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Where are all the conservative writers?


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It’s springtime in Los Angeles again, which means sunny skies, balmy temperatures, languid days at the beach–in other words, it’s just like every other time of the year here.

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Springtime for L.A.’s book lovers, however, means the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a veritable bacchanal of bibliophilia. It’s billed as one of the biggest book fairs in the country. Bookworms from across the region descend upon the UCLA campus for a weekend to celebrate the written word.

This year’s ninth-annual festival took place on April 24-25. I attended on Saturday, April 24, along with (according the L.A. Times) about 70,000 other people. Strolling the booksellers’ booths on the tree-lined, bucolic campus of UCLA, basking in Southern California sunshine, is a very pleasant experience–unless you happen to be a conservative.

First of all, you can’t help but notice among the vendors stands a decided slant toward the left. There are large booths devoted to The Nation and Mother Jones, but none to National Review or The Weekly Standard.

Most of the booksellers, particularly the lesser-known ones, placed anti-Bush tomes in the most prominent positions on their vending tables: Dude, Where’s My Country, Against All Enemies, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. And I’ve never seen more Noam Chomsky books in one place in all my life.

Okay, maybe it isn’t fair to judge a festival by who decides to rent the booths. After all, one presumes that if Regnery Books or NR deigned to rent a booth, they would have been permitted to.

But one can perhaps judge it by the authors who attend. And in the case of this festival, reading through the catalogue of some 400 authors who would be coming, I counted at least 55 whom most would consider liberal or leftist. At least a dozen of these had penned books that were either attacks on our current president or on his war on terror or both.

You’ve got the anti-American Marxist Tariq Ali and his Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq, appealing to the Edward Said fan club; and then there’s the increasingly desperate John W. Dean, attempting to recapture his Watergate-era notoriety with the agonizingly obvious title Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. And of course, there was the embarrassingly irrelevant Robert Scheer, author of The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.

Strangely, at least nine authors present had some affiliation with The Nation, though there wasn’t a single author from a conservative magazine. Also, a surprising number of authors were associated with public radio, either as commentators or hosts on NPR or a local affiliate, while none were associated with commercial talk radio, these days a bastion of conservatism.

The one and only book I found on the entire authors’ list that actually supported the Iraqi war is Christopher Hitchens’s A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. (Interestingly, Hitchens himself was a Nation columnist until they ousted him for his pro-war stance.)

Ultimately, however, it is the panel discussions that are the main attraction. And here, too, there was a remarkable shortage of conservative authors.

It’s hard to fathom why a major city newspaper would create such a one-sided affair. After all, there have been many conservative best-selling books of late. The absence is so stark as to be comical in some instances: Can you imagine an honest discussion on the topic “How Did Liberalism Become a Dirty Word” (an actual panel subject), without a single conservative on the panel?

I scanned the entire 44-page guide to authors appearing at the festival and counted at least 55 authors whom most would consider liberal or leftist. As for conservatives, I located a grand total of maybe four: former Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes, plugging her autobiography 10 Minutes From Normal; Tamar Jacoby, editor of Reinventing the Melting Pot; Anne Applebaum, who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gulag: A History; and Robert Conquest, the eminent historian of the Soviet Union.

Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and an organizer of the book festival, added to my list Christopher Hitchens, Dana Goia, Gerald Posner, Virginia Postrel, and Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. In an interview, he said that by his count there were at least 15 conservative authors in attendance.

But tellingly, not a single one of these conservatives appeared on any of the panels dealing with the Iraqi war, with the one exception of Christopher Hitchens, who, while a war supporter, strongly identifies himself with the Left.

Wasserman expressed regret that the foreign-policy panels in particular did not have more conservatives represented. He said he urged the moderators in panels dominated by liberals to try to assume the role of a different point of view–to “challenge” the preconceptions of the panelists. He admitted that they didn’t all do a very good job of this.

I’ll say. In a discussion I attended, the moderator, L.A. Times editorial writer Jacob Heilbrunn, played to the crowd when he introduced the Q&A segment by saying, “President Bush is wary of press conferences, and even warier of answering questions, but our panel is not.” Needless to say, this scored the expected laughs. The rest of the “discussion” proved to be nothing but a Bush bash-a-thon, with each author trying to outdo the other in the outrageousness of his insults.

Wasserman claimed that he invited many more conservatives than appeared, but many declined for a variety of reasons. Some of the conservatives who declined are Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter, William Kristol, Fred Barnes, Sean Hannity, Richard Brookhiser, David Frum, Mona Charen, Christopher Caldwell, Walter Russell Mead, Bernard Goldberg, Rush Limbaugh, and William F. Buckley Jr. (invited to present an award).

Of course, if it’s true that all of these conservatives were invited and turned it down, then the onus is now on them. Sure there are scheduling conflicts, but this is a major opportunity to have an impact in California, where conservatives don’t exactly thrive right now.

I asked a representative of Regnery Publishing, a major publisher of conservative authors, about the festival. The publicity representative, who did not want her name mentioned, said they had indeed heard of it, and if invited, would support attending. But to the best of her knowledge, neither the publishing house nor any of their authors had received any invitations from the festival. She admitted that it was possible that some authors had been directly contacted without her knowledge.

Many of the conservative authors whom Wasserman said he invited are big names in the publishing business. Maybe he should have set his sights a little lower, considering that he didn’t land many of the big names on the left side of the political ledger, either.

The Los Angles Times is to be commended for hosting the festival. But ultimately, one is left with the impression, accurate or not, that the newspaper hates or fears the Right so much it can’t even stand to be in the same room with anyone associated with it. This is a terrible shame, because the festival is probably the biggest annual intellectual event in L.A., and Angelenos are being deprived of one side of a very important debate.

–Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.



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