“I think I’m good,” said Joseph Kraft, and paused to pick up the phone. He was sitting in the basement office of his home in Washington’s Georgetown on election day 1974. Upstairs there were Paris Review posters on the wall and objets d’art from China on the coffee tables. Here in his office, his secretary typed quietly behind him while Kraft took the call from Gerald Warren at the White House. Kraft was leaving for Greece in a few days, on assignment for The New Yorker, and before he left he wanted to arrange a rendezvous with President Ford’s party in Japan.

“Look, Jerry, I just want to be sure we have things straight. I am one of the very few people with a serious interest in both the domestic and foreign implications, and.…” he stopped for a moment to listen. “Look, I think my case is very strong.”

He hung up and came back to the question under discussion, the changing fortunes of the newspaper column as an institution, with special emphasis on the columns of Joseph Kraft.

“I think I’m good, and I think the reason I’m good is that I think hard and I work hard. I’m the hardest-working columnist I know.”

He had been speaking very quickly, leaning forward in his chair and looking his visitor in the eye. Now he tilted back and said more reflectively, “I’ve had a very successful career as a columnist. I like my job. I get up in the morning, and, you know, I really do like what I do all day. It’s gone very well for me.”

Indeed it has, and Kraft is not the only one to say so. Since he took his first job 25 years ago as an editorial writer for The Washington Post, Kraft has risen to the top of political journalism. He spent a total of seven years at the Post and the Week in Review section of The New York Times. In 1957 he began free-lancing. One year later he won the Overseas Press Club’s award for “Best Magazine Reporting” for coverage of the Algerian civil war. In 1960 Kraft signed on as a speechwriter with John Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He was apparently good at that, too, for in the first of his “Making of the President” books, Theodore White described Kraft as one of the two “ablest writers in America”—the other, in White’s view, being John Barlow Martin. After the campaign Kraft succeeded William S. White as Washington correspondent for Harper’s, a position he held until 1963, when, at the age of 39, he began writing his thrice-weekly syndicated column. Almost as soon as it appeared the column met acclaim. The British writer, Henry Fairlie, never renowned for his flattery, expressed a widely accepted view when he said that Kraft was “Lippmann’s only visible successor.” Walter Lippmann himself, Kraft’s predecessor in the upper-left-hand corner of the Post‘s op-ed page, called him “the most promising commentator of his generation,” a judgment Newsweek reiterated in a story about Kraft in 1965. Anthony Lewis is one old friend who admires and respects him. Stanley Karnow is another. Even David Halberstam, whose personal distaste for Kraft is scarcely contained, wrote in The Best and the Brightest that Kraft was “one of the best political writers in America.”

Kraft is intelligent: valedictorian of his class at Columbia in 1947, he spent a year at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study after graduation.

Kraft is well-connected: On his frequent travels abroad he consorts with the likes of Brandt and Brezhnev, Yevtushenko and Malraux, King Hussein, King Faisal, and Premier Chou En-lai. Back home, he and his wife Polly winter in Georgetown and summer in the Hamptons on Long Island, next door to Clay Felker, the editor of New York.

Kraft’s column is widely read: The Washington Post gives him better placement than any other columnist, and outside Washington he appears in some 180 newspapers. He is denied the major outlet only in New York, where he is not in the Times but the Post.

Despite all this, Joseph Kraft’s career illustrates all too clearly the limitations of his form of political commentary. In the columns and magazine articles he has written over the last 12 years, Kraft has treated political personalities in a distorted and misleading way. In his analysis of domestic affairs he has too often been blind to the most fundamental sources of change. In his coverage from abroad he has been uninformative and thin. These and his other shortcomings are significant because they are not unique to Kraft. Most of the other columnists are simply less successful versions of Joseph Kraft, sharing the same values and techniques and subject to the same constraints. By examining the way those constraints have affected Kraft, we may help explain the pallor and predictability of our columnists in general.

The Lippmann Legacy

First, some distinctions. Several different styles of column-writing have evolved during the last 50 years, but one has clearly predominated. That is the heavy-weight, “analytical” style, of which Lippmann was an early representative and Kraft is the current standard-bearer. The characteristic of these “analysts” is that they provide ideas, not information; they digest and reflect upon the news reported on the front page, rather than breaking the news themselves. The extent to which the “analytical” style has dominated the column is made clear by a list of the analysts: Lippmann, Kraft, Arthur Krock, James Reston, Tom Wicker, and Anthony Lewis (these last four all of The New York Times), Marquis Childs, the brothers Alsop, George F. Will, Charles Bartlett, William S. White, Carl Rowan, James J. Kilpatrick, and many others.

The “analysts,” as this list suggests, are by no means homogeneous. To cite the main sub-group, there are the “conservative” analysts as opposed to the “liberals” like Wicker and Kraft. Every decade or so a promising conservative voice appears—William Buckley in the 1950s, James J. Kilpatrick in the 60s, now George Will in the 70s—and is hailed by onlookers hoping desperately to find the new Burke. But there is an overriding similarity between these conservatives and the liberals in their non-reportorial approach to the news. To see just how similar the analysts are, we need only consider the handful of columnists who have tried to do something besides pure “analysis” with their daily 800 words. There are really only three such alternate ideas about what a column should be.

The first alternate tradition is one that has recently fallen on hard times. During the 1950s and 1960s, Murray Kempton of the New York Post wrote a column that was different from any of its predecessors. Unlike the Lippmann-style columnists, Kempton would observe events first-hand and report on them in his column; but unlike the straight-news reporters who were also on the scene of breaking news, Kempton felt free to include in his column all the human nuance and political implication of the event. More recently, Jimmy Breslin has written in this vein, and Mary McGrory does it even now. What has changed since Kempton’s days is the uniqueness of the product; with the coming of the “new journalism,” the front page now contains the kind of “color stories” and news analysis previously left to Kempton and McGrory.

