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March 27, 2011
Charles Blow
Visual Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times
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Info: Our guest is Charles Blow, Visual Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times. He writes his opinion pieces using graphs and charts. He also writes a blog called “By The Numbers.” Mr. Blow worked for the Times as Graphics Director for nine years. He left in 2006 to become art director at National Geographic Magazine. He returned to the New York Times in April 2008 in his current position. Mr. Blow’s columns and graphs appear on Saturdays in the center columns of the New York Times Op-Ed page. In this interview, he discusses how his unusual job came about. He also talks through some of his graphics, charts, and columns on such subjects as: Dating, Childhood Obesity, Life in Large Cities, Acceptance of Gays in Society, and President Obama.

Uncorrected transcript provided by Morningside Partners.
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Q&A with Charles Blow

BRIAN LAMB: Charles Blow, your biography starts with this. ”Charles Blow is the visual op-ed columnist for the ’New York Times.’ Since April 2008, his columns have appeared in the ’Times’ every other week and feature charts” – no, let me read that again – ”and feature charts as a form of opinion journalism.”

What’s this all about?

CHARLES BLOW: People ask me that question all the time. It’s pretty much as it says. I mean, I am a numbers guy, not you know so much computational, but I’m a trend spotter. And I use charts to visualize those trends. And I use those charts in my opinion pieces. I kind of build the opinion out of the chart.

For me, the data comes first. I don’t decide that I’m going to talk about a subject and then go out and look for data. I really do search for data first and see if there’s – is there something interesting and something that kind of agrees with an opinion that I have or kind of confirms something or something that surprises me and I think would surprise my readers. And I build out from there.

LAMB: Started reading you on Saturdays – open up the Saturday ”Times,” on the op-ed page, there’s always a big chart on there. When was it decided that they wanted you to do this?

BLOW: It was – I mean, I guess I started almost three years ago. And I left the ”Times” to become the art director for ”National Geographic” magazine. It was kind of an untenable situation in the sense that I never moved to Washington, D.C.

The magazine is in D.C. I commuted from Brooklyn to Washington. And I’m a single dad. I have three kids. So at that point, I had three nannies. It was just an untenable situation.

So I came back to New York, and I just said, ”I can’t do it anymore.” My bosses there said, ”Fine, just you know work from home and we’ll see how we can work it out.” And Bill Keller, who’s the executive editor of the ”Times,” kept harassing me the entire time that I was away, saying, ”Charles, you have to come back. This makes no sense. You have to come back to the ’Times.’”

And one day I said, ”Fine, Bill, let’s have lunch.” And we had lunch, and he said, ”You know why don’t you think about things that you would like to do at the ”Times” if you were to return.” And one of the things I have always liked was to have this feature on the op-ed page called Op Charts.

And because I had done – I was doing charting and in charge of the group that does charting for the news pages, I could never do an op chart. I couldn’t cross that fence. I’d always wanted to do it. So I figured they were doing it all with freelancers. Why not have someone on staff to do op charts? And that was kind of the genesis of the idea.

LAMB: So how did you get into being a graphic specialist?

BLOW: Completely happenstance – I mean, in college – my aspiration since high school was that I wanted to be the governor of Louisiana. I was – I was – I’m from Louisiana. I met the governor when I was just a junior in high school.

It was Edwin Edwards at the time. It was right after he had said, you know, that – his famous quote, ”The only way I could not be reelected is if I’m caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.” I mean he had such, what the young people call, swagger. And he walks in – we are in the mansion – he walks into this room, and I’ve never seen anybody with that much confidence in my life, and we’d spent our whole weekend that week studying governors of Louisiana, and they were all these charismatic over-the-top people. And I thought, ”These guys are having the best time of their lives. I’d love to be the governor or Louisiana.”

So in college, I majored in English and pre-law. I was going to go to law school and then get into politics.

LAMB: You went to Grambling.

BLOW: Grambling State University, Louisiana – and one of my English professors, actually, pulled me to the side. He liked my writing. He pulled me to the side and said, ”So what are you going to do if you don’t go to law school with this English degree?” I don’t think he liked his job very much. He was like, ”What, are you going to be a teacher, an English teacher?”

I said, ”Well, I don’t know, I’m a freshman in college. I don’t have – thought that far.” He said, ”Well, why don’t you major in journalism instead of English – kind of the same core. You still get to write. And if you don’t go to law school, you can at least be – have a trade and work as a journalist.”

And in journalism school, they made us pick a concentration. And you know I wish I had more noble reasons than wanting to party all the time, but one of the concentrations was visual communications. And it came so natural to me, the visual part, I’d been you know kind of an amateur artists my entire life, and I chose that concentration.

LAMB: I’ve got to go back to your earlier comments about Edwin Edwards. How many years did he spend in prison?

BLOW: Oh, I’m not exactly sure. And it was – I’m not sure if it was only one stint. Is it only one stint?

LAMB: He’s out now.

BLOW: Yes, he is. Yes, yes, yes.

LAMB: And so what about that part of his life did you – what did you think?

BLOW: It’s very interesting in Louisiana. I mean, people – they’re not really punished so much as you would expect them to be for being kind of outlaws. And there’s a certain amount of kind of mystique about that kind of flouting the law, catch-me-if-you-can mentality.

