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Pundits, Poets, and Wits: An Omnibus of American Newspaper Columns.

Pundits, Poets, and Wits: An Omnibus of American Newspaper Columns. Karl E. Meyer. Oxford University Press, $24.95. Fifteen years ago Marquis Childs suggested that columnist James Reston of The New York Times wielded the power of three U.S. senators. Childs, who wrote a column himself, was woefully bad in his arithmetic-unless, that is, he actually had three specific mediocre solons in mind. Newspaper punditry was overrated in 1975 when Childs was writing. And claims for its power are certainly exaggerated today, when the newspaper column threatens to become little more than the opening act for the hustling exhibitionists' more lucrative performances-the book, the lecture circuits, the TV panel show, the motion picture, the video cassette. There was a time, however, when the Times's Reston and his crosstown rival, Walter Lippmann of The New York- Herald Tribune, really did count. As Karl Meyer makes clear in this indispensable collection of newspaper columns, the art form has had a glorious past. There were, in fact, several golden ages, each skillfully mined by Meyer. The first included Ben Franklin, James Alexander, Tom Paine, James Madison, and the other authors of the Federalist Papers, who helped "invent the United States," in Meyer's incisive phrase. Their work is well known, except perhaps to graduates of American colleges. Less familiar to professional students of newspaper history is the body of marvelous work done in boisterous Chicago at the turn of the century. Meyer's omnibus rescues some of the newspaper contributions of Eugene Field, George Ade, and Don Marquis, among other midwestern columnists whose work appears here along with the somewhat better known output of Peter Finley Dunne and Ring Lardner.

As late as the 1960s, newspaper columnists still mattered in the political and literary life of America. CBS television used to do an annual interview with Walter Lippmann. Meyer's selections from Lippmann columns show why the columnist was more than a supreme presence, "the name that opened every door," as a colleague once put it. Writing after the Bay of Pigs debacle, at a time when Khrushchev seemed to be riding high, Lippmann drew a counterintuitive moral: There was, he wrote, no reason for the United States to emulate the Soviet Union by conducting large secret conspiracies." The only real alternative to communism, said Lippmann, "is a liberal and progressive society"-a judgment triumphantly borne out three decades later in Eastern Europe, and indeed, in the Soviet Union.

The best of the columnists in this collection writing today tend to think small rather than in the grand Lippmannian manner: Art Buchwald, Russell Baker, and Molly Ivins working in a deadpan comic style; Jimmy Breslin and Murray Kempton hanging out around the police precinct and criminal-courts building; Ellen Goodman in casual conversation at the dinner table. Perhaps the world is less understandable today than it was in Lippmann's and Reston's day; or more to the point, the world has always been complex and columnists have grown to recognize the limits of the form, and their own limits.

Meyer is too evenhanded to argue that the old days were better. He sees much to admire in the current work, and his contemporary examples bestow as much pleasure as the earlier ones. But Meyer does more or less give the last word to the essayist E.B. White. Writing about Don Marquis, White observed: "In 1916 to hold a job on a daily paper a columnist was expected to be something of a scholar and poet, or if not a poet, at least to harbor the soul of a transmigrated poet. Nowadays to get a columning job, a man need only have the soul of a Peep Tom or a third-rate prophet. There are plenty of loud clowns and bad poets at work on papers today."

White wrote that in 1950 . . . long before McLaughlin and Company.

Edwin Diamond
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Author:Diamond, Edwin
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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