Behind a modest expanse of glass, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine, is at her desk, her phone headset on, deep in conversation. In our speeded-up media world in which reporters are constantly sent onto TV as pundits just to get a little attention for increasingly desperate newspapers, vanden Heuvel -- remarkably composed in any talk-show setting -- has become the branded face of her magazine.
On her desk is a half-full in-box, but only, as it happens, because the rest of the desk is bursting with papers, stacks of them, one of which half-obscures her as she talks. Turning, she spots me at the door. Clad in a black jacket and dark slacks, she rises with a welcoming smile. She's smaller than you might imagine from the television screen and, refreshingly, lacks any evident sense of self-importance.
Her office is neat as a pin, clean as a whistle -- unless you check out the surfaces which are chaos itself: the desk, a riot of paper; the bookshelves, stuffed not only with books but with nesting dolls of every sort, including a Mikhail Gorbachev one, a box of "revolutionary finger puppets," and lots of framed photos. Every inch of the small coffee table near which she seats us is stacked with books, except where a Santa nesting doll ("I did an interview with a Russian journalist and he gave me this") resides near a Talking Clinton doll (with two buttons on its base, one labeled "funny," the other "inspiration").
I settle onto the sofa, place my two little tape recorders precariously atop one of the piles of books, and we begin. Her voice is soft and low, but the minute she starts speaking her face lights with animation and energy fills her small frame.
Tomdispatch: Tell me something about your daily life at the magazine. I'm sure you're understaffed, under-everythinged. But what's it like to spend a day as the Nation's editor and publisher, beginning to end?
Katrina vanden Heuvel: I begin the day by reading from three to five papers. By then I'm already so agitated… [She laughs.] Anyway, I start with the Washington Post, then I do the New York Times, then parts of the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian. Then I look at the Web. I'll read Tompaine, Commondreams, Romenesko, Tomdispatch, Juan Cole, Alternet, the Huffington Post, James Wolcott's blog, Jay Rosen's PressThink, sometimes Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo or the Daily Kos. Just kind of absorbing as much as I can. Then the trick is to be an editor who's outraged by what's going on, but remains humane and sane as a watchdog.
So you begin the week by thinking about what the lead editorial will be. That's short term. On Monday, you read the galleys of the articles section for the upcoming issue. You're on the phone talking to writers who are part of our community about what's on their mind and, of course, trying to find new writers. Then there's the rest of Nation life. Talking to our Web editor about what's going to lead the site, using our little radio studio to do a weekly one-minute Nation commentary for Air America, hammering out the details of the magazine's first-ever student journalism conference.
Then I'll write a blog entry, or a short riff for our new magazine blog, the Notion, or something for the Guardian's new blog, Comment Is Free, or maybe I'll talk to an editor here about a special issue like the one we're doing on media this summer. I'll speak with people who want me to talk at media or political events. I just got a call from [Sen.] Dick Durbin's office, asking if I'd be on a conference call tomorrow about the new Democratic security strategy.
Then there are the little, unexpected things that arise. We publish a piece that outrages a corporation or a lobbyist, so we get a letter threatening libel action. That can take half a day. That's when you feel like you're in a political campaign because you're tamping something down. So your plans for that day are pffttttt. And then there's television. I did TV this Sunday, but if it's during the work week, I'll usually only do it at the end of the day or at 7:15 on one of the morning shows.
There are so many regular tasks. There's checking out the cover. Our production manager comes in every Wednesday and says, "Here's the final cover," but during the course of the week you decide what that cover and the headlines are going to be, which second, third, fourth stories to feature on it, and then you work it out with your cover designers. I'm also replying to one hundred or more emails in the course of a day. And then there's the Nation cruise, now entering its eighth year, which is an important part of our bottom line. Today, I literally sent a letter to Noam Chomsky asking if he would be on it, and I met with the woman who's kind of the in-house cruise director.
