The Best Opinion Journalist in the Business


Next Tuesday  I will be in conversation with Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor at the New Yorker. The event will be at MIT in Building 32 (The Stata center) in room 123. It will begin at 7:00 PM and end at 8:30 PM. You should come. And if you can not come you should spend your weekend wishing you could. Here is why.

From time to time, I have been lucky enough to pinch-hit over at the opinion page for The Times. This is always a special moment. When I was a young man trying to pursue poetry, an older poet once told me to try writing a sonnet every week, or a haiku every day. His point was the discipline of writing in confined space, makes us better when we are writing in free space. (You see the same principle at work in rap.) I always see opinion columns in a similar light. It is one thing to say something meaningful in the open water of a blog. It is another to say something meaningful within the cell-like confines of 800 words. To do so beautifully--which is to say to make your argument through a marriage of logic, rhythm,  and imagery--is another thing entirely.

No one makes the case with more beauty--which is to say more effect--than Hendrik Hertzberg. Here is the kind of opening that I dream of writing in a column: 

It was a chilly winter for Barack Obama, politically speaking. For six months, he and his party shivered under the avalanche that had buried them in November's midterm election while Republicans disported themselves on the partisan ski slopes, pausing only to throw snowballs, some of them dirty, and warm themselves with nice hot cups of tea. Lately, though, there's been a change in the weather.

The close in this column then comes back around in a beautiful use of symmetry:

The Abbottabad raid has, for the moment and perhaps for good, subdued any exploitable doubts about Obama's fitness to be Commander-in-Chief. But eighteen months down the road the "bounce" he has got from it will be as dead as bin Laden. Barring some unexpected foreign or terrorist enormity, the election will turn on domestic issues. The Republicans have done the Democrats a favor by proposing to phase out Medicare and Medicaid as we know them while demanding further tax cuts for the wealthy. But much depends on the economic weather. If the snow is any deeper than it is now, the President is going to need an awfully big shovel.

One reason why I am excited about teaching writing at MIT is that I strongly believe that people with access to knowledge have a moral responsibility to learn how to communicate that knowledge clearly. But in the world of journalism, communicating beautifully has somehow fallen out of favor. I say "beauty" and people think of lavender cardstock with daffodils at the top, perfect penmanship or a stroll through the meadow. In fact beautiful writing is a show of strength and muscle. In the world of opinion, I believe that it is not enough to simply lay out your argument, you want people to feel it in their gut.

Rick excels at making you "feel it." Come see how next week.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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