Common Sense and Sensibility
I came to writing the old-fashioned way, as an apprentice in the family trade. My mother was an editor at the University of Wisconsin Press, and my dad was a newspaperman who spent most of his career at the Capital Times of Madison, a progressive afternoon daily that no longer exists, except online, which is to say that it has passed away into the future. With the exception of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, all the newspapers that employed my father before he reached Madison (in Detroit, New York, and Bettendorf, Iowa) are dead and gone. His father, my paternal grandfather, ran a print shop in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, churning out flyers for ancient amusements like the traveling circus that will undoubtedly outlive most broadsheet newspapers. Journalists are trained to find what is hidden, yet for most of us, when it came to the transformation, if not demise, of our own profession, the obvious became obvious only after it was obvious. Perhaps I am ignoring the obvious one more time, but even as bookstores disappear and electronic reading devices kindle their way into the culture, I still cling to a naïve belief that hardback books will last for another generation, until I am through writing.
But this is not an elegy to the newspapers, magazines, and books that have published my work over several decades. As much as I love the printed word, and adore the aesthetics of typefaces, book jackets, and cleanly designed front pages, the means of delivery is not as important to me as the interplay of two larger ideas. The first is that the sifting of fact and truth from the chaff of unprocessed information or misinformation will always be essential. The second is that humans will always have a need to explain themselves through story. It is that combination that makes up what I do as a nonfiction narrative writer. This book is offered as a journey through a diverse collection of stories that in their totality represent my perspective on that craft. It is also, inevitably, an expression of my personal sensibility and outlook on the world.
I chose a little story titled “A Bus Named Desire” to open the collection because it introduces some of my core beliefs about writing, reporting, and life. I was in New Orleans in 1985 to cover the trial of the governor, Edwin Edwards, and happened to be standing on a busy corner when a bus approached with that evocative one-word destination flashing in the electronic sign above the front windshield—DESIRE. I had other things to do at that hour, but my reporter’s curiosity took hold of me. I had to board the bus and go along for the ride. As soon as I got on, I knew I would write something. I had no idea where the bus was headed, literally, but I had a concept about where it could go, figuratively—connecting fact and fiction, past and present, prosaic and romantic, on a journey into the mind of Tennessee Williams and toward the house of Stanley and Stella Kowalski. In the making of this brief story, as I rode the bus and then traced the geography and literature of Desire, I followed the tenets of my journalistic mantra: Be open to any possibility, remain flexible, look for connections, let the story take you where it will and yet always use detail for a purpose, with a larger design in mind.
The concluding thought in the story—Tennessee Williams reflecting in a letter that human frictions are caused more by misunderstanding than malice—is one that I share and that has influenced my writing. There is certainly evil in this world, and some human monsters cannot have their deeds explained away as the product of misunderstanding, but I agree with Williams that most people are a combination of good and bad and that it is always worth the effort to try to understand them. That idea has driven my work in biography, and is especially important to my writings in the political realm. Like all humans, I carry a set of biases—people with whom I agree or disagree, policies that I admire, and policies that I abhor. But my obsession as a biographer goes in a different direction, not toward molding subjects so they fit into my worldview, but trying to comprehend theirs—the forces that shaped them, why they think and act the way they do.
I remember a C-SPAN book event more than a decade ago when I was on a panel with Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant essayist whose distinct tastes included a profound aversion to Bill Clinton, one of my biographical subjects. When Brian Lamb, the moderator, asked me whether I liked or disliked Clinton, I stammered for a moment, and Hitchens swiftly filled the void by answering for me, declaring that I disliked Clinton. My first response was: If only I could face the world with such certainty. Here is someone not only dead certain of what he thinks, but of what I think as well. It took me a moment to regain my equilibrium and remember that my hesitation had a reason behind it. My view of the world was not uncertain, nor was my perspective on Clinton. It was just that to reduce him to a like-or-dislike choice was to negate the value of biography.
From the three stories on Clinton included in this collection, one might reasonably deduce that there were times when I liked him and times when I did not, but neither sentiment is particularly useful. What was of more value, I believed, was that my study of his life showed that you could not separate the good Clinton from the bad one, that his impulses for better or worse arose from the same well of need and desire, and that there was a repetitive cycle of loss and recovery in his life: When he was down, he would find his way back, and when he was on top, he would find a way to screw up again. My role as biographer was not that of propagandist or columnist; it was to report his life as deeply as possible and explain how and why he developed as he did.
There is a difference between that idea and the false argument that often arises in journalism and politics about fairness or balance, two words that have been deadened in any case by the Orwellian abuse of them by the Fox News Channel. I’ve always believed that a writer’s mission, whether as a newspaperman or a biographer, is to search for the truth and to use deep reporting and common sense in its pursuit. If two people I interview make statements that directly contradict each other, it does not mean that they carry equal weight and that I should present them equally. It does not mean that I cannot analyze the comments and reach a conclusion about which one is true or closer to the truth. But what it does mean is that I probably have more work to do, more people to talk to, more documents to search for, more thinking about the context of their accounts and what makes the most sense. It is not quite a science, but it is a serious endeavor with the same respect for evidence and rational thought.
It also requires patience, directness, and honesty in dealing with subjects. In one of the stories in this collection, I go to Vietnam with an old veteran named Clark Welch. Many decades earlier, as a young lieutenant, Welch had commanded a company of soldiers who suffered horrible losses in a battle that is one of the two central events of my book They Marched Into Sunlight. Welch is a charismatic figure, more Gary Cooper than John Wayne. If not the main character in the Vietnam book, he is certainly the most unforgettable. Not only did he walk the long-ago battlefield with me, and endure countless hours of questions, he also gave me an invaluable batch of documents—a shoe box full of long, detailed, revealing letters that he had sent home from Vietnam to his wife, Lacy. But it was uncertain at first that he would deal with me at all. All these decades later, he was holed up in the mountains of Colorado, still haunted and angered by the death and destruction his company had endured on October 17, 1967, and the way the U.S. government had lied about it. Finally, a year into my research, he agreed to meet me at a hotel in Denver. As we shook hands and took seats in the lobby, his first words to me were, “David, I’ll talk to you if you promise to be good to my boys.”
I knew how important Welch was to my book. There were many other characters and story lines, I could write it without him, but it would not have as much depth and power. After all the work that had gone into tracking him down, I did not want to lose him. Still, I realized that I could be walking into a trap that would do neither of us any good. Some people believe that a writer will say anything to get a story. Janet Malcolm wrote an entire book about what she argued was the inherently duplicitous relationship between writer and subject. Truman Capote, in his classic reportage for In Cold Blood, might have sold his soul to wring information out of his murderous Kansas characters. I’m not perfect, but I’ve held myself to a vastly different standard during my decades of work in the nonfiction vineyard. If you manipulate your subjects, you end up manipulating yourself.
“I can’t make you that promise,” I told Welch. “I can promise you that I will research the story as thoroughly as I can. I’ll try to find the truth of what happened. I’ll let you know what I’m finding along the way. But I can’t promise you that I’ll be good to your boys because I don’t know what I’ll find.”
Welch pushed on the arms of his chair, signaling that he was about to get up and walk away. “You have to promise to be good to my boys,” he said again.
“I just can’t make that promise,” I repeated. “I can only promise you that I will search for the truth, wherever that takes me.” If I made the promise to be good to his soldiers, meaning write about them only in a positive light, I would either have to keep it, which might taint my story, or break it, which would destroy our relationship.
Welch decided not to leave, and that made all the difference. I was able to pursue the truth without worrying about being duplicitous. I was able to tell him what I was finding, good or bad, and as our mutual trust built, he eventually shared virtually everything with me, including his deepest feelings as well as his letters.
In writing history, even recent history, it is always important to bear in mind the limits of human memory. Bill Clinton could remember thousands of disparate facts (a telephone number he hadn’t dialed in thirty years; the name of a friend’s little sister that he was seeing for the first time in decades), though he had a striking tendency to forget important things about his own life. Vince Lombardi, for all his attention to detail as the great football coach of the Green Bay Packers, proved terribly frustrating for W. C. Heinz, who wrote the classic Run to Daylight! under Lombardi’s byline, because of his inability to bring back incidents from his past.
“You have no audiovisual recall!” Heinz, one of the great sportswriters of all time, complained to Lombardi after spending a week trying to interview him.
“What the hell is that?” Lombardi asked.
“Well, I just made it up,” Heinz responded. “But you don’t remember what anybody said or what they sounded like. You don’t remember what anything looked like.”
