What’s So Funny?

A little less levity could be good for Dana Milbank

This week’s media news included the tidbit that The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who’s been poking fun at D.C.’s political rituals for the last few years in his “Washington Sketch” news column, will soon get to sit with the grown-ups at the Post’s op-ed page. (He’ll also continue to write the “Sketch” pieces several days a week.)

Will the move change Milbank’s often tongue-in-cheek approach to writing about politics? He told Michael Calderone he’s looking forward to the chance to do more than snark at the silly things politicians do. But that doesn’t mean Milbank’s going to go all High Church on us: he also told Fishbowl DC that the trade-off between writing funny and writing serious “is a false choice. It is possible to do journalism on very serious topics while wearing a sandwich board.”

That’s true, and Milbank, at his best, can straddle that line better than most. But here’s hoping that the move does discipline his writing, because when his “Sketch” columns don’t succeed, the funny—or rather, the attempt at funny—can take over, and the serious can become lame.

A case in point is his “Sketch” column from Wednesday, which focused on Barack Obama’s habit, when faced with a new challenge or crisis, of ordering a review of the situation. After the Christmas Day bombing attempt, Milbank notes, the president ordered not one review, but two:

For Obama, a former president of the Harvard Law Review, the response to the Under-bomber has been a veritable Review Revue. And it’s not just a semantic thing: His instinct when facing all types of problems — Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Fort Hood shootings, the pending Gitmo closing — has led him to the same approach: Order a review. It is a hallmark of his governing style.

If puns are your thing, the first sentence of that paragraph is the funny. How about the serious?

Arguably, this is exactly the type of leadership a president should provide, cool and deliberate even in a crisis. After eight years of seat-of-the-pants leadership, calm reflection and reasoned action has much to recommend it; if Dick Cheney were president today, we might already have invaded Iran to punish al-Qaeda for training the accused Nigerian bomber in Yemen.

On the other hand, the take-a-deep-breath response has opened up Obama to criticism that he has been slow and wavering. ABC News’s Rick Klein suggested Tuesday that “a touch of anger” would benefit Obama. “This is one time where Mr. Cool doesn’t need to be.”

So, basically, what Obama is doing makes sense—is, in fact, “exactly the type of leadership a president should provide.” But, for reasons related to political theater, it has opened him to media criticism. Presumably, the whole point of giving Milbank free rein in these columns was that he would be able to point out the shallowness of this sort of thinking. Instead, he ends up repeating it—and constructing a column that pokes fun at Obama’s penchant for reviews without, really, ever presenting a criticism of it. What’s left is a piece of writing that’s not so funny, and doesn’t seem to have much serious to say.

It’s especially frustrating to see Milbank strain for a joke because he can be quite good while playing it straight. Given his almost ever-present smirk, his “Sketch” today on Chris Dodd’s retirement announcement was almost touchingly earnest. Milbank presented Dodd as he is—a legislator with a record of accomplishment and also his share of mistakes who, when it came time to exit stage left, did so gracefully and with a refreshingly low degree of self-delusion. In the process, the columnist got it in some well-placed shots at other pols who’ve failed to do the same, hanging them with their own words. And he did it without a too-convenient use of the overblown criticism of the day—or, for that matter, a single pun.

Today’s column may not be quite the sort of thing Milbank ends up writing in his new gig—he told Calderone he hopes not to use the word “yesterday” quite so often. And here’s hoping he’ll still use good jokes, when he has them. Still, the spirit behind the Dodd sketch is the Milbank I’d like to see on the op-ed page.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.