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Robin Morgan and Anna Quindlen on the Media, Politics, and Change

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Robin Morgan: Anna Quindlen and I have known each other on and off for too long, even though years go by when we don’t actually get to meet. There are writers who you know are wonderful, and there are writers who are wonderful and accessible to lots of people, and there are also writers who honest to God are “writer’s writers,” and it’s very rare that somebody is all three, and Anna is one.

Anna Quindlen: I wouldn’t even be sitting here tonight if it wasn’t for you, Robin. I wrote a column not long ago with the lead about Sisterhood Is Powerful, and how it’s right there on my shelf along with the dictionary, the thesaurus, The Bible, Doctor Spock, all the reference works that I use most often. There’s a whole group of us who are in our fifties who prospered because of women who are in their sixties, and we forget that at our peril. My enduring motto as a reporter and a columnist has always been “Rise up, reach down.”

I got to The New York Times when I was only twenty-four years old, and I thought, “Wow this is great, they hired me from The Post, I must really be good. And I was maybe four or five months in the job when I realized, “Okay, there was a lawsuit.” There was a class action suit brought by six women who did not prosper because of that suit, but who made it possible for me to be hired and showcased, and eventually for Jill Abramson to be managing editor, for Gail Collins to be editorial page editor, for Suzanne Daly to be national editor and so forth. We have changed the business.

When I got into the business, a lot of afternoon dailies had folded and television news was really taking off in a way that would eventually lead to the kind of cable news cycle we’re seeing. So newspapers had to be different. There had to be more depth. But you also had to be all things to all people. When I was on maternity leave, my second in two years, Abe Rosenthal came up with this idea for a weekly column that would be about my own life: “Life in the 30’s.” Honestly, neither of us thought anybody would read it. Then, about column three, boom! The mail, the response started coming. It helped The New York Times go, “Wow, we have an entire readership that feels like we’ve been missing something in our pages.” I felt really great to be part of that.

Morgan: There was a period also when the reigning woman at the Times was Charlotte Curtis, who was wonderful. She had been a foreign correspondent. She was a newswoman who somehow found herself exiled to “Family Style,” which was the new name for the women’s pages. So she took up what became called her ‘poison pen’ and began to cover society in a way that it had never been covered before—the famous stories about the Leonard Bernstein party for The Black Panthers. ‘Radical chic’ was later named by Tom Wolfe, but the coverage was invented by her.

Along comes 1968 and there I am crazily organizing the first Miss America Pageant protest, absolutely high on the idea that we were doing this one for ourselves. We’d already spent ten years doing this for the boys. We alerted press beforehand and to our amazement, the press did a number of interviews. When I met with Charlotte she said, “I’m worried about you girls.” Charlotte was always very elegant, usually wearing black with pearls. “I don’t want you to offend people.” I kept trying to explain to “Miss Curtis,” we were still saying “Miss” at that point, that we sort of, kinda didn’t care. But she gave me the distinct impression she was really on our side.

So we were demonstrating outside the pageant, and we have people inside who disrupted it—it was live at that point so we could disrupt it and make a dent—and six people were arrested. I, as the organizer, ran around trying to find where these people were being held because I had bail. Finally at three thirty in the morning I found out that this lady—who had come down with us in the buses, singing and clapping with her white gloves—had bailed them all out hours beforehand and had booked a car and driven them home. The next day she wrote a column in which she did not mention any of the four-letter words in our signs for the demonstration. She cast her cloak of protection over us, and I have never forgotten that. She passed away some time ago, but was she a mentor to women inside as well?

Quindlen: You know Charlotte was of that last generation that if they were going to prosper, and she did eventually prosper, they were going to have to pass. When I became deputy metropolitan editor of the Times, which at the time made me the highest ranking woman at the paper, she called me and asked to take me to lunch at Sardis. And she said to me during lunch, “You must remember you will never have more power than they’re willing to give you.” It was one of those transforming moments for me: a lesson—there are different feminists for different times, and if we expect everyone to walk the same path we have chosen, we’re giving the lie to our entire movement. Charlotte was of a different time and a different background, and yet that willingness to do what she did at the demonstration or to say what she said to me, it was clear that she felt that she had a role to play.

Morgan: I called her the next day, and said, “I don’t know any other distinguished lady in black and pearls who was in Atlantic City with us.” And she said, “You must never, never tell.” So I’m sorry Charlotte—the word is out!

Quindlen: A problem today is that people still continue to think that you receive the media in a monolithic way—that you should sit there at your breakfast table and read the New York Times and it will bring unto you information.

Morgan: Even in the day of citizen journalism?

Quindlen: That’s still a narrow swath. There have to be more educated media consumers who can take one from Column A and one from Column B, C, and D. For example, I watch Fox news a lot, and I combine that with what I see on the “News Hour” and what I read in the Times and I create a kind of internal argument for myself, which continues all the time—sometimes even aloud so when I’m power walking, people think either I have a very small phone or are one of those complete lunatics. When I was growing up there was one nightly newscast on each of the networks and there was your local newspaper. More is not always better but more is definitely more, and we have so much media now that it requires that you pick and choose.

