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by Adam

“What I don’t understand is what happened to Leslie Nielson,” Mac Verstandig says. “Because The Naked Gun was okay and Airplane is just classic material, and then we get 2001: A Space Travesty, and it was, yeah, a travesty.”

We’re in the comedy section of a Blockbuster in Madison, Wisconsin on a Saturday night because I want to hear Mac orate on movies. He’s had full press credentials as a film critic since the age of fourteen so he knows what he’s talking about. In fact, on almost any subject, he knows what he’s talking about.

Compared to most college students, Mac looks all business. He’s wearing a white button-down shirt, black jeans, and black dress shoes. His head is shaved, he’s got a dark mustache that connects to a goatee, and there’s a ring in his left ear lobe. He’s built low and wide and everything about him is very adult. Mac Verstandig is the editor-in-chief of the nation’s largest independent college newspaper, the Wisconsin Badger-Herald.

We haven’t moved very far down the rows of DVDs that line the comedy shelf. We started at the beginning, with movies that have numbers for titles, hence the commentary on 2001: A Space Travesty. Now we’re in the A’s. Mac points to American Pie. “If the generation before us had Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” he says, “and before then it was Caddyshack and Animal House, I think we’re stuck with American Pie, and it’s not entirely a bad thing.”

Mac even has a story about The Animal, a Rob Schneider film that earned approximately seven dollars at the box office: “The funny thing about The Animal, which is a movie I haven’t actually seen, but you talk about journalism scandal in reverse, one of the quotes they used to market this movie was fabricated. They made up the critic and everything.” He knows because he helped bust the story on

We leave the comedy aisle and walk down a wall of New Releases. We’re heading to the drama section, but two girls, friends of Mac, interrupt us. One of them tells Mac that she saw him on TV. “That’s disturbing,” Mac says. He doesn’t want to disrupt our conversation so he draws the girls’ attention to my voice recorder and says, “I’m being interviewed very subtly.”

The girls look at me, look at the voice recorder, look at Mac, and giggle. One blurts out, “You’re, like, famous!”


Mac Verstandig is, like, famous. Not only is he the editor-in-chief of the Badger-Herald, but he’s also a rhetoric major, an editorialist, a contributing guest columnist to the Wisconsin State Journal, a blogger, a beat writer for the Wisconsin women’s tennis team, and a frat boy. He joined the fraternity because it was the only one in which he could find a decent intellectual conversation, and he ended up covering the tennis team when he lost a bet. He loves going to the matches though. It’s how he relaxes.

When Mac speaks, the rhetoric classes pay off. He sounds way older than his age – intelligent, omniscient, like an especially engaging politician. Everything that comes out of his mouth could be turned into a sound byte, even his laugh, which is hearty but quick, just as businesslike as his attire.

Mac grew up in the D.C. area, went to high school there, then escaped to the Midwest for college. He wrote a bit for his high school paper, but didn’t take student journalism seriously until he began reviewing films for the Badger-Herald during the second semester of his freshman year. From there he worked his way up the ranks until he became the lord of the Badger-Herald manor, a perch he seems designed for.

Mac has opinions about everything, but he’s allowed to have them because he knows about everything. In Chipotle, a popular Mexican restaurant on State St., as Mac and I wait to order burritos, I mention that I did some writing for my alma mater’s school paper, The Dartmouth. I’m not expecting him to have read it, but he has. “Now I don’t mean to knock on the paper you wrote for, which is a great daily,” he says, “but I love the conservative paper.” He’s talking about The Dartmouth Review. “It’s not the most terribly well put together thing, but I think it’s amazing just because it’s so hyperbolist, it’s so over-the-deep-end.” I acknowledge this, say you have to give them credit for going balls out, and Mac adds, “Their board of the directors is quite the list of people.”

I have no idea who sits on The Review’s board of directors because I’ve never bothered to look. Mac has stepped on my own turf and shown that he knows the lay of the land better than I do. As an aside, Mac tells me that Dartmouth football got their asses kicked by Penn today, which is information I could do without.

When those girls in Blockbuster reference Mac’s television stardom, they’re talking about his appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, starring FoxNews’ caustic star, Bill O’Reilly. I ask Mac what that experience was like, but I have to wait because we’re sitting in a Chipotle booth now and Mac has a mouthful of burrito. I’m closer to finishing my burrito because I keep asking Mac questions and he keeps having to put down his food to respond. When Mac’s done swallowing, he lifts an eyebrow and calls the experience, “Sudden… strange… and unique.”

He and one of his columnists appeared on The O’Reilly Factor in the wake of a series of sex scandals involving Wisconsin professors. O’Reilly was gentler than expected: “For a show that’s notorious for screaming matches and talking over people, neither of us were interrupted until the very last fifteen seconds, at which point, yes, it descended into a screaming match.” His eyebrows are moving again, rising and falling to accentuate his points. “I’m a long-winded person,” he says. “I talk slowly and deliberately. In my first two answers, I wasn’t cut off, I got all my thoughts in, and they showed up on television. Pretty cool.”

I do have to wonder if Mac had a good experience on The O’Reilly Factor because they were fair and balanced or because he’s a self-described “nasty conservative,” the type that proudly drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a Bush sticker on the bumper, the type that has a blog called The Right Side of the Road, the type that fits well with FoxNews’ managing philosophy. “I’m a very conservative guy in a very liberal city,” Mac says.

