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Oliver Stone on the History of Wall Street Corruption and the Future of American Military Power
Posted on May 12, 2017
While the first half of Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer’s hard-hitting conversation with acclaimed director Oliver Stone focused largely on foreign policy, Part 2 of the “Scheer Intelligence” interview centers on the transformation of the American economy.
Stone, director of films including “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Snowden,” and Scheer begin the conversation by discussing Stone’s 1987 film “Wall Street,” which takes a bold look at the rampant corporate greed on Wall Street in the 1980s. They also discuss the sequel that Stone made more than 20 years later.
Stone, who says his hardworking father inspired him to make “Wall Street,” tells Scheer he “wanted to do something quite different” from his earlier films.
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Stone adds that by the 2000s, when he made the sequel, Wall Street was unrecognizable. “It was another world,” he says. “We were saying [that] the corruption is beyond just being corruption, it’s just reached another level of acceptance. It’s a low-hanging fruit to become rich.”
Stone also shares his fears about the future of U.S. military power, telling Scheer that nuclear war seems more likely than ever.
“We should remember the past,” Stone cautions. “In our country, we don’t remember our history, and we don’t remember the bad things that we do. And because we don’t remember it, we do them again.”
Listen to the full conversation below, and listen to Part 1 of the conversation here. A full transcript of the conversation is below.
Robert Scheer: All right, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. This is actually Part II of my interview with Oliver Stone. Part I stressed foreign policy a lot, and Vietnam, and brought it up to the present day of Donald Trump. But the thing that really drives the success of Donald Trump, and getting elected and his power—and also drove Bernie Sanders; two populist candidates, one, from my point of view, genuine, Sanders; the other not so much. But we see it throughout the world, is that the economy is not delivering on its promise. And you’ve made two movies, one earlier on when people were not discussing this, your classic discussion of Wall Street, by the name of Wall Street. And why don’t we begin with that, and then you did a follow-up, Wall Street II. And what was incredible about Wall Street is that at that time, people were accepting the view of the Wall Street shysters, that they could keep this thing going and get away with it, and we’d all benefit somehow even though they benefitted a lot more. And you asserted, really, a quite old-fashioned view of propriety and decency; I think you got it from your father who had been on Wall Street. And the hero of the movie was somebody who actually thought you have to make real things, and they have to work, and it can’t just be all hype. And that was before we knew about collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps and all the swindles that Wall Street was able to make legal by getting financial deregulation, overturning all the New Deal legislation that made sure the public was served in some way. How did you come upon the first Wall Street movie? Why were you so, dare I say, perceptive on this problem?
Oliver Stone: I can’t say I was, but I was influenced by my father, because when I was a young man I’d go down to Wall Street; a boy, really; and see the, the old Wall Street, if you remember, was canyons of small windows and dark offices, and there was none of this modern technology. It was people in the back room, they were serious researchers, and there was a relationship with the client. My father had clients that lasted his whole life. Their commissions were better, I suppose. It was a cultured profession, and a good one. He could make a good living, but at the same time he felt very satisfied that he was contributing to the American economic engine; Wall Street was a determinant of that, what—to help the companies, to help grow America. It was very much the Ronald Reagan view of America from the GE Theater, if you remember back in the 1950s, I think we used to watch it. And it was a very positive, Eisenhower view. I have to say I have reservations about that now that I’ve learned more about Mr. Roosevelt; my father was a big Roosevelt hater, and he used to, we had so many discussions at the dinner table about what Roosevelt did wrong, and blah, blah, blah; I think you know the nature of it. So it was more about the mood of the place.
RS: But if your father were alive today—
RS: Because I’ve run into these folks who used to believe that—he would say Roosevelt was right.
RS: And of course the animals took over, you know. Ah, he would be shocked.
