes. He probably dramatically regrets the actions he took on the rule
surrounding judicial confirmations when he was the Majority Leader because it paved the way, honestly, he was the John the Baptist, if you will, here
for Donald Trump's ability to do as many judicial confirmations as he has. So yes, I bet he regrets it deeply what he did back then.
Look, I think McConnell values things in the Senate that can get votes from both sides. The vast majority of the things that have come over from the
Democratic-controlled House are done on party lines, just like the impeachment by the way, which didn't get a single Republican vote.
And so if you're a McConnell, and you're trying to operate in a body that requires 60 votes to do most anything, you cannot continue to put things on
the floor that don't have 60 votes, and so if Nancy Pelosi and her conference wanted to send over things that had bipartisan support, I think
they would find happier landings in the United States Senate.
JENNINGS: But she sends over partisan legislation. McConnell doesn't really have a choice. He has to put things on the floor that can get votes from
both parties, which is just not what we've seen from the Democrats in the House.
So he's called it the Grim Reaper, because a lot of the things they're sending over, he, of course doesn't agree with. But the reality is, they
couldn't pass the Senate anyway, because it's controlled by Republicans, and there just isn't bipartisan support for what they're doing.
So I think he is operating exactly as he said he would. I'll pass things that have support from both parties, and I won't be able to pass things
that don't. It's a pretty reasonable position, in my opinion.
AMANPOUR: There's still a bit of gridlock, and I want to ask, though, in relation to this, that, you know, you've worked for him, Scott, for a long,
long time and Alec, you've written this book. I just want to know because did he come to politics as a kind of a center-right, but right-right
I mean it looks like when he first came to the Senate, he was actually center-left and a moderate. His hero then in 1984 was a Kentucky senator
who stood up to Joe McCarthy and his red baiting and to oppose the Vietnam War. Has he always been, Alec, an ideologue? Is he -- can he be called an
MACGILLIS: No, he cannot. I mean, that's what I concluded after doing all my research for this book is that he really is not a conservative
As I came to see it, Mitch McConnell is really the embodiment of what I think of as kind of the permanent campaign mindset in Washington in
American politics today where really all that matters is the win. It is setting yourself up to win next time, setting yourself and your party up to
win the next election cycle, really, without -- with very little regard actually, for trying to implement some kind of a policy agenda for the
country while you're in office.
He did make a huge swing politically over his career. He started out as not just a moderate Republican, but really a liberal Republican back in the
60s. His hero was the senator, you mentioned, John Sherman Cooper, who was a great -- really kind of a giant liberal Republican from Kentucky back
And from McConnell, the shift really happened in the 80s, when he got elected to the Senate 1984, barely won in '84 on Ronald Reagan's coattails,
and basically decided, as I see it, that if he was going to get reelected more easily in the future, and to have a long, successful career in
Kentucky, that he was going to have to shift right and to sort of shift with the rightward shift in the Republican Party and in the Republican
Party in the south.
And so he very, very quickly basically shifted right in the mid-late 80s and 90s. But, it's really been quite an evolution for him, and it all comes
back to doing whatever you think is necessary to win. It's really all about the wins, setting yourself up for the win.
AMANPOUR: Do you think Trump will be reelected? And what do Trump and McConnell think of each other? Do they like each other?
JENNINGS: I think there's a slightly better than 50 percent chance that Trump will be reelected. I think there are a lot of things about his
incumbent reelection campaign that track very closely with Barack Obama's incumbent reelection campaign and George W. Bush's in terms of resources,
in terms of party unity, in terms of remaking his party apparatus and advancing their technology and advancing, you know, their tactics.
I think all of that is extremely similar. So on that front, I think he's got a lot going for him. The economy, by the way, is better than it was for
Obama and certainly better than it was for Bush. So that's the positive side of the ledger for Trump.
