When National Review got seriously serious about going online, roundabout 1998, Rich Lowry hired Jonah Goldberg to be editor of National Review Online, where his “Goldberg File” quickly found an audience. Somewhere along the line NRO got huge, Kathryn Lopez became editor, and it stands athwart history here 24/7. To mark the actual establishment of nationalreview.com ten years ago, the current editor sat down with her predecessor.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Ten years ago, Fox News, South Park, and NRO all got their start. Was that some kind of cosmic weird alignment thing going on?
Jonah Goldberg: Other stuff was going on in 1996 too. Ebonics was recognized as a dialect, the O. J. Simpson trial got underway — man that went well! — Princess Di and Charles got divorced, and Bill Clinton was reelected promising to build a bridge to the 21st century (The First Bridge to Nowhere! Get me the Metaphysical Brigade of Porkbusters!).
Good times, good times. I think 1996 was the first year, at least politically, where everyone felt that the Cold War was really over and the new media age was here. The Internet seemed real, MSNBC was launched as a counter to CNN — which showed that the Cable News Network wouldn’t be the only cable news network, and everything felt wide-open. Which is why National Review launched the web magazine equivalent of Pong that year.
K-Lo:NRO has changed through the years, but so specifically have you. Remember the old, old G-Files? Do you miss writing about and on (as in, it was your furniture) crushed beer cans?
Jonah: I miss it terribly, but some of that stuff was a function of the fact that I didn’t even think anyone was really reading it and I didn’t think this was going to be — shudder — a career. I do have every intention of returning to old school G-Filing – say circa 2000-2001 — when my <cough> <cough> book is a runaway bestseller.
K-Lo: As I remember it, you were dating the Fair Jessica when the G-File was in its prime. Did it give her sufficient pause?
Jonah: Some would certainly argue it gave her insufficient pause. I was not dating TFJ when I started the G-File. I was desperately wooing her. I still feel like I am. Anyway, she basically dug the G-File.
By the way, I didn’t get the sense, all the time, that you dug it. If I may ask what did the folks at NRHQ make of all the porny conservative puns – “Rod and Man at Yale,” “Atlas Plugged” – and all that sort of thing?
K-Lo: Oh the memories… If I didn’t crack the whip as I do in “The Corner” we might have made that Playboy list of best blogs you were lamenting our absence from just this Sunday morning.
Well, needless to say, you weren’t wooing me, that’s for sure! The G-File was always…interesting…. It was always….a surprise. And, it was a great first on-the-fly-editing job! Anything that could come up, would.
KJL: Hey, Rich. I have a quick question.
Rich Lowry: What’s up?
KJL: Are lesbian prison jokes appropriate for publication?
Rich: Uh. Why do you ask?
KJL: Oh, and can I put whup-a** in the title? He uses it a few times in this one….
While I am thinking about it…Jonah, do you have any idea how many different ways you’ve misspelled Gloria Steinem’s name since I’ve known you? Man if I had a dollar, I’d own us all. I tease, I tease. I’ve always been a G-Phile. Who couldn’t be? Well, besides, say, Juan Cole or Cynthia McKinney.
K-Lo: How has conservatism changed in the past ten years?
Jonah: I think intellectually, conservatism has probably never been stronger, in terms of infrastructure, scholarship, etc. We even have a frick’n encyclopedia now. I think, though, conservatives radically overestimated the distinctions between Republicans and conservatives and misunderstood their relationship.
K-Lo: “What do you mean Jonah?”
Jonah: You mean, “What do you mean Jonah <cough> <cough> Jackass?”
I’ll tell you what I mean.
Well, first the conservative movement was an insurgency within the Republican party. Then it largely took over the GOP. Then the GOP was an insurgency in American politics. In the early 1990s the GOP still felt like an insurgency party, a minority party becoming a majority party. When the GOP became the majority party, conservatives discovered — to our shame and regret — that the GOP never fully became a conservative party and once in power the differences between conservatism and “Republicanism” — for want of a better word — became more pronounced. We seemed to think that because conservatives were successful taking over the GOP and the GOP was successful taking over the government that conservatives would take over everything. It didn’t work that way. It turns out that small-government conservatism simply isn’t popular — or popular enough. The success of Bush’s compassionate conservatism and the fizzling of Contract With America conservatism, has been something conservatives have not dealt with squarely enough.
