A familiar proverb given to aspiring writers is “write what you know.” When Robert Draper was asked to write an article on the intricacies surrounding Clark Kent Ervin’s short-lived career with homeland security, he jumped at the chance to write about what he knew—Ervin was his high school debate nemesis. But as he researched the story, Draper realized that the teenage Ervin who had robbed him of oratorical glory differed from the principled, hard-working Ervin of today. Here, Draper talks about what he knows about writing and after weeks of research, what he knows about Ervin, politics, and the current state of homeland security.
texasmonthly.com: I heard that you felt called to writing at a very early age. Can you describe some of your first experiences with journalism and how you made a career of it?
Robert Draper: The truth is that I’d nurtured ambitions of being a writer—meaning a novelist—since I was in second grade but never considered journalism until 1975, when I picked up a copy of Texas Monthly and read Gary Cartwright’s story on Jack Ruby. At the risk of sounding propagandistic, that story and especially its pivotal lines—“If there is a tear left, shed it for Jack Ruby. He didn’t make history; he only stepped in front of it”—went through my adolescent skull like a Scud missile, permanently altering my career trajectory. What Gary’s piece taught me is that there are fictive techniques allowable in journalism. Magazines compete not with newspapers but with television and other entertainment media for a reader’s time, and so it’s necessarily a dramatic medium. But it takes a very long time to learn how to write long-form magazine journalism, and I suffered more years in the wilderness than I care to recount. My first year as a staff writer at Texas Monthly in 1991 involved a very steep learning curve. I absorbed so much by osmosis—working alongside Greg Curtis, Mimi Swartz, Skip Hollandsworth, Jan Reid, Jan Jarboe, Paul Burka, and the inimitable Cartwright—that by the end of that year, I really think I understood exactly what works as a magazine piece, while at the beginning of ‘91 I didn’t have a clue. I remember spending my first two months at TM working on a crime story that didn’t pan out. Then my next story wound up on the cover. This, of course, is what’s great about magazine journalism: You can redeem yourself semi-instantly.
texasmonthly.com: You have written two books, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History (Doubleday, 1990) and Hadrian’s Walls (Knopf, 1999), in addition to writing for periodicals such as Texas Monthly and GQ. Which do you think is harder to write, fiction or non-fiction? Why?
RD: Fiction is a great deal more challenging. You can’t rely on a pre-established order or on data you’ve collected from interviews. You’re flying blind through the world of imagination. When it works, there’s nothing more exhilarating, at least for me. Process-wise, I can sit at my computer and spend a dozen hours at a stretch on a work of journalism but only half that time on fiction—it’s just too damned grueling. I’ve found that the two writing forms are tonics for each other. At times I get frustrated when facts don’t cooperate with the pat story line I’ve envisioned for a magazine story, or when people don’t supply sufficiently jazzy quotes. The remedy for this is fiction (clearly labeled as such, of course). And after several excruciating months of writing a novel, there’s no better balm than a reality-based enterprise involving characters who exist and previously known events.
texasmonthly.com: I’m told you are currently working on a sort of “official unauthorized” biography of George W. Bush. How did you get the presidential access required to do this kind of research?
RD: I’d describe what I’m up to as a literary biography of Bush’s presidency. It happens that his administration is cooperating to a degree it hasn’t with anyone other than Bob Woodward, and I suspect this is because I’ve made it clear, both in stated intentions and in my past work, that I’m not interested in rendering some authorial judgment of President Bush. I’m not even particularly interested in my book making news per se. Instead, I’m hoping to supply a readable work that captures the drama inherent in his episodic presidency. Thus far, there have been more than a hundred books that bear the name George W. Bush, but I think my approach is distinctive and I’m gratified by the access I’ve received thus far.
texasmonthly.com: How did the story on Clark Kent Ervin evolve? Was it your idea? What did your initial blueprint look like?
