The invitation, Tom Friedman said just before he left for what may now have to be officially described as his historic trip to Saudi Arabia, was a P.R. thing. The Saudis would try to use him, he understood, as part of their charm offensive.
And it is possible that they’ve used him brilliantly.
A week into the trip, Tom Friedman seeded his Times op-ed column with the Saudi peace plan and became the agent for elevating the Saudis to the Middle East high ground, for making the Saudis (the Saudis!) look like reasonable men.
It was, many people (especially competing news organizations) believe, a historic snookering.
Or not. Rather, Friedman may be the dupe who swallowed the canary.
He has Scotty Reston’s sweeping wall map in his office in the Times’ Washington bureau – with the Soviet Union as still the most prominent piece of the map – but he goes out of his way to disavow any similarities in their roles. Reston, whose column ran in the Times at the height of the Cold War, facilitated a conversation at the grandest levels; Reston was a Washington aristocrat. Whereas Tom Friedman, in his columnist job for seven years now, is, as he tells it, just your basic Everyman.
This is not only about his personality (bland) and lineage (from St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis) and style of dress (brown corduroys) but also about the realities of being a columnist, even a Times columnist, at this point in time. Nobody carries Reston’s kind of weight anymore. And Tom Friedman, munching on a takeout tuna sandwich, would have you know he’s comfortable being lesser.
What’s more, Friedman is a foreign-policy columnist in an age – even post-September 11 – when foreign policy is the most hapless beat. In the entire U.S. media, Friedman points out, there are only three columnists dedicated to foreign policy: Fareed Zakaria at Newsweek, Jim Hoagland at the Washington Post, and him. (Given that there are other columnists at various other smaller papers and specialty journalists writing on foreign affairs, he is really saying there are only three columnists worthy of note.) He loves his job, he says, but seems to place himself, in the greater scheme of things, only slightly above the Bridge columnist (shucks).
He’s just a schmo who’s been lucky enough to land a good expense account (he estimated the cost of his trip to Saudi Arabia at twenty grand). He really doesn’t want to be talking to world leaders, he says; nor does he want to be “a conference rat” – he doesn’t want to hobnob with the experts. He wants to be talking to the people (“I don’t care what the prime minister feels – I’m interested in the grocer in Beirut or in Jerusalem”). He wants to get down and “smell the Gulf.”
But this is, I think it’s safe to say, nonsense. It’s winning, but it’s bullshit. There may never have been a columnist with a greater sense of his grand mission.
I wonder, too, about his personal affect – whether it could be for real.
“I’m a lot of Middle East and a lot of Middle West,” he says often (it’s a practiced line).
Although he lived in Beirut for five years at the height of the violence – when Beirut, as a word, meant breakdown, anarchy, urban death – you can’t detect any bit of angst, or seen-it-all-ness, or existentialism, about him. He’s all cheerful white bread.
Possibly this is just artful compensation. He’s a Jew covering the Middle East for the New York Times. He’s the first Jew the Times ever let cover Israel (Abe Rosenthal thought Friedman’s predecessor in Jerusalem, David Shipler, was Jewish – but he turned out to be a Protestant). His sister, he points out, is a Lubavitcher with seven children in Miami Beach.
The Friedman picture, though, is perfectly suburban. (His wife, he mentions several times, teaches the fifth grade – and while, he lets on, she isn’t doing this right now, he obviously likes the image.) There is nothing urban, intellectual, New York, or even particularly Timesian about him. In fact, he’s been to New York, and the 43rd Street Times building, only twice in the past year.
He’s the opposite of the sophisticated, cultured, world-weary foreign correspondent. He’s a Boy Scout of such seeming earnest cast and optimistic countenance that you’d do a lot not to disappoint him. I can see how Crown Prince Abdullah might have been moved to offer Tom a peace plan.
“This is the greatest country in the world,” he says, apropos of nothing, or everything. “That’s my philosophy.
“I told my daughters,” he adds, “they could bring home anyone of any size, shape, and color – but only if they love this country!”
He’s Ronald Reagan. Actually, while his manner and language are Reaganesque, his ideas – an emphasis on the practical and logical and doable – tend to be Clintonish. The ideas, however, are not as important as the sentiment. It’s how you say it. To be simplistic is okay (not only okay but virtuous). Right and wrong are clear to him and should be clear to all men of goodwill. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, but he’s much more proudly a drum-beater than a writer (saving himself from pedantry and eggheadedness). His basic literary device, which he uses in almost every column, is the rhetorical rep – a speechwriter’s thing: “You say America liberated Afghans from the Taliban; they will say we bombed innocent Afghan civilians. You say Saddam Hussein is evil; they will say … You say American is a democracy; they will say … ” And so on. (He finished this particular column, about the wall that divides America and the Arab world, with a formal bow to Reagan: “Hosni Mubarak, George Bush, tear down this wall.”)
