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The best 25 columns of all time

Mary White, subject of my favorite column.

A WHILE BACK, Ed Russo, a Register-Guard colleague, suggested we read a book called Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns and each choose our favorites.

Great fun. Great inspiration. And a great sense that old-school columnists may have done it better than us contemporary folks. Six of my top 20 were written in 1953 or earlier. Only two were written since 2005.

I was interested to note how my bias was toward columns about people, passion, patriotism and quiet heroes; seven of my top 10 had to do with death or war or both. I’m still mulling what that means and from whence that interest in such came.

I was reminded that some great columnists barely find that perfect — and hard to find — balance between passion and passion-gone-wild (Leonard Pitts, Molly Ivins, Chris Rose) and some pack their passion into the specific detail of great storytelling (William Allen White, George Will and Steve Lopez). The best columns evoke some sort of emotion within you, the reader. And nearly all of these did. (You’ll note a glaring lack of political or process-oriented columns; such stories rarely touch my soul.)

I was disappointed in the book for two reasons: First, its editors overlooked some great columnists. Where was Ellen Goodman, Garrison Keillor, the really great stuff of Dave Barry and the myriad diamond-in-the-rough columnists, often from smaller papers? And where was Mike Royko’s column about his last trip to his summer home? Beautiful. Right up there with E.B. White’s wonderful “Once More to the Lake.”

Second, the book loaded with embarrassing typos and punctuation train wrecks, an allegation that almost guarantees that this blog post will include at least one, if not more: “Golf War” instead of “Gulf War.” Really? Asterisks instead of quotation marks. And, in some cases, no quotation marks. Yikes.

That aside, it was an inspiring book. Who can forget the Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts, after 9/11, slapping his anger on the page as if with a six-inch paint brush? Pete Hamill’s haunting coverage of his friend RFK’s murder? Molly Ivins’ measured anger about a war that took a friend?

But no column moved me more deeply than one written in 1921 by the Emporia Gazette’s William A. White. Called “Mary White,” it was about the death of his daughter, though I don’t believe he ever mentions his connection to her, even if it’s obvious. It has the measured tone of a man who loved his daughter dearly — and yet has the discipline to let the story, not his emotion, carry the day. Incredible. You can read a version of it here.

With a tip of my hat to Ed, here’s my top 25 from the book:

1. Mary White, William A. White, Emporia Gazette, 1921. 2. The Death of Captain Waskow, Ernie Pyle, Scripps Howard , 1944. 3. Vietnam Memorial , Molly Ivins, Dallas Times Herald, 1982. 4. Jon Will’s Aptitudes, George Will, Washington Post, 1993. 5. Man of the Streets, in 3 Suites, Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times, 2005 . 6. Open Letter to America, Chris Rose, New Orleans Times-Pic., 2005. 7. We’ll Go Forward…, Leonard Pitts, Miami Herald, 2001. 8. Jock Evans Was on Duty…, Robert Casey, Chicago Daily News, 1940 . 9. There Is a Ship, Heywood Broun, NY World-Telegram, 1939 . 10. Eastern Middle School , Thomas Friedman, NY Times, 2001. 11. Morning in America, Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, 2008. 12. How to Cure a Hangover, Mike Royko, Chicago Daily News, 1974. 13. There Ought to Be a Law, Langston Hughes, Chicago Defender, 1948. 14. Woman Burned; Police ignore, Murray Kempton, Newsday, 1984 . 15. A Death in E.R. One, Jimmy Breslin, NY Herald Tribune, 1963. 16. Two Minutes to Midnight, Pete Hamill, Village Voice, 1968. 17. If You’re Expecting One-Liners, Jim Murray, LA Times, 1979. 18. A Fools’ Errand, Bob Herbert, New York Times, 2000. 19. To Root Against Your Country, Art Hoppe, SF Chronicle, 1971. 20. Yes, Virginia—There is a Santa, Francis Church, New York Sun, 1897. 21. Ah, San Francisco, Herb Caen, San Francisco Examiner, 1953. 22. The Power of One, Anna Quindlen, New York Times, 1993. 23. When God Created Fathers, Erma Bombeck, Dayton Journal Herald, 1974 . 24. When God Created Mothers , Erma Bombeck, Dayton Journal Herald, 1974. 25. To Old Times, Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, 2007.

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