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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