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A celebration of conservatism

Cal Thomas is one of the most highly regarded voices on the American political scene. He has authored 11 books, including "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America," co-written with Bob Beckel, and he regularly appears as a panelist on "Fox News Watch."

Embraced by local newspapers, he has been capturing America one reader at a time and has extended his reach to include more than 500 papers nationwide. Cal celebrated his 25th anniversary as a newspaper columnist Friday. In a recent interview with Tribune Media Services, he shared a few thoughts on his prolific career.

Cal Thomas, Early Career

"I started in radio at the age of 16, playing rock music and delivering the rip-and-read news for an independent radio station in suburban Washington, D.C. When I went to college, I got a job as a copy boy for NBC News, working alongside some of the most prominent names in news, including David Brinkley and Sander Vanocur. It was heady stuff for a 19-year-old. Even at the time, I knew I was learning from the masters. I approached the job as a student, soaking up the knowledge and experience of my mentors. Part of the job was to file news scripts, which I would take home at night and study. NBC News was my greatest writing class.

In 1983, I wrote my first book, "Book Burning," and penned a 700-word column, based on the same subject. I'd never written for a newspaper, and sent the column, unsolicited, to the New York Times. Much to my surprise, they printed it, and the paper was deluged with mail. I approached several other newspapers and ultimately hoped to get picked up by a syndicate. At the time, there was a shortage of quality commentary, especially on conservative cultural issues. All of the syndicates I approached turned me down. Then I called Tom Johnson, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and a friend. Tom put me in touch with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, where I was eventually signed. The Washington Times was the first subscriber for my syndicated column, which began on April 17, 1984.

In the past 25 years, I have seen political commentary transform, and not always in positive ways. We have all witnessed dramatic changes in the political landscape. Maintaining a healthy dialog is critical. We used to talk to each other, now we just talk at each other. There are more ways to communicate but fewer conversations. The result is everybody is talking but fewer people are listening. I do not seek to convert the audience to my point of view, but to present ideas and let readers contemplate them."

TMS: How would you describe your role as a columnist?

CT: George Will once described me as a "moral environmentalist." I like that. I try not to be a lapdog to Republicans or an attack dog to Democrats. I feel a personal responsibility to share my views on universal issues like character, integrity, family and financial responsibility. As a society, we have millennia of human history, and we know what works relationally, economically and socially. I am trying to draw on a wealth of history and knowledge, and apply it to the contemporary debate.

TMS: What was the newspaper market like when you first started writing your column?

CT: In 1984, there was a dearth of conservative commentary in newspapers, and in the media in general, especially on social issues. Aside from William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will, the conservative voice was in large part goofball stuff. It took a lot of hard work and determination. I visited newspapers one by one to convince them of the value of this type of commentary. Through the process, I made many friends across ideological divides.

TMS: How have you seen political journalism change during the past 25 years?

CT: We are losing a lot of the old journalistic ethic that served people well. The revolving door between politics and journalism has become common practice, and more people with political backgrounds are showing up as commentators and reporters. This deepens the level of the public's cynicism about the media and builds a perception that we are out for ourselves. I was a reporter before I was a columnist, and I do more than just live up to my syndicate, which requires me to avoid conflicts of interest. I regard this opportunity to publish my opinions as a privilege and I seek to write and act responsibility.

People feel that something has been lost in the country, and they are not having a say in whatever process is creating that loss. The average person - who had nothing to do with AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the destruction of our retirement funds - are paying more and more in taxes to a government that failed to provide oversight and increasingly looks incompetent in running itself, much less the auto makers. I care about what is happening to this country and I know large numbers of my readers do, too. They tell me so.

TMS: What is the most memorable interview of your career?

CT: Through the years, I have been privileged to interview presidents and dignitaries, including George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Benjamin Netanyahu, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. I've had the pleasure to meet many more, among them Ariel Sharon, Anwar Sadat, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton.

The most wonderful interview I've ever done was outside of politics and government. I love the theater, and as a teenager I dreamed of meeting Julie Andrews. In fact, Julie Andrews single-handedly made me a fan of musical theater. I have admired her work for more than 40 years, and in 2007, I had the opportunity to interview her on "After Hours" on Fox News. She was as charming and delightful as I expected. The interview is available on YouTube.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at calthomas@tribune.com.