Kristol and Brooks play dumb at The New York Times

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Back in June, at a time when he felt Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign was stuck in neutral, National Review editor Rich Lowry suggested that a quick-fix for the Republican candidate would be for conservative thinker and New York Times columnist Bill Kristol to take a temporary leave from the paper and officially join the McCain team.

Back in June, at a time when he felt Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign was stuck in neutral, National Review editor Rich Lowry suggested that a quick-fix for the Republican candidate would be for conservative thinker and New York Times columnist Bill Kristol to take a temporary leave from the paper and officially join the McCain team.

"Why the McCain Campaign Needs Bill Kristol," read the headline to Lowry's piece.

The temporary leave never happened; Kristol has remained at the paper throughout the campaign. But looking back, perhaps Lowry was being too logical in suggesting Kristol hit the pause button on the Times while he became intimately involved advising the GOP candidate. Because it appears Kristol may have benefited from the best of both worlds by keeping his high-profile Times gig while also helping steer the McCain team.

Of course, that kind of free-lance work would violate the Times' logical policy, which forbids journalists from advising politicians, even informally. (Columnists are supposed to comment on campaigns, not be part of them.) And previously, Kristol and the Times have both insisted the columnist has absolutely no hand in McCain's run.

But a recent report, which raises doubts about those denials, suggests Kristol was instrumental in lobbying for the McCain team to pick Sarah Palin as the GOP's vice-presidential candidate. That would explain Kristol's steadfast support of Palin in the face of so many conservative pundits expressing doubts about her.

One of those GOP-friendly pundits who recently tagged Palin as unqualified was Kristol's conservative colleague at the Times, columnist David Brooks. The twist however, was that Brooks did not broadcast his harshest Palin misgivings in his column. Instead, he expressed them during an exclusive media luncheon in New York City, just 72 hours after toasting Palin in the Times.

While journalists and luminaries dined at the elegant Le Cirque restaurant, Brooks, being interviewed onstage, announced Palin represented a "cancer" on the Republican Party and that she was "not even close" to being qualified for the office she's seeking.

Talk about burying the lead.

Because for somebody who gets paid a handsome salary to express his unvarnished opinion about politics in print, Brooks had done a stellar job keeping those bombshell revelations under wraps since Palin entered the race in late August.

Those recent incidents involving Kristol and Brooks are why the Times is facing something of a dilemma regarding its two conservative columnists. It appears that during the campaign season they haven't always been straight -- haven't been transparent -- with their readers. Instead, Kristol and Brooks appear to purposely use their columns to either camouflage their true feelings (for partisan reasons), or cloud their positions with conflicts of interest.

It's true that over the decades, The New York Times has employed a handful of columnists who enjoyed outsized influence within the Beltway and have, at times, left their big-foot impressions on the political landscape in a way most ordinary columnist could not, or would not.

But I get the feeling that most of the Times columnists today understand their job is to write what they actually think about current events while simultaneously staying out of the actual current events. For some reason, Kristol and Brooks have trouble adhering to that common-sense approach. And in the process they're devaluing the Times' op-ed page.

For instance, I cannot imagine discovering that liberal columnist Paul Krugman had been secretly advising the Obama campaign and worked diligently to make sure Sen. Joe Biden was picked as the Democratic running mate, the way Kristol reportedly did with McCain. And I can't picture the Times' Frank Rich writing column after column about Sen. Joe Biden's VP run and then showing up at a New York City media event to reveal grave misgivings about Biden; misgivings the columnist had never articulated before, the way Brooks did with Palin.

Bottom line: Do Kristol and Brooks understand the basic tenets of opinion journalism?

The question about Kristol's role in the McCain campaign refuses to go away. In 2007, McCain-friendly columnist Amanda Carpenter wrote that the GOP candidate himself, at a conservative-sponsored luncheon, name-dropped Kristol, who also edits The Weekly Standard, in response to a question about who the candidate regularly turned to for advice.

In February, right after Kristol joined the Times, McClatchy Newspapers reported that Kristol was part of McCain's "foreign policy team." Kristol denied the report, and his Times boss confirmed that as a columnist he would not be allowed to advise any candidate.

So how did the McClatchy reporter get the story wrong? Because McCain aides told the reporter that Kristol was an adviser.

And perhaps that's why the story persists to this day. In June, Newsweek reported, "McCain receives advice from several generations of Republican strategists ... [including] William Kristol."

And just as recently as last month, Fox News, which actually employs Kristol as an analyst, reported that "The top of McCain's team includes ... Bill Kristol" among "[i]nformal advisers."

And now comes the report from Scott Horton, writing for Tina Brown's new news website, The Daily Beast, that Kristol was deeply involved in the Palin pick and that behind the campaign scenes Kristol squared off against a Karl Rove-led group of advisers who were pushing Mitt Romney for the VP slot.

