Syndicated Columnist and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow E.J. Dionne

Someday I’ll Write a Mystery Novel

Photo by Joseph Esser.

E.J. Dionne, a prominent liberal pundit, is both a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate and the Not-Yet Deported (2017), coauthored with Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Daniel K. Inouye Institute “Pau Hana” event titled “Will the Trump Administration Renew American Democracy?” at Artistry Honolulu, he spoke in the green room about visiting Hawaii for the first time, his first job in journalism, and why “politician” isn’t a bad word for him.

Q:
I understand that this is the 49th U.S. state you’ve visited.

A:
Yes! I’m only missing Alaska now.

Q:
Have you ever had the chance to visit Hawaii before?

A:
No, in fact it’s funny: When I was a political reporter, briefly, at The New York Times and at The Washington Post, I would always find interesting political stories in Hawaii and Alaska, and ask, ‘Can I go?’ And my editors for some reason said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s where we should send you right now.’ So I never managed to come here, so it’s very exciting for me. I’m on a scouting trip because my wife and I have always wanted to bring the family here.

Q:
How did you decide to go by “E.J.” as your first name? It’s a great byline for a journalist.

A:
I was E.J. from the moment I was born. It was not my choice, but I’ve always liked it. I’m a Junior, so I’m Eugene Joseph Dionne, Jr. And to their everlasting credit my parents didn’t want to call me “Junior” or anything like that. And I think I got it because my dad was in World War II in the Army and spent a lot of time in the South. And Southerners are big on initials, so I think he brought the initials back to New England.

So I’ve always been E.J. The name Dionne is French-Canadian; all my forebears came from Quebec, down to Massachusetts, and once I had an editor who thought I was disguising a strange French name, so he always called me Étienne.

Q:
Is there a teacher who really influenced you or even helped set a course for your life?

A:
There were a couple. In very practical terms, and also intellectually, a guy called Bill Schneider, who later spent years as the political analyst for CNN. He taught a class called “Working Class Politics,” up in a mill town called Fall River, Massachusetts. So he let me in this seminar. Then, after the 1972 election, he and another professor got hold of all the polls that The New York Times had conducted on that election with the Yankelovich firm, and we were reanalyzing them for academic purposes.

That created my first link to The New York Times, because through that I got to know a guy named Jack Rosenthal, who was the editorial page editor later, but that year had written all the polling stories. And when I was going to grad school in England I visited with Jack; I was 20 or 21. And he asked me what I was going to be doing in the summer, and I said I’d probably try to find a job with Time or Newsweek just to kick around Europe, and Jack said, “Why not work for the best?” And I didn’t ask him what he meant; I said, “Sure.”

And he wrote letters ahead to Paris and London. And Flora Lewis, this legendary foreign correspondent, gave me a job for the summer in Paris. And French was my first language. And then I was hired by the Times partly to set up what became The New York Times-CBS poll. So Bill was very influential. And then I had a number of professors who were very important to me, one a political philosopher named Michael Walzer. He taught, with a guy named Robert Nozick, one of the best courses ever taught, one semester, and it was a debate, called “Capitalism and Socialism.” And Walzer was the socialist—really more of a social democrat—and Robert Nozick, the libertarian philosopher, was on the other side. And, if I can use a term that Robert Bork used before me, it was an intellectual feast. Amazing class! And another was Harvey Cox, a legendary liberal theologian. I could go on. There are so many professors I have debts to.

Q:
Speaking of that ’72 election, there were many oversize journalistic characters in that day, like Flora Lewis, Johnny Apple [who Dionne worked with], Hunter S. Thompson. Do you see characters like that today, as a journalist? Do you feel today the same sense of kinship with other journalists that you did when you started out?

A:
I think that over a long period of time, journalism became less blue-collar, and more college people like me, and I think we lost something when we lost some of that blue-collar edge.

Q:
But you were a blue-collar kid, weren’t you?

