Full text of Thomas Friedman on Lessons Learned After 20 Years of Writing Columns at Stanford GSB conference.
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When they invited me I just thought about like, talk about what. I didn’t want to give another talk about globalization, or the Middle East. I thought I’d actually talk to you today about what I do, which is writing a column. And how to write a column, what constitutes a column and what I’ve learned in the process of writing a column for the last 20 years. So that’s what my talk is going to be about today.
Be three parts, let’s say, the first part will be about where my own opinions came from. What are the roots of my outlook on the world. The second part will be about the nine different kinds of columns. And for there are many more, but to me there are at least nine. And the last part will be about what I’ve learned.
I’m actually thinking about turning this into a book. And it all kind of started, the idea. Really just about three months ago I was in Saudi Arabia. And I was meeting with a group from the Acumen Fund, an entrepreneurial philanthropy. The Saudi chapter. Who knew that there was a Saudi chapter? But there is. And a very impressive group of young Saudi men and women were meeting at the home of one of the women in the group.
And after dinner, we were sitting around. We were sitting around with these young Saudis and they were asking me about how do you write a column? And I said, well, I actually taught a course once for my, other daughter, Williams College during their winter term on how to write a column. And I said there are really just nine kinds of columns. And if you write one of these nine, you’ve got a column. And I started ticking them off as we were sitting around the table. And I noticed right in the middle of it. They all took out their cell phones, and were writing down with their thumbs everything I was saying. And when one missed one was, I missed number four. Did you get four? What was seven?
And I was sort of watching this process, and thinking about it afterwards. And it really struck me, that we are in an age now where everyone wants to, and can, really opine. And be a columnist. You know, I always tell people, when I started the New York Times, as a columnist in January 1995, I actually inherited James Reston’s office in the Washington Bureau of the New York Times. What a great thrill and honor to have the office that was used by this great columnist and editor of the Times in the 60s and 70s. And I suspect when Mr. Reston came to the office back in the 60s and 70s, he would start every day by saying, I wonder what my seven competitors are going to write about today? And he personally knew all seven of his competitors. I can name them. Walter Lippmann, Mary McGrory, Stewart Alsop, Joseph Craft, Tony Lewis, I know them.
I now do the same thing, I come to the office every day and I say to myself, I wonder what my 70 million competitors are going to write today. I have 70 million competitors, because we do live in a world where anyone who has access to a blog is now a potential columnist, everyone who has access Twitter is a reporter, anyone with access to YouTube is a film maker, or a paparazzi. And so many people now are engaged in, opining about the world in their own ways and I think it’s actually very exciting and it’s very rich and everyone is doing it in their own way.
And what I want to talk to you about for the next 40 minutes or so and then we’ll have some Q&A is what is my way. I don’t know that it’s the best way. It certainly isn’t the only way, but I can tell you it’s my way.
Now my way starts and I think every columnist has to start with a point of view, with a take on the world. No one’s interested in your disconnected thoughts. Everyone has a take on the world, and if I do write this up in a book, this chapter will be called, always looking for Minnesota. You won’t understand my way without understanding where I come from and how my worldview was shaped. So let’s go back to the beginning when I first fell in love with journalism.
It all starts back in Minnesota with my own version of the Jersey Boys, the musical about the 1960s singing group, the Four Seasons led by Frankie Valli. It’s one of my favorite musicals, and I particularly like the opening monologue when the group’s founder, Tommy DeVito, locates their beginning. DeVito comes onstage following a French rendition of the Four Season’s Classic, Oh What a Night. And he begins by saying that’s our song, Oh What a Night, French, number 1 in Paris. 2000. How’d that happen?
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.
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.
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”.
I was 17 at the time. I confess, I did not know what a hooker was. And all the adults around me were laughing. My father explained it to me. My first sex education class. But most of all what I took away from Minnesota in the fifties and sixties that has influenced me my whole life was a strong sense of belonging to a community and a certain optimism about how a community can come together through politics and philanthropy to make people’s lives better.
To put it simply, I learned from Minnesota that politics could work. Indeed in 1971, the year I graduated high school, Time Magazine wrote a cover story with our governor Wendell Anderson on the cover holding up wall-eye, under the headline Minnesota, the state that works. When your senators growing up are called Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, and Hubert Humphry, when the big companies around you are called 3M, Dayton Hudson, Target and Control Data and they believe it is their obligation to build the Symphony Hall in the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, that corporate social responsibility was something they practiced long before it was ever invented.
