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The Fifth Columnist

This fall, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. launched a search for a new conservative columnist. It had been nearly three years since William Safire had retired from his weekly column in 2005, and Sulzberger’s initial replacement, libertarian John Tierney, lasted just 20 months before abandoning his column. David Brooks remained as the lone conservative voice on the page, and, say people familiar with the younger Sulzberger’s thinking, he wanted to hire a lightning-rod conservative, much like his father, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, had done in appointing Safire in 1973.

So, last fall, Sulzberger and Times editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal prepared a list of some 25 conservative writers. According to a person with knowledge of the search, the names included Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Max Boot and three Weekly Standard staffers: senior editor Christopher Caldwell, associate editor Matthew Continetti, and the magazine’s editor and founder, Bill Kristol. On December 30, Sulzberger selected Kristol, who gave up his column at Time magazine for the Times appointment.

Immediately, the announcement triggered fulminations from bloggers and pundits. At the Times, Kristol’s appointment rankled reporters and editors, who interpreted the move as the latest in a series of tone-deaf decisions by Sulzberger, including his $100-million investment in the Discovery Times TV channel and his crusade to free Judith Miller during the Valerie Plame leak investigation. Times staffers feel Kristol is an unimaginative writer with a rancorous history of attacking the paper. Sulzberger sought to make a splash in hiring Kristol, but, like many of his management decisions, it has backfired.

KRISTOL'S DEBUT column on January 7, a breezy dissection of Mike Huckabee’s candidacy, was roundly panned in the journalism community. (The Atlantic’s James Fallows remarked on Kristol’s “breathtaking banality.”) Among other problems, Kristol misattributed a quote from Michael Medved to Michelle Malkin—proof, some said, that his other responsibilities would result in his “mailing in” his Times copy. “He doesn’t know what it’s like to write for The New York Times,” one staffer said. “So, welcome to the NFL.”

Beyond that, Times staffers felt Kristol just wasn’t a very good writer. “Having a robust conservative voice on the page is a good idea. But you want quality,” one staffer said. “In general, he’s mediocre. He doesn’t seem like the best choice, and the first column was crap.” “It was a very odd choice,” a senior staffer added. “Personally, I don’t think he’s an original voice, and that should be the standard. It’s the most coveted piece of journalistic real estate in the country.”

The Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, acknowledged the Kristol kerfuffle in his column on Sunday, January 13, writing of Kristol’s hiring: “This is a decision I would not have made.” When reached by phone, Safire told me: “I saw the excellent piece that the public editor wrote the other day, and that pretty much tells the story.”

But behind much of the internal distaste for Kristol lies the paper’s complicated relationship with the Iraq war. In an August 2002 column in The Weekly Standard, as the Bush administration began marshaling its case for war, Kristol labeled the Times a member of the “Axis of Appeasement,” and a piece in his magazine commented that the paper’s bias against the war “colors . . . practically every news story on the subject.”

According to a former Times staffer, criticism from Kristol and other conservatives weighed heavily on the Times’ pre-war coverage, which turned more hawkish under then–executive editor Howell Raines and Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson. In September 2002, Judith Miller’s credulous front-page pieces on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction began appearing with increasing frequency and were echoed in The Weekly Standard.

Miller’s discredited coverage created a near-open revolt in the newsroom, especially in the Washington bureau. Even today, staffers there chafe at Kristol’s appointment. “There is a concern internally about Judy. No one wants to go back to those bad old days,” the senior staffer said. Another worried that Kristol’s columns signaled that “Judy’s point of view has returned.” (Miller doesn’t share her former colleagues’ reservations. “[I]t’s an appointment that’s a long time coming. The page needed balance,” she told me. But “an unabashed neocon without remorse is unacceptable to Times people...He’s not kosher in that sense.”)

More recently, Kristol attacked the Times’ publication of a June 2006 piece disclosing the CIA’s classified monitoring of international bank transfers. “I think the attorney general has an absolute obligation to consider prosecution,” Kristol said on “Fox News Sunday” three days after the article was published.

“My personal opinion is it’s an appalling choice,” a former veteran Times staffer said of Kristol’s appointment. “Not because he’s been wrong about so much, but because he called for prosecuting the Times for treason. You’re entitled to your opinion, but, in all due respect, go fuck yourself.”

(Sulzberger and Rosenthal declined to comment on the appointment; a spokeswoman said the paper had “brought Mr. Kristol on board after a long and thoughtful search.” Kristol declined to comment about his column. “I’m going to let the column speak for itself,” he said.)

IN A RECENT interview with Radar’s Charles Kaiser, Sulzberger likened Kristol’s hiring to his father’s controversial appointment of Safire 35 years ago. But this claim doesn’t seem to soothe any feathers. Times staffers say both Safire’s and Brooks’s personalities endeared them to the Washington bureau shortly after their arrival and trumped any political differences. “Arthur is going around telling people his father was vilified when he appointed Safire,” one longtime Times staffer said. “But Safire came to the Washington bureau. He had an office; he helped the reporters and wrote great columns. It was a marriage that really blossomed. He was really a beloved member of the Washington bureau.”

By contrast, Kristol is widely perceived to have only marginal allegiance to, and presence at, the paper. In addition to his Times column, Kristol edits The Weekly Standard and appears multiple times each week on Fox News. A Time magazine source complained that Kristol was known for phoning in his columns (for which he was paid roughly five dollars a word) when he wrote for the magazine last year, and his pieces in The Weekly Standard are often co-bylined.

Others suggest that Sulzberger’s decision was made as a way of confronting Rupert Murdoch, who took ownership of The Wall Street Journal in December. “Arthur is scared to death of The Wall Street Journal,” the former veteran Times staffer said. “That’s what’s behind the Kristol appointment.” But critics questioned Sulzberger’s hiring Kristol, a high-profile member of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire. Given Murdoch’s baldly stated intention to use The Wall Street Journal to go after the Times franchise, staffers groused that Sulzberger had unwittingly extended Murdoch’s influence.

Ultimately, Sulzberger’s selection of Kristol has left many at the Times uninspired by his leadership. “Right now, in terms of the economic anxieties of the newspaper business in general, and the Times in particular, there’s a concern that we should be doing things that are exciting and thinking about tomorrow’s readers,” one senior Times staffer said. “Kristol is a long, long, long established voice. There’s no surprise or resourcefulness of enterprise in the choice.”

Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.