GC: Sometimes, in a perfect life, you’d rather have 1,000 words or 1,200 words. But the great thing about the 800-words-twice-a-week is it’s really an incredible discipline. It forces you to think in a very restricted way, and to keep your thoughts small and focused. No matter how large your concept is, you’ve got to get it into the 800-word-thought thing, along with a couple of anecdotes and quotes and a little humor, perhaps. In fact, I find that even when I write books, I write them in little chunks. The chapters aren’t 800 words—I’ll go on for two or three pages!—but the chapters on all the books I’ve done have been a little subhead and then a few pages. And if you don’t have any of those restraints, you’ve got to invent some of your own, somehow; otherwise, it’s all over the place. That’s going to be the trick for the next generation.
MG: What do you most admire in the work of other columnists?
GC: Maureen is a stupendous reporter. She works really, really, really hard, and she mines the territory that she’s writing about with great skill and great effort. And, of course, Nick—a lot of people go to Darfur or somewhere as reporters, but he brings this personal perspective, and he brings his voice, and he brings the kind of chatty way that he can write about the most extraordinary things, which just draws people into it. And Tom Friedman is, I think, just a genius at taking very large thoughts—and coming up with large thoughts in the first place—and then running with them for a long time, developing them over several columns. That takes a really special talent, because otherwise it’s like you’re being hit in the head over and over again.
Tom is also the most positive columnist I’ve ever seen—in that he just will not write about something without coming to some remedy. Which was particularly admirable when he wrote about the Middle East, where it’d be very easy just to say, “These people are all crazy! Stop it!” He always had something: they can do this, and next they can do that. He never succumbed to the very easy “they’re all nuts and I’m just shocked by them all” kind of thing.
And David Brooks—David and Nick I hired when I was editor; that was my major contribution to the editorial page, I think—David just has so many interests. He is just so smart, and he’s also, for our purposes, the closest thing you can have to a Republican who liberal Democrats really love—or at least feel that if they had dinner with him, he would understand their point of view. We’ve been having conversations back and forth on the Web, and that’s been a lot of fun because he’s also really funny. And we’re going to do more of those in the new year.
MG: Do those happen through e-mail exchanges?
GC: Basically. One of us will start and write the first part, and the other will do the response, and then once three are done, we’ll post it. Maybe we’ll do it differently in the new year, but I thought that system worked well. I think we have enough of the same tone that it’s easy enough to go back and forth. Really, you could do them on your BlackBerry—because it was just so much like sitting around and having coffee with David. So that’s my contribution to the New Journalism.
MG: What about back-and-forths between other columnists? Is there much communication between the group of you when it comes to topic selection and all that?
GC: Nobody knows what anybody’s writing, actually. They used to ask—and I’m not sure why they stopped asking—but nobody knows. The thing the Times does manage is our groupings—so there’s an attempt to make sure that you’re not going to be on the same day with somebody who’s writing on the exact same thing you are. I’m on with Nick Kristof, for instance, so there’s a very small chance that we’re writing about the same things. And Maureen is on with Tom Friedman. But beyond that, no, they don’t check on us.