On the negative side, this is historic gender gap, and I think if I were the Trump campaign, that's the one thing I'd be most focused on is how do I
recover, you know, any part of the female vote that they want in 16 that went away in the midterms in 18, and it shows up in all the polling?
Just to recover five, six, seven percent of it, I think would make him a virtual lock for reelection. In terms of what McConnell and Trump think of
each other. I think they each think each other as extremely effective at what they do.
McConnell is not a golfer, and he's not the same kind of, you know, back slapper that Donald Trump is, but I know they talk several times a day and
I know they both view each other as keenly interested in one word, the unifying word, winning.
Trump sees McConnell as a key to his winning on policy. McConnell sees Trump as a key to the Republicans winning Senate races around the country.
So I think they're -- they like each other because they help each other win.
AMANPOUR: Alec MacGinnis, Scott Jennings, thank you both very much. Very interesting.
MACGILLIS: Thank you.
JENNINGS: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: Turning now to an Academy Award winning actor whose work includes "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Mystic River."
Tim Robbins' career has been a constant dialogue between advocacy and artistic expression.
AMANPOUR: His most recent play "The New Colossus" pays homage to the immigrants and refugees who came to find a better life in America and also
to shape this nation over the centuries.
Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MEHMET FATIH TRASH: I was born in Adana, Turkey.
TATYANA IOSIFOVNA BIRGER: I was born in Moscow, in the Soviet Union.
HOMAYUN DIDEBAN: Isfahan, Iran.
LY MY DUNG: Dalat, Vietnam.
YETTA ROTHSCHILD: Stuttgart, Germany.
MIRKO PETKOVIC [played by Zivko Petkovic]: Mokro Polje, Yugoslavia.
GABRIELA MIA GARCIA: Yo vengo de Michoacan, Mexico.
SADIE DUNCAN [played by Quonta Beasley]: Tensas Parish, Louisiana.
ANNA MARGARET WONG: Borneo, Malaysia.
ARANKA MARKUS [played by Dora Kiss]: Budapest, Hungary.
HOMAYUN DIDEBANAM: I'm a refugee in the year 1979.
THE ACTORS GANG: [INAUDIBLE].
MEHMET FATIH TRASH: I'm a refugee in 2017.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: The play's title comes from the iconic Emma Lazarus sonnet inscribed on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal.
I caught up with the Oscar winning actor-director here in New York to talk about this play and some of his life's work.
Tim Robbins, welcome to the program.
ROBBINS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
AMANPOUR: So we started with this excerpt from your current play "Colossus" on stage, and it's really quite moving particularly in this age where
suddenly the fear and the hatred of the foreigner is dominant in our culture and in our democracies even. What made you want to do that, and
ROBBINS: Well, we started about four years ago. We were -- it was during -- five years ago around the Syrian crisis. We started talking amongst
ourselves, because at the time, I remember, there's a lot of rhetoric in the media about these are potential terrorists.
And so the play "New Colossus" is 12 actors speaking in 12 different languages from 12 different time periods telling the story of their
And, yes, it is a story that unifies us. It is our story. Every time we do it in Los Angeles, at our theater, we have a little map in the lobby, and
we ask people to put magnetic pins in this map of the world to where their ancestors came from, and every night in our small theater in Los Angeles,
the entire world is represented.
And it started to -- we started to understand how incredibly diverse our audiences were, but how -- what a gift that was and how, probably only
place in the world that you could see that.
And so then, you know, at the end of the play, I come out and then I ask, will you share a story with us of a relative. And the stories we hear are
incredible. Incredible. A woman says I want to tell you the story about an American soldier.
He was part of a troop liberating concentration camp at Buchenwald. And he sees this woman start to falter, and so he starts to run towards her to
catch her before she falls.
I mean, the Sergeant yelled at him. Stand down, soldier. No. He didn't listen. And he caught the woman before she fell and carried her to the
field hospital, got in trouble. And then when he was out of trouble, went and visited this woman, and this woman at our theater tells me that was my
mother and my father.
