Friday, February 15, 2008

Steve Clemons Interviewed on Blogging

Blogger Steve Clemons was recently interviewed by The Pakistani Spectator:

Would you please tell us something about you and your site?

I am a policy entrepreneur in Washington working at a think tank called the New America Foundation, but on the side, I run and publish a popular political blog called The blog is focused on a variety of things ranging from American politics to foreign and national security policy to economic issues — but many people read the blog because they like the pictures of my dogs, Annie and Oakley, two Weimaraners that I occasionally put up.

The object behind every blog is the attainment of a state of being. Do you agree with this statement?

No. I think blogs are different depending on who is writing or using them. I think people in my business who are writers and thinkers use blogs to distribute material and information — and to interact with audiences. Others use them as diaries or hobbies. These latter bloggers may be achieving some state of being — but I’m not into the metaphysical aspects of blogging.

I'm wondering what some of your memorable experiences are with blogging?

I’ve had too many to recount — but some of the most interesting began when Senators and Congressman began writing letters to the blog — or wanting me to cover their events or views.

What do you think is the most exciting or most innovative use of technology in politics right now?

I think that Facebook is the leader among social networking sites that allows new groups to quickly and efficiently form, raise money, and take action. Next to blogging about politics — I think the social networking sites are the most interesting in politics. And then the next pillar is political video commentary on YouTube and elsewhere.

You are also sometimes found on Huffpo, why is that site so popular?

There is a great deal of diversity. It’s a little bit sensationalized — and never static. People who read HuffPost want to hear what some Hollywood celebrities think about politics but also want a gusher of information. Much of it is very original and high quality. But some of it needs to be skipped over. Arianna Huffington has more than 1800 writers on board with her. She can stir up stuff any time she wants with that kind of stable.

Do you think that these new technologies are effective in making people more responsive?

Yes I do. People can use technology to gently nudge them in different directions — and I think that RSS feeds, blogs, desired email notes, etc. all mean that the recipient/reader/user is pointing a self-designed pipe of information at themselves. I think it’s amazing — and very powerful for distributors of information and receivers.

What do you think sets Your site apart from others?

The Washington Note is mostly serious, principled, genuinely “radically centrist” and not ideologically stuck on any candidate or position. It has a view — but that view seems unpredictable to some who follow different ideological grooves. I think people like to see the pictures of my dogs. It’s a human blog. My essays are often long and clunky — not short and humorous. So people who read my blog are “readers” and “thinkers”. I also break a lot of original news and have — according to others — very original analysis of political and foreign policy dramas.

If you could choose one characteristic you have that brought you success, what would it be?

I enjoy writing and think I have a sense of strategy. This helps get through the simple binary, yes/no, black/white, off/on style that dominates political punditry. I’m a bit different and more nuanced.

What was the happiest and gloomiest moment of your life?

Happiest moment was fishing with my family when I was in Junior High School in New Hampshire before we all moved to Japan. The gloomiest was my first day of college when my father died.

Do you think [the use of Twitter and other social networking tools by politicians] is bandwagon jumping or what?

Not sure what you mean by bandwagon jumping so can’t respond. I like microjournalism and “twitter commentary” though from all users of it — politicians, journalists, or just average people.

If you could pick a travel destination, anywhere in the world, with no worries about how it's paid for - what would your top 3 choices be?

Antartica, Tibet, Congo

Please see into your crystal ball and tell us who would be the next President of US?

No idea — but I think the Dems will win this round, so either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Both have strengths. Both have flaws. Both would be exciting — though Obama certainly would be something far “newer” than Clinton — but there are things that worry me about his profile as much as hers. We need a hybrid of them. I doubt they will, but I sort of hope that one is on the Democratic Ticket as President and the other as Vice President.

What is your favorite book and why?

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt — because it tells the real story of how a fragile balance of interests got cobbled together into a republic and established the roots of America’s style of democracy and nation. One realizes that all branches of government and society have to vigorously pursue their interests for the balance to remain in check. I thought that the book was magnificently written and exciting — and has great insights regarding our struggles today inside America.

What's the first thing you notice about a person (whether you know them or not)?

Whether they bite their fingernails or not — and thus if they are nervous or confident. I try to make those who are nervous to feel calm or at ease. There are too many bulldozer types in Washington.

Why US is still unable to find Osama after all these years?

Because it’s not the Bush administration’s highest priority, because of mistakes that distracted resources and national attention, and because bin Laden has devout followers and doesn’t want to be found.

Is there anyone from your past that once told you you couldn't write?

No. But one of my uncles was surprised when former California Governor Jerry Brown hired me to be his speechwriter for a Japan trip he was taking when I was 20 years old. My uncle said, “couldn’t Brown afford anyone else?”

How bloggers can benefit from blogs financially?

