Slate’s founding editor, Michael Kinsley, was online on Washingtonpost.com on Feb. 28 to chat about the late William F. Buckley Jr., the New York Times’ McCain story, journalistic ethics, and the presidential campaign. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Michael Kinsley: Good morning. Let’s go.
Washington: How much criticism are you get from your left-wing brethren for your take on this John McCain story?
Michael Kinsley: None at all. I’ve gotten more favorable feedback from that piece than anything i’ve written for years.
East Lansing, Mich.: I thought of you when I heard Buckley had died. I am not conservative, but I had a real appreciation for Buckley (a bit of a crush, really). Through Firing Line and other PBS fare he introduced me to so many great people and ideas (like you and yours). Malcolm Muggeridge also comes to mind. The way he treated people who disagreed with him gave me a template for my freedom of ideas—even if most people didn’t react that way to a teenager with her own nonstandard ideas, or a 46-year-old thinking “outside the box,” he let me know that there were people out there who enjoyed ideas and discussion.
Michael Kinsley: No question that Buckley set a standard that many voices on the left and the right today—but, imho, especially on the right—don’t meet for civility in the political discourse.
Reston, Va.: Mr. Kinsley: Any chance you might pen and publish an update of your column from the run-up to the 2004 presidential election that provided a raft of myth-debunking facts about the nation’s economic fortunes under Democratic and Republican presidents? I have shared that column with a number of friends and associates in the past four years. Thank you.
washingtonpost.com: Do the Math(Post, Aug. 1, 2004)
Michael Kinsley: Many thanks for asking! Actually, I have updated that column every year when the new stats come out in the Economic Report of the President, around the beginning of February. This year I did a sort of truncated version before they came out, about a month ago, about how all the Repub candidates were vying to be the new Reagan when the old Reagan’s record on spending, etc., was worse than Clinton’s, from their point of view.
Woodbridge, Va.: If I remember correctly, you were a frequent guest on Firing Line; how did you meet Bill Buckley, and what was your relationship with him like?
Michael Kinsley: I met Bill Buckley in 1982 when I first went on Firing Line. After that I spent probably 10 hours with him on TV for every one hour in private. (The same is true for Pat Buchanan.) In other words, I can’t really claim to have known him well. But he was always, always kind and considerate and fun to be with.
washingtonpost.com: I Remind Me of Reagan(Post, Feb. 1)
Charlottesville, Va.: William Buckley subsidized National Review with remnants of his father’s Mexican oil money—though what will happen to it now is anybody’s guess. William Kristol’s Weekly Standard is froth and bubbles on the fringe of cascading green ocean waves of Murdoch money (it is said to lose $1 million a year). Was the failure of Slate’s subscription service because William Gates concluded that “a penny for your thoughts” was just about what he’d pay? What do you think of subsidized opinion-mongering?
Michael Kinsley:Slate’s decision to stop charging for access was strictly a business decision about how to make the publication profitable. We realized (as has almost everyone by now—but this was very, very early) that you could make more money by selling ads to a large number of people who come for free than you can charging people for access.
Slate is now profitable, and that is one of the proudest accomplishments of my life. A main purpose of the whole exercise was to make the kind of journalism I like best self-supporting. That is the best protection.
On the other hand, I certainly don’t mind rich people subsidizing magazines! It’s better than race horses.
Athens, Tenn.: Is there, in your opinion, a media bias toward or against a particular candidate in general? It seems that during Sen. McCain’s first run he was the media darling. That of course did not help him. Now many assume that Sen. Obama is the de facto media favorite.
Michael Kinsley: I guess I share the conventional wisdom on both of these points. McCain has always been a media darling. At a magazine editors convention a few years ago, he started a speech by saying he was happy to be there addressing “my base.” He gets and deserves points for jokes like that.
And the SNL take on Obama is also correct. He is a media darling now. Hillary is rightly bitter. I am puzzled—something happened about six weeks ago that was like a light switch turning off, or on: All of a sudden, she became “the Clintons,” and every resentment of her and her husband came to the surface among the media, liberals, everybody.
That said, I am not the best person to explain the media Obama swoon, since I have been a swooner myself.
No doubt we’ll all turn on him at some point, faithless bastards that we are.
Newton, Mass.: One of the things I have found most dismaying about contemporary conservatism is its intellectual dishonesty (though I suspect such a trait becomes more conspicuous and offensive the further the ideas of its owner depart from my own). How would you rate Mr. Buckley’s intellectual honesty vis-a-vis other prominent conservative intellectuals (e.g. Bill Bennett, Richard Posner, David Brooks).
Michael Kinsley: I agree with you that there is a lack of intellectual honesty among conservatives today. Among liberals too, no doubt, tho I am partisan enough to feel that it’s worse on the other side. In fact, I think that the lack of intellectual honesty is one of the real defects of the political dialogue in general. (The media are pretty good guardians of factual honesty—they will nail a lie if they can. But flagrant hypocrisy, for example, is much harder for them to deal with.)
However, the specific examples you have picked are bad ones, in my opinion. Well, except for Bill Bennett. David Brooks is VERY intellectually honest. He takes great pleasure in re-examining the views of his own side. And Richard Posner I almost idolize, for his enormous production of high-quality thought, for his courage or perversity in violating every unwritten rule of discretion for a federal judge, and as far as I know for his intellectual honesty too.
Plainville, Conn.: Hi, Mike. It seems to me that Bill Buckley’s thoughts on civil rights was convoluted and narrow. In later years, my understanding was, he deeply regretted not being more forceful in supporting the civil rights movement. Am I right in thinking that?
Michael Kinsley: Yes, and if you go to Slate there is a “Breakfast Table” discussion in which I ask him your question and he says explicitly that he would support the CRA’64 if he had it to do over again.
Bentonville, Va.: I loved watching you battle with Pat Buchanan on Crossfire. Do you miss that show? What thoughts do have on Pat?
Michael Kinsley: I had a good time doing Crossfire for four or five years. But I did it for six, and had enough. Buchanan is a complex character. I got in trouble for saying that I didn’t think he was an anti-Semite. I haven’t seen him for years.
Pittsburgh: As you don’t mind wealthy people subsidizing magazines, what is your opinion of the Mellon money that subsidizes the Pittsburgh newspaper here, as well as magazines and several political attack groups?
Michael Kinsley: The Mellons have every right to do this, as long as what they publish is honest, which it sometimes isn’t, I believe (please don’t ask me for chapter and verse).
washingtonpost.com: Buckley vs. Kinsley on Race(Slate, March 27, 2001)
St. Simons Island, Ga.: Mr. Kinsley (or is it Michael, or Mike?), Sam Tanenhaus says you are Mr. Buckley’s heir. Quite a compliment. I have fond memories of your appearances as the (liberal, I suppose) guest questioner on Firing Line. One occasion stands out in my mind. The conservative guest questioner (who now we would call a neocon and the father of one of the best known neocons), after becoming frustrated with the responses of the liberal guest, began asking the guest about the size of his home, how much he paid for it, etc. (the “how dare you criticize America while enjoying its bounty” type questions). Buckley would have none of it, and cut him off. Civil discourse was Buckley’s greatest contribution to American politics, and his death is a tremendous loss for everybody, liberal as well as conservative. As his heir, the responsibility is now yours.
washingtonpost.com: Q&A on William F. Buckley (nytimes.com, Feb. 27)
Michael Kinsley: That was incredibly flattering, what Sam Tanenhaus wrote, but I am not Buckley’s heir in any way except that Sam feels I use the same rhetorical tools in my writing.
Maybe this is too optimistic, but I think civility may be making a comeback. Both of the apparent party nominees, Obama and McCain, have made it a keystone of their campaigns. Whether they will stick to it, we shall see.
And remember: Buckley also enjoyed plunging the dagger in when he saw an opening. Civility doesn’t mean banality or “balance”…
Philadelphia: Obama is currently the media darling. So, when does the press decide to gang up on him and evaluating his every vote and speech and tearing him apart? How do you think Obama will fare under such scrutiny?
Michael Kinsley: I would say probably about the day after tomorrow. But I think he’ll do OK.
Albany, N.Y.: Do you still believe all that stuff you wrote on the Time blog about how the U.S. Attorney purge was no big deal? Were you just writing that to be contrarian?
washingtonpost.com: There Outta Be a Law(Time.com, March 19, 2007)
Michael Kinsley: There turned out to be more to it than I thought, but I still think people were too quick to jump on it and not careful enough to ask themselves what if it were a Democratic administration doing the same thing? (The “whose ox is gored” question, which is a big part of intellectual honesty, which seems to be a theme this morning.)
Anonymous: George Bush just said that if the Colombia free trade agreement isn’t passed by Congress, our national security will be jeopardized and we will be less safe as a nation. How?
Michael Kinsley: That sounds like a bit of hyperbole. But I do believe that free trade is almost always the right answer. Including NAFTA. And listening to Hillary trying to disown NAFTA and Obama bragging about how he never supported it depressed me a lot. I think they both know better.
Bentonville, Va.: What do you think of Ralph Nader’s decision to run again? Most experts feel he cost Al Gore the election. Do you view him as a spoiler, or as a noble crusader?
