I once pondered whether someone slipped William Safire some bad acid. On more than one occasion, I’ve ridiculed his silly habit of taking positions simply because they’re “contrarian.” I am the inspiration for the internationally recognized KCI, or Krugman Cat Index, which correlates positive economic indicators with the feline-kicking rage such trends produce in Times columnist Paul Krugman. Of Mr. Safire’s other colleague, Maureen Dowd, I’ve…not been complimentary. In the same column I wrote of both her and Krugman: “Take the two leading liberal columnists at the New York Times, Maureen Dowd, and Paul Krugman. As we all know, one’s a whining self-parody of a hysterical liberal who lets feminine emotion and fear defeat reason and fact in almost every column. The other used to date Michael Douglas.”
And, just to drive the point home, by my very rough calculation I’ve mocked, criticized, vented, spewed, wailed, and caterwauled about the New York Times about nine kabillion times.
And what is the point? Simply: None of this is part of a clever attempt to ingratiate myself with the Times in order to have them replace Bill Safire with yours truly.
Up From the Ghetto
Now, don’t get me wrong. I would certainly consider any offers made by the Times. That is, any job offers. According to several different standards, the Times is the best newspaper in the country (though I think the Washington Post’s political coverage is better). I think conservatives can be rather silly when they try to dispute that the Times is a great and influential paper when it is precisely because it is a great and influential paper that the Times drives us so nuts. Last time I checked, conservatives didn’t complain when the local paper in Zabcikville, Texas, blew a story.
And, rumor has it, the Times pays well. Just the other day, I was hungrily pressing my face against the window of the Palm, holding my “Will Opine For Food” sign. And what did I see, you ask? David Brooks’s intern using a $100 bill to light a $10,000 German bearer-bond which he then used to light Brooks’s cigar (which Brooks immediately stubbed out on the intern’s hand for taking too much time in the lighting).
But the fame, fortune, and power aren’t the only reasons why I would entertain leaving the comfy confines of my current home at National Review. It would be good for conservatism.
Or let me put it another way, because all this is sounding both vain and delusional since the Times will never offer me anything but a cold cup of coffee with a cigarette butt floating in it. It would be good for conservatism if the Times scooped up any number of qualified conservatives (in no particular, or exhaustive, order: Christopher Caldwell, Mark Steyn, Rich Lowry, or David Frum would do the trick).
The conservative movement needs to have spokesman in places like the New York Times almost as much as the Times needs to have them. This may sound like an odd point to make these days given the success of conservatives in recent years to win nominal control of the federal government (or at least nominal control of the party with nominal control of the federal government–and, yes, if you were wondering, I do get a nominal royalty every time I use the word nominal). Never mind the success of Fox News, talk radio, and the gob-smacking, space-time-continuum-contorting triumph that is National Review Online. Meanwhile the mainstream media has endured a horrible string of defeats and setbacks in recent years. One small example: I hear that in the wake of the forged-documents story Dan Rather spends his evenings in the cellar at CBS’s “black rock” (headquarters) wearing a cape and playing a pipe-organ upon which he pounds out Teutonic funereal dirges while singing about how he will one day eat Karl Rove’s heart.
But the fact remains, conservatism will never gain control of the commanding heights of the culture, to borrow a phrase from Lenin, unless it, um, gains control of the commanding heights of the culture. That means we need a lot more conservatives in our revered institutions. That means the Ivy League (except for Brown, which is a write-off), the mainline churches, the big foundations, Hollywood, publishing, and–yes–the New York Times. Indeed, I would gladly forgo ever having a conservative op-ed columnist at the Times if we could get one or two at senior levels of the newsroom. It’s just batty that conservatives–who extol excellence, patriotism, and the permanent things–should be happy living outside our culture’s most elite institutions.
Too many people think of conservatism as a team that we should cheer even when it’s wrong. Winning arguments and mocking idiocy are important. But the real agenda must include an attempt to persuade. As with the so-called war on poverty, the real goal for the conservative movement should be its own obsolescence. The health of the conservative movement shouldn’t be measured by the fullness of think-tank coffers and Republican seats in legislatures, but by the overall direction of the country. It seems that some right-wingers who’ve gotten rich off of winning shouting matches (in the minds of their fans at least) have abandoned even the hypothetical goal of persuading their opponents. Meanwhile conservatives who attempt to persuade or deal with liberal arguments on their own terms or influence events in the realm of the possible are routinely denounced as sell-outs, opportunists, approval-seekers, courtiers, or closet liberals. I may not always agree with The Weekly Standard, but that doesn’t make them any less conservative.
