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Q&A: Graydon Carter

Vanity Fair's editor-in-chief talks about his new book, his fizzled scandal, and his real feelings about Mayor Bloomberg.

By David S. Hirschman - September 21, 2004

In most high-end glossies, the editor's note that opens the book is nothing more than some aspirational puffery mixed with requisite high praise for that month's cabal of must-read articles. But a little over a year ago, readers of Vanity Fair started noticing a different tone creeping into Graydon Carter's monthly dispatch. Carter's letters—already notorious for their screeds against Mayor Bloomberg's smoking ban—were becoming more and more pointed in their attacks on the Bush Administration's policies. The venerable editor was becoming, dare we say, a little bit truculent.

It's clear now, though, that Carter's letters weren't just dashed-off, kneejerk cynicism. Carter recently released a new book, What We've Lost, which outlines his frustration with the Bush Administration and spells out in no uncertain terms his desire to see the current president booted out of office come November. Carter took some time out recently to chat with mediabistro.com about his new book, the fizzling of Graydongate—the mini-scandal that erupted but quickly lost its legs when it was revealed that Carter had taken money from a Hollywood studio in exchange for suggesting a film adaptation—and why his political voice is now louder than ever.

Birthdate: July 14, 1949
Hometown: Toronto, Canada
First section of the Sunday Times: The Week in Review

Why did you think that it was necessary to come out with something so political right now?
In the buildup to the war in Iraq, common sense told me that this was a war that was an optional war rather than a war of necessity, and this has proved to be the case. There were no weapons of mass destruction, no biochemical weapons; Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with September 11, had no real links to Al Qaeda, and was not really an imminent threat to the United States or to our western allies in almost any way. I started writing about this in the magazine, and then an editor at Farrar Straus called me and asked, "Would you be interested in doing this as a book?" My first impression was that it would be a very small, pamphlety-type book.

Just a collection of the columns?
Like a voter's handbook. The trouble was, though, once we got into each area the thing just grew and grew. It wound up being 374 pages, and I would have preferred a book of maybe 120.

A lot of what's mentioned in the book felt like things I'd heard before, but somehow got swept off of the media's radar. Do you think people are just unaware of all this stuff?
The news comes at you in three-minute chunks, and what I wanted to do was put together a book that pulled together what the Bush administration's been doing in the environment, on healthcare, in education; what it's done to our reputation around the world; how they've operated in such secrecy, more secrecy than any other administration in recent memory; then going through the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. I wanted to pull this all together so that a reader could make an informed decision.

"Informed" meaning—
Not voting for Bush.

Do you plan to keep Vanity Fair more political? How will that change if Bush is not re-elected?
Vanity Fair's always covered politics quite heavily. I think that my own participation has probably run its course. I've said everything I want to say. If Bush is re-elected, the magazine will continue reporting on this administration, as it will if John Kerry is elected. I think that we ran very tough pieces on the Clinton Administration during their eight years, and have been equally tough on the Bush Administration over the last four years. I don't think that's going to change, although my voice in the magazine will probably change.

There was a piece by Toby Young in the New York Observer that seemed to suggest that you might be positioning yourself to run for mayor of New York against Bloomberg next year. Clearly you've been antagonistic towards the mayor and his smoking ban. Do you plan to take him on?
The funny thing is I actually like Michael Bloomberg. He and I are friends, even though we disagree over this one issue. My feeling is that if a politician's going to make some sweeping lifestyle change when they get into office, they should just announce them up front while they're running for office.

You think he sort of snuck it in afterwards?
Just like the Bush Administration. The Bush Administration ran on a centrist platform, and since they got into office, they did anything but that—even though they didn't even have a mandate. There was no public outcry for more right-wing judges, for fewer environmental protections, for more secrecy. This was all sprung on us after they got into office.

Do you have any other political aspirations?
No, I have no goals outside the magazine. I have a lot of different passions and this magazine is almost the perfect magazine for me. I'm not highbrow; I'm sort of upper-middlebrow, and I put things in the magazine that I'd like to read. We don't do any research studies about what readers like, or anything like that. I've been doing it for 12 years, and I could easily see doing it for another 12 years. I'll do it as long as they keep me around here. I've never thought of another job after this.

Let's talk about Graydongate. A couple of months ago, there was a smattering of articles in The New York Times and the L.A. Times about money you received from film producers. What was your take on the whole thing?
I was sort of confused by the whole issue, because it's virtually no different than a writer selling their book to the movies. I just couldn't figure out where it came from, and then it went away just about as quickly as it came. I've been very fortunate—I've had a very good run of the press. Every once in a while an issue comes up, but it's not common. I'm not going to suggest movies to producers anymore, that's for sure.

What's your take on the cultish following that Spy has developed recently?
It was actually pretty popular in its day. But it makes me absolutely thrilled. I have four kids, and three of them boys, and they're obsessed with Spy, which makes me incredibly happy.

So what kind of vindication will you feel if Bush loses in November?
I did this book as a sort of completely comprehensive guidebook—a report card on the administration—and you come away on almost every area with a lot of Fs, and a lot of Ds. When students get that kind of report card, they don't get asked back the next year. I just felt that this is the one time in my life when I had to do what I thought I just had to do something. If it makes any difference whatsoever, I'd be very gratified.

Are you planning any more books?
I'm thinking this is kind of it for me. I'm not great on deadlines, I have a book that's outstanding with Knopf, and is seventeen years overdue about a World War I aerial photographer. I've just got to get that finished.

David S. Hirschman is mediabistro.com's news editor and a reporter for Metro New York. Photo credit Mark Seliger. You can buy What We've Lost at Amazon.com.



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