“I try to understand them in a deeper sense as human beings rather than going over the momentary issues,” says editor Jann Wenner on his approach to Presidents
In November 1993, Rolling Stone had just wrapped up its first interview with a sitting U.S. president when a last-minute question from National Affairs editor William Greider caused Bill Clinton to turn red in the face and begin shouting. Clinton was near the end of a tumultuous first year in office that saw a sinking economy drag down his approval rating. Greider mentioned a phone call he’d gotten from a father of one of Clinton’s Faces of Hope, citizens Clinton had met during the campaign and invited to the inaugural. “He was very dejected,” Greider told the president. “I told him I was coming over here to see you, and he said, ‘Ask him what he’s willing to stand up for and die on.’ ”
Before he knew it, Greider was eyeball to eyeball with an enraged Clinton as his co-interviewer, Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner, looked on in stunned silence. “I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in 20 years, with the possible exception of Reagan’s first budget, and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press,” Clinton roared. “I am sick and tired of it. And you can put that in the damn article.”
From its earliest days, Rolling Stonehas approached presidents as people first, politicians second. “Most reporters try to cover that day’s news or that day’s controversies, and all the president winds up doing is evading,” says Wenner, who has conducted extensive interviews with Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama. “I back up and ask them for context and color, and I try to understand them in a deeper sense as human beings rather than going over the momentary issues. I think that’s what has made our interviews so good. You got a sense of the individual and the way they talk and how they think.”
Through it all, the magazine has been a staunch advocate of the Democratic Party, even hosting a convention party for Jimmy Carter in 1976 – with a guest list that included Bob Dylan, Jackie Onassis, Robert Redford, John Lennon and Walter Cronkite – and staging all-star fundraising shows for the Democratic candidates in the early 2000s.
The 1972 election was a high-stakes affair to end the war in Vietnam, and Wenner made it a huge priority for the magazine. The primaries began just after Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” landed on newsstands as a two-part Rolling Stone feature. Thompson, who had run a failed race for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, in 1970, was eager to hit the campaign trail.
Thompson trailed the Democratic candidates during the primary season. He became easily the wildest character in the press pool, and his dispatches mixed candidate interviews with vivid insights into the political process (not to mention accounts of his own debauchery). In one piece, he accused Edmund Muskie of being addicted to an obscure hallucinogenic drug: “It is entirely conceivable – given the known effects of ibogaine – that Muskie’s brain was almost paralyzed by hallucinations at the time; that he looked out at the crowd and saw Gila monsters instead of people.”