Michael Kinsley: It’s very, very sad and I really can’t explain it. I worked for Ralph for several years and I agree with Barack Obama that he is an American hero. Actually, when I worked for him he wouldn’t even publicly oppose the Vietnam War, which bothered some of us, because he felt that would taint his crusades for safe cars, clean meat, and so on. He clearly was the spoiler in 2000 and now is becoming a figure of fun.
Los Angeles: The New York Times coverage of the McCain-Lobbyist story raises the issue of sloppy journalism versus ethics in journalism. Any thoughts on this?
Michael Kinsley: On balance, I am in favor of ethics in journalism and against sloppy journalism.
That NYT piece was not good, in my opinion: insufficiently sourced. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not true, including the innuendos. But if they have the goods, they didn’t serve them up.
Nantucket, Mass.: Certain conservative bloggers are choosing to honor Buckley’s memory by showing his famous exchange with Gore Vidal, in which Buckley threatened to punch Vidal. Based on what you know, is this how Buckley would like to be remembered?
washingtonpost.com: William Buckley vs. Gore Vidal(YouTube)
Michael Kinsley: That clip is pretty entertaining. But Buckley’s legacy is much more what everyone is writing about—how he united the fragments of American conservatism and paved the way for Goldwater and then Reagan.
Re: Intellectual honesty: You write “David Brooks is very intellectually honest.” What about when Philadelphia Magazine that showed he made all his facts up about “Red America”? I think you just like him because he’s your identical twin.
washingtonpost.com: Boo-boos in Paradise(Philadelphia Magazine, April 2004)
Michael Kinsley: I think that was carelessness, not purposely making up facts (which would be worse than intellectual dishonesty). I will say that Philadelphia Magazine piece was awfully good.
Re: “That sounds like a bit of hyperbole. But I do believe that free trade is almost always the right answer.”: How can free and fair trade exist between nations that don’t observe the same or similar environmental and labor regulations?
Michael Kinsley: We’re not going to settle the free trade debate in this chat. But very briefly: the case for letting your own citizens buy and sell anything they want to/with foreigners does not depend on reciprocity. The famous example comes from Henry George, my favorite economist (19th century): If a trading partner’s harbor is full of rocks that make it hard for boats to pull in and unload goods, are you better off if you dump some rocks in your own harbor? (Or something like that …)
Anonymous: Can you discuss the line of demarcation between sloppy and unethical journalism, especially when covering celebrities and public figures?
Michael Kinsley: This is a big question! I don’t have a simple rule. I do have one on the related question (maybe it’s the same question) of when should you publish stories about a politician’s sex life. The answer is: when you think that a significant fraction of your audience would find it politically relevant. That is: it’s not when YOU find it politically relevant, and it’s not just when people would find it interesting. But if you deny them this information that you know would affect how they vote (sometimes BECAUSE you know this would affect how they vote) this is self-censorship. It’s not up to you to keep information from people because you fear they would misuse it
Ironically, in the years since I first wrote about this (back when it was Teddy Kennedy at issue!), I think people have become more blasé about this stuff, almost to the point where the obligation to write about it disappears. But probably not quite.
Anonymous: If McCain isn’t elected President in 2008, do you think that empowers the social/religious conservatives via an “I told you so” mentality? Do you agree with me that a large schism will appear in the national Republican Party post-Bush—one larger in scale than the vacuum created in the Democrat Party post-Clinton?
Michael Kinsley: During my years at the New Republic (and I believe they’ve continued this tradition) we would have a big “recriminations” issue after each election that Democrats lost. I think the Republicans will no doubt have a big finger-pointing orgy if McCain loses. On the other hand the Dems will surely have one if he wins.
Bowie, Md.: I never wrote to thank either you or Mr. Buckley for those outstanding Firing Line special debates you used to host on PBS on Friday nights. Given 2-3 hours and many of the leading personalities on both side of most issues, the quality of discussion was far better than any other on TV. Is anyone airing a similar concept today?
Michael Kinsley: Thank YOU. I deserve no credit—I was just a hired gun. Actually, a lot of the credit goes to a man named Warren Steibel who was the producer of these things. He died a couple of years ago, unfortunately. And of course to Bill Buckley.
Two hours debating one topic? Are you crazy? Of course there’s nothing like it on TV now. Actually, I used to think that the very rigid format—two minutes for X to question Y and then 3 minutes for X and Y to converse and 90 seconds for X, Y and Z to question A—was a roadblock to good discussion. But in hindsight, they were really pretty good.
Boston: Isn’t the problem for McCain that he’s now widely known to be very cuddly with lobbyists in general? And what about his lobbyist/campaign chair doing his lobbying from the “Straight Talk” express—that’s pretty unseemly!
Michael Kinsley: Thanks everybody. I’ve gotta go.
Michael Kinsley: Bye, and thanks.