There was a time when Frank Bruni was the best food writer on the planet. He was the head restaurant critic at the New York Times and he wrote about food the way I hoped someone at the Times would write about food. He loved Blizzards, which is always the smart play. He banged out mean reviews that I read many times over. He admitted to grubbing on precooked Tyson chicken parts while driving alone. This was a good egg.
I have no fucking idea what happened to that Frank Bruni. All I know is that he switched over to the opinion page of the Times, got infected with whatever cranial bleach they pass around to columnists in that section of the paper, and withered away into the kind of political columnist you only pay attention to when they fuck up.
Thankfully, he just gave us one last chance to pay attention. Bruni has decided to leave his columnist gig in order to take a job at Duke University, thus completing his decade-long journey into disgrace. As a parting gift, he’s bequeathed us one final, uncut turd of a post. About the plague of snark, which is very new and important. Can you BELIEVE people on the Internet are snarky now? I sure can’t. Anyway, let’s read this piece of shit column and make fun of it.
Ted Cruz, I’m Sorry
That’s the headline. And at first I was like, oh OK, the headline is sarcastic. A real Billy the Kid apology. But then I was like, you know what? This is latter-day Frank Bruni we’re talking about. I bet he actually IS sorry. To Ted Cruz. That Ted Cruz. Not some other Ted Cruz who runs an auto body shop in Las Cruces. The actual Ted Cruz. Let’s see if my corrective instincts were onto something!
I owe Ted Cruz an apology.
Here comes the twist!
Though, really, it’s readers to whom I should say I’m sorry.
UPDATE: There was no twist.
One day in 2015 when I had a column due in hours and couldn’t settle on a topic…
Every Frank Bruni column for the past decade may as well have had “couldn’t settle on a topic” as a digital watermark that follows you down the screen.
I took the easy route of unloading on Cruz, who was one of many unappealing contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.
True. It’s very easy to unload on Ted Cruz. And do you know why? BECAUSE HE’S TED CRUZ.
He was fair game for rebuke, no question there.
But did I illuminate his dark character, enlighten my readers or advance any worthwhile cause by comparing him — repeatedly — to the unstoppable entity in the horror movie “It Follows”?
It Follows was a horror movie about an unknown curse that people unknowingly pass onto others after having sex with them. It’s a morbidly amusing and extremely tense allegory about sexually transmitted diseases. By contrast, Ted Cruz is a leaking stoma. So yes, you failed to advance a worthwhile cause here. Because you were too nice.
No. I just swam with the snide tide.
THE SNIDE TIDE. THE SNARK PARK. THE SAR-CHASM. THE JISM SCHISM. Instead of taking the high road—with Ted Cruz—Frank Bruni chose to impugn Cruz’s character instead. I am crushed by this negligence. Every day I wake up and I think to myself, “Are op-ed people being nice enough to a man who supported the Capitol riot, alienated literally everyone around him including his children, and fled his home state for Mexico when it was suffering from blackouts that would eventually kill hundreds, if not thousands? Or did they take the EASY way out and correctly point out that he’s a shitty person?” Well, Frank Bruni chose the latter route. He rolled with the MEME TEAM.
I did that too often. Many columnists do.
I know! It’s almost like these people are compelled to voice their OPINIONS through EDITORIAL means. Like they settle on a topic!
Starting, well, now, I’m a columnist no more. I’ve taken a job in academia and will split my time between teaching and writing.
“Kids, today let’s find a noun that rhymes with CANCEL.”
Maybe that’s best: Ten years is a long haul in any assignment, and while this one has been amply challenging and deeply rewarding, I always had misgivings.
I’ve always wanted to read a columnist who apparently never wanted to actually be a columnist.
I worried, and continue to worry, about the degree to which I and other journalists — opinion writers, especially — have contributed to the dynamics we decry:
And how would you describe these dynamics, sir? Would you say they are “civil”?
the toxic tenor of American discourse…
TOXIC! Oh so toxic. Republicans are out here furiously attempting to prevent Critical Race Theory being taught in schools when A) No one has taught it yet, and B) They don’t actually know what it is, but that it’s definitely too mean to white people. And you’re telling me the right move here is to INSULT them for it? Who’s the poisonous one now, I ask you? Why, such rancor leaves a bitter aftertaste not seen since I had a decanter of artisanal fernet at State Bird Provisions! Now, are you readers horny for alliteration? I bet you are!
the furious pitch of American politics, the volume and vitriol of it all.
The danger of our discourse. The fury of our far-reaching, false foreshadowings of fascism. The Wolf of Wall Steet.
I worry, too, about how frequently we shove ambivalence and ambiguity aside. Ambivalence and ambiguity aren’t necessarily signs of weakness or sins of indecision. They can be apt responses to events that we don’t yet understand, with outcomes that we can’t predict.
That’s all true, if we were talking about anything other than Ted Cruz.
But they don’t make for bold sentences or tidy talking points.
Decisive judgments are “interesting” and “provocative,” and that’s anathema to what I and the Paper of Record stand for. Whatever happened to being an ambivalent shithead?
I don’t want to understate my overarching regard for journalists…. And I feel no ambivalence when it comes to Trump and almost no regret about my denunciations of him.
But I qualified “no regret” with “almost” because there is the matter of tone.
And isn’t that almost kinda sorta maybe possibly the BEST kind of opinion writing? I think there’s a chance it could be, but I have to consider the possibility that it’s not. Time will tell!
Trump’s penchant for mockery gave those of us who covered him a green light to follow suit, and I was among many who seized on that permission. There wasn’t any shame in that, and it afforded us flights of verbal fancy that plenty of readers enjoyed.
But there wasn’t any honor in it, either.
