A Breath of Fresh Air

This month's New York Times guest columnist Tom Frank brings some much-needed vitality to the paper's often staid Op-Ed page.

Slow news month or not, August has turned out to be an exciting time for the New York Times op-ed page. The often-tiresome, heavyweight opinion platform is enjoying some renewed vigor with guest columnist Tom Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

Frank’s August debut was a striking change in tone from July’s guest columnist, Judith Warner, whose often facile observations about motherhood and gender made for slow going. His first column on August 8 was an insightful — if somewhat familiar to those who have read his book - take on how evangelical conservatives have won the support of many Americans with an anti-elite, populist rhetoric.

It was a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. The Democratic party’s failure to mobilize popular support is a favorite topic among the pundit class on both sides of the political aisle, but the conclusion is almost always the same: the democrats need to couch their message in moral terms, in order to reach the vaunted “values voters,” whose existence, while shown to be something of a canard soon after the 2004 election, continues to tie op-ed writers in knots. Instead of falling back on the easy mark, Frank offers readers something that columnists should, but often don’t - a fresh perspective. Even better, he uses his opening column to set the stage for his subsequent pieces, ones that expound upon rather than simply repeat (think Kristoff and Darfur) his original idea.

In his second column on August 12, Frank highlights why it’s so difficult for democrats to battle a movement that has defined itself “by adopting a purely negative stance against liberalism.” In his convincing, conversational prose, Frank writes, “What conservatives do, as everyone knows, is protest government, protest modernity; to hold them responsible for government or for modernity is to bring on cognitive dissonance.”

And on August 22, Frank hit an op-ed home run with a column on the conservative movement’s exploitation of “public disillusionment with the political system.” In stark contrast to Thomas Friedman’s constant hedging and his love affair with conventional wisdom, Frank uses his column to send his fellow liberals a message: “What really worries me, though, is that our response to all this may be to burrow deeper into our own cynicism, ultimately reinforcing the gang that owns the patent on cynicism and thus setting us up for another helping of the same.”

Though Frank’s columns have the same aim as Krugman’s and Rich’s — to show the hypocrisies and blunders of the current administration — he manages to write them with wit and wisdom, and without incessant finger-pointing or the vituperative tone that so many op-ed writers fall prey to. Nor, thankfully, does he find it necessary to litter his columns with puns and alliterative phrases a la Maureen Dowd.

While there is certainly a case to be made for Frank to stay on as a regular Times columnist, we would implore the Times to consider instituting a year-round cycle of guest columnists. And next time, try bringing on board someone like the National Review’s Romesh Ponnuru or the Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti, just to name two. To be sure, the one-time op-ed writers provide some relief from the inevitable tedium of the regular columnists, but not enough. A revolving door of temporary columnists (coming from all political parties) would free the paper’s op-ed page from the shackles of predictability. Until this happens, though, here’s to hoping the end of August doesn’t come anytime soon.

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Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.