As a registered Republican and a closet conservative, I shouldn't enjoy reading The New Yorker. But I do. I guess it's a sort of addiction to the depth and sophistication of their content, the ideology be damned. And then, there is this language thing: when I go through the Talk-of-the-Town pieces of my favorite Hendrik Hertzberg, I often need an English dictionary — something that I never use when reading, say, editorials and op-eds in the Washington Post.
The other thing that, to my taste, comes sometimes close to Hertzberg's opuses is Profiles: long, meticulous, and sometimes almost boring in their "attention to details", assays about public figures, often politicians — all written by journalists who would spend months being "embedded" in the lives of their subjects. Some of the profiles have completely changed my prior perception of a person. The one about Al Gore, for example, helped me understand his somewhat erratic behavior during the 2000 presidential campaign. I've got tremendous respect for Gore since reading this piece.
It was therefore with a natural interest that I began reading Wendell Steavenson's "Marching Through Georgia" (December 15, 2008), a profile of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. And, boy, wasn't the beginning of the story great! Getting straight to business, Steavenson asserts that the August war between Georgia and Russia had a profound personal component: an open animosity between Saakashvili and Russia's prime-minister, Vladimir Putin. Reading Steavenson, one would get the impression that Russia decided to attack Georgia because six foot four Saakashvili called five foot six Putin "Lilli-Putin." And there is no light at the end of the tunnel in relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, because Putin promised to hang Saakashvili "by the balls."
(Putin's name seems to help selling "sophisticated" magazines as well as sex helps sell "consumer-oriented" ones.)
The New Yorker introduces Steavenson as "a freelance journalist, [who] lived in Georgia in the late nineteen-nineties. Her second book, "The Weight of a Mustard Seed," about an Iraqi general, comes out in March." A Google search further identifies Steavenson as a former Time Magazine reporter and the author of the acclaimed book Stories I stole (2002) about Georgia.
In line with the The New Yorker's demanding standards, Steavenson's piece is quite well researched: there are perhaps fewer people living in Georgia than the pundits she talked to, including such a luminary as Richard Holbrooke.
I would however challenge the academic rigor of Steavenson's claim that "South Ossetia…has been a part of Georgia for centuries." The truth is that both Georgia and undivided Ossetia have been, for centuries, parts of the Russian Empire. Even more relevant — and something that Steavenson neglects to mention — is the fact that, in 1922, Ossetia was split and its southern part was attached to Georgia by Stalin's edict.
(Yes, this Joseph Stalin whose biographies Steavenson spotted in Saakashvili's office when both had a cozy midnight meeting with glasses of Saperavi in hands.)
There are also two notable omissions to Steavenson's narrative. She only mentions in passing the name of Zurab Zhvania, one of the leaders, along with Saakashvili, of the Rose Revolution and former prime minister. In 2005, Zhvania died under strange circumstances. Although an official explanation had been that he died of accidental exposure to carbon monoxide, many Georgians, including ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze, believe that Zhvania was murdered. More than one is convinced that the murder was ordered by Saakashvili.
Besides, Steavenson pays unexpectedly little attention to two prominent opposition figures: Nino Burdjanadze, former speaker of the parliament, and Salome Zourabichvili, former foreign minister. I find it surprising that a female American journalist would pass on opportunity to dwell on the important role these two remarkable women play in Georgia's politics.
(I suspect that keeping mum on Zhvania's death and not focusing on the opposition had been part of Steavenson's deal with Saakashvili's PR team.)
But the most troubling aspect of Steavenson's story is that while walking through minute details of Saakashvili's life, political career and personal traits — his upbringing in a middle-class, fatherless, family in Tbilisi, his marrying to Sandra Roelofs, a Dutch lawyer, his life and studies in the United States; his rushing through the doors of the parliament, in November 2003, with a rose in hand, interrupting Shevarnadze's speech and demanding his resignation, his election as Georgia's president, in January 2004, with 96% of the vote, his driving Georgia's defense budget to a third of all government expenditures, his sending the riot police to disperse, with tear gas and rubber bullets, a protest gathering in November 2007, his seizing a TV station critical to his government, his paying eight hundred thousand dollars to Orion Strategies, a lobbying firm run by Randy Scheunemann, a close adviser to John McCain, his comparing himself to Obama, his penchant for expensive watches and late-night partying, his fast moving and talking, his vulgar diner-table manners — she fails to call Saakashvili what he is: a murderer.
A murderer who in the name of "restoring the constitutional order" had sent troops to massacre hundreds of innocent civilians.
It is not always that The New Yorker demonstrates such a restraint. Once, without presenting a shred of evidence, it blatantly accused Putin in ordering murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko. And here, we've got Saakashvili sitting across from Steavenson and bragging about what he had done, and all Steavenson can muster in response is to ask this "sophisticated" question: "Has Mikheil Saakashvili overreached?"
This morning, driving to work, I entertained myself with another question: would I like Hendrik Hertzberg to write a Saakashvili profile? The answer came immediately: NO.
Let gods remain gods. Otherwise, what will be left for me? The Weekly Standard?