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American Writer

A right-wing pundit, a contentious preacher, a legendary sniper— how Michael Mooney gets the ungettable story

by Clinton Crockett Peters

Michael Mooney plants himself on a plush bar stool at The Local Oak, a 1920s, speakeasy-era haunt with creaky hardwood floors and dim lighting that makes it difficult to see faces clearly. The bar seems antiquated, like a real-life sepia photograph, which matches Mooney’s antebellum beard and gentlemanliness. He turns with a smile, and sips some whiskey. “Best Old Fashioneds here in Dallas-Fort Worth,” he says, “and I’ve had most of them.”

Mooney wears a ball cap, flannel shirt open to mid-chest, thick beard and a lion’s mane of russet hair cascading down his back. He stares with nervous penetration, the analytical gears whirring away behind his eyes as he describes how he manages to convince sources — the apprehensive, the inaccessible, the politically extreme or religiously fervent, those who live on the fringes as well as the forefront of our culture — to sit down with him for an interview, and maybe even an Old Fashioned.

“He’s disarming,” Mooney’s editor at D Magazine, Tim Rogers, would later say. “He is one of those rare very good writers who doesn’t invest too much of his ego into his writing.”

In his pursuit of story, Mooney spent two years hounding Glenn Beck’s publicist for an interview with the ultra-conservative TV and radio personality, who is famously shy about interviews. He followed former Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington to his home in New Orleans just to knock on his door and have a few words with him, something the Rangers head of communications already had forbidden. Another source, a victim of rape, torture and kidnapping, refused to talk to any other reporter after the trial had ended, but she caved after Mooney drove to her country home and left her Belgian chocolates, purple flowers and a letter. For Robert Jeffress, the zealously anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Mooney coaxed the church’s public relations people into meeting him in the coffee shop below the D Magazine office to feel him out before allowing access. Still skeptical, they let the reporter they considered a descendant of David Crosby — the heroin-carrying former convict and singer-songwriter with Crosby, Stills & Nash — through the door. “David Crosby, not Bing Crosby,” Mooney recalls. “For these conservative people, that’s not a good thing.” He spent months researching a profile of Chris Kyle, aka “The American Sniper,” but refused to give up the story, even after Kyle had been murdered.

Where other writers might pack up, go home and drop to the next idea on their story list, Mooney redoubles his efforts and refuses to go away. Even after publication, some of his sources want to keep talking, stay in touch, grab a meal. He received baked flan from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s dad, took a Craigslist prostitute up on her offer of a “real girlfriend experience” (they went bowling as part of the story), and he regularly has lunch with Robert Jeffress in his church office.

It would be easy for him to write about his subjects as caricatures rather than characters. But instead, he finds their humanity, plumbing their lives with enough empathy that no matter how outrageous or extreme they might seem to some, in his voice, with his modulation, they sound almost reasonable — or at least understandable. Take Kyle, for instance. It would be simple for Mooney to validate the Navy SEAL’s accolades, but instead Mooney threaded his D Magazine piece, and later his book about Kyle, with a mysterious story of Kyle’s involvement with a gas station shooting as well as the hardships he faced making the transition home after four tours of duty in Iraq. Because of this, Kyle becomes something more than a war hero with a big gun.

Why spend so much time circling his subjects like a Mako shark? Sure, it wins him awards, prestige from his inclusion in anthologies such as the Best American Crime Reporting and Best American Sports Writing. His “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever” is among D Magazine’s “40 Greatest Stories.” But his fascination with his subjects as cultural lightning rods makes him want to get to know them and reveal who they are. “I’m not interested if somebody’s politics are hypocritical. That’s a one-word story. I’m interested in who somebody is. That’s a 7,000-word story.” His record of reporting on figures like Beck, Jeffress and Washington has made it easier for others in the limelight to trust him, and his body of work for publications ranging from The Dallas Morning News to GQ reflects that his writing can be a bridge over the cultural divide.

Michael grew up in Texas, raised by a single mom to whom he dictated stories about cows and ninjas before he could read. She wrote them down in construction-and-notebook-paper books, which he illustrated in crayon. “I’ve just always enjoyed stories and storytelling,” Mooney says. “My mother always valued writing, reading, and intelligence.” Becoming a writer was his way to make her proud. “Plus, my mother always stressed that I should do something I love.”

