Matt Taibbi is perhaps the premier political writer of his generation. He made his bones with Mark Ames at Russia’s legendary expat rag The eXile before moving on to The Beast and New York Press. He now writes for Rolling Stone and will soon release his fourth book, ‘The Great Derangement.’ He’s also covering the ’08 campaign in a special RS diary entitled “Year of the Rat.” His caustic wit often compared to Hunter Thompson, he’s called Mitt Romney “a poll-chasing stuffed suit with a Max Headroom hairdo,” Tom Tancredo a “vengeful midget,” President Bush “a retarded Christian AA version of Woodrow Wilson” and gets Fred Thompson confused with Joe Don Baker. Taibbi was kind enough to answer some questions from S&R’s Mike Sheehan.
S&R: You famously described the last Congress, the 109th, as the worst ever. How is the 110th shaping up so far?
Taibbi: They’ve done some good things. In the 109th and the other Republican Congresses the two-day work week was standard, and even those two days were often half-days. This Congress has brought back the five-day week. They’ve eliminated for the most part the “vampire congress” late-night sessions and phased out the holding open of votes to intimidate recalcitrant members and that sort of thing. But on the other hand… the Democrats came in amid much fanfare and announced that they were reforming the system, eliminating earmarks, etc. After the first Continuing Resolution they passed (I think it was on January 31), Rahm Emanuel was bragging about how it was an “earmark-free bill.” But there are all sorts of earmarks in it. A guy I know named Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate aide, found many millions worth of earmarks (including a cancer-research handout on page 30 of the bill) within minutes. Same with the Iraq Supplemental — it had all sorts of military handouts in it, despite the fact that they were claiming otherwise. It even says that in the Supplemental: “Pursuant to clause 9 of rule XXI of the Rules of the House of Representatives, this conference report contains no congressional earmarks…” But if you look in the report, there is, among other things, $192 million earmarked for new FA-18 airplanes in there, just wedged in quietly, probably by Murtha’s people.
Along with the Congress’s failure to do anything substantive in terms of ending the war — despite the fact that they’d been elected to do so — this sort of purely cosmetic reform is very disappointing. On the other hand… the difference between a “business as usual” congress and the Belarus-style rubber stamp that Tom DeLay had put together is pretty stark.
S&R: Some big-name progressive bloggers are pissed at what they perceive as the betrayal of newly elected “moderate” Democrats who tend to vote with the Republicans. Is their outrage justified?
Taibbi: A lot of people were upset with the Blue Dog coalition — the “moderate” Democrats who advocate mainly for fiscal conservatism in congressional spending — for defecting from the party to pass a temporary fix of the FISA law that continued to allow warrantless searches. But I don’t know… there were a lot of Blue Dogs and other moderates who won districts that had voted for Bush in ’04, and who have really outraged Republicans for passing what they call a “tax hike” (actually a budget that envisions the end of the Bush tax cuts) this year, as well as some ambiguous votes on embryonic research, Iraq, and so on. You can look at these moderates as traitors to the Democratic side or you could say that the Democrats are lucky they ran as Democrats at all. I think the country is still a lot more conservative than is reflected in the Congressional makeup.
S&R: You said of the debate over blogs versus newspapers, “As long as men keep shitting on Sunday mornings, the print newspaper will thrive.” Should print media care about the rise of mobile communication such as texting, or are trees still screwed?
Taibbi: Sure print media has to worry. Especially financially. Things like Craigslist have basically put the alternative newspaper out of business. I believe people will always want to read actual paper, but the issue is what paper media can offer than electronic media can’t, from a revenue perspective. And that’s not much. The net offers so much more in terms of multimedia and click-throughs and links to shopping sites and so on that, from an advertiser’s perspective, it’s just a much safer bet. It’s also much more quantifiable in terms of finding out exactly how many readers there are and how many respond to the ads. So this is all bad for print media. The only papers that are going to survive are going to be the ones that are actually sold at newsstands, i.e., don’t rely on advertising for all their revenue. And I think some will. Just like HBO, people are going to find that the quality increases if they pay for their media product directly.
S&R: Steve Rosenbaum wrote recently in The Huffington Post that Jon Stewart “isn’t funny anymore,” meaning that the joke of the Bush years is on us and Democrats can’t and won’t do jack to change things. Your recent RS piece ‘The War Party‘ blasted the GOP presidential candidates as “fourth-rate buffoons.” Is this a good time for a major third party to formulate?
