E-Z writing tips for Rick the columnist

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This just in from the "If You Can't Beat 'em, Join 'em" department: Former Sen. Rick Santorum just got a gig with The Philadelphia Inquirer -- not the National Enquirer -- as a columnist.

So, does this prove that the fraternity of newspaper columnists is one utterly lacking in standards?

Not to knock the former senator who, according to his good friend Bono, is a stand-up guy.

"I would suggest that Rick Santorum has a kind of Tourette's disease; he will always say the most unpopular thing," the U2 frontman once said, showering the senator with the progressive left's version of a compliment. "But on our issues" -- AIDS, African debt relief and poverty -- "he has been a defender of the most vulnerable."

In any case, standards for columnists were pretty low long before Rick Santorum landed a piece of prime journalistic real estate. Landing on the op-ed page in Philly, where the voters rejected him by a bigger margin than they did in Pittsburgh, is especially ironic -- but that's my hometown for you.

A year after the voters sent him packing to a place where Islamofascists fear to tread, Mr. Santorum has joined a think tank and re-emerged as the conscience of the "See, I'm not as radical as you thought I was" branch of paleo-conservatism.

"At a time when the conservative movement is rudderless and the lineup of future standard bearers is a mix of Johnnies-come-lately and Johnnies-never-been, I hope to provide some ideas that could help restore America's confidence in the conservative movement," Mr. Santorum wrote in his column debut on Thursday.

Sure, in saying unkind things about the Republican presidential field, Mr. Santorum was throwing his good friend Rudy Giuliani, a man who once campaigned for him, to the dogs. But principles are principles -- especially when you're out of office.

"I also hope that my voice will not be as predictable as some regular readers may think," he wrote. "It may surprise you on occasion, as the few dozen of you who have read my book 'It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good' know, that I don't always fit the mold. For example, I have had my share of conservative critics who object to the more activist role for government I favor in dealing with poverty both at home and abroad."

That's why Rick Santorum, communist agitator, deserves the benefit of the doubt never given to the provocateur who once had opinions about man-on-dog love.

Remember when columnists raked him over the coals for his grandstanding during the Terri Schiavo affair? Implied in our criticism of the opportunistic senator was a smug assumption that we knew more about being a U.S. senator than he did.

Now he's returned the favor. With absolutely no training in the subtleties of lowbrow opinionizing, Rick Santorum got himself hired as a columnist at one of the few newspapers in the country that had an increase in circulation over the last year. This is a humiliating predicament.

But instead of holding a grudge, we columnists should welcome our former fire-breathing nemesis into the club. After all, he's probably making more money than we are, even with a twice-a-month gig. It wouldn't kill us to ingratiate ourselves with someone who actually knows how to get money out of management.

In the meantime, let me be the first to pass along time-tested advice on how to succeed as a newspaper columnist whose work appears on several Internet platforms without any compensation:

• Don't get into nasty e-mail exchanges with readers who criticize you. Assume anyone who disagrees with your column is either an idiot or a degenerate who will post your entire exchange on the "I Love Barney" Web site at the first provocation.

• Develop a thick skin and hit the delete key early and often. Put regular pests on your company's e-mail trash list. They'll never suspect it. To quote Barbara Bush: "Why should I waste my beautiful mind on stuff like that?"

• Don't take it personally when the communications director of a politician you criticize calls the editor of your paper to get you canned or reprimanded. In the likely event you are forced to apologize, treat it like a game.

• Write your own damn column. If it is ghostwritten by a more reasonable person, people will know. Readers want columnists to be authentic in their imbecility.

• Never engage in ad hominem attacks unless you're on deadline. Elevate the discourse as much as possible, but cheapshots are OK as long as they're funny.

• Rail against everyone else's hypocrisy while conveniently ignoring your own. This shows a nuanced and discerning mind.

• Occasionally write about your family in a way that completely alienates them. While your wife and kids are shunning you, take advantage of much-needed peace and quiet on the homefront.

• Ask God for forgiveness after each column, but be prepared to do it all over again. God canceled his subscription a long time ago.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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