Update, June 19, 2013
Michael Hastings 1980–2013
Some weeks after the publication of this feature in Vermont Life, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith announced that Michael Hastings died June 18 in a car crash in Los Angeles. Smith’s statement read, in part, “We are shocked and devastated by the news that Michael Hastings is gone. Michael was a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story, and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered from wars to politicians. He wrote stories that would otherwise have gone unwritten, and without him there are great stories that will go untold. Michael was also a wonderful, generous colleague and a joy to work with.”
Vermont Life greatly appreciates the time that Michael took to allow us into his life, and we offer our sympathies to his family and loved ones.
Finding time to sit down and conduct a proper interview with edgy reporter Michael Hastings is no easy feat. And why should it be? This is a guy who risked roadside bombs in Baghdad, dodged bullets in Kabul and Kandahar, and zigzagged across the country with President Obama’s re-election campaign — despite being barred from Airforce One — in pursuit of the story. The 33-year-old has a lot of practice going after sources that don’t necessarily want to take a few moments to chat.
And, anyway, he’d rather be the one doing the reporting and writing.
His incendiary profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, published in Rolling Stone in 2010, triggered the downfall of the commander — who had been leading U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan — and earned Hastings the prestigious George Polk Award for magazine reporting. Titled “The Runaway General,” the article painted a picture of McChrystal as a brilliant and beloved figure, but one who was openly insubordinate of the Obama administration. In typically salty fashion, Hastings wrote, “In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk s*** about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side,” and then went on to describe the exchanges in lurid detail. Soon after publication, McChrystal was summoned to the White House and forced to resign.
Even in the world of journalism, where upending sacred cows is encouraged, Hastings is somewhat of an iconoclast. His McChrystal piece and subsequent book, “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” stirred debate among colleagues about the line between on- and off-the-record exchanges when reporters are embedded with the military. Hastings disparaged the way other war reporters had routinely glossed over the general’s open bashing of the Obama administration, while some veterans of the beat suggested Hastings had violated an unspoken agreement by printing what was essentially harmless banter between stressed-out soldiers letting off steam.
Lara Logan, chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News, told NPR: “The question really is: Is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious that they deserved to — I mean to end a career like McChrystal’s? When Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.”
Hastings agrees that there was a lot to admire about McChrystal and his stellar service in the military, but he says he hasn’t “shed any tears” about the outcome of his reporting. “You want guys like McChrystal killing people on your behalf, and fighting your wars,” he has said. “You just don’t want them commanding the policy, which is what they’ve done.”
Seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan have earned Hastings his jaded opinion of both wars. His first book, “I Lost My Love in Baghdad,” chronicles his experiences during the ugliest period of violence in Iraq, from 2005 to 2007, as Newsweek’s youngest war correspondent, arriving on the front lines at just 25. The narrative details what it was like to try to cover the action as the country erupted in civil war and the heartbreak he endured after his girlfriend, Andi Pahramovich, followed him there for a job and was killed.
Vermont plays a role in both of his books, with the calm and beauty of his home state serving as a radical juxtaposition with the brutal chaos that surrounds Hastings while embedded with the military overseas. In the Baghdad book, he recounts an idyllic Christmas shared with the woman he intended to marry at his parents’ house. He also tells how he retreated to the attic of the family homestead after she was killed and banged out the first draft of a manuscript in just three weeks. The opening scene of his Afghanistan book has him smoking a cigarette on the screened-in porch on the shores of Lake Champlain in Milton, gazing at the Adirondacks across the water, when he places the call to make arrangements for what would become his wild ride traveling with McChrystal’s team from Paris to Berlin to Kabul, Kandahar and Washington, D.C., all the while keeping his tape recorder turned on.
Hastings currently lives in New York City with his wife, Elise Jordan, whom he married two years ago. It was necessary to be closer to his new job at Buzzfeed, the brash website specializing in pop culture and political news for which he covered the 2012 presidential election. But the Green Mountain State represents a sanctuary the couple plans to return to permanently.
“I bounce around quite a bit, but Vermont is my spiritual home,” he says over a spotty cell phone connection while barreling through the Holland Tunnel on the way to catch a flight to Kentucky, where he has an interview with a former CIA station chief now in federal prison. “It’s just completely this other universe. For me, it’s a place of total peace and serenity in comparison to these other places. And that’s something to be thankful for. I’m excited to move back soon.”