Morgan: Being a news junkie, when CNN came into existence I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I remember years ago, various people were saying, “you know, we should buy cable stations.” But the rich plan for generations and the poor plan for Saturday night—we in the women’s movement were always planning for Saturday night. But I think people have about had it with all the shouting, the coverage that brings more heat than light. I’ve been one of those people who just talk back to their television sets.

Quindlen: Every time I have a book out I get asked on “Hardball.” O’Reilly asks me on all the time. Finally one of the producers said, “Why will she never come on?” And my publisher said, “I’m authorized to tell you that she thinks you have bad manners.” Because I just don’t think that you should interrupt people on the air. There aren’t many shows where you can talk in a concentrated manner—maybe only Charlie Rose, where I do feel like there’s a great luxury of time even when there are things left unsaid. The time constraints can be very troublesome. On “The Today Show,” the way they say, “We’re going to do six minutes!” They make it sound like a lifetime, and you’re saying, “What can I possibly say that’s thoughtful enough?”

Morgan: That is, what can I say that sums up in six minutes my book that I have spent three years breaking my ass over. Let’s talk for a bit about the media and the elections, because every smart woman I know is anguishing over the Hillary question. It’s the historical moment for which we have toiled, and she’s killing us with her position on the war.

I keep being in love retroactively with this photograph, I don’t know if any of you have seen it: this young woman with sort of wild frizzy hair and thick coke bottle glasses and this big toothy grin staring up at ‘him’ when they were young and in love. That was the period of course when feminism was saying, “We married the men we wanted to become, and now we’re becoming the men we wanted to marry.” And she is in fact both parts of that. She is classic transitional and that’s one of the reasons why so much gets projected on to her like a blank screen. But the heartbreak of not being able to be wholeheartedly for her—though if she wins the nomination, I’ll kill myself working for her.

Quindlen: This is a tough one for me because I’ve written more positively about her over the years than probably any other columnist in America. I met her for the first time in 1991 when her husband was a distant third in the race, and immediately just loved her down to the ground, thought she was the smartest person I’ve ever met. And she was funny, she was warm, she was a real girlfriend. I felt that way right into this race, except the war stuff is driving me crazy. You go back and read the speech that she gave on the floor of the Senate when they were considering the war resolution, and it is a most intelligent, most heartfelt explanation of why to vote against it. And then, it turns on a dime and you think, “What just happened there?” Although a lot of people that I liked and trusted voted for that war resolution too. But she’s just not going to back off.

Having said that, you know once again, Democrats and liberals hold themselves to so much of a higher standard then Republicans and conservatives do. She would still be so much a better president than anyone I can think of, than anyone in recent memory. But it’s a classic female thing—I keep wishing she was perfect. I don’t ask Barack Obama to be perfect. I don’t ask John Edwards to be perfect. But with Hillary, part of my mind says, “I wanted all the moving parts to move exactly the way I want them to go.”

Morgan: I remember when Gerry Ferraro got the nomination, and all of my feminist friends were elated and I didn’t particularly like her politics. Older, wiser, and more scared as I am now, it’s not that I’m looking for perfection. I worked very hard in Hillary’s Senate campaign and was delighted when she won. It’s that a sea change has happened, from that smart, funny, relaxed, principled feisty woman. Maybe at this point in history, that’s necessary in the political process. I wish we could kidnap her to The Women’s Media Center and feed her lots of chicken soup, and say, “Listen, could you just relax and be less processed, and could we fire your handlers or do something with them so that the real you could emerge again? And also let’s talk about this war stuff.” Still, we have to celebrate the fact that the Democratic primary is making history—with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Bill Richardson, the first Latino running. On the other side are all pale males.

Quindlen: I hear from male political operatives—a lot more than from the women—that Hillary just can’t win. And I say, “go back and look at the stats from the Senate race.” She starts out with 30% hard positives, and 40% in the middle, and she winds up winning more than half of that 40%. Nobody works harder, that’s the thing. After six years, the hard negatives went from 30% to 17%. That’s astonishing. Because conventional wisdom is the people who really dislike her are going to take it to their graves, that it’s immovable. But after six years of seeing that she worked really hard for the people of New York, so much of that negative feeling evaporated.

One of the things that she did so brilliantly in New York is retail politics. If you’ve met her, you’ll vote for her. I’ve watched her work a small room of people, and they’re all dazzled by her. “She’s not at all what I expected.” You can’t do retail politicking on a national scale unless you do it very strategically. For example, I would really concentrate on Ohio, because we saw a significant sea change in the mid-year elections. Sherrod Brown, who was elected to the Senate from Ohio, is nobody’s idea of a moderate. He is a liberal, so that presents an opening for her.

Morgan: The bottom-line at least for me in this conversation about whether or not she can be elected: people will always say “it can’t be done,” until somebody does it.

The conversation between Robin Morgan and Anna Quindlen, excerpted above, is the beginning of a series sponsored by the Women’s Media Center. Other events will pair Pat Mitchell, president of the Museum of Television & Radio, and CBS anchor Katie Couric; veteran broadcast journalist Marlene Sanders and White House correspondent Helen Thomas; and actress and activist Jane Fonda and author and activist Gloria Steinem.

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Robin Morgan
Co-founder. Women's Media Center, Host & Producer of WMC Live with Robin Morgan, Writer, Activist
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