Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, AB’95, brings a UChicago intellectual spirit to the sword fight of political commentary.
After Friday’s celebration dinner, Saturday morning’s breakfast and ceremony, and a panel discussion of politics and public life that afternoon, freshly minted alumni award recipient Bret Stephens, AB’95, sat down to talk to the Magazine. Stephens’s pugnacious foreign affairs column, Global View, appears each Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal, where he is also the deputy editorial page editor responsible for the paper’s international opinion pages and a member of the editorial board. The column earned him the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013. He was very happy to win the Pulitzer, Stephens said, but “in awe” of winning the Professional Achievement Award because the latter put him in such distinguished company. Recognized with the same award this year was Leon Kass, LAB’54, SB’58, MD’62,one of Stephens’s most cherished teachers in the College. The other, Amy Kass, AB’62 (Norman Maclean Faculty Award recipient in 2010), was in the audience. The Kasses taught him great books, he said, but also “that great wisdom and great decency are indivisible.”
Stephens’s résumé also includes the editorship of the Jerusalem Post and a stint at Commentary, where his first published piece of writing appeared, “for the princely sum of $350,” when he was a UChicago sophomore. His first book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, will be published by the Penguin imprint Sentinel in November. The Magazine’s interview with Stephens is edited and adapted below.
I remember my Aims of Education address, which was an analysis of the cliché Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.” But Dean Boyer spoke before the address, and he said something that I found very comforting. He said, “All of you belong here.” And looking around, you think, gee, these are some smart kids. I would like to take the opportunity to thank him for that comment, because it was greatly reassuring and now, 23-odd years later, I can look back at it and think, maybe Dean Boyer was right.
Dyed in the wool
The [UChicago] echo signal became stronger, not weaker, the farther away I got from the University. More and more I find that the topics I write about touch on themes that were intellectually alive for me at Chicago. To take a recent example, I wrote a column that dealt with the spate of commencement speaking cancellations and managed to slip in a reference to Emily Brontë, but I also managed to talk about the nature of liberalism. I said that one aspect of liberalism is not only the right to offend but the responsibility to know how to deal maturely with being offended. These are lines in a column but really they’re the heart of the column, and all of that comes out of a certain kind of intellectual experience and curriculum that is here.
Trial by fire
I started at the Journal as an op-ed editor, then went to Brussels and wrote about the EU. I started writing about the Middle East a great deal beginning in 2000. After the Second Intifada erupted, I started covering it all the time. And then out of the blue, not long after September 11, I received a phone call from the then publisher of the Jerusalem Post asking me if I’d be interested in editing the paper. I said well, I’m 27 and I’ve never had responsibility for anything. But why not? It was a great story. It was a great job. And it was a deep dive into a vat of boiling oil. I mean that in a good way. But there were suicide bombings on a constant basis. When the war with Iraq began we had to distribute gas masks to staff. I was there for just under three years, but they were dog years; each year counted for seven. I also met my wife there, and our first child was born there. So they were rich and crowded years.
I was far too enthusiastic about the democratization project. I should have been much more sober about it. I’ve thought very seriously about my support for the Iraq War, and I’ve concluded that it was still worth supporting. But I didn’t think clearly and quickly enough about how the war began to go wrong and how the Bush administration overdosed on its own idealism. When you have a president of the United States saying, as Bush did in the second inaugural, that the purpose of American foreign policy is to work toward the abolition of tyranny in every country in our time, that is substituting Utopianism for policy.
I believe in the idea of America as a world policeman. The job of a policeman is not the job of a priest, to save souls and change hearts. The job of a policeman is to walk the beat, to reassure the good, to deter the tempted, and to punish the wicked. And that is a good thing for the United States to do internationally. First, because if we don’t do it, we aren’t going to like the characters who do. It’s either Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin. Republican that I am, I’d rather it be Barack Obama. I’d rather it be the American president. Second, we’ve learned from the 1920s and ’30s that when liberal democracies abdicate their responsibility, what you get is chaos and anarchy. And third, because the kind of stability and predictability that Pax Americana has provided has in its own quiet way greatly promoted liberal democratic culture and values all over the world.
You’re useless as a columnist if you’re not provoking some kind of strong reaction in your readers, whether approbation or disagreement. What I most want to do is get a reader to think. To react. To maybe rethink his own views. To enlarge his views. I feel like when an institution like the Wall Street Journal hands me something like a newspaper column, in effect I’m being handed a sword to do right as I see it. To call out the bad guys, to praise the good guys, to defend the weak, to attack the wicked. That’s my view of a column.
Columns are a bit like pancakes: they need to be cooked and eaten right away. I’ve never written a column on a Thursday and just put it aside and then run it on Monday night. I think that’s deadly.
At the Journal I hire our annual crop of interns. I interview these really smart kids, and I find it distressing that they don’t have hard facts at their fingertips. They’re very smart; they’ve got minds that are like V8 engines. They know how to find information and how to process information. But you can’t connect the dots if you don’t know where the dots are in the first place. And so they have minds that look like 15th century maps—there’s a kind of “here be dragons” quality. I think in education we’ve gone overboard with this idea that information doesn’t matter, that what matters is learning how to think. But information does matter. Understanding chronology matters, and understanding geography matters. Understanding how chronology and geography create history is crucial to the business that I’m in. Anyone who aspires to be a serious journalist needs to do more than simply learn the craft of asking who, what, when, and where. They have to be able to make imaginative leaps based on hard facts. And that creates great journalism and great commentary. Otherwise you’re pretty much a slave to whatever people are saying or thinking, and I don’t think you’ll ever really distinguish yourself as a journalist.
Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose interviews Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens, AB’95, on how to bridge the Republican foreign policy divide.