OS: I think there is an irony to this. I think if my father had lived long enough to see the film, he would have agreed with much of what was said, because the Gordon Geckos were the new breed. That was the Michael Douglas character. My dad didn’t know those people. There was a couple of hustlers in the old days, but they were soon, you know, they were found out, driven out; there was a few scandals, but nothing major, major that I remember. But it was a mood, and I wanted to capture that, in 1987 after the success of Platoon, I wanted to do something quite different, another kind of war in this Wall Street world where the lighting, the mood, was different. It was back—in a sense it was a very 1950s film, if you look at it on film and you can see some of that lighting, some of those offices, and it was a return to my youth, trying to find out what it was all about. And of course in the Gecko character, we didn’t know it then, but we found gold. I mean, there was the story of a young boy like my father, myself, going to work, trying to be honest, but being tempted by the greed, the materialism of a society that was doing very well. Mr. Reagan, if you remember, in 1980 brought back this vision of America growing. The dawn—”Morning in America” began the dawn of America. Back to business, right? We didn’t, Americans didn’t know anything about what was going on—
RS: It was—you know, sometimes people create something much more important than they even recognize. And maybe you don’t even recognize what was so great about this movie, Wall Street, that you made, despite its honors. And what it captured was a very important turning point in America, which by the way, Ronald Reagan understood. Because what happened, you’re absolutely right. When Reagan came in—Reagan believed in a GE that actually no longer existed by the time he was president. It was the old GE that made things. And one thing to Reagan’s credit—I interviewed Reagan about all this stuff, you know, before he was governor, before he was president; I spent quite a bit of time with him—and what Reagan did, before he did the promotions for GE, he went to all the plants. And they had strong unions, great benefits, and this was when they were making a lot of money. And he was really impressed, because he after all had been a union leader, the Screen Actors Guild. And he said hey—
OS: Yeah. And an informer. [Laughs]
RS: Well, but I’m talking about the economics stuff. He looked at these plants and said, you know, hey, the bathrooms are clean; the benefits are good; they got medical coverage. You know, they’re making good wages, right? This is when you, you know, people even started to talk about the aristocracy of labor; you could be an auto worker, you know, and so forth, and make a real living, get a small boat, buy a house, and so forth. And he also—yes, as president he ushered in a lot of deregulation and so forth. By the end of his term you had the savings and loan scandal had exploded. And Reagan was shocked. And in fact, in one of your other movies that you’re a producer on, the movie about Larry Flynt, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, you have the Keating character—
OS: [Laughs] Yes, Charles Keating, yes. From Cincinnati.
RS: Charles Keating, who was—who was one of those savings and loan guys who went to jail. Yet he was the puritanical guy about, you know, let’s censor sex and everything.
OS: Jim Cromwell played him.
RS: Right. And it’s a brilliant scene in that movie. But going back to when you made Wall Street, was just that tipping point. And the irony is, because Reagan had the savings and loan scandal, they recognized that they had to have regulation. And actually, Reagan—I wrote this book called The Great American Stickup, so I document it—Reagan actually signed off on tougher regulation—
OS: Oh really?
RS: Yes, because he was so shocked, and so were—
OS: Good for him, yeah.
RS:—plenty of people in Congress, about the savings and loan—hey, these guys have gone wild. And it, by the way, was no longer the old GE. GE was now in finance capital, GE capital—
OS: That’s right. You’ve described it very well, yeah.
RS: Yeah, you know, they weren’t making light bulbs and refrigerators for their profit; they were doing, you know mortgage packages and finance and everything.
OS: Finance, yeah. And they got into a lot of trouble with it, if you remember.
RS: Right. So at the end of Reagan’s tenure, he really couldn’t pull off the deregulation.
OS: No. Like my father, you see, it probably would have turned into—well, we need a little of the Roosevelt reform. And I think my father would have gone the same way. He died, unfortunately, in ‘85, before the movie came out.
RS: But you dedicated the movie to him.