And in fact, I’m from a small town where it kind of is even more amplified. It’s the – my town’s claim to fame is, it’s the place where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. They have a reenactment every year in the town of Gibsland of the – kind of the shootout of Bonnie and Clyde.

And this idea of not necessarily separating the good and the bad in the ways that we generally do and kind of idolizing and making heroes of villains is a – seems to me to be a sort of Louisiana thing.

LAMB: Compare that with New York City.

BLOW: Is it – I think it’s very different, actually. I mean – I mean, one of the things about coming to New York, I thought was very – was interesting, and people say, ”Well, how do you move from a town of eleven hundred people to a town of – to a city of 7 million people?”

And I found them very similar in some ways. My neighborhood feels like the small town that I grew up in. I go to the same grocery store. I go to one dry cleaner. I mean, everybody knows you. It feels like my tiny town.

In another way, though, kind of in a sense of law and order, it’s very detached, in a way. It’s not community-driven. And the politics, I think, are not necessarily as community-driven as you would find in a small town.

LAMB: You wrote, on June the 12th, 2010, ”Aside from the people who live in my building, I know the name of only one person who lives in my block, Roger Cohen, a ’Times’ colleague. I want to blame it on the fact that I’m absolutely awful with names and can be quite socially awkward. But that has ever been thus.

”Then I thought that maybe it was the city thing. But that explanation goes but so far. I’m actually beginning to believe that it’s bigger than me, bigger than my block, bigger than the city. I increasingly believe that less neighborliness is becoming intrinsic to the modern American experience – a most unfortunate development.”

Go back to the beginning of that, where you say you’re awful with names but quite socially awkward. Why do you think that?

BLOW: I don’t know. I guess I should pay a therapist and figure that out for me, but there’s a certain you know – I’m kind of of two minds about myself. There’s a very outgoing guy who is never shy, and – but in small settings, I can be a bit awkward, because I don’t do the small-talk thing very well.

And it creates a very weird thing, because people expect the person that they see – I do a lot of television. They expect this kind of gregarious personality and laughing and joking. And to some people, I am. But kind of in these intimate situations with relative strangers, I’m not really that person.

LAMB: You mentioned earlier, and you talk about it in this column a little bit, you’re a single father with three children. How old are they?

BLOW: The oldest is 17, and the twins are 13.

LAMB: What are their names?

BLOW: The oldest is Taj (ph). The twins are Ian (ph) and Eman (ph).

LAMB: And what’s it like raising three kids like that?

BLOW: Hard.

LAMB: How do you do it?

BLOW: It’s a juggle, you know and particularly with this job – every job I’ve had, actually. It’s a lot of – it’s demanding on my time. But I’ve learned – I mean, I’ve been doing this for 10 years now. I’ve learned how to figure it out, how to juggle it, how to plan to make it work out.

LAMB: So you’re at dinner with your three kids. You’re talking about the world. What are a couple of basic things you want them to know about this life?

BLOW: Well, I mean, I guess my biggest thing is I want them to be good people. I’m not – I don’t push them necessarily to news or – but I want them to be centered and focused and good human beings, good citizens of the city, the country and the world and to be open to difference – to be open to opportunity and to be open to challenges.

And I feel like, if I can you know kind of imbue them with those kind of basic skills; the rest will fall into place.

LAMB: What’s their reaction to a dad who’s published in the ”New York Times”? Do they know anything about that?

BLOW: They know, obviously, but they’re not fazed by it at all and not at all impressed by it, and in some cases, irritated by it, because I still have to take them to school. Sometimes I’ll have a television appearance. And they’ll have to go.

And they’ll sit in the green room before school, so that means they have to get up an hour and a half earlier. They’re not impressed. They don’t like it.

LAMB: What year did you graduate from Grambling?

BLOW: It must have been 1991. I think that’s right.

LAMB: And what did you do after that?

BLOW: I had interned at the ”New York Times” before that, and they sat me down to talk to me about that, ”You know we could hire you, but we’d actually like you not to come here. We want you to go out and experiment and make mistakes somewhere else.” Which is a very – it’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

I left there, and I went – when I graduated, I got a job with the ”Detroit News.” And I interviewed in – it was snowing, and I got there at night. And so I thought all those big, beautiful buildings were – it was a great city, and it was full of people. I didn’t realize it’s like – literally got there the day I started work, that all those buildings were empty and you know it was a very different city than I was expecting.

I learned to love Detroit. There’s a certain grittiness about it and an ability or a spirit to overcome. And there’s a lot to overcome there, but there’s a lot of great people there. But I did not like that weather. I stayed – I counted in winters. It was one and a half winters, and I had to leave.

LAMB: What did you do there?

BLOW: I was called the (INAUDIBLE) graphic artist, I think it was – was the job title. I had been trained at Grambling – part of the mass comm major was that you learned reporting and editing like everyone else. And in fact, I was the co-editor of the college newspaper before I left. I started a magazine as part of the newspaper.

So when I got to Detroit, my goal was to figure out a way to marry that reporting with what they wanted me to do in the graphic skills. So basically I told them, you know I asked the boss, I said, ”If something happens, I’m going, no matter where it is.” And so I would – he said it was fine with him.

