The GOP's Taliban Wing
Jude Wanniski
October 13, 1998

 

Memo To:Bill Kristol, editor, The Weekly Standard
From:  Jude Wanniski
Re: The Common Scold

Andrew Sullivanís cover story in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine about how the professional moralists now dominate the Republican Party is the best political analysis Iíve seen this year. The fact that it makes you look like a schmuck is one of its central insights. Now I know you are not a natural schmuck. You have had to stumble onto that path and work on it, to the point you and your magazine have become a national embarrassment. I hate to tell you that people have been laughing at The Weekly Standard for a long time, Bill, but because it hasnít done any harm thusfar, the grownups have been treating it the way they would a campus newspaper put out by their sons and daughters. For some while, I referred to it as The Beltway Standard, but finally decided not to poke fun at you. You donít deserve as much credit as Andrew Sullivan gives you for turning the GOP into a sorry example of a governing political party, but you are convenient as a metaphor for what I now call the Taliban Wing of the Republican Party, the moral sniffers.

Holy smokes, Bill, Iíve known you since you were in knickers, and all that time I regarded you as a level-headed young man who would grow up on an unbroken line to be one of the wise men of the aging Baby Boomers. I have to assume you have been hypnotized by a sorcerer (no doubt someone on your staff) and are now sleepwalking, intellectually. For a while, I thought it might be John Podhoretz, but now that Rupert Murdoch has hired John to be chief moral sniffer at the editorial page of the New York Post, my suspicions lead me to David Frum, the ultimate sniffer from Canada, who Sullivan describes as "one of the brightest of the young conservative thinkers now writing: "'What's at stake in the Lewinsky scandal,' Frum wrote candidly in the Feb. 16, 1998, issue of The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, 'is not the right to privacy, but the central dogma of the baby boomers: the belief that sex, so long as it's consensual, ought never to be subject to moral scrutiny at all.'" Oh, really?

I certainly am no defender of Bill's Oval Office capers, nor is Sullivan, who makes it clear at the top of his article on the conservative "Scolds" that he thinks the President should resign. I don't even object to the content of The Weekly Standard. Given our First Amendment, I suppose there should be a periodical available to conservatives that advocates going to war with China because everyone knows we are going to have to go to war with China sooner or later. I suppose there must be one corner of American journalism that insists that because the United States won all the wars, it should now be the world bully ó bombing anyone who looks vaguely suspicious, or Islamic. There should be a magazine, I suppose, that urges Republicans to forget about economic issues and concentrate on ridding the world of homosexuals, abortions, dirty movies, and people in faraway lands who do not observe our Constitution and Bill of Rights. There is something to be said for the backbone we enjoy in Western Civilization as a result of the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. A good rousing economic depression might also be morally and spiritually fortifying, which is reason enough for a magazine like the Standard to exist. I just don't think my old friend, Bill Kristol, should be lighting the match at the weekly auto da fe. There are enough fruitcakes around the world, like the Afghan Talibans, who measure morality by the length of their beards and imprison anyone found on the streets of Kabul with fewer hairs on their chin than the prescribed number. Just because they are Islamic doesn't mean they are the only kooks in the world. There are plenty of Protestants, Catholics and Jews around who think they are pleasing to Abraham, Moses and Christ because of the length of their pieties. You should not be one of them, if only because you have so much greater potential.

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Here is one of the relevant sections of the Sunday Times article by Andrew Sullivan:

No conservative thinker has done more to advance this new moralism than William Kristol, best known for his urbane appearances on "This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts," and about as close as Washington has to a dean of intellectual conservatism. And no journal has done more to propagate, defend and advance this version of conservatism than the magazine Kristol edits, The Weekly Standard, founded in 1995 by Rupert Murdoch. Most of this year, Kristol and The Standard have gleefully egged on Republicans in their moral crusade. As early as May ó at a time when it seemed the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal might dissipate ó Kristol urged Republican Congressional candidates to forget other issues in the fall and campaign solely on the issue of the President's morals. "If [Republicans] do that," he argued, "they will win big in November. And their victory will be more than a rejection of Clinton. It will be a rejection of Clintonism ó a rejection of defining the presidency, and our public morality, down."

His magazine has been relentless in presenting the scandal as a moral crisis for the nation. Thanks to the President's affair with Lewinsky, The Standard's writers were finally able to see unreservedly in Clinton what they had desperately tried to see in him from the start, but which Clinton's own conservatism had blurred: the apotheosis of the 1960s. The Clinton White House, in the liberated words of Peter Collier in The Standard, is "a place where denatured New Left politics meets denatured New Age therapeutics." In February, The Standard put on its cover a cartoon of Clinton-as-satyr on the White House lawn grappling with a nude Paula Jones and a nude Monica Lewinsky, surrounded by other naked women in bushes and on a swing, with the one word headline, "Yow!" Almost 1 out of 2 subsequent covers in 1998 have focused on the Lewinsky affair. One of the few breaks from Lewinsky coverage was a September cover article on Clinton's alleged genesis. "1968: A Revolting Generation Thirty Years On," the headline blared. The connection with Clinton was not exactly underplayed.

But perhaps no edition of The Standard captured the current state of American conservatism better than the one that came out immediately after the Starr report was made public. Its cover portrayed Starr as Mark McGwire, with the headline: "Stair's Home Run." Inside, page after page of anti-Clinton coverage, anchored by an essay by Kristol advocating a full House vote for impeachment of the President within a month, was followed by a long, surreal article by a reporter attending a four-day World Pornography Conference. Six pages of explicit sex, interspersed with coy condescension, followed. (The cover teased with the headline: "Among the Pornographers.") One of many graphic scenes in the article occurs in a ladies restroom: "Unprompted, [Dr. Susan Block] removes a rubber phallus from her purse and hikes up [her assistant] LaVonne's dress, baring her derriere. Block paddles it and kisses it while LaVonne coos." The article was so lurid that The Standard's editors prefaced it with a note: "Because of the subject matter, some material in this article is sexually explicit and may offend some readers." The weird porno-puritanism of the Starr report does not exist, it seems, in a vacuum. It comes out of a degenerated conservative political and literary culture.