20 Questions with Marlin Fitzwater

Marlin Fitzwater is best known as the White House press secretary for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But he can now add playwright to his list of accomplishments.

Fitzwater teamed up with Franklin Pierce University Professor Robert Lawson to write “Empire Falls,” which tells the story of the diplomatic relationship between Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Fitzwater saw his work come to life when the Ford’s Theater Society staged a reading Sunday. In an interview with The Hill, he said the play’s themes resonate today as the U.S. navigates tenuous diplomatic relationships with allies and adversaries around the world. 

What got you interested in writing this play?

On the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I started reading [former President George H.W. Bush’s] book, A World Transformed, and another book about the end of the Cold War, At the Highest Levels. And both of the books focused on the two years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Communist empire.

First of all, it occurred to me that that was a period that most Americans forgot about. When the wall came down, we breathed a sigh of relief and looked the other way. What we missed was the Baltic countries … all rebuilt themselves.

Second of all, there was this enormous record of George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, and this striking personal relationship that nobody knew about. And it reminded me about [Franklin D.] Roosevelt and [Winston] Churchill, except that these were superpower enemies and not allies. I talked to the president about this … [and] I thought, this story needs to be told, and I thought the play was the way to do it – that the theater was the way to do it and compress those events in one place.

 When did you become interested in theater?

 Really, just by thinking about the subject matter and how it best could be presented. I had no background or knowledge of theater, and after I started pulling the material together, I realized that I didn’t have the ability to write a play. I didn’t have the background to do it.

 I happened to know we had a playwright in our drama department at the Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communication at Franklin Pierce University. I called him, Bob Lawson, and I said, “Would you help?” And he said, “Present the story to me.” So I wrote a memo and gave him all sorts of background to read. 

And he said, “I’ll do it.” And it took us about two years to come up with a script and to try to put it all together. 

 Did you keep President Bush apprised of your playwriting?

Bob and I went up and talked to the president at [his compound in] Kennebunkport, Maine when we were working on the play.

Before this you consulted for the “West Wing,” and you’ve also written a novel. Did those things help get your creative juices flowing?

I just finished another novel — a murder mystery — and a collection of short stories based on childhood memories. All of that led me to the theater in the sense that you have so much freedom to tell a story, and yet you can manufacture conversations and so forth that will give a range to a play that would take chapters to do if you were writing a book. And the emotional side of the Bush-Gorbachev relationship is what I wanted to do.

 How would you compare the play’s main themes to what’s going on in today’s world?

I think one of the most striking things is today’s political leaders are always talking about diplomacy and how you conduct it. And there seems to be a great struggle with that, and it seems that our play tells a diplomatic story about how that can be pursued, and that we have experience in this country in working with our problems and our enemies.

Secondly, I think there’s also a political message in the play about how presidents can relate to foreign policy problems without making them political, without drawing in the attention of everybody who’s on one side or another. That’s particularly difficult in this political climate, but it shows how it can be done.

 How have rehearsals been going?

Today we had our first read-through of the script, and it was just amazing for me to see the script come alive with these professional actors who just picked up the papers … You could begin to see various elements of the story that I never imagined as I was writing.

 How has the job of White House press secretary changed, in your view?

When you look at the morning briefing, which is the centerpiece of the job, on television today, it looks about the same as it did 20 years ago. You still have to know the policies, the president.

 The difference is just the magnitude of the media world — the idea that you have hundreds, if not thousands, of bloggers today that can operate on a different set of constraints. In the old days, the press had certain parameters that I knew as a trained journalist.

I just think the job is so much bigger today, so much faster, that it’s probably hard to hold on to the basic principles of news judgment that used to be the cornerstone.

 As for the play, what’s its future? Is it going to be staged somewhere?

That’s been one of the most interesting parts for me, because I know nothing about it. But first we produce a script, then we send it around for the different theaters to look at. Ford’s Theater was the first to come back to say, this is really interesting. Then you basically go through a rewrite process. So the next step is to see if Ford wants to produce the play. At the same time, there may be other theaters that may be interested. Success feeds on itself.

 What’s your future in playwriting and the arts? 

I do have a book of short stories that I want to finish. I have about five done and I want to write about 20. I’d like to write a section on being a press secretary. I don’t want to tell anybody how to do it anymore. Every time we have a new one, and we seem to have a lot lately, I get a lot of phone calls asking for advice on how to do it. I don’t know that my experience is that relevant anymore, but I still have a lot of stories that I’d like to tell that cry out for fiction that would release me from having to reveal sources.

 I’d also like to do a section about getting old. I just went through my second treatment of prostate cancer; I just finished 35 radiation treatments. And I’ve had skin cancer since I was 29, and I’ve had diabetes, so who knows how long I can go?

I still have the Fitzwater Center [at Franklin Pierce]. I go up to New Hampshire eight or nine times a year and spend time with the kids. It turns out I’m not a very good lecturer, but I like to spend time with them and talk to them. It’s such a renewing experience to be around young journalists who are just trying to figure it all out.

To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or email him at kkitto