Birnbaum v.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Remnick

Our man in Boston goes the distance with author and New Yorker editor David Remnick in a conversation about President Obama, magazine publishing, and American Idol.

To say that David Remnick should need no introduction to readers of The Morning News may be, uh, arrogant, or at least presumptuous. Then again, it is a complex world, isn’t it?

Since 1998, David Remnick has been the editor of the New Yorker magazine (the New York-based publication, founded in 1925, that assumed people in Iowa were not interested in its content). He has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Mohammed Ali and is a devoted, if not devout, New York Yankees fan. And he is a good family man.

Remnick and I (along with my 12-year-old son Cuba) chatted recently about The Bridge, his new political biography of Barack Obama, and a wide swath of subjects as you will discover below. OK then.


* * *

Robert Birnbaum: This is April 29, 2010, speaking with David Remnick—and we’re rolling. Why did you write this book?

David Remnick: I wanted to understand him [Obama]. I hadn’t written a book in 12 years.

RB: Was the [Muhammad] Ali book [King of the World] the last book you had written?

DR: It was the last real book I had written. I had compiled some New Yorker pieces under the rubric of reporting. And I was completely taken by Obama—in the journalistic sense of trying to understand who he is and why this is happening now. I was up here in Boston—I had written an article for the magazine published just after the election called “The Joshua Generation,” which was about race and the election. In a special election issue there were four big pieces: one by George Packer about the potential for Obama and reform; one by David Grann about the ill-fated McCain campaign; and another one by Ryan Lizza on the mechanics of how Obama managed to win; and I was writing about race.

RB: That wasn’t the one with the controversial Barry Blitt cover?

DR: No, this is the serene one with the Lincoln Memorial—somewhat more beloved by many. A couple of months later, [John] Updike died and I came up to the funeral. It was a very modest funeral, up north of Boston, near the water. It was a very traditional service—it was not some sort of funeral/bash—a traditional Episcopal funeral with just friends and family and a few of us outsiders. The thing that PEN did with the New Yorker was at the New York Public Library. But I was up here and I took a couple of extra days and hung out at Harvard Law. And I interviewed a bunch of people at Harvard Law School about Obama—Larry Tribe, Martha Minow, and other professors and associates—and it just struck me deeply how superficial at least my knowledge was of just this narrow episode in his life. Where he comes into his own in terms of ambition and—

RB: At Harvard Law School and as president of the Law Review?

DR: That’s the first time he thinks, “I can play at the very highest level.” That his ego, his maturation, all that comes to the starting gate. And so I decided to do it, to give it a try. And obviously there is an extra literary challenge for me, which is to say: I have a job that is rather consuming and I can’t take my eye off of it. So to add that to—

RB: So there was also a psychological challenge, subject matter aside?

DR: A little bit. But it’s not a stunt—

RB: Right, you don’t write 600-page books to show off—I get that.

DR: But I have to say—not that I don’t find writing hard; I find it very difficult because I know how good or bad it can be—but I do like the process. Some writers, really having written, dread writing. I have never felt that. I find it immensely exciting.

Having been a journalist long enough, I can smell a conceit or even a contrivance when it comes across the New Jersey Turnpike.RB: There are writers who dread writing, but love revising or editing their own work.

DR: They are all different.

RB: It appears to me that, in addition to being fascinated by Obama, you really like him. Could it be because in some ways he is like you? Or he manifests some of the same personality traits?

DR: Having been a journalist long enough, I can smell a conceit or even a contrivance when it comes across the New Jersey Turnpike. And that is a conceit to begin with and for me to endorse it would be a colossal conceit.

RB: At some point we are going to talk about your work as editor of the New Yorker

DR: Sure.

RB: And maybe that notion is: I think the magazine world, especially the subset of smart magazines, may be a hornet’s nest, and for you to be there 12 years and apparently beloved—

DR: I don’t know about beloved. I don’t experience it as a hornet’s nest. If by “hornet’s nest” you mean that there are day-to-day crises, problems, things that seem ever so important and the next day they are not—that’s true. But it’s nothing like drinking from a fire hydrant, which is what being in big-time politics is like. Look, it is a goddamn privilege to have—not only to be able to edit a magazine like that, but also to be completely and utterly supported by the ownership of the magazine. And not least in a period when some of the things we are trying to do are not expanding, but maybe contracting under economic pressure. So I don’t experience it as anything like a hornet’s nest. I experience it as preposterous good fortune. And I don’t see this as a Pollyanna—I really don’t. Not only is it not coal mining, but also even within the field we are talking about it’s unbelievably privileged. For me not to understand that would make me blind.

RB: And from my outsider’s vantage point, I don’t see many good places to work. The New Yorker may be one of a handful—you don’t have to respond to that.

Some guy came up to me, grabbed my arm in a way that was slightly alarming, and his message to me was, “Don’t fuck this up!”DR: Look, in everybody’s life—you live long enough you know one thing for sure—everybody’s got something. By that I mean everybody—you don’t get very far in life without some pretty miserable things happening even to the most lucky-seeming people. So presuming that’s true, I also know what the opposite is. You’re a fool not to see your own good fortune. I’ve worked in two places with two owners: the Washington Post and the New Yorker. And that’s pretty lucky stuff.

RB: And you were happy in both places—

DR: Well, in both cases the ownership—meaning Don Graham and Katharine Graham, and Si Newhouse—[pauses] provided the maximum freedom that an owner can. And support.

RB: It appears the Newhouse looks at the New Yorker and its editor as special cases in his empire.

