Politics & Media

INTERVIEW: Spencer Ackerman

Meet one of Washington, D.C.’s most pissed-off but good-natured blogger/journalists.

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Mainstream Beltway political journalism isn’t known for ferociously partisan and take-no-prisoners reporters and pundits. Perhaps that’s why Spencer Ackerman, 27, stands out among the pack. Ackerman, who interned at Manhattan’s weekly New York Press while attending Rutgers University, moved to Washington, D.C. in 2002 and soon became an associate editor at The New Republic. He was fired from that magazine in 2006—for “insubordination”—and quickly found work at competing publications. He’s a prodigious blogger and has strong opinions about music and sports, as well as politics. Ackerman answered Splice’s questions by email late last week.


SPLICE TODAY: You're a fervent supporter of Barack Obama. In an American Prospect cover piece last month, you wrote that Obama offers the "most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we've heard from a presidential contender in decades." On the safe assumption that Obama will be facing John McCain this fall, how do you think he'll explain his proposal, as you write, of "dignity promotion"? Won't that seem naive to a large part of electorate?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: I don't think it will, for two reasons. First, McCain's foreign policy—as I contend here and as Matt Yglesias explicates in the Prospect's May cover story—is an intensification of Bush's. Obama should have little problem demonstrating that the only naive thing in the foreign-policy debate is to believe that we'll get better results by doing the same disastrous, counterproductive things.

The second reason is an ironic one. By pushing the Bush Doctrine of ostensible democracy-promotion over the last seven years, the GOP has spent a lot of energy making the country safe for an unabashedly idealistic foreign policy. “Dignity Promotion” (my term, not Obama's) can pick off the votes of the Republicans who've become convinced that idealism in foreign policy is a virtue. At the very least, the GOP will have a hard-time, post-Bush Doctrine, painting Obama as wooly-headed without looking like hypocritical fools.

ST: Your blog, Too Hot For TNR—now replaced by the perfectly named Attackerman—has been vitriolic, hilarious, eclectic and serious about what you perceive as the Bush administration's foreign policy failures. After you were fired from The New Republic, what was the impetus for the blog? Revenge, or an outlet for material the editors were too timid to print. As a regular reader of TNR, my impression is that most of the staff write as if they were clones of David Broder—very earnest and devoid of humor. In retrospect, are you happy that you've moved on? And what's the difference between TNR, The Washington Independent and American Prospect?

SA: No one believes me, but I swear the original impetus for THFTNR was a hangover. I was hung over after a party at my house, wanted to comment on Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam's blog, and Blogger wanted me to register. When you register with Blogger, you get a free blog. It had become an inside joke with my friends that a lot of my opinions—and my manner of expressing them—were too hot for The New Republic, so that's what I called the blog. Yuk-yuk-yuk. Three days later [TNR editor] Frank Foer fired me.

At that point, I figured it was time to go all-out. I had scores to settle, a lot of unresolved anger (still do) and a related series of indictments of the magazine—which were really indictments of Washington centrist-liberal journalism, with its cowardice, careerism and personality-worship. So that became, for a while at least, THFTNR's mission. Along with blatant self-promotion. I am indeed happy I moved on, but in retrospect I should have quit TNR in January 2005 after I called for withdrawal from Iraq.
 
The Washington Independent is an experiment in substantive journalism in the age of the Internet. Basically, we're gambling that people want transparently analytical and (to use an ugly word) biased reporting. No he-said-she-saids, no cop-outs, no pretending that we don't care about what we're writing about or have a perspective on it. Eventually we'll be experimenting with a new style of journalistic storytelling that builds a narrative through a seamless (we hope) continuum of 1500-word reported pieces to blog posts to long reported pieces again. We want to erode the distinction between Piece and Post, you might say. Our attitude is fearlessness. When I was writing something attacking another journalist, my editor used a series of four-letter words to describe her attitude toward any editor who complained about the piece.

TNR is incapable of that. It's terminally craven, inwardly focused and driven by the careerism of its component parts. My advice to my many friends still at the magazine is to quit. Where should they go? Why, to The American Prospect, the best and most energetic liberal opinion-magazine there is.

ST: The Washington media fraternity, like that in New York, is incestuous and often self-aggrandizing. Do feel like an "angry young man" or just more daring and outspoken than the majority of your colleagues?

SA: No, I feel angry as hell. Passion is looked down upon in general in journalism, simply because it's a bourgeois institution. If I come across as unprofessional, oh well.

ST: Music is, as you write about, an integral part of your life. I remember, several years ago, when you thought I committed heresy by writing that I preferred Hank Williams III's cover of "Atlantic City" to the Springsteen original. What are you listening to now, and how often do you get out to see live music?

SA: I remember that piece! And I have no clue how you prefer Hank III's version. Honestly, Russ, as a 20-year old I was stoked you shouted me out in your column “Mugger,” but we'll have to agree to disagree on this.

I'm listening to last summer's Against Me! record as I type this. A lot of people had a hard time with them going to a Butch Vig-produced big-rock-band format, but I think it's a great record. The other stuff I'm playing these days: The Re-Up Gang's We Got It For Cheap Vol. 3; the new G-Unit mixtapes Return of the Body Snatchers vol. 1 and Elephant In The Sand; the Gaslight Anthem's Sink or Swim album; a great band from D.C. called Le Loup; R. Kelly's underappreciated Double Up album. Then some old reliables like Rancid, the Refused, Jawbreaker, NWA, Sleater-Kinney and Metric.