If they can generate large traffic, they can sell advertisements — but trying to make a living from blogging is something that only a very few people have been able to do.

Is it true that who has a successful blog has an awful lot of time on their hands?

No. The best blogs — the most read blogs — are done by people who typically have multiple roles as academics, journalists, policy practitioners, think tank intellectuals, closeted soldiers, and the like. The busiest people with no time on their hands generally write the best blogs.

What are your thoughts on corporate blogs and what do you think the biggest advantages and disadvantages are?

I am ambivalent about them. There is little advantage — and the disadvantage is that they tend to be advertisements in another form. Corporations are not dedicated to inquiry and free expression. That’s not what they are designed to do — so they ought not to try and move to far into this kind of venue. They’ll get punished by the market of ideas and opinion that won’t like the controls companies must deploy on their content.

What role can bloggers of the world play to make this world more friendlier and less hostile?

Bloggers come in all shapes and sizes. I wouldn’t think of burdening bloggers with such lofty ambitions unless they chose to pursue these goals themselves. Blogging is not easy and requires passion. That’s something that can be encouraged — but not dominated with the objectives of others, no matter how lofty and worthy the goals. That said, just getting more people up to bat, so to speak, on blogs or video or political cartooning is healthy for society and probably the world at some level.

Who are your top five favourite bloggers?

I can’t limit to 5
The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan
Tapped by American Prospect
Matthew Yglesias Blog — at the Atlantic Monthly
The Swamp/Time
Foreign Policy’s “Passport”
CommentIsFree/The Guardian

Is there one observation or column or post that has gotten the most powerful reaction from people?

I have many. I have written more than 2,750 blog posts. And many of them have been considered zinger articles. But the role my blog played during the 21 month long battle fighting John Bolton’s confirmation vote as US Ambassador to the United Nations is what made my blog particularly famous. I think that the blog is also now having an impact on the ecosystem of foreign policy discussion in Washington — at a broad geostrategic level, and also focused on the Middle East, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, and US-Cuba relations.

What is your perception about Pakistan and its people?

I think Pakistan’s equilibrium as a cohesive nation is out of balance — and I think that it will take some time for the country to bring the military, the lawyers/judges, and the various groups of citizens back together behind a cohesive state. I think highly of Pakistani people and have many friends from Pakistan and in Pakistan.

Have you ever become stunned by the uniqueness of any blogger?

I am not easily stunned, so no. But others may have been. The one person I think is remarkably unique in the world of new journalism is not a blogger — but rather a political cartoonist named Tom Toles who is at the Washington Post. But behind the cartoons he draws are ideas that often animate others like me — and thus to some degree, I’m convinced that blogging is a lot like being a political cartoonist.

What is the most striking difference between a developed country and a developing country?

Developed countries are generally rich, have options — but tend not to realize how fortunate they are and don’t have a good sense of how they achieved stability and success. Developing countries are hungry for success and want more options for their people — but they are stifled by many different constraints. Occasionally, their collective energies and focus help them achieve real success moving up the economic ladder and the ladder of self-determination and stability. But many developing societies are fundamentally unstable with shifting sets of winners and losers and thus subject to waves of political convulsions that are hard to accept and work through.

What is the future of blogging?

Huge. Blogging will spread globally — and will become the foundation of a new journalism, a new political organizing mechanism, and a new global communications vehicle. But blogging may become less and less written and may become more and more video, spoken, or driven by the personal creation of non-verbal images.

You have also got a blogging life, how has it directly affected both your personal and professional life?

It as enriched both my personal and professional life by bringing me into contact with hundreds of thousands of people I did not know. It has made me more aware of alternative thinking and made me a more efficient writer and political commentator. I enjoy all of this so my personal life is enriched as well — after all, I put pictures of my dogs on the website. They are now very famous. Just go to Google and type in the word “Weimaraner”. My dogs picture and mine come up --- this is because so many people in the world have linked to it. That’s fun.

What are your future plans?

To eventually finish this long interview. And then sleep. Then I’ll blog again and go running. Not sure after that.

Any Message you want to give to the readers of The Pakistani Spectator?

Thanks for reading all the way through this. I wish I could give you a prize or medal for making it to the end. Seriously though, blogging or any other kind of civic expression is a vehicle to participate in our respective societies. We are all stakeholders in our communities, our nations, and in the world — and blogging gives a portal for many who have been “passive” in this contract as stakeholders to become “active” and “engaged.” I hope those who read this check out my blog at — but I also hope that you find a way to learn, to listen, to share, to celebrate, and protest when the need arises those things in society you like or dislike. As Cicero explained over 2,000 years ago — our collective good depends on active engagement of all the constituent parts of our societies. Otherwise, the system won’t find an equilibrium that generally works for all.

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