Washington Post columnist and novelist David Ignatius took to the stage yesterday afternoon at Society of the Four Arts and delivered a tight 45-lecture to a rapt audience. Though his columns have constituted some of the most edifying analysis the Russia investigation, his Four Arts speech mostly sidestepped politics. Instead, he focused on the contours of his fascinating career as a lifelong journalist, acclaimed spy novelist and unlikely librettist (for an opera about Machiavelli, which premiered in Amsterdam last year).
But first, he opened with a roundup of his latest, and undeniably moving, assignments, which sent him first to the remnants of war-torn Syria, and then to last weekend’s Munich Security Conference in Germany, which he described as the “foreign affairs/national security equivalent of Davos.” He concluded his presentation by fielding questions from the audience about everything from our divisive news media to the Iran nuclear deal to the influence of his parents on his dogged work ethic. Here are a few of the highlights, starting with his recent travels:
“The funny thing about my career is that it’s a product of indecision. When I wrote my first novel in 1987, I thought, OK, now you have to choose. Do you want to be a journalist and focus on that, or try and be a novelist and put all your attention and energy into that? I’m glad I didn’t choose. Sometimes in life, the best choice to make is not to decide.
“Two weeks ago today I was in Syria, traveling with our Joint Special Operations Command. It was the third time I’d been with them in the last two years, and I had a chance to see a war that America has actually won—or almost won—and people have barely noticed. It’s largely been fought in secret, and people don’t appreciate how the United States, after all the frustration of Iraq and Afghanistan, has learned how to use military power more effectively.
“We spent a day in Raqqa, which was declared as the capital of the Islamic State. This was the place where they beheaded prisoners and filmed their appalling videos. Nothing prepared me for the level of destruction. If you think of photographs or newsreels you’ve seen of Berlin in 1945, or Stalingrad in 1943, it’s like that. Downtown, almost no building is left standing. It’s a frightening reminder of when a deadly adversary seizes a city.
“But the United States, under two presidents, fulfilled a promise we made, which is that we would degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. And seeing that up close was powerful. As in any visit to a war zone, the things you remember most are the encounters with the people—stopping in market squares, at schools, talking to kids who lived with this cult trying to teach them how to kill. Seeing young women wearing makeup and bright colors, being unafraid. Sometimes you had the feeling of people walking out of a cave. They had been in the dark, and suddenly it’s light outside.
“People should appreciate that our military, working with very tough Syrian partners, pulled this terrible movement back. President Trump says we’re going to have a military parade—fine with me. I’d love to see some of our special-forces soldiers and officers as part of it. I’d love to see President Obama, who made the initial decision to do this, also part of it.
“One of the privileges of having my job is you get to see a lot of the U.S. military overseas. To see them close-up in these combat situations, I can’t tell you how dedicated and smart about the use of power they’ve become. A lot of these guys have been fighting for a dozen years nonstop. They’re on their fourth or fifth deployments. I met a guy who got four Purple Hearts and stopped counting. He has six bronze stars. So the quality of the people who have been doing this fight is unusual. They don’t like to talk about it; they don’t go on TV. But once in a while they let someone like me describe to audiences like this what they’re doing. It’s pretty amazing.
“I then went to the Munich Security Conference, which is an annual gathering to talk about foreign affairs. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, delivered a speech which was kind of a declaration of independence from the White House! The day before, special counsel Robert Mueller had indicted 13 Russians, and if you follow Twitter, you know the president was not amused. But H.R. said, look folks, the evidence of Russian interference in our politics is, his word, incontrovertible. And he talked about it in a very forthright way.
“I found, having attended this conference for many years, that the Russian speakers this time were deflated. Maybe it was the fact that this indictment had come out the day before. Sergei Lavrov, who is usually robust and kind of a warm speaker, was flat and had little to say.”
On the evolution of his career:
“There was a theater in Washington called the Howard Theatre. [As a high schooler], I would put on a blue blazer and tie and talk my way backstage and interview the kings and queens of rhythm and blues—The Temptations, Junior Walker. I can only imagine what the people who ran the Howard Theatre thought about this ridiculous young St. Albans boy cozying up to the Temptations. Their bass man took me back to his hotel in his limousine. We go up to his hotel room. He opens the door. And inside, how to describe the women, and dresses, the peculiar odor wafting from the hotel room … I wasn’t sure what that was! The bass guy says, I think probably this interview is over.
“One day I got a call from the Wall Street Journal, which wanted me to go to Pittsburgh to cover the United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in the country. In that assignment, I fell in love with this business. I never lost that passion, and the reason is that for a young person, it gave you a chance to get out of the narrow lane in which you’d grown up.
“To my amazement, I was really good at working this beat. Within a year, I was breaking stories that other people were following. One of the thrills for me was walking through the lobby of one of the big hotels where the steelworkers did their negotiations and seeing all these big, beefy guys reading the Wall Street Journal, because I had just gotten a hold of what the steel industry’s negotiating position was.
“I sent [my first novel, Agents of Innocence] off to every publisher. A dozen publishers said no. Finally one, W.W. Norton, which is still my publisher, said yes. I rewrote it and made it a book people wanted to read. It’s still in print. It’s all a true story. The CIA initially flipped out: How on earth did he find out all this stuff? Then they decided that it tells people what we actually do, and just how morally ambiguous and difficult our world is. So they began recommending it to their officers. All the time, when I travel around the world, I’ll hear, “When I wanted to tell my mom and dad what I really do, I gave them your book.
“Writing two columns a week, you usually have to slice the world into 750-word bites, and at the end, you have to tell people what to think. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but often, I don’t know what you should think. I am not one of those people who wants to throw red meat at you. There’s too much of that in the media as it is. But when there’s an opportunity to tell complicated stories in 100,000 words, and let the storytelling be faithful to the complexity of the events and people, it’s a joy.”