A liberal newspaperman in George W. Bush’s backyard? Molly Ivins would be proud.
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IN OLDEN DAYS, John Young would have been horsewhipped or shot in the back for the stuff he writes two or three times a week in the Waco Tribune-Herald. You don’t razz right-wingers in what Young has labeled “Bush-by-God country”—not if you value your kneecaps. An otherwise ordinary 54-year-old who wears wire-rim glasses and has a trim mustache and a receding hairline, Young is the rarest of a vanishing breed of Texans: the unapologetically liberal newspaperman. Since 1984 he has edited the Trib’s left-of-center opinion page and written columns of the sort that once incited a local Klan official to invite him down a dark alley, an offer that he politely refused. Yes, he is mild mannered, conscientious, and thoughtful, a family man in worn shoes who takes in stray dogs and cats and eats lunch at his desk, but in the harsh light of day he is exceedingly tart of tongue, boldly opinionated, and apparently fearless (or possibly addled). In other words, he’s a perfect nominee to replace the sadly departed Molly Ivins as the bee in the Texas establishment’s bonnet.
A century ago Waco was known as Six-Shooter Junction. It was always open season on newspaper writers, as readers with opposing opinions expressed their displeasure by taking in hand not pen and paper but gun and rope. Baylor students once tried to tar and feather, but settled on hanging, the legendary editor and publisher William Cowper Brann, whose Iconoclast regularly scorched the university and the Baptists. Brann was saved by the quick work of three Baylor professors who rushed to his aid outside the Old Main building; four days later, however, he was accosted on Franklin Avenue and caned by a local judge. Another judge, one of Brann’s supporters, got in a fistfight with J. W. Harris, the editor of the Waco Times-Herald, and a few days later killed both Harris and Harris’s brother in a shoot-out at Fourth and Austin. Brann died in a similar eruption of gunplay in 1898, as did his assailant, Tom E. Davis. Despite all this above-the-fold violence, the presses have continued to roll, as have the invectives, boos, and threats of bodily harm, which in Young’s unflappable world arrive as music to his ears. “If you dish it out,” he told me, “you have to be ready to take it.”
Anytime Young speaks to a local group—say, the Rotary Club of Waco—someone demands to know why the editorial page of the Trib is so out of sync with the conservative sentiments of the community. “It’s a perennial question,” says Young’s boss, Trib editor Carlos Sanchez. “I take it on in a variety of ways with the same theme: the more varied the voices, the healthier the discourse. But at the Rotary Club, John took on the question more directly, challenging the assumption that opinion in Waco is as monolithic as most people assume.”
I first learned of Young and his habit of disturbing domestic tranquillity in 2004, when theaters in Waco initially refused to show Fahrenheit 9/11, the Michael Moore documentary that punched the most sacred of McLennan County’s cows, rancher and brush clearer George W. Bush. In a column distributed by the Cox and the New York Times news services, Young wrote that if Moore would supply a copy of his film, he knew a barn in Crawford (guess which one) onto which the movie might be projected. Moore saw the column and responded, and a few weeks later—while Young’s wife, Becky, and their two sons were safely away vacationing in Colorado—some three thousand people on lawn chairs (including Young, who had flown home for the showing) watched Fahrenheit in the parking lot of the Crawford High School football field. There were, of course, protesters, yelping and braying and waving signs on the perimeter, but no bloodied noses or blackened eyes resulted. It was exactly the kind of democracy in action that Young encourages in his column. “I don’t want people to get the impression that I orchestrated that event,” he assured me one afternoon in February as we talked in his corner office at the Trib. “I was just having fun with my column. It was a fanciful idea.” Of course it was, John.
For better or worse, Waco is Young’s kind of town, with plenty of grist for the newsman’s mill: Branch Davidians, the Lake Waco murders, Henry Lee Lucas, Kenneth McDuff, killer tornadoes, Bush’s summer White House. “Waco has issues that wouldn’t be issues anywhere else,” Young said. “We’re a caricature of a caricature.” Baylor didn’t allow dancing on campus until the mid-nineties. Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ was totally banned in Waco; theaters refused to show it, video stores refused to carry it, and the local cable provider blocked it when Showtime aired it. A friend at a convenience store slipped a copy to Young in a brown paper bag one day, and Young watched it in his den at night, after his sons were fast asleep. “What’s interesting about Waco is that it does have an identity, true or not,” he said. “It’s a town with a chip on its shoulder, or with an inferiority complex, and yet it’s a midsize metro with all the elements you would expect: a hurting inner city, conservative suburbs, a philosophical diversity where a progressive politician like Chet Edwards gets elected term after term. Living in Waco is one long theological argument. But at least it’s a conversation starter.”
