In many ways, Robert Scheer’s career encapsulates the long march of progressive journalism in postwar America. After an early stint at Ramparts, he moved from Playboy to the Los Angeles Times (from which he was defenestrated in 2005, after nearly three decades at the paper). More recently, he has co-founded an online magazine, Truthdig.com, and published a collection of interviews, Playing President: My Close Encounters With Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton—and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush (2006), as well as The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America (2008). In a conversation with CJR’s James Marcus, the seventy-two-year-old contrarian mused over good and evil and the Internet, and revealed some surprisingly nonpartisan preferences. Who would have thought that this supposed pinko and hale companion of Eldridge Cleaver would have such a soft spot for Dwight David Eisenhower?
You’ve been associated with print journalism for more than forty years and are surely one of the few reporters to have gotten married in the city room. Yet you’re now editing Truthdig.com, an online magazine. What’s that transition been like?
Let me give you more information than you need. I originally studied engineering, because I had pretty serious dyslexia; until computers came along, I really couldn’t have been a writer. I was always a good reader, but I couldn’t do cursive script, and nobody could read my handwriting.
But you did lots of journalism in the pre-computer era.
That was mostly due to going out with women with good editing skills. But I’ve never had a Luddite mentality, that’s what I’m saying. I’ve always loved computers.
So you go way back with this stuff?
I did my graduate work in nineteen-fifty-nine on one of those big IBM machines, the kind that took up a whole room. And I was using the Internet when it was three-hundred baud, reporting from Moscow and everything. So I love the technology. I find it very liberating—it lets you edit, run long pieces, avoid cutting down trees.
But does the Web dictate any difference in approach for journalists?
No. Ever since I was at Ramparts, where I started, I never really made a decision about whether I
was alternative or mainstream. I assume you’re going to do the same kind of work whether you’re writing for Hustler or Esquire or the L.A. Times. I try to hold on to my own voice, even when I have to lose the first person. I always feel that the readers are getting me. I also try to be fair, to keep an open mind—although not so open, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti says, that your brains fall out.
You’ve worn a lot of hats in your career: reporter, correspondent, columnist, editor. Is there one in particular that you prefer?
I’m not a good editor, I won’t make that claim. My twenty-six-year-old son Peter is running Truthdig, and I don’t tell him what to do. I never wanted it to be my blog or my Web site or something that was particularly identified with me.
But do you set the political tone?
We don’t have a political tone. My only guideline is that we won’t be homophobic or anti-Semitic—beyond that, we’re going to let people have different views. There will always be things in the magazine that I don’t agree with. And look at the irony in The Pornography of Power. In my chapter on the Boeing air-tanker scandal, which I researched pretty well, John McCain is a kind of hero. And Barbara Boxer, who I really like, doesn’t come off so well.
Which brings me to my next question. I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been identified with the left throughout your entire career. But in both The Pornography of Power and Playing President, you’re surprisingly nonpartisan in your appraisal of the players.
Yeah. You know, my mother was an old garment worker who retired and came out from the Bronx to live with me. When I wrote my Nixon profile for the L.A. Times, she sat there for two hours reading it. Finally she finished, and I said, “So, Ma, what do you think?” She looked up at me, this eighty-six-year-old woman with her glasses at the tip of her nose, and said, “He needs you?”
She thought you were too kind.
Yes! And I’m getting that same thing with McCain now! But I don’t think there’s any sense in being a journalist if you’re not prepared to be surprised. If you can’t say, “Hey, I’m full of shit; this guy’s got something,” then you’re in the wrong line of work. Meanwhile, I’ve always rejected the idea that you couldn’t be on the left and also be honest and objective and truth-seeking. I admire guys like Paul Goodman or Murray Kempton or Sartre. Or Bertrand Russell, whom I interviewed when he was ninety-four.
Since you’ve just run down this pantheon of the left, who are some people on the right whom you admire in the same way?
This will get me into trouble with Gore Vidal, but I think Buckley falls into that category. He could be mean-spirited, as he was in that television debate with Gore, but he does fit the bill. And Graham Greene. I think he was the greatest journalist of all time, frankly.
How about conservatives who haven’t died yet?
You’re asking me which neoconservative or ideologue I respect. And there I’m really hard pressed. Tony Blankley seems to be a thoughtful fellow. Then there’s David Brooks at The New York Times, and [David] Frum; they’re both guys I respect.
You feel like you could have a real dialogue with them?
Oh, sure. Look, something terrible happened to the conservative moment. These people became—well, nasty. But my new book is dedicated to Eisenhower. And this is not just in retrospect: when Eisenhower was alive, I admired him; I had an “I Like Ike” button and everything. So if he’s a conservative, I don’t have any problems with conservatives.
But it’s not merely that you’re willing to give a fair shake to both sides of the aisle. When you write about, say, Richard Perle in The Pornography of Power, you seem genuinely perplexed about his motivations, and fascinated by them as well.
I’m not a religious person, but I do think we’re always struggling with our own innocence. Am I talking to you now because I really want to get across a better way of dealing with the world, or because I want to sell some books?
Let’s just say you’re a complicated person.
We all are! At least those of us that remain sane. I met Perle when he worked for Scoop Jackson. I followed him over the years, and he’s certainly not a simple person. But let me explain something. I was born in nineteen-thirty-six. My father was a German Lutheran with a thick accent. My mother was a Russian Jew, also with a thick accent. And as a kid, I had to struggle with this issue of why one part of my family was killing the other part. After the war, I met my father’s younger brother, who had remained in Germany and was wounded at Stalingrad. My uncle and his family were great people, terrific people, but there was one conversation that was very difficult to have: How did it happen? So I’ve spent a lot of time in my life thinking about the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt referred to it. Most evil is done by good people.
There are no villains in the equation?
The villains are recognized, and people stay away from them. Richard Perle and John Yoo are not recognizable villains. They’re charming; they can talk a good game; they probably struggle with their own demons. So as a journalist, you simply can’t divide the world into good guys and bad guys.
In that vein, let me ask you something. You’ve clambered out onto many a limb in your career, often to impressive effect. But are there some positions you now regret?
The biggest error that I made is that I exaggerated the strength of the political center in America. I assumed you could up the ante, you could make demands upon it, and it would become better.
And this was when?
The sixties. Look, I never had a revolutionary notion. I’ve always believed in limited government and respect for the individual, which set me apart from people with a more cavalier attitude toward state power.
And what about your Red Family days in Berkeley?
The most radical thing I did in the Red Family—where I was never really allowed to be a member; I was on probation—was to take care of the food budget. I went out to the wine country and brought back five-gallon jugs and redistributed it to these other groups. And look, the irony is that I was ultimately pushed out of Ramparts because I wasn’t radical enough. They accused me of being too bourgeois.
What, did you have a thing about clean linens?
Maybe. But I do want to answer your question about mistakes. I think the New Left critique of liberalism was wrong in many ways. I think I was too harsh about Bobby Kennedy. And let me tell you about my most recent error! If you read my book Playing President, which is a cautionary tale, it’s pretty hard to predict Obama.
Although it might have prepared you for Hillary.
Oh, it definitely prepares you for Hillary. You know, the amazing thing to me, and this is going to sound incredibly egotistical—
The amazing thing to me is that a significant percentage of what I’ve written has turned out to be valid. I’m one of these guys who gets up at four in the morning after I’ve handed in a column, thinking that I got it all wrong. But The Pornography of Power—I was really surprised. I read the galleys and I liked it. That’s something, considering that I don’t trust myself any more than I trust the politicians I write about.