DR: Maybe so. I think other editors in the house feel that way, too. But look, I’m not thinking about that very much. I am thinking about 99 percent of the New Yorker where this is concerned. So I don’t know what the editors of other magazines are thinking in those terms.

RB: How much is the New Yorker a barometer, a thermometer, litmus test, measuring stick of cultural developments in the United States? Does the ongoing success of the New Yorker say anything about literacy, book-buying, things like that?

DR: Well, if that were the case than it would defy all [the] dark imaginings of all the prognosticators, because our circulation seems to go up. I have to tell you—one of the good parts about traveling or getting out of the house and the well-worn groove between my apartment and the office, and meeting people at this event or that event, is the number of people who come up and, in a non-routine sort of way, almost with an urgency, tell me how important the magazine is to them. Not me, not any single writer, even the enterprise by itself and its constancy. Not because it’s unfailing or because it’s perfect—that’s too ridiculous to hope for—but because of its ambition. I don’t think we are all alone, by the way. There are a number of magazines I really admire and respect that are quite different from ours. But I remember, one week after getting this job, in the almost absurd way I got it, I had to go to San Francisco, and I was at dinner and some guy came up to me. He had been in the Midwest and lived in San Francisco and he came up to the table where we were having dinner and grabbed my arm in a way that was slightly alarming and his message to me was, “Don’t fuck this up!”

RB: (laughs)

DR: “This magazine has meant something to me since I was 14 or 15 years old.” This guy had to be 50 if he was a day, and so his attachment to it was really important to him. And that happens all the time in one way or another.

RB: That’s a non-routine way in which people express their bond to the magazine—grabbing you?

DR: Yeah, even when they get mad at it.

RB: What explains the—although I was not an admirer of Tina Brown’s—

DR: See, I am.

RB: Nonetheless, I never thought that the New Yorker declined under her.

DR: I thought Tina did some very important things. To me—I’ll stop sounding like an advertising agency in a minute on behalf of my magazine—but to me the unusual thing about the New Yorker is the following: Most magazines, whether they are highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow, whatever—have, if they are lucky, a moment.

RB: Right.

DR: So look at a highbrow example—the Partisan Review. Its moment was in postwar America. A kind of anti-Stalinist left, writing about politics and culture, to say nothing of its fiction. It only had a circulation of 5,000 but its influence was gigantic. Now, as an enterprise, it continued on until not so long ago, but it really had that moment, that prolonged moment. Life magazine the same thing; Life magazine was to my parents and to millions of other people a hugely important thing. Certainly from the Second World War through Vietnam. It lived many years after that, but its moment was that moment. The unusual thing about the New Yorker, which begins in 1925, is it has [had] any number of moments—that are prolonged and interesting. So I think Tina gave it vibrancy in many ways and focused attention on it in many ways: excited people, pissed people off, hired a lot of people.

RB: Spent a lot of money—

DR: OK. Sometimes you have to do that. She introduced things like photography—something as simple as photography—in a brilliant way. One photographer [Richard Avedon]. That was a really, really smart thing to do.

RB: And yet the magazine doesn’t look much different—it’s still identifiable from its predecessors. The typeface, the layout—

DR: My feeling about the look of the magazine is that if it falls on the ground, no matter what innovations you make on it along the way, it should still be recognizably the New Yorker when you look at it from three or four feet away. I respect all kinds of magazines that I know in my heart are graphically more advanced. Look at Wired. It’s a highly designed magazine, a deeply designed magazine, and it’s right for Wired. I am not sure it would be right for us.

RB: Well, when you talk about moments, I think that’s another way of saying “Golden Age” for certain things. In this era I am not sure what it is a Golden Age of—it may be video games. Magazines and television and movies are more and more resembling video games graphically. Certainly many magazines don’t look like they used to.

DR: Although if you look at old magazines, even some you admire, some look almost impossibly antique. And some of them—if you look back at the early days of Fortune, it was impossibly radical.

Always I find the best sources are the sources on the second level—not necessarily principals.RB: Henry Luce loved that magazine. He spent a fortune.

DR: And it had a gigantic format.

RB: He used the best photographers—

DR: And writers. He had all kinds of people.

RB: I am wondering, based on what appears to be extensive research, if the Ali biography was a stepping-stone—

DR: Ali’s biography was much easier.

RB: Didn’t it give you entry to sources that—

DR: It was much easier. Much more time had elapsed. Let’s face it: In some ways it’s a less serious subject. It’s a much more confined space. And the number of people who could speak to me was very limited. Ali couldn’t speak. Floyd Patterson was already very ill. Sonny Liston was gone. Most of the cornermen were gone. So it was easier in almost a frustrating way. And Malcolm X is not there. The sources at the Nation of Islam were limited. It was, in fact, a tricky book to do. One of the great discoveries that you make when you are doing a book about a popular culture figure like Ali is that you get to mine a lot of books or articles or films that seemed awfully minor at the time, but are filled with great material. For example, a magazine proves itself in a certain way. I got an enormous amount of material from old copies of Sports Illustrated, which was a great magazine during the Ali period, great. But also Boxing Illustrated and Ring, the old copies of the Nation of Islam paper, The Final Call, or Muhammad Speaks. Always I find the best sources are the sources on the second level—not necessarily principals. Not necessarily Ali himself, but the cornerman, who knows everything and maybe doesn’t give an interview every five minutes.

RB: Because no one thinks to ask them?

