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. The first was to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1978 and resulted in the Myths of the Middle Eastissue, which Bird also edited. The second was to Tehran in 1979 just six weeks after the Iranian revolution. Bird’s formative experiences growing up in Jerusalem, Beirut, Dhahran and Cairo; his college travels; and the reporting he did abroad for The Nation form the core of his next project, a forthcoming memoir called Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: A Personal History of the Middle East.
In e-mail correspondence for this piece, Bird wrote that Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, the first book he has written since he and co-author Martin Sherwin won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in biography for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “will probably make a lot of people angry with me.” Having interviewed many of Bird’s friends and former colleagues, I find that somewhat hard to believe. Publisher emeritus Victor Navasky was sufficiently impressed by Kai Bird in 1978 that Navasky scuttled the replacement he had lined up for associate editor and retained Bird when he took over the magazine from Blair Clark. Bird helped Navasky to bring many new writers to the pages of The Nation, among them Palestinian historian Edward Said. Lingeman, who was then executive editor, said Bird was “very bright,” “easy to work with” and an “excellent researcher,” as evidenced by American Prometheusand his two prior critically acclaimed biographies on the Bundy Brothers and John J. McCloy. Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation’s storied intern class of 1980 described Bird as “quiet, disciplined and hard-working.” Contributing editor Amy Wilentz best summarized Bird when she concluded over the phone that “Kai possesses every great Christian quality: he’s brilliant, sweet, adorable—saintly.”
By all accounts, Bird could not have been any more different than another character who looms large in Nationlore and with whose career Kai Bird’s biography will always be intertwined: the “not so quiet, not so disciplined, but incredibly productive” Christopher Hitchens, as vanden Heuvel put it. Hitchens first came to the US via a novel editor-swap that Navasky arranged with the British progressive publication the New Statesmanin 1981. The exact logic of the swap remains in dispute but it is generally agreed that both Christopher Hitchens and The Nation came out ahead in the arrangement. As Bird described:
“It was only three months. I took his job and apartment and he took my job and apartment in Stuyvesant Town. He got the better deal in every way. His apartment in Notting Hill Gate was in a slum in those days. The first night just before I arrived it was burglarized. It was a dump. The kitchen was non-existent. I had to cook off a hot plate. The hot water was iffy. And of course there was no central heating! And the job was awkward. I could not possibly replace Hitchens, who was already somewhat of a journalistic celebrity, infamous for his cutting style. The New Statesman got the worst half of the swap. I was just twenty-nine years old. They first had me write the London ‘Diary’ feature—and I did a poor job of it, not knowing anyone and not knowing what to say.”
Later, Bird earned the respect of his New Statesmancolleagues writing a well-researched, scathing review of a book by Holocaust-denier David Irving, who nearly filed a libel lawsuit against the magazine. While Bird was understandably eager to hurry back to New York after his three months were up, Hitchens decided he didn’t want to leave America and Victor responded by promptly offering him a job as a staff writer.
Bird admitted he “could never keep up with” Christopher Hitchens’s “wit or his drink,” but Bird’s even temperament and reflective nature no doubt helped him to craft a body of work for The Nationthat has stood up remarkably well to the test of time. Both vanden Heuvel and David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, who succeeded Bird as The Nation’s Washington editor, praised his 1990 essay “The Very Model of An Ex-President” for recognizing the impressive body of achievement Jimmy Carter had accumulated a full twelve years before the Nobel Foundation awarded Carter its Peace Prize. I was particularly impressed with his spirited call for humanitarian intervention in the Balkans for which Lingeman said he “took his blows in the ‘Letters’ column.” But everyone mentioned the Myths of the Middle East, much of which managing editor Roane Carey said (before leaving for a sabbatical in Israel) could be published today with equal relevance. Corn suggested that this was because Bird could channel “his own personality when writing about the perilous subject of the Middle East.”
The Middle East and Kai Bird’s passing role in it will be front and center in Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, which is due out from Scribner in the spring of 2010. While he may have to initially take a few blows in the literary or foreign policy spheres, if his past work is any indication, Kai Bird’s careful analysis will likely prove prescient again.