The power of words

One day before our country’s 244th celebration of independence, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David M. Shribman will commemorate 25 years of his political column National Perspective. Currently, the weekly syndicated column appears in newspapers across the country, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where Shribman served as executive editor for 16 years. Shribman led the coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting in 1995.

Shribman, a pillar of American journalism, has also been on staff at The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Star and The Buffalo Evening News, and has served as an analyst, panelist and lecturer in many capacities. In addition to writing his regular column, Shribman is a visiting professor at McGill University in Montreal.

In honor of the anniversary, Andrews McMeel interviewed Shribman about his foray into journalism and his sage column, which measures at 1,069 words on the dot every week.

When and how did you know that you were interested in a career in journalism?
When I was in the fifth grade at the Stanley School, my friend Barry Turkanis and I produced a newspaper we called the Stanley Steamer. It had a picture of an old car on the cover. I have been in first gear in journalism ever since.

What is the genesis of your column, National Perspective?
Darned if I know. Actually, I began that column, with that name, two years before the Pulitzer, and even longer before I joined Universal [now Andrews McMeel Syndication]. I suppose the title reflected my job as Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe, when I was responsible for coverage of news of national import. The subject matter reflects my longstanding interest in national politics, dating back to the early ’60s, when as a peculiarly precocious child, I actually read Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960. (I have since read it three more times. It was a better choice than, say, the Hardy Boys’ volume The Secret of the Old Mill.)

Is there anything you reflect on as you prepare to write your column each week?
Each week, I try to write something on a subject that other columnists aren’t addressing or to have a completely different take on the topic everyone else is discussing. Here are two good examples from this year: When [coronavirus] began to dominate the news, it occurred to me that there were two U.S. citizens — astronauts in space — who were not exposed and were basically safe from it, so I did a column on what it was like to orbit a planet basically in convulsion. Here’s another: When the George Floyd matter spawned protests and deep introspection, I wrote a column on how Lyndon Johnson addressed a similar situation. In both cases, I had no worry that someone else was going to write about it. Same thing when I wrote about the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 on its 100th anniversary. No one in the United States gave it a second thought, but it was a good column for me.

Also, one other thing. No matter what I write about, I always turn in a column that is 1,069 words long. I suspect you will ask me why. I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t know. But right now, I pretty much have the muscle memory to write exactly 1,069 words without checking. It surprises even me. And when I come in at 1,072, I go back and find three words to kill. This has been going on for more than a decade. My column may have surprises, but the folks who lay it out on a page have no surprises. 1,069 words. Every time.

What do you hope readers take away from your column?
I hope they learn something or are provoked to think about something in a way they hadn’t contemplated before.

What is one of the biggest changes you’ve seen occur in the political climate over the course of the column’s 25 years?
The biggest by far is the tendency of people to stay unswervingly in one ideological lane, seldom putting on the turn signal to change lanes. That has not exactly been an advantage for me. For many years I said, ruefully, that as a middle-aged moderate, there was no home for me. Still true, except maybe for the middle-aged part of it.

What advice do you have as America enters into a presidential election season?
Read. Read stuff you don’t agree with. Read widely. And one more thing. Pressure your local newspaper editor to call 1-800-255-6734, ask for Syndication Sales and sign up to put my column on his or her op-ed page. That may not make America a better place, but it will place one American in a happier place. Me.