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"We're talking about the state and the powers of the state, I think, in the ways we always have," he says.
Curtis gave his 32-year-old deputy editor, Evan Smith, a cassette tape of aging songstress Peggy Lee just before Christmas. Smith politely accepted it and promised to give it a listen. But he's much more psyched about a musical gift that someone else gave him: an advance copy of the new Wilco CD that isn't supposed to hit stores until March.
Wilco is a hot pop band from Chicago with roots in the hot alternative country genre. Smith likes things that are hot. He is responsible for the recent launch of a column in the magazine called "Hot Box," which reviews hot CDs and hot books.
On a recent winter day, however, Smith is feeling chilly as he reclines on the sofa in his corner office. He rises and slips on his black leather jacket, which is hanging on the door.
His office decor is bereft of Texas iconography. Hanging on the wall is a poster commemorating a European concert by Wilco. The most prominent display on another wall is a Washington, D.C., license plate. A New York Yankees baseball cap, comically oversized to fit someone with a really big head, hangs on the doorknob. Those who find Smith to be self-aggrandizing can provide the punch line.
A native New Yorker who got his master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Smith worked nine months as a special projects editor at Self magazine, where he was the only male working on the 22nd floor of the Conde Nast building in Manhattan. He hated it there and landed a job as a senior editor at Texas Monthly, a magazine he'd long admired, in January 1992. Two years later, he left to become deputy editor of New Republic, a left-leaning political magazine based in Washington. Smith's dream job had been to become the editor of New Republic. But after only three months, he was plotting his escape. Curtis eventually offered to hire him back as deputy editor, the post he held when he left.
Now second-in-command under Curtis, current and former Texas Monthly staffers describe Smith, an avowed workaholic, as Curtis's heir apparent. Some say he's already running the place as Curtis grows more detached.
"This is going to sound like I have my nose so far up his ass that you can barely see my head, but I've always liked Greg personally from the first time that I met him," Smith says. "But we are different. He's a product of his generation. I'm a product of mine. I'm very loyal to Greg. He has shown a lot of trust and faith in me and given me a lot of responsibility and autonomy."
Curtis counts on his loquacious and gregarious deputy to bring a youthful flavor to the magazine. The median age of Texas Monthly readers is 41.5 years old.
Smith is fully responsible for the front section of the magazine, called "Reporter." The columns and short articles in "Reporter" are heavy on pop culture. It's where names get dropped and soon-to-be hot personalities get their 15 minutes of fame. "Reporter" also may reflect the future of Texas Monthly if Evan Smith ends up running the show.
Smith is a magazine industry junkie and, as such, understands well the industry trend away from investigative journalism and toward celebrity journalism. He admits that one of his favorite magazines is Entertainment Weekly, which he admires for how it covers the entertainment industry like a business. He wrote the article in the January 1999 Texas Monthly that allowed gossip columnists for four Texas newspapers to yak ad nauseam about such banal things as identifying a certain Hollywood legend as "the bitch of all time" (Lauren Bacall, according to the Houston Chronicle's Maxine Mesinger). Smith also was the brains behind Monthly's May 1998 "Hooray for Hollywood, Texas" issue that glorified the state's film industry and featured actress Sandra Bullock on the cover. Critics of the magazine's recent work tend to cite that issue for its starstruck boosterism and its exploitation on the cover of a pretty face with tenuous Texas ties.
Smith has heard so much carping about the issue that he's prepared a lengthy defense. Putting Bullock, who was building a lake house in the Austin area, on the cover was a fallback from an initial concept that didn't pan out.
"I know that people presumed the 'Hollywood, Texas' issue to be not substantive," Smith says. "I saw it as a cultural thing, an identity thing, and an economic thing. It was about entertainment, but it was about who we are and what we are becoming. Film is a growth industry in Texas. It was appropriate to have Sandra Bullock as the poster child of a package of stories on 'Hollywood, Texas.' When people inside the magazine who were opposed to the idea saw the final package, they admitted they were wrong."
Joe Nick Patoski, 47, wonders if the newfangled world of magazines -- a world where tangential Texans such as Sandra Bullock or Dennis Rodman can grace Texas Monthly covers, a world where snooty anecdotes of gossip columnists are strung together with respect and devotion into a Monthly story -- has any room in it for guys like him.