This morning I came across one of Jeffrey Goldberg’s 2010 pieces from Cuba — in particular, the one in which he goes to the Havana aquarium with Fidel Castro to see a dolphin show. It contains maybe the most bizarro exchange I’ve ever read. I won’t spoil it for you, but something about it fills me with glee. I’ve always liked profiles of villains, I guess, and in the best ones, there are often moments like this, when either the reporter or the subject drops his guard and you get to see a flash of kindness or joy or humanity. I’ve been trying to come up with a list of such instances — villains’ most likable moments — and the results are below, listed by villain. I was looking for a particular kind of thing here: not a puff piece, not a hit piece, but an actual meeting of minds between a journalist and a public figure. A reviled subject reaching out, a skeptical reporter willing to listen. A collision. Let me know if you think of any: @jfagone on Twitter.
UPDATE, Nov. 26: I found a few more good ones, from Ben McGrath, Seth Wickersham (h/t @AlanSiegelDC), Stephen Rodrick, and Elizabeth Gilbert. The inclusion of the McGrath story on Nick Denton stretches the definition of villain a bit, but the piece addresses the “caricature of Denton as an evil, soulless, Machiavellian puppeteer,” and it’s so enjoyable, I thought it was worth adding.
“Goldberg,” Fidel said, “ask him questions about dolphins.”
“What kind of questions?” I asked.
“You’re a journalist, ask good questions,” he said, and then interrupted himself. “He doesn’t know much about dolphins anyway,” he said, pointing to Garcia [the director of the Havana aquarium]. “He’s actually a nuclear physicist.”
“You are?” I asked.
“Yes,” Garcia said, somewhat apologetically.
“Why are you running the aquarium?” I asked.
“We put him here to keep him from building nuclear bombs!” Fidel said, and then cracked-up laughing.
–Jeffrey Goldberg, Fidel: ‘Cuban Model’ Doesn’t Even Work For Us Anymore, The Atlantic, Sept. 2010
There was, of course, a catch. I had to agree to talk about nothing except football. “We want the Boss to relax,” Ray Price told me, “but he can’t relax if you start yelling about Vietnam, race riots or drugs. He wants to ride with somebody who can talk football.” He cast a baleful eye at the dozen or so reporters waiting to board the press bus, then shook his head sadly. “I checked around,” he said. “But the others are hopeless — so I guess you’re it.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
We had a fine time. I enjoyed it — which put me a bit off balance, because because I’d figured Nixon didn’t know any more about football than he did about ending the war in Vietnam. He had made a lot of allusions to thinks like “end runs” and “power sweeps” on the stump but it never occurred to me that he actually knew anything more about football than he knew about the Grateful Dead.
But I was wrong. Whatever else might be said about Nixon — and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for Human — he is a goddamn stone fanatic on every facet of pro football. At one point in our conversation, when I was feeling a bit pressed for leverage, I mentioned a down & out pass — in the waning moments of the 1967 Super Bowl mismatch between Green Bay and Oakland — to an obscure, second-string Oakland receiver named Bill Miller that had stuck in my mind because of its pinpoint style and precision.
He hesitated for a moment, lost in thought, then he whacked me on the thigh & laughed: “That’s right, by God! The Miami boy!”
I was stunned. He not only remembered the play, but he knew where Miller had played in college.
–Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
PITBULL (rapper, relentless self-promoter, multi-product endorser)
Pit, I said, You were Uncle Luke’s protege. You had the whole city behind you. Via your pitiable heart the world could’ve intuited something of Miami’s! And you literally traded it all away.
He grabbed my glass, shook it to toll the one unmelted cube. The woman fetched another vodka.
He calmly mentioned that he was the one who got the key to the city two and a half years ago. “I was up there shaking hands with city fathers, man, you know? Me.” Not young Pit, he meant. Mr. Worldwide, the rebrand. Miami, he reminded me, was built in the ’80s on flight capital. It was sold and resold depending on the street price of coke, the exchange rate, who was in power where. Transfer payments, Pit said. Drug money and life savings; condominiums, vacations, and retirement homes. “Shit’s the same thing.” Our economy was built on convincing people to bring and invest and squander the wealth they made elsewhere. “So now of course, I can’t just talk about the city,” he said. “Can’t just be, ‘Oh, this is how Miami actually is.’ I have to give ’em the Miami they want. I have to get people to want to come down here and pay for it.”
