the power trip

Nicholas Kristof’s Botched Rescue Mission

How the lauded Times columnist lost the race for governor of Oregon before it even began.

Illustration: Zohar Lazar
Illustration: Zohar Lazar

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By the time I arrived in Yamhill, Oregon, Nicholas Kristof’s political career had already ended in a face-plant. “I didn’t feel any burning ambition to be a politician whatsoever,” he told me. Good thing. From start to finish, from his decision to quit the New York Times to the state Supreme Court decision that ruled him ineligible to hold the office, his campaign for governor lasted all of 114 days. Now he was no longer a columnist or a candidate, and about this outcome he claimed to be at peace.

It was the afternoon of Friday, March 25, and the sun lit up the hills around the Kristof family estate, accessed via a winding road over rolling fields, past neighboring dairies and a sharp turn up a steep dirt road leading to a keypad-protected gate. In friendly Kristof fashion, a sign posted at the entrance welcomes guests in a loopy font that spells out the passcode.

A Pulitzer Prize winner once described as the conscience of a generation of journalists, Kristof devoted his life to chasing stories of poverty and genocide in places like Darfur and Sudan before epidemics of addiction and homelessness called his attention back to his home state. “I spent so much time reporting abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq and thinking this is really important and trying to convince people in the U.S. that this is important. And I deeply believe it was,” he told me. “But last time I calculated, every three weeks in the U.S., we were losing more Americans to drugs, alcohol, and suicide than Americans who died in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

He became convinced that he could help save Oregon, he said, after the 2020 publication of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, the oddly chipper book (and companion documentary) he wrote with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, to document working-class suffering through the decline around Yamhill. “People will always come up and say, ‘Oh, you should run for office. We need you here,’ ” he said. It happened at book signings and Q&As and receptions after his speeches. “I just dismissed it,” he said. Until he didn’t. The Democratic-primary field looked weak. Tightrope had functioned, intentionally or not, as a briefing book for a better candidate. And Kristof could swear he detected a vibe that communicated the public was desperate for “transformative change,” the redundant inspirational slogan favored by Establishment technocrats plotting a revolution of efficiency powered by the consultant class. He came to believe that he could become governor and that he ought to be governor.

He cited “The Man in the Arena” in his final Times column, the Theodore Roosevelt speech beloved by athletes and politicians: “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” It was time, Kristof said, “to move from covering problems to trying to fix them.”

Last year, the Scarsdale property Kristof and WuDunn bought for $1.2 million in 2000 was placed in a private trust, and he returned officially to Oregon. He brewed and bottled cider from the apples grown on the orchard and planted a patch of grapes and then, his small-business credentials established, he declared his candidacy.

Kristof looked the part when he greeted me at the farm in a vest, a flannel, frayed jeans, and the kind of practical and unsightly footwear favored by those who have accrued more than their fair share of REI Co-op Member Rewards points. He made his way past the Honda Accord and Subaru with COEXIST and I’LL BELIEVE CORPORATIONS ARE PEOPLE WHEN TEXAS EXECUTES ONE bumper stickers parked in the garage, while his two dogs, Chloe and Connie, darted ahead into the grass. (Asked later about the Subaru, Kristof said that it belongs to his 89-year-old mother.)

The vineyard was teeming with the buds of Pinot Noir grapes that Kristof plans to harvest for the first time in the fall (already, a mile down the road in Carlton, Kristof Farms cider goes for $11 a bottle at a deli on Main Street, where the girl working the cash register reports it’s been selling pretty well). As he led me to a trail beyond its edge, he talked about his friends and neighbors who had overdosed or committed suicide. Just that morning, an addict he knew had posted a suicide note on Facebook. “I don’t think that most people appreciate that most years, alcohol kills more people than drugs,” Kristof told me, though he clarified that he does not believe this is true of the type of alcohol that he makes. He also does not think that profiting off the sale of alcohol and lowering rates of alcohol addiction, two of his stated immediate goals, are in conflict. “You know, I’ve lost friends to alcoholism, but I haven’t lost any to Pinot Noir alcoholism,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of barring alcohol in general. I think that wine can be, or cider can be, a social good and can create social capital. Things that bring people together, I think, are good for society. I think alcohol can do that, and I think that’s true of wine and cider. I take your point that some people start with nice Pinot Noirs and then… ,” he trailed off. “But I think that is much less common, and those who die, the mortality from alcoholism, it’s driven really by working-class Americans, and it’s in kind of bulk hard liquor particularly. I don’t think that good wine and cider add significantly to the problem.”

