The Weekly Standard: A Reader, 1995-2005, edited by William Kristol, New York: Harper Collins, 534 pages, $27.95
When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, a frenzied guessing game began as to which major government program would be first to fall victim to Newt Gingrich's merciless axe. Some observers wondered if one of the earliest casualties might be not a line item in the federal budget but rather the burgeoning conservative alternative media that aided the GOP during the previous year's campaign. The idea was that these outlets would be victims of their own success. "If 1994's electoral trend continues," Richard Corliss speculated in Time, "there may soon be few demons left to bitch about."
Corliss' subject was talk radio, but even the most venerable of conservative periodicals were dominated by a routine, full-throated hostility to the Clinton administration. Stripped of the predictability of opposition and newly entrusted with power, what would these anti-establishment conservatives have left to say?
Quite a lot, as it turned out. The right's media entrepreneurs plunged ahead with new writing projects, built on their AM radio beachhead, made inroads into popular culture, and launched new publications, including a D.C.-based magazine founded in 1995 by William Kristol and Fred Barnes with Rupert Murdoch's financial backing: The Weekly Standard.
Fast-forward 10 years. Between Fox News on television and Free Republic on the Web, it's clear that Republican electoral success hasn't diminished the audience for conservative media outlets. And while The Weekly Standard, like most political magazines, may not be a cash cow, Murdoch's investment has paid off in other ways. With a circulation approaching 60,000, the liberal columnist Eric Alterman has argued, "Reader for reader, [The Weekly Standard] may be the most influential publication in America."
Indeed, The Weekly Standard's Beltway heft now exceeds that of conservative publications that have been around for decades. Kristol and Barnes remain fixtures on TV political talk shows, and staffers have graduated from the catacombs of conservative opinion journalism to coveted mainstream media perches at CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times op-ed page.
Most significantly, the Standard is influencing the national agenda. Less than six years after it ran a piece by Kristol and Robert Kagan titled "Saddam Must Go," the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew its Ba'athist regime. Allies of the Project for the New American Century, the Kristol-led pressure group that also began looking for a fight with Saddam in the '90s, occupy senior positions in the current administration. With such friends in high places, maybe it's the Standard that's the Bush era's in-flight magazine of Air Force One.
Kristol and company look back at these accomplishments in a 10th-anniversary anthology, The Weekly Standard: A Reader, 1995-2005. Apparently, it hasn't been all fun and war games. Kristol writes in the foreword, "Early in the magazine's history, I remember mentioning to a friend that I seemed to have made more enemies in one year at The Weekly Standard than I had during my previous ten years in government and politics combined." When a friend picked up my copy of the book, other bookstore patrons tried to pick a fight with her over the Iraq War
That's the price that comes with influence. But at first, it did not look like the magazine was going to hold such sway with conservative thinkers and politicians. Throughout the 1990s, its writers counseled confrontation with China and intervention in the Balkans—to little avail among their fellow Republicans. Rank-and-file conservatives just weren't interested in a new ideological struggle to replace the Cold War. Kristol recalls that when the magazine backed Bill Clinton's intervention in Bosnia, "a not insignificant chunk of our original subscribers immediately canceled out on us."
Congressional Republicans listened to the rabble, drawing this rebuke from Weekly Standard opinion editor David Tell in 1995: "When the "conservative street" is wrong, it should be corrected—or ignored." He fretted that Republicans were "flunking" a "yea-or-nay question concerning America's continued engagement with the rest of the world" and chided them for posing "ultimately unanswerable questions about 'exit strategy.'" Aside from Tell's piece, the book largely glosses over intraconservative foreign policy debates.
Kristol's magazine was also out of step with some of conservatism's domestic policy predilections in the '90s. Back then, it was popular to conceive of the right as a "Leave Us Alone" coalition, uniting seemingly disparate elements against liberal-run big government. Grover Norquist memorably explained how this was supposed to work: "Conservative leaders can meet in a room, and the taxpayers can agree not to throw condoms at the children of Christians and orthodox Jews; the gun owners can agree not to raise everyone else's taxes; the Christians can agree not to steal anyone's guns; and they all can agree not to take anyone's property."
The Weekly Standard wanted a more ambitious conservatism than this libertarian-sounding formulation. As an alternative, senior editor David Brooks, now a New York Times columnist, proposed "national greatness." Citing Tocqueville, Brooks warned in a 1997 cover story that "nihilistic mediocrity" might ensue if "citizens are not inspired by some larger national goal." Writing in The Wall Street Journal the same year, Brooks and Kristol were even starker: "What's missing from today's American conservatism is America." Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were retroactively deputized as national greatness conservatives, and both trust busters and infrastructure builders were mentioned with approval.
It was never clear how a "limited but energetic" federal government was supposed to achieve national greatness. "It almost doesn't matter what great task government sets for itself," Brooks explained, "as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness." The only specifics were an explicit call for a more "active foreign policy" and an implicit preference for a government bigger than most conservatives were then willing to accept.
The national greatness meme initially won few converts. But the resulting debate helped set The Weekly Standard apart from National Review and other competitors. It also foreshadowed a change in tone on the right: an intellectual shift away from skepticism about government and toward the more nationalistic conservatism now in full bloom. Yet the articles that sparked this discussion are strangely excluded from The Weekly Standard: A Reader.
The Standard has played the role of maverick conservative during competitive Republican presidential races. In the 1996 cycle, Kristol was Colin Powell's biggest booster on the right, even though the retired general dissented from most popular conservative views (with the arguable exception of the prudent foreign policy restraint The Weekly Standard so loudly rejected), and despite the fact that he was not actually a candidate. In 2000 Kristol and Brooks backed John McCain, in hopes that the Arizona senator would dynamite the existing GOP coalition and build a new one in its place. George W. Bush's supporters (including Barnes) were interested in hardy perennials such as tax cuts and abortion, but Brooks and Kristol wanted "creative destruction."