185 Minutes With Judith Miller

Photo: Danny Kim/New York Magazine

Judith Miller and I are eating sweaty hunks of white cheese off a shared tapas plate in the luridly lit back booth of Simone Martini Bar in the East Village, having just taken in the avant-garde drama Lucia’s Chapters of Coming Forth by Day. We’re shooting our mouths off about stagecraft and story problems, the Greeks, Shakespeare, and Barbra Streisand, and generally acting like a couple of college kids—though one of us happens to be a distinguished and enormously controversial journalist and pundit whose white-knuckle reporting for the New York Times on Saddam Hussein’s supposed bioterror and WMD capability helped inflate the case for war with Iraq and then created a post-­invasion firestorm around her and her dubious source, the now-disgraced Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi. So, what did Mrs. Lincoln think of the play? Sorry, I won’t tell: I can’t rat out a fellow critic before she files. Judith Miller, the woman who went to jail for refusing to give up her source, Scooter Libby, during the Valerie Plame flap, is now my colleague: She’s just been named the theater critic for the online Jewish magazine Tablet.

It’s far from the only job she’s holding down these days. “There’s a book that I’m writing, a memoir,” she says, between sips of the martini she nurses most of the night. (She’s recently been converted to vodka martinis, she says; for years, she was a gin totalist.) “I do Fox,” she says—in fact, she’s a regular commentator there. “I have a contract with Newsmax, I have a column with the Daily. This was the latest thing I couldn’t say no to. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, but I’m also happier than I’ve been, because I get to stretch.”

When literary editor David Samuels called her to take on theater-critic duties, Miller says she was surprised. “On one level, everything David brings me is a surprise. That’s probably why we’re friends.” (The two met a few years ago in bombed-out Beirut, where she was the only reporter to volunteer to join Samuels for a visit to Hezbollah headquarters.) “On another level, I thought it was really natural, and I needed to think about something else. I go to the theater all the time, I’ve always gone to the theater—because why else would you live in New York? What’s the point of being in New York if you don’t go to the theater?”

Showbiz, she explains, is in her blood. Her father, Bill Miller, owned the storied Riviera nightclub in Fort Lee, New Jersey. “I think one of my first memories was watching Tony Bennett sing. I remember Frank Sinatra, and Zero Mostel doing his inimitable thing. My father was a true democrat,” she says—quickly adding, “small d.” “The only thing he cared about was the talent, and he had an amazing eye for it. He was kind of like the Roger Ailes of the nightclub scene.” She means that as praise, and goes on to compliment her Fox boss’s “unerring instincts about TV, what works on TV—I kick myself every morning that I didn’t get my mother’s blonde hair!”

As a theatergoer, Miller has a weakness for divas. In the sixties, her father took her to see Streisand in Funny Girl five nights straight. “So many people have never gotten to see her displaying her true talent, as a musical-theater actress on the stage,” Miller says. “You forget the nose, you forget all the things she worries about. You just see this amazing raw talent. Funny, constantly evolving.” She’s an unabashed fan of musicals, but no pushover for shows that simply go through the motions: As a critic, she’ll be on the lookout for those grabber moments. “That’s why I wear an Indiglo watch,” she says, tapping its face for emphasis, “so I can see when the first redeeming line arrives.”

For his part, Samuels says hiring Miller was a no-brainer. “Politics is theater,” he says. “The most expensive theater we have. It costs people their lives, it costs nations their treasure, and Judy’s reported on all of that. She’s seen the best actors in the world!”

Miller tends to agree. “Once you’ve seen Qaddafi,” she deadpans, “everything else pales.”

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185 Minutes With Judith Miller