A Quarter-Century of ‘Uncommon Knowledge’
A history of the long-running public affairs show hosted by Peter Robinson.
|Guy Denton||May 15||53||12|
When the first episode of Uncommon Knowledge aired via PBS on May 18, 1996, those involved in its creation never once considered that the program would become conservatism’s most consequential vehicle for in-depth conversation. Today, the Stanford-founded talk show has assumed almost mythic status among political junkies and those intrigued by public policy. Peter Robinson, its host, is looked upon with reverence by fans across generational lines, and new episodes accrue thousands of views on YouTube within hours of publication.
But in the beginning, Uncommon Knowledge hardly enjoyed such esteem. The McLaughlin Group and Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. had been established on television for years, and provided cerebral discussions of public affairs that seemed difficult for Robinson to match. Viewing figures were meager, and many public intellectuals were unwilling to participate in the program at all. Yet Robinson’s measured, incisive interview technique and warm demeanor engendered such strong dialogue with guests who did appear that greater success was inevitable. By 2000, over 100 PBS member stations were broadcasting Uncommon Knowledge, and Robinson was being recognized in the streets of New York by eager viewers. Since then, the show has continued to rise in popularity.
The full story of Uncommon Knowledge has never been documented with particular thoroughness. On the program’s 25th anniversary, it seemed appropriate to address that oversight. I spoke at length with Robinson and Scott Immergut, who has served as executive producer since 2011. Over a series of Zoom calls, we explored the show’s past, present, and future, as well as many of the memorable anecdotes that have emerged from its production.
Before Uncommon Knowledge began, Robinson followed a unique professional journey. After spending six years as a White House speechwriter in the Reagan administration (where he famously penned Reagan’s Berlin Wall Speech), he enrolled at Stanford Business School in 1988. “In all kinds of ways,” he told me, “that was a decision that made no sense. My brilliant business career collapsed almost instantly.”
Upon his graduation in 1990, Robinson began working with Rupert Murdoch, who was developing what would become Fox News. But recession struck that year, and forced him to leave the role for a position in public affairs with the Securities and Exchange Commission. When Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election, it became clear that this job also wouldn’t last. Fate seemed to be laughing at Robinson, until he received a call from John Raisian, an accomplished economist who was then the director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Raisian offered Robinson a position at Hoover, which he accepted in April 1993.
“We were like-minded in all kinds of ways,” Robinson said of Raisian. “Why did he give me a call? Because at Stanford Business School, I’d gotten to know people at Hoover. I’d stopped by a few times, I’d gone to lunch with fellows. And John had several members of his board telling him that Hoover had to produce some video product. That video was the coming thing, and he had to do something.”
In response, Raisian conceived of Uncommon Knowledge, a program in which Hoover fellows would engage in sophisticated policy discussions. He chose the name as an allusion to “the uncommon man,” a phrase used by Herbert Hoover in reference to individuals who would bring about mankind’s great advancements. As Robinson was unencumbered by other responsibilities, Raisian selected him to lead the project, which was more an obligation than a pleasure in its early stages of development. “It turned out to be tremendously time-consuming,” Robinson told me. “The starting staff was zero, so I had to scramble around to find people who would be willing to do the darn thing.”
One of those staff members was William Free, who joined the show as its first producer. Free “had connections in the world of PBS,” Robinson recalled, and secured a television deal with the network that allowed Uncommon Knowledge to initially air on two local stations. “One was the San Jose affiliate, and the other was the San Mateo affiliate. We thought that was a pretty big deal, because all of a sudden, we were on television.”
To distinguish the program from its contemporaries, Free thought to record episodes at Macarthur Park, a restaurant close to the Stanford campus. “The idea was sort of My Dinner with Andre, people drinking and enjoying themselves,” Robinson said. “It would make the show stand out a little bit visually. We were a think tank, and our constant danger was that we would bore people. So if you put it in a setting where people appear to be relaxed, it looks as though they’re just having a conversation over a meal. And that lightens the feel of the show, it makes it seem more conversational.”
