TELLING OTHERS WHAT TO THINK

Recollections of a Pundit

By Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

Louisiana State Univ. Press. 245 pp. $34.95

Before the age of talking heads, blogs, spinmeisters and Fox News, a school of editorial commentators practiced their craft like a religion. Well-mannered and usually educated in proper institutions, they eschewed raw partisanship and delivered opinions as if handed down from Mount Olympus. A tad smug, perhaps, but to shriek on the set of a television show was as unthinkable as to belch at a Georgetown dinner party.

When he wrote editorials for North Carolina newspapers as a young man, later served as editor of the editorial page of the late Washington Star and, finally, contributed columns for The Washington Post Writers Group, Ed Yoder fit the Olympian tradition.

In his memoir, "Telling Others What to Think," he tells of his gentlemanly Southern upbringing, his days as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and the shaping of a personal ideology as "an Adlai Stevenson conservative and a Sam Ervin liberal." He also admits to "unalloyed vanity," recalling a 1975 dinner with Meg Greenfield and George Will with the line: "I would have said at the time that there had been no more stellar gathering of journalistic stylists since Walter Lippmann dined alone." Despite the book's curious (he calls it "puckish") title, which suggests a primer for aspiring pundits, Yoder does not dwell very long in the pulpit nor sing many hymns to himself and the joys of erudition. Instead, he pokes at old foes and expresses irritation over trends that trouble him. At times, his writing is as elegant and scolding as the work of an earlier North Carolina essayist, the doomed and sainted W.J. Cash.

Yoder's book is actually a lamentation for an era lost and for friends absent. Whole chapters are built around the dead -- including the Washington Star.

The earliest influential figure in Yoder's life was his father, a North Carolina educator and a loyal Democrat. "I can't recall," Yoder writes, "a single opinion of his about anything of importance that was uninformed or half-cocked. The distinction is essential, though it is little observed today, especially in electronic journalism."

At Oxford, he fell in with his classmate, the irrepressible Willie Morris, "the largest figure it has been my fortune to know, large in every dimension." Brilliant young editor of Harper's magazine. Gifted author. Mentor to struggling writers. Irreverent practical joker. Ultimately, the victim of "years of hard drinking and smoking, bohemian hours and habits." Morris's genius in assembling his great stable of writers at Harper's, Yoder says, lay in his ability to encourage their zeal rather than in wielding a nitpicking copy pencil. (In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer has known Yoder by reputation for years, but personal acquaintance is limited to the raising of several glasses with him in Willie's honor after Morris's death.)

Yoder, who describes himself as "a rapt amateur student" of the U.S. Supreme Court, also writes of an unusual friendship with Justice Lewis Powell. Though relationships between journalists and members of the court are rare, the two men began exchanging correspondence after Yoder joined the Star. This led to discreet lunches when they found common ground on some of the ticklish issues of the 1970s. Like Yoder, Powell had to navigate the racial shoals of affirmative action and the extension of punitive provisions of the Voting Rights Act that affected the South. Yoder believed Powell had the wisdom of Solomon. "How I wish his spirit might somehow redeem the casual and mindless savagery of our public life, especially here in Washington," he wrote to Powell's son after the justice's funeral.

His chapter on the Star, which he joined in 1975 and left upon its demise six years later, is especially fascinating. In those days, the Star was a worthy rival to The Post and appeared each afternoon, a colorful underdog in the capital. Yoder has delicious portraits of the characters who inhabited the rundown Star building in Southeast Washington: Joe Allbritton, the wealthy Texas publisher who hoped to resuscitate his new acquisition through sheer moxie; Jim Bellows, the conceptual editor who maintained esprit at the failing enterprise; Mary McGrory, whose passionate columns reflected her personality -- when President Richard Nixon once circulated in the Star newsroom, all hands deferred to him except McGrory, who kept typing.

After Time Inc. bought the paper, Murray Gart was installed as editor. For Yoder, Gart became a cross to bear, hovering over editorials with a front-office mentality. "Soon after he arrived," Yoder writes of Gart, "he gave me a copy of what he called the 'Time Plan' for a Middle East settlement. He had helped to shape it, he said, and he spoke of it as reverently as if it had been a state paper as important as the Balfour Declaration."

Time Inc. invested $80 million in the "rescue attempt," Yoder writes, but chose to shut down the Star abruptly in August 1981. The decision stopped the massive corporate hemorrhage but broke hearts across Washington.

The editorialist was forced to seek refuge in The Washington Post Writers Group, a syndicate for columnists. Some contributors, such as David Broder and William Raspberry, were members of the Post staff and could count on appearing regularly on the opinion pages of the newspaper. Not Yoder. Frustrated that his columns were bypassed, the author reassesses Meg Greenfield, a woman he once considered his crosstown counterpart and soul mate, and concludes that she was an enigmatic guardian of editorial style. "I was naive," he writes, "and perhaps I underestimated the degree to which Meg Greenfield was forced to ration and defer the use of aliens on the Post op-ed page."

For much of this portion of the book, Yoder festers over the wounds created by his treatment by The Post's late editorial page editor. "No writer likes to think that his work is other than deserving of fervent attention," he writes. "I had no doubts about the standard of craftsmanship; only George Will's seemed to me, so far as I could judge, consistently higher."

Yoder's pique is a blemish on a good book. His fate in failing to find a place in The Post two or three days a week has been shared by dozens of other syndicated columnists who compete for space in major newspapers across the country. (Humbler ones acknowledge that they're lucky if they, like outstanding major league batters, produce a hit once out of every three times.) Yoder's strength is in his allegiance to old-fashioned journalistic verities, in his abhorrence of the political bullies who increasingly rule the op-ed pages and the airwaves. Near the end, he issues his cri de coeur: "How different it is now! Pulchritude would seem to be more important than literacy in local television news, if only there, and a strident voice and instant opinions more salable than beauty or good sense."