Wrote Horton:

[Kristol] has used his space as a New York Times columnist to tout [Palin's] candidacy repeatedly. But in the process Kristol has never bothered to disclose his role in the decision making process that led to the Palin pick. ... Bill Kristol, it seems, has much at stake in the Palin candidacy.

So the central question remains: Has Kristol, contrary to Times policy, been advising the McCain campaign? And if he feels that his advice has been ignored, is that why Kristol is lashing out at McCain in print?

Questions also swirl around Brooks and why, when covering the campaign, he writes columns that apparently don't reflect his true opinions; opinions that are much harsher toward the GOP than readers have been let on to know, and opinions that might do damage to the Republican ticket.

The Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar captured video of Brooks telling the Le Cirque crowd on October 6 that Palin's plainly anti-intellectual style "represents a fatal cancer to the Republican party." And that she's "not even close" to being qualified for the White House.

As Greg Mitchell noted at Editor & Publisher:

It may or may not surprise you to learn that Brooks has not written a word about why the selection of someone "not even close" to be being qualified for vice president by a 72-year-old cancer survivor might disqualify John McCain from Brooks' consideration for his support.

Indeed, if Brooks thought Palin's disdain for ideas represented a "cancer" on the GOP, why did it take six weeks for him to say so? And why hadn't he found space in his many Palin-related Times columns to make that point? And if Brooks thought Palin was without question unqualified to be vice president, why didn't he insert the same, unambiguous language from Le Cirque ("not even close") in one of his columns?

The archive shows that prior to Le Cirque, Brooks had been broadcasting a much different message about Palin. Appearing on PBS, Brooks called the Palin pick an "outstanding" one, politically. Following the October 2 vice presidential debate, the Times pundit announced on television that Palin had been "fluid" and "confident" and that Republicans would be "quite pleased" that she had "held her own" against Joe Biden. Specifically, Brooks noted Palin was not a "wonk" (but that was OK) and he thought her me-against-Washington mantra was quite effective.

The next morning in his Times column, Brooks was just as effusive in his praise. Read this passage see if you think Brooks was cheering Palin or condemning her style:

It took her about 15 seconds to define her persona -- the straight-talking mom from regular America -- and it was immediately clear that the night would be filled with tales of soccer moms, hockey moms, Joe Sixpacks, Main Streeters, "you betchas" and "darn rights." Somewhere in heaven Norman Rockwell is smiling.

For Brooks on that Friday in the Times, Palin represented a rising star of the GOP.

By Monday, he transformed her into a cancerous element within the party. He just forgot to inform Times readers about his flip-flop.

Note that in an almost comical display of Beltway chumminess, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who interviewed Brooks during Le Cirque Q&A, rushed in to defend the Times columnist when word spread about his "cancer" comment. Dismissing the idea that Brooks hadn't been honest with his readers, Goldberg instead toasted Brooks and insisted he "is one of the rare columnists today who wrestles with himself constantly, and who lets the public watch him change his mind."

Of course, what Brooks has done this campaign season has been to actively shield the public from his true thoughts about Palin. But inside the Beltway's media elite club, where pundits from the Times and The Atlantic swap deep thoughts at Le Cirque, Brooks' double-talk about Palin passed for transparency.

It's true that on Friday, October 10, four days after his "cancer" comment, Brooks' Times column did raise more specific concerns about Palin and the danger her candidacy represented to the Republican Party.

Brooks wrote that, "No American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin. Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the 'normal Joe Sixpack American' and the coastal elite." He claimed that kind of politicking was causing the educated class to flee to Democrats.

Two quick points. First, Brooks' Friday column addressed how the GOP's creeping social class warfare (i.e. its disdain for educated voters), highlighted by Palin's approach, was costing Republicans votes. But that's not what prompted Brooks to call Palin a cancer four days earlier. At Le Cirque, Brooks specifically lamented the GOP's creeping anti-intellectualism (i.e. its disdain for ideas), which was highlighted by Palin's approach.

That means Brooks still has not shared with his readers why he thinks Palin represents a "cancer" on the party.

Second, aside from that disconnect, note that Brooks' tough Palin column appeared after he had been recorded discussing his apparently true feelings for the vice-presidential candidate.

Which raises the question: If Brooks' "cancer" comment hadn't been captured on Rachel Sklar's cell phone, would the columnist ever have copped to the idea that Palin's candidacy signaled real, long-term problems for the GOP?

The larger lesson may be that when reading a Brooks campaign column, Times subscribers really do need to ask themselves whether the dispatch reflects the writer's true opinion, or whether he's pulling his punches in order to help the RNC.

And when reading a Kristol campaign column, readers need to ask if he's acting as an opinion columnist or working more in a role as a quasi-campaign consultant.

Because right now, it's hard to tell with the both of them.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.