ROBBINS: These stories are out there. This story -- and at this divisive time, a time when we're finding so many reasons to have differences, to be
able to be in an audience and to have the audience share this experience with us, but then to share their own experience, and to understand that the
people they've been sitting with for the last hour and a half, share a story with them. Whether it's this generation or five generations ago, we
all have this common DNA.
AMANPOUR: I mean, you know, not to put a finer point on it, but obviously the name refers to the poem by Emma Lazarus that was put on the pedestal of
the Statue of Liberty, and each night in your performance, an actress or an actor reads -- reads the poem including, we have to remember, the naught
graph, so to speak, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send
these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
So recently, President Trump's chief of immigration, Ken Cuccinelli had his own take on it, in which he said, "Give me your tired and your poor who can
stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."
What do you think your audiences would say to that?
ROBBINS: Well, first of all, beware a politician that tries to rewrite a poet.
AMANPOUR: But this is politics. This is why they are limiting and restricting refugees. It's at historic lows right now.
ROBBINS: Here is what I would say. There is this DNA, let's call it a DNA, a collective DNA. And it is of, first of all, the person that said no. The
person that said no, I will not tolerate famine. No, I will not tolerate religious oppression or fascism or Nazism and risk their life to leave
that, to find a better future for themselves.
There were those that didn't. They didn't survive. That DNA did not survive. And then you consider, they took this dangerous journey and found
their way to a border and were able to get past it and survive sometimes arduous journeys on boats across oceans. Some didn't make through that
ROBBINS: Then arrived at a port of entry here, and somehow with nothing, created a future. That's a pretty rare individual.
AMANPOUR: And created a country.
ROBBINS: Yes. And created these future generations. Now, shouldn't we be thinking about how extraordinary that is? How beautiful that is? How heroic
that is? That survival. That individual that said no, and then somehow created a future for his family.
AMANPOUR: You also did Bob Roberts, nearly 30 years ago, and it has incredible parallels. He, the character with the current President. It is a
mockumentary, but nonetheless, you know, it's satire.
Were you ahead of your time or were you reflecting stuff that had gone past? I mean, it is incredible that that character exists now in the White
ROBBINS: It is. I'm sorry that I was right. I apologize. You know, you ask, how do you counteract this division and this hatred? It's through humanity.
That's the whole -- that's what we do when we tell stories.
We're trying to remind our audiences that we share something together. You know, hate is so easy in the abstract. There's so many people, you know, I
was just reading, you know, my Twitter feed and you know, it's so easy to sit behind a computer somewhere and be hateful towards someone.
AMANPOUR: Why do you have a Twitter feed? Why are you reading it?
ROBBINS: Well, that's a very good point, Christiane. It's like a drug I should stop doing. But I guess what I'm getting at is that there -- when
you're eye to eye, when you're telling a story to an audience, when you're sharing an emotion, when you're asking people to go on a journey with you
in a dark room, in a theater, we find so much that unites us.
There is so much that we share, so much we have in common. And it's been the strategy of politicians for years, and back when I did Bob Roberts, to
divide people, to divide and conquer, it's a time honored tradition. And it's something that unfortunately people fall for.
But I think artists exist to remind us that that is only one part of the equation and there is a much, much more important, profound connection that
we all have with each other.
AMANPOUR: So talking about the journey, are you amazed by the fact that "Shawshank Redemption," which is probably, you know, one of the really
major journeys that you've done on screen and in real life. Are you surprised that it has lasted this long? I mean, it didn't sort of -- it
wasn't a massive hit immediately and it evolved.
ROBBINS: I love --
AMANPOUR: It's 25 years, right?
ROBBINS: Yes. Twenty five years. Yes. And it's -- I get reminded of it almost daily, how important that film is to people, how profoundly it
affected them. Some people says it shifted their consciousness, it made them change their way of life.
If art can do that, you know, that's what we're all after. That's a rare one and I feel blessed to be part of that.
