This week marks my 30th anniversary as a syndicated columnist, and it occurs to me that I should note the occasion with a few appropriate remarks.
In my early teens, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a writer on political affairs (like my idol, Walter Lippmann) or plunge into politics myself. I ultimately stumbled into the perfect job where I could do both: as publisher of National Review, the nation’s leading journal of conservative opinion. For 31 years in that capacity, I managed to participate in the growth of the conservative movement, its capture of the Republican Party, and its emergence as the dominant political tendency in the country. And in 1973, when the movement’s importance could no longer be denied, I was fortunate enough to be invited to write a syndicated column on political affairs from a conservative perspective.
Based first in New York and then (after I retired from National Review) in San Francisco, I quickly realized that I couldn’t hope to compete, in terms of political reportage, with such fine Washington-based columnists as George Will and Robert Novak. They were “where the action was,” and able to communicate daily with the key actors. I would have to settle for commenting, I hoped intelligently, on events as they unfolded.
And that is what I’ve tried to do. I respect my readers’ intelligence, and assume a basic familiarity with the political scene, but try to furnish, in each column, the information needed to make its basic point understandable. The structure of a typical column, therefore, is a few paragraphs of explication, just to set the scene; then a straightforward exposition of that basic point; and finally a relatively sharp and rhetorical conclusion. In other words, a beginning, a middle and an end.
I will gladly add wit, in the form of asides or anecdotes, though I am under no illusion that wit is my strongest point. Unlike my colleague Bill Buckley, I will normally avoid exotic words, however appropriate they may be, because I want the reader to remain concentrated on the meaning of the sentence as a whole, rather than risk distraction. (D’accord?)
Do I ever run out of material? Never! American politics is an unfailing source of both philosophical stimuli and raw entertainment. The problem, though, with so many able competitors around, is to find something original to say. For example, the subject on everyone’s lips at the moment is Howard Dean. But what is there to say about the man that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? His strategy of running to the left, his prowess as a money-raiser, his appeal for the Democratic Party’s base, his uneasiness in dealing with matters (e.g., military affairs) not relevant to governing Vermont – all these, and much else concerning him, is common knowledge, and hence not suitable for a political column. Don’t tell your readers what they already know.
Do I ever suffer from mental block? Once again, no. I usually write my weekly column on Sunday afternoon, after the Sunday papers and the Sunday morning talk shows have equipped me with the latest news and views. Ordinarily, two or three ideas for a column will have been floating around in my head for a couple of days; sometimes there’s only one. In either case, I just let my unconscious mind play with the idea, or ideas; and when at last I sit down at my PC I find, more often than not, that the column has miraculously written itself, and all I need to do is take it down, almost like a stenographer.
Any gaffes? I’m afraid so. Some years ago, the Media Research Center (on whose board I sat) published an issue of “Notable Quotables” – a weekly compendium of silly remarks by liberal journalists – that contained a particularly pungent piece of stupidity by Dan Rather. I couldn’t resist quoting it in my next column. But then, on Monday morning, I received a phone call from my old friend Mary Lou Forbes, opinion page editor of the Washington Times. Had I noticed, she asked, the date on that particular issue of “Notable Quotables”? I hadn’t, but I quickly checked. It was April 1st!
Luckily, there was still time to kill that blooper.