FEILER: I'm wonderful, Glenn, and thank you for your very kind words and for your wisdom and your support. It means a lot. Thank you very much.
GLENN: I have ‑‑ my daughters, when they were young, they used to go to school, and I'd pick them up every day and I'd say, what did you learn today? And they would talk about whatever, and I could never talk about math. And I'd be like, whatever. And then they would ‑‑ and I would ask them, what did you learn in history? And they would tell me. And they were always bored with it. And I would say, well, let me tell you the story. And I would tell them the story. And they grew up. Both of them are studying history. And they are ‑‑ they both adopted my philosophy of, you are just, you are not a good storyteller. If you are bored by history, it's because somebody's not a good storyteller. This is the best storytelling of history I think I've ever read. I mean, do you consider this a history book?
FEILER: I consider myself a storyteller. Let's start with that.
FEILER: What I've tried to do my entire life is go out and tell stories. And I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, five generations. I have lived a life where I've gone out, entered different worlds, kind of followed questions that I had in my mind and set out to answer them. So I had spent, before working on this book, a decade retracing the Bible through the Middle East or walking the Bible, Abraham in a show I hosted on PBS called walking the Bible, and I just stumbled onto this story. I was spending more time at home. You mentioned your daughters. My wife had given birth to identical twins and we started traveling. I went to Plymouth as you mentioned and I ‑‑
GLENN: Tell this story first before you leave, stop here at Plymouth for a second. Tell the story of the first Sabbath on these shores.
FEILER: It's not, it's a story that is ‑‑ I never heard this story.
GLENN: Never heard it?
FEILER: So I go to Plymouth and I get on a boat and we sail on Plymouth harbor to this little tiny island that you cannot go to, that is inaccessible, that is in Plymouth harbor. And that is the island essentially where America began. So the pilgrims, they are living in England and they go to Holland. They sail, and you talk about Moses. They are feeling oppressed, right? So what do they do? They cross a tumultuous see, they go to an undeveloped wilderness, they set out to create a new promised land. The Bibles that they carried on the Mayflower were emblazoned with that picture of Moses. And the first thing they do when they get to Cape Cod is get down on their knees and thank God for allowing them to cross the Red Sea. But they know they can't live out in province at the very end of Cape Cod. They are hungry, they are out of hope, they are out of food, they have nowhere to go. They send out a small expeditionary force of 20 of these pilgrims and some of the men on this boat, and it crashes. Because you've got a bad stormy night and they're fleeing, the Indians were out there. They crash and they ‑‑ basically the oars break, everything. And they end up on this little tiny island. And they dry their oars, they get off on the island and they wake up the next morning and they realize that it is the Sabbath. And they are not going to travel on the Sabbath. They are deep, deep into the Old Testament and so they spend a day fleeing for their lives, resting and paying tribute to God. And they have service and they take a day off and they rest. And then they go into Plymouth harbor.
GLENN: You know, it's interesting because there's always the argument of, you know, is this a Christian nation, is this, what is this. You know, the answer that you come away with in reading, you know, the words of the founders is you can say that they all had a different view of Christianity or whatever, but they were deeply God‑fearing people. They're this ‑‑ that the idea of the Old Testament, this was real to them.
FEILER: That's such an important point, Glenn, because they didn't have the distance now that we all have now. Archeology, history, all these things that weren't even invented yet. So they didn't know this distance to the text. To them it was real. And what it was most of all, it was a precedent. It was an example that somebody else had been oppressed. Why is this story of Moses so important? It is fundamental, you can be in a difficult place, you can in a challenging place, a dark and dim place and you can imagine that there is a better world. And that for the pilgrims for the founding fathers, for generations and generations of Americans.
GLENN: For us.
FEILER: And today the reason for us ‑‑ I've written for twelve years books about the Bible but I have not written one that so resonates with the moment as America's Prophet does because we are once more in will challenging times.
GLENN: Oh, my gosh. We are chaining, we have the chains ‑‑ you know, I have to tell you there's ‑‑ every chapter of this I love. But the chapter on the Statue of Liberty, knowing, you know, I've read a million times the chains. But it never came to life to me. The tablets that she holds. Explain just a little bit of the symbology of the Statue of Liberty.
FEILER: It grew out of the assassination of Lincoln which I personally had not known and American lovers in France wanted to pay tribute to the assassinated president and to the American journey of freedom by building a Statue of Liberty. So Frédéric Bartholdi, the sculptor used the Roman goddess of freedom but adopted two symbols from Moses, the spikes of light around her head and the tablet in her arms, both of which comes from the moment Moses climbs down Mt. Sinai with the law, with the Ten Commandments. So 250 years after the pilgrims sailed into Plymouth harbor comparing their journey to Moses, new immigrants including many of the people in this studio where we're sitting now, the ancestors of these people floated into New York harbor and looked up, saw this nimbus of light, the outstretched arm and it forever secured America's place as the new promised land because that's what it is, Glenn. It's a sense of hope in a difficult place. And that's what's going on today.
