Merchants of Virtue : By Shifting Their Party’s Longtime Focus From Money to Values a Trio of Thinkers Hopes To Win Over the Agenda--and the Soul--of the GOP
ON A MISERABLY HOT JUNE AFTERNOON IN WASHINGTON, WHITE House staffers are putting the final touches on the President’s much-hyped but long-delayed plan to “end welfare as we know it.” And Republican operative William Kristol is tending his flock of Clinton opponents with calls to and from Capitol Hill.
Right now Kristol is helping conservative legislators devise ways to deflate the soaring rhetoric that will invariably accompany the plan’s unveiling. From Kristol’s vantage, sowing seeds of doubt will require a disciplined plan: President Clinton’s proposal to put more welfare mothers to work is precisely the kind of folderol the liberal media establishment likes to embrace.
Kristol, a 43-year-old former assistant professor from Harvard, was the brains behind Dan Quayle’s family values campaign and broadside against Murphy Brown, TV’s most popular unwed mom. Now, with the Republicans out of power, he’s had the chutzpah to anoint himself guardian of the party’s direction. All it took was a $1.3-million donation--including contributions from flush New York investors--a smart if youthful staff of 10 and a sign on the door proclaiming “Project for the Republican Future.”
Phone in ear, voice in rapid-fire mode, Kristol urges his allies to stick with a clean line of attack: The President’s welfare reform is a fraud, he counsels one congressman, better titled “ save welfare as we know it.” “If we think that Clinton’s plan does not end welfare as we know it, that should be the simple message,” Kristol explains between calls, as he describes the difficulties of keeping ambitious legislators focused on the big picture. “What happens is these guys tend to fall in love with their own proposals and hold long press conferences reminding everyone of their legislation.”
Intellectuals such as Kristol, who are fashioning an updated version of American conservatism, see their key issue as welfare reform--or, more broadly, reversing course in response to an increasingly violent and isolated underclass. That theme was snatched away by candidate Clinton during the 1992 campaign, but now, in defeat, they want it back.
These thinkers insist that the GOP--adrift since the fall of Communism and the mixed legacy of Reaganomics--needs to fashion dramatic proposals for the nation’s social woes that appeal to reason, not hostility. The words they return to again and again are virtue, citizenship, empowerment. The liberal experiment with the welfare state has failed, they say; it has broken families and sapped the spirit of those in poverty. Walk into any of Washington’s more fashionable conservative think tanks these days, and you can hear the retro-cons making the case that they, not liberals, are the ones who care about the poor. In their view, the Great Society’s hopes have dissolved into drug-infested communities full of fatherless children and violent streets taken over by rootless men. So it’s compassionate, not heartless, they argue, to end the social-welfare programs that have left behind such human carnage.
Call them retro-conservatives. Like those in the neoconservative movement that preceded them, many retro-cons have traveled across the ideological spectrum from the left. But, taking their cues from an earlier age, they typically want to go even further to dismantle the welfare state and other government attempts to level the social playing field. Their mantra is the “little platoon"--a term coined by 18th-Century British political writer Edmund Burke to describe the loose affiliations that human beings, left to their own devices, invariably form to take care of one another.
The retro-cons argue that those little platoons--churches and schools, clubs and charitable associations, even unions and neighborhood activist groups that serve as moral standard-bearers and links to the broader community--were undermined the minute Americans transferred their functions to the state. When impersonal government bureaucracies began taking responsibility for the care and feeding of the poor, modern Americans no longer needed to translate their idealistic compassion into action.
“Compassion is always writ small, or it doesn’t work,” says leading retro-con William J. Bennett, who recently added a bestseller, “The Book of Virtues,” to a resume that includes education secretary for Ronald Reagan and drug czar for George Bush. And “strongly bound communities, fulfilling complex public functions, are not creations of the state,” adds his colleague Charles Murray, whose criticisms of the welfare state underpin the movement.
