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Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Elliot Kaufman on Letters to the Editor


Elliot Kaufman Rago ’18 is the letters editor at The Wall Street Journal where he selects, edits, and solicits letters to the editor. He also runs the Future View column and regularly provides opinion articles and book reviews. In 2018, Elliot was named the Robert L. Bartley Fellow and was the inaugural Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow for Excellence in Journalism with TFAS and The Wall Street Journal.

In this week’s Liberty and Leadership Podcast, Elliot and Roger discuss how learning to debate at the dinner table helped him become a debating champion, his time at Stanford University both managing the basketball team and writing for the Stanford Review, how in-depth reporting informs the best opinion writing, and the heated exchanges in The Wall Street Journal’s Letters to the Editor section.

The Liberty + Leadership Podcast is hosted by TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 and produced by kglobal. If you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org.


Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.

Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni who are making a real impact in politics, public policy, government, business, philanthropy, law, and the media. Today, I’m excited to be joined by Elliot Kaufman, letters editor at The Wall Street Journal. Elliot was the first Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow at The Fund for American Studies and The Wall Street Journal and he stayed at The Wall Street Journal since that time in 2018. As letters editor, Elliot is responsible for editing every single piece of content you see in The Wall Street Journal’s letters page. As the first Rago Fellow, Elliot truly embodies the qualities of aptitude, drive and integrity is a strong example for the Rago Fellows who have followed him. Elliot, thanks for joining me today. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Elliot Kaufman [00:01:03] Thank you so much, Roger. Me, too.

Roger Ream [00:01:05] Well, before we talk about your time at The Wall Street Journal, particularly as the Rago Fellow and subsequently, I would like to ask you a little bit about your background. You were raised in Canada and were very involved in debate in high school. Could you talk a little bit about your upbringing?

Elliot Kaufman [00:01:26] Sure. Yeah. So that’s right. I’m from Toronto, Canada, and I think my upbringing actually had a great deal to do with where I am right now. I guess my household was unusual in that political news and discussions and debates were front and center. That’s the sort of thing we would do at the dinner table every night. And to participate in that kind of talk or even to just get a word in edgewise. You kind of had to know what you were talking about. And so it was because that I wanted to have a say in these sorts of things and be part of the fun and the discussion that I started reading the daily newspaper at a very young age, seven years old, in fact. And while it’s true that I started with the sports section every day before school.

Roger Ream [00:02:24] Well that could lead to really heated arguments.

Elliot Kaufman [00:02:27] That’s absolutely true.

Roger Ream [00:02:28] Sports can lead to heated arguments at the table.

Elliot Kaufman [00:02:30] And not only about the Canadian Football League, but, you know, some other larger ones, too. Pretty soon I was reading the main section, the business section for some years, too. At our home, we had Canada’s National Post newspaper, which is a fantastic paper, and did me the great favor of syndicating weekly columns by Charles Krauthammer. George Will, maybe a little lesser known, but George Jonas as well, Father Raymond de Souza and several excellent, excellent writers who had an impact not only in Canada. Krauthammer is actually from Canada, though many people don’t know that. You know, also, obviously in the United States. And so that sort of introduced me to that world of argument. And then I attended school at a Jewish school up until the seventh grade, and then I switched to a sort of fancy private school after that. It was something of a culture shock, I would say, of going from calling my teachers, you know, Amy and David and that sort of thing, to Ms.Brooks or Mr.Sharp or something like that. And then all of a sudden I had a school uniform, a tie every day. So it was a whole new environment, but one that stressed excellence and that, you know, expected quite a lot of us. And I threw myself into it.

Roger Ream [00:04:09] Let me interrupt and just ask a question about the dinner table. And I have friends who have grown up in large families, and they have to, you know, claw their way into conversations because there are so many people at the table. As I recall, you didn’t have a large family, but it must be a credit to your parents. And at least you had one brother. I know that they had sharp arguments to offer, that you could engage in that kind of conversation at the dinner table. Is that right?

