The Moustache of Wisdom is off today, maybe back to flogging his book. MoDo is angry. MoDo is pissed. MoDo has gone “In Search of Monsters,” and says Paul Wolfowitz has lost the right to be moral arbiter on matters of war. He just doesn’t know it. Mr. Kristof says we should “Pay Teachers More,” and has a question: Remember when public schools paid almost as well as law firms? Mr. Rich, in “Confessions of a Recovering Op-Ed Columnist,” discusses how he came to be a columnist for The Times 17 years ago, and why he decided to move on. Here’s MoDo:
The Iraq war hawks urging intervention in Libya are confident that there’s no way Libya could ever be another Iraq.
Of course, they never thought Iraq would be Iraq, either.
All President Obama needs to do, Paul Wolfowitz asserts, is man up, arm the Libyan rebels, support setting up a no-fly zone and wait for instant democracy.
It’s a cakewalk.
Didn’t we arm the rebels in Afghanistan in the ’80s? And didn’t many become Taliban and end up turning our own weapons on us? And didn’t one mujahadeen from Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden, go on to lead Al Qaeda?
So that worked out well.
Even now, with our deficit and military groaning from two wars in Muslim countries, interventionists on the left and the right insist it’s our duty to join the battle in a third Muslim country.
“It is both morally right and in America’s strategic interest to enable the Libyans to fight for themselves,” Wolfowitz wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece.
You would think that a major architect of the disastrous wars and interminable occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq would have the good manners to shut up and take up horticulture. But the neo-con naif has no shame.
After all, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets last month, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
Gates boldly batted back the Cakewalk Brigade — which includes John McCain, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry — bluntly telling Congress last week: “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.”
Wolfowitz, Rummy’s No. 2 in W.’s War Department, pushed to divert attention from Afghanistan and move on to Iraq; he pressed the canards that Saddam and Osama were linked and that we were in danger from Saddam’s phantom W.M.D.s; he promised that the Iraq invasion would end quickly and gleefully; he slapped back Gen. Eric Shinseki when he said securing Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops; and he claimed that rebuilding Iraq would be paid for with Iraqi oil revenues.
How wrong, deceptive and deadly can you be and still get to lecture President Obama on his moral obligations?
Wolfowitz was driven to invade Iraq and proselytize for the Libyan rebels partly because of his guilt over how the Bush I administration coldly deserted the Shiites and Kurds who were urged to rise up against Saddam at the end of the 1991 gulf war. Saddam sent out helicopters to slaughter thousands. (A NATO no-fly zone did not stop that.)
Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is also monstrous, slaughtering civilians and hiring mercenaries to kill rebels.
It’s hard to know how to proceed, but in his rush, Wolfowitz never even seems to have a good understanding of the tribal thickets he wants America to wade into. In Foreign Affairs, Frederic Wehrey notes that “for four decades Libya has been largely terra incognita … ‘like throwing darts at balloons in a dark room,’ as one senior Western diplomat put it to me.”
Leslie Gelb warns in The Daily Beast that no doubt some rebels are noble fighters, but some “could turn out to be thugs, thieves, and would-be new dictators. Surely, some will be Islamic extremists. One or more might turn into another Col. Qaddafi after gaining power. Indeed, when the good colonel led the Libyan coup in 1969, many right-thinking Westerners thought him to be a modernizing democrat.”
Reformed interventionist David Rieff, who wrote the book “At the Point of a Gun,” which criticizes “the messianic dream of remaking the world in either the image of American democracy or of the legal utopias of international human rights law,” told me that after Iraq: “America doesn’t have the credibility to make war in the Arab world. Our touch in this is actually counterproductive.”
He continued: “Qaddafi is a terrible man, but I don’t think it’s the business of the United States to overthrow him. Those who want America to support democratic movements and insurrections by force if necessary wherever there’s a chance of them succeeding are committing the United States to endless wars of altruism. And that’s folly.”
He quotes John Quincy Adams about America: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy … she is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
As for Wolfowitz, Rieff notes drily, “He should have stayed a mathematician.”
Here’s Mr. Kristof:
From the debates in Wisconsin and elsewhere about public sector unions, you might get the impression that we’re going bust because teachers are overpaid.
That’s a pernicious fallacy. A basic educational challenge is not that teachers are raking it in, but that they are underpaid. If we want to compete with other countries, and chip away at poverty across America, then we need to pay teachers more so as to attract better people into the profession.
Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren’t open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America’s children.
These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers — and 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, “Closing the Talent Gap.”
Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.
We all understand intuitively the difference a great teacher makes. I think of Juanita Trantina, who left my fifth-grade class intoxicated with excitement for learning and fascinated by the current events she spoke about. You probably have a Miss Trantina in your own past.
One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.
Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.
A teacher better than 93 percent of other teachers would add $640,000 to lifetime pay of a class of 20, the study found.
Look, I’m not a fan of teachers’ unions. They used their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers. Teaching work rules are often inflexible, benefits are generous relative to salaries, and it is difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.
But none of this means that teachers are overpaid. And if governments nibble away at pensions and reduce job security, then they must pay more in wages to stay even.
Moreover, part of compensation is public esteem. When governors mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents, they demean the profession and make it harder to attract the best and brightest. We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.
Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found.
“We’re not going to get better teachers unless we pay them more,” notes Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an education reform organization. Likewise, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform says, “We’re the first people to say, throw them $100,000, throw them whatever it takes.”
Both Ms. Wilkins and Ms. Allen add in the next breath that pay should be for performance, with more rigorous evaluation. That makes sense to me.
Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000, would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found. That would be a bargain.
Indeed, it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.
Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It’s a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less — and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.
And now here’s Mr. Rich’s farewell column:
The first political columnist I ever encountered, after a fashion, was Walter Lippmann. It happened on a snowy afternoon when I was a kid of 11 or 12 growing up in Washington during the J.F.K. years. My wallet had somehow slipped out of my pocket as I trudged past the National Cathedral on my way home from school. Hours later, my mother barged into my bedroom, interrupting my full-scale sulk to announce a miracle. “I just got a call from Walter Lippmann’s maid,” she said, sounding more excited than the circumstances warranted. “They found your wallet on Woodley Road in front of Walter Lippmann’s house!”
My starry-eyed mom then explained to me who this giant was. Fairly soon I would discover some of his colleagues’ bylines in the newspapers I was starting to devour: Arthur Krock, Joseph Alsop, Joseph Kraft, James J. Kilpatrick, Evans and Novak, Drew Pearson. Eventually I’d figure out that my stepfather, a K Street lawyer before they were called “K Street lawyers,” fed scabrous off-the-record tidbits about his dealings on the Hill to Pearson’s column in exchange for favors I now dread to imagine.
By the time I reached high school, Vietnam was heating up. I began tracking the columnists’ pronouncements with some ardor. This was, of course, in the day when everyone read the papers, when pundits had yet to start bloviating on television, and when it was widely believed, especially in Washington, that the wise men of the press held enormous sway over national events, from the making of presidents to the waging of wars both hot and cold.
I can’t say I aspired to be a columnist, however. My first love was the theater, and the first opinion writers I read religiously were the drama critics Walter Kerr and Kenneth Tynan. The political guys (almost all guys then) were too Olympian for my taste. But when, decades later, I was intent on ending my run as The Times’s drama critic after nearly 14 years as Kerr’s successor, an editor at the paper floated the notion of taking my highly opinionated self to the Op-Ed page. And so I leapt. I had written about politics on and off in my career, and had always been fascinated by the intersection of politics and culture. It had not been lost on me as a child that the Kennedy inaugural gala had been studded with stars from Broadway and Hollywood, and that the Rat Pack might have held even more sway over the White House than, say, Lippmann.
Now 17 more years have flown by, and, as you may have heard, I have decided to move on from Op-Ed columnizing (as Bill Safire called it) to a fresh adventure in journalism at New York magazine. It was a highly personal decision and I’ve been weighing it for some time.
My decision is no reflection on The Times. This paper remains a nonpareil platform for writing a column — not just for its readership, but also for its journalistic freedom. During my time on the page, the most frequent question I’ve been asked by readers is: Did The Times ever censor you, or try to censor you? The answer is no. The same, by the way, was true when my theater reviews regularly antagonized some of the paper’s biggest advertisers.