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One weekend in September, Hastings drove up to Burlington for the annual book festival. He held forth for an hour in front of a crowd of mostly middle-aged fans who gathered at Main Street Landing’s Performing Arts Center. Looking younger than he should in a red Buzzfeed T-shirt, jeans and a jacket, Hastings had the audience laughing, nodding and shaking their heads with his tales of love and loss and lying public officials. He seemed to be making an effort to moderate his prolific use of profanity, which punctuates much of his writing.
“People still ask me, why did we go to Iraq? And I can’t give a coherent answer. It’s not that Saddam Hussein wasn’t a horrible bastard who deserved to get hung. I sat there during the trial,” he told the audience. “It’s just that most people will choose security over chaos.”
Hastings admitted that war reporting had its high points. “There is an excitement factor, an addictive glamorous quality…but what happened in Baghdad was bad.”
After the Rolling Stone article about McChrystal got out, “It was pretty wild,” he said. “I’m down in Kandahar in a helicopter and people are shooting and I get a call from NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ wanting to interview me about it. I figured I’d take some heat for the story, but I didn’t think it would be published for four more days and I figured I had time. But the story got leaked.
“The next day, McChrystal gets called to Washington. It was getting uncomfortable being in Afghanistan at that point. Another general comes up to me and says, ‘I think it’s time for you to go.’ Normally, it’s pretty hard to get on a flight out of there but they put me on the first plane. I’m still banned from NATO-held territories and what-not.”
After Hastings’ talk, Sue Ruopp and her friend, Recille Hamrell, both of South Burlington, said they felt privileged to hear Hastings’ first-hand account of the wars after having recently watched the film “The Hurt Locker.”
“How this guy from Vermont went all over the world to war zones and then follows the presidential campaign. That’s a terrific life transition,” Ruopp remarked. “I don’t know how he gets his head wrapped around these things.”
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As a kid, Hastings devoted a lot of time to trying to make sense of the world. His family — two brothers and a mom and dad who are both doctors — lived in Malone, N.Y., until he was 11. They moved to Montreal so his mother, Dr. Molly Hastings, could train at McGill University as a pediatric ophthalmologist, and then they settled in Vermont when he was 16.
“Michael was always interested in history and current events. We didn’t do much talking about the weather when we were sitting around at the kitchen table,” says his mom, who is now a well-regarded eye surgeon. Hastings’ younger brother joined the military and fought in Iraq for 15 months as a platoon leader, earning a bronze star, before going to medical school. His older brother is also a doctor. “Independent thinking was always encouraged at home. It can be nerve-wracking for us when Michael is working in dangerous places, but as parents we’re proud and happy that he’s pursuing a lifelong dream to become an investigative journalist and achieving success at it.”
Hastings, a self-described “political junkie,” graduated from South Burlington’s Rice High School in 1998 and from New York University in 2002. In the Rice yearbook, he is voted, “Most outspoken.” Hastings remembers meeting then-Congressman Bernie Sanders for the first time when he was in 12th grade: “I went up to him and told him I’d been reading a lot about him, and [social activist] Howard Zinn, and corporate control of the media, and he said, ‘You should keep reading that stuff.’” In 2000, he cast his first vote in a presidential election for Ralph Nader, which he still considers, “the only vote I don’t regret, the only one that actually meant something.”
Within 10 days after the Nov. 6, 2012, presidential election, Hastings had completed his third book, “Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign,” a 190-page E-book co-published by Buzzfeed and Blue Rider Press promoted as “the definitive account of how President Obama almost blew it.”
It is another first-person take on another kind of harrowing experience, this time not life-threatening, but what he determined after covering the 2008 election for Newsweek to be “the most soul-killing reportorial beat on the planet.” He goes on to describe: “hours spent in the most unsanitary conditions on worn-out buses and in filthy Port-o-Johns (I was once locked in a male bathroom and locker room with the entire Hillary press corps), shoveling catered food and cookies into my mouth, getting felt up and searched and prodded regularly by increasingly aggressive security forces from the federal, state, and local levels, and worst of all, surrounding myself with a group of journalists, known as the White House press corps, that I was positive I was going to hate, preemptively assuming they, too, would hate me; and getting hassled, directed, and ordered around by zealous Obamatron volunteers.”
It is largely based on his prodigious original reporting, including 45 post-election interviews with Obama officials and others associated with the campaign, more than 81 hours of audio recordings from the trail, and about 87 articles he wrote for BuzzFeed from April 2012 to November 2012. The book bears all the hallmarks of Hastings’ style: irreverent, insightful and funny.
Objectivity is not something Hastings aspires to achieve as a journalist. “I don’t believe in it,” he told the appreciative crowd at the Burlington Book Festival. “What I try to do is be intellectually honest in my writing.”