The second kind of non-analytical column is still going strong. It is the muckraking column pioneered by Drew Pearson and Robert Allen and now carried forward by Jack Anderson. What distinguishes Anderson’s “Washington Merry-Go-Round” from the other categories of columns is its reliance on facts. Curiously, this column appears on The Washington Post‘s comic page.

The third and newest category is that created by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak in the early 1960s. Like Pearson and Anderson, Evans and Novak provide facts; but unlike the “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” the Evans and Novak column does not confine itself to muckraking. It is easy to make fun of the column’s ludicrous bias in favor of Scoop Jackson and Melvin Laird; and serious charges of conflict-of-interest have been raised against Evans and Novak by Stephen Nordlinger in a recent issue of [MORE] Still, these two men did have a new idea when they started the column, and on the days when their sources are in power, they can come up with stories no one else has.

With these three exceptions, the rest of the op-ed page is given over to the analysts, the Krafts and Restons who puff on their pipes and deliver their views of the world. On those mornings when the “analysis” consists of virtually identical views about the Future of the Democratic Party or the Meaning of Impeachment, it is tempting to conclude that everyone but the working reporters should be thrown off the paper. Never was this temptation stronger than during the year and a half of Watergate, when the contrast between the engrossing detail of the newspage and the columnists’ stale opinions made one feel that the analysts could be dropped without loss. There is, however, a genuine need the analysts can fill, and that .is to provide a sort of detachment and perspective one finds nowhere else in the press.

Perhaps the best illustration is the series of columns Walter Lippmann wrote during the fall of 1950 (and then recycled over the next few years to prove that he had been right). The question at the time was how far MacArthur could or should go with his North Korean invasion, and Lippmann argued that he should be pulled back fast. Lippmann based his position on an examination of the pattern of U.S.-Soviet relationships, which gave the invasion a different meaning than was immediately apparent. Since World War II, Lippmann said, the United States and Russia had reached a kind of gentlemen’s agreement about incursions on one another’s territory. When the Russians acted to upset the “status quo” in some portion of the world—in Berlin, in Greece, in Iran—we would act to restore the status quo, but no more. We would start the Berlin airlift, but we would not bomb the daylights out of East Germany. According to this pattern, we would respond in Korea by pushing the Communists back across the 38th parallel, thus restoring the status quo. By doing more than that, Lippmann said, we would run the risk of upsetting the gentlemen’s agreement and enlarging the war—and of course he was right. MacArthur recklessly advanced to the Yalu river, the Chinese entered the war, and all sides were involved in three years of bloody and unnecessary conflict.

This example does not prove that columnists are always effective, but only that they have the potential of developing standards which will persuade some people and help others see how the government should act. No columnist can be expected to fulfill this potential every time; rather, the test is whether, in the long run, the columnist provides the perspective that the rest of the press lacks.

It must be said straightaway that Kraft has provided the best kind of analysis on several crucial occasions. He was one of the first columnists to declare that the war in Vietnam was not going to work, a judgment he attributes to his experience with the guerrillas in Algeria. During the 1960s, Kraft also understood the limitations of the Great Society programs far better than most others who were writing at the time. In his first column after the Watergate burglary, Kraft noted that it defied logic or evidence to believe that Richard Nixon was not deeply involved. And, to give him credit for the most attractive aspect of his current performance, he continues to address the central question of public affairs at the moment, the question of the country’s economic survival. While most other columnists stay away from the topic, perhaps from apprehension about their lack of expertise, only Kraft and Nicholas von Hoffman, so unalike in every other way, give consistent attention to our economic emergencies.

Yet to read back over 12 years of Kraft’s output, as I have done, is to be struck not by his insight and perspective but by the opposite: by his inability to perceive some of the most significant kinds of change in the country, and his failure to detach his own critical standards from those of the people he is writing about.

Missing the Human Dimension

As the first illustration of Kraft’s failed perspective, there is his treatment of the major political personalities of the last few years. A balanced portrayal of public figures is not easy to achieve. Both Washington, with its tendency to lionize whoever is in power, and New York, with its tendency to classify all politicians as charlatans and crooks, project onesided views of political and human reality, overlooking the fact that most public figures are neither heroes nor villains but normal humans, with both good and bad sides. One of the services a columnist might provide would be to help correct this imbalance. Yet this is a service they neglect, and none more flagrantly than Joseph Kraft.

In 1963, Kraft wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post about Oklahoma’s Senator Robert Kerr. There could hardly be a richer subject for analysis, or one better suited for developing the human complexity. Kerr was an extremely smart man, one of the great masters of manipulation in the Senate. At the same time, he was Bobby Baker’s dark angel—less because he wanted to enrich himself than because he seemed to be one of those people who takes deep pleasure in bringing others to corruption, as some men are sexually satisfied merely to witness the corruption of a woman. Such was the press corps’ respect for technical proficiency, however, that almost no one wrote about the several sides of Robert Kerr—just as they avoided writing about Wilbur Mills until his pathetic downfall was thrust under their noses. Kraft, too, celebrated Kerr’s technical skills and brushed aside questions about motivation, insisting that “the truer measure of his purpose” was his book on water conservation.

Kraft’s problem is endemic to the press as a whole, and is more fully illustrated by his treatment of three other recent figures: McGeorge Bundy, John Connally, and Wilbur Mills. These men are textbook cases of the one-sided view of public personalities. All three were made heroes by the press—Bundy for his brains, Mills for his relentless mastery of the tax code, Connally for his charm and force. All three were vilified in the end by that same press, apparently astonished to find a dark side to their knights. Far from correcting this excessive flattery, Kraft was one of the most rhapsodic members of the claque.