And then people just come through. I have a delegation of Spanish socialists passing through next week. Ben Cohen was in a few days ago to talk about his True Majority project and a sane defense budget. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr., just called and I asked if he'd come talk to us at our weekly Thursday editorial meeting. Then I deal with my mother, who leaves me a voicemail almost every night because she stays up til three in the morning watching C-Span. She leaves me messages like [her already low voice drops to a breathy whisper]: "This man, this military lawyer, I can't remember his exact name, who's standing up for the rights of detainees, he makes me proud to be an American! I know I never say that…" [She laughs.] And I've got a 14 year old daughter who's a basketball fanatic. It's March Madness, and like any good American outfit, the Nation has its pool. Last night I watched the Duke-UConn women's semi-finals with Nika [her daughter Nicola]. And then there's the twice-a-year editorial board meeting this Friday and all the planning that goes into it. And tomorrow, I'll be introducing a Tom Hayden-Laura Flanders conversation at the Strand [book store]. So there's that piece of it.
TE: At least, I assume you're not having to spend too much time worrying about what's going to be in your next issue -- thanks to George Bush.
vanden Heuvel: No, absolutely not. We have a story meeting tomorrow. We often have too many things in the pipeline or planned out, but sometimes what's really important is the ability to rip up the magazine. Hurricane. New Orleans. That's obvious. There was a period of two or three weeks where we were just going with Katrina. Recently, on the other hand, we had Mike Davis on the aftermath of New Orleans and that had been in the works for quite a while.
TE: Multiply this by every day and your life must have that flooded feeling?
vanden Heuvel: Yes, but like you, I would hate to have work that wasn't meaningful, especially because these last years have been so devastating. Maybe this isn't the healthiest thing to say, but the ability to come to work and just be so engaged, maybe it allows me to suppress some of that personal emotion of devastation I might feel otherwise.
TE: Something I learned from Studs Terkel years ago was that action engenders hope. You can't be hopeful just by thinking or wishing, not in bad times anyway.
vanden Heuvel: I know that every day I have to be engaged here and sometimes what's frustrating is that you get so sidelined. One thing that truly frustrates me is sectarian disputes. They detract from the energy that should be going into the larger project. There's also a humbling quality to this job, because there's such an enormity to the outrages. Sometimes, trying to follow all of this closely, your head feels flooded. I'm following so many things and I find I know just a little bit about everything. It's like: How do you put it all together? It's like: When will people understand! Those are the thoughts that roll through your mind.
TE: Does the magazine feel like a hard-to-fit jigsaw puzzle each week?
vanden Heuvel: There is that quality sometimes: Where do you put it, what do you choose, what are we going to highlight? Then there are weeks when you feel like you've gotten it, or others when you know you've done something no other publication in America is going to do. Sometimes, though, frustration lies in the feeling that you just can't convey the enormity of, say, the Bush administration's unitary executive theory. How do you convey that no previous administration I know of has so openly, so brazenly, on so many fronts tried to subvert the Constitution, that what we're living through is a crisis that may bode the death knell of our democracy. Why aren't people jumping up and down? Anyway, that's where the quality of flooding hits and you just get overwhelmed. Then, throw in the Internet, which moves with such ferocious speed and allows for such quick interventions, it all just moves 36/7.
TE: That's a new phrase for me. My knowledge stops at 24/7…
vanden Heuvel: It's just that the Internet is expanding so exponentially that it's not even as confined as the 24/7 cable-media culture.
TE: I feel it every day.
vanden Heuvel: Well, no wonder. You're at the edge of the abyss!
TE: I think I may be.
vanden Heuvel: For the Nation, there's the hope of both being able to harness the pace and power of the Internet and then being a little bit more thoughtful, doing some deeper reporting, longer form thinking in the magazine.
TE: In time terms, I suspect it goes: Internet, newspaper, magazine, book. I mean each one is a step back in time with the Internet closest to this second; you know, the most pounding.
vanden Heuvel: I think that's right and we're trying to harness almost all of those elements -- from our website to Nation Books.
TE: [Laughs.] It's like a little empire.
vanden Heuvel: We're an anti-imperialist empire.
