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Celebrating a Virtually Forgotten Media Maestro

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December's days are to dwindle down to year's-end, and I'm already into holiday time's mental excursions. They're taking me off-road a bit, into the byways of no-longer-mainstream media.

Staffers at the University of California Press have claimed over the past year or so some surprise at the success enjoyed by their publication (finally allowed by the author's own jokey edict suppressing it for 100 years) of Mark Twain's Autobiography. And the three-volume tome -- unexpurgated, but written cagily, and yet still self-revealingly at times -- has prompted me to pursue one of the great humorist's own personal delights.

Twain in fact delighted in another humorist, one definitely worthy of his admiration, and a man who shared with him membership of the mordantly named "Damned Human Race Luncheon Club" -- a gathering noted as much for cigars and wise-cracking cynicism as it was for any eating of lunch.

I speak of the virtually forgotten columnist, Finley Peter Dunne, who wrote in a range of Chicago newspapers - notably the now-dead Post and the now severely injured Tribune. Much of the time he spoke through the invented personage of "Martin J. Dooley," a down-to-earth Irish bartender whose wisdom, Mr. Dooley's Opinions, began to appear collected in book form at the turn of the 20th century.

Often enough this sardonic expert on conviviality didn't range beyond the bar room -- vouchsafing for example, and presumably from experience, that "alcohol is necessary for a man, so that now and then he can have a good opinion of himself, undisturbed by the facts."

More broadly, though, and for students of the media especially, Dunne should be remembered at the least for being the first to proclaim (though who now remembers it was Dunne?) that one role of the press is to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."

He has long been cheated out of credit, too, for another famous adage. The redoubtable 1980s speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, has too readily been quoted as the author of "All politics is local." In fact it was Dunne, or at least his mouthpiece behind the bar, who said that first.

Another "Mr. Dooley" one-liner originally appeared to be a comment on late 19th century events, but nowadays I feel it could be a contender for quotation in perpetuity -- "The Democratic Party ain't on speaking terms with itself."

In today's climate of personally vituperative political discourse -- often as small-minded as it is intemperate -- it's worthwhile recalling a very different kind of exchange between Dunne and a leading politician of that earlier time.

When Theodore Roosevelt published his Rough Riders book, to celebrate his (or more properly his small regiment's) role in the Spanish American War, Dunne gave it a jocular review, highlighting its self-serving qualities by saying -- infamously -- that it should have been titled Alone in Cuba!

Riots of hilarity greeted that single pointed quip in the salons of Washington and the smoking-rooms of the entire nation. Roosevelt himself took it in good part, writing to Dunne that "I regret to state that my family and intimate friends are delighted with your review of my book. Now I think you owe me one; and I shall expect that when you next come East you pay me a visit."

The two men did meet, in 1900, and became good friends. Dunne, like the best columnists, remained a sharp reporter as well as an opinionator -- and scooped all his colleagues with the news (from a most reliable source, the horse's mouth) that Roosevelt was going to run as vice president to William McKinley.

Dunne's special scorn was often reserved for those individuals who are intolerably intolerant. And I wonder -- if he were alive now, amid all today's dogmatism and bigotry -- whether he might like to revisit the Mr. Dooley aphorism that most caught my attention at this celebratory season: "Thanksgiving was founded by the Puritans to give thanks for being preserved from the Indians, and we keep it to give thanks we are preserved from the Puritans."

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, "The Media Beat," with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD.