On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker. Remnick began editing the magazine in 1998; before then, he was a staff writer for the magazine and a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post. His coverage of the fall of communism later became the book Lenin’s Tomb, which won the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to editing the magazine, Remnick, now 58, continues to write frequently on Russia, Israel, music, and Donald Trump. He also hosts the New Yorker Radio Hour. His most recent piece was a long profile of Hillary Clinton.
Below is an edited transcript of part of the show. In it, we discuss whether Hillary hatred has gone too far, the race versus class debate about Trump’s victory, and why Obama is cashing in on Wall Street. (Next week’s podcast will be the second half of our conversation.)
You can find links to every episode here, and the first half of the interview is also below, in audio form. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: What did you make of Hillary Clinton, and what did you make of her book?
David Remnick: Her previous books were almost willfully, assertively uninteresting. They were products. They were either to create an image or to reach out to a constituency or something like that.
She did what politicians had been doing since the year Z, since Andrew Jackson and the myths of the log cabin: Politicians try to create a mythos for themselves infused with the truth and true stories. They were boring books written by committee.
This book is pretty raw, and not just by Hillary Clinton standards. There’s no office left to run for. She certainly is not the first person to lose an election to write a book. A lot of people have lost elections and written a book. And it’s angry and it’s self-lacerating and it’s questioning. I thought there was a lot of humanity in it. A lot of people are so angry at what happened in the election, understandably—I think we share that—so at a loss when it comes to Donald Trump, that they just want to blame everything on her and tell her to shut up and go away and disappear from the political scene.
What did you make of her critique of the press?
When I was at the Washington Post, the legendary Ben Bradlee was the editor. Every time we got criticized in some way, he used to say, “Now, don’t get into a defensive crouch,” so I won’t. But I think the idea that the only thing that anybody ever covered about Hillary Clinton in this whole campaign was emails is just demonstrably wrong. But the larger points about email obsession, which was a colossal mistake. Make no mistake of it—she made a colossal mistake with that private email server for reasons we can mull over.
Although, in hindsight, it seems minor.
Exactly. Totally. Point well-taken. She’s seeing it all through the prism of, understandably, the behavior of the other guy, whose vacuousness and dishonesty and cynicism, his encouragement and an inflammation of the ugliest currents of American politics and psychology, are indisputable, to say nothing of Russian involvement in the election. We don’t know all the details of this, but even the frame of it is like some horrific movie. She’s writing in that atmosphere. I have to say people who are utterly dismissive of her and who just want her to go away—there’s something ugly about it.
There’s been a debate about why she lost. Broadly speaking, that debate has come down to people looking for racial and cultural explanations and people looking for economic explanations. I know some of your writers like George Packer have weighed in on this subject. Ta-Nehisi Coates has a big essay in the Atlantic about this. What have you made of that debate, and where do you find yourself?
To me, what it is is a list of empirical reasons. The question is how you cut it up into the pie chart of which is the dominant reason. There I have no great answer for you. Ta-Nehisi Coates believes that race is the predominant reason. I think it would be a caricature of his position to say he thinks it’s the only reason. Others are focused on other reasons. I don’t know how to carve that pie chart up. I don’t even know the dimension of some of the reasons, but I do know this: You have to start by admitting the following, that 40-odd percent of the population automatically votes Republican no matter who it is, whether it’s Donald Trump or Mitt Romney or Gorilla Monsoon, and 40-odd percent of the population votes for the Democrat no matter who it is, Barack Obama, Michael Dukakis, or …
… or Sean Penn. Yeah.
I can’t answer, Isaac, whether it’s 86 percent race and 14 percent misogyny and da, da, da Russia. I just don’t know. I don’t think you do, and I don’t think Ta-Nehisi or George or anybody really knows.
I do know that it’s very clear from empirical evidence and reporting and watching and listening and hearing that racism, misogyny, xenophobia, the harnessing of certain kinds of rage were exploited by the man who’s the president of the United States.
You have written a lot about race in America, going back many years. You’ve written a lot about John Lewis and Barack Obama. Did this fundamentally change the way you thought about it or thought about American history?
I think any sentient person, even the most optimistic, has to wrestle with the reality that ugliness and evil and prejudice are not going to disappear from the face of the Earth. What in history would tell us it would disappear entirely? Is America so exceptional that it can overcome a legacy of its original sins, slavery and then Jim Crow and Jim Crow redux, absolutely and completely? I don’t think so. I’m an optimist. If anything, the two books that I wrote about race—one about Muhammad Ali, one about Obama—can be criticized more from the side of me being too optimistic and writing into certain historical moments that had optimism written all over it than being a pessimist, but I think you have to grapple with that all the time.
What have you made of this new strain of writing at places like the New Yorker or the Atlantic, writing about race in a different way, even when I was growing up, which was more recent than when you were growing up? (Sorry, that sounded aggressive.)
It’s OK. I think what it is is a function of having more African American writers at places like the New Yorker. When I first got here as a writer, there was the late Jervis Anderson, who wrote a biography of Bayard Rustin and a very good book about Harlem. Hilton Als followed. Jamaica Kincaid had written for the New Yorker. There had been black writers, but as staff writers, as real presences now on the web as well as in print, it was de minimis. I think you can look around at other publications and say the same.
This is not by way of patting myself or ourselves on the back, but there’s just more. Among those African American voices, they disagree. Kelefa Sanneh does not agree in all ways with Jelani Cobb or Vinson Cunningham or Alexis Okeowo or Doreen St. Félix or a lot of people who write for us, but that’s why you do this. That’s why you seek out people who are not your lunch buddies at the college you went to to come write.
What have you made of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing—especially as you said about yourself was sort of fundamentally optimistic?
