WaPo ombud: We shouldn't have used Frum for Rush bio review

Unlike traditional reporting, book reviews are often written by people with interests in the subject matter.  For instance, the Wall Street Journal asked me to review two books on kidney transplants a year ago, knowing that I had written occasionally on the topic based on my family’s experiences.  Normally, though, publications don’t ask those who are deeply critical of a public figure to review their biography, as the Washington Post did with David Frum and the new book by Zev Chafets, Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One.  Today, the Post’s ombudsman criticizes the choice:

Post Book World Editor Rachel Shea said she was unaware that Frum had written last year’s critical Newsweek piece, which was headlined: “Why Rush is Wrong.” But she said she was aware of debate Frum had stirred over how the GOP could best position itself with voters. And she said The Post chose Frum precisely because “it’s no surprise where he was coming from.”

“There was no way we could find someone who didn’t have an opinion” about Limbaugh, she said. “In the absence of finding someone who is completely dispassionate, we decided to go with somebody who people know.”

But should Frum’s review have noted his past pointed criticism of Limbaugh, for those readers who were unaware? “I suppose we should have,” Shea said. “

I agree. Limbaugh is a fascinating figure to many readers, regardless of their ideological orientation. Not everyone is aware of the feuds within the conservative movement. In this case, transparency is important for those coming to the review without prior knowledge of the Frum-Limbaugh clash.

Unlike some, I hold no particular animus towards Frum, who often has interesting and provocative points of view on policy and politics.  In my opinion, his focus on Limbaugh and his claims of closed-mindedness on the Right (mainly among those who disagree with him) detract from his credibility, but that’s a matter of personal taste.  Anyone who has read Frum over the last couple of years, though, would have been able to predict just about every comment he made on Chafets’ book.  The Post would not have been able to find a dispassionate reviewer, but they could have — and should have — found someone with less antagonism towards the subject than Frum, or at the least, should have noted his frequent barbs towards Limbaugh.

One particular point onto which Frum latched has become widespread, the claim that Limbaugh considers himself the “intellectual engine of the conservative movement”:

Chafets also reveals Limbaugh’s expanding vision of his own central place and role within the conservative world. “Whatever feelings of inferiority Limbaugh may have had,” Chafets writes, “disappeared as he became better acquainted with the work of his fellow commentators. . . . While Limbaugh appreciated some conservative thinkers — including Justice Antonin Scalia, columnist Charles Krauthammer, and economist Thomas Sowell — he now clearly saw himself as the thought leader of the movement. . . . ‘I know I have become the intellectual engine of the conservative movement.’ ” …

It might seem ominous for an intellectual movement to be led by a man who does not think creatively, who does not respect the other side of the argument and who frequently says things that are not intended as truth. But neither Limbaugh nor Chafets is troubled: “Over the years, [Limbaugh] has endeavored to carry forward the banner of Ronaldus Maximus, which he always credits as ‘Reaganism.’ But as time moves on the memory of Reagan fades. It is Limbaugh’s voice conservatives now identify with. For millions, conservatism is now Limbaughism.”

But I think that fundamentally misunderstands what Chafets wrote and what Limbaugh claims.  In my interview with Chafets, I asked him about this passage, having read Frum’s review beforehand.  Neither Chafets nor Rush claim that he is a replacement for philosophers like Burke or Buckley, or more intellectual than think tanks like Heritage, which dissect policy.  It’s more in the model of the relationship that the New York Times and Washington Post have (or perhaps more accurately had) with the national and regional media in terms of setting the parameters of the debate.  Whatever those two papers reported became the issues of the day; they drove the political debate and became the intellectual engine of current affairs.  No one can doubt that Rush’s show guides the conservative debate on a daily basis; what he discusses drives the focus of conservative and center-right to a large degree.

If one is inclined to dislike Rush Limbaugh, this biography will probably not be to that person’s taste; and conversely, his fans will most likely enjoy it.  It might be interesting to see a review from a thoroughly disinterested observer, but as Andrew Alexander notes, it’s going to be very difficult to find that person.  And that is certainly a measure of Limbaugh’s success and impact.