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ST: You've lived in New York and D.C. Which city do you prefer and why?

SA: Hmm. It's a difficult comparison. I grew up in New York, so I didn't really experience it as an adult. I really do love living in D.C., since it's got all the stuff you'd want from a big city and you can find a lot of people with whom you can drunkenly argue about sports, indie rock and Iraq, all with the same intensity. Maybe the best way to view it is NYC is a better city to visit. But I figure if I ever have kids I'll move back to New York, because the public schools here are appalling.

ST: As a diehard Yankees fan, what was it like seeing your team at Fenway Park earlier this month, your first visit to that 96-year-old venue? And what's your opinion of the Yanks moving to a new stadium next year?

SA: The new stadium is a disgrace and a triumph of the greed that infects the franchise. If I hear another liberal ask me how “in good conscience” I can be a Yankee fan I'm going to violate D.C.'s gun ban. But Fenway! I wanted to go in there in the bleachers for the full experience, and have to say that I got somewhat less abuse than I expected. But for anyone to expect that there wouldn't be loutish fans in either ballpark during a Yanks-Sox game is foolishness. I wouldn't have respected the Fenway crowd if they didn't get heated.

Now, if I had paid for box seats and gotten the same treatment that would have been unacceptable.
 
ST: Who, in your opinion, is the most vile, hypocritical politician in Washington today?

SA: At this point, I have to say Hillary Clinton. I'm not sure she's hypocritical so much as she's craven, but her transactional relationship with progressivism leaves me disinclined to draw fine distinctions. If it's Hillary Clinton against John McCain I'm not voting.

ST: Do you think Obama's been too slow to respond to the shameless attacks by the Clinton machine? And what might be more harmful to him in the general election: his association with Rev. Wright or the current flap about him supposedly looking down his nose at rural Americans?

SA: They seem of a piece, don't they? In terms of the way the GOP will manipulate both memes, I mean. You know, here's this urban-dwelling, Harvard-educated black man that went to this scary church and doesn't understand the plain-spoken ways of the white folks... Rick Perlstein has this fantastic book coming out called Nixonland. He contends that Nixon ushered in a new form of resentment-based politics, based on feeling yourself coming under attack by evil forces that you couldn't control and who would use your best intentions against you. Both Clinton and McCain are using that against Obama, and he could indeed fall prey to that kind of resentment politics.

He's got a disadvantage: he's black! Running against white candidates, with a disproportionately-white media, his campaign is doing whatever it can to avoid him appearing to be An Angry, Scary Black Man. I'm not a pundit, so I can't pretend to say whether it's working, but there's a reason why he knocked Clinton off her front-runner perch, and McCain faces too many institutional disadvantages to win.
 
ST: Given the opportunity to interview three people, one politician, one musician and one athlete, who would you choose and why?

SA: The politician would be Nixon. I would want to learn what he thinks of Rick Perlstein's book! Musician would be Tupac Shakur, because he's such a complicated figure, and I've never read an interview with him or an essay by him that resolves most of the questions about, say, his complicated relationship with both his radical politics and his gangsterism and his blatant careerism. And the athlete would be Darryl Strawberry. I need to know what would make someone throw away so much talent. Ever read The Boys Of Crenshaw? It's heartbreaking.

ST: What are your favorite publications to read (excepting those you work for)? Do you take the time to wade through phonebooks (at least for now) like Vanity Fair? Any writers you like at The Weekly Standard? The New Yorker? GQ?

SA: It sounds like a cliché, but I read blogs and stand-alone articles. Why should I wade through an interminable, lazy vestige like a 400-word front-of-the-book item when I can select what's interesting a la carte?

All the Standard's good writers are on its editorial staff, who write a hilarious blog called Galley Slaves that unfortunately has little to do with conservatism. Matt Continetti is the guy you're supposed to say is an emerging talent, but he hasn't done anything that's impressed me in years. The New Yorker has more great writers than I can name—Bill Buford? George Packer? Rick Hertzberg? Sacha Frere-Jones? James Wood? Ben McGrath? Damn!—and the only ones I really dislike are Adam Gopnick and Ryan Lizza.

ST: When you're out socially in Washington, is it sometimes uncomfortable if you run into someone you've slammed online? After your thorough and very nasty mini-profile of your former TNR colleague Ryan Lizza, would he approach you at, say, a restaurant, party or coffee shop? Would you come to blows?

SA: Honestly, it's a bit hypothetical. It's rare that I do run into such people. Ryan is a fun case in point: as I came out of the supermarket to buy beer for our Super Bowl party, I passed Ryan on his way to the store. He pretended not to see me. Had my friend not been there to restrain me, I would have knocked out his lights in front of his wife and toddler.

ST: What journalist working today do you most admire? Who from the past?

SA: Hard to pick just one, but John B. Judis at TNR. Just the best, wisest, fairest, most humane journalist there is. From the past I could be rakish and go with someone like Waugh or Orwell, but that's not really true. Ron Ridenhour, for his fearlessness.
 
ST: If you didn't live in the United States, what country would you most like to settle down in?

SA: You'll think I'm crazy, but Iraq. Seriously. I felt a kind of sick survivor's guilt when I left my embed last year. It's messed up.

DISCUSSION
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