Remnick: Why He Understands Obama, Uniquely

David Remnick appeared on Meet the Press yesterday to discuss his book on Obama. Among other things, he noted how careful the President is in understanding the need for nuance when speaking about race. Care, preparation, and control: without these tools, one ends up with Beer Summits and blogospheric chaos. Exceptional leaders understand themselves, Remnick pointed out; they know their own unknowns. Today’s Times piece on Remnick reminded readers why he is an exceptional leader, and how he manages to maintain control in a not un-Obama-esque way.


The Times reporter notes Remnick’s practice of moving around the New Yorker offices (what MBAs refer to as MBWA, "management by walking around."):

Like [Ben] Bradlee, Mr. Remnick spends his day walking around. "He makes a point of making a circuit around the floor every single day, dropping in on people," said Pamela Maffei McCarthy, deputy editor, "during which he acquires a great deal of information about what’s going on here."

It is part of that shape-shifting quality. "To be an excellent editor, you have to be something of a psychiatrist," said Michael Specter, a staff writer and an old friend. "He’s good at judging the emotional temperament of different writers and what brings out the best in them. With some people, like me, that’s maybe screaming."

With story editing, said the editorial director, Henry Finder, Mr. Remnick often spots "reportorial weaknesses" or when a writer is using "potted history," a clichéd take on a subject. But "if a piece comes in and it’s a successful piece, some editors like to basically spray ‘Kilroy was here’ on everything," Mr. Finder said. "He doesn’t."

Mr. Remnick says he does not like to get in the way of his writers and editors. "I don’t want to muddy the delicate relationship," he says. But he is assiduous about sending thank-you notes to writers, "lovely thank-you notes," Mr. Gladwell said, that make "you feel like you’re a part of something important."

"I have to always remember, writing is really hard," Mr. Remnick said. "I hope that I really respect that."

Remnick is the journalist we want to read on Obama, not only because he’ll write a smart story but because—unlike many who will take on this task—he understands what it means to manage highly intelligent individuals in a uniquely political environment. He knows it is not easy to make it look easy.

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