Because of where I live and work, the continuity of America’s institutions and arguments is never far from my mind.
The poet E. E. Cummings — or as he’s remembered, e.e. cummings — wrote of a “footprint in the sand of was.” As a Washingtonian, I live immersed in “was” — in history. I have spent almost all of my adult life in Washington and still am stirred by its grand vistas and monuments. And by the fact that the brick sidewalks of Georgetown, where I work in a house built in 1810, have been trod by politicians, jurists and statesmen who have made American principles vivid and the American project successful.
Having now completed five decades as a columnist, I suspect a few readers might be interested in learning how someone could have the good fortune to tumble into such a career. In September 1958, four months after my 17th birthday, I came out of the Illinois wilderness to matriculate at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Soon thereafter, I did what a young man from central Illinois would naturally do: I took the train to New York City. Arriving in the splendor of Grand Central Terminal, I plunked down a nickel for a New York tabloid in order to see what was going on in Gotham. This purchase of a New York Post was a life-changing event because in it I found a column by Murray Kempton.
I do not remember what his subject was that day, but his subjects generally were of secondary importance to his style, which reflected his refined mind and his penchant for understated passion, mordantly expressed. Here, for example, is a sentence from his October 1956 report on President Dwight David Eisenhower campaigning for reelection:
In Miami he had walked carefully by the harsher realities, speaking some 20 feet from an airport drinking fountain labeled “Colored” and saying that the condition it represented was more amenable to solution by the hearts of men than by laws, and complimenting Florida as “typical today of what is best in America,” a verdict which might seem to some contingent on finding out what happened to the Negro snatched from the Wildwood jail Sunday.
This 75-word sentence — sinewy, ironic and somewhat demanding — paid a compliment to his readers: He knew they could and would follow a winding syntactical path through a thought so obliquely expressed as to be almost merely intimated. Kempton understood that the swirling, stirring society in which Americans are immersed is constantly clamoring for their attention, plucking at their sleeves and even grabbing them by the lapels with journalism, politics, advertising and other distractions. Furthermore, Kempton knew that reading newspaper columns is an optional activity, so a writer must make the most of his ration of words. Reading a columnist’s commentary on political and cultural subjects is an acquired taste, and a minority one at that: It will be acquired only if it is pleasant, even fun.
However, the fact that most Americans do not read newspapers, let alone the commentary columns, is actually emancipating for columnists. The kind of people who seek out written arguments are apt to bring to the written word a fund of information and opinions. Having a self-selected audience of intellectually upscale readers allows the columnist to assume that his or her readers have a reservoir of knowledge about the world. So, he can be brief — most of my writings are approximately 750 words — without being superficial.
Today, America has a much more clamorous media environment than Kempton knew. New technologies — cable television, the Internet, social media — produce a blitzkrieg of words, written and spoken. The spoken words are often shouted by overheated individuals who evidently believe that the lungs are the seat of wisdom. Here, however, is the good news: Amid the cacophony, and because of it, there is an audience for something different, for what Kempton exemplified and some of us aspire to — trenchant elegance.
My path from my Grand Central Terminal epiphany to a life practicing the columnists’ craft was circuitous. After college, I studied for two years at Oxford. As I prepared to leave that magical place, I was undecided about my preferred career path — law or teaching political philosophy. So, I applied to Princeton’s graduate school. I do not remember all the reasons, but I suspect they included this one: Princeton is located between New York and Philadelphia, two National League baseball cities. My father, a philosophy professor, was a born academic; I obviously was not.
Still, having earned a PhD, I was teaching at the University of Toronto in the autumn of 1969 when Everett Dirksen from Pekin, Ill., who was minority leader of the U.S. Senate, died. Senate Republicans shuffled their leadership, and Colorado’s Gordon Allott was elected chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. He decided he wanted to hire a Republican academic to write for him. In the late 1960s, the phrase “Republican academic” was not quite an oxymoron, but then as now such creatures were thin on the ground. Allott, however, found me north of the border and brought me to Washington.
After three years on the Senate staff, I called William F. Buckley Jr., with whom I was acquainted and for whose National Review I had written a few things. I told him that I thought his magazine, which was then and still is produced in New York, needed a Washington editor. He had made a practice of collecting young writers and was probably inured to their impertinence. His characteristically generous reply to me was: You’re right, I do, and you’re it. In January 1973, I began writing columns for National Review and also for The Washington Post, which was just starting a syndication service. Fifty years and 6,000 or so columns later, I number myself among the fortunate few who have lived this familiar axiom: If you love your work, you will never work a day in your life.
