Monday, March 25, 2013

Goodbye, Steve

I received a phone call today that, sadly, was like many others I have had in my life. I knew it was coming. But it's never a welcome phone call, even when it is expected.

A good friend of mine, Steve Davidson, died of cancer early today. I knew him when I lived in Little Rock in the 1980s. We haven't seen each other in quite awhile, but I have kept up with him through our mutual friend, Brady.

It was through Brady that I learned Steve was sick, and, in the words of Yogi Berra, it was like deja vu all over again. Another friend in our circle, Mike Culpepper, died of cancer more than 20 years ago, and I kept up with the changes in his condition through Brady. Steve, Brady and I were pallbearers at his funeral.

Brady and I spoke on the phone last night. He spent some time with Steve yesterday. Family and friends had been summoned to Steve's side in anticipation of the end, but Steve apparently surprised everyone. When Brady called me last night, I expected him to tell me that it was over. But, he said, Steve was still breathing when he left.

His breathing was increasingly labored, Brady told me, and he said he didn't expect Steve to live through the night. He didn't. Apparently, he died at 4 this morning.

The picture at the top of this post was taken when Steve and I arranged to meet in southern Arkansas in the fall of 1988. I had been living in Texas for a couple of months, and we got together one weekend. Steve was a deer hunter; I don't own a gun, but I brought my camera, as you can see.

See that little black lump behind Steve? That was my dog, Pepper, curled up into a ball and taking a nap. He was part black Lab and part something else. At that time, he was still a puppy, probably about 10 or 12 weeks old (I got him as a stray so I don't really know when he was born). He went everywhere with me in those days. He loved to run, to chase a rubber ball or do anything, really, and I recall that he thoroughly enjoyed that weekend in the woods. So did I — even though it was very cold.

Steve was Pepper's buddy, maybe moreso than any of my other friends (although Pepper really got along with everybody). I think it may have been because Steve was the first of my old friends to meet Pepper. As a matter of fact, they met on that trip to deer camp in October of 1988.

(I knew they would hit it off when I saw Steve giving table scraps to Pepper.)

When that picture was taken, we had been out hiking through the woods, and Steve had decided to sit down and take a breather. Pepper flopped down behind him and, as dogs do, caught a few Z's while we humans were resting and talking and laughing. When we got up to go, he was up and ready, too.

Somewhere, I have another picture of Steve with Pepper that was taken on that trip to deer camp. Steve was sitting in a folding chair at our campsite. Pepper was sitting next to him, and Steve was stroking his head. I'm not sure where that picture is, but, if I find it, I think I might have it framed. It's one of my favorites, and I need to have it on display.

Hard to believe that weekend was nearly 25 years ago. It's even harder to believe that I will never see Steve again.

Remember that circle of friends I mentioned earlier in this post? When I was living in Little Rock, we formed a computer football league, using a football game disk I had found for my old Commodore 64. The league survived for three years after I left Arkansas. Every time I came back for a visit, I packed up my computer, and my visits became football weekends.

Eventually, the league fell by the wayside. But our friendships never did. The league began to falter after Mike died, but it survived for another year or so. But that's another story.

When I left Arkansas, it was to enroll in graduate school. About a week after I moved, Mike and Steve came down for a visit. The three of us went to Six Flags Over Texas, and I'll never forget sitting on a bench with Steve and watching as Mike rode a roller coaster over and over again. It became a running joke with the three of us, one that Steve and I never mentioned again after Mike died.

Now, I'm the only living person who remembers that afternoon.

I was between my first and second semesters of grad school when Steve and Mike paid me another visit — around New Year's. As it happened, Arkansas was playing in the Cotton Bowl, and we decided, at the very last minute, that we wanted to go to the game. I tried to pull every string I could, never thinking that I could actually get something at the last minute — but, lo and behold, I was able to get three tickets, and we went to the game.

The Razorbacks didn't play too well that day, but the three of us had a fine time, anyway. I still have the game program I bought that day, and, from time to time, I thumb through it, and my thoughts return to that sun–splashed afternoon. For many years, it has been mostly a reminder to me of Mike. Now, it will remind me of Steve as well — and of the afternoon the three of us shared.

Again, I am now the only living person who recalls that experience.

Sports so often figured prominently in our friendship — and I am not speaking only of computer football or the Cotton Bowl.

