Cynthia Tucker: The Girl From Monroeville

I just love to talk to people about where they grew up and journalist Cynthia Tucker is no exception. As soon as I knew she was a daughter of Monroeville, Alabama, I felt an instant chemistry with her. I'm a Deep South soul sister with roots in Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, and I gravitate to others who share my heritage.

Cynthia Tucker, the girl from Monroeville, exudes such an elegance that all I could think of was the "The Girl from Ipanema" bossa nova song when we first met: "And when she passes, each one she passes goes -- ah." Beyond the elegance and beauty is a great deal of substance and thoughtfulness.

Monroeville, Alabama is the hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and for a time her childhood buddy, Truman Capote, on whom Tucker said the character "Dill" Harris was based.

Cynthia Tucker may have a similar geographical connection but we've had very different early childhood experiences. She grew up in a segregated South that enforced separation of blacks and whites in schools, retail establishments, bathrooms, hotels, and public pools. I grew up in a South that used busing to achieve racial integration, with very mixed results. (I was bused to George Washington Carver Elementary School in downtown Richmond, Virginia. It was here that I met a very memorable black teacher who encouraged me to become a writer.)

Ms. Tucker is a very successful columnist with the Atlanta-Journal Constitution whose column, "As I See It," is published through the Universal Press Syndicate. She is a self-avowed liberal (gasp!) whose political orientation puts her in the mid-left range of the Left/Right Opinion Meter. She is an astute observer of human events in America. It was a privilege to make her acquaintance when she recently spoke to students at the Newhouse School.

Here is my "Take Five" interview with Cynthia Tucker, Washington-based columnist for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary.

NS: How has your early educational background in Alabama shaped your approach to journalism?

CT: Well I have long thought that growing up under Jim Crow made me in some ways, if not the perfect journalist, a very good one, because I was already skeptical about authority. I was primed to ask a lot of questions of people in government, because it was clear from my childhood that they weren't always right. I think my childhood in Alabama naturally shaped me to be on the liberal side of the spectrum. It was liberals, after all, who fought for civil rights, women's rights. I would have made a very odd conservative.

NS: What is the is the story about ice cream and your childhood?

CT: I have talked about the fact that my parents, who were both educators, my mother was a teacher and my father was a principal, went out of their way to shield their children from the harsh effects of segregation. We had to patronize some segregated establishments, so if you could do without a service, my parents' attitude was you did without it. As a consequence, we didn't get ice cream at the local drive-in. They didn't serve black customers at the front window and you couldn't go inside and sit at a table. So my parents' attitude was, if they were going to treat us that way, we're not going to patronize that establishment. Growing up I never had a sundae or banana split. My ice cream came from the grocery store.

After Ms. Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize, a reporter from a Mobile newspaper returned with her to that same establishment, now under different ownership, for an ice cream cone--from the front window. As she observed, the young people working there, both black and white, have no memory of a time when Cynthia couldn't order from the front window.

NS: Do you have a personal code of ethics in journalism?

CT: My professional code of ethics is the same as most professional journalists adhere to. My personal code may be even a little more stringent in some areas. My newspaper forbids me to give contributions to political candidates, but I would not do so even if my newspaper did not forbid that. I think it's not a good thing for even an opinion journalist to seem a partisan. I also try to be careful about my relationships with elected officials and people in power. There are many of them whom I've known a long time, I like, and admire. But I don't go to their parties and I don't invite them to mine. This is simply because there is a separation that ought to be observed.

NS: You won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. How did winning this prestigious award change your approach to your work, if at all?

CT: It didn't change my approach to my work. It validated my approach to my work. What I don't want the Pulitzer to do is give me the sense that I have now arrived and so I can stop working hard. Even if that were a danger to me, the move to Washington obliterated that. In many ways, I'm starting over. I've never lived in Washington before or worked out of Washington. And I don't have a national platform in Washington since I work for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

NS: You are a self-described liberal. Does having a liberal orientation put up any barriers to conservative or independent readers? Is it possible to write with a liberal point of view that still invites all readers?

CT: I certainly hope so (laughs). I notice how many liberals use the word progressive now. I have no problem with the word progressive if that is what they want to call themselves. But I know some have shifted to that word because conservatives made the word liberal sound like something just short of, or even worse than, criminal. I am defiant about my use of the word liberal. I'm not going to let the conservatives have it, because if we do that, then ten years from now they will have done something with the word "progressive" and then what will we do then?!

Let me say that I take very seriously the charge that I should be trying to persuade people to my point of view. Opinion writing should be persuasive writing in the best tradition of debate. We all agree on a set of facts and then I draw a set of conclusions from those facts. My charge is to persuade as many readers as I can to my point of view. Those I can't persuade, I ought to at least be able to make them think about the subject a little bit differently than they did before.

The liberal columnist Cynthia Tucker is a role model for persuasive writing in the spirit of debate and mutual respect. She worries, as I do, that this spirit of frank and open debate across the political spectrum is being lost to hot air and heated name-calling. I told her, quite frankly, that I'm a political independent, neither conservative nor liberal, but always open to learning. And I'm glad that there are writers like Cynthia Tucker who can serve as my teacher.

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