Introduction: The Stories We Can’t Forget (Even If We’d Like To)

After 50 years, the Monthly reflects on its greatest and worst hits.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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Two thousand nineteen has been a tough year for journalism—and not just because the president called reporters “enemies of the people.” On the same day, two high-quality thought-leader magazines, Governing and Pacific Standard, announced that they were folding. Money magazine ended its print edition. Small local newspapers and big digital outlets alike have continued to downsize. 

In this environment, it’s a mystery how the Washington Monthly remains in business—even to me, and I run the joint. Honestly, given our long history of rickety finances, you’d think we would have been the first to go. 

Yet here we are, alive and well and still publishing long-form stories that help to set the policy agenda in Washington on everything from antitrust to higher education reform. In fact, 2019 marks our fiftieth anniversary of doing this kind of work. Who’d have thought?

To celebrate this unlikely occasion, we asked some of the editors who have worked here over the decades (typically as young people, doing two-year stints of hard duty at low pay before going on to stellar careers in journalism) to revisit a story they published in the Monthly that had legs—that is, had impact on the world, or on themselves, or presaged something big to come, or was totally wrong in an interesting way. The idea was to capture the ongoing legacy of the magazine through personal narratives.

As I read through the resulting essays, I was reminded of a story from early in my own career. In 1984, after I finished an internship at the Washington Monthly, founding editor in chief Charlie Peters and one of his editors, the late Jonathan Rowe, asked me to write a piece on the obscure subject of “bond counsel”—the specialized private lawyers who oversee the issuance of municipal bonds for government entities. Rowe, an attorney himself, was convinced that the whole profession was a racket, and that these lawyers were pocketing up to 5 percent of the proceeds of multimillion-dollar bond sales for doing very little work. 

I didn’t know the first thing about the law, municipal government, or the debt markets. It took me months to report and write the piece—which, when I ultimately delivered it, was quite different from the one Peters and Rowe originally had in mind. 

That’s because the sleepy municipal bond business had been transformed over the previous decade. New law firms and investment banks, many with expertise in the then-exploding corporate bond sector, had flooded into the muni bond market, peddling “innovative” new products—specifically, “industrial development bonds” to finance private ventures deemed to be in the public interest, from shopping malls to nursing homes. This had swelled the size of the municipal government debt market nearly tenfold, a significant drain on the U.S. Treasury because the interest on muni bonds is free from federal taxation. And because the products themselves were vastly more complicated than the plain-vanilla bonds that traditionally finance roads and schools, the bankers and lawyers were raking off as much as 30 percent of the take. As I noted in the piece, it would be cheaper for tax-payers if governments just sent corporate borrowers a check rather than pass the money through a bunch of glad-handing lawyers and bankers.

Soon after the story came out, I received a letter from Michael Kinsley, then the editor of the New Republic and a Washington Monthly alum, praising the piece and inviting me to write for him. Kinsley, though still a young man himself, was revered as a godlike figure by my generation of journalists. The letter not only thrilled me but widened the eyes of my girlfriend, a journalist with an actual job who suddenly had evidence that her twentysomething boyfriend living with his parents might have a future. Soon, my byline began appearing in the New Republic, Charlie Peters offered me a paid position as an editor at the Washington Monthly, and my girlfriend, Kukula Kapoor, agreed to marry me.

Nice ending, right? Wait, there’s more. Seven years later, I was working in the Chicago bureau of U.S. News & World Report when I got a call from Don Baer, one of my editors in D.C., asking me to fly down to Little Rock to cover yet another emerging scandal swirling around the Democratic nominee for president, Bill Clinton—this one involving, I kid you not, municipal bonds. As governor, Clinton had created an agency to centralize the issuance of bonds in Arkansas. The press was reporting that he had used it for nefarious purposes—such as rewarding a bond-dealing campaign contributor who was convicted of selling cocaine.

At that moment, I was probably the only journalist in America—certainly the only one covering Clinton—with the arcane knowledge needed to understand what was truly important about the Arkansas bond agency. My story noted that the “scandal” was baloney. (The contributor, for example, had stopped getting state business before his drug arrest.) More importantly, I found that the agency Clinton created actually put more money in the hands of borrowers and less into the pockets of lawyers and bankers. My piece helped burst that particular campaign scandal bubble. The press soon moved on to more important subjects. Like Whitewater. (Sigh.)

Six years later, following Don Baer, I went to work for Bill Clinton in the White House. After the administration ended I took over from Charlie Peters as editor in chief of this magazine, the place where I had gotten my start.

As a journalist, some stories you write affect your life. Some affect history. Some do both. You’ll find examples of all three in the essays that follow. Amy Sullivan explains how a 2003 cover essay on the Democrats’ religion gap helped her break into journalism—and led Democratic presidential campaigns to start organized outreach efforts to religious voters. Joshua Green tells the tale of how in 2002 he almost—almost—convinced John McCain to run for president as a Democrat. And Jon Meacham reflects on his 1994 essay about how gossip columnist Walter Winchell turned celebrity status into power, and on how this transformation paved the way for the Trump presidency.

These are perilous times, for the country and for the press. There has never been a greater need for the type of journalism that small magazines like this one produce: deeply researched and considered pieces that challenge the media’s own groupthink and that formulate the new ideas that can help move the country forward. It’s what the Washington Monthly has been doing for the last fifty years. It’s what we intend to do for the next fifty.  

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He was an editor at the magazine from 1986 to 1988.