Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen, Public and Private, Part I

VTR Date: April 22, 1991

Guest: Quindlen, Anna


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Anna Quindlen
Title: “Anna Quindlen: Public and Private”, Part I
VTR: 4/22/91

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now my guest today once reported that press pundit James Reston had bemoaned the fact of a newspaper strike many years ago by asking “How could I know what I think until I read what I write?” Well, by that standard Anna Quindlen must be very certain of herself by now, for over the years she has written three different columns for The New York Times, the best known being “Life in the 30s”, her thirties, of course, and now her public and private compelling excursions into both of life’s realms. Her novel, “Object Lessons” has just been published by Random House. As you would expect if you read Anna Quindlen regularly, it’s a delight.

Now, of course, I’ve long wanted to lure Ms. Quindlen here to THE OPEN MIND, and I’ve long known that in her presence, I would wonder out loud how in the world, when she does deal with matters public rather than private, how in the world could she simply say “Enough already. The hell with it all”. Particularly when back to back to back she has written pieces about human falling, in peace or war; about Americans’ “care-less-ness” about pain and suffering here at home, not just abroad; about banality and foolishness; about vanity, vanity everywhere; about obscurantism and obfuscation in most public pronouncements from high places. How can she help but say to us “You listen, but you do not really hear; You see, but you do not really perceive; You read, but you do not really reason.”? So I’m turning again, strictly private. How do you manage not to be strictly private, Ms. Quindlen?

Quindlen: Well, I think that the public arena now is so interesting, and so many of our social issues are both public and private at the same time. When I looked at the Persian Gulf War, for example, so many people were saying “Would I want to give my son’s life for this? Would I want to give my daughter’s life for this?” instead of talking about foreign policy, and “do we belong in the Gulf”…that sort of thing. The irony for me about this is that, oh, I guess it was about a year ago that Esquire magazine said that I was one of the women they hated as opposed to the women they loved. And they said “Does she have to bee so darned chipper all the time?” I think that in “Life in the 30s” I was much more optimistic than I’ve been on the Op Ed page, and people keep writing to me and saying, “Oh, you’ve gotten so serious, and you’ve gotten so down on everything since you went to the Op Ed page”. I don’t think it’s the Op Ed page, I think it’s the times. I think right before the boom went bust I was writing “Life in the 30s”, and boy, has it gone bust with a vengeance.

Heffner: So you mean now, I’ve found someone, a soul mate, someone who is as appropriately pessimistic?

Quindlen: Well, I still feel optimistic about America and the American people. I really feel, as I’m traveling around the country, that I’m really meeting some of the most wonderful people in the world. And people who, if they understood how to do it, would be dedicated to alleviating human misery. But somehow we have put so many barriers between people. Neighborhoods are so segregated in terms of race, in terms of class. We don’t know how to reach out and help one another. I mean, the projects that I see that work the best social ills, tend to be projects that take people from different walks of life, from different neighborhoods, from different races and genders, and bring them all together. That doesn’t happen often anymore. We’re each in our own little homogenous suburbs, not having a clue as to what’s really going on with the homeless, not having a clue as to what’s really going on in the inner city. We need to mix it up more, and that’s going to be tougher to do all the time. I think it’s something we’re really going to have to work at in an affirmative way.

Heffner: But don’t we, in an affirmative way…yet, you take that word “affirmative”, add onto it “action”, and you get one of the things that seems to bother an enormous number of very articulate people, certainly political people.

Quindlen: The Affirmative Action quota…red herring…it seems to me a red herring.

Heffner: Why a red herring?

Quindlen: Well, because I think if people understand how Affirmative Action has really been working in this country, I think they’re much more tolerant then if you simply say, “Well, there’s quotas. You didn’t get the job because he did.” That sort of thing. I think that people understand that way things worked in the past, or didn’t work in the past, and the way things are working now in terms of redressing some of those balances. And not only redressing the balances, but enriching the lives of everyone. You know, you talk about, for example, having more minority students in law school, and you make it sound like it benefits only the minority students. That’s not true. It benefits everyone. It benefits young men in college to be educated with young women. It benefits young privileged white kids to be educated with black kids who have grown up in the inner city. Again, as I said, mixing it up, getting all kinds of Americans together in one place, which hardly ever happens, I think is the best thing we can do to promote the future of this country.

