EDITOR’S NOTE: This appeared in the April 10, 1996, Wall Street Journal. It is reprinted with permission.
“Sometimes,” Sigmund Freud famously remarked, “a cigar is just a cigar.” And, sometimes, it isn’t. At least that’s what I’m beginning to think as I attend more and more “conservative events.” For example, at a recent fundraiser for the Independent Women’s Forum I bumped into an attractive young lady smoking a cheroot. I asked her, “Do you really like that thing?”
”I guess. Hmm . . . not really,” she chuckled as she blew smoke in my face.
“Why are you smoking it then?”
She replied with a you-just-don’t-get-it smirk and left me alone in the clouds.
As a conservative in good standing (card No. 087449-B), it’s an odd sensation to get that smirk from a fellow conservative, having gotten it from so many liberals (Excuse me, Miss, why are you wearing a hat shaped like Nicaragua?). It is, I think, a symptom of a larger disease afflicting conservative Washington today — the conservative flirtation with hipness.
It’s hardly surprising that conservatives want to shed the liberal stereotype that we’re nerds. But in Washington, where public policy is a varsity sport, the nerd gene doesn’t discriminate along ideological lines.
I mean, who really thinks Michael Kinsley showed the other kids how to smoke cigarettes out in back of school? Does anyone look at Ira Magaziner and say, “Now, that guy gets picked first for softball”? And yet for some reason the New York Times gets away with calling Washington conservatives the “C-Span and galoshes” crowd.
No better recent example of the vogueing of liberalness can be found than the ascension of Michael Lind, a former assistant to William F. Buckley, Heritage Foundation policy gnome, and executive editor of The National Interest. Mr. Lind deserted the Right and subsequently became a darling of the Left for sinking his teeth into the conservative hands that fed him.
Rolling Stone christened him “what’s hot” after his conversion. Mr. Lind scorned Washington in the pages of The New Yorker as full of “Dweeby White Guys.” True enough. But this from the kind of guy who irons his argyle socks while listening to B-sides of Alfred North Whitehead books-on-tape? So what does The New Yorker call him? “A Recovering Dweeby White Guy.”
Recovering! They don’t offer this prognosis because he’s canceled his subscription to National Journal in favor of Spin, or because he turned from Brian Lamb to Beavis and Butthead. They say he’s recovering from Dweeby-White-Guyhood simply because he switched his politics.
So now that conservatives have overrun the capital, the animal spirits within the movement have set out to create their own “conservative culture.” In The Weekly Standard one writer actually called for a “conservative bohemia,” complete with a dress code of button-down shirts and fedoras, and the imperative that we all smoke, surprise, cigars.
The leader of this separatist group has been Republican mullah Grover Norquist. He has issued a number of fatwahs proscribing fraternization with the enemy. “We don’t need permission, seek approval or hang out with the people who built the welfare state,” he says.
But a conservative culture, if there is to be one, should try to diminish the relevance of political allegiances, not exaggerate them. If wanting to reform welfare and Medicaid doesn’t make you some cruel “Gingrich Who Stole Christmas,” then defending them shouldn’t imply you’re Hillary Clinton with a migraine. It has been a mistaken tenet of liberalism that one’s political affiliation is a window to one’s soul.
At any rate, conservatives don’t need to change their lifestyle to win a hipness award from the mainstream media. Conservatives are already “cool” because they dominate politics, and politics has become the dominant topic of conversation among the chattering classes. Also, conservatives have their own media infrastructure now, which means they don’t have to rely on the New York Times to shape their image. This newspaper’s editorial page, Commentary, The American Spectator, National Review, The American Enterprise, Rush Limbaugh, and, most recently, The Weekly Standard, form the backbone of a new conservative establishment press.
But the biggest reason a new “conservative culture” is gelling is, ironically, that conservatism is “new.” Novelty energizes young people, who provide the energy for most everything in American society. Novelty can be a problematic ideal, however, for a philosophy defined, in Lincoln’s words, by an “adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried.” Which brings us back to those cigars. Washington is filling with twentysomethings who think they’re P. J. O’Rourke because they drink what he drinks and smoke what he smokes.
It is one thing to make fun of liberals who believe “whatever floats your boat” should be written into the Bill of Rights but who also think smokers should be sent to re-education camps. It is another thing to tell a new generation of conservatives, male and female, that picking up fads like cigar smoking makes you a conservative. Conservatism is supposed to be more mature than that. Conservatism must continue to argue for the conviction that some truths cannot be deconstructed, don’t simply come in and out of style, and are more substantial than a puff of smoke.