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A Woman for the Times

Interviews columnist Anna Quindlen, who is at the forefront of a new brand of journalism that blends what happens at home and what happens in politics and business. She discusses her writing, her goal of advancing the understanding of the human condition, 'mommy journalism' and more.


Columnist Anna Quindlen has become the standard bearer of a new brand of journalism that obliterates the line between what happens at home and what happens in the world of politics and business. You may disagree with her take on abortion (she's for) or on the death penalty (against), but every column clamors with the sound of one person thinking.

PT: You've implied that one of your goals is to advance the understanding of the human condition. How do you, Anna Quindlen, do that as opposed to what other columnists do?

AQ: The most important thing that I bring to this column is years of experience as a reporter. I still do an enormous amount of reporting for my column. I don't write about the homeless from an office at The New York Times. I go to homeless shelters, I talk to people on the street. I always have a notebook in my purse. One of the ways that you expand your understanding of the human condition in my work is to reflect the human condition, to talk about how people are living now. The ideal way for me to do that is through reporting.

But once I've done that, the key. element for me in writing this column has always been walking people through the arguments. I don't find inherently interesting a column that says you should be for capital punishment or you're a moron. But if you walk people through arguments for and against capital punishment that they haven't heard before, perhaps looking at a specific human being who's sitting on death row, at the end of that process they can say to themselves, "Gee, I never thought of it in quite that way before." It's not that I want to make them think like me, and in fact, given the mail we get, it's dear that many readers do not think like me on many subjects. But I like the idea of making them think about an important issue in a different way.

PT: Columnists traditionally tell people what they themselves think Is this what you set out to do?

AQ: Telling you what I think about a certain issue is basically paragraph D. How long does it take to figure out that I think abortion should be legal? The rest of the 750 words, to be interesting, have to be taken up with: here are the arguments, and here is an argent that you may not have heard before. Sometimes I can do that myself and sometimes other people do that for me. In the column that I wrote about what I like to call the Nicole Brown-Simpson case, as opposed to the O. J. Simpson case, I quoted the L. A. city attorneys in charge of domestic violence, saying that their coroner, by unofficial count, is seeing a domestic violence homicide every day and a half. That's the kind of thing that makes you look at the issue in a whole new way and it's where reporting serves me. Do you know that I'm against domestic violence? Sure. But at the end of that column you may be thinking a slightly different way about a case that heretofore has been predominantly about the person who is accused of roughing up his wife in 1989 and not about that wife who is now a murder victim.

PT: Do you ever find it tiresome to be in your column as a person?

AQ: Yeah, I do. There are certain days when I don't want to appear too much in those 750 words, and those are days when I'll turn to reporting and take more of a look from the outside in. The fact is, though, that there are certain subjects on which the most powerful statement you can make is a personal statement. So, for example, I could have written a more hands-off column about grief than I did last spring, but the reason I was writing that column and felt so strongly about it was because my brother had just lost his wife to cancer. When I feel that it's useful to talk with the readers about something that will affect them very powerfully, too, I don't hesitate to do it, but I couldn't do it twice a week, 52 weeks a year.

PT: One day you're writing about how your kids spent a snow day. The next day you're analyzing Whitewater or clerical denunciations of homosexuality. What kind of journalism is that?

AQ: It's journalism that reflects the way real people live. Most of us ricochet wildly from thinking about Paula Jones to thinking about whether our kids ought to go to private or public school. I fail to see why our newspapers, in some sense, shouldn't reflect the way we live now. The very same readers who will be interested in what I have to say about the newest nominee to the Supreme Court, because it's something that they've been thinking about, will also be interested in seeing what I have to say about telling the kids about Santa Claus, because, again, that's something they've been thinking about The idea that we have to divide the world into what happens at home and what happens out in the orbit of the professions and of politics is specious, because I don't think anybody lives that way.

PT: So are you really redefining public issues or what we consider public issues?

