We asked for emails, and you responded: Rolling Stone political writer Matt Taibbi responds to two dozen reader questions below. Note: Questions have been edited for length and/or clarity.
What made you want to become a political reporter? As a child, did you ever imagine yourself in the position that you are in today?
– Name Withheld
As a child I wanted to be a zoologist. Then from about the age of 14 on I wanted to be a novelist. I’m a political reporter because my fiction sucks. You should read it. I mean, it’s not just bad, it’s like, screamingly bad. Talents such as us end up in political journalism.
Why are some Republicans (and many media types) so hot and bothered about the prospect of Fred Thompson running for president? I can’t recall one piece of notable legislation or accomplishment as senator. (They often point to his role as Howard Baker’s counsel during Watergate, but to me that’s less of an accomplishment and more a result of being Howard Baker’s bag man in Tennessee.)
— Name Withheld
They’re hot and bothered about him because he can win. The fact that he has no accomplishments makes him uniquely qualified for the modern presidency. The fact that he has no accomplishments and has been on Law and Order makes him well nigh a freaking political superstar. No record + media skillz + name recognition = electoral success. Personally I always get him confused with Joe Don Baker.
I’m pretty left leaning in most of my views, but nobody in the Democratic party really does it for me. Everything I see and read about Chuck Hagel makes me like him. What do you know/think of him?
Will in Colorado
Chuck Hagel is an interesting guy I guess. I talked to him once when, if I remember correctly, he was considering co-sponsoring Charlie Rangel’s draft bill in the Senate. The thing about the current state of the Republican party is that Bush’s implosion has opened the door for a resurgence of “real” Republicanism, i.e. small-government/isolationist Republicanism. Bush was really not much of a Republican at all — more like a retarded Christian AA version of Woodrow Wilson. He spent like crazy and he got America involved in these crazy “let’s export the wonderfulness of us” adventures. Because America these days has a cultural memory of about four seconds no one remembers that this is not the way Republicans used to act, but once Bush finally blew up, the door opened for some canny people in the party to remind everyone of that fact. Hagel looks like the first guy to try that tack.
1) Not that there’s anything sinister with happening to agree with one party’s values more, but do you think that your National Affairs coverage is perhaps a little bit too partisan?
2) What is your favorite YouTube campaign stunt? What is your least?
3) Will the blog or online media make print effectively irrelevant for political updates?
4) If you could ask George W. Bush one question and be actually guaranteed an honest answer, what would you ask him?
— Tyler Bass
1) Re partisanship: if you think my coverage of the Bush administration is unkind, wait until Hillary Clinton becomes president.
2) I don’t watch You Tube much, but I do watch X Tube regularly. I keep hoping to catch someone like Lindsey Graham on there.
3) I don’t think blogs will replace print media completely. As long as men keep shitting on Sunday mornings, the print newspaper will thrive.
4) As for Bush, the question I always wanted to ask him was if he thought Muslims automatically went to hell after death. I think that would be an interesting question because there’s no way for him to answer it without pissing off one or the other group of lunatics.
Of all of the viable candidates for the Democratic and Republican nominations, who will win on each side? Who will you support once this choice is made?
– Name Withheld
It’s going to be Thompson against Hillary or Edwards and I’m going to cast a write-in vote for Joseph Stalin if it comes to that.
In person, is Hillary Clinton as cold and distant as she seems on television, in magazines, and in books?
– Name Withheld
I’ve only seen Hillary in person once and I was struck by how big her head is compared to the rest of her body. She looks like a bobblehead.
For all American politicians in general, how much of their religious faith is real, and how much is for the votes?
I think Bush’s is real. Gary Bauer’s is real, so is Santorum’s. The rest are all completely full of shit. I remember Kerry trying to tell reporters on the plane once that he likes to pray quietly to himself at night or something like that. It was so sad. I was afraid the stewardesses were going to burst out laughing.