When your Congressmen in your overwhelmingly Democratic district are two liberal Republicans and when your Congressman today is the only African-American Muslim in the US Congress, Keith Ellison, who is from St. Louis Park, you grow up believing that politics can actually bring people together, bridge differences, and solve problems. And that is the gift I took from my 18 years growing up in Minnesota. The belief in the possibility, not the certainty, but the possibility, that people will do the right thing, and the outcome will be win-win for everyone.
So if there is a consistent theme to my column, no matter what the issue or problem, is to show people the avenues and possibilities for compromise and win-win solutions. I know that things can turn out well because I saw it happen in my lifetime. So that’s why the title to this chapter and maybe to my whole career is always looking for Minnesota. Always looking for the middle ground. Always hoping to find the better angels from Beirut to Jerusalem to Washington, DC. But also not being surprised when I don’t. I know the world is not Minnesota. You cannot live for a decade in Beirut and Jerusalem and cover wars and massacres and believe that the world is Minnesota.
I recognize that pessimists are usually right and I recognize that even more so after twenty years of writing a column. But I also recognize that all the great change in history was done by optimists. Those who saw the possibility for building win-win outcomes. And so I make no apologies for trying to buttress those people and shine a light on their efforts. The world has enough pessimists. I have the optimism corner, all to myself. And growing up in Minnesota in the sixties and seventies is where that came from.
My actual writing career started in two stages. The first was in high school at Saint Louis Park High in 1969, when I took journalism as a sophomore from our legendary high school journalism teacher, Hattie Steinberg. People often speak about the teacher who changed their lives. Hattie changed mine. I took her Introduction to Journalism course in tenth grade in 1967 in room 313 and I have never needed or taken another course in journalism since. It was not that I was that good. It was that she was that good.
Hattie was a woman who believed that the secret for success in life was getting the fundamentals right. And boy, she pounded the fundamentals of journalism into her students. Not simply how to write a lead or accurately transcribe a quote, but more important how to comport yourself in a professional way and always do quality work.
To this day, when I forget to wear a tie on assignment, I think of Hattie scolding me. I once interviewed an ad exec for a high school paper who used a four letter word. We debated whether to run it. Hattie ruled yes, that ad man almost lost his job when it appeared. She wanted to teach us about consequences. Hattie was the toughest teacher I ever had. After you took her journalism course in tenth grade, you tried out for the paper the echo which she supervised. Competition was fierce. In 11th grade I didn’t quite come up to her writing standards. So she made me the business manager selling pizza ads to local pizza parlors.
That year though she let me cover one story, it was about an Israeli general who’d been a hero in the 6th day war who was visiting, giving a lecture at the University of Minnesota. I covered his lecture and interviewed him briefly afterwards. His name was Ariel Sharon. It was the first story I ever got published. We would meet each other many times after that.
Those of us on the paper in the yearbook that she supervised, lived in Hattie’s classroom. We hang out there before and after school. Now you have to understand Hattie was a single woman nearing 60 at the time, and this was the 1960s. She was the polar opposite of cool. But we hung around her classroom like it was the malt shop, and she was Wolfman Jack. None of us could have articulated it then, but it was because we enjoyed being harangued by her, disciplined by her, and taught by her. She was a woman of clarity, in an age of uncertainty.
We remained friends for 30 years, and she followed and bragged about and critiqued every twist in my career. After she died, her friend sent me a pile of my stories that she had saved over the years. Indeed her students were her family, only closer. Judy Harrington, one of Hattie’s former students remarked, about other friends who were on Hattie’s newspaper and yearbook. We all graduated 41 years ago, yet nearly each day in our lives, something comes up, some mental image, some admonition that makes us think of Hattie. Judy also told the story of one of Hattie’s last birthday parties when a man said he had to leave early to take his daughter somewhere. “Sit down”, said Hattie, “you’re not leaving yet. She can just be a little late”. That was my teacher. I sit up straight just thinking about her.
Basically, after high school I went to — did my undergraduate at Brandeis, but I did semesters abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the American University in Cairo. I got a marshal scholarship to go to Oxford to study Arabic and Middle East History. But I did my first year at the school in Oriental and African studies in London, it’s where I met my wife who graduated from Stanford and was over at the LAC and that’s really where my true journalism career began, began totally accidentally.
