An Omnibus of American Newspaper Columns

Edited by Karl E. Meyer

Oxford University Press. 458 pp. $24.95

KARL E. MEYER's Pundits, Poets and Wits should stand as a stern rebuke to anyone who has sat around talking about some great idea they had without ever doing anything about it. It seems so simple: Collect a sampling of the great newspaper columnists from Benjamin Franklin to Anna Quindlen; throw in a thoughtful, learned introduction and presto: a classic text for years to come. Why didn't I think of that?

Meyer, an editorial writer for the New York Times, was moved to undertake the collection upon discovery of his father's scrapbooks. Ernest L. Meyer wrote a column six days a week for 15 years, first for the Madison, Wis., Capital Times, then for the pre-Rupert Murdoch New York Post. When Meyer Sr. died, his son found himself saddened about just how much first-rate work had vanished with yesterday's papers.

Indeed there is a gold mine of arcana in Meyer's archive. Did you know that Ernest L. Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" was first printed as a newspaper column in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888? How about Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad? Those columns appeared in the Alta California, also of San Francisco, in 1866.

Meyer casts an enormously wide net, gathering in 72 writers, which, were I a present-day syndicated columnist, would make me both glad and mad. I would be glad, of course, to think of myself carrying on the honorable tradition of the likes of Franklin, James Madison, Walt Whitman, Fredrick Douglass, Don Marquis and H.L. Mencken. I would be mad, however, when I compared the quality of my own work and that of my contemporaries with that of those who have graced the profession in earlier days.

An inescapable implication of Meyer's collection is that the inside dope, so prized among media bigfeet, has a half-life considerably shorter than the paper it is printed on. Of today's crop of Washington "insiders" and "authorities," the only columnists to make Meyer's final cut are George Will and the New York Times's William Safire. Of yesterday's legends, only James Reston, Walter Lippmann and Joseph and Stewart Alsop make it into the book. The Arthur Krocks and Joseph Krafts of Washington may once have inspired fear and trembling when stalking the corridors of power, but in the harsh light of lasting literary achievement, their work cannot justify comparison with the likes of Ring Lardner or Red Smith.

Meyer has a weakness for the humorous, the iconoclastic and the downright ornery newspaper voices, particularly when grounded in regional experiences and dialects. Molly Ivins, the Dallas Times Herald firebrand, makes it in all four categories. So does the Nation's Calvin Trillin, if one is willing to grant to Greenwich Village the status of a "region." Meyer includes Trillin's chronicle of the basketball exploits of his editor, "the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky." Navasky apparently made the team at his left-wing high school as a kind of affirmative-action player. With nothing but "a few Trotskyites, a couple of Stalinist forwards, a Schactmanite with a passable jump shot," the coach needed a "token exploiter" of column writers as well.

What is most striking about Meyer's collection is how often the most intimate voice of the writer is the most persuasive. I.F. Stone, writing emotionally but unsentimentally, just days after John Kennedy's assassination, fashioned a document so brave and prophetic that it leaves the reader speechless. "Mr. Kennedy's death," wrote Stone, "like those of the Birmingham children and of Medgar Evers may one day seem the first drops portending a new storm it was beyond his power to stay." Mary McGrory, filing the same week, offers an admirably restrained, though equally powerful rendition of Kennedy's funeral. "It was a day of such endless fitness," she observed," with so much pathos, and panoply, so much grief nobly borne that it may extinguish that unseemly hour in Dallas, where all that was alien to him -- savagery, violence, irrationality -- struck down the 35th President of the United States."

What Meyer has ultimately assembled in this book is an irresistibly oddball history of American life. Olympian hauteur may have its uses, but as Pundits, Poets & Wits clearly demonstrates, it is the iconoclastic voice of the heretic that proves most enduring. Eric Alterman, a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, is writing a book on Washington pundits.