DR: Time has passed. People have stopped asking. And if they encounter someone that’s serious, who doesn’t go away after 15 minutes—most interviews are for fairly cursory or ephemeral purposes—the next day’s paper, the next column or a 15-minute radio interview—and that’s fine. But it’s like a first date: You tell your one good story and off you go. It’s when you don’t go away that the stuff starts to get better and deeper and truer. If you recognize anything from a reporter like Bob Woodward, or even John McPhee, or anybody that’s a great interviewer, each in their own way, it’s that they come back and back and back. “Oh, I forgot, can I ask you this?” Or, “You said this…” All the strategies involved—acting dumb—

RB: (chuckles)

DR:—of not quite going away. Calling back, checking. All those conscious or unconscious strategies.

RB: I see the Ali book as a precursor—well, not a precursor but as a kind of rehearsal. Somehow it got you—

DR:—connected, I think—

RB:—into a culture that—

DR:—I wasn’t born into. (laughs)

RB: And helped you step into conversations with black people and black culture.

DR: Yeah, there were a few people that were a little more forthcoming, I have this feeling, because they had read that book. Somebody in the White House, in particular, said, “I read that book when I was 20 years old,” and now he is a significant aide. And he gave me the time of day when he might not have.

RB: Speaking of which, the Wall Street Journal reported that there were 10 writers scurrying around the White House writing Obama books. I am assuming that was—

DR: That’s not new. There are always—

RB: The claim was that there were more books being written at this stage in Obama’s presidency than, for example, his predecessor.

DR: Yeah. I don’t think the Obamas so far have—forgive me, I hate this word—but “privileged” any one writer, in the way Reagan did with Edmund Morris. Remember that experiment in the Reagan administration? Edmund Morris was given almost free rein of the White House.

RB: You are talking about Morris, who wrote Dutch?

DR: Yeah. He wrote these two volumes of what will ultimately be a three-volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Reagan, or someone in Reagan’s circle, had read those and felt, “Well, if we are going to have someone do it, it might as well be him [Edmund Morris].” And Morris was utterly confounded by Reagan. He just could never get a grip on him. He admired him in some ways, even if their politics weren’t identical. And what happened was that he wrote a book that was fictionalized, or kind of an experiment in nonfiction, that took enormous liberties. But it was almost an admission of complete uncomprehendingness.

RB: Do you know Richard Reeves’s book on Reagan?

DR: Yes, it’s a very straightforward book. As was his book on Kennedy.

RB: He talked about Morris’s difficulties, not the least of which is that he is South African, which may have affected his understanding—

DR: I think Edmund Morris has been living in America long enough, and I would credit him with enough historical knowledge and depth. I mean, if he could write those books on Teddy Roosevelt, I think he knows his way around the West Wing pretty well. Look, Barack Obama is the first African American president; to think that there isn’t going to be at the end of the century a very rich literature on him would be fantasy. I know that’s the case. I’m even aware of people working on biographies of the mother, the father, and for all I know, the fifth cousin.

RB: And the dog. There will be dog books.

DR: The dog has a lot to say. (both laugh)

RB: You might have seen a recent piece on that talked about the White House pool reporters complaining of terrible access, and the White House favoring the New York Times.

DR: Yeah, I know the story.

RB: That doesn’t jibe with the impression that Obama’s constituency might have of a forthcoming, and if not transparent, maybe a translucent approach to press relations.

DR: I am trying to remember a White House press corps that was satisfied with its access to the President of the United States.

Afghanistan—if you have a good solution for that, please tell me.RB: Were they unhappy with Clinton?

DR: This is a drama that happens with great regularity.

RB: The numbers indicate that the press had regular access to Clinton. I don’t remember complaining then.

DR: How is it possible that, on one hand, we hear criticism that he is too available, there are too many interviews? And then we hear from the White House press corps that he is not transparent enough?

RB: Well, because the interviews are accepted under his discretion and he has lots of control, one-on-one. And what the beat reporters are looking for is some regular shoulder-rubbing, where more can happen.

DR: This happened when? Look, I’d be right with them if I were cursed to be in the White House press corps everyday. It’s a hard job. I would be complaining with everybody else. I don’t blame them. This is a drama that happens all the time.

RB: I was susceptible to this complaining based on Desirée Rogers, the former White House social secretary, trumpeting the notion that Obama is a “brand.”

DR: Well, you know what they say, the famous Michael Kinsley line about what a Washington gaffe is: “A Washington gaffe is the inadvertent blurting of the truth.”

RB: (laughs)

DR: And there is no doubt that Obama’s people, and not just Desirée Rogers, sometimes are apt to think of their guy with that kind of market speak, as a brand.

RB: Shame, shame. As long as you mentioned Michael Kinsley, is it the case that he had the New Yorker editor’s position, your job, for a day or so and then changed his mind? Is that story correct?

DR: I don’t know. I think to have a job you have to sign a contract, so I think it’s not true. I think what happened was—and thanks for asking—

RB: (laughs)

DR: (chuckles) I think what happened was Tina Brown fairly abruptly and unexpectedly resigned to go off and create another magazine called Talk, so there was no editor at the New Yorker. Si Newhouse’s impulse was to act on it pretty quickly and he interviewed someone I regard extremely highly: Michael Kinsley, who had been editor of the New Republic twice, editor of Harper’s, and a wonderful columnist. And they came very close, and my understanding of it was that Si Newhouse changed his mind. It was a series of meetings that did not end happily, and then he came and talked to me.