“Well, you told me that you decided that football was what you wanted to do in your life when you had a great game at St. Francis Prep.”
“You already got that!” Lombardi said proudly.
“I know I have it, Coach,” Heinz said patiently. “Now, as you pulled your jersey over your head … I asked you what color the jersey was and you said you didn’t know.”
“That’s right, I didn’t know.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Heinz.
Most people have worse memories than Bill Clinton and better memories than Vince Lombardi. But their memories generally fail when they try to recount the precise chronology of events, something particularly important to writers of nonfiction narrative. When I was writing the three chapters that comprise the battle scenes of my Vietnam book, I found that I could not rely on interviews with the survivors about the timing of what happened as they marched into the jungle that fateful day. First of all, in a time of trauma, like a battle, seconds can feel like hours and hours can feel like seconds; everything is distorted. Second, as any cop will tell you, you can ask four witnesses to a traffic accident what happened minutes earlier and you will get four different versions of the same event. The differences only become exaggerated with time, and the accounts less reliable. When someone says this happened, then that, then that, usually they get it wrong. It is best to go back to contemporaneous documents—letters, logs, calendars, diaries, after-action reports, internal investigations, and oral histories—to piece together a reliable chronology.
What you can usually depend on from interviews, Lombardi notwithstanding, are sharp and random fragments of memory. When a soldier recalls that just before the first enemy shot was fired in a jungle ambush, he had stopped to cop a smoke, and the guy next to him was opening a can of peaches, and another guy was taking a piss, I believe it. Those are the vivid little things—the sensations—that are etched permanently in the mind. And though the shards of memory may be random, they can be used for a larger purpose. I did that many times for the stories in this collection, including “September 11, 2001” and “The Desk I Chose to Die Under.”
When the World Trade Center Twin Towers were attacked in Manhattan, and again six years later, when a student gunman went on a rampage at Virginia Tech, editors at the Washington Post asked me to write chronological narratives of what happened. As different as the two events were, they presented similar problems and common themes. In each case, I had only a few days to compile and analyze a raft of material from my own reporting and memos filed by an army of world-class Post reporters. I knew that some aspects of the story, especially those involving the actions and motivations of the perpetrators, would change hour by hour, day after day, with fresh information, while other aspects would not change. I wanted to write something that would have both immediacy and permanence, that would be of value to readers not just then but years later, so I decided to build each story around enduring themes.
The first theme is how ordinary life is until it is not. I wanted to capture the transition between the prosaic poetry of everyday life and the moment when it is changed forever. To do that, I had to accumulate the sharp, random memories of survivors, memories that might seem trivial but do double duty as bits of reality and symbolism. The office worker stopping for an iced coffee and a scone and noticing the exact time—8:09—on the digital clock on a building outside the Fulton Street subway exit as he makes his way to the Twin Towers. The passenger reaching his seat aboard American Airlines flight 11 in Boston and leaving the simple message “Hi, hon, I made it.” The kid walking into his German class at Virginia Tech and bantering with his instructor about what college players their favorite NFL teams, the Falcons and Saints, should select in the draft. We can all relate to these moments; all of us have done things like that day after day. In stories of this sort, they are the details I search for first—details that will evoke the universal in the particular. How ordinary it all feels, until. . .
The second theme is the odd, chaotic mixture of banality and horror in the tragic experience itself. I wanted to make readers feel what it was like for victims and survivors. Again, the smallest details do the heaviest work. A man counting the floors on the way down the South Tower stairwell. A woman examining a cloud of papers that have blown across the river to Brooklyn, the detritus of disaster including a rental car form from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. A young man wondering what he sees on the street. A slab of meat? No, a body. A student unable to repress one thought as the shooter enters his classroom: What does a gun wound feel like?
This collection is separated into four sections that I chose arbitrarily, based on my sense of flow rather than on the years the pieces were written or the chronology of events. The first and last sections are more personal, to give the reader a feel for how I view the world. In the middle are my works about sociology, politics, and sports, the central concerns of my writing career.
