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BY Jim Cosgrove
Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for political commentary, his weekly column has appeared in The Wall Street Journal since 1993. In addition to a regular spot on PBS's “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” he is a frequent guest on NBC's Meet the Press and Fox News Channel. He recently spoke with Register staff writer Brian McGuire.
McGuire: Please tell us a little bit about yourself –– where you're from, the type of family you come from and your pre-college education.
Gigot: I'm the oldest of six kids from a middle-class Catholic family in a largely Catholic city, Green Bay, Wis. My dad was born, had his first job after college and died in the same place, St. Vincent's Hospital, also in Green Bay. He was a pharmacist who went on to own his own drugstore.
My sainted mom worked at home, more than a full-time job. Just about every family around our home was Catholic, with many kids, often eight or nine. So it's safe to say I had a strongly Catholic upbringing, going to Catholic schools right through high school. Not overly strict, but traditional.
Several of the Norbertine priests at my high school, De Pere Abbot Pennings, had a big influence on me. I think of them as Jesuits without the publicity. They were serious about teaching. One of them, Roger VandenBush, introduced us in religion class to The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, a real mind-opener at the time. Unsurprisingly, given our cultural trends, Roger is no longer a priest and my high school no longer exists.
Many of your generation decided to leave the Church. Did you ever question the faith of your upbringing seriously or abandon it?
I've never rebelled against the Church, though like everyone I've wrestled with some of its strictures and I've gone through periods of lapsed practice.
Reading the existentialists in college and afterwards was enough to show me how barren life is without faith.
Your Alma Mater, Dartmouth, is thought to be the most conservative of the Ivy League Schools. Did this make it easier for a Catholic to be Catholic there in the ‘70s, or harder?
I have to laugh when people describe Dartmouth as conservative. It was as liberal and secular as any other Ivy school when I attended in the mid-1970s. The good news is that it was a quiet time politically on campus, a respite between the turmoil of the 1960s and the Reagan restoration.
The modern liberal holy trinity –– gender, class and race –– didn't yet dominate campus politics the way it later did. So you could at least raise a conservative thought without being ostracized. I became editor of the daily student newspaper, but was outvoted on just about every editorial position.
The Catholic community at Dartmouth was small but active, though for me those years weren't all that active religiously. I was trying to figure out my place in the broader world. The biggest surprise to me, and a cause of some reflection then and since, was when a good friend (also from my high school) left the Church and joined the fundamentalist Dartmouth Christian Fellowship.
He married another evangelical and now home schools his five kids. This was my first exposure to evangelical Christianity, something I have since had to understand covering politics. I saw the positive effect it had on my friend's life, but it made me wonder what he didn't get from his Catholicism. I've never felt that same need to find something else.
You spent a great deal of your early career in China and the Philippines. Did you witness persecution of Catholics in China? What was your experience of the Church in the Philippines?
I first saw China in 1979, just when Deng Xiaoping was beginning his post-Cultural Revolution reforms, so the news was less about persecution than hope for improvement. In Hong Kong I did get to know Father Ladany, the Jesuit who chronicled religious persecution in China throughout the Maoist years, and learned a lot. The courage of China's post-war priests and bishops is as remarkable as anything in Church history, yet Americans know very little about it. I should have done more to publicize it myself.
The Philippine Catholic Church is a fabulous story. My first interview in that country, in 1982, was with [Manila Archbishop] Cardinal [Jaime] Sin, for a profile I was doing on Imelda Marcos. The two were noted enemies.
I had the interview all scheduled for 10 a.m. the next morning with the cardinal when one of Imelda's pals called the night before to say Imelda could see me at 10:30 a.m. I said, “Sorry, I've got to see the cardinal at 10 a.m,” seeing my career pass before my eyes as my profile vanished. I was only 27 and this was going to be my first big foreign page-one story for The Wall Street Journal.
Imelda's friend said, “Well, the first lady isn't going to like that,” and hung up. Ten minutes later she called back to say, “How about noon?” I got my profile, and went on to see the Cardinal many times as I followed the fall of the Marcoses right through 1986.
The Philippine Church is the moral center of that country, for better and worse. For the better in that it carries enormous moral authority with the citizenry and does great social good. For the worse in that sometimes the liberal social-justice wing of the Church has been too suspicious of capitalism. That has often blocked or delayed the free-market reforms that could lift more Filipinos more quickly out of poverty.
You were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for 10 articles you wrote during the Lewinsky scandal on the significance of personality and character in politics. Why did you choose to focus on this dimension of political life?
I got lucky and figured out early in 1999 that the 2000 election would be mainly about character and the culture.
What began as a hunch, in the wake of impeachment, became obvious as the campaign unfolded. Millions of people, including many Democrats, wanted to take a shower after the Clinton years.
The longer I cover politics the more important I think character in politicians is, especially in presidents. As a young man I thought ideology mattered most. Now I think the worst thing a president can be is uncomfortable with himself. This was part of Clinton's problem, and most of Nixon's.
The Wall Street Journal editorial pages have become something of a forum for the religiously orthodox. One thinks in particular of the attention given in its pages to the teachings of Pope John Paul II. Why is this?
I think the Journal's turn toward the cultural right reflects the larger trends in society and politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, economics and foreign policy were paramount concerns. But as those problems eased, culture came to the fore, and it became clearer to many of us, especially [Journal] editor Bob Bartley, that religion deserved more respect and prominence as part of any cultural renewal.
The Journal's deputy editorial-page editor, Dan Henninger, a Catholic from Cleveland, has also been instrumental in developing these themes for us. So has one of our main editorial writers, Bill McGurn, another Catholic. I've played a minor role.