Taibbi: There’s never been a better time. Both mainstream parties are looking likely to nominate deeply flawed candidates. If the race comes down to Hillary and Giuliani, the Green Party could nominate Big Bird and win 28% of the vote. And a third party is definitely needed, since the Democrats have become captives of the money wing of their party.
S&R: It seems like every day Reps. Waxman, Conyers, et al. are conducting hearings on the malfeasance of the Bush administration, yet impeachment remains officially “off the table.” Are there practical reasons for the pushback on impeachment?
Taibbi: I’m on the fence on that one. Ironically, the reason impeachment might not be a good idea is that we had such a recent experience with it under Clinton. It would be a terrible, destabilizing thing if opposition political parties began to regularly appeal to the impeachment process as a weapon against sitting presidents, and I think this is part of Waxman’s thinking there. That said, Bush certainly qualifies for impeachment — there’s no question he’s committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and that he would be vulnerable to such a prosecution, especially in the area of lying to Congress. But I don’t think anyone wants to go there, after the Ken Starr debacle.
S&R: You wrote in ‘Spanking the Donkey‘ that the ’04 race for the White House was “one of the greatest and most prolonged insults to human dignity the world has ever seen.” Yet you’re subjecting yourself again to the mind-numbing tedium of another campaign in your new RS blog, ‘Year of the Rat.’ How do you keep the horror from getting to you?
Taibbi: I don’t. The horror gets to me. What worries me is that I have this sneaking suspicion that I deserve this assignment somehow, like I’m paying some kind of large karmic bill by going out there again. I can’t say why I feel that way, but I do. But I certainly hate it. I’ve reached the point now where when I interview “men on the street” and they give me the same crazy answers over and over again (like “We have to fight them over there so they won’t come over here”). I really have to struggle to keep from grabbing them by the neck, screaming “What the fuck!!!”, etc.
S&R: Are you going to volunteer for any campaigns this election cycle, like you did for Bush in ’04?
Taibbi: Um, there’s going to be something along those lines, but I can’t say exactly what, for obvious reasons. I have a book coming out next year called ‘The Great Derangement‘ that includes a pretty lengthy undercover job, but I can’t say exactly what it was yet.
S&R: Why do you think the traditional political press has avoided discussion of the Constitution and rule of law in presidential debates and discourse? Do they presume that Americans don’t care about the Constitution?
Taibbi: Well, they certainly do care. I’ve run into more Ron Paul supporters this year than I have supporters of any other candidate, and by and large they support Paul because they believe the Constitution is being misinterpreted/ignored by modern politicians. People are upset that presidents can declare war without Congressional approval, they’re upset by things like FISA, they’re upset by certain varieties of taxes… The press and the candidates have mostly ignored these issues, but I believe these questions of “process” are going to move front and center in the near future, because people are more and more concerned not with specific issues like abortion but with wider questions of how our government works now, how money influences lawmaking, and how unaccountable elected leaders are, etc.
S&R: You expressed pity for Cindy Sheehan, who seemed overwhelmed by the anti-war movement she triggered in ’05. After quitting activism earlier this year in disgust, she’s come back, saying she’ll run for Pelosi’s seat. Is she still a force?
Taibbi: I don’t know. Cindy Sheehan lost me when she started backing the 9/11 Truth Movement. I liked her personally when I met her — I guess more than anything I felt sorry for her — but my sense of her is that she is cracking a little under the stress of having to play the role of a grassroots leader, that this is maybe a little too much responsibility for her.
S&R: Under what circumstances would you ever run for office?
Taibbi: Jesus. Me? I could never run for office. I once wrote an article called “God Can Suck My Dick.” I once threw a pie made of horse sperm at a New York Times reporter. I’m an unmarried drug addict with bad teeth. I think these things pretty much disqualify me. There are times when I wish I could work for someone like Bernie Sanders, but I’d probably want to go back to writing pretty fast.
S&R: ‘Smells Like Dead Elephants‘ is your latest compilation of writings, and the much-anticipated ‘Great Derangement,’ a non-fiction political narrative, will be out next year. You have a few books under your belt but whither the novel you always dreamed of writing? Do you still think your fiction sucks?
