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Introduction of GAIL COLLINS
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
at the New York State Writers Institute, University at Albany

By Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union

It’s really a great honor to introduce tonight Gail Collins -- my favorite out-of-town opinion writer… the former editor of the opinion pages of The New York Times (and the first woman to hold that position)… the author of five books... the insightful and influential semiweekly Times op/ed columnist.

Someday, Gail, as your storied career as a journalist and writer continues, you will be introduced at an event of this sort – some evening, it will be true – and the name “Seamus” will not be uttered. But this is not that night, Gail. Seamus remains with you, for better or worse.

Seamus, of course, was Mitt Romney’s dog, who would be as forgotten as he is now gone, by all but the most ardent Romney fans, but for the inclusion of his story, in one little phrase or another, in every column Gail Collins wrote that mentioned Mitt Romney through 2011 and 2012. Just as you used to check an Al Hirschfeld drawing to count the “Ninas,” many of us would eagerly grab a Collins column to find a reference to the dog who during a Romney family vacation was strapped to the roof of the family car – a Rambler station wagon, maybe? I believe Seamus made 68 appearances under the Gail Collins byline. Why, you may ask?

Of course we can say that Seamus was metaphor. Anybody who writes for a mass medium needs to offer concepts in terms that can be digested by ordinary readers. That’s true of even a readership as demographically desirable to advertisers as The New York Times. So we could say that Seamus revealed Romney’s callousness, his weirdness. But there’s another aspect to it, I think, and it tells you something about what makes Gail Collins’s work so appealing, and what lies behind some of her thinking. The story of Seamus was simply fun. Damn, it made us laugh. And you should not overlook the value of bringing delight to readers, especially in a place as fraught with seriousness of purpose and self-impressed pontificators as The New York Times op-ed page.

Gail’s humor is as much her trademark as Maureen Dowd’s snark and George Will’s pomposity is theirs. She uses it as a vehicle to introduce issues and personalities in a way that’s, well, fun. One of the things I do every day is put together a front page, and I know I need to offer both the news people need to know and something they’ll enjoy – both spinach and ice cream. Maybe Gail gives us, I don’t know, Greek yogurt: nutritious, but tasty. (Maybe I should give up metaphor at this point.)

She diminishes the dopes who deserve it with the simple power of observation.   In her book As Texas Goes… How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, she notes that Gov. Rick Perry named his boots Freedom and Liberty… and in a recent column about the arrest of state Senator Malcolm Smith, who stands accused of attempting to buy his way onto the New York mayoral ballot, she writes, “The charges involve politicians acting in such an insanely stupid way, it shatters our longstanding confidence that taking money was the one thing they know how to do well.”

I love the fact that she writes with authority about state government. And that’s how I came to know Gail. I came to Albany in the late 1980s as chief of the state capitol bureau for Newsday and New York Newsday, where Gail was a columnist. She was the only columnist for any downstate newspaper who ever showed up to report in Albany. But she was already comfortable with state capitols, since she had some years before created an independent news service in Connecticut. 

She’s not really from Connecticut – she’s an Ohio girl, the oldest of four kids, daughter of a utility executive and a woman Gail has described as “a traditional housewife.” She went to college at Marquette, then grad school at UMass, before moving to Connecticut, and along the way, before she started writing books, Gail wrote for UPI and she also was a columnist for the New York Daily News. Then in 1995 she became a member of The New York Times editorial board, and I remember thinking at that time, “Wow. How is she going to contain all that creativity in an editorial?” And then, in 2001, she made history as the paper’s first female opinion pages editor – a job in which she displayed both her intellectual depth and her visceral understanding of American culture. She took the job just before 9/11, and held it for more than five years. At the beginning of 2007 she took some time off to write When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present. And then she came back to write her column in late 2007, and she has been delighting us with it ever since.  

She has also written, by the way, The Millennium Book, which she coauthored with her husband, the CBS News producer Dan Collins…and Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics.… and America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines.

What I think sets apart Gail’s work, though, is that it is at once distressing and comforting:  We cringe and shake our heads at the ignorance and ineptitude she reveals among those we charge with leading and representing us – but because of the way she makes us laugh, ruefully, she signals to us that, really, we’ll be OK. There is a deep humanity in her work that is bred of optimism, of understanding that we’re all flawed, and that there have been fools and knaves in power forever. And she challenges us, then, to recognize that it’s our task to pick up the cudgel and make things better. And if we fail to do so, we’ll be left with guys who lash Irish setters to the roofs of Ramblers, and it’ll be our own fault.

So Seamus would join in the welcome we give you. Ladies and gentlemen, Gail Collins.