The Assembly: You came into this piece without having previously reported on Berger, day in, day out. What surprised you most as you spent time with him and folks in his orbit?
Maurer: I was surprised about how humble he was. For a man with that much power in the state, he isn’t showy. I’ve covered others who want to impress when a reporter is around. I got a sense early on that Berger and his staff weren’t interested in performing for me.
My main concern going in was that Berger was going to be closed off. But I felt like he opened up, and we had a few very candid conversations. Berger gave readers, at least, a glimpse of himself. It isn’t often a politician at his level is willing to let you follow him around without a lot of handlers and conditions.
The Assembly: For a political profile, the story focused relatively little on policy. Was that a conscious decision? If so, why?
Maurer: There are so many great reporters covering the day-to-day of the legislature that we felt like the best way to add to this discussion was to look at the man and not the policy. I think the goal of this story was to try to get a glimpse of his mindset and why he thinks the way he does, which I think we achieved.
There is a lot to explore when it comes to policy, and we’ll cover it. But for this first story, we thought a more personal, narrative approach would stand out. When you report on a controversial figure, you expect pushback from both the left and the right if you do your job right; looking at some of the reactions on Twitter, we did our job.
The Assembly: Your time at the legislature was in the midst of the pandemic. Give us a sense of the vibe in the building.
Maurer: The statehouse was almost deserted, which was a change from the past. In the past, I think lobbyists and lawmakers would have been orbiting his suite of offices hoping to get a few minutes before the start of session.
In some ways, the pandemic made it easier for me to report because there weren’t a lot of distractions. Berger’s schedule was light, and there were few changes or curveballs. The opossum in Berger’s office was sporting a mask, so COVID-19 wasn’t far from his mind.
The Assembly: You delved into a tension for Berger—a public persona that Jim Blaine called “Darth Vader” and a personal reputation for cordiality. What was it like reporting on someone who presents two different images?
Maurer: Before my first interview, a statehouse observer told me that Berger was just a “country lawyer,” and I think that’s right. It’s the best description. He has a small-town sensibility. He talked a lot about his family—of which he is very proud—and about his home. He has his routines—like lunch with his wife—and those are sacred to him, I think.
When you get past the politics, Berger is a cordial and friendly guy who loves his state. You don’t have to like him or agree with him, but folks from both sides of the aisle told me he was a man of his word who is doing what he thinks is best for the state.
The Assembly: In your past life as a reporter for the Fayetteville Observer, you were one of the first folks to embed with military units overseas—that was in 2003. Tell us about that from a journalism standpoint.
Maurer: I got to Fayetteville in January 2003, and by March I was in Kuwait. I think my early embeds gave me the confidence to be a reporter. I also had two great editors—Henry Cuningham and Mike Adams—who trained me.
I found early on that I liked telling the stories from the ground up. I spent most of my time with the soldiers and little time with the generals. I was more interested in the person than the event or policy. I also found that the closer I got to the story and the more I told it through one strong point of view, the more it resonated with readers. Journalism is at its most powerful when you can put a human at the center of the story.
The Assembly: You’ve got a new book out. Tell us what it’s about.
Maurer: The book is called Rock Force, and it follows the 1945 battle to liberate the island of Corregidor from the Japanese. Corregidor is a tadpole-shaped, extinct volcano in the mouth of Manila Bay in the Philippines. When the Japanese overran the Philippines early in the war, Corregidor was the site of the American last stand. Rock Force takes place three years later when the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment spearheads the attack to take Corregidor back.
I wanted the book to read like a novel. In doing the research, I was able to discover a couple of unpublished manuscripts, which offered an intimate view of the fighting. So, in the book, I focus on a couple of paratroopers and use their experience to tell a bigger story. I used a lot of the same techniques I used as an embedded reporter in telling the Berger story.
Read the full story, “The Motivations of Phil Berger.”
Kyle Villemain is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Assembly. He is a former speechwriter who grew up in the Triangle and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.