When Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes and John Podhoretz set out to start a new magazine, they had plenty of money – thanks to Rupert Murdoch – and plenty of political momentum, thanks to the Republican “revolution” that had recently returned the House to Republican control for the first time in 40 years. But they didn’t have a title. The American Standard seemed to strike the right chord of patriotism and infallibility, until someone mentioned that was also the name of a leading brand of toilets.
Thus was born the Weekly Standard, which debuted in September 1995 with a cover showing Newt Gingrich packing an Uzi under the headline “Permanent Offense.” This wasn’t the last time the editors would be wrong, of course. But the early reviews were mostly positive. Even In These Times, in an article by Tom Frank, praised the new magazine for avoiding “the intellectual trappings of the old loony right” and not descending “into the lunkheaded ogreness that so many expected.”
The Weekly Standard was marketed to inside-the-Beltway power brokers and the conservative intelligentsia. It introduced a new roster of talented, provocative writers like Christopher Caldwell, Andrew Ferguson and Matt Labash, which almost atoned for launching the careers of David Brooks and Tucker Carlson.
“Conservatives were returning from the wilderness, and the Weekly Standard was going to lead them in rebuilding Washington, D.C., as the New Jerusalem,” Frank wrote in that same In These Times article (back before “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” had become a punch line on “The Daily Show”). “The attitude befit a publication for conservatives who were in power, not just backwoods cranks.”
Even then the Standard was hard to stomach, with its constant railing against “liberal” bogeymen and its “thundering editorials about the sanctity of the family and the market.” How quaint the sniping of the “culture wars” seems now that the Standard has helped to foment the real thing.
The Standard’s 1997 cover story, “Saddam Must Go,” by Kristol and Robert Kagan, is widely credited with planting the seeds for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. After 9/11, the Standard–amplified by the megaphone of Murdoch’s media empire – started pointing the finger at Iraq. (On the very afternoon of the terrorist attacks, Kristol told NPR, “I think Iraq is, actually, the big unspoken sort of elephant in the room today.”) And as late as November 2003, the Standard was still pushing a Saddam – Al Qaeda connection on its cover (headline: “Case Closed”).
That’s a lot of fodder for the Standard’s 10th anniversary issue, which asked a number of longtime contributors to ponder the following question: “On what issue or issues (if any!) have you changed your mind in the last 10 years – and why?” But for the most part, the Standard-bearers are staying the course.
Kagan – wondering what happened to all his fellow warmongers – scolds them with a quote from Thucydides: “I am the same man and do not alter, it is you who change, since in fact you took my advice while unhurt, and waited for misfortune to repent of it.” (Kagan, though, overlooked the opening line of the quoted passage: “For those of course who have a free choice in the matter and whose fortunes are not at stake, war is the greatest of follies.”)
In general, humility at the Standard is in short supply. “One thing I changed my mind about in the last 10 years is the Democrats’ future,” Noemie Emery writes. “Ten years ago, I believed that they had one.”
In the entire 13-page section, only Andrew Ferguson really questions the direction of the conservative movement. He bemoans the “ease in which stalwarts” like Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist “comandeered the greasy machinery of Washington power. Conservative activists came to Washington to do good and stayed to do well. The grease rubbed off, too.”
Needless to say, the Standard crowd is doing pretty well themselves. On September 14, almost exactly four years after President Bush’s famous speech amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, the Standard threw a star-studded (Katharine Harris! Bob Novak! Joe Lieberman!) anniversary bash. President Bush was speaking in New Orleans that night, trying to salvage his presidency from a deserted Jackson Square lit up like Disneyland. That same day was the bloodiest in Baghdad since the end of “major combat operations” – more than a dozen bombs exploded in the city, killing 160 people and wounding 570.
The Standard’s soiree was emblematic of the entire Bush era. While the conservative elite was nibbling lobster tails and sipping champagne, the rest of the world – from the Bayou to Baghdad – was going down the toilet.