BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bret Stephens, how would you describe being a member of the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal?
BRET STEPHENS, MEMBER, ”WALL STREET JOURNAL” EDITORIAL BOARD: First of all, a lot of fun. We are like-minded people, a lot of us are pretty young, and some of my colleagues on the board are also my closest friends. It’s basically a pleasure to work for Paul and pleasure to be doing to have that kind of combination of acting as well as thinking, you know, thinking about issues which I think are important but having an affect which isn’t just academic. So I couldn’t think of a better job in the world.
LAMB: How old are you now?
LAMB: Did you ever think, one of those questions, ever think you’d be on the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal at this age?
STEPHENS: No, I never thought that. I mean I think this has probably been what I’ve wanted to do since I started reading the Journal’s editorial page in high school. So it’s a it’s a long-standing ambition.
LAMB: Why did you start reading the Journal’s editorial page in high school?
STEPHENS: I guess I kind of discovered it. I went to a boarding school in New England and at one point I don’t really remember exactly how it happened but I just picked up the Wall Street Journal, just sort of assumed it was a fairly grim financial newspaper that couldn’t interest me and starting reading the editorials, and thought, hey, I agree with this. And more than that, I like the way it’s written.
The editorial page has always had a kind of very lively character which I think belies its reputation as a very conservative institution. I mean the editorials have always had a real sense of humor and we do make a point of having fun on the page.
LAMB: Give me four or five things that the Journal editorial board stands for?
STEPHENS: Well, I can I’ll only give you two of them, free men and free markets, or I should say free people and free markets. The sense is we support democracy, human rights, the human rights agenda, the democratization agenda, and we believe that capitalism, free markets, the free movement of labor, services, capital, goods are good for the world. And those are the things that we advocate.
I think we sometimes surprise people who have a stereotype view of what the Wall Street Journal is about by being, for instance, a very pro-immigration paper for opposing the construction of this wall along the southern border, for being supporters of for being supporters of NAFTA and other free trade agreements.
I mean the Journal has taken up various causes over the decades sort of appropriate to the appropriate to their era. In the 1970s Bob Bartley started became a critic of dιtente, an accommodation with the Soviet Union. He also took up the mantra of supply side economics that was sort of considered really a quack far-out idea at the time and then really became much more of a mainstream idea. In the 1990s famously there were the Clinton wars which the Journal played its part in.
And in the last six years or I should say five years the real focus has been on the war on terrorism and what that means in terms of maintaining a free and open society. And that is that is, you know, much of what we do and the way we think centers on how to deal with this crisis now.
LAMB: How often do you write?
STEPHENS: Well, it depends. I write a column every week and I’ll usually write an editorial or two depending on the news, sometimes three. Sometimes I’ll write a book review or a piece for the Leisure and Arts section. But I keep myself pretty busy.
LAMB: When do you know you’ve hit some kind of pay dirt with either a column or an editorial? How do you get feedback?
STEPHENS: Well, I put my I put an email address at the foot of my column and sort of interesting to see what the reactions to columns are. I wrote a column two weeks ago, I guess, two or three weeks ago or in September right after the after the Pope Benedict gave a speech and controversy erupted.
And I wrote a fairly academic exegesis of what Benedict had said. I just sat down and read the speech and said, OK, well this is actually what Benedict says beyond that quote that got so much attention. And I thought, you know, this column isn’t going to really go anywhere. And I think of everything I’ve written as a columnist that that particular piece received the most attention. So you only know you’ve really hit pay dirt after the column has been has been published.
LAMB: It was called ”Pope Provocateur?”
STEPHENS: That’s right.
LAMB: It was written on September the 19th. And you say, ”Contrary to nervous Vatican disclaimers, Benedict plainly implies that Islam is a faith of the sword, though he makes the point obtusely in the form of an anecdote.” And you go on to give the anecdote from the Byzantine emperor Manuel II.
STEPHENS: Although a this is a kind of interesting point, a reader with a Greek name corrected me on Manuel saying that’s a kind of Latinization of his name and it will ought to be Emmanuel. And that’s some of the feedback that’s nice to get, you learn.
You actually when you’re you get this mail and there is a fraction of nutters, there is a fraction of critics, there are a fraction of people who say, ”Great article, thanks.” And then you have some people who write in astonishingly interesting, thoughtful replies, partly critical, partly supportive, but from which you really learn something. And so that makes putting my email address in the column really worthwhile for me.
LAMB: What’s a nutter?
STEPHENS: A lunatic. Someone who seems to have dropped off the ends of the earth or who says things and you just sort of rebound and say gee I wonder what that means. Or I mean there have been people who have written anti-Semitic notes or personally very vicious notes, that goes with the territory. So you get you get all sorts. But still it’s worth it because we do get these lovely, thoughtful Wall Street Journal readers who really are interested in engaging the ideas and engaging the columnists and they’re a part of what makes my job really interesting.