When I first knew Steve, I was working on the sports desk of what was then the most widely circulated newspaper in Arkansas — the Arkansas Gazette. That job came with certain perks that appealed to Steve. For one, I had access to early editions of the newspaper, which came in handy on Saturday nights when the first edition of the Sunday paper complete with the coupons hit the newsroom.

On those occasions, I often brought several copies of the coupon inserts to Steve and my other friends.

As a member of the Gazette's sports team, I used to get a season pass to watch the minor league baseball team in Little Rock, the Arkansas Travelers. This wasn't as valuable as it sounds — admission to Traveler games in those days was only about two bucks a head — but I used it frequently on my nights off.

Since admission was free for me, I would pay for half of Steve's ticket, and it was like each of us got in for a single dollar. Besides, as a Gazette copy editor, I could go up to the press box and visit whoever was covering the game for the newspaper that night, and Steve went with me.

Steve enjoyed rubbing elbows with people whose bylines he had been seeing for years. And he got a kick out of the bird's–eye view of the action on the field.

Same thing applied to horse racing.

I didn't get a free season pass to the races at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, but whenever Steve and I went there together, I did get us in to the press box where we could see the writer who was covering the horses for the Gazette — and, on one memorable occasion, I introduced Steve to Terry Wallace, the fellow who called the races at Oaklawn.

I don't think I ever saw Steve so starstruck. He'd been hearing that man's voice call every race he had ever seen at Oaklawn — and there he was, shaking hands with him, chatting with him.

"I'll never forget that," he told me when we left the press box that day. I hope that was a pleasant memory for Steve over the years.

There is even a sports connection to the timing of Steve's death. Nineteen years ago today, the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team defeated Tulsa in the regional semifinals. They ultimately won it all.

I kind of think that might have appealed to Steve.

Perhaps my greatest regret after Mike died was the fact that I never said goodbye to him. I should have. I had a couple of opportunities, and I let them slip through my fingers. Maybe I was scared. I don't know.

I'm older now, and I truly believe that if I had been in Little Rock this weekend, I would have been able to tell Steve that he had been a true friend and that I will miss him.

I think he knew. I hope he did.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Simple Twist of Fate

This day in 1973 was a pivotal one in the story of the Watergate scandal.

By March 23, 1973, the scandal had mostly stalled. The Washington Post, TIME magazine and The New York Times continued to publish stories, but the public's general interest in the investigation was way down. Supporters of President Nixon protested that there was a media bias against the president, and many people in the political center were beginning to agree.

(One of the things that the Watergate scandal made clear to me was the fact that, no matter how much Americans may dislike their president, they will give him more than the benefit of the doubt. Nixon was about as loathsome as they come, but, although many of his supporters had misgivings about him, they always wanted to think well of whoever was president, and they refused to convict him in their minds until the constantly mounting evidence of his complicity left them no choice.)

To be sure, there have been times in America's history when the press acted not so much as a watchdog but as a lapdog. But the Watergate scandal was not one of them. Forty years later, I take pride, as a journalist, in noting that the reporting of that scandal was mostly accurate — astonishingly so, considering how many attempts were made by the administration to throw the reporters off the scent.

But in the early spring of 1973, the story really hadn't gained a lot of traction.

That changed 40 years ago today. James McCord and E. Howard Hunt, the last of the Watergate burglars, had been convicted in January, and John Sirica, the judge who presided over their trial, was slated to hand down the burglars' sentences in March. Prior to doing so, he received a letter from McCord, alleging that the burglars had entered guilty pleas under duress, the defendants had perjured themselves, and other, unnamed individuals had been involved in the conspiracy and its coverup.

McCord asked Sirica — who was known as "Maximum John" for his tendency to hand down the most severe penalties allowed by law — for leniency. Sirica handed down some stiff penalties — Hunt, for example, was sentenced to 35 years — but Sirica made it clear the sentences were "provisionary," depending on their cooperation with investigators.

McCord's sentence, however, was postponed, and Sirica revealed in court the existence of the letter. McCord also asked to meet privately with Sirica after sentencing. When the request was granted, he told the judge that he and the other defendants had lied at the bidding of former Attorney General John Mitchell and then–White House counsel John Dean.

It was a game changer.

As McCord had anticipated in his letter to Sirica, he was called to testify before the Senate committee that was investigating the Watergate break–in and coverup.

