You would be surprised at the people who read the editorial pages of newspapers. I used to be. Once I saw a bus driver reading the editorial page of my newspaper, and it made me nervous. He was glancing at it at the stops, and I was afraid he might fall asleep and run the bus into a curb or worse.
When I first became a staffer on the editorial page, I assumed I would be writing for the intelligentsia. Such oligarchic notions are not uncommon for people in that end of the newspaper business. Back then I must have thought my time was not well spent writing for bus drivers. I was wrong of course. Bus drivers have the same appetite for ideas and opinions as college professors.
Time taught me that. Six years of writing editorials also taught me the deep and qualitative difference between opinions and ideas. Of opinions there are countless number; of good, solid ideas there are fewer than there are people dealing in them, which makes them a hard currency indeed.
Most new books have little new in them. This is especially true for books written by university professors who have to write them or get fired. Usually they contain old ideas borrowed from their colleagues and badly disguised in new jargon. But, then, the colleagues borrowed them themselves from other colleagues earlier on the scene. This is how the lore of humanity is passed on, preserved. A graduate student I knew once referred quite deprecatingly to his thesis research as “archeology.”
“I’m just moving bones from one graveyard to another,” he said.
(Many journalists despise the writings of academics for being obvious and unoriginal. Academics disdain journalism because it is current and shallow. Academics use the word “journalism” to express their distaste when they review books that err on the side of clarity. Journalists use the word “academic” to connote irrelevance. Relevance, of course, is a condition that depends on what is widely, though not universally, regarded as important in the affairs of men. No one ever agrees on that.)
Academics and journalists, especially editorial writers, are people of the word. Their disputes often have the jealous heat of brotherly passion. Both are required to produce, for the consumption of various publics, ideas of some merit, original or otherwise, at regular intervals. The demands are greater on the editorial writers: their intervals are daily. That is why the editorial page of your local newspaper is one of the best places to look for ideas—and opinion if you’re interested in that as well.
This is no joke, even if you live in Cleveland. Though let me hasten to say that the best ideas, the most incandescent opinions, are not always found in the columns on the left hand side of the page, nor even on the opposite editorial pages that have become so popular over the past decade, though these pages are certainly a bountiful source, if only because the talent pool that supplies them is so vast. The Op Ed page was journalism’s gift to academe. It opened a back door on the ivory tower and presented experts in the most recondite academic disciplines with a broader and appreciative audience.
No, the best source for original ideas and spontaneous, frequently cranky, sometimes illuminating opinions, are the columns that contain the letters to the editor. Vox populi harbors the truth, which is one of the oldest ideas in the West.
Not too many years ago in Baltimore there dwelled one of the most prolific of letter writers. He lived in Dundalk, a suburban neighborhood to the east of town with a smoky steel mill at its heart. Dundalk was, and remains, an object of distaste and ridicule among Baltimore’s upper middle class and professional cadres. These differentiate and separate themselves within the community from the denizens of Dundalk, a place they view as a kind of anti-Brigadoon, where people speak with odd accents, display the Stars and Bars across the grills of their pickup trucks, organize drum and bugle corps, and generally live their lives with a style perfectly designed to offend the sensibilities of their betters in the Elysian neighborhoods of Roland Park, Guilford, and Homeland. Dundalk is grit.
This writer’s name was Henry Nordin. I first met him in 1969. I had been hired onto The Sunpapers as an editorial writer, and after about two years on the job it occurred to me that no one’s name had appeared on our page with such frequency as Henry Nordin’s. He was the most regular among the regulars in The Forum, our letters columns. I called him and invited him to drop into the office whenever he happened to be in the neighborhood. He was there early the next morning.
