A Conversation with Bill McClellan
Everybody's Favorite Columnist
Photograph by Wesley Law
Veteran Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan enjoys a good jab at the upper class (the Bornwells and the Marriedwells, as he calls them) or a jousting match with the power structure (who else dares call Fleishman-Hillard “The Great Satan”?). But mainly, he’s kind—a sucker for a penitent scoundrel, a housewife battling cancer, or a farmer named Skinny who never left the river bottom and died two days after his wife did.
McClellan agrees to meet for coffee, then waves it aside. We sit outside on a park bench, and when he leaves two hours later, his worn brown wallet is lying on the grass; it must’ve fallen out of the only kind of pants he ever wears, “these kind of white ones,” his term for khakis. McClellan doesn’t mind St. Louisans’ routine cracks about his frumpy wardrobe; what he minds is when people think it’s shtick. Nothing about him is shtick. He is a man keenly aware of his inadequacies—and instantly forgiving of other people’s.
Does it ever strike you as odd that so many readers feel like you’re their friend? When you write four columns a week for years, you don’t have many secrets. If they’ve read a lot of the columns, they really do know me.
How would you describe your role in St. Louis? My job is to comment on the passing parade.
What irritates you? Hateful online comments. We had this little feel-good story about Obama choosing a St. Louis pizza company, and there were like 145 responses, most of them full of vitriol: “I hope he gets sick.” There’s nothing anymore people can write without it being seen through a political lens. I couldn’t write about a stray dog without somebody saying, “You liberal!”
When you argue politics on Donnybrook every Thursday, that doesn’t seem to happen. The nicest thing about Donnybrook is that people can disagree and clearly still like each other. Donnybrook goes back to the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could play cards and have a drink together.
What do most people not realize about you? I’m probably more conservative than they think. I’ve been sued by trial lawyers, I wasn’t in favor of the desegregation program, I’m in favor of capital punishment, I served as a state’s witness for an execution. I’m not a doctrinaire liberal.
Do you like the wee Post-Dispatch?
No-o-o-o-o. I’m adjusted to it. But I think we’ve lost a lot by giving up the Everyday section and the Metro section. The staff is smaller. And you never do more with less.
What’s the future of print journalism? I just don’t know. Many years ago, it seemed to me that people weren’t reading anything at all. I can remember going into a laundromat, and if somebody was reading a romance novel, I’d want to go up and thank her. Then the computer came along, and kids were writing again—abbreviated messages I couldn’t read—and I became heartened. But the Internet has been so savage on us. I don’t know how we get that back.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received? That I got it right. And sometimes people tell me they put a column on their refrigerator. For a newspaper column, it doesn’t get any better than that.
One Post editor, the late William Woo, said you have “an intuitive sense of the totality of people’s lives.” What’s your take on that? I think it’s very well stated, but I’m not quite sure what it means. I think I have a lot of empathy for people, and also I’m just interested in stuff. One thing I’ve never lost is my enthusiasm.
Why do so many reporters lose theirs? I don’t know. I don’t know. In the old days, the reporters who “lost their legs,” as they would say, just went to the copy desk, and they knew the city and had all these connections and could say, “Isn’t he related to so-and-so?” We don’t have that institutional memory anymore.
How’d you fare in the era of managing editor David Lipman? I’ve heard he had a temper. I remember Dave fondly, but yeah, his management style was pounding the desk. My wife, Mary, would say, “How can you work under those conditions?” and I’d say, “It’s like a sitcom. Sometimes you can almost hear the laugh track.”
What’s the closest you ever came to getting fired? It was back when Mr. Pulitzer was alive. According to his bio, it was because of something I’d written about Ed Whitacre [Jr., then chairman of Southwestern Bell]. I do remember Whitacre being furious and people thinking it was a cheap-shot column. They were holding a fundraiser for the United Way, and I wrote that they pulled the drapes so the homeless people couldn’t look in. But my recollection of when he tried to fire me was when I’d written that Ted Kennedy was an unlikely champion of women who were being sexually harassed. Mr. Pulitzer was furious. He liked Ted Kennedy—and he never really liked me. He thought my column was not dignified enough to represent the paper.
