October 12, 2012

I’m going to step outside my usual keep-opinions-out-of-the-news-pages stance to excuse a Post writer for weaving opinions into his work.

I speak of Warren Brown, The Post’s longtime auto industry reporter, columnist and now car reviewer.

In the past three months, Brown has opened two of his Sunday car reviews by what seemed to some readers as inappropriate digressions into partisan politics.

On July 27, Brown waxed conflicted over a gas-guzzling sedan, the Dodge Charger SRT8, a V8 beast that police sometimes use.

Brown, candidly describing himself as an “eco-lefty Obama supporter,” confessed that this car went against all of his beliefs. And he said it made him understand how Mitt Romney could be such a flip-flopper, or rather, such a “a deeply conflicted man”—a guy who passed a health-care reform bill much like Obamacare in Massachusetts but who would instantly end Obamacare if he became president.

Driving the Charger was such a guilty pleasure, Brown wrote, “It makes me want to shout: “Hallelujah, Sarah! Drill, baby, drill!”

In his Oct. 7 review of the new Altima by Nissan, a mid-size sedan intended for the masses, Brown described how the car — which gave him high expectations when he saw an early version last year at the New York International Auto Show, — ultimately turned out to be bland and uninteresting because Nissan tried to make it all things to all people. Then he compared the car to what President Obama did in his debate performance with Romney last week: “Don’t get me wrong. I like Obama. I like the new Altima. But both of them share a frustrating habit of pulling punches when you yearn for them to go for the knockout.”

Here’s what one reader, who wants to be identified only as I.P., said about Brown’s political metaphors: “You have proven without a doubt that you aren’t capable of writing a simple car review without resorting to injecting race, politics, class, or some other hateful and spiteful vitriol instead of providing a substantive review of the actual car.

“You’re simply not capable of detaching yourself from a deeply ingrained resentment and fawning admiration of current political candidates to actually do your job, which is to review a subject vehicle for a page of the paper called: ‘The Car Pages.’ ”

Really? I do see a use of politics in the two reviews, but it’s politics as metaphor. Brown writes metaphorically every week, which is why his car reviews are so good. He compares cars to something in our daily lives to which we can all relate. And in this election season, we can certainly relate to Romney and Obama.

Where the reader sees “hateful and spiteful vitriol,” I see pointed pokes at Obama and Romney both. Where the reader sees “deeply ingrained resentment and fawning admiration of current political candidates,” I see amusing and astute similes of cars and candidates.

It’s useful to know who Brown is. He is a child of the segregated South and a veteran of the civil rights movement who has covered the auto industry for 30 years. He knows a tractor-trailer load about that industry, still one of the largest sectors in the U.S. economy. And he’s opinionated — his political observations frequently appeared in the “Car Culture” column he used to write for The Post on the auto industry. He doesn’t have much truck with politicians (or other journalists) who speak about cars and the energy sector without really knowing much about them. And he knew and covered George Romney when Mitt’s father was governor of Michigan.

Brown calls himself “aggressively independent” and willing to take on everyone. “I’ve never made any secret of my political leanings; I’ve beaten up on the Obama people, the Republicans, and anyone else I feel like beating up on,” he said. “Any cursory reading of my column over the decades would give you an indication of that.

“I knew people would get upset,” he added. “The bottom line is that with this Nissan Altima, at the moment I was driving it, at the same time as the debate, that car reminded me so much of Obama, it pissed me off.”

I read Brown faithfully because I like cars and he’s insightful and easy to read. I think his political metaphors are enjoyable and apt. He fully discloses his bias. That’s not vitriol; it’s a writer’s voice.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@
washpost.com
.