–Kent Russell, Doggy Style, GQ, April 2012
WARD CHURCHILL (left-wing ethnic studies professor who called people working in the World Trade Center on September 11 “little Eichmanns”)
I tell him that for someone who’s not running for office, he sure sounds an awful lot like a politician, and that he’s in violation of my 90 percent rule, which states that 90 percent of people who say they have no response to a charge are guilty as charged. Churchill vehemently disagrees, citing prisons, in which “90 percent of people don’t belong there.”
“You don’t believe that,” I scoff.
“Wanna start counting them?”
I don’t. I’d rather order us more drinks.
As the night wears on, I feel transported back to my college days, when, on any given evening, you could end up in an off-campus bar with some batty radical professor, drinking, arguing, and throwing darts–at each other. Churchill and I, in repeated cycles, suffer through the classic three stages of happy hour: boozy bonhomie, injurious repartee, then schmaltzy reconciliation.
We find common ground on a few things. We agree that singer Townes Van Zandt is God, or was, until he drank himself to death. We resolve that Paul Newman characters make for good children’s names (Luke, Hud, etc.). We concur that one of the most satisfying lines in the English language (Churchill’s favorite) comes from Dashiell Hammett in The Dain Curse, when he describes a woman’s face as a “dusky oval mask between black hat and black fur coat.”
–Matt Labash, The Ward Churchill Notoriety Tour, The Weekly Standard, April 2005
MARION BARRY (four-term mayor of D.C. mayor, former federal inmate/cocaine smoker)
When I ask him what the biggest regret of his life is, he has only one woman on his mind: “Effi.”
He’s referring to the late Effi Barry, his third wife and mother of his son, Christopher. Effi was an elegant former model with an aristocratic bearing, best known for sitting by Barry every day during the six-week Vista trial, hooking a rug in supportive silence, while a parade of witnesses detailed sex’n’drug specifics that would’ve caused any normal wife to have a stroke.
She stuck with Barry for a while longer, then left him before he went to prison. They remained close, however. And he says that in the years before she died of myeloid leukemia in 2007, they even talked about getting remarried. The depth of his affection for her was evidenced from what he said at her funeral at National Cathedral: “I was not late, this time, Effi. I was on time.”
One afternoon, in Barry’s City Council office, after a vigorous interrogation, he says, “Wanna go to lunch? I ain’t got no money. Card’s still messed up.” Before we do, however, he walks over to a framed photo of him with a laughing Effi at a chamber of commerce dinner. “Come look at this over here. Look how fine she looks. Yeah, my God.” I ask if he misses her. “Absolutely,” he says. “I do. I miss her. For about the last ten years or so, I didn’t dream. After my transplant, I started dreaming again. I dream in color. The toxins are out of my body. . . . Two or three nights ago, I dreamed about her.”
I ask what he dreamed. “I don’t want to get into that,” Barry says, as he often does about subjects he brings up.
–Matt Labash, A Rake’s Progress, The Weekly Standard, Sept. 2009
MICHAEL SAVAGE (conservative radio talker who once told a prank caller, “Oh, you’re one of the sodomites. You should only get aids and die, you pig”)
While Limbaugh addresses the faithful, sometimes with a wink, Savage’s show is self-conscious in a different way. He freely acknowledges the difference between his life on the radio and his life off it. (“Twenty-one hours a day I live in misery,” he once said, when he was feeling unusually cheerful, or unusually glum—it can be hard to tell. “Three hours a day I’m happy.”) And he keeps listeners apprised of his rapidly shifting emotions and of his various states of physical not-quite-wellness. During one memorable broadcast, he opened his mail and found an envelope from a relative containing a picture of his father. “I’m older than he was when he died,” Savage said, and then he held forth on the inherent certainty and uncertainty of death. He sounded rattled. “I ate nuts during the break, I got this picture, now I’m having palpitations,” he said. Trying to recover, he briefly discussed Sunnis and Shiites (“I don’t ever want to know the difference”), but found himself distracted, again, by the photograph. “He looked good—look at him,” Savage said, as if he were expecting his listeners to agree. “Lotta good it did him.”
