Wall Street Journal columnist Paul A. Gigot looks like the sort of conservative with whom liberals can do business. He plays basketball with working reporters, has visited Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn’s Georgetown home, and appears weekly on that paragon of even-keeled sobriety, Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour, where he debates politics with liberal Mark Shields. “He’s not a hater,” says Shields, affectionately.
A creature of the chummy Washington commentariat, Gigot appears to stand in contrast to the man he is to replace in September, Journal editorial page editor Robert L. Bartley. For 29 years Bartley has superintended an editorial page of unrivaled conservative messianism, championing the gold standard, supply-side economics, and unfettered markets from his Wall Street redoubt and, for the past decade, vilifying Bill and Hillary Clinton at every opportunity.
But if Gigot’s winning cocktail-party personality and talk-show cordiality lead you to expect a less ferocious Journal editorial page, think again. The hundreds of “Potomac Watch” columns Gigot has filed since 1987 give every indication that the sheet will stay just as it is. This dichotomy—the rupture between Gigot’s diplomatic demeanor and his immoderate ideology—is what most distinguishes the incoming dean of conservative punditry.
A native of Green Bay, Wis., Gigot attended Dartmouth, graduating in 1977. In 1980 he joined the Journal, moved to Hong Kong as an Asia correspondent in 1982, and was tapped to run the editorial page of the paper’s Asian edition in 1984. He returned to the United States on a White House fellowship, writing speeches for James Baker during the Reagan administration. In 1987 he rejoined the paper, in Washington, where he inaugurated the weekly column that won him a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2000.
Some conservative columnists earn mainstream respect by dint of intellect, style, or originality (William F. Buckley, George Will, William Safire) while others earn it by their overtime working of sources (Fred Barnes, Robert Novak, William Safire). Gigot was a reporter. From his perch in the Journal’s Washington news bureau, he built his White House connections into a network of informed informants. He prided himself on breaking stories.
The flip side of being a reporter above all is (sometimes) not being much of a thinker. Gigot never made any claim to having an original mind. His thinking did not cut very deep, and he always found it more congenial to assert rather than to argue his case. But he knew the well-placed conservative pooh-bahs, delivered knowledgeable assessments of what they were up to, and reliably trumpeted the positions of those right-wing Republicans who used to call themselves “the conservative movement.”
Then in 1994, he replaced nominal conservative David Gergen on the NewsHour and entered the Janus-faced stage of his career. By day he wrote acid editorials for Bartley and columns that dismissed liberal viewpoints out of hand. By night he polished his civilized banter with Shields and Lehrer, treating his interlocutors as if they had legitimate opinions. Still today, what you think of Gigot depends on whether you watch him or read him.
On television, Gigot tries to come across as tolerant. Not that he regards his colloquy with Shields as an exchange of ideas—he’s always aiming to score points for his side. Still, he’s not one to bark or throw insults, like most TV jabberers. He knows that for the dog-and-pony routine to work, both commentators sometimes have to cross party lines. So, donning a wan smile and forcing a chuckle, he will gamely muster the odd compliment for some point Shields makes or venture a criticism of Bush. He recently faulted the president for not reaching out sooner to John McCain; and in January, when Bush dropped Labor Secretary nominee Linda Chavez, Gigot noted understatedly that “there is some grumbling among conservatives, and I think justified, that … [he might not be] really ready for the fight that he is going to face.” Though he seldom disagrees with top Republicans on issues, Gigot is happy to fault them on tactics—though usually, if you read his remarks closely, he’s chiding them for not doing what’s best for conservatism.
As the Chavez comment suggests, the TV Gigot doesn’t admit to being a conservative. Instead, he mostly reports what other (unspecified) conservatives are thinking and adds that they’re correct. But his column makes no bones about his devotion to the cause. As a card-carrying movement conservative, he may hate Clinton and Al Gore, but he despises GOP moderates even more. His columns in the Bush Sr. years dripped with vitriol for a president he perceived as betraying the Reagan legacy on taxes. In early 2000, when the press corps swooned before McCain, Gigot bashed the upstart challenger week after week—for calling the 11,000-point Dow average a “bubble”; for his campaign-finance reform and tobacco tax crusades; for his rebukes to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell; even once (in Gigot’s finest act of chutzpah) for having a voting record that was too conservative and therefore vulnerable to attack by Gore. Gigot regularly beats up on hapless Republican moderates like New Jersey’s Marge Roukema for not showing enough spine. Once he even criticized the firebrand Tom DeLay for being insufficiently “extreme.”
When preaching to the converted, Gigot does things he could never get away with in front of Shields. He sprinkles his prose with mean-spirited epithets and inflammatory charges that he doesn’t bother to explain, barbs that he knows will trigger only uncritical nods from his approving readers. He writes off-handedly of “Clinton-Gore lying,” “socialist Barbara Boxer,” “the obscure Lincoln Chafee,” the Democrats’ “big health-care bribe.” Given the assumptions regnant at the Journal, these petulant shots are viewed as aphoristic truth-telling. Even borderline racist comments that Gigot would never dare make on television—he once wrote that “Haiti has reverted to its state of nature”—sail through into “Potomac Watch.”
Gigot exposed both of his faces on Nov. 24, 2000, in a pair of commentaries about the Republican operatives whose rough-and-tumble demonstration played a role in the shut-down of recount Miami-Dade County presidential ballots. In his Journal column, Gigot sniggeringly called the altercation in which the Republican-led horde punched, trampled, and kicked opponents and officials a “bourgeois riot,” his most famous quote to date. Gigot fairly reveled in the melee. “These folks were ready to blow,” he wrote of the crowd massed outside the building where the canvassing board was inspecting ballots. “Street-smart New York Rep. John Sweeney … told an aide to ‘Shut it down,’ and semi-spontaneous combustion took over. The Republicans marched on the counting room en masse, chanting ‘Three Blind Mice’ and ‘Fraud, Fraud, Fraud.’ “
That night on the NewsHour, TV Gigot put a gloss on the disruption. “There was not any violence or intimidation, physical intimidation of the canvassing board itself. There was a lot of shouting … but the idea that somehow these three canvassers were somehow afraid for their person is just not the way it was. … There was no physical violence at all.” To Shields’ report that people were punched and kicked and testified to feeling intimidated, Gigot protested, “The incident you’re talking about, yeah, that was separate from—” After Shields interrupted him, Gigot never finished his explanation.
During the 2000 campaign, the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait noted that reporters who described Bush as a moderate were confusing temperament and ideology. Because Bush seemed personally pleasant, chatting them up on the campaign plane and insisting that his heart was pure, they assumed his politics lay near the political center. After he took office, many reporters realized they were wrong. Gigot is the W. of conservative punditry.