David Asman Chronicles his Fascinating Career as a Prominent Journalist, and his Love for Cigars
by Jon Shakill
In the corridors of power, where the crossroads of the New York media meets Wall Street finance, lies a hotbed of the luxury lifestyle. Professionals intermingle from all corners of the globe, during and after business hours. Puppeteers tug on the strings of the daily markets, while stewards of free speech sit at the megaphone broadcasting to the nation a 24-hour news cycle. In the city that never sleeps, a relaxing respite from the bustling boroughs comes as a welcome delight. Simple pleasures, like an after dinner cigar and a dram of whisky, are perfectly suited to offset the complex world outside. Cigar enthusiasts and spirits connoisseurs abound.
Enter David Asman, an anchor on FOX Business Network’s hour-long daily financial program, “After the Bell,” as well as Host of the FOX News Saturday morning program “Forbes on FOX.” A veteran journalist, David’s career has focused on business and financial topics, though he has covered subjects far and wide. His rise to prominence in financial journalism coincides with the story of his love for cigars, and also with the love of his life. Early in his career, as the Latin America editor for the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Asman traveled extensively throughout Central and South America. Covering everything from farming and narco-terrorism, to government corruption, financial reform and war, David lived and reported the Americas for much of the 1980s. It just so happened that while he was covering the Sandinista rebellion in the Nicaraguan war zone, he met his future wife Marta Cecilia and her son Felipe. He also discovered a love for Nicaraguan cigars.
With a long, interesting, and exciting career in journalism that continues today, David has interviewed hundreds of business leaders as well as heads of state. He has personally sat down with individuals like the President of Mexico Carlos Salinas and the President of Argentina Carlos Menem. In my interview with him, David also tells us the story of the time he met with President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One.
The business leaders Asman has met with over the years are equally interesting. One of the most enjoyable experiences David notes, is the time he shared a Davidoff Dom Perignon Cuban cigar offered to him by Carlos Slim. Little known at the time, Slim would become the single richest person in the world as owner of Mexico’s Telmex. Today you can regularly tune in to the “After the Bell” show at 4pm Eastern on FOX Business Network, to see Asman interviewing any number of billionaires and business leaders.
David Asman’s career has had an almost natural crossover into the world of cigars, both as a casual connoisseur and in his reporting. Spending a decade covering a region that produces much of the world’s best cigar tobacco, Asman has written about Cuba, from conducting in person interviews with Fidel Castro and covering Cuban politics, to touring and reporting on cigar factories. He has been embedded in Nicaragua during a war, and has shared a cigar with Mexico’s richest man.
A man full of interesting stories of his own, David has spent his career telling the stories of others. In this exclusive interview we go into greater depth about his career, the story of how he met his wife, and of course his enjoyment of cigars with the occasional glass of bourbon. I took the rare opportunity to interview a man used to asking all the questions, as we spoke for an hour covering a lot of ground.
Jon Shakill: David, let’s start with how you got into journalism. Tell me about your background and how you got started in the field.
David Asman: Certainly. Well Jon, initially I was a teacher in Chicago while also working toward my master’s degree in teaching at Northwestern University. I also knew at the time that I wanted to be in journalism, not so much in television journalism, but as a writer. My father had been in TV news his whole life, first with CBS then with NBC. At that time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I wasn’t crazy about network news coverage. It just seemed too monotone, and frankly, there didn’t seem to be enough hard journalism in most of the news that was on TV. So I was focused on print, and I was getting my master’s degree in teaching, hoping that I could do both— teach full time and do writing on the side. When I realized that I was just short-changing my students, I decided to focus on journalism. At that time I was teaching junior high in Chicago in a place called Cabrini-Green, which was an infamous housing project. It was a tough environment that required full attention, but even if it had been a plush teaching job, I likely would have come to the same decision to focus on journalism.
Jon Shakill: What happened after you left school to focus on journalism?
David Asman: I had to pay off my Northwestern debt, so I went to work in the Chicago area in restaurants as a waiter and a cook, which I did for a year. After that, I went back East where I was from originally. During college I had been corresponding with William F. Buckley, the late editor of National Review. I asked him if there was an opening at the magazine and he said no, but he told me that I could advertise myself in the magazine and see if I could land a job that way. So I did it, and lo and behold I got an offer for a couple of jobs. It was at a magazine in Princeton, New Jersey, called Prospect Magazine, which actually doesn’t exist anymore. That was my first real journalism job. I was hired as an assistant editor. The editor quit about six months after I was there, and I became the de facto editor of the magazine at that point. I did that for about two years.
