April 24th, 2019


Q. and A.

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published June 29, 2015

  Q. and A.

Q. What's the best American newspaper column ever written?

A. "The Death of Captain Waskow" by Ernie Pyle, which the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reprinted on its editorial page April 18, the 70th anniversary of his being killed by a Japanese sniper on an obscure atoll in the Pacific. He had raised his head once too often to get a good look-see, as was his way.

Q. What's the worst American newspaper column ever written?

A. There are too many to choose from, including many of my own, to settle on just one.

Q. What's the funniest American essay ever written?

A. "The Awful German Language" by Mark Twain. ("Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. ... These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions.") A close runner-up would be "How I Edited an Agricultural Paper" by the selfsame Mark Twain. ("Turnips should never be pulled, it injures them. It is much better to send a boy up and let him shake the tree.")

Q. What's the worst prediction ever made by an American foreign correspondent?

A. For the "ordinary people of Cambodia ... it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone." --Sydney Schanberg in the New York Times, April 13, 1975. It turned out that for millions of Cambodians, ordinary life did not become better. Instead, their lives, ordinary and otherwise. were over. Most were executed in that country's now notorious killing fields. Mr. Schanberg had made a slight miscalculation. His mistake, their lives.

Q. What's the most influential American invention of the modern age?

A. I vote for the telephone, though others might choose the automobile. Both can be abused, but each definitely changed American life.

Q. What's the silliest American invention of the modern age?

A. Gentle Reader doubtless has his own nomination, there are so many Rube Goldberg contraptions out there to choose from. My own favorite is the work of that brilliant but erratic American inventor, architect and all-around polymath Buckminster Fuller, whose futuristic visions weren't the same as the future, any more than Buck Rogers was John Glenn.

Bucky Fuller's geodesic domes (remember them?) still mar tourist courts here and there, as well as other parts of the American landscape that would have been better left untouched. A car buff recently re-created his Dymaxion automobile, a bulbous Zeppelin-like, three-wheeled oddity with rear-wheel steering (yes, I said steering) with seating for 11 if they dared risk it. It crashed dramatically shortly after its introduction at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933, killing the test driver and injuring two passengers. The Wall Street Journal's Dan Neil concluded his review of the Dymaxion by renaming it the Fuller death-mobile. It was supposed to get 30 miles to the gallon, but as Mr. Neil noted, "most drivers will never make it that far."

Better you should visit the impressive Crystal Bridges arts center here in Arkansas and admire Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian house as it is meticulously reassembled, a perfect tribute to the architect's very American vision of simple horizontal planes melding into nature. There's a future worth admiring.

Q. What's the best way to observe the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War?

A. Re-read Lincoln's Second Inaugural, which remains the best, most eloquent explanation of The War's causes and effects, and still exhorts us: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Mr. Lincoln's words elevate even now, and they apply not just to one war but all. As a general named Grant put it, "Let us have peace."

In this country, Civil War Roundtables are hobbies, not blood duels. We find unreconstructed rebels entertaining, not clear and present dangers. We are all Americans now, not perpetual enemies.

Q. What's the worst way to observe the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War?

A. Listen to some of PBS' star historians express surprise and consternation that, after The War, so many Confederate leaders were pardoned and even allowed to go on trying to justify their actions in elaborate multivolume tomes (like Jefferson Davis' monumentally boring constitutional arguments) instead of being hanged as the traitors they were.

Better to read Daniel Boorstin's "The Genius of American Politics," especially the chapter on the Civil War and the Spirit of Compromise, and how we avoided the perpetual war that even now marks the histories of less fortunate countries that cannot bring themselves to forgive after their civil wars. To quote the title of one of the George Orwell's insightful essays, "Revenge is Sour."

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.