Thursday, January 10, 2008

Pundits on Parade

A few days ago I laid into Bill Kristol pretty bad. I accused him of being a partisan untalented hack, which tends to be the general opinion of blogosphere pontificators not employed by The Weakly Standard. On the other hand, I wear my admiration for the Red Head of the Grey Lady on my sleeve. But in between these two extremes, there are a lot of pundits out there grinding out a lot of good work week after week even when there is nothing to say and nothing to say about it.

Let’s look at some of the syndicated newspaper and magazine columnists I love to read. This past week was a target rich environment for the talking class, so I’ve included sample quotes about Hillary Clinton to compare the styles and perspectives.

Michael Kinsley

Kinsley is the only columnist I would cross hot coals to read. And I have had to. His career has zig-zagged everywhere. Like many writers I admire, he did a long stint at The New Republic before he got sucked into being Bill Gate's lackey at Slate. His tenure at the LA Times was rocked with conflict and he briefly parked at The Washington Post before landing at Time for the time being. He always brings a fresh perspective to the table and tells something new. And rather than delve into the trees, he is always finding the forest.
But being the president's spouse has to be very helpful for a future president. It's like an eight-year "Take Your Daughter to Work Day."

IF it’s a question of “experience” versus “change,” change will win every time. Hillary Clinton, of all people, should have known that. Doesn’t she remember 1992? That was when her husband made “change” his mantra and chanted it all the way to the White House.
"Stirred, Not Shaken", January 6, 2008

George Will

George is a little past his prime, but at one point he was the face of conservativism that dared to be intellectual, a style that like his bowties is long out of fashion. Over the years he has had some controversies like commenting on debates he coached, relying too heavily on assistants for research, and mis-explicating rock lyrics. He is now the elder spokesman of the sane Republicans. He also remains defiantly independent and steers clear of the groupthink that has plagued the latest generation of right-wing wordsmiths.
Sixteen years ago, the Clintons advertised themselves as generational archetypes. How right they were.

Led Zeppelin's recent reunion concert in London exemplified a tiresome phenomenon — geezer rock groups catering to baby boomer nostalgia. Speaking of the boomers' inexhaustible fascination with themselves, Bill Clinton has transformed his wife's campaign into his narcissism tour.
"Start of a Marathon", January 10, 2008

Ellen Goodman

After Jules Witcover was cruelly put out to pasture, Ellen Goodman was the only columnist carried by the Baltimore Sun I missed. She looks more Erma Bombeck than Maureen Dowd, but she has a clever wit and a down to earth perspective. Her annual Equal Rites Awards column is one of the best of the year.
How many women had a change of, well, heart? How many women-of-a-certain-age who've lived through vast social change remembered being told they could lead or be liked? How many had their wrinkles and cleavage and cackles and feelings dissected at every move? For that matter, do any of them still work with men like the one in Salem who yelled at Hillary: "Iron my shirt!"

Status quo? Same old, same old? I don't think so.

Hillary said she found her voice in New Hampshire. But she also found that very narrow line that women still have to walk. Hillary got her groove back.
"Hillary's Fine Line, January 11, 2008

Charles Krauthammer

Another New Republic alumnus, Chuckie K used to be fresh and contrarian. Lately he is just the loudest and most off-key of the neo-con chorus. Only slightly less strident in his defense of war in Iraq than bandleader Bill Kristol, the Krautmeister still occasionally says something smart and fresh, but he has long dry spells. His column often comes out the day after Will's and frequently bears suspicious similarities. Check out his boomer "solipsism" with Will's "narcissism" above. Eyes on your own paper, Chuck.
Was it the tears in the New Hampshire coffee shop? Whenever there is a political upset, everyone looks for the unscripted incident, the I-paid-for-this-microphone moment that can account for it. Hillary Clinton's improbable victory in New Hampshire is being widely attributed to her rare display of emotion when asked how she was holding up.

The baby boomers in their endless solipsism now think they invented left and right -- the post-Enlightenment contest of ideologies that dates back to the seating arrangements of the Estates-General in 1789.

Robert Novak

Another guilty pleasure, The Prince of Darkness is frequently infuriating but never boring. Not content to report news, he often makes it. His role in Plamegate is particularly fiendish. He starts the fire and then gets to report on the flames. He is an old school investigative columnist that has connections everywhere. You may not agree with him but he what he says reveal more about who he knows and what message they are trying to spin than anyone else in Washington.
With that background, Sen. Clinton's lachrymose complaint in New Hampshire on Monday that "this is very personal for me" was widely compared to Muskie's crying jag in Manchester 36 years ago, which began his downfall. But whereas Muskie's tears were involuntary, only the naive can believe Clinton was not artfully playing for sympathy from her sisters. It worked.

