At the end of his life, Michael Hastings, like many of the progressive journalists he counted among his friends, felt besieged by an overreaching government. Hastings was living in Los Angeles, and at a Beverly Hills theater in April, he took part in a panel discussion about the documentary War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State. Interviewed in May on The Young Turks, a talk show on Current TV, Hastings railed against the Obama administration, which “has clearly declared war on the press”; the only recourse, he said, was for the press to respond: “We declare war on you.” On May 31, he dashed off an urgent tweet: “first they came for manning. Then Assange. Then fox. Then the ap.drake and the other whistle-blowers. Any nyt reporters too.” He attended screenings of his friend Jeremy Scahill’s film Dirty Wars, which seeks to expose “the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars,” and when leaks about the NSA began appearing in The Guardian, and Edward Snowden was charged with espionage, Hastings was deeply troubled by the revelations and the Justice Department’s response. On June 7, his last post for BuzzFeed, where he was a staff writer, focused on “Why Democrats Love to Spy on Americans,” and at the time of his death, Hastings was working on a profile of CIA director John Brennan for Rolling Stone.
It was for Rolling Stone, where Hastings had a contract, that he’d written “The Runaway General,” the 2010 article that resulted in the cashiering of General Stanley McChrystal, America’s commander in Afghanistan, and made his name as a journalist. Mark Leibovich, in this summer’s inside-the-Beltway big read, This Town, describes Hastings’s McChrystal piece as “the most consequential” journalism of 2010 and possibly Obama’s entire first term. But despite going after big game, Hastings tended to be nonchalant about possible repercussions. “Whenever I’d been reporting around groups of dudes whose job it was to kill people,” he said once, “one of them would usually mention that they were going to kill me.”
By the middle of June, though, Hastings, then 33, had become openly afraid. Helicopters are a common sight in the Hollywood Hills, but he had told Jordanna Thigpen, a neighbor he’d become close to, that there were more of them in the sky than usual, and he was certain they were tracking him. On Saturday the 15th, he called Matt Farwell, his writing partner, and said Farwell might be interviewed by the FBI. Farwell was unsettled. “He was being really cagey over the phone, which was odd, very odd,” Farwell says. On the 17th, Hastings e-mailed colleagues at BuzzFeed to warn them that “the Feds are interviewing my ‘close friends and associates’ ”; he was “onto a big story” and needed to go “off the rada[r] for a bit … hope to see you all soon.”
“He was deeply agitated,” says The Young Turks host Cenk Uygur. Since Hastings didn’t want to say anything more over e-mail or the phone, Farwell, who lived in Virginia, set up a lunch for him the following Thursday with a trusted friend of Farwell’s, also in L.A., so that she could pass along whatever Hastings had to tell him on her forthcoming trip East.
The lunch never happened. At 4:20 a.m. on Tuesday, June 18, Hastings’s silver Mercedes C250 coupe, speeding south on Highland Avenue, crossed Melrose, jumped the median, hit a palm tree, and exploded. The charred body of the driver was identified by the Los Angeles coroner as John Doe 117 until fingerprints confirmed that the deceased was Michael Hastings.
Sergeant Joe Biggs, who met Hastings in 2008, when the reporter, on assignment for GQ, was embedded with his unit in Afghanistan, hadn’t spoken to his friend in three months, but Hastings had BCC’d him on the June 17 e-mail to BuzzFeed colleagues. “I tried calling him when I got that e-mail,” Biggs says, “ ’cause I felt so fucking scared, because it didn’t seem like him.” Biggs e-mailed BuzzFeed, too. “They weren’t helpful at all. I kept e-mailing back, ‘What should we do? I’m not a journalist. I don’t know how to go about this stuff.’ They never responded to me.” Biggs tried contacting other media to let them know about the ominous e-mail; the only person who got back to him was a local L.A. reporter. “If that thing didn’t get released,” Biggs told me when I first called him, two weeks after Hastings’s death, “people would keep thinking it was an accident.”
