Brush With Greatness: Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014

Fouad AjamiMy favorite professor passed away this week.

Fouad Ajami — Iranian by heritage, Lebanese by birth, American by choice — was an assistant professor of politics at Princeton in the late 1970s, and I took his International Relations course freshman year. He didn’t get tenure there — bad call, Princeton — and left in 1980 to become director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins, where he thrived for 30 years.

He was a bit of an imp at Princeton, and I mean that in a nice way.  You can see it in his picture — I remember the same grin, framed in a darker beard.  When I was casting about for a major after realizing that I wasn’t cut out for [shudder] physics, my enjoyment of his course was part of why I chose Politics.  I wish I could say I remembered some profound insight he shared that shaped my political development, but I can’t. I probably got a B in the course, because that’s how I rolled.  In classes I liked.

Here’s what I remember: he quoted Lyndon Johnson’s characterization of Vietnam as “a raggedy-assed, third-rate country,” and said some American leaders dismissed a wide variety of countries in that way.  As he made his pedagogical point, he just seemed delighted by the fact that he was saying a bad word in front of a classroom at a prestigious school and he could get away with it because we were nominal adults.  He grinned that grin.

He became my favorite professor retroactively three decades later, when I discovered that my emerging world view was finding eloquent expression in his commentary in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. I blogged about him here and here and here. Since no one ever follows links on my blog (prove me wrong, I double-dare you), I’ll quote a passage from September 11, 2009, in which he championed the decision to go to war in Iraq:

Those were not Afghans who had struck American soil on 9/11. They were Arabs. Their terrorism came out of the pathologies of Arab political life. Their financiers were Arabs, and so were those crowds in Cairo and Nablus and Amman that had winked at the terror and had seen those attacks as America getting its comeuppance on that terrible day. Kabul had not sufficed as a return address in that twilight war; it was important to take the war into the Arab world itself, and the despot in Baghdad had drawn the short straw. He had been brazen and defiant at a time of genuine American concern, and a lesson was made of him.

Professor Ajami never wavered in his belief that America made the right choice by overthrowing Saddam Hussein.  I wholeheartedly share that viewpoint. Despite the years of mismanagement of the war, the world is a better place today because of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I expect that will continue to be true despite the feckless blunderings of our current commander in chief.

In 2011, Ajami retired from Johns Hopkins and decamped to Stanford, where he was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His colleagues there have performed the invaluable service of compiling a page of links to his “best and recent articles,” the last of which was published in the Wall Street Journal on June 16, less than two weeks before he succumbed to cancer at the age of 68.  It was vintage Ajami, headlined “The Men Who Sealed Iraq’s Disaster With a Handshake.” In case you have any doubt, the men in question are Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

 (This post is the fourth installment in my Brush with Greatness series.)

Brush With Greatness: Episcopalian Edition

I teamed up with the Web Goddess on Sunday to produce a web report published today on a visit to a Jersey City parish by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The occasion was a centennial celebration by Church of the Incarnation, launched in an era when black Jersey City residents had to travel to upper Manhattan to find an Episcopal church that welcomed them.  If the PB does something official in the Diocese of Newark, the Web Goddess is going to cover it, and I’m enough of a fan of The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori that I was willing to take an unpaid assignment.  Employing our usual division of labor, I did the words and the Web Goddess did the pictures — including the behind-the-scenes shot at the reception with your humble scribe above.  (That’s a shrimp tail on the PB’s plate.)

More behind-the-scenes tidbits: if you click through to the story itself, you’ll find a group photo of the PB with some young interns, and everybody is grinning broadly.  The smiles are because I, in my customary role as photographer’s assistant, am making bunny ears over the Web Goddess’s head while she takes the picture.  Works every time. I later told the spiritual leader of two million Episcopalians that making bunny ears is “the work I feel called to do.”

(Earlier blog posts in the Brush With Greatness series describe my encounters with Jimmy Carter and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.)

Brush With “Greatness”: Following in Helen Thomas’s Footsteps

(Home News photo by Dick Costello)

I have the (pick an adjective) distinction of being only the second journalist to interview Jimmy Carter after he left office in early 1981.  The first, Carter told me, was Helen Thomas, the long-time White House correspondent who resigned under pressure today after making astonishingly offensive comments to the effect that “the Jews” should get the hell out of “Palestine” and go “home” to Germany and Poland.

But enough about Helen Thomas. That handsome young fellow on the right in the photo is me, nearly 30 years (and 40 pounds) ago.  You’ll recognize Jimmy, and of course the other two guys are Secret Service.  I was frankly surprised that I got as close to the former President as I did without being frisked, or at least asked to open my coat.  This was before Reagan was shot, but after the unsuccessful attempts on President Ford.

I was a recently minted Princeton graduate working as a cub reporter at The Home News, a small (but high-quality!) daily newspaper in New Brunswick, NJ.  Carter was visiting Princeton to check out potential colleges for his daughter Amy, and we had heard that his habit was to go out for a run in the early morning hours.  Princeton bordered on towns in our circulation area — close enough to authorize mileage reimbursement for a long-shot assignment.  The assignment editor said he picked me because I knew the campus, but I suspect it had more to do with the 6 a.m. start time and my lack of seniority.

Carter stayed at one of the gated mansions the university owns just off campus (for Princeton buffs, it was either Palmer House or Lowrie House, I forget which).  There were two gates to the property, and I walked back and forth from one to the other, sometimes stamping my feet to stay warm.  I’m pretty sure it was in March.  Between my Princeton loans and my unprincely salary, generic white sneakers were the best I could do for footwear.

