A defender of the language

James J. Kilpatrick, who died today at age 89, was a man who was a fighter two times over — for a good cause and for a lost cause.

I’ll remember him best as a defender of the language, much like his fellow conservative columnist William Safire, whose passing was noted in this blog last fall. I still have a copy of Kilpatrick’s book The Writer’s Art (1984) in my collection, and still like to pull out some of his more egregious examples of bad writing from newspapers for my classes.

My favorite: “According to police reports, the man said he was attacked by a pack of wild dogs on a tractor.”

And he took on other such grammatically- and syntactically-challenged examples of writing in his column, also called “The Writer’s Art,” which he turned out weekly up until January of last year.

To historians of the modern South, he will also be known as a defender of a lost cause. In editorials for the Richmond Times Leader, which he edited through much of the Fifties and Sixties, he laid out what he saw as the legal argument for racial segregation. He espoused the doctrine of “massive resistance” a state’s right to resist a federal mandate if the state thought it exceeded constitutional authority.

Later in life he re-examined and distanced himself from those segregationist views. But he never backed down from other conservative principles. Another generation got to know him in the Seventies for his appearances in the “Point/Counterpoint” segment on 60 Minutes, arguing issues from the right side of the political spectrum.

On TV he came across, truthfully, as a little pompous, but his liberal nemesis, columnist Shana Alexander could be obnoxious herself. So their shtick was easily — and famously parodied by Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live, making “Jane, you ignorant slut!” a national catchphrase.

And he later became one of the nation’s most syndicated columnists through his “A Conservative View.” which ran from 1966 to 1993. (Interestingly, Kilpatrick married liberal columnist Marianne Means, who survives him, in 1998).

But I think the public service for which he will be most missed was his role as watchdog for the language.

“Be clear, be clear, be clear!” he said in “The Writer’s Art. “Your image or idea may be murky but do not write murkily about it. Be murky clearly.”

And that will always be good advice.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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