restricted access Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer
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For nearly five years I was a weekly columnist for the Chicago SunTimes . Mybeatwasnationalpolitics.ForthelastthreeyearsIappeared in the Sunday paper, the token liberal in the commentary section, there to offer some imperfect balance to a decidedly conservative shipload of pundits. In early September 2005 my column was rather unceremoniously dropped. In the manner of “all the king’s men,” I served at the pleasure of the editorial page editor – in the Sun-Times case, Steve Huntley. Indeed , in many ways, Steve created me. There is a Dr. Frankenstein elementinthissortofrelationship.ItwasStevewhomademeaweekly columnist, elevating my occasional status as an irregular contributor toasmokeandmirrorsversionofapermanentfixture.Butanyunnaturally spawned creature can readily become a monster. What else can one do at that point but destroy him? Especially when the populace is chasing him around the internet with pitchforks. There are lessons here. First, how does one become a regular columnist for one of the largest circulation newspapers in the country? By a lot of design and some accident, a lifetime of preparation and chanceencounters.Myhistorywithjournalismhasalwaysbeenglancing , indirect. When I graduated from the Kansas City branch of the Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer 46 47 University of Missouri, journalism’s reputation was still in the swamp of hackdom, a land of has-beens and wannabes. I was a novelist yet to blossom, off to a graduate writing program Columbia University was just getting underway in 1968. That period was the golden age of reading. During the 1960s the numberofyoungininstitutionsofhigherlearningwastripling,yetthe number of “first novelists” was remaining nearly constant, around a hundred a year. The audience for literature was growing, and the numberofwriterswasholdingsteady ,awonderfulsituationthatonlylasted a few years. And novelists were coming to the rescue of journalism. They would transform it in the early stages of its modern ascendancy: TrumanCapotein1965withInColdBlood,NormanMailerwith“himself ” but also Armies of the Night, his late sixties book covering the March on the Pentagon. This was all to become the “New Journalism.” Tom Wolfe, a blocked fiction writer – blocked until he became a rich celebrity – became the chief publicist for the “new” form, and helped begin New Journalism’sglamourperiod.But,whatreallycappedtherisewaswhen two young journalists – not latent or blocked fiction writers – WoodwardandBernstein ,reclaimedthespotlightfromtheirliterarybetters, helped topple a president, and returned barely serviceable, but effective , prose to a place of honor in the newspaper world. Capote and Mailer, and even Tom Wolfe, were always a bit too fancy for regular reporters. But had anyone told me, when I left the Midwest for Columbia in 1968, my first book would be nonfiction, considered by some a high form of journalism, I would have thought them crazy and insulting. Such was the thrall of becoming a novelist was for my generation. But it came to pass: in 1972 – four years later, two years out of Columbia  – I had published The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, 48 a book nine months in the making – three months of trial in Harrisburg , Pennsylvania, three months of writing, and a bit less than three months being manufactured. I saw an ad for the book in Publishers Weekly before I had written a word: a picture of the book’s eventual cover. Unwittingly, I had hitched a ride on the cultural wave, having become involved with a lawyer and her clients, a bunch of Catholic radicals and one Muslim Pakistani, resulting in a book that funded me with a $3,000 advance, enough, I thought, to write it, since I had been living back then on $300 a month – ah, youth. The book spent six weeks on the New York Times Book Review’s New and Recommended list, and was selected as one of the notable books of the year. During the six weeks of my local big city notoriety, I was spending most of it in a street-side garbage bin in the South Bronx, toiling as a manual laborer at Feller’s Scenery Studio. My life hadn’t groomed me for success, so I didn’t know how to leverage my good fortune. It’s a long story, not to be told here, but the connection to my last foray into journalism – five years as a columnist at a major city paper  – shares one important similarity. I owed my access to the fashionable world of literary prominence to a single editor: in the NYC case, John Leonard, who was, at the time, editor of the New York Times Book Review. The attention the TBR paid to anti-Vietnam War subjects and books was intense during Leonard’s reign at the book review, and I...


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