Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The NYT's Roster of Columnists Becomes Slightly Less Infuriating

by Neil H. Buchanan

Even as he tried to pen a gracious departing column, Frank Bruni could not stop himself from offering a huge bowl of self-important, treacly, and hypocritical nonsense.  Harsh?  You bet, but consider that a column devoted in large measure to decrying pundits’ lust for click-bait was titled "Ted Cruz, I'm Sorry."  Lest we think that this was an editor's decision to make the piece look juicy, Bruni's opening line was, "I owe Ted Cruz an apology."

Indeed, that title is the only reason that I read the column.  Click-bait works, of course.  It was only because of that enticement that I even discovered that I was reading Bruni's farewell piece.  I had long ago given up on reading his columns, which were bad for none of the reasons that he thinks that columns can be bad.

But no matter the reason, there it was: "I’m a columnist no more." Finally!!! If only he could take Friedman, Dowd, Stephens, and a few more with him.  Other than the pleasure of seeing his ten-year occupation of space on The New York Times opinion page end, however, is there anything of even minor importance to be said about Bruni's departure?  Perhaps.
Why had I stopped reading Bruni's columns?  Empty calories are tempting when they satisfy a sweet tooth or some other temptation, but this was nothing like that.  He simply wrote nothing of any import or even interest, nothing that used his prime space to advance even mildly interesting ideas.  I write this not for partisan reasons, given that Bruni was on the center-left (the right end of it, but still).  And based on the headlines of the columns that I skipped over, he seemed to spend quite a bit of time criticizing Donald Trump.  One might have expected that I would find his writing at least mildly congenial.

Bruni, however, personifies the kind of punditry that elevates the behaviors and assumptions of insider-ness over substance.  His farewell piece was a study in false modesty, suggesting -- no, shouting -- that the key to political redemption in the country is for everyone to be more polite, yet another entry in the false equivalence and bothsidesism that has infected American political discourse.  It says something that even his much-worse former colleague Thomas Friedman has in recent years become a more trenchant observer of the U.S. political scene.

Bruni's default was always to laud the Clintonian form of unilateral disarmament that has crippled the Democratic Party.  During the 2016 general election campaign, for example, I wrote a column excoriating both Friedman and Bruni (whom I dubbed "Fruni," the NYT's version of Brangelina) for calling on Hillary Clinton to move right after the Democratic National Convention.  Here is a taste of what I wrote on that August day almost five years ago:
"Frank Bruni [writes] that "Hillary's Summer of Love" is an opportunity for Clinton to move to the right, just like her husband did two decades ago.  That Bruni's only specific example is Bill Clinton's misguided welfare reform law speaks volumes.

As always, Bruni manages not to say anything specific but to do so with a lot of words.  He calls on Clinton to take a "big-tent tack."  The lesson that he took from President Obama's experience with Republicans is that they attacked Obama because he "defied" them during his first two years in office.  If only Obama had been nice, Bruni seems to be saying, they would have been nice back.

So, Bruni's bottom line for Clinton is, like Friedman's, to adopt a Republican agenda.  Why?  Because we need to move past intractable partisanship, and even though Democrats are likely to win, they must not then allow themselves to do what they said that they will do.
Bruni was, over the years, a knee-jerk critic of teacher's unions and labor in general, and he simply loved "moderate" Democrats like former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo -- who now is in Joe Biden's cabinet -- writing puff pieces about Raimondo in particular years apart.  In the more recent piece, he approvingly quoted her saying this: "It takes a lot of spine to be a centrist in America today. You get whacked from the left and whacked from the right. That’s my life. I get whacked."  Wow, you continue to annoy a lot of people by not having the courage to defend anything but being centrist for its own sake?  What spine!  "I must be doing something right, because everyone hates me" is hardly a new argument, but it never made sense.

