John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin; drawing by David Levine


By any reasonable reckoning of the consequence, Washington’s debate over aid to the contras has been unnaturally shrill. What was at stake, after all, was $100 million in assistance, about one-eighth as much money as the Pentagon spends every day, year round. Obviously money is not the only measure of significance—operating an electric chair is not very expensive, either—but the political claims about the contras were also more modest than the emotions they provoked. The administration did not contend that the aid would be enough to overthrow the Sandinistas. Those who opposed the aid generally said they opposed the Sandinistas too. Yes, doctrinal disagreements were in the air, but compared to anything like a real, European-style clash of values, this was mostly a debate about means, details, proportion. How many old Somocista thugs were still among the contras? How many freedom-loving peasants? Which approach—military or diplomatic—was more likely to pry Nicaragua away from the Soviet Union? Was this a war the contras stood any chance to win?

Taken at face value, then, the disagreements were discrete and containable, but the resulting arguments were anything but restrained. The political and journalistic debate had a rancorous, hyperbolic, and ungenerous tone rarely heard since the fall of Saigon. Patrick Buchanan made the best-publicized comment when he said that Tip O’Neill and the Democratic opponents of aid “stood as co-guarantors with Moscow” of a totalitarian state in our own back yard, but his comments differed from many others mainly in their panache. An editorial in The New Republic of April 7 went so far as to claim that “the liberation of Angola, Afghanistan, and Cambodia would not have one-tenth the geopolitical importance—and psychological importance for other oppressed democrats—that the replacement of the Sandinista regime with a democratic government in Managua would.” By any cooler or more logical standards than those of the contra debate, such an idea would seem laughable. The politics of Southeast Asia revolve around Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, which also colors America’s relations with China. At the most restrained estimate, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has more “geopolitical importance” than anything that could happen between the contras and the Sandinistas.

Even personal relations in Washington, which usually roll on untroubled by differences of policy, showed the strain. Friends disagreed over the contras and did not remain friends. Bitter in-house feuds, so familiar in the 1960s, reappeared. When The New Republic published an editorial enclosing the contras, eleven of the magazine’s eighteen contributing editors, including some very well-known names, wrote a heated letter of dissent. (I almost said “twelve of nineteen,” but one of the letter’s signers, Abraham Brumberg, was dropped from the masthead between the time the letter was written and when it appeared.) Tempers were so frayed and civility had worn so thin that when the letter was published, part of it was buried far back in the letters section, apparently so that the long list of names would not be visible until the reader reached page 41. (In addition to Brumberg, the signers were: Robert Coles, Henry Fairlie, Hendrik Hertzberg, Vint Lawrence, R. W. B. Lewis, Mark Crispin Miller, Robert B. Reich, Ronald Steel, Richard L. Strout, Anne Tyler, Michael Walzer, and C. Vann Woodward.)

Perhaps the entire affair should be seen (as Michael Walzer has suggested) as a shrewd bit of political positioning: the administration would like nothing better than to have Democrats keep “voting for Moscow” right up to election day. But I think there was more to it than that. The roots of the bitter argument naturally stretch back through more than one hundred years of US-Latin American relations and at least forty years of America’s efforts to contain the Soviet Union. Yet the nasty tone of the debate also showed something about much more recent developments in Washington. A combination of economic shifts and accidents of fate has altered the structure of journalism and the opinion business so as to encourage precisely the kind of views and behavior Washington saw this spring. The argument about interventionism was an intellectual and political event—but also an anthropological one, and it is useful to understand the culture in which it took place.

In the last ten years, Washington journalism has been shaped by several convergent and overlapping trends which are hard to disentangle from one another but whose cumulative effect is clear. They are confusing to discuss not simply because of their interconnections but also because the harmful implications are often the reverse side of real improvements in the trade. Their common themes are the ratcheting-up of the celebrity level of Washington journalists, and the constant shifts in the models of journalistic success.

One long-developing, underlying, and generally positive trend has been the move away from bare-bones, “objective” reporting. Say what you will about the Vietnam war, race riots, and other traumas of the 1960s, they had one clearly beneficial effect on the press. More and more journalists sensed that big, troubling issues needed to be explained, and that the only way to grapple with them was to move beyond wire-service stories of the “President Nixon said today…” variety. There was no way to understand the intentions behind the war, or the forces that led those intentions astray, without trying to report more deeply. How did the American army work? How did Vietnamese society work? How did the war as seen from the Pentagon differ from the war as seen from the field? What were the tensions in black and white America that led to racial eruptions?


The Watergate scandal, in which reporters acting as detectives had a historic effect, threatened to reinstate the idea that conspiracies lay behind most public problems and that a reporter’s job was to keep searching for the incriminating fact. But most reporters and editors seemed to recognize that scandal was not an explanation for, say, the collapse of American industrial competitiveness. Their job, therefore, was to do research and help the reader understand events. As a result, most American journalism is now clearly better—more useful, more fully explanatory—than it was ten years ago. To some extent there has been a structural shift: television forced newspapers out of the strictly “what happened” business; newspapers began to publish the “how it happened” stories previously found in news magazines; the news weeklies and monthlies had to scramble for new ways to investigate and explain public events. Reporters of all varieties have had to work harder and explain events more clearly than they did before. Everyone laments the superficiality of TV news—but the evening news shows are less superficial than they used to be, now with more six-minute features designed to go two inches deep, not just one.

But this healthy development had an inescapable side effect. As journalists worked harder to understand and tell the story, they naturally became more visible themselves. The old news magazines could run articles without bylines. It would seem odd, even vaguely sinister, to publish a long, anonymous story today—not simply because of the writer’s ego but also because of the reader’s subconscious curiosity about where the article’s viewpoint originated. Moreover, Vietnam and Watergate did not merely make reporters “visible”; a few of them were turned into stars. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became rich and famous. Film crews moved into a replica of The Washington Post newsroom and Robert Redford played Woodward in All the President’s Men.