The inaugural episode of Uncommon Knowledge is available in full on YouTube. In it, Robinson moderates a debate between former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III and former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara on ending the war on drugs. This topic was chosen primarily because Meese and McNamara were willing to appear on the show at a time when most public figures were not. “In those days,” Robinson said, “the guests were the whole problem. There weren’t that many Hoover fellows who wanted to sit down with me in a restaurant in front of a camera. So we began inviting people other than Hoover fellows quite quickly.” Even when that decision was made, finding guests proved challenging for some time due to the show’s low viewing figures in its early years.
Robinson begins the episode by introducing Uncommon Knowledge as a program dedicated to serious exchanges of ideas. This opening, however, proved comical to shoot. “We had to do about a dozen takes,” Robinson recalled when I showed him the clip. “Airplanes kept flying over and ruining the shot. And those huge glasses, why was I wearing those?”
Producing the episode itself, as well as those that followed, was also far from trouble-free. In the restaurant, “it took ages to get the lighting just right, and quite often by the time we did and the guests arrived I was drenched with sweat,” Robinson continued. Indeed, technical issues extended beyond the oppressive heat of oversized lights. Filming in such an environment was often “a catastrophe, because you couldn’t control the noise, the sound in the background. There were constant setbacks in the small sense. A waiter drops a plate and there’s a crashing sound. Stop, cut, ‘Peter, can you ask that question again?’”
Robinson, who had no prior experience as an interviewer, was intimidated by the prospect of hosting the program at first, but swiftly overcame his anxiety. “In high school, I appeared in a couple of plays. You’re nervously waiting in the wings, then you walk out, speak a line or two, and the nervousness subsides. Same sort of thing. I found I became quite engrossed in the conversation,” he said. When Robinson glimpsed his reflection while shooting, or noticed the sound of his own voice, he nonetheless remained confident. “I don’t look like Cary Grant and I don’t sound like Gregory Peck. But it didn’t bother me. In the moment, I forgot all about it.” Ironically, though, diners in the restaurant would often mistake Robinson for a celebrity of such proportion. “People would see a camera setup and lights, and they'd think, ‘Oh, someone famous.’ Then they’d come over to me and say, ‘Who the hell is that?’”
To craft questions that would provoke compelling discussion, Robinson determined to prepare for each episode as thoroughly as possible. “I decided the only thing I could do was really know the material,” he told me. “Not try to get by on personality or entertainment value, but to put the substance at the heart of the show. I’m not playing the Washington game of trying to get an embarrassing moment or an unexpected revelation that will trend on Twitter and help my ratings. I am genuinely trying to elicit the guest’s thinking.”
This approach to conversation distinguished Uncommon Knowledge in its formative years, and continues to separate the show from its contemporaries. Robinson has prepared for every interview with rigorous precision since that first show. “Typically,” he said, “these people are all public figures. So I will have read columns they’ve written in the preceding months, or transcripts of interviews they’ve given. I want to know what’s been on their mind in the month or two before I talk to them. I take notes, and I actually do type the questions out word for word. The prep time the way I do it is quite onerous, to tell you the truth. I need that quite thorough structure in order to feel free to improvise.”
“If I haven’t departed from the script at all, something’s not gone right with the show,” he continued. “A show, like ordinary conversation, should have a certain element of spontaneity, which means I’ll skip a question or drop a segment or move a segment from top to bottom. But I feel I only have the freedom to do that if I actually know the material pretty well. And that requires me to write six or seven pages of notes and questions and arrange them carefully.”
