Jon Meacham on Newsweek's Interview Issue

In the White House, John F. Kennedy offered Ben Bradlee one of the finer definitions of our craft. "What makes journalism so fascinating and biography so interesting," JFK remarked, is "the struggle to answer that single question: 'What's he like?' " I have never come across a clearer mission statement, and the spirit of Kennedy's point informs this special edition of the magazine, our first Interview Issue. Rather than interposing ourselves between you and a collection of thinkers and doers, we thought it wisest to convene the most interesting people we could to talk about the future and let you get a sense of what they are like for yourself.

What comes next is our concern, but before we move forward we should pause for a moment to look back. The immediate past is particularly instructive, I think, for 2009 offers an object lesson in the management of expectations. Things are neither as bad as many feared, nor as good as many hoped, since that cold, clear noontime when Barack Obama became president.

Given the still-unfruitful search for innovation to drive the economy and the dispiritingly high unemployment rate, our domestic politics are in an unhappy place at year's end. The threats abroad, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq and Iran, remain maddeningly complex. This has been the most momentous first year for a presidency since 1981, and one could make a strong case for 1933. In both instances Americans were fortunate in our leaders, men who, in their time, inspired great love and great hate. We do not yet know whether Obama will one day join their ranks, but it seems inarguable that, whatever our politics, we should hope so.

As ever, though, it is fashionable to be critical of the president, even dismissive. He is a socialist, or he is a sellout to Wall Street; he doesn't understand business, or he is too captive to corporate interests; he is weak abroad, or he is a Bush who reads Niebuhr. He is attacked for doing too much, and then for accomplishing too little; for being too visible, but not explaining himself well enough. Such is the nature of the job. Obama is constrained by history and subject to perennial second-guessing, but that is the price of responsibility, and there are as yet no signs of one of the most pernicious of presidential characteristics: self-pity.

Life in the arena is a recurring subject in the interviews in this issue. Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger talk about the necessarily limited possibilities of diplomacy (while commiserating about the tsunami of paper that comes with the office of secretary of state). In a conversation with Lally Weymouth, Hamid Karzai gives the Afghan government's view of the war there—a view that does not always appear to track with Washington's. Valerie Jarrett paints a human portrait of the president and the first lady in this first year of authority and responsibility. From his philanthropic vantage point, the 42nd president, Bill Clinton, offers a global framework in which to judge any particular issue, arguing that the rigidity of rich countries and the lack of capacity of poor countries are the central constraining factors in the new century. Nancy Pelosi muses on partisanship, and David Petraeus reflects on the lessons of the warfare of the past decade. Timothy Geithner discusses what happened—and what did not happen—in the economy, while Douglas Holtz-Eakin offers an opposition critique. From Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty talks about Sarah Palin and the recovering Republican "brand." Eric Holder lays out the administration's counterterror policies and wonders whether Dick Cheney really believes all the things he is out there saying. (The answer, General, is almost certainly yes.) Joe Scarborough and Bill Maher trade observations on the intersection of culture and politics. Jeff Bezos, who knows something about retail, reading, and technology, weighs in on the future of the book. And Peter Jackson and James Cameron, who know something about movies, discuss the perils and joys of filmmaking. We are publishing edited excerpts of the interviews; longer versions of most are available at

In listening, so to speak, to the voices here, you will, we hope, feel as though you are sitting down with some of the world's most intriguing people, talking about things that matter. With apologies to Matthew Arnold, that, anyway, is one of the promises of journalism: to give readers intellectual access to the best that is thought and said in the moment.

Jon Meacham on Newsweek's Interview Issue | Culture