Elliot Kaufman [00:04:35] That’s absolutely right. I just have the one brother. So not necessarily a large family, but we all made up for it by speaking in paragraphs. So yeah, that was no problem. But in school, yeah, I ended up getting into debating. Like you said, my older brother had done it before me and had been very successful at it. And so naturally I wanted to pick it up. There was just one problem with that, actually, and that was that I had a stuttering problem and I would say still do to some extent, although you’re not likely to hear it. So I don’t think it necessarily matters. The reason why you’re not likely to hear it is because I plugged away at public speaking and debating and all of that. And through trial and error and a good deal of embarrassment, perhaps I emerged as someone able to sort of speak confidently in public. And some of that reading I was doing earlier really helped me.

Roger Ream [00:05:38] Well, I know you captured many honors in your debating career. As I recall, you competed internationally and was in Thailand and Bermuda and elsewhere. Maybe in England you were runner up champion in Canada. What was that experience like?

Elliot Kaufman [00:05:57] It was really fantastic. I ended up becoming a member of the Canadian team and we went traveling around and we were able to win a Pan American competition and I believe came third in the world championships, losing to South Africa in the semifinals. I’m still a little upset about that one. It was wonderful. And it was the kind of thing in terms of the habits that it taught. Some of them were good, some of them less so because the style in Canada is not like the style commonly used in America. In Canada it’s very much extemporaneous. And so you’re given a topic and a side, you know, pro or con, and you have 15 minutes of preparation and then you have to go up there and talk before a judge. And there are hostile people standing up trying to, you know, interrupt to pick holes in what you’re saying, and then you have to speak afterwards, responding to what they said on the fly. And so perhaps one of the good habits is that, you know, I became able to speak competently on a number of things, but one of the bad habits is that you become able to speak confidently on a number of things, even if you don’t know anything about that. And I suppose that may be good for a pundit, but for some of the work that I’m trying to do, it’s probably best to know a little bit more before you start talking and sort of lecturing others about why they’re wrong, what they should think.

Roger Ream [00:07:29] Well, it does sound like it’s a little bit different than debate in this country, but it also sounds maybe a little more lively and exciting. But you make a good point. So then you made it out to Stanford University and remarkably excelled there as well, not surprisingly. But I know you worked on the official organ of the university, the Stanford magazine. I think you did some work with the Stanford Review. The alternative student newspaper, got involved in a fraternity, had a good experience there. Tell me about the kind of journalism you did while you’re at Stanford.

Elliot Kaufman [00:08:05] Sure. And actually, I should just say you left out one job of which I am probably proudest of. I was a student manager for the basketball team my freshman year.

Roger Ream [00:08:16] Oh, that’s great.

Elliot Kaufman [00:08:16] I got to travel around with the team in, you know, a division one program. Not the best program but, you know, we did okay.

Roger Ream [00:08:25] When you started reading the paper at the age of seven and focusing on the sports section that prepared you for a job as manager of the basketball team, right?

