The Vigilante Journalist
Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi discusses the war, campus politics, and his brief obsession with Thomas Friedman.
Matt Taibbi in the White House. (Photo courtesy Matt Taibbi)
For the past few years, Matt Taibbi has delivered something invaluable to Rolling Stone’s one-million-plus subscribers: political reporting that brilliantly explains, exposes, and entertains. A roving national reporter who writes from a left-libertarian perspective, Taibbi has also called a lot of people a lot of nasty names. Ken Lay was “your typically unremarkable mealy-executive type, the kind of person you would expect to be eaten first in any lifeboat situation,” while Christopher Hitchens is “a man who has had his intellectual face lifted so many times, he can’t close his eyes without opening his mouth.” One of Taibbi’s columns was titled simply, “Eat me, Joe Biden.”
Taibbi’s new book, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire, collects his work during George W. Bush’s administration, including pieces on Hurricane Katrina, Iraq, Congress, the Lieberman-Lamont race, and the Lynndie England and Michael Jackson trials. What gives this latest collection—his past two were Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season and The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia—staying power is not Taibbi’s near-acrobatic talent as a takedown artist or his occasional undercover stunt, though those things do make his work great fun to read. Rather, it’s the solid research and reporting that informs everything he writes.
Taibbi spoke with Campus Progress last week about the war, stalking Thomas Friedman, and Jack Abramoff’s College Republican days.
Campus Progress: The most affecting piece in your new book is about Cindy Sheehan’s campout in Crawford back in 2005. Your article had a hopeful tone, and for a lot of people on the antiwar side of things, that was a hopeful moment. Two years later the war’s still going strong. What happened?
Matt Taibbi: The antiwar movement is always going to have a disadvantage in our modern political arena because we have an antagonistic commercial media that’s going to be inclined to not pay a whole lot of attention. They’re going to be inclined to paint it in a negative or ambiguous light if they can. What happened with Cindy Sheehan—it started out as this movement that had a really clear and unambiguous and simple, emotionally powerful message that was connected to this woman who had really lost a son overseas. And it morphed into something that was different. I hate to criticize antiwar protestors or people who showed up and gave their time to this whole thing—but one of the things that happens there is that you have Cindy Sheehan alone to start with, and then within like three days you have the Cuban Five and the Free Mumia people and every circus act of the protest crowd that came to plant their flag.
The message got watered down and there was a perception that the antiwar movement had been co-opted by a fringe slice of American society, whereas, in fact, if you went to the marches before the war started, the demographic was older people, working professionals, very middle-of-the-road people politically. But because of the kind of stuff you saw at Cindy Sheehan’s campout, the media was able to portray it as this out of control nut job thing.
But I don’t know how much of an effect that had on what happened with the war. The real bad thing with the antiwar movement was that the Democrats got elected and the entire apparatus of the non-profit so-called peace groups basically was taken over by Democratic Party operatives who used the energy of the antiwar movement to further their own legislative goals. And even though the Democratic Congress was elected almost specifically to end the war, they haven’t done it, even though they could have. We got sold out, basically.
What about the standard “we-don’t-have-the-60-votes” line? Do you think that’s legit?
Oh, it’s bullshit. Look, they can do whatever they want. If the Democrats control the Congress they could have put a choke hold on the money right from the start, if they wanted to. This notion that they needed all 60 votes to override a veto or something like that—look, force Bush to veto the thing. Or force a showdown. They didn’t even do that.
George Bush and the Republicans ran the Congress and bullied extraordinarily unpopular legislation into existence for seven consecutive years by using every threat and loophole available in the system. If you can pass CAFTA—it looked like there was no possible way that thing could have passed. But they passed it, even though every union in the country was against it and legislators felt that they were going to become one-term congressmen if they voted for the thing.
If you have 65 or 70 percent of the country that wants to end the war and somehow you can’t get a majority vote in Congress to cut off the money? That’s ridiculous. Of course they could have done it. It’s a cover-your-ass excuse that the Democrats are using so they don’t have to go into an ‘08 presidential election season carrying the albatross of being soft on terrorism or whatever the hell it is.
You called Jack Abramoff “the young progressive’s paranoid nightmare come shockingly true: the absurd campus Republican proto-geek effortlessly transformed at graduation into flesh-and-blood neo-Nazi spook.” Can the Abramoff affair be interpreted as an extended episode of College Republican hijinks?
There’s a whole long history of College Republicans suddenly rising to unpleasant prominence in American politics. Look back at the Watergate scandal. Half the guys who ended up being indicted or dragged before Congress got their start in University of Southern California student politics. That whole notion of “ratfucking,” that stuff was all born on the USC campus when these guys were rigging student elections back in the day.
