From a Mitch Albom piece on the recession to Dave Barry riffing on the Olympics to Mary Schmich commenting on a small urban kindness, John Avlon picks the best opinion writing of the year.
It can be hard to appreciate the present, because we have no perspective on it. But year-end “best of” lists help create a sense our times, even if it requires some instant nostalgia. And because I’ve always enjoyed annual lists of best albums, books, and movies, I decided to compile a list of the 12 best columns of 2012, crowdsourcing the suggestions to cut the inevitable subjectivity.
(Clockwise) Gail Collins, Mary Schmich, Dan Barry, Dave Barry, David Brooks, Colbert King.
After editing Deadline Artists with Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis, we often have been asked whether this American art form is still alive and well. The good news is that there are still deadline artists working today, turning out reported columns. And even though we are living in a time when obituaries are being written for newspapers every day, opinion writing is proliferating online like never before.
There were many great columns written this election year. But you’ll find that this list is, if anything, underrepresentative of the political debates in 2012. That’s because the best columns sidestep the rapid-fire opinions and ideological jousting between members of warring tribes.
The essential quality for a great column is storytelling, the ability to entertain as well as educate. The classic reported column isn’t as widespread yet online as in the newspapers, where memories of that tradition still infuse the newsroom. This list skews toward the stylists who combine the urgency of news with the precision of poetry, writing history in the present tense. But there are humor columnists represented here as well.
It’s fair to say that the distinctions among newspaper columns, blogs, and first- person online journalism are beginning to blur. In the near future, focusing on print publications will be an irrelevant distinction. But to keep the category clear and clutter-free, this list focuses only on columns originally published in newspapers, which also avoids competition between colleagues at The Daily Beast and elsewhere.
So take it with a grain of salt, as an appreciation, the start of a conversation. Below, listed in alphabetical order by author, are 12 of the best columns from 2012. Read and enjoy.
Mitch Albom: “From Bank Job to Trimming Bushes, Man Keeps His Faith”
—The Detroit Free Press
Critics trying to derail the ex-senator’s likely nomination as defense secretary should read his 2008 book to understand his true, reasonable views—and Obama should not allow himself to be intimidated out of picking him, says John Avlon.
The preemptive strike on Sen. Chuck Hagel’s possible nomination to be secretary of defense has been relentless this holiday season. It is trial by Twitter, character assassination by media narrative, a steady drumbeat of accusations and innuendo all designed to make the Nebraska Republican seem politically toxic.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., walks with Barack Obama as they tour the citadel in Amman, Jordan, in July 2008. (Jae C. Hong / AP)
The irony is that the political logic of a Hagel appointment is to demonstrate bipartisan outreach by President Obama—the appointment of a second Republican secretary of defense to follow in Robert Gates’s pre-Panetta footsteps. While Hagel has strong defenders, pointed critics have come from the far right, and a few from the far left. Liberal Democrats primarily question the need for any outreach to Republicans at all after a decisive election victory, while Republicans who might normally cheer the nomination of a fellow party member disdain Hagel for his outspoken independence during the Bush years.
Hagel’s cardinal sin among some conservatives is opposing the surge in Iraq and being the most vocal Republican critic of neoconservatism, saying, “For the most part, ideology hijacked diplomacy during the Bush administration.” He did so from the perspective of a small-government conservative and a highly decorated Vietnam vet, skeptical of the costs that come with unnecessary wars. This earned him lasting opposition from the neocon crowd, which has attempted to tar him as anti-Israel—a serious charge in our domestic politics and one easily blurred with the toxic personal accusation of anti-Semitism.
As a New Yorker and witness to 9/11, I am instinctively pro-Israel—along with Britain, they are our closest allies in a world too full of countries that would coddle tyrants and terrorists.
But beyond my appreciation for independent voices and bipartisan coalitions, my extended family’s experience with Chuck Hagel serves as a small character reference. He and my mother’s cousin Dean Phillips were friends and fellow Vietnam vets who worked together in the VA to under Presidents Carter and Reagan. Previously Dean served with the 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper on long-range reconnaissance patrols and was awarded two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, and the Purple Heart. After the war, both men devoted themselves to their fellow soldiers in a time of thankless transition. When Dean died at age 42 of what was believed to be Agent Orange–related cancer, Hagel gave the eulogy. Even as a senator, years later, Hagel stayed in touch with Dean’s mother, Helen, back home in Ohio. The experience is anecdotal (I’ve never met the man), but it is testimony to his character.
