Monday, June 1, 2009

Brent Larkin, PD's political voice, retires

Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer editorial page editor for 18 years, retired this weekend. I think he'll go down in history as Cleveland's last big power-broker journalist, the last guy who single-handedly pens the town's conventional wisdom.

Larkin, who's covered Cleveland politics since 1971, has written about all our epic political figures: the Stokes Brothers, George Forbes, Mike White. His January 1980 Cleveland Magazine article about the end of Dennis Kucinich's term as mayor is the definitive explanation of the Boy Mayor's downfall. As editorial page editor, Larkin's been the town's political referee, analyst, and judge. He may not have had the power to make or end political careers and start or squelch movements, like Louis Seltzer (Cleveland Press editor from 1928 to 1966) or Tom Vail (at the 1960s-1980s Plain Dealer). But in the 1990s and 2000s, he was their heir, the guy whose support politicians cultivated over lunch at Johnny's on West 6th as Larkin interviewed them for insider knowledge.

I expect someone will write or blog that Larkin was too much the insider. (Update, Tue. a.m.: Roldo more or less says so, citing the guest list at Larkin's retirement party.)

But his editorial page could also use its power as a voice for good government and reform, exposing the cynical political games that only succeed when no one pays attention. Take a look at this 2006 editorial, one of many in the PD's campaign to get Joan Synenberg elected judge over Christine Russo.

With Larkin gone, political coverage (and clout) at the Plain Dealer will be spread around. The powerful won't know whom to invite to lunch. Terry Egger, the publisher, or Susan Goldberg, the paper's editor? (Both have seats on the editorial board.) Larkin's successor as editorial page editor, Elizabeth Sullivan, is a foreign-policy expert. So, much of the deep local political knowledge will come from Joe Frolik, now the chief editorial writer. But these days, Frolik's been writing more about national politics, while political reporter Mark Naymik's columns read more like Larkin's -- summaries and critiques of the insider buzz.

In his last regular column, Larkin notes that many of Cleveland's leaders of the early 1970s are still wielding power. He says it's time for young leaders to emerge. Without criticizing the huge spending coming soon on the Medical Mart and the Opportunity Corridor, Larkin says Greater Cleveland should spend similar amounts on aggressive early childhood programs, college scholarships, and building a new economy on our Lake Erie location (as water becomes scarce elsewhere).

Here's Mike McIntyre's exit interview with Larkin:

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