Opinion

A curtain falls

I bid adieu to 'The Week'

Goodbyes tend to be melancholy affairs.

I suspect that's because they're transitions — and transitions reveal that our lives are divided into a series of episodes of varying duration that begin, go on for a time, and then end, opening up a new period largely distinct from what came before. On the far side of that change, relationships, habits, patterns, and expectations shift, the hinge swinging us into a new phase of life — a new beginning and, ultimately, a new end, and then another, until the only transition left is the final one.

I'm 52 years old, and I've never held a job longer than the nearly 8-1/2 years I've worked as a columnist at The Week. If that sounds like the career of a vagabond — of someone pretty comfortable with transitions, or someone perhaps predisposed to walk away from settled situations — I suppose it is. But it's also the career of someone who did eventually find a good place to spend the better part of a decade.

I owe it all to Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief of the website back in January 2013. Ben liked my writing and distinctive standpoint enough to ask me to try writing a weekly column as a freelancer. I did that for four months or so, and I loved it. But it was too much extra work on top of the three classes I was teaching in the critical writing program at Penn. So I walked away.

Six months later, Ben called to offer me a full-time gig as a columnist. I would be filling the centrist slot alongside Michael Brendan Dougherty on the right and Ryan Cooper on the left. But none of us would be quite as predictable as that made it sound. MBD frequently hit Republicans from the paleocon right (in a way that anticipated Donald Trump), while Ryan specialized in aiming his fire at the Democratic establishment from the democratic-socialist left (years before Bernie Sanders made it cool).

Instead of staking out the Michael Bloomberg center that leaned right on economics and left on culture while cheering on the bipartisan consensus in favor of a militarily aggressive foreign policy, I inverted everything. I leaned left on economics, right on culture, and was stridently critical of all the "interventions" that emerged from the so-called War on Terror.

We (along with a deep bench of first-rate freelancers) were quite a team — and honestly, I think I consistently did my best work during my first three years, through the final phase of the Obama administration, a time when I regularly told people I had the best job of my life.  

This first and happiest chapter stretched from January 2014 to the election of 2016. I'd spent 17 months observing Trump, writing searching reflections on what he was doing, what his electoral success was all about, and how his campaign would transform the Republican Party and the country, but I never really allowed myself to believe he could win the presidency.

When he did, I was stunned — terribly worried about the country, of course, but also concerned about my own capacity to keep doing my job at the level I expected of myself. The 2016 election cycle had been grueling, but now I was facing a marathon without a defined endpoint. In retrospect, I'm not even sure that metaphor quite captures what it was like writing three columns a week through the four years of the Trump administration. It may be more accurate to describe it as 48 straight months of that initial downward plunge on a rollercoaster with no let-up.

The reason the first three years as a columnist were so good is that the pace of the news cycle and the comparatively low stakes of political conflict prior to Trump gave me space to step away from the headlines and write speculative pieces, along with wide-ranging essays about books and movies and music. But that largely ended during the transition to the Trump administration, when Washington appeared to go haywire and every single day seemed to bring a new scandal or outrage, not to mention countless mind-warping presidential tweets.

Coming up with ideas for columns became much easier in this period, but keeping up with the basic facts of what was happening, or what was alleged to be happening, often left me more mentally and emotionally exhausted than I'd ever been in my adult life. A good part of this came from the constant need to evaluate whether each day's BREAKING news story was real or rumor. For the first time as a columnist, I felt unmoored, adrift in a churning, storm-tossed sea, expending most of my mental energy on rendering elemental judgments about whether the topic I'd chosen to write about on any given day was based in fact or conspiratorial fiction spun out by our gaslighter-in-chief or the spirited army of antagonists arrayed against him.

No wonder I often felt so seasick.

I still loved my job. But for the first time, I began to experience periods of burnout. I have no idea if my colleagues struggled in the same way. (Ryan was still there filing multiple columns a week, but MBD left for National Review early in the Trump years, ably succeeded by Matthew Walther.) Those periods never lasted, but I worried from time to time about whether I had the stamina to keep churning out columns reacting to a succession of alarming headlines without end.

But I stuck it out — through Ben's departure to Wirecutter at the end of 2018, through the adjustment to a new editor-in-chief (the equally excellent Nico Lauricella), and beyond: Through the mind-warping experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through Trump mauling Joe Biden in their first debate. Through Trump coming down with the virus just one month before the vote. Through the nail-biting three days of vote-counting in the closer-than-expected 2020 election. Through the two months of outright lies from a president who refused to concede his loss, And through a single day of horror on Capitol Hill in early January 2021.

By the time Biden took the oath of office in an inauguration ceremony with a distinctly dystopian vibe, I felt like a deep-sea diver emerging from the cold and murky depths to glimpse the sun and take my first breath in years.

That's how the third and final chapter of my time as a columnist began.

I probably could have kept going indefinitely, but since The Week is discontinuing its original opinion section, I've decided to head for the door.

It wasn't a hard decision. I've written nearly 1,300 columns and something on the order of 1.3 million words over these past 8-1/2 years. I've had the privilege of being paid a decent wage to think out loud through a turbulent period in American political history — and of working alongside immensely talented colleagues (including a third editor-in-chief, Bonnie Kristian; a third right-of-center columnist, Samuel Goldman; and in these final days, a new executive editor, Jeva Lange).

But everything comes to an end, and this feels like the right time to try something new. (Look for an announcement very soon on Twitter about what will be coming next for me.)

The change is exciting. But it's also sad, as goodbyes usually are.

I wish my colleagues at The Week the very best for the future — and thank my readers for thinking with me all these years. I hope to see many of you on the far side of the transition.

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