That’s just one of countless reasons I leave The Times feeling as reverent about it as I did when I arrived. Neither it nor any other institution is infallible, as was illustrated most recently during the run-up to the Iraq invasion. But The Times is our essential news organization, and more so now than ever, when so many others have dwindled in size, ambition and scope. Should anyone have even an iota of doubt about The Times’s crucial role in helping its readers navigate the tumult of the 21st century, just revisit its reportage from the roiling tempests of the Middle East in recent weeks. There is nothing like it in American journalism, and that will still be the case whether you read The Times on paper or get it beamed directly into your brain once Apple unleashes that app.
Being a columnist at a place like this can be exhilarating. But not because the job is as influential as some loyal Times readers still seem to think. A columnist’s clout may well have been overstated even in Lippmann’s heyday, but it has certainly dimmed in an age when everyone can and does broadcast opinions on the Web, Facebook or Twitter, let alone in print, or on cable or radio. No opinionator in any of these media could prevent the war in Iraq or derail the rise of Sarah Palin. Nor did pundits create phenomena like Barack Obama or the Tea Party. The forces of history are far bigger than any of a democracy’s individual voices, however loud or widely disseminated. That’s one reason America is so thrilling to write about.
For me, anyway, the point of opinion writing is less to try to shape events, a presumptuous and foolhardy ambition at best, than to help stimulate debate and, from my particular perspective, try to explain why things got the way they are and what they might mean and where they might lead. My own idiosyncratic bent as a writer, no doubt a legacy of my years spent in the theater, is to look for a narrative in the many competing dramas unfolding on the national stage. I do have strong political views, but opinions are cheap. Anyone could be a critic of the Bush administration. The challenge as a writer was to try to figure out why it governed the way it did — and how it got away with it for so long — and, dare I say it, to have fun chronicling each new outrage.
When I felt frustrated by churning out a standard-length Op-Ed column after a few years, The Times went out of its way to accommodate me by giving me more space, all the better for trying to connect more dots. It was fated that I would one day find myself eager to break out of that box too. I have always wanted to keep growing as a writer, not run in place. My latest bout of restlessness had nothing to do with the tumultuous upheavals of the news business in the digital era. It was an old-media mission I started to chafe at — opinion writing within the constraints of newspaper deadlines and formats.
Safire, a master of the form, was fond of likening column writing to standing under a windmill: No sooner did you feel relief that you had ducked a blade than you looked up and saw a new one coming down. He thrived on this, but after 17 years I didn’t like what the relentless production of a newspaper column was doing to my writing. That routine can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion. Believe it or not, an opinion writer can sometimes get sick of his own voice.
I found myself hungering to write with more reflection, at greater length at times, in a wider and perhaps experimental variety of forms (whether in print or online), and without feeling at the mercy of the often hysterical exigencies of the 24/7 modern news cycle. While some columnists are adept at keeping their literary bearings over long careers — George Will is a particularly elegant survivor among the generation of columnists ahead of mine — those who stay too long risk turning bland or shrill. I wanted to quit before I succumbed, and spent a year talking to friends in journalism to figure out what was the best road for me to take next. Perhaps inevitably I ended up reunited with Adam Moss, who, before taking over New York seven years ago, served as editor of The Times Magazine, where he did more than anyone to push me beyond arts criticism into a broader beat.
It’s not easy to leave a home like The Times, where so many friends and brilliant colleagues remain. I am grateful to all of them, as well as to a pair of unexpected collaborators, the artists Seymour Chwast and Barry Blitt, whose inspired drawings took on an Op-Ed life of their own. My gratitude to The Times’s omnivorous, demanding, quarrelsome readership is no less enormous. Even when Times readers despise every last piece you write — and they do tell you so — they make you want to try harder. I hope I’ll meet up with many of you at the next stop.
Of all the things I’ve done at The Times, there may be none I’m prouder of than, in my critic’s days, championing “Sunday in the Park with George,” Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s 1984 musical about two artists in two different eras restless to create something new. For a quarter-century now, the show’s climactic song has inspired countless people in all walks of life when the time has come to take a leap. “Stop worrying where you’re going,” the Sondheim lyric goes. “Move on.”