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The World According to Howard Kurtz? Or Frank Rich?

Enough of David Brooks. How about a social commentator who understands the theatricality essential to good politics, but doesn’t confuse it with reality? Would that be The New York Times‘ Frank Rich or The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz?

Mr. Rich struggled through Harvard College, top ten percent, edited The Crimson, founded his own weekly in Richmond, VA, worked for The New York Post and Time Magazine. He then made do with a gig at The New York Times for twenty-eight years, first as chief drama critic, then on the Op-Ed page. He’s written several books, including The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina.

The Washington Post doesn’t list Mr. Kurtz’s accomplishments, in imitation of Mr. Cheney’s never telling the taxpayers about the OVP and "Senate" staffers of his they paid for. According to the ever accurate Wikipedia, Mr., Kurtz hails from SUNY Buffalo and Columbia’s graduate school of journalism. He’s written for the Post since 1990. In addition to his gig as chief media critic for the Post, Mr. Kurtz freelances and receives compensation from sources as diverse as CNN, Time and Conde Nast, whose work he also "criticizes" for the Post.

For those who follow the dictum, “if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” it’s useful to know that Mr. Rich’s wife, novelist Alex Witchel, is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. Mr. Kurtz’ wife, Sherri Annis, is a Republican “consultant”.

Ann Coulter claims that Mr. Kurtz is an “apologist for liberal media bias”. If she’s describing the Howard Kurtz who told a blog reader that Karl Rove does not intimidate editors to get better coverage for George Bush — “that’s not how it works” — I’m not sure that “liberal” is the bias I would ascribe to him. His principal home, the Post, which just poached Bill Kristol from the creeping desertification that is The New York Times, has also lost the liberal sheen it had when Woodward and Bernstein still spoke to each other. Now it has Debbie Howell picking up what Fred Hiatt drops on the Op-Ed page.

Writing Samples

Judd Gregg and Obama the "Failure". How about their writing? Mr. Kurtz, from his comment yesterday on why Judd Gregg got cold feet and ran away from working with the Democrats (emph. mine):

But the bottom line is that Obama, who was finally enjoying 24 hours of positive press after ramming the stimulus bill through, seems back on the defensive. Not that the average American gives a rip who runs the Commerce Department. But the failed Gregg gamble adds to the media image of a shaky presidential debut.

Mr. Kurtz is accurate: it is the media that think Mr. Obama’s had a shaky start. But he presents it as fact. That comment is at odds with his earlier metaphor that Mr. Gregg was the bride who said yes, mailed the invitations, then failed to show up at the altar. “[T]hat’s the groom’s fault?” That’s because his purpose was to set up a page and a half of excerpts from the Washington Times, National Review and others, slamming the failures of “the young Obama administration”. The best bit was Mr. Kurtz describing Olympia Snow and Susan Collins as having “bucked their own party to back the stimulus”. They put something in its back all right, but it had a hilt, even if they voted for it.

Obama the Success. Mr. Rich’s comment today about the “success” of the Obama administration is more judicial. After gently mocking the reams of paper devoted to describing the Obama administration’s “failure”, he says:

Less than a month into Obama’s term, we don’t (and can’t) know how he’ll fare as president.

With shrill comments like that, Mr. Rich will end up sharing a blog page with Glenn Greenwald. If he says this again, he surely will:

This G.O.P., a largely white Southern male party with talking points instead of ideas and talking heads instead of leaders, is not unlike those “zombie banks” that we’re being asked to bail out.

Or here:

The G.O.P. doesn’t recognize that it emerged from the stimulus battle even worse off than when it started….

The stimulus package arrived with the price tag and on roughly the schedule Obama had set for it. The president’s job approval percentage now ranges from the mid 60s (Gallup, Pew) to mid 70s (CNN) — not bad for a guy who won the presidency with 52.9 percent of the vote.

A New Deal, Not Stenography. Unafraid to abandon stenography, Mr. Rich reads the polls and comes to the same conclusions as a Noble Laureate economist and a shrill liberal commentator:

This country wants a New Deal, including on energy and health care, not a New Deal lite. Far from depleting Obama’s clout, the stimulus battle instead reaffirmed that he has the political capital to pursue the agenda of change he campaigned on.

Republicans will also be judged by the voters. If they want to obstruct and filibuster while the economy is in free fall, the president should call their bluff and let them go at it. In the first four years after F.D.R. took over from Hoover, the already decimated ranks of Republicans in Congress fell from 36 to 16 in the Senate and from 117 to 88 in the House. The G.O.P. is so insistent that the New Deal was a mirage it may well have convinced itself that its own sorry record back then didn’t happen either.

My take on Mr. Kurtz is that he’s David Brooks with Dana Milbank’s sense of humor. He’s Modo, but with underwear, and pants that zip up the front. He’s a man with a flair for the mundane, who epitomizes the MSM’s current notion of “balance.”

Mr. Rich is independent, left of center and nobody’s fool, like another former editor of the Crimson, David Halberstam. He knows his stage left from his stage right, and can spot a stage mother like Karl Rove a mile off. He’s what “balance” used to mean.

If something is wildly out of balance, Mr. Rich is not afraid to say so. He doesn’t cling to a Jim Lehrer-like calm as if it were a lifeboat in a storm. Not when frankly assessing his condition tells him the lifeboat is sinking, or that he’s in three feet of water fifty feet from shore. He calls it like he sees it, which is what media umpires are supposed to do.

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