The next thing I wanted to do was find a job in New York City. I got a job at the Manhattan Institute, which is still here today, mainly because of a guy named George Gilder, who was a writer there who I admired a lot. I stayed there for a couple of years and edited a magazine called Manhattan Report. After that I decided to really focus on writing, so I freelanced for a couple years, until I was offered a job by a politician in Washington, DC. It was offered to me by a senator from New Hampshire by the name of Gordon Humphrey, who asked me to be his press aide.
Jon Shakill: A senator offered you a job, but you decided to stick with journalism?
David Asman: That’s correct. It was an interesting offer, but I wasn’t crazy about the idea of leaving journalism, so I decided to call a friend over at the Wall Street Journal named George Malone. I asked him if he thought that taking the press aide job would interfere with my journalistic career. He said “well no, but to tell you the truth, we have something opening up here. We hadn’t thought about you but you may want to apply.” It turns out it was for a new column just starting up on Latin America— this was in 1983. That’s when I flew up to New York and ended up getting that job, so it all worked out great. I had no background on Latin America, but the Journal wanted somebody who was a good writer and editor, who could approach the job with a clean slate, and that turned out to be me. It really turned into two jobs, one was editing the Americas column, and the other was editing the Manager’s Journal which was a pure business column written by managers, for managers. Eventually I ended up editing together all of the articles in the Manager’s Journal into two books called the Wall Street Journal on Management. That actually helped me pay for a little apartment in New York which I still have today.
Jon Shakill: How long were you the Latin America Editor for the Wall Street Journal?
David Asman: I did that for 12 years, and then was asked to be the Op-Ed Editor of the Wall Street Journal, which I did for another two years. It was at that time that I was approached by Roger Ailes [Chairman & CEO of FOX News]. It was funny, the first time I met Roger was at a luncheon for Fidel Castro at the residence of Mort Zuckerman. I was seated between Roger, and the late Bill Safire who was a columnist for the New York Times. That was when Roger offered me a job, which I wasn’t that interested in at the time because of my antipathy toward television news, but he convinced me he was going to do something totally different. He also sweetened the deal significantly enough so that a year later I ended up accepting his offer to work on FOX Business Network, and I’ve been here ever since.
Jon Shakill: How has your life been since joining FOX? How was the transition from print journalism to television journalism?
David Asman: The art of television is making the complex look simple. The way you do that is by being as prepared as you possibly can be. The way that I go about it, is by doing as much of my own research as possible. A lot of people in TV have several people working for them doing research, but I prefer to do my own, because it’s faster and more effective for me. The biggest thing I got from my print journalism career was learning how to do great background research. The one thing I really miss from print is being able to do long-form stories. I also love magazines, for many years I longed to be the editor of a magazine like Harpers, the Atlantic Monthly or Esquire – a magazine that has long-form articles, like yours does. I’m hoping that somehow the essay form is maintained, I’m not sure in exactly what format. I like writing long-form the best, which is something you can’t really do in television.
Jon Shakill: Going from print to TV, did you have any previous experience, or would you say that you’re a natural and learned as you went?
David Asman: Well a little bit of both. The year before I joined Fox, I was the Op-Ed editor at the Wall Street Journal as mentioned, and I was also the host of a show called “Damn Right” which was broadcast by TCI. At the time, TCI was the second largest cable network in America after Time Warner. TCI was owned by the great John Malone [multi-billionaire philanthropist and media titan]. Before FOX News started, Malone thought that there was a need for a news format different than the CNN format. So he started two news programs in 1994, one was the show that I hosted called “Damn Right,” and the other was a show called “Race for the Presidency” leading up to the ’96 presidential election. Once Malone saw that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes were getting together to form an alternative to CNN, he dropped his shows. He figured that if you put the best dealmaker and the best manager together, Murdoch and Ailes respectively, that they would be unbeatable. That’s when he dropped his shows.
Jon Shakill: What are some specific interviews that you’ve done that stick out in your mind, and what are some of the best stories you’ve written?
David Asman: It’s a broad variety really. When I was at the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s covering Latin America, it was an exciting time. There were multiple wars going on, Pablo Escobar was still alive causing trouble in Colombia, there was the Mexican financial collapse, and there were a lot of very good news stories – particularly in financial and economic news.