RB: It would have been interesting because part of Kinsley’s M.O.—

DR: I mean, 12 years ago, already a fair amount of time has elapsed. (To Cuba Birnbaum, who is in the room) How old are you?

Cuba Birnbaum: Twelve.

RB: He was born about that time.

DR: That’s how we mark your birth—

RB: Yeah, landmarks in New Yorker history. It would have made for an interesting situation, as Kinsley seems to be a restless spirit and doesn’t stay[anyplace] very long. He went to Slate and might have been there the longest that he was anywhere.

DR: I forgot to mention Slate. Michael invented one of the first really good, uh, call it a magazine, paper, whatever—I guess paper is not the word we should use. And it is something that lasts today and develops today—

RB: It’s now owned by the Washington Post.

DR: It’s terrific—look, his contribution couldn’t be greater to American journalism. It’s varied, and as a commentator—

RB: He went to the L.A. Times as an op-ed guy briefly.

DR: That was really brief.

RB: He was also at the Washington Post briefly.

DR: I think he’s back at the Atlantic now. As a columnist, he is one of the great bullshit-puncturists of all times. All columnists have a signature move and his is, “You thought this: That’s actually bullshit.” He turns on the lamp.

If somebody is going to suggest that my brief look at the first year of the Presidency is a tail to the bigger animal, then I plead guilty.RB: I do recall that he seemed to outrage the American literary world—was it the National Book Awards? The Pulitzer Prize? [The National Book Awards—ed.] He admitted, as he daily received large deliveries of books—

DR: (laughs) He turned them away?

RB: Not quite. He admitted that he didn’t read all of the books submitted and didn’t complete all of the books that he did read.

DR: I think anybody that is honest who has been on a book prize jury admits that they haven’t read all those books, and the picture may be even worse sometimes. I mean, how could you? I was on one jury—

RB: Four hundred books?

DR: I swear to God, I received hundreds of them. It’s very hard.

RB: Looping back to the Obama book: What did you leave out?

DR: The presidency. That’s a small detail. You have to have an ordering principle for any book. I just started a book the other day—

RB: Writing one or reading one?

DR: Reading—on 3,000 years of Christianity. (laughs) That ordering principle is rather broad, but even that one has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

RB: Chapters covering 300 years?

DR: A world without end on end—but I knew that the door [of my book] had to slam shut as soon as the Presidency begins. Some of the books that you mentioned before—as it were, reporting and chasing the presidency as it’s happening—I’m not even sure I could do that even if I didn’t have a job. I think that would be an exercise in frustration, although some awfully good people are doing it. Jon Alter is one, and my colleague Ryan Lizza is another. Ryan will find an ordering principle—whether it’s the health care debate or whatever he decides to do. Jon Alter’s book is coming out [The Promise: President Obama, Year One] in three weeks and that’s about the first year. That just wasn’t for me.

RB: I may be mistaken, but I think Douglas Brinkley suggested that the last section of your book seemed tacked-on—the epilogue seemed tacked-on? Isn’t that what an epilogue is?

DR: Well, if somebody is going to suggest that my brief look at the first year of the Presidency is a tail to the bigger animal, then I plead guilty.

RB: The book came out very quickly after some of the things it references.

DR: It did, it did. I plead guilty. I was able to make changes up until three weeks before printing—which is very unusual. There were galleys, but they [Knopf] were pretty quick about it.

RB: Who is your editor?

DR: Dan Frank, a wonderful editor, who also runs Pantheon. To be honest, I also availed myself of advice of editors at the New Yorker—Henry Finder, Dorothy Wickenden, Ann Goldstein—and some pretty smart friends too.

RB: When I asked what you left out, I also—are you holding any secrets?

DR: No secrets of value or that I can be reasonably sure of. Do I hear things—this, that, and the other thing—along the way? Sure, but until I feel confident enough to publish them, they remain nothing more than motes of dust before my eyes.

RB: So, what is your sense of Obama in his first year?

DR: I’ll tell you what I didn’t find duty-bound to pursue beyond the routine—was he born in Honolulu, Hawaii. I have seen the certificate, just as you have. I’ve seen the copies of the local press reports of his birth. That should suffice as it would for a biography of Teddy Roosevelt.

He is not a prophetic figure. He is not a civil rights activist. He is an electoral politician.RB: How crazy is this world? (laughs)

DR: It’s crazier than that.

RB: I was asking about your sense of him in this first year of his presidency—

DR: You mean vis-a-vis my own political opinions?

RB: I have already commented on his breaking his promise to use public funds—he reneged on it.

DR: I mentioned it. You are right; guilty as charged. I mean, what do you do? Stamp your feet? He did it. I think it was a bald-faced political move. Welcome to politics. It was to his political advantage—if you go on the presumption that Barack Obama is somehow higher than politics, then your disappointment is profound. If like me, you see him as a politician, not particularly grubby, but as a politician who is going to, when push comes to shove on an issue like that, do what’s best for him and his campaign to win, then I take note of it. I am even potentially disappointed in it. But I am not shocked, shocked, shocked because there is gambling in Casablanca. So I don’t think we differ on this.

RB: There is certainly no sense of shock, but when you add that, for example, to the promise to Armenians he was going to use the word “genocide”—

DR: Robert, what is he doing? What is he doing? He is trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle.

RB: He is caving to the Turkish constituency in the U.S. (laughs)

DR: There are very few Turks in this country. He has an Armenian constituency, but he also has Turkey to deal with, which is becoming much grumpier about its relationship both with the United States and Israel. The Turkish leadership has become much more—

RB: Nationalistic?

