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Jim Sleeper: Arthur Sulzberger's Cracked Kristol Ball

[Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale and a writer on American civic culture and politics, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997). ]

“The liberal blogosphere goes wild!” whooped conservatives, wildly, at widespread outrage over Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.’s desperate gift of a weekly Times op-ed page column to neo-conservative field marshal Bill Kristol. Surprisingly, Kristol will continue to edit Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard and to grace Fox News even while joining his former Standard soulmate David Brooks and conservative Book Review and Week in Review editor Sam Tanenhaus tomorrow, January 7, at the Times.

Sulzberger’s family-owned news corporation is bracing for assault by Murdoch’s family-owned News Corporation, and, like a general fighting the last war (Vienna’s Hapsburgs, 1914?), Arthur is feinting rightward to save his newspaper from being Dan Rathered or Howell Rainsed off the field by Murdoch’s soon-to-be pumped-up Wall Street Journal.

But trying to beat journalism’s Lord Voldemort at his own game lets down Times readers and dooms the Sulzbergers to follow the Bancrofts, who lost the Journal to Murdoch because they’d lost not only their sharp entrepreneurial elbows but their civic-republican souls.

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What’s at risk for journalism in this sad new Times strategy, and why is Sulzberger pursuing it?

The risk should be clear to anyone needing good reporting: News organizations that compete only for market share learn that sensationalism and subtle titillation sell best. So they tweak the news to bypass your brain and go for your viscera on their way to your wallet. As they grope you to keep you reading or watching, they scramble your and others’ thinking about news and with it, public discussion.

That leaves the republic’s immune system more vulnerable to anti-republican agendas and impulses and to demagoguery -- like Kristol’s early and sustained war-mongering on Fox. A serious study cited last year by Paul Krugman found late in 2003 that 80 percent of those who relied mainly on Fox for news believed that clear evidence had been found linking Iraq and Al Qaeda; that WMD had been found in Iraq; and that world public opinion had favored Bush’s war. Only 23 percent of PBS and NPR audiences believed those untrue things.

Anyone who's watched Kristol knows he promoted these untruths doggedly. He also assured viewers that the war’s aftermath would require only 75,000 U.S. troops and $16 billion a year. Even after Abu Ghraib, he accused anti-war critics of hobbling America’s mission to spread democracy. Far more than any other public intellectual I know, Kristol has American blood on his hands.

Fox ratings may be high, but good journalism is about more than quarterly bottom lining. Its purpose is to help public life go well, but most journalists are employed by media corporations with other purposes, and Times publisher Sulzberger, a fickle and somewhat perverse moralist, has never struck the right balance between the profit imperative and civic-republican trust. He rode color-coded “diversity” to absurdity with Howell Raines (as I demonstrated in my one and only contribution to Kristol’s Weekly Standard, on August 11, 1997!). More recently, we saw Sulzberger slobbering over ex-Times con artist Judith Miller outside a prison.

Now he thinks he’s being clever in hiring Kristol, and certainly the Times should publish smart conservatives to keep liberals honest. But Kristol has accelerated the decline of honesty even more than David Brooks or Sam Tanenhaus.

Most conservatives already know this. Take a peek behind their gloating over liberal consternation about Kristol's deal with the Times: Whether they’re Main Street Republicans, courtly paleo-cons, Ayn Randian libertarians, or the crypto-theo-cons who’ve been infecting The Atlantic Monthly with the vapors of a magisterium, circa Pius XII, most conservatives dislike and mistrust Kristol and the other prophets of “national greatness” and “liberate-the-world” conservatism whom Sulzberger has called in for his Armageddon with Murdoch.

Neo-cons like Kristol would scoff at any suggestion that republican freedom depends not mainly on warriors and wealth but ultimately on an elusive strength, borne of vulnerability, that risks trust in ways that elicit trust in return. Kristol once told me he thought that a Yale Daily News column of mine in which I’d argued just this was “silly.” Maybe it was; against neoliberal innocents like Thomas Friedman who think the world is flat, Kristol and other self-styled tough guys remind us usefully that it’s crooked and dark; against New Dealers like Krugman who’d have us achieve goods in common which we cannot know alone, they remind us that self-interest greases engines of prosperity.

