In its quest to give more attention to decades-old books than new ones, The New York Times Monday ran Jon Meacham's appreciation of Elizbeth Drew's "Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate" and Art Buchwald's "I Am Not a Crook," a collection of the late Washington Post humorist's columns on Richard Nixon's downfall.
Meacham, the presidential biographer, former Newsweek editor and frequent chatterer on TV news shows, writes a regular column for the Times in which he looks back at significant books. Times critic Dwight Garner has a similar column.
While stepping up its recognition of out-of-print titles, the Times has cut back on its reviews of new books. Reviews once received prominent display on the front page of the newspaper's Arts section. But now, book reviews are buried inside, part of a general dumbing down of the Times' cultural coverage.
Drew's book was a collection of her weekly Washington Journal reports written for the New Yorker. As Meacham highlights, Drew's day by day accounts registered the constitutional crisis' slow, incremental buildup. Her pieces had a more reflective, broader perspective than the daily bombshells uncovered by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, belatedly joined by other newspapers, including the Times.
Buchwald's pieces gave a satirical outlook that softened Woodward and Carl Bernstein's reporting, giving Post readers a different slant. Like Drew's reports, Buchwald showed how everyday Washington responded at lunches and dinner parties to the scandal. While Drew's book might still possess the historical importance Meacham claims, I suspect that Buchwald's pieces would be dated. Nothing ages worse than humor.
Meacham's essay gave me nostalgia for the New Yorker's old days under legendary editor William Shawn, although the magazine was nearly moribund in Shawn's final years. Editor Tina Brown gave the stodgy publication a near fatal jolt that proved necessary in the long run.
Brown's getting rid of Drew's Washington report was one of the brash young British editor's worst misjudgments. While Brown did rejuvenate the magazine and added writers such as Anthony Lane, removing stalwarts like Drew cut into the magazine's muscle. Luckily for Drew and her readers, she found a home at the New York Review of Books, for which she continues to turn out insightful Washington reports.
The Buchwald appreciation was also a glimpse at a long-begone era, when columns by such Washington insiders regularly ran in newspapers across the country. A pal of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Buchwald was a national star, battling chronic depression to turn out several satirical columns a week.
I read his work, but confess that I never quite got it. His columns often left me puzzled as to why he was considered so funny in D.C. Buchwald also wrote one of the best journalism memoirs, a recollection of his young days working for the Herald Tribune in Paris. That book would be worth a future Meacham column.