Substandard: The End of an Illusion
by Thomas Fleming
July 29th, 2009
The sale of The Weekly Standard should put paid to any lingering illusion that the neoconservative empire was anything but a Potemkin Village. Whatever happens from this point on, the news of Rupert Murdoch’s repudiation of his ugliest stepchild is as refreshing a pick-me-up as the morning’s second Bloody Mary I am enjoying, anchored off Spetzai on the Bushido with Chronicles’ incomparably hospitable columnist, Taki. The only thing needed to make my happiness complete would be for the boys of National Review to take the hint and sell out for oh, maybe $2 million.
Allegedly, Murdoch sold the magazine for $1 million to Phillip Anschutz, the billionaire owner of The Clarity Media Group. I say allegedly because the price is either much too high or much too low. Too high, because only a fool would pay so much money for a property that does nothing but lose money without adding a glimmer of insight to political discussion in America. Too low, because if The Weekly Standard actually did enjoy the influence that its editors have been so loudly and insistently claiming, $50 million would not be nearly enough.
Murdoch sunk untold millions of his ill-gotten gains into TWS. I suppose that is the proper shorthand, since the “The Standard” properly means the Evening Standard–it’s funny that for all its supposed influence, the magazine does not have a well-known acronym or nickname. Not long ago they were claiming a “growing circulation” of 60,000, and that may well be the case—though no one should ever accept anything an editor says about circulation. I won’t embarrass the editors of certain of our competitors who have made wildly inflated claims that were punctured as soon as we began negotiating for their mailing lists. In typical editorial bull-speak, the Standard misleads would-be advertisers with this classic canard: “More than 65,000 politically active Americans nationwide receive the magazine each week.” Receive. That is like the Hillsdale newsletter Imprimis which claims I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of “readers.” I don’t think I have ever met anyone who actually read Imprimis. The hard part actually, if you have ever been anyone in the conservative “movement,” is not receiving it. I’d ask them to take my name out of their computer, but that would be like unsubscribing to spam: It only makes your name a more valuable commodity to be included on the list of refuseniks who don’t want this propaganda defiling their mailbox.
When TWS was around 40,000, I heard from a well-placed and reliable source that Murdoch told them he would pull the plug, if they failed to reach 100,000. If the editors had sacrificed some small part of their salary and benefits, they might have had enough money to build up the circulation to a level acceptable to their master. If they had just cut down on some of the face paint they slathered on for their Fox News appearances, they could have paid for an additional 5000 subscribers at least. (Joke supplied by Taki—don’t blame me.) But The Weekly Standard was never about anything else but the income and ego-gratification of its editors, and this is the result. That slow sucking sound you hear all the way from New York is the credibility of Kristol and co. going down the drain.
Chronicles has never enjoyed the support of a billionaire publisher, and our annual losses must be miniscule in comparison with the Murdoch money Kristol has wasted, but even our piddling operation loses about $600,000 every year, and that money has to be made up with our semi-annual begging appeals. Nobody would offer us more than the token single dollar for Chronicles, but, if we had to sell, a fair price for our assets would be about $7 million. (Any wealthy donor or potential donor who wants to dispute the price is free to call me and discuss the fat pledge he is about to make. As they say in poker, you have to pay to see.) For Anschutz, a million is the equivalent of the buck it takes to seal a contract. It’s a rich man’s walking around money, in other words chump change. If you listen to Frum, Kristol, and Barnes, though, TWS has been the brains of the American Empire, but it went on the block for a lousy million. Some brains! Some empire!
I once told Pat Buchanan that Bill Kristol had declared him politically dead in the pages of TWS. “That guy,” Pat snorted, “he never gets anything right.” Unlike the stopped clock that is correct twice a day, the Standard’s editors have never got anything right, from weapons of mass destruction to the presidential aspirations of Steve Forbes to “John McCain’s Moment” that Bill Kristol was proclaiming last September. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that the few times I met Bill, I found him polite and friendly, and he is reported to have saved me from a dressing down in Congress. As Tessio tells Tom Hagen in The Godfather, this is nothing personal, just business. And in this business we have chosen, TWS has never contributed anything to American political commentary. When they are right, it is because they are saying what everyone else has been saying, and, when they are original or distinctive, they are wrong.
