R.W. Apple Jr. ’57
Whether as the New York Times’ Saigon bureau chief during the Vietnam War, its Washington bureau chief during the 1980s and 90s, covering politics as one of the original “boys on the bus,” or as a noted gourmand and architecture critic, R.W. Apple Jr. ’57 has been one of the most influential modern American journalists. Apple, who has said that the 2004 presidential election would be the last he covered, recently spoke to PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83.
Is this really your last year on the campaign trail?
As far as I can foresee at the moment, yes. I’ll be 70 at the end of November, which means that I’d be 74 the next time. So I can’t see myself playing an active role in the coverage of that campaign. However, I would be very surprised, if I’m still of sound mind and body, if I didn’t write a little something then.
How do you plan to celebrate your 70th birthday?
I’ve taken over what I consider to be the best bistro in Paris, and therefore, almost automatically, the best in the world, for a dinner on my birthday with 15 friends. It’s called Chez l’Ami Louis. We’ll have foie gras, snails, roast chicken, côte de boeuf – which is a kind of beef chop — and some other things.
Having covered as many campaigns as you have, what do you think that other great chronicler of the political world, H.L. Mencken, would have made of John Kerry and George W. Bush?
I think he would have murdered them. He would have seen both of them parroting words put into their mouths by others. He would have seen Mr. Bush as intellectually inadequate. I think he also would have been very distressed by the degree to which both of them find it hard to give a straight answer to a straight question. That, of course, is a characteristic of our political culture today. People who give straight answers to straight questions are thought to be foolish.
You once said you stopped being the Times’ Washington bureau chief in 1997 because “different sorts of people began to be elected to Congress.” What did you mean?
Our national political culture, or at least our Washington political
culture, has become one of hostility, if not hatred, between the two parties.
There used to be a lot more members of Congress who came from the moderate
wings of their parties. They were crucial people because they tended to
tug the dialogue and the voting patterns back toward the middle. At least
in the House, where redistricting has tended to make districts safe for
one party or the other, parties now can nominate people on the extremes.
For me, this is a very unhealthy development.
You were also the Times’ bureau chief in Saigon from 1966 to 1968. Is Iraq becoming another Vietnam?
There are significant differences between the two wars, but there is a large similarity, and we have gotten bogged down not so much because of tactical ineptitude, but because of strategic overconfidence bordering on hubris. If it were as easy as our government pretends it is to impose a democracy on a country like Iraq, Britain would have done it generations ago.
Is it true that your interest in art and architecture began at Princeton?
It began before I got to Princeton, but it was tremendously deepened, intensified, and, I hope, made a little more sophisticated at Princeton. The art and architecture departments were tremendous and I just soaked it up. The history and politics departments also influenced me. The thing about the place that was remarkable — having had two children who went to Harvard, I realize it even more now — is that whenever you had a really tremendous teacher, you had a fairly good chance of having a precept with him.
You were forced to withdraw from the University twice and finally earned your degree at Columbia. What happened?
I think you could properly describe both withdrawals as disciplinary, related to rampant immaturity. The first time I got booted it was for bad grades, but I had good grades in all but two subjects and my problem in those courses was that they met on days when I was always in Poughkeepsie, chasing Vassar girls. The second time, it was all kinds of disciplinary violations, basically related to running the Daily Princetonian and being very active in student government.
You once said that while you did not do well in college by Princeton’s lights, you did do well by your own lights. What did you get out of your years at Princeton?
I got a tremendous education. I learned to love things. I learned to ask questions. All of which I’ve carried through my whole life. To give just one example: Eric Goldman taught a course in 20th-century American history which I think about every week of my working life. It was a brilliant, brilliant course.