Exit Interview: Joe Klein

The UPenn grad and Time columnist talks politics for primary season

Longtime New Yorker contributor and Time columnist Joe Klein has made a career out of taking a magnifying glass to American politics. He’s also sparked some controversy, most notably when the roman à clef –Primary Colors came out in 1996, written by “Anonymous.” (It didn’t take long for everyone from the Beltway intelligentsia to your grandmother to figure out Klein was the author.) Hours before heading to Afghanistan (show-off!), the 63-year-old Penn grad reminisced about high jinks with Hunter S. Thompson, called out the Philadelphia Inquirer, and defended himself against Glenn Beck.

What were you planning to do with a degree in American Civilization from Penn? Sounds like an excuse to smoke a lot of pot. It was the ’60s. But let me tell you the glories of the American Civilization major at Penn — it no longer exists, by the way, sadly. First of all, there were fewer requirements. But among the requirements were things that really set me on the path to becoming the journalist I became. I will name two courses in particular. One was the history of the South, and the other was the cultural history of the United States. I try to put politics in the context of American culture — not only popular culture, but deeper trends. 

You were a Rolling Stone contributor in the ’70s. Any tales of rock-and-roll debauchery? Actually, the greatest debauchery was Washington debauchery. I became the deputy D.C. bureau chief in June of 1974. The bureau chief gives me an address in Virginia to show up at. It turned out to be Ethel Kennedy’s house, which was our first headquarters. That was on July 2nd. On July 3rd, Hunter Thompson showed up. [laughs] At some point, Hunter and I got a bunch of Otis Redding 45s and replaced all of the Andy Williams records on Ethel Kennedy’s jukebox. She was dating Andy Williams at the time.

And everything else is lost in the haze of time, I’m sure. Not in the haze of illicit substances. When Ted Kennedy died, I wrote about a meeting he and I had that first weekend. He asked me to go off the record and said, “What the hell is happening at that house?”

Looking back at Primary Colors, would you do anything differently? Like perhaps put your name on the cover? I probably would have come out sooner. It was a great learning experience. It taught me how difficult it is to think clearly when the media spotlight is on you. And it gave me a lot more sympathy for the people I cover. I now have a “no gotcha” rule with politicians. If they say something really stupid that doesn’t involve a new serum for cancer, I give them the opportunity to take it back if they say, “Wait a second, don’t print that.”

There was a lot of outrage in journalism circles. That’s because they thought it was an act of journalism. It was an act of fiction.

Some thought the blurring of the line was a problem.  The Philadelphia Inquirer said you were “not worthy to write another word of journalism.” Oh boy. They were certainly right, weren’t they?

Anything you’d like to say to those editors now? Well, look. Pomposity is certainly one of the major problems with American journalism. That was part of what the book was about. The fact is that there wasn’t a single secret or confidence revealed in the book. Every line of dialogue, I made up. And it didn’t change my coverage of the Clinton administration.

So who would win in a street fight — Joe Sestak or pre-Hodgkin’s Arlen -Specter? Um, well, you know, Arlen Specter first ran for district attorney when I was at Penn. Arlen Specter is forever. [laughs] I have a lot of respect for Sestak, and a lot of respect for his military service. I think he’s a really good candidate. But I think, you know, the young Arlen Specter was a really tough guy.

Speaking of brawls, Glenn Beck went at you hard recently, calling you “Mr. Elite,” a wine-sipping snob who thinks Americans are idiots. Care for a rebuttal? Or some name-calling? He’s an entertainer. I don’t take him seriously. Given the kind of conspiracy stuff he spreads, I kind of think he thinks Americans are idiots. I stand by my positions that Americans have lost the habits of citizenship and during the health-care debate didn’t make the extra effort to understand what was at stake.

Do you want to defend your alma mater, which Beck called the “trailer trash of Ivy League schools”? [laughs] Well, you know, I bow to Glenn Beck on his knowledge of all matters trailer trash.