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After 21 Years, A Fond Goodbye

This story was originally published on Sunday, December 27, 1998



IN THE era before Teletypes and, now, computers, news was sent by Morse-code telegraphers. They ended each dispatch with the number "30." It meant: The end. All. No more.

Today, after 21 years as The Herald's editor, I bid you 30. I'm retiring as of Dec. 31. On Jan. 1 The Herald's nationally respected political editor, Tom Fiedler, will succeed me.

Tom is eminently suited for this job's challenges and rewards, which are daily and many. He'll learn, as I did, that to head The Herald's opinion pages is to hold one of journalism's best jobs in a region unsurpassed anywhere in the world as a source of news. And in Latin America and the Caribbean - Greater Miami's neighborhood - no newspaper is more heeded and respected than this one. And no locale exceeds Greater Miami in the hemisphere's estimate of where its undeclared capital is. A chance to matter

This isn't braggadocio. It's fact. Here, thanks to South Florida's polyglot, polycultural population, a major development anywhere in the hemisphere is local news, because it affects local people.

Understanding this, keeping track of these cross currents, and trying to be both their compass and their lightning rod - that is The Herald's challenge. The same goes for El Nuevo Herald, our Spanish-language sister paper. If any other newspapers, anywhere, face this much challenge - and its concomitant opportunity to matter significantly to their readers - I can't name them.

So you can understand my mixed feelings as, two weeks shy of age 64, I say goodbye. It's hard to climb down from the catbird seat that I've occupied for two wondrously fulfilling decades. Part of me wants to stay on, to remain in the thick of things, to . . . matter.

But another, victorious, part of me says: "No, move on. Repot yourself in other soil; watch the new shoots grow. Find other outlets for your writing. Do things with your wife of eight years, who has cheerfully suffered your 70-hour work weeks without complaint."

Several people have asked me: "Are you and Lillian going to retire somewhere else?" Answer: Never. Though Lillian's from Cuba, and I'm from Kentucky, we've long since become Miamians. For life.

Why do people love a place so much? Particularly a place so prone to uncontrollable upset - from six months of hurricane season each year (Hurricane Andrew trashed our house in 1992) to the political currents from Cuba, Haiti, Central America, and elsewhere in the hemisphere? Why not move to some place more . . . tranquil?

Miami, the laboratory

Because tranquil is boring. Did a tranquil oyster ever produce a pearl? Of course not. The pearl grows when the oyster secretes a substance to encapsulate an irritating grain of sand.

In an oystershell, that describes Miami. We've got enough irritants to bead a ball gown with pearls. A few years ago I wrote a column about this phenomenon. It was titled, to mix a metaphor, Everybody into the Petri dish. In that column, I said that Miami is the Petri dish in which the cells of 21st Century America are growing. How we cope with ethnic change could augur how America does a few decades hence.

I stand by that prediction. Demographics are my ally. Little by little, America is becoming less European and more Hispanic and Asian. To deny these trends, much less to try to resist them, is to emulate King Canute's commanding the tide to turn. Command though anyone will, this tide will not turn.

When he was chosen to succeed me, I told Tom that he'd probably be scared until he got through his first communitywide crisis. I sure was. In fact, I really didn't feel secure until two major crises - the McDuffie Riots and the Mariel boatlift - occurred here simultaneously in 1980.

That seems, also simultaneously, like a century ago - and like yesterday. Time does fly when you're having fun. And despite this job's demands and frustrations, it's fun, immeasurably rewarding, incessantly challenging.

Rules to live by

Just as youth is too precious to be squandered on the young, experience is too valuable to have to acquire it bit by bit. So whatever other legacy I leave him, I leave to Tom Fiedler these four Hampton's Rules:

1. Above all, be fair. Sticks and stones break bones; unfair words break spirits and bonds of trust. Bones heal. Broken spirits and trust may never.

2. When it's hardest to be fair, be fairest. Knowing when not to flay an adversary or a caustic critic is vital. "In taking revenge, " wrote Francis Bacon, "a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior."

3. When in doubt, don't. Not ever.

4. Never assume anything but a 4 percent mortgage.

I confess, having articulated these rules, also to having violated each of them at least once. Each violation I subsequently rued. I have published, in anger, words that I should have set aside to cool, then discarded. At others' urging, I've set aside my own doubts - only to have them validated. But whenever I've observed these rules, both our opinion pages and I have emerged the better for it.

Try them yourself. You'll see.