My review of the Attorney General's book is in this week's issue, and you can catch him reading from it at Powell's on Burnside tonight at 7:30pm. Bottom line: He's less boring than he looks.
Before writing the review I interviewed Kroger about writing, ethics, morality, parenthood, stealing hubcaps, eating with the mafia, being offensive, The Wire, politics, Sam Adams, drunken brawls, admissions of coke-snorting (the President's, not his), "calling bullshit" on witnesses, the justice system, and of course, when he's going to run for Governor.
You can read the whole interview—transcribed by Hannah Franklin (thanks, Hannah!)—after the jump.
MD: First of all, from whom did you take inspiration when you sat down to write Convictions? Which writers?
JK: That’s interesting… probably the single biggest inspiration was Scott Turow, who wrote One L. Turow wrote this book called One L that’s about the first year of Harvard Law School, and it’s a first-person memoir about his introduction to legal education. He took a subject that is very technical and very legal and made it really accessible to people who are not lawyers. And so that was sort of the writer who I sort of had in mind when I started writing stories about what it was like to be a federal prosecutor. The other writer I thought a little bit about is Atul Gawande, who writes for the New Yorker. Atul is a surgeon who is also a writer, and writes about medicine in a way that’s very accessible to people who are not physicians. And so, again, both of those models were models of people in professions who were writing for a broader audience and trying to take a world that’s closed off from ordinary people and try to explain what that world is like to people who aren’t in it.
MD: Who came up with the title?
JK: I did.
MD: Can you talk to me a little bit about it?
JK: You know, it’s not a very interesting story — it’s probably like many stories about people who’ve written a book. I never had a working title that I thought was very good, and my publishers couldn’t really come up with a title that we thought was great either, and I don’t even know how it came to me, but it just sort of popped in my head.
MD: So there’s a sort of moral aspect… I mean, it’s a pun, right?
JK: That is right, it’s a double entendre, and it honestly was one of those things where we probably spent, all told, a year and a half debating what the title should be, and the idea of the title Convictions popped out in my head very late in the process and we sort of agreed very quickly that that was the perfect title for the book.
MD: Could you give me an idea of some of the other alternative titles that were proposed? I’d be interested.
JK: I don’t remember…boy, it’s funny — I was thinking, just as you asked that first question I was thinking about the process of choosing the title and I don’t even remember. We had a working title for a long time, but I don’t remember what it was.
MD: Well perhaps it will come to you over the course of the conversation. If it does, feel free to shoot it over here, because I’d be interested. Why didn’t you stand still when they took the cover picture?
JK: The cover picture was very funny. So, the original plan for the cover picture that the publisher came up with I really hated. It looked like a…it was a very brooding and dark photo and color scheme, and I just hated it. It just didn’t say anything about the law, I mean when you looked at the cover it didn’t make you think about the law at all. And so, just brainstorming, we started with the idea of shooting it on the steps of a courthouse, because at least people, then, would be able to see the visual and get at least some sense that it was about law. And the photographer that did the shoot — we tried everything, I mean we must have taken 300 photographs. I do not consider myself particularly photogenic, and we did like 300 shots of all sorts — moving, stationary, you name it — and that’s the one that popped out that was their top choice.
MD: And you agreed with it? You liked it?
JK: I’m perfectly fine with it. I actually don’t like posing for photographs, so I would have been just as happy with a book cover that didn’t have my face on it, but given the fact that it was going to have my face on it, I was fine with that choice.
MD: I don’t know if you were kicked out, but you were sort of hustled out the door at sixteen, after the hubcaps incident. What did that incident teach you about parenthood?
