Round Up the Usual Right-wing Suspects

Marc Thiessen’s gaining of a Washington Post column demonstrates how Movement Conservatism has destroyed real conservatism.

Andrew Sullivan is enraged, and rightfully so, at the Washington Post’s hiring of Marc Thiessen, Dick Cheney’s former speechwriter, as an op-ed writer at the Washington Post.

My initial instinct was to say that that’s what you get in the United States, where “conservative intellectual” is an oxymoron.  But that’s not quite accurate.  To be sure, major media outlets have slobbered all over themselves getting former Bushies to “write” or “opine” for them.  Former Bush bloviator Michael Gerson also writes for the Post; Dan Senor and Dana Perino work for Fox (of course); Liz Cheney regularly pops up on ABC.  Whenever John Yoo or John Bolton want to spew out the view from Bizarro world, they get some very precious newspaper real estate.  The list goes on.

The real shame here is that there are actually lots of smart conservatives who would do a much better job than the Bush crowd.  I can find two just in my own building: my colleagues Eugene Volokh and Steve Bainbridge.  Mark’s friend Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.  Mickey Kaus.  Somehow I think Richard Posner would have little trouble churning out a weekly column.  Orin Kerr.  I could name another 10 with no trouble at all.

Why don’t any of them have a column?

One obvious reason is that newspaper editors are lazy and not very bright: they round up the usual suspects.

But perhaps more importantly, it reflects what the Conservative Movement is all about.  The Movement does not want the best thinkers and writers to write good articles: it wants people to rehash the approved talking points.  And all of the people I just mentioned will not do that.  So while they are not personae non grata in the Movement, they aren’t the people who work at the highest levels of the Movement.  Those are former Bush apparatchiks.  And apparently, the Movement has been able to work the refs in the media for so long that they are the ones who get to make the choices.

That is quite an indictment of the news media, which doesn’t even pretend to try to have the best writing anymore.  But it also demonstrates how Movement Conservatism has destroyed real conservatism.  Over the long run, that’s not good for this country.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

23 thoughts on “Round Up the Usual Right-wing Suspects”

  1. Most of your examples are attributable to something other than working the refs. The owners & editors of the Post aren't cowed; but neither are they running a philosophical salon. The best conservative writers don't comprise a political faction that may plausibly take power, & the point, as the Post sees it, is to pick sides among actual contenders for power, & only secondarily (to be charitable) to seek the truth or morally or intellectually improve the faction it's backing.

  2. Andrew Bacevich self-identifies as a conservative, and would be a welcome replacement for some of the TV pundits that appear on Sunday mornings. Not part of the movement, but he had things to say about the crisis of American profligacy well in advance of the catastrophe of 2008.

  3. Scott Horton, I believe, also considers himself a conservative. But I can imagine what movement conservatives think of him. They probably think he's worse scum than Bacevich.

  4. The distinction between "Movement Conservatives" and "real conservatives" is not a useful one. Their differences are superficial and insignificant. They have in common the only thing that matters: neither believes in the rule of law. In order to be a conservative (upper- or lower-case "c"), you have to believe that there are people whom the law should protect but not bind, and people whom the law should bind but not protect.

  5. Newspapers should hire as columnists intellectuals who can write clearly, both liberal and conservative. The only examples of whom I can think is Paul Krugman, although the NY Times, at its website but not in the paper, publishes Stanley Fish and Robert Wright. Richard Rorty was never a regular columnist but was given space on occasion. Ninety-nine percent of columnists are journalists, and journalists rarely have special knowledge that they can teach us; they get where they are because of the Peter Principle, and there is rarely any reason that we should care about their opinions.

  6. Re Peter Principle:

    Maureen Dowd bragged on Fresh Air that as White House Correspondent during Bush 41 she was uninterested in doing her job and they promoted her to Columnist to get her out of there.

  7. I think Mickey Kaus would disagree with your characterization of him as "conservative." I, on the other hand, simply disagree with your characterization of him as "smart."

  8. It's an inditement of the conservative movement that when the NYT wanted a thoughtful, reasonably serious conservative Republican they settled for Douthat. The WaPo just eagerly recruits utter hacks.

  9. Oh, come on. The idea that the NYT really wants thoughtful, reasonably serious conservative Republicans to have a soap box from which to address the masses is absurd. The idea that the NYT's idea of what constitutes a thoughtful, reasonably serious conservative Republican would bear any resemblance to a conservative's notion of the same is scarcely more plausible.

  10. I know, paper in the nation's capital and all that, but has anyone ever thought of just ignoring the Kaplan Daily? I do, except for the very occasional link to EJ Dionne. Once in a while I check in to read the latest Cohen eructation for sh*ts and giggles. Ignoring those Morans is good for your mental health. I recommend it.

  11. Richard Cohen is another good example of the Peter Principle at work. In the 70s, and maybe into the 80s, he was a columnist for the W. Post "Style" section, and wrote feel-good columns about family and neighborhood and such. He was good at that, and so they made him a political columnist, putting him in over his head. It ought to be a prerequisite for a columnist to have expertise in something other than journalism, such as economics, law, philosophy, or science.

  12. C.S. says:

    "I think Mickey Kaus would disagree with your characterization of him as “conservative.” I, on the other hand, simply disagree with your characterization of him as “smart.”"

    That's because Kaus is a lying a-hole; his whole act is to be the 'liberal' who hates liberalism and Democrats.

  13. The same could be said, though, for many of the Post's liberal columnists (except maybe EJ Dionne). Plus George Will, Krauthammer, etc. have seen better days. They're an uninspiring lot. Personally, I think Douthat is a huge improvement over Kristol. I'm not sure why a conservative should have to be outrageous or constantly angry to get sufficient cred with the movement. Douthat makes many of the same points w/o the weird bitterness of his fellow travelers.

  14. Just curious, Brett: whom would you nominate for "thoughtful, reasonably serious conservative"? I might have picked John Cole, but it's too late for that.

  15. FloydRayford says:

    "The same could be said, though, for many of the Post’s liberal columnists (except maybe EJ Dionne). "


  16. I'm sure you're right. But Andrew Sullivan is always enraged, except when he's expressing nostalgia for some pie-in-the-sky small government conservatism that never actually existed in this country.

  17. John Yoo doesn't have to look around for places to publish his work — the Philadelphia Inquirer actually pays him to write a monthly column.

  18. Brett, I was wondering the same thing. That's an interesting choice – aside from the fact that he's taken. I wonder how his writing (his ideas?) would fare under the harsh light of seriousness. All that silliness can really be quite slippery, especially when partisan. Not that satire isn't effective. Stewart & Colbert's writers consistently make very sharp insights. But were they to try and build complex & thoughtful arguments, the humor – and likely the content – would suffer accordingly.

  19. Note that O'Rourke is a libertarian conservative. That's where most of the "thoughtful, reasonably serious" conservatives are to be found. You want such, start looking around at Cato.

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