Journalist-author Michael Hastings

Before his untimely passing, the Rolling Stone contributing editor and best-selling author explained his text, Panic 2012.

Michael Hastings set off a political firestorm with his award-winning 2010 profile of U.S. Army general Stanley McChrystal—one that led to the general's dismissal. He followed with a portrait of U.S. military commanders in The Operators. As contributing editor at Rolling Stone, Hastings covers politics and international affairs and covered President Obama's re-election campaign for BuzzFeed. He started his career at Newsweek, where he became the magazine's youngest-ever war correspondent, and is also the author of I Lost My Love in Baghdad. His latest, Panic 2012, is a behind-the-scenes story of the presidential campaign trail.


Tavis: Michael Hastings is a contributing editor at “Rolling Stone” whose text “The Operators” became one of the most talked-about books of 2012. In addition to his reporting for “BuzzFeed” and “Rolling Stone,” as I just said, he’s also just released a new ebook about last year’s presidential race called “Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign.” Michael, good to have you back on this program.

Michael Hastings: Thanks for having me, appreciate it.

Tavis: Let me start with the ebook first. There’s so much news to talk to you about over the last even today, news made today on immigration and the president set to give a speech this week on his sense of what needs to be done on immigration reform.

But let me start with this book “Panic 2012.” I love that subtitle: “Sublime and Terrifying.” What was sublime? Let’s take sublime first. What was sublime? Then we’ll talk about what was terrifying.

Hastings: Well, I think the experience of going to these political rallies, especially when you have someone like President Obama, who’s this hugely charismatic figure. You have crowds who really go into sort of a state of ecstasy very often when they see him speak, people passing out, and the excitement of it.

Despite the absurdity and the silliness and the triviality of the entire campaign experience, there is also something, as non-cynical as this sounds, kind of uplifting and strange about watching democracy unfold. So that’s the kind of sublime part. The terrifying part is everything else.

Tavis: Everything else. (Laughter)

Hastings: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: You had vowed prior to this campaign that you were done with the campaign trail, that you would never go again. It’s the same vow that I have made, (laughter) as my staff knows. I’ve vowed I’m done with political conventions; they’re such a waste of time.

So 2012 I stayed right in this studio and covered the conventions every night, but did so from Los Angeles. Didn’t feel the need to waste a bunch of money to go to the conventions to cover something that isn’t going to make any news except the night that we get the big speech, of course. So that’s my vow, and so I’m trying to stick to mine. You broke your vow.

Hastings: I broke it pretty –

Tavis: You went back on the campaign trail. Why’d you break your vow?

Hastings: Okay, well, in 2008 I ended up covering everyone who lost. First I started with Giuliani, who was supposed to be president, (laughter) and then Huckabee was supposed to be – well, he had a chance.

Then they put me on Secretary Clinton, Hillary Clinton, in January of 2008 when she was still supposed to be president. Remember, this was even after Iowa. The conventional wisdom was that Hillary was going to be president. Then after she dropped out they wanted me to go on McCain. I said, “No way, I can’t deal with McCain,” (laughter) and I quit my job at “Newsweek” and then went to Afghanistan. Then coming back –

Tavis: Wait, wait – you would take Afghanistan over McCain?

Hastings: Yes, I took it.

Tavis: Wow. (Laughter)

Hastings: Yeah, I chose –

Tavis: I don’t know what that says, man.

Hastings: Doesn’t say anything positive probably about either of us, Senator McCain or myself. Then I wrote a piece sort of I guess it was one of those you could just call #firstworldproblems, complaining about this great journalism job that I had.

Then in 2012 I realized – I had met Ben Smith, who’s the editor and chief of “BuzzFeed.” We ran into each other at a campaign rally in New Hampshire and he said he was looking for someone to cover Obama. I said, “Well, that sounds like fun.” He goes, “Well, I’m not offering you the job.” I’m like, “Well, I don’t want your job.”

We went back and forth, and finally I realized to have six months, nine months to spend traveling around with someone who’s clearly an historic figure, and watching and observing him, would be an opportunity as a journalist I couldn’t resist.

