Arthur Alpert's Conservative Pundit Scorecard

January 5th, 2010 · 5 Comments · Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

First Winthrop Quigley doubted (UpFront, Dec. 22) that investors, Congress or Wall Street have learned anything from this Great Recession. Next, he “warned,” tongue-in-cheek, of an ugly tax debate ahead in Business Outlook, Dec. 28. Having read both pieces, I’m forced to conclude that Quigley’s an intellectual.

By intellectual, I mean first that he can step outside himself and see where he fits into the scheme of things. Secondly, that he’s at ease wielding analytic powers to derive meaning from disparate sources.

(That doesn’t mean he’s right; Quigley regularly badmouths regulation, for example, as if lax enforcement did not abet Wall Street’s trashing of the financial system. He also forgets regulation fostered broad prosperity from 1945 through the 1960s.)

It’s also true that too many intellectuals spoil the journalistic broth. They don’t uncover new information. All hail the reporters who tell us the “who, what, when and where. ” The very best of them aren’t intellectuals but moralists who just cannot abide that which violates their sense of right and wrong.

More power to these diggers, I say. But once they’ve uncovered the facts, we need to make connections, find patterns and examine them in light of history and values. That’s where intellectuals come in.

Newspapers mostly intellectualize on their Op Ed pages. Sadly, the Albuquerque Journal does it very poorly.

Please understand. My beef isn’t about the Journal’s unfairness in running five right-wing pundits to one liberal. Not today, anyway. Nor do I question the Journal’s right to promote its politics – however partisan and plutocratic – in Op Eds and editorials.

No, my point is the Journal offers (mostly) small-minded writers who routinely shrink the universe to their puny dimensions, write predictably and sometimes, in unattractive prose.

And it needn’t be so. Witness the stimulating N.Y. Times’ Op Ed conservatives, David Brooks and Ross Douthat. Both range through science, psychology and popular culture to produce thoughtful, often brilliant, political essays. Neither is very partisan. Both write well.

As in Brooks Dec. 22 column, which acquainted me with the “new economics” that’s moving us from making “stuff” to selling “protocols” – a kind of knowledge. And his Jan. 1 piece anent the latest terrorism scare, suggesting that we cultivate “an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.” Or, his scary estimation of the Tea Party movement Jan. 5.

Douthat’s Dec. 17 blog post on health care reform included this pearl:

“The more intertwined industry and government become, the harder it is to discern who’s “taking over” whom — and the less it matters, because the taxpayer is taking it on the chin either way.”

And his Christmas Day column, “The Obama Way,” peered insightfully into our president’s brain. Read it alongside Jonah Goldberg’s bludgeoning of Mr. Obama in the Journal Dec. 28 – and weep (not available on the Journal site).

While the Journal’s list of rightists is long, most are hobbled by dogma, troubled psyches and partisanship.

Consider each of the Journal’s favorite rightists – Robert J. Samuelson, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Jonah Goldberg, Cal Thomas, Ruben Navarette, Victor Davis Hanson and Kathleen Parker.

Samuelson is an Establishment, pro-business economist who objects to federal spending benefiting middle and lower class Americans. He’d have young Americans wrest Social Security checks and Medicare from the hands of their parents and grandparents. No rants, though, against corporate welfare. Samuelson does concede that the stimulus stabilized the economy and saved jobs.

Robert is no relation to Paul A. Samuelson, the star American economist (and interpreter of Keynes) whose death at 94 made the Times’ front-page Dec. 13. This is noteworthy because the Journal published not one word thereof. I cannot imagine a more perfect demonstration of the newspaper’s intellectual breadth.

Will, once a philosophy professor, is a complex figure. He’s super-intelligent, steeped in the history of thought, makes subtle distinctions and isn’t always a party line Republican.

Take Iraq. He favored the US attack before he was against it, but now disdains Bush-Cheney empire building and nation building. He’s against warrantless surveillance, too. Will would withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and offer illegal residents a path to citizenship.

Non-partisan then? Hardly. Most of his ethical lapses – which are numerous – have involved aiding Republican candidates, beginning with Ronald Reagan. (See columnist Joe Conason’s list at Salon.com, Dec. 23, 2003.) That the Washington Post and ABC News, his primary employers, wink at them, as do some 500 newspapers, says something about American values – you decide what.

Will consistently represses passion, but barely contains his ardor for the 1976 Supreme Court decision (Buckley v. Valeo) equating campaign dollars with speech, thereby turning free speech into a commodity.

Will scorns the religious right, but doesn’t lack faith. He’s a true believer in libertarian economics, the secular religion whose churches include CATO, Heritage and the Rio Grande Foundation. They preach the existence of an “invisible hand,” “free markets” and “free trade.” They condemn the minimum wage, Social Security and other fetters on “free enterprise.”

No surprise, therefore, that Will’s prescription for recovering from a Great Recession sparked by tax cuts and deregulation is – drum roll, please – tax cuts and deregulation.

Also unsurprisingly, Will rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. Luckily, the Journal employs a science reporter, John Fleck.

You see the problem, though – Will’s columns on political economics never surprise.

Nor are they easily digested. Philosopher Will must know Ralph Waldo Emerson, but flouts that eminence’s advice to address “the ears of plain men.” Instead, he poses as an aristocrat saddened by lesser minds and mass vulgarity; you can almost hear him sniffing as he dips his quill in gray ink, pondering more pompous verbiage.

His pretentiousness may aim to intimidate or (if I am not over-reaching) may cover the hurt of a “four eyed” boy who was always picked last when they chose up sides for baseball.

Professionally speaking, Charles Krauthammer, M.D., may be the best opinion-monger around. He builds his columns lucidly, powerfully and logically. But because this neo-conservative erects every argument atop a foundation of paranoia, he always reaches scary, doom-laden (and, in Iraq, fatally erroneous) conclusions. So he’s predictable, too.

