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Edwin Yoder, Pulitzer-winning editorial writer, columnist, dies at 89

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for his stylish and erudite editorials at the now-defunct Washington Star and went on to become a columnist syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group, died Nov. 30 at a retirement community in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 89.

His daughter, Anne D. Yoder, confirmed the death but did not provide further details.

By the time he retired from regular column-writing in 1996, Mr. Yoder was "a certifiable journalistic fossil," as he put it, "a survivor from the linear age whose tenure has extended into the garish and glamorous electronic era of television, talking heads, talk radio and the Internet."

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Mr. Yoder, a political moderate, got his start at newspapers in his home state of North Carolina, where he wrote editorials in support of the civil rights movement and evoked the region's history and culture while channeling the work of W.J. Cash and C. Vann Woodward, two leading chroniclers of the South.

His work attracted the attention of Texas financier Joe L. Allbritton, the new owner of the Star, who was seeking to rejuvenate the scrappy afternoon newspaper when he hired Mr. Yoder in 1975 to oversee its editorial page.

Mr. Yoder joined a staff that included Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary McGrory, and in 1979 he was awarded a Pulitzer of his own, hailed by the prize committee for writing about "current national events with the confident understanding of the political specialist, the objectivity of the historian, and with masterful literary grace."

That work included a piece grappling with Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's critique of "Western decadence," as well as editorials about Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the antismoking campaign of Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano and the retirement of segregationist Sen. James O. Eastland, the Mississippi Democrat.

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"He was an elegant writer, as gifted as they come," said Alan Shearer, who edited many of Mr. Yoder's columns in the 1990s as editorial director of The Post Writers Group.

"Everything he wrote - a message, a letter, a column - was well crafted," Shearer added in a phone interview. "You really couldn't improve his prose."

Mr. Yoder joined the Writers Group in 1981, when the Star folded under its latest owner, Time Inc. He wrote a nationally syndicated column for the next 15 years, filing "1,500 pieces and more than a million words of comment," by his count, "on everything from Gorbachev to goobers."

While exploring questions of politics, education, literature and the law (the Supreme Court was a favorite topic, Justice Lewis F. Powell a regular lunch companion), Mr. Yoder cited historians, novelists, scholars and other thinkers, including Proust, Freud and Faulkner.

He also showed a fondness for experimentation. One of his early editorials was written in the style of the King James Bible (improbably, it was a response to Sen. Hubert Humphrey's decision not to run for president in 1976), while another piece was structured as a "a self-interview" about Shakespeare's work and legacy. It began:

"Q. A self-interview about Shakespeare on his 415th birthday? What are your qualifications?" "A. Only that I'm human and able to read; otherwise, meager."

Mr. Yoder was a notable early champion of Bill Clinton, arguing in a September 1991 column - one month before the Arkansas governor announced his candidacy for president - that Clinton was "the most engaging extemporaneous speaker in American politics" and had "the heart, the talent and, yes, the vision for the job."

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The two men had met four years earlier at a political conference in Florence (Mr. Yoder recalled that Clinton "played the shrewd ladies and gentlemen of the old world like a harp") and developed a friendship through annual trips to Renaissance Weekend, an off-the-record retreat in Hilton Head, S.C., where they connected over their shared background as moderate Southern Democrats and Rhodes scholars.

After the election, Mr. Yoder accompanied the president aboard Air Force One and offered advice on dealing with the news media. At one point, he recalled, he wrote a memo arguing that it was "pointless to be irritated by reporters; they are like bird dogs, trained to point."

Mr. Yoder could be incisive in his critiques of fellow pundits, especially in retirement. He published a wry memoir, "Telling Others What to Think" (2004), lamenting the decline of daily newspapers and the rise of confrontational cable television shows, and later criticized the proliferation of "hearsay and rumor" online, where he saw few signs of civil discourse.

"We have seen the future," he said in a 2016 speech at the University of North Carolina, "and, alas, it is the Drudge Report."

Edwin Milton Yoder was born in Greensboro, N.C., on July 18, 1934, and grew up with a younger brother in nearby Mebane. He shared the same first name and middle initial as his father, a high school principal, leading him to adopt "Jr." as part of his byline. His mother was an elementary school teacher who, in college, had written poetry and edited a literary magazine.

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Mr. Yoder said he decided to go into journalism at age 16, after spending a summer reporting and selling advertisements for a local paper. He went on to edit the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, graduating with a bachelor's degree in English in 1956, and studied philosophy, politics and economics at Jesus College at the University of Oxford, England, receiving a second bachelor's and a master's degree in 1958.

That same year, he married Mary Jane Warwick, a classmate at UNC. She ran a ballet studio and became a clinical social worker and Jungian psychotherapist. She died in 2021.

Survivors include a daughter, Anne; a son, Edwin "Teddy" Yoder; and three grandsons.

Mr. Yoder's Oxford credentials helped him get an unusually elevated appointment at the Charlotte News in 1958, when he began his journalism career as an editorial writer. He joined the Greensboro Daily News in 1961, took a year-long sabbatical to teach American history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and became the newspaper's associate editor in 1965.

In addition to his work as a columnist, Mr. Yoder taught journalism at Washington and Lee University and wrote a half-dozen books, including "Joe Alsop's Cold War: A Study of Journalistic Influence and Intrigue" (1995), about one of the most influential columnists of mid-century Washington. The two men became friends after Mr. Yoder moved to Alexandria, Va., to work for the Star.

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"Many of those who remember Alsop undoubtedly recall him primarily as an anticommunist ideologue and harsh defender of the Vietnam War," historian Alan Brinkley wrote in a review for The Post. "Yoder makes clear that he was a much more complex, and much more interesting, figure than that."

In retirement, Mr. Yoder turned to fiction, writing novels including “Lions at Lamb House” (2007), which imagined an encounter between Freud and novelist Henry James, and “Vacancy” (2010), a political saga involving a familiar-sounding protagonist: a North Carolina graduate, Rhodes scholar and retired journalist who, despite his lack of legal training, finds himself appointed to the Supreme Court.