At the time it was 1975. Jimmy Carter was running against Gerald Ford for president. And the campaign was in its heated stage back home. And Ann and I were walking down the street in London during the campaign. And the Evening Standard, you’re familiar with the Evening Standard London after newspaper. They always have these blaring headlines on the newsstand to entice you to buy the paper. You know, Brad to Jen ‘We’re finished.’ You know, something about, the Royals or whatever. Well, this day we’re walking down the street. The newstand had this headline on it. It said “’Carter to Jews’ ; ‘If elected I promise to fire Doctor K’”. Now what was that about? I sort of stopped and looked at it. Point it out to Ann. I said isn’t that interesting? Jimmy Carter’s running for president. He’s trying to bring Jewish votes, and he’s doing it by promising to fire the first ever Jewish Secretary of State. Isn’t that funny?
I’ve no idea what possessed me. But I saw that headline, and I went back to my dorm room at London House and I wrote a column about it. What it meant. And my then girlfriend, now wife, who is from Des Moines, Iowa, took that column home over vacation, gave it to Gilbert Cranberg, then the legendary editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register. He liked it. He printed it on a half page of the Des Moines Register under an Alf cartoon, and they paid me $50 and I thought that was the coolest thing in the whole world.
I had been walking down a street. I saw something. I had an opinion about it. I wrote it up and someone paid me $50. And I was hooked ever after.
So my two years at Oxford, I wrote Op Ed columns for the Des Moines Register in my own home town, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, some are related to the Middle East, I got interested in the Middle East also in high school. And when I graduated from Oxford I applied to jobs at AP and UPI. The two wire services. Competing wire services. UPI doesn’t exist anymore. AP looked at my clips, it consisted of a dozen columns for Midwest newspapers and said, very interesting kid, but you’ve never covered a fire. Let alone the city hall meeting. Can’t hire you. But UPI being kind avis of wire service. Had a great grizzled bureau chief back then. Leon Daniel. And he said, if you can write a column we could probably train you to write a news story. And since you have studied Arabic and the Iranian revolution happened and they seem to have the same squiggly letters. I think we’ll hire you and give you a chance.
So I actually started my career at UPI on Fleet Street. And to make a very long story short, I worked for them for two years covering the Lebanese civil war. Came home, was hired by the New York Times, after a one hour emotional interview with Abe Rosenthal where I explained why he could actually send a Jewish report to Beirut because I had already been there. The New York Times hired me, sent me back to Beirut in April 1982. Israel invaded six weeks later. It became the biggest story in the world. I covered [inaudible], the American embassy bombing, the marine bombing, all these amazing stories. My friend Phil Taubman who’s here came out and actually joined me at one point. I did that for, for two years, a little more than two years. I was sent to Jerusalem, I was the Jerusalem Bureau chief until 1989, took a year off road from Beirut to Jerusalem, came back, and then was the State Department correspondent for the New York Times beginning in ‘89 with Jim Baker. Thought it was a really boring job, and I made a terrible mistake until this wall in Berlin suddenly came down. And suddenly I found myself with a front row seat to the end of the cold war. Traveled 750 thousand miles with Baker as the state department correspondent. Then I covered the first year of Bill Clinton’s White House. That was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. And then I did three years as the chief economics correspondent. And then, in January, 1995, they said, you’ve done enough. We think, now, you might have some opinions. And they made me the foreign affairs columnist.
So, let’s pick up the story there. Because, as I say, everybody’s writing columns now, and I think it’s a wonderful thing. But, the thing you need to understand about a column, that’s different from a news story, is that a column has to work. No one would ever say about a news story that works or doesn’t work. That’s very interesting flyer, that’s very interesting city hall meeting, very interesting campaign. News stories don’t have to work, they have to simply tell you who, how, and where in a compelling, interesting way. But a column is different. The column has to work.
What makes a column work? What makes a column work is that it produces a reaction. News stories are meant to inform. Columns are meant to produce a reaction. So whether you’re blogging or tweeting, whether you’re doing a TED talk or YouTube-ing, you’ve got to have in your back of the mind, in your mind, what is the reaction I’m actually trying to produce? And what I would argue is that there are at least, I’m going to give you nine. Nine kinds of reactions, and if you produce any one of these nine, it’s a column.
So the first reaction you want to produce, possibly, is that the reader reads your column, puts it down and says, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that. It’s good to break news in a column. It’s good to go places that others haven’t been. Share an insight. Inform people about something. It should always be in the service of an idea and an opinion. But if someone reads your column — I did a column about Airbnb a couple months ago and someone emailed me afterwards. I really loved this reaction. He just said, who knew? Who knew. Who knew that 265,000 people on New Year’s eve rented out rooms in their house around the world to host someone on Airbnb. It begin to kick-off for writing about basically the whole sharing economy. But if you write a column where someone puts it down and says I didn’t know that, that’s a good column.