DR: Nationalistic.

RB: Recalcitrant?

DR: Certainly when it comes to the issue we are both talking about—when it comes to Palestine and Israel. So he threaded the needle linguistically. Look, this is a very important distinction to make and a very important point about Obama. Part of Obama’s brilliance and part of his appeal as a campaigner is his ability to echo and summon and help us remember what we think of as prophetic voices in American history—King, the Civil Rights movement in general. But he is not a prophetic figure. He is not a civil rights activist. He is an electoral politician. The pressures on him, the requirements on him are different from someone on the outside putting pressure on power: He is power itself. So when he wins, preposterously, a Nobel Peace Prize, he knows politically that—he has just sent 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, he has to give a speech in Oslo that takes account of this (chuckles) irony.

RB: During the campaign, what is your sense of the sincerity of belief that he was going to expeditiously withdraw troops from Iraq and—

DR: He is.

RB: We have the largest U.S. embassy in the world in Iraq—whether we pull out another division or so, it seems there will always be 50,000 troops there.

DR: I don’t know that. You don’t know that either. Look how many troops are in Korea—that war ended a long time ago.

RB: West Germany—I mean Germany?

DR: And if we left all at once, what would happen?

RB: In Germany?

DR: No, in Iraq.

RB: Everyone says slaughter or bloodbath.

DR: OK, so I don’t take that very blithely, and I don’t think you should.

RB: I am not saying that that is not a serious concern, but shape-shifting Obama claimed that he was going to do better than anyone else.

If you are going to publish pieces that are a bit outside of time, then there should be other things in the magazine that are fairly timely.DR: I think he is. I think your argument would be stronger if it were focused on Afghanistan.

RB: I was getting to that.

DR: As far as Iraq is concerned, it’s not arguable that there has been a steady pullback of American presence. You want it to be faster, I’m inferring. Toward what end?

RB: Good question. Less dead G.I.s and G.I.s at risk.

DR: They are very different situations, it seems to me. Where Iraq is concerned, what’s the desired end? The desired end is a steady withdrawal of American troops, as many and as soon as humanly possible without provoking something horrendous—

RB: All the while maintaining the illusion of some semblance of order.

DR: Afghanistan—if you have a good solution for that, please tell me.

RB: I am just saying, why offer to the electorate—in the main, not people spending their time reading Foreign Affairs or even the World section of the New York Times—why promise something or make them feel like something is going to happen?

DR: My impression of the campaign—and this is not a Rorschach test, this is a pretty clear memory of the campaign—it was not of Barack Obama saying that, “On the day I am elected I am bringing home every troop from Iraq.”

RB: Of course not. But did he say he was going to add 30,000 and 30,000?

DR: We are talking about Iraq for the moment. From Newtonville, Ma., it may seem like the same, but there are highly different dynamics in a different stage of development. When you get to Afghanistan it is very difficult, to say the least, to see the logic almost in any move, and there is certainly no great end game to any of this. Look at our partner in Afghanistan. A corrupt, delusional—

RB: We didn’t know Karzai was corrupt eight years ago?

DR: No, no, not to this degree.

RB: That his brother was involved in a Caspian Sea pipeline wasn’t a tip-off?

DR: The level of his deterioration as a partner has been precipitous. All you are getting from me is—

RB: OK, OK. As your New Jersey homie points out, we have an empire.

DR: Who is that?

RB: Bill Maher.

DR: (laughs) You know Bill Maher and I grew up—he was a neighbor of the drummer of a rock band I was in; eventually it went by the name of Derek and the Dialectics—and during breaks in rehearsing in my friend’s basement, I played basketball in Bill’s driveway. Bill Maher’s father was, I think, a radio guy, a radio professional. We weren’t close at all. I see him every 10 years like clockwork. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.

RB: I find that to be a very creditable show. Especially in distinction from other pundit panel shows.

DR: I think it’s better when he has differing opinions on there. Everything runs a risk, any magazine or show, there is a risk of smugness when everybody is saying the same thing and cracking wise about it.

RB: I don’t remember who was on Maher’s show with you.

DR: A woman named Laura—

RB: Oh yeah, Laura Flanders.

DR: She’s a radio person. Who is very smart.

RB: And then the economist [Simon Johnson], and Lawrence Bender, who just produced a movie on the threat of nuclear proliferation.

DR: It’s a different dynamic, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. Stewart, who is many things, is also our best press critic. He is brilliant.

RB: He took on CNN, on CNN. And a steady barrage against Fox News. But that’s preaching to the converted.

DR: It is, but its impact—Fox is a pretty important force. It’s been said that Fox is the Republican Party. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s a very important base, in a way.

There is a risk of smugness when everybody is saying the same thing and cracking wise about it.RB: Are there any thoughtful conservatives left in this country?

DR: Well, of course as a good liberal, I run the risk of invoking the wrath of conservatives, but somebody like David Brooks seems to me to be as thoughtful as anybody, anywhere.

RB: I find him to be kind of smarmy; reaching for some easy points.

DR: I read the conservative press. I think the current phenomenon—I am not so sure it’s unique—the phenomenon of everybody listening to and watching and reading their own niche press to be convinced of their own wonderful view of the world is pretty dangerous.

RB: I try to read Brooks—I’m limiting my reading to [the New York Times blog he shares with] Gail Collins, who I find hilarious.

DR: She’s very funny.

RB: Frank Rich even seems a little tired.

DR: I love Frank. I think he is very good.

