Graydon Carter on VANITY FAIR’S America

There is a distinct elegance to visting Vanity Fair’s editor in chief Graydon Carter. You pass through a bright white lobby where walls are lined with the black and white portraits of celebrities and historical figures from almost a century. A beautiful young assistant leads you to his corner office, which overlooks a panorama of New York skyscrapers. Despite being of Canadian descent, Carter has the regal appearance of an old-school East Coast intellectual. He wears a navy blazer, has a silver wave of hair and talks with the authority of a man used to debating with people of fame, power and intellect on a daily basis. Lately he has become more than just the steward of American glamour. In his editorials he increasingly makes his mark in political debate with liberal fervor and scathing criticims of the current administration.

Can we talk about post-heroic America?

Sure. What do you mean by that?

That’s what Herfried Münkler coined as a phrase. When I look at Todd Eberle’s photographs in this issue I feel that America has changed in its essential Americaness. Do you feel that as well or is that too much of a European sentiment?

What period of time are we talking now?

Probably over the past five or six years especially.

Well, I think there used to be a certain type of movie that would come out three to four times a year, movies about American can-dos, where it was usually an individual against a threat of some sort – whether the movie was Air Force One, or Executive Decision – but it was always about Americans and their willingness to risk. You don’t see those movies anymore, since the war started. I think that America has lost a certain amount of that confidence. I think it did in the 70s after Vietnam as well. And it’s funny, because the Bush administration has so split the country – when you think that after September 11 would have been the time to bring the country together. But the country is so divided now that it will take somebody like Reagan to bring back the country into something approximating a unified group.

What would that be good for?

There is something great in the American character. It is a great, decent, god-fearing, generous country. I think the Americans feel they are not as respected abroad as they used to be since the raid in Iraq. But any small town in America is still fantastic and wonderful and the American spirit is still there, and the American inventive spirit is still there, in garages all over the country. After Hewlett Packard, two guys in a garage writing software and coming up with Microsoft, there were two guys in a garage coming up with Google, there were the Myspace guys in a garage, and the YouTube guys, guys in garages all across the country right now coming up with things that we don’t even know we need.

That’s the old frontier spirit!

It’s still out there! That’s America.

I came to America 18 years ago because there was a utopian spirit. Reagan still personified this.

He did. Yes! He did. He showed Americans an America they wanted to see. Americans have always been in love with the future and I think they have since lost sight of this. It will take a certain leader to come along – it might take Barack Obama to makes Americans excited about the future again.

Do you think that Americans still dream of themselves as being a superpower?

I mean there are lots of problems. As a born Canadian I came here almost 30 years ago. I became an American five years ago and so I see them as an extraordinary people who are a huge reservoir of generosity and courage and a lot of them were driven into this war, and they supported the war, but polls now show that they are completely against this war and many are just desperate to find a way out.

Well, there was even the notion of an American diaspora – people didn’t want to live in the States anymore…

Right. There was a period in 2003 where a dozen of my friends were all striving to leave the country. They don’t.

A friend of mine recently acquired a British citizenship.

Did he leave?

No.

It’s funny because I was working to get my kids Canadian citizenship just in case there was a draft. And I never got around to doing that. Life is good here. It’s a great place to be.

Europeans always admired the heroic strife of Americans. Do you think that there is still this longing to be heroic in America?

Well, there are countries – like Australia – that don’t want somebody to stand out from the bunch. But if you come from a small town in America and you make it big in New York or Los Angeles your people will still be very proud of you. They will name streets after you, name buildings after you, carve out statues of you. Americans still celebrate success and that is a defining element of the American character; it is a very important part and it is what drives Americans. I think the Internet has maybe diluted the notion of heroism because anybody can be famous to a few people now. But the idiot celebrity culture you have in this country right now, I don’t think it’ll last. It’ll swing back all of a sudden and – not that statesmen will be the topic of teenage conversation – it won’t be as idiotic as it is now.

What do you mean by idiotic?

All those weekly celebrity magazines that teenagers read and housewives read. I think that they represent a fringe version of notoriety or celebrity that is about as low as you can humanly go. In the old days you had to be Dwight Eisenhower to be famous and now you can be the 5th runner up contestant on a reality show. But that fame will only last 12 minutes, 6 minutes.

Isn’t the culture of these shows, isn’t that the antithesis to a hero culture, because the real reason people watch these magazines is to see stars crash, when they get caught driving drunk, cheating, taking drugs, struggling with eating disorders…

I think that the availability of information makes any kind of icon vulnerable in a way they were not in the 50s or 60s or 70s. I mean there are websites devoted completely to writing trash and nasty things about people in various industries – and that’s an exaggerated version of what is always going on, something like over the fence gossip. Still, it’s interesting, if you look at the five most truly admired people in this country, they are all black: Mohammed Ali, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and perhaps Barack Obama now. I can’t name a white male or female who can come close to those people on the admirations scale.

