Ten days before leaving for Geneva, Ronald Reagan and those most responsible for launching the "Star Wars" idea gathered in the Cabinet Room. Among the guests: Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb; retired lieutenant general Daniel O. Graham, generalissimo of High Frontier; and Lewis Lehrman, multimillionaire president of Citizens for America.
And then there was Gregory Fossedal, editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal and chief publicist for the cause, whose writings had issued the call to arms. Later, Fossedal gave this account of the conversation:
"I have something to help you prepare for the summit," he told Reagan. "I've had made a special model of Mikhail Gorbachev for you to study. This is the man you'll be up against." And he placed in the president's palm a Darth Vader doll, complete with light saber.
"You know," said Reagan, "they really are an evil empire."
"I'm glad to hear you say that again," Fossedal replied.
"Well, I've never had any regrets or retractions about that."
And they shook hands.
In Reagan's other hand, he held Darth Vader and a gift from Lehrman -- the Fossedal-Graham book on "Star Wars," "A Defense That Defends." Recalled Lehrman, "The president was grateful. He suggested he was going to take it to Geneva with him."
"I was hoping that I could throw a wrench in the summit," says Fossedal, 27, the solar system's foremost practitioner of conservative para-journalism.
Even last spring there had been rumors that Fossedal was giving briefings at the White House, promoting "Star Wars" -- what the administration calls the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. Then The Journal's Washington bureau came into possession of written proof: Fossedal was guilty as whispered. He had transgressed journalistic ethics. Moreover, he was a repeat offender.
Smoking gun in hand, Albert Hunt, the newspaper's bureau chief here, telephoned Robert Bartley, who runs the editorial board in New York, where Fossedal is based. Relations between reporter and opinion writers, between Washington and New York, had long been tense. L'affaire Fossedal only confirmed Washington's worst suspicions.
This was no mere turf fight or clash of personal ambitions. Since Bartley assumed command of his post in 1972, The Journal's editorial pages had become the Ministry of Ideology for the conservative movement. "This is where you learned about supply-side economics and 'Star Wars,' " says Bartley. Both ideas became linchpins of the Reagan administration, and the manner of their advancement in both cases provoked internal battling within The Journal.
On the right, Fossedal is widely regarded as his generation's most promising journalist, propitiously placed at the heart of the nation's largest circulation newspaper. His career has been brief, but it crosses an amazingly broad swatch of the conservative movement, from the jejune Dartmouth Review to the thunderous Journal. His opinions are sought by many of his elders. He is a confidant of Richard Nixon, a friend of Lehrman, an adviser to presidential hopeful Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
He even made a guest appearance on national television during the 1984 presidential campaign. Bartley had decided Fossedal needed some reportorial seasoning so he sent him to cover the press conference in which Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was defending her convoluted finances. Fossedal asked a question. Unsatisfied with the answer, he fumed as Ferraro moved on to another topic. Soon, he couldn't contain himself. "Answer it!" he shouted. "Answer it!" Other journalists present erupted with sustained boos. ("I thought it was legit," says Fossedal. "They were biased . . . But I think there ought to be more booing at press conferences.")
Fossedal's rise may have a certain novelty, but his method is firmly in The Journal's tradition. For Fossedal brought "Star Wars" to the newspaper much the way one of his mentors, former Journal editorialist Jude Wanniski, brought supply-side enthusiasm. And just as Wanniski seemed to cross the line separating the observer from the participant, so did Fossedal. Wanniski resigned to move from supply-side theory to practice. Would Fossedal be next?
When Hunt called about the White House briefing, Bartley said he'd investigate; he eventually took responsibility himself. "In fact," he said, "I'd approved it along with a bunch of other 'Star Wars' talks. It's hard to hold that too much against him. That won't happen again."
"Bartley," says Fossedal, "looks at me as a very potent explosive that needs to be handled with care. He has to use this explosive strategically."