Heffner: But look, this matter of “mixing it up”: Who prevents us from mixing it up if it isn’t the people themselves? I mean, you have not always struck that note in your columns, about “if only we were given the opportunity to express our feelings as a people”. You’ve been a lot more pessimistic than that at times.

Quindlen: Well I certainly think that during the war, for example, I felt very pessimistic about where America was going. And sometimes when I’m out in homeless shelters in certain neighborhoods in New York City, I feel very pessimistic because of the conditions in those neighborhoods. But slowly but surely I’ve been able to see the ways in which, on a very small level…because I think that’s what works…we’re able to make things better.

Heffner: Yes, but it’s “we, the people” who are picking those who are guiding us in a different direction, a direction different from the one you want us to take.

Quindlen: You mean that we haven’t been very good at picking our leaders.

Heffner: No.

Quindlen: I completely agree with that. I couldn’t have felt more pessimistic about the Reagan Administration, for example. The thing is, is that I think we’ve reached such critical mass on certain problems, that even the people who don’t particularly care about those problems are going to realize that they’re going to have to be addressed. For example, the homeless issue: In the beginning the homeless issue was talked about and written about…we’re going to do this about it and that about it…the problem is it didn’t go away. Americans like issues where you can say “Let’s concentrate on homelessness”, and a year later you can say “We fixed it”. And of course it hasn’t gotten fixed. If anything it’s gotten much, much worse. In fact I think it’s reached such a critical mass, and it’s also reached groups we didn’t expect it to reach, like the large percentage of homeless families, homeless very small children, that at a certain point government is going to have to throw up its hands and look around at the passionate non-profits who are working on this…in this field and say, “These are the people who are doing some good. We might as well just throw some money at them and see if…on small community levels they can help fix this problem”. My guess is they can.

Heffner: Ms. Quindlen, have you seen any signs of this happening?

Quindlen: Yes. I’ve been, I’ve been in small projects for the homeless, very small, all over this city and in a couple of neighboring cities in New Jersey that are doing very, very good work, taking people off the streets, out of shelters, getting them into permanent housing and into permanent jobs.

Heffner: No, that, that is not what I meant. I didn’t mean could your approach…the approach…

Quindlen: Oh.

Heffner: …you advocate work…I’m asking why you think a critical mass will lead to government understanding of the need for the approach you recommend?

Quindlen: Because I think they are giving more money and giving more attention to those people who are doing a good job. For example, there is, there is a project that I’ve taken particular interest in here in Manhattan and which the City administration is working with much more closely than it did two or three years ago under the last Mayor. And, and spending more money on because what they’re seeing is that it works.

Heffner: So…

Quindlen: The proof is in the pudding.

Heffner: So, I’ve got here now no longer a, a soul mate, but someone who ultimately is really much more optimistic…

Quindlen: Ah…I am finally seeing things that work on some of the most compelling social problems and that gives me hope.

Heffner: You know the…ah, there was a…one of the…that’s one of the problems with writing a column as often as you do, you get, you get a television host who says, “Well, why did you say this then? Why did you write that?”

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: But you did write, earlier this year, and it, it interested me so much because you were talking about Saddam Hussein at the, at that point, but you generalized, you said, you wrote: “But it seems to me that he suffers from a lethal dose of that craziness that afflicts anyone audacious enough to lead a nation…egomania”. You mean it?

Quindlen: Yeah, I do. I think at a certain point you have to think that you are just the best thing to ever come down the pike. Especially now when running for President requires so much money and such an incredible leap of faith that you can keep it coming in, that you can do something different when you get in there…because I think they really do all believe that deep down in their hearts…I believe you really do have to be an egomaniac. The question is whether you’ll be a smart enough egomaniac to see what works and to know when to delegate. For example I covered the first Koch administration, and the thing that always impressed me about the Mayor was that he knew what he didn’t know, at least at that stage of the game. And he knew what he couldn’t care less about, so that he delegated very well tot a first-class team of, of Deputy Mayors and Commissioners that he had, that he had put in place to delegate to. I think that the politicians who don’t realize that are the ones who get in trouble. The ones who don’t delegate very much or who don’t have the wherewithal to delegate…I mean I gather that, that President Reagan, for example, would have been happy to delegate, but sometimes didn’t have a clear idea about what he was delegating.

