Enemy of the State

How Glenn Greenwald is taking on the world, and why he'll never stop.



Greenwald’s immediate family was small and unlucky. Originally from New York City, they settled in South Lake, Fla., then a lower middle-class enclave filled with small, cheap rental housing under constant threat of demolition by condo developers. Greenwald had a housewife mother, Arlene, and an accountant father, Daniel. His parents were never abusive or neglectful. “They were decent,” Greenwald assures, “but fucked up in their own ways.” Greenwald’s father, a short, small, Jewish man, idealized a campy sort of conservatism that repulsed Greenwald. “He had pictures of Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, and John Wayne in his office,” Greenwald recalls. “It didn’t really have anything to do with politics — he just idealized this fake machismo, which is something he lacked.”

During Greenwald’s teen years, his father left his mother, and she was forced to take a series of low-wage jobs to support Greenwald and his brother while their father racked up debt from second and third marriages. She worked as a cashier at McDonald’s, coming home at night with hundreds of scratch cards from the restaurant to win free hamburgers and sodas. “That’s how we ate for a while.” Greenwald says. It’s all a far cry from his current digs, a spacious two-story wood-and-glass home five minutes from Rio’s glistening beaches but nestled in a bucolic canyon that bleeds into jungle. And yet, a lack of furniture and the towels on the sofa to protect against his pack of rescued dogs gives the whole place a slap-dash feel. “You can’t have a pristine house with ten dogs,” he says as his pets gurgle for his attention while we sit on the back porch that he uses as his office. “And I’d rather have the ten dogs.”

Greenwald’s political development skipped a generation; it can be traced back to his socialist grandparents, with whom he and his mother lived in South Lake for a while when he was in high school. Appalled by the rapacious efforts of land developers, Greenwald’s grandfather, Louis L. Greenwald, ran for city council on a populist ticket, rallying working-class renters, largely immigrants and single women, to take on the condo overlords. The elder Greenwald went by LL and took pride in his campaign slogan, “Give ’em hell, LL!” “He was elected on this totally insurgent campaign,” Greenwald recalls. “Very ideological about fighting power structures.”

Greenwald’s nascent political philosophy was also fueled by his adolescent sexual awakening. “I came of age in the late ’70s, early ’80s, when things were way worse than they are now. And, you know, you get this strong sense that somehow the prevailing order is antithetical to who you are—it rejects you, is hostile to you, it teaches you that you’re bad and wrong and dirty. You feel like you can’t reason or deal with it. You just feel it and its powerful force. So there’s a lot of different ways to cope and deal with that.”

This all comes from Greenwald in an unstoppable verbal torrent. He doesn’t skip a beat as he hand-feeds raw hot dogs to more canine strays that wander in from the trees. He gushes, “One way is people internalize those judgments. Like, ‘I’m horrible, I’m filthy, I’m broken, I’m wrong, I’m defective, I’m going to go destroy myself’ — which is why gay teens end up killing themselves, right? I just decided to turn the aggression on the people I felt were attacking me. I was like, ‘You’re not going to tell me that I’m wrong, I’m going to show you that your actions are wrong.’ So that was the approach I took toward authority. This very hostile, aggressive way of being that required me to analyze all figures of power and that eventually became waging war on prevailing orthodoxies. And when you do that, it’s an intellectually lonely exercise, but you become much stronger.”

It’s 1985 and you’re angry, you’re gay, you’re Jewish — what do you in your senior year of high school to channel your existentialist angst and alienation? If you’re Glenn Greenwald, you run for city council. His grandfather was getting too old to carry out his “vendettas” against the council, so Greenwald — a veteran of high school speech and debate clubs — ran for his seat. “I came to believe if you’re smart, skilled, and have the resources, you should use those things to fuck with the powerful.” He officially entered the race at age 17 but would turn 18 by the day of the vote, making his candidacy legal. “Those incumbent pigs went to court to try to get me off the ballot,” Greenwald snorts. At the first public debate, Greenwald slaughtered his rivals and won the endorsement of all the local news rags and the biggies, the Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald. Greenwald ran twice, coming in close each time but not close enough.