Elliot Kaufman [00:08:34] Absolutely. That’s funny. I hadn’t thought of that. But actually, my journalism comes out of that because I’ve been working for the basketball team. I came home, must have been Christmas break of freshman year. And my parents suggested to me that, you know, this is very nice that you’re involved with the team and you’re rebounding and helping out with drills and this sort of thing. But, you know, you are at a university and you’ve traveled pretty far. Maybe you should do something a little more intellectually engaging with your time. And I said, well, fair enough. So over Christmas break, I prepared an article and I arrived back and I sent it in to the Stanford Review, which, like you said, is the alternative independent newspaper. It’s the one not propped up by the school itself and actually has a whole history. It was founded by Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder, in the 1980s and has since had a history of producing all kinds of contrarian and contrary people and others who have, you know, who were sort of pushing back against the prevailing college political and cultural stream of thought. And I sent that in. They liked it and offered me a staff role on the spot. So from then on, you know, I was into it and one thing that I would sort of learn later on about opinion writing. I learned this especially at the Journal, but I had a premonition of it here in college and it’s that the best opinion writing isn’t separate from reporting actually reporting informs the best opinion writing. And so my freshman year there was a big controversy over left wing students and sadly, not just them. Trying to do some sort of boycott of Israel. And my contribution to arguing against that was to not just sort of make an argument that has been made before, but to actually do some research and look into Stanford’s publicly available financial holdings and find out that as far as what was publicly available. None of the companies that they wanted us to boycott, we had any investments in, in the first place. And so just by doing that little bit of research, which really didn’t even take that long, I was able to bring a sort of different angle into it instead of just the usual ideological back and forth. I learned some lessons like that and I stuck it out with the Stanford Review until my junior year ended up quitting and started to write for outside real publications. I sent them articles and to my shock and joy, they said, Yes.

Roger Ream [00:11:39] Well, that’s wonderful. And I want to just reiterate that point you made that I think such an important one for, I know for students who come to our program and want to be journalists, that reporting informs the best editorial writing. And that is something we’ve tried to stress to students. And you know, it’s something a good journalist learns. We harken back to Robert Novak, who wrote on the editorial pages, the opinion pages of The Washington Post and was carried in papers on the opinion page. But he always had solid reporting behind each of his columns. He had lots of sources, he called. He, you know, dug for facts. And so that’s a great point you make about opinion writing. It’s not just to give people your opinions and tell them what you believe, it’s to lead them to a conclusion by giving them facts and information. So I just didn’t want that to pass because I thought what you said was profound there and very important. So then as your tenure at Stanford was coming to a conclusion, you probably had a lot of options to consider coming out of Stanford, as you did with your record. You no doubt could have gotten into top law schools or business schools. Thankfully for us and for readers of The Wall Street Journal, you chose journalism and you were doubly successful by being selected as a Robert Bartley Fellow Summer Program at the Journal and as the Joseph Rago, the first Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow for Excellence in Journalism, a program that we co-sponsor with The Wall Street Journal and the Rago family. So that pretty much marked a start of a career path that you’ve been on since then. This was 2018. Tell us about, you know, your experience as a Bartley fellow and a regular fellow at the Journal. When you start, do you get an opportunity to try a lot of different things at the Journal. Do they put you in one area and have you concentrate or how did that work?

Elliot Kaufman [00:13:39] I believe at that time you could apply for a Bartley fellow in different areas of the editorial page. And so there was editorial writing, the book reviews, arts pages. The one that I went to was what we call editorial features. Most people would just say op-eds and regular columns. And to my surprise, my father had been telling me, you should be ready to bring people coffee, print things out, that sort of thing. It was an internship, but to my surprise, they made me a full member of the team and if I wanted to contribute, it was really up to me if I could bring them good ideas, reported, written well, they were only too happy to publish them and they wouldn’t hold against me that I was just a summer intern. And so the way it went was like this. On day one, they gave me a laptop and got me up to speed on the technology. On day two, they gave me an op-ed by the Secretary General of NATO and said, edit this. You’re right into it. Now they put my senior editor behind me on that edit, so they weren’t taking too many risks, but they let me show that I could really do the work. You know, I took to the editing. I remember at the start the second editor behind me used to rewrite the article after I had finished with it. After I thought it was fully finished, they would then rewrite it. And then as I improved, I noticed them doing that less and less. And then the second editor would barely make any changes. So, even without anyone telling me, I could see that I was sort of finding the range in terms of what was necessary for that. And then I was also writing articles of my own at the time. Every so often. So, you know, that was an excellent experience.

Roger Ream [00:15:42] Yeah. And then you just slid right into the Rago Fellowship from there and kept growing in your responsibilities, I take it?