AMANPOUR: So, essentially, it's about your character who is a white guy, obviously and wrongly accused and is in prison. Here's a little clip that
we're going to play of it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELLIS BOYD REDDING, PLAYED BY MORGAN FREEMAN, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: I must admit, I didn't think much of anything the first time I laid eyes on
him. He had a quiet way about him. The walk, the talk that just wasn't normal around here.
ANDRE DUFRENESE, PLAYED BY TIM ROBBINS, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: There are places in the world that aren't made out of stone.
There's something inside they can't touch.
REDDING: What are you talking about?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So again, I mean, I asked you how do you explain the longevity, but you know, this is a very real issue right now. They even call it some
activists, maybe you do, too, the prison industrial complex and the idea that America has, percentage wise, the most incarcerated, 2.3 million
people in prison right now. The highest percentage of people in prison anywhere in the world.
Do you see any changes? I mean, do you see something changing on the landscape because there have been, you know, a lot of attention towards
wrongful convictions, life sentences, death penalty. President Trump has signed, you know, a couple of reform measures.
ROBBINS: I do see a change. I've been working in the California prison system for the last 14 years. We run -- the Actress Gang runs a
rehabilitation program in 13 prisons on 15 yards, and we ask for the most troubled. We don't want the well-behaved.
We ask all of our classes to be racially mixed. We ask that they be across gang lines and we get them in a room together and we start doing
improvisation with them.
ROBBINS: We teach them characters from the Commedia dell'arte, and they start --
AMANPOUR: For those who don't know what that is, tell us. Because it is extraordinary that.
ROBBINS: It's an old Italian art form with stock characters. That's the generals --
AMANPOUR: And it's comedy.
ROBBINS: It is comedy performed in the public square, a people's comedy. And so, we teach them these stock characters so that they have a buffer and
have a safe zone to express emotions, oftentimes emotions they have not expressed for years in prison.
In prison, there's one predominant emotion, it's anger. It's your survival mask, as they say. When they start putting on the makeup, they start saying
things like I didn't realize I've been wearing a mask for years on the yard of someone who I'm not.
I'm not simply an angry person. I have other emotions. I have sadness. I have fear. I have joy in me. But they're not allowed to express this and
once you create a safe room where they can express these emotions and then share these emotions with former enemies. What happens is extraordinary.
It not only transforms the individual, but it transforms the collective in the yard. When people on the yard see other people crossing those racial
lines, those gang lines, it allows them too, and I've heard many times how the program has led to a safer yard.
Now, I wish this was in every prison and we're trying to get there. But I have noticed in the past six, seven years, a real change in the way of
thinking in the Department of Corrections in the State of California, and it's only through their support that we've been able to do this.
And by the way, it affects everyone. It's also the COs, the Correctional Officers, to have to live your life in a punitive environment. It takes a
toll on them as well. There's a very high suicide rate amongst Correctional Officers. It is not helping anybody.
And so what we're working towards is a more rehabilitative environment.
AMANPOUR: So the critics, obviously, a lot of them would say to you, oh, and I'm, you know, I'm quoting them, you know, really hug a thug? Is that
really what you want to be doing? I mean, just keep them locked up.
ROBBINS: Yes. Well --
AMANPOUR: Does it actually work, I guess is my question, and what are you looking for it to do?
ROBBINS: First of all, it does work. We've gotten studies at 85 percent reduction in imprison infractions for people who've been through our
AMANPOUR: That's huge, 85 percent.
ROBBINS: That's huge. A 10 percent recidivism rate compared to 60, you know, percent recidivism, in other words, the people that go through our
program, do not reoffend.
AMANPOUR: Does the system accept those figures?
ROBBINS: Yes, they do.
AMANPOUR: And they credit the program.
AMANPOUR: Now regarding hug-a-thug. Listen, you might want to keep them in jail for the rest of their life. But you know, they are going to get out.