So how did you escape? The bosses told him, “It doesn’t represent the paper any more than the horoscope does. It’s just a column.” And to convince him, they wanted to put a line under the column title: “On His Own” [later changed to “On My Own”]. They asked if I minded. I said, “As opposed to getting fired? Put whatever you want: ‘Drunk again.’ ‘Disregard this.’ ‘Probably more lies.’”
Were you ever tempted to quit? The only time I really toyed with the idea was during the era of [former editor] Cole Campbell. Things got so crazy. I talked to Mary—since she’s a dentist, I thought maybe we could go to an Indian reservation. She’s from the Southwest, and she could work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and I could hike around. She looked into it, and we even broached the idea to the kids. But in the end, it was just something I was musing about on days I was disturbed at the paper.
What would you have done if you hadn’t gone to work for a newspaper? Y’know, I don’t know. Maybe I would have been a lifetime grad student somewhere. Probably in English. But on the other hand, I was such a poor student, I probably couldn’t have made it. I couldn’t even graduate. I started at the University of Illinois, and I got a job as a bartender and waited tables at a Jewish fraternity, and everything was so much fun that school seemed kind of beside the point.
Do you regret flunking out? I can laugh about it now, but it was humiliating. Now I think, “Well, if I hadn’t flunked out of Illinois, I wouldn’t have ended up in Arizona, and I wouldn’t have met Mary.” I’ve been very fortunate, and I’ve planned nothing.
What did get you out to Arizona? I got drafted into the Marine Corps, and we were talking about what we’d do next, and a friend said, “There’s a school in Phoenix where if you can sign a tuition check, you are a C student. And there’s palm trees.”
So you went to Phoenix? Yeah, and the motel clerk asked where I was planning on living, and when I said I didn’t know, he told me there was this place called Sin City, and I thought, “This is all working out!”
You stayed three years, but still no B.A.? I’d never bothered to find out what the requirements were to graduate. I did some freelance work for the newspaper in Phoenix, and they said, “Hey, when you’re done with school, come on over.” So I adopted the Class of ’75, and when the Class of ’75 finished, I went over. And on my résumé, I would always put “completed education at Arizona State University.”
Mary was your next-door neighbor. How did you propose? My mother sent me her uncle’s diamond stickpin; she said, “You can have this set in a ring.” I was going to give it to Mary when she came home for Christmas. But then a friend of mine got arrested on a pot charge, so I put it up as bail bond—and when Mary came home, I had to take her to Garcia’s Bail Bond so he could get it out of the safe to show her.
You grew up in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood called Roseland. What was the best and worst of it? The worst was, I wasn’t as good at sports as I wish I’d been. I swam the 400-yard freestyle, and the winner would be finishing the 16th lap before I came into my 14th. To this day, the smell of chlorine carries a little humiliation. On the other hand, if you weren’t cool in high school, you go through life realizing you’re not cool, and it keeps you grounded. That has worked to my advantage.
In the end, what difference does it really make? Pretty women and high-school athletes go through life with this easy self-confidence. People like me have a little bit of a chip on the shoulder. I’m always ready to get thrown out.
I doubt your high-school days were a total disaster. No, I was the editor of the school paper. And when you had to vote for “Best Eyes” or “Most Mysterious” or whatever, I think I gave myself “Most Fun to Be With.” [He grins.] And when I say “gave myself,” I mean cheated on the election. One or two kids won everything, so, like a socialist, I spread it around.
In all the stories you’ve heard, what amazes you? The way people can handle tough situations—illnesses, things that are not of their own doing—with such grace.
A lot of your heroes are flawed, though; they bring their troubles on themselves. I’m a big believer in the Church of the Second Chance.
What traits do you despise? Self-righteousness. Flat-out lying, that’s hard to handle. And mean-spiritedness. I’ll think, “Geez, have you no empathy at all?”