Is the editor of a very famous title more of a custodian than an innovator?
That’s probably fair. You don’t want to screw things up. A magazine has to evolve every month but dramatic changes are always a mistake if you have a million-plus people (I hope) looking forward to what you do each month, and what your writers and photographers do, and so you want to surprise without being alarmingly different.
Where do you stand on the media industry debate about digital? Is advertising enough to make Vanity Fair pay online or is a paywall inevitable?
This is all in the early stages – it’s like television in 1947, so we don’t know yet. We’re very profitable in both our printed edition and on our website. We have an app that sells a fraction of what we do on the newsstand but I have a feeling that will all change and in 10 years it may eclipse the newsstand copies.
The writer Michael Lewis claimed that, taking flights, hotels, photography etc into account, one of his articles for Vanity Fair costs around $125,000. Is this true?
I wish he hadn’t said that! That must have been an extreme instance. If it is the case I don’t know about it. We do pay journalists what they’re worth, yes. I’ll leave it at that.
Were you surprised at the response to Christopher Hitchens’s death – what would he have made of it?
I was surprised at how many young people were affected. He really had a following, and the fact that he never changed, he was exactly the same person, was quite wonderful. He would have been pleased and not necessarily surprised by what happened after he died. I’ve never met anyone like him and I don’t think I will again. Not a day goes by that I don’t instinctively almost pick up the phone to speak to him to write about something that has happened that day, and I have to remind myself he’s gone.
Has America’s standing improved in the world since you wrote What We’ve Lost?
No. It was at an all-time high in the fall of 2001. For the first time in a long time, Americans had the world’s sympathy. I don’t think it’s gone down or up. Other places, specifically Europe, have enough to worry about. Hating America is a luxury most Europeans can’t afford right now.
You became extremely outspoken under the George W Bush administration. What infuriated you about him?
A monthly magazine can stand for something, it doesn’t have to be completely objective. When it came to getting us into a highly unnecessary war I was alone among my male friends – all of them thought Iraq was a great idea, and all my female friends thought it was a terrible idea. This is why women should be running the world. If you’d had an American administration made up of women we would not have gone into Iraq.
Would Romney make a better president than George W Bush?
Anybody would make a better president than George W Bush. He’d be a perfectly OK president. He’s not a true believer in the way [Romney's running mate] Paul Ryan is, with those crazy eyes. The true believers always terrify me, from the right or the left.
David Frum [former Bush speechwriter] has said that Republicans used to think Fox News worked for them and one day woke up and realised they worked for Fox. Are the shots really being called by Bill O’ Reilly, Roger Ailes etc?
It’s mutually profitable to both of them. But Fox News is the single most powerful aspect of the American right now.
Looking back at the 2008 election you realise that the demonisation of Obama – Obama the Muslim, Obama the socialist, Obama who ‘pals around with terrorists’ - began before the existence of the Tea Party, and the narrative hasn’t changed much. How much of this is racially motivated?
It’s all racially motivated. There was a version of this when Kennedy ran as the first Catholic president. We’ve made a lot of advances, we may have a female president in 2016, but Americans when they go to the poll are not as enlightened as Europeans or South Americans or pretty much the rest of the world. We’re ahead of China and Russia but that’s about it.
Is the Tea Party institutionally racist?
I don’t know that it’s racist but if the Tea Party had their way, poor people, and probably poor black people, would suffer more than anybody else. So it may not be that in intent but it is that in the result if they were a dominant political force.
Is it institutionally crazy?
I’ll let you say that.
In the UK, a political party that contained climate change-deniers, creationists and men who believe that women’s bodies are inhabited by sperm-slaying ninjas would have no chance of getting anywhere near power. How is it possible that the Republicans might win?
Because America is such an enormous country. Britain is the size of a couple of north-east states. In many ways the individual states have about as much to do with each other as Britain and the Congo. They are completely different, united by a constitution and the dollar bill. Most people who live on the coast, east or west, think of central areas as the dark continent. They have no understanding of it, and people at the centre think the coasts are places where Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian live. There’s not a lot of respect either way.
Will Hillary Clinton run in 2016?
100%, yes. It’s perfect. It gives her an excuse not to be with Bill – I think they’re both fine with that. Her daughter has grown up; Hillary has great ambition, she is so superior to most politicians in so many ways, and she has an incredible four-year record now of being secretary of state.
You’ve said Obama has done pretty well – steadying the ship etc – so why do so many liberals, worldwide, feel let down?
He inherited the worst pile of misfortune any president could inherit. Unemployment below 8% is a miracle after what happened in 2008. The car industry is still alive, he got us out of one war and is getting us out of the next, and the symbolic killing of Osama bin Laden occurred under his watch. Liberals who are disappointed are the ones that were too fanboyish in 2007 and 2008. I never got that excited about him and therefore I’m not that disappointed in him.
Your editorials suggest the reason the Obama administration has not lived up to its promise is because of Republican obstinacy …
That’s a part of it. In his first term he went for a legacy bill – the healthcare issue – as opposed to paying attention to the economy. Americans are different from Europeans, America is not a socialist country, and for some reason universal healthcare is not as important to Americans as it is to most westerners. That was a bill for the history books but not necessarily one for that particular moment.
What is the best and worst we can expect from an Obama second term?
Unless he takes the House [of Representatives] it will be more of the same. The Republicans will be more intransigent and the only hope will be that the voters throw out a few incumbents.
And a Romney presidency?
It wouldn’t to be as bad as a Romney presidential campaign – and the true believer beside him [Ryan] will recede into the shadows as most vice presidents do. I don’t think it’s going to happen in any case. Obama is a closer, and will pull it off.
What would be best for Vanity Fair?
Speaking as a journalist, a Romney presidency would be wonderful, the way a Bush presidency was. As an American, I prefer another four years of Obama.
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