Opinion | Nick Kristof’s Strange, Probably Doomed Flirtation with Politics

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For at least a century or more after our republic was founded, it was considered both poor political etiquette and undignified to advance your own candidacy for higher office. Like a prophet from god, you were supposed to simply wait for the call. In politics, this meant biding time until your party, or a newspaper under the spell of your party, selected you to run.

Or at least pretend to wait for the summons. Nicholas Kristof, who has been writing a wonky and crusading op-ed column about international human rights and the disenfranchised for the New York Times for two decades, appears to be following this ancient dictate in his home state of Oregon, telling Portland’s Willamette Week this weekend that a group of his Oregon friends who are polling on his prospects as a candidate hope to persuade him to run for the governorship in 2022.

“We need new leadership from outside the broken political system,” Kristof told Willamette Week, presumably in straight-face mode, sounding exactly like a candidate. “I’m honestly interested in what my fellow Oregonians have to say about that.”

Will Kristof follow through and run as a Democrat to replace the term-limited Democratic occupant, Kate Brown? Does he have a chance? Will he connect with Oregon voters on the stump, or will he repel them by acting like he’s on a book tour raining his standard sanctimony on the masses? Does he really want to give up the high-prestige job of free-roving Times columnist for the thankless job of herding legislators and cracking down on administrators? And if he collects a long-shot win, what sort of guv might he be?

Throughout the 1800s, when newspapers were ideological vessels and the men who ran them filled them with ideas and political notions and skimped on reporting, it was not uncommon for journalists to hold office or rise in political parties, Hazel Dicken-Garcia writes in Journalistic Standards in Nineteeth-Century America. The two jobs were frequently consolidated into one. “[E]very nineteenth-century journalist of note had powerful political influence,” she maintains. The National Intelligencer editor served as the mayor of Washington. A co-founder of the New York Times won two terms in Congress. An editor of the Albany Journal held sway as a Whig Party boss, a New York Journal editor helped lead the Tammany society, and so on.

Journalists have always thought there was one way to look at politicians—down—and that they could do a better job governing than the palookas who got elected. Who knew better how the system worked than a journalist? Who was better connected, had spent more years perfecting his rhetoric and oratory, and possessed a stronger action plan than an opinion writer?

Historians tell us the standard that journos made good government officials began to be retired around the time of the Civil War as newspapers transitioned to being about events more than ideas, and all but vanished in the 20th century as newspapers remodeled themselves as story-tellers and drama-bringers. But as recently as 1872, New York Herald founder and editor Horace Greeley ran for president. Press baron William Randolph Hearst ran for the White House in 1904 and 1908. (He also won two terms in Congress, but they don’t count because the Democratic machine selected safe seats for him to win.)

Although a few journalists have won office since then, high-profile columnist-candidates like William F. Buckley Jr. and Patrick Buchanan haven’t shared their luck. A columnist like Buckley or Buchanan or Kristof might not be a bad government executive, but voters have come to treat the job of columnist as separate from that of office holder, perhaps because they’ve come to view the columnists’ job is criticizing others’ behavior while the office holder is expected to knock heads and produce results. Mark Zusman, the editor of Willamette Week pointed out to me that Oregon voters sometimes surprise the pundits. Tom McCall, an experienced print and broadcast journalist in the Pacific Northwest switched to politics in the mid-1960s and ultimately became governor, serving two terms. NBA veteran Chris Dudley, who played 16 seasons in the NBA (two of them for the Portland Trailblazers), came within 1.5 percentage points from taking the Oregon governorship in 2010, Zusman adds.

“There are some very sharp people working with Kristof, and the field has so many contenders that he might be able to break through given how different he is from the veteran pols who are circling this race,” Zusman says. “But is Nick the kind of guy who will dial for dollars?”

I can’t speak for Kristof’s temperament for the job. He seems to have remained rooted in Oregon, where he runs a family orchard. The one time I encountered Kristof, he seemed less stuck on himself than most elite columnists, so that counts for something. But what proof exists that he can raise money, campaign, lead his party, deal with the opposition party and manage the Oregon bureaucracy? When voters elected a non-politician as chief executive of the United States, we got a four-year carnival of political pranks and lies. Kristof can’t be as wretched an administrator as Donald Trump was, but will Oregon voters elect a governor whose most immediate job experience has been satisfying a handful of people in a newspaper office when the field will be filled with candidates who understand organizations and politicking? Kristof, whose trophy shelf bulges with all the top awards, has contested sex slavers for many years, but does he have the guts and patience to wrassle with a state legislature, even in a good-government state like Oregon?

Writers like Kristof, who has spent a lifetime bossing paragraphs around, can be excellent philosopher kings. Some even have the stuff to serve as the ruler of a tiny principality. But I wouldn’t trust one to be my governor.

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Every journalist should become king for a day. Send coronation details to [email protected]. My email alerts ran for class president and got beat. My Twitter feed stuffed the ballot box and got beat, too. My RSS feed is an active plotter against the government.

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