I was on my way to Baghdad. I was supposed to go in quietly and not be seen. My personal safety depended on my getting into an enclosed compound in the red zone without anyone knowing I was there.
But when I landed at Baghdad International, with its three riddled and dilapidated gates, there was a problem with my visa. The two Iraqi visa officers accused me of trying to enter the country illegally and ordered me deported.
So there I was, sitting under armed guard in terminal C, waiting to be put on the next plane out. I was working my cell phone and contacts, in an attempt to figure a way out of my predicament, when I heard someone yell out behind me, “Joe Trippi! What are you doing here?”
I turned to see who had spotted me.
“Oh shit,” I thought. “It’s Michael Hastings.”
Hastings and I had known each other for years. He had covered me during the 2008 presidential campaign, when I was working on John Edwards's campaign. We had always been friendly but he had always been tough. We shared a mentor in Peter Goldman who guided him at Newsweek, and even though Hastings had slipped once and told me I was one of his favorite political consultants (a class of being he mostly held in contempt) I knew none of that would help me now.
I was where you never wanted to be with Michael Hastings: Desperately wanting him not to write a story. So I declared that my mere presence in Baghdad International under armed guard was off the record. “You can’t write that I am here!” I said.
The only response from Hastings was to pull out his notepad and pen, a sardonic look on his face that implied, “I am going to write something you are not going to like.”
In between my various pleas (and I tried everything) to get him not to report that I was in Iraq, Hastings schooled me with friendly advice on how to safely navigate the war zone I was entering.
He knew I was being deported. He could tell because he had been deported himself and knew the procedure down cold. He told me about the place no one knew about on the second floor of the airport where there were cots to sleep on. And told me what to do and say to get taken there instead of spending the night on the floor of terminal C. In between this helpful advice, he slipped in questions about why I was there.
I knew his fiancée, Andrea Parhamovich, had been killed in an ambush in Iraq on her way back from teaching a class on democracy. I was there to build democracy, too: I was working to get a new independent political party off the ground.I would be operating in the red zone, and did not want to suffer the same fate as Andrea. Hastings looked sad that I would even go there. He simply said, “She knew the danger, and so do you.” But he agreed to not write the story. My appearance in Baghdad International would remain off the record. For now.
What followed was three months of our paths crossing from time to time. There is a glue that connects people in places where explosions or small-arms fire are a constant background noise. The more comfortable and less fearful I became, the more Michael Hastings agitated to write his story.
He asked if I would arrange an interview for him with my candidate Ayad Jamal Al-Din. I did—and that was my mistake.
Moments after the interview, Hastings called me on my cell. “Hey,” he said, “You are in Iraq on the record now. Ayad Jamal Al-Din confirmed for me that you work for his party so I am running with the story. I just wanted to make sure you know it will be out tomorrow.”
The next day the story appeared under the ironic (to me) headline “Iraq’s New Hired Guns.”
Hastings ended the story with this, “Despite the overall decline in violence, Baghdad is still Baghdad, and Trippi and Co. know that working in-country carries real risks for them, as well. Daily attacks persist and government officials are the frequent targets of assassination. On his last trip here in December, Trippi awoke in the middle of the night to the very disturbing sound of a bomb blast. The candidate, Ayad Jamal Aldin, has already survived six assassination attempts during his time in public office.”
“Dude, that’s the whole reason I didn’t want you to write the story!” I thought—and realized I would be spending the rest of the campaign locked down in the compound.
But I also realized that I was being protected by the best: Ten to fifteen Americans who had served three tours or more in Iraq or Afghanistan. When I moved, they moved with me. When I slept (or tried to sleep), they were awake. Somewhere out there, though, Hastings was by himself—a target, too.
I know a lot of people who love or hate Michael Hastings. There are some who blame him for a certain general’s troubles. My experience was always that if you said or did something that got yourself in trouble, blaming Hastings for reporting it didn’t change the fact that you were the one that got yourself in trouble. I liked Hastings immensely as a person and feared him as a reporter. He was relentless and courageous in pursuing the truth.
I don’t want to leave the impression that we were especially close. We were not. But over the years, and for those three long months in Baghdad, I knew him and learned much from him. For all his toughness, there was a sweet human quality to Michael Hastings. He did not relish causing pain or writing the story you did not want him to write. I knew him to agonize over it, to call mentors and friends and ask what was the right thing to do. But all of us knew that in the end, as the deadline neared, he would be what he was: a unique and gifted journalist who wrote stories only he could write.
I called Peter Goldman, our mutual mentor, when I learned of Michael’s death. Peter said, “Don’t call me his mentor—all I ever did was tell him he was good.”
And he was.