OS: But I respected my dad, because he was an honest man. And one sensed that about him, and that’s why the clients stayed with him. It wasn’t about making money; you see, money, when I grew up, was never talked about. It was considered gauche, it was not something that you were proud of. If you made a lot of money and boasted about it, you were nouveau, what they called nouveau riche, you know; somebody who’s just got no taste, from 7th Avenue, who makes clothes, and he boasts about his houses, and his—but now America has become that. That’s what’s shocking to me about the Trump age, how—
RS: Oh, it’s worse than that. Because I also interviewed Nelson Rockefeller and David Rockefeller and those people. They actually, like your father, worried about what their grandchildren would think. They actually worried about how this would look 40, 50 years up the road.
OS: Yeah. Yeah.
RS: The new crowd, the Gordon Gecko crowd that came in, they just wanted to get theirs and get out before the shit hit the fan. That was the basic idea.
OS: Yeah. Because the money was so big.
RS: And that’s what your movie captured; it was a swing moment in American society. Now we accept and we know that, these guys were a bunch of swindlers, you know, made legal because they could change the law and make what they do legal. But they were totally irresponsible, totally out of control. The thing that from a partisan point of view that is missed, is that it was Bill Clinton who revived this radical deregulation, worked with the, you know, the republicans in the Senate and in Congress, and pushed through the reversal of Franklin—he did what the original republicans had said they wanted to do. He reversed Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy.
OS: Well, I think Clinton—
RS: And that’s what your second movie got into.
OS: And Clinton, I think, realized that that’s where the bread was; the butter would be the banks, the money; the Democratic Party could find a new life out of the banks. And he somehow changed the whole—the whole system did shift about that time. And you know, the Clinton years were thought of as good years, but there was a lot of things that were happening underneath the surface that we now see were disastrous, such as the reestablishment of NATO in 1999, major countries in Eastern Europe joining NATO. His—the power of the Rubin—Robert Rubin, remember him, and the head of the Federal Reserve Board. And Larry Summers, I played tennis with him not too long ago. These people came into being, it was a “committee to rule the world,” remember those three people?
RS: Yeah, well that’s what Time magazine said—
OS: Yeah, that was a cover, Robert Rubin, the Soviet Union had wilted away—
RS: To “save the world” is what Time magazine—
OS, RS: “Committee to save the world.”
OS: Time magazine, 1999. I remember that cover because they’ve always been wrong, Time magazine; always. There’s that curse, you know. Like, when 1984 came, I remember—
OS:—they had a big cover, “George Orwell was wrong.” And that was so funny. I thought, this is so crazy. Because I didn’t trust Time at that point; I’d been to Vietnam, I’d read all their pro-Vietnam War stuff; Henry Luce was a very dangerous man, a Presbyterian minister, in a way. But anyway, when they said “the committee to save the world” and Robert Rubin was on the cover—you remember Rubin was a handsome, attractive banker, he made sense, and—
RS: He came from Goldman Sachs, he was Clinton’s treasury secretary, and after he gets the deregulation that makes Citigroup legal, because it was a merger of investment banks and commercial banks, he goes and works there for $15 million a year, for a decade.
OS: Yeah, for Sandy Weill, Sanford Weill, who my father worked for.
RS: Yeah, for Sandy Weill, who at least had the—and Sandy Weill at least had the decency at the end of the day to say he was wrong, and the deregulation was wrong. Rubin has never said that.
OS: That’s right. I’m glad you noticed that. No. Citibank was a monstrosity on the 2008 crash, played a large role. But Weill, about 2007 or ‘08, said—or ‘09, I think—he came out in an article and he wrote that he had been dead wrong about it. And he did more than any single individual, actually, to create this new world. My dad, ironically, in his last job, funny irony of history, worked for him and knew him a little bit. And Sandy kept him on, kept my dad on, he was about 74, 75 and he was in bad health; he kept my dad on to write the letter, the monthly letter that my father valued more than anything in his life. My father had an economic intellectual side. So it’s an irony that Sandy Weill helped him, but at the same time destroyed the world that my father knew.