Robinson hopes that this fastidiousness ultimately affords viewers a more human understanding of his guests. “I like to shape the show so that one segment leads into another, and they cumulatively allow the audience to feel that the interview has gone someplace. It should feel like a journey. Typically, I’ve found it works if you start at the level of simple argument and exposition, and then by the time the program has ended you’re at the level of personality. I believe that’s one reason people seem to enjoy interviews with Tom Sowell. Tom always has an argument, but in the same show you can talk to him about what it was like to live in Washington, D.C. when it was a segregated town. If you have someone saying that affirmative action is a mistake, it’s one thing to hear that, it’s another to be reminded that the person knows what it was like to live with Jim Crow laws in the Deep South.”
By 1998, Uncommon Knowledge was growing rapidly in stature, and had begun airing on approximately 30 PBS stations. At that time, William F. Buckley Jr. was preparing to retire from hosting Firing Line, which itself aired on PBS, after more than 30 years in the role. Early in the year, Robinson attended an event in Southern California honoring Ronald Reagan, where Buckley was the keynote speaker. The pair stayed in the same hotel, and at one point, Buckley invited Robinson to his room for a private conversation, in which he revealed that Firing Line would come to an end at the close of the millennium. “I said, ‘Don’t do that,’ and he brushed that aside,” Robinson told me. “This was not a discussion.”
Buckley continued by announcing that he had selected Uncommon Knowledge to replace Firing Line in the PBS system. Robinson was to be his successor. “I said, ‘Bill, I can't do that. I'm not you,’” Robinson told me. But Buckley was adamant that the program would flourish. “For a moment or two, I think this was the only time in all the years I knew Bill when he actually became angry with me. He was dismissive. He thought I was saying something very foolish. ‘I’m me and you’re you,’ he said. ‘Just do it your way.’”
To illustrate his respect for Robinson, Buckley appeared on Uncommon Knowledge on July 29, 1998, debating Christopher Hitchens on the legacy of the 1960s.
By this time, the restaurant setting had been replaced by an enormous, colorfully decorated space beneath the Stanford campus, which Immergut referred to in our conversation as the “intellectual man cave.” Robinson believes that, even today, few people at Stanford are aware of this area. “We discovered in one of the buildings on the main quad that below the basement, they had excavated a sub-basement about the size of a barn,” he recalled. “It was for the communications department to use in the days when television was even cruder than it was when we were shooting.”
William Free hired a set designer to convert the room into what Robinson saw as “a stage set, essentially. The walls were fake with concrete behind them. One of the cameras was at the top of a ladder so we could get shots from a huge distance. This was old-fashioned television: Give it depth, light it beautifully, produce interesting camera angles. It was the other side of the world from shooting a show on Zoom.” The set endured until 2005.
As formidable as Buckley and Hitchens were, Robinson found that show “excruciating. I was drained because they moved at two different speeds. Christopher was being very quick. Bill had flown in from the East Coast and was exhausted. He was going off to Bohemian Grove where he could relax. Christopher came into that fresh and ready. He viewed it as adversarial, a kind of gladiatorial combat. Bill thought before he answered and spoke slowly. Partly he felt on the defensive because he'd changed his view on Vietnam, and there were moments where he had to confess that he was in error 30 years before.” Still, speaking to them both was ultimately a pleasure for Robinson. “I really loved those two men. They were wonderful foils for each other.”
Although Robinson enjoyed friendships with Buckley, Hitchens, and many of Uncommon Knowledge’s other estimable guests, he seldom spoke to them casually when the cameras weren’t rolling. “Professionals like Bill and Christopher arrive when they’re asked to arrive and leave immediately afterward,” he told me. “And part of the reason is this is only one of the things I’m required to do. In general, we’d try to arrange it so that the guests would show up, we’d seat them, and we’d start to shoot. You didn’t want guests feeling each other out, you wanted some spontaneity.”
Occasionally, though, a guest would linger. Robinson found Ron Reagan particularly agreeable when the pair had lunch together after a shoot. “He had so much of his father’s personality and charm. He did something very few people do: He walked around the room and shook hands and chatted with everybody. By the time he sat down to begin the show, everybody just loved him.” Other guests impressed Robinson with their magnanimity. “Newt Gingrich was a very nice person and charmed the crew as well. Bill Kristol was in a phase in the early days where he’d come out to the West Coast quite often to speak, and he did the show two or three times. I was very grateful for that.”