I’m curious to know how a nasty conservative writes a fair and balanced editorial. “Oh, you don’t,” Mac says. “You run a fair and balanced paper. Everything in news should be balanced. You show both sides, you quote both sides, etc. The editorial page – you can’t be balanced in each article, you just have to have a balanced page. You let the liberals speak, you let the conservatives speak. You let the anti-university people speak against the university people and it doesn’t even need to be in one day. There will be days when the paper leans one way. My hope is just that students, if they read the paper for a week, they read it for a month, they read it for a semester, or they read it all four years, will come away having seen stuff from the left, the far left, the right, the far right, and something in between.” Does he succeed? “I’m happy with that aspect of the paper, yeah.”

I have to keep reminding myself that this kid isn’t the editor of the New York Times, he’s just a senior in college, younger than I am.


The Badger-Herald office is the perfect union between newsroom professionalism and college anarchy. Newspapers, white printouts, and notepads cover the long table that runs down the center of the hardwood floor. A stray six-pack of beer, one bottle missing, sits on a smaller table. In a corner near the editorial desk, on top of a filing cabinet, are two empty kegs, trophies from the annual softball game against the rival UW paper. Mac’s desk is in an equally cluttered corner, with a large green plant looming over his chair and a stuffed monkey clinging to a standing coat rack. From amidst this jungle, Mac’s desk, complete with placard reading MAC VERSTANDIG, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, juts like an outpost of authority.

Two years ago, a Wisconsin student named Audrey Seiler went missing, and before it was discovered that her absence was nothing more than a hoax, the national media descended upon Madison. Several members of the Badger-Herald staff were to be interviewed, but the news personalities decided that the office didn’t look enough like a real newsroom to be used as a backdrop. “It’s not a real newsroom,” Mac acknowledges. “It’s a college newsroom. But you know what? We can break any story we want out of here.” Behind him, the September 11, 2001 Badger-Herald is tacked to the wall. Mac points out that there’s no headline, only a picture. It’s flanked by a Clinton/Gore ’92 poster and a Bush/Cheney t-shirt.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another college student more in touch with the world than Mac.
Every day he reads a handful of papers, a handful of websites, and at night, the AP wire. He watches several television programs and his cell phone receives news updates. He also subscribes to Newsweek, The Economist, the New Yorker, and Cigar Aficionado, although he’s not sure if Cigar Aficionado counts as a news source. A box of ISOMs (an acronym for “Island South of Miami”) sits on his desk and on his blog site,, there’s a picture of him holding a cigar and blowing a thick cloud of smoke at anyone venturing down the wrong side of the road.

It’s a grown-up indulgence, his love of cigars, and its just one of the things that separates him from his cigarette or pot-smoking fellow students. Wisconsin is a big school with over 28,000 undergraduates and it’s easy to become lost in the crowd. Mac’s student ID number is one digit longer than his social security number. But in a course load full of large lecture halls, Mac makes an effort to be more than just a number. “I socialize with my professors,” he says. “I’m one of those really dorky students who you will see at a bar on a Saturday night with a professor on occasion, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I show up to office hours even though I used to get made fun of for it, and half the time it’s not to talk about what the lecture material is. I love nothing more than sitting around with some of them and discussing politics.”

No, it’s not normal to hang out with your professors on a Saturday night, but perhaps it should be. This is a university, after all.


Mac, as I mentioned, is not a big man in stature, nor does he appear to have spent many hours in the UW fitness center. But he has the ability to intimidate with his mind, through his directness and professionalism. He clearly knows more about the business of interviewing someone than I do, which makes him a difficult interview. Honestly, I’m scared to misquote him. As we walk down a Madison street, Mac asks if I want a good laugh. I say yes. He says it’s off the record. He proceeds to tell me what’s so funny and I do have a good laugh, but I can’t tell you why. Mac won’t let me.

He’s not just a big man on campus, he’s a big man in the city. “There’s a lot of very arrogant moments that I try to downplay,” he says. For example, the office phone will ring, someone else will answer, and say, “Mac, phone for you.” Mac will tell them to put it on hold, but sometimes it’s the mayor of Madison and he needs to speak to Mr. Verstandig right away.

I ask Mac how he keeps himself in check, how he prevents his shaved head from inflating to abnormal proportions. One thing he’s done is add an ombudsman to the Badger-Herald. “It’s a weekly opinion column and it criticizes the paper both positively and negatively,” he explains. He’s enlisted the former editor-in-chief to write it. “I thought it was a great way to keep the paper honest to our readership, to let them know that we do care about what they say, their complaints, their concerns. That we’re not holier than thou. And I thought it was also a good way to check myself. Having someone call me out in public once a week is pretty good. You know, I worry that some people may not jump to criticize me as readily as I would hope.”

It’s no wonder that some people are slow to criticize Mac. He just knows too damn much. I doubt that Mac loses many political arguments. All of his stances, even the most controversial, are deeply researched and articulately phrased. His absorbs his ammunition from those newspapers, magazines, and websites. They are his machine gun rounds of rhetoric.

Spend some time with Mac, or hell, just look at his blog picture, and you’ll know that Mac has the ability to use those machine gun rounds to blow apart any hurdle that may stand in his way. He doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do with his life – he’ll try law school and see where that leads him – but he knows he has plenty of options, and he sees the rest of his generation having these same opportunities.

“The American Dream is very much alive and well,” he says from behind his newsroom desk. “I’m sitting here in Madison, Wisconsin; it’s the heartland of America. I’m in dairy country, I go to school with a lot of people that grew up on farms. A lot of them never saw a stoplight until they came here, and it doesn’t matter. All of the doors are open. If you try hard, you’ll get far. If you work hard, you’ll get far. And if you don’t, the interesting thing is our generation may be okay anyway.”

Take Mac’s word for it. He’s a knowledgeable man.


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