When Washingtonians seek a fresh take on the issues of the day, logic would dictate that they open up the Outlook section of the Washington Post. Outlook is an opinion-only enclave in the paper of record in the public policy capital of the world. Its editors have at their disposal the most provocative thinkers on every topic from Social Security to sexual insecurity.
But what should be a mosh pit for contestation is often a waltz of convention. Check out this gem from Sunday, Dec. 13. Some key words have been edited out for effect. Stick in any nouns you want: “the Constitution,” “Brussels sprouts,” “swing music,” or “the 105th Congress,” and you, too, can write a lead piece for Outlook.
Whatever one’s view of the ______, there is little doubt that the ______ is in tatters. Long before the ______ , all pretense of deliberation had vanished. The ______ conduct over the last month did nothing to persuade Americans that ______ had pursued ______. To the contrary, nearly all ______ seemed to have made up their minds before ______ was called.”
It’s just that kind of discourse that makes Greta Van Susteren seem like one of the more important public intellectuals of our time.
If it’s opinion you want, you can just hit a random button and it will spill out of your TV in great, oozing batches. Opinions, it is often said, are like assholeseverybody’s got oneand anybody with a remote can tell you that there are a lot more assholes out there. And if you prefer your CW in printed form, there’s a Rolodex of spouters at the Washington Post, Slate, or the New Republic.
But you won’t. Nobody reads that crap anymorepolitical magazines, Op-Ed outlets, or the intellectual Webfests. People seem happy to ignore the words of the Novaks, Krauthammers, and Broders, huge, hulking hunks of gray matter who make big dollars to cogitate on the issues of the day.
As interest in the body politic has dimmed, the density of opinion has become overwhelming. There’s a bull market on bull, and much of it arrives at a velocity that renders the average print bloviator vestigial to the informational needs of common folk. Last Sunday, I didn’t whip open the Post and the New York Times to find out what it all meantnot just because we were watching history with an asterisk, but because 20 minutes after the third article of impeachment was adopted, its nuances and implications were plain to every nincompoop in America, including me.
But there’s another, more prosaic reason people don’t pay much mind to printed thoughtfulness: Most of it is no more informative than the average edition of Cochran & Company. The practioners of opinionismespecially here in Washingtonare stinking it up.
When’s the last time you read something on the Post Op-Ed that you could remember by lunch, let alone care to talk about once you sat down? There’s nothing but dead bodies on that particular battlefield of ideas. The page has gone from a place where consent was manufactured by far-thinking giants to a place where it is slowly codified, often to stupefying effect. How do you know that a Post Op-Ed reader has fallen asleep? His morning bagel falls out of his mouth.
In just the last week, we had a professor of strategic studies suggesting that Clinton’s vid-game war won’t touch Saddam Hussein, David Broder tagging Trent Lott as a partisan, and E. J. Dionne synthesizing those two bolts out of the blue by keening that even Saddam doesn’t unite us. All true beyond argumentwhich is why they don’t belong on a page that is supposed to be built on disputation.
Every day, the Post’s designated opinion meisters dodder about within a narrow bandwidth of opinion established by editor Meg Greenfield on some stone tablets an epoch ago. If it weren’t for Michael Kelly’s glorious jihad against Clintonit’s sort of like listening to Hendrix play guitar and wondering how he’s going to find that one note higherthere would be nothing on this page your mom couldn’t have told you last week or last decade.
Post Outlook, conceived as a Sunday hangout where a range of thinkers could spend time pushing the envelope on convention, has become an elephant burial ground, a place where tired, spent ideas limp into view and keel over. The discourse of academe, something I was thrilled to leave behind when I sneaked out of college, is there waiting for me every Sundaybut it’s more like Cliffs Notes than a grad seminar.
In recent weeks, Outlook has brought readers these polemic innovations: medical marijuana = bad, drug treatment = good (never mind that it ripped off an August Metro story by Peter Slevin that made a much better case), and Ronald Reagan = dead.
