Jon Carroll Checks In
The longtime columnist talks successors, free speech, and Trump.
Photo by Tracy Johnston
It’s been a long couple of years since Jon Carroll retired from his duties as the San Francisco Chronicle’s all-purpose columnist. For over three decades, the Oaklander was given free rein to weigh in on not just politics and other heavy issues but also his personal adventures as well. Stuff like swimming with dolphins, trying improv theater, or the closing of Oscar’s, an iconic North Berkeley drive-through. Unfortunately, most newspapers don’t see the need to have a single columnist like Carroll or predecessors Herb Caen and Charles McCabe any longer. Carroll continues to opine on the events of the day via his blog, Jon Carroll Prose. I didn’t ask him about his herd of cats he occasionally wrote about—apparently, they haven’t done anything newsworthy since the mid-1980s.
Paul Kilduff: When you left the Chronicle you were quoted as saying you couldn’t be happier. Is that still the case?
Jon Carroll: Oh, yeah. Retirement. It’s sort of like being 15 again at summer break. You just wake up, and you think, “What do I want to do?” Then, you do it until you don’t want to do it anymore, and then you stop. It’s a really great life.
PK: It was also reported that Chronicle management wanted you to start coming in to the office but that you didn’t want to.
JC: Well, the fact of the matter is that Chronicle management wanted me to quit, and I didn’t get that part. So, it took them a year of doing increasingly weird shit for me to catch on. “Oh, I get it. You’re gonna make my life so miserable that I quit? OK, I quit.” Then, it was fabulous. All the pressure was immediately off. Just kaboom, overnight. I got to spend three more months in my office writing. That was pleasant. I enjoyed the last three months. It was kind of interesting to do it when you realized it was going to end. But the only way that I could deal with that effectively was to just clap my hands to get the dust off and say, “That’s it. Next chapter.”
PK: We should all retire.
JC: Oh, I couldn’t agree more. Although almost all of my professional life, I was having a wonderful time. First of all, I got to work in magazines in the ’70 s when working in magazines was a big deal. And, to be a columnist in San Francisco. Who doesn’t want to be a columnist in San Francisco?
PK: You were not really replaced by one columnist. There is this rotating group of people in your old space. It seems like the grand tradition of all the great Chronicle columnists that I grew up reading is lost forever. Why?
JC: Well, I’m not sure. One of the things that Caen did was kind of bind the community together, define the community. It was not, of course, everybody in the community. It was mostly white people. Some of the city’s partly narcissistic and partly justified pride in itself was kind of engendered by his relentless pitching for San Francisco as this insanely special place. Nobody was Caen except Caen. But, yeah, it’s certainly true that the emphasis has gone off writers. There are lots of people with personal voices, and mostly they’re telling you about their recovery from something, I don’t know.
PK: It sounds like you haven’t really given this a whole lot of thought.
JC: No, I haven’t.
PK: That’s totally fine. I just find it curious that didn’t find one person to replace you.
JC: Well, yes. You may mention the fact that I’m irreplaceable.
PK: Not being replaced? Is that a source of pride for you?
JC: I would certainly never take pride in something like that. That would be foolish. I wish well, and in fact have wished well, to all the people who are doing that.
PK: Who has free speech, even hate speech, these days? I think it’s a slippery slope to get on when you try to make rules for it.
JC: Once the government starts to censor speech and make distinctions between kinds of speech, that’s the ultimate slippery slope. If you have any kind of government with totalitarian tendencies, they will take that ball and run with it. I certainly agree and have said in my column that there should be black people who serve as voices for the community and that white people probably shouldn’t tell black people what they experienced or what they should feel. And ditto with every other kind of people because it’s been an unequal power situation for the history of the world. But in general, I am biased towards free speech. I certainly think they should be allowed to say anything they want to and the press should be allowed to report on anything it wants to. Despite the fact that it’s being minimized and diminished, it is nevertheless reporting facts. Or as close as it can get to facts. When it doesn’t get close to the facts, it corrects itself. My career is fabulous in that I was almost entirely untrammeled by censorship, including at the Chronicle. That’s a wonderful feeling.
PK: How do you feel about the whole anti-fascist movement that’s cropping up?
JC: I think it’s dopey and counterproductive is what I think. If we put that much energy in turning around congressional districts in 2018, then stuff might get done. We might serve as an effective opposition to the president.
PK: Do you have a cable news talking head network of choice?
JC: I get most of my news from the two “paper” papers that I take every morning, The New York Times and the Chronicle.
PK: Actually newspapers?
JC: I get ink on my hands. I know; it’s quaint, but that’s what I do.
PK: Do you get a free subscription to the Chronicle?
PK: You have to pay for it?
JC: I didn’t even get a free subscription when I was working there.
PK: What an outrage. In a nutshell, why is Donald Trump president?
JC: You know, I don’t know. I absolutely have no idea. I was puzzled at the time. I remain puzzled.
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Editor's Note: This story appears in the November edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.