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.
For more than twenty years, Brill has existed as the polar opposite of the man in the bathrobe. He’s been out to dominate everything in sight by screaming at people, making deals, amassing assets. He’s in every way the shrewd, instinctive, cunning, frightening, back-stabbing, front-stabbing, charming-when-necessary, but usually insulting operator. Indeed, one comes naturally to assume he is all façade, all bluster. His virtue, to the extent that he has virtue, is that what you see is what you get.
So I can’t quite figure out if Brill’s book argues for a reevaluation of the form and uses of books themselves or for a reevaluation of Brill.
Maybe books are a legitimate instrument for men of overwhelming ambition, men of important affairs. Such men can focus their organizational skills, people skills (after all, a big impediment to most nonfiction books is getting people on the phone), and pure drive on getting a book done—and then have it serve as a tool to conquer the world. (Come to think of it, Churchill wrote great books.)
On the other hand, it could be that Brill has simply come home. There has always been, as part of the Brill persona, Brill as the reporter (he left reporting in its heyday, when reporters still reported at length—when investigative journalism was all the rage). When he launched Brill’s Content—a magazine in part devoted to telling reporters how to report—he launched it with a 24,000-word exposé on Kenneth Starr and the abuses and leaks of the special prosecutor’s office. It was one of the seminal pieces of impeachment journalism (still, as good as it was, it seemed like an effort in service to a larger promotional goal).
Of course, it could be that Brill is not really a rich man, and not a powerful man either. Certainly, it has always been unclear what he’s gotten out of his various enterprises. There is his Westchester estate with its own Field of Dreams softball diamond, and there’s a share in a private plane (which, he admits, is certainly a help in writing a book that requires lots of traveling), but still there has always been with Brill an equivocal sense of his wealth—did he get out with a pile or just with his shirt on?
So it is possible that, with only his shirt, he had to write the book. That he needed the job. That with the end of Brill’s Content, he found himself at exactly the place he had been trying to escape from for all these years—having to write for his supper.
But I’m not happy with any of these explanations. The book itself is too vast, the task he set himself too great, the whole effort too outsize—the compulsion and the achievement sui generis.
“Even now, with the book done, Steve Brill, you canbe sure, is working the phones. I don’t like Brill andhe doesn’t like me, but he took me to lunch and got me reading his book, and here I am praising it.”
American journalism, at its best and worst, is concerned with power: How do you get to the red-hot center of what’s going on? Whether it’s the presidency, or celebrities, or the cult of CEOs, you’ve got to feel the heat.
Brill, being tougher, shrewder, more relentless, and more power-mad (and even, I think, less circumspect) than the most power-mad (and uncircumspect) journalists, pushed his fixation a step further. He recognized that to be a journalist, especially in the eighties and nineties, no matter how close you got to the center, was still to be marginal. So he decided to be in the kitchen himself (he could stand as much heat as there was). To be a macher—even a mogul.
But then the nineties passed, and so, for a moment, did Brill, and a reinvention was required. If centrality is your thing, how do you not embrace 9/11?
And so Brill conceives of his large work—like a journalistic Christo, he’s going to cover every aspect of post-9/11—and digs in (in fact, he’s not working at home; he has an office and a secretary in Rockefeller Center).
Now, often the problem with journalism and its love of power is that it tends to be concerned with the front office instead of the back—but when you have tried to gain power and amass a fortune for yourself, your focus shifts.
Brill’s book is all operational (explosive-detection machines versus trace-detection equipment—now I can tell you, with some specificity, all about the different ways of being searched in an airport). It’s all gears turning. Actually, Brill’s book is in many ways largely about paper-pushing. It’s anti-dramatic. It’s a book about complex procedures. It’s a book about meetings, about presentations, about PowerPoint. And if he has a certain partiality to certain characters (Tom Ridge) and a discernible antipathy toward others (John Ashcroft) and something like a brotherly ambivalence toward Chuck Schumer, nobody really rises above the character description of bureaucrat. Nor should anyone (there is no Bob Woodward–ish hero-making going on here—there is no omniscience).
It all adds up to some deep, credible, familiar, comforting sense of how things probably really do work (or, in the case of the INS and the Red Cross, how things don’t work). There’s an intimacy to this paper-pushing, and a great fondness for systems themselves. Systems, it turns out, have humor and warmth. Systems, against expectations, often do their jobs—that may be the real message here.
But even a keen appreciation and understanding of the real circuitry of power still does not explain 700 pages and countless interviews in fifteen months (Brill says he used a few part-time assistants). You need some larger mania to explain this.
This is the part that undoubtedly has to do with proving something—of having to do it. The ambitious person’s equivalent of voices telling you to kill.
This is what makes you work in ways that ordinary people don’t or can’t or won’t. Nor do you stop there: For instance, Brill harangued Time magazine to give him a column, and, when he had exhausted everyone at Time, did the same at Newsweek, where, in fact, he made the deal, thereby leveraging the work on the book.
And even now, with the book done, Brill, you can be sure, is working the phones. I don’t like Brill and he doesn’t like me, but he took me to lunch and got me reading his book, and here I am praising it.
So, envy. There’s not a journalist who wouldn’t envy Brill’s book. It does it: surmounts the insurmountable, makes coherent the incoherent, delves deeper than anyone else. And it finds a good story where it seems highly unlikely there would be one: the basic, factual, unsentimental account of lots of people getting their act together and getting the trains to run on time (Brill certainly thinks they are running on time).
And envy, too, for his tirelessness. It’s not just that he keeps going but that it’s with ever more energy. He’s a force of nature.
You’ve got to love him, it turns out. He’ll make you.