BY REKHA BASU
Decades ago, then Washington-based syndicated columnist Donald Kaul was invited by the editor of The Des Moines Register, his primary employer, to give the keynote speech at a newsroom staff retreat. It was an honor normally reserved for outsiders, and for most staffers would have been a plum chance to impress the boss with how erudite and popular one was.
But Kaul started off expressing surprise at having been asked. Not only did his column do little to attract advertisers, he quipped, but most of his mail began: “Please cancel my subscription.”
It was exactly the way the pointed but endearing columnist, who died recently at 83, approached any of his topics: with a smart, acerbic wit and a childlike cheekiness he could turn on himself as easily as on his subjects.
“There are those who charge me with having been unfair to girls’ basketball,” read one of his columns. “They say that my commentaries on the sport over the years have been uninformed, bigoted, puerile, jejune and downright stupid. To which I can only answer, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’”
The brilliance was in how he managed to braid such sophisticated terms as “jejune” – which for those like me who need to look it up means insipid, uninformed and juvenile – in with self-deprecation while readying his punches. Which could be harsh.
“I saw Des Moines’ civil defense apparatus at close hand Sunday, as the city responded to a mock tornado,” said one. “The drill was designed to determine the city’s readiness to deal with a natural disaster. Pray for nice weather.”
“When I first learned that the Iowa Legislature had raised its pay to $5,500 a session, I was pleased … Then I found out that each member was to get that much.”
Kaul’s columns helped seal the deal for me when I was offered an editorial writing job at the Register in 1991. I’d never heard of him before the editors sent me a stack of Register opinion sections to look over. When so many daily newspapers had cookie-cutter columnists who railed against the same sort of trivia with little insight or risk-taking, Kaul’s voice was thrilling. He never shied away from the big issues but managed to not use his depth of knowledge and analysis to intimidate readers. I figured any daily paper gutsy and open-minded enough to have someone like him was one worth moving the family across the country to work for.
There are two schools of column writing, Kaul wrote in the introduction to his 1970 book of columns titled, “How to light a water heater and other war stories”: the toothbrush school and the nymphomaniac school. Those in the toothbrush school do it by rote, like brushing their teeth, or at least that’s how one of them told Kaul he did. Another offered a metaphor for the need columnists feel to constantly feed the beast: “It’s like being married to a nymphomaniac.” Of which Kaul quipped, “I’ll take that on faith.”
People asked him how he managed to come up with a fresh idea every day, he wrote, answering: “You don’t. But if you work very hard at it, you can make it look as though you do, more or less.”
After I began writing columns, Kaul sent me a complimentary note, and it felt as if I’d won the Pulitzer. “I like your work,” he wrote, or words close to that. “Who are you?” Unfortunately my response to the question could best be described as – well – jejune. Clearly I hadn’t fully figured it out yet myself.
I later turned to him for advice after Googling myself and discovering I’d become the laughingstock of a group of conservative white men who called me a lesbian, man-hating, America-hating socialist, who wouldn’t know quality from “the back end of a buffalo.” Some readers wished me dead while others just wished I’d go back to India, or New York, or Cuba. They even offered to pay my way. My hate mail even made national news after catching another female journalist’s attention.
Kaul’s advice, when I asked him how to handle all of this, has stayed with me almost verbatim to this day. “Take whatever is of value and learn from it,” he emailed. “As for the rest, just be glad you ruined some son of a bitch’s day.”
That lesson was a gift that keeps on giving.
Some of Kaul’s writings are uncannily timeless. In a prescient piece after anti-war protesters at Kent State University were shot by National Guard troops in 1970, he wrote: “We seem to be a society dead set on self-destruction with each element set against its opposite number — young against old, black against white, North against South. And now we sit arguing whether those four dead kids at Kent State deserved what they got and where we should draw the line on the home front.”
The middle ground, he wrote, was “rapidly turning to political quicksand.”
“It is time to reassert the value of rationality in our society,” he continued. “This does not mean a lowering of voices, which does nothing but serve the corrupt interests of power, but rather demanding that the voices talk sense.”
That could have been written today when some of the most powerful voices do not. But whatever tone he wrote in, Donald Kaul always talked sense. His voice will be deeply missed.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.