The launching of Operation Desert Storm last Wednesday, and the relative lull in gulf war news over the following weekend, was all the news-weekly editors could have hoped for -- especially at Time and Newsweek, which can and did close their last pages as late as Sunday morning.
Even the magazines with earlier closings -- U.S. News & World Report late Friday, the Economist late Thursday, and People and Business Week only hours after hostilities broke out -- scrambled to give readers something they might not find in the copious information delivered by newspapers and television.
To use a military term, however, Newsweek kicked butt. The number two news-weekly published an extraordinary all-gulf-war number with 66 pages of solid reporting and analysis of just-unfolded events. The breaking stuff is undergirded by "The Road to War," a two-month team effort of sourcing and detail written by Tom Mathews with "principal reporting" by Douglas Waller. This absorbing account recapitulates and amplifies what now seems like an inexorable march toward war.
While the general coverage in Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report follows predictable lines -- such as the high-tech combat angle, how the news media coped, the mood in the White House, the effects on the economy, and the outlines of a postwar gulf -- there were distinguishing contributions by each. (All issues are dated Jan. 28 unless otherwise noted.)
Time, with its 37 pages of coverage, opens with a strong essay by Strobe Talbott on the subject of force, making some apt contrasts between the main event and the other one that surely would be gripping us under different circumstances: the armed Soviet suppression of dissent in the Baltics.
Also insightful in Time is Lance Morrow's assessment of Saddam Hussein, "a murderer of Caligulan whimsy" who nonetheless represents "a defiant assertion of dignity, unity and honor" in the Arab world. The Economist, which has the freedom to state its opinions bluntly in weekly editorials, openly raises the possibility of terminating Saddam personally: "There is no need for qualms about bombing or shooting Mr. Hussein in his bunker," the magazine says.
Newsweek also should get credit for its enterprising piece on how to talk to kids about war, for Jonathan Alter's discussion of ABC, NBC and CBS some day throwing in the news-gathering towel to CNN, and for the lone analysis (by Evan Thomas) of the president's Wednesday night television address that points out Bush's failure to rise to the rhetorical, or even the facial, occasion. Why Henry A. Kissinger was given the assignment of defining "The Postwar Agenda" for Newsweek, however, is an abiding mystery. (Newsweek is published by The Washington Post Co.)
In the war-theater map department, Time's handsome two-page spread easily outclasses a languid effort in Newsweek and a cluttered one in U.S. News. Oddly, given the gap in resources, Newsweek's photographs of war -- including a centerfold -- were chosen and deployed more skillfully than Time's. Yet Time's cover, with the light show over Baghdad, far better conveys the dark drama of the moment than Newsweek's "Top Gun"-esque treatment of a Yankee fighter jockey.
In the war-anecdote department, U.S. News & World Report gives us the fascinating tidbit that House Speaker Thomas Foley was at Brooks Brothers when Bush tried to call with the news of impending air strikes. U.S. News also notes the record-breaking number of Domino's Pizza orders from the White House in the hours before Desert Storm was launched -- but misses the real scoop that George J. Church reveals in his Time leader: Based on the trend of White House pizza consumption in the late hours, Domino's put out the word that war was about to start at 5 a.m. Wednesday, half a day before it did.
Given its deadline handicap, and a sheer paucity of staff and pages, U.S. News really can't compete with the bigger magazines on a breaking story like this one, although its photos and illustrations of weapons and warfare strategies ought to appeal to those who want to study the how of war as closely as the why. U.S. News also has a separate report on whether the reserves have what it takes to fight this war.
People pushed for the latest close in its history to produce "Americans Go to War," a series of short photo-essays of people caught up in the conflict, from soldiers to reporters to protesters to praying families. Business Week put WAR on the cover, and rejiggered its material to take account, just barely, of the first flying bullets.
The Bloodshot Chronicles
Those who find themselves mystically drawn to the stories of John Cheever will want to savor his even more tortured journals in their New Yorker installments (Jan. 21, Jan. 28). Here are undated entries drawn from the 1960s, when Cheever was in his fifties, in which the suburban chronicler broods about his struggles with gin, boredom, marriage and homosexuality.
There is relatively infrequent allusion here to his work, but on those occasions he is quite willing to speak plainly: "It is not that I would mind going down in history as an inconsequential writer; it is that I would mind most bitterly going down as a writer who has wasted his gifts in drunkenness, sloth, anger, and petulance."
And he is willing to speak eloquently, as in this self-admonition: "To write about the foolish agonies of anxiety, the refreshment of our strength when these are ended; to write about our painful search for self, jeopardized by a stranger in the post office, a half-seen face in a train window; to write about the continents and populations of our dreams, about love and death, good and evil, the end of the world."
For all their intimacy of subject matter, these are journals evidently written, and polished, to be read one day. The New Yorker plans to publish a third installment at an unspecified future date, with publication of the journals as a book slated for fall from Knopf.