Nicholas Kristof
Former New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, left, talks about his candidacy for governor of Oregon, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, outside the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, in Portland, Oregon. His wife, Sheryl WuDunn, right, and his mother, Jane Kristof, center, look on. (AP Photo/Sara Cline)

I have some questions for Nicholas Kristof. But I can’t ask them—and I need someone to ask them for me.

As most newspaper readers have probably heard, the former New York Times columnist is running for governor of my home state, Oregon. He announced his candidacy in the Democratic primary on October 27, and issued a video saying, “Let’s make Oregon a place that rewards American values like hard work and initiative, but that also understands that being down on your luck should never be a death sentence.”

The Kristof campaign is a national story—of a world-class journalist who has given up his prestigious post to try to succeed as a political outsider. It is also a state-level story—of a candidate seeking to bring fresh eyes to Oregonians’ problems. That is, Kristof’s success may tell us whether there is a hunger among blue voters for new leadership for their party and their communities. Yet it will also determine important things about the lives of 4.2 million people who, like me, live here.

Why would Kristof leave journalism after achieving its apex, a regular spot on the Times op-ed page? Doing that is actually a very smart move. Being a columnist is the greatest job in the world right up until the moment that you run out of things to say—which eventually happens to anyone. I can cite you a dozen hotshot reporters who turned to column writing and ended up matching Tom Wolfe’s famous description of Walter Lippmann, who “seemed to do nothing more than ingest the Times every morning, turn it over in his ponderous cud for a few days, and then methodically egest it in the form of a drop of mush.”

I am not suggesting that the Times’s current op-ed stable houses any spavined steeds—of course not, good heavens—but I am suggesting that columnists should be alert for signs of this degenerative condition. Those who leave the business early may burnish their legacies more than those who linger on and on and on, vanquishing and re-vanquishing long-dead foes, retailing insider tales of forgotten administrations, and warning this or that politician to get off their lawns.

As for the idea that a journalist isn’t equipped for politics, history suggests otherwise. Beginning with Benjamin Franklin and extending at least until the mid-19th century, print has offered young people a chance to learn about politics and make an impact at a young age, then to cross into activism or even political candidacy.

At the presidential level, the results are mixed: Horace Greeley, probably the most influential newspaper publisher of the Civil War era, ran for president in 1872 as a liberal Republican and lost badly to the incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant. (Offered a chance to make Greeley’s case, his running mate, B. Gratz Brown, mustered only that he had “the largest head in America.”) Warren G. Harding owned and edited The Marion Star, in Ohio, before entering the Senate; John F. Kennedy was briefly a special correspondent for Hearst Newspapers after the Second World War. Al Gore was an Army combat journalist in Vietnam, then spent three years as an investigative reporter for The Tennessean in Nashville.  

As for down-ballot races, William Randolph Hearst served two terms in Congress, then began a losing streak that earned him the nickname “Also-Ran.” Senator Jesse Helms was a popular TV commentator in North Carolina before entering the Senate in 1972. William F. Buckley Jr. ran for mayor of New York in 1965; he came in third. (If elected, he said, he would demand a recount.) Four years later, Norman Mailer tried for the same office; he came in fourth. The pioneer blogger Mickey Kaus ran for the California Senate nomination as a “Common Sense Democrat” in 2010; he came in third. As for governorships, the novelist Upton Sinclair comes to mind. His 1934 “End Poverty in California” candidacy for the Sacramento statehouse was dead serious—only a propaganda mobilization by the Hollywood studios stopped him from winning.

Finally, and most important in this context, Oregon’s greatest modern governor, Tom McCall, was a print reporter and radio and TV commentator for nearly 30 years before taking office in Salem and gaining passage of the basics of Oregon’s successful environmental and land use regulatory system.

