BEING the editor of the Perspective section of The Sun was the best job I ever had on the paper. Why? Maybe because during the three years I put out the section, I learned something about the truly venerable newspaper I devoted 32 years of my life to, and something about myself.
When I returned in 1975 after three years as The Sun's correspondent in Brazil, I wanted to go back to my job on The Evening Sun's editorial page. The managing editor of The Sun, Paul Banker, wanted me in the Washington bureau. I was adamant. So was Banker. I was sentenced to night re-write.
After several months in that purdah, Banker came to me and asked if I'd like to edit Perspective. Davison White, who had been at it for some time, was tired and probably averse to Banker's big idea for a special, seven-page section about our country's birth. It was 1976, the bicentennial year.
Animated by the joy of my release, I walked from the city desk to the corner of the newsroom occupied over the previous decade by my three predecessor editors of Perspective. I tried out the chair, sank into it, put my feet up on the desk. I had a career again.
Then came the panic: How in the world was I going to fill seven pages with interesting stories, and do it all in about a month or so?
Of course, there was that splendid corps of reporters in the Washington bureau, a competent local staff, foreign correspondents to call upon. But they were reporters, giving to effacing themselves in favor of their sources. They were capable of analyses, but the bicentennial was hardly breaking news.
It was after my second gin down at the Calvert House, I think, when the way ahead flashed in my mind: essays. I would solicit essays by people accustomed to that particular form, maybe famous people.
Why would famous people write for The Sun? We paid only $125. I would be embarrassed to ask.
Timidity is something newspaper people are better off without. I went back to my desk and drew up a brief list of distinguished authors, intellectuals and others in public life, and started making phone calls.
I called Henry Steele Commager, at Princeton, I think it was. I asked if he could write an essay on how the nation began. He said he could; then he said he would. He never asked about the remuneration. When, in a small voice, I told him how much it was, he just murmured, but accepted. The essay arrived about a week later.
Next on the list was a journalist I've always admired: Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review of Literature. The theme: what kind of country we've become. The essay was soon on my desk.
I understood that I was star-tripping, signing up people to write for the paper on the basis of their reputations. It was a strategy that, admittedly, I wasn't entirely comfortable with. Not until I saw the high quality of the essays that were coming in. I was also pleasantly surprised that such people would be so willing to write for our newspaper, and how their comments revealed they saw in us a quality not evident in most other "provincial" papers, heard about our foreign correspondents, knew of H.L. Mencken, William Manchester and others whose bylines had graced our pages through the years.
There was one candidate I thought at first was being reluctant: I found Margaret Mead's phone number in the Manhattan directory and dialed it. A small voice came on the line. "Can I speak to Margaret Mead?" I said.
I then explained who I was, and my purpose.
"Just a moment," came the voice, "I'll see if she's in." A long minute passed. Then the same voice returned to say, "Hello, this is Margaret Mead."
Everybody got $125. Only Isaac Asimov dickered. I went to Banker. Asimov got $500.
For the three years I edited Perspective, we tried to present each week analyses and essays on events at the top of the news, on the edge of the news, behind the news, and articles fished out of the territory I would call "interestingly irrelevant."
I learned from observing the people on the bus I took to work every day that our section appealed not at all exclusively to academics, politicians and others within the more elevated levels of society. Working people read it; they wrote letters. Our audience, it seems, was universal.
Most importantly, I learned that editors should never depend on others to provide ideas, though always be open to suggestions. Passive editors leave no mark on the paper or section they are responsible for. No evidence that they were ever there.
Richard O'Mara, who started his career at The Sun writing editorials, left his mark on the paper as a foreign correspondent and foreign editor in addition to his stint on Perspective before his retirement in 1999.
The first Perspective section - featuring a grim assessment of the Vietnam War by Bill Moyers - appeared 37 years ago on April 28, 1968. Sun editors felt the need to add dimension and fresh voices to help explain an increasingly complex world. In more than 1,800 editions of Perspective since then, they tapped the skill and wisdom of an army of Sun writers and a Who's Who of American letters to help take the measure of a kaleidoscope of changes. That distinguished run ends today.
Next Sunday, the torch will be passed to a new section with a new name - Ideas. There will be more space to explore trends that will be reshaping our world and to assess the people who are changing our lives. Books, technology, media, economics, the arts, academia and politics will all be fair game.
It's an ambitious agenda - one we hope to fulfill for both loyal Perspective readers and newcomers to the section in coming years.
- Larry Williams