As former Editor at Large and lead writer at Newsweek, Evan Thomas famously brought readers into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the 2004 presidential election, the primary campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and behind the scenes of the White House in the wake of the September 11th attacks. His reporting earned Newsweek several awards, including two National Magazine Awards. The author of eight historical books, Thomas’s most recent work, Ike’s Bluff, explores the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower in the emerging nuclear age. N Magazine reached out to Evan Thomas to see what lessons we can learn from President Eisenhower, as well as to hear what this prolific writer has to say about the future of the printed word.
N Magazine: Eisenhower coined the term the “military-industrial complex,” which referred to the incestuous relationship between the military and industries that supplied the military. Given how questionable our incursion in Iraq was, could it be that absent of any proven threat, the motivation was economic?
Evan Thomas: I do not think Eisenhower would have ordered the invasion of Iraq. If he had, I am sure he would have demanded over-whelming force during the occupation. Ike would not have wished to spend hundreds of billions on small wars that drag on and on. As president he avoided war and cut the defense budget by 20 percent.
N Magazine: One of Nantucket’s longtime summer residents and favorite sons is Secretary of State John Kerry. He appears to have hit the ground running. How do you think he is performing in his new role?
Evan Thomas: Senator Kerry has been training his whole life for this job. He has the talent and experience to be a great secretary of state. The key, of course, is good judgment. We won’t know the quality of his judgment until it is really tested in a crisis.
N Magazine: In Ike’s Bluff, you seem to have an affinity for Eisenhower and his moderate approach to government and politics. What would today’s Republicans say if Eisenhower were in office?
Evan Thomas: They wouldn’t know what to say. Ike is far more moderate than the GOP today. But he won two presidential landslides and averaged a 65 percent approval rating. Maybe a lesson there for Republicans?
N Magazine: Being a general seemed to have tempered Eisenhower’s willingness to cause mass casualties in war. How valuable is it in today’s world for a politician to have a military background?
Evan Thomas: It is not essential for politicians to have military backgrounds. Most don’t. But it’s also true that people who have not served in war are sometimes tempted to compensate—and to rush into conflicts best avoided.
N Magazine: In many ways, life was easier in Eisenhower’s time because we knew who the enemy was. The recent Boston Marathon bombers demonstrated how the enemy next door can be just as dangerous as a government-sponsored incursion. How would Eisenhower have dealt with the vagaries of today’s enemy threat?
Evan Thomas: Eisenhower would not have overreacted to public panic. As president, he worked behind the scenes to bring down Senator Joe McCarthy, the Red baiter who saw communists under every bed in the early 1950s. But he would have demanded a vigorous response from intelligence services. Eisenhower relied (possibly over-relied) on the CIA during his time in office and gave pretty much free rein to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. On the other hand, he was respectful of the Constitution and the power of the federal courts to protect individual rights.
N Magazine: The Republican Party seems to be in danger of working itself into extinction by virtue of the demographic shift in America. Do you see the party repositioning itself to better appeal to minorities who will soon compose the majority of American voters?
Evan Thomas: It is interesting to see the Republican Party, or rather some Republicans, come around to favor immigration reform. They know the GOP must win Hispanic voters in greater numbers.
N Magazine: In many ways Nantucket resembles America in the fifties. Would Eisenhower have felt at home on Nantucket?
Evan Thomas: Ike would have loved Nantucket. Especially if he played golf there!
N Magazine: You worked as an editor and writer at Newsweek, a magazine that has since gone out of print and moved online as “The Daily Beast.” What do you think the future is for printed magazines? Are magazines unique from newspapers? Will they defy media trends? Or do you think we will all be reading everything on a tablet pretty soon?
Evan Thomas: I think we’ll be reading on tablets pretty soon, just because the economics favor online, over the printed word. But I hope not—I still think magazines and books offer something the virtual world cannot. They’re easier to browse and skim and to selectively re- read. They can be companions as well as mere possessions.
N Magazine: You’ve written eight books. How do book festivals like the one we have on Nantucket bolster support for the printed word?
Evan Thomas: I am extremely thankful for the Nantucket Book Festival—and all book fairs. They remind us that there really are people who love to read and even listen to authors! I think there’s a lot of economic uncertainty in publishing. But one fact shines through: People are reading more, not less.