Kristof’s candidacy might well attract voters who are tired of politics as usual and who see in him the potential of reaching across the current cultural and partisan divide. (In one sign of public interest, the Kristof campaign reported in early November that it had raised $1 million in less than a month.) In 2020, he coauthored Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, with his wife, the former journalist Sheryl WuDunn. (The two shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for their reporting on the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.) Tightrope analyzes the current state of American society through the lens of Kristof’s own youth on a farm in rural Yamhill County, Oregon. Born in 1959, Kristof recalls growing up in a largely working-class and agricultural community—but one in which families had reason to believe that life would get better for them, and for other Americans. Instead, Kristof and WuDunn write, “those kids ended up riding into a cataclysm, as working-class communities disintegrated across America, felled by lost jobs, broken families and despair. About one-fourth of the kids who rode with Nick on the bus are dead of drugs, suicide, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and other pathologies.”

Tightrope is a terrific book, regardless of what one thinks of Kristof’s proposed policy responses, which include improved early childhood programs, universal high-school graduation, elimination of unwanted pregnancies, a monthly child allowance for families, programs to wipe out child homelessness, and a “baby bond” given to each child at birth to generate wealth as kids grow up, and programs to guarantee a job for any American who wants one.

This program would make America a better place not just for those on the Number 6 bus but for everyone. The book’s approach to the social issues tearing the country apart, on the other hand, is muted. The authors support criminal justice reform, but their approach to other aspects of the country’s racial divisions is to suggest that more good working-class jobs will alleviate them. The “guaranteed job” program centers on a program of wage insurance for unemployed workers who take low-wage private-sector jobs when forced to leave the higher-paid skilled positions that are disappearing.

Though Tightrope begins with a harrowing account of how domestic violence destroyed the family of one of Kristof’s neighbors, the program does not include any measures specifically aimed at that problem. The plea for expanded contraception is reticent about the role of abortion rights in women’s health. Better working-class jobs for all will do little to address the ongoing problems of police violence against communities of color, workplace discrimination, and hate crimes—a serious problem in Oregon. (Native American communities—Oregon has nine federally recognized tribes—appear in Tightrope solely in a footnote.) Sexual orientation issues are touched on at best briefly; the word lesbian does not appear in the book. Though they discuss the need for affordable housing, other specifically urban programs, such as mass transit, get little focus. Climate change (whose impact, urban and rural, falls heavily on the kinds of families they are writing about) is not mentioned at all.

Unanswered questions remain, especially for a candidate who seeks to lead a state of more than 4 million people, especially one whose population is two-thirds urban, with nearly half living in the Portland metro area. It may be unfair to treat Tightrope as a political program—but right now, it’s all I’ve got to go on.

I wanted to ask Kristof about these and other issues. Kristof, however, told me he is “focusing on Oregon news organizations. There are many of them all around the state, and we feel it’s important to accommodate them and their readers/viewers/listeners first.”

Translation: No interview.

I will pass delicately over the irony, but note that the boundary between those who write for in-state media and those who write for national media may be more porous than it might seem. I taught at the University of Oregon for 16 years. I was away from Oregon for 12 years and moved back in 2020; I voted in Oregon last year. I’ve been involved in Oregon politics at every level from 1994 on and have written about the subject for local media, including the state’s flagship paper, The Oregonian. I am neither an out of stater nor (alas) a bigfoot, media-wise.

I’m not interested in questions like, “Will his star power win the horse race?” I really want to know what he as governor would try to do. Though he announced his candidacy on October 27, he has not made many media appearances, and his remarks to date have not been terribly specific. His campaign website recounts the story of the Number 6 bus, but offers few policy specifics. There is no “Nick on the Issues” page. The “Media” page offers no “Contact” link; the “News” link offers only brief essays by Kristof. There seems to be no list of upcoming appearances and no place to sign up for press releases and issue statements.

Can Kristof win a Democratic primary? I have no idea. I do want to know, however, whether he should win against a number of seasoned progressive Democrats who are already running. (Because Governor Kate Brown is term-limited, the Democratic race has attracted at least two powerful candidates: Tina Kotek, a Portland-area progressive who has been speaker of the house since 2013 and has wrestled some contentious bills through a sometimes skittish legislature, and State Treasurer Tobias Read, also from the Portland area, a moderate Democrat who argues that his focus on consensus sets him off from Kotek. Political observers far more experienced than I am take them both seriously. Meanwhile, State Senator Betsy Johnson, a kind of moderate Joe Manchin figure in the Senate Democratic caucus, is running as an independent, having branded the current Democratic Party too far to the left. She has the personal wealth, and the contacts, to raise big bucks.

