TWENTY YEARS OF CAL THOMAS NEWSPAPER COLUMNS? Some liberals might think that's cruel and unusual punishment. But it was 20 years ago this month that Mr. Thomas started writing his commentaries. Now his column runs in 570 newspapers, more than any other editorial-page columnist. To celebrate the anniversary, Tribune Media Services planned a party for him during this month's American Society of Newspaper Editors convention.
His popularity seemed to defy conventional wisdom when he was starting out. Both conservative and Christian, he was promptly labeled reactionary, bigoted, narrow-minded, out-of-date, and wacky. But he has the gift of humor and turned the tables on the insults and name-calling to make a plea for equal time for his views. It's a strategy that has worked well with editors and readers.
The door opened to a Los Angeles Times syndicate column slot in an unexpected way in 1984. He was having lunch with some syndicate officials, who were telling him about how hard it is to break into the ranks of syndication. Then he was asked to tell about his Christian faith. He told the story of his commitment to Christ, after he had been a rising star in the NBC news network, only to get fired just before he turned 30 years old. That humbling period of his life, shattering ambitions to be a millionaire by 30, resulted in his conversion and growth in Christ. He then went back to a local TV station in Texas, then a radio news service out of Washington, followed by service on behalf of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority.
The pundit industry has changed in his 20 years. Older conservatives were generally good at making money and building businesses. A new wave of younger conservatives learned how to spell and write, and conservatives now dominate the radio and television talk shows. Mr. Thomas no longer claims to be one of a kind.
In contrast to some of his conservative colleagues, though, he strays rather easily from the party line. He has rebuked Religious Right leaders for getting too caught up in political power instead of helping people grow in personal faith and character. His columns are almost always very serious, but in person he can be as witty as the professional funny guys on late-night TV, and he comes up with his own lines. He keeps up with friends who knew him before he was rich, famous, and influential, preventing him from taking his press releases too seriously.
His personal friendships span the political spectrum, including liberals like U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and television commentator Bob Beckel. In the Washington political and media circles, friendships are often constructed around political power or television ratings. But Mr. Thomas manages to put all that on the shelf when it comes to friendships with the powerful and those who have become powerless in their political journeys. For the liberals who can't stand the thought of another 20 years of Cal Thomas, invite him to lunch sometime. Whatever the stereotype of a right-wing, Bible-thumping fanatic, he will find a way to shatter it and have his audience in laughter.