Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Father's Influence

BOND: Roger, moving very quickly through the last forty years, you leave the Department of Justice, you go to work for the Ford Foundation, you are in New York for a couple of years, and then in 1972, you come back to Washington and you go to the editorial board of the Washington Post, and in very short order, you write almost all of the editorials about the Watergate scandal and you get a Pulitzer Prize. And I'm going to suggest to you that...that is the beginning of a career as a writer. Even though you are now a professor, that I think the larger world knows you as a writer, as an opinion writer, not only for the Post and later for The New York Times, but as an opinion person, somebody who puts his opinions out there, this is what I believe and so on and so on. We talked a lot about how those opinions may have been developed. But just very quickly about the writing. It is interesting that when you were at the Ford Foundation you mentioned associations you have with Gore Vidal, with Norman Mailer, with Leonard Bernstein who is not a writer but part of that artistic, cultural world. And I am wondering if those associations in any way affected this later writing period in your life?

WILKINS: I think the writing period was entirely attributable to my father. When he was dying, he died at home. And he was in bed. And he wanted to help support the family. And he sat in the bed with the Royal portable typewriter in his lap. And he wrote pieces that he sent out to magazines. I didn't know he was dying but I knew he was very sick. And I knew he was determined to help the family. And then he died. It was just in my mind that was what brave, strong people did, that you wrote, that you tried to part the fog and you wrote because you were strong and you cared. And so I – if there had been a journalism job available to me when I graduated from college, I would have gone straight into journalism. So it wasn't all of those people. But by the time I went to the Post obviously I'd had all these experiences that we've talked about. And so – and I was almost forty – so by this time I am pretty clear about an engaged kind of blackness being at the core of my work.

BOND: Yes, that is what I am curious about, because it is obvious your father, by the very nature of what he did – believed that words had the power to transform events. He wasn't writing kiddy stories. He wasn't writing romantic novels. He wasn't that kind of writer. He was this kind of writer. And so, that's the example that you have been held up to. So when you actually become a writer, that's the example you are going to follow.

WILKINS: And I wanted to help make the Post speak more precisely and more powerfully to the needs of the poor and the outcast, whoever they were. But I got into this Watergate thing almost – it was two months after I got there. I did have a law degree. I had been in the Justice Department. I did know about foreign, of domestic policy and politics. But it was almost by default. Because no one really realized it was going to be a big story. So I got it and then it ran through the summer when everybody else was gone. A rookie – no matter who that rookie was – normally would not have gotten that. By the time everybody came back and the thing was growing, it was mine. Now I didn't win a Pulitzer. What happened was the Post put in the work of Woodward, Bernstein, Herb Block, and me as a package. So the Post was awarded the gold medal for public service by the Pulitzer board. And it cited the work of the four of us. But it was certainly a heck of a way to break into journalism.

BOND: That sounds like winning a Pulitzer to me.

WILKINS: Well, I am just saying it –

BOND: There were others involved.


BOND: Now, is it fair to say that Watergate represented a detour from the kind of journalism you wanted to do? And at the New York Times you get the opportunity? Now did you go to the Times because you would get that opportunity or...?

WILKINS: No, I went to the Times – I went to the Times because I had pushed the Post. That was a time when you were the first black to do this, the first black to do that. And it was very difficult being the first and the top black in a place. And there was a lot of pressure on you from blacks who were less fortunate to help them solve these problems of racism that were occurring in the institution and also retain enough credibility with your bosses to continue to push. So it was as if I had two jobs. And the job of helping to fix the Post was traumatic, and the writing was the easier part. But I had pushed very hard. And Watergate was such a hard thing that you felt like you were in a closet all the time because you were writing about the same thing and talking about the same thing all the time. And I have to admit I was in terrible shape. I mean, as you know, Julian, those '60s and into the early '70s just took a lot out of virtually everybody who was involved. And I was depleted psychic-ly. I think I was going through a depression at the time, delayed – they tell you now – delayed grieving, when you lose a parent when you are a child. So I went through that depression and drank too much. My marriage was over. So I was really screwed up. The only thing I had…I could continue to write well. So I had had it with the Post and knew the Times wanted me, and so I went to New York.

BOND: So you go from the Times editorial board to becoming an opinion columnist for the Times and write a number of pieces for them and then leave them, but in leaving them, join the editorial board of the Nation. Now the Nation and New York Times are very different publications. With the Nation having a much more pointed point of view, not to say that the Times does not have one, but they are very, very different. How did you go from the one to the other?

WILKINS: Well, I was always more left than these mainstream papers. And so, I had a lot of fights over a lot of editorials, and I was more left than...you know, I was writing at the time of emergence of the gay and lesbian movement in New York. And I supported that movement, sympathetic to it and wanted to write about it and got columns spiked. The only stuff I ever had spiked was on issues of gay and lesbian.

BOND: Nothing on race?

WILKINS: Only one thing on race. When Pat Moynihan first ran for the Senate and he ran in a primary and I did not like Pat Moynihan, do not like Pat Moynihan. Thought he used black people as stepping stones. And my editor on the editorial page didn't like him either. And so, when I said I wanted to write an anti-Moynihan thing, said, "Go ahead, my boy." And I did it. It would have appeared on election day. And the publisher pulled it.

BOND: Was it an editorial urging people to vote against – ?

WILKINS: No, it was a column. It just said Moynihan shouldn't be a Senator and these are the reasons why – that he was anti-black, essentially. The publisher pulled it.

BOND: Because the paper's opinion was that Moynihan ought to be elected?

WILKINS: The publisher had forced into the paper an editorial supporting Moynihan, that the editorial – the editorial board was against Moynihan and nobody on the editorial board would write a pro-Moynihan editorial. So the publisher produced one. And it was his paper, so if he wants to do it. So in order – the editorial page editor said, "Well, we'll get a different opinion on the opinion page, the Op-Ed page," and that was mine. And the publisher sent him a note after he pulled it and said, "I agree that Roger Wilkins' column is perceptive and eloquent and informative, and it can run in the New York Times any day after election day." And so, it ran the following day. And so, somebody asked [Arthur] Sultzberger, "Well, why did you pull it?" This is Sultzberger, who was the current publisher, who is the father of the current publisher. And he said, "Because I wanted Pat to win." So that is the only other time I got something pulled.

BOND: And so, you are at the Nation and then go the Washington Star, which eventually folds.

WILKINS: Well, the Nation really isn't a paying job. It is just an ornamental job and I, every once in a while, write something for them.

BOND: And the Star folds, you're on the editorial aboard of the Star, and the Star folds. Then you are at the Institute for Policy Studies, which is a left think tank, in effect.