Right Face, Right Time
Conservative Bill Kristol Carves a Niche for Himself as the Friendly Contrarian
By Howard Kurtz
"How you doing, how's the family?" Kristol says with a broad grin.
"Everybody's doing pretty well," Keyes says warmly.
If any political savant is wired to nearly all the Republican presidential candidates, it's Kristol, the genial face of non-threatening conservatism. And if anyone is deeply embedded in the media culture--editing an opinion magazine, pontificating on all the networks, quoted by reporters in search of a glib Republican--Kristol is the man. He's become part of Washington's circulatory system, this half-pol, half-pundit, full-throated advocate with the nice-guy image.
Kristol roomed with Keyes at Harvard and managed his failed 1988 Senate campaign in Maryland. He's been summoned by John McCain for long foreign-policy chats inspired by pieces in his magazine, the Weekly Standard. He worked with Gary Bauer at the Education Department and is so close that their families often share a beach house. He enticed Steve Forbes to contribute to the activist group he ran before founding the Standard. He bumped into George W. now and then while working in the Bush White House.
Even Kristol concedes that his professional trajectory might be described as failing upward. When his academic career stalled, he joined the Reagan administration. When his boss Dan Quayle got the boot, he launched an organization whose main mission was getting Kristol media attention. When that began to fizzle, he started a magazine. And no sooner did ABC's "This Week" dump Kristol as a weekly panelist than he was deluged with offers from other networks.
"For a phoenix rising from the ashes, he didn't spend much time in the ashes," says Fred Barnes, the Standard's executive editor.
Kristol, 47, has been on a one-man media blitz for the last two weeks. First he flew to Iowa to hold forth on CNN's "Capital Gang," Fox's "Special Report," NBC's "Today" and "Meet the Press," turning down CBS's "Face the Nation," which he had done a few weeks earlier. Then it was back to Washington for "Larry King Live," and off to New Hampshire for an encore appearance Sunday on "Meet the Press."
With this kind of profile, it's little wonder that Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation calls Kristol "the Bill Buckley of the next generation."
For most people, getting fired by ABC would be a humiliating experience, but Kristol was unfazed. "I've gone out of my way not to invest any of my self-esteem in TV," he says.
This, say friends, is no act. "He's not a fragile ego," says Weekly Standard writer Tucker Carlson. "I've never seen him get mad once in five years."
"He's a very low-key guy, and ups and downs don't particularly affect him," Wittmann says. "A lot of people in Washington get very puffed up by their stature, and Bill has never succumbed to that."
Indeed, Kristol's special talent is to make other people angry--Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan--as he smiles his way through the daily rhetorical warfare. And some of these critics bite back. Ask how he shrugs off personal attacks and the son of Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, two of the most prominent neoconservative scholars of their time, flashes his Cheshire grin.
"My parents were routinely vilified, accused of betraying their heritage," he says. "New York intellectual life is nastier than Washington political life. My father never let it get to him at all."
Stirring the Caldron By his own admission, Bill Kristol is a contrarian.
He was that rarity in Manhattan, a Mets fan. His sixth-grade teacher threw an eraser at him for denouncing an assigned novel as leftist trash. He was never part of the drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll scene at Harvard. He says he's annoyed by "the stupidity and arrogance of the Republican establishment."
The feeling is mutual.
In 1994, Kristol was close to Gingrich, chatting with him regularly about the GOP strategy for capturing Congress. But after the Republicans took the Hill, Kristol says, he had a sharp exchange with the new House speaker "where I realized he didn't want my advice or need my advice."
As Kristol grew more critical of Gingrich's high-wire speakership, the congressman returned fire on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, decrying "Kristol's passion for destroying Republicans. . . . I've concluded that he thinks he has to make news by pandering to the liberals every week and has become sort of the most destructive element on the right."
That was just the start. When the Weekly Standard debuted in September 1995, Kristol wrote that Dole could be out of the presidential race by Christmas and that the likely Republican nominee was Colin Powell. Dole was not pleased.
"So who is Bill Kristol?" Dole asked months later. "What has he done? I don't look upon him as anybody who really understands politics." For good measure, Dole spokesman John Buckley called Kristol "the first rat off the ship."
Last fall, when Kristol assailed Buchanan and urged him to leave the Republican Party, the commentator hit back on "Today": "Let me tell you about Mr. Kristol. He runs that dinky little magazine that's subsidized by Rupert Murdoch that pretends to be conservative."
Kristol seems secretly pleased at his ability to stir controversy. "Editing a magazine is not a good way to make friends," he says. "People don't understand a magazine is not a propaganda organ or an arm of a political party."