While attending the University of Texas at Austin, Mooney wrote a few editorials for the school newspaper, but it wasn’t until coming to the University of North Texas’ Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism that he found his love for narrative reporting. After graduating with his master’s degree, he began writing for The Dallas Morning News. A profile he wrote for the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference so impressed the Miami New Times that the newsweekly offered him a job.

While living close to the Florida beach, Mooney wrote on such subjects as professional gamblers, racing greyhounds, spring break and a group of real-life vampires, who Mooney showed were actually nice people who just happened to enjoy sipping each other’s blood. Meanwhile, he freelanced for D Magazine and landed a staff writing position with the city magazine four years ago. He is, at 34, “the best of the best of the narrative writers out there,” according to George Getschow, the Mayborn Conference founder and Mooney’s former professor. Mooney also has freelanced for Outside, GQ, BuzzFeed, Grantland and ESPN The Magazine.

His prolonged obsession with Chris Kyle marks the apex of his commercial success as he parlayed the D Magazine piece he wrote about Kyle into a New York Times best-selling e-book and a Little, Brown and Company print paperback entitled, The Life and Legend of Chris Kyle: American Sniper, Navy Seal. Mooney didn’t just piggyback onto the success of Kyle’s autobiography, which later morphed into a blockbuster movie, he worked hard to make the story his own, spending a year relentlessly running down one bizarre twist in the famed Navy SEAL’s profile, a pursuit that outlasted Chris Kyle himself.

While Mooney starts on his second Old Fashioned, he relives his first interview with Kyle who made him feel like a small boy hanging out with a real-life GI Joe. Kyle stood 6-feet-2-inches tall with hands as big as bear claws, but to Mooney he seemed even bigger. “I don’t know how much of that was in my mind or in reality, ” he says. “But part of me — it was complicated — felt American.”

Mooney says work on the Kyle story actually began as soon as he arrived at D Magazine in 2011. “A couple of people at the office had heard the story about a Special Forces guy who had come back from the war.” Then on a lonesome highway near Cleburne, Texas, the veteran fell victim to a two-man stick-up. Until that is, quick as a rattlesnake, he turned the tables, shooting both assailants dead. “Who was that guy?” Mooney wondered.

The answer began to take shape in January 2012, when Kyle published his book, American Sniper, and went on publicity tours, capturing attention by telling the story of punching out former professional wrestler and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, for insulting Navy SEALS. When Mooney realized Kyle lived near Dallas, he reached out to him and his publicist. Immediately, both were open to a sit down and the chance to promote Kyle’s book. Mooney first visited Kyle in April of 2012 for a lengthy interview. “I was interested in a lot of stuff. But I was interested in one question: Was he the guy?”

Mooney met the retired SEAL in Kyle’s office overlooking American Airlines Center near Downtown Dallas. In the building’s lobby was a rare, circa 1661, English translation of Galileo’s Dialogue. Inside Kyle’s office, Mooney found a collection of large-caliber guns hanging on the wall, the kind you’d see in 1980s Schwarzenegger films. “It was kind of freaky, being in that nice office with Galileo and all the guns, I was thinking, Where am I?”

Mooney peppered Kyle with questions, gauging his responses, redirecting, following up and clarifying. Even if the gas station shooter wasn’t Kyle, Mooney figured he still had a good story about the struggles of a veteran whose life had been pitched in violence and was now trying to live in peace. “It was essentially going to be an epilogue to his book,” he says. But at the end of the two-hour interview, Mooney grew the gumption to ask him about the fatal highway shooting, and Kyle told him, “Yeah, that was me.”

A flood of adrenaline coursed through Mooney. “The feeling not just when you think, but when you know you have a story.”

Kyle claimed a security video of the incident existed, and Mooney knew he had to track down that footage, not merely to set a scene in his narrative, but to confirm that the shooting had, in fact, occurred. Mooney spent months searching for that video, speaking with Texas Rangers officers and combing small town police agencies, county sheriff’s departments, and 20 gas stations around Cleburne. And yet he could find no video — not even a police report or other public record to substantiate the shooting. That aspect of the story, it turns out, was impossible for Mooney to verify. Except for Kyle and his friends, no one had heard of the incident. And it became the stuff of legend.