On December 14, 1999, Buckley featured Robinson as a panelist on the final episode of Firing Line, readying viewers for the arrival of Uncommon Knowledge in the show’s established spot. The pair dined at The Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan beforehand, and identified a relieving similarity between themselves when the subject of recording arose. “Bill said, ‘Peter, what shows have you shot lately?’ And I couldn’t remember a thing,” Robinson recalled. “I said, ‘Bill, when I’m filming a show, it’s quite an intense event. The moment the cameras stop, it goes right out of my head.’ And Bill said, ‘Oh, I’m so happy to hear you say that. Because I can never remember anything that I shoot, either.’”
With Buckley’s endorsement, around 150 PBS stations began to host Uncommon Knowledge. The show’s audience expanded consistently throughout the early 2000s, and the scale of the intellectual man cave added a cinematic flair to each episode. A rich assortment of potential interviewees finally became available to Robinson, as publicity agents began to take the program seriously.
Robinson has, fortunately, never experienced a truly unpleasant or disastrous interview. But on one occasion during this period, a guest who would never have appeared on the show in its early years managed to render him almost speechless: Gore Vidal.
On April 18, 2002, Vidal joined Uncommon Knowledge to promote Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, a collection of essays that reproved the policy agenda pursued by the United States in the wake of 9/11. “Vidal was the one guest who really did best me,” Robinson mused when I showed him the episode. “He went off on an attack on the Bush administration. He was raving. It was a stream of invective that made so little sense I just couldn’t find a handhold. I couldn’t figure out what question to ask. That was one case where I simply sat there and let the guest spew.”
Robinson’s desperately bewildered facial expressions throughout are glorious to view. “You’ll see me as perplexed in that show as I ever felt,” he continued. “I’d have been happy for a redo on it. I don’t think he was aware of what the show was.”
In 2005, Uncommon Knowledge left the PBS system to begin airing exclusively online. It had simply become too costly to keep the program on the network. “Every show was decided upon each season by 300 different station managers, and it turned out that to keep in front of the station managers involved constant marketing,” Robinson said of the show’s transition away from television. “To sustain our presence within the PBS system, we needed to hire a marketing team that would work for us permanently. And that would roughly double the budget of the show. John Raisian decided that was not going to happen, and so we left the system altogether. By then, the show was part of Hoover’s portfolio, and John certainly wanted it to continue. He just did not want it to continue at such expense.”
Robinson was enthusiastic about the change, although he did fear initially that releasing the show via the internet would detract from overall viewership. It soon became clear, however, that a wide audience had been retained. And as the show could now be viewed on demand from anywhere in the world, it would continue to expand.
Moreover, the new format allowed for considerably deeper conversation. Liberated from the constrictions of television, Robinson and the crew could shoot for as long as they pleased, and hour-long episodes became increasingly common. “Half an hour was always too short,” he told me. “When Bill took Firing Line to an hour from half an hour, he said an hour-long show ‘permitted the exploration of more subterranean chambers.’ I keep going as long as I remain interested now that I have more self-confidence. If it runs long, it’s because I feel the show’s going someplace.”
The first show of the online era, featuring legal scholars John Yoo and Richard Epstein, was recorded on October 29, 2006 at Stanford Video, a small studio which has since become the permanent setting for episodes filmed at the University. The image of Robinson and a guest seated across from one another at a dining table, before a black background, is now ingrained in the minds of loyal viewers. Among many memorable shows that have been filmed in the space are the majority of those with Thomas Sowell, who remains Robinson’s favorite recurring interviewee.
