Right-Wing Journalism

Dear David,

       You paint a pretty depressing picture of Washington, and if I believed it was accurate, I suppose I’d be depressed, too. Happily, we seem to be living in separate cities, if not worlds. Your claim that conservative journalists have been cowed into ignoring the shortcomings of the Republican Congress, for instance, approaches bizarre. Have you read the Weekly Standard in the past couple of years? Right-wing journalism has never been more free-thinking, more willing to challenge its own orthodoxies. You refer repeatedly to a rigid conservative “party line.” Yet the merits of every major public policy question I can think of–immigration, China policy, affirmative action, abortion, tax cuts, defense spending, name one–are debated freely and regularly within the pages of at least half a dozen conservative publications. Newt Gingrich, as close to a Mother Teresa as conservatism has, is regularly thumped, even lampooned, in my magazine and others like it. The very fact that you are able to continue this exchange from your perch at the American Spectator says something about the “oppressive conservative culture” you are now warning America about.
       Of course there are still apologists on the Right who pose as journalists. You point to Grover Norquist as one of them. You’re right, Norquist is a mean-spirited, humorless, dishonest little creep. But in my experience, there aren’t many Grovers in positions of prominence on the Right, and virtually none in conservative journalism. Which is why I wrote a piece about him in the first place, because he’s an embarrassing anomaly, the leering, drunken uncle everyone else wishes would stay home. Norquist is repulsive, granted, but there aren’t nearly enough of him to start a purge trial.
       Yet you write as if the Norquists of the world controlled the right-wing press from above, and as if only a courageous few conservative journalists–yourself, needless to say, prominently included–dared contradict them. Do you really believe this?
       Perhaps you do. Certainly some of the things you’ve written lately indicate you may be losing perspective on things. You’ve taken, for instance, to referring to yourself as a former “right-wing hit man.” (“I kill liberals for a living,” begins the first sentence of your Esquire piece.) It’s one thing to be called this by other people. But as a self-description? Get some ironic distance, David. You wrote some nasty magazine articles. It’s not like you worked for the Mafia.
       Then again, as you pointed out in your letter, your own experiences are irrelevant to your complaints about conservatism, since “it’s not about me.” Thanks for the clarification. I guess when I saw your photograph in Esquire–the one where you posed tied to a stake with kindling at your feet–I assumed you were making a point about your personal martyrdom. Or maybe I was misled by the fact you referred to yourself directly 45 times in your latest page-and-a-half letter.
       Come to think of it, I suppose I thought this debate was all about you because all you’ve talked about so far is you. Nowhere in your recent recantations do you attack, defend or even mention anything that might pass as conservative ideology. No wonder you’re disillusioned with the Right. For you, conservatism seems to boil down to writing hit pieces about people, or flacking for blowhard Republican politicians. It would be easier to take you seriously if you had woken up one morning and decided that socialism worked, or that affirmative action was a good thing, or that the free market was bunk. But your quarrel doesn’t seem to be with conservative ideas, merely with some of the losers who happen to espouse them. And you accuse me of engaging in “Washington small-mindedness.”
       Still, even if you’re not the next Whittaker Chambers, you do appear to be rethinking some of your old assumptions. Good for you. But in your journey from hit man to honest journalist, you seem to have missed a step. If “scandal politics, the criminalizing of policy differences, and attack commentary” are really as poisonous to American life as you suggest, then you, personally, have a lot to apologize for. I haven’t heard you say you’re sorry yet.