E.J. Dionne’s early passion for language grew out of the debates and books that filled his Fall River home. His writing grew out of his love for reading. A 1973 graduate of Harvard, where he wrote for The Crimson, Dionne covered politics for 14 years for The New York Times before moving to The Washington Post in 1990. The column he started three years later gained and maintains a wide following in D.C. and beyond.
Dionne is the author of seven books, including “One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported,” co-written with Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann. He taught and lectured this fall as the William H. Bloomberg Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School, with a joint appointment at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Kennedy School.
This interview is part of the on-writing series “Decisions and Revisions.”
GAZETTE: What do you think your job is as a columnist?
DIONNE: I think a lot about the possibility that someone who holds another view could read my column and at least have second thoughts about what they are thinking, or look at a question from a slightly different angle, even if I don’t persuade them. Sometimes as a political columnist you are simply standing up for what you think is right. That sounds very pretentious, but we have the gift of being able to express a view. Mary McGrory, the great Boston-born columnist, once said that sometimes your job is to just make people realize they are not alone, especially at moments when people who broadly share your point of view feel beleaguered. Occasionally your job is to challenge people who think like you and to challenge yourself and to talk about when your side is wrong or when your side is being untrue to its own principles. And sometimes I hope I make people laugh. Just being able to smile while you are reading something can be a useful thing.
GAZETTE: How do you come up with your ideas?
DIONNE: I think David Brooks may have said this once: It’s never out of your head that you have to write a column in one, two, three, or four days and so everything you hear, see — every person you talk to — is a potential inspiration. You are always thinking about it. You always have a list in the back of your head of things that you want to get to or things that you think you should get to. There are certain issues I care about that I try to keep on the radar. I have written a lot about health care over the years. I care a lot about national service, and whenever AmeriCorps is threatened I write about that. I care about kids’ poverty. I care a lot about political reform and have written a lot about campaign money.
‘There are some people who write perfect prose the first time around. I am not one of them.’
GAZETTE: What is your editing process like?
DIONNE: I am an incessant reviser. I am an echo-phobe. My first reader is my personal assistant and whenever I hire one, I say, “This may sound strange, but I want you to be absolutely mean to everything I write. I want you to take it apart. I want you to point out every terrible sentence. I want you to fact check me relentlessly and I want you to look for echoes.”
I fail sometimes. I sometimes use a word more than once, and once in a while it’s the right thing to do. But I’ve found mostly that when you have used a word two or three times, you are being lazy and that a sentence can be better when you try to find another word.
I had an unkind but extremely helpful reader years ago send me a column in which he had circled a bunch of words and scrawled across the top “useless adverbs.” I read the column again and he was absolutely right. They were useless adverbs, and for about the next six months I checked every column I sent in for the letters “ly,” and I cut out at least half the adverbs. To this day, I go after the adverbs and it’s almost always the right thing to cut them. … Adverbs should be used sparingly. I rewrite myself a lot. I don’t think I get it right the first time. There are some people who write perfect prose the first time around. I am not one of them. I reread sentences. I cut sentences in half. There are times when you are writing with a passion — when the first draft has an immediacy. If you feel really strongly about something, especially if you are mad, that can be very powerful.
My editors help on all these fronts — facts, style, echoes. One of the most useful things an editor can do is point out to you that a sentence you think says one thing actually says something else. Editors are almost always right when they point this out.
GAZETTE: Were there editors at The Washington Post or The New York Times who made a lasting impact?
DIONNE: There have been a number of them. One of my favorite editors was a man called Shelly Binn, the metropolitan political editor [at The New York Times] who was, in the best sense, an old-fashioned journalist. He had a strong sense about the civic responsibility of newspapers. He was very grandfatherly and he was also more conservative than I was. He asked me skeptical questions, which was good for me as a journalist, but always in the most generous way. You’d talk through stories and he would ask you about the holes in them. Once I had a story on some politician, some scandalous thing. I had a lot of information and I knew another paper was chasing it, too, but something didn’t feel right and I told Shelly. He said something that few editors ever would: “Sometimes it’s better being second.” He meant it’s better being second and right than first and wrong. That is just what you want a good editor to do. It turned out the story was wrong, and the other paper went with it.
I’ve had many good editors over the years. I was in Lebanon during the war and I was asked to write a piece on massacre claims made by the Druze and the Christians. I wrote the story and Craig Whitney, who was the foreign editor at The Times, wrote me back and in a nice way essentially said it felt like a story of dueling press conferences. I reread it and he was right. It needed more feeling in it; there was something deeply missing. I rewrote it and it was a much better story. I had the same experience with a profile of Pat Buchanan that I wrote for The Post when my editor was Bill Hamilton ’72, a great guy who is now at The New York Times. He said, “We need a little more Buchanan here; you need a little more of the man.” I disagree with Pat Buchanan on so many things, but he actually is a very charming man, and at the end of a campaign stop I explained that I had this problem and we went drinking at a bar in Derry, N.H. He gave me two hours and it made the piece infinitely better.
