Journalist Gail Collins

The New York Times columnist and best-selling author discusses her text, As Texas Goes…, and shares her thoughts on events surrounding this year’s presidential election.

In 2001, Gail Collins became the first female editor of The New York Times editorial page. She joined the paper in 1995 as a member of its editorial board and later became an Op-Ed columnist. She's also a best-selling author, whose books include When Everything Changed and, her latest, As Texas Goes.... Collins previously reported for Newsday, the New York Daily News and UPI and began her journalism career in Connecticut, where she founded a state news bureau, which became the largest news service of its kind in the U.S., and hosted a program for local public TV. She's also taught at several universities.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Gail Collins back to this program. Her columns in “The New York Times” have been must-read copy for years now, following her tenure as editor of the “Times'” editorial page.

She is also a best-selling author whose latest text is called “As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda.” She joins us tonight from New York. Gail, good to have you back on the program.

Gail Collins: Good to be back.

Tavis: Before I get into the text, let me start with a couple of items in the news that you have been talking about of late in your columns. I’ll start with the Wisconsin recall that we are on the eve of as we conduct this conversation. Your sense of what might happen there and how what might happen there will impact the national agenda come this fall?

Collins: Well, it’s very much a Wisconsin thing. Wisconsin is sort of one of those states that’s kind of self-aware, and I don’t know how much national impact it’ll have, except that if the governor does not get recalled, if the governor stays in office, it’ll be because the conservatives, the right wing, had more enthusiasm.

I don’t know that it’s a difference. It doesn’t appear to be a difference as far as position so much as the fact that this is going to be a test of which side is more enthusiastic, which side cares the most, and that’s what people will be looking for.

Tavis: But you don’t think there’ll be any reverb, or put another way, any story line coming out of Wisconsin on the national level about the power of the Tea Party, about the weakness of unions and about the issue of collective bargaining? You don’t see any national trends or storylines coming out of Wisconsin?

Collins: Well, in Ohio a different thing happened. In Ohio, the unions won in the same kind of a fight. The interesting thing to me about Wisconsin is that you have a guy who ran for governor without talking about this issue. This guy did not run for governor saying, “If elected, I’m going to get rid of collective bargaining rights for public employees,” didn’t really come up.

Then suddenly, after he’s elected, he pops it on the state, and that does seem to me, when you’re doing something that radical, it’s something that you need to prepare for, to have a conversation with the state about, which he didn’t do.

Tavis: Mm. All right. John Edwards – I saw your piece last Saturday, and I think the opening line was something like, John Edwards, sort of not guilty, and then you went on from there. (Laughter)

Collins: Yeah.

Tavis: So for those who did not see your piece last Saturday, or your post-mortem on the John Edwards trial, assuming – I say “post-mortem” as if it isn’t going to come back again. Let me start with that. You think he’s going to be re-tried again?

Collins: Of all the things that Americans don’t want to do this year, I would say number two now is have another deficit debate, because number one is I think have another John Edwards trial.

Tavis: (Laughs) So what’s your sense of what did transpire in that North Carolina courtroom?

Collins: Well, it was a very complicated case. It was all – campaign finance is hard for average people to understand under the best of circumstances, and you had a kind of a very narrow question, and you had a main witness who is possibly as slimy as is the guy who was being tried.

So it didn’t work out on any level, and it was a very strange case to bring to trial. I was surprised all along this thing ever went to trial.

Tavis: Yeah. So your sense of the sincerity and the path forward for John Edwards. He mentioned that he wanted to spend the rest of his life working on issues of poverty. He mentioned poverty specifically for children in America.

I’ve been talking about this issue. It is obviously a legitimate issue, but what’s your sense of the connection between John Edwards and the issue of poverty? An issue, by the way, to his credit, that he did raise on the campaign trail.

He’s the last person running for president to really put this issue on the forefront in a campaign.

Collins: He certainly did talk about it, yes. He talked about it during the campaign. I would say on behalf of everybody I know in the American public, if he wants to go to some remote part of the country and work on issues regarding impoverished children, we will be incredibly impressed, as long as he never tells us about it and just quietly goes and does it.

We’ve been through politicians having sex crises here in New York with the Eliot Spitzer mess some years back, and when he was going to go and help do something to fix the world too and he found up doing a TV show, it wasn’t really what we had in mind.

Tavis: Yeah. But since you raised it, what do you make of that? What do you make of the fact that politicians who’ve been run out of office who have been thrown under – have put themselves, quite frankly, under the bus, the end up back in the media spotlight?

