AUSTIN, TX—When you think about newspaper columnists and the central role they’ve played in covering American politics, you wind up reaching into the past for a sort of golden era of analysis and influence: Joseph Alsop, Bill Safire, Jimmy Breslin, George Will. They could shape a debate by slicing into it—and maybe a politician or two—with a straight razor. In Texas, you might want to reach back to before January 31, 2007, when the late, great Molly Ivins passed away.
Over time the power of the columnist has faded. In an era of 24/7 news, blogs, and social media, they’ve been somewhat muffled, just another opinion afloat on a sea of them. That’s conventional wisdom, anyway.
And yet maybe they are worth a second look. The columnist can be a great resource for following politics and policy for one simple reason: Experience. Newspapers tend to entrust political columns to seasoned journalists. They have usually been around long enough to recognize a politician’s true ambition or subtly rambling fabrication. Good ones can tell compelling stories woven with analysis and, depending upon their style, even their own political bias.
Texas, it turns out, has a fairly large array of columnists who handle the serious business of politics and policy, as well as a range of quality. One very good one is Peggy Fikac of The Houston Chronicle, whose work also appears in sister Hearst paper, The San Antonio Express-News. Also the Austin bureau chief of the Chronicle, Fikac is prolific, handles a slew of subjects—as of late, everything from Gov. Rick Perry’s ambitions to the nuances of Medicaid expansion and family planning policy—with a rare mixture of voice, wit, and a lot of reporting.
Fikac has an eye for irony but conveys, too, the reality behind the rhetoric. Even as Perry has grandstanded on refusing to expand Medicaid in Texas, Fikac has noticed what others have missed: Politicians in the legislature are laying the groundwork for a compromise that could allow Perry to have his cake and eat it, too, while ultimately allowing the expansion of Medicaid in Texas, even as it is called something other than “Medicaid expansion.” “The term itself is an explosive that makes compromise difficult,” Fikac wrote recently, “because so many Republicans have spent so much time badmouthing the federal health care law, and so many GOP primary voters may not understand if they try to make it work.” (Fikac’s colleague in Houston, Lisa Falkenberg, a metro columnist, has a wider portfolio and tackles it with the experience she gained in Austin, and also with a lot of wit, often throwing a different light on a picture that is otherwise all the same.)
Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka not only writes longform pieces for the magazine but a blog, too. Burka is one of two unofficial deans of the Texas political press, and on occasion can seem to buy into the conservative conventional wisdom. A cover story he wrote about so-called education reform seemed rather unquestioning on the agenda behind it, and its impact on academic independence, particularly at the University of Texas at Austin. But his Burkablog adroitly reads the tea leaves on gambling (not going to happen), nails Perry’s recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (“rambling”), and says that Perry’s intransigence over Medicaid expansion is proof positive of “how Perry’s ideological blinders have damaged this state for thirteen years.” Not exactly pulling any punches there.
The columnists at The Dallas Morning News are pretty sophisticated, befitting a large metropolitan paper, though they don’t exactly startle or surprise. Carl Leubsdorf, formerly the Washington bureau chief, writes in the establishment voice of a longtime Beltway observer—which, of course, he is. Leubsdorf was the Morning News’ DC bureau chief from 1981 to 2008. At this point, a Washington columnist has the temptation to run with the story of the day. But Leubsdorf has a sharp eye for subject selection and wields a pretty critical keyboard. Of Jeb Bush on immigration he wrote: “What Pete Wilson did for California, Jeb Bush would apparently like to do to the rest of the country.” Remembering a political figure that has faded for so many in memory—that gift of experience—led Leubsdorf to recall that Wilson, a Republican, so alienated Hispanics that he inadvertently helped turn California solidly Democratic.
The smaller papers in San Angelo, New Braunfels, Abilene, and elsewhere rely on Dave McNeely, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman and the other unofficial Texas dean (as well as a friend and contemporary of Molly Ivins).