Thunder on the Center-Right

The Weekly Standard turns 10.


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."

To some, this looked like bold strategic thinking. Skeptics thought it resembled an obsession with political gimmicks at the expense of ideas. But The Weekly Standard: A Reader mostly ignores this debate too, with Kristol referring to his presidential politicking in the foreword the way an adult would describe a photograph of his first day at kindergarten.

Although it airbrushes out much of the Standard's interesting intellectual history, the compilation does show how it became such a force on the right. Most obviously, the magazine acquired some of its generation's most talented writers, among them Brooks, Andrew Ferguson, and Christopher Caldwell. Tucker Carlson's McCain campaign journal is a first-rate piece of political reporting. Matt Labash shares Carlson's deft combination of witty prose and insightful reporting, as demonstrated in his tasteful dissection of Tammy Faye Bakker. The anthology's cultural essays are competent and wide-ranging, analyzing books, Broadway, and the nightly news. Joseph Bottum, now an editor at First Things, explores Robert Lowell's poetry, while Christopher Hitchens looks at Bob Dylan's.

There is another larger factor in The Weekly Standard's influence: 9/11. That day didn't change everything, but it did change conservatism. The national greatness obsession that seemed so out of place during the prosperous '90s suddenly became relevant. A new national struggle had been found in the War on Terror, and the "active foreign policy" the magazine craved could now be promoted on the basis of pragmatic national defense rather than abstract, high-minded principle.

Yet the war essays are among the weakest pieces in the book. Anti-war voices are repeatedly portrayed as unwilling to weigh the risks of inaction against those of action, yet no piece included in the book tackles this calculation itself. The evil of Saddam Hussein and the awfulness of terrorism are taken as self-evident justifications for the Iraq war. To the Yale computer-science professor David Gelernter, criticism of the invasion evokes "the world's indifference to Saddam" which "resembles its indifference to Hitler."

Reading this book, you get the impression that Edward Said and Noam Chomsky are the only people who opposed the war, abetted by venal Democratic politicians eager to sabotage President Bush. Brooks writes that war opponents "are not arguing at all. They are just repeating the hatreds they cultivated in the 1960s, and during the Reagan years, and during the Florida imbroglio." He laments that the "debate is dominated by people who don't know about Iraq and don't care," presumably excluding those on the pro-war side.

No one mentions what the hawks didn't know about Iraq. The selections proceed from Baghdad's fall to last January's elections without seriously confronting the violent insurgency or the failure to locate weapons of mass destruction. (Gelernter dismisses WMD criticisms as "one of the more infantile accusations in modern political history.") Pace Brooks, the articles in this book don't contain much argument or serious debate. Instead we get contributing editor Reuel Marc Gerecht proclaiming that only "the culturally deaf, dumb, and blind" deny the "democratic earthquake" Bush has created in the Middle East.

Throughout the collection, the contributors write as though there is no limit to the good in the world that can be achieved by government, especially when it's run by Republicans. There isn't a single piece advocating limited government (though Republican activist Jeffrey Bell does put in a good word for Reagan's tax cuts), and contributing editor Irwin Stelzer even shows up to defend the estate tax. Irving Kristol argues that accepting the swollen state is part of "The Neoconservative Persuasion." "People have always preferred strong government to weak government," the elder Kristol shrugs, "although they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of overly intrusive government."

Just as the war articles show little sense of the public's growing doubts, the Standard's arguments about domestic policy seem to be losing their persuasive force to those not already convinced. Its writers may be confusing a post-9/11 moment of opportunity with destiny, the inexorable march of their ideas, one democratic earthquake at a time.

If so, that kind of tone-deaf complacency could do the damage to the conservative new media that 10 years of Republican governance couldn't.