Although The Nation is legally registered as a for-profit company, it has lost money for nearly all of the magazine’s 144 year history and has only survived through the unwavering support of what are now some 30,000 Nation Associates. This profile was written for The Associate, the quarterly newsletter that goes out to all those rabid Nationistas. Click here if you’d like to learn more about the Associates.
As one might expect of someone who donates to a for-profit corporation without the benefits of a tax deduction or voting shares, the Nation Associates are very passionate about the magazine so the content of each newsletter (the full PDF version of which can be downloaded here) is very Nation-centric. The topic I wrote on, a profile of a Pulitzer Prize-winning contributing editor now living in Nepal, was already formulated when I agreed to write it up. Although it was time consuming and uncompensated (!), I really, really enjoyed the experience–this is perhaps the first piece I’ve written since my “Green.view” articles where I was almost entirely removed from the frame of the article. Kai Bird is the focus feature and he’s a fascinating subject.
“George Orwell once pointed out that political chaos may be both a cause and an effect of the decay of language, adding, ‘A man may take a drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.’ Nowhere is this semantic vicious cycle more apparent than in the American vocabulary of Middle East politics.”
This analysis could easily apply to the Israel lobby’s character assassination of Charles Freeman, the failed nominee for National Intelligence Council Chairman, or the Obama administration’s urge to double down the troop count in the failing war in Afghanistan, yet it first appeared in the opening article of a special issue, Myths of the Middle East, which was published on December 5, 1981. That unsigned editorial, like many written between 1978 and 1987, was authored by Kai Bird. During those nine years, first as associate editor in the New York office and four years later as a Washington editor, Bird played a major role in both the weekly production of The Nation as well as the broader progressive discussion about the focus of American foreign policy.
This was a role for which Kai was uniquely well suited. Bird was born in Eugene, Oregon, but at age four he moved to East Jerusalem in what was then Jordan and, with the exception of two years spent in Washington, DC, lived abroad until he returned to the US for college. The experience of growing up as the son of a Foreign Service officer sparked Bird’s interest in American foreign policy and led him to major in South Asian and Middle Eastern history at Carleton College. Before graduating he managed to get arrested protesting the Vietnam War with a young professor named Paul Wellstone and to do an independent study in India and Bangladesh during the tumultuous months that followed the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. His experience abroad helped him win a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to return to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. After completing a one year master’s in journalism at Northwestern, Bird married his wife, Susan, who had also recently graduated from Carleton and been awarded a Watson Fellowship. The couple—who now live with their 16-year-old son in Nepal, where Susan is the country director for the World Bank—took their first trip abroad together using her Watson money to travel by land from Europe to Bangladesh for 15 months.
Throughout his time with The Nation, Bird, regardless of what it said on the masthead, was thought of as the “foreign editor,” as senior editor Richard Lingeman referred to him in an interview for this profile. Along with Max Holland, Bird wrote the “Dispatches” column from Washington about American foreign policy and even managed to string together a couple of trips abroad. (more…)
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