LAMB: What did you think of what the Pope did in that lecture he gave?
STEPHENS: Well, I basically liked the speech in the sense that it’s a very subtle, meticulously drafted, in some ways kind of cunning speech that went well beyond the headline criticism of not Islam necessarily but a element, a streak within Islam which is jihadist, which is violent, which finds too many expressions today, to talk about broader issues of the correspondence, the relationship of faith and reason.
And he I’m not a Catholic so I’m certainly no theologian but he makes the argument that the New Testament really is a syncretic product, the product of a kind of broad conversation that took place between Athens and Jerusalem in the before Christ and then in the early parts of this anno you know, of this era. And that central to the Christian idea are John’s words ”In the beginning there was the Word.” The word he uses is logos which means reason or argument. And that connects faith-based or faith-centric beliefs views of the world with the kind of rational but really what he means to say is philosophic traditions of Athens which were curious about the world, which believed in syncretic methodologies which (INAUDIBLE) questions.
And this means that the West or as Benedict is saying, the West really sustains itself in this kind of critical and constructive dialectic between belief and reason. This is what makes the West what it is in its best sense, on the one hand sort of tolerant pluralistic but also morally grounded.
Now when that equate when that relationship is sundered, when there’s a sense that faith has nothing to do with reason or reason has nothing to do with faith Benedict would argue you run into really very serious problems. And his critique extends not just to an Islam which he interprets as having theological elements which sunder that connection but also trends within Catholicism, within Christianity and within modern secular enlightenment sort of thinking that do pretty much the same.
So what he ends up arriving at, I mean I’m really doing it no justice, people really should read the speech but what he ends up arriving at is the saying that in order to have a really critical cultural dialog, particularly for a West for the West with Islam, you have to understand that faith and reason really do have to be able to have some kind of conversation. There really have to be some baseline beliefs that make that conversation possible.
And I think that was that was really quite interesting and really well worth saying. And it’s a pity that it got almost entirely missed in the hysteria and controversy and I would say laziness on the part of many journalists who just wanted to say, OK, here the Pope has gone off the deep end again and we have another kind of Danish cartoon situation. I think the Pope was doing something really subtle and important and it deserved people’s attention.
LAMB: What did you think of the reactions?
STEPHENS: Well, I think
LAMB: Islamists, the ones that hit the streets.
STEPHENS: I think it was opportunistic and broadly ignorant. It would be interesting to me to know, and I have no way of knowing I don’t know if any of us do, just how widely the speech itself was disseminated, was read, was translated into Arabic or Ordu, or Farsi or other countries where there were protests.
But I find it hard to believe that intelligent, rational people from any culture or any religious tradition who read that speech could have had that kind of violent reaction. I think it was a large element of rabble rousing there.
LAMB: You went to school at the University of Chicago. What year did you go and what year did you graduate?
STEPHENS: I was there I graduated in 1995 as an undergraduate, four years, ’91 to ’95.
LAMB: Did you go to the London School of Economic?
LAMB: When did you take your first job in journalism?
STEPHENS: ’95 after college.
LAMB: Doing what?
STEPHENS: I was an editor of commentary.
LAMB: Why did you take that job? What was your motive in taking it?
STEPHENS: It was offered to me.
LAMB: It was your first job?
STEPHENS: Actually, my what I really wanted to do was go to officer candidate school and be a Naval officer. And when I went to do my medical I had consistently high blood pressure scores and so that was out of the question.
A professor of mine what had happened is I should go back a little prior to that. A professor of mine, Leon Kass, he was my mentor and he’s become controversial, well known, to me he’s a great scholar and a great teacher
LAMB: Did for the Bush administration the human genome or was it
STEPHENS: No, well he was the head of the President’s Council on Bioethics.
STEPHENS: That was that was long after I’d studied with him. He’s a medical doctor and Ph.D. I think in biochemistry and has always had an interest in medical ethics, bioethics.
But when I was at the University of Chicago I knew him as my professor who taught me Genesis, Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics, Plato’s Meno, Descartes, (INAUDIBLE), and I did my undergraduate thesis for him on two speeches, fairly obscure speeches by Abraham Lincoln on the relationship between democracy and technology, which is an issue that profoundly interests him. So it was a it was a good marriage, so to speak, between the two of us.
Leon had a was a contributor to Commentary and movie editor. And I had written kind of on a lark when I was a sophomore in college just as a thought exercise a book review. I had read a book on anthropology and I thought this is a really good book and I thought I wonder what it would like to actually write a review of it and sort of model it on reviews that I was reading in magazines. And I really did this for my own sake.
And I showed it to my father and he said, ”Oh, this great. You should you should submit it to Commentary.” And I did when I was I must have been 19 years old. And they published it. They edited it but they published it and that was amazing.
