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A Far-Flung Correspondent

Nature, everyone’s nature, is to avoid what’s gonna bring you closer to danger and risk…. I’m telling him [the boxer Elvis Muriqi] how to be a brute and not just survive. A trainer’s got to lead a fighter into a dark place, and not too many want to go.

David Remnick, famous as a foreign correspondent and now editor of The New Yorker, also nurses a fascination with the boxing ring. That quotation comes from the trainer Teddy Atlas, explaining to Remnick how he tries to make his boxers fight to win. Elvis Muriqi had just let him down, preferring to collude with his opponent and survive rather than to go into dark places and be a brute. As the fifth round began (Muriqi eventually slouched to victory on points), Atlas confided to Remnick: “He’s making the choice just to get by. He’s satisfied, but I can’t let him be satisfied.”

The section about boxing, centered on the gory career of Mike Tyson, comes at the end of Remnick’s long book. And yet Teddy Atlas’s words could stand as its epigraph. Most of the profiles in this anthology, though not all, are about leaders—in the United States, Britain, Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere—who fight only to survive. They are skilled and impressive, satisfied that they have “done their best,” but they do not risk plunging into those dark places where disasters but also breakthroughs are found. As a result, nothing essential changes and impacted problems remain to poison future generations.

Remnick selects from his own work on five topics: American and British politics and public figures; writers he has known; Russia; Israel and Palestine; and finally boxing. His choices from his political reporting suggest that he is interested in public figures who do not live up to early promise. They inherit stubborn situations (in the Middle East, above all), but, after more or less respectable struggles, fail to make much impression upon them. It’s a pity that other intractable nightmares—Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and the presidency of George W. Bush among them—don’t feature here. Remnick might plausibly have suggested that this President, who overcame “nature” with a little help from his trainers and plunged brute-like into the dark places of Iraq, is just the kind of fighter Teddy Atlas fancies (“Punch more! Make the choice to punch!” “Stop lying to yourself!”). But the readers don’t get to go there.

In a world whose politics are heating up even faster than its climate, Remnick is a strikingly cool reporter. Watchful as a novelist for significant detail, he records the words, the clothes, the furnishings, and the diet of his subjects. He is immensely well informed and, like the good foreign correspondent he was for many years, he always sets the present against the background of the recent or sometimes distant past. His studies of Israeli politicians and writers, above all, put their biographies and beliefs into the setting of Zionist history with enough intelligent interpretation to make these reports required reading for any outsider seeking to penetrate the motives of Ariel Sharon, of his successor Ehud Olmert, or of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Remnick almost never passes direct judgment on the actions of his subjects. He comments often and sharply on style. Olmert is “a smart and cocky politician” (a remark written before this year’s invasion of Lebanon). He notices that Al Gore shares one trait with George W. Bush: “he is extremely reluctant to admit a mistake—even a small one.” He gives prominence to some opinions, those of Hanan Ashrawi, for instance, in a way which might suggest that he agrees with her when she observes that “in Israeli political discourse, the only acceptable Palestinian is a Zionist, one willing to give up on the right of return of refugees and one who refuses any dialogue with militant groups….” But then he also gives generous space to a candid exposition of the radical Islamist position by a member of Hamas. Remnick, who pretty certainly regards that position as disastrous, refrains from any hint of judgment. The Hamas line, he seems to assume, speaks for itself, and his readers are entitled to brood over it and draw conclusions without being prompted.

David Remnick explains his selection of people to write about in New Yorker terms:

Some of my favorite Profile writers…often wrote about people who were distinctly unfamous and free with their time. The results of that work, the human, emotional material, often ran as deep as the best fiction. My subjects here tend to be more elusive. They are figures in the public arena, people who are in the midst of a crisis, passing out of one, or anticipating one on the horizon. They are, with some exceptions, people obsessed with altering the history of their era or recording it.

Remnick has contacts that other journalists would envy, not only among the leaders themselves but—crucially—in the middle ranks of power where mutinous civil servants are often more willing to talk imprudently than their bosses. A reader of Reporting who knew nothing about him could gain the impression that he only moves in exalted circles, and that he has little time for the “unfamous” who sort through the wreckage of their homes, lie in hospital corridors with cluster bomb lacerations, or otherwise consume the policies of the anointed. But that would be unfair. After all, profiling the powerful and celebrated is the point of this book. On the foreign correspondent beat, Remnick, like any good reporter, has always gone to the streets and the saloons to consult the unfamous when that was part of the job. (And he also picks the brains of other journalists and makes no secret of it—a practice which British reporters, who all do it too, find curiously hard to admit.)