Fossedal wears yacht-sized boat shoes, argyle socks that don't match his too-short pants -- which clash with a blue suit jacket worn as a sports coat. He is tall, lumbering and has clearly laid off the Lean Cuisine. He has the sort of pale coloration cultivated under fluorescent lights, suggesting fabled Norwegian charisma. He punctuates his remarks with self-appreciative, deep chuckles. But this is not yet another cord of Norwegian wood. Fossedal is the Hunter Thompson of the right-wing nerds.
For years, Fossedal has been campaigning for the big new idea that is literally out of this world. "He's obsessed," says a friend, recalling the night before Fossedal's wedding, which he spent negotiating with a literary agent about his "Star Wars" book. His wife Lisa works for the Marshall Foundation, a new right-wing group devoted to this ultimate nuclear defense -- the space fortress that would shield America from Soviet missiles forever.
The scientists, though, come and go, murmuring of feasibility studies. But, Fossedal argues, "It's not a scientific debate. It's political." In such a debate, says Fossedal, "the most important weapons are ideas."
Fossedal wrote articles and books for High Frontier, the group that brought the notion to Reagan's attention. He pushed the idea in unsigned Journal editorials and signed opinion essays. He advised groups like Citizens for America on how to adjust their "Star Wars" pitch. All the while, he roamed Capitol Hill, buttonholing legislators, lobbying for support.
The ubiquitous Fossedal has left a distinct impression. A friend says he's "abrasive." "Rough edges," says a colleague; "you have to check some of the facts." "Irrepressibly energetic," declares Lehrman. "A lightning rod," says Bartley. "That's his appeal."
"I am abrasive," Fossedal declares.
Among his most ardent supporters is Nixon, who, according to a source close to the former president, regards Fossedal as his bright young man, his link to the new generation of conservative thinkers. "I have concluded," Nixon wrote in a letter to Fossedal's publisher, "that he is one of the soundest and most intelligent foreign policy analysts in the country today."
Greg Fossedal grew up almost everywhere.
His father Donald was a marketing expert, a hotelier, a roller-skating-rink and car-wash owner and a pinball-arcade operator. (He's now the superintendent of documents for the U.S. Government Printing Office.) The family moved from Williamsport, Pa., to Lewisburg, Pa.; to Buffalo; to Long Lake, Minn.; to Sylvania, Ohio; to Roseville, Minn.; to St. Louis; to Wilmette, Ill.; to Twin Lakes and then Salem, Wis. While most children might feel they were uprooted just as they were making friends, Fossedal says, "I liked it. Usually I was leaving town by the time my enemies were catching up with me."
In 1977 Fossedal entered Dartmouth College, at that time opening up to women and many more blacks and jettisoning its hallowed Indian symbol. Conservative alumni answered these changes with sputtering rage at the liberals they believed were besmirching traditional values.
Fossedal emerged as the editor of the Daily Dartmouth. He had fallen in with a small crowd led by Ben Hart, son of Jeffrey Hart, an English professor and an editor of The National Review, the flagship conservative journal run by William F. Buckley Jr.
Buckley himself had achieved an early prominence by publishing "God and Man at Yale," attacking his alma mater for liberal decadence. Aided and abetted by the Harts, father and son, Fossedal sought to replicate the Buckley experience. He used the Daily Dartmouth as his voice, editorializing in favor of an alumnus running for the board of trustees on a platform of resurrecting the Indian and killing affirmative-action admissions.
His talent for making enemies was soon proven. In 1980, the editorial staff of the paper revolted and forced his firing. Fossedal & Co. immediately gave birth to an alternative, the Dartmouth Review. The first issue was funded with Fossedal's student loan. "One of the points," he said, "was to be outrageous."
"Discrimination is a virtue," read one headline. "Why whites are sore," read another. "Dis sho' ain't no jive, bro," ran the most infamous Dartmouth Review headline. "Today," went the piece, "the 'ministration be slashin' dem free welfare lunches for us po' students . . ."
"There's this situation," Fossedal explains now. "They started letting kids into the school who have a hard time getting by. Some wind up committing crimes . . . Let blacks enter, but don't lower standards. To merely talk about that you are branded a racist. You needed someone to shake things up, to say what everyone knows to be true."
