During an esteemed 33 year career Marc Pachter held various high-level positions at the Smithsonian Institute, most recently as Director of the National Portrait Gallery. On his exit, Marc did a collaboration ode to the Portrait Gallery with Stephen Colbert. See the video here.
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The National Portrait Gallery is the place dedicated to presenting great American lives – amazing people. We use portraiter as a way to deliver those lives, and that’s it.
What I want to talk about today is a program I started, the proudest thing I did. I started to worry about the fact that people don’t get their portraits anymore. So I created The Living Self-Portrait Series. It was my being a brush in hand for amazing people who I would interview.
I had two pre-conditions: They be American. They needed to be people of a certain age: 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s.
Why did I do that? Well, we’re a youth-obsessed culture. So I wanted to sit at the feet of elders, to hear about them. It’s amazing for people to say they know how the story turned out. That’s the one thing they have. They know how the story of our lives turn out. It’s great to have an interviewee that can talk about all of those accidents; that can talk to the life narrative of how we get here.
I wanted interviews that were different. I wanted to be empathic – to feel what they wanted to say. To be an agent of their self-revelation. This was all done in public, 300 people sitting at the feet of this individual and me being the brush in their portrait.
One interview I did with Senator William Fulbright, the first time he’d appeared in public since his stroke, which was not severe but it had affected him. We had an hour-long conversation. Someone came up to me after and asked, “When did you become a doctor?” I wasn’t a doctor so I was confused. Her explanation: When he started the interview he paused mid-sentence, you gave him the bridge to complete his thoughts. And by the end he was speaking in full sentences – I was part of the process of pulling that out of him.
Who made a great interview? It had nothing to do with the quality of their intellect. It’s energy that creates extraordinary interviews and extraordinary lives.
The first person I interviewed was George Abbot, 97 years old and filled with the life force. We filled the room with that energy. He was famous for being silent, but he in fact ended up opening up. He subsequently got married again in 102.
After the interview I got a call from a woman who asked, “Did you really get George Abbot to talk?” Well, yeah, apparently I did. “I’m his old girlfriend and I could never do it.”
You want people to feel like they have a story worth sharing. The worst interview is with someone who is modest. Because all of these people are assembled to listen to them.
The worst: William L. Shirer, the journalist that covered the rise and fall of the Third Richt. He said everything was just coincidence, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Awful. Interviewees have to think they did something and want to share it with you.
All of us are public and private beings. If all you are going to get is their public selves, it’s an infommercial.
The worst and best moment during this interview series. An extraordinary woman named Claire Booth Luce. She was a playwright, a Congresswoman, editor of Vanity Fair – one of the great phenomenal women of her day. She was not giving me a thing. When we were alone I was her audience. Now I’m her competitor. But eventually she proceeded to deliver the most remarkable performance. Elegant and respected, I’m much attracted to her life force (if not her politics).
Ask people the questions they are waiting their whole lives to be asked.
It was an amazing priviledge to do this series. The key point was empathy. Because everybody in their lives is really waiting to ask them questions so they can be truthful, to tell them about who they are and how they got there.
So I encourage you to be that way – not only for interviews, but for the members of your family and the friends in your lives.