Bob Herbert and the Tenure Problem

Brad DeLong wonders how the Times has managed to pick Bob Herbert of all people to write an op-ed column, "out of the 75 million liberal adults in America?" Andrew, with Herbert's race in mind, snarks that DeLong has posed "a question only a left-liberal could ask." I'm not so sure: Yes, the affirmative-action argument explains Herbert's existence as a columnist, but not his longevity; once it became clear that he was a lousy pundit (and no, I don't buy T.A. Frank's counterintuitive case for why we should all be reading him more often), the Times shouldn't have had any trouble finding a more capable writer (to start with, either of these two guys) to fill the de facto African-American slot in the page. Affirmative action isn't the problem; tenure is.

And not just for Bob Herbert. It's really, really hard to write an 800-word column twice a week; as Jack Shafer notes while eviscerating Herbert's colleague Roger Cohen, "the job cores the skulls of all but the stoutest, most resourceful writers." Yet writers who land a gig on one of the big op-ed pages tend to last for decades, gamely churning out columns long after their powers have begun to wane - if, that is, they had any powers to begin with. There are columnists who stay persistently interesting even after decades on the job, but they're few and far between, and even the best of them might profit from five-year sabbaticals here and there. The rest should be hired in very early middle age (yes, there's wisdom that comes with age and experience, but being opinionated twice a week or more strikes me as more of a fortysomething than a sixtysomething's game) and then strictly term-limited, at five or ten or fifteen years. It would be good for us, the readers, and good for them as well. (There has to be something more productive David Broder could be doing with his twilight years.)

Of course, I'm on the record suggesting that blogs will crowd out the traditional twice-a-week op-ed column over the next couple decades anyway, which if it happens promises to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the tenure problem and create a whole host of new ones in its place. (Goodbye Bob Herbert, hello ... Jane Hamsher? Oy.)