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Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist, and filmmaker, who most recently co-produced the Oscar-nominated film Don’t Look Up, and author of the book Life Animated which explores his son autism.

Speaker 1 (00:03):

All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman.

Jay Ruderman (00:13):

Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and this is All Inclusive, a podcast focused on inclusion, innovation and social justice.

Jay Ruderman (00:24):

Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author and award-winning producer who has spent most of his career uncovering America’s social, historical and political injustices.

Ron Suskind (00:39):

He gives me 19,000 internal documents of the United States government, which is the largest download unauthorized since the Pentagon Papers.

Jay Ruderman (00:49):

Most recently, he co-produced Adam McKay’s film, Don’t Look Up, about climate change and the social spread of misinformation.

Ron Suskind (00:58):

They look to each other. They’re like, Well, Leo’s in it, now Jen Lawrence is in it and then Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet. I mean, it’s kind of everyone you’d want all together.

Jay Ruderman (01:15):

His sixth book, Life, Animated, explores his most personal subject matter yet, his son Owen’s autism and how he learned to communicate through Disney movies.

Ron Suskind (01:26):

He changed and went to a different place, a place where we could not engage with him and our life changed. We’re still living in the world as it was reconstructed at that moment for us.

Jay Ruderman (01:40):

The book was also the subject of an Emmy Award winning and Academy Award nominated documentary of the same name. Ron often appears on network television and has been a contributor for The New York Times Magazine and Esquire. He was The Wall Street Journal’s senior national affairs reporter for seven years. Ron, it’s a pleasure to welcome you All Inclusive.

Ron Suskind (02:05):

It’s great to see you, Jay. Great to be here.

Jay Ruderman (02:07):

So, Ron, you’ve spent your career as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist writing about politics and Washington and now you produced a Netflix hit, Don’t Look Up. How’d you get involved in this film?

Ron Suskind (02:20):

Interestingly, I first met Adam McKay, who was the producer, director and quite a character. He was the former head writer for Saturday Night Live, you may know. And he and Will Ferrell then matched up. Will is a Saturday Night Live alum, to do all those movies that everyone knows, Anchorman, Talladega Nights, The Other Guys. And then Adam took a pivot and he did The Big Short, drawn at it from Michael Lewis’s book of the financial crash. And after that, he continued down that path trying to bring all of his skills, comedic, cinematic, narrative skills, to more events of the day, which he did Vice, the Dick Cheney movie. Now I’m considered one of the leading experts on Dick Cheney. And I hooked up with Adam there. I was out at Sony and helping him with Vice. And it was more than just being the kind of expert consultant on the life of Dick Cheney and his influence.

Ron Suskind (03:22):

I also got involved with the movie, looking at some scenes and thinking about story. The difference for me is, as McKay said in our first encounter, he’s like, you’re interesting and different. You dig up these huge historically consequential disclosures and then you weave them together in books that are very cinematic. That’s what McKay said. And McKay and I kind of bonded up and we started to talk about the great issues of the day and how to bring a new kind of cinematic energy and framing and expression to the fault line issues that are defining us. And interestingly, the subtext and the context of that is that so many other ways to communicate have collapsed. Public dialogue and the way journalism gets embraced and adopted far and wide. And then all of those things that we relied upon when I’m a younger man and I’m a kid.

Ron Suskind (04:27):

So many of them have collapsed that it’s my belief, that cinema ends up being a significant cross border lingua franca, shared language, upon which I think more pressure falls and more can be done to carry forward these big ideas and help us see the moment in which we live in new ways. As with new eyes, as [inaudible 00:04:57] would say. And that’s where we were. 2018, the Dick Cheney movie, Vice, comes out. And right around that time, he talked to another interesting character journalist friend, a guy named David Sirota, who has written for a bunch of different places and ends up being a speech writer for Bernie Sanders. So he is a bit more of a partisan journalistic character, obviously, than I am. But Sirota in a rant said to McKay, this climate’s amazing. It’s like, there’s a meteor, a comet, coming straight for earth and no one cares.

