Michael Hastings, the 'Rolling Stone' guy who ruined McChrystal, tries to sell the public on a new book about Afghanistan
On a recent Friday afternoon, the journalist Michael Hastings arrived in a black town car at the foot of the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. One of those finger-numbing cold snaps had blown into town, but Hastings braved it to stay outside and smoke a Parliament Light before heading up to the fourth-floor television studio where he was scheduled to appear on "CNN Newsroom" at 2:10 p.m. to promote his new book, The Operators.
Hastings, who used to live on the Lower East Side, now lives in his native Vermont with his wife, the writer Elise Jordan. But he was in town that week, staying at a boutique hotel in Midtown, to do press. His publisher, Penguin's Blue Rider Press, is throwing a party for the book tonight at Sebastian Junger's watering hole, The Half King, on West 23rd Street.
Entering the studio, Hastings shed his tan trenchcoat and fixed himself an espresso before a woman named Rose, wearing bright pink lipstick, prepared the 31-year-old for the camera by dabbing make-up on his cheeks.
A few minutes later, Hastings was staring into a teleprompter. His deep-set blue eyes matched the dress shirt he was wearing underneath a dark Brooks Brothers blazer and a bright red Brioni tie. He scribbled some thoughts into a small reporter’s notebook. Brooke Baldwin, anchoring from CNN headquarters in Atlanta, appeared on the screen.
First topic: The controversial video clip, recently uploaded to YouTube, depicting four Marines urinating on the corpses of three dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
“How often does something like this happen?” Baldwin asked.
Hastings could have expounded at length on the topic of military misconduct abroad. He’s written extensively about the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan, most prodigiously in the pages of The Operators, which was released on Jan. 5. His expertise on the subject of soldier behavior was solidified in the summer of 2010 when Rolling Stone published "The Runaway General," Hastings' account of a European tour he took with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and his men. The article formed the basis for Hastings' new book.
In addition to “the drunken nights, the disrespect for their bosses in the White House, the anger of the troops in the field,” as CNN’s Baldwin breathlessly described the content of the Rolling Stone article that afternoon in her introduction of Hastings to her audience, the piece also contains a now infamous passage in which McChrystal and his aides openly lampoon Vice President Joe Biden, apparently undeterred by the presence of Hastings, who was shadowing their entourage on-the-record. After President Obama absorbed this anecdote, McChrystal was swiftly summoned to the Oval Office, where the Commander in Chief relieved him of his duties.
The tail-end of Hastings' response to Baldwin’s inquiry about the Marine-urination video was appropriately brash: Gen. David Petraeus, McChrystal's successor as top commander in Afghanistan who is now director of the C.I.A., should be put on trial, he suggested.
“I would say that if we injected our generals with truth serum and asked them how they felt about the Afghan people, they would not say they love them,” he continued, “and I think there has been a breakdown in discipline from the top.”
A few moments later, Baldwin went to a commercial break. Hastings took a sip of water. His pensive expression gave way to an impish grin.
“Is that going too far?” he asked a companion who was seated nearby, laughing as if to acknowledge that he may have just stirred up a bit of trouble.
IT'S NOT EVERY DAY THAT A PIECE OF MAGAZINE JOURNALISM brings the career of a decorated military officer to a screeching halt.
"I strongly support the President's strategy in Afghanistan and am deeply committed to our coalition forces, our partner nations, and the Afghan people,” read the statement McChrystal issued as Obama was announcing that he had been fired. “It was out of respect for this commitment—and a desire to see the mission succeed—that I tendered my resignation."
The fall of McChrystal’s star, of course, triggered the rise of Hastings'. Not that he wasn’t already a known quantity. He’d spent six years at Newsweek, both as a Baghdad correspondent and an embed on the 2008 campaign trail. His byline was familiar to readers of The Washington Post and GQ. His first book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad, in which he survives the most violent chapter of the Iraq War only to lose his fiancé to a car bomb along the way, was reviewed by George Packer in The New York Times.
But “The Runaway General” was a game-changer for Hastings. He’d long been influenced by the legendary Bob Woodward; now he’d broken through with a Watergate of his own. Only he didn’t see it coming.
“I never expected the McChrystal story to have the impact that it did,” Hastings said over coffee after the CNN taping. “I never would have even imagined it.”
It also placed a tremendous weight on his shoulders. If you’re only as good as your last story, as the adage suggests, the next one better be a hell of a lot better.
“I felt like I needed to be even more ambitious in the book,” said Hastings. “I couldn’t just deliver, ‘Here’s what’s in the rest of my notebooks.’ I had to go back in and dive even deeper. So it forced me to try to top the reporting. I think we succeeded at that. And the fucking bar was high, right?”
The Operators, a combat-blackened road tale that purports to offer “The wild and terrifying inside story of America’s war in Afghanistan,” follows two narratives. One, as Hastings described it, “is this wild, crazy-assed, boozy road trip with the most badass assassins, killers, intelligence operatives, and I’m hanging out and giving this unprecedented access and look at them.” (Hastings, whose neat, boy-next-door look betrays nothing of his past flirtations with drugs and alcohol, stayed sober during his time with them.)
The other “is sort of this third person homage to Woodward … the sort of traditional, third-person reporting, inside-the-room journalism” about the complex and protracted conflict Hastings had been chronicling since 2008.
