Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Couple of Magisterial Articles You Should Read

There’s a tangible, almost merciful way that the post-presidency agrees with Bill Clinton. Here in Africa, where he’ll be spending the next seven days, he’s relaxed, smiling, pink. On the first night of our trip, in a faded old colonial hotel in Mozambique, he comes bounding to the dinner table in bright-white pants, a bright-white shirt, an almost-as-white sweater (knotted around his shoulders), and brand-new canary-yellow running sneakers, like some Queer Eye project gone cheerfully awry. I will soon discover that these running sneakers perfectly match one of his ties—he’s brought a whole array of pastel cravats for the Southern Hemisphere.

This, my friends, is writing as god intended it to be, prose good enough to eat. It both sets the stage for what comes after it, paints marvelously visual word pictures you can see in cranial Technicolor, and just plain dares you to stop reading. It surely wins our lead paragraph of the month award, but the rest of it is just as good. The piece, entitled "Bill Clinton's Plan for World Domination," appeared recently as a cover story in New York Magazine, into which Oberlin graduate Adam Moss continues to breathe new life and vigor. Recruited away from the editorship of the New York Times Magazine (before that, he launched a much-admired but now defunct weekly pub, 7 Days) by the magazine's new owners, Moss, an openly gay mid-40ish guy, has called in all his writerly favors from a lifetime of editing and is using his honeymoon period to publish some wonderful stuff. This profile is built on a solid foundation of patient reporting and lots of time spent with the subject, but it's also beautifully written. That's an increasingly rare combination even at the best magazines these days. And it's nicely balanced: Clinton haters will find much to enjoy, since it's a warts and all treatment. After listening to him try to explain away the egregious Marc Rich pardon for ten minutes, she writes: "this is the Clinton you just want to shake: the defensive Clinton, the one who can't concede he might have had a hand in his own undoing." But close readers will easily detect a larger underlying fondness for the subject. I know I did.

Lined up next on my reading list is John Harris's book about Clinton, The Survivor, and this piece helped get me ready for that. It dissects Clinton's "feral hunger" for life and for a respectful place in history, it notes his post-presidential travel to no fewer than 67 countries, and how the Lewinsky episode and the resulting impeachment continues to haunt him. It concludes that this once idealistic man who later became the ultimate political pragmatist now gets to return to his idealism as a former president, leveraging his foundation and his gigantic soft power around the world. Anyway, enough with me characterizing it for you. Just click on it and read the damn thing, will you? Only not online--do yourself a favor and print it out for sometime later, when you can quietly enjoy it in peace.

And while you're at it, print out and read this piece too. Veteran Washington Post staff writer David Von Drehe has a byline easily lost amid the endless murderers' row of stylish writers at that paper. He may be best-known for a well-regarded book he published not long ago on the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, a tragedy which led to changes in fire codes and laws governing the working conditions in sweat shops. His is considered the authoritative account.

But none of that prepared me for his wonderfully vivid and insightful account of two female bloggers, one a conservative and the other a liberal. Unlike so much of the mindless piffle that major media serve up about blogging--some of it idiotically celebratory and much more of it still obtusely dismissive--Von Drehe actually had enough intellectual curiosity and imagination to do some old-fashioned reporting and find out for himself about it by spending time with a couple of people who do it often and well. So he invited the women to lunch at the swanky Palm and took them to the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum, listening and taking notes as they debated and mused aloud about politics, life and blogging. They proved to be an appealing pair in their many life symmetries (except for their politics), though he said later in an online discussion that that was just a happy accident.

The piece nicely describes how bloggers can sometimes fall into a "tribal vernacular" and how for all of their sense of themselves as having discovered the world anew, "blogging is an old craft recently made new by technology." Mostly, though, he comes away impressed with how well-informed these two women are, which should surprise no one who knows a few particularly well-informed bloggers (just treat yourself sometime to a coffeehouse chat with people like George or Tim or Bill. You may need an injection of something to keep up):
And you can't help being impressed by how much these women know. They know the infant mortality rate in Mississippi, and the average annual return on stocks over the past century. They know the difference between "add-ons" and "carve-outs" in the context of Social Security reform. They distinguish between libertarian and conservative with the taxonomic precision of Agassiz, and they bring the same intensity to the distinctions between the progressive and Clintonian strands of the Democratic Party. Between them, they have informed opinions on topics ranging from European unification to the 1980 NBA finals to the inner lives of cats.


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