Consider, for example, his portrait of McGeorge Bundy, written as a magazine article in 1965 and republished the following year in Kraft’s book, Profiles in Power. It concluded with these words: “The central fact, what I most want to say, is that Bundy is the leading candidate, perhaps the only candidate for the statesman’s mantle to emerge in the generation that is coming to power— the generation which reached maturity in the war and post-war period. His capacity to read the riddle of multiple confusion, to consider a wide variety of possibilities, to develop lines of action, to articulate and execute public purposes, to impart quickened energies to men of the highest abilities, seems to me unmatched. To me, anyhow, he seems almost alone among contemporaries, a figure of true consequence, a fit subject for Milton’s words:

A Pillar of State; deep on his

Front engraven

Deliberation sat, and publick care;

And princely counsel in his face….

One reads these lines with wonder. What could have prompted Kraft to write them? The evident sincerity of the admiration is not in question. For the moment, the significant point is the lack of balance of this passage: the “good” side of Bundy, his intelligence and ability, is given here without any suggestion of his limitations or fallibility (for example, his role as one of the architects of the Vietnam war).

Kraft’s treatment of Wilbur Mills was less extreme. Like most of the press, and his fellow columnists, Kraft emphasized Mills’ technical virtuosity to the exclusion of all else. Within a relatively brief period in 1971—just before Mills decided to run for President—Kraft wrote half a dozen items about Mills in the following vein:

  • He wrote at one point that Mills’ “four-cushion shot,” involving legislation on trade reform, social security benefits, national health insurance, and revenue sharing, “is an achievement on the grand scale. No other. man in the country has the mix of talent, outlook, and power to bring it off. And he emerges as a major national figure, sure to dominate the shaping of new health legislation that lies at the center of political action for the next few years.”
  • “As Congress returns from its summer recess,” he wrote on another occasion, “the man to watch is more than ever Chairman Wilbur Mills. . . . ”
  • “By far the most consequential boomlet in progress,” he continued as Mills’ presidential campaign got under way, “is the scarcely visible one going for Chairman Wilbur Mills.”

Small wonder that Mills believed he was the man with the “mix of talent, outlook, and power to bring it off” at the Democratic convention.

Kraft, now, is astonished that Mills should have drawn such a conclusion: “I would have thought his talents were distinctly congressional talents,” he said in our interview. Poor Mills must have missed the distinction, and must have been equally mystified and angry when, in June of 1972, Kraft finally dismissed the Mills-for-President campaign as “one more reminder of a fact of Washington life that is especially painful for those of us who have admired the Congressman from Arkansas. The fact is that even the most sagacious of Washington leaders lose their sense of proportion when bitten by the Presidential bug.”

In the Connally story, as with Mills’, what was missing was any counterweight to the prevailing mood of adulation—specifically, to the hoopla being put out by the White House about the new wonder-worker from Texas. Much later, after Connally had a few economic-policy mistakes to his discredit, Kraft came down harder on him than most other columnists did. But that was not before he had welcomed him to town with this cloying praise:

“It must be understood that Connally is one of the most able and intelligent men in American politics,” Kraft wrote shortly after Connally’s appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. “He is a born leader, intelligent in the analysis of problems, sensitive to surroundings, full of poise and public presence, and with great force.” For balance, Kraft touched on Connally’s bad points: “He is also a local patriot, not to say Texas firster. And he is not free of ambition, even vanity.. . . He is in close touch with the impressive young man sure to lead the Texas delegation to the convention in 1972, Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes.”

Kraft had no way of knowing that Barnes would leave office in disgrace after the Sharpstown bank scandal, or that Connally would soon be on trial. But if his function was that of analyst rather than tout, he should have told us more. Connally’s immediate background, after all, was big business in Texas, and the unmistakable motif of that background was money. From his dirt-poor upbringing in central Texas, through his $750,000 fee as executor of the Sid Richardson estate, to his service as a partner in the Houston law firm, Vinson, Elkins, Connally’s career had revolved around the two poles of power and money—and Kraft mentioned only the first. When he finally got around to looking at Connally’s other side, in a New York article published in May 1973, Kraft emphasized the money, and concluded that Connally “is a wheeler-dealer, and nothing can make him look like Caesar’s wife.” But how much of that cautionary advice had we previously heard from Joseph Kraft? Not a bit. Even late in 1972 he was writing about Connally in terms of unmeasured praise: “Mr. Connally, judging by a chat in Washington last week, likes action at the highest level of government. He is not unaware of the historic things he has done in his short term of service as Secretary of the Treasury. He mightily believes he can do more in the same vein—perhaps as Secretary of State. But he does not expect to hold office again. Indeed, he wants to take himself out of the partisan zone, the better to continue distinguished service in the foremost appointive offices.”

Apart from simple gullibility, which is hardly the case with Kraft, there are two explanations for his misjudgment. One has to do with technique—the challenge of turning out decent material at the columnist’s grueling pace. The other concerns values—the things toward which Kraft is reverent, and those he holds in contempt. At the risk of repetition, Kraft’s difficulties in these two areas are typical of his fellow columnists, and that is why they deserve close examination.

William McPherson, editor of The Washington Post‘s Book World section, took a trip through the Middle East last fall in the wake of Kraft’s tour and found that Kraft had made a great impression. One of McPherson’s early stops was Beirut. There, with the Post’s correspondent, Jim Hoagland, he looked for an English-speaking driver to take them around the town and found one who specialized in serving visiting Americans. As they struck up a conversation, the driver was interested to learn that they were journalists. “Do you know,” he said, “that the most famous journalist in America was in my car?” McPherson and Hoagland looked at each other, then asked the driver who he meant. He thought but could not remember the name. He could only remember the sound “K—” “K—.” McPherson and Hoagland considered the possibilities. “Hodding Carter?” one of them asked. No, it was not Hodding Carter. They thought a moment more. “Joseph Kraft?” “Ah yes, it was Joseph Kraft. He told me himself he was the most famous journalist in America.”