TE: You know, a Mexican political cartoonist once said to me that the period of the one-party state was a great shame for Mexicans, but for cartoonists it was like paradise; there was so much material they were like pigs in slop. And I was thinking how appropriate this was for both the Nation and, in a much smaller way, Tomdispatch. We're in the worst period in anyone's memory, but for us, weirdly, it's all manna from Hell. In these terms, how does the Nation's recent success strike you?
vanden Heuvel: Our circulation has increased by about 70% in the last six years and that certainly reflects this horrifying political and cultural moment, but it's also that we were poised to take it on when others were intimidated, fearful. In a sense, we were there to do it because it's in our genes. I mean, these are really bad times, but this country has gone through bad times before. The Nation has been around for 141 years and seen it all. So it was as if the core animating principles of this magazine just came into play: fierce independence, defense of the constitution, defense of democracy, first amendment rights, rule of law and of international law, civil rights, civil liberties, economic justice. All of those things kicked in and allowed us to say: Hey, we have to defend these principles and not just be pragmatic -- and especially not be fearful.
TD: You were here on September 11, 2001. How quickly did you sense that this was the Nation's moment?
vanden Heuvel: I'd say within a week. Of course, we grappled with what millions of Americans grappled with. As journalists and editors, we had to speak for something larger than ourselves, but we were also people and we're in New York City. We were only a mile away. So there was this sense of shock, of trauma, personal and political; but very quickly we understood that, while we had to speak to that human pain, we also had to speak to the dangers we saw, the almost instantaneous attempt to shut down a real discussion. In the days that followed, it became even clearer that we were going to be one of the few media outlets willing to raise tough questions. We had a range of views at this magazine, but we understood pretty quickly that there was going to be a fierce backlash against those who would stand outside the conformity. Fortunately, there was an extraordinary community of people here and a team of dedicated editors. I was fortunate to have Jonathan Schell, Richard Falk, David Cole, and so many others to draw on.
TE: Imagine that if an oppositional public, the magazine, and the Democratic Party form the points of a triangle, then one of the weird aspects of the post 9/11 moment was the way the Democratic Party disappeared as an oppositional party, if it ever was one. Along with the Bush disaster, don't you think that the disaster of the Democrats drove people to you? After all, people who want to oppose the moment have to look somewhere…
vanden Heuvel: Absolutely. First of all, this has always been an independent magazine. We're not, by any measure, part of the Democratic Party, but there was indeed this void, this vacuum, and not only in the media. Where were the voices, the alternatives? Where were people speaking up?
I have to dissent a little, though, when people speak about the Democratic Party as if it were a monolith. There's a really good congressman from Massachusetts named Jim McGovern, no relationship to [former Senator George] McGovern, who once told me that if we were in Europe, the Democratic Party would be about eight parties. We have a system that doesn't allow the full parameters of debate inside what, since at least New Deal days, has essentially been a coalition party. It's easy to forget that there were a few Democrats speaking up and some of them were in our pages: Dennis Kucinich, John Conyers, and Barbara Lee, to name three.
In fact, part of what we want to do is make sure our readers understand that there are still some courageous voices inside the Party -- and then, of course, outside the Democratic Party there were many courageous voices in this country and the world community, who wondered what exactly was going on. To give voice to that was very important.
But that said, we grew because people were frustrated with the Democrats and because the mainstream media was so vapid. What still frustrates me, Tom, is that there's not enough sense in the world of what I would call the other America. This is a divided country. At this point, years after 9/11, places like the Nation probably speak for a majority view on certain issues like the war. But what mattered here from the beginning was making people understand that there was more than just a monologue in this country -- which you might have doubted if you spent your time watching TV news and reading mainstream papers.
TE: Here's a quote from Richard Wirthlin, Reagan's pollster. Recently he spoke of seeing the beginning of "a decisive turn in public opinion" against the Iraq war. "It is hard for me to imagine any set of circumstances," he said, "that would lead to an enhancement of the public support that we have seen. It is more likely to go down, and the question is how far and how fast." It mystifies me at such a moment that, out of crass self-interest, the Democratic Party still isn't ready to run against the Iraq War.
