William Raspberry, who died of cancer last week at age 76, was a Washington Post columnist for 40 years, 35 of them on the op-ed page. It was a long career, over the course of which, as he wrote in one of his final columns, he had lost his early appetite for “delivering the hard zinger” and come to value persuasion over polemic. “I found myself trying to write,” he said, “in such a way that people who didn’t agree with me might at least hear me.” As public discourse grew increasingly shrill, Raspberry worked to understand the views of those he disagreed with.
Fairness didn't mean humorlessness. Some of Raspberry's best — and funniest — columns were those recounting his arguments with an imaginary cabdriver, through whom he voiced plausible objections to his own positions.
Often these dealt with touchy subjects. A 2000 column headlined "Separate but Equalizing" opens with the cabbie needling his famous columnist passenger — both of them black — about how civil rights liberals who once fought for color-blind integration now advocated loudly for color-conscious "diversity." Raspberry tells him that while black institutions in generations past were the product of segregation — "we started them because white people wouldn't let us in theirs" — black organizations today, such as the National Association of Black Journalists, were vehicles of minority empowerment.
"Let me see if I get this," Raspberry's cabbie says. "If white people start white organizations, that's segregation. If minorities start minority organizations, that's diversity. That it?" Back and forth they tangle, and by the column's end Raspberry has conveyed his stand on a divisive racial issue, while simultaneously making it clear that people of goodwill could see the issue very differently.
One of the lessons a life of opinion-writing had imparted to him, Raspberry observed in 2006, was that "it is entirely possible for you to disagree with me without being, on that account, either a scoundrel or a fool."
But that's a lesson Americans find it harder than ever to grasp. What Raspberry called "the open warfare that now passes as political debate" has grown ubiquitous. Every development must be given a politicized, partisan spin, preferably with an assumption of the other side's bad faith. News cannot break without being instantly deployed as a weapon in the culture war. Forest fires break out, and partisans start sniping over climate change. An oil spill befouls the Gulf Coast, and the talking heads swiftly hurl recriminations about government regulation.
Nothing and no one is immune from exploitation. On Monday evening came word of the death of astronaut and physicist Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Within an hour, Daily Kos writer Dante Atkins, a Los Angeles Democratic Party Central Committee member, had taken to Twitter to attack US House Speaker John Boehner and the National Organization for Marriage. "Just so everyone knows," Atkins wrote, they "don't think Sally Ride deserved to marry the person she loved." Did she deserve to have news of her passing turned instantly into political ammunition?
The most recent obvious illustration of the rush to politicize tragedy was, of course, the political grandstanding that followed the carnage in Aurora, Colo. Particularly egregious was ABC newsman Brian Ross's slanderous speculation on "Good Morning America" — on the basis of nothing more than a common name on a website — that the theater massacre might be the work of a Colorado Tea Party member. Ross's recklessness was inexcusable (and ABC later apologized). But I found it nearly as dismaying that when I heard from five conservative friends about the atrocity in Aurora, the very first words each spoke to me were not an expression of horror or grief, but some version of: "Did you hear what Brian Ross said? The mainstream media is despicable!"
Politics is important. Without the peaceful clash of political ideas in the public realm, our democratic liberties couldn't be sustained. Like anyone who makes a living commenting on public affairs, I understand that our political beliefs and our moral self-image are entwined, often quite emotionally.
But there are limits, or should be. "Sometimes There's Nothing Wrong with Politicizing a Tragedy," Time magazine's Michael Grunwald wrote the other day. Yet when human sorrow becomes just another reason to impugn the politics of those we disagree with, how are we a better or healthier society? There is more to life than "delivering the hard zinger." Bill Raspberry understood that. If only more of us did.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.