Shortly thereafter McPherson was in Petra, Jordan, again looking for a guide. While negotiating with one man, McPherson mentioned again that he worked for a newspaper. The man’s eyes lit up. “Do you know,” he said, “the most famous journalist in America was here. . . ” This time, as it turned out, Kraft had not actually dealt with McPherson’s guide. He hadn’t needed a guide because he’d arrived by helicopter with King Hussein and left the same way.

More Deadlines Than Ideas

The first problem, that of technique, boils down to the question of how any writer can produce a fresh and thorough column three times a week. “I’ve considered doing a column,” says Richard Reeves of New York. “I finally realized that a good column is essentially an idea, as a good magazine piece is an idea. Now, you know that most of us are lucky if we can come up with a dozen ideas a year, and that leaves a lot of columns to write.”

Reeves is on to half the problem, for the time pressure causes more than a shortage of ideas. It is also responsible for the shortage of facts, since the 48 hours that separate one deadline from the next allow little time for serious research.

Over the years columnists have had one classic response to the idea shortage, and that is simple recycling. Kraft returns every few columns to his Message about the Economy (that we need a variety of remedies rather than a single quick fix), as Joseph Alsop used to return to the Decline of the West. In general, this is far less objectionable than the consequences of the fact shortage, which leaves the familiar ideas resting on thin air.

Given the unrelenting time pressure, can any writer prevent these shortages? Two “analytical columnists” have tried. Nicholas von Hoffman and William Raspberry, both based at The Washington Post, have been the genre’s real innovators in means of gathering material. Raspberry’s trick is to turn the traditional analyst’s approach on its head: instead of reaching up to the Secretary of State or President for a shred of evidence on which to hang a column— as Kraft and Reston do—Raspberry reaches down, to the readers in suburban Maryland who complain about police brutality or lousy schools. Von Hoffman’s approach is to read, read, read, ripping through the Monthly Review and Bulletin of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in search of the fresh idea.

Sometimes von Hoffman’s receptivity to unconventional ideas leads him right over the brink, and sometimes Raspberry’s grass-roots columns grow as repetitious and thin as the high-level analysis of the conventional columnist. But at least these two have tried to find a way around the time constraints of the column—which is the very opposite of what one can say about Joseph Kraft. Instead of concentrating his limited resources on the column, Kraft has spread himself so unbelievably thin that he can only fail.

Apart from those three columns every single week, Kraft produces in a typical year the following: three or four substantial articles for The New Yorker, three or four shorter pieces for New York, and a handful of articles for the Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Magazine. The New Yorker articles alone would be a full-time job for most writers; that Kraft can also write the column is evidence of his extraordinary productivity.

A comparison of Kraft’s work from these different media makes clear how he allocates his efforts. His best work invariably appears in The New Yorker; those who know him only from his columns would be astonished at the difference. Kraft’s specialty for The New Yorker is foreign affairs. His recent contributions have included dispatches from both sides of the Middle East, from Greece and Russia, and from the OPEC minister’s meeting in Vienna. These articles do have their drawbacks; like another of The New Yorker‘s foreign correspondents, Robert Shaplen, Kraft often projects a high-road chatting-yesterday-withthe-prime-minister view of foreign affairs. Nonetheless, the articles are usually well-written, informative, and demonstrably the result of careful work.

From Alexander Cockburn’s “Press Clips” column in the Village Voice:

Under the heading “Lead of the Week,” Cockburn quotes the following from Kraft: ” ‘Not far from the vast imperial palaces built by the Hapsburgs; hard by the Burgtheater, where the purest of all German was once supposed to be spoken; facing the ancient university where Freud once taught; diagonally across from the perfect Gothic-style twin-steepled Votivkirche, built to celebrate the Emperor Franz Josef’s escape from an assassination attempt, there stands, at No. 10 Dr. Karl Lueger-Ring, an ordinary modern building of concrete and glass.’

“Who could this be but our old friend Joe Kraft again,” Cockburn continues, “writing in The New Yorker about OPEC. Kraft is awfully above himself in this article. He meets the SecretaryGeneral of OPEC, Dr. Khene. `When I greeted him in French,’ reports Kraft, ‘he was visibly pleased.’ I should say so. If a fellow said to you, ‘Bonjour, Monsieur, je suis Joseph Kraft, meilleur ecrivain, homme le plus intelligent parmi tour les columnistes du monde,’ you might be pleased too.”

Next down the scale are Kraft’s pieces for New York. “Nobody at the magazine thinks the pieces are any good,” says Richard Reeves. “Are they considered thin?” he was asked. “Thin is hardly the word for them. Sometimes you can tell that Kraft is making up the copy as he dictates over the phone, because he’ll stumble and take a long time over the words. If someone asks him to repeat a line, he’ll come up with something entirely different from what he said the first time.” A more charitable view comes from editor Clay Felker, who is a devoted friend of Kraft. He too was asked about the “thin” pieces, and replied, “I couldn’t disagree more. You have to understand that many of the stories are very, very quick responses to immediate assignments— two or three days, maybe, reacting to an event. Joe Kraft has a body of information and contacts that no one else has, and so in even that amount of time he can say something no one else can.”

Felker mentioned a few of the stories he ,considered successes—the 1973 piece debunking John Connally, another about the “real reason” behind the firing of Archibald Cox— and concluded, “I feel very strongly that what he does for us is better than his columns.” With that judgment, unfortunately, we must agree.

One can sympathize with the predicament that leads him to slight his column. If Kraft has power and prominence these days, he has earned them by himself, for he is a purely independent entrepreneur, without even the institutional security of a columnist on the staff of the Times or the Post. He has earned something rarer as well—the privilege of a personal platform; and if, to preserve that privilege, he feels he must visit the editors of small-town papers or pay court to big-city publishers, it would be hard to fault him for it. His outside articles are sensible for him not only because they are lucrative (Kraft says that his income from all sources is “in six figures,” but his expenses are also high), but also because, by adding to his celebrity, they help him sell the column.

