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The Wrong Twenty-Nine-Year-Old

I love the headline announcing that The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat would be the Times’ new op-ed columnist: “A 29-Year-Old Joins Times Op-Ed Lineup.” It’s like they hired a talking horse, or this kid!

One of the ironies of this is that Douthat is really just David Brooks with a beard — not necessarily a bad thing, but he’s not very “young” at all. If anything, he’s maybe too much the natural candidate; it’s weird for the Times to make it out like they’re reaching here (while at the same time denying that that’s what they’re doing).

As for the title of my post — I’m being a little cheeky, because I’m also twenty-nine, but I don’t think the Times should have hired me; if they were looking for a young conservative, I think they should have hired Douthat’s Grand New Party co-author Reihan Salam, who is genuinely young and weird in addition to being talented and smart. I’ll be happy to be wrong, but I predict that Douthat at the Times will try too hard to be gray and lame; Salam would have been offbeat and fun, like Maureen Dowd is allegedly supposed to be.


I agree with most of what you’re saying. Though I’m not sure I’d pan Douthat as outright lame, he’s definitely less unapologetically quirky than Salam is.

The primary thing about this hiring that I’m not sure I like is that temperamentally Douthut is a lot like Brooks. Where Kristol was a staunch conservative, Douthat, like Brooks, is a bit squishier. I’m torn between thinking that squishy is the only kind of conservative a Times reader wants, and that Kristol was just the wrong kind of firebrand.

My hope for Douthat is that he’s not Brooks. To my memory, Brooks tends to tiptoe around issues of religion, morality, and abortion. Douthat seems to think more seriously about these topics and be more traditionally conservative in them. There are columns in that arena that I think Douthat could really write the hell out of, and I look forward to see him try to do so.

A tangential aside: these days the only person on the page I regularly read is Brooks. I’ll sometimes read Krugman. I generally skip over the rest.

Aw! I’m actually super-hopeful for Ross Douthat. I do agree that Reihan Salam is also great, & maybe even better — but I think I probably only feel that way b/c he’s more obviously a Nerd Like Us.

I’m not surprised that you like Salam, Tim; he often hits that same great synthesis of high & low that you’re so good at.

Here’s the real question: Is being named a NYT op-ed columnist almost a curse in this day & age? It’s such an odd format and, like the weekly newsmagazine, probably too slow to really be part of the conversation.

But it’s heartening to hear that Douthat is going to start online-only, and be blogging as well as writing traditional columns.

What I’d like to see most, though, is a new *reported* op-ed column — something akin to Nick Kristof, or like what Tom Friedman used to do. Again, I’m actually bullish about Ross Douthat, but he’s definitely a pundit, not a reporter.

Just to clarify — I really like Ross Douthat. I might even say that I like reading Douthat just a little more than reading Salam.

But I think — I just feel like he’s slightly more amenable to getting his own quirks, the things that make him good to read, washed out by the form. Starting out with an online column and blog is a good way to inoculate himself against it.

I guess what I’m trying to say more than anything else is that the NYT, at least in the article I linked to, is trying to make it seem like they’re making a really bold, edgy choice by picking this twenty-nine-year-old blogger, when Douthat’s almost too obvious a choice — Salam, who’s just as objectively qualified, would have been a lot bolder.

Ouch! “David Brooks with a beard.” What’d he ever do to you, Carmody? 🙂

When we were in college, Ross was the editor of the Salient, the contrarian conservative voice to our Ivy League ultra-liberalism. He was always a brilliant guy, and a vivid, economical writer, but his work tended to be predictable and condescending. In conversation, he was a fierce wit with an unbeatable command of history. But on paper, Ross’ arguments failed to provoke you or challenge you. It always half-seemed like conservatism wasn’t serious to him; like he’d taken it up for the intellectual challenge of standing up to everyone at Harvard. His first book out of school was this awful, wounded account of our college years, skewed out of all proportion by some perception that he’d somehow been personally robbed of recognition or popularity or booty or something. Seriously, it was a really whiny book. The top-ranked review on Amazon does a good job of explaining it. I wondered how on earth he could have gotten it past an agent.

But then he started blogging, at The American Scene. And over time, he got really good. Oddly enough, he’s at his best writing about pop culture, which I would never have expected. And that wasn’t the only surprise. He began arguing for conservatism in a distinctive, animated way. On social conservatism especially, he made maddeningly interesting points. Grand New Party felt like an innovative contribution. It was like he really had a dog in the fight all of a sudden. Now I just feel bad that his dog sorta turned cur.

As for Douthat vs. Salam, I don’t think it’s just nepotism that makes me happy about the choice of Ross. Reihan is more of a Brooks-ian liberal’s conservative than I think Ross is. I think Ross will add a tremendous dimension to that page. I’m very happy for him.

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