Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Q&A with Barbara Feinman Todd

Barbara Feinman Todd is the author of the new memoir Pretend I'm Not Here: How I Worked With Three Newspaper Icons, One Powerful First Lady, and Still Managed To Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp. She is the founding journalism director at Georgetown University, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and Glamour. She lives in the D.C. area.

Q: You write of your career as a ghostwriter, “It was alarming to me when I realized my subjects’ histories had become intertwined with mine…” What impact did ghostwriting have on you?

A: After helping so many other people tell their stories, I felt I was losing touch with my own story. I wanted to recover my own identity as a storyteller in her own right.  

Ghostwriting taught me many things and I’m sure many people enjoy doing it but ultimately I decided it wasn’t for me because it was having a very corrosive effect on me creatively and psychologically.

Q: You describe being Hillary Clinton’s ghostwriter on It Takes a Village, which clearly was a very difficult time for you. Looking back on it, what are some of your feelings about how you were treated, and did it affect your opinion of her in the following decades?

A: I got caught up in a White House mess that was much bigger than me. I don’t think anyone was out to get me: that’s the thing about Washington, so much of what is negative and toxic isn’t personal. Stabbing people in the back is business as usual.

As for how my experiences affected my opinion of Mrs. Clinton? I guess I realized that when someone is that famous and ambitious they are really part of an unstoppable political machine rather than a mere person to be liked or not liked.

I think my story amplifies and echoes larger stories that demonstrate character and consequence: the penchant for secrecy, the pattern of making things worse for herself, the human magnet she is for scandal.

Compare her to Obama: similar politics and policies, completely opposite styles, strategies and outcomes. I do think she would have made a competent president and I voted for her.

Q: You also write about what seems like a complicated dynamic with your former boss Bob Woodward. How would you characterize it?

A: An imbalance of power that led to a bad situation. Bad judgment on my part and a personal betrayal on his.

Q: Your subtitle includes the words “Washington swamp,” which has become an even more prominent phrase recently. Do you see Washington, D.C., as something that should be drained, or are your feelings more complex?

A: We came up with that subtitle long before Trump started using it. Anyone who has been around this town for long knows it’s often described as a swamp, which it isn’t technically, but the metaphor is, as Ben Bradlee used to say about juicy news tips and gossip, “too good to check.”

So sure, the swamp could stand a draining but I don’t see Trump making good on his promise. Get rid of gerrymandering, real campaign finance reform, send all the lobbyists to the Falklands. Staffing the White House with Goldman Sachs guys is not draining the swamp.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a historical novel that takes place mostly in Washington, D.C., in 1862. It revolves around two young women who are spiritualists (a religious movement that communicated with the dead through séances). Their work takes them to the White House where they conduct séances with Mary Todd Lincoln.

They each have troubled pasts that have propelled them away from their homes and families and toward the Lincoln White House.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I hope a lot of young women will read my book. I made plenty of mistakes that others can learn from. First and foremost, don’t let anyone else try to narrate your story. Believe that you are the only reliable narrator of your story. And above all else, don’t let anybody pretend like you aren’t there. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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