The Graydon Carter Enigma: Why Is He so Hot to Bash Bush?

What We’ve Lost , by Graydon Carter. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages, $25.

As a Vanity Fair contributor, I had the perfect rebuttal whenever Graydon Carter hassled me about a deadline: What about the book he was supposed to be writing for the British firm Chatto & Windus? By the time I started working for the magazine full time in 1995, the book was at least eight years overdue.

The subject of that still-unwritten tome was aerial photography, not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the editor in chief of Vanity Fair , and the same could be said of What We’ve Lost , a frontal attack on George W. Bush. During the three years I spent at the magazine, the only politician I remember Graydon getting worked up about was Rudolph Giuliani. He was convinced that the Mayor had ordered a construction crew to start digging up the road outside his bedroom window in retaliation for a piece in the magazine about the Mayor’s private life.

Though adamant, What We’ve Lost is not particularly interesting. Compiled with a team of a dozen or so researchers, it reads like an anti-Bush primer that’s been pieced together by some low-level functionary on the Democratic National Committee. The Graydon Carter that I came to know-the seditious cutup, the cynical insider, the guy who knows where all the skeletons are buried-is nowhere in evidence. The prose has a lifeless, bureaucratic, impersonal quality, which is odd given Graydon’s force of personality. It’s almost as if it had been written by someone else-and for all I know, it was. When I first joined Vanity Fair , I remember being baffled by the air of self-importance emanating from one particular member of the staff. I later discovered that she was responsible for writing the monthly “Editor’s Letter.”

Far more interesting than the book itself is the question of why Graydon has written it-or, at any rate, put his name to it. Why has this inveterate player of angles, a man who prides himself on never having made an uncalculated move, suddenly made a show of aligning himself with the forces ranged against President Bush?

A brief perusal of Vanity Fair ‘s back issues, including the February 2002 issue in which Mr. Bush and his team were given the full Annie Leibovitz treatment, indicates that this is a fairly recent conversion. One of the central planks of Graydon’s case against Mr. Bush-a charge repeated again and again in What We’ve Lost -is that he “deceived the American people” about the extent of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. As evidence, he cites a Los Angeles Times poll in December 2002 which showed that 90 percent of the respondents did not doubt that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction.

Alarming stuff, but I fear the percentage of Vanity Fair readers who believed this may have been even higher: The magazine ran an article in the May 2002 issue documenting Saddam Hussein’s plans to acquire a long-range ballistic-missile system and identifying sites inside Iraq where chemical and biological weapons were designed, manufactured and tested. The article-by the British journalist David Rose-was based on a series of interviews with Mohamed Harith, a high-level Iraqi defector.

Graydon was still bragging about this scoop almost a year later. In March 2003, he gave an interview to Adweek in which he claimed that this and other, similar articles by David Rose in Vanity Fair had “certainly affected the British government’s decision.” The interviewer didn’t ask him to specify what “decision” he had in mind, but he must have been referring to the fact that the British government elected to throw in its lot with America in the war against Iraq.

Eighteen months later, Graydon no longer seems so eager to take credit for influencing British foreign policy. In What We’ve Lost , he writes: “Prime Minister Tony Blair’s credibility as well as his political reputation and aspirations have been severely diminished by his support of Bush’s unilateral invasion.” (Given that British forces participated in the invasion, that’s an idiosyncratic use of the word “unilateral.”)

The first sign that Graydon was having doubts about Dubya’s leadership in the war on terror was the “Editor’s Letter” that appeared in the May 2003 issue, presumably written by him. “You really have to work at it to create a situation in which Saddam Hussein is looked upon as less of a threat to world peace than the U.S. president,” he wrote. “In his little more than two years on the job, George W. Bush has proved himself to be more than up to the task.”

This volte-face must have been fairly sudden, since in that very same issue there was another David Rose piece, this one based on interviews with a series of Iraqi defectors, in which he detailed the appalling crimes committed by Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, including torture, rape and murder.

Mr. Rose’s meetings with these defectors, as well as Mohamed Harith, were arranged by the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmad Chalabi’s outfit, which has subsequently been exposed as a fount of pro-war misinformation. All the so-called intelligence passed on by these “defectors” is now regarded as unreliable, even by the C.I.A. If Graydon was opposed to the war in Iraq, why did he allow the imprimatur of Vanity Fair to be used to lend credibility to Mr. Chalabi’s anti-Saddam propaganda? Perhaps he changed his mind about the war in the interval between commissioning the Uday and Qusay article and sitting down to write his “Editor’s Letter.”

Graydon composed the May 2003 “Letter” while holed up in the Beverly Hills Hotel (“as I write this … I’m in the curious position of being in Los Angeles preparing Vanity Fair ‘s annual Oscar party”), and one theory as to why he decided to come out against the war is that, having been exposed to the high level of anti-Bush sentiment in Hollywood, he realized it would be a good way to make friends on the West Coast. Graydon is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to become a player in the movie business, an aspiration well-documented by Claudia Eller, Michael Cieply and Josh Getlin in their recent investigation in The Los Angles Times .

By declaring himself an enemy of Mr. Bush, the theory goes, Graydon hoped to elevate his status in the eyes of his Hollywood friends. By expressing a point of view they agreed with, by taking a very public stand, he would be transformed in their eyes into a man of substance, a public intellectual, an homme serieux . One Vanity Fair contributor told me he thought Graydon’s sudden discovery of politics at the age of 54 was a device to give him something more interesting to talk about at Barry Diller’s dinner parties. Instead of regaling the assembled company with horror stories about the prima donna antics of the latest Vanity Fair cover stars, Graydon could hold forth on world affairs. He could converse with them as an equal, rather than-in some obscure sense-the help.

