But the digital era is disrupting not just the newspaper business but the form itself. On the positive side of the ledger, as the barriers to entry have been reduced, more opinions are available than ever before. On the negative side, the sheer tonnage of opinions can overwhelm and cause a degree of amnesia. The emphasis on the quick opinion undercuts ambitions of artistry, and great individual columns can be lost in the wall of sound.
Perhaps that’s why I think it’s still worthwhile to crowdsource a still highly subjective list of the best columns of the year. Here is the list, in no particular order, that emerged from 2013, with special assistance from the members of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I added a few of my favorites from The Beast at the end. Enjoy.
“Far from the Madding Crowd”
The Boston Marathon bombings were the defining domestic horror of 2013. But nothing brings out the best in a metro columnist like the opportunity and obligation to help his hometown heal. That’s what The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen did throughout the final weeks of April, especially with this dispatch, which offered a dose of perspective and a tribute to the cop killed before the Tsarnaev brothers’ capture.
“Margaret Thatcher and Her Vigorous Virtues”
George Will’s ubiquitous TV appearances make it easy to forget that he is a master craftsman, particularly when he is paying tribute to those few folks he actually admires. In this farewell to Margaret Thatcher, Will deploys his talents to honor an ideological soul mate who turned the tide of history across the Atlantic.
“The Virtue of Moderation”
Moderation used to be a conservative virtue, as Pete Wehner reminded his party faithful in the wake of the 2012 election and President Obama’s inauguration. Wehner has written powerfully on the subject, armed with a sense of historic perspective and a driving sense of decency.
“The Whole System Failed Trayvon”
The Trayvon Martin case captivated the nation, or at least cable TV, in 2013, highlighting our still polarized takes on questions of justice and race. Charles Blow’s eloquent outrage after the verdict, in his column “The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin,” perfectly captures the debate and why it matters for us all.
“The de-Newspaperization of America”
Sometimes a column manages to bridge economics and an elegy. This look at layoffs at the Cleveland Plain Dealer manages to capture the anxiety of an entire industry.
“The Man Who Got Gay Marriage Passed”
Mary Schmich won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013, and her hitting streak continued throughout the calendar year. In this column, she pays tribute to Illinois state legislator Greg Harris, who doggedly fought for same-sex marriage in the Land of Lincoln.
“The Kurtz Republicans”
From prodigy to established pundit, Ross Douthat has distinguished himself as one of the more thoughtful observers of politics, faith, and culture. As conservatives search for a path out of the wilderness, his reasoned voice has become more vital than ever, as in this column, published on the brink of the government shutdown.
“Washington Doesn’t Deserve Shanahan or Snyder”
Sports columns. Humor columns. Perennial reader favorites that rarely rise to the level of something like literary journalism. But Tom Boswell makes it all look easy, gliding between the seasons with appreciation and acerbic wit. This diatribe against the pitiful Washington Redskins summed it all up for their fans.
“Inequality Isn’t The Defining Challenge of Our Times”
Progressive populism may be a rising political tide on the left, but Ezra Klein took a brave contrarian stand against his usual comrades when he wrote this column casting a critical look on feel good bumper sticker policies. He caught some hell for it, but it presaged future debates and may prove prophetic.
“Long-Ago Death Still Haunts a Family’s Christmas”
Christmas columns can be saccharine stuff, but this instant classic by Sandy Banks is a heartfelt meditation on love and loss that never touches cliché. Instead, it reminds us all to appreciate what we are always in danger of taking for granted until it is too late—family.
And finally, in a separate list, because I’m both proud and biased, just a few of my favorite columns from The Daily Beast in 2013.
“Why House Stenographer Dianne Reidy Snapped”
While the country briefly gawked at the spectacle of the House stenographer striding up to the podium and screaming biblical admonitions, Mike Daly was getting the backstory, talking to her husband about how she got to the breaking point. For an extra dose of vintage Daly, read his blistering take on Adam Lanza.
“Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Political Parties”
With seemingly effortless ease, David Frum diagnosed the problems afflicting the Republican Party as it lurched toward the entirely predictable disaster of the government shutdown.
“Don’t Sanitize Nelson Mandela—He’s Honored Now, but Was Hated Then”
When Nelson Mandela died, the tributes righteously rolled out, but Peter Beinart was one of the first to remind us that Mandela had not always been lionized in the United States. That whitewashing of history does both him—and our political debates—a deep disservice.