He probably didn't foresee the public's reaction — with the exception of Dean's testimony about a month later, McCord's testimony on the first full day of witness questioning may have been the most heavily anticipated.

But it seems likely that, if not for the letter McCord wrote to Sirica, his testimony could have been quite different — if it had happened at all.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Writing on the Wall

The Pew Research Center released its State of the News Media 2013 report yesterday.

For someone like me, who worked for newspapers and a trade magazine for many years — in fact, I earned my master's degree while working full time for a newspaper — and now teaches journalism in the Dallas community college system, there is much to read and absorb.

And, since we are on spring break this week, I may spend a lot of my time doing precisely that.

But I've been doing some reading already, and there are a few initial conclusions I can reach.

On the one hand, I am heartened — somewhat — by Pew's conclusion that "[f]or the first time since the deep recession that began in 2007, newspaper organizations have grounds for a modicum of optimism."

I have to say "somewhat" because, more than five years later, newspapers are not healthy, and Pew is clear on that point. Each encouraging development in the newspaper business that Pew observes is "mostly promise rather than performance. The most basic indicators have not turned around. The industry is little more than half the size it once was. Considerable dangers persist."

Good — if not long overdue — adjustments are being made in the newspaper business, and I deeply hope they will herald a revival. But so far the promise still far exceeds the performance.

I am cautiously optimistic that will change even though Pew pulls no punches when it comes to the challenges still facing the print news industry.

Advertising continues to be a major problem. For six straight years now, print advertising revenue have dropped, and digital advertising seems to be leveling off, which, as Pew notes, "suggest[s] that corporations are shifting their advertising dollars to other platforms."

That is important, given the business' "historic over–dependence on advertising." To be sure, there are many more options for advertisers than there were when I graduated from college, and it makes sense that newspapers would lose a portion of that advertising revenue on which they have depended for so long.

It also makes sense that, in order to survive, newspapers would look for new ways to compensate for that loss. Unfortunately, many have resorted to the same old strategy, providing fresh examples of the truth of the old Einstein adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

As is typical when times are hard, many newspapers have tried to make up for that lost revenue by trimming their payrolls — "Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000," Pew writes in its overview of the industry, "and below 40,000 full–time professional employees for the first time since 1978."

In most instances, journalists have been no different than anyone else who was affected by the recession. Their careers were interrupted through no fault of their own, and I am hopeful that, ultimately, print journalism will survive — albeit in a different form.

Their absence has been noticed. In Pew's words, "Nearly a third of U.S. adults, 31%, have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were accustomed to getting."

The product will have to improve, but it can only do so when newspapers have an adequate number of people on their payrolls to get the job done. I am cautiously optimistic that this can be achieved.

On the other hand, I am dismayed (but not really surprised) by Pew's confirmation of the many problems I see within broadcasting. Since many Americans simply do not read anymore, broadcasting is where most get their news, and that places a special burden on broadcasters.

Unfortunately, they are not meeting it. Instead, they pander to the lowest common denominator.

"In local TV," Pew writes, "sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink."

Pew says it sees "a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands."

That contributes to a general impression of bias in the media, an accusation that most often seems to be aimed at Fox News.

I am not an admirer of bias of any kind in the media, and I am quick to criticize the bias I have seen coming from Fox News (the most frequent target of such criticism) — but Fox isn't the only culprit, and Pew does not spare the others. MSNBC was far more biased in its reporting than either Fox or CNN, Pew reported, but all three were guilty of bias.

Bias is never justified in news coverage. It is acceptable in opinion pieces but only marginally. The thing that I believe is important to remember is that journalists, whether they report the news or comment on it, are guaranteed the same First Amendment rights American journalists have always been guaranteed.

I tell my news writing students to be like flies on the wall when they report the news. The reader, I tell them, should not be aware of their presence. That cannot be done in opinion writing. Thus, it is important that newspapers clearly label opinion columns and editorials as such, but it is also important for writers to use language that is appropriate for the kind of articles they write.

In recent semesters, I have been adding a segment to my news writing course on opinion writing, but I emphasize to my students that there is a huge difference between reporting the news and commenting on it, and I encourage them to respect that difference.

That doesn't mean that readers always recognize that difference.

At the community college where I teach, one student recently wrote a column that was critical of the Obama administration. This set off a virtual tidal wave of responses on the faculty email system that demonstrated all too clearly that supposedly educated adults, not students, didn't understand the difference between news reporting and opinion writing ...

