What led you to write about students in an inner city high school?
Suskind: I was always interested in education and race and urban America—I had written some stories in those areas over the years. Ideas often come from unlikely places. This one, I think, took seed in a conversation I had with Tony Horwitz (now the author). He was burning up the track overseas, and had just come back to America. We were roommates at Columbia, and buddies, and his job, now back in the states, was a bit like mine.
We were talking about the bravery of some kids he wrote about in Bosnia, showing courage under fire, and I was saying, essentially, that learning in some of the war zone environments in America was akin to that—a real feat; that it’s like a kid picking up a calculus book in Bosnia and learning calculus; that, if we found a kid like that in Bosnia, we’d roll a red carpet from Harvard to the former Yugoslavia to get that kid—but by virtue of it being an inner city African-American kid or Latino-American kid from the so-called “other America” the response was, well, there’s this so-called meritocracy and the 910 combined SAT score just won’t cut, etc., and there’s nothing I can do. It was a first question about how the meritocracy really works or—more accurately—often doesn’t work. That was the starting point. I decided to find the worst school I could find in America (conveniently, it happened to be in DC) and see what it took for kids to learn in a war zone. I spent a few months in the school—Ballou High School—and, along the way, met an extraordinary crowd of kids. Cedric was among them. In a way, he was the exception.
Most of the honor students (the term of art among educators in those days was “undercover honor students”) walked the halls like ghosts, especially the boys, saying little, not raising their hands in class, keeping their heads down, almost trying to stay removed from the mayhem all around them. Cedric was different. He was straight-As and proud, in your face, “I’m getting out of here” Many kids, trying to tamp down the despair of living difficult lives, and facing bleak prospects, descended on him. He was constantly getting into altercations. I wrote the original story as an ensemble, writing it (under the shrewd advice of a young page one editor, Joanne Lippman, now heading up Conde Naste’s new business magazine venture) in three acts, like a play. Brecher, then the page one editor, read a draft I sweated over, where Cedric was more equally weighted with an array of other, more representative kids. He said, “boy, this Cedric just jumps off the page… don’t you agree.”
Of course, he was right. I cursed him (in an affectionate way; he was a best buddy) took it back, and made Cedric—the prickly, religious honor student—the story’s central protagonist.
Did you keep in touch with Cedric Jennings after the publication of your book “A Hope in the Unseen?”
Suskind: Oh yes. After the book was finished in 1998—following Cedric across a three-year arc, from his junior year at Ballou to his second year at Brown—we could just be friends. We’ve been in touch for years—our families as well. He got his degree from Brown, a master’s in education from Harvard and another master’s, in social work, from Michigan. He’s been a social worker, specializing in toughest cases on the urban landscape for a few years now.
The book has been the required freshman reading at scores of campuses, over the years and still. We both do college speeches (he also does a lot of high schools), and ones at diversity workshops and sometimes we’ll do them together. He’s the youth leader at his church and, from time to time, they’ll drag me up to the pulpit, a strange sensation for a Jewish guy. We’ve learned a lot from each other, shared a lot. We’ll always have a bond.
Did winning the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing change your life and your writing? If so, in what ways?
Suskind: Like a lot of awards, granting a Pulitzer means picking a winner—this one is the very best in its category, the others are not—on an endeavor that is all but impossible to measure. Its currency is not in spite of that; it’s because of it. Winning it didn’t really change my writing; that was moving on its own track. But it does give you a kind of benefit of the doubt, a stamp that says, in essence, you can keep engaging in journalism for as long you can hold up.
What led you to write the articles in Esquire magazine in 2002 about the Bush administration and how have you made so many successful connections with the inner circle of the administration?
Suskind: In early 2002, a few months after 9/11, I was having a chat with David Granger, the Esquire editor, who also happens to be a lifelong chum, and we decided these were extraordinary times and that I’d try to dive into the mix. I was working on a book at that point—about an amazing island in the Pacific—and I made a pitch to the White House about doing a story on Karen Hughes. Of course, all stories about senior advisers are really about the President—the decision maker—and I felt he could be known through his relationship with Hughes, his trusted, and protective, adviser in many ways.
Bush had an approval rating approaching 90% at this time; those in the WH, feeling like giants, figured they could use a few Boswells. Next thing, I was inside the West Wing, doing fly on the wall reporting. At one point, I even had a desk across from Karen’s office. Since Hughes—the enforcer of Omerta—had sanctioned it, everyone cooperated. I spent a few months on the story and was finishing up when Hughes announced, suddenly, that she was resigning. I did a final round of interviews—in one of them, Andy Card, concerned about Karen’s departure, committed the sin of candor—saying she was “the beauty to Karl’s beast” and that the whole balance of the place would be upset, how he’s need to find people—lot’s of them—to counterweight Karl.
The story, I felt, was quite sympathetic to Hughes and to Card. But it was an unmanaged event, with top staffers engaged in traditional brand of impromptu reporter/subject dialogue that the White House—and Hughes, herself—had managed to curtail up to that point. The story was picked up by the newspapers and the evening news broadcasts, there was fierce reaction from the White House, controversies ensued—and, on balance, that sort of public give and take gets you sources. I didn’t need any more access, at that point; they would just come to me.
In the second of the Esquire pieces—this one on Karl Rove—one of the sources was the first top official to have significant contact with Bush, and leave, and embrace candor: John J. DiIulio, head to the faith-based initiative. A lot has been written about all of this. DiIulio, who reviewed “Hope” years before for the New Republic with his usual edge and insight, gave me a long interview—where he said that the hegemony of the Karl’s political arm over all important policy matters represented “the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.” Then he sent me a long memo—a 3,000 word, on-the-record rendition of his experiences inside the Bush White House. I think, word for word, it remains the most insightful and honest thing yet written by a former top official. When the piece came out in December, the White House came down on him, hard. Soon, DiIulio was offering profuse apologies, saying his own experiences were “groundless and baseless,” that he’d never speak again about his time in service of Bush, the same words Fleischer used in that day’s noon press briefing. But the over-reach by the White House created a backlash. It was unseemly.