During the Watergate era, the route to journalistic stardom seemed to lie through reporting—that is, through finding out the facts, either for their own sake (as in Woodward and Bernstein’s exposés or Seymour Hersh’s My Lai story) or in order to interpret matters from a position of understanding and authority. In that sense, Robert Caro’s books on Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson were part of the same shift in the status of journalism. The books earned money and won Caro fame, but the rewards were for his work as a reporter, which gave his interpretations (especially about Robert Moses) immense weight.

The prospect of prominence through reporting could lead to vulgar excesses—the name Geraldo Rivera comes to mind. CBS’s popular 60 Minutes exemplified the combined good and bad of star-system reporting. Half the time, Mike Wallace was a caricature of himself, grilling some hapless small-town sheriff about misappropriated funds, but the other half of the time the show helped millions of people to gain some understanding of important subjects.

Sometime in the late 1970s, the success pattern for journalists edged in a different direction. Increasingly, the rewards seemed to be offered not for reporting itself, nor for interpretation (à la Caro) based on reporting, but for sheer opinion and the promulgation of sweeping world views.

The timeless struggle within newspapers, of course, has been between the news page and the editorial page, each disdaining the other for (respectively) lowbrow literal-mindedness and armchair theorizing at great distance from the facts. The shift I am describing is one of degree, involving the relative attractiveness of the armchair position. Good journalism obviously depends on those who can put things into perspective, as well as on those who can mine the facts. Wading through The Washington Post when it decides to give me all the facts available on the congressional elections or the tax-reform plan, I often yearn for someone who would give me the main points in 1200 words. Journalism has often rewarded those who could skillfully present the big picture, offering them more fame and money than most other reporters receive. Walter Lippmann naturally heads this list. In the TV age, 60 Minutes complemented its exposés with short, snappy opinion battles between Nicholas von Hoffman or Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick; the CBS Evening News offered first Eric Sevareid and then Bill Moyers. Through the 1970s Washington’s staple opinion shows were Agronsky and Company, with a group of regulars who pompously rendered judgment on the week’s events, and Washington Week in Review, hosted by Paul Duke, on which a varying panel of reporters explained what had happened on their beats.


The soul of the Agronsky show was the late Peter Lisagor of the Chicago SunTimes, one of several newspapermen of the “objective journalism” era who evidently felt he should cleanse his copy of the insight and wicked humor that adorned his private conversation. But in worldhistoric terms—that is, those that affect life in the capital—the most important figure on Agronsky’s show was certainly George Will. Launched as a columnist at the height (or depths) of Watergate, when he was in his early thirties, Will bravely and eloquently challenged Richard Nixon. He also won a huge following on Agronsky with an Oxford Debating Union demeanor, harrumphingly dismissing those who disagreed with him while giving every indication that he had been reluctantly pried away from his books.

Compared to, say, Princess Diana, Will is not really famous, even though he is now a regular on ABC News. But in Washington he is omnipresent, a kind of sun king. When the Los Angeles Times discovered, in a poll conducted by the Gallup organization, that only 12 percent of the public knew who Will was, it took out full-page newspaper ads to trumpet the astonishing fact. Washington journalists would find such a result hard to believe (except as another bizarre manifestation of life “out there”), because Will so blindingly exemplifies what career success can mean, in money, influence, and a narrow but concentrated kind of fame.

It was probably Will’s example—first the example of his fluency, and then of his success—that encouraged so many others to go into the opinionizing business. During the 1980s, the outlets for broadcast journalism were increasing. Local news went from thirty minutes to sixty to ninety or more. Cable News Network was on the air twenty-four hours a day. C-SPAN broadcast the Congress around the clock. The McNeil-Lehrer Report on public TV grew from thirty minutes to an hour. CBS knocked off Captain Kangaroo and expanded its Morning News from one hour to two. CBS also launched Nightwatch, a talk show to fill the hours between 2:00 and 6:00 AM.

There was nothing inevitable about the way that time would be filled. Repetitive coverage of weather, sports, and crime could—and does—take up much of the slack. But in Washington, commentary expanded dramatically to fill the void, as new round-table shows proliferated and journalists scrambled for regular seats.

It is important to emphasize how much this evolution reflected the city’s own desires rather than larger market forces. Most talk shows have terrible ratings outside Washington. If there were no FCC requirement for public-service broadcasting, the networks would instantly axe their Sunday-morning talk shows, or broadcast them in only a handful of cities. But in Washington the shows are avidly watched and their participants envied. For one thing, the shows all feature local talent—if you are involved in journalism or politics your friends and neighbors are on TV, talking to what in Washington is imagined to be a rapt national audience. The shows are centered on Washington subjects, and they give Washington journalists a chance to present their general thoughts on life. In the old days, there was only the stolid Meet the Press on NBC and its counterparts on other networks. Few reporters were on the shows, and when they were, they sat at desks and just asked questions. Now far more “week in review” programs give more journalists a chance to participate, and make them seem like stars, not props.

George Will was one man who, through force of personality, helped to create a trend. The two other most significant figures are Ted Koppel and John McLaughlin.