And then I also had a summer internship at the London Times when I was in college. But my real journalism career, I mean if I can go back before then, began in boarding school
LAMB: Which school?
STEPHENS: This was a school called Middlesex in Concord, Massachusetts. I’d grown up in Mexico but
LAMB: Why Mexico?
STEPHENS: My father was born in Mexico and when I was an infant or a toddler he had decided to return to Mexico with his family to help run a family business that his father had established back in the 1930s or ’40s. So my family has had a connection with Mexico for I think about 70 years and it had a pervasive influence in my life.
LAMB: Where is your mom from originally?
STEPHENS: Well, my mom is a different story. My mother was born as a displaced person in Italy in 1940 and she was displaced because her mother her mother and grandmother had been refugees from the Russian revolution, Jewish refugees, who had then moved to Berlin where my grandmother went to high school. And then at some point in the 1930’s they had left Berlin, for obvious reasons, and gone to Italy, which at the time was much friendlier both legally but really culturally to Jews. It didn’t Mussolini didn’t seem to share the really deep-seated fascistic anti-Semitic tendencies of Germany. Although once his alliance with Hitler had been stuck anti-Semitic laws did begin to take affect. But it was Italy was comparatively outside of say Switzerland and Portugal, neutral countries in World War II Italy was probably one of the safer places for Jews to be during the Nazi era.
So my mother had been born in Italy and spent her childhood there and then as a girl after the war had managed to obtain with her mother a visa to come to the U.S. So my mother then moved to the U.S. where she where she met my father and that’s how we came to that’s how I came to be and eventually we came to be in Mexico.
LAMB: How long did you live in Mexico?
STEPHENS: Well, it depends how you count because I guess I moved when I was around about one or two and really left just shy of my 14th birthday to boarding school but continued living and my residence I guess was in Mexico until I was about 17 or 18 years old.
LAMB: So where did you get your interest in philosophy and philosophers?
STEPHENS: Again, you know, a lot of my life has been by way of total serendipity. When I went to college I thought I wanted to be an anthropology major. And then I actually took an anthropology course and it was just dreadful. And I thought, oh, boy, this isn’t what I mean I kind of had this Indiana Jones idea of what anthropology was but I really thought it was kind of grim and political and tedious.
But the University of Chicago insists on its students taking core courses and one of them was one of the courses I took was called classics of Western political thought or something to that effect, basically the Western political and philosophic tradition. And you begin you begin with Plato, ”The Death of Socrates,” ”The Republic,” and you really move through Aristotle, through the Middle Ages to the Early Enlightenment, Machiavelli, Erasmus, you know, Hobbes the contract theorist Hobbes, Locke so into the 19th Century and people like Hegel, Kant, Marx. I should go back Adam Smith, of course, to all the way up really to Nietzsche. And I’d really it was an electrifying course for me.
And so I thought I was going to be an anthropology major and but I had this I developed this interest in political philosophy. And I was I was looking at course offerings my sophomore year and there was a course being offered just on the book of Genesis, taught by Leon Kass. And I thought well this is in a way this kind of marries these interests because Genesis is ultimately about beginnings but it’s also about faith, and human society and the development of human society, and politics, and all this all the kinds of things that take place in the Book of Genesis.
So I applied to be in the course and Professor Kass accepted me. I have no idea why. And that course was you know, you kind of look back and you think of a few classes that really changed your life in some significant way. That was one of them.
And what really impressed me most is that in the hands of someone very smart and thoughtful, like Leon Kass and like all the students who were in that class at the University of Chicago, you can really take a text like Genesis, which you often think of as either a kind of, you know, the fodder for Bible thumping lunatics or for, you know, historians of religion who are looking for, you know, whether this was written by J or Y or whatever it is, and actually say you know something, this book, even if you don’t accept that the world was created in six days, this book actually has important things to say about who we are, what are the values that inform us, why we act in certain ways, what are the appropriate and inappropriate relations between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters. It’s really an incredibly rich text and if you just sit down and read it, and read it again, and read it again we read one book for the entire quarter, it’s not a very long book if you really give it some thought you will extract something rich and really sort of permanent and fundamental in it.
And that was true not just of Genesis but of a whole series of book. So I ended up focusing on a my major was called Fundamentals which all my mates used to say fun for mentals. I mean that was kind of sort of off in our own in our own universe.
But what we did is we read certain books which were important and we read them carefully. And then we devised a kind of program around a question that we had. And that’s what I did. And I ended up I began with Genesis. I ended up reading a lot of Abraham Lincoln. But Abraham Lincoln isn’t really the teachings of Abraham Lincoln I’d say aren’t really so far from those of Genesis or the wisdom that informs Genesis is similar to the wisdom that informs Lincoln.
LAMB: Where would you put him on the list of presidents?
STEPHENS: Number one I’d say.
LAMB: And why, what’s behind it?
