Off the Cuff with Ben Wittes, OC ’90, author and political journalist

Ben Wittes_Courtesy of the Brookings Institute_master

Ben Wittes, OC ’90, accomplished political journalist and and senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute

Kate Gill, News Editor

Ben Wittes, OC ’90, has written for The Legal Times, The Washington Post editorial page, The New Republic, Slate, The Atlantic, The Wilson Quarterly, the Weekly Standard, Policy Review, and First Things. He has published many books about policy and government, and is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute. He sat down with the Review to discuss his legal sensibility, serendipity and Yogi Bear.


You’ve written extensively about the law, but you’ve never been a practicing lawyer. Is there any particular reason that you chose the more journalistic route?

I never chose the more journalistic route; I just kind of did it. I never went to graduate school, I never went to law school and I found myself writing about law –– and that took on a logic of its own, professionally. And by the time it was absurd that I had never been to law school, it was way too late in my career to think about it, and so I just never did. I’m a total fraud, and I try never to be dishonest about that. I’m generally the only non-lawyer in the room, and it’s a quirk of my particular history. But since I don’t have clients and I don’t practice, it’s a quirk of no particular significance.


And do you think that Oberlin shaped your legal sensibility or did you develop it elsewhere?

Both. So, Oberlin had nothing to do with my legal sensibility, which developed because I started to write about law as a reporter and found certain ideas more compelling than other ideas. Oberlin had a lot to do with my more general political sensibility in the following sense: for a lot of people who come to Oberlin –– and it’s probably true today as it was when I was here –– who are not caught up in the left politics of the school, Oberlin  forces a certain choice. It forces you to ask the question: how attracted are you to neo-conservatism? And for me, the answer was not. So then you’re left without a home. You’re not part of the general cultural ambience of the institution, but you’re also not in the hardcore rebellion against it either. So what I developed was a kind of a contrarian-centrism that is resistant to political movements in general, that [later in my career] found a home in the editorial page of The Washington Post, which is not a political movement, but is the closest thing to a political party I’ve ever had. I think [I] find institutions like that attractive, which are philosophically uninterested in political movements, and more in questions like what’s the right answer to a discrete problem that you have in front of you … I showed up at Oberlin fashioning myself as a leftist, and would never have described myself as one by the time I left. Some people come here and rebel against that.


A lot of people derive power or motivation from being told no –– as in, someone who can’t take no for an answer. How do you handle the affirmative, as opposed to the negative? I wonder how you’ve dealt with your success, and how you stay motivated. Can you take yes for an answer?

That’s an interesting question. I have a certain drive that I can’t quite explain. It’s just there, and maybe some day it’ll go away. But I get up in the morning wanting to write things and wanting to produce stuff, and when I finish something I never have trouble letting go of it, because I have the next thing I want to work on. I used to live in fear of the career-ending mistake. My friend Kate and I lived in the same building and she was at The Post with me for a number of years, and we would come home and have a drink, and I would be in terror of the mistake that I imagined would be in a story or an editorial. And she had a name for this, which she also experienced, which is the “career-ending” mistake. And I have learned over time that the career-ending mistake doesn’t actually end your career. You make mistakes. Bad things happen. So I don’t have a problem letting things go. But I don’t take vacations either.


You wrote a book titled Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror. What do you think is, not the most important element necessarily, but maybe a critical element of justice? How would you classify your justice?

Nobody has ever asked me that question. In a funny way, Law and the Long War isn’t really about justice. It’s about where power comes from and should come from in long-term counter terrorism efforts. The basic arguments of the book is that one of the three branches of government had substantially under-performed in being the source of power for counter terrorism, and that’s Congress. And that two of the branches, the executive and the judiciary, in different ways we had relied on too much. And so the sense in which I used the word “justice” in that title was to try [to] make an argument that the future source of power for the things we were going to do in the name of justice really ought to be legislative power. The book doesn’t try to define justice, and I don’t know that I have good enough political theory to do it.


Last night during your talk, you emphasized the importance of serendipity in your career. Can you speak a little to that idea?

Serendipity does not mean, “It’s all luck so you wait around and maybe lightning strikes you and maybe lightning strikes the person next to you, and if it strikes the person next to you, you’re shit out of luck and that’s the end of it.” It means you do everything that you know how to do, you work every angle you know how to work, and then something happens that you did not anticipate that creates opportunities in a somewhat different direction than you were anticipating. And you notice those, and you avail yourself of them … I ended up as a 27-year-old writing editorials for The Washington Post ­­–– that doesn’t happen. That was not a job that you applied for, exactly. It came about because I was doing certain kinds of work, and the woman who had that job for more than 30 years, since the late ‘60s when I was born, retired. And the job stayed open for nine or ten months, because Meg Greenfield couldn’t find anyone she wanted to put in it. And one of my colleagues told her she should talk to me about it, and I ended up on the phone with Meg, who was very ill at the time, and she said to me –– it was the first time we ever talked –– “Ben, Stuart Taylor tells me that the only problem with you is that you’re 27. And I can imagine that’s the kind of problem that takes care of itself, given enough time.” And I said to her, “Yeah, if I look both ways before I cross the street.” And she thought that was incredibly funny, for reasons that probably are not apparent in retrospect. If you had asked me two days before that conversation, do you aspire to be a Washington Post editorial writer, I would have said, “huh?” But sometimes things just kind of drop into your lap, and being able to notice something’s dropping into your lap and respond in real time with the line that just happened to be charming to the person you’re interacting with –– Yogi Bear’s line is when you come to the fork in the road, take it. There came to be a fork in the road and I took it.


Never underestimate the value of insert your word here?

I’ll be tempted to just use … well, I’ll resist. Good prose.