–Kalefeh Sanneh, Party of One, The New Yorker, August 2009
Rove’s intellectual hero is James Madison; his only child is named Andrew Madison Rove. The first time we spoke, I asked him about Madison’s Federalist No. 10, which is about “curing the mischiefs of faction” (by “faction,” Madison meant, roughly speaking, what we’d call “interest groups”). “Very good! Very good!” Rove boomed out, and then he elaborated, defending interest groups as being supportive of the national interest: “I think this goes back to the definition of ‘faction.’ I don’t think Madison was contemplating, you know, the American Dry Cleaners Association. I think he was thinking about farmers, or tradesmen, or people who lived in the mountains, or planters, or seacoast dwellers, or townspeople, or land speculators, or stockjobbers. So I think he was thinking of it in a different way, much closer to what I’m suggesting is the proper way to think about it, than in the way that some look at modern American politics. It’s not so much that the farmer says, ‘I have to have $5.6 billion in drought relief,’ as it is ‘Do you recognize the importance of animal husbandry and of rural America?’ and ‘Do you have something that gives me hope for my future and for the future of my children?’ The implication that, in No. 10, Madison is saying that groups are driven by their interest and there’s only one way in which their interest can be satisfied, I think, is incorrect.”
–Nicholas Lemann, The Controller, The New Yorker, May 2003
KIM DOTCOM (file-sharing magnate facing charges for digital piracy)
Kim is a large man, but tonight he seems as vulnerable as a child beyond rest. He’s in a reflective mood and wants to talk, long into the night. He remembers so clearly how difficult it was to rise again after his takedown in Germany, the effort it had taken to emerge with a new dotcom business and a new Dotcom name. Megaupload was to be a dynasty for Kim Dotcom’s children to build on; Kim.com would provide the legacy of Kim Dotcom himself. He’d rekindle the ashes of Kimble.org to debut a site that revealed Kim as a self-made Ozymandias of a digital empire, an inspirational builder of worlds. After years of work, his mega-monument was nearly complete.
“But what sort of inspiration could I be now?” Kim asks. He will win the case against him and get his money back too. And then?
His wife is young and beautiful. “And me?” Kim says. I’m …” He gestures to himself. If the case drags on, if they are stuck for years in this dull empty mansion, Kim worries about the strain on his marriage. He isn’t so keen on his prospects either.
–Charles Graeber, Inside the Mansion — and Mind — of Kim Dotcom, the Most Wanted Man on the Net, Wired, October 2012
ROGER AILES (the mind behind Fox News)
“Now look at Megyn.”
By “Megyn,” he means, of course, Fox fox Megyn Kelly, the meanest of the mean girls, the heaving, sumptuous blond with the wide-set eyes, the briskly triangular chin, and the porno sneer she directs at ill-fated liberal guests. Roger Ailes loves Megyn Kelly (in a fatherly way, of course): “She’s a host.For one thing, she’s fearless — she’d crawl down a smokestack for a story. But look at the way she moves. She’d move like that if she was arguing at the dinner table. Very natural. O’Reilly’s the same way. He’s an Irishman who likes to argue. He’d do it anywhere. We just found a way for him to do it on TV.”
Now, if you talk to some other network people, they’ll tell you that Roger’s not exactly the first person to figure out that people would rather look at pretty girls reading the news than plain ones. “Roger’s just willing to go further than anyone else,” one industry insider says. “He takes the obvious further than anyone else. Everybody else goes halfway, and they wind up looking foolish.” Roger, however, has a different take. He is able to hire authentic talent — that is, talent who have the ability to appear authentic in front of a camera — because he himself is authentic. “I’m not trying to be anyone,” he says. “You know why other executives always hire phonies? Because they’re phonies. They hire phonies because they like phonies. They’re comfortable with them.” It’s the same reason they all hire left-wingers — “because they are left-wingers.”
–Tom Junod, Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?, Esquire, January 2011
ANDREW BREITBART (right-wing Internet impresario)
He says that he is “blissful” when he is on the Internet. “When I see orchestra conductors caught up in the ecstasy and the fury of the moment—in which they have the trombone guy over there, and the oboe guy over there, and somehow it’s all working out—to me it feels that way, a lot of the time,” he told me. “I believe that my brain chemistry has changed as a result of this, mostly for the better. I am sated. I am complete in this environment. This is the environment I needed in order to become what I needed to become. With the Internet, I have communication with large amounts of people, in perpetuity. Always having a new war, a new battle.”
–Rebecca Mead, Rage Machine, The New Yorker, May 2010
The former champ picked up a bird and held it firmly in his fists, fondling its feathers. He walked toward the edge of the roof and tossed the pigeon, underhanded, into the sky. It took a moment to right itself, banked to the left, and then burst upward to join the rest of the flock. Tyson thought back to the first punch he ever threw, when he was ten years old. “I was with my friends and we robbed this person’s house,” he said. “I had, like, sixteen hundred bucks in my pocket, and I was in this pigeon shop, and I wanted these birds so bad.”
