Tuesday night the debate — Wednesday morning the editorials. New York Times: “Mr. McCain tried to take a higher road. . . . He offered no real answers . . .” Chicago Tribune: “Both men projected authority that ought to reassure every American.”
The first rough draft of history needs to be done on the fly, but shouldn’t the first meditation on that history take a little longer? Not these days, I guess, not with the blogosphere and 24-hour TV news slashing the life span of topicality to a few hours. Get out in front of the conversation or it goes on without you.
Maureen Dowd had a column on McCain and Palin ready to go for today, but she slipped a couple of lines about the debate into it. We won’t catch Dowd behind the curve.
A couple of weekends ago I happened to be on Cape Cod for a wedding, and with the first Obama-McCain debate still a few hours off that Friday evening, somebody wondered what the Times would have to say about it in the morning. This somebody was a big fan of Times columnist Gail Collins, who writes for the Saturday paper, and couldn’t wait to see Collins give McCain the business.
She’ll write about something else, I said. The debate wouldn’t end until 10:30 PM, hardly giving Collins time to be reflective and still make her deadline. For the same reason, I expected to see the Times editorial on the debate in the Sunday paper. The editorial page would want a day to shape its thoughts.
What do I know? The next morning, there was the editorial! And there was Collins, cracking wise. “And McCain looked off his game,” said her fourth paragraph. “With trouble pronouncing the name of the president of Iran. Maybe he was exhausted from parachuting into Washington to lead Congress in resolving the financial crisis.”
That weekend I got to see the sausage getting made. Back home Sunday night I discovered that the Chicago edition of the Times came off the presses later than the Cape Cod edition. In the interim, Collins and the editorial page had both been busy. The editorial was given a good shake. Some language disappeared, some was added, and some was fine-tuned. “It was disturbing to see that Mr. McCain seems to have learned nothing from the disastrous war in Iraq” became “When the discussion turned to Iraq, it was profoundly disturbing to see that Mr. McCain seems to have learned nothing from the disastrous war.”
Collins made wholesale changes in her column. For instance, her original paragraph four became her new lead: “John McCain looked a bit off his game during the big presidential debate. Maybe he was exhausted from parachuting into Washington to resolve the financial crisis. Really, there are only so many hills a man can charge up in the course of a single week.”
Her second paragraph now made fun of McCain for obsessing over a $3 million federally funded study of bear DNA in Montana. In her first draft, she didn’t mention that study until she was halfway through the column, and she didn’t play it for laughs.
The next debate was Biden-Palin, As it was on a Thursday night, Collins had a full day to respond to it, and she produced a column I thought was vastly more intelligent than its predecessor.
It’d be nice to think that on the editorial and op-ed pages of serious newspapers the writing is allowed the time it takes and is actually written, not constructed and reconstructed. If that was ever true, it isn’t now. When punditry is slapped together on deadline, pundits who can crank out product have a clear advantage. But they have to follow a damning recipe — light on analysis, light on reflection, heavy on predilections.