My Favorite Columnist

by tristero

When asked, Duncan once responded that Jon Chait was his favorite columnist, an opinion Duncan has changed. Me, it's a slam dunk: Paul Krugman for all the obvious reasons. He doesn't waste my time obsessing over someone's hair. He writes clearly and can rise on occasion to eloquence. But most importantly, when it mattered, he refused to avert his eyes, refused to buckle under to intimidation, refused to deny reality. For years - literally - Krugman's was the only consistently sane column in the upper echelons of the mainstream American press. It still is unique because Krugman is, unlike nearly every other American political columnist, actually qualified to opine in detail on a rather important subject, economics. Most importantly, he was right. And that wasn't an accident.

But the all time greatest political columnist of my lifetime was undoubtedly Russell Baker. Elegant, witty, compassionate, clear-eyed and intelligent, Baker was in a class by himself. He still writes the occasional article for New York Review of Books - recently, he wrote a round-up of revisionary tomes on Ronald Reagan which he skewered so cheerfully and effectively that the clueless authors probably thought he was praising them - but he is sorely missed.

With these exceptions, and perhaps a handful more that you folks have read in other sources than the Times, most published mainstream opinion writing in the papers and magazines is far below the incisiveness and intelligence of the best of the blogs. And in fact the sheer mediocrity of print columnists - Friedman - as well as their blithering stupidity - Brooks - surely must be a factor in the decline of newspaper readership.

As for Jon Chait, well...he supported the war when he should have known better. There's a myth that simply won't die, that the horror we see today in Iraq was unpredictable. Here's Nora Ephron's version:
[Tenet and Powell] couldn't have known at that time [Powell's infamous UN speech] that the war would be such an unmitigated disaster; they surely couldn't have known that there wouldn't even be a July 4th sparkler found in all of Iraq;
Well, actually, they could have and should have. And so should have Chait.

I suppose it's not fair to dismiss someone's entire corpus of opinion-making because they happened to make one itty-bitty mistake about something like an illegal, immoral, totally unjustifiable invasion of a foreign country that - no matter how depraved the leadership might be - never attacked the US and had nothing to do whatsoever with 9/11. But that's just the way I am. After William Buckley called for all HIV positive people to be tattooed on their buttocks - yes, he did, you can look it up - it should have been quite clear to anyone with a brain that you could get more coherent political and cultural commentary from reading Mad Magazine than the National Review. Similarly, when Chait supported Bush/Iraq.

As I've said before, there is a serious intellectual crisis in this country. Bush/Iraq - especially the failure of the media to catch on before it was too late - is a direct consequence of that. That folks like Chait still command enough respect to have the opportunity to write cover articles for the New Republic - on any subject - while those who were absolutely right about this debacle from the start are still all but completely ignored by "respectable" opinion-making journalism should be cause for genuine alarm. Without truly intelligent, educated, and street-smart voices available to raise a ...hullabaloo before it's too late, this country is almost guaranteed to repeat the spectacular debacle of Iraq in the near future. And I don't see enough of those voices in the mainstream political discourse.