By Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
Being the guest on The Daily Show the day after my first book was released was a lucky break, a terrifying prospect, and, as it actually unfolded, a terrific experience.
I had no inside line to the show and neither did my Palgrave Macmillan publicist. She had simply cast a wide net in “pitching” my book to the sea of media possibilities and pulled in a big one. Booked for January 4, I got the news two weeks before. That gave me plenty of time to get nervous. I watched clips of Jon Stewart’s earlier interviews with authors on the show’s website, and let my family know of my pending fifteen minutes of fame. My mother had never heard of The Daily Show and it didn’t help when I told her it was on Comedy Central—she and her friends were waiting for Oprah to take notice of my book. My son Luke on the other hand, squarely within the show’s coveted demographic and at home over college winter break, was duly impressed and jumped at the opportunity to travel to New York with me and meet Jon Stewart.
January 4 finally arrived. Luke and I took the train up to Manhattan and checked into a hotel near the Flatiron Building, home to the Macmillan group of publishers. A Daily Show producer and I discussed the book’s themes by telephone that afternoon. With that conversation having gone so smoothly, I gained a grip on my nerves: I would rise to the occasion. Soon thereafter, Luke and I met my publicist, editor, and literary agent in the hotel lobby (“Mom,” my son whispered, “You have people”) and we all jumped into the car The Daily Show had sent to transport us to the studio on the far west side where the show is taped.
There was my name on the green room door (the day before it was Charles Barkley and the day after George Lucas). The producer came in to say that she had not yet had a chance to talk with Jon about our earlier discussion and anyway, whatever she might share with him, he would do his own thing. A little later Jon himself came in and we conversed directly. It was obvious to me that he was going to highlight the contradiction inherent in the Father of the Constitution owning slaves. I had little opportunity to formulate a strategy because it was now time for the show’s taping. We watched on a screen in the green room until the guest segment came up. This is it. Mic checked. Name announced. This is really it.
Stewart did, indeed, go right for the hypocrisy angle, but he was never ornery and I rolled with it as best I could. I readily agreed that Madison was a man of contradictions when it came to slavery (or flip-flopper as he put it) but he pressed on. Stewart charged that the explanation that slave-owning Founding Fathers like Madison were “complicated men” was “an excuse” for their moral cowardice in this area. I countered that in writing my particular book, the objective was neither to defend nor denounce Madison but to tell Paul Jennings’s story. My host, with his well-honed comic timing, paused for a couple of seconds and then said, “Yeah… that’s not gonna fly here.” I just had to laugh. The truth is I agreed with Stewart’s assessment and I was out of come backs. Happily, he went on to ask other questions that allowed me to elaborate on Paul Jennings’s one-of-a-kind journey from slavery to freedom and his later authorship of the first White House memoir.
Interview concluded, the studio audience was clapping heartily; I turned their way, gave a big wave, and exited the set. Thus ended my proverbial fifteen minutes. Well, not quite fifteen but a glorious six minutes, 45 seconds.
“Get it,” Stewart directed his television audience of 2.3 million as he held up my book. He had even mentioned that magical word “movie” during the segment, twice. Sales did in fact soar—two days later A Slave in the White House was the 73rd best-selling book on Amazon, number one in African American history. As for the film version, I am still holding out hope that some Hollywood producer will have his people call my people.
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor is a VFH Fellow who completed her book on the life of Paul Jennings while in residence in 2010-2011. A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons was published in early 2012.