Unlike mainstream Republicans, the retro-cons believe that federal social programs, ranging from student loans to food stamps, should be eliminated--less because they tax our pocketbooks than because they tax our character. “There is a role for government,” says Bennett. “But it has become the place of first resort for every problem. It has created discontent, whining, a habit of dependence. It seems to me we ought to devolve government, get (its functions) to the state level, the local level, to communities and non-government entities, and right on to the logical extension--to the people themselves.”
It’s a jarringly utopian vision of a complex, industrial and increasingly diverse America--and the retro-cons often seem unable to make all the pieces fit. They are private-voucher advocates who typically send their own kids to public school but say poor black kids need to be saved from the state education system. They are worldly Ph.D’s who don’t care if gays and lesbians teach their kids, so long as they don’t read “Heather Has Two Mommies” in class and don’t demand civil-rights protection for their jobs. Retro-cons are mostly Jews and Catholics who vociferously defend the Christian right, even though the school prayer that the evangelicals promote won’t be their own and even though the books some religious extremists want banned are central to the kind of well-rounded education they advocate.
The retro-cons derisively criticize the left’s focus on the root causes of crime, yet they talk ad nauseam about the social pathologies wrought by the breakdown of the family. They reject immigrant-bashing: Kristol argues that American culture corrupts immigrant families, not the other way around.
But in their zest to reverse America’s cultural slide, they often forget to talk about its parallel economic slide--a steady decline in wages, rising multinational competition, a growing disparity between college graduates and high school dropouts. Their ideas are strangely devoid of focus on economic growth that has made the Republican Party so successful at the polls for the past two decades. Indeed, when one leading thinker, the Heritage Foundation’s Stuart Butler, promotes tax cuts, he stresses that they are designed more to enable overworked parents to spend time with their children than to spur the economy.
Among these thinkers, Kristol, Bennett and Murray stand out for their ability to grab the megaphone and influence the debate from Washington: “The Bennett-Kristol-Murray axis is the strongest, most penetrating critique of Clintonism today,” insists James P. Pinkerton, a conservative commentator and former White House official. “They’re on to the big crisis, the rot and drift at the heart of American society. That’s what people are most perplexed about.”
Kristol, Bennett and Murray are all alumni of that hotbed of liberal elitism, Harvard. Kristol wore Spiro Agnew sweat shirts on campus, but Murray joined the Peace Corps and Bennett led a teach-in at Hattiesburg, Miss. A Jew from Manhattan, an Iowa-bred Presbyterian who frequents Quaker services and a Catholic from Brooklyn, respectively, all three of these men were academicians first, political players second. But all three seem to get a quiet thrill out of lobbing bombs into the political arena. They are contrarians with a cause.
TO UNDERSTAND HOW THIS TRIO IS UPSETTING A delicate balance in the Washington welfare debate, it’s necessary first to leave the stew of the capital city and drive 60 miles into the lush rolling hills of northern Maryland, through a tiny picturesque town of front-porch swings and brick sidewalks, to the house at the end of Main Street, where there’s a tricycle in the dirt driveway, a pond in the back yard and a sign over Charles Murray’s office door: “It’s the government, stupid.”
It’s hard to imagine a spot more suitable for a man once made a social pariah by his writings linking welfare to rising out-of-wedlock birth rates--and likely to be ostracized again this fall, when he and a co-author release a book that correlates a variety of social pathologies to low intelligence levels. It’s also hard to imagine a more gentle figure as social outcast, as even his harshest critics will agree. This day he apologizes for a delayed phone call, for his fatigued appearance, for cutting the interview short as he prepares to leave for a European vacation.
Murray talks with the faux accent of a well-trained stage actor and bears a slight resemblance to “The World According to Garp” co-star John Lithgow. He’s taller, tanner, more athletically built than suggested by those podium pictures from the endless array of welfare confabs he frequents, usually as the lone provocateur on a panel of liberal social scientists. Sitting in front of his Quadra 700 computer, he leans back, entwining his fingers, his gaze fixing on a distant point.
As much as any tract, it was “Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980,” Murray’s 1984 critique of the welfare state, that drew the earliest broad outlines of the retro-cons’ brand of conservatism. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, explains Murray’s influence best: “Murray has created the opportunity for conservatives, free marketers and small government advocates to have the moral high ground. He makes the case that the welfare state has been destructive of human life. . . . Murray is like Darwin or Freud or Marx. Once (that kind of thinker emerges), your whole analysis of the world shifts.”
