How many ways can esteemed journalists suck up to a serial killer?
If the criminal is Ted Kaczynski, a k a the Unabomber, the sky's the limit. When Katie Couric, Barbara Walters, Larry King, Dan Rather and others want the big "get" -- an interview with a worldwide celebrity, notorious or otherwise -- they and their minions often pull out the rhetorical stops.
To some environmentalists, gushed Shawn Efran of "60 Minutes II," "you are a hero and a pioneer."
"I hope you decide it's in your better interests to explain yourself to the nation . . . the world . . . by using me," wrote "Good Morning America" correspondent Don Dahler.
Larry Ish, producer for "The Roseanne Show," was more personal: "I believe that you and her would definitely 'hit it off' and the conversation would definitely be interesting and fulfilling for the both of you."
These and other pitch letters from 1999 were unearthed by TheSmokingGun.com from files donated by Kaczynski to a University of Michigan library. They amount to a case study in the art of journalistic seduction, even when the person being courted used mail bombs to kill three people and injure more than 20.
"What was really hard for me was mailing it," says New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright. "You should have seen the look I got from the postal clerk."
In his letter, Wright said: "I'm particularly interested in why certain people feel the need to act out what they have read in books or seen in movies. . . . I am also a screenwriter (my first movie, 'The Siege,' starring Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis, came out last November). There is violence depicted in my work -- in particular, terrorists who are setting off bombs in New York.
"So we have a lot in common," Wright explains with a laugh.
CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren noted that she handled death penalty cases as a defense lawyer: "I would like to focus on, among other things, the issue of whether a mental illness defense can be or should be forced on a legally competently accused. . . . Your case is particularly fascinating since you reject the findings and no one can dispute that you are an extremely smart man," she wrote.
"I stand by that letter," Van Susteren says. "The guy's a very bright, high-IQ murderer. Remember, I used to represent these despicable people. I've walked death row."
Some letters were rather straightforward. An interview "would give you a chance to explain your experiences to our huge audience and also the opportunity to share your views and concerns, which I know you've long wanted to do," NBC's Couric wrote, adding: "I'd also be more than happy to just come and meet with you, if you think that would be helpful."
"Barbara Walters will provide a fair forum for you to express your views, and you could reach the most people by appearing on '20/20,' one of the most-watched programs on television," wrote ABC producer Katie Thomson.
"It is my understanding that this request is next to impossible . . . but perhaps the impossible can be overturned by your participation," "Larry King Live" producer Bobby Grossman penned in a handwritten note.
Dahler, the "Good Morning America" reporter who offered to be used, waxed more poetic: "I feel strongly that the only way to truly understand someone is to see their eyes, hear their voice, their inflections, their passion -- not just read their opinions and explanations. . . . I know I represent a form of technology abhorrent to you, but I also know from reading excerpts from your journal . . . and descriptions of the intricately made explosive devices that you have a talent for using anything at hand for your purposes."
It can't be easy putting a positive spin on mail bombs.
"My point there was to find something in what he does and who he is that he would enjoy talking about," Dahler says. "If he's proud of his ability to make certain things -- such as those horrible bombs -- perhaps that's a way to start a conversation. Then we can talk about the more malevolent sides of his character. . . . I wasn't trying to kiss up to him. I was just trying to be honest with him about my interest in his philosophies."
Efran, the "60 Minutes II" producer, was the most effusive. He told Kaczynski he had been talking to people in Oregon about "the movement you inspired" and how "your writings awakened in them a desire to smash down technological society by whatever means necessary." As for those who say he's schizophrenic, "I want to give you the opportunity to respond point-by-point to their allegations and to show the American people that you are, in fact, rational, clear-headed and sane."
Efran also took pains to distance his show from his sister program: "I work for our chief CBS anchor Dan Rather. . . . Please understand that '60 Minutes II' is NOT the program on which your brother and mother appeared. They appeared on '60 Minutes' with Mike Wallace and Lesley Stahl. . . . Our story will allow you to personally refute what they said about you."
CBS spokesman Kevin Tedesco says the letter was "not derogatory at all" toward "60 Minutes." "It uses what any journalist would use to entice him to come on the program," he says.
Bryan Denson of the Portland Oregonian went negative on the opposition: "I suspect by now that every blow-dried TV phony has written to beg you for an interview. I won't beg. You will find my pitch to you very specific. I have no ulterior motives. I don't want to write a book, don't want to make a movie. I only want to talk with you for about two hours about the environment, the natural world, wild nature . . . deep ecology . . . the radical environmental movement . . . the urban anarchist movement."
Says Denson: "I was hoping to make it sound that I was going to be a bit more academically rigorous. . . . Is it hard to get people who have murdered people to talk to you? It hasn't been in the past. I did it quite frequently when I was writing about the death penalty in Texas."
For the record, none of the letter writers got the desired interview.