Taibbi: Yes, my fiction indeed sucks. While in Russia I wrote a sort of parody of a Sherlock Holmes novel called ‘The Great Popkin’ that actually wasn’t bad, but I lost it at some point during a breakup three years ago. Masha, if you find it on your computer, please send it to me. But I don’t think fiction’s really my thing and the great thing about that novel I always wanted to write is that I don’t want to write it anymore. I’d like to try to write a good non-fiction book first.
S&R: Scuttlebutt is that your first book, ‘The eXile,’ which details your time at that paper, will be turned into a movie. Any details on that?
Taibbi: I haven’t heard that. We optioned it years ago and it never got made. There were some close calls, but thankfully it’s retired for good, or at least that’s the last I heard. The script was horrifying. They turned me into the earnest, goody-two-shoes reporter opposite Mark Ames’s oversexed bad-boy character. I hated both of us in the script and I’m sure audiences would have, too.
S&R: Hunter Thompson once wrote that the Book of Revelation was his biggest literary inspiration. Does the Bible do anything for you?
Taibbi: I’ve had to read the Bible a lot lately, for reasons that will become clear when ‘The Great Derangement’ comes out. I find it to mostly be hilarious horseshit. I was laughing so hard reading the Old Testament last year that I started writing a sort of CliffsNotes version of it for fun. I love the part where the two angels come to Sodom and the Sodomites start banging on Lot’s door, because they want to bone the angels so badly, and Lot, being a good Dad, starts offering the men his two virgin daughters, so as to spare the angels… I think if someone were to write a truly deadpan version of these stories, it would be the greatest comedy ever printed.
S&R: You’re often compared to Thompson, but you make no secret of your admiration of H.L. Mencken, who was eerily prescient when he wrote in 1920, “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Ben Franklin also warned that the nation would eventually devolve into despotism, and the subtitle of your forthcoming book calls this the “twilight of the American Empire.” Have we really reached our nadir at last?
Taibbi: America is a very strong country still, but there are elements of corruption in our system of government that run so deep now that we have to really be concerned, I think. The thievery that we saw in Iraq during this war by our contracting community is something that even the Russians would be hard-pressed to match. Right now we have a government that lacks even enough civic instinct to take care of pressing emergencies like Katrina and Iraq. When the level of public confidence in the government begins to correspond to the reality of its low performance, we’re going to be in trouble.
There’s also the matter of our economy. Right now America’s international strength is based almost entirely on its military power. Our manufacturing base is disappearing daily. It’s tough to maintain a world empire with a service-based economy.
S&R: You spent your formative years in Russia; what insight can you bring to the whole Litvinenko poisoning fiasco? Do Russians enjoy political intrigue as much as Americans seem to?
Taibbi: I’ve heard varying interpretations of the Litvinenko scandal, but none that really make sense to me. It seems to me that it had something to do with the issue of the succession and Putin’s upcoming decision about whether or not to step down, with Litvinenko and the information he reportedly had on Putin presenting itself as a kind of wild card here. I know Litvinenko was very outspoken about the Putin-and-little-boys thing, an issue that I heard rumors about as far back as 2001. I remember the Russian reporters I used to hang out with talking about these rumors that Putin was “in pocket” because of some shameful sexual thing in his past. But who knows. There are so many angles here that it’s almost impossible to decipher. Trying to decipher the meaning of the parade of hits in Russia is certainly challenging. I think Russians would be more entertained by it if it didn’t have such grave consequences for their daily existence.
S&R: Related to that, what do you make of presidential brother Neil Bush’s tight relationship with Boris Berezovsky?
Taibbi: Berezovsky is hilarious. In political terms, he’ll fuck anything that moves. I almost admire him. As for Neil… I wrote an article about Neil Bush once and was bowled over by his assertion that it was normal for women to show up at his hotel room and simply propose sex with him (this happened overseas; apparently he was being compensated by certain employers wanting to curry favor with the Bush family). I keep waiting for his ex to go public with the more explosive material everyone says she has on the family.
S&R: You’ve said you were having a “lot more fun in Russia” and might head back overseas somewhere. Still feel that way, is that still in the cards?