In many ways their shows—Koppel’s Nightline on ABC and McLaughlin’s syndicated weekly talk show, The McLaughlin Group—are each other’s opposites. Nightline is universally praised in Washington; except by its quickly growing audience, McLaughlin is almost as widely denounced. (“An ideological food fight,” Jody Powell told me. “Discussion as throwing custard pies,” said Ronald Steel.) Nightline prominently emphasizes reporting and explanation; McLaughlin is entirely an opinion show, in which journalists purport to wrap up federal budget problems and South Africa’s future in two or three minutes apiece. Nightline’s Ted Koppel is regarded as beyond criticism; John McLaughlin, a one-time Jesuit, is an unashamed, self-parodic showman who has “that know-it-all quality stupid people get after a few drinks,” I. F. Stone says. Still, McLaughlin never has trouble finding journalists to appear on his show, and when he threw a third anniversary party last fall it drew a throng of Washington’s finest, led by Ronald Reagan.

Yet despite their differences, Nightline and McLaughlin have one crucial similarity. Both shows magnify journalists’ celebrity and blur the distinction between journalists and politicians. Nightline does it by juxtaposition; after Mario Cuomo gave his Notre Dame speech on abortion, Koppel paired him with Charles Krauthammer, a writer for The New Republic, who was identified simply as a “philosopher.” McLaughlin does it by express intent. His show’s regulars—Robert Novak, Jack Germond, Morton Kondracke, and, until he went to the White House, Patrick Buchanan—are expected to act as politicians and vote yea or nay on tax cuts, aid to the contras, and arms control. Nightline, a highly informative and serious show, nonetheless has televised much of the professional-class population of Washington and created a cult of personality stars. McLaughlin made its panelists famous by encouraging them to behave like scrapping members of the House of Representatives. Nightline tends to select people who know what they’re talking about, McLaughlin expects his panelists to have opinions on everything under the sun, but their impact on journalistic culture is roughly the same. “Journalists become politicians, politicians become journalists,” Ronald Steel told me. “They’re all competing for media attention. They’re members of the same cast vying for the same parts.”

The emergence of televised opinion coincided with, probably intensified, and was in turn intensified by, another trend, the lecture-circuit boom. Two basic facts dominate this boom: lectures are how Washington journalists make big money, and TV is how journalists get lecture dates.

TV appearances are in themselves only modestly lucrative. McLaughlin pays his regulars $500 per show; guest panelists get $200. David Brinkley pays $1000. The more important benefits are indirect. Henry Fairlie, a British journalist, says that in 1975 George Will, then beginning his ascent, gave him prescient advice.

He said that his column was important to him because it got him on TV. And the Agronsky show was important because it got him on the lecture circuit. He told me that I should be doing the same thing, because if you chose your audiences right you could give the same speech every time.

The world of letters has long known its well-paid and honorable lectures—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain all earned a living on lecture tours. Even in the early 1970s lectures reportedly brought James J. Kilpatrick $100,000 a year. But in the 1980s, the dimensions have changed. Much more money is available, and nearly all of it comes from one source: the “trade associations”—steel makers, chicken feeders, hospital managers—that have proliferated in Washington.

“Let’s use fictional numbers,” says Joe Cosby, head of a lecture agency that represents many prominent Washingtonians, including George Will and the McLaughlin Group.

If there were one hundred organizations that put on programs using celebrity speakers in 1970, in 1975 there were two hundred and now there are five hundred. And if the programs in 1970 used one speaker, now they use three, so you have two different kinds of math working here. In 1970, the National Boilermakers’ Association might have gone to Las Vegas for their convention, and the pièce de résistance was a young lady jumping out of a cake. They decided to upgrade it a tad, or maybe their wives started coming along. They wanted more interesting programs. That’s what’s made the whole business expand.

College audiences, the previous mainstay of the lecture circuit, have been largely supplanted by the far better paying trade associations. Journalists are not the sole or necessarily even the principal beneficiaries of this expansion; management trainers and business speakers, such as Tom Peters or Lee Iacocca, have done even better. Paul Harvey, who has a radio program but no regular TV show, is said to earn more money than anyone else on the circuit. But journalists who are well known from TV can now make hundreds of thousands of dollars lecturing. Jacob Weisberg reported in The New Republic that just one relatively obscure group, the National Association of Chain Drugstores, has an annual budget of $200,000 for speakers, which has been used to hire William Safire, the McLaughlin Group (as a group), and George Will, twice. Cosby said that Will gets $15,000 per speech, “but he might do it for $7500 if he doesn’t have to leave town. They put a premium on not having to travel.” In the previous week, Cosby said Will had given three speeches. By most estimates Will earns at least $1 million a year. Cosby showed me his brochure. Nearly every journalist he featured had a base in TV: David Brinkley, Charles Kuralt, Sam Donaldson, etc.

“Do they want these people because of their skills or what they’ve accomplished?” Cosby asked.

Not really. It’s because they are on TV a lot, a lot, a lot. There are two things you have to do to make it in this business. One is become known as a personality, which means broadcast. And the other is to be politically conservative. These associations don’t want to hear from a liberal, so no liberal is going to do really well on the lecture circuit. It depends on being on TV, and being on the right side of the fence.

For such people as Brinkley, Kuralt, and Donaldson, TV stardom can apparently offset any taint of liberalism.


One curious aspect of this affluence is that, like much else in Washington, it is sheltered from normal market forces. Writers in New York, where the craving for fame and money is not unknown, pin their financial hopes on writing a bestselling book. TV exposure may have given Carl Sagan a big book, but it had nothing to do with James Michener’s success, or Robert Ludlum’s, or Gay Talese’s. The big book depends on finding the angle—sometimes a good story skillfully told, sometimes a gimmick, as with Thin Thighs in 30 Days—that will convince 500,000 people to buy it. In Washington mass acceptance is much less important but TV is indispensable—even though the talk shows are watched closely mainly in DC. Lecture-circuit money is different from book-sales money or movie-ticket money, because it is controlled by a small group of purchasers, the trade association staffs, who usually belong to the small culture of political junkies who watch the talk shows. “These days the closest thing you’ll see to a lady jumping out of a cake is paying $7500 for some has-been golfer to show up and play golf for a day,” Joe Cosby said. “I wouldn’t personally pay $7500 for that.” No one is personally paying, since the association members have little say in the decision and the conventions are run in the tax-deductible world.

