JIMMY Breslin is a great writer.
He's noted for tough, gritty New York City columns that often address the plight of the little guy. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who pulls down big bucks writing for New York Newsday.
None of those factors, however, kept him from publicly spouting sexist and racist remarks that were easily suitable for a grand lizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
In an inexcusable act of arrogance and bigotry, Breslin decided that one of his Newsday colleagues had committed the unpardonable sin of questioning one of his columns.
A reporter, Ji-Yeon Mary Yuh, sent a three-line electronic message to Breslin about what she felt were sexist comments in one of his commentaries. The column was a semi-satirical piece about Breslin's wife, City Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge.
Maybe the column was sexist. Or maybe Yuh missed the satire. Or maybe Breslin thinks it's all right to ignore the dictates of good taste when writing about his spouse.
It might even be understandable - sad and tacky, but understandable - for the 61-year-old Breslin to get mad after reading Yuh's comments and send an electronic message of his own to Newsday's editor, Don Forst. A printed excerpt of the message read, ``I will not tolerate being bothered . . . I have never encountered such juvenile arrogance. It cannot be tolerated. Next, I will have the window cleaner commenting on my sentence structure.''
Those are the words of a man who takes himself too seriously and forgets that we who write opinion should be the last ones to argue against others' having the right to express an opinion.
It's the height of arrogance and conceit, and an indication that the reflection from too many awards and too much acclaim may have dimmed the light that's supposed to shine on Breslin's humanity.
Because he is an elder statesman of journalism, Breslin's initial reaction might - in time - be overlooked, if not forgotten or forgiven, because passion and rage are essential ingredients of great writing.
But forgiving and forgetting will now be a long time coming for the man who bills himself as ``the real New Yorker.''
The day after the initial incident, Breslin came out of his office shouting things to the newsroom about ``slant eye,'' and ``the bitch doesn't know her place,'' and ``she's a yellow cur,'' and ``let's get racial.''
It had to be a bizarre and disgusting scene. Here's a man who has won some of the most prestigious literary honors in the world, sinking to the level of a public bigot and defaming a woman - a woman who happens to be Asian - for having the audacity to express an opinion about something he wrote.
It was a sad day for Jimmy Breslin and for journalism. It underscores the need for greater diversity - at all levels - within this business that shapes images and so strongly influences public opinion.
Within hours, Breslin issued this apology - sent to the Newsday staff via yet another computer message:
``I am no good and once again I can prove it. I intended to make noise, not offend nice people. I am sorry. I said things I shouldn't have. The racial and sexual insults I spewed are never appropriate. Again, I am sorry.''
It was classic Breslin, written in a style so compelling that New York Gov. Mario Cuomo called it ``one of the most elegant and persuasive apologies I've ever read.''
It was one of the glibbest examples of insincerity practiced by a master wordsmith in recent memory. Breslin didn't wait a week to call in during the broadcast of a local radio show to joke about his actions.
``I have one social problem coming out of all this,'' said Breslin, who then announced his nephew's coming marriage to a Korean woman. ``Now, does this mean I can't go to the wedding?''
Newsday was finally forced to take some sort of action, and suspended Breslin for two weeks without pay.
There's something wrong here. And it's more than the fact that some white men in their 60s and 70s - such as Al Campanis, Jimmy the Greek, Andy Rooney and Jimmy Breslin - are given to public fits of bigotry.
Breslin and the others mentioned are products of a time when racism and sexism were accepted norms.
They reflect the society they grew up in. Ingrained in them - and many of their counterparts - are beliefs about women and people of color that won't be changed by suspensions, firings, or public floggings.
They will carry those beliefs to their graves. But the critical issue is that what should be faded remnants from a shameful chapter in U.S. history are being passed along to new generations - as demonstrated by the dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes taking place in this country.
This is beyond fairness or affirmative action or being nice to minorities. It's about accepting the new reality that one in every five people in the United States is not white, and that the numbers of so-called minorities are increasing daily.
We will learn to live together. We have no choice. The question is how painful the process will be. If enlightened communicators such as Breslin are any indication, it's going to hurt like hell.
We'll talk more later.
Don Williamson's column appears Tuesday and Friday on The Times' editorial page.