Fred Hiatt’s death ends a remarkable period of stability at The Washington Post

Fred Hiatt. Photo (cc) 2014 by CSIS.

The death of Fred Hiatt ends a period of remarkable stability at the top of The Washington Post’s masthead. Hiatt, the editorial-page editor, had served in that position since 1999. Marty Baron, who was hired as executive editor in 2012, retired earlier this year. Hiatt and Baron predated Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Post in 2013, and their continuation in those roles was a signal that Amazon’s founder was determined not to interfere with either the newsroom or the opinion operation.

Baron was replaced by Sally Buzbee, previously the top editor at The Associated Press. It will be interesting to see who replaces Hiatt — though I suspect it could be a while given that his sudden death at 66 was unanticipated. When Buzbee was interviewed recently by Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast, she gave the impression that publisher Fred Ryan was more involved in her hiring than Bezos was. We’ll see if Bezos follows the same pattern in hiring a new opinion editor. Not that he has to — the ethical standard good news organizations follow is that the owner should stay out of the newsroom but is free to meddle with the editorial pages.

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I didn’t realize that Hiatt had Boston-area roots until I read the tributes this morning. He grew up in Brookline and graduated from Harvard, where his father was dean of the School of Public Health.

In my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote this about Hiatt’s editorial pages:

Hiatt’s retention was noteworthy, as new owners often want to exert their influence on the opinion pages. But even though Bezos’ politics were thought to be generally libertarian, the Post’s editorial stance — which could be described as moderately liberal with a taste for foreign intervention — did not change under Bezos’ ownership.

Looking back over the course of Hiatt’s career, I’d say that observation has held up. The Post is, indeed, moderately liberal. But his unsigned editorials called for war following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and — more controversially — against Iraq, which then-President George W. Bush wrongly claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Post, of course, was hardly the only newspaper to endorse what proved to be a horrendous foreign-policy blunder. But it’s the job of a great newspaper to take unpopular stands when warranted. In fact, the Times came out against going to war in Iraq, if rather grudgingly.

The Post’s opinion section diverged from the Times’ during the Donald Trump era as well. Though Hiatt was staunchly anti-Trump and published many anti-Trump columnists — including conservatives like Max Boot, Michael Gerson and George Will — he also employed pro-Trump pundits like Marc Thiessen (“Three cheers for ‘Let’s Go Brandon'”) and Gary Abernathy (“A Trump candidacy in 2024 would threaten his own legacy”).

I’m not sure what Hiatt thought such drivel added to his section. Maybe he just wanted his readers to see what the pro-Trump argument was without having to seek it out on Fox News. In any case, the Times took a different approach, restricting its in-house conservatives to Never Trumpers like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens. (I’d mention David Brooks, too, except that he really isn’t much a conservative these days.)

Hiatt was a strong supporter of human rights around the world and spoke out forthrightly against the Saudi regime following the murder of one of his columnists, Jamal Khashoggi. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, which counts for a lot. A Post editorial put it this way: “Mr. Hiatt made it possible for The Post’s opinion writers and the content they produce to encompass a wide range of views on virtually every subject of public debate, without the rancor, personal enmity and bad faith that have become so prevalent elsewhere in Washington and the nation. Our respect for and loyalty to Mr. Hiatt, and his for us, held this staff together.”

Hiatt served long enough in his position to watch the Post shrink under Graham family ownership from a viable competitor with the Times to a regional paper forced to cut its staff year after year; and then to preside over its rebirth and growth under Bezos. He was an honorable servant of the Washington establishment, which I mean in both a positive and a negative sense. Given the fractures that are now tearing the country apart, we may not see the likes of him again.

Would a normal president have made a difference in preventing COVID deaths?

This Ross Douthat column gets at something I’ve found myself wondering: How many lives could have been saved in the United States if a normal president had been in the White House?

A Columbia study showed that 36,000 people would not have died if the shutdown had started a week earlier, and 54,000 if it had started two weeks earlier. But might they have died later on during the summer surge?

The real problem has been Trump’s complete lack of seriousness and empathy. Maybe the death toll wouldn’t be all that different. But we wouldn’t feel completely abandoned.

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Yes, many Republicans really do want to impeach Obama

If you think New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is right in arguing that impeachment is just a “game” that President Obama is playing, you need to get up to speed by reading this, this and this. Republicans have been calling for Obama’s impeachment almost from the day he took office in 2009.

What’s really going on: Establishment Republicans are trying to divert attention from their own wingnut base. And Douthat is happy to give them cover.

The humiliation of Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written almost exactly what I was thinking regarding U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and her exaggerated (and possibly non-existent) Cherokee heritage. So I recommend you read it. I have just a few additional thoughts.

I have to admit this is one of those stories that got by me. I didn’t think it would amount to much after the Boston Herald’s Hillary Chabot broke the story on April 27. Even though Harvard Law School had touted her as a diversity hire, there was no evidence (and there still isn’t) that she had ever sought to claim minority status for career advancement. And when the Boston Globe reported that she was, in fact, 1/32 Cherokee, that seemed to be the end of it. After all, the current tribal chief is only 1/32 Cherokee.

But things got a lot worse for Warren last week, when the Globe published a correction stating that there was no real evidence of Warren’s Cherokee background. Apparently this is nothing more than one of those family legends that may or may not have some basis in fact.

Like Douthat, and like millions of other Americans, I grew up thinking I might have some Native American heritage. My mother’s family was named Shaw; we had a cottage in Onset when I was growing up with a sign out front that said “Shawnee,” a tribute to that supposed heritage. My mother didn’t think there was anything to it, but who knows? As far as I know, no one in my family has traced our ancestral roots. We do go back to the early days of Plymouth Colony, so anything is possible.

I’ve heard it said that Warren should have been able to put all this behind her rather easily, but I don’t think it’s that simple. At root, I think she harbored a romantic vision of herself, which is why she listed herself as a Native American in law directories and contributed recipes to a cookbook by Native Americans. I suspect she’s deeply embarrassed that her fantasies have been exposed and mocked.

Can Warren overcome this politically? We’ll see. I’ve thought from the beginning that Warren’s Republican opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, was a tough candidate with first-rate political instincts. As I recently wrote in the Huffington Post, I thought the only reason that Warren had a chance was the large Democratic turnout that could be expected given that she’ll be on the same ballot as President Obama. Otherwise, Brown would be a shoo-in.

Let’s just say that the events of the past few weeks won’t help Warren.

U.S. Treasury Department photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Ross Douthat and the politics of self-pity

The Passion of the Douthat

Those of us who are non-Christians would like to apologize to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat for our continued existence.

In a piece remarkable for its self-pity, Douthat declares, “Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.” Among other things, Douthat declares that Christians feel “embattled” by “Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism.”

But according to a survey by Trinity College, about 76 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, which surely makes them our largest oppressed minority group, both proportionately and by sheer numbers.

Douthat is slick enough to poke fun at bozos on the right who rail about the “war” against Christmas. Yet he’s essentially engaging in the same tactic. Since Barry Goldwater, if not before, the conservative movement has been fueled in large measure by whipping up a sense of resentment. The laughable idea that it’s somehow difficult to be a Christian in this country has become a big part of that.

When Douthat was hired to replace William Kristol on the Times op-ed page, he was supposed to represent something new, different and better: a younger, more analytical thinker who might not persuade liberals but who would at least be worth reading for the strength of his arguments.

Instead, he’s proved to be a hack who offers neither entertainment nor insight.

Michelangelo’s “Martyrdom” via Wikimedia Commons. Click here or on image for a larger view.