James J. Kilpatrick, 89, dies; conservative columnist formerly on '60 Minutes'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; B06

James J. Kilpatrick, 89, a fiery advocate of racial segregation as a Richmond newspaper editor in the 1950s who became a sparring partner of liberals on the television show "60 Minutes" and a syndicated columnist who offered conservative views on subjects ranging from politics to the proper use of English, died Aug. 15 at George Washington University Hospital. He had congestive heart failure.

Mr. Kilpatrick, who gradually distanced himself from his writings on race, became one of the most popular and eminent conservative writers of his generation.

His prose blended the erudite and the homespun, and he became one of the few conservatives syndicated in print nationally in the early 1960s. His column "A Conservative View" ran in hundreds of newspapers for nearly 30 years and initially predated the television presence of William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the conservative National Review magazine.

"Before there was a Bill Buckley, before there was a Ronald Reagan or Rush Limbaugh, there was James Jackson Kilpatrick explaining public-policy issues from a conservative perspective," said Richard Viguerie, a conservative youth group leader in the early 1960s who became a direct-mail pioneer for conservative political candidates.

Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said Mr. Kilpatrick's accomplishments will always be overshadowed by the major role he played as top editor of the Richmond News Leader.

At the now-defunct paper, Mr. Kilpatrick wrote editorials that thundered support for "massive resistance" to race-mixing in public schools, an effort pushed by the political machine of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. that worked to shut down public schools rather than integrate them.

"It was one of the saddest episodes in Virginia's long history, and it helped to keep the state a backwater for years to come," Sabato said.

Mr. Kilpatrick rose to national prominence at the Richmond paper. In books, essays and editorials, he was known for clothing segregationist doctrine in the terms of constitutional argument.

For example, he gave new life to the idea of interposition championed by antebellum Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who argued that states could protect their citizens from the authority of the federal government. Many Southern states began to pass pro-segregation laws that adopted the interposition language promoted by Mr. Kilpatrick.

One of Mr. Kilpatrick's most strident essays on civil rights, "The Hell He Is Equal," was scheduled for publication in the Saturday Evening Post in late 1963. But editors pulled the essay because of the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that September, which claimed the lives of four black girls during services at the church, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in "The Race Beat" (2006), their Pulitzer Prize-winning book about journalism in the civil rights era.

"Kilpatrick, by propagating a whole vernacular to serve the culture of massive resistance -- interposition, nullification, states' rights, state sovereignty -- provided an intellectual shield for nearly every racist action and reaction in the coming years," Roberts and Klibanoff wrote.

Mr. Kilpatrick told a Roanoke newspaper in 1993 that he had intended merely to delay court-mandated integration because "violence was right under the city waiting to break loose. Probably, looking back, I should have had better consciousness of the immorality, the absolute evil of segregation."

Rebuilds reputation

In his national column, Mr. Kilpatrick shunned racial politics, and the rise of the Vietnam War helped shift the national debate away from segregation. His signature issues became self-reliance, patriotism, a free marketplace and skepticism of federal power. His columns usually carried the dateline of Scrabble, Va., near his home in Rappahannock County, 65 miles southwest of Washington.

The dateline was misleading.

"Our post office actually is at Woodville," he wrote. "Scrabble is a community two miles on down the road toward Culpeper. But what writer with an ounce of poetry in his veins would choose Woodville as a dateline, when with a spark of honest larceny he would latch onto Scrabble instead?"

His stature as a writer, lecturer and commentator on public-affairs shows led to his appearances on the "60 Minutes" segment "Point-Counterpoint" in the 1970s. On the program, Mr. Kilpatrick debated such policy issues as family planning and the Vietnam War against liberal authors Nicholas von Hoffman and later Shana Alexander.

"If ever I heard an oversimplified fairy tale of the last years in Vietnam, I just heard one from you," Mr. Kilpatrick said in one exchange. They peppered their remarks with "Oh, come on, Jack" and "Now see here, Shana" and helped make possible even-more combative talk shows, including "Crossfire."

"Point-Counterpoint" was memorably parodied on "Saturday Night Live" with Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin in the roles. "Jane, you ignorant slut," became a national catchphrase uttered by Aykroyd's character. "Dan, you pompous ass," was Curtin's retort.

Mr. Kilpatrick said liberal critics thought of him as extremely right-wing -- "10 miles to the right of Ivan the Terrible." But "Kilpo," as he was sometimes known, befriended many who were his ideological opposites. In 1998, he married Marianne Means, a liberal columnist for Hearst Newspapers, whom he had known socially for years.

His acquaintances included the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), an anti-Vietnam War presidential candidate who was his Rappahannock neighbor. McCarthy said he found Mr. Kilpatrick charming and well-versed on 17th- and 18th-century literature and philosophy.

"The man is not locked into a mold. He's not just the curmudgeon you see on TV," McCarthy told The Washington Post in 1973, adding that Mr. Kilpatrick had "kind of a country manor style."

Stardom in Richmond

James Jackson Kilpatrick was born Nov. 1, 1920, in Oklahoma City. He described the most devastating moments of his early life as the loss of his father's lumber business during the Depression and his parents' subsequent divorce.

When he graduated from the University of Missouri's journalism school in 1941, he applied to newspapers with a cover letter stating that he "knew the streets of Paris as well as he knew the streets of Philadelphia." This was technically accurate, never having been to either city.

He went to work for the News Leader and rose quickly under the tutelage of editor Douglas S. Freeman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. At 30, he succeeded Freeman as editor.

One of his first actions was to champion the case of Silas Rogers, a young black shoeshine man who had been convicted of fatally shooting a Virginia police officer in 1943. Poring over the court transcripts, Mr. Kilpatrick found inconsistencies in testimony. He retraced the steps of the accused killer and tracked down witnesses the police had never contacted.

His exhaustive reporting over two years led the governor to pardon Rogers. A black newspaper in Richmond inducted Mr. Kilpatrick into its honor roll for courage and justice in 1953.

But by the next year, Mr. Kilpatrick redirected his sense of outrage and allied himself with the Byrd machine and its fight against Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unlawful. In addition to "A Conservative View," Mr. Kilpatrick wrote the syndicated columns "Covering the Courts," which focused on the U.S. Supreme Court, and "The Writer's Art," a column about language and what he considered its frequent misuse. Mr. Kilpatrick and McCarthy collaborated on a book, "A Political Bestiary" (1978), a satirical dictionary of government jargon.

Mr. Kilpatrick's first wife, sculptor Marie Pietri, died in 1997. They had three sons, M. Sean Kilpatrick of Atlanta, Christopher Kilpatrick of New Bern, N.C., and Kevin Kilpatrick of Woodbridge.

Besides Means and his sons, survivors include four stepchildren; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Mr. Kilpatrick, who lived most recently in Washington, saw himself as a "fiercely individualistic" writer who spoke only for himself.

He said he was once on television to "take the side of 'The Conservative's View of Watergate.' And I asked myself, 'Just what is a conservative's view of burglary?' "

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