But Kristol & Co. get stuck in these half-truths, arrested intellectually and characterologically. Politically smart but civically unintelligent, they give us decorum without decency, folksy humor without civic trust, religiosity without faith, duplicity without forbearance, resentment without justice.

They haven’t a clue how unarmed, impoverished nobodies like Ghandi, Mandela, and the Eastern European dissidents and their followers brought down vast national security states like the one they want for America, or how Martin Luther King, Jr. brought down what even Clarence Thomas called the “totalitarian” regime of the old South. Told of such movements, they batten immediately upon their flaws and corruptions; and they find them; and they miss the point.

Even last week’s conservative toasts to Kristol had an oddly hollow ring, and something seemed forced about the glee at most Times readers’disgust. Conservatives know that, having lost credibility with an “ownership society” that’s ending home ownership for millions, a foreign policy that has diminished us abroad and a governing ideology that had Blackwater policing flood-ravaged New Orleans, they’re now losing even their cachet as rebels against the liberal media. Embarrassed by what they see in the mirror, some turn away to point fingers at leftists who’ve been too far out of the picture to deserve blame or credit for their self-destruction.

Watch Jack Shafer, for example, a libertarian blowhard ensconced too long at Slate, point his finger compulsively away from the mirror: “Who’s Afraid of Bill Kristol? Nora Ephron, Josh Marshall, Jane Smiley, David Corn, Erica Jong, Katha Pollitt, and Nearly Every Liberal With a Blogging Account,” reads the headline of his comment. Like most other conservatives, Shafer dislikes Kristol, whom he calls “a political operator” who “likes to brawl and make enemies….”; liberals “get it right when they call Kristol a naked opportunist.”

Still, he shrugs lamely, “Kristol, love him or hate him, writes good copy.” “Copy” is newspaper jargon for a reporter’s story on its way to his editors and the press, but in using it for Kristol, Shafer unwittingly gives it a darker double entendre. In Kristol, he claims, “the Times gets a political specialist, not a journalist, similar to the deal the paper cut in 1973 when it hired PR flack and Nixon spear-chucker William Safire. Safire, a self-described libertarian conservative, weathered the same catcalls from the liberal establishment that Kristol hears today.”

Not quite. Safire left Nixon skullduggery behind and transcended partisan phrasemaking at the Times, but Kristol will keep working as a political operator who feigns candor and flexibility only to score.

No Nixon hired Kristol to draft, on the letterhead of his Project for the New American Century, a letter to President Bush just hours after 9/11, declaring that “any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism. The United States must therefore provide full military and financial support to the Iraqi opposition…. even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack [of 9/11].”

Kristol got 40 other armchair warriors (click the link to see their names) to sign the letter, which went out to Bush on 9/20. He has continued relentlessly and dishonestly ever since to promote and expand this perverse logic. That doesn’t sound like the columnist Bill Safire to me, and Shafer changes the subject to ridicule the above-named leftists for having “grand mal seizures” over Kristol.

But read Josh Marshall’s brief comments on Kristol,which Shafer links to prove his point, and decide who’s having the seizure. Shafer concludes that angry liberal “Times readers who expect the paper's columnists to mirror their views may not like the idea of an alleged war criminal like Kristol infesting its pages…. But they're the same people who'd boycott a restaurant just because it starts serving an entrée they hate.”

Maybe it’s indigestion, Jack, but, whatever it is, please take a break and ask yourself why you’re doing this. Remember that when Paul Bremer had to be spirited secretly out of the Green Zone, no leftist anti-war movement or liberal Congress had forced the United States to fight with one hand behind its back, as in the Vietnam War. No Jane Fonda had visited Baghdad to lend aid and comfort to the enemy and demoralize our troops in the field. You know perfectly well that Iraq-war progenitors and propagandists like Kristol had done that all by themselves.

So How will Kristol ply his trade at the Times? Deftly, with a faintly forced geniality and even some of the humorous self-deprecation you see in this revealing transcript of a talk he gave in December, 2004 at Harvard’s Kennedy School about Bush’s and Republicans’ recent triumph.

Kristol is nothing if not ingratiating toward audiences more liberal than he, but I hope that his first Times column tomorrow, January 7 won’t recycle one of his ice-breakers like the oft-told tale about how, while teaching at Harvard in 1984, he’d voted for Reagan and for what he thought was the Republican opponent to his district’s impregnable Democratic congressman, House Speaker Tip O’Neill. The next morning, curious to know how many votes O’Neill’s Republican challenger had gotten besides his own, Kristol learned that O’Neill hadn’t even had a Republican opponent and that, as he told his Kennedy School audience, “it turned out that I had voted for the communist [laughter].”

Kristol then joked about his own sorry efforts in electoral politics as campaign manager for the black conservative Alan Keyes and as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, not to mention as a supporter of John McCain against Bush in 2000. Virtually every candidate and cause he’s supported has been a failure, indeed a disaster. But, high on the Republican triumph of 2004, Kristol worked deftly, with self-deprecation, and caveats, to accustom his K-school listeners to a permanent Republican majority:

“I don’t think… that the wool was pulled over Americans’ eyes [in this election], or that… they were bamboozled by Fox News, much as I’m happy to take credit for all that bamboozling that Fox News does, to say nothing of The Weekly Standard and other organs of dread right wing media….[laughter]”

Rather, he said, this is “the culmination of a 36-year rolling Republican realignment during which time they’ve come to slight majority status” and may be the majority party for decades to come: “[N]o one knows what’s going to happen in 2008, …. [b]ut in the short term, 2006, and this is important for Bush’s chances of governing successfully, there’s very little chance the Democrats will take back Congress. Again, anything could happen.”

But, again, Kristol has planted the seed he meant to plant. Confident as a wily Jesuit of the inevitability of his truths, he’s a master at reeling in doubters gently. He left to sustained applause. Again, though, too, the seed bore no fruit.

And, again, one does have to question Sulzberger’s judgment, unless one imagines, as I don’t, that he’s Macchiavellian enough to offer conservatives a scaffold on which to hang themselves. More likely, this is yet another of hapless Arthur’s efforts to mix republican morals and market share.

Defending that effort, and growing defensive about it, Times editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal sounds like Jack Shafer in taunting liberals angered by Kristol’s investiture. Interviewed by The Politico,Rosenthal ridiculed “this weird fear of opposing views” and affected to be shocked, shocked that people who champion tolerance so strongly would judge his publishing Kristol “a bad thing. How tolerant is that?”

This reeks of a distinctive New York Stalinist/neo-con idiom that, for all its ideological twists and turns, hasn’t changed since the 1930s. It was taken up immediately by Kristol: “I was flattered watching blogosphere heads explode,” he told The Politico. “It was kind of amusing.” He couldn’t resist adding that while “[contributing]to the diversity of the Times is a worthwhile goal,… anyone threatening to cancel subscriptions” over his column “can toughen up and take it.”

Kristol was marinated in this mixture of piety, pugilism, and political duplicity by his father, the neo-con godfather and former Trotskyite Irving Kristol, whom we can thank for the famous apothegm, “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

Sorry, Irving, Bill, Andy, and Jack: Leftists and liberals just aren’t available for compensatory bashing these days. Their often-maladroit and counterproductive reactions are precisely that -- reactive, not causal, as in the case of the anti-Iraq war movement, which can’t be blamed for anything that has gone wrong. Scapegoating liberals in anthropologically perfect reenactments of the Salem witch trials that displace the sins of the powerful onto dissenters isn’t quite as reliable a default option as it used to be.

And if Arthur ever finds enough wisdom to bring on a few civic-republican voices to supplement the lonely Paul Krugman against Kristol, Brooks, and Tanenhaus, he may even sustain his newspaper’s profits as well as its pride.

Read entire article at TPM Cafe