It has been a noisy year: Albany imploding, congressmen heckling the president, teabaggers with bullhorns. In such a din, it’s a surprise anyone could hear Gail Collins at all. Yet this was the year the sanest, most radically calm thinker on the New York Times op-ed page stole the show, inspiring legions with her droll take on the health-care debate and other sources of despair. In an age of outbursts, Collins has subverted the pundit’s rude role, performing what amounts to a sly soft-shoe over a rising wave of ideological bombast.
Where did this elegant act come from? Collins began as a shoe-leather reporter. She founded a Connecticut news service; she wrote columns for every major New York paper. (The first big one, for the Daily News, she got only when the original hire backed out: “They told me they’d already hired a woman,” she tells me over Diet Cokes in midtown.) A born policy wonk, she learned to write funny and fast to keep readers awake. In August 2001, she stepped into the plummest gig in town, becoming the first female head of the Times editorial page and “herding” the board through years of painful debate in the aftermath of 9/11.
Then in 2007, Collins made an odd move: She stepped sideways, into the role of columnist again. She seemed, at first, a muted figure among the page’s splashy icons: Nicholas Kristof, Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd. But she quickly distinguished herself as something new—a humorist, not in the broad social-comedy style of Dowd but with a pointillist deadpan, a needling insight into the surreal grind of governance. Collins on the upside of sex scandals: “What would any of us know about how impeachment works if it hadn’t been for Monica Lewinsky?” On Cash for Clunkers: “Believe it or not, it turns out that Americans will buy a lot more cars if you pay them a bunch of money to do it.” On health care: “The Republicans seem bent on making sure that every single 40-year-old woman in America gets a free mammogram even if she never sees a doctor for anything else for the rest of her life.”
This year, Collins also won raves for her sharp and sunny history When Everything Changed, a celebration of feminist success. Like her column, the book doubles as a toolbox of perspective, illuminating the startling shift Collins herself—she was born in 1945—lived through. At Marquette University, she tells me, co-eds couldn’t leave the dorm in slacks unless they were going bowling. Then one day, they refused: There was a “slacks day,” and the administration caved. “That was the great thing about that period. The authority figures were so lacking in confidence that you could just topple them.”
Such victories have left Collins a devotee of the Long View. But even in far less tractable political straits, she favors, amid her satirical digs, a midwestern mildness: respect for one’s opponent, and apologies when called for (including the New York Times’ position on the Iraq War). In her online dialogues with David Brooks, Collins occasionally admits to something readers may identify with: “door-pounding, head-banging rage” on topics like the perfidy of Joe Lieberman. But what’s so singular about Gail Collins is that this rage rarely distorts her thinking. Instead, she models a useful idea—that it is possible to be outraged without being paralyzed. As for the troubles of her own profession, she recommends to journalism students a similar healthy pragmatism. “I tell them they’re heirs to the most exciting time. And they should marry someone with health insurance.”