College alumnus Jeffrey Goldberg’s reporting from the Middle East has garnered a slew of awards and an invitation to come and chat with Fidel Castro. Just don’t tell his kids he dropped out of Penn.
BY JORDANA HORN
As we’re talking in his office, the writer Jeffrey Goldberg C’87 leans back in his desk chair, tossing a set of beads up in the air and catching them. I ask him what they are.
Worry beads, he explains. “Somebody in the Taliban gave me these 12 years ago. They’re much cheaper than therapy.” It happened when he was in Afghanistan in 1999, speaking to the governor of Kandahar in an attempt to get an interview with Mullah Omar, spiritual leader of the Taliban. (He did get the interview—“but I had to do it through a screen, because of being an infidel,” Goldberg notes as an aside.)
The governor of Kandahar told him, “You seem nervous.”
“Um, I’m in fucking Kandahar,” Goldberg remembers thinking. “I’m definitely nervous.”
“So here, take my beads,” the governor told him, adding that he had gotten them in Saudi Arabia on the hajj.
“It was very nice of him,” Goldberg says, catching the beads and tossing them in the air again. The gift was particularly generous, he adds, because the giver apparently had a lot to worry about: “He only had one eye and one leg by the time I met him. He was losing parts at a rapid clip.”
The story is a pretty good example of Goldberg’s strengths as a writer, in his award-winning magazine articles and book on the Middle East and his popular blog at The Atlantic. He is a tireless reporter who goes where the story is, he cultivates great sources, and he has a keen eye for the telling detail and a lively—if dark and somewhat skewed—sense of humor.
Goldberg honed those skills, and possibly the humor as well, at The Daily Pennsylvanian, and the lessons didn’t come cheap. The DP, it turns out, was both his professional awakening and his academic undoing.
In fact, when I first contacted him, Goldberg felt compelled to come clean on one point before being profiled: “I haven’t (yet) graduated from Penn,” he emailed back. “I went on leave of absence senior year to finish as editor of the DP, then I ran away and joined the Israeli army. I meant to go back to school, but I got a job at The Washington Post, and that was that.” Assured that the lack of a formal degree is no disqualification for inclusion among Penn’s alumni, Goldberg agreed to talk.
We met at the Washington headquarters of The Atlantic, where Goldberg is a national correspondent, writing feature articles and other pieces for the print magazine (including its advice column) and blogging for its online platform. After calling Boston home for its first 150 years of existence, The Atlantic relocated to the nation’s capital a few years ago. Its offices are in the Watergate building—a great location for a journalist, infused with a heady combination of history and irony. The view’s not bad, either.
Goldberg takes me on a walk around the outdoor balcony, where various memorials to great American presidents are spread out below us and right across the street stands the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. Its green flag with crossed swords flutters in the breeze. Goldberg tells me he was going to put a Hezbollah flag up in his window, but thought it might have been taken the wrong way by the Saudis, given that the two don’t get along particularly well.
His office is piled high with stacks of books against the walls, covering virtually every aspect of the Middle East. He may not have finished college, but the room bears a strong resemblance to the digs of a Middle Eastern Studies academic. “Here, read my favorite book,” he jokes, tossing me a copy of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s “Green Book.” The space where Goldberg’s diploma might have been hung is occupied instead by a picture of him in a Pakistani madrassa—but more on that later.
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Goldberg picked Penn for college in the first place because of the DP, he says. He became executive editor of the paper in his junior year, but by his own account had already gone “off the rails academically” as early as spring of his freshman year. As a new beat reporter, Goldberg found himself—running “late, as usual”—sitting in the back of a 300-person lecture hall in an introductory course on international relations. He could barely see his professor at the front of the room, and he had to leave class early to go over to College Hall to interview then-President Sheldon Hackney Hon’93.
“As I’m leaving, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, I could spend an hour as a random putz in a lecture hall, or, as an 18-year-old, I can go ask the president of the University any question I want.’ And I thought, ‘You know something? Being a reporter is better.’
“The DP, for a lot of people, was a major,” Goldberg recalls. “It was certainly mine. I knew what I wanted to do. It was a fantastic adventure, where you got to go anywhere and do anything. It taught me that journalism could be the shortcut to interesting things—and it certainly made academic work at the time pale in comparison.” In retrospect, Goldberg doubts that he was “prepared for the rigors of Penn,” adding: “My disinterest in academic work was profound.”
That disinterest was reflected in his grades, which, by the time he was editor, “were dismal,” he says. “I took a leave of absence, planning to go to Israel, but planning on coming back to school.” While some of his professors expressed doubt that he would return, Goldberg says, “I was like, ‘I’m totally coming back.’ And I didn’t.”
Still, the training he’d received at the DP helped earn him an internship at The Washington Post, Goldberg says. “Then I went to The Jerusalem Post, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So that was the launching pad. Try explaining that to your parents, but it makes its own sense.”
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FEATURE: Journalism, Jews, and Jeffrey Goldberg by Jordana Horn
Illustration by Jay Bevenour
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette