I traded a series of e-mails with a friend of mine last week, a woman famous on the national political scene. We were commiserating with one another over the dumb ideas Americans seemed all too willing to believe.
My friend remarked at one point, of herself and her husband, "We don't read political columns anymore." I was mildly amazed, and then relieved. I have been skimming political commentary for a couple of years now and was feeling a bit guilty about it. I'm in the biz, after all. I'm supposed to keep up.
But increasingly, I know what pundits are going to say after reading a few sentences -- always supposing that the pundit writes the lede fairly well, not always the case -- and so I just don't bother reading any further. I'm not quite sick of it, but I sure am overstuffed. I'm full. I've got to suspect that the American people are, too.
RETURN A MOMENT TO MY FAMOUS FRIEND, and let's appreciate just what it means for her not to read political columns anymore. If she has run out of patience with political punditry, then political pundits are in trouble. She is famous for her patient, forbearant courage. She served for years on a public body renowned for its intractable, even hostile, liberal leadership. She outwaited the old guard and finally came out on top.
She appears regularly on those snorefest policy discussions that get run on C-SPAN, the kind that deal with knotty, awful issues that arouse irrational passions, and she sits there and listens to people rant and turns their wrath with kind, logical words. She sits there, in an environment that would send me howling for the door in five minutes, in hours-long discussion, and she deals with whatever comes up.
She is engaged, involved, alive, she writes political columns and books herself. She does important work for the nation. She is a profile in every kind of political and social courage I don't have. And she says, "We don't read political columns anymore."
I REPLIED, "THAT'S WHY I DON'T WRITE THEM ANYMORE," and believe me, I'm thankful that, at TAS, I've got a role as the real-guy essayist so I don't have to. Years ago, when I first got a regular weekly assignment from a website, the now-much-changed American Partisan, I resolved to be different. I knew what made for good column work. Michelle Malkin, Jed Babbin, and Jeff Jacoby do this kind of work. They do real reporting, and I vowed to do it, too. I would dig up stories, I would develop one or more beats, I would cultivate scores of sources, and I'd make a name for myself.
Shortly after getting the assignment, my sturdy old kidney transplant failed, and I got sick as a cur, and I've been sick ever since, so I had to fall back on what I could do out of brainpower only. Or maybe I'm just lazy, always a possibility. It remains that, like me, far too many of us in the commentariat have taken the easy way out, and written only from between our ears.
That won't do. Very few of us (John Derbyshire, Mark Steyn) are brilliant; very few of us are intimately plugged into the political establishment (The Prowler, Bob Novak, David Ignatius, Jim Hoagland) and so can reveal what's really going on inside the corridors of power. Market forces may prevail. Magazines and newspapers are expensive to run; commentary pays peanuts.
Meantime, it won't do any good to point fingers. We all know where pointless political vituperation got started (with the Clinton administration's "war" to defend against impeachment). All of us really need to work at doing a better, more fact-based job. And if we need to do a little less of it just to clear the air, so be it.
Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.
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