GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Ten years ago this month, the prominent journalist Andrew Sullivan took the leap into something his colleagues called the wilderness, and today, we call them blogs.
Now, after 10 years of slogging through, Andrew Sullivan's become one of the most widely read and influential bloggers in America. The blog's called The Daily Dish. And when Andrew Sullivan stopped by the studio the other day, I asked him if he could remember his first post.
Mr. ANDREW SULLIVAN (Blogger, The Daily Dish): Right now, I'm writing about 250 to 300 posts a week. I can barely remember what I wrote yesterday, let alone 10 years ago.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: Where did the idea for The Dish come from?
Mr. SULLIVAN: It actually came from me in the first place in the sense that I thought, in the late '90s, you know, this Internet thing, I'm a writer, it seems like this is going to be the future.
I edited an opinion magazine, old media, and I had been a freelance writer, and I was a columnist. And I thought I should get a website and put all my stuff up in one place.
My best friend at the time was a techie, and then I would ask him: Could you put this up? Could you put that up? And after a while, he was like, you know, I'm really, I've got better things to do. There's this program called Blogger, why don't you put them up yourself?
And I was like, well, not only can I post my pieces, I can just write. So there we were off and running.
RAZ: You had been in print for a while at this point. You were a celebrated young editor at the New Republic. You were, what, 27 when they appointed you.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
RAZ: When you went into the blogosphere, did you sort of feel like you were out there in the wilderness?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah, I did. But it was really fun wilderness. I mean, the great thing about - first of all, the wilderness means there are no editors. So you have this incredible liberation.
You don't have to run it by anybody. You don't have to placate a publisher. You don't have to worry about - there was no economics. It was pure journalism, I mean, I felt, and I thought it was exciting.
RAZ: And would your colleagues from, you know, from these highfalutin magazines come up and say, hey, so how does it feel to be writing for four people?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Eric Alterman called it, how's your vanity website?
RAZ: Eric Alterman, the media columnist for The Nation.
Mr. SULLIVAN: The Nation, yes, mocked me for having a vanity website. And, of course, for the first four or five years, I had to explain to everybody what a blog was. I mean, I think they thought I'd gone kind of nuts.
But as soon as I started writing, these people came back at me, to talk to me, people I'd had no idea. I suddenly had this experience as a writer of having instant communication with the readers and feedback.
So really, it became an instant community between me and loads of people I didn't know. That sort of flicked a light bulb off in my head. And I was like, this is not just writing. It's taking writing right up to the edge of speaking.
RAZ: You say that you also regret some things that you wrote early on. Can you...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, yeah. I think if someone is writing continuously for 10 years and has not changed their mind about something, there's something wrong with them. They're not really thinking, because the world - and goodness knows, the last 10 years have been an extraordinary period in history. And my emotions, frankly, got the better of me for a period of time, and...
RAZ: You became an ardent supporter of the Iraq War.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Of the Iraq War for several reasons. One, I believed there were weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, I actually bought the argument that if we democratized Iraq, we could create a space for venting some of the stuff that's going on in the Middle East in these autocratic regimes that is expressing itself through jihadism because it has nowhere else to express itself.
I mean, I was marinated in neoconservatism, and I thought...
RAZ: And you were embraced by a lot of...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes.
RAZ: ...neoconservatives and conservative readers. I mean, you became kind of a champion.
Mr. SULLIVAN: I was. I was definitely a hub of neoconservative readers and writers, very much read in the Bush White House. But when I began to see that this war was actually terribly misconceived, that the weapons of mass destruction were not there, I remember vividly writing a post, the title of which was, "So Where Are They?"
I mean, I didn't know. I had to, like everybody else, take for granted what was being told me. And not only that, but I think in retrospect, I dismissed people whom I should not have dismissed.
RAZ: You've written, unfairly?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes. I think I was unfair, to some, not everybody. I think there were some opponents of the Iraq War who claimed Bush was the real terrorist, et cetera, et cetera, and I think many people who were against the war were right for the wrong reasons.
But I was wrong. And as a writer in a blog online, you have nowhere to hide. So you have a choice. Either do I fess up and acknowledge this, or construct an ideology that will just keep barraging people. And I realized if - I couldn't live with myself if I didn't acknowledge that I'd been wrong.
And then Abu Ghraib happened. When I began to realize that this country, the war I had supported, the president I believed in, had actually authorized the torture of human beings, I mean, that was what we were trying to stop, right? That's as I understood it.
Then I think I had a kind of epiphany. And unfortunately, unlike some writers who can have an epiphany in quiet and then write a piece or then collect their thoughts, I had to have that epiphany wriggling in public. It was not pretty. And I lost probably half my readership.
RAZ: And friends?
Mr. SULLIVAN: The good news about me is that I don't really - my friends - my best friend is a jazz musician. My husband's an actor. I have lots of friends who have nothing to do with all this. And I believe in friendship being utterly independent of politics.