RB: He is very good, but his focus has narrowed.

DR: My favorite liberal columnist without question is Rick Hertzberg. Some people’s talent, somebody like Michael Kinsley’s talent, is to throw you off your comfort zone. Rick’s talent is not that. He frames and thinks through a liberal position with an extraordinary elegance of mind in prose. That’s his [talent], if you can put it in a nutshell.

RB: He’s subtle and not particularly provocative.

DR: His attack is usually directed toward conservatism in one way of another. But he has some pet causes, like proportional representation and systematic government issues, that seem very boring but are absolutely part of what is at the heart of what’s wrong with our political culture.

RB: Did the New Yorker always cover current politics as it is covering it now?

DR: Look, part of what’s at the heart of the New Yorker are pieces like Janet Malcolm’s this week, where she has written a 25,000-word narrative account of a murder trial that took place a year or two ago. But that same issue has a piece about the Tea Party movement by Jill Lepore and also a comment piece about the Goldman Sachs controversy. I want both. At risk of sounding again like a PR machine for my own magazine: If you are going to publish pieces that are going to attempt to be a bit outside of time, then there should be something else in the magazine or other things in the magazine that are fairly timely—whether culture pieces or political pieces. I don’t want the magazine to be decoration for your coffee table. I don’t want it sitting around for eight months untouched, more admired than read—I want you to pick the damn thing up. And if that means picking it up to get at those shorter immediate pieces and then eventually you get to the longer things, then that’s a fairly good entry point.

RB: Eventually the longer things end up being that writer’s next book.

DR: Fine. I’m OK with that. It was ever thus. If the results are like Janet Malcolm on psychoanalysis or Sandy [Ian] Frazier on the Great Plains or Susan Orlean on the Orchid Thief or George Packer on the Iraq War—if those things first appear in the magazine and then in books—well, fantastic.

At 51, I have decided fantasy should be limited to sex, not football.RB: For the most part, John McPhee has written for the New Yorker.

DR: His entire career. He began as a Time magazine feature writer and he did that for some time. I think the first pieces he wrote about —well, the first piece that he is known for in the New Yorker was his profile of Bill Bradley in 1965 called “A Sense of Where You Are.” And we are publishing, of all things from the New Yorker, a sports anthology in June called The Only Game in Town. And you usually don’t think of the New Yorker as your go-to sports Bible (laughs).

RB: Roger Angell.

DR: But if you look at it over time—

RB: [A.J.] Liebling on boxing—

DR: Liebling on boxing, John Updike on—God forgive me—your Boston Red Sox, Roger Angell on baseball and many unexpected things.

RB: Did anyone ever write about football?

DR: It’s not our strongest thing.

RB: Holly Brubach would do football for you.

DR: (Laughs)

RB: Don’t laugh. She actually—

DR: She’s a football fanatic?

RB: I was looking at the Times last fall in the sports pages and there is a profile of the Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin with Holly Brubach’s byline.

DR: Really? I have to tell you: I love my colleagues, but if I went into a meeting with my fellow editors and I suggest sports ideas, the look of uncomprehending, slack-jawed boredom that crosses most of their faces is stunning. Some of the writers are very into it—Ben McGrath, Nick Paumgarten. Weirdly, Susan Orlean has written a couple of sports pieces. OK, they tend to be on the Westminister Dog Show—

RB: (laughs) That’s an expansive definition of sports.

DR: Some people think chess is a sport. David Owens is a fantastic golf writer.

RB: I find golf to be the least interesting of pastimes.

DR: To me it looks like a nervous breakdown with a stick.

RB: Speaking of sports, I can’t get over the reported fact that more people watched the NFL draft than the NBA playoffs.

DR: Isn’t that amazing? I really like the NBA playoffs. My son and I—anytime the Cavaliers or the Lakers are on, but not only them. Watching people selected from the colleges—

RB: Walk up, say the same clichés—

DR: I know, I know. Some of it has to do with people doing their own drafts and fantasy football. At 51, I have decided fantasy should be limited to sex, not football.

RB: Right! Good one. Do you have a plan about writing books?

DR: Not at all—just the opposite. I have a plan not to write books, not for a good while. This was really an exception to the real plan. My eyes—my priorities one, two, three, four, five, and more are the New Yorker, and that requires my—demands—my attention, and never more so than now because we are in this period where not only does one have to edit the magazine—and I want to stress, I don’t do this all by my lonesome; I do it with some remarkable colleagues who have enormous influence on what happens to the magazine week to week. I don’t see the job as a kind of singularity, and that everybody scurries to do my will. That’s not the way it’s run. Right now, for example, in terms of the delivery systems of the New Yorker, we have to be on all of them that make sense—all at once and see what pans out. So that means print, it means website, it means Kindle, it means iPad.

RB: Twitter, Facebook?

DR: I pay less attention to that than I do to the actual magazine as it appears in whatever form. I know we have presence on all those things, too.

RB: Is the online iteration of the magazine different than the one that is created for e-reader devices?

DR: The website is clearly different from what you get on the iPad/Kindle; you’re getting the magazine as it is, every Monday morning, or some facsimile thereof, or something that works for that screen. The website is changing not just every day, but periodically every day, and we do not put a lot of the material from the magazine on the website. Quite frankly, one of the reasons for that is: This is not free. Websites are free and they are not made up for by web advertising. It might be [for] search engines or daily newspapers, but not for magazines. So much of what is on is supplemental to the magazine—which is to say, an interview with a writer about that week’s piece, blogs, podcasts. One of the more popular things one the website is a podcast done every week by Deborah Treisman, where one of our fiction writers will read a story by some other writer—Lorrie Moore reading a story by John Cheever or something. It’s very popular and people pop them in their cars and listen to them on the way to work. That doesn’t seem like part of your life—

RB: It isn’t.