I think we have two enormous problems: trying to figure out what conservatism is in an age of success, which means figuring out how much of “big government conservatism” we’re comfortable with and how much should be thrown over the side. The second problem is trying to figure out how conservatism will address issues which fall under the rubric of globalization. Immigration is part of that. National security another. The Dubai Ports deal brouhaha demonstrated that conservatives haven’t figured out how to talk about this stuff.
K-Lo: Standing athwart history 24/7 and all, NRO, “The Corner” especially, lends itself to more personal reflection than regular punditology does. You’ve lived marriage, fatherhood, the death of your dad online. You’ve had some beautiful thoughts about all of the above. But do you ever wish you were writing in a day, in a forum, where such things weren’t so natural, back when your business was your business?
Jonah: None of yer goddamn business!
Just kidding. Well, I do keep some things private. I don’t “live blog” my daughter’s childhood that much, for example. And there’s other stuff I don’t share. But yeah, it does kind of freak me out when I talk to people and say “I was just in Chicago” or some such and they say “yeah, I know. I read it in ‘The Corner.’”
Personally, it doesn’t bother me much. I get to write the more impersonal stuff if I want. And nothing says I have to be such an open book on the web. Ramesh jokes that I’ve revealed more about his personal life on the web than he has.
But back in the day when I started what I like to call the real National Review Online, I think I understood something that it took a lot of others some time to realize: The web lends itself to informality in an already informal age. The G-File was sort of a blog before blogging. And I think one of the reasons it took off was the humor, pop culture, and self-deprecation and all that. Also, that informality was especially useful for a conservative standard-bearer like NR because, conservatism suffered from a sense that it was too uptight, particularly during the Clinton years. Taking ideas seriously, but not taking myself too seriously was a good mix. And I still think it is. “The Corner”’s a good example. As you know, so many readers get furious with us because we don’t “cover” this or that in “The Corner” as if we have an editorial meeting everyday saying “Okay what’re our topics for today?” That’s just not what the thing is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a place where some generally conservative folks hash things out in real time and have some fun in the process.
K-Lo: A conservative watercooler is what I call “The Corner” when asked to describe it. Who knows what will come up there.
Will you always be grateful to Bill Clinton? NRO has had its big moments, which have always coincided with major news events — some we’ve made major news events. We had some great stuff before 1998, like Rich and Ramesh’s “Washington Bulletin” (I still remember when Ramesh let me write one item! Whoo-hoo!). But NRO’s real hot beginning was impeachment time. Without Monica Lewinsky, would there be an NRO?
Jonah: Well, it’s certainly true that without Clinton, I would never have lost my job as a television producer and ended up scribbling missives on the NR website for $25 a day. And, if you read some of the more asinine leftwing blogs, I in fact never existed prior to 1998 and was hatched fully grown in Richard Mellon Scaife’s lab somewhere.
But I think there would have been an NRO of some kind. NR’s achievement was getting into this business very early. But it would have popped up eventually. And for that I actually give the suits a lot of credit. This is a small c-conservative outfit, as you know (the organ music in the background is a dead giveaway). But they immediately understood that the web was going to be a big part of NR’s future and supported Rich and, later, me in that effort.
I remember when I was still editor and the Wall Street Journal announced they were launching “Opinion Journal.” At first I was terrified. But my Dad said to me, “Look, this is good news. You don’t want to be in a business that no one else wants to be in. Because that mean some very smart people looked at what you’re doing and said, ‘that’s a stupid idea.’” He was right. And with or without Lewinsky or me, there’d still be an NRO. After all, its greatest successes and growth have been on your watch not mine.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a little self-obsessed somedays. For five years I’ve been grateful we didn’t have “The Corner” on 9/11. I saw some people’s first writing reactions and many were understandably not publishable. Do you worry about what we’ll say — what you’ll say — when the next shoe drops, when we bomb Iran … whatever the next huge news story is? Or is that my Mother Hen concern?
