Update, June 19, 2013
Michael Hastings 1980–2013
Some weeks after the publication of this feature in Vermont Life, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith announced that Michael Hastings died June 18 in a car crash in Los Angeles. Smith’s statement read, in part, “We are shocked and devastated by the news that Michael Hastings is gone. Michael was a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story, and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered from wars to politicians. He wrote stories that would otherwise have gone unwritten, and without him there are great stories that will go untold. Michael was also a wonderful, generous colleague and a joy to work with.”
Vermont Life greatly appreciates the time that Michael took to allow us into his life, and we offer our sympathies to his family and loved ones.
Finding time to sit down and conduct a proper interview with edgy reporter Michael Hastings is no easy feat. And why should it be? This is a guy who risked roadside bombs in Baghdad, dodged bullets in Kabul and Kandahar, and zigzagged across the country with President Obama’s re-election campaign — despite being barred from Airforce One — in pursuit of the story. The 33-year-old has a lot of practice going after sources that don’t necessarily want to take a few moments to chat.
And, anyway, he’d rather be the one doing the reporting and writing.
His incendiary profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, published in Rolling Stone in 2010, triggered the downfall of the commander — who had been leading U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan — and earned Hastings the prestigious George Polk Award for magazine reporting. Titled “The Runaway General,” the article painted a picture of McChrystal as a brilliant and beloved figure, but one who was openly subordinate of the Obama administration. In typically salty fashion, Hastings wrote, “In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk s*** about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side,” and then went on to describe the exchanges in lurid detail. Soon after publication, McChrystal was summoned to the White House and forced to resign.
Even in the world of journalism, where upending sacred cows is encouraged, Hastings is somewhat of an iconoclast. His McChrystal piece and subsequent book, “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” stirred debate among colleagues about the line between on- and off-the-record exchanges when reporters are embedded with the military. Hastings disparaged the way other war reporters had routinely glossed over the general’s open bashing of the Obama administration, while some veterans of the beat suggested Hastings had violated an unspoken agreement by printing what was essentially harmless banter between stressed-out soldiers letting off steam.
Lara Logan, chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News, told NPR: “The question really is: Is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious that they deserved to — I mean to end a career like McChrystal’s? When Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.”
Hastings agrees that there was a lot to admire about McChrystal and his stellar service in the military, but he says he hasn’t “shed any tears” about the outcome of his reporting. “You want guys like McChrystal killing people on your behalf, and fighting your wars,” he has said. “You just don’t want them commanding the policy, which is what they’ve done.”
Seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan have earned Hastings his jaded opinion of both wars. His first book, “I Lost My Love in Baghdad,” chronicles his experiences during the ugliest period of violence in Iraq, from 2005 to 2007, as Newsweek’s youngest war correspondent, arriving on the front lines at just 25. The narrative details what it was like to try to cover the action as the country erupted in civil war and the heartbreak he endured after his girlfriend, Andi Pahramovich, followed him there for a job and was killed.
Vermont plays a role in both of his books, with the calm and beauty of his home state serving as a radical juxtaposition with the brutal chaos that surrounds Hastings while embedded with the military overseas. In the Baghdad book, he recounts an idyllic Christmas shared with the woman he intended to marry at his parents’ house. He also tells how he retreated to the attic of the family homestead after she was killed and banged out the first draft of a manuscript in just three weeks. The opening scene of his Afghanistan book has him smoking a cigarette on the screened-in porch on the shores of Lake Champlain in Milton, gazing at the Adirondacks across the water, when he places the call to make arrangements for what would become his wild ride traveling with McChrystal’s team from Paris to Berlin to Kabul, Kandahar and Washington, D.C., all the while keeping his tape recorder turned on.
Hastings currently lives in New York City with his wife, Elise Jordan, whom he married two years ago. It was necessary to be closer to his new job at Buzzfeed, the brash website specializing in pop culture and political news for which he covered the 2012 presidential election. But the Green Mountain State represents a sanctuary the couple plans to return to permanently.
“I bounce around quite a bit, but Vermont is my spiritual home,” he says over a spotty cell phone connection while barreling through the Holland Tunnel on the way to catch a flight to Kentucky, where he has an interview with a former CIA station chief now in federal prison. “It’s just completely this other universe. For me, it’s a place of total peace and serenity in comparison to these other places. And that’s something to be thankful for. I’m excited to move back soon.”
• • •
One weekend in September, Hastings drove up to Burlington for the annual book festival. He held forth for an hour in front of a crowd of mostly middle-aged fans who gathered at Main Street Landing’s Performing Arts Center. Looking younger than he should in a red Buzzfeed T-shirt, jeans and a jacket, Hastings had the audience laughing, nodding and shaking their heads with his tales of love and loss and lying public officials. He seemed to be making an effort to moderate his prolific use of profanity, which punctuates much of his writing.
