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Suskind's Neighborhood
A profile of author Ron Suskind.

September 2002

Like a drag racer making a pit stop, Ron Suskind slows his warp-speed soliloquy just long enough to answer the bleating, nagging telephone.

"Hello." Beat. "Will I take a call from Karl Rove?" he parrots back to a distant aide-de-camp. "You bet!"

This time, itís Rove—President George W. Bushís top political strategist—who is interrupting my interview with Suskind at his home in northwest Washington, D.C. Another time, it was someone from National Public Radio; they were looking for a new host for "All Things Considered." Countless other times it was sources, editors, friends. Later on came a doozy, someone weíd just been talking about, a big shot who calls only other big shots.

Ring, ring. Answer. Pause. "KAREN HUGHES!" Suskind roars (affably) into the handset and the ear of another key Bush adviser. Again I put down my pen and study the azalea bushes in the garden where weíve been sitting. Iím used to this by now.

And then Suskind, who had disappeared with the phone into his small cottage-cum-office behind his house, sits back down and says, "Where were we?"

I repeat my question. Off he goes again, popping a verbal wheelie and speeding dead ahead, riffing on politics, his influences, his upbringing, his books.

Passionate speeches. Boundless energy. Constant phone calls. Ron Suskind is a dizzyingly busy man. And thatís the way it should be, for someone who has won the Pulitzer Prize, who has written a bestseller, who appears on PBSís "Life 360" and ABCís "Nightline" and who is indubitably one of Americaís most successful journalists. Plug his name into an Internet search engine and youíll be scrolling through page after page. As a journalist, he is, well, hot. Very hot.

When I met Suskind one warm day back in April 2002, he was knee-deep in a piece for Esquire about how the West Wing of the White House (the real one, not the made-for-TV one) runs. Thus, the calls from Rove and Hughes. Never mind that Hughes had announced days earlier that she was quitting her post and moving back to Texas. Suskind, as appears to be his wont, made lemonade from a would-be lemon.

"It makes it better," he said of the effect of Hughesís resignation on his article. "Iíve been with her for her final two months here, with extraordinary and unique access, which no one else has had. Iíve even been in her house." What heís saying is that the Esquire piece will be a keeper. Itíll be, in a word, different than whatís been done before.

Suskind does "different" well. In 1998, he published A Hope in the Unseen, a gritty, unflinching tale of one young man who makes it out of a broken Washington, D.C., high school to Ivy League Brown University. The book on Cedric Jennings grew out of Suskindís 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning series for The Wall Street Journal and is written in an unusual, yet eminently readable, style: the narrator is entirely absent. There is a great deal of reporting "internal voice"—that is, the thoughts and feelings of a character without direct quotation. At a Brown "diversity workshop," for example, Cedric and some classmates are asked to come up with one word that they think defines them. His reaction to the exercise differs from the othersí.

"Why would anyone want to embrace being a victim, Cedric wonders. Even though heís probably the only true victim of circumstances in the room, being a victim is the last thing heíd want to celebrate. He looks down at the unmarked paper in his hand. One word? A thousand words wouldnít do justice to who he is, he decides, and crumples the scrap into a tiny ball."

Reviews of the book were mostly positive; the Chicago Tribune even dubbed Suskindís prose "the new new non-fiction." The New York Times, meanwhile, found fault with the style. "In a mystifying decision," wrote Times reviewer Sara Mosle, "Suskind has chosen to write his book entirely from the point of view of a dozen people, much of it in internal monologues... the approach finally prevents him from ever accounting for his own impact on Cedricís life." The author himself, unsurprisingly, believes the unorthodox narrative tone paid off.

But all this is technical. What was also different about the book was the chasm that the author crossed in order to write it. Suskind is white, middle-class and Jewish. Cedric, the subject of his book, is black, grew up in poverty and attended a Gospel-singing African-American church. Yet it is divisions like those that are a major—if not the major—theme of Suskindís oeuvre.

"My books," he says, including one that heís still working on, "are about cross-border conversations. Narratives that bridge divides."

His television work clearly has the same goal. On an episode of PBSís "Life 360," Suskind asks, "What is it Iím seeking?" after delivering a riotous, poignant video memoir of watching the 1969 moonshot with his family and a house full of strangers. The piece is all the more touching for Suskindís remembrance of his deceased father, who died of cancer when Suskind was still a boy. Viewers share the warm family embrace and the experience of a communal bond. He quotes his father, hustling the kids to the car: "He says, ĎEverybody in.í"

What is he seeking? Suskind looks at the camera. "A notion, I suppose, of the shared."

