Some years ago, a Sun grandee being honored at a little retirement ceremony reflected on his long tenure at the paper. This worthy had at one time possessed the dignity of a correspondent in our Washington bureau, and I paraphrase what he said about the best of that time:
My job was to file a story, and the job of the desk was to see to it that all of it got into the paper, without a lot of interference by the copy desk.*
This memory popped to the surface today as I was reading the online ridicule of Tom Friedman's latest column in The New York Times. The opening paragraphs have afforded much innocent mirth:
I was at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, last week and struggling with my column. News of Russia’s proposal for Syria to surrender its poison gas was just breaking and changing every hour, forcing me to rewrite my column every hour. To clear my head, I went for a walk along the Aare River, on Schifflaube Street. Along the way, I found a small grocery shop and stopped to buy some nectarines. As I went to pay, I was looking down, fishing for my Swiss francs, and when I looked up at the cashier, I was taken aback: He had pink hair. A huge shock of neon pink hair — very Euro-punk from the ’90s. While he was ringing me up, a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window — not a care in the world.
Observing all this joie de vivre, I thought to myself: “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be a Swiss? Maybe even to sport some pink hair?” Though I can’t say for sure, I got the feeling that the man with pink hair was not agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar al-Assad. Not his fault; his is a tiny country. I guess worrying about Syria is the tax you pay for being an American or an American president — and coming from the world’s strongest power that still believes, blessedly in my view, that it has to protect the global commons. Barack Obama once had black hair. But his is gray now, not pink. That’s also the tax you pay for thinking about the Middle East too much: It leads to either gray hair or no hair, but not pink hair.
Well, bring on the Grecian Formula, because our leaders will need it. My big take-away from the whole Syria imbroglio is that — with Europe ailing, China AWOL and the Arab world convulsing — for an American president to continue to lead will require more help from Vladimir Putin, because our president will get less help from everyone else, including the American people.
Here, in 350 less-than-compact words, you see the hazards of becoming a star who has been elevated above the discipline of editing.** Had Mr. Friedman been subject to editing, these points might have come up.
Item: Never tell the reader that you are having trouble coming up with a column. First off, the reader doesn't care how hard you work or how much trouble it is to come up with ideas. Second, talking about your trouble coming up with in idea for a column telegraphs that what follows is not going to be your best work.
Item: This thing maunders on for two paragraphs of 289 words before getting to the point. Lincoln sat down at Gettysburg after 271.
Item: And the point is that Obama is going to need help with this Syrian thing. At least I think that may be the point, because the rest of the column is nearly as aimless as the ambling down Schifflaube Street. But I will take note: Obama is going to need help. God bless The New York Times.
Item: The central problem, of course, is this risible "pink hair" conceit, this yoking by violence of heterogeneous ideas. The international order is in a hell of a mess, the president of the United States is in a fix, and it all snaps together in a little epiphany when Mr. Friedman notices that the Swiss who sells him nectarines has dyed his hair pink.
"Tom Friedman has the day off." would have been a more effective text in The Times today.
Sometimes the job of the editor is to stay out of the writer's way. And sometimes the job of the editor is to save the writer from himself. Think of Tom Friedman and the pink-hair objective correlative the next time you aspire to be released from the frets and bonds of editing.
*He looked my way as he said this, but I was unharmed. I have a neighbor who can give me the stink eye through dark glasses, so basilisks hold no terrors for me.
**I surmise that Mr. Friedman is immune from editing, but there is always a possibility that he has an editor who thought that this column was just swell. Folie a deux is a possibility in publishing as well as in love.
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