Press Box

Who’s Afraid of Bill Kristol?

Nora Ephron, Josh Marshall, Jane Smiley, David Corn, Erica Jong, Katha Pollitt, and nearly every liberal with a blogging account.

William Kristol

Last week’s appointment of Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol to a once-a-week slot on the New York Times op-ed page induced grand mal seizures among the Huffington Post left and their political bedfellows.

A “supercilious man,” wrote Nora Ephron, who called for Kristol’s dismissal before he filed his first column. A “confirmed propagandist,” added Erica Jong. An “ideological bully and thug,” wrote Katha Pollitt. Jane Smiley upped the ante to “a war-monger and a hate-monger” while Charles Kaiser wrote, with apparent endorsement, that many “Times readers consider Kristol a third-rate neocon apparatchik.”

Speaking for the multitudes, David Corn writes that it’s “bizarre” that after editorializing against the Iraq war since before the beginning, the Times would hire one of the conflict’s  “chief cheerleaders.” And Josh Marshall asked what sense the hire made when Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. already has David Brooks—”the house-broken William Kristol”—writing for op-ed page unless Sulzberger “got some sort of two for one deal or other kind of group discount.”

If being wrong about the war should disqualify Kristol from the Times op-ed page, then Times op-ed veteran and war-supporter Thomas L. Friedman, who was still calling the invasion “one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad” eight months after the fact, should resign his commission. Bill Keller, Times executive editor today but a columnist at the dawn of the war, should pack and leave, too, because he supported the war in February 2003 as a “reluctant hawk.” To be completely consistent, let’s have the Washington Post sack its editorial page for its Iraq errors and the majorities of both houses of Congress resign.

Oh, you say, Kristol’s journalistic crime is not just that he was wrong about launching the war but that he has been absolutely wrong about every chapter in the war since the shock-and-awe bombs lit up Baghdad. Well, not wrong at every turn. From where I write this afternoon, he looks pretty goddamn prescient about the wisdom of mounting the “surge” and adopting a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Pundits are wrong sometimes and right others. Pundits shouldn’t lose or win gigs on the basis of how many of their predictions come true but whether they write interesting copy. Kristol—love him or hate him—writes interesting copy.

Calling Kristol’s addition to the page redundant because David Brooks, a former Weekly Standard-bearer, already works there reveals a lack of familiarity with both men’s writings. Brooks is “pro-choice and pro-gay marriage,” as Ross Douthat noted three years ago in the National Review. Kristol is neither. Brooks is a journalist first and always has been. Kristol is a political operator. Brooks tries to persuade his readers of his views gently, as if he’s a guest in the house. Kristol lives to brawl and make enemies. To him, writing is fighting.

Whether either writer is a genuine conservative is a matter of debate among card-carrying right-wingers. Brooks dresses the role, but he’s too interested in ideas and reporting them out to be a good ideologue. Paleoconservatives get it right when they call Kristol a naked opportunist, which makes him too impatient to maintain a consistent ideology.

Wearing a smile like a crescent moon, Kristol gravitates to power, but he’s not exactly a suck-up. He supported John McCain for president in his first run. He famously told Pat Buchanan to leave the Republican Party. And in 1997, he earned the ire of Newt Gingrich, a former ally, who spotted in him a “passion for destroying Republicans.” Speaking on Rush Limbaugh’s show, Gingrich continued, “I’ve concluded that [Kristol] thinks he has to make news by pandering to the liberals every week and has become sort of the most destructive element on the right.”

In drafting Kristol, the Times gets a political specialist, not a journalist, similar to the deal the paper cut in 1973 when it hired PR flack and Nixon spear-chucker William Safire. Safire, a self-described libertarian conservative, weathered the same catcalls from the liberal establishment that Kristol hears today.

I attempt no defense of Safire’s “journalistic” work when I say he wrote interesting copy during his three decades on the page and brought to his earliest columns political perspectives that nobody else on the page—Tom Wicker, Anthony Lewis, James Reston, et al.—could match. As one who speaks to Republican leaders hourly, Kristol will perform similar service, rewarding liberal readers with dispatches from the “alien” world of conservatism.

In a campaign year like this one, Kristol will capitalize on the Times imprimatur to expand his source list to include Democrats of all stripes. He’ll traffic in political intelligence, some of it as reliable as the CIA’s WMD-Iraq findings, so caveat emptor. He’ll start political feuds. He’ll attack his friends and reward his enemies if it suits him. He’ll stir the animals up, which was H.L. Mencken’s goal. I can’t promise that he’ll be good, but he’ll be different, he’ll be interesting, and I guarantee he’ll never be as bad as Roger Cohen.

Times readers who expect the paper’s columnists to mirror their views may not like the idea of an alleged war criminal like Kristol infesting its pages any more than they liked the idea of Nixon’s pal Safire setting up a squat there. But they’re the same people who’d boycott a restaurant just because it starts serving an entrée they hate.


After Kristol’s one-year appointment expires, I demand that the Times take my advice from 2004 and hire Steve Chapman, Heather Mac Donald, Alex Kozinski, or John Ellis as his replacement. Send your nominations to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)