What I Learned From Legendary Journalist Ray Suarez: His Toughest Interviews Ever

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 17:  The House of Representatives voted 228-192 to ban local public radio stations from using federal
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 17: The House of Representatives voted 228-192 to ban local public radio stations from using federal funds to pay for National Public Radio, effectively cutting off 40-percent of NPR's revenue, March 17, 2011 in Washington, DC. The legislation now moves to the Democrat-controlled Senate where it is unlikely to pass. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Right before the general election, I had the privilege of interviewing one of my journalism icons: Ray Suarez, senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and host of America Abroad from Public Radio International. I snagged a brief phone interview with the media giant after learning that he was due to speak at Whitman College, my alma mater. Suarez is the author of two books, The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America, and The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration. He hosted Talk of the Nation on NPR from 1993 to 1999.

If there's one thing I've learned in my short reporting career, it's this: It's hard to interview journalists, and even harder to write about them -- especially when the journalist in question is someone as popular and prolific as Suarez. Journalists in the public eye know exactly what kinds of questions to expect because they've made careers out of fielding the same ones: What's your take on xyz current event, who will run for office in 2016, and, of course, what's the future of journalism?

That's what made prepping for our interview such a unique challenge. I figured that no matter what I asked, chances were he'd already addressed it at least once during his 30-plus years in the news industry, and with enough Googling I could find out what he'd said. Wouldn't that render all of my questions repetitive? After all, this is a guy who's interviewed heads of state and been on the front lines of some of the biggest stories of the last 25 years, like the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa. To be honest, the only question I really wanted to ask him was, "How do I become you?!"

Despite my obvious nerves, Suarez made some excellent points regarding a number of timely topics, and graciously granted me permission to post excerpts of our conversation here. The topics we discussed included, naturally, the presidential election (he's a big fan of Nate Silver), higher education ("be prepared to do work that doesn't require a degree for a while") and how to make it as a young journalist ("Know a lot of things about a lot of things, and one or two things more than anybody else").

He also shared some of his own experiences with particularly thorny interviews, and how he approaches them: "Being prepared is a lot of the battle, but if being prepared means having a game plan, you have to be prepared to throw away your game plan."

As for his toughest interviews to date? Margaret Thatcher comes to mind, as does controversial novelist and Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul.

"I approached that interview with a lot of trepidation, and he was every bit as difficult as I imagined," Suarez said of Naipaul, who was a guest on the NewsHour in 2000.

Thatcher was also "a ferocious advocate for her world view," Suarez said. He interviewed the former British prime minister in 1993, three years after her resignation.

"She was a tough, smart adversary around the microphone," he said.

Click here to read my recap of Suarez's visit to Whitman College in October.