This is excerpted from Gene’s speech on June 28 at Howard University, accepting the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
I’m going to talk today about one of the least acknowledged but most important tools of the successful columnist, namely, a crippling neurosis bordering on mental illness.
I will give you examples of this from my own illustrious career, beginning with this very honor. When I was told I had won, I did not think, Oh, my, how humbling yet also gratifying to be recognized by my younger colleagues. What I thought was: Well, duuh. Of course you gave it to me. I live in Washington. Your convention is in Washington. By giving it to me as opposed to someone actually deserving, like Tom Friedman, you won’t have to pay travel expenses.
As I often do when I am insecure, I sought reassurance from my friend and editor, Tom the Butcher. I explained that I feared I don’t deserve this honor, and Tom said, “Wait, is it a lifetime achievement award?” When I confirmed that it was, he said: “It’s fine. Those are usually given out at the point in someone’s career when his greatest continuing achievement is a solid bowel movement in the morning.”
So, yeah, I’m insecure. As you can see, I am also not a very good public speaker. Like many shy people, I tried to conquer my fear of public speaking through the age-old trick of imagining the audience in their underwear. The idea is that by making you seem vulnerable, even ridiculous, I feel masterful by comparison. But every time I imagine that, for some reason, I also imagine myself in my underwear. With a big hole in the crotch.
(Okay, a little aside. This speech is going to be excerpted in my next column, so it’s already been edited by Tom the Butcher. And Tom read that underpants joke and didn’t like it, but he told me diplomatically, using a tactic employed for generations by editors and dads, appealing to my self-respect while affirming his confidence in me. He said, “You Can Do Better.” And I said, “No, I Can’t.” And that was that. )
Speaking of dads, today would have been my father’s 100th birthday. I wish he could be here to see this. My dad lived through World War II. He read Ernie Pyle’s moving dispatches about ordinary heroes defeating the forces of evil, and he grieved when Ernie died on the battlefield, and here I am, winning an award with Ernie’s name on it, me, a writer of columns about pooping and farting. Okay, maybe I don’t wish my father could see this. If he weren’t dead already, this might have done it.
See, insecurity. After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, my reaction was not elation, or even gratitude. My reaction was similar to the reaction of Janet Cooke in 1981, when she was told she got the Pulitzer for a story she had completely invented. We both secretly reacted the same way: “Oh, s---.” In my case, it was because I had recently reread my story, and I saw that in the 82nd paragraph I had written that someone had “a history of prior neglect. ” As opposed to what — a history of future neglect? This little nugget of redundancy throbbed in my brain like the piece of Nipponized shrapnel that Ernie Pyle caught at Okinawa. I knew in that moment that my obit would begin, “Gene Weingarten, who once was briefly awarded the Pulitzer Prize, an honor immediately withdrawn when it was revealed that his story contained the idiot formulation ‘prior history.’ …”
Okay, now I’m worried about that shrapnel line. Was it tasteless? It was tasteless, wasn’t it? I knew it. I mean, it wasn’t beneath me, nothing’s beneath me, but it was tasteless.
Okay, you want to take this award back? Fine. I don’t deserve it anyway. My advice is, Tom Friedman.
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