And I – whenever some building would burn down or someone would be shot; I was there on the scene and just trying to report it out so I could visually tell that story. And that became a valuable skill, because not a lot of people were doing that in that space at the time.

LAMB: Why did you pick Grambling in the first place, a historic black college?

BLOW: First, it’s 20 minutes from my – from where I grew up. Second, it is where my mother also went to college and a couple of my brothers went to college. It was not my first choice.

You know I had a wanderlust and wanted to get as far away from my tiny space as I possibly could and had been – accepted at a couple places and even full scholarships at other places. My mother, however, could not even imagine her youngest son being far away from her. And she talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked until I relented and said, ”OK.”

But I found it to be an amazing experience in one way. It – and I think this is true of many historically black colleges. It removes the idea of race from education, because if you do not succeed, there is no way to blame it on anything else other than your own inability to succeed.

And having that experience for one period in your life is a very interesting experience. If you don’t get elected as the student council, it’s because we don’t like you. There is no other reason. And there’s a kind of freedom that comes as part of that. And I really enjoyed that.

LAMB: But you finished rather well, magna cum laude? Where did you get the interest in learning?

BLOW: My mother – my mother is an amazing woman. She became a single parent after many years of marriage, and I was about five years old – I have four older brothers. And her – kind of even from before that point, all my life I can remember my mother going to school.

She went back to school to finish her degree, and after that, she took courses in the evenings and at night to get her master’s degree. I mean, I can remember sitting in the back of classrooms when she couldn’t find anybody to keep me, and I would be doodling. And she’d be taking notes.

And that – the idea of the ability of learning to transform a life is something that has been you know kind of instilled in me from the time I can ever remember her. I mean, she never watched television other than the news and ”Wheel of Fortune” and sometimes ”Jeopardy.”

She – we were very, very poor, but one thing that she never gave up was a home subscription to the newspaper, which she read from front to back. So this idea of her constantly wanting – to having this voracious knowledge – appetite for knowledge and constantly wanting to improve herself and me being able to see how that actually plays out in a life made it part of my life.

LAMB: And what kind of a profession did she have?

BLOW: She’s a schoolteacher.

LAMB: Her whole life – is she still alive?

BLOW: Yes, she is. She was a – she was kind of a secretary when I was very young. And she kept going back to school. She became a schoolteacher. Eventually, she became – (INAUDIBLE) administrator, I don’t know if it was vice president – vice principal or not. And now, after retirement, she has just been elected to the school board in her parish in Louisiana.

LAMB: Four brothers – where are they?

BLOW: Two are still in Louisiana, one’s in Texas, and one’s in Mississippi. They do not believe in going past the Mason-Dixon Line.

LAMB: And what do they – what do they think of their brother that’s up here and visible?

BLOW: I think – I mean, we don’t talk about it very much. I mean, we just kind of make jokes and have fun.

My oldest brother calls me often and says things – I mean, he’s a big Obama supporter, so he says, you know, ”Take it easy on my president,” whatever that means, or you know, ”Don’t be so critical.” Or he’ll offer story suggestions or column suggestions for me, and I listen.

But I think they’re proud. And I’m – they’re happy for me as I’m happy for them. And they’re amazing people in their own right.

LAMB: In three years of writing this column, what column has struck the biggest nerve?

BLOW: It’s a strange lot of things. One was a column about dating, which, strangely enough, I didn’t – I had no idea that it would strike such a nerve with people.

LAMB: What did you say?

BLOW: I mean I just marked something that some other people had marked in other ways, but that it was called ”The Demise of Dating.” It was the first time that the data showed that high school seniors, there were more of them who said they had never dated than those who said they dated often. And I talked about how that was a shift.

Another was a relatively recent one which is about acceptance of gays in the society. It was the first time that acceptance of gay relations, which is the quaint term that Gallup (ph) uses, had crossed the 50 percent mark. But, more importantly, it was the first time that more men found it more acceptable than women and just kind of explored by that could be.

The political things are – you know they get whatever buzz they get. I mean a lot of them kind of have caught about the same weight and you know with some level of controversy or whatever, but it’s kind of, I think, our job is to be provocative, in a way – not going too far, but try to be a little provocative, make people think.

LAMB: What day of the week do you decide what you’re going to write?

BLOW: Any day of the week it comes to me, I’ll take it. But it – I mean, I’m looking all week long. Again, I’m following data. I can’t make anyone conduct a survey. I can’t make anyone publish a study. And so I’m kind of at the whim of what happens. So I’m constantly monitoring and checking.

LAMB: Which pollster is, for you, the most reliable?

BLOW: I think there are a lot of great outfits out there. There’s some that are more regular polling operations – bigger, like Gallup. They’re a big organization and they publish something daily, and that’s great for me, because I’m looking for volume.

The Pew Research Center publishes relatively regularly. I mean they’ll do several a week. And that’s great for me.

The other polling operations, they just don’t – I mean, they don’t have the money or the inclination to go into the field that often, so they produce some great material, but not on a regular basis.

LAMB: Let me test you on one. If you go on the Drudge Report this day, I’m not positive about this, but I think you’d see a Rasmussen poll that showed President Obama, 43 percent popular. What would – already, what are you hearing from me that would get a reaction from you?