STEPHENS: Well, I mean for all the obvious reasons, schoolbook reasons, save the Union, emancipated the slaves, but I think it’s fought the Civil War, chose to fight the Civil War which is something that I think is relevant today because Douglas wouldn’t have fought the Civil War. Buchanan wasn’t going to fight the Civil War.
It’s more than that. Lincoln, of all our presidents, was in a sense a genuine had a genuinely philosophic cast of mind. And you see that in all of his speeches beginning at a very early age when he was in his, I think late 20s or 30s he gave a speech to the Lyceum, a kind of school in Illinois. And you imagine have to imagine sort of early 19th Century dusty hinterlands Illinois, you know, very far from the metropolises of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, even farther from London, or Paris, or Rome.
But he gives a speech which is a reflection and sort of a it’s a reflection on political psychology. And the essence of it and I’m really, again, I do it no justice but the essence of it is the generation of America’s founders found their psychological satisfaction in building something, in creating a republic. What would their sons find, their children, find their psychological satisfaction in? Well, perhaps in destroying things.
So the political problem becomes how do you maintain through the generations people who will find their deepest sort of their deepest political and psychological satisfactions in maintaining institutions rather than creating ones of their own. And that’s a really serious political and philosophical problem and it’s one that really is something that goes back to other thinkers before Lincoln.
And it’s incredible to see Lincoln talking about these issues in the 18 I guess this would have been the 1830s, late 1830s, maybe early 1840s and then developing as the crisis of the house divided unfolds all the way up to the Civil War. And people cite Lincoln, they’ll cite the Gettysburg Address, or the second inaugural address, or passages the better angles of our nature from the first inaugural, as evidence of Lincoln’s rhetorical mastery and the kind of poetic sense that infuses his prose.
But what is less appreciated, I think, is a kind of philosophical mastery of the issues, of questions like, you know, is the statement all men are created equal something that was an artifact of its time and of that generation or did it have was it permanently true, and could it survive and be defended when there were huge economic interests that defended slavery as well as a kind of creeping cultural relativism that said well, it’s OK if, you know, not all people are really created equal and blacks are different, they’re inferior, you know, the philosophical defense of the south that you get from John Calhoun all the way on to all the way on to I guess Robert E. Lee and Alexander Stephens and the rest of the Confederacy.
You know and that issue in a sense is really alive today. I mean because if you’re going to you know there is a there is a sense very prevalent in the academy that cultures are relative and things which we find abhorrent, practices that we find abhorrent, are OK if they’re practiced by other cultures with other value systems.
You know now that cultural relativism tends to break down when you actually get into the nitty-gritty of what nasty practices other cultures engage in. You know, female circumcision, are you OK with that, you know? The kind of rape culture in Pakistan, are you really OK with that or is that just a kind of what Pakistanis can do? Burning widows in at least in 19th Century India, are you really OK with that?
When you actually sort of I think press people who speak about cultural relativism on the specifics they tend to get a little queasy. But it’s still out there. It’s still a part of our daily conversations.
And you sort of look at what Lincoln was dealing with different subjects but really the same conversation.
LAMB: So if you move to today, how do you view what George Bush did in Iraq?
STEPHENS: Look, I think
LAMB: And is it how big a decision was it in do you think it will be in history?
STEPHENS: Well, what’s, you know I think there’s this famous story that Mao or maybe Zhou Enlai had a conversation with either Nixon or Kissinger in which I’ll say Nixon asked Mao what he thought the affects of the cultural revolution were and not the cultural revolution, the French revolution were and Mao’s reply was ”It’s too soon to tell.” That was, you know, 180 years after the date.
So it’s very hard from, you know, the standpoint of the present to make a final determination about the decision. But I do think that from this standpoint it was the right decision. He needed to have done it not necessarily for the reasons that he gave, for the reasons that were understood, not invariably in the way that it was done particularly after the initial invasion. But I think history would have judged him harshly if he hadn’t done it. I think the Democrats would have judged him harshly if he hadn’t done it by the way. And I think the same goes in the looming crisis with Iran.
LAMB: Why do you think he decided to do it?
STEPHENS: I think first of all, I think that there was a sincerely belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And I think that if you sort of look at what people were saying before, the evidence that was available to everyone, the fact that President Clinton had acted against in 1998 had launched missile strikes at Iraq against what he thought was a were was a WMD capability. I think there was first of all the sincerely conviction that Saddam had these things.
Second of all there was the belief that he was just the kind of guy who would who would use them.
Thirdly, I do think that the democracy agenda really did start to become much more relevant in the days after September 11th when you said, you know, you have you have here conditions which create a culture and whether Saddam Hussein was or was not and, you know, apparently he was not actually connected to the bin Laden or the planners of this attack he was, in a sense, part of, you know, a kind of element, symbol of this culture in which they swam and someone needed to take a very big swing at that.