Ron Suskind (05:33):

And McKay said, ah, aha, there it is. That’s the way to do the climate movie. He got right back on the phone with me. He says, I think I got it. An asteroid headed toward earth. And all of the issues in and around our inability to deal with climate, to look at it clearly, to act accordingly, to activate, to support our own survival and the survival of the planet. All those things we can do, Ron, through this motif, the asteroid coming. And then Adam went off and wrote the script at the end of 2019, right before COVID hit. And he got back and I got the first copies of the script before COVID, I think it was January of that year. And then whammo, almost everything in the movie is occurring around everyone. Not just in terms of climate, but in terms of COVID.

Jay Ruderman (06:36):

So you were kind enough to invite Sheer and I to a screening of Vice in Cambridge. And Christian Bale, I thought he was excellent in that film. But you’ve spent your career as an activist journalist and climate change is the big focus of Don’t Look Up, but there’s also this focus on misinformation … Did you have an input on that? And did you make sure that that was part of the direction of the movie?

Ron Suskind (07:08):

For sure. That’s my thing, as you say, Jay. I’ve been in on the dis and misinformation nightmare for 20 years. I wrote that piece in the New York Times in the lead up to the ’04 presidential election, which put out powerfully in public the phrase, reality based community. Was the New York Times piece that was spoken to me first by an advisor to George W. Bush. It was the time at which they had taken the country to war under false pretenses. I was reporting that, remember I had in the first of the big three books during that period, the kind of source that you live your whole life as a journalist praying for Paul O’Neill, who was the treasury secretary under George W. Bush for the first two years of that administration. O’Neill was a famous truth teller, had been his whole life. Actually served Nixon and Ford, then went off to run big companies like Alcoa.

Ron Suskind (08:14):

Then came back. It was kind of Rip Van Winkle from a time, way, way back when there was more of a respect for truth in the nation’s capital. O’Neill saw that almost everything was subordinated to the political mandate. And, in fact, disinformation was a part of the arsenal of tools that presidents, essentially, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were using. He gives me 19,000 internal documents of the United States government, which is the largest download unauthorized since the Pentagon Papers. I use that to write the big number one best selling book called, The Price of Loyalty. O’Neill was the main protagonist, but of course there are dozens, hundred plus sources in that book. The thing is, when you have a document with someone’s name at the top, and I had 19,000 of them, it’s amazing how forthcoming they could be. And that really defined the Bush-Cheney era, that whole terrible first ought decade of this century.

Ron Suskind (09:21):

But in that Times piece, that advisor to the president saying, Ron, you’re a member of what we call the reality based community. I’m like, really? I’m a member of it. What is it? He says, well, you believe solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. I’m like, yeah, of course. Look, I got a history behind me and Pierce is a major reason. The Greeks are behind me, I think too. Yeah. Yeah. We know, but that’s not the way the world works anymore. You see, we’re an empire now. And when we act, we create our own reality. It circles, go 20 times before you get up for breakfast. It shapes behavior. It shapes action. See, that’s the way the world works now. We will act and you’ll study us, you little reality based communitarian, patting me on the head and we’ll act again and act again and you’ll be left to study what we do. We’re history’s actors, we’ll do the important things that need be done.

Ron Suskind (10:17):

And I’m like, wow, let me just be very frank with you, advisor who must remain nameless. This person has a guarantee of off the record, not for attribution from me and I will never violate such an important agreement. But I said, other people have believed in this idea of creating reality and they end up in history’s dustbin. Let me just say something about this, Jay, is that a big part of what I wrote in the 1% doctrine about the aftermath to 9/11 and what it did to America, is that I looked at the origins of the debate over whether we should even have a CIA or intelligence services. Because we had them during World War II, OSS and whatnot, but there was real debate in 1945 and six and seven as to whether we should have one permanently in a democracy that asked to prize and rely on informed consent and on truth.

Ron Suskind (11:21):

And part of that debate ended up with the creation of intelligence services with the 1947 National Security Act. And they say specifically, it is illegal to run disinformation campaigns on the US population. Of course, that’s what intelligence services do to foreign adversaries. We do that, we’ve done that for years as part of their menu. But what we’re seeing now is disinformation campaigns run on the US population for political gain. And we’re seeing exactly what that looks like and what happens in terms of the havoc that is wrought from that. And that’s a big part of what Don’t Look Up is about, but it’s anti scenes, of course, are right there in Vice in the movie about Bush and Cheney and all the books that I wrote. We’re just down the path now, many steps.