BLOW: Well, the ”Times” has policies and standards about which polls they’ll use. So there are certain polls that the ”Times” does not use. I think Rasmussen is one of them.

LAMB: And that – why would – why would that be?

BLOW: I’m not exactly sure. I think – I’m not – probably it’s his methodology. I’m not exactly sure about that. But in general, in terms of methodology, they like live energy polls.

So if a person uses kind of robo-calling, you don’t know who’s answering the phone, because it’s not a real person, to talk to that person, so they don’t like those sorts of polls. They don’t like Internet polling.

And all these are valid reasons for not doing this. And so there are some that you can kind of look at for reference and then try and find someone who has called live and see if that works out, but there’s some that we just don’t use.

LAMB: Is there a sample base that you will not use? In other words, if they only had 500 people called on the phone; does that trip certain things versus 1,200 people that they talked to in person?

BLOW: We kind of want over 1,000. You want – and when you look at who is called, hopefully they’ve broken it down by kind of race, age, ideology. And you want it to be somewhat representative – it isn’t always perfect, but close to representative of the population at large. And if you see a real skew in there, you should take that into account. And if you’re going to use it, say that there’s a skew in the sample if you can.

LAMB: I wanted to ask you about the three locations in your life. Go back to Louisiana. What kind of shape is it in today after Katrina and other things that have hit that state?

BLOW: I mean my relationship to it is very distant at this point. I mean, I kind of visit my local area, which is as north – I mean, you go 40 more miles, and you’re in Arkansas, so as north Louisiana as you can get, wasn’t really affected by the hurricane.

And I hadn’t visited – this year was the first time I’d been back to New Orleans. I actually didn’t want to see it, quite frankly. I kind of wanted to remember it the way I remembered it.

But when I was there, there were two things that were striking to me. First of all, you couldn’t see the damage from the airport to the hotel. So I didn’t see what a lot people have seen. I didn’t – I just couldn’t make myself go on one of these tours.

And I stayed in the French Quarter. But you know there is a certain you know change in the vitality in the fabric of that city. You know the French Quarter has always been a kind of ruckus place along Bourbon Street, and it is touristy. But it really began to feel more like Vegas than New Orleans that weekend. And I couldn’t put my finger on it, and I – you know what this change was.

And I think it’s – and it is just the enormous displacement of the local population. Not that they were necessarily the people who would have visited Bourbon Street on a regular basis, but they were the workers, and they were the panhandlers, and they were the – you know the people who you would have seen populate a street, trying to make it.

And in the shops on the sides and what have you, it just felt like the fabric was different. And I think that’s unfortunate because it was a special, special place. And part of what made it special was the – was the poor people who lived there. And those are the people who have the fewest options about returning and about rebuilding their lives.

LAMB: How much do you still want to be governor of Louisiana?

BLOW: Not at all. Once I figured out that politics was a messy thing, I gave up on that.

LAMB: What do you mean by ”messy”?

BLOW: You know I think when you’re a kid, you – and you know you study politics and – just in a kind of classroom setting, and you – you know you’re president of your class or what have you ...

LAMB: Were you president of your class?

BLOW: Yes, I was president of my class from the sixth grade to the 12th grade and also freshman and junior years in college. But you know that idealism wears off. And you see what it means to run for a big office, and the money becomes a factor and you know all the dirtiness that you have to get yourself involved, and all the dirty hands you have to shake in order to raise enough money to be a politician, it loses its luster very quickly.

And the deals that you have to make means that it’s you know – I now tell people all the time, I don’t trust any politician, ever, because you just don’t – you have to do so many things to be a politician that are unsavory, that it’s hard for me to trust anybody 100 percent.

LAMB: Louisiana, then Detroit – what’s – what happened to Detroit?

BLOW: I mean, when I was there, it was already a hollow city. I mean – and if you go to the local barber shops, they say they elected a black mayor, there were the riots – I don’t know what the order is here – the riots, the black mayor, the white flight out of the city ...

LAMB: I think there was – in ’67, the riots – I think there was a – Mayor Cavanagh was his name, and he was white. And so the black mayor came after that.

BLOW: Afterwards – and the city kind of never recovered from that period and you know just continued to decline. When I was there, the kind of weird and striking fact was that you couldn’t buy a refrigerator in the city of Detroit. And it was true. There were no appliance stores in the city limits. You had to go out – drive out of the city.

LAMB: Why?

BLOW: Because they were – I mean, they – everything was fleeing the city. There was virtually no commerce left in the city of Detroit. And so you had little mom-and-pop shops. You had a few chains, some – only a handful of grocery stores, like real grocery stores. I remember that we would have to drive out of the city to do real grocery shopping.

So there was very – there was very little there to support the kind of social structure of a city. And so there was a trickle, trickle, trickle, and it has only gotten worse with the recession. And now, you know you see images of this place, and it looks like Warsaw or something. It’s just an incredible decline of a major American city.

LAMB: So your three children that you have are 17, and what’s the other age?

BLOW: Thirteen.

LAMB: And 13 were born where?

BLOW: The oldest was born in Grosse Pointe, which is right outside of Detroit, because my ex-wife did not want the baby to be born in the city of Detroit for whatever reason. The other two were born here in New York City.