Eliot Spitzer now is on his second or third television program. So maybe the way to get on TV these days, maybe the way to host your own show is to run for office, get caught up in a sex scandal (laughter) and make a rebound. You tell me. Seriously, what do you make of the fact that these guys keep coming back?

Collins: Let’s hope not. Well, what naturally you want to do if you were a prominent person in the public light and you are disgraced, you want to make a comeback, and normally that begins with somebody saying, “I want to do something to help people. I want to do something to help the lepers in the Third World. I want to do something to help abandoned wives in India.”

There’s billions of great causes, but actually, most people don’t really want to go to those places and deal with them. They want to kind of talk about them, because that’s what they do.

Tavis: All right. So we started in Wisconsin, went down to North Carolina. I think we just went back up to New York where you are with Spitzer, and now we’ll go down to the heart of Texas – deep in the heart of Texas.

I thought the adage was “Don’t mess with Texas.” What are you doing, writing a book about Texas? (Laughter)

Collins: I guess I shouldn’t. That’s the interesting thing about Texas. Texas is so self-aware. I come from Ohio. Nobody in Ohio would ever say, “Don’t mess with Ohio.” It just never comes up.

But it’s a part of the fascinatingness of Texas, that it does – people in Texas are so aware of themselves as Texans. I find that fascinating.

Tavis: The premise of your book, which we’ll get deeper into in just a second, I thought about the premise of the book and the fact that I live in California. One could make the same argument about California that you make about Texas, which is that what happens in California either casts a long shadow or a long sunbeam across the country.

Same is true of Texas. What happens in Texas politically oftentimes casts a long sunbeam – more often, to my mind, at least, a long shadow – across the country. So why the fascination with Texas as opposed to, say, a place like California, where the same thing could be said?

Collins: Well, we’re used to California being important, and I do remember a period in the ’80s in which – I remember calling somebody to talk about some issue about the East Coast, calling somebody in California and being yelled and saying, “Not Pacific Rim, it’s irrelevant. Nothing is relevant but the Pacific Rim.” That was California’s moment.

California now is, of course, struggling. It’s still a great state, but it’s – I don’t think you could say it’s really leading the way on any side in the political discourse.

What fascinated me about Texas is when you look at Texas, although it’s so angry about the federal government, so why is the federal government picking on us all the time, basically, Texas has been setting the federal agenda for the last 30 years.

If you look at the savings and loan crisis, if you look at banking deregulation, environment, energy, No Child Left Behind, these were – plus three land wars – these were all things that sort of came out of, in one way or another, Texas, and now you have the Tea Party, which has very much of a Texas cast.

I think of it as sort of – the political divide in America, for me, anyway, is between the places that think of themselves as empty places and crowded places. People who live in crowded places like government. They like the idea that government will be the arbitrator that will protect them from criminals, from dogs that poop on the sidewalk, from sewer main explosions.

They’re all crowded together and they like government. People who think of themselves as being in empty places resent government, because it seems to them they’re out there on their own and there’s no reason why government should mess with them and get in their way.

The fascinating thing about Texas is that Texas thinks of itself as an empty place, but it’s huge, it’s growing by leaps and bounds, and the vast majority of its citizens live in metropolitan areas. But yet they do think of themselves that way – as people kind of on the lone prairie.

Tavis: If Texas had that much power, that much influence, that much sway over the national agenda, what do you make of the fact that Rick Perry couldn’t even get off the ground?

Collins: Well, the one thing I’ve got to say about Texas is that although their members of Congress have been historically very powerful, although the Tea Party, the first great founder of the Tea Party was Dick Armey, it was sort of based on the thinking of Ron Paul early on.

It’s very Texas in its flavor. But Texas, natural Texas politicians make terrible, terrible presidential candidates. Phil Gramm, I remember the Phil Gramm for president campaign. I thought that was the worst thing in the history of the world, but Rick Perry was possibly worse.

The Bushes were sort of imported into Texas, and they’re the only ones that really made it work in our time.

Tavis: So tell me more about this disconnect between Texas politicians oftentimes being unable to play on the national stage. Clearly there are exceptions – George Bush, Lyndon Johnson. There are exceptions, obviously, but what’s your sense of the disconnect between how well they play on the stage in Texas?

These people that you just mentioned are bigger-than-life personalities inside the state, but they can’t seem to make the jump to the national stage, even though, to your earlier point, the state drives so often the federal agenda. Tell me more about that disconnect.

Collins: It’s very interesting, and I think it’s partly because Texas politics is in some ways not very competitive. You have a very, very low voter turnout. It’s one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. You don’t have many districts at all anymore that have any kind of political competition between the parties.

