Michael Hastings Skewers Them From the Grave (with a Scoop of Gawker)

August 11, 2014   •   By Tom Gallagher

MICHAEL HASTINGS’s recently published novel, The Last Magazine, is a kind of unfinished tour de force. The book — found in manuscript by his wife after Hastings’s death in a 2013 car crash — is a withering critique of the media’s arrogance and disregard for human life prior to, and during, the Iraq War. The novel cannot match the timeliness and the significance of his Rolling Stone article, “The Runaway General,” which ended the military career of General Stanley McChrystal, commander of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. But it retains the powerful and critical gaze of his former reportage. The narrator is one Michael Hastings, an intern at a newsweekly called The Magazine who moonlights for the media-insider website, Wretched.com, under the pseudonym K. Eric Walters. Author Michael Hastings had an identical career, working at Newsweek and at the media insider website, Gawker.com, also under the pseudonym K. Eric Walters. Every other major character in the novel also has clear links to real-life individuals in the New York media world. Gawker itself has published a definitive “Guide to IDing the Real People Disguised in Michael Hastings’ Novel,” though they missed at least one, as you’ll see here.

The book starts with the sort of market-perception-driven story shift that has probably made many a journalist contemplate a career change at some point. (That story on genocide in Chad? Let’s shift instead to the proliferation of cell phone use in Chad. And find out what colors are popular.)The novel is set during the public build-up to and early days of the Iraq War — a time of journalism’s inexorable shift from print to web. (Newsweek would subsequently cease print publication for over a year though its print version has since been resurrected.)

Michael Hastings, the character, must attend events like the “mandatory book gathering” for The Magazine managing editor Sanders Berman’s new book, The Greatest War on Earth. It’s the sort of book, Hastings says, that “gives you a real warm feeling about that whole time between 1939 and 1945,” in which “Sanders does a good job throwing around words like tragedy and Holocaust and Stalingrad, and does a real good job at making us all feel special about it.”  

Berman sees himself as a journalist who understands the meaning of national sacrifice. He is incensed because “Howard Dean, the so-called Antiwar candidate” is bumping his story from the magazine’s cover,

He’s calling Iraq “Vietnam” and we’re putting him on the cover and doing a profile of him! And how does the profile begin? It begins with him crying because he lost his bother in Vietnam. He doesn’t have the distance to understand what Vietnam was all about. He’s just playing to people who don’t get why we need to make the sacrifices. And my story, “Don’t Let Vietnam Happen to Us Again?” One page, I’m getting one page while Dean is getting fifteen, with pictures. It’s bad, its bad news for me and our country, don’t you think? 

In reading the book, I often thought of the line that the left wing British Labour parliamentarian George Galloway dropped in a debate on the Iraq War at Bernard Baruch College. His opponent, Anglo-American journalist Christopher Hitchens, once a left-winger but now a booster of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, was the sort of person, Galloway claimed, who was “ready to fight to the last drop of other people's blood.”

In many places this novel runs to the absurd, as with a chapter called “Why We Fight,” entirely devoted to quotes from characters both real and fictional. There’s Vice President Dick Cheney speaking of his certitude that Saddam Hussein had those all-important “weapons of mass destruction”: a strange justification when the invading forces had far bigger and better weapons. There’s Secretary of State Colin Powell giving the famous United Nations speech asserting the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection that effectively ended his political career, perhaps because, unlike most of the others cited, he had the self-awareness to recognize his error. There’s The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman enthusing, “This is really bold [...] Mr. Bush’s shake of the dice appeals to me” — a dice game played with other people’s money, as well as their lives — as Galloway might have noted. There’s George Packer’s The New York Times Magazine article arguing that “liberal hawks could give voice to [Bush’s] war aims [...] They could make the case for war to suspicious Europeans and to wavering fellow Americans. They might even be able to explain the connection between Iraq and the war on terrorism.” 

Which brings me back to Gawker’s nearly complete “Guide to IDing the Real People Disguised in Michael Hastings’ Novel.” Fictional character Brennan Toddly writes for “the middle-highbrow magazine” that is “the only one that the editors of The Magazine read on a regular basis — certainly, they never actually read our magazine, unless it is to see who got in the magazine this week and who didn’t.” According to Gawker, Toddly is based on “Jeffrey Goldberg, former staff writer at The New Yorker, where he published articles that made the case for the American invasion of Iraq.” This I will not dispute, but there’s more than one real-world inspiration behind the Toddly character. 

When the fictional Hastings researches Toddly, he finds a Wikipedia entry that describes him as the author of three books:

1989: A Peaceful Village — an account of a Peace Corp building effort in Uganda. (Out of print.)

1996: The Typewriter Artist — a novel. The main character is a writer who lives in New York. He is a mild depressive and everyone ignores his work. (Out of print.)

1999: Awash in Red — a personal journey of self-discovery, as the author struggles with whether or not to remain a socialist.