“People still ask me, why did we go to Iraq? And I can’t give a coherent answer. It’s not that Saddam Hussein wasn’t a horrible bastard who deserved to get hung. I sat there during the trial,” he told the audience. “It’s just that most people will choose security over chaos.”
Hastings admitted that war reporting had its high points. “There is an excitement factor, an addictive glamorous quality…but what happened in Baghdad was bad.”
After the Rolling Stone article about McChrystal got out, “It was pretty wild,” he said. “I’m down in Kandahar in a helicopter and people are shooting and I get a call from NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ wanting to interview me about it. I figured I’d take some heat for the story, but I didn’t think it would be published for four more days and I figured I had time. But the story got leaked.
“The next day, McChrystal gets called to Washington. It was getting uncomfortable being in Afghanistan at that point. Another general comes up to me and says, ‘I think it’s time for you to go.’ Normally, it’s pretty hard to get on a flight out of there but they put me on the first plane. I’m still banned from NATO-held territories and what-not.”
After Hastings’ talk, Sue Ruopp and her friend, Recille Hamrell, both of South Burlington, said they felt privileged to hear Hastings’ first-hand account of the wars after having recently watched the film “The Hurt Locker.”
“How this guy from Vermont went all over the world to war zones and then follows the presidential campaign. That’s a terrific life transition,” Ruopp remarked. “I don’t know how he gets his head wrapped around these things.”
• • •
As a kid, Hastings devoted a lot of time to trying to make sense of the world. His family — two brothers and a mom and dad who are both doctors — lived in Malone, N.Y., until he was 11. They moved to Montreal so his mother, Dr. Molly Hastings, could train at McGill University as a pediatric ophthalmologist, and then they settled in Vermont when he was 16.
“Michael was always interested in history and current events. We didn’t do much talking about the weather when we were sitting around at the kitchen table,” says his mom, who is now a well-regarded eye surgeon. Hastings’ younger brother joined the military and fought in Iraq for 15 months as a platoon leader, earning a bronze star, before going to medical school. His older brother is also a doctor. “Independent thinking was always encouraged at home. It can be nerve-wracking for us when Michael is working in dangerous places, but as parents we’re proud and happy that he’s pursuing a lifelong dream to become an investigative journalist and achieving success at it.”
Hastings, a self-described “political junkie,” graduated from South Burlington’s Rice High School in 1998 and from New York University in 2002. In the Rice yearbook, he is voted, “Most outspoken.” Hasting remembers meeting then-Congressman Bernie Sanders for the first time when he was in 12th grade: “I went up to him and told him I’d been reading a lot about him, and [social activist] Howard Zinn, and corporate control of the media, and he said, ‘You should keep reading that stuff.’” In 2000, he cast his first vote in a presidential election for Ralph Nader, which he still considers, “the only vote I don’t regret, the only one that actually meant something.”
Within 10 days after the Nov. 6, 2012, presidential election, Hastings had completed his third book, “Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign,” a 190-page E-book co-published by Buzzfeed and Blue Rider Press promoted as “the definitive account of how President Obama almost blew it.”
It is another first-person take on another kind of harrowing experience, this time not life-threatening, but what he determined after covering the 2008 election for Newsweek to be “the most soul-killing reportorial beat on the planet.” He goes on to describe: “hours spent in the most unsanitary conditions on worn-out buses and in filthy Port-o-Johns (I was once locked in a male bathroom and locker room with the entire Hillary press corps), shoveling catered food and cookies into my mouth, getting felt up and searched and prodded regularly by increasingly aggressive security forces from the federal, state, and local levels, and worst of all, surrounding myself with a group of journalists, known as the White House press corps, that I was positive I was going to hate, preemptively assuming they, too, would hate me; and getting hassled, directed, and ordered around by zealous Obamatron volunteers.”
It is largely based on his prodigious original reporting, including 45 post-election interviews with Obama officials and others associated with the campaign, more than 81 hours of audio recordings from the trail, and about 87 articles he wrote for BuzzFeed from April 2012 to November 2012. The book bears all the hallmarks of Hastings’ style: irreverent, insightful and funny.
Objectivity is not something Hastings aspires to achieve as a journalist. “I don’t believe in it,” he told the appreciative crowd at the Burlington Book Festival. “What I try to do is be intellectually honest in my writing.”
One of my favorite things about summer is having extra time to read.
