RIP to a magazine—and the notion that people could be persuaded by ideas
Not long after the 1994 mid-term election, the one that brought Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years and capped the meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich to the House speakership, the conservative media world was home to two big secrets. As editor of the editorial page of the Washington Times at the time, I was in the sweet spot of the Venn diagram, the only person in town, I believe, who knew both of them.
The first secret was that the firebrand conservative journalist David Brock had secured an amazing $1 million advance for a biography of Hillary Clinton. With David fresh off his New York Times bestseller The Real Anita Hill, the expectation at Free Press was that he would deliver revelations about the already controversial first lady on a scale even bigger than those about the woman who nearly derailed the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
The second secret was that Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes and my college roommate John Podhoretz, with the financial backing of Rupert Murdoch, were going to launch a new conservative magazine of politics and ideas to complement the new political era: what was not yet named the Weekly Standard.
The Seduction of Hillary Rodham was a flop, and David subsequently switched political sides, becoming a firebrand liberal activist. I have the interesting distinction of being about the only one of his former conservative associates—he worked for me at the Times—portrayed sympathetically in his tell-all, Blinded by the Right.
The Weekly Standard, on the other hand, was a smash hit in the world of little political magazines for over two decades, a publication that consistently outperformed expectations—until its current ownership abruptly terminated publication this week.
From the beginning, the Standard was conservative but never orthodox. My first piece as a contributing editor to the magazine—which appeared, to my chagrin, not in the much anticipated debut issue but in the second edition—was a polite but firm explanation of why the “flat tax” then in vogue as the ultima ratio of GOP tax reform plans was going nowhere politically. It was not the sort of piece that was endearing to conservative “movement” types. But it was an example of the kind of piece that keeps a magazine lively to readers.
When I left the Times in 1998 to reinvigorate the Heritage Foundation’s then-moribund conservative bimonthly Policy Review, I liked to warn people that they should expect at least 10 percent of the contents of each edition to annoy them personally. It wouldn’t be the same 10 percent for all readers, but everybody should expect it, because that was the only way I knew to keep the other 90 percent stimulating. I think I hit upon this proposition due to the early success of the Standard.
There’s a lot of blather these days about “confirmation bias” and similar cognitive functionality that drives people to respond favorably only to that with which they agree. A clear implication is that persuasion on the basis of argument doesn’t work any more. One need not spend much time on Twitter to see how thoroughly this view has taken hold.
But the Standard was never clubby or tribal in this way, designed to appeal only to those in a preexisting in-group, usually by frequent disparaging references to the out-group. Sure, there was plenty of making light in the Weekly Standard, and how favorably people respond to ridicule does depend to some degree on a shared sense of the ridiculous. But like the New Republic at its long-gone best, the Standard’s distinguishing characteristic was its almost touching faith that reasonable people could indeed be persuaded to a point of view, and that even if weren’t, they could profit from the exercise of paying attention to a serious argument.
Except for right after 9/11, when everyone in Washington was looking for someplace to go to feel constructive, I didn’t go by the Standard office much. As I imagine most readers of Washingtonian know, “contributing editor” is an honorific title, not a position entailing actual editorial responsibility beyond writing from time to time. I will leave to those on the scene the reminiscence over 23 years’ of office carryings-on and the illumination of the dark aspects and ominous corporate rumblings of the final years.
All will come out in time. Let this prediction serve as fair warning for those proud of their achievement in ensuring the magazine shut down without a fighting chance to find a new owner. There has been way too much analytical capability and writing talent on the publication staff for the story to go untold. It’s the writers who get the privilege of the last word, not the suits.
If I happened to know any more good secrets, now would not be the time to spill them. There’s been a death in the family, and I have a wake to get to—a sad occasion, but a celebration of something vital and difference-making. Huh—come to think of it, my last piece for the Weekly Standard was an appreciation of John McCain.