The rise and fall of a columnist-propagandist
So I opened The New York Times on Monday morning, turning quickly to the op-ed page in order to get my weekly Bill Kristol fix, and, as always, the neoconservative propagandist served up some hilarity. At one point, Kristol suggested that the new president's "unabashedly pro-American" inaugural speech was proof that Obama had been influenced by Ronald Reagan and "modern conservatism." I was grateful to Kristol for enlightening me, because I had somehow mistakenly assumed that Democrats and liberals were capable of being "pro-American" without Reagan's help. And as for those one million people out there on the Mall, blacks and whites waving their little American flags, apparently they didn't realize either that they owed their love of country to the conservative cause.
But Kristol's predictable insinuations barely qualify as a misdemeanor. At least this time he got through his column without any apparent factual inaccuracy; he had been notorious for his errors during 2008. And yet, in the end, his Monday column did deliver a clear jolt. At the very bottom, in an italicized one-liner, The Times tersely informed us:
This is William Kristol's last column.
The official story, naturally, is that the decision was mutual. The unofficial story - which I would prefer to believe - is that The Times finally came to its senses and realized that it was a loony idea to offer a chunk of its commentary page, on a weekly basis, to a partisan ideologue who can't get his facts straight.
This may seem like a somewhat trivial issue - columnists frequently come and go, particularly in this economically tumultuous era - but The Times op-ed page is still the most influential turf in commentary journalism. That page helps to drive the national discourse, which is why, understandably, the editors are keen to have strong conservative voices. Kristol just happened to be the wrong conservative voice.
This should have been obvious, even before he was signed up. Real columnists should at least be expected to have a shred of intellectual independence; Kristol, by contrast, has long had a vested interest in the neoconservative cause, dating back to his agitation for an Iraq invasion during the '90s. Hence his string of sunny predictions that turned out to be egregiously wrong-headed. He declared in 2003 that, post-invasion, the Sunnis and the Shiites would get along swimmingly, and said that any skeptics who warned of sectarian strife were merely engaging in "pop psychology." He also predicted, pre-invasion, that George W. Bush was our dream commander-in-chief: "Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president."
In 2007, even as Bush was being reviled by a landslide majority of Americans, Kristol was insisting that he would go down in history as a roaring success, particularly because Bush would be leaving behind "a strong economy." Later that same year, trying his hand at the Republican presidential race, Kristol fell for Fred Thompson and predicted that the somnolent candidate "knows what he's doing, and he will be formidable" - an assessment that fell apart long before the initial primary balloting.
Kristol got hired by The Times anyway. The first hint of trouble surfaced in the very first column, one year ago, when he attributed a quote to the wrong right-wing pundit. He thought the quote came from Michelle Malkin, whereas it really came from Michael Medved.
OK, no big deal, the pundits had the same initials. But things soon got worse. In his eagerness to suggest that Obama might be toast in the Democratic nomination contest, Kristol focused on the candidate's 41-point loss to Hillary Clinton in the West Virginia primary. He wrote that he could not find "a single instance" of any candidate losing a primary that badly yet still ultimately winning his party's nomination. Within days, The Times was compelled to run a correction, noting that John McCain - Kristol's man, already on track to the GOP nomination - had just lost the Utah primary by 85 points. Nor apparently had Kristol been able to "find" the results of the Arkansas primary, where his man McCain had lost by 40 points.
Then came the summer whopper. In his eagerness to tie Obama to Jeremiah Wright, Kristol wrote that Obama "was in fact in the pews" on July 22, 2007 when Wright railed during a sermon about the "United States of White America." It turned out, however, that Obama was actually campaigning in Florida that day - a fact that was buttressed by a clip on YouTube. Kristol had based his evidence on one report that had appeared on the right-wing Newsmax website, a report that in turn had been based on one person...who quickly backed away from his original claim. The Times had to run another correction.
And just as there are errors of commission, there are errors of omission. Last autumn, loyal Kristol readers were well aware that the faux columnist was politically smitten with Sarah Palin, singing her praises and boosting her prospects at every opportunity (starting on Sept. 1, with a column entitled "A Star is Born"). Yet he didn't bother to enlighten readers about his inherent conflict of interest. As an inside player with a vested electoral interest, he served as Palin's biggest cheerleader in Washington GOP circles starting in 2007, and he later worked with his friends inside the McCain campaign to boost her prospects - indeed, to salvage her reputation with an eye toward 2012 - as McCain was spiraling downward.
When Kristol was taking a lot of flak for his columns last year, the Times editorial page editor insisted that Kristol's critics had a "weird fear of opposing views." Wrong. The issue was that Kristol's critics had a weird fear of journalistic malpractice, and feared that The Times would suffer for it.
There are any number of talented conservatives who would be qualified to replace Kristol - people who acknowledge factual reality even when it contradicts their ideological preferences. Among them: Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan and senior Bush speechwriter; Ross Douthat, a young conservative thinker and author currently blogging at The Atlantic website; David Frum, the author and former Bush 43 speechwriter; Byron York, a reporter at The National Review. And of those would boost the embattled Times brand.
As for Kristol, he'll still have a home in the mainstream media, writing monthly commentary for The Washington Post, where the opinion editor lauds Kristol's contributions to The Times: "I thought he wrote a good column."
So much for the stereotype of the "liberal media."