You might think this is the wrong time of year to say that. For many Vermonters, I’m sure winter is the time for more reading because it’s too cold and dark to get caught up in the kinds outdoor chores that usually keep us from our books: house painting, lawn mowing, weed pulling and the like.
But for me, it’s the extra-long days of summer, that lingering evening light, that means I can sneak in a little more reading time on the porch after dinner. Not to mention summertime trips to the beach, which require little more than a big hat and a bag full of books to make me blissfully happy.
This year, I’m sharing on my blog my personal summer reading list, which includes not only my favorite genre of contemporary fiction but also an homage to my home state of Vermont. Of the books on my list, half have a connection to Vermont.
If you need a little reading inspiration, here’s just some of what I’ll be digging into:
- Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (Therese Anne Fowler): I am an F. Scott Fitzgerald junkie, having devoted much of my undergraduate and post-graduate studies to his life’s work. This means that I also know a little about his crazy-sexy wife, Zelda, but, like most of us, not nearly enough about her artistic abilities and how they may or may not have influenced Scott’s own. My enjoyment of this current trend of fiction (such as The Paris Wife or The Aviator’s Wife) largely focused on the lesser-known or -understood wives of historically significant men coupled with my obsession for all things Fitz should make this one of my favorite reads this year.
- Miss Me When I’m Gone (Emily Arsenault): If she’s being lumped in with the likes of literary mystery writers Tana French and Laura Lippman, Emily Arsenault will likely win me as a repeat reader. I’m a sucker for well-crafted and well-written mysteries that lure you in — and it doesn’t hurt that Arsenault is a fellow graduate of my alma mater, Mount Holyoke College.
The Vermont Connection
- The Light in the Ruins (Chris Bohjalian): I’ve been a fan of Chris Bohjalian’s work since I first read Midwives — and I’ve become a bigger fan since I learned that we share an obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald (if you have read Double Bind, you know what I mean). And, as icing on the cake, Bohjalian is a fellow Vermonter (and long-time columnist for the Burlington Free Press), so picking up his new novel is a no-brainer for me, especially when it’s described as “a spellbinding novel of love, despair, and revenge — set in war-ravaged Tuscany.” Perfect summer fare!
- Something Abides: Discovering the Civil War in Today’s Vermont (Howard Coffin): One of these books is not like the others, right? Really, this one is for my husband, who is a big Civil War history buff. Plus, this year is the sesquicentennial anniversary of Vermont’s involvement in the Civil War. I think it will be fun to use historian Coffin’s book as a travel guide for some summer driving adventures to discover places we’ve never been to in our state that also have Civil War significance. Because we all need a break from mowing the lawn.
So, what will you be reading this summer?
It’s that graduation time of year, with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance accompanying the ritual of those moving on to the next phase of their lives, from preschoolers to college students and beyond.
A couple of weeks ago, I played a tiny role in this season of milestones when I spoke at a very special graduation of just five students. They were the 13th group to successfully complete the three-month Community Kitchen Academy program, a partnership between the Vermont Foodbank and the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, which educates underemployed and unemployed Vermonters for food service careers.
As an added bonus, while the students learn to julienne and sauté, they are also turning ingredients salvaged from local farms, restaurants, food service companies and retailers into nutritious meals to feed those at risk of hunger. This is made even more impactful by the fact that some CKA participants have been food shelf clients themselves.
I wrote a 2010 feature for Vermont Life on the program and was impressed with the rigorous curriculum — covering critical skills from food safety, to interview techniques, to teamwork — along with the resolve of participants to complete the program despite challenges in their lives. I have since joined their professional advisory board and, in 2012, CKA received Vermont State College accreditation and its graduates can earn nine college-level academic transfer credits, giving them a nice boost into higher education.
Since the Burlington program was launched in 2009, 91 students have graduated, achieving an 87 percent success rate with job placement or going on to further education. In addition, students have prepared more than 116,000 portions of food for people in need. This July, the Foodbank in partnership with Central Vermont Community Action Council will expand to a second site in Barre.
While not all graduates end up working in food service, they all gain practical skills, valuable experience and confidence. As one young, single mom said to me, “Maybe my son will start eating my cooking. He’s into McDonald’s now.”
And that, as I said when I stood before the graduates and their numerous friends, family and other supporters, is really the most important thing they’ll take away with them. As I explained in my speech, over the years I’ve been writing about food, I’ve met a number of famous chefs who’ve cooked for presidents, royalty and movie stars, but ask any chef who he or she most enjoys cooking for and the answer will always be: “my family.” Whatever the future brings for the most recent set of CKA graduates, they leave the program with the confidence and ability to cook good food from scratch for those they love.