Elliot Kaufman [00:15:52] Yes, that’s right. And it’s funny, I remember thinking when I was in college about this Rago Fellowship, which I just heard of, I don’t even remember how I heard of it because it was brand new. And I took one look at it and said, well, this is obviously ideal, and therefore for that reason, I’ll have no chance at it. I won’t get it. I have to start thinking of all my other options because surely everyone else is going to be after this, and therefore I need to have everything lined up so I don’t get left behind. And it was so wonderful to apply for it, interview for it. And I remember walking out of the interview feeling absolutely great about it and then I got the job. I couldn’t have been more happy. And I’ve said before, and I want to take this opportunity to say again that I think the Rago Fellowship is the best opportunity available for a young journalist, opinion writer anywhere. You know, I’ve seen these other options. I’ve looked around, there is no better option because like I said, The Wall Street Journal lets you be a full member of the editorial team in the meetings, editing, writing, all of that. And I would say the Journal doesn’t have a culture of holding your hand in that role. It has a culture of, however much you can do, however much you’re willing to put in. That’s how far you can rise. And nobody there is going to stop you from that. It’s just kind of up to you. And so I came in there motivated, ready to go. And so it was just an ideal role.

Roger Ream [00:17:50] Well, as you said, when you learned about the Rago Fellowship, you thought everyone else in the world was going to apply to it, and I think everyone else did. But I recall interviewing you when you applied. We had really outstanding applications and have every year, and the decision is always very difficult to make. After the short interviews we do. But you certainly stood out and impressed us with your abilities and your determination to pursue a career in journalism. So it wasn’t a difficult decision at the time and you’ve proved us right in our our decision. And I remember also in the context of what you said about editing a piece by the NATO’s secretary general, running in to Karl Rove. You know, at some event when you were the Rago Fellow and mentioning, you know, we have a Rago Fellowship at The Wall Street Journal, Elliot Kaufman, he said Elliot Kaufman he edits my thesis. And so you’ve been editing really outstanding contributors to The Wall Street Journal. And, you know, I think they’re recognize that you’re editing makes their columns better than they would otherwise be. But you’ve grown into doing other things there. You’re now the letters editor and that if I’m not right is that aren’t letters to the editor the most read part of a newspaper. That used to be what I’d heard.

Elliot Kaufman [00:19:24] Yes, I think by the print subscribers, there’s no question. And maybe we can get into some of this later. But in the transition to online, that sort of idea is being tested. And so part of what I’m trying to do is keep the letters in, which is really a print format, sort of make that translate to online and keep readers interest in that way. But yeah, I mean you summarized it right. And one point that I’ll make as well is that after the Rago Fellowship, I got hired on to be an op-ed editor and we would say assistant editorial features editor. And I did that for, I guess, two more years after the almost a year long Rago Fellowship. And the role did not change. It was the same role. And I think that just stresses that the Rago Fellowship because it’s a fellowship. You know, I was already being put in the full time regular role. I just needed to sort of formalize that by being hired on afterward. So anyways, I wanted to point that out. And then I became letters editor, I suppose this was in June of 2021, so more than a year now. And I’ve loved the role and I took over from a true master, Tim Lemmer had the role for 14 years until he retired and I had filled in for him when he went on vacation a couple of times and realized how much work went into it, which was much more than, you know, editing your one op-ed a day or two op-eds a day. No, Wall Street Journal readers are constantly sending in ideas, comments, observations and it is my job to read them, pick out the good ones, edit them for style, sometimes for substance, for grammar, fact check them, fit them on to the day’s page and put together that half page that you see in every day’s Wall Street Journal. One other thing I do and readers may not know this is actually, I solicit some letters. I reach out to, you know, prominent, knowledgeable people. Basically, I read an article of ours, and I think, you know who I would love to see, what you know, what this person has to say about that. And then I think, wait a minute, I can make that happen. I can just email them, I can call them. And because it’s The Wall Street Journal and so forth, people tend to say yes. And, you know, it helps make my job easier and certainly put out a very interesting product for the reader. I’ll also say that the regular Wall Street Journal reader is no slouch either. We have some really smart people and I know we often say internally at the editorial page that there is no getting away with a mistake in an article at The Wall Street Journal because collectively the readership knows everything. There is a business executive, there is a retired aerospace engineer, a professor. There is one and usually ten people who is way more of an expert than you are no matter what you end up writing about. And so we take that as a sort of instruction. You can’t be lax on the facts because Wall Street Journal readers know what they’re talking about and they will write in and correct you and nail you in a letter.