E. J. Dionne, Jr.

The Washington Post has a whole stable of suitably liberal standard bearers, but they all tend to be far less interesting than the conservatives. David Broder is considered the pinnacle of punditry and his Clinton hatred is second to none, but I prefer the milder E. J. Dionne who seems to be a fun guy with a reassuring tone. If only he would loosen up and show more personality.
Perhaps Hillary played the same trick on her critics that her husband, Bill, did in his epic State of the Union addresses that went on and on about one specific policy after another. Those speeches often got bad reviews but good poll ratings. At one campaign stop last week, as Hillary Clinton droned on learnedly about health care, family and medical leave, and global warming, a colleague in the press section leaned over to dismiss her for offering nothing but "a laundry list of wonkery."
"A Shocker, in Hindsight", January 9, 2008
This list is heavily WaPo weighted because it’s my daily driveway litter, so I tend not to see other voices unless someone on the web makes a big deal of something. I hope I have proven that I am open minded and enjoy a wide range of opinions no matter how wrong they are.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Who is your favorite print pundit?


Anonymous said...

I've never been much for the chattering classes or the printed brethren. Now that I live abroad I would actually have to actively seek them out on a daily basis in order to read them. I suppose that if I still lived state-side, I would at least peruse whoever happened to appear in the closest major rag, but I would probably mostly skip them. The majority of my Op-Ed attention always went to the cartoons (but then, I grew up with Conrad and Feiffer).

If we're talking pundits as opposed to simple columnists (a lá Dave Barry), I used to give George Will at least a glance (you forgot to mention his heavy-handed overuse of baseball imagery). I think my favorite, though, would be PJ O'Rourke. (Although I don't know if he writes regularly enough to count. But I remember his days with Rolling Stone). He never takes himself too seriously and he has never been afraid to take a few jabs at his own side. Last time I looked, he was teetering on sliding into self-parody, but maybe he recovered.

yellojkt said...

The International Herald Tribune is the European version of the New York Times and publishes a lot of their columnists, but I can see where you would miss a lot of the rambling we are subjected to.

PJ O'Rourke is hilarious as well as Dave Barry. Unfortunately few political writers have a sense of humor. It tends to backfire on them when readers don't get the joke.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, the IHT is more like the European version of the Possum Squat Tattler.

OK, that's a bit harsh, but it is rather on par with a typical third or fourth tier city paper. I live in a semi-rural area and out local paper has more news in it than any issue of the IHT I've ever seen. Plus, what do I need a warmed-over, rehashed, wannabe NYT for, when I have this magic box that lets me get detailed news coverage from all over the world?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the columnists, yello, but I think you are far too kind to Krauthammer. He metamorphosed into a Republican party hack some time ago and has been embarrassing to read as he excuses, rationalizes and cheerleads for this neocon nightmare we have been living.

Sue T. said...

The most underrated NYT columnist has got to be Gail Collins. Check out her column on Mike Huckabee, which is full of quotable snark. With all respect to your beloved MoDo, Collins is my current NYT fave.

Stella Dean said...

Does anyone else think Robert Novak looks like the Incredible Mr. Limpet?

yellojkt said...

I'm remembering Chuck from his TNR days before he fell in with the party hacks and neocons. It's like rooting for Darth Vader to see the error of his ways and throw the Emperor down the pit.

Gail Collins does show a lot of spunk (and unlike Lou Grant, I love spunk), but her column writing is almost a retirement job for her.

utbm, OMG, yes. An evil mastermind Mr. Limpet, but definitely hints of it.

2fs said...

Jesus Christ.

Oh wait - you said "pundit," not "philosopher." Ahem.

Not in daily papers, but I've always loved Katha Pollitt's columns in The Nation. Witty, smart, perceptive, and a good writer too (she's also a published poet).

trusty getto said...

Actually, I was thinking that Novak played the Emporer in the Star Wars films, no?

Lydia Netzer said...

I used to read George Will when I was a teenager. When I gloried in being a republican, for *absolutely* no reason. And I guess you can't entirely discount someone who uses the word "lachrymose."