Lady in the (Campaign) Van

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Lady in the (Campaign) Van

A conversation with Gail Collins

by Anna Phillips, CC ’09

The 2016 presidential election was one of the most polarized and heated in our country’s history. In the wake of the election results, many Columbia students are left wondering what happened and where do we go from here? As we reflect on this historic election cycle, we have decided to reprint an old interview that was first run in the November 2008 issue of the Blue and White. In this interview, former editor-in-chief Anna Phillips, CC ’09, talks to New York Times columnist Gail Collins about her experience on the 2008 presidential campaign trail, an election that was historic for very different reasons.

 

The Blue and White: You’ve been on the campaign trail for roughly two years, how has the traveling been?

 

Gail Collins: I kind of stopped three or four weeks ago. At this point they’re only doing one event a day. And really, when you’re following these people around, you don’t see much you can’t see on CNN. It’s not as sweet as people think it is. You don’t usually get to see the candidates in any other setting than the stage. Once in a while you can talk to staff.

 

B&W: You wrote about Hillary’s campaign a fair amount, did you get to talk to her? GC: At the very end, when we were flying back from South Dakota, she came to the back of the plane, and she was standing there with a cocktail, in the aisle of the plane, telling jokes and talking with reporters. It was like it was 20 or 30 years ago, when candidates actually interacted with the press. B&W: Were you supporting her initially?

 

GC: Columnists aren’t supposed to support a candidate. When I came onto the editorial board under Howell Raines it already was the rule. I presumed the thinking was that the only endorsement should come from the editorial board. So you’re really supposed to kind of dance around it.

 

B&W: Do you think Hillary will run again?

 

GC: She might. I think she’s in a good place right now. She looks better. She sounds better. She’s a really good senator. There are two kinds of people in the Senate. Some just arrive there in the process of moving up, and think it’s all sort of endless and boring. And then there are the ones who just throw themselves into it, who make it a calling. The Jack Kennedy model and the Ted Kennedy model. Obama was the first kind–never really wrote much legislation and never really put himself out there. I think Hillary maybe intended to be the first kind and turned out to be the second.

 

B&W: You wrote in one of your columns that the defining saga of this election would be the role of women and families in politics. Do you still think that? hear how well she’d done, that it had all been worth it.

 

GC: No, I don’t think that anymore, but it was true at the time. The defining saga is the changing generation. It’s the worldview of the main baby-boom generation giving way to the people who came a little later. The WWII generation stayed around for like 50 years, and I really thought that the baby boomers would get a good 30 or 40 year run, but they’re done.

 

B&W: But you’re a baby boomer, doesn’t this bother you?

 

GC: Yeah! We only got two presidents, really. And one of them was George W. Bush.

 

B&W: When you’re following the campaign, is it you and a bunch of 20-somethings?

 

GC: [Laughs] Yeah. The last time I talked to Hillary, she said, “When you were on my plane, it was the best days of the campaign.” And I thought, “God, that’s not likely.” And she said, “Because it was the only time there was somebody else my age. These young people, they don’t know what Sputnik was, they’ve never heard of these things!”

 

But yeah, everyone is 25 years old. It’s always been a hard job, but in the olden days people could only file their stories at the end of the day and then everybody would go out and have dinner and drink. It was kind of a social experience. Now you’re filing and blogging constantly, and often all you have to work with is the stump speech and maybe a few minutes with a staff person.

 

B&W: What’s been your favorite column that you’ve written about the campaign?

 

GC: When Hillary dropped out I wrote a column about what she had actually accomplished—about how important it was that she’d gotten people used to the idea of a woman as commander-in-chief and chief executive, and that was a huge thing even if she’d never actually hold the office. There were so many people—mainly women—who had cared so much about her candidacy and needed someone to say that. A lot of them were the women’s rights people who had been fighting their entire lives for the cause, always being made fun of for being too serious or too what- ever. She meant so much to them. They needed to hear how well she’d done, that it had all been worth it.

 

B&W: What do you make of the claim that the New York Times coverage has been biased in Obama’s favor?