Perspective on Hagel’s qualification is needed on at least two fronts. First, it is striking that so many of the vocal critics against Hagel’s possible appointment to serve as defense secretary have not served in the military. That would seem to be a prerequisite for the post, though of course it is not. Nonetheless, I’d be more interested in what leading members of the military—past and current—might say, rather than lobbyists or pundits, pro or con.
The most potent reality check, however, is a look at Hagel’s own beliefs as a counterweight to the accusations that have been thrown against him. In the surreal half-light of a trial-balloon nomination, it is difficult for an individual to come to his own defense. Statements are taken out of context, and facts offered up in isolation to present a picture of someone as a quasi-monster, disfigured beyond recognition even to those who know him. The antidote is available with a little effort—ditch the well-funded opposition research being fed to partisan pundits and instead take a look at what Hagel has written about his own beliefs.
John Boehner tried to get his ideologues in line, but instead they weakened the GOP's hand. Now the risk is high for no bargain, more paralysis—and a speaker job in peril.
Extremes are always their own side’s worst enemy.
Boehner denies that Congress is ‘quitting’ from solving the fiscal cliff.
Speaker John Boehner’s failure to cobble together enough conservative votes to pass his Plan B is not just bad news for Boehner. It is bad news for the Republican Party and the country.
Not only is the path to avoiding the fiscal cliff now far less clear; Boehner’s position as speaker is imperiled.
This is a symbol of the sickness in our politics: a dogged dealmaker like Boehner is left stranded in the center, while irresponsible ideological activists in his own party encourage insurrection. It’s a no-win situation for the nation because his potential successors—Eric Cantor and Jeb Hensarling—would be even less likely to try and make a deal with the Obama White House.
The now-inevitable Christmastime talk about a conservative congressional coup will be focused on finding an even more rigid and ideologically pure leader of the party. That means someone who would rather charge off the cliff than raise taxes on families who make more than $1 million a year. If successful, it would mean even more polarization and paralysis for the next years—a complete misreading of the election results, with potentially devastating effects on our economy.
On Monday, it seemed as if the speaker and the president were coming close to a deal—both men had made significant concessions, with Boehner agreeing to raise tax rates for those making more than $1 million a year while President Obama lowered his revenue goals and agreed to entitlement reform by changing the formula for Social Security payments. The $2 trillion savings plan wouldn’t solve our deficit and debt problem, but it would mark a major step forward—a solid foundation for a productive second term. The remaining gaps were significant but far from unbridgeable.
Midweek, Boehner switched gears to play offense with a Plan B that would have prevented tax hikes for 99.5 percent of Americans. This was always a bit of congressional kabuki theater, because Plan B was DOA in the Senate. But it backfired big time when Boehner and Co. couldn’t get the votes late Thursday night—more than 24 conservative votes were bolting and so Plan B was scuttled. Reeling, leadership sent out a terse email to their members: “The House has concluded legislative business for the week. Members are advised that the House will return for legislative business after the Christmas holiday when needed.”
From magisterial biographies to the fine art of column writing, it’s been a good year in reading.
Some great – and in the case of Robert Caro’s latest, long awaited – books came out this year. Caro’s Passage of Power topped my list of must-reads from 2012 in a list compiled for Newsweek and The Daily Beast that included editor Tina Brown, Andrew Sullivan, and David Frum, among others.
My other choices included Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson and Defender of the Realm by William Manchester and Paul Reid. The latter is another history that no lover of multi-volume explorations of political character should be without.
Last but not least, pick up a copy of Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies and Triumphs, co-edited by myself, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis. Chock full of columns by true greats like Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton, and Mike Royko, its perfect for the newspaper reader in your family – and a nice introduction to the art of reported column-writing for the blogging generation.
Read all of the choices by Newsweek / The Daily Beast editors, columnists, and reporters.
Obama and Boehner should close the fiscal-cliff deal they seem to be nearing, and their skittish parties need to climb aboard—and send the message that our country can solve problems by reasoning together, says John Avlon.
In 12 days, our country goes off the fiscal cliff.
Protesters make their voices heard on the fiscal-cliff debate. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
That’s why it’s time for Congress to go big and then go home for the holidays.
With House Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” basically DOA in the Democratic Senate, skepticism is growing after an encouraging start to the week in Washington.
But put all the congressional Kabuki theater aside and there’s still evidence that real progress is being made toward what could be a historic step toward bipartisan deficit and debt reduction.
President Obama and Speaker Boehner both deserve credit for making significant concessions in recent days, working toward a balanced plan.