Most of the people in prison are going to get out at some point.
Wouldn't you rather they exit the prison with better tools to deal with disappointment and changes of emotion than when they went in? It's a public
safety issue. They are coming into your neighborhood.
AMANPOUR: But just those figures are inarguable. Just those figures.
AMANPOUR: Obviously, you've committed a lot of your on screen and off screen work to this issue, "Dead Man Walking," which you wrote and directed
as well. Huge success. And there's been a lot of attention to wrongful convictions and life sentences and death row ever since.
You've also taken on the environment. "Dark Water" is one of your latest films, where you play a lawyer who is trying to you know, make sure that
somehow this situation where an industrial company, DuPont stops leaking dirty chemicals into the water and sickening the population.
Just talk to me a little bit about how you've managed to keep sort of a lifetime of political, social, cultural activism in line with your artistic
ROBBINS: Well, I've been blessed. And I think, part of it is that I, at some point -- at some point in your life, you just want to be doing things
that resonate, not only with you, but with what you believe an audience could take out of it.
I don't want to be on a set simply to be on a set. I have never really had that desire. I always throughout my career had the Actors Gang to go and
like a laboratory, develop new pieces with. That's how "New Colossus" got - -
AMANPOUR: And you started that almost out of university, right?
ROBBINS: That's right. Out of UCLA in 1982. It's almost this 38 years now. Yes. And it was always a great respite from -- Hollywood can be very self-
congratulatory. You kind of celebrate your, you know, yourself in a lot of ways.
ROBBINS: And I always found that to be unhealthy, and so it was always great to be able to check myself in a theater company where you know, when
you're doing live theater, the audience tells you right away whether it's good or not.
You don't have press releases and publicists to tell you how great you are. You have to actually face an audience. And they will tell you. It doesn't
matter how famous you are.
And so that has always been a way to ground myself, kind of an oasis away from the machine of Hollywood. And it I think I credit it and the way I was
raised by my parents and the people involved in my life, with my own ability to survive in an industry that oftentimes is quite detrimental and
difficult if you become famous.
AMANPOUR: And also if you have social passions, political passions, like the environmental, justice -- criminal justice and the others.
ROBBINS: Well, it certainly isn't encouraged for actors to speak their mind. And, you know, that became very evident around the Iraq War.
ROBBINS: But you know, I was raised in Greenwich Village, not far from here by a folk singer and a musician and they instilled values in me.
My father -- I remember my father speaking out when it was uncomfortable and I admired that and you know, I try to infuse that into my children as
AMANPOUR: Harvey Weinstein's trial is unfolding as we sit here and speak, and I'm really interested with some of your observations on him and why you
are angry, of course about what he did to women.
But also, you've said that, you know, everybody lionizes him as this fantastic, you know, independent producer who gave such opportunity to
little films and maybe actors and actresses who might not have made it without him. But you said he was, you know, unfairly cheap. He tried to
sort of stiff actors out of a fair wage, even when he became very, very rich by selling, you know, to Disney.
ROBBINS: Well, that was based on a conversation I had with him where he offered me a role and offered me a scale right after he made that deal with
And I said, Harvey, when do the creative elements that got you here going to start sharing some of that money? And he called me back and said, I'll
offer you a million dollars, but you can't tell any of the other actors on the movie and I'm going to pay the rest of them scale.
And I said, I don't think you understood what I was talking about. This isn't a personal shakedown. This was a general statement, so I chose not to
work with him then and never worked for him after that.
AMANPOUR: It's really interesting, these little bits of insight into that character. What's next for you, Tim Robbins? What's next on the creative
ROBBINS: I am doing this "New Colossus" tour. We're heading eight cities in the United States. I'm really excited about that. I'm really excited to
hear the audience's stories. That's where the place just ignites. The theater usually ignites every night with just beauty and grace.
After that, I have a project that I've written that I'm going to try to put together -- a satire about a rampant id in power. And hopefully, I can
raise money for that.