A Strange Political Path
Everyone assumes that Kristol was inculcated with politics and culture at the family dinner table on Manhattan's West 81st Street. After all, Irving Kristol was a former Trotskyite who became the godfather of neoconservatism, and Gertrude Himmelfarb a leading scholar of Victorian literature.
Sure, the likes of Lionel Trilling and Hannah Arendt dropped by the fourth-floor apartment. But Kristol says he spent more time playing ball in Riverside Park than visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"My wife and I never made any effort to give him a political education," says Irving Kristol, co-editor of the Public Interest, noting that the children usually dined before them. "They learned from the people who visited us and overhearing our conversations. When he was about 13, I remember going into his room and finding him reading a history of political parties, which rather astonished me."
Himmelfarb recalls her daughter returning from a sleepover to announce that "other families aren't like ours. When they watch TV, they're quiet." Whether the family was watching the news or "I Love Lucy," Himmelfarb says, "we were never passive recipients of what the culture was giving us."
Bill was 12 when he rode around on a sound truck for City Council presidential candidate Pat Moynihan, a friend of his father's. Kristol volunteered for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and four years later helped run Harvard-Radcliffe Students for Scoop Jackson, but by 1976 had abandoned the Democratic Party for the GOP.
Following the academic path that was expected of him, Kristol earned his PhD at Harvard (on the philosophical antecedents of the American judicial system) and also met his future wife, Susan, who has a PhD in classical literature. He began a teaching career, first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, but concluded that "I just wasn't cut out to do serious academic work."
The Kristol name soon came in handy. His parents had lobbied for President Reagan to name William Bennett to run the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in 1985, when Bennett became education secretary, he hired Kristol, who quickly was promoted to chief of staff. Bennett tutored Kristol in how to work the media, such as releasing studies on slow-news holiday weekends.
When George Bush won the White House, Kristol was tapped as the vice president's chief of staff. The New Republic soon dubbed him "Dan Quayle's Brain." His job, mostly in background conversations with reporters, was to rehabilitate Quayle's battered public image, a task that proved herculean. Kristol also had trouble internally, drawing the wrath of White House Chief of Staff John Sununu after opposing a major budget deal that included a tax hike. "They basically regarded me as not a team player," he says.
Kristol grabbed a piece of the spotlight in 1992, defending the Bush-Quayle ticket on such programs as "Crossfire." After the election, Dorrance Smith, the former Bush communications director who had moved to ABC, asked Kristol to be an occasional guest on "This Week" and "Good Morning America." And he made a favorable impression on ABC News chief Roone Arledge, whom he met at a New York dinner party thrown by Georgette Mosbacher to help Kristol raise money for his new conservative group.
Setting up the Project for the Republican Future took "chutzpah," Kristol admits, since no one had asked him to speak for the party. He and his 10 staffers wrote strategy memos, which Kristol flacked in endless interviews. The group "had a grad school dorm quality to it," says ex-staffer Dan McKivergan, now with the Philanthropy Roundtable. "Bill understood early on that to have a serious impact on conservative politics, you had to get yourself into the media."
Indeed, in the closing days of the 1994 campaign, after Kristol said on "Meet the Press" that he wouldn't mind seeing farm subsidies abolished, President Clinton assailed him by name in Iowa, saying: "He tells them what to think up there in Washington."
Once the Republicans had captured Capitol Hill, Kristol asked Murdoch, one of his donors, to back a conservative magazine. He changed the sign on the door of the 17th Street NW office and the Weekly Standard was born, with Kristol as both publisher and editor.
While the magazine has become part of the Beltway discourse, it has not been a runaway success. It is still losing money after four years, and its 60,000 circulation is not much higher than when it started. The Standard also lacks the political and cultural range of another money-losing magazine, the New Republic, whose circulation is about 95,000.
Asked why he doesn't occasionally publish liberal writers who could duke it out with his staff, Kristol says: "The single most useful thing we can do is constructive criticism of conservatives."
Kristol's stock started trading higher in 1997, when ABC added him and George Stephanopoulos to Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts's Sunday roundtable. Despite his television stardom, Kristol, who lives in McLean, stayed off the Georgetown glamour circuit, spending most weekends driving his teenagers--they're 12, 14 and 17--to sports events, friends' houses or Hebrew school.
Kristol was riding high until December, when ABC refused to renew his contract. What was remarkable--after Kristol preempted the network by disclosing the news to The Washington Post--was the outpouring of support for him and widespread disdain for ABC. Kristol was deluged with supportive e-mails:
* "I will never watch that show again. You were one of the best things on it."