All of a sudden the gate swung open — the gate I wasn’t at, of course — and Carter walked out with his bodyguards.  I trotted over, told him my name and affiliation, and said I had recently graduated from Princeton.  He said something like, “good, you can give me a tour, then.” Turns out he had forgotten his running shoes, so we walked.  Much better for note-taking.

About that time Dick Costello arrived.  He was the paper’s senior photographer, and he took the photo.  These days he would upload it wirelessly to the paper’s FTP site, but on that day he grinned and waved and dashed for his car, hoping he had something in focus as he raced up Route 1 to swish smelly chemicals in a darkened room.

We crossed Nassau Street… strike that.

The former President and I crossed Nassau Street — probably at the light, although I certainly would have jaywalked if I were alone — and walked through the FitzRandolph Gates in front of Nassau Hall.  I can’t remember whether I had the presence of mind to tell him that Nassau Hall briefly was the seat of the fledgling United States government during the Revolutionary War.  I do remember telling him, in my role as tour guide, that “these are mostly dormitories” around us.  I think I said that twice.  (Holy crap, this guy was President just a few months ago!)

Despite the passage of time, I’m kind of astonished at how little I remember of our walk.  I had voted against the man twice (John Anderson in 1980 and… um… Eugene McCarthy in 1976).  The previous spring, after shedding the objectivity shackles of my work for the student newspaper, I had marched in demonstrations protesting Carter’s decision to reinstate registration for the draft.

All that was as if it had never been.  I was star-struck.  I was 22.

The Home News was one of the last afternoon papers in the country, and the front-page deadlines were in the early morning.  I found a pay phone and called in a few factoids in time for the One-Star Edition, then I headed for my own car.

As soon as I walked in to the newsroom I started hearing murmurs.  He didn’t ask this, he didn’t ask that.  He got nothing.  What a wasted opportunity.  My self-esteem meter was perpetually frozen in the “I suck” position, and it didn’t take much to deflate me.

I was asked to write a second-day, “I-interviewed-Jimmy-Carter” article, and I turned in a draft that focused on how much I suck.  I can still remember Tom Hester, the City Editor, holding the delete button while a couple of self-rebuking paragraphs scrolled off the screen.  “Listen, these guys didn’t get the story.  YOU got the story.”

I think the clips are up in the attic somewhere, but I’m not up for confronting whatever else lurks in those boxes.  (The photo has been hanging on my dining room wall since I rediscovered it a decade ago.)  I remember I asked Carter if he ever planned to run for office again, and I solemnly reported (for the first time!) that he said he would not.  If I’d thought about it, I could have fleshed out the story by saying that he also had no plans to join the Apollo space program or try out for the Mets.

Jimmy Carter went on to become either the best ex-president in history or the worst, depending on whom you ask.  Amy went to Brown University.  The Home News merged first with The News Tribune of Woodbridge and then with the Courier News of Somerville.  The combined operation sells fewer papers than The Home News alone sold in 1981 — although it still dwarfs my blog readership.  “Cos” retired a few years ago, and I got to catch up with old friends at his retirement party.  Hester graduated to the Star-Ledger of Newark, where he won a piece of a Pulitzer covering Gov. Jim McGreevey’s resignation in 2005.  I’ve made some progress with my self-esteem issues.

And Helen Thomas, whom Taranto has consistently described as “American journalism’s crazy old aunt in the attic,” is approximately four times as old as I was that day in 1981, although less than twice as old as I am now.  I have no idea what that signifies, but it seemed to make sense to close with something about her.

Brush With Greatness: Elena Elenadana Kagan

Unless every news outlet on the Internets has it wrong, once again President Obama is nominating a Princeton alumna to the Supreme Court.  Unlike Sonia Sotomayor, this time I actually knew her.

Elena Kagan was a year behind me, and I worked with her at The Daily Princetonian.  Every night a small rotating team of Prince reporters and editors would “work press” — oversee the production of the paper throughout the evening and sometimes into the early morning.  We would proofread, rewrite headlines and cut stories to make them fit, and when she and I worked press together or when I edited her stories, I briefly would have been her supervisor.  I don’t recall any such occasion, but I have no doubt that my wisdom and dedicated professionalism helped inspire… ah, nevermind.

Each year the student journalists would elect a member of the next year’s graduating class to serve as Chairman, and that person would oversee the paper for the coming year.  Elections typically went through several ballots and into the night.  My outgoing class ran the election for her incoming class, and Elena came in second (a lot better than I had fared the year before).  She arrived at the party after the balloting looking disappointed but composed, and I was impressed by her quiet dignity.

She was a hard-working, serious person.  A new TV show called Saturday Night Live was a massive hit on college campuses across the nation, and the late Gilda Radner played a recurring character called Roseanne Rosannadanna, a loopy newscaster.  For reasons lost in the mists of time, a few of us started referring to her as Elena Elenadana Kagan.  I remember being startled to learn that she had never watched SNL and had no idea what we were talking about.

I’ve had no contact with her since I graduated. I’d like to be able to say that I knew she was destined for great things, but I had no such insight.  I will say that years ago, when I read she had been named Dean of Harvard Law School, that I was impressed but not particularly surprised.

Before he died in 2008 at the age of 111, a man from my church was the oldest living alumnus of both Rutgers University and Harvard Law School.  At his funeral I learned that Harvard had honored him, and his family was surprised and grateful at how much time Dean Kagan spent talking with them and making them welcome.

Unlike Sotomayor, Kagan has no paper trail of judicial activism.  Her politics undoubtedly are to the left of mine, but that would be the case with any Obama nominee, and I see no reason to oppose her nomination (much to her relief, I’m sure).  Besides, since I didn’t know her classmate Eliot Spitzer, she’ll become the most prominent person about whom I can say “I knew her when” — and how cool is that?