Friday, September 19, 2003

Revenge of the Nerd

Every political age and the cultural mood it produces, and is produced by, helps create its leading chronicler, often a mirror-image opposite sort. Nixon's paranoid scheming led the way to Woodward & Bernstein's tag team (half white-bread Illinois Wasp, half-East Coast Jew) detective work. Clinton's participle-parsing, protean alpha male Southern Baptist slickness provided fertile ground for the sassy pen of single Catholic moralist Maureen Dowd. And so we come now to Yalie-by-way-of-Midland frat boy George W., who has met his match in a guy who'd never have made it within 100 miles of his buddy list: nerdy Princeton economist Paul Krugman.

As you may have heard, Crusading Krugman has a new book out, "The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century," which was supposed to be a meditation on the post-dot-com crash, but instead circles back always to Krugman's overarching narrative: the story of Bush II and his radical, lying ways. Krugman, who of course has a column in the New York Times, has been blasting away at the Bush Administration's many sins in such a sustained, increasingly angry and pungent way as to almost defy description. It's the kind of unvarnished criticism of the nation's maximum leader which could easily get one jailed in probably half the countries of the world. And many of his fans have long expected him to be somehow muzzled (thus far, he's apparently only suffered some minor loss of a couple of especially explosive words at the hand of former editor Howell Raines). And so he just keeps blasting away at the soft underbelly of the current White House crowd's very legitimacy.

Crusaders can often be socially inept (he is) and maddeningly self-righteous (ditto). He came across in an hour-long Charlie Rose appearance earlier this week as pretty uncomfortable in his own skin, wildly darting eyes and all This profile of him last year by New York Mag media columnist Michael Wollf, a specialist in deconstructive profiles that sometimes only skim the surfaces, makes him look worse than nerdy, verging on nasty. But this far more substantive Washington Monthly piece last December, which pays more attention to his ideas and influence than his admittedly awkward manner, makes a strong case for him as the most important columnist in America. More recently, this verbatim Q&A interview with an interesting new political portal, Liberal Oasis, makes one think he's been reading too many of his own clippings. "I felt for a little while there like I was all alone, that they're all mad but me," he says, referring to how everyone in the press and country but him was swallowing Bush lies.

Now, Great Britain's brilliant Guardian newspaper adds the latest look at this burr under the saddle of George W & Company. It reports that the Times has to have someone delete death threats from his in-box and that his mail is handled with tongs (earlier, his official website once reported that someone, no doubt a Republican operative, had posted a message to a computer bulletin board offering to pay for negative information about Krugman). In other words, he's a marked man. Like the head of the librarian's association who glories in being attacked by John Ashcroft as a sign of her group's effectiveness, the barbs and wild anger pointed at Krugman are all the proof you need that he's long since gone beyond landing body blows on W. His constant pummeling from prime real estate has the champ dazed and bleeding. And from all the evidence thus far, Krugman's not the type to let up and get back to his corner until the bell rings, signifying the end of the fight. I'd call it revenge of the econ nerd.


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