Curious Ron

Ron Rosenbaum is my favorite practitioner of mass-market, glossy-magazine journalism. He might have a serious rival. If Tom Wolfe were still a frequent writer of magazine nonfictionbut even then Rosenbaum would probably be my favorite. Like Wolfe, Rosenbaum has stretched the boundaries of the form—but at a time when the form is especially resistant to accommodating anything that isn’t a celebrity profile. In magazines like Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone, Rosenbaum has written on such subjects as the obscure later fiction of Charles Portis (known to most people, when he is known at all, as the author of True Grit); the doctrinal disputes among the translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Byzantine conspiracy theories of a flaky investigative journalist named Danny Casolaro who committed suicide (or was he murdered?) while on the verge, he claimed, of breaking his biggest story; and an evangelical preacher’s claim that he can get the Lord to fill cavities at revival meetings.

Glossy magazines, of course, aren’t completely inhospitable to running stories on quirky and/or challenging subjects. But I can’t think of a magazine writer, other than Wolfe, who’s explored so wide a variety of disciplines and subcultures over the last three decades while working, for the most part, outside the rarified precincts of The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and the tiny handful of other unprofitable prestige magazines.

Rosenbaum currently writes a weekly column for the New York Observer called “The Edgy Enthusiast.” It isn’t quite as good as his long magazine pieces, but it’s one of my favorite columns (and it has influenced the way I write my own daily online column). Rosenbaum started his column while writing Explaining Hitler, his gripping book about the inability of scholars and artists to account for Hitler’s evil. Because of the darkness of his subject, Rosenbaum decided his column would be “all praise all the time.” That is, he would focus on books, films, music, and other things that struck him as “beautiful, brilliant, redemptive.” Since the supply of such matter is always short at any given time, he doesn’t confine himself to contemporary subjects; he’ll write about Lucretius one week, Shakespeare the next, Rosanne Cash the week after that. Inevitably, over time, Rosenbaum has ended up writing now and then about things he hates; for example, about his distaste for the way the Italian comic actor Roberto Benigni sentimentalized the Holocaust in the film Life is Beautiful. But even when he’s on the attack, Rosenbaum tends to be good-natured, as opposed to Wolfe, who can get crabby.

The occasion for this praise is The Secret Parts of Fortune, an omnibus of Rosenbaum’s best magazine pieces (many of which appeared in an earlier collection, Travels With Dr. Death) and his Observer columns (collected for the first time). The title comes from a sexual pun in Hamlet that Rosenbaum interprets more broadly to suggest that the history of any period is often hidden in the seemingly trivial or obscure. Rosenbaum loves secrets: secret meanings in literary texts; secrets about the ultimate loyalties of double agents (his Harper’s profile of CIA mole-hunter James Angleton isn’t included, alas, but a marvelous New York Times Magazine piece about Kim Philby’s private papers is); secret societies (probably Rosenbaum’s best-known magazine article is an Esquire piece about Yale’s Skull & Bones); and mysteries about murders and suicides, which are always shrouded in secrecy.

Rosenbaum is not, strictly speaking, a Washington Monthly-type writer. Although he leans leftward, he doesn’t spend much time thinking about how government programs can be improved, or about the dynamics of large organizations, or about aspects of American culture that stiffen class barriers. (Indeed, in one of the book’s weaker pieces, he argues, somewhat facetiously, for the superiority of blood ‘n’ guts tabloid journalism over journalism about powerful institutions.) When he does make political pronouncements, they are often whimsical. I don’t think even Rosenbaum expects anyone to take seriously his proposal that New York City subsidize dancers who’ve aged out of the profession because they “animate our streets and sidewalks with their very walk, at least as worthy of serious municipal protection” as architectural landmarks.

But Rosenbaum does have a powerful moral sensibility. A Rosenbaum subspecialty is challenging snobbish opinions about such subjects as quack cancer cures, Wayne Newton, Los Angeles, Charles Dickens, and Levittown. There’s a moral component as well to Rosenbaum’s penchant for shining a light on unknown (“secret”) belief systems of seemingly respectable people. In “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Dead,” Rosenbaum catches up with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, many years after her pathbreaking writings about coming to terms with death, and discovers she’s developed a ghoulish idealized notion that death represents a higher stage of consciousness. In “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Scandal,” he reveals how the nation’s most prestigious colleges allowed a scientist with notions about the meaning of body type that veered close to phrenology to photograph freshmen in the buff. Rosenbaum is also stirred by the heroism of others, most movingly in the chapter of Explaining Hitler about Fritz Gerlich, the heroic Munich journalist whose withering published attacks on Hitler sent him to Dachau (another great Rosenbaum essay not included in the new book, alas).

Though Rosenbaum is not really a Monthly-ish writer, he lives by the ideal that reporters should be equally committed to library research and shoeleather reporting. Rosenbaum is primarily a studier of texts—he immersed himself in the work of the 17th century metaphysical poets when he was at college—but then he views just about everything, on the page and off, as text. In the introduction to The Secret Parts of Fortune, Rosenbaum writes about learning that “the attentiveness to ambiguity” he developed by reading John Donne could be applied equally well to “trial transcripts, autopsy reports, congressional-hearing records, Mob wiretap pickups, and the like.” Even interviews are, for Rosenbaum, mostly an occasion to create a new text: “I’m always amazed to discover, on reading the transcript of an interview over for a third time, how much more emerges in some slip or tic, the shadow of some submerged truth that belies the surface intention of the words.” This is a useful antidote to the tendency of many journalists to treat first impressions as gospel.

Did I mention that Rosenbaum’s writing is raucously funny? There are even several amusing passages in Explaining Hitler. Probably the most laugh-out-loud funny pieces in the new collection are his tenth-anniversary Watergate essay and “Long Island, Babylon” (the latter repeatedly refers to its setting as “the Guyland,” but manages, miraculously, never to sneer). The Watergate piece includes an outraged response to H.R. Haldeman’s denigration of the “cult of people” who are “Watergate buffs.” Rosenbaum replies that this wrongly lumps Watergate obsessives “with assassination buffs’ and the aura of bad taste and futility that is associated with their efforts … [T]he eyes of Watergate buffs tend to twinkle rather than stare. Ours is a civilized passion.” When his curiosity about apparent flaws in the Warren Report nonetheless sends him to Dallas (for Texas Monthly) to give conspiracy theorists a hearing, he’s amusingly self-aware. He climbs down into a manhole in Dealey Plaza and squints through an opening in the pavement, as he’s told to do, but balks when he’s told to pull a heavy manhole cover over his head. This is, he writes, “a metaphor for my own stance in relation to the whole web of conspiracy theories … I’ll go down into the manhole with them, but I won’t pull the cover over my head.” In fact, this is also a nice metaphor for Rosenbaum’s general approach to journalism. He will give extremists and fringe groups of all kinds the sort of generous hearing they usually can’t get anywhere else. He will entertain wild theories of his own. He will faithfully explain where text and reason lead him. But he will never let his or anyone else’s imagination do violence to decency or common sense.

Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is the labor policy editor at Politico, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, and the author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.