For the better part of almost six decades, Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton has been one of America’s most respected and influential political reporters. From the Capitol in Sacramento to the White House and back, Skelton has covered governors and presidents, statesman and fools with the most straightforward, honest reporting available anywhere. For the last 23 years that has come via his twice-weekly column in the Times, one of the only true “must read” political works of its kind in journalism today. While his office at the Times bureau in the shadow of the Capitol is filled with photos of the renowned characters he has covered – from California’s historic Gov. Pat Brown to current Gov. Jerry Brown and everyone in between, including some guy named Ronald Reagan – George remains the same humble, blunt and occasionally irascible guy he has always been. He was kind enough to sit down with me recently to talk about some of those characters, the art of modern political writing and the state of the game today.
RE: How long have you been reporting?
Skelton: Depends on what you count. I had my first job on a weekly newspaper in high school. 62 years ago. But when I was 18 I started working on a daily newspaper, when I went to junior college. I worked 30 hours a week. That was 60 years ago. I worked most of the time in college on daily newspapers. I went to work for UPI. I came to Sacramento in ’61, so that’s 54 years ago.
RE: How long have you been at the Times?
Skelton: 42 years.
RE: You’ve covered governors, presidential campaigns, pretty much the whole thing right?
Skelton: Yeah. I covered the White House for five years.
RE: Sixty years is a long time. Certainly technology has changed, but a lot of things have changed in how we cover political activity. What do you think is the biggest change you’ve seen?
Skelton: Technology obviously, the logistics of it. It’s easier to do the research. Used to have to call the Times library and have them look up stuff for me. Now you Google it. But basically I do it the same way I’ve always done it. You talk to people and read stuff and observe and write it. It’s the best way to do it. Of course I’ve been able to escape some of the downside of technology for reporters.
RE: Like what?
Skelton: I don’t have to blog. A lot of reporters have to spend half their day blogging. Editors must figure I’m too old to figure it out so why bother. I play dumb, which is easy for me. Quite frankly the blogging is like what we used to do with the wire service when I was young. At UPI we’d keep updating stories all day long and write a story for morning papers, a story for afternoon papers on the same subject, and the bigger stories would re-lead all day long. We’d even write radio copy that would be updated every hour. All day long you were cutting into your reporting time by recasting what you’d already done. It’s one of the reasons I left UPI, so I didn’t have to do that anymore. Went to work for the Times where you could take all day or more to develop a story.
RE: How long have you had your column?
Skelton: Started in January of ’93, so almost 23 years. But today reporters are sort of going back to the way it was with wires and updating and doing blogs. I don’t do that. Once in a while I do, once in a blue moon. If something really strikes me I might.
RE: Have you always been a fast writer?
Skelton: No, I’m not a really fast writer. The kind of writer I am, I go right up to the deadline, no matter what it is. But I can write as fast as anybody. Tell me when you need it and I’ll get it.
RE: How about the subjects? One thing reporters complain about, a lot of elected folks want to communicate through press releases and their websites, and it’s harder to get them to talk to you. What’s your perception of the folks we cover and how they’ve evolved?
Skelton: Ah, it’s the same as it’s always been, really. Some of them think that reporters are out to get them or ask ‘gotcha’ questions or just don’t trust you. And then others do trust you. Really, it depends how paranoid the particular politician is. Some of them like publicity so they know how to get it. That hasn’t changed. The same amount of people still talk to me as always did. It used to be back in the good old days, even when we had our offices in the Capitol, you’d run into people and they’d either give you the time of day or wouldn’t. I really honestly don’t see that much difference. Although, you’re right, they put out all their Facebook stuff and all that. But the smart ones know that’s not going to do it.
RE: As a columnist you have the opportunity and responsibility to put out a lot of thought provoking stuff. To do it right and to do it for as long as you have requires a really high level of trust from your readers. Tell me how you approach the kinds of stories you cover.
Skelton: I approach it the same way I wrote straight news stories. You have to have the facts. All columnists are different I suppose. I’ve often started to write a column and though I’ll write about that subject that’s current, but quite often I don’t know how I’m going to come down on it until I start talking to people. And sometimes I surprise my editors by taking a different view than we were first talking about. My thing is I want to talk to as many people as possible, read as much as I can, get as much information as I can, and put enough details in the column as will keep them awake. I don’t want to put them to sleep. I always wind up with tons of more information than I ever use. I don’t just sit down and write off the top of my head. Just what I think and blah blah blah, I don’t do that. I do a lot of research and only use a small fraction of it. But I do that so I can write hard on stuff and be opinionated, but it’s based on facts and research to come down one way or another on it.
RE: One of my favorite columns I saw from you was about the vaccine debate at the Capitol this last summer. You mentioned in that column that you had had polio as a kid and how if your mother had had access to a vaccine then and had not used it, that you would have never forgiven her. That really stuck with me. Sometimes to you have to put yourself in these things to get people to understand, but did you struggle with that at all?
