| Home | Interview With David Maraniss of The Washington Post
September 17, 2014

Maraniss, a reporter on the national desk for The Washington Post, is the author of several books, including "First In His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton." For his coverage of Bill Clinton's life and career, Maraniss won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. How did you get started in journalism?

Maraniss: I was sort of born with journalism in my blood. My grandfather was a printer. My dad was a newspaper man in Wisconsin. My earliest memories are of walking into the old newsroom with cigarette butts on the linoleum, scotch paper everywhere and old-timers barking out orders to copy boys. I first started writing in college. I covered high school sports and student demonstrations at the University of Wisconsin. The first paper I worked for was the Madison Capital Times. Then I went into radio for a while. I worked for WIBA in Madison, which also had Radio-Free Madison. I was both a city hall reporter, and on weekends I wrote and delivered my own 15-minute newscast. Then I went to the Trenton Times in New Jersey. Was hired there in 1975 right after The Washington Post bought it. It was one of the luckiest places in the country for a young reporter because The Post had just bought it and it was like the farm club. I worked there in '75 through the spring of '77 and then was hired by The Washington Post. I started at The Post covering Prince George's County and Maryland politics. I got there right when Marvin Mandell was going on trial. Have you always had a passion for politics and political reporting?

Maraniss: I'm not a political junkie. It's kind of funny that I've always been identified as a political reporter. I'm not one of the reporters who reads the Hotline everyday, who really cares much about what the polls say and things like that. I'm more interested in social movements and the forces that shape people's lives and the biographical parts of it. What is the most memorable story you've covered?

Maraniss: I've covered so many different types of stories that they are memorable in different ways. I put them in three categories. In terms of pure exhilaration or fear was covering an earthquake in Mexico, driving through the countryside of Mexico, feeling the rumbling under the car and not knowing where I was, being sort of out of touch for a couple of days. The second category would be covering Clinton's election just because it was such an interesting election in 1992, and I was covering him from the beginning. A third category just in terms of the power of what I was saying was writing about the slums along the border of Texas and Mexico, and people living without water and any sanitation of any sort, writing stories that had an impact on how the federal government dealt with that. What was your toughest interview?

Maraniss: One would be Bill Clinton because I found him to be so incredibly glib and hard to pin down. A second would be the parents of two teenage girls who were murdered in a yogurt shop in Austin, Texas. Just the emotion of dealing with parents when that kind of unspeakable loss occurred was very hard. How do you prepare for an interview?

Maraniss: The most important thing for any interview is to be prepared yourself. To know as much about the life and the interests of the person you are talking to, and to present yourself to them not as a threat but as someone who is interested in what they have to say. The more knowledge you have, the better the interview will go. It's always different with politicians, but with other people, never assume that they don't want to talk. Even people in the most difficult situations might want to talk and tell their story. What do you like most about your job?

Maraniss: I love to write, but what I love most is that I'm always learning something new. It's like a continuing post-graduate education. Every story presents something to learn and to discover. Most days, I want to learn something and figure out how to present it to other people. Was journalism what you always wanted to do?

Maraniss: I first hoped that I could play shortstop for the Milwaukee Braves (laughs). But once that dream died when I was about 12, I realized that there was absolutely nothing I was any good at except writing. What advice can you give to aspiring journalists?

Maraniss: Read as much as you can. Figure out who you like and try to study why those writers are effective. Also, rather than studying journalism in school, do it as much as you can. How do you deal with writers' block?

Maraniss: I hope that it comes to me in my sleep, which it sometimes does. I don't get it very often. But I go for a walk and try to sort it out and often I just pretend that I'm writing a letter to my best friend or my mother and just write it through as though it's a letter. Sometimes it breaks me through. What is the state of journalism now?

Maraniss: I think partly because of the diversity of the medium that it's almost impossible to just say overall. I think parts of it are doing a good job and parts of it are utterly irresponsible. There is just so much information that can go out in various ways, particularly on the Internet, but also on television, that is unchecked, undocumented babble. Along with the freedom that all of this new medium provides, which is good, it also provides more outlets for irresponsible reporting.

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