Right now Murray is trying to provide a shorthand summary of his argument linking welfare checks to the rise in fatherless babies. In “Losing Ground,” he argued that the Great Society’s buffers against the vagaries of life didn’t do the poor any favors because they distorted incentive systems. By tracing the decisions of an invented couple, Phyllis and Harold, he attempted to show that after an accidental pregnancy in 1960, it made rational sense for the pair to marry and for Harold to secure a low-wage job. By 1970, it made more sense for Phyllis to remain single and collect welfare.
This “thought experiment” (a writing technique that Murray has raised to an art) prompted much ridicule among advocates of the poor, who derisively reported that they had yet to see teen-age girls calculating their welfare payments before deciding to get pregnant. Numerous social scientists still dispute the assertion that public assistance encourages unwed pregnancies, noting that illegitimate births have risen even as benefit levels have declined.
But Murray insists this is a simplistic understanding of his argument. He starts with the proposition that single mothers with small children are not an economically or socially viable unit. They suffer under enormous rates of poverty; a wide range of studies have found a higher incidence of crime, drug abuse, truancy and other problems among fatherless children. Public assistance, he contends, reduces the need for a wage-earning father, and it lets wayward fathers off the hook. Taken together, Murray argues, welfare checks, food stamps and housing subsidies--an infusion of capital into desperately poor communities--help reduce the social stigma that once accompanied unwed pregnancy.
“If you got rid of the welfare system, it would entail such a huge jolt--to the economics, yes, but also to the milieu in which all these actions take place. So it would drastically reduce the number of kids born out of wedlock,” Murray says.
“We’re trying to get the government to stop social engineering among people,” he says, “to let civil society and the play of forces within civil society once again be the determining factors in how families are formed. Civil society will say very powerfully to children entering adolescence that sexual behavior must be confined within all sorts of penalties and rewards, and it’s going to be the same kinds of penalties and rewards that mankind has used since Day 1.”
Murray favors a program of phasing out welfare--grandfathering those already in the system but saying to future young men and women: Don’t expect any help from the government. Pregnant young women will have to rely on family, friends and, especially, the father. What about those who get pregnant anyway? Abortions may rise initially, he acknowledges. He also calls for easing restrictions on adoptions and says the government should spend lavishly on orphanages for unwanted or neglected children.
To critics who accuse him of wanting to break up families and leave children starving in the streets, he gave a blunt response in a recent TV interview: “Why is it cruel to have a change in a system which will vastly reduce the number of children being born into dreadful situations, dreadful, horrific situations?”
Murray’s view of the world is largely shaped by six years in Thai villages during the 1960s, first as a Peace Corps volunteer and later as a field worker for a research institute. In writings and interviews, he returns time and again to the stability and harmony of poor Thai communities that survived on a fraction of the income provided by American welfare checks--and displayed little interest in elaborate government projects.
But is it realistic to compare a rural Third World village to a city neighborhood under pressure from modern economic and social forces? When it comes to illegitimacy, for example, don’t changes in sexual mores have as much to do with unwed mothers as welfare checks? “Two thoughts on that,” he interjects. “If sexual liberation and sex-drenched TV and movies drive this so powerfully, why is it that rich kids don’t have babies out of wedlock? They do have more than they used to, but they are still at very low levels. (About 44% of children born to poor white women are illegitimate, as opposed to 6% for white women above the poverty line, according to Murray’s calculations.) So let’s take whatever the increase has been among upper-middle-class youngsters and say, OK, there’s (the impact of) your sex-drenched society on illegitimacy. How do you explain the rest over here?”
Murray’s argument focuses on this lower-class phenomenon--out-of-wedlock births--with nary a mention of the middle- and upper-class trend of high divorce rates. Murray himself is divorced. His first marriage, to a Thai woman and Fulbright scholar, produced two girls (both landed at Harvard). He later married Catherine Cox, the girl-next-door from his Iowa hometown, a professor and old family friend. They have two small children.