And also, I think that there was there was this point too, which is important today Saddam had essentially been flouting the U.N. for a dozen years. He had been evading sanctions, the sanctions the notion that you could have maintained a sanctions regime indefinitely I don’t think is plausible. And he was a kind of symbol of a certain kind of Arab radicalism which fed into the larger malfunction or dysfunction of the of the Arab and Islamic world and to make an object lesson of him was not a useless exercise.
It would have I wonder what, for instance, someone like John Kerry would be saying if Saddam Hussein were still in power. I bet he’d be saying, you know, this president well I mean I don’t want to put words in Mr. Kerry’s mouth but I bet someone out there, some current critic of the war would be saying this president has allowed Saddam Hussein to remain in place while he brutalizes his people, almost certainly works on weapons of mass destruction programs, and plots against his neighbors.
I think, you know, if I can boil it all down to one point, the weapon of mass destruction in Iraq was Saddam Hussein. He was a weapon of mass destruction when it came to the Kurds. He was a weapon of mass destruction when it came to the Iranians, when it came when it came to the Kuwaitis. He was a weapon of mass destruction when it came to the Palestinians, remember he used to fund Palestinian suicide bombers. He helped make the Middle East a deeply dysfunctional and unstable place and getting rid of him was important.
Now talking about what happened after the war is a different is really a different subject, whether it could have been handled differently. Those are all legitimate criticisms. But the original decision to go to war I think was right.
LAMB: You were talking earlier about the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, by the way, how many people sit around that table?
STEPHENS: You know I’ve never actually counted. I mean there must be about 10 of us. One point just to make for people who are curious about the editorial page, the editorial page consists not just of those of us who write editorials or write columns. It also my boss Paul Gigot, also has responsibility over everything that qualifies as an opinion.
So, for example, Joe Morgenstern, our Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic, really works on the editorial side strictly speaking because he’s offering opinions. Eric Gibson, Eric Eichmann (ph), the arts and the books editors, all work all work for Paul.
So I guess, you know, I haven’t done a headcount but I guess there are about 35 maybe 40 people. And we have satellite offices in Hong Kong and Brussels.
LAMB: Did you ever see anybody around that table disagree with George Bush going into Iraq? I mean do you have that kind of disagreement or you say you’re all like minds?
STEPHENS: Well, first of all, I was I was editor of the Jerusalem Post when that decision was made so I never sat around the table. I don’t think that it was I get the sense that it was probably unanimous agreement but I could be wrong.
There is I mean one of the things that people don’t realize, we don’t walk in lock step with one another. There is disagreement and if someone feels you know, if I felt particularly strongly about some issue and Paul was of a different mind and the question was about writing and editorial, I probably wouldn’t write it. I mean I don’t I’ve ever written anything for the Journal which I just can’t I just can’t live with this statement.
There are people on the editorial page who lean very libertarian, for instance, who are against the war on drugs for the legalization of drugs. Imagine, again, I’ve never done a count but I’m sure there are plenty of people, myself included, who are broadly pro-choice. And there are people who are probably a little more socially conservative on certain issues.
I think all of us try to approach the issues as they come. But we are working within a kind of broadly shared philosophical political framework. I mean it’s a self-selecting group. It is no accident we go to work for the Journal’s editorial page. And so it’s not surprising that you are going to find more agreement than not around the table.
LAMB: Go back to when you were in prep school and you started reading the Journal. What would you say how excuse me how would you advise people to read the Journal? Give them some insight, some tips as to what to look for, because I know one of the things, for instance, the Journal Editorial Board does or you report, you actually report on in some of your editorials new information, break news from time to time. But what other kinds of things would help somebody understand how to read the Journal?
STEPHENS: Well, first of all, I mean I first started reading the Journal really just for the editorial page and then as I grew up I realized that the entire paper is really a gem and there’s a heck of a lot to read in the paper on any given day. You know we have this tradition of what we call ”A Heads” (ph) on the front page which are these sort of quirky, offbeat stories that, you know, you don’t really necessarily find anywhere else.
And we have daily at least every day we have one piece that is just some really in-depth, drill down, kind of kind of reporting on some subject where a reporter might have worked on that story for three, four, five, even six months. And all of that is just outstanding.
Columns in the marketplace section, our weekend Journal, our new weekend edition, I think all of that is really worth reading. And, you know, the more I the more time I spend at the paper the more I enjoy reading the product.
In terms of the editorial page, yes, we do a lot of our own reporting. We have our sources, we work we work phones, we take trips. I’ve been in the Middle East a bunch of times in the last I guess in the last 12 months; four or five times Lebanon; Israel a few times; Pakistan; Egypt; arguably in Syria but I was in the hinterlands of Lebanon and the Syrians tell me I crossed over into the Syrian border.
We go places and we try to, you know, I have a good number of my columns are datelined from other places so there is this tradition of doing our own sourcing and reporting and not just kind of saying well, here’s what we think which is what a lot of opinion pages do.