Tavis: So covering Obama this last time, has that made you return to your vow to never do it again? Or to your earlier point that there was something inspiring about seeing this campaign that’s making you rethink whether or not you’ll go back out again, particularly and especially if one Hillary Clinton is on the campaign trail in 2016.

Hastings: I think my days of riding the press plane around are probably over, for at least any extended period of time. But yeah, look, I was hoping for a General Petraeus/Hillary Clinton matchup, which would have been catnip for me. But I think obviously Hillary Clinton is involved. That’s going to be the fascinating story.

I’ll have to figure out at the time how do you cover that in an interesting way that’s not just repeating myself and following her around at the conventions.

Tavis: There’s a lot of news on the military and foreign affairs front this week that I want to get to tonight, given your expertise, but let me stay with this “Panic 2012” one more time – for one more question, I should say.

You have admitted, and I appreciate this, you’ve admitted in other conversations you’ve had about “Panic 2012” that when you had the opportunity to ask the president some hard questions, you didn’t.

Hastings: Right.

Tavis: Tell me exactly what you said, because I don’t want to overstate it. I do want to ask you about this. I got an issue; I got a bone to pick with you.

Hastings: Sure, sure.

Tavis: But tell me what you actually said and what you meant by that.

Hastings: Well, so the first time I met President Obama was 2006 in Baghdad. He was the senator from Illinois; it was a month before he actually ended up declaring. He had to come to Baghdad to kind of check that box and I was the correspondent for “Newsweek” at the time.

I will be totally honest, and this is going to get me a lot of hate mail, but I actually – I’ve never posed for a picture with any other – I shouldn’t even be admitting this on TV, but I never posed for a picture with any other politician or celebrity I’d ever interviewed, but President Obama was there and for some – or it was Senator Obama – and for some reason I said, “Oh, I’ll take a picture with this guy.”

We had this very interesting conversation about Iraq. Flash forward, I never get another – I never thought I’d ever get a chance to ask him a question again, especially after he became president, especially after the General McChrystal story.

I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to ask him again. This year there was this off-the-record drinks session for the president’s senior advisers at this bar in Orlando. I’m getting to the point here.

President Obama shows up unannounced, a surprise visit, and I had a chance to ask one question off the record, and I think – the question I wanted to ask in that setting – I did ask a question I think that was actually, which I learned a lot from his response.

But I did not ask about drones or civil liberties in that setting because I wouldn’t have been able to use it anyway. But it also was an example to me of even when I’m trying to be as hard on all these public – or not as – as critical as possible to do my job and as intellectually honest, even in those moments when you’re meeting the president, it’s tough.

It’s not an easy thing to do, and in fact a lot of the journalists I was with swooned. The word I used was “swooned,” and I think that’s correct.

Tavis: “Swooned” is the right word, and I’m glad you were honest enough to go on the record to say that then and even more so tonight on this program. I raise that not to cast aspersion or demonize you, but to get your take on the media’s complicity in not putting the tough questions to our leaders. I ask that against the backdrop of “60 Minutes” Sunday night.

Hastings: Really?

Tavis: With all due respect to “60 Minutes,” they punted that conversation. And I will catch hell, so I’m going to go out there with you. (Laughter) I’m going to catch hell for saying this, but “60 Minutes” got rolled by the White House on Sunday night. Print that.

They got rolled because you got the president and the secretary of state – I like them both. I like President Obama; I’ve known him for 15 years. I like Hillary Clinton.

Hastings: You’ve interviewed him six, seven – how many times?

Tavis: I’ve interviewed Mr. Obama six or seven, eight times.

Hastings: Wow.

Tavis: We just re-aired those interviews a week or so ago here as part of our 10th anniversary celebration on PBS. We pulled the best of those conversations and literally just aired a week or so ago. If you didn’t see it, go to PBS, our website, and you can see those interviews that we’ve had with the president over the course of his career, when people didn’t even know who he was, when he was just a state senator.

So I’ve interviewed him many times. Hillary Clinton I’ve interviewed more times, her and her husband, for that matter, over the course of my 20-year career. What troubles me, though, is the extent to which the media is complicit in not asking the right questions.