But sympathy only goes so far, when it becomes clear that Kraft’s efforts to protect his column have destroyed its very quality. The contrast between Kraft’s magazine articles and his columns is not quite as dramatic as in the case of Garry Wills, who writes brilliant long essays while turning out one of the sloppiest columns in the business. But the efforts Kraft would be embarrassed to show William Shawn or even Clay Felker are served up readily on the op-ed page. As proof, I invite any reader to compare the series of columns Kraft wrote on his long foreign tour last fall with the two recent New Yorker pieces that grew out of the same trip. The New Yorker articles are informative, if idiosyncratic: “Even the wily Odysseus, with the help of the prototypical trio—the faithful wife, Penelope; the dutiful son, Telemachus; and the original Jeeves, Eumaeus—did not manage his return to power more smoothly than has the veteran Democratic politician Konstantine Karamanlis,” was the lead of his Greek piece. Cf. Kraft’s 1974 column on Cyprus beginning, “Odysseus at his wiliest couldn’t have put together a more clever ending than the outcome which now emerges from the Cyprus conflict.”

The columns, on the other hand, included some of Kraft’s thinnest efforts in recent memory. Most notable was his account of a dinner party with Melina Mercouri.

The Mercouri column is significant, for it illustrates one classic time-saving device columnists so often fall back on. Lacking the time for genuine inquiry and analysis, especially when traveling abroad, Kraft and his fellow columnists often “report” by arranging cameo appearances—interviews with famous personages whose simple presence justifies the column even though no new information is transferred. Most of Kraft’s subjects are more plausibly significant than Mercouri—King Hussein, the Shah, etc.— and so the ploy is less readily apparent.

This and the columnists’ other time-saving devices have serious consequences, one of which is illustrated by a scene from Kraft’s latest foreign tour. Kraft was in the anteroom of the Greek prime minister’s office awaiting his interview. The prime minister was delayed, and as the time went by it became clear that Kraft was not the only one waiting for the promised interview. Another journalist was there as well, and in an effort to provide the greatest good for the greatest number, the prime minister’s aide finally said, “Well, gentlemen, I’m afraid you’ll have to see the prime minister together.” At that Kraft leaped up and said, “I’m Joseph Kraft, and I’m accustomed to seeing people on time! And when I see them, I’m accustomed to seeing them alone!”

Old Faithful

The scene in the prime minister’s office is a grotesque parable for one consequence of the all-star system of column-writing. Because Kraft and his colleagues are counting so heavily on the cameo appearance by the political star, they become desperate if these contacts are threatened. In the long run, they learn to avoid situations where any remote threat exists—where their phone calls would be ignored and their access cut off. The result is what the economists would call a “risk averse” philosophy among the columnists.

If a reporter like Seymour Hersh is the wildcat driller of the journalism business, willing to risk (at the Times‘ expense) 20 dry holes in search of one gusher, then columnists like Kraft are Mobil Oil. Their success depends not on the high-quality surprise find, but on a steady, predictable flow. More than other journalists, they must be able to expect that their calls will be returned, their lunches productive. This necessity can affect not only the topics they select but also the way they choose to write about them.

The point was never more bluntly expressed than by Kraft himself, in his New York article about Connally. “As I had known John Connally,” he said, “and written favorably of him as Governor of Texas and Secretary of the Treasury, I thought there would be little difficulty in arranging an appointment.” Kraft is not saying he deliberately flattered Connally in order to get an appointment, but the connection between writing “favorably” about a public figure and having easy access to him, cannot be lost on men as perceptive as John Connally or Joseph Kraft.

The ill harvest of this time-saving device, the concentration on governmental all-stars, involves something more than overly charitable treatment for types like Connally. The danger, more simply, is that so much attention, charitable or otherwise, lies in focusing on the Connallys of the world and so little on the subtler, more fundamental forces which shape public affairs. Drawn by their time constraints toward the easily visible public figures, the columnists become the printed press’ version of the TV news. The world they present is one of Fords, Kissingers, and Connallys, an ascendant one in which bureaucratic, economic, even historic forces play little part. Some columnists may actually believe this is the way the world works. Nicholas von Hoffman is an exception and has put it: “If you really believe that it makes a difference whether Mr. Simon is in or out at the White House, then you spend a lot of time talking to him and his friends. A lot of people do seem to believe that Mr. Simon makes a difference. But if it is your profound conviction that when Mr. Simon goes, he will be replaced by another Mr. Simon, then you look someplace else for ideas about the economy.”

Kraft’s problem is not any such a naive belief in appearances; Kraft knows that there is more to government than the whims of the political all-stars. In his book, Profiles in Power, he takes great pains to describe the complexities of public life and the constraints on apparent power. But all too rarely do these distinctions appear in his column, and the most obvious explanation is the pressure of space and time. Specifically, by neglecting to tell his readers about the hidden dimension in public affairs—the part which depends on rules of bureaucratic behavior, and which often contradicts the superficial logic of a situation—Kraft has overlooked three of the most important developments of recent years.