DR:—in terms of podcasts.

RB: It would be much easier to put out conversations like this one as podcasts. But no, I like pushing people to read.

DR: (To Cuba) How are you doing? Want anything else?

RB: (to Cuba) Want to ask him what baseball team he likes?

DR: You want to know? You’re going to hate me for it.

Cuba: The Yankees?

DR: Here’s the thing—I grew up in New Jersey. The first place I could go on my own, on the bus into the city was—I would take the bus from New Jersey to the George Washington Bridge and the subway up to Yankee Stadium. Shea Stadium was a long way away. Shea was for people on Long Island and old Dodgers fans, Brooklyn, Queens—

RB: What, the Giants?

DR: You mean the Polo Grounds? That was northern Manhattan. This is 1957, ‘58. My grandfather would take me to the Mets because he was a Dodgers fan and I went to see the Mets when they were horrible. Horrible, when I was very little. But I am a Yankees fan, I’m sorry.

RB: I have a T-shirt that says, “The team from my locale is superior to the team from your locale,” which sums up my sense of being a fan.

DR: (laughs) I’ll tell you, once I went to Fenway and I was sitting in the right field stands, and I was surrounded by guys wearing—who had had one or two—wearing T-shirts questioning the manhood and worse of Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. And the chants were unbelievable—this kind of impoliteness never happens at Yankee Stadium—never, never, never.

RB: Yeah, right. There is not a rich market for “Red Sox Sucks” T-shirts?

DR: That would never happen. I’ll tell you—this is honest-to-God true and I couldn’t believe it when I saw it—I was filing into a Yankee game and some guy was wearing a “Red Sox Sucks” or worse T-shirt and he was made to take it off by the ticket taker.

RB: Nice!

DR: That seemed a little decorous to me.

RB: That wouldn’t happen at Fenway.

DR: (both laugh) I don’t think so. Not without a fight.

RB: Look, I grew up in Chicago so my heart and allegiance is with the Cubs—even when they were owned by the Tribune Co.

DR: So you have two poetic teams.

RB: Well, the Red Sox have won a World Series—

DR: That’s their problem. Not only did they win once, they won twice, so I don’t want to hear any more moaning about it.

RB: I have never gotten over Red Sox fans booing Pedro Martinez on a bad day he was having; I decided that these fans were intolerable.

DR: I was watching ESPN this morning and Lou Piniella, who I really liked as a Yankee—great kind of solid hitter, good enough right fielder—he has lost it. The Cubs are so bad. They just don’t score any runs. And he gave a press conference—he looked so pained. You know that thing where managers in their press conferences after the game get nasty with the writers for no reason? It’s really not very nice. Piniella, who is usually OK, was just a pill. It was not a happy sight. I love the White Sox manager.

RB: Yeah, Ozzie Guillén is a hoot.

DR: Love him.

RB: The Cubs just sent Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen—after signing him to a $100 million contract—

DR: What are they going to do? He can’t pitch. I don’t care if they give him the lease to Wrigley Field, he can’t pitch.

The goal for me is to make sure we find a way, willy-nilly, to be healthy.RB: It’s a beautiful field, anyway. Baseball, which is no longer the American pastime, is still about where you grew up. There is no other justification for rooting for a team.

DR: And the conceit of it is silly—all the people on the team are not from New York—it’s not like they are homegrown.

RB: Right. And every town is the best sports town.

DR: I am afraid it’s a narcotic that I will be a lifelong addict to—there are worse things. Are we recording this baseball talk?

RB: We are.


RB: These days I am more enjoying watching Little League.

DR: I loved watching my kids play. I miss that. The numerous failures and the intermittent, occasional triumphant moments—I loved that.

RB: And don’t forget the wacky behavior of parents and coaches as comic relief. (pause) What is going to happen with newspapers and such?

DR: I’m not a fortune teller. I know it would be interesting if I sat here and told you without a trace of uncertainty that in 10 years all magazines are going to be projected on screens on the side of the Empire State Building and the Prudential Building. Or alternately, they would be projected on the inside of your sunglasses in the summertime. I don’t know. Here’s what my job is, and I share that with other editors, too: We are in this moment of technological uncertainty and transition. The goal for me is to make sure we find a way, willy-nilly, to be healthy so that we can do the thing itself. The thing itself is what I care about most. Given a choice between the survival of the long-form narrative journalism, criticism, cartooning—all the things that we do—and print itself, there is no contest. No contest. I, at the age of 51, may still think, for me, the best technology for reading the New Yorker at this moment is the print version. But that’s just me. If your son, decides otherwise, that he wants to read it on an iPad, kenahorah [so be it].

RB: That’s Yiddish, Cuba. (laughs)

DR: I want to be there for him. I just want each version of it to be as good as humanly possible.

RB: I read the New Yorker in my car; I keep my copies there.

DR: While you drive?

RB: No, for all those moments of waiting—anticipated and not.

DR: I am not sure I want to drive with you. No matter what you are reading. (laughs)

RB: I started reading newspapers when I was 10 or 11. It was a daily ritual—

DR: And you don’t anymore—are you online completely?

RB: Yeah, except for the New Yorker.

DR: No print subscriptions.