AQ: I don't think I'm redefining them. A lot of what we do in the press has been transformed by the woman's movement, which, argued that the personal is political. I do believe that the personal is political. I don't think most people feel the way they do about abortion rights because they've read a variety of medical and legal treatises about the subject, but because of thoughts they've had about their own situation, about friends they've had who mayor may not have chosen to have abortions because of ways they think about what they would like the future to hold for their children.

When people talked about the Gennifer Flowers issue during the Presidential campaign, they didn't talk from some political standpoint, they said, "I couldn't trust a man who did that," or "I don't think that's important to how he performs his job." Those are very personal responses to what was a political situation, and often those are the areas that I'm plumbing when I write.

PT: You simultaneously end up standing tall not only for women, for mothers, for working women, but also for boomers.

AQ: Well that's certainly the generation that I come out of.

PT: Are you sick of them?

AQ: Yeah. I actually cast a jaundiced eye on our thinking we've rediscovered the wheel here. But certain issues are sometimes cast as boomer issues that simply are issues that were inadequately explored heretofore. Sometimes people cast child care issues as a boomer obsession. That may well be true, but there's a broad array of problems that have to be worked out so later generations will benefit from some of the expertise that we can hand down.

There are certain boomer issues on which I cast a very jaundiced eye. Hell, well, we're all going to die. Welcome to the dub; this doesn't seem to me to be particularly newsworthy, but that's because I got used to death at an early age.

How to be certain kinds of parents or how to provide certain kinds of care for your kids, or what kinds of schools they should go to, are issues that have come to the fore with the boomers but transcend them and are going to be important issues for years.

PT: If you will this kind of" mommy journalism" seems to strike a chord with many readers. Where does it stand inside the hallowed halls of The New York Times among your colleagues?

AQ: I don't have any objection to calling it mommy journalism just so long as we call writing about the defense budget "daddy journalism." The truth is that 90 percent of the work I do is motivated by being a mother, because someday somebody is going to turn to me and say, "What did you do in the culture wars, Mommy?" And I'm going to have a good answer for them. PT: Which culture wars?

AQ: That my kids know that I have this opportunity to be heard and I want to use it to good effect for them. So that 25 years from now they don't say to themselves, "Gee, you know, Mom really dropped the ball on this population issue." If feedback is any indication, The Times has been fantastic about saying, "Love the column, Anna, you're doing a great job. Thanks so much for writing about this." Particularly my female colleagues, who sometimes still feel that this paper inordinately reflects the world of men and that ifs inordinately run by and written by men. We've gotten a lot better on that during the 17 years I've been at the paper, but I think they're still grateful to have a woman's voice on the Op Ed page and some of them wish, as do I, that there was more than one of us on the page.

PT: Talking about that, The Times often reflects a male point of view. In the O. J. Simpson story, there was a big article in which the writers asked, "What was it about her (meaning the murdered ex-wife) that absorbed him so much?" I went ballistic because it reflects the assumption and feeds the belief that the problem of domestic violence somehow lies with the victim, and it doesn't consider that this man could be psychologically dependent which clashes with his public persona as a football hero. This is an example of how the male-based point of view creeps into so-called unbiased journalism.

AQ: And take a look at the piece in the Business section about Lou Gerstner, the head of IBM. There's a sentence that talks about how his family is the most important thing to him except for his business life. It says that although he is a workaholic, Mr. Gerstner always made a point of getting home early from work on the days his children's report cards arrived. If you wrote about a female CEO who, although a workaholic, makes the point of always getting home early on the days kids' report cards arrive, you would be knocking her, because essentially you'd be saying, where's More? But because this is a male CEO, it's praiseworthy that in the vast panorama of parental functions, he comes home early on those occasions when the report card arrives. This is a real male-based view of what constitutes adequate parenting.

PT: Anna, you not only wear your gender on your sleeve, but your pregnancy history and your heterosexuality and God knows what else. How does this help people not of your gender, not of your sexuality?

AQ: It's funny you say that about my sexuality because we had a lot of letters from readers who do not think I'm heterosexual, who think that no one would be quite so interested in gay rights as I am if I were not, in fact, gay. Likewise, I get many letters from readers who assume that at one point or another in my life, I've had an abortion, that I've been the victim of some sort of violent crime because of the way I write about crime. People read whatever they want to read into columns.

