Abraham Lincoln had a supreme ability to say a great deal in just a few words. Lincoln took just 272 words at Gettysburg to refocus the United States on the Declaration of Independence and its majestic theme that all men were created equal. And it took him just 703 words in the Second Inaugural Address to depict the Civil War in starkly moral terms, pay tribute to God's justice and call for a postwar policy of reconciliation: "Malice Toward None, Charity For All."
I was reminded of this the other day when a Times reader, Amy Huggins of Los Angeles, took just 33 words in a letter to the paper to sum up the work of Michael Kinsley, editor of the editorial pages.
"Who says there aren't diverse voices on your Op-Ed page?" wrote Ms. Huggins. "Kinsley was fawning, offensive, defensive, hostile, arrogant, righteous, contrite and acquiescent all in one lousy column. And still he had nothing to say."
A few days later, on Sunday, April 3, the Times editorial on the death of Pope John Paul II managed the same inadequacy. We can't be sure Kinsley wrote this. He may have been in his beloved Seattle and not even have realized what his staff here was doing. But he is responsible for what appears in editorials.
Times coverage of the Pope's death, under the guidance of the newspaper's outstanding obituaries editor, the sensitive Jon Thurber, was, as usual, superb. This has grown to be one of the outstanding parts of the entire paper and it had one of its greatest moments Sunday in a special section.
But the editorial, published with the rest of the coverage because of the timing of the Pope's death, struck a discordant and inappropriate note.
Was the Pope a Catholic? Could anyone expect that he would not defend the doctrinal positions of the Roman Catholic Church?
But, more than that, what was missing from the obituary editorial was adequate appreciation of the Pope as an outstanding world personality, a man who had worked so effectively for so many years to advance his beliefs. It was certainly appropriate to mention that in important respects those beliefs were not those of the Los Angeles Times. But the mood of the Times editorial was far too negative. The whole world, Catholic and non-Catholic, was in mourning, but, it seemed, not the Times editorial writer.
The issue evoked here reminds me of the masterful editorial the New York Times published in November of 1970 when Charles de Gaulle died. The NYT was not in agreement with de Gaulle in important ways, yet it managed to pay him the homage he greatly deserved.
"Charles de Gaulle was a legend and his name a prophecy: Charles of Gaul," the editorial began. "His life was constructed on a mystical conviction that he was to save France."
Later on, in the editorial, the NYT writer declared:
"His method alienated his neighbors more than it united them and it severely weakened the cohesion of the Atlantic alliance. But his instinct often was a sure one. Winston Churchill, who in a famous aphorism groaned that the heaviest cross he had to bear was the Cross of Lorraine (the emblem of the Free French), also said on Aug. 2, 1944, in the House of Commons: 'I have never forgotten, and can never forget, that he stood forth as the first eminent Frenchman to face the common foe in what seemed to be the hour of ruin of his country, and possibly of ours.'
The de Gaulle editorial went on for quite a while, and ended, as could have been said in another context of Pope John Paul II: "He died as he lived, an austere, tenacious, brave, inflexible man...It is for some of the great enterprises associated with his name that he will be remembered, and for the extraordinary character and personality that often angered but always intrigued the world."
We see this week the outpouring of the whole world in tribute to the striking life of the Polish Pope, the foe of Hitler and Stalin, the exponent of peace in the world and the fortunes of his own Church. And once again, the regrettable failure to adequately articulate noble sentiments by Michael Kinsley as Times editorial pages editor is just plain out of touch with all of that.