Prior to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, episodes in the online era would also regularly be recorded at locations beyond Stanford. Tom Wolfe, whom Robinson particularly admired, appeared on the show twice during this period. “He was so gentle, so soft-spoken,” Robinson told me. “The prose was right there. Hip, with it, also very aggressive. I expected answers that were much sharper-edged. But Tom Wolfe in person just didn’t fit Tom Wolfe on the printed page. On the printed page he could be vicious. It’s inconceivable to me that he could be a vicious person. He was a Southern Gentleman.”
In June 2013, Wolfe invited Robinson and the crew to his Madison Avenue apartment to record an episode marking the release of what would ultimately be his final novel, Back to Blood. His wife was not pleased by the idea.
“Sheila did not want us to bring lights and cameras into their apartment, and Tom found a time when she was going to be at the dentist,” Robinson recalled. “So we went in and had to shoot while Sheila was out. Just after the show ended, Sheila returned, and there was a frosty moment or two. But it was clear that we were already done and we were leaving as fast as we could, so she let it go.”
Immergut, who had joined Uncommon Knowledge in 2011, shared Robinson’s reverence for Wolfe. “The funny thing about that story,” he told me, “is that while we were setting up, Tom wasn’t there. So, of course, we walked around and looked at the books and everything. And in the corner of his desk, I saw a galley of Liberal Fascism.”
For Immergut, only George W. Bush rivals Wolfe as the most likeable guest to have appeared on the program during his tenure. “We did that in his office in Houston,” Immergut said. “That was amazing. He just was the friendliest, most accessible guy, and signed baseballs for people and took pictures. I was in the movie and television business before this, and I’ve been around a lot of celebrities. I was blown away by those two guys.”
Robinson found Antonin Scalia to be similarly charming when they spoke at a Palo Alto hotel in 2012. “What a pleasure he was. There was one moment where he was reaching for the name of a certain rhetorical device, and I knew it: Synecdoche. He said, ‘You’re brilliant!’ But the truth is that I grew up in upstate New York, not all that far from Schenectady.”
When global lockdowns began in March 2020, Uncommon Knowledge experienced an abrupt transformation. Several episodes were recorded in-person throughout January and February, and at no point did those involved consider that mask-wearing and social distancing would soon become quotidian reality. After life was reshaped for us all, the first virtual episode of the program was recorded via Zoom on March 25. John Taylor, an economist at Hoover, appeared to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the world economy.
During our conversation, Robinson found the episode surreal to revisit. “John was very upbeat, he thought the economy was going to be okay. It was all very relaxed and informal. I thought the idea of talking into my computer was a little bit crazy. The video quality is not good—Scott sent me a video camera that clips onto my computer later on. It all felt very provisional and temporary still.”
New episodes of Uncommon Knowledge have continued to be recorded over Zoom. But by the time Ross Douthat appeared on the show on May 28, 2020 to promote his latest book, The Decadent Society, Robinson had adjusted to the format. “In some funny way, I was starting to enjoy the informality of it. It was starting to feel a little bit liberating. You could reach anybody. There’s Ross in his home in New Haven, Connecticut. Not that I’d want to go on this way forever, but Zoom increased our reach.”
Robinson and Immergut both attest that the transition to Zoom has proven remarkably painless from a technical standpoint. Naturally, guests will sometimes be visited by inquisitive children, or interrupted by barking dogs, and Robinson has faced persistent trouble with his vision (“It’s almost impossible to get the glare out of my lenses, and yet it’s almost impossible for me to function without glasses”). But otherwise, major issues have been avoided.
In fact, Uncommon Knowledge enjoys greater viewership today than ever before, and the adoption of Zoom has provoked no complaints. “To me it was almost alarming,” Robinson said. “We’re producing with flat headshots. And nobody has said a word about missing the production values from the studio. It’s quite a big deal to get that studio reserved, then there’s a makeup person, I have to drive down there, it takes half a day to shoot a show. With Zoom, I walk into the dining room, shoot it, then get on with my life. Should we have been doing that all along?”