Henry was of average height. He had a hoarse voice, irregularly spaced teeth, darting eyes, a pipe he couldn’t keep lit and more opinions on more diverse subjects than most people I’ve known. With all that, Henry avoided seeming opinionated, or overbearing as that word suggests, and that I thought quite a trick. Among his favored subjects for comment were politicians, racism, health care, nature, sports, inflation. Henry thought the essential problem in the United States was that socialism had not crept far enough along. He defined himself as a rational man, a humane one, and an American. He hated patriotism of the drum-roll variety, which made him an odd character in Dundalk, where the American Legion was always staging parades and firing off volleys.
Henry had a great head. He had suffered from hydrocephalus, water on the brain, as a child. It was not an offensive deformity, more of an exaggeration of his physical being. It gave him a formidable look, and it probably enhanced his esteem among his fellow steel workers.(Big head, big brain, may have been part of Dundalkian folklore; it certainly was in the Philadelphia neighborhood I grew up in, a place not dissimilar to Dundalk.) Owing to his success in getting his letters printed in the newspaper, Henry enjoyed the reputation among his neighbors in Dundalk as an intellectual. And because he was one of their own, they allowed him to harbor, and express, his radical thoughts. One such: “We have been conditioned since 1919, since after the Russian Revolution, that the Communists are coming to get us tomorrow. The newspapers are partially to blame for this. We have gotten to the point where we cannot discuss communism rationally.”
This is Henry Nordin anticipating President Jimmy Carter’s “inordinate fear of communism speech” by a decade, and speaking thusly, from the bastion of Dundalk, turning the great 20th-century conspiracy theory on its head.
Henry was diffident during the early part of our meeting. He had never been interviewed before, let alone summoned into the precincts of the august Baltimore Sun. Governors and presidential candidates came there to pay obeisance—if only around election time in search of endorsements for their candidacies. Maybe Henry thought I was going to offer him a job.
That was not within my power. But it would have made Henry the happiest of men—-at least at first, though not in the long run, I suspect. Henry was one of those people imperfectly adjusted to his environment and drew some benefit from that.(In the metaphor of evolution, as in the reality of it, it is the unadjusted that make the leap to a higher plane.) Henry was too much interested in ideas to fit comfortably among the brusque and tactile steel workers, the truckdrivers and stevedores of Dundalk’s mills and docks. But he drew admiration from them for his intellectual capacities (though certainly it was an admiration tinged with suspicion) and the things he knew about public affairs. Henry read all the papers and understood the issues of the day better than any of his neighbors and, I would add, many of mine. Though they may have excluded him, and I do not know that they did, they respected him.
Henry was also admired by many in that other world, among the men of affairs in the city who read his letters. I had read them for two years and was moved enough by them to call him in. I admired the terse and precise structure of his sentences. They were as hard and clear as diamonds. Henry had a good ear for writing, something I’ve always thought important. Perhaps I was expecting to meet Baltimore’s answer to Eric Hoffer, the working man/intellectual, the Marxian ideal.
I was not disappointed, though not fulfilled either. Henry might have been more a rhinestone than a diamond in the rough. He was a reader and largely self-educated. He missed a lot, and he knew a lot. What he learned never puffed him up like a sophomore.
If Henry was not arrogant, there was no abject humility in him either. Dundalk of the painted screens and the white marble steps of East Baltimore meant something to him: If he didn’t fit in perfectly, he knew he was more comfortable there than he would have been anywhere else. And whether they liked it or not, Henry insisted on being his neighbors’ spokesman. Perhaps he would not have been so remarkable in our estimation had he not been a steelworker.(Actually, I found out during our interview that he was a clerk at the mill, not a worker at the hearth as our fancies dictated. But he was a member in good standing in the steelworkers union. He appreciated the essential beauty of the syndicalist ideal just as much as he realized that hard, grinding manual labor was not in itself uplifting, or purifying in any way, only tiring.)
Even so, perhaps none of us, we who received his letters, would have been so impressed had he not seemed to us such an anomaly, so much the blue-collar litterateur. Perhaps it was our own snobbery, our tendency to underestimate the intellectual proclivities of working people, that made Henry so prominent in our imaginations. Whatever, Henry knew his people. “Very few working people I’ve known go to college for a degree in the humanities,” he told me. “People who work with their hands have a very practical view of knowledge.” They have to see the tangible benefits of education before they will invest in it. “They become engineers. They go into technical fields.” This was Henry being descriptive, not critical. He encouraged his own son toward the humanities.
Where possible, his opinions would pivot on his own experience. But he knew that knowledge of life is gained for the most part secondhand, through books, instruction, what is known as education even of the informal sort, such as one worker’s telling another not to get too close to the furnace. Henry never carried his analogies too far, never confused a “for instance” for evidence.
With all writers, Henry had his problems. While some of us search for years to perfect our instrument, Henry had found his early. His metier was letter writing. But to his frustration he could never break out of it. And, of course, he could never find anyone who would pay him for doing it, so in the strictest sense Henry remained an amateur his entire life. He told me that in 1967 he had taken a 13-week “sabbatical” from the steel plant (sabbatical is the word he used.) and set out to write a book, or a long article. “Instead I wrote 80 letters to the editor.” He said this with a mixture of acceptance and pride. He was wise enough to know that there are worse things than to be able to do one thing extremely well. Between 1931 and the year he died, 1981, he had published more than 400 letters in The Sunpapers.
By the time I had gotten to Henry Nordin he was resigned to his task of enlightening the general public through his letters; his ambition had expanded only geographically. He wrote mostly for The Sunpapers, morning and evening, for these were his home-town papers. But he had had his letters printed farther afield, in the Richmond and Washington newspapers and, he told me, in Philadelphia.
To some, writing a letter to the editor is like going on a toot. There is a class of people for whom seeing one’s name and opinion in the public print is regarded as vulgar. Baltimore has always had a salient patrician class. Today they are mercifully few, and I suspect they are drying up and dying out in the tony new atmosphere of the place.
But to most people who think about public affairs at all, the letters columns in the daily newspapers serve a useful purpose. They provide the average newspaper reader the opportunity to rebut this or that particular idiotic policy or statement issued by this or that public official, or similar commentary offered by the newspaper itself. The letters help ventilate issues of public concern, and that is self-evidently useful. Also important, though perhaps not so self-evident, the letters can assure that the public record will be inscribed accurately.
Let me explain. A friend of mine who had spent most of her working life in institutional public relations once apprised me of the importance of the letter to the editor. “If I see a mistake in an editorial or in a news story about something I am professionally concerned about, I always write a letter pointing out the error.” The purpose, she explained, was not to hold the writer or reporter up to ridicule but to get the truth on the record.
“You see, the letter goes into the file along with the story. In the future, when reporters are writing in the same area and they call for the clips on the subject, they will see both points of view and, it is hoped, be moved to check and determine which one is correct.”
What she was saying, in effect, was that every mistake that appears in the newspaper that is not contradicted by a letter is perpetuated in the newspaper’s files and can be repeated over and over. That is the reason why today, when people call up to complain or argue about a point in one of the stories I am responsible for, I always urge them to write a letter to the editor about it. Many regard this as a brush off and hang up. Others cannot be restrained.
There are people who are compulsive writers of letters to the editor. This aberration is not exclusive to amateurs. I’ve known editorial writers with the same need to write about everything and anything. I’ve worked with them. One day many years ago I arrived at the paper at the very early hour we normally began our work. I found my colleagues standing around outside the entrance to our suite of small offices. The door was jammed, and time was rushing on.(In those days we always wrote our editorials for the same day’s paper.) In desperation we went to another suite of offices, climbed out the window and over the roof into our own windows. That day a short piece appeared in The Evening Sun explaining how we had all risked our necks to “get out the views.”
If some editorial writers have an exaggerated idea of the public’s need for their opinions, people, both inside and outside of the trade, tend to overestimate the influence and authority of newspaper editorials. This is a personal opinion, I hope an honest one; at least it is derived from experience. Though I have seen voters entering the booths on election day with the editorial page of my newspaper in their hands, with all its recommendations, I early on disabused myself of the conceit that we can elect senators, governors, and presidents. It is more likely that the higher the visibility of any election, the weaker the impact an editorial will have on the voters.