Roger Ream [00:23:48] Well, I love reading the letters. You know, occasionally a letter will be in response to an op-ed that I missed, an editorial feature I missed. So I have to, you know, I’ll go back and read the op-ed because the letters sparked my interest in it. I love it when occasionally you have the opportunity to run a letter that is responding to a piece. And then a few days later you have the author of the piece responding. As recently I saw, you had Mitch Daniels responding to a letter from Walter Kimbrough, another college president, responding to the piece Mitch wrote on the student loan forgiveness program and that kind of exchange. You know, it’s not easy to do that in a publication, but today I actually shared with several members of my team the three pieces, the original piece, the Kimbrough response, and the Daniels response because I wanted them to see them all and get the whole full picture. So I think it’s great when you do that.

Elliot Kaufman [00:24:45] I really enjoy those ones as well. Two reasons. I mean, one, it’s a kind of accountability. And I think readers should know that their letters are holding writers accountable and that writers see them and think, oh, boy, everyone’s going to think I’m really, you know, slipped up somehow because this guy made an excellent point on the letter page and they sort of feel the need and sometimes I’ll reach out to them. And so readers can sort of see the sort of full range of an argument. And that brings me back to, you know, some of what I was doing in high school, I’ll say. And then one other thing. I’m a voracious reader of magazines and I think magazines really excel on this format in the letters. I know that in the old days, under the leadership of Norman Podhoretz, one of his innovations at Commentary Magazine was to really expand the letter page. And he would, you know, publish three pages of letters and have, in the same issue a letter. And then right underneath that, the author’s answer there. And I think that clash there was one of the most exciting parts of the magazine. And these days, I think, of the New York Review of Books, which has an excellent letter page. First things often is spectacular. I think they solicit most of the letters, and it shows because they had exactly the person that you would want to see responding. He’s in there writing. And I’d also point out, I would call attention to Ed Luttwak, who I think is a master letter writer, perhaps the best out there. And he’s been haunting the pages of the London Review of Books in the Times Literary Supplement and other ones like these, if you slip up, he’s on you in the most entertaining fashion as well.

Roger Ream [00:27:11] Yeah. Another one I like is the Claremont Review of Books. They have good letters and responses that the author has a chance to tangle with the letter writer. That is something that’s not found everywhere and is enjoyable. You know, I sometimes wish, along with the name of the letter writer and the hometown and state, you run their email address because I often read letters, for me they’re so good that I want to email the person saying you made such a great point today in The Wall Street Journal. And I’m sure that’s not something you can do.

Elliot Kaufman [00:27:49] You know, I did want to get on that point quickly. I did once have Heather McDonald of the Manhattan Institute and City Journal, excellent journalist, once reach out because she had exactly that thought and asked for a letter writers email address. She wanted to follow up with him for a citation on some point that I think she wanted to later use in a book or a magazine piece. So I love that.

Roger Ream [00:28:20] You don’t have to disclose whether you gave her the address or not. Tell me also about you were also given responsibility for a program at the Journal called Future View, which sounds very interesting. I’ve read it some, but it’s an opportunity to try to get younger people engaged in the conversation. Could you talk about Future View?

Elliot Kaufman [00:28:45] Absolutely.

Roger Ream [00:28:46] If I’m calling it by the right name.

