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Can Bill Kristol's hip journal grow into a major player?

by Dan Kennedy

For the battle-weary staff of the conservative Weekly Standard, its current effort -- a GALA CLINTON-BASHING ISSUE! -- is the journalistic equivalent of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. It's comfort food, intended to soothe the soul.

With loving detail, the six-story package analyzes the Clintons' shaky sense of ethics, Hillary's Eleanor Roosevelt fixation, and the odds of Filegate's erupting into a scandal of presidency-ruining proportions. "More than Whitewater or the Paula Jones case or even Travelgate," writes executive editor Fred Barnes hopefully, "Filegate may engage the press and the public and prolong itself indefinitely."

Not that the Standard hasn't made Clinton-bashing a regular part of its menu. But since last September, when the Rupert Murdoch-backed venture was launched with great fanfare, the magazine's editors have found themselves in an unexpected position: on the defensive. Intended as a vehicle to promote Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution and keep it on track, the Standard has instead found itself caught in the Gingrich implosion, fighting to regain territory that had already been won, while at the same time angering its natural constituency by departing from conservative orthodoxy.

The Republican Party's self-destruction has been surprisingly good for the Standard, which has emerged from the wreckage as a hip, often irreverent voice with nasty, eye-catching covers, short takes on the issues of the day, and inside political dope. Longer pieces focus on a broad range of issues, such as the alleged sins of feminism, the war between animal-rights and AIDS activists, the purported hypocrisy of New Age guru Deepak Chopra, and a scathing look at "James Carville, Populist Plutocrat."

Now, with the magazine's first birthday just two months away, the question that editor and publisher William Kristol must answer is whether he can move beyond the revolution that wasn't and position the Standard as a major conservative voice for the long haul.

Quayle's brain

The relationship between the Standard and ideological soul mate Gingrich was evident right from the start. In the debut issue, Kristol, a master Republican strategist best known for serving as Vice-President Quayle's chief-of-staff ("Dan Quayle's brain," as the New Republic once dubbed him), and later for leading the charge against the Clintons' health-care plan, proclaimed that "there has been a conservative realignment," and that "[w]e have every reason to expect it will last."

Like Gingrich, the Standard espouses smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation, free trade, and an anti-choice stand on abortion that depends more on moral suasion than legislation. The moment seemed perfect. But by the time the Standard was up and running, Gingrich's popularity had already begun its precipitous slide, the victim of a prolonged budget battle with the White House in which the president managed to portray congressional Republicans as heartless technocrats who would shred the social safety net and cast old people into the gutter.

Barnes argues that the eclipse of Gingrich has obscured the success and continued popularity of the Speaker's agenda. "Gingrich has taken a beating. Gingrichism has not taken a beating," Barnes told the Phoenix. "Every day, Bill Clinton adopts more of the Republican agenda. Even some Republicans don't realize how successful they've been."

Yet the most vigorous strain of Republicanism to emerge in 1996 has been that of Pat Buchanan, whose protectionist, nativist sentiments and uncompromising opposition to abortion rights are antithetical to Gingrichism. The Standard rode to the sound of the guns with a cover editorial on March 4 denouncing Buchanan's "corrosive anti-institutional populism," and with a March 11 piece by Norman Podhoretz, retired editor of the neoconservative Commentary (and father of Standard deputy editor John Podhoretz), arguing that Buchanan should be disqualified because of his well-documented anti-Semitism.

Kristol, meanwhile, stands accused of selling out conservatism because of his dalliance with a Colin Powell presidential candidacy last fall, and of selling out Republican prospects by his repeated denigration of Bob Dole's campaign. "Bob Dole is likely to lose the presidential race to Bill Clinton," Kristol wrote in the April 29 issue. "The challenge for Republicans and conservatives is to prevent a Dole defeat from derailing the ongoing Republican realignment and from blocking the emergence of a new era of conservative governance."

Some critics wonder how Kristol could talk up the pro-choice, pro-affirmative-action Powell while trashing Dole, who despite moderate views on some issues and a lack of ideological fervor is clearly more conservative than Powell. "I think Bill Kristol is showing himself to be more of an opportunist than a principled conservative," says David Corn, Washington-bureau chief for the left-liberal Nation.

