Teaching Lessons

“If you’re afraid to go too far”


By Jefferson Morley

August 22, 2016



When I was starting out as journalist after college, I got a job at Harper’s Magazine, then edited by Michael Kinsley. I worked as an editor for him for a total of four years, first at Harper’s and then at The New Republic. Michael would be mortified to see his name in the same sentence as the word “mentor,” so let’s just say he was my role model (and an unlikely one at that). I was a leftist wise guy who’d landed in Washington, D.C., via the urban schools of New York City and Minneapolis. He was a hilarious nerdy guy from suburban Detroit who pushed up his glasses while delivering bon mots that it has been my pleasure to steal ever since. When a writer complained about my editing, Michael told me not to worry. He recalled that one perennial TNR gasbag had told him, “Your predecessor was a much better editor than you. He didn’t change a word I wrote.”

Michael was interested in everything peculiar about Washington’s political-cultural bubble, and he didn’t care whom he offended. He wasn’t a moralist or muckraker, just a liberal gadfly. I don’t need to quote his most-famous aphorisms—about gaffes, about Canada, about Al Gore—just the one that influenced me the most. “Jeff,” he told me, “if you’re afraid to go too far, you won’t go far enough.” For better or worse, I took that to heart when I started reporting on the CIA. If I was afraid to go too far in investigating the agency’s secret operations—licit and illicit—I would never get the whole story. I wasn’t afraid, and the CIA wasn’t afraid to open a file on me, an honor for which Michael deserves some credit.

Jefferson Morley is author of Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835. His biography of CIA counterspy James Angleton will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017.

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