Billy Loes, the patron saint of columnists, was a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was not, shall we say, all polish. He once lost a ground ball in the sun. He committed a memorable balk in a World Series game. (The ball squirted from his hand at the start of his windup. "Too much spit on it," he explained. But he was a deep social thinker. ("The  Mets is a very good thing. They give everybody a job. Just like the WPA.") And he was a major-league complainer. That quality inspired a poem, the full text of which is: "This is the trouble with Billy Loes,/He don't like it wherever he goes." This week's column is about writing columns, which is in part, but only in part, the art of complaining usefully.
Fearful rumors are afoot that I may abandon the columnist's basic stance of thorough disapproval of all conduct but his own. Readers by the millions . . . well, OK, a couple of you, your eyes met with unshed tears, are worried that on Jan. 20 I shall succumb to conviviality, my captious spirit shall vanish and I shall commence to carol like a lark. Caroling is fine from larks but boring from columnists. Worriers note that last autumn I was not your basic undecided voter, and (believe it or not) they worry because the Reagans came to the Wills for dinner. The latter was a small matter, but large enough to fill to overflowing the minds of some people.
The financial markets are gyrating, the budget is hemorrhaging, the currency is evaporating and the Russians are practically in Duluth so there are questions more urgent than the following. Is journalistic duty compatible with feelings of friendship between journalists and those political people who do the work of democracy? And will this columnist be as critical of Reagan's administration as he was of Carter's?
The answers are: yep, and I certainly hope not. I am moved to expand upon these answers only because journalism (like public service, with its "conflict of interest" phonetics) is now infested with persons who are little "moral thermometers," dashing about taking other persons' temperatures, spreading, as confused moralists will, a silly scrupulosity and other confusions.
We all have our peculiar tastes. Some people like Popsicles. Others like Gothic novels. I like politicians. A journalist once said that the only way for a journalist to look at a politician is down. That is unpleasantly self-congratulatory. A journalist's duty is to see politicians steadily and see them whole. To have intelligent sympathy for them, it helps to know a few are friends. Most that I know are overworked and underpaid persons whose characters of the people they represent, and of journalists.
Friendship between journalists and politicians offends persons who consider a mean edge the only proof of "candor" in writing about politicians. ("To be candid, in Middle-march phraseology, meant," George Eliot wrote, "to use an early opportunity of letting your friends know that you did not take a cheerful view of their capacity, their conduct, of their position. . . .") But friendship, including relaxation in social settings, reduces the journalist's tendency to regard politicians as mere embodiments of ideas or causes, as simple abstractions rather than complicated human beings. The leavening of friendship may take some of the entertaining savagery from our politics, but, then, our politics has not recently suffered from an excess of civility.
The idea that only an "adversary relationship" with government is proper for journalists pleases some journalists because it seems hairy chested, and because it spares them the tortures of thought. Continual thought about what to publish, and how to adapt to the nuances in a political city, is necessary for journalists who believe that they are citizens first. They have particular professional duties, but they and politicians are part of the same process, the quest for the public good.
John Kennedy showed a draft of his Inaugural Address to Walter Lippmann, who suggested a change (to refer to a hostile nation as an "adversary," not an "enemy"), which Kennedy made. On Inauguration night Kennedy went to the home of Joseph Alsop, the columnist. He went for the best of reasons: friendship. Lippmann helped draft Woodrow Wilson's "fourteen points" (then became an astringent critic of Wilson and the Versailles Treaty). For five decades he preached detachment but practiced a decorous, public-spirited involvement.
Shortly after World War II Sen. Arthur Vandenberg asked Scotty Reston to read a speech about relations with Russia. Scotty did, considered it unfortunately negative, made a suggestion (that Vandenberg, formerly a leading isolationist, signal a turn toward internationalism), and the speech became a significant event. Lippmann was, Reston is, a citizen too: a citizen first.
Today good citizens ache for a chance to applaud the reasonably graceful exercise of power. I am hopeful; I am not quite of Evelyn Waugh's persuasion ("I have never voted in a general election as I have never found a Tory stern enough to command my respect"), and I do not covet the Billy Loes trophy for most incessant complaining. But . . .
The columnists I most admire, from Samuel Johnson to G. K. Chesterton to Murray Kempton today, have written about the "inside" of public matters: not what is secret, but what is latent, the kernel of principle and other significance that exists, recognized or not, "inside" events, policies and manners. Following, in my dim way, their luminous example, my columns are meditations on various principles. And on behalf of my own, which, I suspect, will not be fully and perfectly worshiped within the Reagan adminstration. And unless there is unflagging worship at the altar of Will's creed, Will will emulate the great complainer, the sainted Billy Loes.
The most useful complaints are couched as arguments, and make a case for better ways, finer things. Often the most useful arguments are the civil but spirited ones we have with friends. Invariably, it is this for which I write: the joy, than which there is nothing purer, of an argument firmly made, like a nail straightly driven, its head flush to the plank.