"We haven't criticized Dole for being insufficiently conservative," protested Kristol in an interview with the Phoenix. "We've criticized him for running a lousy campaign." Kristol explains his infatuation with Powell by saying he's someone who could actually beat Clinton; and though Kristol objects to some of Powell's views, he thinks a Powell presidency would buy time for more-conservative Republicans to consolidate their congressional gains.

The bottom line

Although the Weekly Standard's maiden voyage has been rocky ideologically, it's enjoyed considerably smoother sailing economically and journalistically.

The Standard immediately established itself as a vibrant, conservative alternative to the two long-standing weekly journals of opinion, the Nation and the centrist-neoliberal New Republic. (Slate, a new weekly webzine edited by former TNR editor Michael Kinsley, may be emerging as a fourth important player. It's located on the World-Wide Web at http://www.slate.com.)

Kristol is optimistic that his magazine will break even on schedule, by the end of its third year. Paid circulation, he says, has already hit 70,000, and is well on its way to reaching its goal of 100,000. That figure can't be independently verified, because the Standard is still too new to submit its books to the scrutiny of the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), which tracks newspapers and magazines. But if Kristol's right, then the Standard's debut can only be described as remarkable: according to ABC, the Nation's most recent circulation figure was 97,680, with TNR right behind at 97,196.

More important, the Standard has delivered quality. With a gifted editorialist in David Tell, a veteran Beltway insider in Fred Barnes, a skilled polemicist in David Brooks, big-name contributors such as Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Krauthammer and humorist P.J. O'Rourke, and aggressive young reporters such as Tucker Carlson, Matt Labash, and Matthew Rees, the Standard has gained a reputation as the hot new book of the right. In fact, though a direct cause-and-effect relationship can't be proven, ABC figures show that the circulation of William Buckley's biweekly National Review plunged from 250,654 at the end of 1994 to 218,322 at the end of 1995, and that the monthly American Spectator's circulation fell from 279,106 to 221,457 over the same period.

"I read the Standard first thing when it comes in, unlike a lot of magazines," says WBZ Radio talk-show host David Brudnoy, a conservative who's a contributing writer for National Review. Although Brudnoy thinks the Standard lacks the "magisterial weight" of the Review, he gives it high marks for being "sprightly and fun." Much of the credit, Brudnoy adds, has to go to Kristol, whom he taught at a Harvard seminar in the 1970s, and whom he remembers as "real quick" and "sharp."

Indeed, the Standard revolves around the 43-year-old Kristol and the bright young Republicans he's surrounded himself with since the mid 1980s, when he left Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he was an assistant professor. Like John Podhoretz, Kristol's political lineage is formidable: his father, Irving Kristol, founding editor of the Public Interest, is the intellectual father of neoconservatism, a largely Jewish movement of former liberals who embraced conservative views, especially on foreign policy, in the 1960s and '70s. Bill Kristol's mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb, is an important neocon figure in her own right. (Ironically, the Standard launched at the same time as another political magazine started by a famous son: John Kennedy Jr.'s glossy fanzine George.)

Serving first as chief-of-staff to Secretary of Education William Bennett, and later filling the same role for Quayle, Kristol quickly established a reputation as a brilliant tactician and a rather shameless self-promoter whose leaks to the press during the 1992 campaign reportedly angered aides to George Bush.

After leaving public office, Kristol established a one-man Washington think tank. His weekly strategy memos to top Republican officials -- especially his advice to reject the Clinton health plan, sight unseen -- gave him a reputation as a skilled political infighter, and as a partisan who'd rather win than help solve pressing national problems. That latter theme was explored at length in two unflattering 1994 profiles in the New Republic and the Washington Monthly. Kristol responds that he didn't have to wait to know that Clinton would unveil a massive, big-government program that Republicans should oppose.

