Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Pessimist Is Happy to Be a Columnist

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Pessimist Is Happy to Be a Columnist

Article excerpt

When Richard Nixon died two years ago, many columnists gave him a presidential pardon. They focused on his successes and forgave his failures - including his resignation, scandals, enemies lists, illegal wiretapping and malevolent attacks on opponents.

But Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul, who is syndicated by Tribune Media Services, decided to bury Richard Nixon instead of praise him. To do otherwise would've been out of character for Kaul, who had skewered Nixon in print for a quarter-century. Old habits, like old presidents, die hard.

"I made a living off him for 25 years. It was my last shot. You've got to take your last shot," Kaul said with a laugh.

So he chronicled the litany of Nixon's failures - and some people, not surprisingly, didn't take it well.

"His defendants thought it was in poor taste, which I can't totally disagree with," said Kaul, adding unapologetically: "It's not my job to be in good taste"

Some columnists go after their prey with the subtlety of a gunman spraying an automatic weapon; shots go everywhere, with some hitting but most missing. Kaul is more economical, like a sniper. He aims, fires and generally hits what he's shooting at - to the joy of many readers and the disdain of others.

"I love to be mean to the bad guys" he remarked. "It just turns me on."

As a satirist, Kaul offers wit and insight, not apologies. Satire, he said, consists of finding the irony of a situation or highlighting the negative qualities of a person or thing. It is negative by definition. Calling attention to the naked emperor is one of the perks of being a satirist. Getting paid for it is even better.

The former Pulitzer Prize finalist admits his column appeals to the eccentric and nontraditional thinker. While this isn't necessarily bad, it can be limiting.

"When you write an eccentric column, as I do, you can't make a living appealing just to the people who agree with you. There aren't that many. I'm always amazed when people say, `You're not mainstream America,'" he said. "Who the hen wants to be?"

This is the kind of statement that could easily earn a person the reputation for being a pessimist, and that label's fine with Kaul.

"Pessimists are right 90% of the time," he observed. "The other 10%, you're pleasantly surprised. I can't understand how optimists make it through the day."

Nothing brings out the best in a pessimist like a political campaign, particularly this one. Given the current crop of presidential candidates, Kaul is asked if there's any reason to feel optimistic about the future of the country. "No," he replies cheerfully.

"One of the pessimistic things I've come to believe is that the best two people running for president are Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and what a terrible thing to say about the political system," he said.

Kaul is less flattering about Pat Buchanan, a former and possibly future Tribune Media columnist. "Mr. Buchanan is a journalist by trade. The last prominent journalist to hold high office was Benito Mussolini. Enough said," Kaul wrote in January. in the same column, he called Richard Lugar the "most thoughtful" of the candidates, adding: "Given the field, this is a little like being voted Mr. Congeniality in a motorcycle race."

As for Phil Gramm, Kaul said he would have "done better if the primary season had started in a venue more congenial to his brand of charm - Bosnia, for example."

The Register first sent Kaw to Washington to cover the 1972 presidential election between George McGovern and Richard Nixon. …

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