Our 2019 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award winner is…Kathleen Parker! She’ll receive the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ highest honor at the June 20-23 NSNC conference in Buffalo, New York.
Ms. Parker is a widely syndicated columnist who previously won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, among other awards. She’s also an author, frequent TV guest, and more.
I interviewed the Florida-born/South Carolina-based Parker via email last month. Here’s the Q&A:
NSNC: Your reaction to being chosen for the Lifetime Achievement Award?
Kathleen Parker: I’m deeply honored, of course. When I began as a reporter in 1977, I never could have dreamed such a thing. Being recognized by one’s peers – especially in the name of such an icon – is beyond humbling.
NSNC: Any idea yet what you might say in your acceptance speech? (I realize next June is far away!)
Kathleen Parker: As I answer these questions, I’m on deadline to prepare a speech for tomorrow night. Naturally, I haven’t begun yet. I suspect, however, that I’ll talk about the importance of journalism now as never before. And something about column writing for 30 years – perspectives, gleanings, prognostications, the joys and horrors of being “Kathleen Parker.”
NSNC: Have you been to Buffalo much, or at all? If so, your impressions of the city?
Kathleen Parker: This will be my first visit. But all things considered…
NSNC: Your thoughts on the state of column writing during a time when many newspapers are struggling?
Kathleen Parker: I’ve always maintained that columnists and cartoonists were equal in importance to the news. Usually, I was referring to the personality of the individual paper as part of a community. Columnists of yore – and still today to a point – were destinations for readers looking for insight, perspective, entertainment, and, when possible, humor. It should come as no surprise that I’m sentimental about the newspaper columnist in particular, as opposed to the individual who writes a column. Don’t get me started.
NSNC: How many newspapers and other clients does your column have? (I read somewhere that it was about 400; not sure if that’s current.)
Kathleen Parker: I was once at 500-ish, but my numbers are dwindling as subscriptions die off. Now it’s around 450, I think, but it could be 400. I haven’t counted lately. Let’s just say that my syndicate earnings are half what they were ten years ago. I reached the summit and, alas, there was no view.
NSNC: What year did your column start? What year did it enter syndication?
Kathleen Parker: I was hired as a columnist by The Orlando Sentinel in 1987 and moved from California for that purpose. Previously, I was with the San Jose Mercury News writing for the Style section, primarily covering food as you would any other beat. This was during the birth of California Cuisine and celebrity chefs. It was a delicious job.
I became syndicated by Tribune Media Services in 1995 after winning the H.L. Mencken award in 1992. I switched to The Washington Post Writers Group 13 years later.
NSNC: How do you categorize/describe your column? Political column? Op-ed column? Political/cultural column? Other? Uncategorizable/don’t want to be categorized?
Kathleen Parker: I intensely dislike categories. Basically, I write whatever interests me, always with an eye toward the subject’s shelf life and whether I have something original to say.
Even back when I was writing a column called “Men and Women,” my writing veered toward the political because what’s more political than gender and sex these days? But if you put a gun to my head, I’d say I write about politics and culture.
Kathleen Parker: So, I was characterized as a “conservative” when I was first syndicated because you HAVE to be something. You can’t just be a sensible moderate with common sense and a sense of humor. The powers that be decided that I was a conservative because I wrote things such as “children need and deserve both a mother and a father.” This was highly controversial and, in fact, heretical in some circles. The sisterhood didn’t like me much at the time. Voila – I became a conservative commentator. For the record, I’ve never been a Republican, and was a Democrat until I was about 31 or 32, when I registered – and have remained – an Independent.
I hate the notion that a writer (or anyone) must be this or that. This is a function of the divided op-ed page, which usually is configured as two-sided. But most of us are multifaceted and can entertain two opposing views at once. I tend to land smack-dab in the middle where, I think, the majority of Americans live their lives. It’s a big middle – and a big country – and The Page ought to reflect this. Cable TV, obviously, has reinforced the left-right template, much to our nation’s detriment. It appears, however, that humans are drawn to conflict and will show up for a fight any day over the alternative of sitting and listening to a quiet conversation about immigration reform.
Alas, Donald Trump recognized, embraced, and channeled this behavioral tic.
NSNC: Compare being a columnist when Republicans control all three branches of the federal government (White House, Congress, Supreme Court) to what it’s like being a columnist when the Democrats held some levers of national power?
Kathleen Parker: As a middle-woman, let me just say that it’s never good for the country when one party controls all branches of government. Balance is key to all things. I grew up hearing my father say at least a thousand times, “All things in moderation,” which, as you know, comes from The Bible. I believe in this as a defining principle for a healthy life. Of course, I’m that person: a Libra, ambidextrous, and a middle child. The fact that I can produce an opinion – ever – is a feat of the counterintuitive.
NSNC: In columns from recent months, you’ve written positively on Republicans such as Nikki Haley, Brett Kavanaugh, and Lindsey Graham. But you’re not very pleased with Trump – as is also the case with columnists such as Jennifer Rubin and George Will who had been known for conservative views. How important is it for a political columnist to not always go with “the party line”?
Kathleen Parker: Truthfully, I’ve never gone with “the party line.” I tackle each subject as a freestanding idea and try to find a position based on what my writing produces. Sometimes, I don’t much like my opinion and know that it will cause me pain. But I try to be fair and honest, as when I noted in 2008, while everyone else was silent, that Sarah Palin was out of her league and should leave the ticket.
NSNC: How much flak from the right do you get for your independence?
Kathleen Parker: Using the Palin column as an example: I received 20,000 emails within days; speeches were canceled; “friends” fell away. It was exhausting and liberating. From then on, I felt freed from the strictures imposed by the left-right template.
NSNC: Why do some conservative-leaning columnists criticize Trump publicly while very few prominent Republican politicians criticize Trump publicly?
Kathleen Parker: It’s the columnist’s job to reveal the truth; it’s the politician’s job to conceal it. But, principally, it’s because Republicans are (1) getting what they want; (2) terrified of alienating the Trump base. It’s appalling.
NSNC: Do you like to stray from political commentary sometimes, as in your moving Hurricane Florence-related columns? Why is it important to occasionally “change things up”?
Kathleen Parker: During 30 years of writing two columns per week, I’ve learned that people yearn for the uplifting, the personal, the transcendent, the human. If I were to separate my columns into stacks according to the ones that elicited the greatest reader response, or that earned the most strawberry refrigerator magnets, the pile of non-political columns would tower over the others.
They are the everlasting ones, and, also, the ones I treasure most. I think it’s important to change things up now and then just to remind readers that an actual human being – who struggles, suffers, and celebrates the same as they do – is behind the opinions she writes. Critics should always be willing to show a little of their own skin. Or maybe that’s just me. Though I take my work seriously, I try not to take myself too seriously.
NSNC: Anything else you’d like to say?
Kathleen Parker: The day I became a columnist was one of the happiest of my life. Getting syndicated was a dream. Twice a week for 30 years, I’ve gotten to write a newspaper column about my thoughts and tens of thousands (or more) readers rewarded me with a response. Every single deadline makes me hate my life, and I’ve yet to write perfect column. But I think I’m the luckiest person in the world. I hope to keep pounding the keys as long as I breathe – and pray that the afterlife has Wi-Fi.
Dave Astor writes the weekly “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, blogs weekly at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and is the author of the 2017 book “Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia.”