  • Amid his reports from the war zone and his ceaseless broadsides against Lyndon Johnson’s war policies, Kraft in no way indicated how great the struggle was within the Administration, especially during the time between the Tet offensive of 1968 and the beginning of the Nixon presidency. Temporarily, at least, Clark Clifford and his allies, turned the war policy around, and the story of their successes and failures might have helped explain the part of the war neither the hard-liners nor the antiwar forces seemed to understand— the non-ideological, bureaucratic forces that sustained it. Kraft’s omission is the more tragic because he did understand. He revealed just how well he understood that bureaucratic culture when, in the summer of 1971, he began arguing that the Pentagon Papers were misleading and inconsequential. To judge by the Papers, Kraft said, one would conclude that Robert McNamara’s assistant, John McNaughton, was the most intransigent hawk, whereas anyone who knew McNaughton understood that he was playing a delicate bureaucratic game. His personal conviction had turned against the war, but he saved those arguments for McNamara alone, meanwhile protecting his bureaucratic position by sounding like a tough, determined member of the team whenever he had to commit his views to paper. Kraft was exactly right about McNaughton—but had never mentioned it before, not even after McNaughton’s death in a plane crash in 1967, when the need to protect his confidence presumably ended.
  • Neither during Nixon’s four years of the war did Kraft explore one of the most troubling questions of all. Why those wonderful dove senators never got around to voting for a strong antiwar bill. He made no attempt to understand what their fears were and how those fears might be set to rest.
  • While his first column after the Watergate burglary was more perceptive than most, up until that time, Kraft, with all his high-level contacts, had provided no insight about the palace guard structure of the Nixon White House. In this, unfortunately, he was typical not only of other columnists, but of the press in general.

By his over-commitment, then, Kraft has painted himself into a corner where only a limited number of topics are within reach and from which he must project a view of politics he himself knows to be false. He is not alone in his corner, but that is small consolation to the reader as he scans the op-ed page.

Cult of Responsibility

Yet there is something more than haste at the root of Joseph Kraft’s difficulties, something sure to affect his least hurried work. To explore what it is we must enter the realm of speculation and examine the beliefs which undergird Kraft’s writing. One word will emerge as the key to his attitudes and to those of his peers. The word is “responsibility,” and it requires careful definition.

One way to begin the definition is to consider the words other than “responsibility” that come to an outsider’s mind when thinking about Kraft, Reston, Alsop, and the rest. The first word might be “reverence” —reverence for the established institutions of government and society, and for the people who control them. Nicholas von Hoffman clarifies by contrast, for he is utterly irreverent of leaders and organizations. A second word might be “loyalty”—the sense so many columnists project that they will be dealing with the same cast of governmental characters tomorrow and next year, and that they will not carelessly abuse the privilege. A third word, connected to the previous two, is “elitism”: the understanding that a certain class of people is better equipped than most to deal with the problems of the world, and that— happy fortune—most men who have power deserve it. A final word is “respectability”—the columnists’ reluctance to take either the outrageous or the embarrassing position, and their consequent overcaution. Again, von Hoffman is the illuminating exception, for he is the one columnist willing to embarrass himself in his search for new ideas.

Following the example of Walter Lippmann, Joseph Kraft does not hesitate to apply the term “elitist” to himself; but probably neither he nor his colleagues would accept the foregoing outsider’s description of them as accurate. If forced to choose a single word to describe themselves, the word would most likely be “responsible.” As Kraft put it during our interview, “I think the column is distinguished from the rest of the press by its sense of intellectual responsibility. You know, the press as a whole suffers terribly from intellectual irresponsibility, perhaps because it’s always part of the opposition. You can say of a few columnists—not all of them, but a few, such as Joseph Alsop, with whom I have profound disagreements—you can say that at least they are willing to take responsibility for the consequences of their ideas.”

To people like Kraft, this kind of “responsibility” implies a hard-headed acceptance of the complexity of things, a mature understanding that the easy answers are almost never the right ones. Their outlook is akin to that “responsibility” of the young lawyer who decides, after four years of talk about “the public interest,” to join the large private firm. He knows all too well that his friends will over-simplify’ his motives. He is sadly aware that their condemnation will be automatic and facile. He wishes he could communicate to his friends the excitement and importance of playing hardball on the inside of an immensely complex and powerful world, of being tested against the best. But he is resigned, finally and tragically, to the impossibility of such communication and the necessity of living with misguided censure. In that resignation he makes it easier for himself to avoid the more serious questions about his new life.

There is a secret shared between that lawyer, the “responsible” columnist, and the men who make the tough decisions in the White House and the Senate. They all know that the public will call for unbroken eggs and omelets too, that it will not be grateful to those who shoulder its burdens. They understand Coriolanus too well.

Living within this world, the responsible columnist comes to respect its noblemen, the class of public servant exemplified by Acheson, McCoy, Bundy, and Kissinger. Respecting them, he seeks their respect in return. Reston and Alsop sit in . the Metropolitan Club, sipping drinks and exchanging views with the leaders, placed among heavy-weights as equals. This physical contact is only the most obvious manifestation of the quest for mutual respect. Similar feelings affect the spirit of those columnists who consider the Metropolitan Club a waste of time but who aim their most important work not at the public but at these, their responsible peers in government. These responsible leaders would be disappointed and shocked if Joe Kraft or Scotty Reston leaked a document which rudely upset the policymakers’ applecart—as Jack Anderson and Seymour Hersh have several times done. They would be disappointed, too, if Kraft or Reston publicly attacked a Kissinger or a Bundy, knowing he was doing his best. As Kraft explained about Kissinger in the fall of 1974, “Anybody who attacked him was running the risk of playing into the hands of the hard-liners. A good many of us accepted that line and pulled punches.”

As this quote suggests, a large element of “responsibility” is trust— the deep-seated confidence that the Kissingers and Bundys will do the right thing. This is a significant element, because it helps explain the difference between several of the most skilled analytical columnists. In terms of ability and energy, five analysts are a clear cut above their peers: Kraft, Reston, George Will, Wicker, and Lewis—but only the first three are “responsible” in the sense just described. The simplest way to state the difference is that Wicker and Lewis have lost their sense of trust. Ten years ago, most of them were fully as reverent, fully as “responsible” as the Kraft-Reston mainstream; Lewis’ treatment of Abe Fortas and the justices of the Supreme Court in Gideon’s Trumpet is a reminder of that fact. The trust is there no longer because of what happened in the intervening years—Wicker’s experience at Attica and Lewis’ with the war. A core of bitterness and mistrust has crept in and dissolved the strands of responsibility that still bind their peers.

