Alex Beam: In search of the perfect newspaper column
“Work was to be perfect, and a certain relative perfection was by all means within reach.” — Thomas Merton, on Shaker craftsmanship
A few years ago I was participating in an alumni event, and a classmate asked: “When you start writing a column, what are you trying to do?”
Without thinking, I blurted out: “I am trying to write a perfect column.”
I have no idea why I said that. I don’t think I’ve ever written a perfect column, though I have written perhaps hundreds that lean in the other direction. The Shakers’ ideal of perfection set me to thinking: Are there any perfect newspaper columns, and if so, who wrote them?
The hallmark of a great column is using everyday vocabulary to express a few simple ideas that resonate with the reader. On this page, Ellen Goodman was one of the greatest practitioners, ever. She spoke/wrote directly to a generation of intelligent women (and men) confronting new challenges in the workplace and in domestic life.
Ellen knew whereof she spoke. Her colleague, Globe columnist George Frazier, berated her in print as a “girl journalist” and suggested she attend the Famous Writers School. Instead, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. And her work graced many a refrigerator door — the real Hall of Fame, as all columnists know.
For many years, the Globe reprinted David Nyhan’s near-perfect column on the dehumanizing college acceptance lottery. Addressed to the girl or boy who received a rejection letter, Nyhan wrote: “They can look at your grades and weigh your scores. . . . But they can’t look into your head, or into your heart. They didn’t reject you. They rejected your resume.”
I have nursed a memory of what I thought was a perfect column — The New York Times’s Frank Rich’s touching farewell to his sons as they left for summer camp. I misremembered; Rich wrote two columns on this theme. Taken together, yes, they could be combined into one perfect column.
My friend Joe Kahn likewise misremembered his nomination for the perfect column, one in which Russell Baker imagined the editors of Foreign Affairs magazine assembling each month “to administer a high colonic to Anwar Sadat.”
Baker’s column, a tongue-in-cheek magazine review that appeared in The New York Times in 1975, was even funnier. It described “the world of Foreign Affairs . . . where the Harvard faculty assembles to administer a high colonic to Marshal Tito.”
Humor – so sorely missed. I was never happier than the days when cartoonist Garry Trudeau, a very savvy writer as well as a comic stripper, and the Miami Herald’s Dave Barry won their Pulitzer Prizes. Barry reeled off a near-lifetime of perfect 10.0s, and when he didn’t, well, I blame the East German judges.
Barry has collected some great hits on his website, missing alas the July 2000 column that my wife and I can practically recite by heart. In it, Barry bids farewell to his son at the airport with these fateful words: “Don’t lose your passport.” You will never guess what happens next.
The Greatest of All Time? One of my candidates would be Michael Kinsley, who has written for just about everyone. His former deputy at Slate magazine, Jack Shafer, suggested that Kinsley’s evisceration of famed Washington influence peddler Robert Strauss, “Mr. Democrat,” approached commentary perfection.
“Virtually everyone in Washington recognizes that Bob Strauss is 99 percent hot air, yet they all maintain this ‘elder statesman’ and ‘Mr. Democrat’ routine like some sort of elaborate prank on the rest of the world,” Kinsley wrote in The Washington Post in 1988. “It’s an insult to the Democratic Party that its symbolic head should be a man whose political influence is out for hire to the highest bidder.”
Space prevents me from hailing Red Smith’s famous column on the Bobby Thomson home run, and Murray Kempton’s lifetime of lapidary deadline prose. I apologize. Nobody’s perfect.