But why lie? Why would the most decorated solder in modern American military history need to make up one more story of valor for an interview? “I left that [first interview] believing it had happened,” Mooney writes in his D Magazine story. “Other people — probably most people—will believe the story, because it was about Chris Kyle. He was one of the few men in the entire world capable of such a feat.”

While he was digging, he did more interviews with Kyle, tagging along on his book signings, a trip to his office again, to the VA, a trip to a gun shop.

Mooney was driving on I-75 in Dallas in early February 2013, working on a story about baseball for BuzzFeed, when he received a text: Kyle had been murdered. “I really thought it was a hoax at first.” Then came a stream of texts telling him the same thing. At a shooting range outside Stephenville, Texas, Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield, had been shot dead by a 25-year-old former Marine with a history of mental illness—a veteran Kyle was trying to help.

Mooney felt terrible for Kyle’s family, sad for all the people who loved him, especially his widow, Taya, whom he would later interview. But as with any journalist, his thoughts turned to the work. “That day I probably would have been relieved if the story had died, but instead it was a panic. What were we going to do? Does this become an obituary? What do we do?”

They stood for hours in the rain and the early morning chill to honor a fallen hero. Seven thousand mourners, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and sportscaster Troy Aikman among them, lined up at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to pay their respects to a legend whose casket was placed on the star at the 50-yard line. Mooney was there, trying to make sense of it all, for himself and for his story. He listened to Kyle’s former SEAL teammates as they eulogized their comrade, to his wife who told a bittersweet tale of her husband’s return from combat only to be taken from her after coming home, to country music star Randy Travis, who played “Amazing Grace.” After the ceremony, a funeral procession 200 miles long followed the casket to Austin, the longest in U.S. history, or so Mooney believes. Along the way, they passed small towns and thousands of people waving American flags.

Mooney knew the arc of his story had to change. Suddenly the truth about whether Kyle had killed two men trying to hijack him didn’t matter as much. What mattered was that people needed to believe it happened, just like they needed to believe in heroes like Kyle. But to reveal the legend, Mooney would have to reveal the contradiction; on the one hand, no evidence existed that a shooting had occurred; on the other, why would there be evidence? Not if you bought into the kinds of conspiracy theories gaining traction on the Internet: That Chris Kyle was a warrior so vital to our national esteem that phone calls were made, and the CIA contacted: that all records of the double killing had vanished without a trace.

Mooney became interested not only in Kyle the person, but also in Kyle the myth—and the cultural moments that created both. In his magazine article, and later, in his book, he explored why people need legends, cultural heroes in whom Americans can invest patriotic pride, and in Kyle’s case, help make sense of a divisive, decades-long war with no clear winners and losers. Chris Kyle, with his 160 confirmed kills, the most deadly sniper in U.S. military history, was a winner, at least on the battlefield. He seemed an idealist to Mooney, killing for country and to protect his brothers in arms.

“It’s an American story; he is the most undisputed, celebrated warrior of my lifetime,” Mooney says. “People feel really bad about the country and the times we live in. People want a hero and to feel good about something. It really is a big fabric of our society.”

To weave that fabric, Mooney knew he had to go deeper, and logged in hours of interview time with dozens of people who knew Kyle, many of whom didn’t make the story’s final cut. His interview subjects included Kyle’s former SEAL teammates and commanders, his business partners, childhood friends, golfing buddies and, of course, his widow. In the aftermath of Kyle’s death, Mooney put in 20-hour days, driving around and talking to people who poured out their stories. “They all wanted to honor him in their own way,” Mooney says.

From this additional reporting, Mooney felt a more balanced portrait of Kyle emerged as this excerpt from the D Magazine story reveals:

He was a brutal warrior but a gentle father and husband. He was a patient instructor, and he was a persistent, sophomoric jokester. If he had access to your Facebook account, he might announce to all your friends and family that you’re gay and finally coming out of the closet. … He said he didn’t enjoy killing, but he did like protecting Americans and allies and civilians. He was the angel of death, sprawled flat atop a roof, his University of Texas Longhorns ball cap turned backward as he picked off enemy targets one by one before they could hurt his boys.

Mooney shows us how Kyle, a good ol’ boy from Texas, was able to joke and love and kill—not for the thrill of it, but because he believed it was a responsibility of war.