Jay Ruderman (12:19):

And you’ve been excellent at finding great sources and working them and getting the truth out there. And we’ll get into this a little bit later, but I know you can draw a line between what happened during the Bush administration and what we’ve gone through and what we’re still going through right now in terms of misinformation. But I want to jump back to the film. How were you able to attract such a star study cast like Leonard DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, just to name a few. What drew them to this film?

Ron Suskind (12:54):

Oh, well a whole bunch of things. They started to negotiate with Netflix and go to them in the fall, winter of 2019. DiCaprio was really the first of the big stars that said, yeah, I’m in. He loved the script. He’s a big climate change activist and has done documentaries and has been quite forceful and ardent and public and creates contact. He said, I’ve been waiting for this film for 20 years. Everyone knows the effect that Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary had, but that’s 2005, six. That’s a long time ago. Leo was looking for a project like this that would go at climate change in a new and powerful way. He’s first. Others then, when that happens, say, oh, well, Leo’s in, I’ll get in there too.

Ron Suskind (13:53):

There was an advantage that occurred in that during the negotiations, COVID hit and in their wisdom, the Don’t Look Up team thought about creating a way to shoot the movie safely with this expensive, mind you, Netflix remembers paying the bill here, COVID safe environment. And they went right at constructing that or planning how that would be. And so all of a sudden everyone’s projects got canceled because of COVID, but Don’t Look Up was a safe and insurable place to shoot. And that helped in getting more and more of the stars in the tent. That’s my understanding of how that all happened. They looked to each other, they’re like, well, Leo’s in it, now Jen Lawrence is in it. And then Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet. It’s kind of everyone you’d want all together.

Jay Ruderman (15:07):

Well, it sounds like a really smart investment for a Netflix since they’ve done really well and the film has broken all records on Netflix. Talk a little bit about Meryl Streep playing the president. To me it was very obvious who she was playing, but maybe you can give me your insights into that.

Ron Suskind (15:26):

Well, I think that there was always an attentiveness in the movie and the writing and the creation of the movie to not fall into partisan traps. So there are a couple clues there that take you away from a left-right axis there. There’s a picture of Meryl street, hugging bill Clinton. So people are like, well, it’s not necessarily a Republican. This is a model of power and the way it is with power, it’ll be repeated until it’s shown to be ineffective. And that goes to attitude. It goes to presentation. It goes to how people gain constituencies and rise to power. And so you’re not sure what party she is in. She clearly has a lot of Trump features in her mix of character in her arsenal, but it’s not exactly Trump. She’s Trump-like. I think part of what’s interesting is how the movie kind of plays off of, but doesn’t own directly, the occurrences of the present day, which is getting more and more difficult to parody because it’s becoming so extreme.

Ron Suskind (16:46):

And you see that here. She obviously has a family member who is the chief of staff. So again, plays off of the Jared Kushner thing and the Trump family. Meryl Streep owning it and doing lots of brilliant improv. That’s another thing about Adam McKay. McKay is a real improv guy. And what he does is, we get the script. Everyone has to play through the script totally. That’s part of the contract, actually, is part of what everyone guarantees. So they’re going to basically, we’re going to film everyone doing exactly what the script offers and then improv.

Ron Suskind (17:28):

And then people, they riff, they wing it, they play and exude new things as their characters. And that gets filmed again and again and again. And so by the end of each scene, Adam has got many, many offerings to work with. All on that properly array set of characters trying out lots of different things that he then gets to choose from. It’s a little bit like when you write a book. You get zillions of people talking, lots and lots of tape. Often they’re talking about the same set of things and you get to pick and choose and fit it together. And that’s what Adam gets to do, which he’s so, so good at. Some of the best lines in the movie are improv.

Jay Ruderman (18:22):

So Adam actually gave you a lot of credit for what he said was his favorite scene in the movie. And I know that there’s been press that Timothée Chalamet was reluctant to sign on, but you gave the hook to get him on the movie. And maybe you can talk a little bit about what that was.

