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Leaving a Legacy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That old saying came to mind the other day as I read the following paragraph:

“The onrushing press of issues, combined with big government’s intrusion in so many new areas, means that the Washington participant seldom has an opportunity to take a step back in calm reflection. Instead, events rush at him — and sometimes over him.”

That’s from a book called “Looking Back,” a collection of my weekly columns written between 1977 and 1981. And I wrote that long before the advent of smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle. It’s even truer today.

But one “Washington participant” will soon have more time for “calm reflection”: me. Yes, I’m hanging up my … well, not my spurs, but my quill pen, you could say. For the first time since Jimmy Carter was president and more than 2,000 columns later, I won’t be writing every week. I’ll still write from time to time, but this is my last regular weekly column. 

I’ve often said that in Washington there are no permanent victories or defeats. Reflecting on my time as a columnist has shown me yet again how true that is.

Getting a win on a particular issue feels good, and we deserve to take pride in our hard work and success. But we can’t afford to become complacent. Your opponents will try again, and if you’re not careful, you’ll wind up back where you started. 

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” President Reagan famously said. “We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

We should put a loss in the same perspective. It hurts, no question about it. But we don’t really lose unless we give up. It can take many years to win on major issues. So if we lose today, there’s only one thing to do: try again tomorrow.

So where does a regular column fit in the big policy fights of any given era? If you’re the columnist, it’s easy to overestimate your importance, which tempts your detractors to take a shot at you.

Consider the time Newsweek’s Morton Kondracke noted how quickly William F. Buckley wrote his three-times-a-week column (reportedly in only 20 minutes). “That is too little time for serious contemplation of difficult subjects,” Kondracke concluded.

Buckley fired back: “There is no necessary correlation between profundity of thought and length of time spent on thought.”

It’s true that over-full schedules and ever-looming deadlines make it impossible to turn every column into a contender for the next Pulitzer Prize. You have a task, and you get it done — as well as you possibly can in the time allotted.

But whether you hit a bloop single or a home run, your job remains the same: take complex topics of policy and make them understandable for your readers. Help them see beyond the headlines to what really matters.

It’s easy to scan those headlines and feel overwhelmed. From tax cuts to foreign policy to immigration reform, it’s tough to understand what’s going on.

That’s where the columnist comes in. There’s a tsunami of information out there, from tweets to talking heads. It’s the columnist’s job to cut through the noise and take a position. Then he has to explain why — in the hopes of persuading others to do likewise.

That takes “serious contemplation.” The late, great Charles Krauthammer described a lengthy column-writing process of writing an outline, dictating his thoughts, having them transcribed, and editing them for several hours. Then he’d sleep on it before doing a final edit.

We live in a world dominated by instant responses. Is it any coincidence that it’s also an extremely divided, polarized world? More than ever, we need the tempered, thoughtful voice of a columnist to keep us from capsizing on a choppy sea.

It’s been my goal and pleasure over the last four decades to share a layman-friendly conservative perspective on current events and hopefully advance our ideas. If I’ve managed to do that, then I consider my efforts as a regular columnist to be time well spent.


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