Nobody misses a political columnist once he packs it in for retirement. Walter Lippmann, Westbrook Pegler, and Arthur Krock’s biggest fans quickly reconciled themselves to life without their favorite pundits. Who among us pines for the ephemeral wisdom of the Alsop brothers, Flora Lewis, Scotty Reston, or Meg Greenfield?
Well, I miss Mary McGrory. What drew me to McGrory was not her liberal political views but her habit—unusual for a political columnist—of fortifying her strong opinions with the calisthenics of reporting. She went places with notebook in hand and tested her pronouncements against the real world. For that reason, I’ll probably miss William Safire more than I let on when he leaves the New York Times op-ed page in early 2005, as the paper recently announced. Maybe Safire never haunted congressional hearings for wisdom the way McGrory did, but he sure did learn how to dial a telephone.
Safire’s impending departure prompted New York magazine to handicap the field for his replacement, tossing out the names of David Frum, Charles Krauthammer, Christopher Caldwell, Richard Brookhiser, Fred Barnes, and Robert Kagan. But the leading candidate, the magazine said, was John Tierney, who has already visited four stations of the cross at the Times as a metro reporter, feature writer, city columnist, and Washington reporter. Tierney’s good humor, kinetic prose style, contrarian nature, wide-ranging interests, and rumored ability to attend congressional hearings would make him a fine replacement for Safire. I also like that he’s a libertarian or, at the very least, a fellow traveler.
But New York’s list of Safire substitutes denies us the once-in-a-generation chance to rethink the job description of a Times Washington op-ed columnist. Should the writer ease onto the page, as if he were groomed for it? Or should his appointment start a riot, as Safire’s did in 1973? According to Sound and Fury, Eric Alterman’s 1992 book about the commentariat, the choice of Safire incensed Times staffers. The idea that a college dropout, celebrity-news reporter, PR flack, and Nixon speechwriter should occupy the space consecrated by Lord Reston was too much for them. In a 1992 Vanity Fair profile of Safire, Marjorie Williams reported that his Times colleagues shunned the new columnist upon his arrival. “Ah, Safire, lunching with all your friends?” said one of them who chanced upon the columnist eating alone in a restaurant near the bureau.
Former Times reporter David Halberstam denounced both Safire and Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who’d hired Safire, in a letter to Sulzberger, according to Williams. Wrote Halberstam, “Safire … is a paid manipulator. He is not a man of ideas or politics but rather a man of tricks. … It’s a lousy column and it’s a dishonest one. So close it. Or you end up just as shabby as Safire.”
This is how the newsroom and the public should greet Safire’s replacement—with howling and self-righteous rage, the sound of broken glass and sheared metal—and not the namby-pamby protests about inaccuracy and bias that David Brock’s Media Matters for America Web site tossed at heir-apparent Tierney two weeks ago. Without disparaging the Tierney nomination, here are a few candidates who have a demonstrated ability to report and would drive respectable opinion crazy:
Heather Mac Donald: A non-practicing lawyer (the best kind), Mac Donald flings dead cats into the temple of liberalism from her sinecure at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-libertarian stink tank. Unlike Safire, she isn’t on a first-name basis with Ariel Sharon and doesn’t write about foreign policy, so we wouldn’t be getting a one-for-one replacement. But she outwings Safire by such a margin on domestic issues that she makes him look like a McGovernite. I’d love to see the Times’liberal readers squirm as they read her heavily reported pieces on racial profiling (for it), cops (she loves them), illegal immigration (against it), graffiti “artists” (they’re vandals), domestic security (loves the Patriot Act), crime (“Some of the most violent criminals at large today are illegal aliens”), privacy (who cares?), and welfare (must you ask?). Conservative Mac Donald could match liberal Paul Krugman cannonball for cannonball. Sulzberger wouldn’t have to worry about offending the sensitive types in the Washington bureau by hiring Mac Donald because she lives in New York City and would happily work out of the newspaper’s Times Square offices and offend the sensitive types there.
Alex Kozinski: Alas, Kozinski is a practicing lawyer, his day job being a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Born in Rumania in 1950, Kozinski moved to the United States when he was 12 and sort of failed his way up the law-clerking and legal-spear-chucking path until President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the bench in 1985. This entertaining feature by Emily Bazelon describes the judge as a “troublemaker,” “zany and bawdy,” and “a high-pitched giggler.” She writes, “Kozinski’s open-to-anything mindset means that as a judge he relishes the opportunity to shred a piece of received wisdom.” Translation: He’s a world-class shit-stirrer. Kozinski has written for The New Yorker (about death row), the Wall Street Journal (about video games), and Slate (about a pajama and lingerie party), to name a few publications, so there’s no denying his versatility. With Safire gone, who will stand up for capitalism and rail against bureaucracy? It’s a tragedy that in a nation of immigrants, we don’t have a Times columnist with a funny accent who lives in Los Angeles. (If Kozinksi is too busy playing paintball with his clerks, how about his comrade Judge Richard A. Posner? Posner is so prolific that he writes books at the rate some journalists write columns.)