Taibbi: I was also doing a lot more drugs back then. I may go back sometime, but it depends on some personal factors. Nine months of winter and eleven time zones of bad food is a tough sell to a lot of women, let’s put it that way.
S&R: Any fond memories of Uzbekistan?
Taibbi: I was thrown out of the country there, and there is a very funny story about that. One of the funniest of my life. I had just written something for the AP about the Uzbek independence day and mentioned something about Karimov suppressing political parties. So naturally the next day agents of the former KGB (I think was the NSS; I’m not sure what it is now) came to my apartment. They were actually already inside when I came back from baseball practice (I was playing with the national baseball team). There was one middle-aged blonde woman who was interrogating me and two goons who were turning all my stuff over. The woman is asking me questions and suddenly one of the goons comes over, carrying my laptop. “What’s this?” he says. “A computer,” I say. “What do you use it for?” he asks. Now, I was there on a student visa — illegally — so I had to make something up. “I’m a student,” I say. “I write all sorts of things.” He looks at it and says, “Do you write poetry?” I shrug and say, “Well, sure, sometimes.” He frowns. “Do you have any talent?” he asks. I looked at him kind of sadly and said, “No, I don’t have any talent.” That’s when he handed the computer back to me. “Well, then,” he said. “You shouldn’t write poetry.” Five minutes later they were handing me a train ticket and telling me to get the fuck out of Uzbekistan. I thought that was beautiful, that they did it with real class. One side note: on the way out of the country, I tried to send a telegram to my mother. The note said, “KGB KICKING ME OUT EVERYTHING OK MATT.” But the note she got read “KGB KICKING ME GUT EVERYTHING O MATT.” She nearly had a heart attack. It wasn’t until I reached Moscow three days later that she found out I was okay.
S&R: Does Pope Benedict give you the same warm fuzzy that John Paul did?
Taibbi: I’m going to decline comment on Popes for a while. That last effort didn’t work out too well for me.
S&R: On to something you probably enjoy talking about more than politics: sports. Did Michael Vick get the shaft? Does Barry Bonds deserve to be asterisked? Bill Belichick – shameless fraud, misunderstood genius, lucky bastard?
Taibbi: Vick: an idiot. Being a sports star is like being in a murder conspiracy. If you think anything you do is going to remain a secret, you’re a moron. All this guy had to do was not commit major felonies on his property and he was going to be rich for the rest of his life. Now he’s going to end up doing celebrity boxing with the Fridge and Star Jones and stuff like that to pay off his reclaimed signing bonus. I will say, however, that it blows my mind that he can be banned from the NFL while Leonard Little gets to play, even after killing an actual human being.
Bonds: I’m less interested in seeing Bonds punished than I am in seeing McGwire reduced to the Bonds level of public disgrace. Bonds at least stands up and takes the heat publicly. McGwire has been hiding like a little bitch. He always grossed me out the way he used to shake his head and talk about how even he is amazed by how great he is, yada yada.
Belichick: I’m a Patriots fan, so I’m biased. But I thought the whole scandal was idiotic. I mean, all the coaches in the league send out dummy signals. Why? Because everyone knows someone on the other team is trying to read their signals. I’m glad it happened, though, because the Pats seem like they’re pissed enough about it that they want to stomp the brains and teeth out of every team they play. So thanks a lot, Eric Mangini. How’d that move turn out for you, by the way?
S&R: If you were Jesus, would you use your divine powers to meddle in the outcome of sporting events, as teams like the Rockies believe he does?
Taibbi: If and when I ever get to be Interior Minister, one of my first acts is going to be the putting to death of anyone who thinks God interferes in the outcome of things like sporting events and elections. I’d want to have a giant shark tank built expressly for this purpose. Just throw them in there and then dump a couple of barrels of cow blood in the water.
S&R: You smeared a reporter’s face with horse-spunk pie, you dropped acid and wore a Viking helmet to a campaign interview, you followed John Kerry around in a gorilla suit… Is there anything left on the to-do list?
Taibbi: The punchline answer would be “Grow up,” I guess. Beyond that, I’m not going to explain what the circumstances would be exactly, but I will say that I have a recurring fantasy about chainsawing a certain person’s desk in half on live television. But I’m getting a little old for all of that stuff, unfortunately. ∞
(Special props to Beth Jacobson and Matt Browner-Hamlin.)