WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR. was a man of many parts -- editor, columnist, novelist, sailor, harpsichordist, lecturer, TV host -- and part of his considerable charm owed to the wry cockiness he sometimes affected ("I don't stoop to conquer. I merely conquer.") But there were times when even he overreached. During an interview with NBC's Gene Shalit, Buckley once recalled, he was asked how he came up with topics to write about in his newspaper column.
William F. Buckley Jr.: Just "close your eyes and point"?
Shalit didn't miss a beat. "Yes," he said, "I think I remember that column."
Now, no one is ever going to catch me boasting about how easy it is to come up with column topics to write about. I find the coming-up-with almost as hard as the writing, and writing for me has never been easy. Still, there are days when even those of us who aren't Bill Buckleys can open the newspaper and spot targets of opportunity with almost every turn of the page:
I'm looking at a Boston Globe from last week with a front-page story headlined "Blacks' fight for tenure roils Emerson." Boston's Emerson College is under fire (and the subject of a state "inquiry") because just three of its 76 tenured professors are black. Not enough, cry the diversity police. Yet three out of 76 comes to 4 percent -- only 1 percentage point shy of the 5 percent figure for black tenured professors nationwide. Strange to see such tumult over a discrepancy of 1 percentage point. Strange, too, the observation of one black professor who was denied tenure: "It seems they have different tenure standards for different people based on race." Are Emerson's critics demanding that tenure be granted without regard to color? While simultaneously demanding that more black faculty members get tenure? Could make a good column.
Then there's "US funds dry up for Iran rights watchdog," which reports that the Obama administration wants to cut all support for the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. I've written before about the president's abandonment of the democracy promotion that was such a priority for his predecessor. But to pull the plug on what the Globe calls "the most comprehensive clearinghouse of documents related to human rights abuses in Iran" seems almost an act of malice. There's certainly a column in it.
On Page A7 we have "Ohio governor delays 2 executions to review injection issues" -- those "issues" being the inability of technicians in one recent case to find a suitable vein for a lethal injection despite trying for two hours. So there will now be a "full review" and a new legal appeal, all serving no purpose except to further delay the dispatch of brutal murderers. Angle for a possible column: Forget lethal injections. Instead of drawn-out sagas with needles and veins, let killers be brought to justice before firing squads. A bullet in the brain is quick and categorical, and considerably more humane than the deaths these murderers inflicted on their victims.
"Menino spends big to keep seat," which leads the Metro section on Page B1, notes that Thomas Menino is running the most expensive mayoral campaign in Boston history -- $1.7 million to date. I find it inconceivable that any voter would want to re-elect any incumbent to a fifth term in office. Yet everyone knows it would take a miracle to keep Menino from winning on Nov. 3. The more interesting question -- and grist for a column -- is why a four-term incumbent assured of re-election would spend a fortune on his campaign. Is he merely flaunting the dollars it is so easy for him to raise? Or have 16 years as mayor so addicted Menino to power that he will gladly break every spending record to keep it?
On to the business pages. "Frank seeks US loans for those in foreclosure." Fodder, perhaps, for a piece on the strange economic strategy in which those who cannot repay funds they have borrowed are encouraged to borrow even more. There is also "Doughnuts the old-fashioned way," an upbeat profile of a Dunkin' Donuts in Weymouth, Mass., that still makes its doughnuts from scratch. It's one of only a handful that does -- and it just happens to be the busiest of more than 6,300 Dunkin' shops nationwide. That could make a nice column on how free markets tend to reward high quality and hard work.
But there's no more time for page turning -- my deadline is approaching! I've got to come up with a column idea. What's it going to be?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)