Heffner: Well, you know, you’re being very kind…

Quindlen: (Laughter)

Heffner: …I can see it on your…I can see it on your face.

Quindlen: I’m trying not to assume that he was asleep for a lot of the time.

Heffner: But you write, also, about everyone and anyone audacious enough to lead a nation, and I wondered when I read that about anyone audacious enough to write a column, to lead…as you do, and you do lead.

Quindlen: It’s an incredible audacity, and I think you feel that at the beginning. I guess it could paralyze you if you didn’t just put it out of your mind. I think that when you do it right, it’s a conversation and not just a column. The thing is that the other half of the conversation is only coming at you in your mind, but ideally it’s a conversation that you might have with the reader…the conversation where they say, “Well, what makes you say that?”

Heffner: And you answer?

Quindlen: And you answer. Are you sure? I’ll give you an example. Did you always feel that way? Well, no I’ve changed my position over the years. I think that if you’re writing a column right…you can almost feel the transactional nature of it. The give and take and that makes you feel a little less audacious. What I hear frequently from readers that gives me hope for my own professional future is, “When I read your column I feel like I’m talking to a friend”. Or, “When I read your column, I feel like you were reading my mind”. And hopefully, that means I’m doing my job correctly.

Heffner: You know the business about…”I thought you were reading my mind”, when I was reading Object Lessons, your, your novel, over this past weekend, that is the way I felt, though your heroine obviously is a young woman. I felt that you were reading the minds, even of my generation, far removed from our won. It’s a most touching novel, and I, I…how do you develop the question you ask yourself about what will people ask of me? The question you ask yourself is “what will the conversation consist of?” How do, how do you learn to do that? Because it is a skill.

Quindlen: Well, I, I think I’ve just always liked to talk to people, and always liked to get a sense of what’s really on their minds and what they’re thinking and what questions are bedeviling them. I say this from time to time and every time I say it someone says, “Oh, don’t be ridiculous”. But the fact of the matter is that in most ways that matter, I’m pretty average. I think I grew up in a kind of an average American household, and I’ve worked my way through the newspaper business and I think I have a keen appreciation of what…not, not world leaders are thinking, or ,or opinion-makers, but of what people are talking about in the bank line, or in the supermarket line. And so, to the extent that it’s possible to do so, without running the Gallup Poll or something of this sort, I like the idea of writing a column where I reflect what average people, or what some segment…because during the War I think I was reflecting a small segment of the population, might be thinking or talking about. And that’s a conversation I want to get in, I want to get in the same kind of conversation that I get in with my butcher. That’s…and so, the things that are on everybody’s mind tend to be the things that I write about, but a little bit more from the…”what does this say to m e?”…average Joe, average Jane, rather than telling the President what he ought to be doing.

Heffner: What do you think your butcher is saying these days, or would say these days about your own profession…journalism?

Quindlen: Well, I think he’d probably be pretty down on us. I, I think we’re, we’re…we’ve just come out of a very difficult time with the War, when many people perceived us as being more interested in complaining about our access than in what was actually going on in Saudi Arabia. I think in part because sometimes it…we do not make as clear as we should the nature of what we’re doing…which is, that we are the stand-ins for people, who are not going to be able to go to Saudi Arabia, who are not going to be able to question Pentagon officials closely, and they may feel right now like they don’t need us at the front, like the…it’s more important that the battle get fought. But the fact of the matter is we’ve learned over the years that later…maybe a year or two down the line, they maybe want to know a little bit more about how those Patriot missiles worked. Maybe they want to know a little bit more about the Iraqis who were killed. So it was our responsibility to fight to be there. I think maybe we could have handled it a little better in, in making it seem as though that was the most important fight in the world. Again, I think the Kitty Kelly/Nancy Reagan book has, has done some damage to our profession because of the way people leapt all over it, to tell you about it and then leapt all over it to tell you that you shouldn’t be interested in it. Again, something where we had to, we had to do what we do in public, when usually we get to do it in private. You don’t see the process quite so much.

