Jim Wooten: Differing opinions never personal

This column appeared June 7, 2009, when Cynthia Tucker moved to Washington.

With weeks to go before my longtime colleague and I part working company forever, the thing you wouldn’t know about Cynthia Tucker is something she doesn’t know herself. I’ve never brought it up.

It explains, though, why ideological differences never soured a collegial working relationship or a decades-long friendship.

For probably more than 20 years, we’ve disagreed. It’s not an act. It’s not contrived. It’s not a put-up to sell newspapers. She has one view of how to build a better America. I have another.

Yet the disagreements were very Southern. Always civil, always polite. Never personal.

Only once, as I recall, did we both simply lock down and walk away. On a weekend during the 2000 presidential election’s Florida recount we came to the office on Saturday to prepare a joint Sunday editorial. At the time, The Journal and The Constitution had separate editorial boards.

We argued our case jointly and apart with the then-editor, Ron Martin. The result was this notice in the Sunday paper:

“The presidential controversy that has divided the nation has divided the AJC’s editorial boards as well. Since the core of their disagreement is the question of whether to include hand-counted ballots in the final Florida tally, each board offers its own take on that issue.”

When the boards merged a year later with Cynthia as the editorial page editor, she was as gracious as a boss as she had been as an equal. She listened respectfully to my arguments, modified her positions occasionally and sought always, in the Southern small-town tradition that is our mutual heritage, to avoid demeaning slights or public displays of authority during our frequent debates.

Neither she, nor anybody in positions of authority over me at this newspaper or in the family or corporation that owns it, ever direct me to write, or not write, about any topic.

While Cynthia could elect to edit my column or not after the editorial boards merged, she never once made a revision that changed tone, content or meaning.

As a colleague, she sometimes offered friendly constructive suggestions and, more often than not, I took them. But the choice, always, was mine.

I thought of our relationship as that of two Southern farm families who lived side by side for generations, our fate tied to the same rain and earth. We had our differences. We tended the soil differently. But yet, we couldn’t move the dirt and we couldn’t change the rain. So we didn’t play pointless power games.

Truth is that long before the Bush-Gore standoff in Florida or the merger that brought me into her dominion, I had already decided that I could never speak ill to or of Cynthia Tucker.

That moment came in September of 1995. She does not know this. I have never told her.

On that fall afternoon, I sat in a chapel grieving the first deeply painful loss of my life. Midway up, I saw Cynthia. She and some of my Journal colleagues had driven from Atlanta to Macon for my mother’s funeral.

In the South of old, where lives were layered in connections, people shared the joys and sorrows of each others’ lives. It seems to us an ordinary thing.

To those who are mourning, as I discovered on that September day, nothing spoken in compassion is a cliché; no presence is ordinary or assumed. Cynthia on that day filled one of the thousands of voids that had come suddenly into my life.

She is a well-raised Southern girl of good heart and considerable talent who has enjoyed great success in this business, as a Pulitzer attests.

I’ll let her tell you what she wants about her life. In mine, she will always be the caring soul on a September pew.

Jim Wooten is an Opinion columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the retired editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal.