The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, January 20, 2004  

And Safire Krugman Friedman Dowd Herbert & Kristof
And No, That’s Not a Law Firm

Michael Wolff, media critic for New York magazine is generally quite good. Among other things, he doesn’t share the conflicts of interest that define the present career of his better known colleague Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. But in his latest piece for New York, “Right Timesman,” about David Brooks, the newest regular columnist for the op-ed page of the New York Times, Wolff, while getting much, well, right, makes so many missteps the article reads as one poorly conceived and executed.

It starts near the very beginning, even with the sub-head: “Brooks is the hothouse flower of the [New York] Times’ op-ed page -- its token conservative.”

True enough were it not for the presence on that very same page of right-wing columnist, Clinton-basher, Bush-backer, and Sharon-apologist William Safire. Wolff himself concedes this, but writes in off-key notes: “[T]he Times’ conservative of record, William Safire . . . is, at 74, looking toward a sooner-rather-than-later retirement and needs to be replaced, if not replicated.”

Let us all hope he is simply replaced. For by the grace of God, there can be no replication of Safire. One has been more than enough, especially during the last 10 or 12 years, a period during which one might have thought at least one Times editor or publisher would have insisted upon offering the factually challenged columnist some kind of attractive retirement package.

Wolff continues:

Safire -- pro-Israel, and more classically libertarian than classically right-wing, and witty, too -- became a Washington insider, a raconteur, a player, a de rigueur dinner guest, and a conduit into high Republican circles (and, in some sense, the dean of the page).

“Witty”? “Dean of the page”? The latter by age alone, I suppose, but otherwise in both cases, in what parallel universe?

“Pro-Israel,” yes, but also, as Safire repeatedly tells us, a friend of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to whom the columnist habitually refers in print as “Arik,” violating a least a handful of the paper’s own rules of style, a friendship that has clouded Safire’s judgment and perspective.

Nonetheless, one can’t help but appreciate the rest of Wolff’s assessment of the Times op-ed page, now and in the past:

Brooks . . . is also part of a larger change. The age of opinion, of partisanship and polarization . . . has meant that the op-ed, formerly the reward for long service and smart careerism at the Times (or someTimes [sic] for bad careerism -- a place on the op-ed has been a consolation prize for high-flying but out-of-favor Timesmen), and a place of measured, orotund, authoritative appraisals of world affairs, has had to transform into a sharper, juicier enterprise.

Hmm . . . I wonder which columnists Wolff has in mind?

“A place of measured, orotund, authoritative appraisals of world affairs”? I know, I know! The unreadable, utterly predictable, and reliably boring Flora Lewis. (I’m showing my age here.)

“A consolation prize for high-flying but out-of-favor Timesmen”? I know, I know! The unreadable, utterly predictable, and reliably boring Nicholas Kristof. (I’m not showing my age there.)

Wolff continues expounding:

Everybody has a shtick: Paul Krugman as Bush-basher, Safire as house conservative, Tom Friedman as the mayor of the Middle East, Maureen Dowd as crazy lady, Bob Herbert as spokesman for the dispossessed. Everybody needs a slot. Everybody needs a label (indeed, Nicholas Kristof, the other columnist on the page, seems orphaned and, often, irrelevant, without a hard slant).

Not bad, though I would tweak it a little, as follows:

Paul Krugman as the President’s most perspicacious critic, Safire as the house nattering nabob of necromancy, Tom Friedman as the self-styled mayor of the Middle East, Maureen Dowd as crazy lady, Bob Herbert as the eloquent spokesman for people who work for people who have the Times delivered to their door and, if it’s not clean enough, have to go out and buy a fresh copy, but don’t read the Times themselves.

The kicker, though, at least for me, came from this line from Wolff: “As a writer and conservative, [Brooks] seems like a better-behaved P.J. O’Rourke.” Except not as funny, I guess, though O’Rourke is funny like Christopher Buckley is funny, which is to say, not at all.

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