Suppose you had just received one of the most important opportunities in opinion journalism: a regular op-ed column in the New York Times. Suppose it was all the more important because it gave you a base in what would normally be considered enemy territory, right there alongside Paul Krugman and Frank Rich and the NYT's own editorials. Suppose your debut column came at a moment of peak political excitement, with the surprise of the Iowa caucuses just behind us and the New Hampshire primaries one day away.
In those circumstances, would this be the best you could come up with for the very first paragraphs of your very first column? It is what the new NYT columnist William Kristol has offered to introduce himself:
Thank you, Senator Obama. You’ve defeated Senator Clinton in Iowa. It looks as if you’re about to beat her in New Hampshire. There will be no Clinton Restoration. A nation turns its grateful eyes to you.
But gratitude for sparing us a third Clinton term only goes so far. Who, inquiring minds want to know, is going to spare us a first Obama term? After all, for all his ability and charm, Barack Obama is still a liberal Democrat. Some of us would much prefer a non-liberal and non-Democratic administration. We don’t want to increase the scope of the nanny state, we don’t want to undo the good done by the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, and we really don’t want to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory in Iraq.
I'm saying nothing about the content here. Indeed the subject -- how the GOP should run against Barack Obama -- is one on which readers would want to hear a well-connected Republican's views.
I am talking instead about the breathtaking banality of expression.
A single cliched phrase, like the last sentence of the first paragraph, can be effective. A whole string of cliches, like the second paragraph, is effective only in raising questions about the author's skill and quality of thought. The passage might serve as a test for prospective copy-editors. For instance: "What is avoidably awkward about the sentence beginning, 'After all, for all his ability..'?" Or, "How could the author express his thought without cliches?"
The other regulars on the Times op-ed page have their tics and strengths and weaknesses. But I have a hard time imagining any of them putting together this lazy a sequence of words. Dowd or Rich or Brooks? Not likely. Friedman? He uses catchphrases, but they're ones he invented himself. I won't go on through the whole list. (The hardest case might seem to be Bob Herbert, but if his political outlook is consistent or predictable, depending on your taste, sentence by sentence his writing is much better than this.) I will emphasize that the columnist most like Kristol in his background as a political operative, William Safire, was obviously very different in his attentiveness to the means of expression.
Perhaps this is more proof of a cunning, leftist NYT master plot? Bringing in a conservative who will demonstrate that conservatives have little interesting to say? Inquiring minds want to know. But only time will tell.