Yesterday, James Jackson Kilpatrick, whose journalistic career spanned nearly seven decades from 1941 until his final columns last year, died at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, of congestive heart failure. He was ten weeks short of his ninetieth birthday.
Although Kilpatrick did not fight in World War II because of an asthmatic condition, he could well be counted among the “Greatest Generation’s” representatives in the journalistic field. He entered the field of newspapering at a time when the daily newspaper, both morning and evening, dominated American discourse in a way hard to imagine now, when print journalism struggles against declines in advertising and circulation. Nearly two-thirds of that career was spent as a columnist.
Kilpatrick’s passing is worth noting in The New Nixon in part because at a time when the thirty-seventh president was the subject.of merciless criticism by columnists from Boston to Honolulu, he was among Richard Nixon’s most steadfast defenders in print. (A photograph of Kilpatrick visiting RN at the White House illustrates his obituary in the Los Angeles Times.)
However, it was not only in the page which, as the old riddle had it, was “black and white and read all over” that Kilpatrick argued the case for many Nixon Administration policies. In 1971, seeking to raise the visibility of a show that was still struggling in the ratings in a difficult spot just before Sunday prime-time, 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt approached Kilpatrick about appearing on the show each week in a brief debate segment, Right vs. Left, titled “Point Counterpoint.” The columnist (who was already appearing often on Martin Agronsky’s TV program) agreed, and thus was launched a format that still provides a template for talking-heads discussions on the tube.
Kilpatrick’s opponent for the first five years of “Point Counterpoint” was Nicholas Von Hoffman, onetime protege of radical organizer Saul Alinsky, who by the early 1970s was among the more left-leaning figures at the Washington Post. For four years they disputed the issues as the ratings of 60 Minutes steadiily climbed.
A few weeks before the resignation of President Nixon, the prospect of his impeachment was the topic on the segment. Von Hoffman exasperatedly called RN “the dead mouse on America’s kitchen floor.” This was a bit too much even at CBS, and Hewitt soon after let the Postman go.
Von Hoffman’s replacement was former Life journalist and Newsweek columnist Shana Alexander. Though she was nearly as liberal as Von Hoffman, she managed to generate a chemistry with Kilpatrick that helped enliven the segment in the Ford and Carter years and played its part in sending the ratings of 60 Minutes skyrocketing. (Alas, not even one clip to prove this is at Youtube – for now.)
The Kilpatrick-Alexander pairing did not go unnoticed in Hollywood, where TV producer Norman Lear developed a show, All’s Fair, more or less inspired by the team. It was about a crusty conservative columnist, played by veteran actor Richard Crenna, who marries a liberal firebrand – portrayed by Bernadette Peters. Seeking a conservative write to help flesh out the Crenna character, Lear extended a job offer to the Wall Street Journal’s TV columnist – none other than former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein. And that was how that young man went West to stay and started on the path to stardom. (Though it should be mentioned that by the time Ben got to town, All’s Fair was on its last legs, despite a very young Michael Keaton being added to the cast, so he wound up working on that idiosyncratic Martin Mull/Fred Willard vehicle Fernwood 2-Nite.)
“Point-Counterpoint” was also satirized on Saturday Night Live, with Dan Aykroyd taking Kilpatrick’s part and Jane Curtin Shana Alexander’s. Indeed, many under the age of forty, to whom both Kirkpatrick and Alexander’s names are perhaps unknown, might recognize the sketch’s catchphrase: “Jane, you ignorant slut!”
There’s a lot more to say about Kilpatrick, but, so often, he said it best himself. His obituaries have duly noted that he made his mark on the national journalistic stage as the fire-eating champion of segregation at the now-vanished Richmond News-Leader. But take a look at his own searching account of his struggle toward enlightmentment on racial matters, first published in 2002 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
And before we say goodbye to this monument to a vanishing age of punditry, his many columns about his love of the Virginia countryside, and his perhaps even greater love of language, should be mentioned. No less an expert on the written (and spoken) word than William Safire praised Kilpatrick’s writings in this field, and William F. Buckley wrote an admiring introduction to his book The Writer’s Art – copies of which now change hands for something not far from a king’s ransom. “Most of us write on sand,” Kilpatrick once remarked, “but let us write clearly on sand.” As a blogger, those are words I think about from time to time.