Up from Anonymity
Joe Klein bounces back from his Primary Colors prevarications. Plus,
Slate treads water, and the Kennedys find themselves far from Camelot.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
was the last of the big-budget, general-interest webzines to be launched. The
dominance of the Big Three -- Slate,
-- 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
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
-- 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?"