Margot Roosevelt is an economy reporter for the Orange County Register. Before moderating a Zócalo/Getty Villa “Open Art” panel entitled “What Can the Ancient World Teach Us About Globalization?” she chatted in the green room about deep swimming pools, covering late-night planning commission meetings, and the prescience of Edith Wharton.
What advice would you give to a young journalist?
Start out at a newspaper out in the country, not in New York, not in Washington. Get out. Because the New York and Washington journalism scenes are very ingrown and you don’t get a real sense of America and how things work and what real people are like unless you’re out there covering the news in wherever you grew up, whether it’s Peoria or North Dakota or Sacramento or Fresno.
What was your first newspaper job?
I started at the Charlottesville Daily Progress, in Virginia. I covered the board of supervisors in Albemarle County. In those days there was a lot of white nationalism and racism, but also a lot of anti-growth versus suburban encroachment. There was everything: There was crime, there was corruption, there were developers paying people off. All those planning commission meetings that went on all night long!
What kind of car do you drive?
A 13-year-old Prius. Love it. It works like a dream. It has 120,000 miles on it. A real journalist’s car. It has like 43 dents. But why fix the outside if the inside works fine?
Do you have a favorite 20th-century American author?
Edith Wharton. Her characters are so compelling and the analysis of class is so fascinating. You look at a book like The House of Mirth, where you have a young woman taken advantage of, and sort of dealing with drugs—how relevant is that to today?
What are you reading right now for pleasure?
Den of Thieves, by James B. Stewart, about the Wall Street shenanigans of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. And even though it’s related to my work as an economy reporter, it’s a lot of fun to read.
Where and when did you learn to swim?
My grandparents lived on Long Island and they had a very old-fashioned pool that was very deep. The shallow end was six feet, and the deep end was 12 feet. It was built in the 1920s. So me and my five cousins all learned to swim in that pool. I do remember I almost drowned in that pool once, when my grandmother was reading the newspaper and I was four years old and playing on the edge of it, and she looked up and I was at the bottom of the pool.
Was there a teacher who changed the course of your life?
I had a professor at Harvard who taught a course in historiography, on the French Revolution, and we looked at all the ways that different eras and civilizations had looked at the French Revolution: the Marxist version, the conservative version. That was an interesting window into how history can be so differently interpreted.
Do you play any musical instruments?
When I was young I played the guitar, but I haven’t played since I was about 12.
If you were going to take up a new instrument, which would you choose?
I’d love to play the piano. Classical, and maybe show tunes—for fun.