LAMB: What I was getting at something like some days you wake up and the entire page is devoted to one editorial. What’s it take to move that board to write that long one editorial?
STEPHENS: Well, I did well, I shouldn’t say what I did it’s strictly speaking not allowed. I have done some of those.
It takes an issue that we think is sufficiently important that deserves really, you know, the full kind of a very broad treatment. Often those big editorials are kind of thematic rather than topic specific. The last one that the Journal did was on the fifth anniversary of September 11th where you really just had to take in a whole series of issues, not just Iraq, Iran, al Qaeda and so forth and you just really needed you really needed the space.
I mean generally speaking we try to have some diversity on the page which is to say an editorial that will be foreign related, an editorial that will be domestic, and then we have this institution the middle editorial which is the smallest one which we christened ”the rendette (ph)” which usually has a kind of lighter side aspect on the features that it’s really just entirely news dependent.
Sometimes when you have an author like Fouad Ajami who just writes beautifully and has important things to say you’re just going to give him you’re going to give him the run of the run of the page.
On weekends we have since we started the Saturday edition we have a weekend interview every week with someone who is sometimes a newsmaker. Obviously, Paul Gigot just interviewed George Bush for one of the weekend interviews. Sometimes they are kind of just interesting people.
A colleague of mine who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese as well as Japanese just went and interviewed the author - the Chinese American author Ha Jin, who wrote this book ”Waiting” and is a kind of a real critic of not just the Chinese regime but its affect on Chinese culture. And I thought that was, you know, that’s really value-added for readers not just to have the kind of Paul Volkers or John Boltons of the world but to have, you know, literary figures, cultural figures, the whole gamut.
LAMB: At what age did you become editor of the Jerusalem Post?
STEPHENS: When I was 28.
LAMB: Why did you do that and how long were you there?
STEPHENS: I was there for a little under three years. I before that I had been in Europe working for the Wall Street Journal Europe out of Brussels. And kind of again, I keep using the word serendipity kind of serendipitously an editor of mine asked me to fill in for a colleague and start doing some of our editorial coverage on Israel-Palestine. And in the summer of 2000 after the breakdown of the Camp David talks but before the beginning of the Intifada Arafat was moving the idea of unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state. This is all ancient history but at the time it was it was the topic.
So I so my editor said well listen, can you go out there and really do a story about the Palestinians and what kind of state they would get, not territorially so much as politically and socially, if, in fact, Arafat declared one. So that was really my first time in Israel as a reporter. And I spent most of my time in, you know, Gaza, and Ramallah, and Hebron, talking to Palestinians really at kind of all the levels, you know, entrepreneurs, leaders of Hamas, political figures, political figures, you know, you sort of name it.
And I wrote a piece that really stressed the point that there was a kind of real dysfunction at the heart of Palestinian society and government that was being largely neglected by the focus on the peace process and the question of borders and land. And the piece essentially the drift of the piece is this was not going anywhere good, that there was enormous internal violence within Palestinian society and that was probably going to flip out.
And that piece appeared I think on the 20th of September 2000 and a little more than a week later the Intifada began.
Now I kind of I take pride in that particular article because even three days before the Intifada began I think no one was predicting that it would start or certainly that it would last as long as it did.
Anyway, after the Intifada began I started really going out to the area pretty frequently and so my total surprise was called up by the publisher of the Jerusalem Post, whom I’d never met and
LAMB: Who was it at that time?
STEPHENS: Tom Rose.
he said, you know, would you be would you be interested in applying for the job as editor. I said sure. And sent me some copies of the paper, asked me for a memorandum about, you know, what I thought about it and, you know, the usual interview process and I was I was made I was given the job to my surprise and delight.
LAMB: Here we are a few years later and you’re back at the Journal. Tom Rose is doing a radio show in Washington and Conrad Black, who owned the Jerusalem Post is in I guess you could say some kind of trouble. Why how powerful is the Jerusalem Post and I’ve read several places where it’s really pitched more to the people who live in the United States than the people who live in Israel?
STEPHENS: Jerusalem Post is an interesting newspaper because it’s an English-language newspaper in a Hebrew-speaking country. And because that country is a relatively young one, during it’s early days the paper began during the British mandate and it was called the Palestine Post up until 1951 or 2. And but during the early days of the state of Israel it was largely a country of immigrants where people even if they spoke Hebrew didn’t read it very well and so the paper had greater much greater influence than it does today when a second and third generation is being reared in speaking and reading and writing Hebrew.
It was also for a period of time the organ, the unofficial organ of the labor party and politically tilted labor or left. And that was true for up until the time Hollinger purchased the paper and then the paper developed a new political identity which was essentially on the right although it’s moved from at different times from being, you know depends on how you define right but more to the right or not quite so far to the right. But it’s been, broadly speaking, a paper of the right.
