My mother could level the most banal cliché at her snarky progeny and make it sound like the word of God: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.”
Mom would have made a terrible pundit. Most of us consumers of punditry belong instead to the Dorothy Sayers school: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.”
So, American Pundits, sit here and tell me about your exploration of democracy’s dark and smelly caverns. Feed me good lines to use in dinner conversation. Make me feel wise for sharing your opinion, or offer a head-snapping reason to change mine.
How, exactly? Well, let us bring in the philosopher. (Oh, like you were expecting an unpretentious punditry judge!) He taught that the ideal thought leader projects three traits, which I interpret as craft, caring and cause. To thought-lead, one must practice the journalist’s craft of actually knowing what’s going on; care enough about the readers to entertain them; and represent a cause--a firm point of view.
Rob Lafferty deserves the grand prize for hitting the mark on all three qualities. He shows a clear grasp of the news, writes compellingly crisp sentences and administers just the right dose of moral outrage. Best of all, he has mastered the art of the contrast--the most powerful figurative tool in punditry. Highly paid speechwriters would trade their beloved MacBooks for sentences like these:
“We can afford to buy 172 unneeded F-22 fighter planes at a cost of $2.2 billion each – but we can’t afford the cost of a proper modern education for our children. We can afford to see multi-million dollar CEO pay increase by 16 percent in one year – but we can’t afford to pay a living wage to millions of service workers.”
Maryanne Tobin, my choice for runner-up, entertains in a more insightful way with columns that contain a high “huh” factor--you know, points that make you say, “Huh. Hadn’t thought of that.”
“Any politician that says he or she can force a moral code on an entire population through government regulation needs to take a look at history. Sexual, religious and moral repression is the stuff of which revolutions are made.”
Herbert Dyer Jr., earns honorable mention by presenting a head-shaking older-gent perspective with occasional flashes of angry humor. Plus, he can tell a good yarn. You’ll want to read about his dinner date with George Romney, which contrasts the avuncular “brainwashed” Republican with a more recent presidential candidate:
“I didn't know then, of course, but do now, that the son he referred to had to be Mitt, who at the time was going through his bullying-of-gay-students stage at a very exclusive and prestigious boarding school.”
Oof! Not nice; but packed with craft, caring (enough to entertain us) and cause. Aristotle would have approved. Mom, not so much.
Grand Prize: Rob Lafferty
Runner Up: Maryann Tobin
Honorable Mention: Herbert Dyer Jr.
Jay Heinrichs is the author of "Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion."