Over and Out 

A cable icon's last words in print include a warning on Iraq.

For 15 years, I have been among the grand and lucky few to write a newspaper column. It's something I had wanted for a long time, something I owe to one bloke: Larry Kramer.

In June 1987, I lingered with him over lunch and several carafes of house white in a South of Market restaurant in San Francisco. My sister-in-law Ann was about to get married at the Metropolitan Club, and I was just checking in with an old friend. Larry had been metro editor of The Washington Post and was then executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner.

He asked if I wanted to write a column. I said, as if kneeling at the altar of my life, "I do," and it has made all the difference.

I can't remember not wanting to be a columnist. When I was in college, my hero was Joe McGinnis. Just 25, he was already writing three times a week in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

At Chapel Hill in grad school, I'd pore over the page of the Raleigh News & Observer across from the editorials, what I'd later learn to call the "op-ed page." That's where I came across that crusty Dixiecrat James J. Kilpatrick and began my lifelong homage to him and other great newspaper columnists.

When I got to Washington, I learned the crackle of The Washington Post, just then beginning its Watergate heyday. At the bottom of the Style section -- Ben Bradlee's child -- I discovered the inimitable Nicholas von Hoffman. A political son of Chicago firebrand Saul Alinsky, Nick did just as much as Woodward and Bernstein to rip away the Nixon cover-up. I will never forget his portrait of aide Ron Ziegler trooping mechanically in and out of the White House press room like a figure in a Schwarzwald clock.

What von Hoffman could do from the left, George F. Will soon matched from the right. I watched Will join the masters of the universe: David Broder, Joseph Kraft, Bob Novak, Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton, and Jack Newfield.

I remember having dinner in Belfast on the eve of the Good Friday peace referendum. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, Mary McGrory of The Washington Post, Mike Barnicle of The Boston Globe, and I all sat around the table. We all had our roots in Ireland, and I loved it.

But I can't kid myself. I never made their world. They were the best writers in the business. When I see this final column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I will continue to worship these people from below. Even after a decade and a half of trying, I don't know how they do it: the endless flow of news ideas, the ever-surprising settings, the out-of-the-blue insights, the fine and faultless language.

And, yes, I hunger still for the imagined thrill of walking into a dark big-city bar and having some guy look up from his drink and either knock me or love me for something I've written that day.

But this is my last column. The wisdom of middle age has taught me I can't have -- or do -- it all. I remember Senator Ed Muskie the night he won his last election back in 1976. He'd had some vodka, which I sensed he'd drunk fast -- like a Russian against the winter. He said, "The only reason to be in politics is to be out there all alone and then be proven right."

That goes for good columnists too.

So I'll say it: I hate this war that's coming in Iraq. I don't think we'll be proud of it. Oppose this war because it will create a millennium of hatred and the suicidal terrorism that comes with it. You talk about Bush trying to avenge his father. What about the tens of millions of Arab sons who will want to finish a fight we start next spring in Baghdad?

Well, that's it for now. You know where I stand.

Chris Matthews, a former congressional aide, is host of Hardball on MSNBC and has written a syndicated newspaper column for the last several years.


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