Skelton: Yeah, I did a little bit. But I felt like I had to because if I’m going to write about that subject, and I really wanted to write about it, I felt like I had to put that in just to be honest with the readers on where I was coming from with it. I did it in as a short a way as I could. Some columnists would have gone on and on about it. I just put it in two or three sentences two thirds of the way through the column. That’s all I wanted to do and I figured that was plenty. My editor read it and said to put that in the lede. I thought, no way. I know it would be good journalism, but I’m not going to do that. Which is a good thing about, none of my editors have ever told me what to write or what not to write. I get the final say on it.
RE: Have you ever written any books?
RE: Have you ever wanted to?
Skelton: Yeah, but I’ve put all my energy into this thing. If I had taken a buyout I probably would have written a book.
RE: Do you think you ever will?
Skelton: Yeah. I will.
RE: I imagine it would either be about politics or fishing?
Skelton: [Laughs] Oh it would be about politics. It would probably be about my columns. I’d probably refer to my columns in part and fill in stuff I didn’t put in, what happened later. That kind of thing. I’ve thought about it a long time.
RE: Who sticks out the most for you of all these people you’ve covered for all these years?
Skelton: In chronological order it would be Pat Brown, then Jess Unruh and Ronald Reagan. Then they kind of taper off, to tell you the truth. Jerry [Brown], of course. Willie Brown. Actually, I also found Pete Wilson very interesting. Obviously [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, but only because of his star power. BT Collins. There’s a whole bunch of people but I guess those would be the top.
RE: Reagan has been turned by a lot of people into something very different than the real man. How alike were that mythological Reagan and the real Reagan?
Skelton: He was a very practical guy and a practical politician. He was a conservative, no question, but a practical conservative who would compromise a lot in order to get stuff done. He was smart enough to know what he didn’t know, so he would name good people around him. He always had good staffs. He would draw on their expertise but he was always the guy in charge. As president, he knew he wanted three things: beat the commies, cut down the size of government and lower taxes. Well, he beat the commies but he sure did not cut down the size of government. He lowered taxes significantly but also raised them a lot. But the main thing he really wanted to do was beat the commies, which he did. He just found out that he couldn’t do it without raising taxes, so he raised taxes. It was impossible to reduce the size of government, although he did cut a lot of regulations, though that actually started under Jimmy Carter. But mainly he wanted to get stuff done and he did. He was not the real hard-nosed conservative that Republicans make him out to be today. He was a nice guy, a good guy to deal with. He liked people but he was kind of aloof. He would only go so far. I think nobody knew him completely, except for Nancy. Maybe Mike Deaver. And even Deaver didn’t know all of him.
RE: I have to ask you about Jerry Brown. Looking back now on his time, of covering Jerry Brown, as he’s winding down, what do you think about him?
Skelton: I think now he’s more wise to how good politics works, and he’s decided that you can only do two or three things, and so he picks those out and tries to do them. He doesn’t want anything to do with the rest of it. He’s not as bold as he used to be, because he knows that unless you have a coalition to get something done it’s probably not going to get done. He doesn’t like to pick fights he can’t win. He’s much more political than he used to be. I’ll give you one example. He’s been against the death penalty all his life. There was a proposition a couple years that would have eliminated the death penalty, and he didn’t take a position on it because he didn’t want it to interfere with Proposition 30. Which was on the ballot at the same time. He didn’t want to draw any fire from anybody. He was afraid, which I don’t have any respect for somebody like that. He’s against the death penalty and here’s his chance to do something about it and he didn’t say one peep.
RE: Do you think that was concern over his legacy?
Skelton: He just figured he could only do one or two things at a time and Prop 30 was the thing he was doing at that time, and didn’t want anything to interfere with that. I’m pretty sure in the 70s he would have taken a position on it. He’s much more political than people have given him credit for. Like with Prop 13, which he was against until he was for it. The big difference when I think of Jerry and Pat Brown is their disparate personalities. Pat was a real warm guy, a friendly guy who talked to reporters all the time. Pat used to take Fish and Game reporters with him on pack trips into the Sierra. I can remember sitting with him at a picnic table, with nobody else around, arguing about the death penalty. In this case I was against it and he was for it. Although he was historically against it in this one case the guy had killed a cop. The point is that he thought nothing of just sitting there chatting with me. I was a punk reporter, a kid in my 20s. Jerry would never do that. First thing Jerry would do would is ask where you went to college.
RE: That was one of the first things he ever asked me. He wanted to know who I wrote for.
Skelton: In this particular case, I happened to be writing for the Sacramento Union, which was a very Republican paper at the time. But Jerry just doesn’t get along with people. Total difference between those two people, in their personalities.
RE: How much longer do you see yourself doing this?
Skelton: I’ll wake up some morning and say screw it. I really don’t know. We just had a good buy out, I could have taken it, but I didn’t.
RE: Do you still get excited about the work?
Skelton: Yeah, I still get a kick out of it, being able to write what I want to write and the challenge of writing a column twice a week and going up on deadlines. I still like it. Enjoy is not quite the right word, but it’s like, you feel a sense of accomplishment when you do something.