JK: You know, it’s interesting; I had a difficult relationship with my parents, and I think when you’re a kid, you think your parents should be perfect, and if everything isn’t perfect, you blame your parents. And then as you grow older and you recognize your own imperfections, you get a different perspective on your parents. I think I, you know, it’s a cliché, but you come to understand that your parents are human beings like any other, and they have good days and bad days, they have strengths, they have things they struggle with. Now that I’m a parent, I am much more understanding, frankly, of how I was probably a very difficult child to parent. I think the other thing that I didn’t understand — I was one of six children, and now that I’m a parent and we have one child, and we have friends that have two or three, and I see how difficult it is to parent when you have two or three kids. I didn’t fully understand my own childhood until I saw what it was like for my friends to have three children, and then I realized, gosh, imagine if you had six running around. Your childhood would be more chaotic as a result.
MD: You describe your military life in the book. Is your description of it a little bit of a preemptive tell-all, in the vein of President Obama. He wrote that he did a little blow now and then when he could afford it, and you talk about fistfights, sexism, drunken brawls. Was there sort of a preemptive aspect to that?
JK: No. The book was 90% written before I started thinking about running for office, and so all that was already written. The book was actually written in chronological order, so I didn’t jump around. The earlier parts of the book were written first, and the later parts were written last. And so all that was already written, and when I decided to run for office, I recognized that…I mean, the book is a very frank book. I tried to tell the story of my life as honestly as I could. And when I decided to run for office, I realized that people could take things from the book, either things I’ve written about my personal life, or, in the book I admit mistakes I’ve made in my cases, and I knew people might take those mistakes and use them against me in a political campaign. And, you know, I had a choice: I can either go back and change the book because I’m going to be a political candidate, or I just keep the book the way I wrote it, and I decided to keep the book the way I wrote it. The reason for that I think was very simple: I love literature and I love books and I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life, is the truth of the matter. I love writing, and I thought, I’ve been given the opportunity to write a book, which is something not everyone gets to do, and I’m blessed with this opportunity. I have great stories to tell, I have a great publisher, and I’m just going to tell the stories as honestly as I can, and with as much integrity as I can. If it causes political trouble, it causes political trouble. But forty years from now, when my life is near an end, I want to say that this book was the best book I could write. And so it wasn’t preemptive in any way; that was all just written before the campaign.
MD: Do you have a second book planned? You said you’d wanted to be a writer your whole life — it sounds like you probably are a writerly person.
JK: You know, I certainly have not written a word since I got into office, and I certainly wasn’t writing during the campaign. I am fooling around. The challenge is, what I’d really like to write is a book about American legal history, and it’s just not going to happen while I’m in office, because it would require so much research that it’s going to have to wait for a time when I’m out of office and back at a law school or the University.
MD: That’s going to be a while off now, right?
JK: Well, it’s at least three and a half years off. And so I’ve been fooling around with some other things that would be possible to write that would be shorter and quicker and require less research. So I’m thinking through some things, but I’m probably not ready to share them with the public yet.
MD: Well, great, as soon as you do want to talk about your screenwriting, perhaps, or your fictional novel, you’re more than welcome to pitch it to us and we’ll give you some ideas.
JK: Well, I can tell you with 100% certainty that it would be nonfiction again.
MD: Right. Do you ever encounter professional jealousy or resentment at the opportunities and success you have so far enjoyed?
JK: Never once.
MD: Why was the indictment of Lea Fastow more troubling to you than prosecuting Gregory Scarpa, Junior?
JK: Well, Scarpa killed a lot of people, and when you have a case like that, it’s just very easy to prosecute, from an ethical and moral standpoint. I mean, with Scarpa, I had no doubt that he was guilty. I was 100% certain he was guilty. And I was 100% certain that if he was not convicted, it was very, very likely that he would kill someone again. And so, from a prosecution point of view, that’s a case that’s very easy to do, that’s very rewarding to do. The Lea Fastow case was really troubling. She had committed a crime, she had committed tax fraud, and she pled guilty to that crime. But the challenge was, most people who commit tax fraud in the United States are not prosecuted. What happens is that the Internal Revenue Service contacts them, they audit them, say, “Look, you failed to file your taxes,” and they give you a big penalty, and you have to pay your back taxes and the penalty, and that’s it. We just don’t prosecute that many people for tax fraud in this country. And the amount of fraud, in her case, was not that large, and it is most likely that, had she not been married to Andy Fastow, and had just been an ordinary person who had committed tax fraud, she would have paid a fine and that would have been it. And instead, she was being treated differently. She was being criminally prosecuted precisely because the government wanted to put pressure on her husband to get him to cooperate in the case. The book is designed in part at a really simple level, which is, interesting stories about what criminal law is really about, but it’s also about ethical dilemmas that arise in prosecution. And that was a case with an ethical dilemma — do you prosecute someone who normally wouldn’t be prosecuted to put pressure on her spouse to get him to cooperate, knowing that that’s probably essential if you want to win the overall case against Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay? Or, do you treat her like she would be treated if she was an ordinary person, and run the risk that someone like Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling will go free? And there’s not a simple answer to that question, so that’s why that case was more difficult for me, certainly.