vanden Heuvel: There is a political calculation infused with cowardice on the part of the Democratic leadership to this day. They seem to want to sit back and let this administration and its debacle in Iraq crumble on their own. That doesn't say much about convictions or morality in politics, but that, I believe, has been the strategy. It mystifies me that you don't have a party willing to become a tribune, not just of antiwar sentiment, but of sanity. Of course, for many, our politics has become little more than an investment. The money in politics dovetails with the Democratic unwillingness to take bold stands -- not only on war and peace but also on the terrible morality and slash-and-burn economics of the corporate agenda-- as well as with the urge to cut to the center, wherever they think the center might be (though I doubt it's where too much of the Democratic Party thinks it is). What a moment to seize, right? But they blew it once in 2002 at the midterm elections, when they just kind of backed off. Why not again? So many of them don't have the courage of their convictions…
TE: They may not have the convictions, forget the courage.
vanden Heuvel: There's one Russ Feingold for every twenty-five, that's the problem.
TE: I was actually going to turn to Feingold's censure motion…
vanden Heuvel: And look at how his party ran away from that! What's so interesting is that the contempt for, the willingness to ignore, the base -- which is an odd word -- becomes somewhat harder with the coming of age of the Internet, with the net roots.
TE: Net roots?
vanden Heuvel: The grassroots manifested on the net. It's a fairly new phrase. It's sites like the Daily Kos and it's the ability to galvanize communities. One wishes that the net roots were being paid attention to because of their convictions and their ideas, but I think their ability to raise money is what really got the Democrats' attention. Still, that's where you may see the base, which is so far out ahead of the political leadership, exert some influence over the Party. That, to me, is hopeful, though one also hopes that the net roots don't become a new establishment, new gatekeepers.
TE: Can you imagine a future oppositional party in the U.S.?
vanden Heuvel: I wish that our votes were counted differently and our districts proportioned differently, because the structural limitations on the ability to have third-party politics frustrate me; but I do think you can build a more oppositional structure within the Democratic Party. I really do and that's where we're seeing some possibilities. There are good efforts underway around this country to build a farm team of true progressive elected officials for the long term and there's also hope in what's now called "progressive federalism." Federalism used to scare progressives, and for good reason, because it meant abusing civil rights and the like. But now, when you have gridlock in Washington, there's a lot going on in states. Three hundred seventy-five-plus communities passing resolutions opposing the Patriot Act. States raising the minimum wage. City councils passing "bring them home now" resolutions. It's all small, but if we measure our accomplishments by we've-gotta-change-the-world-overnight standards, we're all going to go back to bed...
TE: As Americans tend to do when things don't work out reasonably quickly...
vanden Heuvel: Yes, the paralysis factor is great. I think what we need to do is keep at it. Before people are going to jump over to the other side of the river, you need to give them a sense of what can be. The other day a loyal Nation associate -- one of the 29,000 who contribute a little to the magazine every year above and beyond the subscription price -- wrote me, "Let's have some stories about our victories... about the triumph of the human spirit over great obstacles." It was that spirit that moved me last year to start a series on the Web called "Sweet Victories." I hoped that bringing attention to often small but still sweet triumphs -- electoral victories, organizing efforts, protests and boycotts, new ideas, new organizations, new initiatives -- would maintain a sense of hope and inspiration in a dark time. I also wanted to say, hey, here's some news that is too often off the mainstream media radar screen.
TE: So what kind of a relationship do you see the magazine having with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party?
vanden Heuvel: One manifestation of just that was -- not very sexy admittedly -- an issue we did at the time of the President's State of the Union address, where we asked 20 leading members of the progressive caucus, the largest in the House, to write their alternative State of the Union. I can see building a relationship with those members of the House and a few in the Senate who care about the grass roots, who care about democracy. All of those members are for economic and social justice and against the war. We forget that a majority of the Democrats in the House did vote against the war resolution and a hundred-plus members of the House are now in favor of getting out, which means you have something to work with. So I don't give up.
TE: We're heading towards what looks like an immensely impoverished presidential race in 2008. What do you make of it and, of course, of Hillary?
vanden Heuvel: It drives me crazy. First of all, I have terrible Clinton fatigue. The idea of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton -- 1988 to 20012 or beyond... But I don't begin with the personalities. I think there are three issues that matter in such an election. There's the Constitution -- defend it; there's Iraq -- get out of it; there's universal health care -- pass it. Hillary Clinton on the Constitution, not there. On the war and universal health care, terrible. It is not shaping up, Tom, to be a great moment in American political history, even though it should be since it's one of the most fluid we've experienced, right? I think it's the first time since 1952 that we don't have an incumbent VP or President in the race. It should be wide open. The frustration about what you call this impoverished race is leading some good people to seek new faces, unusual ones who would run in 2008. Some see the new Al Gore as a political leader who would give Hillary a run for her money. And I hear through the grapevine that a group is urging Bill Moyers to run. That would be interesting.