But when once it once, you know, most Israelis started reading in Hebrew it became a more of a niche publication catering domestically to diplomats, English-speaking immigrants and tourists. And that is, you know, that’s a fairly small niche.
Now in the mid 1990s once you have the Internet the paper always had a for a long time had an international edition which reached a, you know, relatively limited audience. But once you could put a paper on the Internet then it’s influence really grew considerably because at least for a while it was the only English-language news domestic Israeli news source.
And it was particularly sought after by I think diaspora Jews who were hungry for a kind of more insider news on Israel told from a Jewish or an Israeli perspective.
Now when I became when I became editor I think the paper was experiencing a kind of identity crisis because it was attempting to be a paper of record for Israel as well as a paper that appealed to diaspora Jewry or people interested in Israel overseas. And it really didn’t have the resources to be both or to do both well.
And my feeling was look, for most Israelis most of our readers if you actually take total readership, are actually overseas. By far the majority of the readers were in the United States, or Canada, or Britain, or Australia or wherever. And these readers are probably not so interested in real nuts and bolts political stories that, you know, they’ll just sort of scratch their head and say who are these people, why do I care about this municipal judge or whatever. And so I did try to re-orient the paper when I was editor to dealing with some larger stories about that I thought would be more interesting to that to that readership.
That isn’t to say I utterly neglected the kind of nitty-gritty of Israeli life but I thought the issues really were security, relations with the Palestinians, the wider Arab world, some stuff on the economy particularly economic reform. But some of these kind of big issues about conflict, terrorism, Israel’s identity, anti-Semitism in Europe, those sorts of things which really engaged and energized overseas readers.
You know that was that was that was the choice that I made as editor and I think it was a defensible and right one. But every editor will see the paper somewhat differently.
LAMB: The Wall Street Journal has a big Internet audience, people who pay for it actually. What’s it cost a year to subscribe just to the online?
STEPHENS: You know I don’t know.
LAMB: I know you get a break if you buy the paper but
STEPHENS: I wish I probably should have those figures
LAMB: Question I really wanted to ask you, though, is how important is the Internet and how often do people read you on the Internet versus in the hardcopy?
STEPHENS: Well, I think we’re approaching the last figures I saw we were approaching close to 800,000, maybe we’d broken 800,000 paying subscribers on the Internet which would make it if it were just if that were just a newspaper alone it would make it one of the largest newspapers in the United States, about the size of the Washington Post, maybe approaching the LA Times.
It’s obviously a hugely important segment or media because, you know, there’s the sense that that is where the dissemination of news is going. And because the transactional costs of putting up online are less and because you can be so much more interactive or do so many more things when you’re working in an electronic in an electronic format rather than rather than a paper format. So my impression is that, you know, WSJ.com is a very big part of what the Wall Street Journal is and where it sees its future.
In terms of in terms of the readership, this is a bit difficult for me to gauge. I mean, for instance, my Benedict column we have this thing in which we track the most viewed, most emailed articles on the Web. And the Benedict column and the one that preceded that both were I think at one point the fifth most emailed or viewed I’m not quite I don’t quite remember article for the week in the Wall Street Journal, so obviously, it’s being read and disseminated at WSJ.com.
On the other hand, one of the things I’d done in my Benedict column is I’d ask the WSJ.com people to put a link to the full text of the speech in the electronic version of the article. And a lot of the letters I got were from people saying really liked your piece, I’d love to read the full article. So clearly they were reading the paper edition, noticed my email address at the foot of the paper edition and then and then were going on line but weren’t subscribers.
I guess I wish more of them were online subscribers.
LAMB: Married, two children; when did you get married, who did you marry, where did you meet your wife?
STEPHENS: My wife I met at in Israel. She is German by nationality, raised in Belgium, educated in Britain, got her Ph.D. in Italian renaissance literature at Cambridge doing work on a Jewish figure from 17th Century Venice, poet, sort of cultural figure of her day by the name of Sara Caulfield (ph).
I met her in Israel. We were married in 2003 and later that year my daughter, Laura, was born in Jerusalem. She’s now I just took her to school this morning. She’s a growing thing, a little wonder.
And then a couple years later, or I should say about 19 or 20 months later my son was born, Noah, who is 15 months old.
LAMB: What kind of a world do you think they’re going to live in? And what I mean by that is give us your philosophy of what’s going to happen with what we’re faced with today over in the Middle East?
STEPHENS: Well, there are days I live in Manhattan and there are days when I think do I really want my family in Manhattan, especially when I’ve been doing some reporting recently on nuclear proliferation and talking to some experts on the subject of terrorism and WMD and the ease with which terrorist might acquire a WMD.