RB: No, I haven’t touched a [Boston] Globe in years. There are two people I read in the Globe. Otherwise I don’t read it.

DR: How do you get your news?

RB: I read the Times and Post online and check out aggregators.

DR: Are you going to pay for it when they ask you?

RB: Yes.

DR: Then OK. Then OK. Because it’s expensive, what they do.

RB: However when the Times gated their columnists, I didn’t pay.

DR: Well, you are about to—you know they are changing in the next year.

RB: What about the New Yorker?

DR: Well, I very deliberately did not give away the New Yorker, as such, online for that very reason I did not want to train this guy over here, your son, or people in their 20s, to think that it’s free. I just want to emphasize this—to send people to Iraq, to send people to Boston, to pay people’s salaries, to pay people a decent or better wage, to be able to afford to pay the best writers that one can possibly find, costs money. I don’t think it’s immoral or anything like it to object to the notion that “information wants to be free.” Information wants to be free in the sense of its distribution and its availability and in terms of the First Amendment, and thank God the technology is getting so I can get up in the morning and if I want to read an Albanian newspaper, I can. That’s fantastic. It’s an astonishing thing that I can read, as I sometimes do—I’m a Russia nut, so I read Russian papers before Russians do, because I read them late at night. That’s an amazing thing. In that sense, that kind of evangelical phrase, “Information wants to be free,” great. But the journalism itself is not free. It can’t be free. And if it is free, it’s not going to be very good. With all due respect to the journalism done by citizen journalists, which can have great value, as it did in New Orleans during the flood—that’s only gong to take you so far. There is such a thing in this life as professionalism.

RB: There is a way, that having so many people on the internet it is like that old saw about 40,000 monkeys at typewriters will eventually produce Das Kapital.

DR: There are some talented people, there is no doubt. And what happens to those talented people after a while?

RB: They move up to the bigs. Ten years ago so-called mainstream media refused to acknowledge anyone doing legitimate, valuable work.

DR: Look, anxieties always come with change. And blogging—there are bloggers and there are bloggers.

RB: There wasn’t that measured response—to call all internet writing and journalism terrible—

DR: Right, and it’s also a dull thing to say. It’s also a true thing to say—if someone is trying to say 50 things a day, the possibility of saying something profound—

RB: (laughs)

DR: But I don’t think that’s what blogging is about. It’s a lot of aggregating. The role that Andrew Sullivan’s blog played, for example, during the Iran uprising was a serious one and helped me understand it; helped me see it. And he is not alone. I also know in specialty fields—for example, science, things that you and I may never see as good English majors—that scholars use it all the time. There are people obsessed with one particular area, all the time finding things of great value. I think it’s a great thing—

RB: Do you watch television?

DR: I do.

RB: Are you watching Treme?

DR: I am.

RB: You no doubt were a fan of The Wire?

DR: A big fan. I watched The Wire in a funny way. I got to it too late and didn’t watch it all. And then one summer in the course of three weeks I watched five seasons.

RB: I did the same thing.

DR: The Sopranos I watched week by week. I miss it terribly. I loved it—a New Jersey boy, how could I not love The Sopranos?

RB: I thought The Wire was perfect in almost every way.

DR: I think David Simon, who I know a little bit, is a great force in that field and same for the creator of The Sopranos.

RB: If you watch Treme, then you know that Bullets [Sports Bar] was mentioned in an episode.

DR: I went to Bullets—it’s in my book. It’s in the Seventh Ward. You know who took me there? The actor—

RB: Antoine Baptiste?

DR: No, the actor Wendell Pierce [who played homicide cop Bunk on The Wire]. Terrific guy, terrific guy.

RB: Have you seen Justified?

DR: Is that a cop show?

RB: It’s a show based on an Elmore Leonard character—

DR: It’s good?

RB: Very.

DR: What do I watch? Probably too much baseball, more than is absolutely necessary.

RB: Just the American League?

DR: I think one team is enough, don’t you? These games go on for four hours. I often watch it with the sound off, reading something that can be read in that way. I was big fan of the West Wing. What it did was it combined the speech patterns of ‘30s screwball comedy and an idealized notion of what American government could be at a time when American government was hardly an encouraging spectacle.

RB: I liked the show Aaron Sorkin came up with after—

DR: I watched that show—it was called something-Sunset Blvd, the address of the show. How long did it last? A season? [Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; it lasted one season, 22 episodes—ed.]

RB: I don’t think so.

DR: I watched them all. It had a very similar rhythm and similar actors—in any event, the spectacle of what looked like the inside of Saturday Night Live was less fresh then the Frank Capra vision of the White House.

RB: I have to say I am befuddled by what flits across my TV screen—who are these Kondrashian people?

DR: You think they lack genius?

RB: Uh.

DR: (laughs)

RB: Someone must have genius associated with them.

DR: Something I have never found interesting at all—two unbelievably popular things on television. One is reality television—it never interested me at all. And the other is this neo-talent-show stuff, like American Idol. The reason I don’t like American Idol is that a lot of the talent seems to be a replication of the singing style of Mariah Carey and Whitney Huston. I don’t need it.

RB: I do like the dance show So You Think You Can Dance. The kids who audition are very talented and they have accomplished choreographers involved. And the judging is very positive and articulate.

DR: Look, I have a lot of reading to do at night, and kids—

Cuba: Dad, the guy from Roxbury won last year.

RB: He was great.

DR: I have to go in a few minutes—do you have anything else?

RB: We’re good. Thanks.

DR: This was fun.