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.”

As Remnick points out, “Blair risked everything in his decision to support Bush, and, when his case for war turned out to be unfounded, he lost the confidence and trust of much of the population.” He registers

the antipathy to, even hatred of, George Bush among some Britons [which] is so intense that Blair’s most unforgivable sin seems to be his second-banana role in the Anglo-American alliance…. The British have not soured on the United States so much as they have come to long for a Prime Minister who will remove the taint of subservience from the relationship.

All that is true, but the reaction against Blair is not just about injured patriotism. Remnick obviously finds him likable and in the interviews he lets him ramble earnestly on about his high intentions, his sadness that the Bush administration is so badly misunderstood, the importance of standing up for the democratic order throughout the world. But it’s precisely this style—apparently so candid, so intelligent—that the British now find exasperating. What matters is Blair’s disastrous failures of judgment, not his self-righteous insistence that he meant well. And Remnick underrates the deceitful and manipulative ways in which the clique in Downing Street have worked to mislead the press and smear their critics—including Cabinet colleagues. For all Blair’s professions of sincerity, people now perceive this to have been the most dishonest government in recent British history.

The Czechs, like the British, practice Schadenfreude on themselves, and the climate of politics in Prague can be just as merciless. The demotion of Václav Havel in Czech public opinion from national saint to egotistical clown was more brutal and unfair than anything Tony Blair has had to swallow. Remnick met Havel in 2003, as he was throwing a final round of farewell parties before leaving the Castle and the presidency. The honesty and wit were still there, but Havel was a tired and sick man, more at home talking about the past than the ungrateful present. His successor Václav Klaus (“a steely and arrogant man”) had said spitefully, “He is the most elitist person I have ever seen in my life. I am a normal person. He is not.” The Czechs, who currently strike a foreign visitor as a people infected by self-disgust, came to perceive poor Havel’s moral superiority as a reproach.

After recounting his astounding career and his marriages, Remnick records a talk with Havel in which he asked him why he had signed a collective open letter supporting Bush over Iraq. (Characteristically, he had done this without consulting his government, knowing that they took the opposite view.) Havel replied by citing the Czech experience when Europe attempted to appease Hitler in 1938, and ended loftily: “…It’s a matter of the functioning of the world’s immune system, whether the world can deal with such a case of extreme evil before it is too late.” Tony Blair might have used the same words, and irritated his electorate in the same way.

Russia is a country David Remnick knows well. He was the Washington Post correspondent in Moscow in the final years of the Soviet Union (in fact he left twelve hours before the 1991 putsch, and had to rush back from New York). His collection includes two really outstanding Russian essays. One covers the reburial of the last tsar’s bones, and describes the improbable cast of claimants who insisted—even believed—that they were descended from Romanov children who had somehow survived the massacre at Ekaterinburg. Another (“The Translation Wars”) begins with a learned critique of the old Constance Garnett versions of Russian literature and widens into a meandering, absorbing discussion of new translators, of Nabokov’s handling of Pushkin and the great quarrel with Edmund Wilson which ended their friendship, of the Russian language and the agonies it presents to an English-speaking learner: “Russian was the bane of my academic life. I’ve never given a subject more time and concentration, only to feel broken before the task.”

Surprisingly, Remnick is less deft with his study of Vladimir Putin, done in 2003. His research was well directed, the analysis is mostly shrewd, but the reader learns little that is new or striking. The best passage is a touchingly frank interview given by the billionaire oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, reflecting on his three lives as a model Soviet bureaucrat, as a lawless financial brigand, and then as a respected prince of global finance. All were lived before the age of forty (and he must now add a fourth life as a Siberian convict, following his framed-up trial for tax fraud last year). As for Putin, Remnick (who did not get to interview him) took a guardedly hopeful view: “stern, intelligent, competent, blandly agreeable,” an authoritarian bureaucrat with a positive vision of growth and stability. Russia under Vladimir Putin, he thought, was leaving behind the frantic years of gangsters and plutocrats that followed the fall of communism.

A new Russia—independent, prosperous, and linked to the West—has not yet been achieved, not by a long shot, [but] it is no longer inconceivable….” Remnick judged that Putin had developed a new realism about Russia’s future place in the world: “Russia can no longer hope to be a rival or counterweight to American power. It can only seek to influence that power in the interest, above all, of stability at home and abroad….” Three years later, this optimism looks strange. Since the essay was written, the surviving independent Russian press, radio, and television have been almost extinguished, the use of rigged trials against political enemies has returned, the atrocious repression in Chechnya continues, Putin has resorted to coarse Great Russian threats and bullying toward Ukraine and Georgia, and a contract murderer has silenced the reporter Anna Politkovskaya. In a postscript, Remnick admits that “Putin’s ‘soft authoritarianism’ has hardened with time.” Knowing his Dostoevsky as well as he does, he should have paid more attention to a sentence in Putin’s 2000 “Open Letter” to the voters of Russia: “The stronger the state, the freer the individual.”

