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Cheatwood says she tried to be "composed" in her letter to Lessner, in which she wrote: "Your column made me sick. . . . Most American people are so compassionate and caring they need to cry out in panic when they see for themselves a terrible, terrible thing they cannot understand, and all they know is they need help. . . . Only snivelers could write a column such as you wrote."
The Herald has publicly offered to pay all expenses if Lessner will visit, and to print anything Lessner chooses to write afterward. But Hampton says Lessner and Cheshire haven't responded.
Hampton does say Lessner's point about how the United States is no longer a self-reliant culture is "well-taken." "But not the example he used," Hampton adds. "Nobody who's seen the damage would write this. I've been editor here for 15 years, and I can't even remember writing a column criticizing a colleague for expressing an opinion. He certainly has a First Amendment right to express his opinion, but I felt his piece was simply irresponsible. . . . I felt it was cruel and totally uncalled-for. And I don't think those of us who have control of a press should use our power that way."
What exactly did Lessner say in his column?
Among other barbs, he wrote that "Floridians were peeved because the federal government had not rebuilt the stricken parts of their state before dawn broke the day after the storm. . . ."
Lessner moaned that Americans now "squander our energies in accusatory whining" and "never let up on sniveling."
"Crybaby Americans could do with a dose of Russian realism," he wrote. "Take it from a people who know suffering when it hits them smack in the face--life is hard, and then you die."
(Life is hard? Some people who have worked with Lessner at the Republic may recall his daily routine in the mid-Eighties of taking extended coffee breaks practically every afternoon in the newspaper's cafeteria with two or three of his office pals. Lessner's co-workers derisively referred to his little group as it routinely trouped through the newsroom as the "Richard Lessner Coffee Klatsch.)
Readers in Phoenix may not be surprised by Lessner's imperious writing (I regard my political thinking as radical and revolutionary), though he always has kind words for the things he loves: fly-fishing and Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. The invective in his Hurricane Andrew column, however, stunned even hardened editors Hampton and Murray. However, they're more surprised that the Republic is ignoring criticism.
"It appears you do not tolerate dissent well," Murray wrote in a letter last week to Cheshire. "I say that based on your failure to acknowledge the critical reaction from folks in Miami to Mr. Lessner's column--as well as your ignoring me. That's too bad. . . . Denying your readers access to that sort of give-and-take provides them with a shallow and single-minded view of the world."
Murray closed his letter with a droll touch: "I do hope this is not perceived as whining and sniveling."
Like Murray and Hampton and many other Floridians, hurricane survivor Patrick Morrison invited Lessner to see the damage for himself. "Certainly, after a hands-on look," Morrison wrote, "you could write a second . . . piece from the perspective of 'now that I've been there.' Even if you don't change your position, you will have at least given us a sense of fair play--that you actually looked at our situation and you were not just simply dealing in word games . . . and mental masturbation from 2,000 miles away."
Miami is actually 2,348 miles from Phoenix.