Ari Berman: On Becoming a Political Writer
Going Off the Beaten Path for “Herding Donkeys”
by Cheryl Fusco JohnsonAri Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute.
Ari Berman, born in New York City, raised in Fairfield, Iowa, and a former high school journalism student of mine, recently penned Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). Released last month, his book has already garnered a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and laudatory comments from political writers Jonathan Alter, John Heilemann, Joe Conason, and Michael Tomasky. While visiting Fairfield recently to attend his ten-year high school reunion, Ari sat down with me for a chat.
When you attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, did you plan to become a political reporter?
When I went to journalism school, I was interested in politics but didn’t necessarily know that I wanted to do that. In my junior year, I studied International Affairs abroad in Geneva at the United Nations. This was the time the debate over the war in Iraq was going on in America. I was following it from afar and getting the European perspective on it. I was absolutely furious. I thought the case for war in Iraq was completely fabricated by the Bush administration. That seemed so obvious in Europe. When I was in Geneva, I realized the entire world’s agenda was dictated by what went on in Washington. You had to follow Washington if you cared about the rest of the world.
How did your career as a book author begin?
At The Nation, I wrote this blog called The Daily Outrage, and Nick Ellison, this pretty big agent from New York, liked those columns. He wanted me to compile all the Daily Outrages into a book and expand on them.
Why didn’t you?
I felt they weren’t good enough to be a book. After I started working at The Nation, people started telling me, “You should write a book.” And I said, “I’m not writing a book until I can write a good book.” Nick and I bandied about ideas. He wanted me to do a book about the culture of Washington; that was a great idea. For two years, I was in D.C. at The Nation’s Washington Bureau. I covered Capitol Hill. I was really familiar with domestic policy. My office was across the street from the Senate. I was in D.C. the day of Hurricane Katrina, and I left in September 2007 as the presidential campaign was heating up. But I didn’t want to immerse myself in Washington.
How did the idea for Herding Donkeys arise?
The Nation has a book imprint, and I’m friends with one of the editors. After the election, he said, “You should do a book about Howard Dean and the 50-state strategy. That was Obama’s strategy. Write a biography of the strategy.”
It was funny because literally at that moment I was doing an article saying that Obama’s strategy was Dean’s strategy. I had never really thought it could be a book, but why couldn’t it be? I felt passionate about it: it would be impactful. It wouldn’t be something people picked up one day and discarded the next. I wanted to write something durable. People can look at this in ten years and see what happened in this era.
I saw what Obama was doing as a natural outgrowth of what Dean was trying to do, which was change the [Democratic] party, get people involved, build a 50-state campaign. Get as many people involved in as many different ways in as many different places as possible.
I wanted to tell the evolution of that grassroots movement from Dean to Obama as a history. I knew it was relevant for today. I also knew this doesn’t end when Obama becomes president. I also wanted to look at what happens now. What happens next? That grassroots movement has been largely neglected by the Obama White House. The Republicans used Obama’s playbook better than he did.
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On Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010, at 7 p.m., Ari will read from Herding Donkeys at Prairie Lights Bookstore, 15 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City.
For more information about the book and website, visit http://herdingdonkeys.com/.
Addendum: On Oct 7, 2010, Ari Berman was interviewed on MSNBC’s Morning Joe about his book, Herding Donkeys, Howard Dean and the Democratic Party. Ari was also a KRUU host on Politickin’ with Ari for a year and a half and as of this posting will be the featured guest on Speaking Freely with Dennis on Thursday, October 12th at 1 pm, rebroadcast Thursday, October 14th at 8am. www.kruufm.com.
Ari also appeared on Dylan Ratigan’s MSNBC show for the first time this week to talk about Herding Donkeys on the topic of “Has Obama forgotten his campaign slogan?” It was a very interesting discussion and the producers nicely fit him in between the rescue of miners 22 and 23. Here’s the clip: http://herdingdonkeys.com/2010/10/14/dylan-ratigan/
You can buy Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics on Amazon and simultaneously benefit the Maharishi School, Ari’s alma mater, by ordering it from this website: http://maharishischooliowa.org/alumni/alumni-news/ari-berman.
UPDATE: August 2015
• Close to five years later Ari Berman published his second book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, which came out on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Publishers Weekly called it one of the most anticipated books of the fall, proclaiming: “Berman does a superb job of making the history of the right to vote in America not only easily understandable, but riveting.”
• On August 5 the New York Times featured an Op-Ed piece by Ari Berman: Why the Voting Rights Act Is Once Again Under Threat.
• On August 5 Democracy Now interviewed Ari Berman about voting rights: Give Us the Ballot: The Struggle Continues 50 Years After Signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And Part Two: Ari Berman: Virtually Every GOP Candidate Has Been on Wrong Side of Voting Rights Issues.
• On August 6 Ari Berman was invited to Washington, DC to participate on a distinguished panel commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. The presentations took place under the auspices of the White House in the presence of President Barack Obama. See photos below.
• On August 10th Ari Berman was interviewed on NPR with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross: Block The Vote: A Journalist Discusses Voting Rights And Restrictions.
• On August 12 The Fairfield Ledger ran a cover story: Fairfield native on White House panel. At the end of the article Ari says some nice things about the supportive community of Fairfield. “Even if you leave, you’re always connected to it,” Berman said. “A lot of my friends who were at the book launch were from Fairfield — Fairfield goes everywhere.”
• On August 13 The Fairfield Weekly Reader published an article: Give Us The Ballot: New book by Fairfield native Ari Berman receives early praise.
• On August 24 Sarah Begley mentioned Ari Berman’s book in her Time Magazine column, The Nutshell: Give Us the Ballot.
If you would like to keep abreast of Ari’s activities, there is an events calendar on his website, in addition to videos of his recent interviews and other updates. http://ari-berman.com/
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