The recalcitrant alumni responded with a flood of subscription orders. George Champion, the former chief executive officer of Chase Manhattan Bank, provided thousands of dollars. But support was not restricted to Dartmouth graduates. The newspaper was seen as a right-wing prototype by conservative foundations, which began subsidizing dozens of similar campus ventures, seeking to clone the Fossedal model.
But Fossedal himself was looking beyond the campus. Jeffrey Hart advised him to become a "right-wing muckraker," Fossedal says. As he contemplated the role, he moved to Reagan's Washington in search of ideological patronage.
Fossedal secured an appointment in the Department of Education in the belief that his mission was to bring about its demise. "I thought people should resign or call for the department to be abolished and get fired," he says. He wrote an article in the conservative Dallas Morning News ripping his employer. The piece was instantly reprinted by Human Events, the old-right weekly avidly read by Reagan. With this article, Fossedal says, he succeeded in achieving his goal: "I was fired on Thanksgiving Day."
Mustered out of government service, he found a reporting job on the Charleston, W. Va., Daily Mail, then covering a controversy into which Fossedal promptly inserted himself.
"A local right-wing kind of guy," says Fossedal, was campaigning against the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd. In an attempt to bolster his chances, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) tried to put television ads on the air slamming Byrd -- which the TV stations rejected. When a right-wing group demanded that the NCPAC ads run, Fossedal happily put his name on the letterhead.
"I knew nothing about journalism or the rules," he says. "So I was fired."
Yet another opportunity beckoned. The Washington Times, the conservative newspaper funded by the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, was seeking a young editorialist. Fossedal, his previous experience a superb credential, was hired. "A lot of people didn't like me," he says. "I'm sure I rubbed them the wrong way personally."
His writing was not restricted to The Times. For NCPAC, he produced a 187-page tract, "Reagan: A Record of Achievement," used as a fundraiser. "I've been told," says Fossedal, "they raised a lot of money. Everybody underpays me."
His horizons broadened. And he blasted off to the very edge of the ideological universe: High Frontier. Daniel Graham and his group claimed that "Star Wars" would eternally change the nuclear balance of terror, but it was a cause restricted to true believers.
" 'Star Wars,' " says Fossedal, "was dead in the water. They needed some excuse to keep writing about it. Graham was looking for someone to popularize the stuff. It's not an idea that will bubble up through a bureaucracy on the sheer merits. So I met Graham and told him he needed a Suslov, a propagandist." Thus, Fossedal proudly acknowledges his model for promoting "Star Wars" was the late Soviet commissar of ideology, the overbearing Mikhail Suslov.
Fossedal may be a new type on the right, but not in politics. He is what was called on the Old Left "a reliable" -- the versatile ideologue capable of generating workmanlike prose in anticipation of the party line on virtually any subject. Articles began pouring out, under the Fossedal-Graham byline. In 1983, "A Defense That Defends" was published. By now, Graham and Edward Teller had managed to win Reagan over to the idea.
For more than 20 years, the right-wingers had wearily fought in the trenches against arms control, considered the fundament of immoral detente. They argued that by accepting the theory of deterrence, the fearsome potential of Mutual Assured Destruction, the United States was imprisoned within the long twilight struggle, the endless Cold War -- forcing it to do business with the Soviet Union. Young Fossedal brought an excited tone to a Utopian cause: Eureka! "Star Wars" was the high-tech escape, resolving the MAD dilemma that made the United States accept the evil empire. By erecting a "peace shield" in outer space America could, wrote Fossedal-Graham, remove "nuclear fear" -- free at last.
"As long as you've got this nuclear sword over your head, you can't change the Soviet system," says Fossedal. "The goal is to peacefully dismantle communism." With total defense, he argues, you can do away with all offensive missiles. In this way, Fossedal claims, "Star Wars" complements the nuclear freeze. "Nobody," he says, "wants to be the party that sits around the planet Earth and worries about the federal budget deficit."
