Lincoln Caplan

Year of Graduation: 
Lincoln Caplan headshot alongside a cover of his book American Justice 2016.

"We saw that journalists had a social and political purpose and could make a difference."

Breathing life into the law: A conversation with author Lincoln Caplan

Lincoln Caplan has been writing about American law since 1974  when, interning for The New Republic after his first year of law school, he covered the oral argument in United States v. Nixon — the landmark Supreme Court ruling that said a president’s power is not absolute, which led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Most recently, his reporting about the death penalty and other legal topics has been running on the website of The New Yorker and in other magazines. He co-founded the general-interest Legal Affairs magazine where he nurtured the work of Emily Bazelon, now a staff writer of The New York Times Magazine; John Swansburg, a senior editor of The Atlantic; and Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of Wired, among others. He teaches writing at Yale College and Yale Law School. As a reporter of meaty subjects with far-reaching impact, Caplan brings a distinctly humane angle to his work, championing the best of citizenship-based politics and bearing eloquent witness to some of the most critical challenges of our time.

Q: You’re an advocate for the Harkness system as an educational tool with national potential. How else did Exeter influence your life?

Caplan: I totally bought the notion that Exeter was a national high school. Of all of the great institutions that I’ve been lucky to attend, it’s still the most important to me — for my education, for my sense of belonging, and in terms of close friendship. My most recent book, about the Supreme Court as a political institution, is dedicated to my friend since our prep year together, Rob Shapiro ’68.

Q: You’ve been writing for The New Yorker for decades, but it sounds like your earliest piece still resonates for you.

Caplan: I’ve been fortunate to have two New Yorker chapters: in the past few years, writing for its website, and for a dozen years early in my career, writing for the print magazine. I started out writing for the “Talk of the Town,” which had a wonderful spirit to it. At the time, all the pieces were unsigned; that liberated you to engage in a modest form of invention. It was lovely to know that you were writing alongside people like Lillian Ross and John McPhee — it felt like a kind of joint enterprise. My first piece was about Father Flye, an early teacher of the writer James Agee ’28, before he went to Exeter. They stayed in touch — there’s a gentle volume, The Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, which is really about a young man finding his path and growing up. When I got the opportunity to try my first Talk piece, it felt natural to write about Father Flye.

Q: How did that happen?

Caplan: The person who gave me that opportunity was Robert Bingham ’43, who was the magazine’s executive editor. I had written to Bingham — it must have been in 1978 — and said, “Here are my clips. Am I anywhere near the mark of writing for The New Yorker?” He wrote back, “Dear Mr. Caplan, I can’t tell you much about writing for The New Yorker, except you should stick to the law because you’ll make more money. But when you’re next in New York please call me and stop by.” I thought it would be a 10-minute visit and a pat on the head, but we talked for 45 minutes! Then he said, “My friend John McPhee said that his friend Bill Bradley has had more contributors to his Senate campaign than any candidate in history. How do you account for that?” I thought for a second, and said, “Rock concerts. If you count everybody who buys tickets for concerts that Bradley’s been using as fundraisers, that adds up.” And he smiled, and said, “What would you like to write for The New Yorker?”

I remember the feeling of opening the letter letting me know the magazine had bought that piece, which included a check for $550 — $500 for the piece and $50 for expenses. Then, as often happened, the piece sat for about a year. Meantime, I was selected to be a White House Fellow. The week that I started the fellowship, my piece ran. It was thrilling.

"There's something thrilling about that ... that facts explained clearly and powerfully in a narrative can give people pleasure as well as challenge their thinking."
Linc Caplan '68

Q: Did you always want to be a journalist?

Caplan: At Harvard, I couldn’t make any claims to being on a path to journalism — the writing courses that were important to me were poetry courses with the translator and poet Robert Fitzgerald and the poet Elizabeth Bishop and a fiction course with the novelist Carter Wilson. To the extent that anything I did then might be in any way connected to what I’m doing now, it was my interest in photography: Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a great work of witness about Depression-era tenant farmers in Alabama, entranced and kind of haunted me. His co-creator was the photographer Walker Evans. I really admired his clear, elegant, intimate work. Evans and others like Dorothea Lange, those folks had an impact on what I have aspired to in my reporting.

At law school, I discovered The New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who wrote with special interest about the law, but by no means only about the law: I realized that he was writing about the Supreme Court in a way that made ideas and their consequences come alive. I also discovered New Yorker law correspondent Richard Harris, and fell in love with John McPhee’s narrative pieces. I just got it into my head that Harris needed to go about his reporting more like McPhee, and McPhee needed to be interested in the drama of ideas, like Harris. They combined into a two-person constellation that I set my course by.

Q: So when did you fall for journalism?

Caplan: The first week of my New Republic internship, there were hearings about a world food crisis. When the editor said, “Who wants to cover this?,” everyone else averted their eyes and I shot my hand up. I got to go to Capitol Hill, found a trove of materials, and filed copy that got reshaped into a lead editorial. I was totally hooked. I found that all the things that I liked — reading and digging, talking with people who were involved in significant controversies, putting two and two together, to figure out and explain tough social issues and why they matter — they were all part of this work.

Watergate was unfolding at the time and that gave journalism an importance it hadn’t had since World War II. I thought journalism might be a great way to make a living, except that I wasn’t confident that I could make a living at it: that was one of the reasons I went to law school. I was also interested in the lawyers who had worked for Robert Kennedy when he was a senator for New York — I saw him as a model for a progressive approach to politics that would address issues of class as well as race, and that was inspiring. But I also decided that doing apprenticeships — law school, clerking for a judge, working at the Boston Consulting Group to learn about corporations, being a White House Fellow — those were all useful things to do before trying to write the kinds of things I wanted to write.

Q: There’s a really optimistic thread running through your work: a belief in the institution of the law, the importance of good education and faith in good citizenship. Is that what drives you?

Caplan: Watergate influenced my generation: We saw that journalists had a social and political purpose and could make a difference — they took down a dishonest, corrupt government — and Lewis was an important model for me. After Bush v. Gore, when the Supreme Court ended the 2000 election by making George W. Bush president, Lewis said that he no longer believed in the idea of continuous progress for the American experiment. My sense from American history is that there have been zigs and zags: There have been periods when xenophobia has had a nasty influence it shouldn’t; slavery and racism were and remain great stains on the American project. There are lots of reasons to see that that continuous progress is something to hope for, but not count on.

What impressed me most about Lewis’ work was how he explained the workings of the American constitutional system and what it takes for it to thrive — I’m more convinced by that than by his loss of optimism. His earlier work gave me reasons to believe in the system, and also to believe that a big part of it for journalism is — as one of my buddies puts it — to hit ’em while they’re up, to have a role in holding people with power, public and private, accountable. There’s something thrilling about that, that facts matter, that facts explained clearly and powerfully matter, that facts explained clearly and powerfully in a narrative can give people pleasure as well as challenge their thinking.

It’s just as important now, given my age and stage in life, to see younger colleagues doing quality work that matters, and doing it, as Agee wrote in one of his poems, “High-souled in joy and hungry for the fight.” The sense of helping people realize that they have a talent for a particular kind of expression and work and watching them fulfill that, that’s a satisfaction that’s hard to measure, but really deep.

—Daneet Steffens '82

Editor's note: This profile first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

More to Explore

The New Yorker

Read more from Caplan in The New Yorker

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A list of Caplan's books, from The Insanity Defense and the Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr. to American Justice 2016

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"Chicago Hope"

Read Caplan's essay about an urban charter school using Harkness to transform students' lives, from The American Scholar.

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