The Curse of The Weekly Standard

At its best, the conservative magazine was lively, warm, and unexpected. But it never had to try very hard.

The Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol
The Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

In the Donald Trump era, some liberals are confounded by their affection for a figure they would otherwise despise. He is known to them, after all, as one of America’s most enthusiastic warmongers—and as the man who first vaulted Sarah Palin to national fame. Yet for all his many episodes of villainy, it’s possible to concede the pleasures of his impish company, especially when he breaks ranks to join your political side. His current career as a pithy critic of the president led liberal Twitter to endow him with a grudgingly affectionate moniker: He is “Woke Bill Kristol.”

Today the magazine Kristol founded, The Weekly Standard, is not awake at all. The owner of the magazine, Phil Anschutz, has snuffed it out. He folded the Standard at the very moment it was enjoying newfound relevance as the house organ of the Never Trump wing of the Republican Party. On the eve of its death, the Standard exhibited a cover-to-cover vibrance that had eluded it for more than a decade.

For many years, I enjoyed The Weekly Standard with a swirl of mixed sentiments, similar to the ones that now greet Woke Bill Kristol. The publication, which Kristol edited until 2016, perfectly reflected his personality and ever-shifting enthusiasms. It carried an amiable wit, albeit one that didn’t always hit the mark. (Covers often featured bombastic cartoons in a style that evoked the work of bar-mitzvah sketch artists, which made political enemies look like abject idiots.) The magazine itself combined high intellectual seriousness with the crass mentality of a political operative. A single edition of the Standard might contain gonzo reportage, erudite cultural essays, and op-eds filled with gross clichés that made you want to force the whole thing down the garbage disposal.

Issue One of the Standard appeared in the aftermath of Newt Gingrich’s triumph in 1995, with the speaker heroically portrayed on the front as Rambo in wing tips. Kristol positioned his magazine as the ideological vanguard of American conservatism while never fully swearing allegiance to the movement. One year the Standard might portray itself as a dissident voice at odds with the Republican establishment; the next it might serve as the mouthpiece of the politicians it had just ripped. As a citizen, I can’t say that I really appreciated the magazine’s contribution to politics; but as a reader, I often found myself thoroughly enjoying it, especially in its earliest years.

Editing is Kristol’s paternal inheritance. His father, Irving Kristol, was, of course, the “godfather of neoconservatism.” Whatever one thinks about that movement, Kristol père presided over some of the most thrilling publications of the postwar period. With the covert backing of the CIA, he edited the journal Encounter. (His primary collaborator, and nemesis, was the English poet Stephen Spender.) Despite the taint of the magazine’s benefactor, Encounter was the finest product of the cultural cold war, filled with timeless essays by the likes of W. H. Auden, Mary McCarthy, and Lionel Trilling. The next publication he launched, The Public Interest, had an entirely different vibe. It posed as a stodgy journal of policy and leveled a supposedly friendly critique of 1960s liberalism, which grew ever less friendly as the decade wore on. (This time Irving Kristol collaborated with the Harvard sociologists Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer.) The Public Interest was bursting with fresh ideas. It had the crackle of a new intellectual movement putting down its arguments for the first time.

Irving Kristol made his name in the world of New York intellectuals, the disillusioned left that turned away from Stalinism. Bill Kristol came of professional age in Dan Quayle’s vice-presidential office. (He was known as “Dan Quayle’s brain.”) That difference in training was plain in every issue of the Standard. The magazine was interested in electioneering, full of journalism about rising conservative politicians, dispatches from Senate races, reports on little-known White House figures. (When Bill Kristol went in search of his Stephen Spender, his partner in editing, he chose the journalist Fred Barnes.) Still, the Standard maintained a connection to Irving Kristol’s firmament. In the early years, it featured a remarkable cast of septuagenarians—James Q. Wilson, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Cynthia Ozick, not to mention Bill Kristol’s brilliant mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb—who began as like-minded New York intellectuals and then wandered into Ronald Reagan’s party, which they never left.

