Remembering Michael Hastings
by Peter Goldman
When you get old, the bad-news phone calls are usually about your rough contemporaries—the people you grew up with, the people you worked with, the people you worked for, the people in your circle of family and friends. Calls like that hurt but rarely shock, or even surprise; their impact is cushioned by your understanding of their inevitability. But you’re never ready for a call like the one I got from our former colleague Katie Connolly a couple of weeks ago. Katie was in tears. Michael Hastings died, she said. In a car crash in L.A. at four-something in the morning. He was 33 years old.
He was just 27 when he and I first met in the summer of ’07, over a getting-to-know-you lunch near the old Newsweek offices on 57th Street. He’d been assigned to the reporting team for what turned out to be the last presidential election project, along with Katie, Daren Briscoe, Nick Summers, and our anchor, Eleanor Clift. I had only a thumbnail sketch of Michael’s background. I knew he’d done a tour in Iraq—had begged the assignment, in fact, because he felt unnoticed and adrift in the home office. I knew that his girlfriend, Andi, had got herself a job with an NGO and had followed him to Baghdad so they could be together. I knew they’d been planning their formal engagement when Iraqi insurgents blew up a car she’d been riding in, ending her life—and Michael’s dreams—in a tangle of metal and flame. I knew he’d written a book about the war and its terrible cost to him.
Haunted Eyes So I knew the back-story, but I didn’t know Michael until he’d slid into a seat across the table, and I first looked into his eyes. They were gray and red-rimmed; they were wary, they were intense, they were haunted, they were ineffably sad even when he laughed. I’d introduced myself to him as “the old guy who’s done this before,” which accurately described my role in The Project. But those eyes told me he’d seen more pain, more blood, more madness in his 27 years than I had in my 74.
I’d started on a glass of wine, and asked him if he’d like a drink. He said no. As he would tell me much later, he’d had a wild-child period in his late teens, culminating in a night in jail and an aborted five-day enlistment in the Marines. It was a place in his life he didn’t want to revisit, except perhaps to write about it one day, and he’d been sober ever since. We ordered lunch, we talked about The Project, we talked about him and his aspirations.
And we began what would be a long-running conversation about our shared experience of loss. The particulars were as asymmetrical as our ages. My wife, Helen Dudar, was in her seventies when she died; Michael’s fiancée-to-be, Andi Parhamovich, was in her twenties. Helen and I had been together for 42 years; Andi and Michael were only just getting started. I’d had five years to tame the pain, to reduce it to a dull background ache that’s still with me; Michael had had maybe six months.
I had begun healing; he was still walking wounded.
But grief was our first real patch of common ground, a shared place in the half-century generation gap between us. Once, as we were winding down a working dinner in DC, I asked him casually how he was doing. OK, he said, but his eyes flooded with tears. When we stepped out into the night, I threw my arm around his shoulders and walked with him in silence till we found him a cab.
Assignment Giuliani The Project didn’t work out for Michael the way we’d both hoped. I’d made a bad guess by assigning him to cover Rudy Giuliani, then the presumptive favorite for the 2008 Republican nomination. It looked at the time like a prize posting for a rookie political reporter, but the Giuliani campaign was a shipwreck, and Michael wound up on the beach before the end of January. I tried to keep his heart in the game with a series of low-yield spot assignments. To me, those assignments were insurance payments—I’d seen that he was good and knew we’d need him down the road. To him, they probably looked more like make-work.
He never complained; he got on the planes, he cornered the sources, he filed with the skill and the take-no-prisoners energy I’d already come to expect of him. But I can’t say I was surprised when he called late one Saturday evening that spring. It’s Michael, he said. I need to give you a heads-up. I’m going to the office on Monday morning to give notice. I’m leaving.
Bailing Out We talked deep into the night. His tone was apologetic—he was bailing in mid-Project, he was leaving me and the team in the lurch, he was sorry. He expected me to be angry. I wasn’t. You’re doing the right thing, I told him. He was underemployed on the project, and he didn’t really have a future at the magazine if he stayed on. His in-your-face carriage did not endear him to the retro editorial management of Newsweek’s Late Period and reporting, in any case, was beginning its slide to the bottom of their list of priorities. His book was coming out. GQ had bought excerpts and was eager to see more from him. He was putting down his marker as a writer with a young, vivid and original voice.
That’s your future, I told him. Not The Project, not Newsweek—you’re a writer. Go write. I quoted him a favorite line of mine from the young civil-rights marchers in the ’60s: Go where the spirit say go, do what the spirit say do. What you’re doing is right for you, I told him. Do what the spirit say do.
It wasn’t what he expected to hear, and I guess he wasn’t quite sure I meant it. Not long afterward, I got a call from Katie, probably his closest pal on the team.
Michael’s worried, she said. He thinks you hate him for quitting.
Hate him? I said. I love the guy.
He called me from Paris one late night a couple of years later. We’d been sporadically in touch by phone, trading news; with Michael, there was always plenty to catch up on. This time, though, he wanted to talk about General Stanley McChrystal. Michael was working on a Rolling Stone profile and had been invited to hang out
with the general and his staff on a trip to Paris. They’d spent some after-hours time together, everybody drinking except Michael—he was still on the wagon then. McChrystal and his crew had got indiscreetly mouthy about their nominal superiors in Obama’s Washington. Michael read me some highlights from his notes. The stuff was hot. Could he use it?
He wasn’t really asking; he knew me well enough to know what my response would be, and I suspect he just wanted to hear it directly from the old guy who’d done this before.
I asked the obvious questions.
Everybody there knew you were a reporter?
Did anyone say this gathering is off the record?
Were you recording it? Taking notes?
You’re a journalist?
Then go with it. You have to. Do what the spirit say do.
Rebel Spirit I had no doubt what that would be; the spirit that drove Michael was a rebel spirit, reckless of risk, careless of the etiquette of suit-and-tie mainstream journalism. Access to Important People was a one-off tactic for him, not a long-term aspiration; power was to be confronted, not courted. McChrystal and his crew doubtless assumed they would be rewarded for having granted Michael the pleasure of their company. They may even have thought they knew him.
They didn’t. He published the piece, leading with the rowdy stuff, following up with his own brilliant critique of America’s military adventure in Afghanistan. McChrystal got summoned to Washington and fired. Michael got a book contract and a Polk award. He was establishing what these days is called a “brand”—he was the Truth Teller, the no-fear reporter who would go anywhere, however dangerous, and take on anybody, however grand, to get the story. He’d found a new love, Elise Jordan; just over two years ago, they were married. His future was bright and getting brighter.
And then Katie Connolly called that night with the bad news, and the bright future all of us pictured for Michael faded straight to black. Conspiracy theories have flowered on the Web in the wake of his death; I suppose a parallax view of events comes all too easily to the citizens of a national-security state. What we know is that Michael was alone behind the wheel of a Mercedes Benz coupe, hurtling through the early-morning darkness at pedal-to-the-metal speed. The car crossed a median divider, hit a tree, and burst into flames. Our trade lost a great reporter, Elise Jordan lost a husband, and I’d lost a young and valued friend. Michael used to call me his mentor, when all I ever did for him was believe in him at a time when that was all he needed.
Peter Goldman was a senior editor and contributing editor at Newsweek from 1962 to 2008.