Talking Shop: Gail Collins

The New York Times columnist on caucuses, campaigning, and the glory of deadlines

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?

GC: One of the things you learn when you do newspaper journalism for a really long time is that election day really sucks. There’s nothing you can do, so you just sort of wander around. So, this year, for the first time, I organized it: I got my hair cut, I went to the dentist, and then we did a program at the Times. And then after that I just went to a friend’s house for a party. My column didn’t run until Thursday, so I sort of had the night off, for all practical purposes. And then the next day was my usual column-writing day.

MG: So you normally write your columns in a day?

GC: Yeah. And during the campaign, most of the debates were my writing nights. So you’d listen to the debate, and it would end around 9:30, and then you’d have a 10:00 deadline. So it’s really kind of bouncy. But that’s fun. My assistant, Amanda, really enjoys that, the sort of “here we are, and it’s deadline!” excitement. You don’t get much of that in the op-ed section; you don’t have that deadline-a-minute thing that everyone else does. So everyone really likes it when there’s a debate, or a State of the Union, and we’re running around, trying to do it all at the last minute.

MG: That’s funny—in my mind, one of the best parts about being a columnist would be being spared the deadline-a-minute pressure.

GC: Well, you like a mixture. When there’s really not much going on, like now, you can be planning a column days in advance. But just the fact of deadlines is glorious. I love having deadlines. When I was an editor, I thought, well, of course, I’ll write all the time; I’ll just write on my own schedule whenever I get inspired. And I barely wrote anything. I was very interested to find that if I wasn’t forced to write by somebody saying, “You’ve got fifteen minutes,” then nothing would ever get done.

MG: Do you ever miss editing?

GC: No! No, it was a wonderful experience—it was the best thing to have had a chance to do—but I was always determined that it wasn’t the thing I was going to do forever, that there would be an end to it.

MG: What do you see to be the overarching role of a columnist?

GC: What you really have to do is find a new way of looking at something people have already looked at. But also to bring new stuff to the table—so when people come away from your column, they have new thoughts and new insights and new information, really, about what’s happening. All of the columnists on the op-ed page of the Times are also reporters. Paul Krugman, sure, has never been a reporter, but Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which I guess is even better than being a reporter—emphasis on the “better”! But everybody goes out and reports. Just sort of saying your opinion is not enough. That doesn’t move it. It’s a much broader challenge than just, “Well, here’s my take on the news.”

MG: Do you see that role changing, now or in the future, particularly given the proliferation of opinion writing on the Web?

GC: The column as we do it now is something that will probably die off with my generation. Currently, the critical thing you have to have to do a column—besides the general reporting and writing—is the ability to be able to deliver exactly 800 words twice a week, on deadline. On the Web, though, there’s no reason for that. The constraints don’t exist. So the next generation of columnists will be a totally different breed than we are. I don’t know exactly what they’ll look like—I mean, you can see hints now of what it will be—but they’re going to be a totally different thing.

MG: Do you ever find the print constraints limiting?

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.

When I was a columnist at the Daily News and Newsday, I always wanted the editors to ask us what we were writing about, to have the whole thing be more coordinated. But they would never do it, because in the end they don’t want to own the columns. They want to make it clear that the columns are just themselves. And then, when I became editor, I realized that the columns are just an incredibly hard thing to manage, and all you want to do is say, “yes, yes, yes” to whatever the columnists are doing. When people complain about columnists—they generally treat the op-ed page with much more intensity than they do other parts of the paper—I now understand why editors just say, “Well, those are the columnists, and they just do whatever they’re going to do.”

MG: So the columns we read are pretty much verbatim, from columnists’ lips to our ears?

GC: Yeah. That’s why they talk about voice a lot with columnists, because that’s the whole deal. We’re checked by a copy editor, who looks for libel and stuff like that—but, in theory, the only power the editor has is to pull the column. The editor doesn’t have any power to change anything in the column. In the real world, of course, if you call up a columnist and say, “I really think that third paragraph is going to get you into huge trouble—it should really change,” the columnist isn’t going to say, “No, that’s a really important paragraph, and I’ll never change it.” Columnists are all perfectly rational people.

But the weird part of column writing is that there’s no net. You’re just tossing about out there. There are no rules. It’s a really good job.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.