Every Sunday I seek to add value. That's my personal goal for this column. Having just reread the 50 or so pieces I wrote in 2015, I'm pleased overall with what ran under my byline.
Thank you to those readers who've stopped me to engage about my work. To a person, they've been pleasant, even when voicing a contrary opinion. This reinforces my belief that there's a place for civil dialogue in a country that has too often ceded our discussion to those with the loudest voices.
I recently told Inquirer editor William K. Marimow that I most enjoy writing profiles. This year, four of those portraits stand out: political dirty trickster Roger Stone, former Eagles GM Jim Murray, painter Nelson Shanks, and local tomato farmer Fred Slack.
Sadly, I wrote about Shanks only after we lost him to cancer. I don't know if Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Pope John Paul II, or Margaret Thatcher ever enjoyed a cocktail with Shanks when he painted them, but I did, and I will never forget that he was as skilled in the art of conversation as he was with his brush. Jimmy Murray, the man who was Eagles owner Leonard Tose's aide de camp and founded the Ronald McDonald House Charities, is one of the most decent, pious individuals I've ever met. (Nobody ever says that about Stone, whose company I enjoy nonetheless.) I deliberately wrote about Slack for Labor Day weekend. We were baseball teammates at Holicong Junior High School in Buckingham. Fred played second base; I pitched. When I think I'm overworked juggling too many responsibilities, I just picture Fred tilling his soil in Forest Grove. I hope he sold a few extra tomatoes the weekend I wrote about him.
I was prescient in some areas, behind the curve in others, and occasionally flat-out wrong. I also called for politicians to do a number of things that haven't happened.
Bolstered by the deposition of terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui by Philadelphia lawyer Sean Carter, wherein he testified that he'd been a liaison between Osama bin Laden and the Saudi royal family, I wrote demanding that President Obama honor his pledge to 9/11 victims ("Mr. President, release the 28 pages. We can handle the truth"). That hasn't happened.
Neither have we retired the penny, as I advocated after spending $15.01 on some sushi, only to have the vendor begin to count out 99 cents. A woman in line saved me from a pocket full of change.
Another revolution I failed to spark is one to rebuild our infrastructure. I hate that our local roads are Third Worldish. (Yes, I'm driving down you, Sproul Road in Radnor Township, and you too, Gulph Road in Lower Merion Township.) My Ides of March birthday was ruined when a pothole at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island ate my car. After interviewing Ed Rendell, an infrastructure champion, I wondered whether anyone in the 2016 field would make rebuilding roads and bridges a hallmark. That hasn't happened.
I'm hoping to have more success with my plea that Center City not be put into a military lockdown for the Democratic National Convention next summer, the way it was for the visit of Pope Francis. Of that visit, I also said the pope was "poised to uniquely frame the [presidential] debate." Too bad that didn't happen.
Some columns write themselves. That was certainly the case in September at the Reagan Library, while I was covering the second Republican debate for CNN. I'd been there before and remembered an exhibit showcasing note cards on which Reagan recorded the many one-liners he liked to incorporate into his after-dinner speeches. Looking through Plexiglas I spied a line in the Gipper's cursive: "Never start an argument with a woman when she's tired . . . or when she's rested." It was divine intervention. This was one week after Donald Trump insulted Carly Fiorina's physical appearance.
No one made my job easier than Trump. When he announced his candidacy in June, I said the only thing missing "was a voice from a bullhorn 'saying step right up.' " I also said that he was no long-distance runner. I wrote: "I cannot see him competing beyond the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, which both take place next February - assuming that his name is even on those two states' ballots." He'd be the first to tell you I am a "loser," given that I predicted he'd never run, would never file a financial disclosure, and would drop like a stone after sullying prisoners of war. But I still say there's zero chance of him being elected president.
Twice I wrote to make legal arguments on the side of unpopular public figures. Dennis Hastert may have been accused of doing unspeakable things with a minor while a teacher, but I still don't think it's the government's business when an American withdraws money from his own bank account. Similarly, while not defending Bill Cosby against the allegations of sexual impropriety asserted by more than 40 women, I'm still troubled that much of what we know about Cosby came from a deposition transcript released in a local federal court case that was settled with a confidentiality agreement.
One constant to which I'll return in 2016 is my concern about divisiveness. Last spring I reported that the Hewlett Foundation, led by Larry Kramer and boasting $9 billion in assets, had added polarization to the list of weighty problems it addresses, namely: poverty, climate change, and education. Kramer told me: "If changes can't take place because government is gridlocked, then we're just wasting time and money on all our other programs. The U.S. has to play a critical role on everything, and we can't play a critical role on much of anything in this situation." He's right.
Let's resolve to combat that in the new year.