LAMB: And when did you become a single father?

BLOW: That was 11 years ago.

LAMB: If you were sitting down talking to another single father, or maybe somebody that thought they were going to be a single father, what kind of advice would you give them? How hard is it?

BLOW: It’s very hard, and it’s hard in ways that – I mean, I – there are a lot of women who do this all the time. So I don’t want to suggest that it’s somehow worse because I’m a guy, that people do it all the time. But it’s a different experience.

You know your friends are different so that you – you know my mother could have asked any of her friends to keep me when she had to do something. I wouldn’t ask many of my friends to keep my kids while I had to do something. They’re just not built that way. You know men don’t think in that way.

And you know I write – I wrote you know a piece of ”Essence” about having to learn to do my daughter’s hair. This is a very strange thing. Or having to shop for her clothes – particularly her underwear, and like women are kind of looking at you. It’s a very weird experience to be in a store and shopping for a little girl’s underwear. It’s very strange.

So it’s these little moments in a life that make you understand how different you are, even among those who are different.

LAMB: What’s the hardest part about it?

BLOW: The hardest part is I think what a lot of people experience in this – when they’re in these shoes, which is that you never feel like you’re doing anything 100 percent. I never feel like I can give 100 percent to work. I never feel like I’ve done all that I can do at home. And there’s a stress involved in that. And it never seems to go away.

LAMB: I probably shouldn’t do this, but I need to ask you, how do you fix a little girl’s hair?

BLOW: It’s a – it’s a process. And it requires a lot of equipment. I actually kept it in a tackle box, because that was the only thing I could figure out – it was like so much stuff. I went to the hardware store and said, ”I need something to put all this stuff in,” and a tackle opened up, and I was like, ”This is perfect.” And it put it – but it’s a process.

LAMB: How does she like to wear her hair?

BLOW: Different ways, which is the – which is what makes it hard.

LAMB: So you’re an expert?

BLOW: I am not, but now she’s old enough that she does it herself, for the most part, which is great. And she doesn’t you know do a lot of fancy things, because now she’s an athlete, and she has – she sweats all the time, so she just – she’s very basic now, which is perfect.

LAMB: So we’ve got Louisiana and we’ve got Detroit and Michigan, and now New York City. Well, you live in Washington for – how long were you in ...

BLOW: I never lived in Washington.

LAMB: Oh, you didn’t. You were commuting all the time.

BLOW: Yes.

LAMB: But you were at ”National Geographic” for how many months?

BLOW: It was almost two years. I want to say a year and nine months.

LAMB: Is there anything – just to talk about ”National Geographic” for a moment – is there anything about that magazine that you found unusual or interesting after you got inside?

BLOW: Well, I mean I – first, I think that it’s an amazing place. And I think that you know – and on some level, they’re doing God’s work. They’re just doing something that no one else has the ability to do or the financing to do and it’s amazing.

And it was the only place – I used to say this before they called me and asked me if I wanted to do this. It was the only place I would leave the ”Times” to go. I have always been in awe of the kind of – the visual impact of that magazine.

There, though, you understand what it takes to put it together. And it is a very long process. So you are planning stories you know this – you go to a meeting this week and planning a story that’s not going to show up for a year and a half. That’s a very long process.

You kind of – you know you become very intimate with the information, but it drags for a while, and that can be its own sort of stress, because you have so many opportunities to go back and change and change and change, but you actually take those opportunities, and you can change to the point where you – you know you can – you’re making work to make yourself busy.

LAMB: What – did you get a sense from being there – is its future? I mean, I think it’s lost some circulation in recent years.

BLOW: Right. That’s correct. I mean, I’m not an expert on that, but I – what I did sense was that there was a strong international presence for the magazine, and in some cases, may have even been growing. And that – and it was still a premium product in many of the other countries.

So here you get it very cheaply, but there it was not. It was a premium product. And you know some combination of you know ”National Geographic” as an international geographic, and as a – as a Web product, I think could be very viable. I mean, I think it may look really bad for many magazines including them, but I think they have an opportunity.

LAMB: January the 23rd, 2009, sounds like a familiar date, right after the inauguration. You have a headline on your column that says, ”No more excuses” question mark. And you begin by writing, ”For the presidential inauguration, blacks descended on Washington in droves with a fanatical Zacchaeus-like need to catch a glimpse of this MLK 2.0” – two dot oh – ”Martin Luther King Obama,” spelled with three O’s.

”For them, he was it, a game-changer, soul-restorer, dream-filler, everything, OK.” And then quote James Clyburn of South Carolina, the Majority Whip, who is an African-American, as saying, ”Every child has lost every excuse.”

And then you say, ”What? That’s where I have to put my foot down. That’s going a bridge too far.” Help us out.

BLOW: Well, I think that you know a lot people – I think Representative Clyburn captured the sentiments of a lot of people that everything had changed with the election of Obama.

And what we’re seeing is that that is kind of the farthest from the truth. And in fact, we’re moving into an area in the kind of national consciousness that we have not been in before, where people on the one hand want it to be true that many things have changed.

And the facts remain stubborn that family life has not necessarily changed, that economic conditions have actually gotten worse for a lot of people, partly because the recession had nothing to do with Obama, although it’s becoming more to do with him as it becomes more his economic issue than it was Bush’s.

