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John Tierney's Tuesday column began innocently enough. He tasted the usual after-election bipartisanship talk and sent it back to the kitchen.
This wasn't what Americans ordered, Tierney wrote in his usual slot on the New York Times op-ed page. They had asked for gridlock. Democrats “offered no bold new ideas, and they were rewarded with victory.” Their job now was to “mop up the messes made by Republicans, but that's it.”
On the domestic front, he explained, the things voters cared about most were charges of corruption. So: Democrats should do less to invite those charges, ban earmarks, pass fewer laws, avoid giving the voters indigestion. After all, the most popular and effective bill in the last decade was welfare reform, which had “essentially repealed the damage of the do-something Congresses of the 1960s and 1970s.”
Then came the shocker. Whatever this new Congress decides to do, Tierney wrote, “I won't be here to kick them around. This is my last column on the Op-Ed page.” He explained, “[O]ne election cycle [in D.C.] is enough.” He would be decamping to New York to write for the paper's science pages.
I don't know why Tierney did this, but the fact that I couldn't read his farewell on the Times website can't have helped. It's also possible that the handover of the op-ed page from Gail Collins to Andrew Rosenthal hastened his departure.
We know this much: Tierney rose to the plum position of op-ed columnist right about the same time the Times decided to charge non-subscribers $49.95 a year to read said columnists, through a program called TimesSelect. As part of that deal, the Newspaper of Record forbade local newspapers that carry Times columnists from running them online.
The decision was a disaster for the columnists. It reduced their reach and readership. The op-ed page had generated more buzz than an old radio in an electrical storm. In the late '90s, I could rarely go a week without hearing what Maureen Dowd had to say. Princeton economist Paul Krugman's deranged fulminations against President Bush had real effect — until they were safely locked away in the pay-to-read section.
Times columnists dealt with their newfound obscurity in various ways. Book leave became more frequent. Several columnists—including the valley girl-sounding Dowd—started doing more television chat shows to get attention.
But Tierney wasn't right for television. He's quiet and doesn't speak in slogans, and he's not a cheerleader for either party. Instead, he just wrote.
Tierney's contrarianism, libertarianism, and good humor made him my favorite voice on the Times op-ed page. I didn't subscribe to TimesSelect but if I saw the Tuesday or Saturday editions of the paper, I'd often pick them up to see what he had to say.
Agree or disagree with him, you had to at least respect a columnist who managed to say the things he did on an op-ed page that was obsessed with respectability. To wit:
- In the middle of the Social Security debate, Tierney wondered why our long-lived old folks had to retire so bloody early.
- He defended polygamy as a vehicle for female progress.
- He looked at the red state, blue state divide by asking what secession would look like.
- He came up with a solution for the Mark Foley scandal: Abolish the page program.
- He proposed “no-sluts-allowed” Halloween parties to correct the “market failure” of “Slutoween.”
- He weighed into the Borat controversy by reminding readers that the comedian's supposedly racist, sexist, misogynist Middle American marks had behaved decently toward a weird foreigner.
Not everybody liked Tierney's column. A few installments led to bags of hate mail from the op-ed page's core group of left-of-center readers, and some Republicans groused that he wasn't a partisan.
Earlier this year, the New Republic published an essay by Noam Scheiber arguing that Tierney was “boring,” because he didn't write about the sort of things Scheiber thought were important — health care and Iraq—and because he was skeptical of most projects that government undertakes.
The criticism was not entirely accurate. Tierney wrote a number of columns about Iraq and he actually reported from the country before he came to the op-ed page. He brought to light the high incidence of cousin marriage in Iraq and the fact that intense loyalties to kith and clan would make forming a government difficult.
But leave aside Iraq for a moment. Sheiber's complaint was that Tierney didn't write on subjects that the New Republic would like to talk about and he has a different set of ideas than most of the folks in the press. After consulting several dictionaries about this, I'm still having a hard time understanding how that makes Tierney the boring one.