What do you do when you’re the best, the very best, at what you do? When you’re a writer who has done the hard work, enjoyed a stellar career, received the plaudits — not one but two Pulitzer Prizes.
Where do you go from there?
You could forgive Gene Weingarten had he, at 68,, furled his sails in some snug harbor. After all, this is the man who talked star violinist Joshua Bell into standing at a Metro station in Washington, D.C., playing his priceless Stradivarius violin for tossed coins. A mere prank in the hands of a lesser journalist, Weingarten and his colleagues at the Washington Post turned it into a meditation on values, beauty, and how we spend our limited time on this earth. That earned his first Pulitzer.
He is also the guy who took a story most readers can’t flee quickly enough — kids dying in hot cars — and put their parents’ heartbreak on the page, earning his second Pulitzer.
How do you top that?
If you are Weingarten, who has a funny as well as a serious side, you find a challenge equal parts epic and implausible. You try to do something virtuosic. “A stunt, at its heart” as Weingarten himself admits. The journalistic version of a swan dive off a tall ladder into a teacup.
”I set myself a goal that I wasn’t sure I could hit,” Weingarten told me.
He drew slips of paper out of a hat, selecting a random day between 1969 and 1989 — old enough to be a challenge, recent enough to provide living witnesses. That date was turned out to be Dec. 28, 1986. Then he dug into records, interviewed 500 people, worked six years and produced a riveting collection of stories pivoting on that date: “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America” (Blue Rider: $28).
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