Q&A with Billy Warden and Greg Behr: Joby Warrick

From Raleigh to Kabul, from the N.C. House of Representatives to mustard gas – reporter Joby Warrick has covered it all. As a reporter at The News & Observer in the 90s, Warrick shared a Pulitzer Prize for a series on factory farming. Since 1996, he’s covered the Middle East and foreign relations for The Washington Post.

Last year, Warrick himself made headlines with his nonfiction bestseller The Triple Agent, the story of a suicide attack against the CIA in Afghanistan. Here, he digs into his local Raleigh heroes, spying on pesky kids and daring to ask for story notes from a certain Watergate legend …

Iran, Syria, Pakistan. Do you sometimes crawl to your editors and say, “Today, I’d just like to cover a Cub Scout pumpkin carving contest?”

I feel wimpy compared to some of my colleagues. I jump in and out of some interesting places, but my hat is off to the foreign correspondents who cover Afghanistan and Syria on a daily basis.

Foreign policy wasn’t supposed to play much of a role in this year’s presidential election, but things turned out differently. Is there a disconnect between the way politicians talk about foreign policy and the way things actually get done?

There’s absolutely a disconnect, and it’s probably just the way things are and always will be. Politicians like to talk tough on foreign policy at home, but the truth is, America can’t run the world by itself any more. More than ever, we need friends and allies, and we need to build bridges to countries and governments that we don’t particularly like. Politicians of both parties know this, and that’s why the rhetoric tends to soften once they get into office.

What makes Raleigh a good “news town?”

There’s so much variety and such vivid contrasts in the Triangle as a whole. Rural and urban, wealth and extreme poverty, the traditional and the cutting-edge. Everything that’s great about the country, and many of our biggest problems and challenges are all there, sometimes just a few blocks from each other.

Which Raleigh characters carry on in your memory? Let’s take Jim Hunt, Jesse Helms and The Connells off the table – too easy.

There’s a long list, but two I still think about are Robert Morgan, the former U.S. senator, and Joe Mavretic, the former state House speaker. They impressed me as a young reporter because they were tough, blunt-spoken and willing to take on powerful interests in defense of ordinary folk.

North Carolina has a proud military history and a strong affinity for the troops. Even given all that, is it simply impossible for someone living here to imagine the challenges facing soldiers in Afghanistan?

Going to Afghanistan is like entering an alien universe. It’s not just the terrain, but the people and the way they see the world. Our troops have been over there for a decade and it’s still not clear whether we can achieve even the minimum goal, which is to bring some stability to the place.

Bob Woodward described The Triple Agent as “first rate, breakthrough reporting.” Do you have that blurb taped up above your desk with Woodward’s name underlined 27 times in red Sharpie?

One of the cool things about working at The Post is being able to work with true giants like Bob Woodward. I was nervous about sharing my book manuscript with him and, truth is, I didn’t expect he’d ever have time to read it. But as it turned out he not only gave me that wonderful blurb, but he also offered some smart suggestions about story structure. It took a few days to come down to Earth after that.

Speaking of Woodward, who are the reporters you’d most like to take out for a beer – living or brought back from beyond?

Honestly, I’d love to catch up with my old reporting partner at the N&O, Pat Stith (who retired in 2008 after 37 years). He happens to be one of the greatest investigative reporters around, but more importantly, he tells the best stories of anyone I know. Maybe we’d let H.L. Mencken come along if he promised not to interrupt too much.

How hugely did The Post have to sweeten its offer to get you to leave this slice of Southern heaven?

I was really conflicted about leaving, because I love the Triangle. My two kids were born in Raleigh any my parents and most of my relatives are from eastern North Carolina. But The Post offered a chance to take on Washington and the federal bureaucracy, and journalistically, it doesn’t get better than that.

I re-think the wisdom of my decision at least once a week, usually when sitting in Beltway traffic.

You’ve covered spy drones. What are your thoughts on using these devices to keep an eye on daughters heading to middle school?

Drones aren’t a bad idea, but I found something that works better: Making your kid “friend” you on Facebook. I probably get more news about my kids from that one source than I could from a fleet of UAVs.

We know you probably have a deadline in, like, five minutes. But what’s next for you in terms of books, maybe movies, well-earned vacations?

I’m exhausted just thinking about doing another book, but I’ve got one kid in college and another on his way there in a few years, so I’d better getting cracking.