The first narrative, that whiskey-drenched roller coaster ride through Europe with military brass, has prompted some critics to suggest that the level of detail in The Operators is at times extraneous. (Although any reporter could appreciate the granular insight into Hastings’ techniques, like when he whips out a notebook in a hotel lobby in chapter three per his rule of always jotting down “ten details about any scene.”)
“I’m trying to write honestly about what it’s like to be a journalist,” he said. “How honest can a journalist be about their own methods? I think you can be very, very honest, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Hastings’ trenchant tone has also been scrutinized.
“Hastings’ prose tends to hyperbole and profanity,” Bob Drogin wrote in his Los Angeles Times review. “He mocks or derides top diplomats, members of Congress, military commanders, White House officials and others with a biting mix of gossip, blind quotes and snarky asides.”
Hastings’ editor, David Rosenthal, a bit of a rock star himself (at least by publishing world standards), dismissed the pans.
“I don’t think that’s a problem or an overindulgence,” said Rosenthal, who’s edited the likes of Bob Dylan and Hunter S. Thompson. (He’s also published works by Hastings’ hero, Bob Woodward). “It would be a lot harder to get people to read about counterinsurgency in Afghanistan as a straight third-person book versus having someone as interesting and maniacal as Michael be your guide. It’s a technique, rather than a flaw.”
“I got the goods,” Hastings argued. “Is it Woodward-level reporting? No, because only Woodward can do Woodward-level reporting. But I think it’s very, very solid.”
Some of the more revelatory passages include Hastings’ unmasking of the anonymous McChrystal staffer quoted in the Rolling Stone piece as pretending to confuse “Biden” with “Bite me”; insider dish about the tensions between Petraeus and his rivals; accounts of unnamed female TV reporters using their breasts to get access to military subjects; and, of course, lots of gratuitous alcohol consumption by McChrystal and his aides. The book also describes boozing of a more somber nature during a scene in which Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin organize an impromptu Irish wake at the Ritz Carleton near George Washington University Hospital, where U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke died on Dec. 13, 2010. And at least one nugget has gone viral—a passage in which a cranky President Obama complains about having to take pictures with troops on a visit to Baghdad. After the website BuzzFeed highlighted the anecdote, The Drudge Report gleefully promoted the item.
“You’re not gonna get a link on The Drudge Report unless there’s fuckin’ news in your book,” said Hastings.
Yet The Operators didn’t land with the crack one might have expected. (Though it did make it onto the New York Times Best Seller list.) Part of it was because the bomb had already dropped with the Rolling Stone piece. But the book has also faced some stiff competition from another newly released piece of hardcover non-fiction, Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas.
A few weeks ago, the White House went apoplectic over Kantor’s reporting of tense relations between the First Lady and some of her husband’s top aides. It began aggressively counter-spinning the narrative in the press, and some journalists joined in the chorus, echoing White House criticisms in their own interviews with Kantor. The question of Hastings’ credibility, on the other hand, was already old news. There had already been a Pentagon campaign to discredit him in the weeks after “The Runaway General” arrived on newsstands. (It was unsuccessful.)
The irony is that Kantor’s publisher, Little, Brown, which had originally inked a deal for The Operators, dropped Hastings’ book last summer because it feared the tome was too controversial, according to Hastings.
"The book terrified them—literally,” he said. “One email from the editor said he and the publisher were terrified after reading it. I was like, shit man, the subtitle of the book is that it's a 'wild and terrifying story.' But clearly, the book made them very uncomfortable—from the language I used to the views expressed about the Pentagon. I didn't want to compromise my vision for the book."
“Little, Brown has no additional comment beyond our original statement,” a spokesperson told Capital in an email. “Our publication plans have been cancelled due to editorial differences.”
Editorial director Geoff Shandler did not respond to requests for comment.
IN THE WAKE OF THE LITTLE, BROWN BLOW-UP, HASTINGS' agent, literary powerhouse Andrew Wylie, started shopping The Operators elsewhere. A copy of the manuscript landed on the desk of Penguin's Rosenthal.
“I read it and made him a deal,” he said last Friday. “The proof was in the pudding … That story on the Times’ front page today about Afghan soldiers killing allied soldiers? Michael has the same reporting in his book. It’s really important for people to read about what a mess this has been.”
One of the challenges for the books is that the media’s attention span for Afghanistan has waned. A recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that coverage of the war dropped by half from 2010, the year Hastings' Rolling Stone piece was published, to 2011. And in a year when so much of the press corps' oxygen will be consumed by a presidential race in which America’s troubled economy is the central issue, it’s hard to imagine Taliban rockets and troop-movement strategy making any more noise in the 2012 U.S. news cycle.
“No one gives a shit about Afghanistan,” said Hastings. “It’s so hard to break through and get people to even read anything you have to say.”
In any case, Hastings is on sabbatical from war reporting at the moment. Rolling Stone published his carefully-brokered interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last week. His next big feature is a Men’s Journal profile of right-wing sports radio host Dino Costa. After spending the better part of his 20s reporting from battlegrounds and military embedments, Hastings felt like it was time for a break.
“You pay a huge cost to this. It kills your spirit, it kills your soul, or it literally kills you,” he said. “I think with this book, I've said almost everything I want to say about my experiences with war.”
At least until the next time.
“I can see myself going back to these places pretty regularly,” he said. “I would love to be able to do this for my entire life.”