Kristof, who is 62, has a pleasant manner and a delicate way of speaking, almost as if he would prefer not to be committing to any speech at all. His every few words are interrupted by repetition — We, we … That, that … The, the — or by Uhhs or Umms or I means or You knows. An old friend said that Kristof possessed “a kind of serenity and maturity about him” even when he was very young. He also had a precocious streak and a low tolerance for injustice. At Yamhill Grade School, he published an investigation into the dress code to lobby the school to allow girls to wear blue jeans (the school changed its policy in response). From Yamhill, he went from one storied elite institution to the next: Harvard, then Oxford (he was a Rhodes scholar), and then, at 25, the Times, where he spent 37 years on assignment in Asia and Africa and the Middle East.

Critics (whom, in case you forgot, Men in the Arena absolutely hate) characterize Kristof as a White Savior Complex head case or an easy mark for sob stories that oversimplify and overdramatize complicated global affairs. Kristof does not especially care. “In general, the problem around the world has not been white saviors eager to save people of color. It’s been that the world has been much more interested in saving the lives of white people than people of color. We intervened in Kosovo and not Rwanda or Darfur,” he said.

And he is eager to point out how often he has pushed the boundaries of journalistic norms in order to save people. In China, he said, he helped smuggle a dissident out of the country: “I don’t know; should I be breaking the law?” In Sierra Leone, he said, he helped the police arrest an alleged rapist. He paid to free two Cambodian girls enslaved in a brothel, which he told students at Columbia was “probably the first time a New York Times reporter had bought two human beings.” Even on the farm, Kristof was intervening to help creatures less capable. “I’m helping the hawks with the voles,” he said. He had snipped the grass into a crew cut to give the hawks a better chance of spotting their prey. (There was something in it for Kristof, too. The voles posed a threat to the vineyard.)

“This kind of reporting is an act of hope. A belief that if there’s more attention called to a problem, there will be more resources that go to it,” he told me. “It’s a belief that reporting about these things really does make a difference, which is the opposite of cynicism.”

The act of reporting itself, though, often involves cynical calculations. Kristof admits he’s made a lot of those. “I think that I’ve developed a certain amount of emotional armor over the years, and I’m not particularly proud of it, but I do think that it is a protective mechanism that helps me avoid getting overwhelmed by some kind of suffering that I’m in the middle of.” He remembered once, as a columnist, rushing into a village in Darfur and asking if anyone had been shot, and the first wounded person he found was an elderly man who had been shot in the leg. “I knew immediately that I could do better, that I could find a case more compelling,” Kristof said. He needed to achieve maximum impact in as little time as possible, and people care more when the victims are children. Kristof stopped the man before he started speaking. “I said, ‘Are there any kids who’ve been shot?’ I felt terrible.”

Politics, too, can require cynical calculations. In its first fundraising disclosure, the campaign unveiled a donor list that could well double as a flight manifest for a charter to Davos. Kristof said he was “pleasantly surprised” to find that political fund-raising did not present “ethically compromising” challenges, at least not when phoning the global business and media elite from the forgotten lands of rural America. “I was raising quite a bit of money from outside Oregon,” he said. “Nobody really had issues for the Oregon governor.” Melinda Gates chipped in $50,000. Venture capitalist and Goldman Sachs alum David Cohen gave $50,000 too. Thomas Bernthal, a “strategic consulting agency” executive who is engaged to Sheryl Sandberg, also gave $50,000. Another $10,000 came from Angelina Jolie, and another $5,000 from Larry Summers.

Kristof knew he had not lived in Oregon long enough (year) to meet the legal requirement to hold office (three years). He hired lawyers and corralled a stable of allies to argue his case in the media, which was that voters should decide if such rules matter.

Oregon’s secretary of state, Shemia Fagan, a civil-rights attorney with the word vote tattooed across her radius, was not convinced. “I have nothing personal against Nick Kristof. I don’t know Nick Kristof. I’ve read his books. I think he has an interesting perspective,” she told me. “I wanted to make the decision that I believed was in line with the Constitution.” In Oregon, the secretary of state also serves as the lieutenant governor, and Fagan said that she feared a worst-case scenario in which Kristof got himself elected governor only to have the courts stop him from taking office on the technicality. In that event, she said, “I would become governor, and that seems like a shitty conspiracy to me.” She laughed. “I am constitutionally the next person in line.”

Those aligned with Kristof don’t buy that such a thing would have happened. And when Fagan ruled against him, he accused her of being a “political Establishment … insider” fighting the threat posed by someone “outside the political Establishment” (but physically inside the state of Oregon, crucially). “Instead of working to end homelessness,” Kristof said, “they’re working to end my candidacy.”

Fagan told me she understood why he reacted that way “instead of just saying, ‘Wow, this is really shitty! It sucks to have this dream of going out and becoming governor and then finding out that I can’t!’ ” On appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously sided with Fagan.

