Dec. 22, 2002
by David Kopel
Thanks to everyone who wrote in with ideas for my "Can the Columnist" contest of Dec. 8. Special thanks to those whose mothers raised them properly, and who understand that politeness is just as necessary in e-mail as in printed correspondence. The (non)winners of the contest are the following. For national columnists: Cal Thomas. Locally: Ken Hamblin.
A syndicated columnist since 1984, Thomas took a five-year leave of absence to serve as the spokesman for Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Thomas appears in The Denver Post two to three times a month, sometimes on Sundays and sometimes on weekdays. Nationally, more than 500 newspapers run his column.
Some of the reader complaints stemmed from the fact that Thomas is very conservative. But others said that he was just boring. A conservative letter writer said that Thomas is neither "profound" nor "deep."
Such complaints have some merit. Thomas is an entirely competent writer, but rarely dazzling in his style. His columns make legitimate points, but they rarely advance the story with fresh insights or new reporting. In contrast, Post columnists Al Knight and Diane Carman often call attention to a new issue, rather than merely commenting on an existing one. National columnists William Safire and Robert Novak often report news of political intrigues, or other facts that add to understanding of an issue.
Although Thomas' columns are good but not great, he does fulfill an important diversity niche on the editorial pages. He's one of the very few national columnists who writes from a conservative religious perspective. Indeed, as a Christian conservative, Thomas is virtually alone among major syndicated columnists.
Still, I think the Post could add some zip to its offerings by sometimes replacing Thomas with Dennis Prager. Prager is a Jewish national radio talk-show host based in Los Angeles. You can find his column at Townhall.com, and locally he's carried in the Intermountain Jewish News. More so than Thomas, Prager incorporates formal ethical analysis into his columns, making him especially suitable for a religious conservative columnist slot.
Locally, the Post's Ken Hamblin aroused more reader wrath than anyone else, with Mike Rosen in the Rocky Mountain News coming in second (and me coming in third, for having dared to criticize Maureen Dowd). Hamblin's columns vary greatly in quality. On bad days, they can just be a litany of his opinions; on good days, though, especially when he's writing about local issues, he's very sharp.
As a local black conservative, Hamblin adds a unique perspective that is nearly impossible to replace.
Of course my column only asked for critical opinion, and didn't attempt to measure positive reader support for any columnist. I suspect that Hamblin, like Rosen, has a very loyal base of readers who are grateful for his long record as a conservative voice in Colorado.
For proposed new columnists, the readers sent in plenty of great ideas. Locally, there were suggestions for former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, and for Ari Armstrong, the publisher of the Web magazine Colorado Freedom Report. Armstrong, with whom I've occasionally co-written articles, would add a libertarian voice to the Post, and he works very hard to add original research to his opinion pieces.
Nationally, some readers wanted to see more of Jacob Sullum (a syndicated libertarian columnist and senior editor of Reason magazine), Joe Sobran (a conservative critic of aggressive American foreign policy), Shelby Steele (a fellow at the Hoover Institution who writes frequently on racial issues for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal); Larry Elder (black conservative Los Angeles radio host); and Robert George (New York Post/National Review Online).
With the Post no longer running Pat Buchanan, neither paper presents a voice from the isolationist, anti-Israel Old Right.
Occasional columns from Sobran would broaden the editorial range at either paper. Sullum would broaden the range at the Post.
For liberal columnists, some readers wanted to see columns by ex-conservative Arianna Huffington, by Barbara Ehrenreich (a feminist who usually writes for magazines rather than newspapers) and Robert Scheer, a syndicated columnist based in California.
One reader thought that Scheer, who currently appears occasionally in the Post, and weekly in the Boulder Daily Camera, would be a "true progressive voice" who could replace "counterfeit 'liberal' " David Broder.
Scheer's positions are pretty similar to those of Paul Krugman. Scheer is a little less predictable and partisan, though; he endorsed a Republican for U.S. Senate in California (against drug war zealot Dianne Feinstein) and criticized the federal persecution of Microsoft.