How The Weekly Standard lost its influence
When we learned last week that The Weekly Standard was closing, this publication's Matthew Walther asked, "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?"
As it turns out, I have spent considerable time around both publications. My first Washington journalism job was at The American Conservative, to which I have since returned as its editor. But a decade after my first stint at the magazine ended, I found myself working at The Washington Examiner and sharing an office with The Weekly Standard. The magazines were different in many ways, most notably their opposing views on the Iraq War. The American Conservative was staunchly against the invasion, while the Standard was one of its chief promoters. This means that, in just a few years, I'd gone from spending my workday looking at a framed magazine cover with the headline "Iraq Folly" to sitting near an equally life-sized framed cover insisting "Saddam Must Go."
Despite these diametrically opposed views, by 2017, the Standard found itself in a position eerily reminiscent of The American Conservative 10 years earlier: It had become a conservative magazine with no use for the Republican president of the United States. But where The American Conservative was launched as a lifeboat for conservatives jumping ship from then-President George W. Bush's White House, the Standard found itself drowning in the Trump tsunami.
In the early 2000s, The American Conservative's Buchanan railed against Bush's foreign policy. Buchanan, the veteran of Republican administrations, even ran for president as a third-party candidate against Bush. In more recent years, the Standard's Kristol was also on television — excoriating President Trump's foreign policy and touting his "Never Trump" stance. There are even persistent rumors that Kristol may run against Trump in 2020.
Buchanan has been, on balance, pro-Trump. Kristol was even more pro-Bush. Both men continued to define their respective magazines' brands long after their editorships had ended. And if anything, the junior editorial staffers hated the respective disfavored Republican presidents even more than the founders did (Barnes, still an important Standard voice, was a significant outlier, contributing mildly pro-Trump coverage).
There were, of course, critical differences between the publications that went beyond foreign policy. The American Conservative was founded as an insurgent magazine, and its initial subscribers knew what they were getting. But The Weekly Standard's audience was used to reading positive coverage of Republican presidents and withering criticism of Democrats. By 2016, the Standard was not the only conservative publication to discover that its anti-Trump arguments were falling on deaf ears: As president, Trump indeed behaved as badly as Never Trumpers predicted, but governed surprisingly conservatively.
Still, the Standard could have weathered the storm, the same way it had weathered other breaks with the "conservative street." In 2006, on the magazine's 10th anniversary, Kristol noted that when the Standard backed former President Bill Clinton's military intervention in Bosnia, "a not insignificant chunk of our original subscribers immediately canceled out on us."
Those cancellations didn't prove fatal, and the dust-ups over Trump might not have, either. After all, two of the top editors overseeing the expanded Examiner magazine, slated to survive the Standard, are in fact Never Trumpers. But the Standard's end was ultimately a judgment about influence: which publication competing for limited resources was gaining influence, and which was losing it. And influence is not as easily quantifiable as other metrics used to measure success, like print circulation or web traffic. Still, under Bush, the Standard could have made as plausible a claim to be the "inflight magazine of Air Force One" as The New Republic did under Clinton. But not anymore.
None of the ideological wars — or even the literal ones — of the last 15 years lead me to cheer the Standard's demise. Too many of its writers are my friends, and journalism careers are too tenuous for us all. Many staffers facing unemployment this Christmas were children during the invasion of Iraq.
During a closing scare at The American Conservative a dozen years ago, I was seated at a dinner next to a Standard senior editor. He told me that while my bosses were "wrong about everything," he hoped the magazine would stay open because everyone who devotes their lives to writing what they believe to be true is ultimately in the same profession.
That is ultimately The Weekly Standard's complicated legacy: The magazine gave us some amazing writers and reporters — and helped set the stage for one of the worst foreign-policy blunders in our country's history.