Murray says he has thought about studying the social impact of divorce. But, he argues, the repercussions of illegitimacy are more serious. “Divorce is bad for kids, but I think we can live with that problem.”
MURRAY’S CAUTIOUS ACADEMIC DEMEANOR CAN BE misleading: In fact, this Midwestern son of a Maytag employee instinctively understands how to sell his ideas through the media. Like his counterparts in the retro-con troika, he has a flair for drama that appeals to pundits and to busy politicians in need of quick and vivid ways to pitch their ideas.
Murray describes himself as a wishy-washy libertarian who votes Republican only by default. But his welfare arguments are creating some uneasy splits inside the GOP. Ever since the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan took his welfare-queens-in-Cadillacs act on the road, Republicans have promoted a program of cost cuts, cleaning out the cheaters and forcing recipients to work. Now, a Democratic White House is proposing a plan to put most welfare recipients to work after just two years.
Meanwhile, Murray’s followers have shifted the debate further to the right, saying work isn’t the answer, marriage is. Cost isn’t the issue, illegitimacy is. Even the liberal establishment has begun fretting that 30% of births in this country are to unwed mothers. Last year, the influential Atlantic Monthly, a standard-bearer for liberal academia, ran a cover story on the sorry state of fatherless children under the provocative title “Dan Quayle Was Right.”
Still, those worries remained background noise inside the Republican Party until last October, when Murray used the Wall Street Journal’s influential opinion pages to warn that rising illegitimacy rates among poor whites were leading to the creation of a “white underclass.” “The white underclass will begin to show its face in isolated ways,” Murray ominously wrote. “Look for certain schools . . . to get a reputation as being unteachable. . . . Talk to the police; listen for stories about white neighborhoods where the incidence of domestic disputes and casual violence has been shooting up. . . .”
Murray’s piece did more than simply remind Capitol Hill of his arguments linking welfare with births to unwed mothers just as welfare was coming up for debate. He also single-handedly gave conservatives cover on the race issue. In the past, talk of illegitimate births has had racial overtones, because rates are three times higher among blacks than whites. But when Murray asserted that policy-makers should be just as worried about rising birth rates among unmarried poor white women, the issue became safer to discuss, and the mainstream media leaped to attention.
For weeks after it appeared, “The Coming White Underclass” served as column fodder for some of the chattering class’s most influential commentators--George F. Will, Charles Krauthammer, U.S. News’ Michael Barone and John Leo, Newsweek’s Joe Klein. The TV networks also jumped on the bandwagon, with David Brinkley, Connie Chung and “20-20’s” John Stossel handing the mike to Murray.
Buoyed by the intense media attention, Murray, Bennett and Kristol met during Christmas week to discuss how to transform ideas into policy. They concluded that the major Republican welfare legislation now pending in Congress--a painstaking effort that took the GOP leadership months to produce--was too timid. So Bennett and his colleague Peter Wehner wrote opinion pieces pushing Murray’s view for USA Today and 25 major newspapers. Bennett also talked about welfare reform in speeches and appearances on his good friend Rush Limbaugh’s show, among others.
By early spring, any ambitious legislator looking around for a way to make a name couldn’t help but embrace Murray’s analysis. And two did: Republicans Jan Meyers of Kansas and James M. Talent of Missouri. The Republican bill that most GOP legislators originally backed suddenly had competition. “I’m definitely getting my right side beaten in,” moaned Pennsylvania Rep. Rick Santorum, the House’s lead legislator on the first Republican bill.
Talent’s bill, in particular, was causing headaches for Republican leadership. The 37-year-old freshman member of Congress says he’s convinced Murray’s ideas caught fire for two reasons: They were being pushed by Bennett and Murray rather than harsh right-wing voices such as Pat Buchanan or Jesse Helms, and they had at least partial endorsement from a Democratic President. “I’m a great believer that ideas have consequences,” says Talent, who requires his interns to include “Losing Ground” among their library of conservative readings. “And the welfare system defines the values of our nation. . . . (Welfare recipients) are not categories, they are real people. And they are a lot smarter making decisions for themselves than you are for them.”