RS: Well, and the irony is that Sandy Weill, who pushed through—when he was head of Traveler’s, actually, was the insurance company that had an investment business, and they merged—they merged with Citibank to become Citigroup. And they had to be bailed out by taxpayers, enormous amount of money. And the irony is that Sandy Weill said, yes, the decision to reverse Glass-Steagall was wrong, and to allow the merger. He said it, OK? But Paul Krugman in The New York Times—and The New York Times, by the way, was a cheerleader for this deregulation. They haven’t said that. And they still, now you have an effort in the Congress by Elizabeth Warren and John McCain, amazingly enough, to bring back Glass-Steagall—and they’re still put down as sort of an old-fashioned idea. So let me go a little further, Oliver.
OS: About the second Wall Street, yeah.
RS: I want to get in—yeah, I want to talk about the second Wall Street. And people felt with your second Wall Street, and then with your George Bush biopic and so forth—
RS:—W. They ask, is Oliver going easy now, right? You’ve heard that?
OS: [Laughs] I don’t think so.
RS: So how do you evaluate those two movies?
OS: Well, you know, I made five, six, seven documentaries in that period; all of them were very, very critical of our foreign policy, and Untold History [of the United States] is the most, perhaps the biggest achievement I’ve ever had in my life as a documentarian.
RS: For people who don’t know it, you made it for—
OS: 2008 to 2013. I made it for Showtime, and it’s now on Netflix.
RS: If you want to know what fake news is, it’s the world that Oliver Stone tears apart in this documentary series. Because it starts with the whole start of the Cold War, you know, the lying about what happened; it’s very well documented. I don’t know of anyone who’s been able to provide a serious critique of that film. And so the way they’ve dealt with it is by ignoring it, basically.
OS: Mainstream did. But we had great reviews from the progressives, and we keep selling. All over the world, by the way; we’ve sold it in every country, and it’s been on, it’s getting around, and it’s getting seen and read; Netflix makes it more available to everybody. I’m very proud of it. But anyway, look, the films—yeah, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Soft, they said. Some people said soft. But the truth was, we had changed. And in a sense, there was no need to do a Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps because our Wall Street, our society had become so corrupt by 2008 that money was being made. In other words, the Geckos were out of business because the banks had become the Geckos. And we’re talking, not $20, $30, $40 million, $50, $200 million; we’re talking a billion dollars now, per individual. That never, that concept very rarely existed in the old days; it would be five, six individuals, the Gettys, the Rockefellers, who would talk that kind of money. All of a sudden, anybody could make a billion dollars. Wall Street started when I was researching Scarface in Miami in 1980, and running into this new phenomenon of the get-rich-quick schemes, the cocaine selling, the cocaine gangsters. And I traveled up to Wall Street from Miami, and in Wall Street a lot of my people who I’d known as young men were now working on Wall Street at the same age as I was, and making millions of dollars a year, much more than I was making in the movie business.
RS: And leading a decadent life—
OS: And snorting coke, sure, and going to work, you know. So it was another world. And by 2007, we shot the film in suffused colors, because we were saying look, the corruption is, it’s beyond just being corruption; it’s just reached another level of acceptance. It’s a low-hanging fruit to become rich.
RS: [omission] You know, this may sound like a trite observation on my part. But I have always thought of you, in a way, as a conservative.
OS: [Laughs] Yeah, probably so.
RS: No, really. I mean, you’re, there’s something very old-fashioned, Jack Armstrong, something about, you know, going up against power, trying to find the truth of the matter, believing there are virtuous activities that one should pursue. I see Snowden that way, by the way.
OS: Yes. Boy scout.
RS: Boy scout.
OS: But I’m not a boy scout, you know, I’ve been in trouble a lot—
RS: Well, you have, so what, why, ‘cause you can get a DUI or something? But the fact of the matter is, you are a boy scout. You’ve been a family person—come on, I know you, I just was at your house now. You know, I know something about you, in fact today I was supposed to be interviewed by your son Sean, I had to cancel him because I had a chance to interview you. And he’s pretty terrific. So you know, I’ve observed your life; I worked for you on a movie, a couple movies, actually, writing a script. I’ve seen you, and you are actually a believer in American enterprise.
