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Bob Herbert's Single Note

By Nancy Kruh

Since the Iraq invasion in March 2003, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has established himself as one of the strongest voices nationally to oppose the war. His work has been embraced by the anti-war movement and reviled by war proponents.

But as a professional pundit-watcher who has read Herbert's Iraq-related columns, one after another after another, I've had a much different response ... Um, haven't I read this before?

To test my suspicions, I set off on a lengthy Lexis-Nexis expedition, and what I've found is a columnist who seems to be stuck in an endless loop of the same catch phrases, the same themes, the same arguments. It's a numbing repetition that, I fear, is diminishing the impact Herbert has on the one issue he probably feels the most passionately about.

We all know about the drumbeat of war. Well, this is the drumbeat of Bob Herbert's war commentary: war bad, Bush bad, war bad, Bush bad. As my mother said five minutes into watching a performance of cloggers, "I think I get the idea."

I wouldn't hold Herbert up for such criticism - it's unrealistic not to expect some repetition in any columnist dealing with an ongoing issue - except for the fact that, he has written so often, he almost can't avoid repeating himself.

Of his 290 bylines since March 2004, 128 (about 44 percent) have included a substantial portion devoted to some aspect of the war and its ancillary issues (what he refers to religiously as "the so-called war on terror"). This figure doesn't include the columns that mentioned the war or Bush's handling of it simply in passing (of which there are many), and I also threw out columns that only glanced off the issue, such as his Dec. 15 tribute to anti-war icon Eugene McCarthy.

How extraordinary is this amount? For comparison's sake, I took a look at two other columnists, Herbert's New York Times colleague Thomas L. Friedman and The Washington Post's Richard Cohen. Friedman, of course, specializes in foreign affairs, and both journalists keep the war and terrorism on their short list of go-to topics.

Here's how the three match up for the 12 months of 2005: Friedman wrote 33 of his 86 columns, or 38 percent, on the war and terrorism (though I excluded his columns that dealt with Middle East politics in general). Cohen - who has flagellated himself many times over for his early support of the war - wrote 29 out of 95 columns, or 30 percent. Herbert wrote 49 out of 95, or 51 percent.

In June and August 2005, six out of his nine columns were Iraq-related; in May '05, six out of eight.

During these 12 months, Friedman actually traveled to Iraq (and, for that matter, published The World is Flat). Though Herbert has staked out the military's role as a major topic of interest, he has never reported from the battle zone.

More recently, it seemed Herbert was pulling himself away from the topic during the first three months of 2006 (only six out of 23 columns), but after coming off a two-week vacation in early April, he's brought his numbers back up. As of Monday, May 1, four of his past five columns are on Iraq.

Maybe, you could argue, the man has simply carved out a speciality. The war and terrorism are complicated topics. There's a lot to cover. True, but if that were the case, why does he keep covering the same ground?

Yes, most of the columns are off some news development - the 2000th military casualty, Rep. John Murtha's opposition to the war, Abu Ghraib - but to a troubling degree, they seem to disintegrate into the same tired refrains.

To truly appreciate the redundancies, you have to read the columns in their entirety. And if you do, you'll start to notice the patterns - his fixations on Condi Rice's specter of "mushroom clouds," on Gen. Eric Shinseki's questionable departure, on Dick Cheney's promise the troops would be "greeted as liberators," but most of all on Bush's "campaign of deceit," his arrogance, his questionable grasp on reality, his lack of an exit strategy.

Here's just a glimpse of his obsession with Bush's swagger:

May 8, 2003: "While our 'What, me worry?' president is having a great time with his high approval ratings and his 'Top Gun' fantasies, the economy remains in the tank."

July 31, 2003: "For the Bushes and the Rumsfelds, this is a grand imperial adventure, with press-conference posturing and wonderful photo-ops, like the president's 'Top Gun' moment on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln."

Sept. 19, 2003: "Republicans are not eager to have the general's career contrasted with the military misadventures of George W. Bush, who ... celebrated the alleged end to major combat in Iraq by staging his very own 'Top Gun' fantasy aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln."

April 2, 2004: "The president's giddily choreographed 'Top Gun' spectacle was designed to take full public relations advantage of his triumphant announcement that 'major combat operations in Iraq' had ended."

April 30, 2004: "The sad truth about Iraq is that one year after President Bush gaudily proclaimed victory with his 'Top Gun' moment aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, we don't know what we're doing in Iraq."

Sept. 22, 2005: "Mr. Bush's 'Top Gun' moment aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was two-and-a-half years ago. It was another example of the president in fantasyland."

Jan. 26, 2006: "This guy is something. Remember his 'Top Gun' moment aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln?"

April 27, 2006: "[A]s president, he's suddenly G.I. George, strutting around in a flight suit, threatening to wage war on all and sundry, and taunting the insurgents in Iraq with a cry of 'bring them on.'"

Clearly, with Iraq, Herbert has picked his war. But has he picked too many battles?

With each repetition, he diminishes his ability to persuade, to attract attention, to fully engage his readership. He's trading substance for bluster, squandering a power that most members of the media can only dream of.

The eight columnist positions at The New York Times are among the most influential print real estate in the country. They offer a forum that has helped change national and foreign policy, save lives and right wrongs of colossal proportion. As a Texan, I am deeply grateful to Herbert for his tenacity in reporting on the imprisonment of several African-Americans wrongly accused and convicted of drug-dealing. It was a story he reported with more passion, indignation and enterprise than most Texas media could muster. Over the course of a year, he traveled to the state and wrote a series of columns that are generally considered crucial in helping gain his subjects' release.

Herbert's passion and indignation are still front and center in his Iraq columns, but he has put himself at dire risk of anyone who keeps repeating himself: People stop listening.

Nancy Kruh’s digest of syndicated columns, Balance of Opinion, appears twice weekly in The Dallas Morning News. Balance of Opinion is syndicated by InOpinion. A longer version of this piece is posted on Kruh’s blog, Conversations, at

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