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Helping Others Think: A Tribute to Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. at 80

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A friend reaching fourscore seems an appropriate occasion to supplement the normal birthday greetings with a tribute, at least when the friend is not simply a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial writer and former syndicated columnist but a wise and gifted thinker who has generously and masterfully shared written thoughts with the public for more than a half-century as a newspaperman, essayist, historian, biographer and more recently novelist.

So now is a time to celebrate Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., for those whose thinking his writings have already helped, and to discover him, for those who have not yet had the experience.

Long before Ed became a friend, I admired his work, specifically the columns he wrote as part of the Washington Post Writers Group through most of the 1980s and 1990s. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch usually carried them, generally on the right side of the op-ed page where conservative pundits often appeared although that was a misleading placement for Ed's work which was so independent, not ideological.

That was part of what stood out about Ed's columns, that they were thoughtful and undoctrinaire so that the reader could not anticipate the bottom line simply from learning the author's name and topic. Instead, Ed's columns had to be read from beginning to end, an experience invariably well rewarded with new and worthwhile information and insights elegantly delivered.

Ed's work did not present the "inside baseball" of so much Washington punditry, the columns full of who's up and who's down based on luncheon gossip, the speculations about outcomes of elections occurring years in the future. Instead they tended to explore continuing themes and problems facing American society and government. And they did so by drawing on Ed's rich and scholarly knowledge of history and literature and government and psychology. Ed's writings were more likely to draw wisdom from Faulkner or C. Vann Woodward or Freud than from members of Congress or Washington consultants. From 1991 to 2002, Ed was a professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University, and one suspects that he connected those disciplines in even more engaging fashion in classroom talk than in newspaper print, unconstrained as he was then by a 750 word limit.

Ed's column ended in 1997, but around that time I discovered Ed's books, a welcome find as will be appreciated by any reader who has experienced the sadness upon thinking they have read the last of a favorite author's work. These were an even better treasure since so much longer. The Night of the Old South Ball (1984) collected some of Ed's earlier columns ranging across topics from Darwinism to a Spiro Agnew novel, from Justice Douglas's abandonment of history to John Stuart Mill, Tennessee Williams, and "[a] a self-interview about Shakespeare on his 415th birthday." And for those who like baseball or to laugh, there's one of my favorites, "'Toiling on the Mound' at Mill Creek." The Unmaking of a Whig (1990) presented much longer essays about the Constitution, the Supreme Court, American values and the way history could and should inform contemporary thought. Ed's 100+ page scholarly monograph about the feud between Justices Hugo Black and Robert Jackson begins the book and it and the chapters that follow illustrate how much a thoughtful non-lawyer can teach lawyers and others about those topics. Joe Alsop's Cold War (1995) drew on manuscripts, interviews and personal knowledge to explore the work of an iconic journalist.

Ed's later books have demonstrated even more versatility without sacrificing the incisive thought, creativity and graceful expression that are among the hallmarks of his work. The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past (1997) further contributed to what Ed has taught about history through a collection of essays dealing with prominent Americans, the relevance of the founders and originalism in constitutional interpretation, nationalism, and historical methodology. Telling Others What to Think: Recollections of a Pundit (2004), which inspires in paraphrased form the title of this piece, captures some of the events, institutions and figures of his times; race in North Carolina and the South in the 1930s and 1940s where and when he grew up; Chapel Hill and Oxford, both of which he attended, in the 1950s; American journalism in the last half of the 20th century; the Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and writer and fellow Rhodes Scholar, Willie Morris, both great friends of Ed's. More recently, Ed has added fiction to his repertoire. Lions at Lamb House (2007) is built around an imagined meeting in 1908 between Freud and Henry James, and gives Ed an opportunity to move from history to historical fiction to explore truth. Finally, Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure (2010) imagines the appointment to the Supreme Court of a North Carolinian, Rhodes Scholar, non-lawyer, journalist/historian. Sound familiar? I am a dedicatee and minor character in the book, as is my dog, Levi (character, not dedicatee), although Levi is presented more accurately and less generously than I.

All of these works have enriched my life, and invite rereading, and I commend them to those who have not yet experienced Ed's help in shaping their thinking and the enjoyment that inevitably comes from reading his work.

And for those who prefer something shorter, Ed hasn't abandoned commenting on public affairs. See "Curb Obama by Having Supreme Court Crash into Political Thicket" in the July 10, 2014 News & Observer.

Write on, Ed, and happy birthday!