My Dinner With Michael Kinsley


I began Wednesday evening in a sulky mood. Yes, I was going to the Michael Kinsley (LA Times Opinion Editor) and Andres Martinez (Editorial Page Editor) at the Harvard/Radcliffe Club at the LA Athletic Club. Downside. The program was scheduled to begin at 6pm (when I could meet with all the hot brainy chix) but my date Cathy said we should arrive at 7pm.

I absolutely must arrive on time to events or I get all out of kilter.

So at 6:52pm, I walked up the Club carrying my book -- You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe. If anyone asks me why I've got a book with me, I'm gonna say it is just in case the evening is boring. That will let the world know how ticked off I am and these Harvard types don't impress me.

I call Cathy Seipp on my cell phone and say I'll meet her at the entrance. Seven minutes later and no sign of Cathy, I call her again. She's already in the program. I'm waiting outside like a fool for a woman who'll never come.

It's the same old story.

The panel is well underway as I walk in. There are no spare seats near hot chix and it would be rude of me anyway to seize one as I already have my date Cathy.

Finally seats are brought to the back and side. I'm feeling happier because I didn't have to spring for the entrance. Thanks to Jim McCarthy, our host (a Harvard English major, graduating in 1991).

The panelists are mumbling and muttering under their breaths. They avoid the mic and it doesn't even matter because they have nothing to say.

Just as I'm ready to open my book, Mike Kinsley (wears a couple of days' growth of beard, maybe he observes Judaism's proscription against using a razor) knocks off a few good lines. Then Andres resumes the mumble about nothing and the moderator (Steven Arkow, works at DOJ as a federal prosecutor) in his tenor voice shuns the mic and I'm ready to write some nasty stuff about cutting the balls off of people who won't speak into the mic because they sound like eunechs anyway.

Then I realize that this sort of writing would not endear me to Cathy who had warned me to be on my best behavior.

Kinsley says there are 14 on The Times editorial board. There were no lawyers when he came aboard. Now there are three. He wants more lawyers because they are systematic thinkers. LAT Editor John Carrol disagrees.

The moderator's voice reminds me of Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy birthday Mr. President" to JFK.

I fight to keep myself in my seat when my soul wants to jump up and yell, "Have you guys ever considered publishing something interesting? Just as a change of pace, mind you."

The LA Times has long been the most boring, and the most predictably and reflexively liberal of any major newspaper. I'm not sure it is any better under Kinsley.

I've been reading Michael since I was a teenager. I think The New Republic was at its best under his leadership (though his reign over Slate left much to be desired because almost all his writers were uniformly and predictably liberal, unlike the vibrant TNR).

Michael has brought in a bunch of pals from the Northeast, including dull regulars such as Margaret Carlson. Snore. How about some fresh LA voices Michael?

Kinsley describes David Shaw as The Times "Ideas" columnist. Cathy and I break into laughter.

An insistent woman in the front row, without any prompting from the moderator about opening things up to the floor, badgers Michael about Shaw and other Times shortcoming. I immediately know its Amy Alkon, AdviceGoddess.com.

Five minutes later, Cathy asks me, "Who is that speaking?"

"It's Amy," I say.

"Oh," Cathy responds, chagrined. "I wondered why her voice sounded so familiar."

"Newspapers are establishment publications," says Kinsley.

Martinez describes The LAT as "freewheeling" compared to The NYT editorial page. He says The NYT's "history and tradition is almost oppressive."

Looking around the audience, nobody seems to care what Andres says. But they're glued to Kinsley who keeps trying to share the spotlight with Andres.

A man with a heavy Mexican accent makes a three-point speech about the late Frank del Olmo, the first Latino editor at The LAT.

The man is ticked off that The Times hasn't replaced him with another Latino editor. He praises Frank for being the only journalist to make a solid stand against the Mexican Mafia.

"As opposed to what?" wonders Cathy. "Other journalists support the Mexican Mafia?"

Though the room is filled with Harvard/Radcliffe graduates, many of them are idiots. They ask lengthy ponderous questions.

Kinsley praises the promising accomplished Latino voices at The LAT. The man in the audience wants them to further Frank Del Olmo's racial activism.

That's exactly what's needed in journalists -- more racial activism. Martinez and Kinsley suck up to his racial platitudes rather than slamming them down his throat as he deserves.

What kind of reaction would a man praising activism for the white race get in this crowd? He'd be shown the door. But when it comes to Latinos and Blacks, you can never be too racially active without the wimpy liberals at The LAT stepping into line behind it.

Kinsley's talk about the bright promising Latinos at The LAT reminds me of those who talk about "articulate Blacks."

Andres grew up in Mexico but he has no Mexican accent, yet many people of Mexican ancestry who grew up in California speak with a Mexican accent.

The man wants to know what editorials The LAT has published that would make Frank del Olmo proud. Instead of telling him to jump out the window, Andres lists a variety of pro-Latino editorials, including one for giving CA Drivers License to illegal aliens (thereby destroying the DL as a valid ID device for a US citizen).

A middle-aged black woman says her 20-year old niece doesn't read newspapers, doesn't know who John [R.] Bolton is, and that this therefore must be the fault of newspapers.

"Your niece is a moron," says Cathy, and Kinsley says the same thing, though in more polite language.

Kinsley stammers a lot, repeating the same word up to six times before he can move on.

Mike says he's been an opinion journalist all his life and he doesn't feel like he's influenced anything.

Cathy leaves at 8:10.

Jim invites me to dinner with the panelists and a dozen other elites.

Kinsley sits down opposite me. His first question is what year did I graduate Harvard. I confess I'm an interloper.

I quote chapter and verse from things he wrote 20 years ago. He says he doesn't know whether to be flattered or frightened.

Kinsley says Mickey Kaus with his blog has a bigger influence (due to his immediacy) than the LAT editorial and opinion pages. Kinsley was used to the immediacy of Slate (which was slow in web time). He'd send off an article, take a shower, and return to his computer to find his article online. Now at The LAT, he turns in his column for Sunday on Tuesday.

Kinsley says newspapers are doomed. He wants to do more blogger/interactive things on The LAT website. He's excited by The LAT's new head of Internet operations -- Rob Barrett, the husband of Ruth Shalit.

I quote back to Kinsley an article he wrote 18-years ago on his two-weeks in Australia. I asked him how much Australia's kindliness was due to the racial monotony of its population (98% white). He said that he pointed out in his article that Australia's dynamism was substantially due to its opening up to asian immigration.

Kinsley waxed lyrical about racial and sexual-orientation diversity on Miami's South Beach.

I asked him about the higher crime rates that result from racial (and other types of) diversity.

Kinsley didn't see any connection between high crime rates and diversity.

So I shut up on this sensitive topic.

I ask Kinsley if he had any Republicans writing for him at Slate (I don't recall any being on staff). "Oh sure," Michael says.

"Who?" I ask.

"Jack Shafer," says Kinsley.

"Jack's not a Republican. He's a libertarian."

"He voted for Bush [senior and junior]," said Michael.

Not convincing. Slate was almost pure liberalism with a smattering of libertarianism (as far as staffers).

Jack Shafer replies to my inquiry: "I ain't never voted for no Bush."

Shafer says he has never voted Republican for president and that the one word that best describes his political beliefs is "libertarian."

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a registered Republican who was a staff writer for Slate.

Kinsley says the Outfoxed documentary was crap.

Kinsley remembers Stephen Glass as a nice kid at The New Republic who worked as a secretary. Kinsley felt bad he couldn't get him writing gigs.

Glass went on to fabricate information in about 40 articles for TNR.

Kinsley had the same reaction to the Stephen Glass movie Shattered Glass as I did -- it was superb, though too reverential towards TNR.

Kinsley has long hated fact-checkers. He thinks reporters should be their own fact-checkers and having fact-checkers on staff makes reporters lazy.

I asked Michael what was the most perceptive article written on him. He mentioned one in Vanity Fair by a famous 20/20 correspondent who wrote that the man who doesn't blink (watch Kinsley on TV, he rarely blinks) blinked (when he accepted and rejected the editorship of New York magazine within 24-hours, during this same time he received his diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease, which he only made public when he left Slate about two years ago).

I remind Kinsley that he never got to edit Literary Editor and incoherent blowhard Leon Wieseltier who's long had a snug relationship with former TNR publisher Marty Peretz that leaves Leon exempt from editing, even though he desperately needs it.

Three years ago, Michael married his former boss at Microsoft who now runs the Bill Gates charitable foundation.

Kinsley splits his time between LA and Seattle.

I ask Michael and the group if they've heard of Air Supply. Nobody has. I tell them that I learned about love through the prism of Air Supply songs. They look at me mystified.

These are Harvard graduates. What exactly do they teach there? Obviously no Australian Music Appreciation.

I sit next to a beautiful woman I knew a decade ago. Now she's married and has two kids in addition to a thriving career.

I'm reminded again of how far I lag behind my peers in the things that are most meaningful.

Kinsley scoffs at how the Washington Post carefully labels satirical articles as "satire."

I regale the group with tales of my five hours of live radio debate with Paul Cambria on this. Paul thrashed me (I took Kinsley's position on satire -- that if you label it, it is no longer funny, and the inherent material should reveal whether something is satirical or literal).

Kinsley and Kaus (both graduates of Harvard Law School) wanted to start a magazine that would have a big disclaimer on the front that some of its contents were invented. They thought this might serve as a protection against libel suits but they were quickly dissuaded. If an average person could read something you wrote or published and believe it was true, then you are on the hook for libel if you maliciously publish falsehoods.