And you see kind of the reactions that people are having around the issue of race, whether or not certain actions can be categorized as racist, whether or not bringing up the idea of race in and of itself makes the accuser the racist thinker.

Everything has gotten very muddy, but these kind of stubborn facts remain a problem. And so I think when people start to say things like, ”No one ever has an excuse anymore for anything,” well, that’s not true. And it’s problematic to make other people think that that is true.

That said, there’s a lot of personal responsibility that people have to take. And I think that what the polls are showing us is that people are beginning to take that more – I saw one poll, this is the first time where African-Americans thought that their issues were more their own fault than they were the impact – because of the impact of racism.

That’s a big move forward, I think, in thinking. And that does come because of Obama, the problem is that the facts don’t necessarily change on the ground, and the way that other people perceive you, not just how you perceive yourself, have to change as well. And I think that we have to get in that space and negotiate those issues.

LAMB: You wrote on February the 19th of this year, under the headline, ”Empire at the end of decadence,” you start off by saying, ”It’s time for us to stop lying to ourselves about this country. America is great in many ways, but on a whole host of measures, some of which are shown in the accompanying chart, we have become the laggards of the industrial world. Not only are we not number one, USA, USA, we are among the worst of the worst.”

And the charts show what?

BLOW: They were measures like income and equality – I don’t have it in front of me, but measures of well-being, measures of food insecurity, and you know seven or eight of them. And in most of those categories, we were among the worst of the worst when compared to other – 33 other industrialized countries.

And people don’t generally think of us that way. We have this kind of mindset that because were the biggest economy, because we have the strongest military, that that – because we, in fact, do have some of the most inventive people in – I mean, that’s – iPad, Internet, you think Facebook, it comes from the U.S.

But there’s a lot of measures on well-being, where larges swaths of the population are not doing well at all. And until we acknowledge that there’s a gap between those who are succeeding and those who we see on television and those who – you know the wealthy women on ”Desperate Housewives” of wherever and the people who actually live in those cities on the lower rungs, then we can’t really say that we are number one, because we’re kind of falling backward on some of these measures.

LAMB: You said, ”The Republicans had even submitted a draconian budget that would make deep cuts into the tiny vein that is non-security discretionary spending, cuts that would prove devastating to the poor and working class at the very time that many Americans in the very country itself are struggling to emerge from a deep hole. The Republican proposal would simply throw the dirt in on top of us.”

BLOW: There’s some – there’s so many areas where it makes no sense to cut, particularly in education and well-being of young people. And there are a lot of cuts in there that go directly at food stability for poor people and young people in particular. I wrote another column about cuts that’ll have a direct impact on infant mortality, which we are also, now, number one in among those 33 industrialized countries.

That does not plan for a future where you want to re-emerge as number one in terms of strong populace, healthy people, strong thinkers who are smart and capable. And you know if you look at – if you just take – it doesn’t take a lot of math to deal with these bigger emerging economies, either.

You take China, for instance, which is not one of the 33, but it’s a big emerging economy, they have so many more people than we have. So if you just take you know the top 10 percent or 15 percent of their students, and assume that those are their honor students. Well, then they have more honor students than we have students.

So all of a sudden, the math says, we don’t have students to waste. You know we can’t make the educational cuts. In fact, we need to reinforce education, because all of our students – we need all of them to compete with their top 10 or 15 percent. We can’t you know cut Pell grants, because we need each person who graduates from high school to go ahead to college, no matter how poor they are, because we need them.

Once we realize that we don’t have disposable people, we – once we move beyond this concept that we want to penalize people who had children, who maybe they couldn’t have afforded or whatever, you should pay a penalty for this. You should struggle for that.

Well, maybe if you had that much disposable people, and we didn’t need everybody to compete with the outsourcing that’s happening in India, maybe we could afford to do that. But we can’t afford to be punitive at this point.

LAMB: You started off that column with the sentence, ”It’s time for us to stop lying to ourselves about this country.” How hard is it to write that first sentence for all your columns?

BLOW: It’s gotten a lot easier. It was hard at first. But ...

LAMB: What are you looking for?

BLOW: I’m looking for something that grabs you, something that’s simple, clear, contains a thought and some forward momentum that pushes you forward to want to read the rest of the column, but an entry point that is enticing.

LAMB: On August the 27th, 2010, the column’s headline – by the way, do you write your own headlines?

BLOW: Yes, I do.

LAMB: And that’s the way it is with all ”New York Times” columnists.

BLOW: Yes.

LAMB: The headline is, ”I had a nightmare.” I’ll jump down to one line, and you can fill in the rest. ”Glenn Beck is the anti-King.”

BLOW: I just found this to be incredibly offensive, this ...

LAMB: Well, what was your nightmare, though? Start with that.

BLOW: Well, the idea that – you know it’s kind of a play on the – Dr. King’s ”I Have a Dream” speech. It was – this thing was taking place on the anniversary of that speech. But the idea of – you know he spent a lot of time trying to co-op (ph), and you know may still be doing this, but I tuned into a couple of programs where he would take you know the kind of – the marching orders that were given to protesters and say, ”This is what we should do in the Tea Party,” or, ”You know, this is King’s dream, and we’re the fulfillment of that dream.”

