From time to time, I offer guidance to those who are thinking about becoming columnists. Today's lesson is a simple one:
Be fair and objective in your comments. This will not diminish the amount of controversy you stir up, nor will it reduce the volume of insulting mail you receive. However it will help you achieve enough peace of mind to sleep well. You will know that you did your best.
Older texts on how to be a columnist may advise that some topics are safe and do not stir up controversy.
There was a time when this advice was valid. One could write about things like home, mother and the flag without drawing a lot of flak.
This is no longer true. Now, even a "happy birthday" salute to the flag on Flag Day gets a columnist clobbered.
Consider excerpts from a letter from L.B., a woman who indicates she was just past 20 years of age in 1967:
"Your flag-waving column today was typical of the male chauvinism that has led us into one war after another, one massive federal deficit after another coused by excessive spending for war. The only reason you have gotten way with it for so long is that women have foolishly responded to your emotional appeals that this is their sacred fatherland or motherland or whatever, and if it were not for you big wonderful warriors protecting us, we would all be slaves of the Russians. Well, that's just so much horseradish. Women fare much better in the U.S.S.R. than they do here."
An anonymous critic, apparently male, wrote: "As part of the well-fed Establ ishment, you wave the flag and expect, everybody to turn handsprings in their gratitude for the blessings they have received under it. Let me tell you, my blessing have been minimal. I have worked like a dog all my life and have nothing to show for it because I never had the capital to work for myself. I have always had to work for the people with Big Money, and the only things they share with others are those they are forced to share. The flag you consider such a wonderful symbol is to me the symbol of a system that produces great riches for a few and a life of quiet desperation for all the rest of us."
J.W. wrote,"By the time any politician has made the compromises necessary for him to achieve national stature, his remaining virtue compares unfavorably with that of a streetwalker." The implication, apparently, is that the flag is a symbol of crooked, self-serving politicians.
The critics have been far outnumbered by those who respect the flag. Donald S. Bittinger, who ran Washington Gas back in the days when its public imagine was a lot better than it is now, wrote to tell me that he, too, began wearing a flag pin in his lapel long before Richard Nixon entered the White House. What particularly irritates him is "people who malign our country without any constructive suggestions for betterment. The old USA is not perfect, of course, but it's still the best in the world."
Fred Woodworth of the American Legion said, "I am one of those 'few other curmudgeons around town' who continues to wear a flag pin in my lapel - not only on Flag Day but as a continuous reminder that Old Glory deserves affection and respect."
"Fire Mission," a newsletter published by veterans of a field artillery unit of the 85th Division during World War II, wrote to ask permissionm to reprint the column. Charles Seib, our ombudsman, reports that a woman called him to say she thought my Flag Day column was wonderful. "I'm gray-haired," she said, "and his column brought tears to my eyes." HelenMarie Fruth called the column "beautiffuly expressive" and said it got her "all choked up." I'd like to say something about these favorable comments.
Many of the articles that appear here could not have been written without the help of our library and its researchers. None of the articles would be considered expressive or well written without the help of a half dozen copy editors who play an important role in shaping and refining the words that appear here.
As any writer will attest, it is a writer's sacred duty to argue with editors.
I make an honest effort to discharge all my duties, and as a result there are times when the copy editors and I fight like cats and dogs, not only about "style" but about basic content. Later, I am free to accept or reject their advice, but I rarely reject it.
So I think it ought to be noted that if you find something in this space you like, there's a good chance it's there because a good researcher or editor helped put it there.