Ari Berman’s “Herding Donkeys” | Going Off the Beaten Path for "Herding Donkeys"

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute.

Ari Berman, born in New York City, raised in Fairfield, Iowa, and a former high school journalism student of mine, recently penned Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).  Released last month, his book has already garnered a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and laudatory comments from political writers Jonathan Alter, John Heilemann, Joe Conason, and Michael Tomasky. While visiting Fairfield recently to attend his ten-year high school reunion, Ari sat down with me for a chat.

When you attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, did you plan to become a political reporter?

When I went to journalism school, I was interested in politics but didn’t necessarily know that I wanted to do that. In my junior year, I studied International Affairs abroad in Geneva at the United Nations. This was the time the debate over the war in Iraq was going on in America. I was following it from afar and getting the European perspective on it. I was absolutely furious. I thought the case for war in Iraq was completely fabricated by the Bush administration. That seemed so obvious in Europe. When I was in Geneva, I realized the entire world’s agenda was dictated by what went on in Washington. You had to follow Washington if you cared about the rest of the world.

How did your career as a book author begin?

At The Nation, I wrote this blog called The Daily Outrage, and Nick Ellison, this pretty big agent from New York, liked those columns. He wanted me to compile all the Daily Outrages into a book and expand on them.

Why didn’t you?

I felt they weren’t good enough to be a book. After I started working at The Nation, people started telling me, “You should write a book.” And I said, “I’m not writing a book until I can write a good book.” Nick and I bandied about ideas. He wanted me to do a book about the culture of Washington; that was a great idea. For two years, I was in D.C. at The Nation’s Washington Bureau. I covered Capitol Hill. I was really familiar with domestic policy. My office was across the street from the Senate.  I was in D.C. the day of Hurricane Katrina, and I left in September 2007 as the presidential campaign was heating up. But I didn’t want to immerse myself in Washington.

How did the idea for Herding Donkeys arise?

The Nation has a book imprint, and I’m friends with one of the editors. After the election, he said, “You should do a book about Howard Dean and the 50-state strategy. That was Obama’s strategy. Write a biography of the strategy.”

It was funny because literally at that moment I was doing an article saying that Obama’s strategy was Dean’s strategy. I had never really thought it could be a book, but why couldn’t it be? I felt passionate about it: it would be impactful. It wouldn’t be something people picked up one day and discarded the next. I wanted to write something durable. People can look at this in ten years and see what happened in this era.

I saw what Obama was doing as a natural outgrowth of what Dean was trying to do, which was change the [Democratic] party, get people involved, build a 50-state campaign. Get as many people involved in as many different ways in as many different places as possible.

I wanted to tell the evolution of that grassroots movement from Dean to Obama as a history. I knew it was relevant for today. I also knew this doesn’t end when Obama becomes president. I also wanted to look at what happens now. What happens next? That grassroots movement has been largely neglected by the Obama White House. The Republicans used Obama’s playbook better than he did.

Did you know how to write a book proposal?

I had no idea. Nick sent me a sample proposal, and friends who were writing books said, “Here’s what it takes to write a proposal.” I knew I had to do it fast because a bunch of books about Obama were already sold. I took articles from The Nation that I’d written about Dean, blended them into a book style, and added other reporting.

Among the publishers we sent the proposal to, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was interested. My agent said, “It’s one of the best publishing houses, and the president wants to meet you.” I was as nervous going into that meeting as I was when I was finding out if I got into college. I met with Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher, and the editor-in-chief, Eric Chinski, who later became my editor. They asked me, “What’s Howard Dean up to now? How do you see what’s going on?” I rambled for 10 minutes.

Then they said, “You know what the book is; just go write it,” but that was a little bit of an overstatement. I knew enough to write a proposal. A lot of political books are magazine articles stitched together. They feel very fake to me. I didn’t want to rely on what I did at The Nation. I wanted the people and characters to be fresh.

 The Nation is a great place, but you have a certain amount of space. You can’t get into people’s life stories. You can’t get into their colors. I wanted to tell those stories. I wanted to be able to give the book to people who didn’t necessarily care about politics. I wanted to be able to say, “Okay, fine. You may not care about politics, but read these stories. These are interesting stories in and of themselves.”

It was really important for me to tell the story in an accessible way. I wanted my friends who weren’t political junkies to be able to read the book. So I really tried to find the human side of the story. When you learn how to be a journalist, that’s what they tell you. Go find an interesting story. 

In your acknowledgments, you thank the “200-plus people who agreed to be interviewed for this project.” Did you do all those interviews specifically for this book?

Yes, that was all new reporting. I wanted to know why people did what they did, how they did it, and what motivated them. I was telling the grassroots story, so I focused on the grassroots people. I grew up in Iowa. I had the experience of growing up in the Heartland. I could relate to these people. I wanted to go to those off-the-beaten-path places. They reminded me of home. This is less a book about political strategy and more a book about the people and places in this country. You can give it to someone abroad and say, “You want to understand America? This is a book you can read."

Oct. 21, 2010, Reading at Prairie Lights

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 21, Ari will read from Herding Donkeys at Prairie Lights Bookstore, 15 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City.

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©2010 Cheryl Fusco Johnson.

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