150 Years Of The Atlantic December 2006

American Icons

This is the eleventh in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent.
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No one in their right mind wants to be profiled by a good writer. It’s like playing Russian roulette with your character. Just as a mirror, photo, or honest sketch inevitably shows us things about ourselves that we don’t like, how much more telling is a portrait in words, the subtlest of tools, aiming not only at surface but at essence? And no matter how skilled and well-intentioned, the writer will fail. Getting the subject wrong is guaranteed, because the essence of anyone is evanescent, a mystery even to himself. The egotistical will be disappointed, the modest appalled.

When I was a newspaper reporter, and much younger, I wrote plenty of bad ones. It is a standard assignment: profile the prominent figure passing through town. The challenge is usually perceived as an effort to wrangle access, an audience or an interview, and the forgettable story that typically follows consists of a faithful account of that brief encounter. This is still what passes for a profile in most magazines. It took me a while to learn that the encounter and interview were often the least valuable aspects of the story. What mattered far more was observation, research, and above all, insight. Personality and character are revealed less in words than in action. In some of the best profiles ever written the writer never talked to his subject.

That’s true of at least two of the writers below: Robert A. Caro, whose bit here about young Lyndon Baines Johnson is just a snippet from one of the best (though still-unfinished) biographies ever written of an American president; and Norman Mailer, who has said that after his friend Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe, the subject of his profile, he hoped the playwright would invite him to dinner—“so that I could steal her”; the invitation never came. What matters most about any profile is not the subject per se but the way that subject is perceived by others, and ultimately by the writer. When you get the combination of a great subject and a great writer, the product isn’t just journalism or history—it’s art. —MARK BOWDEN

For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.

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