Ron Suskind (18:40):

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So while Adam and I are in our riffathon during 2019, I was saying to Adam, I said, you got to get a really strong cross border dialogue in this movie. Meaning you’re going to have a faith based character that is fully drawn and realized because much of the country is faith based. We’ve got to have in this movie, the voices that represent the true breadth and diversity of what is now America. Hence the creation of the Timothée Chalamet character. And from that character, I was pressing the idea of the way you can bring God into this, through that character. That’s part of why that character is here.

Ron Suskind (19:35):

We are our country of believers in our various religions. And I said, if you’re going to end the world, you got to get God in there. And that yields that beautiful scene at the end of the movie where, as folks on the right have said and some of the columns that they’ve written, one of the most fully drawn characters in Don’t Look Up is in fact Yule, which is the Timothée Chalamet character. The Christian punk skateboarding guy who enters into a final relationship with Jen Lawrence, who is the big scientist whistle blower on the oncoming comet. And it’s a beautiful relationship. And at the end of the movie, when they’re all sitting around the table and the earth is right there at its final moments, somebody says, what about a prayer? No one really at the table seems to be anyone who has spent a great deal of time in faith settings. And Timothée Chalamet says, I got this.

Timothée Chalamet (20:42):

I got this, I got it.

Ron Suskind (20:45):

And offers just a beautiful prayer about us.

Timothée Chalamet (20:52):

Dearest father and almighty creator. We ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride. Your forgiveness, despite our doubt.

Ron Suskind (21:08):

Which is what prayers are.

Jay Ruderman (21:10):

So I love Timothée Chalamet’s character. And I thought it was a necessary part to the movie and really added something, as you said. I want to give you a chance to respond to people, some critics, that have said it’s too heavy handed. It hits you over the head with climate change, misinformation. What do you say to that? I mean, is that what satire does

Ron Suskind (21:33):

Precisely what satire can do that almost nothing else can. Look, we all create any number of barriers, Jay, to hearing things that are discomforting. Denial, rejection, not me, as we all are complex beings and we hate being told that we are not worthy or that we have made grievous errors or that we maybe are not looking at something that is so hard to look at. Satire can get to all of those things because it makes you laugh and it allows you to see the exaggerations and extremists of behaviors that become part of your life norm. And that’s being hit over the head, hell, what’s wrong with that? That often gets results. It allows us to see ourselves in a mirror.

Ron Suskind (22:45):

Look, I’ve got a lovely little passage that’s in my head and I used it at least in one book, where I talk about a moment where my mother was in an early stage of dementia, Alzheimer’s but still quite compass. And I sat with her on a particular day and it was kind of all set up where I really was using it as a moment, an opportunity, to her about her end of life wishes and just being straight with her, leveling with her about the fact that she does have Alzheimer’s dementia she’s on her way down that path. And the discussion was a miserable failure. She just would not engage at all. She looked right through me like I barely was even sitting there. And I was just so frustrated by this. And I talked to a famous psychiatrist, as the father of a best buddy of mine, just a few weeks later.

Ron Suskind (23:43):

A guy named Max Putsky, and Max says to me, Ron, Ron, Ron. You’re a big truth guy. You even do truth for a living. I said, yeah, yeah, yeah. But he says, let me explain to you, Ron. Respect denial. I said, what? He said, respect denial. And as soon as he said that, the combination of those words, just they seeped into my pores. It’s such a beautiful construction. Don’t celebrate, don’t paint any banners to denial, respect it, though. He says, it’s a key part of the human architecture that allows us to get up that next morning when we are in the way of an untenable future of things that we cannot face.

Jay Ruderman (24:25):

So powerful. And let’s, on that vein of denial, you sort of predicted what was going to happen on January 6th. You had a very powerful op-ed in the New York Times, the end of October, which you had many sources within the Trump administration who were really, really worried about what was going to happen during the election and post-election, which you detailed quite accurately. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about and where we are now?

