“Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns”
Editors: John P. Avlon, Jesse Angelo, Errol Louis
I never thought I’d agree with Peggy Noonan about anything, until I picked up a copy of “Deadline Artists,” and saw her comment on the cover, “An indispensable anthology of an American art form — a broad and brilliantly chosen compilation . . . and a real feast. I couldn’t put it down.”
Neither could I, except for the times I wanted to fling it across the room, appalled over the unforgivably sloppy editing, frustrated by misspellings, ready to scream at the dropped words changed the meaning or ruined the rhythm. It seems when the original columns were copied for this collection, errors were made and not corrected. I know copy editors are almost extinct and that proofreaders are non-existent, but this is grotesque.
Still, there’s far more good than bad, and dipping in and out of this wonderful book took me back to my boyhood, when I first became familiar with William Allen White, Grantland Rice, Robert J. Casey, Ernie Pyle, Heywood Broun and Westbrook Pegler.
A Pegler column from 1936 yanked me back to 1954, when I was doing research in old newspaper and magazine columns. Pegler, later a reactionary curmudgeon, was covering the 1936 Winter Olympics in Gatrmisch-Partenkirchen when he wrote “An Apology.” Pegler turned out a piece pointing out the large number of German soldiers in the Alpine village, which drew a formal protest from Hitler’s government. Pegler’s response was, “. . . I can only plead that I was honestly mistaken and a victim of my own ignorance. Those weren’t troops at all, but merely peace-loving German workmen in their native dress. . .” There were no further protests.
The book, edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis, has 167 pieces by 104 writers, almost all of them written for newspapers. With a small handful of exceptions, all were written for daily newspapers with deadline pressures. They are divided into 10 general areas, loose enough for the editors to select their favorites.
Through the years, as a journalist myself, I knew some of the writers represented here, and to see bylines of Molly Ivins, Art Buchwald, Herb Caen, Wells Twombly, Red Smi
th, Mike Royko, Shirley Povich and others brought back fond memories of afternoons in press boxes and nights in taverns. Writing a column gives a person a sense of freedom, an erroneous sense of importance, a chance to look foolish beyond friends and family, an opportunity to play with words and, if lucky, to leave a few of them out there for folks to read and remember. In no particular order, a handful of favorites:
Mary McGrory, Washington Star, 1954: “Mr. Welch came to Washington to defend the Army. But he had his finest hour defending a friend.”
Art Hoppe, San Francisco Chronicle, 1971: “The radio this morning said the Allied invasion of Laos had bogged down. Without thinking, I nodded and said, ‘Good.’ And having said it, I realized the bitter truth. Now I root against my own country.”
George F. Will, Washington Post, 1986: “The optimistic statement, ‘George Bush is not as silly as he frequently seems’ now seems comparable to Mark Twain’s statement that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. Bush’s recent New York performance suggests that although the 1988 nomination is his to lose, he has a gift for doing things like that.”
Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, 2004: “I am sure there is a special place in heaven reserved for those who have never used the F-word. I will never get near that place. Nor, apparently, will Dick Cheney.”
Red Smith, New York Herald Tribune, 1951: “Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
Dave Barry, Local Daily News, 1981: “I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends.”
Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press, 2000: “One night. One town. One bullet. One kid.”
Eugene Patterson, Atlanta Constitution, 1963: “A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.”
Molly Ivins, Dallas Times-Herald, 1987: “When in the course of human events one is called upon to explain Lubbock art, the oxymoron, to San Francisco, the city of sophisticates, one might well take a dive.”
John Leonard, New York Times, 1977: “My father sang tenor, drank rye and died young.”