There are two types of people: those who think Mark Steyn and Jonah Goldberg are the best columnists in the world, and those who are wrong.
The rest of us who opine in public might have a really good day and produce an excellent piece now and then but, for prolific quality, coupling insight with comedy, Mark and Jonah are the only mortal locks in the game.
If these two bylines are unfamiliar, you may recognize them from their broadcast work.
Jonah is the panelist with the goatee on Fox News’ Special Report. Be careful you’re not confusing him with the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, though. A handy way to tell them apart is Jonah is funnier and doesn’t have dry-mouth every damn time he speaks.
Mark, when he’s not writing, is perhaps best known for his guest hosting of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. He’s the Canadian guy with the British accent.
Normally, I eschew columns about other writers, the subject matter being too esoteric for mass appeal, and the enterprise itself sufficiently meta as to miss the point of policy debate.
But, as the Romans would say, exceptio probat regulam – the exception proves the rule.
In conservative circles, the exceptional nature of Mark and Jonah is not really in dispute, though their supremacy as I have pronounced it may be.
Kevin D. Williamson and Ross Douthat are always worth a read, as are Kyle Smith and Charles C. W. Cooke. Ann Coulter’s weekly screed always brightens a right-thinker’s Wednesday evening. People really seem to like Matt Lewis, and one always learns something from Charles Krauthammer and George Will.
Two quick examples, chosen more or less at random:
Mark on the willful deterioration of modern Christianity:
“Most mainline Protestant churches are, to one degree or another, post-Christian. If they no longer seem disposed to converting the unbelieving to Christ, they can at least convert them to the boggiest of soft-left clichés, on the grounds that if Jesus were alive today he’d most likely be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally friendly car with an ‘Arms are for Hugging’ sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi imams.”
And here’s Jonah, on the topic of presidential aspirant Ted Cruz having been born in Canada:
“While I am certainly open to theories about how Ted Cruz is the Manitoban Candidate, hiding in plain sight until he can impose the metric system on our children and make us all passive-aggressively polite, my hunch is that’s not the case.”
That is arguably the best sentence written so far this year.
Before proceeding, I should note that, good as they are, both Mark and Jonah have their weak points.
In Jonah’s case, when he strays from his natural habitat at National Review and writes for mainstream publications like USA Today, his work flattens instantly, losing all traces of humour and style. It’s like he turns into Rich Lowry (incidentally, we pundits have a term of art for the weakest writer on any opinion staff: “Editor”).
Mark, meanwhile, supplements his nonpareil criticism of political correctness, Muslim apologists and “climate change” mountebanks with interminable contemplations of his true passion: songs and their histories. One is patient with such devotion, particularly from someone who has provided so much enjoyment at no charge, as Mark has done. But confronted with thousands of words on who sang the shoo-be-doo’s that magical day when Dean Martin wore a turtleneck and John Kander ordered decaf and Frank Sinatra something-something, honestly, just shoot me.
I should add that neither of these guys is a pal of mine. To my recollection, Jonah and I have never met. Mark and I have a number of mutual friends (Ezra Levant and Kathy Shaidle prominently among them), but I remember meeting him just once, at a symposium and dinner party in New York City over a decade ago. I told Mark he’s the best columnist in the world and he did not disagree. ‘Nuff said.
The reason for all this inside-baseball, tire-pumping, knob-polishing metaphor-mixing is that these two leviathans of limited government – the north and south poles of planet Leave Me Alone – are at odds over the same thing dividing the entire conservative movement right now: one Donald J. Trump.
That’s not to say that they’re fighting – although that pay-per-view would be a goldmine – merely that they disagree.
For months, Jonah has been pleading with anyone with eyes to read that Trump is not a true conservative and is ill-suited to the presidency. Trump has even deigned to respond, referring to Jonah as “a guy that can’t buy a pair of pants” – a putdown that probably needed at least one more rewrite.
Mark, meanwhile, avers that the Trump phenomenon is a perfectly logical reaction to the feckless, conviction-free conduct of so-called "conservative" leaders like John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, et al.
A few words from each on the topic:
“Trump has the charisma, I’ll grant him that. But there is no evidence he’s thought deeply about the job beyond how much classier it will be once he has it.”
“For many conservative voters, 2014 was the GOP's last chance, and they blew it. For those conservative voters whose priority is immigration, 2016 is America's last chance, and Trump's the only reason anyone's even talking about that.”
Both represent their positions well, and for those of us who give regular contemplation to their opinions to help us develop our own (see also, "plagiarize"), beholding them in opposition is like hearing Mom and Dad fight (I'll leave it to Mark and Jonah to decide which of them is which).
I was about to say Mark has the better of this argument until I saw Sarah Palin had endorsed Trump.
While Palin's imprimatur may help Trump in Iowa or among "Evangelicals" (the media's irksome catch-all for anyone who isn't overtly Catholic or a Democrat), I've long suspected that her act has worn thin among regular people.
Sure, we think she got a bad rap in '08 and we were embarrassed to see liberal journalists act as though they were saving the nation by blocking her from the vice presidency – especially when the alternative was Joe Biden.
But her aw-shucks know-nothingness, her cantankerous up-talk, and her shameless self-promotion have started to rankle.
Palin's sign-offs used to mean a great deal – Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who delivered the ostensibly Trump-maligning GOP State of the Union response, owes her election to being plucked from relative obscurity in a crowded field by Palin in 2010.
Palin was, at one time, the embodiment of that roguish, mavericky, lemme-tell-ya-somethin' ethos that Trump now represents. But today, among the normal people you don't see on political panels, I expect she is a tired brand.
Indeed, as Trump's appeal has been largely based on his independence, it is possible Palin's endorsement could backfire.
It's such a standard politician's move, rendering Trump more like the Republican squishes Mark describes, at least aesthetically.
In a way, Mark and Jonah’s respective positions on Trump the outsider reflect the current state of their careers. While Mark continues to write for publications all over the world, as well as release books and cat albums (no joke, see below), he shook the dust from his cloak and departed National Review, where Jonah is a Senior Editor and now the top-dog writer.
Mark’s reasons for leaving were twofold: One, a prissy NR editor you’ve never heard of (except, perhaps, if you know this story) decided to upbraid him over a couple of jokes Mark referenced in discussing gay marriage and the intolerance of its advocates; two, Mark and NR had irreconcilable differences over legal strategy as they are both being sued by serial litigant and climate mullah Michael Mann.
Much as I would like to say National Review sucks now, in chorus with many conservatives, they still have Jonah – and Williamson, Cooke, and David French are just too darn good for me to spit that out. Even so, under Lowry’s Boehner-like leadership, the place has had a serious come-down from the days when William F. Buckley roamed the earth.
But there they are – Jonah ensconced in what’s left of the manor Buckley built, while Mark, like "Liberty Leading the People" (although with both breasts covered, one hopes), gives voice to the rabble outside.
Let me be clear about the distinction – Jonah is not claiming Trump won’t win, merely that he shouldn’t; and Mark, while acknowledging Trump’s persistent lead in the polls, is not endorsing him so much as saying, if several election victories by established Republicans make no difference, why not give the new guy a shot?
It’s a rare and significant schism between the two best in the business – with potentially serious implications for everyone reading this sentence – this sentence I am writing now – PERIOD.
Score it that way at home if you like: Mark vs. Jonah, Trump vs. anti-Trump, cat people vs. dog people.
It will be fun to see who’s right, notwithstanding the fate of the world’s indispensable nation.
(Theo Caldwell rises like Olympus above the Serengeti. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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