What's the collective noun for editorial writers? I need to know because a whole herd of us is coming together this week here in Little Rock. But to call us a herd gives us too much credit for organization. I know it's a coven of witches, a pride of lions, a murder of crows, but what do you call an agglomeration of editorial writers?
My nomination: a clatter. As in the sound made by those old Royals and Underwoods in the noisy, crowded, smoke-filled newsrooms of yesteryear.
There was something romantic, promising, alive about that sound. There still is, which may be why there's a market even now for manual typewriters among the sentimental, or just wistful.
We won't be a full-fledged clatter until the program gets under way with greetings from Mike Huckabee, formerly a governor and presidential candidate, and currently political commentator and bass guitarist with his rock 'n' roll ensemble, Capitol Offense.
There'll be some other Big Names on the program, like syndicated columnist Juan Williams and John Shelton Reed, the DeTocqueville of Dixie. He's rounded up a whole passel of eminent sociologists to talk about the latest incarnation of that curious ethnic/geographic/cultural group known as Southerners.
We'll talk about the Wal-Mart Effect and the impact of Hispanic immigration, too. The obligatory tour of the Central High Museum is to follow a discussion about the ever-evolving historical significance of the Little Rock Crisis of 1957. It'll all be in keeping with the convention's theme this year: "The Next South, the Next America."
Who knows, we may even get around to discussing editorial writing at some point.
All in all, this conclave should be quite a show. It could even prove an education if we pay attention.
Editorial writers should be trickling into the lobby of the Peabody Hotel here in Little Rock all during the day. One by one they'll set down their luggage and the obligatory laptops that have replaced the old Royal and Remington portables, and start looking around for old friends or, even better, old enemies. Some of us have feuded for so long we've started to like each other.
You grow fond of people you see Same Time Next Year year after year. And I've reached the age where I not only see old friends but a ghost or two, editorial writers from the past who used to be at these conventions but have made their last deadline. Tony Snow, a lapsed editorial writer who wound up a presidential press secretary, had been invited to speak at our final dinner, but had a previous engagement. Dang, it'd be good to see him again at one of these things and renew the past, slightly rewritten to give ourselves much better lines.
And I still miss Ann Lloyd Merriman of the Richmond News-Leader and later Times-Dispatch, our historian and keeper of the flame, who left a hole the size of a continent in this outfit's institutional memory when she died a few years ago. How describe her? She was a combination of Virginia gentility and invincibility, of Lee and Jackson, only wrapped in a cloud of cigarette smoke and sipping a bottomless libation. In short, a helluva newspaperwoman.
As you would imagine, given newspapermen's talent for organization, the National Conference of Editorial Writers is a kind of anarchists' convention, a mix of class reunion and debating society. And I can hardly wait for it to pick up steam and get really rolling.
How describe our membership? H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, and a man who could write a mean editorial in more than one sense of the word, attended one of the first of these editorial writers' conferences. His writings remain fruit for the minda mix of verbal razzmatazz and cold observation that still cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. For example, here's his summary description of the nation's editorial writers at that early conference of same:
"Copy readers promoted from the city room to get rid of them, alcoholic writers of local histories and forgotten novels, former managing editors who had come to grief on other papers, and a miscellany of decayed lawyers, college professors and clergymen with whispered pasts. Some of these botches of God were pleasant enough fellows, a few even showed a certain grasp of elementary English, but taking one with another they were held in disdain." Certainly they were by Mr. Mencken, who never mixed his talent with tact. In his case, that would have been a sad dilution.
We've grown considerably more respectable since Mr. Mencken's time, more's the pity. The modern, contemporary editorial writer, alas, has an abundance of tact and all too little talent. Like any patron saint, Henry Louis Mencken is much honored amongst us, but too little followed. Literal-minded, imagination-short, terribly solemn, dutiful to a fault, we now might find eloquence in bad taste, or at least a violation of the stylebook.
Year after year, these conventions grow more like a wake for the great editorial writers we've lost, and for the old, Menckenesque editorials page that took no prisoners. This year we'll be told, again, that editorial writing is a dead art, and we just don't know it and had better learn to blog. But as Truman Capote said of the works of another author, that's not writing, it's typing. So we write on, the happy few of us who are left, and still think of our newspapers as personas with a history, character and opinion of their own to express through us.