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It's agreed I disagree on casinos

Do our views change as we get older?

The first time casinos were a political issue in these parts was back in 1978 when voters were asked to consider the issues of both a lottery and casino gambling.

Casinos failed. And we didn't get a lottery until 1988 although the geniuses that planned it as an aid to education forgot to write in a provision to make legislators keep their greasy fingers off of the money that lottery revenues were replacing in the education budget _ leaving education financing as feeble as ever.

We had a little internal squabble at the time here at Ma Times. The Times Publishing Co., which is the Times' parent corporation, was donating money to the anti-casino forces.

How, we wondered in the newsroom, could we say we were objective on the issue when we were donating money to defeat the proposition?

It was, said Eugene Patterson, who was then president and editor of the Times, simple. The corporate side's political posture would have "no effect" on our news or opinion columns.

I was kind of new at this column business back then. I had been at it for only five years and that had included a fairly lengthy layoff during a period when I labored under the authority of a senior editor who hated columns unless they were feature stories disguised as columns.

In short, I not only wasn't feeling my oats yet _ I wasn't even sure where my oats were.

But I knew a red flag being waved in my face when I saw one, and Patterson's statement had challenge written all over it.

I sat down and immediately fired off a column favoring both casinos and the lottery. I did it in part because I believed what I was writing and in larger part because I really wanted to see if I could do it and live.

I have seldom had less pre-publication flak about a column on a sensitive issue. Nobody called or sent me Teletype messages, and my paycheck arrived that week with only one color of paper in the envelope. An intermediate editor told me years later that he thought I was insane for writing it but said he figured he really didn't know me that well anyhow and would probably get along with whomever replaced me as well as he had with me.

The column slid into the paper as though it were on greased tracks. None of my superiors said anything about it, and it left me with the uncomfortable feeling that comes when you challenge authority and find out authority was telling you the truth.

It was an important moment in my career.

Since then, I have written columns that run counter to the Times' editorial philosophy or that sometimes take a stronger stand on an issue on which the official policy is more moderate, and I am proud (and relieved) to say that the static has been minimal.

When Florida was considering raising the drinking age from 18 back to 21, I looked at some pretty impressive statistics provided by MADD and decided I agreed with them that the age should be raised.

I called a top executive to ask him where we stood.

"We're ag'in' it," he said.

"Well," I said, cautiously, "I'm for it."

"Good," he said. "Give us hell."

I still think I made the right call on that one, and I feel comfortable with my views on gun control, which are basically a little stronger than those of the newspaper and I am at peace with my views on capital punishment, which are different. (I'm for it, they're against it.)

Now, 16 years later, the casino issue is up again, and I have a chance to write about it again. I'm still in favor; the Times, I'm sure, will come down firmly against.

I'm not as strongly in favor as I was 16 years ago, probably because I'm getting to the age where I'm still in favor of vices and enjoy my human weaknesses but don't have quite the strength or opportunity to indulge either at the rate I could when I was 34.

But I see it as a great strength that I don't have to ask anyone but myself what I think.

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