What is the consequence of these cultural and financial changes? I think there have been four effects.

The first is that Washington journalists can now make more money, a development I am slow to deplore. A generation ago, the choice between journalism and, say, going to law school was black and white. Going into journalism meant giving up, if not the chance of a good income, at least the expectation of it. When the children went to college, it would be time to bail out from the newspaper and go into PR. The second and third tiers of journalism are still that way, but the status revolution of the last twenty-five years has dramatically raised pay at the big papers, drawing a better-educated group into reporting. Because the cost of living in Washington is modest compared to that of New York, established reporters there can live professional-class lives, on the same social plane as many of the people they write about. TV and the lecture circuit hold out the hope of something more. “You can now aspire to be a political journalist in the hope that you can earn what a Washington lawyer earns,” Jeff Greenfield of ABC told me.

I am the last person in the world to say that this is awful. But it is different. In the same way that people might have started out in federal agencies in expectation of becoming Washington lawyers, you can now start in Washington journalism and realistically aspire to become a commentator, columnist, TV personality, and lecturer, and ascend into the sixfigure range.

This exaggerates the relative earning power of journalists since lawyers’ incomes have risen as well, but Greenfield is right to imply that fame and influence are themselves compensations.

On the whole, the status revolution has been good not just for journalists but also for their readers, since more smart and well-trained people have been lured into the field. But of course there is a cost. Reporters who entered the business when that meant giving up money talk about the “edge” their role as outsiders gave them. It’s harder to keep that edge when you’re living so well. It’s especially hard in Washington, where reporters have long enjoyed a higher social standing than any place else in the world—and harder still for TV journalists who make more money than all but a handful of people in town.1

The second effect of the new celebrity of journalists seems more obviously harmful. The TV and speechmaking treadmill can become so demanding that the journalist no longer has time to do fresh reporting or to reconsider old ideas.

“My guys work as hard as anybody in the business,” John McLaughlin said of the journalists on his show. “I know the hours they put in. I know I’m here from eight to eight.” He is right. Of Washington’s many vices indolence is not one. But even the most energetic workhorses can be overtaxed. You can’t cut corners with the airplane schedule or the TV studio, so reporting time is usually what gives way. Reporting is by definition costly, risky, and open-ended, especially when it involves more than running your usual trap lines on Capitol Hill or the White House. The answers are not always available when you want them, or when the taping begins.

On one of the three occasions when I appeared on McLaughlin’s show, I watched in amazement as Robert Novak pounded out his newspaper column, on a portable computer, while waiting for the tape to roll. “I realized I was losing too much damn time this way,” he said. The regular column is a daunting and draining proposition under the best of circumstances, the ceaseless deadlines tempting columnists to rely on spoon feeding and go with half the research they really need. Under the harried circumstances of the lecture-circuit life, the temptations are irresistible. “The TV culture rewards people who are willing to make TV more important than anything else,” Robert Kuttner of The New Republic told me. “It becomes a self-selecting circle of superficiality.”

As TV and the lecture circuit make reporting less feasible, they also make it seem more dispensable. “It confuses people about the role they are supposed to play,” Ken Auletta said in an interview.

When you’re treated like a celebrity and people know your face, you become full of yourself. It robs you of the humility you need to do your job as a journalist, which is fundamentally based on asking other people questions. In New York you can hide, nobody recognizes you on the street, but in Washington everything feeds your self-importance. Once you are on these talk shows and assume that the world awaits your opinion, you get the idea that you’re supposed to be answering questions, not asking them. You start thinking, Why should I go interview some thirty-year-old kid who thinks he can run a campaign for president?

Auletta is himself no stranger to the limelight, but he is right about the difference between journalistic celebrity in Washington and New York. New York is so diverse and many-layered that its most powerful journalists might never draw a second glance. Washington is more like a big high school, where everyone recognizes the varsity.

In a way, this is an insoluble Heisenberg-effect problem: if people are skillful, they’re likely going to become better known, and then they can’t operate inconspicuously any more. But there is a difference between trying to cope with this effect and failing to think about it at all. “The great danger is getting out of touch,” John McLaughlin said when I asked him about warnings like Auletta’s. “That is why it is so important to go on the road. You get to talk with the person driving the car, you get to hear the whole range of views from the trade associations.” The person driving the car! Is that what takes the place of reporting? I was sorry McLaughlin was the one to put it this way, since, for all his bluster, he is enormously likable; but he neatly and unconsciously expressed the shortcuts and self-delusion of the overcommitted celebrity journalist.

The standard reply to this criticism is that TV appearances and speeches don’t take much time or thought, and anyway the constant travel is broadening. At a brutally cynical level, I suppose the first part is true. What is being purchased through most lecture fees is not a stimulating rethought-out message but a glimpse at someone whom the audience has seen on TV. “I’ve seen [a prominent talk-show panelist] work a banquet,” Jeff Greenfield told me.

He gets up, drops the fact that he was in the Oval Office last month, and says, “This is what the President told me.” He makes five or six platitudinous observations and then takes questions, and it’s worth, what, eight or ten grand. The journalist is delivering to that audience that same thing a lobbyist delivers. He’s delivering the delicious sense of insiderness, in a way there was no market for fifteen or twenty years ago.

