The 'Bigfoot' newspaper columnist: An endangered species
America is celebrating National Columnist's Day — OK, a few people noticed — but it is motivation for this scribe to recall a journalistic species in danger of extinction, and how it is clinging to life.
The nation's most influential newspaper columnists used to be called "Bigfeet" by their media colleagues. With status went prerogatives, as in scenes I witnessed in the New Hampshire presidential primary.
Locals and press would squeeze into a small meeting room. All of a sudden, a path to the front of the room would open up. A seat would come vacant, and be occupied by Washington Post scribe Mary McGrory, or "Queen Mary" as dubbed by her biographer.
McGrory was regal. Dozens of colleagues would be enlisted to carry her luggage over the years. At her parties, even top officials like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were enlisted to help in the kitchen.
But, even while pushing 80, McGrory was still pushing herself. She was out on the trail, delighting at interviewing young activists — portraying them as the nation's hope — and comparing the chili recipes of various New Hampshire firehouses.
She was one of the few women, and illustrated a point. The best of the Bigfeet worked. The Post's David Broder had sources, both Republican and Democrat, in far-off Idaho. Mark Shields of PBS would get irritated that people wanted his opinions when he was trying to get theirs.
The Bigfoot culture was still alive when I served in the late 1980s as Seattle Post-Intelligencer Washington, D.C., correspondent.
Bigfeet played favorites. Columnist George F. Will would lunch frequently with Nancy Reagan. After the two were spotted, readership in Will's column went up for clues of who was on Mrs. Gipper's hit list. Conservative columnist Robert Novak relentlessly boosted risking Republican Jack Kemp and supply side economics. Back in Seattle, Weekly editor David Brewster promoted Paul Schell for whatever high office opened up.
Curious connections grew up. Baltimore Sun scribe Jack Germond spent leisure days playing the ponies. He was enlisted to take Bill Clinton's fun-lovin' mother to the track. Muckraker Drew Pearson had a horse ranch near that of Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse. They would, the joke went, meet at the fence post and trade both news tips and sperm.
They enjoyed prerogatives. A delicious Washington Post profile detailed how, when invited to a party, George Will would have an aide call the host. Were other journalist to be in attendance. If so, "Mr. Will" would be a no-show.
The newcomer, when I was back there, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. She has had her ups and downs, a memorably awful marijuana experience, psychobabble columns on Obama and the Clintons, but spot-on takes about Donald Trump. The best Mo Dowd column of the year comes at Thanksgiving, when she lets her conservative brother vent for the season.
The Bigfoot era is largely behind us, although Dowd and a few others hang on.
The internet has staggered America's newspapers, and the American establishment. It has also given voice to the masses. The privileged position of a syndicated scribe has lost much of its value. Teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was discovered online, not through a powerful print patron.
The old style Bigfeet shared a skin color. Almost all were white. Most had Ivy League backgrounds and were comfortable in what one called "the corridors of power." And weren't comfortable many other places.
No more. The lineup of columnists at the New York Times looks like America. It contains, in Frank Bruni, an outspoken champion of gay rights. Columnist — and Oregon native —Nicholas Kristof has traded the corridors of power for reporting on the killing fields of Sudan. The staff has grown uppity, with its recent rebellion against running a send-in-the-troops, crush dissent column by Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton.
Can columnists survive in an era when everyone can deliver an opinion? Four keys:
— Develop new material and don't spend all your time bloviating on cable TV. The screen is full of predictable voices, whether right wingers on Fox News or overexposed liberals on MSNBC. The accurate impression is that these folks talk to each other. The Seattle Times has far more interesting columnists , because they're not just delivering the party line but working.
— Be contrarian, not predictable. The great NYT columnist William Safire exposed misdeeds on both sides of the fence. The vulgar excesses of Donald Trump have caused George F. Will to quit the Republican Party and call for the defeat of GOP senators who refuse to stand in the way of bad policy and a titanic ego.
— Hit the road. A famous cartoon map depicted "the New Yorker's view of America," with a bulging East Coast corridor, tiny Western states and Oregon on top of Washington. The self-absorption of the East Coast is oft-putting, especially when prosperity and innovation are being driven from the other end of the country.
— Get outraged. The scene is nearly 50 years old, but lives in my mind. The Legislature was considering a bill to aid crime victims. I drove to Olympia with a lady named Pat Hemenway, shot by a burglar when she was walking in the Arboretum, and paralyzed from the neck down. She began talking in a soft voice, gently prodded by State Sen. Martin Durkan (Jenny's father).
Hard to hear her, since Sen. Perry Woodall, R-Toppenish, was reading and noisily shuffling his morning newspaper.
Newspaperman Dick Larsen of the Seattle Times wrote a column of fury, linking Woodall's boorishness with society's neglect of crime victims. Larsen was excoriated by old bulls in the Washington Legislature, who circled like protective muskoxen around Woodall.
They promptly passed the crime victims compensation act.