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One On 1: Journalist Fareed Zakaria

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of one of the busiest journalists in the city, and the country, Fareed Zakaria.

It's not unusual to see a journalist typing at a computer, but to see Fareed Zakaria in a quiet moment working in his Midtown office? That's a different story.

He seems to be everywhere: Best selling author; Newsweek international editor and columnist; commentator on ABC's "This Week;" a television host with a new PBS show; and he's also on the road, with a travel schedule that includes Iraq, China, Washington and California, all within a few months.

"When I meet somebody interesting for Newsweek I sometimes think to myself, ÎCould this be an interesting person for the television show?’ So there’s a sense in which it all feeds into each other,” he says. “But the strain I feel is mostly that I also have young kids, and I want to make sure that I can spend time with them.”

Zakaria has found an intriguing way to mix family and work - by bringing his 5-year-old son on road trips to Washington, where he appears on the ABC show "This Week."

“He sits in the green room and somebody has to take care of him for the 12-14 minutes that I'm on air,” he says. “It's been an interesting cast of characters. John McCain did it once, Pat Leahy did it once."

Zakaria presents a calm, thoughtful approach, which begs the question; what is this guy doing on television, at a time when screamfests pass for public discourse?

“Washington debates and television debates are always about two people, each of who has a team, and they have to root for it. It's almost like a sports situation,” he says. “I feel very strongly that if you're an independent commentator you have to try and look at it each issue and say to yourself, ÎWhat makes sense in this case?’"

Zakaria supported the war in Iraq, but has characterized American presence there since as "a year and a half of blunders."

His views can tweak the left, like when he says, “Liberal Democrats should sometimes put a sign over their desks that say ÎSome things are true even though George W. Bush believes them.’"

But he also enjoyed getting criticized in a column from the right by Pat Buchanan.

“Sometimes the people who disagree with you are as important as the people who agree with you,” says Zakaria. “I view the fact that Buchanan disagrees with me as a badge of honor."

He calls himself "a lapsed academic." It's not every guy who once edited the august journal Foreign Affairs, and now banters easily with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”

"I don't make it a practice to have conversations with God. I realize there are some people in the country who do,” he told Stewart on a recent appearance. “I have found different methods of gaining knowledge, like books and the Internet."

“With somebody like Jon Stewart - I imagine this was true of Johnny Carson - you don't really think you're being funny. It’s just you're in the presence of somebody who is very witty and friendly and disarming, and you become funnier in that process," he says.

But Zakaria's admirers include some pretty serious folks, like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. And it's been suggested more than once that Zakaria may one day follow in their footsteps, a suggestion Zakaria says is unnerving and gets in the way of the work he's doing now.

“It does seem to suggest, ÎWait a minute - are you saying that I would have somehow failed if I don't achieve your definition of success?’” he says. "People who spend a lot of time positioning themselves carefully — you know, life is a crapshoot. You can never plan it that well. I have never believed in five-year plans for government or five-year plans for individuals."

Fareed Zakaria's journey to globe trotting journalist started in India, the son of a politician and newspaper editor. He says he knew British history and culture better, but when it came time to go to college, he opted for the United States, and Yale.

"In Britain you're never really part of the society. At least that was my feeling in the 60s and 70s,” he says. “You're still, at the end of the day, an outsider. Whereas in the United States the amazing thing is you come here as a complete stranger and you get invited to the White House. Now, I'm exaggerating, but what I mean is you come here and nobody cares where you come from."

Actually, he's not exaggerating. As a graduate student at Harvard, Zakaria got an invitation to attend a national security meeting on U.S. foreign policy at the White House.

“I just had a green card. I wasn't actually an American citizen at the point, and I was waiting for somebody to say something like, ÎWhere do you get off telling us what we should be doing in Haiti?’” he says.

He became managing editor of foreign affairs and then joined Newsweek in 2000, writing about international relations at a time when many Americans didn't care about the subject. That would soon change.

Three weeks after September 11th, Zakaria sat down at his computer to write, and he didn't stop for a day and a half. Seven-thousand words later, he'd produced the cover story "Why They Hate Us."

“It doesn't seem like it was possible, but [my] whole table was even more messy, and there were literally 50 books on the table,” he says when we visited him in his office. “[I was] thinking, reading and writing all at the same time. It was just a very intense version of what I do normally."

Zakaria wrote that the hatred stemmed in part from modernization in the Arab world which offered fast food, soda and cars, but no greater openness and increased opportunities. And in the absence of real political parties and a free press, fundamentalist organizations flourished.

The article was read in government offices, military circles and beyond, and catapulted Zakaria into the national limelight.

“What I was most struck by about the ÎWhy They Hate Us’ piece was the way in which it went so far beyond the usual chattering class,” he says. “That was the most heartening thing to me, and that's why I work at Newsweek, because I want to be able to talk to people who are not the same 2,000 people who read everything and are moved by nothing because they've seen it all.”

Some of the ideas in the article led to his 2003 best seller "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad."

“The book is being translated into 18 languages, and actually was best seller in Italy and Holland and India,” he says. “I think that people are hungry for ideas that kind of explain the world, that try to give you a sense of what's going on, because it does seem so bewildering. Politics as a blood sport is the way that a lot of these books are written, where everybody on other side is all wrong all the time. Those kinds of books are written mostly to comfort people, to give people a sense that the things you already believe are exactly right, and rah, rah, rah. Whereas I think the function of a book is to unsettle you, to make you think that the world is more complex.”

It's not all international politics for Zakaria. He's married with two young children, and he's a wine aficionado who once was a wine columnist for Slate.

But there is little time for leisure these days. There's work on a new book, his new PBS show “Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria,” and his travels around the world. But it still comes down to the writing - sitting down at a computer and creating, every week.

“I often look back on pieces of mine and say, ÎDamn, I could have done this one better,’” he says. “This is not a diamond that I'm crafting every week to be perfect. It's something I’m doing to try to get across some ideas as best as I can. But mostly I'm doing it 50 times a year, and you hope that the accumulated body of wisdom and knowledge and thought is something that stands up."

- Budd Mishkin

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