The book starts with two wonderful sketches of a man and a woman who declined to be brutes and—in the most engaging ways—punched below their weight. The profile of Al Gore, done in 2004, is the first and in many ways the most accomplished item in the book. It finds the man who “used to be the next President of the United States” rearranging himself in the political wilderness—the exceedingly comfortable wilderness of his Nashville home. He and Tipper Gore do laps in the extra-long home pool. The faithful Dwayne Kemp, who was with them in the White House, refills his “pond-size” coffee mug (“Yes, Mr. Vice-President. Coming…”) and serves “a lunch of lamb chops fanned out over a bed of seasoned greens.”

Remnick’s tone is affectionate, but gently satirical. This is not yet the Green Gore who is barnstorming the world with his movie An Inconvenient Truth about global warming. It’s the Gore who had emerged from the attack of weirdness which fell on him immediately after his defeat, but who was still lumbering inconsequently around the landscape as he wondered what his next role should be. While he had learned to mask his outrage at what happened in the 2000 election, his public voice was still erratic, sometimes liberated and challenging but sometimes dropping back into the tameness that had blunted his run for the presidency. The sense of the disappointed millions who backed him was and probably still is a burden. Remnick notes: “He has to face not only his own regrets: he is forever the mirror of others’.” He concludes, rather acidly: “Gore remains engaged, serious, credentialed. It is still easy to imagine him as a good, if unloved, President.”

The chapter about the late Katharine Graham is an exception to the book’s method: recollection and reconstruction, rather than interview. Remnick experienced rather than knew her in his years at The Washington Post. Mrs. Graham seemed at first “the woman who signed our checks, a Queen Mother with a lockjaw voice that sounded, to us, like money.” It took time to appreciate that “at the most important moments of her professional life, she did the right thing.” She published the Pentagon Papers (after The New York Times began to do so), and she stood by Ben Bradlee and her reporters over the Post‘s Watergate stories. But Remnick shows how difficult this was for her. At heart, she was not a crusading publisher reveling in exposures but an embedded member of the Washington oligarchy with warm personal connections to leading figures in both parties. Writing before her death in 2001, he comments: “…Her inherent faith that the establishment elites will do the right thing is nearly absolute. She really does seem to believe that Watergate was an aberration.” She kept the Poston a tight rein over the Vietnam War, writing to President Johnson in 1967:

These times are so difficult that my heart bleeds for you…. I want you to know that I am among the many people in this country who believe in you and are behind you with trust and devotion.

Her friendship with Henry Kissinger and other leading Republicans only deepened after Watergate, and she later formed a close relationship with Nancy Reagan.

Kay Graham kept her private life shuttered, and even arm-twisted Harcourt, Brace into pulping a biography she disliked. So it came as a complete surprise when she suddenly published her own Personal History—inevitably used as David Remnick’s main source here. This told the full story of a woman raised in privilege but painfully lacking self-confidence, quite unprepared to be pitched into the captaincy of a newspaper after the suicide of her oppressive husband. Under her command, the Post was never going to become the leading force of truly radical journalism which the country probably needed. But what remains so moving is that Mrs. Graham—so often the only woman in rooms full of men, shaking with terror before making a speech—set the example she did. As Remnick reflects, in a 2006 postscript:

Editors are now faced with far more criticism and transparency (which is to the good), but also a government prepared to shut out, attack, and even prosecute honest reporters (which is unambiguously dangerous)…. During Watergate, Katharine Graham was prepared not only to publish and support her reporters but also to protect them by every means available to her. Her values, as well as her courage, seem increasingly endangered.

In Britain, Remnick rides with Tony Blair on his 2005 campaign. Blair won with a badly reduced majority, emerging shaken by the degree of sheer public nastiness he encountered. Remnick is compassionate, but puzzled: “Perhaps only in England—the one country where, it is said, the people feel Schadenfreude toward themselves—could a Prime Minister with such promise, and, over time, real accomplishments, be whacked around so mercilessly.” Even over Iraq, he notes, George W. Bush has never been exposed to the face-to-face mockery and rudeness that Blair meekly puts up with, in the street or the TV studios. Masochism is a required quality for any British leader or celebrity who courts the public these days. Remnick watches Blair in No. 10 Downing Street enduring a television grilling from “Little Ant and Little Dec,” two horrible children whose impudence is supposed to provide entertainment: “If you make an ugly smell, do people pretend not to notice because you is the Prime Minister?” After they have gone, Blair says weakly: “It was a piece of fun, that’s all.”

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