This last week in the yuletide there has been stirrings of mirth, sadness, and a hard recognition of reality amongst media outlets that, if you follow politics and especially if you’re a conservative, have been institutions for quite a long time. Santa has different things in store to place in the stockings of The Weekly Standard, National Review, and Fox News Channel. Coal in the first sock, goodies in the second, and a warning in the last.
You know by now that The Weekly Standard has gone the way of the dodo. At one time, early on, it was a hell of a publication. Funny, serious when called for, with a roster of fast guns like Fred Barnes who could leave you breathless with wit and cogent analysis. It was like a New Republic for the right. It emanated from the bosom of the neocon movement, former leftists who had been pushed too far by the 60s counterculture. They espoused a Teddy Roosevelt view of the world that seemed to be the cat’s pajamas at their pinnacle of influence during the administration of Bush the younger.
I then worked frequently in the area I now call home and W’s soft cowboy touch and too much stated compassionate conservative moniker, as if we had to qualify conservatism, was perfectly suited to the bars and hotel restaurants of Capitol Hill. It was a neocon wonk paradise. But even during the Arcadian idyll there were hints of Icarus. Now, don’t get me wrong. As an elitist snob warhawk I loved the atmosphere. Hell, I thought (and still think) we were too soft on Afghanistan and, with reservations regarding the basic mission, cheered our boys into Baghdad. But the elitism of some of us who grew up working for everything we had was different from the Connecticut Cowboy entitlement of the Bushes. Ours was an appreciation of excellence, of pure merit. There’s was, and is if the recently deceased mag was an indication, a cultural loathing of the very same people their espoused policies were supposed to benefit. And that was what eventually brought them down. They spit in the faces of the conservative base and told the base they should like it. As a DC insider publication they thought they would get away with it .
Limited-government conservatives had other ideas and we’re still around to run most of elected Washington’s power levers. The Weekly Standard is not around. Not even to continue to run its mouth. I will miss the great music, film, and book reviews. Their last page parodies were legendarily witty and could make you laugh so hard you’d spill your martini. But an essential rule of business is to try and not let the customer know you disdain them. In their disturbed rantings against the president, in Bill Kristol’s common cause with the loony left regarding the president, in the sanctimonious blatherings of writers like Max Boot, they did just that. Hope to them, wherever they alight, the price was worth it.
Another story is that of the father of conservative periodicals founded by the greatest intellectual leader the American right has ever had, National Review.
My bias here is massive, as NR was in my hands by the time I was six. My dad had a subscription and we never missed Firing Line. Half of the pompous vocabulary editors wag their mental fingers at I learned studying NR founder William F. Buckley, Jr. and his non-otiose, there’s one for you boys, style. I worshipped the man. My annoying anglophilia stems from his languid manner and not quite British demeanor. No magazine has given me more pleasure, or taught me more history and policy, than NR over the half century I have been reading it. The 80s-era American Spectator came close, as does the past and current London Spectator. But they just weren’t NR or Buckley.
Even got to meet WFB twice. For me, it was like meeting Elvis and Sinatra rolled into one. First time was when I was a teenager at a Firing Line taping at WPBT in Miami. I went up to him (he was alone and gathering his notes) after the show and asked him to sign my copy of “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. He smiled, signed, and merely commented, “Good book.” I had been spoken to by Zeus. A right-wing fanboy was thrilled and all was in balance between heaven and earth.
The second time, about twenty years later, was at the 20th Anniversary dinner of the founding of the CATO Institute. A pal who was high up in Libertarian Party circles had procured me a ticket to this black-tie affair. He had also gotten me into the high-flyer cocktail party preceding the event. Spread before me was the best collection of booze I had ever seen and an open bar. Even more amazing was the herd of Republican and conservative luminaries casually drinking top-shelf whiskey and knoshing on butlered hors d’oeuvres. This wasn’t long after the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 and the fatted calf was being feasted upon by congressional Republicans and their acolytes like me. Dick Armey, Trent Lott, Walter Williams, and others were there. But my gaze fell upon WFB, who was alone at the bar nursing a drink. I went up to him and said, “Sir, you probably don’t remember me but…,” when he stopped me mid-sentence, responding “Miami, Marcus Aurelius.” I stood again awed. I made an awkward attempt at casual conversation as, saints be praised, a photographer snapped a pic of WFB graciously smiling at some lame thing I said. The shot hangs in my office. So, you can guess my consternation when the post-WFB NR published an anti-Trump issue in the midst of the 2016 campaign.
I too hadn’t started out a Trump supporter. First went with Fiorina, thought a woman could compete better against Hagatha. Then Rubio, had connections inside the campaign, we both being Latin boys who cut their teeth in South Florida GOP politics. When that ship sunk I went with my actual political heart’s desire, Cruz, also another Latin boy. When that went under I was all in for the current president, following WFB’s rule of supporting the most electable conservative. I think NR went temporarily south on Trump because of his manner. NR is the legacy of true noble patrician WFB and his Yalie Catholic cohorts. A somewhat colloquial bridge and tunnel street-fighting real estate mogul wasn’t going to be invited to their club for drinks and a swim anytime soon. So NR and certain other members of the conservative establishment put manner above guts and zeitgeist and took a pass on Trump. They didn’t go as far as The Weekly Standard and they opined for the Shebeast’s defeat. But they couldn’t quite bring themselves to embrace him.
Then, lo and behold, nobody cared.
Even I, an ultraloyal NR reader since the first grade, cancelled my subscription. They wanted a philosopher king when the situation and the opposition called for a bullyboy. It could have finished here and they could have ended up like Kristol and company.
But somewhere deep in their soul reality intruded and they realized that Trump was actually accomplishing things they had called for since forever. Not only that, but he was doing it in a way that put their fair-haired boys to shame. The times called for a tough guy and the magazine gradually came to understand the times. Today, they don’t exactly sit down for a quarter pounder with cheese on Air Force One with the president. But they are generally back in the fold and my nervous breakdown is averted. NR heeded the rule our first example did not; they remembered that their reader and advertising base paid the bills.
Can such be said for Fox News Channel? The jury is still out on that one.
FNC is going through dynastic changes that we have previously related in this column. To briefly recap, the younger generation isn’t as conservative as the old man and they’re taking over due to the exigencies of time. In fact, the wife of the new FNC uberboss works for the Clinton organization.
Those of us who have relied on Fox for over twenty years for daily television news have always known that, unlike their competitors, it tolerated alternative viewpoints within its ranks. Shep Smith is proof of that, as are Juan Williams and Geraldo Rivera. It seems the new corporate honchos want to expand the brand beyond conservatives and thus will shift to the middle to do it. I doubt they’ll go full bore MSNBC on us. However, expect less red meat and more tofu.
That could mean an opportunity for a conservative media entrepreneur. For the right will only tolerate a modicum of meandering.
The future will tell us if their little experiment in catering more to the squishy center and simultaneously attempting to hold their base will work. If the recent example of The Weekly Standard is any indication, by next Christmas they may not quite have coal in their stockings yet. But a lot of newsies could look inside the socks and find falling ratings.
Can irrelevancy be far behind?