Blast From The Past: Famed Columnist Called Cheshire Home For Five Decades

Blast From The Past: Famed Columnist Called Cheshire Home For Five Decades

Cheshire, despite its well-earned reputation as a quiet enclave in the middle of Connecticut’s New England landscape, has produced a number of famous citizens.

Whether one looks back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the likes of Samuel Foot, 28th Governor of Connecticut, called Cheshire home, or to more current times when the likes of Chris Berman, the popular former ESPN broadcaster, has settled in the community, there’s no shortage of “big names” associated with this small town.

But perhaps one name has been forgotten over time. Though he wasn’t a born-and-bred Cheshirite as have been many other well-known celebrities, John Chamberlain, author, book reviewer, and columnist, was a Cheshire resident for more than 50 years. Owner of a career that spanned six decades, Chamberlain was not only a celebrated writer who was a mainstay of political discussion throughout his career, but he was also an example of how political allegiances could turn over time … and how those changes could impact the course of American discourse.

Chamberlain was educated at Yale University, where he was chairman of the campus humor magazine The Yale Record. He graduated in 1925 and was almost immediately hired by the New York Times. Throughout the 1930s, he was the paper’s book reviewer and also an editor.

He also worked for Scribner’s and Harpers magazines, and was on the editorial staff of Fortune and Life.

Chamberlain, who was a member of the Dewey Commission and a contributor to “Not Guilty: the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials” by John Dewey, described himself at that time as “a New York literary liberal” involved in political causes of the left.

But, when The Herald had a chance to sit down with Chamberlain in November of 1982, to discuss his newest work — an autobiography entitled “A Life with the Printed Word,” which is still available for purchase to this day — and touch on his career, and the changing political landscape of the 1980s, much had changed. Chamberlain, who lived in a home on North Brooksvale Road, was still producing a syndicated column at the time his autobiography was published, which as the front-page feature article in the Nov. 11, 1982 edition of The Herald admitted, served as much as  “a history of conservative (and liberal) American journalism — and a study of key journalists in action — as it does autobiography.” And that column showed just how much Chamberlain had changed in 40-plus years:

In “A Life With the Printed Word,” Mr. Chamberlain chronicles his own philosophical journey from that of a liberal in the 1920s — at the time he began reviewing books for the (New York) Times — to a conservative-libertarian, or “voluntarist” as he might be apt to describe his views. Leftists and communists abounded in the dark days of the 1930s depression while conservative writers were less in evidence. Over the years, many of those who were on the left became conservatives.

“I think those who were on the left changed their views over the years and tended to gain an experience necessary to understand what the communists and their fellow leftists were up to,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “If you had been on the right all along, you tended to know what the manipulative forces were doing.”

“But if you hadn’t happened to belong to a newspaper guild, and had gone home at 10 p.m. and then the next day you were told that the few people remaining had passed resolutions that the majority would have opposed — if you hadn’t been through all that you wouldn’t have realized there was a tactic involved.”

According to Chamberlain’s telling in 1982, his transformation from liberal to conservative was almost complete by the end of World War II, and he spent the rest of his long, 50-plus-year career writing for right-leaning publications, such as National Review, and as a conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

That made Chamberlain a polarizing figure in his time, as some of his opinions no doubt ran counter to many of his fellow Cheshirites’ sensibilities. For instance, when the subject of former President Richard Nixon was broached during his Cheshire Herald interview, Chamberlain offered a mixed review:

“Nixon was always something of a mystery to me. I was never close to Nixon … I think Nixon had a great sense of strategy, geopolitical strategy, but a very poor sense of tactics.”

Of Nixon and Watergate, Chamberlain said, “Bugging didn’t start with Watergate. It has been proved conclusively that Nixon didn’t do anything that Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson hadn’t done before him.”

“They were all smart enough to make things happen without implicating themselves. Nixon didn’t need to implicate himself at all. I’m sure it didn’t originate in his brain. He could have disowned it. He could have burned the tapes. I could never understand why he let himself get dragged into all that.”

No doubt many at the time, and many today, would disagree with Chamberlain’s rather benign observations regarding Nixon’s role in Watergate, or what he should have done after the fact, but it certainly provides insight into how many Republican voters were feeling at the time.

Chamberlain did have some kind words for a former Democrat President, John Kennedy, which would certainly be out of place in modern political discourse where almost no “good word” is offered about the opposing political side:

Mr. Chamberlain supports the Republican President and his economic practices, but he hasn’t yet abandoned the Democratic Party as economic troglodytes in the era of Reaganism. “I think John Kennedy was the Jack Kemp of his day. After all, he cut taxes. It didn’t take effect until after he died but the bill that was finally passed when Johnson was president was Kennedy’s bill.”

“Unfortunately, Lyndon Johnson got heavily involved in the Vietnam War and tried to pile the financing of the war on top of the financing of the Great Society. It resulted in the inflation that is still with us.”

“I think John Kennedy in some ways was quite a president,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “I don’t think Teddy Kennedy has learned anything from his brother.”

There’s little doubt that, if Chamberlain were alive today — he died in 1995 — he’d likely be even more of a polarizing figure than he was during his long career. Political discourse was full of rancor during much of his time spent writing, whether it involved the Vietnam War, civil rights, or economic disparities, there was no shortage of controversial issues. How would he have reacted to the rise of what is commonly called Trumpism on the right? Where would he have stood on everything from the war in Iraq following 9/11 or our more recent response to COVID-19? One can only guess.

But for more than four decades, Chamberlain tackled the big issues of his time while staring out the window of his house on North Brooksvale Road. And when the topic of his chosen hometown came up towards the later end of his lengthy discussion with The Herald, Chamberlain became reflective but provided an uncharacteristically laconic reply: “It’s a pleasant community.”

Undoubtedly so, as Chamberlain, like so many other influential Americans before and after him, chose to call this town home for the majority of his life.


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