But, as the Frum declared in an interview, The Standard has influence. Do they really? Is it influence to run after a parade, shouting, “Me too, me too” and then claim not only to lead the parade but to have started it? It would not be so bad if their platitudinous conventional wisdom were at least some form of knee-jerk conservatism or capitalist greed, but it is neither. Bill’s father Irving (popularly known as “the godfather”), was famous for giving “two cheers for capitalism.” (They can’t even be clever without imitating someone, in this case E.M. Forster). But Irving’s politics have only evolved from his original Trotskyism to a cross between Swedish socialism and Taiwan’s state capitalism. The amiable dimwit Fred Barnes spilled the beans, as he so often does, when he called for big government conservatism. Fred was not quite bright enough to realize that he was uttering a contradiction in terms, and The Weekly Standard’s ideology is, at best, New Republic lite—an insipid brew that neither cheers nor inebriates.
TWS’s not-so-secret weapon was neither its ideology nor its “writers,” but Murdoch himself. It’s like the old Henny Youngman joke about the man who crossed a lion with a parrot.
“What does he say?”
“I don’t know, but when he talks I listen.”
Murdoch is not only a very powerful man, whose whims have to be catered to, but he also owns major newspapers and two television networks. Who would listen to Kristol’s platitudes—as poorly expressed as they are predictable—if he and his editors were not trotted out to tell their lies on Fox News?
The Weekly Standard did only two things. On the positive side, it provided a living for writers who cannot write and political intellectuals without intellect, but it also contributed to the senile dementia that has afflicted the conservative mind since the election of Ronald Reagan. Bill Kristol did not destroy conservatism all by himself. His father was a much more destructive force, but it would be a grave mistake to attribute too much blame to the Kristols and Podhoretzes. They were welcomed with open arms by the unprincipled leadership of the conservative movement. Parasites do not generally destroy a healthy organism. Of course, there were still good people working for Heritage, in the 1980’s, and writing for National Review, but the lightning success of the neoconservative Putsch was as revealing as Hitler’s Anschluss (the annexation of Austria that met with so little resistance.)
No one knows, exactly, what Philip Anschutz (#89 on Forbes’ list of the richest people in the universe) will decide to do with The Weekly Standard. His Examiner newspapers are roughly neocon, though somewhat to the left of TWS. Despite the denatured versions of the Narnia books he produced, Anschutz is said to be some kind of Christian conservative. If that were true, it ought to be bad news for the anti-Christian Israel-firsters at TWS. Unfortunately, conservative Evangelicals are the most loyal Likudniks who have ever goose-stepped behind Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Kill off all the Middle Eastern Christians, who have survived Arabi and Israeli terrorism, and they would not utter a peep, but just hint at something less than 110% support for Israel, and they’ll call you an anti-Semite. It was shortly after Anschutz started the Washington Examiner that someone called Dave Mastio slurred Sam Francis in its pages. For the time being, he may be perfectly comfortable with Kristol—until he notices how much money he is losing and gives TWS the same treatment he gave the Baltimore Examiner, which he shut down.
Whatever happens, Anschutz has already done us a big favor in revealing the low low price of the emperor’s new clothes. Ever since Obama’s election, the conservative chatter has been all about new ideas and new strategies, but the very fact that they are saying this shows how bankrupt the conservatives really are. With this set of rookies heading for the showers, perhaps a few remaining veterans might come out of hiding and show us some of the stuff they had when they won the pennant in 1980. Perhaps, but probably not. Still, this is no time to stifle our joy. As Horace wrote after Octavian’s victory at Actium, where he defeated those paragons of greed and ambition, Antony and Cleopatra, “Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus,” lines which an American poet of my generation translated as “I’ll just stay here and drink.”