Idiocy of the week

What do you call a major U.S. newspaper columnist who admits pandering to her readers? Hint: It's not "journalist."

Published March 7, 2003 11:34PM (EST)

No one should criticize a columnist who changes his or her mind. It's a sign of intellectual strength to be able to correct oneself, to say where one got it wrong and why. If you write a column every week -- let alone a thousand words daily on a blog -- the chances that you will get things wrong, regret some things you wrote, or simply change your mind in the slipstream of current events are extremely high. But what Mary McGrory has just done in the Washington Post is something quite different.

A month ago, she avowed that she had been finally convinced by Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations that Saddam had to be stopped. She was impressed, as we all were, by the mountain of evidence of Saddam's duplicity and malevolence. "I don't know how the United Nations felt about Colin Powell's 'J'accuse' speech against Saddam Hussein," she wrote. "I can only say that he persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince." She concluded: "I wasn't so sure about the al Qaeda connection. But I had heard enough to know that Saddam Hussein, with his stockpiles of nerve gas and death-dealing chemicals, is more of a menace than I had thought. I'm not ready for war yet. But Colin Powell has convinced me that it might be the only way to stop a fiend, and that if we do go, there is reason."

But now she says she's changed her mind.

Why? You can read her column closely and still not see the reason. She now says: "I did not make it clear enough that while I believed what Colin Powell told me about Saddam Hussein's poison collection, I was not convinced that war was the answer. I guess I took it for granted that you would know what I meant." That makes no sense. She wrote clearly in her first column that "I'm not ready for war yet." How difficult is that to misinterpret? She then explains that "I did not have the benefit of the informed criticism that followed. The Post's Walter Pincus wrote a summation of the weakest link in Powell's speech, the al Qaeda connection. Lately, the coming conflict is presented seamlessly as 'a war against Iraq and terrorism.'" Again this makes no sense. In her original column, she specifically stayed skeptical about the Qaida-Iraq connection. And the administration's current pro-war position is almost entirely based on U.N. Resolution 1441.

And then she tells us the real reason: "I did something that George Bush never does: I offended my base. You see how sorry I am. I hope now that all is forgiven and that I can come home again." In other words, the reason she has changed her mind about whether Saddam really is in violation of Resolution 1441 is that she offended her loyal left-liberal readership.

This must be one of the most astonishing admissions by an opinion journalist in a very long time. She is not, she tells us, a free-thinker, trying to make sense of the world around her as best she can. She isn't a writer devoted to her own principles and applying them to the chaotic scene of world politics. She is a political hack with a constituency she has to please. Deviation from giving her "base" what it wants is "failure" in her journalism. It's useful, I guess, to see the real motives behind someone claiming to be a writer. But McGrory has just declared that she isn't a writer -- she is in fact the antithesis of one: an apparatchik, a phony and a propagandist.

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

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