Quitting becomes Campbell Brown

Are we really supposed to believe those who claim to be quitting to spend more time with their families? CNN’s Campbell Brown sure doesn’t — and she hasn’t asked her viewers to either. On May 18, when Brown announced she was stepping down from the news program she has hosted at 8 p.m. on weeknights since February 2008, she was singularly frank.

“I could have said that I am stepping down to spend more time with my children (which I truly want to do),” Brown said. “Or that I am leaving to pursue other opportunities (which I also truly want to do). But I have never had much tolerance for others’ spin, so I can’t imagine trying to stomach my own. The simple fact is that not enough people watch my program.”

Brown’s candor was applauded as brave and refreshingly free of equivocation of the damage-controlling (which is to say, the spend-more-time-with-my-family) kind. In a post on the website of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol allowed that “the well-deserved praise for Campbell Brown’s classy statement announcing her departure from CNN” had given him an idea: Brown should be the Republican nominee for the Senate against Chuck Schumer in New York. (For the record, Brown’s political affiliation seems to be a matter of debate, though her husband, Dan Senor, was an advisor in the Bush administration.)

It’s a little ironic given our predisposition for winners: a love-a-thon (OK, respect-a-thon) for a loser. But what’s satisfying about Brown’s exit strategy is exactly her willingness to admit defeat in the face of her competitors and, moreover, her unwillingness to make the compromises that might have given her a fighting chance against them.

And just who are those competitors? Brown was happy to name names.

“The 8 p.m. hour in the cable news world is currently driven by the indomitable Bill O’Reilly, Nancy Grace and Keith Olbermann,” Brown said. “Shedding my own journalistic skin to try to inhabit the kind of persona that might coexist in that lineup is just impossible for me.”

In a world where the logic of “if you can’t beat them, join them” is considered a mark of high moral character, it’s nice to hear something new. O’Reilly and Olbermann attract big audiences because they reliably (and very loudly) tell them what they want to hear (the punitive, shaming Nancy Grace simply appeals to the part of all of us that feels like a victim), but they are rarely accused of primarily reporting the news. Brown did her share of poking and probing and occasional editorializing, but it was always abundantly clear that she was there to discuss the headlines rather than make them. Given the predilections of 8 p.m. cable news audiences, it’s hard to see how she could have done anything but fail.

That’s right, I said fail. It’s not a word you hear every day, at least not from those doing the failing. Brown didn’t use the word directly, but she also didn’t couch her failure in euphemisms. Instead, she owned it. She looked straight into the camera and admitted to her viewers that she didn’t have the 8 p.m. cable news goods. Moreover, she did it without apology or platitudinous vows to learn from her mistakes.

And that, I suspect, is the real reason people are a little bit in love with Campbell Brown these days (that and the fact that she’s prettier than Bill O’Reilly). By refusing to be cagey about her reasons for leaving, by being brutally honest about her less-than-stellar ratings, by admitting, in essence, to failure, she pulled off something quite magnificent: She appealed to those of us who have failed at one time or another. That is to say, she appealed to all of us, something she apparently couldn’t do in the context of hosting a cable news show.

Maybe she’ll parlay this feeling of goodwill into better ratings in some future venture, and convert failure into success. We’d like that too. For the time being, however, she’s achieved a kind of grace. And not the Nancy Grace kind.