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Why I'll Miss Bill Kristol's Column

Yes, he wrote pure partisan propaganda. That's what made it valuable.

When word broke last week that William Kristol’s weekly New York Times op-ed column was ending its run, the reaction in left-blogospheric quarters was downright exultant. “An era of phoning in misrepresentation comes to an end,” announced Brad DeLong. “Like Bo crushing Bosworth, Bill Kristol has been exposed,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates. “He spent a year embarrassing the nation’s most prestigious news outlet, wasting space on the most valuable media real estate in the country,” concluded Steve Benen.

The relief wasn’t limited to liberals inclined to view Kristol as a chronically inaccurate right-wing propagandist. “Even conservatives found his column galactically dull,” noted New York’s Jennifer Senior. “Unsurprising, dutiful recapitulations of Republican conventional wisdom.” Thus, when the Times finally got wise to his tricks, it was as if order had been restored to the universe. Essayistic pursuit of truth was back, and Pravda recitations of the party line were out.

But it’s worth interrupting the celebrations for a moment to ask just what is so wrong with a little propaganda. Kristol was criticized for shunning the responsibilities of a public intellectual and instead writing an amoral column that might have been drafted by a paid political operative of the sort Kristol used to be. I agree. And precisely because Kristol was so unwilling to engage in disinterested wisdom-seeking, his column was immensely useful.

Back in the Cold War, Washington employed a small army of analysts to tease out the truths buried in the original Pravda. Should a particular assertion be taken at face value? Be read as an indicator of unstated internal feuds? Be understood as a sneaky Communist diversion ploy? The analytical full court press wouldn’t have been deployed, had such people existed, on independent Comintern intellectuals--Muscovite versions of David Brooks or Ross Douthat or Kathleen Parker. It was worthwhile, though, when the agitprop came straight from the Central Committee.

Sure, there are other sources for right-wing propaganda. As Matthew Yglesias noted, the paper could “just republish Bill O’Reilly transcripts occasionally.” But that gives Kristol too little credit: He was a protagonist in GOP politics, rather than a measly media figure. There’s hardly any actual elected official or professional strategist who’s been as much of a movement player over the past two decades as Kristol. His columns functioned in a way similar to Bob Novak’s in his heyday: You read them to read the ideas his sources wanted you to read, not to absorb the author’s philosophical wisdom. Except these were better, because the insider source was the author himself.

In a Lit Crit 101 sort of way, Kristol’s columns provided the primary-source material for a fascinating exercise in close-reading. What does he really think? What does he want us to think? What do the uncertain answers to either of those questions say about the state of play in the inner circles of the Republican party? On those moments where Kristol’s public work offered hints at that last question--as during his fall crusade to let Sarah Palin loose or his subsequent broadsides against the McCain campaign faction that opposed such a strategy--his column proved more useful than a 15-inch news article.

Of course, that’s a very postmodern, post-fact, post-newspaper way of seeking information. But it’s an attitude that’s perfect for a bloggy age, when there’s a small army of folks out there ready to explicate a propagandist’s every word, and when even ordinary readers are more inclined against taking anything at face value. The online analyses of Kristol’s column were a treat, which is why the rhetoric employed by those dancing on his grave comes across as a bit strange. All that stuff about protecting “some of the nation’s most prestigious news outlets” from Kristol’s taint strikes me as a wee bit reverent, as if the Times were the Louvre and some charlatan were relegating the Mona Lisa to storage in order to hang “A Charge to Keep.” Given the anti-MSM triumphalism of our era, the implicit genuflecting before the Gray Lady seems downright endearing.

The Times will no doubt find a new conservative voice, someone who will likely do a better job of putting intellectual honesty before political expediency. The person may be plugged into GOP politics, but he or she will be a spectator more than a player, just like a proper Times columnist is supposed to be. As such, even with the microscopic interest that attaches itself to any work that appears in the op-ed page of record, it’ll be a lot less fun. Who wants to follow all those links about the contents of a column only to realize that, instead of revealing some tectonic shift within the Republican power structure, they reveal nothing more than one of George Will’s personal intellectual idiosyncrasies?

If the Times really wanted to get bloggy and multimedia and postmodern, they would hire Kristol back--and simultaneously assign some smart writer to report out the back story behind each Kristol column. The result would be one original column a week, plus one annotated exegesis about what it really means. At least one of the columns would make for riveting reading.

Michael Schaffer is the author of One Nation Under Dog.