Hi Matt, first of all I’d like to say how much I enjoy reading your column. Here’s my question: I live in the UK, and I always hear complaints made about the ‘liberal american media’. However, there is virtually nothing in American news that even approaches what I would define as ‘liberal’. Am I just missing what is in front my nose, or is it a figment of the right’s paranoid imagination?
All the best
Michael Watt (Edinburgh, Britain)
Hi, Michael, thanks for the kind comments. Are you a Scot? I used to work with a room full of Scots in Russia and I could never tell what the fuck any of them were talking about. They all had ponytails and they were all drunk by 11 in the morning every day. Anyway the “liberal media” is a funny thing. Most reporters are, in fact, liberal, or at least would vote Democratic. So that’s where that idea comes from — the Limbaughs etc pick out these individuals, the Dan Rathers of the world, and use the statements they make in private to argue that there’s a “liberal” media. But the companies these “liberal” reporters work for decide the editorial agenda. And that agenda is not necessarily conservative — I would describe it more as nihilistic.
How long will it take for the Democrat hopefuls to realize that they cannot simply pull out of Iraq?
I saw an old episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” on the Sleuth channel the other night. In it a highly annoying Vince D’Onofrio falls between a subway car and the subway platform and he gets stuck there, with the train basically holding his guts in. The medics come in and they look at him and realize that if they move the train at all, his guts are going to fall out and he’s going to die. But if they do nothing, he’s going to slowly lose blood pressure and die. Either way, he’s going to die. Iraq is Vince D’Onofrio. It doesn’t overact as much, but it’s just as fucked. The bloodbath is coming as soon as we leave, whether that’s now or 20 years from now. But I’d be interested to hear your argument explaining how things are going to improve by us staying and spending a billion bucks a day or whatever playing Play Station in air conditioned trailers behind twenty-foot walls while Iraqis have six hours of electricity and pee into buckets and get their throats slit as soon as night falls. You’re probably right, a few more years of that, and this Sunni-Shia hatred thing will pass.
Based on the public’s current reaction to the republican party, do you believe more intelligent and constitutionalist candidates like Ron Paul will be dismissed as conservatives? Or will these presidential hopefuls still have a chance? What are your views on Republican candidates such as Ron Paul?
I like Ron Paul a lot. Even before he ran for president I respected him as a guy who more or less voted his conscience in congress, which is rare. And as I said above, these “classic conservatives” I think are going to make a comeback eventually — not sure if it will be him though.
Our 2008 presidential options all seem to have flaws. If there were someone else that you wish would run, who would it be?
– Gary Zarda
The politician I’ve most admired personally in recent times is Alexander Lebed, but he’s both dead and Russian, so he probably would do very poorly in the primaries. I’m obviously a big fan of Bernie Sanders, I think he’s an honest man, but I’d hate to see what the media would do to him if he ran. Running for president degrades a man, so asking me who I’d like to see run is a tough question. It’s like asking who I’d like to see thrown in a tank with a shark. Sherrod Brown also seems like a decent guy to me.
I had a really obnoxious drunken argument with a bunch of recent college graduates the other day- I’m a bit older than them. Anyway, they were a bunch of cynical know it all assholes who kept arguing that pandering was absoutely necessary to be elected president in this day and age. In my drunken rage, I wasn’t able to make any kind of a legitimate argument, but just kept yelling out “”that’s bullshit! that’s not good enough!”” However, the next morning when I woke up sober, I felt really depressed, because I kept thinking that maybe those asshole kids are right. What do you think??
I think you’re right and those kids are full of shit. We’ve gotten so caught up in the horse-race aspect of campaigning that we forget that politicians also have a responsibility to educate people. To say ahead of time that you have to indulge prejudices or ignorance in the electorate in order to win not only shows a lack of confidence in the idea that minds can change over time, it’s also an abdication of a true leader’s responsibility. If the people will only elect a candidate who endorses wrong-headed positions, a true leader has to show them why they’re wrong and make them change their vote. That’s why we call them leaders. A politician who panders is not a leader. He’s a follower.
