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Bidding farewell to a life in columns

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Listen up, Israel: Not now. Obama, don't let the winds of public opinion twist you around your own axle. Yo, Putin, stop shielding the murderers, including those who rid you of meddlesome lawyers. Sarkozy, your energy and irreverence are dazzling. But what about a little more stick-to-itness, cher ami?

Lord, this has been fun. If disorienting at first. For 25 years I worked as a reporter and news editor and was paid to keep my opinions out of the newspaper. For the past two decades, The Washington Post paid me to put my opinions where its money is -- to tell the high and mighty, and the merely highfalutin, what I thought of their actions and policies.

Both incarnations offered the chance to continue an education that I began in a three-room, seven-grade schoolhouse in rural South Carolina. Being a working journalist allowed and required me to study politics, diplomacy, finance and, most of all, human nature. Writing for a newspaper is like taking a short college exam every day you work.

The constants are the trade's unbendable limitations on time and space, expressed in an iron law of meeting the deadline whatever the condition of body or mind. "At least nobody is shooting at us right now," foreign correspondents of old would tell each other as we headed down to the burned-out post office in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, or the censor's office in Cairo or Jerusalem, to file our dispatches by telegraph.

A new year seems to be the right moment to reconfigure the constants. Instead of having the deadline shape the idea and force it into 750-word segments, I now want the idea to shape the deadline. I'll still be opinionating at you from time to time as a contributing editor for The Post while working on a book and other projects. In this last regularly scheduled Sunday column, let me thank you, readers, for your support and interest, and my mentors and colleagues at The Post for their immense contributions to a happy professional life.

Odd idea, that. Daily journalists are among the most individualistic of beings, surviving on the instant ego gratification of a prominent byline, beating the competition or producing a well-designed page.

And yet -- putting together a newspaper is the most intensely collaborative effort humans undertake this side of war, sex or baseball. Writers, editors, publishers, salespeople and others engage in a ferocious daily give-and-take as the daily miracle of publication approaches. All hands clap, more or less together, or no hand claps.

Journalism is about now, not about then. So I offer a few contemporary thoughts rather than reminiscences as I move along to prove that old journalists never die, they just scribble away.

First a bit of advice (as if they did not get enough from a hectoring world) to Israeli leaders contemplating attacking Iran's nuclear program: Not now. The regime in Tehran uses an iron fist to confront the just anger and disgust it has provoked in Iran's population. The fanatics in power prefer to break rather than to bend. Let this revolt take its own course before you act.

There are no people in the world more generous, warm, bullheaded, aggravating, inspiring and infuriating than the Israelis, unless it is perhaps the Arabs. I will miss regularly telling you both what to do, knowing there is not a snowball's chance that you have not already thought of it and decided not to do it if you can possibly avoid it.

My salvo to Barack Obama in the opening paragraph comes out of great respect and hope for his presidency. He can be a great leader if he stops paying so much attention to media-obsessed aides who mistake politics for policies and manipulation for statesmanship.

Obama's vacillating reactions to the now sustained protests in Tehran continue to be unsettling. He seems to respond not to the pace and magnitude of the protests themselves but to the amount of coverage they receive here and the potential they create for him to be criticized. In the case of the Nigerian would-be bomber, there were also echoes of tailoring official reactions to media exposure and partisan attack through the president's sudden burst of public anger and Bush-like vows to punish terrorism's masterminds. But these are flaws that this talented president can easily overcome once he sees them.

As for Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Sarkozy . . . What? I'm out of space? Sigh. Gotta go. (But you do see what I mean now, don't you?)

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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