It’s – I mean there’s a certain point, which I can stomach, some of this nonsense, but enough. And that was – that, too, was a bridge too far for me.

LAMB: His – when you watch Glenn Beck ...

BLOW: Not a regular thing.

LAMB: You do not.

BLOW: Not a regular thing.

LAMB: Isn’t he one of those characters that, anybody that works around the ”New York Times” would say, eh?

BLOW: I mean, I do think there’s a certain entertainment value. These are you know – they’re provocative and shocking, because it makes them a lot of money. I even have a hard time believing that they believe all the things that they say. It’s just so ridiculous on some days.

But you know to each his own. But I don’t have to take part in that, and I don’t have to watch it. And I don’t think you know – I try to just – you know I would discourage everybody from watching it – but if want to be entertained.

LAMB: How often do you dip into the conservative talk show host world?

BLOW: Well, I try to follow them on Twitter, social networking, just to see what their headlines are, what people are saying, or I’ll check a Web site, the bigger ones, from time to time, particularly if there’s something in the news that I think they would be weighing in on. I just want to just see how – what they’re saying.

I also – and sometimes there’s some fair stuff. You know it can get muddy with some things that I don’t think are fair, but I think there’s some fair things there sometimes.

And I publish my e-mail address on all of my columns, because I do get a lot of unedited commentary from people on the right. And I you know weed out the obviously offensive things, but some people make some really interesting points. And I think it is important for people in positions like mine to at least have an ear open to opposing views.

LAMB: What’s it like to have the conservative talk show host run daily against the ”New York Times”?

BLOW: I don’t care.

LAMB: Does the ”New York Times” pay attention inside? Do you ...

BLOW: I don’t even read anybody talking about it.

LAMB: If it’s the huge following out there in the country, they constantly listen to him; they beat up on the ”New York Times” as being the antichrist and a few other things.

BLOW: I don’t pay any attention to it. I don’t know anyone else in the building who pays much attention to it. I mean, I think the newsroom may be more sensitive to it, because they are really striving to be objective, and they really are trying earnestly to kind of shoot straight and down the middle.

I’m in the opinion side. I have an opinion. You have one. Yours is different from mine. I really don’t – you know it doesn’t bother me.

LAMB: What part of this area do you live in?

BLOW: In Brooklyn – Park Slope, Brooklyn.

LAMB: And how often do you go into the office?

BLOW: As often as needed. I mean, if I can work from home, I’ll do it.

LAMB: And how often do you get ideas for a column outside of either a poll or a survey? And if you do, where do they come from?

BLOW: Well, I have – you know ideas all the time and things that I would love to write about that I can’t find data to support, and if – where I can’t produce a chart, so I don’t write it.

But I follow pop culture quite a lot, and there are a lot of things there that I would love to write about, and you know contrary to what many may believe, I’m not a political nerd at heart, even though I write about politics all the time.

But I have a broad range of interests. It’s just that some of them feel too light for that space. And some of them don’t have data to support them, so I don’t write them.

LAMB: This is a column from February the 5th, 2010, and the headline is ”Obama gets his groove back.” And you know thinking back, that’s a year ago. And the first sentence is, ”Where has this Obama been,” question mark. ”Since the State of the Union address, the president has been bounding about displaying a new sense of vigor and confidence and a fighter’s spirit. He almost looks like the president people thought he would be a paladin, not a pacifist.”

I could go on, but you were making a point a year ago, and how does that trend with today?

BLOW: Some parts of the president changes and this kind of vigor comes in spurts and then disappears, which is you know interesting, because you don’t know why that is. And you don’t know who you’re going to get for this three months.

The person we’re getting now is incredibly quiet – eerily so. There’s quite a bit happening. You rarely hear from him directly. North Africa and the Middle East is incredibly unstable. You have the situation in Japan. You have the situation in Wisconsin. And you know – and this is a president who said, particularly on the situation in Wisconsin in 2004 – 2007 he said, ”If there’s an attack on collective bargaining, I’ll put on my boots myself, and I’ll be right there with you.”

Well, that wasn’t true. And he’s not only not there; you’ve barely heard a thing about – from him on that subject. So you don’t know who you’re going to get.

And when he’s on, he’s great. And he can be a very galvanizing figure. But I think sometimes he and his inner circle, the calculus is that it’s better for him to hang back and – you know and get this person.

LAMB: What’s your sense of who would be the strongest opponent for 2012?

BLOW: It’s a very interesting question, because the energy in the midterms is obviously coming from the Tea Party, but it is very hard to, at this point, to figure out who a Tea Party candidate would be. Because you know the strongest candidate – one of the strongest candidates, Mitt Romney, who is not necessarily Tea Party – I mean, I guess you would call him a RINO, if you were going by their definitions.

And on the other hand, you have the strongest of the Tea Party types, which is Huckabee, who’s basically – keeps saying he’s not running.

The Palins of the world, I mean, they’re kind of interesting personalities, but I don’t – even in the polling among Republicans, she’s not doing very well. I don’t think people see her as a presidential candidate as much as an interesting personality on – for the cause.

So it’s hard to figure out you know if Romney became the candidate, would he have the energy from that Tea Party crew? Or if you did find the Tea Party candidate, are they in any way electable?