That’s what I hate most about American politics. Take a guy like John Kerry. He’s sat in high-level committee meetings for 20 years or whatever, met world leaders, been briefed by intelligence operatives, etc. He knows all this stuff, yet during the course of the campaign he didn’t tell us one goddamn thing we didn’t know already. He put his hands over his heart and talked about how weepy he gets when he sees the flag. What a crock of shit. At least Bill Clinton — who I’m not always a fan of, by the way — at least Clinton in his speech at the Kerry convention went out of his way to explain to voters how racking up debt to China and Saudia Arabia affected national policy. He used his position to teach us something. But in general we’re supposed to look up to these guys, but all they do is try to jack us off.
Who was your most interesting interview? Why?
I’d say Sy Hersh was among my most interesting. Also the aforementioned Lebed. I interviewed Gary Kasparov once and he was funny, kept talking about how he could take Anatoly Karpov in a street fight.
What is one topic/issue/event that you think is sorely lacking media coverage?
Justina M. Ashley
That’s easy — it’s poverty. I know one TV reporter who did a story about a murder in a poor town who was asked to recut his story and replace the interviews with poor people with his own standups, because TV doesn’t like poor people to even be on camera. Advertisers hate poor people because studies have show people don’t buy as much when they look at depressing images. That’s why we like pro golf and The OC and all these other shows about rich people with nice teeth driving nice cars. There is a lot of poverty and economic instability, but it isn’t on television unless it’s being chased on COPS.
Out of these three people — Nikolai Gogol, Hunter S. Thompson or Sy Hersh — who would you say is your biggest influence and why? Is there anyone who’s had a bigger impact on how you write and what you write about?
Keep on keepin’ on,
Hi Brian. Wow, a milestone in my life, the first time I’ve ever gotten the “influences” question. The funny thing about that question is that I get ripped so often for being a Hunter Thompson wannabe, but the guy I’m actually trying to rip off is H.L. Mencken. I must be doing a shitty job of it. He was my hero growing up, along with Saki and Gogol. I started my writing career trying to write novels like Gogol but they really sucked. People would read them and I would have to go back later and tell them what the funny parts were. Then I tried to write short stories like Saki and they were even worse. So the count is now 0-2.
The thing about Thompson, there’s never going to be another Hunter Thompson. He was just a unique human being. And his prose style, although it’s fairly easy to replicate superficially, there’s a magic ingredient to it somewhere that no one else will ever be able to capture. I think I wrote this when he died, but that magic thing in Hunter’s best writing is so elusive that even Thompson himself couldn’t reproduce it in the last twenty years of his life or so. Anyway I used to think that someday I might be able to write that well, but now unfortunately I know better.
As for Hersh, I admire him, and I was actually surprised by how much I liked him when we met earlier this year, but he’s never been a role model for me mainly because he’s a real investigative reporter and I’m not. I love the guy, though. He’s like seventy-nine or something and every politician in Washington is terrified of him. It’s hilarious.
With everything that’s going on in this country—the Iraq quagmire, threat of war with Iran, outrageous gas prices, a presidential race that began a year and a half early, just to name a few—why aren’t we out in the streets? What’s it going to take? How much is too much?
I think it will take a lot more than this. People will go out on the streets when they’re really really suffering, and we’re not really suffering. We’re a prosperous country run by a relatively static oligarchy of commercial/political interests, and while people have few real political choices and little recourse to change the worst aspects of our culture, they’re not starving for the most part and will probably still prefer to enjoy the illusion of choice offered by the two-party system rather than openly revolt against it in the form or third-party politics or other, er, avenues.