That Ta-Nehisi is fundamentally an optimist?
No, you said that about your writing.
He was on the first broadcast of the New Yorker Radio Hour. That was the conversation we had. It was in the wake of his second book. I think Ta-Nehisi is a terrific, terrific writer. If you ask me about competition with the Atlantic, of course, I’m jealous of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Any sane person would be. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with him in every groove.
I guess the thing I was thinking about was that when I was growing up, that when you read things by liberal writers or conservative writers about race in America, it always had this tone of “things are going to get better.” There was this optimism about where we’re going. I think the dialogue has really changed.
I think it has gotten better. When you press Ta-Nehisi on the overall, I think he thinks things have gotten better. It’s just a question of what kind of time period are you talking about? Ta-Nehisi is an extremely intelligent man. He knows very well where things have gotten better, but he also knows how to read prison statistics. He knows very well the facts of where we are dreadful in this country, still, on matters of race.
You obviously have written a lot about Obama, spent a bit of time with him. Did Trump’s election and just what we’ve seen in America and American politics in the last two years—
It’s a repudiation in some quarters. Again, we’re talking about what the margin of difference is in an election. Let’s not talk about it as the nation was 100 percent pro-Obama and then went 100 percent pro-Trump. Let’s stipulate that in the beginning, some part of the pie chart that we’re talking about has to do with some percentage of people who are rebelling against eight years of a black president. Ta-Nehisi was writing about this.
Does it make you change the way you look at Obama and Obama-ism that this could follow him, about what he was able to do as a political figure or wasn’t able to do?
How do you mean? What specifically?
I think a lot of people like myself thought that after 2008, it would be very difficult, that the country was in a place and that he represented a brand of politics that following it up with someone like Trump was unlikely to happen. I think I was very naïve in that view. But in some ways I was thinking about this in the context of Obama giving these speeches to Wall Street, which I’m sure you’ve—
I read about it in Slate this morning.
Oh, was it in Slate? Thanks for the plug, but it does make me think that he represents a technocratic style of government and politics to some degree. He also has something else to him that in some way is insufficient to the current moment.
Not so much ideologically. Maybe just tonally and that you need a certain sort of populism, which is obviously a very broad word.
It’s a hugely broad word. It ranges from Huey Long and Donald Trump and some really ugly figures in American history. I think it’s a little racially coded, too, to someone who might do better at a factory-floor rally in Scranton. Is Joe Biden a populist, really? It doesn’t seem to me he is. Does he have a slightly better rap when it comes to working-class people? Maybe. I don’t think that makes him a populist.
Again, let’s keep one thing in mind: Donald Trump won. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million votes. He won the Electoral College election on the margins in the states that we know. I think we should, those of us who have the opportunity in the press or in civil society and do what we can … in the case of the press is to put pressure, to put pressure on hatred, to expose what’s wrong, all the things that we’re supposed to do. But let’s not think that the country itself has gone from one extreme of goodness and beauty and milk and honey and light to something polar opposite. This is political struggle. This is political struggle, political argument. We lost colossally. It’s ugly, and the results are yet to be known and could be just catastrophic in some ways, but this happens in politics. This just happens to be the struggle of our time.
Has this changed the way you think about Obama or his style of politics? Granting that this is around the margins, and Trump only got 46 percent, but just the moment we’re in—
Would I prefer that Obama be heroic in all ways and right on all questions? Sure. It would be great if all he did was do good works now, but I don’t see any president doing that. With the exception for the most part of Jimmy Carter, they all cash in. It’s disappointing.
Does it surprise you about Obama?
I don’t think Obama was immune to lures of the new class of wealth. I think he’s very interested in Silicon Valley, stars, and show business, and sports, and the rest. He finishes the presidency, and the next thing you know, he’s on a private island with Richard Branson. That doesn’t make him John Lewis.
Look, this is what these guys do, and it’s disappointing. It’s impure.
The Richard Branson thing, I was surprised.
It’s not just Richard. That’s the circle. I’ll tell you this: It’s overrated in the literary sense because of the role it played in politics, but he wrote a very good book as a young man. It was a meld of—what would you call it, memoir? A fictionalized memoir, and pushed into the shape of this becoming story. The second book was just an ordinary political book by what I thought was—and I still do think—a very decent liberal. He has the chance to write the first good presidential autobiography. People say that Ulysses S. Grant did with Mark Twain’s help, but it’s probably kind of overrated, and all the rest of them are mostly garbage.
He could do a great service by writing a great book and not do it with speechwriters and teams and all the rest. I’d love to see him write something that grapples not only with his place in history and racial progress and all the rest, but even the most difficult questions and the most detailed. Whether it’s health care or Syria, we’re still wrestling with it—questions of intervention, nonintervention, how we deal with the disadvantage in this country. He could make a great contribution by writing a serious book or series of book. I hope it’s not just a product.
The way you said Syria to me just now, I sense that maybe you think that that’s a place where he needs to address his legacy and what did or didn’t happen under his term. Is that how you feel, or am I overreading it?
I think he has to. I think, even if in the end you agree with what he did and did not do, you have to also agree that when you have a situation in which hundreds of thousands of people are killed—how many refugees? A million refugees, the destabilization not only of the Middle East but Europe essentially and Europe’s politics—
I think here too.
The empowerment of Russia and Russian power, that can’t be considered a good outcome. What’s the rationale for nonintervention? It’s clearly in the wake of Iraq. We’re reacting to our justified self-disgust with Iraq and in a more complicated way with Afghanistan, but a true grappling with that from the person who made the series of decisions would be of value. It doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t bring back the dead. It doesn’t undo the decisions and nondecisions, but that would be of some importance.