MD: This issue of Kant vs. Bentham, [Kant argued for treating each person as an individual, while Bentham argued for treating people in the best interests of society at large. It's a tension woven throughout the book—MD] I was wondering, would Immanuel Kant or Jeremy Bentham have been more impressed with your investigation of Mayor Sam Adams?
JK: You know, it’s funny, in most cases — if I can answer in a slightly less tongue-in-cheek way — in most cases, your Kantian instinct about ethics and a utilitarian instinct run in tandem, meaning they’re not in conflict. What’s a good consequential result is also a good result from a Kantian point of view. There are some cases that that’s not the case. In the Lea Fastow case, a consequentialist argument favored charging her, a Kantian argument favored not charging her. In the Sam Adams investigation, I don’t think there was any real conflict between those urges, so I don’t think either of those two philosophical perspectives shed that much light on that case.
MD: Okay, you talk about this Kant and Bentham conflict — it seems to me that that comes up particularly often when one is in government. And yet, that’s the career that you appear to be embarking on, at this point. So could you say something about that? You seem particularly uncomfortable with some of those dilemmas that come with government. Is that fair?
JK: Yes, that is fair. I would say that, to frame it in terms of my own personal belief, what I’ve come to believe philosophically after what amounts to, now, twenty-five years of thinking about philosophy, is that in a huge number of cases, both of those instincts about what is right run in tandem and you don’t have conflicts and you don’t have ethical quandaries. You do get ethical quandaries in government, and I tend to struggle with them, I think that is accurate, I think about the ethical consequences of what I do a lot, and so I do struggle with them. But I think that’s not a negative, I think that’s a positive, because I think I’m more often aware of the ethical complexity of government action than I would be otherwise. And so, yes, it’s true, I’ve sought out, I’ve worked in a series of government and political jobs where those ethical are more present than they might be if I was, say, a lawyer in private practice. But I don’t think that my awareness of those ethical quandaries suggests I should be in private practice; I think they suggest that I’m better prepared for working as a public servant.
MD: When you were writing the book, did you worry about offending that poor Mafioso who cooked you that disgusting pasta in jail?
JK: I did, yeah.
MD: Do you think he’s read it?
JK: I don’t know. To be honest, I worried throughout the book that I was going to offend a lot of people. I worried that I was going to offend judges that I’d appeared in front of, I worried that I was going to offend people who were witnesses in my case, I worried that I was going to offend agents that I worked with. It is a problem of writing memoirs — I mean, I was worried that I was going to offend my family, and that was perhaps the most profound one, and I did offend some family members with what I wrote. I think, though, if you’re going to write about your life, if you start rounding off the corners in an effort not to offend people, then you’re going to wind up with a dishonest account. So I was very worried about that, and in some cases I did offend people, and I regret that, but I think that’s somewhat inevitable when you’re trying to write honestly about your life.
MD: Why has the treatment argument been ignored for so long in the war on drugs, do you think?