As spring wore on, Bennett threw his weight behind the Talent bill and went on the attack against Santorum’s legislation. In April, his think tank, Empower America, released a memorandum condemning the majority-Republican approach and proposing Murray-like solutions in its place. By mid-June, as the debate intensified and opposition began to mobilize, welfare had become as much Bennett’s baby as Murray’s.
BENNETT WAS HIMSELF the product of a broken home. He and his brother Robert, now a Democratic lawyer who is defending President Clinton in a sexual harassment suit, grew up in Brooklyn, rarely seeing their father except on weekends. Bill was only 5 when his parents divorced, and 46 years later, this man of many words runs short of them when describing those years. “I don’t know how it affected (my life),” he says. “All I know is that my brother and me both, we put a big premium on family. We both carve out time, and I think Bob and I want to keep our families close, our marriages together.”
Bennett, a potential candidate for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1996 and the best-known of the retro-cons, is a big bear of a man who has trouble completing a thought without quoting either a Greek philosopher or a Founding Father. He spent long years in academia--an undergraduate degree from Williams College, a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas, a Harvard law degree--and it shows. Bennett’s enemies describe him as pompous, bombastic, a legend in his own mind.
There is certainly a healthy dose of egoism in Bennett’s character. But two hours into this interview, one has to wonder how much of these trappings are the facade of a slightly insecure but basically warm man--an exponent of virtue who’s quick to point out his own foibles, a family-values crusader who readily pokes fun at his own parenting of two young sons.
The 51-year-old Bennett once played rhythm guitar in a band, and his earliest claim to fame was a blind date with Janis Joplin, a story that briefly came back to haunt him when Bush nominated him as drug czar. He remains a ‘50s-'60s brand of rock fan, distraught over the “steep moral slide from Bach, and even Buddy Holly, to Guns N’ Roses and 2 Live Crew.”
That about sums up his view of American society as well. In many ways, Bennett’s theme is a broader one than Murray’s, but it’s also one less easily addressed through government policy, for his is the message of cultural decline. “There is a coarseness, a callousness, a cynicism, a banality and a vulgarity to our time,” he said in one speech. “There are just too many signs of de-civilization--that is, civilization gone rotten.”
Bennett documented America’s decline in one book, the 1993 “Index of Leading Cultural Indicators,” which, like its economic counterpart, used numbers to document the country’s health. No surprise there: While government spending and the gross domestic product have shot up since 1960, so have violent crime (a 560% increase, by Bennett’s calculations), the rate of illegitimate births (up 400%), divorces (up 400%) and the teen suicide rate (up 200%).
That was followed by the more uplifting “Book of Virtues,” an 800-page compendium of classic children’s tales and reading. In this new work, Bennett has done the Republican Party a huge favor by secularizing the values debate, taking it out of the realm of the Christian right and broadening its appeal--a significant task after a display of mean-spirited “family values” talk during the 1992 GOP convention left many mainstream followers shaken. It’s difficult for anyone--liberal or conservative, religious or not--to argue with the “virtues” extolled here: friendship, loyalty, compassion, courage, faith, self-discipline, responsibility, honesty and perseverance.
The book, he notes in the introduction, is designed for “the moral education” of our young. Explaining that he purposely ignored such modern political issues as abortion and nuclear war, Bennett writes: “Good people--people of character and moral literacy--can be conservative, and good people can be liberal.” Bennett makes an effort at a diverse cultural mix, offering such traditional fare as “Jack and the Beanstalk” (demonstrating the virtue of courage) alongside a North American Indian tale (honesty) and Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter From a Birmingham City Jail” (responsibility).
Indeed, King remains one of Bennett’s heroes, and while he contends that in the 1990s the federal government has overstepped its role, Bennett continues to believe it acted properly in clamping down on segregationist states during the 1960s battles over civil rights. “You had a situation where people’s rights were being violated,” says Bennett, who was active in the civil rights movement as a teacher at the University of Southern Mississippi. “King said, ‘Look, it’s higher law. . . .’ The genius of King was that he always relied on mainstream American documents.”