Second, and this is a lot of what we do. If someone reads your column and says, “I never looked at it that way, gosh thank you, you know I never ever looked at it that way.” That’s definitely a successful column. I have an Indian friend who edits the Indian Express and we were talking a couple weeks ago and he was telling me that he did a column and I would use this in my book as an example of I’d never looked at it that way. You remember there was a huge controversy about an Indian diplomat who had underpaid her maid in New York City. And she was then unceremoniously arrested, and created a huge controversy. And for weeks, it was all about the diplomat, and Indians rally to the diplomat, and rally back. And he did a column about the maid. Because everybody forgot about the maid. I thought that’s a wonderful example of, I never looked at it, that way. You gave me a whole new way to look at it.
Your third kind of column — this is your favorite, you’ll live for this reaction — happens three or four times a year, if you’re lucky. You said exactly what I felt, but didn’t know how to say. God, God bless you, God bless you, my son! God Bless you. Oh, when that happens that’s just, that is so satisfying, when you can actually articulate what people are feeling but haven’t yet said. Enormously satisfying.
Fourth reaction is very simple. I want to kill you dead. You annoy your offspring. I want to waterboard you. I want to beat you. I’ve canceled my subscription. I absolutely hate you. Okay. Your column is defined as much by people who are against it as who are for it. And if you don’t have anyone against you, chances are you don’t have that many people for you. And every once in a while, you just have to roar back and act out. Peel off somebody’s skin or the skin of an issue in a rip roaring way. Wouldn’t do it every day. It can get a little old. People can be exhausted by it, but every once in awhile you need to do that. It’s very important, though, I believe, I practice. Hunt big game. Hunt big game. Don’t pick on little people and don’t pick on little ideas. Hunt big game.
The fifth reaction and this one is really hard. Don’t try this trick at home, kids. You made me laugh, you made me cry. That’s a great if you can make people really laugh like my colleague Gail Collins, if you can write about an emotional moment or that drives an opinion and make them cry, that’s a very successful column. When it’s done well, it’s awesome. When it’s done badly it’s cringe inducing okay.
Being, trying to be funny. And not being funny or trying to be sentimental, and not actually touching people is awful. Okay. So, I don’t do this very often, but every once in a while when you can do it, it really worked.
Sixth reaction to your column — this is also very important for people to remember – is when someone reads your column and says as you said before, as you said before, you have to repeat yourself in this business. Maybe you didn’t read my Wednesday column when I talked about it, maybe you didn’t see my Sunday column, maybe you were out of town or traveling. If you believe in an issue, you’ve got to drive it and you’ve got to invent a language that will stick in people’s minds. I often get criticized, I get criticized for many things. But one is, he’s repeating himself again, there he goes. Oh, I do that deliberately. Because if you’re going to hate me, I really want you to understand why. Okay. And I want you to never forget it. I’m a big believer that to name something is to own it. If you can name an issue, you can own the issue. The world is flat. Green is the new red, white, and blue. So I spend a lot of time naming things. I want to stick in your head or in your craw either place is fine. But I don’t hesitate to repeat myself because of that. Obviously, in different ways.
Seventh is, this is really, really important reaction to get from people. You challenged me, you disappointed me. Now what is this about? I really believe it’s important as a columnist to challenge your base. It’s for liberal columnists to every once in a while challenge liberals. It’s for conservatives to challenge conservatives, never let anyone take you for granted. Never let anyone feel they own you. And when you do that when you anger and rile your own base you will hear from them. But I think it’s extremely important as a columnist to check yourself by challenging your own base and a lot of your own theories.
Eighth, this is the one reaction you want to avoid. I knew what you were going to say by reading your byline. Oh that’s the death as a columnist. That goes to the columnist who never challenged their own base. Where you become so predictable left, right or center that people know what you’re or think they know what you’re going to say just by reading you bio. That is definitely to be avoided.
And the last reaction, and this happens rarely, but it’s, I think, a very important one, is I bet that column didn’t take very long to write. Now, that’s actually a compliment. I’ll tell you why. The best columns, the very best columns I feel I’ve written, came from some really deep place. And they came out so fast, and so quickly, that it took me as long as it took my fingers to hit the keys, to write that column. So when someone can feel almost that, that column just came straight out from some deep place, that’s a real compliment.
So those are, very quickly, the kind of nine reactions I’m looking for, as a columnist, when I’m writing. And if I produce any one of those nine, I think I’ve got a column.
Now just quickly, before we go to questions in about 10, 15 minutes, let me just share with you some of the things I’ve learned in the 20 years of doing this, some of the lessons that I take away from writing a column, and having been able to travel around and see so many conflicts and meet people and issues face to face.