Heffner: Now why did we see the process? Why did we see the process in terms of…”We don’t usually mention the name of a rape victim, but…”, and then tell the whole story and end up telling the name of the rape victim, too? Or, are going through the other shenanigans that you refer to, the Kitty Kelly book, putting in on the front page, indeed, of the, of The New York Times.

Quindlen: Well, part of it is that syndrome that, that always attaches in the news business, although not as often at my paper as some others, and that’s “It’s better, it’s better to get it in the paper than to get beat on it”. So that sometimes you move too fast. In the War, for example, you saw the process because television was on constantly. They kept their correspondents on constantly, so that the kind of thing that is usually done at the privacy of your own desk, “Oh my gosh, they just bombed us. Oh my gosh, I can smell something…I will report it’s a chemical weapon. It is a chemical weapon. I’m sure it’s a chemical weapon…well, maybe it’s not a chemical weapon…we’re going to check if it’s a chemical weapon”. Usually with your half-hour nightly news you get all of that nonsense out of the way before you even come on air. We got to see the whole process and it was not pretty because if you tuned in at the wrong time you found out that there were chemical weapons, and a half an hour later you found out that there weren’t chemical weapons. We moved fast on some of these things, and sometimes faster than, that we were comfortable doing in terms of, of doing them the way they needed to be done. I think that was true of the Kitty Kelly book, too.

Heffner: But, wait a minute…you say “of the Kitty Kelly book”, the War was over…

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: At least Phase One, and we hope totally…

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: …but at least Phase One is, is over. Then comes the Kitty Kelly book, then comes the, the business in Florida with the Kennedy family…

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: …what are you talking about? It can’t be, it can’t be the excitement of the War…is it the excitement of somebody besting us in terms of dollars and cents?

Quindlen: No. I, I’m not convinced that that’s it. I mean someone suggested today that The New York Times wants to get out there and fight in the newspaper wars. I think more often the problem with The New York Times has been that it doesn’t want to get its fists dirty or bruised, that it feels like it’s above the fray.

Heffner: What’s the matter with that?

Quindlen: Well…

Heffner: Being above the fray?

Quindlen: Because…

Heffner: Someone being above the fray…

Quindlen: Because I think it’s good to keep competitive. I think it’s good to look at other newspapers and say, “Hell, they beat us on this City Hall story”, or “They beat us on this White House story”. Whereas I think we have a little bit of a tendency to think that it really becomes news the moment that we take notice of it, as opposed to staying competitive with other newspapers. I, I like the idea of taking, taking other newspapers seriously, of looking at the Daily News and saying “They did a terrific job on that Dinkins story”, as opposed to thinking that it…the story doesn’t exist until The New York Times takes note of it.

Heffner: Then you’re not unhappy about…well you’re not attributing what has happened to competitiveness in the marketplace?

Quindlen: No, I don’t think so at all. I mean, first of all, in terms of selling copies, we, we don’t have the slightest problem with that.

Heffner: Maybe not. Competitiveness doesn’t have only to do with selling copies…

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: …does it?

Quindlen: No, it doesn’t. It has something to do with advertising.

Heffner: Yes.

Quindlen: But…I don’t think anybody’s going to get any bigger piece of the advertising pie than we’re getting right now. The advertising situation has a lot more to do with the depression we’re in which we now call a recession, although a few months ago we were calling it a down turn. I don’t think that the Times made the decision about the Kitty Kelly book, or the decision about the Palm Beach story because of a blatant effort to sell copies, or to go to the mat with a, with Newsday, or the Daily News. I just…I think that in the case of the Nancy Reagan story that maybe that was a problem with placement, and on the Palm Beach story…in my opinion, as I said in yesterday’s column, it was a mistake, pure and simple.

