Dear Reader (and those of you who only tune into this newsletter to see what the opening “Dear reader” gag will be),
One day, I hope to be so fabulously wealthy that I’ll be able to induce prominent personages into humiliating contests with irresistible bribes: “Garrison Keilor, if you can eat fifty hard boiled eggs, I will pay audiences younger than 70 to laugh at your jokes! Herr Olbermann, if you win, I will pay enough people to watch your show to to get you higher ratings than a midnight repeat of iCarly. Go! And don’t give me any of that guff about how ‘no man can eat fifty eggs.’ ”
Alas, I’m not there yet (thanks a bunch, laissez-faire capitalism). But, other than the egg-eating thing, one of the items on my to-do list is to write the definitive article on one of the single greatest influences on public intellectuals, pundits, et al., that almost never gets discussed: spouses.
But First a Word about Cocktail Parties
There’s a deeply cherished myth on both right and left that any political or ideological moderation by a writer can best be explained by a burning, yearning desire to attend cocktail parties, particularly in Georgetown.
In the case of NR, I’ve tried for years to explain to folks that whatever faults we might have in reasoning, facts, or motive, a desire to ingratiate ourselves with the D.C. social scene really isn’t one of them. The reasons for this are numerous, mostly having to do with our profound integrity, our unshakable commitment to principle, and stuff like that. But, at least speaking for myself, it also has to do with the fact that D.C. cocktail parties suck. Take a gander at the “high society” magazines in Washington — Capital Style, Capital File ,Filed Capital, whatever — and you’ll see a lot of people I would hate to waste a babysitter on just to have a drink with. If you want a sense of the coprophagic phylum that truly loves the D.C. cocktail circuit, you need only look at the White House-crashing Salahis.
And yet, to listen to some of my e-mailers from “real America,” there’s a soiree every night where all the popular kids gather ‘round David Gergen as he riffs on the knuckle-dragging jingos who run the GOP while Maureen Dowd titters about Dick Cheney’s testosterone poisoning. Moreover, we’re told that we inside-the-beltway types are constantly trying to merit an invite to such affairs by throwing conservatism under the bus.
Now, it may in fact be true that there are some marvelous moveable feasts flitting from one Georgetown salon to another, ones at which David “I Speak Jive” Broder mixes his trademark smoldering sexuality with his off-color, street-savvy wit to let fly some hilarious stories: “And so then I got up in Jesse Helms’s grill and said, ‘You wanna dance? ‘Cause if you wanna mix it up, all you got to do is step to me.’ Helms doesn’t do anything, so I say, ‘Sheeyut, that’s what I thought.’” But I never hear about them, nor would I intentionally write anything in order to make it more likely I’d get invited to one.
I do not reject the Unified Theory of Cocktail Parties entirely. There’s certainly a tendency for some conservatives to drift leftward, and some of that drift can almost surely be explained by a desire to sit with the cool kids in Washington or New York. But the UTCP is wildly overplayed analytically and rhetorically. It’s gotten to the point that Rich Lowry (praise be upon him) will start sarcastically shouting “Where’s my cocktail-party invite?” the moment he says something that might be disparaged as running-dog liberalism.
Back to Significant Others
The reason I bring all of this up is that I think in many cases the Unified Theory of Cocktail Parties pales in comparison to the General Law of Wives, which says that, all other things being equal, the ideological space between a male writer and his wife will shrink over time, with the husband moving the greater distance. Barring divorce, male writers cannot long maintain an independent orbit from their wives.
Note that although this is a rule about male columnists and similar professionals, I’m sure it has an analogue among female writers, not to mention humans generally (in fact, I keep a mental list on this score).
I’ve floated this argument to friends for years. You can’t completely understand where some columnists are coming from if you don’t know the role their spouses play. One reason I’ve never written about it is that it’s terribly bad form to “go after” someone’s wife or husband. Another reason is that it’s terribly difficult to prove, in no small part because the writer in question will almost never admit that he’s caving in to the missus.
My old boss Ben Wattenberg, who worked for LBJ, had a theory about why so many good anti-Communist liberals turned against the Vietnam War: They just couldn’t take the grief from their wives and daughters. He had a lot of anecdotes to back it up, too. I think the same thing applies to male columnists with wives who are not on the same ideological wavelength. If you’re a right-wing orthodontist, it’s really not that big a deal if your wife is very left-wing. You might get into fights at dinner parties and what-not, but it’s not like she’s going to harangue you for the way you fit a retainer in a ten-year-old’s mouth. But if you’re wife is pro-choice and you’re pro-life and you write about abortion all the time, trust me, she’s going to wear you down eventually.
