Bret Stephens Tells Gail Collins: “Journalism is a human enterprise, so it’s inevitably a flawed one, and everyone loves to be a critic”

From a conversation between New York Times journalists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “Putin Is Spinning the Globe Faster and Faster”:

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. In 2006, I wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal that began with the sentence “It’s time we start thinking of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an enemy of the United States.” At the time, the criticism I got came from the left. But if I wrote the same column today, most of the flak would come from the right.

What happened?

Gail Collins: Bret, I guess my longstanding rule on not conversing about foreign affairs is going to fall by the wayside today. Can’t ignore Russia.

Bret: The wonderful country from which most of my ancestors fled for their lives, except for my great-grandfather Ivan Grodzensky, whom the Bolsheviks murdered outright.

Gail: The left has tended to see knee-jerk anti-Russianism as a leftover from the Cold War days, when conservatives still saw fighting Communism as the key idea on the international agenda. The real danger was right-wing strongmen, and now I guess the two sides have merged. Putin is the right-wing strongman everybody — or almost everybody — loves to hate.

Leave you to explain why some on the right are still enamored.

Bret: Most establishment Republicans like Mitt Romney have seen Putin’s Russia as the grave threat that it is for years — more clearly, I would add, than Barack Obama, who owes Mitt an apology for his stupid jibe about the 1980s calling and wanting its foreign policy back.

Gail: Hey, a whole lot of us owe Mitt an apology for one thing or the other. Still sorry about making fun of you for putting your dog Seamus on the roof of your car, Senator.

Bret: I was fairly critical of his 2012 run, yet the world would probably have been in a better place today had he won.

But Donald Trump’s presidency gave rise to a new new right, which is really just a warmed-over version of the old old right of bigoted isolationists like Father Coughlin and Pat Buchanan. These people see Putin as a Charles Martel figure, defending Christian civilization from its supposed enemies, like the Davos elites, gay people and nonwhite immigrants.

Gail: One of the many things I love about conversing with you is your sense of history. Been a long time since Father Coughlin showed up in my train of thought. And Charles Martel — wow.

Sorry, just wanted to compliment you. Go on about the new new right.

Bret: Thank you. (And thanks, University of Chicago.)

Back to those new-old-new-olds, people like that nauseating cynic Tucker Carlson and the nauseating true believer Steve Bannon want to defend “the West” by ignoring what the West is about, principally its commitment to liberal democracy. Some of them are also attracted to Putin’s shirtless, hairless, macho image.

Gail: Wanted to ask you — do you think Putin and Trump had a genuine mind-meld palship, or was Putin just playing on Trump’s ego?

Bret: The latter. Trump is a classic narcissist, and a seasoned K.G.B. officer like Putin would know how to play him like a fiddle.

Oddly, the Trump administration’s policies on Russia were generally tougher and better than Trump’s own rhetoric and intentions, in part because he eventually got the message that being seen as Putin’s poodle wasn’t a good look. But I think the Putin-curious wing of the G.O.P. could really hurt the overall Republican brand, along with Trump’s moronic comment about Putin’s “genius.” That presents an opportunity for President Biden to take up the mantle of “defender of the free world” at the State of the Union on Tuesday night. What are you hoping for from Joe?

Gail: Well, I guess my dream of him focusing on quality child care is a bit dim now.

Bret: Just as F.D.R. pivoted from “Dr. New Deal” to “Dr. Win the War,” Biden needs to do something similar.

Gail: I’ve noticed some of the right-wing pundits who started out as Putin panderers have been trying to get out of that hole by focusing on anti-environmentalism. Biden’s righteous efforts to punish Russia will very likely raise the price of energy here.

So I hope he’ll tell America that although there will be some short-term suffering, there’s nothing about the Ukraine crisis that will require reviving the Keystone XL pipeline. That our country can deal with both this immediate challenge from Russia and the long-term challenge of global warming.