OS: I do.
RS: You know, and you are really acting out on the philosophy of your father, as far as I can see.
OS: That’s correct. I am, there’s many conservative sides to my nature, you’re right. And I value somebody who values the past; I’m a traditionalist that way. We should remember the past. I’m a historian, too; I care about the history. In our country we don’t remember our history, and we don’t remember the bad things that we do, and because we don’t remember it we do them again. The movie, the other movie I did, the W. movie, is a case in point. Because this George W. Bush, when he came into office in 2000, it was a shock to me; I don’t know about you, but to me—
RS: And for people who didn’t listen to the first part of this, you were actually at Yale when he was there, even though you didn’t know him. But you had a similar sort of encounter in education, yeah.
OS: Yeah, I met him at that point, too. And he reminded me that he’d been in my class at Yale; I didn’t know him. And he was running for president, and you know, he was a C student; and he really was a C student. He just had no interest, curiosity in history, or call it the real world as we know it. He’d always lived in a sheltered, privileged family, and he’d never gone outside Yale like I had. So there was a whole different world view. But when he committed us to this Iraq war, that was really the end for me. So for me, the story ended in 2004; that’s where I ended the movie, because it was madness. And it was, here we had been attacked in 9/11, and here he declared war on the universe, global war on terror; it’s you’re either with us or against us. It signed, that was a death treaty. We signed that treaty, or something, he thought we did, that we had committed to this war, eternal war. And you could tell it was coming. And when we went to Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, it compounded the sin.
RS: The commitment to eternal war was a wet dream of American capitalists.
OS: No, it’s a death dream, it’s a death dream.
RS: No, but it was also what brought excitement and relief. Because the great fear was that this engine needed a military-based economy. And you know, I wrote a book about this also, called The Pornography of Power. And hours before 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld gave a speech at the Pentagon in which he said: the greatest enemy now in the world is, you know, bent on conquest and needs money and wastes money, and so forth. And he said: it’s the Pentagon. And it’s the Pentagon because they don’t want to cut back. And the first President Bush had talked about it, had tried to cut it by one-third. And then the Bush administration, when it first came in, once talked about it. Then 9/11 happened, and now you have your fantasy enemy. It’s everywhere, you can’t define it, you can’t defeat it, it will always be with you, right? You don’t make peace—
OS: Yeah. But don’t neglect the father Bush; the first Bush did go to war, also, in 1991 in a big way. As the Soviet Union’s falling apart, we give the message to the rest of the world that, look, we’re going into Panama and we’re going into Kuwait. And we sent 500,000 troops to the Middle East. That was a huge mistake, huge mistake. You remember, Bob, and I remember, when we, American—when it was 500,000 troops in Vietnam, people went crazy. We said how many—we had never put 500,000 troops abroad, except in World War II. How can we do this again? This is not a world war. And we did it, and we did it again in Kuwait in the Middle East, and nobody—we blinked; nobody really was paying attention. Except for those who really were against that war. The reason I did this Untold History—and I really, I thought that Bush was an aberration, an aberration to, this is a strange incident in history, this guy got elected but he didn’t get elected, he won this election because of the Supreme Court, and he’s an ignoramus and we’ll survive this. Well, we didn’t survive it, because he won again in 2004 against a guy who had been a war hero, like Mr. Kerry is, ironically; Mr. Bush had dodged the draft. So everything was upside down in our culture, everything including Wall Street. 2008 was karma; it happened. The same thing is going to happen, I believe, unfortunately, in our lifetime. I think you and I are old enough now that we’re going to see the full circle. I worry about this for our young ones, but I do see a karma that cannot go on like this, because we keep dishing it out, we keep ordering the world around, we keep saying aggressive things, and we don’t think we have to pay for it. We don’t think that it’s going to come back on us. But it does, in history it does.
RS: OK. I know you’ve got a new movie coming out on Vladimir Putin.
