My inner William Raspberry
by Kelvin Wade
Journalism lost a great this past week. William Raspberry, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. passed away from prostate cancer at the age of 76. It’s sad to me that his passing didn’t get more notice because his was a truly important voice.
When Raspberry’s column began in 1966, he became the second nationally syndicated black columnist in America after Carl Rowan. That was also the year I was born. And while growing up in Norfolk, Virginia just three and a half hours from where Raspberry plied his trade, little did I know the impact the man would have on my writing.
Years later, I would discover William Raspberry’s column. What interested me about Raspberry was that while he did write about racial issues from time to time, he didn’t feel as though he was limited to writing about racial matters. And when he branched out to other subjects, his views were difficult to pigeonhole. He truly was a moderate in the best sense of the word. That’s what attracted me to him. I’d found someone who did what I did, and thought about an issue on its own merits instead of filter it through a political ideology or regurgitate talking points.
Raspberry’s well-reasoned columns avoided the histrionics and pyrotechnics of his bomb-throwing colleagues. He used to say he wasn’t concerned with right or left but with what works. He craved solutions. This often left him with plenty of critics on the right and left. And one got the sense from reading him that he couldn’t care less who he offended as long as he was being honest with himself.
I’d read his work and think, “Wow! I wish I would’ve written that.”
How would a guy like Raspberry, who retired in 2005, fare today? Sadly, I don’t know if there would be a place for him. Americans increasingly seem to want to get their news from outlets that mirror their own political persuasion or bias. They want the combativeness of a Paul Krugman, Ann Coulter, Maureen Down or Charles Krauthammer. Someone carefully analyzing an issue and coming up with a solution that doesn’t try to score political points doesn’t play well.
Even Barack Obama, who brought us one of the most conciliatory, big tent, quintessentially American speeches in his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and ran a visionary campaign on the audacity of hope in 2008, is beating the dog crap out of Mitt Romney with a Louisville Slugger in 2012.
That’s just where we are now.
When I first started as a newspaper columnist in 1992, I didn’t want to preach to the choir. While having folks agree with you is always a welcome thing, I wanted to reach people who disagreed with me. And while I didn’t hold out hope that I could change their minds, I at least wanted them to read an alternate perspective, which is why I christened my column, “The Other Side.”
I pursued a Raspberryesque tone that sought to reach out rather than write a scorched earth polemic that would only serve to fatten up my fans with red meat.
But times have changed and Americans’ craving for red meat is at an all time high. Introspection, compromise, understanding and olive branches are scoffed at. Today, it’s all about setting one’s hair afire and kicking ass. Moderate, sober deliberation is about as welcome as a vegan in a steakhouse.
And I confess that I enjoy the pointed jousting of Bill Maher and the take-no-prisoners tone of the Rolling Stones’ Matt Taibbi as he eviscerates the banks, corporate America and their conservative coat-holders.
My own tone has grown sharper as I’ve seen people less inclined to want to hear alternative viewpoints.
Still, I hope I never lose touch with my inner William Raspberry.