by Rebecca Meluch
Doctors study medicine. Historians study history. Lawyers study the law. And journalists, well, they have to be prepared to study anything and everything.
Before she became a Washington Post political columnist, Karen Tumulty covered Congress, the White House, economics, business and elected officials for the now defunct San Antonio Light, Los Angeles Times, TIME Magazine, and The Post.
Growing up, Tumulty knew she wanted a career that would be different every day and allow her to learn more about people, “Well, I think I was just curious, and I really wanted a job that wasn’t going to be the same thing day in and day out. And certainly, journalism has been that,” she said.
After Tumulty left the San Antonio Light, she became a political correspondent for TIME Magazine in 1994. She said that the transition between the two really forced her to evolve.
“I learned you really have to be flexible,” she said. “It was still a magazine that came out once a week. So, your whole metabolism was gearing it, you spent the whole week gearing up for whatever you were going to be turning in on Friday, it was a different process.”
During her career, Tumulty has worked on many long-term projects like reporting on the changing politics in West Virginia to tracking down a Vietnam veteran who gave former President Obama a military patch in a hotel elevator during his campaign in 2008.
But the real challenge for Tumulty was writing and publishing a book.
I observed that Tumulty’s weekly columns typically span between 600 and 900 words. Her book, “The Triumphs of Nancy Reagan” is over 600 pages.
“So, I, to tell you the truth , didn’t know all that much what I was doing,” she said. Although Tumulty has been in the journalism industry for over 40 years, writing a book was a tremendous learning experience –– literally. She spent at least two years just researching about Nancy Reagan, and the entire publishing process culminated to four and a half years.
The idea of writing the book wasn’t her own and prior to writing it, she didn’t realize how complex a person the former first lady was, but she was up for the task and for something new.
“Nancy Reagan, this wasn’t my idea. It was an idea that my publisher Simon and Schuster came up with. And they came to me and said, ‘Do you want to write this book,’” Tumulty said. “But I just really had no idea how complex a person she was going to be, or, you know, all the many, many ways that she influenced policy, which is not something we necessarily associate with our first ladies.”
Two to three sources may do the trick for a 600 to 900 word story, I can only imagine the amount it takes for a 600 page book. To write a book about Reagan, Tumulty needed to interview people who may have known her while she was first lady –– and that itself was also a challenge.
Nancy Reagan passed away in 2016 at 95 years old. Some of the people Tumulty interviewed about Reagan were also in their 90s, like George Shultz who was Secretary of State at the time of Reagan’s presidency. “He [Shultz] was 97 years old when I talked to him,” Tumulty said. “In fact, he just died a few months ago, at the age of 100. There were a number of people I talked to like that, you know, really, we’re coming to the end of their lives. And I think, in some cases, [they] decided they were going to tell these stories now or the stories were never going to get told.”
The book-writing process was long and challenging but for Tumulty, it was something new and different from writing a column. Journalists sometimes need something new.
“I really think that a mix is the most satisfying. On the one hand, you get the real rush of doing something right on deadline,” Tumulty said. “But I really would go crazy if that is all I did. I would also go crazy if four and a half year projects were all I did too. So, I really do love having a mix of things. I think it sort of keeps me on my toes and keeps me fresh.”
Journalism is a forever evolving industry that requires the people in it to adapt and try new things. As a young journalist, I don’t know yet where this career will take me, and I find that terrifying.
But if someone like Tumulty, who has been in the industry for over 40 years, is still curious, learning and reporting in new ways –– I know that I too, must keep an open mind.
I’m not quite ready to write a book though.