How Washington Works (c. 2007)

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TNR's Jamie Kirchick, a former intern at AEI, has written a long, ugly excavation into the last days of The American Enterprise under editor Karl Zinsmeister. Hired in his mid-thirties to turn a cobwebbed policy mag into a must-read, Zinsmeister made a lot of headway toward that goal. And then came the Iraq War, his swaggering on-the-spot reporting, and his magazine-killing efforts to promote said reporting:

And so it was that AEI began buying Zinsmeister's books to give to new subscribers. The strategy, which debuted in 2003, was to lure people into subscribing through direct mail by offering a free Zinsmeister book with their subscription. At first, these mailings offered multiple options for subscribing, some of which included a Zinsmeister book, some of which did not. The magazine's then-business manager, Garth Cadiz, says that the offers without Zinsmeister's books invariably received better response rates. Yet, in June 2005, Zinsmeister eliminated the option to get a subscription through direct mail without buying one of his books as well. The move was a flop, according to Cadiz. Around that time, subscriptions, which had been climbing for years, began falling. No books by other AEI scholars were ever offered in similar arrangements, Cadiz notes. Zinsmeister also printed ads for his books free of charge in the magazine. In 2004, Zinsmeister wrote an e-mail to his editors concerning Dawn Over Baghdad: "I have promised Encounter [his publisher] we will run Dawn ads in TAE for the indefinite future in return for them paying for some of the media interview travel. … So please treat the Dawn ad as a paid ad for the near future (i.e. pull something else, not it, if there is a space crunch)." According to a former AEI employee, it was widely known at the think tank that "Karl was in it for Karl," and his use of the magazine to promote his own books was "sort of like a running joke." The books were shipped to Zinsmeister's home in Cazenovia and mailed to subscribers from there. Over three years, according to an e-mail David Gerson would later send to Zinsmeister after he had announced his plans to step down, AEI purchased 13,700 Zinsmeister books at a cost of $131,000. And what a gift that proved to be for Zinsmeister, as AEI's purchases wound up accounting for 45 percent of the total sales of Dawn Over Baghdad's hardcover edition–and more than half its paperback sales.

Nothing amazing so far—a lot of this reads like a lower-stakes version of John Miller's preemptive funeral oration for Reader's Digest or Byron York grave-dancing on the old version of the American Spectator.

[O]n May 24, Zinsmeister sent a triumphant mass e-mail to AEI staff. "I am an admirer of Cincinnatus," he wrote, "and had intended to return quietly to my writer's plow after I completed my last issue of The American Enterprise. When I announced my departure, however, I received an unexpected flurry of proposals, one of which I could not ignore. I have been asked by the President to serve as his domestic policy advisor." A well-known scholar at AEI says that many people at the think tank responded with "bemusement. It's not a role we would have seen him as playing." "I personally thought it was very strange," says the head of a prominent conservative organization. "I was completely stunned. … I think people were like, What? KZ?'" But, while many conservatives found Zinsmeister to be an odd choice for the job, others thought the appointment made perfect sense. With his disdain for Washington and his hatred for elites, Zinsmeister undoubtedly appealed to "Bush's weakness," speculates one former American Enterprise editor, while another laughs at the thought of "two people complaining about elites in D.C., who both went to Yale."

That's a funny theory, but by 2006 was Zinsmeister's selling point still his anti-elitism? Or was it that he was a 1) true believer in the Iraq War who was 2) willing to board a sinking ship? Yes, a job with the White House looked less desirable then it does now, when the executive branch's HR flacks are complaining to the Financial Times about how no one wants to work there. Zinsmeister, however, was so possessed with slamming the "failure-biased" media and plumping for the war that he turned his magazine into a PR mill for the effort. He was a perfect hire. (I should add that Zinsmeister did amazing work on education reform issues in the 1990s and I haven't read most of his war reporting.)

NEXT: Gas Prices Redux

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  1. One fact left out of this interesting account: Zinsmeister was also the editor of the old Libertarian Review, before it was purchased by Charles Koch (who handed it over to Roy A. Childs, Jr.). There’s a lesson for our “liberventionists” in there, somewhere.

  2. I just got an offer in the mail to get “Radicals for Capitalism” if I renew my “Reason” subscription.

  3. Failing upward?

    In this administration?

    Nah, that can’t be right.

  4. No matter how much of Karl’s writing I read & appreciated in Reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about the (Fictional?) Zyznmeister (pronounced the same way) that Jean P. Shepherd talked of as the poor guy who was last in alphabetic order.

  5. Having worked in the world of D.C. political nonprofits, I can say that all of the crap in this article is pretty much par for the course. I found that such ego trips and self-dealing were the norm at the higher rungs on the ladder.

  6. Washington works? Yes, but for whom?

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