Commentary Magazine


You Can Keep a Goodman Down

Ellen Goodman’s final newspaper column—the last of more than 3,000, written twice a week, over a span of 35 years—appeared on January 1, and its subject, like the subject of so much of her work, was personal liberation, specifically her own. Retirement would free her from the tyranny of deadlines, she wrote, and thus place her where her readers had so often found her down the years, “on the cutting edge of another huge social change.”

“I belong to a generation that has changed our culture,” she wrote. “We’ve been the change agents for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights.” And now? “This time it’s the longevity revolution.” Thanks to advances in medical science, Goodman’s baby boomers are going to retire with a lot of time on their hands: “We are reinventing ourselves and society’s expectations, just as we have throughout our lives.”

In every detail, the column was a pure expression of Ellen Goodman’s unchanging style and method. It might have been written in 1974, her first year as a columnist, or in 1984, or 1994, or last year. There was the heavy use of the first-person singular amid the staccato rhythm of the brief paragraphs. There was the unpersuasive trend-spotting, the christening of yet another “revolution,” this time one of “longevity.” There was the flattery of her baby-boomer audience as a generation unlike any before it, and by implication, of herself, too, as the figure in whom so many of her generation’s remarkable singularities came together and found voice. And in a final solipsistic touch, she closed her last column with a quotation from another column written long ago by … Ellen Goodman.

Goodman’s retirement was less interesting for her standing as Spokesman (-person! person!) of the Second-Greatest Generation than for the role she had once played in the world of journalism, and newspapers in particular. The op-ed page has never been terribly popular with newspaper readers; most surveys show that scarcely one in five make it a regular stop. Publishers put it out as a high-minded obligation. For those in the business—this was back when newspapers could be considered a business—the op-ed page was a pantheon of celebrity writers, a mount from which Olympians might hurl their thunderbolts of insight, approval, impatience, or pleasure. Through the span of Goodman’s professional life, her peers in reach and influence were James Reston, William F. Buckley Jr., William Safire, Mary McGrory, Joseph Kraft, James J. Kilpatrick, Carl Rowan, a few others. None of them could quite be called household names, but some of them were much discussed in the front hallway.

Goodman’s career traced the same arc as theirs. Her column was carried in hundreds of papers; she claimed more than 400 clients at her peak. Syndication guaranteed national exposure, a fancy paycheck, and regular television appearances. Television fed a side career in public speaking before audiences who would pay generously to stare for an hour at someone they had seen on TV. Every few years, Simon and Schuster or Farrar Straus and Giroux would get out a collection of her columns. All that moonlighting meant that Goodman, like her fellow Olympians, could double or triple the income she received from her home paper, the Boston Globe.

But it wasn’t just the potential for padded incomes that made columnizing the ambition of nearly every journalist of a certain age. The prestige was unlike anything else within reach. Newspapers built advertising campaigns around their syndicated opinion columnists. For a reporter, the op-ed page offered the only perch from which he could warble his opinions in his own voice, instead of slipping them into news stories in code. Most astonishing of all to a newsroom drudge, an opinion columnist was lifted from the warren of cubicles and plopped down into an office of his own, with a door. Maybe even a window.

And now? In my experience, it’s rare to hear an ambitious young scribbler express the hope that someday he’ll get to be a syndicated columnist; indeed, in my experience, it doesn’t happen anymore. When someone does gain access to that once-treasured real estate—Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, for one recent example, and Ross Douthat in the New York Times, for another—his arrival is scarcely noted even among his fellow opinion slingers, and his columns take their place as one more bit of driftwood in the endless stream of commentary.

It was the Internet, of course, that put an end to the Goodman Era. The Internet has done to the opinion industry what it’s done to the music industry. Once all pop music was sifted through the funnel that gave us the Top 40 list. Now the Web’s democratizing effects have revealed how arbitrary and artificial the process was. The exfoliation of the blogosphere has put the same lie to the Olympians. It turns out (who knew?) that many, many people have political opinions, and that a very high percentage of them are wittier and more stylish than James Reston and Carl Rowan at even their most inspired moments.

There was always something vaguely improbable, not to say ridiculous, about the job of a newspaper opinion columnist. A column’s length (750 words) and frequency (two or three times weekly) required a kind of creative metabolism seldom found in nature or even journalism. A columnist, according to the old joke, was like a man married to a nymphomaniac: just when he thought he’d finished, he’d have to start all over again. It’s a rare brain that every week can offer up two, much less three, original ideas that deserve column-length ventilation.

A genuinely interesting notion or a fresh piece of reporting will require more than 750 words to explore, and most small and intriguing observations can easily be dispensed with in a squib one-third the length of a newspaper column. The essential gifts of an Olympian were not for prose style or originality; they were gifts of speed, brevity, certitude, and above all, the ability to produce those 750 words at the drop of a hat, and continue to do so as year chased year.

For those who enjoy reading opinions, the Internet has made our situation better in some ways, in other ways worse. Bloggers aren’t forced to write to length; once they’ve delivered the message, they can hang up the phone. And blogs have made the generalist pretensions of the Olympians—opining with equal conviction about Serbian ethnography and the commerce clause—go poof. If we want to read about a new court decision, we can go straight to the specialists, through Scotusblog or the Volokh Conspiracy, where the air of authority resembles an Olympian’s but may even be genuine.

At the same time, the advent of the blog has also aggravated some of the deficiencies that so often made syndicated opinion columns look flimsy and absurd. A technology that can deliver words instantly tempts a writer to produce them at the same pace. The urge to write first and think later is hard to resist. Compulsive self-exposure is a chronic problem, as the blogger takes a break from his duties to describe his performance in the weight room or the health of her cats. With their typographical errors, solecisms, leaps in logic, and uncontrolled expression, too many blog posts read like letters written in the heat of a moment, best left unsent.

For consumers and producers alike, though, the benefits of the new era more than compensate for its disappointments. The Internet has brought a market discipline to popular opinion writing that the Olympians managed to escape. I wonder how many of them could have survived the competition offered by bloggers—though I did get a hint a few days after Goodman filed her farewell. I picked up, as I rarely do anymore, the op-ed page of the local paper and read a column by Fareed Zakaria, a writer too young to have been an Olympian himself but just old enough to have aspired to be one, and to write like one.

“On health care, energy, taxes, immigration, deficits and everything else,” Zakaria advised, Olympianly, “Obama should get away from the politics of legislating and go back to being president. He should put forward the best proposals to help solve America’s problems.” Right there is the tone that once echoed through the Pantheon. Now it sounds like a death rattle.

Maybe I’ve been reading Ellen Goodman too long and have fallen into her habit of declaring once-in-a-lifetime Revolutions and unexpected Trends and exciting new Eras; but when I read her last column, I really did feel that it was time for somebody to declare the End of an Era—the end of the op-ed column as an institution, an ideal or aspiration, an object of desire and ceaseless ambition. Forty years ago, Ellen Goodman climbed to the top of her trade and stayed there, until the trade itself was on the verge of collapse. She got out before the New Era forced her out.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, who appears monthly in this space, is the author of Crazy U, now out in paperback and on the Kindle.




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