Jonah: Paranoid freak!
Seriously, that’s why you’re good at your job. I think it’s certainly a problem. But that’s also part of the fun of it. If “The Corner” had a net, it wouldn’t be “The Corner.”
K-Lo: What do you most regret writing?
Jonah: I have surprisingly few regrets. But there are a few. And most of those are examples of things where I didn’t say what I meant to say or where I didn’t appreciate the context. Like that Superdome thing where I said the occupants should grow gills. That was when it looked like the whole Katrina story was another stupid bit of media hype — or so I thought. I should’ve just held my tongue. I probably shouldn’t have called the Washington sniper a “three-fer” when it turned out he was gay, black, and Muslim. And, I regret some of my columns in the lead up to the Iraq war, but that’s for a different conversation.
K-Lo: I can’t believe I’m going to let you off easy on Iraq, but someone will remind you to go back there before long, I am confident. That would you write again 100 times over because it was so darn brilliant?
I am pretty proud of some of the stuff I did for the actual print magazine. But that’s enough of that.
K-Lo: My mornings are always different, depending on whether or not I’m going to NR World Headquarters or not that day. But you face no such choices. What’s your morning routine before you post that FPOD (“first post of the day,” for the uninitiated)?
Jonah: Brush my teeth (etc.). Start the coffee. Log onto the web. Check out if someone has FPOD’d before me. Then I check a few sites etc. Then I post to “The Corner” with something absolutely brilliant, like “FPOD…heh.” Then a little while later I put on pants and take Cosmo out.
K-Lo: Quick: What’s your favorite timewaster?
Jonah: That one where the priest has to blow away demons, I think.
K-Lo: Were you nervous the first time you suggested Rich and you met in prison?
Jonah: Yes. Rich is deadly with a shiv and he’s got a short temper.
K-Lo: I know I still do this and the day I don’t I’ll hand in my resignation letter …Do you ever stop and think, Geez, man, this is NATIONAL REVIEW? How cool is this? How damn lucky am I?
Jonah: Almost everyday.
K-Lo: How has NRO changed over the last ten years?
Jonah: It’s much more professionally run — thanks to you — and it’s much more influential — again, largely thanks to you. I think that’s generally the biggest difference and biggest adjustment. NRO is now a major voice for conservatism — much as the mothership magazine has always been. Lots of people read us, and then declare “conservatives think this” or “conservatives believe that” based on what we say. That’s a big difference when NRO was sort of gonzo. But I still think the basic ingredients are the same. We enjoy what we do and we respect each other. We also demonstrate that conservatism is not hidebound, but a work in progress which has always been the case.
K-Lo: Maybe you can help me with this. Is NRO part of the blogosphere or no? I’ve had people tell me we’re MSM because we’re not some dude in his pajamas. What the hell are we? Excuse me my identity crisis.
Jonah: I really don’t know. I think we’re sort of at weird cyber crossroads. We certainly think we’re part of the conservative alternative media which feels very blogospheric because we consider ourselves outside the so-called MSM. But as far as web operations go, we’re pretty established. I think drawing hard and fast distinctions here is pretty stupid though. I mean Andrew Sullivan is a blogger for Time magazine. Mickey Kaus is a blogger for Slate whose parent company is the Washington Post. Are they part of the blogsophere? If not, why? Time and the Post are several thousand percent bigger and more mainstream than NRO will be. Whether NRO will be bigger them is foreordained as we will someday become the “Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga,” of the worldwide web.
K-Lo: Of course, but it may not always be synonymous with the sort of bloggers we associate with it today. The lefty blogosphere is overdue for a big crash, particularly if the Democrats win in ’08. Moreover, the idea that bloggers are political pundit truth-squaders is a bit of a myth anyway. But there will always and forever more be smart people writing and arguing on the web.