He’s naturally anti-analytic. In a sense, he’s anti-Times. He’s evangelical.
It’s all about expressing enthusiasm for the good, and taking umbrage at the bad. He means to convince not by information, or by argument, but by example of good heart. Which, as it happens, is not ineffective.
Friedman is, he notes, the fifth foreign-affairs columnist in the history of the Times, taking over the column after his stints as a correspondent in Beirut and Jerusalem. But foreign affairs is a bit of a misnomer. He is really, and exclusively, a Middle East columnist. “Since that moment,” he says of the first trip he took to Israel at 15, “I have never really been interested in anything else.” (He did briefly step out of his Middle East focus and write a book about globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.)
But it’s the Arab world, more than Israel, that truly interests him. Indeed, the Israelis tend to see him as another American Jew to be handled. Whereas the Arabs seem to have a keener appreciation of his shtick (and of his usefulness). He’s a Hollywood character – Mr. Smith goes to Riyadh.He readily acknowledges that he is more influential in the Middle East than he is here, more famous in the Arab world than he is in the U.S. By way of the Internet, he’s become, he says, even something of a local Arab-world columnist. While his prose is slathered in all-American sentiment, “I know who my real audience is,” he says.
His is a singular mission – and it’s a long way from classic Timesian foreign-policy analysis. His approach is holistic, therapeutic, and, one must add, very much about him. It’s the Tom Friedman Middle East desk. He’s the only person in the nuthouse who is sane; he’s the only honest broker left.
Steven Weiss, a Friedman watcher at Yeshiva University, singles out Friedman’s comments on “Tom’s Journal,” a new feature on The News Hour With Jim Lehrer (Friedman is certainly not above a little branding): “At Okaz” – a Saudi daily – “they were saying to me, ‘Why don’t you call Sharon a terrorist? … I said, ‘Let’s make a deal. Let’s have a contract right now. I, Tom Friedman of the New York Times, promise to evermore call Ariel Sharon a terrorist in my column if you, the Okaz newspaper, will call Palestinians who blow up Israeli kids in a pizza parlor terrorists, too.’ Do I have any takers? No takers.”
Ergo, as Weiss notes, this must mean that Friedman considers Sharon a terrorist, or no one a terrorist, and, more important, that he is the only one who can call the game with any fairness and balance.
Since September 11, Friedman’s mission has become even more righteous. He’s determined to have it out with the deep contradictions in the Arab world (one of his subjects last week: More Muslims are killed by Muslims than by Israelis). His is a one-man argument with the famously logic-resistant “Arab street.” There is a sense that he believes he can evangelize the Arabs into peace.
There is, too, Friedman’s obvious frustration with, or distaste for, the Bush administration. Unlike the Clinton administration, nobody from the Bush White House talks to Friedman anymore. This is not just an affront but, much more bothersome for Friedman, a possible indication that they aren’t talking to anybody. And hence, that they have no idea what’s going on – much less how to fix it.
But Tom Friedman does, and he has the column and the credit card with which to do it.
Which brings us to the February 17 column (in Arab-Israeli and larger diplomatic circles, it is now known simply as the “February 17th” column).
The language in the column is not just calculated; it’s a photo op in prose. Friedman, in what he explains was an over-dinner, off-the-record conversation, lays out his plan for peace in the Middle East (it is the same old withdrawal-to-the-pre-’67-borders scheme that has always been the basic peace plan), and then Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud says – and we can assume that at this point, he clasps his breast – “Have you broken into my desk?”
Indeed, the “plan” is what Friedman had outlined in his column of February 6, before he even left for his trip – so it is not even two great minds thinking alike. It is rather some odd, ritualized, after-you-Alphonse bit.
You can feel the rehearsal here. This isn’t journalism. (Friedman could, and probably should, be telling us who’s washing whose hands. What’s more, the back story must be fabulously rich. But the point about Friedman, for better or worse, is that he can resist telling it.) It’s stage management. They were acting out the column. The transparency of it all overrides the manipulation.
As peace plans go, it’s a dumbed-down approach (the Arab-Israeli peace Establishment seems flummoxed by its dumbness). It offers nothing new except the way it’s been presented – from the Saudis via the New York Times (the world could do worse than having the Times pump for a peace plan).
And yet it’s compelling, too. It’s a bid not just for coexistence but for a happy ending. It’s morning in the Middle East.
And why not? It might even work with Jimmy Stewart at the barricades.