WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- I last spoke with Jim Chapin, UPI's national political analyst, last Wednesday after 9 p.m. when Jim rang me up at home, as he so often did, bursting with enthusiasm, energy and ideas for new stories.
We talked, as we always did, for about 30-40 minutes. UPI Executive Editor Tobin Beck had him down for three pieces on our midterm election coverage where he would have been in his element. As usual, we finished our conversation in mid-sentence and agreed to continue it in a Part Two or Part Three within a few days as we always did, but not this time. Jim died suddenly Monday of a massive heart attack at his family home in Andover, N.J. He was 60 years old.
It is an old and oft-used but still wise and true cliché that the true measure of any man or woman is often only revealed when they leave the scene. It is the gap left by their absence that suddenly reveals the true stature that we previously were blind to because we took it for granted as it was always there.
That is certainly the case with Jim. In the vast jungles of endless, repetitive and superficial verbiage that fill the newspapers and magazines, television network and cable channels and radio talks shows and Internet sites of this Great Republic, he stood out for his vast erudition and scalpel-sharp intellect.
Also in an America filled with the Political Correctness of the Neo-Con Right as much as the old Hard Left, Jim was his own man and voice. He was a classic Liberal Democrat, and proud of it. He was always on the attack, never defensive or ashamed of what he stood for. And he was absolutely fearless.
His death leaves a gap, not just in his own family and wide circle of devoted friends, but in the Democratic Party, in American journalism and here at UPI that simply will never be filled.
Once you met Jim Chapin, it was impossible to forget him. In the late summer of 2000, UPI Editor in Chief John O'Sullivan proposed hiring him as a left-leaning, liberal political commentator and invited him to meet with other senior UPI editors at a private lunch at Washington's National Press Club. As far as we were concerned he had the job before the soup bowls of the first course had been cleared from the table.
Nationally acclaimed syndicated columnists have teams of young interns and research assistants to dig out facts and analogies for them. Jim did not need any of that. The entirety of American political history over more than two centuries from the adoption of the Constitution was an open book routinely accessed through his own astonishing memory. In two years of monitoring his copy, I do not recall a single factual error we had to correct him on.
Idiot savants are credited with that kind of memory but can never put it to any good use. For Jim, it was merely the fuel to power the engine of his political analysis. His sustained critique of the Bush administration was of an intellectual and political level in a class of its own. None of the tired old hacks and cliché-mongers came close.
For me, Jim's "Finest Hour" for us here at UPI was his reportage and on the spot coverage of Sept. 11 and its immediate aftermath. No one expects a plump, respectable, middle-aged, bespectacled gentleman and political analyst who likes to argue politics over a good meal and a bottle of fine wine to be a cool and courageous, superlative spot reporter in the middle of a catastrophe, but Jim was all of that.
First, he ascertained that his own wife, children and family in Manhattan were safe. Then he started producing a flow of reportage on the mood of the city beneath the apocalyptic billowing clouds of the two shattered towers and on the spirit of New Yorkers in responding to it. His work was unforgettable.
He of course just shrugged it off. He was brave, he was gallant, he was the epitome of grace under pressure and as usual he wrote like an angel, every word pitch perfect and true. In his own way, like Mayor Rudi Giuliani, he embodied the spirit of the city that he loved so much.
It is often the case that when loved ones die suddenly, it is far more merciful for them than for all those they leave behind. For the grieving process then really takes place during the months they are slipping away. When people die suddenly and unexpectedly, we grieve and reel from the shock afterwards.
Jim Chapin died suddenly, quickly even mercifully. That meant the burden of grieving for his family and friends still to come in the months ahead.
He was a wonderful spirit. His generosity, largeness of soul and wonderful erudition endlessly poured out like a never failing fountain. Usually, when people talk a lot, you wish they would stop. In Jim's case, you could never get enough.
Jim Chapin's death creates a loss far wider than the obvious, immediate circle of family and friends. All of American journalism and political discourse is by far the poorer for his passing. Here at UPI, we thought he was only getting started and the best was yet to come. Instead we find ourselves poring over his old work and marveling that he gave us so much.