RAZ: My guest is Andrew Sullivan. This month marks 10 years since he created his blog. It's called The Daily Dish.
You wrote a lot about Barack Obama - candidate Barack Obama. You called him a transformational figure. Do you still believe he is? And if that Andrew Sullivan could see where we are today, would you have written that?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes. That's actually one thing I don't think I got wrong at all. Two years before he got the nomination, I said, I see no reason why this man will not be the next president.
I never believed that he was going to perform a miracle. When I said transformational, I meant simply would take us past a certain generational battle. And I think for a lot of us, he already has.
I think there's a huge reaction to him because people sense that this is the future of America. And I have absolutely - I mean, I have made plenty of criticisms of him on certain issues. I think he should be tougher on gay rights, and I think he should be tougher on accountability for war crimes. But I stick with my view that he - which is always my view, that he's not a big left liberal.
He's a conservative, centrist Democrat and also has racially already transformed this country and I think culturally transformed it, hence the reaction.
RAZ: You call President Obama a conservative Democrat. You call yourself a conservative. What's conservative about you?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, that's a good question. Temperamentally, probably not much, except I really hate change.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SULLIVAN: I love - I still live in the same apartment I've lived in for 20 years.
RAZ: But, I mean, what makes you a conservative anymore?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, again, I don't want to be semantics about this because the word conservative has now come to mean something in America, basically religious fundamentalism and extreme opposition to government.
And the other thing I would say is the critical difference between my kind of conservatism and what people now call conservatism is religious. My faith is still real, but it is not fundamentalist in the sense that I'm aware that if God is God, then we can't know for sure what God is and that the great mysteries of the universe are best expressed through the words of Jesus in my faith tradition and also through ritual and ceremony to try and glimpse what is otherwise ineffable.
Now, that's very different than the sort of theocratic, controlling, literalist fundamentalism that now defines so much of Christianity.
RAZ: You are - you describe yourself as a conservative Catholic, and yet over these past 10 years, you have changed some of your views on abortion, and you have been pretty...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes. I think I've always had a moral position that I think that it - that is a human life and that as a Catholic I take the taking of that very seriously, just as I'm against the death penalty.
But I - there was a moment when - if you remember, the abortionist George Tiller was shot dead, and I was appalled, obviously, as a Catholic by someone being assassinated.
But then I did an offhand comment saying, but I still couldn't defend late-term abortions morally. And a woman reader wrote into me who had had a late-term abortion, and she described her personal story, which is that she'd always wanted this child. She'd tried desperately to have one for a long time. The pregnancy had gone along fine until the very last part where suddenly abnormalities appeared, and she was told that this child would not survive long after being born, had some pretty awful deformities.
As I recall, part of his brain was growing outside of his skull. It was - and the child would have lived but in great pain. And she had to make a decision about what to do about this.
I was in shock reading this email, and I published it. I called it "It's So Personal." And then, actually, a flood of similar emails came in. Maybe it was the time that the emotions around that issue at that time were so raw that people felt able to talk about this again.
What I had seen in the abstract was not so abstract. That for me was a moment in the evolution of the blog where the readers began to take it over.
RAZ: Did you ever, over these 10 years, think about packing it in with the blog?
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes. I did once, for like two weeks, and then the pope died. And I found myself writing again. And early this spring, actually, I really did think it's done, I can't do this anymore, because it is physically and psychically so exhausting.
RAZ: You have to do it many times a day, on your vacations...
Mr. SULLIVAN: Twenty-four hours. I have one vacation a year, a real vacation, but it's all weekend, all day, every 20 minutes. There is no end to any deadline. And not only that, I feel a duty to actually try and get things right.
And I now have, happily, four young people who really help me do this, and that's kept me going. But at any moment, I think I'm still a human being, and this is an institution that is just me in the end. So I can't hand it over to somebody else.
So, as someone wrote in this week, you know, if Andrew dies, it dies. And if I just have to stop, just to sort of catch my breath and take a break, the blog will end. But when I say I'm going to do that, the readers go nuts. Like, you can't do this. You can't leave us. We're part of this - you know, where are you? They've also created this institution.
So it's become bigger than me, but I can't - it can't exist without me, which is a really - again, I didn't expect this. It's evolved. But yeah, there are many times when I just think, if only I could take a year and just read or be quiet and not think about this stuff.
RAZ: You're a prisoner of your own creation.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes, I am. Absolutely. And I must say a very happy prisoner, but a prisoner.
RAZ: That's Andrew Sullivan. This past week marked the 10th year of his blog. It's called The Daily Dish, and you can find it at andrewsullivan.com.
Andrew, thanks so much for coming in.
Mr. SULLIVAN: You bet. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
In the 10 years since he wrote his first post, blogger Andrew Sullivan has learned to admit when he's wrong. It's a lesson that came with a political transformation.
Ten years ago, Andrew Sullivan -- one of the most widely read, influential and prolific political voices online -- wrote his first blog post.
