Capital Letters: Covering the Spreads

Back from my honeymoon in the fall of 1997, I noted two things. I had produced very few articles for the magazine. Yet the UPS man continued to knock on my door every two weeks with my paycheck; my expense reports kept eliciting reimbursements; my office rent seemed to be paid; and my key to the building's health club continued to unlock the door. I wanted to maintain this arrangement. But less than a year on the job, I was unconvinced it was sustainable.

I could easily explain my lack of productivity. Who, after all, could be expected to knock out insightful feature stories with a schedule packed with retreats in Williamsburg, first-class junkets to Switzerland, Saturdays at the races, master's degree finals in San Francisco, a wedding in Connecticut, and a honeymoon in Italy? And that's just the stuff that distracted me from my inside-the-Beltway beat. Even when I was in town, I found that mornings in meetings, lunches with friends--I mean, sources (journalists don't have friends, only sources)--afternoons in the gym, and evenings at receptions or other events tended to cut into my time for thoughtful reflection, intrepid investigating, and lucid writing. One of the first lessons I learned from my father--who would ask why I did something stupid and then scold me for giving excuses when I explained why--is that one person's explanation is another person's excuse. This explanation worked for me, but I thought it might sound like an excuse to Virginia.

Washington is a town of inputs, not outputs, so I set out to focus on the former. I work awfully hard, so long as I include everything I do in a day and night as work. My challenge was to convince others of this, which I set out to do by sending my REASON colleagues e-mail memos reporting on my Washington meanderings, the people I met, and the impact the ideas expressed in our magazine were having on this town's power elite.

Over the last nine months, I have reported to my colleagues on such things as a book party for Esther Dyson at Washington Post publisher Kay Graham's house, which I attended with my lovely wife, Diana:

Esther's party was a well-attended gathering of the media elite. I would have to watch TV 24-7 just to identify all the writing heads at the reception. While Diana and I were well situated next to the door through which the waiters toted the appetizers and beverages--we stuck to sparkling water and found the paper chicken to be our favorite morsels--we had a hard time deciding how to approach some of Washington's most unapproachable. For example, Diana asked me if it would be appropriate for her to go ask David Gergen what his outside income was on speeches, since he was the only U.S. Newser who didn't have that information revealed in a recent self-congratulatory editorial which stated that he would be happy to disclose it to anyone who asked. I told her it might be touchy, but if she was going to do it, she should also inquire about his eyelid-dropping book interviews on the Lehrer News Hour.

While Diana pondered the pros and cons of such an approach, I spotted Margaret Carlson of Time, to whom I have been dying to put a question. No, Chuck [Freund], not who does her hair and why doesn't she cash one of those TV checks and buy a decent pair of glasses. I wanted to ask her if,
as she proclaimed on the
Capital Gang, it wasn't speech if a working stiff spends $5 on a candidate while an executive spends $5,000 on party building, would she mind shutting up since her magazine enjoys a far higher circulation than those of us who write in the noncommercial sphere? But on the way, I bumped into ex-Speaker Tom Foley, back from his stint in Japan (I believe he was ambassador and perhaps still is). I had to pause to tell him how he restored my faith in representative democracy: By getting his arrogant ass voted out of office for suing his own constituents, he helped restore a balance to the system. But alas, before I could even mutter the words, I caught the eye of Jim Glassman, the only media celebrity I actually know, and we discussed, well, I can't remember.

Oh yeah, I said hi to Esther and Katharine Graham. Esther gave a very short speech--much shorter than Graham's introduction of her--which was all that was needed, considering the profile of her in the day's Washington Post.

Not thinking the memos would ever be published, I reflected bluntly on my surroundings and the goings-on. I always aimed to report on interesting policy discussions as well as to cover such important things as the quality of the food in general, and my intake in particular, although I usually low-balled the alcohol figure. (I was probably boozing it up at Graham's house.)

My memos worked too well. Not only are the checks still arriving and the gym still open, but Virginia started saving my notes so that she could edit them for grammar, spelling, and cussing and publish them monthly under the heading "Capital Letters." This month I offer reflections on a lecture by Charles Kesler (whom, I must admit in the interest of full disclosure, I not only studied under for a few weeks as a Claremont Institute Publius Fellow but also have dined with on many occasions and find entertaining and insightful); an antitrust debate with Robert Bork; and the national Libertarian Party convention. I only hope that after a few months of this feature, my friends--I mean, sources--don't abandon me.

Subj: Sickness on the right
Date: Fri, Jun 12, 1998 9:14 PM EDT

This is a somewhat belated report on Dr. Charles Kesler's Bradley Lecture (Monday, June 8, 1998) on what's wrong with conservatism. These are my impressions patched together from my notes taken that evening. I have asked Charles, with whom I am sure to dine within a couple of weeks, for a copy of his remarks.

Now, Charles is charming, having had plenty of practice at giving such speeches. He started by saying that there's nothing wrong with conservatism that a little Viagra wouldn't fix. But, alas, Charles is a conservative, which means "natural law" is his Viagra. (He also rattled off a few quips about Dole being in the testing pool.)

Dr. Kesler did two things in his speech. He talked about the history of the conservative movement, the fact that before National Review and Buckley there were conservatives, but no movement. He also talked about Frank Meyer's fusionism, with anti-communism being the bonding agent. But he backed off, saying Meyer didn't have it quite right. It wasn't really a fusing, but a gluing of the factions. So with no more Cold War, we need some glue. Conservatives are good at being against things--communism, HillaryCare, etc.--but not very good at being for things. We know what we're against, the good doctor intoned, but we don't know what we're for. Conservatism needs to be reborn with a new mission.

The mission: Return to the natural law teachings of America's Founding; return to the moral basis of government. According to Dr. Kesler, we need both a limited government, one bound by a constitution, but also a more active government, one that pursues its moral constitutional basis. To paraphrase, conservatives must reconnect themselves to the constitutionalists of the late 19th century and early 20th century, with an eye to Madison and Lincoln.

Now this obviously didn't fill an hour, so there was more to the lecture. He talked of liberalism's three periods: 1) political liberalism, 2) economic liberalism, 3) cultural liberalism. We live, in case you haven't guessed, in the last period, in which markets are embraced by all, but so is unfettered choice. Now Kesler wasn't libertarian bashing per se. And his argument employs more nuance than I can relate, mostly because I can't recall it all clearly. But it went something like this: Liberalism unchained the individual--free to be you and me--but that wasn't good enough. So individual liberation quickly degenerated into group identity politics, which we are all very familiar with. I am not quite sure where he went with this. But the next two things in my notes are an underlined "Return to Natural Right" and a circled "take on Homosexuality as a lifestyle right."

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