Bill Raspberry was something special.
He was a columnist with a difference. Unlike so many opinion writers, he was never shrill. He was unpredictable. He was tough to pigeonhole.
Most significant, he was comfortable with complexity, with ambiguity. He understood that many issues were not clear-cut, that there was something to be said on both sides of the argument.
And yet he was hardly bland. He was the antithesis of weak tea. When he reached his conclusion, he expressed it powerfully.
The Pulitzer-winning Raspberry, who died today at 76 of prostate cancer, wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post for nearly 40 years until he retired in 2005. His voice was always important, but it is sorely missed in today's take-no-prisoners, hyperpartisan political and media culture.
In a wonderful profile of Raspberry that ran in AJR in 1994, Linda Fibich spotlighted the columnist's unique approach.
She quoted L. Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, as saying, "I think [Raspberry is] is one of the best columns in journalism today. Why? Because while I might not agree with him all the time, he is always thoughtful, always mannerly, and always well meaning...
"I'm sure conservatives do this, too. But in the Washington Post, read Richard Cohen, read Michael Kinsley, and you know what they're going to say almost word for word. They're as predictable as running water. Raspberry isn't."
And she quoted Ellen Goodman, a not-too-shabby columnist herself, as saying Raspberry's pieces seem to "convene a discussion among readers 'to raise ideas rather than resolve things.' In writing social commentary in the 20th century United States, she observes, 'you're not going to come up with a 10-point plan unless you're stupid, and Bill is very smart.' "
Just as true in the 21st century.
I worked with Raspberry at the Post, but I got to know him better during his long tenure on the Board of Visitors of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where AJR is based. It was my good fortune to hang out with him at countless Board of Visitors dinners and meetings. He was a terrific dining companion. And if there were a Pulitzer for "mischievous twinkle," Bill would have won one of those, too.
Raspberry's goal always was to try to solve problems, not score debating points or beat up adversaries. He liked to refer to himself as a "solutionist." And he was sure that, hard as it may sometimes be to believe, journalists have a huge part to play in solving the problems that matter.
"I believe that journalism can change the world and can save the world," he told Fibich. "I think any particular journalist is very unlikely to do much of either. And yet we ought to, I think, as a matter of routine, behave as though we have the power to nudge the world in one direction or the other."