Journalist and author Daniel Kurtz-Phelan ’03 discussed his book “The China Mission” and his careers in politics and journalism at a Davenport College Tea on Wednesday. The event, which drew around 30 people, was co-sponsored by The New Journal and the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.
Kurtz-Phelan, who currently works as an editor at Foreign Affairs, a magazine of international relations, formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter for Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 when she was the secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. At the event, Kurtz-Phelan discussed his experience as an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs after college and what has helped him throughout his career.
“Whether I’ve been in government or I’ve been an editor, it takes me sitting with prose and wrestling with prose to figure out what I think and how I want to interact with the world and that’s been true across everything I’ve done,” he said.
Kurtz-Phelan said that his experience in journalism impacted the way he interacted with journalists when he worked in government. He recalled having drinks with “friendly New York Times reporters while grappling with the State Department” and trying to understand what the journalists were hoping to get out of him.
He added that foreign policy reporting depends less on social media as a platform, but that Foreign Affairs still uses social media to acquire a wider range of voices for content. He said that it was through social media that he learned of the herder-farmer dispute in Nigeria — “among the bloodiest conflicts in the world.”
Lincoln Caplan, senior research scholar at Yale Law School, moderated the event and shifted the conversation toward discussing how Kurtz-Phelan’s writing has evolved since he was a student.
Kurtz-Phelan said that when he was writing “The China Mission,” which investigates Gen. George Marshall’s postwar time in China, he used primary sources to better understand what people were thinking at the time. In the talk, he revisited a moment in the book that illustrates how Marshall argued for an aid package for a future Chinese government.
“He goes back to Washington and you see these conversations he’s having with members of Congress at the time,” he said. “And you’re hearing from constituents who have just lived through World War II and have a real sense that they want to focus on things at home for a while — [such as on] a whiskey shortage [that occurred] because we were sending too much grain to China and Europe.”
Kurtz-Phelan added that it is “easy to tell the foreign policy story” but miss important moments driven by human narratives — as an example, he cited the angry letters members of Congress received from constituents because of the whiskey shortage. When carrying out archival research for “The China Mission,” he said he first looked at official sources such as intelligence, military documents and Marshall’s papers. He also emphasized the value of finding the “relatively insignificant aide” to Marshall — Kurtz-Phelan explained that the aide has been “totally forgotten by history,” but wrote multiple letters to his wife describing what happened in meetings.
At the end of the talk, Kurtz-Phelan said that it was important for journalists and authors to consider questions such as, “Who was Marshall himself?” He added that the journalists who do really well “inhabit” the perspectives of policymakers. He explained that while this does not always mean that journalists need to accept what policymakers say as true, they should try to imagine themselves in policymakers’ place.
Attendees interviewed by the News said they enjoyed the event.
Jacob McNeill ’21 said that he believed Kurtz-Phelan had a “unique perspective” on politics and journalism, since he worked in both fields.
“Overall, I’d say he was more sympathetic to the job of a government civil service worker than that of a journalist,” McNeill said. “As someone who is interested in journalism, I think his perspective from inside government was invaluable.”
“The China Mission” was published this past April.
John Besche | firstname.lastname@example.org .