I was learning from Fred Barnes long before I met him. In the early 1990s the Continetti household devoted Saturday evenings to politics. No, we didn’t knock on doors. We gathered around the television to watch Fred square off against Eleanor Clift on The McLaughlin Group. My memory is hazy — I was ten years old — but I remember that my dad and I always sided with Fred. Thirty years later, not much has changed.
It’s hard to appreciate the novelty of The McLaughlin Group now that we have multiple channels of 24-hour cable news, the blogosphere, podcasts, Substack, and social media. Before John McLaughlin, political commentary on television was staid, conventional, polite, and boring. McLaughlin was a former Jesuit who had worked in the White House during Watergate. He was known as “Nixon’s priest.” He brought punditry from the aerie to the barroom. Then he put it on speed.
The original panelists — Pat Buchanan, Jack Germond, Robert Novak, and Mort Kondracke — were insiders who weren’t afraid to yell, groan, crack wise, and dish as McLaughlin barked questions and bounced from topic to topic. Fred started as an occasional substitute for his friend and mentor Novak, then also filled in for Buchanan. McLaughlin soon gave him a nickname: “The Beadle.”
In the Catholic high schools where McLaughlin had taught, the student appointed “Beadle” took attendance, passed out papers, erased the chalkboard, and otherwise assisted the teacher. A Beadle was a teacher’s pet, a goody two-shoes. Why McLaughlin gave Fred the title remains something of a mystery — but it rolled off the tongue. And it certainly contributed to the overall chaotic, free-associative, semi-absurd atmosphere of The McLaughlin Group in its heyday. (If you doubt me, watch this segment on “robo-deer.” It starts at 48:50.)
What I got from Fred back then was an education in Washington. He seemed to know everything because he did the work. He was a reporter first and a pundit second. He not only understood presidents and congressmen. He also had figured out the culture of Washington — the lobbyists, the consultants, the strategists, the bureaucrats, the media. And he was funny. He didn’t take himself too seriously. He had a sarcastic sense of humor and a ton of common sense.
So you can imagine my excitement when I got the chance to work for Fred. I started at the Weekly Standard on July 7, 2003. As I recall, Fred wasn’t there that day. But I met him soon enough. He gave me my first assignment and talked up the piece I wrote to the magazine’s editor, Bill Kristol. Six months later, he and Bill sent me to New Hampshire for my first cover story, even though I was too young to rent a car.
Fred taught me how to be a journalist. Not directly. My education came through study, observation, and imitation. I acquired the unusual hobby of reading (and re-reading) the magazine’s back issues. They were my textbooks. I saw how Fred started his pieces with anecdotes, filled them with examples, and ended with clever kickers. I noticed his short sentences. I followed his example of profiling up-and-coming politicians.
What Fred captures best is the competitive drama of politics. He fills in the details of the personalities running the horse race. And he does it with wit and verve. The first thing you notice about Fred’s prose is its speed. The subjects and verbs fly by. They don’t have to worry about commas slowing them down. Like most great writers, Fred writes like he talks: direct, blunt, and sometimes gruff. This terseness, however, is enlivened by his quick wit and biting judgments.
Fred taught by example. He spent a lot of time reading the papers — the physical newsprint — and so did I. I got to see how Fred treated interviews not as interrogations but as conversations. And then there were Fred’s quips during editorial meetings and watercooler talk. They were unforgettable.
He told an intern struggling over an article, “This ain’t Balzac!” He complained that people didn’t do enough reporting: “There’s one person whose opinion alone is worth reading: Charles Krauthammer.” He reminded me that you lose half your readers every time you make them turn a page. He loved Calvin Coolidge’s saying, repeated by Senator John Tower, that you never get in trouble for what you don’t say.
Fred’s judgment could be brutally funny — and politically incorrect. I once complained that my infant son was keeping my wife and me up at night. “Don’t worry,” Fred replied, “It only gets harder.” In the fall of 2005, when the Weekly Standard celebrated its tenth anniversary, Fred joined Bill Kristol, P.J. O’Rourke, and Martha Bayles for a panel discussion at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The moderator was former governor and future senator Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.). She asked Fred what impact the magazine had had on the political debate in Washington. “Oh, I think we’ve played a big role,” Fred deadpanned. “We started a war in Iraq, we got tax cuts, we reelected Bush. We’ve had great influence.” The Cambridge audience twittered nervously.
Fred taught me that the future in politics is never a straight-line projection of the present. After Barack Obama trounced John McCain in 2008, I bought into the conventional wisdom that the GOP was doomed. That year the Standard held its Christmas party at Fred’s house. As I was leaving, he mentioned my glum prognosis — and dismissed it. “Don’t worry,” he told me, “They’ll be back.” And he was right.
I admit I was shocked when I learned that Fred was retiring in April. What is he doing? I wondered. And what am I going to do if I can’t read him?
But I take solace in Fred’s dictum that the future is never what you expect. I know Fred has more writing and speaking ahead of him. He has plenty more to say. And I haven’t stopped learning.
This column originally ran at the Washington Free Beacon.