AMANPOUR: Bob Roberts 2?
ROBBINS: Sort of.
AMANPOUR: All right, thank you so much.
ROBBINS: My pleasure.
AMANPOUR: Great to talk to you.
ROBBINS: Thanks for having me.
AMANPOUR: And continuing on the autistic spectrum, our next guest is a force of nature in the jazz world.
Esperanza Spalding is a bass player and a singer who rose to stardom when she became the first jazz performer to win a Grammy for Best New Artist.
She learned the violin at the age of five, and went on to launch her career, which included teaching at Harvard. She explores how music heals
the soul in her newest solo album "12 Little Spells," and she spoke to our Walter Isaacson about how she is pushing the boundaries of jazz.
WALTER ISAACSON, PRESIDENT OF THE ASPEN INSTITUTE: Welcome to the show.
ESPERANZA SPALDING, BASS PLAYER AND SINGER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
ISAACSON: And you know, your music is such a rich hybrid of many different things. Tell me about your personal background growing up in Portland, and
sort of the mix that made you.
SPALDING: Yes, wow. Well, I grew up in what we call in Northeast Portland. And --
ISAACSON: A rough neighborhood.
SPALDING: Yes, it was the roughest neighborhood you could find in Portland. Compared to some other cities, I think we had a milder version of rough.
There were some nights of sleeping in bathtubs because of gun fire outside.
But from my perspective, I didn't really process like the danger, right? Because in the house, we were reading a lot and my mother was playing a lot
of music. So I grew up surrounded by records and by the radio on a lot.
SPALDING: And starting from five, I was in music programming. So my life as I remember it was a lot of music playing and a lot of reading and a lot of
talking with my mother about books and about sound, so it didn't really, really register.
ISAACSON: And you came from a multi-ethnic background yourself. Has that affected your music? I mean, your father and your mother, tell me about
SPALDING: Well, my father is the average brother, you know, black man without a knowledge of our ancestry to the continent of Africa.
Specifically, knowing what region our blood comes from that direction.
But my mother is a mix of many European ancestries and some African- American ancestry and to answer your question, maybe growing up without an anchored sense of cultural identity, meaning it's not -- it's not centered
in an identifiable culture that I can point to and say, oh, yeah, I'm one of them. Oh, yes, I'm one of them.
Maybe that has allowed me a sort of freedom or non-expectation when I move through the world to be associated or affiliated with a camp. I don't feel
beholden to any kind of musical genre or cultural center.
I'm designing it as I go with whatever I find that I like, and that very much is my way through the world, culturally as well.
ISAACSON: And you picked up music around age five, so from your mother. Your mother was studying it a little bit, and suddenly you're playing
Beethoven. Is that right?
SPALDING: Yes, there were -- Mendelssohn and Beethoven was in there and Mozart was in there. I mean, I heard Yo-yo Ma play the Bach Cello Suite.
ISAACSON: You heard Yo-yo Ma.
SPALDING: I heard Yo-yo Ma play in "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" and I can remember this sensation, like the total body activation of hearing that
music, and I had never felt a sensation like that before.
And I just remember going like, I have to do that. Whatever that -- whatever is happening right there, I need to make that.
ISAACSON: And how old were you?
SPALDING: Five. And fortunately, there were a lot of music programs in Portland for children. So I dove into the Chamber Music Society of Oregon
and they started us on this rigorous study and practice of classical music.
ISAACSON: And you started with the violin.
SPALDING: I started with the violin. It was it was too high. Now, I understand the frequency was just a little too high, and I skipped the
cello which I was always wanting to play but they never had one of my size and I jumped straight to the bass.
ISAACSON: What attracted you -- you play double bass mainly, right?
SPALDING: I do, yes.
ISAACSON: What attracted you to the bass?
