IT BECOMES harder and harder for press and television to play any role in presidential politics that is not utterly contemptible. Eric Sevareid, who died the other day, always seemed more aware of this than most of us, and more uncomfortable about it, and therefore more honorable in some way you couldn't define, but could only feel when he walked into a room. He made you feel better about being in the same business.
He was tall, square-shouldered and handsome, not in the cheap Hollywood leading-man style, but in the way that attracts sophisticated women. I once met a mature woman half his age who was not kidding when she said she had wanted to marry Eric Sevareid ever since she had been a 12-year-old listening to his voice on the radio.
Oddly for a man whose best work was in radio, the face was even more interesting than the voice. It was quick to reveal inner doubt and bemusement, an onset of ironic humor, a genuine pleasure at seeing an old friend. Its natural expression in repose was worry, probably because Eric Sevareid was born to ponder the consequences of things.
His was an archaic world that believed in the existence of consequences. Unlike today's electronic universe, that old world didn't happen every second only to be forgotten the next second and replaced by a new world a second after that. In Mr. Sevareid's world, today resulted from yesterday, which was the result of 1776, which resulted from the beheading of King Charles I, which . . .
"Everything," he once wrote, "is the result of everything else," and the hopelessness of ever figuring it out amused him. So did his own austere demeanor. "I am cursed with a somewhat forbidding Scandinavian manner, with a restraint that spells stuffiness to a lot of people," he wrote. "But . . . inside I am mush. . . ."
He told a friend of going to a high-school football game because his son was on the team. Being Sevareid, he had grave reservations about the value of high-school football, he said, and was sitting in the stands pondering the meaning of it all when his son broke free with the ball in a dramatic play. To his amazement and delight he discovered himself on his feet laughing, cheering and shouting, "That's my boy! That's my boy!"
The obits spoke of the 1930s and 1940s as a "golden age" of journalism when great events made for great reporters, but this doesn't get at Eric Sevareid's contribution to the business. To be sure, he was also an adventurer, a swashbuckler, a film writer's dream of the foreign correspondent, running just one step ahead of the Nazis as France fell to the Wehrmacht, bailing out somewhere over the Burma Road into a jungle peopled with headhunters.
What mattered, though, was his example. He showed it was possible in the news business to be decent and still be successful. All the rest was bonus: the evidence that you could also care about history, lace your work with irony, write graceful English, let the public know you had a little more intelligence than the Yahoos, admit that you were often as baffled and inadequate as anybody else, and even tell the reader what you thought it all meant without becoming a political hack.
That Eric could get away with all this was subversively stimulating to a generation raised on movie images of the reporter as shrewd, crude and ruthless. That he could get away with it in television, regarded by print reporters as the home office of imbecility, was even more encouraging.
If enough serious reporters were willing to stand up for quality, quality could still prevail in a business that too often seemed, well -- fun perhaps for youngsters, but an unworthy way for a grown-up to spend a life.
He had shown us it was possible to do this work well, yet still be decent to people we wrote about and people who read or watched us. Watching the ridiculously vast herd of journalists idling over this week's non-story in New York while the rest of the world is forgotten, I suspect Eric Sevareid's example is losing its power to help us rise above our ancient lust for the tawdry.
Still, he would have been there too, scowling about the waste of talent, worried about the future of press and politics, showing us that elegance is still possible.
Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.