Rolling Stone at 50: From Nixon to Trump, Talking to Power
In November 1993, Rolling Stone had just wrapped up its first interview with a sitting U.S. president when a last-minute question from National Affairs editor William Greider caused Bill Clinton to turn red in the face and begin shouting. Clinton was near the end of a tumultuous first year in office that saw a sinking economy drag down his approval rating. Greider mentioned a phone call he’d gotten from a father of one of Clinton’s Faces of Hope, citizens Clinton had met during the campaign and invited to the inaugural. “He was very dejected,” Greider told the president. “I told him I was coming over here to see you, and he said, ‘Ask him what he’s willing to stand up for and die on.’ ”
Before he knew it, Greider was eyeball to eyeball with an enraged Clinton as his co-interviewer, Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner, looked on in stunned silence. “I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in 20 years, with the possible exception of Reagan’s first budget, and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press,” Clinton roared. “I am sick and tired of it. And you can put that in the damn article.”
From its earliest days, Rolling Stone has approached presidents as people first, politicians second. “Most reporters try to cover that day’s news or that day’s controversies, and all the president winds up doing is evading,” says Wenner, who has conducted extensive interviews with Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama. “I back up and ask them for context and color, and I try to understand them in a deeper sense as human beings rather than going over the momentary issues. I think that’s what has made our interviews so good. You got a sense of the individual and the way they talk and how they think.”
Through it all, the magazine has been a staunch advocate of the Democratic Party, even hosting a convention party for Jimmy Carter in 1976 – with a guest list that included Bob Dylan, Jackie Onassis, Robert Redford, John Lennon and Walter Cronkite – and staging all-star fundraising shows for the Democratic candidates in the early 2000s.
The 1972 election was a high-stakes affair to end the war in Vietnam, and Wenner made it a huge priority for the magazine. The primaries began just after Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” landed on newsstands as a two-part Rolling Stone feature. Thompson, who had run a failed race for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, in 1970, was eager to hit the campaign trail.
Thompson trailed the Democratic candidates during the primary season. He became easily the wildest character in the press pool, and his dispatches mixed candidate interviews with vivid insights into the political process (not to mention accounts of his own debauchery). In one piece, he accused Edmund Muskie of being addicted to an obscure hallucinogenic drug: “It is entirely conceivable – given the known effects of ibogaine – that Muskie’s brain was almost paralyzed by hallucinations at the time; that he looked out at the crowd and saw Gila monsters instead of people.”
Thompson, who was teamed with young rock journalist Timothy Crouse, got incredible access to George McGovern. “We just had free run of the place, Hunter especially,” says Crouse. “They were probably way too transparent for their own good.” “Hunter really took a broader look at the campaign,” says Wenner. “It brought it alive for our readers in a way no other coverage could have done. If we had sent a traditional reporter, we wouldn’t have had the breakthrough we had. It really gave us our permanent footprint in the world of politics.”
Thompson grew despondent when he realized McGovern’s campaign was doomed. “It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every other country has learned to fear and despise,” Thompson wrote just before the president’s re-election. When Crouse wasn’t feeding Thompson’s stream-of-consciousness bulletins into a “mojo wire” (a crude fax machine) just before deadline, he was observing fellow journalists for “The Boys on the Bus,” a groundbreaking feature that turned a critical eye toward the press. “I remember when that massive manuscript hit my desk,” says then-managing editor Paul Scanlon. “I said, ‘Is this an article or a book?’ ” It wound up being both.
Thompson stayed off the campaign trail in 1976. Rolling Stone hired former Nixon White House counsel John Dean to cover the RNC – a counterintuitive move that paid off, as Dean’s inside knowledge sparked sharp insights. Thompson was, however, charmed by Carter after seeing him speak in 1974, and later became close to the Carter family. “Both Carter and his wife have become amazingly tolerant of my behavior,” he wrote, “and on one or two occasions have had to deal with me in a noticeably bent condition. I have always been careful not to commit any felonies right in front of them.”
Not long after Reagan took office in 1981, Rolling Stone hired Greider, a former Washington Post writer, to head up its politics coverage and keep pressure on the new president. “Hunter Thompson was a friend from my reporting days,” says Greider. “The way he tells the story was, ‘I was taking a leak one night and I thought of Greider.’ He said to Jann, ‘Get Greider, he knows these people. He’ll tear their heads off.’ ” For the next few years, that’s what Greider did – chronicling everything from Reagan’s obsession with breaking apart unions to his tax breaks for the rich and his desire to dismantle the social safety net.
Rolling Stone‘s coverage of the 1984 and 1988 elections was scant. “You couldn’t get yourself worked up about Mondale and Dukakis,” says Wenner. But in late 1991, Clinton arrived on the national political scene. “I got real enthusiastic again,” says Wenner. “He was the first guy running from the baby boom [generation]. He was a good, persuasive candidate. He was a real Rolling Stone candidate.”
Clinton saw value in appealing to Rolling Stone‘s younger demographic, allowing the magazine an extensive interview during the 1992 campaign. It was a remarkable scene: Clinton showed up wearing a short-sleeve shirt, khakis and running shoes, and met with Wenner, Thompson, Greider and writer P.J. O’Rourke in the back room of Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock, Arkansas. “I thought we should have a summit,” Wenner says, “with three of the leading political reporters of the time.”