Ron Suskind (24:57):

So I got into a discussion with the New York Times in January, I think it was, of 2020. And the editors said, hey, we understand you don’t have a book in the mix. Your old competitor friend, Bob Woodward. I said, no, no, I don’t, I’m doing this media thing and I don’t have a book going. And they’re like, well, would you consider a writing kind of a big signature piece right before the election? Kind of a special event. And I said, yeah, I’ll do that. I think it’s a consequential moment. It’s certainly a year that will go down in history, 2020. I realized what I would need to do for the big piece, which ends up being a big, giant 70,000 words, I’m sure around that amount, which runs on October 30th. The weekend of the election.

Ron Suskind (25:54):

So I got in there and I got two dozen plus senior officials of the government. These are senior officials who are at the highest reaches of the administration. What I wanted to do in the piece was to help people understand in a different way of how we got to this moment. A bit of a recasting of the Trump administration of his presidency to help the readers get a sense of what was so different about it that would have an impact on not only the election, but what happens after the election. And that was very, very much the moment which I map in the piece of midway through his presidency when Trump had an aha, which is that the public servants who were working for him. And people, in some cases, who were in senior positions in the White House, if they had a primary loyalty to the constitution, they were not going to do the things that he was needing them to do, plain and simple.

Ron Suskind (27:07):

They needed to be, in a central and primary way, loyal to him as an individual and to what he commanded them to do if they were to be people who were appropriate to serve him. That was quite a moment, actually. And you saw any folks who were traditional public servants, who took an oath on the constitution, starting to get excised out of the administration. They were [inaudible 00:27:37] and getting replaced quickly by people who would take a primary oath to Donald Trump and his dictates and his desires. That’s who you have at the end of his administration. And what that meant was that he would be able to use the levers of power granted to him by article two in the constitution, in support of his own interest and in support of winning this election, by whatever means were necessary. You see that in his actions in the final months leading up to the election. You also see a map, which I laid out for the readers, of what would happen arguably after the election based on a variety scenarios.

Ron Suskind (28:28):

And one of the primary scenarios is Donald Trump loses, but loses by a margin that is narrow enough that he can claim victory and can begin to contest the outcome of the election. And here, as I wrote, is probably the ways he will do that. Now some of that I drew from terrific pieces that were already written. Bart Gelman wrote a great piece at the Atlantic. Bart’s an amazing journalist. Others had written too, but I want to step further to say, look at what we have here. We have something that we’ve not seen in American history. We have an enormous array of Americans, really, an army of folks, who have signed on to personal loyalty to Donald Trump. Whether they’re members of the political party is really a secondary issue. Many of the folks in the base that are Trump adherence are really loyal, in a way, to Trump himself.

Ron Suskind (29:35):

We haven’t really had that in American politics and in the American political array. And they will move based on what his dictates are to them. He will, at some point, activate that army. How big are they? I make various estimates in the piece. But if he is in a position where various legal remedies and attempts to contest the election through the processes of government, both legislative and legal, are exhausted. He will activate that army and that army will move. That’s where I predicted what would happen on the sixth and how he would basically claim that the election was stolen and claim and thereby instruct people loyal to him that they would have to basically take it back for him and on his behalf. And that’s what we had.

Jay Ruderman (30:34):

So you were correct. I think I saw an interview in which you said, there could be as many as 15 million people who fall into that category as loyal to Trump. Trump’s still around. He has control of the Republican party. What happens going forward? Are we in for more potential violence, conflict, in your opinion? How does this thing move forward?

Ron Suskind (30:59):

Yeah, well that 15 million estimate is based on what I call all concentric circles of folks who are most ardent and some of them willing to engage in violence, groups circled around them who also sign onto that. Now some of the poll show, an incredibly high number of folks who support Donald Trump, who said that if it takes that they will engage in violence or support violence. We are moving into a period, Jay, in which violence or the threat of violence will be a central factor in our self-governance in how we move forward in this unfinished experiment of democracy. What it means for us now is that we are further down a path in which liberal moves to illiberal, moves to autocracy. There are other countries that have taken this path. We feel exceptional in America. We’re different, we’re human beings trying to govern ourselves.