So, as a believer in free markets, and hence in the price system’s rational allocation of society’s resources and energies, I am amused by the fact that this system has made a mistake regarding me. Under sensible pricing of labor, people should be paid the amount necessary to elicit their work. I, however, am paid to do what I would do without pay.
It might seem peculiar to derive pleasure from working in a Washington that for many years has been sunk in visceral, mindless partisanship. And, truth be told, the bitterness is often inversely proportional to the stakes. Furthermore, it might seem perverse to enjoy writing cultural criticism at a time when the culture is increasingly coarse and silly. However, one reason the temperature of the nation’s discourse is high is that the stakes are high. Today’s fights are not optional, and they are worth winning.
In recent years, colleges and universities have received from the public increased attention and decreased admiration. This is because America’s most dispiriting intellectual phenomenon is the degradation of higher education, which is being swept by two plagues to which it should be immune: fads and hysterias. But because some of the noblest achievements of American civilization, our great research universities, are imperiled, the nation’s future is, too.
Although there are many kinds of colleges and universities, the idea of a university is inherently aristocratic: Higher education is not for everyone, and it is not primarily vocational or even “practical,” as this is commonly understood. Rather, institutions of higher education — some much more than others — should be answers to a question posed by Alexis de Tocqueville. His “Democracy in America,” which has rightly been called the greatest book about a nation written by a citizen of another nation, implicitly but insistently asked this: Can a nation so thoroughly committed to equality cultivate and celebrate excellence, which distinguishes the few from the many? Much depends on our being able to answer this question in the affirmative. Much depressing evidence suggests we cannot.
Then there is the role of courts in contemporary American governance. The fact that courts are increasingly central to the nation’s political arguments explains the ferocity of the struggles over the confirmation of presidential nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court. Many thoughtful people think courts have become too important. I disagree, in part because of various instances in which basic rights have routinely been imperiled by majoritarian institutions but have been protected by judicial ones.
There is also much to reflect on about cultural matters, broadly construed, including the interesting fact that “parent” has become a verb, and sexual mores have … well, let Peter de Vries, the wittiest writer since Mark Twain, explain: “A hundred years ago Hester Prynne of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was given an A for adultery. Today she would rate no better than a C-plus.”
What William Wordsworth felt about the world — that it is “too much with us” — is how I feel about almost all presidents. They permeate the national consciousness to a degree that is unhealthy and, strictly speaking, unrepublican and anti-constitutional. Entire forests are felled to produce the paper for books about presidents. What we more urgently need is attention paid to the ideas that have consequences as presidents come and go. They are all temporary; the Constitution and the American creed bide.
The more fuss is made about new media — the Internet, Google, Facebook, Instagram and so on (and on) — the more I am convinced that books remain the primary transmitters of ideas. In fact, because of what makes new media so enchanting to so many, the importance of books is increasing. When television was a new medium, the witty Fred Allen, whose career was in radio, quipped that television enabled you to have in your living room people you would not want in your living room.
The new media enable the instantaneous dissemination of thoughts, most of which should never have been thought, let alone given written expression. The velocity imparted by new media somehow is an incentive for intemperate discourse. Books, however, have long gestations and, usually, careful editors. One of the most demanding and satisfying facets of this columnist’s craft is taking the many hours required to distill to its essence a worthy book that took another author many years to write; to offer just one example, to be able to acquaint a large readership with the lapidary sentences and mind-opening nuggets of information in Rick Atkinson’s military histories — a specialty now almost extinct in the academy.
It has been well said that the United States is the only nation founded on a good idea, the proposition that people should be free to pursue happiness as they define it. In recent years, however, happiness has been elusive for this dyspeptic nation, in which too many people think and act as tribes and define their happiness as some other tribe’s unhappiness. As a quintessentially American voice, that of Robert Frost, said, “The best way out is always through.” Perhaps the information, the reasoning and, I hope, the occasional amusements in newspaper columns can help readers think through, and thereby diminish, our current discontents.
They will diminish if, but only if Americans adhere to two categorical imperatives: They should behave as intelligently as they can, and should be as cheerful as is reasonable. The pursuit of individual happiness, and of a more perfect union, never reaches perfect fulfillment, but never mind. “The struggle itself toward the heights,” wrote Albert Camus, “is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
For Americans, the pursuit of happiness is happiness.