GUEST: Evan Thomas
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And this is the second of two programs with journalist, historian, biographer Evan Thomas, whose most recent volume is Little, Brown’s The War Lovers, his compelling account of America’s rush to empire at the end of the 19th century, and the roles played in that rush by Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hearst and other quite extraordinary figures.
Now, this is not a book about America’s past alone, to be sure. As much splendid history and biography as Evan Thomas has written, he has for too many years been a journalist -particularly as a writer and editor at Time and Newsweek magazines – for The War Lovers not to be quite present minded.
Indeed, I’d like to ask my guest today about that mix of history and journalism … and whether we can can really distinguish the one from the other? Now that’s been a very unpopular question when I’ve put it to your fellow journalists.
THOMAS: (Laugh) No, I hope not. I’ve shamelessly mixed the two all the time. I mean at Newsweek I am forever using bits of history to inform my journalism and when I’m writing history I definitely use the tropes of journalism … certainly the writing skills that I’ve learned as a journalist … so I find the two play on each other all the time.
Now you can overdo this. I mean it’s cliché, but history does not repeat itself exactly, it rhymes.
HEFFNER: Or historians do.
THOMAS: (Laughter) Right. But, it does rhyme. And so there are useful lessons. And I sometimes joke with my colleague Jon Meacham at Newsweek, that if I write one more paragraph about the Cuban Missile crisis, I’m going to have to quit. (Laugh) Because there’s some historical analogies that we use again and again and again.
But I think that journalists are much better journalists if they’re informed by history, because, although circumstances change … human nature doesn’t change all that much and there are recurring themes that come up that can help educate us about the present.
So, I, I gladly embrace history as a tool in journalism and, and the reverse is also true. I do think that people … history needs to be read. Popular history needs to be read. And you gotta make the story move. You have to tell a story.
And I learned … after I’d been writing cover stories for news magazines for decades now … I’ve written hundreds. I know how to make a story move.
And that’s a skill I learned on deadlines. Writing for mass magazines, you know, large audiences, trying to make things simple and clear and direct and have this … make it be entertaining.
And I think that’s useful. And certainly when I’m writing history I want the story to, to move.
HEFFNER: Now what about the mutual responsibilities of the historian and the journalist?
THOMAS: Well, they’re there. I mean we like to joke at Newsweek that … or not joke … it’s a serious statement by the late Philip Graham that Newsweek is a first rough draft of history.
And we write … or I’ve certainly written in this kind of omniscient tone … Olympian tone … but we know it’s … there’s something slightly … this is a harsh word … fake about it. Sometimes we seem to … we seek to be more omniscient than we actually are … because it’s the first draft.
We’re often writing about events as they happen. In real time. One reason why I write books is because I … it gives me the freedom, the luxury, the chance to go back in time and write a second and third and a fourth draft of history … to find out what really was going on.
It … you never get the truth, you know that … you never totally get the truth, but you can get closer to it than I can in my day job at, at Newsweek.
I can, I can … because I can get into the letters, I can get into the records, I can get into … and again, I never get the … I never get “it”, whatever “it” is because it’s … I don’t even know “it” about myself, much less Teddy Roosevelt a hundred years ago.
But you can get closer. And … by … somebody, especially like Roosevelt who wrote a lot of letters and was frank and politically incorrect as all get out … you, you get … we have an expression in journalism, “getting in their heads”, to get in the head.
And you know, I think I did get in, in Teddy Roosevelt’s head in The War Lovers and Lodge and Hearst and others. And, and I really can’t do that … I mean I try to do it at Newsweek … we do try.
But it’s harder because it’s more real time. The White House has their defenses up, they’re spinning us. There are many impediments to actually finding out what’s, what’s truly going on in real time.
HEFFNER: This business of getting inside their heads. Your subjects in The War Lovers … for instance … too much psychology?
THOMAS: Well, that’s a fair question and there’s a lot of … I, I never use psychological jargon. Just for that reason. It’s off-putting. You know I don’t use any kind of Freudian terminology … I might mention Oedipus every now and then, but you know, I don’t … I, I, I definitely am careful not to use psych … but I am informed by psychology. I am informed by it.
And yes there, there’s, there is endless debate … well, who is it … Erik Erikson who started the whole idea of “psycho-history” long ago … writing about Luther, was it?
That’s a very self-conscious effort to psychoanalyze an historic figure. What I’m doing is something that’s not nearly so expressly psychoanalytic, at all. But I am, I am … I do care about human nature.