At the core of Reporting is a cluster of profiles of leading figures in Israel and Palestine: Natan Sharansky, Benjamin Netanyahu, Sari Nusseibeh, the novelist Amos Oz. A chapter titled “After Arafat,” dated 2005, includes conversations with—among many others—Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres, and Ariel Sharon. But this chapter is less a study of personalities than a masterly, detailed reportage on the whole confused scene as Mahmoud Abbas struggled to impose himself as Arafat’s successor and Israelis struggled to understand Sharon’s new decision to withdraw from Gaza. The essays in this section range from 1997 to 2006, from the decay of the “peace process” and the onslaught of the suicide bombers to Sharon’s stroke and the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. (Olmert’s war with Hezbollah and the attack on Lebanon happened too late to be included.)

This is David Remnick’s work at its best. His knowledge of Israel is intimate, and he talks constantly with the famous, the unfamous, and sometimes the infamous as he covers the ground between the bleak Negev settlement where Amos Oz lives and the rubble of Jenin where he dodges prowling Israeli tanks. There are bad moments; none worse, perhaps, than when Sharansky trapped him into a public game of chess: “Each time Sharansky moved, he slammed his piece down on the board and whacked the clock. A thin stream of sweat started on the back of my neck. I lasted fourteen moves and considered it a triumph.” This is the sort of observation which tells a lot about someone in a few words. In the same way, Remnick watches the marriages of his subjects—jokes shared between husband and wife, cooking, gestures—with hawk-like attention.

Most important, though, is his fascination with biographies and ancestries, the topics which seem to matter even more to Israelis than the future of their state and which underlie the labyrinthine divisions of Israeli democracy. “Bibi” Netanyahu considers himself an “outsider,” a weird remark which can only be understood through reference to his fierce father, Benzion Netanyahu, and his fundamentalist Zionism, in turn inherited from the baleful “revisionism” of Vladimir Jabotinsky. Sharansky’s position as a “Russian” (he still speaks better English than Hebrew) illuminates the pace of demographic changes that have taken place, among them the decline of the old Ashkenazi elite who founded the state; the rapid increase of the religious and Sephardic communities; and the numbing impact of the “Russian” inflow in the 1990s, resented for their materialism, their assumption that the state owes them a living, and their lack of interest in the Zionist idea.

There is an affectionate sketch of Sari Nusseibeh, the mild, tweedy philosopher (Oxford and Harvard), now head of al-Kuds University in Jerusalem, who struck visitors as an improbable figure when he emerged as a prominent though often critical colleague of Yasser Arafat. He and Remnick had a surreal conversation in Jerusalem about the definition of terrorism, a few hours after Remnick had visited the scene where a young Palestinian woman had just blown herself up in a market, killing six and injuring eighty. Nusseibeh reflected that a suicide bomber might be termed the author of a terrorist act, but not a murderer. But neither was he or she a martyr. For views like this, both sides had at times dismissed him as irrelevant. Nonetheless, his value as a trustworthy interlocutor was recognized; he was a man profoundly committed to the Palestinian cause who deplored violence as an emotional reaction to “cold-blooded” Israeli provocation. Talking to Remnick, Nusseibeh (a nonpracticing Muslim) used “a curious metaphor.” The Palestinians, he said, “have to resurrect the spirit of Christ to absorb the sense of pain and insult they feel and control it, and not let it determine the way they act toward Israel.”

A vain hope, even emptier now, it seems, than when he expressed it. Remnick comments:

He, like certain Israelis, has the ability to think as critically about his brethren as about the Other. One of the tragic signs of what has happened since Arafat’s decision to pursue an uprising is that a man like Nusseibeh is even less representative of his people than he used to be.

True, but what options other than struggle do the Palestinians have until Israel, also enmeshed in its own contradictions, no longer threatens to impose on them a fantasy nationhood in which—to quote Hanan Ashrawi again—“the only acceptable Palestinian is a Zionist”?

Remnick lets his opinions about people show. He plainly disliked Netanyahu as much as he was enchanted by the honesty and wisdom of Amos Oz. But he keeps to himself his opinions about what should be done—and especially about what an American administration should do about the Middle East and its military, political, and financial commitment to Israel. He is interesting about Israeli connections to American politics, describing Netanyahu’s intimacy with Reaganite advisers (Richard Perle, Ronald Lauder, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and the columnists in their retinue), and the guru-like influence of Sharansky on George W. Bush and the neocons. (Bush’s line in his second inaugural address—“The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands”—is lifted from Sharansky’s 2004 book The Case for Democracy.)

But the elephant in the drawing room, the enormous fact overshadowing all prospects for the future, is America’s patronage of the state of Israel. Remnick scarcely glances at it. Instead, he seems to think along the lines suggested to him by Shimon Peres: that “the facts” of the situation are slowly asserting themselves under the surface and may eventually lead to an internal solution, an exhausted mutual acceptance. These facts include the repeated failures of Israel’s use of punitive force, and—as Remnick clearly recognizes—the decay of Likud and its dream of a Greater Israel. Meanwhile the entangled boxers sag against the ropes in a bloodstained clinch which none of their leaders, not even Israel’s American trainer, has been resolute enough to break.

