Yoder: Treasuring the voice of a graceful, moderate thinker

September 12, 2004|By Theo Lippman | Theo Lippman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Telling Others What To Think: Recollections of a Pundit, by Edwin M. Yoder Jr. Louisiana State University Press, 267 pages, $34.95.

In 1958, 24-year-old Edwin Yoder took his "first full time editorial writing job" on the Charlotte News. Previously he was editor of the Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina and did some freelancing while a Rhodes scholar.

For 23 years, he was a daily pundit for the News, for the Greensboro Daily News, for the Washington Star, where he was editor of the editorial page from 1975 to 1981, when the Star folded. He then became a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group for 15 years.

In recollecting his career, he is guilty of Washington journalists' penchant for name dropping. With a significant difference: He doesn't drop the names of power elites nearly as often as those of the philosophers, historians, novelists, professors and colleagues from whom he learned his trade. (But his friend Justice Lewis Powell gets a chapter.) In his brief preface alone, Yoder drops J.D. Salinger, Henry Adams, Henry James, W.S. Matthews, John A. Rice, Faulkner, Proust, Yeats.

This is a full life, zero to 70, but the best anecdotes are about his newspapering. Early in his time in Charlotte, he won a statewide editorial competition for a piece applauding the demise of Virginia's "massive resistance" to desegregation. He appears to treasure it more than the Pulitzer he would win in Washington.

In Charlotte, he also resisted his boss, who wanted to kill an editorial sympathetic to civil rights protesters. The boss yielded.

When his hometown Greensboro paper offered him a job, he accepted enthusiastically: "My notions about editorial writing had been shaped by its graceful, moderate and literate commentary." He wasn't moderate to some. A local John Birch Society officer labeled him in a speech "the principal apologist" for Communist sympathizers. Yoder rose in the audience and called him a liar.

Greensboro gave him "fifteen happy years." Washington's weather was mixed. Accustomed to being trusted, he found himself with a "hovering" boss at the Star, and he felt his Post-syndicated columns didn't get in the Post itself often enough.

Late in the book he writes, surprisingly, "In a sense I had always been something of a misfit in daily journalism," explaining his 1996 decision to become a professor of journalism and the humanities at Washington and Lee.

I wonder if he truly means "always." I suspect that the reason Yoder came to feel a misfit is that in recent years "journalism [became] permeated with entertainment values and by attitudes which the French call bien pensant, right thinking." His brand of commentary, shown in an appendix of old columns, is the opposite of the polemics of radio and television talkers whose stock in trade he deftly defines as "a strident voice and instant opinions."

Yoder really isn't "telling others what to think." He's telling others what he thinks, and implicitly to think. He certainly isn't trawling for ditto heads. His continuing occasional freelance is for all who read him, agree or disagree, and it is still graceful, moderate and literate.

Theo Lippman Jr. wrote editorials for The Sun for 30 years and a column for 20 of those.

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