Interviews December 2007

Thinking in Real Time

Andrew Sullivan speaks candidly about why he supports Barack Obama, how he became a blogger, and why he's not afraid to change his mind.

The fact that you, as a conservative, are standing behind Obama is obviously going to raise some eyebrows. But your brand of conservatism has always been a bit hard to pin down. When your book The Conservative Soul came out last year, Bryan Burrough pointed out in a Washington Post review that it was not a book for anyone who belonged to the Elks Club or had ever read Ann Coulter.

It didn’t sell like Ann Coulter, either.

Do you feel that you occupy a lonely niche?

It’s not only lonely but it gets lonelier by the day. One’s only hope is that the manifest failure of the alternative will eventually lead people to come and take a look at what I’ve been saying and to reconsider it. The response to my book last year from the right—such hostility and defensiveness and refusal to even engage in a dialogue. Now, maybe on my blog I’ve ticked them off so much over the years that they don’t want to talk to me. But the ideas in it, if you separate them from the person, are still worth considering.

Your blog also puts you in a unique position. Everyone knows all the ins and outs of your thinking, because you have to be extremely prolific every day.

And provisional. I mean, you write provisionally on a blog in the way you don’t in an essay.

If you’d stayed at The New Republic, writing only print articles, do you think your identity as a public figure would have evolved in the same way?

Oh, God, I have no idea, Jennie. It just happened. I certainly didn’t expect to be having to have an opinion every 25 minutes about things I obviously cannot be an expert in.

I think a lot of writers feel that way. A couple of weeks ago, I heard James Fallows speaking to a group of China experts at the Hay Adams hotel, and he kept prefacing his comments by saying, “This is my opinion as of noon on October 16th. I might believe something completely different in the future.” For you, though, it’s quite literal—your opinions and ideas come out with an actual time stamp, and people monitor them hour by hour.

And you make errors. Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago, I was grappling with the nomination of Michael Mukasey. When he first started talking, I was like, “Good God, this is fantastic.” After a couple of days, having read the testimony, thought about it, and raised different views, I came to a different conclusion.

Anybody whose instant response to events is the only response they ever have is—well, George W. Bush. You never have to revise or reconsider anything you’ve ever said or believed because there’s no such thing as a mistake; there’s no such thing as doubt. There’s just “truthiness.” That’s why Stephen Colbert is such a genius, because he’s captured the essential insanity at the heart of our culture right now.

So, yes, you have to get off your high horse, you have to accept that you are going to make a fool of yourself. But you know, having done it now daily for seven years, it’s hard to know how it’s changed me. I’m too close. And after all, the thing about blogging is that it’s never been done before. So we don’t know—we may all end up going mad. It gets pretty close to that at times. Even when people wrote fantastic diaries in the past, they didn’t expect the whole world to be reading each entry that very day.

And they, or someone else, had the chance to edit them before they were published.

Well, the great thing about Samuel Pepys’s diary, for example, is that you find, “I’m never going to sleep with that whore again”—two days later, “I slept with that whore again”—two days later, “I will never sleep with that whore again.” You can see the human being—inconsistent, incoherent, and, to some extent, a mess. But that’s what a human being is.

I like the way Whitman put it: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Right. It doesn’t mean that Pepys was stupid or that Pepys couldn’t, in the long run, deduce certain coherent ideas and argument and thoughts. It just means that when you live in the world—a temporary, provisional world—you’re a temporary, provisional being. I think the blog, in its defense —my blog at least —is very candid about that. It doesn’t pretend any great deal of authority.

Do you think the blog, as a news source, is ever going to replace the newspaper or the magazine?

I don’t think so. In fact, one of the interesting things about coming to The Atlantic in the last year or so has been realizing just what a fantastic and important future there is for a print magazine like The Atlantic. However, the online world is a different medium. It requires a different set of rules and a different set of expectations. What we have actually done here is to create what I would think of as a “blogazine” alongside a magazine, with some fallow ground in-between in which the two can interact but not merge. I think that’s the most coherent response to our emerging media.

Do you think all this blogging has changed the way you write for print?

It can only make you a better writer, practicing writing every day and making sure your sentences make sense and seeing the core argument that you’re making and editing. It’s a process that requires practice, and there’s no better practice than what I’m doing—none. I’ve written three quarters of a million words in 2007 alone. Of course, I didn’t write all of those words—a big part of what I do is to present and edit others’s opinions in order for the reader to have a portal to the world of the Web. But nevertheless, it’s a pretty insane amount of output.

Along with commenting on the news, you really put your life out there on your blog. Does that ever make you feel uncomfortably exposed? Or do you enjoy the fact you’re connecting with so many people in such a personal way?

I’ve always been a pretty candid person. I’m not a very secretive person; I’m not a very discreet person. One of my best friends once described me as pathologically indiscreet. The experience of being openly gay in my 20s and then getting a big job—I walked backwards into that. Then walking backwards into having one’s health crisis become public, which was just unavoidable.

Was it your own choice to make that so public?

It was when I left The New Republic, yes. Although frankly, at that point there were so many rumors that I think it would have been impossible to deny. In fact, one of the reasons I did come out was precisely to tell people, I’m not about to die. These are the facts. You find out in public life—and for better or for worse, I’m in public life—that if you don’t actively rebut an idea, especially around AIDS, which was, at the time, much more mysterious and threatening to people than it is today, then other people will write your story for you.

I wish in many respects I had more privacy. But I know I have no ability to ask for it at this point. There’s plenty about my life that’s not in the blog. It took many years, for example, for me to name my boyfriend, because I wanted to protect him and I’m pretty protective about the people in my life. I never write about Aaron without asking his permission, and normally it’s a very, very discreet mention. Mainly because if I tried not to mention him at all, it would seem even weirder. I can’t write about my private life without mentioning my husband.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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