So the White House gives “60 Minutes” a gift of the president and the secretary of state together, and there’s nothing of consequence that gets asked, really, in that conversation. We’re not in a real conversation about drones; we’re not in a real conversation about escalating militarism.

It’s about their friendship and how they get along and what people thought was going to happen. Oh my God, bore me. (Laughter) I mean, let’s talk about the real issues that matter to America, particularly at a time when women are going into combat, we got a new secretary of state coming on, we have a new defense secretary coming on, and all the drama now about whether Hagel is going to get this job or not.

Hastings: Right, right.

Tavis: And if not, who it might be. I’m going long on this because I’m just bothered by the fact that the media continues to get rolled in not asking our leaders the tough questions. Nothing about torture, nothing about Guantanamo, nothing again about these drones, and everybody – so “60 Minutes” does a softball conversation, quite frankly.

Hastings: Right.

Tavis: But then all the media plays these clips over and over and over again about the “60 Minutes” conversation and it’s just basically a love fest. It’s a great sendoff for Hillary Clinton.

I love Hillary Clinton. I love Barack Obama. But if I’m sitting there with Hillary Clinton today and Barack Obama today, there’s some questions that need to be asked that the media just doesn’t ask.

So that’s a long way of getting back to your point of why the media, the left progressive media, as our friends on the right like to say –

Hastings: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: – why we won’t ask the tough questions when we get the opportunity.

Hastings: Well, look – a caveat just for myself in self-defense. Had the White House ever, if the White House ever grants me an interview with President Obama, which I would love to do –

Tavis: On the record.

Hastings: – on the record –

Tavis: (Crosstalk)

Hastings: – it would be an interesting interview, and I would ask all the questions that I would love to ask him.

Tavis: Which is why you won’t get it on the record.

Hastings: Which is why I won’t get it, exactly. (Laughter) This was –

Tavis: You or I, for that matter. But I digress. Go ahead.

Hastings: Right. This was, in fact, this is an intentional White House strategy. They did this throughout the campaign. How many interviews did Jake Tapper, who’s now at CNN, get with President Obama this campaign? Zero. How many interviews did the people really know him, the White House press corps, get with him? Not many, if – I think AP got one.

How many interviews did drive time radio get with President Obama? Fifty, 60? “People” magazine, “Entertainment Weekly.”

Tavis: But he’s been on “60 Minutes” like a dozen times. That’s like his favorite outlet.

Hastings: Well, “60 Minutes,” yeah, so you’d think that an outlet like “60 Minutes” would –

Tavis: Precisely. That’s their track record, asking the tough questions.

Hastings: But I think we’re beginning of a second term, no one wants to upset the relationship with the White House. That’s what it comes down to, time and time again. I had conversations with journalists, really excellent journalists within the White House press corps, who told me there’s so much they can’t write or say because they will lose their access.

Clearly, that’s always the case. Whenever you’re reporting, there’s always something you can’t say or write, but the questions, you always want to get as close to that line as possible. You want to ask the tough questions. You can’t be worried about access. You can’t. It defeats the purpose of journalism if that is your number one concern.

Tavis: So how is our democracy, then, served, well served, best served, by journalists who are afraid to ask the right questions because they don’t want to lose their access?

Hastings: I don’t think it’s served at all. I think it’s almost entertainment; it’s kind of the celebritization of politics. Obama’s people will all often complain about how trivial and silly the media is, but there’s no president who’s probably benefited from this sort of trivialness or superficial nature as President Obama.

He is this sort of celebrity figure, and I think it’s easier to go along with that. It’s easier to ask about the gossipy, inside the White House, which I actually, as a political junkie, I like that too.

But it can’t just be about – the first term of the administration is not just about what great friends or not friends Hillary and Barack are. That’s crazy. There’s Benghazi, there’s Afghanistan, there’s drones. As you said, there’s civil liberties.

There’s across the board where you could really have a – and the one time the president in this campaign did really get grilled was on a Spanish-language network and he was shown not to be ready for it.

Tavis: And he’s not been back.

Hastings: Yeah, yeah. Oh, I didn’t even know that.

