A People with Passion series
August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman
After spending his childhood in Texas, his collegiate years in Harvard, and his early writing career in Washington D.C., perhaps it is fitting that Steve Chapman found his way to his lifelong career in January of 1981, just as a new Republican president was coasting his way into the White House. Since that time, Chapman has had the opportunity to cover presidents and much more in his duel-role as editorial board member and opinion columnist.
Here, in the eighth installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion series, Chapman talks about discovering George Will, the experience of being the lone conservative voice on a newspaper, and how his writing has benefited from life in Chicago.
I wasn’t interested in journalism growing up. I was interested in politics. That was why I read the op/ed page. When I was in college, George Will came along. Back in those days you had to go buy the paper if you wanted to read it, so I found a place that had the Washington Post. I would pick up the Post on the days he was in, and that was sort of a revelation. Will was the first person I read who combined a literary flair, a real command of substance on the topics he was writing about, and a sense of humor. Milton Friedman was very substantive, and he was a very clear writer, but he wasn’t a particularly entertaining writer. Will was one of those people you could enjoy even if you disagreed with everything he was saying.
I had done a little opinion writing for my high school paper, three or four articles maybe. When I was in college, the Crimson was a very left wing paper. It was a very bad time to be a conservative, or a Libertarian, or a Republican, all of which I was – you couldn’t have found a less hospitable place than Cambridge. One night I was sitting around the grill in the basement of my dorm. There was a friend of mine who was on the Crimson. She was not really a lefty but middle-of-the-road. I was sort of complaining about something the Crimson had published, and she said, “Well if you don’t like it, why don’t you get on and do something about it?” And I said, “Don’t be ridiculous. The Crimson would never have somebody as conservative as I am.” And she said, “I bet they would. I dare you!” She didn’t literally say “I dare you,” but you know, we argued about this, and she finally convinced me to give it a try. I was a junior that year.
They have this process called “The Comp,” short for competition. You have an adviser, one of the students on the paper, who guides you through assignments and editing and so on. At the end of the process you’ve written like five pieces and they decide whether they want to keep you. To my surprise, they kept me. I was a very small ideological minority on the Crimson, but the more I did it, the better I liked it.
I was majoring in history and just figuring I’d go back to Texas, go to law school, and get into politics. I had already worked on some campaigns in Texas. I knew a lot of people in the Texas Republican Party and so on. I worked on one campaign running phone banks for a get-out-the-vote operation. I worked for a political consultant one summer who had me do advance work for a guy who was running for state treasurer. Stuff like that. Stuff college students would do. That was all laying the groundwork for what I wanted to do eventually.
I got a job in Washington working for this lobby group, the National Taxpayers Union, working part time for them so I could try freelancing for magazines. I did a couple pieces for the Washington Monthly, wrote for a couple of Libertarian magazines. And then the New Republic hired me in ’78, and I spent two years there writing opinion stuff. I was kind of the house right-winger. They let me write about things where I wasn’t too far out of step with their view of the world. And it was a great education because I was around people who disagreed with me most of the time, which I had also been at the Crimson. You really learn a lot from being surrounded by people who think differently.
Did you specifically enjoy the challenge of being the one voice over here when the readers were used to the voices over here, and having to find your way to them?
Yeah. It’s good training just in your day-to-day life, because you have to contend with all these people that you work with who have a different view of the world. And it’s also valuable because you learn to frame your arguments in a way that is persuasive even to people who may not share your basic principles. That was certainly what I had to do. I still got a fair amount of grief for being too conservative, and I think I retained that – I try to write in a way that I present facts and arguments that, even if you’re not a Libertarian, you may find persuasive just because the facts and logic lead you in a certain direction.
You came to the Tribune when you were 27?
26. I started in January of ’81. I had been at the New Republic a little over two years.
My life has mostly been a succession of instances of dumb luck. I was sitting in the office at the New Republic one day, and the phone rang, and it was Jack Fuller, who was the deputy editorial page editor here. He said they were looking for somebody to write editorials on economics and business, and would I be interested in coming out to interview for it. I had always thought of myself as a magazine writer. You can go into more depth. You can make more sophisticated arguments and so on. That was what got me interested in journalism. And I really wasn’t interested.
