Brushing aside the cobwebs that have accumulated in my mind while editing this magazine for 45 years, I perceive six phases in its life. Some events that seemed momentous in their day seem less so today. Others that seemed mere ephemera have taken on great significance. Murderers blamed the AmSpec staff for their excesses in the early 1970s; a procession of two generations of writers, activists, and political leaders—one being perhaps the greatest president of the 20th century—have surpassed them handily in significance. Years ago, I did not see the procession for what it came to be.
In our first phase we were conservative bohemians, living the feral life with books and a little booze as college kids. We defended the free society, were staunchly anti-Communist, and tried to be modern-day Burkean conservatives. We lived in a farmhouse about 15 minutes from the campus of Indiana University, and were a mix of IU swimmers—mostly world record holders and Olympians and me. I was a swimmer but with none of those lofty achievements. I once told Bill Buckley that The American Spectator had more world record holders on its masthead than any other intellectual review. He was bemused. Our intent, however, was not fitness but good prose, always to advance freedom and civilized values. Looking back, I think we succeeded.
In the early days there was what proved to be a surprising array of talent. Coming in and out of the farmhouse were John Von Kannon of AmSpec and later the Heritage Foundation, Ron Burr, Jim Bopp, a conservative active nationally in the anti-abortion movement, and Steve Davis, who went on to organize political campaigns. That was the core. Soon from Washington came three speechwriters from President Richard Nixon’s staff: Aram Bakshian, John R. Coyne, and Ben Stein. To this day they enliven our pages. George Will was for a while a columnist and advisor, and from New York came Bill Kristol. He was 16, and with him came his father, his mother, and the New York Neoconservatives. It is but another misnomer of our shoddy contemporary discourse to extend the term Neoconservative to middle-aged foreign policy “hawks.” True Neoconservatives were originally Liberals of the prior generation who with the passage of time became conservatives. Bill’s dad, Irving, was Neoconservatism’s Godfather. Then in 1973 came a visiting professor to Indiana University, Jim Piereson. He has written for us through all these years, as well as for other publications. He sits on the magazine’s Board of Directors. He is omnipresent in the conservative movement, having grown to become the indispensable counselor.
All manner of dignitaries visited us in the farmhouse, among them Pat Moynihan, and Bill Buckley and Frank S. Meyer of National Review. Milton Friedman I kept informed on regular trips to Chicago, and the spirits of Mencken and Nathan kept seeping into the farmhouse late at night. Then there were those aforementioned murderers, Emily and Bill Harris of the Symbionese Liberation Army. They began their radical odyssey in Bloomington, where they claimed they were terrorized by the staff of our magazine, who were allegedly armed and deadly. They eventually—still apparently terrorized by us—kidnapped Patti Hearst, got involved in a shootout, and landed in the slammer. We continued on, though armed only by books and the English language. In our early phases there would be other disputes with the violent left, though all have receded into memory’s well.
Our second phase began in the mid-1970s, when we served as a neutral meeting ground for the conservatives and wandering liberals, soon called Neoconservatives. Irving Kristol led a parade into our pages. Some conservatives treated us hostilely for this, but we have survived and still welcome both species of conservative. About this time we became supporters of the presidential ambitions of Governor Ronald Reagan. I met him and worked for him during a 1968 campaign appearance in Indianapolis when he made an abortive run for the White House. In 1976 most of us were actively for him. Then in 1980 I helped orchestrate a trip for the candidate to meet European intellectuals such as Luigi Barzini in Rome, Jean-François Revel in Paris, and luminaries such as Malcolm Muggeridge in London. These were the names of only a few of the intellectuals we had attracted to our pages in the 1970s. Popinjays like Judge Richard Posner lament the dearth of such “public intellectuals” today in the pages of conservative reviews. Perhaps the learned judge could raise, say, Revel from the dead, but if he does I am doubtful that many readers will notice. Times have changed.