OS: A documentary.
RS: Documentary. And when you make it and people watch it, that’s something we can have another interview. But I am alarmed about this notion of “make America great”—which, by the way, is not just Donald Trump, because Hillary Clinton said it’s always been great. And we’re always, you know—and we’re never really wrong, and whatever we do is somehow justified and so forth. And I think of Russia, now having been demonized, we’re in kind of a new Cold War. And I want to maybe conclude this with a cautionary tale, because I think really, your Untold History is really a cautionary tale. It’s a tale of one mishap, one distortion, one fake news episode after another.
OS: That’s what we found out after five years—and I had never studied history until that moment; I really studied for five years—Mr. Bush is not an aberration. He is a continuation of a foreign policy that has gotten more and more violent.
RS: And we never assume the other sides in the world have a point of view that has to be respected. And what scares me about this moment—maybe it’s a way to conclude; people should be alert to it—the fact is, Russia still has half the nuclear weapons. These weapons can be used, by us or by them. We’ve just dropped, under Donald Trump, the biggest conventional bomb ever dropped, was dropped in Afghanistan.
OS: And there’s no fear of nuclear war in America. In Russia, yes. There’s much more knowledge of war, because they’d invaded, their homeland was wiped out by the Nazis. They still, it’s in their DNA. I’ve been over there a few times, you have too; I feel they know that they’re under enormous pressure. They know that the United States’s intentions are not good ones. And I think the United States’s people, the people who run our society, they’ve forgotten what war is. In a sense, Mr. Trump is too eager to try out these new weapons to see if he can win one. There’s no winning a war like this. It’s a nuclear winter, and that’s been written about; it’s still denied, nuclear winter is still denied as a scientific concept by our leadership. We have to relearn what nuclear war is, we have to study Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have to study the nuclear proliferation that we’ve allowed throughout the world. You know more about it than I do, but it’s depressing.
RS: Well, let’s end on a depressing note—
OS: Yeah, of course, we have to—
RS:—after all, that’s Robert Scheer and Oliver Stone. So let me just say one thing. Yes, this is a frightening moment.
RS: And we have a president who many people feel is somewhat unstable, or very much unstable, who is salesman before he’s anything else, and blah, blah, blah. And he has the power, as any president has had, to destroy life on this planet in a matter of moments. Right? And the question is, why hasn’t that been contained? We believe in limited government. We believe in checks and balances. How come we have invested in the president of the United States, republican, democrat, all during this period, the power—and you made a movie, Nixon. We know Nixon, your movie, was criticized; I happened to work on it. But now we know a great deal about Nixon, because the tapes, when you made your movie very little was known. I forget how many hours was known when you met Nixon, some very small—
OS: Two hundred and some hours, wasn’t it.
RS: Yeah, and then now we have all of it, there’s a public record; John Dean, who was a consultant on Nixon, has actually done a terrific book with the whole history of the Nixon tapes and what’s in it, and he’s listened to them endlessly. And the fact of the matter is, you know, Donald Trump is not just the first wild man to have his finger near that button. You know, Nixon was drunk when he had it; Reagan was probably, you know, had too severe Alzheimer’s to make serious decisions; Lyndon Johnson was into worrying about the next election rather than death and destruction.
OS: It’s really scary.
RS: And mentioning Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not a bad way to end an interview of this sort, because the fact is, it’s the greatest act of terror in world history in that you deliberately, deliberately decide to incinerate people in daytime when children are going to school to maximize the casualties, to show that your investment in this bomb was actually justified.
OS: I most fear North Korea right now, in this moment, because it’s a natural place for Mr. Trump to try out his new—if he wants to be the tough guy, as Bush was, we’re going to see an example somewhere soon.
RS: OK, Oliver. I want to thank you for this two-part interview. Not as fascinating as your movies, but people can watch that on their own time.
OS: Thank you, Bob.
RS: Our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Our excellent technical engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.
—Posted by Emma Niles
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