The Boston Phoenix
June 26 - July 3, 1997
[Don't Quote Me]

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Up from Anonymity

Joe Klein bounces back from his Primary Colors prevarications. Plus, Slate treads water, and the Kennedys find themselves far from Camelot.

by Dan Kennedy

Joe Klein is back. Not that he ever went away. It's just that the tabloid notoriety surrounding him after he was outed last July as Anonymous, author of the Clinton roman à clef Primary Colors, temporarily overshadowed his considerable talents. Klein brings a sophisticated, nuanced realism to his specialty: reporting on and analyzing urban ills. For a while, though, there was a real danger that Klein the Cerebral Journalist would forever after take a back seat to Klein the Celebrity Schmuck.

Don't cry for Joe Klein. Primary Colors, after all, made him a reported $6 million. After he left Newsweek, Tina Brown hired him to write for the New Yorker. Clearly, though, Klein's credibility took a big hit when he denied being Anonymous and then was forced to admit he'd been lying. That made it easy for critics to dismiss him and, by extension, his work. Yet Klein has quietly continued to produce thoughtful, humane journalism on race and its relationship to the culture of welfare.

The first of Klein's major post-Anonymous pieces came last October 28, in a cover essay for the New Republic (Klein is a friend of TNR literary editor Leon Wieseltier). Klein systematically dismantled Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson's contention that the crime, drug addiction, and family dysfunction afflicting poor black communities are the result of massive inner-city job loss. The real cause of these social pathologies, argued Klein, was rising affluence in the society at large, which created a culture of consumption and indulgence that had a devastating effect on the urban poor. And he ended with a provocative kicker: "[T]he problem is not the absence of jobs. It is the absence of restraint."

Predictably, critics on the left howled, charging that Klein was a closet racist who delighted in blaming the victim. (A "slimy character," Northwestern University political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. wrote of Klein in the left-liberal Progressive last December.)

The problem with Klein's piece, though, was not his admirably clear-eyed analysis but rather his proposed solution: a half-hearted suggestion that the dependent poor be placed in parochial schools or paramilitary outfits, where they would presumably acquire the discipline they lack.

To his credit, Klein kept looking for a better answer. The result: his piece in the June 16 New Yorker, "In God We Trust," in which he argues that religious organizations may be the last, best hope for breaking the culture of poverty. Though constructed around the oft-profiled Reverend Eugene Rivers, head of Dorchester's Azusa Christian Community, Klein's story keeps its focus on Rivers's kid-by-kid crusade to save urban youth rather than on the minister's admittedly compelling life story.

The article is a model of prescriptive journalism (James Fallows, take note). And it stands as a challenge both to conservatives, who'd prefer to ignore the problems of poor urban communities, and to liberals, who tend to squirm whenever the subject of religion is raised. As Klein puts it, "The question now is whether the politicians -- and the courts -- are ready to move toward a more explicit relationship: one that acknowledges that the `faith' in faith-based programs is often the very quality that makes them successful." (Perhaps the US Supreme Court's ruling on Monday, which loosened some restrictions on public aid to parochial schools, is a partial answer to that question.)

Klein got his start in Greater Boston, beginning his career at the now-defunct Beverly Times, then working for the Phoenix and the (also defunct) Real Paper in the 1970s. He's the author of the acclaimed Woody Guthrie: A Life (1982), and, before moving to Newsweek, wrote for New York magazine.

Despite insisting that his loss of Anonymity had little effect on his career, Klein, who's now 50, admits that he nearly left journalism last year. What helped convince him to stay was a visit to a Chicago parochial school shortly after his ruse had been exposed.

"Not a single person there put Joe Klein and Anonymous together," he recalls. "It was a form of anonymity, if you will. I like it that way."

While the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald doggedly chased the story of whether Michael Kennedy had had sex with an underage babysitter, they left it to the national media to put the third generation of Kennedys in perspective.

Neither the New York Times' June 15 feature on the 10 living children of Robert and Ethel Kennedy nor Newsweek's June 23 cover story on the entire 28-member clan revealed anything startlingly new. But they managed to fill in the details about people who, paradoxically, have managed to be both famous and barely known.

The Times piece, a Sunday front-page story headlined STRUGGLING TO PLEASE THE FATHER WHO DIED, is respectful, almost too much so. It's as though the reporter, Deborah Sontag, continues to subscribe to a Camelot myth that for most people was long ago replaced by images of scandal and tales of debauchery.

Sontag's article does provide some insights, and it's filled with writerly details, such as her description of Robert Kennedy Jr.'s honking to his geese, seemingly as a way of pulling himself together before being interviewed. But there's little beyond the facts of the Kennedy children's bewildering array of philanthropic and political activities. One exception: Sontag's description of Joe Kennedy's failed attempt to save his brother David, who died of a drug overdose, and of Joe's subsequent vow "never to try to save anyone else." That's an interesting commentary on the question of whether Joe tried to stop Michael's affair with the family sitter.

