BOB GARFIELD: We are back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Something wondrous strange is happening in the world of punditry, the columnists and commentators whose job it is to chew over the news and spit out insights. A group of opinion makers who were once reluctant hawks are now turning into reluctant doves. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has completed that transformation, for example. And it looks like former intelligence official Kenneth Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm, the Case for Invading Iraq is well on the way. Slate columnist Mickey Kaus hit on this phenomenon in his Kaus Files. He calls this group of conscience-ridden waivers the Balking Hawks, or the Balkin Hawkin', or the Coalition of the Chillin'. Mickey Kaus joins me now. Welcome to the show.
MICKEY KAUS: Thanks. Glad to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell us how the major columnists were positioning themselves prior to the shift that you wrote about in Balking Hawks.
MICKEY KAUS: Well, the most prominent would be the New York Times' Thomas Friedman who was pretty hawkish. I mean, he was anguished but he always said at the end he believed that an invasion was the right thing to do. And now with what's going on in the U.N. he has had a pretty striking case of cold feet, and he now calls for cutting some sort of deal. He'd be the most prominent. Others would be Josh Marshall who has a web log called Talking Points who was very hawkish and was a big proponent of the war and has now had cold feet. And Fred Kaplan at Slate who has also endorsed a proposal similar to Friedman's. By far the most prominent would be Kenneth Pollack himself who wrote a very influential book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pollack's book, of course, was subtitled The Case for Invading Iraq.
MICKEY KAUS: Right. And he has now distanced himself from the subtitle of his book. He hasn't abandoned his position which is we should reluctantly, with appropriate anguish, invade Iraq. But he has sort of cast the sort of anchor to the left, as it were, by saying well, my editors made me do it, which is--troubling. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about Jonathan Alter or Joe Klein in Time?
MICKEY KAUS: I would say they fall into a slightly different category that tends to morph into the first. But they haven't abandoned their support for the war, but they have focused their fire on Bush and how he's botching it and he's being undiplomatic. I would be more convinced if they actually said well, given the French opposition would they go forward or wouldn't they go forward. I mean, that's the decision facing the President.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's going on here? What events had led once hawkish columnists to change their tune?
MICKEY KAUS: The basic event that's led people to change their tune is the difficulty of getting approval from the Security Council, and the evident unpopularity of the American position, not just in the Security Council but in popular opinion around the world which is part of what's driving the Security Council. That's caused some people to have second thoughts. But there are some other perhaps subconscious phenomena at work. One is sort of a stylistic distancing. If you're on the left and you wind up endorsing President Bush, you sort of have to cover yourself by criticizing Bush; as you agree with him you say well, I don't like his cowboy style, I don't think he's too smart, but I agree with him. The second would be the CYA phenomenon, which is you're sort of covering yourself; if the war goes badly you can say well, you know, I didn't quite go along all the way, I said we should do X, Y, and Z beforehand. And that's also sort of a moral covering. And the third thing that happens is when you agonize, you're more convincing. So part of the anguish and the second guessing and the cold feet is functional for opinion shapers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don't know though, that makes it sound as if these are things that happen all the time during times of interesting news, shall we say. But it strikes me that it's pretty unusual for columnists to reconsider, at least so many of them. Don't you think that this could simply be an honest reaction to new information coming to light?
MICKEY KAUS: I think basically everybody is sincerely trying to make up their minds. I'm not saying people are acting in bad faith. But there are these subconscious impulses to CYA and to distance yourself that operate in all of us too. And I think they operate with every decision and they're just magnified in this case because the decision is so momentous; the gamble we're taking is so momentous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you mentioned a half dozen columnists. Among them certainly the most influential would be Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. But surely there are plenty of other well known columnists who have held true to their positions all through this debate. How important do you think in the greater scheme of things are the ones who have changed their tune?
MICKEY KAUS: That's a very good question. I think Friedman is important. I think if Friedman is changing his mind it should send a warning signal to the Bush Administration. I do tend to think that in general most opinions wash out and turn out not to have been significant, but the weight of opinion as collective pundit opinion has a huge opinion in Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that columnists are influenced by input from their readers?
MICKEY KAUS: Very much so. I mean, you'd be surprised at how much people are influenced by input from their readers, from people they meet on the street, from their friends, from emails they get. People are human beings, and they're, you know, influenced by the last person they talk to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Mickey, thank you very much.
MICKEY KAUS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mickey Kaus is the author of the web log Kaus Files, which you can find on slate.com.