A columnist's great ride through Washington

After 31 years in which approximately 1,500 weekly columns have been pecked out on my old Royal typewriter, I'm not exactly hanging it up - but I'm slowing down to one a month. This will permit more time in Florida for watching spring-training baseball games - and, best of all, more time for enjoying life with my wife, Betty.

It's a moment to reflect on the column.

My column always drew a lot of comment from readers whenever my subject was controversial. I'd like to think my fans outnumbered my critics. But when I became a sharp critic of Richard Nixon during Watergate and of Bill Clinton during Monicagate, the torrent of letters from readers came mostly from those who felt, strongly, that I was being too tough on their beloved president.

During such moments, journalist colleagues of mine would remind me that readers are much quicker to write letters about something they don't like than something they like. I hope this is true.

In writing I have always been guided by one rule: Try to be fair. For years, I had these words pasted just above the "Royal" on my typewriter. I've always thought that a political columnist must make it clear what he thinks and where he stands while trying to be fair to all sides. That was the objective. Many times, I'm sure, I failed to hit the mark.

I'm registered as an "independent" voter. I think that all political columnists should identify themselves as independent observers. How else can they possibly keep partisanship out of their views?

Most of the national columnists today are predictably partisan. But I must confess that readers and TV watchers seem to enjoying reading or hearing what they already believe. It's a puzzlement.

Sure, I have a strong point of view that comes through plainly in my columns. I like honesty in government and, particularly, in the president. And I think a president should set a good example for our youth. I simply don't like a president to do something that degrades the presidency.

Such feelings prompted my strong criticism of Nixon, who would have faced impeachment had he not stepped down from the presidency for covering up a criminal break-in. And I didn't hide my dismay over Mr. Clinton's personal behavior that certainly didn't ennoble his presidency and led to his impeachment.

But you will find many columns of mine that spoke highly of Nixon's work as president, particularly his opening the door to mainland China and his policy of d├ętente with the Soviets. And any review of my columns will show how favorably I wrote about Clinton and his administration - until he let his personal recklessness divert him for months from giving full attention to getting things done.

But - most of all - writing this column has been a lot of fun. It's been great, week after week, to be able to have my say publicly on the leading national figures and the important issues of the day. For this I thank the Monitor.

It was Monitor editor Earl Foell and the opinion-page editor at the time, Joseph C. Harsch, who originally suggested that I write a column. At that moment, I was pretty well occupied with my bureau-chief tasks, my political-writing assignment, and the Monitor breakfasts with Washington newsmakers. So I said, "Yes," and then added: "But how am I ever going to keep it going week after week?"

I'd like to say something about the politicians I've been writing about. I'm quite aware of the polls that show the public's distrust of those who run for office - particularly those who make up our House and Senate. Well, I've gotten to know thousands of these people over the years - along the campaign trail and at the many Monitor breakfasts. And while I've found a few bad apples among them - and some who simply weren't up to their jobs - I've long concluded that most politicians are really more interested in doing something to better society than in just being somebody.

Oh, yes, I'll still be talking to you folks through my column - but a little less often - the first Tuesday of each month. It's been a great ride!

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