Thanks for letting me be part of the conversation

John Leo

8/13/2006 12:00:50 AM - John Leo

This is a farewell column. After 18 years of punditry, it's time to work on other projects, including a book.

Now that I'm leaving, I should acknowledge that writing a column has to be one of the best jobs in the world. At a cost of only 750 words per week (with an occasional surcharge of sweating a bullet or two on deadline), you get to join what my friend and fellow columnist Richard Reeves calls "the conversation." He means the national dialogue, or whatever part of it you can shoulder your way into by being pertinent, witty, original, or whatever other trait induces people to read you.

The trait that admirers mostly accuse me of possessing is common sense. This is a mildly deflating compliment, but I understand it. What readers mean by this is that we now live in a national asylum run by buffoons, but at least a few minds still function normally, and mine seems to be one of them. I unabashedly agree with this assessment.

As I've written elsewhere, columnists have to decide how they want to sound. Various famous ones have chosen to come across as combative, debonair, erudite or incredibly well-connected. I've tried to sound conversational, as if I were talking to a friend about a subject that interests us both. And if something funny occurs to me, I throw that in too, just as most of us do in ordinary conversation. It helps break that conventional journalistic tone of Olympian detachment that annoys so many readers.

The problem is that the tone may be conversational, but we are still talking about a one-way monologue. This is one reason why columnists seem to be losing out to Internet commentators. Comment on the Net isn't just quicker and cost-free. Immediate feedback, still mostly in the "Gotcha!" phase, allows real conversation that anyone can join, as well as a sense that all speakers are equal. The whole model of anointed commentators talking down to mostly passive readers has crumbled. If column-writing were a stock, I would sell now.

Things were different when I started. Roger Rosenblatt installed me as a columnist at U.S. News & World Report in September 1988, on his first day as editor of the magazine. Roger's politics and outlook were and are different from mine, but on the basis of our camaraderie and work together at Time magazine, he thought I would be a lively columnist. (You can already tell we are talking about a different era here.)

Mort Zuckerman, the owner of the magazine, was supportive too. He swore he would never interfere with my column, a promise he kept, even when I felt the need to harpoon two or three of his close friends.

Three years later, the great John McMeel called and offered to syndicate my column at Universal Press Syndicate, probably because he realized that one day I would be responsible for .0000001 percent of the profits at his now vast publishing empire, Andrews McMeel Universal. John and I met 44 years ago when I was the young editor of a Catholic newspaper in Davenport, Iowa, and he was a freshly minted Notre Dame graduate who wandered into my office one day trying to sell me a column by Loretta Young.

This was likely the only misstep in John's career. The Catholic Messenger was into fierce truth-telling about what was going on in the Church (a reputation that preceded my arrival), and a weekly column by the nicest Catholic woman in Hollywood was not exactly what I was looking for.

When John sent over the syndication contract, I asked Reeves, who had been with Universal for years, about a point or two in the text. He said, "Sign anything they put in front of you. They are the real thing." So I did and never regretted it. They are indeed the real thing, including my incomparable editor, Alan McDermott, who has saved me from folly many times. My advice to aspiring columnists (and op-ed editors) is to head for Universal and sign whatever they put in front of you.

Mostly, though, I want to thank my readers who followed my column so long and so loyally. This includes whole classrooms full of schoolchildren and those who sent family photos, Christmas tree ornaments (a seasonal regular) and long letters on how their daughters and sons are doing at college. A great many collegians wrote in themselves, leading me to believe there is some hope after all for our indoctrination-prone universities.

My best to you all, including the hundred-plus op-ed editors who chose to run the column. Some of these editors featured my column just to challenge conventional opinion in monocultural college towns. You know who you are. I will be setting up a Web site at JohnLeo.com (don't try it now; alas, it's not ready). Readers can reach me at johnleo2@optonline.com.