The voyeuristic appetites of the lecture circuit, then, do not exactly inspire reporters to think new thoughts or refine their views. Moreover, lecture-circuit travel is deadening, not refreshing. The old cliché about America being the same from coast to coast is obviously not true, as anyone who has spent time learning the culture and values of different regions understands. It can seem true only if you’re always flying over it, on your way to make lecture connections at O’Hare, or if what you see of Houston or Anchorage or St. Louis is the airport, the hotel, the lecture hall, and the person driving the car.

The third effect of talk-show journalism, also clearly bad, is to drum the subtlety and complication out of public issues and encourage journalists to think as predictably as politicians.

Partly this is just a matter of time. “I believe in making the issues fit the time, not vice versa,” John McLaughlin told me. “There is no correlation between length of discussion and depth of insight.” Maybe not, but there is a correlation between short, snappy discussions and certain patterns of thought. George Will, in the few minutes available to him on air, will always say we need more military spending but will not confuse the issue by pointing out that many weapons don’t work and are a waste. Anyone who’s for aid to the contras will not waste time talking about what’s wrong with the contras. “I might be trying to make an analytical point, say that Mondale has a macho problem,” Morton Kondracke said. “Novak will jump in and say, ‘I thought you were for Mondale and now you’re trashing him.”‘ With the director constantly making “Let’s wrap this up” signs, it’s hard to step more than a few inches off the path of conventional thought.

Moreover, the dramatic momentum of the shows encourages reporters to fill predictable roles. Anyone who has dealt with TV producers understands what they are looking for when they put together talk shows: a Liberal, a Conservative, a Colorful Young Critic, a Respected But Twinkly-Eyed Authority, etc. The seating chart is all filled out, and the appropriate bodies have to be found. TV loves the appearance of spontaneity but abhors genuine surprise, and so reporters do best if, however subconsciously, they make themselves commodities, giving predictable value on every show.

On ABC, George Will is dependably the aloof-sounding epigrammatist. On McLaughlin, Robert Novak is always ready to call someone else a Commie or beat up on the hapless Morton Kondracke. On his own show, William F. Buckley can be counted on to deliver the same performance time after time.

The sit-com predictability of the talk shows may make for good entertainment value—which is fine in itself, since any journalist needs to entertain if he wants to be heard. But journalism’s favorite moral standard is the “Orwell test”: What would the sainted George have made of current events? (The “Lippmann test” performs a similar function.) Would Orwell be invited back for a second appearance on McLaughlin? (“George, I thought you were for the Communists, and now you’re trashing them for what happened in Spain. Make up your mind!”) Could he be relied upon?

Fourth, the rise of talk shows and opinionizing journalists has encouraged certain unsavory styles of political discussion. It contributes to the bullying tone of the contra discussion, and to a strange snobbish wave in Washington writing.

Here I am not talking about large historical shifts or status revolutions within the trade, but really about the effect of two strong personalities, McLaughlin and Will. In theory, it is perfectly conceivable that talk shows could have led to fuller discussions of public issues—as Buckley’s Firing Line often does. But the styles that are now most envied in Washington lead to a different kind of show.

McLaughlin’s impact is easier to describe. His show is designed to pull breezy, thumbs up/thumbs down judgments out of the panelists. McLaughlin bellows, “Let’s get out!” after a minute or two of discussion and then asks everybody to rate the economic summit on a scale of one to ten or choose the biggest winners and losers in the latest session of Congress. “You hear more and more people using that language on these shows—’I think Shultz deserves a B +,’ ‘On a scale of one to ten the chances are two,”‘ Michael Kinsley says.

Such judgments make sense only in a narrow range of subjects—mainly the horse-race side of Washington politics, who’s going to get the nomination, whose personal standing is on the way up or down. It’s easier to think of subjects where this approach is ridiculous than ones where it makes sense. (“From A to F, what grade do you give Karl Marx?” “On a one to ten scale, how happy is mankind? How useful is technology? How important is China?”) Rating scales have their value, but at McLaughlin’s urging they drive out other kinds of thinking that would do everyone more good. “Who won the battle of the budget, Ronald Reagan or Tip O’Neill?” is the way McLaughlin attacks a question—and as his influence rises, more people in Washington grow accustomed to thinking this way.


The McLaughlin show has added another, even less desirable element to the Washington culture: a bullying, macho tone.

I am convinced that, from The McLaughlin Group’s point of view, this is all show biz. Robert Novak knows he’s the star of the show, and that his fame and lecture fees go up each time he acts the terrible. McLaughlin understands that in Washington he is the risqué alternative to Agronsky’s stuffed shirts, and so he keeps the taunts coming. Logically, it would seem that the worst side effect of such a model might be increased rudeness among viewers. But in practice it seems to promote a bully-boy’s philosophy of foreign policy. Whenever the Group talks about Libya or the PLO or other miscreants, the consensus is almost always for military intervention. That is not as striking as the tone, which resembles that of teen-agers spoiling to grab their M-16s and go out and be brave. The underlying message is, You’re not really a man if you disagree.

The main (on-screen) casualty of this trend is Morton Kondracke. Before he made it on TV, he was a capable down-the-middle reporter for a Chicago paper and The New Republic. He was originally booked onto the McLaughlin show as a liberal—to offset the fire-eating Novak and Pat Buchanan, the show offered Kondracke and Jack Germond, who played the curmudgeon with a heart of gold. In the nearly four years since then, Kondracke has wandered far and wide, for a while declaring himself a “neoliberal” and then embracing Reagan. Finally he joined Newsweek, largely on the strength of his TV reputation, and had to be “objective” again; but even so, he wrote in 1985, after Reagan’s cancer operation,

the president has cast a kind of golden glow over the past 4 1/2 years, his programs representing a return to bedrock American values and his optimism shielding the country from bitter realities such as burdensome debt, social inequity and international challenge. Reagan is a kind of magic totem against the cold future.