Unlike Mickey Kaus (who has a thing for zany right-wing blondes), Kinsley has never dated Ann Coulter nor known her in a Biblical way (not implying that Mickey has known her in that way).

I ask Michael which magazines he most looks forward to reading. He says The New Republic. He says The Atlantic is the magazine he feels he ought to read (but rarely does).

Whenever I stop talking, the Harvard/Radcliffe types quickly revert to discussing odd architecture in various obscure Harvard buildings. Jolly lucky for these folks that I came along to liven up the party (and I didn't even have to demonstrate, even though I was about to at times, the traditional Australian art of ----- puppetry).

Cathy Seipp writes:

Most the audience's questions, some in those superior, East Coast preppie accents that grate on my Spicoli-raised ears but which I also find strangely fascinating, had to do with the awful, evil, "McCarthyite" voices on the editorial pages: Max Boot, George F. Will, and especially cartoonist Michael Ramirez: "Why do you keep him on?" one guy wailed, in tones that suggested he was wearing a monocle while peering at a cockroach.

Kinsley patiently explained that the Times hasn't run Will's syndicated column in years (presumably some readers still suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome from the horror -- the horror! -- of the memory) and that a left-leaning editorial board needs to be balanced by some right-leaning signed columns. Regarding Michael Ramirez, he added: "This is the question I get more than any other: Michael Ramirez, how can I kill him?"

...I thought it was funnier when Kinsley tactfully described David Shaw -- the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic, fantastically pretentious wine connoisseur and all-around albatross -- as "the ideas correspondent."

Then a woman said that she has a 20-year-old niece "who lives with me, and it drives me crazy -- she doesn't know who John Bolton is. She says she doesn't read newspapers because they're just so biased one way or the other." Couldn't papers serve young, impatient readers, the woman asked, by running both points of view side by side?

"I think that's a bit of an excuse," Kinsley said carefully, about his earnest questioner's ignorant young relative. He was being polite, of course. Obviously, the poor woman's just got a stupid niece.

Jane writes: "I loved reading your Michael Kinsley piece. He’s my favorite opinion writer – brilliant writer – but I remember seeing him on Crossfire and being horrified. Every time he was attacked he looked like he was about to run home and tell his mommy. I’m curious if he was better in a non-confrontational setting?"

It was a terrific experience having dinner with him. A lifelong dream fulfilled and far more wholesome than many of my other dreams.

Janice writes: "Had I but known--you should have taken me to hear Kinsley. As a grad. of Yale, I always feel slightly superior (or actually, vastly superior) to Harvard types. They're so nerdy, whereas Yale was the alma mater of Cole Porter. And recently, I interviewed a guy who grew up in a religious sex cult. Of course, he has huge gaps in his knowledge of pop culture. For example, he told me that he had no idea that it was considered dorky to admit to liking Air Supply."

Jamie Court writes 4/24/05 in The LAT:

The newspaper's East Coast focus increasingly comes at the expense of Western voices and perspectives. Looking east for direction may be natural for the former New York Times managers now in charge in Los Angeles. Transplants include Managing Editor Dean Baquet, Deputy Managing Editor John Montorio and Editorial Page Editor Andrés Martinez. Editor John Carroll is also an East Coaster, from the Baltimore Sun. But the L.A. Times should strive to be more than the "New York Times West."

And the editorial and opinion pages are dominated by East Coast thinkers. Op-Ed Editor Nick Goldberg is from New York. He and Martinez report to Michael Kinsley, who was dean of East Coast liberal political cognoscenti as editor of the New Republic and Harper's and now commutes from his home in Seattle. Their problem is over-relying on Eastern viewpoints on the opinion pages that are the only places in the newspaper where Angelenos and Californians can speak in essays.

Kinsley's CNN colleague, Margaret Carlson, a Washingtonian, is a regular columnist. Columnist Max Boot lives and thinks in New York. Kinsley and Martinez each have a weekly column — in addition to controlling the editorials and publishing their friends and Times colleagues. Every column by Martinez has been about a national or international issue, except two, including Wednesday's semi-local take on international soccer rivalries. Kinsley did no better except for one local issue he was forced to address in his column recently — the lack of female voices on his opinion pages.

The "compete in the East" mentality became evident to me when Kinsley took over in Los Angeles and quickly wrote a New York Times book review that tackled the character, as much as the latest book, of New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks. Although Kinsley's fond of taking aim at East Coast opinion organs, his columns have not once mentioned Schwarzenegger by name.

Under Kinsley and Martinez, the editorial page similarly suffers from an East Coast elite view of law, economy and politics. A page once rooted in the community and the views of community leaders appears increasingly to strive for opinions that might turn heads at East Coast power centers.