Although the Standard didn’t have the feel of a tightly edited magazine, Kristol created an eclectic atmosphere. To his credit, he maintained a robust section on books and the arts; it was highly uneven, but it made a good-faith effort to preserve the reverence for high culture that his father’s generation had professed. He also had an adventurous taste in writers. Many of the left’s favorite objects of disdain began their career with the Standard. In their earlier incarnations, they produced work that was stylish, unexpected, and full of warmth.

The best features in the Standard sought to combine the easy charm of a Michael Lewis story with the edgier satiric streak of Tom Wolfe. Before The New York Times poached him, David Brooks published his earliest works of “comic sociology” in the magazine—his somewhat glib, entertaining portraits of life at the turn of the millennium. Tucker Carlson is now known for his stage persona as the angriest white man in America, but you wouldn’t really glean that from his early journalism. He modeled himself after Hunter Thompson, an homage he acknowledged explicitly: “At this point, I should add the customary disclaimer about how drugs are bad, a lie and a trap and a destroyer of lives. That’s all true, but not in my case. For me, the whole experience was interesting and fun. I had a great time.” Carlson soaked up anecdotes, which he recounted with turns of joy and biliousness.

One of the curses of the magazine was Rupert Murdoch’s financial backing, which continued until the media magnate bought The Wall Street Journal and shifted his attention to his new plaything. The comfort of Murdoch’s patronage meant that the magazine never had to try very hard. Over the decades, it hardly evolved in its look and feel. Its hugely talented writers—Chris Caldwell, Andrew Ferguson, and Matt Labash—seemed slowly drained of higher ambitions. Kristol never supplemented his original cast with writers of equal talent.

Meanwhile, the war in Iraq overwhelmed the identity of the magazine. At its best, the magazine nurtured writers who were witty and arch. Like all great conservative publications, it couldn’t help but subconsciously borrow from the ethos of London’s The Spectator, with its dyspeptic Toryism. But Iraq was a crusade that brought out a hectoring tone, and it led the magazine to bludgeon its enemies as traitors. (This obsession with war was accompanied by work promoting a bizarre, homophobic cult of masculinity. It extended beyond screeds against gay marriage to a jeremiad about hairless men and an essay on manliness and morality that somehow included the grotesque line “It certainly seems strange that being capable of rape can make a person better qualified for greatness, but it’s probably true.”)

At one point, the Standard tried to injure my career, launching a bad-faith effort to discredit stories about the war I had published as the editor of The New Republic. (My own investigation of the pieces concluded that I couldn’t “be confident that the events in his pieces occurred in exactly the manner that [the author] described them,” but the Standard never hesitated to declare with total confidence that they had not.) The magazine was running a political campaign against ideological enemies, not publishing journalism. During the Iraq War, the Standard behaved not so differently from its cousin, Fox News.

I never regularly read the magazine after its campaign against The New Republic—and I find myself a bit surprised by my own nostalgia for it. But it’s worth pausing to consider why a magazine like the Standard can be pleasurable and important, even to those who find its goals and methods noxious. In part, it’s the spectacle of watching lively minds on an expedition. The Standard would go off on quixotic missions, and not all of them in the desert of Iraq. Kristol promoted Colin Powell as a presidential candidate in 1996; then he cheered on John McCain’s challenge to George W. Bush in 2000. The magazine enjoyed making mischief and enemies, which made its pages highly readable.

These days, I find myself subscribing to political magazines on the left because that’s where stylish political-opinion magazines seem to now emanate. There’s Current Affairs, with its foppish progressivism; the Menckenlike spirit of The Baffler; and the more refined cultural criticism of n+1. They are all beautifully produced and aspire to cohesion. Every time an issue arrives, there’s the possibility that an article might shove me from an ensconced position. There’s the exoticism of encountering new arguments, something fresh to turn over in the head. There’s the romantic possibility that in a grubby world driven by material interests and base prejudices, ideas might actually matter. It was a spirit I sometimes found in the Standard, which was never remotely woke but quite often full of life.