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Living the lucky life of a newspaperman

Richard Cohen on

EDITORS: Richard Cohen is retiring after four decades in syndication and 51 years at The Washington Post. This is his final column. Note quoted language in last sentence of 8th graf. Until Friday, Oct. 4, you are welcome to run columns by another writer in place of this column. To use a substitute column, first go to syndication.washingtonpost.com, where you can browse our full offerings by clicking on the Syndicate tab. Open a column you'd like to use and click on the "Copy as Vacation Sub" button to grab the full text. Should you have questions, contact us at syndication@washpost.com or 800-879-9794, ext. 1.

I've been lucky.

In February 1968, I came down to Washington from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to do some research, stopped up at The Washington Post and walked out with a job. A week later, for reasons I never understood, I got a raise. After graduating in June, I started work, and now, 51 years later, I am about to stop. This is my final column. I think I've earned that raise.

In 1976, eight years after I started, I was offered a local column. Ben Bradlee, the executive editor, made the offer at a lunch I had requested so I could tell him I was quitting. A rival news organization had offered to make me its White House correspondent. But before I could resign, Bradlee upset my plans. I never got around to quitting and never told Bradlee that I had intended to.

I was lucky.

Bradlee asked me to show him five sample columns. Instead, knowing I need the juice of a deadline, I wrote one the next day and gave it to the city editor. "I'm the new local columnist," I brazenly told him. "Check with Bradlee." He never did.

 

The next day, my column was in the paper.

I was lucky.

Back then I wrote three columns a week -- an exhausting but exhilarating schedule. Little by little, I broadened my scope until, in Bradlee's telling, he picked up the paper one day and discovered that I was in Beirut. By fiat, he moved me from the Metro page to the A section and, later, at the insistence of the publisher, to the op-ed page. I wrote what I wanted from where I wanted, and not once did the publishers ever tell me what to write or what not to write. On occasion, though, Katharine Graham offered some constructive criticism. Once, at a formal lunch for the new Russian ambassador, she strode purposely across the dining room to tell me that my column that morning "was a real piece of shit."

"Don't hold back, Katharine," I responded. "Tell me what you really think."

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