It’s just really, really, really minimal. So it’s possible you could argue that what plays in Texas doesn’t necessarily play nationally. Lyndon Johnson could never have gotten elected president if of course he hadn’t been vice president when John Kennedy was shot.

The Bushes were certainly part of Texas in their mind, but they didn’t have the kind of political flavor that you normally find in Texas politicians. It’s just Texas is such a unique place to itself that politically, at least so far, they haven’t found anybody to play nationally.

Tavis: You mentioned a number of issues on which Texas has been pushing the national agenda, leading it, oftentimes, for better or for worse. One of those areas that I’ve been studying a lot over the years is the issue of education, specifically with regard to textbooks, and you go into that, and I’m glad you do.

Tell us more about the impact that education in Texas has had on textbooks, on thought, on ideology expressed in those textbooks that kids across the country get forced to read and to learn from.

Collins: Texas has had a remarkable influence on the textbooks that everybody gets in this country, because A, it’s so huge. It’s such a huge market for the textbook publishers. B, until recently it had a system in which the state board of education, the state school board, would recommend three or four books for each subject area, each grade, and then would pay for any of those if a school chose them.

So if you weren’t on that very short Texas list, you were out a ton of money. If you were on that very short Texas list, you could sell a lot of textbooks really fast. So everybody wanted to please that state school board, and the people who – they were elected. The people on the board are elected, and again, as I said, there’s very little turnout in Texas in many elections, especially these sort of off-year school board deals.

So you had a very intense right-wing electorate who came out, who turned out and who elected school boards that were really nuts for a while back there. You had one woman on the board who thought that public schools were the tool of the devil, and she’s serving on the state school board.

You had many people on the board who didn’t believe in evolution. They were very aggressive in trying to get changes in the school textbooks that would reflect their beliefs. So for a long time you had people changing, publishers changing their school textbooks dramatically to reflect the things they thought the Texas school board wanted.

Right now, by now the school board has been much hemmed in. It’s not nearly as aggressive as it was. But I’ll tell you, Tavis, the thing that it really did, the real huge impact of Texas – and to be fair, other states that do the same thing – is that they’ve made the textbooks impossible for kids to read because the publishers are so worried about offending somebody and so eager to stick in each of their little boxes to check all the possibilities.

In Texas they wanted to make sure that some motorcycle race winner was, you know, that he had a mention in the history books that their kids were using. If you have that kind of mentality, you just can’t write anything that’s really fascinating. You can’t have a very aggressive narration, so you tend to get these books that are very schmooshy and hard to read and incoherent, and I blame Texas for a lot of that.

Tavis: What about the issue of abstinence in public education?

Collins: Yeah, Texas has generally, most of their schools have taught abstinence-only sex education, which I remember during Rick Perry’s last run for governor he was being interviewed on TV by the owner of the “Texas Tribune,” who said, “This abstinence-only sex education doesn’t seem to be working that well since we have the third-highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the country,” and Perry said, “No, no, it’s good, it’s good.”

Evans said, “Well, but how is it good, because we’ve got the second-highest rate of repeat teenage pregnancies in the country. What’s the good part? Why is it good?” and Perry said, “All I can tell you is I know personally, from personal experience, that abstinence works.”

I found that so fascinating that I really wanted to follow this down the line, but there was a big study done a few years ago on what each of these school districts was teaching as far as sex education went, and most of them made no mention whatsoever of condoms, except to say that they didn’t work.

There were some that were using theories about when a woman gets pregnant that had not, I swear to you, been seen since colonial days. There were many of them that talked about how you would die if you had sex.

Of course, if you can talk kids into never having sex until they’re out of high school, that’s great, but the problem is that once they do, that horse is sort of out of the barn and you’ve got to figure out a way to make sure they do it safely.

California’s a state that’s been very successful on that level. Texas doesn’t do that, and as a result you have very high teenage pregnancies and Texas has also been at war with, of course, Planned Parenthood, very unenthusiastic about family planning services.

You’ve got a very, very high birth rate, and 60 percent, I think, of the women giving birth give birth under Medicaid because they’re so poor. So to me, when I look at these things, these are things that are happening within Texas, but they don’t really stay within Texas.

Medicaid is something we pay for as a nation. We pay part of those fees, and we’re happy to do it, I hope, as a nation. It’s good to be helping poor people get healthcare. But then for a state to say you have no right to have any discussion about what we teach as far as sex education, what we do as far as family planning, seems to me questionable.

I’ve been trying to figure out here where states’ rights end and where your responsibility to the nation as a whole begins, and that’s a really good example.

