The Awful Truth

When The New York Times tempted Paul Krugman to try daily journalism, no one, including Krugman, could have anticipated what was to come. Krugman was an Ivy League professor of economics, a scholar acclaimed for his youthful brilliance, and an author of learned books and occasional commentary on international money crises. All clues pointed to a master of the tedious. One suspected the Times wanted someone to be boring in a genteel, scholarly way twice a week on its Op-Ed page. Krugman himself may have thought so. In The Great Unraveling he says he intended to write about globalization, world financial problems, and sometimes the “vagaries” of the domestic economy.

Before anyone could say “narcolepsy,” politics intruded, and it quickly became obvious that Krugman was incapable of being either boring or genteel, but was highly gifted at writing political journalism. Starting in January of the election year 2000, he rapidly acquired a large, adoring readership which treasured his column as an antidote for the curiously polite treatment President Bush was receiving from most of the mainstream media.

At his most polite, Krugman was irreverent, but much of the time he seemed to think irreverence was much too good for the President, the people around him, and almost everything he stood for. In The Great Unraveling he commits the ultimate rudeness: Bush, he says, is surreptitiously leading a radical right-wing political movement against American government as it has developed in the past century. The words “radical” and “right-wing” are bad words in the political lexicon of mainstream American journalism. Normally they are simply not used to describe presidents, except by the kind of people who write for funky little out-of-the-mainstream journals.

As a Times columnist, Krugman is as mainstream as it gets. His readiness to apply disapproved words to the President helps to explain why his column quickly became catnip to so many who had voted for Al Gore and were still angry about the bizarre manner of Bush’s elevation. For them, to have the Bush presidency so relentlessly and expertly savaged was a consolation of sorts.

From the White House viewpoint criticism itself was bad enough—Bush people are famous for thin skin—but the really troublesome problem was that Krugman seemed to know what he was talking about. This is not entirely unheard of among political columnists, but the typical Washington pundit is stupefyingly uninformed about economics, a field in which Krugman is exceedingly well informed. He had the professional skills needed to tell when the political rhetoric was nonsense and he took a short-tempered professor’s sadistic delight in holding oafs up to ridicule.

The vocabulary Krugman applied to the President bristled with words such as “dishonesty,” “lying,” “mendacity,” and “fraud.” Among political pundits such language verges on the taboo. As a class, political columnists do not shrink from the occasional well poisoning, but on matters of etiquette they are conservative to the verge of stuffiness, and they tend to view plain speech as the mark of the ill-mannered bumpkin.


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