Farewell, and Thank You
With this issue, "Hill of Beans" enters its seventh calendar year. I’ve written about half a million words across 300 columns, and this will be my last column. Starting this thing–back in the days of Filegate and the Dole campaign and 104th Congress and the Dick Morris toe-sucking scandal and the macarena–wasn’t even my idea. Russ Smith decided in 1996 that he wanted someone to write a weekly column opposite Alexander Cockburn’s, and I was the first person he thought of. Really. He told me so. Either that or I was the eighth person he thought of, and the first person he thought of who didn’t say no. My deepest thanks to him.
Almost immediately this column had two great pieces of luck. First, Sam Sifton came up with the name for it. Whether you like this column or think it an ill-educated, hackneyed, pompous, stilted, underresearched pile of lies, you’ll have to agree that "Hill of Beans" is the best name that any Washington column has ever had. Second, I had two superb editors. At every publishing enterprise with which I’ve ever been affiliated, there’s always some angry, vaguely disappointed-with-life literary hag whose social circle consists of her cat and whose only joy is to crack the whip on writers. ("It’s good! She’s the traffic cop!" her terrified coworkers lie.) There was never a trace of any such person at New York Press. Instead I got John Strausbaugh and Lisa Kearns, who, while not exactly la-di-dah about deadlines, were not exactly humorless about them either. Both of them, happily, had a mature perspective on the ravages of Jeffrey Bernard’s Disease, a prerequisite to any healthy author-editor relationship, I have found.
This has been a fantastic time to be writing this kind of Washington column. The problem with Washington columns is that they’re all written by Washington writers, who tend not to be much good. (If the writing itself were the most important thing to them, they’d’ve wound up in New York.) Pretty much all writers arrive here full of idealistic desire to "make a difference" and "be a part of" our democracy, "clearing the air" on policy differences, "speaking truth to power," uncovering what really goes on in those "smoke-filled rooms." (If I told you people in Washington actually thought and talked this way, you wouldn’t believe it, so we can let it drop.)
And then practically all of them go bad in one of two ways. The first way is not to change. It’s great to believe when you’re 21 that what Sen. Spats really cares about most is not getting votes but helping the poor. But if you still believe that at 31… Well, if you still believe that at 31, you’re probably Sen. Spats’ p.r. guy. Because if you’ve been here for 10 years and still think the fate of mankind hinges on whether or not the pesticide-tax rider gets attached to the agriculture bill in committee, you’re impervious enough to experience that you’re not likely to have much to tell readers.
Most writers lose that idealism. For one thing, they tend to notice that history is looping around and repeating itself. The stories are all the same and so are the characters, even if they have different names. (If you’ve ever gone back to your old high school as an adult and noticed that practically all your friends from long ago have analogues in the new generation, you’ll know what I mean.) Fourteen years ago the controversial Supreme Court nominee was Robert Bork, 10 years ago it was Clarence Thomas and next year it will be someone else, but when it happens, the same jerks will be arrayed on either side, and the story will be the same. The moment a reporter gets cynical enough to recognize this, or to say, "Oh, shit, another corrupt congressman story this week," it’s all over. For one thing, he’ll never work up the energy to write anything but cliches for the rest of his life. For another, he’ll be too oppressed by the pattern of Washington to notice something new if it actually does come up.
This would pretty much have described me, except for the great good fortune of having had this column. And–I’m no judge–maybe it pretty much describes me anyway.
The "Hill of Beans" Years
The 1990s weren’t particularly rich in historic episodes–at least not in the sense of days that shook the world–but they were full of those history-plays-a-joke episodes that are meat on the table of any but the most blockheaded columnist. What you need to write about such things, though, is editorial freedom. And what has made this a dream job is that no one at New York Press ever–ever, ever–asked me to change or tried to influence a single syllable that I wrote. It would have been a difficult time to write under other conditions. And the informality that this policy fostered ultimately made the column more pertinent. Take the New Hampshire hack Dick Swett, something of a preoccupation in this column during his doomed race for senator in 1996. Fifty years from now, what will historians say about Dick Swett? That Dick Swett is a really, really funny name, that’s what they’ll say.
It was vapidity, yes, but the four months of real, no-bull history we’ve had since Sept. 11 ought to make us nostalgic for it. I hope it is not just nostalgia that is making me think of the rank hypocrisy of the late 1990s as a simpler, kinder, more wholesome kind of rank hypocrisy. Vapidity good! Hypocrisy good! In this light, Newt Gingrich’s intellectual vanity, Bill Clinton’s amazing sense of entitlement and the smiley-face imperialism of the Kosovo war were probably the high points of the last half-decade for me.
My own favorite quote of the last decade came from a trip Bill Bradley made to Iowa in 1998, when he was still pretending he wasn’t dying to run for president. When asked about his plans, Bradley replied, "If you have had a love affair with the country as I have for 40 years, if you’ve been on the road in the country 30 years, if you’ve written four books about the country, you know that whatever you’re going to be doing is going to be intimately involved in trying to think about this remarkable land." Translated out of yuppie-ese, that comes out to: "If you flew around a lot as an athletic hero while people cheered you, if you then parlayed your athletic success into a position of political power, and if you’re a big enough wheel to dupe people into thinking you have anything to say that’s worth reading in a book, then you deserve to rule. And no amount of condescension and hackneyed political oratory is too much." My thoughts on Bradley. And on the age.
Outside of raising a family and a few episodes in college that I don’t think I want to share with the reading public, writing "Hill of Beans" week after week for the last six years has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my adult life. But the time has come for me to say goodbye to it. My thanks to everyone who read the column, whether they liked it or not.
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