The New Republic, which once drove debate with regular curve balls and oddballs that changed the parameters of the national conversation, has become a must-not read. Forget plagiarism and fictionTNR’s larger crime has been failing to make the smallest dent in the current debate before Congress, a story that it would have owned a decade ago. Yes, the magazine has always been full of eat-your-veggies policy riffs, but it used to be interrupted by conceptual scoops about current events that came out of nowhere. Other than Jeffrey Rosen’s prescient pieces about the legal wreckage that will remain long after the particulars of this debate are forgottenand those appear in New York titles as often as they do in Marty Peretz’s playgroundTNR has sat it out. The current regime, shackled by the publisher’s agenda, has finally revealed the mystery of what the initials TRB stand for: Trite Redundant Bullshit.
The Weekly Standard has done a better job of staying with the story of the day, but it’s a rubber room of ideologues who have been driven visibly insane by Clinton’s endless political lives and the tendency of their Republican dreamboats to snatch defeat from the mouth of impending victory every single time. In the main, it’s a marketing brochure for Bill Kristol’s multimedia franchisepity the schmucks who have to slug it out on short deadline to keep his name in the news.
Slate was announced as a place that would host a different paradigm, a blackboard for ideas as sprawling and unpredictable as the Web itself. It has become instead the world headquarters of meta-journalism, an electronic exercise in smarty-pantsism where no one ever makes phone calls and everybody has thoughts about other people’s thoughts. The archnessof the collective brow, the writing, and the argumentsis most manifest in the Breakfast Table, where cerebral celebs deconstruct the morning paper. “The wheel of history is spinning so fast that we’re all getting dizzy. The headline news defies comment,” writes Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard University, before going on to do just that. Slate is ultimately like everyone’s brilliant dilettante friend. Instead of calling to tell you that he just got back from an intense experience exploring Cambodia, and here’s what it was like, he calls to say he just read a New Yorker article on Cambodia, and here’s how they’re playing it these days. In the meta-world, it seems that anyone who spends the time to get personally invested in anythingideology, politics, emotionis instantly an intellectual suspect.
Part of the reason opinionists don’t have the inside track any more is that there is no “inside.” Guys like Walter Lippman and Scotty Reston were able to own the public consciousness because government was nowhere near as transparent a few decades ago. Their priviness made them essential to citizens who hungered for understanding of what it all meant. Now there’s no curtain to pull back. The sausage is made right before our eyes.
In fact, nearness to the process has become a handicap. How interested are you going to be in predictive, ahead-of-the-curve commentary that always turns out to be wrong? No one, not George Will, not James Glassman, and certainly not Robert Novak, knows what is going to happen next. The most seminal, farsighted commentary on the Clinton presidency turned out to be a movie scriptWag the Dog. Hollywood has the superior pulse on the land of ugly celebrity because surrealism is not a modality that plays well in letters. Historians will never accuse this decade of excessive thoughtfulness, but the past year has set new standards for vapidity and content-free current events.
Opinion writing, good or bad, doesn’t stick out because there is very little of any other kind of writing going on, regardless of how it is billed. Every common ink-stained wretch has morphed into a commentator. Used to be that reporters would attempt subtle suasion by the way in which they knit some facts and left others out. Now, they just put an analysis stamp at the topor notand deconstruct events through the prism of personal whimsy and notional analysis. The pretense of objectivity has gone the way of the manual typewritermagazines, papers, and broadcasts are so jammed with cant that it’s getting pretty tough for paperslike this onethat used to make a living by just printing what they think.
Since TV commentary is the only cachet that seems to matter, formerly thoughtful people have come to view their columns as auditions for Hardball With Chris Matthews. Why bother with a fussy argument when a couple of quips about the Lewinsky affair will have producers all over town hitting their speed dials? Is it any coincidence that the only columnists worth reading anymoreMaureen Dowd (barely), Kelly, and Dorothy Rabinowitzare the ones who refuse to endure the klieg lights of TV just to advance their visages?
When Andrew Johnson was impeached, it fell to the likes of Mark Twain and E. L. Godkin to give the first draft of history gravity and import. When William Jefferson Clinton got pinched, it was up to Laura Ingraham to put the events in context. The treatise is dead, long live the sound bite. CP