Tavis: Yeah, that was Jorge Ramos.

Hastings: Jorge Ramos, yeah, it was an incredible interview, but he was totally caught flat-footed because someone was asking actual, real questions.

Tavis: It’s fascinating you should say that now, because the issue that he got grilled about was immigration, and Jorge, as you recall, kept saying, “But Mr. President, you promised. You promised. But a promise is a promise. You promised.” It was a fascinating thing.

Let me just say for the record here that I love “60 Minutes.” It’s a great program.

Hastings: Right.

Tavis: It’s got a wonderful – I watch it, that’s why I know about it. I watch it every Sunday. It’s in my TiVo. I don’t miss “60 Minutes,” and I will continue to watch “60 Minutes.” But this was a wet kiss. It was a big, fat, wet kiss to the White House, and the American people were not served well by this particular conversation.

Again, because I’m in the media, I’m not suggesting that every question you’ve got to be – it’s drill-and-grill.

Hastings: Yeah.

Tavis: I’m in Hollywood. For goodness’ sakes, I talk to celebrities all the time. So I’m not saying everything’s got to be drill-and-grill, but when you’re “60 Minutes” at a critical moment in the nation’s history, it can’t be a wet kiss. It’s got to be, you know.

Hastings: Here’s a story – I didn’t actually include this in the book, and I won’t mention the network or the anchor’s name who was involved, but after this individual, a really high-profile guy, did an interview with President Obama, I was told by Obama campaign officials that the president himself was like, “Wow, I can’t believe he didn’t ask me any tough questions.”

This is a top person in the industry, and with the president saying that. Like I said, I didn’t put it in the book, but it was a telling moment (crosstalk).

Tavis: So the question now is how many times will the RNC feed this conversation to the media?

Hastings: They don’t get it either. (Laughter) The right doesn’t get it either.

Tavis: Yeah.

Hastings: They missed the boat on it.

Tavis: Yeah. In what ways?

Hastings: Well, this idea – because if you look back at the first four years of the Bush administration, the media, there’s the same sort of dynamic. There was a lot of love for George W. Bush. Remember, they hated Al Gore and Bush was their favorite, and things didn’t really go south for Bush with the media until Katrina happened, and an unpopular war.

So the bias, the media bias is always towards power. It’s always towards whosever in the White House, and I think that – but I think it is fair to say that President Obama has had an – this is a (unintelligible) – has had an easier go of it in the media.

I think there’s definitely journalists feel much more comfortable about being blatantly, openly pro-Obama than they have any other president that I’m aware of, certainly Clinton or H.W.

Tavis: I’m glad you said it, and I would have said it if you didn’t, which is that it does, there is a bias toward power, and Obama’s gotten away with not being asked a lot of tough questions, but Bush got away with WMDs.

Hastings: Yup, yup.

Tavis: He got away with lying, quite frankly, about why we’re going to Iraq. We’ll get in trouble for saying that, at least I will, but the point is that –

Hastings: No, you’re totally right, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, it just – I digress on that point. So thank you for at least going on the record to acknowledge what you did acknowledge, and thank you for indulging those questions about the “Panic 2012” text. Now let’s move on to the news of the day.

Hastings: Right. It’s a fun book to read, too. It’s tons of fun to read, and hopefully entertaining.

Tavis: Yeah, it is, it is. That’s why I love the title: “Sublime and Terrifying.” It’s a great read. Now to the stuff that we’re talking about today. In no particular order, women in combat. It’s now a done deal. It’s going to happen. You cover these issues every day. What’s your take on it?

Hastings: I spent a lot of time in Iraq and at various times in Afghanistan with female soldiers and Marines and they – it always boggled my mind why they weren’t actually already in these roles.

So I think it’s fine. Look, my sort of nonviolent, pacifist streak in me says, “Well, do we really need more people who are out there trying to kill other people?” But at the same time, in terms of gender equality, I think it’s a great step forward and I think that the young women who do serve will be phenomenal.

All these concerns that guys like Bill Kristol are talking about – well, what are they going to think when your son gets killed because a woman couldn’t protect him – are delusional, and it’s an insult.