Elliot Kaufman [00:28:47] Yeah, you are. I edited a future review for a year or two, probably two, actually. And now another former Rago Fellow, Faith Bottum is editing it and doing a wonderful job. She’s actually expanded it some. And Future View is a weekly column for college students. So we put out a prompt, some question, provocative question on an issue of the day. Usually, though, sometimes it’s a more evergreen or philosophical topic. Often the issues will have to do with education on the theory that people should write about what they know most. And of course, students have specialized knowledge on education that others don’t. But we ask about all sorts of things. And we get submissions from college students from all around the country and from other countries, too. And so it’s actually kind of similar to the letters Future Views submissions are not so long like letters, but it’s an opportunity to write something punchy, pithy, interesting. And I actually think it’s a wonderful form of writing. Getting straight to the point. And we publish anywhere from 3 to 7 of them a week, the best ones. And we get college students from all kinds of campuses, all kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of views, sort of sounding off, contributing interesting arguments on questions of the day. And we publish that Tuesday nights online, Wall Street Journal. And I think it’s a wonderful feature that has caught on with students. Some of the students that have written for us there have ended up being hired as Bartley Fellows, full-time employees, that kind of thing. So I love seeing that. And I would encourage college students to send in answers. And the great thing about it is that there’s a new question, a new prompt every week. So if one prompt isn’t right for you, wait for the next one. You can sort of pick your pitch and then tee off on it.

Roger Ream [00:31:26] Yeah. Good. It’s a great opportunity to get younger people interested in newspapers, in journalism, in a civil debate of issues. So I credit you and the Journal for starting that program. Has it been around long or were you the first one to run that?

Elliot Kaufman [00:31:47] I was the first editor. And Lena Bell, who works with us at the Journal, she’s now our managing editor at the Editorial Page. She came up with the idea and really helped build it from nothing. And then I took over as the editor. On day one and I tried to get it on solid footing. And then, like I said, Faith has really taken it to the next level.

Roger Ream [00:32:20] So Elliot, if a young person, say attending Stanford or some other university were to ask you or say to you, I’m interested in a career in journalism. Do you recommend it? Is there a future for me in journalism? What kind of advice would you give? I mean, I ask that not just because, you know, newspaper circulations and many city papers have fallen considerably, but journalism seems to have changed quite a bit in the last decade or more in terms of it becoming less of a profession that focuses on giving us the news but more of an advocacy type of career. What are your thoughts in terms of advice to young people about journalism?

Elliot Kaufman [00:33:09] It’s a good question. To the specific question of should you become a journalist? Yes or no? You know, some people I tell them yes. Some people I tell them no. I want to see their writing, first of all. I think. I’m aware that I’ve kind of lived a charmed journalistic life. I mean, there is only one Rago Fellow each year. There still is only one each year. My first job out of college was at The Wall Street Journal. That’s not the way it usually happens. But in a way, it’s not as uncommon as it once was. You know, the way journalism careers used to happen is you would start off at a smaller, local paper and you would build your own and you would sort of work your way up a mid-sized paper, and then you could end up at a place like The Wall Street Journal later on. These days, it is more common to start at a publication that pitches itself as a national publication, often because it is online, it is a web based publication. And that’s good and bad. My sense is at The Wall Street Journal editorial page, they do like to get journalists early and then sort of mold them and train them, that kind of thing. But at many other places, what mold them and train them means is have them write, you know, a dozen articles a day for online. And that’s a very different kind of training that can instill different kinds of habits. And so the advice that I’ve given young people interested in journalism is while you’re in college, really do what you can to get experience not just in writing, but in editing and fact checking. You mentioned that I worked for the Stanford Alumni Magazine. That was a wonderful job. I hardly ever wrote for them, but I did editing. I did fact checking. One of my most memorable jobs was spent with spending months fact checking the obituaries of alumni famous and not famous and sort of going through that, some real drudgery, but also very interesting reading about people’s lives. I mean, if you’re not interested in people’s lives, what are you interested in? But I say try to get try experience doing that because not only will you be able to pitch yourself to professional publications as a sort of, you know, utility man who can do a little bit of everything. I think there will always be a place for editors in journalism. There always will be a need for that kind of thing. But it can buy you time to sort of tread water in the industry before you have to write, before you have to throw all of your opinions out there and all of that. Take some time looking at other people’s opinions, reading some more, learning more about the world and how it actually works before you’re doing all of that opinion writing. So I recommend the editing, fact checking route and then, you know, writing here and there. And then if you’d like to, writing more and more as time goes on. So that’s definitely one piece of advice. Another that we alluded to is focusing on the facts. I mean, one thing that The Wall Street Journal is big on and Joe Rago himself used to very much advise is just lead with the facts. Let the facts speak. And I remember in the context of writing about all the crazy things going on American college campuses, he says there’s no need to be inflammatory. Simply stating the facts is more than sufficient and often is more powerful than you trying to make declarations or sweeping statements, analogies, this and that. Tell people something they didn’t know was true. If you can do that, that’s an article and then whatever you can do after that in the course of doing that to add a little bit of style, that’s just gravy. So those are a few points of advice I would offer.