TE: I always believed the Bush administration stood a reasonable chance of imploding. My wife called me -- like the people labeled "premature anti-fascists" when we finally got into World War II -- a premature optimist, which I was. I was wrong on my time scheme, but probably by this mid-term election, certainly by the presidential election of 2008, we'll be standing in the ruins of Bush-land.
vanden Heuvel: Oh, in the rubble. Deep rubble.
TE: ...and what a strange moment, for so relatively little to be happening.
vanden Heuvel: At the national political level. It's a measure of the downsized politics of excluded alternatives we live with. It really is. There's a lot going on, just not in inside-the-Beltway politics and that, again, is a measure of how limited the ability of our system is to express the real range of views in this country. I do think there's a cynical calculus on the part of the Democrats that, as the Bush people implode, they will stand -- certainly in 2006 -- aside, not take too many chances and try to pick up the pieces. Now, to be fair, in the history books, if you go back and look, all Newt Gingrich's Contract-with-America stuff didn't really emerge until late in 1994. So there's a little bit of a mythology about the need to unveil alternative policies before elections.
What's so interesting right now is how much ferment there is on the conservative side of the aisle, because these people in the White House are not real conservatives. They're extremists. I don't call them "radical" because it's a term I like. What I don't like -- and you must feel this, too -- is: So William Buckley finally speaks up, right, and Francis Fukuyama speaks up… Suddenly, people are saying, "Oh, this is extraordinary!" And, you know, we've been slogging away for four years. Where is the accountability? Where is there any notion of people standing up and saying not, "You were right," because it's so ugly what's happened, but: "God, you understood the debacle this would be early on!" There's something in our culture that accords people like a Buckley or a George Will or an Andrew Sullivan more credibility when they finally change their minds. Hell, the Nation called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation in April 2003. But maybe it's just a case of the pundits giving plaudits to each other.
TD: We're actually in a weird conversion moment, don't you think? One conversion after another on the right. A very American conversion moment in which all memory of what actually happened before is blanked out.
vanden Heuvel: Gore Vidal had the great line, the United States of Amnesia, and there is this quality in our country. Someone once said, history is to a nation what memory is to an individual and, boy, this country is not on a good track. What's exciting, on the other hand, is something you've documented at Tomdispatch, which is people inside government institutions where it's so bad, so extreme what's happened, people who might otherwise have been quiet, being stirred up to say something, to oppose the Bush administration, to push back. And that's when someone like a Sy Hersh always says that you begin to see the leaks.
TD: Let's turn to the media for a moment. For 141 years the Nation has lost money and had to throw itself on the kindness of strangers, yet it seems in many ways stronger than a lot of our megalith media institutions today.
vanden Heuvel: First of all, we've been known for two things over all those years, our ability to speak truth to power and our ability to not make a profit. [She laughs.] But we've finally broken even. Just barely. I think this year it's actually a $5,000 profit. Maybe it's because we sort of know what we stand for, because we believe in conviction. I mean it's a moment for that, whereas the more bland media institutions are having a really hard time of it in this environment where there are many more media outlets. As compared to media in many other countries where there's real dissent, debate all across the spectrum, it seems to me we're arguing over a remarkably narrow bandwidth here in the U.S.
TE: Most regular media outlets are experiencing the flight of readers from print. You're experiencing the opposite. Your circulation is what?
vanden Heuvel: About 200,000. Of course, the Internet has become a vehicle for us, too. Last year we got 30,000 subscriptions to the magazine over the Internet! Through it, we're reaching an audience that might not otherwise be exposed to the Nation's views. We have readers in a lot of cities around this country, but not a lot in the middle of Nevada -- and you do reach people like that via the Internet. We're aware that we increasingly need to offer the Nation in different modes, even if print remains the anchor. I do think a powerful interest in print will stay with us -- just as when paperback books came out, people predicted the demise of hardcovers. In the end, I think they'll prove complementary forms.