I think a collapse of American power due to other factors — an overreliance on cheap foreign labor, a loss of foreign markets due to general political instability in parts of the third world, some catastrophe involving disease or nuclear terrorism or something — I think that’s far more likely than any kind of domestic uprising. And you know I think that’s a good thing, that there’s this political stability. I lived in Russia and some other messed-up places and I can say that as twisted as our culture is, particularly our media, stuff at least works. You turn the shower on in the morning, water comes out. If you call the cops, they’ll come. You send the army to a foreign country, they don’t start ripping their uniforms off and selling their weapons to the other side.
I remember being in Russia once when they devalued the currency, I was talking to some dude at a beer stand when we got the news. Guy fell on the street with his tongue sticking out when he found out his life’s savings was now worth about twenty cents. When that kind of stuff starts happening in America to millions of people, we’ll get people on the streets.
Do you think Cheney will resign before leaving office? It’s a scenario that lets Bush appoint the GOP front-runner to boost their chances of retaining the White House in ’08. It also gives the administration a chance to let Cheney be the fall guy for the bloody quagmire that is Iraq.
— Ron Phillips
Cheney’s not resigning from shit. When he leaves the White House, his fingernails will still be dug into the floorboards from when they had to drag him out.
What’s your take on Al Gore’s green crusade? Have you seen the art of him done up like Atlas in the latest Rolling Stone? (I guess you probably have.) Do you think he has much of a chance to actually effect positive (let’s say legislative) change, or is it basically a Geldof good-feelings PR campaign?
– Name Withheld
I saw that picture and laughed at it. I’m sure someone in the composing room asked the editors if they should make the earth smaller or larger than Gore’s belly. Seriously, my sense of Al Gore is that he’ll do more good not being president. If it’s uncorrupted by political ambitions I think people will take his environmental campaign more seriously. I also think that a massive national investment in alternative energy research might be something that could save this country (not only from an environmental standpoint, but economically and geopolitically), and if he and others like him are able to convince the political establishment that it’s the smart and prudent thing to do, that would be an enormous accomplishment.
Also, what music do you listen to? Actually, do you listen to music at all?
— Name Withheld
I don’t listen to much music. I think I’ve copped to this before but I’m one of those suburban white kids who grew up listening to rap. I also went through a classical music phase and tried to learn the piano, but ended up having a crush on my teacher and not learning anything. I didn’t get anywhere with the girl either.
You’ve probably already been asked this too many times, but, are you planning to write the third installment of your 9/11 series? If not, why?
– Dallas Redig
Hi Dallas. I’ll eventually publish this written debate I had with the Loose Change guys via email. It was pretty funny stuff. At one point I asked them if they’d made even a single phone call before they ran that stuff about the hijackers still being alive. Their answer was that they had made some calls, but “couldn’t get through” to anyone. Then when I tried to point out that not getting through to anyone in your research is usually a good time not to publish your unverified material, they just ignored me and started babbling about how the original congressional report about 9/11 had 28 pages redacted, etc. etc. etc. It wasn’t really a debate, it was like one angry non sequitur after another. Eventually they dropped the debate in the middle — I haven’t heard from them in a while.
But I’ll get back to it eventually. I should say that the hardest thing for me in dealing with the Truthers is this feeling of being intimidated by how ridiculous they are. It would take a comic genius to really do them justice and the fear of falling short of that can be paralyzing. If you’ve ever seen the movie Eating Raoul there’s this scene where Paul Bland throws an electric bug-zapper into a hot tub full of swingers and they all just sort of fall naked and limp all at once. It’s hilarious. Somebody, and it may very well not be me, is going to write the electric bug-zapper of 9/11-debunker essays. But it’s going to have to be an inspired effort, not something you just toss off in one night. I really wish Mark Twain were alive for that reason. A Jim Fetzer’s Literary Offenses would potentially be one of the funniest things ever written in the English language.
Thanks for all the questions, everyone. I hope next time the moderators allow the nastier questions through. I’m a little embarrassed at how polite all of these were. Anyway thanks again and take care
— Matt T.