I’d say the number one lesson that, I’ve learned is that, and people who read me know that this appears in my column every so often, is that in the history of the world, in the history of all mankind, no one has ever washed a rented car. I’m a huge believer in that. It’s one of my, just a guiding principles in life, okay, that in the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car. Someone always raises their hand and says, I washed my rented car. But, I think you know what I mean. And first learned that from Larry Summers, actually, but I’m a big believer that ownership is everything. When people have a sense of ownership of their company, when kids have a sense of ownership over their education, when teachers have a sense of ownership over their classroom, and most importantly, when people have a sense of ownership of their country and its future, really good, good things happen.
And when people don’t feel a sense of ownership, bad things happen. All these color revolutions we’re seeing, all these Arab springs, are really about people who have been renting their countries from colonial powers, kings and dictators, their whole lives, and now taking ownership. And it’s a beautiful thing to see.
But ownership is really the key to life, because when people own things, when people own their companies, their future, their classroom, they will always do so much more then you can ever ask them to do. And when they don’t have a sense of ownership, bad things really happen. And that is a lesson I’ve seen, whether I’m covering education or whether I’m covering Tahrir Square.
Second thing I’ve really learned is that there’s two kind of editors. There’s editors who when you come to them with a story idea, they say, no that’s, that just doesn’t work. And there’s editors who say, yes but. Be a yes but person, because when someone comes to you with a story idea and you say, no that’s never going to work, they just go away depressed and defeated. When you say to them, yes, but that is such a great idea, but if you just make the third graph the lead, and you take the sixth graph and move it up to the third, you give people a sense of ownership over that story. Man, they will take any piece of advice from you, and they will run with that story again, so much farther and faster than anything you could demand of them. Be a yes but teacher. Be a yes but parent. Be a yes but editor.
Third thing I learned is that the two most important words in foreign policy are self and sustaining, self sustaining. We are really good –America, I’ve covered a lot of this so something I’ve learned the hard way, we are really good at breaking things. We are really good at breaking things. There’s no country we cannot break around the world. We’ve demonstrated that. We are not good at building things. We’re like a football team with an offense and no defense. To put it another way, we can stop bad things from happening in places, but we cannot make good things happen. That is the lesson I’ve taken away from Bosnia, and Libya, and Iraq, and Afghanistan.
To make a reality self sustaining is the real challenge. The real challenge is not what we do when we are there, not what surge we mount, but what we leave behind and what is sustained after we go. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about war, doesn’t matter if you’re talking about doing an education project somewhere, doesn’t matter if you’re talking about trying to start or invest in a company. It’s what is self sustaining is all that really matters. And it’s unfortunately, I’ve seen too many examples of non self sustaining in the foreign policy I’ve covered.
Another big lesson I’ve learned, and I come across this all the time, is that humiliation, in foreign policy, is the single most powerful human emotion. And, I’ve seen the impact of people feeling humiliated and what they do. You know, take away people’s money, they’ll be angry, they’ll be depressed. Put them in jail, beat them, hurt them, you’ll get a backlash. But humiliate someone, humiliate someone and they’ll wrap themselves in dynamite, and blow you up or your twin towers. So much of what I cover in the world goes back to humiliation. Whether you’re talking about Ukrainians and Russians, Japanese and Chinese or Arab Muslims in the Middle East and America, I feel I benefit most in covering foreign policy from whatever I’ve read about psychology, and whatever I’ve read about humiliation. It is the single most important emotion, and it drives more foreign policy issues than any other issue, resources, money, nationalism.
Another big lesson I’ve learned. I’ve alluded to the fact that I’m a caddy and I’m a golfer, and there are also just two kind of golfers and two kind of countries. So, Tom Watson had a famous caddy, Bruce Edwards, he tragically just died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. But he caddied for Tom Watson, most of his career except for three years, he caddied for Greg Norman. Then he went back to caddy for Tom Watson. Afterwards, he did an interview and people asked him, what was the difference between Greg Norman and Tom Watson. And he said, very simple, you caddy for both these guys, and both their balls they’d hit a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway. And each guy’s ball would end up in a divot. Greg Norman would say, my luck, I hit a perfect drive. If I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Look at this. I’m in the, I hit this drive perfectly. And Tom Watson would say, Bruce, watch this. There are really just two kind of golfers, and the truth is there’re just two kind of countries. There are those who say we’re behind, let’s figure out what’s the best way to get ahead, the Meiji restoration in Japan. And there’s those who say we’re behind, what did you do to me. And there’s a lot of countries and a lot of people, who waste a lot of time and energy complaining about being in the divot, rather than figuring out how to get out of it. And I unfortunately have to spend a lot of my time covering those countries.
