Andrew Kohut: An appreciation

If you are in the business of finding out what’s true — whether that business is social science, military intelligence, journalism, the hard sciences or something else — there is an elusive quality you find among the best in the field. It might be called the Cold Eye.

It’s not a term you will find in textbooks. It’s a matter of character as much as professional skill. It’s some combination of having the mental discipline to gird yourself against your own biases, the instinct to resist the tendency to think that knowledge once learned is static and an ability to look at more signals, data points and ideas from disparate places than other people usually do.

Perhaps more important, the Cold Eye is motivated by a deep intellectual independence and a passionate psychological connection to telling the truth.

Andy Kohut, who passed away at age 73 today, had the Cold Eye as much as anyone I ever knew.

Andy Kohut, photo via Pew Research Center
Andy Kohut, photo via Pew Research Center

Millions of Americans benefited from Andy’s deep curiosity. Some knew him from his frequent analyses of public opinion on television and NPR. More learned from him without knowing it from his work as president of Gallup, founder of Princeton Survey Research Associates, head of survey research at the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press and later as president of the Pew Research Center.

When people saw or heard Andy, they sensed his passion for the truth, even if they didn’t know anything about the Cold Eye.

He was blunt and brilliant. He was intuitive and passionate. He was driven but creative. He cared deeply about the people he worked with and about the work of trying to understand the public mind. And he proved over and over in his career that you could flourish doing both.

Those qualities made Andy not only the wisest interpreter of data about the public I’ve ever known. They made him a brilliant teacher and mentor, a colleague I trusted to always be honest with me, and an even better friend.

I could fill 10 essays with things I learned from Andy Kohut — only some of them about research:

  • Never ask people a question in a poll they haven’t really thought about. You will get a useless answer.
  • One or two findings are never the story. It’s the connection between different data points—the things that the numbers point to but don’t shout—where real knowledge resides.
  • If colleagues challenge each other about the work — not who is in charge — they can argue about anything and respect one another more afterwards than they did before.
  • Once you have learned things, you can always know them better.
  • If you are honest with people you work with they become colleagues for life.

Andy collected brilliant and trusted colleagues everywhere — not because he needed them but because they saw a fellow traveler in seeking real knowledge.

There were many times Andy and I didn’t agree. Sometimes I would tell him I thought his questions were missing something important. He often told me my crazy notion was impractical. A few days later he would usually show up in my office with an idea to get at what we both thought couldn’t be done.

Not long ago, I was involved in a survey about how people in media learned their profession. The most important source, people said, was mentors they had met along the way whom they found on their own.

Everyone who studies the public lost a mentor today.

I heard Andy say more than once when people asked him if he wanted to do something else, “I’m a shoemaker. I make shoes,” by which he meant he studied public opinion. That was like Yo Yo Ma saying he plays the cello.

It isn’t wrong. But it’s insufficient.

Or as Andy might say, there is more to the story.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, met Andy Kohut more than 30 years ago when Kohut did polling for Times Mirror and Rosenstiel covered media for the Los Angeles Times. They were later fellow grantees of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and eventually Kohut was Rosenstiel’s boss at the Pew Research Center when their work was brought together under one roof.

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