A People With Passion series
August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune
In the eighth installment of Jack M Silverstein's Chicago journalism People With Passion series, Chicago Tribune columnist and editorial board member Steve Chapman talks about discovering George Will, writing for the Harvard Crimson as its lone conservative, and a fortuitous phone call from the Chicago Tribune.
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.
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.
Enjoy this interview? Click here for a longer version, as Steve discusses striking the balance between column writing and editorial writing, and why his writing has benefited from living in Chicago.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter
August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist
August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune