Why I Was An NJ Addict

The magazine you’re holding is one I’ve loved for 45 years.

Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Dec. 11, 2015, 5 a.m.

This is not a column I’ve looked for­ward to writ­ing. Like de­liv­er­ing a eu­logy for a close friend, it’s an hon­or to be asked, but you hate the reas­on why.

I’ve had a 45-year love af­fair with Na­tion­al Journ­al. In my ju­ni­or year (1970-1971) of high school in Shreve­port, Louisi­ana, our de­bate team re­searched and built our case both for and against the pro­pos­i­tion that Wash­ing­ton “should es­tab­lish, fin­ance, and ad­min­is­ter pro­grams to con­trol air and/or wa­ter pol­lu­tion in the United States.” My part­ner, Gary Jack­son (now an at­tor­ney in Char­lotte, North Car­o­lina), found an art­icle in a Wash­ing­ton-based magazine, Na­tion­al Journ­al, that was au­thor­it­at­ive, ob­ject­ive, and help­ful. We dis­covered that the one-year-old magazine was already highly re­garded in the na­tion’s cap­it­al. Once I moved to Wash­ing­ton for col­lege and be­came an in­tern on Cap­it­ol Hill in Janu­ary 1973, I was ad­dicted. Al­most every place I worked for the next 25 years sub­scribed to Na­tion­al Journ­al.

As much as I loved writ­ing a column at Roll Call for a dozen years, Na­tion­al Journ­al’s pub­lish­er, John Fox Sul­li­van, and own­er, Dav­id Brad­ley, lured me away in 1998. Sul­li­van was the pub­lish­er every journ­al­ist wanted. “Hands-on,” as one alum­nus put it, “roam­ing the news­room, shar­ing gos­sip, en­cour­aging the troops.” An­oth­er re­port­er noted that Sul­li­van “al­ways pro­tec­ted us from pissed-off, power­ful folks or ad­vert­isers who threatened to pull their busi­ness, etc., for some story. He took their flak and nev­er asked us to rein in our re­port­ing.” As for Brad­ley, few people have in­ves­ted as much of their money, heart, and soul in ser­i­ous journ­al­ism as he has in re­vital­iz­ing The At­lantic and Na­tion­al Journ­al.

In those days, Na­tion­al Journ­al oc­cu­pied a unique place in Wash­ing­ton journ­al­ism. Many of its writers, a bit older and more ex­per­i­enced than the city’s usu­al journ­al­ists, were ex­perts in the top­ic or in­sti­tu­tion they covered. Na­tion­al Journ­al was a cross between a think tank and a ser­i­ous magazine on pub­lic policy and polit­ics. If you worked in Con­gress, the ex­ec­ut­ive branch, in­de­pend­ent agen­cies, or for a cor­por­a­tion, trade as­so­ci­ation, labor uni­on, think tank, law firm, or pub­lic re­la­tions com­pany, when Na­tion­al Journ­al wrote about an is­sue or situ­ation that mattered, you read it first.

It’s fool­hardy for me to start men­tion­ing names, among the hun­dreds of journ­al­ists who have writ­ten or ed­ited the magazine or have de­signed or pro­duced it. But it seems al­most crim­in­al not to point out some of the most tal­en­ted. There wasn’t a journ­al­ist in Wash­ing­ton who knew the is­sue of in­ter­na­tion­al trade as well as Bruce Stokes did. On do­mest­ic is­sues, Neal Peirce was the fore­most au­thor­ity on state and loc­al ini­ti­at­ives and polit­ics. (I prob­ably have five or six of his books at home.) If you cared about ag­ri­cul­ture, you wanted to know what Jerry Hag­strom thought and saw. The deep-dive re­port­ing on health care by Mar­ilyn Wer­ber Ser­afini and Ju­lie Kosterl­itz, and by Mar­gie Kr­iz Hob­son on en­ergy and en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues, were must-reads for the pro­fes­sion­als. After the 9/11 at­tacks, na­tion­al se­cur­ity and in­tel­li­gence moved to the fore­front in the magazine, fea­tur­ing fine work by James Kit­field and some young­er re­port­ers, not­ably Shane Har­ris, Sydney Freed­berg, and Siobhan Gor­man.

But Na­tion­al Journ­al wasn’t only about is­sues. It kept watch on polit­ic­al in­sti­tu­tions and the people who ran them. Rich Co­hen covered Con­gress, and the House in par­tic­u­lar, more closely than any­one else. Kirk Vic­tor did the same in the Sen­ate. Burt So­lomon did some great re­port­ing as a colum­nist at the White House and has come back in re­cent months to edit my column and make it far bet­ter than when it was sub­mit­ted. There was only one Stu­art Taylor Jr., a Har­vard Law School gradu­ate whose cov­er­age of the Su­preme Court and con­sti­tu­tion­al law was un­par­alleled. Peter Stone, Carl Can­non, and Alex­is Si­mendinger con­trib­uted ori­gin­al and in­cis­ive re­port­ing about how Wash­ing­ton works.

Many of the best ed­it­ors star­ted out as re­port­ers. Richard Cor­rigan, a le­gend at Na­tion­al Journ­al, died in the of­fice in 1991 (be­fore my time) at age 53. John Moore was an­oth­er tal­en­ted re­port­er and writer. I was for­tu­nate enough to have my column ed­ited for a time by the in­defatig­able and ir­re­press­ible Mi­chael Kelly, who be­came the first Amer­ic­an journ­al­ist killed cov­er­ing the Ir­aq War, at age 46. For much of my ten­ure at NJ, my column was ed­ited by Charlie Green, the top ed­it­or, a soft-spoken but strong lead­er, a lovely man with the pa­tience of Job.

In re­cent years, print journ­al­ism about polit­ics and gov­ern­ment has fallen on harder times. Cable tele­vi­sion and the In­ter­net changed everything. News, in­form­a­tion, and opin­ions are dis­pensed 24/7 and at the speed of light; in-depth ana­lys­is and deep re­port­ing are less ap­pre­ci­ated. In a “high-ve­lo­city” (us­ing Brad­ley’s term) news en­vir­on­ment, a weekly print pub­lic­a­tion cov­er­ing polit­ics can’t sur­vive. As Con­gress has ac­com­plished less and less, few­er ad­vert­isers need to reach the lead­ers on Cap­it­ol Hill. The days of print-based polit­ic­al journ­al­ism are over.

For me, I’ll still be plug­ging away, my fu­ture columns avail­able to Na­tion­al Journ­al mem­bers be­hind a pay wall. I’ll also lead my team at The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port and give speeches here and there. An era has ended, but life moves on.

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