Roger Ream [00:38:09] Well, I know we’re running short on time. I do have a couple of things I’d like to talk about before we conclude. One of which you referred to just now was Joe Rago. Our fellowship was established in memory of of Joe Rago, who worked in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and won a Pulitzer Prize for exactly what you were just talking about, writing editorials that provided facts, provided information. His Pulizer Prize related to his writing on the Affordable Care Act, of course, and I think he received in 2011, if I’m not mistaken, but a brilliant young journalist who sadly died at the age of 34. We’ve had the great privilege of working with his parents, Paul and Nancy Rago, to establish this fellowship with The Wall Street Journal. And you’ve really represented it well as the first Rago Fellow. And I know learned a lot about Joe. I have only the opportunity to meet him a couple of times. He spoke to The Fund for American Studies Programs, but just someone who was willing to, you know, try to help people coming up after him in journalism and is now it’s being done through this fellowship that was established. You have any thoughts on Joe beyond those you just shared?

Elliot Kaufman [00:39:37] Well, I should definitely say, first of all, I never had the honor of meeting Joe, but I have had the honor of meeting his parents many times now and corresponding with them. I still do it after every article. Paul Rago’s reading that, writing me with extremely insightful comments and both Paul and Nancy Rago are the kindest people, very, very smart and have been so nice. And I think one of the best parts of being a Rago Fellow was getting to know those two, and I’m so grateful to them and The Wall Street Journal and of course, The Fund for American Studies for making for making the Rago Fellow possible. It’s had such a transformative effect on my life. And now, in years since, I’ve been able to see it, do that for each new Rago Fellow. And it’s just an absolutely wonderful thing about Joe Rago. Joe Rago is still missed at The Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal Editorial Page, but also in the world at large. No one has stepped in to fill those shoes. No one is writing like he was with the knowledge that he had, who could read like him, who had the interest that he did, who had such style, but also had the insight that I was relaying earlier about facts first. That’s just something that doesn’t, you know, doesn’t come around every day. And I continue to hear stories. I run into people, you know, when I’m not expecting it. I run into someone who says, you know what? I was a source of Joe Rago’s in the health care industry. And she spoke with a level of knowledge that no journalist I’ve spoken to before or or after has had. And he knew exactly what to ask. He understood things before I said them, that kind of thing.

Roger Ream [00:42:13] Well, you know, I just had that similar experience. I wrote a short opinion piece about Joe in August, right around the fifth anniversary of his death. And someone in a PR firm saw it and emailed me and said how kind Joe was to him. Throughout the whole debate on the Affordable Care Act, he had clients who were concerned about the legislation and whenever he contacted Joe saying, Would you talk to one of my clients? Joe was always willing to do that. He didn’t always agree with them, but he would listen to them civilly and talk about their concerns and respond to them and gain information from them. And he went on singing the praises of Joe. And, you know, there are all those people out there whose lives I think he touched, like you mentioned.