And I do seek to read the minds of my subjects and make them real human beings insofar as I possibly can. So that the reader can relate to them, they’re not stick figure, that they’re actually flesh and blood. They have feelings and emotions.
And you, you have to be careful, you know. You can overdo it. But I think readers sense it. When you’re … when you’re …
HEFFNER: When you overdo it?
THOMAS: Yeah. I think they do. I think readers are very discerning. And if you push it too far, I think readers go “Come on …” and you hear from them or they don’t buy the book or … and I mean it’s a little bit like TV. If you’re fake on TV, the camera exposes you. And … same thing in writing books. If you, if you’re faking it, I think readers can tell.
HEFFNER: Well, let’s, let’s go back to this business of responsibilities … pray tell me, can you guess as to why most journalists who’ve sat where you’re sitting now have said to me, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, we don’t have those responsibilities. Those of the historian.”
THOMAS: Well, what do they mean? Ahemm … the … I guess what they’re saying is we’re doing this run and gun … we’re doing this on the fly … we’re doing this fast … we can’t know everything … we can only know the facts that we have and try to faithfully report them.
You know academic historians certainly have a discipline that I don’t think your average newspaper reporter has. They’re doing somewhat different things. But I will say this. Everybody’s engaged in the search for the truth.
There … some people are doing it quick and dirty and some people are doing it long and slow and careful. But they’re in the same realm. And that’s what the public’s looking for. And if you don’t give them the truth … especially if you lie or if you consciously lead them away from the truth, they’ll punish you. They won’t … they won’t read your stuff. Your reputation will be shot. It’s … you won’t, you won’t have standing.
So I think the market place actually works pretty well. Maybe you could fool them for some of the time, but over a long career, if you don’t play it straight, and you don’t write as accurately as you can or as honestly as you can. You’re going to get weeded out or not read or end up in the dustbin of history.
HEFFNER: Do you have any problems with professionalizing the profession of reporting?
THOMAS: I don’t really like the word …
HEFFNER: With its responsibilities?
THOMAS: I don’t really like the word.
THOMAS: Because … journalism is a rough and ready, slightly uncouth thing. There’s no … there’s no code of ethics that’s ever lasted.
HEFFNER: Are you saying there shouldn’t be?
THOMAS: I don’t think a formal code of ethics would work.
HEFFNER: Why …
THOMAS: … journalists are contrarian and they’re troublemakers and they … I mean … look … they shouldn’t lie and cheat and steal … but there’s something about journalists that are restless and they don’t like professional associations and they don’t like formal codes.
I went to law school and, you know, they have a formal code of ethics for lawyers. And some don’t see journalists … you know … they … I think the journalists actually rely on the market place.
If they’re wrong and if they fake it and if they make stuff up, they get punished for it.
HEFFNER: Isn’t, isn’t that too easy?
THOMAS: I …
HEFFNER: I mean you and I have seen journalists … those with whom let’s say you don’t agree, politically, who have been known to lie and steal and cheat.
THOMAS: Yeah. Sure. But I think ultimately the public figures out who is reliable and, and who isn’t. I trust the market place … over the long run. Not day to day. Not minute to minute.
But over the long run I, I trust the American people to figure out who’s telling them the straight stuff and who isn’t.
HEFFNER: Thanks because you’ve given me the opportunity to go to something you wrote …
HEFFNER: … and it’s titled “We the Problem: Washington Is Working Just Fine. It’s Us That’s Broken.”
Now, you with your faith in the people reconcile those, please.
THOMAS: Well I do have faith in the people to know when journalists … to be appropriately cynical about when journalists are making it up.
But what I’m writing about in that article is I think, unfortunately, in modern times we’ve lost our political will to accept sacrifice.
That Americans really have gotten kind of spoiled. And their political leaders have allowed this to happen and condoned it and enabled it, so that Americans now will not give up … make short term sacrifices for long term gains.
They’re too much in the moment. They are spoiled. You know, and my favorite ridiculous cry from the Tea Party types …some Tea Party types is “You tell the government to get it’s hands off Social Security.” Social Security is … I mean Medicare, excuse me.
“You get your … tell the government to get it’s hands off my Medicare”. Medicare is a government program. And people are just used to having, you know, the government take care of them and they don’t really want to touch those … they don’t like government, but they don’t want to have anybody touch their government benefits.
They don’t want to have higher taxes … this is a problem right now because we’ve dug ourselves into this fiscal hole.
And the only way out of it … there are two ways out of it … you can have inflation which is gruesome and I think it bad for society … it’s really corrosive.
Or we can be responsible and raise taxes and cut spending. I would do it about equal measure … just because I think it’s politically easier to do things in equal measure.