Or perhaps the explanation is much simpler: Graydon is a genuine convert to the Democratic cause. In this month’s Women’s Wear Daily , Kurt Andersen was asked why he thought his old colleague had jumped on the anti-Bush bandwagon. “Five, 10 or 20 years ago, presidential politics would not have made the list of Graydon’s 10 great passions,” said Mr. Andersen, obviously choosing his words carefully. “But I’ve known Graydon for 23 years, and he’s always fairly passionate about whatever passions he holds.”

Does this mean that Graydon’s opposition to Mr. Bush is in some sense authentic? If so, it’s a fairly low bar. I’m reminded of that old showbiz line, often quoted to me by Graydon: “The most important thing in life is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

One indication that Graydon’s recently discovered passion for politics is not authentic is the mechanical quality of his book. It reads like a cut-and-paste job, something that’s been rushed out to cash in on a trend. His sources-or, rather, the sources his army of researchers have been able to dig up-are almost all secondary: ” … wrote David Morse in Slate … an Iraqi regional planning director in Baghdad told the Boston Globe … a former employee told the Los Angeles Times … according to the Wall Street Journal … read a headline in the April 20, 2004, edition of The New York Times … wrote Richard Schwartz in the Daily News …. ” Occasionally, he broadens his frame of reference to include international sources: “Britain’s Evening Standard reports that … the English newspaper the Observer obtained a report on global warming that … as Jamal al-Harith, a British citizen who had been held at Guantanamo, told the Guardian …. ” It goes without saying that no Vanity Fair reporter would ever get away with such lazy reporting. As Graydon was fond of telling his journalists, you’ve got to pick up the phone occasionally.

Even with the boost of other people’s regurgitated articles, it seems Graydon could barely muster the energy to write. The text is regularly broken up with space-filling devices-a 13-page list of the war dead, for example-and no chapter is complete without a volley of bullet points. Sometimes he resorts to the simple expediency of repeating himself. Thus, on page 30 he writes: “You’ve got to give it to the Bush administration, though-it’s focused. When it wants to go to war, it goes to war come hell or high water, and never mind what anyone else thinks.” Compare this to the following passage on page 259: “You’ve got to give it to the Bush administration, it’s focused. When it wants to go to war-as it did with Iraq-it goes to war come hell or high water, the justification for doing so be damned.”

Eventually, he just gives up the ghost. The penultimate chapter, entitled “The President by the Numbers,” consists of 38 pages of Bush trivia presented in the style of the Harper’s Index: “$1 million: Estimated value of a painting the Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, received from Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States and Bush family friend.” (Incidentally, this is the second time Graydon has mentioned this fact. On page 13, he notes that Prince Bandar “gave President Bush a painting worth $1 million.”)

An air of such exhaustion hangs over What We’ve Lost , of words squeezed out like blood from a stone, that it can’t possibly be the work a man newly fired up by political outrage. So we return to the original question: Why did he write it? What is the old fox up to?

My own pet theory is that he’s abandoned his attempts to conquer Hollywood and is now trying to position himself as a credible Democratic opponent to Michael Bloomberg in next year’s Mayoral election. The one issue Graydon really does care passionately about (far, far more than the 10,000 dead Iraqi civilians he mentions in his book) is smoking. He was absolutely furious when Mr. Bloomberg’s goons ticketed him for lighting up in his own office, and I can easily imagine him dwelling on thoughts of revenge as he sucks down Camel Light after Camel Light in the stairwell of the Condé Nast building. What better way to retaliate than running against Mr. Bloomberg on a pro-smoking ticket-and winning?

When I put this theory in an e-mail to Henry Porter, the London editor of Vanity Fair and the closest Graydon has to a Karl Rove figure in his entourage, he immediately e-mailed back and said, “A double bulls eye-he wants to be mayor and return the city to smokers.” He was joking (I think), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this fantasy has occurred to the great man. He already thinks of himself as Mayor of New York; getting elected would merely ratify something that, in his mind, has been true all along.

If Graydon does run for Mayor, he’ll have to brush up his media skills, which are scarcely better than President Bush’s. One of Graydon’s main complaints against Mr. Bush is that he’s refused to engage with his critics. “Bush sees himself as a CEO-type president,” he writes. “But no chief executive can possibly be successful if he’s surrounded by wall upon wall of secrecy.”

Graydon clearly regards this as uppermost among the President’s shortcomings, because he ends the book with this familiar quote from Mr. Bush: “I’m the Commander-see, I don’t need to explain-I don’t need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

Strangely enough, Graydon feels the same way. Earlier this year, he became the subject of investigations by the Los Angeles Times , The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal , all of them looking into his extensive links with the entertainment industry. Not once did he agree to sit down with any of the reporters to answer the charges against him. One intrepid L.A. Times journalist even buttonholed him at the Chicago Book Expo, where he was busy promoting this book, but he shouldered him aside-just like one of the Republican Congressmen Michael Moore tried to interview in Fahrenheit 9/11 .

The most the L.A. Times could get out of him was a written statement, loftily relayed by Beth Kseniak, Graydon’s press secretary: “This story and these outrageous rumors and innuendo are beneath the dignity of the Los Angeles Times and not worthy of detailed response. I have been privileged to edit Vanity Fair for 12 years and would never compromise the magazine or its readers’ trust for personal gain. Those who seek to imply otherwise-whatever their agenda in doing so-are wrong.”

George W. Bush may be an imperial President, but there are few magazine editors as regal as Graydon Carter.

Toby Young, a former Vanity Fair contributing editor, is the author of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (DaCapo Press).