Times resurfaces an opinion column with a colorful history

December 19, 2016
The New York Times building in New York

Close readers of The New York Times may have noticed that the Gray Lady has quietly restored one of its most venerable columns: Topics of the Times reappeared this fall in its perch at the bottom left-hand corner of the editorial page. The intermittent feature, offering personal thoughts on matters of the day, some pressing, others less so, has been a part of the paper for more than 150 years.

But after the turn of the millennium, the column began sputtering out. None of the several past and present members of the Times editorial board who spoke with CJR can quite say why. Whatever the reason, on September 25, 2005, Helene Cooper and Lawrence Downes faced off in Topics on the respective merits of peeling garlic; the headline was “Leave it to Cleaver.”

“Then,” says Downes in an interview, “it went dark.”

More than 10 years later, on Oct. 7, Topics resurfaced with five paragraphs by Elizabeth Williamson sniping at Mike Pence’s lame attempts to cast Donald Trump as an “outsider savior.” A second nugget, by Downes, waxed about Jesse Watters’ racist man-in-the-street Chinatown interviews for Fox News.

The fresh entries breathed new life into a malleable form that has through the years mostly provided welcome relief from staid, predictable editorials but also once served up a legendary flub. “This is a tool,” says editorial page editor James Bennet, “that’s been in our toolbox for a long time.”

Topics of the Times has had numerous incarnations since its 19th century origins as Minor Topics. The first such entry appears to have run on May 2, 1860, comprising 13 unsigned items; among the subjects were Plutarch’s puns and a marriage between a 68-year-old groom and his 23-year-old bride. On September 8, 1896 the space was officially christened with its present name, under the direction of Frederick Craig Mortimer. He retired three decades later and was ultimately succeeded in 1932 by the Russian immigrant Simeon Strunsky. For 15 years his musings ranged widely, from a 1935 appreciation of H.L. Mencken’s The American Language to a mock address to the class of 1941 wherein he ironically urged graduates, “Let us be complacent.”

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The column took on new prominence and seriousness in the 1960s under editor Herbert Mitgang, when its title was shortened to Topics and boldface names wrote at length. They included Nadine Gordimer (“The Word, Too, Falls Victim of Apartheid”), Sir Anthony Eden (“The Diplomatic Way Out of Vietnam”) and Arthur Miller (“On the Shooting of Robert Kennedy”).

Then, in the 1970s, Max Frankel as editorial page editor radically trimmed the jottings and tucked them into their now familiar place under the editorials. “It helped us lighten things up both typographically and in spirit,” he says, “so that you didn’t have this tombstone every day of three heavy, ponderous columns. It was a way of helping the reader into the page and relieving its monotony.” 

“In some cases,” adds his successor, Jack Rosenthal, “the Topics were more popular than the editorials.”

When Bennet became editor of the editorial page this spring, he resolved to bring back the squibs. “I was always a fan of them as a reader,” he says. “I liked them for the way they varied the tone and even the look of the page and the way they allowed our writers to write under their own bylines. And there’s the opportunity there for a little whimsy.”

Actually, the opportunity for individual editorial opinion and whimsy in that space never quite vanished, as shown by the recurring Editorial Notebook and Editorial Observer columns. Indeed, it can be hard for a casual Times reader to distinguish one rubric from another. But Bennet has parsed the fine points.

“A Notebook does tend to sound like [extracts from] a reporter’s notebook,” he says. “An Observer is more like an argued piece. It’s more of a column. We’ll sometimes have an Observer where an author has an argument that the editorial board doesn’t necessarily agree with.”

By contrast, he says, today’s Topics “is simply a very short version of those other two forms. It’s more a function of the space it takes to turn around in.” Editorial board members can noodle in all three categories, Bennet says, “and we encourage them to do it.”

On October 19, Ernesto Londoño riffed on Julian Assange’s curtailed Internet access at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Nine days later, Williamson picked up on a London Guardian account of Gary Johnson’s doomed presidential bid (“I’m the dumbest guy that you’ve ever met in your whole life”). Both columns were puckishly adorned with a logo of a Post-It note pierced by a pushpin.

Topics, Observer and Notebook have long competed with other quirky categories. Beginning in the 1980s, an incarnation about both the bad and good aspects of New York City ran as “The Worm and The Apple.” For nearly 16 years, concluding in 2013, Verlyn Klinkenborg rambled about his farm under the title “The Rural Life.” Last month, the infrequent Appreciations column offered Brent Staples’ fond farewell to Gwen Ifill.

But Topics remains the sine qua non of individual Times editorial page expression. If nothing else, it yielded perhaps the most famous correction in the newspaper’s history. On January 13, 1920 (accompanied by the headline “A Severe Strain on Credulity”), Topics scoffed at the notion that Robert Goddard’s rocket experiments might one day yield a trip to the moon.

Forty-nine years later on July 17, 1969, the day after Apollo 11 blasted off, the paper stated, “Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century [sic] and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”

Thomas Vinciguerra , a freelance writer and former CJR intern, is the author of Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker (W.W. Norton). He has published approximately 170 articles, essays, and reviews in The New York Times.