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Let’s assume that I am a Washington Post Metro columnist. Let’s further posit that I am a married, middle-aged man with three children and a home in Ward 3. I should mention that I am white. I say that because nothing that I write should be viewed without the prism of class, race, and my own deeply held personal vision. That’s what writing a column, especially a Post Metro column, is all about.
Paradigm shift in District governance? I’d rather write about the dead rat I saw on my way to work and how wounded it left my far-Northwest psyche. A police department so riven with malfeasance that three investigations are required? Why bother when I can filibuster about my quibbles with a movie I took in the other night over on Wisconsin Avenue?
The Post, which is a generally a damn fine newspaper to wake up to, has no regular Metro columnist worth wasting a cup of coffee on. Forget framing or advancing local issues; at the Post, identity trumps all. Week to week, you get three columnistsCourtland Milloy, Donna Britt, and Dorothy Gilliamwho spend more than half their time picking at the 400-year-old scab of American racism. D.C. may be drunk on race, but this trio of race warriors runs a bar where last call never comes. The ballast for the crew of proper race men and women is provided by Steve Twomey, a columnist charged with giving wing to the concerns of white suburbanites.
What about a column for all the rest of us? What about a Royko, a Breslin, or, more recently, a Steve Lopez for the Philadelphia Inquirer? The kind of writer who has everybodyblack and white and everybody in betweentalking at the minimart, the steam room of the athletic club, and the cop bar.
At a time when the news side is banging away on metro issues to very good effect, not one of the columnists is pitching in. Washington, D.C., effectively slipped into receivership with hardly a peep from the whole buncha chirp here, a bit of insolence there, but no columnist traced the arc of D.C.’s slide into municipal waifery.
The Post is capable of much more. Richard Cohen used to preoccupy that space and the interests of readers, but he lives in New York and has regressed to writing Really Big Thoughts in the Washington Post Magazine. The current crew of Post columnists could be good: Twomey is a silky writer with a Pulitzer under his belt, Britt is a natural-born columnist, sharp, funny, and devastating when she really means it, Milloy has street cred and sources, and Gilliamwell, she just wrote a bon voyage, so let’s just not go there just yet. But they have come to see their gigs as a sinecure and not
The kingdom of first-person pronouns is a trap many columnists eventually gravitate towardafter a few months, they run out of good ideas and end up writing about what they saw on the way to work. Both Britt and Twomey stooped to a deer riff in the past six months. But this is the Post, fer cryin’ out loud, a major-league goddamn newspaper with a bunch of backbenchers in featured slots. Great columnists leave the building, find people more interesting than themselves, and then come back to tell readers about it. Instead, we get a confab of narcissists and racialists, combing their own belly-button lint in search of meaning and 750 words.
The formula for making the personal public to no discernible effect is on rank display on any given day. Britt opened one turd thusly: “This week, as I pondered why I’m bothered by Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, the Confederate battle flag and the tiny nooses sported by some Virginia schoolchildren, I discovered something: It’s all about my routine.” The routine being one of pondering and then spewing, apparently. She went on to drop in a domestic interlude apropos of nothing in particular:
“Daily, I stumble out of bed before my toddler awakens to fix a bottle. The instant Skye pulls himself up in his crib, he grabs for it, closes his still-groggy eyes and sucks. Giving him the bottle gives me a moment to steep myself in himto marvel at his baby roundness, at the thick, sweet scent of his sleepiness. He slurps; I drink him in.”
Yes, and so do we.
Britt is the biggest offender in part because she has the chops to excel, but you wouldn’t know it from her meaningless weigh-ins on whatever the wires happen to be burping up. Diana or O.J., count on Britt to spend several hundred words dragging the events of the day across a tortured interior emotional landscape before grinding her way to the one-sentence epigram that is the hallmark of all shitty column writing. And when the headlines aren’t providing grist, we’re treated to a discourse on the semiotics of athletic footwear or cloying dispatches from the domestic front. Her columns on motherhood are among the most embarrassing exemplars of a very punishing genre. Milloy is more prone to leaving the columnist’s lair, but when he isn’t pandering, he’s ferreting out conspiracies the rest of us must just be missing. (Fairness requires mentioning that he’s found a few as well. Just ask the folks at Eddie Bauer.) And he’s the biggest offender of doing a Siskel and Ebert in lieu of taking the time to craft a columnif he wants to write reviews of movies, he should go over to Weekend. Instead, he placeholds by publishing the kind of after-movie chatter that is best left at the coffee house. Amistad, it turns out, is actually a serialization of the same scam white folks have been pulling on black people since way back in the day, Milloy suggests. He keelhauls Steven Spielberg for depicting blacks in chainsin a movie about slaveryand for daring to suggest that some of the white oppressors might have actually worked against the enslavement of an entire race. “There are really no bad white people in the movie,” he suggests. But Milloy’s ferocious sense of accounting never seems to find its way to the black leadership that has done more to oppress locals than the Man ever could. Even convicted murderer and embezzler Roach Brown recently got a heartening word out of Milloy. Turns out Roach is just misunderstood.
