Farewell, and Thank You

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


With this
issue, "Hill of Beans" enters its seventh calendar year. I’ve
written about half a million words across 300 columns, and this will be my last
column. Starting this thing–back in the days of Filegate and the Dole campaign
and 104th Congress and the Dick Morris toe-sucking scandal and the macarena–wasn’t
even my idea. Russ Smith decided in 1996 that he wanted
someone to write a weekly column opposite Alexander Cockburn’s, and I was
the first person he thought of. Really. He told me so. Either that or I was
the eighth person he thought of, and the first person he thought of who didn’t
say no. My deepest thanks to him.

Almost immediately
this column had two great pieces of luck. First, Sam Sifton came up with the
name for it. Whether you like this column or think it an ill-educated, hackneyed,
pompous, stilted, underresearched pile of lies, you’ll have to agree that
"Hill of Beans" is the best name that any Washington column has ever
had. Second, I had two superb editors. At every publishing enterprise with which
I’ve ever been affiliated, there’s always some angry, vaguely disappointed-with-life
literary hag whose social circle consists of her cat and whose only joy is to
crack the whip on writers. ("It’s good! She’s the traffic cop!"
her terrified coworkers lie.) There was never a trace of any such person at
New York Press. Instead I got John Strausbaugh and Lisa Kearns, who,
while not exactly la-di-dah about deadlines, were not exactly humorless about
them either. Both of them, happily, had a mature perspective on the ravages
of Jeffrey Bernard’s Disease, a prerequisite to any healthy author-editor
relationship, I have found.

Failures

This has
been a fantastic time to be writing this kind of Washington column. The problem
with Washington columns is that they’re all written by Washington writers,
who tend not to be much good. (If the writing itself were the most important
thing to them, they’d’ve wound up in New York.) Pretty much all writers
arrive here full of idealistic desire to "make a difference" and "be
a part of" our democracy, "clearing the air" on policy differences,
"speaking truth to power," uncovering what really goes on in those
"smoke-filled rooms." (If I told you people in Washington actually
thought and talked this way, you wouldn’t believe it, so we can let it
drop.)

And then
practically all of them go bad in one of two ways. The first way is not to change.
It’s great to believe when you’re 21 that what Sen. Spats really cares
about most is not getting votes but helping the poor. But if you still believe
that at 31… Well, if you still believe that at 31, you’re probably
Sen. Spats’ p.r. guy. Because if you’ve been here for 10 years and
still think the fate of mankind hinges on whether or not the pesticide-tax rider
gets attached to the agriculture bill in committee, you’re impervious enough
to experience that you’re not likely to have much to tell readers.

Most writers
lose that idealism. For one thing, they tend to notice that history is looping
around and repeating itself. The stories are all the same and so are the characters,
even if they have different names. (If you’ve ever gone back to your old
high school as an adult and noticed that practically all your friends from long
ago have analogues in the new generation, you’ll know what I mean.) Fourteen
years ago the controversial Supreme Court nominee was Robert Bork, 10 years
ago it was Clarence Thomas and next year it will be someone else, but when it
happens, the same jerks will be arrayed on either side, and the story will be
the same. The moment a reporter gets cynical enough to recognize this, or to
say, "Oh, shit, another corrupt congressman story this week," it’s
all over. For one thing, he’ll never work up the energy to write anything
but cliches for the rest of his life. For another, he’ll be too oppressed
by the pattern of Washington to notice something new if it actually does come
up.

This would
pretty much have described me, except for the great good fortune of having had
this column. And–I’m no judge–maybe it pretty much describes
me anyway.

The
"Hill of Beans" Years

The 1990s
weren’t particularly rich in historic episodes–at least not in the
sense of days that shook the world–but they were full of those history-plays-a-joke
episodes that are meat on the table of any but the most blockheaded columnist.
What you need to write about such things, though, is editorial freedom. And
what has made this a dream job is that no one at New York Press ever–ever,
ever–asked me to change or tried to influence a single syllable that I
wrote. It would have been a difficult time to write under other conditions.
And the informality that this policy fostered ultimately made the column more
pertinent. Take the New Hampshire hack Dick Swett, something of a preoccupation
in this column during his doomed race for senator in 1996. Fifty years from
now, what will historians say about Dick Swett? That Dick Swett is a really,
really funny name, that’s what they’ll say.

It was vapidity,
yes, but the four months of real, no-bull history we’ve had since Sept.
11 ought to make us nostalgic for it. I hope it is not just nostalgia that is
making me think of the rank hypocrisy of the late 1990s as a simpler, kinder,
more wholesome kind of rank hypocrisy. Vapidity good! Hypocrisy good! In this
light, Newt Gingrich’s intellectual vanity, Bill Clinton’s amazing
sense of entitlement and the smiley-face imperialism of the Kosovo war were
probably the high points of the last half-decade for me.

My own favorite
quote of the last decade came from a trip Bill Bradley made to Iowa in 1998,
when he was still pretending he wasn’t dying to run for president. When
asked about his plans, Bradley replied, "If you have had a love affair
with the country as I have for 40 years, if you’ve been on the road in
the country 30 years, if you’ve written four books about the country, you
know that whatever you’re going to be doing is going to be intimately involved
in trying to think about this remarkable land." Translated out of yuppie-ese,
that comes out to: "If you flew around a lot as an athletic hero while
people cheered you, if you then parlayed your athletic success into a position
of political power, and if you’re a big enough wheel to dupe people into
thinking you have anything to say that’s worth reading in a book, then
you deserve to rule. And no amount of condescension and hackneyed political
oratory is too much." My thoughts on Bradley. And on the age.

Outside
of raising a family and a few episodes in college that I don’t think I
want to share with the reading public, writing "Hill of Beans" week
after week for the last six years has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve
done in my adult life. But the time has come for me to say goodbye to it. My
thanks to everyone who read the column, whether they liked it or not.

..