But the American people do not want to do that. They really don’t want to do it. And their political leaders are not asking them to do it.
HEFFNER: It …
THOMAS: It’s a failure of leadership. But it’s also a failure of the American people.
HEFFNER: But wait a minute … you said, “it’s a failure of leadership”.
THOMAS: It is. But it’s …but the leaders are reflecting … it is a failure of leadership. And I believe that. And I’ve written that.
But the leaders are reflecting deeply held popular attitudes. So my … and Congress is a pretty good bellweather of this. I was just reading the other day … you know President Obama gives a speech where he talks about we’ve got to do something about energy and really to limit carbon consumption.
A couple of days later I’m reading the paper and, and I think it was Senator Reed says, “Well there’s just no way we’re going to raise taxes on energy. No way. Not a chance. We’re not going to have any kind of carbon tax. We’re not going to make people pay more for that.”
So the President can be inspiration on TV from the Oval Office, but down where it matters, in Congress, were they’re actually passing the laws … you have the Senate Majority Leader just brush it off.
HEFFNER: Okay, now … wonderful paragraph. Sad paragraph. Period and go on to the next thing. What do you think is going to happen to us?
THOMAS: Well, usually what shakes you out of your lethargy is some terrible crisis. And Americans have responded well to crisis. But typically it’s been war.
We, we are willing to sacrifice in times of war.
HEFFNER: Not this past one.
THOMAS: Well …
HEFFNER: Not this one, I mean.
THOMAS: Not, not this one. But that’s because there’s no draft and it’s, it’s a war that a professional military has, has carried and they’re able to carry it … barely … but they’re able to carry it.
So the rest of us can just put it out of sight, out of mind. I mean I … you know … there should be a draft, we would … if there was a draft we’d be feeling it … middle class people like me with kids would be feeling it a lot more directly. And I think the country would be responding differently.
But we have an all volunteer professional Army that is just strong enough to take on the burdens that we keep heaping on them, although we’re forcing them to have four and five tours of duty. And we’re heaping a lot on them.
But, but their stoical … pretty stoical about it and so that we’re able to turn and look … turn and look the other way.
So, a real war … big war would probably force us to step up to this. It’s hard to envision exactly what else would do it. And even 9/11 … I mean President Bush called on us to do more shopping … that was the nature of the sacrifice.
That was … that would have been a good time to ask for sacrifice, but he didn’t do it.
Some greater crisis is hard to envision exactly what it might be, but I would like us to make these sacrifices before we have what I truly fear is we just start printing money to get … because we can do that.
I mean we … you can inflate your way out of massive debts. It’s been done before. Hyper-inflation and it’s always ugly when it happens.
I don’t want to get to that point. Now I know there’s a whole school that says that we shouldn’t worry too much about the deficits and Krugman writes about this all the time, we need to spend more money now and gen … you know … gen up the economy.
You know you could debate all that. But even Krugman would admit that eventually (laughter) we have to deal with these debt problems.
Maybe not today at this instant, but we … yes, I mean the number that always sticks with me …
THOMAS: … for a long time about 20% of GDP has come in as taxes. 20% … basically 20% of GDP comes in as federal taxes of our economy … comes in as taxes.
Within a few years 25% will be going out as spending. That is a big gap. A fifth coming in, a quarter going out.
That’s too big a gap. Economic growth is not going to solve that. I haven’t talked to anybody who thinks we’re going to have some miracle, next-big-thing, green growth or something that we’re going to be able to bridge that through growth.
The only way to bridge that gap is … by … cutting spending or raising taxes or printing money. And just inflating your way out. I don’t want to get to that point.
So I wish that we would wise up and start dealing with these … particularly in the entitlement programs … as the Baby Boomers age … I mean the numbers are quite shocking about all this.
And you can be … sort of boring fiscal stuff … who cares. But we’re going to care. We’re going to care.
HEFFNER: Do you think going back to this question of responsibility in the press … do you think the American press has dealt with that phenomenon?
THOMAS: No. No. The American press is terrible. There are some sort of deficit hawks who write columns about it.
THOMAS: I whine about it occasionally in the pages of Newsweek. But I wouldn’t say collectively the press is interested in it at all. I, I would say journalists have not really gotten on this … it’s too far down the road.
In the cable TV culture, it’s much more what’s on the … in the moment. You know it’s the oil spill or if Iraq is heating up, you know that. Or Afghanistan or some poor teenage girl who’s been abducted or, you know, it’s not … they’re not looking down the road at boring questions like the percentage of GDP that’s …
I mean cable TV just doesn’t do that. And journalists do play off of … even mainstream journalists play off of, of cable TV. They’re much more in the moment. Although columnists do write about this.