Hastings lived as he died. On the small side, with blue eyes and scruffy good looks that suggested Jude Law’s little brother, he did everything fast: chain-smoking Parliament Lights, calling and e-mailing people late at night, speaking in a jittery torrent, churning out copy. (The first, long draft of his McChrystal article was a 48-hour production.) “The dude was exhausting,” Farwell says. “He just kind of vibrated energy. He had a deep well of moral outrage and sadness that I think goes back to a lot of the hypocrisy he saw and felt.”
After his death, there was an outpouring of grief. For all his abrasiveness, and sometimes because of it, he had endeared himself to a lot of people, and the posthumous adoration of Hastings’s colleagues was striking: Rachel Maddow attended his memorial service in Vermont; BuzzFeed established a national-security-reporting fellowship in his name; and last month, he was honored with the Norman Mailer Award for Emerging Journalist. His publisher, Blue Rider Press, recently announced that it will bring out a novel Hastings wrote some years ago, a roman-à-clef satire about his time working at Newsweek.
Most interesting was the viral fascination of strangers who, at a time when journalists rank lower than chiropractors in public opinion, saw Hastings as a valiant exception. What he stood for, to these people, was so important and rare that surely his death must hold more meaning than a senseless random event.
The Internet, by and large, was certain that it wasn’t. The crash had occurred on a dead-straight section of road. Mercedes cars “don’t explode.” The engine block was found more than 30 yards away from the car, a distance explicable to chat-room denizens only by some sort of “car bomb.” A clip uploaded to YouTube—shot by a videographer who happened to be parked on Highland with a dashboard-mounted camera running, and apparently showing Hastings’s car barreling past right before the crash—was deemed suspicious. Conflicting police statements didn’t help: An LAPD spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times that there was “no evidence of foul play,” but then the investigating detective said nothing had been ruled out. On Twitter and Reddit and in the febrile swamps of websites like InfoWars and Prison Planet, there was heated squabbling about “the official narrative” and false-flag operations and staged accident scenes.
WikiLeaks poured on accelerant, tweeting on June 19 that “Michael Hastings death has a very serious nonpublic complication. We will have more details later.” It would turn out that Hastings had sent one of his I’m-being-investigated e-mails to WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson. An unusual public disclaimer by the FBI, stating that Hastings wasn’t under investigation by the Bureau, became fuel for further conspiracy mongering. And Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar, told the Huffington Post that “my rule has always been you don’t knock down a conspiracy theory until you can prove it [wrong]. And in the case of Michael Hastings, what evidence is available publicly is consistent with a car cyber attack.” Inside Edition asked: “Was it an accident or was it murder?”
With the Justice Department secretly eyeballing AP reporters’ phone records and the NSA dragnetting everyone else’s metadata, it didn’t seem totally crazy to imagine the government might be listening in on your calls. Uygur told me he has several friends who keep their laptop cameras taped over. This was the water Hastings swam in. “Even when I was talking to him about the drone stuff,” filmmaker Robert Greenwald says, “I said, ‘I’m sure there are many ears on this phone call, Michael, ’cause we’re saying drones, we’re saying Pakistan.’ ”
Hastings was self-aware enough to recognize he was to some degree playing a character: the swashbuckling reporter, dispatched to distant longitudes to bear witness to man’s savagery and/or idiocy. “He was very familiar with the literature and mystique of the war correspondent,” his friend Jonathan Darman says. In The Operators, Hastings’s second book, “there’s almost a double consciousness, where he identifies with the war-junkie psychology but is also critical of it.” Though many of those closest to him reject the idea that Hastings was trying to kill himself, they also recognize that if he wanted to go, he couldn’t have planned it better: the sudden, violent elimination of a Man Who Knew Too Much, trailing a plume of mystery and questions about whether Powerful People got to him, with intimations of a Karen Silkwood–style conspiracy. “A sick part of me thinks this is Michael’s last story, in a way,” says Ruby Cramer, a BuzzFeed reporter who started out interning for him.