These are not, to be sure, the career preoccupations of an average journalist. No, Suskind is something more. He has arrived at something a bit higher than the scribeís workaday beat. For one thing, he is an author; a writer who gives the lie to Gertrude Steinís pronouncement that one canít make a living practicing "writing really writing." He is also a very gifted idealist, and his moral convictions (he worked on Democratic campaigns before becoming a journalist) inform his work. This is a man who shares royalties with the subjects—Cedric and his mother, Barbara—of his bestseller.

One doesnít begin in journalism, though, by penning riveting tomes. In fact, Suskind didnít even begin in journalism. When he was applying to law school while managing a U.S. Senate race in Connecticut, Suskindís wife-to-be, Cornelia, noticed his application essay. What she noticed (correctly) was that his heart didnít appear to be in the study of law—but that the essay itself was well written. Had he ever thought about just writing? "I said, no, not really, how does that work?" Suskind remembers.

It worked like this: Suskind started out the old-fashioned way, as a lowly copyboy (a "janitor," in his words) at the New York Times after graduating from Columbia Universityís Graduate School of Journalism. From there he did a stint covering crime at the St. Petersburg Times before moving north to edit Boston Business, a magazine. Boston is where The Wall Street Journal snapped him up. He wrote business stories for the pinstriped pages of the Journal—banking, finance—but with a special understanding that one day heíd broaden his focus. In 1993, that happened: Suskind moved to Washington, D.C., and, after covering welfare reform for six months, became senior national affairs writer. Thatís how he found Ballou High School, in southeast Washington, and in it Cedric, struggling to do better and get out.

Thereís much more to Suskind than A Hope in the Unseen (though itís surely his defining work to date). At the Journal, he penned articles on Amazon.comís book-ranking system, the booming offshore banking business on Grenada and the personality of Łber-investor Warren Buffett. Suskind "writes with equal passion and intensity about the underprivileged as he does about the privileged," says his friend, journalism school roommate and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Horwitz. "Heís as comfortable in a boardroom as he is on the streets of southeast D.C. This is a rare talent."

Indeed, Suskind is gregarious in person and has an arresting, hyperingratiating manner that must serve him well on reporting assignments. His gusto is that of a man who takes the stairs two, perhaps three at a time, and he is utterly without irony or archness. Were his speech written down, it would be forever littered with italics and exclamation points. Talking about his next project, a book on the Ibatan people of the island of Babuyan Claro in the Philippines, Suskind gets wound up: "Itís an amazing adventure story. Itís breathtaking. People die, storms hit, itís like The Tempest, itís like Melville and the people almost perish and they survive and itís about faith and itís just"—here he lets forth an incoherent, ecstatic "aahh!!"—"itís an amazing story."

Twenty-five years ago, the Ibatan, says Suskind, were among the last premodern people on earth. Babuyan Claro is about as far from southeast Washington (or from tony Boston) as you can get. Yet the Ibatanís, like Cedricís, is a story of "distance travel," the author says. In a piece on the island from the New York Times Magazine in December 2001, Suskind depicts the woozy, rapid sprint to modernity that the Ibatan have taken—from wearing clothes of pounded bark and fashioning health remedies from python gallbladders to building complex irrigation systems and watching the September 11 attacks on CNN. He begins the article, "A Plunge into the Present," with an arresting scene:

"Ruben Dican adjusts the television, as everyone waits. A picture comes into focus. Itís Bryant Gumbel. Thereís a shot of United Flight 175 ramming the south tower. Then itís run again. And again.

"It is Sept. 12 and 22 men, women and children sit, rapt, at the end of the earth. Theyíve never actually seen a skyscraper. Or a Bryant Gumbel. Or a plane, other than the tiny ones that infrequently alight on a grassy strip near the volcano."

Not exactly the stuff of pistol-toting, drug-dealing D.C., let alone a boardroom. And yet, in the authorís univer—his neighborhood, one might say—there is a connection here, a very Suskindian theme. How will the Ibatan change? What will change them? What distance will they cross?

"You know," he tells me, "so much divides us, almost evermore, and thatís why the books and the articles I write often have searing conflict in them." He continues purposefully: "Many of the ways we distinguish ourselves from others are self-interested, and at their deepest level, fallacious. I think we are all identical in the essential ways: our yearnings, our human yearnings, and I try to find some of that, always, along with the high drama of conflict."

As I was preparing to go, Suskind told me that he hopes readers will recognize among the Ibatan shades of themselves—in Frank, perhaps, a go-go innovator who Suskind calls the islandís Magellan. In understanding Frank, in understanding Cedric or his father or his mother, Suskind believes, weíll better learn the difficult art of the cross-border conversation. And build a world where neighbors talk to neighbors.

When I left Suskindís home, the phone was ringing, again. Suskind flipped me an "Iíll talk to you" sign, and grabbed the handset, disappearing into the house.

Off he went, as ever, to seek the shared.

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