HEFFNER: You, you have a “thing” about cable TV.
THOMAS: I do. I do. I think it’s, it’s terrible. I really do. I mean I go on it …
HEFFNER: What is its quality that …. ahh …
THOMAS: Because I think it’s too much air time chasing too little news. There’s not enough real news.
You know in 1960 … up to 1963 the evening news shows were 15 minutes and when they expanded in … in 19 … September 1963 from 15 minutes to a half an hour, they worried at CBS and NBC and ABC whether there’d be enough news to fill it.
1963 … that’s Martin Luther King giving the “I have a dream” speech. Vietnam is heating up. Kennedy shot, you know … there’s plenty of news. But they don’t think there’s a half an hour?
Now we’ve got all these networks filling 24 hours … so there’s way too much air time being filled. And so they … and it’s … they have to fill it cheaply because there aren’t big audiences, there are little audiences … so they fill it with noise, with just, you know, yammer.
Now I’m a noisy person and I get out there and yammer … you know I’ve, I’ve shot my mouth off on, you know …
THOMAS: All sorts of news shows. Cable. And you know, especially when I’m trying to sell a book. Can’t wait to get on cable. So I’m an offender on this.
But you asked me … I don’t think the cable TV is all that healthy because it keeps us mired in the moment and puts these unnatural pressures … particularly on the White House … right now … I’m thinking about right now … I just watched the White House, wants to ignore cable TV, but can’t.
They eventually get sucked in by the incessant chatter, the need to come on, show that you’re empathetic President Obama, show that you’re angry. And I, I don’t think that’s really who he is, but he gets drawn into it. I don’t think that’s a great thing.
HEFFNER: What was it that you said about Obama that got everybody up in the air?
THOMAS: I, I, I, I, I made the mistake of stupidly comparing him to God. Or so it was read. You can go watch the YouTube yourself.
HEFFNER: What did you say?
THOMAS: I said that he was holding himself up above, like a God. That he … there’s a kind … there’s a kind of aloofness to and a kind of an above it all quality to President Obama. But I said it inelegantly on one of these stupid talk shows … on Hardball with Chris Matthews. And I’ve been getting hammered for it … and rightly so … ever since.
The blogs have been after me and particularly Right … because it confirms the notion in Right Wing TV that sure enough there is a Liberal conspiracy … all those Liberals think that Obama is God.
Well, look at the guy Evan Thomas, he looks like a Liberal. And he says Obama is God. So it confirms … it’s a useful tool. I gat them a stick to hit …
HEFFNER: And they beat you. They beat you. They beat you.
THOMAS: They did. And I, I deserved it. Because I did deserve in the sense that there I am on TV shooting my mouth off. I did not say … and you can … anybody can watch the clip, it’s on YouTube. And you can make your own judgment on it. But I didn’t, I didn’t word it as well as I should have.
HEFFNER: Ah, no Liberal conspiracy. Forget the word conspiracy. What about your fellow journalists? We know that at Fox nobody’s going to say … Liberal conspiracy or Liberal anything.
THOMAS: I think there’s a Liberal bias in the mainstream media. I think it’s been … it’s less pronounced than it was. Fox actually has had an impact. Roger Ailes is a very smart guy. And we can get all indignant about Fox, but he really fired a shot across the bow of the mainstream media saying, “I’m coming after you for being Liberal. I’m going to make a lot of money because you are being Liberal.”
And the effect in … amongst the mainstream media was a little bit to sit back and go, “Well, let’s watch it a little bit here.”
I think that TV … since the rise of Fox … mainstream TV … the networks and all that, they have been a little bit more careful. And I think at Newsweek we have, too, about our … because there is a natural …
HEFFNER: What do you mean “careful”?
THOMAS: Self-aware about not showing off. Being a little bit more thoughtful maybe about what you write and what you say to, to not want to be accused of being Left-wingers.
Now, it’s messier than that. It’s messier than that. For instance in Newsweek we got in trouble for doing these covers about Obama, which sort of back lit that made him look like a God. Made him look like God. Here I go again.
Ah, and they were kind of worshipful. And we were taken to task for that and I think, and I think appropriately so. I think we did sort of fall in love with Obama a little bit that way.
And we made him look even better than he does. And … but then I think … but, I think we’re kind of self-conscious about it. And I think Jon Meacham at Newsweek as been trying to be careful. I mean he gets accused of being a Liberal and taking the magazine … I don’t think that’s right.
