Pulitzer Prize Luncheon Remarks 2003

Low Library, Columbia University – May 29, 2003


Rena Pederson

Editor at Large, The Dallas Morning News
Co-Chair, The Pulitzer Prize Board



On behalf of the Pulitzer Prize Board, a warm welcome to you all. Wow. Look at you. Now I know what authors and editors and writers look like when they are all dressed up. As Ann Richards would say, "you look as pretty as a scraped and peeled carrot." And well you should. Today IS a big day. For many winners, this is the biggest day in their life. The cliché is that you are establishing the lead in your obituary today, because from here on out, you will likely be identified as so-and-so, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for such-and-such in 2003... but it is a blissfully felicitous cliché.

You may have some questions about how the process works. It actually is not exactly Delphic or particularly devious. In each of the 21 categories, there is a jury, whose members are considered among the best and brightest in that field. Depending on the volume of submissions, a jury may consider some 200 to 400 nominated entries. The juries then present just three finalists to the Pulitzer board. Then the board members read and review all the finalists – really – and select the winners.

As a board member for the past eight years, I can say the board is the "Ultimate Book Discussion Club." The deliberations are something like a group fencing match in which the sharpest observation wins. You would be proud of the rigor of that discussion. You should know that the board considers the judging a great trust, a great privilege to single out what is worthy and good and serious.

Part of my mission today is to thank you for having the courage to look over the edge of things, for serving as a national conscience, for keeping high standards. To paraphrase Susan Sontag, we thank you for producing food for the mind, the senses, the heart… for keeping language alive… for keeping alive the very idea of seriousness. As Ms. Sontag says, you have to be a member of a fast and superficial capitalist society these days to understand that seriousness itself could be in question. That's why we commend you for scrutinizing the problems in the Catholic Church… for questioning the death penalty… for delving into the slow world response to genocide… for documenting the tragic deaths in military airplane crashes… for chronicling the remarkable life and legacy of President Lyndon Johnson… for dramatizing the lives of cigar factory workers… for finding poetry in the sand and gravel of everyday life… for exposing corporate misdeeds and mistreatment of the mentally ill...and more. Thank you. Well done.

But another part of my mission today is to remind you that while this may be one of the biggest days in your life, it is only one day. So often winning such a high honor inflates winners who come to think they are Gods rather than scribes. Or, it deflates winners over time who can never quite top themselves, like the French chef who killed himself earlier this year because he lost one of the stars in his restaurant rating. I have seen many a good journalist ruined from the pressure of trying to prove his or her Pulitzer Prize was not a fluke – or in misery because nothing else seems to match up simply because it doesn't win. The twin of the unbridled ambition that can be so destructive is embittered accomplishment at the expense of colleagues, family and friends. My best advice on how to sustain the good will you have earned today is to find a way to help someone else in your field. Serve more than yourself. Use this honor for other good purposes and it will grow. Find a way to pass it on in a graceful, generous way and your award will keep its shine.

For you will find that life has a habit of bringing us back to earth. One of my colleagues on the board, the very respected editor Joann Byrd, got all dressed up several years ago to attend her first Pulitzer award luncheon. She had on a new silk suit, new shoes – and then got caught in a hellacious downpour as she got out of her cab on Broadway. No umbrella. By the time she ran up the steps to Low Library, she was soaked to the bone. With the luncheon starting in about 20 minutes, Joann went downstairs to the ladies restroom and tried frantically to repair the damage. Spying the hot air hand dryer, she had a bright idea. She took off her new suit and dried it as best she could with the hand dryer. And her hair, too. Sort of. In the middle of this ingenious spectacle, as she was standing there in her lingerie, drying, noisily, another woman, drenched to the bone, squished into the restroom with the same wet look. Seeing Joann's solution, the woman said, "good idea," and started drying in front of the other hand dryer. It wasn't pretty. But they did the best they could and dashed out. As the Pulitzer lunch began and the awards were handed out, Joann recognized the woman who walked up to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was Margaret Edson, the playwright who wrote the brilliant drama, Wit. She was the other wet woman reduced to drying herself in the basement restroom. So perhaps the moral is savor this glorious day – as Martha Stewart would say, "it is a good thing." – but keep your perspective. And your sense of humor. And your umbrella.

I would also like to add a special congratulations to the winning journalists today, for upholding standards of integrity at a time when journalistic standards are being challenged, challenged by personnel scandals as well as increasing corporate pressures that too often sacrifice quality for the bottom line. Today newspapers must struggle to get the attention of a public that would rather watch "The Bachelor" than read about governance or the constitutionality of detaining suspects or the need for long-range water planning. Newspapers must tell those stories in the midst of a war on terrorism while struggling with a down economy and the time pressures of a 24/7 news cycle. As editor Harold Evans said earlier this year, many newspapers have had a tough time not just staying in business, but staying in journalism. You all did the profession proud this year and for that, the members of the board would like to say thank you as well as congratulations. May you keep on shining.

And that is my segue to my colleague and co-chair, William Safire, distinguished speechwriter, author, columnist and former Pulitzer Prize winner, who just celebrated his 30th year at The New York Times.


(click here for William Safire's remarks)