Young writes on a wide variety of subjects—his dogs, his kids, the Brazos River, kite flying, the PTA, the cultural arts—but his red meat is politics. “I get juiced about citizenship,” he told me. “It bugs me to see people feeling powerless, to not believe they can influence events. This mentality that good government is something you contract out rather than something you do is sad and fallacious.” Young learned when he was president of his junior high school class and the editor of the Alameda High School paper, in Lakewood, Colorado, that he had the power to influence events. One of his projects involved successfully petitioning the city council to save a lake from destruction. On another occasion, he faced down a mob of angry parents trying to intimidate school board members into dismantling a course schedule system that they claimed was affecting attendance at football games. “They booed me,” he recalled. “Ah, sweet music.” Young’s parents and his two brothers were not politically active back then, but he told me that they have been radicalized the past six years by Bush’s policies. “My mom died in the eighties,” he said, “but if she were alive, she’d be writing a blog.” Young was writing for and editing the opinion page of a small daily newspaper in Alamosa, Colorado, when former Trib editor Bob Lott hired him. Lott was impressed by a column the then-thirty-year-old Young had written making fun of the Gablers, Texas-based husband-and-wife bullies who famously harassed textbook publishers all over the United States.
A creature of the newsroom, Young does most of his reading at night, retiring to his study after dinner to read online versions of the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Dallas Morning News and blogs like the Huffington Post. Every weekday morning he and his colleagues on the five-member editorial board decide what subjects are worthy of tackling. Young and senior editor Rowland Nethaway take turns writing the editorials, which are not signed. They also share the opinion column, which, time permitting, runs five days a week. “I think it’s interesting,” Sanchez says, “that the same people who hate John’s column will in the same breath praise an unsigned editorial that he wrote.”
One of the pleasures of reading Young is discovering how skillfully he uses humor to disarm critics. Reflecting on the news that Cindy Sheehan had bought land in McLennan County—she could no longer be dismissed as an outside troublemaker, had to be accepted as “one of our own,” and was therefore exempt from criticism—Young praised county commissioner Ray Meadows’s “welcoming and accommodating” observation that at least the purchase would keep war protesters off the road and out of traffic. Besides, Young pointed out cheerfully, protesters are tourists and good for the economy. Equally illuminating is the way Young connects the dots, laying out the great differences in what politicians say and what they do. A column on tax reform demonstrated the sly way legislators shift the burden to those with the least political clout, forever ignorant of unintended consequences: In Texas the Lege has tied school finance to a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes, hooking our educational system on nicotine. A column raging against “Mr. Big” (Bush) and the “Bag Man” (Tom DeLay) shows how the president pretends to remain above the fray, as in the case of DeLay’s scheme to redistrict Texas, and how one of the results is that several Texas GOP congressmen whose reelection prospects were helped by redistricting were blocking reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, legislation Bush supported.
If Young has a signature issue, it is standardized testing in schools, which is universally despised by parents, teachers, and students but is a favorite of politicians. “Test scores don’t measure excellence,” Young told me. “They measure competence. I didn’t send my kids to school to learn competence.” Massive amounts of teaching-to-the-test have failed the public schools, Young observed not long ago, and now Governor Rick Perry wants to impose the same burden on college students. “If education’s quest is to roll out drones who, when drilled under threat of retention, will do certain state-assigned tasks, maybe ‘accountability’ is a success,” he wrote. “But we all thought higher education was, well, higher.”
Young relishes (and maybe even wallows in) what he calls the “creative tension galore” of his adoptive hometown. It is a state of anxiety that existed long before Bush’s arrival, he told me. Nevertheless, I suggested, Bush’s buying a place near town must have been the answer to a newsman’s prayer. Young thought for a while, then said, “After you’ve had a child for a few years, you find you can’t detach yourself from the experience. The dynamics of Bush moving here—I can’t remember when it was any other way.” It was just the sort of retort Molly Ivins was famous for: biting and gentle all at once, claiming the president as a kind of kin while at the same time skewering him. Unfortunately for the president, it turns out she wasn’t the last of her kind.