Fair and Balanced
Writer David Margolick knows there are many sides to every story.
Photo: Gordon Grant
By Cynthia Haven
When journalist David Margolick approached Jack Abramoff for an interview, the besieged Washington lobbyist e-mailed back that 2,100 “slam pieces” had already been written.
“I replied that writing the 2,101st slam piece didn’t interest me, as a journalist or as a human being,” Margolick later wrote. “I also, at his request, presented my bona fides as a Jew.” The two met a few days later at a kosher deli.
The result: “Washington’s Invisible Man,” an in-depth and surprisingly sympathetic profile of the notorious influence peddler in April’s Vanity Fair. It attempts to tell the “other” side of the story—for example, how Abramoff’s once-lofty intentions went amok in a field rife with greed and corruption; how “friends” in high places blatantly lied to distance themselves from him as the stain spread; and how the Orthodox Jew, convicted of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion, conducts his spiritual life.
“I think he felt it was the fairest piece about him that had ever been written,” Margolick says. “That’s what he told me—but that’s not saying much.” Margolick, JD ’77, has long been covering the subtler sides of stories, as a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and as the former national legal affairs editor and columnist for the New York Times. He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize on four occasions.
In a world of instant news and short attention spans, Margolick’s carefully documented stories are what a five-course meal in a French restaurant is to fast food. He is in his element when he can find shades of gray where others are screaming black and white.
“That was one of the things about the Jack Abramoff story,” he recalls. “It was so convenient when he put on a black hat [for his plea deal session], and everyone could write him off as this malevolent figure. To me the story had to be more complicated than that. At least that’s the way that I approached it.”
For Margolick, the heart of good journalism lies in “unpeeling some of these complexities, and finding nuance where others just find stereotypes.” The search has brought him to some dark places, including the O.J. Simpson trial, and to interviews with movers and shakers from Benjamin Netanyahu to the Chandlers of Los Angeles.
For a Vanity Fair piece on targeted killings, Margolick interviewed Hamas leader Abdell Aziz Rantisi (who himself became a targeted killing by Israeli forces in 2004.) He was “someone who blew up Jewish children,” Margolick wrote. Yet, he recalls nearly four years later, “It was hard to recognize that in a way when you were sitting with him. He was a very dignified man—it was hard to know whether to shake his hand. I’m sure I did. What else do you do? I’m a journalist. You’re after a story. You do what’s called for—and hope it’s not too terrible a reflection on you afterwards. You do what you have to do at the time: you laugh at his jokes, you shake his hand, you smile, you act courteously with him.”
Margolick’s penchant for the unusual is apparent in his books.
Last year’s Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink (Knopf) puts the boxing fights of 1936 and 1938 in the context of Nazism, racism and international politics. His description of the face-off between black American hero Louis and the German Schmeling, darling of the Nazis, won kudos.
“Even if you’ve never seen a boxing match, Beyond Glory is an irresistible read. For fans it is indispensable,” sports columnist Allen Barra wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Over the last 150-odd pages my pulse raced; by the book’s end I felt as if my ears were ringing with the roar that swept through the Yankee Stadium bleachers on the night of their rematch.”
In Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song (HarperCollins, 2000), Margolick explores Billie Holiday’s signature recording about lynchings—a song that he learned was written not by Holiday but by a left-wing Bronx schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol. Meeropol was the man who adopted the two sons of communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution for espionage in 1953.
“Like Holiday’s performance, Margolick’s book is understated but intense, suffused with grace, power and dignity. It works on several levels: as tribute, elegy, homage and cultural history,” wrote David Nasaw in the New York Times Book Review.
Margolick’s working world is a far cry from his idyllic upbringing in the quiet burg of Putnam, Conn., population 7,000 and shrinking—a place he calls reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. His physician father was a general practitioner with a traditional black bag, treating generations of families. Margolick went to the all-boys prep school, Loomis, in Windsor, Conn., then to the University of Michigan, where he was a photographer for the Michigan Daily.
Photography became the first career direction he abandoned: “I had to be better technically to be a good photographer,” he says. “It’s easier to be a lawyer than to master photography.” Margolick found his calling at Stanford Law School—but it wasn’t law.
“I wasn’t a ‘natural’ law student at all,” he recalls. “It was a prestigious way to procrastinate. I was pretty much a misfit.”
Writing became his refuge. He revived a “dinky” newspaper, the Stanford Law School Journal. (“When I was lucky, people thought it was the Stanford Law Review,” he recalls.) “It became my own personal vehicle, where I could express my unhappiness with law school and work out my own anxieties about becoming a lawyer,” he says. “Somehow it was being paid for out of school funds, so I never had to worry about budget. It was colorful, lively, occasionally shrill.” Margolick recalls a letter from a fellow student, requesting that he “turn down the volume.” The student, Jack Bogdanski, now a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, has a slightly different memory: “Law school journalism doesn’t get pursued seriously or well at most universities. It was extraordinary that the paper did such a strong job at that time. Everyone looked forward to it. I was a big fan. It had an influence on the way the school was run, and it affected the atmosphere of the school. It was a big deal.”
If there is a thread running through Margolick’s writing, it’s the search for justice that seeks to balance the scales rather than go for the easy smack in the gob. In a way, it’s a search for lamed-vavniks, the 36 righteous people in any generation, according to Talmudic lore.
“There aren’t a lot of lamed-vavniks in Beyond Glory. But there were a lot of them in [his 1995 book] At the Bar: The Passions and Pecadilloes of American Lawyers,” (Simon & Schuster) he says. “This was a constant theme when I wrote the law column for the Times, which I did for seven years. I liked, at regular intervals, to write about really estimable people—civil rights lawyers, legal aid lawyers, people who put their lives on the line, people who made enormous sacrifices for principle.”
Such people inspire him, Margolick says, “though I’m sure that I fall far short. I know that I fall far short of some of the people I write about.”
Margolick remains optimistic about the future of substantive, “long-form” journalism. “With all the talk about the demise of newspapers, the rise of the Internet and blogs, people will have a craving to know more about something than they already know,” he says. “And the only way that they can get that is through good journalism.”
CYNTHIA HAVEN is a frequent contributor to Stanford.
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