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Profiles give complex look into lives of politicians, celebrities
Norwich Bulletin
Originally published August 27, 2006

New Yorker editor David Remnick's most recent collection of profiles, "Reporting," demands the reader also devour his earlier compilation, "The Devil Problem." Both books inspire and enlighten, demonstrating the best of profile writing can be a form of investigative or in-depth reporting.

For example, who knew from reading the mainstream media the crack-toking and corruption-ridden former mayor of Washington, Marion Barry, also is a person of some dimension and character? Barry's core constituency, we learn from Remnick in a 1994 profile, sees him as a sort of prodigal son and a fairly normal person. Given the disproportionate levels of incarceration for minorities in the United States, it seems reasonable most residents of mostly black Washington know someone who has done time. It's not an inherent disqualification for public office in this small town, especially when voters look at the list of other politicians across the country who have done worse and remain in power.

Remnick documents Barry's political comeback in a piece titled, "The Situationist." Like many politicians, Barry changes his costume depending on the audience. His garb can range from a conservative business suit to a wardrobe distinguished by bright colors of African cloth.

The son of a sharecropper, Barry returned to Mississippi with Remnick for a gathering of veterans from the 1964 Freedom Summer. As a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Barry worked to fight segregation and register voters. The reunion was significant in it had a healthy mix of blacks and whites.

For his constituents, many of whom benefited from his massive jobs programs, Barry is a friend who messed up and is trying to redeem himself. They know it was just a few generations ago the city was controlled by some members of Congress who were proud members or supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. These elected representatives advocated the deportation or sequestration of thousands of black Washingtonians.

Remnick's subjects range from politicians and athletes to literary and media giants. His work is a testament to the dictum, "Everyone talks -- eventually." Of course, it helps if you have the juice of The New Yorker and reporting stints with The Washington Post and New York Times to get in the door for extended periods of intimate time.

Among my favorites is the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn piece. It made me want to re-read "One Day in the Life of Ivan Desinovich." As a Soviet Army captain in World War II, Solzhenitsyn joked about Stalin in a letter to a comrade. This landed him in the Gulag. As I tell students, jail is the ultimate career steppingstone for a writer.

It doesn't get more refreshing in the candor department than with Václav Havel as president. "I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry to break rocks," Havel told an audience shortly after taking office. "The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am, the stronger is my suspicion that there has been some mistake." Pretty good for a politician, eh?

"Reporting" and "The Devil Problem" are all about big names, but this is not superficial celebrity journalism. It's great access, nuts-and-bolts reporting and an exciting adventure.

Thibault, author of "Law & Justice In Everyday Life" and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the master of fine arts program writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Web site: www.andythibault.com. Blog: cooljustice.blogspot.com

LINK: http://www.norwichbulletin.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060827/OPINION/608270355&SearchID=73255029285591

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