This “responsibility” has a good side, and that is its resistance to the mushy thinking of the left. “There is a certain kind of liberal,” George Will has said, “who thinks that because Richard Nixon was guilty, Alger Hiss must have been innocent.” Joseph Kraft would never be that kind of liberal. He was raised in a generation acutely aware of the dangers of mindless, emotional leftism. During those post-war years at Columbia, Kraft and his contemporaries needed only to look back to the 1930s, to Clifford Odets and the rhapsodic, Mission to Moscow-type visions of kindly Uncle Joe Stalin, to realize how large a dose of intellectual rigor the nation’s liberals needed. Kraft took courses under Lionel Trilling during those years, and one of the highest accolades Trilling could give was “tough.” In the preface to The Liberal Imagination, Trilling elaborated on the kind of toughness he called for: “It has for some time seemed to me that a criticism which has at heart the interest of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general righteousness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the times.”

Suckered by the Right

This is the credo under which Kraft operates, and it is the best thing about his “responsible” generation. Kraft did put the Great Society “under some degree of pressure” when others did not; he did understand the terrifying implications of the Weathermen and the Black Panthers; he has seen, within the last few months, that the reaction provoked by the CIA scandals is often too simplistic. He has seen that it’s wrong to condemn all forms of secrecy and every request for foreign intelligence, because he knows that in certain cases secrecy and intelligence may be essential.

But even to mention these CIA columns immediately shifts our attention to the bad side of “responsibility”—that it can turn intelligent men into uncritical suckers for the mushy thinking of the respectable center and right.

It is disappointing, but no great surprise, when a “conservative” like George Will falls for the right’s old slogans—as Will has done, for example, in saying that liberals shouldn’t complain about corporate tax loopholes because they were originally enacted by Democratic Congresses. It is more surprising, and equally disappointing, when it happens to Kraft. Its most recent occurrence has been his columns on the CIA; for while picking the proper holes in the emotional case against the agency, Kraft has bought every bit of the mindless conventional “security” pitch coming from the other side. He has been absolutely insensitive to the valid complaints about duplicity and secrecy in our foreign relations, as he was the last time these issues came to the fore. That was late in 1971, when Jack Anderson published the “IndiaPakistan Papers.” These, the edited transcripts of a National Security Council meeting, showed that Henry Kissinger had been lying about American policy on the subcontinent war. Their significance was that foreign policy was being made in the dark. Neither the Congress nor the public knew that we were deciding to support one side over the other, so neither had a chance to advise, acquiese, or complain. Kraft seemed incapable of understanding this point, directing his outrage instead at the tastelessness of the leak. His comments are worth quoting at some length for the insight they provide into the “responsible” frame of mind:

“Seen thus starkly, Kissinger told a flat lie. . . . But so what? Does the new evidence do more than confirm a universal judgment? After the U-2 at the Bay of Pigs and the credibility gap, is there anybody not impossibly naive or ill-informed who doesn’t know that the government lies? Is one more bit of evidence a noble act? Or is it just a pebble added to the Alps? . . .

“There is every reason to figure bureaucratic rivalry as the key element in the background of the Anderson papers. There is no case for lionizing or even protecting the sources of the leak. On the contrary, for once there is a case for a presidential crackdown. Mr. Nixon’s interest— and that of the country as a whole—is to find the sources of the leak and fire them fast.”

In these columns, Kraft understood a partial truth—that the breach of security would drive the Nixon Administration deeper into its shell of secrecy—but he let that blind him to the larger issues. He even let it force him to the gracelessness of his “pebble added to the Alps” line, which implied that readers of his own column had been informed about government lying.

Loves and Hates

In his “responsible” myopia, Kraft embodies in particularly dramatic form an attitude which has spread into so many corners of our national culture. That attitude is the reverence for tough, skillful, professionalism, without regard to its results. Its most pronounced traits are its celebration of the proficient, unemotional, professional, be he lawyer, soldier, or diplomat and its corresponding contempt for the fuzzy-headed amateur, even when this sloppy fellow has something more important to say. Its effect on Kraft may be most clearly demonstrated by comparing the three objects of his most sincere respect- -McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, and William Rehnquist—with three whom he utterly disdains—Daniel Ellsberg, Jack Anderson, and Allen Ginsberg.

Personal motivation is always more complicated than the outsider can readily apprehend, and so one hesitates to step onto this uncertain ground. Yet as one tries to understand how so many able men have been led down the same path, it is hard not to be struck by the apparent connection between “responsible” professionalism and the writer’s social standing.

This is not a question of “social climbing,” in its crass sense, but rather of elevation to a higher social plane, a more distinguished cast of associates. Tom Wicker provides one example in his new book, A Time to Die:

“The luncheon of the Bill Fay Club on Friday, September 10, 1971, was a gregarious affair as usual. The scene of the feast was the executive dining room of the National Geographic Society, in the Society’s elegant building on Seventeenth Street Northwest, a few blocks from Lafayette Square and the White House. Members had sipped sherry in the office of Franc Shor, a Geographic editor, then moved into the dining room for lamb chops and an excellent wine… .

“Around Shor at the long table high above Seventeenth Street were Ambassador Frank Corner of New Zealand; Ambassador Egidio Ortona of Italy; A. Doak Barnett, the China specialist (a visitor that day); J. Carter Brown, the director of the National Gallery of Art; John Walker, Brown’s immediate predecessor; William McChesney Martin, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; Herman Wouk, the novelist; Richard Scammon, the political analyst and statistician; Edward P. Morgan, the radio and television commentator; and Tom Wicker, political columnist and associate editor of The New York Times. Former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford and Herbert Block—the Washington Post‘s famous Herblock, as gentle in person as ascerbic in ink—were frequently at the club table, but were not present that day.

