“The fist-bump cover? Obama’s people were not amused”
Do you vote?
I do. Most journalists do. Len Downie, who was the editor of the Washington Post, very concertedly did not vote. He was a superb journalist but, to me, that was too decorous by half. I’m a civilian, a citizen.
You once said of Ben Bradlee that an editor should be like a general, inspiring the enlisted.
The editor of a big national newspaper, like Ben Bradlee was at the Washington Post, is the general of hundreds of people. The New Yorker is a smaller, more subtle operation.
Your background is in newspapers. How has that affected the magazine?
The last thing we should be doing is playing a newspaper game! That aspect is very slight.
You’ve discussed protecting the New Yorker’s “core” – long-form journalism.
What makes it successful is the whole of it. Very rarely is there a spike in news-stand sales. For more commercial magazines, like Vanity Fair, the cover can make a huge difference.
What about your Obama fist-bump cover?
That sold a lot of copies because it became . . . what’s the opposite of a cause célèbre? The Obama people were unamused, but we’re not publishing covers to amuse powerful people.
When you were writing your biography of Obama, how much time did you have with him?
I had an hour the first time, and close to an hour the second time. But the more valuable reporting is the next level down, and the next.
What was your impression of the young Obama?
He was an OK student and a curious kid, but he was having a good time, too. He got a lot more serious when he got to Columbia. But even there, he took a course with Edward Said and hated it – he found it too fancy, too theoretical. Then, at Harvard Law School, his main intellectual influences were the straight-up liberals.
Larry Tribe and Martha Minow, the constitutional scholars. The liberal mainstream. He’s a man of the centre left.
In your book, you talk about what you call Obama’s “multilingualism”.
He speaks to different groups using different languages without losing who he is. Right-wing bloggers take this as proof that he’s a phoney, but it is the talent of any first-rate rhetorician.
His poll numbers aren’t looking great.
If you’re the president, all that oil is going to rub off on you.
Isn’t there concern about his competence?
Look, I have concerns about him, but I don’t see a lack of competence. Nobody knows what the government should do. We’re in BP’s hands.
What about before the oil spill?
About his competence? I don’t think so. About character, sure. Columnists like Maureen Dowd see him as arrogant and self-regarding.
The American left seems frustrated by him.
He believes in conservative means to liberal ends. The health-care programme is a gigantic advance, but it’s not universal. So he’s just put
32 million Americans on the health-care roll, and it didn’t help his poll numbers at all.
Why has the US right wing become so strident?
All but true believers came to see Bush as a failure. To some extent, the mainstream’s absence means the Tea Party is the Republican Party.
Is the Tea Party Obama’s best hope of getting re-elected?
No. I’d rue the day I said that. If it came to an election between Obama and Sarah Palin, I think Obama would win. But you can’t say these things categorically. Events, dear boy . . .
You seem relatively sanguine about the right.
American movements of this kind can be quite powerful, but they don’t elect presidents.
Is there a Republican candidate on the horizon?
The name on everyone’s lips is Sarah Palin, but I don’t see her winning, unless we all go mad. Although there’s a precedent for that.
Is there a plan?
If God had a plan, God was a fantastic comedian. There’s a scene in The Human Stain by Philip Roth where Nathan Zuckerman is listening to an orchestra rehearse. People are having a good time and all he can think of is that, in 40 years, every single one of them will be dead.
What would you like to forget?
That God is an excellent comedian.
Are we all doomed?
I am. But you’re asking about mankind. Nature is cold, wet, hard and unforgiving. Yet people seem to like it, and we’re doing our damnedest to destroy it. It scares the hell out of me. We need worldwide self-denial and a technological revolution. It’s asking everything, yet everything depends on it. Sorry to bum you out.
1958 Born in Hackensack, New Jersey
1981 Graduates from Princeton
1982 Joins the Washington Post, eventually becoming the paper’s Moscow reporter
1992 Becomes a New Yorker staff writer
1994Lenin’s Tomb, about the collapse of the Soviet Union, wins a Pulitzer prize
1998 Succeeds Tina Brown as editor of the New Yorker, a position he continues to hold
2010 The Bridge, his 672-page biography of Barack Obama, is published