‘My friends all say i’m going to be Secretary of State,” fareed Zakaria muses from a banquette in the Grill Room at The Four Seasons. “But I don’t see how that would be much different from the job I have now.”
The 39-year-old Newsweek foreign-affairs columnist is about to expand on this thought. But then Donald Marron, the former CEO of PaineWebber, walks over with Ken Duberstein, the former Reagan lieutenant, in tow. Cordial and courtly, Zakaria charms the two elder lions before picking up the thread of conversation. He’s not boasting. He’s comparing the core requirements of his job as a columnist—boning up on policy positions, balancing competing points of view, then making a clear, stick-out-your-neck decision—to the job of running the State Department.
Would he want the job? Before he can answer, Mort Zuckerman, who’s been having lunch with Ed Kosner, the editor of Zuckerman’s Daily News, heaves into view. Zuckerman praises the young man genuinely, then moves on. But a few feet away, at the top of the restaurant’s stairs, the real-estate developer and media dabbler stops to examine a blowup of the cover of Cosmopolitan, directing guests to an advertiser’s lunch in the Pool Room next door. Zuckerman considers the voluptuous model who seems to be staring at Zakaria with a smoldering look, then delivers his punch line: “This guy’s so hot even the cover girl wants to meet him.”
Fareed Zakaria may not be a sex symbol yet—or on anyone’s shortlist for secretary of State either (at least not this decade). But since 9/11, when he wrote a defining piece on the meaning of the terror attacks, he’s become one of the more influential and original voices on American foreign policy and politics. He’s an Indian-born, Yale- and Harvard-educated Muslim who moves easily between Condoleezza Rice and Pervez Musharraf, Tony Blair and Prince Turki Al-Faisal. He’s a conservative who is willing to question one of the most cherished principles of the West—democracy—but also a naturalized citizen who believes in America’s world-historical mission. And this week, he publishes The Future of Freedom, a contrarian book that mixes history and political analysis to make a case that individual liberty, not democracy, is the prerequisite for a nation’s economic and political growth. This just as the country wraps up a war to bring democracy to Iraq.
Dimple-chinned, with expressive eyebrows and a thick head of black hair, Fareed Zakaria could easily be the Indian reincarnation of Cary Grant. Certainly his manner is just as silky and unflappable. “I grew up in this world where everything seemed possible,” Zakaria says of his childhood in Bombay. Zakaria’s father, a leading politician, and his mother, who edited the Sunday Times of India, “knew everybody,” Zakaria says. “We saw the best architects, government officials, and poets all the time. Nothing seemed out of your reach.”
We all know the solution is the Clinton solution. There's a light at the end of the tunnel; there's just no tunnel. Nothing's going to happen until the U.S. presses the issue.
“There is no one in that family who is comfortable being ignored,” says Gideon Rose, a friend since college. That would include Fareed’s brother, Arshad, now the head of investment banking at Merrill Lynch.
Although they were practicing Muslims, the Zakarias shared the original Indian ideal of a secular modern republic—which tended to begin with a vigorous immersion in British culture. At the brothers’ school, each day started with Christian hymns. “I probably know the Book of Common Prayer,” he says, “better than most Anglicans.” Progressive India needed engineers, and the education system encouraged the most promising students to study math and the sciences. “The smart kids did science,” Zakaria says, “the rich kids did economics, and the girls did humanities.”
But when it came to college, Zakaria chose America, not Britain—“Culture follows power,” he says—and discovered that politics, not science, was his calling. At Yale, Zakaria joined the Political Union, “which was this bunch of nerdy politicos who’d stay up until four in the morning talking about whether or not Nixon should have imposed wage controls,” he says. Unable to let the subject pass, he adds: “The answer was, obviously not.”
The art historian John Berger coined the term vertical invader to describe the powerful force of Picasso’s talent on Parisian painting. Zakaria, too, was something of a vertical invader. “I would try to go head-to-head with anybody on whatever—Hegel, Kierkegaard, Metternich, Bismarck—whatever people wanted,” he recalls. “But I did have this whole other thing that I could also do: Nehru, Gandhi, and the Mogul Empire.”
Zakaria became a conservative, he says, from observing the Indian state. “People often say, ‘How could you, living in India, end up a Reaganite?’ Well, the answer is, live in India. There are two things that people don’t understand. One is the degree to which a highly regulated economy produces masses of corruption because it empowers bureaucrats. It just has to be seen to be believed.
“The second,” he continues, “is that you are very quickly inured to the charms of pre-industrial village life. Whenever someone says the word community, I want to reach for an oxygen mask.”
After Yale, Zakaria went on to Harvard for his Ph.D. in political science. “Watching him in the academy, he reminded me of Kissinger,” says Walter Isaacson, who met Zakaria hanging around Harvard Square while working on a biography of the controversial statesman. “Both have a great intellectual confidence, an ability to make brilliant conceptual connections, and a charm for attracting patrons. I mean that in a good way.”
Isaacson later recommended Zakaria for a job at Foreign Affairs, and not long after he was hired, Kissinger asked to meet the young man. “I discovered later that he bore a grudge because I had commented on some of Walter’s chapters,” Zakaria says. The meeting might have intimidated some, but “we had a scintillating time,” Zakaria says. “Kissinger was switched on for my benefit: dazzling erudition and all that.” The irony, he notes, is that “what I had told Walter is that I thought he was being too hard on Kissinger.”
The Foreign Affairs job brought Zakaria to New York, where he moved in with Arshad. “It was not at all a bachelor’s apartment,” says David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter and author of The Right Man. “It was furnished with Anglo-Indian artifacts his mother had picked out and sent to New York.”
The 28-year-old Zakaria was charged with bringing in younger voices to reinvigorate the magazine. But ironically, his biggest contribution to the publication’s revival was landing 70-year-old Samuel Huntington’s seminal essay “Clash of Civilizations?” (Huntington was Zakaria’s Harvard thesis adviser.) Zakaria and Foreign Affairs editor Jim Hoge became fixtures on The Charlie Rose Show, and Zakaria further built his reputation writing op-eds for the New York Times.
In 1999, Michael Elliott left the editorship of Newsweek International, and Zakaria, who had been writing regular columns for Newsweek, was offered the job. It was a great opportunity for the access alone. “It’s fun being able to get a meeting with anyone you’d like to talk to,” Elliott says. “When you go overseas, you’re a king.”
But being a king abroad wasn’t enough for Zakaria. “He’s extremely shrewd, and I don’t mean that in the negative sense,” says Paul Kennedy, who taught Zakaria history at Yale. Zakaria wanted a platform to craft his own public persona in America. Friends say he used the Newsweek International offer as leverage to get not only his bi-weekly foreign-affairs column in Newsweek (a major coup at a time when readers were more interested in pashminas than Pashtuns) but also syndication in the Washington Post.
“I urged him to move to Newsweek,” Kissinger says. “He has a first-class mind and likes to say things that run against conventional wisdom.”