JK: You know, I think it really has to do with politics. I think one of the things that happened in the 70s and early 80s is that arguments about crime became very politically powerful, and Republicans in particular, Nixon and Reagan, were able to use crime very powerfully as a political issue. And the stories they told about it were overly simplistic but had a grain of truth to them and were very compelling to people. And that’s that we were being too weak on criminals, and that’s why we have a crime problem. And that wasn’t entirely incorrect — it had just enough truth about it to be a pretty compelling political argument. And anyone who had a more complex view of the criminal justice system ran the risk of getting sort of run off the road politically. And I think things have changed; I don’t think they’ve completely changed, but I think they are politically changing, and you can see that in a lot of states — more nuanced views about how to make progress on crime are being presented by people in political life and law enforcement figures, and voters are listening. I think we’ve been doing the same thing, a strategy that over-emphasizes enforcement and doesn’t emphasize a balance of doing both enforcement and prevention and treatment. And people are starting to present that more nuanced view and it’s starting to get a lot of political traction. And so I think it’s just one of those generational things where, for a period of 20 or 30 years, a particular type of argument has been hard to counter, and now that we’ve lived through a sort of simplistic approach to drugs, in particular for the last 30 years, people are now changing their views. I’ll give you a couple of indicators. I found, when I’ve been campaigning, when I talk about drug treatment programs, as you’ve probably figured out, at almost every public event, if you’ve totaled up every public event I’ve done, it would be 98% probably, I mean there’s rare occasions when I’ve been invited to talk about some other totally different topic, but I talk about drug treatment everywhere, and I don’t get a lot of push-back. I think people are very receptive to this argument, so I think now, for the first time in probably 30 years, we have an electorate that is willing to have a more adult conversation about crime.
MD: Do you think that’s because of the TV show The Wire? Have you watched that show?
JK: I’ve never seen that show.
MD: Oh, well I would really recommend it. All this drug treatment argument — it’s the first time I’ve heard any of my peers discussing these issues, is because they’ve watched it on The Wire and they really see the connections.
JK: You know, it’s an occupational hazard — I can’t stand law enforcement shows. I’ve never seen Law & Order, I’ve never seen CSI, I’ve seen The Sopranos once — I recognize a lot of people love these shows, I’ve never seen The Wire, but that’s sort of what I do a lot of my day, so it’s not what I want to think about when I get home.
MD: As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, you often had to call bullshit on cooperating witnesses who lied to you. Your public demeanor has been obviously very measured, but I was wondering if you could pretend that I am a lying cooperating witness right now and you could call bullshit on me, just so I could hear what that sounds like.
JK: You know, I couldn’t re-create it over the phone, but I write about that at length in the book, and it’s something that doesn’t happen simply. There’s a whole chapter that’s really about how you interrogate and interview criminals to tell if they’re telling the truth or not, and it’s not a simple process I could describe or act out. It’s a much more complicated process than that.
MD: Oh, that’s a shame. You said you started writing the book before you considered a career in politics — I was going to ask, did you consider a career in politics before you came to Oregon, but I understand that you started writing the book after you came here, so when did you begin considering your career in politics?
JK: Well, what I said earlier is that I wrote the book before I decided to run for office, which is a little bit different than thinking about a career in politics. When I graduated from college, I thought a lot about becoming a teacher, and that’s probably what I would have done, but I went to work on Capitol Hill instead. I’ve always been interested in politics because I still believe, despite all the negative things about politics, sometimes it’s not the most inspiring field, I still think if you care about the world you live in, and you live in a democracy, it’s how you go from ideals to actually making things happen. So off and on, I’ve always thought about it being something I might consider doing, but it really wasn’t until I realized Hardy Myers was going to retire that I started really thinking concretely about running more or less now.
MD: So, last question, then. When are you going to run for Governor?
JK: I’ve got three and a half years as Attorney General, and about two years from now, I’ll start thinking about whether I want to run for re-election as Attorney General, and that’s certainly not a foregone conclusion. I’ll have to take a hard look at how much progress I’ve made and whether there are things that I’m working on that I think require me to stay in office, and I’ll make the decision then. So, I’m certainly not thinking about any other office, and the decision as to whether to run for re-election or not is a decision I won’t make for several years.