As for specific interviews, a big one was Fidel Castro. Looking into the eyes of a murderer and a guy who has essentially kept his country away from any kind of modernization in the last 50 years, is pretty surreal. To put in one man the fate of a nation— it was a really strange situation to be in his presence. Trying to report as objectively as possible while I obviously have some bias toward him was not easy. Just managing the cordialities was strange. For example, I had a friend who wanted me to get a copy of Life Magazine autographed and I felt pretty weird doing so. Asking such a person for an autograph is just a very weird thing to do. As a journalist you have to be somewhat objective, you ask critical questions, but it’s always difficult when you know more about the inside story of a person who is actually quite evil.
I’ve interviewed several presidents and leaders of different countries, like Carlos Salinas, the former President of Mexico, with whom I had a fairly cordial relationship. He was a pretty good president up until the time the power of that presidency became overwhelming. In the midst of the country privatizing its businesses, his brother Raul was taking 10% of everything! God only knows how much Carlos got away with. I’d ask him questions about these things, knowing that either his family or he himself was embezzling millions of dollars. It’s definitely strange in those types of situations, when you’re basically telling these people that I, and the rest of the world, view them as crooks.
I much prefer interviewing people who are heroic in stature. They may not have huge names in the public, but the people who are trying to change things in a positive way at the local level. They’re the ones who need the support of a big institution like the Wall Street Journal or FOX News. Whenever possible I prefer to empower the powerless rather than comfort the powerful.
Jon Shakill: That’s interesting— it sounds like you’ve been able to sit down with some very powerful people. What about some of the individuals from the business world that you’ve interviewed or worked with?
David Asman: I’ve met some wonderful entrepreneurs like Andy Grove, who was the guy that really modernized Intel as the CEO. Even in places like Mexico – Carlos Slim who’s now the richest man in the world started out by getting in on the privatization of Mexico’s government owned Telmex, and has been the owner of the company. When I first met Carlos Slim, he was really just beginning. He picked me up at my hotel in a red Mustang I think it was, and he brought me to his house in Mexico City. When we sat down for the interview he goes, “Look, I just got a box of really good cigars, would you be interested in having one?” So he opened up a box of old Cuban Davidoff Dom Perignon cigars, which are no longer made. It was an unbelievable cigar. So I got to enjoy a cigar while I interviewed the man who later became the richest person in the world.
Jon Shakill: Not everyone can say they’ve enjoyed a cigar with the richest man in the world, that’s for sure. Any others you’d like to add before we move on?
David Asman: During the startup of FOX Business Network, I had the chance to interview President George W. Bush. We were flying down to Louisville, Kentucky on Air Force One. The interview was originally supposed to take place in an airport hangar in Louisville, but about half an hour into the flight, Dana Perino who was White House Press Secretary at the time, came over to me in the press section of the plane. It was at that point she told me that the President would like to see me in his office. It was funny because I had just watched the movie Air Force One, and the architecture of the airplane is very similar in the movie. I went into the private office of the President, and it was just him and me sitting down, along with Communications Director Kevin “Sully” Sullivan. It was just the three of us sitting down and talking off the record for about half an hour. To talk with the president in his private cabin on Air Force One for half an hour, without any secret service around, was just one of those moments. Even though I’ve been doing this for so long, it was a special and exciting moment for me.
Another great moment was when George H.W. Bush invited me to one of the “fancy shmancy” State dinners at the White House. It was the President of Argentina at the time, Carlos Menem, who saw to it that I was invited to the State dinner at the White House. I’m shaking Menem’s hand next to George H.W. Bush in a photo I have on my desk.
Jon Shakill: That sounds great. Alright, let’s move on to talk about cigars now. How did you become a cigar smoker initially?
David Asman: I grew up with cigars. My grandfather was a cigar smoker and he lived with the family, which was more common in the old days. He was the one who taught me the finer points of cigar smoking. I don’t know if they were true or not, but he would tell me things like a good cigar holds its ash much better than a cheap cigar, which makes sense. He had a little room on the first floor of our house in Washington, DC, and also when we lived in New Jersey. You could barely see from one side to the other in his room because of all the smoke. I should mention that he lived to be 92 and didn’t die of lung cancer, be that as it may. He never went to a doctor either. He was very old-school, being born in the late 1800s, so he just didn’t want to be bothered with it. He was also the first person to give me a taste of bourbon. He had a little bottle of bourbon that he hid behind the toilet in his bathroom. He thought that my parents didn’t know it was there, but they did. After dinner my parents would go upstairs to watch some television, and my grandfather would sometimes beckon me downstairs to try a little shot of bourbon. This was when I was about 13 mind you. Needless to say, both cigars and bourbon are now the legacy of my grandfather.
