Vermont Royster, a journalist for all seasons

The Essential Royster, by Vermont Royster. Selected by Edmund Fuller. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 345 pp. $18.95. In a perceptive piece written in defense of the Equal Rights Amendment, Vermont Royster notes that ``ours is a country whose greatness lies in stating philosophical principles, as aspirations if not always as achievements.''

Since the specialists in human behavior in our time, the so-called behavioral scientists, tell us not what we need to hear but what, redundantly, `` `everybody' is actually doing,'' it falls to the lot of a Vermont Royster -- who is, after all, only a journalist -- to do the work of the moral philosopher.

And do it he has, for at least as long as he has been writing his weekly columns for the Wall Street Journal. In those columns he has commented on the big and little events of our times: on presidents and premiers, on the vicissitudes of the fourth estate, on generals and lawyers, on the war between the sexes, and on a marriage of rare happiness, his own.

What unifies a collection such as this? (There is an earlier collection like it, ``A Pride of Prejudices,'' again from Algonquin Books.) What unifies these short pieces is what makes the man what he is: his philosophical principles. That, and the fact that he is completely alive, and alive to what he calls, in the title of his fine autobiography, ``My Own, My Country's Time.''

As he says there, and in a short piece here as well, Vermont Royster was lucky to take four years off from newspapering to serve his country and the Navy. He writes perceptively of men at war, and of the place and value of the military point of view. Generals -- and presidents -- have to capitalize on the situations handed them. If they do so successfully, people may call it luck. That this talent, proven in war, has value in peacetime, Eisenhower's example shows.

Fortune and opportunity: Royster's wisdom boils down to these principles of understanding. They are ancient -- cornerstones of the Western tradition. In his luminous commentary on Plato, Eric Voegelin writes, ``while God is all and while, under God, tyche [fortune] and kairos [right occasion or opportunity] govern our lives, there is still an important role left for human skill if it knows how to cooperate with kairos,'' with opportunity.

Like the ancient philosophers and poets, Royster praises men endowed with such skill. Of Ronald Reagan, he writes: ``That Mr. Reagan survived [the assassin's bullet] is due both to his own efforts to keep his body in good shape and to sheer luck that the bullet didn't hit three inches closer to his heart. In many ways that's the story of his life, a combination of foresight and fortune.'' Because Reagan has known how to ``cooperate with kairos,'' he has been considered ``lucky'' by pundits and politicians.

If sublunar affairs are governed by fortune and opportunity, it requires foresight to be successful on and off the battlefield. Royster attributes Eisenhower's quiet success as President (he left Kennedy far fewer problems than most presidents leave their successors) to his ability to create situations in which he would later be perceived to have been lucky.

Since this ability to cooperate with kairos is a principle, it has its opposite. Royster calls it ``wishful thinking.'' It led to Pearl Harbor, according to Royster.

Royster's classical principles are unfashionable today. It is not the best of times. Royster writes powerfully of sin and evil, of ``man's inhumanity and madness.'' Reading these pieces -- and this would be reason enough to read them -- one is reminded of our apparent inability to avoid tragedy. Of Nixon's memoirs, Royster writes that ``the more you brood upon it the more it begins to echo ancient myths. . . .''

And the classical understanding of death as a limit underlies Royster's reflections. He writes movingly of the moment when the luck of the Irish almost ran out. John W. Hinckley Jr. very nearly assassinated the President.

Reagan had one-liners ready, though, for his wife (``I forgot to duck'') and for the hospital staff (``I hope you are all Republicans!''). Royster comments, ``These are the words of a man a little frightened by what he faces but determined to face it with grace, a man who has come to terms with death as well as life, which is the measure of true courage. Such a man is not easily bent with every wind.''

Royster's beat was the great world, but the private moments are here, too.

For the last columns in the book, he had to ask his wife to take dictation. But when holiday came round, she asked for time off: family duties -- the children are coming! -- outweigh the reassuring ritual of the deadline. The column in which Royster takes (temporary) leave of his readers is full of an old man's admiration for his still able-bodied and independent wife.

Not easily bent with every wind: Because of his habitual application of sound philosophical principles, the same could be said of Vermont Royster. The eddying currents of events in his time have not confounded him. In an age adrift in pointless exercises in ``political science'' and behaviorism, ``The Essential Royster'' is indeed essential reading.

Tom D'Evelyn edits the book pages of the Monitor.

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