Heffner: Now, this matter of reporting rape victims…were your feelings about that…not of…you’re not of two minds?

Quindlen: No, I’m not of two minds about that. I don’t think the reader loses anything by not knowing the name, and I think that we gain something by not using it.

Heffner: I hoped you would use that formulation again, because you’ve used it before.

Quindlen: Yes.

Heffner: Do you really think that that criterion is adequate? Will the reader lose if she or he doesn’t know this, that or the other thing?

Quindlen: I don’t think…

Heffner: Is that sufficient?

Quindlen: Well, I think it’s all, always a balancing act. I think it’s always a balancing act. We’re in the business of bringing information, but there’s always this question: “Are you a journalist first, or a human being first? Are you an American first, or a journalist first?” The answer is “All at the same time”. And in this case it’s a balancing act…I want to bring the reader information but I don’t want to needlessly invade the privacy of someone, particularly in a sensitive situation where, for the future you might be inhibiting action on a very serious crime. And when I look at that…when I looked at the coverage, for example, of the Central Park jogger case, I knew everything about that woman. I happen to have known her name because I was a reporter, but just from reading the paper, I knew where she went to college. I know what she did in her spare time, I knew what section of the city she lived in, I knew what kind of job she had. Id did not diminish my understanding of her life one iota not to know her proper name. And the converse I think has a very detrimental effect. We got many, many calls last week from readers saying, “After what I read on Wednesday about this woman in Palm Beach, I would never bring a prosecution. I would never go through with, with accusing somebody of rape, if, if for no other reason that to protect my family, much less protect myself”. And I…people continually say, “Why should rape be treated differently than any other crime?” The fact of the matter is in a very basic, primal way that all of us can understand, rape is different from any crime. If it wasn’t, then we could write about real estate and sex in exactly the same ways, and we can’t and we don’t. The question is, will we get to the point where we can? Where, where someone will say just as easily as “I was mugged the other night at gun point”, they will come in and say, “I was raped the other night at gun point”. I don’t see that any time soon, and I don’t…I wouldn’t even consider changing the policy until society is changed more convincingly.

Heffner: If you had to argue the other side, what would you say? The other side of that argument.

Quindlen: If I had to argue the other side, I would say that there is…that part of the stigma attached to rape, attaches because of what we do in the media. That, that the fact that we don’t use the names implicitly tells the reader that something so horrible has happened to this person that we cannot even tell you their name, and then in some sense, they are co-opted by the crime in a way that they are not in a mugging, that they…that there is a kind of soiling that, that does not happen in a mugging, that there’s a shame factor attached. And, and that by printing their name what we are in essence saying is “This is no different from other…any other crime. This was not something that she collaborated in, that had anything to do with her and you should just look at her the way you look at any other victim”. I just don’t happen…I just don’t happen to believe it’s true.

Heffner: Do you have to do much to pick one side or the other here?

Quindlen: I…

Heffner: I mean are you so convinced that’s it’s not difficult for you to come down on the one side?

Quindlen: I, I am convinced. I’m convinced as a reader just from reading stories and thinking “What do I miss in this story by not having the name?” But I’m also convinced as a reporter from talking to women who have been rape victims about how they might have proceeded differently if they thought that their name was going to appear in the paper.

Heffner: In the one minute we have left, and I’m told always that in the control room they go berserk when I say that…

Quindlen: (Laughter)

Heffner: …but we have just one minute left. Do you think that the matter was thought out sufficiently, not just at The New York Times, but at NBC, etc., or that there was a rush to judgment here?

Quindlen: Well, I know that Michael Gartner at NBC has been thinking about this for a long time, certainly since the Central Park rape case. I wouldn’t like to posit a rush to judgment, I just think he made the wrong decision.

Heffner: Anna Quindlen, I’m awfully glad that you joined me here today…obviously I have a whole list of things to ask you, so if you will stay where you are, we’ll end this program and then start another one. Okay?

Quindlen: Terrific.

Heffner: Good. Thank you very much for joining me today, Anna Quindlen. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.