Thomas Friedman on Lessons Learned After 20 Years of Writing Columns (Transcript)

You ask four guys, you get four different versions, but this is where all of them start. Belleville, New Jersey, 1000 years ago. Eisenhower, Rocky Marciano, and a few guys under a street lamp singing somebody else’s latest hit. Every time I listen to that riff it transports me back to my own roots. To this day, I pinch myself that I’ve been the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times for 20 years. How did that happen? You ask my family and friends, you get 40 different versions. But this is where all of them start. Minnesota. A thousand years ago. Hubert Humphrey, 10,000 lakes, the Minnesota Vikings, and a few guys and girls, including me, growing up in a tiny, one high school suburb outside of Minneapolis called St. Louis Park.

Something was in the water there in the 1960’s. During those post-war years, this tiny community, St. Louis Park, ten square miles, was the birthplace or childhood home of the movie directors, the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, political scientist Norman Ornstein, Senator and former comedian, Al Franken, Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, Chicago Bears football coach Marc Trestman, film director Joe Nussbaum, Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel and yours truly. We all grew up in about six block radius of one another during the 60s.

The Coen Brothers, you may know, based their 2009 movie A Serious Man on St. Louis Park circa 1967 and among other things memorialized our Hebrew school. When they were young, the Coen Brothers often hung out at Mike Zoss Drugs in Minnetonka Boulevard, a few miles from my house. And if you look closely in their classic film No Country For Old Men, the pharmacy just across the Mexican border that the lead character Chigurh played by Javier Bardem, enters to get medicine after he blows up a parked car, is called Mike Zoss Pharmacy.

Vice President Mondale once asked me to speak for his Minneapolis law firm and in preparation for introducing me, interviewed the Coen brothers, Franken and Ornstein, on what they thought was going on in Saint Louis Park back then. Franken said, when people hear that the five of us all grew up in the same suburb, they’re astonished. What’s in the water, they sometimes joked. But it’s not a joke.

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During our childhood, at St. Louis park, it was home to a large creosote plant, which leached tons of toxic materials into the groundwater. Studies have shown that ingesting large quantities of creosote can lead to two things: increased levels of intellectual creativity and/or prostate problems.

The Coen brothers compare Saint Louis park to the small region in Hungary that had produced numerous nuclear physicists and draculas. My English teacher, Miriam Kagel, who later taught journalism at Park High told the Jewish Daily Forward, it was partly rooted in the migration of Jews to St. Louis Park from the inner city of Minneapolis, the northside in the 40s and 50s. It was the time of great political ferment had reached the Midwest and people were just full of ideas and protests and opinions and speaking their mind. I think there is something to that.

In my case, my parents subscribed to Time, and Life magazines, and to both the morning and afternoon newspapers, the Minneapolis Tribune and Minneapolis Star. That is where I trace my love of journalism, and opinion writing. I don’t know why, but from the moment I started reading newspapers, probably in junior high school, I enjoyed reading columnists. I can still see myself coming home from school, picking up the Minneapolis Star and spreading it out on the living room floor and reading Peter Lisagor’s syndicated column from the Chicago Tribune. I devoured Time Magazine as soon as it arrived, and I got my first experience in opinion writing by writing a letter to the editor of Time magazine to protest a swipe that Time magazine took at my favorite baseball player in those days, the Minnesota Twins talented utility player Cesar Tovar, who once played all 9 positions during a single game. Time criticized the fact that Tovar got one vote for the American League’s most valuable player award in the 1967 season. Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski received all the other votes. I rose to Tovar’s defense as a worthy MVP candidate with my outraged letter to the editor of Time.

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14 years old, at the time, I did not get my letter published, but I did get a letter back from Time. That I saved for many years. It was on crisp white Time stationery, addressed to Mr. Friedman. And I was very impressed. Somewhere there an opinion columnist was being conceived.

My first exposure, though, to the substance of column writing, that is to politics and business, came from being a caddy for my father and some of his pals at the local golf club called Brookview. There was a little bit of a Jewish Mafia in Minneapolis back in the late 1940s and 50s. And as a very young caddy, I remember asking my father about someone he knew who was convicted and sentenced to jail time. I asked what he had done, and my dad gently explained to me that he was, “shopping in a store before it was open”. One of the great metaphors of all time and maybe that is where my love of metaphors came from. I learned lots of worldly things as a caddy, I learned about whose business was doing well, who was going bankrupt. In fact, first time I learned what bankruptcy was on the golf course.

I actually got my first sex education course caddying. Also I caddied in 1970 U.S. Open for Chi-Chi Rodriguez, a famous Puerto Rican golfer. And one day Chi-Chi and I were standing on the practice tee and Chi-Chi was hitting shots with his hands while providing a running commentary with his mouth. There was a small crowd watching from behind. “You know, I used to be a teacher”, Chi-Chi told the fans, as he walked the balls. “But I gave that up. You know why? I had this woman, she was a slicer. I turned her into a hooker. And after that, I gave up teaching”.

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