Steve Lopez, a columnist and staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, received The Baltimore Sun's 10th annual H.L. Mencken Writing Award yesterday during a luncheon at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
The award, which includes $2,500, is for a newspaper writer whose regularly published opinion column captures the excellence of Mencken's newspaper commentary and the precision of his craft.
In accepting the prize, Mr. Lopez, 36, addressed the criticism of Mencken that followed the publication of his private diaries, which revealed a large measure of bigotry. The 1985 award winner, Tim Giago, returned his plaque in protest.
Mr. Lopez noted that when word of the award reached the newsroom, a colleague asked him, "What did you win for, anti-Semitic columns?"
Mr. Lopez said he read portions of the diaries after learning he had won, and found it "much easier to reach judgment on George Bush, or Jesse Jackson, or Miss America, or Mike Royko -- or anybody who has lived in the last four decades. H.L. Mencken died when I was 2 years old."
The Philadelphia columnist said he did not like what Mencken said about blacks, women and Jews or his "habit of gratuitously labeling people by race or creed, whether good or bad." But he said, "I would never want my private thoughts published. My private thoughts are not as well formed as my public thoughts, and even those are half-baked most of the time.
"I don't suppose it is any revelation that many people, even heroes, have warts and some of them are pretty ugly," he said. "For me the important thing isn't that H.L. Mencken had blind spots 40 years ago, but that many people have them today -- people who work in government and politics and even journalism, a field with a consistent scarcity of minorities and women, especially in management positions."
Three judges selected Mr. Lopez from 57 entrants. The judges noted that in his columns, Mr. Lopez "confronts public officials head on, reflects the irritations and anxieties of people at all levels, and arouses Philadelphians. He does this in a style that is as pungent as it is lucid."
In one of the three columns submitted, Mr. Lopez offered a solution to the war on drugs:
"If you park five seconds too long, the city is on the spot with a ticket. For selling drugs, more often than not, nothing happens.... What I suggest is crystal clear. It's time to enlist the Parking Authority in the war on drugs."
Mr. Lopez has been on the Inquirer staff for 5 1/2 years. He moved to Philadelphia from California, where he wrote for the San Jose Mercury News and Oakland Tribune.