Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tom Slow-to-Judge Friedman

It took a hell of a long time, but NYT columnist Tom Friedman, the mustachioed, globetrotting centrist, has finally had enough. He's looked into the soul of the Bush Administration, and he thinks he smells a skunk. From today's column:

Personally, I think the president can reshuffle his cabinet all he wants, but his poll ratings are not going to substantially recover--ever. Americans are slow to judgment about a president, very slow. And in times of war, in particular, they are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I think a lot of Americans in recent months have simply lost confidence in this administration's competence and honesty. What has eaten away most at the support for this administration, I believe, has been the fact that time and time again, it has put politics and ideology ahead of the interests of the United States, and I think a lot of people are just sick of it. I know I sure am.

Well, one scarcely knows where to begin. This cushioned insider with the gold-plated expense account, winner of no fewer than three Pulitzers, a man who prides himself on mixing the wisdom he energetically gathers from both the world's streets and its executive suites, has only just now figured this out? Much of the country arrived at this conclusion some months ago (at least), and most of the truly smart and informed electorate figured it out about...well, seven years ago, before this ninny named Bush was ever even elected. When he writes that Americans are slow to make judgments, I sense the possibility that he's really delivering a veiled apology that he's been far too slow.

Maybe it's his Minnesota roots, his prarie decency. But in his profession, that can also be a set of blinders (his gruff colleague Paul Krugman may be lacking in social graces, but his vision on Bush and lots of other subjects has been remarkably acute). Or perhaps it's a function of his fragile intellectual position as the one-time provincial who storms the Big Apple and later the globe, but who's always left with the nagging feeling that he must try to please those he thinks are somehow more sophisticated (I always get that feeling when I watch his manic TV appearances or flip through his silly high-concept, faux-profound books that attempt to reduce a complex world into simple metaphors that explain everything). Probably it's a little of both.

In any event, this comically late realization of his made me think of another kind of laughable journalistic tic: the way that beat sportswriters will lionize a star player, coach or owner until the day they're sent packing, after which you'd think they had been immediately transformed into a different person, one who must be attacked viciously because the crowd now demands it. To see this phenomenon practiced at its highest level, you've only to review the output of the entire PD sports staff pre- and post-Art Modell. For years, the salty, cigar-chomping New York ad guy was great copy. But when he moved the Browns to Baltimore, it was open season on him, his character, everything (a similar thing happened to Cavs coach Paul Silas, who seemed to go from genius to bum overnight, or in about the time it took new owner Dan Gilbert to work through his short-guy insecurities and send a signal that there's a new top dog in charge). But anyone who knew about Modell or thought much about his disastrous handling of the team from day one of his ownership (his ego-driven failure to defer to certifiable coaching legend Paul Brown) had to know what kind of guy he reallly was.

Only, these writers never thought to share this knowledge with their readers, at least until it was too late. Why venture into the unknown, ahead of the pack? It's so much easier to pick up the pieces afterward, and join the lynch mob.


At 2:08 PM, Blogger Daniella said...

I would like to know what was the straw that broke the metaphorical camel's back?

What is it that cause Tom Friedman to finally get it? There were so many public "gaffes" that one is at lost to see how Tom F could honestly maintain his approach for so long.

We missed you last night at the Meetup.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

And I missed being there, especially upon learning you were there. But I'm afraid that watching the Cavs as they get to this level of the post-season demands my nearly theological seclusion. The game before, my wife invited over her sister and her baby. And as much as I love them, I was pained by the background noise they created. And alas, I roar at every mistake so much that my sons will no longer watch with me in the same room...

As for Friedman, well, I think his problem is this: he's been so lionized in so many quarters (including, of course, the establishment) for being a reasonable guy, that he's afraid to come to seemingly unreasonable conclusions by being too harsh. Which is equivalent to death for most writers. You have to forget the popularity polls, and follow the evidence where it leads. If it pisses people off, so be it. It's a familiar truism that the only thing you'll find in the middle of the road is road kill.

Trying to be a "centrist" is a hollow exercise for serious thinkers. In the end, I think he's nearly ruined his reputation (at least among serious people) by worrying too much about his reputation. But then, awards have a way of doing that, and he may be the only one ever to have won three Big P's (Pulitzers). I'll have to check that...

At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Tim Russo said...

john, this is a great piece. my only caveat....

i have always liked Friedman's approach to foreign policy, i think he made the best case for supporting the Iraq war, the one closest to mine, which is that if it were Kosovo and Bosnia, the president were Clinton, and the argument were entirely humanitarian, especially post 9/11, we would have had allies, more troops, and no catastrophe.

i realized the Iraq war was a catastrophe and not at all what I had agreed to support well before Friedman did. and i agree, he gave Bush way too much credit and intellectual quarter for his incompetence. whether or not Friedman intends to make his declaration of Bush's failure entirely about the Iraq war, coming from Friedman, it surely must be, for It is Iraq that is the font of Bush's unpopularity, now and for history, and it is folks like Friedman who never gave Bush the same going over Clinton was given by the press over Bosnia & Kosovo, neither of which resulted in a single American casualty.

i also agree he is insufferable on TV. makes me wish to vomit.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You're right that I gave him short shrift on the sophistication and common sense of his world view generally. I do take him seriously as a thinker and a writer (and he certainly has influence on policy because he's so closely followed by so many people). Which is why I've been so disappointed with how long he's given this criminally negligent group the benefit of the doubt as they pursued ends that were wholly inconsistent with the spirit of his views, however consistent they might have seemed on the surface. Deep down, these are bad people and he's a good and decent guy. And sometime good people are slow to awaken to the viciousness, cruelty and ignorance of others, because (to their credit) they try so hard to look for the good in others.

Similarly, to give him his due, his books have been better than I glancingly suggested. But each one he's written has been less well done than the one before. He's going in the wrong direction there, in my opinion.

Finally, how silly of me, as a midwesterner, to fall into this tired, trite device so often used by coastal elites of attributing his simplicity of outlook to his midwestern roots. You'll see that kind of lazy formulation a million times in the national media if you look for it--midwesterners described as guileless, friendly folk (a New Yorker really means corn-fed fool right out of the American Gothic), as opposed to unsmiling, tough New Yorkers or Los Angelenos. So shame on me there...


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