Interview With Ron Suskind

by Kathleen Reade

Ron SuskindRon Suskind has written for numerous prestigious publications such as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Esquire, and Smart Money. He was also senior editor of Boston Business magazine. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for Feature Writing for articles about an inner city youth, Cedric Jennings, and his journey to Brown University. Those articles evolved into his book “A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League,” published in 1998.

In 2002 he began writing about the Bush administration, the President himself and his advisers and insiders, at times generating controversy. He has also analyzed the religious faith of President Bush and how it is intertwined with presidential policies and politics.

He has been a contributor to “Profiles in Courage for Our Times,” a book edited by Caroline Kennedy about winners of the John F. Kennedy Foundation’s Profiles in Courage Award.

Mr. Suskind’s writing about the administration evolved into highly acclaimed books, one of which, “The Price of Loyalty, George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O’Neill,” published in 2004, was hailed by Forbes.com as “Business Book of the Year” and was selected by Fortune Magazine editors as one of the 75 Smartest Books. Mr. Suskind’s website contains an archive of documents regarding the Bush administration that began with those provided by Paul O’Neill.

His most recent book was published in June. “The One Percent Doctrine” reveals the administration’s war against terror since the events of September 11, 2001. The title is based on Vice President Dick Cheney’s doctrine that “if there’s a one percent chance” of weapons of mass destruction “we need to treat it as a certainty.”

Mr. Suskind’s writing is based on factual documents and extensive access to political insiders that have provided a fascinating view of the administration and its inner workings in our current times of national and international turmoil.

How did you initially become interested in writing and journalism?

Suskind: I was managing a U.S. Senate campaign in Connecticut in 1982 (for John T. Downey, the former CIA man who, after 20 years in a Chinese prison, was the longest held American prisoner). I wrote an essay for application to law school at my desk in the campaign headquarters. The press secretary, a gifted young writer, plucked it off my desk and said, “This doesn’t sound much like you want to actually go to law school, but it’s very well written. Have you ever thought about writing?”

She then sketched out the particulars of a journalistic career: lots of variety, swimming in the marketplace of ideas and human affairs, and—at some level—still challenge authority. Soon I was off to Columbia Graduate Journalism. By the way, the wise press secretary, seeing in me something I’d hadn’t seen in myself, became my wife. That’d be Cornelia.

Please tell us how your interests and writing have evolved from your early career of business writer and editor of Boston Business magazine to writing about the Bush administration.

Suskind: It was a more logical evolution that the span in subject matter might infer. Back at Boston Business, I was trying my hand at longish magazine stories and—like every young writer—trying to draw inspiration and direction from the great narrative specialists of the day. I was teaching a class at Harvard Summer School in those days—it was called “advanced journalism,” an oxymoron—so I was reading Mark Singer, Calvin Trillin, old Joe Mitchell, A.J. Leibling and the like. Boston Business, which drew some national freelance writing talent, was a magazine in the mode of Manhattan Inc., a hot magazine in that period, that embraced the idea that all of life’s key urges and impulses could be rendered through a broad view of “business.” Essentially, it—like Boston Business—were general interest magazines “in business drag,” we used to say. In other words, it was a great time and place to experiment with my writing.

How did you join “The Wall Street Journal” and what journalistic path did you see for yourself at that time?

Suskind: Well, to boil a longish story into few words, Boston Business and score of other business journals had been bought in a classic mid-to-late 1980s buyout by a couple of young LBO guys of Minnesota. They were loaded up with debt, the debt service was rising, and we—along with all the other publications—were getting mercilessly squeezed. As the magazine’s editor, I quietly attempted to pull a team of financiers together and LBO the magazine back to independence. It was quite an education. Ultimately, it didn’t work (and thank God, considering the regional economy was collapsing in 1989).

With my first son just born, I thought it was time to get a job with a pension plan and health insurance. Larry Ingrassia (now business editor of the NYTimes) was then Boston Bureau chief of the WSJ . He read my clips, looked over the magazine, and ushered me onto the Journal staff. I covered banking and finance out of New England, wrote features for page one, and—having a magazine background—helped with the launch of Smart Money. It was a great few years. Larry was a brilliant manager and guide, as were a cabal from New York, that included Jim Stewart, then the Page One Editor, John Brecher, his deputy (soon become P1editor), Norm Pearlstine, the Journal’s ME, and Paul Steiger, who’d soon replace him.

While the Journal was a place that emphasized precision—the sensitivity of each word, each number, in stories that move markets truly focuses the mind—that crowd of “rabbis” basically told me, in various ways, to go for it, to push boundaries. In late 1993, I moved to the Washington Bureau as Alan Murray’s first hire after he took over the bureau from Albert Hunt. The idea was to cover welfare reform to get to know Washington, and then become a “national affairs” reporter—a designation that would allow me to range around a bit—a job with high demands but a hell of a lot of flexibility. I was doing some of that in Boston; it seemed to fit my inclinations.

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