When I was just starting this column in December 1971, I remember saying to one of my Monitor colleagues: "How in the world am I going to keep this going, week after week?" That concern never really leaves you. "What to write about? What to write about?" That question is always nagging at you. But - somehow - you get the job done. And the 25 years have flown by!
My first columns came out of my coverage of the early stages of the 1972 presidential campaign. I was slogging through the deep snows of New Hampshire, witnessing Ed Muskie's sudden decline and George McGovern's equally sudden rise. I was keeping an eye on the GOP candidate, Richard Nixon, too. But, as a sitting president seeking his second term, Nixon had the nomination pretty much wrapped up from the start.
Around that time one of the Monitor's greats, Saville R. Davis, gave me some excellent advice about writing columns. He said that it was good to try to make the column timely but that there was an advantage, at times, in waiting until every other columnist or observer had his say - and then write. I can still hear that wise and warm-hearted man saying to me: "At that point you can draw the long bow." By this he said he meant that I could then step back and view the subject from a perspective that might well have been missed by those who had rushed into print.
So that's my excuse for waiting for so long to take a look back at 1996. I had found my long bow lying over in the corner, behind some books, and this seemed a good opportunity to use it.
Although the ups and downs of the president and the Speaker may have been the events that drew the most public attention last year, it seems to me that the most important happening of 1996 is something that wasn't happening: Although no one seemed to notice, we experienced another year without the threat of extinction through nuclear war constantly staring us in the face.
OH, yes, the missiles are still out there in what was the Soviet Union where some villain might use them against us. But no Russian expert that I've read has predicted the return of the tension-filled East-West struggle that we lived with for so many years.
And, yes, too, there are trouble spots all around the world - Bosnia, the Middle East, Africa, and more. And then there's growing terrorism.
So I'm making it clear from the outset: I'm not presenting a Pollyannaish view. Our global problems haven't ceased with the end of the cold war. Far from it.
But it seems to me that some 50 years from now - when historians are writing about the "immediate post-cold-war period" - 1996 will be included in their evaluation of the aftermath of the sudden meltdown in the long East-West freeze.
So let's not forget that we are living without that constant fear in our hearts. Yes, it's been going on for a few years now. But - as I see it - 1996 was another year when we were experiencing a glorious peace that hardly anyone thought possible just a breath of time ago.
So - using my long bow - I conclude that the biggest event of last year, as well as the last few preceding years, is that peace has broken out. Americans seem to have already forgotten that long, dark, frightening period. At least they never mention it. But their outlooks have changed. And their lives are filled with more hope.
That, to me, was the biggest happening of 1996 and, for that matter, probably for some years to come.