When Twomey took the time to weigh in on the Skins vs. the Ravensa topic that sparked some epic columnizing in Baltimorehe eventually admitted he just couldn’t get that worked up about it. That’s because he doesn’t belong anywhere. He writes from that amorphous place just beyond the Beltway, where the only interesting topic is how screwed up the District is. Consistently behind the curve of District events, Twomey doesn’t realize that the biggest problem D.C. has is him and others like him: suburbanites who zoom in, put in their eight, and then haul their golduntaxed and untouchedback to a place where the garbage men always come on time. When he writes about what he knowsthe suburban zeitgesthe tunes in to a place called Sleepy Hollow Woods, a development off Columbia Pike in Fairfax. He sent out a survey there recently and found out that there isn’t much crime and that the locals enjoy their malls and their fast food. Sleepy Hollow Woods sounds like heavena place where David Byrne told us nothing ever happens. Thank God Twomey’s there to cover it.
Even though Dorothy Gilliam has finally typed in a 30 at the bottom of her column, we can’t just leave it at that. She is indeed a pioneer, a groundbreaker, a person who no doubt changed the face of journalism. And just in case you hadn’t realized as much, she wrote her own two-part obit in prose so self-congratulatory it’s embarrassing just to be party to it as a reader: “I want to share some of my journey, an African American woman’s progress against the odds.” One of the odds she overcame was writing a column with little or no knowledge of what constitutes a sentence. A random search came up with this gem: “The decades since my childhood have brought us to the first time in this century when most adults in many inner-city neighborhoods do not work in a typical week.” Never mind what she was thinking aboutwhere were her editors? Beyond her assault on the language, she is sneaky-divisive, always putting racial slights in the mouths of others while positioning herself as some kind of church lady in the temple of race. In Gilliam’s world, there are two degrees of separation between race and everything else, and it never takes her long to squish any story into the well-used template of black vs. white.
No discussion of columnar transgressions at the Post can skip a visit to the freakfest that is “Bob Levey’s Washington,” over on the comics page. Technically not a Metro columnist, Levey offers a bromidic dispatch that is supposed to be the big-city equivalent of one of those community newspaper columns where the guy is always pictured with a pipe, and he prattles on endlessly about a bird that happened to land on his windowsill three days ago. Levey isn’t exactly like that…he’s much, much worse.
What sets Levey above the restall the restis the barrel of self-importance into which he dips. He’s got three modalities: scold, shill, and complete nincompoop. Levey examines issues that make Andy Rooney seem like one of the more important public intellectuals of our time. Under the rubric “Doesn’t it make you gaga…” he inveighs piquantly against anchor chatter, elevator rides, and refrigerator magnets. (What’s on Levey’s fridge? Why, one of his columns, of course.) And when readers tucked away out in Laurel are vexed by some knotty problem, Bob’s really there for them, man. A woman wrote in with the harrowing news that while the people in her beauty parlor spoke in English to customers, they used “another language” to speak to each other. No problemo in “Bob Levey’s Washington”: Bob sez just have a chat with management about the problem. “If the owner senses that you will take your business elsewhere, I predict you will start hearing English spoken at this establishment at fighter-jet speed.”
The column is no more than a black-and-white vanity mirror. “Bob Levey’s Washington” isn’t just a brand name, it’s a mantra, relentlessly chanted throughout the column. Even at this time of year, when he solicits on behalf of Children’s Hospital, Levey manages to draw the focus back to himself again and again. He takes to tin-cup journalism with gusto, like Sally Struthers in a beard or Jerry Lewis with worse jokes, spewing aphoristic feel-goodism and then telling people to send along checksnot to the hospital, but to “Bob Levey’s Washington.” And when it’s time to collect grocery store receipts, don’t send them to the school, send them to “Bob Levey’s Washington.” It’s all an opportunity to participate in “an annual labor of love for the World’s Greatest Two-Fingered Typist.” Levey’s printed fingernails-on-the-chalkboard shows up six times a week in the Post, but there’s more. Now you can tune into “Levey Live!” on the Post web site. “The poohbahs of washingtonpost.com tell me that I was chosen for this assignment because my column is well read and because I have worked as a talk show host and commentator for seven radio stations and four TV stations over the last 17 years,” says Levey. Did I mention that Levey was multimedia? I guess I don’t have to. It’s “Bob Levey’s Washington.” The rest of us just live in it.
There is one shimmering exception to the Post’s columnists’ séance of self-involved mediocrity, but you need a road map to find him tucked inside Saturday’s Op-Ed page. While the rest of the opiners sit on their butts and scratch their heads (or is it the other way around?), Colby King comes in week after week with columns that pose and sometimes answer fundamental questions about D.C. King grew up right along with the District, and he has a native’s love-hate relationship with the city, which makes his copy sing. Unlike his goofy relations in the Metro pages, King is actually charged with blowbagging on any old thing that pops into his head. Instead, he makes the calls, he asks the hard questions, and he comes up with the kind of conceptual leaps that make the reader see the same old D.C. bullshit in new ways. Other metro reporters in town have gotten used to spilling their Saturday-morning coffee when they notice that King has blown by them…again.
But he’s a king among journalistic jesters. A former Postie suggests, “You reach a point as a reader where that space on the Metro page where the columns appear isn’t there any more; it’s just blank. It happened to Buchwald a long time ago, and now it’s happening to the rest of them.”
The Post is on the verge of shrinking the width of its paper to accommodate new presses. Instead of going to the trouble of rearranging the whole front page of Metro, why not just shave a
couple of inches off the left-hand side
of the page? It’s not like anybody’s