Glenn Greenwald: Life Beyond Borders
By Fred Bernstein
With his conservative suits, white shirts, and narrow ties, Glenn Greenwald looks more like a Mormon missionary than a political commentator who can bring opponents to their knees -- and then get in a good kick while they're down. In one memorable TV appearance last fall, he reveled in an on-air shouting match with Lawrence O'Donnell (the Senate staffer and West Wing producer turned pundit) over what had caused the Democrats to bungle the midterm elections. O'Donnell seemed to blame progressives; Greenwald made a strong case that it was the Blue Dog Democrats -- timid, Republican-imitating centrists -- who had doomed the party. On air, Greenwald called O'Donnell's contentions "absurd," but that wasn't enough. Over the next few days, on his popular Salon blog, he attacked both O'Donnell's demeanor ("adolescent") and substance ("trite," "superficial," and "empirically false").
And yet, since January, when O'Donnell's show on MSNBC moved to a prime spot, Greenwald has been one of his most frequent guests. Perhaps it's because he can speak authoritatively on almost any subject, and with such sincerity that it's hard not to forgive his excess. Picture Watson, IBM's Jeopardy-winning supercomputer, as a political commentator, and you picture Greenwald: laden with an endless supply of facts and astonishing recall, yet blissfully unaware of the rules of the game.
Like Watson, Greenwald, 44, seems hardwired to best his opponents. Just six years after he wrote his first blog entry, he is consistently listed among the most influential pundits in the country (by mainstream media outlets like Forbes, The Atlantic, and New York). And, as a sign of his audience's loyalty, two of his three books -- supplements to the thousands of words he produces for Salon each day -- have become New York Times best-sellers. (The fourth, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful, will be out in October.)
Given Greenwald's intellectual fecundity and argumentative ferocity, being gay may be the least interesting thing about him. But even Greenwald doesn't claim that his sexual orientation doesn't matter. After all, if he were straight he would be living in Manhattan, his home for most of the last 20 years. Instead, he lives in Rio de Janeiro, barred from moving to the United States with his Brazilian boyfriend, David Michael Miranda.
"Brazil recognizes our relationship for immigration purposes, while the government of my supposedly 'free,' liberty-loving country enacted a law explicitly barring such recognition," says Greenwald, referring to the Defense of Marriage Act with the disdain he typically shows for policies he believes are eroding Americans' freedoms. Greenwald's attacks on the powerful make him a tempting target for reprisals. So it's no surprise that, soon after he started blogging, critics sometimes tried to out him in a game of "gotcha." But what upset Greenwald was the implication that he had been closeted in the first place. "There was nothing to out," he says. "I've been as out as I can be since I was 20."
In Rio, Greenwald and Miranda rent a house in the Gávea neighborhood, where, he says, he resents having to wear anything more formal than shorts and T-shirts. He also likes the fact that, in his far-below-the-Beltway existence, "My network of friends and associates are not media and political figures," which lets him resist the practice -- for which he skewers other journalists -- of currying favor with sources.
The downside to living in Brazil is that he has to decline frequent offers to appear on U.S. television. Instead, he makes half a dozen trips a year to New York City, during which he swaps the shorts for the Mormon missionary attire -- and squeezes in as many TV spots as possible, with side trips to speak at universities and pick up the journalism awards he's collecting just six years into the profession.
On his blog and in his books, Greenwald focuses on America's three overreactions to 9/11: the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and the war against personal liberty in the United States. There, he says Obama has been a disaster -- not only exerting powers Bush never claimed (including the right to assassinate a U.S. citizen who hasn't been charged with a crime) but also giving "liberal" cover to policies that were considered Republican aberrations when Bush was in the White House. Obama, Greenwald says, "has converted what had been seen as divisive, radical right-wing assaults into bipartisan consensus." If you think that's too strong a statement, you're probably not a regular reader of Greenwald's blog, where he marshals mountains of evidence and rigorous logic -- to make his left-of-center views seem like indisputable truths.
On the subject of why the United States is the target of terror attacks, Greenwald mocks commentators who pose the question with faux naivety. "Isn't Muslim culture just so bizarre, primitive, and inscrutable?" he asks. "As strange as it is, they actually seem to dislike it when foreign militaries bomb, invade, and occupy their countries and kill hundreds of thousands of Muslim children."
Greenwald is a fan of Julian Assange, the embattled founder of WikiLeaks, and Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old army intelligence analyst who last year sent thousands of classified Iraq war documents to WikiLeaks. Ratted out to military authorities by Adrian Lamo, a publicity-seeking blogger, Manning is now in a military prison, awaiting trial. Manning is gay, which may have led him to Lamo, who is active in the LGBT community, and possibly caused him to let his guard down during online chats with Lamo. And it has also enabled critics to depict him as unstable -- a typical antiwhistleblower technique. In fact, Greenwald says of Manning, "When he talks about his motivations, he's extremely politically insightful, astute, and thoughtful."
Greenwald believes Manning might have been less likely to reveal government secrets if he were straight: Gay people, because they're already "outside the sphere of comfort," have a "huge advantage in being willing to challenge authority," he says, speaking from experience.
Greenwald's first exposure to activism was at the side of his grandfather, who ran for city council in a Fort Lauderdale suburb as the rebel candidate, accusing everyone else of corruption. "It got nasty and personal," he recalls. At 18, Greenwald himself ran for the city council, but lost. In college, he became a keen debater.
In 1992, the Colorado legislature, in the infamous Amendment 2, barred local governments from treating gays and lesbians as a protected group. Greenwald, then a second-year student at NYU Law School, demanded that the faculty ban Colorado law firms from conducting job interviews on campus. Given the importance of interviews to budding lawyers, some activists were worried about a backlash. "There was this fear that it was going to turn the entire law school against lesbian and gay students," he says. "But Greenwald pressed on, motivated not just by the possibility of victory (the faculty eventually voted for the ban), but by the chance to make his purported allies put up or shut up -- as he says, "take a stand in defense of the principles they claimed to believe in or expose themselves as hypocrites."
By the third year of law school, he was working for a large law firm. But realizing that representing Goldman Sachs would have destroyed him psychologically, he set up his own firm, which represented several neo-Nazis and other unpopular clients.
When he and his former boyfriend, Werner Achatz, an Austrian-born lawyer, tried to lease an apartment, they were told they couldn't aggregate their incomes. "They said they only do that for married couples," Greenwald recalls. "We said we were a married couple." When that didn't fly, Greenwald became his own lawyer, suing the landlord for sexual orientation and marital status discrimination.
By 2004 he had tired of litigating, and was also at the end of an 11-year relationship with Achatz. He rented an apartment in Rio de Janeiro, expecting to remain there for two months. Emotionally drained, he says, "The last thing I was looking for was another relationship. Especially in Rio." But on his first day on the beach, he met Miranda.