A:
Well, I’m from a blue-collar town, Fall River. My heart is with blue-collar people. But back then, [many journalists] had a deep blue-collar sensibility. So I think that’s a loss. But I think the coming-up generation of political reporters is really impressive. I’m not a nostalgist for the old days. And also there are a lot more women now than there used to be. If you look at covering the White House, I’d take Ashley Parker or Maggie Haberman or Robert Costa, or opinion journalists like Brian Beutler, Ezra Klein—we’ve got a lot of talent out there. I think there a lot of very smart people.

Here is where I am old-fashioned: I do think that there was something [good about] an apprenticeship system where you spent time covering state and local stuff, and statehouses and city halls, and rising up that way. I think there were benefits to that, and the structure of the business doesn’t encourage that as much. Statehouse coverage has been gutted. The people doing it are still good; there just aren’t nearly as many out there.

Q:
What are you reading for pleasure right now?

A:
I love mysteries and thrillers, so the book I read on my long plane fight was Robert Harris’s Munich, which is about Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement in Munich, and he’s got a British and a German character, a German who is anti-Hitler. It’s quite a good thriller. And then I like to read history a lot … and occasionally books about religion and theology. I have a book in my bag for my trip home by a liberal religious scholar, Marcus Borg. But I’m a fan of a lot of mystery writers and someday I’ll write one. I think every journalist thinks that they can write one.

Q:
Don’t you have a manuscript in the closet already?

A:
I tried a couple times. A friend and I got almost all the way with one of them, and I started with another one. But I’m going to try to do it just because I said I’m going to do it, and if I succeed it’ll justify having read all these other mysteries and thrillers.

Q:
Instead of writing about politics, have you ever wanted to go into public service or hold elective office yourself?

A:
Yes, that’s where I thought I was going to go. I was actually an alternate delegate for George McGovern in 1972. I was very active in local politics in Massachusetts. My dad died when I was 16, and there was a wonderful man in our neighborhood, like a second father, named Bert Yaffe, who ran for Congress as an anti-war Democrat in 1970. And his campaign, that ’70 campaign, was a huge part of my life.

Q:
I hope that McGovern thanked you for helping him carry Massachusetts.

A:
[Laughs] I actually got to know McGovern’s son later on, and we’ve talked some about that campaign. I’ve loved politics since I was a kid. I’m of that very small minority of Americans who does not use the word “politician” as an epithet. I don’t think you can have a successful democracy without politicians. And there are honest ones, and there are dishonest ones, and there are public-spirited people, and crooks. They’re people—with the same mix of flaws and virtues. Probably, because of what they do, they have the flaws and virtues writ a little bit larger. Our current president I would put in an entirely different category; that’s another conversation.

So I respect politics. And there was a bunch of it in my family. I’m told that my grandfather got elected to the city council in Taunton, Massachusetts, on a bet. And I had a cousin, who died of a heart attack, running on the Republican ticket in Massachusetts, in the ’30s. So there’s a lot of politics in my family.

Q:
It seems that, throughout your career, you’ve managed to maintain a sense of levity and an openness in writing about politics, even though politics is serious business. How have you managed that?

A:
One of my intellectual heroes is Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote a book called The Irony of American History. I don’t think you can understand life without understanding irony. And, also, human imperfection is a constant. Years ago, a friend of mine was very upset about something, and I said to him, “You know, I think I am a psychological optimist because I’m an intellectual pessimist.” Which is to say, I think human nature is flawed. Niebuhr once said, quoting somebody else, “Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian church.”

And so I am kind of constantly, pleasantly surprised at how well we flawed human beings do under the circumstance, rather than how awful we are. So I think that’s a piece of it. But laughter is good. How do you get through anything without laughing? And I guess people I’ve admired over the years have been people with a sense of humor about life and themselves. If you have no sense of humor about yourself, there’s probably something deeply wrong—more than just the normal flaws. It probably means you’re really full of yourself in ways that aren’t constructive.