A Kind of Farewell

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

January 04, 1993|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

Charleston, South Carolina. -- Get to it, man! Say it! This is my last column under the rubric of ''A Conservative View.'' After 28 years, I'm giving up my seat in the press box. Time to go -- but I'm not going far.

This was how it began. In the summer of 1964, Newsday decided to form its own syndicate of newspaper writers. The Long Island tabloid had 10 liberal pundits lined up and needed one conservative for balance. By that time I had acquired a modest reputation as a fire-eating Southern editor. They signed me on for a one-year contract.

We agreed on a title. My three columns a week would be called ''A Conservative View.'' I wouldn't pretend to proclaim THE conservative view. Each piece would run to 750 words. I would write the columns, Newsday would sell them, we would split 50-50. The first column appeared in August 1964. Perhaps prophetically, it was on the Supreme Court.

That was the beginning of a long, long ride on the world's carousel. The old Washington Star brought me to Washington, gave me a desk and provided a press pass. When the Star's syndicate folded in 1979, I moved the column to Universal Press Syndicate. At every point along the way, a wonderful guy held my hand. This was Harry Elmlark, God rest him. No syndicate ever had a better salesman, and no columnist ever had a dearer friend.

Washington is where the action is. Before long I was caught in a swirl of congressional hearings, presidential press conferences, the whole gaudy business of politics at the national level. Lyndon Johnson was president. He remains the most unforgettable man I ever met in public life.

So many happy moments! I remember interviewing Portugal's Premier Salazar as he puttered around his garden. The infamous dictator wanted to talk about roses. At 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Heath wanted to talk about sailing. In Tokyo, Prime Minister Nakasone didn't want to talk about anything.

One morning in May I sat for an hour in the Oval Office, as Richard Nixon delivered a soliloquy on the presidency he would abdicate three months later. I liked Nixon -- still do -- and remember him in silhouette against the White House windows, a stoic and a tragic figure.

One day in March another president asked me to the White House for a more pleasant experience: Ronald Reagan wanted to take me to an Irish pub for St. Patrick's Day lunch.

I forget the bad apples in Congress. Let them go. The good ones made great copy. I developed an abiding affection for Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, he of the Brillo hair and the gravel voice. Hubert Humphrey was a liberal Democrat, I a conservative Republican, but I loved the fellow. Humphrey really, truly believed in Big Government. I loved Barry Goldwater too. He really, truly believed in a limited government with limited powers.

What would I glean from a harvest of memories? I believe our republic is in trouble -- trouble of a different sort than we have faced before. I worry most about the erosion of old moral values, about the tendency of sex to drive away love.

I worry about racial tensions, and I worry that all the posturing gestures of ''diversity'' and ''multiculturalism'' and ''affirmative action'' are making bad matters worse. Our country ideally should be color-blind. We have become color obsessed.

I worry about education. Sure, there are many excellent public schools, but test scores accurately reflect a bland mediocrity in the classroom. This won't do. Without a well-educated work force, America cannot keep up.

I worry about many things. Without worries no pundit could survive. I worry about recurring deficits, health insurance, the declining influence of religion.

I worry about business leaders who lie and cheat. I worry about politicians who are out for the quick fix and the fast buck.

But one thing I know for certain: This republic will survive. Under the surface tarnish, good silver shines below. Old ideals are not dead. They're only neglected.

I said this column would mark a farewell, but not exactly. The Supreme Court has been the love of my newspaper life since I first visited the court in 1941. I will be writing once a week about the court and about interesting cases generally. I will continue to whoop it up for the English language.

All I'm giving up, really, is ''A Conservative View.'' At 72, I want to sit on a bench in Battery Park and watch the boats go by.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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