This is why some of the happiest male writers I know have wives who basically agree with them on the big questions. Which brings me to my own case. The Fair Jessica and I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything; she’s more conservative than me in some ways, less so in others. But it’s very rare that I’ll get serious flak for a substantive position I’ve taken. She will give me a hard time for being too nice or too mean to some writer or politician (and she doesn’t always approve of every manifestation of my, uh, jocular transparency about our home life), but such pressure usually takes the form of good-natured disagreement. Moreover, on the list of things she gives me spousal grief about, what I write ranks way, way below my slovenliness, my snoring, and other typical husbandly shortcomings.
Anyway, what got me on all of this was a tidbit from The New Yorker profile of Paul Krugman. I’d heard for years that one of the reasons Krugman has become so nasty and insufferable in his column (he was actually pretty enjoyable to read in the 1990s) is that his wife is far to his left and has pulled him into her orbit. Well, now Krugman has confirmed it. Here’s the relevant bit:
When he has a draft, he gives it to Wells to edit. Early on, she edited a lot – she had, they felt, a better sense than he did of how to communicate economics to the layperson. (She is also an economist – they met when she was a postdoc at M.I.T. and he was teaching there.) But he’s much better at that now, and these days she focuses on making him less dry, less abstract, angrier. Recently, he gave her a draft of an article he’d done for Rolling Stone. He had written, “As Obama tries to deal with the crisis, he will get no help from Republican leaders,” and after this she inserted the sentence “Worse yet, he’ll get obstruction and lies.” Where he had written that the stimulus bill would at best “mitigate the slump, not cure it,” she crossed out that phrase and substituted “somewhat soften the economic hardship that we face for the next few years.” Here and there, she suggested things for him to add. “This would be a good place to flesh out the vehement objections from the G.O.P. and bankers to nationalization,” she wrote on page 9. “Show us all their huffing and puffing before you dismiss it as nonsense in the following graf.”
On the rare occasion when they disagree about something, she will be the one urging him to be more outraged or recalcitrant. She pushed him to denounce the filibuster. She wanted him to be more stubborn in holding out for the public option in the health-care bill. He spent a few sleepless nights wrestling with his conscience about that but ultimately decided that a flawed bill was so much better than no bill at all that he had to support it. “You can get beaten down,” he says. “When Robin and I started writing about health care, single payer was clearly the way to go. And then bit by bit you start saying, ‘O.K., you take what you can get.’ There’s a trap I’ve seen some people fall into – you let your vision of what should be get completely taken over by what appears possible right now – and that’s something I’m trying to avoid.”
It seems fair to say that in the battle for Paul Krugman’s brain, his wife is winning.
Oh, and Cosmo insists that I ask readers to note the picture in the article. Not only do the Krugmans have cats, but they’ve given them pretentiously eggheady names.
Minor Announcements Speaking of Cosmo, some readers want updates. He’s had better years. He’s getting old and has a bad arthritis issue with one of his paws that’s causing him a lot of discomfort. Worse, my daughter’s cat, Gracie, is constantly getting into Cosmo’s dog bed. And since we’ve told Cosmo he’s not allowed to kill her (which he clearly would like to do), he doesn’t know how to deal with her in a proportionate manner.
Speaking of cats, I thought this story from the UK about animals who’ve received military awards was interesting. It seems carrier pigeons are in the lead (thanks to WWII), with dogs a close second, horses a distant third and a lone cat bringing up dead last.
I ventured over to CPAC last week. I gave some brief remarks for a panel. For those of you interested, here you go.
My apologies to readers who sent email to the address TheSuits@nationalreview.com. It seems that when they read over the draft of last week’s G-File, they didn’t take a hint and actually set up said email account. It is now up and running, so you should once again resume hectoring them. The plenary meeting of the subcommittee on Good Ideas that Must Be Stalled by Mental Mastication is still considering whether to offer my NRODT pieces to G-File readers.
No Debby links today. Maybe next week. Instead, I will provide you with this old clip of Jack Fowler – publisher of NR – coming into the office on a Monday morning.