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
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

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."

Now we can see that Dr. Kesler's glue is really a solvent. His version of natural right (law, whatever) means we must mount a crusade against homosexuals, while mine means that where people consent to put their parts is no business of the state or politics. As I understand it (my disclaimer: I have never studied philosophy–don't it show), natural law (right) is a slippery concept, meaning different things to different people, especially if those people are David Boaz of the Cato Institute and Larry Arnn or Harry Jaffa of the Claremont Institute.

It was clear that Kesler gave an off-the-shelf speech, a patchwork of previous scholarly lectures. It was very asymmetrical: The college lecture portion on the history of conservatism and liberalism was long, while its engagement with conservatism's current problems was short. In the question period, he evaded policy and operational issues–like, What does this mean here in Washington?–with disclaimers, jokes, and quips. He didn't even mention Chris Caldwell's article in the June Atlantic Monthly, "The Southern Captivity of the GOP," which, it seems to me, frames the issue well. Nor did this article come up in questions, which is interesting.

In terms of refreshments, I ignored the cheese and crackers but had a half glass of white wine and a glass of beer. I then returned home for the evening.

Subj: Bork v. Bork
Date: Fri, Jun 19, 1998 3:58 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

On June 18, 1998, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a debate on U.S. v. Microsoft in which all participants agreed on one thing: The definitive work on antitrust as applied to this case was written by the man whose last name is now a verb: Robert Bork. That was all they agreed upon, with one side citing Bork's The Antitrust Paradox to prove that the government ought to take on Microsoft and the other pulling passages to prove exactly the opposite. What made it most interesting, however, was that Robert Bork was one of the debaters.

After being accused of betraying his own work by George Priest, who teaches law and economics at Yale Law School, the very place where Bork developed his thoughts on antitrust, Bork replied: "George, I wish you would read pages 344, 345, and 346 of The Antitrust Paradox, where you will see that I have not changed my mind in the last 20 years." Knowing how this must have sounded, Bork quickly followed up: "That's a hell of a confession to make–that I have not changed my mind in 20 years–but it's true."

Priest responded: "I prefer, Bob, as you know, pages 308 to 309, where you say, `never in history has it happened or is it possible for a firm to use exclusive dealings or other requirements to gain market power'; pages 192 to 193, where you say, `any size a company achieves by internal growth is the most efficient size'; and especially the seminal sentence on page 157: `The real danger for the law is less that predation will be missed, but that normal competitive behavior will be wrongly classified as predatory and suppressed.'"

REASON Contributing Editor Thomas Hazlett, both the largest and loudest participant, pointed Bork to yet another of his sentences. After ranting, "I want to know where the price increases are. I want to know where the quality declines are. I want to know where the lack of innovation is," Hazlett read a passage from page 137 of Bork's Antitrust Paradox: "The problem is to show what exclusion is improper. All business activity excludes. A sale excludes rivals from that piece of business. Any firm that operates excludes rivals from some share of the market. Superior efficiency forecloses…indeed, exclusion or foreclosure is the mechanism by which competition confers its benefits upon society."

But Bork–who, forced to sit for two hours without lighting a smoke, must have felt like Chuck does over Nebraska on a coast-to-coast flight–still managed the best quip. Said Bork: "Since I have written the scripture, I am forced to say that the devil can quote scripture."

Having a softball game to get to, your humble correspondent was unable to stay for libation and post-debate discussion. I slipped out the side door, hopped onto the elevator, and headed back to REASON's Washington headquarters, where I changed into my softball clothes, grabbed my glove, and darted off to the Vietnam Memorial.

Subj: LP convention
Date: Mon, Jul 6, 1998 3:06 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

Your humble correspondent and his summer sidekick headed off to the Libertarian Party convention Thursday. Being on the weekly "phone, pick the brain, and bug" list for the producers of Fox's new Drudge Show, I was under the impression that I stood a better than even chance of reporting on the convention for Drudge's Independence Day audience–which is to say, his family, since the air time conflicted with fireworks. Eager to get my writing head, as National Review's Florence King has dubbed it, on TV, I was making an extra effort to absorb the morning's scene.

One of my first observations was how hot the Washington morning was and how far the Convention Center is from the particular exit of the Metro Center from which we emerged. Now, the convention center is large and the L.P. small, so simply making it to the edifice did not end our travels or stop our sweat. When we entered the building it wasn't clear that there was any convention going on at all, since there were no signs to guide our way. A tie-dyed-T-shirt-wearing fellow in a wheelchair, who entered the convention center with us, blamed it on the local power structure. "I bet Democrats run this place," he muttered as we walked our, and he rolled his, way to the check-in stand. Safe bet.

Once checked in, we headed upstairs to Convention Hall C, a large room with a replica of the Capitol backgrounding an impressive stage. Not being an official state delegate, I made my way to the general seating in the back of the convention hall, where I proceeded to read a press release about the "Belly of the Beast" (my new adopted town and Chuck's hometown), while Michael Cloud, a libertarian motivational speaker, went on at length about how the Libertarians need to be "unreasonable," a point that I never thought needed emphasizing.

But I must say, sitting in the back of the convention, I thought to myself, "This is a very mainstream crowd, for a bunch of libertarians." Although the hall was still sparsely populated, those who were there looked fairly normal. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a long-haired bearded man with backpack. "That's more like it," I thought to myself as I turned my gaze back to the stage where Michael Cloud was exhorting the crowd to unreasonableness with the skill of a TV preacher. Then I heard a familiar voice and felt a presence beside me. I'll be damned if the long-haired man wasn't former REASON scribe Brian Doherty, who was on assignment for Liberty, which is where you will have to look for a fuller account of the convention, as I departed Convention Hall C shortly into the NRA's afternoon presentation and never returned. It seemed like the reasonable thing to do.

P.S. Charles Murray gave a well-received luncheon address in which he maintained the thesis that the American government is on the cusp of a crisis of legitimacy. According to Murray, Americans have, by and large, become alienated from the federal government since the 1960s, the very point at which the feds began taking sides in moral disputes. Many Americans who aren't averse to government have contempt for it, and the dynamics of popular democracy in the information age are destabilizing at any rate. Murray said more and more Americans are yelling "That's none of the government's business" at their TV sets. I know I am.

Murray ended his talk with a list of do's for libertarians: Do make common cause with others, Murray counseled. Do emphasize libertarians' gregarious nature, family, and community, Murray continued. Speak openly about virtue. Seeing eye-to-eye with Claremont's Kesler, Murray urged the assembled L.P. members to emphasize the ideals of America's founding. He ended his speech to a standing ovation.

Other important news: The food served at the Murray lunch–steamed chicken, zucchini and squash, and some sort of cabbage concoction (I think)–was so bad I considered giving up eating for the entire weekend. When I returned to my office a phone call from Drudge's producer awaited me. The L.P. had been bumped from the agenda to make room for the Time/CNN retraction of their poison gas story and Linda Tripp's testimony. "Unless you saw Lewinsky at the convention," I recall the message stating, "we can't use you." There's always next week.

Hope you all had a happy Fourth of July.