On the Republican side, Boehner has offered to raise not just tax revenues, but tax rates—a risky violation of anti-tax theology as well as a concession to reality in the form of the sun-setting Bush tax cuts. The catch, of course, is that Boehner now wants to raise taxes only on families making more than a $1 million. More important for the country, Boehner has offered to take the debt ceiling off the table for two years, allowing for a degree of stability in the coming Congress.
On the Democratic side, Obama backed off his threshold for the top tax-rate of $250,000, which he’d used as a rhetorical red line throughout the campaign. Instead, the president offered to make the return to Clinton-era rates apply only to the money families earn over $400,000. He also agreed to a significant reform of Social Security with the obfuscating name “chained CPI,” which would adjust the benefit formula for inflation. This is a relatively painless form of entitlement reform that could have significant impact on bending the long-term cost curve.
While politicians step softly around the gun lobby, Americans keep dying.
Independent New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is scheduled to make a major announcement on gun control at 12:30 today. One of his former deputies on the issue, Arkadi Gerney, wrote an excellent op-ed this weekend for the New York Daily News, detailing the escalation of mass shootings in America and – crucially – laid out some remedies, with an eye-opening stat about NRA member support for some reasonable restrictions.
“There is no single cause of these gun murders and no single solution. But some solutions are clear. One of the most obvious is passage of the Fix Gun Checks Act, a bill in Congress supported by police organizations and 700 mayors. It would ensure that the record of every person already prohibited from possessing a gun is in the background check database and that a background check is conducted on every gun sale.
“These two gaps contributed to Columbine and Virginia Tech — as well as countless, forgotten street killings. And, by the way, when Republican pollster Frank Luntz asked NRA members earlier this year whether they support background checks on every gun sale, 74% agreed.
“What on earth are we waiting for?”
Read the full op-ed at the New York Daily News.
No more excuses – it’s time to tighten gun regulations, writes John Avlon.
It happened in the safest sort of neighborhood. If there’s anywhere in America where children should feel like there children are always secure, it’s a place like Newtown, Connecticut, I write in my weekend column for The Telegraph. The time for politicians to make excuses for America’s epidemic violence came to an end in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School, as 20 children and six adults faced a young man armed with assault weapons:
"America has become almost numb to gun violence in recent years, despite an escalating body count.
"More than 200 people have been murdered in mass shootings in the last five years alone – and that's on top of the 10,000 people killed by guns here each year.
"Earlier this week, a 22-year old opened fire in an Oregon shopping mall and killed two people. Television coverage dissipated by the next morning.
"But the unusual cruelty of this mass killing should shake the cold certainty of the most hardened guns rights advocate. Kindergartners are not supposed to be gunned down at school."
It shouldn’t have happened in Newtown. It can’t happen again. It’s time for a new era when it comes to debate around guns in America.
Read the full column at The Telegraph.
Taking on the organizations that champion guns is the best way to honor the littlest victims of our nation’s latest shooting tragedy.
The era of scraping and bowing to the gun lobby has to end, I write in The Telegraph.
"More than 200 Americans have been killed in mass shooting incidents in the last five years alone. The pattern is clear and the problem seems to be escalating: a mentally ill young man gets his hands on guns and massive amounts of ammunition. In the last six months alone we have seen slaughters in a screening of Batman in Aurora, Colorado, a Sikh Temple, an Oregon Mall and now this.
"But the reasonable policy debate that should emerge in the wake of each killing is stalled. We are numbed to the violence and hemmed in by a form of political correctness pushed by the right which says that it is insensitive to talk about gun control so soon after a shooting.
"This conformity of conversation is reinforced by the powerful gun lobby which targets politicians who vote against its interests. As a result, there has actually been an erosion of sensible gun laws in recent years, as Republicans have moved further to the Right and Democrats feel that aggressive support of gun control is a political liability in winning over rural voters."
Gun laws have actually loosened under Obama, even as he’s become a bogeyman for the National Rifle Association and the rest of the radical right. It’s time for the president to become the man the gun lobby fears.
Read the full column at The Telegraph.
Signing right-to-work legislation won’t end the fight over the issue, writes John Avlon. Expect it to be the main issue in Snyder’s 2014 reelection bid.
So this is what he meant by “One Tough Nerd.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder holds a news conference to talk about why he signed into law, earlier in the day, right-to-work laws in Lansing, Mich. Dec. 11, 2012. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters, via Landov)
Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, has become public enemy No. 1 among liberals for his controversial decision this week to sign right-to-work legislation in Michigan—the birthplace of the American organized labor movement.
