A Farewell to Readers, With Hope
Oct. 28, 2021
Credit... David Smoler
Mr. Kristof was a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and reporter for The Times for 37 years. He is now a candidate for governor of Oregon.
My life was transformed when I was 25 years old and nervously walked into a job interview in the grand office of Abe Rosenthal, the legendary and tempestuous editor of The New York Times. At one point, I disagreed with him, so I waited for him to explode and call security. Instead, he stuck out his hand and offered me a job.
Exhilaration washed over me: I was a kid and had found my employer for the rest of my life! I was sure that I would leave The Times only feet first.
Yet this is my last column for The Times. I am giving up a job I love to run for governor of Oregon.
It’s fair to question my judgment. When my colleague William Safire was asked if he would give up his Times column to be secretary of state, he replied, “Why take a step down?”
So why am I doing this?
I’m getting to that, but first a few lessons from my 37 years as a Times reporter, editor and columnist.
In particular, I want to make clear that while I’ve spent my career on the front lines of human suffering and depravity, covering genocide, war, poverty and injustice, I’ve emerged firmly believing that we can make real progress by summoning the political will. We are an amazing species, and we can do better.
Lesson No. 1: Side by side with the worst of humanity, you find the best.
The genocide in Darfur seared me and terrified me. To cover the slaughter there, I sneaked across borders, slipped through checkpoints, ingratiated myself with mass murderers.
In Darfur, it was hard to keep from weeping as I interviewed shellshocked children who had been shot, raped or orphaned. No one could report in Darfur and not smell the evil in the air. Yet alongside the monsters, I invariably found heroes.
There were teenagers who volunteered to use their bows and arrows to protect their villages from militiamen with automatic weapons. There were aid workers, mostly local, who risked their lives to deliver assistance. And there were ordinary Sudanese like Suad Ahmed, a then-25-year-old Darfuri woman I met in one dusty refugee camp.
Suad had been out collecting firewood with her 10-year-old sister, Halima, when they saw the janjaweed, a genocidal militia, approaching on horseback.
“Run!” Suad told her sister. “You must run and escape.”
Then Suad created a diversion so the janjaweed chased her rather than Halima. They caught Suad, brutally beat her and gang-raped her, leaving her too injured to walk.
Suad played down her heroism, telling me that even if she had fled, she might have been caught anyway. She said that her sister’s escape made the sacrifice worth it.
Even in a landscape of evil, the most memorable people aren’t the Himmlers and Eichmanns but the Anne Franks and Raoul Wallenbergs — and Suad Ahmeds — capable of exhilarating goodness in the face of nauseating evil. They are why I left the front lines not depressed but inspired.
Lesson No. 2: We largely know how to improve well-being at home and abroad. What we lack is the political will.
Good things are happening that we often don’t acknowledge, and they’re a result of a deeper understanding of what works to make a difference. That may seem surprising coming from the Gloom Columnist, who has covered starvation, atrocities and climate devastation. But just because journalists cover planes that crash, not those that land, doesn’t mean that all flights are crashing.
Consider this: Historically, almost half of humans died in childhood; now only 4 percent do. Every day in recent years, until the Covid-19 pandemic, another 170,000 people worldwide emerged from extreme poverty. Another 325,000 obtained electricity each day. Some 200,000 gained access to clean drinking water. The pandemic has been a major setback for the developing world, but the larger pattern of historic gains remains — if we apply lessons learned and redouble efforts while tackling climate policy.
Here in the United States, we have managed to raise high school graduation rates, slash veteran homelessness by half and cut teen pregnancy by more than 60 percent since the modern peak in 1991. These successes should inspire us to do more: If we know how to reduce veteran homelessness, then surely we can apply the same lessons to reduce child homelessness.
Lesson No. 3: Talent is universal, even if opportunity is not.
The world’s greatest untapped resource is the vast potential of people who are not fully nurtured or educated — a reminder of how much we stand to gain if we only make better investments in human capital.
The most remarkable doctor I ever met was not a Harvard Medical School graduate. Indeed, she had never been to medical school or any school. But Mamitu Gashe, an illiterate Ethiopian woman, suffered an obstetric fistula and underwent long treatments at a hospital. While there, she began to help out.
