Reason's Libertarians, in Pursuit of Happiness

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Four minutes into Reason magazine's monthly bash at the Big Hunt lounge, and every Libertarian-as-Bacchus fantasy you've entertained plays out before your widening eyes.

Nick Gillespie, the leather-jacketed, Mama-said-you're-dangerous editor of the political rag peers at you intently. "What do you need?" he asks. "Do you need a drink? A cigarette?"

A stranger reaches out to knead your shoulders. Maybe what you need is a relaxing back rub.

My, is that cloying smell in the stairwell . . . marijuana?

This is a snippet of a happy hour, one of hundreds of scenes happening at bars throughout the city on this Tuesday night. But for the mostly male editors of Reason -- newly congregating in the District after years of spider-holing around the country -- partying hearty represents a point of moral pride.

"D.C. is a city of young fogies who think the only way to be pious is to wear ill-fitting suits" and obsess over politics, Gillespie, 44, says later. "We're the only people that want to have fun."

* * *

Libertarianism is a hard sell for young, majority-Democrat Washington. Its free market philosophy must be carefully tempered with swinging promises: "Yeah, baby, I do oppose the minimum wage, but let's talk about it over an illegal substance or two, hmm? Bring a friend."

It's a bachelor-pad vibe, and it's the vibe emanating from Reason, a publication with 60,000 readers and articles ranging from the expectedly wonky ("Is Rudy Giuliani a new Barry Goldwater or a new Bobby Kennedy?") to the snarkily cultural ("Say You Love Santa: Pop Culture's War on Secularists"). A recent issue lambasted the District's zero-tolerance drinking and driving policy -- cops can book anyone with a blood alcohol content over .01 -- and postulated that the Onion might be the best newspaper in the country.

If you are a free-thinking Washingtonian in your 20s or 30s, Reason wants your ear -- look, just give Ron Paul a chance -- but it wants something else even more. It wants to seduce you.

Five months ago, Reason leased a space in Dupont Circle. Those high on the masthead had decided a 202 area code was necessary for clout; the new location is low on office equipment but high on sex -- flat-screen TVs, granite countertops and a large shag rug. Beige, yes, but shag.

Last month the staff launched, home of "The Drew Carey Project" (dude's a libertarian) as well as other anti-Big Brother videos. And on Jan. 1, Gillespie will leave his print magazine role to bulk up the presence of and His replacement is Matt Welch, a former Los Angeles Times opinion writer who wears pink vests with rhinestone buttons and has a French wife. On the Web site's masthead, 11 out of 15 editors are male, and with rare exception, they are also under 40 and non-Beltway.

"It's clear we don't come from a political background," says Gillespie, referring to himself and Welch. "I started out in rock and teen magazines. We're not about [self-pleasuring] to Ronald Reagan." Oh, behave.

It's not that they don't do politics. Of course they do politics. They are a political magazine. But they want you to know that they do politics far less than the other political magazines do politics. "Too often the conversations here are all about 'Oh, can you believe Al Gore did this?' " says Welch.

Adds Gillespie, "It's such a tedious debate. It's like how many Bill Buckleys can dance on the head of a pin."

To prove they are above all that nonsense, they have parties.

"We want to have interesting conversations about things," says Welch. "We want to drill home that culture matters."

Once a month, culture comes in the form of magazine release parties at assorted Dupont dives and wafts of conversation like "This can't be good for my liver" and "Jeremy has passed out in his own vomit."

Jeremy, several people make sure to tell you, is not a Reason employee.

Does he work for the Cato Institute? Cato refugees have been known to show up at Reason parties, which are announced on the magazine's blog and thus open to anyone who reads it. Their first try was at some pseudo-Irish pub, and drew staffers from both American Prospect and the Weekly Standard who eyeballed each other from across the room like at an awkward middle school dance.

The crowd is more guys than gals, and the women who do arrive look gamine and mischievous, and like they wouldn't say no to a cigarette. At a recent event, Emmanuelle, Welch's wife, wears black leather pants with a yellow racing stripe running up each leg.

Several other times each month, Reason brings culture in the form of an afternoon roundtable, or a wine-and-cheese Q&A with Someone Controversial.

On the Wednesday after the Big Hunt happy hour, that figure was Roger Stone, the political trickster most recently in the news for allegedly bawling out New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's dad on an answering machine.

An astounding number of men with Newt Gingrich haircuts arrive at the magazine's offices to hear Stone. These men are regarded warily by Reason editors, most of whom wear T-shirts or hoodies.

"It's a whole different set of slobbering drunks" than last night, Michael Moynihan, an associate editor, says cheerfully.

Everyone drinks beer, unless they look like Newt Gingrich, in which case they drink drinks out of plastic glasses.

Gillespie asks Stone about the art of negative campaigning and encourages him to drop the F-word liberally. This is, Gillespie reminds him, a libertarian office. Stone does, especially when bawling out Spitzer.

After the event, Gillespie and Welch share that they are not Stone supporters. "On a very profound level, he is a grotesque," Gillespie says the next day.

But Reason's goal in Washington is not to agree with everyone, says Welch, but rather this: "We want to add a new bacteria to the culture."

And are you sure, they ask, that you wouldn't like a drink?

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