Where did all the political columns go?
Where do people get their political insight these days? A brief survey of readers and reporters indicates that nobody is quite sure. Perhaps because there are now so few reliable sources to provide it.
Back in the glory days of Maine journalism this was not a problem. Veteran reporters like Doc Arnold of the Bangor Daily News and Pete Damborg of the Portland Press Herald, to name two of the more prominent, haunted every nook and cranny of the State House (not to mention political watering holes) digging out news.
But while they reported (and broke) many blockbuster news stories they did more than that. They were masters of the political column.
It was through their columns, which were must reading for every political groupie in Maine, that these reporters took readers behind the news. They used the columns to provide readers with a potpourri of bits and pieces of information about politicians and the State House.
The nuggets that comprised the columns were news, not opinion, although some columns also contained more than a touch of gossip -- a factor that only increased their appeal.
The columns, which usually appeared weekly, gave readers remarkable insight into what was going on in the the state's political world in an informal, even titillating, way that news stories could not.
They offered alerts to developing trends and revealed who was responsible for doing what in Augusta. They trumpeted the rising stars and noted failing careers. Often they exposed political poseurs and cast light on the machinations of would-be Capitol kingpins.
In other words the political columns were a fascinating conduits of information readers could not tap into elsewhere.
This tradition was later carried on by Don Hansen of the PH and Dave Rawson of the BDN. One politician famously defined the power of the political column when he confessed to Rawson that he "was afraid of what you'll might write about me but even more afraid you won't mention me at all."
It takes someone with extensive political knowledge of the state and many, many reliable sources to produce work compelling enough to inspire such a reaction from a seasoned politician. It also takes a writer who can inspire the confidence of politicians all all stripes. And today finding columnists who can resist becoming partisan (mostly liberal) ideologues is not easy.
So the political column no longer exists in Maine, at least not in the rousing form perfected by writers after World War II. And that's a shame, since a columnist with a finger on the people's pulse can be a powerful asset to a newspaper and its readers.
Consider, for example, the sweeping victory of Paul LePage in the recent GOP primary. It came as a huge surprise, even to many of the more sophisticated denizens of the political world.
Nobody -- no writers, no pollsters -- publicly foresaw the LePage sweep. But an astute political columnist might well have detected the trend much the same way Pete Damborg did in 1954 when he predicted Ed Muskie would be elected governor. Therein lies a story:
Few believed such an upset could or would happen. No polls were there to provide a hint,and the state seemed solidly Republican, as it had been for much of the time since the Civil War. But Damborg, whose sources were legion, was convinced change was in the offing and said so in his column. .
That prediction would have been a scoop of major proportions. But, alas, no readers saw it. It was spiked by a high ranking editor who thought he was saving his columnist from making an embarrassing error.
The story of the spiked column did not become public until much later. Word eventually got out and to this day it remains part of Maine's journalistic lore.
Footnote: After he retired Damborg sought election to the legislature as a Republican. And won.