Tavis: There’s going to be great debate – there already is, of course, as you well know – there’s going to be great debate in the coming weeks and months about the Hispanic vote in this country and how well Mr. Obama will do, and what Mr. Romney’s going to do to siphon off some of that, or certainly to turn those voters against Mr. Obama, given that he hasn’t really done anything on immigration reform.

No place is this battle more acute than in Texas. Your sense, or at least your research says what to you about the growing Hispanic population in the state of Texas, and how that issue, connected to immigration and others, will play out on the national stage.

Collins: Well, the interesting thing for me about Texas is that Texas is already a majority/minority state.

Tavis: Right.

Collins: Within the next decade or so they’re likely to become a majority Hispanic state. But it doesn’t really translate yet into political victory for the Democrats, who expect to pick up most of those Hispanic votes, because the turnout is very low among Latino voters in many parts of Texas.

All the new laws that keep being passed that make it more difficult to register to vote, that make it more difficult to vote, that demand that you have certain kinds of voter ID in order to get in to vote, that says in Texas, for instance, that you have the right to vote if you can show your gun license, your gun permit, but not if you show your university student ID – that doesn’t count – suggests to me that there is a feeling, a desire to keep the turnout lower among young people, Hispanic people, poorer people, in states like this.

Tavis: Texas for years now has been known as the state in the country that puts more people to death. Your sense or your research says to you what about the death penalty debate?

Across the country, I think it’s fair to say – I could certainly point to research and data that suggests that there are states across the country that are starting to re-think the death penalty. Certainly death penalty or anti-death penalty advocates are making that case time and time again, that thankfully, states are starting to rethink this issue. Are they rethinking this in Texas?

Collins: I think that you could argue they are. I would not expect any enormous flood of racing to ending the death penalty in Texas, but all of the really harsh criminal justice policies in Texas have had the effect of raising the cost of prisons in Texas hugely, and it’s not only just the question of guys who are sent to prison and they’re going to be there for a while.

If you’ve got a death penalty case, it can go on for quite some time. All of these things add cost to the state, and to the degree that any kind of harsh criminal justice laws lead to higher costs, I think they are being rethought, even in Texas.

Tavis: Speaking of the national election, how is Romney going to play in Texas, and how do you think this campaign, period, plays out in Texas specifically?

Collins: Oh, Texas is like my state, New York, except the opposite. Nobody’s going to come here. Nobody’s going to campaign here. Texas is a red state, and I think Romney, very rightfully, counts that in his pocket right now.

Tavis: More broadly, what do you – this is, again, a very big question, but take whatever piece of it you want – what’s your sense of the campaign as we sit here now? Obviously, these things will change a gazillion times between now and Election Day.

But now that we know that Texas, speaking of Texas, put Mr. Romney over the top with regards to the delegates he needed to secure the nomination, your sense of how this is going to play out between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney as the summer wears on?

Collins: Well, it’s going to be – everybody knows these things – it’s going to be a race that’s going to be fought out in about 10 states, and it’s going to be fought out in a population of independent voters who have just not even tuned in yet, for the most part, and it’s going to be fought out in populations of only sometimes showing up at the polls voters, to see who actually will turn out.

Those people too are the last ones who tend to get involved, so the people who right now are sitting there on both sides, biting their nails, nothing can happen for you guys – you are where you are and you’ll be fine, and you will vote the way you’ll vote.

The very small group in the middle of it, where everybody’s trying to get to, is not going to engage in this race until the fall. So although it’s going to be fascinating and we’re going to be watching it every day, I can’t say that unless it’s super-duper dramatic, anything that happens this week or next week or even next month is going to make the difference.

Tavis: To that small group that you’re talking about that we’re going to start to really focus on like a laser come the fall, do you think these billions of dollars that are going to be spent between the Obama and Romney camp, to say nothing of the super-PAC money spent on their behalf, do you think any of that money is going to make a real difference with that group, or are we about to see an oversaturation the likes of which we have never seen, given the amount of money that’s about to be spent?

Collins: That’s an interesting question. This is going to be the year that we’re going to determine whether there’s simply a limit to how much money you can spend, particularly on advertising in a presidential race.

The spending of money to turn out the vote might have a lot more impact. I suspect that the super-PACs are going to have much more influence on the congressional races, because if you have one billionaire who decides there’s just five people out there he really, really wants to elect, that could have an enormous, enormous impact on some of these races.

So I’d look maybe a little more at the House and Senate than I would at the presidential race.

Tavis: The new book from “New York Times” columnist Gail Collins is called “As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda.” Gail, good to have you on. Thanks for sharing your insights.

Collins: Good to be here.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time. Until then, keep the faith.

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Last modified: June 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm