Interrogation

“The Rules Seem to Suddenly Have Changed”

Slate founder Michael Kinsley on how the media blew it on Trump.

Journalist Michael Kinsley speaks about his book "Creative Capitalism: A Conversation with Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Other Economic Leaders" in New York, December 3, 2008.

Michael Kinsley speaks about his book Creative Capitalism: A Conversation with Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Other Economic Leaders in New York, Dec. 3, 2008.

Keith Bedford/Reuters

“I am perfectly willing to believe, on almost any subject, that I’m right and a majority of other people are wrong. That’s more or less been the basis of my career in journalism.” So writes Michael Kinsley, the long-time columnist, pundit, commentator, and founding editor of Slate, who has made a living off of his opinions, often about politics. His new book, Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, finds him engaging with an entirely different subject. After learning that he had Parkinson’s disease more than 20 years ago, Kinsley, now 65, kept the condition secret; he revealed it in his early 50s, and now he has written a book about growing old.

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I spoke by phone with Kinsley recently. (He and I overlapped at the New Republic during one of his stints at the magazine.) In the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we talked about his problem with baby boomers, his insights into growing old, and how the media blew the Trump story.

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Isaac Chotiner: Why did you want to write about aging?

Michael Kinsley: Well, I had no desire to write a book at all. But my agent had been pestering me for 30, 40 years, and all I had done was three collections. And so I had the thought that this would be an easy book to write. Of course there is no such thing as an easy book to write, but it was relatively easy.

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Your agent wasn’t pushing you to write about aging 30 or 40 years ago. It must have been something else.

We had various ideas over the centuries.

So what made you decide on aging?

Well I had this, I guess you could call it an insight, that what I was experiencing was something that all my peers would experience later. And that struck me as an interesting point and a good basis for discussion.

I assume you are referring to Parkinson’s.

Yeah.

What is it about the disease that gave you a special insight into the aging process?

It taught me certain very practical things about ordering drugs and things like that. But it also gave me insights into things to worry about, and things not to worry about. I didn’t push it real far, this metaphor; I didn’t push it beyond validity.

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Did it make you think about mortality before most people do?

Yes, absolutely. Brian Lamb asked me that question in a different way. He said, “How long do you think you have to live?”

I am taking a less direct interviewing approach.

That was sort of a shocker. But [Parkinson’s] does make you much more conscious of the passing years.

There’s a rant about baby boomers in your book, where you call them, or perhaps I should say you call your own generation, “lazy, self-indulgent bums” and “flower-power hippies who morphed into Wall Street greedheads.” What is it that you so dislike?

First of all, did I actually say I endorsed that viewpoint? Didn’t I have some sort of fudge?

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Yes, but it seemed like you sympathized with it, and your book goes on to argue against boomers.

Yeah, well, I guess my critique is the one you just said.

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So you do endorse it.

Yeah, but not in quite those violent terms. I don’t think baby boomers are any worse morally as a whole than any other generation. Each generation’s immorality and self-indulgence takes its own form. The form that the baby boomers’ has taken is, as I sometimes call it, an inability to admit that more of this means less of that. You can’t have your Social Security and cut taxes too.

Your book has a whole section on the national debt, and how the boomers should ensure the future by erasing the debt. Why the debt, and not global warming or whatever else?

That’s been my issue my whole career. Global warming—I’m all for ending it but it doesn’t engage me, for some reason.

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When we are all swimming in the cities—

Yeah, I’ll feel foolish.

You have been covering politics for a very, very long time—

Don’t say “very, very,” Isaac. A long time.

If people don’t think you are sufficiently old then they won’t buy your book. What strikes you as new about this campaign?

I think there is going to be a huge business in analyzing how the press covered Trump, and a lot of soul-searching, and a lot of questions about whether they were fair. And did they help Trump by not being fair.

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Wait, so your complaint is that the press has been unfair to Trump?

Well, the rules seem to suddenly have changed, and nobody has pointed it out or said anything about it. Actually, it has changed in two completely opposite ways: On the one hand, much more personal stuff is allowed in the pages of newspapers. You see the word “I” in a news story, which is shocking.

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Especially in the New York Times, I have noticed.

And in the Washington Post too, although the Times has carried it further. And then on the other hand you have data. This is Ezra-ism. You have long graphs and charts and stuff, which are supposed to be more illuminating than normal, traditional newspaper writing.

It’s definitely more illuminating than having a reporter going to some town and asking four people who they are voting for and then writing about it.

Well, I don’t know. That was Haynes Johnson–ism. He used to be the guy who did that. I ridiculed that as much as anybody but in a way I miss it because I don’t have a clear idea yet of who all these Trump voters are. I wouldn’t mind at all being able to read a piece or two about who they are and how they came to this viewpoint.

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I will send you some links.

I am not saying it doesn’t happen, but it is being substituted by these two other things, which are actually totally contradictory: data and personal stuff.

OK but when you are looking at Trump and the media, it seems like there are bigger things to be upset about: softball interviews, the lack of challenging his claims, etc. It’s changing now, finally.

Look, I don’t want to come out defending Trump, God knows, but I think he got coverage that was roughly consonant with his role in the campaign. Graydon Carter asked or ordered or told—choose your verb—me to write about Trump last January and I said, “That’s ridiculous, he is going to be out in a month at most.” Of course that turned out to not be ridiculous at all.

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What do you make of Trump as a figure?

He most resembles Boris Johnson. They are both, you think, partly in it for the laughs. Johnson is actually smarter and more thoughtful but they are both sort of professional clowns.

Trump seems more sinister.

Yes, well, at this point Boris isn’t sinister at all.

He’s done wrecking his country.

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Do you know what Trump wants? He wants to win, but he doesn’t really want to run the country.

I just assume it’s like that scene in Chinatown where Nicholson asks John Huston what he wants. Trump wants power and attention, for their own sake.

Yeah. He actually has expressed a theory of governance that is more concrete than a lot of the others, which is that the basic function of the government is deals. And you need a president who can do deals. And he has a record of doing deals. And that’s not entirely insane. It’s pretty insane I guess, but it’s not entirely insane. What pisses me off the most about him—and the press has failed in their job I think—is that he calls his movement “America First.” I find that shocking.

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