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How to craft a narrative from a monumental congressional investigation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What is on your holiday reading list? How about a dense government document prepared by a congressional committee and drawing on more than a thousand witness interviews? Well, I'm talking, of course, about the report from the House January 6 committee. It is out tomorrow. And there actually is precedent for a report like this to become a hit with readers. The 9/11 Commission report, released back in 2004, was the official government account of the September 11 attacks. It ran 567 pages of minute detail, yet it became a bestseller. It was nominated for a National Book Award. So how do you make a story like this sing? Well, I'm joined now by someone who knows - professor Philip Zelikow. He was executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and he led the staff that wrote that report. Phil Zelikow, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Glad to be with you.

KELLY: All right. I want to go back to this moment nearly 20 years ago now, when you all have done all the interviews. You've held the hearings. You've gathered the facts. And it falls to you and your team to sit down and actually write the report. Where do you start?

ZELIKOW: Well, what you first have to start with is imagining the scope of the story that you're trying to reconstruct. So in the case of 9/11, for example, it wasn't just the events of the day. It was the developments in the years leading up to 9/11. And in our case, we also made the choice to not just examine what America did but also to examine what the enemy did, what the enemy planned as best we could reconstruct that.

KELLY: You're making me think almost of the way a movie director would conceive of this with a lens, and you're trying to figure out, how tight a shot do I need? How far back do I need? How many cameras do I need to tell this story?

ZELIKOW: Well, a little bit. But I'd think of it more as a way a historian, a good historian would see the story, in which you're reconstructing choices that are being made by people who don't have 20/20 hindsight, who don't know what's going to happen and who are working in a world of uncertainty and murky information. Now, take that idea back to the January 6 story. The January 6 story also in a way involves an attack and then the efforts to respond to that attack and thwart it. There is a version of this in which you're just writing about the events of the day, about January 6. My view, which, actually, I discussed with Congresswoman Cheney and with the outstanding attorney who became the chief counsel of the January 6 effort, was that, actually, that's not the way to structure the narrative for this story.

And it's not what they have done. They made this crucial decision, which I think was the right decision, to expand the scope of the story to deal with the whole attack on the democratic system and the effort to overthrow the election. And then in each angle, you looked at the people who are trying to help that happen but also the people who are blocking that and keeping that election from being overthrown.

KELLY: I want to stick with a word you just used, the word narrative. Why was it important to organize it as a narrative, like, as a story that people could follow along as they tried to make sense of the unspeakable?

ZELIKOW: Stories are the way people understand the past. The challenge then is to recover the choices and uncertainty in that story. And then as the reader follows you into that world of uncertainty, then that creates the tension. You lived through that uncertainty. You lived through the sense of, I don't know what's going to happen next.

KELLY: So let's apply this to the report that we are expecting to drop tomorrow. And I want to ask about one key difference between their work and your work on the 9/11 report, which is that with 9/11, there was huge debate over who was to blame. There was debate over what the U.S. should do to respond to these terror attacks. There was not huge debate over the facts of what happened that day. Anybody in front of a television - you know, we watched the towers fall. We watched the smoke billowing up from the Pentagon.

ZELIKOW: Right. All the big questions were why questions.

KELLY: Right. And if anything, the events united Americans. January 6 - totally different story.

ZELIKOW: Yes. It was a fantastically challenging job simply to reconstruct the detail of what happened and what led to these moments. We'll see whether or not they can write something that's plain and factual and accessible. In our case, we tried to write something that was extremely tight and trust readers to come to their own conclusions about what it meant. Some people used our report as evidence to attack the Clinton administration. Some people used our report as evidence to attack the Bush administration. In a way, the report became kind of a Rorschach blot that readers would interpret according to their lives. In this case, we'll see to what extent the report writers try to steer the readers to the conclusions they want them to hear, though they're doing some of that through congressmen and women in the hearings themselves.

KELLY: Well, and in this case, the person at the center, former President Trump, is running for president again. Did you worry about being perceived as a political body, about the politics of this? - 'cause I hear you saying you just stick to the facts and tell the story. But as you know, you know, people's views on what are the salient facts differ.

ZELIKOW: They do. And people forget now in kind of a haze of nostalgia about the 9/11 Commission's work, but our report, as you'll remember, was produced in an intensely partisan environment amid all sorts of controversies. And fortunately, there were no controversies about whether al-Qaida was good or bad.

KELLY: You had a villain. There was agreement. Yeah.

ZELIKOW: Right. It's a very different situation here. They're actually more in the mode of having - of conducting a large-scale criminal investigation. The committee has recommended at least movement towards a criminal investigation for possible federal crimes by former President Trump and a number of others. So these are very grave charges. They have various - both criminal and constitutional implications. Their burden is a very difficult burden. They're moving into an environment that's more political and more polarized than ours. And you and others can judge how well they did their work under extremely difficult circumstances. I, for one, am generally impressed by what I have seen so far.

KELLY: Philip Zelikow was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission and is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. Thank you.

ZELIKOW: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIZ KHALIFA, BIG K.R.I.T. AND GIRL TALK SONG, "HOW THE STORY GOES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.