By contrast, the Newsweek piece, "A Dynasty in Decline," attempts to grapple head-on with the various tragedies and scandals that have befallen this generation of Kennedys, and to sort out what it means in the context of the family's extraordinary drive toward public service. We learn, for instance, that even Dr. Will Smith -- that's William Kennedy Smith, of the infamous Palm Beach rape trial -- spends much of his time providing prosthetics to land-mine victims.

It had been rumored for several weeks that Newsweek reporters, including ex-Globe staffer Matt Bai, were poking around the Kennedys' nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation. The Globe beat them to it, reporting on June 15 that Michael Kennedy paid himself a whopping $622,000 one year. Nevertheless, Newsweek produced a comprehensive overview that, though largely sympathetic to its subjects, is more worldly and less starry-eyed than that of the Times.

Two cheers for Slate, which marks its first birthday this week. In a cyberscape in which attitude, sex, and techno-babble predominate, Slate, a political and cultural webzine edited by Michael Kinsley (former co-host of Crossfire, former editor of the New Republic) and backed by Microsoft, is refreshingly serious and substantive. But only rarely is it a must-read.

Slate's strength is its weakness. As the only major webzine with the explicit goal of replicating the print experience, it has a depth that its competitors often lack. But because it's thinner than its print counterparts, Slate too often comes across as a lite version of TNR, Harper's, or the Atlantic Monthly.

Occasionally Slate has succeeded in getting lips flapping. Certainly that was the case with Jonathan Rauch's May 29 exposure of semi-fictional passages in Robert Reich's autobiographical Locked in the Cabinet. Another example was Charles Krohn and David Plotz's devastating whack job on Colonel David Hackworth last November 27, which revealed "America's most decorated living soldier" to be a pompous embarrassment who, among other things, was allowed to retire after he was caught operating a brothel for his troops in Vietnam.

Too often, though, Slate is merely ponderous. Kinsley hasn't helped by adding worthy-but-wordy features such as "Dialogues" on rent control, revisionist feminism, and mental illness in the workplace.

And the "Diary" column sucks. ("Some days are good. Some days are not," writes a recent Diarist, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. "As Lady Thatcher once said to me, `In politics always expect the unexpected.' I would only add, in life always expect the unexpected." God. As Imus would say, Get out.)

Slate's most important asset remains the 46-year-old Kinsley, a Harvard grad and gifted editor who's defied expectations that he would soon grow frustrated with the Microsoft campus and return to the Beltway wars. So certain was Wired that he would quit that it instituted a "Kinsley Death Watch" last fall. Instead, Kinsley bought a house in Seattle. And though he intends to begin spending more time in DC, he insists he's going to stay at Slate for some time to come, sort of.

"I am definitely at Slate for many years -- well, who knows, but certainly several years," he says. "Whether Slate will always be in Seattle is a different question."

Kinsley claims 40,000 to 50,000 regular browsers, plus 20,000 who receive Slate by e-mail. (Subscribers to Slate on Paper number only in the hundreds.) That stacks up well next to TNR, which has about 100,000 subscribers.

The biggest obstacle to growth, he says, is that people are simply too pressed for time to be able to spend much of it on the Web. His latest concept -- "give us an hour and we'll give you the week" -- is aimed at convincing people that Slate can save them time. Thus, expect to see more of such features as "The Week/The Spin" (an analytical news roundup), "Summary Judgment" (what reviewers are saying about hot movies and books), and "In Other Magazines."

It's a small-bore agenda. But then again, much of the excitement surrounding webzines has worn off during the past year. Though the Web itself continues to grow and change at a remarkable pace, Slate was the last of the big-budget, general-interest webzines to be launched. The dominance of the Big Three -- Slate, Salon, and HotWired -- remains unchallenged.

"A lot of people started out on a gold rush. Then they realized there isn't any gold here. That's always a sobering thought," says Bill Bass, a senior analyst at Cambridge-based Forrester Research, which studies online businesses.

Which is where Slate's sponsor, Bill "The Richest Person in the World" Gates, comes in. Because Gates can afford to wait, Slate -- like Gates's other media venture, the cable-and-Web news service MSNBC -- is under far less pressure to produce financially than its competitors are. Indeed, last fall Slate abandoned plans to start charging for Web access, embracing a policy of growth over revenue.

And, at least in some circles, Slate may be catching on. Assistant editor David Plotz recalls Kinsley talking about being stopped in Seattle by a woman who asked him, "Aren't you Mike Kinsley, the editor of Slate?" Kinsley answered in the affirmative, which brought this follow-up: "Now, what did you do before that?"

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