“These were erudite men, in everything from art to politics, as Tom Wicker had come to know. He always studied Franc Shor’s wine choices with care, and was perennially surprised to find himself able to hold up his end of the conversation, and even on occasion to bring the table to his own point of view. But much of his life had been a surprise to him; and it was not only in the executive dining room of the Geographic that he sometimes had a vivid sense of having come a long, long way.”

To take Kraft as another example, he is undeniably aware of the minute gradations of the social hierarchy. According to acquaintances, when Kraft and his wife hold a Christmas party, they hold two—one for the true elite and another for the rest of the people Kraft has worked with during the year. It is said that the first time Kraft met the British writer, Godfrey Hodgson, he told him, “You remind me of one of those English boys who wishes he had gone to Winchester and Magdalen”—which was exactly where Hodgson had gone. And there is the house in the Hamptons.

With antennae this acute, can Kraft have overlooked the class implications of his own story: raised on Central Park West, the son of a reasonably affluent Jewish textile manufacturer, sent first to the Fieldston School, then to Columbia, then Princeton, then on to the most WASP-ish sort of social respectability on the circuits of Washington, New York, and abroad. Talent undoubtedly played a large part in this rise, and Kraft himself may consider the social element to be insignificantly small, but when stacked up against the similar rises of so many other columnists, it may help provide one insight into the origins of responsibility.

Kraft’s attitude toward Rehnquist was summed up in a column entitled, “Rehnquist: Top Mind,” which endorsed him for the Supreme Court: “What the court needs is more brains. Mr. Rehnquist has them—more abundantly, perhaps, than any present member. And by uplifting the quality of the court in general, he will do far more than any particular decisions in any particular cases can do to enhance the values thoughtful men hold dear.” His feelings about Bundy are already on the record. While he has not written about Kissinger in the same Miltonesque terms, one suspects that he would have, had he not already used them on Bundy.

Whatever superficial differences may separate them, these three men are the quintessence of hard-minded professionalism—and that is what Kraft has so enthusiastically celebrated. In doing so he has been blind to the dark side of professionalism—Bundy’s role in the war, for example, or Rehnquist’s decisions at the Justice Department. Only in Kissinger’s case, in the critical columns he began writing after he found out he had been bugged, has Kraft shown the slightest awareness that men as intelligent as these might make mistakes. The complaint against Kraft is not that he failed to denounce these men, for each of them has his good side, but that his uncritical respect for position and power has deprived him of his critical standards.

Under opposite circumstances, when dealing with those he detests, Kraft is similarly blind—this time, to the good his enemies can do. When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, Kraft’s hatred of the act made him ridicule the man: “To a divorced man living in the semi-bohemian atmosphere of a Malibu beach house with a flashy sports car and an off-again on-again romance that eventually culminated in marriage, the themes of duty and guilt were heavy stuff.” He contemptuously dismissed Anderson as a low-brow, unfit for the nuance of foreign policy: “He is not deeply versed in foreign affairs. No one who aims to change a line of international policy would single out Mr. Anderson for deflecting that result through the leak of secret information.” To friends he has denounced Ginsberg as a “charlatan.”

No doubt there is a bit of truth in what he says, for none of these three men is perfect. But it is equally beyond doubt that the three of them have seen things Kraft has failed to see. These contributions, Kraft refuses to acknowledge. In Ellsberg’s case, Kraft wrote off the Pentagon Papers as “the non-event of the year.” They were wholly uninformative, he said, since everyone had heard the same stories years ago. But of course they were informative, enormously so, for a reason no man as intelligent as Kraft could fail to understand—that it is one thing to speculate about how the government reaches its decisions, and something altogether different to have the evidence laid out on paper. Similarly, with Anderson Kraft could not bring himself to admit that there was a shred of value to the India-Pakistan disclosure.

The third pariah, Ginsberg, was even farther from the frontier of “responsibility” than Anderson or Ellsberg; but as the intellectual father of the counter-culture, he was perhaps more far-sighted than the others in helping us glimpse fundamental truths about our society. These same truths the “responsible” analysts chose to ignore. To give only the most obvious illustration, Kraft and his colleagues utterly failed to understand the role that machismo has played in this nation’s affairs, especially in the shaping of the Vietnam war. Nor have they grasped that the sexual revolution has helped unseat that mystique. Because ideas like this sounded loony when coming from Ginsberg, Kraft refused to touch them.

In one of his own analyses of the Washington press, published in 1966, Kraft concluded that “the central requirement is that the press and TV find and promote more intelligent and better-trained people. . . . We need, as Meredith once put it, ‘More brain, 0 Lord, more brain.’ ” As applied to the columnists, this prescription is flawed. Kraft does have the brains; that is not his problem, or the columnists’ in general. What he lacks is the time to devote himself properly to his columns, without cutting corners and without driving himself at the same frantic pace that gave him his first heart attack long before he was 50. While Kraft’s overcommitment is unusual, nearly all of his colleagues are prisoners of the same time trap. The best way to free them might be to follow the example of The New York Times‘ op-ed page, which prints outside contributions only when the writer has something to say. None of these outsiders is expected to produce three times a week, and neither should the columnists. If the columnists were cut back to writing on a once-a-week basis, both they and their readers would benefit by the change.

Rather than extra brains, Kraft needs to give his intelligence free rein by removing the blinders of “responsibility” which now so restrict his view. In this, too, Kraft is the symbol of his colleague’s predicament. By his ability and his drive, Kraft has made himself probably the best of the columnists’ whole bunch, but that is primarily an indication of how much more they all have to do.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.