Of all the crass-comic characters in journalism history, Steve Brill may be the topper—certainly, he is the topper for our age.
This distinction comes from many attributes: his bullying, his relentlessness, his constant angling, his name-dropping (he really does know everybody), his up-front desire to be larger-than-life. Not to mention his pinstripe suits, bulldog face, and big cigars. It comes, too—and this is the unique and most era-specific part of the comedy—from his efforts to escape being a journalist.
At the age of 27, after working for this magazine (at 24, as a student at Yale Law School, he was writing the “City Politic” column), and after he had written a book about the Teamsters and, briefly, a column for Esquire about the legal business, he launched The American Lawyer, a gossipy national newspaper for lawyers (he managed to get the money to do this, he says, in one meeting with Associated Newspapers, the British newspaper group that was then backing Esquire). In ensuing years, he began acquiring local legal papers across the country. Then he started Court TV, the cable channel (he managed in half an hour to get Time Warner’s then-mogul-in-chief, Steve Ross, to back him in this venture, he says), which he sold or was forced out of (depending on who’s telling the story). Then, with some of Barry Diller’s money (as well as his own), he started a magazine, Brill’s Content, about the media, which, briefly, was the talk of the town. Then, with $10 million from George Soros, he started an Internet business, Contentville.com, that defied explanation. Then he partnered with Primedia (the parent of this magazine) in a grand but shortly aborted venture.
There are many reasons—not least of all the bullying—that have made media people, and especially other journalists, not love Steve Brill. But the main reason there is no love lost, I think, is that finally, he is just too exhausting. Always in your face. Always the presumptive boss. The preternatural big man. The consummate know-it-all. The total prick. And he just keeps coming. Now, in a startling break from his fevered, ever-onward-and-upward machinations, or—with a little critical interpretation—as part and parcel of his vast competitiveness, Brill has emerged from a year and a half of modesty and quiet since the termination of his business ventures with a book.
After begins on September 12, 2001, and chronicles, for nearly 700 pages, and on an almost day-by-day basis, the nation’s systemic response to 9/11. Insurance, philanthropy, security, infrastructure, transportation, lobbying, law enforcement. Never before has bureaucracy been the subject of such a sweeping, dramatic, and, in a way, loving portrait. The granular becomes epic.
At the very least, it certainly seems unfair, if not infuriating, that overblown Steve Brill could have the stick-to-itiveness and antlike attention to detail to produce such a massively researched, deeply compelling (in blurbers’ terms) “towering achievement” book—and to have done it in fifteen months (it’s really a five-to-ten-year-size work).
As generalizations go, it’s pretty fair to say that rich men (and Brill would have you think of him as a rich man), or at least powerful men, don’t write books (sometimes they have books written for them, of course, and sometimes they might dilettantishly go about writing a book—but I don’t mean that). Book writing of the climbing-the-mountain kind—with file cabinets filled with research stuff, elusive structures, endless typing, backaches—most always requires a person who is trapped by the job or the obsession. You sit at home in your bathrobe. Nobody talks to you. You must be, by temperament, not outward-looking (or you might be the face-pressed-to-the-glass type)—comfortable with, or resigned to, being estranged from the workaday world.