Michael Jordan tried baseball just long enough to realize he wasn’t going to make it. Microsoft muckety-muck Chris Peters took a leave of absence from the tech biz to try his hand at bowling, and he has returned as a “half-time consultant.” Ana Marie Cox has been out of blogging for just shy of four months. How long before she returns to her calling?

For close readers of Time magazine and the Washington Post‘s Outlook section, that moment can’t possibly come too soon. Cox is now doing “essays” for Time, which means she has acceded to the bloated ranks of people who try to write “thinky” about Washington and American culture. Turns out Cox sounds like every other essayist, showing particular affection for lame stereotypes about the Beltway scene. My favorite is this bit from a March 27 Time essay in which she bemoans her lowly status during her first two years in Washington—a time when her husband was an editor at the Washington Post: “Tagging along in the modest swirl of D.C. cocktail parties, I was the half of the couple who watched people’s gaze drift during conversation as they searched the room for someone a little more plugged in. No one remembered my name or asked for my card or paid for my lunch. I was unexpensable.” Yeah, sure. Relevant data points here are that Cox, 33, is a beautiful young woman with a fabulous wit and plenty to talk about. But how oppressed she was on the cocktail circuit! That’s always such bullshit.

Cox the cultural critic has earned a berth at Outlook, which is under the direction of the recently installed Susan Glasser. In addition to a forgettable March 5 piece on the BlackBerry, Cox on Sunday wrote a hit on just-dumped White House press secretary Scott McClellan, titled “Scotty, the Joke Was on You.” This was Cox trying to channel her inner Wonkette for the traditionally stodgy Outlook audience. How bad was it? Here’s one graph:

“McClellan is a metaphor magnet, actually. And they’re rarely complimentary: He’s been called a punching bag, a rock ‘em sock ‘em robot, a cog in the greater machine, Piggy from “Lord of the Flies.” Even conservatives tend to use a tone in talking about him that’s usually reserved for homely pets that can’t seem to get adopted: the adjective “capable” turns up a lot. (McClellan and his wife have four cats and two dogs, a poignant piece of trivia for those of us who think of Scott as an abused puppy.)”

Moving from blogger to bloviator for the pages of reputable publications plays up all of Cox’s weaknesses and none of her strengths. At Time and the Post, Cox can’t libel anyone; at Wonkette, she was almost encouraged to libel everyone: There was no public figure whose sexual orientation wasn’t fair game for a Cox tease. At Time and the Post, she has to make larger points about society and culture; at Wonkette, her job was to make a bunch of small—and often hilarious—points.

Speaking of larger points, there’s one to be had here in Cox’s transition. As a blogger, Cox made a name for herself by punch-lining the news, and no one has done it better. Her riffs worked perfectly in today’s surf-the-web-at-lunch office culture. Between bites of tuna salad, we all laughed at her takedowns, her conspiracy theories, and what scores of fawning publications accurately described as her “wicked” sense of humor.

These days, though, Cox is coming at us on our free time in forums where she can’t say “ass-fuck.” I came across her McClellan thing Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. I had another half-hour of reading time left and a huge stack of papers in front of me. Not a propitious moment for puppy-dog jokes.

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