The Trajectory of Ezra Klein

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Ezra Klein has been on the Saturn V path of political punditry followed by many a Washington writer before him. Not even 30 yet (he’s 28) he got his professional start at an internship here at the Monthly and made his way, via the American Prospect, to the tottering-but-still-top-of-The-Establishment Washington Post, becoming their biggest traffic source. There have been some false moves, big scandals, and bitter resentment from jealous older journalists, but the trajectory has still been up and up and up.

Matt Welch of Reason wrote an excellent profile of the guy and his rise recently. Here’s a taste:

Klein adds some new wrinkles to this stock character of Beltway journalism. Whereas his predecessors were exclusively eastern-seaboard, Ivy-League types, Klein is a California kid from the UC system (Santa Cruz and Los Angeles). Instead of launching his career by leveraging connections to the established elite, he built his reputation by blogging loudly, and sharply, into the void. Yesterday’s Kleins earned their fame at The New Republic; today’s model rose to prominence despite avoiding, and occasionally bashing, progressivism’s flagship magazine. With these departures in style, substance, and comportment, Klein’s meteoric young career underscores not only the dynamic transformation of the media business, but changes in liberalism itself.

I’ve been reading Ezra since around 2006 or so, and it’s been interesting to watch the way he has changed as he has gotten more and more successful. Writing-wise, at least, he is almost unrecognizable from those early days. In fact, he barely blogs at all any more—his corner of the Post, Wonkblog, is now largely written by a growing team of four other writers (and is emitting an increasing whiff of BuzzFeed). Ezra seems more about putting out a longer column syndicated across many outlets (including this magazine), and regularly guest-hosting Rachel Maddow’s show. I wager he’ll have his own show inside of a year.

But during this time, he got rather dull. Where Old Ezra once was quick, witty, and not afraid of seeming partisan, New Ezra is bloodless, ponderous, and scrupulously nonpartisan to a fault. In other words, he sounds like a Washington Post writer. Take this column on the Romney campaign, where Old Ezra is doing his damndest to escape from the New Ezra superego:

So at about 1 a.m. Thursday, having read Ryan’s speech in an advance text and having watched it on television, I sat down to read it again, this time with the explicit purpose of finding claims we could add to the “true” category. And I did find one. He was right to say that the Obama administration has been unable to correct the housing crisis, though the force of that criticism is somewhat blunted by the fact that neither Ryan nor Mitt Romney have proposed an alternative housing policy. But I also came up with two more “false” claims. So I read the speech again. And I simply couldn’t find any other major claims or criticisms that were true…

All this is true irrespective of your beliefs as to what is good and bad policy, or which ticket you prefer. Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation. Even if you bend over backward to be generous to them — as the Tax Policy Center did when they granted the Romney campaign a slew of essentially impossible premises in order to evaluate their tax plan — you often find yourself forced into the same conclusion: This doesn’t add up, this doesn’t have enough details to be evaluated, or this isn’t true.

I don’t like that conclusion. It doesn’t look “fair” when you say that. We’ve been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame. I’d personally feel better if our coverage didn’t look so lopsided. But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal. So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.

Italics mine. The conclusion is correct, but compare that to Old Ezra reacting to the news that Douglas Feith had resigned:

Doug Feith has quit. Oh happy day! The prime incompetent amid a sea of pretenders, he distinguished himself as an omnipresent voice for incompetence, playing a crucial part in fucking up of the invasion, and occupation, of Iraq.

I don’t want to come off as too harsh on New Ezra. I think he’s still worth reading. I’m happy to see the Post hire non-boneheads. I’m especially happy to see him lever his influence into paying jobs for lots of other journalists, and if I were him, I probably won’t bother too much with working the blog trenches either.

But there’s some interesting comparisons to be made to other leftish writers at his level. Chris Hayes, probably Ezra’s closest comparison, has maintained his social democrat position (far to Ezra’s left) while making it to own-cable-show status. Matt Taibbi is quite possibly more widely read than either of them, but seems to thrive on his outsider, bomb-throwing stance. Or maybe it’s just that neither of them got sucked into the Post vortex.

Welch’s profile concludes on an interesting note:

The great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn had a memorable line about “that usual tedious trajectory from left to right” as writers grow older. One might include in that sentiment the equally predictable earlier-life journey from outsider to insider, from critic to actor. In his 20s, Walter Lippman went from junior Socialist Party agitator to senior Woodrow Wilson functionary. Klein (who says of his early 20s that he “was more liberal then than I am now”) originated from much further outside the bubble, using the disintermediation of technology to vault himself up the totem pole in ways not conceivable a century, or even a decade, ago.

But he has become arguably the prototypical insider in the Age of Obama: confident, cloaked in numbers, assured about the virtues of economic intervention but alarmed by the growing dysfunction of politics. In fact, he is so deep inside now that he’s come to an even more terrifying conclusion about life in The Village than his Netroots compatriots could ever have dreamed: “I’m much more certain that the problems are systemic and the various forms of gatekeeping elites [are] impotent,” he wrote me in a follow-up email to our interview. “And that feeling—that the people in charge aren’t just wrong or bought off, but that, quite often, they fundamentally don’t know what they’re doing—is a bit scary, and fairly radicalizing.”

It seems Old Ezra is still alive and kicking. Let’s just hope he doesn’t end up where David Broder did, the useless “dean” of the Washington press. (Or go work for The New Republic.)

@ryanlcooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is Washington correspondent for The Week.