WASHINGTON -- Let us put an end to the dark murmurings over why The New York Times did not renew its contract with its lone conservative columnist, Bill Kristol. Some say it was a matter of politics. Kristol is a Republican. The Times is Obamist. For a certitude, the political disagreement was there, but politics were not the ultimate cause of Kristol's departure.
I can report on copper-bottom authority that The New York Times let Kristol go owing to public health concerns. As the Times' financial condition has grown fragile, the publisher of the Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., has become apprehensive that Kristol's conservative views could endanger the health of some of the newspaper's neurotic liberal readers. During the past year, readers unexpectedly encountering Kristol in the otherwise lenitive company of Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert have complained on the correspondence page of various discomforts. None appeared life-threatening, but what if an aged environmentalist or an infirm McGovernite lost in reveries of 1972 actually suffered a coronary? The trial lawyers would move upon the Times in an instant. Sulzberger might not survive.
Of course, the Times might not survive anyway. It labors under $1.1 billion of debt. So precarious are its finances that it recently had to accept a $250 million loan from a Mexican with the unlikely name of Carlos Slim. Whether he really is a Mexican is not clear, and the Times' team of investigative reporters is now so tiny that Executive Editor Bill Keller has not been able to spare even one reporter to inquire. As far as I have been able to ascertain, no reporter even has Googled to verify Slim's nationality. He might be Portuguese. He could be dangerously overweight. Actually, I am told that investigative reporters at the Times now, in an effort to economize, rarely leave their offices and conduct many of their investigations on the telephone. Sulzberger likes them to call collect.
Yet, to return to Kristol's departure, frankly I shall miss him. During this past year, he rarely filed a boring column, which doubtlessly offended many of his colleagues on the op-ed page. "Boredom is a virtue" is their motto, and the only other Times columnist who regularly breaks with the general tedium is that perpetual high-school rowdy, Maureen Dowd, who often mistakes a cackle for a syllogism. Moreover, Kristol's conservatism is usually sound, solidly reasoned and often amusing. This has led to charges from unnamed journalists in a Washington Post column by Howard Kurtz that Kristol was "predictable." This is a charge liberals often file against conservatives, giving us still more evidence of their double standard. The adherence to principle that renders a conservative "predictable" in the eyes of liberals is exalted as "highly principled" and even "heroic" when exhibited by a liberal.
Another charge against Kristol from unnamed journalists is that he has been cavalier about facts. Kurtz writes that Kristol "had to correct three factual errors," presumably during the past year. What the errors were Kurtz does not say, but the Times' "Corrections" section overflows daily, rarely with Kristol's name. Once, a Times reporter had to interview me in an attempt to correct errors in a news story that I had broken in The New York Sun. When the "correction" appeared, is was still inaccurate.
Kurtz also reports that Kristol -- at least when he has written in The Washington Post -- has been "controversial." Well, at least he was not predictable, or was he? Kurtz reports that in the summer of 2007, Kristol wrote that the presidency of George W. Bush "will probably be a successful one." On that judgment, I would side with the herd of unnamed journalists, though by using selective criteria, Kristol can make a case. Elsewhere, Kurtz -- apparently in consultation with the herd -- adjudges "controversial" Kristol's 2007 observation that "military progress on the ground in Iraq in the past few months has been greater than even surge proponents like me expected." I cannot find anything controversial about that.
This is not the first time Kristol has departed the mainstream media. In the late 1990s, he was a regular with George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson in a round-table discussion on ABC's "This Week." He left amid rumors that ABC thought him too involved in politics. After a period of reorganizing, ABC put Stephanopoulos in charge of the whole show. Stephanopoulos had been a Democratic political apparatchik all his adult life, before joining ABC as a "political analyst." What prepared him for journalism at ABC? In his 1999 autobiography, he admitted that while serving as a senior adviser to Bill Clinton, he would "spin" the press, beginning with the Gennifer Flowers tape. Looking back on his years of spinning, Stephanopoulos lamented, "I have been willing to suspend my disbelief about some of (Clinton's) more suspect denials." Suspension of disbelief -- there is the mark of a great American journalist!
Kristol simply does not measure up.