George Will had been the necessary conservative of the 1970s, stoutly and bravely rebuking a sitting president during Watergate. Kondracke became the necessary liberal of the 1980s, stoutly praising the President and rebuking the out-of-power Democrats. “If you’re a real conservative, like Novak, it’s easy to demolish a halfway conservative like Mort,” said Jefferson Morley of The New Republic. “So time and again on the show you have the spectacle of a ‘liberal’ getting clobbered by a conservative. Then you have Mort always saying, ‘As a liberal, I have to praise the President.”‘

Because Kondracke’s sit-com role, as opposed to his political views, was as Novak’s stooge, he seemed constantly in search of ways to prove himself. (The Washington Post published a word count of one week’s show: Novak had 919, Kondracke 502.) For reasons not so much logical as emotional and theatric, he seemed to join with unusual heartiness in the let’s-blast-Libya segments of the show. Whether or not military intervention may be the only way to defend America’s interests against Libya, the puerile tough-guy talk encouraged by the McLaughlin show makes the US seem silly and weak.

By comparison with the McLaughlin Group, George Will is a model of understated, discriminating judgment. But he too has had an unwholesome effect on the many journalists who aspire to imitate him, by using parades of seeming erudition as an aggressive tool.

Like everything else I am discussing here, scholarly one-upmanship is hardly new. Joseph Alsop was helped not a little by his reputation as a connoisseur of Chinese art and student of archaeology. William F. Buckley, grandson of a south Texas sheriff, made himself sound as if he had been born an earl and dropped a big, attention-getting new word every five or ten minutes on his TV show, just to remind everybody who the smart guy was. But when George Will hit the airwaves, seemingly straight from the Bodleian Library, he had a much greater effect on the local customs than any of his predecessors.

In the years when he was making his reputation, Will would lard each column and TV spot with quotations clearly meant to imply a life devoted to learning. Consider, for example, one passage from his book Statecraft as Soulcraft, published in 1983. I quote at length to give a fair, representative sample:

Self-interest, says De Tocqueville, is “the only immutable point in the human heart.” Its immutability, far from being cause for sorrow, is, to the modern mind, its beauty. The immutability is what recommends it as a foundation for the political order. Sir William Blackstone, whose Commentaries did so much to shape the legal profession in the early years of this republic of lawyers, wrote: “The only true and natural foundations of society are the wants and fears of individuals.” By “true” I take him to mean “efficacious.” In the mass of men, said the greatest American jurist (Marshall), “judgment is completely controlled by the passions.” What, then, of the famous statement by the most revered American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, that “the best test of the truth is the power of the thought to get accepted in the competition of the market”? Markets test popularity, not truth. Holmes called “the power of the thought to get accepted” the “best” test of truth not because it was good, but because he believed there was no better one. No wonder. He believed what modern political philosophy has taught: Society is just a marketplace officiated by government; and an “idea” is either a passion or a product of reason, why is a “spy” for passion. Thus the epistemology of modern liberalism can lead to deep irrationalism, such as Holmes’s, and to the irrationality of the First Amendment law as it has evolved in the direction set by his dissents.

When Hume says that in the founding of a regime, “every man must be supposed a knave,” the highly charged word “knave” means only “a selfinterested creature.” There is an incongruity: The word is judgmental; the phenomenon is natural. The term deplores, yet denotes something as steady and inevitable as the law of gravity, as certain as a law of geometry. “I shall consider human actions and appetites,” said Benedict Spinoza, “just as if it were a question of lines, planes and solids.” If the science of government is the geometry of motion, governments should run like fine machinery. “Governments, like clocks,” said William Penn, “go from the motion men give them.” When, then, society should resemble one of the games that amused eighteenth-century intellectuals—billiards, with its pleasing precision of angles and controlled caroms, one ball imparting motion to another. Or perhaps chess. “In the great chess board of human society,” wrote Adam Smith (the author of what Jefferson called “the best book extant on political economy”), “every single piece has a principle of motion of its own altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.” It would be folly for the legislature to want to impress its own principle of motion on persons, because to do so would disrupt the useful regularity of human behavior.

Now it is clear that this passage has a subject—the relation between self-interest and society—and that the truncated quotes Will has selected all drift in one direction. It is not so clear that it has an argued point or idea. In the paragraphs and pages that follow, Will proceeds in the same fashion, stitching together quotations with light commentary of his own, always talking about something but rarely making a distinct point. It is possible that the book turned out this way through a failure of imagination or execution. After all, it is Will’s only full-length work, and its discussion seems to fall naturally into column sized chunks. But I suspect that passages like the one above succeed in their most important purpose: convincing most readers that George Will is one hell of a smartie, and that any disagreement with him would be squelched with a blast from some as yet unquoted writer.

Having used the Orwell test, I must use the Lippmann test as well. Walter Lippmann certainly did nothing to discourage the belief in his erudition, but the difference between his literary application of it and Will’s could not be more extreme. Through the pages of his most famous books, especially Public Opinion and Preface to Morals, it is impossible to find a passage even vaguely resembling the chock-a-block quotations used by Will. His columns were clearly, even sparely written, with little scholarly name dropping. When he drew on his learning, it was to advance his argument, not to show off.

