Ron Fournier: Story about son ‘was the hardest article I’ll ever write’

National Journal
After he wrote about interviewing presidents with his son Tyler, Ron Fournier heard from lots from people whose kids also have Asperger’s syndrome. But he was surprised by how many people who reacted were “Parents seizing on the story as a reminder to strike a work-life balance.”

“I read every word of your story,” wrote Rich Matthews, a former colleague of mine at the Associated Press. “And the whole time I said to myself, “Am I a good dad?” How do my kids feel when they are looking me in the eye talking to me and I’m reading ‘an important’ e-mail on the Blackberry?”

Reached by phone, Fournier says the story “easily was the hardest article I’ll ever write, and one of the reasons was I’m not used to writing in the first person.” But it “wasn’t the voice but the subject matter” that gave him the most trouble.

The piece, Fournier says, was his wife’s idea, and he’d originally conceived it as a book proposal. The best way to get a book agent, he thought, was to write a magazine article. He first turned in the piece to Adam B. Kushner, then the magazine’s deputy editor, a couple months ago, Fournier says.

The story “was maybe 75 percent focused on what the visits with the presidents told me about them,” Fournier says. Kushner “said this is fine but wouldn’t it be more interesting if you didn’t write what everybody expected to be written.”

He and Kushner “pushed it back and forth for several months,” says Fournier, until “we got to the place where I was comfortable being uncomfortable with it.”

He asked others to read it, including “Meet the Press” host David Gregory, whom he said suggested what he calls the piece’s “Field of Dreams” ending. “I stole that part from him at the kicker.”

The piece ends with Fournier and Tyler sitting in a car outside a Barnes & Noble. Tyler is reviewing his dad’s draft and suggesting changes. Does this mean he gave his son quote approval? “That’s a good line,” Fournier says, and we move on.

Fournier announced last week he would step down as National Journal’s editor-in-chief (Kushner was named the magazine’s editorial director). In his new job as editorial director of the National Journal Group, he’ll have more time to write. He says he won’t necessarily be writing more long pieces.

“Now what my main writing role will be is helping us get more traffic on our free website,” he says. If he had to do this story in his new gig, it’d be a series of short posts that followed each visit to a president’s office, “breadcrumbs along the way,” he says, an approach in which he has been very influenced by Atlantic journalist James Fallows.

Fournier likened reading readers’ reactions last week to being on the cop beat in a small-town newspaper in Arkansas, like The (Hot Springs, Ark.) Sentinel-Record, where he started as a journalist.”You feel a part of the community you’re writing about,” he says.

Related: Sam Gustin compiled some of the Twitter reaction to Fournier’s story

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