Just because I think that the New York Times should leave vacant the opinion-columnist position just evacuated by William Kristol doesn’t mean I think he’s irreplaceable. He’s completely replaceable: I can name a thousand bloggers who filed better copy daily during the year Kristol wrote weekly for the Times. Why did his work reek? He’s a good writer, a smart thinker, well-connected, and a dazzling smiler. Was he being deliberately perverse about the gig, trying to test the crap-acceptance threshold of the Times with his copy? Or just lazy? That’s my guess. Has any big-league columnist put less effort into his pieces than Kristol? If he labored more than 45 minutes on the average piece, I’d be astonished.
I take Kristol’s failure personally because I defended him and the Times against the legion of liberals who, learning of his assignment, protested that such an “ideological bully and thug” had no right to appear in the paper’s august opinion pages. In that earlier column, I hypothesized that he would use the “Times imprimatur to expand his source list to include Democrats of all stripes … traffic in political intelligence … start political feuds … attack his friends and reward his enemies … [and] stir the animals up.” He didn’t, of course. Even though Kristol’s poor performance wasn’t my fault, I’m guilty of having built up expectations, and if you felt let down, allow me to offer my deepest apologies.
The first reflex at the Times will be to offer another conservative the Kristol slot. Although the paper has committed to ordering a refill, I’ve got a better idea: Why not drop the Kristol slot into a vat of boiling acid and turn the space over to the best copy Deputy Editorial Page Editor David Shipley can lasso on whatever turf he’s wrangling that day.
Week in and week out, I’m impressed with the work done by the underexposed contributors to the Times’ “Op-Extra” page on the Web. Both Timothy Egan, who pops off about politics and the American West, and evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson (currently “away”), who channels her field for the layman, file brilliant work weekly. Egan comments on the West as if he were a foreign correspondent. Judson satisfies the science nerd in me with essays about everything from obesity to the cancer wiping out Tasmanian devils. I’m not a huge fan of Stanley Fish (“Challenges to entrenched ideas about politics, education and society”), Judith Warner (“… political and societal aspects of life at home”), or Dick Cavett, all of whom write weekly for Op-Extra, but their work rarely falls as low as Kristol’s.
The Times occasionally runs Op-Extra columnists in the print edition, which I consider a treat because I usually don’t get around to hunting for them on the Web. If either Egan or Judson moved into Kristol’s old space for a year, I wouldn’t kick, nor would I protest if the space was reserved for the best of the Op-Extra columnists. (There are others besides Egan and Co.)
Or, instead of calling up talent from the bench, the Times could turn the column inches over to original contributions. At its best, the Times op-ed page reads like a good monthly magazine. Among my recent favorite pieces are Michael Lewis and David Einhorn on the economic crackup, Russ Rymer on George Wallace’s political odyssey, Robert A. Caro’s “Johnson’s Dream, Obama’s Speech,” and Mark Penn’s Hillary Clinton post-mortem, just to name a few.
The Times doesn’t have to treat Kristol’s vacancy like an open Supreme Court seat, a lifetime sinecure filled once a decade according to political calculus. I want the Times to think more about what to publish than whom to publish.
If the Times insists on appointing—please, anybody but Roger Cohen or Ted Koppel. Send your “anybody but” nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org. (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.)
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