Late one morning at the L.A. crash site, six weeks after Hastings’s death, mixed with the dirt around the blackened base of the tree, there was still a layer of dark soot salted with tiny flecks of glass. Two nearby standpipes that the car had broken when it mounted the median stood jagged-edged. The site had become a shrine, and more than 40 small American flags now poked out of the ground, next to flowers, candles, and messages like RIP MICHAEL HASTINGS and THE EYES OF THE WORLD ARE WATCHING NOW. A photograph of Hastings, altered to show blood running down his face and taped and pushpinned to the tree, bore the words didn’t have to know you to know the truth of what happened. As I stood taking photos, the light at Melrose turned red and northbound traffic on Highland backed up. A red convertible was stopped beside me, and the driver, a middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses, asked if I thought Hastings had been murdered. “I do,” she said.
Back in January, Ruby Cramer’s father died. She wrote a eulogy and asked a handful of trusted colleagues for feedback. While most were warmly encouraging about how “perfect” it was, Hastings couldn’t help offering line edits: “Michael was like, ‘Hey, kiddo, this is great, these are just some suggestions to torque it up.’ That was his favorite word: ‘You’ve got to torque it.’ Who does that?”
From his first days in journalism, Hastings had operated with the torqued-up sense of purpose of someone who felt he’d already wasted too much time. As a freshman at Connecticut College, he’d partied too hard and not studied hard enough and had left without finishing the year. By the time he transferred to NYU in 2000, he’d quit drinking, and he went on to graduate magna cum laude.
He’d been fascinated by war and news since he was a kid. In fourth grade, he skipped school to go hear Norman Schwarzkopf give a talk. On 9/11, he walked 95 blocks to get as close as he could to the burning towers. As a journalist, he impressed colleagues with his hard work, his idealism, and his courage, and he took that work very seriously—“I want to be the greatest investigative reporter of my generation,” he admitted to his friend and fellow writer Dave Cullen. His ambition had a romantic streak as well: Last year, he’d sit listening for hours to Hunter S. Thompson’s The Gonzo Tapes.
Hastings was precociously canny about the value of rebelliousness. When he was 17, his family moved to Vermont, and Hastings entered junior year at a small Catholic school in Burlington as a new kid. “ ‘We’re going to be cool,’ ” his younger brother, Jeff, remembers him saying. “Like, ‘Let’s try to be popular, and here’s how we’re going to do it.’ ” Mike dyed his hair Eminem white with a tinge of green, and Jeff dyed his a cranberry color; Mike drove them to the new high school in their father’s Batmobile-like 1973 Buick Riviera with a boom box in back playing loud music. The school made them un-dye their hair, but one year later, Hastings was senior-class president.
Then, too, he liked to piss off people in authority. When Hastings described an upcoming Valentine’s Day party over the school’s PA system as “shagadelic,” it was sufficiently heretical to get him kicked off a service trip to Latin America and removed as class president, which also meant losing his speaker’s slot on Graduation Day. “He thought it was complete bullshit,” Jeff recalls, “as it was.”
At Newsweek International, where he started as a college intern before getting hired full time, he stood out for his long hours and earnest intensity. He wore a coat and tie; he spent weekends poring over old clips of Newsweek’s greatest reporters, Xeroxing and studying them. Within eighteen months of getting hired, he had his first cover story, about diamonds. For a year, he lobbied to be sent to Iraq, without encouragement from management, and eventually paid for his own helmet and body armor. The early glamour of the big new story had faded, but he kept pushing. “By 2005, it was not a way to make a name for yourself, and it was really frigging dangerous, and he wanted to go anyway,” Darman says.
The book that resulted from Hastings’s time working out of Newsweek’s bureau in the Green Zone, I Lost My Love in Baghdad, would set the template for his later career—in its style, which combined memoir with Woodwardian omniscience, and insofar as the conversation surrounding the book had as much to do with Hastings himself as with the book’s contents.
