When Barack Obama announced that he was demoting General Stanley McChrystal on Wednesday, the President pointedly avoided identifying the magazine that had just dubbed his head of Afghanistan forces “The Runaway General” in a profile.
“The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general,” Obama said.
Omitting the name of the magazine was hardly accidental. After all, what else could make your quagmire look more like Vietnam than saying that Rolling Stone toppled a general?
Founded by Jann Wenner in 1967 as an in-house chronicler of the San Francisco counter culture, Rolling Stone slowly graduated into an all-purpose pop-culture digest that took its narrative journalism and lefty politics seriously.
These days, Rolling Stone faces the usual predicament of the general-interest magazine: what, after all, is the profile of the reader who goes for this week’s Lady Gaga cover story and sticks around for nearly 8,000 words about counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan?
While Rolling Stone is no longer what it was to serious music fans – they’d sooner go online to Pitchfork for sharp criticism and Stereogum for MP3s, or to Mojo and Uncut for musical nostalgia – the title, still run by Wenner, continues to leave its mark on the political scene.
A bombastic piece last year by Matt Taibbi called “The Great American Bubble Machine” almost singlehandedly discredited one of the few investment banks to survive the financial crisis. If nothing else, Taibbi will be remembered for one now-famous, endlessly-quoted opening image of Goldman as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
When 64-year old Wenner shrunk his floppy oversized magazine into a tidy, perfect-bound glossy two years ago, the first coverboy for the redesigned magazine – which came out just before election day – was Obama. “Like the man we are featuring on the cover for the third time in seven months…we embrace the idea of change,” Wenner wrote. “Change as the kind of cultural renaissance that gave birth to Rolling Stone more than four decades ago.”
Obama’s advisers learned from experience not to dismiss Rolling Stone‘s forays into politics. In February 2007, then-Senator Obama heard that the magazine was publishing a profile highlighting inflammatory sermons from Jeremiah Wright, scheduled to deliver the invocation at Obama’s campaign-announcement speech. Obama quickly revoked the invitation, but despite the alarm aides never reviewed the rest of Wright’s sermons and were blind-sided when they became a major story a year later. “We failed the candidate in that regard,” campaign manager David Plouffe told Obama biographer David Remnick.
This time, the White House didn’t underestimate Rolling Stone. According to news reports, Obama read the McChrystal article on Monday night, from a printout rushed to him by an aide. Unfortunately, Rolling Stone had not planned a more modern delivery strategy for the wider public: when the news about McChrystal’s comments broke on Tuesday morning, the piece was neither online and still three days from appearing on newsstands.