RD: Paul Burka of Texas Monthly dropped me an e-mail, saying I should consider the idea, and it took about three seconds for me to make up my mind. As the story makes clear, I’ve known Ervin from a past life, and I had trouble reconciling the slick fellow with whom I’d been acquainted with this courageous watchdog. I tend to gravitate toward stories containing some core mystery, and this is one that grabbed me on a personal level. So while attending the president’s inauguration for my book, I paid Clark a call, and he was happy to receive me. We spent two hours in his office, and it was clear to me that there was a legitimate story here. I was also immediately impressed with his candor—not only for its own sake, but also insofar as it revealed Ervin as someone wholly different from the guy I’d once known.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend on the article? As a published author, do you find your process is more prose-oriented than the average journalist?
RD: I accomplished the story in about three weeks—about half of that spent doing interviews, the other half laboring over the manuscript. That’s a pretty quick turnaround for a feature story, but when I was a staff writer for Texas Monthly, I often moved stories through the editorial pipeline at that rate. For a story like this, with a central character and a predefined story line, the wind is at the journalist’s back. It also became very clear very early on who would be willing to talk and who wouldn’t—and unfortunately, very few would talk on the record about Ervin’s travails at DHS. As for my prose, those who edit me will likely confirm that I’m guilty of overwriting. But I’ve tried to harness the purple verbiage in recent years.
texasmonthly.com: In the piece you talk about high school run-ins with Ervin in the debate circuit. When was the last time you had seen Ervin before embarking on this piece? Were you expecting to meet the “little twit” of your high school days when you interviewed him? Did your impression of him change as you worked on the article?
RD: I hadn’t seen Ervin in 29 years, though I was aware of his professional trajectory. I meant the “little twit” reference in fun, but it’s true that I always eyed Clark with a certain bemusement, seeing him largely as a glib flatterer rather than as a person of real substance. (Plus, let me be clear about this: I was robbed in that semifinal round against him!) Needless to say, I’d given him short shrift: Ervin’s not only enormously bright but also a dedicated worker who has earned respect wherever he’s landed. Ervin’s mannered ways tend to arouse cynicism. But I’ve come to see him as genuine—and, additionally, as a genuine patriot.
texasmonthly.com: Ervin’s failed Senate confirmation seems to illustrate the old adage—what can go wrong does go wrong. Did Ervin have a tragic flaw that exacerbated the situation, or was it all just a matter of unfortunate chance?
RD: I think—and this is only my opinion—Ervin seized his mission with the kind of relish one doesn’t ordinarily see in inspectors general, and that zealotry struck some as grandstanding. Their interpretation of his acts was probably unfair, but in Washington, perception is reality. As to what stalled his confirmation, that remains a mystery both to me and to Ervin. At bottom, I have to think he rubbed Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairperson Susan Collins the wrong way. That she wasn’t able to get past that and look instead at Ervin’s considerable accomplishments is regrettable.
texasmonthly.com: This article is not merely a profile of the rise and fall of Ervin, but a commentary on a much larger issue: a government that is loath to criticize itself. How do you go about interweaving issues of policy and personality?
RD: I agree that there’s a cautionary aspect to Ervin’s saga. It’s likely people will point to his demise as further proof that the Bush administration won’t truck with people who criticize or otherwise create discomfort for it. To me, the likelier explanation for Ervin not being renominated is classic Beltway realpolitik. When you consider that a) the administration needed Collins’s assistance on key legislative issues like the Intelligence bill, b) there were other more critical appointees requiring attention and, yes, c) Ervin hadn’t done the administration any favors, in hindsight one can see why they cut bait and let Ervin’s nomination drift away.
texasmonthly.com: You end the article by noting that in the final analysis, Ervin was right in his criticisms of the Department of Homeland Security. Do you think the new inspector general will have greater luck improving the department? How do you think this department needs to be reformed to guarantee the greatest level of security for Americans?
RD: Well, I think it’s noteworthy that the new IG isn’t “out there” like Ervin. That office’s reports aren’t proactively issued to the press as Ervin once did; the approach is much more passive now, and that may play better. Also, Tom Ridge is out as DHS secretary and his replacement may be more receptive to the IG’s input. As for reforms, DHS isn’t a hoary old institution like the State Department, but instead a somewhat slapdash amalgam of 22 subagencies. Getting them on the same page requires attitude adjustment (e.g. turf war avoidance), but most of all, time. Whether our national security can abide DHS’s growing pains remains to be seen.