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Think Again: William Kristol: Journalism’s Indispensable Man

SOURCE: Flickr/Adam "Slice" Kuban

William Kristol's last column for the New York Times on January 25, 2009.

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Remember those old ads—before the days of Craigslist—that ended with the tagline, “I got my job through the New York Times?” It was a punch line for any number of bad jokes. Conservatives used to run pictures of Fidel Castro, even Joseph Stalin, under it. But, um, Times have changed and the latest joke to get his job that way is the Republican strategist William Kristol who, perhaps not coincidentally, mused aloud that the paper’s publisher and editors might be guilty of treason for the crime of reporting on the Bush administration’s illegal spying activities.

Lord knows that was hardly the only indignity that the Times brass endured in its quest to hold onto Kristol. Times readers initially objected to the hiring citing not only his hostility to honest journalism but also his famously horrible record of punditry in the past. You’ll recall, for instance, when he said before the war that, “We can remove Saddam because that could start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy,” and “Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.” Yet Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal, speaking to Politico, dismissed all criticism of this “serious, respected conservative intellectual” as “intolerant,” “absurd,” and indicative of a “weird fear of opposing views.”

Of course, Kristol never appeared the slightest bit grateful. Not only did he make careless error after careless error—beginning with his very first column—but nine months into the job this past October, he chided the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart for “reading The New York Times too much.” Just what the newspaper needs these days—employees who tell television audiences not to buy and read their product.

Well, without apology or official explanation, the Times ended Kristol’s tenure after only a year. Yet the talents he displayed on the job were such that he was immediately snatched by The Washington Post, just as the Times grabbed him from Time, where he had enjoyed a regular column for the previous year. Just what does it take to be so successful a pundit these days? We’ve compiled a few highlights from his past year:

Kristol began his career as a New York Times columnist in January 2008 with an error. He attributed a Michael Medved quote to another conservative with the same initials—Michelle Malkin—in the presciently titled column “President Mike Huckabee?

Kristol committed a far more serious error not long after. In a column called “Generation Obama? Perhaps Not,” Kristol blasted the candidate and reported that on July 22, 2007, Obama attended a service at Trinity Church in which “Wright blamed the ‘arrogance” of the ‘United States of White America’ for much of the world’s suffering, especially the oppression of blacks.” Kristol’s source was “Ronald Kessler, a journalist who has written about Wright’s ministry.”

Kessler’s post, it must be noted, was a bit less lofty than Kristol’s; at the time he was chief Washington correspondent of the right-wing website Newsmax.com. Kessler’s “report” was based solely on information from another Newsmax staffer, freelancer Jim Davis.

The Obama campaign quickly provided evidence showing that Obama was on his way to Miami at the time of the sermon, which disproved both Kristol and Kessler. This resulted in Kristol’s second, but not last, correction.

Correction number three came from a May column predicting problems for the Obama campaign. Kristol claimed as evidence that “he could not find a recent primary in which the candidate who would go on to win the nomination lost by as big a margin as Barack Obama lost by (41 points) in West Virginia.” Not long before that, however, Mitt Romney won Utah with 90 percent of the vote over John McCain—the already-anointed Republican nominee when Kristol wrote his column.

Finally, Kristol inaccurately wrote that there was “no basis” for the claim that McCain was not in a “cone of silence” when Pastor Rick Warren interviewed Barack Obama at a Saddleback Church forum. Correction number four reported what the Times news pages already had: that McCain was not in any “cone of silence.”

And these are just the mistakes that resulted in corrections. There were many other columns that contained errors much harder to issue a correction for, unless it read “never mind last week’s column.”

Kristol wrote an entire column in July proclaiming his prediction that conservative strategist Mike Murphy would be joining the McCain campaign. Murphy announced two days later that, “I do not expect to join the campaign. They’re my friends, and I wish them well.” A McCain advisor added that “No one discussed or offered Mike the strategist’s job.”

Kristol also touted another prospective hire for McCain, in a March column, saying, “[McCain] could persuade the most impressive conservative in American public life, Clarence Thomas, to join the ticket.”

Kristol wrote in his pre-election column that, “two recent polls have McCain closing to within four points. Pennsylvania is the state whose small-town residents were famously patronized by Obama as ‘bitter.’ One of Pennsylvania’s Democratic congressmen, John Murtha, recently accused many of his western Pennsylvania constituents of being racist. Perhaps Pennsylvanians will want to send a little message to the Democratic Party. And that could tip the election to McCain.”

Kristol was telling everyone that week that McCain would win. On October 27 he predicted a McCain victory to the Huffington Post and joked, “I hope everyone forgets this pick if I’m wrong, and gives me credit for making a bold, upset pick if I’m right.”

Of course, it’s not just the casual attitude toward truth that tripped up Kristol on the op-ed page; there’s also the matter of motive. I wrote in the American Prospect when Kristol was hired that, “Kristol is not merely a conservative, he’s a McCarthyite.” Kristol’s constant tarring of Barack Obama for the tenuous connection with Reverend Jeremiah Wright was indicative of this tendency. No less so, his complaining in almost perfect McCarthyite cadences that Barack Obama was “disdainful…of bourgeois America” but “usually good at disguising this.”

Kristol’s uncomfortable closeness with the McCain campaign was actually both. He was deeply involved in the selection of Sarah Palin for the vice-presidential slot on McCain’s ticket, as detailed by the Daily Beast.

And Kristol used the “lipstick on a pig” line on cable news hours before Palin unveiled it in her speech to the RNC. His column resembled a booster newsletter for Sarah Palin, even after many in the McCain camp turned on her. Crossing this journalistic line from political observer to player is nothing new for Kristol: see under, “Iraq war, and advocacy of”. But it did create some difficult reporting tasks for the Times. Elisabeth Bumiller was forced to report in a campaign post-mortem that Palin booster and McCain adviser Randy Scheuenemann was “disclosing, as one put it, ‘a constant stream of poison’ to William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a columnist for The New York Times.”

Now Kristol moves onto yet another prestigious post in the mainstream media—the opinion page of The Washington Post. That page’s editor, Fred Hiatt, said of the decision, “I think he’s a very smart, plugged-in guy…. I thought he wrote a good column.” Indeed, even to imagine that Hiatt might be wrong about this “serious, respected conservative intellectual” would be “intolerant,” “absurd,” and indicative of a “weird fear of opposing views.”

You heard it here first…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and a columnist for The Nation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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