British Prime Minister Tony Blair is often described as an American-style politician. His opponent in the June 7 election, Conservative Party leader William Hague, seems at first like nothing else on earth, let alone in the United States. Yet Hague is also a recognizable American political type: the dorky right-wing political operative, to be blunt about it. The key difference is that in America these fellows are content to play the role of Rasputin: They don’t aspire to be the czar. Precociously possessed by politics; rapturous conspirators and denouncers of conspiracies; middle-aged-looking when young, yet baby-faced as they approach middle age; they leave the actual running for office to less intelligent but glossier specimens with better social skills, like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Hague is going to lose big—partly because he is such a dork. Nevertheless, it speaks well of British politics—and the British electorate—that an odd duck like Hague should be leading the ticket of a major political party. It shows that the British still have a long way to go if they aspire to the shallowness and professionalization of American politics. It also shows a cultural tolerance for human diversity that is in some ways more valuable than the legally imposed racial consciousness that goes by the term “diversity” in this country.
In fact the British Conservatives have a recent history of leadership by odd ducks. In the 1970s their leader was Ted Heath, a fat bachelor who would be more likely to get arrested than elected if he went around the United States kissing babies. Then, for about 400 years during the 1980s, there was Margaret Thatcher, who had something closer to hypnosis than a conventional politician’s charm. Both of these unusual characters actually led their party to victory—Thatcher 17 times (or so).
In America, the William Hague types don’t run for office, but they do appear on television from time to time. For example, there is the sinister Grover Norquist, who carries half-a-dozen front groups around in his pocket as he pursues his sundry enthusiasms. Turn on Fox News at any hour and you might find Norquist identified as chairman of Citizens Against Taxing Rich People. Try again later and he’ll be there again, this time as president of the Society for Renaming the Moon After Ronald Reagan.
Then there’s John Fund, an editor at the Wall Street Journal editorial page with supernatural powers that enable him to plant the exact same thought in the heads of all 147 conservative politicians and commentators appearing on television on any given day.
The best-known although least typical example is Bill Kristol, editor in chief of the Weekly Standard. Kristol was known as “Dan Quayle’s brain” when he served as that vice president’s chief of staff. For a while, ABC used Kristol and George Stephanopoulos of the Clinton administration as paired commentators on This Week. The glamorous Stephanopoulos is still there; the affable but intellectual (and, worse, intellectual-looking) Kristol was soon dumped.
The emergence of the Right-Wing Dork (RWD) as a recognizable political type, whether running for office in Britain or conspiring behind the scenes in America, is a significant development. (It may even be as significant as the roughly simultaneous emergence of the Leggy Blond Right-Wing Commentatress—a development that has gotten far more attention, for some reason.) Washington has been packed with Left-Wing Dorks since at least the New Deal, but conservatives are supposed to value “real” work in the “real” world and are supposed to hold the capital’s leech economy in contempt. Yet the RWD generally discovered politics at a tender age and has never done anything else.
RWDs are drawn unquestioningly to Washington, where they work as aides to real politicians. Or, if they’re lucky, they sink into a life of gilded socialism at a conservative think tank. Thanks to the conservative political revival of the past couple of decades, and the growing political activism of big corporations (a development fomented, as it happens, by Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism and father of Bill), the conservative ideas-and-agitprop industry is now a career track in and of itself. An RWD can go straight from college into a world of seminars, junkets, and political intrigue without ever holding anything most people would recognize as a private-sector job.
There is obvious irony here. But there is poignancy here, too. Are the RWDs hypocrites, or are they selfless martyrs? These are bright, energetic, ambitious people who could probably thrive mightily in the private sector, yet they devote their lives to promoting other people’s right to do so. They fight for lower taxes on high incomes that they themselves could earn but choose not to. Selflessly, they promote the cult of the individual. For the good of society, they struggle against dangerous notions like “the good of society.” Devoted to reducing the importance of government in our lives, they wallow in public policy so that future generations won’t have to. They put up with life in Washington, the better to tear it down.
On the other hand, they do seem to be enjoying themselves.