And was there any honor in Charlie Chaplin mocking Hitler during WWII by making The Great Dictator? I say no. I say that Chaplin should have made The Dictator Does Some Concerning Things That Give Me Pause But He Does Have Some Good Ideas.
We sank toward Trump’s level, and he cited that descent as validation of his hostility. The reciprocal ridicule went on and on.
The infernal insults. The jocular jest. The devilish damnations. Whatever happened to MANNERS, I ask you? I don’t think the tenor of things has EVER been this bad.
[looks back at world history]
[remembers Caesar being murdered by his own colleagues]
[remembers the Crusades]
[remembers the Inquisition]
[remembers Henry VIII starting a war that one time in order to get his six-year-old son married to a Scottish baby]
[remembers a Civil War that took place right here and lasted many years]
[remembers not one but two world wars, which somehow didn’t put mankind off war afterward]
Nope. Never this bad.
Will the vestiges of it pollute post-Trump journalism?
What’s journalism? Right now there are only two working newspapers and the only magazine left is Cat Fancy.
My wager is yes. And it’s a sorrowful bet.
It brings me no joy to report that the snark will continue until morale improves.
I don’t miss the stodginess that defined a lot of news writing when I got into the business three and a half decades ago. It reflected an unnatural emotional remove and an insistence on even-handedness that produced a kind of moral zombie-ism.
BUDDY HAVE I EVER GOT THE PAPER FOR YOU TO READ THEN! You’ll love it. It’s based in New York, which has great food. It has insane resources, which it squanders almost as a matter of policy. And it never takes a stand on ANYTHING. You should subscribe to it when you get to Duke, except that reading is illegal now in North Carolina!
So I haven’t written about cancel culture, not much.
But I qualified “haven’t written” with “not much” because there is the matter of tone.
Yes, that’s cowardice.
I wish that you had been brave enough to write about something the entire right-wing segment of your department has written about, daily, since before the dawn of man. Imagine my disappointment right now. The longing of lament lingers in my loins.
But to cut myself a bit of slack, it’s also a reasoned response to a marketplace that isn’t big on reason.
“Actually, dear reader, YOU’RE the problem.”
I think that campuses have gone way too far in quashing speech they don’t like, but I also think that some speech is so intentionally injurious and flamboyantly cruel that refusing to showcase it isn’t the defeat of constitutional principles; it’s the triumph of empathy. No single edict can govern all exigencies. But that’s a milquetoast column.
And you came to Frank Bruni for bold sentences and tidy talking points! LIKE THESE!
Who can really be sure that trashing the filibuster is the gateway to governmental bliss?
I can. Many, many people can.
Who can be sure it isn’t?
I wish someone would write a great analysis of the filibuster…
…that focused on two undeniable truths…
Hit me, Franklock.
We have no idea what the ultimate impact of such a consequential change would be…
We absolutely do. Comprehensive voting protections would get passed, as would expanded stimulus, infrastructure bills, vital judicial and executive appointments, tangible improvements to a shit healthcare system. Oh, an any inquiry into the Capitol Riot would be enacted by a simple majority instead of getting strangled in the womb by three dozen Nazis who represent, in total, nine voters.
…and there are powerful arguments for and against it.
Today I bring you two undeniable truths. One: we don’t know the truth. Two: Some say the truth is bad, while others say that it is good. And who am I, a man who can publish his thoughts to millions of people around the world at any time, on a whim, to say who is right?
On this issue and others, Option A versus Option B amounts to a coin flip.
NO IT DOESN’T WHAT KIND OF FUCKING COINS DO YOU FLIP
How many pundits say that?
NONE BECAUSE THEY’D ALL BE FUCKING FIRED WHICH IS WHAT YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN.
Too many columnists generalize too broadly. I know I did when I wrote, in August 2019, about the tenacity of hate and I asserted that Americans who still opposed same-sex marriage “cannot bear the likes of me” and other gay people. A reader called me out on it, saying that there’s a difference between disagreeing with a position and detesting a person.
That reader was a fucking dipshit.
He was right.
He was not.
But that distinction was lost in my excited prose.
My bilious booing. My irrationally impish ink.
Too many columns are less sober analyses than snarky stand-up acts or primal screams. The standup and the screams sell. My column about Cruz was a little of both, and I wish I could take it back… And I can’t chide politicians for ungracious manners and unsubtle minds if those inadequacies are also my own.
You can read this and understand why the Times is a lost cause. It doesn’t matter who runs it going forward. It doesn’t matter who replaces Bruni on the masthead (probably Tom Cotton). If someone whose very job is to vocally hold the powerful accountable ends his extremely long tenure at the paper like, “You know what? I should have been nicer to Ted Fucking Cruz,” you know exactly what kind of publication you’re dealing with. I’m not sorry for shitting on the Times, Frank Bruni. Or for shitting on Ted Cruz. Or for shitting on you. None of that induces regret within me. Tonight I’ll sleep like a fucking polar bear.
A month and a half after that rant about Cruz, I ripped into him again, and while I cited fresh developments, I repeated old plaints. I subsequently ran into CNN’s Dana Bash…
You mean this Dana Bash?
and after we exchanged our usual pleasantries, she said, “You and Ted Cruz!” I decided to hear that as a compliment: She was reading and remembering my columns. But was there some friendly criticism mixed in? About how knee-jerk my approach could seem and how threadbare this material was getting?
And what if my column was nothing but questions that I’m too cowardly to answer with conviction?
I wish I’d thought about that as much then as I do now.
Well you’ll have plenty more to think about at Duke, where fascists-in-training go to learn that most establishment liberals, especially ones at the Times, are too feeble to stop them. They’ll have plenty to learn from you, Professor Punching Bag.