With one incredible story, Michael Hastings has etched a place in the annals of journalism.
Hastings, of course, is the reporter who wrote the Rolling Stone magazine story — not even on the newsstands yet — that brought down Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Afghanistan war commander whom President Obama fired Wednesday.
What Hastings managed to pull off is an amazing journalistic feat. He gained ready access to McChrystal and his team of advisers for a month, after intending to spend just two days with him. During that time, Hastings played the wallflower, like any smart reporter would, while the general and his aides blazed away verbally at Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, national security adviser James Jones and other civilian leaders.
I had never heard of Michael Hastings before this week. Turns out he is a former Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek and a blogger for True/Slant on Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2008, he had a book published — “I Lost My Love in Baghdad” — about the death of his girlfriend, who had joined him in Iraq and was killed in a 2007 ambush.
If Hastings, who is about 30, wasn’t widely know before, he has certainly catapulted himself into the public eye now.
When I read this article, I had two primary thoughts: First, I would loved to have been in Hastings’ shoes. And second, how in the world could McChrystal have been so stupid?
But Hastings’ answers that big question in his story, which will be on the newsstands Friday. Hastings stood by with an open notebook and running voice recorder as McChrystal painted himself as an outsized egoist who had little or no respect for his civilian bosses. (Writer Jack Shafer of Slate has some interesting comments about giving reporters access for full-blown feature stories.)
Interestingly, the damage was done early in the story. A New York Times story says in effect that Obama had seen enough after reading the first few paragraphs.
The article is appropriately titled “The Runaway General.” More damaging to McChrystal and his team is the subtitle, which reads: “Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.”
Here are some key excerpts from the article…
:: “The general prides himself on being sharper and ballsier than anyone else, but his brashness comes with a price: Although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict.”
:: “Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass.”
:: “He (McChrystal) also set a manic pace for his staff, becoming legendary for sleeping four hours a night, running seven miles each morning, and eating one meal a day…It’s a kind of superhuman narrative that has built up around him, a staple in almost every media profile, as if the ability to go without sleep and food translates into the possibility of a man single-handedly winning the war.”
:: “Growing up as a military brat, McChrystal exhibited the mixture of brilliance and cockiness that would follow him throughout his career. His father fought in Korea and Vietnam, retiring as a two-star general, and his four brothers all joined the armed services. Moving around to different bases, McChrystal took solace in baseball, a sport in which he made no pretense of hiding his superiority: In Little League, he would call out strikes to the crowd before whipping a fastball down the middle.”
On Wednesday, Hastings was interviewed by Tom Ashbrook of radio station WBUR in Boston. Here are two excerpts from that interview…
Q: What was General McChrystal’s response when his top aides were more or less trash-talking the administration? For example, when an aide called Vice President Biden, “Bite Me” right next to McChrystal, did the general laugh? Was he in on the game?
A: Oh yeah, no, he laughed, certainly. You know, this is their humor and I think the humor reflects something more. I think reflects a disdain for the civilian leadership in a way.
Q: Did they know that you were there? Did they notice you scribbling notes, Michael?
A: Oh, yeah. I had my tape recorder and notepad out most of the time. So it was always sort of unclear to me, you know, what was their motivation of allowing me in and all of this access. I think there’s a number of factors that were involved, but I think an important one is that they had had a number of very flattering profiles done on them over the past year, and so they were accustomed to sort of allowing access and having reporters play ball so they could give them more access later. Well, that’s not really a game I’m interested in playing.
McChrystal is the last of many big shots to succumb to hubris, and, thank God, reporters have been there many times to take the snapshot while those big shots have exposed themselves.
Bravo, Michael Hastings!