Editorials count for something on the more complicated questions that find their way onto the ballots, questions of funding new sewer systems, bond issues for libraries, civic centers. These questions are often complicated; they require research and thought, unlike voting for president, an action usually driven by neither of these. Newspapers can also be effective in pointing out alternatives, identifying promising newcomers to the world of politics and affairs, candidates for minor offices.
Lightning, however, in the form of opportunity, occasionally strikes. In 1978, the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor of Maryland was being contested by two candidates who were drawing all of the attention: Acting Governor Blair Lee 3rd (the lieutenant governor who had taken over after Marvin Mandel was driven from office by scandal and corruption) and Theodore Venetoulis, the aggressive, young former executive of Baltimore county. A third candidate, a man named Harry Hughes, lagged so far behind that one of the political cognoscenti of our state had described him as a “lost ball in the high grass.” Near the end of the race the Sunpapers emitted a large “Ahem!” and endorsed Mr. Hughes as an alternative to the two front runners, who on election day were transformed into also-rans. Hughes then went on to beat the Republican candidate in the general election, as is usually the case in Maryland.
If there is no axiom in politics that says that before you can lead you have to determine the direction the people are already going, there ought to be. This was a rare opportunity, the confluence of specific, dynamic circumstances. It was a triumph of timing more than of argument. In fact, the endorsement editorial was published two weeks early. It was clear that the voters in Maryland were dissatisfied with the two more highly visible candidates, but Mr. Hughes, possibly owing to an inept campaign, had not pushed his own candidacy hard enough to penetrate the general awareness. The Sunpapers did that for him.
If this was a victory, it would have to be matched against defeats without number. I can speak of one such personally: my own editorial campaign against the Whiskey Law, that remnant of the illiberal reformist era in Maryland politics that decreed that all taverns and bars throughout the state were to be closed on election day.
Admittedly, there had been good reason for the law when it was passed in that unruly season of our state’s history. Back before the turn of the century elections were attended by lots of drinking, the buying of drinks and the buying of votes, and no small amount of violence.(One such inebriated voter left to die in a dirty corner of a Baltimore dive in 1848 was our premier poet, Edgar Allan Poe.) The reformers who swept into office put an end to all this in the most efficacious way possible: they closed the taverns.
Nearly a century later I decided, in my wisdom, that Baltimore had become a more refined and civilized place and such restraining legislation was no longer needed. Everybody I talked to agreed. For six years I poured scorn and sarcasm over that law and its defenders. I thundered and reasoned and appealed. When I left to do other things, the Whiskey Law was still in place, and I had shot off all my arguments. It has since been repealed, probably at the instigation of an alliance of brewery interests and tavern owners, people with real power.
Among our letter writers, as I have indicated, Henry Nordin was the brightest star. But he shared that limited galaxy with some lesser lights. I used to imagine there was a small cadre of men and women spread throughout Baltimore and its environs feverishly composing missives. I could see these earnest people in the eye of my mind, ink smudged despite their sleeve guards, frowning under green eye shades, poring over maps and public documents, formulating opinions trying to outdo in acuity and sharpness of insight us the institutional hacks.
They had a variety of approaches.
Some gave no quarter:
“Sir: You and the other mental midgets on your staff really got it wrong this time. You don’t seem to have the capacity to appreciate. . . .”
Others would instruct us with real or imagined lessons from historical personages:
“Sir: Lenin once said the way to undermine capitalist society is to fluoridate their water. . . .”
Lenin was always serviceable among our contributors.
During the campaign for Medicare we received more than one letter from agents of the American Medical Association reminding us that Lenin had said that the best way to undermine capitalist society was to socialize its medicine.
Others would get right to the point:
“Sir: You’re all communists. . . .”
They would roll in with the morning mail.