The love of the book’s title was Hastings’s girlfriend Andi Parhamovich, who had followed him to Baghdad to work for the National Democracy Institute and died in January 2007 when her convoy was ambushed by Sunni insurgents. Three weeks after her death, Hastings’s agent Andrew Wylie had a 131-page book proposal in hand, and five weeks later, he sold it to Scribner for an advance reportedly above $500,000. The speed of the deal, and the inclusion of intimate e-mails and texts between Hastings and Parhamovich, riled some in the publishing world. (Gawker dissected the proposal mercilessly, and after the Observer published the document, it received a lawyer letter complaining that it included information that Parhamovich’s family didn’t yet know—such as the fact that Hastings was even writing a book about their daughter.)
Hastings, back in Baghdad after crashing the book, seemed to take the criticism in stride. “I remember getting an e-mail from Mike that was like, ‘Fuck them, I’m on Haifa Street,’ ” Darman says. When the book was published, with a percentage of royalties assigned to a foundation started in Andi’s name, it received some good reviews but also some harsh ones. Hastings was deeply wounded when George Packer, a journalist he admired, wrote a Times review that highlighted the book’s “embarrassing title,” “whiff of exploitation,” “fog of cliché,” and “dialogue that makes you want to close the door and tiptoe away.”
When Hastings moved back to the States, his grief was never far from the surface. Katie Connolly, a fellow Newsweek reporter, met Hastings for the first time at the Detroit airport and spent the next six hours driving with him to a remote island that was the site of a Republican retreat. “We talked the whole time,” she recalls. “He told me all about Andi and about his experiences in Iraq. It was an incredibly intense car ride. He was crying. I was crying. It was a very intense way to start a friendship.”
Hastings could have been forgiven for never reporting from a war zone again, but he kept going back, including on a December 2010 trip to Afghanistan for Rolling Stone. Promised an interview with a warlord outside Kandahar, Hastings disregarded his bodyguard’s warning and his own apprehensions and got into a white Corolla that moved through the city and toward Herat. Nothing happened in the end, but it easily might have. “You never put yourself in these situations, but you always seem to find yourself in them,” he would write of that episode. “I know it’s a risk, I know it’s not a healthy lifestyle. I know it’s an addiction; I know it’s the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”
When Jeff Hastings, who served in infantry units in Iraq and Afghanistan, later read his brother’s account of the trip, he was alarmed. “That’s extreme. That could have been partially because of his experience with Andi dying. I’m sure he had tons of guilt. When Andi died, my thought was: Mike or I should have died; she shouldn’t have died.”
It was another trip to a war zone that gave Hastings a measure of fame. In early 2010, he pitched Rolling Stone on a story about Afghanistan as “the forgotten war” and about the man leading U.S. operations there: General Stanley McChrystal. The magazine’s editors were skeptical, but Hastings impressed them with his instincts for maneuvering past barriers, and by April, Hastings was with McChrystal and his entourage in Paris as they loosened their epaulets and got hammered at Kitty O’Shea’s Irish Pub. He captured a McChrystal adviser referring to Joe Biden as “Bite Me” and McChrystal expressing disdain for diplomats like Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry. The story, titled “The Runaway General,” marshaled the McChrystal crew’s trash talk to argue that the military leadership was running a rogue operation whose counterinsurgency strategy had turned the Afghan War into a quagmire.
The day after the article was published, McChrystal was summoned to Washington by President Obama, who accepted his resignation. Hastings, still in Kandahar, told an interviewer for Newsweek that he was “shocked by the response.” He wasn’t being disingenuous, according to those who knew him. He’d thought it would be a great magazine story with the makings of a book. But that was all. “I bet people don’t believe he didn’t expect McChrystal to get fired,” Cullen says, “but I know it’s true, ’cause he told me many times. He’d blurt it out; it would never occur to him to bullshit about that.”
Right away, though, the article came in for reproach from other journalists, who seemed skeptical that this glossy-magazine interloper could have elicited scenes of such impolitic candor from an American military leader. CNN.com ran an opinion piece: “ ‘Runaway general,’ or runaway reporter?” The Washington Post quoted anonymous “officials close to McChrystal” claiming Hastings had broken agreed-upon ground rules and used “clearly off the record” material. CBS News’s Lara Logan, appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources, said, “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.” David Brooks suggested Hastings had read too much meaning into garden-variety “kvetching.”