Steve Chapman: Chapman writes a twice-a-week column for the Chicago Tribune and, interest declared, is a friend who has written a bunch for me at Slate. He is a polymath, a creative policy wonk, a tap-dancing writer, a true son of liberty, a failed Christian, a knucklehead when it comes to the Novak case, and a Great American (for a Texan). He hates Washington with an outlander’s passion and would never be co-opted. The Times needs Chapman’s pro-gun, antigovernment, pro-peace, anti-drug-war, pro-market views more than he needs the Times. If Art Jr. finds himself needing a little sugar to make Chapman’s radical medicine go down, here it is. Chapman grimaced and pulled the lever for John Kerry in November. He writes: “I’ve never done it before, and I hope I never have to do it again. But President Bush has made an irresistible case against his own re-election. His first term has been one of the most dismal and costly failures of any presidency. His second promises to be even worse.”
John Ellis:It’s one thing to appoint a Nixon apologist to the Times op-ed page, as Art Sr. did, but can you imagine the cancelled subscriptions, the bombed printing plants, the million-person march on West 43rd Street, and the four-alarm Halberstam heart attack that would follow the appointment of George W. Bush’s cousin, a blogger and a venture capitalist, to the op-ed page? (Did you know Jeb’s given name is John Ellis Bush?)
Because Ellis is my most controversial nominee, and the most like Safire, let me defend him at length:
He’s an inside-politics guy, something that the op-ed page will lack when Safire leaves. In addition to being related to the dynastic family, he’s networked into other power matrices. He was Joe Kennedy’s roommate at Milton Academy, and the two are still good friends, as the Boston Phoenix’s Dan Kennedy (no relation) writes in this enlightening 1999 profile. After working on his uncle’s failed 1980 run for the White House, Ellis returned to NBC News, “where he built a reputation for hard work and for accurately predicting the outcome of state and local races,” Kennedy writes. “Ellis also developed a reputation for being loose and relaxed in a high-stress environment; Saturday Night Live’s headquarters were right down the corridor from the election unit’s, and Al Franken was a frequent visitor to Ellis’s office.”
Ellis left TV news after his uncle became president in 1989 and went academic in 1990 and 1991 with a tour of duty at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He worked as a business consultant and then in 1993 started writing an opinion column for the Boston Globe. Kennedy (the journalist) calls Ellis “a first-rate talent—a passionate writer with a wide-ranging intellect” whose big appeal is his “mildly conservative eclecticism.” After pausing to rip Ellis’ anti-Clinton columns as “one dimensional,” he concludes, “And if some criticize Ellis for conflicts and the appearance of conflicts, that may simply be a function of his having lived an interesting, privileged life among interesting, privileged people.”
Conspiracy theorists informed by Fahrenheit 9/11 believe Ellis, who returned to the news business, “threw” the 2000 election for Bush by calling Florida for him as the head of the Fox News Channel’s decision desk. Among the many inconvenient facts the theorists ignore is the chronology in this CBS News election post-mortem, which states that its decision desk began to “seriously discuss calling Florida for Bush” six minutes before Fox made its announcement then followed about two minutes after Fox. Some conspiracy.
More sober critics, such as Tom Rosenstiel of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, faulted Ellis in 2000 for blurring the line between job and clan by keeping cousins Jeb and George up to speed via telephone about the tight vote. He wrote, “Does it really matter how close journalists are to those they cover? The short answer is yes.” Ellis quit his Globe gig in 1999, when his cousin announced his run for the White House, to avoid conflicts like this. Rosenstiel believes that once out, Ellis should have stayed out. But, a tough ethical judge if ever there was one, he also conceded that Ellis “was a good man.”
Could Times readers live with a columnist whose first cousin was president? Who has yet another first cousin who might be the next president? Could the Times live with that?
The first hurdle to drafting Ellis would not be reader or owner sensibilities but those of Ellis. “Writing columns about [George W. Bush’s] candidacy was, for me, like playing three-dimensional chess. I finally gave up trying,” he wrote his July 1999 farewell Globe column.
I don’t recall anybody requiring William Safire to play three-dimensional chess while writing about the Nixon administration—he largely backed his man, even after he died, except when it came to the worst of the Watergate abuses. And why not let Ellis write a partisan column about his blood relatives? It’s an opinion column, after all, not a news column. And it’s not like the Times opinion pages overflow with pro-Bush copy. Observing Ellis as he negotiated a path between fealty to the truth and fealty to his family would make vivid reading, as some of these TechCentralStation.com columns suggest.
Sons tend to make overt what their fathers made covert. The equation might be reversed in the case of the Sulzbergers. I don’t expect Art Jr. will ever top his daring father, but at the very least I hope he shops my list before he buys.
Candidates who didn’t make the cut: Marvin Bush, Ben “Cooter” Jones, and Bo Derek. Send your Safire replacement ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)