Who’s Right for the ‘Times’?

Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Last week, Bill Kristol wrote his final column for the New York Times, and it’s probably safe to say that no one will miss him. Even conservatives found his column galactically dull—unsurprising, dutiful recapitulations of Republican conventional wisdom—and on occasion filled with strange errors. If the Times could have let him go earlier, it probably would have. It’s hard to imagine that Kristol’s presence expanded the paper’s readership by a single person.

In the last fifteen years, the Times has made Herculean efforts to transform itself into a national paper, and according to the most recent filings with the SEC, it has succeeded, gaining roughly 140,000 readers on weekdays and 230,000 on Sundays outside the metro region. But it has lost more than that locally, suggesting that one might have come at the expense of the other. The paper has found itself caught in a paradox: The more it tries to be a national brand, the more it finds itself trapped in a niche of its own defining. The Times’ strength—and weakness—is that it remains a paper for Upper West Siders, whether they live on the Upper West Side or not.

Perhaps the problem is that the Times thought it should be like the Washington Post, which has a raft of conservative columnists. But the Post, while it may have bureaus flung all around the country, is ultimately a local paper, in large part for official Washington—the tight-cravatted lobbyists of K Street and the agency lifers, the young people in think tanks and the congressional aides in their pearls. And many of those readers lean to the right. So the Post has Charles Krauthammer and George Will, Michael Gerson and Robert Samuelson and Robert Kagan. And this month, the Post announced it would be hiring … yes, Bill Kristol.

Which is not to say that Times readers don’t like conservatives. They just like conservatives they can take home and introduce to their families (or maybe Paul Krugman’s family). David Brooks is the sort of Republican whose column a self-respecting liberal can read without wanting to hurl things in the aftermath—an Obama enthusiast, a Palin critic, a careful questioner of GOP shibboleths. He’s a vocal supporter of gay marriage and abortion rights. And he’s just as apt to be writing about culture as politics.

The Times may even have thought it’d be getting the same cuddly conservative intellectual when it hired Kristol. Like Brooks, he was a known quantity: a quotable source during the Bush I era (he was Dan Quayle’s chief of staff), the scion of New York intellectuals. But it didn’t, and the Republican party line that Kristol was peddling was an embarrassment. It was the year of Bush’s Götterdämmerung, of Palin, of Obama.

So now the Times will try again. It’ll recruit Christopher Caldwell or Ross Douthat or Megan McArdle, and maybe that’ll work out. But if the paper is smart, it’ll capitulate to its destiny and hire the ultimate nonconservative conservative, Stephen Colbert. Maureen Dowd already handed him her column once—“I Am an Op-ed Columnist (And So Can You!)”—and it was a hit. Hiring Colbert would even give a boost to the international edition. After all, isn’t he French?

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Who’s Right for the ‘Times’?