So herewith some questions I’d like the next Oregon governor to address. They are pitched at Kristof, but perhaps someone can ask them of all of these candidates:

  1. Of the ten proposals in Tightrope, which ones can Oregon’s state government advance—and what should be the priorities? Some of them—early childhood programs, for example—seem more amenable to state-level solutions than others, such as “baby bonds.” An ancillary question is that in a state perennially strapped for funds, the amount of spare money floating around is limited. How would these programs be financed? Would Kristof attempt tax reform—and if so, what would the reform be?
  2. Is there a reason that urban problems receive short shrift in Tightrope? The focus on the Number 6 bus is a brilliant narrative device—but has using the problems of Kristof’s friends from Yamhill (population 1,677) as a jumping-off place perhaps led him to ignore the problems of Portland, the state’s crown jewel, where nearly half the state’s people live? Portland has been wracked with deadly political violence and widespread allegations of police brutality. In 2020, Donald Trump made the Rose City a target not only of MAGA outrage but also of aggressive, extralegal federal enforcement. What can a governor do about urban violence, political dissension, and persistent allegations of police abuse—problems that are the traditional concern of state governments?
  3. Environmental issues in Oregon have an urgency that is difficult to convey to readers east of the Mississippi. On Labor Day 2020, the state suffered an apocalypse-level event, with multiple wildfires that eventually consumed a million acres, cost 11 lives, and wiped out entire towns on the slopes of the Cascades. My wife and I spent a week indoors, huddled next to an air purifier while a blizzard of toxic ash fell outside our windows. We worried how we—and our 90-year-old neighbor—would get out if the “Leave now” order came. Events like these have, at least for now, somewhat muted climate denial in the state. In 2019 and 2020, Republicans walked out of the state legislature to prevent a quorum that would permit passage of Brown’s “cap-and-trade” climate policy; in 2019, when the governor noted that state law made the defecting lawmakers subject to arrest, one GOP member pledged to shoot any state police officers sent his way. Since then, the state has adopted a climate program aimed at reducing carbon emissions, but some environmental groups argue that it is far from adequate. Climate policy, though, remains a divisive issue in a state whose contemporary economy is about retail, tourism, technology, and sports apparel, while its roots lie in logging, fishing, mining, and ranching.
  4. Adapting to climate, and working toward sustainability, is a complex problem that requires highly specific and complex negotiations among the state, its localities, the federal government, the state’s nine federally recognized Indian tribes, the agricultural and wood products industries, and other business interests. The issues are manifold; land use policy, water allocations, forest management, and energy are just a few of them. The ability to engage public support will be crucial. Can Kristof get up to speed on this—and does he realize the urgency of doing so?
  5. Finally, a question that is not intended to point to horse race politics, but to a cultural problem that has become a political one. Tightrope’s authors point out that Trump’s rise was powered by millions of voters who shifted from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to voting for Trump in 2016 and 2020; shifting them back will be difficult, and maybe impossible. A number of those Kristof and WuDunn interview vividly describe the negative effects of conservative economic policies—then indicate that they remain Trump supporters. “Friends in Yamhill,” the authors report, “often supported Trump as the outsider who would drain the swamp, bring back jobs in manufacturing and primary industries, and restore a period when working-class lives were steadily getting better.” The question this raises is whether, with his rural roots and policy agenda, Kristof thinks he can break through this growing cultural barrier with rural voters better than other Democratic candidates, and not at the same time undermine the support he will need from the Democratic base in a state that, population-wise, is largely urban and blue.

I can’t ask these questions; but the Washington Monthly actually is read inside Oregon. I hope this essay will inspire a few of our readers to ask some of them. Oregon’s reporters know more than I do about these issues, but maybe they’ll see value in my questions, too—or let me know whether they are the wrong questions to ask, and, if so, what the right ones are.

Garrett Epps

Follow Garrett on Twitter @ProfEpps. Garrett Epps is legal affairs editor of the Washington Monthly. He has taught constitutional law at American University, the University of Baltimore, Boston College, Duke, and the University of Oregon. He is the author of American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.