In the Arena

On Journolist

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Journalists are an oxymoronic tribe of fierce individualists. We’re in constant competition with each other, but we’re thrown into each other’s company–on press buses and planes–and often find ourselves in coy discussions about the amazing things we witness together. This is the stuff of memorable and close friendships; it is also valuable professionally to hear what others are thinking and test your ideas against theirs (as obliquely as possible because you don’t want people stealing your stuff).

During 40 years as a journalist, I’ve been on many press buses and planes–and I’ve also been part of other regular conversations, all of which I’ve enjoyed and learned from; none of which were in the slightest bit insidious. The most memorable of these–and one that really helped me to shape my thinking about domestic policy issues twenty years ago–was the New Paradigm Society, a bipartisan group of centrists who met regularly for dinner in Washington at the turn of the 90s. It was co-founded by Jim Pinkerton of President Bush the Elder’s staff and Elaine Kamarck (soon to be a prominent member of Al Gore’s staff). The group addressed a central conundrum: the welfare state wasn’t going to be abolished–not even the arch-conservative Ronald Reagan could do that–but it wasn’t working very well, either. There were some great conversations and arguments that took place about how to fix the welfare system, education, housing, health care and the entitlements. The conservatives in the group tended to worry about how to provide those services less expensively; the liberals tended to worry about how to provide them more effectively. Some incredibly creative synergies emerged; other discussions were just a waste of time. Politicians as diverse as Newt Gingrich and Bruce Babbitt were occasional visitors. The friends I made there–people like Pinkerton, Kamarck, Bill Galston–remain friends to this day (others, like Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, have become friendly adversaries).

At other times in my career, I was part of a regular lunch group of political reporters in New York in the 1980s, and part of a New Testament Bible study in Washington in the 90s (I wanted to learn more about the teachings of Jesus; I went on to study 1st century Christianity for a semester at Columbia University).

All of which is to say that my participation in the now–rather hilariously–controversial list-serve called Journolist was nothing unique in my history. It began with an argument I had with Ezra Klein, a young blogger who knew, who knows, a hell of a lot about health care. I’m not sure what we were arguing about, but I asked if he’d like to have breakfast and hash it out in person. We did, became friends and he asked me to join his list-serve–which, he said, would be the kind of place to have the sort of creative discussion we’d had over breakfast. It turned out to be exactly that…and more, a place to chat about music and sports, a place to meet some spectacularly smart academics I’d not met before–and, not least, a chance to interact with the latest generation of opinion journalists, most of whom didn’t have a very high opinion of me.

There were 100s of emails popping up in my Journolist file every day, on a range of subjects; I read only a fraction of them. The list tended to focus on economics and health care; I was more interested in foreign policy. I was one of the more moderate members of the group and, on more than one occasion–in fact, in most cases–I found that I had to defend myself against onslaughts from my left. I think my views influenced some of those who attacked me; I know that their views influenced me, forced me to deal with arguments I hadn’t considered, and even changed my mind in a couple of instances.

These conversations were private, as most good ones are. We were taking risks, testing our ideas against others–just as I had with the New Paradigm Society. On occasion, someone proposed some sort of joint action. This was ridiculous, of course; I politely ignored these efforts, as did all of the other experienced journalists on the list. The only joint actions that worked, to my recollection, involved meeting up at some bar. Journalists don’t do joint actions; opinion journalists like me are paid to have our own thoughts–we hoard them jealously until we publish them. Today, the Daily Caller has printed one of my Journolist emails, in which I share my latest published thinking about the just-announced Republican vice presidential candidate and thank the group–in an ironic, overblown tone–for the conversation we’d been having on the subject. When seen through the lens of witless right-wing conspiracy mongering, this seems embarrassing. But there was no conspiracy afoot. I didn’t need the folks on Journolist to figure out how to react to Sarah Palin: her lack of qualifications for the vice presidency–and her spectacular abilities as a stand-up politician–represented a fecund gusher of material that made even the most mediocre of columnists seem like geniuses. Writing about Palin was not hard work; it still isn’t; it will never be.

I am offended that my private correspondence was leaked and published. I suffered another such instance a year ago, when some negative comments I made on Journolist about Glenn Greenwald were leaked (undoubtedly by one of the many Greenwald supporters on the list). Such incidents are annoying, but inconsequential. The views I expressed on Journolist were the views I express here. What I do miss though is the sparring, the intellectual stimulation that Journolist occasionally offered. I’m sad it no longer exists and I don’t regret for a moment being part of it.