For such writers, a dual role as private advisor in a presidential braintrust and tutor to the public at large was all part of a seamless web of responsibilities, borne as members of an elite establishment that regarded itself as the rightful steward of the nation. In certain respects, the era of the Lippmanns and Alsops is over—in this age of partisan polarization, the establishment is certainly not what it once was. And yet there remain the Zakarias of today—a “throwback,” says Evan Thomas, recently retired from nearly a quarter century at Newsweek, to the time “when journalists really were members of the establishment.”
Yet for all the changes of the digital age, old media has more clout than might be thought. Today’s syndicated columnists, operating in a media culture defined more than ever by opinions, have their work appear not only in print but also on newspaper websites. Their writing is extracted, summarized, and linked by numerous other political sites. E. J. Dionne, who has been writing columns for The Washington Post since 1993, figures that he now has the potential to reach “a bigger audience” than Lippmann ever did. David Brooks, with a syndicated New York Times column and regular weekly political wrap-up gigs on National Public Radio (with Dionne) and on the PBS NewsHour (with Mark Shields), is an omnipresent opinion-dispensing megaphone to all close—and millions of casual—followers of American politics. When he devoted his July 5 Times column to a plea for Republicans to accept revenue increases as part of a deal to raise the debt limit, Politico quickly followed with an entire story on reactions from prominent voices in the blogosphere.
So traditional print columnists still matter—and, for sure, are perceived to matter by the political powers that be—for a reputed ability to influence public opinion. And in the Barack Obama White House, after a 2008 campaign relying heavily on the new tools of social, interactive media and, as ever, television images, the most prominent columnists have been assiduously courted from his first days in office. “I think their feeling was that, even in this world of infinite voices, there are X number of people who shape what we do as a society,” with the columnists as a key segment of that elite, said Ronald Brownstein, a National Journal columnist who has spent time with the president and key advisors. It may be, Brownstein added, that Obama took a media-strategy page from Bill Clinton’s playbook: “You campaign in television and you govern in print.”
As part of this governance strategy, certain columnists come to be seen as political proxies, with Brooks, on the center-right, viewed as a stand-in for independent voters open to persuasion from Obama, and Brooks’s Times colleague, Paul Krugman, on the liberal end of the spectrum, seen as the embodiment of a restive Democratic base.
Today’s columnists, as ever, frankly treasure their presidential access. “To me, the big temptation is, if you’re tough in your columns, they won’t invite you over any more,” Brooks said. He added, though, that Obama had not displayed a punitive streak: “I don’t think it’s necessary to soften what you think.”
Indeed, the president has a reputation for straightforward, wide-ranging dealings with the pundits. He typically meets them in off-the-record sessions with either one particular columnist or about a half dozen at a time. He’s not known as a leaker, willing to drop some juicy bit of inside, not yet public, information. “In many ways, he thinks like a columnist,” with an interest “in what ideas are hitting” in the political culture, Brooks said.
“They’ve been pretty philosophical discussions—not on the news of the day,” Jonathan Alter, an ex-Newsweek columnist now with Bloomberg and an MSNBC analyst, said of his off-record talks. One, held in the Roosevelt Room in the summer of 2010, focused on education policy and was also attended by Brooks and Joe Klein of Time among others.