Returning home to Fort Wayne, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie Savage will be the second lecturer in this season’s Omnibus series presented by Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Currently a reporter for the New York Times, Savage took time between writing daily stories to share some Summit City memories and insights into his upcoming lecture “Power Wars: Obama, Bush and the Post-9/11 Presidency.”
How does it feel to be chosen to come back to your hometown to be an Omnibus lecturer?
I’m very honored and excited. I’ve stayed in close touch with Fort Wayne, but it has been on a personal life level. My parents still live there and we visit at least once a year, plus my two elementary school aged sons come stay with them for several weeks each summer. (My older boy also spent a week at the YMCA’s Camp Crosley this past summer.) It’s been fun watching various high school friends take on leadership roles in the city as doctors, teachers and other professionals. So, it will be great to bring a little of my own professional life to Fort Wayne, too.
How did growing up in Fort Wayne shape you for the career you have today?
Two things about growing up in Fort Wayne steered me toward journalism. First, at the time, North Side High School still had a weekly student newspaper, The Northerner, under the oversight of Norma Thiele, a legendary journalism teacher. (Miss Thiele retired after my senior year, 1994, and later got very involved in helping the Burmese community.) That paper was a big part of my high school experience. In addition, the Journal Gazette hired me as a part-time sports department clerk in high school, and those contacts eventually evolved into two summer internships at the JG in college. It was the clips from those internships that got me another internship at the Miami Herald after my junior year in college, which then turned into my first job after I graduated. So, without the strong journalism foundation I was fortunate enough to receive growing up in Fort Wayne, I’d probably be doing something different today.
What is it about national foreign policy that intrigues you so much?
I do have some deeper history being interested in national security and civil liberties. For example, when I was a student at Memorial Park Middle School, every middle schooler in Fort Wayne Community Schools had to research, write and deliver speeches on some current events topic. One year, my not-very-good speech was about whether the United States should intervene in Cambodia amid what I thought were signs of a Khmer Rouge resurgence. In the 8th grade, my speech was about whether it should be legal to burn the American flag; that speech ended up winning the FCWS speech contest.
I’d also always been interested in politics and government and, in my first years working for the Miami Herald, I covered things like the Broward County Commission and the Miami-Dade School Board. Then, I was later fortunate enough to win a journalism fellowship to spend a year at Yale Law School during the 2002-03 academic year. That was a year after 9/11, and while we didn’t yet know about torture and warrantless surveillance, enough about the government’s response was public – like indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, a surge of secrecy – that people were starting to argue about it through a legal lens. I took several classes in national security, human rights and constitutional law and became convinced that the legal and policy dilemmas raised by 9/11 was the most interesting and important thing about our time. When I got back to the Miami Herald that summer, I started writing about homeland security and Guantanamo, and quickly the Boston Globe hired me to rite about those issues for their Washington bureau – which was good, because I had met my future wife at Yale and we had agreed to converge in D.C., where she found a job before I did. (In 2008, I moved to the New York Times.)
For those who haven’t read your book “Power Wars,” what is the main theme?
The book explores the public and behind-the-scenes fights and controversies about how the Obama administration handled national security problems that arose on its watch, including in matters of detention, interrogation, surveillance, targeted killings with drones and other airstrikes, secrecy, and war powers. It explains what happened and why, including how to think about the recurring accusation that Obama, defying the expectations created by his campaign rhetoric, ended up “acting like Bush.” It is primarily based on my interviews with more than 150 current and former government officials – many of whom I spoke with repeatedly – as well as a large number of documents to which I gained access.
Why did you write this book? How did it come about?
I had written a book in 2007 about Bush and Cheney’s efforts to expand presidential power and I continued to cover national security legal policy in the Obama administration. Very quickly it became clear to me that Obama’s counterterrorism policies had greater continuity with those he inherited from the second term of the Bush administration than a lot of his supporters and critics had expected. Eventually, in addition to writing for the New York Times, I started teaching an undergraduate class on the Constitution and national security at Georgetown University, trying to distill all these fascinating issues in a way that an educated non-lawyer could understand. Then, in the summer of 2013, Edward Snowden’s leaks made clear that Obama had kept and expanded the sprawling surveillance apparatus Bush and Cheney erected after 9/11. I decided that I needed to explain how all these different issues fit together in a way that I could not do in a newspaper article-length space.
What do you plan to highlight on this topic during the upcoming lecture?
The lecture will focus on what has become a defining accusation of the Obama years – that he “acted like Bush” when it came to the continuing “war on terrorism”: expansive surveillance, drone strikes away from conventional war zones, deeming indefinite detention without trial a legitimate tool, secrecy and so forth. People on the civil-liberties left accuse Obama of this from a sense of betrayal, and Bush veterans and defenders accuse Obama of this from a sense of vindication. Obama and his people say both types of critics are wrong. I’ll work through three or four takeaways about how to think about this moment in our history while recounting insider stories about things like how Obama learned about and decided to keep the Patriot Act program that was collecting records of every American’s domestic phone calls and the deliberations that led to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Name up to three places you definitely will visit while back in town:
I’m sure I will go out with friends somewhere downtown. I used to always go to the Munchie Emporium, but there are so many great new spots opening up downtown that there is much more to chose from. Last time I was home I tried the Hoppy Gnome, which was great. I also like the Firefly coffee house near IPFW. Unfortunately because my return flight is on Sunday morning, I won’t be able to make it this time to First Presbyterian Church, where I grew up.
By Lucretia Cardenas. Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly is a sponsor of the IPFW Omnibus Lecture Series.