A Portrait of Ross Douthat as a Young Republican

The Times editorial page has been conspicuously down a token right-winger recently as former Atlantic blogger Ross Douthat stands on deck, preparing to step to the plate where Bill Kristol struck out last year.

Why it takes so long for the sclerotic print media to rotate in a new opinionator I don’t understand any more than I do the persistence of print itself. But while we wait, the voices of the Internet are keeping busy with wild speculation about who the 29-year-old Douthat is and what he thinks.

There’s a lot of promise in conservative circles—and terror in liberal ones—that Douthat (DOW-thut) can return the loyal-opposition spot at the paper of record to its Safirian glory days: He seems to possess neither Kristol’s wince-worthy GOP-line orthodoxy nor David Brooks’ exhausting tepidness. And unlike both, but like Safire, he’s a gorgeous prose stylist. Privilege, his memoir of being the odd thinker out at another giant, floundering liberal institution—Harvard College—is honeyed and beautiful and worth picking up for, if nothing else, a shockingly non-homoerotic narrative of skinny-dipping with the late William F. Buckley.

But it’s not an easily decoded indicator of Douthat’s political or philosophical coordinates. So media watchers (e.g. Intelligencer) have combed Douthat’s books, op-eds, film reviews, and posts on the Atlantic blog to try and ratiocinate some kind of constellation of ideas, or at least embarrass him by buoying sunken gaffes from the past. Most of this is pretty obvious stuff: Douthat was against the war in Iraq before he was for it, he liked Sarah Palin and then he was disillusioned, etc. He’s a Catholic and—quelle surprise—he has a problem with abortion. Almost everyone agrees, though, despite a few flubs, that Douthat will be smarter and more nuanced than Kristol.

I’m a little shocked, though, that so few bloggers have turned the obvious journalistic trick of looking up Douthat’s columns from the college paper. (Campus Progress and Cambridge coeval Matt Yglesias are the exceptions.) In fact, Douthat wrote voluminously for two Harvard Yard organs: The Times-feeding, left-lilting Crimson, and the hard-right Salient, of which he was president. As CP points out, Douthat’s collegiate corpus reveals a far more bitterly partisan, and far less sanitized, brand of conservatism than does his work after graduation.

In his journalistic adolescence at the Crimson, Douthat comes off as anti-gay, anti-Islam, curiously anti-Asian, and rabidly right on cultural issues like abortion. At the time, though, his most famous—and for me most indicative—column, was an ostensibly non-partisan one: “The Harvard Syndrome” in which he diagnoses virtually all detractors from Harvard’s glory with a peculiar mass delusion. The Tufts man may have reasonable-sounding criticisms of the behemoth University next door, but the source of his gripe, per Douthat, is invariably that he “was denied admission to Harvard.” Douthat’s elitism is not only intellectually insane, but conjures, if indirectly, the least palatable and most antiquated elements of American conservatism.

As for his tenure at the Salient, Douthat stuck to the hot-button issues, and often took positions at odds with the kinder, gentler, more thoughtful opinions he'd produce later. One column stands out. In “The Cross and the Triangle,” Douthat rails against the appointment of Dorothy Austin, a lesbian, as Memorial Church’s associate minister, which he calls “at once utterly predictable and completely appalling.” The column is better written than Bill O’Reilly’s nightly script, but that’s about the only difference.

Douthat’s Crimson and Salient columns are slightly more explicit than the remainder of his oeuvre, but they plant the seed: The prose is good, but the writer’s zeal as a culture warrior, as well as his often bizarre moral logic, should be disconcerting to readers of the Times who share a few fundamental premises more cosmopolitan than this.

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