Jon Shakill: Tell us your thoughts on sharing a cigar with someone. Does it have any particular meaning to you?
David Asman: When you share a really fine cigar with someone, I find that you enjoy the moment to the point where it’s almost illicit [laughs]. I have to admit that it can be hard to maintain a completely professional relationship with someone when you’re enjoying a cigar together. I find that there is a lot of sensuality in enjoying a great cigar, it’s really almost sinful. When I was interviewing and enjoying a cigar with Carlos Slim, I really had to concentrate on staying sharp for the interview. It really has to do with appreciating the mystery and magic that a truly good cigar has. It’s a great way to break the ice with somebody once you find out they’re a cigar smoker.
Jon Shakill: What are some of your favorite cigars?
David Asman: I still think the Cuban taste is so unique and extraordinary. When I was in Cuba in 1994, I was at the cigar factory that made primarily Montecristo, and they let me try some of their old aged cigars. I still think those were the best I’ve ever had. As for the U.S. market, I personally think the Fuente Opus X was the best cigar I’ve had. Regarding Nicaraguan cigars, my sister-in-law usually brings me some directly from Nicaragua when she comes to visit us during the summer. Recently she brought me some Joya de Nicaragua cigars that I thought were really good. They seem to be getting back on track now.
One of the great things about being married to a Nicaraguan woman is that she loves cigar smoke. It gets a little tough though in the winter, being in a small apartment in New York – which all apartments in New York are small unless you’re Mort Zuckerman. Although during the Super Bowl I always have a few friends over and we’ll smoke a good cigar during the game. I look forward to having a cigar with friends almost as much as the game itself.
Jon Shakill: What are some of your favorite spirits?
David Asman: My favorite bourbon is Woodford Reserve. I still like Maker’s Mark, but I usually go for Woodford Reserve. Usually about once every two weeks I’ll decide to sip on a shot either before dinner, or after dinner with a cigar. My sister-in-law makes one hell of a mojito which I enjoy occasionally. Most of the time when I have a cigar, I actually prefer to have a nice cup of coffee which I think pairs great. Every once in a while I may also have a nice port with a cigar.
Jon Shakill: Do you have any cigar-related collections?
David Asman: I collect old Cuban cigar boxes, as well as from other cigars that my friends and I have smoked. I love the art work on some of the old boxes. I also collect the old cigar bands. I had a dear friend, the late Harry Dennis, who was quite a bit older than I was. He was a magazine guy like us – he started a magazine called American Ceramics back in 1980. He and I would get together once a week for dinner and a cigar. We would watch a movie or sometimes listen to music while we smoked. We did that for about 20 years, and just about every week. At the end of each box of cigars, Harry and I would both sign the box as a tradition. He actually told me it was an old tradition from the great composer Sibelius, who was a big cigar smoker. Sibelius kept a collection of all his cigar boxes, and they were all signed and dated as a keepsake.
Jon Shakill: Let’s end on the story of how you met your wife in Nicaragua. How did it happen?
David Asman: I met my wife, Marta Cecilia, during the war in Nicaragua which was raging at the time. It’s no coincidence that I met my future wife during that time, as covering a war stirs a lot of passion. My wife, by the way, was on both sides at some point– she had been against the Somoza dictatorship which had run Nicaragua for about 45 years. She was also a Sandinista for a time. It wasn’t long before she realized that the Sandinistas were worse than the Somozas, and were trying to install a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of their own. By the time I met her, she was no longer with the Sandinistas. The situation had gotten so bad for her, that in 1988 I brought her and my stepson to the U.S., and got them out of Nicaragua. They arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica, with nothing more than an overnight bag. They had to convince their family and friends that they were leaving only temporarily, when in fact they were moving to New York to be with me. They started a whole new life with just the bare essentials. It was a cold winter when they arrived and they had really only known the constant summertime of Nicaragua. It was a very tough transition, but better than the life they left.
Jon Shakill: David, thank you for sharing some of your stories with our readers and me, it’s been a pleasure.
David Asman: Thank you Jon, it’s been a great conversation.