A Conversation with Author Gerald Posner
Gerald Posner is a New York Times Best-Selling author whose latest book, God's Bankers, was released earlier this year to reviews of high praise and quickly found its place on the 2015 New York Times Best Seller list. After a brief career as a lawyer, he turned to journalism and became known for his superlative investigative skill, meticulous research and faced-paced style that brings history alive. A prolific writer, he has written columns for national magazines and newspapers and has been a frequent television contributor to NBC, the History Channel, CNN, Fox News and CBS. Stay Thirsty Magazine was fortunate to visit with Gerald Posner at his home in Miami Beach for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: You spent almost a decade researching and writing your new book, God's Bankers, and toward the end of your project Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013. One of his first Papal orders was directed at cleaning up the Istituto per le Opere di Religione or simply, the Vatican Bank. After working for so long to uncover the facts of scandal, abuse, secrecy, murder and power, how did you feel about this turn of events?
GERALD POSNER: I was skeptical. Previous Popes had tried cleaning up the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank and despite some earnest efforts little had changed over the decades. So I was not sure initially whether Francis was just paying lip service to the festering issue of financial reform or whether he was serious about making meaningful changes.
I also realized that some improvements were inevitable no matter who was Pope. They had started under his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who had passed the Vatican's first ever statute against money laundering, and had allowed a precedent-setting financial inspection by the European Union. If it had failed to cooperate with the EU, the Vatican ran the risk of losing the right to use the Euro as its own currency. So unless a future Pope decided to have the city-state print its own money, the dye had been cast under Benedict that the days in which the Vatican Bank operated as an offshore bank in the heart of Rome were numbered.
Francis turned out to be a pleasant surprise. He has put Benedict's reforms on steroids and really started to shake up the moneymen inside the Vatican.
STAY THIRSTY: God's Bankers is your twelfth book and it has been praised for its thriller-like style, its fast pace and its exhaustive research with over 3,400 footnotes. Clearly this was a massive undertaking on your part to research and marshal the facts and then to turn it all into an exciting read. How did you manage to do it? What was your process?
GERALD POSNER: After twelve books, I should have a better idea of the scope of a project when I start. But all too frequently I underestimate it. And there was no better example of that than God's Bankers. When I proposed the book to Simon & Schuster in 2005, I envisioned primarily investigating the Vatican's finances from World War II through the 1980s. Only when I got into the reporting did I keep rolling back the start of the story as well as realizing I'd like to bring it up to current times. Fortunately, I had a publisher who supported my expanding vision.
As for the process, it stays pretty much the same for each book. I, and my wife, Trisha – an author in her own right – first get acquainted with a new topic by reading everything we can find in books, academic journals, and long-form articles. That allows me to create a list of "would like" and "must have" interviews. And at that stage I also start the Freedom of Information [FOIA] requests, having by then a pretty good idea of what I suspect might be in government files but not yet declassified. Queries then go out to a long list of national and private archives that Trisha and I will often travel to in order to scour their files.
Invariably, people I interview will suggest others to whom I should talk, so that list grows over time. And depending on what we find in archives or what comes back from FOIA, I am often chasing new and unexpected lines of inquiry.
One of my real strengths is the capability to eventually look at a room filled with boxes crammed with thousands of pages of documents and dozens of hours on interviews, and instinctively know the story I want to tell from all that information. I do not make an outline, it is just in my head. And when I have enough research and reporting, I simply start writing.
STAY THIRSTY: The Vatican Bank has released its Annual Report for 2012 and 2013 and during that time, at the direction of Pope Francis, many connected with the bank have been fired and many accounts not consistent with the Bank's mission to serve Church-related entities, organizations and employees, have been closed. Somewhat surprisingly, according to the 2013 Annual Report, the Vatican Bank had assets of only €3.4 billion ($3.6 billion), which is smaller than a mid-sized community bank in the United States, and yet it allowed members of the Curia to wield enormous power and influence. Do you think that Pope Francis' reforms will last or will the power of secrecy that has always shrouded dealings of the Vatican come back when he is gone?