He has no idea what it was.
"Right now I'm writing about 250 to 300 posts a week," Sullivan tells NPR's Guy Raz. "I can barely remember what I wrote yesterday, let alone 10 years ago."
That's the pace necessary to keep up with the massive traffic, material and discussion Sullivan moves on his blog, The Daily Dish. The site is visited by a million people each month, and at some points -- in the case of his coverage of last summer's Iranian election -- more than a million people a day.
This past week marked 10 years since he launched the Dish. But for Sullivan -- a gay Catholic and former neoconservative who now calls himself "politically homeless" -- things didn't start out quite so huge.
'How's Your Vanity Website?'
That's the question Sullivan got from Eric Alterman, The Nation's media critic at the time.
"He mocked me," Sullivan says with a smile.
Sullivan had been a celebrated young editor at The New Republic -- he got the job at age 27. He wanted a way to share the material he was writing for many national newspapers and magazines.
So he enlisted a "techie" friend to periodically post his material online.
"After a while, he was like, 'I've got better things to do,' " Sullivan says. "'There's this program called Blogger -- why don't you put them up yourself?'"
That's when Sullivan thought, "Not only can I post my pieces -- I can just write."
And he could do so without an editor, a publisher or the economics of working in print. "It was pure journalism," Sullivan says.
But as soon as he started writing, he realized there was yet another untapped benefit to blogging.
"These people came back at me, to talk to me," he says. "I suddenly had this experience as a writer of having instant communication with the readers and feedback."
Those readers also sent in material, ideas and articles that he wouldn't have seen otherwise. The result was an "instant community."
"That sort of flicked a light bulb off in my head," he says. "I was like, 'This is not just writing. It's taking writing right up to the edge of speaking, really.' "
The Iraq War: 'I Was Wrong'
There have been times Sullivan has written things he wishes he could take back -- most notably his ardent support for the Iraq war.
"I think if someone is writing continuously for 10 years and has not changed their mind about something -- there's something wrong with them," he says. "They're not really thinking."
After the attacks of Sept. 11, Sullivan thought George W. Bush was right.
"I believed there were weapons of mass destruction," he says. "I actually bought the argument that if we democratized Iraq, we could create a space for venting some of the stuff that's going on in the Middle East in these autocratic regimes that is expressing itself through jihadism, because it has nowhere else to express itself."
Sullivan was, he puts it, "marinated in neoconservatism."
He was widely read in the Bush White House. His blog was a hub of neoconservative readers and writers online.
"But when I began to see that this war was actually terribly misconceived -- that the weapons of mass destruction weren't there," he says, "I remember writing a post, the title of which was, 'So Where Are They?' "
That, coupled with the torture of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib, led Sullivan to abandon all support for the Iraq war.
"I was wrong," he says. "And as a writer in a blog online, you have nowhere to hide."
His choice, he says, was to either acknowledge he'd been misguided or to construct an ideology that would allow him to carry on pretending to be right.
"I couldn't live with myself," he says, "if I didn't acknowledge I'd been wrong."
Once Conservative, Now Politically 'Homeless'
Sullivan shifted away from the modern conservative movement in America -- which he calls ''theocratic, controlling, literalist fundamentalism" -- and he took notice of a little-known state senator from Illinois.
"Two years before he got the nomination, I said, 'I see no reason why this man will not be the next president,' " Sullivan says.
He called Barack Obama a "transformational figure." And he stands by that.
"When I said 'transformational,' I meant he simply would take us past a certain generational battle," Sullivan says. "And I think for a lot of us, he already has."
Now, these days, Sullivan admits there's not much left about him that's conservative. "Except I really hate change," he says.
"I still live in the same apartment I've lived in for 20 years." Readers of his blog are familiar with Sullivan's husband and beloved beagles at home.
But where is his political home in America?
"I'm homeless," he says. "Like a lot of people."
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. On his blog's masthead, there's a quote from the founders of the Atlantic: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and James Russell Lowell.
"Of no party or clique," it reads.
"I don't think you have to be of a party," he says. "Especially as a political writer. Without denying the fact that there's partisan loyalties, I think you should stick to certain principles and ideas, and assess people in the political sphere by their character."
A Life Offline
The massive traffic and information Sullivan faces every day takes a toll. "It is physically and psychically so exhausting," he says.
He blogs all weekend, all day, every 20 minutes.
"Not only that, I feel a duty to actually try and get things right," Sullivan says.
He now has a small staff of four people to help him handle the blog. But in the end, he says, "This is an institution that is just me."
As a reader wrote on the blog last week, "If Andrew dies, it dies."
He takes one two-week vacation every year, to Cape Cod, to get off the grid. "Sometimes I just think -- if only I could take a year to just read or be quiet," he says.
But friends and family offer respite. "The good news about me is that my friends and social network is entirely independent of politics," he says. "My best friend is a jazz musician. My husband's an actor. I have lots of friends that have nothing to do with this."