When the Right Voice Goes Wrong

Douthat’s latest Times column: a close reading

What to make of Ross Douthat’s latest New York Times column? The piece (which answers the world’s plaintive pleas for yet more discussion of Obama’s Nobel Prize) is spectacularly unconvincing and yet oddly glib—to the extent that the weirdness of it all is almost difficult to quantify.

But we shall try. So, a list: Stuff Wrong with Ross Douthat’s Latest Column.

From the top:

1. The histrionic headline. “Heckuva Job, Barack” aligns, of course, President Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize—the subject of Douthat’s column (spoiler: Douthat thinks Obama should have turned it down!)—with the shameful showing of Bush, Brown, et al during Katrina’s aftermath. Which comparison is not only wildly inappropriate, but also inaccurate and insulting. (The more rhymey-and-resonant headline, of course, given the “Brownie” reference, would have been “Heckuva Job, Barry”—but apparently, that would have been too much, or something.)

2. The timing of the argument, generally. It’s not Douthat’s fault that his column conforms to the vagaries of the posting schedule, and that, therefore, he is writing on a Monday about the hot topic of three days ago. Still, after the weekend pundits and, you know, the entire blogosphere have already thoroughly dissected the ins-and-outs of Obama’s win—ad much, much nauseam—a column that simply retreads beaten ground seems less narrative-cementing than tone-deaf. And also a tad petty.

3. The unfortunate use of the word ‘hoo-ha.’ Douthat is famously wise-beyond-his-years; but he is, apparently, unaware of the modern meaning of that word. Sure, William Safire got away with the old-time, PG usage; but, then again, there are many things Safire got away with that few others rightly can.

4. The point-undermining partisanship, in the manner of Bill Kristol. Douthat refers to the president’s pre-election supporters as “the overzealous Obamaphiles, at home and abroad, who poured their post-Christian, post-Marxist yearnings into the vessel of his 2008 campaign.” Really, what point is served by the reduct-o-matic characterization, save perhaps its invocation of the Ghosts of Columnists Past? Sheesh.

5. The commission of the intentional fallacy. “True, Obama didn’t ask for this,” Douthat writes. “It was obvious, from his halting delivery and slightly shamefaced air last Friday, that he wishes the Nobel committee hadn’t put him in this spot.” But it doesn’t take a Times column or a Yale degree or a few sentient moments spent in a high school English class to know that such a facile construction of authorial emotion, from anyone besides the author himself, is illegitimate and, more to the point, irrelevant. (Also: “slightly shamefaced air”? Perhaps Douthat caught an evening show of the speech while the rest of the world saw the matinee; but even his downgraded description of presidential contrition here seems guided less by cool-headed observation than by the warped lens of…#4.)

6. The self-contradiction. “Dubya the Incompetent,” Douthat writes, in his string of none-too-flattering nicknames for a coterie of Presidents Past. The punchline: now, it’ll be “Barack Obama, Nobel Laureate.” (Zing! Kind of?) But less than a month ago, Douthat penned a bizarre pseudo-apologia for the man to whom many historians ascribe Harding-level depths of executive ineptitude, arguing that Bush’s presidency was, despite everything else, “self-correcting.” So is Bush incompetent, or is he simply waiting to be lofted up on the winds of redemptive revelation? Depends on the week, apparently.

7. The inaccuracy. “No domestic constituency will become more favorably disposed to [Obama] because five Norwegians think he’s already changed the world,” Douthat writes. But the Nobel committee went out of its way to specify that the award wasn’t to recognize achievements the president has already accomplished so much as the vision he’s set forth for accomplishing them. (“The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”; “The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations”; “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population”; etc.)

While, of course, Douthat is taking some license to make a point…still, when rhetorical flourishes verge into easily avoidable misrepresentation (see also: #5), they’ve gone too far. Which brings us, finally, to:

8. The brazen hyperbole. Near the end of the column, Douthat refers to Obama’s win of the Nobel Prize as “this travesty.” Yes. This is a direct quote. (This is also, if you’re wondering, the point in the column at which I finally concluded that Douthat’s effort in this case may deserve the same epithet.) “By accepting the prize, he’s made failure, if and when it comes, that much more embarrassing and difficult to bear,” Douthat writes.

This reasoning is fairly absurd when applied to Obama (sure, the prize provides more irony-laden fodder for the president’s critics, but that fact does not a travesty make). Applied to Douthat, though—a young talent who has himself been given a pressure-cooker prize by way of a high-profile platform in The New York Times—the observation might be more true than the columnist would care to admit.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.