–Reeves Wiedeman, Feathers, The New Yorker, March 2011
INSANE CLOWN POSSE
I suddenly wonder, halfway through our interview, if I am looking at two men in clown make-up who are suffering from depression. I cautiously ask them this and Violent J immediately replies. “I’m medicated,” he says. “I have a lot of medicine that I take. For depression. Panic attacks are really a serious part of my life.” He points at Shaggy. “He’s gone through some things as well.”
“You do a show in front of how many hundreds or thousands of people.” Shaggy nods. “You’re giving your full being, your soul, to every person in that crowd, every pore in your body is sweating, you’re fighting consciousness, just to get it out of you, and after the show all your fans are partying, ‘Yeah! Rock and roll!’ And you’re just here.” He glances around the dressing room. “You’re just fucking sitting here.”
–Jon Ronson, And God created controversy, The Guardian, October 2010
NICK DENTON (founder/CEO of Gawker Media)
“Nick is a bit of a sphinx on purpose,” Joel Johnson, the longest-serving Gizmodo writer, said. “He has some of the attributes of the dork who wraps his Asperger’s around him like a cloak.”
“There’s no point in writing about Nick if you can’t get to the fundamental problem of his nihilism,” Moe Tkacik, who has worked at both Gawker and Jezebel, said.
“He likes pretty things,” Daulerio said.
“He takes cancer very seriously,” Sicha said.
“He wants to be Warhol,” McClear said.
“He’s always wanted to be a magazine editor,” Welch said. “He’ll deny it to his grave.”
“What he really wants is to be the editor of the New York Times,” Spiegelman said.
None of these people really dislike Denton, and some of them are quite fond of him. With old friends, particularly those outside the blogging world, he is “curiously loyal,” as Gapper says, even if he is also “ruthless, actually, in lots of ways.” Several people mentioned that they’d sought Denton’s approval before agreeing to talk about him. “Be interesting,” he invariably responded. Denton once chided his boyhood friend David Galbraith for marvelling to a reporter that at the age of thirteen Nick was already reading The Economist. Galbraith’s crime was to come off sounding “too suburban.” Denton preferred that I not talk to his sister, Rebecca, because “she’s going to give you empty nothings,” as he put it. He also seems uncharacteristically protective of her privacy. Rebecca is three years younger than Nick, and lives in London. “She looks after her kids and writes children’s books,” he said. She used to call him Tricky Nicky, or so he says.
–Ben McGrath, Search and Destroy, The New Yorker, October 2010
RIDDICK BOWE (brain-damaged boxer who served 30 days in prison and 6 months of house arrest for abducting his estranged wife and kids)
The phone rings. Bowe answers: ”World’s finest, Big Daddy, here. Be brief.” He listens a few minutes, grunts, then hangs up. ”Guy wants to invest my money,” he says. ”All day I get these calls.” One of the few fighters who seems financially set for life, Bowe doesn’t understand the less frugal in his profession. ”You make $1 million, you tell me you can’t live on the 6 percent — $60,000?” Bowe says. ”I once had this brother ask me why I was training so hard. He said, ‘You just gonna be back in the ghetto with us.’ I’m so afraid of losing my money and seeing him back in the ghetto. It ain’t gonna happen.”
He turns his attention back to the screen, where the former champions are chatting around a table. Except for Foreman, they’re all hard to understand. ”It’s funny: listen to those guys, they’re all punchy,” Bowe observes. ”And they did it to each other, punching each other. Ain’t it something?”
For someone with a diagnosis of brain damage, Bowe has a lucid grasp on the realities of his former profession. ”You realize you’re taking a chance,” Bowe says. ”You may not come out as you went in. You may slur. You may not remember things. That’s part of the risk.”
His evaluation of his own career is also dead-on. ”Once I won the title and took care of my family, I didn’t care as much,” says Bowe, who bought homes for nearly all of his siblings. ”That’s why I respect Ali and Holmes so much: they did it for a long time.”
He then asks a question. ”I don’t talk that bad, do I?” I tell him his voice is thicker and raspier than when he was champ. Bowe pauses. ”But that could be caused by a lot of things, right?”
–Stephen Rodrick, Can Riddick Bowe Answer the Bell?, The New York Times Magazine, October 2000
DAN SNYDER (unpopular owner of the Washington Redskins who filed a $2 million libel suit against the Washington City Paper after it ran “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder”)
Like Jerry Jones, Snyder has been transparent in his desire to be a football guy. He sometimes watches film and likes to talk shop with football staffers and agents. One of the central complications in working for Snyder is that he has so few close friends that his football guys, by proxy, become them, which is why he took Allen and Shanahan to the Bahamas to celebrate the RG3 trade. “He merges personal and business,” says [ex-Redskins COO Dave] Donovan. “Meetings turn into dinners, which turn into movies at his house, which turn into meetings again.”
