Voices

The spirit of Ann Landers

Her good advice made her credible; her bad advice made her destructive

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

Esther Lederer, much better known as Ann Landers, died in Chicago last week. But make no mistake about it: Her spirit lives on.

Make no mistake about this, either: The spirit of Ann Landers is in large measure what is so wrong with our society. If that seems to you like a harsh thing to say right after a woman's death, I am sorry. But read on. It's deadly merely to dismiss Ann Landers-and her ilk-as a harmless diversion to be smiled over with your morning coffee. In all the sentiment expressed on the occasion of this woman's death, it's important not to add new error to old.

Error is always more dangerous when it comes from a casual and unsuspecting source than when it shows up hand-delivered by the Devil himself, sulphurous sparks flying and forked tail wagging. And who could be more innocuous than a woman from Sioux City, Iowa, full of midwestern common sense? Nor did she ever betray her roots by heading off to New York, where she might have been infected by the eastern establishment; or to California, where left-coast radicalism might contaminate her counsel. Instead, she went all the way to Chicago, where-admittedly-she started with the slightly suspect Sun-Times, but ultimately settled down with the altogether safe Chicago Tribune. Now here was a woman whose counsel we all could trust.

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Trust her we-or at least, too many-did. Through the years, Americans flocked to this guru for advice on every topic under the sun. At one point, she needed 13 secretaries to handle the 2,000 letters she received every day. She taught us about sexuality and marriage, about conduct at the office and while traveling abroad, about religion and ethics, about etiquette and children, about in-laws and pets-and a million other topics. After all, before she died at the age of 83, Ann Landers wrote or signed off on more than 15,000 different columns-with each one typically touching on two or three different subjects.

As recently as the early 1990s, the Ann Landers column appeared in more than 1,200 newspapers across the country-with a staggering readership of something like 90 million people every day. Compare that, for example, with Cal Thomas, the leader among syndicated op-ed columnists with about 540 newspapers, or with Billy Graham, whose ghost-written advice column was once carried by as many as 500 newspapers, but now is somewhat reduced from that.

If what you say every day to that many people is trivial, maybe it doesn't matter all that much-except that even then, all those people are taught to think trivially. But if what you say focuses regularly on the most important issues of life, and if you say it over and over again for 40 years to perhaps the biggest audience humankind has ever handed to a single writer, no one should pretend that it doesn't have an effect.

So here's the problem with Ann Landers over that long stretch of time: She made it all up as she went along-including, of course, her own name.

Ann Landers never had the foggiest idea what her anchor was. She was the archetype of modern relativism, tailored for the masses. They followed her loyally, and listened to her attentively, because she always ultimately let them off the hook. She had the uncanny ability to sound old-fashionedly firm, but never bothered to identify what her absolutes were or where they came from.

Even Robert Pinsky, U.S. poet laureate a few years ago, took note of Ms. Landers's ethical ambiguities. He wrote candidly, lauding "Her virtue of taking it all on, answering/Any question" and "saying,/Buster (or Dearie) stop complaining and do/What you want."

To be sure, Ann Landers often seemed to be on the side of virtue. For years, she was a cheerleader for premarital chastity and opposed the acceptance of open demonstrations of homosexual relationships. But then she changed her mind on those and other issues. Some followers and critics say her own divorce in 1975 made her a lot less certain of issues she had been sure about earlier in her career.

Like a stopped clock that is right twice every day, Ms. Landers dispensed just enough good advice to be dangerous to many. A witty and often compassionate relativist, she was a picture of the society she worked hard to serve-and the society that, regrettably, she also helped misshape in some terribly damaging ways.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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