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Bye Bye Billy

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by Brien Jackson

There was actually something interesting in Bill Kristol’s New York Times column today, the last line.

This is William Kristol’s last column.

That’s right, our long national nightmare is really over. Well, sort of. In their continuing effort to overtake the Wall Street Journal’s perpetual hold on the “Worst Op-Ed page in the World” title, The Washington Post has picked Kristol up, although he’ll be writing monthly instead of weekly. And he’ll still be on Fox News, but that can be avoided.

Anyway, The Daily Beast has a round up of the process of deciding to can Kristol.

The problems that emerged were more fundamental. Kristol’s writing wasn’t compelling or even very careful. He either lacked a talent for solid opinion journalism or wasn’t putting his heart into it. A give-away came in the form of four corrections the newspaper was forced to run over factual mistakes in the columns, creating an impression that they were rushed out without due diligence or attention to factual claims. A senior writer at Time magazine recounted to me a similar experience with Kristol following his stint in 2006-07. “His conservative ideas were cutting edge and influential,” I was told. “But his sloppy writing and failure to fact check what he wrote made us queasy.”

Kristol also regularly commented on political developments in which he was personally engaged—without disclosing the depth of his engagement. The Daily Beast previously highlighted his deep involvement in selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s running mate. In the campaign season that followed, boosterism about Sarah Palin became a staple of his writing, even at the expense of his relationship with McCain and leading figures in the McCain campaign. This conduct blurred the distinctions between being an actor on and observer of the political stage, raising some concern among the guardians of The Times’ credibility.

Tough as this was for Kristol’s promoters, he might still have survived as a columnist had it not been for an attitude of casual and reflexive disloyalty he publicly displayed towards The Times itself. A good example came in an appearance with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show on October 30. Here’s the way Editor and Publisher described it:

“Appearing once again on The Daily Show, Bill Kristol, Jon Stewart’s favorite whipping boy (‘Bill Kristol, aren’t you ever right?’), on Thursday night defended the McCain-Palin ticket, at one point informing the show’s host that he was getting his news from suspect sources. ‘You’re reading The New York Times too much,’ he declared. ‘Bill, you WORK for The New York Times!’ Stewart pointed out.”

That, apparently, was the last straw for the Gray Lady.

That’s good. Wrong as it may have been, supporting the Iraq war shouldn’t have disqualified anyone from much of anything, as long as you came to realize it was wrong. People are wrong about things, and lots of people were wrong about that. Some people got it right, of course, but those people have been wrong about plenty of other things. Being wrong about things would be a hard standard to use against a pundit, with exceptions for people (like Kristol) who are wrong about everything. And there’s certainly the sticky matter of figuring out where concerns about accuracy and prescience become arguments over opinion.

And that’s especially good considering there were lots of other problems with Kristol. TDB runs them down pretty well, but ultimately it boils down to one thing; Bill Kristol is a partisan hack. He’s not a conservaive intellectual who takes thinking and intellectual honesty seriously like a Brooks, Buckley, or Douthat, he’s a guy who got his start as a political operative for the GOP, wrote a memo arguing that it was imperative that the Republicans defeat healthcare in 1993 because if it passed Democrats would have a campaign issue to run on, and on down the list. The issues outline here, namely his conflict of interest in the Palin business and his utterly embarrassing run in with Jon Stewart, are fairly minor blips in Kristol’s career, and it’s for that reason that the Times never should have brought Kristol on in the first place. Whether or not I agree with them, there are plenty of writers on the right who are sincere, honest thinkers and who would be an asset to any Op-Ed page. And, for their part, the Times really ought to value the prime real estate they own more seriously. They’ve got, in my opinion the two best Op-Ed writers anywhere in Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman, and David Brooks is better than average. But employing people like Kristol, MoDo, and Tommy Suck On This ought to embarrass everyone else that writes under their banner, and they really ought to have more self-respect than that.

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