The crude, Will-style version of scholarly name dropping was demonstrated in a recent column by Norman Podhoretz. He pointed out that on one fateful day, March 20, 1986, the New York City Council (which had just voted to ban discrimination against homosexuality in city hiring) “said yes to the homosexuals and the House of Representatives said no to the contras.” A future Edward Gibbon, chronicling America’s decline, Podhoretz wrote, would not consider the timing a coincidence. “More likely he will see in this coincidence the workings of what the original Gibbon’s much younger contemporary Hegel called ‘the cunning of history.”‘

“George Will and all the people imitating him are playing the taste game,” says Charles Peters. “They’re telling the readers, You can prove your taste by liking me. This puts a high premium on cleverness and pseudoscholarship. It’s part of a broader movement away from a generation like my father’s, who looked back on their poor relations on the farm and identified with them, and to a generation that identifies with their betters. They’re subject to Will’s con because his message is that he is their better.”


Which brings us back to Nicaragua. The overall effect of the tangled themes I’ve been discussing has been to shift journalistic incentives in several ways. TV talk shows are more important, and therefore so are the personal performance skills necessary to get on TV. Largely owing to the personal impact of McLaughlin and Will, there is now more emphasis on one-to-ten ratings and scholarly-sounding epigrams, or both. Not everyone behaves this way, but to young people the model of success is clear. Ten years ago the models were Woodward and Bernstein, twenty years ago Richard Rovere or Theodore H. White, thirty years ago James Reston or Walter Lippmann. Now the model is George Will. For reasons that may not be obvious, this new model of success has helped make political debate more catty and dismissive than at some other times.2

Will often sounds dismissive on TV, and his bearing might be seen as just a part of his Anglophile, we-are-not-amused pose. (In Ronald Reagan’s first term, a Will-for-Senate movement sprang up briefly in Maryland. According to several friends, Will declined the honor thus: he wouldn’t mind giving up his half-million-dollar income, he said. And he was ready to face the sacrifices of a political career. But he couldn’t stand the thought of sitting next to Larry Pressler—a Republican senator from South Dakota—for six years.) But the roots go deeper than that, in the journalistic philosophy he is helping to spread. The put-down is essential because there is such a large gap between the sweeping philosophical statements now prized in opinion journalism and the inconvenient, irregular world of fact.

Will’s book helps to illustrate what I mean. Its grand message was that the state cannot pretend to be a neutral broker on moral matters. Statecraft had to be soulcraft; if the state did not care about the moral quality of people’s lives, a liberal democracy could not endure. Here indeed is a worthy subject, and Will pointed out some of its most controversial applications. The state should, among other things, promote racial tolerance, equal opportunity, family stability, and a sense of sexual morality and responsibility.

At this level, many people would agree, and most would want to hear more of Will’s case. Just how should the state carry out this responsibility? Almost everyone would agree that one’s view of these subjects depends on details and degree. Are you talking about forbidding racial discrimination, or setting racial quotas for hiring? About strictly forbidding abortions, or simply withdrawing public support? About outlawing obscene material and shows, or restricting where they can be seen? These are precisely the hard questions that have made such issues politically difficult, and yet Will answered not one of them. Whenever he neared a point of decision, he backed away, usually with a quote. “The law can treat, say, all sales of pornography as private transactions between particular sellers and buyers,” he wrote. “But the law cannot make the results [sex crimes, etc.]…matters of merely private rather than public importance.” I agree—but therefore what?

The sweep of Will’s argument, then, leaves him better prepared for debate at what appears to be the grand-philosophical level than for dealing with specific points. (Here he differs from Buckley, who is no more a reporter than Will but who has developed a lot of detailed plans for action. Perhaps this is because Buckley once ran for office himself.) When challenged on specifics, Will’s most effective response is precisely that of an Oxford debater: to wither and ridicule the opponent, trading on style rather than on a worked-out factual position. For example, when Jane Mayer of The Wall Street Journal recently asked to interview Will about the pitfalls of celebrity, he replied, “that’s a singularly unoriginal line of inquiry, if I might say so.” Let me emphasize that I am not discussing Will’s personality but a particular kind of journalism. Because it is high on erudite-sounding opinion but low on exposure to details, it brings out whatever latent pomposity a writer may have.

The clearest example during the Nicaragua debate was provided by Will’s protégé, Charles Krauthammer.3 Krauthammer, now in his mid-thirties, grew up and went to college in Canada, studied at Oxford, and was trained as a doctor at Harvard Medical School. He broke his neck in a diving accident and was left paraplegic. He became a psychiatrist and then a speech writer for Walter Mondale when he was vice-president. Later he joined The New Republic as a staff writer. He writes a weekly column in The Washington Post and less frequently in Time; his was one of the most outspoken voices in favor of aid during the contra debate.

When he writes about anything but foreign affairs, Krauthammer often stresses the need for toleration and modesty, and the danger that too-sweeping visions can do in a complicated world. In a column about abortion, for example, he said:

In an exhausted debate, all that’s left to do is to rework the words. One side plumbs the lexicon of slavery and Dachau; the other speaks medical jargon and clothes its opponents in every variety of political intolerance. There is not the slightest recognition on either side that abortion might be at the limits of our empirical and moral knowledge…. How can we expect such a question to yield answers that are not tentative and indeterminate?

He strikes a similar tone when writing about school prayer and religious tolerance, AIDS and the homosexual movement, and other questions where values may be balanced. But with foreign policy, it’s a different story. In a Time column published a little more than a year ago, Krauthammer proclaimed what he called the Reagan Doctrine, and he has been unswervingly defending it ever since.

The Reagan Doctrine was unveiled with grand overstatement. According to Krauthammer,

Ronald Reagan is the master of the new idea, and has built the most successful political career in a half century, launching one after another. His list of credits includes small government (Barry Goldwater having tried, and failed, with it first), supplyside economics and strategic defense (Star Wars). These radically changed the terms of debate on the welfare state, economic theory and nuclear strategy. All that was left for him to turn on its head was accepted thinking on geopolitics. Now he has done that too. He has produced the Reagan Doctrine.