Jeffrey Goldberg did not write books like this, but another writer for “the middle-highbrow magazine” did: the above-mentioned George Packer. His 1988 The Village of Waiting described his Peace Corps experiences. In 1996 he published the novel Central Square (set in Cambridge, Massachusetts rather than New York). And his 2000 Blood of the Liberals deals with his decision to leave the Democratic Socialist Party of America (DSA). I actually knew George well in the years before his change of course — he edited The Yankee Radical, the newsletter of the Boston chapter of the DSA, at a time when I served as the chapter’s chair. 

That George would go through the transformation he discusses in Blood of the Liberals is hardly shocking. When it comes to defending and even advocating the invasion of another nation based upon fraudulent claims and abstract notions, however, I feel far less forgiving. Frankly, I was tickled to see George pilloried in this book — even though it appears that few have realized he was part of its inspiration.

There is a wonderful scene in The Last Magazine in which Brennan Toddly upbraids A.E Peoria — a reporter described as suffering from CDD (compulsive disclosure disorder) — for spray painting the words “NO DIVING” at a Baghdad hotel pool. Toddly calls it “a sign of disrespect,” at which point Peoria, who’s been in Iraq half a year now, loses it: “Aren’t we a little late for that, Brennan, disrespect? You’re the motherfucker who said this was going to be a great idea, you’re the motherfucker who advocated bombing a city and occupying a country and killing all sorts of fucking people, and you think I’m the one who is being disrespectful? I read your shit, man!” (On behalf of at least a few of Packer’s former colleagues, I’d like to say, “A.E., I couldn’t have said it better.”)

Packer, by the way, told the San Francisco Chronicle that “he got the war wrong,” according to a 2005 headline. That “connection between Iraq and the war on terrorism” about which he had previously written? Well, it turned out that “The argument about terrorism and Iraq was not the argument the administration ever successfully made.” And now he said that,

I found that on the face of it, it was almost impossible to believe. Why would Saddam, this master of control through violence, put the means of violence in the hands of people he could not control, who in some way were his enemies? The administration sold the public this idea that we were going to end the connection between Iraq and terrorism, which was not real at the time, but now turns out to be real, because of their own actions.

It’s amazing how prescient Packer turned out to be. As he revealed in 2005,

WMD (weapons of mass destruction) never persuaded me. The bigger strategic argument had to do with the Middle East as the center of this global jihad movement. The thinking was that if we get rid of secular totalitarianism and create a democratic form of rule, it will begin to take care of the deep causes of religious terrorism. It was not an argument the Americans were going to sign on to and go to war for. But that was, I think, the real argument, and one that we never really heard.” 

It turns out that Packer actually didn’t get Iraq wrong. Bush did.

What does Packer find to be Bush’s greatest crime in regard to the Iraq War? 

In the weeks following the fall of the statue in Baghdad, every step they took was geared toward a quick departure with all but about 30,000 troops left behind. That shows they had no strategic idea whatsoever of what was going on. That is the belligerence that I hold them most accountable for, and that history, I think, will as well.

Bush just wasn’t interested in staying the course, as people like Packer were. You could see how this kind of guy could drive A.E. Peoria and Michael Hastings over the edge. And Packer is far from the worst: Thomas Friedman's continuing presence on The New York Times is clear proof that encouraging the government to kill over 100,000 people is not damaging to one's career.  But then, as Hastings says in an “Interlude,” “No one ever accuses America of being a nation of historians.” 

But please, don’t let the score-settling mislead the reader. This book under review is a snappy little page-turner. Hastings has, for instance, a wonderful passage about leaving an airplane:

Economy always looked like shit after a fourteen-hour flight. It looked like a bunch of pre-schoolers had been stuck in a fallout shelter. Empty plastic water and juice cups, tangled headsets, ripped plastic bags, crumbs from never-go-stale biscuits, bright blue thermonuclear fleece blankets, weird puke smells, torn packaging, yes, lots of shredded plastic and mutilated packaging [...] The flight attendants didn’t bother with cleanup in coach – no, they wanted the evidence of the savagery on display.

Then to business class: the “buffer zone. The airlines wanted you to know what you were missing, but they didn’t want to spark any social revolts, any impromptu pummelings, anyone to take a protest dump on an aisle seat” such as might have happened if the “economy class parasites” had immediately gazed upon the first class seats beyond the curtains where “the disgusting humanness of adults locked in a capsule of recycled air and sleep breath and hunger had been erased” by “angel flight attendants.” 

Occasional cringe-inducing passages on the pornographic tastes of the principal characters notwithstanding, this book has points of interest at every turn: on refusing to speak Italian to order coffee at Starbucks, and the rising world of bloggers in the early 2000s who “are important, or believe in their own importance, even if only expressed with the required self-mockery,” and editors of major publications who speak hopefully of the “creative destruction” we have unleashed upon Iraq. The Last Magazine is going to make you smile a lot — even laugh — but I hope it makes you mad as well.


Tom Gallagher is a writer and political activist currently living in San Francisco.