Bruni carried this belief that being "modest" means being centrist, and that all of this is the height of virtue, to the very end.  In his final column, he took up one of the most important issues in American politics today:
Who can really be sure that trashing the filibuster is the gateway to governmental bliss? Who can be sure it isn’t? I wish someone would write a great analysis of the filibuster that focused on two undeniable truths: We have no idea what the ultimate impact of such a consequential change would be, and there are powerful arguments for and against it. On this issue and others, Option A versus Option B amounts to a coin flip. How many pundits say that?
A coin flip? Really?  We cannot be certain what the ultimate impact of anything will be, but we have to make educated guesses.  We do know that those who have written in defense of the filibuster lately, including the two most immovable Senate Democrats on the issue, have tried and failed miserably to offer "powerful arguments for" it.
But even if the pro-filibuster people had offered something coherent, why assume that "[o]n this issue and others" there are exactly two options that are equally plausible.  "How many pundits say that?"  Not many, because it is inane.  For someone who claims to be a centrist, Bruni is certainly all too willing to embrace radical doubt.
The animating example of excessive zeal in Bruni's final column is Ted Cruz.  Not Cruz's excessive zeal, but Bruni's remorse at having zealously criticized Cruz during the 2016 presidential race.  What had Bruni done wrong?

One day in 2015 when I had a column due in hours and couldn’t settle on a topic, I took the easy route of unloading on Cruz, who was one of many unappealing contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. He was fair game for rebuke, no question there. But did I illuminate his dark character, enlighten my readers or advance any worthwhile cause by comparing him — repeatedly — to the unstoppable entity in the horror movie “It Follows”?

No. I just swam with the snide tide.

I did that too often. Many columnists do.

Bruni is certainly at liberty to criticize himself, but there is nothing remotely over-the-top about his anti-Cruz piece.  He thinks that he owes his readers an apology for "the degree to which I and other journalists — opinion writers, especially — have contributed to the dynamics we decry: the toxic tenor of American discourse, the furious pitch of American politics, the volume and vitriol of it all."  That is, again, his call in terms of his own work, and if he regrets some of it, fine.  I only wish that he cared as much about the terrible arguments that he made over the years, or his unthinking embrace of bad policies in the name of centrism, as he does about not being snide.

There are no term limits for pundits, but Bruni is leaving the NYT's stable after a relatively brief ten-year stint.  Why is he leaving?  Interestingly, Duke University is putting him on an endowed chair, which would be hard to justify on the merits in any event; but it is even more ridiculous because he lacks a terminal degree in his field.  (When I made that observation in an email to a friend, I received this reply: "His field? What field?")
I continue to believe that the position of "New York Times columnist" ought to be abolished, but that is not going to happen any time soon.  Why does any of this matter?  Bruni might be gone, but he will now help to train a new generation of writers to go for the content-free, safe insiderism that brought him success.  The net result is going to be more of the same.

And that will be bad.  Just yesterday, I saw an exchange on one of the cable news channels, with a panel of Bruni-like talking heads discussing what Democrats should do, now that Senate Republicans have blocked the For the People Act.  The pundits' response: Now, liberal activists need to take it "back to the states," protesting and showing state-level politicians that they must be taken seriously.

As much as I hope that something like that could work, it has certainly failed spectacularly thus far.  Indeed, the key reason that we need federal action is that the heavily-gerrymandered Republican legislatures have been passing laws to deny the vote and to allow Republicans to negate any unwelcome results.  Telling activists to go back to Plan A, now that Plan B failed, begins to resemble the classic runaround, when one office in a bureaucracy sends a customer to a different office, only to have the second office insist that the first office was the right one all along.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, we can predict with near certainty that, when the results of Republicans' election-rigging efforts show up in 2022 and 2024, some pundits will say that Democrats lost because they failed to try hard enough, or because of bad messaging, or weak candidates, or something.  And now, even though Democrats have tried to stop this trend in every way possible, we can be sure that they will be faulted for not having tried really hard to change Republicans' minds in Georgia, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere.

Bruni will not be part of that scrum (unless he delivers on his threat to write occasional guest pieces), but his spirit will be there.  Can we determine whether or not a concerted campaign to stop Democratic-leaning voters from voting is the reason that Democratic-leaning voters did not vote?  No, per the Brunis of the world, all such questions "amount to a coin flip."