New York Times editorial page editor Howell Raines faces a trying decision in the next few weeks. Not the presidential endorsement—that'll be Al Gore in a walkover. But Raines must figure out what to do with op-ed columnist Gail Collins. In September 1999, the Times gave Collins a twice-weekly column—"Public Interests"—to run through the 2000 election. Now Raines must decide whether to renew Collins' lease on the most precious real estate in American journalism.
Collins says she hasn't heard yet what the Times bosses want to do. Here is Raines' dilemma: Collins' column is very fine, but it's not as good as everything else she has done in her marvelous career. She's a national columnist who still has the soul of a local one.
Collins is a New York treasure. As a youngster with a journalism B.A., Collins started a legislative news service in Connecticut during the early '70s. She fed countless stories about state government to 35 small Connecticut newspapers. She was fast, knowledgeable, and funny. "I was obsessed with making people want to read about the Connecticut General Assembly, so I started being funny. It was the only way to get people to want to read about it," Collins says.
After a stint covering finance at UPI, Collins launched a twice-weekly local politics column for the Daily News in 1985. In 1991, she moved over to New York Newsday, where she stayed till 1995. Collins was the rare triple threat: She understood New York politics, had the newshound's eye for detail, and wrote with bite. (On one occasion she asked Alfonse D'Amato to name the last five books he had read. When he listed The Rise of the Second Reich, she lampooned him incessantly.) "She was so consistently brilliant with that column," says the Washington Post's David Von Drehle, who covered New York at the time. "She knew where every body was buried, knew every politician's weakness and craving, knew everything that makes local politics work." Collins became a minor local celebrity, Manhattan's duchess of ridicule.
New York's famous male columnists scowled and harrumphed at political venality. Collins took a different approach. She laughed. She doesn't take herself, or her trade, too seriously. She is so cynical about politics that she's not cynical at all. High-minded columnists deplore sleaze, but she revels in the gossip, dirty campaigning, and operatic absurdity that make New York politics so contentious. In 1998 she published a fabulous history of political gossip in America, Scorpion Tongues. (Collins, admirably, has no patience with folks who complain that modern campaigning is gross. Whenever anyone tries to conjure up the golden days, she recalls the campaign slanders of yore: Martin Van Buren wore women's clothes, Abraham Lincoln was black, John Quincy Adams was a pimp ...)
Raines plucked Collins from New York Newsday—just weeks before it folded—and assigned her to write editorials on state and local issues. "It was wonderful to take responsibility for what ought to happen as opposed to just making fun of everyone," says Collins. She mixed her earnest, anonymous opining with occasional signed "Editorial Observers." Here, too, she displayed her razored good humor. Collins brutalized the New York Legislature for its eternal failure to pass a budget, whacked Geraldine Ferraro during her pathetic 1998 Senate race, and defended carpetbagging when Hillary Clinton announced her Senate run. The pieces were beautifully written and hilarious, and it was little surprise when Collins graduated to the op-ed page.
Collins' column has naturally prompted speculation about rivalry between her and Maureen Dowd. There are mutterings at the Times that Dowd is annoyed to share a beat, but Collins says that Dowd has been "utterly, completely, fantastically supportive." The columnists are remarkably similar. The only two women on the page are both Irish baby boomers. Both write political columns that treat politics as an absurdist drama. Both prefer giving a politician a sulfur bath to analyzing position papers, and neither has Walter Lippmannian ambition to drive national policy.
But Collins actually writes a different kind of column than Dowd does. Dowd plagues Democrats and Republicans equally. Collins is more clearly a lefty. Dowd wields big, vicious jokes—the kind that slice clean through the jugular. Collins favors death by a thousand mocks. Dowd's voice is merciless. Collins' is more humane: She doesn't bully her readers. (It reflects her own personality: Collins sounds like a mensch because she is one.)
Collins' style is accretion. She gathers details by the dozen, throws in jokes, and serves them all up with a minimum of analysis or even structure. When her columns work, they're insinuating. You laugh along with her, not really knowing where you're going, and reach the end, puzzled as to what it was all about. It creeps up on you a few minutes later, when you realize that, gosh, George Pataki really is a fool. Her Sept. 22 piece about Ralph Nader captures his cheap obsessiveness with a typically sublime Collins detail: Nader considers Hampton Inns "the height of luxury because they have serve-it-yourself breakfasts in the lobby." She's spectacular when she returns to the local politics she knows so well. When Al Gore selected Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Collins—who covered Lieberman when he was a state legislator—explained how his civil, bipartisan style was born in the civil, bipartisan Connecticut Legislature of the '70s.
Collins suffers from the usual allotment of annoying columnist tics. She is pop-culture crazy: When Survivor was raging, she compared candidates to contestants half a dozen times. During Harry Potter mania, Hillary Clinton was cast as Hermione. And there's never a wrong time for a Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? reference. Collins is sadly infatuated with direct address: "Our topic for today, people …"; "Time's up, people"; "This is big, people, very big." She frequently assigns whimsical quizzes to her readers. ("How many people think that Mr. Bush? A) really read the book; B) really read some of the book ...") Occasionally, instead of writing her column, she collects a bunch of random ironic events from the campaign and lists them for us to make sense of.
Because she's writing drama criticism rather than analysis, Collins (like Dowd) sometimes sounds like a bantamweight. Her column can seem like nothing but a stand-up routine—a collection of snide, destructive putdowns. When she writes about New York, Collins' 20-year foundation allows her to make fun and make a point at the same time. (During the New York Senate race, she has especially dissected Rick Lazio—"one of those politicians with no thermostat.") But she lacks that mastery of national politics, and it can make her seem like a scatterbrain. On Sept. 29, for example, she began with a line about Richard Nixon on Laugh-In, riffed on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, joked about the candidates' ubiquity on television, digressed to bash the candidates for not supporting Olympians enough, finally spent a couple of paragraphs on the main point—that candidates are escaping real scrutiny by doing softball TV—then pogoed away to muse on Regis Philbin's interview with George W. Bush, dove back into history by discussing Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson's TV campaigning, and ended with a mock TV schedule in which Bush and Gore appear on NYPD Blue and Malcolm in the Middle, and (again) Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? This is not commentary, this is hyperactivity.
Whatever the Powers That Be at the Times decide, Collins will have a glorious career at the paper. Raines, the heir-apparent to the editorship, admires Collins hugely. Even if he eases her off the page, she could return to the editorial board or jump to the news side. (I'd like to see her take over the obituaries: She has written several brilliant appreciations for the New York Times Magazine. On popcorn king Orville Redenbacher: "Like other immortals—Colonel Sanders, Frank Perdue, Dr. Scholl—Redenbacher had a negative glamour that inspired trust. He looked like a man who would spend 40 years crossbreeding 30,000 popcorn hybrids in search of 'the perfect kernel.' ") She's also got a book to finish, a history of women in America.
If she does keep her column, she should consider a change of venue. She likes covering Washington from a distance. It allows her to escape the "Washington mindset," she says. But what has made Collins so wonderful is her New York intimacy. Familiarity breeds contempt, but also great columns. Instead of fearing the Washington mindset, she should come down and experience it up close and personal, getting to know D.C. as she knows New York (though it might get crowded with Dowd and Collins sharing the Times Washington office). The hypocrisies, foibles, and epic misbehavior of D.C. pols would delight her gimlet eye. She would soon be a national treasure, not just a New York one.