 

GC: The McCain people feel that way but I think they’re saying that now about the media in general. I’ve never worked on the news side of the paper and I certainly can’t speak for them. But the idea that reporters who are covering a campaign have an interest in being unfair to the people they have to deal with on a daily basis just isn’t realistic. We really do have a strong ethic of keeping the news side impartial and fair, and keeping the opinion to the opinion pages, although it’s much harder to maintain the clear line now that we’re creatures of the web.

 

It became difficult when Obama started doing very well, and McCain was doing badly. You always expect that after a week or two that narrative will change and the other guy will start pulling up but it never did. It became hard to concentrate on anything but those polls. At that point there really did seem to be too much time spent, particularly by the TV networks, arguing with the candidates just about whether or not the polls were right. And I’m thinking who cares? In a week we’re going to know. I’m so ready for this to be over right now.

 

I loved this campaign; it was the best campaign ever.

 

B&W: Why is it the best campaign ever?

 

GC: Well first of all, it’s so rare to have a presidential election in which neither party starts out with an anointed candidate. I really thought it would be Hillary and Mitt Romney, because they were the ones with all the money. But then Obama came out. That saga, the Hillary vs. Obama saga, was so great! You had two people who were not only pathbreakers, they had extraordinary stories. If you tried to sell either one as a fictional character, nobody would believe it. And they were really amazing to watch on the trail, especially when Hillary caught fire toward the end. And the Republicans started off with what they thought was going to be a pack of stars and they all imploded, each in his own unique weird way, until McCain was pretty much the only one left standing. And then you had those two amazing conventions–the Democrats worrying about whether Hillary and Bill would behave, and then whether Obama could deliver on the big speech. Then McCain suddenly producing Sarah Palin out of nowhere. Conventions are never interesting, but these were. And then there was the economic meltdown and you got to see the two candidates dealing with a big crisis right in the middle of their campaigns. Journalistically speaking, it’s just been a great year.

 

B&W: Was there a moment that was emblematic of your total experience?

 

GC: I remember listening to Obama give one of his stump speeches in a not-too-big hall in New Hampshire before the primary. There were so many people in this very old building, it really felt as if the balcony was going to collapse. I was with a group of reporters, and we were all saying: “Wow, can you imagine how wild it’d be if he got elected?” Not one of us really believed it could happen in a million years.

 

B&W: When you were following the campaign, did you get to spend a lot of time talking to voters?

 

GC: I tended to do it a lot during the primaries. After a while you do it just to be social but there’s a limit to how much the world wants to know about what individual voters say, and you can work up a very misleading narrative if you take 20 people at a rally someplace and weave them together as if they represented anything more than 20 people at a rally. This year, it’s been deeply depressing what things people will say straight out to you about why they wouldn’t vote for a black person. But as a writer, I tend to approach the whole story from the perspective of being a voter, rather than as a political insider.

 

B&W: A Slate writer wrote a while back that you see politics as a kind of absurdist theater. Do you think that’s true?

 

GC: Partly. You know, I’ve been doing this a long time and somewhere along the way I decided I wasn’t going to do it in a way that made people feel that all politicians were crooked and everybody was a jerk and that they just might as well all bang their heads against the wall. Partly it’s absurd, but it’s all very human and occasionally wonderful.

 

B&W: Your columns are very detailed—there are almost always small stories that you tease out of the campaign. How much reporting goes into them?

 

GC: That’s really why it’s worthwhile to travel—you just go around and look for stuff like that. There’s always something that happens—like the audience in Youngstown that started drifting away when Sarah Palin stopped speaking and McCain came on. Or the economic roundtable in Zanesville when even Hillary started to nod off.

 

B&W: You’ve written a book about gossip—did the campaign this year strike you as particularly nasty?

 

GC: Well that’s the good thing about history. You can always look back on the 1820 campaign and say no, no, no, it was much worse then, ten times worse. The one big thought that came out of that book, Scorpion Tongues, is that sensationalism is actually driven by the economics of the media. At times when there’s a great deal of undercapitalized media, political writing tends to be very sensational. Back in the early 20th century it didn’t cost much to start up a paper and even a medium-sized city might have a dozen dailies. And you got a lot of headlines about politicians’ sex lives, and shocking charges about the people who were running for office, and the political writing was overheated. Now, it’s very much the same with all the blogs and websites.

