Columnist, wordsmith James Kilpatrick dies at 89

Monday, August 16, 2010 | 5:32 p.m. CDT; updated 5:43 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 16, 2010
In this April 1, 1965 black-and-white file photo, then-Richmond News Leader editor James J. Kilpatrick, testified on Capitol Hill in Washington. Kilpatrick's wife said the widely syndicated political columnist has died at age 89.

WASHINGTON — James J. Kilpatrick's in-your-face, conservative bickering with liberal commentator Shana Alexander three decades ago was famously parodied — and then copied for years to come on broadcast and cable channels.

Even more lasting: his contributions as the nation's most widely syndicated political columnist and a dozen books on a wide range, including politics and the U.S. Supreme Court and the use and abuse of the English language.

Kilpatrick, who rose from cub reporter to one of the nation's most recognized conservative voices, died Sunday at age 89, according to his wife Marianne Means.

"He was a hell of a fella," said Means, 76, a former columnist for Hearst Newspapers. "He cultivated a public image on TV of being a cranky conservative ... but he wasn't a cranky conservative at home."

Kilpatrick punctuated his more staid commentary with moments of whimsy — as a young reporter who tried to get a lawmaker to introduce a bill outlawing the month of February and a writer desperate to get rid of a skunk that had gotten cozy beneath his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. More than 500 readers sent suggestions on how to handle the problem.

TV watchers in the 1970s knew Kilpatrick as the conservative half of the "Point-Counterpoint" segment of CBS' "60 Minutes." Baby boomers, though, would always know the liberal-conservative pairing is what inspired the "Saturday Night Live" parody, featuring Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin — and Aykroyd's dismissal of Curtin's opinions with a terse, "Jane, you ignorant slut."

The "60 Minutes" segment's popularity was not lost on Kilpatrick: "People love to watch other people go at it. It does make for good entertainment," he said in a 1981 Washington Post story about a similar program.

The man, known as "Kilpo" to colleagues, showed a penchant for the written word as a youngster, learning to read by age 4 and deciding early on he wanted to be a newsman. He worked summers as a copy boy for the Oklahoma City Times, while working toward his degree at MU.

In 1941, he took a job with the Richmond (Va.) News Leader and was the paper's editor-in-chief 10 years later. He spent many years trying to make amends for the columns he penned as a vocal supporter of racial segregation. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down separate-but-equal schools in its Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, he accused the court of repudiating the Constitution.

"If it be said now that the South be flouting the law, let it be said to the high court: You taught us how," he wrote.

"He apologized over and over publicly and in print when he could about being on the wrong side of the segregation issue," Means said. "He was a son of the South."

Kilpatrick received numerous journalism awards and was one of the few columnists ever honored as a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists. He worked for Universal Press Syndicate for years until retiring a couple of years ago.

His conservative writings made him a newspaper mainstay, leading to syndication in 1964. Two years later, he left the Richmond paper to write columns full time in Washington. He also served as contributing editor to the National Review and had a monthly column in Nation's Business.

Conservatives, Kilpatrick wrote in Nation's Business in 1978, "believe that a civilized society demands orders and classes, that men are not inherently equal, that change and reform are not identical, that in a free society men are children of God and not wards of the state."

Those observations landed him appearances on television's "Agronsky and Company" and on "60 Minutes," teamed first with liberal Nicholas von Hoffman and then, starting in 1975, with Alexander.

Reached Monday at his home in Maine, von Hoffman said despite their political differences, Kilpatrick was a terrific person to work with.

"We used to call what we did a political form of professional wrestling," von Hoffman said. "We didn't take it very seriously. For others, he was very controversial ... but I just liked him a lot."

Later, Kilpatrick focused on his efforts as a wordsmith, proselytizing against the abuse of the English language.

"Be clear, be clear, be clear!" he admonished in his book "The Writer's Art," published in 1984. "Your image or idea may be murky but do not write murkily about it. Be murky clearly."

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