Anyone who’s opposed to this, it’s an insult to the 60-plus women who’ve been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone who’s opposed to it.

Tavis: Bill Kristol may be delusional on that point, but when and if we start to see women coming home in body bags, and I say “when and if” because the Obama administration and the Bush administration I think both were wrong to not let us see those bodies coming to Dover Air Force Base.

War is hell, and if it’s hell and we decide to engage it, we ought to see the ugly of war. So I don’t like this idea of shutting the media out of covering the evidence that war gives us. But that’s another issue.

Kristol may be delusional about that, but what do you think the American people will feel, though, if and when we get to the day years down the road when we start seeing women come home in body bags at the rate that men come home in body bags?

Hastings: Well, okay, that’s the – yeah, because it’s happened, and like most of the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone somewhat, really unnoticed. They’re noticed, they’re noted. I think people will be fine with it. Well, if you have 30 women killed in a week or something like that, that’s going to be a big story, but I think – and it’s going to be tragic. But I think people will accept it.

I think it’s a done deal. I think we’re in the “Starship Troopers” era where men and women are going to be fighting alongside each other.

Tavis: Yeah. So John Kerry, State Department. Your thoughts?

Hastings: Better there than president. (Laughter) Look, I –

Tavis: Ouch.

Hastings: I remember I interviewed Senator Kerry in Baghdad once and during one of the worst times in the war in Iraq, and I asked him this question where I said, “Senator, you know there’s been more suicide bombings in the last three years in Iraq than in the entire history of suicide bombings over the past 20, 30 years.” There’d been more in this – and he said, “Well, I warned them not to go into Iraq.” That’s what he told me.

I was like, “Well, that’s not how I remember it.” But I feel with – this is a bit of my own diatribe, but I think Senator Kerry and Senator Clinton, or Secretary Clinton to a certain extent, by their support of the Iraq war, abandoned the principles of the ’60s that they had fed us.

We feed all these ideas about the ’60s and anti-Vietnam and all this kind of stuff, antiwar, and then they have that moment where they can stand up for those principles and they abandon them. So that’s why, that’s where that’s coming from.

I think he’ll be a great secretary of state. So with all that being said, I think he’ll be fine. I think he has a great relationship with the White House, he’s actually the kind of guy they – he’ll have stature and he’ll have a relationship with the White House, and he’s not going to rock the boat. He’ll follow, he’ll tow the line.

Tavis: Well, that’s another conversation, towing the line. I like Chuck Hagel. I’ve interviewed him a number of times over the years; I’ve got nothing against him personally. But will he get through and should he get through?

Hastings: I think he will get through, and I think he should compare to the – if you compare him to other secretaries of defense, I’m sure he’s as qualified as a gentleman like Leon Panetta or someone like Gates.

I think it’ll be very interesting to see what happens. The Pentagon is not necessarily friendly to the Chuck Hagels of the world. He has been an outspoken critic of their entire operation over the past year, so the trick about becoming secretary of defense is how do you manage that massive bureaucracy?

How do you get that bureaucracy to respond to your will? That will be, I think, the biggest challenge. I think it will be kind of an interesting experiment in management, to be honest.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me circle back to Hillary Clinton for a moment, not looking back, but looking forward. If, in fact, she’s on the ballot in 2016, as everybody seems to think that she will be, the conventional wisdom, I think, is that – although Joe Biden doesn’t agree with this – the conventional wisdom is if she decides to run, the nomination, at least, is hers.

Hastings: Right.

Tavis: Of course, we’ve heard that before.

Hastings: We’ve heard that before. Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: That didn’t quite work out so well for Mrs. Clinton, but I digress on that point. Where the affairs are concerned that you cover, military affairs and the like, what’s your assessment of her readiness now to be president?

Hastings: Oh, I think the readiness question is a no-brainer. I think she’s perfectly ready to be president. I would take issue with a lot of her foreign policy positions. I think it’s very hawkish; it’s almost neoconservative in its outlook, in a lot of ways.

