The Conintern

Politics and policy.
June 29 1997 3:30 AM

The Conintern

Republican thought police.

Essential to the self-image of conservatives is the notion that they are enemies of an established orthodoxy, insurgents against the dogmatic political correctness that predominates on the left. Some recent gleanings, however, suggest that the opposite is true. The party where humorless thought police work to enforce a rigid ideological discipline isn't made up of Democrats. It comprises Republicans.

A vision of the Conintern, circa 1997, emerges from two recent magazine pieces, both by young conservative journalists. The first is a profile of Grover Norquist Jr., a lobbyist and adviser to Newt Gingrich, by Tucker Carlson. It appeared in the New Republic after the Weekly Standard, where Carlson is a staff writer, turned the idea down. The article portrays Norquist as a buffoonish commissar who has misplaced his principles to the extent of accepting money to lobby on behalf of the Marxist government of the Seychelles. In passing, Carlson describes Norquist's weekly Wednesday morning meetings, where conservative-movement activists, political strategists, congressional staffers, and conservative journalists who are deemed loyal, from places like the National Review and the Washington Times, gather to hash out what can only be called the party line.

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Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

The second article, which appears in the current issue of Esquire, is by David Brock, author of The Real Anita Hill and The Seduction of Hillary Rodham. Accompanied by a kinky photograph of the author, tied to a stake with his chest bared, it describes how Brock became persona non grata on the right by writing too sympathetically about Hillary Rodham Clinton. Brock, strangely enough, acquiesces in the popular misconception that his book was sympathetic to the first lady. In fact, Brock's book was quite vicious about her, attacking her in a McCarthyite vein and casting her as a Commie symp rather than a sleaze.

But as a glimpse into the world of conservative journalism, Brock's article is revealing. Brock portrays a political subculture in which loyalty to the cause means everything, truth very little. He recalls being told by one well-known conservative to leave town when he made trouble for the anti-Clinton cause by inconveniently pointing out that Gary Aldrich's book, Unlimited Access, was a crock. Before long, Brock was being disinvited to conservative conferences and parties and denounced by his old allies as a turncoat.

This kind of treatment has no parallel among liberals. A few left-wing journalists, such as Nat Hentoff and Christopher Hitchens, have caught flak for dissenting from the conventional liberal position on abortion. But there is no liberal "movement" like today's conservative movement, and no such thing as a liberal-movement journalist in the sense that Brock functioned as a conservative one. It is instructive to compare what happened to Brock with the way Sidney Blumenthal (formerly of the New Republic and The New Yorker) was treated by his former colleagues when it was announced that he was joining the staff of the Clinton White House. Blumenthal was attacked by fellow liberal journalists for having compromised his journalistic independence by being too kind to Clinton. No conservative journalist would ever be accused by his fellows of being too close to Reagan, or to Gingrich. The conservative journalists who get in trouble with their colleagues are people like Brock, Kevin Phillips, and Michael Lind, who are accused of disloyalty to conservatism.

Laura Ingraham is a legendarily on-the-make young conservative pundit, who may need to prove her independence to media outlets more than her loyalty to the Conintern. Ingraham was Brocked a few months ago when she wrote on the New York Times op-ed page that Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., should step aside as chairman of the House campaign-finance investigation. Robert Novak, the columnist, promptly denounced Ingraham as a "so-called conservative." At the conservative gathering known as the Dark Ages Weekend, Norquist asked her what she was trying to accomplish by criticizing fellow conservatives in the Times. Ingraham would have to choose, he said, "whether to be with us or against us." Norquist also let it be known that Ingraham would no longer be welcome at those Wednesday morning sessions.

Conservative journalists don't just have the inside track on Republican strategy--they help devise it. Consider, for instance, the many roles of John Fund, one of the editors of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Fund has doubled as a member of the Speaker's Advisory Group, a small cluster of Gingrich's close advisers. According to sources, Fund nearly left the Journal a few months ago to become Gingrich's chief spokesman. After accepting the job initially, Fund changed his mind, perhaps because he is more helpful where he is. (He declined comment.) Fund's denunciations of Gingrich apostates have the flavor of Stalin-era attacks on Trotskyite heretics. Earlier this year, when Arianna Huffington argued in her syndicated column that Gingrich should step aside as speaker, an editorial promptly appeared in the Journal charging Huffington with "intellectual exhibitionism." This tone is Gingrich's own. The speaker has been known to send notes to errant conservative journalists describing their work as "strategically counterproductive."

The Washington Times' editorial page, directed by Tod Lindberg, functions like the Journal's. The Carlson piece shows how Norquist can secure an editorial supporting his clients, no matter how obscure the subject. The paper includes a few liberal points of view for window dressing, but hardly any dissenting conservative ones. Though the Times carries Huffington's syndicated column, she has been censored when she has tried to write critically about Gingrich. Again, the liberal equivalent of this--the New York Times refusing to run criticism of Clinton by Anthony Lewis--is unthinkable.

Illustration by Peter Kuper

Nor is there any liberal equivalent to the way various conservative outlets--from the National Review to Novak's syndicated column and Rush Limbaugh's radio show--all disseminate the same message du jour. Before the 1996 election, the conservative propaganda line generally reflected poll-tested talking points on issues like taxes or welfare reform. As Gingrich falters, however, the line seems to be less about issues where conservatives disagree with liberals and more about conservatives selling out fellow conservatives. A month ago, the word emanating from all the above-mentioned orifices was that Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was betraying his party by co-sponsoring a health-care reform bill with Ted Kennedy. This week, it is that Gary Bauer, a leader of social conservatives, has allowed himself to become a tool of Gingrich's enemies by opposing the renewal of Most Favored Nation status for China. These attempts to stamp out free thinking suggest what is really going on inside the GOP: an effort to submerge the battle of ideas.

Of the main Conintern outlets, the least reliable in its political coverage is the Weekly Standard, which regularly launches fusillades against the Republican leadership, almost always for departing from the True Faith. (For a related article on conservative cultural correctness, see " But Is It Art Criticism?" by Franklin Foer in this issue of Slate.) William Kristol, the Standard's editor, recognizes such attacks for the great publicity stunts they are. But even the Standard, it seems, has its limits. According to Kristol, Deputy Editor John Podhoretz turned down Tucker Carlson's Norquist proposal because he didn't want the magazine to be seen as carrying on a vendetta against Gingrich. It's seen that way just the same. Norquist has been spreading the word that Rupert Murdoch, the Standard's owner, must stop funding the magazine. Carlson says he has had calls from the conservative Politburo, including one from Michael Ledeen, a former Reagan National Security aide, who told him, "No one who believes what we believe should be attacking Grover."

Much of this kind of behavior can be traced back to what Richard Hofstadter famously described as the "paranoid style" of the American Right. Conspiratorial conservatives have a tendency toward what Hofstadter called "the imitation of the enemy." Thus the Ku Klux Klan wore the vestments of the Catholics they despised, and the John Birch Society organized itself in secret cells and front groups modeled on the Communist foe. Contemporary conservatives believe that the most powerful institutions in American society are part of a liberal conspiracy. They feel this gives them license to create conservative counterinstitutions, from magazines to think tanks. But these conservative institutions--the Washington Times, the Heritage Foundation--are part of an ideological mission in a way that "liberal" ones--the Washington Post, the Brookings Institution--are not.

Exaggerated and crude claims of liberal bias have become an excuse for poor journalistic standards, and for shoddy intellectual ones as well. But the worst of it isn't the propaganda that passes for conservative thought these days. It's the deadly sense of enforced conformity, the stale air that blows in from the stagnant ponds of the Right.

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