Another big lesson I learned covering Jim Baker, actually, Secretary of State, is that success breeds authority, and authority breeds more success. And I learned this in a funny way. I traveled with Baker on all 15 trips he took to the Middle East to put together the Madrid peace process. And on 14 of those trips, I came home and wrote Secretary of State James A Baker, III failed again to achieve his objective of putting together a peace process. And then trip 15, he succeeded. He came back and stuck his finger in my face and said, Friedman, you’re going to write that I succeeded. And he spiced that with a few other things as well.
So we went off to Madrid and he convened the first, basically, region wide peace conference. It was a remarkable diplomatic achievement and we actually flew from Madrid, I never forgot this, to Azerbaijan. And, he gave a press conference in Azerbaijan. He’d just come from Madrid. It was a world shaking story, covered all over the world. He stands up at the press conference in Azerbaijan. As every reporter stands up, first question, Mr. Baker, in light of what you’ve achieved in Madrid, would you come here and mediate now between Armenians and Azeris. And I was a pool reporter. Baker winked at me. His eyes rolled. The last thing he was going to do was mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. But the lesson I took away from that, was how quickly his success in Madrid had translated into more authority, and more authority gave him leverage for more success. I think it’s true whatever you do, small victories, small victories can add up to greater authority, and the authority for really big victories.
Another really important lesson that I’ve learned is that there is a huge, huge difference between skepticism and cynicism. This is a really important issue for me because unfortunately a lot of people in my business have forgot where the line is between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible. Cynicism is about already having the answers, or at least thinking you already have them, about a person or event. The skeptics says, I don’t think that’s true. I’m going to check it out. The cynic says I know that’s not true. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t have done that for those reasons. I’m going to slam him or her. The skeptic is in search of the truth. The cynic is in search of snark.
There is such a thing as healthy skepticism. There is no such thing as healthy cynicism. A cynic is always prejudging, and prejudging is the enemy of inquiry and learning, which requires an open mind. The truth is most of the journalists I’ve ever known were not cynics. Just the opposite, most of them are rather idealistic, with a certain underlying crusading spirit. But cynicism is present enough in our craft that it’s worth constantly guarding against. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to take our subjects seriously, and that means doing more than just sneering at them.
I learned this lesson early on in my career in a odd series of events. I was hired from UPI and joined the New York Times business day staff. That was where only job they had to stash me in at the paper when I came to New York, back in 1981. And on the staff business day, was a young editor named Nathaniel Nash. And Nathaniel was a born again Christian. He was deeply interested in the Holy Land. Because I had covered the Middle East all those years, we used to go out to lunch, and he loved to hear about Israel and what was going on in the Middle East.
So in May of 1982, sorry in April, when the Times sent me off to Beirut to be their correspondent, the business day staff had a goodbye party for me. And Nathaniel pulled me aside at the end of the party and he said, I’m going to pray for you. I’m going to pray for your safety. And I said Nathaniel, I so appreciate that. And I always considered it my lucky charm when I was in Beirut. And when I got out of Beirut, first day I got out, I called Nathaniel and, and I thanked him. Now the book on Nathaniel, as a reporter, was that he was too nice. His colleagues always doubted that anyone that nice could ever succeed in journalism. But somehow he triumphed over this handicap. And he went from one successful assignment in business day, to Latin America, to another. And it was because Nathaniel intuitively understood, I always thought, the difference between skepticism and cynicism. I only wish I could have done for him what he did for me, because Nathaniel Nash, age 44, was the one reporter on Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s airplane, when it crashed into a Croatian hillside on April 3, 1996, killing everyone on board. I was devastated.
With today’s cacophony of magazine shows, Oprah style interview sessions, and talking heads, many people have lost sight of what real journalists do. Journalists do not appear on cable TV to scream at each other. Real journalists don’t interview mothers and daughters on daytime confession hours. Real journalists don’t have their own shock jock radio shows. Unfortunately, those are the people many American see most in quasi-journalistic roles, and these are people they think of as journalists today. Journalists are reporters like Nathaniel Nash, who go off to uncomfortable and often dangerous places, like Croatia, and get on a military plane to chase after a visiting dignitary, without giving it a second thought, all to get a few fresh quotes, maybe a scoop, or even just a paragraph of color, that no one else has.
When I first heard the news about Nathaniel, I whispered a prayer for him, but I am sure that wasn’t necessary, for he was such a good soul, who knew the difference between skepticism and cynicism, that I know he is sitting at God’s elbow, probably taking notes right now.
