During a break from daily journalism, I had the good fortune of being promoted nationally as a columnist. The Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, syndicated my work mostly about besieged urban residents battling the consequences of the crack epidemic.
I was intrigued by the proliferation of neighborhood crime patrols, after-school programs and community redevelopment efforts — often led by African-American churches.
It was sort of like President George H.W. Bush's "thousand points of light" of community service — only in situations in which people's lights could really be put out.
Themes of personal sacrifice, community responsibility and grass-roots activism were considered conservative in the late 1980s, when the most powerful advocate for the dispossessed was presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson.
Now, we have a president who once worked in the trenches helping black churches tackle community problems and who talks to the American people about responsibility and sacrifice in tough times. Yet, few people would call him a conservative.
The reality is that people don't fit neatly into partisan pigeonholes. Philosophies are shaped and reshaped by life experiences, not platforms. It is common to be liberal on one issue, conservative on another, libertarian on a third.
Public assumptions and mainstream attitudes change over time, as well. The election of an African-American president is a perfect example.
In the current debate about the tone of political discourse, many want to encourage civility — respect for those with whom we disagree. But we could also benefit by stressing flexibility, accepting that people across any political divide can find common ground.
That's one reason the Herald-Leader, regardless of its editorial stances, devotes space to rebuttals and commentary from a range of think tanks, academics and advocacy groups.
Over the years, the paper also has provided a platform for local columnists, some of whom have become media personalities, political activists and even politicians.
Well-reasoned, timely opinion is always welcome, especially about local, state and regional issues.
My preference is for columns offering solutions, rather than sermons for the faithful; those reflecting some search for meaning rather than echoing talking-points memos.
It's not important that I, or anyone on the editorial board, agrees with the writer. But it helps if the tone of the writing is agreeable enough to attract and keep readers engaged.
Every so often, readers complain that this paper publishes too little conservative opinion. With reduced budgets and space, we have cut back on nationally syndicated opinion, though we still run more than most papers our size.
Right now, we are paying for three conservative cartoonists and well-known writers such as David Brooks, Cal Thomas, Mona Charen, Kathleen Parker, Jonah Goldberg and Ruben Navarrette,
The Herald-Leader, however, has no say over what, how or when they write. Sometimes readers are looking for a response to some White House action, and the writer is concerned about something else entirely or simply chooses to weigh the issue for a while.
Unlike blogs and Tweets, columns are expected to be fully reported and analyzed before they are published.
If there are syndicated writers who should be on our pages, let me know. We will give them full consideration. We have found that some of the most high-profile radio and TV personalities are not strong writers, not dependable about meeting deadlines nor careful about accuracy.
And I remind you that even the most passionately conservative writer can take unexpected stands.
Thomas, for example, wrote a moving column about his family friend, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Charen outright rejects Sarah Palin as a potential president. Brooks supports the Obama administration's education reforms. And Navarrette thinks the Republican Party is hurting itself by appearing anti-immigrant.
None of that is part of some grand conspiracy, as one reader recently alleged. It's just people willing to share with others as they try to make sense of the world and refine their personal views.
For me, the examples of courage and perseverance I wrote about years ago shaped my thinking and still ground me.
And it doesn't really matter what label anyone wants to put on that.