When I choose syndicated columns for op-ed, I’m usually a stickler about one thing — it has to have just arrived. If it didn’t come in within the 24 hours since I last looked, I don’t consider it. Once passed over, permanently passed over.
Today broke a week-long pattern. Today, there was nothing new that stood out as worth publishing. But on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I had trouble choosing between two columns each day that stood out well above the rest, but for different reasons were equally appealing. Practically coin-toss decisions. Ms. Parker’s piece on the Saddleback Church "debate" was the one I almost chose on Wednesday for today, but didn’t. So I’m using it Friday instead of something newer.
Anyway, in keeping with my practice of using the blog to better explain how we do things around here (and one of the most common questions I get from the reading public is "How do you choose what you run on the op-ed page?"), let me tell you about the picks I agonized over. First, I should note that the process is about as selective as you can get, since we only have room for one syndicated and one local piece a day. (For that reason, I just have to shake my head over people who submit columns for selection, are not selected, and go about in the community complaining loudly that we "refused to run" their piece. What they fail to recognize, either intentionally or unintentionally, is that NOT being chosen is the norm. The one piece we choose out of many is the exception, not the rule.) Because we only have that one national or international piece a day, the only way to achieve any "balance" or diversity of opinion is over time, considering many days together.
Here were my three dilemmas, and how I resolved them:
- Monday (for Tuesday’s paper) — Mondays tend to be a bit warmed-over, since even the "fresh" pieces were usually written the week before. One exception to that was Bill Kristol’s piece on the Saddleback Church event Saturday night. He had written it for Monday’s NYT (one of the drawbacks of using NYT columns is that they ALWAYS, even during the week, move long after our deadline — the NYT moves according to its own convenience, not that of paying subscribers — so the earliest we get to run them is a day after they were in the NYT), but it was still out ahead of any other columns I would see on the subject (Ms. Parker’s moved late Tuesday). Seeing the topic as fresh, and having missed the event myself, I leaned strongly toward using the Kristol piece. But I didn’t. Instead, I chose a column by Nicholas Kristof that did something I regarded as more important — reminded people dazzled by the glitz of the Olympics just how reflexively oppressive the Chinese government is. I was a little put off by Mr. Kristof’s gimmicky approach — pretending he wanted a license to protest, and having a videographer follow him through the process, a la early Geraldo Rivera — but his point was important. So I went with it, and put Mr. Kristol (with an L) in the queue for our Saturday online edition. (Also-rans from that day’s bounty, columns that didn’t make the initial cut, included ones from Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, Kathleen Parker, Bob Herbert, Gail Collins and Derrick Jackson.)
- Tuesday (for Wednesday’s paper) — The piece I almost ran was one by Robert Samuelson headlined "The Real China Threat," which was embargoed for Wednesday publication (unlike the NYT, the WashPost Writers Group moves its columnists in advance, so we can run them at the same time as their home paper itself). An excerpt: "Will China overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy? Well, stop worrying. It almost certainly will." He went on, in typical thorough Samuelson fashion, to explain exactly why and how. But I saved that one for Saturday (the theme would be just as fresh, and just as true, then), and chose instead a David Brooks column that made an observation about John McCain I had not yet seen — that not only was his approach to campaigning becoming less "maverick" and more conventional, but that it was working for him in the polls (an assertion that would be backed up in a WSJ/NBC News poll today). Aside from that, I just loved the lead anecdote expressing McCain’s usual approach to the hyperidiotic world of partisan politics:
On Tuesdays, Senate Republicans hold a weekly policy lunch. The party leaders often hand out a Message of the Week that the senators are supposed to repeat at every opportunity. Sometimes there will be a pollster offering data that supposedly demonstrates the brilliance of the message and why it will lead to political nirvana.
John McCain generally spends the lunches at a table with a gang of fellow ne’er-do-wells. He cracks jokes, razzes the speaker and generally ridicules the whole proceeding. Then he takes the paper with the Message of the Week back to his office. He tosses it on the desk of some staffer with a sarcastic comment like: “Here’s your message. Learn it. Love it. Live it.”
This sort of behavior has been part of McCain’s long-running rebellion against the stupidity of modern partisanship. In a thousand ways, he has tried to preserve some sense of self-respect in a sea of pandering pomposity….
(Also-rans from Tuesday: Cal Thomas, Tom Teepen, David Broder, Leonard Pitts.)
- Wednesday (for Thursday’s paper) — This was the toughest choice of all. First, there was Kathleen’s piece, which I loved because of the way it ran against the pigeonhole that readers try to put her in. Rather than gushing about McCain’s (and Rick Warren’s) performance the way other "conservatives" had done, she criticized the whole affair as telling her more than she wanted to know about the respective candidates’ religious beliefs. It’s columns such as that one that move us forward, by making us think different thoughts (even though I don’t necessarily agree with her point). But in the end I went with the Tom Friedman column from that morning. It was just way too important, and he had accomplished something that was very difficult to do within the space of a single column. He explained very clearly why the U.S. and Saakashvili share blame for stupid courses of action leading up to the Georgia invasion, while making it VERY clear that Putin is the main bad guy and must be opposed with all the West can muster. Both Kathleen’s and Friedman’s pieces were of the sort that made you feel smarter for having read them. But no one had summed up the Georgia invasion as well as Friedman did. And besides, it had been awhile since I had picked a Friedman piece, leaving a palpable vacuum that only he could fill. (Also-rans: George Will, Maureen Dowd.)
So initially I had slotted Kathleen’s column to join the others on the Saturday list. But now I’ve pulled it back to run Friday.
One more point — you may have noticed that the way I use the Saturday online page is to run the very best pieces that didn’t quite make it — each of them better than everything else that moved that day (except for the one I did pick). That makes the Saturday Opinion Extra worth reading, which not enough people do. That’s my opinion, anyway.