Bennett was a Democrat and president of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina when the Reagan Administration--at the behest of the Bradley Foundation’s Michael S. Joyce and Irving Kristol (father of Bill)--came to call, offering him the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He slipped comfortably into the role of Republican spokesman, changing parties and later using the offices of secretary of education and then drug czar as bully pulpits for his conservative causes. Much of the education establishment still reviles him for his attacks on schools and, at the other end of the spectrum, GOP loyalists criticize him for talking a good game without fulfilling some of their key promises. “We don’t need intellectual arguments to close down the Department of Education,” complains GOP lobbyist David M. Carmen.
A number of Republicans also question the virtues of a man who changed his mind about accepting the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, in part because he didn’t want to give up lucrative speaking fees. Bennett insists this was only one factor and notes that he was in a financial bind, having to pay back the advance on a book he hadn’t written.
Last year, with fellow conservatives Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Vin Weber, Bennett formed Empower America. The idea was to provide fresh thinking for the Republican Party, but any attempt at innovation got a late start because of bickering between the Kemp and Bennett forces over the think tank’s direction and by the disgruntlement of a principal financial backer. The original $150,000 salaries collected by Bennett and Weber led some GOP-ites to complain that Empower America was “the best-funded speakers’ bureau in Washington.”
In some ways, Bennett’s tendency to speak in grand philosophical sweeps rather than policy details makes him a compelling political figure. “Bill loves novels, and I think he understands that life is a narrative,” says Peter Wehner, Empower America’s policy director. “That’s what a lot of political figures can’t do.” But on specifics, which he’ll have to address if he makes an admittedly unconventional bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Bennett can be infuriatingly astral.
When asked to clearly delineate his view of the federal government’s role, Bennett can’t help himself: He starts with the Federalist Papers. “It’s No. 3, right?” he asks Wehner before moving on. “John Jay says that security is the first object of government. I think people expect the government to protect their livelihood, their property, their lives. The great drama of the L.A. riots was that people were seeing the fundamental terms of the social contract up for grabs. People are not supposed to defend their stores and their lives on their own.”
Asked to talk about government spending--and which parts to eliminate--Bennett is hard to pin down: “How do you know when there’s too much federal government? Through judgment and common sense. First and foremost is its effect on the character of the people. The test of any regime is what kind of people it produces. . . .”
A number of this year’s GOP congressional candidates have latched onto a Bennett-esque virtues theme. It is, says Jeffrey Bell, author of the book “Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality,” a way of filling a void. “Right now the Republican Party is in sad shape when it comes to developing an agenda,” he says. “We’ve decided all it takes is to be non-Clinton to win, which is probably true short-term: We can get by with no agenda in ’94. But congressional elections and presidential elections run on separate tracks. For all of Clinton’s problems, Republicans are not leading Clinton (in polls), especially when Perot is thrown in.”
So far, three probable Republican candidates for the 1996 presidential election--Dole, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm--are mostly ignoring the retro-con message. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander has shown some interest, but Kemp has signed off on some of the ideas while carefully distancing himself from others. The real test of how many voters are drawn to these themes would be a Bennett candidacy in which he tries to reach out to moderates while holding on to support within the religious right.
The retro-cons’ experience in floating their welfare-reform ideas earlier this year offers other cautions. In the predictable cycles of Washington news, this season’s genius is likely to become next season’s exile. So by spring, the town’s love affair with Murray’s ideas was already cooling. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said Murray’s prescriptions would provoke “scenes of social trauma such as we haven’t known since the cholera epidemic.” A Washington Post editorial attacked Bennett, Kristol and Murray, saying Murray’s “solution looks an awful lot like giving up on the problem. It reflects too much eagerness to take risks with the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society.” In June, a group of 76 social scientists signed a statement disputing Murray’s research.
Undaunted, and largely out of the spotlight, however, Bill Kristol, the third leg of the retro-con axis, was speaking to a less critical audience.
HOW DELIGHTFULLY DEVILISH that the conservative movement’s most skilled assailant on the cultural elite is himself its son. Kristol grew up on Manhattan’s West Side, his father the Trotskyite-turned-neoconservative hero, Irving Kristol, and his mother the prominent Columbia University historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. Kristol once told an interviewer that he grew up harboring the “typical New York-Jewish view of the world, that people who weren’t from New York and Jewish were unfortunate: They ate Wonder bread and mayonnaise and had boring existences.”
