MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. David Remnick was a reporter for The Washington Post. He covered everything from cops to the Kremlin. He wrote as broadly for The New Yorker. In 1998, Remnick was named editor of that magazine, but he continued to contribute his own occasional reporting, and that's the title of his pieces collected from 1994 through last year. It's called Reporting. Reporting on the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Václav Havel, Al Gore, Mike Tyson.
Mr. DAVID REMNICK (Editor, New Yorker Magazine): I've never found myself to be a halfway decent writer without reporting. Without kind of filling up a bucket of experience and looking and seeing and talking with people. It, the whole idea of watching a movie, say, and having a critical response to it, or a book, which is a skill I admire and a level of intelligence that I admire. It's not something that I've ever been able to do very well.
SIEGEL: The map of your interests, very crudely drawn, politics, Russia, the Middle East, boxing. It reminds me of Ben Hect. I mean you're a 1930s intellectual.
Mr. REMNICK: Well, I think the boxing part is almost a dead letter. I got interested in boxing because I was at The Washington Post as a kid reporter and they said, kid you're a lousy police reporter, how about sports? And, you know, in the ‘50s the sport that you would cover, if you were at the top of the food chain in the sports department, is boxing, horse racing and baseball. Now, of course, boxing is quite nearly dead, and so that's exactly what I got. And in my time it was Hearns and Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard. And eventually I wrote a book called King of the World about Ali, who is a great childhood hero. And in this book, in Reporting, it's really an extended essay about the decline and fall of maybe the last charismatic tragic boxer, Mike Tyson. And I find him, I guess, monstrously interesting. You know, if you cover sports now, if you try to talk to Derek Jeter, or if you try to talk to Brett Favre, or some big time quarterback or shortstop, you're just not going to get close to them at all. It's very, very hard. They're so PR'd and encrusted by money and public relations. Boxers are different. Even now as it's fading and almost dead, boxers are exposed and they tell their stories in heartbreaking ways.
SIEGEL: I assume that as this book was being assembled, you as a magazine editor would be concerned about the sequence and when things would, what article went first and somebody decided that the very first article of yours from The New Yorker in the book would be your story about Al Gore, Al and Tipper Gore actually, in 2004. Why?
Mr. REMNICK: Well I think Al Gore is who you think about when you think of an alternative presence. It seems not only yesterday, it seems years and years ago when we were up all night in 2000, and now here we are. And if you are inclined to think of the Bush presidency, and now into the second term, as not exactly the most successful presidency we've ever lived through or endured, you have to think of what things might have been. And here's this living person. He's not a symbol. What happens to your life, to your thought, your being in the world, when you kind of win the presidency but you don't? And you have issues, and you, that you want to put forward, and you have a life that you want to live, that's what that profile is about. It's called The Wilderness Campaign. And that, now we're starting to hear about Gore again because of this global warming movie. But it's a very strange existence that he lives. He has to basically tell jokes to deflect the kind of looks horror and pity that people cast upon him when he sees them. And he always opens his speeches by saying, I used to be the next President of the United States. And then everybody laughs, and then he says, I don't find that funny.
SIEGEL: That's right. There's this scene that you describe at one point where Al Gore is giving a voice level in a microphone, and you describe as he's about to address a group, too large a smile coming over his face and his shoulders stiffening, and Gore the human being transforming into Al Gore the public persona that just doesn't quite, isn't quite easy.
Mr. REMNICK: No. And the amazing thing, you've probably heard this before, is that Gore privately, in a small group, is very very funny. He's very smart. He's a bit of a pedant, we know this too. But he is engaged with ideas. He may have been a more natural college professor in some ways. But when the microphone switches on he becomes this other stiffer, more awkward thing. And you remember those three debates, which were probably the singular disaster of that campaign, or at least before the vote count disaster began.
SIEGEL: I was talking recently with a former New Yorker writer and I said I was going to be talking with David Remnick and he said, ask him about the Iraq War. He said, the magazine was pro war. I said well they carried a lot of…
Mr. REMNICK: That's baloney.
SIEGEL: …Seymour Hersh pieces, I said, but then he said the magazine was pro Iraq War.
Mr. REMNICK: Well, that's ridiculous. It's very true that I wrote a comment before the war saying that the United States was going to do this alone and would have to get involved alone if this diplomacy either didn't work out or the French, Germans, Russian, Chinese didn't get involved. And yes, I was absolutely, as an individual, convinced that the WMD argument was true. Of course it turned out to be not true. So I'm at, totally at fault for that as are millions of Americans and other editors and a lot of other people who were very, very wary of Iraq. But we also had a difference of opinion in the magazine. Hendrick Kurtzburg was arguing quite a different tact, and our reporting was extremely aggressive where Iraq was concerned. But I will say this, on the WMD question before the war, nobody got that story completely right.
SIEGEL: I was struck by several of the people whom you have profiled. Solzhenitsyn, Al Gore for that matter, Mike Tyson, whom you catch at moments where they're not exactly at the top of their game, when they're in their prime. Little bit of the shadows.
Mr. REMNICK: Well, sometimes, I, because I think people very often when they are in the midst of what it is they're doing, say running for president, are highly guarded. And you're not going to get quite the picture of them in the midst of that. Whereas the time I spent with Al Gore or Solzhenitsyn was much more relaxed. I'm not looking to make headlines, that's not what it's about. It's about capturing a person in time and also to get a sense of their ideas. I also find going to, as it were, the losers' locker room, very effective. I was a great fan of Murray Kempton's, great columnist for The New York Post and News Day and also wrote for The New York Review. And Murray, on the day that Don Larson pitched the only perfect game in the history of the World Series for the Yankees, where did he go? He went to the losers' locker room to interview the losing pitcher. That was a much less crowded locker room with far fewer PR people around, and the story that I remember from that event is Murray Kempton on that.
SIEGEL: He was a great columnist, Murray Kempton
Mr. REMNICK: I think the best.
SIEGEL: One of the best. David Remnick. Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. REMNICK: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: David Remnick is editor of The New Yorker and author of Reporting: Writings from The New Yorker. You can read about the private Al Gore that Remnick describes at NPR.org.