WASHINGTON — Washington. -- As the learned jurist said, he couldn't define obscenity, but he knew it when he saw it. As the grizzled newspaperman says, he can't tell you how to write a column, but he knows a good one when he reads it.
Since the glory days of Tommy D'Alesandro, Teddy McKeldin and Ike Eisenhower, I have written about 4,000 news stories and 2,700 columns for this newspaper, but I need a little more practice to get it right. However, I have studied the art long enough to recognize its masters.
Three of them, in fact, were ornaments of The Sun.
No reminder is needed of Henry Mencken, the grandfather of them all. The fact that he could let fly the way he did attracted many of us here. There are still old-timers across the country who say, when we introduce ourselves and our affiliation, "Hey, that was Mencken's paper, wasn't it?"
The other two, inadequately recognized, were Tom O'Neill and Price Day, who were still writing here into the 1970s. Tom was on convivial terms with every politician in the country, and reported their twists and turns with a wry cynicism they all understood. Price was simply the best newspaper writer I have ever known, whose finely polished, understated masterpieces put us all to shame.
Today's public is likely to assume that quality equals visibility, i.e., if a columnist is good he must be a talking head on television, and if he isn't, he isn't. The assumption falls apart when we note that Dave Rossi of the Binghamton Press, Bill Safire and Russ Baker of the New York Times, Mary McGrory of the Washington Post and Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune, for instance, seldom show their faces on TV.
This is not to deny that some of the best do work the talk-show and lecture circuit, e.g. Jack Germond of the Evening Sun and Charlie McDowell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It is to regret that they are known more for their televised chitchat than for their serious work, which is newspaper writing.
Nor do I intentionally ignore my other Sunpapers colleagues, whom I envy for their talent as well as for the fact that most of them write about and live among their readers. That privilege, with its same-day feedback and feeling of being in direct touch, is one I have always missed as a columnist.
But as brilliant as today's crop is, near and far, I have to look way back for the ones that impressed me most. When I was delivering papers as a boy who didn't know any better, they included Walter Winchell, with his breathless dots-and---es style, and Westbrook Pegler, whose politics I despised but whose spleen I had to admire.
When I was in college, Jimmy Wechsler and especially Murray Kempton of the old New York Post were fighting Joe McCarthy every day, and I loved them for it. Jimmy Cannon of the Post and Red Smith of the Herald-Tribune were in their prime. They made it seem grown-up to spend time reading about overgrown boys pounding each other and others in floppy knickers whacking a little white ball with a stick.
Yet there is a genre that dates back beyond them, to when columns were collections rather than essays, as in F.P.A.'s "Conning Tower" in the old New York World, and Kin Hubbard's sophisticated rusticisms in the Indianapolis News. I have waited years to get some of Hubbard's "sayings of Abe Martin" into a newspaper again:
Miss Fawn Lippincut says she wouldn' marry th' best man on earth, but we supposed she was much younger.
Th' little three-year-old son o' Landlord Gabe Craw got caught in th' continuous towel t'day, and wuz thrown violently against th' ceilin'.
Miss Eloise Moots has resigned from th' Monarch 5 & 10, and'll give her whole time t' her hair.
I kin allus tell a feller who has married a good housekeeper by the way he brightens up when I speak kindly to him.
Mrs. Tipton Bud has sold her gold fish as they kept her tied down.
While cuttin' a magazine in a hammock yisterday Miss Opal Moots severed a artery in her nose. Her mother, who wuz ironin' in th' cellar, escaped uninjured.
Rereading such genius underlines the futility of trying to compete, and nudges anyone with a smidgen of humility to quit while still behind.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.