Of course, some readers weren’t pleased with what they saw as the glorification of Kyle. One reader calling himself “Paul” wrote in the magazine’s comments section: “Chris Kyle is not a hero. … He was an effective killing machine and he was very good at what he did. … That is all.” Many disagreed. Others thought Mooney didn’t do enough to honor Kyle.

Rather than endearing Kyle to conservatives or liberals, Mooney sought to treat Kyle as he did Glenn Beck, Robert Jeffress or Ted Cruz’s father — without pandering to political inclination. “Thinking about him neutrally,” Mooney says, “you begin to see this shape of his life and the shape of what makes him.”

Some readers, says Mooney, saw the unverified gas station attack as evidence of Kyle’s fallibility (an inability to adjust to civilian life), while others saw it as a covert cover-up (immaculately handled by the CIA). “But all we have are the facts, and we just don’t know,” Mooney explains. “I would do anything to go back and ask him about it. But we can’t, and I hate it. It’s a weird question mark that lingers.”

Brantley Hargrove, a Dallas writer and J-school comrade of Mooney’s, joins him at The Local Oak and orders an Old Fashioned, the same as his friend. Hargrove is the surfer dude to Mooney’s grunge guitarist: muscled, clean-shaven, with Greco-Romanesque locks. The two begin arguing immediately about Mooney’s fascination with Jeffress, who recently preached his support for storeowners who refuse service to gays. Although Mooney says he disagrees with “maybe, everything Jeffress says,” they still have lunch together. Hargrove thinks Jeffress is “a scourge on society.” Mooney, ever the one to see something deeper, disagrees. “I think he’s a decisive figure, and I’m not comfortable with our culture’s willingness to regulate morals.” He hopes Jeffress will come around and open his doors. “I have hope for him. As he does for me,” says Mooney, deftly turning the conversation. “He thinks I’ll be the next C.S. Lewis.”

Following the publication of his D Magazine story in April 2013, Mooney’s agent approached him with the idea of a book about Kyle, which Mooney didn’t want to do. He was exhausted on the subject, and, importantly, so was his fiancée. “If I mentioned it, she just went crazy.”

Then the agent suggested a shorter e-book of 20,000 words, only twice the length of the material Mooney already had for the story. Thanks to Mooney’s reporting diligence, he had left many odds and ends on the cutting room floor. “So there was almost no more reporting. It was just putting in those things, the context of the story and working them in,” he says. The book took off. “It was on the e-book best-seller list, and I didn’t even know that existed.” With that success, the publisher suggested a paperback print version, which was released in March 2015. The e-book is still picking up steam.

To what does Mooney owe this success? No doubt it’s his obsession with finding character-revealing detail that shade his subjects with nuance and make them come to life. Also, it’s his ability to recreate life-cut scenes and allow readers to enter the world of his characters. But maybe luck played a hand. His e-book was sold on Amazon and other online bookstores for more than a year and half before Clint Eastwood’s movie came out in January 2015. When American Sniper was released, the book was propelled to best-seller status within the same month. Mooney acknowledges that the movie’s success, one of the highest grossing war movies of all time, helped his sales mushroom.

Is Mooney done with Kyle? Never one for chasing breaking news, he chose not to cover the trial of Kyle’s killer, Eddie Ray Routh, who was convicted of murdering Kyle and Littlefield, and sentenced to life without parole. But Mooney still feels a sense of proprietorship about Kyle, as though he remains his literary asset. “When you really talk to somebody and work with somebody and think about something for a really long time, you feel like you want to keep going with them.”

Until that happens, Mooney is off telling other true tales while making regular visits to The Local Oak. That a person who thinks and looks like Mooney — his editor says he resembles “a mix between a Civil War hero and someone who just walked out of the shire” — can forge strong relationships with sources is a testament to his ability to connect with people. His own larger-than-life presence and unflinching eyes can at first seem a bit dark and unknowable, that is until he begins to speak, and his face warms in response.

The waitress at The Local Oak is hard pressed to remember when Mooney first started coming in, but like Kyle and Jeffress and Beck, she feels a similar connection. “He just walked in and started treating us like people,” she says. “Of course, we liked him.”

A right-wing pundit, a contentious preacher, a legendary sniper— how Michael Mooney gets the ungettable story
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