The government undertook two investigations into the episode, ostensibly to assess its own officials’ misconduct. The first, by the Army, blamed a single McChrystal aide for many of the comments but didn’t question Hastings’s reporting. The second, by the Pentagon’s inspector general, determined that “not all of the events at issue occurred as reported in the article,” though this seemed an overstatement of the findings, which were simply that no one remembered certain things described by Hastings. The New York Times uncritically repeated the Pentagon’s conclusions in an article headlined “Pentagon Inquiry Into Article Clears McChrystal and Aides.”
Even after Hastings’s death, the suggestion would linger that something hadn’t been quite right with his big scoop. The Times obituary prompted an unusual rebuke from public editor Margaret Sullivan, who found it to have overweighted the Pentagon inspector general’s report in such a way that “the obituary seems to diminish his work’s legitimacy.”
Hastings won a Polk Award for the article, but the backlash from colleagues was at least as great a boon to his career. He got his Rolling Stone contract. He was booked on The Colbert Report. And within a week of the article’s publication, he’d cranked out a book proposal, and Little, Brown had made a preemptive offer reported to be in “the high six figures.”
If before the McChrystal piece Hastings had shown a casual, not entirely earned disregard for his peers, afterward it became essential to his professional identity. It’s unclear that the article had any impact beyond an HR shuffling—McChrystal’s successor, David Petraeus, pursued a similar counterinsurgency strategy—but after other journalists attacked him, Hastings started explicitly thinking of himself as the person his defenders described: a truth teller, someone willing to confront the powerful, one of the few razor-toothed journalists in a pack of lapdogs. Hastings was angered by the corrosive clubbiness of access culture, by the media’s haste to pick on those out of power and to give a pass to those in it. This was the Hastings who’d be interviewed, in subsequent years, under headlines like Psychology Today’s “Journalist Michael Hastings, Purveyor of Truth.”
It was in this same favorable light that Hastings would cast the cancellation of his book by Little, Brown. When he turned in the manuscript for The Operators, it included long passages graphically detailing a multiday, bicontinental sexual dalliance in Berlin and Dubai with a pseudonymous bombshell Hastings claimed to be either a spy, escort, or kept woman. “The editor thought it was kind of childish and beneath Little, Brown and not literary and just salacious,” a Hastings friend says. Hastings himself felt that Little, Brown should have expected what he delivered. But the larger problem, says someone familiar with the situation, was that the manuscript read mostly as an expansion of the magazine article.
The book was ultimately picked up by Blue Rider, a Penguin imprint, but the switch in publishers cost Hastings a lot of money—he wouldn’t get the remaining payments on the original advance. Another writer might have chalked up the change in publishers to “editorial differences,” but Hastings in later interviews would describe Little, Brown as having been “gutless” and claim that “they lost their nerve”—implying that the publisher was afraid of powerful unnamed forces. He would also lash out at Little, Brown editor Geoff Shandler, alleging on BuzzFeed that Shandler had told him he was “aroused” by Paula Broadwell (a claim Shandler indignantly denied to a publishing blog). “If someone said ‘no’ to him, it was so personal,” says someone involved in the publication of the book. “It served his purpose, whether professionally or psychologically, to conflate any obstruction in what he wanted to do with being clearly motivated by some deeply amoral or cowardly standpoint.”