SPALDING: Again sound, you know, a similar kind of reckoning when the tone affected my body. I mean, so much of the music that we consume now is
through headphones. Maybe it's easy to forget how powerful acoustic instruments are on the body.
The physical experience of resonance is so profoundly moving and that is what activated my love for the instrument, and thank God because the
instrument -- a double bass was my way into improvisational music and into you know, my dance with jazz, which is sometimes very intimate and
sometimes more of like, we're doing our own thing in the club.
ISAACSON: You talked about seeing Yo-yo Ma on "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood," playing it when you're five. And now you teach at Harvard and so does Yo-yo
Ma there, right? Do you deal with him? Did you tell him the story?
SPALDING: I told him the story. I've cried before him many times before Yo- yo Ma. Yes, and thinking about that initial exposure to music, I'm humbled and reminded that we really never know the impact that we're having on
So Fred Rogers, using that platform to open up that screen and fill it with everything he could imagine that could be meaningful and nourishing to
young people, I hold that in my heart often.
It's just a reminder that as a performer, as an individual who has the privilege of being in public spaces often, you really never know what
you're activating. And I pray, I strive, I will -- I'm working towards really becoming very mindful and intentional about what I bring in with me
into those public spaces.
SPALDING: Because look at the power of that one show. I know so many people who were affected and babysat and inspired and reminded of their value and
right to be in fulfilling and full experience as a young person, and thanks to that show.
So I just -- I have so much gratitude and respect for Fred Rogers and of course, for Yo-yo Ma.
ISAACSON: One of the great things about playing bass, is you get to sort of do a blues line. You could carry that. So how did that move you into jazz
SPALDING: Well, I didn't know I was in classical, you know.
ISAACSON: You were playing Beethoven.
SPALDING: You know, when you're in the water, it's just the water, right? But when I picked up the instrument, and a teacher at the time, said, what
you do is you mark the harmonic sound through time, and I realized that I was being given permission to play by ear, and in response, I was having a
real time, which is what I was getting in trouble for in the classical pedagogy.
I just knew -- I knew that that was a home I have found. I don't understand what that meant. But I knew that that was a home, improvised music. And as
I started to hear the music, I knew they were talking to me. I knew there was some spiritual, personal experiential affinity in the sound that was
emanating from these records in my heart and my spirit.
And I say that my relationship to jazz, sometimes is intimate and sometimes it's far away because it is such a commitment, and I don't feel authorized
to speak as a jazz musician if I'm not deeply in the practice, but I knew that -- I knew it was going to be a part of my DNA musically forever, you
ISAACSON: You once sang and said that jazz ain't nothing but soul. Explain that.
SPALDING: You can say, the same way that we strive to maintain a certain kind of spiritual hygiene. You know, you meditate, you go to church, you
pray, you study. We strive to develop that spirit that we all are imbued with.
I think jazz is similar. It's a spirit. It's an energy and it's our responsibility as practitioners to steward it and to have good hygiene and
good practice. To make sure that it's moving through us at a high resonance that it is doing good when it comes out of our body or as we hold it in our
body, and I very much feel that you can be a less technically proficient practitioner of the music and still bring forth the spirit that is, "jazz."
Which of course, is a word that was slapped on to a cultural phenomenon, and the pedagogy and a commitment and a practice. But since we're using
that word, yes, I'll use that word right this moment.
ISAACSON: But when you won the Grammy for the Best New Artist, right, it was -- this was the first time a jazz artist or somebody who was called a
jazz artist on it.
SPALDING: Yes. Being in proximity with many practitioners of the music, who are such devotees and such profound practitioners of the craft, and have
never had the kind of spotlight shine or opportunity that I've had because of factors like my youth, or the way that I look, or, you know, being
perceived as sort of an anomaly within a field that at that time was primarily populated by European-American men, European men.
I take that with a very big grain of salt, and I feel like I often want to add, like an addendum and say, yes, but actually, what I am is not really a
jazz musician. I'm borrowing aspects from my study of it.
