When he left The New York Times last year in order to run for governor of Oregon, Nick Kristof took pains to explain why. From his vaunted perch as a tenured columnist at the nation’s foremost newspaper, he wrote about wanting to help the people of his hometown who were suffering from the loss of jobs, drug addiction, overdoses, and despair. He said he wanted to address this “humanitarian crisis” and get involved in politics to help people who have been the victims of systemic failure, and then named a few of these failed systems: political, educational, health. He wrote of the power of democracy and how pro-democracy protesters abroad had inspired him to “engage more fully in America’s democratic life.”
“I’m bucking the journalistic impulse to stay on the sidelines,” he wrote in this farewell column, which doubled as a stump speech, “because my heart aches at what classmates have endured and it feels like the right moment to move from covering problems to trying to fix them.”
Nine months and one collapsed campaign later, our crusading politico has decided that it now feels like the right moment to move from trying to fix the problems back to opining about them.
It was clear from the beginning that Kristof was unqualified to run for governor—not because he’s an outsider or because he’s never worked in politics or because he doesn’t understand the problems he seeks to address half as well as he thinks he does, or even because of the fact that the state Supreme Court disqualified him from the governor’s race because he didn’t meet the state’s residency requirements to get on the ballot. He was unqualified because he was deluded in thinking he could parachute into a state and win its highest office when he clearly cared way less about helping raise the downtrodden people of Oregon than helping himself raise his own profile.
Kristof tried to freaking run for governor of Oregon after having lived there for only a year and with little grassroots support (he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors like Melinda Gates, Angelina Jolie, Larry Summers, and other donors from the venture capital and tech worlds) instead of doing any other thing, any damn thing, that could actually help, or even attempt to help, the people on whose behalf Kristof’s heart bled so. And then, when his grand plan flopped in spectacular fashion, he just gave up on all that stuff he said he wanted to do and went back to his old job.
So much for “bucking the journalistic impulse to stay on the sidelines” and helping all those hometown pals who are dying “deaths of despair” because they lack the right political leadership. Nick Kristof didn’t get what he wanted (a chance to have a lot of political power) and so rather than choosing to do any of the unglamorous things that people who really care about helping others do all the time—running for local government, participating in a mutual aid group, volunteering at a safe injection site, going to school board meetings—he retreated to his vineyard estate and generally acted like a smug dick. In an interview with New York Magazine after the implosion of his campaign, Kristof was asked if he’d consider running for a state office other than that of governor.
“In Oregon?” He paused. “If I’m trying to figure out how I can bring about the greatest change on issues I care about, I’m just not sure that that’s how I can do it.”
In the same interview, Kristof again waxed mournfully about all the people he knows who have died from depression and addiction, before adding an important clarification:
“I don’t think that most people appreciate that most years, alcohol kills more people than drugs,” Kristof told me, though he clarified that he does not believe this is true of the type of alcohol that he makes. He also does not think that profiting off the sale of alcohol and lowering rates of alcohol addiction, two of his stated immediate goals, are in conflict. “You know, I’ve lost friends to alcoholism, but I haven’t lost any to Pinot Noir alcoholism,” he said.
On his post-campaign Substack, which has functioned as a testament to his editors at The New York Times, Kristof took up this point again when he shilled his property’s cider product under the guise of musing about whether it’s ethical for him to talk about the horrors of alcoholism while selling alcohol.
Maybe the cider and wine isn’t selling as well as he’d like, or maybe Kristof just missed the clout and power that came with having media sinecure; whatever it is, the Times said in a press release today that it’s “delighted to have him back.” In the end, it looks like Kristof leaving his columnist job wasn’t all that risky of a proposition.
This should all be embarrassing for both Kristof and the Times. Kristof, who previously resided, charitably, in the bumbling do-gooder space, has shown himself to be a tremendous fraud who sees politics as a game with no real stakes beyond amassing personal acclaim. The Times had to have him back. Could the Sulzbergers really not drum up anyone else to write about the world in a way that makes boomers feel good about themselves? Was there no one else available who could stake out the intellectually challenging positions like we need gun control and child marriage is bad and spend time in nature? Is there no one else to fill the Gray Lady’s paternalistic white savior columnist slot? Surely the Times could find someone else who could chip in on Kristof’s Biden beat with columns as insightful as “When Biden Becomes … Rooseveltian!” and “Joe Biden Is Electrifying America Like FDR.” The thing about powerful people and institutions, though, is they are shameless; it’s how they become powerful in the first place.
In his farewell column last year, Kristof shared his hope that by running for governor, he could “convince” people, especially those who are “cynical” about the political process, that “public service in government can be a path to show responsibility for communities we love, for a country that can do better.”
Ah. I hope the cynics learned their lesson.