Nicholas D. Kristof has lived a little more dangerously than most of his classmates who graduated in 1982.
The New York Times columnist has survived a plane crash in Uganda and an assault by drunken soldiers in Ghana.
Alums recall Kristof as one of the brightest undergraduates on campus—he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in three years and earned a Rhodes Scholarship. But he didn’t strike his peers as the type who would be held up at machine-gunpoint in Beirut and elude rebels chasing him through the jungle in Congo.
“I’m not surprised to see him emerge as the moral conscience of our generation of journalists,” says New Yorker staff writer and CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey R. Toobin ’82, who worked on The Crimson with Kristof. “I am surprised to see him as the Indiana Jones of our generation of journalists.”
Hailing from Yamhill, Ore., Kristof had never seen Harvard before he arrived on campus to begin his freshman year in 1978.
Kristof’s Oregonian roots distinguish him from many of his colleagues today in New York. “He’s not rooted in the Eastern establishment in any sense of the word,” Toobin says.
The son of two professors, Kristof “was much more sophisticated than most of the farm kids that he grew up with,” according to Scott M. Androes ’82-’83, who knew Kristof in Oregon and became his freshman roommate.
Kristof’s first foray into newspapering came about largely by chance.
“Some fellow eighth-graders at Yamhill Grade School in Oregon held an organizational meeting for a student newspaper. I hadn’t shown up, but nobody there wanted to be editor, so they elected me editor in absentia,” Kristof explains. “And I found I loved it.”
As a high-schooler, Kristof contributed stories to the local McMinnville News-Register. He gained the nickname “Chore Boy”—after the copper and steel scouring pad—according to Lance Robertson, a reporter for the News-Register at the time. Robertson says that Kristof’s writing astounded other staffers there.
“Here was this high-school student who was out-writing all of us,” he recalls. “Even as a high-school student, he was far ahead of everybody else.”
Kristof’s Harvard classmates remember him as a reserved, diligent student who focused on academics but who also held his own at The Crimson.
“I thought he was intelligent, retiring, and sweet,” says former Crimson editor Alexandra D. Korry ’80. “He was very serious about his studies and very serious in general.”
Dillon Professor of International Affairs Jorge I. Domínguez, who taught Kristof in Government 20, “Introduction to Comparative Politics,” recalls that, even as a freshman, Kristof was “already a superb writer” who had the markings of a budding journalist.
“Good listening is not always in big supply in a Harvard section, and he really was a good listener,” he says. “That also makes him a good reporter.”
But in college Kristof was not set on a career in journalism, says David E. Sanger ’82, who met Kristof at the beginning of their freshman year when they joined The Crimson and who is now the Times’ chief Washington correspondent. All the same, the intellectual abilities that Kristof demonstrated in his classes would emerge again when he took to reporting.
“Nick is a sponge for both absorbing and then turning in very innovative directions large masses of material,” says Sanger, who was the best man at Kristof’s wedding.
Kristof admits, “I spent most of my time studying.”
“In the spring of my freshman year, I tried to study a million hours a week and also to work a million hours a week at The Crimson,” he writes. “It didn’t work, and I realized I’d have to choose. So I focused on my academic work and made The Crimson secondary.”
Kristof was The Crimson’s “Campus News” tracker, following developments in higher education outside Harvard. He placed a particular focus on Boston University, where faculty and staff had recently gone on strike to protest the controversial policies of the school’s president, John R. Silber.
In opening one of his articles, Kristof wrote, “The critics of the Boston University (B.U.) administration have long regarded B.U. as the Iran of college campuses—intolerant, tyrannical, and prone to punish dissenters.”
Two-and-a-half decades later, Kristof would be detained in Iran—the B.U. of rogue states—after asking young people there whether they supported the Islamic revolution.
William E. McKibben ’82, a former Crimson president, says Kristof’s in-depth reporting on B.U. shares similarities with his writing in the Times today.
“He dug into a question like that when it didn’t seem to anyone at the moment to be of the absolute top urgency, and he showed over and over again why it was important,” McKibben explains. “It’s not unlike what he’s done with Darfur on the op-ed page of the Times.”
Kristof graduated in 1981 with advanced standing, a year ahead of the class with which he had begun his Harvard career. A few years ago, he formally switched his class affiliation to 1982. Kristof considers himself a member of the Class of 1981 who “escaped.”