People often assume that I am first and foremost a political writer who occasionally dabbles in sports, turning from serious work to play. I’ve never looked at it that way. There is much about politics that is utterly trivial and boring to me, and much about sports that is inherently dramatic or sociologically interesting. It is not the general subject that draws me, but the possibilities of a particular story. From a little piece about my father (“Dad and Ron Santo”) one can see the roots of my fascination with sports and issues of race in American life, and how that led me to stories about Roberto Clemente, Larry Doby, Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson, and Muhammad Ali. With Clinton and Obama, I was drawn to the dramatic arcs of their biographies, each emerging from nowhere to become president and dealing with family dysfunction in a very different way. Clinton was a creation of rural Arkansas, Obama a creation of the world, yet each had to remake himself as an adult to get where he wanted to go.
After the book about Lombardi came out, I was flooded with suggestions to write about Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, and any number of other notable football coaches. But I didn’t write When Pride Still Mattered because I loved football, or because I had a thing about coaches. I saw in Lombardi a chance to write about reality and mythology, the meaning of competition and success in American life, the cost of winning, and the obsessive pursuit of perfection by a decidedly imperfect man. I was also drawn to the arc of his life. Lombardi reversed the geography of the traditional American success story. Here was a creature of the big city, born and trained in New York, who struggled until he finally made it in little Green Bay, coaching there for nine luminous years in which he won five world titles, culminating with a classic penultimate game known as the Ice Bowl, played on a frozen field in subzero weather and won by his team on the final play of the game.
Everything in Lombardi’s football career was in preparation for that game, as was everything I had done in researching his life. My first rule in reporting is Go there, wherever there is. In this case it meant turning to my wife and uttering the loving phrase “How would you like to move to Green Bay for the winter?” Her response was, “Brrrr,” but we went. It had to be winter because I had to experience the season in a company town, the company being the Packers, and for the Ice Bowl chapter (“Ice” in this collection) I needed to know firsthand what it took to endure a Saskatchewan Screamer on a dark, frigid midwinter afternoon. By the time I reached that game in the writing process, I felt so in tune with Lombardi, his team, the place, the weather, the moment, that I sat down at six in the morning and wrote nonstop until midnight—a full chapter in a single day. I never set word-total goals for a single day—every day is different—but I do set a goal for words in a week, and this time I had written two weeks’ worth in one sitting.
I never met Lombardi. He died in 1970, when I was twenty-one. Had we met, his first words might have been, “Maraniss, get your goddamn hair cut!” We came from vastly different cultures and generations. It would have been easy for me to portray him as a caricature, a madman who fit the saying most widely attributed to him, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Easy, but to my mind not only wrong (he didn’t coin the phrase; it was first uttered publicly by a young actress in a John Wayne movie), but pointless. To return to one of my earlier points, what could I learn, or teach anyone, simply by taking Lombardi and making him mine? Not much. I wanted to comprehend the way he encountered the world.
This has to do with differentiating between sensibility and ego. My sensibility is always there, whether I’m writing about Vince Lombardi, or a congressman returning to his district (“Back Home in Indiana”), or the sight of animal carcasses lining a roadway in south Louisiana (“Roadside Distraction”), or something deeply personal, like the accidental death of my sister (“Losing Wendy”). It is sensibility that takes nonfiction beyond stenography, providing it with a frame of thought and context. But I try to keep my ego out of it. Ego tends to dominate the modern culture, and much of today’s writing, but usually it only gets in the way of the story. Someone with Norman Mailer’s brilliance can do it, but most writers cannot. Ego serves too often, not as a form of revelation but as a cover for writer’s block or for a paucity of research. Figuring things out is not easy.
My argument runs counter to the way things are trending. With the advent of blogs, the spread of the Internet, the deadening of political rhetoric, the onslaught of television blab mongers, the reader’s diminishing attention span—with so much information presented in television crawls and Web site links without context or story—there are fewer ways for a writer to become noticed and a greater temptation to make the most of ego and attitude. I enjoy a snarky take on something (usually, to be honest, only if I agree with the snarker) as much as anyone, now and then. But for a nonfiction writer, all-attitude can give you short-term gain, a momentary buzz, but lead to long-term frustration. What do you do after you become sick of your own contrived persona? What have you learned? I grew up in a family of scholars (“The Sensations of Jim”), and was a distracted student myself when I was supposed to be a student, but my job has allowed me to spend the rest of my life making up for it. The world of nonfiction writing is a continual graduate school. But only if you avoid the easier path, the lure of assumption and attitude, and open yourself to what can be an educational and fulfilling lifelong journey.
© 2010 David Maraniss