Decades before he ran one of America’s top political journalism newspapers and websites, John Harris wrote a political article for his Minnesota college newspaper in which he interviewed an alum who became one of the key figures in the Vietnam War.
Harris has done more than almost anybody else in the past 10 years to shake up journalism for the better. Previously a longtime reporter for the Washington Post, in 2007 he co-founded Politico, the upstart political journalism newspaper and website which quickly became one of the most important in the country. Today as their editor-in-chief, he oversees a publication with millions of readers whose morning newsletter Politico Playbook drives the agenda in Washington. Just the other week, Politico arguably caused President Trump’s Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder to withdraw his name from consideration, after they exclusively published a video of Puzder’s ex-wife detailing alleged abuse. (Perhaps that’s partially why Politico was banned from the White House press briefing room last week, along with the New York Times, CNN, Los Angeles Times, and BBC.)
Everybody should read Harris’s September article “Why Journalism” about why he believes the field is still bright and its best days are ahead, even as the press these days is so often attacked, maligned, and distrusted. Also check out Harris’s interview last week with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the governor of America’s largest swing state.
On a personal note, I’d also like to express gratitude to Mr. Harris for taking the time to speak with me one-on-one for a solid half hour during my 2015 Politico internship. At many institutions, those atop of the hierarchy won’t even make eye contact with those at the bottom.
Here, Harris explains the backstory behind his March 1982 college newspaper article titled “Melvin Laird’s best defense.” The article itself is at the bottom.
I remember vividly the reporting circumstances around this piece—written 33 years ago, during my junior year in college—but definitely did not remember much about the actual text of the story.
I was that year editor of the Carletonian, the campus newspaper at Carleton College. I was always interested in politics—an interest that preceded my interest in journalism—so it was natural that I agitated to publish pieces that could connect the campus in Northfield, Minnesota with people who had done interesting things in Washington or other parts of the political world. At that time, only a decade past the traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Melvin Laird was still a well-known figure. (He died last year at age 94). He was a Carleton alumnus from 1944 who had gone on to be a well-regarded GOP congressman from Wisconsin and, more controversially, President Nixon’s Secretary of Defense during the closing years of Vietnam.
Importantly, from a Carleton perspective, he had gone from being a loyal alum to someone who was rather aggrieved with the institution. He felt he had been ostracized and even smeared by student activists and some faculty during Vietnam, and the college leadership had not done enough to stand up for him personally or the cause of open debate generally. Specifically, he believed that an offer to come explain himself and administration policy on campus had been rudely snubbed. That assertion was disputed by some, but he was clearly sincere in his belief that it happened.
So, the interview in his Washington office started out a bit warily—he seemed to be sizing me up to see whether I had some axe to grind. I didn’t. Though the events were actually fairly recent—closer in time than, say, 9/11 is us to now—to a 20-year-old they seemed like a distant era. Laird was very close to many reporters, so I think once he decided I wasn’t baring fangs he got kind of a kick out of talking with me. I’m sure if a transcript existed it would show him running circles around me and my questions.
On to the writing… What I worried about when I went to read the piece turned out to be true. It strikes me as clumsy and pretentious. In fairness to myself, pretentious isn’t the worst thing you can say about a young writer. Probably most ambitious journalists start out as pretentious: We see work we admire and so we think to ourselves, “I want to try that.” We are not aware at the time how painfully obvious that trying and pretending is, at least to observant readers. In this case, even the conception of the piece was derivative. I had read a piece in the New York Times Magazine by Fox Butterfield about how as the Vietnam War receded in time and emotions on campuses cooled there was a reappraisal taking place in the academy: People were more willing to examine the Vietnam debate from multiple perspectives, including that of U.S. policymakers, and less prone to view it simply in good vs. evil terms. By trying to present the Laird story in that context—wanting to seem like I was deeply exploring an important intellectual movement—I let the story get muddied. The essence of the article should have been much more straightforward: What actually happened between Carleton and Laird in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and what did he and other relevant characters have to say now? This essence is lost in florid language and murky presentation.
Oh, well. Even as I cringe a little upon reading the story I’m certainly not embarrassed by it. I remember getting some praise from people who thought it was interesting. I think tackling the subject matter and trying to present it in a sophisticated way showed ambition, which is what I admire and look for now in young journalists. So I suppose I’ll give myself a B+ for the piece, and hope I am not accused of grade inflation.
Here is Harris’s March 1982 piece in full — click the photo for the full PDF of the article: