< Old Standard


Friday, December 02, 2005

Now a moment of belated birthday wishes for the little neo-conservative magazine that could. The Weekly Standard turned 10. It came into being at a time when neo-conservatism, which puts a greater emphasis on interventionist foreign policies than more traditional conservative values like small government, was on the outs in Washington. Ten years later, the "neocons" are pretty much in charge. And so whether those birthday wishes are heartfelt will most likely depend on your affinity for the so-called "Bush doctrine of preemptive war." As Peter Carlson wrote three months ago in the Washington Post, "Some left-wingers probably don't read The Weekly Standard because they figure it's a Rupert Murdoch-owned, right-wing, warmongering magazine. And, of course, they've got a point." But," he writes, "it's worth noting that the Weekly Standard is a truly excellent right-wing, warmongering magazine, no matter what your political persuasion might be." I asked the magazine's editor, Bill Kristol, if he'd seen Carlson's piece.

BILL KRISTOL:: I think I did. Yes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Did that fill you with a warm and cozy feeling?

BILL KRISTOL:: It did, both being called excellent and being called right-wing and warmongering.


BILL KRISTOL:: It's high praise all around.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: How would you characterize the Weekly Standard in relation to, say, the National Review, which was that other stalwart of conservative publishing but had rather a different perspective from the neoconservative perspective you had?

BILL KRISTOL:: Basically National Review was a representative of the old American conservative movement, Goldwater and Reagan. I think our point of view on foreign policy was more internationalist and interventionist. Three months after [LAUGHS] we started, Bob Kagan and I wrote an editorial supporting President Clinton's intervention in Bosnia. I think we lost about a quarter of our subscribers then in December of '95 who, you know, cheerfully wrote in saying they didn't subscribe to the Weekly Standard to get editorials supporting Bill Clinton. [LAUGHS] So in various ways, I think we're a little different from the National Review, a little different from the Wall Street Journal, but we had differences among ourselves too. I preferred John McCain for President in 2000. Fred Barnes preferred George W. Bush.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Were you going more for maximum readership or readership by people with maximum power? And I use the word "more" here, so don't say "both."

BILL KRISTOL:: Yeah. I'd say we try to write for, you know, knowledgeable, intelligent readers, [CHUCKLES] the kind of people who will want to read 40, 48 pages a week of pretty, you know, careful attention to politics, pretty highbrow attention to the culture. John Podhoretz gave me a good piece of advice. He was much more experienced in journalism [LAUGHS] than I was when we started. He said, "You know, you can - it's a mistake to think about your audience too much. Put out a magazine that you would like to read. It's a bum's game to kind of always be guessing what the readers will find [CHUCKLES] interesting."

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Fair enough. But on the magazine's website, you seem to make a big point of showing how many of Washington's bigwigs receive the Weekly Standard. You note that from the White House to the Congressional leadership to the top echelons of Washington's print and broadcast journalists, every important player in the city gets a copy. It seems that your audience is pretty vitally important to the mission.

BILL KRISTOL:: Yeah, I think so. And also, frankly, that's something advertisers want to hear, so - and - and it's true, so we're happy to tell them - [OVERTALK]


BILL KRISTOL:: - that. But I'm also - [OVERTALK]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Well, advertisers don't care if they go to members of Congress unless the particular members of Congress are big spenders.

BILL KRISTOL:: Well, no, because we don't have - since we're small, we don't have much consumer advertising. What we have is advocacy advertising. And if you're making a case for some legislation, you do actually care, of course, that members of Congress get it. So that's actually one reason [LAUGHS] for that - not to give away too many trade secrets here. Look, but I'm also proud that we've gone from 50,000, our initial circulation, to about 85 or 90,000. It's just gradually grown. And so that means there is a real market out there, people who are actually paying 50 bucks a year for it, who aren't just getting it dropped on their doorstop because they're members of Congress.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Now I want to talk to you about the war. Obviously you support the U.S. intervention there, but you were plugging regime change in Iraq before the phase "war on terror" had ever been uttered by anyone in the White House.

BILL KRISTOL:: I mean, I think it's well-known that we called for [CHUCKLES] obviously removing Saddam, and we had a set of pieces on December 1st, 1997. The cover line was "Saddam must go." And we had articles actually by Paul Wolfowitz and an editorial by Bob Kagan and me and one or two other pieces urging his removal.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: But with the exception of, say, Paul Wolfowitz, your position on Saddam was a fairly lonely one. And wouldn't you say that before 9/11 it was pretty much falling on deaf ears?

BILL KRISTOL:: Yeah. Yeah. I think we were pretty lonely in foreign policy generally, because we wanted to be tougher than Clinton but we didn't like the Republican Congress, which was quasi-isolationist and uninterested in humanitarian interventions. It's probably fair to say that we were for the "Bush Doctrine" before there was a "Bush Doctrine" [LAUGHS] and obviously have supported Bush, basically, in his foreign policy since 9/11.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: One of the recurring criticisms of the Weekly Standard is that the magazine has frequently drawn a strong connection by dint of mentioning al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in the same paragraph and the same sentence to propagate an idea that's just plain wrong.

BILL KRISTOL:: Well, we haven't just made allusions. We've made the argument. So if people want to challenge the argument, they should challenge the many thousands of words and documents that we've quoted showing that there were connections between Saddam and al Qaeda and Saddam and other terrorist groups. We've never said Saddam was responsible for 9/11. And, of course, as you pointed out, we were for removing Saddam, regardless of those connections, before 9/11, and we never made the argument for removing Saddam contingent on any particular, you know, training of some al Qaeda group or the fact that Zarqawi was in Iraq or anything like that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Recently there's been a good deal of reflection on the choice to go to war with Iraq. Are there any second thoughts in the offices of the Weekly Standard?

BILL KRISTOL:: Sure we've had second thoughts. You'd have to be an idiot not to rethink things occasionally, and especially when things are tougher than you think or when the war is executed badly. But no, I still strongly believe that the choice was either a victorious Saddam or Saddam being removed, that we made the right choice and that we will end up being vindicated for having made that choice.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: What do you think the world would be like if the Weekly Standard hadn't come along?

BILL KRISTOL:: Probably pretty similar. [CHUCKLES] I mean, I don't think we should exaggerate the importance of any one media organ. A lot of my conservative friends spend a lot of time exaggerating the importance of liberal media, you know, mainstream media, CBS, ABC, NBC, the New York Times. I always say, look, when the liberal media were dominant, when there was no Fox News, there was no Rush Limbaugh, there was no Weekly Standard, Reagan managed to win two huge election victories and then Bush won in the '80s. When all these things came along, Clinton managed to win in the '90s and Gore won the popular vote. So it strikes me that we all exaggerate probably the importance of these media outlets. I hope we've contributed to an intelligent debate and also, at times, to a lively and witty and even heated debate. That's part of democracy too.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Well, Bill Kristol, thank you very much.

BILL KRISTOL:: My pleasure. Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Bill Kristol has just published a new compilation of his magazine's first 10 years, entitled The Weekly Standard: A Reader, 1995-2005. While the anniversary has generated high-fives in certain sectors, it's also promoted Bronx cheers from other corners, even of the right. Scott McConnell edits a magazine called the American Conservative, which was created three years ago specifically to counter the influence of the "neocons." He says that 9/11 gave the Weekly Standard traction for a misguided agenda that it had been pushing for years.

SCOTT McCONNELL:: I think what they were able to do is take a rather odd idea, which is that in a war against an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist you should make your first priority to attack a secular dictator. And they went into full agitprop mode, joining Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein at the hip, in cartoons, in several paragraphs, you know, almost in any article.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: But is there anything wrong in an explicitly political magazine doing agitprop for a position it's held for years and years?

SCOTT McCONNELL:: No, there's nothing wrong, except that the position [LAUGHS] is wrong. If the Iraqis had welcomed us with flowers, you know, our magazine would probably be very quiet. [LAUGHS] But I think it's kind of a naive political view to think that a white Christian army is going to be welcomed with flowers if it invades any country in the Middle East.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Is your big issue with the Weekly Standard that it's actually been particularly influential?

SCOTT McCONNELL:: Well, it kept the neoconservative movement together. Almost any political movement requires somebody to set down the line and set down talking points. And Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard writers are very good at that. When George Bush and Dick Cheney faced an unprecedented situation after 9/11, the neoconservatives were there with a ready-made plan of what to do, and that plan involved an attack on Iraq.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: I can understand how a Fox News Channel might successfully steer the national conversation, but a little political opinion magazine?

SCOTT McCONNELL:: Well, people who go on TV, on the Fox News Channel, even if they don't write for the Weekly Standard, read it. So I think they were able to create a mode of argumentation which then can be picked up and amplified, perhaps, in a slightly simpler form, by Sean Hannity, for instance.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Scott, as somebody who has launched a magazine in order to counter the positions of the Weekly Standard, what do you think would have been different if the Weekly Standard had never come along?

SCOTT McCONNELL:: I think neo-conservatism within the Republican party and within the conservative movement would be much quieter and less influential. And I think it might well have, you know, sort of melded into mainstream conservatism. And I think there's some chance that we would not be in a war with Iraq.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Thank you very much.

SCOTT McCONNELL:: Oh, my pleasure, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Scott McConnell is founder and editor of The American Conservative magazine. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]