GLENN: I also ‑‑ and correct me if I'm wrong because maybe I have this wrong. But I also have the ‑‑ walked away having the distinct impression that there was something else going on with the Statue of Liberty, that it was a gift but it was also a dual gift almost to themselves over in France because they were trying to hold us up. Explain this part.
FEILER: Well, because the French essentially ‑‑ what was going on was a battle in France at the time between what was going to be the future of France and it was basically the Democrats, if you will, the people who were interested in Republican democracy in France who wanted to tell to the French that they could have an alternative to the king and imperial authorities. So it was a way of saying we're going to make this connection and thereby inspire the French and simultaneously inspire the Americans. And to me what I love about the statue, and it's not far from where I live in Brooklyn today, is that it is poised forever on the promised land. So that when Ronald Reagan, in 1986 on the 100th anniversary of the statue, goes there and gives this gorgeous speech in which he links America from the pilgrims all the way up to today and says I have always believed that God somehow placed this country here as a symbol of freedom. People came from all over the world and it embodied the idea of a new promised land. And it's one of the most beautiful speeches Reagan ever gave. And he links the stories going all the way back to the pilgrims, all the way back to the founding fathers as you have done here today all the way back to the Statue of Liberty. The great icons of America, Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell with the quote from Moses, the pilgrims inspired by Moses, the founding fathers wanting Moses on the seal, all the way through. You cannot separate biblical values from American values.
GLENN: The Supreme Court even looks at Moses as they are sitting at the bench, if they look up, if I'm not mistaken, at the painting of all the great law‑givers, but Moses is their central figure.
FEILER: Six representations of Moses on the Supreme Court, in the chambers, on the frieze, in the chamber, and there's a great story about it that's actually not even in my book. There are two tablets, right? And the tablet that's showing in the painting in the Supreme Court chamber is the one that says don't murder, don't steal, don't commit adultery. But the Hebrew word for lo which is the no is covered up. So the actual painting says "Steal, murder, and disrespect your parents."
GLENN: The name of the book is America's Prophet.
I want to go back to the Statue of Liberty again and I want to see if I have captured in my own head the point of what you were trying to, one of the ‑‑ I think it was a more subtle point in what you were trying to make. You tell the story about the woman who wrote the famous poem.
FEILER: Emma Lazarus.
GLENN: Tell that story real quick.
FEILER: She was a Jew living in New York in great splendor and she wasn't particularly adapted to the Jews, but when the Jews starting coming over oppressed in Russia, she kind of had a reconnection to them and she wrote this poem, it was a fundraising thing that didn't really work and it wasn't until a generation later that it kind of went on kind of retroactively linking the plight of the Statue of Liberty to the immigrants.
GLENN: So what I see is that the French wanted to salute us but also we're trying to say, look, everything is destroyed. I mean, this old stuff, it doesn't work anymore, right?
FEILER: Yes, yes.
GLENN: So we've always read this poem as, Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest‑tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
I've always read it in my head like that. After I read your book, may I reinterpret and tell me if I have it right, that it is a ‑‑ it should be read like this, because it is not a message necessarily to the poor as much as it is a message to the old world.
GLENN: Where it should be read like this:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea‑washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon‑hand
Glows world‑wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air‑bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" Cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest‑tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Shouldn't it be read more like that? It was, you send me your rejects and they will succeed here. They will be free and everything can be done. It wasn't, it wasn't so much pity on them as much as it was you are enslaving. I can take the dread, the people you reject and they will be kings here.
FEILER: Not ‑‑ but not that, not the old, not the storied pomp. I mean, is there any more word that captures the kind of heraldry of the kings and queens? Not, not, not. But, but, but. But hope. But light. But opportunity. And now I'll read back to you if we might what Ronald Reagan said 100 years later when he stood there and he said, I have always believed there was some divine providence that placed this great land here between the two great oceans to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world who had a special love for freedom and a special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, leave their friends and their country men and come to this new and strange land to build a new world of peace and freedom and hope. That's the essential idea of the Moses story. Not but. You can leave the slavery of the past. You can leave the horrific. And Egypt was the superpower at the time. And you can go plunge through those waters, persevere through the dryness and set out to create a new promised land. It's a land of hope. It is a narrative of hope. It offers people the opportunity themselves to create a better world. As Shimon Peres once said to me, the Egyptians build pyramids, the Israelites build stories. And that's it. America has always been based on an idea and has been based on a spiritual connection between these people and God. And you cannot separate America from these biblical values, which is often what happens today.
GLENN: The name of the book is America's Prophet. If you buy ‑‑ and I've got four out this year. If you can only buy one book, buy a second one and make it America's ‑‑ no, buy this book, America's Prophet. It is absolutely fantastic. And I have to tell you, Bruce, you made me want to leave what I do for a living and go write history books because I was in the bell tower with the Liberty Bell. I was at Plymouth rock with you. I was in the Statue of Liberty with you. It is a fantastic book. I cannot recommend it high enough. Thank you.
FEILER: My pleasure. Thank you very much.