Wenner began the genial two-and-a-half-hour interview by asking about Sixties idealism and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. “People who went and sacrificed and thought it was right,” Clinton said, “then came home to a culture that said it was wrong. People who opposed the war – though most of us still think we were right – we were World War II babies. We wanted to serve our country; we wanted to be part of patriotic wars; we wanted to believe in sacrifice. We paid quite a price as a generation for the impact Vietnam had on the country.”
Thompson was eager to discuss his view that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure were being routinely violated by overbearing law-enforcement officials, particularly when it came to the War on Drugs. “Clinton glared at him across the table and said, ‘I don’t agree with you about drugs and the Fourth Amendment,’ ” Greider recalls. “Hunter just visibly sagged and got real sad. I think Hunter sincerely thought this might be the guy who actually changes things. He went off to the bar and came back with an even bigger drink.”
During the 2000 campaign, the magazine threw its weight behind Gore, staging a fundraising concert for him at Radio City Music Hall featuring Paul Simon, Bette Midler, Jon Bon Jovi and Lenny Kravitz. Wenner interviewed Gore aboard Air Force Two in the final weeks of the campaign. The vice president explained how he was shaped by his experience in the Vietnam War. “I was like a lot of guys in that when I came back from Vietnam, I had this pull to go back over there,” Gore said. “It’s hard to explain. . . . You come back home, and life is not as vivid. . . . Maybe because it was an unfinished experience. . . . I found it quite a growth experience.”
Four years later, the magazine was equally supportive of John Kerry’s campaign. Wenner – who interviewed Kerry on the campaign trail and put him on the cover – organized a benefit concert for him at Radio City featuring John Mellencamp, James Taylor, Mary J. Blige and others. Like Gore, Kerry lost by a single state. “Both losses were just devastating,” says Wenner. “Both times we thought they had it won.”
George W. Bush, Wenner recalls, “seemed harmless until 9/11. Then you had the invasion of Iraq.” In May 2006, the magazine labeled him the “worst president in history” in a devastating cover story by historian Sean Wilentz. “Coming to that conclusion after a dispassionate look at all his predecessors had a powerful ripple effect throughout the media and public opinion,” says Wenner.
In 2003, Matt Taibbi began writing for Rolling Stone, tearing the Bush administration to shreds over its incompetence, heartlessness and greed. “We have not seen as colorful and idiosyncratic and incisive and funny a writer and reporter since Hunter S. Thompson,” says Wenner. “He’s picked up an enormous following because of how brilliant he’s been.”
In July 2008, Wenner interviewed Obama aboard his campaign plane. The young senator broke down the failures of the Bush administration, from education to inequality to “a lack of curiosity about the world outside our borders.” When Wenner asked him to name his musical heroes, he rattled off five Stevie Wonder albums from the 1970s in near-sequential order, and cited “Maggie’s Farm,” which he said spoke to him “as I listen to some of the political rhetoric.” “He was impressive beyond belief,” Wenner says. “Just so cool and collected.”
Wenner interviewed Obama again shortly before his re-election in 2012, then once more during a far less inspiring moment, the day after Trump’s victory in 2016. Wenner offered to postpone, but Obama felt like talking. “It was a dull, cloudy day, and the White House was nearly empty when I arrived,” Wenner wrote. “It had been a long and unhappy night, and now only a skeleton staff remained. It felt like a funeral.” Obama tried to explain how the unthinkable had happened. “Part of it is Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country,” he said. “But part of it is also Democrats not working at a grassroots level, being in there, showing up, making arguments. That part of the critique of the Democratic Party is accurate.”
During the 2016 campaign, Rolling Stone offered to put Hillary Clinton on the cover and pair it with an extensive interview, but she turned down the offer. “That was an idiotic decision,” says Wenner. “Another sign of how bad the decision-making in the campaign was. They turned away from the base. She really ran a very flawed campaign.”
Trump was more than happy to appear on the cover in 2015, granting writer Paul Solotaroff extensive access midway through the Republican primary. “Watching him speak [at rallies], I felt like the Reichstag was burning,” says Solotaroff. “He was so comfortable coaxing rage and racism out of people.” Solotaroff noticed that while Trump was onstage his pilots were tasked with going to McDonald’s to pick up dinner. “Trump sat in the stateroom of the plane, watched coverage of the rally he just did and consumed two Big Macs in three bites,” Solotaroff recalls.
Solotaroff’s story ran with Wenner’s prescient cover line: Taking Trump Seriously. At the time, not many media outlets were. After the story hit, Trump claimed – falsely – a distraught Solotaroff phoned him and said his editor had added negative parts against his will. “It was clear I hurt him and he felt betrayed,” says Solotaroff. “He thought we formed a connection.”
Two months into his presidency, Trump appeared on the
cover again, drawn by illustrator Victor Juhasz as a human tornado. “We
just published a piece where we defined what we think of him, called ‘The Pathology
of Narcissism,'” says Wenner. “It’ll tell you everything you need to
know about why he’s so crude and uninformed and why he doesn’t pay attention to
anything, why he has no empathy for anybody. So our job now is to go do solid
good journalism and reporting. Our mission remains unchanged.”