But I pray to use whatever lights headed my way to shine it towards the practitioners that I know who are in the trenches really, really deeply in
the practice and the community practice of what the music is.
Because it's never been popular music, you know. I mean, even Duke Ellington said, only five percent of the population will ever truly be
invested in highly creative music, and that's OK.
ISAACSON: One of the most amazing facts about your life was that even before you won your Grammy for Best New Artist, you get invited to be the
performer, for the Nobel Prize ceremony with Barack Obama.
ISAACSON: How did that happen?
SPALDING: I have no idea. Maybe somebody else wasn't available.
ISAACSON: What was that like?
SPALDING: It was like, here we are on a big stage again, larger than just the stage, obviously. We're playing for the King and Queen. OK. And for
sort of our version of the King and Queen, you know.
And essentially what's going through a performance here, what was going through my body and my head is just let me bring the best just like
anywhere, because the people in that room are of the same value of people in any room.
ISAACSON: They're all Nobel Prize Laureate.
SPALDING: Well, and we're all human beings, you know. I mean, I, I hope that in a club somewhere in God knows where with 35 people, we can bring
through the same charge and offering musically. So honestly, the memory of different gigs don't vary too, too, too much.
ISAACSON: What did you play for Obama's Nobel Prize?
SPALDING: I played a song that I understood he liked, which was called "espera." And that word means hope. It means the action of hoping, like you
hope, "espera." I hope -- that you hope that happens, "espera." An invitation to contemplate what we hope for and to allow sound to support
the manifestation of those hopes into realities, we hope.
ISAACSON: You did an album, I think, a couple of years ago called "Exposure" but you did it I think in 77 straight hours and livestreamed you
ISAACSON: What jolt of creativity did that give you to sort of be livestreaming you creating an album?
SPALDING: Well, I wanted the performance to be the act of creation. So we came in blank. We didn't have anything written. It was a creation from zero
to full album over the course of that livestreamed event. Because what I wanted to highlight was the actual process of making something from nothing
which is the alchemy and magic of being an artist, right?
So the jolt was what happens when the stakes are as high as they can possibly be and we're invited into the performance of creation, and that's
what we did for 77 hours.
I wanted to expose our creative process, expose what it actually looks like to be in that strange, nebulous, gooey, unknowing place where you're
capturing the seed of an idea and then building it into an entire entity, something that other people can engage with and we managed to make an
ISAACSON: Your latest is "12 Little Spells."
ISAACSON: And it came in, obviously 12 segments.
ISAACSON: What were you trying to do with that? Is that breaking a new genre there, too?
SPALDING: Well, at present, it's a speculative genre. But now, I am seeking to turn it into a genre which is, you could say like applied music therapy
where we draw it elements from illusion work from music therapy from neuroscience, from sound therapy, light therapy, poetry therapy, movie
therapy, and weave it with intention into songs that are intended to affect a very specific part of the body.
So I think that now I've done my speculative artistic version, and the next step is to work with practitioners and actually ground it in the science
and ground it in the field of therapy -- music therapy, how sound can be intentionally applied to healing.
ISAACSON: Our society right now could use a lot of healing. How could music healing help?
SPALDING: Yes. Well, for starters, when we enter a space with strangers and have a shared experience, where our attention is directed, "externally" at
a performance on stage. It's been shown to create a sense of soothing in the body, and to increase our sense of connectivity with the people that we
share this experience with.
So just starting from there, experiencing live music with others, increases our felt sense of connectivity with other human beings. So you could start
there as your foundation of the power of music to heal and keep exploring what you change on the stage and how it impacts and increases the healing
potential for sharing art together -- performed art together. Yes.
ISAACSON: Esperanza, thank you so much.
SPALDING: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
ISAACSON: Appreciate it.
SPALDING: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
AMANPOUR: A healing that is so necessary especially in these divisive and sometimes toxic days.
That's it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast and across social media. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.