< Confessions from the Trail

Transcript

Friday, October 31, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Like cowboys in winter, campaign reporters are bidding farewell to the dusty trail and reflecting on the times they shared. The New York Times’ Matt Bai told The New Republic, with grave admiration, “There are guys who went out to the primaries in November and December, and they thought they'd be done in February or March, and they just never came home. They never came home.”

Michael Hastings wasn't one of those reporters. He recently wrote a tell-all in GQ where he described his unique assignment for Newsweek, which was to follow whoever he thought was the frontrunner and gather material for a piece that would run after the election. But he just couldn't make it to the end.

Now he’s reporting for GQ in Kabul, Afghanistan. He said covering the candidates was uncomfortably similar to another experience he had on the campaign trial, at night, in the hotel, watching – porn.
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
You see two people perform, you’re kind of envious of them. You know, you sort of like it when one of them gets humiliated. And the best clips get sent around the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I think you hit all the notes you hit in the article, except that you do it for too long and you just start feeling kind of bad.
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
[LAUGHS] Yeah, you do feel bad about yourself, and you’re like, man, maybe I should get married or, or maybe I should [LAUGHS] get a life [BROOKE LAUGHS] or go exercise more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Actually, that’s where I want to go next, is to your experiences on the various campaigns. Initially, of course, Rudolph Giuliani was believed to be the Republican frontrunner, and starting right there, at the beginning of your long adventure, you explode the notion that reporters who are, after all, human, can avoid forming attachments or violent antipathies to certain candidates. You felt distinctly uncomfortable on the Giuliani bus.
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
I did. I mean, I think, you know, one of the things people have said about this piece is, oh, you know, you’re exposing liberal bias or whatever. And I think the bias argument’s pretty – that’s not something that really interests me.

What interests me is sort of the human relationships that go on, whatever you’re covering. And with Giuliani – you know, I'd spent two years off and on covering the war in Iraq and had had a lot of people I know and love affected by that war. And then to see a guy who was so casually flinging around violent threats and saying oh, we need to have more torture and oh yeah, we need to bomb Iran - and I don't think he really has a clue about what is actually like. I mean, he had a number of deferments in Vietnam and he’s never been to Iraq or Afghanistan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You thought he was a hypocrite.
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
A hypocrite, yeah and we love hypocrites in journalism. Once people start telling the truth, then you can't accuse them of being hypocrites – that’s the problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
After Giuliani’s campaign went down in a whimper, you switched to Hillary Clinton’s campaign when she was presumed to be the frontrunner, and the campaign staff had set you up during a Clinton town meeting in Austin, Texas – in a men’s bathroom.

MICHAEL HASTINGS:
Right, yeah, they put us in the urinal; they put us in the bathroom, which is definitely the low point of the [LAUGHING] campaign experience. You know, I mean, the media has not necessarily been very kind to Senator Clinton. If I was in her shoes I'd probably hate us, too, but then it’s a matter of okay, you can hate us but you still have to work with us in some way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You said that traveling with the Hillary campaign was like being on a - in a gulag on wheels.
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
Yeah. You know, it was this weird phenomenon where I found myself just eating myself to death. They feed you constantly on every plane ride, every event. And so, you’re going to five, six events a day, you’re taking three, four, five plane rides a day, you find yourself constantly eating all this food. You’re sort of trapped with them. They're showing you where you’re supposed to sleep. They're telling you when to get off the bus, when you can take a picture, when you can talk to the candidate.

And for me, this food - I was, like – one day I had, like, four Butterfingers [BROOKE LAUGHS] and, you know, like before like, three o'clock, and, you know, with like a croissant and an omelet, and -
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
That can't be good.
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
I think I had gained like ten pounds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But you say that this kind of dependent relationship creates a kind of reporting that is founded on a very dysfunctional relationship.
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
Here’s the thing. In reporting there’s always these kind of relationships with sources that can be awkward at times and can put you compromising positions. But with campaign reporting you’re sort of a cross between a celebrity gossip reporter and an ESPN football analyst.

The difference, though, is that in football if you’re analyzing, you’re not the referee, while the media actually plays the part of both the referee and the analyst in the game. So you’re sort of setting up these narratives and seeing if the candidates will jump over these hurdles. So you’re much more a part of the story than in any other kind of reporting that I'd ever experienced, which, in turn, makes the relationship even that much more complicated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You had the opportunity to hop again onto another frontrunner – that was McCain’s bus – and you decided not to. In fact, you essentially walked away from the assignment before it was over. How come?
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
I think if you really love reporting politics, then you will report on any politics. And if that’s your passion, that’s what you want to do, I say go for it.

For me, I realized that to go through this process again of meeting McCain’s aides and digging my way into the inner circle to get these exclusive tidbits of information and sort of tell the story of McCain in the hotel room with an empty Pepsi and pizza and he’s waiting on, you know, the returns to come in, and Cindy McCain says this and Meghan McCain says that, I just felt that I wanted to go off and try to tell other stories that I felt more passionately about.

You know, and I thought McCain is totally nuts [BROOKE LAUGHS], and I would be doing a disservice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And, by the way, [LAUGHS] -
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
Yeah [LAUGHS], and by the way – yeah. But it was a personal decision. I mean, I just really felt that to be honest with myself and to be honest with the people I would be working with and covering, it made more sense to just sort of step out of the race.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You ended your piece by quoting from Robert Novak’s autobiography, The Prince of Darkness. He wrote, “I awaited my 30th birthday with the grim recognition that I was only a hack.” Now, you were worried about ending up as a lifelong hack, and now we're talking to you from Afghanistan. Is there a connection?
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
Well, I think the connection is what Novak did was he wrote what he believed in, in the end. You know, you can say what you want about the guy, but he ended up writing what he believed in.

And for me, I felt I need to do stories that I really believe in. And this last month I've had the opportunity to be in Afghanistan and to see what’s happening here, and it’s what I love to write about – not politics, not whether Sarah Palin is really lipstick on a pig or whatever the daily sort of news tidbit is.

You know, this is probably egotistical and people are going to say, oh, that Hastings, he’s full of himself again, but – or maybe they won't – they'll be, like, who is that guy? [BROOKE LAUGHS]

But essentially there’re so many people, so many talking heads, so many guys trying to cover this election, and what’s really anyone saying, where in a story like Afghanistan or other stories that are sometimes under-covered, you really have a chance to say something original and something that, you know, maybe people aren't really paying attention to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL HASTINGS:
Thanks very much for having me. I really appreciate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Michael Hastings covered the campaign for Newsweek and is the author of I Lost My Love in Baghdad. He is now in Kabul, Afghanistan for GQ.