What lay beneath this buildup bore the same relation to “turning geopolitics on its head” as Reagan’s record in office bears to “small government.” Government spending, as a share of GNP, is of course larger under Ronald Reagan than under any other president except Franklin Roosevelt when fighting a war. Under Reagan, “small government” has meant reducing means-tested programs, which make up a tiny fraction of federal spending, and scrupulosuly avoiding the large, popular entitlement programs and tax breaks. (Barry Goldwater failed with “small government” because he really meant it—he wanted Social Security to be smaller too.) The Reagan Doctrine turns out to rest on a sentence from Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address: “We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.” In practice, according to Krauthammer, this means supporting guerrillas operating against Communist governments “at the limits of empire,” namely Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Angola, and of course Nicaragua.

Krauthammer’s essay promulgating the doctrine is a marvel of using a little evidence (Reagan’s speech) to go a long way. The Reagan Doctrine, he wrote, is not “merely a puffed-up rationale for Nicaraguan policy.” It “proclaims overt and unashamed American support for anti-Communist revolution.” It “is more radical than it pretends to be.” It is an “end to inaction” and a first, much-needed step toward a restoration of “democratic militance.”

The problem with this reasoning, which Krauthammer has hammered home in his column and in New Republic editorials for the last year, is similar to that of Will’s “soulcraft” theory. It poses a sweeping, theoretical answer for problems that will inevitably turn on close examination of particular cases. As Robert Tucker pointed out in a recent essay, the Reagan Doctrine, if taken seriously, declares all Communist governments to be by definition illegitimate, and commits the US to an open-ended struggle to overthrow them, all around the world.4

Obviously no such commitment will be honored. The US is no more likely to intervene in Eastern Europe than it was in 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower let the Hungarian uprising be crushed. We may urge on the Afghan rebels but we will not go to war to get the Soviet Union out of a country it hardly regards as being at the “limits of empire.” In those and all other instances, from Cambodia to Cuba, our actions will, as a practical certainty, turn on close judgments of the case at hand. How much does the regime threaten our friends and oppress its people? Who’s on our side? What do we risk by working against it? Who’s likely to win? Are we likely to have to go to war ourselves—and if so, will it be under circumstances a big, impatient democracy will support? That is, the decision will be made very much as if the Reagan Doctrine did not exist. To forget any of this is to misunderstand American politics completely. As Robert Tucker wrote on this point:

The issue of [national] interest cannot be decided in the abstract. It cannot be determined apart from circumstance. The effort to persuade us otherwise rests largely on the assertion that the American people will not give their support to a foreign policy that does not have as its core and driving force the securing of freedom and democracy for others as well as for themselves. According to this view, the American people, unlike other peoples, cannot support a foreign policy devoted merely to the pursuit of national interests, conventionally defined. Perhaps not. But what our history does clearly show is that we will not for long support a foreign policy that must ultimately be purchased at the price of blood and treasure unless it can be persuasively shown that vital national interests, narrowly defined, are first and foremost at stake. Our difficulty in Vietnam was in part that this was never successfully demonstrated. The Reagan administration’s difficulty over Nicaraguan policy today is that it has been unable to make a persuasive demonstration that, as matters now stand, the very existence of the Sandinista government holds out a serious threat to vital American security interests.

But where a Reagan Doctrine does make a difference is in the terms of argument. With a world-historical view to defend, not just a $100 million aid package, hyperbole becomes justified (“Congress faces one of the most important foreign policy votes of the decade,” said The New Republic editorial, written by Krauthammer, endorsing aid to the contras), and so do attacks on your opponents’ bona fides. Do some people resist interventionism because of qualms about international law? For Krauthammer only “habit and cowardice” can lie behind such an idea. Did Representative Steven Solarz support pressure on Marcos, but not aid for the contras? Krauthammer wrote a withering column about those willing to fight, but only when the fight is far away. It ended, dripping with contempt for this pusillanimous stance, “Call it the Solarz Doctrine.” Did the French dissent from the Libyan bombing decision? Their views must be “mendacious rationalizations.” Krauthammer ended that column warning the complacent Europeans to meditate on “Caspar Weinberger’s line,” which showed American planes swerving around uncooperative Europe en route to their targets in Libya. The Europeans had to reflect on the line, and what is revealed about their courage, because “Americans will be meditating on it for a long time.” Apart from sounding ominous, what is this supposed to mean? Is our interest in containing the Soviet Union suddenly weaker than it was before? If we’re intent on rolling back communism in Angola, are we going to invite it into Germany or France?

Defending a doctrine can also mean trimming your sails. Late last year Krauthammer’s collection of essays, Cutting Edges, omitted only one major article from his recent writings in The New Republic. The missing article, published in May 1984, had demolished the technical rationale for the Star Wars program and mocked the intentions behind it. A later article, praising Star Wars, appeared in the book. When I asked Krauthammer about the omission, he said that the first article was purely technical, showing that a leakproof missile defense was unrealistic. Since everyone now conceded that point, he said, the article was no longer relevant. It was time to move on and consider Star Wars’ effect on arms control. I found that explanation persuasive until I went back and read the first article. The difference between the two was not the technical emphasis but the imputation of motive. The first article said Star Wars was a ploy for sustaining the arms race; the second, a way to end it. The first derided the administration line, and vanished; the second praised it, and endured.

This is not a way to use talent, settle arguments, or help choose policies. Out of respect for their readers, and for themselves, Washington’s star columnists need to find a new set of idols.

This Issue

June 12, 1986