In 2010, he campaigned apart from the Tea Party tide, representing himself as a comparatively centrist technocrat, a CEO, and a CPA who would be relentlessly focused on balancing the state’s budget and improving its business climate. He rose from obscurity—beginning the race with virtually no statewide name recognition—to win office, largely thanks to a great TV ad that aired during the Super Bowl, introducing him as “One Tough Nerd.”
Now Michigan Democrats are calling Snyder a liar, as in State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer’s overheated Huffington Post column calling the legislation “anti-worker, anti-family, and ... anti-American.”
Coverage of the controversy at the state capital in Lansing was equally heated, as union member protesters swarmed the rotunda and circled the building. There were conflicts between the thousands of liberal activists who descended on the capital to protest the legislation, and the relative handful of conservatives there to support it.
Against this backdrop, there was an understandable temptation to replay the script of the divisive Wisconsin battles over Gov. Scott Walker’s approach there to reforming collective-bargaining rights. These fights were also labeled as labor’s last stand.
But the comparisons end at the slogans. Rick Snyder is not Scott Walker. And Michigan is not Wisconsin.
The Senate’s failure to ratify a UN convention on disabled rights is a case study in everything that’s wrong with the institution, I write in my column for The Sunday Telegraph:
"It needs to be a wake-up call about a broken institution that's letting down the American people." So said John Kerry in a fit of frustration after the Senate voted against ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
This was the sort of pro-forma vote that would have passed with broad bipartisan support a decade or so ago – a symbolic signing on to a UN treaty that aimed to raise international standards on the treatment of the disabled, not to some dizzying new height but to the level the US achieved more than 20 years ago under President George H W Bush.
Read it at The Sunday Telegraph.
Harry Siegel and Ben Jacobs hash out Mike Bloomberg’s next move, Clinton, Christie and Cuomo’s presidential ambitions, and the idiot factories of legalized gambling.
Newsweek and The Daily Beast senior editor Harry Siegel and Daily Download managing editor Ben Jacobs broke down the “wonderful, strange, bizarre, quasi-corrupt world of New York politics” in a new post on Bloggingheads.tv Tuesday morning. The two discussed the influence the mere mention of Mike Bloomberg’s name has on the press, and whether or not Empire State Governor Andrew Cuomo will run for president as a Democrat in 2016. Not to mention legalized gambling:
“Casinos are basically evil,” Siegel said. “Atlantic City did all right because it had no competition. When you see the business plans for any new casino – and New York now has its first casino in the city, it’s a ‘racino,’ it’s a lottery thing. It’s nominally a lottery, but it plays exactly like slot machines, poker, all these others games. It’s fairly ridiculous, to route around a prohibition in the state constitution …. They need to build new gamblers, they can’t all just compete for the same share. They’re like adult daycare, and moron daycare, and superstitious person daycare. They are very, very depressing. They provide no social benefit.”
Check out the full video at Bloggingheads.tv.
He’s an evangelical Christian Tea Partier with impeccable social-conservative bona fides—and he just happens to be black. John Avlon on the perfect successor for Jim DeMint.
If appointed Scott would be the first African-American Republican in the U.S. Senate since the 1960s. (Steve Jessmore / Myrtle Beach Sun-News-MCT via Getty Images)
Happily, Scott is also reportedly DeMint’s first choice, though the current senator has nothing more than advisory powers in picking his successor.
Scott’s appointment would be historic for South Carolina and the Republican Party. More important, it would be constructive for the country.
Tim Scott first made history in the Tea Party year of 2010, when he defeated Strom Thurmond’s son Paul Thurmond to win the Republican primary for the first congressional district.
To put this in perspective, the first district of South Carolina is home to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Paul Thurmond’s father was the Dixiecrat candidate for president in 1948, splitting with the Democrats over his staunch support of segregation, despite having fathered a black child—Essie Mae—whose paternity he denied all his life. Thurmond went on to be an architect of the Republican Party’s Southern strategy and the longest-serving senator in American history.
The fact that Tim Scott is African-American—and also conservative—should not be underestimated in the sweep of South Carolina history. The coastal first district is one of the most beautiful places in America, and the city of Charleston is one of the most elegant and evocative in the country. My parents moved there more than two decades ago and believe it’s the best decision they’ve ever made.
Certainly, Scott has played his political cards well. The local insurance-company owner and state legislator was one of Strom Thurmond’s co-chairs in his final senate campaign. When he won a Charleston City Council seat in 1995, he became the first African-American Republican elected to any office in South Carolina since Reconstruction. And these were not purely marriages of political convenience.