Krauthammer’s cynicism, however, makes him a proficient parser of practical politics. He doesn’t do it often, though, or the Journal passes on those columns.

Temperament regularly runs rampant over intellect in Goldberg’s essays; his outrage is ceaseless. One day, he thuggishly perpetrates political “hits.” Another, he indulges his creativity, writing far-out political scenarios. He imagines history in books, too. I read somewhere he finds Ann Coulter “extreme.”

The politics of Mr. Thomas (VP, Moral Majority, 1980 -1985) stem from an individualistic, sin-centered Christianity. (See his Dec. 29 Journal essay.) Not for him the Jesus of love, justice and community. I cannot imagine how he reads Matthew and the Beatitudes; perhaps, he blames them on biased reporting by the liberal media elite of ancient Palestine.

Navarrette’s columns often are educational, particularly those on immigration; not so his Texas-based analyses of foreign affairs.

As for Victor Davis Hanson, a Hoover Institution “classicist,” it’s fun watching him premise an essay on an untruth passed off as fact, then cherry-pick history to “prove” his thesis. (See his Journal column, Jan. 2.) An ideologue in scholarly robes, he reminds us that “academic” and “intellectual” are not synonyms.

Finally, there’s Kathleen Parker, a rising star whose conservatism appears more visceral than ideological. Last year, having been found inadequately partisan, she was excommunicated by the National Review. Parker’s sin? Opining that VP candidate Sarah Palin was “out of her league.”

She writes fluently, has humor, can be acerbic but isn’t mean. A relative newcomer, Parker reaches almost as many readers as does Will and more than Thomas and Krauthammer, according to a Media Matters.com survey.

As a group, these pundits resemble the contemporary Republican Party – there are twice as many untraditional rightists (neo-cons Krauthammer, Goldberg and Hanson, “religious” rightist Thomas and half a libertarian, Will) as there are old-fashioned conservatives like Parker, Samuelson and Will’s other half.

Note also that (Will and Parker excepted) they write as if history began with Obama’s swearing-in. Thus, the inconsequential fender-benders of the Bush years – like failing to deter 9/11, tricking us into Iraq, forsaking Afghanistan, torture, Katrina, transmuting surplus to deficit and the Great Recession – didn’t happen and left no dents in the political cosmos.

Thus is History ignored and responsibility shirked.

Given its passion for partisanship, management may be satisfied with its lineup of syndicated Op Ed rightists – no matter that they do not reward close reading.

In the unlikely case the Journal wants to upgrade, it could gain access to Brooks and Douthat by purchasing the Times’ news service. Elsewhere, the pickings are slim. Neither the Washington Post, from which the Journal buys Will, Krauthammer, Samuelson and Parker nor Tribune Media Services, whence Thomas and Goldberg, offer many other rightists.

The Post does publish William Kristol, whose neo-con passion for attacking Iraq led him to pooh-pooh the idea “the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni.” He called it ”pop sociology.” That was before Shiites and Sunnis fought a civil war.

Perhaps it’s time to exploit local talent, recruiting Win Quigley to the Op Eds. Judging from his reporting and opining on the health care business, he’s a pro-business conservative, albeit one who sees complexity, writes clearly and likes tackling the “why.”

The Journal could do worse than choose Quigley. In fact, the Journal does do worse, daily.

Tags: ·············

5 Comments so far ↓

  • Linda Lopez McAlister

    Nice article, Arthur. I read David Brooks and Ross Douthat in the Times regularly and appreciate their ideas and writing, though I often disagree. The conservative “pundits” in the Journal are often just too much to bear.

  • Morrie Blumberg

    A good article. Anyone who reads it would feel likewise. And David Brooks is a University of Chicago graduate!

  • Keith Morris

    Agreed–quite a thorough dissection of the Journal’s favorite writers. Like you, my main beef is not with their selection of writers for the Op-Ed page (that’s their business, after all). My chief complaint is with the Journal’s own professed O-Ed policy, which reads, in part:

    “Preference is given to letters (including syndicated columns–km) that are fresh, brief, clear and that don’t require factual verification.”

    I have yet to see the Journal’s editorial staff fact-check any column by Will, Thomas, Krauthammer, et al. And just about any column by any of the writers you mentioned gives fresh, new opportunities to do so.

    My conclusion is that the editors do not feel that these columns “require factual verification”, and are therefore given “preference”.

    Keep it coming, Arthur!

  • Arthur Alpert

    Thanks, all, for your comments.
    And Mr. Morris, about your sharp comment on fact-checking:
    First, having double-checked my piece, I see that I put Mr. Navarette in the wrong border state. Mea culpa. He’s based not in Texas but in (San Diego) California.
    Secondly, while you are, of course, correct that the Journal does not fact-check Will, Thomas, Krauthammer, et al (and they should), there’s a larger, trickier problem with columnists. They’re allowed to ignore essential information. And that happens at most newspapers.
    Thus, Mr. Will’s Jan. 11 Journal piece that (predictably) blamed California’s financial troubles on liberalism featured one major historical gap. There was no mention whatsoever of Proposition 13, the right-wing populist achievement that put the state on the road to fiscal irresponsibility.
    Arthur Alpert

  • Keith Morris

    Arthur–good catch. I didn’t notice the Navarette thing, either.

    So George Will was able to accomplish by omission what he was unable to do through use of bogus facts. The illogic of the piece remains.

    Apologies if you’ve seen this before, but there is a great piece by Michael Preston of true/slant on the responsibilities of editors to fact-check their columnists:

    http://trueslant.com/michaelpreston/2009/07/30/the-uselessness-of-op-ed-pages-a-continuing-series/

Leave a Comment