Donald Kaul, a Washington-based columnist for the Des Moines Register whose mordant commentary — gagging on political pabulum and bridling at cultural convention — twice made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist, died July 22 at his home in the District. He was 83.
The cause was complications from prostate cancer, said his son, Chris Kaul. He died on the same day that RAGBRAI, a cross-Iowa bike ride he co-founded in 1973, commenced with 18,000 registered cyclists traversing the state’s back roads. The event bills itself as the largest recreational bike tour in the world and this year stretches 428 miles from Onawa on the state’s western edge to Davenport on the Mississippi River in the east.
Mr. Kaul and a colleague at the Des Moines Register initially conceived the ride as a lark, a way to get their employer to subsidize their hobby as recreational cyclists. They proposed writing about the communities along their path. The paper’s managing editor suggested inviting readers to join them — literally.
“We said, fine, it’s a dumb idea, but we’ll do that,” said John Karras, a retired Register copy editor who masterminded the plan with Mr. Kaul. “We were thinking no one would show up. Then 250 showed up in Sioux City, the start of the route.” Their initial reaction was an expletive, as they’d made no preparations for the riders, who were forced to improvise shelter.
RAGBRAI, short for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, exploded in popularity, drew coverage from Sports Illustrated and inspired similar bike tours of other states. It was almost too successful for Mr. Kaul’s liking, and he impishly dubbed it “the Olympic Games of the ding-a-ling bicycle set.”
Mr. Kaul’s journalistic home for the majority of his five-decade career was the Register, which in its heyday was known for ambitious national coverage and editorial writing that brought the paper a cache of Pulitzers and influence far beyond the state.
In Mr. Kaul, the paper found a writer with an arsenal of barbed wit, a disciple of Mark Twain, Joseph Heller and Finley Peter Dunne. His politics were liberal, if not outright contrarian — perhaps inevitable for an atheist born on Christmas. He became one of the Register’s marquee columnists.
“Kaul was effortlessly funny and wickedly smart,” Geneva Overholser, a former top editor at the Register and Washington Post ombudsman, wrote in an email. “He couldn’t spell worth a damn, but he wrote like an angel. He was a genuinely world-class columnist who loved writing for Iowans, and by far the best columnist who never won a Pulitzer.”
Starting in 1965, Mr. Kaul took over the paper’s folksy, decidedly uncaffeinated “Over the Coffee” column and gave it a jolt with his essays on the Vietnam War, which he considered folly, and President Richard M. Nixon, for whom he reserved a special and enduring contempt.
After the president’s death in 1994, he observed how obituaries portrayed Nixon “as a great man who occasionally succumbed to his darker nature.” He took stinging exception to President Bill Clinton’s eulogizing of Nixon as “a fierce advocate for freedom and democracy around the world”:
“Remember the Kent State massacre? They don’t make massacres like that anymore.
“Or the Christmas bombing of Hanoi? They don’t make Christmases like that anymore.
“And how about that secret invasion of Cambodia? They don’t make secrets like that anymore.”
Mr. Kaul baked the same tart flavor into other columns. He observed in 1994 that the charges of fraud leveled against Rep. Dan Rostenkowski summoned in him feelings of bathos more than rage, given the Illinois Democrat’s chairmanship of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
“The tab — if he really is guilty of everything with which he’s charged — comes to something over $500,000,” Mr. Kaul wrote two years before the congressman pleaded guilty and was imprisoned. “That sounds like a lot, but spread over 20 years it is no more than a modest income supplement. . . . The national embarrassment lies in having your chief tax-making official caught stealing so small.”
A movie buff, Mr. Kaul brooked little tolerance for films he felt pandered to middle-of-the-road sentimentality. He spent two years waging a Sherman-like campaign of scorched-earth ridicule to rid a Des Moines theater of “The Sound of Music” — noting its place “on the condemned list of the Association for the Prevention of Diabetes.”
Perhaps no topic obsessed Mr. Kaul more than what others regarded as an Iowa institution: six-on-six high school girls basketball. The game, in his estimation, had a set of rules that kept players from generating anything akin to excitement on the court. He mock-awed such standard features of the game as the “standing jump shot, the slow-break offense, the near-dribble.”
The sport, he concluded in a 1981 column, “resembles nothing so much as a still life.” The state’s athletic union abolished the game a dozen years later.
John Dinges, an Iowa native and former Register reporter who became a foreign correspondent and Columbia University journalism professor, said Mr. Kaul’s column followed in the state’s tradition of prairie populist liberals, which accounted for its devoted readership.
“You’re surrounded in your towns and in medium-sized cities by pretty sanctimonious people, and to have a columnist who would just give it to them was hilarious,” he said. “Maybe it was over the top, more than you would say or think, but you’re glad there’s someone speaking out like that.”
Donald William Kaul was born in Detroit on Dec. 25, 1934. His father was a tool and die maker, his mother a homemaker. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1958 from the University of Michigan, where he also obtained a master’s degree in journalism in 1960.
In 1957, he married Suzanne Dutil. In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include two children, Chris Kaul of Montclair, N.J., and Rachel Kaul of Washington. A daughter, Leslie Kaul, died of cancer in 2006.
The Register sent Mr. Kaul to Washington in the early 1970s, and he filed up to five columns a week, often writing about national politics and American culture — subjects that began to irk some editors who believed he was ranging too far afield for Iowa readers. He left the Register in 1983 — “They think I quit, and I think I was fired,” he later quipped.
Mr. Kaul joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette, where he was a 1987 Pulitzer finalist for columns that prize jurors called “compelling commentary on national events.” (He lost to Charles Krauthammer.) Around this time, his column was picked up by Tribune Media Services, which syndicated it to more than 100 papers. He was lured back to the Register in 1989, with Overholser as the new editor. He was a Pulitzer finalist again in 1999, losing to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.
Mr. Kaul retired from the Register soon afterward and began many years of writing for what is now OtherWords, a nonprofit editorial service of the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. The antipathy toward authority that had long driven his writing remained steady.
“I still believe in making rich people pay taxes, letting people read what they want, registering handguns and making rude faces at the television set while the president is making a speech,” Mr. Kaul wrote in 1989. “I’m against the National Rifle Association, wearing a white vinyl belt (unless you happen to be wearing a white vinyl suit), racism and broccoli. And if I had my life to live over again, I’d do everything just the same except I wouldn’t see ‘The Sound of Music.’ ”