The day's essential reads for independents and centrists.
Independent Nation gives you the day’s 5 essential reads for independents and centrists:
1. “2012 Election Ended With Deluge of Donations and Spending,” at The New York Times.
The dark money taps were opened wide as the 2012 election cycle came to a close.
2. “The Dick Morris/Newsmax Super PAC Boondoggle,” at Media Matters.
Seems the pundit may have saved some money over the election cycle to burn through while he sits out at Fox.
3. “Obama Wins Again,” at The Daily Beast.
The fiscal cliff fight can play out in different ways, writes Robert Shrum, but Obama will win.
4. “Mr. President, Don’t Even Think About It,” at The Dish.
Will the Feds push back on pot?
5. “The Drug Benefit Fiasco,” at The Daily Beast.
Daniel Gross on the fiscal cliff hostage situation, day 31.
The day’s essential reads for independents and centrists.
Independent Nation gives you the day’s 5 essential reads for independents and centrists:
1. “Who Will Haley Pick to Replace DeMint,” at The Daily Beast.
John Avlon runs down the contenders as Gov. Nikki Haley prepares to decide on a replacement for Jim DeMint.
2. “Fox’s Correspondent on Front Lines With Obama,” at the Associated Press.
Admits that his network overplayed its Benghazi coverage.
3. “Is Stephen Colbert Running for the U.S. Senate?” at USA Today.
A spokesman for the comedian dances around the question.
4. “The Crisis of the Republican Brand,” at The Daily Beast.
Doug Schoen and Jessica Tarlov on how the GOP is losing the fiscal cliff debate.
5. “One Month Later: 30 Post-Election Rebuilding Tips From Republicans,” at Talking Points Memo.
The great Republican rebuilding project continues.
Deciding who will fill DeMint’s seat for the next two years could be the most important decision Gov. Nikki Haley makes. John Avlon runs down the contenders.
Jim DeMint’s surprise announcement that he will resign his senate seat in January sent shockwaves through Washington and South Carolina on Thursday.
AP Photo (3)
The Tea Party’s most vocal proponent in the senate will take over the Heritage Foundation at a reported salary of $1 million per year, plus –as David Frum points out– a car and driver. This is a step toward fulfilling Eric Hoffer’s aphorism: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket."
But now the guessing game begins as to who South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will appoint to fill out the remaining two years of DeMint’s term. It is a safe Republican seat and two years is plenty of time for an appointee to put their stamp on it, and set themselves up as the candidate to beat when it’s time to run.
My parents moved to South Carolina more than 25 years ago, and I love the state’s almost sportsman-like, full-contact approach to politics. This appointment could well be the most lasting contribution Governor Haley makes in office (just as David Patterson’s appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand to the seat Hillary Clinton left when she joined the administration will be his most lasting legacy).
So as a way of sorting the cards for this particular parlor-game, below is my list of potential appointees to DeMint’s senate seat, informed by local sources.
To get a sense of the feel for the decision on the ground, the founder and editor of the Charleston Mercury, Charles Waring, offered this assessment: “Sen. DeMint is a thoughtful conservative who wants to be effective. I believe Jim DeMint considered the idea of working two more years with Majority Leader Harry Reid and decided he could do more for his cause in another capacity, and the Heritage Foundation is a tremendous opportunity; I cannot blame my friend for wanting to thrive outside of the legislative cesspool that Senator Reid has created, and I congratulate Sen. DeMint for making a wise change in his career choice.”
Waring’s preference for the seat would be Representative Joe Wilson of “You Lied!” infamy – a favorite of many rock-ribbed conservatives in the state. Darla Moore, a local businesswoman who funded the University of South Carolina School of Business and became – alongside Condi Rice – the first woman to join Augusta National Gold Club, could also be a good choice but is highly unlikely given that Haley clashed with her and removed her from the USC Board, to great local controversy. Bob Ingliss, who lost a Tea Party primary for his congressional seat could also be a good U.S. Senator but would be far too controversial a pick. The best man for the job might actually be former Governor Mark Sanford, but because of his Appalachian Trail-related scandal at the end of his second term, that is a likely non-starter.
Last week's tragic fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, has brought the issue of government regulation back to the forefront. On Friday night's Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Beast's Political Director John Avlon denounces deregulation rhetoric.
The strange, opaque world of politically minded nonprofits. By John Avlon and Michael Keller.