A more heedlessly oppositional Hastings was on display when he took a job with BuzzFeed to report on the 2012 Obama campaign. Soon after joining the Obama charter, he ran afoul of the White House by reporting the existence of an off-the-record drinks session. Hastings also engaged in a three-act contretemps with a pregnant Wall Street Journal reporter named Laura Meckler that seared him into campaign-press lore. According to Hastings’s later account, at an off-the-record drinks gathering in Orlando, Meckler used her brief audience with the leader of the free world to pull an Obama sock puppet out of her bag and in a squeaky voice pantomime the president accepting an interview request from the Journal. The next day, Meckler insisted to Hastings that the event had been off the record. Hastings responded: “Everything was off the record. Except what you did.” Weeks later, at a hotel bar in Vegas, according to several people present, a very drunk Hastings loudly called Meckler a “cunt” and had to be physically pulled away. Hastings later apologized, but the détente didn’t last. Late one night on the press plane, Meckler was talking with a Times editor about attribution when Hastings turned around, knees on his seat, and injected himself into the conversation. Meckler said something to the effect of, “What would you know about ‘off the record’?” Hastings replied, “Well, at least I don’t work for Rupert fucking Murdoch.” Things escalated, and finally Hastings shouted, for much of the plane to hear, “I officially retract my apology. You are a cunt.”
Throughout it all, Hastings carefully tended his reputation. After he e-mailed State Department spokesman Phillipe Reines the question “Why don’t you give answers that aren’t bullshit for a change?,” and Reines responded that a Pentagon investigation had concluded Hastings was an “unmitigated asshole” who should “fuck off,” Hastings insisted BuzzFeed publish the exchange. He also made a point of putting online his recording of a run-in he had with Rahm Emanuel, and the day after that confrontation, appearing on Piers Morgan, he called CNN’s Barbara Starr “a spokesperson for the Pentagon.”
But while Hastings would later speak of having received “the Lindsay Lohan Mean Girls” treatment from other political journalists, of the half-dozen fellow reporters on the charter with whom I spoke, all expressed affection for Hastings. “The truth is he was parachuting in to do something all of us wish we can do and can’t,” says one. “When someone comes in and says he’s not going to play by the rules, it touches a nerve, but also there’s respect.”
His style notwithstanding, Hastings was more of an insider than he liked to admit. Rolling Stone is decades past being countercultural; BuzzFeed’s animating purpose is appealing to the most mass of audiences; and Hastings got married in 2011 to Elise Jordan, a Yale graduate and former speechwriter for Condoleezza Rice. At the rehearsal dinner, Barbara and Jenna Bush both gave toasts.
Hastings moved to Los Angeles in February. The idea was to cover Hollywood for BuzzFeed, and he rapidly ingratiated himself in the progressive community there, lunching with documentary producer Greenwald, meeting Tom Hayden. At a salon at Oliver Stone’s house, he was thrilled to meet Ron Kovic and tell him how influential his book Born on the Fourth of July had been for him. “He seemed a little stressed,” Stone told me in an e-mail, “but nothing out of the ordinary in our culture.”
Hastings took to the L.A. lifestyle, getting into skateboarding and boxing and leasing the Mercedes, but he was also busy to the point of being spread thin. In addition to his BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone gigs, he’d become a paid contributor to The Young Turks. And he was brimming with thoughts about the future. The week before his death, he told Cullen he was close to a deal to write a big book about Hollywood. He’d just finished a screenplay treatment based on another Rolling Stone piece he’d done, called “The Spy Who Cracked Up in the Cold,” and his co-writer, Justin Kremer, spoke to him at eight o’clock the evening before he died. “He’d heard from his agent and was ready to go, and he was excited about portraying that world as he’d seen it onscreen,” Kremer says.
“I’ve deliberately rammed my truck into a stationary object to seek some quietus,” says Farwell, who’s written about his own post-Afghanistan struggles with PTSD, “and I know the emotional state he was in, and he was not in that state.” Jeff Hastings agrees: “One thing I will say with as much certainty as one person can have: He did not commit suicide. Mike wasn’t planning on dying.” But Jeff also said something echoed nearly verbatim by several other friends I spoke to: Hastings wasn’t the least likely person they knew to die the way he’d died.
In high school, his drug use had been conventionally experimental, but at Connecticut College, Hastings seemed to take literally the Bret Easton Ellis and Hunter S. Thompson books he’d become enamored of. There was booze, pot, Adderall, cocaine, crack. Asked to leave the school before the year was over, Hastings moved home to Burlington, to his parents’ basement, and took a job at a coffee counter in a supermarket. “Getting kicked out, and leaving after your first year, is pretty tough,” Jeff Hastings recalls. “You think you’re a high-flier with high ambitions—then coming back to live with your parents, it is not obviously the best thing.”
