Narrative is the throughline in the professional life of Evan Thomas.
As a panelist on PBS’s Inside Washington, Thomas participates in a weekly examination of close-order maneuvering among the nation’s governing and, in the process, helps define political reality — at least for the audience slice that favors natural fibers and fair-trade coffee.
Each semester at Princeton, in a course called “The Literature of Fact,” Thomas teaches 16 would-be journalists the mechanics of characterization and pacing, the craft of reporting and interviewing, and the inside art of, well, narrative.
At Newsweek, Thomas’s home for the past 24 years, he enjoys the seigniorial title “editor at large,” suggesting authority unencumbered by administrative worry. (Although Thomas no doubt enjoyed his fill of office politics as the newsweekly’s onetime Washington bureau chief — and perhaps again last week, when Newsweek’s parent, the Washington Post, put the financially strapped publication up for sale.)
With more than 100 cover stories to his credit, Thomas knows how to earn his keep; a 1998 National Magazine Award for his account of the soap-saga that followed Monica Lewinsky’s service to President Bill Clinton established a pedigree; and a 2005 National Magazine Award to Newsweek for its 50,000-word mini-epic on the 2004 presidential election — written by Thomas — honed a reputation that cuts mustard in Georgetown and at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Impressive stuff. More so when one considers that these are only Thomas’s day jobs.
For more than 20 years, Thomas also has been a practicing historian. He kicked off his long-form career as the co-author (with pal Walter Isaacson) of a big and exceedingly readable book, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (Simon & Schuster) — a study of establishmentarians Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, and John McCloy Jr. As would be the case in all his subsequent work, the ghost of Plutarch hovers over the pages.
Wise Men was followed by biographies of Robert F. Kennedy, John Paul Jones, super litigator Edward Bennett Williams, the founding generation of the Central Intelligence Agency, and a study of the last great naval campaign of World War II.
As a journalist and a historian, Thomas’s theme is power and the consequences of its exercise. His most recent, The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 (Little Brown), is also his most elegant — a medley of intersecting lives: the story of the men who were present at the creation of the American empire, those who wished it (William Randolph Hearst), those who willed it (Henry Cabot Lodge and Teddy Roosevelt), and those who tried to stop it (Speaker of the House Thomas Reed of Maine and Harvard philosopher William James).
The story of the Spanish-American War — the nation’s first conflict of choice — War Lovers presents eerie parallels with George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq. Thomas is too sensitive a writer and too scrupulous a historian to present a reductive story in which Bush equals Roosevelt and Lodge sits in for Cheney. But for a nation of civic and historical illiterates, Thomas provides a public service by forging in the smithy of his imagination the essential story of America’s too often denied lust for empire.