But I had a sister out here going to grad school. I figured, worst case, I get a free trip to see my sister. So I said, “Okay, sure.” I came out and talked to them. It makes for a very relaxed job interview if you don’t care if you get the job, which I didn’t really, to be perfectly honest. I got back and they offered me the job and I turned it down. It was an editorial writing job and I didn’t particularly want to be anonymous. That was what I told Jack Fuller, and he understood. Maybe a week later I got a call from Max McCrohon, who was the editor of the paper. He said, “I understand you don’t particularly want to be anonymous, so what would you think if we gave you a syndicated column?” And I said, “Well, I certainly would have to think about that.”
That trip to see your sister is looking a lot better now.
(Laughs.) I actually took a day or two to think about it, because I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to write for newspapers. But the more I thought about it, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I took it. The deal was I would write editorials and columns. And I’ve been doing that for 30 years now.
I didn’t particularly want to write editorials. And it was a while before I learned to enjoy that part. Part of it is you have more impact when you’re writing an editorial, because it’s the Chicago Tribune, than you do if it’s just me. I also found that I learned an awful lot from meetings. Back in those days we had a meeting everyday. These days we only meet twice a week. And I learned a lot from that. It also gave me an opportunity to focus on some topics that I wasn’t as familiar with – for a few years I basically just wrote editorials about foreign affairs, and I learned a lot from that. At this point, I wouldn’t trade it. I like doing it the way I do it. I don’t think it would be better for my column if I wasn’t doing editorials.
You get a lot of ideas. It’s useful to be in meetings with people who, again, don’t necessarily agree with you. You learn where the weak spots in the arguments are, and sometimes you get your mind changed. You learn about topics you didn’t necessarily know about. Not coming from Chicago, I’ve learned an awful lot about the city from people on the board.
I think Chicago’s a special place. You have a unique vantage point here. In some ways it would have been better for my career if I’d stayed in Washington. In a lot of ways. I don’t get on TV, for example. Maybe I would if I were in Washington. Maybe I’d be better known. But I don’t think I’d be able to do as good of a column, because being in Washington you tend to get caught up in stuff that people elsewhere don’t really care about. In Chicago, I think you have a better sense to what’s pertinent to people’s lives. There’s a substance and texture to Chicago that you don’t have in Washington, which is a one-industry town. It’s valuable at the end of the day to go home and not be surrounded by people who really care a lot about, you know, the committee deliberations in the Senate judiciary committee, stuff like that. Which people in Washington do care about.
I also draw a lot on the resources of the University of Chicago and Northwestern. I’ve learned an awful lot from my dealings with people down there. I can’t tell you how many people down at the law school at the U. of C. I’ve talked to. I feel like I’ve gotten a free legal education over the phone. John Mearsheimer got me started learning about international relations and things like that – I don’t know that I would have been able to find people like that in Washington or elsewhere.
And of course, that’s one of the great benefits of being in journalism or newspapering, reporting – you get to learn about all of these topics.
Right! These people actually return your phone calls and explain to you how they think and what ought to be done. It’s amazing. (Laughs.)
You were possibly a helpful suggestion away from never moving into journalism, newspaering, magazine writing, and possibly a phone call and a sister away from never coming to Chicago.
But you’ve been here 30 years. What is it that you still love every day about what you do?
Learning things I didn’t know. Figuring out how the world works and figuring out a way to present an argument that’s going to persuade people and challenge people and enrich their understanding of the world, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. (Laughs.) It’s an endless education, and I’ve never had any other kind of job since I’ve been out of college, but I don’t know if that’s true of every job. Every day I get to come in here and think about, “What is it that I want to learn today? Who can I find who can explain it to me?” There’s usually something pretty interesting and there are usually people I can find who will help me make sense of it. It’s a real privilege. I don’t ever take it for granted. I love the job. And I never get tired of doing it.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)