I first began reading the Washington Post sometime in 1956-57, whenever I learned to read in the course of first grade. One of my parents had declared that newspapers were deliberately written at a fifth-grade level, and I was determined to find out what “fifth-grade level” meant. I discovered that it meant slightly incomprehensible to a 6-year-old; but the four comics pages were a reasonable point of entry, and from there I graduated by stages to the status of daily newspaper reader.
In those days, the Post called itself the Washington Post and Times-Herald, having purchased Cissy Patterson’s old outlet in 1954, and there were two other local competitors: the Washington Daily News, an afternoon tabloid which my parents considered beneath their dignity, and the Evening Star, another afternoon paper with decidedly Republican sympathies and an older pedigree than the Post.
For whatever reason, I much preferred the Star: To a juvenile reader, at any rate, it seemed more interesting and accessible, and contained features (show biz columnists Earl Wilson and Sheilah Graham, for example) ordinarily disdained by the Post. In due course, however, the Evening Star began to fade. In the early 1970s it was purchased by an ambitious Texan magnate named Joe Allbritton, who then bought the Daily News and changed the name of his conglomerate to the Washington Star-News.
As sometimes happens in these circumstances, the new Star acquired the personality of the old Daily News, and bore little resemblance to the Evening Star of happy memory. Allbritton ultimately sold the package to Time Inc., which changed its name to the Washington Star and, with the elegant exception of the editorial pages (edited by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.), pushed it further downhill until closing it forever in 1981.
By then I was living in Los Angeles, working at the Los Angeles Times, and would see the Post only at irregular intervals. I had long since formed the opinion that the Post had the pretensions of a great newspaper without the ingredients—the cultural coverage, then and now, in the New York Times is incomparably more sophisticated—and that the Watergate affair, paradoxically, had only made things worse. Forty years have now passed since the famous break-in, but while the Post is still advertising its defeat of Richard Nixon, it remains at best an impressive provincial newspaper.
When I returned to the Washington area, exactly 20 years ago, I found to my dismay that everything I had once disliked about the Post had only been magnified. Having grown up in suburban Maryland, now living in suburban Virginia, I was alternately distressed and frustrated by its contemptuous attitude toward those communities, which contain (I presume) the great majority of its subscribers. The Post’s political bias is hardly worth mentioning, but sometimes its hostility to conservatives in general, and Republicans in particular, has an obsessive quality.
To this is added, I confess, a series of personal grievances. A Pulitzer finalist in Distinguished Commentary—“distinguished,” indeed!—I was strung along for a year as a potential columnist for the Post syndicate until the late Meg Greenfield nixed me in favor of an Oprah wannabe named Donna Britt. When my mother died I had the misfortune to deal with an especially officious obituary writer. And of course, most humiliating of all, the Post failed to review my book about Ike, FDR, and the American Century.
But because I was, and remain, a daily newspaper reader, and because life contains a certain measure of uncomfortable compromise, I continued my habit of subscribing to the Post despite its occasional juvenile tone, its unrelenting political warfare, Marxist business columnists, and omni-potent sports reporters, and its practice of regarding Northern Virginia as a forbidding wasteland of bigots and philistines.
Until the day came, not so long ago, when it occurred to me that the solution to my dilemma lay in plain sight. A free copy of the Post is available at my office, where I can read it without having to pay for the privilege of being annoyed and insulted on a regular basis. And thus, with scarcely the bat of an eye, I canceled my subscription.
Since I seldom eat breakfast at home, and read the paper in installments throughout the day, the absence of the Post in my driveway every morning has proved painless. My alluring wife misses the routine on weekends, and so occasionally spends our hard-earned wages on a Sunday edition. But that is all right: At such rates, I calculate, I am enriching Starbucks (where she buys it), not Post shareholders like Warren Buffett. And the only feature I genuinely care about, at this stage in life, is the obituary page.