I think Michael Lewis is the greatest writer working in journalism today. In his latest piece for Bloomberg he goes to Washington and ends up watching the State of the Union speech with Steve Bannon. A sample:
Steve Bannon lives in a brick town house on Capitol Hill, a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court. To discourage people from approaching his front door he’s strung a thin rope across the steps. A second door, hidden behind the steps, opens before I even get to it. A trim young man in a neat suit steps out. “I’m Bigz,” he says.
Bigz leads me into a waiting room. It’s sunny outside, but the blinds are drawn tight and the place is gloomy. One wall is decorated with a painting of Hillary Clinton taking cash from some African warlord, another with a poster of a snarling honey badger, the Breitbart News mascot. The tables are stacked, almost like a bookstore, with multiple copies of polemical works mostly aimed at the Clintons. Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” in which Bannon is quoted as saying that it was treasonous for Trump’s children to have met with the Russians, is nowhere to be seen. Bigz asks me to wait here, beside a pile of anti-Clinton books, while Bannon wraps up a meeting. “You can read a book if you want,” he suggests, gently.
I talk to Bigz instead. Bigz hails from Uganda. A few years ago he ran for Ugandan political office, and was beaten and jailed. When he learned that the Ugandan regime planned to kill him, he sought, and was granted, political asylum in the U.S. In Washington he set out to make a living tending people’s gardens. He’d knocked on Bannon’s door, and Bannon had hired him to clean up the small patches of green in front of his house. Apparently Bannon liked him so much that he brought him inside to -- well, what Bigz does remains unclear to me. The garden’s dead.
He's as good a nonfiction storyteller as there is, perhaps the best. At the heart of his storytelling are endearing characters, like Bigz, who prance across center stage, turn the story on its ear, then exit stage left. I fondly remember the Greek monastery's role in the great credit meltdown of 2008, as told by Lewis. Great read. But, as wonderful and captivating as it is, I still question how monks could bring the world's credit markets crashing down.
I wonder about Michael Lewis. He's compulsively readable. I've listened to The Big Short twice. But when I'm done with a Michael Lewis piece, I'm never really sure what I've just learned. There's an intellectual lightness which is both fun and, dare one say, a little lightweight. After two listenings the main thing I can remember about The Big Short is that guys with Asperger's are kind of cool--just as the main thing I get out of this piece about Trump's Washington is that Steve Bannon is kind of a cool guy to hang out with.
To be fair, I think my reaction to Lewis is a bit like John's to Terry Pratchett--fun, but what's really there? And I think Pratchett has infinite depths.
My favorite journalists, like Garry Wills, Alma Guillermoprieto, and Elizabeth Drew, tend to reach a generation or two back. If Rick Perlstein counts as a journalist, then he's my favorite among the still active--but I think he's probably better thought of as an historian (one could say the same about Wills).
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