Without ever going into much detail, Hastings would seed his writing over the years with elliptical references to that period, such as the time he “ended up in a county jail with only boxers on, a navy-blue blazer, a pair of Nike sneakers, and a restraining order against me.” Elsewhere, he mentioned “rehab,” and told Peter Goldman, who oversaw him on a project at Newsweek, that he’d enlisted in the Marines for five days.
The story told by Burlington Police Department records is less high-spirited than sad. Close to 3 a.m. one night in June, after his father told him to turn down his stereo, Hastings fled the house in a white Buick and drove it into a pole. When police showed up at his house, his father, a doctor, told them Hastings “suffered from mental illness.” When they interviewed him on the porch, he smelled of alcohol but denied that he’d been drinking. “While speaking with him he would make rambling statements, would laugh, become angry, was verbally abusive to his father and constantly move around the porch,” one officer reported. After he failed a dexterity test and blew a .138 on the Breathalyzer, Hastings was arrested. “All the way to the station he chanted, sang, hollered and made remarks.”
Less than a month later, at 3:46 a.m., Burlington police responded to a call about a drunk person who refused to leave the apartment of some acquaintances. The officer who arrived eventually sprayed Hastings with pepper mace, but not before Hastings “told me to shoot him” and “reached aggressively within his shirt.” On the way to the police station, Hastings “continued to threaten to shoot me, talked of making bomb threats, and being shot himself.”
That August, Hastings was arrested a third time, for stealing a turntable from a store on Main Street. Hastings’s father told police that his son “has not been well mentally for the past several months”; he “has an ‘unofficial’ evaluation indicating M. Hastings had a Manic Depressive Disorder (Bipolar)” and “was a risk in harming himself, being harmed by his actions or harming family members.”
Everyone around Hastings knew that he had quit drinking when he was 19, and even ten years on, when he was with McChrystal’s team in Paris, he repeatedly turned down proffered beers; he told a McChrystal aide he hadn’t been drunk in more than a decade.
Just a month later, he was no longer able to say that. His three-day sexcapade in Room 1725 of Atlantis, the Palm in Dubai was booze soaked, in Hastings’s telling. Though he would later resume the stance of teetotaler—on The Colbert Report, he declined the whiskey shot the host pushed toward him—he fell off the wagon again during his Obama-campaign travel. “The trail is a terrible place to clean up or stay clean,” Yahoo News’ Olivier Knox says. “The hours are terrible. When you’ve been on the road the whole time, there’s the hotel bar; it’s easy to try to unwind.” Hastings, who also took Adderall during the campaign, would later describe himself as having been “caught in the full destructive force of a campaign-induced relapse.”
The night after the election, Hastings called Ruby Cramer at 11 p.m. to game out his campaign e-book, which he was about to start writing. “We’re talking, and twenty minutes into the conversation, I hear him talking to someone,” Cramer remembers. “I ask who, and he says it’s the bartender at his hotel. And I realize, further into this two-hour conversation, he’s doing tequila shots. I’d hear him say: ‘One more.’ Then I hear him asking the bartender for weed. I say, ‘Michael, you’re going upstairs.’ ”
With the campaign over, the pressures of the road subsided, and Hastings apparently sobered up. But he remained a chronic pot smoker (in L.A. he obtained a medical-marijuana card for PTSD), and some friends think he showed traces of unusual agitation in the weeks before his death. When Hastings made his appearance on The Young Turks in May, he looked hollow-cheeked and seemed wired. His weight fluctuated, and when Cullen saw him a week before his death, “he looked so fucking emaciated.” That weekend, Cullen asked whether Hastings could relate to a point Scahill made in his film about returning to Brooklyn and feeling like life back home was mundane. “Oh, yeah,” Hastings said with a laugh. “I totally miss it. That’s why I re-created the sense of that here by getting involved in NSA stuff. That’s why I create the similar drama and stress and war zone over here.” There was something else, too. While friends say Hastings and Jordan made a great couple, Hastings “wasn’t Husband of the Year,” as a friend puts it. When he moved to L.A., his wife stayed behind in New York. “Elise was hurt by that,” another friend says. “Mike was in a mode of doing things, being really regretful, asking for forgiveness—this cycle of fucking up and straightening out.”
