Much as I know how you enjoy “throwing nasty letters back and forth,” in the wake of Howard Kurtz’s piece in the Washington Post, I think you should sue for peace.
Kurtz amply demonstrated that the issue raised in my Esquire piece about the pressures on conservative journalists to conform to a party line resonates far beyond my own experience. Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund, who I had described a month ago as part of the problem in our ranks, gave Kurtz yet more evidence to prove my case, in his description of a temper tantrum recently thrown by Newt Gingrich in response to gentle criticism in a Journal editorial. Fund rightly labeled this behavior “bizarre” and pointed out that most conservative leaders (not just the people you call “embarrassing anomalies”) don’t understand the function of journalism.
Then there is National Review, which has embarrassed itself twice now in writing about this affair, first in categorically denying that the phenomenon of conservative political correctness is real and then referring to my piece incorrectly as a “turncoat confession.” Along comes Kurtz, who smoked out confessions from two of National Review’s own writers confirming my main point: Journalistic independence is often met on the Right with accusations of betrayal and social ostracism. NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru, who branded my Esquire article a lie and said I was a person of no integrity on a radio program just a few weeks ago, now sounds like a David Brock wannabe with his tale of a GOP activist refusing to shake his hand after NR published a column suggesting Gingrich should step down.
If the comments of Robert Novak, someone I think we all admire as the dean of conservative journalism in Washington (“[m]aybe I’m working under roughly the same ideology as the people I’m writing about, but I’m not on their team”), and your own boss, Bill Kristol (“there is a type of thinking on the right that if you don’t agree with everything, you’re a traitor to the movement”), can’t convince you that there’s a bigger issue at stake here than my own disillusionment with the conservatives, then there’s probably nothing more I can say on the subject to sway you. (The self-references, by the way, are necessary in an exchange of personal letters. You had one in virtually every other line of your recent missive.)
As for the matter of my sense of responsibility and remorse about the culture that has grown up on the Right in the aftermath of my Troopergate article, if you haven’t heard me say I’m sorry, you haven’t been listening. As I’ve said numerous times now (including in a piece in the Weekly Standard earlier this year), while I believe that piece was journalistically sound, in hindsight I’m not sure I would choose to publish it. For one thing, it further coarsened our already vituperative political dialogue. For another, it led Clinton’s opponents to become so obsessed with political and personal scandal that they even leveled phony allegations to try to destroy him. This ended up hurting the Republicans more than it hurt Clinton. Three years ago, Bill Kristol was one of the few conservatives voicing these concerns about scandal politics; from my perspective, looking into the belly of the beast, I now think Kristol was probably right. Was the story of Bill Clinton’s use of troopers to facilitate his private affairs worth it? Are we really better off knowing about Paula Jones? As I say, I’m not certain of the answer, but I don’t think I can be accused of having failed to have had significant (and very public) second thoughts about my own record.
Now, let’s turn to your record for a moment. I was concerned when I read in your last letter a reference to Grover Norquist as “a mean-spirited, humorless, dishonest, little creep … the leering, drunken uncle everyone else wishes would stay home.” You went on to imply that you targeted Norquist for a negative profile (published by the New Republic) specifically because he was in your view a trivial figure within conservatism. When I read your original piece I thought you’d shown guts in taking on Norquist because he was actually a figure to be reckoned with, and I supported the idea that conservatives should be able to constructively criticize one another in print without fear of reprisal or silly questioning of their motives. I left you a voice-mail message at the time to that effect. Your letter, however, presents you as a bully who trashed Grover out of some personal animosity, hardly the impression you should want to leave your readers with. I hope that you reached these harsh conclusions about Norquist after you did your reporting, rather than before, but it doesn’t sound that way. Please give this some thought before further lecturing me in what it takes to be an “honest journalist.”
P.S. Referring to one’s self in a headline as a “right-wing hit man” and being tied to a tree in a simulated burning at the stake passes for “ironic distance” in high-falutin’ New York publishing circles.