On an overcast early afternoon in Cambridge last spring, Linda Greenhouse, Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, stood at a podium inside an enormous white tent set up under the chestnuts in Radcliffe Yard and described for the assembled students and alumnae a moment of personal reckoning. The reckoning had come to her on a Sunday a couple of years earlier, soon after the start of the Iraq war, as she attended a Washington, D.C., concert by one of her favorite baby-boom musical groups, Simon and Garfunkel. There, Greenhouse had the unaccustomed experience, not being a weeper, of crying through the last half of the program. The precise stimulus for her jag was Paul Simon’s 1968 song “America,” whose refrain “They’ve all gone to look for America” is a reliable spur of nostalgia for those of us of a certain age. It evoked in Greenhouse something more complicated, saturated with responsibility and regret.
Despite the turmoil that cleaved the ranks of student life back in 1968, the year Greenhouse graduated from Radcliffe, she remembered, “We were absolutely united in one conviction: the belief that in future decades…when our turn came to run the country, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes…. I cried that night in the Simon and Garfunkel concert out of the realization that my faith had been misplaced.”
Her disillusionment would deepen in the months after the performance, as it became “clear the extent to which our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and other places around the world,” she said. “And let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism. To say that these last years have been dispiriting is an understatement.”
And to say, as I just did, that Greenhouse’s sense of responsibility is distinct from her nostalgia is a misstatement. Many of us who criticize our government find our anger intertwined with our longing. Our mounting disgust at the misguided role America is being made to play in the world, and our alarm at the dismantling of our security and our constitutional freedoms, have as their taproot a naive patriotism. Perhaps journalists are especially susceptible to this dualism. Many honorable professions—say, advertising—when done well, require graceful expression of a cold purpose. Journalism, done well, is generally the opposite—discomfiting in its expression, though generous in its intent.
Since its inception, Mother Jones has exemplified this odd amalgam. Nothing has so compelled this magazine, over the years, as a fervent, unwavering, insatiable sentimentality for America’s promise. Being journalists, and being journalists alive in these particular times, our affection can come across as grumpy. Affection, in our line of work, declines rose-colored glasses. This issue of Mother Jones demonstrates the contradiction. On the clear-eyed front, it introduces the work of our new Washington correspondent, James Ridgeway, a veteran reporter who ranks among the premier investigative journalists, and whom we are exceedingly proud to have with us. Jim is the D.C. point man for our new investigative team, laboring with reporting fellows Josh Harkinson and Dan Schulman to explore the truth about how this country works, a Mother Jones mission since our inaugural issue.
That 1976 issue featured a story titled, coincidentally enough, “They’ve All Gone to Look for America,” in which writer Bo Burlingham scoured the nation for remnants of ’60s-era activism. Because of our long-standing devotion to place, this place, we have chosen to celebrate our 30th year of publication with another tour of American locales, emblematic locales insofar as they are stress points, places where American life is being shaped, for better or worse, right before our eyes. It’s not a sentimental journey in any normal sense. But it strives toward a sentimental destination, a future wherein Linda Greenhouse, and other Americans equally thoughtful, might say, of their belief in their country and their countrymen, that their faith was not misplaced.