In those days it was my task to select the letters that would go in the paper each day from the letters we had in type. I always sought to establish a balance. If we had received ten letters opposed to the city comptroller’s proposal to, say, decorate the City Hall with plastic owls to frighten away the starlings, and five in favor, we would run one pro and two con. It was not so complicated. I tried to be as objective as possible, but will admit to one failing, a compromise imposed by our technical limitations and, no doubt, one of the secrets of Henry Nordin’s success. Short letters were treasured. The tendency among writers of letters to the editor is to write long. Henry had learned early on what all writers must learn, the need for discipline—in short, the shorter the better. He always made his point in two or three paragraphs, then signed off. And almost like magic, there was always a Henry Nordin letter just the right size for that hole in the page.
The most difficult task was filled by one of my colleagues, a gentleman named Dudley Digges, who later went on to become the distinguished editor of the editorial page of The Evening Sun. It was he who dealt with the raw material, the letters in their unprocessed state. He had to decipher the handwriting, edit the excess verbiage, winnow out the cranks, have the secretary check the identities of the candidates for publication. About a fourth of the letters that made it into type eventually got printed.
Mr. Digges appreciated the virtues of brevity as well as the rest of us and put most of Henry Nordin’s letters into type, though we had made a tacit rule to limit his appearance to one time a month. Unfortunately, it was a rule we constantly violated for the reason given above: there was always that hole in the page (back in the days before cold type and pagination, dummying up pages was more art than arithmetic, and imprecision the name of the game) and one of Henry’s letters would be the only one in the rack precisely the length we needed.
Still, some of the efforts Mr. Digges went to on behalf of the other would-be contributors were heroic. There was a man named Albert A. Bambino who wrote to us, it seemed, at least once a week. He was the most determined letter writer, more determined than Henry if only because his efforts were never crowned with success. It was not that Mr. Bambino had faulty opinions (we had more than enough of those on our page all the time). We simply could never determine what he was saying. “This man,” I once suggested to Mr. Digges, “is clearly a victim of the Palmer Method of handwriting. Having gone to a Catholic School I was exposed to it myself but fortunately had sense enough to foresee the damage it could do, so I managed to frustrate it.”
Mr. Bambino’s script was a scrawl. Each of his letters looked like the last message of a murdered man. The characters had no consistency. Sometimes the “a” would be balloon-like, as if it had been inflated with air; at other times it would look like a flat tire. We could not distinguish his vowels from each other. His consonants reminded me of stick figures, or glyphs on the inside of Indian tombs in South America. Was this the Arabic script? Maybe it was Cyrillic? Each letter he sent us was like a fragment from the Rosetta Stone.
There were evenings when I would be leaving my office, and I would see Mr. Digges laboring at his desk under the light of a snake-neck lamp with that peculiar look of weary perplexity I had come to associate with a particular ordeal. “Albert again?” I would say. He would look back with the beaten look of a captured soldier and simply nod. It was not long before it became our common mission to give Albert a voice.
I departed the editorial page for an overseas post before that task was fulfilled. Recently, to research this article, I called for the clips on the cryptic Mr. Bambino. I learned that my colleagues had succeeded, to a certain extent, in finally deciphering him. In all, there were eight letters in the file; they ranged over a period of five years.
Mr. Bambino’s opinions on various subjects, if inelegantly expressed, had the virtue of being straightforward. He hated welfare “freeloaders,” referred to one of President Carter’s policies as “baloney.” He defended the rights of senior citizens, described the conceivers of the MX missile basing plan as “lamebrains” and “meatheads.”
All the standard and expected vituperation, that. There was one letter, however, which opened a narrow glimpse on this man’s very nature. It indicated he was a rash plunger, a social critic who eschewed the removed comfort of the ivory tower for the heat and dust of actual experience. It was received in November 1979:
“Sir: Since the weekly lottery started I have bought tickets—not one but from 25 to 100 tickets a week or more. I have a shopping bag full of used ones that I am throwing out this week. Also, I am quitting this no-win game.
Albert A. Bambino”