GAZETTE: Where did your love of words come from?
DIONNE: My mother was a teacher and a librarian and my dad was a dentist who got four newspapers every Sunday, so there were words around our house all the time. We were a family that loved to talk and argue. It’s said you are not supposed to talk about religion or politics at the dinner table. Those were two subjects that we talked about all the time.
I never expected to write for a living. It’s just something I started doing and not necessarily even well, but it’s something I enjoyed because I loved reading. Two books really influenced me as a teen. One was “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” by William E. Leuchtenburg. He was a wonderful stylist and gave you a sense of the excitement of the New Deal. The other was “Strength to Love,” a collection of sermons by Martin Luther King Jr. There is something about King’s language that has always stayed with me — the combination of biblical language, language from our founding, and the preaching style of the African-American church. I started life as a conservative and started becoming a liberal when I was about 12 or 13 partly because of the influence of those two books.
My dad was a conservative with a very open mind and he liked for me to argue with him, which I always loved. That’s something I treasure. When I was 13 I asked him to give me a subscription to the New Republic so I could strengthen my side of the argument. That was an eye-opener for a kid in Fall River. In high school, a friend and I started a political magazine. I was the conservative and he was the liberal, and I think now he is a conservative and I am a liberal, so there you go.
GAZETTE: What’s the difference between being a beat reporter and being a columnist?
DIONNE: It took me a while to adjust, to find my voice as a columnist, even though I’ve always been very opinionated. I took the discipline of old-fashioned reporting — the idea of not being opinionated in your writing — seriously. I had written a book called “Why Americans Hate Politics” before I became a columnist, and it was helpful because it was a kind of coming out in being plain about my own views. But the old journalistic discipline is still very helpful in opinion writing, which should be fact-based and reporting-based. That’s not always the case. I’d still insist that if you want to claim to be both a columnist and a journalist, you must remain fact-based.
In every class I teach, I assign my students George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” his essay that shows how the corruption of language can corrupt politics, and the corruption of politics can corrupt language. He does this wonderful thing with Ecclesiastes 9:11, the great passage “the race is not to the swift.” He rewrites it in vulgar, awful, modern, bureaucratic English, and it’s the most wonderful lesson in how not to corrupt language. Orwell also has some rules about straightforwardness in writing and not using euphemisms and saying what you actually mean.
GAZETTE: Can you compare your book self to your newsroom self?
DIONNE: The book self doesn’t have the word limit so there is a certain freedom there. But there is also the need to organize the material over a long narrative, so there are organizational issues with a book that you don’t face with a column. You still have to cut. One of the reasons I get a kick out of our new book — besides the fact that it was three people on two coasts in four months, which is a very interesting exercise — is that I think we came in at the right length. Our publisher did a great job of putting the book together. It’s long enough so people will see it as substantive, and short enough that people will not see it as daunting. On a book like this you don’t want to write a tome, and yet you want your reader to know this wasn’t a slapdash instant Trump book. We really tried to go beyond just an instant reaction to events that happened 20 minutes ago. We wanted to take seriously the reasons Trump happened.
Again, cutting was critical because there were chapters that were too long. My assistant, Adam Waters, and I were the first-round editors. We chopped and rewrote and sent sections back to our colleagues Norm and Tom. It’s hard cutting somebody else’s work because it’s not yours, but they gave us the freedom to cut. They, in turn, commented on and improved the parts I had written.
GAZETTE: Is there one column that struck the biggest chord with your readers?
DIONNE: The political column that probably had the biggest ripple was one I wrote in 2005 saying the Bush era is over. That struck a particular chord. A couple of columns I wrote on humility and uncertainty, those actually reached people. Then the very personal ones. I wrote a column years ago on summer baseball. I got the most wonderful responses from people.
GAZETTE: Do you have a favorite?
DIONNE: I probably like the columns I wrote about my mom, and my mother-in-law, my dad — I always tell people three great Americans died in 1968: King, Bobby Kennedy, and my dad. Those are the columns that in some ways mean the most to me. Then there are certain moments when I feel I may have pushed an issue forward. You never know what effect a column might have, but there were moments when I felt I just might have affected things for what I saw as the better. But with all the columns I have written this year on Trump, my favorite was the column about Helen Boyle, my mother-in-law. I explained why she will always be one of my heroes. It’s the best case I ever made, and the easiest case I ever had to make.
Interview was edited and condensed.