I used to call him Hasty. Emphasis on the ty. Has-ty!
I'd say it when I saw him, covered in grime, coming in from an embed, or over breakfast in the morning, day after day, month after month, year after year, in the dilapidated house we shared in the green zone in Baghdad. Michael would chuckle and say, "What's shaking?" or, as was so often the case, simply, "Dude," which was really just a prelude, his way of saying: Wait till you hear what I'm about to tell you.
And tell he did, more stories than I, or even sometimes he, could keep up with. He was a consummate storyteller, and an even better story-getter. Michael Hastings was one of the most dedicated and talented reporters I've ever known. More than that he was an extraordinarily thoughtful human being, a fact that often got eclipsed in recent years by his aggressive and unrelenting diligence on the job. Michael died early Tuesday morning in a fiery car crash in Hollywood. There is no accounting for everything his death will come to mean for the rest of us. But right now, a world without Michael feels like a less honest, a less generous and a much less soulful place.
I first met Michael at the old Newsweek offices on 57th Street in New York in 2003. He was 23, fascinated by journalism, foreign reporting, anything that enabled him to engage with the world, a world that just lit him up with desire and outrage, curiosity and conviction. Michael was alive, even in those very first encounters, with a rare kind of ferocity, a hunger for experience coupled with a subtle sensibility far beyond his years. He was already a gifted writer whose talent had caught the eye of senior editors to whom he was becoming increasingly indispensable. When they challenged him with greater and more difficult tasks, he rose to the occasion every time. And from the heights of each accomplishment, he looked further.
Michael arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2005. He was untested as a war correspondent, but I was happy to have him there. I was Newsweek's Bureau Chief and we needed a permanent correspondent. Michael was fresh, eager and raring to go, and within days he was working Baghdad as if there were no more natural thing in the world. For the next year and a half Michael and I reported together virtually every day, and what began as a collegial relationship soon blossomed into one of the most rewarding and lasting friendships I have ever had.
There was a time when I thought I was actually teaching Michael — about reporting from a war zone, or how to talk to the military, or what the larger lessons of the war might eventually be. I sent him out on his first embed, and like a father I fretted every hour that he was gone, wanting nothing more than his safe return to the house. But when he did return, amped up on adrenaline and tingling with the thrill of having survived, it was clear he had already absorbed more than I could ever teach him. As the situation worsened, and Iraq began to descend into civil war, Mike grew along with it, using each new story, each new atrocity to better understand the world and his place in it. In that way he was the best kind of reporter and public intellectual – the kind who never shied away from an uncomfortable truth, but instead ran straight toward it, knowing it would offer him, and by extension the rest of us, something of much greater value.
Mike proved himself over and over again in Iraq, often in the harshest circumstances. He spent three weeks embedded with a unit in the height of summer once, unwilling to return until he had gotten every last bit of reporting he could find. When the story was published, the officers threatened him with bodily harm because they didn't appreciate the honesty with which he had portrayed the experience of soldiering. He stayed on with the unit anyway. He was sometimes cavalier and brash, but in Iraq his ire was never directed toward the grunts with whom he spent so much time. Instead he sought to portray their experiences in what he knew was the larger context of a failed war. When out-of-touch or embarrassed leaders pushed back at him, sometimes with threats, he could have retreated in fear but he did not. He was then, and remained so until the end, courageous in his reporting and in his life.
Michael's reporting from Iraq was without question some of the very best that Newsweek produced. He was the first reporter to uncover indications of torture by American-supported Iraqi jailers and he found his way into a jail to prove it. Together we snuck into a courthouse and reported on the flaws of Iraq's incipient judicial system. He was the only reporter to break the news that the execution of Saddam Hussein was filmed, contradicting what officials claimed and in violation of the law. He broke stories on politics, military strategy and death squads. It was because of Michael's diligent cultivation of sources that one day, toward the end of 2006, I found a trove of classified documents on my desk, leaked to us by sympathetic officials at the U.S embassy, detailing a propaganda campaign. Without Mike, I might have sat on the story. "Let's do it," he said, "[U.S government officials] are the ones who are lying." And so we did. Michael, younger by seven years, had become my teacher.
The week after I left Baghdad, in January 2007, Michael's fiance Andi Parhamovich, a young employee of the National Democratic Institute was killed in an ambush after leaving an appointment with a prominent Sunni politician in a particularly rough part of town. In Mexico that week, my mother and aunt and I made a wreath and left it in a small church. I never sent the pictures to Michael and I wish I had. But when I saw Michael last week, he had just returned from a meeting in Washington D.C where, he told me, he had uncovered more information about the people he believed were responsible for Andi's murder. He said he wouldn't stop looking until the killers were brought to justice.
Michael's reporting eventually changed the world. His profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal altered the course of the war in Afghanistan and, arguably, shifted the way the military thinks about its Constitutionally enshrined duties to civilian leadership. He won accolades and awards, and yet he always battled people, even other reporters, who felt more comfortable nestled within the cozy alleyways of power, where access and privilege are taken for granted, provided that you refrain from speaking certain truths. Michael Hastings never took that easy route.
And yet for all that fame and glory, he was until the end humble, courageous and concerned. I had dinner with him last week at the Manhattan apartment where he made a home with his wife Elise Jordan and his Corgi, Bobby Sneakers. He wanted to do another story on the death squads in Iraq, he told me; he had always felt bad that he had left that story untold. Six years after Andi's death he was still doggedly on the trail of the people, in both the American and Iraqi governments, who he felt bore some measure of responsibility. And in typical fashion, he was branching out, delving into the sordid mysteries of Hollywood where, he told me last month as we rode in the Mercedes he had just bought, "dreams come to die."
It had been a few years since I had last seen Michael in person. He had moved to Los Angeles and I would soon be too. He had all kinds of plans for us -- stories we would do together, tips to pursue, hell to raise. He picked me up one day at LAX in April and we spent a couple of days together, eating street tacos, enjoying the sun, talking about the past. I was so proud of everything he had accomplished, and so excited for the future.
I'm sorry I won't be able to go skateboarding with Michael, like we had planned. Or that I won't be able to teach him to surf. I'm sorry I won't hear his remarkable laugh anymore. I'm so sorry I will no longer be the recipient of his vast knowledge. He was a treasure as a friend, a gift as a teacher and a remarkable human being. For the world, however, he was incalculably valuable, and for that I am not just sorry but incredibly sad.
I miss you already, Hasty.
Scott Johnson is the author of the recently published memoir, "The Wolf and the Watchman," an account of life with his CIA spy father. A former Newsweek Bureau Chief, he was written for Foreign Policy, the New York Times, Granta and many others.
Contact Scott Johnson at email@example.com.
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