But she believed those positions (unintelligible) because she’s a woman and has to sort of take those positions. I think she really believes this sort of – that clip of her talking about the killing of Qadhafi – we came, we saw, we killed him; that’s a paraphrase – I thought that’s not the kind of message that I want my world leaders to be presenting to the world.

All that being said, I think she’s totally ready for the job. She’s beloved around the world as well, and her popularity here, which is well-earned, well-deserved, and after some – there’s not a historical, there’s not a modern political figure who’s had more invasive press coverage than Hillary Clinton, and the fact that she’s still in the game is impressive.

The times I’ve always spent with her, I’ve come away very impressed with her as an individual.

Tavis: Not that women can’t be hawkish, obviously –

Hastings: Right, oh, sure.

Tavis: – in foreign policy, because there’s the Iron Lady comes to mind immediately.

Hastings: Right.

Tavis: But what do you make of the fact that she has done such a remarkable job of raising the issue of women, and has made it very clear that the future of the world depends on the way we treat women in countries all around the world?

So she’s raised the issues of women as high on the global agenda as anybody, and yet she remains so much more hawkish, I think, than Mr. Obama is. Is that strange to you, or is that not weird at all?

Tavis: Well, I think it’s – she had to shake off this baggage of the ’60s leftist, Hillary radical, and the easiest way to do that is to take these positions on foreign policy that are generally going to get – most of the time, the public doesn’t either care or sort of supports whatever we’re doing on the foreign policy sort of passively.

So I think I would love to see the speech where Hillary Clinton, sort of a Nobel Prize sort of speech where she does sort of promote these values, because war isn’t good for women. War is not –

Tavis: That’s my point.

Hastings: Well yeah, exactly. They’re the biggest victims.

Tavis: It’s such an oxymoron that – yeah.

Hastings: Yeah, no, (unintelligible) they’re the biggest victims in all these conflicts, and I think it disturbs me whenever I hear these political leaders talking about the use of violence in such a casual way, which they all now do, especially with drones.

But in Iraq or in Iran, we’re going to obliterate them, we’re going to – well, who are we obliterating here? Look, when we talk about war, we often think it’s just American soldiers who are being killed. Obviously, they are, and that’s completely horrible and tragic.

But war, for most people, the experience of war is to be huddled inside your home while bombs drop outside. It’s your husband getting blown up on the way to work. It’s your kid finding a dead body in the driveway that the death squad dropped off.

Most people who experience war experience it through the lens of a civilian, not through being able to shoot back at the guy. Most people (unintelligible).

Tavis: How’s a guy who, by his own admission, is so much less hawkish than the people that he covers and the issues of war that he deals with, how do you keep all of that in balance? Does that make sense?

Hastings: Yeah. It’s tough. No, look, I had a number of probably sometimes drunken conversations with folks at the White House where I said, “Look, this is what I really believe,” and trying to sort of talk to them about where I’m coming from. I don’t know if they care or not.

But I think I also sort of understanding that look, a lot of these guys who work in the White House actually have – not a lot. A number of them have views that are similar to mine, at least privately, or more similar to mine, but they’re in the system where they have to kind of make do with very tight constraints.

Within the foreign policy apparatus, you can be 15 degrees to the left or right. Anything outside of that is just not acceptable. So it’s tough. Look, whenever – it’s tough to talk to folks who view war, who view other stuff as very theoretical and sort of as these issues, when to me over the years they’re very personal. It’s not an issue, it’s life. It’s your personal experience.

Tavis: Michael Hastings is a great writer for “Rolling Stone” and for “BuzzFeed.” A new text out called, the most recent text, “Panic 2012.” You’ll want to get that and read it. It is a fun read. A lot of good stuff in there and some stuff that I have not read before from his vantage point on the campaign trail, and of course his great work continues, as I said, at “Rolling Stone.” Michael, good to have you on.

Hastings: Thanks so much. Really an honor.

Tavis: We’re looking forward to you moving out to L.A.

Hastings: I’ll be here next month. Next month.

Tavis: Looking forward to it. (Laughter) That means you can come by more regularly and see us.

Hastings: I’d love to, I’d love to (crosstalk).

Tavis: We’ll make it happen. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: June 19, 2013 at 10:51 pm