During the day, Snyder might call a staffer into his office and ask him to light a cigar, just so the owner, who quit stogies years ago, can revel in the smoke. He is a night owl, wired on Diet Mountain Dew, so an employee might get a call at 4 a.m. If it’s an 8 a.m. call, watch out; that means he hasn’t slept. But while almost all associates prefer to talk off the record, fearing Snyder’s wrath, most don’t trash him. Many see a well-intentioned but distrusting boss who is nothing if not consistent. He always goes big and lives and dies with the results. Donovan, now a partner at a DC law firm, says that during his six years with the Redskins, “Dan didn’t change. My understanding of him changed.”
Snyder can be petulant, gnawing on an unlit cigar and grinding the wet end into someone’s neck. He can be thoughtful; after Chris Wallace’s father, Mike, the legendary 60 Minutes reporter, died in April, Snyder was one of the people who sent Chris a card and flowers. He can flaunt his status, sometimes having his driver drop him off at the front door of Redskins Park instead of at his parking space 10 yards away. And he can be generous. A few years ago, Snyder scored an advance copy of Star Trek and hosted Donovan’s family at his home theater. The Snyders greeted their guests wearing pointy ears made from aluminum foil. “I thought, If people could see this,” Donovan says.
–Seth Wickersham, A thin line between love and hate, ESPN The Magazine, October 2012
HANK WILLIAMS JR. (a.k.a. “Bocephus,” the guy who used to sing the Monday Night Football theme song; son of legendary country singer Hank Williams, father of talented country singer Shelton Hank Williams III)
As the bus rolls on, Hank-3 sets to talking about his dad. I mention that Hank Jr. wouldn’t be interviewed for this story, and Hank-3 says, yeah, well, what can you expect? Typical. He admits he got a shitty deal from Hank Jr. as a kid. Yeah, he was the dumped son. Yeah, he barely knows the guy at all. He remembers visiting with his dad once when Bocephus was on tour, back when Shelton wasn’t more than 11 years old. The wildness and thrill and terror of it. All those drugs and women everywhere. Roadies used to give Shelton “finger sips” of their drinks—letting him dip his little fingers in their bourbon and lick it off. They’d leave him in a room with a half-dressed woman and tell her to “let the kid have some fun.” He remembers another time, when arrangements were made for him to meet his father at some airport for a brief once-a-year rendezvous and “I made my mom stop to buy me a cowboy hat so he would be proud of me, and just that one stop made us ten minutes late. So he was already gone by the time I showed up. And then I was left to cry all day about it.” He remembers asking his dad for a new material possession only once—a new drum set. Hank Jr. said, “Geez, son, I don’t know. That sounds pretty expensive.” And this, Shelton says, “from a guy who was making $80,000 a night in concessions alone!”
All of which makes it even stranger that the position Shelton Hank Williams always takes with his father in the end is that of defensive linebacker.
Conceding his own sadness at not having a dad to speak of, he then steps up to defend Hank Jr.’s character. (“Think of how hard it was for him to grow up under that shadow!”) He defends Hank Jr.’s music. (“He can play every instrument on that stage, and he’s a great performer.”) He even defends Hank Jr.’s decision to cut baby Shelton out of his existence. (“How could he know how to treat me? He never had a father. And with me being the kid of the divorce, he’s always bound to have some resentment about me.”)
Such a weird, sympathetic stance. But if you take a closer look at Hank Jr., you’ll see that he is the person here most in need of a sympathetic perspective. Consider the difficulty of his situation. He spends his life struggling to create a self-identity in country music despite having a father whose discography is the very King James Bible of country music. He finally gets out from under his daddy’s firm thumb by becoming his own musician. OK, so he’s no Hillbilly Shakespeare, but he is the crown prince of beer-swilling redneck anthems and he is his own man at last. But no sooner does Hank Jr. get himself all commercially successful and separated from the original icon than this abandoned son of his shows up on the music scene, looking and sounding just like the old man, and creates a phenomenally good debut album. And every serious music critic in the country suddenly starts saying, “Look like talent skips a generation.” What an unexpected blow. What a cruel double-whammy ego slam. You’re pretty good boy. But you’re not as good as your daddy.
Oh, and by the way—you’re not as good as your son, either.
–Elizabeth Gilbert, The Ghost, GQ, December 2000