The sedan ahead of me was barreling along the byways outside of Kansas City, and I was glued to its bumper.
The Washington state trooper at the wheel was hustling Gov. Dan Evans to his next speaking engagement and wasn’t worrying that traffic or red lights might throw me off his trail.
That was his job, but I had one to do, too. As the political writer for the Spokane Chronicle, I and my Spokesman-Review counterpart, Rob Harper, were in Kansas City for the 1976 Republican National Convention. The idea was to keep an eye on our state’s delegates and dignitaries throughout the week, and it so happened that Evans, completing the last of his three terms as governor, was under consideration to be President Ford’s running mate.
Harper kept a white-knuckled grip on the armrest as I matched the trooper’s every swerving lane change. Before I knew it, we were on the Blue Springs, Mo., off-ramp – with an abrupt stop at the bottom of it.
As the tires screeched, we had scant seconds to imagine how our own papers (not to mention the nation’s) would play the story about the two Spokane reporters who rear-ended a potential vice presidential candidate.
Happily, my flirtation with headline-making history 35 years ago in Kansas City went unfulfilled. Missed him by that much.
Unhappily, so did Evans’ shot at the GOP ticket. Sen. Bob Dole got the vice presidential call in a year when it was a tense convention issue.
There’s no particular point to this story, but it’s my last chance to tell it. On Thursday afternoon, after 42 years of newspapering for the Chronicle and The Spokesman- Review, I’m off to sample the pastures of retirement.
Never one to recognize a good chance to shut up, I’m tempted here to retrace every miraculous technological twist along the road from hot-metal type to Twitter. I heard something like that once from my father, except it was about horse-drawn buggies and jet airliners. Every generation marvels at its own journey, I guess. ’Nuff said.
The change that I find most striking, and scary, is not the technological advancement of the past four decades but the way it’s being used to poison the public conversation that sustains democracy.
Didn’t politicians ever squabble back in Dan Evans’ day? Sure. I remember Evans scorching a Democratic Legislature he thought was dragging its feet on important education programs. Fierce battles are part of politics, but they once were tempered by a pragmatism that fixed boundaries around debate. In that era, they understood the need to cooperate at some point in the interest of the public. They recognized that ideological differences did not rule out honorable motives.
“Moderate,” “mainstream” and “compromise” hadn’t yet become dirty words.
But they didn’t operate against a backdrop of blogs and cable news channels that cater to extreme views. They weren’t competing to reach a rigid audience whose every fringe conspiracy theory could be backed up at the click of a remote, or a mouse, by a dozen authoritative-looking mountebanks.
I’ve long believed that the role of a free press is to give readers the information they need to be effective citizens in pursuit of what Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer calls active liberty. That hasn’t changed, even if tomorrow’s newspaper looks more like an iPad.
While I’m anxious about cultural trends, I’m not in full-blown despair.
As my own career coasts down the off-ramp, I peer into the rearview mirror and see an organization of smart, dedicated and tech-savvy journalists who are figuring out the new medium, whatever its contours become. Just as important, these bright minds are still committed to journalism’s fundamental value – supplying the glue that keeps democracy intact.
I’ll be following them.