* "Despite the fact that I'm a yellow dawg Democrat, the reason I've stuck with that program is because of you."
* "You were the only reason I tuned in," wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich, whom Kristol has never met.
For now, Kristol is enjoying being courted by the other networks. "This must be what dating is like after you've been married," he says.
Many observers expect Kristol to sign with Fox News Channel, which, like the Standard, is owned by Murdoch. But he doesn't want to be on cable constantly and, despite the loss of a lucrative contract, wants to ensure that he can still appear regularly on "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation."
"Not being on too much is important because you want to have something to say," he explains. "If you're just popping up all over the place, no one can be interesting that often."
While Kristol has gotten a "bump," in political parlance, from the ABC divorce, he still has plenty of detractors. Andrew Sullivan, the gay British journalist who once edited the New Republic, has castigated Kristol for speaking at a conference that described homosexuality as "the disease it is," and for his determination to outlaw abortion as the "key to a conservative reformation."
"He's the urbane gentleman on TV and a fire-breathing fundamentalist when he's talking to the religious right, and one of those things has to give," says Sullivan, who studied under the same Harvard PhD adviser as Kristol. "He absolutely gets to have it both ways because he's such a charming person."
"Typical Andrew," sniffs Kristol, as nonchalantly as if Sullivan had called him a bad tipper. "If you are not for gay rights, you are an intolerable moralist." And typical Kristol: Rather than shun his accuser, he debated Sullivan at Harvard.
Kristol was obviously in tune with his readership when he crusaded for Clinton's impeachment, but his constant attacks on the GOP leadership have made him a divisive figure within his own party. Even Henry Kissinger was hurt by Kristol's criticism of his approach to diplomacy.
Yet while Kristol can be ferocious in print, friends say he avoids personal confrontation. He refused to fire a wacky receptionist at the Standard, even when the guy started hanging up on people.
Washington's most prominent magazine editor also does things that most editors would never entertain. He not only wrote editorials assailing congressional Republicans for failing to back Clinton's war in Kosovo--resulting in a spate of canceled subscriptions--but he briefed a gathering of 15 GOP senators on the subject. (He talks to Moynihan and other Senate Democrats as well.) He testified in the Senate in favor of NATO expansion. And Kristol Inc. has many subsidiaries; he'll give 20 speeches this year to lobbying groups and colleges for $5,000 to $10,000 a pop.
All of which raises the question: What kind of creature is this? He says he's out of politics, but he's constantly plugged into the GOP network from his Bennett/Quayle days. He says he's not a journalist, but he does something akin to reporting. It was Kristol who, three days before the Monica Lewinsky story broke, said on "This Week" that Newsweek was torn over the spiking of a story about the president and an intern.
"He talks to Republican Party leaders all the time," says the Standard's Barnes. "Bill learns things that a regular journalist doesn't get."
Not that Kristol always hits his target. He urged Republicans to campaign against the Lewinsky scandal in 1998 and predicted they would gain 15 House seats; the party lost five. "It's better to take a risk and look ahead--and occasionally I'll look foolish--rather than repeat the conventional wisdom," he says.
So is the Standard just another stop on the Kristol success tour? What if McCain, whose nomination Kristol keeps predicting, won the election and asked him to return to the White House? Rather than the usual hemming and hawing, Kristol doesn't rule it out.
"I want to say this in a way that doesn't sound snotty," he ventures, "but it would have to be a job well suited for me, a job where I could really make a difference."
'Print Is Real'
The "Hardball" taping is underway, and Kristol is worried about not having had time to prepare. But when host Chris Matthews asks about Bill Bradley's demand that Vice President Gore pop into the Oval Office to urge Clinton to change one of his policies, Kristol doesn't miss a beat.
"I think Al Gore's probably afraid to walk unannounced into the Oval Office," he says. "God knows what he would find."
Suddenly the show goes awry. A long video clip has to be killed, so the producer stops the taping and keeps replaying an earlier Matthews question about whether McCain can beat Bush--"Even in the Deep South?"--to find the point where Kristol can pick up the conversation.
"So your response to me is when I say, 'Even in the Deep South?' " Matthews explains. "This is acting, my friend."
The program resumes, but Matthews's questions take up most of the last 90 seconds, and Kristol leaves feeling he didn't get to break much ground.
"It's just television," he says in the car ride back to his office. "It's evanescent. It's fluky. It's weird. And print is real."
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company