Now Kristof’s peers who graduated in 1982 have elected him to serve as chief marshal at this year’s Commencement, where he will represent all University alumni and lead the afternoon alumni procession.
After finishing Harvard in 1981, Kristof went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship to study law.
“When I was at Oxford, I began traveling during vacations—backpacking and filing freelance articles—and I realized that I was learning much more by traveling than I had in the classroom,” he writes.
Shortly after Kristof began his Rhodes, he traveled to Eastern Europe on a vacation. While he was in Poland, the government declared martial law.
Kristof sent the first dispatch out of the country, stringing for The Washington Post.
When he returned to the United States, Kristof was “broke,” Sanger recalls. “And where does he end up? My living room.”
Sanger, who had recently joined the Times’ staff, introduced Kristof to his editor at the Business Day section, and soon Kristof too was reporting for the Gray Lady.
Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, says Kristof is unmistakably a journalist.
“I’ve always thought of Nick as someone whose interests are widespread and various, who could change subjects on a dime,” says Keller, who first worked with Kristof during the late 1980s, when they were both reporting in Asia.
“If you go into academia, you’re expected to master your subject...until you’ve clocked enough time and can teach that subject until you die. Journalists are exactly the opposite,” he explains. “Journalists all have a little bit of ADD.”
THE HOLY GRAIL
As an economics beat reporter in the mid-1980s, and later as a foreign correspondent and columnist traveling to over 100 countries, Kristof has displayed a “gift for getting to the heart of the matter,” says Susan D. Chira ’80, foreign editor of the Times and a former Crimson president.
Since he covered Poland in 1981, Kristof has frequently found himself in risky situations.
“We used to joke that, if you were traveling with Nick, you wanted to stay very close with him because danger was always a short distance away,” says Laurence S. Grafstein ’82, a former Crimson executive editor who is now head of global telecommunications at Lazard. “He just has this incredible knack for being close to incredible news stories.”
Even after he crossed into editorial writing, Kristof has continued to insist on getting close to the story
“There are a lot of columnists who get out and opine,” Sanger says. “Nick does not. He gets out and reports. Whatever you think about his columns, they have the freshness that comes with reporting.”
Kristof says that “columnists should be a subspecies of reporters, not simply pontificators.”
“My dirty little secret is that I’m really not very opinionated,” he writes. “But a good column needs a bit of passion, and I find that with various moral issues—genocide, global poverty, sex trafficking and other injustices.”
Chira adds, “Nick has always been interested in places that are more remote, less explored.”
He’s especially fascinated by developing countries with shaky governments.
“If we get a bad president in the U.S., then our federal deficit goes up and prisoners are abused in Guantanamo,” he writes. “When Sudan gets a bad president, then hundreds of thousands of people die in genocide.”
And as hundreds of thousands die in an ongoing Sudanese genocide, Kristof has been there to chronicle it.
Last April, he won his second Pulitzer Prize—the journalism world’s equivalent of Indiana Jones’ Holy Grail—in part for his Darfur coverage.
He and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, had previously won a Pulitzer in 1990 for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.
Although that places Kristof among a handful of journalists who have won two Pulitzers, he writes that “the most fulfilling moments haven’t been the prizes, but the sense that I’ve made a difference on some issues.”
Kristof says he doesn’t expect to make a difference on issues that are already making the front page.
“After five years in the column gig, I’m convinced that the power of a columnist or any journalist doesn’t lie in persuading people to change their minds on issues that are already on the agenda,” he writes. “So increasingly I’ve tried to use the column to focus my little spotlight on issues that aren’t getting attention, in hopes that will win them more interest and attention.”
“Frankly, the most influential work I ever did was an article back in 1996 on ordinary third world ailments that kill lots of people,” Kristof adds. “Bill Gates happened to read the article at a moment when he was wondering how to reorient his foundation, and he credits the article—actually, the chart that went with it—with helping him think about using his foundation to address public health issues in the developing world.”
And even though Keller says “journalists all have a little bit of ADD,” Kristof has remained steadfastly focused on developing-world issues.
He answered all of this reporter’s questions via e-mail from Namibia and Swaziland, where he was reporting on the AIDS epidemic, and again after returning from a trip across China.
—Because Kristof graduated from the College in 1981, The Crimson published a 25th reunion profile of him last year. The profile has been revised for publication in this issue, as Kristof now affiliates himself with the Class of 1982.
—Staff writer Daniel J. T. Schuker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.