Decoding David Brooks
Psst! His latest column is an attack on Times colleague Paul Krugman.
There is an unwritten rule at the New York Times that forbids its op-ed columnists to attack one another in print. It's a holdover from a much stuffier era in the paper's history, and one can appreciate the sentiment behind it. An op-ed page whose columnists routinely denounced one another would create the impression of a newspaper more interested in arguing with itself than in engaging the world outside its walls. The example most frequently cited is the Village Voice of the 1960s and 1970s. A more contemporary example would be the blogosphere.
The trouble with the Times prohibition is that every now and then one op-ed contributor takes a whack at another op-ed contributor without actually spelling things out. I plead guilty, when I was an assistant editor on the page a quarter-century ago, to publishing an unacknowledged but quite deliberate parody of James Reston, then still a Times columnist and long past his prime, by the writer Alex Heard. We headlined the piece, "The Time Is Today," and Alex filled it with hilarious banalities and important-sounding assertions that had no meaning at all. Alex's only precaution was to omit from the piece, at my instruction, any overt references to Reston. Mine was to keep mum within the Times building about what made the piece funny.
The problem, as you can well imagine, was that we couldn't let readers in on the joke. If they got it at all, it was as a generic parody of op-ed pomposity. As a consequence, the fine craftsmanship of Alex's comic achievement went unheralded.
I remembered that hard lesson while reading David Brooks' column, "History and Calumny," in the Nov. 9 New York Times. "Today I'm going to write about a slur," Brooks begins. Although this "distortion" has been around for many years, it has "spread like a weed over the past few months." It is "spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn't even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence."
People? Who are these people? Brooks doesn't say. He scrupulously cites three written sources—a 1980 Washington Post story by Lou Cannon; a June 2004 post by Kevin Drum on the Washington Monthly's Web site; and an Oct. 2007 post by Bruce Bartlett on the Talking Points Memo Web site—but these are all accounts refuting the dastardly smear. These are the good guys. Who are the bad guys? Calumny doesn't spread itself. What wascally wabbit is wesponsible? Brooks won't say.
It's Paul Krugman.
The hideous libel Brooks refers to is an anecdote about the 1980 presidential election. Ronald Reagan, the eventual victor, kicked off his campaign as the Republican presidential nominee in Philadelphia, Miss., where 16 years earlier civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered. In the speech, candidate Reagan said, "I believe in states' rights," the legal principle on which white segregationists had based their resistance to federal laws and court decisions upholding the civil rights of African Americans.
Brooks says the anecdote is a slur because the decision for Reagan to speak in Philadelphia, Miss., immediately after the convention was made on the fly, and not part of a deliberate plan, and because Reagan mentioned states' rights only fleetingly in a speech that was "mostly about inflation and the economy." (To listen to it, click here.) Brooks further argues that the campaign was faced with a decision to send Reagan to Philadelphia either before or after sending him to speak to the Urban League, and that it figured sending him after would make it seem as though Reagan were telling white segregationists that no matter what he was compelled to tell a black audience, he was on their side. This last argument strikes me as more an argument for Krugman's position rather than against it, since it demonstrates that the Reagan campaign was fully aware of the ghastly symbolism inherent in the Philadelphia appearance. Indeed, by the time Brooks is done conceding that it was "callous" for Reagan to mention states' rights in that locale, and that Reagan "could have done something wonderful if he'd mentioned civil rights" in the speech, and that "it's obviously true that race played a role in the GOP's ascent," Brooks' "slur" seems no more than extremely mild exaggeration.
Reagan's Philadelphia speech is often cited as evidence that Reagan's electoral success in 1980 was based partly on appeals to Southern white racism. But you'd be hard-pressed to find any prominent national commentator who cites this example as often as Krugman. In his new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman tells the story on Page 12, retells it on Page 65, tells it a third time on Page 178, refersback to it on Page 183, and alludes more vaguely to it at least a couple of times more. In his column, Krugman has related the incident at least four times, including once this past Aug. 24 ("Seeking Willie Horton") and once this past Sept. 24 ("Politics in Black and White"). "This is a guy," Krugman was quoted telling the Portland Oregonian on Oct. 28, "who launched a presidential campaign from Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil-rights workers were killed."
The Reagan story forms the centerpiece of Krugman's argument in The Conscience of a Liberal that race, far more than economics or foreign policy or "values," is what gave Republicans an electoral majority for most of the past 40 years. At the end of his calumny column, when Brooks elaborates on the "slur," it sounds an awful lot as though he's really talking about Krugman's book: "It posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy."
I asked Brooks: Have you read The Conscience of a Liberal? "I can't confirm or deny it," he answered.
Possibly Brooks had payback in mind. In a July 20 column ("All the President's Enablers"), Krugman referred to a "coordinated public relations offensive" in which the White House was using "reliably friendly pundits—amazingly, they still exist—to put out the word that President Bush is as upbeat and confident as ever." Three days earlier, in a column titled "Heroes and History," Brooks had written of Bush, "Far from being worn down by the past few years, Bush seems empowered. His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency."
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.