Columnists > Voices

Harley's high honor

Students pick Sorensen column as worst of the year

Issue: "Ten Commandments showdown," Aug. 30, 2003

ONE OF THE WEB'S AMUSING (AND FREE) SOURCES of daily info is, put out by The Wall Street Journal. Chief perpetrator James Taranto includes news of the weird and peculiar headlines such as this one from Reuters: "Hungry Ferret Terrorizes Train," followed by arch comments such as, "isn't this a blatant violation of Reuters' editorial policy, according to which one man's terrorist is another's freedom-ferret?"

That's a lapidary line, but I come in this column to eviscerate and not honor. (Several WORLD subscribers, after reading a column I wrote about using simple words when writing, worried that they would never see a four-syllable word in my column again; their concern should now be eased.) My purpose is to report on a poll I took on the last day of a column-writing course I recently taught; I had the students bring in poor or illogical writing they had run across in columns, and then vote for the worst of the worst.

The winner was Harley Sorensen, a popular liberal San Francisco Chronicle columnist, and I wrote him the following letter:

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"Dear Mr. Sorensen,

"Without any prompting from me, the 11 students in my University of Texas column-writing class this spring-seniors and graduate students, mostly liberal with some conservatives-voted this sentence from your Jan. 13 column, 'Declaring War on Republicans,' the worst they had seen this term: 'I saw Gorbachev and Reagan together in a car once, on Pacific Heights, and it was like looking at Einstein and Howdy Doody.'

"You narrowly beat out Ann Coulter's line from Sept. 12, 2001, regarding the previous day's terrorists, 'We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.' Filling out the top three was this lead from a lesser-known columnist on the Bandera (Texas) Review, 'Years ago, a man in Bandera got pecked on the lips by a rooster and died. No one expected the minor injury to develop into a fatal infection, but it did.'

"I don't know all the reasons for your victory, but several students said they were struck by not only the Howdy Doody line in your column but this one as well: 'People accuse me of hating Reagan, but that's a bum rap.... He was a handsome physical specimen most of his life.' In any event, the students asked me to notify you of your victory and request from you a comment or some advice that I might relay to them, and perhaps to readers of my own column."

Mr. Sorensen was kind enough to reply, as follows:

"That column from the Bandera Review scared me, till I realized it was a rooster, not a hen, the man kissed ... another sound argument for heterosexuality.

"I am honored by the award your class has bestowed on me ... I am a little confused, however. I wonder if your students object to the notion that Gorbachev, the man who brought the Soviet Union to an end without a shot being fired, might be compared with a genius? Did I err in that respect?

"Or perhaps the problem lies with my Reagan/Howdy Doody comparison. If I offended in that instance, I apologize. I could have compared Reagan with Mortimer Snerd, but who remembers him? So I had to stick with a dummy folks might remember. To all Howdy Doody fans, I apologize with Reaganesque sincerity.

"I am thrilled to be second only to Ann Coulter. [He misread my message.] Imagine! I write a column every week, and never promote violence, and yet here I am, right behind Ann Coulter's Adam's apple in the eyes of Texans. Don't you guys read Cal Thomas? Doesn't O'Reilley have a column?

"Seriously, I think my selection by your class illustrates the futility of opinion writing. I'm afraid most people live and die believing that communism is some sort of terrible scourge, never once thinking it might just be an economic system less productive than capitalism. Nothing I can write penetrates the minds of people who think like that....

"So I think most columnists simply preach to the choir.... The most effective commentators, I would guess, are those who follow the 700 Club's format ... the 700 Club goes to great lengths to give the impression of fairness ... but I just don't have the stomach to be that phony. I'd prefer to have the Pat Robertsons of the world win, rather than become one of them.

"What was the question again?


"P.S. I'll have you know I postponed my lasagna for over an hour to accommodate you. What a swell guy I am!"


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