Chris Powell: One last reason to be in journalism

These remarks were made Oct. 9 at a meeting celebrating the Yankee Institute for Public Policy's 30th anniversary, held at the Hartford Club. HARTFORD

Thank you for your Truth Teller Award. Now if I can get the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition's Lie Teller Award I'll have a matched set.

Somebody told me that this award means I'm the best newspaper columnist in Connecticut. Of course I'm grateful for that thought -- indeed, these days anyone should be grateful just to be read. But such praise reminds me of what Bill Buckley said when Lillian Hellman was described as "the greatest living American female playwright." Buckley called it a little like marveling at the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas.

Awards prompt reflection about one's life, and I'm starting to appreciate how Groucho Marx felt when, in 1972, not long before he died, Roger Ebert asked him what he thought of his spectacular career on stage, in movies, and on radio and television.

Groucho replied: "I'd trade it all for an erection."

Back then such an observation would have been considered distasteful. Not anymore. If he was still around Groucho could parlay it into still another career in television, courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry and its ad agencies, and hardly anyone would be offended. Indeed, since half the country now is close to what was Groucho's age then, most people today probably would concur with him -- as I do, if for a more political reason.

In college I took a poetry course that introduced me to some fine things, like W.H. Auden's poem "In Memory of William Butler Yeats," as well as to the work of Yeats himself. Yeats had been the literary giant of Ireland, and when he died Auden wrote:

Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,

For poetry makes nothing happen. ...

So much for poetry, I thought; Yeats and Auden should know. But maybe, I thought, journalism could make something happen, and it didn't even have to rhyme. So I left college early for the newspaper job.

I still think journalism can make something happen, or prevent something from happening, which can be just as good, and that's a reason for sticking with it. But journalism's efficacy is declining fast along with literacy and civic engagement amid the bane of civilization, the corruption of prosperity, so making something happen or preventing something is not so much my reason anymore.

No, I stick with journalism more out of spite. I just couldn't stand for certain people to think that nobody is on to them.

So here in Connecticut you may be stuck with me a little longer, just as Wichita is stuck with the Epic Center, the tallest building not only in that city but in all of Kansas though having only 22 stories. To learn the qualities of agreat journalist, you'll have to listen not to me but to Stanley Walker, who was city editor of the New York Herald-Tribune in the 1930s. Walker explained:

What makes a good newspaper man? The answer is easy. He knows everything. He is not only aware of what goes on in the world today but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages.

He is not only handsome but he has the physical strength that enables him to perform great feats of energy. He can go for nights on end without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. Men admire him; women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him.

He hates lies and meanness and sham but keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and to what he looks upon as his profession; whether it is a profession or merely a craft, he resents attempts to debase it.

When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.

Thanks again for your award. I will remember you always for it, and if you remember me through dinner tonight I'll consider it a triumph.

Chris Powell is the managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.