Frank Bruni: Not Every Critic Can Be A Columnist

Did you ever watch the guys play basketball on the public outdoor courts in the West Village?  These guys are regulars, and usually, they have the right to the court because they’ve been winning games all day.  They’re incredibly good, but they’ll never play in the NBA.

There’s no word (except perhaps for the now-suddenly-tarnished “exceptionalism”) for the indescribable magic that separates the incredibly good from the great.  And yet, it’s that magic that sends one basketball player to the pros and another to the asphalt courts (or, one pianist to Carnegie Hall and another to leading boozy Barry Manilow singalongs at the Duplex).  Yet, somehow, we all know the difference.

The New York Times has consistently found or groomed remarkable opinion columnists.  These writers have an imposing combination of skills:  They have the nose for an interesting angle, a gargantuan inventory of facts and anecdotes seemingly at their fingertips (I mean, how do they manage to remember that quote from Henry Kissinger that fits so completely into a story about Chick Fil-A?), a polemecist’s instinct for debate, and to varying degrees a dry sense of humor to leaven the commentary.  Oh, and of course they can write.

Frank Rich was a master commentator (still is, at New York Magazine) who started out as a theater critic and was moved by the Times to the editorial page.  Not being above the show-biz tradition of “if they liked it once, they’ll love it twice,” the Times brought Frank Bruni over from restaurant reviewing (he’d also been their Rome bureau chief).  Perhaps they were seduced by his very funny and insightful memoir, “Born Round.”  (In fact, in his email to the staff announcing the move, Bill Keller explained that Bruni was moving to the Sunday Week In Review because the publication of his book would burn him as a “spy in the land of food”).

That was in May 2009.  Frank started as a columnist a year ago, in June 2011.  As former Mayor Ed Koch would say, how’s he doin’?

Like those schoolyard basketball players, not bad, but not great.

Frank Bruni is a fine writer with a breezy style and a distinct point of view, but he isn’t a polemicist.  Rather than building an argument from a wealth of data, his columns are more like news stories:  New York City has added more parks in the past 15 years; a lesbian is running for Congress in Wisconsin; this year’s presidential election will be all about mega-fundraising.  The columns don’t weave together an argument from an array of interesting and illuminating facts….mostly, they rely on well-trod information from the day’s headlines.  And, most important, they don’t come to strong conclusions, let alone the sort that might spark Monday-morning water-cooler conversation.

The best examples would be the columns that tackle the largest issues – the big, Shakespearean themes that underlie the headlines – and particularly those that do so through the lens of his own distinct view as a gay man.  Here are a couple.

In one column, he took on right-wing politicians’ hypocrisy on the issue of homosexuality.  Not an easy topic on which to plow new ground.  Unfortunately, he framed the issue by devoting the first half of the column to Bristol Palin’s opposition to same-sex marriage (Bristol Palin?  In 2012?), admitting she’s an “easy target,” and analogizing criticizing her to shooting a moose from a helicopter…but going on to explain that she “perfectly distills the double standards and audacity of so many of our country’s self-appointed moralists and supposed traditionalists: hypocrites whose own histories, along with any sense of shame, tumble out the window as soon as there’s a microphone to be seized or check to be cashed.”  Okay!  Now we’re talking.  Name some names, Frank!  Unfortunately, the rest of the column is limited to observing that (a) Rush Limbaugh hired Elton John to perform at his wedding; and (b) Mitt Romney is ”holding back” on this issue because Republican donors don’t want the party to be tied to narrow-minded theocracy.

In another column, he took on what promised to be a fascinating topic:  Hungary’s retrograde tilt toward oppressing Jews and gays.  His support for this thesis, though, consisted of an interview with a Hungarian woman and a “going nowhere” bill that would have classified homosexuality as a “perversion,” but which was not supported by most Hungarian citizens.  Not bad for a population that Frank describes at the onset as “10 million people with a tropism toward beer and a talent for brooding.”

Most recently, Frank is taking up the jokey style of his colleagues like Gail Collins.  In this week’s column, he approaches the (unfortunately, one-dimensional) fact that some pollsters are surveying possible 2016 presidential votes.  He weaves in comical metaphors (“Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee so close they might as well be tucked into the same sweater vest”) and outlandish projections of the 2020 race (Sarah Palin combines her candidacy announcement with the “debut of her Wasilla lounge act, ‘Rock & Rogue, and the rollout of a signature eyewear collection at LensCrafters nationwide”).  But, there’s no “there” there.  What does it mean that pollsters are surveying 2016 votes?  What should we take away from that?  (And, what is this fascination with the Palins?)

Here’s my take-away.  The long tail of Internet creativity means that more people than ever – bloggers, hyperlocal journalists, YouTube video commentators – are honing their edge of commentary.  One of them will have that undefinable magic.  That one should be writing for the Times.

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