Even though the column was clearly labeled "OPINION."

One respondent, who wrote a letter to the editor (which was published), erroneously called the column an "editorial," which is an opinion piece, but the terms editorial and opinion column are not interchangeable.

Since there apparently are people out there who do not know (or will not acknowledge) the difference between them, here it is in a nutshell. An editorial is typically published without a byline and purportedly speaks for the entire staff (hence, the use of the editorial we) whereas an opinion column speaks only for the person whose byline runs with it.

Both opinion writers and editorial writers are entitled to the same First Amendment protection as reporters.

There is much work to be done to repair the damage the recession has done to journalism, but it must be done if freedom is to be preserved, and it will take the best efforts of those who have dedicated their lives to the profession to accomplish it.

If that does not happen, the writing truly will be on the wall.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Burst of Joy

In my career as a journalist, I have known several people who truly were gifted at photography.

Personally, I have never been much more than an aim–and–shoot photographer. When I was a reporter, I occasionally took a camera with me and returned with acceptable photographs that ran with my stories. But I never mastered the intricacies of photography. Never came close to snapping a photograph that was worth the proverbial 1,000 words or a Pulitzer Prize.

I've always been a little envious of those folks who had a photographer's eye. I've been told that I am a good writer, and one person even told me that my writing was like music, which appealed to me because I love music even though I'm not terribly musical.

Music is an art form, and I love the arts. I get that from my mother, I suppose. She was a first–grade teacher, and she used her classroom to spread her creative wings. In fact, after she died, we received a letter from an old friend of my parents. He said that he had long suspected that, if Mom had not gone into teaching, her artistic gifts would have drawn her to the stage.

Anyway, Mom always encouraged a love of the arts — and writing was one of them. Her encouragement sure worked on me. I have always loved to read, and writing has always been more pleasure than work for me.

But writing has never seemed that artistic to me. Maybe that is because it has always come easily to me, maybe too easily at times, and I've always felt that great art requires great effort — like giving birth.

But, for some people, maybe it doesn't require a great effort. Maybe it really is as effortless as it seems.

Maybe that is how it is with great photographers.

Great photography, like the theater, excels at capturing dramatic moments in life, and there have been few moments in my lifetime that were more dramatic than when American prisoners of war started coming home from Vietnam in 1973.

I saw many dramatic photographs in those days. In fact — in hindsight — 1973 was filled with dramatic moments. It was the year that Richard Nixon famously declared that he was not a crook — an astonishing assertion for a president to make — a few months after it was revealed that Nixon had been recording Oval Office and telephone conversations for a couple of years. It was the year that Rose Mary Woods tried to take the heat for her boss — and failed. Her re–creation of her alleged error was preserved by many photographers.

But the most dramatic photographs of that year came when the POWs began coming home from Vietnam.

For the most part, America's veterans were treated shabbily by their fellow Americans. To an extent, it was understandable that Americans behaved as they did. They were frustrated by the waste of the war, and they felt deceived by their government. Being unable to take out their frustrations on the people who were really responsible, they lashed out at the most visible and most accessible symbols of the war — the young men who fought in it.

That wasn't fair. Soldiers carry out orders. They don't make policy. Even so, many Americans — to their everlasting shame — greeted returning Vietnam vets in the vilest ways.

Not so at Travis Air Force Base in northern California on this day in 1973.

Associated Press photographer Sal Veder happened to be in the right spot at the right time to snap a photo (above) that came to be known as "Burst of Joy." Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm was greeted by his family after spending more than five years as a prisoner of war. His 15–year–old daughter led the way, her arms outstretched. Her brothers, sister and mother followed, each face glowing in a radiant smile.

When I first saw that photo, it seemed to be the perfect bookend for a painful chapter in American history. It took many photos to tell the story of the Vietnam war — the photo of Vietnamese children running from their burning schoolhouse showed a side of war that non–combatants seldom see, and the photo of a young girl kneeling over the body of a victim at Kent State illustrated the divisions at home.

"Burst of Joy" allowed Americans to feel good again after years of feeling bad.

But there is a truth behind pictures that can't be seen — and the truth behind "Burst of Joy" was the fact that Stirm, who had been released by North Vietnam only three days earlier, had received a letter from his wife on the day of his release telling him that their marriage was over.

