What made The Weekly Standard great
The best right-of-center magazine in the country was bigger than the Iraq War — or Trump
When it was announced on Friday that The Weekly Standard would print its last issue after nearly a quarter of a century, I was astonished. Who would ever have guessed that The American Conservative, the upstart anti-war magazine founded by Pat Buchanan and Scott McConnell in 2002, would outlast Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes' neoconservative colossus? If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said it was about as likely as the star of Celebrity Apprentice winning the White House on a reactionary populist platform.
It's worth saying at the outset that I and millions of other Americans of all political tendencies disagreed with the editors of The Weekly Standard about the Iraq war. We were right and they were wrong. I will return later to this issue, which is more complicated than some critics of intervention have ever made it sound. But there are other points worth making first.
The most obvious one is that the Standard was, for more than two decades, the best right-of-center periodical published in the United States. This was true for the very simple reason that it hired the best writers and let them write about the topics that interested them.
In this they were lucky. The Standard was founded when The American Spectator, which had a long glorious run as a kind of conservative New York Review of Books in the '80s, was flying Icarus-like into the horizon. The Spectator's brilliant editorial director Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, whose earlier proteges included Malcolm Gladwell, had discovered Andrew Ferguson, Christopher Caldwell, and Matt Labash, each of whom would eventually join Kristol's new magazine.
If you have never read them, well, better late than never. Labash is not only one of the funniest writers in the business; he is also one of the most humane and sympathetic. His profile of Marion Barry is one of the most compassionate things I have ever read about a human being, much less about a politician. Caldwell managed to foresee nearly all of the most significant political trends of our age — the rise of European populism, the collapse of rural America. It is not possible in the space of a short column to do justice to the many talents of Andrew Ferguson, a master of the reported feature, the long-form book review, the short personal essay, the opinion column, the obituary. Andy is, to borrow a phrase Hilaire Belloc used to refer to P.G. Wodehouse, "the head of my profession."
I remember the first issue of the magazine I ever purchased at a newsstand. The cover story was a profile of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) by Matthew Continetti. As a college-aged supporter of Paul and his father I expected to read something snide and dismissive. Instead what I found was fair-minded and incisive without neglecting the kookiness that has never been absent from Paulworld for long (see the hilarious exchange with the correspondent from the John Birch Society's magazine). It was also beautifully written. In the years to come I would go from thinking of the Standard as "the right-wing New Yorker" to calling the latter publication, as its pages became more saturated with politics and its cultural coverage declined, "the liberal Weekly Standard." Unlike so many legacy print periodicals, the magazine expanded its online presence without dumbing down. Meanwhile, it continued to hire talented young editors and reporters: Adam Rubenstein's recent dispatch on Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is a masterpiece of campaign journalism.
In domestic politics the Standard always stood for a more humane, less libertarian vision of conservatism. It owed this to the intellectual legacy of neoconservatism: Daniel Patrick Moynihan's policy acumen, Irving Kristol's Two Cheers for Capitalism, and Christopher Lasch's more radical Tory Marxism. This did not always translate into the sort of open dissent from the atomizing consensus of the post-Goldwater GOP, but it did mean that the Standard's editorial pages stood for principles loftier than the almighty dollar.
Which brings us back to foreign policy, the subject of most of the gloating responses I have seen in the weeks since the magazine's troubles were first reported. For many years on the American right there has been an interest in shoring up the legacy of so-called "realists" in foreign policy. This has meant, among other things, the lionization of creeps, such as the openly eugenicist George F. Kennan, on the grounds that they pursued the national interests of the United States unblinded by such wimpy considerations as human rights.
This is vile. A nation's foreign policy cannot be amoral without sooner or later being immoral. Nor is it possible to indulge the fantasy that the United States is still an agrarian republic isolated from world affairs. Whether she wanted it or not, she has inherited an imperial destiny. It cannot be denied that in winning the Cold War America was a force for good in the world. In the post-1989 era, this has been the case far less often — not, alas, for lack of trying.
Whether preserving the peace to which man is by his nature inclined means attempting to convert tribal chieftains from despotism to universal suffrage in the space of a few years is another question entirely. For my part I am pessimistic about the ability of a nation as fractured as ours as to carry on any grand enterprises or to embody, much less to promote, any meaningful virtues. The failure of the "New American Century" abroad was an inevitable result of its failures at home. But that is not the fault of one magazine or one group of journalists and thinkers. It certainly cannot be blamed on the Standard's three best writers, who, I believe to a man, had serious doubts about our recent adventures in Mesopotamia.
The Weekly Standard's unexpected end is a sad thing for this country not because many of its editors and writers stood against President Trump but because at their best they stood for things that matter far more than the short-term fortunes of any politician.