Another big lesson for me is most people listen through their stomachs, not their ears. Really, most people do not listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs. You connect with someone on a gut level, as a reporter, as a columnist, or as a leader, you don’t have to bother them with the details at all, they know they’ve connected with you. You don’t connect with someone on a gut level, and you cannot show them enough details. Who remembers Anwar Sadat’s speech, before the Knesset, after he flew from Cairo to Jerusalem? Nobody. It was actually one of the harshest speeches ever given by an Arab leader about the Palestinian cause. No one in Israel remembers he even gave a speech, because Sadat connected with Israelis on a gut level. And once he did, they did not care about the details.
How do you connect with people on the gut level? I think it’s by doing things that are hard. That are visibly hard and by taking a risk. Yasser Arafat never connected with Israelis on a gut level. Bibi Netanyahu has never connected with Palestinians on a gut level, and that’s why each one is always asking the other for one more detail. Because there is no gut connection.
Getting here toward the end, just a few more. I would say, one of the biggest things I’ve learned from covering the Arab Spring is really how right Lennon was. That if you don’t have an organization you’ve got nothing. It’s great to have a democracy movement and Tahrir Square or [Madonna in Kiev]. But organization really is everything. If you cannot translate your movement as an organization that can contest an election and deliver your politics. I cover a lot of people who haven’t done that, and that’s really been the theme of everything I’ve been writing the last few years.
Professor at Columbia, Mark Mazower, wrote this, I really like this. He said that anger at corruption has fueled number rallies all over the world, over the past few years, especially as austerity and high unemployment have sharpened the divides between haves and the have nots. Demonstrations however are an effective means of ending corruption. That takes institutional transformation. A long slow slog. Mostly invisible and untheatrical. It’s the opposite of street protest whose power lies in being as public, dramatic, and instantaneous as possible. What crowds in downtown Cairo and Kiev have in common was their extraordinary diversity, but this very quality also explains why they have been incapable of sustaining a political future. The fundamental Lennonist insight still holds, nothing can be done without an organization. I’ve just been covering a lot of people over the last three years in particular who really need to learn that lesson.
Let me just close with a few more personal ones. One is about America and maybe a little goes back to Minnesota, and that is that pluralism, especially the pluralism we have in this country, I see in this room. Pluralism is such an incredible thing. And America is such a freak. We are freaks. We have twice elected a black man whose middle name is Hussein who defeated a woman to run against the Mormon. Who does that? Okay. Who does that? Nobody does that. What we have in this country is so unique. And we treat it like it’s a football. We kick this country around like it’s a football. It’s not a football. It’s a Fabergé egg. We can drop it. We can break it. And in the interconnected, interdependent world we live in, to have mastered Pluralism? Oh, and we’re still a work in progress. You need to only look at the racism directed at Obama to know that. We are still a work in progress. But to have gotten this far, that I know you learned about comparative advantage today. That is the single most comparative advantage we have as a country in the world. And we really need to take care of that. We need to appreciate it for what it is.
Big lesson, that’s really sustained me. I’m a little Jewish guy from Minnesota who spent the last 30 years covering the Arab world. And as anyone who read my copy knows, I don’t do it by going around telling people how wonderful they are. How do you survive in that kind of environment as a journalist and then a columnist and tell the truth? And to me it’s one overriding thing I’ve learned. My survival mechanism being a good listener.
Listening is the key to life. Not only because of what you learn when you listen but something more important. When you actually listen to people don’t just wait for them to stop talking, but actually listen to them, it’s amazing what they’ll let you say back. Because listening is a sign of respect. And when you truly listen to people, it’s amazing what they will let you say, because if people think, you actually respect them, and that you want a good future for them, they will let you say anything. But if they smell you’re not listening, that you really don’t care what happens to them, you cannot tell them the sun is shining. Something Dick Cheney and George Bush never understood, because as much as they want to liberate Iraq, people there sensed that they really didn’t respect them, and they certainly weren’t listening.
We’re coming to the end here. Couple more.
Never drink the whole milkshake. Especially never drink all of the other guy’s milkshake. One of my favorite pieces of movie dialog from political science is, you know the end of the film, There Will be Blood, the 2007 classic about the ruthless silver mining turned oilman, who could not stop at anything to accumulate more wealth. And you remember when Daniel Plainview, the oil driller basically takes Paul Dano, Eli Sunday aside. When Eli Sunday wants to sell him some more land that he’s sure has oil and he says, drainage Eli, drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained it dry. Sorry.