Ron Suskind (32:05):

The founding fathers wouldn’t call us exceptional if they were sitting here in their powdered wigs. The reason they created this system is because they understood what people can do to each other and how they are swayed by will to power and how our self interest need to be counteracted against other self interest to form this sort of modest, manageable and hard, wrought set of virtues. That’s the Madisonian genius of America. And it’s also the genius of the way our democracy was constructed. Well, that democracy has been profoundly compromised and is now facing a real life threat. I think certainly in any of our lifetimes, I would say, for the first time, since the middle of the 19th century. What we’re seeing now is a struggle and it’s terrifying.

Ron Suskind (32:58):

Let’s just map it out. January 6th occurs all sorts of things happen in the immediate aftermath. Did Donald Trump and his gang of supporters, of co-conspirators, did they essentially engage in a coup where they plotted it out letter in verse? I think what they’re going to find is that Donald Trump and others encouraged it and then capitalized on it and pushed it along on the sixth. But there’s no doubt that intent was there to subordinate and flip the Democrat process for Donald Trump to remain in power. So what happens after that? Everyone stands up and says, that’s it. I’m out, as Lindsey Graham says. Donald Trump’s responsible for this. He’s responsible for a grievous crime. There’s no crime above this. He basically tried to flip the democracy to stay in power and everybody was square in those first few days. And then the toxin of partisanship, again, started to assert itself.

Ron Suskind (34:14):

You see bit by bit the way the desires of will to power. Will we be able to remain in power if we’re Republicans? What do we have to do? What are the calculations and rationales will embrace start to take shape. And by the time you get to the impeachment hearing in the middle of February, you have a tiny group of Republicans voted for impeachment. That was the opportunity. There’s no doubt about it. That’s where the congressional version of rule of law might have actually exercised itself. That would have meant Donald Trump can no longer be the president of the United States. Imagine how different that would be. Let’s just think about that. He would have been off the political stage at that point. Now he would have been probably a mischief maker in all sorts of ways and he could have been out there as a king maker supporting someone else to replace him. But he’s a unique actor. There’s no one else like him on the stage, there really isn’t.

Ron Suskind (35:14):

No one’s going to replace Donald Trump. And he would have been somebody barred from running again to be of the United States, had they acted to convict. And as well, by virtue that conviction, it would have changed the dynamic, in terms of other prosecutions that might have unfolded. That didn’t occur. So what do we have? What do we have? We have Trump then moving forward, deepening his hold on the Republican party, really moving down another powerful strategic pathway, where he is going to claim and rightfully claim responsibility for the election of many, many people. There’s no doubt about it in this midterm election, his endorsement matters. His base has helped. In some ways they’ve grown in their art. And almost certainly you are going to have a Republican and Trump dominated Congress intact after 2022 and Donald Trump, if he is alive, he will run. And we will have probably a constitutional crisis in the early days of 2025. That is an American nightmare.

Jay Ruderman (36:40):

So it sounds like you’re talking about a second civil war.

Ron Suskind (36:44):

There certainly is going to be probably years of significant havoc and potentially insurrection and violence on the American and political landscape. How do you allow people to see that this is an oncoming comet due to hit you and your life if you let events unfold, as they have been along the path they are already on. I mean, this is the dilemma.

Jay Ruderman (37:29):

I got to ask you, as a journalist, how do you function in an era where there’s so much misinformation out there and there are actors that are foreign and domestic that are putting it out there on a minute by minute basis?

Ron Suskind (37:45):

Jay, I’ve been at this since we’re young men, my friend. Saying, you can’t say that. That’s demonstrably false. Lying to the public, using disinformation. There’s a reason there were built laws against that, but people got away with it and people grew to distrust government. And to start to default disinformation that looks true, but ain’t. Or carried forward by people who claim to be journalists, but are anything but.

Ron Suskind (38:22):

Why is it that the press, journalists, are the only profession mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The founders got this. They had no great love for the journalists of their day. James Calendar and other members of the Yellow Press, but they understood that they are kind of a necessary element in the mix, or none of it works. Otherwise, consent of the population is not informed whereby they can make sound judgements. You can see how undermining the fourth estate and journalism and truth has led to havoc.