By the time he came to Washington to serve as Bennett’s chief of staff at Education, his credentials included a Harvard Ph.D. in political science and teaching experience at both the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. He caught on to the political game fast, rigorously adhering to the cardinal rule of successful Washington conservatives: You can bash the liberal media establishment all you want--as long as you return their phone calls. While his next boss, Dan Quayle, was hooted in the press, Kristol was hailed as the intellectual who trained the vice president to quote Plato and the Talmud.
Kristol was considered brainy and politically astute enough to informally advise President Bush’s staff as well. Out of power, his knowing wit continues to play well on the insiders’ talk-show circuit: CNN’s “Crossfire” and “Inside Politics” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Unlike Bennett, Kristol speaks best to a small circle, boiling big thoughts down to a few words. His winning gimmick, hands down, has been his series of “private” memoranda on GOP strategy, regularly faxed to Republican leaders and about 300 of Kristol’s best friends in the media.
Through last spring and summer, Kristol conducted a series of morning synods on the state of the GOP. These 90-minute debate sessions, drawing upward of 200 mostly youthful party followers on busy weekday mornings, transformed Kristol’s own shop into the hippest hangout in town for the brand of Republican prone to quoting Edmund Burke. But plenty of old-line Republicans continue to grumble about these brazen displays of the party’s internal splits, while others dismiss the meetings as the “Kristol-for-White-House-chief-of-staff campaign.”
Kristol has a reputation for arrogance, which is interesting because he also has a habit of muttering self-deprecating asides in between his fast-paced sentences. Short, with permanently knit eyebrows that give him the aura of a caring rabbi, he is not a man who works well in crowds. He’s at his best one-on-one, behind-the-scenes, orchestrating rather than pontificating.
He clearly relishes the role of contrarian; his favorite college sport at Harvard was championing Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. “Ah, the bombing of Haiphong, the greatest moment in an American modern presidency,” he says with a laugh. Twenty years later, Kristol leads a fairly placid life: long hours at work, marriage to former classics professor Susan Sheinberg and three small children in Virginia’s public schools.
If Kristol could put his politics on a bumper sticker, it would read: “The politics of liberty and the sociology of virtue.” “Politically,” he says, “our emphasis should be on liberty, on cutting back government. Then the issue of virtue and character can be addressed through (private) social and civic institutions.”
The liberty and virtue stuff plays well in the pages of conservative journals. But when Kristol talks to Washington, his language is that of raw political strategy. He’s best known for his lobbying on the health-care debate, using his private-memo network to push the line that “there is no health-care crisis.”
He has also used that network to chide Republicans for pursuing an empty “politics of scandal,” focusing on Clinton’s personal foibles rather than promoting ideas. And he’s attempted to carve out a more moderate abortion plank, saying the GOP should rely on “an extensive and ongoing process of public persuasion” rather than pushing for a federal ban.
Yet he unstintingly defends the religious right. “There has to be some education of the so-called Christian right,” he concedes when asked about the group’s extremists. “But there also has to be education of the people who are intolerant of the Christian right in the name of tolerance, who don’t like them because they’re strange or aren’t part of the same social class.” He opposes rightist attempts to ban classic literature, but, he asks, “is it a threat to civil liberties if the citizens in one town foolishly decide they want to remove ‘Catcher in the Rye’ from the bookshelves?”
As far as welfare is concerned, Kristol believes that private efforts such as a teen abstinence support group founded by Bennett’s wife, Elayne, will reduce births to unwed mothers as much as cutting off welfare payments. Still, behind the scenes, Kristol has played a crucial role in translating Murray’s ideas into plans for political action. By the time Tuesday, June 14, rolls around--D-Day for the Clinton welfare plan--he is ready.