Here if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw. There it is. There’s the straw. You see. You’re watching. And my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake, I drink your milkshake. Your whole milkshake. I drink it up.
Man, if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from covering the Arab Spring, is do not try to drink the other guy’s whole milkshake. This is about no victor, no vanquished. If you don’t leave space for the other people, whether it’s Ukrainians leaving space for the Russian speakers among them, whether it’s Sunnis leaving space for Shiites or Shiites leaving space for Sunnis, if you want it all and try to get it all, you will end up with nothing. The Arab spring that has been done the best so far interesting, the one we have had the least to do with Tunisia. Why? Because they’ve operated there on the principle of no vanquished, no victor, you get your milkshake, I get mine.
Big lesson I got early in my career in journalism, never ask the competition to hold the phone for you. This is the first lesson I ever learned as a journalist. When I was a cub reporter just starting out in London, the first real news story that my editors at UPI sent me to was — covered the Iranian embassy takeover in London. It involved pro-Khomeini Iranian students. Somehow I managed to talk my way into the building, interviewed some of the student rebels. I don’t remember what they said but I was so excited by whatever it was that I ran right to the phone booth next to the embassy. Big red old British style phone booth. No cell phones back then. It was one of these classics. There was a long line. I got in line. All these other grizzled Fleet Street reporters who wanted to file their stories. I patiently waited to my turn at the phone. When I got inside the booth, I excitedly called my editors at UPI, telling them everything I had seen and heard from inside the embassy. Reading from pages in my notebook. At one point though, one of the editors said to me, taking down my dictation. Can you check this detail in the Embassy? I said, wait a minute, I’ll check.
I opened the door of that little red phone booth, and said to the Fleet Street reporters standing in line behind me, do me a favor, hold the phone? Then, I dashed out of the phone booth. Before I had taken two steps, the guy in line behind me slipped into the booth, slammed down the receiver, started dialing his own newspaper, and turned to me to say two words, I will never forget. Sorry mate. Never ask the competition to hold the phone for you.
Now I will conclude on a very personal note for all you business students: always be a big tipper, always be nice to the help, and always call your mother.
Okay, always be a big tipper. I learned this from my friend the film maker George Stevens. You know if you are a big tipper your whole life it may actually add up to $5,000. Yeah, up to $5,000. If you’re a big tipper every day every meal your whole life. But you’ll make a difference in someone else’s life. You’ll actually be giving them a sign of respect. Always be a big tipper.
Always, always be nice to the help. It’s not only the right thing to do but I can tell you as a reporter, the secretaries who have been putting me through to their boss, the policemen who have let me through a barricade, because I was nice to them when it didn’t count really came back to serve me later. Always be nice to the help.
And lastly, this is advice I always give at every graduation. Always call your mother. Where’s my daughter? Always call your mother. Whenever I’ve had the honor of giving a college graduation speech, I always end it with this story about the legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. Late in his career after his mother had died, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. As best as I can piece together, the commercial was supposed to be very simple. Just a little music. And Coach Bear Bryant saying in his tough gravely voice, have you called your mama today?
On the day of the filming though, he decided to ad lib something. He reportedly looked into the camera and said, have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine. His mother had just died, and that was how the commercial ran. And it got a huge response from audiences.
So if you take anything away from this lecture, please take this. Call your mother always, and your father. I wish I could call mine.
So I’m fresh out of ammo here folks. Let me just conclude by saying this. That’s why I want to write this book on a column, right? This is where my opinions come from. And that’s what constitutes a real column. And these are some of the things that I’ve learned writing one for 20 years twice a week. It’s still the best job in the world, I have to tell you. I’ve got the best job in the world. And somebody has to have it. I’ve got it and you don’t. Okay?
I get to be a tourist with an attitude, go where ever I want, write whatever I want, about whatever I want. Some 45 years after taking journalism in that room at room 313 at St. Louis Park High school, I can honestly tell you that I’m as excited about writing my next column as I was my first. And I am also still looking for Minnesota. That’s why I’m going to end where I began with the Jersey Boys. Because the closing lines of that musical play resonate with me just like the opening ones. This time it’s Frankie Valli talking, looking back on his remarkable career as the lead singer of the Four Seasons.
“They ask”, He says, “What was the highpoint? The Hall of Fame? Selling all those records? Pulling Sherry out of the hat. It was all great. But the first time the four of us made that sound, our sound, when everything dropped away and all there was was the music, that was the best. That’s why I’m still out there singing like that bunny on TV with the battery. I just keep going and going and going, chasing the music, trying to get home”.
Thank you very much.