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The talents of Thomas Friedman

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"Tom Friedman is our most gifted journalist at actually looking at what is happening in the world and figuring out its relevance to tomorrow and figuring out a clever way to say it that sticks in your mind," says Bill Clinton. The example he gives? "Real men raise the gas tax.”

Matt Yglesias scoffs at the substantive compliment, but I'm going to throw in with the stylistic one. Friedman isn't a great writer. But he's probably the most effective writer working today. His tortured metaphors and clunky imagery come in for a lot of mockery from other professional writers -- most notably in Matt Taibbi's brutal and hilarious review of "The World is Flat" -- but they are, as Clinton says, uncommonly sticky.

Friedman is the Babe Ruth of metaphors and imagery. He's got more homers, and more strike-outs, than anyone else. That makes him a bit laughable on the sentence level, but it makes him incredibly influential in the public discourse. Most writers can't get away with that. We're writing for other writers, because that's how you get and keep your job. But Friedman's bigger than that game now, so he's writing to sell books at the airport, and that's a whole different, and much more populist, game.

Photo credit: By David Silverman/Getty Images

By Ezra Klein  |  December 3, 2009; 4:51 PM ET
 
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Comments

I'll never forgive him for this:

The only way to puncture that bubble was for American soldiers, men and women, to go into the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, house to house, and make clear that we are ready to kill, and to die, to prevent our open society from being undermined by this terrorism bubble. Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right in the heart of that world. And don't believe the nonsense that this had no effect. Every neighboring government — and 98 percent of terrorism is about what governments let happen — got the message. If you talk to U.S. soldiers in Iraq they will tell you this is what the war was about.

Dope.

Posted by: eRobin1 | December 3, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

@robin,
Why hold a grudge - it's true. That is the ugly side of hard power the countries use. There is no diplomacy without a credible threat of force, anarchy rules above nation states, and the only thing that keeps things from totally blowing up is the ability and willingness to use force.
It's ugly, I wish it wasn't necessary, but don't blame Friedman for recognizing it.

Posted by: ChicagoIndependant | December 3, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

I think Ezra gets it right about Freidman's style. Especially in as much as Tom Freidman is syndicated in newspapers around the country I imagine a his style works in all four time zones, though the "freidman unit" is hysterical, where something critical is always going to be learned or take place in a mythical "next six months" that never seems to come.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | December 3, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

He's the Yogi Berra of metaphors and the Marv Throneberry of imagery.

Posted by: pj_camp | December 3, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

My favorite piece poking fun at Friedman's writing style remains "Thomas Friedman Clogged My Toilet."

http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2009/06/thomas-friedman-clogged-my-toilet-1.html

Posted by: nylund | December 3, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Dude, Babe Ruth isn't even in the top 90 of all time strike out leaders.

If you're going to slag on Friedman for his terrible metaphors and imagery (and they are!) you should probably be a little more careful in your own imagery.

Posted by: steve_balboni | December 3, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

The K's record before Ruth:

708 Tom Brown

Ruth broke it in 1926 when he was 31.

He pushed it to 1330 before he retired, a record that would last until 1963 with Mickey.

Ruth destroyed the record and hung onto it for a long time. Longer than he held onto the single season HR record.

His single season numbers don't look off the charts, for example only leading 5 times and not setting the single season record. Part of that's a function of walking so much: fewer AB's to strike out in. But he was 2nd another 7 times, and 1st or 2nd 11 straight seasons.

The metaphor is correct enough in describing *Ruth*.

It's pretty weak in describing Mr. Suck On It. Most of Tommy's "great" metaphors really aren't a bunch of HR's. They're long fly outs. They impress the easily impressed. But the don't score factual runs. Instead, they create their own reality, which is what Tommy is all about.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | December 3, 2009 7:23 PM | Report abuse

@ChicagoiIndependant

You completely ignore that America is admired more because of our ideals and values than because of our superpower status. It is the indiscriminant use of our power that is diminishing our standing in the world as well as our influence. When the USSR was at its peak, few admired it, though many feared it.

Like a good wine, Friedman's opinions may taste good in small, select quantities, but otherwise they too often dull the senses and cloud one's judgement.

Posted by: Lomillialor | December 3, 2009 9:43 PM | Report abuse

I think it's unfortunate since I still rank From Beirut to Jerusalem as a great book. It's been downhill since then, though.

Posted by: CaptainNoble | December 4, 2009 12:14 AM | Report abuse

See my first blog post at: http://richardhserlin.blogspot.com/2008/05/welcome-to-my-blog.html.

So much understanding, clarity, accuracy intuition, and valuable nuance are sacrificed for what's considered "good writing style". It's extremely costly in human time and understanding. An amazing amount of misunderstanding and learning time is gratuitous thanks to the great pressure to write with what's considered "good style".

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | December 4, 2009 2:11 AM | Report abuse

I think the most talented political writers are Taibbi and his nemesis Zakharia, and Digby.

I can't stand Tom Friedman. I think he slept his way to the top. He's more than a little bit insane. He's got a crush on Obama and the administration is using him.

Posted by: bmull | December 4, 2009 3:32 AM | Report abuse

Tom Friedman is not the Babe Ruth of journalistic prose. Tom Friedman is the Journey of journalistic prose.

Posted by: Nick28 | December 4, 2009 4:38 AM | Report abuse

@ChicagoIndependant

I agree that it is unproductive to hold a grudge. I should probably have said that I am still unable to forgive him for what he said. As for him simply noting the reality of hard power, I don't buy it. Smashing countries (i.e. killing lots of people) because they are located in regions that trouble us is not a legitimate use of any sort of power.

I try not to throw insults around. I spend most of my time deeply impressed by the thoughtfulness and insight of the people I read. Friedman is a full-on dope.

Posted by: eRobin1 | December 4, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

That's really Friedman's strength - he's good at writing readable, catchy, anecdotal pieces for public consumption, which is why he sells columns and books by the millions.

That said, he's kind of a "surface" writer who doesn't really touch on deeper issues in any of the things he writes about.

Posted by: guardsmanbass | December 4, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

at this point friedman lives as a principal character in the strange flat earth fantasy game that he has created

bill clinton and a lot of other people role play with him

Posted by: jamesoneill | December 4, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

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