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Feeling Christie Vilsack’s pain


Anyone who’s ever written a weekly newspaper column has to be feeling some of Christie Vilsack’s pain. Most of us have written a column or two that didn’t quite make the intended point or made a completely different one when taken out of context. We’ve been chided for what we’ve written, been called out and asked to explain ourselves, just not on a national stage.

The country, or at least the Republican operatives in it, are having a field day over a fairly innocuous column Vilsack wrote for the Mount Pleasant News in 1994. Arguing against an English-only bill that her husband, then a state senator and now Iowa’s governor, signed into law eight years later and apologized for last week, Vilsack laboriously listed examples of dialects and accents and wrote of her and others’ failure to understand some of them. Among the other unflattering things the Boston Herald said about Vilsack was that she had “slammed blacks.”

To believe Christie Vilsack is a racist, you’d have to believe that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a black separatist. If she’s guilty of anything, it was trying to be too clever about a serious, divisive subject that strikes to the core of who we are as a nation. Perhaps she should have written more of what was in her heart instead of relying on a device that frequently fails even the most competent of writers, but if she didn’t quite get her point across, it’s forgivable. The Mount Pleasant News likely didn’t see her as the next Maureen Dowd, but as an engaged civic leader who both understands issues and can express herself in writing – and who also happened to be married to one of Iowa’s rising political stars.

The best of Iowa’s community newspaper stewards seek out the perspectives of opinion leaders and give them a bully pulpit, and their opinion pages are filled with musings like those from Christie Vilsack. It’s one thing to know how David Broder or Ellen Goodman weighs in on a critical issue, but the same viewpoints seem more intimate and relevant when offered by a next-door neighbor. It’s a marvelous tradition that allows newspapers to serve as the conscience for the communities they serve.

Occasionally, the writers either stumble or someone with an ulterior motive makes it look as if they stumbled. Once, in Fairfield, which bills itself as “the Christmas City,” I stopped just short of saying Fairfield looks like the city that Christmas threw up on when the town square is aglow with its motley assortment of colored lights and faded, ragged and aging decorations. I thought I was at my clever best, pointing out how spiritually confusing it is to have Rudolph rushing past the Baby Jesus and headlong into the big blue plastic menorah that’s as gaudy as a prize in a carnival game. I said the garish array looked schizophrenic. I made absurd observation after absurd observation when “less is more” would have done the trick. The mental-health advocates proclaimed my remarks insensitive and inflammatory. “Anti-Christmas” was the nicest thing people said about me.

When you think you’ve just penned the quintessential, defining piece on a subject, there’s nothing quite as crushing as being told, in a manner of speaking, that your column blew. Luckily for most of us with a column-writing gig, no one’s poring over every word we ever wrote looking for enough rope to hang us.

Beth Dalbey is editorial director for Business Publications Corp. E-mail her at bethdalbey@bpcdm.com.

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