On Sunday morning came two pieces of bad news—first that at least 20 people (later, 49) had been shot to death in Orlando, Fla., then that my old pal Paul Barton had died.
I try to be hardhearted about terrorist attacks, not because they are not tragic and horrible but because terrorists want me to panic, and I will not. So I rationalize.
But my heart softens for Paul Barton, 58, who died much too young last week.
I first met him in 1980 when I was a cub reporter for the Palestine Herald-Press in East Texas. I think I can speak for the entire reporting staff of the Herald-Press at the time when I say that we all thought management had lost its marbles when he was hired.
Paul had a halting manner of speech and an oddly muffled, occasionally high-pitched voice. An unruly lock of hair rested uneasily on his forehead. He had an extended torso that kept his shirttail coming out no matter how many times a day he tucked it in. Some kind of nerve condition caused his hands to shake constantly, and he had a skin rash that he scratched all day long. When flustered, he would compulsively rub his face.
After a couple of months, we no longer wondered how he got on staff. By then we all had fallen in love with him.
It turned out that his ungainly exterior concealed a first-rate mind and temperament. He was kind and gentle and doted on my newborn girl. And he was a rigorous, diligent and fair-minded reporter with a subtle sense of humor, mostly aimed at himself.
Not long after he arrived, the newspaper moved into an old Safeway store, and we were joking one day about how the various departments corresponded to the old grocery store. As the business reporter, Paul had a desk always buried in news releases about various promotions and earnings reports.
So here’s the meat department, we were saying, and here’s the dairy section. When we came to Paul, he pulled out a stack of news releases and dumped them in the trash. “And here’s canned goods,” he said.
He had a phenomenal memory that made him invaluable in pre-Google days. You could go to him—this is no exaggeration—and say, “Paul, when did we run that story about the mayor suing the paper?” and about nine times out of 10, he would give you the exact date.
I’ve told this next story too many times, so stop me if you have heard it. No, don’t stop me. Show some respect. It won’t hurt to hear it again.
Once Paul went back to Texas A&M and called on one of his old journalism profs. The conversation went something like this:
“Gee, Paul, I haven’t seen you in ages. How long has it been since I last saw you?”
Paul answered with the exact day and year.
The prof said, “Do I owe you money or something?”
One day an editor was summing up the reporting staff at the Herald-Press. He pointed at me and said, “Clean copy, messy desk.” Then he pointed at Paul and said, “Messy copy, messy desk.”
It was true, in a way. In those pre-computer days, we typed stories on manual typewriters and made corrections with fat pencils. If we wanted to move a paragraph, we took out scissors and glue.
Paul had not mastered kindergarten cutting and pasting skills, and his shaky hands caused him to write in a large, misshapen scrawl. A long, carefully edited story of his looked like a second-grade craft project gone disastrously wrong.
But the copy itself was pristine and on target, and it paid off for him. He worked for both Little Rock, Ark., dailies when they had the hottest newspaper war in the country going. Eventually, he was promoted to Washington bureau chief for the combined Little Rock papers, then he covered Congress for USA Today. He also had worked for Capitol News Connection, a now defunct reporting service in Washington.
It was in Arkansas that he became the first person to alert me to the political prowess of the state’s young governor, Bill Clinton. Keep an eye on him, Paul advised. We traveled to Little Rock for his wedding to a lovely woman, Mary Ann Barton, and together they put together a book of political cartoons about Clinton’s first presidential campaign.
At the time of his death, he was working for Tax Analysts in Washington, D.C., where he delved into the tax plans of presidential candidates. An “In Memoriam” piece in Tax Notes said, “Stacks of white papers, congressional transcripts, and oversight reports tottered on Paul’s desk and chairs. He was often wading through the intricacies of nonprofit tax law, or prodding a reluctant tax lawyer to discuss a presidential candidate’s dodgy agenda. He never turned away a visitor, and rarely failed to impart some useful advice or at least a humorous aside.”
Sounds like Paul.
When I learned that he was dead, my online search turned up an obituary in the Washington Post that failed to mention a cause of death—an omission that never would have gotten by the copy desk at the Herald-Press. Fortunately, I found an appearance he had made a few years ago on C-SPAN talking about his story on the dramatic increase in how much money Congress spends on itself.
That was the same old Paul, too, a little beefier, perhaps, and now with glasses. He also had somehow tamed the curly lock on his forehead. But the rest was all Paul: the clothes that looked like they had been designed for a creature of another species, the shaky hands, the faltering voice, the underlying but unmistakable intelligence, knowledge and wit.
Some politicians have made a cottage industry out of criticizing journalists as lazy, dishonest and biased. Perhaps we deserve it. These are ugly times in journalism.
But no matter how strict the rule, exceptions exist. Claims that journalists are no good must now come with an asterisk.
There was at least one good one. I mourn his passing.