I don't know if the children knew about this so their smiles may well have been genuine. But the smile on Loretta Stirm's face, at least, hid a darker truth about the price of war.

Veder won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo he shot of the homecoming, and copies of it are on display in each of the children's homes.

But the focal point of the photo, Lt. Col. Stirm, does not. For him, it is a painful reminder.

Nevertheless, "Burst of Joy" continues to be "part of the nation's collective consciousness, often serving as an uplifting postscript to Vietnam," wrote Carolyn Kleiner Butler for the Smithsonian magazine eight years ago. "That the moment was considerably more fraught than we first assumed makes it all the more poignant and reminds us that not all war casualties occur on the battlefield."

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Conclave

As I watched Pope Francis being presented to the faithful yesterday — and especially as I heard and read about him afterward — I was struck by certain similarities between him and former President Gerald Ford.

I suppose the most obvious similarity between the two is the fact that they probably would have been the last people anyone would have expected to see elevated to such heights. Certainly, Pope Francis, coming from the Western Hemisphere, was unexpected. Many people — myself included — felt it was likely the cardinals would choose a European. When it was announced that a decision had been made roughly 24 hours after the conclave began, I thought that was a sure sign that a European, perhaps an Italian, had been elected.

And, if you remember the Ford presidency, it was a surprise when he was picked by Richard Nixon to succeed Spiro Agnew as vice president. Even when Ford was installed as the No. 2 guy in the executive branch, most people probably didn't think he would become president. Personally, I figured Nixon would find some way to run out the clock on his second term, but the clock ran out on him instead, and Ford became president.

Primarily, my thoughts centered on the image of Francis as a man of the people who cooks his own meals and rides the bus to work. It reminded me of the days before Ford became president, when journalists were enamored by the fact that he habitually walked outside his home to retrieve the morning paper or that he would prepare his own late–night snacks (his favorite snack, D.C. reporters couldn't wait to report, was cottage cheese with ketchup on it).

Like Ford, Francis is — or at least wants to be — a regular guy.

According to Catherine Harmon of The Catholic World Report, "[Francis] rode the bus back from St. Peter's with the rest of the cardinals after having been elected pope."

The new pope apparently wants to retain the common touch — even if the folks with whom he rode the bus yesterday were not exactly common — but that is easier said than done.

Ford didn't retrieve his morning paper anymore after Nixon resigned — at least not while he was in the White House. I can't honestly say whether he continued to make his own midnight snacks or if he left it up to others — I'm pretty sure cottage cheese and ketchup was a new one on the White House cooks (anyone who was there at the time probably thought he'd seen it all).

I assume it will be hard for Pope Francis to remain the down–to–earth guy he apparently was before fate tapped him on the shoulder to be the leader of a church with 1.2 billion members worldwide. That was something of a problem for Ford, too, and he had been in the spotlight longer than Pope Francis.

He also had the misfortune of succeeding a president who was intensely secretive and paranoid, words that don't seem applicable to the man Francis is succeeding. Benedict XVI may not be everyone's favorite the way John Paul II seems to have been, but his personality was hardly like Nixon's. He did not resign in disgrace — quite the opposite.

When compared to Nixon, Ford came across as a breath of fresh air. The reaction of the faithful to the introduction of the new pope yesterday was nothing like the sense of absolute relief that swept across the United States when Nixon resigned.

That much was different.

But when Francis' first words to the faithful were an appeal for their prayers and support, it really reminded me a great deal of Ford when he said, in his first speech after taking the oath of office, that, rather than give an inaugural address to the nation, he just wanted to have "a little straight talk among friends."

"I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots," Ford said, "and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers."

When Ford left the White House just under 2½ years later, he had lost a fair amount of his initial good will when he pardoned Nixon. But he still managed to retain that image of the common man, a decent guy whom you liked even if you didn't agree with him.

Perhaps the same could be said of Pope Francis. Tonight, when I was having my weekly dinner with my father, I asked Dad what he thought of Francis. He said he liked the new pope's humility and the fact that he took the name of an humble saint. Dad liked that very much.

But he was not so enthusiastic about Francis' views. Dad taught religion and philosophy for many years, and he has always had a good sense of a religious leader's doctrine even if it wasn't readily apparent to others.

Perhaps he will be pleasantly surprised by Francis' words and deeds. Perhaps he will not be. That remains to be seen.