“Would he have been a good governor? How the fuck do I know?” the longtime friend said. “He’s certainly well intentioned. The thing I couldn’t get over is he didn’t vote in Oregon in the last election.” Kristof voted in New York in 2020. “It’s like, What the fuck? The only condition in which I’ll move back to the state is if you make me governor?”

That last thing was half-true. Asked if he would consider a state office besides the office of governor, he said, “In Oregon?” He paused. “If I’m trying to figure out how I can bring about the greatest change on issues I care about, I’m just not sure that that’s how I can do it.” Besides, he added, “one of the advantages of losing one’s job very publicly is that you get a lot of job offers. Running a foundation, running a news organization, running a couple of universities. But I like journalism, and I think it’s hard to beat the journalistic toolbox for making a better world.” (He would not rule out entirely the hypothetical notion of working in the Biden administration in the event that the president called.)

Between Yamhill and Eugene, I met Carol McKiel, 67, an independent councilmember in Monmouth. On Sundays, she stands outside of a gas station in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to hold signs with anti-racist slogans, which is where I ran into her. McKiel is a Kristof reader, she said, and “I like his view on life,” but having experienced in her first year in public office how complicated the government of a single municipality can be, she thought it was insane for Kristof to run for governor with zero political experience. “It’s a lot to learn,” she said. “I question, particularly at the governor’s level, if a good perspective is enough to be effective. Start at the state-representative level and then move up to governor!”

Kristof concedes the point. “I thought it was a genuine disadvantage not having political experience,” he told me, “but I thought that was compensated to some degree by having good communications skills and a vision for the state.” (He also did not believe — still doesn’t believe — that voters cared.)

“There’s nobody who becomes a columnist of his stature who doesn’t have some iteration of vanity,” a former Times colleague said. “He’s super-earnest. He’s not fun. He’s also just decent.”

Back at the top of the hill, we were joined by WuDunn at a picnic table in the shed. “Oh!” she said. “Did he tell you that the secretary of state has a handbook — the ‘blue book’— that they publish every year? It announces every year the most famous and prominent Oregonians, and he’s on the list twice!” (Kristof had in fact mentioned it already — twice.) Asked about this, Fagan said, “From a legal perspective, it means nothing, the blue book. Nobody’s questioning whether he’s an Oregonian, but it doesn’t mean you can run for governor.”

WuDunn has a Pulitzer (for Times coverage of Tiananmen Square she co-bylined with Kristof) and a Harvard M.B.A. (she did a stint at Goldman Sachs), and she is funny and quick and a lot more fun than her husband. She wore a cropped leather jacket and pretty pastel eye makeup. “I am not an Oregonian,” she said. She grew up on the Upper West Side, and when I asked if she missed New York at all, she raised her eyebrows. “Oh, I’m going back to New York!” she said. Like, immediately. She was flying out for a visit the following week. She had meetings to attend, she said.

For a person who has made a career out of observing the people who are collateral damage of the world’s great diplomatic and policy failures (and who has just had his own dream obliterated), Kristof maintains outrageous optimism about the human race, and he really doesn’t seem to be bullshitting. “In my adult lifetime, we’ve seen the global extreme-poverty rate go from 40 percent to 10 percent. Infant mortality rates are down, leprosy is down, blindness is down, literacy is up,” Kristof said. “Solved is a big word. Can homelessness be solved? I’m not sure we can get it to zero. But Oregon doesn’t have to have one of the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness in the country. So it was an act of faith that a governor could make a difference in policies in the state that would make lives better. Likewise, it was an act of faith that I could win the race — and that obviously turned out to be completely untrue.” He half-jokingly attributes his optimism to “a chemical imbalance I’ve inherited.” His father fled what is now Ukraine in 1944. He survived Nazi concentration camps and prison in Yugoslavia before coming to America as a refugee, and yet nothing he endured made him less than cheerful.

“Running for office does involve — ‘self-confidence’ is a polite way of putting it,” Kristof said. He paused when he said the word polite, as if to politely emphasize that the question (I had asked about “hubris”) was not. Anyway, it was no more hubristic, he said, than the journalism he produced about foreign affairs and far-flung conflicts and cultures that he was not of. “Bouncing into a country and, in 800 words, telling them how to do a better job,” he said with a laugh.

There is a version of the myth of Nicholas Kristof in which he plays the fool, riding into town on his white horse only to get pulled over by a traffic cop. But there is another version in which the fools are the people who would never risk appearing foolish just to live by their political ideals. A second former Times colleague put it this way: “What a spectacular leap and fail, but good for him — and I mean that. Why not be a starry-eyed optimist who secretly hopes you can just break the residency rules?”

Nicholas Kristof’s Botched Rescue Mission