I can’t either.

Mohammed Ali is probably the most admired American alive!

How do you deal with celebrity culture as an Editor in Chief? More and more people spill their guts and admit their weaknesses, but how do you straddle this hunger of the public to see heroes debunked and still this underlying hunger for heroic figures?

It’s funny. You have certain photographers who are very good at creating iconic images. The magazine for 95 years has been doing that. But by the same token we don’t do profiles per se. What we do is portray people in some form of conflict and the fact that in today’s world perhaps you see a little bit more of the flaws. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that these people are actually human, and chances are that somebody who does something heroic was also afraid out of their wits at the time. Because they are human. Actually you could argue that true heroism is overcoming that fear and doing the job anyway. Somebody who does not feel fear and does the job is perhaps not as heroic.

Right after 9/11 there was an urge to find heroes in regular folks, the New York firemen and policemen. Oliver Stone tried to recreate that in World Trade Center.

The people that went in there definitely were heroes. There are everyday heroes fighting in Iraq right now. Many these people are very brave or maybe they are doing it out of duty, but now you can see that soldiers are not being as PR-savvy as they were two years ago. They are like, “What the fuck are we doing here?” Just like back in Vietnam. And with that disillusionment comes a certain amount of anti-heroicism because we didn’t go in and save the day. There was a recent study by Johns Hopkins that showed that probably 650,000 Iraqis have died since the war began. Well, that is a faster clip than when Saddam was around. So we made the situation worse.

In ancient times the heroic archetype was willing to sacrifice, which makes the hero ultimately immortal. Muslim culture of course still celebrates the sacrifice. Couldn’t American Christian fundamentalists theoretically reinstall sacrifice as a virtue?

Well, I don’t think that Christian fundamentalists have anything to do with sacrifice. First of all their codex is based on profit, on getting rich…

Are you referring to these mega-churches, to televangelism?

They are late night infomercials. The infomercial spokesperson and the big giant new spiritual leader are no different. So it’s not about sacrifice at all. I think it is about individualism in the sense that they are looking forward to the Rapture. They are voting with their prayer book. And 40% of Americans believe in the Rapture and Apocalypse and are looking forward to it, and that’s something there may have been a percentage of in the past, but it was the fringe. Now in politics it’s part of the mainstream.

That would mean that Rapture for them is not the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, it’s the ultimate reward.

It’s all rivers of blood, scorched mountains and no sunlight, but they are all up in heaven driving SUVs and watching flat-screen TVs.

George Bush has this code-speak. He doesn’t say “Rapture”…

There are code words to the party faithful, and he uses these in his speeches and in his state of the union address. Code words that can be picked up by the mainstream press but by and large are not picked up.

Just like a PR person who would pack certain bait into an advertisement to provoke a feeding frenzy?

There is not any level of cynicism that we haven’t achieved in this country over the last five years. The Bush administration has been so out of control that you can’t have a dinner – you can’t have a 15-minute conversation – without the Bush administration being brought up. This didn’t happen during Clinton – there were sex scandals and it
was kind of amusing, but government went kind of well when he was around. It went reasonably well when Bush senior was in office.

I was in Gaza when Arafat went there and I think that nobody realized as fast as Arafat how boring governing really was.

Must be fun to be a dictator! Great outfits, metal-plated cars…

You might call the Bush administration revolutionary in this way.

It was revolutionary in its own way, in that it really hijacked all the power that used to be spread among the executive and legislative branches and the Congress. Now it’s not that far from how Castro runs Cuba. I think it will all change in November. Everything that you teach your kids – everything your parents taught you about fair-play, being a decent being, being honorable, telling the truth, about having great sportsmanship – you follow any of these rules and you’ll fail in politics. In order
to be successful you have to break all of them. And they all break them in politics.

Karl Rove wanted to establish a 30-year reign to overturn society.

But things have sped up. The good side to the acceleration of culture today – whether it’s through the Internet or not – is that I don’t think you can do anything for 30 years. People don’t stay at companies for 30 years. People don’t stay married for 30 years. Everything is much faster today.

Do you think that if the pendulum suddenly swings the other way for Americans they will achieve revolutionary changes?

It’ll take generations to get the environmental laws back that the Bush administration inherited and destroyed. It’ll take a generation and a half to return the courts back
to something approaching the middle – and America has always been a very conservative country, even when we have never gone as far to the left as Europe or say Canada or Britain or South America and we have never gone as far to the right as some countries in South America.