 

B&W: How has the internet changed newspapers’ opinion sections?

 

GC: In many ways they’re more popular than ever. I worry so much about the news side getting eaten up, because it’s so expensive and the economics of inter- net-based newspapers are still so shaky. But what the hell are we all going to be opinionating about if there’s nobody out there actually collecting the news? Andy Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, and I have often said that if we thought that the complete destruction of the Times opinion side would save and make healthy forever the news side, then we’d do it in a second.

 

We still don’t really know what writing for the Internet will be like as the form matures. When I was the editor, I went off looking for new, young columnists and I really couldn’t find any. The art form of producing 800 words, twice a week, for a specific deadline just isn’t something many younger people have ever wanted to learn to do. So whatever evolves, t may be that… it may be that we have columns of 300 words, or 50 words.

 

B&W: I think a lot of people like to think that all the Times columnists know each other pretty well and go for drinks after work. Is that completely untrue?

 

GC: Well, at the Times Nick Kristof and I–and now Charles Blow—are the only ones who really come into the office in New York. We don’t go out for drinks together but last year we organized a Valentine’s Day columnist party, just to prove we could all be social.

 

B&W: Have you missed writing about New York at all?

 

GC: After the inauguration I may go back to doing more of that. Barack Obama is not funny. So I’ll write about New York or Congress. If Rudy Giuliani runs for governor, that would be a great thing. B&W: Who’s your favorite columnist?

 

GC: The first person I ever read and loved was Ellen Goodman. Most of the columnists then were sort of pontificating about great events, but she wrote about very large issues in a very intimate, personal way. I love all my fellow Times columnists. I’m in awe of the way Nick Kristof will go to the worst places in the world, over and over. He’s there every year. And one of the many things I admire about Tom Friedman is the way he takes on a really massive issue–the Middle East, globalization, the energy crisis, and then goes at it again, and again, and again with different stories.

 

B&W: You seem to do the opposite: start small and get big.

 

GC: Given the size of the columns, it’s usually better not to have too big a topic. I’ve been trying for a long time to write about the whole issue of work versus family tensions, and how it’s played out in the campaign. I interviewed Michelle Obama, who keeps going around having roundtables about this, and who is really down on the idea of women thinking they can have it all. And then you’ve got Sarah Palin and her five kids, and all the plane flights Palin billed Alaska for when she took her kids with her on trips, claiming the children were on official state business.

 

Then there was Jane Swift, who the Republicans deputized as a kind of Palin defender. She had been acting governor of Massachusetts when she was pregnant with twins. And she wound up trying to run the state with three small children, and Massachusetts is the only state that does not have a governor’s mansion. So she was living three hours away from the capital. And she got caught using the state helicopter to get home to see her kids, and leaving her little girl with her aides while she was working. There was a huge uproar. Her career was destroyed, she’s still trying to climb back up. It’s so ironic that she went through this and then there’s Sarah Palin, who did all the same things and was rewarded with the vice-presidential nomination.

 

But anyway, as you can see by the way I’m running on, there’s too much stuff there. The column died from an excess of information.

 

B&W: What are your post-election plans?

 

GC: I’m just finishing this book that’s a sequel to America’s Women. It’s about what happened to women over the last 50 years and I think it’s going to be called When Everything Changed. After that I’m supposed to do a short biography of William Henry Harrison. The Times is putting out a library of biographies of the presidents, and they asked if I would do one and I said I wanted to write about him.

 

B&W: Why him?

 

GC: Well, he died less than a month into his presidency so his story is all politics and no policy, which suits me pretty well. Harrison came from near Cincinnati, where I’m from. When I was on book tour with Scorpion Tongues I was staying with my parents and telling them the story about how Harrison had campaigned as this humble soldier in a log cabin when he was really a very aristocratic guy with a fancy house. And my father was sitting there and he said: “Yeah, that was a really big house.” And I asked him how he knew about the house and he said: “Oh, I tore it down.” He worked at the power plant and the Harrison house was on the plant property, and they got worried that the historic preservation people would discover it and get in the way, so they decided one night just to bulldoze it.

 

So I kind of felt like I owed William Henry for his house.