The profiles of three writers, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, have an altogether different feel to them. Here Remnick is celebrating the triumph of willpower and energy, the success of three novelists who have redesigned their lives around a pitiless dedication to work. All have gone into “dark places” and defeated whatever lurked in waiting for them there: Roth into the pit of depression, DeLillo mocked by critics in the 1980s for offering “Philosophy McNuggets” or “sandbox existentialism,” Solzhenitsyn surviving the Gulag and forced exile. Remnick sets each of them into the physical background of their lives, and then skillfully induces them to talk at length and with passion, as intently as if they were returning to familiar arguments with an old friend.

Philip Roth looked back on all the verbal lynchings he suffered before and after Portnoy’s Complaint, from critics, feminists, and above all from outraged American Jews. All that is far behind him now, but he went on to announce something far worse. It turns out to be that old scarecrow, the death of literature:

I think that what we’re seeing is the narrowing of consciousness…. The writer is just not of interest to the public as someone who may have an inroad into consciousness. The writer is only interesting in terms of how much money did he get and what’s the scandal. That’s all they’re interested in. Why? Because the other stuff is useless, they don’t want it.

DeLillo, who had just published Underworld, put the same anxiety less dramatically. “People seem to need news, any kind—bad news, sensationalistic news, overwhelming news,” he told Remnick. “It seems to be that news is a narrative of our time. It has almost replaced the novel, replaced discourse between people. It replaced a slower, more carefully assembled way of communicating, a more personal way of communicating.”

David Remnick interviewed Solzhenitsyn twice, in 1994 in his Vermont exile and then, seven years later, in Russia. He is now in his eighties, and Remnick found him weary and resigned to his declining capacity for work. They talked about politics, and then about his “puzzling” new book, Two Hundred Years Together, a two-volume history of the Jews in Russia. Solzhenitsyn insisted that it was not anti-Semitic. Remnick, noting the way in which the author constantly “balances” the suffering of Jews against the equal or greater suffering of the Russian people, was not so sure. Unlike the two Americans, Solzhenitsyn did not lament an approaching extinction of literature. Instead, he returned to his well-known nostalgia for order and respect:

The course of world history and world culture shows us that there are, and should be, moral authorities…. In the twentieth century, the universal tendency, not only in the West but everywhere, was to destroy any hierarchies so that everyone could act just as he or she wants without regarding any moral authority…. The level of world culture has been lowered as a result.

All these three writers are or were (that boxing metaphor again) in rigorous training. All three live in seclusion, barricaded—sometimes literally—against the casual visitor. Philip Roth lives alone in Connecticut, bound, at least in Remnick’s account, to a routine as solitary as a monk’s, as disciplined as a soldier’s. He works all day, keeping himself in shape with exercise gear, and often works again at night. Don DeLillo does four hours of writing in the morning, then “a few miles around a local high-school track,” then writes again until the evening. Remnick comments approvingly:

When DeLillo started writing, in the mid-sixties, he worked sporadically, and it was only over time that he developed his athlete’s focus and rigor, the sense of responsibility, that has allowed him to publish so steadily since Americana.

As for Solzhenitsyn, Lidiya Chukovskaya noted long ago that “it was as if…he had sentenced himself to imprisonment in some strict regime camp…. He was convict and guard rolled into one, and his own surveillance of himself was perhaps more relentless than that of the KGB.” When Remnick first visited him in Vermont, he was laboring from six in the morning until late at night, completing his gigantic novel cycle The Red Wheel. Around him, the household devoted itself to servicing the great man, with his wife Natalyia typesetting his manuscript pages on an IBM composing machine—she has set all twenty volumes of his collected works—and dispatching them to the Russian-language publishers in Paris.

Is it this fanatical productivity which made David Remnick select these three writers for his profiles, and for this book? They certainly share a sort of Protestant fiction ethic, apparently sacrificing the pleasures of normal living in order to realize and fulfill every grain of their own potential. But does sheer industry contribute to their moral authority, their prophetic stature? Philip Roth, admittedly, has found a new and even more impressive voice since he chained himself to his desk. DeLillo now writes hugely ambitious wide-screen novels about the world in his times, but it isn’t likely that they will be as well remembered as the fiction that made him famous twenty years ago. Back in Russia, Solzhenitsyn had to watch the work he regarded as his culminating masterpiece, The Red Wheel, run aground on the indifference of a younger Russian generation who found it eccentric and almost unreadable.

One thought that emerges from the finely done portraits of writers in Reporting is that exertion—notoriously—does not guarantee literary brilliance, and brilliance—unfairly—can flower without exertion. Marvelous literature can arrive in disconcerting ways. Idleness, a taste for drinking and laughing in pubs with hangers-on and pretty women, even the loss of keyboard time wasted by appearing on TV chat shows or becoming the president of a small republic, do not disqualify a writer. They merely mean that fewer books get written.