Take Andrew Sullivan. In one sense I’m reluctant to even mention the guy since every time I do, I get deluged with angry e-mails. I think Sullivan’s wrong about a lot and a bit lost these days. But he’s a brilliant guy, a talented writer, a decent man, and a worthy sparring partner. Moreover, he’s very influential, particularly on one of the most central issues of the culture wars: homosexuality. Many conservatives confuse his declining influence among pro-war conservatives–or on the right generally–for a decline in influence overall. That’s debatable. It’s just as plausible he’s become more influential among the liberal cognoscenti in the last year precisely because he’s broken with the Right on so much. But that’s beside the point. The logic of the you’re-giving-him-too-much-attention crowd seems to be that I should argue with Sullivan less because I agree with him less. For some bizarre reason his lack of solidarity with the Right makes his arguments less worthy of criticism.
Which brings me to Safire. I’ve been hard on him in the past in part because he matters so much. For decades he was the only conservative at the Times, nominal or otherwise–which made him one of the country’s most influential conservatives. Simply by adopting an argument he made it credible. When, for example, he tackled the fishiness of Vince Foster’s suicide (or I should say the fishiness of the Clinton White House’s reaction to it) he automatically made this line of inquiry credible in the eyes of the establishment media. With his writing talent and reporting skills he did invaluable service in the same cause our own Bill Buckley launched nearly 50 years ago: making conservatism not merely respectable but admirable.
I don’t want to discuss Safire’s motives because I don’t know what they are. But I do know that he loved to declare that he was taking a position not because he necessarily believed it, but because it was the “contrarian” position. A quick Nexis search finds nearly 40 columns in which he essentially bragged about or celebrated being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian. And there have been countless others in which he may not have used the word, but the same spirit moved him. Now, I like contrary thinking, but contrary thinking for its own sake isn’t admirable, it’s silly: “Everyone says two plus two is four; I say it’s a monster called Gamblor!”
More to the point, contrariness for its own sake is not remotely conservative. Conservatism is most often a defense of settled truths, not an instinct to topple them willy-nilly for entertainment value.
Again, I don’t want to psychoanalyze. But by constantly calling himself a contrarian or–as he often did when convenient–a “libertarian,” by going for the pun rather than the punch, for bending-over backward to appear “reasonable” and nonpartisan, Safire at times gave the impression that he wasn’t comfortable calling himself a conservative. He endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992 (no doubt in part because he wanted a Pulitzer for his unending BCCI columns) on the grounds that George H. W. Bush was a liar. This was a bit like courting Helen Thomas because Cameron Diaz has bad skin some mornings. Safire was a godsend for conservatives when he was originally hired by the Times–which happened, ironically enough, in part because Safire had written Vice President Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech. And he has done heroic service. But he is a hero of an old war.
Today, conservatives need to embrace more than tokenism, accept more than a quota for their views, and demand more than condescension. Even as Hollywood liberals become more shrill about how nobody cares what they think, there are signs for optimism, even from Hollywood. I’m not going to go off on a whole tangent about The Incredibles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, Dave Chapelle, South Park, or Team America, but suffice it to say that the popular culture is giving out underneath the feet of its most offensive manufacturers.
More to the point, institutions like the New York Times need to open themselves up to the idea that conservatism is more than a mere “phenomenon” or “trend.” It is America. Or at least it is as much a part of America–and almost certainly more–than homosexuality, African-American fashion, liberal angst, and various Jewish identity crises. Conservatism is more diverse than liberals imagine and more youthful–for good and for ill–than they can sometimes dare admit. Still, the Times has already hired a fulltime reporter to cover conservatives like gorillas in the mist (also see here). More recently Bill Keller, the editor of the Times, told USA Today that in response to Bush’s surprising victory in the election his paper will do more to include issues of interest to red-state voters. That’s why they’re considering reopening their bureau in Kansas. I tend to sort of like Keller, but forgive me if this doesn’t sound like him saying they’re going to open a new research station in a different section of the forest to study bonobos more comprehensively.
This will not do. But it is a start. This is our culture, our nation, too. Everything we believe says that it would be better for everybody if we got busy taking it back through door-to-door fighting and persuasion. Replacing Safire with a new conservative would be a start, but only a start.