I’m a New Yorker, I grew up here, and my wife is also a New Yorker. When we first moved back, she was not particularly enthusiastic about coming back. But I remember a couple of weeks after 9/11 that she said that she felt very defensive of the city. In a sense, almost tender towards the city. As a New Yorker, you’re kind of accustomed to having a permanent love/hate relationship with the place. There are aspects of the city where you see in it things you don’t like in yourself. You get crazed, and Type A, and all this sort of thing. But this brought out this incredible diversity in the city. And the way in which the city pulled together was very moving and interesting to chart. I wrote a long piece for the Style section of The Washington Post on post-terror New York about three months out that I was very happy with.
Another story I wrote was about an Algerian guy who’d been arrested up in Buffalo right after 9/11. He had been held for a couple of years without charges being brought, without any suspicion, other than the fact that he happened to be an Algerian. For whatever reason nobody paid any attention to this. Then a judge wrote a blistering opinion saying this man had been held for no good reason, and he was the longest held person post-9/11 without charges being brought against him; it was utterly baseless. So I went up and I interviewed him and did a long investigation of his case.
One of the things you always worry about, particularly at a time like that, is your assumptions. Because—9/11 “truthers” to the side—there was an actual attack. Two actual buildings went down, planes crashed, lots of people died. You don’t want to fall into the trap of assuming that anyone who is picked up is automatically a victim. Nor, of course, do you want to make the assumption—which at that point was quite a bit more the dangerous one—that they’re all terrorists. In this case I did a very long piece, which ended up in part helping him get released. I look back on it and that was one of the pieces I was proudest of.
When did you move from the Post to the Times?
I came to the Times in the spring of 2007, hired on to Metro to write large enterprise pieces about the city and the surrounding area. But I was almost immediately put on the presidential race. The first eight months I was there I wrote biographical, investigative pieces on Giuliani, whom I had covered as bureau chief [for the Post] and for New York Newsday and who I had a quite contentious relationship with, frankly. Though, if you did your job covering Giuliani you were going to have a contentious relationship with him. His dislike of reporters was bred in the bone and intense.
Did he express that dislike to you?
There was one case I was told of when I was at Newsday. A friend of mine was a press guy for one of the commissioners. They were in the morning meeting that Giuliani had and somebody said, “Michael Powell at Newsday wants to know X.” Giuliani ignored it and kept going. Towards the end of the meeting, someone asked him again how are we going to deal with this thing Michael Powell wants to know. Giuliani turned around and he said, “Fuck Michael Powell.” It’s a memory that I cherish to this day.
That said, he was a great character to cover. He had some real accomplishments as mayor—I think he did behave well in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. As I say, I had a contentious relationship while covering him, but if you see somebody as purely just a creep, then frankly they’re not very interesting to cover. Deeply flawed characters—and I would certainly put Giuliani in that category with his operatic highs and operatic lows—make for great coverage. So what I did for the Times was a series of very long biographical pieces on him. I was trying to kind of parse out what it is that makes this person tick.
Did you end up discovering what it was?