But I think it would be wise for Catholics not to place a burden of expectations that are too high on the new pope. Those who are expecting sweeping changes are probably expecting too much from a church that still announces the selection of its leader via smoke signals.

Change still comes slowly to the Catholic church.

It may have to be enough that he is the first pope from South America, the first Jesuit pope and the first pope to be called Francis.

But certainly it can't hurt for the bishop of Rome to be humble.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Bishop of Rome

I am not Catholic.

I don't see anything wrong with Catholicism. Many of my friends are Catholic. I have attended Catholic services. I was even a pallbearer at a Catholic funeral once.

I say all that merely to establish the fact — beyond any doubt — that I have virtually no credibility when it comes to saying anything about the pope. None. Consider yourself warned. Take anything I say on this subject with the proverbial grain of salt.

Especially if you're Catholic.

See, on this matter, I feel a lot like Frasier Crane must have felt when he found himself at a Jewish shiva. One of the guests — well, several, actually, but I'm thinking of one in particular — observed, "You're not Jewish, are you?" when it was clear from his unfamiliarity with Jewish mourning customs that he was not.

Frasier replied, "Well, my ex–wife is Jewish, which means our son is half Jewish, which makes me — no, I'm not Jewish."

So I guess I'm sort of cutting to the chase by acknowledging up front that I am not Catholic.

I was raised in the Methodist church, but I suppose I have had more exposure in my life to a greater range of religious faiths than most people. My father was a religion and philosophy professor, just like his father before him, and, when I was a child, my family often attended religious services in other faiths. My father knew most of the religious leaders in the area, and we attended services at least once in every faith that was represented in central Arkansas in those days — regardless of the size of the congregation.

In spite of all that — or, perhaps, because of it — I am not especially religious today. I'm not really sure why that is so. Deep down, I think I believe that there is some sort of greater power, but my interpretation of God and the afterlife seems to be quite different from that of most people.

It is not my intention to persuade anyone that he or she is wrong about any spiritual matter since I don't know for certain what lies beyond. Never has been. Isn't now. And, while I cannot see into the future, my guess is it will continue to be that way.

But even if I have little or no credibility on religious issues, that doesn't stop me from having an opinion on Pope Benedict's decision to step down.

I thought it was a courageous decision — and yet another example of what a pope can teach us.

Thanks to the nearly three–decade papacy of John Paul II, there haven't been many popes in my lifetime. In fact, the upcoming conclave, in which the next pope will be chosen, will be only the fourth in my memory.

But it will be the first of its kind in the memories of all living people, no matter what their faiths may be.

The last time a pope resigned, William Shakespeare hadn't even been born. For 600 years, popes have left office only through death. In most families, you would have to go back a dozen generations — if not more — to find the ancestors who were living when a pope resigned.

But Benedict has shown Catholics and non–Catholics that it is all right — even preferable — for a pope to accept the fact that he is not infallible when it comes to the natural aging process, that while he may be seen as infallible when it comes to matters of faith, he is not immune to matters of the flesh. When that process interferes with a pope's ability to face the challenges confronting his church (which has more than 1 billion members worldwide), a wise pope needs to step aside and let someone else do the heavy lifting.

Seven years ago, when John Paul II died after a long, painful and extremely public physical deterioration, it was often said that he showed everyone — Catholic and non–Catholic alike — how to die with dignity. I felt at the time that there was much truth in that, but I also felt that he had forced his church to function without an effective leader while it waited for him to die.

I recall thinking — a year or two before he died, perhaps longer — that the Catholic church needed to have some sort of mechanism through which a pope whose physical or mental capabilities were in the inevitable decline of old age could step aside.

I didn't realize it was possible for a pope to resign. No pope had resigned since Gregory XII in the 15th century. I had always assumed that was part of the deal. When a man became pope, I thought, it was with the understanding that he could not become a pope emeritus.

But Benedict has shown that it is possible for a pope to become a pope emeritus — and put the interests of the church above his own.

It is a wise man who recognizes when it is time to go, to hand the torch to the next one in line. Benedict is to be commended for his selfless act.

As the papal conclave begins, I hope — for the sake of all my friends who are Catholic — that the cardinals will choose a pope with the vitality and the strength to lead his church into the challenges of the 21st century — and to deal with the unfinished, sometimes messy, business from the 20th century.