After his year at The Washington Times, augmented by outside work, Fossedal applied to The Wall Street Journal, coming to Bartley's attention as the prote'ge' of Jude Wanniski. "I was muttering to Bartley," says Wanniski. "There was no spark [on the editorial page]. But Bartley said he wouldn't hire him because he was too young."
Instead, Fossedal took a job at The San Diego Union as an editorial writer and columnist. As soon as he settled in San Diego, Bartley called. "Fossedal was no longer young," says Wanniski. "He was six months older."
Bartley had long been an opponent of arms control. " 'Star Wars' is not a new issue to me at all," he says. He had become especially close to Richard Perle, the hawkish assistant secretary of defense.
Fossedal gave the old anti-arms-control arguments a new twist. "Until Greg started pushing 'Star Wars,' Bartley wasn't taking it all that seriously," says Wanniski. "Bartley had to be convinced that it would hold up to the assaults he knew would come from the establishment." Once convinced, Bartley unleashed Fossedal. And The Journal became the "Star Wars" starship.
Fossedal began holding press conferences and lectures of his own, touring the country on behalf of "Star Wars." He gave two such speeches in the White House, which aroused The Journal's vigilant Washington bureau.
Kosta Tsipis, the eminent MIT physicist, has debated him twice. "Debating him is meaningless," says Tsipis. "He does not understand the physical facts. He has a set of numbers and he mentions them without knowing what they mean or being able to support them. He engages in ad hominem red-baiting. Fossedal is really a propagandist. I'm alarmed that The Wall Street Journal, which is a serious paper, is allowing this to happen. My concern is with recklessness."
"I do know the facts," counters Fossedal. "This is a political disagreement."
Fossedal's prolific polemics gained him entrance to certain inner sanctums. Nixon called and asked Fossedal to arrange a dinner of young conservatives. They began an extended correspondence, speak on the phone and occasionally meet.
A similar relationship was established with Jack Kemp, the choice of many conservatives as the next Republican presidential nominee. Meetings, phone calls, dinners -- Fossedal is a regular on Kemp's schedule.
Fossedal was becoming a one-man echo chamber; almost every conservative publication -- and even magazines like The New Republic -- have been graced by his byline. Yet he still found time to write a book manuscript -- tentatively entitled "The Pozner Letters" -- coauthored with his old Dartmouth Review comrade, Dinesh D'Souza, now the managing editor of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review.
This unpublished fiction purports to be a collection of letters from a KGB control agent (Vladimir) in Moscow to his man (Alex) in America during the Reagan years. The Moscow epistemologist constantly berates his operative for his failures to emulate American journalists in their subtle attacks on Reagan and, therefore, America.
"We name names," says Fossedal about the book. Indeed, many, including NBC's Tom Brokaw, "All in the Family" producer Norman Lear, The New York Times' Tom Wicker and former U.S. ambassador to Russia George Kennan are among those mentioned in Vladimir's correspondence to Alex. "I think they're pro-Soviet," Fossedal insists. "I'm not really interested in why they think what they do."
In one of Vladimir's missives, he writes, "Your amateur suggestion we work out a way to assassinate the president I find most implausible, indeed laughable. No, Alex, we must use the four years we have to generate deep divisions among the American people and encourage hatred for Reagan's policies among the intelligentsia. Curiously, the best tactics for doing this have been developed by Americans, not by us. I suggest you begin reading the works of Michael Harrington, Mary McGrory, Arthur Schlesinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, Garry Wills and Lester Thurow. Anthony Lewis of The New York Times is an absolute must . . ."
This is conservatism without the Reagan smile.
The Fossedal file, at least at The Wall Street Journal, is closing soon.
On Tuesday, Fossedal learned that he would have more time to enjoy the leisure of the theory class -- he'd been accepted at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The conservative think tank had agreed to take him on as a visiting scholar and media fellow, starting in January, where he plans to devote himself to longer articles and "The Pozner Letters." He also will write a column for the Copley newspaper chain.
At The Journal's Washington bureau, official silence reigned.
"Being at Hoover," says Fossedal, "I can be a consultant to all these effective little political coteries.
"I'll be in Washington more."