Overworked doctors realized she was immensely smart and capable, and they began to give her more responsibilities. Eventually she began to perform fistula repairs herself, and over time she became one of the world’s most distinguished fistula surgeons. When American professors of obstetrics went to the hospital to learn how to repair fistulas, their teacher was often Mamitu.
But, of course, there are so many other Mamitus, equally extraordinary and capable, who never get the chance.
A few years ago, I learned that a homeless third grader from Nigeria had just won the New York State chess championship for his age group. I visited the boy, Tanitoluwa “Tani” Adewumi, and his family in their homeless shelter and wrote about them — and the result was more than $250,000 in donations for the Adewumis, along with a vehicle, full scholarships to private schools, job offers for the parents, pro bono legal help and free housing.
What came next was perhaps still more moving. The Adewumis accepted the housing but put the money in a foundation to help other homeless immigrants. They kept Tani in his public school out of gratitude to officials who waived chess club fees when he was a novice.
Tani has continued to rise in the chess world. Now 11, he won the North American chess championship for his age group and is a master with a U.S. Chess Federation rating of 2262.
But winning a state chess championship is not a scalable way to solve homelessness.
The dazzling generosity in response to Tani’s success is heartwarming, but it needs to be matched by a generous public policy. Kids should get housing even if they’re not chess prodigies.
We didn’t build the Interstate System of highways with bake sales and volunteers. Rigorous public investment — based on data as well as empathy — is needed to provide systemic solutions to educational failure and poverty, just as it was to create freeways.
In this country we’re often cynical about politics, sometimes rolling our eyes at the idea that democratic leaders make much of a difference. Yet for decades I’ve covered pro-democracy demonstrators in Poland, Ukraine, China, South Korea, Mongolia and elsewhere, and some of their idealism has rubbed off on me.
One Chinese friend, an accountant named Ren Wanding, spent years in prison for his activism, even writing a two-volume treatise on democracy and human rights with the only materials he had: toilet paper and the nib of a discarded pen.
At Tiananmen Square in 1989, I watched Chinese government troops open fire with automatic weapons on pro-democracy demonstrators. And then in an extraordinary display of courage, rickshaw drivers pedaled their wagons out toward the gunfire to pick up the bodies of the young people who had been killed or injured. One burly rickshaw driver, tears streaming down his cheeks, swerved to drive by me slowly so I could bear witness — and he begged me to tell the world.
Those rickshaw drivers weren’t cynical about democracy: They were risking their lives for it. Such courage abroad makes me all the sadder to see people in this country undermining our democratic institutions. But protesters like Ren inspired me to ask if I should engage more fully in America’s democratic life.
That’s why I am leaving a job I love.
I’ve written regularly about the travails of my beloved hometown, Yamhill, Ore., which has struggled with the loss of good working-class jobs and the arrival of meth. Every day I rode to Yamhill Grade School and then Yamhill-Carlton High School on the No. 6 bus. Yet today more than one-quarter of my pals on my old bus are dead from drugs, alcohol and suicide — deaths of despair.
The political system failed them. The educational system failed them. The health system failed them. And I failed them. I was the kid on the bus who won scholarships, got the great education — and then went off to cover genocides half a world away.
While I’m proud of the attention I gave to global atrocities, it sickened me to return from humanitarian crises abroad and find one at home. Every two weeks, we lose more Americans from drugs, alcohol and suicide than in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan — and that’s a pandemic that the media hasn’t adequately covered and our leaders haven’t adequately addressed.
As I was chewing on all this, the Covid pandemic made suffering worse. One friend who had been off drugs relapsed early in the pandemic, became homeless and overdosed 17 times over the next year. I’m terrified for her and for her child.
I love journalism, but I also love my home state. I keep thinking of Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum: “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,” he said. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
I’m bucking the journalistic impulse to stay on the sidelines because my heart aches at what classmates have endured and it feels like the right moment to move from covering problems to trying to fix them.
I hope to convince some of you that public service in government can be a path to show responsibility for communities we love, for a country that can do better. Even if that means leaving a job I love.