Abramoff was the same kind of creature. He and Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed were all these very ardent College Republican intellectuals who had a lot of crazy dreams about how they were going to foster this right-wing revolution. And they were extraordinarily successful very early on in their careers. Abramoff is a wet-behind-the-ears college student in the early ’80s. Then immediately in 1983 he’s off—where it looks like he was working as a bagman for this neo-Nazi organization in South Africa. He ends up going to South Africa and hanging out with people like Russell Crystal, a South African crypto-fascist, and they’re funneling money for the South African army. Not your everyday 23- or 24-year-old kid goes off and does this stuff.
They took this student politics thing really seriously. You have to give them credit, it wasn’t just a popularity contest. With lefty-liberal political activists in college, the stereotype is a bunch of kids who go canvassing for PIRG or for Greenpeace or something like that and get baked afterwards. These guys are obviously sociopathic and have a lot more serious character flaws, but they were much more focused on the real power aspect of politics early on. They brought that to bear in their real go-around with politics when they finally did get power.
You also wrote that “the defining characteristic of lefty student movements is how few doors they open for you,” which will be disheartening to hear for Campus Progress readers. Are things really that bleak for the young committed progressive type?
Again, if you look at these guys—Abramoff and Norquist and Reed—they weren’t out to use politics to get girls or to hang out and trade stories over the keg. They were using their networking skills in college to find real opportunities for themselves in the world and to really learn lessons about how power politics works very early on. They were way too serious—far more serious than people should be at that age, but it was productive for them personally. Whereas with lefty politics, unfortunately, there’s no pipeline that takes committed ideological young progressives and puts them in positions of power. That’s probably because there is no progressive power structure in this country that is really seeking those people.
You wrote a column in the New York Press a few years back referring to journalism as “shoveling coal for Satan.” I believe you also said that journalism as a career was worse than being a worker in a tampon factory. Should any sane young person consider a career in journalism?
If you have no real knowledge or skill set and you’re lazy and full of shit but you want to make a decent wage, then journalism’s not a bad career option. The great thing about it is that you don’t need to know anything. I mean this whole notion of journalism school—I can’t believe people actually go to journalism school. You can learn the entire thing in like three days. My advice is instead of going to journalism school, go to school for something concrete like medicine or some kind of science or something and then use the knowledge you get in that field as a wedge to get yourself into journalism.
What journalism really needs is more people who are reporting who actually know something. Instead of having a bunch of liberal arts grads who’ve read Siddhartha 50 times writing about health care, it would be really nice if some of the people who are writing about health care were doctors.
Are there any journalists working today who you look up to?
Seymour Hersh is the guy I really, really admire. I met him last year for the first time—I had to interview him for Rolling Stone and I was really nervous about it because I was told that he was this famously irascible character. When I called him up to schedule the interview, he was such an incredible prick on the telephone—he just cursed me out and everything, it was awful.
He cursed you out?
Oh yeah, totally. He was busy. He was like, “Go fuck yourself.” Then when I actually went to go meet him he was the nicest guy you could possibly imagine. I sat with him for four hours. He’s old school. He’s the kind of guy who sits and pores over the newsletters of all these minor government agencies to see who retired that week so he can approach that person to see if he’s got any stories to tell on his way out of service. There are a few guys like that who are still out there, but they’re all holdovers from a lost age. I’d like to say that I’m the continuation of that crop of journalists, but I’m totally not.
Obviously you don’t shy away from name-calling. You called David Brooks an “elitist fuckhead…”
Right, well he is…
... Rudy Giuliani you called “the electoral incarnation of Tommy Lee Jones’ acid-bath-surviving Two-Face character.” And you referred to Joe Biden’s “creepy poof of blowdried gray pubic fuzz.” Do you or your editors ever hear from these guys?
Yeah, sometimes. The biggest thing I get is people not wanting to talk to me again after. Nobody ever calls up and says, “Hey, I don’t have pubic hair on the top of my head.” I mean, what are they going to do, argue? There’s no upside in getting into an argument with a media creature like myself. With somebody who has to maintain a respectable air of decorum like a politician, there’s no winning end game to getting into it with a lowlife like myself.
Do you ever feel guilty for cheap shots? Or maybe they’re not cheap shots—maybe you disagree with that characterization.
That’s a fair question. I’ve had people take shots at me in print that are gratuitous and nasty and I know how it feels. It’s not fun. I wish I could tell you that there was some socially beneficial reason for all that name-calling, that there’s something that excuses all of it and elevates it to a level of something intellectually defensible. And there isn’t a reason, there isn’t an excuse for it, except that it makes them feel bad. I had this experience when I worked at the eXile—a newspaper in Russia—where people we wrote about actually started to change their behaviors because they didn’t want to get pounded in print every week.