I just finished reading for review an excellent book by a BBC reporter, Gordon Carrera called Shopping for Bombs about the AQ-con (ph) proliferation network. And you think to yourself, boy, this stuff is out there and this is the number one New York City is the number one target in the world. And even now with all the police presence and the awareness after September 11th it’s such a porous place it seems almost improbably that something that another 9/11, a much worse 9/11, might not visit the city. Do I really want my family here? I mean if I go to work it in OK but maybe I don’t want my children in it.
On the other hand I think well, if I start thinking this way then it’s really all downhill. And I’ll tell you, when I lived in Israel I lived there during really the height of the Intifada. There were a whole series of bus bombings, cafι bombings. Very close to where I lived, really down the street our favorite cafι, basically our neighborhood coffee place was two of our neighborhood coffee places were bombed.
I witnessed one bombing up close and but you what you realize there or what I realized there in Jerusalem is if you start operating on the belief or in the fear that terrorists could get you it paralyzes your life and it makes life genuinely unlivable. And it essentially gives the other guys the victory that they seek by perpetrating terror.
So I think most Israelis, and I think this was true for my wife and for me, just decided that we weren’t going to think about it, that we were going to let it run our lives and sort of be the structure in which in which we lived. And that creates a kind of I guess you’d call it a kind of healthy fatalism, you know, you say what will be will be and in the meantime you get on with your life as you wish to live it.
And I would say that that’s sort of what I hope for my for my kids as well that they operate with the same with the same broad principles whatever it is they want to do, wherever it is that they wish to live that they not allow themselves to be intimidated or terrorized or feel reduced by what their possibilities in life might be.
So I guess that’s a kind of way of connecting the personal and the political but I think that’s true of the way I feel.
LAMB: Got any sense of what this country will do this year in politics in the election?
STEPHENS: No. The first of all, my beat really isn’t politics so it’s I’m about as informed as the next guy about whether say, you know, Chafee is going to pull it out or, you know, or Steele in Maryland will do well, or what will happen in the Tennessee senate race.
I mean I guess I could make an amateur prediction and say that I think that the Republicans will keep control of both houses with much slimmer majorities. But I would say this I think with more confidence, I think that if I were a card-carrying Democrat, rank-and-file Democrat, the last thing I would want is for this Democratic congressional leadership to come into majority positions because that will play very well for Republicans two years down the road when the stakes are bigger.
STEPHENS: Because I think that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid cut very unattractive political figures. I know neither of them so again, this impression is a surface one. But you get the sense when you’re listening to Pelosi that she that she’s dreading the follow-up question because she doesn’t know. There is a kind of shrillness about her style of politics as well as as well as Harry Reid’s’ and also a bit of a hollowness.
I remember some months ago now Pelosi came out with this contract for America’s security. So you know you take a look at this document and it’s kind of it’s pablum, it’s, you know, increase benefits for veterans, and check ports, and everything you’ve sort of heard endlessly on cable TV and on talk shows. And it doesn’t come across as particularly informed and particularly serious.
And I do think the Democrats have to do a better job of getting seriously aboard the war on terror and saying and my colleague Peg Munin (ph) said this very well. She said, ”This is how we’re going to do it better.”
And you hear that occasionally from Democrats but what you really hear, I mean the kind of broad meta message is we’re going to get out of Iraq, and we’re going to sort of it’s going to be a kind of come-home-America moment. And I think that’s not a good message for the Democrats to have.
You know I did one column on a book called ”With All our Might” which is a compilation of essays put together by Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute. And Will is a card-carrying new Democrat, part of the movement that really helped create the Clintonism, if you will. And one of the points that he makes in our book in his book is that, you know, our honor and our interests as Americans say that we have to stick it out in Iraq, we have to make this succeed, we can’t retreat in a moment of defeat and humiliation and ignominy because the consequences will be really very serious. And it’s a good thing to hear Democrats like Marshall say just that. I think that message has to get across more broadly.
One thing that I am heartened by is what seems to be Joe Lieberman’s strength in Connecticut. It displays a kind of I think healthy instinct among voters. But you want Democrats just like Joe Lieberman, certainly critics of the administration, certainly, you know, true to their Democratic values on social and economic policy, but who at least are willing to be a bit bipartisan beyond the water’s edge on the great issues of the day and to be the kind of Arthur Vandenberg’s Vanderberg’s of their of their era.
You know the Republicans during the Truman administration who said we’re not going to retreat into isolationism, we’re not going to do what we did after the First World War, we are going to participate in Harry Truman’s cold war, we’re going to participate in containment, we are going to support the institutions, the broad structures that carried America through the Cold War. And there has to be that kind of basis of bipartisan consensus and people who really walk the walk like Lieberman I think in order to succeed in the war on in the war on terror.
I mean this book by Marshall that I mentioned, I could read it and I could say I disagree with this, I disagree with this, and this guy’s wrong, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but at least the basic spirit of it, the gist of it I think was absolutely right and absolutely important for the country and for the Democratic Party.
LAMB: Bret Stephens, we’re out of time. Thank you very much.