Immergut believes the show’s continued popularity is easily explained. “The numbers have been better in a lot of respects than they were when we were doing it in the studio. And I think they’re better because it’s easier on Zoom to get to more interesting people. They’re watching it for the conversation, and Zoom is pretty good at capturing that.”
Consequently, it is uncertain what form the show will take when normalcy returns. “Certain benefits of Zoom, of being able to get to people who are not on the Stanford campus and don’t have plans to be here anytime soon, I can’t imagine surrendering altogether,” Robinson told me. “On the other hand, I do think you lose something. I wouldn’t have wanted to interview Tom Wolfe without being there with him so that I could read his eyes as I asked a question.” As we have all learned while living virtually, much of the intimacy and subtlety of real-life interaction disappears in a remote setting. For Robinson, the question is whether the practical advantages of Zoom outweigh the nuances of traditional conversation. At present, he is unsure: “What that balance will work out to be I just don’t know.”
Immergut, meanwhile, expects that the show will alternate between in-person and virtual interviews going forward. “I think we will do some people in the studio. But we will absolutely still do shows on Zoom, because you can get to more people. And that’s what we care about. We care about having access to interesting and relevant people much more than we care about shooting something in 4K, in perfect lighting, or in exotic locations. That’s the lesson of the last year and a half: This is not a show about production values. This is a show about Peter and the guests.”
Zoom could afford Robinson an ideal means of speaking to less accessible figures in the near future. “I’'d still love to do a proper interview with Mikhail Gorbachev,” Robinson said. “He intrigues me. A giant question is, what happens to the Republican Party? How do Republicans get out from under January 6? Who are the figures that have the intelligence, resolve, and lightness of touch to pull it all off? I’d like to interview the people who are plausibly the next Republican candidate for president, and see what they’re thinking.”
The media landscape has changed markedly since Uncommon Knowledge began. Podcasts dedicated to long-form discussion have become ubiquitous, and YouTube is home to an innumerable array of political talk shows. Yet increased competition has in no way impeded the program’s growth, and its influence on younger generations has been profound. “There have been times when we’ve shot at colleges, or this happens every time we go to the Capitol, people will come out of offices and just treat Peter like he’s Ringo, to use a dated reference,” Immergut said. “There are lots of kids out there who have been watching the show from the crib, evidently.”
Robinson is exceedingly modest in his attitude toward the program, but remains aware of how it has influenced countless viewers. “One young man, studying to become a priest, said that my interview with Roger Scruton changed the way he thought. I got a letter from a kid in Ghana of all places, and he said that Uncommon Knowledge meant a great deal to him. So it has affected people. A lot of people devoted a lot of time and effort to make these things possible.” Is he proud of what the show has accomplished? “People do relatively often write to me. Nobody ever says, ‘Ah, Robinson, you’'re a genius!’ What they say is, ‘That guest meant something to me.’ If I’ve had a hand in bringing people to an audience that appreciates them, yes, I’m proud of that.”
In the distant future, we can only guess how Uncommon Knowledge will be remembered. Robinson, admirably humble, is gratified that episodes continue to accumulate views after as much as a week of publication. “I suppose almost inadvertently it has created a record of thought and personality in this country of a pretty interesting quarter-century,” he said of the show’s legacy. “Maybe it will represent a useful, or even perhaps merely enjoyable, document of the time.”
Indeed, modern technology ensures that episodes will not be lost to history. In the past, Robinson recalled, “if a friend would say, ‘Oh, I saw your show the other day,’ they often couldn’t remember the guest because television was so ephemeral. But on the internet, if you're discovering Tom Sowell for the first time, you pay attention to it. You can play it back, you can binge watch all of his appearances.” Over 25 years, Uncommon Knowledge has featured interviews with a staggering array of personalities, all of whom have been uniquely committed to the power of ideas. How could such discussion not endure long into the future, untarnished by the passage of time?