Telling Others What to Think: Recollections of a Pundit
“Pseudo-events abound nowadays, especially in campaign seasons,” Edwin Yoder writes. “So a dull official day should be seen as an excuse to ignore what is allegedly important and write what I used to call the ‘invented’ piece . . . something personal with a dash of intimacy about it.”
Yoder has created just that in this elegant memoir of his North Carolina childhood, Rhodes Scholar days, and distinguished journalism career, which included a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials at the Washington Star and 15 years as a columnist.
Rather than flowing novelistically, chapters describe discrete aspects of his life—including his relationship with his father; the racial attitudes in which he was reared; friendships with Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell and writer/editor Willie Morris; his days at the Star under owner Joe Allbritton; and his mixed feelings about Meg Greenfield, who oversaw his syndicated column’s fate at the Washington Post (hint: He has a dream in which her face is encircled by serpents).
Yoder reflects eloquently on the “deep ambivalence of the race barrier” in his childhood, when African-Americans were surrogate parents but also kept in their place. Gentility, he writes, “was an integral part of the infinitely refined and subtle way in which the matter of race was dealt with when I was a boy. It was not that the elephant in the room was ignored; the elephant was treated as deferentially as if it were displaced royalty.”
His career began at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received national attention for a 1955 editorial decrying “the parasitic monster of open professionalism” (phrasing that makes him cringe today) in college sports. The article was sparked by the dismissal of UNC football coach George Barclay and the hiring of the University of Maryland’s “Sunny Jim” Tatum, who came with a controversial history but a winning-is-everything attitude.
The older Yoder made his mark with less purple prose and a knack for reason, erudition, and thoughtfulness. At the end of his memoir is a selection of his columns, with an introduction that could serve as a primer for anyone going into his former line of work:
“There is an abiding superstition that opinion pieces consist primarily of opinion, a view that isn’t discouraged these days by all the ideology-driven barking and howling that imitates commentary on television and talk radio. But the sober truth is that no thoughtful reader is impressed by anyone’s mere opinion . . . . The name of the game is persuasion, and persuasion demands a balance between assertion and information. Of the two, information is almost always the more important.”
Words to remember, now more than ever.