James J Kilpatrick: Conservative columnist and broadcaster who began as a racist and segregationist but later changed his views

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The Independent Online

As one of America's leading conservative newspaper columnists, James J Kilpatrick was known for his stylistic mix of the homespun and the patrician, but he made his most lasting impact as a television performer, the right half of the "Point-Counterpoint" segments on the CBS network's top-rated current-affairs programme 60 Minutes.

His debates with the Newsweek columnist Shana Alexander, punctuated by good-natured personal chiding so stylised as to appear scripted, were popular enough to earn savage parody by Saturday Night Live's Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain, the banter turning to real venom. The format, adopted by CNN's Crossfire, became standardised: a sharp-tongued right-winger confronted an earnest middle of the road "liberal", the banter becoming more and more abusive. This reached its apotheosis on Fox News, where the "liberal" is a straw dog set up to be shouted down and humiliated.

Originally, Point-Counterpoint's debate was sharper, matching Kilpatrick against the equally patrician, but unabashedly left-wing, Nicholas Von Hoffman. That ended when Richard Nixon's White House was finally forced to release the Watergate tapes. When Kilpatrick opined that all the tapes proved was that Nixon had a great sense of humour, Von Hoffman reacted with amused incredulity. "Oh Jack," he chortled as he compared Nixon to a dead mouse on America's kitchen floor, the only difference being this dead mouse could throw himself into the trash can. The resulting uproar over defaming a president who indeed did resign saw the 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt fire Von Hoffman, replacing him with Alexander.

As the reasoned voice of TV conservatism, Kilpatrick's previous position as the philosophical leader of America's segregationists was conveniently overshadowed. As editor of the Richmond (Virginia) News Leader, and in books like The Sovereign States (1957) and The Southern Case For School Segregation (1962) he trumpeted "state rights", arguing the pre-Civil War position for '"nullification", that American states were sovereign and able to "interpose" themselves against federal court decisions, like those striking down "separate but equal" facilities, with which they didn't agree. The argument is being recycled today by America's Tea Party to fight universal health care, affirmative action and abortion rights.

When interposition failed, Kilpatrick orchestrated Virginia Senator Harry Byrd's strategy of "massive resistance", shutting down schools rather than integrate them. His underlying beliefs were stated clearly in a article titled "The Hell He Is Equal", arguing the inferiority of the Negro race, written for the Saturday Evening Post in 1963 but fortunately spiked after four schoolgirls were murdered in the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church. By the time he joined 60 Minutes in 1971 he had repudiated racism, attributing his positions to attitudes inculcated in him as a boy, saying, "but I've come a long way".

Although Kilpatrick assumed the mien of a southern gentleman planter, he was born in Oklahoma City, the son of a lumber dealer. He put himself through University of Missouri as a copy boy on his hometown paper. After graduating in 1941 he was hired as a cub reporter by the News Leader; his letter of application stated that he knew the "streets of Paris as well as the streets of Philadelphia", which was true, as he had never seen either.

Promoted quickly by editor Douglas Southall Freeman, Robert E Lee's biographer, he became the paper's chief editorial writer in 1949 and succeeded Freeman as editor in 1951; one of his first campaigns as editor freed a black man wrongfully convicted of murder. He later began the "Beadle Bumble Fund", named after the character from Oliver Twist, to campaign against the abuses of petty bureaucracy and "foolish and needless laws". When 60 Minutes dropped Point-Counterpoint in 1979, it was replaced by the faux-everyman grumblings of Andy Rooney on just those topics.

After Kilpatrick's debates against civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, he became a popular television pundit, and contributing editor to William Buckley's National Review. His syndicated column, "A Conservative View", began in 1964, and was so successful he left the News Leader in 1966. The column ran until 1993.

Like Buckley, who followed him into television, Kilpatrick wrote frequently on abuses of English usage, which became a staple for other American high Tories like William Safire and George Will. Although his columns were bylined from the Virginia village of Scrabble, his weekend retreat was actually in Woodville, two miles away. One of his neighbours was the anti-Vietnam presidential campaigner, Eugene McCarthy, and it was a sign of Kilpatrick's personal affability that the two ideological opposites collaborated on a satirical 1978 book about bureaucratic jargon, A Political Bestiary.

Kilpatrick wrote two other syndicated columns, Covering The Courts, which replaced A Conservative View in 1993, focusing on the Supreme Court, and ran until 2008, and The Writer's Art, which took the title of his own 1984 book. His other books included The American South (1983), To Ear Is Human (1985) and Fine Print (1993). The Writer's Art ran until health problems caused Kilpatrick to give it up last year.

Kilpatrick was married twice. His first marriage, to the sculptor Marie Pietri lasted 55 years until her death in 1997. His second wife was the Hearst columnist Marianne Means.

James Jackson Kilpatrick, journalist, writer and broadcaster: born 1 November 1920 Oklahoma City; married firstly Marie Pietri (died 1997; three sons),secondly Marianne Means (four stepchildren); died Washington DC 15 August 2010.

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