LAMB: I want to combine a couple of your columns – one from October the 23rd, 2009, the ”Magic of Michelle.”

”Forgive me in advance for fawning, but Michelle Obama is the coolest first lady ever. She clinched it for me this week by jumping Double Dutch on the south lawn as part of a healthy kid’s fair.”

And later on, you say, ”She has become a powerful symbol of fearlessness, refinement, frugality and frivolity, managing to be both fun and serious simultaneously. She’s genuinely human.” And you say ”frugality” – since you wrote that, she went to Spain for a five-day lecture trip to the Ritz Carlton-owned resort out there.

And when you talk about some of the other things – fearlessness, she’s kind of withdrawn as to what her political views are a lot. Would you write this same column today?

BLOW: A lot – some things have changed. I mean, on the trip thing, I don’t – you know people have made a lot of her spending too much money. I don’t necessarily buy into that.

But I do think the – on the fearlessness part, she’s kind of operating on the same calculus as the president, which is, better to say little or nothing, even while being attacked. And it’s kind of the more graceful stately position, but the attacks on her at this point are intense.

Even – I mean, I wrote this past weekend about attacks on her childhood obesity campaign, which you would think would be you know kind of a slam dunk issue, but you know people have revved up the attacks on the first lady, and her position has kind of been to side-step it all.

LAMB: That was the second column I wanted to bring in, combine it with that one, your column that you wrote on March the 12th under the headline, ”The biggest losers.” And you get the nice center position, usually, in the Saturday ”Times.”

BLOW: Very nice – nice real estate.

LAMB: You start off with this question, ”Should the government have a significant role in reducing child obesity?” You write, ”That’s the question the Pew Research Center began asking poll respondents a few weeks ago. Nearly 60 percent said yes. Only 40 percent said no.”

And that 60 percent said yes, should the government have a significant role in reducing childhood obesity, and then you have a big chart showing the states, the west, the middle west, the South and the north, northeast – no, the northeast isn’t in there – Pacific – anyway, what got your attention on this, and why do you trust Pew?

BLOW: I think Pew’s a great polling group, and they have the big samples. We’ve trusted them other times, for a very long time. I use them all the time. They’re a great group.

What got my attention here was you know – being from the South, I already was familiar with this fact, which is that the states that are the most conservative, because conservatives are bashing the first lady for this approach.

But the states that tend to be the most conservative are also the ones that have the biggest issues with obesity in general – childhood obesity and the accompanying problems that that brings along. And just wanted to point that out, that they have the most to gain from dealing with this issue.

LAMB: And it shows a – on the charts, for instance, the question is percent overweight, obese children in 2007, and you go down to – in the South in Mississippi, which is on the bottom there. It’s 44.4 percent compared to a state like South Dakota, where it’s only 28.4.

BLOW: Right. Right.

LAMB: How long does it take you to do that column and work out all those numbers? And do you do the graphics?

BLOW: I do the graphics. That’s the fun part. Once I have figured out what I want to write, it’s not a long – it’s not hard to do. The problem is, for me, the challenge is finding a subject that – you know that sings, that – you know a newspaper term is a sexy topic, the one that people will want to read, one that has something new, brings something new to the table, a new way of looking at it, somewhat – analysis that only I can deliver to the subject.

That’s the harder part. You could write three of these things a day, I think. Finding something that is great is not so easy.

LAMB: So somebody comes to you for advice, and they say, ”Mr. Blow,” and you’re talking to some kids, and you’ve been – how many years – eight years president of your class tthough high school and college?

BLOW: Yes, I was – yes.

LAMB: Graduated magna cum laude – a good student, you had a mother that put her thumb on you the whole time and said, ”Do this, do that.” You’ve become a high-profile columnist at the ”New York Times,” and everybody says, ”I want to do that,” what would you tell them? How can they get it done?

BLOW: I would say, ”Whoa.” I don’t – I don’t know how I got into it. I mean, it’s – I would – I didn’t set out to do this, so it feels like everything that has every happened in my life has been some part skill, some part hard work and determiation and some part luck and being in the right place at the right time.

But what I do tell people, because I do talk to kids all the time. I say – you know, I say, ”Find something that you love, and whatever your job is at that moment, put your head down and do that job 150 percent.” What I find a lot of people like to do is to game out their whole lives, to say, ”Oh, I want to do this at this point, so I’m trying to figure out how – the quickest way to get from what I’m doing to the next stage, to the next stage, to the next stage.”

And maybe that works. In my life, it has not – that is not the way I’ve played it. I have played it by trying to be the best at everything that I was doing at that moment. And another opportunity has always presented itself.

LAMB: You know I didn’t ask you earlier, what happened to your dad?

BLOW: My dad still – he still lives in Louisiana, only about 20 miles from my mom, so they’re very close. And he’s always at my mom’s house. She still does his taxes. They’re a sweet old couple, bickering back and forth and also kind of getting along. It’s very cute to watch.

LAMB: How long have they not been married?

BLOW: They have not been together since I was five. I’m not exactly sure when the actual divorce was, because it wasn’t a thing.

LAMB: Charles Blow, columnist for the ”New York Times,” we thank you very much for your time.


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