How do the people you meet – often from the upper echelons of society – react to your being so outspoken politically? Are you still Canadian?

In New York everybody is from somewhere else so that doesn’t really matter. But at the beginning a lot of friends thought I was crazy to do this because there were only two or three people who did this publicly at large venues like the New York Times or Vanity Fair or something like that. My mail used to run like 2:1 against me three years ago, and then it went about 1:1, and now it’s 2:1 for me. And I get very polite hate mail: “Oh Mr. Carter, I love your magazine. You’ve got to stop, lay off our great president Bush. He’s doing a great job. He’s doing the best job he can.” I really get crazy hate mail.

As an American journalist, does the current political situation simply frustrate you, or does it challenge you?

I don’t think American journalism has been its best for the past three years. I think the TV networks, especially during the build-up to the war, used the logo and the words the Bush administration put out there: “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” They self-censored and they did not go after that administration the way they would have normally because the administration was very effective in making any opposition look like disloyalty, or worse. The Washington Post, Time Inc, CBS News, they are all part of some large conglomerate now where they need government permissions. I have worked for a company that is privately held and I worried about losing a lot of American advertising in this period. I have been at an anti-Bush demonstration, and we had record years! And the Europeans loved me even more. Business was good through that period which was remarkable because I was fully expecting some sort of a drop-off.

Maybe that’s something that Europeans don’t expect, such political criticism and really in-depth reportage from an American glamorous publication.

I have been editor here since the first Bush administration, through two Clinton administrations and two new Bush administrations now. After September 11, we gave the administration a fair chance and going into Afghanistan against Al Qaeda seemed like a right and just move at that time. But what we didn’t know was that that was not the plan. And Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with September 11, and you can’t sit around and say “on the one hand,” “on the other hand.” When you think something is bad if somebody comes in and says there is a anti-wife-beating faction, you can’t have someone look out for the pro-wife-beating faction, or the slavery faction – sometimes there is no question about it and so for some reason, and I’m not right about anything generally, I was right about this war and about this administration starting in early 2003. As a journalist it is your job to bite the ankle of that giant dog, whether it is about the environment, the economy, or the war and our relationships around the world. This country is not in particularly great shape. I think Americans by and large are still liked around the world, and the idea of America is still liked around the world, but Washington and the Bush administration and American politics are not held in high esteem now.

Was there a backlash from Washington towards Vanity Fair?

Yes. We have had no access for almost two and a half years. It didn’t really bother me that much. They made it very clear that they felt that Vanity Fair was the most hostile publication in the country towards the administration, which was actually a great ad slogan.

Yet you also feature fashion, glamorous people – don’t you feel that Vanity Fair is a bit schizophrenic in that respect?

There is a certain part of the human spirit that for once wants to read a story about a life that went right too. So there is a lot in the magazine about people who are older or dead, or where you can see the vast, epic span of a life. And it gives you hope that things just go on through periods like this. A steady dose of grim can really get you down; we try to mix it up.

So the new luxury is investigative journalism on a scale like nobody else does. You have the budget to send somebody around the world if you want to…

It’s very expensive. Good journalism is always very expensive. Take William Langewiesche in the current issue on the Marine massacre in Haditha. This is one of the most expensive stories we have ever done. The photographs were very expensive to get, and he went to Iraq back and forth many times, the bodyguards and all the rest of it, but I do believe that if you invest in news you get it back many times, and Vanity Fair has become not only the most profitable magazine but also – in the company another magazine that might have eclipsed it from time to time – it is the most profitable magazine in the history of this company, which makes it one of the most profitable multi-magazines in the world. When a magazine becomes profitable it becomes really profitable and if it is losing money it can really lose money. And we have been through both periods.

So, investigative journalism is still a profitable investment?

It’s not profitable, no. I have these two reporters, Barlett and Steele, who just joined the magazine from Time Inc. They’ll spend 4-5 months on the story, and they have very high expenses, and we do a great piece of investigative journalism. We have one coming up in the February issue and it’s not going to sell tons of extra copies but it is still why people overall come to the magazine. So you don’t make money on investigative journalism in the short term but you make more in the overall good will of the magazine.

And it gives depth.

It gives depth and also investigative journalism will involve the federal government, so it is about working with whatever the administration offers – your job is to sort of put a magnifying glass on every issue.

Is it the most secretive administration ever or was there another one?

Not in my lifetime. I don’t think Nixon holds a candle to this group. It’s secretive and I think it’ll take ten years before we realize all the things they have done. I always say that if you think you don’t know the half of it chances are you know a hundredth of it.

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