IT’S THE SECOND WEEK OF June, and Kristol is still trying to persuade his allies to set aside any deep analysis of the welfare state in favor of giving good quote. His Monday, June 13, memo to Republican leaders features an eye-catching Moynihan phrase--"boob bait for the Bubbas"--to make the argument that Clinton always pulls welfare reform out of the hat when he’s having trouble in the polls.
The next day, the White House releases its welfare-reform plan, and Kristol helps orchestrate a Capitol Hill press conference featuring Bennett and key supporters in the House and Senate. As the cameras roll and the pens scrawl, the bromides fly. “Marginal tinkering.” “An all-too-typical Clinton promise.” “Half joke-half fraud.”
By midweek, the Kristol-Bennett media assault is in full force. The media, which pushed the retro-cons’ earlier welfare-reform ideas through the cycle of embrace-reject-forget, now welcome them back--this time as the necessary, if predictable, voices of opposition in the day’s debate. Bennett makes the evening news and readies for a round on CNN’s “Capitol Gang.” Kristol faces off with a Democrat on CNN’s “Inside Politics.” Newspapers run excerpts from Kristol’s “boob bait” memo, while Empower America launches radio ads denouncing Clinton’s welfare proposal as “cynical and deceptive.”
The capper to the weeklong media assault looks like it will happen Sunday, when Bennett is invited to debate Clinton Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala on CBS’ Sunday morning show “Face the Nation.”
The debate never happens.
This was to be the week when the nation engaged in a candid discussion about the pernicious effects of government giveaways on the poor, about the importance of enterprise and the dangers of dependence. Instead, a very different view of America’s moral decay emerges, one that’s closer to home. On Friday night, as millions of viewers sit tube-side, accused murderer and wife-beater O.J. Simpson takes a fleet of police cars on a tour of the L.A. freeway system. Along the way, fans cheer him as if he were back at USC, sweeping through the Bruin defense on an 80-yard touchdown run.
Does anyone need a more potent vision of cultural decline? This may be the decade of consensus that the welfare state isn’t working, even, perhaps, that it undermines a sense of personal responsibility. But it’s also the decade of Damian Monroe Williams, acquitted of attempted murder for beating truck driver Reginald Denny; of the Menendez brothers, portrayed as the victims of the parents they brutally murdered; of Tonya Harding, rewarded with celebrity status and a movie deal for her involvement in an assault on a competitor.
You don’t need to be Lou Harris to understand that Americans are deeply troubled by the state of their society. They tell each other, and the pollsters, that they are more troubled by the nation’s moral climate than its economic strains. But are these Americans concerned about the fatherless children in the ghettos or the fatherless children of divorce in their own neighborhoods? Or both? Are they more worried about sex education in the schools or Madonna grabbing her crotch on MTV? Do Americans really buy the argument that chopping government off at the knees will lead to national spiritual renewal, a fresh sense of personal responsibility?
“People are hungering for some sort of moral order,” says conservative writer Pinkerton. “On the other hand, people don’t like to be lectured to.” Especially by politicians.
When the sun rises that Sunday morning, Bennett does make an appearance on “Face the Nation,” but by then the subject has shifted from welfare to the Simpson case and the public’s reaction. Americans, Bennett suggests, are confusing “real heroism with celebrity.” Five days later, Bennett tells Larry King’s CNN audience that the Simpson episode suggests America is witnessing an “escape from the idea of personal responsibility, which is not only at the heart of our law, our criminal justice system, it’s at the heart of our civilization.”
“What afflicts us,” Bennett recently lectured, “is a corruption of the heart, a turning away in the soul. Our aspirations, our affections and our desires are turned toward the wrong things. And only when we turn them toward the right things--toward enduring, noble, spiritual things--will things get better.”
The retro-cons have convinced themselves that cutting government and encouraging Burke’s “little platoons” will help return our aspirations to things enduring and noble. Retro-con Michael Joyce, president and CEO of Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation, argues that Americans “are eager to seize control of their lives . . . to assume once again the status of proud, independent, self-governing citizens intended for them by the Founding Fathers.” That’s a big leap back from the 1990s welfare state. Now all the retro-cons have to do is convince a public that is angrily cynical about American government--but also avidly addicted to its inherent promise to make life for all just a little bit better.