Throughout the 1980s this magazine was pro-Reagan, as we went through our third phase. We fought the Liberals’ characterization of the Old Cowboy as dim and eager for war. After he won the Cold War without firing a shot and revived the economy, the Liberals have steadily advanced him as one of their own all along. Supposedly history is always with the Liberals even when it is not. We know otherwise. In the 1980s we boasted that many associates of the magazine served in the Reagan government, most notably William Casey, my lawyer, and Jeane Kirkpartick, eventually our most valiant Board member. They were great days. Those of us who did not serve in the government were in and out of the White House advising and conspiring. The denouement came when the president dined with me and Spectator associates at my home in 1988. In the background I played the music of Frederick the Great. The president ordered two screwdrivers. We were ready for phase four, our investigative phase.
Actually it was Wlady Pleszczynski who got us into this investigative stuff. I was reluctant. What was the fun in exposing Secretary of State James Baker, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (all things we believe in!), and Anita Hill? Yet wait! She was a sacred cow of nigh onto godlike sacerdotalism, and Clarence Thomas was an admirable man. So we entered the world of investigative journalism con brio, and we did it just as one of the richest targets in journalistic history came into office: Bill Clinton with his lovely wife Bruno! By now almost every professor of American history knows that Bill would never have been impeached if it were not for the sexual harassment lawsuit of one Paula who was heaved up on our pages. For that matter even many professors of criminal law know it. Yet the profs and the Clintons’ Episodic Apologists inevitably missed our running joke. By exposing everything from Hillary’s tax write-offs on Bill’s underwear, his chicanery on the golf course, and all the fraud of his presidency and governorship, we revealed not our “obsession” with the Clintons but rather our amusement with the most clownish presidency in American history—not the worst but the most clownish. Carter and Harding are redeemed! That the Clintons are still major figures on the American scene is not very reassuring, but we still can laugh, and Tom Wolfe supplied the coup de grace when he said the Spectator: “did a more thorough job with Bill Clinton than Woodward and Bernstein did with Nixon.”
Alas, we paid for our merriment. History has recorded, starting with Sidney Blumenthal’s book The Clinton Wars and continuing most recently with William Chafe’s Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal, that when Hillary spoke of “the vast right-wing conspiracy” she had in mind The American Spectator’s spreadsheets that had been betrayed to Blumenthal by Bud Lemley, my investment advisor. The joke is that they did not have to rely on Lemley’s lack of ethics. The spreadsheets were for the most part public documents. Yet for over a year—from Hillary’s challenge to the Episodic Apologists in the media and to the Justice Department investigators—we were brought before legal proceedings in the District of Columbia and in Arkansas. Once again we had the last laugh. Michael Shaheen, former head of the Office of Professional Responsibility in the Justice Department, totally exonerated us, an exoneration that the Clintons have never experienced. The Clintons turned up the heat in the kitchen, but we cooked their goose. Still, it cost us hugely. Many friends proved to be friends of the fair-weather persuasion. They took a powder. Still, in the end I could say we had our mettle tested and it held up rather well.
George Gilder came in and served as a holding action. That would be phase five. The protection that he afforded us was heroic, and we are forever grateful, as we are for Bob Bartley, who jumped in upon retirement from the Wall Street Journal. Now comes phase six. We are bringing in a new wave of young editors, writers, and business personnel, all a generation younger than Wlady and I. The magazine is a daily on the Web with almost instantaneous news and commentary at Spectator.org. We appear on social media and Twitter. We have apps. Yet you cannot say it all in 140 characters—unless you are a Liberal with so little to say. Even one thousand words on the Web is tight. So we have the monthly American Spectator for longer, elegant analysis. Today AmSpec is multimedia like Newsweek and the New York Times, only we lose less money.
Moreover, with our young journalist program we are training the next generation of civilized pundits and muckrakers. I know there are a lot of grumblers out there complaining about “dead-end jobs.” I do not quite see their point. I have been in the same job for 45 years and frankly, between you and me, it has been a blast.
Photo courtesy of N. Renaud, WikiMedia Commons.