Goodbye after 36 years

Published 10:23 am Monday, June 3, 2013

Alcorn retiring as Herald columnist after 1,100 articles

Jimmy Carter had recently become president, and the Austin Daily Herald published my personal description of and comment on the new president’s moral and religious character. This was March 22, 1977. We’ve been at it ever since, and, as the expression has it, “the rest is history.”

Before the end of that year, the Herald had published four additional pieces, and I have kept thinking, writing and submitting ever since. This means, then, these have come to readers for more than 36 years. (The only time none appeared is the part of one year I spent on army active duty in Honduras.)

With this issue, moreover, they have come every week — without missing a week or repeating a piece. These now total 1,100 columns. (It would take too long to count the words.)

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In reaching such a milestone, I can but think back over these 36 years and reflect on what I have written, especially during the recent 20. These are what journalists term an “opinion piece.” They are also called “commentary,” because they comment on current news.

The paper publishes its own opinion as editorials, and readers write letters-to-the-editor with theirs. These are my individual opinions. I am personally responsible to write them and individually accountable for what I write. The accountability is not to the paper, and the paper is not accountable for me. My most severe accountability is my own conscience’s sense of truthfulness and fairness. I haven’t always been factually correct, and I haven’t always been logically right. But it is altogether right to try and worth the risk.

But there is also a moral accountability to you — to my readers. I have not written for the publisher or editor, but for you. What finally matters is not what I think, but what you come to think. It is not what I have written, but what you now do. An opinion piece is not the writer’s catharsis but the reader’s resource.

When David Brinkley retired from commentary, his autobiography said it all wonderfully: “Everyone Is Entitled to My Opinion.” Unless a commentator or columnist can joke so transparently, he or she had better not even try. It takes nerve to expose one’s private thoughts in public. A commentator leads with the chin — and people swing at it. That’s why it’s there.

Many people preface a compliment with, “I don’t always agree with you, but…” Sometimes I have replied and always think: Me too. After all, you don’t know what you think until you read what you wrote. I have sometimes read what I had written and changed my mind. If you don’t think you have seen signs of this, know it usually happens when I read the draft I had written prior to submitting it.

When people disagree with me, I truly don’t mind it at all. Where I am wrong, I value their correction. But I can only be helped when someone tells me why he or she disagrees. This is a rare treat.

I like better: “I usually disagree with you, but on this…” I like even better: “This is what I’ve been thinking, but I never found the words.” I like best: “You always give us something to think about.” And this is precisely the point.

One local business person commented, “I think you are reminding us of some important things we are forgetting.” Thank you; I mean to. One Herald editor asked me, “Are you a conservative or a liberal? I can’t tell.” I explained to him, as I have more than once here, a conservative conserves what is worth conserving, and a liberal liberates what must be liberated. So, my answer is: Yes.

As to those complaints about “big words,” the shortest word I can find to answer is “context.” If one doesn’t understand this, I have another, slightly longer: “dictionary.” Is it offensive a reader might actually learn something from what I have written?

So, this has all been a lot of fun, but this has to be it. I thank you again for reading. Goodbye.