Two days and about 20 news cycles ago, the editorial page of The New York Times issued a stern rebuke to Senator Hillary Clinton, charging her campaign with "demeaning the political process." The editorial, titled "The Low Road to Victory," described the Pennsylvania race as "even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate, and more filled with pandering than the mean, vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests that preceded it."
Apparently--and I hope I read it right--the Times editorial opposed this negativity. This surprised me, since the same Op-Ed pages feature a trio of columnists who seem to frequent every rest stop on the low road. And while these columnists represent themselves and not the views of the paper, they set a tone that can only be described as mean, vacuous, desperate, and pandering.
William Kristol leads the charge with his special ability to be all four at once. Here's a classic Kristol passage reducing a president, a decorated presidential nominee, and a Nobel Peace Prize-winning vice president to inane caricatures: "But could the American people, by November, decide that for all his impressive qualities, Obama tends too much toward the preening self-regard of Bill Clinton, the patronizing elitism of Al Gore and the haughty liberalism of John Kerry?" ("It"s All About Him," February 25, 2008.)
Or consider David Brooks's attack on Senator Barack Obama for questioning Senator John McCain's credentials as an anti-special-interest crusader--something the Times had done quite spectacularly in an explosive front-page news story on February 21. Brooks wrote: "This is, of course, the gospel of the mediocre man, to ridicule somebody who tries something difficult on the grounds that the effort wasn't a total success. But any decent person who looks at the McCain record sees that while he has certainly faltered at times, he has also battled concentrated power more doggedly than any other legislator." ("The Real McCain," February 26, 2008.)
Calling someone a "mediocre man" seems pretty mean, and so does insulting one's colleagues. And yet here was Brooks essentially accusing Times executive editor Bill Keller and news managing editor Jill Abramson, who defended the front-page article, of not being "decent."
Bringing up the rear is Maureen Dowd, who sounded more than a little "desperate" Wednesday when she ended her column by channeling Dr. Seuss: "The time has come. The time is now. Just go.... I don't care how. You can go by foot. You can go by cow. Hillary R. Clinton will you please go now! You can go on skates. You can go on skis.... You can go in an old blue shoe. Just go, go, GO!" ("Wilting Over Waffles," April 23, 2008.)
For "vacuous," it's back to Kristol. After Obama said he stopped wearing a flag pin because it "became a substitute for true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security," Kristol responded: "Obama's unnecessary and imprudent statement impugns the sincerity or intelligence of those vulgar sorts who still choose to wear a flag pin. But moral vanity prevailed. He wanted to explain that he was too good--too patriotic!--to wear a flag pin on his chest." ("It's All About Him.")
Obama's thoughtfulness was lost on Kristol, who vacuously asserted that pinning on a piece of jewelry can infuse the wearer with "sincerity or intelligence."
For "pander-filled" pastry, Brooks is the master chef. He wrote that McCain delivered a speech on March 26 that was "as personal, nuanced and ambitious a speech as any made by a presidential candidate this year." Brooks also observed that "If Obama is elected, he will either go back on his pledge [to withdraw troops from Iraq in the next 16 months]--in which case he would destroy his credibility--or he will risk genocide in the region and a viciously polarizing political war at home." ("How Obama Fell to Earth," April 18, 2008.)
So no matter what Obama does, he will fail. If he continues to back the genocide in the region, "he will risk genocide in the region." Authorizing a military pull-out would lead to "war at home." Really, it's best to just pander to the current administration's policy.
Wednesday's editorial also wagged a finger at Obama because his "relative youth and inexperience were revealed when he "mocked" Clinton, calling her "an Annie Oakley wannabe." But Dowd employs a similar mocking method and has recently described Clinton as "Scarlett O'Hara after a public humiliation," "a 'Laverne & Shirley' factory girl," Sybil," and "Lady Voldemort."
Of course, Times Op-Ed writers are not running for public office. They're trying to sell papers and are free to dwell on superficial matters. Still, there's a difference between analyzing the trivia of an election and glorifying it. And if the Times editorial board is going to criticize the candidates' "negative and vapid" tone, they should hold their own pages to that same standard. Other Times columnists manage to be barbed and remain civil.
The "Low Road to Victory" concludes with a plea for Clinton to "call off the dogs." That seems like appropriate advice for the Times, too. Until then, it's the pot texting the kettle: Ur black!