What Makes a Columnist?

Posted: Aug 28, 2013 12:01 AM

It was wholly a pleasure to get your thank-you note for my mentioning Bill Mauldin, the cartoonist for Stars and Stripes who made a couple of GIs named Willie and Joe familiar figures during the late great unpleasantness known as the Second World War. They may have existed only on paper, but they were real enough to the dogfaces who shared their experiences. Willie and Joe could have been in the next foxhole over.

You took me back to that era when you mentioned some of the characters in the comics back then -- the Katzenjammer Kids, Little Joe, Orphan Annie ... as well as a newspaper columnist named Westbrook Pegler, who should have been on the comics page once he'd entered his dotage. Hearst kept syndicating his stuff anyway, maybe for old times' sake. He once had talent as a sportswriter, but made the mistake of becoming a political commentator. Net result: The country lost a promising sportswriter and gained another dyspeptic columnist. A loss on both counts.

There were some fine writers back then, and often enough they were syndicated. Walter Lippmann, for example, before he lost his edge, Max Lerner on his good days. Murray Kempton was another favorite of mine. Yes, liberals were literate back then, and Mr. Kempton could easily hold his own with the now legendary conservative William F. Buckley -- another name to reckon with.

Murray Kempton may be largely forgotten today, but he is worth remembering. Mr. Kempton had his own theory about the slow fade of Westbrook Pegler into a kind of printed senility. According to Kempton, it wasn't drink or even his hatred of La Boca Grande (Eleanor Roosevelt) that drove the old boy bats, but, in those pre-Internet days, writing on Tuesdays and not having his column appear till Thursdays.

There were giants in the earth in those days, enough to rouse both our admiration and pity in turn, depending on what point in their careers we caught their acts.

Some columnists we still look forward to reading regularly. We get to know them, to savor and relish their work, to anticipate it and then appreciate it. They're a treat and an education. They stay with us. They become part of our lives. Just as Murray Kempton and Bill Buckley did.

The rare Mencken or Orwell become classics and enter our literature. A.J. Liebling, columnist and gourmand, remains readable to this day. (See his "The Earl of Louisiana" to get the scoop on Earl K. Long, Huey's brother and a legend in his own right.)

Then there are those columnists we read only out of a sense of duty, or a masochistic appetite for boredom, or to see what mischief they're up to now, or maybe just to groan over. The way we did Pegler in his old age, poor man. See Krugman, Paul.

What makes a great columnist? Or a not so great one? It may boil down to the difference between writing and Persuasive Writing, which is a whole different breed of feline. Schematic, calculated, synthetic. Much like the difference between writing and Creative Writing, which isn't writing so much as a college course, a "workshop," a bore. (It was the late great Kingsley Amis, who would have made a helluva columnist himself, who once observed that everything that's gone wrong with the world can be summed up in one word: workshop.)

Have you noticed? Once a qualifier is attached to any art, it's no longer an art. Any more than Social Justice is the same as justice. It's a way to reduce an ideal to a special interest.

You be well, new friend, and, as another fixture of the old days used to say, "thanks for the memories."

Sign me

Another Old Timer