The final days of Hastings’s life were beset by worry. Beyond the e-mails to BuzzFeed and WikiLeaks, he told people the LAPD had knocked on his door. He changed his phone number. To his family, who remembered the apparently Adderall-induced mania of his 19th year, Hastings’s behavior suggested a drug relapse, and his elder brother, Jon, flew to L.A. that Monday as part of an effort to get him back into rehab. Mike picked him up at the airport. He had told his neighbor Thigpen that he thought his car had been tampered with, and back at the apartment, he asked his brother to look under it with him. That night, shortly after midnight, he asked Thigpen if he could borrow her Volvo; he needed to “get away.” She’d been having her own mechanical problems and declined. Shortly after 4 a.m., as Jon slept in a writing space his brother used in Thigpen’s building, Michael left his apartment. Around three hours later, police arrived at the building with terrible news.
At 4:15 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, I drove the route Hastings took on his last night. I started a block from his apartment in the Hollywood Heights neighborhood, heading south on Highland. Almost immediately, I hit a red light at Franklin Avenue. I hit another at Sunset Boulevard at 4:17, and another at Fountain Avenue at 4:18. I accelerated briefly to 50 mph, but hit another red at Santa Monica Boulevard at 4:19. This is the red light Hastings’s car is seen blowing through in the YouTube video. Even at this hour, there were three cars in front of me. It’s a fluke that Hastings didn’t blindside any cross traffic or get blindsided.
Did he think someone was following him? Someone connected to the “big story” he’d mentioned? For a possible BuzzFeed piece, he’d been nosing around the gossip site TMZ. For Rolling Stone, he was working on the profile of CIA director Brennan, but he hadn’t un-earthed anything shocking, according to Farwell. Another friend suggested Hastings could have been onto a story about WikiLeaks’ possibly brokering asylum for Snowden in Denmark. None of these sound assassination-worthy.
When the light turned green, I got back up to 50, and when I crossed Melrose Avenue, the median strip widened and the street narrowed from three lanes to two. The block was darker, too; this is the start of a residential neighborhood. I passed the tree where Michael Hastings died, steps away from Mario Batali’s Pizzeria Mozza, almost exactly at 4:20 a.m.
I thought, then, of a story Cullen had told me. Right after The Operators came out, Hastings was driving his BMW to Vermont, along with his wife and Cullen. As they were driving, Jordan was e-mailed a review of the book. Hastings asked his wife to read it aloud. “From the opening sentence, you could tell what it was leading up to,” Cullen recalls. “It was more and more faint praise; you could see the hammer coming.” Hastings, fuming, said, “All right, that’s enough.” But after a minute of silence, he said, “All right, read the rest.” As his wife read on, the car moved faster and faster on the expressway. Finally, Cullen, in the front seat, said, “Mike, do you know we’re going 90?” Hastings, oblivious, slowed down. The squall had passed. “We could have died in a car crash that day,” Cullen says.
When the coroner’s report was released, it included statements from Hastings’s elder brother that he’d been using dimethyltryptamine, the psychoactive core of the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca, and had thought he was invincible, claiming to be able to jump off his balcony and survive. A toxicology screen for DMT came up negative, though it found trace amounts of pot and amphetamine. Conspiracy theories being closed systems indifferent to probability and immune to evidence, the report did nothing to curtail speculation about the cause of Hastings’s death. Online comments in the next few weeks included:
“What about the engine trajectory? That is the Building Seven in this case.”
“I believe he was targeted by a black ops government agency.”
“… they are saying he’s a drug addict and insane, out of his mind? It’s a government smear campaign.”