Sharing one’s opinion in the public square is a tradition as old as ancient Pompeii. Roman citizens would scrawl their thoughts about everything from politics to poetry on the city’s walls.
Think of it as the first-century version of social networking. Except these posts survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and have been cataloged by archaeologists, proving to be much more enduring than the average 21st-century Twitter feed or Instagram thread.
Between the graffiti messaging of the Roman Empire and the digital messaging of the Facebook Empire, various media have come and gone.
But one steady contributor to the public discourse is the ink-on-newsprint letter to the editor. It was popularized in the middle of the 18th century and continues today, though on a smaller scale that mirrors the decline in traditional newspapers and the exodus to the Internet.
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In the Tacoma area, a core group of veteran News Tribune readers keeps the medium alive with articulate, feisty and frequent letters to the editor, which appear both in print and online.
We lost one of those franchise players when Burt Talcott died on July 29.
Talcott, who was 96, lived a full and influential life before turning to letters to the editor in retirement as one way to stay civically engaged.
Stanford University football player and graduate. World War II airman who was shot down in Europe and spent 13 months in a POW camp. Seven-term congressman who conferred with four presidents.
Talcott and his wife, Lee, retired to Gig Harbor in 1988 to be near their son and his family. Talcott became involved in local government, including Pierce County’s charter review and ethics commissions. Two months before he died, he traveled to the Tri-Cities as a delegate to the state Republican National Convention.
But here at the TNT opinion factory, we remember Talcott for his prolific letter writing. A search of our archives shows we published 10 Talcott letters in the last year of his life, just short of the maximum one per month we allow. His topics ranged from tax fairness to the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta to the sanctity of voting in a polling place.
Daughter-in-law Gigi Talcott recalls he was always a man of letters, penning notes of gratitude, advice and condolence. As a Vietnam War era congressman, he would come home and fill pages from long yellow legal pads. Gigi Talcott would find crumpled sheets in the wastebasket.
“I always attributed it to his prisoner of war experience,” she said. “That's where he went with his thoughts; he poured them into those legal pads.”
Though a stalwart Republican, Talcott minced no words in his letters to the editor if he observed nonsense in either party.
His final letter, published online in July, took congressional Democrats to task for their raucous sit-in on the House floor. A few months earlier, he lamented Donald Trump’s candidacy of bullying, bad manners and belief in American mediocrity.
“A Trump nomination would change the Republican Party and the culture of our nation, maybe forever,” he wrote.
Talcott had an extraordinary past but didn’t dwell in it.
“He loved the contemporary issues; he kept up with those,” said Gigi Talcott, a former state legislator. “That's where his interests were — in moving forward. He always believed we are going to come out of this, and it isn't about the guys at the top, it's about Americans, the citizens of the United States, who will preserve this country.
“He was more optimistic about those things than I am,” she laughed.
It can be challenging to embrace optimism in today’s climate of partisan warfare and homogenous thought, where people hunker down in information silos and don’t seek out opposing opinions.
Recent studies by the Pew Research Center have found both conservatives and liberals are increasingly turning to like-minded people and news sources to validate their views.
Social media only reinforces the bubbles people live in. Facebook’s news feed, for example, is built on algorithms that spoon-feed exactly what individual users want to consume; the company acknowledges it feels no responsibility to provide contrary perspectives.
That leaves the TNT and other newspapers among the few mediated public forums where each day you can stumble into a diverse range of opinions and reactions to those opinions.
You might disagree with half of them. But on a good day, a shaft of light might find a hole in your bubble, even if it’s the size of a pinprick.
Our letter writers provide the South Sound with an open conversation of provocative viewpoints, suddenly diminished by one. You’re welcome to join in and carry on the legacy of Burt Talcott.
Matt Misterek is editorial page editor at The News Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at (253) 597-8472.