Bret: We disagree at last! The more we can do to reduce the West’s dependence on energy from Russia, the better. That should mean reinvesting heavily in new, safe, dependable nuclear energy. The campaign against nuclear turned out to be one of the environmental movement’s dumber moves, since it only made the West more reliant on nasty petrostates like Russia while demonizing a reliable, energy-dense, low-carbon power source. And more fracking for natural gas would help, too, since natural gas is much better for the environment than coal and has the additional advantage that it can be shipped to our European friends in liquefied form.

Gail: This is the future of the planet we’re talking about. We’ve got to find the safest conceivable path forward when it comes to energy. There’s a ton of options for promoting clean power sources if everybody’s willing to admit that it’s going to be an expensive trip forward. Needing much government support, even if that means (cough, cough) more taxes.

Bret: Or less red tape, especially for nuclear power. The other big news of the week, Gail, is Biden’s Supreme Court nominee. Your thoughts on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and the politics of her nomination?

Gail: She’s obviously superqualified. I know a few Republicans were open to at least one of the other possible nominees who had a more centrist record, but we’re talking about replacing Justice Stephen Breyer, a liberal, with a liberal justice who once was a Breyer clerk. It’s not going to change the balance of the court, unfortunately.

Bret: Or fortunately.

Gail: I’ll be interested to see how the Senate hearings go. I have memories of days of yore when both parties regarded a court appointment as such a solemn duty that they proceeded in a dignified, almost collegial manner. Don’t suppose that will happen now. And I know you’re going to remind me how messy the Democrats were with the Trump nominations. After which I’ll howl about Mitch McConnell never even letting Obama’s Supreme Court nominee come up for a vote.

Or we can just move forward. How do you feel?

Bret: I think she should be confirmed 100 to 0 or at least 96 to 3, which was the vote for Ruth Bader Ginsburg back in 1993. And I say that as someone who will probably disagree with a lot of Jackson’s opinions. My basic view is that presidents should have a right to their Supreme Court pick, regardless of ideology, and that the battles we’ve had in recent years over every nominee haven’t helped anyone, least of all the reputation of the Senate, the image of the court or the sanity of the country.

Gail: Well, we agree — temporarily. May have to reserve my right to howl if — aghh! — Trump should return to power and nominate a maniac.

Bret: I’m also interested in the politics of this. You know, I thought Biden made a mistake in announcing ahead of time that he would only choose a Black woman. But the Republican senators who’ll line up to oppose her will only make themselves look churlish and ugly in the hearings, which could help Democrats in the midterms. I really hope she can draw at least a few Republican votes, like Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney.

Gail: OK, Mitt. Take a principled stand, and I’ll apologize yet again for our Seamus period.

Bret: On another subject, Gail, I’ve been fascinated by the turmoil at CNN. The network is getting a new leader, Chris Licht, after Jeff Zucker resigned under a cloud or two or maybe six. As a journalism pro, any advice on how to help CNN find its feet again?

Gail: Well, you’re seeing the most important part every day in the fine and sometimes fearless coverage CNN is providing from Ukraine.

Bret: That was always the network’s great strength and used to be its main point of difference from the sort of ranting, biased, personality-driven pseudo-journalism that prevails at Fox News and MSNBC. CNN would benefit by getting back to those basics. People will flock to “boring” TV journalism so long as they can trust it.

Gail: Which reminds me to take this opportunity to send thanks, best wishes and praise to our Times colleagues and the other reporters and photographers who are risking their safety to keep us informed. It’s something that happens almost every day in some part of the world, but it’s always inspiring when we get a chance to appreciate it moment by moment.

Bret: Can’t be said often enough, Gail. Journalism is a human enterprise, so it’s inevitably a flawed one, and everyone loves to be a critic. But as I constantly refresh the live scroll of updates from our colleagues in and around Ukraine, I’m in awe at what a free press does and can do. That kind of freedom is also what the people of Ukraine are now fighting to preserve. Nobody should be indifferent to their fate or fail to understand who’s on the right side of this battle.

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist and a former member of the editorial board, and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007.

Bret Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.


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