The theme of my July 2 column was "What does it mean to be an American?" and included this line: "To Rep. Virgil Goode, apparently, it means speaking English and reading the Bible (reminiscent of another Congressman who once blurted out, in the midst of a floor debate on multi-culturalism, 'If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!')"
A reader named Tucker Watkins took exception to the Goode reference, and wrote:
"Dear Mr. Laurant:
"Your comment on Congressman Virgil Goode was a cheap shot at best.
"Why didn’t you write a real story and call him and ask rather than give us your biased opinion?
"Your article would have been much better had you called Virginians of many political stripes and asked them what it meant to them to be an American. That might have given us all words of inspiration to remember on this wonderful holiday.
"Instead you took the easy way out and wrote something that will best be soon forgotten.
"If you took the time to get to know Virgil, you would find he is an amazing student of American history who cares a great deal about this country and feels that being an American is very special. It is sad for you and the readers of the newspaper that you have not made that effort.
"I would hope that in the future you learn a great deal more about your subject matter before putting your pen to paper."
I respect the opinion of Mr. Watkins, who seemed quite knowledgeable when I talked with him on the phone. (He is, in fact, a former Fifth District Republican chairman). But it also gives me the opportunity to explain the difference between a news story, an editorial and a column.
A news story is supposed to provide all the facts (or as many facts as the reporter can scare up) and, if it's an issue story, offer an opportunity for both sides to be heard.
An editorial injects the added element of the writers' opinion, but is still usually backed by factual evidence. In this case, though, it is not considered essential to contact both sides.
Which brings us to the column, which is sort of the newspaper version of what Jay Leno and Rush Limbaugh do. Our goal is to inform, but also to entertain, and I'm sure neither of the aforementioned on-air personalities call up every politician or celebrity about whom they make a throwaway comment.
I actually have spent some time with Virgil Goode, and have found him exceedingly affable. I once tailed him and one of his aides on Election Day, and he went out of his way to make sure I was able to make connections with them.
However, he's also a public figure, and his comments about an incoming Black Muslim Congressman using the Koran for swearing in were not only public but Virgil-initated.
Do I really think that's how he defines being an American? Probably not. I was just having a little fun at his expense (along with, I might add, a lot of other pundits around the world), although there was at least a kernel of truth there.
I do find it a little sad that we seem to have lost the ability to kid each other. These days, whenever a columnist or humorist uses politics as a jumping-off point, he or she is immediately branded as a mean-spirited zealot trying to advance some ideological agenda.
When I write a column, I'm not trying to depict myself as an expert. I'm not trying to browbeat anyone. I'm simply the guy on the next diner stool who's saying: "You know, here's what I think about this ..."
If I can stimulate some discussion and make people think -- or even laugh -- I've done my job.
So don't take me so seriously. I don't, and I doubt very seriously that Virgil Goode does. The Congressman, I guarantee, has a very thick skin.
Having said all that, though, don't be surprised if I take Tucker Watkins' suggestion next Fourth of July. It's a good idea.