People in politics and in the media, they’re extremely vain and they’re very, very sensitive to criticism. If you level some intellectual criticism of somebody like Thomas Friedman and say, “Well, this is a rich guy who is advocating for the rich under the guise of economic populism” or whatever, he’s going to shrug that off, he’s not going to worry about it. But if you say that he’s a buffoon who can’t speak the English language and has a porn star mustache, it’s going to bother him for sure, you know what I mean?
Did you get feedback on your scathing review of Friedman’s book?
Yeah, I’ve heard from various sources that Friedman is not
real pleased with me. Because it went beyond just that—I also did this thing where, a couple of years ago, I was calling Arthur Sulzberger and pretending to be Friedman and demanding a new parking space. I was like totally obsessed with Friedman for a while there. There was a period when I was doing all these drugs and I had this thing about Friedman, so I kept prank calling his office. I’m not real proud of all that stuff. But it did come through the grapevine that he’s not real happy about that. But fuck him. He makes like 12 million bucks a year and he’s married to a shopping mall heiress or something like that.
You said somewhere that the perfect symbol for the press corps of the 2004 presidential campaign was Candy Crowley from CNN sitting on the bus with cookie crumbs spilling out of her mouth, talking about how ugly Dennis Kucinich was. Is there any reason to hope for a better media performance this cycle round?
No, it’s all the same. And, you know, it’s not that a lot of these people are bad people. It’s a mistake to go into it saying that these people are all elitist snobs like David Brooks really is. A lot of them are Ivy Leaguers, they all come from a certain class. And you can’t be on the campaign trail unless you work for a massively funded organization. It costs like 3,000 or 4,000 bucks a day to cover the presidential election, just to be on the plane. Some big money has to be behind you. The group of people who end up being on the bus are a group of upper-class people who are all from the same general background, and they’re familiar and comfortable with each other and they’re comfortable with the candidates culturally. They’re living the high life when they’re on the trail, they’re mostly staying in five-star hotels. They get these delicious catered meals served to them four or five times a day. You get chocolates on your pillow, you get the best musicians in the city coming out to play for you everywhere you go. It’s like a big summer camp, like a big field trip.
For these people, with the proximity to power, being able to
sit in an airplane with Hillary Clinton or with John Kerry or John Edwards or Barack Obama—that’s like the sexiest thing they’re ever going to be involved with. And it’s a lot of fun for these people. It’s intoxicating. You can’t take some 25- or 26-year-old kid who is just out of college, put him in that environment, and expect him to be totally objective about it. If you break with the pack on the campaign trail and you’re shunned, it’s a very powerful thing. Nobody wants to do it, because to be friendless in that environment is very, very hard. There’s no way out, they’re the only people you ever see—you’re literally roped off from the rest of the world. There’s a real Stockholm syndrome that goes on. As a result of that, you get this collective worldview that develops where the campaign makes sense and everything that the candidates do is taken at face value. And they judge the candidates according to the internal logic of the campaign process, which, to an outsider or to someone looking at it objectively, is completely perverse and fucked up and wrong. But to them, it all makes perfect sense because you never ever are exposed to anything that shines a negative light on it. They never see any other thing.
You wrote an article for Adbusters on “The American Left’s Silly Victim Complex.” Some lefty blogs were pissed off about that piece.
Sure, yeah, I got so much hate mail about that.
I think your basic critique was that the left today sort of has its priorities out of place. Have you changed your view about that at all?
No. It’s not that I’m taking issue with anything that the American left stands for or how it behaves. It’s really a class issue more than anything else. The people who are the public face of the American left tend to be people like me. They’re upper class, liberal arts-educated white people, for the most part, who come from a certain background where the things that are important
to them are these mostly intellectual issues—like the environment, or social issues like abortion, feminism, that sort of thing. The historical basis for the American left, if you go back to Roosevelt, is sort of a patrician structure where you had these upper-class people advocating on behalf of a wider working class base. What’s happened now is that it’s kind of splintered and the upper-class portion is overemphasizing the things that are important to them and deemphasizing the things that are important to their base. That’s why the party orthodoxies right now aren’t things like free trade and credit policy, for instance—like the bankruptcy bill. You would never find a celebrated lefty politician who is pro-life but voted against NAFTA, for instance. It’s always the other way around. What’s happened because of that—because the orthodoxies are all backwards—is that the American left has alienated its natural constituency, which is this vast, middle-to-working class underclass that has been fucked over by modern global capitalism.
Instead of standing up and fighting for those people, the left has gotten bogged down in political correctness and the environment and stuff like that. They’ve lost touch with those people, who are now flocking en masse to the Rush Limbaughs of the world, who are talking directly to them and who are actively courting their support. That’s all I was saying. It’s just a question of emphasis; it’s not that the stuff they stand for is bad.
Justin Elliott is an editorial intern at Mother Jones magazine. He lives in San Francisco.