A Complicated Man: Writer J.F. Pirro Describes Activist John Prendergast

Main Line Today Editor Hobart RowlandMonths ago, when I greenlighted senior writer J.F. Pirro’s feature on high-profile human-rights activist and author John Prendergast, I assumed the piece would fit neatly into the feel-good mold I’d come to expect from the philanthropist profiles we’d done in past December issues. But it didn’t take long for things to get a little messy.

“I’m more than just a bit old-fashioned when it comes to print journalism, but one standard I’ve lived by is the notion that everyone has a story to tell—and Prendergast’s is among the best I've had the good fortune to tell in my 30 years at this craft,” says Pirro. “There are two sides to every good story, and he completely understood that.”

Raised in Berwyn, Prendergast—who prefers to go by JP—graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School, also Pirro’s alma mater. “I grew up in awe of JP, two years behind him,” says Pirro. “One of my best friends was his younger brother, Luke. We all had the same teachers, the same influences, the same roots.”
Senior Writer J.F. Pirro
As he got deeper into his research and interviews for “Soldier of Fortune,” Pirro found that there was much he didn’t know about his friend. “After months of trying to pin down one of the busiest men in America for a face-to-face interview, the best I could do was a midweek drive out to Millersville University to catch his session at a conference,” says Pirro. “Then I interviewed him on the drive back on the turnpike to 30th Street Station.”

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JP spoke of the icy, confrontational relationship he’d had with his father, the deep-seeded feelings of inadequacy, and a fermenting rage over global injustice that ultimately led to his often-perilous entrenchment in geopolitical hot spots like the Congo, Somalia and South Sudan. These regions, in particular, were the inspiration for his Enough Project, a collaboration with the Center for American Progress that targets the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. “Even when JP was there, he was always elsewhere, in an introspective sort of way,” Pirro recalls. “He had ideas, agendas, causes, goals I could never grasp.”

Prendergast has worked with U.S. presidents, U.N. ambassadors, A-list celebrities, sports stars, peasants, tribal leaders and faraway governments that are nothing like ours—whatever it takes to raise the funding and enact the policy changes he believes are absolutely necessary. “During our interview, JP drove the rental car, and I sat in the passenger seat,” says Pirro. “It was the first time I’d seen him in almost 30 years—since high school. The next morning, he’d be sitting next to George Clooney on an airplane on his way to some far-off land. I tried my best to look like Clooney to make JP feel at home.”

But, start associating with the likes of Clooney, Mia Farrow, Ryan Gosling, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and you leave yourself open to some major scrutiny. And JP has endured his fair share from critics, who argue that his work is both self-serving and, worse yet, actually fostering the injustices he’s fighting.

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“Initially, JP’s leading critic, Keith Harmon Snow, didn't want to speak with me, figuring that I was like others in the industry—a mouthpiece for my subject or a prescribed cause,” Pirro notes. “But I convinced him otherwise.”

JP has been dismissed as “George Clooney’s sidekick” and called far worse by Snow and others, but he never lets the disparaging remarks and accusations blur his focus—which, these days, involves throwing maximum star power and political clout behind the Enough Project and his other anti-genocide efforts. That means more hobnobbing and less fieldwork in dicey, far-flung locales, which I’m sure is just fine with his wife.

“I knew he’d make a difference in the world—the world at-large,” says Pirro. “He has.”

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