Lots of men write to me and say, "I get a clearer understanding of some of the issues that are important to women by reading your column." Or, "I get, a fuller sense of what reproductive rights means by reading your column." There are lots of people who aren't in anywhere near the identical situation I'm in who still feel I'm giving them a window into a different world.

PT: Have you ever changed your mind after a column?

AQ: No, I haven't. That's because by the time I write a column on most subjects that I haven't written much about before, I've usually been debating myself inside my head for, if not weeks, at least days. I've already espoused and then rejected probably three or four different positions on the issue. I've done all the slightly off thinking, contradictory thinking, uninformed thinking before I sit down at the computer, and that enables me, when I finally do write, to be terribly sure of what I believe.

PT: The world is a confusing place. What are your divining rods for making sense of it so that you never change your mind in print?

AQ: First, you do as much reporting as you can. The on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand balancing of reporting is something I've been doing for almost a quarter of a century, and I know how to do it pretty adequately at this point. The difference is, once I finish all that reporting, I say, what about you, Anna? Given the access to information I have, and how one issue seems to interlock with another--how tobacco has to do with alcohol and alcohol has to do with fetal rights, and fetal rights have to do with abortion--at a certain point I realize where I come down on the issue.

PT: What terrifies you most about the world we live in?

AQ: Boy, that's a hard question. I always think about it in terms of what it will be like for my kids when they're in their 20s or 30s. One thing that scares me most is the possibility of even greater polarization between racial and ethnic groups, between the sexes, and even greater violence. It will change the whole way in which we live and in which we feel free or don't feel free.

PT: Who do you admire in public life?

AQ: One is Governor Ann Richards of Texas. Not only because of how outspoken and smart and funny she is, but because of the way she's been unapologetic about being a recovering alcoholic on the public stage.

PT: Why is that such a big deal?

AQ: Because for a long time people who had substance abuse problems felt they had to remain closeted, and she's been a very loud voice saying, I'm a real good person, I work real hard, I do a lot of good, and it just so happens I can't deal with alcohol.

I also admire Hillary Rodham Clinton, because I think she's probably the most intelligent and well-informed woman in public life I've ever met.

PT: There was a scathing article about her in Vanity Fair. What is your reaction when you see probably the brightest First Lady in our history get almost slandered on a routine basis?

AQ: I think I wouldn't want her job for love or money, or both. But it's remarkable how well she's acquitted herself under that kind of pressure. The last time I interviewed her, I said, "If I got every day what you get, I'd just crawl under the covers and say, 'I'm not coming out today.' Especially given the fact that I don't get paid for this job, and yet I'm working very hard." She was very matter of fact and said, "You know, there are days when you feel like that, but you just have to keep on going." She has enormous strength of character.

PT: Do you get mad at your colleagues when you see the personal brand of journalism masquerading as straight-up journalism?

AQ: No. I'd be the wrong person to get mad at my colleagues since the personal brand of journalism has become one of my touchstones. But we do have to be real careful in trying to present as full a portrait of the person as we possibly can. That's often very difficult. When you have a person who's been profiled again and again, you're always looking for the new angle.

PT: Working for The Times, what insights do you have about women and organizations?

AQ: I owe the job I have today to the women who were here 20 years ago. There's no doubt that had women not brought suit against this paper, I would not today be an Op Ed-page columnist. A lot of those women had to, in some sense, pass--be one of the boys. I was one of the boys. It was natural to my character.

Today it really is safe to wear your gender on your sleeve, and to a certain extent you have an obligation to do it--when there's a discussion in-house about flex-time or part-time work, about maternity leave or about how women have prospered or not prospered. When a news organization is deriding whether it's been covering so-called women's issues fairly and completely, you have an obligation to speak up. The other thing you have is an obligation to reach out, to bring younger women along.

PHOTO: "Most of us ricochet wildly from thinking about Paula Jones to thinking about whether our kids ought to go to private or public school. I fail to see why our newspapers, in some sense, shouldn't reflect the way we live now."