When my family got together for vacation last month, my niece implied that she found her uncles – me and my brothers – were so darkly sarcastic at times, so pessimistic, that we were real bummers. I could see her point of view. This is true, this is a bad trait. I resolved to be a little less negative. But I keep falling into old habits, since there are so many temptations...
So when I read the NY Observer profile of Fareed Zakaria, I tried really hard. I tried not to laugh with that hollow laugh that signifies something that is so not funny that it is really funny, like an ICBM falling right on your head. I tried not to produce that self defeating, shit always rises to the top laugh, even as the details of l’enfance de la neo-con leaned out at me, begging to be throttled, begging for me to go into one of those sessions a la James Cagney in White Heat: manic potshots, delusion, the cops boiling up the ladder to take you down. Yes, I read this account of the asskissing, the jetsetting, the patriotism in the limousine, and tried, really, to hold myself in.
So I suppressed my laughter here:
While Mr. Zakaria is very focused on broadening his media platform—expanding his “reach,” as he likes to call it—he is also busy navigating the social one, the dinners, speeches and charity events through which he cultivates powerful mentors and allies. His patrons include former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who invites him over for eclectic dinner parties, and Pete Peterson, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose journal Foreign Affairs provided Mr. Zakaria with his first publishing job.
“I look up to people who really make you think seriously about the big issues that are going on, that confront the world, either historically or today,” said Mr. Zakaria. “What I like are ‘idea’ books and ‘idea’ people.”
His affinity for such people revealed itself early on. As an undergraduate at Yale, where he took hold of the college’s political union, he brought in outside speakers such as William Buckley, George McGovern, Bob Shrum and Caspar Weinberger for debates and discussions with students. They would often leave as future Friends of Fareed.”
I tried hard not to take those debates and discussions with idea people, those dinners with Henry Kissinger, as marks that Mr. Zakaria had sold his soul to the devil even before he was an undergraduate at Yale. The eclectic dinner parties – I thought, how sweet for him. I thought this through gritted teeth.
And then, of course, there was this, out of Bouvard et Pecuchet, by way of the Weekly Standard:
“I’m not a reporter—I never have been. I don’t come out of that tradition at all, and I have a lot of respect for it,” Mr. Zakaria said. “I do a kind of analytic journalism—you know, public-intellectual kind of work—and what I like about the journalism part of it is, I’m trying to raise issues. I’m trying to do stuff with a purpose.”
Trying to lie, or do stuff, rather, with a purpose. I wish I had thought of that. I bet you that the respect, the deep, deep respect, for the journalism that Mr. Zakaria is willing to boldly proclaim is repaid, in kind, by the Cokies, the Howies, the Chrises, the Broders – all of that clique which we all admire for their indepth - can I call it indepth? – coverage of the p.o.v. of various Men in Full. So I did shuck off that dark sarcasm and I was really getting into the People target audience mode. And in that mode, I felt, reading the next passage, like… well, like someone who admires and cherishes, deeply, both Brad and Jennifer in this moment of crisis:
“Optimistic” is one word that could be used to characterize Mr. Zakaria’s positions on many subjects. For example, he said that concerns about a crisis in the news media are unfounded. “I think that in the world as I view it, journalism by and large is better today than it’s ever been,” Mr. Zakaria said. “Let’s be honest: The New York Times made plenty of mistakes 30 years ago. What’s different now is that people constantly catch them at it and correct them on it. I think the nostalgia for the good old days is completely overblown.”
Similarly, Mr. Zakaria doesn’t fault the press for its erroneous reporting during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. “We were wrong, the media was wrong, but I guess I don’t see it as a symptom of a kind of bad journalism, or journalism that was insufficiently skeptical or questioning of the administration,” Mr. Zakaria said. “Maybe there wasn’t enough debate about the war—that I might concede. But that’s a different issue.”
The “we” there made me feel so included! And yet, in the back of my mind, I was thinking that that we didn’t include, well, silly people who protested and such, but people who were important and had the brains of ostriches while reciting propaganda that wouldn’t fool a child of ten. But wait: these were people who counted. People who are optimistic. People at Sally Quinn’s parties, for instance. People who are go to people. People on tv. People who might even make the cut, when they write some simply fabulous thing, for having their stuff be selected by Laura to hand to George. Which is simply heaven.
As the article continues, the reader is in for a treat. The NY Observer reporter, who must have felt much like someone witnessing, say, Coleridge and Wordsworth, or Goethe and Schilling coming together, witnessed true history in action when she got to see Zakaria interviewing Tom Friedman, a very close, personal friend, for his show, Foreign Exchange, a show of bullshit and propaganda touting a delusional imperialist… um, well, that is what my dark, pessimistic side might say. It might go on to meditate on how a show can actually be broadcast on PBS with these two clowns in it and PBS keep its supposedly liberal audience. But my brighter side, the one that would love to sip some wine with idea people exchanging ideas, thought no. No, this is an informative, fact filled show on PBS that indicates how far Public Broadcasting has moved into the mainstream, with mainstream shows that count for mainstream audiences that matter. I would obviously have been thrilled, and perhaps peed in my pants, to just be part of this entourage:
“In many ways, Mr. Zakaria’s immigrant success story shapes his worldview. A few minutes later, in the town car on the way from Reagan National Airport to the studio, he said: “I basically am a big fan of this country and its potential.”
That day, Mr. Zakaria was taping two back-to-back episodes of Foreign Exchange, something he does to minimize his trips to D.C. The concept of the show is to have Mr. Zakaria interview only foreigners in order to introduce Americans to the outside world (although the Americans that Mr. Zakaria likes also seem to creep in). The result is that there are a lot of people with unfamiliar accents on the screen. The first segment was a roundtable discussion with three foreign journalists—Katty Kay, the BBC News correspondent; Hisham Melham, a Washington correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper Annahar; and Nayan Chanda, the editor of YaleGlobal Online. After that, there would be a wonk-off: a full-episode one-on-one interview with friend and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.”
Nothing says in depth like your sign off line. Like Naomi Campbell, who not only did not have time to write her recent hot and trendy book, Swan, but also confessed that she didn’t even have time to read it, Mr. Zakaria is a little too busy, as a public intellectual engaged in analytic journalism, to do what he so very much likes to do:
“I’ve never had five-year plans or 10-year plans,” Mr. Zakaria continued. “I don’t at all mean to be immodest, but I feel like I’ve achieved some level of success, and now I’m sort of asking myself, ‘So what do I do with this now? What messages do I want to get across?’ I don’t want to just write for the sake of writing or write to become famous …. ”
When asked why he does so much if it isn’t due to some sort of motivation, Mr. Zakaria said, “No, it is a drive. But I guess what I mean is … I probably have a restless side to me where I move forward, but I don’t have a goal. I’m not trying to get to a place.
“The thing I miss most is the ability to read books,” he said.”