Before he was a New York Times columnist, before he was a foreign correspondent, before he’d ever written a book or become of one of the journalism world’s most popular tweeters (2 million Twitter followers), Nicholas Kristof was a kid in Yamhill, Oregon.
And though he’s a Harvard grad, a Rhodes scholar, a two-time Pulitzer winner, and a liberal with a massive megaphone who counts George Clooney as a “travel buddy,” he’s also still an Oregon boy when he writes about politics, the nation’s commitment to its forgotten citizens or the voters who elected Donald Trump.
“Some of those columns (saying) we can’t just dismiss Trump voters, boy, they didn’t go over with my typical base,” Kristof said.
“I have a lot of friends who are Trump voters, who are NRA members, who are evangelical Christians,” he said. “Those aren’t my politics or my faith, but I understand where people are coming from and I try the best I can not to demonize groups I disagree with.”
Kristof is speaking to the Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation in Boise on Oct. 16, addressing the collapse of working-class communities and related issues, such as homelessness and substance abuse. He’s exploring those issues in a new book, one that draws on his experience growing up in western Oregon in the 1960s and ’70s.
“It’s partly told through the story of what happened in my town, arguing that over the last 50 years or so, we as a country made a series of policy mistakes that (put) enormous pressure on working-class families,” he said.
His parents were professors at Portland State University, but their farm southwest of Portland was “really outside the economic orbit of Portland,” dependent on timber, farm and light manufacturing jobs. Yamhill is wine country today, but that’s not much help for the hammered working class.
“The people who were displaced from old jobs haven’t really benefited from the emerging economy, and meth just devastated the area. I can’t tell you how many families it has destroyed,” Kristof said. “The two kids I walked to school with every day, one is in prison serving a life sentence and the other is homeless in McMinnville, and there are an awful lot who didn’t make it at all.”
Humble, rural, Pacific Northwest roots give him an empathy that other big-city columnists and commentators often don’t bring to their analysis of the country or President Trump.
“It could not be more counterproductive when liberals or journalists or Democrats portray all Trump voters as racists and bigots,” he said. “It’s awfully hard to win people over when you are denouncing them as bigots. And I think that is just wrong on the facts, and also counterproductive.”
His hometown, he told me, is “very much Trump country.”
“Look, there are a lot of parts of the country that were just desperate for help, that had seen decade after decade of Washington ignoring their needs, of good working-class jobs disappearing, lives being devastated, and I think voters in many cases were engaging in a kind of primal scream,” he said.
“They didn’t necessarily know whether Trump was the answer, but at least he was different. So I think that was a mistake for those people, but I understand the desperation and I think it’s wrong to insult people because of the choices they made.”
Kristof is known for his wide-ranging, big-hearted take on global issues, likened by various admirers as sort of a cross between Mother Theresa and Indiana Jones. His two Pulitzers focus on international human rights — writing with his wife and co-author, Sheryl WuDunn, on Tiananmen Square and the democracy movement in China in 1990; and for his columns on the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, in 2006.
He still sees his role as drawing the attention of busy, distracted readers to issues, places and people that are often overlooked. When we spoke last week, he cited his two most recent columns as examples.
“One was about atrocities in Yemen, which nobody read, and the next was about Kavanaugh, which was very widely read,” Kristof said. (He was thinking out loud about Kavanaugh’s testimony, which formed the heart of a damning follow-up on Kavanaugh on Oct. 3)
“Most of us went into journalism not because we wanted to write clickbait, but because we really care about issues and want to make a difference. I do think we have a responsibility to try to elevate neglected issues onto the agenda, but of course we can’t ignore what readers want either. There’s a balance to be struck and I struggle with that all the time.”
One way to do that: Tie the intense interest in everything Trump to the issues Kristof wants highlighted. He began his Yemen column this way: “The news about Brett Kavanaugh and Rod Rosenstein is addictive, but spare just a moment for crimes against humanity that the United States is supporting in far-off Yemen.”
Kristof said: “Increasingly it seemed to me that where we as journalists have the most impact is not when we write about topics that people are already talking about, but rather when we shine a spotlight on issues that are not illuminated and thereby project them on to the agenda. It’s our gatekeeper function that is our greatest power.
“So as a columnist, I’ve found that if I write about guns or abortion or the Middle East, I really don’t change people’s minds,” he said. “But if I write about an issue that people haven’t really thought about — maybe it’s Darfur, maybe it’s sex trafficking at home — then there is some ability to make people spill their coffee in the morning as they read the column and maybe contact their member of Congress.”
When I asked what in his writing career he got most wrong, he returned to Africa. He said he was “dismissive” of President George W. Bush’s AIDS initiative for its focus on abstinence and its reluctance to emphasize condom use to slow HIV.
“Those were legitimate criticisms,” Kristof said, “but the bottom line was that President Bush’s program has saved millions and millions and millions of lives and it’s the best thing he did as president, and it’s one of the best things the U.S. has done in the last 20 years and was just transformative for much of the world. I don’t think that at the time I gave him enough credit.”
He also said he was angry over the Iraq War, which he opined against, and later predicted — wrongly — that the surge wouldn’t work. “I think my irritation at the Iraq War in particular affected my judgment,” he said.
Kristof is an “early adopter,” writing the Times’ first blog and being an eager, early advocate of social media and video. And he’s willing to try other means to grab readers’ attention. He holds a contest to take a student journalist to the developing world, giving him (and his student) a chance to spotlight chronic issues such as child malnutrition that might otherwise go unreported. In 2009, he took Clooney on a reporting trip to highlight the conflict in Darfur, Sudan — an unapologetic play for eyeballs.
“You read my columns about Darfur from this trip, and I’ll give you the scoop on every one of Mr. Clooney’s wild romances and motorcycle accidents in this remote nook of Africa,” he wrote. “You’ll read it here way before the National Enquirer has it, but only if you wade through paragraphs of genocide.”
Kristof has the license and the bravado and the wherewithal to write about almost anything, anywhere. Does he have the greatest job in the world?
“I sure do,” he said. “I have amazing real estate to fill twice a week. It’s an enormous privilege, and I try to honor that privilege.”
Escaping the rat race
Nicholas Kristof and his family had an especially “outdoorsy” summer, he said. They floated the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho (and went swimming a few times), and he and his daughter completed their final segment in a six-summer quest to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. He’s written columns over several years .
With the granddaddy of Western hikes now complete, Kristof and daughter Caroline are contemplating their next long-distance challenge: perhaps the Continental Divide Trail, or the Pacific Northwest Trail from Montana through Idaho and Washington states.
“But more likely,” he wrote, “next year we’ll take our entire family back to some of our favorite segments of the Pacific Crest Trail, like Goat Rocks in Washington, Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon or the John Muir Trail in the California Sierras.”
Hear Kristof Oct. 16
Nicholas Kristof speaks to the Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation fall symposium on Tuesday, Oct. 16. Cost is $75; registration deadline is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9. For info and to register: idahowomenscharitablefoundation.org.