GERALD POSNER: It is fascinating that although it is small in assets when measured to Western banks, the Vatican Bank wields outsized influence. In part that is because it developed an allure of great power by operating for so many years in the dark and without any oversight. Since no one knew what the bank was really doing, rumors mostly overestimated how much money was stashed in its secret accounts. But notwithstanding the size of its assets, it was unquestionably a magnet for a who's who list of prominent Italians. And eventually, as scandals played out, the public was fascinated by the alternate tales that revealed the bank was at times in partnership with some of the greatest business rogues in modern Italian history, and that at other times some of the country's top politicians had used accounts there as personal slush funds.
Whether the Vatican Bank reforms championed by Francis will survive him is an open question. It is too early to determine since it takes a longer time for the reforms to change the underlying culture in the financial bureaucracy that runs the bank. If Francis is Pope for five years or more, then I think the odds are good that going forward the Vatican Bank will be a mostly compliant, fairly boring, financial institution. If that's the case, then the crazy and often sordid past I set forth in my book will truly be a history only.
STAY THIRSTY: When you were researching this book, how difficult was it for you to get cooperation from the Vatican? Considering all of the intrigues that you uncovered, did you ever fear for your personal safety?
GERALD POSNER: I knew it would be difficult to get inside the Secret Archives. However, since the Vatican does allow historians and researchers to sometimes have access, I was able to convince the Bishop in Miami, and the Nuncio in Washington D.C., to make the request on my behalf. Still, I was told no. In part, the Bishop who ran the Secret Archives at the Vatican told me that the documents I wanted were at the Vatican Bank, and by its charter, were not available. That meant I had the harder task of piecing together the story from files scattered in archives on three continents, and also from private collections and litigation files in several countries.
More disappointing than being turned away from the archives, was that Vatican Press Office simply ignored for years several dozen requests by snail mail, fax, email, and telephone messages, seeking interviews with a long list of people who worked at Vatican City. I am accustomed on my book projects to someone not wanting to interview. Occasionally, when I reach out to an individual, their way of saying "no" is simply not to answer. But I have never had the department that is serving as a press office for both a sovereign country as well as one of the world's biggest religions, simply ignore all requests for assistance. It served as a vivid reminder that the Vatican's press office is still antiquated when it comes to cultivating good media relations.
I have never feared for my personal safety as a result of this book or any previous project. And at times I have found myself wandering through Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle with heroin traffickers and traveling through the outback in Paraguay with neo-Nazis. I do not have the "fear gene" when it comes to what I have to do to uncover a story. That's important for any good investigative journalist or any war reporter. But, I realize it is only about risk tolerance. I accept the risks associated with my reporting, so it does not bother me. Still, I don't smoke because I am afraid of getting cancer. I don't even skateboard because I'm worried about taking a tumble and breaking a leg. That's risk tolerance. Go figure.
STAY THIRSTY: Of all the people that appear in God's Bankers, who do you admire the most and who do you admire the least?
GERALD POSNER: That is a really tough question. At least for me. During the project, I try very hard to take a journalist's view of my characters, meaning it is about reporting the facts without getting somehow attached to or repelled by them. I'm the type of writer who does not editorialize, but instead I present the facts and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions. That doesn't mean I am not passionate about the issues at hand, but it means I try not get into a "admire most" and "admire the least" mode. So I spent considerable time mulling this over. I hope you don't think it a cop out but the characters I like the most and least are all involved in World War II. There is not a single person who gets the biggest thumbs up, instead it is the small group of clerics who risked their lives repeatedly during the war to save Jews. And those at the very bottom of my list are those clerics who ran the ratlines that helped Nazi war criminals escape justice.
STAY THIRSTY: You recounted in an interview on THE DAILY SHOW that you sent a copy of your book with a letter to Pope Francis. Do you expect him to respond and if so, what do you think he will say?
GERALD POSNER: I sent that letter and book to Pope Francis with some small hope that he might personally respond. If this had been any previous Pope, I might not have even sent it, knowing that it would be unlikely to reach the Pope, and even if it did, nothing would happen. One of the great things about Francis – and one of the traits that drives his press office crazy – is his unpredictability. He has left messages on the answering machine of some nuns who tried to get in touch with him. Another time he called a victim of sex abuse to commiserate over the phone. So I believe that Francis's staff is too nervous not to show him something that is sent to him personally. His advisers almost certainly are counseling him to ignore my book and not to respond. But I have not lost faith. What would I hope for if he calls? A very simple statement of his commitment to reforming the Vatican's finances would be great. And I would be over the moon if he said that he would consider my request for him to order the release of the Vatican's Holocaust-era files. Hope springs eternal.