By 1995 Kristol was an influential inside player who was frequently mentioned as a future presidential chief-of-staff (though not, one presumes, in a Dole Administration), and as an increasingly prominent figure regularly sought out by political reporters and talking-heads shows. So it was surprising when he talked Murdoch into parting with $3 million so he could launch a new career as a journalist.

His high-profile hires -- Barnes, 53, from the New Republic, as executive editor, and John Podhoretz, 35, from the Washington Times (and, briefly, the New York Post), as deputy editor -- sent a signal to some that Kristol intended to serve as a figurehead. Insiders, though, say Kristol is a hands-on manager, bringing a thick folder of clippings and notes to the Monday-morning staff meetings, which he presides over with a genial blend of ideas, jokes, and Beltway gossip.

Standard fare

Despite its instant credibility, the question remains: is the Standard an essential read for political junkies? Not necessarily. Despite Kristol's tactical maneuvering, there's little in the pages of the Standard to challenge the views of its conservative readers. Kristol notes there have been exceptions, such as a Joseph Epstein piece last winter defending federal funding of the arts. For the most part, though, Standard fare is -- well, standard fare. Even a well-executed exposé such as Tucker Carlson's piece on Ross Perot ("Is He Nuts?") deals with a question to which we already know the answer (i.e., of course he is).

David Shribman, the Boston Globe's Washington-bureau chief, calls the Standard "a must-read," but thinks the magazine seems more "dutifully conservative" than ideologically passionate -- unlike the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which Shribman thinks "tends to beat the Standard at its own game." Indeed, Shribman says he sees little to differentiate the Standard from the ostensibly liberal New Republic, finding both of them to be too cautiously centrist.

That's not entirely fair to either magazine. Certainly Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief and chairman of TNR, objects. "I can't remember more than a handful of New Republic articles that Bill Kristol would put in his magazine," he says. Indeed, the ideologically eclectic TNR has been moderately supportive of Clinton, and -- unlike the Standard -- has been largely dismissive of Whitewater.

Peretz, Brudnoy, and others credit the Standard with a sense of humor, but much of the humor is strained and not very funny. The back-of-the-book "Parody," for instance, rarely clicks, although the take-off on Slate in the current issue is worth a look. Genuine laughs -- such as P.J. O'Rourke's jab at Hillary Rodham Clinton's It Takes a Village ("so much more than just a self-help book for idiots") -- are rare.

There's also an immaturity that pops up in the magazine's pages from time to time. Among the frequent contributors is Washington Times editorial-page editor Tod Lindberg, a chief publicist for former FBI agent Gary Aldrich's ridiculous anti-Clinton smear, Unlimited Access. The Standard has also promoted the budding career of Wendy Shalit, younger sister of Ruth Shalit, notorious for her plagiarizing and factual whoppers. Certainly Wendy Shalit should not be punished for the sins of her sibling, whom she reportedly loathes. But given that she has not yet graduated from Williams College, why splash her name on the cover, especially since her work has been unremarkable?

Then there's the Murdoch factor. The media baron has reportedly taken a hands-off approach. (Almost. Barnes recalls rushing to a pay phone outside a 7-Eleven during his son's soccer game so he could return a call to the boss. It turns out that Rupe just wanted to engage in some political chit-chat. "And my son scored a goal in my absence," Barnes says.)

But there's something odd about a magazine pushing conservative values while being funded by a man who got rich from such raunchy fare as topless "page-three girls" and Married. . .with Children. "It's a business," Kristol responds breezily. "I don't think the Murdoch empire has been bad for humanity." It's certainly been good for Bill Kristol.

Ultimately, though, the Weekly Standard must be assessed on its own merits. In just nine months, it's grown into a precocious adolescent: smart, insouciant, and cocky, more interested in the game of politics than the drudgery of policy, a hip journal for people who believe -- or who want to believe -- that being conservative is hip. It caters to a mindset Podhoretz described without irony recently when he wrote of a party at which older Republicans "wondered just when it was that 22-year-olds began smoking cigars and drinking highballs, and just why they looked so good doing it."

Like those 22-year-olds, the Standard looks good. It remains to be seen whether it can grow into a responsible adult.

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