Over the course of commenting on Campaign 2008 for The New York Times, Gail Collins has, among other things: explained why Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton, found a silver lining to the John Edwards affair, given etiquette lessons to smug Obama supporters, and engaged with David Brooks in a spirited debate about the political proclivities of squirrels. In the process, she’s emerged as one of the most trenchant, witty, and insightful observers of a campaign that is often described as “theatrical” and even more often described as “crazy.”
A veteran reporter, editor, author, and journalism entrepreneur, Collins joined The New York Times in 1995 as a member of the paper’s editorial board, later becoming an op-ed columnist. In 2001 she became the first woman ever appointed editor of the paper’s editorial page. Having returned to writing, she has produced twice-weekly columns for the Times since July 2007.
Collins sat down with CJR’s Megan Garber to discuss campaign coverage, the future of opinion writing, and why it’s hard to say ‘no’ to columnists.
Megan Garber: What were some of your most memorable moments of the campaign?
Gail Collins: I remember being in New Hampshire and listening to Obama at one of his events—one of ten million events—and standing next to someone from one of the national magazines. And he looked at me and said, “Wouldn’t it be wild if he won?” And it was one of those things, like, “Can you imagine?” Even though Obama had won Iowa at the time, talking about him winning overall was like talking about an outer-space person coming to earth or something. It just seemed so wild and remote.
And then there were the Iowa caucuses. The caucuses are so weird, because you see what looks elsewhere like this massive process, and in Iowa, it’s just a gym full of people. There will be families that all came together—Mom and Dad and the teenage kids—and almost invariably, the mom would be for Hillary, and the teenage boy would be for Obama, and the dad would be kind of bouncing around in the middle. I had the sense of the men just feeling like they had no way to go on this one, that they’d lose either way.
Another weird one was going to Obama’s “hometown”—the one he had never been to before in his life. It was this little weenie town in Kansas—El Dorado, it was called—and we went there in a bus, and we got to the gym, and there are all these people who’ve been waiting to have a president from Kansas, and would never have imagined this would be how it worked out. But they were all very excited, and very happy, and jumping up and down.
MG: What do you think of the campaign-trail system of coverage, the “Boys on the Bus” tradition? Do you find it useful, or is it becoming obsolete?
GC: I find it very useful to be able to bounce in and out of it. I can’t imagine having covered this campaign without having had the chance to go off with the candidates. But to do it every day is just an excruciating job. It’s like war. It’s really—really, really, really, really, really, really—hard. It’s a young person’s job, totally.
The McCain trail was particularly weird. He actually wasn’t much more not-available than Obama was, during the end. But because he’d been so different before, the feeling was really different. With Obama, you had this remote kind of guy who just doesn’t talk to the press much. With McCain, it was like a divorce. It was much more cold, as opposed to cool.
MG: Did you sense a difference between the campaigns overall in terms of the way the press was treated—not just among the candidates, but among the entire press operations?
GC: No, not really. The last time I was with McCain—and it was actually the best time to have been the last time—was the week when the economy blew up. Every day he was doing a new thing, and it was a fascinating experience to watch him being remade for every event. It did seem to me that the campaign staff were being very chilly about seats and everything on the plane. They came back and apologized afterward, though, and were really nice. But then two weeks later they apparently barred Maureen from the plane—so clearly there was not total happiness there. I think Obama did the same thing, in the end—some of the papers that didn’t endorse him didn’t get onto the last flights.
MG: How did you spend your election night—and the day after?