As you know, I’ve been picking our syndicated columns since we lost Mike Fitts. This means judging a fairly stiff competition each day, since most days that we have an oped page, I only have room for one syndicated column (and one local, which Cindi deals with). On Sunday there’s room for two; on Saturday and Monday, zero. Then there’s Saturday’s online, where I can run several "also-rans" from during the week.
Each day, I just try to pick the best column, without keeping count as to how many "liberals" or "conservatives" I’ve run. "Best column" to me means the most thought-provoking and least predictable. I’m utterly uninterested in a column that simply channels the rantings of left or right that you can find on the Blogosphere. That shouldn’t be hard, right? These people are professionals, the tops in their field, so they should be perfectly capable of original thought, right?
Not always. Too often, especially during an election year, columnists succumb to the urge to play to a side. I think of it as writing so as to get pats on the back from the people you meet at Washington cocktail parties — reinforcing the prejudices of one’s friends, rather than provoking them to think. (Admittedly, I’m having to guess at something from the outside. I don’t have a ready-made set of folks who agree with ME, since I’m uncomfortable with both established flavors.)
Anyway, the point is, about a month into my doing this, one of my colleagues noted that I was picking mostly "conservatives." Was I? I looked back, and yes, I was. I didn’t try to change anything, but kept on picking the best column each day, regardless of its point of view — giving no more thought to it than I give during the process to whether the candidate we’re endorsing is a Democrat or a Republican. And I noticed (without having it pointed out to me again) that I was still picking mostly "conservatives."
But that’s because the conservatives were more interesting this year. Why? Because they were struggling. They were uncomfortable. They knew they were likely to lose this election, so they struggled. They were unusually critical of "their" standard bearer, and particularly his veep choice. Some just went ahead and endorsed Obama. They bickered with each other, and in their struggle, in their striving, they had an occasional original thought here and there. You had Kathleen Parker saying Sarah Palin should drop out. You had George Will sneering for all he was worth at McCain for having embraced campaign finance reform, only to be done in by an avalanche of money. You had David Brooks struggling for sociological metaphors to explain what was happening. You had Charles Krauthammer getting irritated at the lot of them, and in reaction writing an endorsement of McCain that was sharper than it otherwise would have been because he wrote it in reaction to the defections of conservatives, as an argument against their apostasy.
Meanwhile, on the left, you had what you always had — recitations of "the failed policies of the past eight years," the assertion that McCain equals Bush, yadda-yadda. Same old-same old. Lots of vitriol of the repetitive variety. When people find a formula is working for them, they stick with it. Failure, however, is simply more interesting. It provokes thought, and builds character. So the left just wasn’t nearly as interesting.
There were exceptions. Tom Friedman was good as always, but as critically important as his "Green Revolution" columns are to an Energy Party guy, they often seemed off-topic at a time when everybody wanted to read about and talk about the election. Friedman’s best that WAS election-oriented? His lecture to Sarah Palin (and the Mark Sanford’s of the world) explaining that paying one’s taxes IS patriotic. Amen, Brother Thomas.
And I thought David Broder’s two columns on "what we have learned about" McCain and Obama to be two of the most thoughtful, helpful summaries of the candidates I saw anywhere. They’re better than David Brooks’ attempts at similar columns on McCain and Obama — and certainly more concise than my own offbeat efforts. (I particularly recommend the McCain piece, which was as clear-eyed as anything I saw during the long campaign.) But that’s because Broder, who is center-left at most, is a reporter first and foremost. His writing, while sometimes dull, is refreshingly free of cant. He makes observations that are fair, and therefore sometimes ground-breaking. Those two columns were a nice coda on a long and distinguished career.
But Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman? Fuhgeddaboutit. Occasionally, Krugman was able to write something helpful about the financial crisis, and when he did, I ran it. But he should stick to what he knows, and too often does not.
Anyway, with the election over, I thought maybe the liberals would settle down. Their guy just got elected; they increased their majorities in the Congress. The man they hate more than any other human in the history of the world will soon be out of office. So maybe, once they’d gotten over celebrating, they’d start saying, "OK, so know we’ve got to govern, and we have differences even among ourselves, so let’s start thinking."
But it hasn’t happened yet. I’m still seeing the same old patterns. Gail Collins, who is usually not one of my favorites, nevertheless had a somewhat provocative piece over the weekend looking at poor winners and losers. I might use it tomorrow. But Bob Herbert? He went out of his way to illustrate what Ms. Collins called " the dark side of the postelection mood." He had a column for the same day that you’d think would be constructive, or at least upbeat. It was headlined, "Take a bow, America." So I read on, hoping to be uplifted for once.
Then I got to his second sentence, in which he was explaining the significance of the election results:
Voters said no to incompetence and divisiveness and elbowed their way
past the blight of racism that has been such a barrier to progress for
Those, of course, would be the only reasons anyone might have voted for John McCain — if they were in love with incompetence, or just stone racist.
Explain something to me, folks: How can someone who habitually writes that way about people with whom he disagrees, even in a moment of celebration, accuse other people of "divisiveness," and do so without any visible trace of irony? Some of it is the unfortunate New York mindset that one often sees in the Times — most perfectly expressed in the writing of Frank Rich — that folks out there in flyover land are just beneath contempt. That is expressed in Herbert’s very next sentence: "Barack Obama won the state of North Carolina, for crying out loud." In other words, even THOSE redneck idiots knew better.
Perhaps even Herbert will settle down eventually, and turn to the actual issues facing the country — and facing the just-elected administration-to-be. Just as the right has gotten interesting in recent months as it has struggled to define itself in adversity, perhaps the left can settle down and address such difficult issues as the tension between the far left and the pragmatists like Rahm Emanuel, who infuriated True Believers by recruiting Democrats who could win back in 2006?
We’ll see. In any case, I plan to continue doing my best to choose the most thought-provoking column each day, whether that produces a string of liberals, a run of conservatives, or a perfectly blended mix.