Elliot Kaufman [00:43:03] I’m not surprised. I mean, from everything I’ve heard Joe was exactly that kind.

Roger Ream [00:43:10] And we’ve had four young people now complete the Rago Fellowship and we’re just so excited that two of the four are working full-time at The Wall Street Journal. I know another one of the fellows went to do some research and work with Henry Kissinger and is now, I think, serving our country. And then we have a new fellow who just started a few weeks ago as our fifth Rago Fellow. And so that’s very exciting. And also, as you know, Elliot, we sponsor the Robert Novak Journalism Fellows Program, and we have four Robert Novak Journalism Fellows either who are working at The Wall Street Journal, including our newest Kate Odell. So we’re pleased to have a good representation at The Wall Street Journal. I think it’s Paul Ziobro, the editor, who has said that it’s the only paper that people buy for the editorial pages. And I think that’s true. You maintain such a high standard. And I just want to say to people listening after this podcast, go online and go to The Wall Street Journal’s website or even to Google and type in Elliott Kaufman and pull up some of the pieces that Elliott’s written in The Wall Street Journal. You just have a skill at writing. His most recent piece is on, A Scandal Rocking the Chess World. And I have to read the opening sentence of that piece. If you don’t mind, I’ll hit. He writes, My chess career peaked when I was six. One game away from victory in the Ontario Chess Championships for the first grade, I blundered and I lost. And it just goes out from there and talks about a scandal that just took place among grandmasters in the tournament, a famous tournament in Saint Louis. He wrote one before that, a very well-written but also important piece about controversies within the American Historical Association that was included also just really good writing. So thanks for reporting on those. And again, there were pieces that reported, facts about stories, information about stories. But you have a great way of writing about them.

Elliot Kaufman [00:45:31] Thank you.

Roger Ream [00:45:32] Well, thanks for being with us today for this conversation. Do you have any last words, advice to offer listeners of this podcast about about journalism or your career?

Elliot Kaufman [00:45:48] I guess one thing. Well, first of all, I want to second your advice. Read The Wall Street Journal, preferably you should pay for it, too. Definitely read it. And the other has to do with that, the importance of reading. I think reading the newspaper from a young age would put me in a great position to write, for one. It’s astonishing to me how many people want to write for newspapers, but don’t read them. And I would say, you know, if you want to know what’s happening in the world, read a newspaper. If you want to know what’s happening in the world of ideas, you should be reading magazines. You know, if you want to know why every good idea and every bad idea has already been tested, you should read history. And so I am constantly advising people. Read more. It’ll help your writing. It’ll inform your thinking. You know, at the very worst, I don’t see how any bad could come from it. So I would end on that.

Roger Ream [00:47:02]  That’s wonderful advice. And I’ll make one small confession and that is I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. I get the print edition at my house and I have the digital as well. But I start my day. Believe it or not, I open up the app on my phone, turn on the water in the shower, lay my phone beside it, and I listen to the opinion pieces and editorials. You’ve got a great, great technology there that reads them out loud, gets most words right occasionally trips on a name or something. But I start by listening to the editorial page and then I can pick up my paper at breakfast and, you know, go to the pieces where I wanted to read a little clearer understanding of something in there. So it is a great way to start the day informed about the world’s events. So thank you, Elliot, for joining the Liberty and Leadership Podcast today. Thank you for the work you do at The Wall Street Journal and for being our first Joseph Rago Fellow. I enjoyed our conversation today. All the best.

Elliot Kaufman [00:48:10] Thank you.

Roger Ream [00:48:11] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it, and if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at Podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, DC. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time show courage in things large and small.

About the Podcast

TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.

Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.

If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.

View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.


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