TE: It says something about the moment and about the necessity of branding in the TV version of media world, but out there your face is something like the Nation right now.
vanden Heuvel: I'll tell you why I do TV. Because there are very few opportunities for people on the left or progressives to speak to a broader audience, to reach people, and eighty percent of Americans still get their news from television. What's frustrating, of course, is how little time there is to say anything on TV. Still, as long as you come with the views you express in your real day job and you don't check your integrity at the door, it's an opportunity to say a few things you just don't hear in this mainstream media wasteland. Now, the shouting shows I do less of -- I think they're a disservice to our nation -- and there are a few people I won't do TV with anymore like Ann Coulter because I do think you debase yourself. But judging from some of the emails I get, viewers out there will hear something from me that they feel and believe, but they're living in a place where they don't hear it much and so they may think they're wacko or deviant. And in the last year, I've been getting more and more emails from viewers who say I'm a conservative, which I find somehow encouraging. What's odd in this opinionated TV landscape, which for the most part has not been a contribution to our political culture, is that they're seeking opinionated voices and there are so many bland voices in the media that they come to the Nation.
John Edwards has this line about two Americas. I think there are three, four, five media Americas, many levels of news, and that, on or off the Internet, you can certainly find what you want if you seek it in this country. But, believe me, if you talked with someone about the issues you follow, who listened to talk radio, watched CNN for five minutes a day, and read his or her local paper for a few minutes, you'd understand how badly served by our media so many people are.
TE: Do you feel there's a ceiling on the Nation audience?
vanden Heuvel: I think we could easily be at 250,000 and that was kind of a pipedream not so many years ago. Arthur Carter, a former publisher and general partner of this place, once made the mistake of saying, "Oh, easy million." Well, never say never is how I feel about that figure now.
TD: You wrote in one of your blog entries, "History hasn't ended, but the American Century may have." Do you really think so?
vanden Heuvel: I think it has and there's displaced fear and anxiety about that among the elite as well as ordinary people, which is finding channels in dangerous xenophobic politics and a messianic Christianization of our political culture, not to speak of a more general growing religiosity. Just on the basic raw statistics of economic power, America is not the superpower it was and that's even before we know what the debacle in Iraq will really mean, not just for American power but for the American psyche. Remember, after Vietnam came twenty-five or thirty years of reckoning with what America had become. I think we're going to see that after Iraq, if and when it ends.
The rise of India and China will certainly mean a very different global geopolitical order. The United States will have a powerful place in it, but it will not be the American Century. One issue that excites me in this regard -- and that we want to do more about at the magazine -- one that progressives should take heart from is this: It's now pretty well recognized that the neo-liberal economic project was vastly oversold -- to workers in our country, to the world's poor. In this spirit, I don't see how one can't be encouraged by the developments in Latin America in recent years, where U.S. dominance is really being contested and whole countries are taking themselves out of the IMF [International Monetary Fund] frame of corporate-led economic development.
TE: Any final words?
vanden Heuvel: Just that these are some times. Everyone does their little thing and I think... I just hope... it makes a difference. One last thing: Our mainstream media does a real disservice to us all, because I do believe that this is a more progressive country than is understood. On some of the fundamental core issues, people don't want this kind of messianic, militaristic policy. They just want to be secure and have some kind of principled foreign policy. They want universal health care. They want an end to the war. With virtually no political leadership, I think people seek a saner, more decent country than our elected representatives offer and the mainstream media paint. And this blue/red divide they're always harping on, I don't like it. This is a much more complicated country than they imagine. One of our passionate readers, for instance, is the mayor of Salt Lake City. There's more complexity and more decency and more generosity of spirit here than is generally allowed in the kind of 36/7 media culture we live in.
She walks me out into the warren that is the Nation. "Take care," she says and, hands together in a little prayer-like gesture, half-nods, half-bows, offers me a lovely smile, and is gone. When I look back a moment later, she's already seated at that desk partially obscured by a stack of papers, her head set on, deep in conversation.