Herb Caen, John Ensign and Disappearing Voices Of Our Cities

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I grew up in San Francisco on Herb Caen. Even before I turned 12, before I cared anything about local politics or society, I liked the guy. He was funny. He wrote short. He wrote clearly. He painted my city. One of San Francisco’s great current writers, Richard Rodriguez, recently wrote an homage to Caen and the demise of local newspapers, which you should read, now that Harpers has been good enough to put it online. His thesis is that the idea and identity of cities was once created by newspapers and their columnists, and with the decline of both we are losing something, not just the voices of people like Caen, Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin:

We will end up with one and a half cities in America—Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between “conservatives” and “liberals.” We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is “not a really good piece of fiction”—Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five). We are without obituaries, but the famous will achieve immortality by a Wikipedia entry.

But all that is not the point of this post. I wanted to alert you to a column by Las Vegas Sun political columnist Jon Ralston who has written about the sad saga of Nevada Sen. John Ensign today in a way that D.C.-based reporters never would. Noting recent rumors of a grand jury and subpoenas to investigate the possible laws broken when Ensign tried to secure employment for the husband of his former mistress, Ralston writes:

But the nagging, all-too-serious question is this: Is Ensign so self-absorbed and delusional that he is willing to bring down folks of varying innocence with him — either people loyal to him now having to hire attorneys to defend themselves because of the senator’s scandal or those whose tangential roles in his life have them under federal scrutiny.

Politicians are notoriously solipsistic, but Ensign’s behavior since his confess-and-run news conference June 16 has set a new nadir. It’s one thing to be exposed as a spectacular hypocrite, a moral crusader with feet of clay, and yet try to hang onto your Club of 100 membership as if it were more important than anything. But it’s quite different to become the focus of criminal and ethics probes and continue to clutch onto the senatorial ring despite the carnage — real, quantifiable human carnage — you are leaving in your wake.

This is the voice of a man representing a city. You won’t get that from a D.C. reporter.

(H/T to Taegan Goddard for the Ralston link.)