STAY THIRSTY: Your books have dealt with the recurring themes of money, power, crime and sex, and you have chronicled assassination, dictators, warlords, kings and Popes. Why did you decide to focus on these themes and subjects? What in your personal life motivated you to want to research and investigate these topics?
GERALD POSNER: I laughed out loud when I read this question. Only when you put it together like this does it sound like I must be propelled to tackle such dark figures and topics because of some subconscious motivation. In fact, most of my topics came about because of something I came across while researching an earlier book. And my very first project came from my earlier career as an attorney. I had agreed to a pro-bono representation of a couple of surviving twins of Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele's concentration camp experiments. That research continued for nearly four years. And while the lawsuit was not successful, I eventually took some 25,000 pages of documents I had gathered about Mengele's life as a fugitive, and together with a British journalist John Ware, we published a biography of Mengele (1986). It had been during my reporting in Paraguay for that book that I came across some Corsicans who were fugitives from international heroin trafficking charges. Although they would not talk to me about Nazis, they regaled with me stories about the heroin business, mostly bemoaning that it had gone to rot ever since Chinese Triads had taken control. That was enticing enough for Trisha and me to head to Hong Kong and then the Golden Triangle chasing that story. That became my second book (Warlords of Crime, 1988). The 1991 Hitler's Children, a collection of interviews with sons and daughters of top Nazis, came to me as an idea after the Mengele biography. There I had covered Mengele's only son, Rolf, and discovered how conflicted he was; that became the basis for a book when I found a publisher who liked that idea. The book on Martin Luther King's assassination (Killing the Dream, 1998) came from my interest in the JFK assassination (Case Closed, 1993). Secrets of the Kingdom (2005), about Saudi Arabia, came from my work about 9/11 (Why America Slept, 2003). That book was prompted because Trisha and I lived in NY during the World Center attack. In the days after 9/11, we were volunteering with hundreds of other people, to help in any way possible. During a break one day, a college student sitting next to us asked what we did for a living. Journalists. Then what are you doing here, she asked, why aren't you out there finding out what happened. So off we went.
God's Bankers, by the way, again stretches all the way back to my Mengele research. When I was in Buenos Aires in 1984, I got access to the Federal Police file on Mengele. In that room, I saw other documents that showed the arrival of Nazis in postwar Argentina, some with the help of a priest in Rome, others with the assistance of a Bishop. I stored that in the back of my mind. It took more than 20 years before I had enough information to submit a good proposal to a publisher.
STAY THIRSTY: You have written about Dr. Martin Luther King, Ross Perot, John F. Kennedy, Adolph Hitler and Josef Mengele. Why did you choose these men in particular?
GERALD POSNER: I didn't choose them. They chose me. True, with Mengele and Perot, I did settle on persons, although the former was because of a pro-bono lawsuit that ended up as a book. With Perot, I was fascinated by his quirky outsider status that for a brief moment offered the promise of remarkable change mixed in with his unpredictable and folksy personal style. In the cases of Hitler, Kennedy, King, they are key to stretches of history or tragic events that I find compelling. And it was not until I got well into two books that it became evident to me that it was critical to understand Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray. In both of those assassination studies, the first third of each book turns into a biography of the assassins. No one can really understand why Kennedy or King was killed unless they get into the minds of Oswald and Ray.
STAY THIRSTY: You wear many hats: attorney, investigative journalist, novelist and historian. Which one best describes the "real" Gerald Posner?
GERALD POSNER: I prefer investigative journalist. Although I think that it is somewhat redundant for any good reporter. A close second is simply "author." As for historian, I am old-fashioned and think someone needs to have a Ph.D. added to their name before they qualify. So writing histories, like the one in God's Bankers, doesn't make me a historian. At least as I see it.
STAY THIRSTY: What is next for you?
GERALD POSNER: I wish I knew. I never know what is next when one project ends. That is mostly because I'm so immersed in the book of the moment that I can't see anything else yet. Soon, Trisha and I will start talking about what interests us and what we might want to live with for the next few years. Once we settle on "what's next," then it is off to the publisher to see if they like it. Any ideas? I'm entertaining them all right now.