I think if you actually read Newsweek, it’s pretty balanced. There are, you know, Fareed Zakaria he’s a very balanced person. Despite the fact that I’m, you know, the grandson of a Socialist, I’m totally middle of the road.
I mean my news columns are not particularly Left or Right. They’re, they’re kind of in the mushy middle … or at least that’s the way I feel.
HEFFNER: Mushy middle.
THOMAS: The mushy middle. I would put myself squarely in the mushy middle. And occasionally I’ll tack out to the Left or I’ll tack to the Right. But …
HEFFNER: That’s …
THOMAS: … I’m mostly in the middle.
HEFFNER: … that’s not used, I gather, as a pejorative.
THOMAS: I’m being … it’s always a mistake to be ironic. I’m being ironic.
THOMAS: But I’m a moderate … I am a moderate. I’ve been covering politics and writing about it so long I’ve had my ideology beaten out of me.
I don’t … I do not feel … I did as a college kid, like a lot of people, but I don’t feel strong ideological underpinnings. You know, I, I believe in things … I believe in the rule of law, I believe in a democratic system, I believe in the United States.
You know, I believe in fiscal prudence. I believe in just wars, but I don’t … I’m not identifiably Liberal or Conservative.
HEFFNER: What an interesting batch … “just wars”, etc., etc., etc. Do you want to say “this is what I believe in ?” You think …
THOMAS: Well, I’m actually … as I, as I was going down that list I was feeling kind of self-conscious about it. Because I normally don’t. And I’m not really normally called upon to either … to state what, what I believe in, so …
But it’s … actually as I think about it a kind of healthy exercise to ask yourself, “Okay, what do you really believe in?”
I really do believe in the rule of law because in societies where they’re run by young men with guns and dictators, that’s very scary to me. And, and … much of the world power is at the end of a gun … and, and it’s really the strong guy … or particularly the strong young guys who run the show. Or it’s done by favors and friends.
And much as I get exasperated by lawyers … too many lawyers in a legalistic society, the rule of law is a great gift that we have in this country and we should appreciate it and not take it for granted.
HEFFNER: We just have a couple of minutes left. What’s going to happen to Newsweek?
THOMAS: I hope we get sold to a good buyer. I, I heard there are 11 bidders now knocking around.
HEFFNER: What would be the definition of a “good buyer”?
THOMAS: Somebody who’s responsible, cares about us, cares about the values of journalism, wants to put out … not the same Newsweek because we’re going to have to be re-invented … I, I understand that. But somebody who cares about journalism and the virtues of journalism, of getting it right and getting … being truthful … and writing for an audience that will be educated and informed by it.
HEFFNER: What happened?
THOMAS: The business model broke. Our advertising plummeted by, I think, 30% over a couple of years. I mean that’s not a little dip, that’s a crash.
And it’s a … it’s a variety of things … some of it was cyclical … the recession. Some of it was, was structural … you know, because the news is free on the Internet.
That’s a hard thing to compete with and our advertisers started to fall away … in a precipitous fashion, so we were no longer profitable and so The Washington Post, which I think cares very much about saving The Washington Post … Post Company wants to save The Washington Post … and I totally understand why the Graham family would, you know, set its sights on that and, and cast us loose. And, you know, hope we find a good buyer, but …
HEFFNER: And news magazines, generally?
THOMAS: The old news magazine is gone. The, the thing that I worked for and which lasted for 75 years … that’s gone. Time may be sort of the last man standing. But even they are … they’re not, they’re not what news magazines used to be, truly Catholic in their interests, many different sections, huge staffs, international presence, writing about the week’s news. That’s gone.
HEFFNER: Is it to be found anywhere?
THOMAS: Well, The Economist, I think is pretty great. And they, they do a variation on it with a certain attitude and point of view written by clever British, Oxbridge graduates. The Week is an amalgam of cut and paste, but I think performs a valuable service. So you can find variations on it.
But the old, and I think it was a great franchise, but the old march of Time and Newsweek every week into your mailbox to give you the world in a 20 minute or 40 minute sitting was a wonderful thing, but it’s time has passed because there are so many other outlets providing information.
So we have to re-invent ourselves, but still serve the same goals of really making people interested and excited and informed and giving them one place they can go and not get the whole world, but get enough of it to be meaningful.
HEFFNER: Evan Thomas I’m grateful for you coming back to The Open Mind again and grateful to you for The War Lovers … hope everyone reads it. And I’m looking forward to your book on Dwight Eisenhower.
THOMAS: Thank you, Richard.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit The Open Mind website, at www.theopenmind.tv.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.