Jay Ruderman (39:03):

Well, there’s so much truth there. I want to end with different type of conversation, which was your life. And you wrote about it in your book, Life, Animated. About the personal story of your son, Owen and his diagnosis with autism and how he communicated through Disney movies and Life, Animated became a film. Can you talk about that conversation and how that shaped you and your family and other families?

Ron Suskind (39:34):

It’s something Cornelia, my wife, and I say to each other is that Owen, our son, who is a late onset autism guy. So he’s chatting away at two, two and a half. I love you. Let’s get ice cream. Where are my ninja turtles? He has regressive autism. So he regresses dramatically at around two and a half years old. And he loses all speech. And that’s about a third of all cases of folks with autism. The regression’s very dramatic, in his case. He basically is chatting away a few hundred words of a two and a half year old vocabulary. And then he loses all speech and we’re thrown into a place of havoc.

Ron Suskind (40:14):

It’s like he vanishes, we used to say, we were looking for clues to a kidnapping. Now what happened was he just changed. He changed and went to a different place. A place where we could not engage with him and our life changed. We’re still living in the world as it was reconstructed at that moment for us. But something else happened, too, is that we started to change in how Cornelia and I were. We used to say, Owen is our best teacher. We started to see things with more depth, more clarity. What does Owen see? What can Owen feel? What does he feel? What can we learn from him? And we learned a great deal. In the famous twist that everyone now knows, Owen memorized dozens of Disney animated movies. He then created his own language using lyrics and dialogue.

Speaker 5 (41:24):

What are you doing out of rags? Nevermind. How would you like to have our little boy lost and alone in the jungle?

Ron Suskind (41:37):

We learned to speak in Disney dialogue. We learned his language. That’s the way we could communicate with him. That’s the way, over years, he got speech back and it becomes this extraordinary character in the world that relies on what he can draw from content, especially from movies, to help him grow and learn and connect with others. What occurred there is, it changed me as a journalist, as a writer. I began to see things that I otherwise would miss. I started to look everywhere I could find them for left behind people in America. The most dramatic example of that living in my house, my own son, who was deemed uneducable. Was slated for an institution, according to what many of our specialists would tell us. And it changed me.

Ron Suskind (42:39):

And that led to all the work that mostly I get noted for. And from my book, A Hope in the Unseen, about the kid in a blighted inner city, hoping to find a home in America, to all of the books about the nature of truth. Owen would say, I’m different, not less. Though so much of what he encounters in the world, presses him to believe he is less and presses him to accept that. But he will not. And he has convinced others that he is right not to. That defines our life and it’s defined my work. And sometimes it has made me ferocious and outraged at what I see in terms of the many, many people who live in the giant discard pile in America. And for what reason? Why is that? How is it that we grow better as a people when we understand that diversity is our strength, that we essentially grow larger through the enormous variety and expression of equality and the justice that flows from that idea of equality.

Jay Ruderman (44:05):

Well, Ron, you are in many ways a national treasure and you have changed our society and continue to change our society in so many ways. One takeaway, and I think was Cornelia that said this, that who determines what a meaningful life is. And I think it’s such important message for us all to take away because we’re all different. We live in a society that judges constantly, but we all have meaningful lives and I think we have to pay attention to that.

Ron Suskind (44:41):

Jay, may I just say, thank you for mentioning that the signature concept, your insights into this, of course, are own deeply from your own life. That idea though, who decides what the meaningful life is, that’s something Cornelia and I would say to each other, as we were educated, as we learned from living with and through our son. And I think it is a question that as we are confronted with it and answer it, allows us to see, all lives are lives of meaning.

Ron Suskind (45:22):

And the way we often judge meaning is something that is, in many cases, put upon us by the society or by the circumstances of life in the country in which we live. And there is a deeper understanding who decides with the meaningful life as each of us do and each life has meaning. The key is to discover it. And if you happen to be in a line of work like me, to Trump, but the way meaning lives in people’s lives far wide. So I love doing that. I love doing it here in the show with you. That’s kind of what we’ve been talking about from the beginning of our time together.

Jay Ruderman (46:03):

Thank you so much. And Ron, may you go from strength to strength. Thank you so much.

Speaker 1 (46:13):

All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to RudermanFoundation.Org/AllInclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.